I haven’t talked about Marvel much lately.
Honestly, I haven’t talked about much of anything here lately, and for that I feel ashamed. It’s not that I feel like I owe you anything–this blog has no rabid fanbase desperately hanging on my every word.
This blog, from its inception, has merely been an outlet, a canvas that is always blank, but always somehow full.
I brag a lot here, and rightfully so. I’m unique, and I feel good about that. I’m flawed, and I feel good about that, too.
I am a fanatic, and a freak. A proud historian of detritus and flotsam, I hold within the dusty racks of the library of my mind a unique commentary on the universe, and all that which I have observed during the nanosecond of time that will have been my existence here.
I made a difficult decision several years ago, and it has put me on a path that begs a moment of respite and reflection at this moment. Before I get to that fateful decision, and the reflection this moment deserves, let me take you back three decades or so to the beginning of my relationship with Marvel Comics.
Oh, and hey … SPOILERS
It was the very early 1980’s:
Sure, there’s Spidey. I had a t-shirt somewhere with Hulk on it, too, but I didn’t know who these heroes were. My life was about to be taken over with a different kind of awesomeness. A year from when this picture was taken, Star Wars will have become the most important thing in my life. G.I. Joe was right around the corner. He-Man would have a place in my toy box. And Marvel? Never heard of it. I had a Captain America Hot Wheels RV that you could look into one of the windows, and there was Captain America throwing his shield right at you–provided you had a good light source to illuminate the film inside via the translucent window in the front. Sadly, these super-heroes were just two-dimensional things existing among tangible battalions of toy soldiers that I could touch and direct and win massive fantasy battles with. I can say I’ve been a Marvelite from early on, but that’s really a pretty big stretch.
In cinema and television, there was Superman way before there were X-Men on the big screen, and even then, I had no connection to the source–comics were not my thing.
In Intermediate School (that’s 4th – 6th grade), a hell from which most or all of my personal demons were originally spawned, I received the permanent branding of “nerd”. I didn’t know what a geek was back then, but I knew what a nerd was, and I didn’t like being one. As it turned out, nerds and geeks tend to make successful alliances, especially in an environment that ridicules and shuns both. Am I being dramatic? Fuck no, this is like 1987 we’re talking about now … and Texas … our principals were still beating us with holey paddles for flicking peas in the cafeteria. I was eight or nine, it was hell, but I had friends to share in the suffering, and in those moments with flashlights beaming out from under bedsheet forts, Marvel comic books were first illuminated for me.
There were familiar faces, sure. I knew Spider-Man, and the Incredible Hulk. I was vaguely familiar with Captain America and Thor. But then, there were the X-men, and everything changed. Suddenly, my mother’s Saturday trip to Safeway included a stop at the magazine rack, where, lo and behold, comics for sale! And there, Wolverine. West Coast Avengers. The Fantastic Four. There was death in those pages, violence, tight spandex, and ridiculously … uh, voluptuous … heroines.
But something ruined it. It wasn’t disenchantment with spandex or a coming of age. It was one of the first obsessive frustrations I had, and still have, that killed that first foray into the Marvel universe.
There, small, yellow, unobtrusively resting in the corner, “Bob” tells me I’ve missed something. Suddenly, the fact that I didn’t start reading Uncanny X-Men until #250 has become an issue (no pun intended). As quickly as the fire was ignited, the fuel ran out.
Now, this may not seem like a big deal to you. So what if I missed Mr. Sinister destroying Xavier’s School? I got to see Wolverine crucified on a giant X, after being captured by Reavers, who … well, I don’t really know who they are but, there’s this other guy, Forge, who … well, I really don’t know what his story is either, but … it’ll work out, right? Wrong. I’m eleven years old by this time, with no attention span (thanks to video games), and the beginnings of a slightly eccentric and obsessive need for access to knowledge and/or entertainment, and in this case, I couldn’t get it. Safeway didn’t have #243. McKinney, Texas didn’t have a comic shop. I couldn’t drive, and my parents definitely weren’t taking me somewhere in Dallas to find a back issue of the Uncanny X-men.
If Intermediate School was Hell, Junior High was Mephisto’s Realm where I was one of his special projects. I was a coward, and my own fears betrayed me. I withdrew from social interaction with my peers, and I abandoned all things geek, feeling attacked and ostracized by my more popular peers. I buried my geek card in a cigar box in the soft loam of the dark fields of despair in the wasteland of my self-confidence. And there it rested, for a very, very long time.
Fast forward to 2006. I’m almost 30 years old. My life has just changed drastically by my own hand. I’ve extricated myself from a hole of my own making and emerged anew. I have a new job, a new haircut, and a new passion for geek culture. I have a lot of catching up to do. Netflix had arrived by then, and with it, an opportunity to binge on all things geek that I had avoided and shunned for more almost two decades.
The cigar box was recovered, my geek card intact. My OCD tendencies were burgeoning, and I needed to experience everything, in order. Star Trek was first–I blasted through the Original Series, the Animated Series, and Next Generation in no time at all.
I began reading all sorts of new material, loads of science fiction, and one day, at Half Price Books, I happened upon a Marvel Masterworks Fantastic Four Volume 1, Full Color Hardback Edition. I was able to experience the beginning of Marvel’s Silver Age, and I wanted more, so I bought Volume 2, and eventually, inevitably, I ran into another reference to an event that happened in another comic series I didn’t have and couldn’t get easily.
It took me until 2012, right at the beginnings of the new Marvel Cinematic Universe, to find a quality list of every issue of every comic ever published by Marvel from Fantastic Four #1 to the present. And since Marvel was gaining new popularity based on the success of its movies, access to older titles online was becoming easier.
Which led me to my difficult decision. If I could start the epic journey into the history of mainstream Marvel universe, why not DC as well?
It was Marvel’s online library that made the decision in the end. The Earth-616 continuity starts with Fantastic Four #1 and there it was online, along with Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, and Strange Tales. Looking at DC, you couldn’t get Action Comics or Detective Comics, or any of those old origin issues from the Golden Age. DC didn’t have an easy place to start, nor a really coherent continuity or Silver Age starting point like Marvel did.
I chose Marvel.
Eventually, I ran into issues that I couldn’t view online, but the internet makes it very easy to find any issue I want for a small price.
And so now it’s 2016, and I am up to the summer of 1973 in Marvel, having read every mainstream issue in order from Fantastic Four #1. The summer of 1973 is significant in the Marvel universe, and some would say in comics in general.
The reason? This one cell, and four little letters:
No, not “SWIK!”
I’m talking about “SNAP!”
I’m talking about Gwen Stacy’s neck breaking, and her dying. I’m talking about Norman Osborn, stressed with his son Harry’s relapse into drugs, suddenly remembering that he is the Green Goblin, and that Peter Parker is Spider-Man. I’m talking about his rage and lust for revenge, his decision to kidnap Gwen Stacy, his hatred-driven act that threw Gwen Stacy off the Brooklyn Bridge (or George Washington Bridge if you don’t know the difference by looking at the yellow bricks o.O )
I’m talking about the flawed, and fractured character that is Peter Parker, a hero born from tragedy and death, once again the reason for the death of someone he loves, after spending years struggling with protecting his loved ones from the danger Spider-Man attracts.
I’m talking about the end of the Silver Age of Comics.
Plenty of people will argue with me and say the deathblow fell at DC in Green Lantern’s mag. Others will say the rise of horror and sword & sorcery were the maggots on the already cold corpse of the Silver Age.
Well, this is my universe, and this is my personal experience of the Silver Age of Marvel Comics.
The Silver Age of Comics in general may have received its mortal wound from Green Lantern, it may have looked up and seen the vultures that were Conan the Barbarian, Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night, and others. But I say nay.
A lot of people died in the first twelve years of Earth-616 in the Silver Age, but not like this. Sure, Iron Man had seen the frail and frightened females and of his various escapades die on occasion, some close friends as well, but they might as well have been cardboard cutouts. Bad people die, neutral extras die, villains die, and come back, and die, and come back, and die, and come back.
Uncle Ben dying started something poignant. His death showed us the price tag on power unchecked and disrespected, on responsibility shirked, on looking at injustice and not clenching a fist. That death made Spider-Man the flawed hero he is.
Spidey’s mag up to this point had taken us up and down through boring arcs and duds, but also some spectacular collisions of power versus Parker, greed versus humility, and chaos versus a teenager in spandex. It wanted us to care about a smart white kid’s perspective in a time of change and social turmoil in the real world. Marvel wanted us to see ourselves in Peter Parker, in Bruce Banner, in Johnny Storm, in Vision. The other mags Marvel was putting out at the time and leading up to this four-letter word were cutting open the human condition while it still breathed and showing us its beating heart, its pumping lungs, its awesome brain. It held our hands while directing us to feel some connection to the characters, all human, all flawed, from the man out of time to the android that loves. It pulled back the veil to show us our own faces on this thing that we were all a part of.
And then, coldly, quietly, with a face of stone as it stood over the living thing it had created in our hearts and minds, Marvel reached down and …
If the Silver Age of Marvel Comics ended there, instantaneously, then the Bronze Age began with a different kind of death.
The issue that followed “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” finds Spidey caught in despair, delusion, defeat. And fleeing the scene, being blamed for his girlfriend’s death already, the fear and the pain turn to vengeance. Spidey wasn’t alone then. I was there, too. I wanted Green Goblin to pay. I wanted J. Jonah Jameson to shut the fuck up. I wanted Harry Osborn to just get back into bed and leave Peter alone. I wanted Spidey to punch Norman Osborn, and keep punching, and punching, and punching.
But I didn’t get what I wanted. Sure, Spidey webbed JJJ’s mouth shut, abandoned Harry to his LSD-induced delusions, and punched the hell out of the Green Goblin. But then he stopped, and took the high ground, opting to put the villain in jail rather than kill him. I was disappointed at first, I felt like Marvel was just repeating the old “Villain in, Villain out” sort of jail justice I’d seen so often before.
It was empty, this revenge. (Definitely moreso as it turns out that … well … spoilers) And just as Norman Osborn’s shoulders slump in the last frame, so did mine when I finished this one.
I’ve reached a milestone. I’ve trudged through some terrible issues, some really shitty villains and heroes, and some amazing stories, too. I feel like my chosen craft has benefited greatly from the exercise, because if there’s one thing that I want to accomplish that Marvel has done so well, it’s creating an epic continuity across hundreds of characters, thousands of worlds, a myriad of universes and dimensions.
This is history. We stand on the shoulders of dead giants to reach the unattainable, to die as giants to be the shoulders on which stand the next generation trying to reach the unattainable.
How well can you tell the all-story, if you don’t know the all-story–its fits and starts, its ups and downs, its chaos and its order… Its Gwen Stacys and its Norman Osborns.
This is the day that tomorrow is born, and even tomorrow will one day end, just like …
(images from Avengers #58, Amazing Spider-Man #121 and #122, and Uncanny X-Men #253, all creations of Marvel Comics and its various writers, illustrators, editors, etc.)