Groundbreaking stories or concepts often have a short shelf life. Frequently they’re upstaged by someone who does the same thing better. Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the first private detective nor Tarzan the first feral jungle child, but they both eclipsed their predecessors. In other cases, a story that was a radical innovation 50 years ago became so much a template for later works that we can’t appreciate it’s novelty. “Flash of Two Worlds” is a good story but I’ll never feel the same thrill reading it that fans must have had at the time. The innovations Lee and Kirby introduced in Fantastic Four are so much standard comics storytelling now that I can’t feel what a shock the stories must have been in the early 1960s.
The same is true of comics’ first team-up book.I saw the ad for this in a friend’s collection probably a year after it came out and holy crap, was I blown away. I’d started my comics reading with Justice League of America, I’d read the Legion of Super-Heroes in Adventure Comics but still! To have two superheroes just decide to work together outside a regular team? When they weren’t Superman and Batman? That was So. Fricking. Amazing. Even Marvel had only done a couple of team-ups at that point.
That the bad guy was cunning enough to set them at each other’s throats just made it more intriguing. The story, “Wanted — The Capsule Master” itself? Well, “Flash of Two Worlds” it wasn’t, but when I found it reprinted in a Brave and the Bold 100-page spectacular it was perfectly readable (I was puzzled why J’Onn didn’t seize the chance to go home to Mars and stay, but it turns out he’d already had some chances and passed them up). If I’d read it at the time, just the team-up aspect would have made me love it.
Kids today? After decades of Marvel Team-Up, Brave and the Bold, DC Comics Presents, Marvel Two-in-One, they can’t possibly get the same feeling of excitement. Understand it, sure, but not share it.
Moving ahead almost twenty years, I have the same feeling about the Dark Phoenix Saga, which I reread recently. Story-wise, of course, it’s light years beyond the B&B — I haven’t the slightest doubt newbies digging into an old copy or a TPB would appreciate how good it is.
We were talking last week about how Jonathan Hickman writes for the trade — Claremont and Byrne in this era could balance long-term arcs and short-term thrills perfectly. Jean’s seduction by Jason Wyngarde takes place over months, building to her transformation into the Hellfire Club’s Black Queen, but you don’t have to wait for the climax to get a payoff. There’s lots going on and multiple stories starting and finishing. I’d say it holds up well but that’s underselling it. It’s one of the few yarns I wouldn’t hesitate to call classic.
At the same time, the tone of comics has changed so much since those days. Even if a new reader didn’t know Jean came back from the dead, nobody reading now expects death to last; back then this was as permanent as Bucky Barnes (yeah, I know) and Uncle Ben. It was cosmic, too, in a way few stories had been before. Now the Phoenix Force has appeared so much, she’s virtually domesticated. And “cosmic” is just Tuesday in the MU and DCU, even though most cosmic yarns aren’t half this good.
And then there’s Wolverine. I knew that when Wolverine crashed into the Hellfire Club cellar he wasn’t dead but this moment —— still packed one hell of a punch. For readers today, though, I think the shock would be that he doesn’t save the day all by himself. All it takes is a dozen or so Hellfire goons to overcome him — how can Wolver-god go down that easily?
This sort of thing happens in every genre and medium, and to every generation. It’s still a little startling when it happens to mine.
#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by Carmine Infantino, George Roussos and John Byrne.