'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,' by Sean Howe (Harper, October...

'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,' by Sean Howe (Harper, October 2012) Credit: Handout

In 1961, Stanley Martin Lieber was pushing forty, watching the comic-book industry, in which he'd toiled for over two decades, fade away. Recently forced to fire his staff of artists, he sat alone in the comics division of publisher Martin Goodman's perfunctorily named Magazine Management Company, where he'd been hired, as a teenager, at eight dollars a week. He'd once wanted to be a novelist, but he never managed to get around to it, and it seemed unlikely that he'd be able to work Big Ideas into the monster, romance, and western comics that were still dribbling out from the vestiges of the company. Tucked away in a quiet corner, the highlights of Lieber's days were writing corny jokes for toss-off humor books like "Blushing Blurbs: A Ribald Reader for the Bon Vivant" and "Golfers Anonymous." Not wanting to use his real name, he signed them "Stan Lee."

Fate intervened (or so the story went) in the form of a golf game between Martin Goodman and Jack Liebowitz, publisher of rival publisher DC Comics. Liebowitz reportedly told Goodman that DC had thrown together some of its most popular characters -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern -- into a single supergroup title, The Justice League of America, and found itself with a surprise hit. Goodman marched into the office with a mandate for Lee: steal this idea and create a team of superheroes. But Lee had been through attempted superhero revivals before. He went home to his wife, Joanie, and announced that he was finally going to quit. She talked him out of it. "Just do it the way you want to," she insisted. "Work your ideas into the comic book. What are they going to do, fire you?"

"It took a few days of jotting down a million notes," Lee would remember years later, "crossing them out and jotting down a million more until I finally came up with four characters that I thought would work well together as a team . . . I wrote an outline containing the basic description of the new characters and the somewhat offbeat story line and gave it to my most trusted and dependable artist, the incredibly talented Jack Kirby."

The Fantastic Four wasn't quite the Justice League rip-off that Goodman had ordered -- in the first issue, the protagonists didn't even wear costumes; stranger still, they were constantly bickering. Never before had a comic-book team been shaded with such distinct personalities. In a nearly revolutionary flourish, the Thing was even conceived as "a heavy -- not really a good guy," who might go rogue at any moment, a far cry from the upstanding citizenship of Superman and Green Lantern. But copies sold, quickly, and fan letters poured in to the Magazine Management offices. The book had sparked something, a fervor unfamiliar to Lee.

Marvel's colorful creations -- the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and Doctor Strange -- built the groundwork for a self-contained fictional construct called "The Marvel Universe," in which all heroes' adventures were intertwined with great complexity. Soon their rapidly expanding world also included the likes of the X-Men, a gang of ostracized mutant schoolchildren whose struggle against discrimination paralleled the civil rights movement, and Daredevil, a blind lawyer whose other senses were heightened to inhuman levels. The Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Silver Surfer, and countless others followed. For twelve cents an issue, Marvel Comics delivered fascinatingly dysfunctional protagonists, literary flourishes, and eye-popping images to little kids, Ivy Leaguers, and hippies alike.

Stan Lee addressed Marvel's audience colloquially and excitedly in the comics' back pages, making readers feel like they were part of an exclusive club. Although most of the stories were produced in the silence of freelancers' homes, Lee painted the drab Marvel offices as a crowded and chatty "House of Ideas," a throwback to the bustling, desk-filled rooms that he'd known in earlier years but that now existed only in his mind. With a jazzy string of didja knows and all-caps accents and exclamation-point backslaps, Lee's "Bullpen Bulletins" columns could confer excitement even on the very idea of a workplace. "It isn't generally known, but many of our merry Marvel artists are also talented story men in their own right! For example, all Stan has to do with the pros like JACK 'KING' KIRBY, dazzling DON HECK, and darlin' DICK AYERS is give them the germ of an idea, and they make up all the details as they go along, drawing and plotting out the story. Then, our leader simply takes the finished drawings and adds all the dialogue and captions! Sounds complicated? Maybe it is, but it's another reason why no one else can bring you that old Marvel magic!" Entranced readers, poring over every behind-the-scenes glimpse, soon learned the name of each contributor, from the inkers and letterers to the receptionist and production manager. When Lee started an official fan club -- "The Merry Marvel Marching Society" -- fifty thousand fans paid a dollar each to join. Like one of its own characters, the weakling underdog Marvel Comics had become a great American success story.

The comic industry was still subject to cyclical downturns, though, and Stan Lee continued working feverishly, determined to never again sit in that corner cubicle. In the early 1970s, he and his deputy, a fan-turned-pro named Roy Thomas, plugged holes in the workforce with a new generation of creators, wide-eyed twenty-somethings who flashed their old Merry Marvel Marching Society badges as though they were licenses for breaking rules. Embracing what they remembered as the spirit of Marvel, they smuggled countercultural dispatches into the four-color newsprint that found its way to drugstore spinner racks affixed with friendly "Hey Kids -- Comics!" signs. Lee hardly noticed. Martin Goodman had sold the company, and as soon as the new owners placed Lee in charge, he turned his attention to pursuing television and movie deals, which he saw as Marvel's ticket out of the precipitous comics industry.

All the while, a steady stream of writers and artists continued to arrive and depart, each contributing their own creations, or building on the creations of those before them. Everything was absorbed into the snowballing Marvel Universe, which expanded to become the most intricate fictional narrative in the history of the world: thousands upon thousands of interlocking characters and episodes. For generations of readers, Marvel was the great mythology of the modern world.


From "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe. Copyright (c) 2012 by Sean Howe. Published by HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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