One of my friends complained to me about this book that it gave “short shrift to the really interesting years at Marvel” — which years were, by his lights, the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby years, essentially the 1960s, give or take a few years on either end. I disagree. Yes, those years are really interesting, but they’ve been pounded into the ground, in the fan press and elsewhere. I’ve heard that song, over and over and over and over. That song had already played out several times by the time I even got to the dance floor.
“My” Marvel was 70s Marvel, post-Stan, post-Jack, an era when every other month, it seemed, there was a new editor-in-chief, and the company sold itself a few times, to a few weird-sounding other companies. “My” Marvel culminates in the Jim Shooter era, with most of the talent that fans had always associated with Marvel — even Rascally Roy Thomas! — decamping for DC, the cross-town competition, and the company falling into bankruptcy. I’ve always found that era fascinating, and not just because it coincided with my fanboy years. What was Marvel without Stan Lee (who remained nominally in charge, but nobody, nobody, nobody — not even a 12-year-old kid in Alabama — believed that)? What was Marvel without Jack Kirby? What was Marvel without what had made it Marvel? That’s the question those people — Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, Steve Englehart, Sal Buscema, Klaus Jansen, etc., etc., etc. — had to try to answer for themselves, and for the fans. It could be a tremendous story: keeping the dream alive when the primary dreamers have woken and walked away.
This book covers all that stuff more systematically than I’ve seen it covered elsewhere, though I personally had already read quite a bit of Howe’s source material. And that’s maybe the thing about this book that ultimately disappoints a bit: it’s not a massive undertaking of original, dispassionate, even-handed research, the way that Gerard Jones’ history of DC Comics, Men of Tomorrow, was. Howe collects and summarizes information that was already publicly available, mostly from interviews in The Comics Journal. Having someone comb through all that fan cruft (yes, TCJ, I still think of you as a fanzine) and create a step-by-step narrative of the disparate and contradictory pieces is helpful, though. And that, along with conducting a bunch of interviews with many of the still-living primary figures himself, appears to be the extent of what Howe has done. Which is a lot. Let me be clear. I liked it, and I recommend it, but the definitive history of Marvel Comics — the one that steps past public statements and the self-aggrandizing memories of comic book creators talking to sympathetic fan interviewers, and gets down and dirty into real historical research — has yet to be produced.
Elsewhere on the Web
Robert Stanley Martin reviewed the book in more depth than I have, for The Hooded Utilitarian:
Howe is also apparently a fan of several 1970s and early ‘80s Marvel titles, such as Doug Moench’s Master of Kung Fu and Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck, and he loses all perspective when it comes to them. His discussion of the events leading up to the 1982 cancellation of Master of Kung Fu is the low point of the book: poorly researched, manipulatively written, and borderline libelous. (The passive-aggressive effort to blame Marvel for the death of artist Gene Day is repugnant.) The amount of attention given to Howard the Duck co-creator Steve Gerber is excessive, to say the least. And ironically, the most historically significant aspect of Gerber’s relationship with the company–his 1981 lawsuit to regain ownership of Howard–is only referred to a few times in passing. A reasonably detailed account would seem essential. …more
Panio Gianopoulos interviewed Howe for Salon Magazine:
In an interview with Salon, Howe discussed his landmark account of American mythmaking — along with his quasi-Shakespearean portrayal of Marvel as it moves from spirited upstart to ruthless corporate colossus. We also chatted about more lighthearted topics, such as Stan Lee’s prophetic powers, the noir-ish appeal of Daredevil and how the X-Men were conceived in the Apple store. …more