Marvel: The Characters And Their Universe

Danny Fingeroth spins through the new book by Michael Mallory that covers everything Marvel in big, bold and glossy pages.

The Marvel Universe is everywhere. It is part of our culture, part of our heritage, even part of our language. Catch phrases like... "Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" ...have entered the lexicon. During the 1970s and '80s run of television's The Incredible Hulk, "hulking out" became the slang term for losing control. And there is probably not a baby-boomer alive who cannot sing at least a part of the theme song from the 1967 Spider-Man animated series.

So states Michael Mallory in his new coffee table book, Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe (M:TCATU). This massive volume provides an overview of the history of the company founded by Martin Goodman, and compares and contrasts the comics versions of the Marvel characters with their interpretations in other media. It's a breezy and entertaining read, for the most part accurate, if determinedly uncontroversial.

M:TCATU provides a breezy retelling of the high points of the history of the company that started life as Timely in the 1930s, reached a peak in the early 1940s (with tales of the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and Captain America), nearly disappeared in the 1950s and spectacularly reinvented itself in the 1960s, bringing to the world such pop culture icons as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and so many more. There's even a nifty Chronology section at the back that gives the high points of each year of the company's history from 1932 to 2002. (Guess the author took a trip into the future on Dr. Doom's time platform.)

What made, and continues to make, Marvel so important to its fans is brought to light by Mallory:

...the characters inhabiting the Marvel Universe have captured not only the minds of its readers, but their hearts as well. This was driven home to [legendary artist] John Romita, Sr., a number of years ago while working on a Spider-Man story at home. "My youngest son, who is now one of the best artists in the business, was looking over my shoulder...and I'm starting to draw Peter Parker [Spider-Man], and he asks why we don't give Peter an issue where everything goes right for him," Romita recalls. "And it struck me right then and there that this kid wanted Peter Parker to have a better life. I said, 'Wow, that's the grab -- this kid cares about what happens to a paper character.'"

Prominent in the book's narrative, of course, is living legend Stan Lee, the sparkplug behind the Marvel revolution. Stan, the company's editor in chief from 1939 to 1972, and currently its Publisher Emeritus, created -- along with Jack Kirby, Steve Dirko, Bill Everett, Don Heck, Romita and others -- the major Marvel characters. Mallory lets Stan explain what made Marvel an international phenomenon and gave it the ability to connect directly with its readers:

"I tried to establish a friendly relationship between the readers and ourselves, so they didn't feel like they were just readers," notes Lee. "I wanted them to feel like they're friends, and that we're all sharing a fun time together that the outside world isn't privy to."

Stan and his collaborators succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings.

Sprinkled throughout the text are various tidbits of information that will be of interest to the longtime Marvel reader. For instance, the fact that there was almost a Sub-Mariner live-action series in the 1950s, and that Richard Egan, a popular leading man of the time, was cast as the Atlantean prince. Or that Daredevil's "blindness angle was inspired by a series of murder mysteries written in the 1940s by Baynard Kendrick, featuring a blind police captain named Duncan Maclain." Or that the production budget for the 1960s Iron Man cartoon was so low that, according to actor John Vernon, who voiced the hero as well as his alter ego: "The way we switched voices from Tony Stark to Iron Man was to put a styrofoam cup over the face!"

The book is crammed with illustrations and photographs of people, characters and products, as well as excerpts from comics stories. The book's oddest aspect is its extremely detailed descriptions of story lines from comics and especially TV and movie versions of the comics. Often, these synopses seem like more information than is really needed to give the flavor of a piece.

M:TCATU spends much time and space showcasing current and upcoming Marvel toys, games, TV, movie and Internet projects. For, indeed, the characters have become ubiquitous. Although current sales figures for Marvel in particular, as well as for the comics industry as a whole, seem to be heading into recovery mode, it's still good to know that Marvel's creations will be available in a wide array of venues. As Mallory puts it:

This explosion of Marvel-related entertainment is being staged with an eye toward creating character franchises that crossover to all media. "...we will follow a movie with an animated or live action show, and now with the Internet, there will obviously be Internet entertainment," says [Avi] Arad [Marvel Media president and chief creative officer] ...Our content feeds very well into all forms of entertainment, so as the world is going to come up with what is next... there will be Marvel characters in those venues...There is no area of business in which our characters will not be represented."

M:TCATU

is an impressive package that will look good on your coffee table. If you don't have a coffee table, it's a good excuse to go get one.

Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe by Michael Mallory. Southport, Connecticut: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 2001. 288 pages, 300 color plates. ISBN: 0-88363-109-1 (US$75.00)

Writer, editor and story expert Danny Fingeroth was a mainstay at Marvel Comics for many years. At Marvel, he ran the Spider-Man editorial line, consulted on the Fox Kids Network Spider-Man animated series, and wrote many adventures of Spider-Man, Darkhawk, and the immortal Dazzler. Danny has also written the Superman: Menace of Metallo Multipath Movie for DC Comics and Brilliant Digital Entertainment, which appears on warnerbros.com, as well as prose novels and short stories. He started and led Virtual Comics for Byron Press Multimedia and AOL, where he co-created the virtual line of comics. Most recently, he was Senior VP for Creative Development at Visionary Media, home of the Flash-animated sensation, WhirlGirl. Danny's name appears on pages 35 and 90 of Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe.

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