|From Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's "The Stone Men From Saturn", the first appearance of Thor from Journey Into Mystery # 83, from August of 192.|
It was once one of the most famous, if fondly-regarded, oversights in the history of the superhero comic book. Poor lame Donald Blake flees an alien invasion of Norway and stumbles upon a secret cave in which lies a "gnarled wooden stick". Overcome by a "helpless anger", Blake "strikes the useless cane" against an "immovable boulder" and, at that most fortuitous of moments, finds himself transformed into Thor, "the mightiest warrior of all mythology!". Experimenting with the thunder god's great magical hammer, Blake discovers that by "...stamping the handle twice on the ground ... I can create rain or snow ... which soon grow into a raging tornado!" It's a wonderful comic-book conceit, of course, framing Thor's use of his super-powers in a simple, visually-recognisable ritual of sorts. And it lent the comic's original target audience of young boys an immediately-graspable protocol for storm-summoning while play-acting the role of The Mighty Thor in their imaginations, or even with a hammer borrowed from the family tool-kit.Yet, of course, the problem is that we're told in just one further panel's time that "stamping" the hammer "but once ..." turns it into a cane and Thor into the harmless Dr Blake.
But if a single thump of that hammer turns Thor into Blake, then how can Thor ever manage to stomp it down a second time? How can "All the power of the storm" ever be "Thor's to command", when he can never bash that hammer any more than the once without turning into his hapless and helpless alter ego?
Of course, and for all that we can be sure that Messrs Kirby and Lee regretted that oversight, it's worth pushing any false sense of modern-era snottiness to one side here. Because criticising the tales of the Marvel Comics of the early Sixties in terms of any sensibility and circumstances other than those of their time is an arrogantly anachronistic business. For making sense according to any contemporary understanding of the word wasn't ever anything of a priority back in 1962, because making sense wasn't ever anything of a necessity. All that mattered was snaring as many of those millions of sugar-charged, novelty-habituated, and perpetually-distractible young readers as was possible. That the Marvel creators were able to achieve that while producing comic books which were so untypically innovative and expressive was a substantial bonus, but if the Bullpen's innovations had failed to sell, nothing of the likes of the Fantastic Four and the Amazing Spider-Man would've remained on the stands. The Marvel Revolution was one shaped by the willingness of the marketplace to embrace radically new and invigorating ideas, as well as by the ability of the Bullpen to provide them, but for a great many years, a dull-minded literalism and an obsession with logic and consistency weren't of any commercial advantage at all.
In fact, there's an exceptionally good argument to be made that Marvel was at its most creative and exciting in the period before anyone in the company ever really cared about how sensible their stories were, about how persuasively self-referential their continuity could be.
|From the fourth Thor adventure, from November 1962; the Thunder God is still managing to "thud" that hammer twice without transforming into Donald Blake.|
For those first few years, pretty much all that mattered was selling those comics, and selling the comics demanded that frame after frame was as saturated with incident and drama and excitement as the audience could want and the culture would permit. And so, where the existing conventions of the boy's action comic demanded densely-told and quietly kinetic stories, Marvel crammed in even more content matched with a far more vigorous measure of kineticism. Plots were loaded up with the most basic of melodramas and characters informed by the least complex of neuroses, which together created a sense of depth and vigour which DC's white-picket-fence restraint could never match. Marvel never added a significant degree of realism to the superhero book, no matter what some later critics have allowed themselves to argue, but it did evoke a child's sense of the complexity of the real far more captivatingly than the competition did. By adding the conflicts generated by their character's two-dimensional inner life to the strange and forcefully intense visuals in their comics, Marvel succeeded in providing the audience with a great deal more value for their pocket money than did any other comics publisher of the age, distinguished or not. Not only was there more happening on the pages of their stories, but it was by comparison far more varied and pacy and powerful.
But working as they did at the most ferocious and demanding of paces, and while quite literally re-creating the superhero sub-genre as they went along, the creators at Marvel certainly weren't competing for the approbation of the literary critics of the Sunday Supplements, let alone the academic judgments of the 21st century's comicbook historians. Well of course they weren't. They were furiously cranking out as much incandescently-compelling product as a tiny company could shift, and the rules by which their comics were constructed and consumed were significantly, and often disconcertingly, different to those which hold for today's publishers and creators. Logic wasn't missing from the product of those years because Lee and Kirby and Ditko and the others didn't care about it, or because they didn't know how to maintain it. No, logic in its most bland and wonder-killing sense was missing because it wasn't relevant, regardless of the tastes of the Marvel creators of the day. To laugh at those comics for being silly, as so many bloggers today are prone to, is the equivilant of mocking the Hip-Hop of 2011 for its lack of bagpipe solos, or bemoaning the absence of finger-painting tie-in products for the latest primetime cop shows. Such things aren't there because they're just not relevant.
And yet, those early Marvels are so often seen as nothing more than primitive versions of today's product, when they are in fact a quite different species of comic-book altogether. Different audiences, different priorities, different methods, different ends.
Strange that we can be so easily fooled by our over-familiarity with characters such as Thor, that we allow ourselves to believe that little has really changed in the superhero comic over the past 50 years or so. The superhero comic, it often seems, hasn't drastically evolved so much as it's become a purer version of itself. Put simply, the sub-genre's somehow grown up and done away with a great many of the indefensibly childish things which once blighted it. But if we were to rationalise away the plot-holes and inconsistencies of those early Journey Into Mystery tales, for example, and if we were to update their cultural context and modernise the characterisation, the product which we'd have refined wouldn't be a souped-up, streamlined, fit-for-purpose, polished-up and substantially improved comic book for 2011. Rather, it would be a significantly different and fatally diminished experience, from which its original purpose had been removed and never replaced. For those elements of the early Thor stories which now seem so incongruous and daft weren't mistakes or a reflection of low ambition matched with a less-developed skills base. Instead, they existed for the specific purpose of hooking an incredibly demanding and ever-evolving audience of young boys, and they did their job, for a good while, with a remarkable degree of success.
Remove those elements aimed at a youthful audience, and what's left isn't a comic for adults. Rather, it's a withered and rather shameful corpse of a product which can't appeal to any great number of adults or children alike. Cut away that which today seems clunky and absurd and ill-considered and the de facto consequence isn't a better comic, a more literate comic, a more grown-up comic. Instead, the process generates an entirely different beast altogether, and one that's been filleted of much of its essential appeal and value.
It's often these seemingly incongruous moments, these panels and sequences which most jar with the modern reader's sense of what's appropriate, that I find the most interesting and, yes, charming too. Every one of those frames which can derail the modern reader's concentration tells us something that was characteristic and distinct about the comic books of the time, about some aspect of storytelling that's since becomes not just lost, but verbotten. Without those strange and dippy and almost shameful awkwardnesses, we might forget that comics hadn't always been grinding inevitably forwards towards the current storytelling status quo. But to note Thor continuing to pointlessly stamp his magic hammer months after his first appearance, for example, and to see those storms still impossibly arriving, tells us more than just the fact that the spectacular was endlessly more important than the logical in the comics of the period. It also informs us that Marvel's relationship with its fans in the period was considerably less developed than it would soon become, and in doing so reemphasises that the past was not simply a less informed and insightful version of today. By the October 1964 issue of Journey Into Mystery, and with Thor only just entering his third year as a comicbook character, the letters column begins with what reads like a terrifying accurate manifestation of a fully-evolved Homo Sapien Fanboyus;
"You might not understand this, but how can you run stories on the boyhood of Thor when at the time Dr Don Blake hadn't even stumbled into the cave to find the magic cane ... unless there were two Thors! ... I hope I have cleared you up on this point or have I mixed you up?"
Stan Lee's response was to kindheartedly concede that the reader had indeed "posed an interesting problem", before offering to "award one of our usual no-prizes to the reader sending in the best comment. (To save us the trouble of figuring it out, natch!)" It's a charming example of the new kind of relationship with the fans which Mr Lee pioneered, but it's also a marker on the road towards literal-mindedness, towards the disemboweling of the spontaneity and vitality of the earliest Marvel comics and the imposition of a far less free-spirited and unselfconscious approach towards the sub-genre. For with the gradual and neurotic removal of so many of the most beguilingly absurd aspects of the superhero, and with the streamlining of the way in which the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade's adventures were told, a fundamental measure of energy and novelty was bargained away for an eventually-stultifying straight-jacket of faux-adult content and thin, comparatively empty narrative techniques.
Of course, the solution to the problems caused by the decision to swap pre-pubescent wonderment for adolescent self-consciousness couldn't ever be to desperately try to replicate the shameless intensity of the high Sixties at Marvel. After all, one of the great virtues of those years was that the work was ever-evolving, if at an ever-decreasing pace. But it is worth considering whether today's comic books truly have compensated for the lack of the original and energetic virtues of the likes of the first Journey Into Mystery tales? Has the sub-genre too often abandoned a barnstorming vitality for a flaccid self-absorption, and swapped an almost psychedelic sense of the luminous for a teenager's sense of the supposedly adult?
For it just can't be a coincidence that those few comics creators who have succeeded in taking the superhero away from a dependency upon the Rump and into a relationship with a broader audience have done so while quite deliberately adding to the emaciated subject matter more recently associated with the sub-genre. Neither Miller, Moore, or Gaiman have participated in the remorseless process of gutting the fantastical comic book through the continued removal of some of its more incongruously fantastical elements. Instead, they've quite deliberately compensated for the loss of so much of the comic-book tradition, and in doing so hybridised the concerns and methods of other mediums, other genres, and other ways of making sense of how and why a story might be told, with whatever's left of the poor undernourished, mainstream super-person book.
|Trunks on, everyone. It's relocation day ...|
To be continued;