Artistic Ambition & Corporate Callousness in Sean Howe’s ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’

Written by Simon Lazarus Vasta on . Posted in Arts & Film, Comics.


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The history of the American comic book is bittersweet, if not outright tragic, and no tale cuts to the bone quite like the ballad of Stan and Jack. In the early ’60s, facing the demise of their industry, comics vets Stan Lee and Jack Kirby devised the Marvel Universe. Together, these men created a shared world where superheroes were more than square jaws and cocksure smiles; they were (relatively) real people, with insecurities and egos, flaws and attitudes. Stan and Jack re-invigorated and expanded the market, but as the decade wore on and Lee set himself up as Marvel spokesman, Kirby felt more and more marginalized by his lack of royalties and creative recognition, finally leaving for DC comics in 1970. Although he did return to Marvel for a short stint, his relationship with Lee and the world they had built together was irreparably damaged. Jack “The King” Kirby died in 1994, and his family is still fighting a losing battle for the rights to the characters he created. Stan Lee, on the other hand, currently receives a high six-figure annual salary merely for existing. Meanwhile, The Avengers film made a over a billion dollars last year. Excelsior, true believers!

You can’t discuss Marvel Comics as a business without delving into the ugliness of Stan and Jack, and unfortunately, the history of the publisher mirrors that tragic partnership. The company’s record of keeping its creators as work-for-hire freelancers, as well as its string of bottom-line obsessed, artistically disinclined corporate owners throughout Marvel’s fifty-plus years echoes the injustice that befell Kirby. This is something that Sean Howe is well aware of, and he uses that struggle between these old friends and archenemies as the backbone of his unofficial exposé, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

Howe’s narrative is an engaging look into what happens when a company’s product suddenly becomes a legitimate artform, and how decades of writers, artists, editors, publishers and CEO’s dealt with commodifying the results. Even to the uninitiated, the confidence and accessibility of the writing makes these stories of art versus commerce relatable and heartbreaking; from the editorial bowdlerization of Steve Engelheart’s cosmic (read: LSD-influenced) comics and Steve Gerber’s Disney-riffing satire Howard the Duck in the ’70s, to the collectibles boom and bust of the early ’90s  and the style-over-substance hacks personalities like Todd MacFarlane and Rob Liefeld that nearly destroyed the industry, to the absurdist penny-pinching of CEO Isaac Perlmutter, who rationed out paperclips and once refused Marvel a presence at the San Diego Comic Con, citing that the booth would be too expensive (which is the equivalent of Ford skipping the Detroit Auto Show), and the near constant parade of inept executives, some intrigued by Marvel’s products, but most simply embarrassed and outright hostile.

The Untold Story falters a bit at the end, and you can feel Howe’s boredom as he recites the sales figures of crap ’90s comics and explains the convoluted, cynical business practices that accompanied them. But honestly, who can blame them? Marvel spent a large part of that decade overprinting “collectible” comics with foil covers and generally shitting the bed. It’s not exactly narrative gold. But aside for the last fifty-odd pages, Howe’s account is a compelling insight into the people that made Marvel; the businessmen and dreamers that, intentionally or not, created an American mythology.

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