Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Life In Four Colors (Part Twenty-Nine)

My growing fascination with Marvel Comics grew even stronger through the summer of 1965. Gary Steele had rapidly become my best friend, and that summer we were virtually inseparable. Either both of us were at his house, or both of us were at my house; it helped that we lived only a brisk ten minute walk away from one another, so we could wander from Marchmont Drive to Leon Street on a whim. And we were both positively fascinated by the Marvel Universe, with its ever-expanding links that made every book an interconnected part of a larger whole.

Today, comics are so continuity based that it may seem odd to imagine a time when continuity wasn't a vital part of comics. That's exactly the situation over at DC, however, where almost every comic was set a self-contained pocket universe, a corner of the DCU where interaction was pretty much nonexistent and books could be read in almost any order because the status quo was re-established by the last page of each and every issue. The stories were well-crafted, of course, but there was no sense of a larger reality. They'd try to establish that bigger picture with the annual JLA/JSA crossovers or the occasional Atom/Hawkman or Green Lantern/Flash crossover story, but even those adventures had no impact on the big picture.

The best way to understand it is to watch a syndicated episode of Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle or I Dream of Jeannie. Watch one episode and you've got the premise. Now watch other episodes in pretty much any order, and you realize that it doesn't matter. The premise is always preserved, nothing really changes, and the stories are designed to be appealing little vignettes. That's what made syndication so successful back then; we could watch those shows over and over again, in any order, and it made for comfortable viewing because we always knew what the situation was, how everyone was going to act, and how things would wrap up.

Not so with the Marvel Universe. Their war book, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, seemed to be set in its own WWII pocket universe... but then Sgt. Fury met Captain America, and then he met Reed Richards, and later on he turned up as a government agent assisting the Fantastic Four as they confronted the Hate-Monger, and a little while after that he became an agent (and then the director) of SHIELD.

Thor might show up in a Human Torch adventure--not as a guest star, but just making a cameo appearance for a panel or two. These characters all operated in the same world, after all, so it was likely that they'd cross paths from time to time.

That concept of continuity defined Marvel from early on. The company tried to establish corporate barriers, adding captions that one character appeared with permission of such-and-such publishing, but it was obvious that it was all one comics line, and there was a relatively small group of creators telling the stories of all these characters.

We were fascinated. We'd look for little clues as to how things fit together; we'd try to figure out just what Thor was doing when the FF were battling Dr. Doom, just to establish a greater time-line.

For junior high school kids looking for something a little more sophisticated, the Marvel Universe filled the bill perfectly. So by the summer of 1965, I was a Marvel Maniac. I bought other comics, but I did so because of my appreciation of the art form; Marvel was my comics passion.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Life in Four Colors (Part Twenty-Eight)

The late spring and early summer of 1965 was probably the height of my personal golden age of comic books; I was twelve, about to turn thirteen, and was starting to eran a bit more money mowing lawns, running errands, gathering bottles for deposit, and doing other things that could generate comics money. For the first time I can remember, I had enough money to buy every comic I considered a must-read, with a few bucks left over to buy whatever else caught my eye.

Of course, the "must-reads" were every Marvel Universe book. By 1965, Gary Steele, John Ball, and I were all avid Marvel readers, and each of us hoped to collect an entire run of Marvel books. Between the three of us, we had accomplished that goal, although none of us was 100% complete as far as our personal collections were concerned.

Of course, the presence of a complete Silver Age Marvel canon (even though it was spread among three houses within a half-mile radius) meant that we spent a lot of time visiting one another, reading and re-reading those books until they had no hope of maintaining their condition. That's okay, though; 1965 predated the development of comic book supplies and the related emphasis on near perfection. If a book was intact and showed no signs of serious damage (major spine roll, tears, heavy markings, etc.), it was worth having as far as we were concerned.

Even better, the three of us pretty much memorized what the other guys needed. If we were trading books with Bobby Wear and we saw a few comics that filled holes in the other guys' collections, we'd either trade for them or call the other guys when we got home. If we were getting our monthly haircut at the Shorter Avenue Barber Shop and we saw a comic in their stack of reading material that someone was missing, we hid it until the other guy could get there and do a two-for-one swap. (That's how I got my copy of Strange Tales #135, one of the few issues of Strange Tales I never saw on the stands in Rome... but that may have been because I was still looking for a Human Torch cover and totally overlooked the UNCLE-esque SHIELD series launch.)

We were comrades in collecting, watching out for one another, sharing books, and sharing ideas. However, I had more in common with Gary than I had with John, and pretty soon I found myself spending more time with Gary and less with John. John's father was coming more ill-tempered, and both Gary and I felt awkward when we were there, so we simply quit going to John's house. Of course, John still saw us at either my house or Gary's house, but I suspect his father's increasing anger and intolerance for John's interest in comics was affecting John, too.

Gary and I also shared an interest in music and in science fiction, pulp adventure, and fantasy, none of which appealed to John. So it was no inevitable that, as childhood friendships developed and grew, John drifted away from our group beginning in the summer of 1965; by the end of the year, I saw John only occasionally and thought of him as more of a school friend than a comics buddy.

But oh, what a wonderful summer 1965 was for Marvel fans; the powerless FF joined by Daredevil to confront Dr. Doom in FF #s 39 & 40; the beginning of the Sub-Mariner's solo series in Tales to Astonish; the first Thor Annual; the Doctor Strange-Spidey crossover in Spider-Man Annual #2... These were just a few of the stories that captivated me that year, solidified my belief that Marvel was producing the best comics on the stands. And at same time, DC seemed to be in a bit of a slump, leading me to cut my DC buying to the occasional bat-book, Flash, Green Lantern, Atom, JLA, and Hawkman, with on occasional experimental purchase of Doom Patrol or Strange Adventures or Mystery in Space or Adventure Comics.

Meanwhile, I was becoming enthralled by the fiction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and began looking for more ERB books than the few I had found at Coosa Valley Bookstore. This was the year my love of books began in earnest.