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 16, 2013

State of the Marvel Universe: 1967

I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which dovetails neatly with both this project and with my recent read of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. It's actually difficult to enjoy Chabon's work when I'm so conscious of the extent to which he's being kind to his subject matter. "What is the why?" It's what's missing from nearly all of these books.

Dinner table conversation at our home has introduced the idea that most people read these comics through a lens of nostalgia, either for their own childhood or an imagined one, and that they are therefore generous with their interpretations. Most people who read them (if they do read them, and don't just nod to the received wisdom) are not 40-year-old women, or writers themselves. There are things about these comics that I like, but that's not the same as them being well-written. Anyway, back to the wrap-up.

I spent most of this issue year thinking that 1967 was the year Marvel killed romance. Jane Foster got written out of Thor. Pepper eloped with Happy. Peter continued to aggressively not date either Gwen or MJ. After 20 issues of teasing, Steve went on a date with Agent 13 only to learn that she was too committed to her work with SHIELD to have a relationship. The FF was something of a bright (less dismal?) spot: Johnny and Crystal dated and argued, and Sue got pregnant. Ben and Alicia continued to wallow in "how can she possibly love me" angst. The X-Men had most of the action. We saw new life breathed into the Jean/Scott/Warren/Ted/whothehellknows situation. Warren's ex-girlfriend showed up. Bobby and Hank continued to date their girls in a low-key fashion.

The overall tone edged darker, with more self-sacrificing villains and a couple of deliberate kills on the part of Our Heroes (at least in theory, since we know Mandarin and Red Skull aren't actually going anywhere no matter how many times you blow up their lairs). The stable of employees continued to expand.

In other respects, Spider-Man continued to be a leading light, with strong stories and a hefty supporting cast. The continuity tightened up; rather than unspecified periods of months between issues, each one led into the next. That's good for pacing, and makes it easier to keep the subplots simmering.

After an enjoyable run in the latter half of '66, Thor went off the rails. Jane got shuffled off-stage. Sif joined the cast and set up a love triangle with Balder (yawn). We finally got back to Thor's secret identity for a few panels here and there, but there was no coherence or direction, and the stories were dull.

The Hulk only appeared in two archived issues this year, but those suggest that he remained directionless as well.

Tales of Suspense turned out reasonably good action, and the art was good, but none of the stories were memorable. Steve's long-teased romantic plot stalled, and he didn't have any other ones. With his supporting characters married to each other, Tony was bereft of subplots as well. 

Stan's stranglehold showed its first signs of slipping as Roy Thomas took over scripting the Avengers. Hercules got added as a team member. Black Widow got some fleshing out, despite still not being on the team. Quicksilver learned to fly, and it looks like Ant-Man is going to be a regular again. As with most of the others, there was no center to the book, nothing propelling it forward but a series of villainous encounters.

Fantastic Four introduced the Kree and broke new ground by announcing Sue's pregnancy. The plots were solid and actually cohered around a theme--with Blastaar, Him, the Kree, and the Psycho-Man, the team faced a steady stream of threats from Beyond Human Ken. While I'm not thrilled with the Inhumans, they gave the team other people to interact with. The college subplots vanished.

X-Men was also under Thomas' writing care, with decent results. He did seem to grasp the idea of character motivation. The X-Men finally started to get origin stories! And personal histories! The plots were okay. I swear Roth's art got worse, and perhaps editorial thought so, too, because they kept shuffling the book to different artists.

So, a mixed bag of a year, with improvement in some areas and back-sliding in others.


Brian Rogers said...

One things to note - when you ask why people liked this stuff it was because the other things on the shelf were so very much worse. Marvel won out because DC was actively bad (and because Marvel did fit the mood of the mid 60's in other media).

But while being better than the current competitors helps you win in the moment it doesn't make you terribly good compared to what comes later. To be honest the only things I own from around this time period are my LSH compilations. I think at this point you've read way more of this time period of comics than I have or ever care to.

Rebecca said...

I am earning my geek cred the hard way. :)

I can see reasons why people (esp their target demographic) liked it. I'm coming at it from a kind of weird perspective, and I'm actually a bit surprised no one has come along to argue that I'm using criteria the work was never intended to meet.