If you grew up on Marvel Comics, you grew up on the idea of the bullpen, that crazed workplace full of boundless energy and cheerful creators churning out classic after classic. Marvel kids dreamt as frequently of being a member of that bullpen as they did of being their hero of choice, the seductive atmosphere of professional Peter Pans a big bright beacon for adulthood done right. But as Sean Howe's recent history Marvel Comics: The Untold Story unfortunately proves, the Marvel bullpen was in reality too similar to so many other childhood dreams: a big crock of shit.
That doesn't make Howe's book any less of a pleasure to read, it simply gives it a throughline, one that is all the more potent because Howe was so clearly a Marvel kid who turned the end of his childhood dream into pop culture lit lemonade. Regardless of whether you view Howe as the first proper Marvel historian, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is an impressive accomplishment, an amazingly detailed and well-researched exploration of a company that has gone through innumerable growing pains on its way to its current dominance of the comics marketplace and now the Hollywood box office as well. Howe's love for Marvel is clear throughout, but so is his disillusionment with not just Marvel but the comics industry itself, an often brutal, bitter field that chews up more careers and lives than it nurtures.
Tracing the arc of Marvel beginning with its Timely origins, Howe's book also serves as a history of the modern era of comics, an era that kicked off in full force with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's unveiling of Fantastic Four and a newly domestic kind of hero. Those two figures also serve as twin protagonists for the bulk of the comic, with Lee the prodigal son who went West seeking fortune and glory while Kirby continued to fit the part of the troubled artist. Howe is tough on both but always fair, equally willing to shine a light on Lee's continuously optimistic view that his stable of Marvel creations could make the company the next Disney as he is to detail Lee's disappointing lack of loyalty to anything other than his brand, with Kirby's descent into suffocating albeit completely understandable frustration and bitterness towards the medium he helped evolve equally well defined.
Neither Lee nor Kirby's stories are fully happy ones but they aren't entirely tragic, either, peppered as they are with successes and failures by both legends within and outside of the company they'll forever be tied to. And though they're at the center of Howe's history, the work becomes perhaps most fascinating when it focuses on the situation in the bullpen when both figures were either divorced from it entirely or largely absent. Kirby wasn't the first star to leave Marvel, of course (for the most part, that'd be Steve Ditko, who had mostly checked out before he actually quit, anyway) but his departure marked a shift in the company, though his influence and presence always loomed large.
Howe essentially argues that Kirby and Lee had a very special kind of chemistry that enabled them to accomplish more than even entire staff rosters were able to do after, but in some ways that also caused Marvel to suffer terrible growing pains, as Lee's editor successors struggled to juggle the universe the two birthed. As controversial as his tenure was, Howe makes a sharp case for Jim Shooter as the most successful post-Lee editor, at least in regards to the control he was able to assert and the way in which he was able to shape the Marvel Universe to his will in the way Lee had. Howe of course also depicts Shooter's reign as a troubled one, where art and commerce were often at insurmountable odds and which in some ways paved the way for the massive troubles the company would face in the '90s.
Howe's writing is sharp and concise but that's especially noticeable once he begins detailing the Shooter era and beyond. The amount of material and research Howe juggles at this point is incredible and it's never difficult to follow the story he lays out, despite the sprawling cast and increasingly convoluted outside factors. That also leads to the only real flaw with the book, as the Shooter and Bob Harras eras fade out and the Bill Jemas/Joe Quesada era fades in. Perhaps because that section of the Marvel story is still unfolding, Howe's reporting on it feels slight and rushed in comparison to what came before. He still covers a lot of ground, but the truly innovative efforts of Quesada as well as the many controversies he has faced make up a tiny fraction of the work and Howe provides little insight on Quesada's reign. That could also be because Howe had less access to the current regime, but given Quesada's outspoken nature in interviews elsewhere, that would be surprising.
But that's ultimately a small complaint about what is otherwise a stellar example of comics reporting, one which will hopefully open the doors for likeminded works and provide a template for others hoping to document similar publishers' histories. Howe may have shattered quite a few bullpen-set childhood dreams, but by offering such a well constructed history of this pillar of the medium, he may just have sparked a few more practical futures.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Hanover.