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Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Written by Sean Howe

Narrated by Stephen Hoye


Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Written by Sean Howe

Narrated by Stephen Hoye

ratings:
4/5 (39 ratings)
Length:
17 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jan 22, 2013
ISBN:
9780062272287
Format:
Audiobook

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Also available as bookBook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

Description

An unvarnished, unauthorized, behind-the-scenes account of one of the most dominant pop cultural forces in contemporary America.

Operating out of a tiny office on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil-these superheroes quickly won children's hearts and sparked the imaginations of pop artists, public intellectuals, and campus radicals. Over the course of a half century, Marvel's epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.

Throughout this decades-long journey to becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise, Marvel's identity has continually shifted, careening between scrappy underdog and corporate behemoth. As the company has weathered Wall Street machinations, Hollywood failures, and the collapse of the comic book market, its characters have been passed along among generations of editors, artists, and writers-also known as the celebrated Marvel "Bullpen." Entrusted to carry on tradition, Marvel's contributors-impoverished child prodigies, hallucinating peaceniks, and mercenary careerists among them-struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another.

For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, the self-made publisher who forayed into comics after a get-rich-quick tip in 1939; Stan Lee, the energetic editor who would shepherd the company through thick and thin for decades; and Jack Kirby, the World War II veteran who'd co-created Captain America in 1940 and, twenty years later, developed with Lee the bulk of the company's marquee characters in a three-year frenzy of creativity that would be the grounds for future legal battles and endless debates.

Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews with Marvel insiders then and now, Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, reformed criminals, unlikely alliances, and third-act betrayals-a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America's history.

Publisher:
Released:
Jan 22, 2013
ISBN:
9780062272287
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

About the author

Sean Howe is the editor of Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics and the Deep Focus series of film books. He is a former editor and critic at Entertainment Weekly, and his writing has appeared in New York, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Spin, and The Village Voice. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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Reviews

What people think about Marvel Comics

4.2
39 ratings / 17 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (2/5)
    This book is detail oriented. You can learn to knit fax, but unless you’re a total comic geek nerd, you will definitely find some if not most, of this book to be dry
  • (5/5)
    Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story begins with a quick account of Timely and Atlas Comics before turning to the launch of the Marvel Age with the Fantastic Four. From there, he examines the early Bullpen and the explosion of creativity that accompanied the cultural resurgence of comics in the 1960s. Howe effortlessly weaves between the business side of comics and the lives of writers, artists, editors and others, while using letters (both published and unpublished) and excerpts from college talks to give insight into the public's reaction to the comics. He moves into the 1970s and 1980s, when Marvel went from the underdog in the industry to the leading publisher, culminating in the speculator market bust of the 1990s. The human stories of people trying to tell their stories and make a living or control the ideas they brought to the company provide a dramatic counterpoint to the business wheeling and dealing of publishers and corporate vice presidents. These stories make this a particularly harrowing look at the unforgiving nature of the comics industry, though there may exist parallels elsewhere in publishing. All of this ends with a focus on the cyclical nature of the stories, which reflect the cyclical nature of the industry, as Howe writes, "Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-Man and the X-Men float in elastic realities, passed from one temporary custodian to the next, and their heroic journes are, forever, denied an end" (pg. 432).
  • (4/5)
    A good book. It glossed over a few areas but was still quite well researched. It doesn't pull punches. It goes into creator rights and Marvel's bankruptcy (almost the end of them). Wish it head spent a little more time in each of the decades.
  • (4/5)
    There's an ugliness uncovered by this book that I really had never considered before about Marvel The Business. Backstabbing, outright theft and piracy, and he-said/he-said swirl around in such operatic scale that it's surprising that ANYTHING got published at all!
    Hundreds of interviews and deep research kick over the fallen log of Marvel's history; I read in horrified fascination about all the things that squirmed out from under it.
    Oh, I still consider myself a Marvel Fan, no question; but it's still the characters I love, not the business practice.
  • (3/5)
    The birth of Marvel comics. Interesting how huge an impact Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had. Without them Marvel probably wouldn't even still exist. If it did it would be very different. Sad that Lee and Kirby had a falling out.

    Interesting that there were some great years where it sounds like working at Marvel would have been a lot of fun. Followed by some terrible times where people were fired and the market tanked in part due to some poor management.

    People who like Marvel and are interested in the back story will find this just the book to pick up to read about Marvel's history.
  • (5/5)
    This book should probably come with a health warning; that it may destroy the love of even the hardiest Marvel fan. It’s an unofficial history of one of the dominant cultural forces of the late twentieth century, taking the story from its origins as Timely Comics to the point of what looks like their greatest triumph; the conquering of the silver screen.I can’t pretend that a lot of the shenanigans came as any surprise – I’m familiar with the numerous ways comic book creators have been exploited down the years and much of the behind the scenes conduct is familiar to any comics fan with an internet connection. But the whole history of the company appears dispiriting with venality and immaturity seemingly the driving forces behind the company. It’s also a history that gives the lie to anyone knowing what they’re doing with successes seemingly a matter of randomness and timing and inefficiency and ignorance often undermining the company even at its most successful. It’s a good argument to present against anyone who argues the private sector is automatically more efficient and effective than the public sector. Where the book’s really a joy is in the behind the scenes characters you barely glimpsed even in the book credits. The best example if John Verpoorten, the indefatigable production manager who’s quietly doing a lot of good work behind the scenes and at times keeping the company going before being driven to an early grave. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking moments like that that offset the juvenile antics of the 70s Bullpen, the Jim Shooter megalomania and the unprofessional/rock n roll (delete as applicable) conduct of the Image founders. Not always the prettiest of pictures but through and never less than fascinating.
  • (3/5)
    A strange, sad, and stunning look at the corporate machinations that is known as Marvel Comics. It was a fascinating read.
  • (5/5)
    It's hard not to make this review about me, as annoying as that would be to read, because of how important comics - and Marvel Comics in particular - were to me (and still are, to some degree), but I won't go there.

    The history of this company, and its expansive modern mythology, is seriously fascinating reading - especially if you are familiar with their output. If you aren't, you may well find yourself getting a hold of some of their amazing work that you've never heard of before (esp. the books from the 70's). It is also the history of a corporate juggernaut that chewed up and spat out all the people who devoted the most to it. Aside from the Ballad of Jack Kirby, which could be its own 600pg tome, there were so many bodies left in ditches. People who devoted decades of their lives and were the most popular creators of their time, cut off without a single word about their involuntary departure. Then you have the superstars of the early 90's, who were (esp. in the case of McFarlane and Liefeld) unscrupulous hypocrites who bragged about burning their bridges - only to go on (in several cases) to treat others even more unfairly than the parent company they sought to replace.

    It's a story of greed, and the magic that somehow managed to grow in the tiny green spaces not touched by corporate corruption and a virtual derth of human decency. It's one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read, and it has had what I think will be a lasting impact on me.

    The summation on the cover, that it was a company that "gave people what they wanted while it took from them what they had" is better wording than I can generate. I'm going to write to a few of the creators who we're lucky enough to still have with us, to thank them for their work.
  • (5/5)
    Amazing and you should read it. 'Nuff said.
  • (5/5)
    I'm so verklempt!This book is on the one hand, a great trip down memory lane, and on the other hand, an open-eyed visit to the sausage factory. As an longstanding fan of Marvel Comics, I can't separate myself from my fandom enough to be able to tell you what this book can say to a non-fan. But to me, it brings back a lot of memories of characters and creators I've grown up (and into middle age) with. These characters and stories have been the backdrop of my life since, as a young DC fan, I first picked up the odd Marvel issue that always had "CONTINUED NEXT ISH! 'NUFF SAID" at the bottom of the last panel.I love the razzmatazz energy of Sixties Marvel, led by wildly imaginative artist/plotter Jack Kirby, extrovert/huckster/scripter/editor Stan Lee, introvert libertarian Steve Ditko and the rest. I also love the current era of wide-screen panels and smart, savvy dialogue. But perhaps my favorite era was the anything goes era of the early seventies, in which superheroes, swamp monsters, vampires, werewolves, demon-possessed motorcycle daredevils, blaxploitation private eyes, spacemen, kung-fu masters, and jungle lords all vied for attention and interacted with one another.You'll feel bad for a lot of the comic creators whose stories are told in this book. There's Kirby, who should have been a bazillionnaire, having created most of the characters who've made hundreds of millions for Marvel. There's Stan, who, although he did just fine financially, left the only thing he was ever good at (scripting and editing) in the early seventies and became an irrelevant sideshow barker, schmoozing with C-list Hollywood talent all through the 70s and 80s, until other, more connected and skilled negotiators achieved the movie dreams Stan had always coveted. Probably the saddest thing about Stan is his failure to appreciate the value of what he did. He still, at age 89, regrets not becoming a novelist or screenwriter. There were writers Steve Englehart, Doug Moench, Don McGregor, and Steve Gerber, who brought new sophistication to the comics of the seventies, but who (to a man) all got raw deals.You'll sneer at the venal, clueless corporate raiders who asserted their whims on the company in the eighties and nineties, and nearly destroyed it, although they lined their pockets nicely on their way out, as such people do. May history forget all of their names. I won't name them here.You'll nod your head in recognition at an example of the Peter Principle when Jim Shooter takes charge as editor-in-chief. He had always been a decent comics writer, but as an editor, he was a petty martinet who imposed storytelling rules that stifled creativity for years.If you lived through the turn of the millennium as a Marvel fan like I did, you'll reluctantly give due credit to company president Bill Jemas, who though considered unlikable by most fans at the time, was probably responsible for the junking of the creatively stultifying Comics Code Authority, and goosed the company into being more adventurous with content.One writer who gets short shrift in the book is Peter David, who maintained a high level of quality on the books he wrote throughout the mediocre eighties and nineties. A true unsung hero.
  • (3/5)
    Engaging but disturbing account of what goes one behind the panels at Marvel Comics.

    While very detailed and thorough regarding the start of Marvel, the latter two-thirds of the book seems to have its fast-forward button stuck on. Loads of details glossed over in sentences that had more apparent impact than whatever Stan Lee was up to that year/decade (and yet there's constant return to Stan's goings-on, often for no reason other than to show how removed he was from matters).
  • (3/5)
    I did not read books as a child. Rather, I grew up on "Archie and Veronica," "Millie the Model," "Tales From the Crypt," and "Superman," inter alia, not to mention my favorite comic compilation – "Mad Magazine." What I really appreciated, even then, was how social and political change was reflected in the comics.Thus it was with nostalgic pleasure as well as the thirst for background that I dove into Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. As it turns out, I wasn’t that thirsty! To me, there is a little too much information for anyone but obsessive purists (of which there are apparently quite a few, however).The author takes us from the very beginnings of what would become Marvel to its purchase in 2009 by Walt Disney for $4 billion. In between, Howe gives us some insights into how the popularity of certain comics waxed and waned with world affairs, and the effect of the state of the economy and politics on sales. But most of the text is an in-depth look at the personalities and politics of the writers and artists behind the scenes. And when I say “in-depth” I mean astonishingly so. It is as if the author had a daily videotape running inside the offices during the entire history of Marvel Comics. After a while, it seemed more like it should be called "The Endless Internecine Squabbles of a Bunch of Angry and Frustrated Artists." Then again, this aspect of the history of comics is more relevant than one might think; certainly, according to the author, the text of the comics often included coded office politics, allowing for superheroes to exact revenge on disliked editors or rivals. The biggest beef the comic writers had was who got credit for what. Page after page of this quite long book chronicles the course of these arguments. There is also a lot of space devoted to the “superstars” of Marvel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but not much about what made them tick; the author focuses more on who they ticked off, or who ticked them off….. Discussion: I don’t think I was the proper audience for this book. There are many, many devotees who will appreciate the day-to-day grind and gripes of comics creators (almost 500 pages worth!), but I am not one of them. I am much more interested in background and analysis. [More to my taste is the book From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books, in which author Arie Kaplan explains how the overwhelmingly Jewish make-up of early comicdom affected the content of the stories and the evolution of both the superheroes and the industry itself. It also includes plenty of full-color illustrations of landmark comic book covers and characters. Another creative look at comicdom I like from yet another approach is Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud that examines the art form of comics in the art form of a comic book! ] Marvel Comics: The Untold Story stays deep within the “bullpen,” emphasizing interactions between labor and management. I would have liked more details about the Marvel Comics fictional universe and its denizens. When the book does discuss the characters or the nature of the drawings, there are no illustrations to help us visualize the points the author is making.Nevertheless, the research is impressive and book is well-written. There are some passages I loved, such as the one providing a rare (for this book) in-depth look at some of the characters drawn by Steve Gerber for “Jungle Action.” After listing the supporting cast for “the Man-Thing” (including a barbarian who emerged from a jar of peanut butter), the author observes: "Amazingly, this was all conceived without the help of psychedelics.”(As Howe documents, this wasn’t always the case with all of the writers!)Evaluation: While I am not the proper audience, I want to point out that comic fans love this book, which has more inside dirt than I could have thought anyone could have collected! (The author notes in the "Acknowledgments" that “Much of this book is based on the personal recollections of more than 150 individuals…” He also drew from many, many articles and published interviews.) It just wasn’t the right book for me.
  • (5/5)
    An excellent history that contained lot I actually didn't know about Marvel. I read this for pleasure, but I think I might have to track down a copy and re-read it, taking notes.I've liked Marvel comics, but fell out of reading them in the mid-90s. I haven't kept track of the recent history, but reading what happened behind the scenes makes it clearer how Marvel managed to seem to pull together as far as the movies at the same time the comics were all over the place. Only two criticisms of the book. One is that it is so crammed with information it occasionally get hazy. Told in a rough chronology, it'll refer to past and future events from the current point in the narration in a bit of confusing way at times. (For example, repeated mentions of the Silver Surfer and the importance to Kirby and Lee, but before the Silver Surfer actually appears makes it confusing if the discussion is referring to future events or early sketches of the character). I suspect the book could even have been longer, but they were worried about it pushing the limits. The results is hints occasionally at what could be very interesting side issues. (One example is the fact is mentioned that the DC-acquired Milestone was created by black Marvel ex-pats, but in a book that's dense with names the author doesn't actually even mention the names of the founders of Milestone. I suspect there's a paragraph about that on the cutting room floor.)Brought back a lot of memories of my comic reading days, both good and bad. Also gave me more series to try to track down (I don't collect comics any more, but hopefully some of this have come out in collections that I can borrow).
  • (3/5)
    According to Goodreads, which likes to judge me for slowness, I've been reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story since February 18th. Something taking me over a month to read is pretty much unprecedented, especially since I actually found this nonfiction audiobook pretty damn fascinating. What happened? Well, see, most of the chapters in Marvel Comics are an hour long on audio, and I typically just listen to 20-30 minutes as I get ready for bed at night or up in the morning. Stopping in the middle of a chapter is anathema to me, so finding sizable chunks of time to fit a chapter in was a serious pain.I think most book bloggers have certain kinds of reviews they find really tough to write. Well, one of the kinds I really don't know what to do with is non-fiction, but I'll do my best, I guess. I can't evaluate the accuracy of the info, because my only knowledge of Marvel going in was pretty much entirely limited to the film versions of their comics. I know you judge me comic book fans, but it's impossible for me to read ALL of their stuff, so I can't really read any of it.If you want to know about Marvel, this is a great resource. Now, it doesn't go very in depth into the comics, so if that's what you want, look elsewhere. What Howe does is give the inside scoop on all of the office politics and drama, and, oh lord, was there a ton of it. Basically, I'm not convinced that Marvel was run by a bunch of petty backstabbers. The history is just battles between management and creators.Oh, I'm also fairly certain that the comic book industry is where this stupid trope of characters dying and coming back to life, popping back into place like punching bags, came from. Not cool, comic books publishers. Other things that were not cool about comics: the racism and the treatment of women. Even more horrifying, there's still so far to go on those portrayals. Like, at one point in the 1960s, they wanted to target a female audience, so they had men write some titles like Night Nurse and She-Devil. Yeah, they really understand women.The thesis of Howe's book seems to be the difficulty the comic book industry has had finding a niche. Marvel has been near bankruptcy a dozen times, but always managed to find a way back into the market. In modern times, film adaptations and merchandising are pulling Marvel through, but something else is needed in the future, as less people actually seem to be reading comics. Basically, the comic book industry, like the rest of publishing, has to plan for the future.Stephen Hoye does a nice job narrating Marvel Comics, and it was pleasant to listen to, even though I would have gotten through faster with more chapter breaks. If you've ever been curious about the comic book industry from early days to the present day, Howe's written a book just for you.
  • (5/5)
    An 'Inside Edition' history of Marvel Comics, from the early days (when the company was Timely Comics) to the mid 2000s. Loaded with gossip and snide insider commentary. Howe does include dissenting voices, giving some incidents a Rashomon-like quality. Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is the emphasis the comic industry places on youth; retired ex-Marvel employees and owners vanish (mostly) from the corporate and public eye without a trace. (Jack 'King' Kirby being one of the exceptions.) Invaluable for anyone who wants to know more about the comics field, as told by those who created it.
  • (5/5)
    As someone who has been a fan of comics for decades and worked on both the industry and retail sides of the business, I found this well written and researched look at Marvel behind the scenes fascinating.
  • (4/5)
    I’ll say right up front that if you are not an avid reader of Marvel comics, you won’t get much out of MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY by Sean Howe. I’ll also add that I am one of them, a Marvel reader for more than a few decades who has hung in there through thick and thin and thick again as the quality of Marvel comics has been inconsistent to say the least. This book gives us the inside dope on the company that gave popular culture Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Doctor Strange, The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Punisher, among very many. What went on behind closed doors from the beginning was a far different picture than the happy Marvel Bullpen Stan Lee claimed it to be, and things only got worse as the company was sold to one corporate entity and then another, most of them only interested in the money they squeeze out of merchandising the characters and selling their rights to TV and movies.Most of all, it is the story of how talent got screwed over repeatedly by management, year in and year out, as great artists and writers were denied the compensation they were due as their creations earned the company millions, while they got a pittance. In the early days, on every artist’s paycheck was printed a boiler plate forfeiture of future earnings from all work on condition of cashing the check, a typical practice for what was considered work for hire. And sadly, in later decades, when the writers and artists had gotten wise and were earning the big bucks, they turned out to be just as big a douche bags as management-I’m talking about the likes of Scott McFarlane and Rob Liefeld.Stan Lee, the man whose name is synonymous with Marvel Comics comes across as the ultimate huckster, a man who did some good work, with critical contributions from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, back in the 60’s that laid the groundwork for the Marvel comic universe, and who rode the gravy train thereafter. The back and forth over who created Spider-Man and the FF is laid out once again, and it makes a damning case that Lee has long hogged the credit due others; what is really galling is the millions of dollars Lee has earned over the decades until this very day from his lifelong association with Marvel, while Jack Kirby, without whom there really would not have been a Marvel Comics, had to spend years suing the company to get his own artwork returned to him. The prickly Ditko, who managed to insert Ayn Rand’s Ojectivist philosophy into the early Spider-Man books, comes off as the anti Stan Lee in every way.There are tales of “chemical enhancement” by some artists in the 70’s which will not come as news to anyone who read certain titles during that era. I enjoyed tidbits such as why Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy was murdered by the Green Goblin in 1973: she was a boring character. Chris Claremont, the man who made the X-Men books a powerhouse, is dismissed after a sixteen year tenure because editor Bob Haras didn’t get the way he was writing the characters. There is the infamous Jim Shooter, who created the very first Secret Wars mini-series to promote action figures and talked openly of killing off all the Marvel heroes and starting over. How Jim Starlin bought the rights to the old Fu Manchu novels to use in the comic, Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu only to discover Sax Rohmer’s books to be utterly racist. We learn that there was a deal on the table in the mid 80’s for DC to sell their super hero titles-Superman, Batman, The Flash and the rest-to Marvel; how different would history have been if that deal had gone through. There is the mania for crossovers and Big Events in the late 80’s and early 90’s; the special and variant covers fad that turned off fans by the millions and nearly busted the whole comic book industry by the end of the decade. The book goes into the details behind the Heroes Reborn fiasco, where the renegades at Image were rewarded while many long time Marvel artists and writers, among them John Romita and his wife, were shown the door. The story of the Heroes World distribution scheme is laid out, and how many comic shop owners, the backbone of the industry, were subsequently forced to close their doors. Corporate mismanagement is a running theme throughout the book, as one owner proves to be worse than the previous, with a rogue’s gallery that include Avi Arvid, Joe Calamari, Ron Perelman, Carl Iachan, and Ike Perlmutter, the worst of a bad lot.There are a few good guys like artist Neal Adams, who tried to organize the artists into a union in the 70’s and Mark Gruenwald, an editor whose love for Marvel drove him to an early grave because of the distress he felt over what was happening at the company.It’s ultimately the story of a bunch of rich men trying to make money in a niche industry they didn’t even remotely understand or cared to take the time to learn anything about; it’s a tale of how the arrogance possessed only by those who believe great personal financial success automatically bestows competence in all human endeavors led to disaster. By the end of the book, after Disney purchases the company and the movie version of THE AVENGERS becomes a box office blockbuster, I marveled (pun intended) that the comics had survived this long. The only reason I could come up with was the patience and love of fans like myself for the unending adventures of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Charles Xavier’s mutants, The Hulk in all his forms, along with Doctor Doom, Magneto, Doctor Octopus and the rest of the 2000 plus denizens of the Marvel Universe. We’ve hung in there for the reboots, revamps, Secret Wars, Secret Invasions, Civil Wars, Ages of Apocalypse, Clone Sagas, Brand New Days, Days of Future Pasts, World War Hulks, Ultimates and Superiors and all the rest down through the years. In the end, the saddest thing to learn was that, for the most part, the creators of our beloved heroes and villains did not love them as much as we did. Many reviewers have this space to vent their spleens at Marvel and the comic book industry in general and I fully understand their pain; Sean Howe’s well written and researched book will only add fuel to the fire.