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).