With Earth’s Greatest Character Actors getting pegged down by Marvel and DC for their epic multi-year showdown at the multiplexes, it reminded me of a long feature I wrote when Marvel turned 50. That was only three years ago, with Marvel still in the final throes of assembling its avengers – it had yet to release Captain America – and the line-up of cinematic superheroes included only the household names. If someone told me then that Marvel would be greenlighting a universe of sequels, inceptions and crossovers out to 2020 – all without the might of crowd-pleasers Wolverine and Spider-Man, then I would have laughed. Today, we have dozens of Marvel and DC movies pencilled into our diaries for the foreseeable future. Superheroes are muscling everyone out of the cinemas… even the top actors are fleeing to the relative peace and safety of our TV screens…
COMIC TIMING: 50 YEARS OF MARVEL
by Mark Evans
WITHIN hours of the death of Osama bin Laden photoshopped copies of the iconic ‘Situation Room’ image were posted on the internet. One such picture imagined the key members of Barack Obama’s administration wearing superhero outfits. Hillary Clinton was dressed up as Wonder Woman. Joe Biden was The Flash. Superman controlled the video feed while Batman and Spider-Man stood in rapt attention behind him. Leaning forward in his seat was the US president himself dressed, appropriately, in the blue suit and mask of Captain America.
The viral image is much more complex than just an entertaining skit on a serious and historic moment. It reveals society’s need to reduce all things to simple ideas; black and white, good and evil. Obama is the hero; Osama is the villain. Clinton’s body language adds a touch of humanity to the snapshot, even if it’s true that she was stifling a sneeze. All heroes must have a human element, otherwise it is impossible for us to stay with them through thick and thin, even when they are shooting dead unarmed men in the dead of night.
It’s not the first time Obama has rubbed shoulders with superheroes. In 2009 to coincide with his inauguration, the incoming US president made the front cover of Spider-Man’s comic book. According to Marvel editor in chief Joe Quesada the idea came from Obama revealing that he collects Spider-Man comics. “I was just floored, absolutely floored, to find out that the future commander-in-chief was actually going to be the future nerd-in-chief,” said Quesada at the time.
Captain America, Spider-Man and Barack Obama. It seems Marvel Comics has been excelling in the PR stakes. Then again, with this month signalling 50 years of turning out some of the best-known superheroes in the universe, Marvel is used to having its finger on the pulse of society.
Superheroes have come a long way since Dr Droom debuted in issue one of Marvel’s Amazing Adventures in June 1961. Today, they span multiple universes and dimensions, wield strange and wonderful powers, while battling to save worlds, loved-ones, passers-by or themselves. Dr Droom was simply a telepathic magician wearing a cape. However, he was the very first character in what has been named theMarvel Age of comic books.
Before that age began, while Marvel was still known as Atlas Comics, the comic book industry was commanded by DC and patrolled by the mighty figures of Superman and Batman, not that the conservative media were happy with the situation. There was a widespread belief in America, while Europe was in the grip of war, that their young people were being urged to become violent. Children’s author and journalist Sterling North wrote an editorial for the Chicago Daily News in May 1940 which denounced the perceived bad influence of comic books. “Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the ‘comic’ magazine.”
Despite the opinions of North and others DC continued to sell a lot of comics and achieved even more success during the 1950s by revamping and updating its forgotten heroes, such as the Flash and Green Lantern, who had both begun their careers battling Nazis. Marvel watched enviously and tried to tap into the re-energised comic book market by bringing a touch of realism to heroic adventures.
However, the Dr Droom-led revamp quickly disappeared as Marvel rethought its strategy. By November of 1961 editor-in-chief Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby had got their act together and introduced the Fantastic Four. Members of superhero teams in the DC universe always got along. Marvel shook that premise up with the FF’s Thing, a superhero suffering from depression who is quick to fight with other members of the team. Marvel’s ideas instantly struck a chord with the teens of the ’60s. Lee, Kirby and fellow artist Steve Ditko stuck to the basic character template of flawed people with superpowers. The Fantastic Four was soon followed by Hulk (May 1962), Thor (August 1962), Iron Man (March 1963) and the X-Men (September 1963).
However, it was Amazing Fantasy #15, released in August 1962 that spawned what became Marvel’s version of Superman or Batman. Stan Lee recalled the reaction of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman after he pitched his idea for a unique boy superhero. “Nobody likes spiders; and how could a teenager be a superhero? Then I told him I wanted the character to be a very human guy, someone who makes mistakes, who worries, who gets acne, has trouble with his girlfriend, things like that. He told me I was crazy.”
Thankfully, Lee was given the go-ahead to unleash what became Marvel’s most successful character – one who spawned countless comic books, TV shows, Hollywood blockbusters and an infamous Broadway show. Goodman underestimated the popularity of arachnids.
Spider-Man was a true original. No other superhero at that time was a teenager aimed solely at teenagers. Superman was the ultimate adult, cleaning up the messes of deranged villains. Batman was devoid of irony; a grown man living with his young nephew and battling mentally challenged nemeses. What Lee and Ditko introduced was a young, engaging character who had supernatural abilities that he struggled to harness. He spoke directly to the teens of the ’60s and every generation since, including today’s.
“Spider-Man is definitely one of our more popular characters, especially with the younger readers because they can relate to him,” says Dave Malone, a comic book and graphic novel expert working at Other Realms, a comic and gaming store in Cork city.
“Peter Parker is a teen, he’s just a kid who’s been lumped with these extraordinary powers and it’s the human aspect of the character that attracts young people and holds their attention. Basically, behind the colourful suit there’s a person.”
So Spider-Man is still one of the superstars of comic books, even though he‘s nearly 50? “Spider-Man has continued to be one of the most popular characters because he has been consistent. He’s not the top man but he’s up there with the best. The most popular at the moment has to be Deadpool – he’s absolutely gold these days.”
Deadpool is a mentally unstable assassin and is still just a new kid on the Marvel block at 20 years of age. He has a long way to go and a lot of media in which to succeed before he can attempt to even tie Spider-Man’s webs.
“Deadpool is not so much directed at teenagers of today. He’s quite confused and an anti-hero who’s not sure about how he fits into the world. His doubts are the key human element that is recognised by readers, plus he’s absolutely hilarious. You have to have all of that before you even think about how amazing or fantastic the character is. The best characters are flawed characters.”
Internet polls of the best superheroes of all time consistently include Superman, Spider-Man, Batman and Wolverine in their top five. Deadpool faces the almost impossible task of usurping not just fellow comic book characters but modern-day gods. He may as well try to unseat Zeus or Jupiter. To expand that thought, DC would be home to the Greek gods, while Marvel commands the newer Roman deities. So, which pantheon has the most disciples?
“There’s no winner,” says Malone. “I could say I prefer one over the other but that’s just a personal choice. If one of them was ‘better’ then they would have a monopoly by now. But the reality is each of them has amazing characters. Personally, I would probably lean more towards Marvel because I think they have the better writers, but it all boils down to the characters.”
Okay, who are Malone’s favourite characters? “That’s a tough question. I would have to say I have a favourite three characters – Deadpool, the dysfunctional anti-hero; Venom, who is basically a monster but the stories depend on the person it infects and what they bring to it,; and Captain America, who is a Band of Brothers-type character.”
While the focus elsewhere has been on the possible demise of the book from the onslaught of electronic readers, there hasn’t been too much noise from the purveyors of comic books. In April 2010, Marvellaunched its own app for the iPad. During the launch, Marvel Publishing chief executive Dan Buckley reaffirmed his view that electronic versions of comic books would always be second best to their paper counterparts. “The iPad is the first device that offers us a chance to present digital comics that are even close to replicating the experience of reading a print comic.”
Dave Malone agrees that e-comics are no challenger to the real thing. “I don’t really see a threat because so many people still prefer to have the comic in their hands. I think if you download a comic to an iPad or whatever then you may not go back to it, but if it’s a comic you pay more attention to it. With iPads you just want the information; with comics you want to be entertained, there’s more engagement.”
The vast sums collectors are willing to pay for classic comic books shows just how much engagement there is. In March 2010, a copy of the 1938 debut of Superman sold for €1.1 million at auction. The month before Batman’s debut fetched just over €1m. A copy of Spider-Man’s debut sold for €770,000 last March.
There still exists the idea that comics are solely a male fascination. Jane Goldman, the screenwriter wife of Jonathan Ross, believes comic books and graphic novels are gathering a growing audience of female readers. “Women who were into comics used to be in a minority, but I think that’s changing,” she says. “It seems to odd to ask, why are you into comics? It’s like saying, why are you into books or films? It’s a way of telling a story.” Goldman co-wrote Marvel’s latest movie venture, X-Men: First Class.
Half a century after the beginning of Marvel’s modern age its legion of superheroes are regular features at the cineplexes. DC’s Superman triggered the battle of the big screen in 1978, but Marvel has put up more than a good fight against the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. Thor has recently hammered the box office for Marvel, after it was softened up by two Iron Man movies and a couple of Hulks. Meanwhile, theMarvel superhero mash-up Avengers will arrive next year, with Spider-Man’s fourth outing due in 2012.
However, this July will see the release of Captain America, a character born during the Golden Age of comic books, who has just turned 70. He made his debut for Marvel’s predecessor Timely Comics in March 1941. The front cover of the comic book features a Nazi control room – or ‘situation room’, if you will. A huge television screen fills a rear wall showing a ‘live’ image of a man blowing up a munitions factory with TNT. However, it is the action in the foreground that excited so many readers that the comic sold almost one million copies – Captain America is punching Adolf Hitler on the jaw and knocking the Fuhrer on his ass.
Fast-forward 70 years to another ‘situation room’. There’s another big screen on the wall, but this time it is showing the live downfall of Hitler‘s modern-day equivalent – and uber-villain – Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the 21st century’s ‘captain america’ sits watching it all unfold.
It seems some things will never change, including the perpetual fight between good and evil. Marvel’s comic books have personified that struggle for half a century and dressed its players up in colourful suits. But beneath it all it’s still as simple as black and white.
This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, June 11, 2011