MARVEL: FIVE FABULOUS DECADES OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COMICS.
287 pages. $45.
Comic books, Les Daniels writes, have "always attracted the most intelligent kids: the introverted readers and dreamers who have fantasies of acquiring brawn to match their brains."
Knew it all along, didn't you?
Mr. Daniels, a Rhode Island-based film reviewer, fiction writer and historian of popular culture, offers readers more than just such scholarly sounding balm for their long-guilty consciences. In his sumptuously illustrated, comprehensive history of Marvel Comics, he provides a lively, detailed account of the rise of a peculiarly American enterprise that entertains fans in 40 countries and 17 languages.
Marvel's products are not the cuddly comics of Donald Duck's miserly Uncle Scrooge. Marvel's super heroes make mischief of the catastrophic sort, such as wiping New York City off the map with a gigantic tidal wave (as the half-man, half-fish, part-villian, part-hero Sub-Mariner did in a 1941 adventure); or they save the world, as Captain America, the Human Torch and Marvel's all-time great, Spider-Man, routinely do.
Stan Lee, Marvel's major-domo and the creator of Spider-Man, says that "no matter how somber a story might be" in a Marvel "comic," readers "usually find an element of humor lurking in the background."
More important, Marvel's super heroes are flawed. Spider-Man has dandruff, money troubles, domestic problems, self-doubts and unexpected defeats, Mr. Lee notes. Spidey is, as Daniels observes, "the super hero who could be you."
Comic books were the offspring of the now-extinct pulp magazine industry and newspaper comic strips. The pulp magazine was invented by Frank Munsey, a thoroughly un
pleasant publishing magnate whose empire once included an outpost in Baltimore (and left behind the Munsey Building downtown).
Munsey's magazine The Argosy, launched in 1896, was printed on the cheapest wood-pulp paper, hence the name given to the genre. His most famous writer was Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, the prototype of the pulp hero. Even H. L. Mencken edited a pulp, Black Mask, which published early works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Pulps printed everything from romance to baseball to westerns to science fiction, and many "featured the outlandish, fantastic, aggressive heroes that helped inspire comic books," Mr. Daniels writes.
Comic books, born in the 1890s as collections of previously published comic strips, began printing original stories in the 1930s. The first comic book super hero was, of course, Superman, whose very "name became a job description." Making his debut in 1938, Superman was and is the property of DC Comics, acknowledged in this history as Marvel's chief rival for decades. Marvel began as a pulp published in 1932 and entered the comic book field in 1939, the beginning of what Mr. Daniels calls the "golden age" of comics.
Ironically, however "golden" that age may have been, as Marvel heroes punched out Hitler and other Axis villians even before the United States entered World War II, the artwork in early Marvel Comics was pretty awful, with anatomy, proportions and perspective all out of whack. As amply shown in the more than 700 color illustrations in this book, today's comic book artists wield sinewy lines, cinematic framing and dazzling colors to produce far more artful creations.
Marvel and other comics publishers nearly bit the dust in the 1950s, when Dr. Fredric Wertham, a wizened psychiatrist, began a one-man crusade against what he considered primers of crime and depravity. Although aiming his wrath mostly at horror comics, Wertham even assailed comic comic books, complaining that in them "Ducks . . . threaten to kill rabbits." Congress investigated and sales of comics nose-dived.
Somehow the chief comics publishers survived, and Mr. Lee devised what now is known as "the Marvel Method" for producing the firm's special fantasies. Instead of supplying the artists with a complete script, only a brief synopsis of the plot is prepared, giving the artists full freedom to lay out the pictures. Dialogue and captions are tailored to fit the drawings.
In addition to giving a full history of Marvel Comics, "profiles" of its super heroes, and a step-by-step description of how modern comics are made, Mr. Daniels' book also reprints four classic Marvel stories from the 1950s through the 1980s.
His writing, as befits the subject, is a bit overblown; like the subject, it is compulsively readable.
Comics, as American "as jazz or rock and roll," now are more popular in Europe and Japan than they are here, Mr. Daniels writes. Will we lose the lead in this field as we have in so many others? Perhaps not -- especially if Spider-Man has anything to say about it.
Mr. Grauer is a Baltimore author and caricaturist.