The Cruel World Of Comics
Read by any means possible – that’s pretty much always been my motto, and as a child, the cheapest and earliest form of reading was always comics.
A copy of Action Comics #1 from 1938, featuring the first appearance of Superman, sold for a record $3.2 million dollars in 2014. One in poorer condition was expected to command more than $750,000 at auction. What happened? The movies raised the profile of comic books, once tossed in bins by mothers who warned, ‘You’ll ruin your eyes!’ and are their value has been steadily climbing for years.
This is doubly galling to me, as the teenaged owner of Spiderman 1-60 who decided to tear off the covers and decorate my bedroom ceiling with them.
As a comic book obsessive I read them every evening, but I was not a collector, as such. They didn’t mean anything to me, and so were thrown out once they were finished. Anyway, as the brilliant Jack Kirby would have been 100 now, it’s perhaps time to commemorate the great DCs and Marvels before they lost great swathes of their audiences to video games. Once comics sold out every issue, and were fought over; now they’re just another revenue stream catering to specific demographics. So here are a couple of excerpts from a talk I sometimes give about comics…
With their broken panels, frustrated anti-heroes, sexily-outfitted gals and brick-busting sound effects, Marvel pulled in the kids who fancied themselves as tortured rebels. Marvel had an overwrought, druggy writing style and lurid artwork that was like a rainbow being sick across the page. DC’s stern fundamentalist superheroes were framed in neatly boxed panels and could only ever be on the side of the establishment. Like good Christians they kept expanding the family, so that just when it looked like Superman could get away with having dead parents, he was lumbered with a super sister, a super dog, a super cat, a super horse and even Beppo the bloody Super Monkey. And his friends were stiffs. Jimmy Olsen wore a bowtie and that awful green suit, and Lois Lane had granny-hair. DC artists really liked drawing offices, and weren’t imaginative enough to come up with decent aliens. DC appealed to Conservatives.
Nothing much really happened in Superman stories. Supe had two flaws – he could be irradiated by chunks of his home planet and he couldn’t see through a sheet of lead, dubious scientific gambits on a par with shampoo herbs mending split ends. And for someone so sturdy and straitlaced he was remarkably crafty. Nearly every plot was about Superman tricking someone or being tricked. I became fascinated by him for all the wrong reasons. I wasn’t interested in battles with Lex Luthor and tearful Krypton reunions. I wanted to see how much more absurd Superman’s psychological gambits could become before something cracked and they all went mad.
‘Lois Lane’ and ‘Jimmy Olsen’ were particularly instructive because they took the hoax-plot to a surreal level. The Man of Steel’s sidekicks were clearly in love with him, but he didn’t love them. Lois would be humiliated, bullied, deceived and taught a lesson. Her single status was endlessly mocked. She would be duped by millionaires who always turned out to be Superman in disguise (punishing her for some perceived failure of judgement), fake superheroes who were revealed as gangsters, and cleft-chinned historical figures like Robin Hood or Julius Caesar, usually as the result of hitting her head on a rock and erroneously thinking she’d been hurled back into the past (because that’s the first thing you think of when you’ve been whacked on the head).
I read these surreal scenarios with an increasing sensation of puzzlement. Why would a vengeful gangster pretend he was Astro-Lad and jilt Lois Lane at the altar? Why not just shoot her? In one issue Lois spent the entire story with her head in an iron box, too ashamed to go out, because she’d been given the head of a cat. Curiosity, you see. Taught another lesson. Sometimes all of her friends were in on these humiliations, but couldn’t tell her because they were being watched from space. No wonder she often ended up in a straitjacket.
When Lois finally got Superman to church, it turned out to be a dream caused by her falling off a pier. Sometimes she was given super powers only to have them snatched back. In issue after issue she was transformed into a fat freak, a widow or a murderess, and was cruelly led up the aisle to be repeatedly dumped just before ‘I do’. Lois was terrified of becoming an old maid, and this had added poignancy because we already knew it was her destiny (despite various complex DC alternative realities that saw her married off). Superman gave her the old ‘Any wife of mine would be a target for my enemies’ speech but we knew this was a pile of toss. If you had his powers you wouldn’t want to be tied to Lois, you’d want to shag around on other planets.
In ‘Lois Lane’s Kiss of Death’, every girl’s worst nightmare came true as Lois actually managed to poison any man she snogged. In ‘Lois Lane’s Secret Romance’, the sobbing reporter cried ‘Superman’s surrounded by gorgeous hussies and he LOVES it! I’m leaving!’ Later he proposed to Lois but rather took the edge off the moment by proposing to every ugly woman in Metropolis (he’d been hypnotised).
But Lois was her own worst enemy. Given a signal watch, she summoned Superman from his busy schedule of saving whole universes because the heel had come off her shoe. To attract Superman’s attention Lois fell off cliffs and chucked herself out of office windows, into his waiting arms. Either she had become desperately needy or she had some kind of balance problem. Had she thought of removing her heels before leaning over rooftops?
Lois was never sexy. She was a contrary career-gal prone to early-onset shrewishness, and her seduction by anyone in a two-tone leotard with big arms always led to sadomasochistic psychodrama. I couldn’t see that the comics were aimed at teenaged tragedy-queens, and since I did not know any girls I was not able to understand the psychology of someone who would spend a week with her head in a metal box just to get a date.
In every issue of Lois Lane, Superman did one of three things; he turned bad, died or got married, and it always turned out to be a hoax. The Man of Steel required his girlfriend to pass an endless series of tests; she would have to go without sleep, remain silent, become invisible or be turned into a witch or a baby in order to prove her loyalty. One of the most revealing story titles was ‘Lois Lane, Hag!’ What Lois feared most was being ignored by men.
Lana Lang didn’t fare much better. She overplayed her only card, unappealingly reminding Superman that she used to be his sweetheart a very long time ago, and was forced to suffer the knowledge that she would never get to power, like the Green Party. The only other rival for the Man of Steel’s affections was a mermaid, and that presented another set of physical problems. Sometimes she got her legs back, only to lose them before she could use them.
Jimmy Olsen wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to be stuck next to at a party, so his life was enlivened with a series of grotesque transformations (Turtle Boy! Human Skyscraper! Wolf Man! Elastic Lad! Human Porcupine!) and masquerades, the most notorious of these being ‘Miss Jimmy Olsen’, in which he takes to drag rather too readily, noting ‘Hmm…this dress needs pressing!’
Superman demanded such terrible sacrifices from his friends that you wondered whether it was worth knowing him. He was good, so he could do no wrong, and the ordinary humans with whom he surrounded himself could only get hurt. He was the opposite to Jesus; everyone else had to suffer for him. But I loved him because he was a stern finger-wagging patrician who told everyone what to do, and was therefore unconsciously homoerotic. You always knew where you were with Superman. A man’s most attractive quality is the ability to make a firm decision, even when he’s incredibly wrong.
DC floundered after the liberation movement of the sixties. Suddenly nobody respected Superman anymore. Only Batman was allowed to freak out. Superman may have had big biceps but there was obviously nothing much going on in his pants. The genius of the DC Silver Age was to reflect the secret fears of children…
Part 2 to follow