Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Tegan & Sara Made Me Queer


Part Eleven of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
Please consider joining my Patreon now with subscriber exclusives,
including my new podcast Tegan Reads Wookieepedia!


Would you take a straight and narrow critical look at me?*

Somehow I knew I was queer long before I knew I was trans. Not consciously, of course – it didn’t make any sense why I felt the way I did. Until the age of 35 I had no reason to believe myself anything other than a heterosexual cis dude. I liked women, after all. Never had so much as a shred of doubt about that fact. So how come, if I was attracted to women, I felt persistently . . . not straight? How to even quantify such a strange inclination?

Women I dated joked sometimes that I acted like a lesbian. There was always a sharper undercurrent, though, an acknowledgment that there was something not quite right about my ostensible heterosexuality. Pieces missing. Unconventional emphases.

I always cared about issues related to queer politics. Always took pride in keeping up on the news. I knew about trans issues (even if I still understood little about actually being trans) long before I had any inkling I was trans. That should have been a warning sign, since it wasn’t a part of the national discourse until recently. But I cared and tried to extend every courtesy I could when it came up, which to be fair it rarely did.

In October of 2009 Tegan & Sara released Sainthood. I bough the album on Christmas Eve of that year, along with a couple Warp Records compilations and Dâm-Funk’s Toeachizown. It was my first Tegan & Sara album, but I tracked down the rest within a couple weeks.

But I promise this, I won't go my whole life telling you I don't need.*

Sex was always a painful topic. I didn’t talk about it. Was actively, sometimes comically squeamish about it. Even now just writing these words and talking in the most generalized terms about sex is uncomfortable. There’s a lifetime of awkwardness and discomfort holding me back.  

It just didn’t work out for me. I was married from 2000-2005, and without betraying any secrets that deserve to stay buried I did not acquit myself particularly well. Subsequent relationships fared little better. It’s not that I couldn’t or didn’t want to, I just . . . wasn’t very good at it, and I’ll leave the details to your imagination.

A few years ago I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. Whatever it was inside people that made them able to have fulfilling, interesting, fun, or even tolerable sex lives, it was missing in me. And I felt shame and disappointment, the latter not just for me but also for the women unfortunate enough to find themselves in my orbit. Any problems were my fault entirely. Other people had sex and seemed to have a grand old time with it, but the universe was telling me it was something I needed to fold up and put away. It wasn’t going to happen and trying to make it happen was only going to bring about heartbreak and disappointment for everyone concerned.

And that’s roughly where I was at in the Spring of 2016, when everything changed.

When you wake what is it that you think of most? When your bed is empty do you really sleep alone?*

I don’t possess any special insight into being queer. I’ve known I was queer as of this writing for a little over a year.

If you want a textbook definition of queer, buy a textbook.

What does it mean for me?

Nothing ever felt right. I did everything I was supposed to but it never worked out the way it was supposed to. What’s worse, not only were women not attracted to me (that I knew of – if any did they kept quiet about it), but they seemed to like and trust me. If that doesn’t sound bad, you’ve never been a teenage boy – or, more precisely, someone who believed they were a teenage boy. Boys want to be tough and mysterious, they’re taught in a million ways implicit and explicit that women are attracted to distance and strength. Girls felt completely comfortable around me in a way that telegraphed the fact that not only was I no threat, but I was essentially a noncombatant.

Looking back and trying to make sense of these years is confusing. I want to stress again that I had no clue, no inkling that I was any different than any other teenage boy, at least in respect to matters of love and lust. There were differences of course, and they were significant, but hardly existential. I grew up poor – but a lot of people grew up poor. I went to junior high and high school in a poor county, so it wasn’t unusual that most of my clothes came from Wal-Mart. Even though it was tough there was always food on the table and a roof over our heads. My parents were disabled so even though we didn’t have much what we did have came regularly enough to keep the lights on. We got by.

I had fucked up teeth growing up – symptoms of poverty and genetics. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now but I had braces twice while growing up – once in grade school, later in high school. Braces in high school sucked, but it was necessary. My teeth still aren’t perfect but at this point I’m the only one who notices my underbite.

On top of being poor and having bad teeth, I was weird. Another thing that has always confused me, especially since I grew up in a conservative area, is why I was never bullied. No one ever called me a fag or spread rumors I was gay, which seems improbable in hindsight. The reasons why are complex and unsatisfactory. In the first place, while I was weird I was weird in a way that didn’t code as gay at all. I was always mooning over girls and that was public knowledge. I was also unpredictable, weird not in terms of being weak or feminine (in ways that kids I saw being bullied were), but weird in terms of being hyperintelligent, erratic, and prone to bouts of sudden and inexplicable violence. I always made people laugh, which was a great defense mechanism. People usually didn’t fuck with me because it wasn’t worth the trouble when they didn’t know which version of me they were going to get: the version of me who laughed it off and diffused the situation amicably, or the version of me who started screaming like a banshee and would haunt you to the ends of the earth at the smallest slight.

But I think the most important reason I never got bullied is that, regardless of the above problems, most people liked me. Girls thought I was nice and funny, so there were no social points to be gained in picking on me. I also figured out a neat trick for social survival: find the coolest person in the room and make them your friend. If you’re pals with the person everyone else looks up to, it’s a free pass. I got lucky in high school because I knew a few upperclassman and I happened to look a few years older than I was, so no one in my own class looked twice at me. I let some football players copy my homework freshman year, and while we were never good friends we stayed head-nod-in-the-hallways acquaintances until graduation.

None of these explanations are fully satisfactory. I just got lucky, I guess. I never got bullied, probably because there were always easier targets. Kids who couldn’t so easily hide being weaker. 

But I was still different, even if many of the differences were internal and private. I avoided activities that were coded as male – never played sports, save for one three-week stretch in a city basketball league during fourth grade (my sole possession resulted in me passing the ball to the other team). I did drama in high school, mostly because it was easy and was disproportionately popular with girls. That meant, although at the time I didn’t know why, I was just more comfortable. Outside of the social element, however, I felt no intrinsic connection to the theater and haven’t thought about it twice since graduation.

There I am in the morning. I don't like what I see.*

The first time I heard Tegan & Sara I knew they were my new favorite band. It was immediate and visceral: one moment I knew almost nothing about them, the next I was listening to them nonstop. Morning to night on repeat.

They’re twins, Tegan R. & Sara K. Quin, born just a week before me. Same age. They could have been my sisters. There was an instant connection I couldn’t quite explain, and it didn’t add up to anyone around me either. Where the heck did these chirpy lesbian sisters with guitars come from? That was a new one.

I couldn’t explain it, so I didn’t try. It was like a drug: I listened to their music and I felt better. I put on Sainthood or The Con and somehow even though I was a doughy hetero cis dude I felt accepted and understood by those records, more than I can explain even now. These words can’t do justice to those feelings.

It hurt, sometimes. I felt at home with them in a way that seemed to gesture at something much bigger inside of me. The title track on The Con is an explosion of angst and anger, outward and inward, and nothing in the world hits with the impact of those first lines – “I listened in / Yes I'm guilty of this you should know this” – frantic, almost panicked, but able to vent that anxiety outward in controlled bursts. It plucks a chord at the bottom of a subterranean channel somewhere I could never quite identify.

Seeing them live, nothing hits with the force of that opening guitar strum, like dropping a bomb on the audience.

Soon it was as necessary as water or air. Listening to Tegan & Sara gave me a fleeting sensation of wholeness, something I couldn’t define but which was undeniable. It was transitory but real, broadcast at a frequency no one else around me seemed able to hear. I wasn’t alone.

I felt you in my life before I ever thought to.*

There was always a point in every relationship where my partner would look at me and realize something was missing. It’s not hard to see why, now – I was pretending to be a heterosexual male, trying my damnedest to fit into a role that I didn’t understand. I understood the expectations and knew from a lifetimes’ observation how I was supposed to act and what I was supposed to do, but it never came out right. My knowledge of being a man in that situation was purely negative, composed mainly of filling in the blanks through inference based on what didn’t work. Chiaroscuro masculinity.

It never occurred to me that this was unusual. I thought everyone had these problems, had to think about how to present themselves to the world, how to act with other people, how to approach women. I knew what didn’t work, but never quite figured out what did.

One pattern that recurred multiple times was being attracted to lesbians. It was so unerring as to be a kind of superpower. I never had a clue. I’d only learn this after asking them out, when they would ever so awkwardly inform me that I was barking up the wrong tree. And that always hurt because invariably the women I felt most comfortable around were queer women. Quite confusing.

I never got too excited about hetero romances in movies or TV. Whenever there was so much as a hint of a lesbian relationship, however, I felt strangely invested in a way that I never could have explained. There weren’t very many of those, incidentally. Certainly not enough that I could string together any kind of pattern. As I say, I grew up in the sticks, and even when I was older there wasn’t much if you weren’t specifically looking.

I never had any particular connection to gay male cultural artifacts, either, with one notable exception – Brokeback Mountain, which became one of my favorite movies the first time I saw it, a position it retains to this day. It’s one of the only movies that ever made me cry, and I never understood why I became so attached. I assume now I responded to the idea of living a deeply closeted life – at the time of the film’s release I was closeted even from myself.

The story that meant the most to me for years and years, however, was the sixth episode of the third season of the British high school soap opera Skins. My partner watched the first two seasons on her own and although it was hardly a revelatory TV experience she was hooked enough to lasso me into the third season. I wasn’t paying too much attention until we got to the episode focusing in on the lesbian relationship between two students, Naomi and Emily. After a lifetime spent seeing lesbian relationships on the edges of the media, through innuendo or – worse – sensationalism, here was an authentic romance between two young women dealing with the consequences of growing up queer in a society that only pretends to be tolerant.

Emily was a very pretty girl but mousy in the way that TV tries to tell us that pretty people are when they wear plain clothes and natural makeup. Naomi had a shock of short blond hair and dressed like a boy. She was powerful and chaotic and every kind of freedom balled up into a single human being. I didn’t realize it at the time but it was obvious that I wasn’t attracted to her, I wanted to be her so bad that every cell in my body vibrated at the thought, and then shuddered at the reality.

I quit watching the rest of the season because that episode knocked me for a loop. I had no idea why, but seeing a romance between two normal women portrayed in such a matter-of-fact manner – it broke something inside of me. I never finished the series, I never even went back to that episode. I don’t really remember anything else about that show but that one single episode remains burnt into my memory. It hurt in a way that startled me, forcing me for a brief moment to confront the fact that I related more strongly to women in love with other women then any other kind of romance I had ever seen or experienced.

Years later the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror released an episode called “San Junipero” dealing with similar themes. I already knew what I was by then, so it didn’t impress me quite so much. The stories that held so much power over me were the stories that had resonated with a part of me that still lay hidden, sleeping – stories that reached into a part of me completely locked away, brushed for just a moment against something sensitive and trembling and fearful.

Now I wanna write a love song, even though you never ever asked me for one.*

That’s what Tegan & Sara meant to me, had always meant to me, although I hadn’t had the words to describe it. I worry sometimes about appropriation – a common criticism leveled against trans women, that we are mere carpetbaggers using our male privilege (snort) to elbow our way into spaces in which we don’t belong and steal identities that don’t belong to us.

What cultural space am I colonizing, when I sing along to Tegan & Sara? When I feel the same longing, the same desire to be vulnerable, to trust and to be worthy of trust? “Someday” is the last song on Sainthood, and it’s about the aspiration for love, the idea that even if you don’t feel worthy now, maybe someday you might just be:

Might paint something I might want to hang here someday,
Might write something I might want to say to you someday,
Might do something I'd be proud of someday,
Mark my words, I might be something someday.

I want more than anything to be worthy of being loved. How does that hurt anyone? (Of course, the trick to being loved is that you don’t get to decide whether you’re worthy or not.)

You got a shock to your system, knocked your heart right out of sync.*

When I knew I was trans I knew I was queer, practically in the same heartbeat. Here finally was a word that described me, a word that summed up all the conflicted, contradictory, aching feelings I’d had since I first understood what sex and attraction were. I always loved women, but I hadn’t loved them in the right way. Now it made sense that there was a right way.

Heterosexuality is a great mystery, and even after decades of pretense I am still no closer to understanding the rules of that game. What does it mean to be attracted to something so unlike yourself? Men aren’t attractive at all! I’m sure a few of you disagree (har har!) but whatever you see is invisible to me.

Women are good, but when I knew I was trans I knew there was a third option: people like me. People who understand what it’s like to live this odd bifurcated life, raised and browbeat to be one thing before learning that we can be entirely another. It’s a strange life, and not one that I can easily explain to someone who doesn’t already understand.

There are many myths surrounding trans people, trans women in particular. There is the belief that trans women all begin as gay men, and are all attracted to men. In the years before I knew what being trans entailed I probably believed this one myself, but that knowledge was so haphazard and circumstantial that it’s already impossible to discern what I used to think from what I know now, or if I ever thought about it at all. I avoided thinking about these things, probably because there was a part of my brain that knew to be afraid. I never once questioned whether or not I was trans in all the years leading up to my revelation, and probably one reason why the question never occurred to me was that I knew I wasn’t attracted to men.

There is also the belief – related to the first – that we all grow up fetishizing certain aspects of femininity, and spend years as crossdressers or drag queens before transitioning. That certainly didn’t apply to me. The reason why this myth has any basis in reality at all is not that being trans is intrinsically related to any kind of sexual fixation but because those of us do who grow up with an inkling as to our true nature long for what is denied us. Things like dresses and long hair and makeup certainly aren’t intrinsic to womanhood, but they’re intrinsic to many commonly held ideas about womanhood. If you know from a young age that you’re supposed to be a girl and that option is denied you, you will become attached to whatever symbols your mind associates with your correct gender. If you think it’s wrong to associate those objects with femininity, look to society as a whole and not 0.6% of the population to affix blame.

I was an only child. I had no sisters to perform any version of femininity for me. My mom was a tomboy who had been forced to wear dresses growing up and swore upon reaching adulthood to never do so again. She didn’t carry a purse and although she usually kept her hair long she also cut it shorter at various points. We grew up in snow country so pretty much everyone wore the same kinds of clothes for much of the year – heavy jeans and thick sweaters and boots. My mom worked as a 9/11 dispatcher and her work uniform was no different than any other employee of the sheriff’s department. She’s a feminist and she raised me to be one as well, and that included the belief that women can dress however the fuck they want – even if she personally thought dresses were awful. (I’ve still never seen my mother in a dress, although she did go back to carrying a purse a while ago.)

My mom loved sci-fi and fantasy, and when she was a kid she read comic books and skipped school to go fishing. My dad loved sci-fi and fantasy, too, although he cared more for crime and police stuff than either my mom or me. We watched Star Trek together as a family, from my earliest memories up until I moved out of the house at nineteen.

So if I don’t like men, and don’t want to wear dresses or grow my hair out, what do I want?

I want to be like all the cool dykes with sharp asymmetrical haircuts who always seemed to symbolize a freedom and acerbic insouciance I could only ever faintly pantomime while playacting as a man. I don’t have a pair of Doc Marten’s but only because they’re a bit out of my price range – I’m content with my checkerboard Vans. When I transitioned I traded my shapeless denim for tight black skinny jeans that suddenly looked really good on the curves given me by the grace of estrogen.

Maybe I would have been something you'd be good at.*

I’ve seen Tegan & Sara in concert twice: once in 2010 in Northampton, MA, the first date on their Sainthood tour, and again in Oakland a few years later on their tour for Heartthrob.

The first time was only a month and a half after buying Sainthood, but I already knew all the words to all the songs. I had expected to feel out-of-place, seeing them in Northampton – as close as a hometown crowd as you could imagine in the United States for two Canadian lesbians. But there was none of that. As soon as the lights went down I was just another voice screaming in the darkness until I was hoarse. For a couple hours I got to forget who I was and be someone else.

The second time wasn’t quite as memorable. I wasn’t as excited about Heartthrob. It’s not a bad album by any means, but it’s a different kind of album – synthesizers and drum programming, no guitars. They set out to make a Robyn album, and they succeeded, right down to replicating Robyn’s regrettable hit/miss ratio. I’m not one to resent artists who try to broaden their fanbase, but I can still say that trying to do so meant jettisoning much of what made their music so important to me – the raw emotion, the longing and the anger and the wit of being a queer person writing to an audience primarily composed of other queer people. I didn’t hear that so much anymore. Sometimes, flashes.

If Heartthrob was a Robyn album, Love You To Death was CHVRCHES. They seemed more comfortable with the synthpop sound, which meant paradoxically that the sound had become more faceless and generic. Interviews around the release of the record were defensive – not nasty, never mean, just disappointed that some of their fans weren’t enthusiastic about the new direction. Oh well. It happens. I don’t begrudge them doing something different, but it doesn’t speak to me in the same way. The album also came out just over a month after I voiced at the end of April 2016. I wasn’t in the mood for pop music. I needed that hardcore emotional shit.

After that I put Tegan & Sara away for a while. I went over half a year without hearing a single note, my longest time away since Christmas 2009. I got back into some other music I hadn’t listened to in a while – Beach House, Animal Collective, Roxy Music. Spoon. Interpol. Arcade Fire. I didn’t need to experience that prosthetic queerness so much anymore since I was living the real deal. But I knew I’d be back. I always come back.

Watch, with a bit of friction I'll be under your clothes. With a bit of focus I'll be under your skin.*

I keep circling around the question, I know – what does it mean to be queer? Why am I queer, how do I know? All that stuff.

It’s still a contested term. Some people don’t like it. Some people try to police, stand astride the gates of queerness in order to enforce some kind of purity test. I’m just a babe in the woods, barely out of the egg myself. I don’t pretend to know anything, but I know I’m as queer as the day is long, and I trust anyone else who tells me they are. Who am I to judge?

I try to be careful with my words because I know there are still many who would twist them, use them to visit harm on myself or other trans people. I know, for instance, many feminists reject trans women out of hand. Although I bristle at their asinine logic I honestly wish them no harm. I am not trying to invade any space where I am not wanted and welcome – which, admittedly, excludes me from a great many spaces, but that’s life. One way to avoid unnecessary conflict is simply to avoid people who want to pick fights with you.

I call myself a lesbian knowing full well that many others will bristle at the description. But I’m also mostly attracted to other women like myself – trans women. Why would I wish to have anything to do, romantically, with anyone who didn’t want to enthusiastically engage in a fully consensual relationship? I’ll be over here doing my thing, thanks.

I can’t take transphobic arguments seriously because I know what I am. (I take the political consequences very seriously, obviously, but the arguments themselves are barely worth discussing.) If there were any doubts they dissolved when my first estrogen pill dissolved under my tongue. It’s common enough to accuse those who seek to exclude trans women from the category of women of biological essentialism, and I suppose I am opening myself up to the same criticism here, albeit from the other angle. So be it. Of course it must be said that not all trans folk undergo hormone therapy – some can’t for various reasons, some don’t want to. Doesn’t make them any less trans or me any moreso, but it’s all the justification I ever needed for myself. Everyone’s different! No one who comes out as trans has to prove anything to me, there’s more than enough hatred and suspicion to go around for anyone who wants to join in.

Because I’m trans, because I’m “other” to so many – I’m queer. No matter who I dated, whether I identified as gay or straight or anywhere in between, I’d still be queer. And what does that mean? What does any of this mean?

It means I had to fight to be who I am. Most of this fighting was internal, but no less violent: we grow up with internalized notions of “normalcy,” notions that are actually the bars on the doors of our prison cells. Being queer means I had to overcome a great deal in order to be able to get to the place I am now, break through those bars in order to get to where I can say with pride who I am and what I want.

And it means that I expect there may be more fighting in the future.

Nothing is lost in the end when you burn burn burn your life down.*

I’m not going to go down the litany of Tegan & Sara albums. The core three that mean the most to me – 2004’s So Jealous, 2007’s The Con, and 2009’s Sainthood – are unimpeachable. Sainthood, because it was my first, will always be my sentimental favorite, even if I recognize that The Con is probably slightly better. But we’re talking about millimeters. 

It’s not in me to be objective about their merits. It always frustrates the fuck out of me to read tepid reviews, in a way that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever had a favorite band. Why don’t the critics hear what I hear? Don’t they understand?

Of course they don’t. Those that do don’t need to read about it in a magazine.

Hearing that in hindsight they were disappointed with Sainthood broke my heart a little bit. Every note is seared into memory. It’s the album that changed my life, although I believe – I am not certain, the memory is jagged and imprecise – that it was actually The Con playing on my headphones when I voiced lo those many months ago, on that fateful late April evening. They were there when I needed them. They saved me.

And if you’re wondering, the elephant in the room – well, of course I didn’t name myself after Tegan R. Quin. Why, that would be silly.

Whoever would do such a silly thing as that?

Everything I love, get back for me now. Everyone I love, I need you now.*

So how am I queer?

There aren’t very many people like me in the world. I suspect – we suspect – that the actual numbers of trans people are greater than reported, simply because the stigma is so great that many will never emerge from the closet. And there are certainly many deeply closeted people, like I used to be, whose nature remains a secret even to them. Even given that we’re still a tiny minority.

Imagine that you have been alone for your entire life. Trapped on an island with a population of one. Seemingly surrounded by people – but not people, phantoms. In your place they see a cardboard cutout of the person they imagine you to be. You can’t touch them and they can’t see you, but no one notices anything amiss. You’re different. You’ve never in your life seen another creature quite like you. You assume everyone else feels this way, too, but you’re deeply uncomfortable, painfully discontented. No one ever seems to understand, and you can never make yourself heard through the isolation.

And then one day everything changes and you realize you’re not alone. And on the day you know who you are, you know why nothing ever fit.

How to explain what does? Imagine seeing someone for the very first time – actually seeing someone, someone like you, after decades of loneliness. Seeing in another creature not opaque mystery but a reflection of the same fear and hunger that guides you as well. To see the sinews and shoulders of a body that has felt the same pressure and the same relief as yours. To see in another your own languor and frustration and mordant wit at the injustice of the world, to just once not feel the burden of having to explain or justify or defend yourself even to the people you love most . . .

I did not understand. I did not understand.

Inasmuch as I understood heterosexuality, I remember a constant nagging inadequacy, and expectation that my feelings and attitudes should complement rather than reflect those of my partner. I was always playing catch-up, trying to guess at what should have come naturally, waiting for cues I should have been able to anticipate – so it was forced. I tried, Lord I tried.

What if other people like me were beautiful, too?

One day, perhaps, I will find another heart to share a spark to fan a flame of desire to light the heavens.

*
 Part Eleven of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay
10. True Believers


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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

True Believers

 

Part Ten of an ongoing series.
Catch up with Part One here.
Please consider joining my Patreon now with subscriber exclusives,
including my new podcast Tegan Reads Wookieepedia!



FACE FRONT

The best way to explain both the premise and appeal of Marvels might be to describe a specific scene. You don’t have to be familiar with comic books to understand.

The setting is familiar: the office of a major metropolitan newspaper. Irascible publisher J. Jonah Jameson is in heated discussion with a veteran photographer. “I call ‘em as I see ‘em, Phil,” Jonah says, “I always have! You know that!” Into the scene stumbles none other than Peter Parker, AKA the Amazing Spider-Man, with fresh pictures to sell of Spider-Man fighting the Looter. Parker boasts to his boss that “You’ll love ‘em – they make ol’ Spidey look terrible!” This is right up Jonah’s alley. He hates Spider-Man and is happy to publish anything that paints the wall-crawling vigilante in a poor light. The other photographer glares at Parker before storming out of the room.

“Now there’s unbiased journalism in action for you!” Phil mutters. “If I were Spider-Man, I’d beat the stuffing out of that little weasel!”

You know how it goes. Peter spars with Jonah for a few panels. He gets a voucher for the photos, musing to himself about the bitter irony of making money defaming himself as Spider-Man. Then he ducks down the hallway, climbs to the roof, changes into his costume and swings away to whatever new adventures awaits.

Except that’s not how the scene plays. We leave Parker in Jonah’s office and instead follow Phil. We know he can get away with talking like that to the boss. He’s one of the few people in the newsroom who still can, because Jonah and him came up together – why, Phil knows Jonah from before he even had a mustache. Phil hates Peter Parker because he thinks Peter is a sensationalistic parasite, tarnishing the name of a good man for a quick buck. The argument he and Jonah had been having when Peter barged into the publisher’s office? Phil was defending the superheroes who had just saved the world and who the publisher had just smeared. None other than the Fantastic Four had successfully repelled the mighty Galactus, preserving the lives of every man, woman, and child on the planet – an act which Jameson flatly labeled a hoax on the front page of the Daily Bugle. 

It’s an obvious but startling inversion. We as readers have expectations. We are conditioned to want to follow Peter because his story is the important one. We want to know what he’s thinking, and usually we do. Other characters, however, aren’t privy to the protagonist’s inner feelings. They can’t know the irony that Peter makes badly needed money by selling pics of Spider-Man taken under questionable pretenses. They can’t help but see Peter’s behavior as selfish and irresponsible. Suddenly we see Peter as selfish and irresponsible too. 


It may not seem like a big point but of all the memorable images from throughout the book the one that returns to me most often is just that image of Peter Parker stumbling briefly into someone else’s story. We’re used to seeing that happen in other superhero stories, of course, with a nod and a wink to indicate that some passerby on the street happens to be the hero of his own magazine. It’s one of Stan Lee’s signature moves, later codified into a trope of the company’s house style. The movies do it now. But since this isn’t any kind of superhero story, it’s Phil we follow. Who knows what becomes of Peter? Not us. You could probably figure it out if you remember your 60s Marvel timeline, but it really doesn’t matter. In the context of Marvels it feels like running into an old girlfriend downtown. She doesn’t even recognize you. You catch a glimpse of her walking away and then she’s gone.  

This isn’t a story about Spider-Man. Spider-Man appears in this story but he’s a minor player. Phil’s the star here. Old, boring Phil.

People underestimate Marvels. It's the book that elevated Kurt Busiek from the backbench to the major leagues. People also unfairly dismiss Marvels for the sins of Alex Ross’ later work. It’s an odd and precarious book because it takes nostalgia as its subject matter without necessarily being nostalgic – a fine point, but crucial. As pretty as it is, and as much as it seems to want to glorify its subject matter, it’s really more a poison pill. The past is a nice place to visit, sometimes, but you wouldn’t want to live there. It’s never how you remember it.

This is a subversive message for Marvel story, let alone one of the most famous Marvel stories ever. Comic books – and let’s be clear what we mean here, superhero comic books – are built on nostalgia. People start reading comics when they’re kids and want to hold on to that feeling for as long as they can. They want to pick up a comic book now and be transported back to wherever they were when they first felt something akin to love, that feeling of desperate affection for something bigger and more impressive than themselves. The past is a safe place, after all. It’s a place to escape whatever ails you in the present.

The people who became most attached to these stories were often the people who most needed to escape. Comics are always there. They’re portable: a small stack fits in a paper bag that slides right into your backpack. They’re static: you can stare all day and the images never move. Time stands still. You can always return to your favorites and read them in any particular order. Just imagine if your favorite song never had to end. They’re something you can spend the rest of your life collecting, a hole without a bottom. They’re a place to go when the world around you isn’t quite living up to expectations.

Marvels is a book about falling in love and falling out of love. The former occurs in an instant, the latter can take the rest of your life. Sometimes the latter is your life.  

Phil’s a boring guy, and that’s the point. He’s a dutiful father and loving husband. We saw him courting his wife back during the War, when he was just a kid who accidentally stumbled into the story of a lifetime at a mad scientist’s press conference. It was a bit of fluff for the back pages that just happened to be the first public appearance of Professor Phineas Horton’s ingenious artificial man, the android “Human Torch” – named so by virtue of his bursting into flame upon exposure to oxygen. At first the crowd laughs at the apparent hoax. Then the Torch moves. The faces of the assembled spectators and media go slack. Everyone realizes that instead of a laughingstock, Horton has created a menace.


Phil was in that first audience, at the dawn of a very eventful period in history. On the eve of World War II strange beings with strange abilities began to appear on the front pages of newspapers across the world: not just the macabre Torch, but the impetuous and savage Namor the Sub-Mariner, young monarch of Atlantis gifted with awesome strength. At first the creatures are deemed hoaxes, but eventually the “Marvels,” as Phil takes to calling them, are recognized as legitimate phenomenon. A little later the star-spangled Sentinel of Liberty, Captain America pops up, but no one is afraid of him (except for the Nazis, of course). Everything changes once superheroes appear on the scene. As the young Phil muses,

Marvels, I called them – and that’s what they were. Next to that – what were we? Before they came, we were so big, so grand. We were Americans – young, strong, vital! We were the ones who got things done. But we’d gotten smaller. I could see it in those same faces – faces that had once been so confident, so brash. We weren’t the players anymore. We were spectators.

Perhaps because he was there right at the very beginning, at Professor Horton’s ill-fated demonstration, Phil feels a connection. He understands that rather than being simple sideshow freaks or vigilantes, these new creatures represented an existential threat to humanity. What good was a man, any man, against a half-Atlantean hybrid who could lift a car above his head and laugh while bullets bounced off his steel-taut skin?

Over the course of Marvels Phil runs the gamut – from terror at the earliest days of the “Marvels,” immediately prior and during World War II, to joy at their sudden return in the early 1960s (just in time to enlist in the Cold War), to reverence at the realization of just how significant they had become to the ongoing health and safety of the planet. He ends disenchanted, however, and so must we.


‘NUFF SAID

One way to encapsulate the difference between Marvel and DC – certainly reductive but not inaccurate – is to glance back to the beginnings.

Action Comics #1 and Marvel Comics #1 both portray the same moment, albeit with different emphases. In the former, dated June 1938, Superman lifts a car above his head and smashes it against a rock. The scene is observed by three men, two of whom are running away in terror, the third of whom has been knocked to the ground. The famous expression of the man in the foreground is one of sheer disbelief. He’s holding his head in his hands, eyes bulging, as if he literally cannot believe what he has seen. Is he a bank robber or bystander? It doesn’t really matter, the cover doesn’t tell us. But he has seen something so profoundly uncanny as to defy belief: a man in a circus leotard and a cape is throwing around cars like they were made of cardboard. He’s running scared, and it’s hard not to imagine why. Put yourself in that guy’s shoes: the characters on the cover of Action Comics #1 don’t know what a superhero is. Superheroes have literally never existed before this moment in time. He doesn’t even have the vocabulary to describe what he’s seeing. He remains a mute witness to Superman’s debut.



Contrast that with Marvel Comics #1, cover dated November 1939. In the year and a half since the release of the first Action, the superhero has become, if not intimately familiar, then at least recognizable from Superman and the first handful of Superman copycats. The genre is old enough now that the copycats have to dig deeper for novelty: you can’t just put another strongman in a union suit, you need to have something different for your covers. Something to catch the eyes of readers with plenty of choices but maybe only one dime in their pocket. Even in 1939 Marvel was already Marvel, so they accomplished this in the most lurid manner possible: instead of just a man lifting a car above his head, Marvel gives us a man on fire bursting through a steel bank vault door, grinning maniacally as he lunges towards someone shooting at him. That someone – presumably a bank robber? – is terrified, which certainly makes sense. He’s being attacked by a demon seemingly conjured from the pits of Hell. He’s shooting the monster but the bullets bounce right off. That guy is toast.

On both covers normal human beings are confronted with an extraordinary spectacle, an event so far outside the realm of human understanding as to defy description. But there’s an important difference: the people on the cover of Action #1 are reacting to something amazing that Superman is doing, whereas the crook on the cover of Marvel #1 is reacting simply to the Torch’s existence. It may seem a fine point, but it's a telling distinction. Superman is a man who performs miraculous feats, whereas the Human Torch is himself a miracle. One possesses strange powers, one is strange power.


People aren’t usually afraid of superheroes in DC Comics, at least not historically. Some of that changed over the years as the company adopted many Marvel devices for their own use, but still, people generally aren’t afraid of Superman even if criminals and villains may be wary of some of the things Superman can do. Lex Luthor is a villain precisely because he doesn’t trust Superman and acts accordingly. In a Marvel book Luthor would work for the US government because that kind of paranoia is standard issue. Just the fact that superheroes exist is a source of danger and tension to the denizens of the Marvel Universe. 

Stan Lee figured out quite early that this was fertile ground for stories. When he and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko laid the foundations for the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s this was cemented as one of the cornerstones of the company’s approach to storytelling: people aren’t naturally trustful of superheroes. They certainly aren’t always grateful for their existence. People in Metropolis genuinely like Superman, whereas the Fantastic Four had already been evicted from their headquarters before their series even hit double digits.

Certainly this was fodder for occasional stories at DC, but if the citizens of Gotham turned against Batman there was usually a damn good reason why they had been tricked into thinking that the Caped Crusader had turned evil. Just by walking down the street Spider-Man risked catching a tomato in the face thanks to a never-ending stream of bad publicity courtesy of the Daily Bugle. This was a completely novel vector for ongoing stories: what if, in addition to simply fighting the bad guys, the heroes could also be at odds with society at large? Suddenly there was room for a character like the Hulk who was openly regarded as a dangerous menace by the US Army (and to be fair, he did spend most of his time smashing up Army bases and expensive tanks, so it wasn’t entirely a specious antagonism).

The significance of this subtle but profound shift was not lost on Kurt Busiek, so much so that it not only formed the backbone of his exploration of the company’s themes in Marvels, but was a significant plot point in 2003’s JLA / Avengers crossover. Much of that story hinges on the characters learning to perceive differences in the ways their respective universes operate. The JLA figure out immediately that even a relatively clean-cut group like the Avengers is still subject to a great deal of resistance and resentment at home, whereas the Avengers are stunned by the degree to which heroes are revered and respected in the DC Universe.

In Marvels, Phil is a special character not because of any great power or ability, but simply by virtue of being able to see what so many people around him refuse to acknowledge: the existence of superheroes is not normal, and their existence warps society in insidious ways. In the early 40s when the “Marvels” first appear, Phil is demoralized by their very existence, perceiving that in a world where creatures like the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner can demolish half of New York in a schoolyard fight, there’s very little room for a normal person to matter.

When the heroes return in the early 1960s it’s a different story. At first they’re the Beatles, JFK, and the Mercury Seven rolled into one. Tourists to the Big Apple crowd the streets to catch a glimpse of Thor or Iron Man – brightly colored avatars of the military-industrial complex and stalwart foot soldiers in the war against Communism. Of course, even the handful of celebrity heroes – the Fantastic Four and the first line-up of the Avengers, essentially – were still victims of the occasional public backlash, despite the fact that they generally got off easier than Spider-Man or the X-Men. And even among the “presentable” heroes the monstrous Thing was still singled out as a freak. 



As the 1960s wear on the appeal of the returned superheroes begins to wear off – just as, creatively, Lee and his various collaborators also darkened the tone of the books ever so slightly, not necessary a conscious decision but one that followed naturally from Lee's commitment to deepening characterization over time. The reflexive anti-Communism of the first half of the 60s was replaced by gestures in the direction of a counter-culture that had turned on the Vietnam War, a shift echoed by Marvel’s evolving popularity on college campuses. Early championed by young Republican groups for the company’s partisan anti-Communism, those elements were gradually dropped and characters like Dr. Strange began appearing on black light posters.

After the first issue, more or less a prologue set on the eve of the War, Marvels traces the progress of public opinion through the 60s. At first, everything is bright and new. Crowds gather to gawk at the resurrected Captain America:

We were in awe of him. Of all of them. And even when we were scared – when lives were threatened – we knew they’d come through for us – that they’d make everything all right. Like I said, it was a different time. It was life or death – it was grand opera – it was the greatest show on earth – and we – every single one of us – we had the best seat in the house.

What changes? Well, America. There’s a particular narrative in thumbnail histories of the United States, where the 1960s begin with great promise before eventually descending into tragedy, chaos, and disappointment. This is the folk memory progression from the halcyon 1950s to the troubled 1970s, or (in contemporary terms) the span of Mad Men. Accordingly, the 60s in Marvels begin with everything quite pleasant, shiny, and new. People are smiling.

But that changes. Or rather, it is more correct to say the thumbnail never captured the whole picture. The early 1960s were great for a few, certainly, but racism and war didn’t spring into being the moment JFK died in November of 1963. The truth is that as the decade wore on “mainstream” (read, white middle-class) America became increasingly aware of unpleasant truths that had been happily repressed or simply ignored in the decades following the end of World War II. The “Good Old Days” exist only in memory and only because people choose to be ignorant. 



Phil’s view of the era begins to change when he falls into the company of an angry mob gathered around the original team of X-Men. Having just saved a construction worker from falling to his death, the crowd misinterprets the action as an attack and react accordingly. The X-Men are mutants, after all, and mutants aren’t good superheroes like Captain America or Iron Man or even that nasty Spider-Man – they’re born different. They’re monsters.

Before he knows what he’s doing, there’s a brick in his hand, and in the heat of the moment Phil beans Iceman with a chunk of masonry roughly the same size and shape as the one that robbed him of his sight at the end of the first book, where he was injured during a final climactic row between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. When fictional characters lose eyes it typically signifies gaining wisdom, but Phil’s injury simply means he has to work harder as a photographer. He only learns later that he was wrong, when his children find a little girl – a mutant – who has run away from home.

To the book’s credit Phil isn’t portrayed as any kind of hero for finally seeing through the reflexive bigotry of the anti-mutant hysteria sweeping the nation. It takes the most extreme event to shake him out of his ignorance and complacency: seeing a scared child huddled on the floor of his basement. There’s nothing brave or righteous in needing a personalized lesson to learn that bigotry is bad, rather, it speaks to a lack of moral imagination in his character. When confronted with bigotry he’s forced to confront his own cowardice. He’s not special and he doesn't know what to do when it's time for him to actually stand up. Put a brick in his hand and he’s a bigot, too.

The “man on the street” perspective that Phil represents is, literally, blinkered, unable to see the world in three dimensions. He can’t see – chooses not to see – the underbelly of the supposed “Silver Age” until it’s pointed out to him, until his nose is rubbed in the mess. Superheroes are great as long as they’re just beefed-up celebrities, but the reality that they represent for Phil is far more frightening. The violent back-and-forth of public opinion in the Marvel Universe is shown as the natural consequence of living in a world where normal human beings have become obsolete. Even something as simple as a quirk of genetics can turn a normal human being into a god or a monster. One day the Fantastic Four are great and their wedding photos are being sold in commemorative magazines, and the next the same publisher is lambasting them as frauds and crackpots. It’s only natural. The truth is just too much to bear.  

This was Lee's great insight: people are just no good. They turn on their heroes in a second, reward cowardice and celebrate racism, and generally prefer to be lied to. They don't like to acknowledge unpleasant truths until they absolutely have to, and even then it's often grudging. It's not a particularly uplifting message, and there's no real solution. Spider-Man is never going to get a fair shake from anyone who reads the Bugle. The X-Men are never going to be able to conclusively change the hearts and minds of bigots. Life goes on. If you doubt it, look out the window.

If the book occasionally indulges in bathos - as with the image of the little girl huddling in terror in his dirty basement - it’s for the service of showing the real contrast between Phil’s more or less mundane world and the melodramatic excesses of the uncanny milieu into which he occasionally stumbles. Phil is a John Cheever character living in a Stan Lee world, and the two don’t always mesh well. The contrast is intentional.


Excelsior

The first issue of Busiek and Ross’s Marvels hit shelves in November of 1993. The series was unheralded. I knew it was coming because I read Marvel Age like I was supposed to, but apparently no one else did because the series hit fandom with a thunderclap. One month nobody knew who Alex Ross was and then the first two issues of Marvels were the most wanted comics in the country according to Wizard (which I also read, because it was 1993).

1993 was at once the zenith and nadir of the last few decades of American comics. After years of explosive sales growth fueled partly by speculation, more people were buying more comics – lots more comics. But people eventually figured out that comics with print runs in the multiple millions were never going to be lucrative collectors’ items. A scarce collectible is valuable only if its price reflects legitimate demand: there are only so many copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 in existence, and there will never be any more. Even though print runs were massive in the 1960s, most people threw their comics away. Newsagents shipped unsold copies back to the distributor to be pulped. Many of those few copies that survive are in awful condition. So the first appearance of Spider-Man will always command a high price.



Speculator bubbles collapse when someone figures out that they have paid a higher price for a commodity than they can reasonably expect to receive on resale. After years of booming sales the industry entered the year at a fever pitch, with new publishers appearing ex nihilo in order to fulfill a demand that had already evaporated by the fall. The rub here is that whereas comics in 1962 (the year Amazing Fantasy #15 was printed) were sold by newsstands and other retail outlets (such as supermarkets and pharmacies), comics in 1993 were largely sold by direct market specialty stores that trafficked exclusively in comics – or comics and sports cards, or comics and role-playing games. A few stores stayed open during the dark times that followed the 1993 bust by selling palettes full of a new game called Magic: The Gathering – early printings of which were legitimately scarce and still command a great deal of money. (Incidentally, the sports card market had collapsed just prior to the comic book market, meaning many stores were already hurting by 1993.)

Newsstands and retail outlets sell magazines on consignment and on a returnable basis –as with the example of Amazing Fantasy #15, whatever the retailer doesn’t sell can be shipped back to the distributor to be pulped. Due to a historical quirk most comics sold to specialty stores are not returnable. When unsold cartons of Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1 started clogging up floorspace, there was no way for a retailer to recoup that investment. They were out the money for stock that wasn’t selling to an audience that disappeared once they figured out that more than enough copies of Turok, Dinosaur Hunter #1 existed to ensure that every man, woman, and child who wanted a copy could purchase a copy for pennies on the dollar. You can still probably find a copy for a dollar today.

The problem was compounded by the fact that as more books were produced companies struggled to maintain consistency across their lines. Especially Marvel. Even over multiple decades and multiple owners Marvel’s corporate philosophy has remained remarkably, brutally simple: flood the market and push competitors off the racks. It doesn’t matter if a book is any good just so long as it exists in place of another book by another company. (This has remained the company’s philosophy even as it has expanded in recent years into movies and television.) 1993 was not just a year in which a great many comics were printed, it was a year in which a great many bad comics were printed, and even dedicated fans felt increasingly dissatisfied with endless waves of substandard product. With speculators leaving in droves and even the industry’s bread-and-butter fans drifting away, many stores closed or began selling something else besides comics – like Magic cards.



This context is important to remember because the reason Marvels represented such a revolution at its release was that it stood in direct opposition to these trends. It was an expensive book, an almost unheard of $5.95, printed on thick paper with eye-popping plastic overlay covers – but it was a rare gimmick that genuinely enhanced the finished product by allowing for the cover art to be appreciated without logo and trade dress. Marvels is still one of the best-designed books in the company’s history. It pops off the shelf.

Looking back for this essay I was surprised to see that the first issue of Marvels shipped in 1993. It seemed at the time to exist in a different universe from the rest of the industry. It was a lifeline for the disenchanted. It was produced by lifelong fans for an audience of lifelong fans, people who lived and breathed these old books, people who needed to believe in these old books. It represented (for many readers, at least) the first shot across the bow against a dominant comics culture that had become crass and jaded. It was the tip of the spear of a return to “traditionalism” that was (as reactionary movements are wont to be) fixated not on the actual material conditions of the past but by a murky vision of what the past was supposed to have been. Comics the way they used to be.

However, while it is possible to see Marvels as the harbinger of a movement towards nostalgia and conservatism that infected parts of the industry in the mid 90s, it would be a mistake to claim that the book was actually a part of this movement, and an insult to Busiek & Ross to infer any such motivation from their work. A countermovement to the era of early Image Comics and the “Extreme” stories that generation of creators produced was an inevitable reaction to a shrinking retail environment and the graying of the existing fanbase after many younger readers were burnt by the speculator bubble and fled the hobby in droves. As fewer and fewer drug stores and supermarkets stocked comic books, fewer and fewer kids read them. If you liked comics but lived in a town where the only place that sold comics was the 7-11 and the 7-11 stopped selling comics, you were up the creek. What remained, what always remained, were the lifers.

The entertainment industry celebrates success through imitation, and comics is no different. Because of the relatively small lead-time necessary for production comics is especially prone to faddishness: movies and books and television can take years to produce even at breakneck speed, but a comic book can sometimes be conceived, created, promoted, and ship to stores in just a few months. A wave of “prestige” projects that trafficked in nostalgia and catered to older fans followed in the wake of Marvels just as surely as night follows day. But whereas many of the (now mostly forgotten) projects that clogged the shelves in the wake of Marvels looked nice, most of them missed the reason why Marvels was so important in the first place. It wasn’t just the painted art, and it wasn’t just the backwards-looking focus. To repeat: although Marvels is a book about nostalgia, it’s not nostalgic. The past can be a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there. 

There’s an old saying, credited to a man named Peter Graham, that the Golden Age of sci-fi is twelve. Knock a few years off and the same goes for comics: the comics you read as a kid will always be the best comics. Nothing will ever come close in your eyes to that first rush, from back before you knew enough about the making of the books to become cynical. Even if the comics you grew up with were awful (and they most likely were), they will always be the pure and uncut high for which you will hunger for the rest of your life.

More odd but incontrovertible is the aura of holiness invested by certain fans in eras of comics prior to their own birth. Certainly not every fan - it's a tendency that seems to be on the wane among readers today, for instance - but the next step after lionizing the era of comics you grew up with is the era of comics before you were born. Nothing holds quite as much magic as an artifact of a lost epoch from prior to your existence. Holding a comic book printed before you were even conceived provides tangible proof of the existence of an Antediluvian world filled with wonders undreamt.

I have no personal nostalgia attached to the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, as I would not be born for many years yet by the time Jack Kirby left Fantastic Four in 1970. My mom read Marvel not as a child but as a teenager and she passed some of the affection on to me, but her reminiscences were hardly systematic (she's also perhaps the least nostalgic person I know). It fell to me to absorb nostalgia for the Silver Age of comics second- and third-hand, from reading and reaffirming the prejudices of older fans whose discourse dominated the period.

When Marvels hit shelves, even though in terms of actual age I was far closer to that of the typical Image fanboy, the borrowed nostalgia of older generations felt far more solid to me. I didn’t buy many Image books at the time – Spawn, yes, but even people who hated Spawn bought Spawn. It was usually interesting to look at even if the stories were repetitive drivel, and they usually were. My favorite writer at the time was Mark Gruenwald, and I bought everything Tom DeFalco wrote as well. I was more invested in Peter David’s Incredible Hulk than I probably should have been.

In hindsight the reason I was attracted to these books is that I responded both to the level of craft involved in the construction of the stories and the attitude of traditionalism that at the time permeated some of the more long-running Marvel series. You could pick up an issue of DeFalco and Ron Frenz’s Thor and be assured a solid read, a story with a beginning, middle, and end with plenty of long-simmering subplots and a reliance on long-game character development to keep monthly readers returning even when the actual content of the stories was a retread. A filling meal. These creators respected the past and saw their job as part custodianship: compared to the average issue of Spawn or even X-Force – published by the same company as Thor but separated in both tone and execution by rigid Chinese walls – these were extraordinarily square comics, and proudly so. They wore their old-fashioned nature on their sleeve like badges of honor.

I wasn’t really happy with being a kid. I didn’t get much joy out of liking the things I was “supposed” to like, at least in terms of the comics that were considered cool at the time, and I was much happier digging into back issue bins for issues of Marvel Two-In-One with odd looking covers than waiting for whatever was selling best on any given month. Sure, I read New Mutants (for instance) and thought the book became more interesting once a dude named Rob Liefeld came on pencils – but I was less than thrilled by the results when he was given the opportunity to write his own stories. It it was a lot easier to justify buying genial crap back when comics were only 75¢ or $1.00, if it meant keeping up with the conversation. It was just a thing we did  – you sort of had to be there.

Eventually I stopped buying back issues as keeping up with current comics became less of a joy and more of a chore – a happy chore, and one that Marvel and DC were happy to encourage by still producing the odd good books amongst bales of chaff, but a chore nonetheless. Routine buying habits very easily became simple habit. Habit becomes expectation. Expectation become dependency. If you’ve never been there, the idea of buying comics every week being a kind of addiction probably seems absurd but – that’s how the industry functions. Get ‘em hooked young and they’ll be customers for life.

It would have been difficult to design a book better suited to appeal to the me of 1993 than Marvels . I was already a lifer. Marvels was a book that promised exquisite delights for readers who knew the score, who got all the jokes and noticed all the little details that two lifelong Marvel Zombies were able to squirrel away onto every page. You don’t have to know all the little in-jokes to get the book – in fact, I’ve given the book to people with very little exposure to superheroes and they’ve gotten the story just fine. But the fact that those details are there for those who can see gives the story an uncompromising depth. Busiek knows his shit, and anything he missed Ross could catch. This really is the same Marvel Universe you grew up with, alive in every precise detail, looking like you could just walk right onto the page . . .



If you only know Ross as a guy who paints covers, or (if you’re a few years older) the mastermind behind a series of progressively less interesting nostalgia projects, it may be difficult to understand just how big a deal he was. Ross was an instant superstar the moment that first issue of Marvels hit. And at the time his work was a proverbial breath of fresh air. After years of Rob Liefeld, here was someone who knew how to draw, how to do all the old-fashioned things you saw in those Burne Hogarth books that actually tried to teach you how to draw for real instead of taking shortcuts with everything and covering it up with a bunch of lines. (When I draw now I still can’t shake the habit of covering up every available surface with excess lines. I don’t draw much anymore.) The main character in Marvels is a middle-aged news photographer, the kind of serious 60s professional who wore a tie to the breakfast table. He needed to look real, and Ross made him real.

All of the tics for which Ross later became infamous – the stiffness of some of his posed figures, the slightly disconcerting feeling that you’re looking at paintings of his next-door neighbor posed as Giant Man – well, they didn’t seem quite so important at the time. Go back and look at Marvels in the context of everythingelse on the stands at the time and you should be able to appreciate why it stood out. What Ross does well, he does extraordinarily well: for all the flack he gets over the occasional stiffness of his posing, his page composition and use of perspective are often dazzling. Much of Marvels is montage, and Ross makes montage work on the comics page in a way that very few other artists have ever managed, bringing a genuine sweep and cinematic scope to the book. “Cinematic” is an overused and often abused term in reference to comic book storytelling, but at his best he can pluck the sweep and woosh of a cleverly edited montage sequence off a movie screen and place it on the page, intact for all intents and purposes. Not an easy thing to do.

The time was ripe for a book like Marvels – a serious book that took its subject matter very seriously, and set about to accomplish its goals with a quiet determination to be unlike any other comic that had ever existed up to that moment. It is unfortunate that the book became identified with a stylistic conservatism that was very much at odds with the themes of the book itself, which argued vociferously against being stuck in the past. 

Ross followed up Marvels with 1996’s Kingdom Come – an underrated book that nevertheless already shows signs of the calcification in Ross’ style and approach that later became codified practically into self-parody. But I still respect Ross for the fact that at the height of his power, following one blockbuster project apiece for Marvel and DC, he could have done literally anything he wanted, and he chose in 1997 to do an odd two-issue reimagining of Uncle Sam for Vertigo. It’s an imperfect book but nonetheless very interesting for the way it utilizes Ross’ talent for aping Norman Rockwell as a means of exploring unpleasant aspects of American iconography. Inasmuch as anything Ross has ever done can be considered a “deep cut,” it’s underread and worthy of rediscovery by a generation of readers who might not even have been alive when the book was originally published.  



As for Busiek, he used the high profile of Marvels to build a long and distinguished career as one of the great American comic book writers, full stop. With Ross and Brent Anderson he launched the still-ongoing Astro City – originally published by Image Comics. I had a poster of the cover of the first issue of Astro City above my bed for many years, with a group of awestruck city dwellers pointing their fingers skyward at the angelic Samaritan.

There was a period in the mid-90s where it seemed the only good comics Marvel published were written by Kurt Busiek – an exaggeration, but only just. At a time when so many top-shelf creators had fled the company, or were being poorly utilized by writing X-Men spin-offs, Busiek stuck around on books like Untold Tales of Spider-Man and Thunderbolts. Alongside George Perez he relaunched Avengers in 1998, following the conclusion of Heroes Reborn, a year-long event in which none other than Rob Liefeld (along with fellow Image founder Jim Lee) was given control of the franchise. His run on the series coincided with Grant Morrison’s run on JLA, and is perhaps the only time in both company’s shared history when it can be said that the two books were arguably the best books being published by each company. A couple years later he also wrote JLA/AVENGERS, inarguably the best such intercompany crossover ever produced.

There are few writers whose work I respect as much, and none whose work has meant more to me.


Make Mine Marvel

There was never a time without them. Imagine that. Think back as far as you can, is there anything you carry forward to the present day? Your family, perhaps. I remember comics all the way back, certainly before most of my family.

Do you know why we care? I go back and forth – I’m not sure why I feel the way I do. There’s no conclusion here. Don’t look for a revelation, unless it’s your own. Certainty is comforting. It’s familiar. I don’t want to speak unless I know exactly what I’m about to say, and I don’t want to express an opinion unless that opinion is completely solid. It’s a lot harder to say, “I don’t know.”

I don’t know why comics hooked me. All I know is that they did. All I can do is try to tell you what I feel and think. Maybe you can provide your own answers.

Leaving the theater after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 I was gripped by a terrible malaise. During the movie I was impatient. I realized that I didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be sitting in that theater watching that movie. The characters on the screen were CGI mannequins bouncing through a frictionless CGI world, pausing between bounces only to quip at one another before launching another round of shooting faceless CGI monsters that could have wandered in from any middle-tier AAA franchise video game. 

The final scene of the movie, after excessively long credits (accompanied by a Guardians-themed disco song sung by David Hasselhoff, proving Marvel Studios to be firmly thirteen years behind the cultural zeitgeist as symbolized by the first Spongebob Squarepants movie), features Stan Lee marooned on a distant planetoid and dressed in a spacesuit, being abandoned by a crowd of Watchers. Lee is a diminished figure at this late date. How could he not be, at age 94? He still looks as if he enjoys these endless cameos in endless movies, many of which prominently feature characters he had no hand in creating. But I am left wondering, and not for the first time, who these cameos serve – Lee? He carries an Executive Producer credit on each film, strictly an honorary title. Although the appearance of his imprimatur carries weight with casual fans who unerringly associate Lee with Marvel Comics, he has as much to do with the production of the films as I do. He’s part of the brand now, essentially another piece of IP.

In the end Marvel finally figured out the best way to screw over Lee. His family founded the company and he stuck around for decades, fought tooth and nail against Martin Goodman at every step, believed in the value of the characters years before anyone else, suffered great damage to his reputation along the way. Now he’s just another piece of the Marvel brand, a real man swallowed whole by the fictional version of himself as carnival barker he created in order to sell comic books in the 1960s. Now in his tenth decade he's just another circus performer.

Because of his steadfast support of the company line against artists and other creators who spoke up against Marvel, he is also an ethically toxic figure. While much of the world without any extensive knowledge of the issues at hand consider him to be synonymous with Marvel, and surely the prime mover behind the company’s greatest achievements, many in the comics community conversely underrate his contributions for those reasons. He will remain a vexing figure for cultural historians for so long as Marvel remains an object of fascination and study – that is, for many decades to come.

If he had done just a few things differently, just a few decisions and decisive actions across a career spanning over eighty years, this conversation would be different. And a part of me hates him for that, hates him for having imprinted himself on generations of readers who grew up loving Smilin’ Stan only to later learn the truth of the matter. He’s not a hero but he’s not quite a villain, either – his great sin was to have been consistently wrong about almost every major ethical challenge he faced as both a creator and a businessman. At every turn he thought he was making the right decision for the good of his company. He won every battle but lost the war.

For decades he almost certainly considered his lifelong struggle with Goodman (Marvel’s founder, his uncle, and constant foil) to be the defining conflict of his professional life. Now Goodman is a minor player in the story of Lee & Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, one of the great morasses of comics history, coming in third only to DC’s barbaric treatment of Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster following the creation of Superman, and that company’s erasure of Bill Finger from the creation of Batman. Unlike the faceless businessmen who stole Superman for a song – and certainly unlike Bob Kane, whose portrait runs in the dictionary alongside the definition of “shitheel” – it is impossible to hear Lee speak now and not hear some degree of honest regret in his treatment of Kirby and Ditko. But regret for what, exactly, he seems unsure. Where his own culpability begins is a question he cannot begin to answer.

It didn’t have to be this way. Because he did write those comics. He did co-create those characters. Both Kirby and Ditko are immensely talented creators whose solo work, while enduringly great, is also inescapably eccentric. Every creator to tackle Kirby’s solo characters in his wake has struggled to replicate his magic combination of bombast and guileless invention. Every attempt to revamp Ditko’s solo work has began with the wholesale jettisoning of the uncompromising and astringent integrity at the heart of his vision of the world. But Spider-Man endures, and does so in large part because he speaks in Stan Lee’s voice. The Fantastic Four endure not just because of the visual splendor at the heart of the concept but because Lee framed the stories as grounded domestic comedy. That’s him. His name deserves to be on that creator credit just as much as any of his collaborators, even if it also deserves an asterisk.

But Marvel is no more or less compromised than any other major media conglomerate. Disney bought Marvel in 2009. Kirby & Ditko get to share a bunkhouse with Ub Iwerks and Marcia Lucas. Good company.

Both of my grandfathers are dead. Both of them lived compromised lives. My father’s father was an alcoholic and an adulterer who squandered a brilliant surgical career. My mother’s father was a gambler who kept my mother’s family in penury until being kicked out of the house on my mother’s sixteenth birthday. Both men were also extraordinarily kind to me. Does their kindness to me erase their checkered lives? My dad’s dad saved countless lives on the operating table, does that negate treating his own family like shit?

It is important to remember that these questions don’t have answers. Life goes on.

People get into comics for a number of reasons. The important question usually isn’t why you started reading comics, but why you never stopped.

I needed something. I needed something to hold onto when so much about the world didn’t make sense. I didn’t exclusively gravitate towards particular characters, although I obviously have my favorites just like everyone else. The characters themselves, I have always maintained, are relatively unimportant: what matters is the whole. What matters is that it hangs together into something resembling a cohesive aggregate entity, one story being told over decades by hundreds of people. Sometimes it comes together and sometimes it doesn’t, but ideally every creator is working on an even playing field, with an equal opportunity to add something unique to what has come before.

That’s why I gravitated to Mark Gruenwald, both in his comics writing and his “Mark’s Remarks” columns for Marvel Age. He seemed like a genuinely decent human being. Some of his writing is a little dated – his understanding of the connection between drugs, poverty, and crime is embarrassing in hindsight, as seen in both his columns and his work on Captain America, particularly the strange “Streets of Poison” storyline. But his overall attitude towards comics, and towards the world in general as illustrated by his runs on books like Quasar and D.P.7 seemed remarkably simple and straightforward: it is our responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it. People can become better by learning from their mistakes and moving forward. It is possible to be a good person in a compromised world.

He believed in the Marvel Universe as a living organism unto itself. He cared about things like The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, a unique project that typified a certain kind of fan in a certain era of comic book collecting. It wasn’t about anal-retentive organization as a way of calcifying and compartmentalizing creative works – the kind of criticism I usually hear leveled against that and similar efforts by subsequent generations of readers who dismiss handbooks altogether. It was about keeping the firmament organized so that the people who came after, creators and fans alike, could enjoy the characters. Everyone deserves the same opportunity to make these stories their own, and that requires a great deal of work to keep all the moving pieces behind the scenes humming smoothly. Even the exhibits no one sees still have to be cleaned regularly.

After some early missteps (i.e. The Scourge), he felt bad about killing characters. Even “bad” characters were someone’s favorite, or had the chance to one day be someone’s favorite – and the current success of characters like Squirrel Girl and Devil Dinosaur vindicates that perspective. No one had any use for Squirrel Girl for decades, until suddenly someone did. Every creator should be as distinctive and interesting as their talent allows, so long as they do their best not to step on the toes of another creator or act in a mean spirited fashion.

Watching the 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen, I was taken aback by just how banal these wonderful characters had become. Gamora and Drax the Destroyer were both created by Jim Starlin, the latter with Mike Friedrich; Mantis by Steve Englehart and Don Heck; Groot and Ego by Lee & Kirby; Rocket Raccoon by Bill Mantlo & Keith Giffen. Every character onscreen was the product of distinctive creators with distinctive ideas, who each worked under different constraints, exploring different themes and telling very different kinds of stories. The Guardians who appear onscreen are based not on the original Guardians of the Galaxy, created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, but on a version of the team created in the mid-2000s by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning and built off the Annihilation crossover written by Giffen. The Star-Lord who appears onscreen as played by Chris Pratt bears little resemblance to the Star-Lord created by Englehart and Steve Gan in 1976. I go down this laundry list of creators and reinventions in order to point out just how many individual voices went into the creation and continued relevancy of every character.

None of these voices can be heard onscreen. Only the endless empty howl of IP management, the essences of characters ground down into thin pulp to be processed into the standard action movie template. Complete with quips.

The effect is that of seeing children soiling the legacy of their betters – even Lee’s contributions ultimately being little more than grist for the mill of endless bowdlerization. (It doesn’t help that these video game creatures move around onscreen to the sound of classic rock songs produced by greater talents. Seeing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” soundtrack a weightless sequence of CGI “splendor” almost inspired me to walk out of the theater on its own.) Marvel is both the unified sum of thousands of different characters and the product of the sweat of hundreds of creators working to express themselves through a limited but also paradoxically unrestricted genre. Anything goes as long as you can fit your ideas through certain narrow apertures. It’s surprisingly easy to use comic books to tell very personal stories, whatever your definition of personal may be. If the stories are any good they stick around and become definitive, and new creators take these stories and use them as the foundation for new stories. If they aren't, whatever is left survives in a Handbook entry, awaiting another creator to come along and see something of value in a space raccoon with a jetpack.

Everyone was always getting screwed but no one was making much money. The irony is that a creator’s given IP could only become valuable once every shred of personality was drained, leaving multicolored action figures to be digitally manipulated onscreen while screenwriters hammer every character into the same Marvel Studios formula template. Now Drax the Destroyer is worth quite a lot of money, even as everything that ever made the character interesting has fallen by the wayside.

Somewhere along the line Marvel lost me. They lost themselves. I pick up a comic now, even a good comic, and it takes me maybe five minutes to read. If I try to stretch it out. There’s no feeling that these characters have any connection to the ones I grew up with. It’s not that they’re different: different is good. Characters change all the time. There was a point in the late 80s when Thor had ugly blue-and-gold armor and a beard, the Hulk was grey, Captain America wore a black suit, and Iron Man faked his own death because he had gone rogue. The problem now is that the characters I’ve been reading without pause since the Reagan administration feel as blank and featureless as their universe has become. Constant art changes leave the majority of books without visual identity. Most writers have become so used to the expectation of cancelation that they don’t even bother with things like subplots, romantic entanglements, or long-term characterization. If a book is going away after six or eight issues, why bother spending the time to build a supporting cast who will probably never be seen again? Characters float aimlessly from reboot to reboot with no direction. The wheat falls alongside the chaff.

Although this may seem a reductive answer to may, one of the major factors in the weakness of the current line is that the books just don’t have that many words in them. Decompression and the turn away from thought bubbles are two culprits – there’s no one source of the problem. A comic that costs $4 and takes 5 minutes to read is just . . . not a good bargain. For all the systemic and economic problems that have hamstrung the contemporary comics market – which are not the subject of this essay, and have been written about by many more able parties than myself – the bulk of the books themselves just aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Good art doesn’t make up for a loss of captions and thought balloons: as much as a great artist can convey through visuals, comics are a hybrid medium. I want to sit down and read a comic, not just scan the art. Good art doesn’t tell a complete story, not in comics.  

This is to say nothing of the fact that the company’s flagships – Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Uncanny X-Men – have little in them to interest a kid who wanders into a comic book store. Amazing Spider-Man should always be accessible to any kid in America. Now Marvel has to publish younger-readers versions of their core titles, because the regular Amazing Spider-Man is no longer a book you can give to children, or would want to. 

Kids aren't stupid. Give them something that doesn't insult their intelligence and they'll stick around. That's something that Marvel always did well: creating something designed to be read by kids that didn't condescend and could also hold the interest of an older audience. That's Stan's blueprint. Kids don’t want a watered-down version of the real thing, and with the notable exception of Spidey Super Stories (specifically aimed at very small children, another market the company has abandoned), Marvel has never seen fit to do so until recently. Marvel’s core competency is selling comic books to children. If the company has lost the ability and the desire to do that, what exactly can they do?

Give me a complete story told in 22 pages. Give me all the changes you want, all the diversity I can stomach, give me weird politics, give me wonky art. Just give me a story. Any story. Don’t give me bullshit about storytelling conventions having changed: the system isn’t working anymore. Every comic – every single comic on the stands – has to work its ass off to give me my money’s worth. Right now, Marvel barely has a pulse.

It’s been bad before. The mid-to-late 90s was rough, but there were always highlights. There are still highlights now. But everything – the good, the bad, and the indifferent – is drowning in a sea of bad business decisions reaching back decades. I won’t even begin to touch on the level of indefensible rancor between the company and its fans, or the way that dubious creative decisions made by the movie division have a habit of trickling down into the books themselves (which, you may recall, is the same kind of synergistic “logic” that locked Spider-Man into a dubious marriage for over two decades). Being a Marvel fan has always been a difficult and nigh indefensible proposition. Now it’s impossible.

If you've gotten this far you're more than welcome to dismiss me as a crank. Someone who read too many comics and lost the plot along the way. I don't have answers, is the thing - I said that a while ago. I may even be wrong about a great deal. Anyone who cares to disagree is encouraged, with my blessing, to dismiss my words as the petty grievances of a tired critic. They certainly are. Am I just hankering for my own lost Golden Age, when comics were an escape and not just another depressing reminder of how crappy the world is? Maybe. You tell me.

People get into comics for a number of reasons. The important question isn’t why you started reading comics, but why you never stopped.

Marvels is a complicated book because as much as it appears to be a celebration of superheroes and comic books, it ends on a down note like a bucket of cold water thrown in the reader’s face. After the near-armageddon of the third issue – which ends with Phil lambasting a crowd of New Yorkers for their ingratitude at the Fantastic Four – the fourth and final issue focuses on the death of Gwen Stacy.

By general consent there are two possible end-points for the Silver Age: Kirby’s last issue of Fantastic Four (#102) in 1970, and 1973’s Amazing Spider-Man #121, featuring the death of Peter Parker’s one true love Gwen Stacy. I prefer the first for the sake of order: if you begin with Showcase #4 in 1956 that gives you a solid 14 years. It’s hard to argue that the Bronze Age hadn’t begun in earnest by the time Gwen took her infamous swan dive, but her death is often cited by fans as the era’s sentimental end.

That’s the tack Busiek & Ross take. Phil gets to know Gwen in the aftermath of the death of Gwen’s father George Stacy at the hands of Doctor Octopus (an event which occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #90), a death for which Spider-Man was subsequently framed. After having published a successful volume of superhero photography Phil is being pressured by his publisher for a sequel, possibly involving super-villains. He bristles at the idea for the very sound reason that people don’t need more reasons to be scared. Finally it occurs to him that what the world needs isn’t a new book of photos, but a book about the ingratitude and indifference superheroes receive.

Phil puts the evidence together and discovers the truth. He strikes up a friendship with Gwen. He learns that the elder Stacy believed Spider-Man to be a hero, and that his own daughter believed the wall-crawler to be innocent. Rather than publish a book about super-villains, he resolves to write a book exonerating Spider-Man for Captain Stacy’s death. He muses:

This wasn’t an article or column or anything that small. It was my book. My new book. . . . A major work on the marvels and what they should mean to us. . . . Everything would work. I knew it. It was the book I’d been learning to write my whole life without knowing it – and the centerpiece would be a vindication of Spider-Man. Absolved by the daughter of the man he was accused of killing – and praised as a hero by the man himself.

But then Gwen dies. Thrown off the George Washington Bridge by the Green Goblin, she dies of a broken neck after Spider-Man’s webbing stops her sudden fall.

Phil deflates. He doesn’t want anything to do with superheroes anymore. He had relied on them to help people, to save innocents – but when the chips were down, they were human just like the rest of us. They made mistakes, only when they made mistakes people died. “I swear I could still hear that flat crack, echoing across the water, echoing in my ears,” he thinks as he looks out across the waters to the scene of the fight. “I read later that it was the shock of the fall that killed her, but it sure looked like . . .”

The thought trails off. Phil doesn’t have the heart to finish it.


And I don’t feel like I have the heart to finish it, either. I don’t know what there is left to say. Comics started off a shady business built to entice children into spending their money. They are still a shady business built to entice children into spending their money, but inflation and retail conditions meant their audience grew older without ever growing up. Just like me.

It’s all about the movies now. Most of them, even the enjoyable ones, aren’t really very good. Mostly they manage the neat trick of selling children’s stories to grown adults by dumbing-down the source material. There’s a lesson there, if you know to look for it.

The books are caught in a bad feedback loop. The trade-off for working in comics (at least Marvel & DC) used to be that you’d get paid like shit but maybe get the chance to create interesting work if you cared about what you were doing. Now everyone gets paid like shit and the market is so attenuated that nothing sells, not editorially driven event books and not eccentric personal projects. People who could be doing interesting work figure out that they can make more money doing just about anything but working in superhero comics, while the people who work consistently and manage to make a living in superhero comics treat gigs like jealously guarded sinecures.

It’s not that comics themselves are bad. Comics are great. I make money writing about comics of all kinds. But the place in my heart where I used to hold Marvel Comics is a dead and blackened cinder, burnt by decades of being taken for granted by successive generations of creators and editors who appear by all accounts to hold their audience in seething contempt.

I go to the shelf five feet from my desk and pull down a favorite volume – Jim Starlin’s Warlock. Of all the thousands and thousands of Marvel comics I have bought and read and the tens of thousands of all kinds of comics I know, no stories mean more to me. None. I flip through the book: there’s Warlock, and Thanos, and Pip the Troll and Gamora and hey, Spider-Man sneaks in there, too, in a couple places. Old friends.  

Such wonderfully evocative images – Jim Starlin on fire working through early iterations of the same themes he visited dozens of times since. There’s religious oppression, the line between madness & sanity, the moral argument for and against suicide, questions of destiny and predestination, and even some sex. There’s vivacity here, life and passion that screams off the shelf and demands I read through, even as I scan over pages I’ve read dozens of times before.

Next to Warlock there’s a copy of The Death of Jean DeWolff, a hardcover of a story I’d never read before which I picked up for a song a while back and only recently got around to reading. An odd story – written by Peter David and drawn by Rich Buckler, it’s an attempt to create an 80s revenge thriller with Spider-Man and Daredevil instead of Charles Bronson. It shouldn’t really work. Something about the grisly milieu, seeing Spider-Man bouncing around trying to find a serial killer whose gimmick is emptying a shotgun into peoples’ chests, it seems off while at the same time remaining thoroughly entertaining. There’s an energy here that animates what should be a lousy premise. It’s an honestly conflicted story that can’t decide where it stands, but seeing Spider-Man tackle a Son of Sam analogue on the streets of New York just a few months after the real-life Bernhard Goetz shooting is compelling. Never boring, at least.
 
These stories live in my memory. But they’re not dead. Nothing ever ends.



Phil realizes, too. “It just went on,” Phil thinks to himself. “And it was never going to stop. Not even if I held my breath until I turned blue.” He hasn’t been the same since Gwen died. He’s sitting in his office at home, still in shock. Can’t really concentrate on what he’s doing. There’s a TV on his desk, an old General Electric model with a handle – people used to call them portable but they still weighed a ton. It’s playing footage of a fight between the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Zzzax. It doesn’t mean anything. Lives saved, property damage. Just another fight.

He throws his camera at the screen. It explodes with a WHKASSH. Phil is done.

“You’ve got to have the eye for it, and mine is gone,” he explains to his assistant. “I lost it somewhere. I’ve seen too much, and I’m inside now. Where I can’t see anything straight.”

There aren’t any answers. There’s no grand epiphany or cosmic conclusion. No meaning, ultimately. If you’re waiting for everything to add up, you wait in vain. I could tell you I was done with comics, that I was never going to bother again with Marvel, that I was never going to let them break my heart again – but we both know that’d be a lie. It’s home, for better or for worse. I hate it and I love it but I’m stuck here with you for the rest of my life. And you’re stuck with me, too.

Fuck you, I love you, forever and ever, amen.


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 Part Ten of an ongoing series

4. Someday We Will All Be Free
5. Trifles, Light As Air

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We
Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love
6.  One - The Modern Age
7. Two - Slow Decay
8. Three - A Time To Be So Small

9. The Last Star Wars Essay
10. True Believers


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