I COLLECTED comics for thirty years or more and now I look at my collection — thousands of comics neatly bagged and filed — and realise that I’ve fallen completely out of love.
Comics have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I graduated quickly from the Beano and the Dandy to British reprints of American superhero comics. They were a strange gateway drug, unsatisfactory digests which were reprinted in black-and-white three or four chopped-up stories.
The oldest such comic I have is a dog-eared, musty, and barely-held-together copy of ‘Spider-Man Comics Weekly’ from December, 1974. I was six then. It’s priced 7p.
What’s left of the cover depicts Spider-Man smashing through a skylight toward a caped enemy. The caption reads “The Prowler Strikes At Midnight! See why the Prowler is perhaps the most dangerous super-villain Spidey has ever faced!”
Inside, the “perhaps” is revealed to be the most honest word there. In a 1969 story written by Stan Lee and illustrated by John Buscema, the Prowler is actually a decent fellow and a quick fight scene later - as is the way in comics — all is put right. What’s interesting is that the antagonist is a sympathetic African-American kid at a time the Civil Rights movement was still hugely controversial. Marvel Comics was always — under Stan Lee — a progressive voice in popular culture during a fraught period in American life.
When I was small I thought Stan Lee (born Stanley Leiber) must have been the greatest — or at least the most prolific — writer ever, given all the comics he wrote. Later lawsuits suggested things were a bit more complicated. A gifted self-publicist and judge of artistic talent, Lee was part of the “work-for-hire” system which saw young artists sign away their creations for a pittance.
Stan would give an artist a sketchy plot and — once they’d finished drawing 20 pages of story — Stan added dialogue and claimed he wrote the whole thing. For the three-part 1966 Fantastic Four saga, where an angelic herald selects the Earth as the next meal for the planet-eating celestial giant Galactus, Stan’s entire initial creative input had reputedly been to give Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) with the four word instruction “Have them fight God”.
I’m not saying Stan Lee is a super-villain or anything, but next time you see Stan cameoing in a billion-dollar movie starring Robert Downey Jr, remember it was Jack Kirby who ‘co-created’ Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. And if the film has Spider-Man or Doctor Strange, well, they’re mostly Steve Ditko’s. Stan just put his name to the words in their mouths.
I was always more a Marvel than a DC Comics fan, possibly because Marvel’s stories were set in real-world locations like New York rather than Gotham or Metropolis. Even in my thirties, I walked around Manhattan marvelling (sorry) at the water towers on which I’d seen Spidey fight the Vulture. Also, while Superman and Batman were boring 1950s Republicans, Marvel characters had rudimentary personalities. As the English writer Alan Moore joked, they had an added edge which gave them a second dimension.
In my Irish childhood, you almost never saw American comics and had to make do with dodgy British reprints. So imagine my astonishment that glorious day in 1984 when I was a reluctant prisoner on a forced march to Woolworths in Cork (now Penneys) and I discovered a table literally covered with that month’s entire tranch of US comics. I don’t know how I raised the money to buy them all. I may have mugged my sisters.
I was the perfect age to be dazzled by the bright, sci-fi wish-fulfillment adventures which opened up whole worlds of imagination, but something was happening to comics: as I was growing up, so too were they, or so too at least they seemed to be. Certainly they were darkening in tone and becoming better-written. Much of this was due to the afore-mentioned Alan Moore.
It would be unfair to apply Moore’s own joke and suggest that he towered over his peers simply by bringing a second dimension to comic-writing, but his genius certainly sparked a renaissance in comics, with his Swamp Thing, Watchmen, V For Vendetta and Marvelman/Miracleman inspiring the likes of fellow Brits Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.
Suddenly, comics were almost respectable. Comics were no longer the preserve of teenaged boys — or rather they still were, but now in their grim self-importance, they were no longer something to be out-grown. Now, it wasn’t just Wolverine who was killing his enemies. Now even Superman did it, even if he at least had the grace to regret it.
In later years, an increasingly-angry Moore would despair that — as he put it — a bad mood he had been in during the 1980s had robbed comics of their sense of fun. He has a point. Earlier this year, I watched the 36-hour Batman V Superman — heavily-influenced by Moore’s contemporary Frank Miller’s 1986 The Dark Knight Returns — and I have honestly had surgery which was better craic.
Of course it hasn’t all been terrible, and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series remains a sublime pleasure. Series like Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy are great fun, as are the Marvel films but somewhere along the line, I fell out of love with comics. Maybe the unthinkable happened. Maybe I grew up.
Every so often now, I look at my collection — which cost me thousands — and I despair. The good stuff I’ve re-read too often and the rest is mostly rubbish.
Waterford-based writer and musician Derek Flynn, a fellow collector, tells a similar story. “Every year or so, I look at the boxes (of comics) and think ‘I really should do something with them’. But what am I gonna do? I can’t throw them out; no one is gonna want to buy them; I probably wouldn’t even be able to give them away. So, after an hour staring at the boxes, I realise there’s nothing I can do with them, and I walk away again for another year.”
Me, I sometimes joke that I keep my comics in the hope my hypothetical children might like them and then I wonder whether the comics help to keep my children hypothetical. When my eldest nephew was 11, I offered him my collection. He asked me how much I thought he’d get if he sold it. That changed my mind. The boxes are still there, just gathering dust. Maybe it was the collecting that was the attraction. Maybe the late Ambassador Spock was right: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting..”
But sometimes, still, I’ll open a box. Fishing out the first American comic I ever bought, Avengers 159, May 1977, I’m struck by Sal Buscema’s wonderful artwork and the caramel smell of old paper.
An uprooted island hangs over Manhattan. A villain holds the Avengers captive. Can Black Panther and Thor save the day?
Suddenly I’m nine years old again.