Review: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

Review: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

This book might as well be a diary of postwar capitalism and its toxic effects on art, culture, and collective dreams. Sean Howe’s book does what a lot of fan literature about comics history avoids: it looks at Marvel from the viewpoint primarily of writers and editors—and as a business. When you’re a kid reading the comics you don’t know or care about this stuff. But when you begin to peer into the goings-on behind the “creative” decisions you see clearly the cynical manipulation of markets and demographics that make Marvel comics not art but sheer brand hucksterism.

A second-rate publisher until the mid-60s, Marvel Comics’ entire reputation rests on a relatively small number of costumed heroes generated by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko over a period of about three years. That’s how long the originality at Marvel really lasted. Once Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and the X-Men emerged, the self-acclaimed House of Ideas generated very few interesting ideas afterwards. But while they were fresh they had a charm. And that charm had everything to do with how they were drawn (by, primarily, the great Jack Kirby) and little with how they were written.

If there was a moment when Marvel had any integrity it would be the period from 1962 to 1975. This coincides with not only the “Marvel Age” and its introduction of key characters but also the follow-up, when a series of comic fans who’d grown up with the medium sought to expand its boundaries in illustrator-style art à la Neal Adams and in pretentious prose that struggled to make these pubescent fantasies relevant to the social turmoil of the 1960s and early 70s. That being said, this moment was relatively short lived. Almost immediately, Stan Lee ran out of things to say. Like any author, his store of ideas tended to revolve around a few basic concepts—like the Ramones’ power chords—that could be reiterated ad infinitum, as long as someone was buying. Everyone who followed simply played out variations of the original formulas. The revolution gave way to hack work.

You don’t want to romanticize the writing. Stan Lee’s overwrought prose sounds as stilted as a Victorian melodrama when it’s not mimicking a carnival barker. It’s what camp originally made fun of—sophomoric seriousness masquerading as profundity. But like good junk food, it’s fun in small doses. Along comes the Bronze Age with writers like Steve Gerber and Chris Claremont—whose writing is worlds away from Stan Lee’s—like an 18 year old is worlds away from a 10 year old. The characters and plotlines still feel half-baked–potentially good ideas that get lost somewhere between the bathos and the deadline. Let’s be clear—these are superhero comic books, not novels, not even graphic novels. Like formula fiction, like the pulps from which they sprung, comic books have forever mired themselves in archetypes and stereotypes at the expense of real life. Suffering in a comic never means anything. If Jean Grey of the X-Men dies, assume she will be reborn. We are always being asked to suspend our disbelief in the service of market share. And to be fair, it is not simply the avarice of corporations but the gullibility of fanboys who buy into every synergistic ploy out of the home office.

Even as a little kid I knew Marvel comics in Editor Jim Shooter’s era (1978-1986) were by and large hackwork. Most of the great artists had departed for greener pastures by then. Never a big fan of superheroes to begin with (I liked the sci-fi, war, and horror comics) I could smell a rat when Secret Wars came out. The writing and art were pedestrian and even to my adolescent mind crassly commercial. So it’s no big surprise that Shooter concocted the whole thing with Mattel Toys to move merchandise by using “Secret” and “Wars”—two words the pollsters decided were irresistible to kids—except me, apparently.

From the highpoint of Marvel in the 70s (think Barry Windsor-Smith on Conan, Mike Ploog on Werewolf By Night, Frank Brunner on Dr. Strange, Jim Starlin on Warlock), the company soon bankrupted itself by denying the core component of any great work of art—the artist! Comics became obsessively focused on characters and branding—developing licensing for TV and toy companies, and always, always looking for a lucrative movie deal. Which brings us to the current phase of comics. Marvel has simply run out of anything remotely interesting or relevant to say. Like an old veteran, getting misty-eyed over campaigns from half a century ago, Marvel revisits the 60s and 70s with a repetition compulsion borne of rank greed. Why pay for new ideas when you can simply repackage the old ones? And who would want to work for such a place—where your ideas are not your own but owned by people who don’t care about linework—unless it’s the bottom line? As it turns out there are hordes of fanboys flocking to the conventions–people whose imaginations have long been held captive by the brand dominance of Marvel and DC, a now billion dollar industry.

So we have to endure one lame adaptation of a fifty year old story after another. Howe’s chronicle of the vicissitudes of corporate ownership of a once compelling genre reads like a long day’s journey into night. Just when you think they can’t get more crass and commercial than Secret Wars, when they can’t show less respect for their audience, along comes the 90s and the atrocious art of McFarlane, Liefeld, et al. The cynical manipulation of the collectors market makes me glad I was checked out of mainstream comics by then. That they went bankrupt and were only saved by the success of the Spiderman movie speaks worlds about the state of comic books.

Indeed, Marvel is no longer a comic company. It has become the standard phenomenon of 21st century capitalism—a brand-beast—a corporation that sells nothing more than a lifestyle—a feeling that we could perhaps call childhood. As such, Marvel needs to be resisted, especially because it, like Star Wars, is now owned by Disney. The collective dreams of our youth have been hijacked by corporations that play on our emotional attachments to hackneyed characters in order to tax us for our nostalgia. In the end, Howe’s book shows us what happens to art when it becomes involved with this level of commerce—it ceases to be art as such and merely an art-like commodity—like butter-flavor compared to real butter. It creates a world that is relentlessly solipsistic—a pay-per-minute trance purveyed by hucksters who will stop at nothing to keep you in the dream—and keep you spending. Like all consumerism, it’s a smoke-and-mirrors game. We long for magic and instead just get the tease of it. Comics then have come full circle from Stan Lee’s shameless hucksterism. Marvel has become a sideshow tent covering an ersatz freak in a cage. That we want to climb into that cage, knowing it’s a fake, is a tribute to not only our ability to be conned but also our terminal need to check out of a future of diminishing marginal utility. This is what it feels like to be a true believer.

Howe’s book, which seems to have been written with a genuine affection for the company, inadvertently provides a testimonial to why all companies like this destroy the very thing they create. Capitalism and art just don’t seem to mix—at least not on this scale. The real story in comics is not Marvel’s dismal descent into franchising and licensing but rather in the renaissance of sequential artists who have transcended the power fantasies that drew them to comics in the first place. Thanks to artists like Joe Sacco, Harvey Pekar, Alison Bechdel, and others, comics as an art form has come into its own. Graphic novels proliferate on bestseller lists and bookstores, and deal with a plethora of relevant, real, and compelling themes, stories, and characters that reveal how cheap Marvel’s claims to artistry truly are. Comics have a bright future—not in corporate owned megaliths and licensed characters—but in the real stories of artists who understand the purpose of art—to make the world a little less stupid, a little more beautiful than when you found it, and to make in some small stumbling way, a little sense out of who we all are. Our collective dreams can never be owned, they can only be shared.

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