Saturday, April 22, 2017

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

Marvel Comics has a long history in comic books, especially superhero comics. It’s first superheroes, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, debuted in 1939 and the company is currently unrolling popular series of films based on a The Avengers, a superhero team that first appeared in comics in 1963.

The extended, interconnected, iterative melodrama of Marvel’s comics is a complicated fictional world. The real-world company has a complicated history, too. It started as a scion of a pulp magazine publisher seeking diversify and is now a part of media powerhouse Walt Disney Company. Sean Howe provides a detailed history of the company in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

Howe divides the history of the Marvel into five major ages. He discusses the early history of the company, but Marvel as we know it today could mark its origins in the resurgence of superhero comics of the early 1960s, after a post-World War II slump that all but the most popular titles.

The succeeding ages roughly correspond to the decades. The 1960s marked the birth of modern Marvel. The 1970s were a time of artistic experimentation when comics, especially Marvel, were embraced on college campus and in the counterculture.

In the 1980s, kids who grew up reading Marvel became adults writing the comics. It was also a time when corporate culture began to consume the company—though the priority of making money, executive interference and possibly shady business was something that went back to the days of the pulps. This decade also marked a change in the way comics were sold, shifting from newsstands and grocery-store spinners to specialty shops, which created opportunities and problems for comics publishers.

The 1990s was a period of excess. Comics creators were finally making money (at least some of them were), but old contentions between publishers—especially Marvel—and writers and artists led to the rise of superstars spinning off to publish works to which they would retain the rights. The growth in comics collecting encouraged marketing practice, especially at Marvel, that eventually led to a bust.

Throughout this time, Marvel’s various owners had been attempting to transition the company from a comics publisher to a media company that leveraged its intellectual property in many ways. In the 2000s, Marvel has done that. A criticism often leveled against Marvel today is that the comics are driven by decisions to make the characters marketable in other media, especially movies and toys.

Comics have come a long way since I started reading them as a kid. For one thing, they cost 10 times as much. Howe wraps up with the opinion that Marvels products are better, and in some ways I agree. However, I think comics often uses the words mature and adult when they are simply prurient, and that the improvement in printing quality is not always accompanied by improvements in story or art. I have mixed feelings about the multi-issues stories designed for collection into graphic novels aimed at book retailers, but I think the event-driven mega-crossovers that have become standard for Marvel and DC don’t move me much—I’d rather read a good short story than an overblown novel.

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Howe, S. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.