From the dismal '60s to 'Spider-Man: No Way Home': What a long strange trip

The success of the Iron Man movies, starring Robert Downey Jr., made the Marvel Cinematic Universe possible. (©Marvel Studios 2013)

 

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

Jan. 6, 2022 — As the new year launches, we inherit what is still to me a still surprising world in entertainment.

A world where Spider-Man: No Way Home is setting box office records with the proportionate speed and strength of a spider. Where sci-fi, fantasy and comic book properties dominate the small screen, from South Korea’s Silent Sea on Netflix to Book of Boba Fett on Disney+ to Walking Dead on AMC to superhero and Star Trek marathons on BBC America. Where Marvel and DC comics characters dominate everything from toys to children’s clothing.

But ‘twas not always so. ‘Twas once, in fact, quite the reverse. And ‘twas pretty ‘twuly sucky, ‘twere you a fan of such things.

Back in the mid-1960s, for example, one would have been hard-pressed to scratch the itch for the strange. TV was dominated by Westerns. Most movies were historical epics, musicals, comedies and, of course, Westerns.

If you were a genre fan, there simply wasn’t much to choose from. Somehow it became accepted wisdom in Hollywood that science fiction was box office poison, so all we had were giant-insect movies from the ‘50s, Godzilla imports and the occasional Hammer horror film. The era of classic Universal monster movies was long gone, although you could see the occasional 3 a.m. rerun if you were lucky enough to live in a city with a 24/7 TV station.

Spider-Man: No Way Home is tearing up box office records, despite the pandemic and without the China market. (©Sony Pictures, Marvel Studios)

 

Speaking of TV, it wasn’t much help, either. You could catch the occasional Twilight Zone or Outer Limits rerun. I suppose Saturday afternoon Tarzan movies and reruns of Wizard of Oz counted. Mostly, though, you had to settle for funny fantasy like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and My Favorite Martian.

There were occasional gifts to us fans, like Batman (1966-68), Lost in Space (1965-68), Land of the Giants (1968-70), The Time Tunnel (1966-67) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68). As you can see from the dates, none lasted very long.

Star Trek (1966-68) came and went so fast it made it into syndication by the skin of its tribbles, and spawned only four books in the next few years. (Making of Star Trek, Spock Must Die, Trouble with Tribbles and World of Star Trek — and yes, I had them all.) As opposed to the bajillion it has spawned in the last couple of decades.

Of course, there were other books that explored the fantastic. Books that I lovingly called the “Nerd Canon.” These were books I felt you had to read to achieve Geek Street cred.

In the 1960s, the Canon included 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Dracula, Frankenstein, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jungle Book, Metamorphosis, The Screwtape Letters, Snorri Sturluson’s Elder Eddas and Poetic Eddas, Greco-Roman mythology and L. Frank Baum’s Oz books.

It also included anything by Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Robert E. Howard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Fritz Lieber, H.P. Lovecraft, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Allan Poe, E.E. “Doc” Smith, J.R.R. Tolkien, A.E. van Vogt, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Some of it wasn’t aging well at the time (looking at you, Lensman series) and some has aged poorly since (ugh, Heinlein).

Yes, I read every single book those folks wrote that I could find. And pretty much anything else with a ray gun, a sword, a femme fatale or a Frank Frazetta cover.

But that was words on paper. If you wanted to see action and color combined with unbridled fantasy and serious sci-fi, there was only one place to go:

Comic books.

They hadn’t made it to the ‘60s unscathed — I’m thinking primarily of the draconian Comics Code of 1954, which bowdlerized them thoroughly — but by 1965 the superheroes of Marvel and DC proudly ruled funnybooks, abetted by a healthy supporting cast of war, teen humor, suspense, science fiction and, inescapably, Westerns.

Not that there weren’t land mines all around the local spinner rack. Buying, holding or reading comics made you a target of bullies. In TV shows and movies, "reading comics" was shorthand for "mentally impaired." Parents, preachers and politicians sneered at them, scapegoating comics for all manner of social ills. And they were a near-certain path to eternal virginity.

The upsides, aside from entertainment, was that I learned to read from comic books before school, so I was already ahead of the class in speed and comprehension — even spelling and grammar — forever. I learned Shakespeare and Bible quotes from Marvel’s Stan Lee, and science facts from DC. (Thanks, Flash comics, for the speed of light. Thanks, Metal Men, for the melting point of lead.)

But we did not forget, we who lived in that dismal, colorless world, about Star Trek. More importantly, neither did George Lucas.

Artist Alex Ross re-created the first Spider-Man cover from Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) for the Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Volume 1 in 2007. (©Marvel Comics)

When Star Wars came out in 1977, I expected something cheesy, probably involving giant insects. And honestly, when I saw it, I was smugly aware of its inspirations: Western and Flash Gordon serials, 1940s dogfight footage, Dune (for spice, sand people and sandworms) and Jack Kirby comics (for Darth Vader, Boba Fett’s helmet and The Force).

Nevertheless, it was a breath of fresh air — and a Godsend to us non-mundanes. Its success kicked the door open for everything genre fans enjoy. Suddenly, sci-fi was no longer box office poison, and everybody wanted to jump on the bantha-wagon.

Superman: The Movie arrived in 1978. Paramount dusted off that old failure Star Trek in 1979. Batman followed in 1989. X-Men in 2000. Spider-Man in 2002. Then Iron Man exploded the box office, creating the tidal wave of content that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not to mention all the TV shows, books, magazines, merch and more that made these properties household words.

To wit: My super-practical mother, born in the ‘30s with no interest whatsoever in anything not firmly planted on or in the ground, who nevertheless ended up knowing who Wolverine was before she died. Mon-El, an obscure character known only to Legion of Super-Heroes readers for three decades, got an action figure in the ‘90s and a supporting role on Supergirl in the naughties. Black Adam — a character from the ‘40s that even I had never heard of until the ‘70s — is about to get his own movie.

We are now in an age that every single one of my private enthusiasms in the ‘60s is now popular. Even the unbelievably unfilmable Foundation is getting filmed. My jam is now everybody’s jam.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, I have one.

I started this column 30 years ago exactly, in the first week of January in 1992. At the time, it was a Q&A for all the former mundies who were quickly joining my neck of the entertainment forest, but had questions. And oh, they had questions.

Then came the Internet.

It existed in 1992, of course, but not a whole lot of people were online yet. And I was already doing a Q&A there, too, on a website that continues to this day. And I was doing yet another in the Comics’ Buyer’s Guide monthly magazine.

But eventually everyone could Google what they wanted to know, and all of my columns morphed into other animals. I’ve continued to do them faithfully (except CBG, which went belly up a few years ago). Even as my newsfeed has begun filling up with other, younger folks doing the same thing.

Well, then. I’ve … won? Comics are acceptable now?

Probably not, but I’ll take what I can get. And I’ll take this too: a life without a weekly routine of doing research, writing 1,000 words and pulling art. That’s right: I’m retiring this column.

After three decades, I think I’ve earned a break.

I’ll still be online, at the Captain Comics Round Table, a wretched hive of scum and villainy, along with the Legion of Superfluous Heroes, a ragtag group of comics fans, comics historians and regular ol’ smart alecks. You’re welcome to join us.

But until then, live long and prosper. May the Force be with you. God bless us, every one. Hasta la vista, baby. I am Iron Man. And Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam, which is Klingon for “Today is a good day to die.”

OK, maybe not that last one.

 

(Find Captain Comics on his website, captaincomics.ning.com.)

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I remember well reading your article on the first X Men movie when it appeared in syndication in our Detroit newspaper. The article ended with info on your website which I visited soon after and have been part of all the subsequent variations. My biggest takeaway on that first visit was " hey, there are other people out there who love comic books as much as I do ! " 

Thanks Cap for getting the whole thing started !

Thank you for loving comics, and sharing that love with us!

I first ran across your column around 1997, doing research about a Memphis business of interest to the executive search firm I was working for. I must have sought out the Round Table shortly after that. Thanks for the memories!

Thanks, Mark.

I think I found you and this community around the same time as Mark Sullivan. I was just getting back into comics after a hiatus starting around 1989, and I wanted to discuss what I was reading. I was surprised I was able to answer a bit of trivia from your column (about the reboot of Jason Todd's origin and what had happened to Dick Grayson--weird the things you remember). While I haven't been reading modern comixs for several yerlars now, I've pretty much always enjoyed this community. 

I remember the original (I think it was) site. It first caught my attention when I was looking for information about n oscure (to me, at least) DC character called "the Odd Man", which is a fairly good descriptor for mew, come to think of it.

We're all Odd Men. And the world is better for it.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

*YERLAR - Equivalent to 3.2 Earth years

I had subscribed to the Comic Buyer's Guide for many years and read all of the columns. I'm not sure of the year, but I submitted a question to Captain Comics regarding the early coloring of Spider-Man's costume. I was surprised when my question was highlighted in your CBG column. I still didn't make the leap to the Round Table until CBG went belly up, in 2012. Sorry it wasn't sooner, but it's hard to believe it's been nine years. I've only seen your syndicated column when it's been reprinted here.

I never knew who would see the column, or where, or when. Trib didn't keep track and I had no way to. That's one thing I won't miss.

I joined this wretched hive of scum and villain sometime circa 2000, when I was suffering through a miserable job as proofreader at company that did magazine layout and production for publications that didn't care to do those things in-house. We had free reign to roam the Internet during our downtime.

I have stayed with the Legion of Superfluous Heroes through better (and worse) jobs, as it moved to ever-nicer digs in cyberspace. (Hard to believe we've been at this one, Ning, for more than 10 years.) 

The Captain Comics Roundtable was and is a wonderful haven for a comics collector like myself who didn't know many people IRL who shared that interest. And I very much enjoy the comity and camaraderie that's makes this a warm and welcoming home for comics and pop culture geeks of all stripes. 

Clark Kent Johnson is right!

And so is Randy, long a valuable mainstay here.

I’d say something about Jeff’s pist, but that would require me to understand it. :)

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