The Secret History of Marvel Comics

The Secret History of Marvel Comics

The cover of this book depicts Captain America leaving the building. He’s not in the book, nor is the history of “Marvel Comics” as such, aside from some brief cameos. What’s actually in the book partly corresponds to its subtitle: “Jack Kirby and the Moonlighting Artists at Martin Goodman’s Empire.”

It’s really two books in one, both a step removed from comic books. The first is a beautifully illustrated, 100-page monograph on the history of Martin Goodman’s business operations and publications, excluding comic books. The second is a 170-page anthology of black-and-white pulp/magazine illustrations by comic book artists who appeared in Goodman’s non-comic publications, including Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Alex Schomburg, Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, Syd Shores, and many others. Who knew that Artie Simek was also a cartoonist?!

In addition to all of the Timely, Atlas, and Marvel comic books (through 1967), Goodman published multiple titles in nearly every mass audience periodical genre for four decades. He was a captain of industry when it came to volume of product and conformity to the prevailing trends.  As a result, this generous collection of Goodman covers and interior art is also a substantial survey of mid-century mass audience periodical history – reflecting the changing appetites of the public and corresponding trends in magazine illustration and design.

All of this book’s research and content is very welcome, and it comes at a good time. Sean Howe’s recent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (2012) provided an authoritative history of Marvel comic books; this book expands our understanding of the publishing industry context in which those comics were produced, and it gives us an unprecedented portfolio of non-comic book art from some notable comic book artists.

The highlight of the portfolio section is nearly 40 pages of Kirby’s black and white, pulp magazine interior illustrations, many of them short story splash pages or spreads. The bulk of these date from 1940-1941, the very moment when Kirby was first pushing the limits of comic books and sequential art. He was drawing these pulp splash pages at the same time he was churning out the early Captain America stories.

Jack Kirby pulp splash page, 1940.
Jack Kirby pulp splash page, 1940.


As the authors note, artists often had a chance to take their time with magazine illustrations, and Kirby’s examples certainly demonstrate that; his early comic book art often looks primitive in comparison to the pulp illustrations. (The pulp work often looks much more like circa 1950 Simon and Kirby art.) Sadly, this book provides no real analysis of comic book artists’ individual approaches to non-comic art, but we get to see Kirby working in ink, watercolor, photo-collage, and stipple board. (All of this in 1940 and 1941, mind you!)

Stipple board was a common medium for pulp illustrations, and while some of these comic book artists weren’t masters of it, Kirby was. Stipple board enabled pencil drawings to be economically reproduced as black and white illustrations, while turning analog pencil gradations into binary black and white. So, in these reproductions of Kirby stipple illustrations, we see him working in pencil, knowing that it will not be inked.

3 KirbyStippleSpread4 KirbyPulpSplash25 KirbyPulpSplash3

Jack Kirby one- and two-page spreads, drawn on stipple board for pulp short stories, 1940-1941.

Kirby’s full-page and two-page-spread pulp work raises a chicken-and-egg question about where his comic-book-page-exploding innovation came from – from his head, or from the freedom he had found exploiting the huge spaces within pulp magazines? The subtitle of the book under review uses the phrase “moonlighting artists.” However, given Kirby’s prolific 1940-1941 work in both formats (comics and pulps), it seems impossible to dispute that they were feeding each other. We may need to offer Martin Goodman a belated thank you for hiring Kirby to do both at the same time, at exactly the right time in comic book history.

Alex Schomburg is another interesting case that is well documented in this book. He’s best known for his immaculately precise and detailed comic book covers during the World War II period – many of them for the “Marvel” line – and thereafter for his painted science fiction work. He, too, was a prolific pulp artist, though his work veers from the seemingly hasty to the very deliberate. He produced a lot of primitive torture-porn illustrations, as well as more sophisticated splash page layouts.

6 SchomburgTorture7 SchomburgStipple

Pulp illustrations by Alex Schomburg.

Most of the other featured artists are either represented by a small (but often tasty) sample of work, or they are not major comic book artists in the first place, making their pulp illustrations less of a draw on that basis. There’s quite a bit of Joe Simon and Frank R. Paul (who gets into the portfolio because he painted the cover of Marvel Comics #1). Figures like Matt Baker and Al Williamson are here, but the work is not particularly impressive; comics were clearly their medium, or their best magazine work wasn’t published by Goodman. Bill Everett’s pulp illustrations are not revelatory, but his more sophisticated magazine art is.  Syd Shores turns out to be spectacular, when he could do anything he wanted, though his comic book art casts him as something of a Simon and Kirby knock-off.

8 BillEverettCheesecake10 DonRicoWoodcut

Illustrations by Bill Everett, Syd Shores, and Don Rico (actual woodcut).

The bottom line is that all of these illustrators were commercial artists, taking whatever paying work came their way, and turning out art accordingly.

The Goodman monograph itself is both gratifyingly researched and frustratingly delivered. As a meticulously researched history of Goodman’s business undertakings and of the publications that came out of them, no more could be asked of the authors. This is a missing piece from the history of 20th Century American publishing and, yes, Marvel Comics. Thank you, gentlemen.

The book’s depiction of Martin Goodman as a man is detailed but indeterminate, though largely negative. Thoughts about Goodman and quotes about him from interesting people are spread across the monograph, but the authors never really attempt to answer the question they ask at the start: “Who was Martin Goodman?”  He is reconstructed through his business practices for most of the 100 pages, with clues to his humanity here and there, but an actual biography and cursory character sketch do not arrive until the very end. This final chapter concludes by indicting Goodman for ripping off Marvel Comics artists (not for their forgotten pulp illustrations, but for The Avengers, not a subject of this book).

Here as elsewhere, the book stumbles over its false premise – that it is a book about Marvel Comics. This absent center disorganizes the book’s intent, judgment, and structure. It obscures a story that would have been better told – would have required a better telling – if Captain America really had left the building on the front cover.

Who was Martin Goodman? The answer from a business point of view is quite fascinating, and the book effectively presents a man with a narrow sense of opportunity, a fairly good head for selling magazines, and a dogged determination to keep publishing.

Goodman never had any significant interest in what he published (except for a devotion to westerns), so long as it sold. How many periodicals could he print and distribute and sell? That was all that mattered. If there was a trend (sadism, science fiction, sex advice, superhero comics, paperback fiction) he copied whatever was selling with multiple imitations. From the 1930s to the 1960s, he threw innumerable pulps, magazines, digests, comic books, and even paperbacks at the wall to see what stuck well enough to justify sourcing content for another issue.

The saga of Marvel Comics as intellectual property gets weirder, once you see Goodman’s decision making, issue by issue, title by title, year by year. He had no respect for others’ intellectual property, insofar as he was a blatant imitator and published works to which he had no rights. He created a maze of separate companies to divide up his legal and financial risk.

He also understood intellectual property only in the narrowest of business senses: He paid writers and artists once for their work, and then the content was his to print or reprint. (The reprinting of formative 1960s Marvel superhero comics in Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest Comics, was a simple Goodman manoeuver to sell more sheaves of paper, but those reprints broadcast those tales to another generation of readers, sowing the seeds of the Marvel “mythos.”)

However, Goodman does not appear to have conceived of content as “intellectual property” in the sense that we now use that term. To him it was just words and art that he could print on paper again and sell again; it was still merely available content for print publication. In the 1960s he gave away the TV rights to Spider Man, thinking of it as free advertising for his comic book.

There were plenty of lawsuits, right from the beginning, against and by Goodman – eventually including artists’ rights cases – but for at least a couple of decades, Goodman seems to have regarded these conflicts as street fights about protecting newsstand sales of publications that he would cancel the very next minute, if they weren’t profitable.

Nor did Goodman appreciate the value of a brand. He changed the titles and formats of publications with wild abandon, presumably to tweak the sales of any commodity that was on the margin. He occasionally attempted to add some small element to create “brand identity,” but it couldn’t hold his attention. Red Circle pulps. Timely, Atlas, and Marvel comics. There was no real brand identity in Goodman’s long publishing history until Stan Lee conjured one up in the 1960s. When Goodman sold his company for a pittance in the late 1960s, Jack Kirby commented that the selling price was less than the value of Ant Man alone. Goodman just never understood the value of what he owned. He didn’t understand what he owned.

The real story in this book, then, is about an early-to-mid-20th century industry (periodical publishing), and about a very old-school, first-generation American, family business entrepreneur. He was obtuse about art, practical about the periodical market, and good at making money within a very narrow understanding of his opportunities. Marvel Comics was one result, an accident of market demand that he managed to meet, and indeed fuel.

Goodman died rich, while the artists who worked for him did not, and the moral injustice of this outcome is the shadow hanging over this book. The question of whether or not Martin Goodman was a bad guy is introduced at the outset, though never answered explicitly. After reading The Secret History, however, one feels that this is the wrong question. Goodman made these publications possible, comic book or otherwise. He identified consumer demand, and he tried to leverage it, paying Jack Kirby and others to create appropriate content. And this agenda enabled numerous luminaries to make a living as commercial artists, and develop as enduring artists, in both their youth and maturity.

Fate introduced a wildcard: Certain comic book creations became national and global myth- and cash-machines, something no one could have anticipated, least of all Martin Goodman. Captain America was just a wartime knock-off of The Shield (the original patriotic comic book superhero), with Goodman bowing to legal pressure from his former co-worker (now competitor) to change Cap’s shield to a different shape. The Human Torch and The Submariner were both accidental Goodman purchases, when he requisitioned content from a third party vendor, due to the popularity of comic books (See Marvel Comics #1).

Yes, Jack Kirby and others turned out to be the Toulouse Lautrecs of their day, undervalued and underpaid. They got shafted by their own youthful engagement with the work-for-hire arrangement, and by the undervaluing of comic books for several decades. There’s no denying that many comic book creators’ grandchildren should now be rich.

But if you accept this book’s thesis that Martin Goodman didn’t give a crap about content, yet was a hoarder and re-purposer of any intellectual property that he possessed – anything that might sell a few thousand more bundles of paper next month – then this is largely a story of two worlds colliding at a very human level. A man built a widget factory that accidentally produced some Stradivarius violins. He didn’t really understand violins, but he understood that they were his, and that they had value.

Imagine a present day in which old comic books and superheroes are of interest only to a coterie of geeky, aging fanatics. Where the names Tom Mix and Captain America are equally remote (just like 97% of everything Martin Goodman ever published). Those of us who are among the geeky fanatics might regard him as the man who made many artists’ visions possible – the non-artistic enabler of the forgotten art and mythology of comic books. If he’d ended up as a middle-class retiree in Florida, coming out to comic book conventions to swap stories with Jack Kirby, we might think of Martin Goodman as a quirky, square, accidental hero. A guy who built a family business that enabled Captain America to exist, that enabled the early shop work of Bill Everett and Carl Burgos to get an airing through a major newsstand publisher, and who had the good sense to allow Stan Lee to do what he did in the Sixties.

Instead, we know him as the first person to refuse Marvel comic book creators a share of the accumulating value of their creations. As he always had, he regarded the properties he’d bought as his own, and then he sold all the important ones for less than the value of Ant Man. From the lofty perch of 2014 parent company Disney, Martin Goodman was as clueless as Jack Kirby.

However, at a certain point, he was offered a choice about whether or not to share what he owned with those who had created the stickiest content in his empire’s history. He refused. This moment has come to define Martin Goodman, because we care about comic book artists and don’t care about Martin Goodman, his children, or his grandchildren.

The richest element of this book may be its muted, conflicted call to start caring about Martin Goodman, at least a little bit. To see him as a limited, determined businessman and family man – a classic 20th Century striver – without whom there would likely be no Marvel Comics.

If you scrambled the well known and the forgotten superheroes of the early Forties, and then dealt them out randomly to different publishers, it’s impossible to guess which ones would endure today. Maybe The Black Terror would be ubiquitous and The Human Torch forgotten. If someone less determined or with less newsstand reach than Goodman had bought his early properties, they might have died in their cradles, footnotes rather than cultural memes.

Or, if you want to argue that Captain America, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner (three different creators) are intrinsically better than the 179 early masked heroes that we’ve forgotten, then maybe Martin Goodman knew how to choose winners. Maybe he is the indisputable “creator” of Marvel Comics.

And, if Goodman hadn’t hired Jack Kirby to draw a huge number of pulp illustrations, Jack Kirby might not have set comics on their most interesting visual course.

You can take Marvel Comics out of this book, but you can’t take Martin Goodman out of Marvel Comics and have any confidence at all that there would still be a Marvel Comics.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Martin Goodman, go-getter and publisher, aged 33. It’s late 1940 or early 1941, and he’s reviewing the cover art for the 11th issue of his hit comic book, Captain America. He hired the right artists to create a knock-off of The Shield, and they knocked it out of the park for him. Yancy Street battles lie before him, and he’ll get knocked down a bunch of times, but the choices he’s already made will change the course of American popular culture.

11 Martin Goodman