Roll out the Marvels
IT is with almost unalloyed joy that I look forward to seeing the new Fantastic Four film. The progress of the Marvel superhero comics to film — Spider- man, the X- Men and Daredevil among them — is a delight. Frankly, these film adaptations aren’t quite as good as they should be. But as a mid- cohort baby boomer I am, as usual, pleased beyond measure to see the popular culture conform to the tastes of my demographic and celebrate the fantasies of my childhood.
I was a fanatical Marvel comics devotee as a kid. Oddly enough, my first two memorable reading experiences were with superhero comics and Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven books. I am therefore similarly delighted to see Nancy Drew, a kind of distant cousin of the Secret Seven, doing well at the box office. It can only be a matter of time before the Secret Seven, the Famous Five and, most beloved of all, the Five Find- Outers make their way to the silver screen in new versions.
Given what a neurotically compulsive reader I’ve been for most of my life, it’s perplexing to recall that I was pretty bad at reading in my first years at school. Marvel comics and Blyton rescued me.
Nothing much has changed, really. I still like American power — Captain America was the leader of the Avengers during my Marvel bug — and English literature. A solid guide to politics and aesthetics, surely.
The Marvels were superior in every way to other comics. I trifled with the Archie comics, glanced at Casper the Friendly Ghost and found Superman absurdly simplistic.
The secret of the Marvel comics was that they were brilliant narratives with strong characters. Design- wise they stuck basically to regular frames within a page. Once or twice in a 20- page comic they’d break out of this protocol and those were always thrilling occasions.
Later on, comics became absurdly free form, which greatly reduced the amount of dialogue and therefore dumbed them down, simplifying plots and emphasising action. And as with so many art forms, when comics lost their discipline, they lost much of their power.
We Marvel fans took the plots and characters very seriously. There were pages of theoretical discussion at the back of the comics in the correspondence section. How did the Angel, a character in the X- Men, achieve flight when his body weight compared to his wing span would be so much greater than a bird’s? Why didn’t Cyclops’s force beam, which came uncontrollably from his eyes, destroy his eyelids?
As a nine- year- old I was greatly exercised by the number of super- powered arrows the Avengers’ Hawkeye could carry in his quiver and why they didn’t fall out when he was in a fight.
All good fantasy works in part by taking the laws and physical realities of its imagined world wholly seriously. The supreme example of this is Lord of the Rings .
The trilogy made such good films in part because they took J. R. R. Tolkien’s vision so seriously. They stayed pretty faithful to the plot and utterly faithful to the book’s atmosphere and feel. Fantasy, like farce, must be played dead straight.
I read Lord of the Rings as a teenager and remember the chilling sense of exposure as the hobbits climbed a mountain. One of my closest friends, a school leader and a giant of a fellow who later played rugby for NSW, was reading it in bed and was so frightened by the passage where the dark riders are first introduced that he could not get up to go the bathroom, but had to read on for another hour, until the dark riders wore off, so to speak.
Fantasy doesn’t work well as film when the filmmaker allows the special effects to take over. Peter Jackson did this with his follow- up to Lord of the Rings , King Kong , which turned out to be absolute junk.
This is the weakness of the Marvel superhero movies, too. The producers have not paid sufficient attention to the coherence and texture of the original comics, the sheer narrative professionalism of the stories.
When I first got into Marvel they were just experimenting with their first postmodern touches. Some of the heroes had antihero aspects. A lot of them were troubled souls, lonely in their power, often nursing an unfulfilled love for some superheroine.
My favourites by far were the X- Men and Dr Strange, the latter of which is distinctly weird because Dr Strange was an occultist and as a devout Catholic child I wouldn’t have approved of the occult if I had known what it was.
How, though, does this square with a taste for Blyton? The prolific English scribbler ( 800 novels) was later much criticised for the limited vocabulary in her children’s books, but they were the first books I could read and they started me on a lifelong addiction to novels. She was not only my first author, but the first author I tried to collect systematically. I got all 15 Secret Sevens and read them repeatedly ( Peter, Janet, Colin, George, Barbara, Pam, Jack: the characters are with me still). I also collected the Famous Five novels involving Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In the Famous Five, George was a girl who wanted to be a boy and cross- dressed. She wasn’t a proto- feminist, merely a girl who wanted to be a boy. As with my experience of Dr Strange, I had no idea how contested such ground would become.
My favourite Blyton books, however, were the Five Find- Outers mysteries. It was here I found the first literary hero with whom I could completely identify, a rather obnoxious, interfering, officious kid who imposed himself on his friends and was known by one and all as Fatty. I really, really liked and admired Fatty. None of the Blyton books, nor the Marvel comics, had any sex in them. There was a prelapsarian respect in those days for the innocence of childhood and people who read Blyton or bought the Marvel comics were all kids. As with Lord of the Rings , the heroes in the Marvel comics had only just reached puberty emotionally, no matter what their powers.
I’ve never watched a movie, or played a video game, or done anything on the net that so surely transported me into another world as did these comics and books.
They don’t seem to sell comics in newsagents these days. I wasn’t able to interest my sons in my surviving Marvel comics ( baby boomers’ offspring singularly fail to share our tastes), nor even in the superhero movies. Perhaps when Fatty makes it to the big screen they will see the error of their ways.
review@ theaustralian. com. au