Monday, October 22, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story could just as easily have been subtitled The Never Ending Story.  It's never ending as Marvel's fictional characters die, are brought back, change their powers, get replaced, get cloned, make deals with the devil, but still go on and on.  It's also never ending because the creators behind these characters leave in disgust, get fired, sue the company and sometimes die on the job.

This book is a warts-and-all telling of the people and business behind the creation of the Marvel universe, known for characters such as Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and the X-Men.  While it is only tangentially related to animation, it shares the problems of work-for-hire and the callous way that corporations treat the very people who create the wealth.

For those who haven't followed the comics or the company, this book may be a maddening read, as the cast of fictional and real characters runs into the hundreds.  The size of the cast prevents Howe from going into depth on more than a few people, mainly the owners, editors and to a lesser extent, writers.  The artists, as usual, get short shrift.  Anyone interested in learning more about artists John Buscema, Gene Colan and similar mainstays of the company will be disappointed.  The artists are mostly bystanders while the dance of power and money goes on above their heads.

Martin Goodman was a publisher of pulp magazines, a now extinct breed of publications that focused on genre fiction with detectives, cowboys, aviators and similar action-oriented characters.  They were named pulps for the cheap wood pulp paper they were printed on.  After the success of Superman in Action Comics in the late 1930s, Goodman was convinced to add comic books to his list of publications.  Within the first few years, he published The Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos), The Sub-Mariner (created by Bill Everett) and Captain America (created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).  He hired his wife's cousin, 17 year old Stanley Leiber to work in the comics division and in 1941 when editor Joe Simon left (with Kirby) after Goodman screwed them out of Captain America royalties, Leiber writing under the pseudonym Stan Lee inherited the post of comics editor.

With the exception of his stint in the military during World War II, Lee continued running the division and created nothing of value until 1961.  At that point, partnered with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, newly successful characters appeared for about a decade.  However, both Ditko and Kirby walked away from Lee and Marvel, angry over their lack of control and compensation.  Once that happened, Lee spent the next 40 years promoting Marvel and himself but failed to create anything similarly successful.  His greatest accomplishment was keeping himself front and center as the ownership changed repeatedly, garnering millions for himself while not lifting a finger as President and Publisher of Marvel to compensate the artists beyond paying them by the page.  He even colluded with his competitor, DC Comics, to make sure that freelancers couldn't play the two companies off each other for higher pay.

It's fitting that Disney now owns Marvel as the companies have similarities in their histories.  The business people who have taken over both companies after their founders have earned far more than the creative people who built the company in the first place.  Eric Ellenbogan, a Marvel executive who lasted just seven months, walked away with a $2.5 million severance package, more money than Jack Kirby made from Marvel in his entire career.  That's hardly different than the $140 million in severance that Michael Ovitz walked away from Disney with, more money than all nine old men made over 40 years.  John Lasseter is rapidly becoming another Stan Lee, agreeing to corporate moves he formerly disdained (like sequels) and becoming a kibitzer of other people's work rather than remaining a creator himself.  For both companies, the '90s were an anomaly where artists actually shared in the money their work generated.  Marvel went bankrupt and Disney abandoned drawn animation and the artists who created it.  In both cases, the good times didn't last.

The book contains just two illustrations: an ad for the first issue of Marvel Comics and a photograph of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965.  Undoubtedly, the publisher didn't want to deal with Disney's well-known reluctance to grant the rights to images it owns (see the delay in Amid Amidi's biography of Ward Kimball).  However, Howe has a tumblr blog which includes many illustrations and documents that should have appeared.  Somehow print attracts the copyright cops while the web escapes unscathed, more proof that the copyright laws are dysfunctional in the digital age.

Anyone who aspires to work for a leading comics or animation company and thinks they'll be entering a magic kingdom where creativity reigns supreme and the fun never stops should read this book.  Large media corporations share many of Marvel's problems. Artists are routinely taken advantage of, and the more artists realize this on the way in, the less likely they are to be disappointed.

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