continued from here:
In an earlier post about Atlas Comics’ Phoenix: The Man Of Tomorrow, I argued – beginning here – that the book’s stories didn’t appear to reflect an informed grasp of the history of the superhero comic on the part of its creators. In particular, I suggested that the narrative traditions used in Phoenix tapped into aspects of both pre- and post-Marvel Revolution storytelling that, when so crudely mixed, undermined each other’s strengths. Having already posted about Phoenix’s naive appropriation of Silver Age DC Comics conventions, I thought I might move onto the way in which the comic struggled with the heritage of the early-60s Marvel Comics Revolution of Lee, Kirby, Ditko et al. In doing so, I hope to circle round again to the matter of the unnamed and evil alien race in Phoenix #1 and the matter of how they might have been made more interesting, more compelling, more vital.
It’s common enough these days, in which the 20 highest-grossing movies of all time contain six Marvel films, to encounter talk about what made the company’s comics so artistically and commercially successful. Simple formulations are offered as fact, complex situations reduced to taken-for-granted sound bites. Yet the methods used by the founders of the Marvel Revolution throughout the Sixties were constantly in flux and frequently at odds with many of today’s generalisations about the company’s past. Nor have comics fans been immune to the lure of such sweeping statements. And so, to take but one example, we’ve long been told that post-1960 Marvel Comics were “realistic”, although, as any glance at the source material would surely testify, it would take a spectacularly loose and indulgent redefinition of realism to make that contention stick.
What then was the Marvel Method? To take just the collaborations of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, is it possible to identify some common features that might usefully link the very different kinds of stories that featured in their Spider-Man and Dr Strange tales? (*1) As with many comparisons, the closer we look, the harder it can be to feel confident about any hard and fast rules. For if the first Marvel Comics are held, say, to have been about flawed heroes, as Peter Parker would appear to prove, then what do we say about Stephen Strange, who, after his short original story, is a flawless protagonist until Ditko’s departure? Rather than an exception to the rule, I’d suggest that Strange’s first, brilliant run of adventures illustrates a truth about the Marvel Revolution as a whole, namely, that the commonsense explanations of it frequently fail to describe what was actually happening in those books.
*1:- The degree to which the early Ditko/Lee Dr Strange series was akin to its fellow comics in the Marvel line is a complicated one. I’m not trying to resolve the matter here, in case the argument looks rather under-developed!
So what did bind those titles together, and why did those things have such a dramatic impact upon so many mediums? Perhaps the best place to start would be with the Marvel Revolution’s portrayal of a world that is, at best, profoundly absurd and, at worst, inherently unfair. Put simply, very bad things happen to seemingly very good people in the Marvel Universe, and they occur despite the very best of motives and the most admirable of behaviour, as was true right from the start in 1961’s Fantastic Four #1. Determined to lead the fight against Communism in what might just be America’s most vulnerable hour, Reed Richards and his colleagues dare to pilot an experimental rocket into space and suffer fundamental and even tragic bodily transformations as a consequence. Ben Grimm, for example, who quite rightly cautioned against the rocket flight and yet still accompanied his friends on their doomed mission, emerges from the experience as The Thing, massive, rock-covered, and, to the mainstream eye of the age, terrifyingly monstrous. His reward for his sacrifice, and for all the acts of sacrifice on his part that followed, is to be frequently mocked and ostracised by society at large. The same disjunction between the rewards that we might expect for “heroism” in the children’s comics of the period and the consequences of the same as encountered in a Marvel Comic was in itself a radical, if in consequence moderate, challenge to America’s social and political status quo. For this was not how children’s fiction in the period was supposed to work, and it most certainly wasn’t how superhero comics were expected to function. No matter how invigoratingly crude those early Marvel Comics might now appear, many of them functioned as existential depth charges launched into what was being presented as a calmly-surfaced and benign culture. Some readers found the comics as strangely exciting and even disturbing, as many have reported. Others felt the force of those Marvel ‘depth charges’ in even more substantial ways, as the fanzines and letters columns of the period, with their inspired readers and questioning attitudes, can indicate. (*2)
Later years would view the first origin story of the Fantastic Four as a parable about political and scientific hubris. Wasn’t that what the Marvel Method was supposed to be, a tragedy in which a fatal flaw causes an admirable human being to harm themselves and others before attempting to put their soul to rights through good actions? But that’s not how that first FF tale was shaped, and it’s hard to believe that it was read that way by many of its young readers in its day. (So too is true of Tony Stark’s 1963 origin, in which he isn’t brought low by his arrogance and immoral arms dealing, as revisionism would have it, but by nothing more or less than fiendish Commies.) Instead of being a heedless, dangerous fool who places himself and all his closest friends and allies in terrible jeopardy for no good reason, as we’d now see it, the Reed Richards of Fantastic Four #1 is a daring hero whose actions could be held to illustrate the reactionary sentiments lent to Barry Goldwater by Karl Hess in 1964 about extremism in the service of liberty being no vice. That the first incarnation/s of Richards regrets the suffering caused to Ben Grimm is never in doubt. That he longs to end the same is similarly always obvious. But in those early issues, the essential nobility, and even necessity, of that disastrous spaceshot is never significantly challenged. In time, that would come, and that would be possible in the costumed hero genre because what became known as the Marvel Method took it for granted that no status quo, and not even that presented in its own back issues, was beyond questioning.
In this set-up, we can see something of what the earliest Marvels so surprising, thought-provoking and even challenging. For not only is fate unkind in the Marvel Universe, but so, all too frequently, are human beings. Neither the physical or the social world reward noble intentions and admirable actions in a coherent and consistent manner. Often the opposite is true. Just a few years after McCarthyism, and with the Anti-Comics moral panic of the Fifties still shaping the culture’s view of the medium, Marvel Comics were, without at first seeming to grasp much of the true force of their choices, questioning the conformist, compliant, conservative cultural values of the age. Good and evil were not always easy to clearly differentiate. The good folks might not always win out, and they might not even be good guys at all. Society might not be fair, let alone just, and power might be both dangerously ill-informed and even corrupt, or so the implication of the stories went. Innocent bystanders could suffer terribly for no good reason and to no good end. Not only didn’t many of Marvel’s stories see the status quo comfortably restored, but the pre-existing social order might not even be one that deserved to be reconstituted.
This was very much not how the superhero genre was supposed to function.
*2:- The arguments I’m making here are developed from a piece I did at my previous blog about the Fantastic Four and the things about the title’s earliest days that modern-era creators often, sadly, and to the FF’s disadvantage, tend to ignore – here.
To be continued, with a return to the subject of this post – no, really! – Phoenix The Man Of Tomorrow.