Monday, October 20, 2014

Childhood Untold: My review of Marvel Comics: the Untold Story, by Sean Howe

One of my earliest memories of childhood is being sick one day in school, and calling my mom to take me home. I went to a school I didn't like at the time. I was new. In this particular school newness was a sin of unconscionable magnitude. If i wasn't picked on, i was ignored, and not just by students. I had one teacher, named after a color like one of Quentin Tarantino's thugs, who after showing us a film ( a FILM!!) about apples grown and picked in Washington State told my class we would be going somewhere where they grow apples. Seemingly everyone in my class knew exactly what she meant. I raised my hand and asked if we were going to Washington State. She laughed at me and said "I think we would go someplace closer" and then the class laughed at me. See This town had a rather large orchard in it. Many of these kids were related to the owner, or had families that worked there, or had spent an afternoon or two every fall of their lives picking apples there. I didn't know any of this at the time (see: newness) so when my question, based on the best information i had, was derided and i was mocked, i didn't like it so much. Thats just one example having gone to this white trash shit hole of a school in the middle of a white trash shit hole of a town, and why i didn't quite enjoy my time there. So calling my mom when i was "cough cough..sick...cough cough...honest" to come get me seemed like a reasonable use of an escape valve.

On my way home I begged my mom to stop at the local pharmacy. One of the few nice things i can remember about my brief period of life in Twin Peaks was this pharmacy. It was old school. A counter with sandwiches and sodas, jars of penny candy, wood paneling of a dubious vintage, but most importantly...a news stand, and on this news stand there were comic books. Being the ripe old age of 6 1/2 my judgment in my entertainment was based on the types of things a 6 and a 1/2 year old would value. Bigger, was better, and while there were lots of normal sized comic books, there was in the far back of the stand a large sized Amazing Spider-Man magazine specifically for kids with puzzles and stories and mazes and and and it was big! it was so much bigger than the Archie comic i had it must be better!

It wasn't.

It was mostly awful. once the puzzles were done and you did all the little learning exercises in the book, there wasn't much to it, a short adventure where Spidey beats the vulture because he knows how a Silent "e" works or something. Bleh. I knew, even then, acutely then, when i was being spoke down to or mocked. I was sorely disappointed in my first grown up comic book that i bought off the shelf. WAS Spider-man, and i did love spider man, so there was that. Maybe I'd try again. Well, a couple days later i made a friend. I don't remember his name but we met on the playground by the slide (a death trap by todays standards I'm sure) and he was reading a comic book without a cover. It was a justice league #172, and i DON'T have to tell YOU what happened there! I mean I probably do, but I'm not going to..cuz...spoilers. Anyhow: super formative comic book for me. I didn't know that Supes and Spidey weren't pals and didn't inhabit the same fictional space. I had no idea, so from the ashes of Marvel's large format glossy patronization DC pulled me and threw me headlong BACK into a love affair with comics. I still loved Spidey the best, so when i convinced my mom to take me back to the shop i bought a brand new, shiny, issue of the Amazing Spiderman and I devoured it, repeatedly, over the course of a weekend. It was everywhere I was. It was in bed with me, in the bathroom with me, in my back pocket while wandering outside. The next Monday after i had fully had my way with it, I brought it to my friend and worked my first trade. MY comic had a cover, so it was easily worth 2 comics without a cover, I'd trade. those would be my conditions. He agreed, because like most little boys...SPIDERMAN! and he bought me that Justice league #172 and an issue of the fantastic four. When i went home that weekend my mom had bought me what used to be a fairly commonplace thing, a grab bag. A plastic bag with three comic books in it. The Thing, a Fantastic four comic, and an issue of Iron Man.

Done, bought by Marvel, cost 4 comic books.

From then on out i was a marvel kid. Not by choice, not like "well i only like marvel" but if i saw an FF comic i had to have it because it would fill me in on the story as it progressed. Time passed, and sure i had my DC dalliances, but I always went home to Marvel. Through my teens i saw marvel as the "mature" comic book. The "sophisticated" comic book. I read some DC stuff because it was fun and brightly colored and i grew up with Superfriends, so i mean, you had to right? but when i looked in on DC it felt like i was looking into one window from a thousand different houses, but when you looked in on marvel, it was window into one ENORMOUS house. There was "continuity" as my prepubescent brain understood it. There was logic and cohesion and rules, and human drama. Most of the superheroes experienced variations on what i experienced (loneliness, isolation, feelings of inadequacy, you know...the basic Woody Allen package minus the weird pedophilia and gross daughter marrying)but certainly they experienced these things with more Aliens and eye lasers. DC characters felt, not surprising i think, alien to me. What do i have in common with a strange visitor from another planet and a billionaire bent on revenge whose hobbies include putting children into perilous circumstance and scaley briefs? Not much, but when peter parker didn't have the guts to talk to Mary Jane about his feelings, THAT i got. Marvel and i stayed close up through the 90's. Then, marvel had a bit of a midlife crisis and while we didn't part ways, exactly, we lived very separate lives. Then again in the early 0's i started reading marvel again. So many great writers at the time. Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, Brian K Vaughan amazing stuff, experimental stuff, being written. Really just getting back to what you love about marvel. Then Brian Michael Bendis had to drop his misogyny bomb all over the marvel universe and i stopped again. I really, to this day, cannot forget "The House of M" and it's careless decimation of the most victimized citizens of the Marvel Universe all because a powerful woman couldn't handle both her power and her emotions at the same time. I do have to say that Marvel has made some real strides in the last few years that have helped repair that damage, at least in my mind, but for a while there, nope. No thanks.

So where,I suppose, you are wondering, is the book review? Well see a book like this is impossible for me to review objectively. This book basically chronicles the secret history of my whole youth. There is no way I'm not going to love this book! I mean, yeah, sometimes the writing doesn't exactly compel you to move along, and there are whole chapters that basically seem like "this guy and this guy were friends, but that guy, nobody liked that guy". There are some chapters that even, more or less just read like a list of names and stock purchases. Some chapters read like obituaries of people who probably should be celebrities. So those chapters, probably not for the faint of heart, or for someone who doesn't really speak Comic Book. The rest of it though, I can't imagine a scenario whereby I wouldn't love it.

For starters it gives you the real deal early history of comic books, especially ... and obviously i guess, the role Marvel (nee Timely) played. It shows you how Stan Lee (NOT HIS REAL NAME, btw) came to work for his uncle, Timely's publisher, before the war and how during that time he showed a passion and ethic for the work that would carry him on up into a cameo roles in every marvel film to date. The book spends, what to my mind is an excessive amount of time, on the mostly legal screwing over of Jack Kirby. That is, to Sean Howe, the central tale of the history of Marvel. To me it was less interesting a story. Mostly because the story boils down to, yeah it sucked but thats how it was. I think thats true of a great many things. The book spent more ink on the contentious relationship between Lee and Kirby than i thought was warranted for this book anyhow. I should note, that I think a book equal in size could be written about the battle for respect and remuneration Kirby (and subsequently the Kirby estate) have waged and why Marvel fought so hard against it, that IS fascinating but in a general text about the history of Marvel it got a little tiring. I'll suffice it to say virtually every character you recognize from Marvel was at least, in part, designed by Kirby, for which he was paid a pittance compared to what the characters have earned for others, Lee included. It's a shame, and apparently it's something Marvel, in it's new cinematic largess, has decided to attempt to repair. Basically to me the whole thing came down to an argument over idea vs execution, when really the whole time it should have been a collaboration between idea AND execution. See now I've spent even MORE "ink" on it.

So my favorite bits were what i learned about my self. Turns out I'm an enormous Steve Gerber fan. I had no idea. Not that i was unaware that I loved Omega the Unknown, Howard the Duck, the Man-Thing and The Defenders, but I was unaware that one guy was basically responsible for all of it. I was fascinated to learn that one of my favorite things Marvel ever did, the New Universe (yes, i know you hate it, i don't care and i won't defend my life style choices to you) was basically a dude saying, "okay well i have all this power and i want to do this, so i'm going to. suck it." I was fascinated to learn that one of my favorite artists and creative talent in Marvel history, is more or less an Objectivist nut job, fascinated and a little frightened. Speaking of frightening, the early 80's X-Mens weird S&M inspired look was actually S&M inspired because Chris Claremont, well..he a freak, and good for him I say.

I think basically the most exciting parts for me where the parts where i could read about what happened and remember it happening. Like the complete deflation of the comic book industry during the 90's, and how the 80's and Secret Wars basically began the endless stream of enormous cross-over events that dominate every summer and still go on today bilking kids out of their hard begged money just so they can see a tiny, probably meaningless, sliver of a bigger story in a book they don't read otherwise. Strangely when i got to the part where the bottom fell out of comics I felt less like I was reading a History and more like i was reading a novel. That portion felt very narrative and like the near climax of the book. I don't know if thats because I remember the "good ol' days" and was there when they fell apart, or if it's because the writing really dragged me in. See, impossible to review objectively.

Amazingly the stuff about the cinematic universe is just glanced over, presumably to stay true to telling the story of a Comic Book company. However the portions of the book that detail the ever possible Spider-Man movie and why Roger Korman was allowed to defecate on film and call it the Fantastic Four were pretty fascinating. There is a sense, that the author kind of got tired of writing after about 1997. Fortunately this was not before we could watch a clutch of Artists break away and form Image and then toss the leader of their rebellion onto the fires of their righteous creative indignation (deservedly and blessedly so, i think). Really it seems like he more or less ended the book with "and then they got their shit together and the next thing you know Avengers is the biggest movie in history". I mean...thats a paraphrase but i felt the last part of the book rushed things. A lot of really interesting stuff happened in Marvel in the last 15 to 20 years, not the least of which was marvels Ultimate universe (which Samuel Jackson should be thankful for) and an investment in quality story telling and art which truly hearkens back to the halcyon days of marvel in the 1960s.

So I find myself in a bind. I'd like to say that if you're not a fan of comic books you'll love this book...i doubt that is true though, but i also want to say if you are a fan of comics you will love this book but it will leave you wanting so much more. Which might be really high praise. Hard to say. When i finished this book, though, i spent hours on the Internet investigating all the little bits of marvel and comic related history it revealed. I think if you like books about secret histories of every day things or even just interesting things, if you liked... say, the Professor and the Madman, or anything by Mark Kurlansky, I think you'll like this book. I myself loved it. It was pretty much, if you could take my dna and genetically engineer a book i would love, this is more or less it.

This book is a late morning train, front seat of the front train, with no one sitting next to you and the skyline of Philadelphia laid out against a perfect blue sky.

Excelsior True Believers!

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