Monday, August 14, 2017

The Told And The Untold

Slowly but surely I've been making my way through Sean Howe's 437-page book from 2012, Marvel Comics The Untold Story, which I unwind with just before bedtime. I enjoy reading very much, but if I don't set aside time for a book, I never have the time to sit down with one; the fact that I picked up Howe's book years ago and am only now plowing through it should tell you something. Also, I'm one of those people who becomes so relaxed by rare moments of "down time" that, unfortunately, I can only read a few pages of a good book before I feel myself losing focus and inevitably nod off. (You can imagine how long it took me to get through a stack of comics for the week. Answer: a week.) With all due respect to Mr. Howe, his book is a page-turner, but not one which I could apply the phrase, "you can't put it down" (though that doesn't diminish his work in the slightest). But for what it's worth, it does occupy a place on my nightstand, an honored place for any tome as nightstands everywhere can attest.

Lately, the book has been helpful in bringing to light and exploring fascinating information from behind the scenes of Marvel's production process, such as Sal Buscema taking off the gloves on an issue of Incredible Hulk, for example--though I've found myself raising an eyebrow at times during the reading process. Howe has been diligent in documenting his sources from quoted material--yet there is an almost necessary tendency for any author of biographical or other nonfictional material to fill in the blanks in an effort to provide the complete picture, and that can often take the form of speculation or conjecture, even taking into account "the personal recollections of more than 150 individuals, and relatives of individuals, who worked at or with Marvel Comics," as Howe states in his acknowledgments. (I haven't conducted a fraction of the interviews that Howe has, and look how often I've indulged in conjecture.) There's a point, for example, in litigation where counsel will at times object to testimony and note that "the witness is drawing a conclusion," which cautions that the witness's opinion is essentially that of a lay witness, not a person qualified as an expert; in other words, they can testify to facts, but not offer opinions, inferences or conclusions. In Howe's case, I have to take what supposition he offers with a grain of salt. His interjections make for interesting reading, but what I'm reading may not necessarily be factual. Even quoted material can be suspect; for instance, a passage in the book that reads, " 'I saved Marvel's ass,' Kirby told an interviewer...", which Howe documents in his notes as originating from an "Unpublished Leonard Pitts interview with Jack Kirby." Putting aside for the moment that the key word there is "unpublished," the reference could also be interpreted as the comment possibly having been declared "off the record" at the time of the interview, which calls into question not only its authenticity but the decision to deem it repeatable in a book being prepared for publication.

The behind-the-scenes nugget that's the subject of today's post is a good example of how connecting the dots can take a zig-zag route and have one wondering if the facts are adding up correctly; yet the foundation of the actual chain of events, at least, is stable enough to recount. The situation dates back to when the decision was made to bring the character of Jean Grey back following her demise in 1980 after artists Bob Layton and Jackson Guice successfully pitched to Editor In Chief Jim Shooter the idea of reuniting the original team of X-Men for the new X-Factor title, a concept that carried the potential of a marketing juggernaut. Even Chris Claremont, who initially resisted the idea, came on board with it--and after taking the crossover frenzy of the reading list leading up to X-Men #200 off his plate, he was curious to see how FF writer/artist John Byrne was handling Jean's reintroduction in Fantastic Four. And that's where the fun begins.

"Claremont took a look at how Byrne was handling the backstory of Jean Grey in Fantastic Four and petitioned Shooter for a chance to rewrite Byrne's two-page flashback sequence, which X-Factor penciller Jackson Guice then drew in his best faux John Byrne style. This was Shooter's chance to appease his star writer, still stinging from the way Jean Grey's return had been commanded, and even John Byrne didn't have enough clout to stop it."

The panels in question appear to be the following, with neither Claremont nor Guice being acknowledged in the story's credits.

Since there's nothing here that appears to be crucial to any steps Claremont would be taking in the other X-titles to deal in Jean to those storylines (if I'm not mistaken, he focused his attention more on Madelyne Pryor than Jean), I really have no doubt that Byrne could have handled these scenes just as adeptly, both as scripter and artist. Unless Claremont had some stake in X-Factor, I'm not really sure what his concerns were based on.

Howe continues:

"The revocation bothered Byrne, a lot, especially since the plot had already been green-lighted by Shooter. If he couldn't call the shots in Fantastic Four, if Claremont was still making last-minute changes on a title he wasn't even writing, Byrne thought, perhaps it was time to reconsider his contract as an exclusive Marvel writer.

"By the fall, word had leaked out: John Byrne, the most popular artist in the industry, was going over to DC to relaunch Superman. He planned to continue on Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four for Marvel, too, but the story on everyone's lips was that the most eagerly awaited superhero comics of 1986 were John Byrne's Superman and Frank Miller's Batman, iconic DC characters as interpreted by once-loyal Marvel superstars."

Howe then details the travails of X-Factor's initial issues that soon saw its creative team as well as its editor depart the book in frustration over Shooter's insistence on changes starting from scratch. At this point, Byrne was only handling Fantastic Four for Marvel, though his departure from the company was imminent.

"[Editor Mike] Carlin now found himself unfortunately positioned between Byrne and Shooter, whose relationship had deteriorated since DC's Superman announcement. Byrne had felt that Claremont's rewriting of the Jean Grey flashback had been a way for Shooter to punish him for taking the Superman job. [emphasis added] For months, according to Byrne, Shooter 'continued to snipe at the FF, so I ultimately left the book just to spare Carlin the constant barrage of nitpicks.' With that final tie severed, Byrne's defection was complete."

The contradiction in Howe's account here is that he initially reported that Shooter had already signed off on Claremont's rewrite before Byrne began giving thought to doing the Superman book. In other words, there can be no retaliation toward Byrne on Shooter's part since there was as yet no reason for Shooter to do so. Either Byrne is misremembering the sequence of events, or Howe is embellishing without sufficient cause.

So as much as I'm enjoying the read thus far, I've found myself treading carefully in Howe's book, so as not to be coaxed to read into things more than what is there. The only way to truly corroborate an account such as this is to get all of the relevant people in one room together and iron out the differences then and there--then you've got yourself a book. Yet on the whole, Howe's work still remains a compelling portrayal of Marvel's evolution and strife, a business perspective that's absolutely engrossing from a comic book reader's point of view.


Anonymous said...

I mostly read e-books nowadays because 1) they are a lot easier to obtain when my nearest bookshop is 20 miles away and is not guaranteed to have the desired book anyway.
2) With e-books you can make the words much bigger which is very helpful :)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this book, but it seemed rather gossipy at times. It also seemed that a lot of the people he quoted were recalling events from 30 years ago with a lot of precision, which strikes me as unlikely.

Erik J Kreffel said...

Ah, Marvel Comics was always a soap opera anyway;)
It's a good book, I devoured it in about two weeks a few years back. I always take these stories with a huge rock of salt since the "real story" is subjective in any sense. Meanwhile, I'm waiting for this book, Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC, to be published.

Jared said...

I have much respect for Byrne the creator. He is one of the best writer artists that Marvel has ever produced. It is surprising how many artists have proven unable to script competent dialogue for the stories they plot. I have a hard time taking his version of any event, however. I rarely remember seeing him say anything positive about any contemporary creator, and he never has shown much respect for an editorial process. Considering his history of saying how wronged he was by everyone, I can't take him too serious.

On the subject of X-Factor, it was a rare miss of the 80s for Marvel. The original X-men as a group are not exactly the most interesting group. Most of their original run is terrible compared to other 60s Marvel work. And bringing back Jean Grey cheapened on of the greatest Marvel stories ever. They could have gone with the original plan of replacing Jean with Dazzler. Or they could have just used Rachel Summers. Or just kept Cyclops with the X-Men and continued to rotate Angel, Iceman, and Beast around the MU.

Comicsfan said...

And 3), Colin: they don't have the crushing weight of an Omnibus sitting on your lap!

Anon, "gossipy" is a fair assessment of the book's tone throughout, yet it's kept in check to a certain extent by Howe's tendency to break with his train of thought on a subject and pivot to something entirely different and irrelevant than what preceded it, even within the same chapter. In so doing, he avoids lingering overly long on any one subject, and it proved helpful in refocusing my attention on what followed. Gossip, more often than not, tends to overstay its welcome, so I appreciate those instances when he pulled the plug on it.

Erik, I admire your tenacity! I think I'll be lucky if I turn the final page by the end of the year. :)

Jared, I quite agree with you about the original X-Men in respect to their interest level. They were a well-balanced team in terms of their abilities, but I never regarded them as heavy hitters, even when they battled the Avengers. Byrne also had difficulty generating interest in the team with his Hidden Years book from '99. In X-Factor, perhaps it said something that the X-Men had to spend most of the book's story pretending to be something they weren't.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Erik. I studied history in college, and I've even taught a bit, and as a poor man's historian I think you have to take anything you read with some salt.
The book was gossipy, entertaining, but also a bit sad, I thought. Kinda like life itself, I guess.