The House that Jack Built

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
Sean Howe
(Harper Collins)

"I feel certain that Spider-Man alone is worth a billion dollars."
-- Avi Arad

"By 2004 Marvel was employing statistical analysts to feed information about creator and character performances into algorithms that determined launches, cancellations, and frequencies of publication."
-- Sean Howe, p. 424

"After all, what is crime but a left-handed form of human endeavor?"
-- The Asphalt Jungle

Sean Howe's Marvel Comics is a testament to the Age of Knowingness in contemporary entertainment journalism. Your newspaperman of the old school, Hildy Johnson in his personal version of The Front Page, would sail a sea of ignorance secure in his belief that his attitude equipped him to interpret anything on Earth. His lack of knowledge merely demonstrated that his subject was beneath his consideration. The copy he would produce would fall into one of two categories, either an invitation to his reader to condescend to his subject and thus share his superiority, or an utterly credulous transmission of whatever the first publicist or self-promoter he encountered told him, wrapped in a guarantee that this was a trend that would define our lives for decades to come. These superficially opposite approaches originated from the same cynicism, and served the same purpose of allowing the newspaperman to have his copy filed in time to be in the bar by 5:00.

Not that this sort of journalism has died out, easily identified by the appearance of the word "nerd" in the first sentence, and publicist ventriloquism still thrives. But the salt-worthy entertainment journalist of today makes it a point of honor to demonstrate knowledge of any subject with references that would convince the most cognizant of cognoscenti of their bona fides. If for his or her sins this reporter were compelled to do a feature on German excrement erotica, they will at any cost to psyche be prepared to drop the names of obscure practitioners with perceptive side comments on their specialties. It would be hard to argue that this is not progress.

And so we have Sean Howe's history of Marvel, at 430-odd pages a doorstop for a doggie door at least. It's like getting 20 years of Comics Journal interviews in a high colonic. His breezy prose style is ingratiating if not inspired, and he has the necessary capacity for treating the works of his subjects with respect. (Actually, I was starting to feel a little respect when I read about the New Mutants storyline where "the X-Men's old archenemies, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, became the National Security Council," only to finish the sentence and find that it actually says "the National Security Council-sanctioned Freedom Force.") Really, you have to push the guy pretty hard to squeeze out some contempt. Even Jim Shooter's New Universe is passed over with for the most part a polite silence. A dilettante who has always preferred informed guessing to research can only feel chagrin in the presence of a professional's thoroughness, and hope to avoid comparisons. It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to know any more about the subject than this.

That his story is unauthorized is evidenced by the absence of any visual images whatsoever save two, an early house ad for the 1930s Timely comics line that introduced Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, and a 1965 snapshot of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The latter is an interesting document. Kirby looks like a young Jack Kirby, and Lee looks like his father. Actually, clean-shaven and sans-toupee, Lee looks a lot like Will Eisner, and certainly nothing like the swingin' uncle we'd come to know. He is still dressing the part of a minor functionary in a second-rate publishing house, of no more account than an editor of crossword puzzle magazines, his best hope to be taken for middle management. In reality he was already remaking himself into a culture hero, an identity that would be in part genuine and in part performance. In his credit hogging he was ultimately mirroring the policy of his own overlord, Martin Goodman. Just as Lee assumed that there was only enough credit in the business to make one person a hero, Goodman worked on the assumption that there was only enough money in his business to make one man rich.

Goodman's business was called Magazine Management, and its specialty was imitating any sort of magazine that was already making money for someone else. Comic books were for most of its history a sideline. At the time Timely became Marvel his main earners were men's magazines that plied the territory between outdoor adventure and stroke book. In a mere seven years the stroke books would become the tail and Marvel had become the dog, a big enough hound to attract the attention of a holding company. Howe notes the moral horror of one of Goodman's lawyers at the notion that Stan Lee or any of the other serfs might have been entitled to a piece of the action: "I was shocked. Martin had taken all the risk publishing, they had taken none of the risk, and here they thought they should profit from the sale [of Magazine Management]." "Risk" is a debatable description of what Goodman engaged in. To paraphrase W.C. Fields, publishing was not a game of chance the way he played it. It's an interesting question whether Goodman's great gift to the comics, keeping his comic book business going after the horror comics purge, was a gamble or hedging a his bets. According to Howe, it was his magazine savvy telling him that to abandon the business was to surrender hard-won space on the spinner racks.

I believe I've previously referred in these pixels to the movie There Will Be Blood as an illustration of a particular aspect of capitalism. That movie, based on a novel by Upton Sinclair, concerns Daniel Plainview, a man who at great peril to his life has learned how to extract oil from the ground. Because that knowledge is so perilous to obtain, the few who have it have a great deal of leverage. Plainview's belief is that since oil land is worthless without his knowledge, he ought to get all the money. Once he's bamboozled the owners of mineral rights into signing a lease he will not pay them their share as a matter of principle. That his knowledge would be of no value without oil to pump does not enter into his thinking. To a comic book mogul a comic book character was of no value unless you had the means to print and distribute a magazine. The deal offered to the creators was regular employment in exchange for all rights in their creations, and the terms were take it or leave it.

Howe's story has four phases: (1) The Golden Eggs Are Laid, and Now They Belong to the Farmer; (2) Stan's Not Here; (3) It's Jim Shooter's Universe, We Just Live in It; and (4) Strip Mining. Though the first phase is the most creative period in the history of Marvel Comics, it's actually the least interesting part of Marvel Comics. This is in the first place because it is not Untold but told many times, and in the second place because there was actually very little human interaction. After the purge the Goodman comics operation was reduced to little more than Stan Lee in a bleak corner of the office, far from the window and close to the draft. The comics were produced by a handful of stalwart, high output freelancers led by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who might come into the office once a week to discuss new assignments. In shifting their focus from monsters to men of steel they were, in true Magazine Management fashion, imitating a DC's semi-successful initiative of reviving costumed characters.

Howe's version tends to confirm that Lee would leave as much of the storytelling to his pencillers as they were capable of doing, while reserving the job of providing the patter for himself. This was construed in a style you might call Relentless Cornball. I often wonder if the infamous credit-hogging would have happened had it not been for the newspaper articles and the speaking engagements. It was all about escape, really, all of it. Not escape in the sense of escapism but escape in the sense of breaking out of prison. To escape from being that commonplace halfway-to-the-grave little bald man in the photo, to escape the stultifying set of conventions that defined the superhero, to escape from the slow death of the whole comic book business, to escape fate. Devil take the hindmost.

Kirby departs Marvel in 1970, and Lee's day-to-day involvement with the comics would not last much longer. Truly, putting words in the mouth of a whole line of comics for ten years would have burned out Alexandre Dumas. The more exalted his title at Marvel the less he seems to want to do with it. One of the more poignant passages in Marvel Comics summarizes the grand plans he contemplated when he was kicked upstairs to President and Publisher: Soliciting the likes of Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut and Vaclav Havel to write a line of sophisticated comic books; recruiting Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner to edit magazines; a magazine devoted to underground comics. The latter scheme was the only one to see the light of day. Comix Book, edited by Denis Kitchen, though it featured the work of Kim Deitch, Justin Green and Skip Williamson, came off like the pallid, hemophiliac cousin of Arcade, and lasted only three issues. It's reminiscent of Max Fleischer's dreams of bringing Gulliver's Travels to the screen in all its' bawdry, the reality of which turned out to be a flaccid imitation of Disney. (The difference between Max Fleischer and Walt Disney was that Fleischer had interesting tastes that he lacked the nerve to pursue, whereas Disney had dubious tastes and all the nerve in the world.)

In any case, Lee had, willy nilly, trained his successors, a circle of devoted apostles who had absorbed his church of humbug chapter and verse. The timeline dictated that these acolytes would be very young, and their avocation dictated that they would not be the most emotionally mature people in the world at any age. The success of Marvel had allowed it to move to larger offices, which gave them a place to congregate. It's here that Howe's account starts to get entertaining. You imagine Lee sticking his head into the asylum, seeing the inmates swinging from the chandeliers, and suddenly deciding he was needed on the Coast. After all, those Hollywood hotshots weren't going to rook themselves. I recall Rick Marschall, then-editor of Marvel's magazine line, saying in an interview that his conservative political and religious beliefs made him feel out of place in a company where you were more likely to meet a Satanist than a Christian.

Lee's first viceroy was a Roy, Roy Thomas, a solid, high-production meat-and-potatoes adventure comics writer. He is the sort of writer who is bound to be underrated but will carry a comics line on his back. His name was a virtual guarantee that you would have a decent comic book to read. He originated a role within the company that might be called Adult Supervision, the wet blanket who reminds the people around them that they are in a business with a schedule. It was a thankless task that no one lasted long in, and Thomas sought safety in freelancing he was followed in rapid succession by Archie Goodwin and Denny O'Neill. (Howe unearths the delightful nugget that in an earlier pre-comics phase of his editorial career Goodwin rejected the portfolio of a young Andy Warhol, admonishing him about appropriating images from others.)

The herd of cats they wrangled was dominated by writers, a still-active generation that included Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Steve Engelhart, Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Bill Mantlo and Steve Gerber. Conceptually they were conducting underground comics by other means. How much you would value this would depend on whether you thought the political and social views expressed in underground comics were their most interesting aspect. In form what they were doing was still conventional superhero comics. Howe summarizes their storylines and concepts with great gusto, but like the novels of Kilgore Trout they tend to be better summarized than read. What strikes you about Marvel comics of the '70s now is how text-logged they are. Gerber was the most interesting of them, but outside of Howard the Duck I always found his superhero comics a bit cloying.

Howe's account crystallizes what a watershed the Kirby experience was in creators' consciousness of what the companies were doing to them. To be sure, comic book publishers had been commandeering cartoonists' creations from day one, with only the canniest escaping with ownership intact, but to see a cartoonist create so much in such a short period of time and come away from it with nothing but his page rate sent a shock through the system. I had inferred that companies had taken to retreading old properties because creators were loath to create new characters they would have to surrender. Until I read Marvel Comics I hadn't known that this practice goes all the way back to Roy Thomas, which is to say back to the day Kirby first walked out the door. Looking at the October solicitations for Marvel, I count about 68 comic magazines. Around half of them feature characters that Kirby had a hand in creating. In that half I'm not counting the 16-odd X-Men derivatives, which involve considerable post-Kirby creation. Aside from that I count about 12 that are based on post-Kirby characters, plus four licensed properties.

After Kirby's departure from Marvel the only one in the industry who seems to put much energy into creating characters is Kirby himself, and later on Rob Liefeld, who seems determined to be the Kirby of Crap. His attitude toward creating characters evidently was there's plenty more where that came from. For the most part the role of the creators in the post-Kirby era was to sit on the company's goose eggs and re-hatch them into golden ones. New characters emerged almost as slip-ups, in a moment of unwariness -- villains turned headliners, new members of existing superhero teams, or off-the-cuff one-shots like Howard the Duck. Consider Chris Claremont, who in perfecting the superhero-with-problems theme in X-Men might have made more money for the company than anyone since Kirby. This was a "creation" too amorphous to own under any regime.

And yet, Claremont prospered far more than Kirby or any of his other forebears. What we in Journal-land are loath to recognize is that Kirby's tenure at Marvel actually did lead to a more equitable division of the wealth. It did so by creating competition. Once Marvel matches and passes DC in market share it creates a binary world in which both companies maximize the number of titles. In such an environment talent that can produce becomes an ever-more valuable commodity. First DC and later, grudgingly, Marvel would retain coveted creators by returning original art (if your name wasn't Jack Kirby), offering benefits like health insurance, and most importantly what they called incentives. They called them "incentives" because "royalties" are something you pay to the owner of a property, but they were a piece of the action based on sales. The creator of a hit comic now makes a nice dollar indeed. What we in Journal-land do in this situation is move the goal posts and complain that this system doesn't afford true creative freedom. What the big companies do not bend on is ownership of characters. The baseball entrepreneur Bill Veeck once advised sports promoters that they should consider giving away anything but tickets, because that's what they were selling. The rule with Marvel and DC is to give creators anything but characters, because they're the keys to the kingdom.

Marvel Comics is at its most entertaining once Jim Shooter is named editor-in-chief. If the book does nothing else it demonstrates that it's really easy to get people to say nasty things about Jim Shooter. In answering all the dark legends that surround him he begins to sound like Alice Cooper denying rumors he bit the heads off of chickens onstage. It's like Captain Bligh: You hear stories about him both ways, but the fact remains that his crew stranded him at sea in a rowboat.

Shooter was to become the ultimate adult supervision. Where his predecessors had accepted the role with reluctance and abandoned it with alacrity, Shooter treated it like his life's ambition. Normally you would think it an advantage to have a creative person leading a creative enterprise. (I can't tell you how shocked I was when I learned that the comic book story that had impressed me most as a child, the Nemesis Kid storyline in Legion of Super-Heroes, was written by a teenaged Jim Shooter.) The trouble with Shooter was that he thought he was the Irving Thalberg of comics. Like a supervising producer in the Hollywood studio system he meant to impose his way of doing things at every level. That is to say, he not only wanted to tell the writers how the stories ought to be written but the artists who they ought to be drawn. You can see how the incentive system could play into the hands of a martinet, as it gives the talent a strong incentive to stay on a popular title. What else could you imagine would make people acquiesce to demands that completed stories be redrawn or re-written to an editor's orders days before deadline. The amount of leverage the talent had is demonstrated when popular writer/artist John Byrne tried to resolve a creative dispute by going over Shooter's head to company president Jim Galton. Galton calls Shooter and says, "Who the hell is John Byrne?"

Ultimately the mutiny became so general that Shooter was thrown over the side. Whether his watch was actually any less satisfactory than what went before or after is open to question. It saw the Frank Miller Daredevil, which was the last Marvel comic I paid any close attention to, and either that or Howard the Duck was my favorite from my period of heavy Marvel reading. It also saw the flowering of Chris Claremont's X-Men, which most of Marveldom loved to distraction and which more than anything was what inspired me to stop paying attention. "Superheroes with problems" was always the aspect of Marvel I liked least. I have the same attitude to self-pity that a reformed drunk has to a bottle of whiskey. An addict is never truly cured.

The thing I was really curious about is how the hell this all became big business. When I was paying attention my impression had always been that even the big comics publishers were marginal hole-and-corner businesses that continued mostly through inertia. So here I am minding my own business, with only the vaguest notion of what was going on with Marvel, and suddenly you start hearing it associated with names from the front page of the Business section instead of the back pages: Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Revlon. I am aware there was a book about it before this that might have satisfied my curiosity, but me I see a business book I'm like, "Ooo, I better read this at home in case I want to jerk off to it!"

Sure enough, three quarters of the way through Marvel Comics the business is still pretty damned hole-and-corner. True, it had become appetizing enough to be swallowed by a couple of bigger fish, but compared to what ruled the ocean these were minnows. The first thing that happens is that the direct market comic shop system comes along to rationalize their channels of trade for them. Instead of skulking in a forlorn spinner rack in a forgotten corner of a drug store, they would become the center of attention. Because anywhere from 60 to 90% of a comics shop's display space would be reliably dedicated to Marvel and DC, the two companies realized all the advantages of their own retail chain with none of the cost.

Howe gives considerable credit for nurturing this relationship to Carol Kalish, a former retailer who became Marvel's liaison to the comics shops and ultimately was named a Vice President. When she died suddenly and shockingly much of the business acted like they'd lost their best friend. Though this doesn't make it into Marvel Comics, the weeping and gnashing of teeth would inspire Gary Groth of this magazine to engage in some Hicksian commentary to the effect that Kalish was a kind of Samantha Glick who ought to have been buried in a sack. The ill will reverberates to this day. In truth, the interests of Kalish and her constituency were 100% percent congruent, and on top of that she had a knack for making retailers feel like they were part of Marvel, something many of them wanted as much as anything in the world. As such they couldn't see Gary's motivation as anything other than the wickedness of his black heart.

Secondly, there was the quixotic pursuit of the bottomless pot of golden eggs, the movies and television. These Marvel executives who were such slick Bret Mavericks when stripping a cartoonist of his brainchild would turn into clodhopping Mortimer Snerds for anyone who claimed to hold the keys to Hollywood. After one such fleecing one of them recalls, "I owned more rights to Marvel than Marvel did." I was once taken in by one of those phishing scams, the ones where, if you're really stupid, they fool you into giving them account information. Not only did I enter my account information into their bogus website, but when it failed to go through on the first time I submitted it again. This is the level of sophistication of Marvel when dealing with the motion picture business. Still they persevered. After all wasn't Hollywood the land of dreams? And if not, is it not the inventor of failing upward? Ultimately Marvel determined that the way to the end of the rainbow was to sell their body to an entertainment company. The studio they chose was New World Pictures, presumably because they couldn't find one that was on fire. It was like one of those producers who Orson Welles used to find to finance his movies late in his career, only to find that they were looking to him to give credibility to them.

While the association with New World failed to make anyone's dreams come true, it did make it part of a fish that was big enough to attract the attention of a killer whale, who bit the Marvel chunk off. In the hands of Ronald Perelman Marvel passed from Daniel Plainview capitalism into Gordon Gekko capitalism. It is striking how many personalities in this section of Marvel Comics sound like something out of a gangster movie, including one fellow named Joe "The Squid" Calamari. But really, in the modern economy, for one with the mind of a master criminal, a Professor Moriarty, a Dr. Fu Manchu, to break the law is to reveal yourself as a hopeless amateur, a rank poseur who can't master the rules that allow you to make the real money. To enter the realm of surreal wealth you need not resort to violence or thievery. You need only convince your quarry that your enterprise is on a growth trajectory that will continue indefinitely, and they hand their money over to you to get a piece of it. To construe this as dishonest is to fail to understand that it inhabits a sphere in which the categories of good and evil no longer apply. If you have to ask how much it costs you can't afford it. The great dream of the Reagan era is that if the forces of the marketplace could just be unchained, the law of gravity that limits percentage returns on investment to the low single figures would be shattered and fantastic wealth would rain down. From this simple faith we get the savings and loan debacle, the dot com implosion, the housing catastrophe. In this context what happened could hardly be called surprising, or even out of the ordinary.

Perelman's business was to take over an exploitable enterprise, squeeze it until it projectile vomited a stream of green, go public and make a killing on the stock sales. This entailed entering into a suicide pact with the comics shops in which Perelman chivalrously said, "You first." The problem with the big collector phenomenon comic book was that it was by its nature unexpected. A particular issue of a comic would become a sensation, catching everyone unawares, netting a killing for anyone who fortuitously had a lot of copies. The attempted solution was to manufacture sensations, with character "deaths," with number one issues, with foil-stamped holographic lenticular variant covers in a plastic bag with exclusive trading cards. What this strategy failed to consider in developing valuable collectibles was the importance of scarcity. Rather than a pouch of gems that could be doled out at premium prices, the retailers were stuck with boxes of white elephants that couldn't be sold for face. Marvel's other great scheme was to create a vertical monopoly by taking distribution in-house. While this did create a monopoly, it was for Diamond Comics Distributors rather than Marvel, as the distribution system was ripped asunder, hundreds of comics shops went out of business and Marvel went into bankruptcy. I recall comparing Marvel's practices at the time with ordering an artillery barrage on your own position.

And yet, upward they failed. The ultimate reason was simply that the bottomless pot of golden eggs was real. In their struggle for solvency Marvel had taken in a couple of rational operators, Ike Perlmutter and the above-quoted Avi Arad, who won the battle for the bloody but still breathing carcass. Gordian knots are cut, legal entanglements are un-entangled, and even with some of the largest golden eggs still licensed out at what Daniel Plainview would call quail prices, there were still enough left in the pot when exploited properly to pave Sunset Boulevard.

This is true: A few years ago I was a temp in the legal department of a large mouse-oriented entertainment conglomerate. One day I start getting ccs of these e-mails about the chain of title on Marvel comics characters. After a few I e-mailed the attorney who was sending him and asked if I was intended to be included in this correspondence. He replied no, and please delete all messages. My assumptions at the time were that (a) curiosity would not be appreciated, (b) whatever it was about would become public knowledge soon enough, and (c) it would probably be something boring, such as the alphabetical television network that was also part of the conglomerate making TV shows about the characters. Assumption (a) I never tested, though I continue to have absolute faith in it. Assumption (b) was correct. Assumption (c), what a lulu. The most rational, cash-logged operator in the world bought Marvel for the price of four Spider-Men.

Whether these shenanigans have rendered Marvel any less able to provide its consumers with what they want is a question I couldn't answer. My impression of the big two companies, and it's little more than that, is that once it became market leader Marvel became a creative status quo power depending heavily on formula, and DC became the innovator and risk-taker. Sean Howe, who when he can't say anything good tends not to say anything at all, has little approving commentary in the later stages of Marvel Comics for anything but the Kurt Busiek/Alex Ross Marvels series. However, this could just be that there's so much business going on in that section that there's little room anything else. From my personal perspective the function Marvel fulfills is to provide a commercial foundation for comics that allows the margins to survive. So long as they have curtailed their suicidal/fratricidal policies and keep the punters happy they are fulfilling this function. If I were a Sean Howe I would just go and ask the creators whether it fulfills their creative ambitions, but being me I will surmise that their point of view is that they are professionals and work with those that pay top professional wages. They sing in their chains like an S&M freak.