Sunday, April 23, 2006

Comics: Golden Age

So a lot of the comics blogs I've been haunting have been talking about "first comics" - the comic books you read as a kid that convinced you that comic books were worth reading, and leading to comics collecting and in many cases writing and drawing and editing comics. In my case, I don't think it is "first comics" that are important, but rather where one's personal "golden age" of comics is located.

No, I'm not going all nostalgic on you - well, OK, just a little. All this has an eventual point, so bear with me.

I read comics as a kid, and the more I think about it, the more comics I remember I've read. Sad Sack and Lil' Hot Stuff from Harvey, Sugar and Spike, Jimmy Olsen, Dial H for Hero, the occasional Flash (Carmine Infantino chins that could be used to open cans!) from DC, a big pile of Classics Illustrated, and even some Charlton heroes. Not much Marvel because Marvel was always in the middle of some storylines, and my buying habits (summers, vacations, etc . . .) never guarenteed I could catch the next issue. But I did read some of Marvel monster books (Where Creatures Dwell and that ilk) and their war books (both Sargent Fury and Captain Sawyer).

Anyway, I read comics, then like most people in the universe, I stopped. Moved on - one relic of those days was continuing to read MAD magazine and the bajillion paperbacks they were putting out in those days, and the paperback collections of Peanuts. So fade out on comic books until my sophmore year of college.

Two things contributed to my return to comics - Star Wars and a guy named Joe Karpierz (Hey, Joe!). First off, Star Wars had come out and hit big with me and my gang, even though we had cinderella licenses and the only place it played in Pittsburgh was in Monroeville (the last time we passed the site, the theater was shut down and abandoned, but that's another rant). In the wake of the movie, we wanted to know more, and Marvel was there with really bad comic books (Ask a die-hard Star Warrior about the giant green carnivorous bunny that teamed with Han Solo and watch him recoil in horror). So I picked up these books while I was in college, read them, and then mailed them to the Lovely Bride (back when she was still the Lovely Girlfriend). And I picked up a Howard the Duck or three, as well, but had not been drawn over to the long-underwear heroes yet.

Now Joe was next door, and he did read comics - those long-running, multi-part Marvels - FF, Iron Man, Thor. And of course I started reading them as well. And during the summer break, I would pick up the ones that were missing, since Joe was not around to lean on. And suddenly I got hooked into comics again. This was a time when Claremont and Byrne were getting their start on X-Men (and there was only one X-Man book, published every two months), when Micheline and Layton were on Iron Man, when Two-in-One (with the Thing) and Team-Up (with Spiderman) were the continuity books, and Mark Gruenwald was doing Captain America. The Beast was part of the Avengers, and was not only smart and agile, but happy about it.

And this, not Sugar and Spike, was my personal golden age. This time I was firmly ensconsed in the Marvel Universe, though the Teen Titans and Legion of Superheroes (team books) brought me back to DC. It was the start of the direct-sale comic market, and with it both imports (Titan collections of Judge Dredd, translations of Asterix and Obelix) and independents (Elfquest, Love and Rockets, Cerebus before Sim went insane). For me this was a time when comics were new, and things were better, before Mutant Angst and a million different spinoffs and Punisher showing up everywhere and yeah, this is turning into an old-guy rant, so I'll stop.

The comics I liked during that golden age would become the type of comics I would then write when I got a chance. Team books where the participants bounced off each other, but pretty much liked each other. Forgotten Realms is the example. There is a good feeling around these books that dates back to Shooter-era Marvels and early X-men. The heroes were pretty happy about their lives, even if they were feared by a humanity they were sworn to protect. If heroes failed, it was so they could rise again. Those were the stories of "when the world was new" for me, and is reflected in the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

This comes to me when I see things within the current comic book universes, a history where changes are made and then reversed. The decision-makers (writers, artists, and most of all editors) reflect their own personal golden ages in their choices.

Let me give you an example based on the editorial zig-zags that have plagued one silver-age hero - Green Lantern

You'd think I'd be a big fan of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, the GL from when I was a kid (and I suppose should be written Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan). But in my memory, that Green Lantern was pretty much interchangeable with Hawkman, Flash, and Green Arrow. They all had their own schtick as far as powers were concerned, but they were pretty whitebread - just another supersuit. (I left before the classic Neil Adams GL/GA stories, so don't bust my chops). It is only retcon (Retroactive Continuity) that gives these guys their own personalities (I think that's a rant for another day as well). So I found the Hal Jordan of my later "Golden Age" a little stuffy, his John Stewart replacement more intereresting, and despite my age bracket, I liked Kyle Rayner the best (known to one of my comic-book friends as "crab-face-boy" for his mask). I really wasn't too bothered when Hal Jordan turned to the dark side, became a villain, and was replaced.

But some (well, many) were - those who had Hal Jordan stories as part of their personal golden age. And when those individuals rose to the age where they were writing and making decisions, Hal started his comback - first sacrificing himself to save the universe, then coming back as the mystic hero Spectre (another candidate for this Golden Age analysis) and finally becoming Green Lantern again, nudging aside Kyle and bringing us back to the 60s.

Here is another possible Personal Golden age - the current All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison. Great stuff, and highly recommended, but I see the "goofy Silver Age" of my youth peaking through his stories. When Superman cranked out a new super-power every other issue, when a tour of his Fortress of Solitude was cool, and when Atlas charming Lois Lane was considered a threat. It is all done lovingly, and despite being billed as a new approach, it is really a very old approach, and, I think, is another personal Golden Age at work.

So here's my point: There is a conservative nature within comics in that everyone is influenced by the personal golden ages of their youth. It is not the only influence, and does not mean that comics are continually damned to repeat themselves as the Kyle Rayner fans grow up and turn into the next generation of writers, artists, and editors, but there it will be that influence. Were I to start writing comics again (holds imaginary phone to ear and mouthing the words "call me"), I don't doubt that the soft-touch, personality driven, full-color world of early Claremont and Byrne, Layton and Micheline, and continuity-gathering Mark Gruenwald would influence the stories I tell.

Oh, and my version of the Beast? Definitely Blue and Bouncing.

More later,