Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Les Daniels' "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics"

Les Daniels, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, John Romita cover
When I bought this book, eighteen years ago, I wasn't too sure what it was called. Was it called Marvel or was it called Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics? Was it called both? After much thought, I've decided it's called Marvel, as that's what it says on the cover, in great big letters. I might be slow but I get there in the end.

But, "in the end," is all that matters and, in the end, the title doesn't. What matters is that after the mid-1980s, I stopped reading American comics - or in fact comics of any variety. I could claim it was because I was too grown-up to read them but the truth is I was just too lazy to buy them. However, even I must shake myself out of my sloth sometimes and, by the early 1990s, my sense of nostalgia'd grown sufficiently to motivate me to dip the occasional toe back into those four-coloured waters.

This meant Les Daniels' Marvel came out at exactly the right time. It meant I could acquaint myself with the company's entire history in one great big go, while looking at lots of pretty pictures and reading about my favourite characters. At the time, pretty much all I knew about Marvel's back-story had come from Stan Lee's not totally impartial  Origins of Marvel Comics books and so I didn't even know the company had come close to financial ruin even as I'd been reading those books.

Les Daniels' tome isn't perfect. While it's certainly not a hagiography, it is clearly an authorised biography and, while it acknowledges the more controversial elements of Marvel's history, it tends to only lightly touch on them. I don't personally mind that the whole Kirby vs Lee, Ditko vs Lee, disputes are only briefly dealt with. Frankly I long since grew tired of hearing Kirby vs Lee vs Ditko vs Whoever arguments and it's a blessed relief to escape them here.

Where the book does suffer from its reluctance to rock the boat is in its coverage of the Jim Shooter years. The only acknowledgement that his reign as Editor in Chief might not have been greeted with universal love by his underlings is the statement that he, "may have stepped on a few toes." At the time, I knew nothing of the Shooter story and didn't realise just how much of an understatement that was. It has to be said that Jim Shooter's fall-out with what seems to have been virtually the entire comics industry is a tale so epic it deserves it's own multi-part cross-over, let alone proper coverage in a book detailing Marvel's history. In the book, Stan Lee describes Shooter as, "Competent and hard-working." Given how effusive Lee usually is when describing people - or indeed anything - "Competent and hard-working," sounds suspiciously like the closest thing to damning with faint praise you'll ever get from the great man's lips.

As for the rest, once the history lesson's over, we get a piece telling us how a Marvel comic's put together and then we get a number of key stories from the company's history, reprinted. We get Fantastic Four issue #51 and Amazing Spider-Man issue #2. There's also an early Sub-Mariner tale and a Wolverine story. In what way the Wolverine tale's historically important, I've no idea. It just looks like another story to me. I suspect it's there purely because Wolverine's popular and so they were determined to crowbar him in somehow, but it features Wolvie vs some mandroids, so, if you like to see mandroids get hacked to death by an angry man who's just been shot full of bullets, you'll probably be delighted.

Such quibbles aside, it's simply a great book to read, bombarding the reader with classic images, panels and pages from the company's history, putting it all in chronological order and getting interviews with the luminaries we all grew up loving. It's probably of limited use to someone doing serious research into the back-room shenanigans at Marvel over the years but, for the fan, it's a great thick wallow in nostalgia and, let's face it, if we weren't fans, we wouldn't be reading it.


cerebus660 said...

It is a great book, isn't it? I've got many comic-related books but this is definitely one of my faves. As you say, it may not be too critical but it does provide a fine overview of the company's history and some great artwork. But I can't believe it's 18 years old! ( It's old enough to vote! )

Steve said...

That's what depresses me. I still view it as a new book. The last eighteen years have just flown by, whereas the six years before that, the ones in which I wasn't buying comics, seemed like an eternity.

Kid said...

Actually, it's at least 19 years old, because STAN LEE himself signed my copy in 1991. As I was freelancing for MARVEL at the time, technically he was my boss. Yup, only seems like yesterday. Nice book - the DC one Les Daniels did is also a cracker.

Steve said...

You're right. I bought my copy in January 1992, paying for it with book tokens I'd got for Christmas, but it'd already been out a while by then.

Capes on Film said...

Hey- first time vistor here (I think). Very nice work. Your write up on this book made me wipe the dust off my copy and give it another look. I think this and the "Marvel Vault" from a couple of years ago are definite must haves.

Steve said...

Hi, Matthew, welcome to the site. I'm not familiar with the Marvel Vault. Looks like I'm going to have to look into it.