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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, May 29, 2015


In the previous essay I stated the reasons that I disagree with Tim O'Neil interpretation of Marvel Comics' "we're the underdogs" myth. Here I'll address an aspect of his essay that speaks to "why people read popular entertainment at all."

Conspicuously absent from O'Neil's essay is any coherent reason for why Marvel enthusiasts became so, um, enthusiastic about their reading-matter, apart from O'Neil's claim that they bought into the "myth of the underdog." If one prunes away everything related to that theme, one winds up with these statements:

Marvel was what cool college kids read - literally, your older brothers' comic books, not like those staid Superman magazines you read as a child.

Marvel was cool and the books were better than National - and all their later imitators - and all that was true, at least for a while. 

Marvel was the place where a few crazy middle-aged men had accidentally created a counter-culture incubator, as the company became increasingly dominated by younger men (and even a few women) who had grown up reading the books and very much wanted to be a part of the clubhouse Stan had built.

Perhaps because the main point of thes essay is to point out the gulf between Marvel's underdog-myth and the reality of their unethical dominance of the market, the third of these statements glosses over the fact that a lot of "younger men" invaded the New York comics-companies that weren't exclusively in love with Marvel. Archie Goodwin was one of the first comics fans to turn pro, but by all accounts I've read, he was primarily an EC fan, and his first substantial contribution to the comics-medium came during his employment from 1964-67 with Warren, which company was in essence reviving the spirit of EC with its horror and war books.  Jim Shooter was another early emigrant to the New York publishing-world, but he broke in to that staid DC world, and though he later became a Marvel head honcho, arguably he brought to Marvel a regimentation akin to that of his former boss Mort Weisinger.

So it wasn't just the charm of Marvel that lured all those Young Turks to New York; it was a fascination with the possibilities of the comics medium. Both DC and Marvel had hardcore business reasons for employing all the young folks, of course; the publishers and editors cared primarily about making money, not giving people creative freedom. The sales of newsstand comics had dipped critically following the conclusion of the national Bat-Fad, and publishers were clearly seeking to tap markets less chimerical than the younger juveniles who had remained comics' primary demographic for the last thirty years.

But even if one could prove that Marvel alone was crucial to pulling in the "cool college kids," what made Marvel Comics cool in the first place? Given that older juveniles had long scorned comics as "kid stuff," what made Marvel "better than National," as O'Neil says?  Saying that Marvel's creators excelled at "being both more primitive and more sophisticated than their rivals" really says nothing of substance.

An easy answer would be the gimmick of "heroes with problems," but this has always been an oversimplification, even when Marvel creators themselves used it. What Stan Lee seems to have conceived was the potential of bringing a particular type of drama to the superhero genre. Significantly, it worked for superheroes far better than for Marvel's western and war books, in part the American audience was already used to seeing quasi-adult drama in the cinematic versions of those genres. I don't buy into Stan's myth that he simply wanted to do comics-stories "for himself;" the bottom line was always Stan's concern. Perhaps, having worked well with Kirby and Ditko on the SF-horror books, which allowed for a greater emphasis upon dramatic intensity, Lee was simply trying to find a formula that would make his superhero books sell modestly better. I'm sure it was a surprise to him, as to Kirby and Ditko, to find themselves being championed as "hip reading" on various college campuses. And Lee was quick to seek a way to capitalize on the enthusiasm, briefly branding a handful of 1965 comics as "Marvel Pop Art Productions" in order to feed off the vagaries of the highbrow art-world. 

The fact that I term Lee's editorial approach a "formula," though, does not mean that I think it was only a gimmick. There's a species of Lee-criticism in which it's asserted that Stan Lee's only contribution to the Marvel Universe was that of hype, and O'Neil's essay suggests that position with his insistence that Marvel became a success via its "clubhouse" approach. I've frequently argued that neither Jack Kirby nor Steve Ditko seemed consistently interested in the "heroes with problems" formula either prior to or subsequent to working with Stan Lee, so that my verdict is that Lee primarily evolved the formula, though not without many false starts, stumbles, and outright bad stories.

I take the position that the only way any cool college kids would have bought into the Marvel Universe would have been if they were convinced that they were getting a slightly more sophisticated-- but still fun-- version of the superheroes with which they'd grown up.  And it was actual talent, not hype, that convinced them that Marvel Comics were more than kid stuff.

One of Northrop Frye's most trenchant observations on popular literature was that it provided a "window" through which one could view Jung's archetypes in pure form, as opposed to seeing those archetypes reflected covertly in the scenarios of fine literature. In this "pure" archetypal sense (one might also say "primitive"), Marvel comics of this period were no better or worse than the contemporary works of DC, Dell or Charlton. But Marvel found a way to persuade older readers that there was some dramatic heft to be derived from stories of spider-men, thunder gods, and giant green-skinned monsters.  

As noted before, O'Neil is less concerned with the aesthetics of Marvel Comics than with the poor ethics of the company. I have no doubt that Marvel's representatives have committed many evil acts in its long existence, as is the case for most if not all large companies. However, evil is not the exclusive province of big companies, nor has ethical merit ever been a viable factor in determining the quality of art.  

The expansion of Marvel's business plan to gargantuan proportions concerns O'Neil far more than I. To paraphrase Captain America regarding the Red Skull: "You're the most evil man of all time... But then, someone has to be. If it wasn't you, it would be someone else."  I don't disregard particular acts of evil as irrelevant, but then, I don't think their presence nullify all claims to virtue, either-- mine being a perspectivist concept of morality, as I've detailed in this essay.

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