7 History Books for the Serious Marvel Maniac in Your Life
1. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2012)
Love it or hate it, Marvel’s rise from second-rate publishing outfit to the top of the four-color heap was the defining comic-biz story of the 20th century, and Sean Howe’s book attempts to uncover the real stories behind the company’s official history. Drawing on more than 100 interviews with current and former members of Marvel’s not-always-merry marching society, Howe takes a humanistic approach to the subject matter, showing readers how the personalities, conflicts and decisions of key people at certain points in Marvel’s history shaped the company and made it into the multimedia monolith we all know today. The book acknowledges the huge debt Marvel owes to the Kirby/Lee collaborations of the early ’60s (not to mention the massive fallout of their break-up), while also reserving space for the many other artists, editors and corporate honchos who have lent their talents to the self-styled House of Ideas over the years. While the book mainly serves as a chronological study of Marvel’s ups and downs, two particular themes stand out: (1) not a lot of people in the comic business turn out to be both good artists and sharp businesspeople and (2) the business of creating comics, particularly Marvel-style comics, tends to attract a certain type of person who can be… let’s go with overly dramatic.
2. Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over the Marvel Comics Empire…and Both Lost (2002)
Speaking of dramatic. The story of how Marvel Comics went public, took Wall Street by storm and then filed for bankruptcy within a few short years is one that many fanboys already know. But what those comic fans may not know are the specific steps along the way that explain how Marvel, the biggest comic publisher in the world, fell so far so fast. In a nutshell: financier Ronald Perelman bought Marvel with the intention of using its intellectual property (namely, the many characters it owns the rights to) as the cornerstone of an entertainment empire: trading cards, stickers, TV shows, film deals, the whole shebang. Investors liked what they saw and Marvel’s market value ballooned to more than $3 billion after Perelman took it public; he used the inflated valuation to sell junk bonds and pocketed $500 million right before the comic and trading-card markets collapsed in the mid-1990s and left Marvel $600 million in debt. Smelling blood, corporate raider Carl Icahn tried to wrest control of the company away from Perelman, setting off years of courtroom battles and boardroom confrontations that would put any Avengers/Defenders team-up to shame. Meanwhile, other businessmen whose livelihoods depended on Marvel pumping out product saw their own fortunes in danger, and resolved to take control of Marvel for themselves. Writer Dan Raviv does a good job explaining the arcane worlds of high finance and bankruptcy proceedings, even if he tends to paint his main characters in stark David-vs.-Goliath/good-vs.-evil terms that would be more suitable in a Marvel comic than a business book. Still, it’s fascinating to see what kind of damage can be wrought by people who get into the comics game for the wrong reasons.
3. The Secret History of Marvel Comics: Jack Kirby and the Moonlighting Artists at Martin Goodman’s Empire (2013)
As the Beast might say, “Oh my stars and garters.” I can’t offer a review of this particular book because it’s apparently due out this summer, but here’s a description from the publisher: “The Secret History of Marvel Comics digs back to the 1930s when Marvel Comics wasn’t just a comic-book producing company. Marvel Comics owner Martin Goodman had tentacles into a publishing world that might have made that era’s conservative American parents lynch him on his front porch. Marvel was but a small part of Goodman’s publishing empire, which had begun years before he published his first comic book. Goodman mostly published lurid and sensationalistic story books (known as ‘pulps’) and magazines, featuring sexually charged detective and romance short fiction, and celebrity gossip scandal sheets. And artists like Jack Kirby, who was producing Captain America for eight-year-olds, were simultaneously dipping their toes in both ponds.” As a certain science officer might say: “Fascinating.” And a perfect companion volume to that book about Joe Shuster’s racy post-Superman doodles that would have made Jimmy Olsen’s bow-tie spin had he ever come across it.
4-5. Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics (1991)/Marvel Universe (1991)
Full disclosure: Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades was the first book about comics that I ever bought, and to my young eyes it was everything I wanted in a book about Marvel, with 700 illustrations covering everything from its Golden Age rise right up to juuuust before everything went to hell, artistically and financially speaking, for the company. Looking at it today, though, I have to be a little more objective and admit that, while Daniels does a fine job covering the highlights, the book was commissioned by Marvel as an “official” history of the company, and as such it lacks some of the juicier details that one might hope to find. For instance, no mention is made of how Timely Comics arose from the seedier side of Martin Goodman’s publishing empires (see #3 above), nor does the book have much to say about the acrimony between Lee and Kirby that eventually led to Kirby jumping ship in 1970 (see #1 above). But the beautiful artwork and unexpected surprises (like reprints of classic Marvel stories from different eras) still make it a good read. By comparison, Sanderson’s Marvel Universe takes a more character-centric view of the Marvel universe, dividing itself into eight chapters based on groupings of characters (the Anti-Heroes, the Cosmic Protectors, the Mutants, etc.; Spider-Man scores a chapter all his own, natch). It’s a bit of a juggling act, as Sanderson attempts to share each hero’s publishing history and fictional biography and key issues and storylines, but like Decades the multiple artwork samples make it worth a look.
6. The Marvel Vault: A Museum-In-A-Book with Rare Collectibles from the World Of Marvel (2007)
This was a Christmas present from the family back when it first came out; “museum-in-a-books” based on DC, Batman and Spider-Man soon followed. (No love for Ambush Bug, people? For shame!) The idea is pretty simple; it’s less of a book and more of a museum, with spiral-bound pages of Marvel’s “official” history complemented by plastic sleeves containing reproductions of such “exhibits” as early sketches of the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, a membership card from the Merry Marvel Marching Society, birthday cards drawn by Marvel Bullpen artists and brochures for early comic conventions. Like Five Fabulous Decades, it’s organized by decade and heavy on the approved version of events, so don’t expect any insights into any scandals or inter-office feuds you might have heard about. Still, it’s pretty cool to “feel” history in your hands and — hey, a Howard the Duck campaign sticker! Man, I haven’t seen one of those in years…
7. Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution (2004)
Stepping away from the official histories of the company, we find Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish, an in-depth look at the works, separately and in collaboration, of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, specifically how the two of them took the art of comics to a whole new level in the 1960s. While it falls short of being the definitive Kirby biography, Tales to Astonish takes readers through Kirby’s early years as a Lower East Side scrapper, the dizzying heights of the Golden Age in the ’40s, the lows of the Marvel’s monster titles in the ’50s, and the really, really highs of the Marvel Age in the ’60s. It’s a good enough read, and it’s clear Ro is trying to bring a novelistic approach to the story of how Kirby revolutionized the comics before ending his partnership with his longtime editor and collaborator. But eagle-eyed fans will notice a few errors and unsubstantiated opinions (Bill Everett an “old hack”…? I think not, sir), and the book is seriously hampered by a lack of any art that shows readers why Kirby was a giant in his field. You know that old saying about how writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Exactly.