Saturday, October 24, 2009

Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers, Volume 1

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.


Anonymous said...

I agree about Jack Kirby. While I admire his art, his writing was awful. Compare the early Marvel work Of Stan & Jack to what Jack produced at DC when he had full creative control and you can see Stan's contribution. Jack's writing was simply bad and often incomprehensible. It's a shame that his admirers seem to feel that in order to build him up, they have to denegrate Stan's work.

James Reasoner said...

I love Kirby's Fourth World books that he did for DC, especially JIMMY OLSEN, but yeah, you can sure tell a difference in the writing. When Stan and Jack were both at their best, like in their long runs on FANTASTIC FOUR and THOR, well, superhero comics don't get much better than that.

Evan Lewis said...

I discovered Marvel comics just about the time Avengers 1 came out (along with FF 19, Spider-Man 7, and X-Men 2, and promptly abandoned DC. Would be mighty interesting to see how they strike me now.

James Reasoner said...

I think I've told the story on here before about my cousins giving me a pile of comics on Christmas Day, 1963, that included FF 16 and 17, Avengers 1, Sgt. Fury 1, Tales of Suspense 42, and several others that I can't recall. A week or so later when I was back home, I went to the drugstore and bought FF 25, Avengers 4, Spider-Man 11, X-Men 4, and a few others. (Same drugstore where I bought the Bantam paperback of METEOR MENACE, my intro to Doc Savage, but that's a whole other post.) I still read a few DC titles after that, but not nearly as many as I had been.

Bruce said...

James a must purchase are all the DC Showcase war titles Sgt Rock, Haunted Tank, and Unknown Soldier. Also Jonah Hex and the very slim and terrific Bat Lash.

Also all the Tomb of Draculas from Marvel and the Savage Sword of Conans that Dark Horse are putting out.