The slow embrace of the comic book medium by elite audiences is a history with its own landmarks, each representing a moment of sudden applause by audiences previously dismissed. George McManus received a congressional dinner and warm words from Franklin D. Roosevelt in celebration of his comics, father’s upbringing. Mid-century contemporary artists such as Roy Lichtenstein adapted (well, freehand) images and paintings from picture books. Art Spiegelman has received a special Pulitzer quote for his graphic novel mosswas first published in book form in 1986. In the same year, this magazine featured a story entitled “Comic books for adults‘—an early participant in a highly pervasive genre of journalism, sometimes known to audiences by the acronym CAFKA (as in, ‘Comics Aren’t For Kids Anymore’). Another Pulitzer Prize, the 2001 Fiction Prize, went to Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and ClayAnd the Which I suggested, along with books like Jonathan Lethem fortress of solitudethat comics, particularly the medium branch devoted to superheroes, has been a useful basis for highly cultured fictional reflection.
And now, a generation later, the apotheosis: Marvel comics have become Penguin classics.
Last month, the “leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world” (language from the company’s website), in collaboration with Marvel, released three volumes of the so-called “Penguin Classics Marvel Collection” Featuring a massive series of stories from the early days in the lives of three Marvel superheroes: Spider-Man, Captain America and Black Panther. We’ll get to the reasons and causes of the particular selections in a bit. But let us first dispense with the question of whether what is required is the squeezing of hands and gnashing of teeth and the quotation of the saying “O temporary! O customs!” or the joyful recognition of an acquired right.
Maybe let’s start with the only recorded person who has been adamant that these books were classics from the start – but to be fair, he had skin in the game. “With this classic, the Marvel era of comics reaches a new plateau of greatness!!!” The script on the front page of a typical Marvel comic screams words that were undoubtedly coined by Marvel Universe creator/words director/company face/Stan Lee. Lee himself—the only character represented in all three of these volumes—was the most vocal proponent of issues such as those reprinted in these volumes, The Amazing Spider-Man And the suspense stories and yes) jungle work, which was considered ephemeral at the time, will be sanctified, not only cherished but collected. (In particular, when Marvel started putting out its own collections of these stories in the ’80s — archival versions, hardcover, deluxe paperback, and Stan Lee’s great prequels — he called them Marvel Masterworks.) And to me — at least in the way I tell the story — it wasn’t that Just an advertisement. It was, in fact, the fulfillment of a long-standing artistic ambition.
By his own account, Lee had previously thought of making funny books as a way to make a living on the path of writing the great American novel. He even kept his birth name, Stanley Lieber, away from the four-color books for such an occasion, preferring to rely on a pseudonym. But when his boss commissioned him to write a book about a team of monkey superheroes present smashing hits on newsstands, his wife Joanne, in the US capital, told him he had to put it all in there. And he did, bringing new levels of sophistication, characterization, contemporary, intelligence, pathos, and cosmic imagination into action.
Lots of things about the story, polished to a high degree of brilliance over the years, have been overlooked, most notably the genius of its co-creator Lee. Jack Kirby was Lee’s biggest and, undoubtedly at that point, his superiority in influencing the middle. With a former creative partner, Joe Simon, Kirby essentially spawned the romantic comedy craze of the previous generation. And he knew of a superhero, to put it mildly: He and Simon reached out to Captain America, and gave Hitler a sock in his jaw in the cover of the first issue months before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Kirby had the creative energy and imagination of dozens of artists and production speed to boot. His constant imagination, creating new characters, settings, horizons, costumes, backgrounds, plots, layouts, stories, on an impressive variety of canvases, will make him the architect of the Marvel Universe.
But – that’s big butbigger, at times, than some critics of Lee would allow — it was Lee who was constantly proposing, in the public eye, greater ambitions for the comics, even as Kirby (along with Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and a number Few others) who were creating work that made those ambitions nothing short of an exaggeration.
Marvel’s early successes aging the audience for superhero comics—not, perhaps, introducing them into the coming decades, but old enough to allow college audiences to let Marvel offices know that the Hulk was their abode—the mascot of the room. (The Hulk, another Lee-Kirby creation, was a perfect metaphor for both teenage boys—all testosterone-masked as gamma rays—and Baby Boomers, who act, waste, and terrify their parents of the Greater Generation.) Lectures at colleges across the country. One student, a junior at Princeton University in the 1960s—perhaps after looking closely at Ditko’s triptych of the alien worlds visited by Lee-Ditko’s creativity Dr. Strange—memorably suggested that we “think of Marvel Comics as twentieth-century legends” , and crowned with the name “Homer of this generation”.
Well maybe. This argument about superheroes as modern myths and contemporary gods has a history almost as long as the CAFKA articles. (If you’re looking for more detail on the resonance and weight of these works, the professors say, is beyond the scope of this article, and includes topics like geopolitical analysis and the horizontal future, check out the volume introductions by Best in -Comics-Studies-Entrepreneurs like Ben Saunders and Cayana Whitted.) But the undergraduate had a point, and though he didn’t specify it, the Homer in question must have been from The Epic. After all, the tradition that we inherited from that particular classic is the ability to go on to tell a story, filled with plenty of adventures and monsters, with an end in sight but never actually materialized. Remember that at the end of the epic, Odysseus prophesied to leave the house again, and to set sail again.
One of Lee’s accomplishments—one of Lee’s—born from his role as a company man and line editor, not just a writer—was playing Odysseus, singing to his dinner and making sure the stories continued. And again: These volumes offer scintillating introductions to current practitioners Jason Reynolds, Jane Lowen Yang, and Wendy Okorafor—who have all, in different ways, taken these decades-old characters (Captain America, being a generation older, is closer to a centenary age) and showed how they resonate today. They did this by telling tales that were generally written for an older audience and are more complex than those early stories, and for this reason among other things, are often more subtle in subject, intellectual, and character. Meanwhile, they are in continuity – in the general and specialized sense of the term comics – with these first stories, building from them, interrogating them, deepening and enriching them. he is classic Quite a word rich soil? If not, it is not so far fetched.
Having said that, some of Lee’s writing is dated – and prominent – more in these stories. It shows hilarious comic style borrowed from the Catskill shtick that can at times feel as wide as a barn door, the relationships between men and women ripped from the pages of the melodramatic romantic comedies he used to write and edit (with more than a whiff of the standard gender discrimination of the time but No less unfortunate than the ’60s).
So the best argument for these Special Anthology of Archives Classics – in full embrace, not just with a fig leaf of “historical influence” or “marginalized genre” or “come on, half the international box office comes from these three characters” – excerpts from the way these stories continue, in this medium Visible, in visually dazzling. The pleasures in these volumes alone include, but are not limited to, Kirby’s depiction of the Wakanda technique; The wonderful, mysterious alienation that haunts Peter Parker in Ditko’s forays into the near-noir region; Jim Steranko’s gorgeous, sexually defined, and psychedelically mixed ellipsoids.
Comedy is tragedy plus time, as the saying goes, and canon making sometimes follows the same process, from pulp to praise. J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have believed that the Oxford English Department should not teach anything written after 1800; He argued that all modern material was the kind of thing students could read on their own. Our culture, fruitful in many cases, has been begging to differ: Institutions like the Library of America have introduced a book that had made their first appearances in flashy hardcover science fiction paperbacks, but they have been subject to enthusiastic critical reappraisal. Who do you know? Parents may insist that their children stay up late to read it, not just under the covers.