I nearly didn’t recognize you, then my heart unwound

(Though it wasn’t intended for such a purpose, I could never come up with a better image to encapsulate the thoughts I’m trying to express below. I must give due credit to the illustrator.)

After all the trailers unspooled at the screening of Thor that I attended this past weekend, my astute and charming moviegoing companion turned to me and whispered “It’s apparently a good summer to be a fifteen-year-old boy.” Not only we were about to watch a film taken from the Marvel Comics series that transformed a Norse god into just another member of their superhero fleet, the trailers for forthcoming summer fare featured the X-Men, Green Lantern and Captain America, each of which was the subject of a regularly published comic the summer that I was a fifteen-year-old boy. I never would have believe that there would come a day when those characters were the prime population of the summer movie slate, with expected earnings in the hundreds of millions.

I’ve previously expressed my misgivings about the main source of obsession during my teenage years becoming fodder for mass entertainment instead of remaining the passbook into a particularly geeky club. This partially arises from the dissonance of seeing these characters realized in a wholly different format than I’m accustomed to and part of it comes from selfishly not wanting to share them with anyone who doesn’t have the same voluminous knowledge of the characters that’s practically expected of comic book fans. Don’t know the names Jack Kirby or Walt Simonson? Then you shouldn’t be seeing Thor, I petulantly say as I skulk back to my lonely corner wallpapered with old Marvel Age covers.

There’s another element that occurred to me for the first time while I watched Chris Hemsworth roar across the screen with his mystical hammer held before him like a battering ram. There’s a part of me that regrets that these characters are inevitably going to change to suit the movie versions that have been created. It’s a pretty silly concern and one that conveniently ignores the fact that the characters have already been changing wildly in recent years in the pages of their respective comic books. Continuity is a big, imposing word among comic book fans, who usually use it to discuss the twisting extended narratives of the characters populated Marvel and DC Comics, many of them stretching back decades. I was a sucker for that when I was a kid, but it was another, more common definition of the word that could be applied to the characters I loved most.

There was a dependable sameness to the characters, a certainty about the progress of their adventures. Comic book creators were beholden to keep the characters on model, a consistency that was deemed important enough by publishers that even storied creators might have their work redrawn if it strayed too far from the established expectation. This was part of the continuity I committed to, the assurance that individual characters would always stay roughly the same. This leads to the embedded instinct that compels me to point out how the Thor of the movies doesn’t match up with his four-color counterpart. I have to check myself to keep from doing this with the same moral authority as someone illuminating the ways in which a documentarian is subverting facts to support a thesis.

There’s a certain amount of protectiveness to this instinct. The summer after I was a fifteen-year-old boy, the movie Howard the Duck was released. The acerbic character, the brainchild of writer Steve Gerber, was the star of a satiric comic series that pirouetted through pop culture with warped genius back in the nineteen-seventies. For true believers, that what Howard the Duck still represents. For most of the populace, it’s a punchline, a shorthand reference to Hollywood foolishness given the film’s reputation as one of the biggest bombs of all time. The character is still the height of Marvel’s freewheeling ways in the seventies to me, but I still get a pang when I think of how differently he’s perceived by so many others.

I don’t really think any of the movies coming out this summer will meet a similar fate (well, maybe Green Lantern). The comic-to-movies machinery operates far more effectively these days, although any fans of the old Jonah Hex comics probably have an exceedingly difficult time convincing others that the character and his story has merit. There remains a process of accepting these characters aren’t mine any more. They belong to everyone who cares to buy a movie ticket and the version on the screen is, for better or for worse, now going to be the version that endures.

2 thoughts on “I nearly didn’t recognize you, then my heart unwound

  1. Ha. You know, comic geeks are very devout. Not in a Christian sense, but faithful to the mythology of Marvel or DC. I think the business plan for the publishers in the 70s and 80s was just that. If the canon is constant, the readers can pick it up wherever they left off if they miss an issue. I mean Marvel had that official Handbook that read like a Book of Saints.

    That model seems to have been discarded in the last two decades. And you’re right, the movies have done a lot to mess with this.

    Going with the Christian analogy, you must be a pre-reformation Catholic when it comes to comics. And all of this new nonsense looks like a big gaudy McChurch franchise to you. You’re comics heros have been refashioned into Balloon Animal Jesus’ right before your eyes.

    1. Your last sentence is perfect as can be.

      You’re totally right on all counts. I loved those Handbook comics (if can really call them comics), probably for just that reason. I was a Marvel Universe theologian through my teenage years, combing through the fictional history with a desperate desire to understand it all.

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