Sunday, November 24, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (2) - Crazy cool

Growing up, my Little Bro and I often got the same, or very similar, presents from our parents at Christmas (a phenomenon I’ve discussed previously as it relates to Masters of the Universe) and in fact my Little Bro and I and our cousin (who was two years younger than me, a year older than Little Bro) were often dealt with in much the same way by our grandmother and aunts and uncles. One year (it must have been Christmas 1981) the three of us each received a book from our aunt and uncle (but really, mainly from our uncle, the younger brother of my father/my cousin’s mother - this guy’s influence will pop up again and again in the next couple posts, so let’s call him Shep), and those books as it happened were about the very same Marvel characters featured in the posters in my toy room. My cousin got a book about the Hulk, my Little Bro got the Fantastic Four, and I got Spider-Man.

Obviously, at some point over the years, our copies of these books got destroyed or lost as children’s things do. I recently looked them up online to refresh my memory about the details (and, not gonna lie, to see what they were going for on Amazon and eBay because I kinda want to have them all on my dork shelves again) and I was amused to see someone panning one of the books because it was “written in a very condescending way”. Of course it was; they were written for kids, distributed by an outfit literally called Children’s Press. Nowadays you need an affluent adult’s disposable income to keep up with comics at the specialty shops in all their deluxe collector-courting iterations, but back in 1981 comics were still something you could buy with spare change and they were aimed at kids, conceptually and promotionally. So these books, while not officially produced by Marvel, were certainly sanctioned by Marvel and part of an overall strategy to strengthen the loyalty of existing readers and possibly reel in new ones, but in either case “reader” here means “kid with milk money to burn”.

The deal with the books was this: they were a combination of primer text on the featured character and a selection of reprints from that character’s comic book adventures. It probably goes without saying that my Little Bro and cousin thought the books were cool, but skipped over the boring wordy pages, read the comics, and let them hit the floor on their way to do something else, whereas I read my Spider-Man book cover-to-cover, then moved on to their Fantastic Four and Hulk books and read them cover-to-cover as well. Each book started with the origin story for the character, so that was the first time I ever read Fantastic Four #1, Incredible Hulk #1, or Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spider-Man’s debut). And then each book would talk about the development of the character, their supporting cast, their rogues gallery, &c. Then another reprint of a random, representative issue. All three origin stories were originally published in the early 60’s, so the second story would be from the late 60’s or early 70’s to show how the grand overarching narrative had advanced (Peter Parker going to college, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman having a baby). A bit more text, and then a recent reprint that was at that point only a year or two old, followed by a few pages of speculation about the future of the characters.

Two big takeaways here: one, for someone with my particular proclivities, this was the most genius way imaginable to get my attention and open my eyes to what differentiated comic books from all the rest of superhero-saturated pop culture. It really didn’t matter in what order you watched installments of the animated Super-Friends or live-action Batman (two-part cliffhangers notwithstanding) because they were episodic by design, spinning the wheels of the status quo. But comic books (I was able to deduce from the Secret Story of Marvel’s World Famous Wall Crawler) weren’t like that at all. The stories all had a beginning, which was before my time but now at least I had copies to which to refer. And they might not have endings per se, but they did have change and developments which could be followed, actions with consequences, and a far-reaching plot that made the most sense if you consumed it in order. This was a kind of brainspace-consuming storytelling that I had been hungering for.

(I would of course learn, many years later, that comic books spun their wheels and maintained the status quo just as much as tv shows, if not moreso, and for all the same reasons. But in the early years of Marvel Comics they did embrace shaking up the status quo from time to time as a more sophisticated storytelling device, and by the ‘80’s they had settled into maintenance mode BUT they had gotten really, really good at creating the appearance of change and ever-advancing stories, however false. So I was seduced by the illusion. I was, again, just a kid.)

The other important factor is that Spider-Man was probably the ideal character to gain a deeper appreciation of. He was simultaneously the flagship character of Marvel Comics and their quirkiest creation, as the book I devoured over Christmas was happy to inform me. He was (at the outset) a teenager in a storytelling milieu dominated by adult heroes with kid sidekicks. He modeled himself after an animal that people instinctively are creeped out by, yet he’s the good guy. He was a skinny nerd beset by insurmountable personal problems, who actually found fighting for his life against mad scientists with living robotic arms to be a pleasant diversion from his worries and troubles. Spider-Man had problems (feared by Aunt May, mistrusted by the police, hated by J. Jonah Jameson, sometimes beaten up by the super-villains he opposed) and Peter Parker also had problems (money, girls, homework, bullies) all of which, a la Storytelling 101, made him an incredibly sympathetic character.

And yet ... to a seven-year-old nerd, it seemed like Peter Parker had pretty good life. He had super-powers, but that was only the beginning. He had outgrown the glasses and dorky sweater vests, gone off to college, dated some girls, and in practically every aspect of life really matured and thrived. And that was just the comics’ version. Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends hit the airwaves right around the same time I was given my text primer on Spider-Man, and although I was still very young I somehow recognized that the lifestyle of Peter Parker, Angelica Jones and Bobby Drake on that show was the idealized version of young adulthood that I was already looking forward to. Two good-looking dudes and a smoking hot (pun intended) chick, who all hang out together exchanging witty banter, lounging in an awesome loft that could transform into a secret headquarters whenever they needed to race into action to save the city; what kid in his right mind wouldn’t want to grow up to be that version of Spider-Man? The important thing was not that Peter Parker had started out as a dweeby wallflower I could identify with, but that he had grown up into a cool dude I could aspire to be.

As I said, Spider-Man was Marvel’s flagship character, so becoming a Spider-Man fan and becoming a Marvel fan went more or less hand-in-hand. I didn’t yet know anything about the inherent differences in philosophy and approach that Marvel and DC Comics represented, I just broke hard for one and never looked back. And my devotion would get significantly stronger as time went by, because basically that was the way the game was rigged. But more on that later.

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