Literature Exists in the Margins: or, Why It Isn’t a Comic Book Without the Ads!
It’s easy to forget that literature, whenever it was written, is a unique creation of its own time and space. That each book comes from somewhere, and was once singular rather than plural, meaning it began life as a recitation, a manuscript, or a first edition. Unfortunately, we tend to experience books in a vacuum today, with high school students assigned to read Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, the Crucible, and 1984 one after the other, without truly understanding the enormous leaps of time, culture, and aesthetics that occurred between each one.
For example, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was written for that magical window of time toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, when theater had become the de facto expression of English culture. Plays were written and performed at a dizzying rate, sometimes as many as forty or fifty a season, on a bewildering variety of subjects. And yet, for all their novelty, these plays were gloriously derivative, often recycling plots, characters, and even language from play to play (how else to compose so many so fast?). Romeo and Juliet borrows its plot from an English poem based on an Italian original, its scenarios from any number of stock tragedies, and Shakespeare’s language — though truly unique — parodies the conventions of love poetry throughout the ages (Romeo begins as a virtual self-help guide to bad poetry).
Unfortunately for us, Shakespeare never published a definitive version of the play, as theatrical works weren’t really seen as literature in the same way as poetry or anything in Latin. The closest thing we have is the Folio, the official collection of Shakespeare’s plays that was compiled in 1623, breaking the plays into three categories (Tragedies, Comedies, Histories) and definitively putting his name on several plays which had previously been anonymous. There are only a handful of Folios left in the world, so when they tour museums or grace a specific library, they draw a crowd. People want to see the original Shakespeare, the copy of the work that comes closest to being what people in his own day could have owned and read. Of course, it’s doubtful that Shakespeare personally oversaw the compilation of the Folio, and unclear if he wanted his plays delineated into three notoriously imprecise categories (The Merchant of Venice a comedy — really?). Nevertheless, when you see one, you almost feel like you’re in the presence of Shakespeare, that this is, in essence, the theater’s Holy Writ. Or, to put it in popular culture terms, that this is a omnibus graphic novel, with each play a single issue of Shakespeare’s dramatic art.
I bring this up merely to point out that very few people experience literature as an artifact, a piece of paper or a book tied to this or that moment in time. Books are mass produced and violently divorced from their cultural moment, pressed into forms which the authors, themselves, never envisioned (paper back books, e-books, a miniseries, etc.). Thankfully, literature can easily survive the translation, since the best of the written word is designed to be universal. It helps to know a bit about Shakespeare’s time and the works of his contemporaries, but it’s not essential. A few footnotes can act as a convenient crutch for the novice reader. However, what truly survives the passing of time and culture are the words, the characters, the stories, the themes, and the sheer sense of excitement we feel when reading these works anew. And as a teacher, it’s useful to pair works across many times and lands thematically, to see how human beings were working out the same problems in different ways and languages, and often coming to the same conclusions (and sometimes, very different ones).
But what do we lose when we forget (or are never told) that literature was meant to be experienced a specific way, in a specific environment, in a unique form that complemented its function? Many gigantic novels, such as those of Dickens and Collins, were first experienced in serial form in magazines, so readers were left breathless from issue to issue at an artful cliffhanger. While students might groan at having to read a 400–500 page novel, imagine the initial readers, who only got a few pages at a time, teasing them into the work, until they were happily gobbling up page after page for the rest of the year? In the same way, we binge shows on Netflix and elsewhere episode by episode, hour by hour, never really imagining the investment of time that is swallowed up by watching an entire show. In the future, I’m sure students will balk at having to watch the entire first season of Stranger Things in one go: “aw man, classical shows are so long and boring!” Yet within the context of say, Disney Plus, where shows are often doled out episode by episode, an episode is never too long, only too short. The latter-day watcher will never truly have that experience: the shows will just be a thing, a complete work of, say, 7–8 chapters, to be worked through hour by hour for the inevitable pop quiz to follow.
Perhaps the art form that suffers the most from its translation into a mainstream reading experience is comics. While graphic novels enjoy great popularity today, and many comics are written with an eye toward future compilation, a comic can never be truly (or successfully) divorced from its flimsy, pulp origins. This is especially true for those comics written before the Internet, since the average 20–30 page comic was a virtual time capsule of pop culture, teeming with ads for video games, TV shows, toys, and other comics. And perhaps even more importantly, comic books provided a way for other comic book fans to connect to the fandom, to reach out to the creators, and even meet one another. Most classic comics featured a ‘letters page’ at the end of the book, which reproduced actual fan letters for other fans to read and agree/disagree with. Indeed, they often sound a lot like the comments found on Twitter and Facebook, albeit much more civil and literate. Yet in the days before the Internet, it was astonishing to see all the other kids (and many adults) who shared your belief in comics, and whose addresses were included with the letter so fans could communicate with one another (remember pen pals?). And it really worked: according to legend, the famous creator of Elfquest, Wendy Pini, met her husband, Richard Pini, from one of his letters to a Silver Surfer comic. They started up a correspondence and the rest is comic book history!
To explore this theory a bit more, let’s look at a pretty typical comic from the 1980’s, which to me is the high point of the comic book form, since they were being taken more seriously as an art form (not just for kids!), and yet were still under the radar of most Americans. I’ve chosen DC Comics’ Atari Force, Issue #1, which is a relatively unheard-of comic that was originally a tie-in for Atari games, but spawned a life of its own. The comic is clearly inspired by Star Wars, as it features two plucky, super-powered humans surrounded by a gang of eclectic aliens, all pitted against a villain named The Dark Destroyer, who looks more like the Darth Destroyer. And yet, for all its obvious derivativeness, the comic boasted solid storytelling by Gerry Conway and jaw-dropping art by the famous Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. While the story itself bears no relation to any Atari product (though one of the main characters is named Tempest), it’s a quintessential product of the 80’s, with colorful space-opera action lacking the dystopian ethos that has become the norm in science fiction today.
Yet Atari Force #1 would lose so much if pulled from its comic book roots and shoved in an omnibus Graphic Novel along with the other 20-odd issues. For one, this is the first issue, as the cover proudly announces: “1st Issue…Introducing: The Strangest S-F Heroes of all!” That makes the comic a precious object, if not one-of-a-kind, at least a relative rarity (and indeed, I was excited to find it at a local comic-book shop). Owning a first issue is a right of passage, since without a first issue, you can never have a complete collection. Every series starts with the first issue, no matter how it evolves and advances beyond it. It’s where we meet the cast of characters (or some of them, at least) and where we get a distinct point of origin which is repeated almost verbatim whenever the story is retold in other art forms (we love an origin story!).
Even more interesting is the little box in the right or left hand corner of the cover which announces the issue number, the year, and the price of the book. Atari Force #1 came out in January 1984 and retailed for 75 cents on newsstands and in comic book stores (or 95 cents in Canada, 25 pence in the UK). This grounds the comic in a very specific time and place, telling its own story about economics and market worth. It helps you realize how accessible comics were in the early 80s, when most kids could scrounge together enough pocket change to get at least one comic, if not two, to be read over and over again for the rest of the month. Today, comics can cost as much as 6 or 7 dollars an issue, partly due to inflation, but also part of the growing respectability of the medium. No wonder most comic book readers today are middle-aged men and women: we’re the only ones who can afford it!
Also of note is a small square containing the once-ubiquitous Comics Code seal, meaning that the comic passed a ‘rigorous’ set of standards suitable for child or adolescent consumption. The Code, established in 1954, was once the terror of the comic book industry, as it virtually destroyed the progression of the comic book form beyond a loose collection of ‘strips’ into more adult expression and material. Specifically, the Code targeted depictions of horror, violence, sex, murder, and crime, feeling that they would lead to imitation by readers too naïve to distinguish fiction from reality. Or such was the theory of Dr. Frederic Wortham, author of Seduction of the Innocent (1954), who pioneered the Code and put comic book creators on trial during the witch-hunt craze instigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy (comic books and Communists — a match made in heaven!).
As Wortham memorably wrote, “[Comics] are not poetic, not literary, have no relationship to any art, have as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin or marihuana [sic], although many people take them, too…They do not express the genuine conflicts and aspirations of the people, but are made according to a cheap formula. Can you imagine a future great writer looking for a figure like Prometheus, Helena or Dr. Faustus among the stock comic-book figures like Superman, Wonder Woman, or Jo-Jo the Congo King?”
The passage is notable for Wertham’s inability to distinguish poetry anywhere, much less in comics. While many comics books did indeed rely on stock formulas and characters (the same is true of literature and film), many of them were also highly innovative, using the juxtaposition of modern art and pulp storytelling to create an entirely new genre of literature. Wertham’s willful refusal to see the difference between Jo-Jo the Congo King and Wonder Woman is telling; when he looks at comics, he can only see the worst examples, never bothering to read those which strive higher, or attempt bolder experiments. But why single out comic books? Couldn’t we could make the same argument about any book by cherry-picking our examples: say, a steamy Romance novel with heaving breasts and thrusting loins, or Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which has brainwashed many a naïve white nationalist?
These arguments aside, seeing the Comics Code stamped boldly across the cover of Atari Force is a reminder that this is no mindless medium, but an art form engaged in some of the most contentious debates about aesthetics and audience in the 20th century. And we haven’t even opened the book yet! Once we do so, we find a work that performs a perilous high-wire act over artistic aspiration and crass commercialization. On the reverse side of the cover, adjacent to the first page of the comic, we find a full page color ad for Masters of the Universe model kits: the “Talon Fighter” and the “Attak Trak.” Typical of a comic book, you might think; however, upon closer inspection even these ads betray their unique cultural moment. In general, ads of previous decades were much more wordy: they assumed that people wanted information about the product, not just eye-popping imagery. Because of this, the ad contains three paragraphs of text, which would send most modern-day readers scrambling for their smart phones.
The text is almost a love letter to a bygone age of salesmanship, as the copy-writer tries to go toe-to-toe with the colorful toys themselves: “Talon-Fighter has tail-feather pistol grip that makes wings flap when you squeeze the trigger! It’s equipped with rotating gun turret, twin laser cannons and claw-like landing gear.” Not deathless prose, by any means, but it’s quaint to think that somewhere, a kid read this description and begged his mother for a model with “tail-feather pistol grip.” Lest you think this ad is surprisingly clueless, another ad a few pages in (also for model kits!) similarly features the three paragraphs of text to sell new Return of the Jedi merchandise. This ad is more stylish, however, in that it employs comic book illustrations of five Star Wars models: an A and B-Wing, a Tie-Interceptor, an Imperial Shuttle, and a Speeder Bike, complete with rider. But it also assumes that readers need that final push to the cash register via the written word, as we see here: “The whole line of MPC RETURN OF THE JEDI models kids and action scenes features faithful design accuracy and pinpoint detail”! Ka-ching!
These ads testify to the delicate balancing act that comics had to perform in the 1980’s, when it was unclear who they were aimed at. Were comic books merely more literate forms of Saturday morning cartoons, or an exotic outgrowth of science-fiction and fantasy literature, as publications like Heavy Metal claimed? Toy ads feature heavily in most 80’s comics, and this one is no exception. However, the two ads above are both model kits, and models tend to require patience, attention to detail, and the ability to read and process instructions. The average eight year-old wouldn’t be able to build a Shuttle Tydirum or even an Attak Trak without their parents’ assistance, which shows that the comics knew that at least some of their readers were older.
This is clearly the case with a comic like Atari Force, which under the guise of space fantasy, tells a rather complicated and surprisingly adult story, featuring implied sex, betrayal, ethical issues, and torture. One of the characters, a telepath from a society without parents or individuality, learns to be ‘human’ through its maternal relationship with an orphaned alien child. Another character, a hot-shot female thief, is forced to watch the man she loves die, and then deals with the grief throughout the comic until he miraculously returns — to betray her. Hardly the stuff of Tom and Jerry!
Of course, comic books were still comics, with all the associations of that unfortunate term. Whatever their aspirations, they were still being thrown at little kids on long car trips, or simply because they were cheaper than going to the movies. So we also find in this comic a two-page spread for NBC Saturday Morning cartoons, with a lineup featuring MR. T, Amazing Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk, the Smurfs, and Thundarr the Barbarian. Amusingly, the tag line for this roster is, “NBC Saturday Morning. We got the jazz!” Can you imagine a world where the word jazz got kids excited about watching cartoons? Other child-aimed ads are one for Superman brand peanut butter (forgot about that one!), which temps kids with the chance to get a free reprint of Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) with two labels from the aforementioned peanut butter. However, this one is a bit trickier, since I doubt many kids were falling over themselves to acquire a reprint of a 1938 comic. I think it’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing, aimed at the older comic book aficionado who values Detective Comics and might just cave in and buy Superman peanut butter the next time they go to Kroger.
The remaining ads show the importance of comic books as a time capsule, preserving the fads and one-hit-wonders of a previous age. So many toys and games and movies fall by the wayside in the struggle to dominate the marketplace. While a few succeed in capturing the public’s imagination, most are forgotten immediately, existing only as fading relics on Ebay, or as evergreen advertisements in a yellowed comic book (or a pristine one, if protected properly in a plastic bag!). One such forgotten gem is Revell’s Power Lords toy line, which boasted some of the most unique alien creations ever produced. Honestly, these creatures were just a step away from H.R. Giger, walking a fine line between the fantastic and the grotesque. The ad features the main character, Adam Power, who with the push of a button, transforms from a normal-looking fellow in a yellow jumpsuit into a blue humanoid with dead eyes and sinister bulging veins. The ad boldly states, “No man on earth has ever had such power…he’s the Power Lord.” Other creatures are featured in a small photo below, including horrific insectoids, a humanoid T-Rex, and a lobster-like goon. As a child, I remember being mesmerized and more than a little terrified by these figures, though as soon as I bought one or two they disappeared from the shelves, never to return.
Yet for my money, the true value of a comic book resides in its letters page, where the creators share some of the fan mail they’ve received over the past month or two. There’s literally nothing like it in any other medium that I’m aware of: entire letters (perhaps edited for length) appear in very small print, along with the writer’s name and address, and often followed by the editor’s response in italics. As a kid, this was my first experience with comic books fandom, and a virtual chat room of information, trivia, and know-how. Quite often, the fans write in to complain of discrepancies between one issue and the next, or simply to point out which character needs more ‘air time.’ I wish Dr. Wertham had lived to read some of these letters, since they are a glowing testament to the literacy and critical-thinking skills of these young (and in some cases, not so young) devotees. While comments on the internet today tend to veer toward curt, often misspelled vitriol, the letters featured in comics tend to be formal, respectful, and constructive, even when they dislike the comic/characters in question.
To really see the letters section in action, we’ll have to skip past Issue #1 (no letter yet), to Issue #6, where we find this gem of a letter from Mark Waldman from Northridge, CA, age undisclosed. Though a big fan of Atari Force storyline, Mark’s chief concern isn’t with the writing at all, but the art. As he explains,
“Jose Luis Garcia Lopez has long been a favorite artist of mine and I awaited this book eagerly. This was to be his first regular assignment and I was glad. After so many great, great Superman stories and humorous fill-ins, I was ready for a regular Garcia Lopez vehicle. Now, after less than a handful of issues, he is pushed down to inker and shortly, if sources are correct, will be leaving the book entirely. Now, Ross Andru is a great artist. I like him a lot, but Garcia Lopez is something else entirely…Don’t let Garcia Lopez slip away or I fear ATARI FORCE could be in rough waters.”
Bear in mind that this is decades before the internet allowed fans to follow all the latest gossip about their favorite comics and artists. I can only imagine what Mark’s “sources” were about Garcia Lopez’s career track, which is what makes this letter so amazing: that the kid (or teenager, or even adult) put in the time to track down every stray crumb of media to follow his artistic hero’s comings and goings. Hell, even that he knew the name of his famous artist is a cause for celebration! This is one of the great virtues of comics: how they allow readers to see stylistic differences between artists from comic to comic, even when the writer remains constant. This teaches kids to understand that a story is as much about the plot as the medium, and that every aspect of the comic, from the art, the inking, the lettering, and even the drawing of frames can profoundly change our reading experience. That’s what Mark is so upset about, after all; the change in artist will change the perspective of the comic book, making the story ‘read’ in a totally different manner.
A reader who learns to see this in comics will be more attune with the differences in style between a Renoir and a Rembrandt, making his first trip to a museum a truly educational experience. Not to mention how these skills will translate to reading more traditional literature, where the styles of authors differ drastically between centuries and countries. More importantly, kids less informed who read this letter will suddenly realize that maybe the art does matter, and the reason they like one comic more than another might have more to do with the artist than the story itself. And while common sense might tell us that kids didn’t buy comics for letters (if they even noticed them at all!), I can say from experience that this isn’t the case. I sometimes started with the letters and worked my way backwards, almost like the footnotes in a Folger edition of Shakespeare. It’s no exaggeration to say that comic books — and comic book readers — were some of my first English teachers.
And after all of this, you still have a great story to read, one that blossoms over ten, twenty, and sometimes even a hundred issues! While the story is ultimately what brings people to a comic and keeps them reading issue after issue, the cultural ephemera surrounding it provides the story shape and substance. For future generations, I think the ads and letters can function as footnotes, helping readers see and contextualize the worlds the original readers lived in, a world where information was still very analog and kids bonded over the books, toys, and games that most excited their imagination. Even today, the ‘extras’ of these 40 year-old comics can evoke memories and associations as vivid as anything in the story. So why pretend that literature is only the words? For Shakespeare it was the audience, the other playwrights, the music, and of course the actors. The more we can see the whole picture, the more we can appreciate why literature survives its moment on the stage, and similarly, why comic books might be the medium closest to Elizabethan theater in its reliance on a rich meta-textual experience. Which also begs the question, have we had our comic book Shakespeare yet…and have they written their comic book King Lear or Hamlet? To be continued…