Marvel: The Characters and Their Universe

By Ahmad Chaudhary

I loved this book. Maybe because it only took me a week to read it. Maybe because I don’t know much about the Marvel Universe or maybe because I’m just in a good mood today!

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether this book is for you or if it will be a good gift. Hopefully my review will help you make an informed decision. I got it free from a friend who worked at a discount book store and it was worth more than the free “Transformers” ticket I got over the summer.

Luxuriously finished in thick, black, padded, full-grain leather-like vinyl, the cover features a 3D matte-finish image of some of Marvel’s finest flanking the Thing – featuring Spider-Man leaping above, Wolverine and Captain America lunging beneath, Invisible Woman floating on the right, Elektra poised with sais ready to the left and the Incredible Hulk supplementing with his own heavy hitting close behind the pack. In a subdued Daredevil Crimson above the eye-popping image, it decrees in a stately font in all capital letters, “MARVEL”, while below it says “The Characters and Their Universe.” A direct linear history, it masquerades as something more due to the fact that the dimensions coupled with the weight of around five pounds give it a tome-like presence.

The book begins with only a brief and general prehistory of the Atlas Company that would become Marvel under the guidance of Jack “King” Kirby and Stanley Lieber, aka Stan Lee, who – early on at least – look more like payola moneymen or mobsters than comic creators. It follows up with eight other chapters, giving specific titles to Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Instead of doing this in the typical [boring] DC way, I’m going to write this the Mighty Marvel Way!

Jack Kirby

Beginning with battling battles of benign behemoths, the Mighty Marvel Manuscript with the helical history of some of the greatest generally fictional finely created crafty characters ever runs through the balsamic basic beginnings of the Mighty Marvel Company! Presently, that is my best shot at Lee-style hyperbole. It doesn’t exactly make sense but it sounds good, doesn’t it? Please say yes! Not being Stan “the Man,” I cannot finish the rest of this review like that. Unfortunately, Marvel stories don’t have to make sense and this does.

If I had to decide on the most important piece of Marvel history that I learned from this book, it would be that Marvel’s works outside of the actual comic book realm have not been glamorous save for the “X-Men”, “Blade” and “Spider-Man” film franchises and “The Incredible Hulk” TV series of the 1970s. The true scope of the three film franchises’ monstrous financial gains would not yet be known due to the publishing date of this book; only the initial installment of each series had bowed in theaters.

On that merit, the Marvel history tends to be fairly depressing since this tome doesn’t focus strictly on the comic book aspect but also on all of the failed attempts at bringing quality Marvel product to other arenas. For example, I cannot believe that Captain America hasn’t been given successful star treatment on film. I always sort of envisioned Cap as the Superman of the Marvel Universe. That’s right; not Spider-Man as Supes counterpart. Truth, Justice and the American Way. Fiercely patriotic with super-strength as their defining combative powers, they also both pounded the Nazis wearing ragingly primary-colored tights.

Stan Lee

Cap did have a modern movie, albeit as produced by Roger Corman it was a B film, and Mallory devotes some solid pages at the effort. The “Captain America” movie of 1990 had accurate costume designs but something from the average 2.8/10 rating (based on 2,842 reviews) on the Internet Movie Database tells me I wouldn’t find it a good movie at the age of twenty-five even though I sufficiently dug it when I was eight. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Here’s hoping that Cap gets the respect and treatment he deserves when the new movie shows in 2009!

Along the same lines of the old Captain America movie is the “Fantastic Four” movie of 1994. I had never even heard of it, but Mallory throws in glorious full-color photos that, like most in this book, benefit from the super-size format. The costumes look spot-on from the Fantastic Four comic and the visuals look rich, but Mallory describes the film as low budget so it must have cheesy effects, but I still want to see it, even more than any of the new FF flicks except “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”. 1994’s “Fantastic Four” was never officially released; I’m not in a mood to hunt down a bootleg copy, but I would like to see it someday and its inclusion is a highlight of the book.

Other than that, Marvel has had some great non-print successes that Mallory devotes significant time to in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, namely the long running Fox X-Men animated series and the “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” series from the 1980’s. I was a casual fan of the 80’s Spider-Man show, but I became obsessed with the “X-Men” show! It was time for me to put away that Superman kiddie stuff and upgrade to downtrodden heroes who always got beaten up and never won. Perfect for a small-for-his-age, outcast, eleven-year-old.

Along with the cartoon came the Toy Biz action figure lines, which Mallory discusses. They had been steadily improving since making well-constructed Kenner knock-off designs in the late 1980’s. I have quite a few of the Fox-inspired X-Men figures lying around my parent’s basement; for their time they were good, but Toy Biz has since blown themselves out of the water with the Marvel Legends lines, sparked by the Spider-Man Classics line of 2002. Super-sculpted and super-articulated with 32 points on most figures, they still shame most offerings from DC at similar price points.

While this book is good for the time it was printed, I say wait until an updated version or a successor is published since a lot has come and much more is yet to come from the house that Stan and Jack built. However, the average price through Amazon is around $20 and it is worth that much – though certainly not the original $75 asking price.

An excellent conversation piece, it is entertaining to read and makes a terrific coffee table book, though you need to make sure you coffee table is sturdy enough to handle it. After all, the early Marvel history has already been written. Other possible uses could include: ballast for traction-limited RWD cars in slippery climates and as a doorstop for hardwood floors, although you can buy a lot of sand for $20 and the leatherette cover will not scratch your floors.