In which the blogger attempts to define the appeal of the earliest Marvel Comics, so as to nail down why Atlas’ attempts to clone that method were so unsuccessful, continued from here:
It wasn’t that the Marvel Comics of the key period 1961-8 were consciously designed to identify the universe as meaningless and human beings, in groups or not, as inherently and fundamentally flawed. Some of them appeared to have been, and some them weren’t. It would be ridiculous to insist that what we now see as the Marvel Method developed in a deliberate and coherent way. As with so many strides forward in mass culture, Marvel comics was a constant process of collaboration, experimentation, deadline-driven storytelling, taste, expediency, compromise, conflict, purpose, accidents, self-reflection, obtuseness and so on. But for all of that, we can see that the best of Marvel’s comics were most often grounded, by chance and design, in a vision of existence as absurd and of humanity as inevitably, profoundly flawed.
But there were, of course, many, many times in which the company’s comics expressed with seeming absolute conviction quite opposing beliefs. Faith in fate, faith in America, faith in individual nature: all these were expressed over and over again. Yet so many of the same stories appeared to also insist upon bleaker truths that events on the page would appear to deny. At the close of a story, a superhero may stand triumphant, and yet, the conflict that they’d just endured spoke a truth about the essential faithlessness of things. In such a way did Marvel’s comics appear to be radically humane even when Stan Lee was, as he so often did in the early 60s, pursuing a fiercely anti-Communist line. If Peter Parker and The Thing and The Beast and The Hulk were shown, for example, to be being ill-treated by American society on any number of levels, then the USA was clearly anything but that city on that shining hill. To save America again and be glad of doing so didn’t mean that America appeared to be the promised land. At best, it was a work in progress, which in itself was, in the conformist culture of the age, a radical proposition.
Soon, if slowly and gently, Communism itself began to be portrayed in a less dogmatic way. As the number of Soviet and Chinese citizens who were unhappy with their own regimes multiplied in the company’s tales, for Marvel’s creators clearly adored the opportunities lent by torn and care-wracked characters, the more it became outstandingly obvious that the differences between us and them were those of degree and not of absolute virtue. For if even leading Red super-villains might be turned, then wasn’t the likes of the USSR merely an example of misguided thinking allied to state power rather than a monolithic expression of never-yielding evil? That empathetic approach to human beings was the chink of light from which Marvel’s capacity to appear doubtful and questioning came from.
In truth, Marvel was typically at its weakest when it presented America’s self-proclaimed political foes, from leaders down to foot soldiers, as intrinsically evil, or, at best, fearsomely compliant. When Giant Man was pitted against faceless East European secret policeman, or Thor took to lobbing exploding nuclear bombs at China, Marvel Comics became no more or less than a slightly more contemporary, crude and kinetic DC Comics, in which We were Good and They were Bad and the broad strokes of conflict could ensure that everything was going to be alright. Put simply, the worldview of Cold War Warriors, or indeed of any strain of reactionary thinking, made for poor storytelling when allied to the other aspects of the Marvel Method.
Key to the radical potential in Marvel’s stories was the presence of a protagonist who was keenly aware of two tragic dilemmas. Firstly, that they couldn’t achieve their deepest ambitions without betraying their most passionately-held principles. Secondly, that at least part of that inability to be themselves was attributable to the incompetence and maliciousness of a great number of other human beings. No wonder young readers saw Marvel as aligned to the counter-culture, since even the likes of Captain America himself could be shown grasping that there was a disturbing distance between the America dream and the American reality. No matter how moderate and qualified these criticisms were, they appeared in a landscape of mass media for young people which was otherwise largely unquestioning and conforming. That contrast helped accentuate the sense of a radical spirit at work under the costumes, code-names and sometimes cosy resolutions in the Marvel Universe. The fact that most adult authority figures paid little to no attention to costumed superhero comics also provided the sense of a private and safe space in which non-conformist views could be experienced and amplified. By the late 60s, Marvel’s comics were laced with an explicit liberal agenda that would have unimaginable just a few years ago.
An absurd universe: flawed individual human beings in inherently flawed social systems: super-people who sought to do the right thing at the cost of their most heartfelt ambitions: these, combined with a 60s liberal humanist world-view, were the core attributes of the Marvel Revolution. Combined with the cocktail of storytelling choices that Marvel also developed and exploited, from hyper-charged dynamism to closely-woven continuity to a welcomingly huckstering editorial tone, they ensured the company’s comics appeared singular, contemporary, and challenging. When, famously, a DC Comics executive declared that the secret of Marvel’s rising success must lie in poor artwork, he was only showing that Marvel’s ever-developing approach was so new that it couldn’t be easily understood through the lens of old paradigms.
The most perfect example of this new approach, of course, was Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man, which wove, by chance and design, a commentary on the promises and pains of adolescence. (*1) The first few years of Spider-Man therefore provided readers not just with the checklist of qualities that I began this paragraph with, but put them to work to illuminate a specific life-situation. Whether at home, and school, or at work, Peter Parker was simultaneously empowered and pained as a young adult by the opportunities and responsibilities that his super-powers brought him. There were no easy answers for Peter Parker, which was in itself a shocking development in the superhero comic. By direct contrast, many of the least appealing Marvel books were those which relied upon a conflict so general that pretty much any character and any situation could be used to play them out. When Tony Stark and Matt Murdock were continually forced through a Romance Comics 101 set-up, in which they daren’t trust their secret identities to the women they loved, the clash between desire and responsibility seemed facile, predictable and, quickly, wearisome. Yet when Thor as a strip superseded its reliance upon that very species of romantic frustration and focused far more on the clashes between the title character’s responsibility between Asgard and Earth, the comic became far more compelling. If the metaphor was never as direct and engaging as that of Spider-Man’s first 30 or so issues, it was still one that resonated with anyone who could twig that serving two quite different authorities was never an easy business.
And then there was poor Hank Pym, who, whether as Ant-Man or Giant Man or Goliath, never saw his potential successfully aligned with a convincing conflict. If ever there was a Marvel character from the 60s that showed how the company’s new approaches shouldn’t be applied, it was Hank Pym. In that, poor Pym was in many ways the precursor of Atlas Comics supermen like Phoenix, who similarly appeared to be informed by Marvelesque storytelling and yet strangely lacked the greater measure of its source material’s strengths.
*1:- I wrote about that aspect of the earliest Spider-Man tales before – here – so I’ve tried not to delve too much into the same matters here.
to be continued.