Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, out now from HarperCollins, tells the history — just about all of it — of the publisher that brought the world Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men. Starting with the childhood of Martin Goodman — who founded Marvel predecessor Timely Comics — and ending very close to the present day, Howe details each era of the company for a meticulously researched book (he even uncovered a nearly nude photo of Stan Lee along the way) that's received overwhelmingly positive press from Rolling Stone, Publishers Weekly, The Daily Beast and more since its debut earlier this month. Newsarama talked with Howe for an in-depth discussion on how the book came together, what surprised him during the writing process, the interview he couldn't get, and his thoughts on current Marvel.
Newsarama: Sean, before we get too far into the book itself, let's talk a little about you. Seeing as how you wrote an extensive history of Marvel Comics, you're obviously a fan — were you always a Marvel guy growing up?
Sean Howe: I was a kid of the '80s. My tastes leaned towards Marvel, but there was a time that DC was really kind of staging a comeback — the early part of what would really bloom in 1986; New Teen Titans and Swamp Thing. Definitely some really healthy stuff, and some things that I've gone back and re-discovered. Have you ever read Thriller?
Nrama: I haven't.
Howe: It's a DC miniseries from the early '80s which is frustratingly hard to find in dollar bins, and doesn't exist in paperback.
There's something about Marvel Comics — this tractor beam quality; largely the spirit of the Bullpen Bulletins. There's something that sucks you in. You want to be part of that community. Things have changed, but at the time, Marvel was much more of an integrated continuity. There was that soap opera element. Reading one or two Marvel titles casually would almost inevitably lead you down that path of wanting to know what was going on in that whole universe.
I think that feeling of community, and that idea of, "here's how much fun everything is behind the scenes," is definitely a big part of what intrigued me about the story of Marvel. It's like your extended family; you knew them through some portraits, but you never really knew what was going on, and the finer details.
Nrama: Speaking of continuity — for me, one of the more interesting revelations early on in the book was that there was interconnectivity even in the very early Namor and Human Torch stories. It's fairly fascinating that the building blocks of what's still a part of Marvel were there so early on, as opposed to first showing up during the Silver Age.
Howe: Right, and it was definitely more of a thing in the '60s. But that starts early on. When you read them in real time, and try to imagine what it was like if you were reading those two characters in the months up to their big meeting, it must have been pretty cool to see that happen. I think movie audiences are just getting a taste of what that's like now
Nrama: It's sort of an obvious question, but at what point did you realize that the history of Marvel — the entirety from its inception to now — would make for a good book? When did it all kind of gestate in your head?
Howe: I started thinking about this idea probably about 10 years ago. Growing up, I read a lot of magazines about comic books, it was the day of Amazing Heroes and Comics Interview. I had a subscription to Comics Buyers Guide. When the Internet started reaching this critical mass, and you started to see a lot of people interviewing comics creators, for the first time you were seeing a lot of people talking about their professional careers in retrospect. I think the thrill that I got out of reading these Jim Shooter interviews, or maybe a Steve Englehart or Neal Adams interview, it kind of reconnected me to just how much I had cared about this stuff. I kind of sat out a lot of the '90s, in terms of superhero comics.
I guess just realizing how many great anecdotes there were, that no one was really unearthing at a fast-enough rate for me. I thought for a while that someone else would write this book — it sounds like kind of a cliché, but I really started writing this because I wanted to read it.
Nrama: Obviously you did a ton of interviews and research for the book. How long were you working on it?
Howe: Yeah. The sort of flippant answer is that I've been working on it all my life. I would say it was about three years of totally intensive work. I used to work at Entertainment Weekly, and the magazine industry was not doing so well in 2009, and it seemed like a good time to start work on a book; the book that I've been sort of idly thinking about for a few years.
In addition to the interviews, one of the great things is going back and re-reading a lot of comic books. [Laughs.] Also just poring through old fanzines, and whatever old memos or primary source documents I could get. It was somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 interviews.
Nrama: Was there anyone you were hoping to get to talk to that eluded you?
Howe: I guess it depends on how much you would say that I "hoped" to get Steve Ditko. [Laughs.] I knew it was a long shot, but of course I would have loved to have gotten that scoopI have Tumblr page, and I put up the postcard that I got from Steve Ditko declining to speak with me. He's written quite a few essays about his Marvel days, but they're sort of scattered throughout these low print run publications, and there are so many unanswered questions, beginning with, precisely why Steve Ditko left Marvel Comics.
There's this thing that just gnaws at a historian — that there's this living history that is out of reach. I was just exchanging emails with the widow of the guy who took photographs of the Marvel offices for Rolling Stones in 1971, and her telling me that the photos were kind of inaccessible right now, and just wondering what mysteries could be solved if only that was in my control…
I was really lucky to get so many people to talk to me. I wish someone had done this 20 years ago when there were so many more people around. Martin Goodman died in 1992, Jack Kirby died in 1994. The mind kind of boggles when you think about if you could have sat down with Bill Everett, or Carl Burgos, or John Verpoorten, the guy who was Marvel's production manager in the '70s, who saw a lot. Burgos and Verpoorten I don't think were ever any interviewed for any publication.
Nrama: As kind of the flipside of last question — was there anyone who you talked to that you were surprised by how much they opened up?Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart. Howe: There's people like Jim Shooter and Gerry Conway, that I wasn't surprised that they would talk to me, but I guess I was pleasantly surprised at how willing they were to open up about any questions. Both of those guys should be getting interviewed more. I interviewed them and I put stuff that they said into this book, but they have tons of stories. They really are just treasures of history. Put Steve Englehart on that list, too.
Nrama: Obviously the book covers just about every era of Marvel, including storied periods like the Timely days, to the Silver Age, and the early '90s with the exodus of creators that formed Image. Were there any eras that you found particularly fascinating? Maybe ones that people wouldn't expect to be especially interesting?
Howe: The mid-'90s, I guess. The era after the bubble burst. I wasn't really reading superhero comics at that moment, so it was a shock to me to just realize how bad things were for a lot of those people. I talk a little bit about the mood of the office, but I got the sense that at a certain point it just became people quietly going into the office in the morning and shutting their doors, and then going home at night and wondering every day if they were going to get laid off. Obviously that's a simplification, but that is just so far removed from what was going on a few years before that.There's kind of this break in continuity that happened for a little while, both on the level of character and employee. A lot of the old guard got kind of swept away when things got bad in the '90s, and never really came back, which I find terribly sad. There are so many artists who never really found steady work again, people who had been working their asses off for decades.
Nrama: Since you weren't reading superhero comics at that time, was a lot of that fairly new to you?
Howe: Yeah. If you see how the industry is at the time just from headlines, it's not hard to imagine that things aren't fun at the office, but you've got the death of Mark Gruenwald being a huge example of a morale-crushing moment.
Nrama: Reading the book, and it might just be a credit to the work, it seems like there really was no "dead period" at Marvel when nothing of note is going on. In every era, there seemed to be something compelling happening.
Howe: Good, I'm glad to hear you say that! [Laughs.] One of the things that I found to be a little bit of a challenge while writing it is that there are these certain cycles that just keep repeating, and how do you keep the reader's interest when what's unfolding is, "Marvel's fortunes are getting better, then they're getting worse, then they're getting better, then they're getting worse." How do you keep people from just thinking that you're just crying wolf over and over and over again? If it succeeded, then I think it's just because these eras were so distinct, both in terms of the creations coming out of them, and also the types of people who were populating the Marvel offices, and the freelance Rolodexes, too.
Nrama: Which is part of what makes right now an interesting period —Marvel comic characters are a huge business, and though sales have rebounded in the past year, direct market numbers still aren't what you would necessarily expect them to be given how popular comic book movies are.
Howe: It's very strange to see the Marvel brand embraced without necessarily seeing the art form fully embraced. That's something that I find a little bit distressing, personally. I do think that what I loved about these comic books is about so much more than just the characters. Mr. Fantastic is a kind of interesting character. He's really just sort of a variation of the Gilligan's Island professor. But when you see Jack Kirby drawing Mr. Fantastic, there's something transcendent about that. It's about so much more than just what his secret identity is, and what his powers are.
Nrama: On a similar note, The Untold Story is probably most squarely targeted at hardcore comic book fans interested in delving into history, which may not be the largest number of people. Was it a hard sell at all?
Howe: It wasn't really. I spent several months on the proposal, wrote a pretty long sample chapter, and when it was time to try to sell the book, I think it was two or three days after Disney bought Marvel. Those were huge headlines, and it was also post-Iron Man. That was another big breakthrough. There was definitely a sense in the non-comics community that Marvel was really here to stay.
Nrama: Given that, do you wish you had time to explore the last few years a little more — between the rise of Marvel Studios and the Disney purchase?
Howe: I think there's a lot that's interesting about that. There are benefits to having a little bit of distance. In one sense, big chapter of Marvel history kind of closes when the Spider-Man movie comes out and it's a huge success. To me, that is really the beginning of Marvel the Hollywood entity eclipsing Marvel the comic book company. That's really the end of Stan Lee's journey in a certain sense — not that he hasn't had a great decade-long coda since then, but that was his dream for 30 years leading up to that. That was the dream of a lot of guys in suits, as well.
I think what's going on at Marvel currently is very interesting. I don't get the sense that it's quite an open culture as it's been at times. There's very good reasons that people don't want to talk candidly about things going on — there are non-disclosure agreements, and also it's a smaller industry, and people don't want to say anything that's going to get them in trouble with anyone else. Which isn't to say that I'm only interested in hearing about dirt about the industry [laughs], but you do need to get a little more of the full story than you get from press releases.
Nrama: How much of a fan are you of current Marvel comics? Do you keep up with the new stuff? Clearly you might not necessarily have had time while writing the book.
Howe: I did kind of check out for a while, I was only reading the stuff that I was writing about. I just picked up the first couple issues of Hawkeye, I haven't had a chance to dig in. I really like what I've read of the Mark Waid Daredevil.
It really is, in so many cases, an all-or-nothing proposition, and I don't have the time or the money to read comics that are tied in to 30 other comics. I've been reading comics for 30-years-plus, and I've just spent three years writing a book about Marvel history, and yet I feel like Marvel is not all that user-friendly. I feel like I need to know more than is immediately apparent to me when I go into a comic book store. The stories should be more inviting than they are. I feel like there are 10 different Captain America titles, and I just don't have the patience to try to figure out which one I'm looking at. I'm sure this is stuff that people at Marvel are well aware of and are trying to solve. I'm sure that I'm not the first person to say this, and I'm sure that there are good reasons for its difficulty.
That's why, I think, a character like Iron Fist or Hawkeye who's just sort of existing in their own little corner is so much easier for a new reader to deal with.More from Newsarama:
- Journey Into HISTORY: 10 Books on History of Comics
- Memories of Comic Book 'GIMMICKS' Resurface
- Stan Lee Strikes a Centerfold Pose in 1983 Photo