J. D. Biersdorfer
Marvel Comics: The Untold Storyby Sean Howe
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“Sean Howe’s history of Marvel makes a compulsively readable, riotous and heartbreaking version of my favorite story, that of how a bunch of weirdoes changed the world…That it’s all true is just frosting on the cake.”
“Exhaustively researched and artfully assembled, this book is a historical exploration, a labor of love, and a living illustration of how the weirdest corners of the counterculture can sometimes become the culture-at-large.”
— Chuck Klosterman
In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics introduced a series of bright-costumed superhero characters—including Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and the Amazing Spider-Man—that would evolve into a modern American mythology for millions of readers. Over the last half-century, these characters have been passed along among generations of brilliant editors, artists, and writers who struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another. Written by Sean Howe, former comic book reviewer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a gripping narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America’s history.
J. D. Biersdorfer
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- 6.30(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.60(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Untold Story
By Sean Howe
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2012 Sean Howe
All rights reserved.
Long before there was Marvel Comics, there was Martin Goodman. Born in Brooklyn in 1908 to Russian immigrants, the ninth of thirteen children, Goodman was such an avid reader as a youth that he would cut up pieces of old magazines and paste them into new creations. But a life of leisurely imagination was not an option: his father's construction jobs ended with a backbreaking rooftop fall and Isaac Goodman became a peddler. The fifteen members of the Goodman family constantly moved around Brooklyn, trying to stay one step ahead of their landlords. Martin was forced to drop out of school in the fifth grade and worked a series of jobs that failed to excite him. Finally, as he reached the end of his teen years, he resolved to make a bid for freedom: he set out to travel the country by train. By the time the Great Depression hit America, he'd already racked up journals detailing his coast to coast experiences on railroads and in hobo camps.
It was his childhood love of magazines that eventually called him home. Returning to New York, he found work singing the praises of pulps as a publisher's representative for Eastern Distributing. Eastern soon fell apart, but Goodman's fortune only rose: he and his coworker Louis Silberkleit joined forces to form Newsstand Publications. From a dingy office in lower Manhattan, they turned out westerns, detective stories, and romance tales at fifteen cents an issue.
Lone Ranger rip-offs may not have been high art, but, somewhat improbably, Martin Goodman had ascended from poor immigrant to rail hopper to magazine editor. Slight, quiet, his arched eyebrows overwhelming his wire- frame eyeglasses and a bow tie punctuating one of his many crisp pink shirts, Goodman even had prematurely whitened hair that neatly completed his transformation from street kid to businessman.
He was twenty-five.
In 1934, Newsstand Publications' distributor went under, costing Goodman and Silberkleit several thousand dollars in lost payments. Newstand was unable to meet payments to its printer; its assets were seized.
Silberkleit abandoned the company, but an eager Goodman convinced the printer that it stood to make back its money if it allowed him to continue publishing some of the titles. Goodman's cunning instincts quickly carried the company back into profitability; within a couple years, he'd moved into the considerably more elegant RKO Building uptown. He'd devised a simple formula for success: "If you get a title that catches on, then add a few more," he told Literary Digest, "you're in for a nice profit."
It was all about staying on top of trends, not providing anything more than disposable literature. "Fans," he decreed, "are not interested in quality." When the market crashed again, Goodman stayed afloat: he simply filled out his magazines with unlabeled reprints of other publishers' stories. Now he was in a financial position to set his parents up in a little house in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He could also afford to relax. On a cruise ship to Bermuda, he approached two young women playing Ping Pong and asked to play the winner. Jean Davis - also a New Yorker, but from a more cultured and sophisticated New York - soon became the apple of Goodman's eye. Back in America, Jean was on-again, off-again about having a serious relationship, but Goodman threw everything he could into the courtship. Once, scraping into his bank account, he flew her to Philadelphia for a dinner and a concert performance. Eventually, he won her over, and she became his bride. They honeymooned in Europe, with plans to return on the fashionable Hindenburg - but there were no two seats together, so they changed their plans at the last moment and caught a plane. Martin Goodman's luck just kept improving. Goodman was publishing more than two dozen magazines by 1939, with names like Two Gun Western, Sex Health, and Marvel Science Stories. (The latter didn't sell especially well, but there was something Goodman liked about that word, Marvel. He'd remember that one.) He moved his business into the fashionable McGraw-Hill Building on Forty Second Street, where he set about providing steady work for his brothers. Goodman's operation was, in the words of one editor, a "little beehive of nepotism":
one brother did bookkeeping; one worked in production; one kept an office where he photographed aspiring starlets for the pulps. Even Jean's uncle Robbie got in on the action. Furthermore, the flood of company names that Goodman shuffled around - advantageous for tax purposes and for quick maneuvering in the event of legal trouble - were often derived from family members: there was the Margood Publishing Corp., the Marjean Magazine Corp., and soon, when Jean gave birth to sons Chip and Iden, there would be Chipiden.
The company name that stuck, though, was "Timely," taken from Goodman's Timely magazine. It was no longer racking up debt, but neither was it setting the world on fire. Pulp sales, crowded by the increased popularity of radio serials, were starting to go flat. Martin Goodman needed a hit.
The American comic book, meanwhile, was beginning to take form. In 1933, the Eastern Color Printing Company used its idle presses at night time to publish Funnies on Parade, a book of reprints of Sunday newspaper strips. The strips were printed side by side on a single tabloid page, folded in half and stapled, and sold to Procter & Gamble to give away as promotional items. The following year, Eastern Color slapped a ten cent price on the cover of Famous Funnies #1, and sold more than 200,000 copies through newsstands; soon that title was seeing a profit of $30,000 a month. Other publishers gave it a shot. The biggest sellers were repackaged Sunday newspaper comic strips like Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and Popeye, but New Fun, a black and white, ten by fifteen inch anthology of unpublished strips, became the first comic book of all new material. By 1937, a few enterprising men set up packaging services in which comic books were produced by efficient assembly lines, in the tradition of garment factories. A writer would hand his script off to an efficient assembly line of out of work veteran illustrators and young art school graduates armed with fourteen by twenty-one inch Bristol board. In turn, they would break the action down into a series of simply rendered panels, flesh out the drawings in pencil, add backgrounds, embellish the artwork with ink, letter the dialogue, and provide color guides for the printer. It wasn't a way to get rich, but in the throes of the Depression, it was steady work. And then, in 1938, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two twenty-three year olds from Cleveland, sold a thirteen page story called "Superman" to National Allied Publications for $130. The character was a mix of everything kids liked - pulp heroes, science fiction stories, classical myths - rolled up into one glorious, primary colored package. The "champion of the oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need" fought corporate greed and crooked politicians, and preached for social reform at every turn, a perfect fantasy for the New Deal era. But Superman was more than just a symbol; his secret identity as the mewling Clark Kent offered even the loneliest readers a fellow outsider with whom to identify. Premiering in the cover feature of Action Comics #1, Superman became a surprise runaway success, and by its seventh issue, Action was selling half a million copies per issue.
National's sister company Detective Comics (they'd soon merge and come to be known as DC Comics) introduced Batman, another caped avenger, and gave Superman his own title - just as competitors rolled out a wave of colorfully costumed knockoffs. (Legend claimed that the publisher of Wonder Man, one of the earliest and most blatant imitations, had been an accountant for the head of National until he saw the numbers on Action and quickly set up his own company.)
Lloyd Jacquet, a soft spoken, pipe smoking ex-colonel, decamped from his position as art director of Centaur Comics and, following the leads of others, went into business as a comic book packager, churning out stories for trend hopping publishers. Chief among the artists Jacquet grabbed from Centaur and assigned to develop new superheroes for his new concern - Funnies, Inc. - were Carl Burgos and Bill Everett. Both were twenty-one years old and restless. Burgos had quit the National Academy of Design, impatient with the speed at which he was being taught; Everett, a three pack a day smoker and already a decade into serious drinking, had bounced between Boston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Now they sat down at a Manhattan bar called the Webster and hammered out their plans for superheroes. They kept it simple: fire and water.
Burgos came up with the idea of a brilliant but avaricious scientist, Professor Phineas T. Horton, who creates a synthetic man within a giant test tube, only to see him burst into flames upon contact with oxygen. The "Human Torch" needs no costume: his featureless face and vague anatomy, both reddened and obscured by wisps of fire, are surrounded by stray, tear shaped bursts that fly off him like nervous crimson sweat, and the flares at the top of his head suggest demonic intent. He is, in other words, a creature flickering with fear and anger. Upon his inevitable escape, he sets about shooting fireballs from his hands and scaring the bejeezus out of cops and criminals alike; Burgos's low budget primitivist style only increased the sense that the flimsy buildings, cars, and people the Torch encountered were hastily constructed only to be destroyed in short measure. By the end of his first adventure, the Human Torch learns to control his powers, but he's a man on the run.
Everett's contribution, which borrowed from Jack London's maritime adventure tales, Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Giambologna's Mercury, was Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. After an arctic expedition unknowingly causes destruction to the underwater settlement of an aquatic race, the amphibious emperor sends his daughter to spy on the humans. The princess marries the expedition's commander, gathers intelligence for her homeland, and, before returning to the ocean, conceives a son. Nineteen years later, the pointy-eared, pointy-eyebrowed, widow-peaked Namor, clad only in swimming trunks (and graced with winged feet), is "an ultra- man of the deep ... flies in the air ... has the strength of a thousand men" - and he seeks revenge on America. Putting his powers to scary use, he murders two deep sea divers (one via vicious stabbings, the other via head crushing) and then shoves their ship into a reef. The faint horizontal lines, lonely bubbles, and levitating objects that Everett administered in ink wash to convey the sub-aquatic world gave the proceedings an eerie, theremin-ready ambiance, although such subtleties of mood were necessarily temporary. Pages later, the creepy languor of the saltwater battles gives way to pure action, as Namor hurls a pilot from a biplane and "dives into the ocean again - on his way to further adventures in his crusade against the white men!" Unredeemingly violent and willfully unassimilated, the sneering Sub-Mariner was the reverse negative of the alien-as-immigrant hero Superman.
The Sub-Mariner strip was marked for inclusion in Motion Pictures Funnies Weekly, a giveaway comic that movie theaters would distribute to movie going kids, in hopes that they'd be hooked enough to show up for the following week. But Motion Pictures Funnies stalled out, never going to press except for a handful of sample copies that were handed out to theater owners.
Luckily, the Funnies, Inc. sales agent, a compact and balding Irishman named Frank Torpey, had connections, and one of them was Martin Goodman, with whom he'd worked at Eastern Distributing. Torpey grabbed copies of Superman and Amazing Man (a title that Everett had recently done for Centaur), walked three blocks north from the shabby building that housed the Funnies, Inc. loft, and entered the pristine blue-green Art Deco skyscraper headquarters of Timely, where he made the pitch to his old friend Goodman. Comics, Torpey said, were easy money. They made a deal for Goodman to publish the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner strips in a new comic book anthology. Goodman already had a perfect idea for a title.
Marvel Comics #1, produced entirely by Jacquet's team, covered all the popular bases in its sixty-four pages: Paul Gustavson's mustachioed, Saint-like Angel, Ben Thompson's jungle adventurer – Ka-Zar (a Tarzan knockoff, resurrected from one of Goodman's pulps), Al Anders's cowboy the Masked Raider, and gag cartoons to fill it out. Goodman commissioned a cover from veteran pulp illustrator Frank R. Paul and Timely's first comic book was published on August 31, 1939. Hours later, halfway around the world, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. World War II was in motion.
Marvel Comics #1 sold 80,000 copies in September 1939, and so Goodman went back to press. Eventually it sold 800,000 - better than the average DC Comics title. In the years to come, Timely staffers would talk about seeing Frank Torpey darting in and out of Goodman's office, moving so fast they thought he was a messenger. The truth was that he was just collecting twenty-five dollars, a weekly thank you from Martin Goodman for pulling him into the comic book industry.
Excerpted from Marvel Comics by Sean Howe. Copyright © 2012 by Sean Howe. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
“A warts-and-all, nail-biting mini-epic about the low-paid, unsung ‘funnybook men’ who were unwittingly creating twenty-first century pop culture. If you thought the fisticuffs were bare and bloody on the four-color page, wait ‘til you hear about what went down in the Marvel bullpen.”
“Sean Howe is to Marvel Comics what Procopius was to the Byzantine Empire: a court gossip of breathtaking thoroughness and exactitude, and a sly and nuanced writer. It is imperative that this work not fall into the hands of alien species, or we’re done for.”
“Exhaustively researched and artfully assembled, Marvel Comics is a historical exploration, a labor of love, and a living illustration of how the weirdest corners of the counterculture can sometimes become the culture-at-large.”
“Sean Howe’s history of Marvel makes a compulsively readable, riotous and heartbreaking version of my favorite story, that of how a bunch of weirdos changed the world. That it’s all true is just frosting on the cake.”
“Page after page, Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics manages to be enchantingly told, emotionally suspenseful and totally revelatory. If I knew more about superpowers, I’d be able to explain how he did it.”
Meet the Author
Sean Howe is the editor of Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics and the Deep Focus series of film books. He is a former editor and critic at Entertainment Weekly, and his writing has appeared in New York, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Spin, and The Village Voice. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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Great history about behind the scenes at Marvel. My only gripe is there are about a hundred or so pages of notes and other filler at the end of the book.
As a long time fan of comics, I found Howe's book a wonderful read. I grew up in the 60's, so I was a big Marvel comics fan. The book brought back some fond memories of that time. It's actually amazing that Marvel has survived all the tribulations that the company went through. I hope people give the book a shot. Even a casual comic fan would enjoy this.
If you have always wanted a behind-the-scenes account of Marvel Comics like I have, buy this book! Not only do you get a fantastic journey through the entire history of the company, but the author also treats his readers like adults by writing intelligently, unlike so many other books on the comics industry. Can't wait to read it again!
My favorite hero is the hulk.
But I can not read it
I would have enjoyed more focus on some of the earlier years. Good read if you enjoy comics and the stories that go into making the books.
Not even close to what I thought it was (all it is is how comivs were created) Please consider this!!!!!!!!