I like Marvel’s Essentials series and DC’s Showcase volumes, those thick, black-and-white reprints of classic comic book stories. But I have to admit, when it comes to super-heroes, I miss color. War and horror comics work just fine in black-and-white, and so do most Westerns, but super-heroes are just so darn colorful. That’s why I picked up some of the full-color Marvel Masterworks trade paperbacks when I came across them recently: THE AVENGERS, VOLUME 1, and the first three volumes of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I just finished reading THE AVENGERS, which reprints issues #1 – 10, so naturally I have some comments about it.
First of all, I remember where I bought most of the original issues, back in 1963 and ’64, and to a certain extent, the circumstances in which I bought them. For example, I was sick and stayed home from school, but my mother took me to the drugstore with her anyway the day I bought AVENGERS #8 off the spinner rack there. I won’t bore you with the rest of those reminiscences, but reading those stories again really took me back.
As for the stories themselves, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. The dynamic art by Jack Kirby, the breathless, over-the-top prose of Stan Lee, the words and images that are still burned in my brain more than forty years later, all those things are still very entertaining. It's also interesting to see the introduction of storylines that would resonate through the Marvel Universe for years, and in some cases, decades afterwards. But (you knew there was a "but" coming, didn’t you) something struck me about those stories as I read them now, and to talk about it, I have to commit something like comic book heresy. You see, the conventional wisdom these days is that Jack Kirby created all the characters, plotted all the stories, and deserves all the credit for Marvel’s success, while Stan Lee just rode his coattails and screwed him over. Well, I wasn’t there, of course, so I can’t say for sure who did what, but I can tell you this: some of those stories that Kirby plotted and drew make almost no sense. You’re reading along, and suddenly you think, “Wait a minute. How did those characters get over there?” or “Wait a minute. Where’d all those characters go who were in the last panel?” or “Wait a minute. How could they possibly know that?” Numerous times in reading the first eight stories in this volume, I got the impression that Lee’s scripts were desperately trying to impose some sort of logic on art that looked great but didn’t come close to telling a coherent story. That changes to a certain extent in the final two stories, which were drawn by Don Heck. My memory is that comic book fans, even in that era, considered Heck a second-rate artist, but in reading the stories now, while Heck’s work lacks Kirby’s sense of drama and flair, the stories themselves flow a lot better.
I really don’t mean this to come across as Kirby-bashing. I love Kirby’s work. But I think Lee deserves a lot of credit, too, which he usually doesn’t get these days. Although he probably did hog too much credit back in the Sixties, so maybe it balances out. And I’m talking strictly about the creative end of the process, too. I know next to nothing about the business end of the comic book business, then or now.
All that said, what’s really important to me about books like this is that while I’m reading them, I feel like I’m eleven and twelve years old again. That’s worth a lot these days.
And I’ll have some comments on those Spider-Man volumes in the near future.