Who's Afraid of Doctor Strange?
By Jonathan Lethem

ITEM! I've got a crazy kaboodle of bombastic bombshells I wanna get off my chest, so let's dispense with the preliminaries, shall we?

ITEM! Rick Moody's intricate riffs on a kid's love for, and identification with, the Fantastic Four in The Ice Storm (Little, Brown, 1994), and Michael Chabon's tender excavation of the founding era of the costumed comic-book hero in Kavalier and Klay (Random House, 2000), might be seen as evidence of a coming to light of a secret identity, one tucked in the collective closet of a generation! For U.S. - born boy - uh, male - writers of a more-or-less late-boomer, early-Gen X age, there's an influence my (admittedly subjective) polling methods have revealed as a secret universal, as likely to provoke murmurs of conflicted sentimental recognition as any '70s television or pop-music reference: superheroes!

ITEM! Everybody and his brother knows Marvel rules! (Moody, from an interview in the Mississippi Review: "I hated DC...the difference between DC and Marvel is the difference between Superman and The Hulk. The Hulk, as in Ovid, is doomed to transformation based on the quality of his emotional life... meanwhile Superman is just basically a really nice male model with endlessly good motives... Superheroes that were condemned by their skills, made foul by them, those were the ones I liked.")

ITEM! That is to say, some of us haven't fully recovered from the Kree-Skrull War!

ITEM! The format and tone I'm aping here is that of the "Marvel Bullpen Bulletin," a page of fannish-insider communique incorporated into every issue of each Marvel title!

Okay, I'll quit. The point, though, is that being a member of FOOM ("Friends Of Ol' Marvel) was a distinctly hermetic activity, however widespread. Undoubtedly there was something extra cool - sexier, more mystical, more irreverent, all at once - about Marvel Comics. There were also plenty of silly code words for keeping phonies out of the clubhouse. Marvel was an allegiance, a credential. And it seems to me now that Marvel's extra coolness curdled, in grown remembrance, into something extra embarrassing. Among writers more or less my age, the credential is practically never brandished.

It's fair to say comics (and their euphemistically respectable secret identity, the graphic novel) have found their moment in literary culture. Not to make it sound unduly sudden; the pressure's been building for a decade or more, through RAW Magazine and Crumb and Art Spiegelman's residence at the New Yorker, plus a string of novels taking comic books and their creators as subject matter. Now comes Chabon's opus to cap the trend, along with the gratifying mainstreaming of cartoonists Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware and Ben Katchor by Pantheon Books.

So where's Spiderman hiding? Why, apart from Moody, is MMM ("Make Mine Marvel!") still the love that dare not speak its name? Chabon's is just the most recent of a run of novels which choose to focus on the older and more iconographic DC-style characters. Chabon came of age in the seventies, and he shows a nice familiarity with Ant Man, one of Marvel's oddest minor heroes, in his story "Werewolves in Their Youth," but the lovingly researched K&K is set at the birth-era of Superman and his brethren, in the 1930s. Elsewhere, Herbert Thomas's elegantly brittle The Superlative Man (Farrar Straus, 1996) deconstructs the myth of Superman, a job you weren't sure still needed doing, while Robert Rodi's What They Did to Princess Paragon (Dutton, 1994) bemoans the updating of Wonder Woman. Digging further back, Joseph Torchia's The Kryptonite Kid (Holt, 1979) gleans the Man of Steel's secret identity and tight buns as incitement for a gay coming-out story, anticipating one of Chabon's motifs.

One odd case hovers between the Marvel and DC-style superhero: Michael Bishop's overlooked gem Count Geiger's Blues (Tor, 1992). Bishop's Count Geiger is Supermannish in being an square newspaperman, but highly Marvel-esque in being transformed into a freak by that most mixed of post-war blessings: radiation. His toxic powers eventually cost him his life, evoking the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk's constant struggles with their blighted bodies. But Geiger's an upright man in the Clark Kent vein, and he's got a batch of teenage sidekicks, so he ultimately feels more Golden Age than Silver. A key distinguishing feature of the Marvel superhero is that he isn't admired by teenagers, he is one. This trend culminated in the X-Men, of course, whose early-'80s apotheosis seemed to swallow the rest of the Marvel Universe whole.

Other novelists - some of them slightly older - have seemed more comfortable taking as their subject newspaper strips. The "funnies" have always had more cachet, at least since the intelligentsia of the '30s embraced George Herriman's Krazy Kat. Beside Jay Cantor's cerebral homage Krazy Kat (Knopf, 1988), these include fond novels by Stephen Millhauser and Tom De Haven. The wildest card is dealt by John Stephen Fink's Further Adventures (St. Martin's, 1993), narrated by an autistic radio-serial hero called The Green Ray. The book is a tour de force of ambivalent love for well-intentioned men in tights, albeit displaced to a distant time and medium. In his jacket photo Fink looks to be about 35.

This resistance may partly a practical matter. What made Marvel's comics compelling is also what makes them awkward to talk about: they combined a weird teenage emotionalism, a sticky, morose intimacy, with a grownup taste for visionary narrative sprawl. Plotlines rarely resolve, and characters drift in and out of different stories (and different realms) against an immense psuedohistorical background impossible to parse quickly. It's tough to recreate this stuff for a reader who's not versed. In Ice Storm Moody devotes paragraphs to explaining The Negative Zone and The Watcher and Agatha Harkness just to establish the emotional resonances in a single issue of The Fantastic Four.

That's a lot harder than just dropping a reference like Superman or Batman and allowing the reader to bring generic knowledge to bear. DC's heroes are instantly comprehensible, more interesting in and of themselves than in the plots where they nominally reside. Reading a hundred issues of Superman is like watching Andy Warhol's Empire - even as the object in the center of the frame grows in mythic force, everything else means progressively less until you want to throw yourself off a tall building. Batman, that traumatized vigilante, is a bit richer, but to read a hundred Batman books is to see the failure of his pallid, sycophantic supporting cast: why won't anyone ever call Batman on his shit?

On the other hand, a prime run of the classic Kirby/Lee Fantastic Four, or the Byrne/Claremont X-Men, if not quite Proustian, is a genuine reading experience. The ensembles suffer, reflect, change. And suffer again. If Mad Magazine is a child's primer in irony, Marvel is its equal in angst. (The first romantic loss for a lot of guys my age was Gwen Stacy's death at the hands of the Hobgoblin in Spiderman #X [tk].) Marvel's universe is loaded with tortured and ambiguous figures, like Black Bolt and The Vision and Warlock, who refuse to decant into pop art. Opaque at first, they deepen with exposure. As Chabon points out, the '70's were "when the fans took over the industry for the first time. The comics they produced were inevitably designed to reward the fanboy reader - the more intense the obsession, the deeper the rewards."

No fanboy was left to wonder if Marvel was conscious in its ambition. Here's a slice of rhetoric from a real Bullpen Bulletin, circa 1973, and sounding remarkably like Scott McCloud's wonky and profound cartoon-essay Understanding Comics (Fantagraphics, 1993): "...Marvel's greatest crusade: to give the comic-book its rightful place within the media, to have it fully accepted as one of the most powerful, most viable forms of communication the world has ever known..."

For me, this is telling. It's usually a lot harder to talk about childhood enthusiasms which mean to capture ambiguous grownup yearnings, but fall short - the pretentious, muddled stuff, in other words - than it is to cop to poppier, kitschier favorites. Easier to admit enthusiasm for The Knack than for King Crimson, say, and hipper to have devoured Heinlein than Hesse. Marvel-love is still a radiant substance contained in some interior lead-lined vault precisely because its best writers were nearly able to offer the tools for critiquing and debunking the superhero impulse. But didn't. Like most noble failure, it's uncomfortable to identify with.

At certain points Marvel comics offered the possibility of being grown up with, rather than out of. Then, invariably, the commercial imperative of selling fresh six year-olds on Ben Grimm's clobberin' power or Spiderman's wisecracks would drag them in the opposite direction. At the same time, impossible monthly deadlines and obnoxious work-for-hire contracts crushed the will of the most idealistic writers and artists. You'd watch a storyline like Jim Starlin's psychedelic Warlock or Steve Gerber's antiheroic and reflexive Defenders briefly flower, then crumble into dumb punchouts, and guest appearances by more popular characters.

The emblematic Marvel auteur was probably Gerber, who raised the stakes with the simultaneous launching of Howard the Duck and Omega the Unknown in 1976 (or, as I like to call it, The Year of My Disenchantment). Gerber's two projects attacked the superhero concept from different angles: Howard by satirical barrage, Omega by a realistic portrait of the costumed hero's likely irrelevance to the problems of a kid living in Abe Beame's mid-'70's New York, a dystopia if ever there was one. Both books promised more than they could deliver, before being cancelled prematurely.

Gerber probably somewhat misunderstood the narrative-aesthetics of his form, which was never actually novelistic so much as soap-operatic. Its greatest practitioner was probably Stan Lee all along, who in Fantastic Four had grasped that he was creating a serial which, like daytime television, generations of readers would want to grow into and out of, and invested it with his big sloppy heart rather than trying to think his way out of it. Lee's great successor, Chris Claremont, reclaimed Marvel's angsty sincerity in X-Men, and there was no looking back. Marvel's creative culmination was a tombstone for its old, clumsily-wielded transformative potential.

It would wait for the mid-'80s for Gerber's fledgling critique-from-within to be realized when Howard Chaykin, Frank Miller (the man who belatedly called Batman on his shit) and Alan Moore revolutionized superhero comics in American Flagg, The Dark Knight Returns, and Watchmen, respectively. These writers at last identified the Superhero as a sick adult fantasy, not a child's. Chabon's K&K would make the same point more gently, but these works were full of the rage of betrayal, and for aging fans still confused by an repulsive-attraction or attractive-repulsion to their old heroes, they hit like a bomb. Moore, in particular, thought so hard about the emotional and ethical implications of costumed vigilantism he probably scared novelists away from the turf for a decade. His Watchmen still seems to me the sole superhero comic produced within the mainstream and by the traditional collaborative methods that can agreeably stand with graphic novels on "serious" subjects (or at least free of capes and tights) by writer-artists like Chester Brown, Will Eisner, Gary Panter, and the aforementioned Spiegelman, Clowes, Ware and Katchor. Forgive me the names I've left off this list - there's a lot of great work lately, and a trip to a comics store can be pretty humbling for an old fan. Just about the only place I'm certain I never need to glance is the Marvel racks, a garish wasteland.

After Chaykin, Miller and Moore, all that remained was nostalgia. Of course, nostalgia, once you go there, turns out to be a pretty roomy place to hang out. Moore himself has returned to do some pretty silly superhero work in Tom Strong and Top Ten and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, dancing in the sparkling ruins of a cathedral he helped demolish. His more serious recent work is serious indeed - From Hell, a mid-'90s magnum opus about Jack the Ripper - is as impressive a historical novel as I've read, though his artist-collaborator's work on that project is a little hard on the eyes. Elsewhere, Spiderman is still single, the Human Torch still shouts "Flame On!" and writers with a Marvel influence, kept like an old, unused costume in the closet, may still drop a code word here and there for the cognoscenti, like Colson Whitehead's brief referencing of Luke Cage, Power Man in John Henry Days (Doubleday, 2001). We know one another, we Marvel boys. I've just got one question: have I finally earned my No-Prize?

Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Lethem. Excerpted by permission of the author. No part of this essay may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.