Sunday, June 13, 2010

Marvel History Post 1: The Gameplan

Alright, here we go.

You'll have to bear with me, as I'm flying by the seat of my pants so to speak, and I've got only a very rough idea where I'm headed with this absurd idea of mine.

I'm going to try to read through every single comic book produced by Marvel set in their primary superhero universe, blog about each issue, and in doing so, try to form a cohesive vision of the history of Marvel Comics. You may laugh at me now.

First, a few points of clarification.

When I say the history of Marvel Comics, what I mean is more the history of the Marvel Universe. While reading all of Marvel comics in the order in which they were published will probably offer some insight into how the effect of certain writers, editors, and artists influenced the shaping of the universe, this is not my primary concern. I am much more fascinated by the stories, and how they began to shape to form a (loosely) cohesive world.

While I may stumble across the occasional insight into the workings of the mighty Marvel bullpen, I highly doubt I'll be able to provide much insight into how the creators developed the characters.

This is about the building of a fictional world. As is often the case when there is more than one hand helming the ship (is that a real phrase?), the world was not necessarily built to last, and while there is a strong continuity in the early marvel titles, this is largely due to a few creators being responsible for every book marvel published. Stan Lee himself has admitted that the reason Spider-Man graduates high school so early in the series is that he did not expect the series to last.

Do I think the attempted end result of this project (a coherent history of the Marvel universe) is actually possible? No. Not at all. At least, not by one person who's working on said project as a hobby. As I pointed out in my previous post, even if I'm able to do an issue a day, I'll never catch up to the company's current output. In fact, I'll only far further behind.

So what then will I actually end up with? I'm hoping that I'll get a look at Marvel's earliest days, back when the company was fresh, and lush with new characters, ideas, and innovations. Superhero comics are a unique entity in that there is very little impetus to come up with fresh, new characters and ideas. As an example, the branding of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, etc. is ingrained into the market. For proof, go to a comic book convention and oogle at the millions of items of merchandise that can be purchased in support of these characters. Marvel (or now, Disney, I should say) is still making plenty of money off of a host of characters, the vast majority of whom were created in the 1960s. And they are consistently generating new product based on these same characters! With zero knowledge of the statistics, I would be hard pressed to name a larger money making and ever changing story over a consistent period of time than that of DC and Marvel comic books. Yes, I suppose the Bible would rank higher, but that's not changing on a weekly basis.

Even though Batman and Superman stories had been published from the late 30s on, I doubt very much that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were building something that they expected to become a product that would last (and flourish) through the present. Although readership of comic books has shrunk, I am amazed it has survived to the great extent that it has, and garnered support from other mediums (notably film and animation), especially for "new" stories about Spider-Man and Batman.

So now, obsessed with continuing to forge brand image of these same characters (this continues with DC recently pushing their "trinity" of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, and Marvel trying to respond with their alleged big three of Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man), both companies are trying to continue producing stories about the same set of characters. And Marvel has not once done a massive reboot of the continuity of their world's timeline (This was done by DC in the saga "Crisis on Infinite Earths"). So, current creators are trying to tell new stories about the same characters through creating an illusion of change, while still paying respect to a continuity that has been established from monthly publication of titles dating back to the early 1960s.

I am not saying this to be cynical or pessimistic; in my view, creating such stories, and keeping them interesting, is no small feat. It is far easier to re-create these stories fresh, without paying respect to what has come before. This was expertly accomplished by Brian Michael Bendis and Marvel in their launching of the Ultimate line of comics for Marvel, which, at least in its initial form, boiled the Marvel Universe back down to basics, and modernized the origin stories of its most famous heroes.

So, given the success of the Ultimate line, why has Marvel not adopted such an approach across all of their books? Why not just blow away everything that's come before and take a fresh crack their own version of how Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk?

I don't have an answer to this question. However, I do have a few theories, one of which is that a lot of people, both fans and creators, adore the history. They love seeing old characters crop up in unfamiliar places, they love trying to piece together the history of this universe, and they love fitting all of the pieces together. Look no further than http://www.chronologyproject.com/ or any other of a host of websites about marvel comics for proof.
.A little bit more of a background on myself, and why I find this to be an interesting project. I've been reading Marvel comics for approximately sixteen years, but I have to admit that a lot of the time, I don't know who's who. I mostly read X-Men comics for a long while (my first love), but several years ago I branched out to the rest of the Marvel universe. And, a lot of the time, I'm confused. The only reason I can see new people getting involved in the primary marvel universe is because they have some sort of twisted interest in decoding events, and unfurling a history. All of this fascinates me as well, although, with the exception of some of the X-Men's history (perhaps some of the most convoluted stuff you'll find), I don't know much about the early days of these heroes. So, that's why I'm going back to the beginning.
.Consider this somewhat of a love letter to Marvel comics. While I may certainly mock many aspects of superhero comic book storytelling, in the end, I love this medium, and I hope that love is clear, as I would have to be even more insane to try this without a genuine appreciation for all that superhero comic books are.

I have no idea how long I'll be able to work on this project. I may lose interest sooner than I anticipate, which would be sad, but is quite possible. I'd like to at least work my way through the Marvel universe of the 1960s, as I think reading through all of those issues alone will have merit. If I don't make it to the first appearance of Spider-Man, then I'd be hard pressed to call this project a success. But I guess we'll have to see.

Wish me luck. First up is the one that, for all intents and purposes started it all: The Fantastic Four.