Review: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a history of Marvel Comics’ superhero comics from its beginnings in the early 1960s all the way up to the present day. Superhero comics started at Marvel as a response to the success of such DC characters as the Green Lantern and the Justice League; and the inventor of most of them in the early days was (at least partly! this was the subject of much dispute!) Stan Lee, the cousin of Marvel’s owner’s wife. So if you say you don’t like nepotism, remember that without it we wouldn’t have the gorgeous Gwendie. What set Marvel apart in these early days of superhero comics was the way the heroes would bicker with each other — the Fantastic Four were so successful in this regard that Marvel continued inventing gripey teams and individuals, including the teenaged Spiderman, to be written by their small, closeknit (sort of) team of artists.

As Marvel became larger and more successful, and Stan Lee continued to insist upon keeping a finger in every comics pie, discontent in the “Marvel bullpen” began that would continue throughout the company’s history. Artists and writers and editors were perpetually irritated with each other, and creators of memorable characters retained no rights to the ideas they gave to Marvel. Management changes throughout the company’s history constantly shook up the stable of writers, as did contract and labor disputes, and particularly disputes about the future of the now-beloved characters of the Marvel series.

Sean Howe is obviously in love with Marvel Comics. (Go here to listen to a Grantland podcast where he talks about the book.) The stories of the original Marvel bullpen told by Stan Lee in the pages of the early superhero comics caught his imagination, and these writers and artists are the main focus of the book. This is very cool in a way, as it allows the reader to see the differences the changing staff made to various series, from the real-life focus of Ditko’s Spiderman to the soapy story arcs (I say that without any judgment at all ever) of Chris Claremont’s X-Men.

On the other hand, it can be difficult to keep track of everyone who comes and goes and loves Marvel and hates Marvel and loves superhero comics or hates them, and who thinks Jack Kirby is the best and who thinks Stan Lee is the best, and who got screwed out of millions of dollars of income from their intellectual property by shady doings (hint: everyone). I got bogged down around the mid-1970s and early 1980s with all the names that were flying around, and I nearly gave up the book. But then I listened to that interview with Sean Howe and it cheered me up and gave me the strength to continue.

My very favorite thing I learned was this (I guess there are spoilers for old Spiderman here, the comics?, if you care about that?): At one point Mary Jane was pregnant (PS, lame, Gwen Stacy is better), and they wanted Spiderman not to have a baby, so they had a sinister nurse come tell MJ that the baby was stillborn, and then you see someone, like, delivering a shady secret package on the dock. Maybe a dead baby? Maybe an alive baby? And nobody has ever picked up this storyline. Y’all, I know. This is clearly insane. I have invented a storyline for the secret baby, and I think they should let me write for comics (or else soap operas) because I would be amazing at it. Spoiler alert, my storyline ends with Spiderman feeling sad and guilty. It doesn’t end that way because I’m mad at Spiderman for not growing old with Gwen Stacy. That’s not why. Not at all.

Does anyone want to recommend me some good Marvel comics to read? I don’t know where to start! There are way too many!

I received this ebook for review from Harper, through Edelweiss.

  • I just finished writing my review of this yesterday! (But I am saving it for posting way later since I like to exercise my obsessive-compulsiveness by scheduling way ahead so I don’t feel pressured and stressed any more than the usual stressures (portmanteau for brevity). For me, I think I wanted what this book wasn’t, although it doesn’t PURPORT to be what I wanted, and even the full title SUGGESTS it wasn’t what I wanted, but I think I believed that by WANTING it, I could TRANSFORM it into it by sheer willpower. (….which is bizarre considering I don’t have the willpower to resist ABSOLUTELY anything that I shouldn’t put in my mouth. But one doesn’t ordinarily put books in one’s mouth unless one is under the age of one, so to speak. So I was hoping the willpower thing would work.) What I wanted was a book about the CONTENT of the comics, not about the dynamics of the bullpen. And there ARE books out there about the content, and they are even loaded with illustrations. However, the Sean Howe happened to come to my door, whereas the others did not.

    But you know what killed me about this book? I mean, these guys (in the “biz”) must have recorded every thought, every conversation, every interaction, every day forever, for Howe to be able to find out every everything! Imagine if we had that kind of info on, say, Cleopatra’s rule, or Lincoln’s thoughts, or when and if Jefferson snuck up that back staircase to Sally Hemings’ room…. I mean, if we had that kind of documentation for something of more gravitas, we would even know what Sally wore each time, and exactly what SHE thought of HIM and whether she rolled her eyes behind his back whenever he started in on the freedom stuff, and EVERYthing! Too bad there were no History-Cons (analogous to Comic Cons) and History Gazettes and talks shows and tell-alls and so on, back then, like now!

    Recommendations? Well I never read the one Howe talked about, about the Crocodile Monster and the guy who came up out of the peanut butter, but that one sounded great! :–) (I was more a Millie the Model kind of reader)

    • A history of the content of the comics would be great. Think of all the wackadoo stories we could read from the early years where they were all fighting the dirty Commies etc.

      We can’t find out about Cleopatra and those guys, but our period in history should be pretty thoroughly recorded, eh? With Twitter and Facebook and all that? The tricky part will be wading through all the crap to find the useful parts.

      • anna

        Once? The Russian Xman who could turn into metal, Colossus? He was turned evil and declared that his new superhero name was the PROLETARIAT. That was awesome. He work suspenders and a thing with a sickle.

  • I’ve never been a big comics reader (other than those in the newspaper) but I really enjoy reading about the people behind the popular comic superheroes, so this sounds like a book that I might enjoy.

    • I haven’t been the biggest comics reader either, to be honest. My brother-in-law is working his way through the Marvel comics from the earliest days, so I’m pretty much depending on him to tell me what goes on. This book meanwhile is really interesting!

  • Aonghus Fallon

    I generally prefer the stuff that evolved out of marvel comics than the comics themselves, as they tend to be more reflective. One book I particularly enjoyed a while back was ‘Some Day I Will Be Invincible’ – a supervillain’s perspective on superheroes. Not perhaps the most original idea in the world (‘Megamind’ explored the same theme and I’m still not sure who stole from whom) but nicely written. There’s a riff on the Pevensies (although the characters have been transplanted to America) which would make a fine short story in its own right.

    • It sounds interesting! I’ll add it to my list — it sounds a little bit like the general premise of Dr. Horrible too. And I enjoyed Doctor Horrible a lot, and Megamind as well I think, so Some Day I Will be Invincible could be great. 🙂

  • Oh, gorgeous Gwendie. Her death ruined my vacation in 1973, and I kept hoping that Stan Lee would somehow change his mind and make it a dream sequence or something. I never accepted MJ; it bothered me so much that the only other girl hanging around Peter was quickly substituted as the love interest (like people are that interchangeable.) (Even though, in life, sometimes they seem to be exactly that, and also, proximity is strangely powerful).

    Ahem. Sorry. I’ve just never gotten over it. What I started out to say is that Rhapsody makes a painfully strong point about how good it would be if we had this kind of record for other historic events, and now I can’t shake the inner longing for Sally Hemings’s inner circle to come to life and TELL ALL about my favorite president (despite his terrible slavery character flaw.)

    • Aw, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that it was so traumatic for you. I think they are legitimately going to do that plotline in the movies with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. I predict major sadness. Nobody looks as sad as sad Andrew Garfield, and you’d never be as sad to lose anyone as you’d be to lose Emma Stone.

  • I think Marvel should let you tie up that Spiderman storyline! I want to know what happens between the package being delivered and Spiderman ending up being sad and guilty. Maybe the baby goes up to be a super villain. Who knows? 😉 I have no idea where you should start reading. You might want to tweet the guys at Marvel and ask them.

    • They should let me! I can’t tell you my idea but it is pretty good, and it provides closure to that storyline without closing off the possibility of somebody else picking it up later and doing something else with it. SEE MARVEL. LET ME WRITE MY STORY.

  • Aonghus Fallon

    Sorry – that should be ‘SOON I will be invincible’. It was written by Austin Grossman. Lev Grossman’s twin brother, believe it or not.

    • Whoa, Lev Grossman’s a twin? Mind blown.

  • aartichapati

    Do you have to be REALLY into Marvel comics to enjoy this book? Because I don’t know who Mary Jane or Gwen are, but am intrigued by weird shady boxes.

    • Errrrr, I don’t know. How really is REALLY? I am not that into them in the sense that I don’t think I’ve read any…? Marvel comics maybe ever?, in the classic serieses. My knowledge has all been picked up from the films and things other people have said to me.

      Short version is this: Gwen is the AWESOME FIRST girlfriend Spiderman has, and she is better in every way. Mary Jane is the second lame one I don’t care about. GWEN is where it’s at.

  • Oh man… there are so many ways that weird baby storyline could go. I imagine one where the baby comes back sometime in the future and is either a partner/villain… because the idea of a dead baby makes me sad.

    • My idea does not involve the baby being dead. That would be sad. My idea is sad too but in a different way. IT IS GENIUS.

  • anna

    I am glad you say that without any judgement, because otherwise I would feel sad.

    • You would not! You would say “How are YOU going to criticize something for being soapy? You still sing songs from your DEFUNCT SOAP OPERA.”

      • anna

        No, I would not. I would just be sad. I might even be..inconsolable. (cues soap opera song)

  • I am not a huge fan of Marvel comics, but the book sounds interesting. I love that storyline about Spidey’s secret baby. It sounds like a super idea for a movie

    • I wonder if they’d ever do that movie. It would be fun but might be too wacky for the general movie-going crowd, you think?

  • They never picked up that storyline? Surely they’re sitting on a possible new awesome character there! I read recently about the intellectual property disputes, but didn’t realise it spread further than one character.

    • Right? They could TOTALLY do all sorts of things with that story! There are so many ways that could go, I just can’t understand how every single Marvel writer for the past two decades has just let that sit there.

  • The only comics I ever read were Archie and Richie Rich.

    I was a deprived child.

    • anna

      it’s never too late. I discovered comics as an adult!

    • Same, actually. Not that Archie comics aren’t awesome.

  • Oh I wish my son were a little older but he’s not quite ready for the meta-level this is pitched at. But he’s a big fan of Marvel comics and in particular, The Flash. That character seems to be most teenage boys’ favourite (cf Big Bang Theory) but also a great place to start in the complex tangle of Marvel stories.

    • Juan Manuel Pazos

      Ahem .. The Flash is a DC Comics character, just like Superman….