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Cooler than "Cool," Hipper than "Hip" By John Byrne
As I was flipping through some old funnybooks the other day I was struck by something quite significant. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest (no, not the Professor and Mary Ann) were crafting what I think we can all agree were the real glory years for Marvel Comics, they did not do much that could be considered "hip" for the time.
Reading the Essentials volumes, for instance, one is struck by the sparsity of real topical references. The Beatles get a nod, and the President of the United States is mentioned. And there was that sort of "imaginary story" reference to the Apollo XI moon landing -- but lay those stories alongside most of the comics being produced today (even my own -- my bad!) and notice how few references there are to then-current TV shows, or movies, or music. (The most topical recurrent reference was all them evil Commies running around pretty much causing most of the Marvel Universe!)
Was this conscious, on the parts of these creators? At DC topical references almost never happened -- but DC was mired in a kind of non-time, non-place that rarely referred to the Real World in any way. Their heroes and villains were, after all, set in imaginary cities, and DC was even coy about suggesting just where those cities might lie within the continental United States.
Marvel, on the other hand (and after a quickly ignored false start) gave us characters set in real cities, real countries. Living as I did in far away Western Canada, and always willing to suspend my disbelief as much as superhumanly possible, I was pretty much suckered in by the "reality" of the embryonic Marvel Universe. I did not quite reach the point of wondering why the adventures of the Fantastic Four were not mentioned on the nightly news -- but when the Blue Area of the moon was first referenced, I did go out in my back yard and look for it. And I put it down to my poor vision and color blindness that I was unable to spot it.
Stan and Jack and Steve and the others were building a world that seemed very real to me, circa 1962, and yet they did so without mentioning the last movie Stan saw, or Jack's favorite TV show, or the newest Ayn Rand book Steve had read. The closest they came to what might be considered a rough parallel of what we see so much today happened in the issue of the FF where the Sub-Mariner bought a movie studio, and when the FF went to visit, Kirby populated the back lot with familiar icons of the time -- Alfred Hitchcock, James Arness (as Matt Dillon), Jackie Gleason, etc. Yet these appearances were basically "walkthroughs," and except for Gleason, no one got lines. Today, I suspect, whole scenes would be structured around those appearances, preferably with some kind of snide comment about either the actors or the characters. (Or, worse, some kind of sycophantic gushing about how superior the Hollywood product is to the dross produced in comics.)
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The result of the approach Stan and the other guys used is to render those stories timeless. Sure, the dialog might be a bit hokey occasionally, and the monsters and other plot devices somewhat hoary -- but a civilian today could pick up an FF, or a Spider-Man, or an X-Men and not have to worry about understanding the popular culture of the time. It's there -- but it's there almost subliminally, as background noise.
I remember the first time I was consciously aware of this unwritten rule being set aside. It was decided to update the wardrobe of a character in one of Marvel's lead books, and the artist of the time drew the character in an outrageously hip outfit that was pretty much old news by the time the book came out.
I can compare this to certain periods in movie making. Take movies made in the 1940s. All those Humphrey Bogart detective and gangster flicks. Sure, they don't look like they happened yesterday, but the fashions and styles are subdued enough that we are not constantly aware of Bogie's hat, or his coat, or his pants, every time he walks into a room. Compare this to the James Bond movies -- especially after Connery left -- where Bond was dressed always in the exact fashions of the moment. I still cringe when I see Roger Moore walk into that down-the-gunbarrel shot wearing bell-bottoms! Would James Bond really wear bell-bottoms?
The 70s are particularly embarrassing, in this respect. All those godawful fashions we wore for about eight minutes -- paisley shirts with white collars so long and pointy we practically tripped over them; bell-bottoms that could have sheltered whole families of homeless people (except that we didn't have homeless people in the 70s -- we only had bums); and those hairstyles!! Anyway -- doesn't it sometimes seem like every movie made in the 70s was made during the worst times for fashion? How much of that is due to the filmmakers trying just a little too hard to be hip?
Look at it from another direction: comedy. The Marx Brothers movies are considered comedy classics, even as they race toward being 70 years old. I'm not a big fan of the Marx Brothers, I admit, yet I can watch one of their movies and not find myself going "Huh?" at Groucho's one-liners. His comments are funny, not hip and topical. How many comedy films made in the last 10 years can make the same claim? Some people think the Austin Powers movies are hilarious. Will they be 70 years from now? Or will the audience of 2072 wonder what the heck the characters are talking about (while still laughing at the hijinks of Chico and Harpo)?
And now -- comics. Today, when I flip through the latest books I see so many topical references I cannot help but wonder what a reader of even a year from now will make of the fare. There are writers who seem so tragically hip they can't seem to get through a book without trawling in as many heavy-handed (and often inappropriate) references as they can.
My guess: it's easier than writing good stories. Keep the readers entertained with a kind of cultural Where's Waldo? and many of them will, alas, come away thinking their money was well spent -- even when the "stories" go on for forty issues, largely because they are so full of extraneous fluff.
Timeless. That's what the old stories were. That's what the movies and TV shows we really remember were (and are).
Maybe that's what they should be again?
John Byrne is one of the industry's most noted creators. In almost three decades, he has completed work on hundreds of books, including most of the "Big Two's" major titles. His previous achievements include classic runs on X-MEN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, AVENGERS, WEST COAST AVENGERS, SUPERMAN, THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK, and an expansive five-year run on FANTASTIC FOUR. Byrne's latest creator-owned monthly series, LAB RATS, debuted April 2002 from DC Comics. His next project is GENERATIONS 3, also for DC.