Being Trapped At 20 Foot Tall Doesn’t Always Make For A Fascinating Story: 31 Days Of Atlas #25

The cover to May 1966’s Avengers #30, by Kirby, Tomita, Giacoia et al.

continued from here:

Time and again we can see Marvel’s creators attempting to lend Hank Pym a convincing shtick. But from frustrations in his love-life to insecurity about the degree of power he wielded, nothing ever took. In this, we can see how even the greatest of Marvel’s creators could mistake the surface appeal of the company’s developing tradition for its most fundamental strengths. In the end, the Hank Pym of the first half or so of the 60s was never made to stand for anything more than the most general and facile of conflicts. In truth, he appeared, from the reader’s point of view, to have pretty much anything he wanted: a sidekick/lover who adored him, super-powers that appeared substantial and fun, an excess of wealth and privilege, the respect and fellowship of his peers and the wider society, and all the bloke-toy super-tech that any comic book scientist could wish for. And so, when Hank Pym expressed angst, he rarely appeared tragic. Truth was, he often seemed to be whinging. His pain was, from the reader’s perspective, largely unearned.

In the end, the most moving and inspiring of Marvel characters were both escape fantasies and cautionary tales, all at the same time. The reader might take pleasure in imaging what it might be like to possess Spider-Man’s powers. But who would want all of the problems that came with it? Weren’t they exactly the kind of troubles that the reader already possessed in spades? Who would want to exchange like-for-like when it came to life’s everyday miseries while adding, as part of the swap deal, super-powered dust-downs and the rarely-lessening loathing of society at large? Even The Thing embodied these two counter-balancing principles of wish fulfilment and conflict avoidance. On the one hand, Ben Grimm was a tragic figure whose fate was anything but blessed. On the other, he was a massively powerful, day-saving figure with a keen sense of avuncular humour who was surrounded by a loving alternative family.

But why would we want to be the Goliath who was, for example, trapped at the height of 20 foot tall, as occurred in The Avengers during 1966 in yet another desperate attempt to make the character work? What does that represent? What reader-snaring advantages come with the inability to mix with typical human beings, or even walk along 99.999% of the world’s corridors? Wasn’t that simply a blunt-edged attempt to increase Hank Pym’s misery without reference to the very things that make a superhero’s misery captivating?

Two panels of angst in Phoenix  #1, the sole appearance of Leslie Tyler in the comic. Lots of unhappiness, and even the hint of a future set-up, but by the story’s end, Ed Tyler will have decided he and Leslie could never meet again. That they could, and most probably would, have encountered one another isn’t the point. Comicbooks are full of potential. What matters is the value that a story gives to that potential, and the suggestions it makes about what’s to come. In Phoenix #1, the suggestion is a strong one; Leslie Tyler will be at best a minor source of romantic woe.

And in this, we can see something of why the attempts by Atlas Comics to mimic the appeal of Marvel at its Sixties height fell badly short. Because even when the company’s books featured the work of creators associated with Marvel itself, their tales never carried the conviction, charm and allure of the very best of the original House Of Ideas. In truth, even Marvel often seemed to struggle to replicate its own acheivements, to lather on the angst in the absence of any more purposeful set-up. It’s hardly surprising then, that other companies settled for the surface froth to be found in many of Marvel’s best tales rather than their narrative underpinings. Case in point, Phoenix: Man Of Tomorrow #1, which, for all its angst and spectacular set-pieces, never once reflected an understanding of the afore-mentioned qualities which had helped bring Marvel to prominence.

Instead, Phoenix left an unpleasantly synthetic after-taste, as if cheap ersatz goods had been passed off as the real thing, as if high expectations had been hyped to an extreme degree and yet only low quality work delivered.  Ed ‘Phoenix’ Tyler was indeed pained, furious, despairing, vainglorious and, by his debut’s conclusion, doubt-ridden. But none of that was grounded in a coherent, purposeful narrative structure. Unlike Peter Parker or Tony Stark, Tyler wasn’t caught in a conflict between his private desires and his social responsibilities. His social responsibilities had already won out entirely. The alien threat meant that Phoenix had to walk entirely away from his marriage and his job, his home and his workplace. With one stroke, Tyler’s private life was abolished, and with it went the promise of an interesting recurring supporting cast along with a recognisable set of narrative settings. In essence, the very first issue of Phoenix gave the impression of being an odd kind of conclusion to the series rather than an engaging introduction, with everything that might have been thought to be important to the strip beyond costume and bad guys being introduced and then almost immediately removed from view. How odd, that the comic’s creators had chosen to show a series of promising set-ups – from a marriage to a career at NASA to a posting on a space station – and then utterly destroyed any prospect of them being central to the stories to come. (It is more than possible that, to take but one example, the Tyler marriage was going to be returned to, but the impression given was that it would only be of, at the most, minor hang-wringing importance to the issues ahead.)

It was if Matt Murdock’s origin tale had seen his career as a lawyer along with Foggy Nelson and Karen Page discounted from any meaningful future appearances. So soon introduced, so swiftly dismissed. The result was the prospect of a series based around the wanderings of an isolated and tortured superhuman, and worse yet, a humourless and none-too-bright one either. That has always been a set-up for a superhero that’s been hard to make work. Even the Hulk, damned to leap from one hiding place to another, retained a recurring cast and returned, time and time again, to Hulkbuster base to the soldiers who manned it and the civilians who shared it. The Silver Age Marvel Method worked at its best over time when grounded in recognisable, enduring situations that allowed desire and duty to be played off against each other. (In that, many Marvel tales were as much sit-com and soap opera as they were punch-throwing superhero tales.) The Hulk, it’s true, often lacked that sense of a familiar milieu, and as a consequence, could at moments appear to be a drifting, repetitive experience: Hulk leap, Hulk hide, Hulk fight, Hulk weep, Hulk leap onwards, and repeat.(*1) But Phoenix #1 offered nothing at all of a promising, fixed, repeating set-up. (*2)

And, finally, in Phoenix’s nameless alien antagonists, with their blandly similar characters and blandly identical functions, we can note the lack of another key component of the most successful Marvel Revolution strips, namely, richly flawed adversaries viewed through an empathetic lens.

*1:- Of course, set-ups such as those I’ve been describing could also grow stale and boring when approached in unimaginative ways. But that’s not a fault of the Sixties Marvel model so much a failure of execution. New set-ups were always available, as were rejuvenating strategies for the old ones.

Which isn’t to say that either is an easy matter. To find one workable set-up for a strip is a rare and laudable achievement. To successfully amend or even replace that is a yet more demanding task. To take but the Hulk, few creators have been successful in establishing a viable, enjoyable format for the character. As writers, Peter David and Al Ewing, with their many collaborators, come especially to mind as being successful in doing so. 

*2:- There are, without doubt, many fine and enjoyable Marvel tales which don’t closely follow the model I’m attemptiong to sketch out here. I’m not trying to suggest that there is, or was, only one way to excellance. But I am suggesting that, over time, a particular synthesis of several key qualities was more likely to produce a series that was both commercially viable and artistically compelling over time. For example, I’m fond of the 70s Sub-Mariner tales that followed the murder of Lady Dorma and Namor’s abandonment of Atlantis. Some of those individual issues are splendid. But it’s not surprising that the series floundered when it left behind a status quo, a supporting cast and even, for awhile, Namor’s memories.

to be continued tomorrow, with the final post looking at the Marvel Revolution and the problems that the likes of Phoenix had in appropriating its strengths.   



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