Origin Myth

The Innate Conservatism of Comics: ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’ by Sean Howe

Stan Lee headed not so much a fantastical world of superheroes but a conservative factory of broken dreams that sometimes exploited its artists to churn out endlessly cyclical narratives meant to prevent change and protect trademarks, as Sean Howe’s new history shows. By Tim Marchman.

Matt Carr / Getty Images

There is nothing more telling in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe’s fine new history, than the moment when Stan Lee lays out exactly what it is the company is supposed to do.

Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, hype man, one-time would-be collaborator with French New Wave film director Alain Resnais, and survivor of Marvel and proto-Marvel regimes dating back to before World War II, told his staff that he only wanted the “illusion” of change.

You know that Magneto, mutant supremacist enemy of the X-Men, may at a given moment be soliloquizing to his minions, posing as a prisoner in an iron mask with a star for a brain, nominally dead, or leading the X-Men, but in the end he will always return to his wicked schemes to enslave humanity. The Fantastic Four will always return to domesticity and the pleasures of inter-dimensional exploration. Spider-Man will always be just on the verge of becoming a man. They all live in pure stasis, never growing old or really dying, in a place where nothing ever happens.

You know this, just as you know that on some level this is why Marvel, whose much- and justly-loved characters are worth billions of dollars when placed on movie screens or splayed across T-shirts, pint glasses, bed sheets, toothbrushes, posters and whatever else they’ll fit on, counts it as a huge success when they can get even 100,000 people to read a given issue of one of their comic books. What you may not know, and what Howe makes clear, is how much this is a reflection of what has always gone on in the Marvel offices, where the faces, names and times change, but the story always remains the same. Howe, a widely published critic with a real knack, rare for his field, for reporting, gets farther inside the company than anyone else has, and the 70 years’ worth of score-settling, that the book is an essential read for anyone who loves comics, but civilians with a taste for gossip will enjoy it too.

In 1961, when Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby published the first issue of The Fantastic Four, starting a revolution in cartooning, Lee could already draw on a deep well of talent developed over the more than 20 years he’d spent doing hackwork, often in the line of war and romance comics, for overbearing publisher Martin Goodman’s line. Over the next few years, Lee, Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema and others created the world still recognizable, down to its particulars, on the pages of any Marvel comic, one of neurotic heroes debating their own significance as archetypes in between bouts of battling with monstrous yet oddly honorable villains. Products of science gone awry and especially suited to Cold War anxieties—the likes of Iron Man, the Hulk and Mr. Fantastic were largely defined by their ambiguous relationships to the military-industrial complex—these heroes were equal parts high myth and low pop sensibility, the first superheroes to speak to anything beyond the vague power fantasies of small children.

To a surprising extent, these comics spoke to the personal neuroses of the deeply strange men who drew them. Kirby, a veteran of Omaha Beach and passionate devotee of any number of strange theories about space men having gifted ancient humans with advanced technology, created characters whose worlds constituted bizarre admixtures of the utterly recognizable and the fantastic, culminating in Galactus, a vision of the God of the Old Testament as a skyscraper-sized robotic being whose hunger can only be sated by eating entire planets. Ditko, Spider-Man’s original artist, was a doctrinaire Objectivist who to this day prints up small runs of comics expressing his anguish at living in a world where most people fail to realize that life is a contest between morally absolute positions. That immensely profitable Hollywood franchises are, 50 years later, based on their idiosyncratic fixations should tell us something about the relationship of the universal to the particular, and about the strange corners in which minor genius is to be found.

As soon as these creations began to gain some purchase in the outside world, though, Lee, who collaborators said did little outside of light concept work and scripting the corny dialogue that was always the worst element of even great Marvel comics, was off. He spoke at college campuses, worked Hollywood deals, and intimated to any reporter who would listen that he was the auteur behind Marvel, all while talking at any opportunity about how lousy his field was and how much he wanted to get out of it. “The comic-book market,” he said, “is the worst market that there is on the face of the earth for creative talent.”

This was, and in many ways is, true, and it drove off the people who made Marvel popular in the first place. Steve Ditko, the eccentric artist behind Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, left after four years because he had no real control over, or ownership of, his work. Around the same time the Promethean Kirby decided to simply stop creating new heroes for Marvel for similar reasons, and before long he, too, was gone. Lee, forever in pursuit of more glamorous work—at one point he even considered becoming a Rod McKuen-style poet—maintained a presence atop the masthead, but farmed off most of the work to carefully groomed clones and young imports from rival DC Comics, who could be relied on never to change anything too much.

In all the years since, the dynamic has never changed. At the top is one of a series of overbearing corporate overlords who, rightly from a financial perspective, views the actual line of comics as an atavism, a distraction from the important business of merchandising and licensing. (One, Ike Perlmutter, is shown taking computers away from employees because they’d dared to play fantasy football.) At the bottom are the harried young artists like John Byrne or Jim Lee, trying to make their names so they can leave for a place where they can own and control their own labor, or at least get more money, or at least avoid the fate of Kirby and Ditko, consigned to obscurity and cut off from the endless streams of capital generated by their own imaginings. Slightly above them are writer-editors who seem to spend most of their time scheming against one another and trying to get work for their cronies. In the middle are top editors, sometimes shockingly young—Gerry Conway was 23 when he got the job—who are charged with interpreting the random decisions of whoever happens to own the place, and creating branding opportunities. They end up with the worst of it. One, Jim Shooter, was given to writing stories with “a recurring motif of persecuted deities;” his staff burned him in effigy and sent his bosses the videotape.

Fashions change, and with them particulars. In the 1970s, a neglected period of Marvel history that Howe clearly loves, the writers had something of the druggy New Hollywood spirit. So little corporate attention was being paid to what they were doing that Steve Gerber was able to introduce characters like “a surgeon whose harvesting gorilla organs led some angry gorillas to transplant his head onto a simian body,” while Jim Starlin wrote and drew cosmic comics that played out as psychedelic trips. In the 1990s, artists like Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd MacFarlane portrayed themselves as corporate entities, eventually reaching the point where they didn’t need to write or draw anything at all. At various times the company has been owned by cigar chomping businessmen out of Bellow, a corporate raider who had inspired Gordon Gekko, and the Walt Disney Company. At one point toys and animation were where the company made its real money; these days it’s film. As often as names and details may change, though, the essentials of the story never do.

Howe never really answers the question of whether an endlessly cyclical narrative meant to protect and promote a set of trademarks could be produced by anything other than a system premised on exploiting talent and preventing change—could a more democratic, egalitarian company be up to the challenge? But he doesn’t need to. Howe’s book is filled with fantastically detailed portraits of the eccentrics who are geniuses in a field even the best of them seem on some level to despise, and he shows again and again that the kind of people attracted to this work are generally drawn to the illusion at its heart—that time can be arrested. The saddest moments come in little asides, when turfed out or washed up artists realize that time has, in fact, moved on. “Savage Dragon/Destroyer Duck was met with audience indifference and low presales,” Howe writes. “Gerber, heartbroken, offered to fax the 20-page plot to retailers, but when the comic finally shipped, months later, nobody noticed.”

For all this, though, every so often there have been moments when artists determined to make their names have managed to do new things, and at their best—when Kirby dreamed up a new universe in the 1960s, when Chris Claremont and John Byrne took the X-Men to the reaches of space in the 1970s, when Frank Miller put Daredevil into Martin Scorsese’s New York in the 1980s—they made a whole mythology so wonderful and appealing that it can survive anything. Those comic books, and a lot of less famous ones that Howe recounts in the gleeful way only someone who truly loved them could, and the best of the vivid movies based on them, stand as proof that for all its flaws, the system Marvel built was capable of producing things that were durable and lasting and meaningful to millions of people.

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“Captain America and Spider-Man and the X-Men float in elastic realities, passed from one temporary custodian to the next, and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end,” Howe writes at the end of his book. You could take it as a condemnation, or a celebration. It’s probably best taken as both.