Tuesday, July 25, 2006

COMIC BOOK NOTION

Bradford Wright's Historical Fantasy About Funny Books

By "John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL"


NOTE: If you're reading this, then that means that you're reading a slightly modified, second edition of this article. The reason for this is that Bradford Wright, the author of COMIC BOOK NATION, sent me a few emails recently mentioning he'd read this review, and kindly correcting me on a few mistakes he felt I'd made.

One of those mistakes that he pointed out was an actual error, and a pretty embarrassing and inexplicable one - somehow, bizarrely, I seem to have completely made up a non-existent incident from his early childhood regarding how he began reading comics. I don't know where I pulled this incident from, since on re-reading the pertinent section of COMIC BOOK NATION I find no trace of it... I must have been reading some other comics memoir at roughly the same time and juxtaposed it with CBN, although I honestly have no memory of doing so. Whatever the case, I've corrected that mistake now. However, I did so for purposes of accuracy, and am not in any way trying to deny that I did indeed make the error. I'm chagrined about it, I apologized to Mr. Wright for it, and I'm apologizing to my hypothetical audience for it now. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Mr. Wright also seemed to feel that my pointing out of several other factual errors he made in regard to the comics of the Silver Age was somewhat petulant, ignored the grand scope and social thrust of his work, and frankly, I made far too much out of very little. Obviously, I disagree, but I think I made that clear in this article and I won't reiterate something you haven't even read yet here. But what I find interesting was that towards the tail end of our brief email exchange, Mr. Wright strongly indicated that in point of fact, even when I was listing his mistakes, I was mistaken, by stating:

"By the way, I checked my Hawkman/Hawkgirl reference, and as I thought--I never said that they were police officers on Earth. "
-- email from B. Wright, 11/5/01


Now, having already confirmed that I'd made one glaring error in my critique already by somehow attributing an erroneous childhood event to Mr. Wright, I was terribly afraid that I must have made another one... after all, a degreed scholar being published by a prestigious university press at $35 a pop for his authoritative, extensively footnoted and indexed doctoral dissertation on funny books as valid historical documents certainly wouldn't make this sort of mistake TWICE, would he? Obviously, it had to be my fault. I was sure I must be losing it. So I pulled out my copy of COMIC BOOK NATION, looked up Hawkman in the index, turned to the pages listed, and found, first thing:

"The bizarre looking Hawkman and his wife, Hawkgirl, are police officers from the planet Thanagar who emigrate to Earth and stay to fight crime both as winged superheroes and in their adopted identities as American police officers."
-- COMIC BOOK NATION, B. Wright, page 183


Personally, I'd like my $35 back please, Mr. Wright. And does your doctoral review board know you're this sloppy?

End of NOTE. Beginning of article:




In all honesty, the above title is probably a little bit harsh. Having ponied up the $35 (including tax) that our local Barnes & Noble extorted from me for Bradford Wright's handsomely bound, impressively dust covered volume on comic books as valid historical documents, I expected to reap both enjoyment and enlightenment from the purchase. And at first... at first... I did.

There was a minor stumbling block for me in the Preface, where Senor Wright set out his own background as a comics fan, as well as his credentials as a scholar. Scholarly credentials don't impress me much (lawyers go to school for a very long time, merely underscoring that length and/or intensity of education makes little difference to a person's quality as a human being), but Wright's identification of himself as a fan, not only of comic books, but specifically of superhero comic books, and even more specifically, of Marvel superhero comic books, warmed the cockles of my heart. His notation that his own immersion in superheroic culture had begun at the age of 4, when his father brought him his very first bunch of superhero comics from a corner newsstand (a story so familiar as to have nearly become part of the mythic landscape for superhero geekdom), brought a smile to my lips and a gleam to my eye. Surely, I thought, here was a brother in... well, if not in arms, then at least, in cape and cowl. Surely, this man would show my beloved superheroes the respect they deserved... nay, True Believer, demanded. Surely, this mighty volume of doubtless well researched and tightly written lore would become one to treasure, and boast of owning to fellow comics fans.

Well, don't call him Shirley. I first realized there might be a slight scratch in the lens of my rose colored glasses when, after a smooth, unchecked first scan, I abruptly did a visual back pedal to once more read the year Our Humble Author claimed for his birth.

1968, Mr. Wright told us, was the annum date that saw him come wriggling into the world. 1968. Not a bad year for comics, oh, no... just off the top of my head, I think Kirby may have still been doing the FF in '68, although the glory years would have been behind him then; either Don Heck or Gene Colan was drawing AVENGERS, and certainly Roy Thomas was writing them by then; Spidey would have been in the Romita years, I think... not the best Marvel had been, and not the best Marvel would be, for Englehart and Gerber had not yet entered the scene... but still, '69 was a good spot, when comics were still cheap and, although no one knew it at the time, even the worst thing you might find on the spinner rack featuring men or women in tight outfits battling crime would be at least adequately written and drawn, and an order of magnitude better than nearly anything published by Marvel or DC after the dawns of their respective Modern Ages.

If you're a geek, and a cyber-geek, like I am, you become complacent about certain birth years. Anyone who has found himself, even for only a few minutes, trapped in the strange, numbing, alienating nightmare of an Internet chatroom festooned with modern day teenagers, has quickly learned to seek out people with birth years prior to 1980, if they want to speak with nearly anyone they can recognize as a cultural peer.

For me, and for perhaps other superhero comics fans of my and earlier generations, that number needs to be backed up by ten years or so, since there is always the terrifying prospect, when speaking with an unknown fan born anytime after 1970, of discovering yourself embroiled in a conversation with someone to whom the 'good old days' are Rob Liefeld's X-FORCE and the endless cycle of Image Comics first issues, and to whom Superboy is a character who has always had a leather jacket and a really stupid haircut.

Such people exist in the thousands and God love them, because I don't. Rather than waste time heaping the scorn and opprobrium on them that their opinions deserve, but they themselves mostly don't because they just don't know any better, I find I tend to adapt protective pre-screening procedures... such as the above noted tendency to tentatively approve of superhero comics fans born in or prior to the 1960s, while suspiciously scrutinizing for anti-American tendencies the views and opinions of any superhero fans born from the 70s on.

They MIGHT be okay... perhaps they read a lot of Silver Age reprints in their childhood and have a healthy, admirable level of respect for Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Gardner Fox, John Broome, Gil Kane, Mike Sekowsky, Don Heck, Joe Kubert, and Gene Colan... but they bear watching nonetheless. You never know. They might sneakily like Keith Giffen.

So, Bradford Wright being born in 1968... well, as I say, I initially skimmed right on by that with a little grunt of satisfaction, especially at his mention of various Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man and Captain America being his childhood favorites. Right on, I thought to myself. The man's a brothah. (Hey, my mom nearly took me to Woodstock. I'm allowed to at least think like that occasionally.) But then... well... the back of my brain started doing funky little basic arithmetic tricks, and as I say, I found my eyes wandering back to doublecheck that date. Because, dig it:

Born in 1968... started reading comics when he was 4 years old, after the Urban Legend Initiation Newsstand Brown Paper Bag Gift Ritual was performed... oh, goddam. This guy started reading comics... MARVEL Comics... in 1972, or thereabouts.

Which is fine, as far as it goes, except that he started reading them when he was four years old. Which means that the comics he read in '72... '73, '74, even '75 and '76, for the most part... are probably simply part of some whirling, child's sense of wonder powered four color montage. (Wright more or less confirms this by describing how the first THOR comic he ever read 'had a lot of monsters in it, and they scared me', so I feel fairly confident that he wasn't exactly absorbing every detail at that tender age.) No, most likely, Brad Wright didn't start really forming his actual tastes and views and rational outlooks on superhero comics until, oh... probably right around 1976, or '77, or '78.

1976 to 1978, to my emotional and somewhat foggy recollection, was nothing that any sane or rational superhero fan could ever describe as a good time for superhero comics. The industry's top seller was the execrable Claremont/Byrne NEW X-MEN. Kirby was coming as close as he ever would to embarrassing his own brilliance with astoundingly clueless work on BLACK PANTHER, CAPTAIN AMERICA, and DEVIL DINOSAUR. (Admittedly, he was also doing some nice stuff with THE ETERNALS.) DC was doing an astonishing job of combining creative coasting with editorial floundering; while Cary Bates was steadily turning out some of the most goofily cool, entirely plot oriented stories ever crafted for Superman and the Flash, the concepts themselves were in utter hold patterns, as was the remainder of the DC U.

KAMANDI was long dead, or should have been. Post Kirby's brief, utterly hallucinogenic run as writer artist, CAPTAIN AMERICA was entering into a long, long period of being unreadable tripe, that would be broken only briefly by a too short run by Stern and Byrne in 1980, and then continue through the present. SPIDER-MAN was equally stagnant, although, again, a too brief run by Roger Stern, and some intermittent good stuff by Peter David, was still to come.

FANTASTIC FOUR was just horrible under Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard, and here Roger Stern would fail to make much of an improvement further on down the line, and even Steve Englehart, in the late 80s, would find himself unable to salvage the title from the creative rigor mortis that apparently began to set in with Lee & Kirby's departure, and became irreversible after Thomas & Buscema left it behind.

The only bright spot I can think of in this period (and I could be off by years here) is that SUPERBOY &THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES might have still been being published. If so, I think by '78 at the latest, Grell had taken over from Cockrum, which was certainly a step down, and Shooter may have well returned to supplant Bates, which would also have been a slight retreat from overall quality... but in retrospect, even those Shooter/Grell LEGIONS, featuring awful characters like Tyroc and Anti-Lad, seem like remarkable works of quality and transcendent power compared to the seemingly, torturously endless Levitz run that was to come, or the mindboggling inanity of the Giffen horseshit that was to follow.

Yet even 1978 isn't really the point here; the point is, if Wright, the author of this scholarly tome on comics, had only started really getting into and understanding comics around 1978, and was declaring himself to be an avid fan of superhero comics, then that would mean that the most important years of his fandom... his formative years... would have been the ten years or so from 1978 to 1988. And frankly, when my reasoning reached that stage, cold chills went through me.

Here was a book written by a guy who claimed to be a comics fan... yet who would only know the Lee & Kirby FFs, and the Lee & Ditko Spideys, by reputation, and as ancient, outdated, obsolete reprints. Here was a guy for whom Captain America had always been drawn by Mike Zeck, and who might well think of TEAM AMERICA with the same fondness as I accord silly stuff like The Superman Revenge Squad, and Jack Kirby's OMAC.

For this fella, George Tuska was Old School, Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL was the character's classic incarnation, Cyborg was a founding member of the Teen Titans, and John Romita had always had a 'Jr' behind his name. This was a guy who became a comic book fan in a decade which, while it certainly had its high points (and it would be followed by a decade far worse, however difficult that was to believe at the time), nonetheless also saw some of the most viciously dehumanistic and degrading devolutions to ever be committed to the superheroic ideal.

This was the decade where John Byrne took it upon himself to draw Wolverine killing a guard from behind instead of simply knocking him unconscious as the plot had called for, and a few issues later, to draw Phoenix blowing up an entire inhabited planet, with the deaths of its peoples lovingly and gruesomely detailed, instead of simply destroying an uninhabited solar system, as Claremont had originally plotted.

This was the span of years where Roger McKenzie turned Daredevil into Batman, and then Frank Miller turned Batdevil into a brutal borderline psychotic far beyond anything Batman had ever been... and then, a bit later, brought Batman into line with that vicious image, as well.

This was the decade where Alan Moore told us, over and over again, that there were no heroes, and we were idiots for wanting to believe otherwise; where Scott McCloud's vision of old fashioned, unbridled, straightforward superheroism that was FUN was considered so corny as to be utterly outre, and for a short while at least, kind of cool because it was so darned weird.

This was the decade where the seeds planted by Byrne and Miller began to germinate into an era where the craft of writing comic books was one derided and scorned by many fans and suddenly rich rookie artists, where money became the sincerest form of flattery and imitation the quickest way to get it, where Superman died (for a while) and Batman had his spine broken (he got better) and Green Lantern went crazy and the Flash really did end up dead as a doornail.

This was the decade where Bradford Wright became a comics fan: the decade of CRISIS, and the New Teen Titans, and Beta Ray Bill, and the West Coast Avengers. The decade where Hank Pym beat his wife, Spider-Man wore an awful costume and married a ditz, Alicia dumped Ben Grimm for a younger guy with a cuter butt, the Vision got taken apart and then reassembled without his naughty bits, Hawkeye married a Black Canary clone and then went deaf, and Green Arrow started shooting people with barbed hunting shafts.

In short, it was a decade in which, to paraphrase William Hurt in BODY HEAT, the shit started coming down so hard I sometimes thought I should wear a hat.

To fully understand my trepidation at realizing that Bradford Wright was a product of THIS decade of superhero comics, I think I need to contrast my own formative fandom experiences. (Well, whether I need to or not, this is my article and I'll reminisce if I want to.)

Born in 1961, I did not become a comic fan because my father brought me a stack of comics from the corner newsstand at the age of 4. My inculcation into the world of superhero funny books started earlier than I can coherently remember, but I was probably about the same age as Wright was. There was a brief period way back there where my mom, my two younger brothers, and I had to stay with my maternal grandmother for a while, and my mom's younger brother, Fred, was still living in the same big house. Since Fred is, I think, 11 years older than I am, he would have been 15 or 16 at this time, and he bought and read a lot of comics.

Now, 'collecting' comics wasn't exactly the same thing back then as it is today; nobody in the 60s, and few in the 70s, kept their comics in Mylar snugs and specially ordered filing cabinets, carefully coded by their resale condition. Back in 1965 or thereabouts, you could often still find stacks of unsold comic books from previous months piled up behind the spinner racks at the drugstore or newsstand or smoke shop where you bought your funny book fix, sometimes with half their covers torn off, sometimes with covers still intact, and either way, those older comics were always cheaper than cover price, rather than more expensive. (Cover price back then was an astonishing ten or twelve cents, anyway, so cheaper than cover price... Jesus. Bring me that wheelbarrow, Mr. Magoo.)

And when you bought them, and brought them home, you didn't read them once and tuck them away somewhere never to be seen again, until such time as you wanted to sell them for 400 times their cover price to some idiot who had never heard of the characters anyway. No, you read them to tatters, traded them around with your friends, clipped out coupons to mail away for Jack Kirby Art Collections and memberships in various weird fan clubs and cardboard submarines, tossed them in old beat up cardboard boxes that you stole from the back of the supermarket (this was before dumpsters) and screamed at your little brothers (or younger nephews, in the case of Uncle Fred) when you caught them sneaking into your room to read them against your expressly stated wishes, and the Laid Down Law from generations on high.

(In the case of my younger brothers, whom I later screamed at incessantly throughout the 70s to keep their damn hands off my comics, MOM, Sean and Pat are reading my comics again!; this was utterly justified, because they had no respect, and if left unmonitored, would often color in the white areas and use pencil erasers to blank out Captain America's eyes, which they thought was the very height of humor. In the case of my Uncle Fred yelling at ME, though, this was silly and stupid, because I loved and worshipped his comic books the way the generation following mine loves and worships WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT, and I would no more have volitionally damaged one of those amazingly wonderful old SUPERMAN or JIMMY OLSON or FANTASTIC FOUR issues than I would have willingly jammed a number 2 pencil through my pudgy, infant hand. In addition to Uncle Fred's importunings being silly and stupid, they were also futile, because even at an early age I was a furtive, crafty little bastard, and when Uncle Fred put a padlock on his room, I just slipped out onto the roof and crept in his window.)

Now, I'm not claiming to actually, coherently REMEMBER those comics well; I'm just saying, for me, comics, superhero comics, both Marvel and DC, were a part of my early childhood for as far back as I can viscerally and visually recall. I can remember the rough, raspy feel of the cheap paper on my print smudged fingertips, how the garish colors thrilled me, how I puzzled out the word balloons and was grateful for the relatively simple, onomotapoetic nature of the sound effects.

Yet few of the stories stand out distinctly for me from that early era (an exception is a tale I remember where Jimmy Olson wandered through a big stone beehive into a world where you had to wear a cape or you were a slave; at the time, I remember wondering why the hell Jimmy didn't just pin a beach towel around his neck to instantly emancipate himself); most of my memories are a colorful, spinning mosaic of various members of the Superman Family doing various improbable things, the early JLA escaping from Felix Faust's carefully calculated trap because Batman and Superman had switched identities before the battle started, every supervillain in the world jumping up and down on the FF at Reed & Sue's wedding, the Black Knight pasting all of Manhattan to the ground with pink vapor from a winged horse, and Iron Man being chained to a damn big rocket by the Mandarin.

My own really formative fan years probably occurred between 1969 and 1977 or thereabouts, though. These are the comics I remember well, mostly because I bought them myself, for 15 cents, or 20, or 25, or 30, or 35, towards the end of this era. (Actually, earlier in this time I spent up to 50 cents, and sometimes even a dollar fifty, on single comic books, but those were Hundred Page Super Spectaculars packed to the gills with awesome old Golden Age reprints of really whacked out characters like Uncle Sam, the Ray, Super Chief, Doll Man, and like that, along with these really huge Marvel Treasury Editions featuring the first Hulk-Thing battle, badly written but beautifully drawn Black Widow stories from AMAZING ADVENTURES, and an early Christmas tale of Luke Cage, Power Man.)

This was the era of Englehart, from his early stuff on HULK and CAPTAIN AMERICA and DEFENDERS and AVENGERS to his later, surer-footed stuff on CAP and AVENGERS and DR. STRANGE and CAPTAIN MARVEL; later on, Gerber came along and made my high school years almost tolerable with DAREDEVIL and DEFENDERS and HOWARD THE DUCK and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and especially MAN-THING. Wolfman and Moench gave me TOMB OF DRACULA and WEREWOLF BY NIGHT and MASTER OF KUNG FU, Kirby gave me KAMANDI and, far too briefly, OMAC: Bates and Swan, of course, were in there with SUPERMAN and ACTION COMICS, while Bates and Cockrum gifted me for far too short a time with SUPERBOY AND THE LEGION OF SUPERHEROES; O'Neil and Adams did a cool BATMAN; Haney and Aparo did a long, completely incoherent, yet amazingly fun run on BRAVE AND THE BOLD; Wein's JLA pretty much sucked but I didn't know it; and Herb Trimpe was always drawing HULK. This was the era of the AVENGERS/DEFENDERS war, when both books were by Steve Engelhart and the Defenders were actually still cool; when Wolverine had not yet been born and a story about the Hulk battling to save a man from the curse of the Wendigo could still make you cry; when Iron Man still had a dangerously weak heart, Dr. Don Blake still slammed his walking stick into the ground to turn into Thor, and Lex Luthor was still a slim, evil supergenius instead of a pudgy, amoral billionaire.

Superman had a Code Against Killing, Batman was the World's Greatest Detective, Green Arrow still used boxing glove arrows, Green Lantern had been born without fear and couldn't use his ring on anything yellow, the Flash wasn't an idiot, and the Falcon had only just recently gotten jet tipped glider wings from the Black Panther. Mar-Vell was alive, Rick Jones was a rock star, and a lot of people were still signing their LOCs with "Bring Back The X-Men!"

And at that, I'm fully aware that I was born pretty much ten years too late for all the REALLY good stuff, back in the 1960s... but I grew up loving most of that stuff, too, through the cheap and easily available reprint series of that time. FF in MARVEL'S GREATEST COMICS, the Avengers in MARVEL TRIPLE ACTION, Spidey in MARVEL TALES, DC's early stuff in all those 100 PAGE SUPER SPECTACULARS... I don't kid myself that it was the same as picking up AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9 from a spinner rack, but I got most of it second hand, and it still rocked in the reprint titles.

By the time I left home for college in the fall of 1979, I had nearly given up on comics. FF had been awful for years by that time, with no end in sight. SPIDER-MAN was pretty dismal; when the best Spidey stories for years are in MARVEL TEAM UP, written by Chris Claremont, you know you've got problems. IRON FIST, which I'd enjoyed despite the really stupid plots, had been cancelled. X-MEN seemed to be getting worse, although actually I was just growing up. AVENGERS and IRON MAN were being written by Michelinie. THOR was as clueless as it had always been and always would be without Kirby. KAMANDI was gone. CAPTAIN AMERICA was unreadable. The Legion, by then, was turning into some utterly alien futuristic soap opera under Paul Levitz. DEFENDERS was an incoherent mess which would only get worse. The horror comics I'd enjoyed were mostly gone. MASTER OF KUNG FU was starting to wear thin. Gerry Conway had begun writing JLA. God knows what was being done to Green Lantern.

In all honesty, I understand that to everyone, the best comics in the world are, and always will be, the ones you read when you were 9 years old. Yet, approaching 40, looking back over a lifetime mostly lived with superhero comics, I have to say that, inasmuch as I can take an unbiased view, I really did have the best of it. Comics were never better than they were under Engelhart and Gerber and, to a lesser extent, Cary Bates at DC. I truly think I had the zenith of the superhero artform right there on the spinner racks in my adolescence... but I'm certainly willing to admit that I could be wrong, and other comics could have been as good or better than the Englehart Celestial Madonna saga, or his amazing work on DR. STRANGE, or the Gerber Bozos storyline, or Bates & Cockrum's "Fatal Five Who Twisted Time" and "One Shot Hero".

What I'm not willing to admit is that any of those comics that might be as good or better come from any era AFTER the 1970s. Oh... okay... Moore's early work on MARVELMAN and SWAMP THING come close, sure; and Gaiman's SANDMAN is astonishing (but very, very different)... but I don't think those comics were big parts of Brad Wright's formative years as a fanboy, either (at least, he doesn't pay much attention to them in COMIC BOOK NATION.)

So, all told - yeah, when it sank in that this book I'd just put down $35 for had been written by a self professed superhero comics fan who had started really understanding superhero comics around 1978... okay. I admit it. As Luke & Crew are wont to say... I had a bad feeling about this.

Initially, though, I was pleased to discover, my bad feeling was not borne out. I know very little about the actual 'Golden Age' of comics (which I myself have always tended, at least in my own mind, to limit to maybe the late 30s up through the end of WWII anyway, due to my own biased tendency towards thinking of comic books as meaning 'superhero comic books'), and what I do know comes from the above mentioned, and fondly remembered, reprint collections DC issued to make some quick change during the 60s and 70s. I knew absolutely nothing about the late 40s and 50s as regards non-superhero comics, and can safely say now that everything I do know comes from COMIC BOOK NATION.

So it was that I found roughly the first half of Wright's volume to be informative and generally entertaining. Although Wright's textual style is dry and scholarly (with the occasional subversive glimmer of an at least somewhat ironic sense of humor occasionally shining through a crack), his discussions of the beginnings of superhero comics and the evolution of the business, from the early years where the content was all created in free lance production shops for pennies, thrown together by publisher/editors in tiny offices, and immediately marketed in prints runs upward of a million copies to newsstands across the nation greedy for even the crudest of escapism, through the various publishing imprints that grew up after WWII that employed their own house talent, to the rather startling innovations of EC Comics in the 50s, were all fascinating stuff to me.

He also provided me with a lot of previously unknown details about the crackdown on comics in the 1950s that led to the Comics Code being established; I had never had the slightest idea, prior to reading this book, that there had actually been two separate national efforts at regulating comics through legislative censorship, or that Frederick Wertham had pretty much led the charge in both of them.

The first, interestingly enough, took place in the late 1940s, in response to the rampant popularity of crime comics inspired by the success of Lev Gleason's CRIME DOES NOT PAY (a title only vaguely familiar to me prior to reading COMIC BOOK NATION). It failed, mostly because then NYS Governor Thomas Dewey vetoed the proposed legislation twice on grounds of Constitutionality, and a law that had been successfully passed in California was tossed out by the Supreme Court on the same grounds. The second attempt came in the early 50s, and is the one I'm more familiar with, that coalesced around Wertham's infamous SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT.

That one, fueled simultaneously by both Commie baiting hysteria and the truly disgustingly grisly graphic excesses of EC's horror comics line, would almost certainly have succeeded (in fact, a few years later, it did succeed in getting a very restrictive law put on the books in New York State, since Dewey was no longer governor)... so the various comics publishers of the time got together and created the Comics Code, which managed to quite successfully 'clean up' the comics industry so much that when the NYS legislation did finally pass, there were no longer any crime or horror comics for it to be applied to. I also hadn't known that prior to the Comics Code Authority forming in the early 50s, there had been a previous attempt, during the first censorship brouhaha, to form a similar body, that had failed because a majority of the publishers at the time refused to subscribe to it.

As I've noted, nearly half of COMIC BOOK NATION's text (not counting prefaces and indexes and such) is devoted to an in-depth and, at least, to my ignorant mind, quite lucid and persuasive, study of the beginnings of the comic book field, the World War II years, and the decade or so following it. As I knew little to nothing about that period prior to reading the book (and absolutely nothing about the non-superhero comics, which Wright focuses on), I found this section extremely interesting.

I can't cogently criticize it; it could be rife with errors large and small (and given how many mistakes I started picking out in the second half of the book, when Wright was talking about stuff in MY particular superhero backyard, I wouldn't be at all surprised if someone told me it was), but I'd never know if it was. I enjoyed reading it, and tend to think most of the points Wright makes about how the comics of that time reflected the social mores of the period are probably true.

I also have little critical to say about this first section of COMIC BOOK NATION because, frankly, other than as intellectual curiosities, I simply don't care about the crime and horror and war comics of this period. I don't even have much emotional investment in the superheroes of the so-called Golden Age, barring a few (I've always had a fondness for the Golden Age Green Lantern, for reasons that defy all comprehension), but I'm positively avidly interested in them compared to how I feel about titles like CRYPT OF HORROR and CRIME DOES NOT PAY.

Therefore, nothing Wright says about them, and how he interprets the society that they reflect, bothers me. If crime and horror comics were popular because of the churning, raging rebellion seething in America's post War youth generation, fine and dandy, I don't care. It isn't until Wright starts discussing comic books I do actually care about that I start taking issue with his opinions, just as it isn't until he starts discussing comic books I like and are familiar with that I start catching him in factual errors.

Still, once I do get on more familiar ground, the glaring factual errors, and the various shallow inadequacies of Wright's arguments, become so astonishingly obvious to me that it really makes me wonder if the first half of his book is as redolent with mistakes and half-baked hypotheses as the last half. I hope it's not, and can find, perhaps, reason to hope in the fact that Wright does spend about 150 pages on two decades of comic books, and then about the same amount of space on the following four decades... which certainly seems to argue that he did a much more thorough job on the first half of his book than he did on the second. But I'll have to leave that judgement to be made by someone like Jerry Bails or Roy Thomas. All I can say is, whether the first half was solid or not, the second half strikes me as shoddy, shot through with mistakes, often implausible, and on occasion even rather ludicrous.

Many of the 'mistakes' I caught in the book are the sort of anal, nit picky details that only a fellow fan could really cherish - Wright declares at least twice that the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl work, in their Earthly secret identities, as police officers, for example. In another place, to be really fussy, he describes the early Lee-Ditko Dr. Strange using the title "Sorcerer Supreme", when any real Stephen Strange fan knows that until the early 70s, Strange was only a "Master of the Mystic Arts", and the Ancient One was our realm's "Sorcerer Supreme". (Since Strange often performed feats in his early career that his aged master had been unable to accomplish, this mistake is somewhat understandable, and really, it is a monstrously fussy nit to pick.)

Other mistakes are more egregious and even funny - his captioning of a two page spread from a Charlton war comic tells us that the writer and artist are unknown, when anyone with a pair of eyes can see at the bottom of the first page, the script is credited to 'J. Gill' and the art to 'C. Nicholas'. Stuff like this, in combination with the more minor flaws in accuracy (there are several more), tend to make me, at least, wonder just how many of these comics Wright has actually read, or bothered to read prior to writing his learned-sounding theories on them. (I myself have been known to bullshit my way through passages where I really wasn't sure what the hell I was talking about in some of my previous articles, but I'm not a multiply degreed scholar with a big old stick up my butt being published by Johns Hopkins University Press for $35 a throw, either.)

However, in any fictional realm as vast and varied as that of modern superhero comic books, one can forgive nearly any author for a few factual mistakes. I myself, for all the probably millions of words I've written on the field over the past twenty years, am still not sure how to correctly spell the last name of the new, doltish Green Lantern (and don't really care), and while I can probably correctly name every secret identity of virtually every superhero who appeared at DC or Marvel in what I define as the Silver Age (not counting those wowzers in the Legion), which really shows just how little of a life I have (and had back in my childhood, as well), my database quickly gets fuzzy before the mid 50s and after the mid 80s. (Okay, I probably can't name anything like all of them. But a lot of them.)

I'm sure I've made many factual errors in my work, and while I really, REALLY think that someone who is going to call themselves an avid superhero fan and write a scholarly work about superhero comic books should frickin' know what frickin' Hawkman does in his frickin' secret identity, I'm willing to admit, that's a childish prejudice on my part. It's similarly childish of me to think that he should at least MENTION, when talking about the Silver Age JLA, characters like the Atom and the Martian Manhunter, and when speaking of the Avengers and the original core group of Marvel's Silver Age superheroes, a tip of the helmet-antennae at the very LEAST should be given to Hank Pym. (And there's really no excuse for the 'writer and artist unknown' tag on a clearly credited story; that's just stupid.)

But however forgivable or unforgivable factual errors may be - and I've been beaten up badly enough by various fans telling me that Mac RaBoy was NOT a writer/artist and someone should just kill me for saying he was to know that for some people, factual accuracy is close to a religious mania - nonetheless, regardless of his factual accuracy, where I really started to take issue with Wright was in the conclusions he started expostulating about the various comics I myself had read, and some of their creators.

First, I strongly disagree with Wright's blithe dismissal and curt refusal to consider any of the early (mid 50s through late 60s) DC Comics as having any sort of relevance as historical documents. Wright more than once states that DC, from the mid-50s to the late 60s, was little more than a bastion of conformity, presenting stories that exemplified the whole concept of society and authority triumphant over the individual.

First, I think any such statement misses out on the very real charms of the Weisinger-era Superman, and what it had to offer to a vast audience that ranged widely in age and socioeconomic strata. I grant you, Wright was pretty much sticking to his thesis statement here of examining comics as historical documents, and within that context, yeah, there isn't a whole lot to say about this whole era at DC, and yes, all their heroes pretty much had interchangeable personalities, no sex lives, and they all did pretty much champion authority and bland conformity.

Nonetheless, Wright took an obvious delight in describing the various other comics of various other eras in extraneous detail, extolling their various virtues and describing their various features, so the fact that all he has to say about one of the more enjoyable ages of superhero comics is 'bland and conformist' really strikes me as elitist, arrogant, and annoying. It makes me think he hasn't read many Weisinger-era Superman stories, and didn't like the few he read... which makes me think he's a wank. Getting halfway through a book and suddenly discovering that the author is apparently a goober who will gush on and on in excruciating detail for pages about the needle in the eye motif (found in one lousy panel of one lousy crime comic) and the awful excesses of a truly disturbing horror story in which a professional baseball team murders and dismembers a rival ball player and then uses his body parts as equipment in a secret night practice... but who can't be bothered to offer even the most trivial details of one of the most interesting, off beat, and charming cycles of the seminal superhero icon... well, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the book.

And, unfortunately, at least for me, that foreboding was borne out. The further past the midpoint of COMIC BOOK NATION I read, the more dismayed I became. Again, factual errors can, to a certain extent, be understood and more or less accepted, but as they start to pile up, even the annoyingly minor ones become more and more glaring. In one paragraph, Wright assures his readers that Red Wolf was Marvel's first Native American hero (actually, it was the Ringo Kid, I believe, and DC had them both beat with Super-Chief, not that they're really anxious to claim that title with that character), and goes on to talk about Marvel's second Native American hero, the New X-Man known as Thunderbird. He follows this by stating that after Thunderbird's debut and death, Marvel offered it's longest running non-Caucasian hero, Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu, whom he describes as Chinese. This is a sequence rife with minor but irritating errors; in addition to the ones I've already noted, MOKF debuted a year or so before the New X-Men showed up, and Shang Chi is half Chinese, half Caucasian.

The subject of MOKF, though, brings up another astonishing lapse in this book that claims to be a study of comic books as historical documents, namely, Wright's failure to address how comics tended to reflect the various cultural fads that came and went through the decades. If he's going to mention MOKF as a non-Caucasian hero as he discusses the gradual infiltration of non-white ethnicities into the all Caucasian bastion that was the Silver Age at DC and, to a lesser extent, Marvel, you'd think it would prompt him to also discuss the kung fu craze that both companies indulged in, and how only Marvel (the company that had created the first black superheroes in an era when DC was relentlessly whitebread) dared to present us, even at the height of the martial arts obsession in pop culture, with a perceivably Asian protagonist. (DC's KARATE KID featured a hero who is supposedly half Japanese, but in appearance he was less Oriental than the completely unrelated film character of the same name portrayed by Ralph Macchio.)

Marvel also gave us the black and white magazine DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG FU, which despite its exploitative title, advanced racial boundaries further by offering the Sons of the Tiger, a mystically powered threesome of martial arts heroes who were white, black, and Asian; and the White Tiger, a Hispanic martial artist in what may well be the most boring costume ever conceived in professional comics.

Marvel might have been seen to be playing it safe with their last entry in the kung fu market, the relentlessly WASPish IRON FIST, but he was merely one blonde, blue eyed Aryan type lost in a sea of darker-skinned martial arts mastery at Marvel Comics. (And one shouldn't blame anyone editorial for Iron Fist's ethnicity, since the character was fairly clearly a quite derivative 'tribute' to an obscure Charleton character named Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt.)

DC, on the other hand, gave us RICHARD DRAGON, KUNG FU FIGHTER, who had to wait twenty years and lose his legs to become interesting as a supporting character in Denny O'Neil's much later QUESTION series, and the forementioned KARATE KID, both of which featured characters so white (at least, in appearance) they could have starred in their own Procul Harem song. Given the great lengths Wright went to in his discussion of racial representation in comics, and his stated purpose of examining comic books as valid historical documents, you'd think he really would have given us at least a paragraph on the various martial arts/superhero titles... and the fact that any mention of them is conspicuously absent from COMIC BOOK NATION makes me think, again, that he most likely just didn't do much research on the era. Tsk tsk tsk, Bradford.

There are several other odd lapses. Wright makes passing mention of how the Ditko DR. STRANGE artwork seemed to miraculously anticipate the psychedelia movement of the late 60s and early 70s, but where one would expect a logical follow up analysis of Englehart's later work on the same character that explored these themes far more fully in both script and artwork, there's no mention at all. In fact, I'll admit here that the astonishingly short shrift both Englehart and Steve Gerber get in COMIC BOOK NATION is a major sore point for me, but leaving aside the fact that I personally nearly worship the 70s work of both men as avatars of divinity in four color form, the concept that someone who calls themselves a superhero fan would write a so called study of superhero comics as historical documents that FAILS to mention the vast bulk of Englehart and Gerber's work in the 70s is simply ludicrous.

Again, it seems to smack you over the head with a nearly inevitable conclusion that Wright simply doesn't know what the hell he's talking about and didn't bother to read any of the actual comics from this era himself, trusting to a cursory scan of Jones & Jacobs' COMIC BOOK HEROES as the entirety of his research.

When Wright describes the Englehart story arc where Captain America battles the Secret Empire and eventually discovers that their masked leader is, apparently, Richard Nixon, he describes the story in terms that make it sound like Cap has been making his way through some sort of Robert Ludlum novel as retold by Woodward and Bernstein, when, in fact, he pretty much beats up on standard supervillains for the entire year long run, which makes the ending all the more shocking for its sudden grounding in real politics.

Wright makes no mention of Englehart's work at DC at all, and given the amount of time he spends on Frank Miller's influence a bit later, this is a pretty glaring omission, since much of what Miller did had its thematic roots in the classic and brilliant story arc Englehart did in DETECTIVE COMICS after leaving Marvel in the mid 70s. For that matter, Wright makes no mention of post Crisis, deconstructionist, hyper-realistic, grim n gritty series like Ostrander's SUICIDE SQUAD, which is just one of many series of that time that reflected much the same thing in the 1980s as he noted at length was (according to him) behind the crime comics fad of the late 1940s... namely, a generation coming of age that wanted less fantasy and more of a sense of darkness and grim reality in their heroic mythology.

Again, a reader who knows these stories and titles is left with the inevitable, and unpleasant, feeling that the authoritative and pedantic author, who is speaking so pompously of such learned things, has no clue what he's talking about, because he hasn't really read the stories in question.

Other things bear out this conclusion as well. Wright, in one passage, makes casual mention of Marvel's three most socially relevant writers from this era - Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, and... BILL MANTLO?!?

Somewhat prior to that, he had casually identified the original X-Men as being characters who, like Spider-Man and the Hulk, got their powers from radioactivity... an understandable error, and yet, a pretty fundamental one, when you consider that the X-Men pretty much pioneered the whole notion of a whole race born with superhuman abilities.

In another passage packed with obnoxiously fawning praise for Chris Claremont, he tells us that Claremont had created strong female characters while avoiding the ultrafeminist near-parodies of the earlier 70s. (Right. The only way you can tell one Claremont female from another is by the color of her skin and the weapon she's pointing at you, but absolutely, Claremont avoided ultrafeminist near parody. Suuuuuuure he did.) He describes Byrne's work as a writer/artist on both FANTASTIC FOUR and SUPERMAN as being a celebration of the basic heroic ideal, in apparent ignorance of the fact that it was Byrne who made Wolverine into a homicidal maniac and Phoenix into a mass murderer.

Much of what Wright states about the comics of the 70s and 80s, in fact, sounds as if it's a synopses of things he read in other scholarly analyses, rather than his informed opinion of source material he'd actually bothered to read himself. The statements about the X-Men, Claremont, and Byrne all seem, to me, to especially ring of the sort of thing he might garner erroneously from someone else's term papers about comics.

No one who had actually read any reasonable amount of Claremont's work could possibly describe him as 'avoiding ultrafeminism', and no one who had done any research at all on Byrne's influence as a plotter and writer could describe his work as any sort of return to the roots of basic superheroism... both those sound like things taken from out of context passages in which someone might have been specifically describing, say, Claremont's tendency to create aggressive women, or Byrne's originally retro feel on FF.

Anyone who had actually read the comics in question would know that Claremont's women are well beyond 'ultrafeminist' to the point where they hardly seem to have any use for men at all (although they tend to touch other Claremont women a lot), and they'd also know that Byrne's 'back to the basics' approach on FF didn't last out his first year on the book, and he swiftly manifested the corrosive, destructive, 'rip apart the essence of the mag and replace it with nothing, then get bored and move on' technique that was to become his trademark and standard modus operandi for the next fifteen years. But Wright seems not to have known this, and so he goes on for a couple of paragraphs about how Byrne's 'back to the basics' approach was an excellent match for the country's growing conservatism under Reagan at that time, and how Byrne's pre-eminence in comics faded away with the Reagan Era... which seems extraordinarily like a giant crock of shit to me.

Wright glosses over most of the 80s, although he does take the time to drool and whimper in a typically sycophantic and fanboyish way over Moore and Gibbon's WATCHMEN. He makes no more than a vague mention of Image Comics. And, in his final chapter... which is more a short epilogue... he distills the entire decade of the 90s down into a brief and pointless discussion of The Death of Superman, which seems to me to be as ignorant as virtually everything else in the second half of his book, if only because he never once mentions how truly, abysmally, dreadfully and appallingly awful it was as a story, work of art, or piece of fantasy fiction, or exactly what such a wretchedly, nakedly opportunistic marketing ploy had to say about the comics buying culture of its time.

As with other texts on the history of comics that I've read, I found this one interesting and informative only up to the point where it began discussing comic books I was actually familiar with.

In Jacobs & Jones THE COMIC BOOK HEROES, for example, I found their discussions of pre Silver Age, and early Silver Age, superhero comics, and the people working behind the scenes on them, to be fascinating; however, once they started talking about My Boys, as it were, their obnoxious sniveling drivel quickly become intolerably onerous to me. Doubtless much of this comes from my own deeply held convictions and opinions on just who and what is important in the superhero comics industry, and who can be best ignored, and who should be heaped with scorn and derision.

However, I also think at least some of it comes from the fact that while I have never worked in the field of comics professionally, and I haven't accrued myself a great big walloping reputation as a fan (although there are some dozens, perhaps even hundreds, in the comics fan community, and a few in the comics pro community, who know my real name and regard it with general distaste), I have read a lot of comics, and I have been involved in certain circles of fandom for decades now, and I've even had close relationships at various times to well known fans, some of whom are now well known pros... and all of this has given me a reasonably large database of comics related trivia and apocrypha to draw on. I'd like to believe that this gives me at least a reasonable chance of sniffing out bullshit when someone presents it to me within this particular and peculiar field of fantasy, and I'd also like to think that it's for that reason primarily that I found myself dissatisfied, overall, with COMIC BOOK NATION.

I suppose, though, that I must ruefully admit that it seems unlikely there will ever be a reference text on comic books I can even mostly agree with until the time comes when I write one myself.

* * * * * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He can be reached with constructive criticism, or, really, any other sort of feedback, at the comment link below, and much of his other writing, and some of his truly dreadful artwork, is on display at www.angelfire.com/ny3/docnebula/index.html. In addition to John/Doc's work, you'll also find the stunning artwork of the Late, Great Jeff Webb, some long unseen art from 1980 or thereabouts by Scott McCloud, and a really weird page called "Lawmaker-6" written and pencilled by Kurt Busiek back in, I don't know, 1983 or so.

2 Comments:

Blogger MJ Norton said...

Purchased for considerably less than $35, I know that I have a trade edition of this book sitting on one of my bookshelves and have yet to get to it. I must have picked it up as part of an assortment along the way, and - as with too many other things - set it aside for some golden age of leisure that will surely never come.

Seeing this article (which I've only barely skimmed at this point) provides me with a new point of interest in finally pulling the book off the shelf and giving it a read.

11:21 AM  
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5:46 PM  

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