In The Fortress of Solitude, his great white whale of a novel, Jonathan Lethem chases after childhood, neighborhood, and the American leviathan of race relations. In Men and Cartoons, a grab bag of his stories, he paddles a kayak downstream over waters not exactly rapid. Old friends from elementary school reappear in order to deplore the compromises and corruptions of their former classmates. Bygone parents are revealed to have been capable of secret, sexual exultations. Young lovers in a burgled house go to bed with the ghosts of past relationships made visible by a magic spray. Artists, agents, editors, opticians, and a talking sheep named Sylvia Plath negotiate dystopias of gridlock. In “Access Fantasy,” one character lives in his car in a city-wide traffic jam on the wrong side of a One-Way Permeable Barrier.
But the joke’s on Hemingway. According to Lethem, men without women employ comic books to compensate for their absence. When his characters aren’t listening to Frank Zappa and the Talking Heads, or dreaming up scenarios for interactive video games, or hiring out as “advertising robots” at the local Undermall, or destroying the world with air bags made of cabbages, they are thinking about Stan Lee and R. Crumb, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Dr. Doom, and Captain America. If Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Walt Whitman, and Carl Jung show up in “Super Goat Man,” the most ambitious of these stories, they are really only red herrings or highbrow beards in an epic tale of an Electric Comics superhero from the Sixties who is reduced in the Eighties to teaching a college seminar on “Dissidence and Desire: Marginal Heroics in American Life 1955–1975.”
Mostly, though, the comics mentioned in Men and Cartoons aren’t published by Electric. Or DC, Raw, or Fantagraphic. They bear the brand of Marvel Comics, “which anyone who read them understood weren’t comic at all but deadly, breathtakingly serious. Marvel constructed worlds of splendid complexity, full of chilling, ancient villains and tormented heroes, in richly unfinished story lines.” Lethem’s nerds entered into those complex worlds back in grammar school and junior high, between the ritual humiliations of pubescence. In years to come of pink slips, eviction notices, and deleted icons, of fax machines and vibrators, these Marvel worlds are the vistas in their mediated heads. They see in panels, talk in balloons, and feel in lurid colors. But how can a Columbia professor who plays party games (in “The Vision”), a museum director for acquisitions of drawings and prints (in “Vivian Relf”), or a cartoonist for a free music magazine published by a record store chain (in “Planet Big Zero”) ever be expected to compete with the likes of Vision, the android in the Avengers series who could vary the density of his body from bullet-stopping diamond-hard to blue-smoke phantom fuzzy? Or Black Bolt, the noblest member of a band of outcast mutants known as…
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