Everything I post here is from the perspective of an ex-comic book reader/collector. I treasure what I still have, but rarely even look at them. Yet still they excerpt some sort of tug on my subconscious; they are a part of what made me the person I am. I think.
So anyway, last week I took the family over to visit relatives in Belfast. Grannie had bought a few books and comics at the local store to keep our kids amused. For the eldest, who's ten, she'd grabbed a random selection of Marvel and DC titles. Now, my son, gawd bless 'im, couldn't give a flying fuck about superhero comics. He's never been interested in them. Ever. But of course, as you can probably guess, I devoured the fucking lot during our visit, and even made sure to smuggle them home again, so I could peruse at my leisure. I am nearly 38 years old. How sad izzat?
So what do we have here? The Spider-Man and Marvel Heroes annuals are aimed squarely the juvenile market, featuring basic plots, minimal characterisation, colouring pages and puzzle sections. Not a great deal there to chew on, to be honest. Some of the artwork is fun, though. Shane Davis' Spider-Man hits a level of extreme stylisation that I've never witnessed in the web-slinger before - a crooked, spindly caricature with outrageously bulbous eyes. Captain Britain makes an appearance on the contents page of Marvel Heroes, which warms the cockles of my heart, obviously. But enough, let's get to the meaty stuff...
Sticking with Marvel, there's The Astounding Spider-Man #142. Unlike the kiddies' version, Peter Parker is no longer a meek student, but a fully rounded, professional adult. Glad to see he's finally matured. He's up against the usual suspects - Doc Oc, Scorpio,Green Goblin, etc, but the storyline seems to suggest that the reason Spidey keeps fighting the same villains over and over again is due to some sort of conspiracy involving the ruling classes. I love it when writers try to rationise the inherent ridiculousness of comic book logic. I mean, it's all nonsense, isn't it? I've been away for over two decades, yet still all these characters have hardly aged, still having the same problems in their personal lives, with the same people...Forever People, indeed.
Take Steve Rogers aka Captain America. In Marvel Legends #2, Rogers is still haunted by his WWII experiences and especially the death of the original Bucky, still doesn't seem to have anything approaching a normal private life, still has a tense on-off relationship with Sharon Carter and is still in his mid-30s. The guy was only frozen for a couple of decades, he must be over 60 by now! Mind you, Nick Fury looks even better. He fought in WWII as well, yet, even without the benefit of suspended animation, he's still looks fucking great, with just the perennial streaks of grey at the sides of his head. Mind you, the once ever-present cigar seems to have been consigned to the ashtray these days. Despite puffing on those stogies for at least 50 years, Fury's lungs are in great shape now. Back-up strips are Iron Man (inevitable costume upgrade, but still the same old Tony Stark) and Thor in a good old fantasy romp with nice artwork by Scott Kolins, in a sorta European style. Incidentally, these are all published in the UK by Panini Comics (who presumably have exclusive rights with Marvel) and don't they look lovely. Thick card sleeves, luxurious paper quality, sophisticated full colour throughout...it shows up the old Marvel UK for the shoddy operation it was! Although back then even newspapers were in black and white. What happened in the intervening years that made full colour publishing so easy and economically viable? I remember when I was a kid, my dad took me on holiday to Italy, and I was amazed by the quality of their Marvel reprints - even nicer than the US originals (I still have a souvenir issue of Fantastici Quatro lying around somewhere) and it seems like we've finally caught up with that level of presentation. But still, for all the paper quality and artistic sophistication, part of me still yearns for the pulpy world of Kirby, Buscema, Perez et al. It was all about the design, the ruthlessly efficient composition that led your eyes across the page so beautifully. This new generation of artists all bring something fresh, but they just don't scan as nicely. And what ever happened to caption bubbles? The third-person narrator has died. Captions only appear when in the first person, like a substitute for the thought balloon. Today's comics seem to aspire to the condition of motion pictures. The story is propelled entirely by visuals and dialogue. I think this is a trend that began in the '80s. The most significant gain from this has been the vastly improved level of dialogue writing, which can often flows very naturally, and is occasionally rather amusing. But still, I miss those "meanwhile, back at Avengers H.Q..." caption boxes. And then there was that style of caption writing pioneered by Stan Lee, whereby the writer/narrator seemed to be addressing the readers, like we were actually involved, part of the process. Now we are the unacknowledged spectators. Comics just aren't as inviting and friendly as they were. It's probably all Frank Miller's fault.
But anyway, let's move on to the DC stuff: Batman Legends #40 and a graphic novel-style collection called Hush Returns that compiles Gotham Knights #50- 66. Batman is one of the very few heroes with whom I've continued to have some sort of relationship with in adulthood, although the last thing I read was probably something like Batman & Dracula, which was well over a decade ago. Both of these specimens have overlapping plot elements and obviously take place in nearby time zones: the Joker's fall from grace as the criminal king of Gotham (now just a washed out wreck hiding in a derelict amusement park) and Batman's troubled relationship with Green Arrow are common factors, plus both story lines involve figures from Bruce Wayne's past relentlessly closing in on him - namely the Red Hood (who appears to be the second Robin come back to life) and Hush, who might be Wayne's brilliant-but-twisted childhood friend Tommy Elliot. The Joker's part in Hush Returns is the real centerpiece for me, delving back into his origin sequence so brilliantly imagined by Alan Moore back in The Killing Joke. We see the pain behind the cracked smile emerge once more, as he learns the identity of the man who killed his wife. Interestingly, the origin sequence is tampered with slightly: here, the Joker only finds out his wife is dead after the botched chemical plant raid, rather than beforehand - just another example of how, in the comics universe, the sequence of events can be altered, whilst the core facts remain the same. It was also fun to see the guy who makes all the special customs - for the good guys and the bad guys - an independent specialist with his own hidden garment factory, creating all those suits to the hi-specs required of his super-customers ("I don't take sides, I just take cash"). This is an idea I first saw in a short text story called Neutral Ground in the paperback Further Adventures Of Batman, published in 1989. All good, ripping yarns.
Although I've expressed some reservations, the fact remains that I was totally sucked into all these stories, and as I finished each one my overriding reaction was what happens next?! So many intriguing little plot strands and characters to explore. The urge to track down the surrounding issues and flesh out the story lines to my own satisfaction is remarkably strong. Even though much has changed, the characters and situations are still the same ones I followed all those years ago, and it's like coming back to the old neighbourhood and becoming embroiled in all those familiar lives once more. The Marvel and DC universes are so old and vast now, and constantly referencing and re-examining their own histories - the present is always firmly latched onto the past, which in turn informs the future, which can change slightly, but never really detaches itself from the core historical facts. Everything changes enough to ensure we keep reading. Nothing changes enough to ensure that, no matter how convoluted the storyline, by the time it concludes, reality has returned back to the default position. But the fun is in watching it all unfold. I've got a feeling I might be hanging around in these worlds again for a while, as least for a few months. I think a trip to Forbidden Planet is on the cards....