It Ain't Funny, It's Just Business
By R. D. Flavin

6-12-2015

     My older brother taught me to read at the age of four with the help of comic-books. By the time I was six, though fascinated with the odd artwork (Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Rat Fink, etc.) of hot-rod and car magazines, I had chosen to enjoy and follow the exploits of the characters featured in the so-called Marvel Universe. I still have a two-volume Webster's Dictionary somewhere in my stacks with the names of 'Thor', 'Loki', 'Odin', and 'Balder' underlined in green pencil. In either first or early second grade, I walked away from the military housing section of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey (near the uncompleted 'Hexagon' building) and traveled on foot a couple of miles to a small, local Tinton Falls/Eatontown library and looked up books on Norse mythology. Comic-books, at one time referred to as “funny-books” sparked my interest in many things, though now that Marvel has changed Thor into a woman (“Jane Foster”), I suspect it ain't funny, it's just business. Much has and continues to change in the fictional comic-book 'universes' of both Marvel and their long-time rival, DC comics (the publisher of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.).

     Being an Army-brat (aka military dependent child) had its advantages regarding comic-books. Second grade was complicated, in that I started in New Jersey, did some time at Fort Sheridan north of Chicago, Illinois, and finished in Munich, Germany. I recall watching the premier of the television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, Batman, on a small pay-to-watch TV at JFK Airport in NYC before flying to Germany. [Note: From 1963 to late 1965 in New Jersey, I was able to watch black and white reruns of the Adventures of Superman shown on a NYC channel.] Germany, when I was there in 1966 and 1967, did not feature English language television (watching the classic Burl Ives-voiced 'Snowman' in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer spoken in German was most strange), there was a lot of wonderful evening radio re-broadcasts of the 1940's and 1950's suspense programs, but most of all I remember fully embracing the world of comic-books in Germany.

     First off, if I was a well behaved lad, my dad would give me a quarter a week and allow me to choose between buying two 12 comic-books or going to the local Army thrift-store and buying a string-wrapped bundle of around 25 old comics for a a quarter. I pretty much changed week by week. There was a unique comic-book culture which existed at the military housing of McGraw Kaserne located next to Perlacher Forest, in that it was common for youngsters like me to carry a stack of comics door-to-door in the various apartment buildings, and when the door opened after knocking, simply asking, “Trade?” Usually a young G.I. would bring out a bunch of comic-books and put them on the floor, say “Take what you want and leave something new.” Sometimes there were kids who came to the door and there was some haggling, but all in all, it seemed everyone was into comics. I won my third-grade spelling bee by correctly spelling the word 'amazing', thanks to being a regular reader of The Amazing Spider-Man.


     Now, as old-timers and comic-book historians know, funny-books began selling for a dime in the 1930s, the price was raised to 12 in 1962, and both Marvel and DC comics began to release 'giant-sized' issues (usually of reprints) in 1965 which cost 25. Yeah, I have quite the vivid memory of my dad freaking out the first time I bought a 25 comic, which may very well have been Fantasy Masterpieces #4 featuring a reprint of Captain America from the 1940s at the gift-shop of the military-run lake hotel at Chiemse in Germany. Dad was doing his second tour in Viet-Nam, and I was in housing at the closed Schilling Air Force Base in Salina, Kansas where they housed all the dependents of dads who were serving in Viet-Nam, when I spent 35 on a magazine sized copy of the first The Spectacular Spider-Man in 1968. In 1969, back in New Jersey, I surprised my dad at a drug-store book-rack, by asking him to buy me my first “book,” that is, a paperback copy of Ted White's The Great Gold Steal (Bantam Books, 1968) featuring Captain America and costing 50. Comics went up to 15 in 1969 and 20 in 1971, the year I did my most collecting. Dad no longer commented on the price increase, he was retired from the Army and in the communications private sector at the time, though I do recall coming home with a copy of Skywald's revival of The Heap in 1971 and my father commenting he used to read The Heap (as a feature in Airboy Comics) in the 1940s.

     One quick story from when my dad retired from the Army. We flew from Panama to Miami, where my mom took my older, recently graduated from high-school, brother Rob/Bob to Chicago, while my dad, Samantha the Siamese cat, and me traveled up the East Coast. Stopping in Washington D.C. was cool, as my dad took me to the Library of Congress and when I asked to see their comic-book collection they brought two medium-sized cardboard boxes filled with perhaps around fifty comics in each box. Holding copies of Superman #7 and Whiz (featuring Capt. Marvel) #14 in my hands, I begged my dad to allow me to stuff them down my pants and walk out the door, but he smirked and denied my request. After a brief stop in New Jersey (where I got to see Night of the Living Dead at a drive-in, while my dad went across the street to a bar and got semi-drunk), the next day he drove us to Manhatten and we visited the office and studio of Marvel comics. Marie Severin, acting as a hostess, gave me a pencil outline of the cover for Conan #8, I got autographs from Herb Trimpe on a Hulk proof cover-page, John Romita on a Spider-Man proof page, and met the famous Bill Everett, the creator of the Sub-Mariner, and just happened to have a copy of some issue of Astonishing Tales with inks by Everett and had him autograph the copy. Then I stepped into the “office” where Roy Thomas was sitting at a desk cluttered with Lancer Conan paperbacks and next to him stood Neal Adams. I began to praise Neal's work on Batman, but got the evil look from Thomas for daring to mention the Direct Competition, and I'm not sure if I got his autograph or not. All in all, though, it was a fine visit and everyone seemed impressed that such a youngster had a working knowledge of comic-book history. Okay, so much for the past...

     As comic-book readers, collectors, and historians know all to well, there has been 'change' in the various “funny-book” universes since their individual inceptions. The “Golden Age” of comic-book superheroes began with National (later Detective Comics, then just DC), Timely (which became Marvel), and Fawcett (ultimately ceasing comic-books in 1953) with Superman in Action Comics #1 (June 1938), Batman in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), Wonder Woman in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941), Sub-Mariner in Marvel Comics #1 (Oct. 1939), though scheduled for an earlier, unreleased Motion Picture Funnies Weekly, The Human Torch, an android or synthetic human also known as Jim Hammond in Marvel Comics #1 (Oct.1939), Captain America in Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941), Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940), to name just some of the 'greats'. After WWII ended, superhero themed comic-book sales began to decline, the 1950s saw a discontinuation of many titles (and companies), and westerns, romance, and horror comics like those published by EC became popular. Then, as is well known, Fredric Wertham, M.D. (University of Wurzburg), the German-American amateur psychologist and crackpot, released his 1954 pseudoscience book, Seduction of the Innocent: the influence of comic-books on today's youth (New York: Rinehart and Company) which made many nasty and false statements about the comic-book industry, it's characters, themes, and readership. That Batman and Robin were/are homosexuals remains a current slur, reading comics causes juvenile delinquency, some comic-books were too erotic or gruesome (partially true), and many other sensational claims which have been disproved over the years. Still, the book sold quite well, encouraged a United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigation which gave EC publisher, William Gaines, a rather heavy-handed questioning, and contributed to the establishment of the (unofficial and voluntary) Comics Code Authority.

     Marvel tried to resurrect interest in its superheroes by bringing back The Human Torch in Young Men #24 (December 1953), some Captain America Comics in 1954, and several issues of Sub-Mariner Comics in 1955, but went back to suspense, westerns, and romance comics in 1956. DC Comics, on the other hand, re-invented their “Flash” superhero with a different secret identity and costume with Showcase #4 (Sept-Oct 1956 DC Comics), and slowing began putting more and more emphasis on superhero comics which ushered in the so-called “Silver Age” of comic-books. As the story goes, while playing golf, the publisher of Marvel decided to create a superhero team to compete with DC's The Justice League of America, and so came about Fantastic Four #1 (November 1961). Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Hulk, Thor, and The Avengers would soon follow. Under the leadership of editor, Stan Lee, Marvel became best known for having superheroes with ordinary problems (late for work, girlfriend or wife issues, handicaps like Daredevil-Matt Murdoch being blind, or just being general “outsiders,” like the 'mutant' superhero group, The X-Men). Relating to the reader worked well with Marvel and their popularity and sales increased tremendously.

     Now, DC may have continued with their business-as-usual approach for much of the 1960s, but also introduced the Steve Ditko-created odd-superhero, The Creeper, in Showcase #73 (March 1968), as well as the politically charged superhero duo, also created by Steve Ditko, Hawk and Dove, in Showcase No. 75 (June 1968). Over at Marvel, Stan Lee was asked by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to write an anti-drug story, which he promptly did, though the story was rejected by the Comics Code Authority. Stan went ahead anyway and decided the story was going to get printed regardless, and those issues were released without the Comics Code seal, the first Marvel books to do so. Amazing Spider-Man #96 (May 1971), Amazing Spider-Man #97 (June 1971), and Amazing Spider-Man #98 (July 1971) dealt with the return of the Green Goblin, but also featured a secondary story-line about Harry Osborn (long-time friend of Peter Parker and son of the Green Goblin) addicted to heroin. Jumping on the anti-drug band-wagon, DC released a two-part story in Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow #85 (August 1971) and Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow #86 (October 1971) in which Speedy, Green Arrow's young sidekick, has a problem with heroin. The issues were, like the Spider-Man anti-drug issues, sold without a Copy Code Authority stamp on their covers, and also issue #86 featured a letter from New York City Mayor John V. Lindsay congratulating DC for taking an anti-drug stand. Though to be fair, the entire run of the teaming of writer Dennis “Denny” O'Neil and artist Neal Adams from issues #76 (April 1970) through #89 (May 1972) all dealt with important, serious, socially responsible themes like racism, religion, and pollution. The series was reprinted many times and even as special paperback editions.

     It MUST have been merely a coincidence that all the superheroes of the '30s, '40s,'50s, and early '60s were white-skinned. Without resorting to exhaustive research and just writing from personal memories (and taking the risk of error), I believe Marvel introduced the first 'black' superhero with the appearance of the Black Panther, T'Challa, King of Wakanda, a fictional kingdom in Africa, in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). Two issues earlier in Fantastic Four #50 (May 1966), Marvel had introduced a Native American character, Wyatt Wingfoot, as a friend of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Then came the African-American Sam Wilson, the Falcon, in Captain America #117 (September 1969), followed by the first Native American superhero, William Talltrees, the Red Wolf in Avengers #80 (September 1970). Next up was the African-American Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972) and an Asian with the character, Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu, in Special Marvel Edition #15 (December 1973). Storm (Ororo Munroe), descended from Kenyan witch-priestesses, though worshiped as a 'goddess' because of her mutant powers before appearing in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975) was the first black female superhero. The first black superhero in the DC universe was John Stewart, chosen by the Guardians as a back-up to Hal Jordon, the Green Lantern of Earth, in Green Lantern co-starring Green Arrow #87 (December 1971/January 1972), followed by Tyroc, a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 30th and 31st centuries in Superboy #216 (April 1976), then Black Lightning #1 (April 1977), with Cyborg in DC Comics Presents #26 (October 1980), later joining the teen Titans, and afterwards, the Justice League. Over the last few years there have been gay and lesbian superheroes, but I'm not sure about transgenders, as I can't read every title out there... And, so came an end to the exclusive heterosexual white male and female superhero club.


The Ultimate's Nick Fury, Mike Morales/Spider-Man, and the new Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch.

     Marvel launched a new line of comics based in an alternative universe where the Avengers were known as the Ultimates, a team assembled by General Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Ultimates #1 (March 2002) with Fury looking a lot like Samuel L. Jackson. The Ultimate universe was a little grittier and aimed at a more mature audience. In the Ultimate universe Peter Parker/Spider-Man died and was replaced by Miles Morales, a teenager of black and Hispanic descent in Ultimate Fallout #4 (August 2011). When Marvel began making its own films they picked a willing Samuel L. Jackson to play Nick Fury. In Marvel's normal universe I believe Fury killed Uatu, the Watcher on the Moon, and has replaced him. The change from a white Nick Fury didn't upset many people, though the new Fantastic Four re-boot movie by Sony Pictures features an African-American Johnny Storm as the Human Torch with Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl, being adopted as opposed to them being siblings since 1961. I guess there's a business reason behind the switch...



The new Marvel line-up.

     It's difficult to keep up with new changes. Marvel has announced they are re-booting their entire line starting each title at  #1, their publishing will NOT feature a Fantastic Four title, but will revive the Native American Red Wolf, continue with the Islamic Ms. Marvel, and change the Hulk in ways we can't guess... This shouldn't effect the Marvel films and television shows, but one shouldn't predict what choices a business will make.



The new, weaker Superman.

     Also, DC has resigned itself that its recent re-booting known as "The 52" was a flop (though I did follow some of the Batman titles and enjoyed the romance between Supes and Wonder Woman). The 'new' DC will feature a Superman with half of his powers, one who can be hurt, and gets hungry... Funny-books have always been a business and will remain as such. Entertainment? I guess we'll just have to wait and read for ourselves.

There will never be enough "'nuff said,"

Return to