The tale Howe tells begins in 1939, when Timely Comics (later to morph into Marvel) was printing up to 800,000 copies of its hits — including Marvel Comics and Captain America. Stanley Lieber wrote scripts, signing them “Stan Lee.” Jacob Kurtzberg, a.k.a. Jack Kirby, pioneered a pop art style of broad faces, muscled bodies and bounding heroes. The industry thrived, and Lee (more than Kirby) with it. But the magazine companies that owned these products lost interest. The good artists took on weirder assignments; would-be-moguls, like Lee, assumed that they were watching a fad die out. “It’s like a ship sinking,” Lee told a colleague when the magazine industry seemed to be moving on from comics, “and we’re the rats.”
Then, in 1961, Lee and Kirby published Fantastic Four #1. Howe gives the creators credit for taking the best of the comics industry’s trends — superheroes, romance, monsters — and adding a “blast of colorful heroics against a murky background world.” Within three years, Lee and a stable of artists (John Romita, Steve Ditko) had created most of the characters that would go on to dominate movie culture in the 2000s and 2010s, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Daredevil.