The new book, MARVEL COMICS-THE UNTOLD STORY, by Sean Howe, is getting a lot of rave reviews and I wish I could add one. I really WANT to rave on this book...but I can't quite justify it.
Don't get me wrong. It's a good book, just not a great book. If you're a Marvel fan I can guarantee you'll learn things you didn't know from this unauthorized history. Those things might, however, leave a bad taste in your mouth.
About ten years ago, I was managing a bookstore. Sales were falling and I was constantly clashing with my District Manager and sidestepping stupid Home Office directives. Some of my employees were great, some were terrible, some were stealing from the company. We knew it, we just hadn't been able to prove it as yet. Others were feuding with each other and not talking at all when scheduled together. Still others were talking too much and not getting anything done. My days off were generally spent on the phone putting out fires at work.
But at least once a week, someone would come up to me and say in all sincerity, "Wow. I'd love to work here! You guys look like you're having SO much fun!"
As we learn in the book, that's exactly what Marvel has been like pretty much since the beginning!
Publisher/Founder Martin Goodman comes across as a bad guy throughout but if you can distance yourself from the way he treated his employees (or rather had Stan Lee treat them) and his lack of caring about the creative elements of his company, he's really just a businessman, scrambling to stay a little bit ahead, no different than the folks who ran DC, Archie or even LIFE or THE NEW YORK TIMES. He was never in the business to make art and any that came out of Marvel was purely incidental as far as he was concerned.
Stan Lee comes across as both a major success story and yet an almost tragic figure as he survives the comics industry's various collapses to come out on an unprecedented top with the aid of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists whom he seems to have allowed to fall by the wayside as he climbed his climb.
Kirby and Ditko, both written about extensively elsewhere, are, of course, the other two major players in the success of Marvel. The book certainly gives them their due as far as the company's success but Ditko seems somewhat downplayed and Kirby not as massive a presence as he was to the young fans of the Silver Age.
In fact, the book seems to me to zoom through the Golden and Silver Ages rather more quickly than they deserve and then settle into a more detailed, gossipy mode as it moves into The Bronze Age and beyond.
There's very little of any type of analysis here by the author going forward as we get an almost NATIONAL ENQUIRER-style story of bitchy back-stabbings, corporate intrigue, creator egos, drug use, social and political conflicts, misuse of power, greed and other behind-the-scenes intrigue.
I must admit there are several once favorite creators whom I lost respect for after reading parts of this book.
There are so many creators mentioned, however, that some are introduced for just a line or two and a reader unfamiliar with Marvel at the time would be lost. As we move on into the eighties, nineties and beyond, more of the story deals with the buying and selling of Marvel, mainly for its various marketable properties.
The book has numerous small errors that a good fact-checker would have caught such as mis-identifying Superman creator Jerry Siegel as a penciler and miscategorizing a fifties humor title as being a CASPER rip-off when in fact it was a DENNIS THE MENACE rip-off. Overall, these errors don't reflect on the story being told except to make one question the accuracy of some of the other, more important bits as well. Writer Kurt Busiek, for example, mentioned online that a story told about him in the book wasn't quite accurate.
By the way, I am, myself, listed in the acknowledgements. When I saw this, I had to backtrack through my email to remind myself of what I did for the book. Turns out Sean had written me about some old interviews I happily provided.
Perhaps wisely, there are only a couple of photos. Sean has maintained a massive photo presence connected with the book online but in the book itself, they would detract from the story and that's what we want to read.
Overall, he's done his research, that's obvious, and as I say it is very readable, especially to those of us who saw it from different levels and different ages. I actually do recommend MARVEL COMICS-THE UNTOLD STORY for Marvel fans. It's just that it's a rather bitter candy when one was expecting steak.