not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
this post was originally published on my Goodreads account.
The great insight of Howe’s book is that the backgrounds and personalities of the people making the comic books are as interesting a narrative focus as the stories they created. It’s fascinating to read about Stan Lee getting a proofreading job through a family member, and floating through the rest of his life, never quite content with his legacy- “Stan Lee” was a nom de plume he created so that, when he moved on to “serious” writing, his novels and plays would not suffer from their author’s prior association with funnybooks. Today, I’d guess he hasn’t been called Stanley Lieber by anybody in the last 20 years. At some point, the construct ate the creator.
Marvel Comics tends to have this retroactive adhesiveness for many of its former employees, most of whom were hired guns with little idea of how much their seemingly-disposable creations would be worth, and one of the perverse pleasures of this book is seeing how many people lost a fortune because they shared this view- every time Howe mentions another movie studio passing on the opportunity to make Marvel films from the 70s to the 90s, present-day knowledge turns the moment into a punchline that gets funnier with repetition. But the book pulls no punches when it describes Marvel’s mistreatment of its employees (a level of mistreatment that at times borders on theft and fraud), and the whole book doubles as a warning to aspiring creative types: keep as many rights as you can, it says. And hire good lawyers.
The book’s limited scope means that the reader misses out on large swaths of comic history happening outside Marvel: the underground “comix” movement of the 60s is only mentioned in relation to its influence on Marvel artists, and visionaries like Alan Moore, who never worked for the company, don’t turn up at all). And as much attention as Howe pays to the tenure of editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and Claremont-era X-Men, it’s disappointing how fast he breezes by the creators and books that came out in the early 2000s, when the company had a major creative resurgence. But then that’s the period where I started writing comics, so it’s a testimony to Howe’s skill as a journalist and writer that my biggest complaint about his book is that I wanted to hear more about the stuff that I liked.