My Misspent Youth — Marvel Age

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

When I was a kid, it’s possible that the only thing I liked as much as reading comics was reading about comics. Supplementing my steady intake of flashy periodicals that regaled the reader with the exploits of costumed do-gooders — and their fearsome foes — one panel at a time, I diverted a portion of my meager, handed-down budget to the acquisition of all manner of publications that recapped and reported on the grand goings-on in the world of four-color funnybooks. My childish cunning told me that it was an economical way to survey the vast swath of sequential-art storytelling happening at the time. Because my primary devotion was to the interconnected superhero sagas created by the imaginative writers and artists toiling for Marvel Comics, the arrival of Marvel Age was a godsend.

Introduced in 1983, Marvel Age was a slender monthly magazine, in comic-book size, that expanded the brilliant hype machine of the old Bullpen Bulletins page to dozens more pages. From the earliest days of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee set a promotional tone that make it seem like the reader was being invited along to gape at a creative process marked by breathless excitement and propensity for jaw-dropping narrative twists. In this rendering, the mighty Marvel creators were deeply devoted to doing their level best to keep the readers endlessly enthralled, and part of the process was forging an almost conspiratorial camaraderie with the reader. Every tantalizing title was a treasure shared by those who crafted them and the eager readers that devoured them. Marvel Age was a way of formally lifting the curtain on the next extravaganza, a perpetual assurance of “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

I read every issue of Marvel Age cover to cover, and then often read it again. I was especially attentive to the capsule descriptions of upcoming issues, offering a preview of the books I’d be choosing between a couple months later.

The tally provided the promise of stories I was sure to read and a tangential understanding of those I sadly needed to bypass. The latter service felt especially important, since one story might be referenced by any other. Being a Marvel reader meant living with an internal check of worthiness dependent on having a grasp on, say, why someone other than Tony Stark was adorned in the Iron Man armor when the clanking crusader made one of his regular visits to an Avengers title, or really anywhere across the publishing line. These “Coming Attractions” presented the barest explanations of plots, and yet I felt like my knowledge expanded just enough from reading them.

As I remember, Marvel Age got more polished as it went along, eventually growing a little bland in its rote marketing efforts. Early on, it had a fanzine spunkiness, presenting all manner of tomfoolery that reinforced the freewheeling spirit of Marvel. For all the significance of Lee, Jack Kirby, and their descendants instilling a layer of realism and psychological acuity into their superhero stories, the most thrilling characteristic of Marvel was the rule-bending playfulness that earned the company its self-given nickname the House of Ideas. Marvel Age went behind the scenes to emphasize the fun embedded in the process of making these adventures appear on previously blank pages. If renowned artist John Buscema responded to a query about what might make stern swordsman Conan bust out in belly laughs, and X-Men penciler Paul Smith decided to take a crack at drawing that scene, the result could be plucked from a Marvel offices bulletin board and printed in Marvel Age for everyone to enjoy.

I long thought an objective superiority of their stories was the main reason I favored Marvel over their distinguished competition when I first started reading superhero comics. At the dawn of the nineteen-eighties, that judgment of higher quality might very well have been accurate. In retrospect, though, I think there was a deeper appeal at play. Through the schemes of their self-promotion, Marvel made me feel like I was a part of the community they forged, or gave the clever illusion of forging anyway. Well before the avalanche of online information made every bit of the comic-making process accessible, I was privy to the inner workings of my favorite publisher. I knew what stories were coming, which creative teams were about the shake up a hero’s life, and what considerations went into different initiatives targeted at delivering the best product to fans. I was part of the team and part of the family. Marvel Age exploited that feeling and accentuated it, all for the cost of one shiny quarter per month.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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