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January 9, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #21 -- Sean Howe

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imageSean Howe is a widely-published entertainment writer who first entered into wider comics consciousness editing the essay collection Give Our Regards To The Atom-Smashers!. His latest, Marvel: The Untold Story, is as widely discussed and blurbed and positively reviewed as any work about comics in the medium's history. It is a mighty achievement of pop-culture synthesis. I greatly enjoyed reading the book, although I didn't pick up on its unique rhythms until a key firing in the 1970s made everything fall into place. By engaging with Marvel in an almost blow-by-blow fashion, Howe wrings every bit of fascinating color out of the publisher's unlikely journey but also lets the spotlight fall on unique, repetitive factors that soak the culture of the place, and therefore inform the last several decades of comics history. This includes but is certainly not limited to an ongoing cycle of benign creative neglect followed by some sort of practical, business-driven crackdown. We talk about this and more in the following, and I'm happy Howe made the time. That guy is busy. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Here's a pretty standard question. Where do you stand right now in terms of the book's publicity cycle? Are you kind of finishing up with the hardback? I assume there's going to be a softcover, and I also assume that'll put you out there again.

SEAN HOWE: I would say the hardcover publicity is winding down. I don't know when the paperback will be. My guess is probably next Fall. So I'm just starting to get used to having conversations with people that aren't about the book. [laughter]

SPURGEON: What has that process been like? An element of your work here is Marvel's public perception. When you look at all of the questions you've received, all of the questions as a group, is there anything surprising about what people asked you, or what was emphasized?

HOWE: Nothing really surprising about the interviews. It's a little bit unusual talking to people from the mainstream press, sometimes, about comic books. Or doing a radio call-in or something. It's funny to toggle back and forth between talking to people from the comics press, who have just super-specific questions, and talking to other people who are like, "Oh, so this is like Superman and Wonder Woman? Or is this like Spider-Man and Iron Man?" So that's been a constant challenge, to remember which mode I'm supposed to be in while I'm talking about it. [laughs] I would say that there's something inherently polite about most interview conversations, so I'm not getting challenged on things the way I am, say, from Internet message boards.

SPURGEON: Has there been something particularly salacious or damning that I missed? Is there some place the message boards are going? Is there a specific area of concern those fans have?

HOWE: Probably only in my thin-skinned way. [Spurgeon laughs] When you ask if there's been anything surprising about the reaction from people who I'm talking to for interviews, not really, but I am constantly surprised by the reactions that I read on-line, just in terms of people that think I've totally villainized someone, while other people will think I've been way too easy on the same person. There's a weird Rorschach element to that, I guess. I wasn't quite prepared for the range of interpretations of the tone of my book. Some people think that it's real muckraking, while some people actually read the book and think that it's just another round of adulation for Stan Lee.

SPURGEON: I saw it as fairly even-handed, or even aggressively even-handed throughout. Was that by design? Did you go into it thinking that an even-handed approach would work best or were you willing to let the chips fall where they may and this just happens to be how the chips fell?

HOWE: I wanted to be even-handed. Some people think that it's too even-handed. I wanted to do that because there are a lot of inarguable crimes in the history of comic books. I felt by just presenting things as fact and letting people draw their own conclusions that would be the most educational result for readers. I wanted to say, "This happened to this person. And this happened to this person. And this happened to this person." Any idiot can kind of connect the lines and see that there are patterns there. I guess as I was getting more into the book, I started to think a lot more -- I'm going to sound like someone that just came back from their second semester of college [Spurgeon laughs] -- I started to think a lot about the ways in which we go along with corporate culture. The way we take certain things for granted, and the way that working for corporations you're always going to be making ethical compromises.

imageSPURGEON: This may be an impossibly broad question, but something I've seen you do in interviews supporting this book is to make that general, anti-corporate critique. What do you think that the Marvel story tells us about that? Is there a way it informs in a unique way on the intersection of corporate and creative interests, or is the story here that Marvel is typical in this way? When you were putting things together, when you were figuring out what the book was about, was there a key point or two where you thought, "Okay, that's it in a nutshell. That's what was going on here."

HOWE: I think there's a few. I think Jim Shooter, you can almost use him as a walking analogy. He came in and things were really chaotic and unorganized. The business was not in great shape. I felt like he was a lever. He was the one that tightened things when they needed to be tightened. Jim Shooter embodies the idea that you can't have creative freedom and corporate goals at the same time. [laughs] Your interviews tend to run verbatim and that's making me nervous. [laughter] I'm thinking of all the terrible conversational detours.

SPURGEON: Those are the best parts.

I think Shooter is
the key figure in your book. In fact, structurally you can kind of tell. I'm not 100 percent sure this is the case, but Shooter is the only character where you hold his story until he becomes prominent. You don't introduce him in the timeline, you introduce him when he gets hired into that key quality-control position, the "Trouble Shooter" position. He's one of your bigger late-period introductions.

Let me ask you more generally about the book's structure, which I thought really intriguing. You tell Marvel's story through this involved, constant unfurling of comics publishing churn. This book comes out and then this one and then this one. That's a lot of fun for longtime fans of Marvel, but it's also kind of a remarkable thing for other writers to watch you do in terms of what that must have been like to write. You unpack a lot of the month-to-month goings-on at the company. There's not a lot of summary work. There's not even a lot of thematic organization and few cases of descriptive flourish. It's a very rich, extremely detailed narrative. When did you decide the book had to be told this way? What made you think your story needed this much detail?

HOWE: I guess it's maybe a Rain Man tendency that I have. [Spurgeon laughs]

It's 70 years. It's a 70-year history. It was really hard for me when I went back in with a red line and was taking things out. I was worried about being dishonest by omission. I thought the more context that everything had, the more balanced the larger story would be. If you take away Mark Gruenwald as this fun cheerleader of his fellow employees, I think it becomes an inaccurate portrait in that it makes it seem like no one was every having fun at Marvel Comics. If you take away a list of weird, crappy comics that Marvel was publishing in 1976, then... what are some things that struck me as particularly detail-oriented?

imageSPURGEON: The one that pops into my head because you just mentioned that general time period is that you did five or so graphs on the "women's books" that Marvel briefly did, like Night Nurse and The Cat. That's something that could have been dealt with in a couple of sentences if you'd gone that way.

I think you're exactly right in that it serves your narrative by providing context. I would imagine that it also helps reinforce your thematic points by supplying details. There's a time when you detail writer JM DeMatteis' plans for Captain America, you do a full graph on them, and they sound pretty bizarre. They never came about. It wasn't necessary to your narrative to include them. Getting those details, however, reinforces one of what seems like your wider points about the creative indulgences that sometimes exist at the company. That indulgence and then snap-back cycle that Marvel has settled into.

It's not a critical observation on my part. I really liked it. I just wondered if there was a day -- and maybe this was a depressing day -- where you realized, "I'm going to have to write the crap out of this book. I need the whole story in there."

HOWE: Part of the reason I was having a hard time answering that question just now is that this was the chief anxiety of mine in working on this book. I worried that it would seem like the world's longest wikipedia entry. There were so many things I wanted to include. I had a very good sense of what the narrative arc was. There's a rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall structure here. If I were writing a play, I'd be failing miserably. But you can't allay that stuff, you can't recraft the narrative, without fictionalizing it. Having to get into everything that was going on as Marvel was commercially ascending, like in the early 1980s, I guess that I felt a responsibility to not over-summarize. I constantly worried that I was reciting too many facts as I went. Then I hear from people who are like, "Wow, that was a quick read. I wish you'd done more descriptions." [laughter] Which boggles my mind.

It would have been a lot more fun to do impressionistic riffs on Ann Nocenti's Daredevil or something. The book is twice the length of what I had contracted for.

imageSPURGEON: Because of the length of the book, and its style, when my friends and I have talked about it, we've talked about the synthesis aspects of it. You do a great job of locking certain events into historical place. For instance, you nail down what period Stan Lee left to write the movie script The Monster Maker, and how that changed the employment landscape at Marvel. So I wonder what you see in here as kind of adding to the historical record that might be harder for us to recognize because of your book's achievement in terms of getting all of this information into order.

HOWE: It's interesting because I feel like you just articulated everything I was stumbling around for ten minutes to say. There are a lot of things in here that a lot of people have already known. You wrote about The Monster Maker, right?

SPURGEON: Sure.

HOWE: What was really educational to me, and when I had real goosebumps while putting together the timelines, is when I could actually see these simultaneous chronologies, different peoples' careers, overlapping one another. The same week that Jim Shooter was arguing with Roy Thomas about his contract renewal, he was also making sure Jean Grey was going to die in X-Men. You know? And they were announcing Marvel Productions. In my memory, this was in the course of a single month that these three things were happening.

I think that when you know the highlights of a cultural history, it can get reduced in your mind to "This happened and this happened and this happened." You forget how much these events are intertwined and how much of an effect they have on one another.

I'm getting a little abstract.

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SPURGEON: No, that's fascinating.

HOWE: In terms of what might have been surprising to me that I uncovered, one thing I still can't believe more people haven't commented on is that I was pretty shocked to find this transcript of Stan Lee at a meeting of cartoonists in the 1970s. He was going on and on about how comics publishers were terrible in terms of their treatment of artists. At any opportunity, if someone would ask them about getting into the comics industry, he would discourage them. One of the reasons that's so fascinating to me is that no one ever talks about Stan Lee in that kind of light: that he wasn't just conscious of the unfairness of the set-up there, but that he was vocal about it. He did this on a panel with people like Will Eisner. Will Eisner was trying to get him to calm down, saying that the publishers weren't so bad. That put Stan Lee in a different light for me. It was right before he went on that sabbatical.

SPURGEON: That was a time he thought that he might not be defined by Marvel. He might have felt some freedom then.

HOWE: Exactly. Every time you hear something candid from Stan Lee, it's exciting. [laughter]

SPURGEON: I thought your profile of Lee seemed pretty psychologically consistent and apt. I appreciated your focus on some of his workplace fears, like a repeat of the industry shrink and near-collapse in the late 1950s. You treat this in a way I think appropriate, as something that informs a lot of his dealings for the next twenty years. You brought a complexity to Lee a lot of people don't. You also caught the fact that he was very generous at times along the way, particularly in terms of securing work for people.

HOWE: Obviously the amount of credit he gets in comparison to Jack Kirby is out of proportion. But he gets demonized entirely too much. A lot of people disagree, but I think he was a very important contributor to Marvel Comics. Somebody curated who was working at Marvel, for starters. Somebody decided who to hire. He did a really good job of that.

SPURGEON: He was a highly-skilled comics professional in any number of ways, and his personality was key, too, in that just not being as unpleasant as some of the other comics figures attracted people into his orbit. He's a colossal figure.

HOWE: He was an invaluable ambassador. That is something that people who don't even care about superhero comics would probably underrate. Regardless of how much of a real love he had for the art form, he definitely promoted it as an important and valid medium. I would imagine that our takes on him are pretty similar.

SPURGEON: Were you worried about solving the problem of Martin Goodman? The historical problem of Martin Goodman, I mean. He's this central figure and we know very little about him at the workplace. I found him an extraordinarily difficult figure to get at. It seems like some of your best source work, or at least the moments that impressed me most, came in terms of nailing him down a bit. Was he tough? Was he as tough as I remember him being?

HOWE: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm glad that you liked that stuff. I thought that that was an area where I would have liked to have done stronger work. As with so many things, it became a rabbit hole. Do I finish this book or do I keep trying to find people that might have worked as his secretary for a month? [Spurgeon laughs] I spoke with two of his children, neither of whom had much interest in the comics industry. I got a little bit of color about his early days, and his relationship with his wife.

It gets harder every year to do living history like this. If somebody had been writing this book 40 years ago, think of all the people that could have been on the record.

SPURGEON: I know. I know. Even as late as 1980 or 1985 there could have been a very different and potentially amazing book.

HOWE: It's really extraordinary how quickly everything is vanishing in terms of living records.

imageSPURGEON: Is there a holy grail for you interview-wise on this subject? If you got a hold of Dr. Doom's time machine and you could only do one interview, who might that be?

HOWE: It might be Goodman. It might be Sol Brodsky. It might be John Verpoorten. The John Verpoorten thing speaks to how my interests are weighted a little more to the '60s and '70s. Morrie Kuramoto. The guys that were in the office. I think that is where the most exciting stories might come from, from the people that were there every day. It almost ends up being, from an editor's perspective, this book almost ends up being the story from the eyes of the Marvel staff. To a degree. It's not as much from the vantage point of the superstar artists. Writers I suppose were more likely to have editorial careers. If I could talk to people who were in there every day, and saw the changes in real time before 1980, that would be terrific. I did talk to all the editors-in-chief, but I would have rather talked to them 30 years ago when their memories were fresher and maybe a little angrier. [laughter]

SPURGEON: You didn't have the reluctance problem, did you? Did you think anyone chose not to talk to you, or changed the way they talked to you, out of careerist or similar concerns?

HOWE: Oh, sure. Tons of people. Tons of people. It's no secret that this book really accelerates in the last ten years, and it has a very sudden ending. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of them is that no one in the comics industry now is really interested in talking about the comics industry.

SPURGEON: Right. Not like that, anyway. Or at least not on the record.

HOWE: Not to someone who is writing a book.

SPURGEON: Was it difficult for you to craft the ending? One thing I liked about the last chunk of the book is you really captured this sense of how the corporate influence over the company almost become disassociated from the company. It seems like a more direct, active influence in the '60s and '70s, these clashes, these lunches where guys are fired. The corporate influence by the 2000s almost becomes an abstraction in terms of how the company works. So much of the company is off in California, for one thing. There's even this really interesting lack of clarity on where the company becomes healed from this wounded, bankruptcy state. It just is, all of the sudden. I thought that was an accurate reflection of that development in real life. Things at Marvel just got better. The movies started to hit.

HOWE: Yeah. Exactly. It reads probably a little bit funny. One of the things I struggled with the most is why the movies started working. I really believe that they just happened to start working. The Spider-Man rights cleared up, and that was obviously their best shot at a big movie. The X-Men movie, that had been in development for like eight years at Fox. That finally hit. It's not like anyone came along and said, "Let's make Blade a hit." I think it was just that the late '90s and early 2000s is when things started to happen in Hollywood. That's the way Hollywood is. Things are in turnaround forever, and then they're not. I think Marvel probably started to heal, at least on the surface, probably around 2002.

SPURGEON: One thing I thought of in terms of timing when the X-Men movie came out is that it had been around long enough to accrue multiple hardcore fanbases. There were old-time Marvel fans. There were '80s Marvel young adults, right around 30. There were teens that remembered the cartoon. And then there were present-day comics nerds. So it was almost like a crockpot effect, a long-simmering effect of staying under the radar for so many years they collected more fans than a newer property might.

HOWE: I think that is the whole thing with Marvel and Hollywood. You had a certain point at which it couldn't miss. If there had been a decent movie in 1994, I would imagine it would have been a hit. There's a huge subculture that wasn't really acknowledged by America at large. [laughs] They were going to buy tickets to a movie adaptation of the most important comic book of their lives.

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SPURGEON: One thing that I thought intriguing about your book and something that's come out in interviews done in its support is that you've talked about the books themselves being lost, as these ideas become brand and concepts. I think it was Peter Cuneo that first put that label on the various Marvel properties. You have a very admirable insistence that the comics themselves are a remarkable thing. You remain a fan of the comics, and think they may be underserved.

HOWE: Yes. Absolutely. The Walking Dead comics are at the top of the sales charts, but you don't see the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four on the charts in the same way. Granted, that may be a bad example because there was not a good movie of that. The Ditko/Lee Spider-Man should be storming the charts. That should be a rediscovered classic literature for people.

SPURGEON: You write in the book about the bullpen concept, how that was used as an outreach to connect with a certain kind of involved fan. If you were enough of a fan you were interested in how the books were done, you might connect to this surrogate family. And yet that idea has not been extended the way Disney has periodically used the "Nine Old Men" concept to reach a certain kind of animation fan. So is this something unique to Marvel, this present-day reluctance to spotlight a way of enjoying these works that brings focus to their creators? Is it just something that they are specifically not interested in doing?

HOWE: What are you envisioning?

imageSPURGEON: Broadly, I wonder why "Jack Kirby" couldn't be a brand for Marvel. I wonder why there isn't a core publishing program. Or a great books program. Or even specialty product -- an equivalent those Leonard Maltin-introduced Silly Symphonies collections act as a way to present a certain kind of material as "elite" or "canonical" Disney product.

HOWE: That's a great question. I've talked to Dan Nadel about this a lot, about why you can't go and buy a chronological Bill Everett Marvel Comics book. Why does it always have to be by character? Why are they not marketing the artists? I would guess that at some time, someone decided that with these lawsuits with Jack Kirby, we can't celebrate explicitly how much he made this company. That's a total guess. I just throw that out there because there's no good reason otherwise. I do think that there are people that are pretty smart at Marvel Publishing that have probably thought of ways to make this kind of book sell. These are people that love Marvel. So there must be reasons. Personally, what I would give to have the keys to re-define their re-issue program. [Spurgeon laughs] I think it's atrocious that some of the best things they've ever published are completely out of print. I don't think that would be the case with any other publisher. It might be the case with other comics publishers. [laughs] Any book publisher is not going let their Philip Roth line die.

SPURGEON: Was there anyone in the course of Marvel's history that you ended up liking maybe more than you did than when you started? Someone that you worked with, maybe, or someone that once you had the history in front of you struck you as an appealing personality or figure?

HOWE: It's hard to separate the historical record from the charm of people in interviews.

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SPURGEON: Was there anyone who was a particularly charming interview?

HOWE: You know who was charming and I really see in a different way? Gerry Conway. I started to see a lot more shading in his work. He came along at a time when it was imperative to ape Stan Lee as much as possible. It was interesting to see how some fairly subversive elements started to creep in, considering he was doing some major comics. Gerry Conway is very candid. He tweeted a few weeks ago that "if I came across as a self-satisfied asshole in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, that's because I was." [laughter] He's very happy to talk about how he was too young to be in a position of power. I find that level of self-deprecation to be both helpful as an interviewer and enchanting. [laughs]

SPURGEON: He's one of the most free of those guys, too, in that there's no perceived financial concern in his talking. He's done well outside of the realm of Marvel Comics.

HOWE: Which tells you a lot. Also, somebody in a blog post or something -- maybe it was you -- somebody was writing about Spider-Man comics and pointed out that Conway was the only one who was the same age as the superhero he was writing about.

SPURGEON: That is weird, isn't it? He's the only guy I know that was Peter Parker's perceived age when he was writing that book, although there may have been others.

HOWE: And I do think that there's something... I think he captures that late adolescence/early 20s. There's something that's so much truer in his comics than most of the other Peter Parkers. You can really sense when you read those comics that "Oh, this is what his dating lifestyle is like. This is the kind of apartment Gerry Conway has." I like it when those kinds of mirrors come into comic books.

SPURGEON: I was unclear when I got to the end as to what you thought -- and it's not a pretty picture, because I think you're up front about the costs of the clash between corporate and creative interests. I thought you might be critical than usual about what's happening right now, that they might not be bringing in new blood to play with these properties. You point out that they don't really need to do this, but there's a sense from what you write that you suspect or at least wonder after this conservative approach coming back to bite them down the road. I know it's a weird thing to ask, by can I nudge you on where you might stand on that issue? It's odd in that I may be asking you to take a stand on Marvel being Marvel, basically. Maybe that's just the way they are. So is it specifically different now. Is this another cycle?

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HOWE: That's exactly the kind of thing I would love to know the honest answer from someone that calls the shots at Marvel. I'm inclined to say that it's very different now, because why wouldn't they be going over Kate Beaton to do a Valkyrie comic or something. They have the money. That's a celebrity recruitment tactic. Take something like Matt Fraction's Hawkeye. That has a personality in the way that most superhero comics don't.

In a way, that people aren't bringing their best ideas to Marvel is victory for creator's rights. The sentimentalist in me wants Marvel Comics to continue being good. People now have the opportunity, if they have a great idea, to get it published and own everything. Why would they bring it to Marvel or DC? It becomes like the Free Agent Revolution in baseball. I really miss the days when I would root for a team and there would be guys on the team for five years at a stretch. You would think this was what sports is: it's about team spirit and relationships. That no longer exists. But the reason that no longer exists is that players are no longer slaves to the people that run the teams. Which would you rather have? Would you have the baseball teams of the good old days, or would you rather have players with flashy agents who are going for the top dollar and being kind of mercenary. There's a price to pay with the triumph of the individual. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: Something I forgot to ask you. You have this section where you're discussing the 1980s, and you tell this story about someone -- it must have been Carol Kalish -- standing up and saying, basically, "Secret Wars was terrible... and we're going to give you more Secret Wars!" And everyone had a bit of a laugh at this notion. I remember even ten years later, I went to a Marvelution meeting, and there was no levity of that type in the room. It doesn't seem like there's that kind of levity now. It seems like it's a more serious thing now. Is that just the increased corporate influence that you don't have that wacky, underdog spirit the company had at one point?

HOWE: I'm not sure how much I can speak to it, because I'm not familiar with how things might be in that part of the industry right now. When you were talking about the structure of the book, and that Jim Shooter was a pivotal figure, I think one of the reasons for that is that the culture of Marvel started to bisect in the 1990s. You no longer had the same people making art decisions and business decisions. That's how the narrative gets more and more fractured in the second half of the book. It turns into two separate stories. There's the business story, and there's the story of the creators.

Carol Kalish was also a pivotal figure at Marvel. She had original art all over the walls of her apartment. I think that there is no one like that now, no one that bridges those gaps. If there's someone leading a rally of cheering retailers [laughter] it's going to be someone who identifies with the business half of Marvel, and probably came over from a videogame company or worked at Proctor & Gamble before this. I think you're pretty much contained on one side of that bridge.

SPURGEON: The irony is that it may have taken those kinds of people coming to Marvel to get Marvel to realize its worth. There are a lot of self-deprecating jokes, which can be a positive, but there can be a lot of self-hatred, too. The business people did rightly perceive the value of the company, and you no longer had Steve Lemberg-type deals where someone is giving a small amount of money for a ridiculous number of rights. That may be the central irony: who perceived the value.

HOWE: That's true, but I guess if you look at the mid-1980s, comics sales were climbing every single year. Cadence at that point operated with benign neglect. They weren't interfering with too much of the marketing and the content. They were maybe making terrible decisions about giving Jack Kirby his artwork book. I don't see businessmen as heroes of the story.

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* Sean Howe
* Marvel Comics: The Untold Story
* Marvel Comics: The Untold Story Tumblr

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* classic Kirby
* cover to book
* Jim Shooter in cartoon form; I think Shooter is the book's central figure, really
* Night Nurse
* the death of Jean Grey
* a rough copy of part of a Stan Lee advertisement for I think shirts
* Dr. Doom's time machine
* Lee/Ditko-era Spider-man
* Bill Everett Marvel art
* Gerry Conway-written Spider-Man
* the Matt Fraction/David Aja Hawkeye
* Secret Wars
* Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man (below)

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