I’ve been reading some of my old, barely remembered comics to my completely super-hero obsessed 4-year old. He loves them all indiscriminately, of course. My reactions are more mixed.

The Super-Friends

I presume some of you have a memory of the animated television series with Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Robin, and the Wonder Twins (Zan and Jayna). Anyway, it was also turned into a comic-book series in the late 70s, early 80s, and I bought a bunch of issues (I would have been 8 or 9 then, I guess.)

I had somewhat fond memories of the series, and revisiting them with my son didn’t entirely disillusion me. Yes, they are insufferably preachy (Superman’s always sticking his chest out, looking down at the Wonder Twins, and intoning some platitude like “…strength isn’t everything to a hero! Sometimes brains are more important!”) And they also strain painfully hard to be educational (when the Scarecrow starts inflicting our heroes with superphobias, Batman and Superman sort of stand around solemnly listing the scientific names of each one “Acrophobia — fear of heights!”) And the art is bland and uninspired (though it certainly doesn’t look too bad by the standards of many modern-day efforts.)

Still, the comics do have a kind of doddering, aphasiac creativity which I find entertaining. In one episode, Merlin the magician shows up, hands a mad filmmaker a magic camera, and then wanders off again. (When asked why he’s still alive, Merlin taps his brow and says “Dear me! I must have forgotten to die!”) In another, a team of elemental themed super-villains are hindered by the fact that their costumes can’t keep up with their super-powers (for instance, the water-villain can’t flow out of her costume — and did I mention that the water-villain is bizarrely able to change into a gorilla?) In the Scarecrow issues, they also randomly claim Wonder Woman changes into a berserker because she’s removed her bracelets (Is that cannon? Where do they get this stuff?) And then there’s the animal-training villain who appears in multiple issues and whose name is… Menagerie Man.

I mean, obviously, you wouldn’t want to read this yourself if you didn’t have to, but my son loves it, and the blundering goofiness is just entertaining enough to keep you from wanting to kill yourself after you’ve read it for the fourth time.

Spidey Super-Stories

This was a collaboration between Marvel and the Electric Company television show (which featured live-action Spidey segments during its run.) Again, I had fond memories of these from my youth. They are pretty cute; less actual stories than a running series of puns and gags, some aimed at the kids, some pitched (kindly) at the adults. I really enjoyed the picture of Thanos (yes, Thanos) piloting a monogrammed helicopter.

In another issue, a villain called Mastermind (not the X-Men enemy) uses his evil soft drinks to battle a Women’s Liberation march. And I also liked the episode where Spidey dresses up in a gorilla suit to do movie stunts for a semi-sentient simian, who is a lot less grateful than you might think. (“How do I get into these things?” Spidey asks. How indeed?)

Reading over that, it actually sounds more entertaining than it is. Part of the problem is the decision to make the language and storylines as simple as possible. It’s meant to be easy reading for kids, I guess, but it’s boring — and, really, there are a lot of books for kids that aren’t, so I fear the language in itself isn’t an excuse. I think the people who did this were probably pretty clever, but not quite clever enough to overcome the reductive concept. I think I really prefer the Super-Friends, which is more clearly created by idiots, but which has a genuine Silver-Age-what-the-hell vibe, for which I retain a soft spot.

Original X-Men
I do like some Stan Lee — the writing in the early Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics is quite entertaining, for example. But, jeez, the Lee/Kirby X-Men is sure a pile of irredeemable crap. A big part of the problem is the Danger Room — every damn issue starts off with pages and pages of tedious “powers testing” for no particular purpose. And the whole dynamic with Jean Grey as the only girl and all the guys (including, ickily enough, Professor X) vying for her attention is unendurably corny.

I guess the difference is that Spidey is all about nerd-meets-world; Peter Parker has to negotiate interactions with folks who aren’t like him (whether guys like Flash or J. Jonah Jameson, or girls like Betty or Mary Jane.) Whereas the X-Men feels like nerd-meets-nerd; the boys’ clubhouse atmosphere is overwhelming. I mean, Magneto and the evil mutants are fun, but they just show up how completely irritating the supposed heroes are. Professor X, in particular, is hopelessly self-righteous. In one sequence, he has the X-Men attack the Blob, and then is surprised when the latter doesn’t want to join his team. So then the Professor mindwipes him. Yay for the heroes, I guess.

I wonder if Ditko just brought more to the writing than Kirby did? I haven’t read too man other Lee/Kirby titles…no, wait, the Lee/Kirby monster comics I’ve read were all much better than this. Maybe the two of them were just tired by the time they got to the X-Men. Anyway, reading these, Chris Claremont looks like a genius. That’s not something I find myself saying very often, but who would have thought anything worthwhile could be salvaged from this train-wreck?