Comic Book Confidential is a cool documentary from 1988 about the history of comic books. I recommend it just to see a young Frank Miller with hair. Otherwise, you already know the stuff in this documentary. Superman, EC Comics, Dr. Frederick Wertham, underground comics—nothing really new. But, there are a lot of filmed interviews with many comic book greats, some of whom are no longer with us.
But, this isn’t a review of the documentary. Well, I guess it is, in part. The film is great, entertaining and informative, but it is beginning to feel dated. There: that’s my review.
Firewater’s Approved-by-the-Comics-Code-Authority Report Card Grade: B
Instead, I wanted to talk about something Stan Lee said when interviewed for the documentary. I’m sure he said something similar to this quote thousands of times over the years.
“We tried to have the people talk like real people. We tried to define the characters and have them stay in character. We tried to get stories that, while imaginative, still had some realism, some believability so that the readers could relate to and believe in the stories.” — Stan Lee, in Comic Book Confidential.
While there’s nothing intrinsically groundbreaking in the quote—it even seems to have a rote cadence when Lee delivers the words—it completely encapsulates the reasons I jumped ship from DC Comics to Marvel in the mid-’70s.
Plus, peer pressure, of course. My new junior high friends were already into Marvel before I was. I was a late bloomer, and easily led in those days. I also took up smoking, cussin’, and pitching pennies.
Let’s parse this out.
Having characters talk like real people.
There’s a reason why, when you’re pretending to be Superman—as one does—that you put your fists on your hip bones and lower the pitch of your voice, saying something like, “This looks like a job . . . for Superman!” Superman has been around since the 1930s. He is your father’s Oldsmobile. Hell, he’s your great-grandfather’s Dusenberg. There was always something formal and old-fashioned about the Silver and Bronze Age Superman I grew up with.
Over at Marvel, characters used improper grammar and slang. Captain America was a throwback to the Golden Age. He fought in World War II, you may recall, before going into cryosleep inside an iceberg. He was hokey and patriotic, and you could hear your grandfather relating war stories when he spoke. But, most of the other characters were trying to keep up with the times. Even fossils such as Nick Fury, who had been one of Cap’s contemporaries. In the swinging ’60s, he became a mod secret agent man like James Bond or Napoleon Solo.
True, the scientist-type characters, such as Reed Richards or Hank Pym, spoke with elevated diction and used a lot of what my mother called fifty-cent words. But, this seemed realistic, because this was how all the scientists on movies sounded, as well as the Professor on Gilligan’s Island.
Characters would also have their own unique voices, often accented or liberally laced with regional slang. Wolverine is a Canadian who calls everyone “bub.” Nightcrawler throws in the occasional German phrase. The Hulk speaks in broken English (at least he did back in the ’70s). Luke Cage occasionally throws in a “Sweet Christmas!” You can hear the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the voice of the ever-lovin’, blue-eyed Thing.
This was refreshing when I made the switch. The Marvel superheroes seemed younger and hipper than the DC Comics superheroes.
Define the characters and have them stay in character.
There has always been room for character development in the Marvel universe, even in such a plot-driven medium. Villains such as the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver sometimes became heroes. Magneto became a more sympathetic character when we learned his background as a Holocaust survivor. Marvel Girl became Phoenix, who became Dark Phoenix. Tony Stark/Iron Man became an alcoholic. Peter Parker started out as a neurotic, nerdy teenager who had trouble talking to girls.
But, generally, once a character was established, they were never more than a couple of degrees off of their factory settings. Wolverine was always irascible and ready to fight at the drop of a hat. Reed Richards was always analytical and distracted in that absent-minded professor sort of way. Peter Parker/Spider-Man was always quick with a witty quip, which only masked his youthful insecurities. Tony Stark is charismatic and wicked smart.
Stories that, while imaginative, still had some realism, some believability so that the readers could relate to and believe in the stories
Marvel also set its stories in the real world, for the most part. Largely, New York City. The X-Men’s school/headquarters was in Westchester. Most of the Marvel superheroes not only existed in the same shared universe, they would occasionally run into each other during their day-to-day activities. Avengers Mansion, the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building, and Stephen Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum were all physical settings in the Marvel NYC. This seemed more realistic than Superman’s Metropolis, Batman’s Gotham City or The Flash’s Central City (not to mention Coast City, Blüdhaven, National City, Smallville, Midvale, Star City, and Gorilla City).
Although I wouldn’t travel to New York City until I was much older, it was easier to accept the fictional reality of the fantastic stories set there than it was to accept those about Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam!) set in Fawcett City (named after the Golden Age comic book company, Fawcett Comics, that once owned the character).
Fictional cities remain a DC Comics trope. In some ways, it’s comforting to know that Metropolis can always count on Superman and that the bad guys of Gotham are always looking over their shoulder for the scary silhouette of Batman. But, to me, this has always given the DC stories—at least those from fifty years ago—a certain fairytale quality. There always seemed to be a bit of narrative distance between the reader and the stories in the comic books.
Marvel staked their own claim in the real world. If the Avengers were having a video conference with the President of the United States, we were likely to see a comic book version of the actual sitting American President. Sure, it might seriously date a story in which Cap and Iron Man were speaking to Richard Nixon from the Quinjet, but that was just one of the things you consciously overlooked when suspending your disbelief.
I realize that what Stan Lee said was a canned answer from one of comicdom’s master showmen. But, Stan clearly understood at least one of the reasons I jumped ship from DC to Marvel in the 1970s.
Full disclosure: While I was a True Believer after I converted, I still occasionally dabbled in DC Comics. Mostly Batman titles and the Wolfman/Perez reboot of the Teen Titans.
But, in the superhero comics war, I had taken a side.