Sunday, December 08, 2013

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Nine)

1965 marked the year when I began to mature as a reader. Don't think for a moment that I gave up comics--I never considered reading comics to be a childish thing. However, I did begin to develop a critical sense. For the first time, I began to realize that not every comic I read was equally good.

Critical discernment is a two-edged sword; it helps you to recognize what's good and what's bad (and why), but it also leads to dissatisfaction. When I was younger, comics were a source of endless wonder, regardless of the writer or the artist or the publisher or the character. I had already begun to recognize artistic weaknesses as early as 1963. But by 1965, I realized that not all writers were equally good... and not all stories by good writers were equally good.

Marvel's second-tier titles--Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense--were the books that led me to this discovery. I loved the Human Torch in Fantastic Four... but gradually, I was becoming dissatisfied with the Human Torch stories in Strange Tales. The villains were forgettable, the storylines seemed rushed and undeveloped--and worst of all, nothing major ever happened. The stories were all churn with no advancement. I was thrilled when the Human Torch series was retired and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD took its place because it was something different--something that didn't spin out of an existing story per se. (Sure, Nick Fury was a WWII sergeant in the Howling Commandos title, but this was so different that he was for all intents and purposes an all-new character.)

The Ant-Man (and later, Giant-Man) stories in Tales to Astonish were even worse. As much as I had enjoyed the Ant-Man concept, by 1965 the stories weren't even adequate... they were bad. I realized that the only reason I was reading them at all was because I was a completist.

The Hulk series in the back of Tales to Astonish was equally disappointing. I had loved the all-too-brief six-issue Hulk run in 1962-63--the stories had pathos, drama, suspense, and a genuine sense of wonder. None of that transferred to the lackluster Hulk installments, though. The stories were more simplistic, the drama forced and artificial. It seemed from the very beginning that the Hulk was no one's priority.

I was still a Marvel completist, but for the first time I was also a critical reader. This opened up all-new vistas for me: I was not only enjoying comics, but I was evaluating them as well. I was beginning to recognize the strengths of various creators, of various companies, of various types of books.

I was also able to re-read some of my childhood favorites and see them through a critical eye. I began to recognize themes and symbols and narrative styles--all the things that Miss Kitty Alford talked about in my seventh grade English class applied equally well to comics.

My relatively new-found awareness of fanzines helped as well. You see, fanzines often contained reviews, and that allowed me to see what others thought of the comics that I had read. It opened my eyes to new points of view, and it led to my awareness that criticism wasn't objective: the same story that a reviewer considered mediocre (or worse), I might rank much more highly. And that led me to ask why.

My comics reading--and in fact, all my reading--was moving into a very different phase. And no matter how much I enjoyed comics from this point onwards, I would never read them with the same childlike sense of wonder as before.

1 comment:

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Glad to see you return to this series, Cliff. I always find the posts interesting, even though I've been discussing comics with you for three decades.