Review of Marvel comics in revised editions from Penguin & Folio

Marvel comics in updated editions from Penguin and Folio, reviewed


I didn’t grow up in the Marvel Universe. Between the ages of 8-13, I was obsessed with DC Comics and the adventures of Superman and Flash. One of the most memorable days in my life was when a friend gave me two dozen DC Comics that he didn’t want. I rode my bike back from his house and spread this amazing bounty under a living-room lamp. Then, I spent an entire evening reading, reading, and eating freshly baked cookies.

The spring of 2009 was a time when I was looking forward to trying to recapture some of that old enchantment. This included three Penguin Classics collections about the early adventures of Spider-Man and Captain America, as well as three Folio Society best-of collection dedicated to Spider-Man and Captain America.

A dose of comic-book action for those who enjoy old mysteries and adventure tales

Both series are highly desirable and have little overlap. Ben Saunders is the general editor of Penguin editions and a comics scholar from Oregon. He provides historical context on how Stan Lee (Jack Kirby), Steve Ditko, and other creators created these modern legends. Qiana J. Wiltted, Gene Luen Yang and Jason Reynolds, as well as Nnedi Okorafor, provide additional introductions or personal forewords. Appendixes feature recommended reading lists and sometimes supplemental essays, such as Don McGregor’s memoir of how he wrote the multi-issue “Panther’s Rage,” which supplied some of the plot elements to the “Black Panther” movie. Each Penguin hardback is approximately 350 pages long and costs $50. Paperback editions retail at $28

Folio Society volumes are $125 each, but they provide a more authentic reading experience for those who prefer it. While Penguin’s imaging is bright and crisp, its paper stock looks a little too shiny, smooth and white. Folio reproduces more accurately the slightly faded colors, pulpiness and texture of Penguin’s images. The original comics. Roy Thomas, a former editor-in-chief at Marvel, chose the contents for each omnibus and also outlined the creative decisions behind these high-spot Marvel adventures. Each volume is housed in a sturdy slipcase and comes with a significant extra — a separate facsimile of the actual issue in which the superhero first appeared.

Popeye will have a makeover at the age of 93

Now comes the sad part: Being a devotee of older popular fiction, I was surprised — no, dismayed — that these Marvel comics never really cast a spell on me. Maybe I was expecting too much. Although the page layouts and artwork are vibrant and imaginative, the writing can be hysterical to utilitarian and histrionic. The stories carry few surprises, and the majority contain the same general plot driver: an acute tension between each protagonist’s actual self and his public persona, between the all-too-human beings inside those skintight get-ups and the formidable superhumans they have been called to be.

As a result, nearly all Marvel superheroes — at least as far back as the 1960s Fantastic Four — are troubled and unhappy. While they accept the responsibility that comes with great power, they are unsure if it is possible to carry the weight. Their self-doubt sometimes bordering on self-pity gives them a humanizing psychological complexity. It is also possible to feel empathy for their enemies, who are often viewed as deeply wronged, or entitled to vengeance. The Marvel Universe is full of fear, both for heroes and villains.

As a teenager Spider-Man, he feels socially unfit and guilt-ridden over the deaths a number of loved ones. Thawed from a cryonic deep-freeze, World War II’s Captain America feels alienated in the modern era and misses his long-dead junior partner, Bucky Barnes. Black Panther endures both physical ordeals and grave questions about his worthiness to carry on the kingdom of Wakanda’s traditions. The invincible Hulk is not aware of the fact that he has a reformed Bruce Banner hidden beneath his green skin. Banner’s own Hulk-inducing rages are eventually, almost inevitably, shown to be a consequence of abuse as a child.

Marvel’s comics are a little more mature than the DC comics I was exposed to in elementary school. They target a younger audience of teens and twenty-somethings who can easily identify with their emotionally charged characters. No doubt, this shift was partly market-driven — older readers have deeper pockets than allowance-dependent 10-year-olds. But Marvel’s better writers and artists were also hungering to “make it new,” to explore and extend the aesthetic possibilities and cultural impact of their medium — something which contrarian underground “comix” had already been doing.

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Because before the ongoing sea change, superhero comics tended to present a suburban, picket fence view of American life. They also ignored and misunderstood social, sexual, or racial realities. In that sense, today’s Marvel Universe represents a highly welcome advance. Nonetheless, by growing increasingly relevant and naturalistic, superhero comics — not just from Marvel — gradually lost much of their joy along with their naivete.

That process, though, has barely begun in these albums, which emphasize work published in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The story arcs are as action-oriented here as you can get. They feature costumed good guys against highly dramatic bad guys as well as mad scientists and impossible monsters. By contrast, contemporary superhero comics — from a variety of publishers — are quite another matter: My childhood’s brightly colored land of dreams has morphed into a universe of nightmares and case histories. Enter any specialty comics shop — the days of drugstore spinner racks are, sadly, long gone — and the darkness will surround you. Much of the artwork you’ll see is shadowy, stylized and brutalist, while numerous covers spotlight busty super-babes in gleaming leather.

As I said, it’s now. These Penguin and Folio Society retros are, for the most part a hint of the grimness that lies ahead. However, I find claims of artistic genius exaggerated. Perhaps you may feel the opposite.

I am still captivated by adult cosplay. This is the act of dressing up as your favorite movie or fictional character. As our troubled superheroes know, donning a mask can be liberating, a way of releasing one’s deeper self. Appropriately, Andrew Liptak’s opens his chatty “Cosplay: A History” by looking at costume balls, historical reenactors, Halloween and the tradition of masquerade night at science-fiction conventions. His heart is still with the Star Wars franchise.

This resulted in the book being flooded with white-armed stormtroopers as well as ragtag rebel armies. There are also scattered images of anime-inspired clothing and comics. But where are steampunks in all their Victorian glory? Or the Conan wannabes with swords.

These cavils aside, Liptak’s history is generously packed, almost overpacked, with information about cosplay fandom, including chapters on legal issues and costume manufacture. Appropriately enough, San Diego Comic-Con — the Carnegie Hall of cosplay — will soon be in full swing this year, from July 21 to 24.

Michael Dirda is away the rest of summer. His Thursday book column in the Sunday Times will resume September 8.

Penguin Classics Marvel Collection Series

Black Panther, Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man

Ben Saunders edits the series. $50 hardcover editions. Paperback editions $28

Folio Society Comics Collections

Hulk and Spider-Man, Captain America

Roy Thomas introduced the selections. $125 each.

By Andrew Liptak. Gallery/Saga Press. $24.99.

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