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GIFT BOOKS IN BRIEF : MARVEL: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics by Les Daniels (Harry N. Abrams: $49.50) .

December 01, 1991|Lee Wochner

Let's be honest: More of us have read Spider-Man comics than will ever finish "Pride and Prejudice." What is the secret of Marvel Comics' widespread popularity and lasting appeal? According to Les Daniels, it's the personalities of the heroes; that is, that they have them at all. In the 1960s, when Marvel was at a low point creatively and economically, writer/editor Stan Lee hit on an idea: humanizing the superhuman. It sounds simple, but it was unheard of; after all, Superman didn't have any problems--that's why he was Superman. Working with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee created characters such as Spider-Man, a neurotic bookworm with money problems; Iron Man, a wealthy industrialist whose metal suit was the only thing keeping him alive, and the Hulk, a gentle scientist imprisoned in the body of a mindless brute. By comparison, such DC heroes as Batman, the Flash and Wonder Woman seemed like a chummy elite, and as interesting as a corporate board. Marvel heroes triumphed not because of their powers, which usually failed them, but because they had the human potential for heroism, the ability to rise above adversity. Daniels, who provides lively commentary in the Marvel style, also gives an excellent overview of the company and its artists during World War II. The 700 full-color reproductions alone are worth the price, but when taken with the classic stories reprinted inside, the book becomes a fitting tribute.

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