This past summer, the juggernaut success of the film The Avengers, with worldwide grosses exceeding a billion dollars, seemed evidence of the triumph of Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. But the true story — about a small band of wily creative types who went on to create a cast of indelible characters and then let them loose upon the world — is more complicated than mere triumph. The current slate of comic-book blockbusters comes only after nearly eight decades of bitter wrangling for control of this fictional world and its inhabitants — a fight for intellectual property control detailed in Sean Howe’s masterful new book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper), where hundreds of interviews with Marvel insiders yield an intriguing tale as gripping as any X-Men story arc.
So nowadays, when people think of comics they are probably thinking of film versions of famous comics, like the recent Christopher Nolan Batman movies, or Avengers or that sort of thing — and to me, those movies are all indebted to the “darkness” trend that swept over superhero comics in the mid-to-late ’80s. When you spoke to people at Marvel, was this a major theme, this shift in tone?
Not a lot— but then again, one of the mysteries that I was never able to figure out completely was why Marvel didn’t have much of an answer to Vertigo. Marvel never really attracted writers who were making names for themselves. DC was getting all these hot new talents and Marvel never did that, that whole wave of artist/writers, like Byrne and Miller. I think a lot of it has to do with the taste of people who were running the show, and I think the integration of the Marvel Universe probably made it a little less natural to go off into weird other worlds. DC had a little more of a fractured continuity anyway, so they could get away with it. And then there’s always things like how X-Men and Daredevil were a little darker so they sold well, so it was fashionable to do things like that. Not like Dark Knight gritty, but certainly a lot of frowning superheroes.
In your opinion, is the Marvel story, spanning all the way back to the ’40s, a triumph or a tragedy?
I think that— and I'm not trying to hedge here but I think it’s both. There’s certainly a cautionary tale in there, but I think it’s inevitable — because Marvel Comics is a really rich example of the way that pop culture works and that the Marvel story really gets to the way that art and commerce are always going to be battling it out in pop culture. If you’re trying to have mass appeal and artistic expression at the same time, there are going to be compromises. And when you bring powerful corporate interests into the equation, it’s pretty predictable what will happen.
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