by Les Daniels
This colorful history (literally and figuratively) traces Marvel’s path from its try-anything infancy to the embattled ’50s, when Congress searched for links between comics and juvenile delinquency, to the company’s creative apogee in the ’60s.
The comic book, explains Daniels, author of Comix: A History of Comic Books in America, was one of the first spin-offs, growing out of newspaper color funny pages in 1933. After six years of experiments with comedy, horror and western comics, pulp publisher Martin Goodman in 1939 rolled out in his first superheroes—the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch—in the debut issue of Marvel Comics. They weren’t do-gooders; they were troubled souls saddled with dangerous powers and fearsome tempers. “Undirected anger was one of the chief products of the Depression,” Daniels writes, “and innocent characters driven to destructive behavior are among the icons of the age, notably in popular films like King Kong and Frankenstein….If Superman was America’s superego, then the Sub-Mariner was its id.” Marvel Comics was an instant hit.
The Marvel style would reach its zenith in the ’60s under Stan Lee, who joined as a teenager in 1940 and eventually became publisher. Lee created the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, the Silver Surfer, the X-Men and others. What set Marvel apart from Superman and other stiff, mythic DC Comics was the flawed nature of its heroes (Spider-Man, would you believe, suffered from dandruff), the funny, idiomatic writing (the Thing’s rallying cry: “It’s clobberin’ time!”) and the dynamic drawing.
With 700 color illustrations and four complete reprints of classic issues—printed for once on thick coated stock instead of newsprint—this is one coffee-table book destined to be carted off to all corners of the house. (Abrams, $45)