Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

During my post-easter downtime, I’ve been reading Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. This history looks, not at Marvel’s stories and characters, but the personalities and corporate politics behind them. The shameful treatment of Kirby and Ditko is a significant part of this narrative, but what fascinated me was how the corporate politics drove the stories I remember from childhood.

I first got into the comics with Secret Wars II – a massive cross-over story drawing in most of the Marvel Universe. Many of the issues started with recaps, explaining, say, why Mr Fantastic’s arm was broken, or why Tony Stark was a drunk. It was a strange and confusing introduction to the continuity of the US comic books. The original Secret Wars series had emerged from a toy-line, which needed some comic books to promote it. The resulting rise in sales was irresistible, so the sequel followed, drawing in even more books.

Growing up, I was in love with the melodrama and florid prose of comic books. Take, for example, the captions from Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk: “The world seems to stand still, trembling on the brink of infinity as his ear-splitting scream fills the air”. I loved the authorial intrusions and captions – the more naturalistic style popularised by Alan Moore’s Watchmen, among others is more mature, but misses something of the energy I loved.

When I was 10 years old, I didn’t think much about the junk bonds and corporate raiders that drove the Marvel universe. During the over-heated speculator boom of the 90s, this became more obvious, with reboots, collector’s #1 issues, special covers and character deaths all distorting the storytelling. Marketing consultants led the plots, trying to ensure the stock-holders received the returns they demanded. The special issues with expensive covers would spike the sales for a month, and then they would fall lower than before. Marvel actively turned away from the children’s market in favour of speculators. By the time Howe’s book was published, the average reader was in their 30s.

Despite its shoddy history, the Marvel universe is an amazing artefact. As the book describes it, “Over the course of a half century, Marvel’s epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.”

Storylines started to refer to each other early on, beginning with Marvel Mystery Comics #7, where Namor is warned that the Human Torch is after him. The stories seemed more real through being set in New York City rather than, as in DC, fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham. In addition, Marvel’s characters seemed more textured than the archetypal DC heroes. The human flaws made them seem legendary than the ‘distinguished competition’s’ characters.

The continuity of both DC and Marvel has become incredibly complex, with alternate realities and timelines interacting, along with shock ‘retro-active continuities’ revealing new interpretations of well-known events. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken further copies of the characters, tweaking the legends for a new audience (how many times has Spider-man’s original appeared on the cinema screen now?).

But there’s something magical about the legends that remain – the Hulk’s rage, the arrogance of arm’s dealer Tony Stark, Spider-man’s struggle for self-discovery. And the stories continue: “Multiple manifestations of 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”.