Company's infamous history gets super story

Sam Thielman / Newsday /

“Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” by Sean Howe (Harper, $26.99)

It’s about time somebody wrote “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” and it looks like Sean Howe was the right guy for the job. Howe’s clear-eyed history of the heavyweight comic-book publisher is as full of colorful characters, tragic reversals and unlikely plot twists as any book in the Marvel canon.

That’s not coincidence: Half the time, the swindled, underpaid writers, artists and editors were writing their grievances into the pages of the comics themselves. One staffer’s piqued resignation letter ends up in “The Avengers” as a farewell note from the team’s butler; only the names were changed.

Without a definitive history of either of the “big two” companies, DC or Marvel, unanswered accusations of unfairness and bad business practices have piled up like so many unsold collectibles.

The publisher since 1963 of all things X-Men, Avengers and Spider-Man is now part of the Walt Disney Company and has largely cleaned up its act, but what went down between Marvel and talented creators like Jack Kirby (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man), Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Daredevil) and Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck) needs to be heard, especially with movies in theaters under the titles “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man,” as though the company logo had written and drawn the stories. Here, Howe’s exhaustive muckraking lays to rest myths on both sides of the company-vs.-creator debate.

Company partisans will have a hard time defending the behavior of comics-hating bottom-liners like Ron Perelman and Al Landau. But Howe also puts paid to the frequently parroted claim that conflicts between valiant creators and soulless bean counters are black-and-white struggles no more morally complicated than a Thor-vs.-Loki grudge match. Some of the Marvel talents are obviously hard to work with and convinced of their own dubious genius; a few artists and writers mistreated by higher-ups go on to become spitting images of their tormentors.

Even Jim Shooter, a tin-pot tyrant hated so deeply by his staff that they burned an effigy of him stuffed with unsold copies of his failed pet project, isn’t entirely unsympathetic. Howe recalls Shooter’s impoverished childhood, his desperate love of comics and his terrorization as a writer at the hands of legendarily cruel DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger, who worked a 13-year-old Shooter half to death, all the while belittling him as a “charity case.”

Then there’s Marvel founding editor Stan Lee, alternately pitiable and contemptible, who begins his career in the ’60s as a charismatic editor running a pool of incredibly talented draftsmen — to whom he supplies trademark overwrought dialogue and ripped-from-the-headlines stories — and fades quickly into a succession of overpaid emeritus positions as he tries to break into Hollywood. Marvel staffers regard him as an inspiration, then a stumbling block, then a joke, then — when collaborators like Kirby and Ditko grow angry about his construction of a business empire around work they no longer receive compensation for — a symbol of talentless greed.

Sadly, they hadn’t seen anything yet. The book’s penultimate section is a roll call of sleazy ’80s and ’90s corporate vampires, from Mike Milken to Carl Icahn to Perelman to Isaac Perlmutter, who nickel-and-dimes expense reports until getting a billion-dollar-plus payout from Disney when Marvel finally goes mega-corporate near the end of the book.

A back-issue-hoarding pedant might take issue with a few of Howe’s decisions, and will do so now: There’s not even a glancing mention of a few of Marvel’s oddest and best projects: Where is humor title “Groo”? Where’s “Squadron Supreme,” into which beloved Marvel editor Mark Gruenwald poured his soul and, posthumously, his ashes? (No lie — Gruenwald’s ashes were mixed into the ink used to reprint the series as a paperback.)

None of this should prevent anyone with even a passing interest in comics from picking up “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.” Most of the material here has gone woefully underreported by either the mainstream consumer press (uninterested) or the fan press (sycophantic, poorly sourced, craven), and the book is filled with fond remembrances and thrilling tales of people who deserve a truthful accounting of their actions — right, wrong and in between.