Reading Challenge – Book 54 ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’ by Sean Howe and Book 57 ‘Secret Wars’
Ever since my move to using a Kindle (as well as tried and trusty paperback books), I’ve had a yearning to try and experience the world of comic books. Outside of Asterix books when I was young and Persepolis when I was older, I’d never made a concerted effort to read anything from Marvel, DC or any of the other companies producing graphic novels. Primarily, this was due to the difficulty in working out the continuity – a story with fifty potential years of backstory is difficult to get your head around, and a jumping on point is not always obvious. Also, the ability to acquire the comics/trade paperbacks for a reasonable cost was often difficult.
Enter Marvel Unlimited.
For £9.99 a month, I’m in a position where I can check out most of the old Marvel stuff, covering years, storylines, characters and major events across the timeline. Rather than feeling I need to read everything leading up to a story arc, it allows me just to pick and enjoy. However, I did feel that I needed to get the most out of it and read around the subject a little more – I was recommended ‘Marvel Comics: The Untold Story’ and purchased it straight away.
For someone wanting to get an overview of the machinations behind the development of Marvel as a company, from the initial production all the way up to the heady heights of the Avengers movie release, you can’t ask for a better book. As a comic novice, some of it went over my head, but Howe tries to do his best to explore the characters behind the comics, as well as give some over-riding understanding as to the development of the superheroes on the page. Maybe I’d have got more out of the book if I had a working knowledge of some of the people who worked in the industry, but I didn’t feel like it necessarily hampered me and I left the book feeling like I had a better knowledge with which to tackle the Marvel Universe.
The big issues coming from the book center around the peaks and troughs of the comic book industry – riding high and selling huge at times, barely registering culturally at other points. At times, it feels like Marvel survived in spite of the management of the company, with owners bumbling from one failed venture to another, yet with workers creating stories and characters that continued to appeal to an audience over the course of fifty years. Another problem over the half century that arose several times was the idea of who the characters belonged to, with some writers battling Marvel for the rights to better remuneration for their intellectual property. Finally, we saw the battles between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (often centred around this idea of intellectual property) as their relationship turned sour, and arguments pervaded over who created the foundations for the Marvel Universe.
It is fitting that it ends at the time of the Avengers film release, as almost fifty years is spent trying to get Marvel onto cinema screens in a lucrative manner. Stan Lee comes across as melancholic at times, yearning for the red carpets of Hollywood, yet stuck in the Marvel bullpen churning out comic stories. The book highlights this desire effectively, thus giving the ending a sense of a real peak and the accomplishing of a dream, at least on Lee’s part.
During the 1980s, the Marvel writers decided (as another gimmick, amongst Number 1 issues and fancy covers) to have an event that brought many of the main characters together in one place. ‘Secret Wars’ was really the first of its kind, as heroes and villains are taken away by the Beholder, and tasked with fighting to the death in competition for the Beholder’s promise to grant the victor’s true desires. The fact that Howe’s book suggested that this was a cash-grab designed to shift comics and merchandise doesn’t detract from what must have been a huge deal for comic book fans at the time. Even now, it holds up…relatively well.
There are a lot of chances for the heroes and villains to go at it in large (impressively rendered) set pieces, and any opportunity to see Doctor Doom or Galactus in action is worth reading. That nothing really changes by the end (a staple concept within the world of the Marvel ‘Event’ style, seemingly) outside of Spiderman’s new suit – a concept developed during the Venom storyline later on in the canon – and that the women are presented how you might expect women to be presented in a male dominated creative industry in the 1970s is something that, as a modern reader, you are forced to get your head around.
Still, as an oppurtunity to check out the biggest names in Marvel in one neat, packaged storyline, it works well and is an excellent jumping on point for a newcomer. At the least, it is the first full storyline I’ve read from Marvel, and it has me excited to check out more.