The weird world of romance comics

I got a batch of old DC, Marvel and Charlton romance comics the other day and they’re simply insane in their simplistic old-fashioned sexism, or worse, when the creators were trying to be ‘progressive’ in the 60’s and 70’s.

These titles sold hundreds of thousands of copies every month yet they’re now highly collectable thanks to having some work from fine creators like Wally Wood, Jim Steranko, John Romita and Stan Lee who must have churned out thousands of stories where men were men, women knew their place and love always won. What’s bizarre is that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created the genre in 1947, but don’t expect a billion dollar film franchise for Millie the Model anytime soon.

Think of this; when Jack and Stan were carving themselves what would be the Marvel Universe they’d sell thousands upon thousands of glorious stuff like this.

And it’s the Marvel romance comics of the 60’s and 70’s I’m drawn to like some masochistic butterfly which isn’t to say that DC didn’t knock out a few gems.

But it’s the Marvel stuff created by then middle aged men trying hard to tell stories which teenage girls could lap up that’s the prime choice.

This stuff is generally awful, but there’s an ironic joy in these tales of romance which are often beautifully drawn, but it really is the cries for contemporary relevance that makes these stories so fantastically shite, yet great at the same time.

By the mid-70’s romance comics were dead, more or less. The rise of the superhero meant Marvel and DC concentrated on that genre and the days of both main publishers printing a variety of comics of all genres were on the way out. However these now highly collectable relics contain some work that needs better appreciation from comics historians and the fact that this genre is often disregarded or skimmed over in various histories of comics is a tragedy. Especially as even low grade copies of these comics fetch high prices.

So seek these comics out. If you’re any sort of fan of the medium you may not be exposing yourself to great stories but you’ll find some amazing art, and you can ironically enjoy them to your hearts content…

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My Captain Marvel

This weekend Marvel’s Captain Marvel film opened. That’s this Captain Marvel.

Not this Captain Marvel appearing in Shazam! (long story, copyright but if you want to dive into the rabbit hole start here) which is the original Captain Marvel.

There’s no sign of new Marvelman/Miracleman comics let alone a film, but I’m sure his day will come.

It thankfully isn’t this Captain Marvel.

The Captain Marvel film isn’t even the first Captain Marvel that Marvel Comics produced.

This Captain Marvel had his own series which struggled hard for 16 issues before enjoying a revamp but even though he had a better costume the series struggled.

It wasn’t til Jim Starlin took over with #25 bringing in a more cosmic flavour, while bringing in characters like Drax and Thanos to tell a story which today would have been a major crossover, with its own series and everything but the 1970’s were cheaper times so readers could pick up issues cheaply as they came out. Well, readers in America that is. Over here many of the issues either weren’t distributed or had suck a low distribution they may as well not come over from the States. So to read this story which dived from one title to another (Captain Marvel to Avengers to Warlock to Marvel Two in One) involved some serious work.

This was my Captain Marvel that I grew up on. There were other Captain Marvel’s (at least two) after this one, not including the one currently packing cinemas but that run by Jim Starlin that ended with Captain Marvel dying not because of Thanos, but because of cancer, is among the best run of SF/superhero comics you’ll ever find.

There’s now pretty cheap trades collecting all these stories so when you’ve enjoyed the Carol Danvers version, go back to the comics for the best run of Captain Marvel done so far. You won’t regret it.

Inside John Byrne’s studio

For those of us of a certain age the name John Byrne is associated with the X Men.

As well as his Superman reboot.

Over the last decade or so Byrne’s been doing bits and bobs away from Marvel or DC, though there is a rumour he’s working on an X Men book again. Byrne has a pretty Marmite reputation with fans but this is someone who helped change modern superhero comics, and really probably deserves more credit than he gets.

The video below is a fascinating tour round his studio and his collection of original art. It should make you supremely jealous. Enjoy.

DC Comics are no longer being distributed in British newsagents

Titan Comics are no longer publishing their licensed reprints of DC Comics in the UK meaning there won’t be DC titles in newsagents which means a lot of readers will be disappointed.

Comics in newsagents is important because for many people it’ll be their first encounter with them, and indeed people like Warren Ellis has spoken of stumbling across comics in newsagents when he was young. So that spark led into careers in the industry for a lot of people but for the last 20 years or so DC have royally fucked up ensuring readers get their favourite stories, or even pick up new ones. Licences have been passed around but we shouldn’t have a situation where on the verge of 2019 the license is dangling there waiting for someone else to pick it up.

But as said, it never used to be like that. DC used to have their comics well distributed from the 1950’s when 5/6% of the average titles print run was sent to the UK to be shipped to newsagents. By the 80s and early 90’s large chunks of certain titles print runs (Hellblazer for example)  were escaping cancellation as much of the print run was being sold in the UK, and not just the direct market. You could pick up titles in not just the big chains like W.H Smith’s but your corner shop with your loaf and pint of milk. All of that stopped in the late 90s.

Next time out I’ll be going into this more as I start a series of stories of unsung heroes of British comics.

What I thought of Elsewords

The CW’s DC selection of DC series are often a bit dull and tedious (part of the problem with having 20-odd episodes a year) but on the whole, Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and now, Black Lightning, are pretty fun and the now annual crossover has been great.

This year sees the crossover scale back a bit from last year’s in terms of characters as it focuses mainly on Flash and Green Arrow, with Supergirl providing support with her cousin Superman. The scale though, is cosmic as the producers decide to up the stakes, not to mention trust the audience that it grasps concepts like alternate worlds and books that can rewrite reality which is what’s going on here as Oliver Queen and Barry Allen change places so Queen is the Flash and Allen is the Green Arrow. This is because a cosmic being called The Monitor has given a Dr. John Dee the Book of Destiny in order to rewrite reality so he can test heroes for a ‘crisis’ that’s coming.

Got it?

Truth is that if you’ve not been watching the programmes over the years you’ll be lost, and if you’ve no idea of DC Comics and its history you’ll be even more lost. For those of us familiar with both, Elsewords is playful fun, even if it also acts (sometimes tediously) as soft pilot episodes for Superman and Batwoman getting their own shows.but the entire story serves as prologue for the Arrowverse doing their own version of Crisis on Infinite Earths next autumn.

Crisis is generally considered to be not only the best of superhero comics vast crossovers (mainly as it had an actual purpose and not just to make money) but it gave DC the chance to clean house, which it didn’t quite do as DC have spent the decades since trying to tidy up after Crisis, but here the tease is for all (or the ones they can afford/get) of DC’s television and film adaptations. We’ve already seen the return of the 1990 version of The Flash, so what’s to stop anyone else turning up next year barring money and death?

Overall Elsewords is fun, and done by people who clearly don’t just like the characters but the comics too. If only the people making DC’s films did the same.

Purging the stereotype of 1990’s comics

I watched this video about Marvel’s pretty dismal reboot of some of their titles back in the 90’s, and on the whole its fine but uses the lazy stereotype of 90’s comics being all bulging Liefeldesque characters and really, not very good.

It seems to be the view of Millennial commentators that the 90’s were crap but the truth is the 90’s were probably the decade where one could still be surprised by what the mainstream would do with even Marvel producing quality work at the end of a decade where the majority of their output was instantly forgettable

Say the 90’s to a certain age and type of fan and they’ll think of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Spawn, Jim Lee’s X Men or Image work, but many will think instantly of this piece by Rob Liefeld .

There’s nothing defensible about that piece. In every way it is awful It represents a small part of 90’s comics. It doesn’t represent say, Preacher, Sandman, The Invisibles, Grendel, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Concrete, Nexus, Yummy Fur, From Hell, Bone and Hate plus many, many other titles showed a real diversity when one walked into a comic shop.Even mainstream superhero titles weren’t all bad with Marvels, Kingdom Come and enjoyable runs on Batman stood out in a decade where you could still get a variety in terms of comics.

But of course there were piles and piles of trash much of which still live in dealers 50p boxes but as a decade, the 90’s were more diverse and adventurous than most of your YouTube generation critics give it credit for. Indeed one could make the argument that it was a golden decade for comics and personally, I like to think it was as the number of great comics that came from that decade after the Cold War and before the War on Terror.

What happens is though, that there’s an assumption for history from people that look only at it from one point of view which is often the view of the lazy consensus. As is often the case the truth is more revealing, not to mention interesting than the commonly accepted view of it.

The comics industry is run by crooks and mobsters…

In my last blog I spoke about whether comics sales had declined, and laid out the question  ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’ and said the failure of the direct market with a mix of talent/imagination being in short demand being blamed for this. I’m only partly right as the blame also lies with the big companies who act often like thugs from a Warner Brothers 1930’s gangster film.

Hyperbole right? Well not really. The entire comics industry was forged in the world of mobs and gangsters as laid out in Gerard Jones’s excellent book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic BookIndeed as late as the 80’s, the mob had a hand in the distribution pie as Jim Shooter points out in his blog.

But the direct market came along, shifted the focus of distribution from newstands to specialist comic shops, the mob were gone, and for a while it seemed like the crooks and charlatans running the industry were gone, or at the very least, reduced to a handful and the business became professional. Some creators even became famous outwith the comics bubble and some even became very rich by finding a formula and selling it to film or television to be developed.  However creativity was reduced as companies moved away from being creator focused to being focused on developing ‘properties’ created by men and women paid little to nothing who if still alive, watch corporations and their executives grow fat and bloated from their work.

If this sounds bitter, it’s because this is a sad truth of the industry. There’s the tales told at convention bars in the early hours that aren’t able to be told in public for obvious reasons of publishers doing their best to wreck people. Some of these stories are leaking out as people die, or they’re being used as part of Howard Chaykin’s splendid Hey Kids! Comics!, which outlines the history of comics that’ll never be told on a Marvel or DC film making of documentary.

Comics, or at least the world of superhero comics, are not free of old-school gangsters, but they’ve been replaced by the thuggery of the corporation. Fans of the corporation and it’s ‘property’ are a thing now as they defend corporations against the sons and daughters of those creators who in many cases died in perjury. The corporations that are now Marvel and DC have chased away creativity for formula, as a whole as there is some diamonds in the rough.

So we have an industry whose works are more popular than at any time since the American comic book was born nearly a century ago, and an industry struggling to sell comics but both Disney and Warners see comics as farms for the real money in films, TV and merchandising. Yet there’s hope. The internet has opened up comics to more people, while creators who would never get a foot in the door of the Big Two are now making themselves known through self-publishing online. People are coming into the world of comics who love the medium and aren’t just speculators who won’t be around in a few years.

Things are getting better but right now the industry is suffering development pains, so it’s down to those who can to help guide things through to we all come out the other side better than the past.