On halcyon afternoons back in the Age of Pop, around 1966 or so, college students and other idlers—mostly male, as was and is the tendency—liked to use the latest stack of Marvel Comics as text for a free-floating commentary. The vantage point hardly mattered: aesthetics, Jungian psychology, the dynamics of American social life, the sexual implications of superhero costuming. Marvel’s creations were grist for any kind of rumination, high or low. They provided a shorthand for categorizing personalities and situations (an analogy for almost anything could be found somewhere within the rapidly expanding Marvel Universe), and, most satisfying of all, could be taken as frivolously or as seriously as you wanted. In those days it was not unusual to hear Stan Lee (then still the writer of almost all the company’s dozen or so titles) praised as a protean intelligence of near-Shakespearean dimensions, while the distinctive styles of Marvel’s artists—Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko, and many others—fueled hours of discussion about the nature of the line and the employment of space.
Here, many felt, was the real Pop Art, not the appropriation of mass culture by the likes of Lichtenstein and Warhol but a sophisticated reinvention of that culture by longtime veterans of its lowliest reaches. The simplistic charms of old-style superhero comics, with their infantile motivations and threadbare fantasy worlds, had been revamped by Stan Lee and his colleagues into an elaborate playing-out of the genre’s possibilities. Their superheros were self-conscious, plagued by doubts, subject to irrational obsessions, and the increasingly complex narratives in which they interacted were a knowing encyclopedia of all the elements of adventure serial and soap opera. Their main characters—the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Dr. Strange (Master of the Mystic Arts), Iron Man, Thor, Sub-Mariner, and, most popular of all, Spider-Man—each had his own emotional shadings and fetishistic peculiarities. Best of all, the proceedings were bathed in a humor which, if not deathlessly witty, gave the proceedings a reliably jaunty cadence: “Though there be many writers, none but Stan Lee could have penned this tale! Though there be many artists, none but Steve Ditko could have drawn this tale! Though there be many letterers, none but Artie Simek was available when we needed him!”
Marvel Comics were overtly formulistic, drawing attention to their visual and narrative devices, and interlarding even the most portentous scenes with wisecracks from the sidelines. The reader was constantly reminded that the story was being invented from one frame to the next, and the result was a sense of complicity between reader and artist. At least at the outset, before they too evolved into a gigantic corporate enterprise, Marvel Comics were perceived as an antidote to the squareness and predictability of mass entertainment. At once good-natured and anti-heroic, they preserved the spirit of seat-of-the-pants inspiration associated with pulp magazines and B-movies; they had something of the free-flowing comic invention of the early days of Mad magazine, coupled with a serious absorption in the evolving mythology of their characters. If…
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