Continued from yesterday; "The superhero comic is an impossibly tough sell, so how to convert the blissfully unconcerned heathen who isn't already predisposed towards the adventures of the cape'n'chest-insignia brigade? ... Which books might just convince a broad audience of folks who aren't adolescently-minded shlock-shock addicts to buy into the super-hero habit"
4. The Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko (Marvel Masterworks #2, #11-19, Annual #1)
The superhero comic rarely concerns itself with everyday life. That's a fundamental aspect of its appeal to its hardcore fans, but it remains an overwhelming deterrent to the doubtful consumer. The superhero devotee is consumed with the process of second-guessing how next month's comics will play with the conventions of the sub-genre, longing to be surprised while desperate never to be too disconcerted. More of the same, but with the slightest of tweaking and the
promise of a re-set somewhere down the line, is the de facto contract
that the publishers have with what's left of their audience, meaning
that the super-book is all too often an endless, tiresome whirl of exhausted
cape'n'tights traditions, fascinating and comforting to the cultist, dull-headed and dead-hearted to everyone else.
Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man tales were, at their very best, anything other than a perpetual round of genre flirt'n'tease with the audience. Their run on Spider-Man didn't pander to any longing for power and escape, but rather focused on the unavoidable, inexorable responsibilities which advantage inevitably brings to those blessed and troubled by coinscience. Every apparent step forward made by high school nebbish Peter Parker leads to his accumulating ever-more irresolvable predicaments and inescapable duties. His arrogant failure as a newly super-powered teenager to prevent his foster-father's murder served as the moral cornerstone of the series, but Lee and Ditko's stories are studded with examples of the youthful Parker appearing to earn a significant measure of independence only to find that life has responded with a new influx of troubles. His job with the Daily Bugle may help his widowed Aunt pay the bills, but it relies on Parker providing the photographs which J Jonah Jameson can use to slander Spider-Man. His first stumbling steps towards adulthood bring him into a relationship with Betty Brant, yet she brings with her a distressed past and a loathing for Parker's alter-ego. No matter what Parker achieves or acquires by chance, he finds that he's even less freedom and significantly more concerns than he had before. In that, Lee and Ditko's work on the character provides us with the perfect superhero metaphor for adolescence.
No other super-book has ever caught the sense of perpetual crisis matched with the almost-psychedelic intensity of experience which characterises so much of mid-teen life. Lee and Ditko's crowded, swift-paced storytelling captures a world of almost-constant bafflement and crisis matched with occasional, and often illusionary, moments of extraordinary achievement. Those who've characterised the early Spider-Man as nothing but a costumed soap opera have confused its creator's methods with their achievement. Yes, Lee and Ditko presented their readers with a tragi-comic melodrama replete with quite-literally faint-hearted guardians and doomed-to-lose love affairs, but those plot-beats were used to create the most convincing of all superheroic depictions of two-steps-from-adulthood life. We care for this version of Peter Parker not just because he's a decent-hearted and lovable loser, but because his adolescent experiences evoke, in their own ridiculously exaggerated way, our own. His is a superhero story that's genuinely concerned with everyday life rather than the perpetuation of any mined-out, life-sidestepping fantasies.
5. Spider-Man Loves Mary-Jane by Sean McKeever & Takeshi Miyazawa
Lee and Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man focused on a hyper-kinetic depiction of the frenzy and constant bafflement of adolescence. Forty years later, McKeever and Miyazawa reworked much of the same material, adding the character of Mary Jane Watson to the Spider-Man haunted Midtown High School while emphasising the claustrophobia and charm, longing and loneliness of teenage suburban life. Where Peter Parker's super-powers allowed him to regularly escape his hometown for Manhattan Island, Mary Jane's existence is one in which the supposedly remarkable is only seen as from the other end of the telescope. Occasionally Spider-Man is glimpsed leaping over the neighbourhood's rooftops, an inexplicable presence intruding into a life of coffee shops, classrooms and Saturday jobs. In that, he's a symbol of all the romance and danger which Mary Jane's day-to-day life can't possibly deliver, just as the initially ghostly presence of the socially-peripheral, perpetually-bullied Peter Parker suggests the possibility of the remarkable hiding in the plain sight of the mundane. Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is a beautifully restrained and heartfelt evocation of the life of an uncertain young woman on the cusp of adulthood. Just as Lee and Ditko did, McKeever and Miyazawa put the figure of the superhero to use in the service of a story that's concerned with profoundly human, essentially typical experiences. It's a measure of how unimaginative Marvel can often be that there's never been a whisper in recent years of a television adaptation of the series. How better to reach out beyond the Rump?
6. Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters & The Birth Of The Comic Book by Gerard Jones
By far the finest book ever written about the American comics industry, Jones's history is a relentlessly compelling and yet heartbreaking tale describing both the dreams which inspired the creators of the very first superheroes and the unmediated avarice of the gangsters and fellow travellers who fleeced them of their creations. For the purpose of this imaginary care package of super-books for the disinterested consumer, Men Of Tomorrow explains not just where the superhero comic came from, but also how intimately its development has been determined by the very anti-social values which the costumed crimefighter has always been designed to fictionally oppose. There is of course the possibility that anybody who's read Jones's work might swear off the very idea of ever reading a superhero tale, given how convincingly he establishes the despicable heartlessness which has so often characterised the management of the comics industry. Yet Men Of Tomorrow also captures the sense of wonder and irony-free moral conviction which so often suffused the sub-genre's products, and in that, it's a book which discusses the historical importance and cultural vitality of the superhero in its infancy as no other ever has. Not just a history of geeks and gangsters, but a vital investigation into how intimately the propagation of the Republic's values have repeatedly been tied up with the self-interest of the Republic's enemies.
to be concluded;