SEVEN YEARS BEFORE Andy Kaufman made it to Carnegie Hall, the Spider-Man arrived. It was 1972, and Marvel Comics had licensed its characters to Steve Lember, described by Sean Howe, in his new book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, as a “shaggy-haired concert promoter.” (He does not grow beyond that description.) Lemberg’s magnum opus, his idea for breaking Marvel into the mainstream, was to rent a great theater for “an erudite evening of cataclysmic culture.”
His description was half right. The talent — the world’s tallest man, the drummer from The Beach Boys — was kitschy, goofy, and far less cool than Marvel itself. The entertainment was so lousy that the audience rebelled. “[Stan] Lee’s wife and daughter recited a poem Lee had written, ‘God Woke,’” recounts Howe. “A slide show spilled onto two screens, where crude projections clashed with the brightly colored Carnegie Hall drapes; a rock-and-roll trio of [Marvel employees] Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe, and Barry Smith covered Elvis songs.”
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story brims with these oh-God-how-could-they moments. These have the quality of awkward high school photos now that the company is, as Howe puts it, a “virtual IP farm club” for Hollywood. Since 1999, when the fearless-vampire-killer epic Blade become the first Marvel adaptation to turn a real profit, the company’s characters have appeared onscreen in 24 different films. Even the bombs like Elektra and Punisher: War Zone sell on DVD. The Avengers, 2012’s tentpole film, asked audiences to prepare by watching six separate characters get introduced in five separate films. The result: Five hits, followed by the third-highest-grossing film of all time, right behind Avatar and Titanic.
Marvel’s rise to pop culture domination seems inevitable, yet it took generations. According to Howe, it’s a story of men who found geese that laid golden eggs, then accidentally slaughtered them, and then did this again and again until the pile of goose-corpses became a little embarrassing.
Howe is not the first reporter to tackle the story. Dan Raviv’s Comic Wars: Marvel’s Battle for Survival, 10 years old and largely forgotten, remains the best account of the Wall Street horse-trading and scamming that nearly killed the company in the 1990s. But Howe covers more ground, combining descriptions of the comics themselves with a lively history of the heroes and schmucks who made them.
The tale Howe tells begins in 1939, when Timely Comics (later to morph into Marvel) was printing up to 800,000 copies of its hits — including Marvel Comics and Captain America. Stanley Lieber wrote scripts, signing them “Stan Lee.” Jacob Kurtzberg, a.k.a. Jack Kirby, pioneered a pop art style of broad faces, muscled bodies and bounding heroes. The industry thrived, and Lee (more than Kirby) with it. But the magazine companies that owned these products lost interest. The good artists took on weirder assignments; would-be-moguls, like Lee, assumed that they were watching a fad die out. “It’s like a ship sinking,” Lee told a colleague when the magazine industry seemed to be moving on from comics, “and we’re the rats.”
Then, in 1961, Lee and Kirby published Fantastic Four #1. Howe gives the creators credit for taking the best of the comics industry’s trends — superheroes, romance, monsters — and adding a “blast of colorful heroics against a murky background world.” Within three years, Lee and a stable of artists (John Romita, Steve Ditko) had created most of the characters that would go on to dominate movie culture in the 2000s and 2010s, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Daredevil.
Comics history, a fairly young genre, tends to approach its material with reverence. Aren’t these characters and stories as vital as anything in myth? Shouldn’t they make Joseph Campbell proud? They should, but Howe’s telling the story of a business, not burnishing a legend. The men who created these characters worked themselves sick and watched the profits go to other people. “They slept in shifts,” writes Howe, “played the radio through the nights, and deflected noise complaints from neighbors.” The stories of a game, industrious, cigar-chewing Kirby (one of his stogies is later placed on an office plaque) are always contrasted, often in the same paragraphs, with stories of a vainglorious, silly, and greedy Lee. “We are trying (perhaps vainly?) to reach a slightly older, more sophisticated group,” Lee wrote in a memo, as the company tried to capitalize on their comics’ new popularity with college kids.
Kirby eventually jumped to D.C. Comics. Lee gave up the day-to-day management of Marvel in 1971, but remained in the company’s orbit. His successors would fight the same battles against critical disrespect and befuddled ownership. Roy Thomas and his writers dragged the comics through post-Sexual Revolution, post Black Liberation America, introducing characters like the Black Widow and Luke Cage who, in their creators’ minds, could appeal beyong the usual white male fanbase. “Now there's a woman with her own mind!” says one extra of the Black Widow. “Definitely the Gloria Steinem of the jump-suit set!” (This attempt at hipness wasn’t permanent; a memo proposing a new look for the black-and-proud Luke Cage advised that his “jivin’ slang will be eliminated.”)
The writers approached their work with wry pride. Lee had given Spider-Man a pretty co-ed girlfriend named Gwen Stacy. In 1973, writer Gerry Conway decided to kill her — actually, to have Spider-Man’s web accidentally snap her neck after a villain tossed her — because “it made no sense to me that Peter Parker would end up with a babe like that who had no problems.” Lee was horrified and asked the new writers to bring her back. They responded with a goofy story about a clone.
Howe’s heroes — and this story is overstocked with them — possessed unimaginable abilities to put up with lunatic, buck-raking management. Underpaid artists and office managers die young, rattled and riven by stress. Marvel’s characters are schlepped to a succession of movie studios that have no idea what to do with them. I can recall no other business history with so many scenes of office rebellion that take place over so many years, under so many penny-ante tyrants. The writers bristle under Jim Shooter, a teen phenom-turned Editor-in-Chief, who cites “‘Little Miss Muffett’ as a story that contained the crucial elements of conflict and resolution.” When he falls, they build an effigy out of his titles and set it to the torch. Eventually, like Kirby before them, they rebel.
Howe manages to take the wide view of the carnage and stay perfectly neutral. The revolts didn’t always produce stories that worked. There’s an outsized focus on Steve Gerber, the creator of a stable of satiric, lunatic characters like Howard the Duck, N'Kantu The Living Mummy, Hell Cow, and Man-Frog. At Marvel, where he has to answer to edits, he produces hits. When he leaves the company, he creates a rip-off of his own creation for Eclipse Comics called Destroyer Duck (with art by Kirby). The new hero goes to war with “GodCorp.” After X-Men/Fantastic Four artist John Byrne tells a reporter that he’s a proud “cog in the machine” of Marvel, Gerber creates “Cog-Byrne,” a goon with a “removable spine.”
What’s implied, but not stated, is that Gerber’s Eclipse books didn’t sell like Marvel’s sold. Kirby’s D.C. books were disappointments, too; almost none of his creations for that company still connect like the Fantastic Four or the original X-Men. It’s impossible to know that and not give some credit to the sweatshop, the back-biting, the creative tension and creative destruction of the company run by jerks. To his credit, Howe never denies this uncomfortable fact. By the aughts, when Marvel’s characters are finally hauling in billions of box office dollars, it’s clear that the collaborative tension sort of worked. “The Marvel Universe chugs forward,” writes Howe, “and backtracks, and takes detours.” It took decades, but the characters produced by desperate men on deadlines survived — if only because new, equally desperate men took control.