“The Secret History of Marvel Comics” missed a great opportunity with its title alone.
“The Secret Origin of Marvel Comics” would have been a more accurate title for Blake Bell and Michael J. Vassallo’s book because it looks at the pre-history, in a way, of the artists and writers who shaped Marvel and its earliest incarnations but specifically focuses on publisher Martin Goodman, who published pulp magazines beginning in 1933 before riding the tide of reader interest into comic books in 1939.
You can tell the authors’ premise with the quote that begins the book. “Fans are not interested in quality,” Goodman is quoted as saying, and as much as that can be disputed – even a World War II-era kid knew the difference between a good Captain America comic and a bad one – it was a mantra that served Goodman well as he moved through the New York publishing world.
The book follows Goodman’s publishing enterprises through western and detective pulps and gives us some beautiful illustrations from covers and inside the magazines.
The text emphasizes, again and again, that Goodman was fairly ruthless in his dealings with artists and writers. Some of them were among the men and women who would go on to become the best in the comics field once it kicked into high gear in the 1950s and 1960s.
They’re all here, from Stan Lee (related to Goodman by marriage) and Jack Kirby – who would team to co-create classic comic characters for Goodman’s Marvel Comics – to Kirby’s Captain America co-creator Joe Simon to the likes of Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham.
Everybody worked for Goodman, it seems, even if many of them came away not particularly enjoying the experience.
Although the first half of the book, with its assessment of Goodman’s character, feels repetitive, the second half is eye-opening, with reproductions of art by artist after artist. Here you’ll see Kirby’s art – raw and edgy – for detective pulps like “Detective Short Stories” and fantasy pulps like “Marvel Stories.”
Here’s a two-page spread by Kirby and Simon for “Queen of Venus,” from Marvel Stories 2 in November 1940.
The artists reproduced here gave readers an unending parade of gangsters and molls and tough guys and bad girls and aliens and murderers. That’s the best thing that “The Secret History of Marvel Comics” shows us.