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.