Sunday, November 17, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (1) - Where It All Began

I can’t remember not being able to read. I could (maybe should) couch that within an admission about how I can’t remember plenty of things about my life before I was seven years old or so, as my Little Bro is forever reminding me by bringing up his own vivid childhood recollections which sound familiar to me (even though I was ostensibly there, too) in a blurry way at best. But I did teach myself to read at a fairly early age. There were books everywhere in my house growing up. My mom, for a very brief while, was an elementary school teacher, and she brought home primers full of exactly the sort of simple, illustrated stories that teach everything from decoding to comprehension to poetry appreciation. My dad was a voracious reader (he commuted on the train and consumed many a genre paperback on those rides, oh how the cycles repeat themselves) and an English major who had kept lots of the texts he acquired on his way to that degree. So the bait was there, and I took it, and it became something of an all-consuming compulsion that persists to this day.

Clearly at some point somebody bought me my first comic book, but I don’t associate it with any particular event or anything, so I can’t pin it down to any year or grade of school or whathaveyou. Nor do I remember exactly which comic book it was. At the time, it was simply yet another piece of reading material amongst all the other books and magazines in our house, yet another plaything amongst the Star Wars action figures and Lego bricks and Tonka trucks, and maybe most tellingly of all, yet another piece of super-hero ephemera amongst the rest of the pop-culture landscape. Assuming for the sake of argument that I was five years old when the very first comic book I could call my own wound up in my hands, that would have been some time in late 1979 or early 1980 (and the odds of it being any more than a year on either side of that window is practically nil). The Batman tv series starring Adam West was a relic of the swinging 60’s by then, but still a mainstay of my afternoon viewings of syndicated re-runs, along with the Hanna-Barbera Fantastic Four cartoons from 1967 and Super-Friends cartoons from 1973, the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series from 1975, and occasionally the Nicholas Hammond Spider-Man series from 1977. (Not to mention the 1972 Battle of the Planets cartoons which had been westernized in ‘78 - not Big Two American comic book properties, but undeniably superheroes and, it goes without saying, the origins of my obsession with the Five Man Band.) Plus the Incredible Hulk series with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno was airing in primetime, and Superman the Motion Picture had come out a year or so before (though I didn’t see it in the theater; I probably caught it on HBO by ‘80 or ‘81, though).

I’d love to be able to tell the archetypal story about how my very first comic book completely blew my mind like a bolt from the blue, opening up previously undreamt of worlds of imagination-fueled possibilities, but it just didn’t happen like that. As the run-on list above demonstrates, superheroes were so much a part of my awareness that I probably watched Underdog cartoons over breakfast at my grandma’s house and understood he was a pastiche of Superman before I ever laid eyes on an actual Superman comic book (or knew the word “pastiche” for that matter). When comic books entered the picture, they were just another medium for the stories, one among many. It would take slow and steady exposure over years and years for me to get into the rhythms of 1980’s comic book storytelling, which is ostensibly far more responsible for winning me over as a fan than the ideas embodied by the characters themselves readily available in tv/cartoon/movie/coloring book formats.

I have these nebulous images in my mind of the house we lived in when I was five, and some scattered comics. I remember one year we got a little orange pup tent and set it up in the backyard, and I remember laying inside it on a warm summer day and re-reading and re-reading an issue of DC Comics Presents starring Superman where he teamed up with numerous other heroes because he was fighting a cabal of evil magic-users and magic is one of Superman’s only weaknesses (this is the same comic to which I referred to in my seeds of childhood collections post). I remember an issue of Fantastic Four where they were guests on board a ship full of big hairy green aliens. I remember the opening splash page of an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man where the contortionist thief known as the Cobra was pinned in the red spotlight of the Spider-Signal. I remember an issue of The Mighty Thor where he hung out for a while with some mystical human-animal hybrids (which I might have long since written off as misremembered, too deeply weird to have actually been published, if not for the glorious advent of teh interwebs which allowed me to track down the characters in question, the Menagerie of Rimthusar!) I remember an issue of All-Star Squadron, but only the cover, as it featured various heroes and villains fighting on the arms of the Statue of Liberty and all I could think was that it would make an excellent Colorforms set, because I just wanted to reposition all the characters in different battle combinations.

So, left to my own devices, I watched cartoons about DC characters, and cartoons about Marvel characters, watched live-action shows of both, and read comics about both. But at some point the balance tipped in favor of Marvel over DC, such that within about five years I was pretty hopelessly on the hook for Marvel. But once again, weirdly enough, it had very little to do with the comics themselves, at least at first. Or maybe that’s not so weird. One of the interesting things about Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (which you may recall is the inspiration for this series of posts) is the way that he illuminates the business side of Marvel, which realized early on (and thus long before, from my childhood perspective) that publishing monthly issues was a pursuit with razor-thin margins, whereas licensing the likenesses of characters was a pure profit stream. By the time I was a kid, this was standard practice by both DC and Marvel, but I think you could argue that Marvel was better (or more shameless) at it. Then again, maybe it was due to total coincidence (and the unthinking whims of my parents and other gift-buying relatives) that more Marvel-branded merchandise ended up in my life than DC.

But some biggies stand out, including three posters that were giveaways from Coca-Cola which I guess my mom must have gotten at the grocery store. When I was five we lived in a three-bedroom split-level ranch, and my Little Bro and I shared the two non-master bedrooms. One we slept in and kept our clothes in, the other was full of our toys. And in all of my memories of that toy room, the only decorations on the walls are these three 22 inch by 28 inch posters, each dedicated to a re-telling of the origin story of a different Marvel superhero (or team): Spider-man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. They watched over us each time we staged the Battle of Hoth on Kenner playsets, each time we dumped every single toy out of the wooden toybox so one of us could climb in and act out Dracula rising from his coffin. Clearly that had an effect on which covers I was drawn to on the spinner rack at the Cumberland Farms when my mom stopped off for milk and bread.

There were some other, even more influential Marvel-oriented products just around the bend, too, and I’ll come to them next post.

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