Marvel in the mak­ing

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - BOOKS - Henry Back­house

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

The Avengers.

MARVEL COMICS: THE UN­TOLD STORY by Sean Howe Harper, $ 29.99

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