In a post a while back, I mentioned that my four-year old son is obsessed with super-heroes. So he remains — though he has now moved on from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Superman, Batman, and various costumed do-gooders of his own invention, including Twenty-Arms (his power is that he has twenty arms, and he can crush you), Stripe Man (he can control anything that has stripes), the Gray Lantern, the Orange-and-Brown Lantern, and Dr. Mysterious, with his Mysterious Cat (I think Dr. Mysterious is a villain, actually. Just in case you’re keeping track.)
Anyway, we’ve also moved on from the super-hero children’s books, thank god, and have been reading some actual comics. I got the first Essential Spider-Man collection, which is maybe a bit too old for him, but he likes looking at the pictures and can occasionally sit all the way through a whole story. I remembered these as being pretty good, and so they are. I don’t know that I quite think Ditko’s artwork is quite genius here, but it is clean and energetic, and he’s definitely got a flare for bizarre character designs (what is the deal with the Green Goblin carrying a purse, anyway.) Similarly, Stan Lee’s story-telling is just so hackneyed and goofy you’ve got to love it. Paraphrasing loosely:
Dr. Octopus: Spider-Man!
Spider-Man: Well I ain’t Albert Schweitzer!
Dr. Octopus: How dare you speak flippantly to me!
All the broken-hearted mooning and love quadrangles (Flash Thompson, Liz, Peter, Betty, and son on) is pretty great. And there are lots of nice touches — the Sandman actually gets captured at one point by a giant vacuum cleaner, and at another he’s stopped when the police sit on him. The comics are satisfying and entertaining. I definitely still have affection for them.
We’ve also been reading some of the old Gardner Fox JLA comics, though, and those are a different kettle of sludge. I don’t see anyway around them being just flat out bad. Yes, there is a spark of imagination there, and the deliriously aphasiac leaps of logic could, in another context, be exciting and diverting (see Fletcher Hanks’ comics, for example.) But it’s all delivered with such ineptly plodding storytelling that much of the joy is lost. Many of the stories are told through multiple narrative frames for no particular reason other than sheer poor planning — the JLA telling Snapper Carr about their first adventure for example — a move which effectively kills any suspense and makes the entire effort needlessly wordy. Snapper Carr himself is just a disaster — he’s a bored forty year old’s vision of what a ten year old imagines a hip 15 year old would be like, and as such is an unmitigated embarrassment to everyone involved. Maybe worst of all is the relentless effort to educate; Aquaman can’t swim onto the page without being accompanied by some wordy disquisition about the unique characteristics of the puffer fish.
I guess some folks might argue that it’s bad because it’s for kids — but, you know, there’s lots of great art for kids. There’s the Moomin books, for example, or Dr. Seuss, or Asterix, or Tin-Tin, or even Sandra Boynton, for that matter. And, actually, those first Siegel/Schuster Superman comics were better than this by a country mile; even the first Batman comics have a consistent pulpy atmosphere and a visual style that’s missing here. But this stuff is dreck. Maybe it’s the first effects of the whole shared-world meme; the people working on this stuff didn’t create many of these characters, and putting them together totally vitiates there whole reason for being in many cases. Wonder Woman is supposed to be a tripped out statement about female power; Batman’s supposed to be at least a bit noir, put them together and you’ve got — a bunch of suburban old farts in a wandering around cleaning their clubhouse while chatting about their past exploits. Blech. These just totally feel like hackwork by guys who couldn’t care less — like Hardy Boys books, only maybe worse. Anyway, nostalgia notwithstanding, it’s worth remembering I guess that super-hero comics have a long, rich tradition of sucking really, really hard. In case anyone had forgotten.