Friday, May 7, 2010

Before Iron Man

(One preliminary nostalgia note: A-Ha should not break up.)

The first comic book I ever bought that actually featured a team of superheroes was, I think, Avengers 149 (July 1976), featuring Iron Man and other heroes trussed up on slabs with electrodes attached to them by the evil Roxxon Oil corporation and their diabolical ally, an alternate-universe version of Nelson Rockefeller wearing the dreaded mind-controlling Serpent Crown, I kid you not.

Yet I remember buying this a year earlier — which apparently spoke to me somehow: Jack Kirby’s The Dingbats of Danger Street.

Is it possible that The Dingbats of Danger Street is, in truth, the first comic I ever read? How might that affect a five-year-old’s psyche, or that of the adult he would one day become? I know this much: I still remember who the bad guy was: a creepy masked, jumpsuited, cannister-wielding nut called…the Gasser! (I may be forgetting some even earlier issues of Archie and that rascally dog Scamp that I read.)

What else, if anything, might I be forgetting from the years before I picked up Avengers, Brave and the Bold, a Wonder Woman with what seemed to my young mind a viscerally striking image of her draped across giant Rocky Horror-intro-like fangs, Godzilla, and Star Wars — before really diving in shortly thereafter with stuff like X-Men, Micronauts, Legion, Titans, and more, I wonder?

The aforementioned issue of The Brave and the Bold (January 1976: #124) was also a youthful-mind-warper, with a terrorist forcing artist Jim Aparo to redraw the story’s ending so that the terrorist wins and Batman loses — I encountered comics metafiction before I’d even gotten used to reading fiction (in much the way Nybakken says he often encountered parodies and satires before the originals as a young pop culture consumer — and, of course, in some bizarre cases, the original is already a self-parody, as with Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which cleverly deconstructs and renders absurd the Holmesian detective genre, despite being the first example of that genre).

One reason comics, for all their increased political content and violence, are still best suited to the young is simply that the young are more willing to take naive leaps into complex new worlds they know nothing about — that’s what children do all the time just by walking around, after all. A reminder of how inadvertently daunting comics, with their dense mythologies, can be to adult newcomers is provided by this Wikipedia entry on a recent X-Men character. Is she Jean Grey? Jean Grey’s daughter? Jean Grey’s daughter from an alternate timeline, raised in yet another alternate timeline by Cable, who is Jean Grey’s clone’s son from yet another alternate timeline? (That’s not a joke — and in fact I think that might be accurate.) Beats me. I just know that’s not how you get new readers.

P.S. It’s not exactly a superpower, but I’d imagine everyone’s typing speed is probably pretty good these days compared to a couple decades ago, what with all the computing and the texting and so on.


Sean Dougherty said...

The works of comedy team Bob & Ray featured a bunch of parodies of radio shows that their modern fans probably never heard of.

Mary Noble Backstage Wife, begat Mary Backstage, Nobel Wife. Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, became Jack Headstrong, Buzz Corey, Space Cadet, begat Laurence Fecktenberg, Interstellar Officer Candidate, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons, begat Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons.

Now, as it happens, I’ve heard at least a few episodes of the source material but as with all great parodies, they stand alone as characters and stories in their own right, even if you don’t know why exactly it is funny that Harry Noble is always introduced as “The Broadway Heartthrob who is the idol of thousands of other women.” It’s because they were making fun of the way the Hummerts wrote soap operas but it’s still funny even if you don’t know that. Similarly, Laurence Fecktenberg’s sneering rival was an archetype of bad behavior common on kids radio shows – the one whose behavior the right-thinking character could correct for the benefit of the listening audience. That much sincerity was funny on its own terms even by the 1970s and 1980s when I encountered it, before hearing any episodes of Buzz Corey.

Todd Seavey said...

I suppose a good example of a big franchise that became familiar to many people before they knew the source material it was parodying is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a parody of the Teen Titans, X-Men, and Daredevil (a specific Frank Miller-drawn period of Daredevil comics) from back when only comics geeks had heard of those characters, three decades ago.

It’s also perhaps worth noting that Flash Gordon was a rip-off of Buck Rogers and became slightly more popular, but nowadays I’m not sure either is still a big deal, and I’ve met millennials unfamiliar with them.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Those of us who grew up on Mad must have scores of parodies we encountered before having any real knowledge of the original, and metacommentaries we encountered without fully understanding what they were commenting on.