Interlude 2: The hidden story of Marvel comics.

22 Jan

(I recently read Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It’s a very fine history of the comic company, and also a disturbing saga of betrayals, reversals, backstabbing, and the clash of egos wrestling for creative control, all against the backdrop of big and bigger money swooping in to get control of the vast repertoire of characters. What follows is my rambling response, in 28 unbelievable bullet points.)

• Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is one of the great books on comics. The others are The Ten-Cent Plague, Super-GodsThe Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and Understanding Comics.

• Howe’s book is a sobering—and often repugnant—read. He keeps his opinions sewed up tight. His disdain for Stan Lee seeps through.

• Marvel began as a small part of a large magazine empire. Stan Lee started out as an intern. He hid his ambition from the handful of the original oldtimers; he wanted to rule the world. In some sense, he succeeded.

• Stan Lee, to most people outside of comics, is Marvel. Fans know better. Half-huckster, half-public relations patchwork humanoid in the vein of a celebrity-obsessed Frankenstein’s monster, Lee was one of the original writers in comics. He created the myth of the Marvel bullpen, the merry group of prankster artists pushing the consciousness of American youth. He was, in a word, a liar. Read his later work, when he wasn’t paired with a strong artist, to see how weak his writing could be.

• Lee is an easy target. His scripts haven’t aged well; he sided with the corporate suits over his friends time after time; he turned himself into a brand at the expense of his soul; and his claims to being the creator of all the major Marvel characters have turned out to be a goddamn lie.

• The key to understanding how Lee got away with his chicanery is the Marvel method of comics he invented. The artist would plot the story out (with or without Lee), then pencil in the pages with word balloons and boxes for exposition. Lee would write the scripts based on the existing pages, then they would be inked and colored and printed and shipped. In many cases, the worst part of those 1960s Marvel titles is Lee’s words. He loved puns, cornball jokes. He often misunderstood the power of the characters he was writing. And he benefitted from two oddball geniuses fated to draw for him: Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

• Jack Kirby was ripped off, mistreated, undervalued, and remains removed from the very characters that have, in a sense, conquered the second half of the twentieth century. The entire structure of the Marvel universe—read Earth X number 0 to see it laid out, it’s fascinating—was created by Jack Kirby. While Stan Lee was paid $500,000 a year to do nothing in his dotage, Kirby was left near destitute and furious at his mistreatment. This was wrong. Kirby is comics John Ford and Orson Welles and Michael Curtiz combined.

One of Jack Kirby's many, many evil gods.

One of Jack Kirby’s many, many evil gods.

Steve Ditko is a stranger case. He walked away from Spiderman, the most popular comic in the world, giving no reason for it. He spiraled into the circular madness of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, wrote and drew a few comics here and there, but has been quiet and withdrawn ever since. He is the Thomas Pynchon of comics.

• Kirby and Ditko weren’t great writers, but they had mountains of ideas. Together, they built most of the Marvel we know today. Kirby provided the weird cosmic madness of the Fantastic Four. Ditko provided the Peter Parker portions in Spiderman, insisting that the comic would only work if it spent equal time with both halves of his psyche, and that Spiderman’s success would hurt Peter Parker, and vice versa. He was a goddamn genius.

• In Mutants and Mystics, author Jeffrey Kripal makes the argument that Kirby was obsessed with Gnostic and occult ideas. And that the Marvel Universe is built around the Gnostic principles of evil, alien gods and archons and so on. This is exactly right.

• When you first look at Kirby, his art strikes you as blocky and rushed. It takes years to see the immense creative power—it’s like being dunked into a blue ocean of pure imagination—of his work. His best work is The New Gods.

• John Buscema has always been underrated as an artist. Ditto for Wally Wood, John Romita, and Paul Ryan.

• Howe doesn’t mention Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run on Captain America. He achieved greatness. Ditto for Roger Stern on The Avengers. Both provided rich characters and epic storylines that effortlessly moved one to the other. These were superhero comics done right.

• Gruenwald, Stern, Archie Goodwin—one of the pure souls in the shady business of comics, his decency radiates through the pages—Bob Layton and Carl Potts all emerge as minor heroes in the Marvel saga. They had talent, vision and basic decency. Jim Shooter, Roy Thomas, and Jim Salicrup all come off as difficult, arrogant and untrustworthy.

• The great, underutilized character in Marvel comics is the Silver Surfer. The most interesting hero in the Marvel Universe is the Vision. The most fascinating villain in the Marvel universe is Doctor Doom. The problem with all three is that they are so very easy to get wrong. I remain convinced that the Black Panther is one of the great black characters in American pop culture. Power Man[2], on the other hand, was a goddamn disgrace.

Dreadstar remains one of the great, underrated comics. Jim Starlin[1] rules.

• Marvel succumbed to the blockbuster mentality that shook the movie world in the 1980s and continues to reverberate through book publishing right now. It started with Secret Wars. Marvel began overlapping their stories between titles, often pointlessly. The result was an escalation that damaged the individual mythologies of the characters and forced readers to buy titles they didn’t want. The best writers held these larger stories at bay to focus on their little corner of the world, but many didn’t.

• This is when I started collecting. (My favorite villain was The Lizard.)

• The low point for Marvel was the specialized collector’s covers in the mid-1990s. Speculators entered the comics market. Prices went up. Fans were bewildered. The value of individual comics ceased to be about the characters; the value of individual comics was judged in terms of dollars. This was, and is, obscene. (Blame New Mutants # 87.) Comics used to be mini-novels, modes of expression, often hemmed in by a culture and format that simultaneously liberated some writers—like the old Hayes’ Code—while bedeviling others. But with the rise of the 90s artists, comics became a product, like candy, foisted on an ever-aging fanbase.

• Almost everyone fell into the speculator’s trap; all of my comic book collector friends bought multiple issues of the ever-increasing issue number ones.

• The nineties sucked, comic-wise. The reason is simple: Rob Liefield.

I'm speechless; to this day I can't understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

I’m speechless; to this day I can’t understand how Liefield got rich off this crap.

• Liefield had no talent for writing or drawing, but somehow snookered the industry into giving him the keys to the kingdom. I think he made a Faustian deal with the devil. What else explains his career? (Visit here for the best denunciation of Liefield I’ve ever read.)

• I left Marvel in 1995—which means I left comics; I’ll cover DC later—over my distaste over the myriad X-titles, and the ever-expanding list of lame mutant characters, as well as the drop in storytelling quality and the dissipating weirdness that made comics matter. I washed my hands of the entire medium.

• I wasn’t gone long. Six months later I returned. Vertigo—especially The Sandman and The Invisibles—brought me back[3]. Vertigo was a dark fantasy line of comics for adults. It was modeled on Marvel’s ill-fated Epic Comics.

• The same problems that bedevil Marvel now—too many titles, too many restarts, too many retreads of the same stories, too few new characters, too many crossover events, too much reliance on a byzantine mythology built by other people, many of them dead—was there at the beginning.

• Marvel’s business strategy—and this is a book on business—was to flood the market with product, and crowd competitor’s off the newsstands. Marvel does this same thing today. They don’t learn anything from the history of their own company, pushing themselves through boom/bust cycles that could be avoided if they focused on quality writing and drawing. Having said that, the art at Marvel right now is superb.

• If, as Kundera says, all that we have is the present moment that we cannot truly experience, comics are all present. Put another way, comics can’t escape the past and they can’t escape the future. They are fixed in the present. The way forward seems to be to reset the characters at a zero point, forever wedged between possibilities in both directions.

• Marvel should salvage their universe by copying DC’s 52, illuminating the dark corners of the universe through the minor characters, such as a rogue doombot; Dugan; Mockingbird; the Zodiac supervillains; some LMDs; Scourge[4]; and Ben Urich navigating it all with his sights on a major story. If anyone from Marvel reads this, let’s do this thing.


[1] His Warlock is my vote for the weirdest superhero comic ever written.

[2] Marvel has retrofitted him with more strength, no jive talk, no more mercenary nonsense. He now goes by Luke Cage.

[3] And Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing remains one of the strangest, most thrilling comics ever written. That said, it went on too damn long.

[4] I’ve written a Scourge treatment. The first issue is titled, I am a Scourge, like my father before me.

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One Response to “Interlude 2: The hidden story of Marvel comics.”

  1. Sean Kilpatrick January 22, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    So what do you (fear/look forward to/have the teeniest smidge of Pandora’s hope for) now that Marvel is a Disney property (along with Pixar, the Muppets, Star Wars!!!)

    If there is one thing the Mouse can do (as shown by the last 20 years at least,) it’s squeeze out the goodness of almost every IP they own (barring John Carter, for whatever reason.)

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