Book Review - Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

rating: 4

There has always been an interest in the history of the American comic book industry, which will continue to grow with the success of films based on them. In this book, Howe chooses to focus on the one that became the dominant force in the industry, Marvel Comics. The book briskly covers the origin of the company in the late 1930€™s when it was called Timely and the success of the first big character Captain America. After the Second World War, the super-heroes die down and with the horror comics scandals of the 1950€™s the industry moves into a quiet period. It€™s with the release of the Fantastic Four 1, that the Marvel story really starts. Howe makes the point of how the Marvel characters such as Spider-Man and X-Men and the universe they inhabited were different to anything else from that time in the 1960s. While DC Comics still remained the industry leader, Marvel was a financial and success, being seen as the more culturally relevant. But outside of the fictional universe, the long term difficulties begin as the company starts being owned a succession of different masters, not all of whom are that interested in comics. The question of the rights of creators under the traditional work-for-hire arrangement begins to emerge, with the success of the comic books and there merchandising. While Howe discusses the artistic successes of the company, he also is aware of how the comics became seen as the starting point for the spin-off into another medium. Stan Lee seems to spend years trying to get screen versions of the characters off the ground. As this starts becoming a viable concern in the 1970€™s, the marketing and viability for transition into other media becomes a greater concern. The flaws of the 1990€™s comics industry have been covered, but Howe does explain how they came about with the company being driven to maintain and exceed its market share at the expense of everything else. The 1980€™s also bring in the idea of the massive cross-overs began with Secret Wars and the idea being floated that everything has become too complicated and need to be rebooted before DC Comics did it. This is an interesting and fascinating story with a lot of fascinating side-glimpses into times that appear to have given the writers more creative freedom then most of them can enjoy now. Howe does make the effort to be even-handed in some creative conflicts, which is difficult to do, such as those between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. However, as the history of Marvel continues, it becomes looked on by different owners as more of an opportunity for films and wholesale franchising such as stores and restaurants, then actually getting good comics books out to the general public. The book ends with the company in the hands of Disney, who could support it in the way that Warner Brothers do DC Comics and the Avengers as a massive success. Yet, the actual comic books are still stuck in their own stores, appealing to a narrowing band of fans. Newer creators will be less enthusiastic about wanting to work for companies, if they think that they will have less artistic freedom and rights. Marvel has become the major force in films that its different owners thought that it would be, but Howe is raising the question of what the price was for this Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe is currently available from Harper Collins publishing in Hardback and Kindle editions. The Kindle edition was used for this review.

David is a life-long fan of films, novels, comic books and animation. He reviews books for and is responsible for two cats.