Book review:by Bill Henley: THE SECRET HISTORY OF MARVEL COMICS by Blake
Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo; published Oct. 2013 by Fantagraphics Books;
list price $39.99.  (Like some of my other reviews, this one is not
particularly on-topic for the Silver Age, but hopefully of interest
anyway.  I will also be posting the review to Amazon when I have the

The title of this book is somewhat misleading.  It's
not really a history (secret or otherwise) of Marvel Comics, though it is of
interest to readers who are already familiar with Marvel history.  You
won't learn much that's new here about the origins of charactErs like Captain
America (though he's on the cover), Spider-Man or the X-Men.  What this is,
is a history of the non-comics publishing enterprises of Martin Goodman, the man
who between 1939 and 1968 owned and published the comics line that came to be
known as Marvel.  Goodman got started in the publishing business in 1933
with a pulp magazine, not a comic book, and continued publishing pulps alongside
comics through the 1940's and 50's. (That first pulp was a Western, and the book
suggests Goodman had a lifelong affection for that genre.  Though it's not
specifically said in the book, this might help explain why Marvel continued
publishing Western comics through the 1960's and early 70's after Westerns
mostly fell out of fashion.)   And he later branched out into other
types of down-scale magazines, such as girlie photo magazines, true-confessions
mags, and many others.  Some of the same people who worked on Goodman's
comics also did work for the pulps, and the fortunes of the non-comics
publications had side effects on the comics.  The biggest example,
probably, was in 1957-58 when Goodman lost his distribution company and signed
with Independent News. owned by National-DC Comics, to distribute his
magazines.  Though Independent agreed to distribute a shrunken line of
comic books for Goodman, they were mainly interested in making money
distributing his other publications.  If Goodman had been a comics-only
publisher, DC would probably have refused to distribute a rival and the "Marvel
Age" would have been strangled in its cradle.  (I've often wondered if DC
management later rued the day when they made that deal with Goodman and threw a
lifeline to their future arch-rival.) 

This book does not present a
flattering picture of Martin Goodman in terms of his professional practices and
ethics or as a creative mind.  Goodman's general practice with his pulps
and other magazines, as with his comics, was not to blaze new trails, but to
find out what was selling well for other publishers and to flood the market with
imitations.  (Though the book suggests that Goodman's company did originate
one major magazine category-- the "men's sweat" adventure magazine.)  The
authors suggest Goodman had little concern for creating a quality product, or
for treating his staffers, writers and artists fairly (though he could be
generous when an impulse took him).  When Goodman's line of comics became
Marvel and revolutionized comics for the future, it was thanks to Stan Lee and
the artists, mainly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and in spite of Goodman rather
than because of him.  And the authors suggest that when Ditko and then
Kirby quit Marvel, it was not primarily because of disputes with Stan Lee's
editorial policy, as is sometimes suggested, but because of their resentment of
Goodman's publishing policies and refusal to pay them adequately for their
wildly successful creations.

Speaking of Goodman's ethics, we sometimes
hear that the present day is a uniquely degenerate era of popular culture with
excesses of sex and violence that would never have been tolerated in an earlier
era.  One sidelight covered in this book suggests it isn't necessarily
so.  During the late 1930's Goodman included in his pulp line some titles
that are now referred to as the "shudder pulps".  They didn't contain just
garden-variety horror stories, but "frankly sadistic" blends of sex and
violence, as with a story and illustration in which half-naked women are thrown
onto beds of spikes to bleed to death  for the entertainment of a jaded
nightclub audience.  I'm opposed to virtually all censorship, but if I saw
something like this in a present-day publication, it would strain my
principles.  (The book SECRET IDENTITY by Craig Yoe reveals that Joe
Shuster, during his impoverished post-Superman days, was involved in doing art
for a similar series of bondage-fetish publicatios.  But those seem to have
been semi-underground publicatios sold under the counter.  These "shudder
pulps" seem to have been sold on the regular stands alongside other pulps, at
least until a crackdown by the New York City government.)

Over half of
this book is devoted to a gallery of pulp-magazine illustrations drawn by "the
moonlighting artists of Marvel Comics" -- most extensively Jack Kirby and Joe
Simon during the early days of their careers, but also Alex Schomburg (best
known in comics for his incredibly crowded covers, but he was also responsible
for many of those grotesque "shudder" illustrations), Bill Everett, Carl Burgos,
Joe Maneely and many others.  This makes the book a unique resource for art
aficionados who can see here artwork by Kirby and the others that would
otherwise be vanished and inaccessible except for a few pulp collectors. 
This, and the detailed look at an earlier era of magazine publishing, makes this
book a fascinating read even if it isn't really very much about Marvel Comics.