The Illusion of Change: A Conversation About Marvel Comics

A podcast interview with Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.


“Comic books are about presenting the illusion of change,” once said Stan ‘The Man’ Lee, “without ever actually changing a a thing.”

Or maybe he didn’t. The origin story of attribution for this portentous quote has been as ambiguous as Wolverine’s. And that’s kind of the point.

The illusion of perpetual change without ever actually changing reveals the contemporary state of the comic book industry, and of the institution that is Marvel Comics.

In his extensive history of the company, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, author Sean Howe reveals the story Marvel never could: of it’s own origin and the commercial weight of ideas.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is about the mechanics of myth-making. Packed with McFarlane-like detail, Howe reveals the joyous hyperbole of Marvel’s super-sausage-making process. While the human characters are sometimes as mundane as the Queens and Brooklyn neighborhoods where they lived, the story of Marvel is as exciting as the comics themselves.

The House of Ideas has always been home to scrappy innovation. From the early Golden Age pulp days of Timely Comics, through the creation of historic character archetypes like the Fantastic Four in the 1960's, Lee’s Marvel was a boisterous, break-neck bullpen that helped birth contemporary myth.

And, somewhere along the way, emerged the Marvel Comics story, a fascinating tale about a cast-off company comprised of forgotten geniuses, creative malcontents, and business bamboozlers.

By the 1970s, in an attempt to either escape or sell the characters he helped create, Lee escaped from New York City’s publishing industry to the film business in Los Angeles. In his wake Lee left a hole in Marvel filled by business innovation and a creative renaissance. In a sage-like move that would make today’s Apple proud, Marvel embraced the burgeoning Direct Market, an innovative approach to fostering the independent retail stores across the country. The Direct Market allowed retailers to obtain non-returnable product at deeply discounted price. The deep discounts allowed comic book retail stores - and Marvel itself - to focus on more specific, target markets. Of target marketing attempts fell flat and lead to silly pulp stores.

While silly and cynical products failed, the Direct Market helped foster the burgeoning fandom industry, and lead to a creative boom by some of Marvel’s writers and artists. Creators, some famous, many now long-forgotten, were left to invent wildly imaginative stories, and to adapt characters from a previous generation. Creative muscle flexed on cast-offs like Wolverine and Daredevil lead to a commercial explosion that helped define the industry through the 80's and 90's.

Marvel’s true identity today is as a company trapped somewhere between blockbusters movies and the old retail Direct Market. As comic book store across the country shutter, the intellectual property of the characters and stories has never been more valuable. The Direct Market threatens to choke digital evolution, and young fans are just that: fans, not consumers, of the core product.

Last week I sat down in the studio with Sean to discuss where the Marvel story began, and where it’s going.

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