Sunday, March 17, 2013

WGTB Reviews Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Hello, friends. First off, my sincere apologies for not writing in the last little while -- it has been a very busy winter for me. But while taking a brief sabbatical from WGTB, I did manage to read a book that was released in the latter half of 2012 called Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by journalist and former editor of Entertainment Weekly, Sean Howe.  

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe, Harper, 2012, 485 pp, $26.99
Beginning with Timely Comics, the first incarnation of the company, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story takes its reader on the journey of Marvel from its conception to its current incarnation as one of the jewels in the crown of the Disney empire. The book itself is divided into five parts, each with their own manageable chapters. These parts, logically divided, cover the company’s origins; its renaissance during the 60s rebirth of the superhero genre; the mostly dreary and sometimes incomprehensible 70s; the sometimes acrimonious but always interesting period of Jim Shooter as Editor-in-Chief; the boom and bust period of the 90s and finally, the modern period of corporate restructuring and Marvel’s apotheosis in the cinematic world.   

The book itself is compulsively readable and does not seem the nearly five hundred pages it is. It is meticulously well researched and especially good at detailing the complex and often vitriolic drama that has dominated much of Marvel’s history. Of course, most of us know of the intellectual property disputes that still dominate Jack Kirby’s estate, but Untold also does a great job at explaining the many similar conflicts that occurred in the 70s and 80s that are much less well known. Further to that, it takes careful attention to document the fascinating history of the Editor-in-chief tenure of Jim Shooter. I knew much less about this but was absolutely enthralled while reading about it. 

But for me, by far the most interesting section of the book was Howe’s examination into the boom and bust period of the 90s when, after selling millions of comic books, Marvel nearly collapsed upon itself in a fury of corporate overreaching and greed. Readers of this blog will note that this has long been of particular interest to this blogger, but even with that background, I was impressed by Howe's research and the considerable depth of his explanations. Naturally, with Marvel's top books now selling a fraction of what they did in the early 90s, there’s an instinct to think that a comic book bubble will never happen again and therefore a warning is not necessary. But exposés of any boom and bust are always important and always serve as a warning to any industry or business -- especially those were demand is rooted in the ebb and flow of what is popular. 

In a couple places the book it could use more dates or year descriptions to assist the reader who is not as well versed in 70s or 80s comic book lore. Likewise, with so many names, it was helpful to have a tablet computer close just to periodically check when another unknown artist, writer or inker’s name surfaces. But these small matters aside, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a great work of comics journalism and fascinating survey of an area of pop culture and creative genius that has left an indelible print on the modern world. It is not to be missed. 4.5/5 STARS.