Over the past few decades, Marvel has acquired a loyal following of fans who have come to know and love the countless characters that make up the incomparable Marvel Universe. How much, though, do those self-same fans know of Marvel itself. Who created Marvel comics? What was their first publication? Naive Spider-Fans like myself may believe that Marvel was created by Stan Lee in 1962 when he invented Spider-Man. Wasn't it?
In fact, the truth is far from that. The company that was to become Marvel Comics was foreshadowed by Martin Goodman in 1932, when in 1932 he published a pulp-fiction prose magazine entitled "Complete Western Book Magazine". Pulp-fiction? Wasn't that a movie title invented by John Travolta? How the heck did that lead to the creation of Spider-Man... and what on earth has that got to do with Todd McFarlane?
Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed. Not in this review, but at least it's revealed in the book we're reviewing!
Let's start with the basic. This is a big hardback book... 10" x 12". The 290 pages are on thick glossy paper, which combined with the thick, velvet textured cover make the whole package well over an inch thick. It's a hefty tome by most standards. Containing "over 700 illustrations", each brightly colored page is a visual delight which gives this book the immediate accessability of a coffee-table book.
However, this is somewhat deceptive. In fact, the first six hefty chapters deftly break down the history of Marvel into six successive eras, from the origin of comics and the early days of Goodman's publishing intentions, through the Golden Age, the post-war comics crisis, the "Marvel Age" which details the creation of Spider-Man and the rebirth of comics in what is elsewhere called the Silver Age. After that, there's the difficult but creative years of the 70's, and finally the gritty realism inspired by the Punisher and his friends in the 80's.
This book was actually published in 1991 (five decades after 1939 which saw the publication of Marvel Comics #1". Naturally there's no coverage of the money-grabbing excesses of the 90's, and the cultural rebirth of Marvel which took place recently under Joey Quesada - lead by the Marvel Knights titles, and headlined by the blockbuster movie successes of the X-Men and Spider-Man. Shame. I'd love to see a follow-up volume cover those turbulent years since 1990 in the same format.
Anyhow, that's the table of contents. There's also a few pages on how comics are actually created, and then there's 50 or so pages at the end reprinting four of Marvel's greatest stories from the last five decades. Your next question naturally is... how well is the content covered? My answer to that is... "Very well indeed, thanks!"
The font is mid-sized, and combined with the steady flow of cover scans, story extracts and photographs makes for a very, very readable book. The text is cleanly broken into topics, and each topic flows from one to the other in a sensible chronological order. The images that are included are all tied into the flow of the text, making the sequence flow in a truly intuitive way from start to finish. There are some breakout boxes with little side-points - each well-illustrated. The breakout boxes have a different background color so it's easy to skip them if you want.
However, each little sub-topic is also fairly self-contained, so it's easy to pick up the book, turn to a random page, and jump in pretty much anywhere. Incredibly, Mr. Daniels has managed to create a book which works perfectly as a coffee-table book, but which can also be read enjoyably from end to end - in which case it provides a rich and seamless treatment of the history of Marvel up to the time of publication.
The balance is good, with focus moving as needed from the key titles, to the key people, to the names of companies, the political and sociological climate of the day. Mr. D doesn't seem to have a personal agenda, he's very neutral and even-handed throughout. Historical facts are melded with personal comments from industry players. By the time you've finished reading this book, let me assure you that you will indeed be well-educated in all that is, and was, Marvel
Do I have any complaints about "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades". Well, I was tempted to grumble about the 50 pages used at the end to reproduce stories, where it could have been used for more facts and history. However, I can also appreciate the value for many readers of being given a carefully selected set of tales that show the changes that Marvel comics have undergone in those 50 years, and in the final analysis I think I'll decline the opportunity to voice a protest.
My only other possible objection is that there should really be a "six decades" update created in 1999... to mark the 60th anniversary of "Marvel Comics #1". Besides that, I can't find a single thing to say against this weighty gem of a book. If you're a serious Marvel fan, you have absolutely no excuse for not owning this invaluable reference text.
Five fabulous decades, five glorious webs. Seems only fair to me!