I’m a pop culture geek. More specifically, I’m a comic book history geek. There, I said it. My idea of a great evening is hunkering down on the couch with anything to do with comics. Give me a stack of comics from any age, a biography of a comic creator, a how to draw or write a script instructional website and I’ll be happy. For these reasons, I was excited to learn about Todd Frye’s new book, Marvelous Mythology. Frye takes the reader on a highly accessible journey through the creation of Marvel’s expansive universe that weaves between discussions about Marvel’s foundational creators and of the individual comics that helped establish Marvel as a comic juggernaut.
There have been recent books (Supergods by Grant Morrison and Marvel: The Untold Story by Sean Howe) that go into great detail about the inner workings of Marvel Comics. Frye does not rely on insider knowledge or a desire to expose the more dramatic inner workings of the company to inform his readers. Instead, he relies on what must be a deep, communal love of the stories that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Larry Lieber, among others, created.
The book starts off recounting the events of Fantastic Four #1, which was published in 1961. Frye’s detailed summary of that issue establishes a chronological starting point for his discussion of how important the characters of this era of comics would become to the future of the company. As Frye recounts the events of Marvel’s most historical issues, he also describes the creative processes that Lee and Kirby used to light the comic industry afire. This narrative approach – which is really geared toward new comic enthusiasts – brings to light the shared creative process (Kirby drew the pages based off of a rough plot outline provided by Lee, then Lee then inserted dialogue into Kirby’s drawings) that helped Marvel break away from its competitors.
A stand out element of the book is how Frye emphasizes the varying aspects of Marvel’s storytelling during this era which set its characters apart from DC Comics. Details like how the Fantastic Four, at their start, were not a harmonious team of superheroes. Lee and Kirby consistently complicated the relationships between teammates to differentiate them from the competition. The Thing would fight the Human Torch, Reed Richards and Sue Storm would fall in and out of love, and so on. In doing this, Marvel’s characters become more than just heroes.
Frye also focuses a lot of attention on the genesis of the Marvel Universe as it is today. He discusses how Lee and company began intertwining characters from individual comic series. The creators experimented with placing characters from one series like Fantastic Four with the story continuity of Spider-Man, or even more explicitly the combining of heroes from separate series into one mega-series, The Avengers. In doing this, Marvel’s creators built the foundation for the interconnected, twisting universe of crossovers and Marvel movies that we have today.
All of this information is very intriguing, however, the use of issue summary and well-established history drags the pacing of the book down for anyone who has any established knowledge of Marvel Comics. A long-time fan reading this book may find themselves skimming passages to get to Frye’s commentary on how the summarized issue connects to the overall thesis of the book.
Even with that in mind, I still found myself enjoying how Frye’s passion provoked me to think about important the past has been in forming the characters, comics, and movies that I love now.