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LIFE

Superhero-size book charts Marvel history

Former Marvel chief Roy Thomas' hefty history of the comics giant is a visual smorgasbord

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:37pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:44pm

There are 11 movies from Marvel coming out over the next five years, plus 10 from other studios which have licensed their superheroes - and six live-action television shows. How on Earth-616 (our planet in the Marvel "multiverse") did we get to the point where Guardians of the Galaxy, featuring a sentient tree and talking space raccoon, could take in more than US$770 million at the box office?

The remarkable story is told in humdrum words but captivating pictures in this book of super-heroic size, barely liftable if you've never been bitten by a radioactive spider.

The origin story begins in New York before the second world war, at Timely Publications, a purveyor of cheap pulp magazines. Never one to let a craze pass without ripping it off, founder Martin Goodman bought some characters from a "comics mill" after the success of Superman; the Human Torch and Namor the Sub-Mariner were born - and almost immediately died.

Goodman, appalled by the print quality of Marvel Comics #1, cancelled it - before noticing that it looked set to sell out its initial print run.

Hymie "Joe" Simon and Jacob Kurtzberg, who signed his art "Jack Kirby", came up with Captain America just as the US entered the war; Marvel had its Big Three, as would DC (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman), and the Golden Age of comics was under way. Marvel's heroes rampaged around smashing the Axis most satisfactorily (many have noted, like Michael Chabon in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, how many of the creators of these wrong-righting titans were sons of poor Jewish immigrants), not least for Goodman's bank balance.

Simon and Kirby left in a payment row (a familiar comic-book tale), but Stanley Lieber, hired as a favour to one of Goodman's relatives, would prove a wellspring of tales lapped up by kids at home and GIs abroad. Stan Lee, as he called himself, became editor at barely 19; at 91 he gets a cameo in every movie.

During the war, Timely's sales rocketed like the Human Torch; Lee managed, barely, to keep the ship from plummeting to Sub-Mariner depths post-war, when superheroes seemed pointless and moral campaigners were raising a stink.

In 1961, the legend goes, Lee was ready to quit when Goodman heard from a golf buddy of DC's great success with a superhero team, the Justice League of America.

Lee was commanded to produce Marvel's own team, and decided to create "realistic" heroes, with real-world problems and dialogue; with the art of Kirby, now back, the Fantastic Four were born. An instant smash, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man and so on soon followed.

Such was the demand for titles, and lack of staff, that Lee would jot down synopses, expanded by the artist (often Kirby); Lee would add dialogue and captions to the art - the "Marvel Method". Lee's genius, apart from self-promotion, was to place these characters in one "Marvel universe" where characters could interact across titles, expanding their depth and boosting sales. The rest is history.

Somewhat tedious history - at least in Roy Thomas' telling here. It's the work of a devoted fan, often to its detriment: in 1972 Thomas became Lee's successor as editor-in-chief, having begun as a fanzine creator.

[Stan] Lee’s genius … was to place these characters in one ‘Marvel universe’ where characters could interact across titles, expanding their depth and boosting sales. The rest is history

His knowledge of and love for his subject is clear, but he seems too close to provide more than a functional history. Lee was hugely divisive, falling out with many, especially artists who felt the "Marvel Method" robbed them of deserved credit, and it's not until page 577 that the issue of creative ownership and royalties is first mentioned; passages praising a third-person Roy Thomas just seem self-aggrandising.

He flags when recounting the period after he left; key events such as bankruptcy in the 1990s and the US$4 billion takeover by Disney are dismissed in a sentence each.

Largely absent, too, is any great insight into why Marvel's characters have such a cultural impact, but there are plenty of such books: Marvel Comics: The Untold Story on the backbiting, Supergods, the aforementioned Kavalier and Clay and so on. What none of those has is this book's amazing art: it's a staggering collection that explains far better than Thomas' prose can how these characters seduced generation after generation.

Perhaps 90 per cent of the 712 pages are images, from the bondage paintings of the pulps to Photoshop-produced movie posters. There's even "special edition" pages: foil chapter dividers, four-way gatefolds, a 1.5-metre-long timeline, and biographies of key creators.

All the landmarks are here - first covers, debut appearances, the births, marriages and deaths of every important character, and long-forgotten obscurities. Photographs show comics being consumed over the generations and illustrate multimedia versions and merchandise, from Republic's 1944 Captain America serial, 1970s lunchboxes and blacklight posters, to contemporary cartoons.

Here's Carl Burgos and Bill Everett's Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, battling over "22 pages of SIZZLING BLAZING ACTION"; a few pages later Kirby's Captain America is smashing German dictator Adolf Hitler on the jaw. Unfortunate products of their day, such as Jap-Buster Johnson and Fu Manchu ripoff Yellow Claw are all here.

The post-war doldrums are hugely enjoyable - the moral campaigners' ire is unsurprising when you see covers such as Menace No1, featuring "ONE HEAD TOO MANY", and enduring classics such as Lorna, the Jungle Girl.

Then it's the glory years of the Silver Age, and masters such as Kirby, Steve Ditko and Jim Steranko. Almost every full-page illustration could be razored out and framed - it's easy to see why Roy Lichtenstein was despised by many artists when you see his "masterpiece" next to Kirby's Magneto panel that "inspired" it.

Early drafts, sketches and studies show the "Marvel Method" at work, and even as Thomas' prose gets duller, so the images of modern greats such as Frank Miller, John Byrne and Todd McFarlane show the form evolving.

We hardly need to see the movie posters again - Marvel's marketing department perhaps had a say - but most pages have an image over which to linger. The blockbusters may not merit repeat viewing; this book certainly does.

james.porteous@scmp.com