50 years of Marvel Comics

Posted on: 06 May 2011 by Alexander Hay

A mesmerising missive on the Mighty Marvel Manner

Marvel Comics' fusing of the mundane and the miraculous has been one of its main strengths (image courtesy of loser@istolethe.tv)

Being a large, successful brand is always an achievement, even if what you do is seen as a bit unfashionable. Still, superheroes sell, and with that in mind, Marvel Comics' 50th anniversary comes at a time when things are on the up for the publisher. Its long term future has been secured via a buyout by Disney, its stable of characters are known across the world, and its own film division is doing rather well in the cinemas.

Not bad for a once small-time company transformed by two comic book veterans. It helped that the writer, and self-confessed 'ultimate hack', Stan Lee was a brilliant frontman with a distinctive voice both on the page and in the media, who could dazzle the kids with his big vocabulary, strange lust for alliteration and ease in the spotlight. It helped more that his artist, Jack Kirby, really could draw, with a distinctive style that pounced off the page.

What they brought to comics was a new depth to the superhero. True, Batman and the rest of the DC stable had private lives, but they were never as realised and nuanced as those Lee and Kirby brought to the drawing table for Marvel.

And yet... The flipside of this is a rather bleak, miserablist contribution to popular culture. Marvel comics are dynamic, but they are, at their worst, also cringingly melodramatic, overwrought and absurdly pessimistic.

After all, Peter Parker can never catch a break, Wolverine and the other mutants will always face frenzied levels of persecution and the Hulk/Bruce Banner will always be sort of angry. The old Spiderman mantra of 'with great power comes responsibility' should, in Marvel's case, read 'with great power comes a never-ending Eastenders Xmas Special'.

Even the villains get a hard deal. Poor old Galactus, world eating monster that he is, has to choose between mass murder or starving to death. The nearly as blood-soaked schemer Thanos is only trying to kill everything in the universe so he can impress his one true love, Death. (Here, as in the DC universe, Death is a maiden.) It's such a strangely fatalistic message to pass on to readers.

Perhaps the high apogee of this navel gazing misery was in the early 70s, when the impotence of superheroes to deal with real life issues like Vietnam, drugs or racism was emphasised to absurd heights. Even the 'gritty' new wave of superhero comics in the 1980s - in particular, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns - were simply taking the misery and daily grind of the Marvel comic book hero to a new level.

The ultimate expression of this enters sinister grounds. The 'woman in a refrigerator' syndrome is endemic in American comics, where female characters are usually doomed to be murdered, raped, generally done over and, in one infamous case, quite literally found dead in the fridge. It's never good to have nothing but light and happy endings, of course, but the alternative is just as monotonous.

The impact of Marvel Miserabilism can be felt throughout pop culture now. Genre TV is written by comic book fans, so the storylines remained as pained and breast-tearing as the source material. Fittingly, then, Joss 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer' Whedon, has subsequently written X-men comics and is also penning The Avengers' film script. Like Lee at his worst, Whedon's work is full of pain and misery and fleeting moments of hope that exist only to make the suffering worse - indeed, Buffy may as well be a TV adaption of The Uncanny X-Men at its most morbid.

This reflects a self-indulgent 'geek' culture that fetishises the bathetic and the downbeat. But life is a combination of light and dark with one or the other sometimes predominating but never totally. Art, even if you buy it out of a comic shop, should reflect this.

It also risks distracting us from the real tragedies of our world. Like Jack Kirby. Poorly rewarded for what was a considerable body of work for Marvel and later DC, he carried on working until his death in 1994 but without the broader mainstream recognition he deserved.

If the 50th anniversary of Marvel means anything, it should be a chance to reappraise Kirby's work and see his influence for what it is, on par with RockwellWarhol and Hopper in terms of influence and reflecting a certain 20th century feel for a certain 20th century time. That he hasn't rather puts the meandering mutants and sublimated superheroes' woes into perspective.

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Alexander Hay

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