Chronicling Marvel's Transformation from Comic Book Underdog to Hollywood Hero

New tome peeks behind the mask of the superhero stable.

By Scott Huver
|  Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012  |  Updated 5:39 PM EDT
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“With great power comes great responsibility,” wrote Stan Lee in the very first Spider-Man story at the dawn of the new comic book superhero era he spearheaded in the early 1960s – one that five decades years later dominates Hollywood. And with great success comes a great inside story.

In the new book "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," author Sean Howe – a former editor at Entertainment Weekly and The Criterion Collection – delves deep into the origins of the then-underdog company that, led by writer-editor Lee and a collection of innovative artists frustrated with the conventions and limitations of the comic book format, began breaking the square-jawed superhero mold with unlikely, angst-ridden characters with feet of clay, selfish impulses and other human foibles. Spidey, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the X-Men, Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man and the Avengers are among those whose struggles and ultimate triumphs were depicted in more dynamic terms than the industry had ever seen.

But that was just the launch of the Marvel era and the company’s constantly had its eye on the biggest prize of all: Hollywood. Howe gives a sense of the scope of the original Marvel Universe’s inner workings and the road to its ultimate triumph.

This had to be a major labor of love for you to undertake. What initially sparked the idea to dig into the incredibly rich history of Marvel Comics?

It’s an idea that was really kicking along for so long before I really started in earnest. But I think one of the things was that there is a really healthy fanzine culture in comics and so that’s where some of the stories about the behind-the-scenes stuff started to come out in places that no one but comics fans were reading. So I started to put together in my mind what things were really like behind the scenes and realized that it wasn’t something the average person who went to see these blockbuster movies had no idea about that.

Even having some deep knowledge going in, what was the biggest surprise when you looked at the entire tapestry of the company’s story?

One of the things was just the arc of writers and artists: the way they would take responsibility for these characters and stories and pour everything into it, and they would have very proprietary feelings about the stories and characters, and inevitably they would eventually have to give it up, because they didn’t own these things. And to see that play out, over and over and over again, was pretty surprising in itself.

The public at large has such an image of Stan Lee at the head of Marvel that they might be surprised at how early he moves away from the day-to-day oversight of comic book businees to pursue the company’s Hollywood agenda. Talk about Lee’s image versus the actual reality of his involvement with Marvel.

First of all, I talked to a lot of people – and I’ve talked to Stan Lee – who’ve known him for years, and I think his public persona is very much who he is. He’s a really energetic, upbeat, creative guy. I think the thing that you’re talking about is the idea that Stan Lee maybe single-handedly created Marvel, and I think that part of that is convenient and easier for people to remember one version. You’re never going to get the whole of America to keep track of the whole of the people involved, so it’s easy to cede everything to Stan Lee. But by 1970 he was ready to get away from the comic book industry, and he even took a sabbatical for a little while to work on screenplays. He came back as publisher for a few years, but he really had moved on. The comic book industry was really struggling in the early 70s, and I think he saw Hollywood as a safe haven, actually. He knew that the characters would translate to other media, and he knew that Hollywood paid people better for their creations.

And yet it took a good long time before the Marvel characters got to enjoy the success in Hollywood that we all associate with them now.

A lot of that has to do with technology catching up. In comic books, if you can draw it, you have no limits, and if in 1982 you tried to translate these big cosmic soap operas to the movie screen, it’d look kind of clumsy and amateurish. And now, with CGI, the distance between what you can do on the page and what you can do on the movie screen is much less.

Two key early figures in Marvel history would be artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in terms of what the company was built upon – both very different stylists, and very different men in their temperament. Talk about their critical role in the beginnings of Marvel, where they stand reputation-wise today and how they didn’t quite benefit from where Marvel’s since gone.

Jack Kirby had actually preceded Stan Lee at Marvel Comics – he was there by 1940, working as an artist and he created Captain America with Joe Simon, which was a huge hit. Jack Kirby left Marvel and within the comic book world he was a pretty big star in 40s and 50s. When he came back to Marvel Comics in the late 50s, Stan Lee, who had been this teenage office boy, was now running the show. They were both kind of stuck in the comics business.

Steve Ditko also started working with Marvel around that time, and they were all doing these sort of monster movie comic books – it was a couple years later that the superheroes started up. At that point it was a pretty small operation and the superheroes were a last-ditch attempt to make something stick. You can just start listing off the big Marvel characters and Jack Kirby was a crucial part of their creation, if not the main part. Steve Ditko, on the other hand – Spider-Man was his big contribution, and that’s a big one! And it’s true, Stan Lee, who worked with both of them and had a big hand in why those characters were popular, nonetheless gets the lion’s share of credit – maybe to the detriment of the legacies of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

It’s been fun to see what you’re doing on the book’s Facebook page, with some of the crazy pop culture crossover moments that have happened at Marvel through the years, cashing in on trends in different time periods – pop music, horror, martial arts, blacksploitation films…

There’s a lot of them! There’s the producer of ‘Xanadu’ who wanted to do a Silver Surfer rock musical with a score by Paul McCartney. That dates that pretty well to the late 70s, early 80s. There’s the Disco Dazzler character – now just known as the Dazzler – who was originally supposed to be a cross-promotional Grace Jones-inspired character. Casablanca Records was going to have someone in that vein go on tour and do concerts as the Disco Dazzler, and bring out a comic book that was tied into that. I think for whatever reason it’s that disco era when Marvel attempts to cash in on things really stands out.

Since the 2000s, the crossover relationship between Marvel and creative talent in Hollywood has been interesting, beginning with people like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon coming in to write various comic books, to now translating the characters into big blockbuster film properties. There’s just a lot of cross-pollination in the two mediums right now. What has that meant for Marvel, overall?

It’s been tremendous, in terms of raising the profile of Marvel in the Hollywood community. That cross-pollination has basically created this line outside Marvel Studios of all these Hollywood people who are very eager to get on board with Marvel Comics, which is such a marked contrast to the way things were 30 years ago, when it was only comic book fans who would be thrilled to work on a Marvel screenplay. But now I think it’s not even just the comic book fans – it’s just such a desirable place to be. And it’s not just a matter of these bigger names wanting to work on these characters.

There’s also just a way that the nature of the Marvel storytelling, the extended serial drama, has really started to explode on television, if you think about shows like ‘LOST,’ which was an early part of this latest wave of really complicated multi-character tapestry. That was J.J. Abrams, who’s of course a comic book fan. And with shows like ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘The Wire,’ I do think that people’s ability to embrace that kind of storytelling was really anticipated by Marvel Comics.

What was your favorite peek-behind-the-curtain era at Marvel?

The Jim Shooter era was especially interesting to me, because that was the time that I was, as a kid, reading comic books, and those are the people I remember reading about in the letter columns, and I had a perception of them like they were an extended family. So that, from a personal standpoint, was a very rich part of the book for me.

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