Monday, May 02, 2005
THE X-MEN #32 Marvel Comics, 1967
I am one of those people who often lets my affection for old comic books cloud my judgment regarding the actual merits of the work itself. Everything looks better when seen through the slightly out-of-focus lens of nostalgia. Although it's a proven fact that comics were better when I was a kid than they are today*, I still frequently make the mistake of thinking OLD = GOOD.
That's not a mistake I'll be making today.
This is The X-Men #32. It is older than I am. It is older than my house. It is not a good comic. Allow me to demonstrate why it is not a good comic, and then at the very end of the post, allow me to cop out and make some sort of half-assed argument about understanding art within its cultural context because I don't want to sound too mean.
This book was edited by Stan "The Man" Lee, with art by Werner Roth, who is not to be mistaken for the WWI German ace Werner Voss. It was written by Roy Thomas, who is not to be confused with a good writer. Joking! I joke because I love. Roy wrote a lot of my favorite comics, including a 50 issue run on Avengers and a legendary run on Conan with John Buscema that I cherish. So you see? I have nothing but respect for Roy's writing.
Having said that -- let's make fun of Roy's writing.
The Marvel Comics of the 60's were all weird reflections of Stan Lee's verbose huckster personality, even when they weren't written by Stan. The Marvel books of that era were glib idiosyncrasies that featured dialogue as mannered as a Jane Austen novel and stories as stylized as Kabuki theater.** The comics of that era were produced "Marvel style;" the writer sends a plot of some detail to the artist, who draws the thing and hands the art in to the writer, who then writes the dialogue. When you combine the Stan Lee meta-personality with the Marvel production process, the end results were comics with that unique Marvel style. In the case of The X-Men #32, the style could best be described as "chatty."
Actually, "chatty" is an understatement. Everyone in this comic acts like they're on amphetamines. The X-Men are a bunch of hyper, annoying kids who engage in an endless stream of mindless chatter. It's like Friends, but with Chandler, Joey, two Rosses and one Rachel - all on cocaine. Yeah. Pretty bad. The X-Men as a group simply cannot calm the fuck down and seem physically incapable of not commenting on everything that is going on around them - it's like they all have some weird behavioral disorder in addition to their incredible powers.
Check it out, here's a scene where a biker gang known as Satan's Saints busts into a beatnik coffee joint where our heroes are babbling incessantly. The gang, led by - no shit - a guy named Rocky Rhodes, ride around inside the coffee bar, terrorizing the patrons. This is the world's largest coffee bar, I guess. Anyway, the X-Men defeat Satan's Saints without betraying their secret identities with crafty maneuvers like this (you can click to englarge):
That is a lot of dialogue for an event that might take like, two seconds in real life. I mean, the biker guy has the time to observe, "Yipes! I'm toolin' straight up the table!" while he is riding up the table. The X-Men live in a surreal world where everything but the spoken word moves in slow motion; they can squeeze entire conversations into the time it takes for a glass of water to hit the floor:
MARVEL GIRL: Scott, look out! Your water!
CYCLOPS: Ooops! Looks like Ol' Butterfingers Summers strikes again! I've dropped my glass of water!
BEAST: Indeed, or young leader is correct! That liquid receptacle will strike the floor imminently! Warren --!
ANGEL: I see it Hank ol' pal! As I'm the closest X-Men, I'll use my wonderful wings to whisk over and save the day! Wha-huh?? I missed--!
ICEMAN: I could use my mutant power to freeze the air around the glass, but the water inside the glass would expand, breaking the glass anyway! What a bind! I can't dope a way out of this one!
CYCLOPS: Perhaps I could fire an optic blast --
[ glass breaks ]
One of the other characteristics of X-Men physics is the ability to hear people talking in circumstances that might otherwise be impossible. You might think it would be difficult to determine if two people were whispering if you were racing towards them on a motorcycle in a room full of screaming people and revving bikes - but not in the world of the X-Men.
Right, the story. The story involves the Juggernaut rampaging, Professor X in a coma, the aforementioned Satan's Saints, various romantic sub-plots, and an insane amount of talking. When this baby came out, it cost 12 cents, and it probably took a kid the better part of an hour to read, with all that crazy-ass dialogue. That's money well-spent, if you ask me.
Here's a panel packed with as much dialogue as they could fit in. I think Roy Thomas' philosophy was that if a character was in a panel, he or she should be saying something. I'm surprised that the comatose Professor X isn't saying: "I must break out of this coma - but I can't! God help me -- I can't!"
You see what I mean? That small panel takes like, thirty seconds to read! If you actually read the whole damn thing, that is. But who wouldn't want to take the time to savor such lines as: "If the Professor dies, no amount of power will save that walking powerhouse!" That's good stuff.
Lest anyone think that I'm being too mean, I do understand and appreciate the need to place art in its cultural context. The books of this era were a product of their times, pulp confections served to an eager young audience. By today's standards these books seem unsophisticated, corny, dated. Time moves on, art and culture evolves and changes, and the tastes and style of one era morph into another. It's important to have some idea of where and when a work is coming from in order to understand it. Books like The X-Men #32 were the progenitors of the modern superhero comic, and it's unfair to judge them by today's standards, for we have more sophisticated production techniques and tools available today and our collective tastes have drifted towards more cinematic and "mature" comics. But you have to understand where that shit came from, or else you're just like that punk kid who thinks that Starship Troopers is better than Star Wars because the special effects are cooler. And we all hate that kid, don't we?
Anyway, while I acknowledge that it's unfair to judge old comics like this by contemporay standards, I do it anyway because I think it's funny. That's what we call intellectual cowardice.
This comic book gets extra points for having the old "Shamed by Your English?" ad, which deserves a post all its own...
*You are a fool if you try to tell me that comics are better now than they were Back in the Day - specifically, the 80's. A fool, I say!
** I may have used the kabuki analogy previously; if so, please forgive me.