DoctorNvrMore is back with his thoughts on growing up with superhero comics and getting back into them as a middle-aged adult.
Origin Story, a Marvelous Tale
If you follow me on Twitter or Instagram you know that I’ve minced no words when it comes to my childhood love for Marvel Comics, eventually leading to my middle-aged resurgence in reading comics. My father was bitten by the Marvel bug, unfortunately not a radioactive spider, and he later fueled my interest for what he called, “more human stories” when he compared Marvel to DC.
My father had an extensive 60s Marvel collection including Fantastic Four, X-Men and miscellaneous others; but his love for Spider-Man triumphed over all other books. He is proud to say he had Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1. He was very clever—before comic protecting “plastics” were ever thought of he ingeniously wrapped his comics in cellophane to protect them. My dad’s story turns down a dark and unfortunate path as part of his collection flooded in the basement in his late teens, including the early Spider-Man comics just mentioned. My grandma threw them all away the morning of the flood and of course the trash ran that morning. My dad was heart-broken but a lot of his collection was still intact as they were sat up off the floor. My dad, however, lost the rest of his collection to my second step-mother, Dragonlady, as she has been dubbed since. She took my dad’s collection and sold it for pennies on the dollar to a local used bookstore during their rocky split. This tale of love, opulence and ultimately loss has been told to me many times over the years. I have no doubt my dad’s story is true as I see it in his eyes each time he has told it and that look is what inspired my comic reading and collecting of Marvel Comics.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
I dabbled in the DC multiverse’s pool of made-up cities and peacock-like superheroes (this was the way I saw DC’s characters as a kid, anyway). I was excited like no other time in comics when Image Comics came along—only to be a dud for me at its inception. I realized that there was a good reason why artists who had never actually written comics before hadn’t been previously trusted to write their own stories solo (not that there weren’t a few good stories to come out in those early years).
Then there was Valiant Comics (in the 90s), they came closest to showing me that Marvel wasn’t the best on the block but they faded away too—thanks mostly to big business mergers if I remember correctly. Dark Horse always had a few gems, such as Star Wars, but their focus was mostly on third party-properties and a lot of alternative comics-type books. I tried a few but they never held my interest long-term.
Image eventually went the direction of alternative comics-style stories as well when writers were emphasized more than artists—and both Image and Dark Horse have done well catering to fans looking for non-superhero comics.
Comics have proved themselves to be a diverse medium attracting an audience for about any kind of story under the sun. My regard has always been for the superhero comic featuring stories of the fantastically enhanced person, whether it is superhuman abilities (Spider-Man), a “best there is at what they do” skill set (Hawkeye) or pure genius and ingenuity (Doctor Doom). These traits set them apart from us regular people. I love to root for the hero that sacrifices for others, that balances the private life and the super-vigilante life and saves the day again and again, the heroes that live by the credo “with great power comes great responsibility.” There is also the misunderstood or flat out evil wrong-doer that often captures my imagination just as much. Marvel captured these stories for me as a child but as an adult….
Days of Future Past and Present
Are comics as good now as they were when we were young? I was a young reader from 1983 to the mid-’90s and this question is personally subjective and the answer depends on whatever time period the respondent was “young” in. This is often debated, and social media consensus seems to be that current comics are not living up to their storied past, whether that past is the ’70s, the ’80s, or the ’90s.
I’m not sure I agree. Before you click the “x” in the top right of your screen, let me explain: Have you ever gone back and watched a TV series or a movie from your childhood that you loved and then discovered that it’s not as good to “adult-you” as it was to the “kid-you?” You know you have! There are many series and movies that stand up to the test of time but there are far more that don’t. Comic books have more complex storylines now than they ever did when I was young and the art definitely caters to a more mature audience. We all harken back to the “good ol’ days” to simpler times but a memory, as magical as it is, is just a memory. We can never relive our youth because, simply put, we know too much to be that naïve again. Now we can re-read old comics and appreciate the charm or certain moments but we know in our heart of hearts that they just aren’t as well put together as many of today’s books. Notwithstanding some key writers, such as Chris Claremont, whose long-form writing was way ahead of his time and anticipated the long-distance plotting trend in vogue today.
Not that today’s books don’t have their issues, there is no doubt about that… decompression in comics is the main complaint of today’s comic readers (even though many might not realize it has a name). What is decompression in comics writing? Wikipedia defines it as: “a stylistic storytelling choice characterized by a strong emphasis on visuals or character interaction, which, in turn, usually leads to slower-moving plots.”
The popularity of manga, the influence of movie writing styles, along with the popularity of people reading collected trade editions rather than buying monthly floppies has culminated in this writing format being widely used. A lot of times this layout choice can give us pages of art with very few words. A chief complaint among traditional comic book readers is that they are paying four times what they paid as a kid and only getting a quarter of a story and that this is done intentionally to stretch a two-issue story out to six issues (roughly 120 pages), matching the page count of a typical trade paperback collection.
Some writer/artist combinations such as Matt Fraction and David Aja do decompression well, but many don’t. Dan Slott is a great example of a writer who combines modern story complexity with old-fashioned technique as he is not afraid to write dialogue that fills the page.
A couple of other complaints of today’s comics, especially with the big two, are the constant crossover events and rebooting of series. (Okay the constant restarting of series is mostly a Marvel peril.) Event comics, like a movie with lots of cast members, usually detracts from character development and is what many, or maybe it’s just me, call Shock and Awe Comics. Marvel would say the renumbering is a way to get new readers on board when larger storylines end, often a result of an event crossover. Truth be told, despite the popularity of movies there are not that many new readers jumping on—this instead is a ploy to get existing collectors who have “first issue collector’s item classic” fever to buy yet another comic book, even if they are just going to fall away after the second or third issues or maybe not even buy any more than just the first issue. Event comics are here to stay my friends, for as much as everyone bitches about them, they keep buying them. I’ve seen people on social media complain about event comics but then hark back to the ’90s in a different post about how great all the X-Men event comics were. You can’t have your cake and eat it too—either you like event comics or you don’t and sales show you like them.
Today’s comics are much more gimmicky than the good old days but, in my opinion, overall the plots are smarter and the art across the board is better. Don’t get me wrong, Kirby is King, Neal Adams was pure gold, Stan Lee is the man with ideas on top of ideas, and Julius Schwartz led DC though the Age of Silver but the greats could only create so many comics. There were just as many comics that were not so great. Today, there are art colleges that specialize in comic book drawing and the industry regularly attracts best-selling novelists and accomplished screenwriters.
The fact that more adults read comics than kids today fuels the reasoning that comics have matured with their readers and have evolved enough that they can capture and entertain the adult imagination. I’ll admit that maybe comics these days take themselves too seriously and I think sometimes they lack in fun but there is some pretty good stuff out there if given half a chance (for me, recently that was Superior Spider-Man). To correct some of these modern comic pitfalls I’d love to see Marvel commit to their core series like Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man and maybe Iron Man and Captain America going to 100 issues without a re-numbering or maybe going a whole year concentrating on character development with no summer event cross-over—it won’t happen but hey, a geek can dream.
Secret Invasion (of Hollywood)
This leads us to the final complaint of today’s comic reader: Superhero movies are influencing comics too much… That is to say, the changes and story elements used to make a movie version of a character work on the big screen often bleeds into the comic universes and many fans don’t like it one bit.
Technology in movie making has paved the way for great comic book stories to become a reality. Spider-Man (2002), directed by Sam Raimi and starring Tobey Maguire, set the stage for everything that is going on today. I know Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman defied the odds and were successful—but the modern, technology-driven superhero movie began with that Spider-Man flick.
I remember seeing Spidey swing through the air for the first time and it looked, well, it looked AMAZING! This set the stage for X-Men, Fantastic Four, more Spider-Man movies… and finally Marvel Studios’ Iron Man. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was born! We then saw the ultimate event comic take shape on the silver screen with Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, and Thor all having individual origin stories and coming together in The Avengers.
There have already been 12 Marvel Studios movies with 10 more in the pipeline. All the events we supposedly hate in comics, we love on the big screen. A version of Age of Ultron broke the box -office yet again and we will soon have big screen versions of Civil War and Infinity War shining brightly in front of us in a darkened theater. The boom of these movies has sky-rocketed back issue values, even if it has not equated to that many new readers. The rising tide of comic book movies has lifted all types of comic book-based spinoff media; even TV shows are getting in on the act with varying degrees of success. DC is getting their ship on the seas with lots of hype surrounding Dawn of Justice: Batman vs Superman and their fandom is salivating. You have to admit, these movies are all freaking awesome, purely from the standpoint that they are getting made and they are successful. As kids we dreamed there might be a time like we are living in now, well at least I did. So the question is: Are the influence that movies have on new comics too powerful? Maybe we’ll save that topic for another article…