Picture the Marvel I first encountered, as a multi-year pile roughly centered on 1971: comics as physical objects are pure junk product; the brand is known to everyone but beholden to nobody; the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation (soon renamed Cadence) seeks Hollywood but the actual product is still selling ad space to X-Ray Specs and plastic rats. Picture it through reader’s eyes, not a modern fan’s or insider’s. Stan as “publisher” is clearly disconnected from the comics themselves; mass merchandizing is in its first cheap-plastic moments; Thomas is the intense and possibly harassed editor. Then shift a bit later, as I started to buy comics in about 1975, with Englehart, Buckler, Starlin, Gerber, and McGregor as my favorite names associated with long runs on titles, but creator appearances and disappearances swiftly set in, with strange ebbs and flows of quality. It’s now better understood that the shift to the renamed Cadence Industries and its new backers, as well as Al Landau as new “suit,” prompted an editorial meltdown that would last the rest of the decade, but obviously I didn’t know anything about that.
Look at my pile of comics then: the height of throwing any possible foodstuff at the wall in a replay of the early 60s, in this case, the mind-blowing cosmic zap, the onslaught of the barbarians, the height of the monsters, writing in the perfect storm of an unconstructed shared junkyard of material with no definitions or boundaries, having fun writing your title characters into your friend’s titles and vice versa. Howe’s account confirms the social and creative scene perfectly (my phrasing): half-straight, half-stoned; half-profound, half-stupid; half-earnest, half-satirical; half-informed, half-groping; half-intellectual, half-experiential; half-outsider, half-insider; half-hilarious, half-angry … and when not simply filling pages with pap, and very often, 100% committed to pouring every bit of artistic ability, visual or verbal or both, into the 22-page, panels-delineated, cheaply printed medium of this issue one was working on this very minute.
Then by 1978-1979, I stepped out. I think I remember Shooter, Milgrom, and Gruenwald as names. I knew Byrne’s style by sight but not by name, and not on the X-Men; I never heard of Miller; in the X-Men, I’d seen Phoenix originated and Wolverine reveal his claws, nothing after that. I’ll write more about what I’d see it become, under Wolfman and Goodwin. Suffice to say that I stepped out, restricting my comics to Conan the Barbarian (until issue #100) and The Savage Sword of Conan.
So, from about 1979 through 1985, all high school and the first half of college: no superhero comics. I did buy a couple Marvel Team-Up issues at one point, exhausting my credit at the successor store to the one who’d bought my old stash (who were extremely surprised to find the documentation), and liked’em, but they were clearly workmanlike, treading water.
I came back to it in 1985 through friends. Think about it:
- I missed the whole public split between Lee and Kirby
- I missed the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Marvel Age
- I missed the Secret Wars, including something-or-other about Spider-Man’s costume
- I missed the inception of the Comics Journal
- I missed the reboot of the Swamp Thing and the first inklings of the British invasion
- I missed the launch of Pacific Comics, Capital Comics, and First Comics
- I missed the movie Conan the Barbarian
- I missed the sudden ramp-up of Elfquest and Cerebus following their first 20 issues
- I missed the legal events culminating in the Meese Commission on Pornography
- I missed the run-up into the so-called “black and white glut”
Thanks to my friends, I was looking at …
- a pile of X-Men with the entire Claremont-Byrne run and Cockrum’s return, and into Paul Smith’s art and the appearance of the New Mutants
- the whole run of Stern’s Spider-Man, Hobgoblin and all
- the whole run of Byrne’s Fantastic Four as well as most of his Alpha Flight
- the whole run of Miller’s Daredevil, as well as Ronin
- a great deal of Simonson’s Thor, including the Beta-Ray Bill business
- a whole lot of post-Englehart Avengers
- the whole run of Power Man & Iron Fist
- the whole run of Wolfman-Perez on the Teen Titans
You can imagine this was sort of like a huge pile of hallucinogen which also happened to taste good. After my head cleared a little, I looked at infrastructure. At the names Shooter and Gruenwald seemed to be in charge, with the most common creator names being Milgrom and Layton, and few familiar reliables like Sal Buscema. Clearly something had happened when I was away, more than simply specific creators working on specific books. And something else was happening – people were bouncing back and forth between Marvel and DC titles. Talk about Bizarro World – this was surreal, impossible. Clearly the money was doing something differently now.
That year and the next brought us The Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and the startup of the Vertigo imprint. I’d started picking up a number of superhero titles, as who would not based on those reading piles I listed above, but overall, my purchases shifted: my titles were Grimjack, Elementals, Nexus, Swamp Thing, Akira, Cerebus the Aardvark, The Question, and soon, Omaha the Cat Dancer, Hellblazer, Those Annoying Post Bros, Marshal Law, Wendel, Sandman, Suicide Squad, and Wasteland.
As if they’d been waiting for me, the superhero titles nosedived in quality almost immediately, as this was just before-during-after the sale of Marvel Entertainment to Ron Perelman’s Andrews Group. Byrne’s Superman was mediocre and his work for Marvel on the Hulk and the Avengers appeared to me to be a massive diarrhea dump. Miller inveighed against the Corporate Man while merely switching among Corporate Tits. The X-titles shifted into pure franchise mode, doing their best to mimic McDonalds / Burger King / Wendy’s. Wolverine became the bad kind of ridiculous with dizzying speed, swiftly followed by Batman. The crossover mill ramped up in the most obviously mindless mode possible. Something was very smelly at Marvel – this “Secret Wars” business was happening again under new names, and the final year of my piles were all decidedly repetitive, most of the interesting stories either subverted or annulled via methods I knew very well. Far from being the “we respect the artists” alternative they touted, DC did its best to ape Marvel to the extent that they might as well have been one thing.
I sensed weird political vibes too, including a curious new lameness to the liberalism (the Simonsons, Claremont), what looked like rightwing underpinnings in liberal clothing (Miller, Byrne), and noting that these Brit anti-Thatcher lefties were apparently completely unrecognized as such by the readership.
The Mutant Massacre did it for me – yep, I recognized it all right, crossover madness full of allegedly OMG events and not a meaningful plot point to be found … and more importantly, not a shred of political courage or imaginative audacity. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I want to wax most philosophical, using a famous probable misquote.
I encountered Marvel Comics superheroes in 1970-1972 with a pile of my brother’s comics, and broke contact in about 1978-79. In, and then out. I encountered it again in 1985, with a pile of my friends’ comics, and that lasted about five years. In again, out again.
It wasn’t the same River: from cosmic as an adjective, ever-mutable, appropriating anything and going anywhere, and (a bit laughably) Meaningful, with its activity gleefully unhinged from its baffled business owners; it had become universe as a noun, a static thing with a fixed commercial function, in which any contribution could only be tinier triangles in a Mandelbrot snowflake. And I, too, was not the same Man: from a 14-year-old Suntop, with his visions of world peace, backrubs and hot sex, musician, starting a strange and enthralling new high school, excited by a world finally free of the Cold War, his quest for exploding colors of insight and inquiry into nature, whom women called the “little shaman;” to a 24-year-old Rayek, smoldering under pressure, veteran of city streets and many states’ highways, finished with a brutal and inspiring college degree, one of the last and most dedicated products of Hutchins’ program, deep in evolutionary research, friend to anyone but offending everyone, politics shattered by the perpetrators of Iran-Contra waltzing free, surprised by a girlfriend telling him she prized his “viciousness.”
Or to put River and Man together, I’d wanted to become Adam Warlock, with the triumph and tragedy being at least always beautiful, and instead, I had become Howard the Duck, with little sustaining me but a shred of remaining hedonism, simple stubbornness, and rage.
I had a chance to start writing for comics right then. I chose not to take it.
Next: Never heard of’em
Posted on April 16, 2015, in Gnawing entrails, The 70s me, The 80s me and tagged 'Verse, Adam Warlock, Al Landau, Andrews Group, Cadence Industries, canon, Heraclitus, Howard the Duck, Mandelbrot snowflake, Marvel Entertainment, Meese Commission on Pornography, Oodles of titles, Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, Robert Hutchins, Ron Perelman. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.