Sunday, 17 March 2013

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

I suspect comics are something like laws and sausages - perhaps it's best not to know how they're made.  This is a largely unedifying tale of the shysters, egomaniacs, cold-eyed capitalists and (oh so many) bitter, bitter comic book writers who created what I consider the richest and greatest mythology of modern times.
Quick - who was the first Marvel superhero?  Wrong.  It was the Human Torch back in 1939.  And not Johnny Storm either - this was an android who started off as Frankenstein experiment gone wrong, but quickly turned his powers to good.  He was followed by the anti-hero Namor the Sub-Mariner, then Captain America, co-created by comics book legend Jack Kirby.

A few years later, and it all seemed finished.  In the 50s nobody wanted to read about superheroes any more - at least not Marvel ones.  We could all be reading pirate comics today if it wasn't for Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, created by Jack Kirby and Marvel's Editor in Chief Stan Lee.  It was a pretty shoddy comic, all told, but it was exciting, brightly coloured, modern, and, well, fantastic.  More than that - it was unexpectedly realistic, with convincing and nuanced relationships between the characters.  In the next year or two the Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man the X-Men and pretty much all the top superheroes were in place.  Even Captain America was taken off ice.

Since I've brought up Lee and Kirby, time to address one of the biggest issues in Marvel's history - the ferocious feuds.  A hell of a lot of energy seems to have been spent over the decades arguing about who really created which character.  I suppose it's a good topic for people with a lot of free time on their hands to obssess about, because of course there's no right or wrong answer.  These characters started as a collaboration, and have remained so ever since.  And you can blame the stereotypical comic book nerd for perpetuating these flame wars, but people like Kirby and Steve Ditko are the worst of all.  Not that there aren't real issues over rights and credits - but who invented Spiderman?  A whole bunch of people!

But what about Stan Lee himself?  His incessant self-promotion rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, but he at least acknowledged his co-creators.  And you can tell he does love these characters.  But he doesn't seem to have been much of a businessman, and may have set Marvel's movie career back years.  He spent a long time in Hollywood in the 60s trying to get an Ant-Man film off the ground.  Of all the superheroes - Ant-Man?

Superheroes took a slump again in the 70s, with the biggest success being Howard the Duck, who was something of a phenonon at the time, until George Lucas thankfully put a stop to it.  The 80s saw a bit of a resurgance, thanks in part to the birth of the Saga! - huge crossovers involving many different comics - it meant fans did buy different series to keep up with the whole story, but at a risk of alienating potential new readers.  It also meant continuity became a big headache because all the characters' actions and backstories became intertwined.  Writers had to consult a team of specialists
who kept detailed charts on every superhero.  The fantastical nature of the word makes it easier to explain away some inconstitencies, but at the price of confusion and complexity.  At one point, an editor threatened to quit unless all clones of Peter Parker except one were removed from the timeline.  I think they kept one or two back - just in case...

In the 90s greed got the better of Marvel.  Shiny covered "special editions" started off as a big success, but the market soon collapsed, and it wasn't helped by a lowest-common denominator approach by bosses, and the loss of big names like Todd McFarlane.  In 1996, Marvel filed for bankruptcy.  They managed to bounce back soon after, but it was movies rather than comics which saved them - starting with X-Men in 2000.  The success came as a surprise to the X-Men comic book writers, who had a completely different set of characters and storylines going at the time, and failed to attract new readers on the back of the film.

This has lead to a growth in recent years of the Ultimate series - a retelling from scratch of many of the big names, with an eye to movie audiences, rather than comic book characters.  They even portrayed Nick Fury as a Samuel L Jackson clone, years before he actually got the part.  At the end of last year, Marvel was named the most profitable movie franchise of all time, grossing more than $5 billion dollars in total.  You can't underestimate the importance of better CGI in this - but is it inconceivable to have had a groundbreaking Marvel movie before then?  A Star Wars of superhero movies? Perhaps it would.  Anyway, movies are in charge now - the comics themselves are an afterthought.

Despite the stupidity and meanness of many of the people involved, this book is definitely worth a read - well researched, even handed and intelligently written.  I got it as a book on tape though, which may have been a mistake.  Just too many people to try and keep track of.   Maybe a comic version would be a good idea?


Ed said...

DC got around the problem of continuity by inventing the DC Multiverse - so you could explain away any inconsistencies in character or plot as being aspects of a parallel universe. A handy escape route for lazy writers! I think Marvel had something similar.

Joe said...

God yes. Earth-616 is the standard Marvel Universe, Earth-1610 is the Ultimate Marvel rebooted universe, Earth-1218 is the Real World, and Earth-1228 is where Stan Lee and Jack Kirby become two of the Fantastic Four. Many many more here

It doesn't seem to make anything easier to keep track off though. Just. The. Opposite.

Ed said...

Jesus... that's a lot of Earths! DC have slightly fewer: