Thursday, April 2, 2009

Doing Comics the Marvel Way!

Leonardo da Vinci, greatest of the Renaissance artists, loved to draw grotesqueries: people in the street, older peasants, crones and so forth, for the simple reason that it was impossible to understand beauty without ugliness. For that reason, to understand why Marvel was so innovative and unique, you have to understand the context the House that Stan and Jack Built emerged from. This means DC Comics, and to a lesser extent, Charleton (Incidentally, I don’t include Tower Comics in this analysis, as Tower was clearly inspired by Marvel humor, Marvel-style solid sense of worldbuilding, and characterization-centered storytelling – even their war comics showed this: FIGHT THE ENEMY was more like Kirby than Kanigher).

In the past 20 years (and most intensively in the last eight or so years since the ascendancy of Geoff Johns in particular), DC has adopted the Marvel-style of storytelling and art, continuing a process that started in the 1970s, when Marvel writers and creators like Wolfman, Englehart, Gerber, Wein and others migrated over and gave DC a sense of Marvel-style dynamism and excitement. So, a lot of you readers, especially younger ones, who think of the DC and Marvel relationship in terms of interchangeable red and blue M&Ms may be thinking, “wow, what’s up with this guy? What’s he on about?” Keep in mind I’m referring to DC in pre-modern ages, when there really was a difference.

What was it that made Marvel such an innovation? Seven things:

1. Long-term storytelling

There is no real reason to read a DC Comic of the 1950s to the 1970s regularly, no reason to buy them regularly. This is because the stories are sitcom-like and compartmentalized, begun and over in sixteen pages. This gives them not only a painfully fossilized status quo, but also leads to a type of storytelling where, that a result of the requirement for convenient resolution, stories have a lack of weight and consequence. In the end, who really cares whether Superman saves this or that alien invasion if the alien race seen in the invasion is never seen again and the invasion attempt isn’t mentioned again? It might as well never have happened, and so it is ephemeral, lacking weight, a diversion to spend three minutes on.

Contrast this is to Stan Lee and Kirby, where they invented multi-issue storytelling gradually, simply because their ideas were too big and epic to tell in a single comic. Multi-issue storytelling was not new, but the reliance upon it WAS new to Marvel. Multi-issue storytelling gave a reason to buy more than one issue of a comic, as was the emphasis on characterization centered storytelling. Because characters remember what happens to them, events have a real significance: if Wonder Man defeated an Ultron, it gives greater tension and sense of occasion to when Ultron and Wonder Man meet again.

If characters remember their history, you’re almost guaranteed to see something new. For instance, as a result of the fact that Hawkeye led an Avengers team (Avengers West Coast) the Hawkeye/Captain America dynamic was fundamentally altered. Hawkeye can’t be a rookie hanging on Cap’s every word anymore.

2. Characterization-centered storytelling

At DC, until the mid-1970s, all the characters had the exact same personality. They had the exact same speech patterns, the same maturity, the same grounded sense of scientific reasoning and disbelief in the supernatural, the same respect for traditional authority: police, judges, the legal system, and so forth.

Many Classic DC fans I’ve spoken to (yes, there is such a animal: living fossils surviving to modern times like the coelacanth despite their own irrelevance – dying, aging, ultra-rare and near-extinct, they still exist to plague mankind like Lillith, Pazuzu and other evil demons of Assyrian mythology), one critique is that the heroes fight each other. Well, sure: if you’re used to characters that think the same, talk the same, have the exact same relationship to the forces of law and order on a practical and philosophical level, have the exact same relationship and view by the public at large, and even a neatly handed out Lois Lane-equivalent girlfriend (with Aquaman and Hawkman as notable exceptions), then yes, of course it’s inevitable that the characters would see eye-to-eye. Change any one of these details, and conflict between heroes is not only possible but an inevitability.

Part of this also meant Marvel characters had a fundamental mortality. As they weren’t meant to be male power projections (at least exclusively) they could be wounded or defeated. Take the cover to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #36. Spider-Man is unmasked, defeated and a prisoner of the Green Goblin. It’s a shocking image, but it was an even more shocking one on the newsstand in 1961, when heroes tended to be of the DC mold: immortal and assured of victory.

This is easily one of the most surprising elements of Marvel storytelling: because of the humanity of the characters (or more accurately, their de-emphasized superhumanity), they tended to lose fights. For the first time, there was actually a very real (instead of illusory) sense of anxiety about whether the characters would emerge triumphant. No DC character, even the Atom or Aquaman, could ever accurately said to be an underdog. Yet even Thor, easily the most powerful of the Marvel heroes, lost the first fight to the Absorbing Man; he lost the first great fight between himself and Hercules; even when he achieved victories against beings like the Destroyer, he was held against the ropes and won by a clever scheme at the end by the skin of his teeth (the Destroyer even broke one of the great “rules” of early Thor and destroyed the supposedly indestructible Uru hammer!). Spider-Man often lost, but pulled himself back together again, as did the Fantastic Four.

3. Worldbuilding

Despite their storied reputation as founders of the Justice League, for the first ten years of the group’s existence, Superman and Batman were at best guest-stars. The reason for this is that DC was divided into editorial fiefdoms: Kanigher (who specialized in war comics like OUR MEN AT WAR), Julie Schwartz (an old school science fiction fan that specialized in stories influenced by science fiction pulps, whose titles were easily the most readable, intelligent and adult of DC’s output), Murray Bolitnoff (affectionately referred to as “Fuckface” by Schwartz), and Mort Weisenger (a very temperamental man who, because of the general childishness and formula of his output, is remembered very poorly by posterity). As a result, as Justice League was Schwartz-edited, Superman and Batman, who were both properties of another editor, were mostly absent from Justice League stories for almost the initial run.

From the outset, Marvel had a sense of interconnectivity that made the world feel more real, and also gave the titles a sense of group identity. When Kurrgo came from Planet X in FANTASTIC FOUR #7, Reed Richards was able to solve the problem using Hank Pym’s shrinking gas. In the very first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man encountered the Fantastic Four. Villains were shared: in the Marvel Silver Age, Doctor Doom, Namor and the Mole Man fought more or less everyone at some point.

This is true of DC to a considerably lesser extent. There were semi-regular team-ups (the Flash and Green Lantern team-ups in BRAVE AND THE BOLD come to mind, as does the Challengers/Doom Patrol team-ups), but for the most part titles were solidly and airtightly compartmentalized. When Tyrannus, a subterranean ruler was introduced in the pages of the Incredible Hulk, it was immediately wondered what kind of a relationship he had with the Mole Man, another underground ruler, a question that was answered immediately. (They were deadly rivals and enemies, incidentally.)

It sounds cliché to say, but it is worth repeating: Stan Lee’s superhero comics injected a greater sense of real-world logic into them. For the most part, this was used for humor: Spider-Man can’t cash a check just based on his costume and powers; the FF often had money troubles; Doctor Doom claimed diplomatic immunity for many of his schemes, and couldn’t be charged with any of them. After all, there isn’t a law against wanting to take over the world!

With DC Comics, the implications of superheroes on the world wasn’t really explored, apart from clearly wish-fulfillment details like the public’s unconditional love of a given superhero. The emphasis wasn’t on creating something with coherence and internal logic, but rather as clear wish-fulfillment projections. For instance, with characters of the shockingly high power level like the Flash, Green Lantern and Superman, there’s a real question of why there’s any crime at all on Earth-1.

Also, as stories were compartmentalized, they didn’t take worldbuilding seriously. It’s almost safe to say that DC had a universe-wide case of attention-deficit disorder. Ideas of really earthshaking importance are often thrown out and forgotten: for example, there was one Superman story where he joined the army which was never mentioned again, and there was another story (the first Flash/Green Lantern team-up) that established a world existed in a dimensional barrier, which flying heroes can occasionally reach. This vibrationally-off world has not appeared since its first appearance in 1960.

Yes, there are ideas or world elements that Marvel forgot about: the Vanisher barely appeared after his first appearance (in X-MEN #2, no less!), and the Impossible Man has the distinction, along with L’enfant Terrible, Kurrgo, and Master Man, of being the only villains to appear in the first 25 issues of Fantastic Four to never become standard elements of the Marvel Universe. And yes, there are some DC ideas that “stuck around,” that actually were mentioned again and were consequential as a result: the Earth-1/Earth-2 difference introduced in FLASH, the first appearance of Supergirl.

Yet, what is interesting about Supergirl is this: Kara Zor-El is the third such character to have the name of Supergirl. The other two have been forgotten because they didn’t last beyond their debut issues. The only reason Supergirl is remembered is because she was so very anomalous, as far as Superman comics in the Weisenger Era. Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen regularly gained superpowers and went through incredible transformations, which always vanished conveniently at the end of the story. Superman once joined the army, a fact that has never been mentioned again.

Almost any given innovation in any given Superman story was never mentioned again. This is why Superman comics frequently relied on hoaxes, dreams and imaginary stories: otherwise nothing really sticks. This is why the introduction of Supergirl was such an extraordinary event: she wasn’t revealed to have been a hallucination at the end and quickly forgotten. In fact, it’s easy to look at the cover for Supergirl’s debut with just as much skepticism as Superman himself shows on that image: Weisenger-era Superman regularly produced dishonest fakeouts with astonishingly formulaic commonality. Why should this “Supergirl” be any different?

All of this, however, should be seen with something of a caveat. The implications of Superman having a still-living relative weren’t explored. Kara was conveniently shipped off to an orphanage with startling callousness by Superman; another example of DC characters acting out of character to preserve the all-important status quo, a behavior on the part of the writers that is both frustrating and creatively cowardly.

The ultimate effect of this Marvel-style realism, even when used playfully and humorously, was a greater sense of consequence for Marvel books. Superman’s secret identity was a game he played with the people he knew, whereas with Spider-Man, his secret identity was a deadly serious business.

4. Pursuit of a single vision

One of the most annoying parts of DC Comics is how characters are altered as a result of free market forces, to the point where a coherent identity is totally lost. Batman is the most outrageous example of this. In his original issues, Batman was an atmospheric character with dark ambience. But come the fifties, Batman was pushed toward space opera stories that are utterly inappropriate for him, that compromised his identity.

To be clear: I am not saying that characters in Marvel Comics don’t change with the times. Captain America for instance, experienced wide and profound changes based on Watergate and Vietnam thanks to Englehart’s run, but the character Englehart wrote in his issues of Captain America was clearly and recognizably the same Captain America that Stan Lee and Kirby brought back in AVENGERS and appeared in TALES OF SUSPENSE, only adjusting and responding to a different set of circumstances. Batman, come the introduction of Robin, and later during the space opera age, was almost a totally different character, in characterization, behavior and motivation.

The reason Marvel’s characters have a degree of contiguousness is not so much because one man wrote all of them simultaneously, but because the writers that followed Stan Lee thought the key to believability, to say nothing of the long-term audience, was consistency. The Scarlet Witch that appears now in current Marvel comics is the exact same character that Stan Lee and Roy Thomas wrote about in the 1960s. The Thing behaves, speaks and acts today more or less the exact same way he did in the 1960s.

Essentially the revalation Marvel had was that, in order for something to have believability, it can’t be an artificial, fictional construct that varies depending on which writer and artist work, that there has to be a thread of (dare I say it) continuity.

Part of this involves the importance of history: characters have to be able to remember their pasts. This gives greater emotional power to stories. For instance, Avengers stories where Ultron is the villain have much greater weight and a sense of occasion because of the history the Avengers have with Ultron and the toll he has taken on them, as well as his creation of the Vision and his relationship with Hank Pym and the Wasp. If a character was created with roughly Ultron’s powers and ability to create fear, he wouldn’t be as interesting or entertaining an antagonist Ultron because of Ultron’s history with the Avengers.

I apologize if all of this seems painfully obvious, but it was a very real revelation in 1961. And a very real revalation today, as a result of a great number of thickheaded morons that seek to disrespect and reverse the legacy of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby with absurd “anti-continuity” sentiments. If I treat this perspective with disrespect, it is because it is unworthy of respect and serious consideration.

5. Pursuing the College-Age Audience

There’s a difference between something being a children’s comic and something being a childish comic.

The problems of Marvel heroes are fundamentally adult problems that are only comprehensible to intelligent children, teenagers and adults. The Thing’s alienation and self-loathing, for instance, or the X-Men’s rejection by society. The shift in audience brought in a smarter kind of storytelling. In fact, the shift in audience made so much else about Marvel possible, like long-term storytelling and a greater emphasis on the characters.

6. Dynamic Art

Last but not least, even the art on Marvel books were almost totally different. DC artists were beautiful but boring, stiff and dead. Gil Kane in particular is like a dead rat: the only way he looks alive is if you jiggle him a little. In fact, if Stan Lee had to work with Gil Kane and Curt Swan (to say nothing of the terminally uncreative DC artists like Sekowsky and Al Plastino) it’s unlikely that the Marvel style of storytelling would even be possible. Even when Kirby was hobbled by lousy inkers (Chic Stone and Vince Colletta) his art crackled and was centered on motion. Marvel artists even tried to draw like Kirby did: John Romita did, as did Rich Buckler (who at least in the beginning did nothing but Kirby swipes).
It's difficult to find a way to close this article neatly, except to say that the legacy of Stan Lee, Gene Colan, Jack Kirby, Don Heck and others is alive and well, and should be protected from outside threats. The greatest danger to the very extraordinary, unique creation that is the Marvel Universe are from two different threats: the "Ultimatization" of the Marvel Universe, where the MU itself is influenced by writers and creators that made a name for themselves on the Ultimates, such as Bendis and Mark Millar, who bring the "Ultimate" sensibility to a Marvel Universe where it is unwarranted and inappropriate. The other is from the influx of "DC-minded" people. This is nothing new: Mark Gruenwald perpetrated some outrageous things on the Marvel Universe (the prominence of the Squadron Supreme, for one, and the marriage of Hawkeye to a Black Canary clone) when he believed he was writing for a different company. The greatest offender is Grant Morrison, who with his indifference to consistent characterization and history, no doubt imagines himself at DC in the 1950s.
Through it all, the House of Ideas will survive, particularly with absolutely brilliant writers: Ed Brubaker and his Captain America, Peter David on X-Factor, and Dan Slott on Avengers: the Initiative, which almost makes up for the loss of Busiek.


Anonymous said...

Stone and Colletta did beautiful work on Kirby's pencils. I must refer to you as a fool, I'm afraid.

Julian Perez said...

Chic Stone's inks in the first couple years of Fantastic Four gave Kirby a very, very primitive look: if Stone Age Man drew comics on the side of their walls, it'd look very much like Chic Stone over Kirby.

In many ways, Joe Sinnott was the unsung hero of Fantastic Four: he gave the book a really dramatic finished look, a polish. No wonder they brought Sinnott back after Lee and Kirby left: he gave Fantastic Four a consistency to its look, a real glamour.

In fact, I realize how heretical this sounds, but I only really liked Kirby's art when Sinnott did the inks: without him, Kirby had a very craggy style and his human bodies looked like soup cans and other shapes he painted faces on.

As for Vinnie Colletta, his hackish awfulness is taken as a given and nothing could possibly be more cliche than for another person to join the throng that lambast him for his laziness, so I'll spare us both the indignity. Still, I remember hearing one story about Colletta that's worth retelling: while working on a war comic, Gil Kane took a great deal of effort in getting the details of tanks historically correct...only to have Colletta slather the whole thing in black!

Colletta's look is just ugly: he uses black when he shouldn't, he uses thick lines and thin lines in the same exact image. Thanks to Colletta's inks, I've read JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY and MIGHTY THOR much, much less than I've read other Marvel books from the same period.

And "refer to me as a fool?" Hey, fuck you, buddy!