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In 1961, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four and changed comic books forever. In the five decades since, Marvel Comics has become a multimedia empire of thousands of characters, hundreds of comics and hundreds of millions of dollars. But how it got there, and where it went along the way, wasn’t always pretty. In what will no doubt become an indispensable volume for comics fans and pop culture junkies alike, Sean Howe explores the wild, often messy story of the people who made Marvel what it is today. This is Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

We all think we know the history of the world’s biggest comic book publisher, but the heroes and the hype are only part of the tale. Using in-depth research that includes new and archival interviews with hundreds of Marvel icons like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, Tom Breevort and Chris Claremont, Howe digs deep into the inner sanctum of the House of Ideas and charts a panoramic view of every major development in the company’s history. If you’ve ever wondered how the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby rift got started, or why Jim Shooter became so infamous, or how the company’s bankruptcy troubles in the ’90s began,  you’ll find out in these pages. The search for a reliable editor-in-chief following Stan Lee’s promotion, the rise of the X-Men under Claremont and John Byrne, the departure of Steve Ditko, the unlikely success of Howard the Duck, the birth of the crossover comic, the trauma of the Clone Saga, the mass exodus that gave birth to Image Comics, the inflation and bursting of the speculator’s bubble and the resurgence of Marvel in the 2000s. It’s all here, from Marvel’s greatest glories to its deepest failures.

But perhaps more impressive than the completeness of it all (which, believe me, is staggering) is that way Howe tells the tale. Everything is seamless, smooth, flowing like the very best comic book narrative. Even as heroes and villains emerge in the various bullpen and boardroom battles throughout the story of Marvel, Howe paints everyone as reliably, and often tragically, human. The comic book legends we’ve come to view as larger than life titans of the industry are here treated as what they really are: enthusiastic, overworked, often overambitious people trying to make good comics in the face of often ridiculous challenges. Howe manages to make this more than the story of a company. This is a story about the triumphs and tragedies of the people who tried to make the greatest comic books in the world. It’s a story of corporate pressures and private sacrifice, creator’s rights and editor’s responsibilities, gutsy calls and empty gestures. It’s the complete picture, like a Jack Kirby panorama.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story should be required reading for all comic book fans. It’s not only a compelling, ridiculously entertaining read, but it’s among the few mainstream nonfiction works to ever shed this much light on what’s become one of the biggest industries in pop culture. Buy it, read it, then see if you can resist reading it again.

Category: Comics, reviews

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