Friday, November 15, 2013

That’s my brand (Marvel Comics: The Untold Story)

Back in August I got around to reading the big geek-baiting tome of late 2012, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. At the time, I mentioned that I had read it and promised that I would have more to say about it at a later date. And then time passed, and passed some more, until it got to the point where I couldn’t remember if I had ever said anything at all here on the blog about having read Howe’s book. But I dug around and found the above-linked post, and was surprised at the extent to which I had apparently already documented much of what I liked about the book, even as I indefinitely put off expounding further on my personal, subjective take on Marvel Comics.

But in that previous post I never really got around to what I considered to be the crux of Howe’s work: understanding Marvel Comics not only as art, and not only as commerce, but as an unstable and unpredictable hybrid of both. Conversationally, a reference to “Marvel comics” could simply indicate the finished products that the company sells, either a subset of the published comic books available for sale every month, tangible physical goods made of ink printed on paper, or it could refer to the self-contained fictional universe created within those comic book pages and inhabited by the colorful characters on the covers. But “Marvel Comics” refers to the publishing entity itself, a real-world business concern staffed by flesh and blood human beings. Howe’s book is a behind-the-scenes expose of the latter, but it’s impossible to tell that tell-all story without incorporating both senses of the former, something Howe recognizes and works with.

The end result, as I was trying to get across back in August, is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Most if not all officially Marvel-sanctioned texts operate under the assumption that all everyone from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti ever wanted to do was tell great fantasy-adventure stories. Every stage in the evolution of Marvel’s house style, from shared continuity to real-world settings and story inspirations to relatable emotional subplots to trend-hopping and media diversification, all of it was in service to the stories themselves and making them better and better (and not coincidentally giving the fans what they want). Howe’s book, by contrast, pokes a lot of holes in that (admittedly ridiculous) notion by constantly reinforcing the idea that what appeared to outsiders as a tight-knit family of friends united by a singular unsullied creative vision was in fact an ever-changing aggregation of artists trying to make a living working under the banner of a company trying to be profitable. Of course if what you’re selling is stories then it makes sense to tell the best stories possible, and at the same time (if possible) to give the fans what they want. But sometimes great stories simply don’t sell, or sometimes they do sell but executives feel that their existence makes it too difficult to sell other stories with potentially bigger bang for the buck. Or sometimes personal grudges trump everything, because the people creating the stories are only flawed human beings after all, and artistic types are notoriously temperamental. It’s fascinating to consider, as Marvel Comics: The Untold Story does, how all of these complex factors interweave and affect one another.

Howe has done eminently praiseworthy work in providing a perspective on those considerations, and I can’t possibly compete with that, since I have zero access to the first-hand accounts of what went down in Marvel Comics offices back in the day. But I can offer my own perspective as the ultimate goal of the process: the consumer (in all senses of the word), the avid reader of comic books who loved them (loves them still, after a fashion). I’m not so much interested in delivering a rebuttal or corrective to Howe’s work; I don’t feel in the slightest that that’s necessary. But I can add my own voice by indulging in a detailed stroll down Marvel-themed memory lane. If this seems wildly self-indulgent and/or self-important, you’ll hear no argument on that from me. There’s good reason why one of Marvel’s more insane character concepts, a sentient planet named Ego, has been a favorite of mine.

I said I was gonna, and now I really am gonna get into My Untold Story of Marvel Comics and What It All Means. Not, like, right now. This is all pre-amble, obviously. But starting on Sunday! I’m not doing much of anything with Sundays on the blog anyway, so I might as well give them over to this recurring series. It may last through the end of this year in weekly installments, or it may spill over into January. I have a general idea of the topics I want to cover, which as I indicated back in August are things which Howe didn’t touch on but which nevertheless fit well into his take on Marvel, and which I can speak to in great detail.

So, tomorrow is Grab Bag day, and then on Sunday we’ll head back to the distant shores of the ‘70’s and see where reminiscing about comics takes us

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