Sean Howe has written this extensively researched history of Marvel Comics, from its origins around 1940 as a quick cash-in on a fad by publisher Martin Goodman to the present day. He conducted more than a hundred interviews for the book and read seemingly every fanzine and industry press article on the company ever written.
Now I’ve read Stan Lee’s autobiography and other histories of the industry so I was familiar with the general outline, and I’ve encountered a few of the stories the book contains, but the pages really overflow with material that’s new even to me. Despite that, the book is neatly organized and flows well. Still, I have to imagine, a general reader with an interest but little familiarity with the subject would find the constant succession of artists, editors, and titles to be somewhat overwhelming.
What strikes me most in the book is how haphazard the evolution of Marvel Comics has been. It seems my previous view of Stan Lee smoking a pipe and deciding after reflection to establish a new character, Iron Man or Dr. Doom perhaps, to be erroneous. Nearly every creative decision was made amidst deadline pressures, personality conflicts, bizarre business edicts from the company’s ownership, or general desperation.
A good example is the character of She-Hulk, who was created in the late 1970s when Stan Lee heard a rumor that the writers of the Hulk television program, produced by Universal, were to introduce a female version of the character. In order to secure the trademark, Stan wrote a script practically overnight and hurried artists in producing the first issue so it could be rushed into print. The ad hoc and somewhat arbitrary nature of She-Hulk’s real-world origin seems typical of Marvel company strategy.
Personally, I really enjoyed this book but I don’t think I would recommend it to anybody without a special interest in Marvel. For something of greater interest to an average reader I think The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu, is probably a better choice. It covers the comic industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s when a panic about teen-age delinquency led to the imposition of the Comics Code (similar to Hollywood’s Hays Code) in 1954 and the subsequent decimation of comics publishers who had relied on now-forbidden crime and horror stories. Hajdu’s book puts the comics story in context with explanations of how it fits into the politics and social mores of the time, which also give his book a wider appeal.