Still Timely: Book Review of Marvel Comics, The Untold Story

Marvel Comics the Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a sprawling account of Marvel Entertainment, tracing the company’s rise from the bottoms of newsstands to the tops of movie charts. Published in 2012, the same year that Marvel’s ventures outside of comics had materialized into big cash with the release of The Avengers, the book emerged at a time when Marvel was very successfully rewriting its own story. Reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story in 2015, in the wake of the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the billion dollar cash cow of the company’s growing herd, the herd looks less like a meek procession and more like a destructive stampede.

Sean Howe starts the story before Marvel even existed. In 1939 a company named Timely Comics was founded by a businessman named Martin Goodman, who was looking to add pulp comics to his extensive list of publications. Through Goodman’s story Howe builds the groundwork for  the “untold story” that he develops throughout the book. A child of poor immigrants, Goodman was very money-conscious, and although he didn’t enter publishing because he thought there was money to be made, he certainly set about making money by any means. Titles were created and discarded at an amazing rate, all at Goodman’s discretion. If he looked at a newsstand and saw that a genre or character was newly popular, he would immediately demand that it be duplicated by his staff. And if he saw that a genre or title was floundering, he’d immediately let it drown.  He kept his hand on the pulse of reader interest and reacted to every palpitation.

Of course, publishing has always been a reactive and dynamic industry, especially in the age of pulps, but through Goodman Howe explores how this reactivity was embedded within comics themselves. Comics expanded and contracted not only in terms of the number of publications but also in terms of the number of pages, the number of artists, the number of writers. Goodman was constantly firing and hiring staff, canceling distribution contracts and signing new ones; everything was in flux.

Characters were subject to the same instability, shuffling between derivative titles like Tales to Astonish, Marvel Mystery Comics, Marvel Tales, Journey into Mystery, and Strange Tales, depending on current sales figures. And when superheroes became less popular after the second World War, they stopped shuffling altogether: the aptly named Timely moved on to romances, westerns, and horror stories.

By the time Timely was rebranded as Atlas Comics in 1951, this frequent instability was institutionalized, but that’s not the end of the story. Atlas, and later Marvel (Atlas became Marvel in 1961) didn’t just become what it is and remain that way for 50 years. As Howe tracks Marvel’s evolution, he continues to trace the connections between comics’ conditions of creation and publication. This results in some alarming tidbits, like how She-Hulk was created in the 70s solely so Marvel wouldn’t lose the rights to a female Hulk character if one was first created by the writers of the The Incredible Hulk tv show, or how the “Secret Wars” storyline was developed solely because Mattel wanted a form of security if it launched a Marvel toy line, or how Stan Lee once laid off the entire Atlas staff because Goodman agreed to a bottom-line boosting distribution deal. These kinds of brazenly opportunistic moments aren’t worth summarizing here (because they are endless), but they do show that at multiple moments in Marvel’s history, the company had the opportunity to prioritize creators and artists, yet persistently chose to prioritize money. With this understanding of Marvel’s past, we can glean a better picture of its future.

Marvel Studios is slated to release 8 movies over the next 4 years (and those are just the ones being released by Marvel itself, not including the titles that are licensed to Marvel like Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and X-Men) and many people are excited. At the announcement of Marvel’s “Phase 3,” attendees cheered as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige revealed the movies’ release dates, along with their stylized titles; the fans were so excited for these movies that they didn’t even need to know the names of directors and actors, or source material.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of excitement, but there is something misleading about Marvel’s cultivation of that excitement. Namely, even at its new scale, as producer of movies and television shows and videos games, rather than just comics, the company is still chasing trends, shuffling around characters and creators like inventory. Edgar Wright, Terrence Howard, Kenneth Branagh, Patty Jenkins, Edward Norton, Joe Cornish, and Drew Godard are just a few of the people who have been flung out of Marvel Studio’s revolving door. And although they all parted ways with the studio for various reasons, there’s a connection between these frequent departures and Kevin Feige’s slideshow with nothing but titles and release dates: You don’t need a need a cast and crew attached to your works when you’re simply hiring people to tend to them rather than develop them, to feed the herd rather than lead it.

Sean Howe has dutifully given us the untold story of Marvel Comics, an odd tale of creators and content being pummeled by their publisher’s exacting demands and sometimes (but not often) thriving in spite of it. Ultimately, the book is not an indictment of Marvel, but it does do the important work of reckoning with the company’s history in an unflattering way. Marvel may have changed mediums, but that doesn’t mean it is suddenly dedicated to creators and creativity and audiences.

Marvel can try to retcon this fact, but retcons have never been a top-down process. Retcons only work when readers accept changes rather than refuse or question them. And though this doesn’t mean that readers should be resistant to all changes, it does mean that they should be mindful of the costs of those changes. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story encourages us to be mindful and it gives us decades of reasons why we should be. If you are a fan of comics and their derivatives, Marvel’s or otherwise, this is a story worth hearing.

Hooked on Comics: Cape Comics Only Make Sense If You Read More Cape Comics

Uncanny X-Force 10 Dark Angel

For the past 18 months, I’ve been navigating through the ever-extending universe of X-Men. As I’ve gotten deeper into the X-Men world I’ve noticed that I’ve been making fewer and fewer research visits to Wikipedia and other comics to understand plots and characters. As an individual reader, this is a pretty pleasant development because the stories are finally starting to flow due to be me being knowledgeable about the X-Men. But as someone who likes to share things, it’s incredibly frustrating because I’m unable to talk about the comics with anyone other than people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books, which is no one that I know.

The normal course of action would be to seek out people who have also read 30 years worth of comic books and I can kind of dig that. But honestly, that seems like the wrong approach because the problem isn’t that not enough people read comic books. The problem is that not enough comic books are made to be readable by anyone other than people who regularly read comic books.

I know that this isn’t a new observation. Feminists have been making it for years, frequently giving up on cape comics and opting for independently published graphic stories, or writing and drawing their own (which they’ve actually been doing since comics existed). But I’m bringing it up now because it’s intriguing how transparent the effort has been to just give up on accessibility.

For instance, I just finished Uncanny X-Force, a series about a mercenary wing of the X-Men that tries to reconcile killing people with the X-Men’s philosophy of preserving life. In “The Dark Angel Saga” story arc, X-Force attempts to save its member Angel from succumbing to his evil persona Archangel. Archangel exists because the X-Men villain Apocalypse once kidnapped Angel and brainwashed him into becoming his minion. To save Angel, X-Force recruits Dark Beast, a minion of Apocalypse and doppelganger of the X-Man, Beast, from the Age of Apocalypse parallel universe where Apocalypse has conquered the world. Dark Beast takes them to this parallel universe and then the real story begins in earnest, going on to span 8 more comics.

Since this story arc starts with Uncanny X-Force issue #11, it makes sense for the authors to assume the reader has knowledge of issues #1-10. But to assume knowledge of comics from over a decade ago is quite a stretch. Seriously, the mere scaffolding for the story, its basics, requires knowledge of the X-Men universe that extends to storylines from the 80’s and 90’s. For these comics, suspending one’s disbelief is secondary, possible only after expending one’s time and money. Even as someone who has paid these costs, I don’t like this.

And it’s not because I think there are inherent problems with learning curves or opacity or niche audiences. Barring governments, healthcare, the internet and parks, I don’t think that everything needs to be easy and accessible and widely available to everyone. I think there’s real value in rarity and mystery and exclusiveness, depending on the circumstances. I’m struck by these X-Men comics because the opacity never goes away. Despite different artists, writers, stories and characters, the learning curve never really smooths out.

In other words, I fibbed earlier. The comics actually aren’t flowing that much better from when I first started; I’ve just learned to navigate the gaps. There are always more comics to be read, more Wikipedia pages to scour. Reading these comics is like having a daily commute over a street that’s riddled with potholes: the gaps eventually just become a part of the street.

I once celebrated the fact that comics had slowly phased out advertisements because I always used to see those ads as “interrupting” the stories. I now realize that the stories themselves have become advertisements and that the product being sold isn’t the comics themselves, but access to them. To put it differently, cape comics sell literacy of cape comics. Inaccessibility is built into this model. This doesn’t mean that all cape comics are a scam or that all their stories and art are invalid. There are good stories and ideas out there. But they come at a steep price that probably isn’t worth it.

Suddenly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t seem like such a cool idea.

Mutants, Meillassoux and Contingency*

Over the past year, I have read hundreds of X-Men comics. It has been a strange journey and even now I’m neither sure why I began this journey nor why I continued it, but it happened, and the weird adventures of Marvel’s mutants are permanently etched into my mind.

There is a great deal of fluff in this extensive archive, even during the much-celebrated Claremont era, and especially during the 90s, which had comics that I can’t even look at because the drawing disgusts me (If you like that artwork, it’s fine, but the artwork coincided with a narrative departure from the civic issues, identity issues and overall science fiction coolness that make X-men interesting to me, so it is hard for me to parse the two). But despite the fluff, there are many rich moments, in terms of storytelling and character building, and in terms of concepts.

One concept that has really stuck with me is the idea of contingency. Contingency is at the heart of genetic mutation and arguably at the heart of the series: the central motif of X-Men is how do people live with abilities that they have no previous understanding of or that can change without notice even when they do understand them (due to secondary mutation, stress, experimentation, fear, the government etc.).  I think that the best iteration of this theme came during the Avengers vs X-Men crossover series of 2012.

In that limited series, members of the X-Men and members of the Avengers take sides on the issue of the coming of Phoenix. The Phoenix is a cosmic force that perennially crosses the universe, doing whatever it wants, usually destroying planets and civilizations. The series starts when the two teams learn that it is coming to Earth. The X-Men anticipate the return of the Phoenix because they think it will save mutants, which are on the brink of extinction; the Avengers dread the return of the Phoenix because they think it will destroy the planet.

When the Phoenix arrives, the Avengers intervene and instead of taking one red-headed host, as it usually does, it takes five hosts, all members of the X-Men (and notably all without red hair!). Wielding this newly-acquired omnipotent power, the Phoenix Five do good deeds across the world. But after being persistently opposed by the Avengers, they decide to hunt for the Avengers and other perceived threats.

One of these threats is Mr. Sinister. Mr. Sinister is a mutant, geneticist and longtime enemy of the X-Men. Sinister has a history of horrific experiments on mutants and horrific actions against them, and when the Phoenix Five arrive, he lures them into giving him control of the Phoenix. Things look bleak until the Phoenix simply decides that it itself doesn’t want to be controlled by him, electing to return to the Phoenix Five.

Avengers vs X-Men Marvel Phoenix Mr. Sinister

Up until this point in the series and in X-Men history, the Phoenix has just been a plot device. It comes, it shakes things up, somebody dies (usually someone with red hair) and then the world is saved. In all of those previous instances, the Phoenix had a determined function, in the narrative and as an entity. In this story, the Phoenix is completely indeterminate, in form, in function and in potential. It is contingency incarnate.

In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux has a chapter where he distinguishes between contingency and probability. Probability is the potential for change under constant, established conditions, like a dice roll. Contingency is is the potential for both the variables and the conditions to change, like a dice roll in which the the dice grow another face and become seven-sided and then explode into butterflies. In regular practice we do not expect dice to do such unexpected things because the world seems to work according to fixed, predictable rules, allowing us to make decisions based on what will probably happen. In a contingent world, there are no fixed rules. Anything can happen at anytime. Dice can turn into butterflies and grown men can eject metal claws from their knuckles.

Mr. Sinister Uncanny X-Men Avengers

The ultimate point of that chapter of the book is that though we cannot fathom raw contingency because our world is relatively stable, contingency itself is contingent, so we actually do experience this raw contingency, but only because contingently, contingency holds the world together. In other words, the seemingly absurd world in which butterflies are born from dice and men have metal claws is actually the world we live in. We just don’t see these things because the potential for these things is also contingent.

A lot of science fiction, including the X-Men, makes a few things contingent and then watches how these strategic tweaks play out, but my point here is that none of this was fully realized contingency. As anticlimactic as it is in terms of narrative, the Phoenix’s decision to simply not be controlled despite Mr. Sinister winning his battle with the X-Men is an example of raw contingency. Mr. Sinister didn’t plan for it because he couldn’t. There’s no such thing as a contingency plan when you are dealing with actual contingency. That is horrifying.

Unfortunately, the Phoenix does not make any more radically contingent decisions as the Avengers vs X-Men goes on, so this is just a brief glimpse into what radical contingency can look like. Marvel’s What If series toys with this kind of contingency all the time, but none of it is canonical, so the horror of raw contingency is dialed back because it is purely speculative. Still, it happened once and if the right mind makes the effort, perhaps an entire story about the horror of raw contingency could happen someday.

*I wasn’t very thorough with citations in this post, but Uncanny X-Men Volume 2 #15-17 are the comics I summarized and took the screenshots from. The chapter in After Finitude is chapter 4.