Confronted by an irate fan about how Batman creator Bob Kane aced scripter Bill Finger out of credit for creating the Dark Knight, Kane replied, "Let me tell you sometime about the comic business, kid."
Kane never did, which was wise. But Sean Howe has. This book lives up to its title. Howe focuses on the behind-the-scenes shenanigans rather than analyzing the finished product. With his recounting of stolen credits, outright plagarism, low rates, and battles with management over providing health care and the return of art to those who drew it, this book is hardly a recruiting manual for readers eager to break into the field.
Howe takes us back to the late 1930s, when the decline of the pulps created a vacuum for another kid-oriented entertainment. Jerome Siegel and Joe Schuster, prototypical geeks who were romance-deprived readers of pulps and science fiction, finally found a publisher for Superman, a character they had been hawking for six years. Superman was such a success that publishers who once saw comics as pablum suddenly gave their employees marching orders to create their own "superman." On the surface, Seigel and Schuster were a rags-to-riches story. But unbeknowst to writers and artists scrambling to get a piece of the pie, the pair did not own the rights to the character and worked on him at the whim of the publishers; within thirty years, the pair would be destitute.
From its very beginnings, Marvel was edgier than DC. Two of its flagship characters, the Human Torch and Submariner, were outcasts: one was an android, the other a vengeful underwater alien. But although benefitting from the World War II boom (the biggest group of readers were GIs), Marvel never reached the heights of DC.
That was until the legendary team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee, who came to the company through nepotism (his uncle was the owner), nevertheless stayed with the medium through its dog days, the 1950s, when a psychiatrist named Frederick Wertham declared comics a baleful influence on the nation's youth (i.e, Superman was a fascist; Batman and Robin a homosexual couple). The result was a politically correct comics code that bleached out whatever was interesting about the characters.
Already bland, DC had to make little adjustments to their stable (by then, Batman, the most complex and interesting of the comic characters, had mutated from a revenge-driven creature of the night to a daylight-dwelling Establishment American). Lee, however, chaffed at the restrictions, and was on the verge of quitting, when he took the advice of his wife and satisfied a decades-long desire to write for adults.
The result, the Fantastic Four, a dysfuntional family of nuclear-enhanced superheroes, took the industry by storm. After that Lee and Kirby—who created what when would be the subject of debate for years, with the latter claiming he did the heavy lifting on the characters—rode a wave of success with the Hulk, Iron Man, and Spiderman, all of whom attracted hip college students.
From there, until the movie industry was able to develop special effects that realize the Lee-Kirby vision on screen, it was downhill. Lee, a notorious ham, became more the public face of Marvel, appearing in Burma shave commercials and agreeing to media distortions of the characters (i.e., Thor presented as a wandering stud). Meanwhile, Kirby scrambled to receive even the meagerest of wages
and job security. By the 1970s, the company was in trouble, and there was talk of shutting down. But true to form they soldiered on, and within thirty years would be wooed by Hollywood.
Howe's book is interesting from a political standpoint, and not just of the office variety. Despite Lee's latter day claims that Marvel in the early 1960s was anti-establishment, Howe shows how each character was anti-communist (even, given his love of violence against the US Army, the Hulk).
All in all, this...