Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Best (Read) in 2013: Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Non-Fiction)

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe
Harper, 2012

I'll start this postmodern review with a disclaimer. This is a hyper-specialized review. Back away now if you have not plumbed comic-book depths, particularly Marvel Comics. To say that this is a niche assessment would be an understatement.

This review is for all those awkward kids who grew up buying comic books, poring over dusty back-issue bins with that particular smell of plastic, cardboard, and dust. This snap shot is for those readers, awkward and introverted or intellectually internalizing for whatever reasons, who grew up reading DC Comics and Marvel Comics, watching worlds unfold, unfettered. This short critique is for the young teens who were bullied or scared and found refuge in fantastic primary-colour representations of the id - the super-hero.

Were you, fair reader, one these kids. Are you one now?

And you liked your escapism forty-proof, with vivid colour and life and character and adept writing. Visualize Spider-Man swinging from rooftop to rooftop, only to arrive home to his ailing Aunt May who needs money to pay the bills. Think the Hulk wandering, literally wandering, the face of the earth, for years, lumbering from Canada to the U.S. to even Easter Island, a Don Quixote with emerald skin. Imagine Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer who can do acrobatic hand-to-hand fighting, but whose life crumbles around him when his ex-girlfriend sells his secret identity for a fix. These characters are symbols of being capable; yet they are under siege by their own insecurities and worries. Their problems, Parker's girl and money troubles and social isolation, the Hulk's child-like temperament and maturity, and Murdock's attempt to simply keep his life together, made them icons. Mass-marketed pajamas or lunchboxes or action figures did not, at least initially. 

Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), in particular, was emblematic of angst-ridden youth, from his earlier days in the 1960's right up until the late 1980's, when he got married. He struggled with a similar singular loneliness, a crushing void, a struggle with the opposite (or same sex) at an early age,  and didn't feel at ease in greater numbers, but contrarily felt a longing, at times, when away from the madding crowd.

If you, fair reader, read Peter David's Incredible Hulk run, or adored Herb Trimpe's or Sal Buscema's Hulk tenure, or horded Roger Stern and John Romita Jr.'s The Amazing Spider-Man, or savored Jim Shooter's seismic The Secret Wars, or awed at Frank Miller's Daredevil, or dug John Byrne's and Chris Claremont's The Uncanny X-Men, or later, John Byrne's Superman, then read this book. Howe describes  the scaffolding and the battles and the human element that brought these creations together.

Writer and artists adopted books, left books, fought over their books with the higher-ups. The drama that unfolded in the mythical merry Marvel Bullpen rivalled that of the colourful pages of its monthly publications. Marvel Comics' characters had powers, like DC's, but they were inherently flawed, insecure, uneasy, complex. In other words, they were more human. Sean Howe digs into Marvel's history to show how the high rollers, the gifted artists and talent writers were equally conflicted and flawed.

Howe covers all the above history and far, far more in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. He fleshes out the stories that readers may have grown up hearing, and assembles them in one place for the first time in the medium's history. If you ever wondered how to distinguish the rumours, heresy, speculation and chatter from each other, Howe lays it out. His encyclopedic references to Marvel history are best in short bursts because the reader needs time to absorb them.

The Entertainment Weekly editor draws on Marvel's early history when it began as Timely Publications in 1939. Stanley Martin Lieber entered comics as a young Jewish man with dreams of penning the great American novel.  Several years later, he found himself in charge of the comic book company that would become Marvel. He adopted the pen name Stan Lee so as not attach his real name to the funny books. Anti-Semitism, too, was a factor in his Americanizing of the name. For young, talented, Jewish kids who could not enter other lines of business, comic books represented a living and, possibly a career. Stanley, though, at fortysomething, tired of the disrespected comic business, wanted out. His wife, however, convinced Stan to do one comic book his own way before going. So began the Fantastic Four and many, many other Marvel icons, such as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and so on.

But I digress; this is only the beginning of Marvel's story as recorded in Untold Story.

If you ever wanted to know if the writers of the transgressive pop-culture soup of the 1960's Doctor Strange were doing LSD, then look no further. In fact, if you have a plethora of true-believer questions, then pick up this book. Why did the Secret Wars come about, that seminal 1983 assembly of heroes and villains that ran 12 issues, and which both Marvel and DC have attempted to replicate since, both in success and novelty? Just how did star writer Chris Claremont and star artist John Byrne, the twin powers behind the unprecedented success of The Uncanny X-Men, really get on? What elements made Uncanny gel just perfectly during the early 1980's? Why did Claremont decide to kill Jean Grey (aka Phoenix), and how did his bold move had a ripple effect on the industry? How did Jim Steranko muscle his way into Marvel, showing up unannounced, a handsome young escape artist who took over the book Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? Why did artist Steve Ditko leave the hugely successful Amazing Spider-Man title after only 39 issues and two annuals? And how much did Stan Lee owe to Jack Kirby for driving many of Marvel's phenomenal characters, with Kirby remaining un-credited for decades? How did the Comics Code Authority affect Marvel and DC and all comics until the 1970's until Stan Lee concocted a storyline about LSD in Spider-Man and dared to print the issue without the sacrosanct Code? Finding the answers to these questions (and still more) left me rather breathless.

I was knocked back and impressed and envious simultaneously, reading the background of my younger self's fanciful playthings. The book works because no one has ever done it, and because Howe took the time and has the guts and the heart required to lean into the project. The result is a coherent and highly readable chronology and human drama. He somehow manages to hold together the entire history of Marvel, from its infancy to its more recent reboot-and-film-adaptation years. However, the author always returns to Stan Lee's mantra of "the illusion of change" driving the medium. That is, the idea that readers don't truly want their complex, angst-ridden characters to change, but to undergo change, time and time again.

A fan himself, Howe writes an older perspective but immerses himself in the details. He
fairly represents the one true never-ending battle - the one between artists, mainly freelancers, who wanted to craft something beautiful but in a timely manner- and the business people who wanted to keep the venture profitable.

The Untold Story is brilliant, and so is Howe. There are few non-fiction books that I want to reread; Untold Story now numbers among them. Michael Chabon, the genius author behind the equally ingenious The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, should pick this up. Untold is that rewarding and that good. Former and current true believers, of super heroic iconography and myths barely contained in panelled drawings, owe it to themselves to revisit these stories through the lens with a longer view.

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