Art, Criticism & Creating Comics  > Comics History & Criticism

Marvel Comics The Untold Story s/c

Marvel Comics The Untold Story s/c back

Sean Howe


Page 45 Review by Stephen

Revealed: Superhero Superstars In Fifty-Year Comicbook Catfight!

This is like one of those celebutard gossip rags but with comics and creators you actually care about! Also: a 99.9% better chance of the dirt being true. Riveting!

With any book like this, you fear it’ll be a white-wash: a hagiography of corporately endorsed spin; something else for Stan Lee to step in and sign even though he had absolutely no hand in its creation! Nope. I don’t see Stan Lee signing any copies of this meticulously researched muck-raking!

We all know about the wider injustices perpetrated by Marvel and DC on its creators (I was going to type “earliest creators” but DC seem to be keeping that grand tradition alive right to this day/hour/minute), but I had no idea there was so much animosity, back-stabbing and outright paranoia pervading the Merry Marvel Bullpen back then. And I say “paranoia” but that doesn’t mean they weren’t out to get each other. Some of them were, and still are! The shit, it verily flies, I promise you.

Learn why Kirby finally walked (twice) and Roy Thomas as editor-in-chief too! After that Marvel went through four different editor-in-chiefs within 20 months, and it’s easy to see why. It was chaos! Unsustainable chaos drowned in ego-ridden, territory-marking wee-wee. You want to know why Cockrum did so many X-MEN covers after Byrne took over? To piss John Byrne off! He’d manage to irritate the hell out of everyone except Chris Claremont, and now it was Claremont’s turn. Deetz all here!

As to Stan Lee, there is tale after tale of betrayal. He and Ditko couldn’t agree on the direction of Spider-Man, nor the issues’ individual contents (which is rich given how little direction the so-called writer actually doled out before artists were left to create virtually from scratch). As early as issue 18 Stan was so infuriated with how much Peter Parker there was and how little fist-fighting that he settled the score in public:

“Lee’s letter-page description in other Marvel comics that month threw Ditko under the bus even as it made its sales pitch. “A lot of readers are sure to hate it,” he promised of the issue, “so if you want to know what all the criticism is about, be sure to buy a copy!””

When Stan assembled the Bullpen together to record a flexi-disc of banter, Ditko was markedly absent so Stan wrote in a seeming extemporisation:

STAN: “Hey, what’s all that commotion out there, Sol?”
SOL: Why, it’s shy Steve Ditko. He heard you’re making a record and he’s got mic fright! Whoops! There he goes!”
STAN: “Out the window again? You know, I’m beginning to think he is Spider-Man.”

“The month the record was announced, a notice ran on the first page of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. “Many readers have asked why Stan’s name is always first on the credits! And so big-hearted Lee agreed to put Stevey’s name first time this time! How about that?!!!” The joke was that Lee’s name was below Ditko’s – and twice the size.”

Stan sure wrote the dialogue (and dictated the credits) but only after Steve and Jack Kirby had told their own stories. When the Silver Surfer appeared for the first time in an issue of FANTASTIC FOUR, it was a total surprise to Stan. Kirby’s original plan for the Surfer was to make him cold and aloof. He even began work on a solo series with that in mind, but eventually Stan hired John Buscema without consulting Kirby and turned the steely Silver Surfer into the ultimate example of emo.

Coming back to the chaos, the writing was on the wall as early as AVENGERS #16 back in 1965 when the original team was ditched in favour of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. You think this was a creative decision? Think again! THE AVENGERS was originally assembled as an answer to DC’s success with JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, gathering together their most popular solo superheroes under into a single scout hut to maximise sales. But with Marvel’s key success over DC was that they created a single universe in which the characters constantly interacted, one title’s antics informing the others. But even with a mere handful of titles Stan found he couldn’t keep track of what Iron Man was doing here and Thor was doing there so he replaced those characters with their own comics with those who had none – apart from Captain America whose adventures were handily happening back in WWII.

So many decisions were born out of sheer practicality. Did you ever wonder why Captain America and Iron Man shared TALES OF SUSPENSE? Because DC controlled Marvel’s distribution at the time and forbade them to expand. The creation of Spider-Woman, Ms Marvel and She-Hulk? It wasn’t to cash in on their male counterparts’ success; it was to shore up copyrights. Iron Man’s helmet got a nose for a while because Stan glanced briefly at a single page and didn’t think there was room for a nose in one particularly flat helmet and so dictated it be so.

Miraculously, it’s all so coherently structured and dense in detail without one ounce of fat. Funny, too!

“”I was just as crazy as everybody else post-Watergate, post-Vietnam,” said Starlin, whose hobbies included motorcycles, chess, and lysergic acid diethylamide-25.”

That’s Jim Stalin, by the way, whose enduringly sharp and psychedelic nay psychotropic WARLOCK space-saga is thereby explained, as well as its reception recorded: his fan mail used to come complete with gratefully donated doobage, Valerie Singletons in the form of pre-rolled spliffs.

I’m as guilty as anyone of assuming that a career is one straight trajectory: up, up and then often away with the fairies or booted unceremoniously out of the editor’s door. But no: all and sundry were in a constant state of resignation (in either senses of the word) moving back and forth between Marvel and DC or, in the case of legendary editor-in-chief and acne-ridden obelisk Jim Shooter, retreating home after his child-prodigy antics on LEGION OF SUPERHEROES to run a branch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Those original SECRET WARS nearly never happened. SECRET WARS 2 certainly shouldn’t have, and you’ll get the run-down on precisely how out-of-control its proceedings were.

More fun facts: DAZZLER #1 sold over 400,000 copies! The concept was originally co-conceived by Casablanca Records (Kiss) who would release both an LP with a singer adopting the Dazzler persona, and film a motion picture to go with it. John Romita Jr. was asked to design her, and he did so, in the vein of Grace Jones, “a very statuesque, international model with short hair.” Oh yeah, and that blue makeup mask. Did you ever make that connection with Kiss? She was eventually depicted as white because Bo Derek once expressed an interest in the projected film version.

As to feminism, Stan Lee came up with three titles the same day: NIGHT NURSE, THE CLAWS OF THE CAT and SHANNA THE SHE-DEVIL, “cat-suited sexpots and jungle queens”. But the kicker is Wally Wood inking over Marie Severin’s pencils on THE CAT #1 “with the heroine’s clothes completely removed and Severin – who’d had more than her fill of boys’ club shenanigans over the years – had to white out the Cat’s nipples and pubic hair.”

Also: did you know that Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, Vaclav Havel and even Art Spiegelman were all on board to be published by Marvel at one point? And that, in a cost-cutting exercise, management once seriously suggested that Marvel Comics covers should be printed in only one colour?

Oh, there is so much here, including those lawsuits, and I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t spawn more. One of my favourite revelations was that in the first couple of years, during all Stan’s soapboxing about the Merry Marvel Bullpen, there wasn’t one! Oh, there had been a busy office life before and there would be again, but at the time Stan created the myth is was precisely that: a myth! Stan was virtually alone in the office, with his secretary Flo answering all the fan mail. You’ve got to hand it to Stan, he could weave a magnificent illusion.

Now, do you want to peer behind the curtain and smog-screen? You’ll laugh, I promise.