Roll out the Mar­vels

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv - GREG SHERI­DAN

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

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.