Recently I happened to come across the Marvel 75th Anniversary Magazine. Reminiscent of “house” fanzines like FOOM or The Amazing World of DC Comics (but slicker and lacking their folksy charm), this all-color celebration of the company’s 75th birthday includes an interview with Marvel founder Stan Lee, a history of how a little company called Timely Comics ultimately became Disney’s Marvel Entertainment, and–disappointingly–a feature titled “The 75 Greatest Marvel Comics of All Time.” This includes cover shots representing, as promised, 75 individual issues, graphic novels or storylines from Marvel’s history. There’s an emblem on it, “Chosen by YOU!” Apparently, Marvel.com allowed its readers to vote.
Apparently, nearly all of Marvel.com’s readers began their comics-reading careers after 1990. The breakdown of time comics selected, by decade, goes like this:
1940s – 2
1950s – 0
1960s – 11
1970s – 7
1980s – 21
1990s – 10
2000s – 14
2010s – 11
So, 62 of Marvel’s “Greatest” are post-Stan Lee. (Stan left his position as Editor-in-Chief in the mid-1970s. As far as I remember, the only 1970s issue mentioned herein that was published under his leadership was the issue of Amazing Spider-Man which featured the death of Gwen Stacy.)
Less than a dozen of Marvel’s “Greatest” were drawn by Jack Kirby.
A third of Marvel’s “Greatest” have been published since the year 2000, and the staggering majority of them (56) fell after the company was 40 years old.
It defies belief. How the hell did this company survive 40 years if its product was actually worse then than it is now? Now, when comics are floundering and it appears that only Hollywood writers can produce marketable super-hero stories?
A big part of the love of super-heroes is nostalgia. Adults my age remember watching Adam West’s Batman, Super-Friends and the Filmation cartoons. Adults my Uncle Bob’s age remember seeing the Lone Ranger and Superman in movie serials, and hearing them on the radio. Adults my son’s age remember watching Batman and the X-men on Fox Kids. We loved the fun and imagination of those stories and characters, even when the stories were rough or unbelievable, because they let us dream.
So we want to read comics now, or go see Summer blockbuster movies now, that feature those characters, because we want to get back in touch with that fun feeling we had as kids.
But it seems that, at the same time, a lot of us are embarrassed by our love for these characters, and so we want to distance ourselves from the “hokiness” of their early incarnations, and embrace the more “grown-up” storytelling of the modern day. But, I gotta ask, if you don’t think the comics and super-heroes of the Forties, Fifites, Sixties and Seventies were great… what the hell are you being nostalgic for?
Okay, adults my eldest son’s age might be nostalgic for the grim and gritty comics of the late 1980s and the 1990s. He’s not, but some his age might be. But a love of the works of Frank Miller, Alan Moore or Grant Morrison does not, I say does not drive the production of movies like The Incredibles, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s Avengers or… well, yeah, I guess it does drive the production of The Man of Steel. Not that I necessarily decry the works of any of these men. I loved The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen andMorrison’s run on X-Men… the first half of it, anyway.
So I call bullshit on anyone who thinks this list represents what’s great about Marvel Comics. It over-represents the comics of the last few years, giving credence to earlier decades only where there were “milestones,” (read, comics that are worth a lot of money) not where there were game-changing or ground-breaking stories. (A couple of exceptions would be the attention given to the Kree-Skrull War storyline in Avengers and the Spider-Man Master Planner saga.)
And some important creators are completely overlooked. Peter David on Hulk. Roger Stern on Captain America. Steve Englehart and Mark Waid on anything. Jeff Parker. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Allan Heinberg. Dan Slott, except for one, brief mention. Roy Thomas is heavily under-represented, considering he wrote nearly the entire line for a few years.
And I feel the number one spot going to the Death of Gwen Stacy speaks to what modern readers value–namely shock and character death over actual story. Important issue? Yes. Good story? Yes. Greatest thing Marvel ever did? Hardly. (And Civil War is in the Number Two spot, which I find ludicrous. It’s one of the most over-sensationalized, under-plotted, under-characterized things I’ve ever read. Why is it there? Because it kept readers in suspense.)
So, just because I can, next week, I’ll highlight my picks for the greatest of Marvel. Like those on the published list, it’s heavily skewed to the days of my youth. But I think it highlights some important moments in the history of comics and the history of Marvel that the other list of 75 missed. I also left off any of my favorite storylines that already made Marvel’s list. Otherwise the Dark Phoenix saga would of course be here. Sadly, it also does not include works by some of the creators I mentioned above, because, well, I’m keeping it to 15.
See ya then.