I’ve been reading comics for 40 years. No, they didn’t call them “graphic novels” then, in some attempt to lend them the air of legitimacy. I well remember the first “real” graphic novel: The Death of Captain Marvel. Whoa—a super-hero dying of cancer, with the cover image an homage to Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà, the Dying Christ (religious allegory a specialty Jim Starlin’s, inherited from his Adam Warlock forbears)—that was a next-level event. It signaled a demand for literacy among the next generation of readers—kids who were growing up with the challenging and allusive lyrics of Springsteen, Rush, and Pink Floyd, and watching Star Trek in syndication—those same kids who are now grown up, many still reading.
At age 15, I could barely afford to buy this deluxe-format beast, of course, at the $5.95 cover price. They were 15 cents when I began as a kindergartner, just up from 12 cents, and I scraped the money together for my first, personal issues by tipping up the clothes-dryer, and by plunging my little paw between the bench seats of the family sedan, and later shoveling snow for the neighbors.
Take it from me, Civil War (2006-07—seven brief issues, but it stretched to every mag Marvel published at the time, dozens of books) was the best thing Marvel has produced since the bronze age. If you haven’t read it yet, I envy you the experience—it saved comics for me. It could have been just another 1980s “Secret War”—again, I’m dating myself. And Secret War was not bad, for its time, but it wasn’t written for adults —not really. The coven of creators behind Civil War brought us something far more epic, far more mature and thoughtful, than just two big groups of costumed adventurers rumbling against each other. I distinctly recall, aside from the death of Captain America, which functioned as an epilogue, several moments in particular: Sue Storm/Richards (The Invisible Woman) telling her husband, Reed (Mr.Fantastic): “I’ve never been so disappointed in you.” Peter Parker joining the wrong side and embracing technology over intuition, because he believed he was doing the right thing. Captain America clarifying for us that a real patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government. Family member against family member, and every worthwhile character trait that decades of creative teams made part of the Marvel mythology, drawn upon, epitomized by those moment of conflict.
Well, they couldn’t leave well enough alone. A succession of crossover mega-events has followed, in a blatant attempt to sell overpriced magazines (the ridiculous four-dollar cover price is a subject for another lament.) World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, just to name the biggies. No. These things should come once per decade, at most—like they say in the mafia, “every once in awhile, to get rid of the bad blood.” It takes away from the really fine moments in them to dilute the Marvel Universe this way. An epic is more than the running time of the movie or the number of pages between the covers–it’s what’s at stake. And I’m not talking about the destruction of the Earth by Kree and Skrulls, either–I’m talking about what our youngsters–the living heroes of tomorrow, learn from the experience.
Now they’re rebooting—I think—New Avengers. Again. Seriously. The New-new-new Avengers. What used to be Marvel’s best book, but, like some over-circulated photocopy, more diffuse and unclear with each new iteration. And how young does a kid need to be before he’ll fall for the old “I have issue #1!” scam, anymore? Then, you’re taking candy from babies.
In the final analysis, every real hero is an individual, not part of some mob. Read the immortal Amazing Spider-Man #33. Stan Lee is a hero of mine—I’ve written about him elsewhere. Back when he was a writer and leader, and not a media mogul doing fun film-cameos and leaving the important decisions to bean-counters, he was one of those human beings with what folks living through the ‘60s and ‘70s called soul. He could actually inspire brand-loyalty in children, ones sensing the tepidness of the competition across town, great as some of their characters might be. But, as has been said of many heroes in many tales: where is he now? What soul gem can resurrect him?