Friday, February 13, 2009

Super Hero as History Lesson

It's hard to think of comics as textbooks, I know. But produced monthly as they are, and given that being timely and fresh is one of their selling points, they have proven remarkably evocative and powerful artifacts of the eras they came from. Take the early 1960's, if you would. DC Comics was thick into the Silver Age with "new" interpretations of their classic heroes like Green Lantern and the Flash. They looked different, all right, but tended to act the same as their Golden Age counterparts: they were clean cut, smiling, stern, sterling examples of excellent citizenship. They were still being produced under the influence of fear and conformity born of the commie-hunting 1950's, after all, which tended to put forward a view of morality (and especially morality presented to America's children) as unequivocally black and white.

In direct opposition to DC's heroic interpretation are the earliest adventures of Spider-Man, who typified upstart Marvel’s more approachable, reader-friendly and industry-redefining “human” hero. Marvel’s heroes, exemplified by Peter Parker, were not super-heroes who sometimes pretended to be normal guys; they were normal guys who sometimes got into costumes and fought crime. Reprinted in a welcome trade paperback edition (and considerably cheaper, at that) is Marvel Masterworks: The Spider-Man, Volume 1 (by Lee and Ditko), which encompasses not only the origin of Spider-Man but also the first appearances of some of his most popular villains, including Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, the Vulture and Electro. This edition also includes some of Ditko's recently uncovered original art. Lee’s writing must have seemed like a blast of fresh air at the time, hip, swinging and packed with charm. Ditko’s art is as off-kilter now as it was then, dark, quirky and at times just downright weird, which kept the art incredibly engaging and made Ditko an amazingly daring choice to illustrate super-hero comics at the time. These are considered by many to be the greatest, most genre-defining comics ever produced. So, maybe they’re, you know, worth a look.

It also, incidentally, has plenty to offer as a statement on its era, not only as an early example of the more free-wheeling 1960's outlook, but also in the details of its fashions, its take on technology, and its evolving depictions of women. If all this sounds appealing, don't hesitate to check out Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 7 (by Lee and Romita), too. It features adventures smack in the middle of Spidey's 1960's high point and also includes the story which reveals the dark secret of Peter Parker's parents. History and excitement -- and they say comics can't teach you anything.


Chris Barton said...

This is the right book at the right time for at least one guy in my house, and maybe for all three of us. I'm going to go find it now -- thanks for the recommendation, Jesse.

Jesse said...

My pleasure. Thanks for embracing Spider-Man!