Sean Howe on Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the many other personalities who inspired ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’

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Howe's 'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story' is out this week. (Mark Schwartzbard)
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Rick Flom

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"I can’t think of any other company where kids would get to know the names of the office managers," said Sean Howe.

That company is Marvel Comics, and those office managers are the prime movers in Howe's new book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (out this week). Odd as it may seem now that it’s a megamovie-spawning subsidiary of the massive Disney corporation, at one time the appeal of Marvel Comics had as much to do with the character of the company itself as with its superheroic characters. Marvel didn’t simply have an audience, it had a Merry Marching Society.

This was neither mere blind, fanboy allegiance nor Coke/Pepsi-style brand loyalty, but rather a result of the warm, funky relationship forged between readers and Marvel’s staff, first by Stan Lee and then continued by his many successors. In letters columns and Lee’s famed “Stan’s Soapbox,” Marvel was painted as a freewheeling nuthouse of wanton creativity, full of fun-loving pranksters and kooks, from the superstar artists and writers down to the secretaries and interns.

For Howe, it was this unusual approach that led him to explore the company’s intriguing, tumultuous history. The book is a dense, detailed, yet utterly readable story spanning eight decades that both celebrates and debunks the Myth of the Merry Marvel Bullpen.

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“I started reading comics when I was four years old,” Howe told me over the phone from his home in Prospect Heights last month. “By the time I was eight I was a big, big Marvel fan and, as you’d know if you were reading a lot of Marvel Comics’ letters pages, you were getting exposure to that idea of the wonderful bullpen and all the zany, behind-the-scenes stuff.... It was a really unique branding strategy—partially accidentally, I suppose. But there were all these 10-year old kids running around knowing the names of the employees at Marvel Comics.” (Howe is reading tonight, with Chuck Klosterman, at PowerHouse Arena in Brooklyn.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Howe would discover in adulthood that this picture of Marvel’s inner workings was as fantastically fictional as radioactive spiders and planet-eating spacegods.

“I went away from reading comics for a while but came back around 2000, because they were doing some more interesting things,” he said. “About that time I started nostalgically reading interviews with a lot of the creators I’d grown up paying the most attention to, and the juxtaposition of the stories I’d absorbed as a kid and the stories I was reading later about what the experience was really like was fascinating to me. Maybe it wasn’t always just hijinks and fun at the Marvel offices. Because the Marvel people felt like an extended family to me—they were like the uncles that you never really got to see but you really liked—I just wanted to get more of that story. That was the personal spark that interested me. Honestly, I was really excited about the idea of somebody writing a book about it, but nobody was doing it, so it was a case of writing a book I wanted to read.”

Starting in the Golden Age of the 1940s with the appearance of the first Marvel characters (Namor the Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch, Captain America), Marvel: The Untold Story charts the company’s course, balancing the business-side dealings of various owners, publishers, and editors with keen and insightful appreciation for the many brilliant creators of the comics themselves. (This balance shifts occasionally in periods like the 1990s when the business got particularly tangled and the artistry got particularly bad.) While the early years of the comics industry have been covered elsewhere (though far less exhaustively where Marvel is concerned) in books like Tales to Astonish and Men of Tomorrow, much of Howe’s book uncovers eras hitherto unexplored outside of cultish fanzines and websites.

For example, Marvel: The Untold Story explores in wonderful detail the Wild West feel of the Marvel offices during the '70s, when acid-eating existentialists roamed New York’s streets until dawn dreaming up cosmic insanity for their monthly titles. Creators like Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, and Steve Gerber, having grown up on the comics of Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko—which were already plenty weird—arrived at Marvel to take characters to new heights of bizarre imagination.

“I think that that ‘cosmic era’ is so interesting because it’s all about rule-breaking and getting away with things,” Howe explained. “It’s very much like the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls [Peter Biskind’s book on renegade filmmakers in the 1970s] moment in Hollywood, where the studios started collapsing and, in desperation, they just kind of threw up their arms and said, ‘Let’s give these crazy kids a shot.’ And in both cases, I think it led to some really terrific pop art. And in both cases, that went away before the end of the '70s.”

Marvel comic books became druggy/hipster totems, gaining popularity on college campuses for their wild-eyed concepts. In addition to all the psychedelic philosophizing, The Untold Story reveals how many of the writers would inject personal codes and clues into the books, often to vent their anger toward their editors and employers.

“That’s another fascinating byproduct of doing all this research,” Howe said. “You start to see how many inside references there are. All of the frustrations that writers and artists had would work themselves into the comic books themselves. I think it kind of sailed over [readers’] heads, though I’m sure the creators talked about it, that Jim Starlin pulled aside [artist] Al Milgrom and said, ‘Let’s do this thing where we make [Marvel’s then art director] John Romita and Stan Lee these crazy outer-space clowns who won’t allow us to have freedom of expression!’ But I think it was all kind of under the radar—and beautifully so.”

This time of reckless experimentation unfortunately coincided with a period of disastrously low sales, to the point that the entire industry nearly ceased to exist. Howe believes the introduction of the “Direct Market”—a system that focused on distributing comics to specialty hobby shops rather than the mainstream newsstand—led to the end of the cosmic era, much as the blockbuster had done for movies.

“The business model changed and the direct market came along in time to save the comics industry,” Howe said. “And what the direct market also meant was that you were going to have an opportunity to cater to hardcore fans. And so they got a little more conscious about their demographic and their audience.”

The Direct Market system gathered force near the dawn of the 1980s, another period of Marvel’s history receiving serious consideration for the first time in Howe’s book. For much of the decade, Marvel was under the often-dictatorial rule of controversial editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, a figure sneered at by comics fans as much as any villain from the four-color page. Yet Howe depicts Shooter in a refreshingly balanced light: while he can seem as arrogant and stubbornly controlling as his reputation would suggest, it’s clear Shooter was also an effective manager of a company with an uncertain future.

“Everyone always uses the phrase, but it’s true: Jim Shooter made the trains run on time,” says Howe. “And that was something that really had to happen. In 1978 they were missing a lot of deadlines and Shooter came in and got things under control. One of the side effects of that control, I think, is a little bit less of a feeling of adventurousness.”

One of Shooter’s most notorious follies as both writer and editor was 1985’s Secret Wars II, a follow-up to his massively successful Secret Wars miniseries, cooked up the year before to help launch a line of action figures. The ludicrous sequel was not only poorly received, it caused endless annoyance among the other Marvel writers who were forced by Shooter—the main title’s scripter but also their boss—to pen tie-in issues to a story they despised. Nevertheless, Howe found it an illuminating series to revisit:

“I know that I hated it when it came out when I was 12,” he says of the much-maligned comic. “But strangely, going back, I found elements of it that were really fascinating. Especially in the first couple issues, it really does seem like Shooter is working out some things. Whereas the first Secret Wars is really flat and just feels like a template, in the second one there’s all this stuff about consumerism in America, and it’s a little bit off the rails. And so that actually was a lot more interesting on a second read.”

“I do think that Jim Shooter is a really important figure in saving Marvel,” Howe continued. “Maybe he did some damage at the very end of his tenure in terms of morale, but he was a necessary corrective to the chaos that preceded him. He’s a really smart guy who has a genuine affection for the comic book artform. I think his ideas about what that artform should be have differed a lot from other people, but I don’t see him as having bad intentions.”

While Shooter has been singled out for particular disdain in the years since his time at Marvel, that strain—of the creator working under the auspices of demanding or capricious editors and writing for characters over which they ultimately have little control—is a constant theme in the book.
“Every single person who has worked at Marvel Comics has probably been painted in a terrible, negative light,” Howe said. “With every editor-in-chief you’re going to find people who say, ‘That guy is a force of evil.’ The fact that all the threads of these stories are passed along among different people who start getting these proprietary feelings for what they’re doing—there’s just bound to be disappointment. No matter how much you’ve invested, whatever great contributions you’ve given, you don’t get to keep doing it.”

While it may come as a surprise to those who know him only as the sunny, nonagenarian face of Marvel and latter-day movie cameo maven, the other major figure of controversy in The Untold Story is Stan Lee. While few would deny his crucial role in the creation of many of the company’s most famous and beloved properties, some feel the benefits he reaped from his involvement outweighed those of his co-creators (Kirby, Ditko, and many more) to an outrageous extent. Further, his perceived failure to advocate for those creators left by the wayside is a criticism that has hounded him for much of his career.

As with Shooter, Howe provides a much-needed counterbalance of nuance in his depiction of Lee. He moves in and out of frame throughout Marvel’s entire history, first appearing as an underage, overeager assistant and annoyance to Jack Kirby in the 1940s, then teaming with Kirby 20 years later to revolutionize the medium, then spending the '70s onward in Hollywood trying (usually fruitlessly) to get Marvel’s properties translated to the movie screen.

Throughout these years, Lee remained the cheerful figurehead, a true company man. But Howe’s book gives the unmistakable sense, perhaps for the first time, that his privately-held views were more complicated than he ever let on, even if they are difficult to pin down.

“Stan Lee is such an enigma,” Howe said. “No one that I have spoken to has told me anything to make me believe his private personality is not what you expect from seeing him on TV. I don’t know what is underneath that, or if anything’s underneath that. He’s painted as the bad guy or a hacky guy, but the truth is he was just an amazing editor. And his writing style, his salesmanship—those are a big part of what made Marvel work. I think that sometimes the question becomes, ‘How much did Stan Lee drag down Jack Kirby?’ which I think is a totally ludicrous way to position it. I’m definitely in the camp of: ‘These two guys created something really amazing, regardless of who created more of what.’”

“I uncovered some stuff about how in 1969 or '70 he wanted to bring Jack Kirby out with him to Hollywood and how he’d been disillusioned with the industry,” Howe went on. “But a year later he was made president and publisher of Marvel Comics, and whatever his reservations were, he never really voiced them again. I think he became convinced that the salvation of Marvel Comics depended on Hollywood, which I guess in a way maybe he was right. But I don’t know how to argue with the idea that maybe he could have looked out a little bit more for Jack Kirby in the 1980s when he was looking for [his original artwork, which Marvel refused to return to him at the time]. Could he have stuck his neck out when he had to testify in the Jack Kirby court case of two years ago? Those are arguable points. You can’t really prove what someone remembers.”

Sean Howe appears tonight, with Chuck Klosterman, for the New York release of 'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story' at Powerhouse Arena, 37 Main St., DUMBO, Brooklyn.