Superman Silver Anniversary
Fantastic Four #24
Tom Swift and His Outpost in Space
The Moon Is Hell
The Foundation "Trilogy"
Stranger in a Strange Land
Hollywoodland is growing stale from the success of its comic book movies, enough that there is reason for concern even if you are an uber-fan
like me. To get right with it all, I have to return to my roots. My earliest memory of comic books comes from 1963, the year I turned nine.
Going through the checkout line at the Carswell Air Force Base commissary I spied a silver anniversary special issue of Superman, which
my mom surprised me by buying. Supes was 25 that year, a number that would have seemed impossibly old except Mom was already a whopping 30.
Later that year I discovered a Fantastic Four comic at a local pharmacy, #24, a story about "The Infant Terrible", an alien infant with un imaginably catastrophic powers. Even then I had a discerning eye for narrative consistency and could see no way that Reed Richards could
concoct an intergalactic communications device that would, first time out, work perfectly to contact the infant's parents across countless light
years. But I was drawn to the Human Torch because he was a blond like me, still just a big kid only a few years older. I identified with
him physically, and with Reed Richards intellectually. I admired Reed's scientific presence but realized his achievements made no sense at
all in the technological context of the burgeoning Marvel Universe.
The year's end was capped by a Christmas gift from my cousin Wayne - my first book, and science fiction at that: Tom Swift and His Outpost
In Space. Five years later in junior high school study hall I discovered it was only one book in a series of dozens - and within a few
months I had read them all, just as I had the entire Hardy Boys series by the same author, the pseudonymous Victor Appleton II. But unlike Tom
Swift I did not have a wealthy industrial engineer for a dad, and never imagined actually going into space myself, as Tom did at age 18
(piloting his own rocket, naturally).
You may have already deduced that I was an obsessive-compulsive reader from the earliest age: I was even kicked out of my first grade reading
class for "skipping ahead". By age eleven I was reading Melville and Verne, but my imagination was equally moved by the Fantastic Four, Superman,
and Batman. That year I read (and recorded) 127 books; the following year, 211. In 1966 I discovered Isaac Asimov's science essays, which
fueled my interest in the science fiction aspect of Marvel and some DC comics. I occasionally tried out other lines like Captain America, Thor,
Hulk, and Iron Man, but none held my interest; the Avengers and the Justice League of America left me snoozing. Perhaps that merely
reflects who I am, more of an individualist than a group thinker.
At age 12 I learned that librarians were gatekeepers and censors, not facilitators. I began reading books that my dad brought home from the
library, a combination of political thrillers and science fiction. I specifically remember The Moon Is Hell, a story of astronauts stranded
after crash landing on the Moon, by one of sci-fidom's earliest stars, John W. Campbell Jr. That was my first adult science fiction. After that
Dad sent me to the science fiction section to find my own, so I would leave "his" books alone.
Keep in mind that this was on an overseas American military base of only a couple thousand people; everyone knew everyone. The librarians, who
distrusted me for being a fast reader, chased me away because science fiction was too "adult", you know, in the same way that Sean Connery's
James Bond was too adult, only less so. I learned to sneak back when they were busy checking books out; and then I learned which librarians would
let me check out the books I wanted. Through this circuitous route I discovered Asimov's Foundation stories - not truly a trilogy, but a loosely
connected group of stories with a similar moral and narrative structure based on the decline of the Roman Empire. I actually wrote a letter
to Asimov when I was 15, and he responded with a confirmation of this foundation for the story line.
By the time of the moon landing in 1969 I had read a lot of classic sci-fi like the Foundation and Robot stories. This eased my next
foray into Marveldom, to X-men, on the sage advice of my comics broker. A few years later as a constantly broke grad student I discovered
that for the first time Peter Parker and I had a lot in common, and I became a Spider-man fan. It was to be the acme of my Marvelosity.
By the mid to late 1970s I was losing interest. Call it maturation if you will, but as a reader and aspiring writer I felt
the genre's limits had long since been breached, particularly after the first two Superman movies demonstrated how far away we were from
video technology that delivered convincing superpowers. About the same time Brian de Palma's second movie, The Fury, explored the dark
depths of super human skills when pushed to unhealthy limits; its ending, where Kirk Douglas and his psychic son both die after a pointless bloodbath,
left me feeling empty. In my mind I was hearing the Queen song "We Are the Champions of the World", and imagining it as a virtuoso
theme song for an X-men movie of a much lighter nature. I was only a quarter century early!
Fast forward to the twenty-first century. After Jurassic Park proved that we could believe in dinosaurs, it was only a matter of time
until Stan Lee and Marvel started cutting deals with Hollywood studios. With all the technology needed close at hand, the question has long been,
how long can Hollywood sustain the massive story machine that is the Marvel Universe, without degrading the narrative quality? With the
release of X-men: Days of Future Past, we are starting to see the answer to that question; it is not pretty. We have seen a Spider-man reboot,
a Hulk semi-reboot, and an X-men semi-reboot that has carpet-bombed narrative reality. Next up: A Fantastic Four with changed ethnicities
and talk about Thor as female, which is a slap in the face to German mythologists everywhere. Reviving of dead characters, long among
the most odious of comic book land's bag of tricks, has alredy begun. Desperation abounds.
And as we look out five years into the future, to a string of seven unnamed Marvel projects recently announced, how long can we expect to look
forward to new Marvel fare? Can the later entry of DC fare make it any better? I don't think so.
After all, at the beginning of the summer I found myself faced with a choice of movies: Godzilla 23 (give or take), Captain America 2, Spider-man 5,
and X-men 7. Having gotten what I asked for long ago, dare I ask again: may we see something original, with narrative consistency, on the big screen?
Announcements of Batman 8 / Superman 8, Star Wars 7, Avengers 2 & 3, Spider-man 6, X-men 8, Iron Man 4, Thor 3, Fantastic Four 3, ad nauseum no longer
seem inspiring. Instead they are simply & expected. The summer's most inspired entry, sad to say, appears to be Guardians of the Galaxy. You know
you're in Hollywood Formulaland when "creative" means using a raccoon and a tree for your serious adult superheros.
So I say it is time to raise expectations. When was the last time you watched a movie not part of an old or new movie franchise? I just
watched a silent movie from 99 years ago, but perhaps that was going overboard. I'm still waiting for that film adaptation of Stranger in
a Strange Land. Valentine Michael Smith would be the role of a lifetime for Tom Cruise. Can you grok it?