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Tuesday, May 23, 2023 

Esquire tries to sugarcoat LSD in Marvel history item

A writer at Esquire tells about the contributions to comicdom in the 1970s Bronze Age, and some of what he says is very annoying, since he seems to be trying to downplay the seriousness of drug abuse:
Eliot Borenstein’s new book Marvel Comics in the 1970s: The World Inside Your Head convincingly argues that writers and artists like Steve Gerber and Don McGregor, who worked on characters like Howard the Duck and Black Panther, made smaller, more incremental contributions to comics, ones that are harder to notice but are ultimately just as vital. This decade in Marvel’s history is often remembered as an awkward transitional period—which it was—but the growing pains felt during this time are just like the ones we experience in our youths: aching pangs that promise future advancement.

“Marvel in the 1970s,” Borenstein explains, “saw a transformation that initially looked seamless on the surface, but proved almost as dramatic as Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk.” The means by which this transformation occurred “were as much about the expansion of possibilities within an industry as they were about the potential of the form itself.” What these creators were up to was societal as much as it was artistic, as their work was “extending the boundaries of the permissible within the comics mainstream.” The ‘60s proved to be a tumultuous decade of social upheaval and shifting demographics, but taboos were still strong enough that most major changes are only referred to underhandedly in pop culture. Songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” couldn’t directly address their real subjects—weed and LSD, respectively—but had to sing around them. Comic books, as we’ll see, employed similar tactics.

The biggest shifts, though, occurred in the way Marvel approached the inner lives of these larger-than-life characters and their outer alienation from others. Marvel’s heroes were no longer flat, info-dumping archetypes—or, they were still those things, but with an additional layer of idiosyncrasy. For instance, Shang-Chi, initially a crass, clumsy, and racist Bruce Lee rip-off, is given the rare honor of narrating his story himself, in lieu of Stan Lee’s practice of an omniscient narrator. When writer Doug Moench took over the character (and continued on for a decade), he utilized the first-person perspective to grant readers access to Shang-Chi’s thoughts on the action as it happens, making him, to us, a voice-driven character; but as Borenstein points out, “were it not for his inner monologue, Shang-Chi would run the risk of adding yet another racist stereotype to a book that was loaded with them. He would have been inscrutable.” A character who interacts with others with scant intimacy is, paradoxically, one of the most verbally communicative protagonists to readers. Such an intriguing and fruitful duality is, unfortunately, explored in a comic with a deeply problematic history, and thus it’s been understandably overlooked.
Before we continue, I find it galling that this whole lamentation about racial stereotypes in MOKF has to be dredged up again, certainly in a commentary that's trying to sugarcoat drug abuse. Plus, the following is also very troubling:
Marvel Comics in the 1960s can be a tough hang. The humor is distractingly dead: in an issue of Fantastic Four from 1966, the team jumps into a flying ship (a "jazzy flyin' fastback," as the Thing refers to it) as the narrator notes, "When you or I go for a spin, pussycat, we hop into the ol' hot rod and take off! But, you wouldn't expect the FF to be as conventional as that, would you?"

They're so distinctly bad that even Marvel would go on to parody themselves in the later years, as is the case with a Thor run by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz (co-illustrated with Gary Hartle) from the 1980s called "The Black Galaxy Saga." This run of comics so accurately lampoons that style that I thought it was actually from the 1960s—it's that adept at capturing all the silliness of the era.

Comprising issues #417-425, the Black Galaxy arc comes from a brief period in which Thor had merged with an architect named Eric Masterson, who could then transform into Thor by using a magic cane. (Don’t even bother asking me how they merged, because it’s classic comic-book convolution, meaning elaborate, arbitrary, and pretty fucking dumb.) This Masterson fellow lives in New York City with Hercules (again: don’t ask), who—for real—lives under the alias Harry Cleese.

As silly as this stuff sounds, it's all perfectly in keeping with Marvel of the '60s. Those kinds of eye-roll-inducing puns and silly plot mechanics are part and parcel of the superhero experience, to a certain degree. Masterson, for example, is a play on Thor’s first alter-ego: originally, Thor’s father Odin sent him to Earth as a young doctor named Donald Blake (although it’s later revealed that Blake was never a real person, but rather Thor with his memory wiped). What Marvel's 60s output such an arduous read is its relationship to its readership. Comic writers still operated under the premise that these stories were primarily aimed at children, who they apparently thought were idiots. The narration is thuddingly repetitive and artlessly expository, and every sentence that isn’t a question (but even some of those) ends in an exclamation point.

[...] But the primary point is that this patronizing narrative style clogs the flow of the story, and doesn’t just do it occasionally. It’s all like this. Just flip through any Marvel omnibus featuring issues from the ‘60s and you’ll see a shocking amount of text for a medium with such a prominent visual component.
Oh, look at that, we even have to be lectured with the claim early Marvel narratives by Lee/Kirby/Ditko were inherently corny and dated, have no genuine entertainment merit and there's too many words?!? Gee, in that case, there's no point in writing up any dialogue in today's comics, let alone narratives and thought balloons, which largely vanished at the turn of the century. That kind of PC direction only hurt comicdom, and 1st-person narratives alone don't make a great substitute.
Englehart accomplished a lot during his tenure at Marvel. According to Borenstein, he “turned Captain America from a failing title with limited appeal to a bestselling and timely comic,” and he helped craft some indelible runs of The Avengers and The Defenders. He was also a pot-smoking, astrology-loving conscientious objector who, along with artists Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner, Al Milgrom, and Alan Weiss, would take LSD and tool around Manhattan in its Taxi Driver era, pulling stunts like “traips[ing] by a security guard and wander[ing] through the World Trade Center while it was being built.” The gang saw Disney’s Alice in Wonderland at Lincoln Center, which inspired Englehart and Brunner’s psychedelic Doctor Strange run. They were, essentially, incorporating the countercultural movement into their work.

[...] Mar-Vell comes out of the experience with a new understanding of his shared consciousness with Jones—which, yes, is the typical post-trip sense of oneness with the universe: “We’re more than the same person! We’re the sum of our parts—and then some!” Consider how radical this was. At the time, the Comics Code Authority—a very real (despite sounding like a villainous organization from a comic) panic-driven association formed in the '50s by parents worried about depictions of violence and sex—still dictated appropriateness in the industry, though it no longer wielded as much power as it did in the first two decades of its existence. It’s still surprising that Englehart got away with a story that basically promotes the cosmic benefits of LSD. Furthermore, the exploration of selfhood via twinned consciousnesses and the power of psychedelics is a far cry from the days of Eric Masterson worrying about making it home before the welfare people arrive to investigate how he’s providing for Kevin.
Whether or not the writers in focus actually chugged LSD and weed (slang for cannabis), it's disgraceful how the columnist makes it sound like this literally contributed to their visions for Marvel of the Bronze Age. This only discourages me from buying and reading Borenstein's book, because it's bad enough already that there was another book that tore down on Lee, after all the good he tried to bring to the escapism-seeking world in his time, along with stuff that could make you think. On which note, the Esquire writer seems oblivious to Lee's groundbreaking story from Amazing Spider-Man #97-99, where Harry Osborn became addicted to drugs. What, is the Esquire writer trying to imply Lee didn't have the support of the writers he hired to lighten the work load, during a time when he became publisher? Well I'm not buying it, because I've been wary of the PC attempts to dumb down Lee's history and dismiss him as an opportunist. I can't accept these phony examples of history coverage. Even if it hadn't insulted intellects with that tommyrot about drugs, the putdown of the Silver Age would've been bad enough.

And did Englehart and Milgrom even approve of Esquire's article? That's something we have yet to learn is true or not. For now, their article, as far as I'm concerned, has only once again belittled the impact of Marvel for the sake of more puff piece "journalism".

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