ComicsNovember 2008 Stupid A while back, I knew a guy who was a...

Sat, 11/15/2008 - 12:23pm -- JDavanza

November 2008


A while back, I knew a guy who was a cartoonist. He had won a Xeric grant to self-publish his comic book shortly before I met him. Peter Laird, one of the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, put some of his millions into a foundation to give grants to aspiring cartoonists, and my friend used his award to pay for the printing of his book.

Like cartoonists everywhere, he was well read. He was familiar with most of the comics and the cartoonists who were being published at the time and widely knowledgeable about the writers and especially the artists who had worked in the medium since its beginnings. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics and A Smithsonian Book of Comic–Book Comics were two important sources that he consulted and recommended.

A lot of interesting books were coming out in those days and a healthy amount of older work was being collected and republished which meant that there were plenty of comics that we could talk about, and yet, our conversations would inevitably gravitate toward the Marvel comics that we had read when we were kids. We’d reflect on the artists, writers, characters and plots, but eventually a growing sense of the ridiculousness of two grown men chatting seriously about work aimed at boys would induce him to wrap up that part of our conversation with the laughing declaration, “They’re stupid, you know.”

And he was right. The Marvel that I grew up with—the Marvel of the 1970s—was pretty stupid. Marvel in the 1960s was innovative, and there was good reason that it grabbed the imagination of college students and the national media. However, by the end of the decade, the company had largely stopped being creative and was mostly recycling and regurgitating what it had built up starting in 1962.

Superhero comics got out of their 1970s rut by turning to a grim, cynical and sadistic form of storytelling that grew so Byzantine that titles became inaccessible to casual readers. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen made the approach wildly popular and the numerous X-Men titles carried it out to extremes. Even if you’ve never read those comics, if you’ve watched The Dark Knight or any of the X-Men movies, you know the style. Some attempt to lighten superhero comics has been made during the past decade by independent publishers and, more recently, DC Comics by invoking the more innocent approach of 1960s, 1950s or, occasionally, 1940s books with the limited success that one would expect in an age of irony.

The Essential Marvel line has reprinted most of the important Marvel comics from the 1960s and is now working on getting out the books from the 1970s. And despite offering diminishing returns—and being pretty dumb—they’re still fun. The writers were literate and frequently drew ideas for stories from mythology, science fiction and horror. The artists were always competent and sometimes standouts. And the comics are very much things of their time. 1970s popular culture is in full force in those pages as is the pessimism of the Nixon, Ford and Carter years and the dystopian view of the future that underlies films like Logan’s Run and the Planet of the Apes series. And best of all, the stories usually start and end in one or two issues. Even if you don’t have a questionable nostalgia for 1970s pop culture—or especially if you do—I recommend visiting the Teen Room and checking out our selection of Essential Marvel titles.

Wil Gregersen
Community Services Librarian

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