I was recently reading my tattered paperback copy of Bester’s The Stars My Destination for a future article and happened to check on when this very beat-up book was released. It turns out that I was holding in my hands the first Signet edition of the novel, first Canadian printing, published in 1957. I started to think about whether this was the oldest single object in my home, and quickly decided that my 1930s-era cast iron 8mm movie projector (which I repaired literally with rubber bands) takes that prize. But for many of us, our books, and our comics, are probably the oldest manufactured objects in our environment.
Of course we all have antique objects, and some of us who are collectors have more than others. Coins, cards and coffee cans share not only a sweet little alliterative quality but are also the other sorts of old objects generally found in the home, but there is a difference. They don’t represent a culture that is a living legacy, that still moves and creates artistic meaning and effect in the present. They’re curious cultural detritus, but of course they can still be very interesting. (A student of mine mentioned that they owned an ancient Roman coin, which is just nifty.) Comics and books are different, however.
Comics, as we all know, have long since reached cult object status in our culture. We put them into lucite, give them a grade and never read them. We sell them for ridiculous amounts of money and sometimes buy them for similarly ridiculous sums. What we don’t do very often is actually sit down and read an old and potentially valuable comic. We still read the stories sometimes, perhaps collected into a trade paperback, but to actually pull out a comic more than 40 years old and read the story must be a rare event.
I recently did just that, and probably violated all sorts of unofficial comic geek rules in the process. I bought a copy of Strange Tales #140, featuring “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, from January of 1966 at Vancouver Fan Expo in fairly good condition for under $20, so it wasn’t exactly the most valuable book at the show. But it’s historically interesting, and the highlight bubble on the cover “The End of Hydra” fit in very well with the revelations of The Winter Soldier film and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.
I almost felt guilty taking it out of the bag. Check that: I did feel guilty, as if Walter Flannigan from Comic Book Men was standing over my shoulder telling me not to do it. But my justification, I just wanted to read the comic, should take priority, shouldn’t it? Aren’t comics meant to be read? And besides, I hadn’t actually read this issue, so I felt entitled.
Now free of the bag and opened to the apparently poisonous atmosphere of Earth, I delicately opened the comic, taking care not to disturb the absolutely flat book with intact corners. Though it’s a bit of a cliche, I was struck by the smell. That slightly old paper smell is like nothing in the world, conjuring images of old bookstores and the wonderfully mysterious atmosphere they create. I was also struck by the thickness of the comic: it definitely seemed to have more than 26 pages, which turns out to be the case. As always with older books, the advertising also caught my eye (there was an actual ad for X-ray Glasses!).
But the first page of the comic itself, a splash page showing the muscular, eye-patched Nick Fury grappling with a sort of hunter-killer cyborg and aided by a young blonde woman (the “daughter of his arch-enemy”, says the narration) who he immediately dismisses as “Lady”. Fury is a prisoner of Hydra (with their green uniforms a bit less subtle than Robert Redford’s smart suit) and the major threat comes from their orbiting “Betatron Bomb”. (I kept waiting for them to counter it with a “VHStron Bomb” but then realize that such things remain in the future for 1966.)
All interesting, and then I looked at the credits: story by Stan Lee and art by Jack Kirby. For comics fans, that’s like seeing “words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney,” so I read ahead with great interest.
Needless to say, the agents of SHIELD come to the rescue of Nick Fury, but what’s interesting is how they are portrayed as characters, and how the corresponding Hydra agents are written. The SHIELD agents speak like this, “It’s workin’! They’re fallin’ back!” Or, when commenting on an arrangement of the troops on the front line, another comments, “Man! What Notre Dame coulda done with this formation!” Whereas Hydra agents, despite the now-famous greeting “Hail Hydra” speak to each other using phrases like, “Our tiger squad is in retreat,” or “All other orders are superseded!” The troops, to each other, say things such as, “It’s time that we prove once and for all that there’s no match for the hordes of Hydra.” Message received, Stan: people who are literate and eloquent and speak in complete sentences and demonstrate technical competence and military precision are evil, whereas a buncha good ol’ workin’ football-playin’ Joes are good.
The story is opened up somewhat when “Anthony Stark” (not Iron Man) arrives at the famous SHIELD Heli-carrier aboard his own personal “Porsche 904 land-air personal transport vehicle” (aka a flying car). Stark’s mission is to deactivate the orbiting Betabomb. In his wonderful Iron Man-esque space suit (with red and gold trim) and sporting his trademark moustache, Stark disarms the bomb as Fury slugs it out with Hydra agents on the ground.
The big bad guy “Imperial Hydra” learns that his daughter has joined forces with Fury and slunks off to the “destruct room” to blow up his own headquarters. But in a wonderful twist, Imperial Hydra removes his robes and is revealed as a government agent, a powerful “inside man” on the advisory board, indicating how far Hydra had penetrated into the world governing bodies. Spoiler alert, I suppose?
Stan Lee’s writing is a model of comic book economy, putting in only little touches that would be of interest to a youth, like the model of Stark’s hover car. He displays a great ability to understand what his readers wanted to read, and boy, he gives it to them. But the art, by Jack Kibry, is so dynamic and varied and wonderful. There’s a curious poetry to Kirby’s work here, blending styles and angles and almost never repeating himself. He creates the busiest, most dynamic images possible in comics and then also knows how to play that last scene with the right amount of menace and pathos. It’s a clear demonstration of why comics fans worship this team.
But then following some other great period ads (like one for the “Wayne School” in Chicago where you can finish high school at home), your comic cup runneth over because you’re immediately taken into a fresh, new story featuring Dr. Strange. And, for those playing the home game, this one was scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko. “What more can you ask for?”, Lee writes cheekily in the credits box. What more, indeed?
In this story, “The Pincers of Power”, Strange and some colleagues are fighting against the “Dread Dormammu,” a flame-faced demon from a powerful dimension. He immediately tosses Strange et al into a “lifeless dimension at the edge of infinity” and summons all manner of evil magical beasts to meet them there. Dormammu strides onto the scene and immediately challenges Strange to a one-on-one battle, which takes up the balance of the issue.
One of the great things about Doctor Strange in general is that he, and his compatriots, are most certainly not the “aw shucks” football-playin’ manly men of SHIELD. For once, a “good guy” gets to be intellectual and well-spoken and well-cultivated. That is refreshing. But it doesn’t seem like Strange’s mastery of the mystic arts is very well served in this issue, which deteriorates into a wrestling match. Strange loses, incidentally, which is a neat twist and sets up the next issue, ominously titled “The Final Defeat”.
I don’t regret opening my Strange Tales comic, really. I might have thought twice had it been worth $200 rather than $20, but even then, especially if it were a historically interesting book that I had never read, I would be tempted. In some circles that makes me a rube, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is remembering that in 1966 you could buy a comic written by Stan Lee, drawn by Jack Kirby AND Steve Ditko for 12 cents. And it still provides a solid bit of entertainment today. I would argue that it is just as entertaining in 6.0 as it would be in 9.0 on the grading scale. Just like my copy of The Stars My Destination, which has pages falling out and the cover falling off. Unlike an old coin, or old coffee can, comics and books still “work” in today’s world and that fact, not necessarily the cultish collector culture, is what matters in the end.
You know, I’m one of those heathens that tend to read their old comics, despite being fairly anal about their storage and preservation between readings (4mil mylar, acid-free full-backs, micro-chamber interleaving paper – pretty much everything short of a slab). Somehow it doesn’t seem right to seal my 1959-60 Star-Spangled War Stories with Mlle. Marie or my early 60′s Our Army at Wars with Sgt. Rock away as some kind of sacred object that Shall Not Be Read. I love taking out my old comics and reading the stories the same way someone did when they were fresh off of the spinner-rack. Seeing Kubert’s, Kriby’s, Ditko’s, Steranko’s, Grandinetti’s, Novick’s, Heath’s, or Adam’s artwork; and Lee’s, Kanigher’s, Haney’s, or Finger’s stories as they were meant to be seen. It adds a freshness to the work, no matter how many times I’ve read the story, or how much I love my collections with “remastered color” printed on high-quality paper. Plus, you get all the old ads, and lettercols from the days when Kanigher would tell readers to (in so many words) go screw, and Lee would denigrate DC with a sadistic glee, and both of them would publish both praise and condemnation about what they were doing.
Reading an old comic is a way to interact directly with cultural history, to make material history come alive in a way a CGC slabbed 9.0 book never can. I’ll admit that I am biased. I have always been a comics reader first, and a collector only in terms of my own satisfaction, rather than as an investment strategy. Sure I try to take care of my books, and I also beat myself about the head and shoulders when I’m not being careful enough putting an ish back into it’s mylar and I accidentally tear the formerly pristine back cover a bit (this happened recently, and I still haven’t quite forgiven myself). Overall, though, it’s totally worth it for the joys of a voyage into the past, and for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a medium in the way in which it was designed to be experienced.
So here’s to reading old comics! Thanks for the thoughts, Ian – I’m glad to see I’m not the only heretic out here!