Monday, June 7, 2010

Slumming it in the silver age

Last month I bought my first ever Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

Like all good comic people, I’d read loads of their stories over the years, but they had always been reprinted in the dull monochrome of the Essential series and the brightly slick versions. Even the cheapest Fantastic Four comics from that legendary 100+ issue run were always outside my price range, so the reprints were just fine.

And then I saw #62 in the $1 bin at the local comic store and I fell in love with it. It’s all beat up to hell, but there are no missing pages and that cover still pops. There’s Blastaar shooting the shit out of the Fantastic Four with his hands and one of Kirby’s brilliant double-page spreads of the Negative Zone, all fucked-up photo montage and little old reed, floating in the middle of it.

Sometimes I fall completely in love with a single issue of an ongoing superhero comic. It’s hard to predict what will strike my fancy, but every now and then I fall hard for a particular book and it can be a little embarrassing. Once it was New Warriors #1. Another time it was the first Daredevil comic by Kesel and Nord. Whatever it is, every now and again, there will be something about an individual issue that hits all the right buttons and I’ll find myself reading it over and over again, just to look at it. It’s something in the design, something in the story, something in the whole damn thing

I love this Fantastic Four comic book. It’s delicate, and needs to be properly cared for, but it’s also scarred for life. There are creases in pages that have been there longer than I’ve been alive, the paper is scarred on a molecular level and it looks like a cat has had a go at the cover. The paper is yellowed, curling and chafing around the edges.

But it’s still hanging in there and I’m going to take care of the poor little fella because he’s the prettiest damn comic I’ve seen this year.

* * *

Growing up in a post-Neal Adams comic world, Kirby was always one of those things that it took me a long, long time to appreciate. I didn’t fall hopelessly in love with his Fourth World saga until I read the latest brightly coloured collected editions, and I realised I’d been a fool for a long, long time.

It also didn’t help that I genuinely didn’t see a lot of these early Marvel comics around. There was no comic shop or hundreds of kilometres when I was growing up, and any decent back issues older than 1987 quickly vanished into collector’s vaults, trash cans and the occasional second hand bookstore. There were odd collections and reprints, but the only wasy you could erally find out what happened in the past were in the pages of things like Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Editions, making these reference comics invaluable.

It’s fun to sneer at that Marvel Saga series these days, and it took a bit of a critical battering from the likes of Amazing Heroes at the time, but I devoured any issues I could get, because it filled in a lot of gaps in my head.

At one point, I owned more than ten thousand comic books, and not a single one had been published before 1971. It wasn’t for want of trying, but the few issues of silver age X-Men or Avengers that were around on the local market were far beyond my means. It was hard to justify paying $45 for Amazing Spider-Man #89 when that would buy a couple of new trade paperbacks.

But since finding that Fantastic Four with the seductively dark red colour and sexy Stan’s Soapbox, I’ve managed to score a few more of these old comics that have been loved to bits. I found that same Spider-Man #89 for a dollar, because somebody had cut out the value stamp inside, and found a couple of Iron Man and Daredevil comics from the very end of the Silver Age. In fact, it’s right down to the very month, with one of the soapboxes sadly reporting that Jack Kirby had left the company and that’s the end of an era right there.

I also got the first Fantastic Four annual for a couple of bucks in recent weeks, mainly because somebody scrawled a big bloody 12 into the cover with a felt pen, and then somebody made it worse by trying to fix it. But it’s still got its colour and its vitality and can show these modern comics a thing or two about pacing and energy.

I’m mainly on the Marvel kid, but it’s filtering out into the DC comics of that time as well. I can’t read the Showcase collections of DC superheroes from the sixties because it’s just too much, but the odd issue of World’s Finest or Brave and the Bold from 1962 are also going down well. When modern superhero comics are hurtling towards a $10 price point in local currency, paying $5 for a single issue of sixties sci-fi superhero wonkiness is pretty fucking easy.

Marvel’s still got the edge on raw energy. The stories are clumsy to modern eyes, but there is still a loud charm in their desire to please and Stan Lee can build up histrionics like nobody else in the business. Each issue is filled with incident and melodrama and there is a beauty in the bluntness.

There is also a weird beauty in the advertisements of times gone by – comic commercials for products that haven’t existed in years and text-heavy pieces on the squarest of subjects. There is still a lot of charm in Norman Rockwell telling you he’s looking for people who like to draw, there are pleas to move to New Mexico because it’s sunny, and full page ads about hairloss must be due for a comeback, considering the againg man-child that is Marvel’s current core demographic.

But it’s the art that still sings on this cheap newsprint, still has an energy that can not be destroyed. It’s astounding to think of the prolific output of Marvels sixties artists, and the way they still managed to sneak real mood and atmosphere in there, complete with that vitality of the eternally young.

Kirby was king, but there is still brilliant stuff from the likes of Wally Wood and John Romita and Werner Roth and Dick Ayers and Gene Colan. Even poor old Don Heck, who drew the best eyebrows in comics but also took a lot of justifiable criticism for his stilted figures and lacklustre movement, is still unavoidably re-readable

* * *

Jack Kirby died a few years ago, and the world of comics is all the poorer for it, but his art can still kick your arse, decades after he scratched out his living.

He lived long enough to see his craziest ideas used as the basic foundation of the business but his legacy is getting tougher by the years, and his comics will still look colourful and new for the next few centuries.

The issue of Fantastic Four #62 I got for a dollar won’t last that long, but it’ll last a few more years with proper care and attention. Flipping through it on a daily basis is certain to shortern that life, but I can’t help myself.

And I want more. I might have to pay more than $1 for it, but they’ve got me now. I’m hooked on 43-year-old comics. Took me long enough.

1 comment:

Inkwell Bookstore said...

Mentally mashing up two of your thoughts here -- (1.) falling in love with a single issue of a comic book run and (2.) Grant Morrison's comics -- made me think of a semi-recent issue that touched on both: All Star Superman #5. That long and winding walk with Lex and Clark remains one of the funnest experiences I've ever had reading four colored floppies.