Thursday, January 23, 2014

Marvel Comics - The Untold Story

I've wanted to read Marvel Comics - The Untold Story since its release, but couldn't decide if I would enjoy it enough to justify the price (or its 500+ pages). Although comics in general and Marvel Comics in particular interests me a lot, I am not a big fan of non-fiction books like this. I have yet to finish Bob Dylan's Chronicles, and he's one of my favorite artists! But I received the book as a Christmas present, and so I started reading.

About three weeks later, I had finished, which is very unusual for a book like this and speaks volumes about how much I enjoyed it. For any fan of Marvel Comics, this is a must-read. It feels really good to finally find out what was behind some of the stories you grew up loving. Like for instance, that Secret Wars was so called because a market research conducted by a toy company determined that the two words together got kids really excited. It was also really nice to find out that Federico Fellini was a big fan of Marvel Comics, and wanted to meet Stan Lee, while Alain Resnais wanted to work with The Man (and did!).

Sean Howe does a great job of engaging the reader. It really feels as if Marvel Comics is one big character, and we're reading about its development from promising child to questionable adult, with all its hits and misses in between. Writers, artists, editors, secretaries, pop in and out as they serve the story, but we always stick with Marvel, the main character. The only two exceptions would be Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The writer follows their steps as well, even after Kirby leaves Marvel. Which is very fitting, as few would dispute that the two were, and will perhaps forever be, the heart and soul of that Marvel represents.

Much has been said about how this book reveals the "dirty secrets" of famous creators, but I for one didn't see anything alarming in that sense. We do find out about certain drug habits and sexual escapades, and how those things influenced the creation of certain stories, but the book doesn't focus on that, and the times it does mention such incidents, they make the reader feel closer to those creators.

The people who do come off as villains, and rightly so in my opinion, are the people behind the corporate side of Marvel, a side that has been more and more prevalent since the mid-80's. The story of Marvel Comics can be seen as the centuries-old clash between art and commerce. There's a real argument to be made that, when corporate interference was kept at a minimum, Marvel produced most of its best work, not rarely on lower-selling titles that were seen as fair game for experimenting with new form and content. This is a big part of what Marvel and its creations as relevant as they are today.

As its market value increased, however, and different investors bought the company, the artistic liberties were drastically curbed. It starts becoming more and more about the money, and less about the comics. The stories suffer greatly for it, and the market is saturated with bland characters and special covers. As we all know, this leads to a lot of trouble in the mid-90's.

In fact, money is such an issue in Marvel Comics' history that the book ends up suffering from the same thing: its last 50 pages or so are considerably less interesting than the ones that precede it, as they focus a lot on stock value, investors, and such. It's definitely important to understand the company in that period, but it affects the enjoyment of the book, much in the same way it affected the enjoyment of the comics back then.

My only problem with the book is the way it deals with more recent times, or rather, the way it doesn't. Very little is said about present-day Marvel, almost as if the author is leaving them off the hook, while in my opinion Marvel Comics nowadays is more guilty of prioritizing money over quality than ever. Which is not to say that there aren't good stories still being produced, but there's also an increasing concern with making the comics more like the movies they inspired, everything else be damned.

That partial omission is understandable, however. The author probably couldn't alienate people who were his main sources for the book, after all, and it's always easier to assess situations afterwards. I'm sure one day I'll be reading a book dealing with the Disney/Quesada era of Marvel Comics. Until then, Untold Story is the ultimate book on the publisher.

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