In which the blogger briefly interrupts our look at Mr Bendis's "The Avengers" to ponder the New Year in the company of the Marvel superheroes of a rather different world;
I don't recall ever having had an enjoyable New Year's Eve before I met the Splendid Wife. Even then, it took me a good while to realise that I could leave my well-honed angst behind for a few hours at the end of each December and, rather shockingly, simply enjoy myself.
It's not that I now approach the end of the year with any excessive measure of optimism, but I don't assume that catastrophe will inevitably follow disaster anymore. After thirteen years of consistently undisastrous New Years, I feel pretty confident that folks will gather pleasantly around a bonfire, spirits will be imbibed, laughter will be heard, the peels of Big Ben conveyed through the crackling analogue speakers of someone's far-off car stereo, and the world will generally continue to turn as it generally always does.
Now I can look at the likes of these representations of an incredibly depressed Fantastic Four, by the unexpected and quite enchanting artistic team of Ramona Fradon and Joe Sinnot in collaboration with scripter Gerry Conway, and feel sorry for the characters and wish them better fortune, rather than thinking how they're expressing my own particular lack of the season's greetings and goodwill. (FF 133, 1973) At least at this moment in my life, for fate is something that I refuse to believe in and which I'm reluctant to tempt, I'm far more likely to be associating with the celebrating citizenry than the poor disconsolate superheroes.
Yet it might be said that the Marvel Comics of the early to mid Seventies were often peculiarly mournful. Over the years since Stan, Steve and Jack had reinvented the superhero genre in the early Sixties, comic books had evolved to a state where it often seemed as if the only break in the constant misery of a crimefighter's existence was the regular appearance of absolute despair to break up all that ongoing unhappiness. At the time, being a rather gloomy young man, I took the presence of so much woe in my beloved comics to reflect what I thought was the undeniable unhappiness of a world characterised by homework, incompetent struggles to talk to girls, and a family kind enough to buy me a record player and yet unfair enough to object to my playing it at excessive volume in the small hours of the morning.
"Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?" asks the narrator of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity", and it's a question that might be asked of those wonderful and yet often utterly forlorn superhero books of the long-lost Seventies. Was it possible that these stories of super-powered characters in skin-tight costumes fighting criminals local and inter-galactic weren't actually realistic, that they weren't always entirely literal, accurate and productive guides as to how to live a worthwhile life?
In so many ways, there's just no time for this New Year's lark any more, beyond a brief pause to trigger the vague sense of belonging that accompanies a group of friends and neighbours joining hands and trying to remember those words to "Auld Lang Syne" which aren't "Auld Lang Syne". For there really does come a time when every day's a new year's day, because every day seems rather more perilously closer to being the last one of all. Eventually, there's just not the time to worry about change and opportunity over the coming 365 days, because the demands of the next 24 hours are immediate and precious enough. This is not a bad thing, and it's certainly not a matter for self-pity. Quite the opposite, in fact. Days matter so much now that they're too rare and valuable to wish away thinking about which worthy resolution to carry into January 1st, and perhaps even for an hour or two beyond that. Change is, as the Byrds once sang, now. Write that book, finish that novel, try to write one decent sentence on the blog, help the Splendid Wife with her birthday party arrangements, loose weight, study more of the work of Dudley D Watkins, save money, deep breath, go!
There's no trusting to the future of course, the knowledge of which is, again, no bad thing. Today's all there is, so make the very best of it, is a truism which was undoubtedly delivered time and time again in Seventies Marvel comics, but I never noticed it for the tragically lovelorn heroes struggling to get a break from a cruel and ungrateful world. And Carpe Diem is as obvious a point as it is of profound importance, of course, but it so easily escapes the impressionable and regrettably stupid young mind trying to focus on the really important matters of who would make a more splendid girlfriend - Jean Grey or Gwen Stacey? - or who's stronger, Thor or the Hulk?
Yet one careful look at Kyle Richmond's trusting and indeed rather guileless face as it shone out from the splash page from 1975's Giant Size Defenders # 4 might have encouraged me to consider just a trace element of the matter of fate's transitory and often cruel progression. Now I study Nighthawk's brief moment of celebrity happiness and I want to grab him by the shoulder and ask him why he expects any such bountiful good fortune to last, especially in the Marvel Universe? For as one of Marvel's most irredeemable losers celebrates his own fine luck, terrible things are lurking just one more page and seven panels away, though, as is too often the way with these things, it'll be Kyle Richmond's lovely and endearingly-caring partner Trish Starr who'll be maimed by the experience and Nighthawk who'll be left to try to nobly learn from her suffering.
Still, perhaps there's evidence in "Too Cold A Night For Dying" that a new year can bring with it quite unexpected riches in the form of the exquisite art by Don Heck and Vince Colletta, surely the two least-well thought-of artists at Marvel Comics during that period. And yet, despite expectations, their work here is often exceptionally fine, complimenting as it does an untypically melodramatic and yet characteristically individual tale by Steve Gerber. From the sterling clarity of their splash page's composition, to the shiversome evocation of a freezing winter's night in New York City, to the daft, I can't-believe-I'm-so-lucky smile on Kyle's face, to the detail of the reporter's macs and sideburns, it's a piece of art that I'd be more than proud to own. Staring at that splash page was one of the first moments that I can recall realising that I knew nothing about comic book art, and that my prejudices were exactly that: I'd expected a train-wreck when I'd bought the book and seen who'd produced the artwork, but how wrong was I? I still barely do know anything about art, of course, but I've managed to retain the knowledge that a team of Don Keck and Vince Colletta could catch the spirit of romance and tragedy and the chill of mid-winter like few others before or since in the superhero genre.
I'm not wanting to sound at all like the patron Scrooge of New Years. I'm not meaning to intimate that good things never happen, that all hopes will be dashed, and that grand emotions and longterm ambitions are a waste of time. Of course not. There's more to life than stoicism, admirable discipline that it is, and pessimism is a corrosive business at the best of times. And it's with something of a pleasurable palpitation of an adolescent heartbeat that I note how the panels posted above and below from The Amazing Spider-Man #143, by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, can still make me feel as if anything were possible, as if tomorrow might see world peace achieved and lottery tickets redeemable for very large amounts of life-transforming cash indeed.
Ah, was there any adolescent British boy who read Marvel Comics in the Seventies and didn't ache to be in some way Peter Parker, with his down-at-heel pad in NYC, with his life which always, for all of its tragedy, seemed downright exciting and profoundly romantic? And I've never read a superhero book which dealt with the unexpected blossoming of love in as restrained and touching a fashion as here, where Mr Conway and Mr Andru utterly convinced me that if I could just get to JFK airport in a snowstorm, a beautiful woman might discover that she loved me. It's a book that I'm determined to return to and discuss in a little greater detail at some time in the future, for I'm convinced that the Conway/Andru team produced the very finest run on Spider-Man after that of the Lee/Ditko years. But for the moment, and in the spirit of the day, I will say that the awkwardness of Peter and Mary-Jane here as their relationship tips from friendship into something far more challenging is captured with a skill that's so restrained and to an effect that's so touching that it never fails to make me feel as if in some way a part of my own life is being described on the page. After all, we've all been caught in that breathless moment when things are said in a unplanned and irrevocable fashion, when impossible success suddenly appears and it seems as if it were obvious to anyone but a fool that this was where a fortunate life was always headed.
And there's that New York snow again, and JFK International Airport in the evening light, and the sense of unexpected romance rooted in the most recognisably mundane of circumstances. It's still all so moving for me that I think I'll choose to believe, for awhile, that Peter and Mary-Jane's romance still hangs in the balance as it's shown here, with Mr Parker staring down on a world of possibilities while MJ wanders through an empty airport dwarfed not just by the concrete architecture and the night-time, but by her awareness of what might be happening to her and May Parker's son.
May all our New Year Eves find us similarly pulling away from whatever was the worst of the past, and facing the prospect of the very good things which might yet happen to us, though, of course, unlike Peter Parker in ASM # 143, may we all avoid the immediate comeuppance of a French supervillain dropping a house on our head.
For just awhile, anyway.
A splendid New Year's Eve is wished to one and all, and my fondest wish is for anybody who stumbles upon these words to have the privilege of "sticking together!" tonight.