Here it is, True Believers, the issue you’ve all been waiting for! It’s the tale of how Marvel Comics began, and of how everyone hated Stan Lee! In Comic Book History of Comics #5, you might not like Kirby when he’s angry. Is it good?
Comic Book History of Comics #5 (IDW Publishing)
After learning about how R. Crumb helped to found fanzines and start dork culture in general, it’s on to the main event when Jack “King” Kirby is forced to do the one thing he swore to never do again — work with Stan Lee! After following publisher Martin Goodman’s trend-chasing, and spending 20 years overall working in comics, Lee was ready for a change when he was asked to write a superhero book to compete with DC’s Justice League of America. With nothing to lose, he agreed. Thank god the King was there with him, or the Fantastic Four might have ended up darker than the film reboot.
The Marvel Method was born to keep artists busy, but the average reader didn’t realize the large roles artists truly played in creating and crafting their favorite stories. In an interesting twist on this familiar recounting, Comic Book History of Comics author Fred Van Lente compares Lee’s embodiment of Marvel to the “auteur theory” that saw directors become the perceived true drivers of films. A singular vision was art, a collaboration was tacky.
Lee’s personification of all things super might have helped sell books, but it left Kirby and Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko perpetually fuming. Of course both would leave before the ’60s were over, causing many insiders to worry about an industry that had put all its eggs in the spandex basket. I hope it all works out okay.
Is It Good?
In the penultimate issue of Comic Book History of Comics, we finally reach the era that most of us are more familiar with. That’s good, in that we can relate to the material more, but bad because we’ve heard it all before. Van Lente still finds ways to make it novel, though, by adding additional perspectives and bits of trivia not always recounted. The direct quotes from the likes of Ditko on why they deserved more credit for their stories seem obvious now, but are good reminders that comics have always been collaborative, and that probably shouldn’t be a dirty word.
Practicing what Van Lente preaches, artist Ryan Dunlavey comes up with creative ways to represent words with pictures, as when he depicts aging comics readers literally taking a different path when the books they read matured with them. You can set your watch to Adam Guzowski’s colors, which play the exact role they should here — not overstated or stealing the show, simply bolstering the narrative as it unfolds.
Comic Book History of Comics #5 finally gets to “the good stuff,” although the move away from the previous issue’s material is so sudden in the first few pages as to be somewhat jarring. Van Lente tells a familiar tale with enough nuance to keep readers invested, and Dunlavey continues to communicate abstract concepts with stunningly simple visuals. Some of the timeline presented is a bit confusing, but that could possibly be chalked up to the genuinely incestuous mess that indeed was the early comics industry.