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January 25, 2000


The Comic Book Millennium: Part II

by Chuck Miller

When we last saw our hero, the comic book industry, it was the mid-50s. Dark days, indeed. Superheroes had gone out of vogue. Their replacements, the gory, graphic crime and horror comics, had been emasculated by the newly-established Comics Code Authority. EC Comics attempted to recover from the loss of its top-selling blood-and-gore titles by launching their line of "New Direction" books, with such exciting titles as "Psychoanalysis" and "Piracy." The "New Direction" books, some of which contained fine stories and art, nevertheless made the Edsel look like a resounding success by comparison; EC got out of the comic book business altogether, concentrating on Mad Magazine.

Which left us with... not a heck of a lot. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were still around, though their adventures had become pretty formulaic and bland. Captain Marvel was gone, a victim of low sales and a hovering copyright infringement lawsuit from National Periodical Publications. Most of the Timely characters -- Captain America, Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch -- had petered out. Timely (now called Atlas) had moved into the horror business, but switched to watered-down sci-fi after the advent of the CCA. National (or DC), too, was doing a lot of sci-fi, with titles like "Mystery in Space." There were lots of funny animals -- Carl Barks did some of his best work on "Donald Duck" and "Uncle Scrooge" during this period, so it can't be called a complete wasteland.

Then someone got an idea. Let's do some new superheroes!

The Flash was the first to return from limbo -- sort of. The editors at DC decided to revamp rather than revive. The new Flash first appeared in Showcase #4 in 1956. Arguably the first superhero of the "Silver Age" (a case could be made for the Martian Manhunter, who appeared the previous year, 1955 -- but M.M. was never a major player), this new speedster was not the Jay Garrick of the 1940s. Instead, he was a young police scientist named Barry Allen, who got his super-speed as the result of one of those handy freak accidents and decided to take on the name (but to design his own outfit) of his favorite boyhood comic book hero. All of this happened in DC's Showcase #4, a book which would now cost you more than the average single- family dwelling. Fortunately, the stories in that volume have been reprinted ad nauseam, including last month's DC "Millennium Edition." (All sorts of highlights in comics history are available in this series, which will continue throughout 2000 -- they've already reprinted Action #1, Detective #27, Brave and Bold #28, the first Justice League, and more.)

The Flash was followed by Green Lantern, now a super-scientific interstellar policeman instead of a lucky geek who found a magic ring. In fact, most of the revamped characters owed their powers to super-science rather than magic. The new Hawkman was a cop from the planet Thanagar, not the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince. The Atom one-upped his Golden Age counterpart, a short guy who was a really good fighter, by being able to shrink himself down to sub-microscopic size thanks to his experiments with matter from a white dwarf star.

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Here is one of the few known photos of the reclusive Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, taken in the early 60s. Ditko is the Howard Hughes of comics. He has never been interviewed and never appears at conventions. Someone appears to have caught him napping and snapped this candid shot.
The true revolution took place in 1961, with the release of the landmark Fantastic Four #1, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. The FF was rather hastily thrown together as a response to DC's successful Justice League of America. There was nothing terribly original about any of the characters. The Human Torch was lifted from the Timely books of the 40s. Mr. Fantastic was Plastic Man with a college education. The Thing was a refugee from the monster comics Lee and Kirby had been doing in the late 50s and early 60s. The Invisible Girl was -- um, well, a girl who could turn invisible.

What WAS unique about this group was the way they acted and interacted. While the JLA were always a jolly bunch with never a cross word between them, the FF fought like cats and dogs. The Thing, alias Ben Grimm, was a real problem child. He was constantly bemoaning the fate that had turned him into an unsightly pile of walking orange rocks -- well, wouldn't you? Reed Richards and Sue Storm (Mr. F. and I.G.) were romantically involved, but their relationship was hardly idyllic. In short, they were a lot more like real people than comic book superheroes had ever been. And the reading public ate it up. More "realistic' characters followed: Spider-Man, a troubled teenager with the "proportionate strength of a spider"; Iron Man, alias millionaire munitions manufacturer Tony Stark, trapped by a life-threatening heart condition inside the armor that gave him his power.

While most of the DC heroes were spending their time fighting weird monsters and conquerors from outer space, the Marvel characters addressed slightly more relevant concerns. There were plenty of communists to be found in the early Marvel books. Bruce Banner became the Hulk when his gamma bomb project was sabotaged by a commie spy. Spider-Man had the Chameleon and the FF had the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes -- all card-carrying party members. The stories also played on the public's fear of and fascination with atomic energy. Just about every Marvel character received his or her powers through some sort of radiation accident. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, Bruce Banner was caught in a nuclear explosion, Daredevil gained his heightened senses when he was struck in the head by a canister of atomic waste. Marvel fought the cold war well into the 60s, using images and paranoid fantasies from the B-movies of the 50s.

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Batman's adventures got a little grittier in 1970. But it would be another 15 years before Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" would truly define the Caped Crusader.
Spider-Man, co-created by Lee and reclusive artist Steve Ditko, proved to be Marvel's most popular character. The Lee-Ditko partnership lasted until issue #33 or #34, somewhere in there. Ditko left Marvel because of "creative disagreements" with Lee. After drifting for a time, the enigmatic artist found a temporary home at DC, where he created such forgettable characters as the Creeper and Hawk and Dove. He was replaced on Spider-Man by John Romita, a talented enough artist, but he could never match Ditko's quirky charm. The book continued to sell well, but the salad days were over.

Superheroes became hot once again, and, as in the 40s, every publisher who could manage to find an empty spot on the bandwagon did so. Much of it was crap, again just like the 40s. The superhero craze was reinforced when a certain Caped Crusader took to the small screen.

The "Batman" TV show, which debuted in 1966, was a creative nightmare and a marketing dream come true. The CORNY, campy show was a huge hit, and anything with Batman on it, including the lame comics of the period, sold and sold well. This success was a flash in the pan, however, and "Batmania" had burned itself out by the time the show bit the dust in '69. The show had a legion of flaws, but possessed a certain charm (unlike the HORRIBLE "Batman and Robin" movie of recent memory) and undoubtedly spawned a whole generation of lifelong Batmaniacs (including this reporter). The character became a bit more "serious" after the death of the show, but Batman's creative glory days were still almost two decades in the future.

As, indeed, were any kind of "glory days" for the industry.

Several noble and memorable experiments were attempted in the early 70s, none of which stand up very well almost 30 years later. Denny O'Neal and Neal Adams' "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" series broke new ground, dealing with issues like poverty and racism. Re- reading them today, the tales seem awfully preachy, with morals which are about as subtle as a power-ringed boxing glove. But they did open the minds of many to the potential of comic books as something other than "kid stuff." Other notable titles were DC's "Swamp Thing" and marvel's "Howard the Duck." (The memory of which has been forever sullied by an awful movie.) But this spate of creativity petered out in the middle part of the decade and blandness ruled once again.

Now we find ourselves in the late 70s. Comic books once again languish in creative stagnation. Inspiration is rare. The Marvel Revolution has degenerated into infighting, backbiting and formula storytelling. DC doesn't fare much better.

What's next?

I'll tell ya in two weeks!

The Harbinger