Below you’ll find a column I did early in 2007. It’s timeless, though, because it’s all about how miserable I was in junior high. Apparently more than a few people my age had the experience of being fat little boys condemned to read undue quantities of Marvel. Most of them went on to publish sensitive novels; the exceptions are myself and Barack Obama. Seriously, check out Dreams from My Father. His comics-reading period shows up in the same regretful, elliptical way as his teenage drug use. Of course, he may not have been fat; there I’m extrapolating.
I just read an essay by a novelist in his forties who was reminiscing about Marvel comics. The piece was pretty good, made some good points, but came in the flossed-up literary prose of someone who thinks writing about comics is a precious thing to do: a good point isn’t just a good point, it’s a piece of waggery. Expect more of the same below. Trying to write precisely about very trivial matters does something to your tone of voice; so does embarrassment, of course, and in my case that is also a factor. The novelist and I are about the same age and passed through the same onerous passage in junior high of reading Marvel and reading Marvel and reading more Marvel. For him, I gather, the experience was frustrating but still worthwhile. For me it was like getting run over by a truck. It hurt; it took a toll. For years I’d look back and wonder how I made it through. Of course the question I should have asked is why I did it. Nothing really had happened to me — the effort had been all mine. You could say I had been running into the truck, over and over, for years. I still feel like the experience was private and somehow shameful.
Superhero fans have a degree of consumer self-sacrifice that’s brutal. We grind ourselves to keep up. At conventions you hear grown men asking Dan DiDio why he can’t go easy with DC’s blockbuster schedule of mindblowing, must-buy continuity events, and then you hear Dan DiDio asking the men why he would want to go easy. On the message boards, fans complain that there’s no leverage against suppliers because all the other fans keep buying the stuff no matter what. Everyone is penned together in a seller’s market, and what’s on sale is batches of air. Hawkgirl’s new identity doesn’t matter unless you choose to care about it. We make the choice fervently, and the fervor is a big part of the appeal. This is a small chance for our souls to cut loose (because lives aren’t built on a very big scale these days). But the payoff is frustration. We’re giving our fervor to a company, and a company will not give its fervor back to us. Maybe it will listen with more attention or less attention, but in the end decisions will get made over our heads, low-grade product will be slapped in front of us. We’ll be told what a great buying opportunity for classic quality we now confront, and we’ll know it isn’t true, but we’ll go ahead and buy. A stockpile of half-loved product will mount up in our homes.
When I say “we,” I really mean “they, plus me as I was 34 years ago.” I remember being a superhero fan, and I can see a strong family resemblance between my experience and today’s, but I admit there are differences. These are because of the difference in eras and just because I am the way I am. Comic buyers nowadays look after what they buy, but back then only some did and I was not one of them. At the same time, and here’s where my particular personality comes into play, I never thought of throwing the comics out. Instead I kept a pile of them in the closet, a heap. It was like some kind of digestive process was going on, from newsstand to my bed to the closet, and the finished comics were the dung. I let them sit there and somehow, even after three years, the closet never got full. I think I owned an exceptionally small amount of clothing. It seems possible, anyway. Something had gone wrong with me, the way it does for a lot of poor geeks and their unhappy families. From about ten onward my life picked up a desert-island kind of feel, as if I’d been stranded a long way from normal human manners and intercourse and could never cross the ocean again. Instead I had to rig my own little operation, one where (for example) storage space went to disappointing fantasy goods instead of clothing.
A heavy choice underlay my closet policy. Even out of sight and reduced to a pile, the comics were important to me. As entertainment most of them had been duds, unless you counted the Kirby and Romita reprints. But collectively they were a kind of investment. The heap stood in for Marvel and my decision that, because Marvel existed, something good existed somewhere in the world. Otherwise I saw little hope. Here’s where my experience splits off a bit from today’s typical fan. I was younger and I was a good deal more desperate, and I saddled Marvel with more than the usual amount of need. It stood in for the adult world that was heading my way, the adult world as I hoped against hope it would be but was pretty sure it wouldn’t.
Of course, in a lot of ways I was so typical it hurt. Like a ton of other kids, I switched from DC to Marvel toward the end of fifth grade and started buying steadily from about that moment on. My period lasted clean through junior high, three whole years; I stopped short the last month of eighth grade. By the calendar, this gives us June 1972 to June 1975. One of my last issues was Giant-Size X-Men number 1, the dawning of an era. During my time Marvel’s tent pole was Steve Englehart: he had The Avengers and Captain America, so at least some of the mainline characters got a chance to be interesting. It gave the line as a whole the illusion of vitality, but otherwise the good stuff was at the edges, the titles that bobbed into view and out of view every other month. They depended either on Steve Gerber or the occasionally wonderful effects sought by the artists, young longhairs dazed by God knows what as they picked away at realizing their ambitions for the form. Sometimes you had to count intention as result. Frank Brunner had it together most of the time, but Craig Russell was really just learning from issue to issue.
Jim Starlin was the heavyweight of the fringes crew. All else apart, his best material had a panel-to-panel pulse, a forward motion for the eye. Providing this sense of glide has become fairly standard (though not standard enough) in modern superhero titles. But you didn’t find it much at Marvel in the early ’70s. The basic approach inherited from Stan and Jack worked more on the tour-guide model. The panels meshed, but only as a reading convenience; the show resided pretty much in proper display of the panel-by-panel contents. Each significant action, object or character in a panel was togged out with its own hanging word balloon devoted to identifying it and placing it in analytical perspective; not that an explosion would talk, but that Hawkeye, in the background, would be stationed under a cloud of text explaining that the explosion had taken place and that it deserved attention as an outstanding specimen of its kind. Done by run-of-the-mill practitioners — that is, by most practitioners — the whole business became very step-by-step, pick-and-shoot, like basketball played by stubby Irish-Americans years before we were born. Of course it had its own formal touches. Significant action had to be properly spotlighted, a page had to hold together. The big, jagged word balloon capped off the hammer blow at the page’s bottom right-hand panel (“For Odin and for Asgard!!”). What you didn’t find was a sense of forward motion. Stagnation became part of the moment-to-moment experience of reading Marvel, part of the grain of the experience; it’s like they wanted to rub it in. They were merciless that way, and I went along.
The company was dumping product on the newsstands; keeping up was not a healthy thing to do. I don’t think Stan Lee meant to do any harm. Anyone who bought 20 Marvel titles a month, he’d reason, must be enjoying them. And what if the kid was not? Well, Stan might say, that young fellow’s family might want to consider the help of a concerned psychiatrist. I think my hypothetical Stan has hit it on the head. I was in a bad way. Marvel made it worse, but I’d bet I was an outlier in the Marvel consumer experience. How many did I buy each month? Twenty feels right, but it could have been more. I’m sure that Stan was not counting on all his customers buying twenty-plus a month. I was something special, a buyer configured to match Stan’s selling apparatus.
So much of Marvel looked like it was drawn by men with their right arm in a sling. Instead they were men trying to keep up with Marvel’s production schedule. I did too, and we got worn down together. At the time, piece by piece, I came to the slow realization that John Romita and John Buscema were being overworked. It all added up until, behind my back, the idea became my operating assumption. Sometime during seventh grade the artists and writers working for Marvel stopped seeming like the Bullpen and became my junior high teachers. They were poor schmucks who did jobs, some of them confused post-hippies, some of them men dressed up in button shirts with neat cuffs, doomed to live middle life as a functionary. John Buscema and John Romita were locked to their drawing boards, meeting quota, and you just accepted that’s how things went. Or I just accepted it. Life sucked. Meanwhile, I knew I liked the security of my pop crap, and I didn’t know much else.
My gears had gotten a bit jammed. Romita and Buscema were at one end of an industrial process and I, the perfect Marvel consumer, was at the other. Their drawing regressed and so did my reading, and finally, plowing through one issue after another, one Saturday after another, lying on my side with my neck in a crook and my stomach lounging beside me, I found that the drone itself was the appeal. For long stretches during an afternoon, after the Thor and Nick Fury reprints and before Man-Thing and Dr. Strange, my reading dropped to a level that was like staring at the warp and woof of a carpet. I was down to the nub of the experience, a monotonous place that wasn’t really any place. I didn’t know if I liked it there, but I could stay there.
In the beginning I’d cared a lot about Marvel’s sheer friendliness. It made me feel like someone who knew people he could talk to and have fun with, and that made me feel more real. Everyone knows about Stan Lee’s marketing flair and how the “True Believer” fast talk built an illusion of belonging. We’re talking about the friendliness of a pitch artist, but that can be a warm and lively thing for the time being. Even when I stopped thinking of anyone as actually coming with the voice, since Stan by now was publisher and was no doubt busy, the covers with their boxes and arrows and nonstop hoching kept providing hits of the same juice, diluted but constant, kind of an intravenous drip for my sense of being wanted on the face of the planet.
When I was a kid I liked that jabber: the “Electrifying” and “Deadliest Man-Menace,” and the copy that ought to be read by the lady who voices Bart Simpson. (“Don’t Dare Miss the Big Change in Mar-Vell, in the Thriller We Call — Metamorphosis!”) It was a voice in the ear, and when it stopped being someone’s voice, or even the Bullpen’s voice, when I was punch drunk and it was just noise, I liked it because it helped save me from thinking. Down at the nub, a lot of Marvel’s appeal was that you didn’t have to think. You barely had to look, in any sense beyond putting your eye on the page. The editors notes that were always popping up, the bunched fists and jutting knees and shoulders and elbows, the swarm of word balloons, the big, roundhouse swooshes that filled out panel after panel and pinned the eye safely in place but didn’t actually resemble a punch thrown in a real fight—they all crowded in as if an elevator had filled up with salesmen and every last one of them was putting his arm around your shoulder. You got jostled off your feet and there you hung, toes dangling, head full of noise, at rest.
I kept buying. I was lonely, and I sensed that life was not happening for me as it happened for other people. The diorama wasn’t taking shape, the flats stayed down: no girls, no bike, no pals. I didn’t have anywhere to be except school and bed. Meanwhile, adult life was still coming toward me. If Marvel wasn’t so reassuring, what was? I felt like a crash was about to happen.
Even at the very end I saw myself as a Marvel consumer. I never went through a period of cutting back. I was still buying the black-and-white monster magazines, full of sex stuff that even I could see was childish and that exposed me to humiliating looks when I was up at the register. But my loyalty had been hollowed out. A long time ago Marvel had promised me a bigger world, and after a while I sensed that no bigger world was available by this route, and more time passed and I started thinking that I might be up against a problem. In May 1975, I believe, I reflected that three years had passed and all that time I had been reading captions and balloons that looked just like the ones in front of me. Possibly the Falcon, drawn by Sal Buscema, was standing in a ghetto vacant lot as Redwing swooped off for help.
In June 1975, June of eighth grade, I bought my Giant-Sized X-Men (“Senses-Shattering 1st Issue!”). But that same month a girl at school made a comment about all the comics I bought, and the other kids laughed, not really in a mean way, and I realized how much I wanted Marvel out of my life. I never expected anyone to know about my comics habit or to care much what I did. But since they did know, I wanted my comics to be a secret; even better if I didn’t read them at all. I wanted my life to start being right. That summer I began reading classics and Philip Roth. I was trying to learn about the adult world, and eventually I came away with a mixed bag of information that still has me scrambled. But the important thing is that I stayed in my room, so no big change ever occurred. A few years later I was listening to rock albums over and over and reading quickie paperbacks about Mick Jagger. Life sucked.
Back in my Marvel days, on a dark winter evening at the Tip-Top Stationery sometime during sixth grade, I looked in the back of the top comic in the sheaf I had picked out and finally learned about FOOM. There had been months of teasers; now here was the word, the full revelation laid down in a special “Bullpen Bulletins.” What I felt inside was so big it made my throat close. It was an itch. I had the news, I was right there, but I realized it would do me no good. Somehow I was going to miss out. I had a desperate need to boast about what I had found and nobody to boast about it to but Scott, who was my one friend and a comics fan but whom I didn’t like. When I think back to the FOOM moment, which is difficult, everything is lit in the flash-of-lightning way of an historic moment, vivid and overwhelming, but it all feels hopeless. Something huge was going on and it was happening way too fast for me to catch up. I didn’t have any friends.
I expect some people did join FOOM and it helped them make some progress toward friends and a life and so on, even toward a profession. They kept liking superheroes after I turned off the things. I don’t know how they did it, but I’d guess the choice helped them more than not. At the same time, the superhero experience today has its points of resemblance with my own. I’ve mentioned a few: the grind, the frustration, the hype. Is there another consumer experience like this one? I can’t think of any. Buying substantial new product every single month and doing so just to stay in the game, to consider yourself a consumer of the brand. Car buyers don’t do that, pants buyers don’t do it, Brad Pitt fans and Star Trek fans don’t do it (because the paperbacks are optional). Only superhero fans do it. I did; they do now. It’s an insane experience with a few saving graces, and what the lifers have made of it is often quite amazing. I mean pros and fans both. For a skeptic, seeing what they’ve done is like seeing vines push through rock. I swear the life force can beat anything.
But claustrophobia still seems written into the deal. The boredom and griping. The sense that anything you like is going to get spoiled down the road. The whorls of innovation that somehow always lead back to the tried and true, now with a few more clichés added to the pile. For many people, maybe a majority of fans, superheroes don’t quite seem to be a pleasure but are still somehow a way of life. I don’t think that’s healthy, but it’s interesting. And I can identify.