Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Review: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Review Marvel Comics The Untold Story Sean Howe HarperCollins Cover hardcover hc comic books nonfiction history
Writer: Sean Howe
Published: HarperCollins, 2012; $26.99

Most published histories of Marvel Comics have been decidedly narrow in their scope. Several have focused on Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the superhero explosion of the early 1960s; others, like the Marvel-endorsed Marvel Universe and Marvel Chronicle, have centered on the evolution of the company’s characters and continuity. One book, Dan Raviv’s Comic Book Wars, has been written about Marvel’s legal wranglings in the 1990s (including its two years of bankruptcy and eventual sale to Toy Biz), and to my knowledge, it’s the only book to devote itself fully to a single period in Marvel history other than the 1960s. No other book has attempted to look as broadly (or as candidly) at the company’s business practices, publishing strategies, and editorial philosophy as Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

The enduring figures that emerge in Howe’s book aren’t fictional characters like Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Hulk, but real-life personas ranging from Lee, Kirby, and Martin Goodman in Marvel’s early years to Steve Gerber, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, and Jim Shooter (among many others) in more recent ones. Of course, Marvel has published so many comics, and its characters have been the focus of so many cross-media tie-in products (ranging from action figures to billion-dollar movie franchises), that it would take far more than one book to detail the entirety of the company’s output. A book like this must utilize some principles of selection to narrow its focus, in other words, and the ones Howe chooses are fairly transparent: the longest and most detailed sections of the book cover the 1970s comics – written and illustrated by a motley crew of acid-trippers that included Gerber, Jim Starlin, and Steve Englehart – which introduced Howe to comic books when he was young.

At other times, though, Howe’s focus seems more arbitrary, and he makes some startling omissions. For example, there is little discussion of Marvel’s forays into licensed properties like Conan the Barbarian, Transformers, He-Man, and the Micronauts during the 1970s and 1980s. Even the acquisition of the Star Wars license merits a mere half a page, with no follow-up on Marvel’s subsequent exploitation of the franchise or the manner in which the company ended up dropping most of its licenses by the early 1990s. And while Howe is quick to point out Marvel’s penchant for allegorizing real-world issues during the 1960s and ’70s, he fails to comment on the often frighteningly conservative nature of so many comics that attempted to do the same in the 1980s, ranging from Secret Wars to The ’Nam (which briefly toppled The Uncanny X-Men, one of the comics Howe discusses most, as the industry’s highest-selling comic book).

In the end, although it’s respectable on the one hand that so much information on Marvel’s history has been gathered in one place, Howe actually tells us fairly little that hasn’t been “told” at some point before. There are even places where he uses misinformation to construct the “story” he wants to tell; Jack Kirby’s tale about encountering a crying Stan Lee as movers carried furniture out of the Marvel offices, for instance, has long been considered apocryphal. It certainly aids Howe in his aim to undermine Lee whenever possible, though, as well as in his characterization of the Lee/Kirby relationship as little more than a decades-long feud.

The book’s almost immediate status at the time of its publication as Marvel’s “definitive” history is interesting, since Howe’s book probably tells us less about Marvel’s history than it does about prevailing opinions toward Marvel (and mainstream superhero comics in general) today. In fact, with its focus on the battles fought between writers, editors, and corporate management, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story actually emerges as a sort of vague protest on behalf of creator rights. The ethics of staging such a protest in a book like this are complicated, though – more complicated, I think, than Howe seems to want to acknowledge. That’s especially true when it comes to his characterization of individual creators as essentially either saints to be pitied or sinners who deserve every lick they take – as people who have either “earned” or forfeited their rights as creators, by virtue of the quality of their work.

Howe’s heart may be in the right place, but linking a creator’s rights with the “quality” of his or her creations, even implicitly, is problematic – not just because “quality” lies in the eye of the beholder, but also because Howe often equates quality with sales figures. (It’s for this reason, I assume, that Howe feels comfortable heaping praise on creators like Frank Miller, despite the casual misogyny inherent to even the “best” of Miller’s work.) Accounted for this way, the efforts of writers and artists are of merit only in proportion to their contribution to an employer’s bank account. Sadly, this is an attitude toward creator rights tacitly espoused by a huge percentage of readers and even creators today, who are either unwilling or unable to stand up for the rights of artists and writers – or even for such universally acclaimed figures as Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Alan Moore – when they (or their estates) are deliberately and blatantly wronged by Marvel and DC.

If this argument seems far-fetched, or overly cynical, then consider the example of The Avengers, the 2012 film directed by Joss Whedon. Whedon was paid more to write and direct the film than Kirby was paid by Marvel in his lifetime (and Whedon will be paid even more to work on the sequel), despite the fact that Kirby co-created nearly the entire cast of characters and toiled on the stories Marvel’s films are largely based on for nearly two decades, in some cases. Furthermore, unlike Whedon, Kirby’s name did not appear in the film’s marketing and only appeared in its end credits after controversy was raised over reports of its absence. All of these things were apparently non-issues for casual filmgoers (most of whom likely were not aware of them) or even, more surprisingly, for long-time fans in a better position to know the facts; with a worldwide gross of over $1.5 billion, The Avengers remains the third highest-grossing film of all time. Amidst its success, it was Whedon, not Kirby, who got the credit (and the paycheck).

Whedon is an exception to the rule, though; Avengers was destined for financial success, with or without him. The film was heavily marketed as “Marvel’s The Avengers,” reinforcing a disturbing perception that has entered the public consciousness in the last several years. This perception, aggressively fostered by movie-marketing campaigns but nonetheless bought into (literally) by movie-going audiences, is one of Marvel and DC not as corporations, but as the literal authors of the adventures of their franchised characters (again – “Marvel’s” The Avengers). This is the precise mentality which proponents of creator rights have long struggled to combat, and which threatens constantly to absorb the ideas of so many writers and artists within the ever-widening corporate maw that has already swallowed up so much of America’s intellectual property.

But, more to the point, it is a mentality which histories like Howe’s, in spite of its author’s seemingly good intentions, subtly reinforce. This is perhaps most obvious in the book’s title, which claims “Marvel Comics” (not “the creators of Marvel Comics”) as the subject of its “untold story.” However, it comes through even more clearly in the book’s final chapter, a sparsely written apologia for the last decade of Marvel’s cultural output which ends not with a discussion of the creators, but of their creations. “Multiple manifestations of Captain America and Spider-Man and the X-Men float in elastic realities, passed from one custodian to the next,” Howe writes, discussing the pervasiveness of the characters across all forms of media, “and their heroic journeys are, forever, denied an end.”

With these lines, Howe abandons his sympathetic tone toward comics creators, who are now figured as the mere “custodians” of their own creations. And while on the one hand Howe’s final discussion of Marvel’s focus on corporate synergy is hyper-critical of the company's business strategies, the author ultimately locates tragedy not in the ways the company’s architects have been creatively straitjacketed and legally mistreated over the years, but in the fact that a collection of corporate-owned, fictional characters will never receive a proper end to “their” stories. In the end, Howe asks us to feel moral outrage on the part of multi-billion-dollar franchises rather than for the men and women who built them from the ground up, many of whom have died (or are currently dying) completely impoverished, forced to turn to fans on the Internet for help paying their medical bills.

And so, as with “Marvel’s” The Avengers and so many other examples we might draw from popular culture today, the torch of moral ownership is passed smilingly from creator to corporation. The seduction of Howe to this attitude, despite his affection for the individuals whose creative efforts have resulted in the rich history he celebrates, may well be indicative of more than the failings of a single historian. Indeed, it may point to the ultimate inability of our culture to resist the constant sensory bombardment, staged by multimedia corporations, which we face, morally and intellectually, on a daily basis. It is a frightening world, in which corporations can be popularly imagined as both the legal and moral owners of intellectual property, and in which the obligations we perceive to fictional characters and their corporate masters take precedence over our obligations to other human beings.

A Return (of Sorts)

Here’s the short version: I’m back, and I will be posting more reviews. The first one goes up later today. For the long version, read on…

A lot of things have happened in the world of comics since the last time I posted here: line-wide crossovers and big-budget superhero movies have come and gone, publishers and creators have seen their individual stars rise and fall, hundreds of new graphic novels and collected editions have been released (even as the shadow of “digital” looms over print as the inevitable way of the future), and overall, comic books have penetrated the mass culture to an extent never before seen. It’s an exciting time, fraught with the uncertainty that always accompanies transition.

There have been changes for me on a personal level, too. I finished my master’s degree and I’ve now been teaching college writing courses for two years. Fittingly enough, I’ve come to realize that teaching college freshmen to be better writers makes you a better writer yourself – or, at least, it makes you think more about the kind of writer you want to be. I’ve done a lot of writing in the last two years, most of which I’m extremely proud of. Some of it has had to do with comics – my first presentation at an academic conference, in 2011, was on the Vietnam War comics of Don Lomax – but most of it hasn’t. It took me a while to realize how much I missed it.

I did think about returning to this blog a few times, but something has always held me back. It’s tempting to make the excuse that I’ve simply been too busy – that may have been the case at certain times, but it wasn’t always. A large part of my staying away for so long was that, truth be told, I’ve become fairly dismayed with the direction the comic book industry has taken over the last few years. The downright Machiavellian tactics that Marvel and DC have leveraged against former writers and artists, along with the lowest-common-denominator blockbuster mentality espoused by both companies toward their comic book lines and movie franchises, has weighed heavily on my conscience, especially as someone who once patronized both companies without a second thought.

For a long time, I think I felt that to write about the books Marvel and DC published would be in a sense to condone actions that I found deplorable. I was still very much locked into the perception that a review was fundamentally either a recommendation or a non-recommendation – a mentality that simply couldn’t coexist with my belief that to financially support these companies, out of some naive desire to be “entertained,” was, for me, morally reprehensible. I still often feel this way, although I am trying to see things in less black-and-white terms and to be more understanding of those who have made choices different from my own.

The main thing that’s changed for me is the way I think about criticism. One of the main reasons I stopped posting here was that, by the time I started teaching (shortly after my last post), I was having a hard time seeing writing comic book reviews as being “my place” anymore. I enjoyed doing it, but it was awfully time-consuming and it didn’t seem like the kind of “academic” writing that leads to a tenure-track job – not because of the subject matter, but because criticism is widely perceived as a non-academic form of writing.

Then I came into contact with the work of the film critic Robin Wood, who has expanded my outlook toward many things – not the least of which is the role of criticism itself. According to Wood, the critic is “committed to self-exposure…s/he must make clear that any response to a work of art or entertainment is grounded not only in the work itself but in the critic’s psychological makeup, personal history, values, prejudices, obsessions” (Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan xiii). In this respect, the work of the critic is more personal than that of the scholar or theorist, and as such it is intrinsically braver and riskier. In the hierarchy of criticism, scholarship, and theory, Wood argues, “criticism occupies (or should occupy) the highest position, simply because the critic is the only one centrally and explicitly concerned with the question of value, which is the most important – the ultimate – question” (xiv).

True criticism, in the sense that Wood discusses it, is exceptionally rare. Most reviews of comic books – and, for that matter, of movies, television, literature, and music – do concern themselves with the question of value, but only superficially: “is this a work that’s worth your time, your money?” Far fewer reviews address the question of a work’s intellectual or ideological value: “What arguments, implicit and explicit, does the work make about our society, about how we should live? Carried to their logical extremes, do the arguments hold up?” Frequently they do not, and because so many reviews concern themselves first and foremost with superficial questions, they miss the most crucial aspects of the works they discuss.

I think I came close to writing true, un-superficial criticism a small handful of times on this blog, particularly in my reviews of 9/11 Heartbreaker and Monkey vs. Robot. Those were reviews in which I wrote very personally, with little concern for specifically “recommending” the books in question, and they are among the reviews I remain proudest of having written. By contrast, the posts I’m least proud of are the ones which, in the end, were little more than long-winded recommendations (or non-recommendations). Recommendations have their purpose – in fact, I contribute to a weekly post at the Collected Comics Library which spotlights noteworthy upcoming collected editions – but they are not criticism in the true sense.

I’m not sure whether I have the ability to consciously and consistently produce true criticism or not, but I would like to try. I think it’s what I always wanted to do with this blog, although it took a few years away for me to begin to see how I might go about it. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when I approach my writing here with such a clear objective in mind. The reviews I write going forward will be significantly different, I hope, from most that I wrote in the past – I will not give the books numerical scores, for example, and I will not presume to tell “you,” the hypothetical reader, how to spend (or not spend) your time or money. I can speak only for myself – or, more specifically, as Wood writes, from my own “beliefs and values, political position, background, [and] influences” (xiv). I hope the result will be something unique and interesting that can stand next to the work of the critics and bloggers whose writing I most admire.

I’d like to close this post by giving thanks to several individuals who have played a part in my return to this blog: to fellow bloggers Matches, dl316bh, Kris Shaw, Mark Ginocchio, Doug Glassman, and Collected Editions, for producing excellent content and entertaining my ramblings in the comment sections of their own collected editions blogs over the last two years; to the “regulars” of IGN’s Comics General Board, the community that has been my home on the web for more years than I care to count; to my fellow contributors for the Collected Comics Library’s “Six Collected Editions” column, for producing stellar recommendations each and every week; to all of the people who have left a comment or emailed me about the blog during my absence; and to the CCL’s Chris Marshall, for ultimately getting me back in the game.

See you here later today for the first of the new reviews.