Marvel in the making
UNDERESTIMATING the ambition of Stan Lee, the mustachioed impresario who has served as the public face of Marvel Comics for the past 40 years, is probably difficult.
Yet it seems unlikely even he could have foreseen the success of the string of movies that culminated in last year’s hit The Avengers, which was, at last count, the third highestgrossing movie yet made.
As Sean Howe’s fascinating history of Marvel makes clear, it’s a success that almost didn’t happen.
In 1961, when publisher Martin Goodman directed Lee to come up with a superhero team to compete with DC’s newly created Justice League, Lee almost resigned in protest.
The industry was dying, and Lee, a veteran of the golden age of the 1940s, had had enough.
Eventually talked round by his wife, Lee instead spent a few days sketching out some characters and a plot and then fired them off to veteran artist Jack Kirby, little expecting the rapturous response the title received when it hit the newsstands a few weeks later.
Even today it’s easy to see why the Fantastic Four and the rapidly expanding cast of characters – Spider- Man, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Dr Strange – that exploded from the imaginations of Lee, Kirby and other Marvel artists such as Steve Ditko in the next two or three years were such a sensation.
These were not bland do- gooders like DC’s Superman and Aquaman, these were real people: neurotic, morally ambiguous creations whose powers rarely came without a cost.
Sometimes, as for Peter Parker, that was simply a matter of lying to everybody around you about who you really were, but usually it was more than that: for Tony Stark, his armour was the only thing keeping his damaged heart beating; for Bruce Banner, transformed into the Hulk after being caught in the blast of a gamma bomb, it meant possessing an uncontrollable, monstrously destructive alter ego.
Nor was it just about the characters, as is clear from even the briefest glance at the pages of Kirby’s Fantastic Four, Hulk or Avengers, with their dramatic tableaus of leaping figures and vast, humming alien technologies, or Ditko’s moody, noirish imaginings in Spider- Man or Strange Tales.
Kinetic, primal, simultaneously cosmic and intimate, their wonders and occasional awkwardness are testimony not just to the breakneck speed with which the Marvel universe was created, but to the enlivening and exhilarating sense of creative possibility that underpinned that process.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t last. Within a decade Kirby and Ditko were gone, their rights over the characters they had helped create ceded to Marvel, their relationship with Lee sunk in recrimination.
Although his name was synonymous with the brand, Lee was as good as gone too, his attention focused on Hollywood and merchandising. Even the comics themselves, once powerhouses of invention, had grown stale, tied down by Lee’s edict that they feature only ‘‘ the illusion of change’’, for fear the portrayal of the characters in the comics might come into conflict with portrayals licensed to other media.
Howe’s account of these early years in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is the best I’ve read. Sharply and engagingly written, it brings this improbable cultural moment vividly to life, balancing the aficionado’s knowledge of the material with a keen eye for human detail.
The results are often revealing, especially in Howe’s nuanced and sympathetic portrait of Lee, whom artist Jim Steranko once described as ‘‘ equal parts actor, editor, charmer, and showman’’.
At the heart of the book, though, is a fascinating account of the fundamental conflict between the corporate interests of the Marvel brand and the company’s creators.
In places – particularly in Howe’s account of the creatively ( and, eventually, financially) bankrupt ’ 80s and ’ 90s – this can make for depressing reading for anybody who cares about the characters or the form.
Yet, as Howe points out in the final pages, it’s a reminder of what he describes as the ‘‘ central challenge of a narrative- driven commercial franchise’’, the manner in which the ideas and invention that are the medium’s lifeblood necessarily threaten its continued viability by jeopardising corporate trademarks and narrative continuity.
The stasis this produces, the strange elasticity that has allowed Peter Parker to age only a few years across four decades, enables these characters and the worlds they inhabit to be remade and reinterpreted over and over again.
THE SHOWMAN: Stan Lee at the premiere of
MARVEL COMICS: THE UNTOLD STORY by Sean Howe Harper, $ 29.99