Marvel Comics History: Listen Up!

imgresIf you were anywhere near the west end of the San Fernando Valley this week there’s a good chance that along with a plethora of nail salons and sushi restaurants, you may have seen someone in a Captain America T-shirt and wearing much too-big headphones wandering Ventura Boulevard like a zombie. Or, if you were on any number of a freeways in the greater Los Angeles area, you may have seen that same someone, sitting transfixed in his weathered Ford Explorer, a slight smile of distant self-satisfaction on his face, as he listened to a voice coming through the car’s speakers. That someone with the faraway look in their eyes wasn’t quite in this world. That someone was being transported back in time to days of comic book yore. And for the record, that “someone” was me. That’s right, that headphone-wearing zombie drifting west down Ventura Boulevard was yours truly. I was that person in the SUV being taken on a trip. But how? What possible thing could have had me so enraptured? The Lumineers album? Not bloody likely. No, the reason I was so enveloped, so utterly taken was the fact that I was listening to a book; more specifically, I was listening (yes listening!) to Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe.

Now if you’re a regular to the site, you know that Ron reviewed Mr. Howe’s book back in October of 2012. He gave it five stars and it deserves every one of them. The book is almost unanimously touted as one of the best books ever written on the history of Marvel Comics. I read it. Loved it. And I’ll probably read it again. But what had me in its grip all of last week was the recently released audio version of that wonderful tome. It’s a different animal. A different, wonderful, near 18-hour-long animal that managed to take hold of my life last week in a way no “book on tape” about comics ever really has. Sure, the audio version of Morrison’s Supergods is a compelling listen, if you can overlook the faux Morrison doing the narration. And yes, the audio version of The Ten Cent Plague, while a bit dry, is a must-listen history lesson. But this is something different. Something special.

imgres-4Yes, here’s where I reveal that I’m a big proponent of “listening” to books, especially books about comics, comic book history and the comics industry. One thing I love about comics is the bite-size nature of the serialized stories. But when it comes to lengthy prose, if there’s an audio version of something, that’s where I’m going. It’s all about time management. With a busy schedule and much Los Angeles car time, it’s one of the few ways I can actually keep up with my “reading.” Now I’ve had the great “audio book argument” with friends a number of times and there are generally two schools of thought. One camp thinks that listening to an audio book is equivalent to “reading” and the other side thinks that listening to a book somehow doesn’t count or is somehow a lesser experience. Who really cares? All I know is that when someone reads to me and what he or she is reading is good AND about comics, then I can’t help but put my life on hold and dig right in.

Simply put, there are times when it’s just nice to have someone read to you. And if that person is reading you a history of comics then that’s all the better. imgres-3The dude doing the reading in this case is Stephen Hove, a seasoned audio book reader with pages of credits to his name. He’s a strong voice and seems to treat the material with a deserved reverence. You’re ears are safe in this guy’s hands. Nothing can ruin a potentially great audio book experience like a mealy-mouthed narrator who doesn’t quite seem to be connecting with the material on any level. I’ve had that experience before and it stinks; I think there may have even be a Seinfeld episode about an unlistenable audio book narrator. I’ve digressed. The point is this: Mr. Hove strikes just the right narrative tone here, doing Sean Howe’s words justice and taking the listener on a journey (that’s right a journey!) through Marvel’s storied history. I won’t go into too much detail as to what the book covers (it covers almost everything really), as I’m confident Ron’s review does a fine job of that. I’m more concerned with this particular way of experiencing the material, which takes the Marvel history and makes it an utterly compelling “oral history” that has me searching for a new word to describe the audio book version of a page-turner.

url-1When the print version of Mr. Howe’s book came out back in 2012, I knew it was something I’d be looking for as an audio book down the line. I tweeted a question to him about when we might expect an audio version of the material. He jokingly tweeted that the audio book wasn’t on the schedule yet, but that it was going to be read by Black Bolt. You have to love a guy who so adamantly stays on message. And if you aren’t following the Marvel Comics: The Untold Story feed on Facebook, you’re doing yourself a disservice, as Mr. Howe almost daily posts historically- related Marvel photos, letters, news clippings, etc., further expanding his labor of love in ways that belie an author with true comic book fandom at his core. If you’re not a fan of comics history, then the near eighteen hours of content may be a bit much for you. But for me as a fan who considers the history of comics inextricably linked to the comics themselves, being able to close my eyes and travel back to that famed Marvel bullpen in its “glory days,” gives new meaning to the idea of theater of the mind. This book is worth a listen, if not two. If all this sounds like a bit of a commercial, that’s not my intention. Just get it however you can and give it a listen. It’s that good. In the end, my intention is really more to take a break from the snark, the rants, the lamenting and the over-analysis that we all do and recommend something that is pure, simple and utterly enjoyable in that “sit around the fire and listen to the elders talk story” way.


Gabe Roth is a TV writer and reluctant suburbanite who wanders the streets of L.A.  He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.


  1. Thanks for the Tom Petty reference, the Twitter recommendation, and the review. I keep meaning to check out the print version of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. Guess I need to move it from the “soon” to the “soonest” pile.

    • Erk! I wrote twitter when I meant fb. Oops!

    • Can’t recommend reading/listening to it enough. While there are times when knowing the history of something your like can actually taint it, knowing this history actually adds to the whole comics reading experience in my opinion. Each time I hard a reference to a specific book and anecdotes about is history, I found myself jotting myself a note to pick that issue up somehow. Not going to help with pruning my collection, unfortunately.

  2. I think the aversion to audio books is linked to the days of yore when parents read to children before bed until they could learn to read themselves, so someone reading to you doesn’t count as you reading a book supposedly (kinda like how you read comics when you’re a kid, when you’re an adult comics are for kids and you’re expected to “grow up”). I have the print version on my nightstand, I wanna finish it before my Spring Break is over (4 days from now). Looking forward to it, probably start reading it today. Speaking of Blackagar Boltagan, I finished the “Marvel’s Finest Inhumans” maxiseries a few days ago and loved it. Anybody else read that?

  3. Yeah, the commute time on the freeway is F@*!#ing Brutal! And music from the ipod doesn’t always distract the way you’d think it would. Audio books are a good alternative to that. I think I’ll look it buying this story as an audio book soon. Good article.

  4. I’m picking up the print version tonight from the library, but I look forward to give the audio version a listen when they have that in stock.

    And thanks on the recommendation for the The Untold Story Facebook page. I’m giving that a like…right now.

  5. Avatar photo batwomanbeyond (@batwomanbeyond) says:

    I’ve been reading this lately and really enjoying it, especially since I was able to pick up a lot of the #1 issues mentioned in the book during the recent Marvel free comics promotion on Comixology.