In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (out Oct. 9), former EW staffer Sean Howe reveals the real-world battles and triumphs behind the biggest name in comics

By Stephan Lee
Updated October 05, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The real-life saga of how Marvel went from a cadre of underpaid, undervalued misfits to one of the most lucrative brands in Hollywood is as unbelievable as the origin myths of its best-known superheroes: Spider-Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk, and the X-Men.

For lifelong Marvel acolyte Sean Howe, a former editor and writer at this magazine, Marvel Comics was a labor of love. Howe interviewed more than 150 Marvel insiders — among them publisher Stan Lee and magician/artist Jim Steranko — and did three years of research to draw out new information that surprised even Howe, such as Lee’s and famed artist Jack Kirby’s attempts to leave comic books for Hollywood in the early ’70s. ”It would be like Lennon and McCartney going off and doing indie-label stuff,” says Howe.

Comic-book aficionados will get behind-the-scenes looks at other Marvel legends, including sizable sections on Jim Shooter, a former Kentucky Fried Chicken employee who rose to the top of the comics industry, and Todd McFarlane, a baseball wunderkind–turned–Spider-Man inker extraordinaire.

These days Marvel is mostly associated with cineplex-filling movies like The Avengers, Spider-Man, and Iron Man rather than the ink-and-text panels that inspired them. But Howe’s book is aimed squarely at the comic-book obsessives. ”There are probably hundreds of thousands of armchair fact-checkers that will be on my case,” he says with a nervous laugh. ”It keeps you on your toes.”