Portals to Other Dimensions—Ten Cents Each!
The best covers communicated an entire story in one image and my mind would wander off and run the story in my head like a movie (which was often far different from the one that unfolded inside the books: sometimes it was better). Drawing was one of my great obsessions as a kid and I could spend an entire afternoon on the living room floor, with pencil and paper, studying a Batman cover—I’m talking about the Dick Sprang-era, square-jawed, fun-loving Bats, not the ultra-serious Dark Knight of today—and trying to replicate it, line-for-line, freehand. (Tracing, of course, was verboten.)
I have very vivid memories of being six, seven years old and taking walks with my father on summer evenings after dinner: We'd head for the local candy store, which—in Brooklyn, at least—was its own magic world, with a long soda fountain inevitably presided over by an elderly Jewish wizard who could magically conjure egg creams (if you’ve never had one, you have my sincere condolences); more comics, newspapers and magazines than you could count; every gloriously trashy candy bar in existence; and an odd assortment of toys, from Duncan Yo-Yos to that lost ancient artifact, the Pensy Pinky. My father would buy a newspaper for himself and a comic book for me. A comic was ten cents in those days—which was probably more than my dad’s New York Daily News cost—but it was still a bargain. (When my best friend, Bob Izzo, was going to the hospital for minor surgery—I think he was having a mole removed—his mother gave him an entire dollar and he bought ten comic books. I was paralyzed with envy.)
We took it for granted that every male under the age of twelve worshipped Superman and Batman—and most of them did—but each of us had our special favorites. Mine were Justice League (all the DC heroes together in one book? How could you beat that?) and Green Lantern. GL was the perfect vehicle to capture the mind of a child. The concept was as elegant as it was simple: the hero just thought of something—brought his will and imagination to bear—and he manifested it. (Even as an adult the concept still works: I think it’s a perfect metaphor for the way we should all live our lives.) John Broome’s wonderful stories spanned the galaxies—his place in Comic Book Heaven is secure—but, for me, the the primal enchantment came from Gil Kane's extraordinary artwork. Before I discovered the force of nature that was Jack Kirby, Kane was the artist whose work meant the most to me: a mixture of elegance, power and crystal clear storytelling. As noted, drawing was my childhood obsession and one of my absolute favorite things to draw was Kane’s flying figure of Green Lantern, ring-hand confidently outthrust, one leg cocked back (almost as if it was amputated).
When I was in Junior High School, I underwent a religious conversion. No, I didn’t suddenly become a Hindu or a Born-Again Christian: I converted from DC to Marvel. Contemporary comic book readers can’t possibly understand how different Stan Lee’s Marvel books were in the 1960’s. DC’s comics—for all their imagination and artistic flair—were pristine and sculpted, All-American and squeaky clean to the point of being nearly antiseptic: no rough edges, no raw emotions, nothing messy at all. If you looked at the Marvel books, especially in the early days of the line, it was all mess. The covers said everything: lurid colors. Captions screaming for your attention. Oversized word balloons with thick, black borders around them. Artwork so primitive it was frightening. Marvel Comics were dangerous.
A few years before my conversion, on a whim (or perhaps out of desperation), I’d picked up the first issue of Marvel Tales, which reprinted the origin stories of Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and Ant Man. Imagine a young mind accustomed to the gentle elegance of Curt Swan suddenly encountering the wonderful weirdness that was Steve Ditko and the dynamic lunacy of Jack Kirby. Reading the Hulk origin, I was certain that General “Thunderbolt” Ross had to be the one who was going to turn into a monster because—the way Kirby drew him—he already looked like one. There was a panel of Ross yelling at Bruce Banner and the old man’s mouth was so impossibly wide I was sure he was going to eat Banner alive.
At that point in my evolution I wasn’t ready for Marvel: the stories were simply too intense for my tender psyche, so I put the books aside and returned to the more comforting confines of the DC Universe—until, in 1966, Marvelmania swept through the halls of Ditmas Junior High. Among my crowd of comics cognoscenti, you were looked down upon if you still read Superman (which I, of course, did). I resisted the tide—no way was I giving up on GL and the League—but by May or June of that year (and, yes, I’m sure peer pressure had something to do with it) I decided to once again investigate this strange Marvel phenomenon. The first comics I picked up were Fantastic Four #54, Daredevil #19 and Spider-Man #40. After reading those three issues—I still have a clear memory of sitting on the steps of the massive Catholic church across the street from my apartment house (the appropriate place for a religious conversion) and devouring the Daredevil story “Alone Against the Underworld!”, entranced by Stan Lee’s hyperbolic intensity and John Romita’s muscular grace—Marvel had me. Peer pressure may have piqued my curiosity, but what sold me was the quality of the stories: the creative audacity that exploded across every page.
I remained Marvel-exclusive until 1970 when Jack Kirby returned to DC: hey, if Superman & Company were good enough for the King, they were certainly good enough for me. Kirby’s brilliant New Gods, Forever People and Mister Miracle convinced me I’d made the right decision. That same year I had my first encounter with the subversive genius of R. Crumb (“Meatball,” anyone?) and my idea of what a comic book could, and couldn’t, be was forever demolished. Loyalty to any one company, or any one form of graphic storytelling, suddenly seemed ridiculous.
As I grew older, as I fell prey to exploding hormones and the lunacy of teenage life, becoming immersed in rock and roll, “serious” literature, the spiritual search (and other, less savory, pursuits), I never let go of comic books. Most of my contemporaries grew out of their obsession, but I didn't. Why would I turn away from a cosmic portal that expanded my mind, deepened my soul and, most important, made me happy.
© copyright 2014 J.M. DeMatteis