Book Report: “Marvel Comics–The Untold Story” by Sean Howe

When I was an avid reader and collector of comics, John Byrne, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Arthur Adams, and Frank Miller were the rock stars. I was not aware of what was going on at the corporate level–I was a kid, I just liked reading comics–but “Marvel Comics–The Untold Story” slices it all open and lays it out there for all to see. If you ever wanted to know how the sausage got made at Marvel Comics, this book describes it in detail.

As I’ve grown older and kept a peripheral eye on the comic industry, I grew to know the plight of the original creators such as Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, but their story is so much worse when you learn the details about how they have been treated by the company they basically built. After reading this book, I’m fairly certain that no one leaves the comic industry happy–nope, they are all disgruntled, angry, and shaking their fists at the corporate beast that swallowed up all their creative years. Seriously, this is a brutal industry.

Jack Kirby is one of the very few sympathetic characters in “Marvel Comics–The Untold Story” but even he comes off bitter (and rightly so) at the end. John Byrne is painted as a traitor to the other artists for actually sticking with Marvel and doing as told, Steve Ditko is a reclusive “Atlas Shrugged” follower who thinks Marvel can shove it, and Todd McFarlane’s middle finger is probably permanently lodged in the upright position whenever he faces Marvel HQ. The life of a Marvel creative is not the zany, fun-filled image that was portrayed in all those Bullpen Bulletins.

It was interesting to read about the early days of Marvel and it’s struggles before hitting its stride. The artists and writers were basically freelancers who bounced around between Marvel and DC and other publishers. There wasn’t much loyalty and people had no problem jumping ship when they were unhappy or if they thought their books were sinking.

Stan Lee is the one person who stayed with Marvel from the beginning, and the most surprising revelation to me was seeing where he ended up in the whole Marvel universe. This might be common knowledge to comics followers, but Stan Lee gets paid millions just to be Stan Lee, and hasn’t been involved in comics in ages. There have been thoughts to oust Lee, but he has been kept on solely due to his image being such an integral part of the early comics, in the days of the famed Marvel Bullpen. He was given a big office and a paycheck to match, but his involvement in the business ended long ago.

The book does not paint Stan Lee in a very good light at all. Only Lee and Kirby know the truth about who created Spider-Man and other Marvel heroes, and now, only Lee is around to tell his side. With age comes regret, and it’s a shame that Lee and Kirby could never work out their differences, but “Stanley” (as Kirby called him) just refused to admit that Kirby was the driving force and creator of many of the iconic Marvel characters. It’s just a sad story all around.

The most interesting aspect of the book to me, was reading how the company evolved after the 90’s. The crash of the collecting community is well-documented, and all the gory details are spelled out in the book. The millionaires running the show don’t care about comic books, they care about making money, and they squeezed every penny out of their collector base, and burned all the bridges with the comic book shops across the country. Marvel Comics will never be the same.

Comic books aren’t nearly as lucrative as the merchandising, TV shows, movies, etc., which led to the role of the comics to be “Don’t hurt the property” rather than to be creative and cutting edge. I honestly don’t know what the future holds for the comic industry. It seems like there has been a boom and bust cycle every 10-15 years, so maybe happy days are ahead, but it will be interesting to watch.

I think this passage sums up the book pretty well:

“In early 2009, Len Wein, who created Wolverine with John Romita, attended the premiere of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, starring Hugh Jackman. “I have not seen a dime off of any Marvel stuff, nor do I have a credit on the Wolverine film,” said Wein. “Hugh Jackman is a lovely man, and at the premiere he told the audience that he owed his career to me and had me take a bow. It was very gratifying and very nice. I would have preferred a check.”

If you’re looking for a light-hearted read, recalling the glory days of Stan “the Man” Lee and his pals, steer clear of this book, but if you want the real Marvel story, this book does a damn good job of digging up the dirt. Now I need to go wash my hands.

Other members of the League of Extraordinary Bloggers are talking about comic books this week too. Check them out!


  1. hobgoblin238 says

    Does it have any pics in the book? I saw it the last time I was in Texas and thought it might be a bit too much.

  2. says

    I sold comics at local shows during my high school years of ’87 – ’91 (“Copper Age of Comics”), then interned at Marvel summers of ’93 and ’94 (the height of the “gimmick” era), and flash forward ten years, worked on-staff at Marvel in ’04 and ’05.

    So, having been on both sides of the fence — both as a collector / dealer and then behind-the-scenes — I’ve either seen a lot of sh*t go down (or was a victim thereof), or have heard a lot of inside stories from former Marvel staffers over the years.

    The book does a nice job of lifting the curtain, and appreciate that Sean Howe took on the task of compiling it. Highly recommended if you’re not adverse to inside-politics-ruining-you’re-innocent-perception-of-a-beloved-medium!

  3. Kal says

    I have this one ready to read on my Kindle. I know I will hate to read how many of my favorite artists and writers HAD to become dickheads to create the work that they did. It’s unfortunate that the corporation never had any respect for the creative side of the industry and basically treated them like indentured servants. The whole way Stan Lee has been Marvel’s greatest cheerleaders earns him respect with me and I am glad he doesn’t diminish his part in the success of the early Marvel Universe. Nothing cool today would exist without those foundations. What they did to Kirby is criminal as it is what was done to Simon and Shuster. It’s essential reading because we should never forget what they did at a time when it was just a job. I wish the legacy of the greats was deeper than it eventually turned out to be. Sorry, I can talk comics all day long.

    • says

      No apologies necessary. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on Stan Lee after reading this. Really, the guy who came off as the biggest jerk on the creative side was Todd McFarlane. It was all pretty enlightening to me.

  4. says

    I had heard stories here and there about things like this, but I have yet to read this book. It seems really interesting. It is all very interesting. It is hard sometimes to sit with these contradictions in life. Like how can you love something that has such a crappy behind the scenes reality? But I think it is possible to sit with both, to enjoy this wonderful medium while also learning and trying to understand the nasty politics of the people bringing this all to us. I’m gonna be checking this book out for sure.

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