Comics

THE COMICS SECTION – PLUS SPIDEY AND ME

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I was lucky. The first example of the classic US comic book I ever encountered was a GREAT one. Superman #134, cover-dated January 1960 (but on sale in my local newsagent rather later than that at the very reasonable price of 9d in ‘old money’) featured a ‘three-part novel’ – in other words, a book-length story split into three chapters rather than the usual triad of standalone stories – called ‘The Super-Outlaw From Krypton.’ It was drawn (as I later discovered) by the splendidly-named Wayne Boring, featured Actual Science-Fiction Content and sucked my tiny young mind into both the Superman mythos and the comic-book subculture with the brutal efficiency of a four-colour vacuum cleaner.

Many years later, during a brief phase as a proper comics collector, I tracked down #133 and #135 – and seriously mediocre they were, too. If I’d found myself buying either one of those instead of #134, it’s highly unlikely I would have pursued the matter much further, and would thus have saved myself monumental quantities of both time and money.
In those days, we referred to ALL comics of this type as ‘Superman comics’ whatever their content. A few years later, we called them all ‘Marvel Comics’ no matter which company had published them. A few issues’ worth of exposure to the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and my boy Spidey, and all that Superman-and-Batman stuff began to seem very unrockanroll indeed.

I still retain an atavistic and vestigial nostalgic fondness for those brightly-coloured metaphors on legs, and occasionally look in on my childhood companions to see how they’re getting on. Once in a while I even write about them … and their creators and chroniclers.

Some of those writings are included in this section.

As a curtain-raiser, here’s an (unpublished) piece commissioned by the Evening Standard around the time Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man movie came out in 2001.

SPIDEY AND ME

When I first encountered Peter Parker in early 1964, I was twelve going on thirteen and he was fifteen going on sixteen. Despite this slight gap in our ages, we bonded (well, at least I did). Since Peter was a comic-book character, I could forgive him for ageing much slower than I did; by the time we lost touch I was thirty and he had reached his early twenties. Later on, I heard from mutual friends that he’d graduated from college and married his long-time girlfriend, and that his Aunt May, who’d been at death’s door since around 1965, had finally passed away. In the strip’s mainstream continuity, Peter’s around thirty, which is just about forgivable. Now, according to this movie I just saw, Peter’s back in his teens again, whilst I seem to have reached the unlikely age of fifty. This is seriously unfair, Peter: I consider it to be a betrayal of everything we shared in the Sixties. After all, we’d once seemed to have an awful lot in common.

Both of us were notably unathletic — he wa skinny, I was plump — and had been bullied at school. Both of us lived tantalisingly near an exciting, dynamic metropolis, though Manhattan was a great deal more accessible from Peter’s Forest Hills working-class suburb than the West End of London was from my remote little corner of lace-curtain Reading. Both of us regularly pined after girls who, for some utterly unfathomable reason, seemed more interested in flashy but superficial others than in the deeply fascinating inner complexity that lurked behind the notionally unprepossessing exteriors of Peter and myself. Both of us were raised by doting but over-protective elderly couples: parents in my case; for the orphaned Peter, it was his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. Both of us had journalistic ambitions: I wanted to be a writer, Peter was taking his first steps to establishing himself as a freelance news photographer. And both of us were always broke.

The main difference between us back then was that I didn’t have a super-powered alter-ego, whereas he did. He was, after all, the Amazing Spider-Man, and I wasn’t. Now there is this second major distinction between us, even more profound in its way. Oh well … that’s what you get for identifying too strongly with fictional characters when you’re at a formative age.

The other major comic-book characters and prose adventure heroes of the era were already grown-ups, and some of them had been that way since the late 1930s. Like James Bond and Philip Marlowe, Superman and Batman appeared to be in their thirties: Bond and Marlowe aged from their late thirties to early fifties during the time that Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler were chronicling their exploits. Sherlock Holmes remained permanently in the late 19th century, and even if he’d been a real person, he would have been long dead by the time I first encountered him. Even in the movies, thanks to Roger Moore’s persistence in the role, James Bond remained older than I was until the arrival of Pierce Brosnan.

Part of the appeal of marathon soaps like Coronation Street, East Enders, The Rolling Stones and the Royal Family is that the actors, being human, age at the same one-day-at-a-time rate as we do. We can watch them do it, and check their growth (or lack of same) against our own. The Simpsons, however, don’t: Bart will always be ten, Lisa will always be eight and Maggie always a babe in arms. What changes is how we see them. If The Simpsons keep going long enough, fans who acquired a taste for it as kids will gradually shift, if they keep watching, from identifying with Bart or Lisa to identifying with Homer or Marge.

There were other barriers to solid identification with Spider-Man’s competitors. Bruce Wayne was a billionaire with a butler. And Clark Kent had all these super-powers because he was from Krypton. Emulating both conditions seemed equally improbable and equally far beyond any kid’s reasonable aspiration. What about the teen heroes, like Robin? No way. Robin was a creep. He was insufferably gung-ho and indestructibly cheerful, ran about bare-legged, called himself the ‘Boy Wonder’ and did what he was told by an adult to whom he took second billing. Peter may have been a mere teenager, but his costume covered him from head-to-toe, he took his own decisions and, best of all, he wasn’t Spider-Boy. He was Spider-Man. In the Marvel Comics pantheon of which Spider-Man eventually became the epicentre, the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch represented poor value as a fantasy figure for klutzy kids: too blond, too rich, too popular with the general public. The Fantastic Four met aliens every other minute and had adventures in space: Spider-Man pretty much stayed in New York, got slagged off in the press and fought megalomaniac costumed nutters or petty street crooks. The FF were galactic heroes, but our boy was ‘your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man’: the underdog’s superhero.

So now Sam Raimi’s film is finally out, how’s my old friend doing? Some things are seriously worrying: in the comics, Spidey sprayed an artificial web from little gadgets mounted in wristbands: now he seems to secrete the stuff from self-sealing apertures in his wrists, and his wall-crawling abilities derive from spiky hairs emerging from his palms and soles. Sprouting hairs, strange eruptions of sticky white stuff … jeez, Sam, this wouldn’t by any chance be a metaphor for the travails of male adolescence, would it?

The need to compact several years of comic-book continuity into two hours have inevitably flattened out the deft, Buffy-before-Buffy characterisations so adroitly built up in the originals by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko: thirty issues’ worth of tragicomic heartbreak-and-hilarity-in-high-school soapismo vanish when Peter graduates around half an hour in. Ultimately, though, he still seems to be the same guy.

We’re still friends, Peter. But if you drop by for a visit, keep some kleenex handy. I’m fifty years old now, and it’s a bugger cleaning spilt web-fluid off the sofa.

Evening Standard (unpublished), 2001

THE COMICS MENU

TO COME — PLEASE CHECK BACK 
CSM’s COMICS SECTION IS BEING RESTORED BY THE ELVES. Signed, the Web Fairy

Why Jack Kirby?

Excelsior! Stan Lee’s ‘bio-autography’

alt.lit.weird: graphic novels of 2000

The Mask

Neil Gaiman: Sandman

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Endless Nights

Gerard Jones: Men Of Tomorrow

Harry Thompson on TinTin and his creator Hergé

Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth

Joe Sacco’s Palestine

David B.’s Epileptic

R. Crumb: The Art Of Subversion

CSM interviews R Crumb and Gilbert Shelton at Comics Unmasked, British Library 2014

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