Sunday, December 8, 2013

Marvel Comics: My Untold Story (3) - Libraries

When my Little Bro and I were fairly young and both into comics, we were pretty annoyed with our father for not having saved any of his comics from when he was a kid. This was in the early 80’s, well before the speculation boom and quite possibly before the earliest auctions of collectible comics for ridiculous sums of money, so this was not a matter of faulting our dad for not taking better care of a potential source of financial wealth. On the contrary, we just wanted to be able to read older comics, which at that point was difficult if not impossible. Almost all old comics, much like our dad’s, had simply been thrown away in their time. The comics that had come and gone before our time seemed gone for good. Reprints were all but unheard of, books like those from Children’s Press notwithstanding. Yet there were a precious few reproductions scattered around here and there, as well.

My uncle Shep owned a large, hardcover volume which was sort of like a grown-up version of the Secret Story of Marvel’s World Famous Wall Crawler book he had given me for Christmas, except that his covered numerous characters from the so-called Golden Age, the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. I am about 98% sure that this book was Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, published in 1965. I discovered Shep’s copy one day when our family visited his, and I was fascinated by it. Compared to my Spider-Man book, it was more mature in its approach, almost scholarly and certainly written with an adult audience interested in the history of comics in mind. And it focused on comics from long before Spider-Man’s time. Marvel Comics didn’t really come into being until the 60’s, so most of those comics from a generation earlier were DC properties (there have always been other publishers of superhero stories besides DC and Marvel, but they don’t call them the Big Two for nothing): Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the original Green Lantern, the Spectre, Plastic-Man, and possibly some others I am forgetting.

In a sense, uncle Shep’s tome (seriously, to a seven year old it was pretty massive) could have tilted me in either of two directions. It could have inspired in me a deeper, respectful appreciation for DC Comics by granting me access to its origins, or it could have pushed me farther into the Marvel camp by highlighting the differences between the two companies and making the parameters of choice apparent. Clearly it was the second scenario which won out. While the first appearances of Superman and Batman are bona fide classics (and while I was intrigued by weirder heroes like the Spectre as well), compared to the modern storytelling in Spider-Man those forerunners seemed almost inert and hopelessly uninteresting. I would come around eventually, but as a child, the superiority of Marvel was obvious.

Uncle Shep was born in 1953, so those Golden Age comics were before his time as well. But he was buying comics on the newsstand in the 60’s and even the early 70’s, and once he realized just how ardently I loved the medium he let me in on something: unlike my dad, he had saved a fair number of comics in a box in his closet, despite moving from New York to Oregon and back east again. He let me read these relics, and I remember a couple in particular. One was an issue of The Flash where the scarlet speedster battled Doctor Light, and completely broke Einsteinian physics (even as an elementary schooler I knew this was dodgy storytelling), and the other was the #1 issue of Marvel Team-Up from 1972. Once again, the comic book featuring Spider-Man (and the Human Torch) struck me as dynamic and sophisticated where the Flash’s adventure seemed all-too hokey. Additionally, there was the allure of a #1 issue, a collector’s item, and that helped set me on the path of being not just a reader but a curator, which I will return to in due course.

By Christmas of 1983 my family had moved from New York to New Jersey, and to a suburb which was much easier for a fourth-grader to get around independently either on foot or by bicycle. I pretty quickly became familiar with the town’s public library, and spent a lot of time there feeling very much at home. Nowadays, libraries have entire catalogs of graphic novels and trade paperbacks making comics available to their patrons, but that was only able to happen when those formats became ubiquitous. In the early 80’s, a library might have a book like Feiffer’s if you were lucky, one which contained comics within its pages but purported to be something more erudite, to be classified under “American art history” or somesuch. Our library lacked a copy of The Great Comic Book Heroes, but it had something arguably better: Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, by Stan Lee.

This is one of the omissions from Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story which I take significant exception with, because I think it fits so well into the narrative that Howe constructs. Stan Lee always fancied himself a writer in the artiest sense of the word, and at various points in his life envisioned someday penning the Great American Novel. He’s most famous for working in a medium which works best with impactful, yet minimal text broken up by lots of art. Alternatively, he’s most famous for being the ultimate huckster, channeling the undeniable force of his exuberant personality not only into the melodrama in the comic book stories he scripted, but into representing the company of Marvel Comics as salesman-in-chief and main booster of his own fan club. All of these facets come together in the series of Origins books that Stan Lee wrote between 1974 and 1977.

Feiffer was writing about other people’s creations, but Stan Lee was writing about his own. Each volume reprinted classic issues of Marvel comics, usually the first appearance of a major character, and between each reprint was pages and pages of Lee’s own hyperbolic prose, explaining how he came up with the ideas and what the characters meant to him. In recent years, it has become more and more apparent that Lee, a legend in his own mind, has at the very least exaggerated his role as the sole visionary who conceived the iconic characters and epic adventures which thrilled generations of Marvel fans. But in the Origins books, he took to the pulpit and preached his own gospel. It must have been something like a dream come true for him, writing an actual book, not just a funny book but a classy, hardbound book-book, about his favorite subject (himself) and with a built-in audience, not to mention half the material and selling point of the book (the comics) already done a decade before.

My local library did not have a copy of Origins of Marvel Comics, which covered the biggest stars of the Marvel Universe: Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four. But I knew those stories already, anyway. Son of Origins, the book I did find on the shelves, was devoted to slightly more obscure super-heroes: Iron Man (strange to think he was ever obscure before 2008, but he very much was), Daredevil, the Silver Surfer, and the X-Men (also little-loved in 1975, although they were on the rise in 1984). As it turned out, the library had two more books in the same vein: Bring on the Bad Guys, which gave super-villain origins the same treatment, and the Superhero Women, which presumably tried to hop on the women’s lib bandwagon by celebrating the virtuous females of the Marvel universe. In retrospect, The Superhero Women seems to not quite make it onto the wagon. In order to fill an entire book, after highlighting the obvious candidates like the Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl and the Avengers’ Wasp and the relatively new feminine (and “feminist”) version of Captain Marvel, the volume goes on to cover: Medusa and Black Widow, who had both started out as femme fatales before eventually becoming good gals; Hela, an unequivocally bad Norse death-goddess; Red Sonja, a licensed Conan the Barbarian character; Lyra, a sci-fi Femizon; and Shanna the She-Devil. In other words, despite the title, not all of the women featured in the book were superheroes, and a few weren’t heroes at all, because Marvel was overwhelmingly stories for boys about boys. (Admittedly, The Superhero Women became one of the books I checked out of the library most frequently, as by fifth grade I found artwork depicting half-naked jungle girls almost unsettlingly compelling, but perhaps best to leave that be.)

The Origins books were the culmination of my indoctrination as a True Believer, because they were pitched right down the middle between the child-friendly condescension of Kraft’s Secret Story books and the highly literate borderline pretension of Feiffer’s Great Comic Book Heroes. They were written in the voice of an articulate, excitable adolescent, which is the general tenor of Marvel Comics overall (and Stan Lee, as well, the two entities exceedingly difficult to differentiate) and which I was on the cusp of becoming. I had already found a character I could identify with, but now the fundamental philosophy of the publisher had its hooks in me.

Coincidentally, I was also about to start earning a regular allowance and the ability to spend it on whatever I wanted. When it was no longer a question of what comics I happened to run across in other people’s libraries, or as random gifts, but my own powers of discernment as a paying customer, my loyalties became even more ingrained, which I will elaborate on next post.

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