It can take only a few minutes to decide the course of your life.
I was just a little boy in grade school, sitting in front of the black-and-white TV in the apartment where we used to live. I forget what I was watching--but I'll never forget the commercial.
It started with animated trumpets appearing from either side of a blank screen, and a majestic fanfare on horns, the kind of fanfare that announces that something important is about to happen. A second later, something important did happen. A massive, snarling animated figure loomed up into the screen and battered the trumpets aside, then stood there in close-up, glaring balefully out at the viewer. Had it been the color TV in the living room, I would have noticed that this figure was green.
This was only the beginning of the tableau that quickly unfolded before my eyes. In rapid succession I saw a parade of other animated figures. There was a man in an electrically powered suit of armor. And another, clad only in a bathing suit with what appeared to be wings on his ankles, swimming in the ocean. A slender, unassuming chap struck a walking stick on the ground and turned into a muscular warrior with long hair, a winged helmet, a cape, and...a hammer? And another character with a star on his chest and an "A" on his mask--again, had it been the living room TV I would have seen that he was dressed up in the colors of the American flag--threw a metal shield like a discus.
This was all set to music--and lyrics. A set of lyrics I'll never forget:
Meet the sulky, over-bulky, kinda Hulky super-hero.
Altrustic and electrically transistored super-hero.
And exotically neurotic and aquatic super-hero.
The Marvel Super-Heroes have arrived!
Super-powered from their forehead to their toes!
Watch them change their very shape before your nose!
See our cane-striking supre-hero change to Viking super-hero.
Our hum-dinging, real swinging, shield-flinging super-hero.
They're the latest, they're the greatest, ultimatest super-heroes.
The Marvel Super-Heroes have arrived!
To this very day, I can't think of that song, or those images on the old black-and-white TV, or the show that this promo was announcing, without getting a tingle. I had just gotten my first tantalizing glimpses of the Hulk, Iron Man, the Sub-Mariner, Thor, and Captain America. What I had seen was a promo for a TV series called The Marvel Super-Heroes, which was going to be on every afternoon at 4:00 on Channel 10. Now of course, being a kid living in literate, television-equipped American culture, I knew what a super-hero was. I knew Superman. I knew Batman. What I didn't know--yet--was what a "Marvel" was, or what it meant to be a "Marvel Super-Hero". What I did know for sure, however, was where I was going to be every afternoon at 4:00. And that was all it took to seal a little boy's fate.
It took me a while to appreciate the real significance of what I was seeing. I wasn't really able to grasp yet that Marvel was a comic book publishing company that owned these characters, and that there was another such company called DC Comics (or National Periodical Publications, as it was also called back then) that owned Superman, Batman, and their peers. Nor did I really get at first that Marvel and DC were two very different entities with what were at the time two radically, almost diametrically different outlooks on how to tell stories about super-heroes. That would come in time. When I turned to the actual comic books from which super-hero stories were derived, I found in almost every instance that while I liked the characters in DC books (I was especially taken with the Green Lantern, the Flash, and the Atom), I found the characters, stories, and art in the Marvel books vastly more satisfying. To tell the truth, it took me a while to warm up to Thor and Captain America, but that was only because of the new interest that the Marvel super-heroes sparked in me. I wanted to learn to draw, so I didn't have to wait till 4:00 on Channel 10 to have them; if I could draw them, I could summon them up at will! It happened that my big brother Jack also liked the Marvel super-heroes and--as fate would have it--knew how to do this magical thing with pencil and paper. So I got him to show me how he did it, and I was off and running. If I didn't enjoy Cap and Thor as much as the others at first, it was only because I was intimidated by having to draw wings and shields and fancy boots and hammers and chain mail. Once I tried it and convinced myself I could do it, I took these characters to heart the same as the others; in the case of Thor, even more so.
As I was also a young science buff (I devoured the science and nature articles in the Encyclopedia and knew my planets and dinosaurs at an age when most kids are grappling with Dick and Jane and Spot), the first super-heroes that I bonded with were the Sub-Mariner and Iron Man (who had the virtue of being relatively easy to draw). I was fascinated with the ocean and all the amazing living creatures in it, and that was the world from which Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner came (in fact, Subby was more amazing than all the other sea life put together), so he was a natural. But the one who really grabbed me was Iron Man. He was my first favorite hero. Iron Man was just COOL. Here was a guy who didn't have super-powers in and of himself; he was a master scientist, engineer, and inventor, and had invented his powers! With his suit of super-strong armor, bristling with technological gimmicks that were de facto super-powers, Iron Man was Batman done up much bigger. He was about the power of human ingenuity. What Iron Man and Batman had in common was that they were both multi-millionaire playboys with glamourous civilian lives. Each of the Marvel characters on the show had his own theme song within the series. Iron Man's theme had a female lead singer who represented all the swanky females in the character's life. Iron Man was the answer to Hugh Hefner's old advertising question, "What sort of man reads Playboy?" He and his life--at least his civilian life--were the Hefner/Playboy ideal, rendered in comics. The female vocals of the Iron Man theme are in boldface here:
Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel!
And Iron Man, all jets ablaze,
He fights and fights with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, that's Iron Man!
A blazing power, that's Iron Man!
That one makes me tingle too, come to think of it. All those songs do. I remember all of them, as does any Marvel fan who watched that show as a kid.
While I got into Iron Man, I was also unwittingly learning just what it was that set Marvel's characters apart from DC's. This was because while I thrilled to Iron Man's adventures, I also feared for Tony Stark's life. Tony Stark, you see, only appeared to lead the glamourous Playboy life. That life was cut short the moment a piece of shrapnel entered his chest during a tour of Viet Nam. (In the original version of the story, Tony's family fortune came from war profiteering.) Because of the proximity of the shrapnel to his heart, Tony's heart could stop beating at any moment--unless he continuously wore the energized chestplate of Iron Man's armor to keep it going. So the power that made him one of Earth's mighties heroes also became a barrier between Tony and the life that the rest of the world envied him for supposedly enjoying. And this complicated his adventures in the most perilous way, for he was always in danger of his charge running too low, and there were many stories that had me squirming at the sight of him literally having to drag himself to a power source and plug himself in before the Black Knight or the Unicorn or the Mandarin got him. I was always afraid that this would be the time Tony wouldn't make it, and oh God, what was going to happen then?
Compare this to the stories in DC comics of the same period and you'll see why Marvel's stories interested me much more. I found Iron Man's dilemma way more compelling than the umpteenth story about the Green Lantern's ring being unable to affect anything yellow, or Aquaman being in danger of staying out of the water too long. And don't even get me started on Superman and his 31 flavors of Kyrptonite, each one of which had a different effect on him. Iron Man's heart problem was way more interesting than the latest tale of the Man of Steel coming after some bad guy, only to have the bad guy lob a piece of Pistachio Fudge Ripple Kryptonite at him and turn him into a rabbi. There would be the villain getting away, and there would be Superman, suddenly explaining the significance of eating unleavened bread. (And believe me, I'm not exaggerating by much.)
It took me a while to realize that while Marvel's and DC's heroes shared the same outlandishness of plots and stories, where they differed 180 degrees was in context. With Marvel, everything was context. Before the first issue of The Fantastic Four, which was the beginning of Marvel as we know it, super-heroes led mostly unambiguous and uncomplicated lives. They lived in imaginary cities like Metropolis and Gotham and Central City and Ivy Town. They were clean-cut, almost Disney-like figures whose greatest problems besides catching the bad guys may have been getting the girl to notice them in their civilian identities or showing up on time for dates. (The Flash, who could run at the speed of light, was always late for dates with his girlfriend Iris.) Well, no, their other great problem was making sure no one ever learned their secret identities. Superman was forever plagued with Lois Lane--a pretty clueless character back then for someone who was supposed to be such a crack journalist--snooping around trying to find out who he really was, when he was standing right next to her as Clark Kent all the time. This, of course, was because Lois had a Jones for him only in his "super" self; she couldn't see Clark for dust. And their villains were pretty much evil because they were bad; not a great deal of thought was necessarily given to what made them that way.
The Fantastic Four changed all that. It took writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby a bit of work to figure everything out with no prior model of the kind of storytelling they were attempting, but very early on they started rewriting all the rules. With their third issue, the FF were headquartered in a penthouse at Madison Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. Not Metropolis or Gotham City or any such imaginary place--Manhattan! And while fans insisted that the characters wear a costume (Kirby gave them a spare, functional uniform to appease the readers), the FF did not conceal their identities. They were public figures--celebrities--and adventuring was their profession. This was because they weren't crime fighters; they were what writer Alan Moore would one day call "science heroes," and scientists don't share their discoveries with the world from behind masks. And the FF, aside from the epic battles with super-powered villains, were recognizable people with recognizable conflicts. The Invisible Girl was engaged to team leader Mr. Fantastic--and super-heroes romantically involved with each other instead of civilians was also something new--but tempted by the Sub-Mariner, who was the Fantastic Four's sworn enemy in the beginning. The Human Torch was a teenager, but he wasn't a "gosh-wow" sidekick figure, respectful of authority, in the way of preexisting kid heroes like Robin and Kid Flash and Aqualad. He was a smart-mouthed mass of hormones and attitude who liked to race cars and chase girls, not necessarily in that order--just like a real teenager. And then there was the Thing, the only character who couldn't enjoy his powers because he was the prisoner of them. He couldn't turn off his super-strong, rock-like body the way the Torch could turn off his flames; he was stuck that way, he hated it, and he didn't care who knew it. Controlling the Thing could be as much of a problem for the Fantastic Four as battling their foes.
And then, of course, there was the FF's great villain, who raised the bar and set the standard for all bad guys: Dr. Doom, Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic's rival and the team's unending nightmare. Doom was the son of gypsies who had died in persecution; he blamed Reed for the accident that scarred his face; he was a paranoid aristocrat who thought the vulgar, greedy, bigoted, violent world would be better off once the Fantastic Four were dead and Doom ruled everything. There was never a better conceived, motivated, and thought-out, more complex and dangerous figure of evil than Doom. All these years later, fans--including me--can't get enough of him. You feel as though you know him as well as you do the heroes. There is a great early story in which Doom thinks he's finally got the FF on the ropes--but then he pauses to consider the real meaning of it all, and realizes that (what he thinks is) his impending victory will never restore his face or the innocence of his youth. So what's it all for? I promise you, you'd never have seen a moment like that with Luthor or the Joker in a DC story of the same period.
Think of it this way: Remember the movie Pleasantville? DC Comics, prior to the summer of 1961 when the FF first appeared, was like Pleasantville before Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon got there, and Marvel was like Pleasantville once they arrived.
The humanizing formula of The Fantastic Four proved open to infinite variation, lending itself to new characters in endless array. That's what gave us the Hulk and Thor and Spider-Man and the X-Men, and my first favorite, Iron Man.
Back in the day, Marvel liked to tout their approach to comics as injecting "realism" into the stories. In fact, their books were just as far-fetched as those of DC. But Marvel's change of the context in which super-heroes functioned--however dysfunctionally--made all the difference. Reading DC stories, I felt as though I were just reading comic books. But Marvel's stories made me feel as though I were visiting a world just around the corner from the real world, and the Fantastic Four in particular became like friends that I liked getting together with every month. That's why, when I was a young fan, my "Superman" was Thor, my "Aquaman" was the Sub-Mariner, my "Justice League of America" was the Avengers--and nothing could compete with the Fantastic Four.
Today, I'm not a young fan watching The Marvel Super-Heroes on the old black-and-white TV (well, at least not physically; something of that little boy has never left me, and I hope it never does). I am, however, a gay writer-artist with a lifelong interest in comics--and I'm something of a minority within a minority. For the majority of the sub-subculture to which I belong, comic-book-reading gays, has a far stronger and deeper bond with DC Comics than with Marvel. As a teenage fan, I always felt isolated as the only dedicated comic-book reader in the crowd. Today I have a genuine peer group, which I know mostly on the Web, made up of other gays who read comics. And in this community with its devotions to Wonder Woman and Supergirl and Super-Everything-Else and Bat-people and Legions of Super-Heroes and adult super-heroes with kid sidekicks, et al, I still often feel isolated. I'm "the Marvel guy". I have always liked and admired DC's characters (most of them anyway--the appeal of Supergirl, for instance, has always eluded me), but I think of their history and compare it to Marvel's and...I just don't get it. And one thing I have learned is that in some of the company I keep, you must never suggest that the Marvel comics of the 60s were in any way an evolutionary step beyond what DC was doing at the time. Marvel courted--and got, and held onto--an audience made up of the high-school and college-age siblings of the pre-teen kids who were assumed to be the target audience for DC, and in many cases their parents, aunts, uncles, and even grandparents. But in gay comic-book reading company, you must never suggest that 60s Marvel attempted to be perhaps a little more mature, a little more grown-up in its own outlandish way, than 60s DC. Say this to the wrong people, and the hostility you'll get back will be like a living thing. I know this first-hand; more than once I've been accused of not even thinking "good" or "great" comics existed prior to the summer of 1961. Of course, "good" and "great" comics did exist. They just weren't "good" and "great" in that particular way. And through the 60s and into the 70s and early 80s, most of that specific goodness and greatness was still coming from one specific place.
Today, the differences between Marvel and DC are mostly a matter of history. There are differences of storytelling heritage and philosophy that inform both companies, even while DC books are written with the kind of characterization that started with Stan Lee and Marvel. Which company you identify with more strongly is largely a matter of which history and heritage speaks more strongly to you. But for some reason that I have never fully comprehended, gay fans gravitate most strongly to DC. In all the years I've fan a fan in gay company, I've never quite figured this out. I wonder if I ever will.
This will not be the last time we discuss comics in general or Marvel in particular here at The Quantum Blog. I haven't even touched on the importance of Stan Lee's writing and Jack Kirby's art in my own personal development, or how my own relationship with Marvel and with comics as a medium has changed from that day with the Marvel Super-Heroes promo to today. That, I have no doubt, will be the talk of weeks and months to come. Meanwhile, if you'd like to hear some of what set the course of my life, go to www.dograt.com/2007/09-23/the-mmms-records-remastered. Perhaps--just perhaps--you'll get a little tingle of your own. Or maybe not; you be the judge. But I certainly do.