Way back in 2010—seems like a century ago, doesn't it?—I wrote an essay for Rob Kelly's wonderful anthology, Hey Kids, Comics! and published an excerpt here. Came across the essay this morning, and thought it would be fun to post the entire thing. Enjoy!
Portals to Other Dimensions—Ten Cents Each!
I've said this before, and it's true: I don't remember ever not reading comic books. I can’t say for sure who first exposed me to them, but I do recall a married couple that lived in my apartment building (the kind of adults you’d expect to be reading comics in the late 50's and early 60's: smiley, rotund, slightly odd people) and they had a treasure trove of comics—stacks and stacks of them—they’d often share with me. I also remember a cousin giving me what must have been twenty or so comics (to my young eyes, they seemed more like twenty thousand). There was something deeply satisfying in spreading them all out on the floor—like a four-color carpet—not to be read, but to be stared at, studied, absorbed to the deeps of my soul. I enjoyed comic book covers as much as I enjoyed reading the stories. I could sit there, in a quasi-hypnotic state, and study the illustrations for hours: they were like cosmic portals, opening up doorways to other dimensions; colorful parallel universes far preferable to the one I inhabited.
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.)
My family didn’t have much money—we were lower middle class, my father worked for the New York City Parks Department (he was the guy who raked the leaves and shoveled the snow) and my mother was a switchboard operator for the New York State Parole Board—but I never felt materially deprived. My parents were always incredibly generous. And they generously indulged my passion for comics.
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.)
I was seven when, after three decades, the price jumped from ten to twelve cents: I walked into the candy store with my mother one afternoon and Eva—the not-to-be-trifled-with wife of the egg cream making wizard—was in shock, ranting about this outrageous price hike. My mother was equally irate. “Twelve cents,” she gasped, “for a comic book?”
To my immense relief, the extra two cents didn’t dissuade my parents from buying me comics—and I continued to consume them. It didn’t matter what the comic book was, I read everything—from Hot Stuff and Casper to Sad Sack and Bob Hope (given the current comic book market, it’s astonishing to realize that the Bob Hope series ran for eighteen years. The Adventures of Jerry Lewis lasted even longer). Today the super hero dominates the mainstream market, but, back then, the variety of comic books—all of them kid-friendly—was astounding. Still, to a boy raised on George Reeves flying across his black and white television screen, the DC super hero comics were the Holy Grail.
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.
There’s been much debate, down through the decades, about the relative contributions of Stan Lee and his collaborators. From my perspective, Stan’s contribution was incalculable. Even if, hypothetically, Kirby and Ditko plotted every single one of those stories on their own, Stan created the vibe and the mythos of Marvel Comics. He did it with cocky cover copy and the warmth of the Bullpen Bulletins pages, the hilarious footnotes and scripts that managed to be absurdly pseudo-Shakespearean and yet utterly down to earth at the same time. Most important were the absolutely relatable (especially to a boy on the verge of adolescence) characters, constructed of equal parts angst and humor. As others have said, with Stan at the door of the Marvel Universe, you really felt as if you were being welcomed into a unique club that was tailored just for you by the coolest uncle anyone ever had. Add in the quirky individuality of Ditko and the cosmic genius of Kirby (if anyone in the history of comics can be called a genius, Jack’s the guy) and you had something new and vibrant that comics had never seen before. (Here’s how much I loved those 60’s Marvel Comics: In the ninth grade I had pneumonia, ordered by our doctor not to leave the house for three weeks. One Sunday night, about two weeks into my sentence, I couldn’t take it any more: my parents had gone out for dinner, so I threw on my winter coat—did I mention it was dead of winter?—and, risking my fragile lungs, raced the four blocks to the candy store and grabbed the latest issue of Fantastic Four.)
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.
You can’t put a cover price on that.
© copyright 2023 J.M. DeMatteis
I am going to have to disagree with you here, Dematteis,ReplyDelete
It is widely known that you did not actually know what what a comic book even was until 1989, and are still a little fuzzy on the matter.
Which makes the fact you were able to produce them previously a real testament to your editors and their quality.
Hell, you thought those Captain America comics from the early 80s were ads to stay in school for the Bronx school board. Of course, since none of them ever mentioned schools, and few the Bronx, one wonders why you even thought you were writing such copy.
Why do I feel like I'm in the middle of a Monty Python routine?Delete