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Marvel Comics

Cover of Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics

The Untold Story
by Sean Howe
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An unvarnished, unauthorized, behind-the-scenes account of one of the most dominant pop cultural forces in contemporary America.

Operating out of a tiny office on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil--these superheroes quickly won children's hearts and sparked the imaginations of pop artists, public intellectuals, and campus radicals. Over the course of a half century, Marvel's epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.

Throughout this decades-long journey to becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise, Marvel's identity has continually shifted, careening between scrappy underdog and corporate behemoth. As the company has weathered Wall Street machinations, Hollywood failures, and the collapse of the comic book market, its characters have been passed along among generations of editors, artists, and writers--also known as the celebrated Marvel "Bullpen." Entrusted to carry on tradition, Marvel's contributors--impoverished child prodigies, hallucinating peaceniks, and mercenary careerists among them--struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another.

For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, the self-made publisher who forayed into comics after a get-rich-quick tip in 1939; Stan Lee, the energetic editor who would shepherd the company through thick and thin for decades; and Jack Kirby, the World War II veteran who'd co-created Captain America in 1940 and, twenty years later, developed with Lee the bulk of the company's marquee characters in a three-year frenzy of creativity that would be the grounds for future legal battles and endless debates.

Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews with Marvel insiders then and now, Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, reformed criminals, unlikely alliances, and third-act betrayals--a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America's history.

An unvarnished, unauthorized, behind-the-scenes account of one of the most dominant pop cultural forces in contemporary America.

Operating out of a tiny office on Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, a struggling company called Marvel Comics presented a cast of brightly costumed characters distinguished by smart banter and compellingly human flaws. Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil--these superheroes quickly won children's hearts and sparked the imaginations of pop artists, public intellectuals, and campus radicals. Over the course of a half century, Marvel's epic universe would become the most elaborate fictional narrative in history and serve as a modern American mythology for millions of readers.

Throughout this decades-long journey to becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise, Marvel's identity has continually shifted, careening between scrappy underdog and corporate behemoth. As the company has weathered Wall Street machinations, Hollywood failures, and the collapse of the comic book market, its characters have been passed along among generations of editors, artists, and writers--also known as the celebrated Marvel "Bullpen." Entrusted to carry on tradition, Marvel's contributors--impoverished child prodigies, hallucinating peaceniks, and mercenary careerists among them--struggled with commercial mandates, a fickle audience, and, over matters of credit and control, one another.

For the first time, Marvel Comics reveals the outsized personalities behind the scenes, including Martin Goodman, the self-made publisher who forayed into comics after a get-rich-quick tip in 1939; Stan Lee, the energetic editor who would shepherd the company through thick and thin for decades; and Jack Kirby, the World War II veteran who'd co-created Captain America in 1940 and, twenty years later, developed with Lee the bulk of the company's marquee characters in a three-year frenzy of creativity that would be the grounds for future legal battles and endless debates.

Drawing on more than one hundred original interviews with Marvel insiders then and now, Marvel Comics is a story of fertile imaginations, lifelong friendships, action-packed fistfights, reformed criminals, unlikely alliances, and third-act betrayals--a narrative of one of the most extraordinary, beloved, and beleaguered pop cultural entities in America's history.

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About the Author-
  • Sean Howe is the editor of Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers!: Writers on Comics. He is a former editor and critic at Entertainment Weekly, and his writing has appeared in New York, the Los Angeles Times, Spin, The Village Voice, The New York Observer, and The Economist. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    August 13, 2012
    The comic book publisher that spawned roughly half of Hollywood’s summer franchises roils with its own melodrama in this scintillating history. Journalist Howe, editor of Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers, recounts the saga of Stan Lee and the other auteurs who broke the square-jawed-and-earnest mold to create quirky, neurotic, rough-edged superheroes with a Pop Art look, including Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men. Howe’s exploration of the vast Marvel fictive universe, with its crazily grandiose plots and thousands of bizarre characters—the psychedelic 1970s birthed Angarr, a hippie supervillain who “blasted people with bad trips and primal screams”—is affectionate and incisive. But he focuses on the battle between the forces of art and commerce at the Marvel offices, where writers, artists, and editors wrestle for control of story arcs, titanic egos clash over copyrights, and creative oddballs confront the heartless, power-mad suits from marketing. Adroitly deploying zillions of interviews, Howe pens a colorful panorama of the comics industry and its tense mix of formulaic hackwork, cutthroat economics and poignant aesthetic pretense. Like comic books, his narrative often goes in circles; the same antagonisms keep churning away on successively grander platforms. Still, Howe paints an indelible portrait of the crass, juvenile, soulful business that captured the world’s imagination. Photos. Agent: Daniel Greenberg, Levine Greenberg Literary Agency.

  • Jonathan Lethem

    "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."

  • Patton Oswalt

    "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."

  • Chuck Klosterman

    "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."

  • Sloane Crosley

    "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."

  • Luc Sante

    "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."

  • GQ

    "A jittery, hilarious, anecdotal, and exhaustive history of the company. . . . If you're a comics fan, this is essential reading. If you're not, then it's merely fascinating. Howe has written a biographical history of modern America's id."

  • Rolling Stone

    "Sean Howe's gripping new history lays out five decades of Marvel adventures and insanity, and will make you believe that comic-book creators have even weirder lives than their mutant creations."

  • The Los Angeles Times

    "Marvel Comics is a meticulous chronicle of the real secret origins of the superhero, a tragic love story about the relationship between a long parade of passionate, talented superhero devotees and the company that didn't love them back."

  • Newsday

    "It's about time somebody wrote Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, and it looks like Sean Howe was the right guy for the job. Howe's clear-eyed history. . . is as full of colorful characters, tragic reversals and unlikely plot twists as any book in the Marvel canon."

  • Salon

    "Exhaustively researched and extraordinarily compelling. . . . A quasi-Shakespearean portrayal of Marvel as it moves from spirited upstart to ruthless corporate colossus."

  • USA Today

    "A superpowered must-read for anyone hooked on comics, as well as a gripping story for someone merely enlightened by a genre that's always had to fight for respect. It's much more about ordinary, flawed humans than super men and women, and therein lies its excellence."

  • The Daily Beast

    "Howe, a widely published critic with a real knack, rare for his field, for reporting, gets farther inside the company than anyone else has. . . .An essential read for anyone who loves comics, but civilians with a taste for gossip will enjoy it too."

  • The Wall Street Journal

    "A corporate biography of America's most significant comic-book publisher and a definitive portrait of comics in American culture. . . . Howe offers vivid reporting and enticing detail. . . . The result is a book both authoritative and charmingly readable."

  • The Miami Herald

    "Fascinating, compelling reading. . . . Exhaustively researched. . . . What ultimately propels you to keep turning the pages of this fat, enjoyable book are the endless anecdotes about how the Marvel Universe was shaped."

  • The Boston Globe

    "A vivid account. . . . Comics have proven an enduring art form, gaining new fans without losing the old ones. Howe's exhaustively researched love letter to Marvel should find grateful readers among both groups."

  • The New Republic

    "Hugely entertaining."

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Sean Howe
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