What Comics Mean to Me: Then and Now

My creative energies were given their bedrock and inspiration by the many things that I read when I was very young.

 

Both novels and comic books I yearned for and received in equal droves and they would reliably entertain me all year round.

 

In most walks of life books are treated with a bit more gravitas and prestige, comics often being the poor cousin by comparison. From my personal perspective I see comics as equally essential.  A life without them would lack many things – a major source of enjoyment and inspiration in subjective terms; and an interest in humanity in general objectively speaking. Virtually all of the stories and poems which I enthusiastically produced in primary school would have been missing a certain vibe, and probably would have thus been graded lower. That was the power of an imagination fuelled every week by the adventures of ‘people’ which I felt particularly close to. When it came to studying history or current affairs I also would be keener than otherwise since the comics often reflected the impact of the characters’ particular world upon them.

 

Comics such as ‘Peanuts’ took an approach of brief insights into the protagonists own lives, other works with a more action-packed style existence were undercut by a tense uncertainty over what event would next befall the starring personalities. In the case of most single and self-contained graphic novels the reader had the guarantee that no matter how much trouble the hero found himself confronted with, there would always be a resounding victory by the book’s close. Asterix exemplified this – in that the heroic Gauls always were seen having their time-honoured evening feast of wild boar–sitting around a huge, impressive camp fire.

 

However with the superhero comics of Marvel and D.C. the status quo was such that readers faced an agonising wait of weeks over a resolution to the current dilemma. One of the most tantalising ‘cliff hanger’ I faced was in an issue of ‘Spectacular Spiderman’ – the eponymous hero had shockingly discovered that an ‘antidote’ to a deadly virus he had contracted was nothing more than normal water and worse, he had nothing to live for anymore. Conversely his wife had just discovered she was pregnant as well as having also finally made her peace with her violent father, therefore she had everything to live.

 

This desire to know what happens next translates into real life all too well – whether it be the need to know the results of exams which decide someone’s future or the anxiety over how much bloodshed will still occur in Northern Ireland or former Yugoslavia. For different reasons this need takes on a force all of its own.

 

However in my very earliest years as a comic reader – I fortunately did not have to trouble myself in the slightest over the possible dangers that could blight a person’s life. The undeniable magic of Walt Disney stories lay not just in the medium of the cherished films but also in comic book format. This other medium actually was a more sophisticated and knowing form. Saccharine elements were much less evident, instead  – humour, characterisation and effective surprises from one episode of a story to another were commonplace. All the characters demonstrated realistic flaws that made them more relatable – and by and large they were also likeable.

 

My particular Disney favourites were Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck. Both had their fair share of drawbacks but they were still loveable despite – even because of those flaws. Scrooge was the definitive anti-hero with a veiled heart of gold; he always seemed to live for wealth alone, on the surface anyway, but actually treasured his nephew far more than any number of dollar bills. Donald was a creation that I strongly identified with – he meant well and tried his very best but often missed the point and would get easily frustrated. His constant self-belief and earnestness no matter how many times he failed lay at the very centre of his appeal for myself… and many thousands of others. Gladstone Gander and Flintheart Glomgold, the nemeses of Donald and Scrooge respectively, were not only excellent as hiss-worthy enemies but also effectively showed how compassionate the heroes were by being so similar in most ways but still lacking that fundamental trait.

 

Whilst I followed the Disney stories avidly – in the form of both British reprints and original American comics which it was my great fortune to have on mail order for me as a regular treat for slaving away at primary school, I also read some material much closer to home. The definitive British weekly comic was the Beano – a publication committed to essentially juvenile and implausibly violent antics – apparently taking place in a country still yet to enter the real world 1960s. I am afraid to admit that this comic was much easier to give up than the other ones I read. The style was cheerful but also quite unsophisticated and lacked character development and themes that other items offered. Yet though I did not take many ideas from the Beano into my creative work, I still looked forward on a semi-regular basis to the next fix of mayhem.

 

Once I began to get a grasp on more substantial stuff in my school, home and social life, I sought out comics which were enjoyed by a much broader range of readers than Disney’s target audience was comprised of. One series that I am sure many readers of all nationalities know and love is ‘Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin’. They first say the light of day in the late 1920s and have stood the test of time brilliantly. The man known as Tintin was a journalist with a difference, he actually had a very exciting life and was excitable, rather than being rather more cynical and dismissive in nature. But then the fun lay in just how many varied adventures a seemingly normal young man could have and just who he could get involved with along the way!

 

My favourite of these associates was probably Captain Haddock – a most energetic and amusing creation, complete with seafaring expletives – (of those not symbolised by &%!** – “ten thousand blistering barnacles” was his most frequent).

He was an excellent comrade to the intrepid investigator but only appeared from the ninth story onwards; the previous eight were therefore somewhat lacking to my mind.

However Tintin’s perennial companion was his canine friend “Snowy”, who had white fur but also sharp instincts. Snowy had almost no speech bubble dialogue, yet he was another vivid character, demonstrating loyalty and determination but also some vulnerability at times.

While Tintin was resourceful, and Captain Haddock tough, neither were the brainiest of men. Thus the character of Professor Calculus played a significant role

A man who had a firm desire for knowledge and insight into the mysterious and mythic, but also would be quite a bit too careless due to that curiosity. Even so, the real ineptitude was to be found in the identical duo – the Thompson Twins. They were almost always a hindrance for the heroes rather than a benefit yet their slapstick was a key aspect of the charming, breezy feel of the Tintin adventures.

A number of comics that I particularly treasured did not involve any real ‘adventuring’ outside of the characters’ everyday lives. The first of these, Peanuts, was written by the brilliant Charles Schultz. Upon learning he had inoperable cancer Schultz made sure that he would be the sole storyteller and no-one else could take up the mantle , and he finished writing the comic just a couple of months before passing away. Peanuts was a truly landmark and magical comic strip which I first remember being introduced to via the tv cartoon version, and in particular the highly moving ‘Snoopy Come Home’ movie. The premise and art were so simple but also so powerful. Charlie Brown was the essence of the ‘loveable loser’ – he never once provoked anyone or meant any kind of ill will. Indeed he was far too passive for his own good – best illustrated by the manner in which Lucy van Pelt  would ask him to run to football and kick it but at the crucial moment snatch it out of his reach… causing him to collapse painfully. Charlie’s dog – the magnificently named Snoopy – was just as charming a character, but thankfully for him the knocks of life –seemingly didnt torment him in the way they did his owner. He never spoke, but instead would energetically bash away at his typewriter or occasionally imagine that he was a World War flying ace, with his kennel/hut being the ‘aircraft’. Just how a mere dog could write but not speak was actually of little importance – Snoopy was definitively Schultz’s most shrewd and knowing creation. A supporting cast that featured Linus (Lucy’s brother), Peppermint Patty, Sally Brown, Franklin and of course Snoopy’s best animal friend – the bird known as Woodstock – was just sensational. This comic certainly set a benchmark for efficient and memorable personalities despite what at first seems somewhat rudimentary art-work. In that respect it might just have had an influence on the creators of the Simpsons(!).

 

The second comic strip to fall outside the adventuring /action mould was one that I encountered completely out of the blue. It came to me in the form of a present for my birthday, and didn’t take long to utterly win me over. ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ created by Bill Watterson ran for roughly a decade from 1985 onwards and then came to a sudden stop. The author wanted to leave his huge fan base wanting more. This was a strikingly thoughtful and vivid comic concerning the various activities of 6 year old Calvin and his eternal friend Hobbes – a toy tiger which seemingly would spring to life. From being pillow sized he gained the full proportions of an actual tiger in its prime. However Hobbes preferred to stand on his rear two legs in order to best interact with Calvin. The two friends were very close indeed, despite their markedly different temperaments – Calvin was habitually hyperactive and overexcited whereas Hobbes was almost always steady and stoical.

By being so energetic Calvin ensured that his tales were almost never dull. His irreverent attitude to the adults in his life was perhaps deplorable on his part but the many readers clearly loved this philosophy. His behavior including boycotting his mother’s lovingly cooked dinners, talking out of turn at school, or most notably making life rocky for his hapless babysitter. The antics he would get up to with his feline friend were even more enjoyable. The two were passionate members of the top-secret G.R.O.S.S club – which charmingly stood for ‘Get Rid of Slimy Girls’. The meetings were held in Calvin’s tree house and usually involved plans that would amount to disaster, often meaning a fight between the two soul mates. The closest the two came to hurting themselves would be whenever they went go-carting through some local woods without any real control of the vehicle. Despite the risks involved, the focus was on Calvin and Hobbes’ flawed philosophical debates. Elsewhere in the strip, outlandish events would leap off the page at the loyal reader. Calvin’s imagination featured various oddball extremes such as the destruction of New York and other cities, but then a final panel would remind us that he was using a sandpit and destroying his handiwork with disturbing enthusiasm. The boy and tiger duo also employed a cardboard box to take on special properties and become a duplicator and even a time machine.

 

The comics which I have followed for the longest period are those published by Marvel, partly due to their considerable history, partly due to their strong grip on the marketplace without any signs of weakening. Although I was a bit lukewarm at first, I eventually found much to enjoy in the stories of the ‘Uncanny’ X-Men. This comic was a clever way to take a moral stance against racism, in that its protagonists are all mutants who strive to protect a society which is scared and hateful towards them. The X-Men’s mentor was originally Professor Charles Xavier, a benign genius who held positive ideals of peaceful co-existence between ‘homo sapiens’ and ‘homo superiors’. His perennial nemesis was the misguided Magneto who had survived the Holocaust but had taken seemingly the wrong message out of his indescribable ordeal. He saw mutants as being the rightful occupants of Earth and whatever methods could achieve this outcome were fair game. The two men often came into conflict and there was much emotion involved, given that they were once the closest of friends. The X-Men stories may have had a downbeat tone more often than not, but the characterization and story-telling were sufficient to keep readers like myself hooked and uncertain quite what would occur next.

 

The Marvel hero who engaged me for as long as I can remember was the habitual called Spiderman, or ‘Spidey’ as he preferred to be known. He was someone who on the surface did not take life-or-death encounters all that seriously and his witty putdowns of enemies helped him to relax and not give into deep fears of failing and not therefore coming home to his beautiful and charismatic wife Mary-Jane Parker. What made him so remarkable was that his personal background had feature much early heartache. His parents died when he was too young to remember them properly in later life. His kind-hearted uncle was murdered by a common burglar who Spiderman deliberately failed to stop from escaping capture when he had the chance, as petty revenge for not being paid for a wrestling contest during the period when he first realised he had superpowers. This was a crucial early learning experience and inspired Spiderman to utilise his powers altruistically. Even a devoted girlfriend called Gwen Stacey –  seemingly perfect for Parker – was killed off in the original run of the comic[1] by his arch-nemesis the Green Goblin. What seemed like a normal enough test of capabilities when Gwenn fell off a huge bridge was suddenly revealed to be an impossible loss – her neck had snapped just at the point that his web-shooters made contact with her body. The Goblin lasted just one more issue after that shocking bit of history. But like all great villains he did not stay dead – Marvel did not resist exercising such powers of artistic licence.

 

Of course his alter-ego Peter Parker needed some sort of income and the way he achieved that was to have an exclusive job for the Daily Bugle in taking the best possible pictures of a certain… Spiderman. But for his efforts Parker ironically helped one of his less dangerous enemies, the editor of the Bugle -James Jonah Jameson. Spiderman was not to be trusted according to Jameson and the experienced, witty but also hopelessly bigoted editor never backed down from milking a situation for all its worth. The Bugle articles on the main hero were typically front page news and could complicate matters, but overall the comic used this plotline as a rather light-hearted counterpoint to the more serious or moral themes that its readers were hopefully picking up on. The main thing that compelled me to collect issue after issue of this great comic was that through all his trials and tribulations Peter Parker was a hero to the core, always strong enough to ultimately overcome all the emotional overload and to crusade on. Real life wasn’t always easy of course, so this was an inspiring message to take from what seemed like on the surface just a bit of escapism.

 

As of the last few years I have had a leave of absence from comics. There is a lot to enjoy in this crowded world of ours! But I am finding some renewed interest in them. The modern stuff certainly reads as more sophisticated than what I grew up on. But then fiction adapts to real life events and changes in society over time. What I hope to do in my forthcoming articles is to explore both the comics of yesteryear that I grew up on as well as today’s stuff and to try and tie them into the context of the point in time that they were published. A little sizing up just who wrote the best stuff and when will also be on my agenda. As of now I will be focusing on what I consider to be the landmark issues. I don’t yet know how long this journey will take me, but I am sure I will have fun finding out. Until next time…

 

 

 


[1] Re-boots, which are designed to give a new lease of life to a comic by starting again from a much earlier point, have been used a lot in more recent times. One rationale is usually that super-heroes don’t have to face middle-age and thus too implausible suspension of disbelief on the part of the readers.