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Those who know Marvel mainly in its current incarnation as the Disney-owned pop-culture juggernaut — since 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel movies have grossed more than $2 billion worldwide — will find it hard to connect that statistic with the motley crew of artists and writers behind such iconic figures as Spider-Man and Iron Man that Sean Howe vividly captures in his new history of the company.
In tracing Marvel’s story from its origins as a pulp magazine publisher founded by Martin Goodman in 1933 through its alternating decades of boom and bust and onto its acquisition by Disney in 2009, Howe introduces a cast of characters that includes Captain America creator Joe Simon, the inventive and prickly Jack Kirby, the dour but brilliant Steve Ditko and cerebral Chris Claremont, who transformed the second-tier X-Men into a hit.
Later come the young turks of the ’80s (primarily Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee), whose 1992 defection to form Image Comics so they could have ownership of their work cost Marvel in both market share and creator compensation.
At the center of this freewheeling carnival was Stan Lee, whom Howe reveals as a combination of Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick and Mark Twain, who mixed the immigrant hunger for success with a uniquely American gift for tall-tale telling.
Marvel fans long have debated whether Lee took too much credit for creating Spider-Man and the Avengers at the expense of such artists as Ditko and Kirby — and Howe, who spoke to most of the surviving principals, emphasizes the collaborative nature of the work — but what Lee possessed alone was a Twain-like gift for hucksterism and self-promotion.
He might not have been solely responsible for any one character’s creation, but the selling of the Marvel Universe, the creation of an emotional bond with the audience, the connecting of the fictional and the real world — that’s all Lee.
If Stan Lee didn’t exist, Marvel Comics would have had to invent him.
Despite his creative savvy, Lee was a shoddy businessman. From early on, he had his eyes on Hollywood, but Marvel seemed to screw up nearly every early opportunity to expand beyond comics — choosing unreliable partners and making terrible deals. Not all of this is Lee’s fault — Goodman shares blame — but Marvel never would gain a real toehold in Hollywood until long after he relinquished control of the company. (A 1998 deal granted Lee 10 percent of Marvel’s movie and TV money for life.)
The book peters out at the end, with Howe’s bare account of Marvel’s movie success. But the end is less important. This isn’t the story of how the geeks inherited the Earth. This is the story of the geeks who created geekdom.
Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
by Sean Howe (HarperCollins, 496 pages, $25.99)
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