A Long Brush with Marvel Comics

Whatever confluence of events, whatever set of circumstance that attaches a child to a thing, in this case to Marvel Comics, is within the purview of the brain people and magicians.  It interests me that an equal or equivalent attachment can be held despite not only differing personal circumstance, but different eras in the company.  Those who were in from day one.  Those who picked them up when Iron Man was released in 2008.  Eras begun with Neal Adams, Jim Starlin, John Byrne, Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane… I was hooked by Avengers #73 (Roy Thomas, Frank Giacioa, and Sam Grainger; a book about inner city racism featuring the Black Panther, gorgeously layed out by Giacioa), and a box of comics collected by my cousins that dated back to early Marvel days.  It’s maybe a bit funny that I first registered the writer, beginning with Steve Englehart, then began to seek out books by writer rather than by artist.

When I’m describing a fan of Marvel Comics, one for whom there is a distinct attachement, it’s not exclusively about the details inasmuch as there are huge personalities and a mountain of lore through which to wade, but does tend toward the sort of deep down awareness that allows one to recognize Terrax’s cosmic axe at first glance.  Or the Thing’s left elbow.  Or understand what a putz Tony Stark can be, though that stark characterization is a relatively recent development.

My coming of age with the characters and their milieux was Englehart’s “Avengers / Defenders War”, beginning for me with the milestone Avengers #116, and the books published around it.  Though not my very earliest purchases, the orthogonal books included Fantastic Four #137 (Aug. 1973), Iron Man #62 (Sept. 1973), Thor #216 (Oct. 1973), and probably a few DC’s and possibly a TV-themed Gold Key or two.  The boyhood allowance was a grand thing, even if taking out the garbage and drying the dishes and not taking over the universe were obligations to which I had to adhere to receive it.  Twenty-five cents per week or whatever.  Price of a comic book.

Avengers #116  —  the Vision (who remains my favourite fictional character) in mortal combat versus the Silver Surfer!  Like, OMG!  Art by Bob Brown and Mike Esposito.  Brown was all work and no fuss and an accomplished storyteller.  A snoop around the Grand Comics Database indicates that he broke in with DC doing cowboy themed short pieces in Action Comics in the early ’50s, had work appear in a number of Batman books in the mid-late ’50s, had a long affiliation with Challengers of the Unknown, and sort of bounced around the company doing piece work and in-house layouts.  In the early ’70s, Brown began to be taken seriously as a fast, professional hand of the old school.  Unfortunately, that still meant starvation wages unless you could work like Kirby or owned a piece of the action.  There were peculiar editorial doin’s lurking and leaping about the Marvel office in the early to mid ’70s, basically until Shooter was inaugurated, but Brown earned the rubber-stamp accolade on his thunderous splash page to Avengers #118, the climax of the War.

What ties me to Marvel is the characters and their world.  I was with it early enough to see that while so little had been built, the heart and soul of the Marvel Universe had been forged then cast like Thor’s hammer.  The foundation poured by Jack and Stan (and Steve and Marie and Larry and Flo and so on) was so firm, so unassailable once one has drank the Kool Aid and suspended disbelief of the fantastic, that it could uphold a then unimaginable mass of art and circumstance.  At first, the external media experiments were few and deliberate, if not intricately conceived.  A couple of novelty records and the big three television shows, gifted to us on Saturday mornings along with Underdog and Jonny Quest reruns:  The Marvel Super Heroes (1966), Fantastic Four (1967 – 68), and Spider-Man (1967 – 70).  There were more animated forays in the ’70s, and a small handful of TV pilots, with three eventually produced, two in North America (The Amazing Spider-Man, 1977 – 79, and The Incredible Hulk, 1977 – 82) and one in Japan (Spider-Man, Toei Company, 1978 – 79).  Most of it was crap.  Those with certain fondnesses, principally for Bill Bixby, Lou Ferrigno, and The Incredible Hulk, at least had a properly produced program; I grew up on The Marvel Super Heroes at six o’clock on Saturday morning.  En Française, over the air.  When properly lubricated, I can still sing the French version of the Hulk theme song.  “Doc Bruce Banner, pelted by gamma rays…”  Others jumped aboard via Joss Whedon’s Avengers train.  Or Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  Thank you, Kevin Feige.

I have not forgotten nor do I discount the Fox and other studios’ films.  Okay, the Punisher films don’t exist for me.  Like all those Alan Moore adaptations that vibrate on a frequency observable only by assholes.  If the worst of it is that David Lloyd or Kevin O’Neill or Dave Gibbons or the rest can each buy a castle, then bully.  Lord Kevin of O’Neill… Vark!

Keeping the faith, maintaining the Merry Marvel Marching Society, can be a great deal of work.  I’ve never entirely rejected the imprint (though I have rejected other of their imprints, such as Max; Epic was sufficient) but have ignored it for great swaths of time.  The McFarlane era passed me utterly by.  As did the weird cross-pollination with DC and the outsourcing of certain books.  It presupposes the modern expectation of a corporate sigil attached to at least some portion of a comic book, typically the colouring or lettering.  It’s not broadly different than the bright, shiny silver age (and decades prior) where certain individual artists or groups thereof would open studios and hire assistants, paying them a pittance to finish work and otherwise be useful.  Invaluable experience that’s been supplanted with the digital age, like india ink and Gillott crow quills.  Oh, the stipple you could stipple with a lovely, brass Gillott.  Looked like brass.  Sharp enough to carve out a flea’s eye.

It rapidly and continually became more expensive to love Marvel, even basically.  Book prices went meteoric in response to several economic metrics, the one first catching me being the OPEC crisis.  Toys and games and video games and videos and new animated series, then more films produced on the back of easily procured open-ended licences when the company was on it’s knees…  Some return through negotiation, such as with Sony, others with the hammer, such as Fox.  Which ignores the entire Disney giant looming over Marvel’s doorway, but business is business and lately smart business has meant taking some chances, even artistic ones.

Such as Fox.  Bryan Singer’s sweeping epic X-Men brand has been by turns wildly innovative, cool, desperately silly and dull, and still more cool.  The two features featuring Evan Peters’ Quicksilver…  Crank up the watts, man, and play Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” and Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” back to back and let your head spin.  Then there was Deadpool.

The onus has seemed to be the elevation of Tim Miller for his inaugural feature, but let’s remember those opening credits and “The Real Heroes Here”.  And Ryan Reynolds, who had been champing at the bit since high school, if not earlier, to put on the psycho-spidey mask and play kiss, kiss, bang, bang.  With tongue.  And whipped cream.  Miller’s letting go of his creation in order to explore other projects left a void filled by David Leitch, a journeyman who broke hard with John Wick and Atomic Blonde.  Again, broke for good or ill is always in the eye of the beholder, though the financial tides are with him.  Again, lean on the Real Heroes and Ryan Reynolds and it could Kick-Ass.

Yes, the other, other properties.  Mark Millar’s endless properties and Matthew Vaughn’s MARV studio.  Yes.  Well, keep running up that hill, Mark.  And thanks for The Ultimates, whatever it became.

The Ultimates was a strong queue to vault back over the rails and take a firm stand on deck.  With access to a comic shop(s) and some cash, I picked up the trades for volume one of Millar & Bryan Hitch’s landmark “widescreen” project (with Andrew Currie and Paul Mounts), then endured the agonizing wait for the next thirteen issues that comprised the second volume.  Every day was the night before St. Crispin’s day.  Even when Millar dropped the ball (which was often enough to notice) or Hitch was clearly working with a sprained finger or a blister or dropsie, the final realisation (oui) of their opus was enough to force one to sit through every single movie that offers the least cameo of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  Full stop.

It is expensive now; with the films, the home videos, all of the direct-to-home-video animated features, animated shows, network programs, streamed series, around again to the DVD’s and games…  It’s monolithic.  Or omnilithic.  Or Disneylicious.  It’s a lot more than fifteen or twenty cents per week for a four-colour comic book.  Four books per month was a whole lot of entertainment for a kid, too, and that was after experiencing both Daktari and Flipper (and Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo)! There were a select few in the old neighbourhood who would trade comics.  I’d let them believe they received the upper hand, but rather than something “rare” or “collectible”, I tended to give up the prized to obtain a story fragment that had eluded me.  Filled in a bunch of Captain America & The Falcon issues that way, figuring out what happened between Cap’s original Nomad days and Kirby’s “Madbomb” arc.  Got ahold of the terrific Giant-Size Defenders #3 by Steve Gerber and Jim Starlin that way, as well as Starlin’s Avengers Annual with the first great Thanos confrontation.  Trading marbles, shooting marbles was long, long out of fashion, so comics became a commodity on the kid’s grey market, but only within themselves, same as hockey cards.

Right now, some kid (and some middle-aged banking clerk, and possibly an aged saxophonist with a noted Philharmonic orchestra) are coming to the realization that they just love Marvel stuff, finally entranced by Taika Waititi’s Thor film, or The Punisher or Runaways streaming series, or the latest issues of Captain Marvel or Squirrel Girl.  Won’t they be in for a surprise to see the return of the Fantastic Four?  And won’t we be surprised a little ways down the line to find out who has been chosen to play Reed Richards, father of Marvel’s first family?  We already know there’ll be a H.E.R.B.I.E. bit, just because.  They’ll have to do a west coast location shoot to get Stan’s cameo.  Maybe something from his backyard.  “Stan, as retired mailman Willie Lumpkin, has a family barbecue!  Johnny lights the coals and shows off for the kids!  Johnny gets a call, it’s Sue.  “Come home, quick!  Ben needs us!””

One can dream.

I shall notice that Marvel has had an intimate arrangement with Star Wars related books for most of the latter’s existence.  There might be some kismet or sardines or something in the timing of the Disney acquisitions of the  Lucasfilm properties and Marvel.  One might easily joke at the prospect of Iron Mouse vs. Darth Pluto or the like, the only difference is that such things are now commodities in their own right rather than whimsical or satirical third-party efforts.  Some of the greatest talent to touch pencil or ink have worked on Star Wars books for Marvel, from Al Williamson to John Cassaday.  From Walt Simonson to Gene Day.  At the time(s), I always found it a bit depressing that a superlative artist, possibly at the acme (or terminus, or both) of their career, utilise that talent for almost purely commercial means.  Yes, there has to be a bit of the fan in you to even attempt a run at Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, and all of those spaceships, but the purist ideal of working for one’s art instead of one’s wallet abides.  It’s easy to say when there aren’t moths eating holes in your only jacket…  or you have a blinkered kommandant handing out assignments.

That’s enough for now.  A whiz-bang overview of the Marvel Experience from the early to the modern.  Make Mine Marvel.  And Penguin.  And the Oxford University Press.  And so on.

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Mark J. Hayman became a professional writer at the age of nineteen, composing and editing Point of Purchase price cards for the Canadian Tire Corp. It’s been all downhill from there. He remains a sometimes editor, occasional writer, and infrequent illustrator currently living in the no man’s land between creeping urban oppression and dwindling rural bliss. As the most interesting person he knows, it’s been strongly suggested that he get out more. markjhayman@gmail.com

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