I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read comics. I know there were a few early years there when I didn’t read at all, but as soon as I could sound out words, I was reading comics.
I know that there must have been comics I read before this, but the first comic I remember, story beats, lines of dialog, images emblazoned on my memory, was Fantastic Four #210.
We lived on a farm so going to the store meant driving several miles. At least 10-20 minutes of sitting in a hot Chevy Impala. For a kid who was probably 4 at the time, that might as well have been forever. I would get fidgety and squirm and complain. I probably pushed my mom to the brink on some of those trips. I always had toys and books in the car, but they must not have made an impact because I can’t recall most of them. What I do remember is the day that my mom bought me Fantastic Four #210.
On the cover was an enormous man draped in layers of blue and purple technology floating in space. Not a realistic depiction of space, the 1970s sci fi version of space. The kind of space with several multi colored planets and comets blazing past. You know, that good space. Being a kid addicted to all things space and robots and lasers, this comic was off to a great start. The first page is an image of Ben Grimm (The Thing) and Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) standing on top of a spaceship deflecting asteroids, Ben with a futuristic looking piece of metal ripped away from the ship and Sue with invisible force fields she controlled with her mind. The second page has a talking robot. I must have read that comic a thousand times.
There are two scenes that I still remember vividly from that comic. Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) attempts to save his friend Ben but botches it and ends up hurling himself into the vacuum of space. Instead Ben ends up saving Johnny by hauling him back inside the ship and performing artificial respiration. The other is when the entire Fantastic Four attempt to get Galactus’s attention by hitting him, burning him, and trashing his ship only to have him ignore them and undo all of their damage with a wave of his hand. Reed Richards decides that force won’t work on Galactus and they will have to try to outsmart him. By the end of the issue it certainly looks like they have failed at that too.
I had seen and read superhero stories before then. I had watched many episodes of the old animated Spider-man show. I might have even read a Marvel comic before then. What I hadn’t been introduced to was watching these magnificently powerful characters fail, and fail in very dumb human ways. I had no idea who Galactus was before that comic, but I knew from the buildup that trying to hit that huge purple guy was never going to accomplish anything. The Fantastic Four knew it too, but they tried to hit him anyway. They tried everything and failed. The last page isn’t even really a cliffhanger. The Fantastic Four simply get sent off by Galactus on their next adventure. The entire story is just about that team of people, that family, pushing forward stumbling over obstacles but never ever giving up. The heroism wasn’t about winning, it was about never allowing losing to stop them. It was about holding each other together through insurmountable adversity.
This story was something different than I was used to. It wasn’t about the adventure. It was about those characters dealing with the adventure. It was about a family suffering and still carrying on together.
Stan Lee didn’t write this story, the great writer Marv Wolfman did, but it follows the template that Stan Lee had laid out. Stories are about characters and characters are people. People do human things, good things, bad things, dumb things, heroic things, and they often do all of them at the same time. Stories aren’t about the plot, stories are about people reacting to all the plot happening around them.
Thrilling adventure stories with superheroes certainly, but at their core, every Marvel comic was filled with stories about people. Often they were stories about marginalized people and folks on the edges of society. For the most part, Marvel characters aren’t dashing heroes and infallible paragons. They are bookish teens and kids hiding from persecution. People forced to deal with abilities they didn’t want or ask for. There are an awful lot of Marvel stories about being broke. Spider-man doesn’t have kryptonite, he has student loans.
I can honestly say that the only reason you are reading this right now, the only reason I have ever written anything is because of great writers like like Marv Wolfman and Stan Lee. I learned to draw because of comics and I write because of comics. I write because of the love I had for those stories.
Once, many years ago, I wrote the only fan letter I have ever written. I sent it to Stan Lee, or at least the address on his web site. It was only one sentence long. I wrote
“Thanks for everything.”
He probably never saw it, but that’s fine. I didn’t really write it for him. I wrote it for that kid sitting in the back of a hot car reading an issue of Fantastic Four or Xmen or Spider-man for the thousandth time. To him those stories were everything.