So, I read Marvel Comics The Untold Story

Marvel’s corporate history is at least as compelling as the Earth-616 universe it has published since 1961. We’ve had some glimpses via the Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics and bits scattered in other works, notably Gerry Jones’ wonderful Men of Tomorrow. For the mass consumer, Sean Howe has offered up Marvel Comics The Untold Story but for those who grew up reading the comics, it is woefully short on analysis and perspective.

Martin Goodman built a publishing empire based on having a good gut, sensing when something was hot and flooding the market with titles that fed that interest. Once tastes changed, so did the magazines, building a successful company based entirely on short-term goals. That philosophy long outlasted Goodman, who cashed out in 1971 and the company really didn’t begin looking at a long-term game plan until it emerged from bankruptcy in 1997, firmly in the grip of miserly Ike Perlmutter.

Howe’s book breezily takes us from inception through the last year or so, but unevenly weights his sections so seems fascinated by the 1970s second generation of Marvel creators, which matches the first decade of his life. The first two decades is quickly dispatched in under 50 pages which means we learn little of how the company really worked and the personalities surrounding young Stan Lee. As a result, the great Al Jaffe’s tenure as an editor in the 1950s is missing and Vince Fago, who ran the shop while Lee served in World War II, is given barely more than a line. The brief superhero revival in the early 1950s barely gets a notice including that Sub-Mariner outlasted the others while Goodman held out to see if a television option would get picked up.

Martin Goodman, who started it all

Goodman and Lee made an effective combination because Lee was versatile and could change direction at his relative’s whim. If Goodman wanted ten new funny animal books, then Lee was happily writing Ziggy Pig followed by a decade of Millie the Model. It was through Lee’s determination that the company held on when first the Senate Hearings crushed other, weaker publishers and then in 1957 when Goodman’s change in distribution left him with in a tenuous situation. Little is really made of what it must have been like to be limited to eight titles a month by Independent News, owned by rival DC Comics.  And very little time is spent on showing how the shifting tastes of the 1950s meant a carefully readjusting of the line until Goodman one day ordered a superhero series to compete with DC’s revived heroes.

Howe’s work skips along and misses a chance to explore interesting areas of growth such as 1966 when the company really exploded into licensing from Aurora model kits to toys and Halloween costumes. The first of a long string of disastrous media deals, the stiffly animated Marvel Super Hero cartoons, but he never connects the dots to point out Goodman never before had a chance to exploit his properties and not once brought on a qualified licensing agent.

In fact, Marvel’s publishing and licensing suffered for something close to thirty years from unqualified or disinterested people treating the company like a widget producer rather than an intellectual property company. New World’s Bob Rehme is shown to have ignored due diligence, thinking he bought Superman when he actually bought Spider-Man. Goodman sold it to a company that aspired to be Warner Communications but had no feel for its acquisitions, a situation repeated all the way up to Perlmutter, who finally recognized how valuable Spider-Man and his friends were. As a result, when Lee and then Roy Thomas left the editor-in-chief’s spot, there was no senior management to groom and train replacements so there was a revolving door until Jim Shooter wound up winning the job almost by default.

Steve Gerber, not Marvel, found a cool way to capitalize on Howard the Duck’s surprise popularity.

The book does a good job pointing out that it had a hit on its hands with Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck but had no one in a position to exploit him in a careful manner leading to a poor comic strip and terrible feature film, squandering the property. It’s also interesting to note that the first feature films were by characters not from the fabled days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby but Gerber’s Duck and Marv Wolfman’s Blade (culled from the overlooked Tomb of Dracula). Lee’s marginalization after becoming publisher and then figurehead is nicely detailed and again, a wasted opportunity although he was always quick to curry favor with whoever had the properties rather than fight for their integrity (see CBS’ Spider-Man).

Howe carefully chronicles the rise and fall of Shooter, thanks to the growth of comics journalism, led by The Comics Journal. To his credit, Shooter stabilized the line and actually had an editorial direction in mind until he focused entirely on picayune matters, losing the respect of the editors and freelancers. The author misses out demonstrating that as Shooter shouted about clarity, his rival, Jenette Kahn spent a decade turning DC into a strong competitor, introducing royalties and new formats taking advantage of improved printing technologies, leveraging the growth of the comics shops and their dedicated customers. Nor does Howe mention how the Marvel Handbook and Secret Wars were also designed as ways to blunt their rivals’ 50th anniversary projects Who’s Who and Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Stan Lee and Jim Shooter helped me launch Comics Scene with this 20th anniversary cover story. Background art by Billy Graham.

As he carefully chronicles the rise of the generation that formed Image, his research fails him time and again. For example, Rob Liefeld was drawing the Hawk & Dove miniseries for DC, as editor Mike Carlin tried to carefully art direct the enthusiastic and artistically limited young man. During this time, Bob Harras blew enough smoke up Rob’s ass to lure him to Marvel where any attempt at training and improving him was abandoned. DC even offered at least one project to Todd McFarlane (who got his start there with Infinity Inc., where he cleverly decorated his pages to hide his drawing flaws) to write when it was clear he wanted to stretch as a creator. It was a movie adaptation, a chance to train him how to write before moving on to big projects but Marvel just gave him the keys to the Webslinger and lived to regret it.

While Howe credits Marvel with innovating the cover gimmicks that were a hallmark of the 1990s, he avoids statistical analysis to demonstrate how the company was also working to strangle the smaller independent publishers. On the other hand, he appropriately lionizes Carol Kalish, who was the one person working with retailers to grow the field and was taking a long view.

However, poor editing means people drop in and out of the narrative without introduction or context. After writing in the early 1970s, Mike Friedich vanished and his return as the company’s first Direct Sales manager is glossed over. Similarly, Kurt Busiek’s first appearance in the book is by surname only and without context. Other key players drop in and out so we lose track of Ed Shukin (left for DC), editorial coordinator Jim Sokolowski (fired before  turning up at High Times, DC, Marvel, and now Archie), and Virginia Romita who effectively replaced John Verpoorten as the tight-fisted production manager (if there’s anything Howe does right, it’s emphasizing Big John’s importance to the Marvel). Considering he spoke with 150 or so people himself, and had the riches of fan media at his disposal, I expected fresher perspectives and information.

Marvel’s relationships with its talent has always been iffy, starting with stiffing Jack Kirby and Joe Simon on promised royalties on Captain America in the 1940s through today. They were rarely interested in treating them with dignity or respect, counting on Stan’s rah-rah relationships to keep things cordial. Jack’s increasingly sour attitudes towards Marvel and his collaborator shows the limitations of backslaps and nicknames. They were slow to return art, pay reprint fees, initiate incentives (aka royalties) and cut the talent in for credit. DC bent over backwards to compensate talent whenever characters from the comics were used in other media. Len Wein has lived off bonuses for Lucius Fox in Batman animated fare and feature films while he’s never gotten so much as a free movie ticket for creating Wolverine. The company has remained notoriously stingy over comp copies of comics produced by writers and artists, let alone sent samples of merchandise where their words and pictures have been repurposed for Marvel’s profit.

File photo of Ike Perlmutter, the wily Israeli who emerged as Marvel’s owner and now sits on the Disney Board of Directors.

Under Perlmutter, Marvel and Toy Biz combined operations and brought Bill Jemas in as president and in turn, he elevated Joe Quesada to editor in chief. As Perlmutter and Avi Arad finally got Marvel on the right track in media, Jemas and Quesada fixed the House that Stan, Jack, and Steve built. Systematically, they tackled one franchise, starting with Spidey, then another, X-Men.  He didn’t understand or like Tom Brevoort’s mainstream superhero titles but respected their sales and largely left him alone, making Brevoort nearly bulletproof. More should have been said about Tom’s growth into the keeper of the Flame, inherited in the wake of Mark Gruenwald’s tragic heart attack. Editors rose and fell in favor with Jemas and once they lost his interest, they were quickly gone with a new target in his sight. Jemas was brash and cut through the malaise that a decade of uncertainty allowed to become the status quo. He was right that the continuity was cumbersome and the Ultimate line was a commercial stroke of genius. His successes let him have fun and he never tired of poking DC’s Paul Levtiz, Bob Wayne, and others. When he decided Marvel was withdrawing from the Comics Magazine Association of America in favor of an in-house ratings system, he packed the conference room with every former DC employee even though none had any business being in the room. It had to have been the most uncomfortable meeting Axel Alonso, Stuart Moore, Jenny Lee, or I ever attended.

Like Shooter before him, success led to a period of bizarre behavior that ultimately cost them their jobs. But under new President Dan Buckley, Quesada and Alonso, the company has set its sights on a future, organically working to achieve that goal. Howe once again misses a chance to analyze what this has meant across the board, skipping the rise of the Marvel Studios films, beginning with Iron Man and the cadre of Marvel talent consulting on them to keep them as close to the comics as is practical.

The entire final five years or so reads like a rough draft and merited far more attention, explaining how the company’s stability and growth potential was catnip to Disney, desperate for that very demographic it lacked.

The Untold Story goes down easy for the mass market, its audience, but it falls far short from what the regular readers, those of us who toiled for the firm or have supported their titles for decades, would have preferred to read. Once more, the core is taken for granted as Howe attempts to convince an unsuspecting public he’s found all the dirt and stories worth telling. Of course, there’s far, far more worth exploring.


  • Thank you for sharing those interesting tidbits! :)

  • I recently finished Howe’s book, and didn’t find many faults with it. I don’t believe at all that “his research fails him time and again”; I got the impression that he could have easily written a book twice as long as the one we got, but that he had to cut interesting details in order to focus on the main story. (He certainly tracked down some very interesting and little-known sources and documents, as can be seen in the Notes section.)

    I was also pleased to see that he used as reference material the wonderful interviews Jim Amash has been conducting with Golden Age and Silver Age artists for Alter Ego during the past decade, an excellent source that has been little used by researchers and historians.

  • While I enjoyed the book, I totally agree that more would have been nice in some areas, mostly the stuff that you pointed out.

    When I hit the 70s section of the book, I was really stoked to see so much attention paid to the creators of the era and I got really involved in them as characters. And since I was reading the book through the Kindle app, the page count seemed to suggest that the creators of the ensuing three decades would get similar treatment.

    But it turns out that there’s a massive percent of the digital book’s content assigned to the index and footnotes… so much so that I was shocked when the book ended with so many pages left to go.

    One person I was shocked to see omitted (and I hate to pick and choose but I can’t help but feel like this was a big missing piece) was Christopher Priest / Jim Owsley, who’s history with Marvel as an intern, editor, and on-again off-again writer would have made for a fantastic look at the company’s relationship with its employees from the late 70s through to the 2000s.

    Anyway, it’s cool to read your thoughts on the book and the history it covers. This blog post fills in the blanks on some key areas where I wanted more info 😀

  • Erdel Gobert

    I don’t know about ‘failing’ – it sounds like you have different sources who may or may not have wanted to talk to Howe. There’s a similar reason that the most recent five years are a sketch – because the farther back you go, the more people you can find who have left Marvel behind, or the whole industry behind, and are willing to talk about their experience with honesty.

  • Tonanamous

    A quick check reveals that the Marvel Handbook predates Who’s Who by about 3 years, and Secret Wars predates Crisis by over a year. I really don’t think it’s possible they were rushed into production to thwart DC’s plans.

    • Dig a little deeper and you will see DC first made mention of Crisis/Who’s Who much earlier but delayed both to tie in with the company’s 50th anniversary. Marvel saw an opportunity and seized on it.

  • Chris Duffy

    Thanks, Bob. This is a great post to read after reading the book. I liked the book mostly but did feel its portrayal of the first 10 years of the company was a bit too sketchy. Though I thought it improved and peaked with Shooter.

  • That’s correct, Crisis/Who’s Who is first mentioned in 1983, in one of Dick Giordano’s “Meanwhile” columns.

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  • NYJ

    “The author misses out demonstrating that as Shooter shouted about clarity, his rival, Jenette Kahn spent a decade turning DC into a strong competitor, introducing royalties and new formats taking advantage of improved printing technologies, leveraging the growth of the comics shops and their dedicated customers.”

    Mr. Greenberger misses out demonstrating that Shooter also did every one of those things at Marvel, as well as the fact that Secret Wars had more to do with toys than COIE and OHOTMU preceded Who’s Who by two years…Mr. Howe is not the only one playing fast and loose.

    “Jemas and Quesada fixed the House that Stan, Jack, and Steve built.”

    Oh dear…

    • Actually, as Jenette was making DC a haven for talent, Jim was busy chasing away one talent after another, the ones who had proven track records and balked at Jim;s increasingly rigid storytelling rules. Jim did nothing to improve printing technologies as their production arm was just churning out things as fast as possible.

      Of course we all know Secret Wars was originally tied to a failed toy line but that doesn’t prevent it from being released and marketed with the intent of blunting the forthcoming COIE. Same with the Handbook versus Who’s Who. I stand by my comments having actually been there when all this was occurring.

      And yes, when Jemas took over then hired Quesada, Marvel’s House of Ideas was in need of a tear down, no one will deny that.

  • Hi, just wanted to say, I enjoyed this article. It was funny. Keep on posting!

  • Tupiaz

    Secret Wars was made because of a toy deal with Mattel. Mattel went to Marvel not the other way around:

  • Lou Mougin

    Well done, Bob! I can’t contribute more insight–well, not much, being a humble fanboy. However, it does seem that Shooter’s artistic limitations became the boundaries of Marvel. He knew he couldn’t write as well as the current crop of writers circa 1975-76, but they were just what Marvel needed…and what one writer didn’t drive out back then, Shooter did. He cut off everything he couldn’t understand or match, and that put Marvel artistically in stasis for so long it was dreadful. Which, of course, made the work he did for Valiant surprising in its quality. Ah, well…

  • Jeff Loux

    Issac Perlmutter is a scumbag!

  • Darci

    Re: “Virginia Romita who effectively replaced John Verpoorten as the tight-fisted production manager”

    “Sol hired Len Grow to replace John Verpoorten”
    Hope this helps!

  • Dan

    The Who’s Who/Handbook issue hinges on internal channels for publication. DC had a longer pipeline for new books, so any time Marvel got wind of a potentially successful DC concept it was easy for Marvel to jump ahead and put theirs out first. So Who’s Who was announced first, but Handbook got to the stands first.

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