Thursday, January 03, 2013

Culture Shock 01.03.13: The making of a modern Marvel

In 2009, Disney purchased Marvel Entertainment for roughly $4 billion. In 2012, the top grossing movie in North America was Marvel's "The Avengers," which took in more than $1.5 billion worldwide. Marvel is an entertainment giant, and its characters — Iron Man, Hulk, Spider-Man and the rest — are modern myths, as well as valuable intellectual properties.

That's a long way from where Marvel Comics began, with a magazine publisher looking to cash in on the latest gimmick, a frustrated novelist who happened to be related to the publisher's wife and a team of eccentric freelancers, two of whom would prove indispensable.

I've been reading Marvel Comics for as long as I can recall. But Sean Howe's recent book "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" (HarperCollins, $26.00, hardcover) lives up to its subtitle. It tells stories about the so-called House of Ideas even I didn't know.

The publisher, Martin Goodman, pinched pennies, demanded layoffs and shamelessly followed trends until the fateful day his editor-in-chief decided he had nothing to lose by trying something new. That frustrated editor/writer was Stan Lee, who at 90 years old is still the face of Marvel, making cameo appearances in most of the company's films. The freelancers, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, co-created most of the Marvel characters Disney paid $4 billion to possess. Then they both fell out with Lee and the company they helped build. Kirby subsequently spent years trying to get back his original artwork from Marvel.

Ditko, a recluse who prefers to let his work speak for itself, expresses himself today mostly through increasingly didactic, philosophical comics inspired by Ayn Rand.

They are figures as large as their creations, but their story is well known. What came before and after Marvel's Camelot period of 1961 to 1970 is less well publicized, but no less dramatic.

Last year, Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, bringing Star Wars and Marvel under the same corporate umbrella. But the two franchises already had history. In 1977, Marvel's sales were in free fall, Howe writes, when Lee's successor, Roy Thomas, went after the "Star Wars" license. That decision's payoff helped keep the company going until its next big hit.

That hit was "Uncanny X-Men," which came into its own under the guidance of writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne.

Through the '70s and '80s and into the '90s, Marvel was home to many talented artists and even more volatile personalities, even if they weren't as flamboyant as Lee and his bullpen of the '60s. Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter's regime set the stage for the industry's next two, transformative decades. The "Secret Wars" miniseries he scripted ushered in mega-crossovers, sprawling tales that invaded every other comic the company published and required readers to buy them all or risk missing out on a sense-shattering conclusion that would change everything.

Never lost in Howe's tale, however, are the bit players: the writers, artists and editors who met the deadlines and kept Marvel going in good times and bad, often sacrificing their health and better pay to stay in the medium they loved. Those cast aside included Don Heck, who drew most of the early "Iron Man" comics. Older artists lost work to hotshot youngsters like Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane, who later left to start Image Comics. Company loyalty goes both ways.

From there, it's a story of corporate raiders, bankruptcy, restructuring and revival. And some of the players are still with Marvel today, as the company settles into its role as intellectual property resource for Disney, while still publishing comics in an environment where paper is giving way to digital.

The form itself, sadly, is as disposable as so many of the people who created it. But its story, as Howe tells it, is as gripping as any of Lee and Kirby's cosmic epics.

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