The marvel of comic book storytelling
In memory of the late Stan Lee — whom the New York Times euologized the other day as the embodiment of Marvel Comics, “if not comic books in general” — I headed on a mission Tuesday to Strange Adventures Comix & Curiosities down on Halifax’s Prince Street.
Inside, the store seemed cosily familiar and completely alien.
In shape and feel, the comics on the shelves resembled the mini-literary works that I flipped through long ago on a rack at Fader’s Drug Store in central Halifax.
Many were the same titles that I would walk over to the cash register. There, if memory serves me right, I would pay a dime, then sprint out the door and the few blocks home with my treasure.
Some half-a-century later I discovered that the Amazing Spider-man costs $10 an issue, which I suppose is about right.
Peter Parker, the very model of upward mobility, is a Tony Stark-like industrialist nowadays. J. Jonah Jameson, still with the Hitler mustache, has gone into politics. Spider-man sports a cooler uniform. His love interest Mary Jane Watson now seems to work as a Victoria’s Secret model.
The mood seems dark, the story, naturally, incomprehensible for someone trying to catch up five decades later.
Jed Mackay says there was a time when I may have found old Spidey even harder going.
“There used to be a view — in a general sense — that comics were going too far in the darkness and complexity,” he told me Tuesday. “Now the feeling is more that there needs to be something for everyone.”
Wednesday, you should know, is a big day for Mackay, who teaches at Halifax’s Maritime Muslim Academy, and who has been writing comics like X-men for Marvel since 2010.
The initial double-sized episode of his Daughters of the Dragon series — featuring a pair of kick-ass female crime fighters who have also appeared in Marvel’s Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Defenders series’ — comes out digitally first.
Later this winter, after the next two episodes appear, it will be published on shiny paper where guys like me can read it.
The comics are about old things, Mackay tells me: the nature of long-term friendship, the endless cycle of revenge, stuff like that.
The timeless themes don’t surprise me one bit.
Though just 34, Mackay is an old soul, having grown up in Stanley Bridge, P.E.I., reading a comic book collection amassed by his dad during the 1960s and ‘70s, precisely when I could be found on my living room floor pouring over Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, The Avengers, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos and Spider-man.
When I was done with those comics, sometimes I would trade them for others, sometimes I would put them under the bed in boxes just like Mackay’s dad did.
I know exactly what the younger man means when he talks about how comic books fulfil the primal urge that humans have to tell stories. How they’re accessible for just about any kid who picks them up.
And how comics are a combination of art and writing that allows each comic to tell stories in a way that resonates more deeply than either medium possibly could on their own.
People find what they want and need in comics.
Mike Creagen, the Halifax photographer, for example, opened his first one when he was just a kid in Toronto, and, for a time, wanted to move to New York to become a comic book artist.
At 63 he’s still buying them, but only for the art inside when supplied by magicians with a pen and pencil like Jim Steranko — whose most famous work, Wikipedia tells me, was Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D — and Alex Toth, whom people my age may know as the cartoonist behind Space Ghost.
“I hardly even read them anymore,” says Cregan, whose prized possessions include a
Silver Surfer #2 and an early X-men, both autographed by
Stan Lee, who made it a point to perform a cameo appearance early in one of the endless Marvel film adaptations.
Mackay has always found something that resonated deeply in the stories.
Superhero comics, and Marvel comics in particular, he says, “pose an almost primordial framework”: there are heroes, people who are larger than life, and they go on adventures that are similarly larger than life.
“There’s a lot to work within that framework,” he says, “but it’s a way to tell stories and ask questions in a way that’s exciting, interesting and at its best iconic.”
He went on to say that a person got a sense of those classical themes and ideas at Marvel during the Stan Lee years, from the big bombastic titles that drifted into the Shakespearean: Lo, There Shall be an Ending (Fantastic Four #43) and If This Be My Destiny (The Amazing Spider-man #31-33).
I agree with every single word Mackay says.
Right now on Netflix I’m watching one of those bleakly beautiful British crime series, Shetland.
The protagonist is a lone wolf trying to bring order to a place where deadly things happen.
Archetypal guys like him go right back to Homer.
But I first learned to recognize his type — as I first learned about the adult themes of betrayal and fortitude and grace under pressure, also found in the show — lying on my parents’ carpet, pouring over pages filled with the dreams of childhood.
Jed Mackay has been writing comics for Marvel since 2010.