Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas 1978: 'Bring on the Bad Guys' by Stan Lee

3 / 5 Stars

When ‘Origins of Marvel Comics” was published in 1974 by Simon and Schuster, there were no such things as ‘graphic novels’ on the store shelves. Indeed, comic books were still mostly relegated to appearing on the wire racks stationed in drug and ‘five and dime’ stores; the idea that a reputable book store would stock a healthy supply of comic books was quite unusual. The revolution in comics retailing that would result in the creation of small shops devoted to selling both new and old comics (as opposed to ripping off their covers, returning them for credit, and then tossing the coverless comics in the trash) was still several years away.

Comics companies and their publishers were aware that in Europe, ‘graphic novels’, in which several issues of comics were compiled between hardboard or trade paperback covers, were a very common form of retailing and such books were often handsomely produced. But most publishers in the US still considered comics to be a ‘kids’ publication, and the thought of devoting effort to reprinting them in a higher-priced, ‘legitimate’ book format didn’t generate much enthusiasm.

Somehow, Stan Lee was able to persuade Simon and Schuster to enter the field of ‘graphic novels’, if only under the guise of a sort of ‘nostalgia’ trip aimed at Baby Boomers entering their forties and fifties. And, by ’74, some weekly comic strips from the 1930s (or even earlier) were seeing print again in nice hardbound editions designed to appeal to the Nostalgia Craze market then existing in the US.

‘Origins of Marvel Comics’, which did nothing more complicated than reprinting some old Marvel ‘origin’ stories on quality paper stock, sold quite well; so well, that a ‘Son of Origins’ was soon issued. Next came ‘Bring on the Bad Guys’ (1976) which turned out to be one of my Christmas presents for 1978.

Things start off with some very early Fantastic Four issues (1962) and the first appearance of Doctor Doom; there’s a follow up short from 1964 that fleshes out Doom’s origins more fully. Next comes a classic Steve Ditko adventure for Dr. Strange as he meets the Dread Dormammu. Then there’s some classic Jack Kirby artwork for two Thor adventures, dealing with Loki and the Absorbing Man.

A Captain America story, involving the Red Skull, is another Kirby classic (how did that guy produce so many exemplary comics despite the fact he was illustrating three or four books a month ?!). Spider Man ‘s entry is a rather brief and underwhelming fight with the Green Goblin. The Hulk takes on The Abomination in a story drawn by Gil Kane. The book ends with the Silver Surfer taking on Mephisto; John Buscema does a great job with the art but, as happened all too often with this character, there’s so much over-emoting dripping from Lee’s script that the story tends to collapse under its atmosphere of fervid angst.

‘Bad Guys’ contains sections of text bracketing each story where Lee provides his comments on how the villains came to be; in a (rare ?!) contrite or conciliatory mood, he actually points out that many of the featured characters were joint creations. 

(By ’76 Jack Kirby had returned to doing some work for Marvel, so maybe Lee thought it prudent to give some credit to Jack, lest the atmosphere in the Marvel offices get too tense following the appearance of ‘Bad Guys’ on store shelves).

Within a few years after I got ‘Bad Guys’ for Christmas ‘78, you could see graphic novels starting to appear more frequently on the shelves at chain stores like Waldenbooks. Certainly not in the numbers and variety you see today, but it was a start.....

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