A Gander at Comic Books

17 Sep

            

              The other day I was  explaining the origin of the comicbook character, Iron Man to my wife Diane. Iron Man first developed the high tech armor that gives him his powers in Viet Nam. His major adversaries originally were communist villains, like  The Crimson Dynamo. In the more recent  films, Afghanistan supplanted Vietnam and the sequel introduces a new Russian villain, although his motives are personal rather than political.    

            Being a girl, Diane lacked this vital information, and was unimpressed by the fascinating story.  Girls just don’t seem to grasp the importance of super-heroes.  Maybe this is because,  as comedian Jerry Seinfeld observed, all  men view themselves as sort of super-heroes. Seinfeld says as boys grow up,  Superman, Spiderman, and Batman are not just juvenile fantasies— they’re considered real  options.

            In 1842 Rudolph  Toppfer published a collection of newspaper comic strips in what is considered to be  the first comic book. But everything changed in 1938 when Action Comics introduced Superman, establishing the still dominant super-hero genre.   

            In the  1950s, comics came under attack,  as  congressional hearings charged them with the corruption of youth. The star witness before the  Senate Judiciary committee was psychiatrist Fredric Wertham.  Wertham  testified that comic books were  “an important contributing factor  in many cases of juvenile delinquency”.  He claimed that Batman was “homoerotic”, Superman promoted “sadistic” impulses, and Wonder Woman was about “sadomasochism”.  Ironically the creator of Wonder Woman was Harvard psychologist William Marston, who wanted a hero who used love, as readily as force, to fight crime.

            Fearing governmental intervention,  comic book  publishers voluntarily formed a self-policing organization. Works that complied with standards about crime, bloodshed, occultism, and sex, were awarded the Comics Code Seal.   As comics moved from mass media to niche markets, the importance of the code waned.

             Richard Kyle coined the term “graphic novel” in 1964 to describe European works that he considered more sophisticated than the  typical American fare. The term is now applied to “serious” comic books,  with quality bindings, that are sold in comic shops and bookstores.  They have been the basis for numerous movies.

            In the  1970s  indie publishers produced  underground comics  reflecting the prevailing counterculture. Many adults found the uninhibited styles of artists like Robert Crumb (the “Keep on Trucking” guy), shocking and offensive–  pretty much as intended.   “Alternative Comics”  represented by Harvey Pekar‘s American Splendor  came next  and are still popular.    

            According to Diamond Comic Distributors,  Marvel Comics currently holds a 45% market share compared to the 33% share of their chief rival, DC Comics,  which owns the Batman and Superman  franchisees. None of the smaller publishers have more than a 5% share.

            There are over half a million American comic book readers and  top selling issues exceed 120,000 copies a month. For years my friend Scott, has subscribed to several comics.  He seals each one in a Mylar bag and treats his collection as if it were his 401K. Truthfully, it  has done much better than the market.

            The first Spider-Man  is  worth over $75,000.  Iron Man #1  has been selling for  about $600, but the  movies promise to drive the price to over $1000.   At the very  upper end, the first Batman sells for about $400,000 and the “Holy Grail” of comicdom, Superman’s  first appearance,  is priceless, but  lists for over a half a million dollars.

            I owned first editions of Spiderman and Iron Man,  as well as  other Marvel comics from the 1960’s. Had I held on to them, I might be writing this from my villa on the Riviera. It is said that R. Crumb traded his early sketchbooks for a house in the south of France.   Unfortunately my older brother Norman, ever the wheeler-dealer,  traded my prized comics, without my knowledge. In return he got a box of old Archie, Casper the Friendly Ghost,  and Ritchie Rich comics from the  kid down the street. These comics were in terrible shape and were mostly the unpopular Charelton and Harvey brands.  

            I can’t blameNormantoo much, since I personally ruined my only other   childhood opportunity for riches.  As a boy I came into possession of hundreds of old baseball cards. I wasn’t a fan and had no idea that they would ever be valuable.  So, I used them all for target practice with my BB gun. It makes me ill to think about it, but I probably would have plugged the Mona Lisa between the eyes, were it in my possession back then.

            My father was always a big fan of  Donald Duck comics. In the 1940’s, Carl Barks,  Disney’s “duck man” created Donald’s lucky cousin, Gladstone Gander, and my father’s favorite, Donald’s uncle, Scrooge McDuck, “the World’s Richest Duck”.    My father was always attracted to the notion of luck and I think he really liked the idea of  “swimming in money” as Scrooge often did, in his money bin.    

            Louisvilleartist Don Rosa is one of Barks’ most famous successors. In 1995 Rosawon the Eisner Award (the “Oscar of Comics”)  for The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck,  series. The series second installment begins inLouisville, complete with a depiction of the Galt House and an exaggerated Falls of theOhio.     

            My whole family grew up as Scrooge fans, as did our kids. Normanonce visited us and when he saw a stack of Uncle Scrooge comics on the bedroom bookshelf, he started referring to his room as the “luxury suite”.          

            Perhaps this all culminates with our youngest son. In the fifth grade he drew a poster with   ducks on it. They were so animated that they seemed to come alive.   Diane immediately sensed that the talent that eluded me, may have found expression in David.  He recently finished art school inManhattanand is now drawing graphic novels inNew York City.   

            David was always fascinated by big city life. When the admissions counselor at the Art Institute of Chicago looked at his portfolio, he said David had a “gritty urban thing” going in his artwork.  When David  painted a mural in the children’s Sunday school classroom at church,  Diane and  I were concerned that Jesus might be smoking a cigarette or resemble Lenny Bruce.  David, however, managed to show some restraint.  

            Although much of his work is still gritty and urban,  he  continues to  paints and draw ducks. It’s in his blood. Diane and I saved all his elementary school sketchbooks. We haven’t given up on the Riviera yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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