Aside from snippets here and there in Comics Journal interviews, most of the writing about Marvel Comics that I've read has been officially endorsed by Marvel Comics. That's obviously not ideal; if Marvel Comics has one particular skill, it's self-promotion. For almost my entire life, I've been told stories about the Marvel Bullpen as one big happy family, where whimsy and camaraderie combine to breathe life into a fictional universe.

I'm surprised it's taken so long, but Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is a welcome antidote to that lifetime of mythology-building. Through extensive interviews and research, Howe learns that Marvel Comics is pretty much like any other entertainment industry job: Packed with jaded office workers and freelancers who always feel ripped-off about something. Howe's Marvel is shockingly, almost frustratingly real. The younger freelancers chafe at the unfair working conditions, the older freelancers like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby just feel exploited. And at the center of it all is Stan Lee, who increasingly becomes a victim of his own enormous ego.

I realize that I'm making Marvel Comics sound like something sleazy, and it's not that. It's just that the warts have been hidden from us for so long that their revelation is automatically the most striking part of the story. There are real friendships behind Marvel Comics, and some real artistic achievements. Those are in here, too. But there's a sense of liberation in finally getting the full story about all the dysfunction that went into the comic books that wallpapered my childhood.