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That '70s Garbage
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for Mar. 21, 2007
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

The rare example of a 1970s Marvel comic that wasn't godawful — Steve Gerber, Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha's fifth issue of Howard the Duck — as reprinted in Essential Howard the Duck Vol. 1; ©1975 Marvel Characters, Inc.

 

Let's argue! A defense of 1970s comics from Greg Burgas spawns a short disposition on the somewhat nebulous nature of the decade's comics output from Dick Hyacinth. This outrages Heidi MacDonald, whose response spawns a discussion in her comments section and a big "Eh, whatever" from Hyacinth.

I won't speak too much for the relevance or influence of the decade's comics output — as it happens, I agree with Hyacinth that it was more of a 'tweener decade than the custodian of a fully-formed comics sensibility. And I half-agree with Hyacinth insofar as I think that most '70s undergrounds were better than most '60s underground, if for no other reasons than that I prefer Arcade to Zap, and had to unlearn an indifference to R. Crumb inculcated by early exposure to his lesser, 1960s output in order to enjoy the work of the mature artist he would eventually become.

But let's face it: 1970s superhero comics sucked pig balls.

I was too young to have read too deeply into the era's comics when they first came out, limited as I was to an allowance that barely bought three a week only if I avoided buying sweets. I'd buy one or two, usually the mainline stuff that made it into convenience stores. My earliest memories are of comics were buying an issue of Iron Man, saying "That was awful," then buying an issue of Avengers, saying "That was awful"... and so on. I liked comics, mind you. I must have checked the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comic Strips out of the library three dozen times before I was ten years old. But the modern stuff failed to move me. The only titles that ever held my interest were the first twelve issues of Micronauts (because Michael Golden's art was genuine cartooning in the best sense of the word, and besides, I had a few of the toys) and the early Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne Uncanny X-Men (because I was just coming off my "read every Robert Heinlein book in my elementary-school library" phase, and Claremont tended to swipe from golden-age SF writers wholesale).

Decades later, when I went to work for Fantagraphics Books as its catalog editor, I made extensive use of the massive Comics Journal library of comics housed downstairs in the basement — I had never seen and probably will never see quite so awesome a collection in my life, and I was eager to dig into as many of the good comics that I'd missed as possible. And there was a great deal to read: Eurocomics, Jim Warren's magazines, undergrounds, obscure strip collections, you name it, it was there. (Well, almost: There was a hole as big as Japan in the TCJ library, but even there I found some interesting stuff. I mean, I'd never actually buy a Gunsmith Cats book, but even I have to admit that the series has its own trashy charm.)

And then there were all the old Marvels of my childhood. At last, I could read all the good stuff that I'd heard people praise, but that I'd never had a chance to see!

Actually reading them disabused me of any notion that these were good comics. Jim Starlin's stuff approached "vaguely interesting," once or twice, but beyond that? Crap. Killraven? Crap. Marvel's horror line? Crap. The early Conan and Red Sonja comics had nice art, but were all written in that stilted voice that Stan Lee had used for Thor comics. ("Zounds!") Even those old X-Men comics quickly lost their luster once I could no longer read them with a nine-year-old's eyes. Hell, the first half of Frank Miller's run on Daredevil was nowhere near as cool as I remembered it.

The only comic that held up to thirty-year-old me was Steve Gerber's original run on Howard the Duck, which worked because they existed to point out how goofy and ludicrous Marvel comics looked when you held up the real world as a mirror to them. Gerber had a nasty wit, and it served him well on Howard. Even guest appearances by Spider-Man and a Defender or three couldn't fuck it up — Spider-Man would stumble in, say the kids'-comics equivalent of "Wow, this is really fucked up," and swing away as fast as he could manage.

Still, Howard was literally the exception that proved the rule, and the only place that Gerber was ever given that much leeway. His run on Defenders resulted in a fairly conventional funnybook story occasionally punctuated by watered-down bursts of weirdness, such as the midget Iforgetwhatitwas that randomly popped up at someone's doorstep, spouted absurdities and killed whoever answered the door, then left without explanation. You clearly couldn't get away with much: Marvel in the 1970s was still recovering from Marvel in the 1960s, all written in that uneasy mixture of pretentious bombast and clammy, glad-handing chumminess that Stan Lee had used to convince pre-pubescents that they were members of some sort of exciting secret club. Its writers wanted better for themselves and snuck it in where they could, but at the end of the day, they still had to write for their editors before anyone else, and as a wise man once said, even if your ice cream cone combines 95% good ice cream and 5% dogshit, it's still going to be the dogshit that you remember eating.

I suspect that what protected me from 1970s Marvel worship despite having read a bunch of them as a kid was the fact that I read too much prose at the time to ever consider such comics as the be-all and end-all of storytelling. I wasn't exactly reading Proust as a child, but even 1970s YA novels like O.T. Nelson's The Girl Who Owned a City had a depth and grounding to it that was absent at Marvel — or DC, or Charlton, or anything else that published for the spinner racks during the years that Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were president.

I'm sure that nostalgia for childhood thrills is a fine thing, and I'd agree that the 1970s were when Marvel and DC first began taking their baby-steps away from Lee and Schwartz and Weisinger, but the march forward hasn't exactly been progress. The dawning of superhero comics as "adult literature" is what led to the abandonment of superhero comics as good kids literature, and the tenacity of fans who cut their teeth on MacGregor and Claremont have provided adult wallets that in turn have allowed Marvel and DC to abandon the next generations of readers in ways that will come back to haunt them in a decade or so. To the extent that such companies' 1970s output was influential, I'm not really sure you can call it a good thing.

 

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