Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Thursday, May 2, 2013

State of the Marvel Universe: 1965

Background: Last summer I watched The Avengers. Then I went and watched the rest of the Marvel Phase 1 movies, and then I watched The Avengers again. It struck me that with not just this movie but most comic movies, we were getting characters and stories that are literally fifty years old. I got curious about this longevity, and decided to look in the comics to see what they might tell me about how these characters started, how they evolved, and maybe why they've lasted so long. So I've been reading along, and as I get to the end of every issue year I write a "state of" summary. It occurred to me that some people might find them amusing (or not).

The books I read for this year are: Amazing Spider-Man, whatever books the Hulk appeared in, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and Uncanny X-Men
So, 1965. One of the things that sticks out to a reader is how tiny the shop was back then. Stan, Jack, Ditko, Heck, a couple more who show up near the end of '65, a handful of colorists, and I think three letterers. That was Marvel.

In terms of the stories, all of the pieces were in place that we recognize today: the heroes, the major villains (and a host of forgotten ones), and their supporting casts. I knew the universe was pretty static, but I wasn't expecting this extent.

In 1965, Marvel characters still barely qualify as such. Labels substitute for backgrounds: doctor, scientist, disgruntled circus performer, Communist. Motives begin and end with "because heroes", "I would like to be rich", and "I just like being evil okay." Thor has a signature formality to his speech, Cap a certain stolid patriotism, but everyone else sounds like Stan Lee. Fine details of appearance were restricted by the available printing technology. Character backgrounds are sparse and mostly occupied by dead relatives.

It occurred to me that this might not be a deficiency if what you're really after is reader self-insertion. It's not "good writing," but it gets a particular job done. Maybe if you're an adult writing adult characters for an audience composed (or thought to be composed) largely of pre-teens, maybe they assumed that any depth or significant time spent on character problems out of costume would have been wasted.

I'm not even going to start on the state of their writing WRT women at this point, or else I'll be here all day. I suppose I should be glad that they had any women characters at all, and that they were allowed to do something other than be taken hostage. I swant someone to track down Stan Lee and find out why he stringently avoided the word "woman" in favor of "female." Efforts to set stories outside the US are cringe-inducing.

For all the crowds that showed up for Reed and Sue's wedding, the universe feels thin; there isn't much of a supporting cast in any of the books. We see the teams being domestic among themselves, fighting among themselves, and fighting villains, but seldom interacting with anyone else on an ongoing basis. Spider-Man does a better job of this than the rest of them, because he spends so much time out of costume. Most of the supporting cast for other solo books are dedicated to love interest/triangles. So for Journey Into Mystery, Thor's got Jane and he's got his family in Asgard, but a big chunk of the family scenes revolve around the Jane Problem. Iron Man's supporting cast is just Pepper and Happy. The Hulk doesn't have one at all. Captain America has Bucky in past-set stories, and Rick in present-day stories, and that's it. Secondary characters shouldn't just be there to be kidnapped, rescued, and mind-wiped; they add depth to a setting and round out the main characters by letting us see them in a variety of circumstances. That's missing.

Plots were rudimentary; for the most part, they didn't draw out longer than two issues. Kind of funny to me that despite the serial format--which has been used to produce some long-ass novels--they didn't trust either their medium or their audience to support actual long-term stories. Bad guy appears (or breaks out of jail, or gets hired by some other villain), attempts some crime. There's a fight. After a more or less protracted exchange of blows/fire, a defeat and retrenchment, the hero wins the fight. Almost everyone has a romantic interest or two, and Peter and Tony have recurring job woes, but it's more furniture than plot, because nothing significant happens as a result of these features (other than the creation of the Scorpion, I suppose). The Hulk, oddly, got some of the most intricate and extended sequences, but his characterization was all over the place. It took forever to find a place for Captain America as anything beyond a Nazi-puncher.

I'm told that I should be judging these books against what had gone before, and against their DC contemporaries, which would make it clear where Marvel was breaking ground in art and story, but there are limits to how much time I'm willing to put into this project. I see flashes of promise, and I quite like some of the art, but in terms of story-telling I'm calling this bad to mediocre.
So that was 1965.


Lila said...

You have not cringed until you've read some of the Teen Titans' dialogue from the '60s. (They got their own title in 1966 but appeared in other mags in '65.)

Rebecca said...

I'll take your word for it. :) I'm sure there's lot of stuff I'm missing!