Heroes of Our Time
Have the comics grown up, or have we grown down?
At Marvel Comics in downtown Manhattan, the universe unfolds in gaudily colored, India-inked panels inhabited by superheroes with bulging muscles, rock jaws and galloping neuroses. On illustrator John Romita’s drawing board, Spider-Man, currently the No. 1 box-office star (four million comic-book sales annually; syndicated daily in more than 400 newspapers), begins to take lithe shape in blue pencil, swinging gracefully through a win dow as the inevitable bad guy furiously tears at a sofa. The dialogue will never be etched in granite, but it fits nicely into a balloon. “Hold it, big man!” Spider-Man growls. “Haven’t you heard about inflation? Do you know what it costs to upholster a chair nowadays?” Along the beige and brown corridor. Marvel’s new editor in chief, Jim Shooter, a 26-year-old string bean with the granite features of a comic-book hero, presides as the day’s batch of superhero exploits is offered across his desk: The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Ms. Marvel, The Human Torch—the characters who not only save the world from a new menace each month in 42 different books, but who also
make Marvel, with 15 million monthly readers, the biggest comic-book publisher in the business. And the benevolent ruler over this narrow universe. Stan Lee, 55, publisher and creative director of the Marvel Comics Group, the paterfamilias of the modern comic book, sits greying and smiling so hard that the wrinkles spread from his eyes and along his forehead until they are lost in the toupee that perches expensively atop his head. Lee has good reason for smiling this morning for not only is his comic fantasy universe unfolding, it is expanding in a way he never thought possible after 39 years in the business. Behind tinted aviator glasses his eyes flicker incredulously. “It’s much bigger than you would ever think,” he says, shifting his sixfoot-one frame on a sofa, warming to his subject. CBS had bought Spider-Man for a series of one-hour, prime-time specials (the first was aired at the beginning of April) and the same network will do a series of 12 Incredible Hulks. “Universal studios—well, you know, they’re the biggest and best in the business—are about to film a Dr. Strange pilot, and they’ve already started to film a Captain America. At « the same time they’re working on scripts £ for The Human Torch and Ms. Marvel. In < fact, they’ve taken an option on 12 of our g characters here at Marvel. I can’t believe I that all 12 will make it,” he says in a way o that convinces you he certainly can. “But it g is possible—well, it’s possible that Marvel s comics may soon be represented on tele-
vision more than anything else.” Lee is excited in the same way Alexander must have been when he contemplated the rule of the known world. Still, he is going to have to share the wealth. At DC Comics, Marvel’s arch rival in the comic-book field, executives are gloating over the possibilities of what promises to be a spectacular pair of Superman movies, the first due for release in December, as they attend script conferences for a possible new Batman television series. The comic industry, ignored for years by everyone except kids and comicbook collectors, now finds itself trying to grapple with the small print on contracts
for the rights to characters whose ink has yet to dry on a piece of 14by 22-inch bristol board.
What’s more, this flush of interest is spreading at a time when comic-book sales are on the rise, while the continuing newspaper adventure strip, once the Rolls Royce of cartooning, is all but extinct. The adventure heroes who could not be destroyed by marauding pirates, vicious enemy agents or exotic women were, it turns out, susceptible to rising newspaper costs. Editors no longer wanted to give up the space required for their complex story lines and intricate draftsmanship. Now the
comic strips are full of laughter and a whole new generation of readers prefers the prickly satire of Doonesbury to the exploits of Terry and the Pirates unraveling at the funereal pace of three panels a day.
In his office at Marvel, Stan Lee contemplates the turn of events, shakes his head and understates the case: “I guess what’s happening, people are suddenly noticing superheroes and fantasy more than ever before.” Of course, superheroes and fantasy have been the staples of comic books ever since Jerome Siegel and Toronto’s Joe Shuster produced the first Superman adventure in April of 1938. The immense popularity of their musclebound creation (“leaping over skyscrapers, running faster than an express train, springing great distances and heights,” etc.) consigned artists and writers over the last four decades to the task of creating new superheroes, spawned by an alien planet, a freak of nature or an aberration of science and garbed in a variety of weird masks and tight tights that would draw second looks in a gay bar on Halloween. The reliance on action and fantasy helped make comic books the child porn of the 1950s, scorned by Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, an overwritten
piece of nonsense that suggested comic books caused juvenile delinquency, and finally shackled by a repressive comics code that nearly killed off the genre. Comics weren’t so much at the bottom of the totem pole of North American culture as they were in the waste-basket beside it.
But now the medium has finally stepped ^ out of the closet: Adults think nothing of | buying a slickly produced sex and fantasy < comic called Heavy Metal. The original g fantasy art of Frank Frazetta, full of the g throbbing biceps and voluptuous chests he | learned to draw toiling away at comics, i sells for thousands of dollars. And tele£
vision and movies, which at one time were supposed to kill off comic books, now feed on them hungrily, ABC discovered several years ago that when the comics’ simple story lines, fast action, and exclamatory dialogue were adapted to television, hit shows quickly followed: Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Charlie's Angels, and certainly Wonder Woman (since moved to CBS) are simply live-action comicbooks that have the rival networks beating the bushes for more superheroes who can fill up the early evening family viewing hours. “Those family period shows have to be done with little violence. The comic heroes represent action without violence, so they’re perfect for television,” says Chuck Fries, executive producer of the new Spider-Man series. “Besides, you’re buying a character who is pre-sold. It’s like buying a best-selling book.”
ín the movies, comic-book heroes were mostly grade-Z performers in cheaply done serials such as Buck Rogers, starring a
bleached Buster Crabbe. But in the wake of the phenomenal success of Star Wars (which, as anyone who ever read Buck Rogers or avidly followed Terry and the Pirates knows, is comic-book fantasy brought to celluloid life) Hollywood has quickly opened its heart—as well as its pocketbook—to the comics. Superman, for example, has never been treated so lavishly. Not only is he surrounded by stars of the magnitude of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in his upcoming movies, but millions were spent on the special effects, including a hologram technique that should make the man of steel appear to fly off the screen and into the audience. In the meantime, Popeye is about to become a musical with Dustin Hoffman as the spinach-munching sailor and Lily Tomlin as Olive Oyl. And not only is Little Orphan Annie a hit on Broadway and stages across the continent but—Leapin’ Lizards, Daddy Warbucks—she has been sold to the movies for a record $9 million. There are plans afoot as well to make multimillion dollar spectacles based on Mandrake the Magician and Dick Tracy.
“The world is ready once again for heroes,” says Len Wein, 29, a comic-book writer for the past decade. “You used to be able to tell the good guys from the bad guys, but that’s all changed now, except in the comics. The comic books are the last place where you can still find heroes.”
Wein is probably right. Marshall Mc-
Luhan has said that we look at the present through a rear view mirror into the past, and therefore we march backward into the future. Comic books delightfully reverse that process. They march forward into a nostalgic past where the lines between good and evil are clearly drawn, where the heroes, with occasional exceptions, are in-
variably heroic and the villain is vanquished in the last panel. “Comics get us past the economic gloom and the threat of nuclear satellites dropping out y,”says Mike Gold of DC Comics.
There’s a less generous explanation for the comics’ new found popularity, though. They remain for the most part simpleminded and easy to read in a society that cares to read less and less. “Let’s face it,” says Sean Kelly, Montreal-born coeditor of Heavy Metal, “comics are enjoying a resurgence because people are becoming functional illiterates, and comics are as close to television as you can get on the printed page. I’m very dubious about anyone 30 years of age who reads comic books.”
Whatever, a lot of people are reading comics. Sales have dropped since the heyday in the 1950s when there were 30 publishers selling 50 million comics a year. But in 1977 the industry, despite circulation problems, managed to sell 250 million comic books. Marvel Comics, according to its own arithmetic, accounted for a whopping 45 per cent of the market*, proof not
*DC Comics, the oldest continuing comic-book publisher, was also for years the largest, thanks to its longrunning stable of superheroes: Superman. Batman and Wonder Woman. Now it claims about 30 per cent of traditional comic-book buyers. What 's left of a market decimated by the backlash against comics in the mid-1950s is divided up among Archie. Harvey and Gold Key Comics—none of which publishes superhero exploits.
only that superheroes dominate, but also of Stan Lee’s immense influence. “When all is said and done,” says Byron Preiss, who teaches a course in the history of comics at New York University, “it’s Stan who is very much responsible for the new acceptance of the medium. He's the one who went out and convinced college kids that it was OK to read comic books at the age of 25.”
Certainly no one is enjoying the comic book renaissance more than Lee. Lunching in the venerable old monastery that is the Friars Club, seated amid dark wood panelling, heavy red drapes, waiters in mustard-colored jackets, a dowdy maître d’ crooked forward to catch his order for chicken pot pie. Lee erupts with good spirits. “Everything I do is so incredibly easy,” he says enthusiastically. “I find writing very easy, thinking up new characters and new stories not only easy, but fun. So 1 al-
most feel guilty about what I'm doing because I’m having such a good time. The only problem is, there isn’t enough time to do it all.” He leans forward, as if to spread a secret out on the white linen. “You’re not gonna believe this,” he says confidentially, “but I haven’t taken a vacation in fifteen years.” His luncheon companion can’t help notice that Lee’s face is approximately the color of the dark wood panelling across the room. “Naw,” he says, “this isn’t a tan. This stuff comes out of a tube. My wife hates it when 1 look pale.”
Lee is fresh air filtering into this mouldy dining room, an ingenuous kid who never grew up enough to realize that life wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. Even growing up in Depression Manhattan, he had a good time, although his dress-cutter father
tried to temper his daydreams with the reality of current events he found so fascinating in the daily newspapers. An editor at Marvel since he was 17, Lee by 1960 was suddenly bored with the lifeless cardboard good guys he had written for 21 years. “I sat down and tried to create heroes with faults, with foibles,” he says. “I wanted villains with a few redeeming virtues to make them more interesting, and that way the reader is never quite sure how the story is going to end. Maybe the bad guy will win. Maybe the good guy will fall on his face.” Lee introduced the Lantastic Lour, featuring The Thing, a superhero who looked like a badly formed granite outcropping, and unlike other heroes was hated by the population, who regarded him as a monster. The Thing occasionally obliged everyone by acting like one. But Lee’s most famous creation. The Amazing Spider-Man, did not appear until 1963. “Spidey,” as he’s sometimes known, was actually a shy high-school kid named Peter Parker who gained superhero status by the unlikeliest of means—being bitten by a radioactive spider. If this sounds a trifle shaky scientifically, it didn’t matter to Lee and artist Steve Ditko who soon had him
bounding up and down the sides of buildings. Besides, they had more subtle things in mind for Spidey, since his alter ego, Peter Parker, instead of fighting crime, immediately tried to cash in on his new super powers and only adopted a spider costume so no one would recognize him as he performed his freak shows. Only after Peter’s uncle was killed did he reluctantly become a do-gooder. Even so, he often didn't have the bus fare to reach the scene of a crime and suffered bouts of paranoia brought about by the realization that everyone disliked him whether he was Peter Parker or Spidey. By 1965 Esquire magazine was reporting that Spider-Man was as popular
among college radicals as Che Guevara. By 1970 even Superman’s stodgy image was being hastily altered by DC Comics, where a hungry eye was being kept on Marvel’s steadily rising sales. A conglomerate, Galaxy Communications, purchased Clark Kent’s newspaper. The Daily Planet, and tried unsuccessfully to fire editor Perry White before shifting the stuffy Kent over to anchor the television news on its network. (Inspiration here was faint since Galaxy appeared on the scene about the same time a real-life conglomerate, Warner Communications, tucked DC Comics into its corporate pocket.) In addition, Lois Lane decided that her career was more important than playing the simpering would-be house frau waiting patiently for Superman to marry her. But the cosmetics were of little use: Marvel became the No. 1 comic-book publisher and Superman, the dull, stolid father of all superheroes, had finally been defeated, not by some Kryptonite-wielding villain, but by a paranoid kid in a spider costume.
Still if you’re over the age of 15, the median age of Marvel comics readers, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Despite Stan Lee’s best propaganda, comic books remain immature, catering at once to the demands of the pristine comics code and the minds of 12-year-olds.
Attempts at increased sophistication meet with mixed success. Howard the Duck, Marvel’s most ambitiously zany creation in years, attracts a small cult readership that zealously follows the bewildering adventures of this little duck from outer space. But mainstream comic-book and newspaper-strip readers (he’s syndicated in less than 100 newspapers) have never responded to him, and there are industry rumors that his days are numbered.
The constraints imposed by established comic publishers in the 1960s drove talented artists like Robert Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat, into “underground” comics where they could be as raunchy, freaky, and anti-establishment as their imaginations would allow. By far the most interesting attempt at adult fantasy comics to date is Heavy Metal, published in New York by the company that owns National Lampoon, but leaning heavily on European illustrators influenced by American comics and the new fantasy art which evolved from them. “The work of these artists was unlike anything I had ever seen,” says Leonard Mogel, Heavy Metal's publisher. “It’s adult, it’s sexy, and it’s not for kids. It is also extravagantly and beautifully drawn—that is the key to it.” Heavy Metal, in short, is Marvel Comics all grown-up. One of its most popular features, for instance, is Den, written and drawn with consummate beauty by Richard Corben, one of the few American artists working for the magazine. Den concerns a young man who somehow crosses into another dimension and suddenly develops a superb body and incredible strength, then wanders through a strange land in search of a lost uncle, defeating all sorts of weird bad guys along the way. Fairly straight superhero stuff. Except that Den wanders through his adventures naked, proudly displaying a penis that dangles almost to his knees. He encounters not only monsters and villains, but an incredible number of incredibly voluptuous and naked women, all eager to make love to him. Den very seldom demurs. “If Heavy Metal is popular it’s because we’re producing things you can’t see on television—like tits,” says editor Sean Kelly. “If you could see those on TV, then we might be in trouble.”
At the moment, Heavy Metal has a circulation nearing 300,000 and rising, despite a hefty retail price of $1.50. DC plans to raise the price of its 35-cent comics to 50 cents next month (the number of pages will also be jumped from 36 to 42). Both DC and Marvel are experimenting with larger, more elaborately produced comic books retailing for anywhere from $1 to $2, thereby making them more attractive to retailers. But Marvel at least has no plans to crowd Heavy Metal’s market. “I think of comic books as fairy tales for older people,” Stan Lee says. “We don’t sell sex and we don’t sell violence per se. What we’re selling is fantasy.” And at the moment it is selling very well.0