Sean Howe's brilliant new book, "Marvel Comics: The Untold Story," is a fascinating history of the House of Ideas, from its humble beginnings to its place as a multimedia pop culture juggernaut (and everything in between). What makes Howe's book so fascinating (and such a compulsively un-put-down-able read) is how human it is. He's interested in characters, but not the kind that fly or shoot lasers out of their eyes. And as the book rolls along, it becomes clear that Howe is less interested in the Marvel that is currently nestled within the Disney conglomerate and pumping out billion dollar spectacles like this summer's "The Avengers," than in the hardscrabble, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants operation that made it so impactful in the first place. Along the way, too, it tells the story of Stan Lee, who moved away from the characters he created and the format he originally conceived and more obsessed with Hollywood and translating those heroes to the big screen. What follows is the most fascinating, bizarre, and out-there possibilities of the one-time cinematic Marvel Universe.
In the fifties and sixties, Marvel was seen as particularly hip and happening. The growing counter-culture latched onto the trippy, psychedelic artwork of pioneers like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby (who would spend the second half of his life in a contentious battle with Marvel over copyright claims), and everyday Americans found Lee's missives from the "bullpen," in which he would paint a portrait of gonzo artists hard at work, to be irresistible (even if, as Howe points out, it was almost always complete hogwash). Soon cultural luminaries would start to stop by Marvel's Manhattan headquarters and one of them, Alan Renais, the unstoppable French surrealist behind "Last Year At Marienbad," became an unlikely (and close) friend of Lee's. Together, the two worked on a project called "The Monster Maker," and had every intention of making it. While not purely a Marvel project, it was clearly autobiographical for Lee, and concerned a B-movie maker who dreams of something more, and eventually creates a movie centered on the dangers of pollution and toxic waste. For an environmental fable, the project was staggeringly ahead of its time, but by all accounts the script was lousy and, predictably, the project fell apart. It was instrumental in lighting the fuel that would ignite Lee's quest to bring his beloved characters to the big screen though, but the bold experimentalism the New Wave filmmaker would have brought to the project has never been seen in an official Marvel production (save for maybe Ang Lee's admirably bizarre "Hulk").
For some reason the Silver Surfer, a minor character in the Marvel mythos that is alternately a kind of guardian angel warning of impending doom or a spirit of vengeance wreaking havoc on the cosmos, has always been a major piece of the cinematic Marvel universe. While the character wouldn't make it to the screen until 2007's mediocre "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," the idea for a Silver Surfer movie had been kicked around since the early seventies, when founding Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson (who was an early acolyte of Marvel) was approached to star. While this is a stroke of genius – Wilson embodied the aura of the character, always existentially adrift – this was probably an idea batted around at cocktail parties more than anything even remotely concrete. More concrete was the proposition that Olivia Newton-John would star in a Silver Surfer movie, as the Surfer's girlfriend (um, what?). What made this project a real possibility was that it was being shepherded by Newton-John's then-boyfriend (and manager), Lee Kramer. Their relationship was only slightly less doomed than the movie, and after a lengthy engagement, Kramer and Newton-John broke up.