Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

March 21, 2007

How and Why the ‘70s Mattered, When of Course They Didn’t Really Matter

imageThere's a few articles about 1970s comic books floating around right now which kind of go after two separate issues: whether or not the 1970s were an important decade in the development of modern superhero comics, and whether or not those comics were generally terrible or totally awesome compared to today's efforts.

I find the first notion odd, because obviously the decade of the 1970s was important to modern superhero comics; that's where they started. Superhero comics continue to utilize the 1970s model: writers and artists, most with serious intentions, trying to rewrite or extend someone else's creations primarily through the rules of soap opera, using as a general springboard the tropes of heroic fantasy leavened by moments of reality and relevance. Maybe five percent of the superhero comic books I've encountered in the last 10 years I can read and not see Steve Englehart, Chris Claremont and/or Don McGregor staring back at me. Neal Adams' inchoate corrective to Jack Kirby's approach to art still seems to me the dominant approach visually, too. Throw in the rise of the fan/pro (twin poles: Paul Levitz, Gary Groth) and the development of the comic book direct market and you could argue it's been all-'70s all the time ever since.

Whether or not the North American comics of the 1970s are that much worse than other decades' output depends largely on how you define some things. I'm one of those who thinks the comic book part of the art form in general bottomed out in the late 1970s between the fade of the late undergrounds and the rise of alternative comic books. But if you're defining comics as primarily superhero comic books, you get into some tricky territory, largely because from my viewpoint none of them are all that great. I don't think much of the cream of the crop of 1970s superhero comic books in terms of their being entertaining, well-crafted and meaningfully humane narratives. At best they're Starsky and Hutch, not Mean Streets. An off-episode of Starsky and Hutch. An off-episode of Starsky and Hutch with the Antonio Fargas scenes spliced out. Then again, I don't really find many of the 1980s and 1990s or today's heroic adventure comics significantly more effective on that front, beyond a rise in some elements of surface sophistication.

Moreover, if you look at mainstream comics that thrived outside of those strictures, the 1970s do okay. I like Jack Kirby's 1970s comics far more than anything the big companies publish now, but it's not like I can argue Kamandi #10's crazy-ass, lurid bat-monster scenes betray an adult sensibility. And if you argue from a point of view that the entertainment value of what goes into a piece of pulpy art has an impact that's as valuable as and is distinct from a comparison of literary qualities, that sensibility exists beyond the intention of the creators, you can make an easy case that, say, "Sweaty Pat Harrington lookalike Swordsman shows up on the Avengers doorstep with his hooker girlfriend, continues to be crappy at job, eventually becomes a sentient plant" has it all over Mark Millar's Eminem lookalike proclaiming he's giving it to you in the ass.
posted 1:59 am PST | Permalink

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