Review of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” by Sean Howe

I did not read books as a child. Rather, I grew up on comics like “Archie and Veronica,” “Millie the Model,” “Tales From the Crypt,” and “Superman,” inter alia, not to mention my favorite comic compilation – “Mad Magazine.” What I really appreciated, even then, was how social and political change was reflected in the comics.

Wedding bells rang this summer for Marvel Comics’ first openly gay hero, super speedster Northstar.

Thus it was with nostalgic pleasure as well as the thirst for background that I dove into Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. As it turns out, I wasn’t that thirsty! To me, there is a little too much information for anyone but obsessive purists (of which there are apparently quite a few, however).

The author takes us from the very beginnings of what would become Marvel to its purchase in 2009 by Walt Disney for $4 billion. In between, Howe gives us some insights into how the popularity of certain comics waxed and waned with world affairs, and the effect of the state of the economy and politics on sales. But most of the text is an in-depth look at the personalities and politics of the writers and artists behind the scenes. And when I say “in-depth” I mean astonishingly so. It is as if the author had a daily videotape running inside the offices during the entire history of Marvel Comics. After a while, it seemed more like it should be called “The Endless Internecine Squabbles of a Bunch of Angry and Frustrated Artists.” Then again, this aspect of the history of comics is more relevant than one might think; according to the author, the text of the comics often included coded office politics, allowing for superheroes to exact revenge on disliked editors or rivals.

The biggest beef the comic writers had was who got credit for what. Page after page of this quite long book chronicles the course of these arguments. There is also a lot of space devoted to the “superstars” of Marvel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but not much about what made them tick; the author focuses more on who they ticked off, or who ticked them off…..

Discussion: I don’t think I was the proper audience for this book. There are many, many devotees who will appreciate the day-to-day grind and gripes of comics creators (almost 500 pages worth!), but I am not one of them. I am much more interested in background and analysis. [More to my taste is the book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, in which author Arie Kaplan explains how the overwhelmingly Jewish make-up of early comicdom affected the content of the stories and the evolution of both the superheroes and the industry itself. It also includes plenty of full-color illustrations of landmark comic book covers and characters. Another creative look at comicdom I like from yet another approach is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud that examines the art form of comics in the art form of a comic book!]

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story stays deep within the “bullpen,” emphasizing interactions between labor and management. I would have liked more details about the Marvel Comics fictional universe and its denizens. When the book does discuss the characters or the nature of the drawings, there are no illustrations to help us visualize the points the author is making.

Nevertheless, the research is impressive and book is well-written. There are some passages I loved, such as the one providing a rare (for this book) in-depth look at some of the characters drawn by Steve Gerber for “Jungle Action.” After listing the supporting cast for “the Man-Thing” (including a barbarian who emerged from a jar of peanut butter), the author observes:

“Amazingly, this was all conceived without the help of psychedelics.”

(As Howe documents, this wasn’t always the case with all of the writers!)

Evaluation: While I am not the proper audience, I want to point out that comic fans love this book, which has more inside dirt than I could have thought anyone could have collected! (The author notes in the “Acknowledgments” that “Much of this book is based on the personal recollections of more than 150 individuals…” He also drew from many, many articles and published interviews.) It just wasn’t the right book for me.

Rating: 3/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2012


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11 Responses to Review of “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” by Sean Howe

  1. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    I don’t read a lot of comics, but I still enjoy discussing them. i wanted to read this book but now I’m not so sure. I might still give it a go!

  2. Beth F says:

    I mostly read books but I did like my Archie comics, Richie Rich, Superman, and the like. We read Mad Magazine too. I’m definitely not the target of this one; I wasn’t *that* comic book crazy.

  3. I read books but loved Archie and Mad Magazine too. This book probably isn’t for me, but I bet Vance would enjoy it.

  4. Jenners says:

    This does sound like it is for hard-core fans … not “dabblers” like ourselves. : )

  5. I do believe my oldest son would be the perfect target audience for this. He once contemplated trying to work as an illustrator for comic books.

  6. I don’t think I’d be in the target audience for this either. I used to like the Archie comics a lot when I was a kid too though.

  7. Jenny says:

    My husband is a big comic fan, gets his comics every week, etc. but I have a feeling this wouldn’t really be up his alley either.

  8. stacybuckeye says:

    My uncle loved flea markets and he’d always bring me Archie comics 🙂 So sweet. The comics and my uncle.

  9. zibilee says:

    Oh, I don’t think I would have made it past the first chapter, so good for you for finishing it. It sounds like it was just full of ranting, and like you, I would have wanted to see more of the comic book characters. I think I will be skipping this one.

  10. Jenny says:

    Ha! I love your alternate title. There were definitely places where I bogged down in this book, but things got better when the book reached a point in the storyline where I was roughly familiar with most of the comics they were talking about. At least then I had a small investment in the characters’ outcomes.

  11. bookingmama says:

    My initial reaction after reading your first paragraph is that you aren’t the target audience for this book! LOL!

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