Monday, October 22, 2012

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe's book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story could just as easily have been subtitled The Never Ending Story.  It's never ending as Marvel's fictional characters die, are brought back, change their powers, get replaced, get cloned, make deals with the devil, but still go on and on.  It's also never ending because the creators behind these characters leave in disgust, get fired, sue the company and sometimes die on the job.

This book is a warts-and-all telling of the people and business behind the creation of the Marvel universe, known for characters such as Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and the X-Men.  While it is only tangentially related to animation, it shares the problems of work-for-hire and the callous way that corporations treat the very people who create the wealth.

For those who haven't followed the comics or the company, this book may be a maddening read, as the cast of fictional and real characters runs into the hundreds.  The size of the cast prevents Howe from going into depth on more than a few people, mainly the owners, editors and to a lesser extent, writers.  The artists, as usual, get short shrift.  Anyone interested in learning more about artists John Buscema, Gene Colan and similar mainstays of the company will be disappointed.  The artists are mostly bystanders while the dance of power and money goes on above their heads.

Martin Goodman was a publisher of pulp magazines, a now extinct breed of publications that focused on genre fiction with detectives, cowboys, aviators and similar action-oriented characters.  They were named pulps for the cheap wood pulp paper they were printed on.  After the success of Superman in Action Comics in the late 1930s, Goodman was convinced to add comic books to his list of publications.  Within the first few years, he published The Human Torch (created by Carl Burgos), The Sub-Mariner (created by Bill Everett) and Captain America (created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby).  He hired his wife's cousin, 17 year old Stanley Leiber to work in the comics division and in 1941 when editor Joe Simon left (with Kirby) after Goodman screwed them out of Captain America royalties, Leiber writing under the pseudonym Stan Lee inherited the post of comics editor.

With the exception of his stint in the military during World War II, Lee continued running the division and created nothing of value until 1961.  At that point, partnered with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, newly successful characters appeared for about a decade.  However, both Ditko and Kirby walked away from Lee and Marvel, angry over their lack of control and compensation.  Once that happened, Lee spent the next 40 years promoting Marvel and himself but failed to create anything similarly successful.  His greatest accomplishment was keeping himself front and center as the ownership changed repeatedly, garnering millions for himself while not lifting a finger as President and Publisher of Marvel to compensate the artists beyond paying them by the page.  He even colluded with his competitor, DC Comics, to make sure that freelancers couldn't play the two companies off each other for higher pay.

It's fitting that Disney now owns Marvel as the companies have similarities in their histories.  The business people who have taken over both companies after their founders have earned far more than the creative people who built the company in the first place.  Eric Ellenbogan, a Marvel executive who lasted just seven months, walked away with a $2.5 million severance package, more money than Jack Kirby made from Marvel in his entire career.  That's hardly different than the $140 million in severance that Michael Ovitz walked away from Disney with, more money than all nine old men made over 40 years.  John Lasseter is rapidly becoming another Stan Lee, agreeing to corporate moves he formerly disdained (like sequels) and becoming a kibitzer of other people's work rather than remaining a creator himself.  For both companies, the '90s were an anomaly where artists actually shared in the money their work generated.  Marvel went bankrupt and Disney abandoned drawn animation and the artists who created it.  In both cases, the good times didn't last.

The book contains just two illustrations: an ad for the first issue of Marvel Comics and a photograph of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965.  Undoubtedly, the publisher didn't want to deal with Disney's well-known reluctance to grant the rights to images it owns (see the delay in Amid Amidi's biography of Ward Kimball).  However, Howe has a tumblr blog which includes many illustrations and documents that should have appeared.  Somehow print attracts the copyright cops while the web escapes unscathed, more proof that the copyright laws are dysfunctional in the digital age.

Anyone who aspires to work for a leading comics or animation company and thinks they'll be entering a magic kingdom where creativity reigns supreme and the fun never stops should read this book.  Large media corporations share many of Marvel's problems. Artists are routinely taken advantage of, and the more artists realize this on the way in, the less likely they are to be disappointed.


Anonymous said...

Are we to assume that Stan Lee's work between 1961 and 1969 is of no consequence?

Mark Mayerson said...

Lee's work during that time period is of consequence, but so is the work of the artists who often plotted the stories and definitely designed the characters. Had the artists earned as much as Lee has, I would have no complaint.

Anonymous said...

You do think that characters like Superman or Spider-man were good only with their original creators?

Mark Mayerson said...

No. But whatever good work came after the creators would not have been possible without the initial creation. Since the company is continuing to make money from that original work (even though the people running the company now and the current stockholders weren't there when the work was created), why shouldn't the original creators?

Daniel [] said...

I'm not amongst Stanley Leiber's fans. But I think that one should note that none of the three — Leiber, Kirby, or Ditko — created characters of comparable significance after the latter two departed.

(In particular, Kirby's bronze-age work at DC looks like dreadful self-parody.)

Disentangling who is responsible for what is at best difficult. (Of course, matters are not helped by Leiber's propensity to lie.)

Mark Mayerson said...

Say what you will about Kirby's 1970s work, but DC comics has been using the cast of his New Gods for the last 40 years in comics and animation. Marvel has also seen fit to revive The Eternals at least once.

I would also point out that Kirby's tenure on the 1970s characters was shorter than the 1960s because he was dissatisfied with his working conditions and didn't renew his 1970s contracts with either DC or Marvel. Would the Fantastic Four or Thor be as well thought of today if Kirby produced fewer than 20 issues of each?

A. Greenfield said...

This post should be titled "The Song Remains The Same" as it's really an unchanged story that goes back generations.

I see you've been getting pushback too, probably from younger fans. A sure sign of getting old.

I can only agree 100% with your logic, but will this ever change? Artists getting the shaft is a constant - dog bites man. It's a rarity when someone manages to break thru that syndrome.

I'd just like to add that although you are right about Lee getting all the credit, the reason is because of his skills at self-promotion. He generates his own PR and that's why it get printed. If Kirby or any of the others would have made as much noise, they too would have a higher profile (and possibly a bit more money). "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"

PS: Not to be critical, but it's "different from .... other than". Being in Canada is not a sufficient excuse !! (That's hardly different than the $140 million...)