Sean Howe, comic historian and writer of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, talks about what he finds to be the most fascinating aspect of Marvel’s history, the career tensions between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and where Marvel can go from here.
Q: What is your background in comics? Have you been a lifelong fan?
A: I actually learned to read through comics when I was four years old, so they were a very big part of my childhood up to adolescence. I was born in ’74, so especially during the ’80s is when I was really into comic books, and had a reunion of sorts with the medium probably at the very end of the ’90s.
Q: When did you decide to write your book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story? Did you know what the book was when you started, or did it take shape during your research?
A: I wanted to tell the Marvel story because I was so familiar with the names of all the creators, so it was almost like finding out your family secrets… With Marvel, there was a certain fan club vibe to it at all times. So there were these personas put forth by the creators, and so you did feel like you knew them — although, of course, those were partially constructs.
In the early 2000s, when internet culture was really exploding and particularly blogs, you started to see a lot more interviews with creators that would have previously been the domain of fan-zines. And you also started to see people talk candidly for the first time about the companies they worked for. And so you’d get these glimpses of juicy counter-narratives, and I guess I started collecting these stories in my head and building what I kind of thought of as a secret history of the comics industry. But it wasn’t until — I guess it was 2008 — that I really got serious about it. I think part of me had figured someone else would write this book. I sort of talked with people about “Oh, it would be fun to do this,” but I never really got around to it. Then I started making it a priority and started doing a lot of interviewing in earnest. It was really amazing to me that it was uncharted territory at that time. Really, almost everything about the industry was pretty much just scattered anecdotes or they were corporate histories.
Q: What is the most fascinating aspect of Marvel’s history to you personally?
A: One thing that I didn’t realize until I was into the book was just how much the story of Marvel says about the nature of pop culture and the tensions between art and commerce and collaborative commercial art. That wasn’t necessarily anything that surprised me in my research, but it wasn’t anything that I had thought about so thoroughly before. Kind of along those lines, there was a moment in the early ’70s where Stan Lee gave a speech basically saying that if aspiring cartoonists or comic creators came to him, he would tell them don’t do comics, go into movies or something where you’ll be better compensated for your work. It was just such a brief moment, and it was right before he took a sabbatical from Marvel. So I came across a transcript of this one speech, and it sort of made me see Stan Lee not quite as naive and perpetually upbeat as I think sometimes his public image conveys.
Q: Stan Lee gets credit for the “Marvel Method,” although a lot of companies used it. Why do you think it gets attributed to him so often? Did he find a way to make it work better than other companies?
A: I know certainly at DC, the artists worked from typed-out scripts, so it wasn’t standard to put so much… I guess you could either describe it as giving more control to the artists or you could describe it as giving more work to the artists. I think people who dislike Stan Lee would ascribe it to his shirking responsibilities and not wanting to do the work. But I think you could also make an argument that cartooning is essentially a visual medium and it makes sense for the person doing the drawing to set the pace of all the plotting. I think people still do it both ways, and I think it appeals more to some writers and artists.
Q: Do you believe the character Stan portrayed in the media and the way he talked directly to readers contributed greatly to Marvel’s success?
A: I think it did. I would never want to have to try to break down percentages of what things contributed to Marvel’s success, but there weirdly is an integration of fan service. But, also, there’s an element of kind of glorifying the workplace itself in talking about how happy everyone is. That has interesting ramifications, if you think about it, and certainly people in later years who arrived to work at Marvel Comics had a certain expectation in their minds… I think that it just made Marvel appeal as a kind of a little bit of a surrogate family for people, children especially, and also a kind of social work life to aspire to.
Q: Episode 1 spends a good amount of time on the tensions between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Do you think the things that made them a great team are also the same things that hurt their relationship?
A: I kind of go back and forth on that question… I think the scope of Jack Kirby’s imagination had kind of a chemical reaction with Stan Lee’s promotional instincts.
I think you essentially got two kinds of personalities that don’t always connect and sometimes might talk by each other in terms of just having good communication… But I think it maybe comes down to a company man and a non-company man. Maybe that’s a better way of looking at it… there’s so much gray area. I think that Stan Lee is certainly more demonized than he should be by certain people, and yet Jack Kirby was underappreciated all through his life… I wish Kirby was here to work things out.
Q: After all your research, what would you say about each of their contributions?
A: I see Jack Kirby as sort of like a genius film director — the auteur theory as applied to comics — and I see Stan Lee as a great editor and art director and talent scout and promotional man. I think that the kind of corniness of some of Stan Lee’s writing, there’s something that I think is appealing about that — the sort of self-aware, pompous language when you’re dealing with gods and the wisecracking of Spider-Man. I do think that a lot of that voice is Stan Lee. Some people don’t like that part of it. Some people think that’s the worst thing about Marvel Comics. But I appreciate his pleasantly hamfisted way with language.
Q: What do you think it is about what Stan and Jack created that has resonated so strongly for decades?
A: I think it was just superheroes in general are kind of ultimate amalgams of different kinds of myths. There’s the pulp hero and the science fiction tale… It basically takes the best of action entertainment from centuries and puts it together in a very colorful package. On top of that, there are elements that are simple enough that you can tell any kind of story through those vehicles. I think that there’s kind of almost like a Darwinian power to the genre, where it swallows up other genres and refines it into this beautiful, colorful package that can appeal to people of all ages, and I think Marvel did that better than anyone.
Q: With the Marvel brand as huge as ever, do you think there is a ceiling for the company?
A: In terms of where Hollywood goes — I wrote about this in my book in a way that’s hard for me to summarize — but essentially, you build fictional worlds and build fictional worlds until eventually it becomes such a complicated world that your brain short-circuits and you can’t take it anymore. You pick up a comic book and you don’t understand what’s going on and it has to be kind of reset and simplified. And I think that will probably happen with the movies before too long. I think certainly there’s a lot of people complaining about superhero movie fatigue, but at the same time it’s wild to see this kind of storytelling that only existed in comic books. The complicated nature of it is kind of in every TV show now. It’s no longer like a two-hour movie — it’s however many seasons of Breaking Bad. And of course the Marvel movies, they multiply the complications of that by mashing together these different characters.
Robert Kirkman‘s Secret History of Comics premieres in a two-night event on Sunday at 11/10c, followed by a new episode Monday at 10/9c in the show’s regular timeslot. For news and exclusive extras, sign up for the Secret History of Comics Insiders Club.Read More