Saturday, October 12, 2013

"1,000 Clowns", a brief look at Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

“Now take it easy, True Believer! This is where you shed those dark aspects that set you apart from your fellow clowns! Look at this renegade, he used to be one of the best! But he tried to buck the system! He began to think people were more important than things!”

-Len Teans (anagram for Stan Lee) Strange Tales feat. Warlock Issue #181

It always frustrated you. The hero worship and brand loyalty that many fans assume when it comes to defending one comic publisher over another. The fans were like little foot soldiers on the front lines of a war between two conglomerates. The heroes they loved and the stories that captured their imaginations were merely brand names and intellectual properties to the corporate masters of DC and Marvel. Growing up, you care less and less about the characters and more about the people who created them. You'd heard rumblings that Bill Finger died in poverty or that Marvel was refusing to help with Dave Cockrum's medical expenses. Not very heroic activity from the home of the heroes. You try to numb yourself with Indy books, but even that is a morass of bad deals and broken dreams. No matter where you turn in the comic book landscape, you will find very talented people at odds with bean counters and business moguls.

You dive deeper and deeper into comic book history. You learn that your favorite story was a happy accident or that a team of young heroes you really liked were the product of market research and focus group pandering. It all tastes very different to you now, and you feel like maybe it's time to grow up. Then you look at a John Romita drawing of Spider-Man and it all comes flooding back. The only difference now is you look at that comic page like a photograph and a story about Jazzy John takes shape in the gutters between the panels. It's how comics work after all; there are varying gaps in time between panels and your mind fills in the blanks. This is Marvel, between panels and between printings. 

Forget the coming of Galactus, the death of Gwen Stacy, or the Dark Phoenix saga. Sean Howe has crafted the ultimate Marvel story. The heroes and villains aren't the colorful costumed personalities that grace the pages of every Marvel comic, but rather the real human beings who were tasked with writing, drawing, inking, coloring, lettering, and editing these publications. From Karl Burgos to Rob Liefeld, every creator and personality within Marvel during any era is given a voice. After hearing Sean Howe interviewed on Comic Geek Speak, I knew Marvel Comics: The Untold Story would be next on my reading list, right after Grant Morrison's Supergods and Ronin Ro's Tales to Astonish.

This book is the complete package: over four hundred pages of Sean Howe's masterful journalistic style detailing Marvel's entire history with extensive notes and opportunities for further reading in the back. It's a comic book historian's wet dream. Not only has Howe compiled a great many sources and perspectives to flesh out the saga of Marvel comics, but he conducted a slew of his own interviews that were practically spilling over with new insights and new stories from old-timers who no longer have to worry about getting work from the House of Ideas. Safely within the realm of retirement, more than a few big guns of yesteryear had new dirt to dish out. Howe revealed before the book's release that he didn't get much face time with Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko or former editor in chief Jim Shooter, making them the most notable missing perspectives. Luckily, Jim Shooter has taken part in a wealth of interviews and still maintains an online presence to this day for historians to pull from, but Ditko then and now has always been a recluse.

Howe divides the book according to the major shifts in the landscape of Marvel as a publisher. The first part covers the Golden Age of comics, the Timely/Atlas years, and the resurgence of the superhero through Lee, Kirby, and Ditko. It ends with Jack Kirby leaving Marvel and part two picks up with a new generation of writers and artists taking the reins away from Stan Lee and the errant Roy Thomas and forcing the characters into new mind-bending scenarios, due in part to their own methods of mind expansion. Talents like Mary Skrenes, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber, and Don McGregor take the heroes to arguably their creative zenith, before Marvel as a publisher begins to go wildly off the rails until the rigid editorial regime of Jim Shooter is put into place. Part three is subtitled "Trouble Shooter", but it could be just as easily be titled "Shooter's Reign", as Shooter gets the trains to run on time and business moves upstairs force the creative department to adhere to a much more structured work environment. Part four covers the speculator boom and bust of the 1990s, the rise of the artist and the formation of the Image seven, and a chaotic power struggle within Marvel as a publisher and as a multimedia giant. Finally, part five follows Marvel into the new millennium, and ends with Marvel's sale to Disney and a peek into the lives of the surviving "cast members" from the golden, silver, and bronze ages of comics history in a Where Are They Now?-style retrospective.

One particularly poignant anecdote at the end of the book comes from Chris Claremont, writer of the X-Men for a decade and a half. He tells a story about Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, working at Marvel doing menial tasks and production work, completely cut off from his creation and not receiving any royalties or benefits from his former employer. Claremont remarks, "I'm never going to end up like him." Fast-forward to the late 1990's, and Claremont is working as an editor at Marvel, no longer allowed near his precious X-Men, and receiving no credit for his contributions as the merry mutants head to the big screen. Another story involved Hugh Jackman publically thanking Wolverine co-creator Len Wein for his creation and claiming he owed him his entire acting career. "I would've preferred a check," remarked Wein in an interview after the fact.

It isn't all doom and gloom, however. There are periods in Marvel's history, like the early 90's and the mid-70's, where the Bullpen sounds like an awesome place to work. There are humorous stories about Bullpenners pulling pranks on one another and "story conferences" that consisted of various "mind expansion" techniques (you fill in the blanks). Even though the Bullpen was a far cry from the interpretation that Stan Lee presented in his famous Stan's Soapbox columns (most artists worked from home and only came by to drop off artwork), there are still ripping yarns about Stan clad in a propeller beanie and enchanting the staff with ditties from his ocarina.

Stan Lee. In a beanie. Playing an ocarina.

There's a lot more to say about this book. So much more, in fact, that I'm going to dedicate my blogging efforts here to uncovering more tidbits about Marvel's history and flesh them out in the future. I feel like I read this book at just the right time. My interest in mainstream comics as a conduit for storytelling is waning, but the more I read about the history of this medium, the deeper down the rabbit hole I go. Spider-Man's story has been told over and over again ad nauseam, but what of Steve Ditko? The X-Men have traversed the cosmos and gone toe to toe with Magneto a hundred times, but what about John Byrne? What interstellar sphere of influence spoke to Jim Starlin when he first put pencil to page for Adam Warlock or when Don McGregor sat at a typewriter to give the Black Panther's inner turmoil a rhythm? Somewhere between the creator and his creation, a more interesting story lies. 



No comments:

Post a Comment