Have the comics officially entered the Canon?

The slow adoption of the medium of comics by elite audiences is a story with its own particular milestones, each marking a moment of sudden approval by previously disapproving constituencies. George McManus received a Congressional dinner and warm words from Franklin D. Roosevelt in celebration of his comic strip, Raising Father. Mid-Century Modern artists like Roy Lichtenstein adapted (okay, lifted) images and panels from comic books. Art Spiegelman received a special Pulitzer citation for his graphic novel Maus, first published in book form in 1986. That same year, this magazine featured a story called “Comic Books for Grown-Ups” – an early entrant into a genre of journalism so ubiquitous that it is sometimes known to fans under the acronym CAFKA (as in “La BD n’est plus pour les enfants”). Another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 went to Michael Chabon for The Incredible Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which suggested, alongside books such as Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitudethat comics, particularly the branch of the medium dedicated to superheroes, was a useful basis for high-culture fictional meditation.

And now, a generation after that, the climax: Marvel comics have become Penguin Classics.

Last month, the “first publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world” (language of the company’s website) published, in collaboration with Marvel, three volumes of what is called the “Marvel Penguin Classics Collection”, featuring a long series of stories from the early days of the lives of three Marvel Super Heroes: Spider-Man, Captain America and Black Panther. We will come back to the ins and outs of particular selections a little later. But let’s first set aside the question of whether what is needed is to wring your hands, grind your teeth and quote “O tempora!” O manners! or the jubilant recognition of a birthright.

Let’s start with perhaps the one character on record who had insisted these books were classics from the start – though, to be fair, he had skin in the game.” With this classic take, the Marvel era of comics reaches a new plateau of greatness!!!” shouted text on the front page of a typical Marvel comic book, the words undoubtedly written by co-creator/wordmaster/face/pitchman of the Marvel Universe Stan Lee. Lee himself – the only figure represented in these three volumes – was the most vocal proponent of issues like those reprinted in these volumes, of The Amazing Spider-Man and tales of suspense and yes) Action in the Jungle, considered ephemeral at the time, was to be canonized, not only cherished but collected. (Notably, when Marvel started releasing its own collections of these stories in the ’80s — archival editions, hardcover, fancy paper, full Stan Lee intros — it called them “Marvel Masterworks.”) And for Lee—at least the way he told the story—it wasn’t just hype. It was, in fact, the fulfillment of a long-standing artistic ambition.

By his own admission, Lee had previously thought of the funny book industry as a way to earn a living on his way to writing the Great American Novel. He had even kept his birth name, Stanley Lieber, away from four-color books for such an occasion, preferring to rely on a pseudonym. But when his boss commissioned him to write a book about a team of superheroes to emulate the current newsstand success DC’s Justice League of America, his wife, Joan, told him that he should publish everything. And he did, bringing the company new levels of sophistication, character, contemporaneity, wit, pathos and cosmic imagination.

Much of the story, polished over the years, is left out, including the genius of Lee’s co-creator. Jack Kirby was Lee’s eldest and, undoubtedly at this time, his superior in terms of impact on the medium. Along with a former creative partner, Joe Simon, Kirby had essentially spawned the romance comic craze of the previous generation. And he knew about superheroes, to put it mildly: he and Simon had invented Captain America, giving Hitler a sock in the jaw on the cover of the first issue months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Kirby had the creative energy and imagination of a dozen artists and the production speed to boot. His constant imagination, creating new characters, sets, vistas, costumes, backgrounds, plots, layouts, stories, on a dazzling variety of canvases, would make him the architect of the Marvel Universe.

But – and this is a big butbigger, sometimes, than some of Lee’s critics allow – it was Lee who constantly suggested, in the public eye, the comics’ bigger ambitions, even if it was Kirby (along with the co-creator of Spider-Man Steve Ditko and a few others) who created the artwork that made those ambitions somewhat laughable.

Marvel’s early successes led to an aging audience for superhero comics – perhaps not as old as they would be in decades to come, but old enough for an academic audience to let the bureaus know. from Marvel that the Hulk was their dormitory room mascot. (The Hulk, another Lee-Kirby creation, was a perfect metaphor for teenagers—all the testosterone masked by gamma rays—and baby boomers, acting out, devastating, confusing their biggest-generation parents.) They also led Lee to lecture at colleges across the country. One student, a junior at Princeton in the ’60s – perhaps having looked a little too closely at Ditko’s trippy imagery for the strange worlds visited by Lee-Ditko’s creation, Dr. Strange – memorably suggested that “we regard Marvel Comics as the 20th century mythology” and Lee as “the Homer of this generation”.

Well, maybe. This argument of superheroes as modern myths and contemporary deities has a history almost as long as these CAFKA essays. (If you’re looking for more detail on the resonance and weight of these works which, as we say, are beyond the scope of this article, encompassing topics such as geopolitical analysis and Afrofuturism, check out the volumes’ introductions by best-in -business people like Ben Saunders and Qiana Whitted.) But the undergraduate was right, and although he didn’t specify, the Homer in question must be that of The Odyssey. After all, the tradition left to us by this particular classic is the ability to keep telling a story, filled with adventure and monsters, with an end just on the horizon but never actually reached. At the end of the epic, remember, it is prophesied that Odysseus must once again leave the house and go back.

One of Lee’s accomplishments — born out of his role as a businessman and online editor, not, or not just, a writer — was to play Ulysses, sing for his supper, and making sure the stories continued. And so on: these volumes offer sparkling forewords from current practitioners Jason Reynolds, Gene Luen Yang and Nnedi Okorafor – all of whom have, in various ways, taken these decades-old characters (Captain America, being an older generation , is closer to a centenarian) and shown how they resonate today. They did this by telling stories that are typically written for an older, more sophisticated audience than those early stories, and which are, for this and other reasons, often more thematically, intellectually, and characterologically nuanced. And, at the same time, they are in continuity – in the general and specialized sense of the term – with these first stories, building on them, questioning them, deepening them and enriching them. East classic quite the word for such rich soil? Otherwise, it’s not too far.

That said, some of Lee’s writing dated — and grated — the most in these stories. He manifests a humorous comic style borrowed from Catskill shtick that can sometimes seem as wide as a barn door, the relationships between men and women ripped from the pages of the melodramatic romance comics he used to write and direct. edit (with more than a whiff of the standard for the time but no less regrettable 60s sexism).

And so the best argument for these particular selections from the archives as classics – in their fullest possible embrace, not just with the fig leaf of “historical influence” or “marginalised genre” or “come on, half the international box office comes from these three characters” – derives from the way in which these stories, in this visual medium, continue to visually dazzle. The pleasures of these volumes alone include, but are not limited to, Kirby’s depiction of Wakanda’s techno-sorcery; the beautiful, dark alienation that stalks Peter Parker in Ditko’s forays into territory that borders on dark; and the coldly elliptical, erotic, psychedelia-tinged imagery of Jim Steranko.

Comedy is tragedy plus time, the saying goes, and gun-making sometimes follows the same process, from pulping to shooting. JRR Tolkien apparently thought that the English department at Oxford should not teach anything written after 1800; all the recent stuff, he argued, was the kind of stuff students could read on their own. Our culture, fruitful in many cases, begged to disagree: Institutions such as the Library of America ushered in writers whose first appearances were in cheap science fiction paperbacks with garish painted covers , but which have been the subject of an enthusiastic critical reappraisal. Who knows? Maybe parents will insist their kids stay up late to read them, and not just under the covers.

About Joey J. Hott

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