© Sean Howe, image © Harper Collins, Publishers.
If you’re at all interested in the history of comics, especially behind-the-scenes material, this book is a must read. It details the entire history of the company that began as an offshoot of publisher Martin Goodman’s pulp magazine line in 1939, went through a roller-coaster ride of booms and busts in the 40s and 50s, hit paydirt in the 1960s in the creative hands of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, gradually became a comics behemoth in the 70s and 80s, and then, through several sales and lots of corporate squabbling, an corporate football and cash cow, a bankrupt shell, a publicly-held entity, and finally a very successful movie studio/publisher. It was quite a ride, and author Sean Howe hasn’t missed a turn or spill, drawing on dozens of interviews from those involved, and lots of what seems to me to be careful research. Stan Lee is, of course, at the center of things throughout, and like all the players is depicted in clear, journalistic prose that reveals both his strengths and weaknesses, his complexities and foibles. Every player of note gets pretty much the same treatment, including Jack Kirby and many other artists and writers, as well as the editors, production staff and bosses.
Howe splits his focus somewhat into following what was happening in the comics themselves, including sometimes lengthy descriptions of characters and plotlines, and what was happening corporately, editorially and creatively. The former material seems overdone, but perhaps that’s because I know most of it already, as a longtime Marvel reader. The latter is much more interesting, and makes the book a gem for me. I could only wish there were more details about the company and its employees in the 40s and 50s, but I know that info is hard to come by. This is no short story, and the notes and references are extensive, but it’s all fascinating. And having it written by someone outside the comics field (Howe is a journalist) makes the resulting book feel more even-handed to me, though he does express his opinions about some things, particularly poor corporate decisions (and there were many!).
I’ve worked for Marvel as a freelancer since about 1987, and even things I did for them came through in this book in a different light, once I knew the corporate and editorial situation going on at the time. I found myself wishing I could have worked in the Marvel Bullpen in its heyday in the 1960s, and very glad not to have been on staff in the 80s and 90s, for instance.
I read this as an e-book, and there are almost no pictures. Don’t know if that’s true of the printed version, but since this is an UNauthorized book, I imagine using anything from the comics was out of the question. Doesn’t matter, Howe brings everything to life, and if you need visual reference, the internet is always ready.