Chapter One Part One: Origin Story

ORIGIN STORY

I came into this world in June of 1961, the same year that Reed Richards and his family stole a spaceship and embarked on their hero’s journey to the stars. Through an accidental exposure to cosmic rays they stole the fire of heaven and returned to Earth empowered. Their story helped launch a new age of comics and changed the way we saw our brightly costumed heroes.

I knew none of this at the time, of course. I was just starting on my own hero’s journey. Comic books have been my fellowship of trusted companions for most of it.

I learned to read from comic books. I say that here at the beginning to let the reader know the degree to which comic books have been influential in my life. I simply do not have any memories of not reading comics. People will ask me what my first comic book was and I truly do not have an answer. My Mom was an avid reader who read to me a lot when I was young. Comic books were simply part of the whole, along with children’s books and nursery rhymes. This was probably unusual in the early 60’s, a time when comic books were looked down upon as sub-literate and even dangerous by a lot of society.

This built in me a love of story, and a love of reading and art that continues to this day. In addition to loving comics and books I have always wanted to create them as well, long before I knew anything about the process of actually doing so. There was, and is, something about that magic interplay between images and text that appeals to me like no other art form. When comics are done well they work a very specific kind of magic that no other storytelling medium does (and this is where I point out that this is true of every storytelling medium at its best).

My earliest memory of “creating comics” was in church with my grandmother when I was little. I mean really little, like four or five years old little. The memory is vague, of course, but I’m making the assumption that I was fidgeting and bored. She gave me a notepad and a pencil (maybe a pen) to keep me occupied. What I drew is the primary part of the memory, and I’m sure my mind’s eye and the many years since have warped the actual visuals, but…

I rendered a stick figure rendition of the Fantastic Four. I don’t have memories of which issues of FF I had seen (I was six the year the FF cartoon premiered, and this memory has to predate that, so it must have been the comics). But that stick-figure image is burned into my brain. Only now do I think it significant that while sitting in church listening to tales from the Bible I was drawing icons of my own, secular pantheon.

About once a month in my Sunday School classes we were given a small booklet that I remembered being called Pix. A little internet research has revealed to me that it was first published starting in 1949 by the David C. Cook Publishing Company. It was originally called Sunday Pix. The title was changed to Bible-In-Life Pix in 1969 and then to simply Pix in the 1990’s (PIX is also the shorthand name for the Pittsburgh Indy Expo, an annual convention focusing on independent comics creators and publications… get used to this sort of tangent in my writing). These were not the fire and brimstone fear and guilt-inducing pamphlets by Jack Chick that most people are familiar with. The primary content of Pix was comic book adaptations of stories from the Bible. I devoured these just like I did any comic. They were the thing about Sunday School I most looked forward to. The sermons lost me as a child, and the language of King James seemed designed to befuddle more than enlighten (I still kind of feel this way), but Pix was filled with exciting adventure stories about heroes and villains and supernatural creatures… you know, just like all the other comics I read. The moralizing was a little more overt, but really not all that different from the morals I was learning from the superheroes at Marvel and DC.

At the time I didn’t differentiate between Pix and the other comics I read. They were all the same to me. I certainly didn’t analyze any of this. Only as an adult did I start to have the suspicion that many of my attitudes toward organized religion may have had their origins here. I’m not involved in a church of any kind, but the core morality I have is in concert with most of the world religions (which, I believe, at base are all saying the same things). The mythologies from which these major belief systems are derived share remarkable similarities. They share the same thing with comics. Because of the comic book format I’m pretty sure I read all of these things with the same attitude. The stories in Pix were no more “real” or “sacred” to me than were the adventures of Superman or the Avengers.

And those things were very real and sacred to me.

As a child, and on into my teens and adulthood I filled sketchpads with drawings of superheroes. I still do this. At first, like so many artists, I copied my favorite drawings from the comics, as well as from other sources. I remember doing a decent reproduction of the Cherokee Indian Sequoyah from the cover of one book of a series of American biographies for kids I was devouring from the library at the time. This would have been around third grade. These were not tracings. I would look at the art and draw freehand. I was determined to someday have drawn every superhero that had ever existed. At the time I had no idea what that would actually entail.

Not content with the number of characters that already existed, I also created my own… lots and lots of them. I think most people who read comics at that age have done something similar. Some of them go on to professional work in comics and introduce characters that had their origins in the brains and sketchbooks of ten-year-olds. I wanted to create my own stories, with my own characters, not simply write what other people had already created.

And other people had created a lot. The history of comics is a long one, if we define comics in the most basic of terms as “telling stories with pictures.” When I started making notes for my class lectures I ran into the question of where to begin. How do you narrow down something with this rich of a history to a specific starting point? Where does the history of comics really begin?

There’s a Bugs Bunny cartoon called This is a Life? (Warner Brothers, 1955. It was a parody of a popular show of the time called This is Your Life!). In it Bugs is asked to recount his life. Elmer Fudd asks him to start at the beginning.

“Well,” says Bugs, “in the beginning there was no life. The Earth was forming… BOOM! The Earth shimmered from earthquakes! Mountains forming! Oceans boiling! Then… all’s quiet. A little pool of water forms. In that pool, two tiny amoeba, the start of life.”

Comics are a lot like that.

This seems to be the best place to address the concepts of time and space, at least in terms of how they relate to comics. It has been pretty well established scientifically, beginning with Einstein, that the concepts are inseparable. To travel in time one must also travel in space. The Earth simply does not occupy the same space in the universe that it did a million years ago. Or a thousand. Or yesterday. Or when I wrote that last sentence. To physically travel to the past or the future you need to not only be able to move in time but in space as well. Greater mathematicians than I have worked out the formulas. But from our perspective we exist in linear time. This leads us to talk about history as a sequence of events. But history is much more complex than that. The causes of an event can sometimes only be seen in retrospect… outside of time.

There’s a famous book from 1884 called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edward Abbott Abbott that describes the existence of two-dimensional beings living in a two-dimensional world. They have no concept of the third dimension, the one we live in. Because of this, we can have higher level insights into their world than they will ever be capable of.

Our lives, and movies, exist in time. We are carried along by the ticking of the clock at 24-frames per second. Comics exist in space, but we impose on them the illusion of time. We read the words, we view the action from panel to panel. The creators use various techniques to speed up or slow down the pace, and can play with the sequencing with flashbacks and other conventions. But the words and images exist on a plane in space. At any time we are able to jump around in time by changing the space on the page we observe. We can be reading page fifteen of any given comic and skip ahead to page twenty-one, or back to page five. For that matter we can go directly to a page in an earlier issue of the comic, or of a completely different book altogether. By doing this we can draw connections and conclusions never intended by the original creators. We have a higher level of awareness of the whole than any single issue. Actually, historians do this with research all the time.

I bring this up because this is the way I tend to approach the topic of comics history. This book will follow the general, linear outline of comics history, but to make the points I want to make we’ll be jumping around a lot. Consider it a manifestation of the power of time travel.

Now, where were we? Oh yeah…

“Well, in the beginning there was no life. The Earth was forming…”

“BOOM!!!”

Although comics and comic books are a relatively recent invention, the concept isn’t new. We’ve always told stories in pictures. The famous cave paintings discovered in the underground caverns in Lascaux, France tell the stories of great hunts from thousands of years ago. These are adventure stories on display. There is speculation that they were acts of magic as well, an attempt for the hunters to get in touch with the spirits of the animals they hunted.

But some of it could have simply been an ancient artist, telling his story with pictures on a wall.

Though Lascaux Caverns are the most well known, they are not the only paleolithic examples of cave paintings. At a cavern known as Le Trois Freres there is a famous depiction of a being clothed in animal skins, no doubt a shaman figure, a magician of great power. He is wearing the skins of the animals that they depended on for life, the symbol of the animal powers of the world. Animals were the first gods. Is this the first superhero? Is this the first depiction of the idea of a human imbued with divine powers? We’ll never know for sure, but I find it to be a fascinating conjecture.

This is an image I plan on coming back to when I discuss the origin of the Golden Age Captain Marvel. This ancient shaman and the rites of initiation that are believed to have taken place in those caverns bear an uncanny resemblance to the hero’s journey of Billy Batson.

The Egyptians told stories in Hieroglyphics (Greek for “sacred carving”), though this was moving in the direction of an alphabet wherein pictures stand for specific words. We can see it on most of their pyramids and tombs. The Mayans in South America did the same. Jumping ahead many centuries we can see William the Conquerors rise to power over all of Europe told in great detail on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The earliest forms of writing seem to be examples of people drawing pictures or making marks to represent things they saw in the world. We call these pictographs, literally “picture writing.” Eventually these marks became more and more abstract. The need for the marks to represent more complex concepts in language demanded they do so. Eventually these marks began to represent specific phonetic sounds instead of concrete objects or distinct concepts. This was a far more abstract construction and was much more facile in its adaptability.

Thus was born the alphabet.

And really, our alphabet is nothing more than a series of pictures that represent different sounds. Put them in different sequential order and you can tell any story you want to tell. If comics are given the definition of “pictures in deliberate sequential order to convey a story or complex ideas” then all written language can be called comics.

I fully realize what a sweeping, controversial and arguable statement that is. Just trying to make a point here.

So the idea of telling stories with pictures is nothing new. But Comics as we know them are more recent. Illustrated text, caricatures and political cartoons have appeared almost as long as there has been printed matter. Broadsheets with sequential pictures detailing criminal activity were all the rage in Europe in the 17th century.

In the 1800s we began to see words added to the pictures, first as captions, but eventually, thanks primarily to a cartoonist by the name of Rodolphe Töpffer, in word balloons issuing from characters mouths.

But in 1895 something happened that would change everything. A recurring feature called Hogan’s Alley appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the New York World. It was the first true comic strip, and featured the creation of the Yellow Kid, the first recurring comic strip character (the racial stereotype of the character cannot be completely overlooked by today’s standards. Not to excuse this, but it was a different time then. No fear… we will be returning to the issue of racism in comics eventually). It proved to be incredibly popular, so much so that Randolph Hearst hired the creator, R. F. Outcault to produce the strip for his competing paper, the New York Journal American. Pulitzer hired another artist, George Luks, to continue the strip for him, so that two versions of Hogan’s Alley ran simultaneously. The notoriously unscrupulous publishing practices of these two giants became known as Yellow Journalism, named after the Yellow Kid.

This happened again. Rudolph Dirks created the comic strip The Katzenjammer Kids for Pulitzer and Hearst hired him away as well. Harold Knerr was hired by Pulitzer to continue The Katzenjammer Kids while Dirks produced the renamed Captain and the Kids. This strip is still running by the way, though no longer drawn by Dirks.

I bring up both of these instances not only for the obvious historical significance of the Yellow Kid but to introduce the concept of corporate ownership of creative properties and the concept of creator’s rights. This is an issue that will continue to pop up throughout this narrative.

The artistic stakes of comics were upped in 1905 with the appearance of Little Nemo in Slumberland. Created by accomplished political cartoonist Windsor McKay, Nemo was a triumph of art and storytelling. The full page Sunday strips were masterpieces of finely rendered art with an eye toward surrealism. McKay was also responsible for the first animated film, Gertie the Dinosaur. An original cell from this film is in the permanent collection of the Pittsburgh Toonseum.

We now skip ahead about twenty years. Comic strips continued to develop, but for my purposes here that is a separate topic. The main thing to know about that right now is that the earliest comic books were reprinted collections of comic strips. The generally accepted “first true comic book” was Famous Funnies #1 in 1929. This was a collection of comic strips that had previously appeared in newspapers. A man named Max Gaines decided to print them on cheap paper and sidestitch staple them as a cheap pamphlet to be given away as premiums with the purchase of another product. The anecdote goes that the promotion had not gone well, so he had lots of these left over in the office. Gaines stuck a ten cent price sticker on them and hand distributed them to newsstands. They sold out and the newsvendors clamored for more. Gaines gave it to them.

So was born an industry.

Most of us today, surrounded by easy access to TV and the internet and DVD’s and pretty much any amusement we desire have no frame of reference for this. It’s probably difficult for us to understand the public hunger for cheap entertainment and distraction at the time. 1929 was the year of the Stock Market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. A magazine full of comic strips for ten cents was a book of dreams for those who read them.

These comics sold well, but it wasn’t until 1935 that the first comic book featuring all new, original material appeared. New Fun Comics, published by National Allied Publications was an anthology title featuring several different stories and characters. Two young men from Cleveland, Ohio, Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster, made their comics debut in this issue on a strip called Federal Men. This was the first detective/crime comic developed specifically as original material for a comic book.

The details of the initial period of experimentation and growth of this new industry is well-documented in a variety of sources. In my class I talked a lot about the cultural milieu of America in the 1930s. The Great Depression was of course the overriding concern of the day. In spite of this, immigration continued as the situation in Europe grew worse with the rise of the Nazi Party. There seemed to be a fascination with the war on crime and people like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde became folk heroes. J. Edger Hoover, director of the F.B.I. commissioned a strip called War on Crime in 1936. This and Federal Men were stories based on real crime with details supplied by the F.B.I. Hoover wanted the heroes of the stories to be fairly anonymous agents instead of colorful characters (Dick Tracy was a very successful comic strip at the time). It was his belief that it was the agency, the F.B.I., and the cooperation of a vast network of agents that should be featured instead of glorifying any individual. He thought this would appeal more to the masses. He was wrong. This lasted less than a year. Anonymous agents couldn’t compete with the more colorful Tracy. People wanted heroes.

In 1938 they got one.

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Introduction

“Every profound spirit needs a mask.”

Nietzsche–Beyond Good and Evil

 

“Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”

Jeff Albertson (also known as Comic Book Guy)-The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VIII

 

This not the book I meant to write.

For years I have said I wanted to write the High Fidelity of comic books. You know… the 2000 movie starring John Cusack based on the book by Nick Hornsby. Both of these struck a nerve with me for a variety of reasons. I’m a huge fan of music and have a collection of albums and CD’s that impress a lot of my friends who are not as into that hobby (my collection pales next to a number of people I know). I gleefully leaned over to my companion in the theater at one point to inform him that the vinyl album the characters were refusing to sell to a customer was in fact Safe As Milk, the first Captain Beefheart album, and that it featured a fifteen-year-old Ry Cooder on guitar. My friend just as gleefully told me to shut up.

The themes of High Fidelity and the lifestyle of the music fan were both ideas I related to strongly. But even more important was the depiction of the life of a retail clerk in a small, hobby-based industry. I work at a comic book store in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, the Eisner Award-nominated Phantom of the Attic. The store has been in a variety of locations on the same block of South Craig Street, sandwiched between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, since 1983. The incidents and customer interactions of the main character of High Fidelity rang as absolutely true. I have thought for a long time that the same sort of thing could be done with my experiences in the world of comics retail.

I found the quote from Nietzsche that begins this volume and part of what I wanted to do with it clicked. The idea of a mask, as it relates to comics, is obvious. There is also a larger symbolic and psychological meaning to the mask that I wanted to use as part of the theme. But the most important part of the quote was the reference to the “profound soul.” I like that idea, not only because of the direct relation to the concepts underlying the superhero, but because of how I viewed comics fandom.

The comic book fan has the weight of a tremendous stereotype on his back. Everyone can picture the awkward, socially-inept young man, living in his parents basement, anal-retentively bagging, boarding and filing his comics collection while watching Star Trek. He has often been beat up by his peers, is afraid of girls and probably the world. The comic book retailer has also been codified in the minds of the public, primarily by Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. He is arrogant and rude, the arbiter of obscure and meaningless trivia.

But I know from personal experience that these images are not, for the most part, true. I have been a comics fan all of my life and a comics retailer for a significant portion of my adult years. I have never been any of the cliches represented by Comic Book Guy, and neither have most of the customers and other fans I have met over the years. Don’t get me wrong; the above stereotype exists for a reason. I don’t deny the existence of these awkward misanthropes within our ranks. But most of the comics fans I know are regular folk, with jobs and families and responsibilities, who happen to like reading stories told with pictures. Thanks to the negative press comics have had for much of their existence these regular people have, at times, needed to hide their hobby. Until recently, the last decade or so, being seen reading comics labelled one as a mental deficient of some sort. Our hobby was relegated to small comic book stores. Most of us would wear the mask of respectability and deny our love for this media. We wore the mask of Clark Kent in public and hid our superhero nature within.

What I hoped to do with the book I wanted to write was to play up this dichotomy. I hoped to address the stereotypes, not to deny that they exist or to make fun of them, but to show the humanity that existed within: the profound soul behind the mask.

What has stopped me from writing that book is a lack of structure and plot. High Fidelity is a romance novel, set in the world of music retail. The love-life of the protagonist is the through-line that holds the narrative together. I looked for years and found nothing that really worked for me. I wrote anecdotes, made notes on actual interactions with customers, and tried to integrate a story structure with these ideas.

Nothing. It all felt contrived.

Several things have happened in my life since I first thought of this idea. Comics have become more of the mainstream. The cliches, while still existing, have diminished somewhat. Geek culture has been embraced by the media and superheroes have ruled the box office for several years now. The images and symbols of our hobby have become Pop Culture iconography (though fewer and fewer people seem to actually be reading the comics themselves).

Comics are being studied academically and given their just due as a legitimate art form. My own status as an amateur comics scholar (the only status available to someone with the geek-like tendency to research and study comics the way I did until recently), has changed to a more professional one. In spring of 2011 I taught a 300-level course on Comics and Pop Culture at Chatham University and wrote two academic articles on comics for a major publisher. I have become a regular resource person for the Toonseum, one of only three museums dedicated to the cartoon arts in America.

As a result of this my next thought about writing a book about this topic was to take the academic approach. A friend of mine, a professor at Carnegie Mellon at the time, said that I should be aware that as I was putting together my lecture notes that I was also compiling an outline for a textbook. I thought about it for awhile, and while this is true, I am nowhere near the level of academic he is, nor do I have the interest or skills to present this topic in that format. Besides, there are a lot of books out there already that cover comic book history in far more detail than I ever could. Much of what I would present would be a duplication of that work.

While my class certainly covered the history of comics and hit on all of the major touchstones of the industry, what seemed to resonate most strongly with my students were the anecdotes I told relating my personal history with the medium. It made the industry come alive for them in ways that textbooks couldn’t (and maybe I was just using the wrong textbook). In addition to my personal history I added my own thoughts about mythic symbolism and social trends. What the class ended up being was a melange of comics information filtered through my personal lenses. Perhaps this is not the most academically professional approach, but I’m old enough to have given a lot of time and research to what I presented, and comics scholarship is young enough to stand up to new ways of being presented. Comics have always been bright and loud, forging their own literary and artistic path. Perhaps comics scholarship should be the same.

2011 saw the release of Supergods:What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by comics superstar writer Grant Morrison. It was exactly the kind of approach I had been trying to find. Now, Grant has a much deeper connection with the day-to-day life of a comics professional, and he has had a… let’s say stranger, life than I have had. Still, I think I have a lot to add to the discussion. I have been a comics fan my entire life. I have been a comics retailer at a successful store for a decade and a half. I have been a professional comic book artist and publisher. I approach this topic from a number of perspectives.

I started making notes for the type of book I now wanted to write, incorporating all of these elements. I was still having doubts about the validity of this project until one of my students (my star pupil, who had just spent the summer as an intern at Marvel Comics), said to me that her impression of Supergods was, “It was just like your class last spring.”

That sealed it. I have procrastinated writing my book about comics for too long. The time is now. I need to get this down before all of my thoughts are covered by someone else.

This isn’t the book I intended to write, but it’s the one that needs to be written.