Before Marvel Comics became an unending source of superhero movie blockbusters, it was a scruffy collection of hustlers and stoners, creating four-color myths one month at a time. Sean Howe’s gripping new history, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, lays out five decades of Marvel adventures and insanity, and will make you believe that comic-book creators have even weirder lives than their mutant creations.
Ten adamantium nuggets from the book that will surprise even Marvel maniacs:
1. One of the many ways Marvel Comics might have never happened: Magazine entrepreneur Martin Goodman, Marvel’s founding publisher, was returning from his European honeymoon in 1937, and had tickets on the Hindenburg airship. Goodman and his wife couldn’t get seats together, so they took a plane – otherwise, they would have died in a fiery crash worthy of a Marvel splash page.
2. Jack Kirby, the artist who co-created most of Marvel’s iconic characters in the Sixties with writer Stan Lee, grew up in New York’s Lower East Side slums. “My mother once wanted to give me a vacation,” he remembered, “so she put me on a fire escape for two weeks.”
3. Jim Steranko, famed for his trippy art on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., had the most colorful background of any Marvel creator in the Sixties: before comics, he did public Houdini-style escapes from straitjackets and jail cells, his rock band played with Bill Haley and the Comets, he was a fire-eater, and he stole guns and cars, getting arrested in 1956 for the theft of 25 cars and two trucks.
4. The apex of the free-wheeling surrealism of Seventies Marvel comics: Steve Englehart’s 20-issue Avengers saga of Mantis, a former Vietnamese prostitute who had “been raised by a race of psychic alien cruciferous vegetables named the Cotari, who’d been brought to Earth by a sect of Kree pacifists,” Howe says. Englehart describes the conclusion: “Because it was a cosmic time, somehow she just turned herself into the Celestial Madonna and married a tree!”
5. Writer Gerry Conway served as Marvel editor-in-chief for less than a month in 1976. When he fired another writer, a member of Marvel’s production staff demanded that he rescind the decision. When Conway asked why, the answer was, “Because he’s a member of our coven!”
6. Before the recent Marvel movie boom, Stan Lee spent decades trying to get Hollywood interested in the Marvel characters, without much luck. Maybe the worst proposal: a Saturday-morning cartoon series that would have paired superheroes such as Thor, the Black Panther and Doctor Strange with canine sidekicks.
7. When Stan Lee visited the New York offices in 1983, the staff was putting together a comic featuring editors in wacky poses, and they convinced him to pose for the centerfold, reclining on a couch with only a comic book covering his man-thing. Lee had second thoughts, and the photo was ultimately published with a Hulk costume superimposed on his torso.
8. One of the reasons Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil relentlessly focused on grim street crime: he got mugged twice while he was doing the book. “I was really eager to see criminals shot on sight,” he said. Making the bone-snapping violence go down easier: the visual model for the assassin Elektra was the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, who also posed for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
9. Jim Shooter started writing comic books professionally at age 14. For most of the Eighties, he was the hard-nosed editor-in-chief of Marvel: staffers would gather in the office next to Shooter’s to listen to his epic arguments and lectures through the heating ducts. In 1987, artist John Byrne hosted a party in his backyard where Marvel staffers and freelancers burned Shooter in effigy. Soon after, Shooter was fired, at which point Byrne took over Shooter’s comic Star Brand and had the lead character destroy Shooter’s hometown of Pittsburgh.
10. Marvel Comics has been sold multiple times, most controversially to corporate raider Carl Icahn, whose stewardship led to bankruptcy. The most unlikely suitor, around the year 2000: Michael Jackson. He toured the offices and asked Stan Lee, “If I buy Marvel, you’ll help me run it, won’t you?” Lee consented, but the deal never happened – which means the world was denied a comic book about a superpowered Bubbles the Chimp.