How an LSD Writer Changed Marvel Comics Forever (2023)

In 1986, after a long youth, the comic finally came of age.

Check Out This Year's Stacked Lineup: Frank Miller's Groundbreaking Four Points AlbumBatman: The Dark Knight Returns;Alan Moore e Dave Gibbonsguard; Art Spiegelman's first collectionmausoleum;American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar; and the first comic by Daniel Clowes,Lloyd Louellen, were released this year. These are some of the most important artists and titles in the history of fashion. Like 1975 in the film and 1922 in the books, 1986 in the comics splits the timeline in two. These innovative works have been praised for things traditional comics can't do, the places they go and the subjects they tackle, which is another way of saying they are more mature, serious and thematically complex. Cover story of the August 1986 issueO Atlantic OceanThe title is "Adult Comics".

In the wonderful book by Jeremy DauberAmerican comics: a history, he points to two important and seemingly related findings from the comic book industry in the late 1970s: “At that time, academics ranked 20 popular comic books with a reading score ranging from 1.8 to 6.4. In other words, comics are for kids. We prepare, and less and less. By 1979, monthly comic book circulation was at its lowest level since the early 1940s.” This state – immature, unpopular and creatively stagnant comics – matured into the form advocated by Miller, Spiegelman, Moore and others almost heroically. My master is here, let's be serious.

But what if that narrative is as simplistic and simplistic as pre-'80s comics are accused of being? What if this so-called stagnant adolescence contained all sorts of innovation, experimentation and maturity that simply went unnoticed? If the real ground for the radical departure from form in 1986 was laid not only by brilliant directors, but also by experienced practitioners of mainstream cinema, whose forced capitalist productivity led to many, often unknown, formal innovations as slowly as in film, the childish, unadorned comic book pages?

Eliot Borenstein's new bookMarvel Comics in the 1970s: The World in Your Mindmakes a compelling case for writers and artists like Steve Gerber and Don McGregor, who created artists like Howard the Duck andBlack Panther, made smaller, more incremental contributions to comics that were harder to notice but ultimately just as important. This decade in Marvel history is often written off as a weird transition period - and it was - but the growing pains we felt during this period were the same ones we felt when we were young: birth pangs, the one that would herald progress.

"Marvel in the '70s," explains Borenstein, "went through a transformation that at first seemed perfect on the surface, but turned out to be almost as dramatic as Bruce Banner's transformation into the Hulk." about expanding possibilities within the industry.” What these creators do is both artistic and social in nature, as their work “pushes the boundaries of what is allowed in mainstream comics”. The 1960s was a tumultuous decade of social upheaval and demographic change, but such taboos remained that most major shifts in popular culture were only implicitly acknowledged. Songs like "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" cannot directly address their real themes - marijuana and LSD, respectively - but must be sung around them. As we'll see, comics follow a similar strategy.

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The biggest change, however, has taken place in the wayWunderExperience the inner workings of these legendary characters and their outer alienation from others. Marvel's heroes are no longer flat information archetypes - or they still are, but with an added layer of weirdness. For example,Shang-Chi, originally a crude, clumsy, racist copy of Bruce Lee, has the rare honor of being able to tell his story in person rather than Stan Lee's omniscient storytelling approach. When writer Doug Moenge took over the role (and stayed for a decade), he used a first-person perspective to give readers Shang-Chi's thoughts on the plot going on, making him a voice-acted character for us. . ; but as Borenstein points out, "Without his inner monologue, Shang-Chi would have risked adding another racist stereotype to a racist book. measured.” Paradoxically, one of the protagonists readers most verbally communicate with is a character who interacts with others with little intimacy. Unfortunately, this amusing and fruitful duality is explored in a comic that has had serious problems in the past, so it is understandably neglected.

As for alienation, we have Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck (which he co-wrote with Val Meyerik), tainted by George Lucas' disastrous 1986 adaptation of becoming an underrated character in comic book history. Borenstein reminds us that Howard the Duck briefly became a "mass culture phenomenon" whose catchphrase - "Stuck in a world he never made!" - reflected the growing resentment of the post-Nixon era (Howard in 1976 even ran for president). . the slogan "Get out, America"). Howard's snappy take on the absurdity of the Marvel Universe paved the way not only for Harvey Pecca's equally bonkers vision of our own universe, but also for Steve Gerber's sometimes radical meta-experiments - such as the full-text question , whose features include descriptions of cartoons rather than actual works of art, including a section entitled "Must-Own Comic Fight Scene" - which sets the framework for serious self-discoveryguard.

With these new forms of character design and culture, Marvel artists laid the groundwork for the activism of later creators like Moore and Miller. By highlighting these often unrecognized contributions, Borenstein makes a genuine contribution not only to the history of comics, but also to the history of culture in general, as he shows that many important steps in the evolution of the art form were built incrementally by lesser-known contributors.

To show the full extent of these accomplishments, let's take a quick tour of the Marvel Universe before the era covered in Borenstein's book to see how dramatically things have changed.

Marvel comics in the 1960s can be a tough time. Humor Is Absentmindedly Dead: In a Questionthe fantastic fourBeginning in 1966, the crew jumped into a flying boat ("The Thing" refers to a "jazz flying speedboat") and, as the narrator says, "If you or I go for a ride, little kitten, we'll jump in. " "Ol 'Hot Rod' and it took off! But you wouldn't expect FF to be so traditional would you?

They were so bad that years later even Marvel imitated them, as Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz (illustrated with Gary Hartle) considered Thor's legendary "Black Galaxy" in the 1980s. close to what I believe is about the 1960s – it's good at capturing all the silliness of that era.

The black galactic arc with issue #417-425 comes from a brief period where Thor merged with an architect named Erik Masterson, who was able to transform into Thor with the help of a wand. (Do not ask meAsThey joined forces because it's classic comic book dubbing, which means elaborate, haphazard, and downright stupid. ) The Masterson Fellow lives in New York City with Hercules (again, don't ask), who - in reality - lives under the alias Harry Chriss.

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As silly as that sounds, it's absolutely '60s Marvel. In a way, those giddy puns and goofy plot mechanics are a huge part of the superhero experience. Masterson, for example, is a play about Thor's first alter ego: initially, Thor's father, Odin, sends him to Earth as a young doctor named Donald Blake (although Blake was never a real person, but Thorza with memoirs). What makes reading Marvel's work from the 1960s so exhausting is its relationship with its readers. Comic book writers still assume these stories are primarily aimed at children, who they clearly consider to be idiots. The narrative is full of blunt repetition and exposition, and all sentences without questions (and even some of them) end with an exclamation mark.

DeFalco and Frenz nailed all of these things with incredible accuracy. Here's an exchange between Masterson and his "construction shop" (his words) assistant after she stopped by her apartment one night to "finalize our current estimates":

Susan: Your friend Harry Chriss seems a little depressed!
Masterson: Yeah, well he's been in trouble lately!
Susan: Speaking of questions, don't forget your attorney has scheduled a visit from the child welfare office today!

Merging with Thor caused all kinds of problems for Masterson, including a custody battle over his son Kevin. Then, a few panels on the same page, is this inner monologue from Masterson (expressed in a series of thought bubbles, of course):

I just can't imagine losing him!
People who take care of children will come and see what kind of life I offer him!
What if they disagree? What if they think he's better off with my ex? !
How can I accept without him? !
I needed to get my mind off Kevin and focus on the job at hand!
If my construction business starts to falter, the courts will definitely contradict me!

you understood. How is it working?verylike this. It's as if everyone is talking under the roar of a helicopter rotor. How much pathos could an already clumsy phrase like "How can I accept without him?". Totally spoiled by this horrible interrogation. Why did these things used to be style conventions?

The bottom line, though, is that this condescending style of storytelling doesn't just occasionally get in the way of the story. That's itnolike this. Just flip through a Marvel digest that includes a 1960s issue and you'll find that the amount of text is staggering for a medium with such a notable visual component.

This remarkable proliferation of portable texts is due to the so-called "Marvel Method", a process initially driven by narrative economies. existMarvel Comics: The Untold StorySean Howe describes the philosophy behind Stan Lee's practice of releasing the plot outline (created by Lee and Jack Kirby). The artists then had to fully design this storyline for Lee to add dialogue and narration, and that's what they did back then. According to Howe, Lee stressed that "every word ... should advance the story".Marvel Comics in the 1970sit is “a process that seems incapable of producing psychological nuances”. The factory nature of the method limits subtlety, meaning that salient individuality is inevitably removed. As for depth, we're left with Eric Masterson's lament falling off a building and Marvel's opening epitaph: "I... didn't know about this crazy plan. It'll work — but I don't." There is no redundant option!

Borenstein examines the work of five Marvel Comics writers, but I'll focus on Steve Engelhardt's example, as one of his most innovative contributions is a perfect counterexample to the simplicity of emulating DeFalco and Frenz. Dark Galactic Legends.

Englehart accomplished a lot during his time at Marvel. According to Borenstein, "He turnedcaptain AmericaFrom a flop with limited appeal to a bestselling and timely manga, it helped create some indelible series.the AvengersEdefenderHe is also a conscientious objector who smokes pot and loves astrology, along with artists Jim Starling, Frank Brenner, Al Milgrom and Alan Weiss, with LSD and tools in Manhattancabbyit was where they performed stunts such as "going past a security guard and walking around the World Trade Center as it was being built".Alice in WonderlandAt Lincoln Center, this inspired Englehart and Brunner for their psychedelic Doctor Strange run. Essentially, they incorporated the counterculture movement into their work.

But speaking of expanding Engelhardt's comedic possibilities, I want to focus on his two-year work on Captain Marvel. The first Captain Marvel was published by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s. Captain Marvel is actually a boy named Billy Baston who calls out the word "Shazam" (believe it or not, the initials of the mythical "Elder" who gave Billy his powers Acronyms: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury) and transform into an adult Superman-like superhero named Captain Marvel. DC sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, claiming that Captain Marvel stole it from Superman (sort of). Fawcett ceased publication of the title in 1953 to make way for Marvel to publish its own Captain Marvel in 1967, and since the moniker included the company name, it was easily trademarked immediately after Fawcett's demise. In the 70s, DC ended up licensing the character from the company they were suing, but since they could no longer use Captain Marvel, they released the new version asShazam!The thing is, Marvel only released their own Captain Marvel because they coveted the trademark.

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The reason I mention the comic book origins is to illustrate how far the comic book format has come at Marvel - how a cash grab evolved into something more fun and artistic. Marvel's Captain Marvel is named Mar-Vell (I know; don't start with that) and is descended from an alien race called the Kree. After Roy Thomas and Gil Kane (creator of Adam Warlock, written by Will Poulter in.) changed hands several times and lost the titleGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3) "upgraded his suit" and brought in Rick Jones - a man without superpowers whose life was saved by Bruce Banner - as Mar-Vell's sidekick. At some point, Mar-Vell and Rick Jones become "molecularly linked" and Captain Marvel is trapped in the Negative Zone. This allows Mar-Vell to smack his armbands and switch places with Jones where he wants him to be for three hours. Borenstein points out that Thomas deliberately compared this new version to Fawcett's original using a body-switching device (instead of yelling "Shazam!", Rick had to slam his "Nega-Bands" together, effectively leading to Mar-Vell becoming ). but with one notable difference: "Billy Baston and 'World's Mightiest Mortal' are just different manifestations of the same consciousness, whereas Rick Jones and Mar-Vell, before being forced together, all have a clear and separate identity."

However, the latter scenario is similar to Thor's "fusion" with Eric Masterson. Like Jones, Masterston is the regular guy introduced earlier, but turns out to be more like Shazam. when Engelhardt took overcaptain miracleIn his series, he uses the concept of bound identity more provocatively. For example, Jones and Mar-Vell are also mentally linked, so even if they have to switch places every three hours, they can always communicate with each other. Jones is a "rising rock star" who is given a "vitamin C" pill by his bandmates; while Jones is bored in the negative zone of waiting for change, Jones suffers what appears to be a heavy blow. The problem is that the pill is also affecting Mar-Vell, who is on his way to the moon, and "soon he will be completely incapacitated by confusing visual images and debilitating bodily sensations."damn space.

Mar-Vell emerged from this experience with a new understanding of his shared consciousness with Jones—yes, the typical post-trip sense of oneness with the universe: “We're not just the same person! We are each one of us.” The sum of the parts – and more!” Think how radical this is. At the time, however, the Comics Code Authority - a very real panic-driven association (although it looks like a rogue organization in the comics) formed in the 1950s by parents afraid of violence and sexual representations - still dictated - the adequacy of the industry already it does not hold as much power as it did in the first two decades of its existence. It is still surprising that Englehart invented a story that basically praises LSD's goodness to the universe. Furthermore, exploring the self through twin consciousness and the power of psychedelics is a far cry from the days when Eric Masterson worried about getting home before the welfare officers arrived to investigate how he was feeding Kevin.

It may seem like a small development, especially to the 21st century mind we have become accustomed to thinking deeply about any topic from any source - but those innovations created within the larger hierarchy and corporate mission are the innovations of working artists and artisans, are as important and worthy of study as the brilliant strokes of unique geniuses. Without them, the evolution of manga from comic pages to scholarly journals would not have been possible, just as the advancement of any art form requires, yes, arrogant iconoclasts and - and most importantly - hard-working artists whose contributions are small but mighty.

Borenstein traces the influence of Gerber, Englehart and company on Chris Claremont's writingO The Incredible X-MenFrom 1975 to 1992 it essentially bridged the gap between the evolution of the 70's and the comic book renaissance of the 80's and 90's. Claremont gives its characters an interiority similar to that of its peers - easy to understand but deeper than mere archetypes , and plays with the contrast between your inner and outer lives. While Lee and Kirby created the X-Men partially out of the civil rights movement, Claremont first explores the subject using some very simple metaphors. His Dark Phoenix Saga series remains one of the most popular in Marvel history. Plus, Claremont made the X-Men a hit (the first issue of the X-Men is still the best-selling comic book of all time, after a 1991 remake sold over 8 million copies), which means your style is extremely powerful. . Big impact.

However, the legacy of '70s writers lives on at Beyond Marvel, with Gerber, Engelhardt, Starling and Mochi leaving in the early '80s. Indie comics are on the rise, and icons like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman are defining a new era. comic book spin-off generation: the comic book. In the early 1990s, DC founded Vertigo, a publisher that would publish more adult-themed works, and in 1992, Art Spiegelman won a Special Pulitzer Prize. Comic complexities are resolved.

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Meanwhile, Marvel has focused much of its attention on the spectacle of the big '80s crossover events.secret war, featuring all characters from the Marvel Universe and inspired by Mattel's line of toys and RPGs. While less subtle and more on-brand than some of the pieces reviewed here,secret warit was a huge success, but it still established the crossover as one of the biggest conventions in comics. Much of the MCU's incredible dominance stems from this.secret war(Actually, Marvel Studios is working on an endingAvengers: Secret WarsMovie, but what they're doing is Jonathan Hickman's 2015, which obviously pays homage to the '80s original, but also keeps improving the book.

The influence of Marvel writers in the 70's is harder to understand than sensationalized events like this one.secret waror a single achievement like thismausoleum- a testament to Borenstein's intelligence - but what they contributed to comic book history matters nowMarvel Comics in the 1970s, we can start correcting the ledger.

In the early 1970s, two paleontologists developed a theory that seemed straight out of a Marvel comic: punctuated equilibrium. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge argue that, rather than the constant change and instability implicit in Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection, some changes occur much more suddenly, while in other cases there is no major development for centuries. Gould in his volume of nearly 1,500 pagesstructure of evolution, as the basis for his thesis, in which he asserts "the central fact of the fossil record... the geologically abrupt origin and subsequent secular stagnation of most species." That sounds like something you might think of from Professor X to X-Men mutations. Type of explanation (the real explanation is obviously pure narrative economy: it saves time because its power doesn't require a backstory).

I don't know how valid Gould and Eldredge's theory is, but I do know that this is how we tend to construct cultural-historical narratives. We want to give as much credit to the occasional witcher that appears on the timeline while decreasing everyone else's contribution. Obviously, this is far from a valid approach to art history, but we find it appealing. "Every song is a Beatles song," we say, and it's succinct, catchy and accessible. But that's all: every Beatles song is a song. It's such an obvious and repetitive statement that it doesn't even make sense. These truths will not increase sales or serve as slogans on billboards, but the mediocrity of reality is no reason to replace it with a glamorous farce.

The iconoclastic genius of the story reduces the story of human life to a fawning overview course. We have so many people therealreadythere are so many of us Our history is not a clear timeline with occasional pauses, but rather something like the Marvel Universe. Not in its supernatural narrative, but in its philosophy of interconnected structures: fragmented masses, slowly accumulating, individual accretions almost indistinguishable. Or maybe they only become apparent when you notice that the crowd has moved, even if no movement is noticed, but the approaching clouds involuntarily drown out the once clear sky.

Jonathan Russel Clark

Works by Jonathan Russell Clark appear inNew York Times, OLos Angeles Times, OBostoner Globus, ESan Francisco Chronicle.

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