Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

This used to be so damn cool

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.

21 Comments

  1. Edo Bosnar

    Heh, “Wolver-god.” That’s a good way to put it.

    But yeah, back in the day, if you were reading along as the issues were coming out (as I was), Wolverine becoming a sort of kick-ass character in the Hellfire Club arc was really cool. Up to that point, I saw him as sort of an annoyance, but afterward I gained a new appreciation. However, so did everyone else, so he got the spotlight more and more, his own mini-series and soon he was – to me, anyway – insufferable.

    1. Same here. That panel was just WOW to me when I first read it.
      One of the worst examples of Wolverine’s rising star was Spider-Man vs. Wolverine. To show how awesome Logan is, Christopher Priest goes out of his way to make Spider-Man look hopelessly out of his depth and it totally doesn’t work.

  2. Le Messor

    So the first team up was Green Arrow and the Martian Manhunter vs Kang The Conqueror?

    So many writers need to learn (see Edo’s comment and Fraser’s response above) that you don’t have to make somebody else look bad to make your character look good – in fact, it can have the exact opposite effect – it implies your character can only defeat stupid, incompetent characters.
    I was just telling a couple of friends last night about the issue of Batman where he defeats the Flash by throwing something at him, and Green Lantern by wrapping a bat-rope around his wrist.
    Oh, and that stooopid, stoopid Garth Ennis story where The Punisher leaves Wolverine as a whimpering puddle, long after the Wolver-god rot had set in.

    Also, on the Hellfire Club: I recently bought a box set of The Avengers, and have been watching through it. I watched that episode well ahead of time with a couple of friends.

  3. jccalhoun

    As a kid, I loved the team up comics. DC Comics Presents was a great way to introduce me to characters that I hadn’t seen before and it also helped keep characters who didn’t have their own series in play. Now it just seems like if a character isn’t a regular character then it just disappears.

    I know they tried to bring back Brave and the Bold years ago and it didn’t work but I still miss the team up books.

  4. Chris Schillig

    Nostalgia plays a big role in how we perceive stories. Most comics I loved as a child and reread as an adult retain their appeal. for me. When I try to read comics from the same time period that I missed as a kid (and there are a lot of those), I can appreciate them, but it’s doubtful I will like them as much as those books I discovered in that magical window from 8-14 years old.

    It doesn’t always work that way, though. I have a hard time plowing through most anything by ERB as an adult, including novels I absolutely lapped up as a kid. Sometimes, though, I’m surprised to find works that are better than I remembered them, including most anything by REH.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      On ERB, I pretty much agree with you; I already burned out on his prose when I was still in my early teens, and never went back and re-read any of it. Now I’m kind of hesitant to go back and read the stuff I really loved, like the Barsoom books, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like them nearly as much.
      On REH, I have gone back and re-read some of his stories, and while I don’t find them better than I remembered, I think they hold up quite well.

    2. Le Messor

      I was kind of worried I’d not enjoy the comics I missed from when I was a kid, but it turned out I’ve enjoyed most of them. So much so, I’m now reading new comics less than trades of old comics.

      I’ve never got around to reading either ERB or REH. (Or HPL, for that matter.) I’d like to try them out someday.

  5. conrad1970

    The trouble with comics these days is that you know what’s happening months ahead of the actual event , thanks mainly to the internet.
    Back in the late 70’s early 80’s I can remember buying comics from the spinner racks and been blown away because Doctor Doom revealed himself as the villain on the last page of an Avengers comic. That’s how simple things were back then, you just don’t get that anymore.
    Most writers today still can’t write Wolverine as well as Claremont did 40 years ago, Christ I feel old just typing that.

    1. It’s hard to imagine the reveal at the end of the Thunderbolts’ first issue would have stayed secret today.
      Back when they did the Captain America issue where he throws someone out of a helicopter, then goes “Hail Hydra!” someone pointed out that 30 years earlier we’d all have been debating what it meant (a Skrull? the Chameleon? Red Skull playing with the Cosmic Cube again?) and waiting to see who was right. But in the present, the author went on social media to announce this was the real Cap, he’d always been a Hydra agent, and his claims turned curiosity into annoyance.

      1. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

        And, of course, that statement was exactly as true as Dan Slott’s announcement that Peter Parker was dead forever, and Otto Octavius would be Spider-Man from now on.

        It was cosmic cube shenanigans – it’s just that the cosmic cube rewrites reality, as such, and therefore HydraCap was “The Real Cap.”

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