Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Five Things That Really Surprised Me In Marvel's 'Essential' Collections

It still surprises me, sometimes, that I'm kind of sort of maybe just a little bit of an expert on Marvel Comics. I mean, I don't really feel like one; I've read the first 100-300 issues of the Avengers, the Defenders, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Wolverine, X-Factor, and Daredevil, along with a smattering of obscure titles like Man-Thing, Spider-Woman, Howard the Duck, Ghost Rider, Godzilla, and Son of Satan...but that doesn't feel like it should make me an expert. That feels like it should make me an obsessive reader with a good memory. And yet, when I go to conventions, I invariably wind up on panels where I explain the backstory of Marvel characters (and DC as well, for that matter) to comic book fans. This weirds me out. I feel like they should recast me for these things.

But I do appear to be settling into a mantle of expertishness. And so, having read more comics than any sane person probably should, I figure I should pass along a few of my more unexpected responses to you, the reader, so that you can then pass them along as received wisdom to a bunch of people who will tell you I'm full of it. I feel that it's only fair.

1. The Defenders really went catastrophically downhill around issue #125. The thing about the Defenders was that it was a great title for a very long time. There was great chemistry among the cast, they played off the quirky, counter-culture concept really well for a very long time and did fun things with the idea of a team as a social grouping rather than a family or an organization (the two directions explored by the FF and the Avengers, respectively). Doctor Strange worked perfectly as a guide and mentor rather than a "leader" per se, and they had a nice mix of headliners like the Hulk and interesting B-listers like Valkyrie and Hellcat...although I'll admit, Nighthawk never worked for me. The bigger a role he got, the less I liked the series.

But then J.M. DeMatteis, a writer who I generally like and respect a lot, decided to write out Doctor Strange and the Hulk and turn the series into a vehicle for Angel, Beast and Iceman, and to turn them into an official team. The headliners were written out, and most of the new additions felt charisma-free. Suddenly, the book felt like an amateur-league group of Avengers, rather than a social grouping of powerful and interesting characters, and the series went into a slump it never recovered from. This is a shame, because the reboots have all tried to go back to the very basic concept (Doctor Strange, Hulk, Namor and Silver Surfer) rather than to the middle period that worked so well, simply because of the stench of failure that clung to the later efforts. I'd love to see a modern Defenders reboot that kept Doc Strange and maybe added "non-team" heroes like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and Wolverine. (Yes, I know I'm describing Bendis' Avengers. Your point?)

2. Stuff actually happened in Thor. I know, this shouldn't be as surprising as it was, but I really never touched Thor as a kid. Even Walt Simonson's legendary run barely impinged on my consciousness, other than the bits they mentioned in Avengers where every bone in his body was broken inside his armor. I knew the very basic stuff, like the Warriors Three and Odin and Loki, but I had no idea that this was where Ego first showed up, and where Galactus' origin was first revealed, and where Firelord made his initial appearance. It was surprising to me to find out how much cosmic space adventure occurred in a comic that was ostensibly high fantasy mixed with Earth-bound superheroics. (It still didn't wow me for a lot of the run, I'll admit. The whole always felt like it was less than the sum of its parts. But it was an interesting look at a piece of Marvel history I never heard of.)

3. Howard the Duck really captured the zeitgeist of the Seventies. To be honest, it captured the zeitgeist of the Seventies so well that it really doesn't work as a modern comic; you have to read it as a piece of history, a record of the mood of a particular time to be able to enjoy it. But Steve Gerber got it perfectly; the fads, the crazes, but more than that the sense of palpable disaffection and disorientation that the Sixties had produced. People had spent a decade searching outside the norms of society for meaning, and the Seventies was where they realized that they still hadn't found it and weren't even sure what they were looking for. There was a sort of existential despair that permeated the era, and Howard ("trapped in a world he never made"--aren't we all?) hit it perfectly.

4. Some of these series really work as stories with beginnings, middles and ends. I don't actually think that anyone intended any of their series to have endings. Endings in comic books, save for a few notable exceptions, come about due to low sales and not due to any kind of overarching intent. But many of the comics that were collected into big, thick Essential volumes turned out to have really good endings that summed up their whole series. Ghost Rider, for example, had a finale that finally brought together all the revelations about the character's past and gave him something he'd never had, a meaningful nemesis who was a match for him in his final battle. Godzilla had a truly epic conclusion, featuring a huge battle against the Avengers in mid-town Manhattan that was everything you could hope for. Killraven turned out to be the story of the Second War Against the Martians, from first strike to the final human victory. And Super-Villain Team-Up was the fore-runner of the modern crossover, pulling in the major players of the Marvel Universe in a war between Atlantis and Latveria that spanned two years of comic book history. Had these titles not been canceled, they might have had to do very different things to keep going. But the ends they had cemented their reputation.

5. Marvel deserves more credit for their horror books than they ever got. Most of the praise you hear for horror comics is for horror anthology books, specifically the EC comics of the Fifties and the later DC horror renaissance under Joe Orlando. But Marvel had some excellent continuing horror series, something that was amazingly difficult to achieve given the natural tendency of the genre to end in the death of the protagonist. They had an amazing werewolf comic, Werewolf by Night, and an underrated Monster of Frankenstein series that went back to the character's roots. And Tomb of Dracula is one of the best things Marvel ever produced, bar none. Even their lesser lights, like Man-Thing, Son of Satan and Satana, had some great stories in there. (I will not work too hard at defending Brother Voodoo, though.) They really deserve a critical re-evaluation by enthusiasts of horror comics, because they had some amazing stuff in there.

I could probably go on longer--I've barely even touched on Spider-Man, which seems criminal--but I've got five already and I haven't even touched on DC's output. But that seems like a good topic for next time...


Anonymous said...

People who don't love New Defenders (even the bits with Cloud) are soul dead robots. TRUE FACT. Elf With A Gun is greatest concept ever...

Also Warren becoming such a complete mess makes a lot more sense when you see more of the back story with Cameron Hodge and Candy Southern...

Jim S said...

I have to give Marv Wolfman props. He did something I have never seen a comic writer do. He wrote a book about a villain and kept the guy a villain throughout. With the exception of Dr. Sun and the cliche of hero and villain team up to fight greater evil, he kept Drac bad. Drac had goals and a plans but he never mellowed. He was a bastard to the end. No let us make a concentration camp survivor a la Magneto.

We'll done Marv.