Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a meaty tome covering the business and personalities involved in seventy-odd years of telling fantastical stories.
That's a lot to manage in a book that can't be published in a thirty-volume edition, and perhaps author Sean Howe's greatest achievement lies in the deceptively simple act of exclusion, of sifting through so many anecdotes, grudges and legal briefs to find the themes that will make for both a legitimate document and a compelling narrative.
At the same time, those decisions seem to be the chief complaints of some comics industry folk, who seem to blame Howe for not being able to include every nugget of nuance and trivia on offer. It's true that a book like this can suffer from selective sins of omission, which can unnecessarily shade the story, but Howe makes the sensible decision to cling to a few key threads throughout the narrative and never let go.
Howe succeeds by prioritizing the people above all else. The book shines when it manages to capture key eras through the stories of those who were there. The chapters on Marvel in the seventies make a case for the era's comics as a cultural parallel to the revolutions in movies, comedy, and music taking place alongside them. Creators rights and Marvel's utter failure to recognize them, even today, become a poignant and frustrating counterpoint to the company's cultural impact and success. Howe returns again and again to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the two key figures in Marvel's history, and charts the decay of their relationships to the company and each other. In the eighties, Jim Shooter emerges as the polarizing, transformative figure that drags Marvel into a decade of ever-growing profits and ever-raising stakes.
I love Howe's eye for the bizarre and illustrative detail, and there have been many odd events, people, and projects associated with Marvel over the years. He's continued spotlighting all things strange and wonderful about Marvel through the book's Facebook page. We learn that we were nearly exposed to a "Marvel Macarena" featuring a dancing Spider-Man, and that perennial company man Lee once told industry colleagues, "I would tell any cartoonist who has an idea, think twice before you give it to a publisher." Those details--in many cases new (at least to me) and in other cases simply mentioned at exactly the right moment in the narrative--are entertaining and illuminating in equal measure.
The Jemas era, the rise of Quesada, the explosion of the Marvel brand across media--it's all there. Some of it takes up more space than other details, but it's there. And if the worst you can say about Howe's terrific book is that you wish there were more in it, then join me in hoping for a sequel.