Master Of The Obvious: Issue #13

Wed, October 27th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Howard Chaykin once told me no stalgia is good stalgia. Howard was right. But the comics business lives on nostalgia. It hasn't been an accident that much of the talent in comics in the last three decades seems to have dedicated themselves to replicating the comics they read as kids, waving banners of "going back to basics" and "making comics fun again." (Frank Miller and I once joked about producing a line of intensely violent, sexy comics, using "making comics fun again" as the company slogan.) When I check out Usenet and AOL, the most visible (I'll check any discussion of whether they're representative at the door, thanks) fan outlets today, much of the talk is how they want things as they were in the Silver Age or Golden Age.

But, to pull a Roy Thomas, the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

Still…

Okay, I admit it. You win.

I miss the Golden Age.

I love the Golden Age.

I want the Golden Age back. Now.

"I want the Golden Age back. Now."Flash #123
Flash #123

Not the Golden Age of Comics, mind you. Not that I wasn't fascinated with the Golden Age from virtually the moment I began reading comics. The second comic I bought was THE FLASH #123. The original one, not the one from a couple years back. For those who came in late, this was "Flash Of Two Worlds," via which Gardner Fox innocently introduced to the DC Universe (before it even knew it was the DC Universe!) the parallel world concept that has haunted us ever since. Barry Allen does a rope trick and finds himself on another version of Earth, separated from his own Earth through some vibratory pseudo-science, where the original Flash and the Justice Society Of America operated. Pretty cool for 1961, and somehow my seven year old head didn't have any problem wrapping around it.

Through other issues of THE FLASH and JUSTICE LEAGUE, in team-ups and in letters from Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails, I became aware of Golden Age comics, but in those days it was very difficult to track them down.

It's less difficult now, and I've read a lot of Golden Age comics. Sure, Will Eisner's SPIRIT is a classic and always will be. Mac Raboy had his moments. Jack Cole's PLASTIC MAN. Basil Wolverton. Harvey Kurtzman. There are a handful of great Golden Age comics, but anyone who's deluding themselves into thinking comics overall were somehow better then had better wake up to a cold, hard fact:

Until the transitional stage of the early 50s, the EC era, Golden Age comics generally stunk. On ice.

For years, I read Roy Thomas here and there raving about how good ALL-STAR COMICS was. When I was a kid, a friend of mine had an uncle with a box of 40s comics in his garage. There were a lot of CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES (sorry, but as a kid I was convinced Captain Marvel was for dopes, and while I'd no longer put it that way I still fail to see the strip's supposed charm) and a couple later issues (the Black Canary was in them) of ALL-STAR COMICS which weren't bad. Until DC put out their ALL-STAR ARCHIVES, I never had a chance to read any others. I think the ARCHIVES are worth having, for historical value if nothing else.

But good god!

The stories are terrible. The art is terrible. One of them, with the JSA trying to shut down "the Syndicate" (an early example of the "why doesn't Superman stop Hitler" syndrome, I guess someone felt real heroes ought actually to do something about organized crime) while a mousy little man appears from nowhere - at one point Jay "The Flash" Garrick wakes up one morning and the little man crawls out from under his bed - is a story so bad it ties for worst comics story ever.

So while I'm thrilled that DC's now reprinting Eisner's SPIRIT in book form - you can never learn enough from THE SPIRIT - that's not the Golden Age I long for.

I miss the Golden Age Of Comics Fandom.

Letter pages, mainly in EC Comics in the 50s and later in DC Comics, spawned comics fandom. The pages included reader addresses, readers wrote other readers, friendships were built, amateur press associations were formed, eventually fanzines sprang up. EC fandom generated SQUA TRONT and SPA FON. Superhero fans Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails teamed to produce ALTER EGO (recently brought back by Roy). Out in California, Bill Spicer created a truly wonderful fanzine with no specific orientation, FANTASY ILLUSTRATED, that had as much in common with the nascent underground comics as with the mainstream. By the early 70s, Spicer positioned himself as a progressive force and changed the name to GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE ("graphic story" being a more encompassing and appropriate - some said pretentious - description than "comic book") (I'd go with the pretentious label myself if it weren't for all the gits who pop up and yell "it's called a comic book, why isn't it funny?!!"), and Richard Kyle (who coined the term "graphic story") started a newsletter called GRAPHIC STORY WORLD.

You think you're enthusiastic about comics? Fans today don't know what enthusiasm is. These people were enthusiastic about comics. Every page just bled how much they loved comics. Another characteristic they shared was a belief that the comic book - not just the content but the form and the medium - was just as worth of discussion and examination, of review and understanding, as film or fine art or music, and between them they haltingly explored the aesthetics of comics in ways few have approached since.

"You think you're enthusiastic about comics? Fans today don't know what enthusiasm is."

The upshot was that if reading comics can give you a thrill, analyzing them could be even more rewarding. Stories were dissected frame by frame, particularly by the EC fans, artists were interviewed. The handful of GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE I have left feature: Richard Kyle examining why FANTASTIC FOUR was a breakthrough for superhero comics; Bill Spicer looking back to the ignored creator Berni Krigstein for possible artistic alternatives is comics; a discussion of Charles Biro's short-lived attempt at an adult comics magazine in 1949; numerous comic strips by the great, forgotten George Metzger; alternative views of Gil Kane's HIS NAME IS… SAVAGE and whether comics have a future in different formats; Mike Barrier writing on Disney comics; Vaughn Bod comic strips; and long, intensive interviews with Alex Toth, John Severin, and Howard Nostrand.

Richard Kyle's introduction to GRAPHIC STORY WORLD #1 summed up the mood of the era: "The graphic story is coming of age. In America, Japan, France, Italy, and all across the world, unique and creative new stories are being told, and outstanding stories of the past are receiving fresh recognition. Once, the graphic story could be found only in children's comic books. Today, it appears in mass circulation slick magazines, hardcover books and paperbacks, underground "comix" and limited edition experimental magazines, as well as in the four-color comic books and the newer black-&-white graphics. There is nothing more powerful, it is said, than an idea whose time has come. The time has come for the graphic story, and the great promise of the first "Golden Age" of comic books is about to be realized."

Aside from Spicer and Kyle, other names recur. John Benson. Mike Barrier. Bhob Stewart. Clay Geerdes. Fred Patton. Howard Waldrop. Hames Ware. Mark Evanier. All writers pushing their own points of view, yet there's a sense of fraternity; they sought discussion, not dominance. They didn't push any genres, nor dismiss any. They were the first in this country to focus on European and Japanese comics, to rediscover obscure but visionary talents like Berni Krigstein and Basil Wolverton. Above all, they sought a new aesthetics for comics, and I suspect they were a lot more influential to the "ground level" comics movement of the mid-70s than they're given credit for. If nothing else, they gave you the feeling there was something important about comics, something worth thinking about. They were right.

Had Spicer & co. continued, there's might be a coherent aesthetic of comics today. But it fell apart by the mid-70s. Spicer abandoned GSM to publish L.A. Comics, an quasi-underground comics company that collapsed with the rest of them when the Supreme Court localized obscenity in 1973. Kyle expanded the size and scope of GRAPHIC STORY WORLD, eventually changing the name to WONDERWORLD, but gave up the ghost by 1974. By the mid-70s the fanzine era was winding down, as the new "alternative" comics market started to grow. John Benson attempted a magazine called PANELS in 1979 (I was living one floor below him at the time) while Bill Spicer and Mark Evanier launched the more generally pop culture FANFARE in 1978. Neither lasted more than a few issues.

And what have we got today?

If there are fans this convinced that comics are just as worthy as anything else to be examined and critiqued in that way, I don't meet them. There are reviewers, of course, mostly talking about what they like and don't like. Which is fine, but the Spicer crew never took for granted that like=good and dislike=bad. We all like rubbish, but you can't claim something's good just because you like it. Even when they were satisfied that something was good, the old guys wanted to know why it was good, what were the underlying mechanics, much as film critics of the time dissected films. On the Internet, we have "fan" sites that seem largely dedicated to one person or another putting himself or his own agenda over at the expense of discourse; most serious discussion gets squelched by egos and flames. Why discuss the mechanics of Frank Miller's style when you can argue over whether Hal Jordan or Kyle Raynor should be Green Lantern, right? Which pretty much leaves THE COMICS JOURNAL, the closest thing to a surviving heir GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE has. TCJ has championed the obscure and presented extremely lengthy, detailed interviews with all manner of professionals with a focus far superior to the usual "what's your favorite color?" style of comics interview, but the tone of its criticism is traditionally meaner and more self-righteous; as much as it has to offer, the magazine too often succumbs to the Jerry Springer lurking in its soul. (Still, I wouldn't throw 'em away. They're about all we've got.)

"If a "high end" of comics fandom exists today, it has yet to surface on the web."

The comics business needs fans like Spicer, Kyle, Benson and Patton. It needs an aesthetic focus more than ever. Every vital art has a critical community around it. Fanzines used to serve that function, as well as providing budding talent a place to develop prior to launching professional careers. If there's a potential today for critical discussion, for amateurs to develop and experiment, it's on the Internet, where anyone can cheaply set up a homepage. But the comics-related sites I've visited on the Internet revolve around merchandise and gossip/news, and reviews or anecdotes are as close as anyone gets to reasoned criticism. If a "high end" of comics fandom exists today, it has yet to surface on the web.

Pining for the Golden Age is one thing, but, if we wanted, it would be easy enough to make this the Golden Age instead.

Every week I get a number of e-mails requesting that I bring back Whisper™, a character I published in the 80s through Capital and First Comics. With current market conditions, a new Whisper comic is unlikely, but I'm considering writing a Whisper novel for distribution by e-mail subscription. If this interests you, let me know. (When I say novel, I mean a 250,000-300,000 word text novel.)

OUT FOR BLOOD #2 ("the last word in horror this millennium") should be out just in time for Halloween from Dark Horse this week. The co-creator, Michael Part, said the first issue did big business in Los Angeles, so maybe it's a sleeper. With art by Gary Erskine and covers by Kelley Jones. Check it out.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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