Sean Howe spent more than 25 years as a Marvel reader before devoting an additional three to scads of research (which included conducting well over 100 original interviews) to what will likely be considered the definitive history of Marvel for decades to come. Packed with anecdotes, incidents, and mini-biographies of creators and executives alike, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story separates fact from fiction and controversy from concord in charting the history of the company that has risen from being a bunch of mid-career creators in an office to a billion dollar pillar of Disney’s entertainment empire. Beginning with the heady days of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko reinvigorating the comics industry with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, and continuing through the turbulence of Jim Shooter’s reign as editor-in-chief and the transformation of the publishing company from a self-contained corporate unit to a marginally profitable Disney subsidiary, Howe’s book takes Marvel’s story right up to the present day. Howe spoke with us by phone about his abiding love for Marvel comics and the evolution of the company’s business practices.
PWCW: Why did you choose to focus on Marvel as a subject, rather than another facet of the comics industry?
Sean Howe: The short answer is, the kid in me. I was always a big Marvel fan. But I do think that there’s something unique about Marvel in the way it epitomizes the conflict between art and commerce. I think that narrative applies to most of the comic book industry, but with Marvel it’s writ large. And, with Marvel’s connected overarching narrative—like 100 different spinoffs of As the World Turns all running in parallel, all the time—what gets tied up in that complexity are these creators who have to keep passing the torch to one another. By definition, they have to work on top of what other people have built. I can’t think of another cultural entity that’s so collaborative yet entirely under the auspices of corporate ownership.
PWCW: TV might be somewhat that way, but a series lasts for eight or nine years—not fifty.
SH: Right—and I don’t think anyone in the writers’ room of Mad Men is thinking, “These are my characters now.”
PWCW: The ongoing debates over creator credit and remuneration, often beginning and ending with the example of Jack Kirby at Marvel, are still very much an issue in the comics industry. Tell me about your attempt to clarify those conflicts in the book.
SH: I wanted to lay out the facts as best I could, in a way that people would be able to make their own judgment calls about what happened. Within the comics community, there’s a lot of rhetoric about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. One of the big challenges for me was to figure out a way to write about that stuff without pretending to know more about it than I did.
PWCW: I was struck by the parallels between the conglomeratization of Marvel and the corporatization of the film industry—especially because they were happening at the same time.
SH: To simplify it a little, you can look at this early-‘70s moment, where the old blood is moved out of the picture, and these young guys who grew up as fans of the art form move in and start breaking the rules. The industry had flatlined to the point where the people in charge say, “Okay, go ahead and do whatever you want and we’ll see what sticks.” And it is almost precisely at the moment of Star Wars that things start becoming corporatized and people get savvy about what works. In the film industry, a blockbuster mentality took over and everything became about the opening weekend. At Marvel, the Star Wars licensing worked out well, so they decided they should do a comic book of The Deep, for example.
PWCW: I didn’t realize how early Stan Lee had left New York to come out to Los Angeles. What effect did his relocation have on the business end of things in New York?
SH: That’s when you see the consolidation of Jim Shooter’s power. There’s an interview Jim Shooter gave a few weeks after he “took office” in which he says that Stan didn’t want to deal with people beneath him and that [Shooter] now had a mandate because Stan didn’t want to be bothered so much. It’s hard to say what would have been different if Stan Lee had left five years earlier or five years later. In 1972 and 1973, right after he became publisher, he was writing a lot of memos, courting Harvey Kurtzman and Will Eisner, going after Kurt Vonnegut and other fiction writers—trying to lift the idea of how comics were perceived. I get the feeling that by around 1975 or so, he was a lot less invested. He already had his eye on Hollywood in a big way, and the licensing. I think of 1975-80 as [a period] where he inhabited the role of spokesman and ambassador—eclipsing the other things he was doing.
PWCW: Lee spent decades trying to generate film projects for Marvel characters. Why did Marvel films take so long to get off the ground?
SH: Well, you also have to remember that [Tim Burton’s] Batman movie took a long time to get off the ground. Then there was Howard the Duck  in the middle of this, and however little responsibility Stan Lee or Marvel had for what Howard the Duck was, it wasn’t going to give them any juice at meetings. There just wasn’t much interest in putting money into high-budget superhero movies at that time. Marvel Productions, which started in 1980, issued a press release about how they were going to take the reins and make their own movies—which never happened. I think they were a little naïve about how much of an investment that would take.
PWCW: I was fascinated to read about how Marvel started catering to the collector market in the 1990s by creating all these special editions of different comics. They built up a collector’s market, only to have the bottom fall out of it, just like any other speculative bubble.
SH: You had a public company, and you had shareholders who wanted to maximize profits every quarter. You had editors who were being told, “You need to beat last year’s numbers. And if you can’t do that, we’ll find someone who can.” And so you had this one nuclear option to make sure you hit these numbers for the next quarter—and whether or not it’s sustainable in the long run was not the first priority. And, as with any shell game or Ponzi scheme, the bottom’s going to fall out.
PWCW: Has the success of the Marvel films of the last ten years had any real effect on comic book sales?
SH: Sales are pretty consistent right now. You either say it’s healthy and solid, or that it’s flatlined. But my understanding is that they are profitable. Their numbers are buried within Disney’s reports, so it’s very hard to figure out exactly how the comics do. I have a friend who referred to Marvel Entertainment as a really successful restaurant, and he said, “Marvel Comics, the publishing arm, is like a cigarette machine in the lobby. They can shake it for change once in a while.” It’s not where the business is being made. They’re definitely not on the shaky ground they were on in 1998, that’s for sure. But the audience is aging with the company. The median age of a Marvel reader is now above 30 and I don’t know what that’s going to mean in the longer term.
PWCW: That problem had to have been dealt with at least once or twice in the past, right?
SH: One thing that’s had an effect on the loss of younger readers is the loss of newsstand sales. You’re not going to get a 12-year-old kid driving himself to the comic book store. Within the comics industry, some people say, “They put all their eggs into the direct market and neglected the newsstand sales.” But comic book companies didn’t give up on newsstand sales. My theory is that the profit margin on a comic book, for a newsstand, is much lower than on a magazine. It’s not in the interest of a newsstand or drugstore to use up its rack space on something with such a small profit margin. I think that’s one of the reasons why newsstand sales have been a real uphill battle.
I was reading about DC’s new Amethyst series. This is a character that was created in the ‘80s—a very kid-friendly girl character. And the new issue of Amethyst has an attempted gang-rape in it. Even if you have two racks at Barnes & Noble, I’m not sure how that’s going to get the 10-year-olds interested—and I hope it doesn’t!