© 1974 Philadelphia Daily News. All rights reserved.
Remember comic book superheroes? Tall, steely-eyed, granite-chinned, muscular types in skintight costumes (along with a kid assistant or an occasional scantily clad female counterpart) who saved the world in 12 pages or thereabouts? Well, if you haven’t looked lately, you’re not going to believe what’s happened.
The pretty boys in the capes and masks and all are still around, understand, but the contemporary comic book star is just as likely to be a neurotic misfit, a semi-civilized barbarian, a vampire, a slime creature out of the swamp or, as in the example to the left, a - er – vegetable.
That’s right – What you see here is not a “monster”, it’s a “hero”. The name is Moorlock 2001 and, from what I’m told, he was cultivated from a large seedpod. Normally, he looks much like an everyday human being, but when he gets into action – zowie!
And to think that all Clark Kent had to do was strip off his clothes and glasses…
Now, Moorlock may not be your garden variety superhero, but he’s certainly representative of the contemporary scene as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman or those other idols of our lost youth. And he’s also proof that the comic book industry, which has already gone through two “golden ages”, may just be on the verge of a third.
Moorlock, you see, is the star of one of nearly 30 new comic magazines to be introduced this month and next as the Atlas Comics line. Atlas is the brainchild of Martin Goodman, one of the industry pioneers, and it could eventually pose a significant threat to the Marvel Comics Group and National Periodical Publications, the two giants of the industry.
Marvel was also a Goodman creation (ironically, under the name “Atlas”) back in the 1940’s. He sold the company to the Magazine Management subsidiary of Cadence Industries in 1970 for several million dollars and stayed with the company as a consultant until early this year. Then, according to Jim Steranko, a Reading, Pa., comic’s historian and illustrator, writing in his bi-monthly “Mediascene” newspaper, Cadence summarily fired Goodman’s son, Chip, as editorial director. Goodman, who had promised not to engage in the publication of comics when he retired, thereupon came back into the field with a vengeneance.
With sales of comics averaging in the millions each month – at prices of twenty-five cents or better – the economic impact of another major company could be considerable. As could the creative impact, because comics have reached new levels of maturity and acceptance in recent years with some surprisingly good writing and illustration being produced.
But let’s start at the beginning and try to put all this into some sort of perspective.
The comic book is an American invention, some 40 years old. Comics began as collections of newspaper strips, and then began to come into their own as independent publications with the June 1938 issue of Action Comics, which introduced Superman to the world. That was the beginning of the Golden Age, a period which stretched into the late 1940’s.
Today, comics from the 30’s and 40’s are collector’s items, often commanding incredible prices from fans. A copy of that first issue of Action was sold for in the excess of $1,500 last year, and the present owner, Bob Crestohl of Montreal, says he has since been offered $4,000 for it.
There is a real market today for old comics. In fact, a small store called Comics for Collectors opened here just last month.
Comics for Collectors is owned by Bob Rose, a former insurance salesman, and Ronnie Oser, who worked in a shoe store. They rented two rooms at 1732 Spruce St., filled it with goodies (a framed Mickey Mouse British weekly from 1939, a Terry and the Pirate collection from the 30’s, pieces of original comic art) and opened for business.
“There are stores like ours all over the country,” says Rose, “and when we realized that there was no direct source for original art and hard-to-get older comics in this area, we decided to go into business”. And business, he says, has been booming.
But, back to our chronology. The 1950’s, primarily, as a result of excesses within the industry which resulted in attacks on the comics from all sides, were a vast wasteland of weak art and horrid stories. Then, early in the 60’s, Marvel’s Stan Lee ushered in what he calls the Marvel Age of Comics and we shall call the second Golden Age.
National Periodicals was then the dominant force in the industry and had just begun reviving some of its superhero characters like the Flash and Green Lantern. Lee, together with artist Jack Kirby, decided to go the superhero route too, but to aim a little higher and to do something different.
They came up with the Fantastic Four, a superhero team that seemed to spend most of their time fighting among themselves. And they created Spider-Man, a teen-ager with extraordinary powers (from the bite of a radioactive spider) and very ordinary problems (a sick aunt, lack of money, social pressures, torn costumes, poor health, etc. etc. etc.)
Other characters followed of the same ilk, and Marvel was on its way. The line became an “in” thing on college campuses. Lee and Roy Thomas, an ex-school teacher from Missouri who just might be the most creative writer/editor the field has ever seen, brought the company all the way to the top: Marvel passed National last year to become the top-selling line on the market.
Marvel’s dominance of the current market is well documented locally by figures from the United News Company, the area’s largest distributor of magazines and periodicals. According to spokesman Hugh Olbrick, the top 10 selling comics in Philadelphia are, in order, “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Thor,” “Archie,” Captain Marvel,” “Iron Man,” “Fantastic Four,” Marvel Team-Up,” “Daredevil,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Captain America”. With the obvious exception of “Archie” (which is far and away the leader of the “funny” comics), all of those titles come from Marvel.
Marvel now publishes over 100 titles, ranging from a Spider-Man edition done in cooperation with television’s “The Electric Company” aimed at younger readers to fantasy and horror stories in black-and-white aimed at (supposedly) a more adult audience.
And the woes of the companies problem ridden heroes continue: two members of the Fantastic Four almost-but-not-quite got a divorce, Spider-Man’s girl friend died in his arms, Captain America (revived from the nationalistic 40’s) has given up his red, white and blue costume in protest against what is happening in this country.
Still, things have been at something of a standstill in the industry. With the proliferation of titles, quality at Marvel has dropped off lately. Worse yet, editor Roy Thomas resigned in August to escape the hassle of business and money decisions. National, part of a much larger conglomerate and historically a more cautious and conservative publisher, seems unlikely to spark the industry toward the next step in its evolution.
That’s why the forthcoming Atlas line could herald a third Golden Age. Other, smaller comics publishers have tried to challenge the Big Two (notably the Charlton line), but they never had the expertise (and incentive) represented by Atlas. The new company might well be the Marvel of the 1970’s.
Whatever happens, the comics will hopefully begin to receive some of the recognition due them. Roy Thomas’ fantastic adaptations of the old Conan the Barbarian pulp magazine tales to comics format… Joe Kubert’s powerful treatment of Tarzan of the Apes… Marvel’s “Man-Thing” and National’s “Swamp Thing”, each a former human being forever transformed into a shambling, ugly monster… these, and a handful of other contemporary heroes, are, within the limits of the form, masterpieces.
The comic book has long been considered a genuine art form in other countries. The third Golden Age may ring with it that same sense of legitimacy in the U.S.
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