75 Years Of Marvel by Roy Thomas (book review).


I know Taschen has a reputation for doing some odd-shaped books but this one is off the scale. It is both massive in size and weight even the delivery man struggled to bring it to my house. Mind you, there were another three books in the box, more on that in later reviews, but this book is truly heavy. If I tried to read it in bed then I would lose the circulation in my legs heavy. There is one consolation, any of your ‘friends’ trying to ‘borrow’ it will have a hernia lifting it, not realising that you have re-enforced your coffee table to hold it. They will also be envious and want their own copies if they’re into Marvel Comics. Of course, if they can lift it with ease, then they probably have super-human strength.

After this book arrived, I spent a few days looking at it before I dared remove the two plastic wrappers to get at. Just scanning the contents made me feel that I’m in for a good read let alone the art which is practically near the scale it was drawn. Well, the second scale. The original scale was a quarter larger than this book for the early 60s original art and a nearly the same size for the years after. You have to own original comicbook art pages to know that but this book will allow you to see them at nearer the right scale.

If you know your Marvel Comics, then you’ll know the cover facing you is from The Avengers # 4. In some respects, on reflection, I did think this an unusual cover choice but considering how much Spider-Man and the X-Men get prominence in the media then is probably a better choice, helped by the film, although this book was released in 2014. Spidey is on the book spine in case you missed him.

Copyright: © MARVEL/Courtesy TASCHEN
MARVEL TALES Vol. 1, No. 6. Cover; art, J.W. Scott; December 1939. The word “Marvel” saw its first use on the 1938 series debut of Martin Goodman’s pulp magazine, MARVEL SCIENCE STORIES. The title changed to MARVEL TALES with a shift from hard science fiction to science fantasy the following year.

After Roy Thomas’ text of how Timely Comics began and jumped on any bandwagon going and doing it in bulk compared to other comicbook companies, there is stacks upon stacks of rare comic covers, interiors and the odd original art. Seen at this massive scale, it’s no exaggeration (sic) that your jaw drops. Although I knew the likes of Ka-Zar and Red Raven was amongst the earliest Marvel characters, I wasn’t aware until now that there was ever a Black Widow and a Vision back in 1940s. ‘Electro, The Marvel Of The Age’ could even be considered a predecessor to Iron Man and even has similar colours. There was even a Human Fly in 1947. Seeing the evolution of the Sub-Mariner is also interesting, as he once had brown wavy hair. I did wonder if Stan Lee himself was capable of drawing and there’s a rare photo when he was in the US Army of at least inking a cartoon character.

There’s a beautiful comedy comicstrip by Harvey Kurtzman on page 98. Another Mad luminary in the shape of Basil Wolverton also worked for Timely. Until now I never realised how versatile Mike Sekowsky was or how early he was working in comics. It’s also interesting seeing some early Bill Everett, Gene Colan, Syd Shores and George Klein works as well.

Of course, with the 1950s, Timely became Atlas for a good part of the decade and suffered from Martin Goodman’s poor decision to get rid of his distribution company and the Wertham protests of comics being damaging to children’s mental health. Roy Thomas’ examples from the time where the then creators pointed out that the likes of the Bible and fairy tales were far scarier and used in the comics fell on deaf ears. When you think the strength of religious belief Stateside back then, that shouldn’t be surprising.

Comicwise, we also have some samples of artist Joe Maneely’s art including the only original page of his work on the Black Knight. I read these stories in, I think, ‘Marvel Tales’, when I was young and always staggered by his detail, even if I didn’t know who he was at the time. If it hasn’t been for his untimely death in 1958, I agree with the professionals, he would have made his mark in the 60s Marvel Comics. It’s hardly surprising in the monster comics, Atlas produced that the early names of the Hulk, Thing and Magneto also made their first appearances and, again, nothing like the characters that came later. Just goes to show that you can’t keep a good name down.

Something I didn’t know was they did a pulp magazine called ‘Marvel Science Fiction’ featuring the American SF authors of the time and for a time, Daniel Keys was its editor. It’s interesting that its noted that Goodman didn’t think SF sold very well although I have to wonder which kind? Certainly the monster SF sub-genre lasted because of its visual appeal. Maybe the kids were more into films and TV and pulp novels that were floating around.


It’s interesting spotting some odd trends. There seems to be certain fixations like people being on fire as there appears to have been three named Human Torch, not two, prior to Johnny Storm and not including Toro. There also appears to have been at least two people prior to Henry Pym who could reduce themselves to insect size.

There’s an old adage that writers will recycle their old ideas and such and some of it was a surprise to me seeing it all in context. I think though the real change was in 1961 when Stan Lee, urged on by his wife, decided not to do standard comicbooks and bring the real life aspect into his new super-heroes and found an audience who could relate to it. All of this propelled by his artists who were given the freedom to interpret the plots than given them piecemeal as with DC Comics. As you read the details, so much fail into place by ways to save time. After that, everything Stan Lee touched seemed to sell and developed into theMarvel roller-coaster that we have today.

I’ve been savouring this book and now the smile isn’t off my face as I relive my childhood and also spot things I haven’t seen, like Fin Fang Foom, or at least not in a while. His revival in ‘Where Monsters Dwell # 21 in 1973 shows him wearing shorts although no one knows quite where he got them from. Do giant creatures have tailors or lizards have exposed sexual organs?

Roy Thomas also indicates things that you might have seen but not realise their significance, like colourist Stan Goldberg brought with his mutated tones and even single colour covers and interiors. Saying that, the samples here of the early Incredible Hulk has Bruce Banner with blonde hair and I’m not sure if that was Taschen’s rare mistake or it was changed later because all I’ve ever seen him with is brown hair, even in the reprints.

Copyright: © MARVEL/Courtesy TASCHEN
THE INCREDIBLE HULK No. 1. Cover detail; pencils, Jack Kirby; inks, attributed Jack Kirby. September 1962.

There were some things I didn’t know as I was growing up for instance. The change from using communist villains to generic came from the fans demanding Stan Lee not to use the Cold War or Viet-Nam in the stories rather than his own decision. We do get to see a page from Daredevil # 7 as drawn and inked by Wallace Wood that Stan deems his favourite simply because although losing against the Sub-Mariner, DD demonstrates bravery. I should point out that on some, but not all, of these early pages have proper colour registration (that is, the colours staying in the confines of the illustration) is a bit off. This might be a combination of the comicbooks available or the enlargement to double the normal comicbook size making it more obvious. At the right size, these would be less noticeable.

There are some beautiful pages from ‘Not Brand Ecchh’ included as well as pages where the likes of Jack Kirby and Gene Colan don’t take themselves so seriously, sending themselves and Stan Lee up rotten. I do wish they’d included the one that Don Heck did because his was on par with theirs and just as funny.

Throughout the 70s period, from time to time, you’ll see the roughs that lead up to covers and even one page from ‘Thor’ showing how a colour separation from the printing plant.

NICK FURY, AGENT OF S.H.I.E.L.D. No. 4. Cover; pencils and inks, Jim Steranko; September 1968. Eschewing the overused term “psychedelic” to describe Steranko’s fantastic artwork — the artist coined a new phrase for his work: Zap Art. The term fit, as he employed techniques culled from various sources, including photography, collage, movie posters, and advertising to create a contemporary look.

Jim Sternanko holds the distinction of being the first artist-writer-colourist-letterer at Marvel even though it did finally burn him out.

Rather interestingly, the splash page from Fantastic Four # 88 is shown as an example of home life when there is a baby and then misses pointing out that Reed Richards’ thumb is on the wrong side of his hand. A classic mistake that has come up from time to time and even in one of their comics, ‘Marvel No-Prize book’, pointing our various mistakes over the years and is mentioned but not that it was used in there.

Seeing the musical chairs to be Marvel’s editor-in-chief in the 1970s suddenly made me realise how they might have been running out of options had Jim Shooter not made the job last a decade. Considering that without the ‘Star Wars’ comic and its massive sales that parent company Cadence was also considering closing Marvel down simply because the distributors were making money by declaring no sales and then selling the comics under the counter, that doesn’t seem surprising. These distributors ultimately lost when the turnaround made by the tentative move into the direct sales market and the specialist comicbook market changed things around drastically.

Roy Thomas describes Eddie Brock prior to becoming Venom as ‘suicidal’ although I think he was supposed to be homicidal, making him the ideal choice for the alien life-form.

The last twenty years doesn’t have a separate art section but when Roy Thomas goes over the number of reboots, new characters and teams, it made even me feel a bit dizzy. I know the intention is to have something new for new readers/fans but it looks so much like groping in the dark. Obviously, there is a bit more focus on the various films that have come out and how much money they have grossed and which brings the story neatly up to date. To end the book is a list with details of the many people who’ve contributed to Marvel Comics over the years so if you weren’t aware of them before, you are now. There were a few names missing from the list that I thought should have been included. Where was award winning colourist Glenis (Wein) Oliver for instance, especially as other colourists are noted?

I know this is an expensive book but if you want a history of Marvel Comics, this is one of the good ones. Having it written by Roy Thomas who was there for a good chunk of the time means you are literally getting things from the horse’s mouth so to speak and he knows the right people to speak to. About the only thing he didn’t cover was the work-for-hire contracts but that might have been diplomatic.

I did have a conversation with the Taschen publicist as to whether this book will be available in smaller volumes as happened to the DC version after a 4 year lapse, which I’m reviewing in the coming months, and he doesn’t know. If you love seeing comicbook art huge that shouldn’t make any difference. It took me nearly a month to read this book and was one of the best experiences I’ve had and relived a lot of old memories and learnt a lot more about the pre-60s. Just make sure no one uses this book as a doorstop.

GF Willmetts

October 2015

(pub: Taschen. 713 page illustrated giant hardback in a boxcover and a multi-page year index spread feature. Price: £135.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-3-83654-845-8)

check out websites: www.taschen.com and www.marvel.com