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The Legend of Marvel Comics, Freshly Expressed by Sean Howe in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

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Sean Howe’s all-new book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, published by Harper Collins, reads like some of Marvel’s most popular tales, with excitement moving every page and lots of locker room drama from icons like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, John Romita, Steve Ditko, and all the other “Bullpen” legends that have graced the halls of 625 Madison Avenue and made names for themselves through the “Marvel Method” of comic book creation.

Howe pays great attention to the beginning seeds of Marvel, tapping into it in a way that caters to both comic book lovers and those who might never have picked up a funny book from off the spinner racks at the local delicatessen. The first few chapters focus on the primordial Marvel characters of Human Torch and Prince Namor, both very different from the Johnny Storm and Sub-Mariner of today. Then we are catapulted into the foray of World War II, giving birth to Captain America, and from classic horror books like Captain America’s Weird Tales and Tomb of Dracula to groundbreaking titles like Amazing Fantasy, Tales of Suspense, and Journey into Mystery that launched the heroic careers of Spider-man, Iron Man, and Thor, as well as assembling the world’s most popular super teams, namely the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and, of course, the Avengers, we discover just how Stan and company helped merge comics with the mainstream traffic of popular culture from its inception as Timely Comics all the way through to the 1970s.

The moments I especially enjoyed throughout Marvel Comics: The Untold Story were the many chapters that peered deep into the culture of comicdom, finding particular pleasure in learning how comics of the time paralleled events happening in the world, especially in the 1960s to the height of the Modern Age. Howe mentions early on, for instance, how The X-Men was Marvel’s take on the Civil Rights Movement, that the epic battle between Professor X and Magneto reflected the opposing ideologies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Surely this has been a topic of conversation amid comic book aficionados, but nonetheless, it’s refreshing to see how some of our favorite stories have been akin to the difficult and oftentimes horrific moments in the history of the world. Also interesting is how comic books, for a while, directly impacted the lives of college students, awakening in them a sensitivity to the world around them. I also find it quite fascinating how Stan Lee felt a driving need to maximize Marvel’s importance to and involvement in students’ lives during the counterculture years, and even made it his top priority, sadly superseding the needs of his staff, who were not paid or respected at the same level at which they were expected to perform.

Adroit with his use of words, Howe fuses the annals of our most beloved comic book characters with the little known and far less understood business side of the industry by weaving these stories together as masterfully as Stan Lee might weave the next installment of The Amazing Spider-Man –– with a gusto that is perpetually upbeat despite some of Marvel’s more company-shattering moments in its somewhat sordid history. Relationships are nurtured, others end abruptly (and at times rather harshly), and while other writers might choose to illustrate Marvel’s poster boy in either a heroic or horrific light, Howe depicts Stan how he really was with the aid of personal accounts and brief narratives from Bullpenners past and present, and allows us make our own decisions about the man behind Marvel Comics.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story speaks as much of the story of a burgeoning comic book industry as it does this little company that could –– and did –– go from “Comics” to “Entertainment” in a little over seventy years. And as an unbiased and complete account of the history of one of the greatest publishers of comic books that has surpassed simple dailies and monthlies to encroach on the farthest reaches of Hollywood and beyond, Sean Howe’s book functions as a compelling read for both the comic book fans and the ordinary person who knows no more of comics than what makes it into the local theater. And whether or not you (think you) know all there is to know about Stan, Jack, and the other merry Marvelers marching their iconic characters deep into the hearts of the whole world, Howe’s book will prove an in-depth enjoyable memoir that brings to light the never-before-known truth of how Marvel Comics became an entity the whole world would marvel at for years to come.

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