It all started when I saw the Spider-Man movie, which captured the spirit of the comic I remember from adolescence. Spider-Man was my favorite superhero growing up, because it was so easy for an insecure kid to identify with him. When he wasn’t screwing up his job, having girl problems, or dealing with his unpopularity at school; he was fighting to make his world better, taking on criminals and supervillains even though the police and the media were against him. He swung through the skies of New York City, wisecracking his way through epic battles, throwing out humorous asides as good as any stand-up comedian. I saw the movie and knew immediately where I was headed: Back down that road into my closets, storage, and bookshelves to dig out my Marvel comics.
And did I ever get hooked on those superheroes again. I started surfing the Net, reading articles on the Marvel Comics Universe, the home of Spider-Man and a host of other superheroes I had tracked as a kid. The concept of the Marvel Universe was sheer genius: The heroes existed in the same continuum; making appearances in each other’s issues, helping each other out, sometimes even fighting one another. For instance, in an early story Spidey attempted to join the Fantastic Four but was turned down. He then had an ongoing rivalry going with fellow teen the Human Torch – prettyboy hothead (ha ha) vs. sardonic webslinger. You know who I cheered for. (I loved it when Spider-Man, Daredevil and Thor took on three-fourths of the Fantastic Four and Spidey beat the Torch – yes!*)
But I’ll be honest. I don’t have much of a comic-book collection, just a handful of mid-seventies titles in a grocery sack in my closet. Through those and a few anthologies I own, I have a basic knowledge of the Marvel universe up until 1978 or so. My comics interest flares up every few years and when it does, I end up reading my old titles – reliving my childhood instead of diving into anything new.
To try to explain why I love comics is to quickly end up sounding like a dork. Besides, I don’t want to think about it too much. In fact, I even wondered if I should write this piece at all because I would have to think too much about comics. I know damn well I think about rock ‘n’ roll too much, when really my enjoyment of it is best when it’s something I’m not thinking about. My best music experiences continue to be ones such as blasting the likes of AC/DC and Van Halen on headphones late at night in the dark while drinking beer or getting drawn into the stage show of some smoking band in a local watering hole. Because it’s often best to not think, to just get lost in something.
In Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics, he explains how comics get our imaginations lost in them: They use images in a continual fashion to create a story. Panel-to-panel, we fill in the gaps of the story in our mind. When they’re working right, your imagination goes into overdrive and your mind gets blown. While speaking in town this summer, author Rick Moody said that he writes while blasting loud rock ‘n’ roll on headphones. Somebody asked him how could he think while doing this? He said that’s the point – he doesn’t want to think, he wants to feel. Feel, not think. With comic books, I feel more than I think. That’s why the Marvel Silver Age comics appeal more to me than the new titles. The colors are simpler, the characters are iconic. I just want to see them, absorb them, feel them. I can get lost in them without all the intellectual bullshit analyzing. Not to mention that superheroes are still damn cool in my book. Who doesn’t want an altar-ego who could go out and kick ass while swinging through the skies?
In the mid-seventies when I got hooked on superheroes, DC Comics (home to Superman and Batman, among many others) was always kind of a joke in my neighborhood among us comics readers. Aside from Batman, DC’s superheroes were clods. The artwork was generally brutal when compared to the beauty over at Marvel. I held the DC bias for years until the mid-eighties when I started buying “graphic novels.” (A fancy term for thicker comic books.) But upon a recommendation from Rock & Roll Confidential, I ran out and bought DC’s Watchmen. Things were never quite the same.
Re-reading my comics this summer was invariably going to lead me through yet another reading of Watchmen. It’s a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in which superheroes exist in the real world. What I mean by that is that in the world of Watchmen, superheroes interacted with and affected the history of the USA in the past forty years. Only one of the superheroes has any special powers (caused by radiation, natch), the rest are all purely, sadly human. They help the US win the Vietnam War, stop the Watergate investigation from happening, rescue the hostages in Iran, and get banned by Congress from fighting crime. (Superheroes are essentially vigilantes, remember?) The story unravels as a mystery via flashbacks, action adventure, and all sorts of pull-out-the-stops devices. With a winding, absorbing plot and a classic comic-art style, Watchmen remains one of the best pieces of fiction – comic or otherwise – I have ever read.
I bought a few more graphic novels – all by DC – in the late eighties / early nineties: V for Vendetta and Batman titles such as The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and Year One. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is up there with Watchmen as a tour de force of superhero revisionism. Batman comes out of retirement at age fifty to confront his old enemies Two-Face and the Joker, along with young gangs and the U.S. government – when Grandpa Ronnie sends boy scout yes-man Superman to silence the Batman. The Man of Steel is probably the most comprehensively boring superhero in any continuum and The Dark Knight Returns is highly recommended for anyone who wants to cheer against Superman. Trust me, it’s not too hard to do.
While on some level, my recent desire to read comic books was obviously escapism, the real world can’t help but show up in the stories. Within the revisionist tales of Moore and Miller – which were dripping with familiar Reagan/Thatcher/Cold War/nuclear showdown paranoia – I began to also see the first days of our twenty-first century. In Watchmen, a devastating attack is launched on New York City. In The Dark Knight Returns, Harvey Dent attempts to blow up the Twin Towers of Gotham. I dug back into my older comics, seeing today’s headlines left and right. In the Marvel universe Nick Fury, agent of SHIELD, was fighting the hordes of Hydra, a secret society that threatened civilization as we know it. (Notice how “Hydra” and “Al-Qaida” sound the same.) Over in The Fantastic Four, Dr. Doom was the Osama bin Laden of the Marvel universe; witness how he had his own little country of Latveria complete with thousands of loyal cronies – just like bin Laden had in Afghanistan. Doom was always up to no good, coming up with plans to wreak havoc: “Doctor Doom, Evil Genius, Creates New Weapon” says the newspaper headline in the 1964 The Fantastic Four annual. I wonder if it was a dirty bomb…
I flipped over to the usually funnier Spider-Man and he was fighting the Green Goblin, who eventually died while trying to waste Spidey. But who was the second Green Goblin? His son, Harry Osborn…
WASHINGTON (AP) - One of Osama bin Laden's eldest sons has emerged as a leader in al-Qaida, gaining enough prestige that U.S. counterterrorism officials now consider him among their top two dozen targets remaining in the terrorist network. – July 29th, 2002.
Over at DC, Batman’s archenemy the Joker was always pulling stunts like trying to poison Gotham’s water supply. (“Somebody’s threatened to poison the Gotham reservoir. Calls himself the Joker.” – Jim Gordon in Batman: Year One.)
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The FBI said yesterday U.S. water supplies can be considered a "logical target for a possible terrorist attack." – October 11th, 2001.
Bin Laden also has other supervillain characteristics: He pops up on television from time to time to taunt his enemies – though the gutless rich kid hasn’t had the smarts to cut into a prime-time broadcast Joker-style. And he keeps getting away. Just like the baddies in the comic books. Fucking punk.
Like I said, I lost track of the superhero worlds years ago. I don’t recognize the current Marvel or DC universes. I’m like a seventies-rock guy in a hip-hop world. Every year or so, I stroll through a comic book store, and am immediately lost. The artwork is beautiful, but beyond my immediate comprehension. But I will be content to take my time with the superhero comics – to absorb my titles from decades past and creep forward towards the present when ready. Maybe just this once I will stay within myself and simply enjoy.
The latest comic book collection I read was a Marvel mid-eighties one: Daredevil – Born Again by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli. At some point – in true Marvel fashion – characters from another title showed up. The Avengers appeared in the aftermath of a battle that Daredevil had with an amphetamine-jacked rogue U.S. soldier. They are only there for nine panels, but chills ran down my spine as Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America assisted in the cleanup. It was postmidnight as I read; and I bounced out of my futon, fist in the air, yelling YES YES. Later in the story, Captain America lectured a general who treated his duty and loyalty patronizingly: “I’m loyal to nothing, General – except the Dream,” he said while touching an American flag.
I got another chill. Then it dawned on me – I have the rest of my life to read these stories. Then I sighed. And smiled.
* In FF #73 -- Bashful Bill