Marvels (not necessarily of my youth…)

In our last loopy entry, I alluded that the Current Madness began with the Fantastic Four, and now that we have dispensed with the age-before-beauty schtick with poor, early Silver Age Superman, we can perhaps speak a bit more generally.

The best thing about the Marvel Essential books is that they start at the very beginning, not at an arbitrary point in the comics’ history, as do some of the Showcase books spotlighting older properties. Thus, you get to see a book founder and flop about, trying to find its own voice. The Mighty Thor is a fair example; he starts out fighting the Stone Men of Saturn, and goes on to a fairly mediocre career, up against Zarko The Tomorrow Man (twice!) and sundry menaces the thunder god seems to sort of shrug off, like those damned Reds (oooooo! Curse them!).

It’s in Thor, in fact, that we see rather starkly the impact of what has come to be known as the Marvel Method: the artist, after a story conference, goes off and draws the story, and Stan Lee would later write the captions and dialogue. When Jack Kirby is doing the art, Thor is engaging and dynamic, when he’s not… well, there’s a fallow period in the center of Volume One that, so to speak, illustrates the outcome. When Kirby returns to the title, the storytelling crackles; colorful adversaries like the Grey Gargoyle, Mr. Hyde and the Cobra fairly leap off the page, not to mention the back-up feature “Tales of Asgard”, which allowed all sorts of fanciful derring-do, at which Kirby excelled.

Killraven is another example . It starts out as “Amazing Adventures presents War of the Worlds”, the central conceit being the Martians put in a repeat appearance at the beginning of the 21st century, and this time they brought antihistamines and conquered the world. The Killraven we’re talking about is a guy raised in the gladiatorial pits of this un-brave new world, who escapes with a group of like-minded individuals who set to becoming freedom fighters. The series is kind of entry-level pulp adventure until writer Don F. McGregor signs in, and not too soon afterwards artist P. Craig Russell joins, and what is now called “Killraven – Warrior of the Worlds” starts to sing its own song.

I recognized Don McGregor’s name from some stories he wrote for the Warren black-and-white horror books (you know, Creepy, Eerie) which, almost without exception, I disliked. McGregor was a painfully earnest writer in a painfully earnest era, and would stop a decent horror story dead in the water for a sermon.

For instance, here’s Sidney Portier telling it like it is while the guy behind him turns into a werewolf in Creepy #43’s “The Men Who Called Him Monster”. Don’t those word balloons look like they’re about to pop?

McGregor’s work on Marvel titles, though, is incredible. Perhaps a bit overwritten… a better description would be densely written… but maybe his editors at the big M kept his more self-indulgent tendencies in check, with the result that his talent shines. He also did a stint on “Luke Cage, Power Man” which is more multi-layered than Mr. Cage usually got, and I seem to recall a stellar run on “The Black Panther” that I’ve got to dig back out, one of these days.

Marvel Essentials Killraven is one of these books that presents the entire run of a character, including a somewhat muddy black-and-white version of a Marvel Graphic Novel that at least wrapped up one storyline left over when the book was cancelled. Then it ends up with a well-intentioned (and undeniably pretty) but ultimately pointless attempt to revive the character in the Marvel Knights line. As such, it’s more like reading a novel than most such books, with a couple of well-sustained story arcs and some great character work. McGregor is also one of the few writers in comics who seems to appreciate and employ running gags well.

I keep dropping the Fantastic Four name, and never get around to them, do I? Maybe it’s because of the total seven volumes currently available, I’ve only read five. More likely it’s just my scattered disorganized brain. Even more likely, I’m just too lazy to organize these slow-motion essays. I find that, overall, the reason I love the Marvel Essentials books is I didn’t read that much Marvel when I was really young. I expected lofty stuff from my regular, text-based books, but for my funny books I went for the more easily-digested DC and Gold Key fare.

Anyway, here goes: I think the aforementioned Fantastic Four, and that other mainstay that pulled Marvel out of the poorhouse, Spider-Man, never went through the initial, ungainly phase as did Thor and Killraven. Their basic concepts and characters seem very solid from the get-go, even though it would take years for the Invisible Girl to realize her potential (to paraphrase William S. Burroughs, “She could kill anybody in the room, and that was a good feeling.”)

Going through the first five volumes of Fantastic Four is quite the trip down memory lane; this is the blueprint for what would become the Marvel Universe, introducing the Kree, the Skrulls, the Inhumans, Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Negative Zone, and, of course, my favorite comic character of all time… Dr. Doom.

It’s also well worth noting that, with rare exceptions, it’s almost always Jack Kirby at the drafting table for these stories. With the last half of Volume Five, John Romita takes over the art chores, which is a damn fine choice; while his design sense is not as over-the-top as Kirby’s his sense of drama is just as exceptional. It’s possible, at a quick glance, to mistake Romita’s art for Kirby’s, but a closer examination reveals that Romita shines in his own, special way. Romita had a good track record at Marvel for stuff like this: he also took over Spider-Man after Steve Ditko left Marvel.

It tends to dismay my friends who are also comics fans that I’m not a Spider-Man fan. Everybody is a Spider-Man fan, it seems, but me. I’ve never seen the allure, but my pal Dave was able to put it in terms I could understand.

A) Most of the Spidey super-villains, if they met Peter Parker on the street, would not even be bothered to nudge him out of the way. He’s that much of a schlub. So, yeah, I can see the Everyman aspect. And

B) Spider-Man’s actual super power isn’t the wall-crawling or the proportional strength of a spider; it’s the fact that he can piss off anybody. Dave loves to relate in detail, with appropriate voice acting, his favorite tales of Spider-Man pissing off Mr. Hyde, for instance.

This should tell you something important about the personality of my pal, Dave.

Nonetheless: I own a cope of Marvel Essentials Spider-Man, Volume One. Why? It was at Half-Price Books. I picked it up. And I realized, “Wait a minute – this is over 500 pages of Steve Ditko art!

I may swear allegiance to writers, but those artists I love, I love unreservedly. And here is the most gorgeous comic cover evar (click to truly appreciate).

When Superman Was A Sitcom

In the early part of the decade, I landed a dream job: I was paid some very good money to write. The odd fallout of that lucky win: I stopped any extracurricular writing. I’m trying to get back into the swing of non-deadline-oriented writing, writing for pleasure, and you – you lucky lucky taxpayer – have stumbled upon the result. Try not to hurt yourself on the sharp edges. And there will be plenty, as I attempt to get my muse back on her game.

Now back to my waxing rhapsodical (well, waxing something) about my digging back through beloved comic books.

You’d think that I’d start at the beginning, that would be easiest. That would probably mean starting with Superman, the ground zero of superhero-dom (although my current madness really started with The Fantastic Four… but enough of that). Well, I’ve got one of the Showcase Presents Superman volumes – number one to be precise – and I had it down for my recent reading rotation. I was halfway through it before I realized I had read it cover to cover when I first bought it months ago and just simply did not recall any of the stories. My failing, aged memory? No. They just weren’t very memorable.

Supes has always ranked pretty high in my super hero listings, yet he’s one I’ve never had the typical fanboy yearning to write. Even in his more modern, down-powered state, he’s still awesomely overpowered, and that can’t be easy to build a story around. (watching some of the Filmation superhero cartoons of the 60s, I was amused to see Supes pushing the Earth out of orbit again. At least they made it look kinda hard – I seem to recall in the Super Friends days, he could pretty much do it by accident. Then again, the Super Friends always did five impossible things before breakfast, anyway).

There are two things that contribute to the lightweight quality of most of these stories. The first is a stolid, hidebound editorial stance alluded to by Mark Evanier in his book Kirby: King of Comics – a very strict view of “this is how comics is done”. Apparently a commercially viable stance, but it led to practically every DC comic being written in the same voice – which starts to be truly irksome in the early Justice League stories), with only different costumes and utility belt contents to differentiate characters.

It’s also this editorial stance that apparently led to a much commented-upon propensity to feature frequent gorillas on the covers of comic books to boosts sales. Yeah, I scratch my head, too, but this has given us such evergreens as Titano the Super Ape and Gorilla Grodd. Not to mention, I suppose, Congorilla and Beppo, the Super Monkey.

Heh heh. Monkey!
The second thing? I note that the stories in Volume One all hail from the years 1958-59. The Comics Code Authority was formed in 1955, and it has to be admitted that these stories are pretty dang unprovocative, with nothing to insult anyone. Unless you’re a woman, or a man with a lick of sense. But as we all know, these are okay to insult.

Yeah, we’re getting to the era that’s mined for sites like Superdickery or What Were They Thinking. There’s much that’s risible here – Lois Lane is so Superman-hungry that you wonder when she’s got the time to be such a highly-regarded journalist, and Superman is, to say the least, extremely gullible. He blabs his secret identity to people in disguise at least twice in the first half of the book, which would lead Batman to smack him upside the head with a Kryptonite-lined glove and bark, “Clark, you moron! You have X-ray vision!!!”

I suppose I regard these stories as more or less dispensable because they have no effect or impact on Canon, with a capital “C”. Then, Supes has been rebooted at least twice in my lifetime, so how could they? For what it’s worth, I love the happily-married Lois/Clark dynamic, and the fact that Lois is currently a strong enough character to hold her own amongst super-types. Which makes the story in Vol. One where Supes, believing himself to be marooned for life on a tropical island with Lois, reveals his identity and marries her in a native ceremony, all the more quaint. Especially since Supe then has to pull off an exceptionally lame series of explanations how Clark managed to fake super powers when a way off the island is figured out. Because, you know, girls have cooties.

Cue Batman with that kryptonite-filled sap glove again. Maybe Superman is a dick.

Then again, Batman has it easy. His Showcase Presents starts in 1964, into the “New Look” period that brought Batman more or less back into the “real” world (or at least as real as Gotham City ever gets), and not gallivanting off into space every issue to fight alien menaces that Flash Gordon would have refused to take seriously.

Which is too bad, really. I was looking forward to some Batman and Robin vs. the Mullet Men goofballery that filled the 25 cent 80-page Giants of my youth. Then one has to admit those, like these Superman stories, were definitely slanted toward the juvenile demographic. No way adults would ever be caught dead reading this stuff. No way at all.

This is likely the charm the stories hold for me: their very milquetoast, workmanlike quality. I admit that a few years back, when Grant Morrison was writing the JLA, I actually got very tired of the universe coming to an end every month. That was the only way to manufacture any dramatic tension, given the amount of power on that satellite – but would it have killed them to have the JLA stop a bank robbery once in a while? Those idiots in the Royal Flush Gang seem to pull one a week, at least…

So really, it’s kind of a relief to read a story where Superman is trying to teach Lois a lesson by wearing an Alfred E. Newman mask.

What? No, I’m not kidding.

I Sing the Experience Life-Wasting

Ah, youth, sweet youth. That joyful time when I regularly tackled the tough stuff. And by tackling the tough stuff, I mean reading the really thick books. You know. Ulysses. Remembrance of Things Past. Gravity’s Rainbow. Nova Express (which wasn’t thick but was no less scarring). Yes, by God, I was stretching my mind.

And truthfully, I remember very little from any of them, outside of enjoying them. Proust, especially. Maybe I stretched out the brain cells too much (though admittedly, not purely through literature. Chemicals may have been involved).

But you know what I do remember, with great clarity? The death of Jean Grey. Doctor Doom killing his right hand man rather than let him destroy the art treasures of Europe in an attempt to kill the Fantastic Four. I remember when Terra betrayed the Teen Titans.

If you look back over the card catalog of everything I’ve read in my life, this would not surprise you. By fourth grade I had chewed my way through most everything H.G. Wells and Jules Verne had to offer, but I had also read through almost the entire Tom Swift, Jr. series as well as every Doc Savage reprint paperback Bantam could toss on the market. This is pulp, you might say, this is trash.

To which I say, pfui. Big Deal.

I’m past the age of being evangelical about what I like. I’m also long past the age of being apologetic about it. And into the age where, if you ridicule me about it, I can smile easily, gently urge you to commit a physically impossible act, and then command you to get off my lawn.

I loves the funny books, you see. If you don’t, that’s fine. But you’re prolly gonna get bored here very quickly.

Funny books are what enabled me to read Verne, Wells, Heinlein and that damned nightmare-inducing Alfred Hitchcock’s Monster Museum while my classmates were still struggling to step outside Dr. Seuss. My grandmother read to me every day from comic books when I was wee – Herbie was a big favorite – and thus did I learn to read before my first day of school.

There was a brief attempt to stop me from reading comics early on, fearful that I wouldn’t read “real” books – but that turned out to be a groundless fear. Sickly child that I was, reading was one of the few pursuits I could easily perform. I loved books. Still do. Love the smell of them, the feel of them, heavy in my hand. Love the portability. No batteries required.

I find myself gadget-curious about the Kindle. But I hunger for the smell of dusty paper, and the tactile joy of physically turning that page of pressed wood and dead ink. I don’t think an e-reader will ever truly be for me.

For one thing, I don’t think comics will read especially well on them.

It’s like one of those sudden conversion stories they love in evangelical circles. You see, I once hated on those “Marvel Essential” and “Showcase Presents” phone books. They don’t have color! Where is my four-color fury? Bah!

Of course, then came the day I saw Marvel Essential X-Men Vol. 3 at Half-Price Books and figured “What the hell.” What the hell indeed. Not to diss any of the hard working colorists who labored in the trenches all those years, but the color was the least of the strengths of these stories, and I have gotten really hooked on an easy, affordable way to read through huge hunks of history.

To digress – which surely you’ve come to expect from me by now – These days, the computer-driven coloring in comics is extraordinary. There is a recent re-issue of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Tales of Asgard in which the only change made was re-coloring, using modern methods, and the result is gorgeous to behold. I like to think Kirby would have approved whole-heartedly.

This is too long already, and I have rambled so far afield from what I originally intended to say, I hear search parties in the distance trying to find that intent. More on what I’ve been reading and why in the days ahead, I hope.

You know how I love going on and on about stuff nobody cares about.