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.
1) A Meeting Of Artists
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“).
2) Surfin’ Safari
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.
3) The Disco Queen That Never Was
One of the most fascinating chunks of the book chronicles the creation of a character that would eventually be called Dazzler, but at the onset was known as Disco Queen. The project was initially developed following a lucrative licensing deal with rock band Kiss. This time, though, Marvel wanted to own the character outright and not owe any licensing deals. Conceived as, Howe says, “an ambitious cross-pollination experiment,” it would have involved the creation of a new album and a singer would take on that persona and tour the album, all the while promoting the comic book. Initially, disco legend Donna Summer was approached, with a concert that would have her performing half of the show as herself and the second half as the Disco Queen character. Good or bad, this would have been the stuff of legend, but a lawsuit between Summer and Casablanca Records, who would be responsible for the musical side of this multiplatform behemoth and whose film division would produce the eventual movie, ended those plans. As the process dragged on, the initial character concept, described by artist John Romita Jr. was modeled on Grace Jones, “very statuesque, international-looking model with short hair” begun to change. The character — who was created via a committee that included Stan Lee and eventual Marvel kingpin Jim Shooter, went from being called Disco Queen to Disco Dazzler and then just Dazzler — lost all of its initial identifiers when it’s development period outlast disco itself (with Casablanca eventually pulling out altogether). Howe notes that even though disco’s death knell had sounded in 1979, Marvel “scrambled to find new corporate partners to make a ‘Dazzler’ film.” Those partners were never found, yet the character remains a part of the Marvel Universe to this day.
4) Attached But Never Produced
Throughout “Marvel Comics,” Howe presents tenuously forged deals that could have resulted in a very different on-screen Marvel Universe. These play like those “What If…?” Marvel issues that presented strange alternate versions of favorite characters (things like “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” or “What If Sgt. Fury Had Fought World War II in Outer Space?“) and every time Howe presents one of these scenarios, it’s hard not to imagine them coming to fruition. At one point famed producer Dino De Laurentiis, had gotten a hold of the rights of Ghost Rider and Man-Wolf; neither was produced and “Man-Wolf” remains one of the few Marvel mainstays who has not been allowed a cinematic counterpart. Similarly, disaster movie icon Irwin Allen wanted to do a Human Torch movie (it is unclear whether or not his movie would have focused on the original, robotic Human Torch or the more human version of the character who later appeared in the Fantastic Four) and there was, at one point, a “Captain America” screenplay co-written by “Death Wish” mastermind Michael Winner that was deemed “un-filmable.” In a flurry of activity following the dissolution of his creative relationship with Robert Zemeckis (this also included a “John Carter of Mars” script for Disney), Bob Gale wrote a “Doctor Strange” script that was potentially to star Tom Selleck (yes, seriously). In similarly amazing feats of would-be casting, Carl Weathers, according to Howe, was “eyeing” a Power Man movie, while “Shaft” himself Richard Roundtree was loosely attached to play Blade in a “Tomb of Dracula” movie. And, maybe most tantalizingly, longtime Marvel writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas had written an “X-Men” script for Marvel and Fox.
5) The Unremarkable Ant-Man
Of all the properties in development currently at Marvel Studios, the one that seems to have the geeks the most excited is a potential “Ant-Man” movie, written by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish and directed by Wright. While the film was recently given a 2015 release date, this wasn’t the first time an Ant-Man feature was in development. At some point in the late eighties, Marvel got wind that Disney was working on a feature called “Teenie Weenies,” which involved characters being shrunk to microscopic size (Ant-Man’s defining characteristic), written by “Re-Animator” confederates Ed Naha, Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. This spooked Marvel and they started rushing an Ant-Man movie through the pipeline. The particulars of who was involved creatively and why the movie failed to materialize have never been disclosed, but the Marvel project eventually collapsed. “Teenie Weenies” was heavily re-written (the original draft was considerably darker and more obviously a riff on atomic age B-movies) and released as “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” It was a huge hit (pun very much intended).
Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” is in stores now.