Monday, May 28, 2012
Marvel Chronicle: A Year by Year History by Tom DeFalco, et al.
This beautiful coffee table tome dissects the hallowed history of Marvel Comics into a year by year chronology. Each year gets four pages (or sometimes six, during the glory years) in which the major events of the year are summarized. Selected issues of comics are featured in the order of their release dates. The first appearances of characters, from the most famous heroes to some rather obscure villains, are highlighted, as well as major plot events and multiple-title crossovers. Each year ends with a list of that year’s news events, including mention of a few movies released at the time.
Marvel Chronicle is published by Dorling-Kindersley (DK), a company that produces heavily illustrated coffee table books on every imaginable subject. The writing of the book is by various authors, and is really quite good. Complex plots are pithily summarized in a fun and attention-grabbing way. The book features loads of beautiful art from the Marvel archives, but the design of the book is 100% DK: tiny hard-to-read type, made even more hard-to-read by busy, screened backgrounds, and heaven forbid a quarter inch of white space should be showing on any page. The book also suffers from poor proofreading. You'll find one typographical error on almost every two-page spread, as well as a few factual errors (Charlton Heston did not star in Spartacus, and the Abomination did not make his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man).
Nevertheless, Marvel Chronicle is a stunning piece of memorabilia for the Marvel fan. As a guide to the continuity of the Marvel Universe, however, it is sketchy and intermittent at best. This book is first and foremost a business history. It chronicles the evolution of the Marvel corporation, and details all the varied strategies it employed to increase readership, capture market share, and rake in the dollars. The narrative is refreshingly unapologetic in the way it juxtaposes Marvel’s classic story lines and timeless characters with all the silly crap, the outdated trends, the weird toy and TV tie-ins, and the just plain what-were-they-thinkings. The most fascinating part of the book is the early days, the ‘40s and ‘50s, when the company was known as Timely Comics. Back then superheroes were few (Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch), but Timely glutted the market with books of every conceivable genre: romance, western, horror, sci-fi, funny animals, and Archie-esque teen comedy. The change that came in the early 1960’s was truly amazing. With the exception of Wolverine and the aforementioned trio of superheroes, all of the great Marvel characters were created within the span of less than two years. The X-Men and the Avengers debuted in the same month! The creative output of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and company staggers the mind.
This book brought back great memories of the days when I used to go to the drug store after school and scan the comic racks. Once the book passes the mid-‘90s mark, however, my interest waned. My friends and I used to scoff at DC Comics for their parallel universes and “infinite earths.” Around the turn of the 21st century, however, Marvel fell victim to the same idiocy. Now every creator wants to be a revisionist, every story line attempts to reinvent the wheel, and every new issue must bear a number 1. Marvel Chronicle ends on an ironic note, as the company’s recent output shows them turning more and more away from the venerable history so triumphantly celebrated in this book.
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