Marvel Comics in the 1970s:
The Word Inside Your Head
Enigma: The Best Marvel Comic of the 1970s
The best Marvel comic of the 1970s was published in 1993 by Vertigo, an imprint of DC Comics. Neither the writer, Peter Milligan, nor the artist Duncan Fegredo, had ever written for Marvel, though they would each eventually go on to do work for the company.1So what makes it a 1970s Marvel comic? And why is that particular era worthy of attention? At this point, Marvel’s famous impresario Stan Lee would probably write something along the lines of ”Follow me, True Believer!” This book, however, is about the comics produced immediately after Lee’s heyday, and, in any case, Lee’s prose style hardly needs new imitators. Instead, let’s just entertain this paradox for a little while.
Cover of 1995 collected edition
The comic in question is Enigma, a miniseries whose eight issues were published between March and October, eventually collected into a trade paperback that has been in and out print since 1995.2 Before landing at Vertigo, Enigma was initially supposed to inaugurate the Touchmark imprint planned by Disney, but Disney cancelled the line before printing a single page. The Disney connection is amusing, not just because the comic’s content is a far cry from the House of Mouse, but because Disney is now Marvel’s parent company.
Why, then, start off a book about Marvel in the 1970s with a DC comic from the 1990s? Nearly everything that makes Enigma an artistic success is the culmination of trends developed at Marvel two decades before (during Milligan’s adolescence), and yet the same Marvel-derived features that give Enigma its strength arrive in a form that even the pathologically mellow editors at Marvel would never have let see the light of day.3 Seen from the perspective of 1970s Marvel, the artistic triumph of Enigma is bittersweet, as Milligan and Fegredo materialized the aspirations that the publishing industry, the Comics Code, and the broader culture never let their predecessors achieve in their purest form.
The Enigma Code
Enigma is the story of Michael Smith, a young man whom the narrator describes as "a tree ape who lost most of his hair and now has nightmares about black horses and cancer.” Michael has a dull telephone repair job and an even duller love life (he and his girlfriend have sex once a week, on Saturdays), but he is shaken out of his complacency by the news that his city is plagued with supervillains. This is a shock; not only is Engima set in a world without superheroes, but these particular villains are familiar to Michael from his childhood comics reading. He comes to repair a phone for a man who suddenly turns into The Head, a villain who sucks people’s brains out through their noses. Later a group of worshippers are massacred in church by a man calling himself The Truth. Soon a model named Victoria Yes is transformed into Envelope Girl, who enfolds people into her manila body and sends them far away.
Enigma Issue 1, page 14
Attacked by The Head, Michael is saved by a mysterious, handsome man in a domino mask: Enigma. Enigma was his favorite superhero as a child, and over the course of the miniseries, Michael finds himself falling in love with the masked man. As the story unfolds, Michael meets Titus Bird, the gay, washed-up ex-comics writer who created Enigma back in the Seventies. Eventually they realize that Enigma was born the superpowered offspring of incestuous rape; as a baby, he accidentally uses his reality-altering powers to destroy someone’s face, and ends up thrown down a well, where he grows up with only lizards for company and food.
Enigma Issue 1, page 22
When he gets older, he finds the ruins of Michael’s childhood home (it had been destroyed in a fire), and in this gutted husk of a building, he discovers the Enigma comics that Michael’s mother gave him as consolation for his father’s absence. The comics create an emotional bond with Michael, while also inspiring the future Enigma to model himself on their contents. Enigma’s insane and monstrous mother had been in a mental hospital this entire time, and now has been drawing on Enigma’s power to free herself and seek revenge on her grown son. Enigma made Michael fall in love with him in the hope that this humanizing emotion would somehow also tame his mother. At the end of the comic, Michael, Enigma, and Titus Bird walk into a field to confront the mother, but the reader never finds out how the conflict ends.
Enigma Issue 8, p. 23
If this plot summary sounds convoluted and farfetched, then it has done its job. The twists and turns, the introduction of new elements that seem to come out of the blue, and the alternation between apparent cynicism and rank sentimentality were par for the course in some of the most intriguing comics to come out of Seventies Marvel. Milligan and Fegredo are also trafficking in the kind of pseudo-profound allegory that marred some of those same comics: The Enigma fights The Truth in a church, and the Truth dies in the church. But they also let the reader (and even Michael) know just how trite such allegory is. In Issue 3, Michael says,
“You know, Titus, those comics really meant something to me when I was a kid. They seem to speak to me.
“What did The Enigma mean, huh? What were you trying to say?”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Mike, but they didn’t mean anything.
“I was half outa my mind on dope when I did them.
"The Head, The Truth, Envelope Girl, even Enigma himself, they’re the products of a sick and drug-crazed mind..”
Enigma Issue 3, page 17
Michael continues to press Titus, demanding to know how the unpublished fourth issue of the original comic would have dealt with Enigma’s apparent death. Titus’s response:
"Damn, I don’t know. Don’t get so excited. It was only a comic.”
Titus may have dreamed up The Truth when stoned off his gourd, but Enigma recognizes a different, lower-case truth: the possibility that a comic can be both profound and vapid, tacky and beautiful. This dialogue between creator and fan reminds us of the powerful impact that imperfect art can have on a reader of a certain age, a metaphor that is rendered literal when Enigma comes to life and seduces the now-grown fan. As detractors of such “trash culture” as comics have argued for decades, that influence can also be pernicious, a contention reflected in Enigma itself: soon the media report the appearance of suicidal cultists calling themselves Enigmatics, who have been mining the original Enigma comics for hidden meanings. When Titus hears that a young Enigmatic has shot himself after saying, “And then what?”, he realizes that this is a quote from his own work. Fegredo treats us to a page of the “original” comic, complete with garish colors, square jaws, and tacky Seventies leisurewear. In it, Enigma stand on a rooftop talking to a "fat cat” who recites all his goals and plans (“I’ll be the owner of all this, all this mine, all mine”). After each of the fat cat’s statements, Enigma asks, “And then what?” Finally, Enigma renders his judgement:
“You know what impresses me about you? Your ability to be as pathetic as you are and not want to kill yourself.
“If I were you, I’d have to kill myself.’ (4:22)4
Enigma Issue 4, page 22
This and other brief glimpses of the “original” Enigma comics highlight one of the things that the Seventies version tries to do, and that the 1990s comic accomplishes: it deploys a superhero figure in a conflict that is abstract and philosophical, rather than simply a fight over property or national boundaries. The mode in the "original" stories is heavy-handed allegory, while the 90s version manages to invoke the naive allegorical constructs of its (imaginary) predecessor while both mocking them and developing them further, in the knowing, self-conscious way that challenging 90s comics often affected.
The Voice of the Lizard Is Heard in Our Land
Enigma also excels in the two other categories that defined the best of Marvel’s 1970s output: interiority and voice. The fact that the comic spends so much time in Michael Smith’s head is not at all surprising to the 90s reader, but it is something that only started to become mainstream two decades earlier. Enigma thematizes the very idea of interiority or the inner life, while also commenting on the very aspects of escapist comics literature that drew the opprobrium of its critics after World War II. The Head is an avatar of expanded consciousness (made literal in his ever-expanding, grotesque cranium), and he is also a threat: he sucks out people brains. Envelope Girl, in addition to her obvious sexual implications, enfolds characters (and, by extension, the reader) inside her own internal world, only to send them somewhere they never intended to go. And they are joined by the Interior League, a group of terrorists who sneak into people’s homes and rearrange their furniture.
Enigma Issue 4, page 9
The Interior League turn out to be the only villains who are the product of Michael’s rather than Titus’s imagination: he made them up when he was a child. Like all the villains, they are externalized through Enigma’s power, but they also stand in for what both Enigma the character and Enigma the comic can do: they enter other people’s minds and reconfigure the internal architecture that they find there. When Enigma brings such characters to life, he is manifesting Titus’s (the writer’s) and Michael’s (the reader’s) imaginations, making them part of the world of others. This is precisely what the would-be auteurs of Marvel in the 1970s were attempting.
Intimately connected with the question of interiority is the establishment of a narrative or authorial voice. By “authorial voice,” I mean a perspective or worldview that can be inferred from the texts and attributed to the person or persons to whom authorship is ascribed. While an authorial voice distinct from that of Stan Lee was a novelty at Marvel in the early 1970s (and increasing suppressed by the decade’s end), it is the narrative voice that is more artistically noteworthy. The best Marvel writers after the 1960s developed approaches to narration that were neither an ostensibly neutral third-person omniscient nor the carnival huckster persona established by Stan Lee .
Enigma features a narrative voice so remarkable and puzzling that one of the challenges to the reader is to make sense out of this strange point of view that never seems aligned to any particular character. Already by the second page of the first issue, the narrator is dropping inventive similes that simply have to be the product of an individual perspective:
“The well was like an old man who’d lost the desire to get dressed in the mornings.
"The well would sit around all day in its pajamas waiting for something to happen.”
A few pages later, referring to Michael:
“Sometimes he feels like a rumor drifting through a world of hard facts.
“What’s the point of you, Michael?”
“The old Michael Smith is a pair of trousers, worn by another man…”
“It’s lucky that this is the kind of story that follows its characters into the bathroom…
“Look, he’s sitting on the toilet, clutching a you-know what.
“It comforts him. No, don’t laugh. Oh, all right, go ahead, laugh.”
Enigma Issue 5, page 1
On the first page of issue 5 (that is, right after the miniseries’ halfway point), the narrator beings to address their mysterious nature:
“Do I sound detached? Indifferent? I’m not, believe me. I’ll tell you a secret: I’m not a distant narrator, aloof from the action of this story…I'm a part of this story.
“I’m a character in this story. Don’t worry, you’ll understand everything by the end, possibly even before the end. For now, let’s turn the volume up…."
The narrator’s identity is another enigma, one that the reader cannot possible solve alone. Only at the very end do we learn that this odd narrative voice is the result of an offhand simile worthy of…the narrator. Enigma tries to explain to Michael and Titus what it was like for him when he discovered the world outside the well:
“When I saw the world that I was going to have to inhabit I almost fainted.
“It was like you waking up and finding yourself in a ward full of frothing idiots, and knowing that you would have to spend the rest of your days with them.
“See that lizard, the green, plump one? Imagine if he had a human’s intelligence. Imagine if he knew this entire story…
“But could only communicate it to the minuscule brains of his fellow lizards."
Enigma Issue 8, page 16
Whereupon Enigma uses his powers to bring the lizard to consciousness, turning him into the comic’s narrator. The last page shows us one lizard haranguing a few others, trying to tell them what is going on, but lamenting that they are too stupid to figure it out. The last lines are also the series’ first: “You could say it all started in Arizona. Twenty-five years ago. On a farm…” Now the reader (or really, the re-reader) is finally in a position to understand why the narrator speaks the way he does, why he takes such a dismissive tone when addressing his audience, and why he keeps mentioning lizards.
It’s a nice trick, but does it amount to anything? I would argue that it does, and that, once again, it involves the virtues and viceс of Seventies Marvel. The lizard narrator is a fine instantiation of what the Russian Formalists called skaz, a device involving a narrative persona that could not entirely be identified with the author, but иs not a direct participant in the story. The skaz narrator’s language and tone are always marked in some way that differentiates it from anything that could pass as neutral. Skaz was also a device used liberally by Marvel Comics writers, especially Stan Lee; those who came after him faced the challenge of working within the tradition he helped create while establishing a narrative tone of their own.
Seventies Marvel writers escaped from Lee’s shadow by embracing one important aspect of his narration: Lee’s narrator loved words. This love was unabashedly unsophisticated, expressing itself primarily in alliteration (“Make mine Marvel!”) and an attempt at post-Beatnik informality. The writers who came after him also loved words, but theirs was a love informed by modernist (and, eventually, post-modernist) experimentation. This is certainly the case for Milligan as well; having already delivered a Joycean pastiche in his previous DC miniseries Skreemer (1989, with art by Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon), Milligan borrows the circular narrative structure of Finngegan’s Wake for the beginning and end of Enigma. More to the point, his lizard narrator is playful, reveling in absurdity at every opportunity.
The all-knowing lizard who tells the story of Enigma provides a counterpoint of misanthropic cynicism to the otherwise humanist, life-affirming character arc of Michael and Enigma. This balance between negativity and sentimentality was a particular hallmark of Steve Gerber, arguably Marvel’s best writer in the 1970s, but also found its way into the work of his colleagues.
Equally important for our purposes is that this cross-time comparison between Enigma and Seventies Marvel is fundamentally unfair to Milligan’s predecessors. The aesthetic success of Enigma is no doubt a credit to Milligan and Fegredo, but it would also have been impossible in the conditions under which the Marvel creators labored two decades earlier. While Enigma is an obviously circular narrative, Milligan and Fegredo were able to create a comic that, at least as an object on paper, had a clear beginning, middle, and end. They did not have to find a way to include Spider-Man in their second issue. They were not beholden to a broad corporate editorial policy, nor did they have to worry about how well Enigma Underoos might sell (although, come to think of it…). They wrote for a market that understood that comics could be created for adults, a market whose very existence would be unthinkable without the efforts of their Seventies predecessors.
Predicated on a nonexistent comic book with a mysterious protagonist whose adventures straddle the line between the pretentious and the profound, while telling the story of one man’s development as a conscious subject (Enigma) and another man’s awakening to his own sexuality (Michael), Enigma is a story of adolescence.5 For the North American comics industry, the best output of Marvel in the 1970s was the adolescence of its chosen medium. Brilliant, awkward, clumsy, and moving, these comics have never quite fit into standard narrative of the maturation of American “graphics novels.” They are the acne-ridden photos of youth on the cusp of a beautiful maturity; when we remove them from our photo album, we never really see how the child became an adult.
Oh, You Pretty Things
Oh you Pretty Things
Don't you know you're driving your
Mamas and Papas insane
Let me make it plain
You gotta make way for the Homo Superior
—David Bowie, 1971
Modern Marvel Comics began with the first issue of Fantastic Four in 1961, so it should be no surprise that the 1970s would see the company move through adolescence. That decade would, in fact, prove to be a turning point for North American comics as a whole. The delightfully profane world of underground comics brought in a new, countercultural readership, but it would not last out the decade. Not only were the counterculture’s own days numbered, but local ordinances banning the sale of drug paraphernalia would eventually put headshops (the undergrounds’ primary point of sale) out of business. Some of the stores that survived did so by turning themselves into comic shops, which would facilitate the spread of “ground-level” (adult-oriented, but not underground) comics in the 1970s and the direct market in the 1980s.
Marvel Comics was not immune to these changes. Quite to the contrary, the company that prided itself on its youth appeal (even if much of the attempts to get “hip” are cringe-inducing now) was swept up in a rapid aesthetic transformation that its main rival, DC Comics, could barely begin to match by the end of the decade. Marvel’s approach to the superhero in the previous decade had been revolutionary, by touting their new “superheroes with super problems.” The neurotic, latter-day Hamlet of Spider-Man, the fraught relationships of the bickering Fantastic Four, and the persecution complex of the mutant outcast X-Men brought hints of new depth to the starts of four-color comics. Granted, this could seem like faint praise. The new emphasis on the heroes’ personalities was largely an advance in characterization from one dimension to two.
Two key elements of Marvel Comics in the 1960s paved the way for the progress that would come in the 1970s: the emphasis on the adventures’ connection to what would later be termed “the world outside your window” (i.e. despite the existence of superpowers, Marvel’s heroes lived in a place that was supposed to resemble that of the readers), and a decade-long preoccupation with humanism.6 Like Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek at roughly the same time, Stan Lee used fantastic situations as a chance to explore “what it means to be…human” (the ellipses were practically mandatory) while extolling humanity’s virtues.7 On the surface, proclaiming the wonders of humanity might seem like a pointless proposition, since we humans do not have the option of one day deciding we would prefer to be, say, trilobites. But that’s the beauty of fantasy and science fiction (and the heroic fantasy of superhero comics): not being human becomes thinkable and viable, which makes humanity a category worthy of contestation. Superhero stories are often derided as escapist fantasies, and, indeed, the invitation to imagine yourself into a superheroic or even alien body sounds like the essence of escapism. But Stan Lee’s Marvel work closed the loop by indulging the reader’s superhuman fantasy only to place the human front and center. Being super was fantastic, but being human was paramount.
Marvel in the 1970s saw a transformation that initially looked seamless on the surface, but proved almost as dramatic as Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk. As Stan Lee stepped away from scripting nearly all of Marvel’s titles, his younger replacements were Marvel fans-turned-pro who, rather than looking at the counterculture from a skeptical, calculating distance, were the product of Sixties youth culture. Moreover, the writers who joined after Lee’s initial hire, Roy Thomas (whose primary task was to preserve and adapt the approach pioneered by Lee and Kirby), were well-read, with literary ambition of the sort to which Lee only gestured.8 Their ambitions met with numerous constraints: the strictures of the comics code, the dictates of Marvel editorial policy; the narrowness of the existing comics market; the presumed immaturity of the readership; and the limits of their own talents. But what united the best of them was a shift in emphasis and perspective from the “world outside your window” to the “world inside your head.” In a thoroughly visual medium and a decidedly action-oriented genre, these writers went beyond mere quirks of characterization and angst-filled monologues to a quixotic attempt at interiority.
Interiority was conveyed through thought balloons, spoken dialogue, and narrative captions. All of these were devices that had been exploited by their predecessors in the 1960s. Stan Lee’s voice simulated a conversation with the reader, simultaneously creating a sense of intimacy between narrator and reader but also a bit of a remove from the characters themselves (even as the reader was treated to their endless monologues). The writers of the 70s used this technique as a platform for something different: a narrator/reader dialogue focused intensely on the inner lives of the characters on the page. As these writers shifted their focus towards the characters’ inner lives, they grappled with formal questions of both genre and medium: medium, in that two-dimensional representational art has obvious limitations for depicting abstract subjectivity, and genre, in that internal drama seemed to be the antithesis of the obligatory fight scene.
Here I see a parallel with the genealogy of science fiction elaborated by Frederic Jameson in Archaelogies of the Future. After briefly suggesting that the science fiction of the 1960s might represent a turn from “sociology” to “psychology,” Jameson proposes a term he finds more apt:
“Psychology is not merely disqualified by its humanist overtones (psychological tricks and paradoxes probably belong back in Asimov's second or "science-and-technology" stage); it also finds itself displaced by psychoanalysis and relegated to the status of a pseudo-science if not to that of applied science and of testing and marketing techniques. "Subjectivity" is a more capacious and less dogmatic category under which to range what we find at work in Dick's hallucinations as well as in Lem's cognitive paradoxes or Le Guin's anthropological worlds” (92-93)
Marvel’s superhero comics in the 1970s do not even remotely approximate the sophistication of Lem and Le Guin, a comparison that, due to differences in their respective media and corporate comics narrow room for self-expression, would in any case be patently unfair. But Jameson’s highlighting of “subjectivity” could be productive when applied to post-Lee/Kirby super heroics. The comics credited to Stan Lee did not so much reproduce or convey a state of mind; rather, they declared it though the characters’ spoken words or the contents of their thought balloons. There are a variety of reasons why this makes sense, starting with a lack of faith in the reader’s sophistication and ending with the very means by which the comics were produced. Lee and his collaborators pioneered the so-called “Marvel method” of comics creation, essentially a labor-saving device that allowed Lee to script numerous comics each month. Lee and Kirby (for example) would talk about the plot, with Kirby taking notes. Or perhaps Lee would write a brief outline, or just a few general ideas. Then Kirby would breakdown and pencil the entire issue (often jettisoning many of Lee’s ideas and replacing them with his own), after which Lee would add the dialogue. Wordiness can be seen as an instrument of writerly control, and also as a symptom of a process that looks ill-equipped to produce nuance.
In the world of underground and alternative comics, as well as in the cases of particularly talented mainstream figures such as Frank Miller and Jim Starlin, one might more often find comics produced by a writer/artist, a single individual with equal responsibility for words and pictures. But the shift to interiority at Marvel in the 1970s was almost always the work of a writer/artist team. Only Starlin and Kirby produced a significant writer/artist output towards the end of the decade, and even there, Starlin’s writing was largely in the Stan Lee mold, while Kirby’s many gifts did not include anything remotely resembling subtlety.
Assembling the Team
Marvel in the 1970s concentrates on the work of five writers:, all born within three years of each other Doug Moench (1948-), Marv Wolfman (1946-), Steve Englehart (1947-), Don McGregor (1945- ), and Steve Gerber (1947-2008). Each pushed mainstream comics in the direction of interiority, but each in his own way.9
After a first chapter on Stan Lee and humanism, Chapter 2 will examine Marv Wolfman’s run on Tomb of Dracula (1973-1979). Closely collaborating with artist Gene Colan, who drew every single issue of the series, Wolfman focused on the inner lives of the supporting cast in order to show the effects the vampire had on the people whose lives he ruined, while also inviting the reader alternately to sympathize with and recoil from Dracula. Doug Moench’s work on Marvel’s monster characters is part of the next chapter, though most of Chapter Three treats Moench’s run on Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu, a series whose success rested on the ongoing contrast between martial arts action and the internal monologue of the title character.
On the surface, Englehart (Captain America, Doctor Strange, The Avengers) is the most traditional of the bunch, often employing a Stan-Lee-like direct second-person address and persisting with his abuse of exclamation points long after comics stopped using them to end every single sentence. But he took the 1960s-era technique of using an external struggle (the fight against a “bad guy”) as a parallel for an internal conflict and, with the help of wide reading in esoteric philosophy and a hearty appetite for hallucinogens, made the theme of most of his comics work what he called the “rising and advancing of the spirit” (the translation of the name of one of the characters he co-created, Shang-Chi). Englehart’s work is the subject of Chapter Four.
The writer treated in Chapter 5, DonMcGregor (Black Panther, Killraven, Luke Cage) saw Lee’s humanism and raised it with heroic romanticism, creating adventure stories tinged with a wistful nostalgia for a mythical time when human relations were more straightforward and honorable. Though McGregor has a flair for humorous banter, the defining feature of his work is a preoccupation with narrating internal states at great length and in remarkably purple prose. Not only is the fighting a parallel to an inner struggle, the very images we see on the page are often a pretext for a lengthy meditation based on the protagonist’s conscious and bodily experience of the scene depicted by the artist.
Finally, the greatest inroads in conveying subjectivity were made by Steve Gerber (Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, The Defenders, Omega the Unknown). Gerber’s scripting represents a high point in mainstream comics’ development of an authorial voice, as well as a consistent focus on the characters’ perspectives. In his run on The Defenders, Gerber managed to combine an attention to his protagonists’ inner lives with a long-running plot line that literalized interiority: the heroes face the threat of the Headmen, four villains whose preoccupation with mind control and self-improvement are manifested in their grotesque experiments on their own heads. The Headmen’s challenge to the Defenders is entirely one of perspective: given the opportunity to brainwash the heroes, the Headmen choose to “merely” alter their perspective on the world, rendering them a bit more cynical and disaffected. The Defenders simultaneously face off against a movement called “Celestial Mind Control,” a thinly-disguised parody of EST that brainwashes its followers into admitting they are all “Bozos” (and requiring them to wear clown masks). But Gerber’s clearest artistic triumph is Howard the Duck, who is the waddling embodiment of alienated skepticism. Howard allows Gerber to render his own verdict on the “humanity” so venerated by Stan Lee. An unwilling student of the human condition, Howard comes to an inevitable conclusion: being human stinks.
I am well aware that so far I have spoken exclusively about writers in a medium defined by the combination of words and pictures, leaving me open to the accusation of naive literary bias. But I am well versed in comics criticism, and in the classroom I spend most of the time lecturing about form (paying attention to page layout, panel transitions, closure, etc.). Yet to the extent that it represented a step forward, Marvel in the 1970s was a writer-dominated phenomenon. Sometimes the writers in question had the good fortune of long relationships with their artistic collaborators, but often they found themselves writing for artists who either had not been selected yet or stepped in at the last minute. Moreover, while Gerber worked frequently with master craftsmen such as Gene Colan (and occasionally with fan sensation Frank Brunner), most of the time his artists were highly competent storytellers who never rose to the level of fan favorite (Sal Buscema, Jim Mooney). Englehart, too, was often paired with Buscema, and even with such deeply unpopular artists as Don Heck and Frank Robbins (though Colan and Brunner illustrated some of his work as well). Only McGregor, the least acclaimed of the three, had more consistent luck in this regard (P. Craig Russell on War of the Worlds (Killraven), Billy Graham and Rich Buckler on Jungle Action (Black Panther), but saddled with Robbins nonetheless for part of Power Man (Luke Cage)). I will certainly pay attention to the artists’ contributions, but my subject matter is largely writer-driven work.
My conclusion will be about Chris Claremont, the X-Men scribe who turned Marvel’s mutants into a runaway commercial success. Claremont represents both the apotheosis and the downfall of 1970s interiority. In his wordy soap operas, Claremont made the inner lives of his heroes of paramount importance. But he did so by reviving and retooling Stan Lee’s declarative mode, with his characters carefully laying out their motivations and angst in lengthy monologues that, more than his plots, required a superhuman suspension of disbelief.
Diamonds among the Garbage
As I imagine has already become clear, there is an inherent problem with trying to attract broader attention to these writers’ works: after finally reaching the point where the likes of Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Chris Ware are treated with respect, looking back to the Seventies once again requires that comics scholars and comics fans engage in the kind of special pleading that we only recently managed to set aside. The great graphic novelists of the past four decades (or at least the ones who have escaped the comics ghetto) might require attention and thought from their readers, but as cultural objects, they tend to be low-context. That is, they can be understood on their own terms without extensive footnoting about a century of comics art.
This is not the case with Moench, Wolfman, Englehart, Gerber, and McGregor. Or with any mainstream comics creator of their era. They were not writing “graphic novels;” they were making comic books. Chasing monthly deadlines in an industry whose products were collectible because they were ephemeral, they rarely produced stories that completely made sense to people picking up just a few issues here and there. Mainstream comics were not serialized novels; instead, they functioned as a continuous flow, with beginnings that were not only beginnings and endings that were never really endings.10 They referenced events in other comics starring other heroes, excelling at the creation of endlessly immersive worlds. As cultural artifacts, they require explanation and curation, as well as no small amount of patience with stylistic elements that do not work for a contemporary audience.
Strange Tales 181, page 15
In one of the early issues of Jim Starlin’s Warlock saga (Strange Tales 181), the title character finds himself in a trippy, Steve-Ditko-inflected virtual reality as part of one of the villains’ attempts to brainwash him. Warlock’s unconscious resists the programming imposed on it, transforming the regimented world of his evil alter ego The Magus into an absurd realm populated by clowns. Most of the satire is primitive and self-explanatory, unless one counts the send-up of Marvel’s own corporate politics, which would only be apparent to readers who knew enough to recognize it. In his excellent Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean (2007), Douglas Wolk calls Warlock “one of the first American metacomics—at least part of its subtext concerned the comics industry and the art of cartooning.” About Strange Tales 181 (“1000 Clowns”), he writes:
“The routine involving clowns building a tower of garbage that repeatedly collapses because of the diamonds someone keeps sneaking into it is not exactly subtle, either, and Starlin himself puts in a cameo appearance as a hapless technician attempting to program Warlock.”
Typically, Warlock’s response to the tower’s collapse verges on hysteria: “HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA Diamonds among the garbage! Let me out of here!”
Strange Tales 181, page 17
Starlin’s own comics were presumably some of those very diamonds, whose luster is obscured by the great piles of crap Marvel produced every month. If only that were the case! The problem is not just the various infelicities that marred Warlock, Captain Marvel, or the other comics that built Starlin’s reputation. The real problem is that the diamonds cannot be entirely extracted from the garbage, as the diamonds themselves are partially composed of trash.
Which brings us back to Enigma. Enigma reverses Starlin’s formulation: it is not a diamond among the garbage, but a diamond with a garbage core. Exquisitely constructed, an inspired fusion of the story’s action with the inner lives of its characters, it unabashedly proclaims the influence of its messier, flawed predecessors. That influence is, in fact, the crux of the plot: there was something about a philosophically suggestive, if sophomoric Seventies comic that literally turns the characters into better people, a magic that awakens an even greater magic within them. Milligan and Fegredo have composed a love letter to Seventies comics in a language that wouldn’t exist were it not for the letter’s addressee. Investigating Seventies Marvel will not give us super powers, bring our childhood fantasies to life, or reconfigure our understanding of our sexual orientation11. But I hope it helps us appreciate those diamonds that can never be rid of their flaws.
Milligan, who could continue to write excellent comics at Vertigo (Shade, the Changing Man; The Human Target) did eventually publish with Marvel, most notably his run on X-Force/X-Statix. Fegredo has drawn for Marvel as well, but only on a few occasions (twice reuniting with Milligan). Neither of them could be considered closely identified with the company or its characters. ↩
The most recent edition came out in 2014. There does not appear to be a legal digital edition. On October 4, 2019, Dark Horse comics announced that former Vertigo editor Karen Berger would be bringing out a deluxe edition of Enigma in the company’s Berger Books line. (https://www.bleedingcool.com/2019/10/04/berger-books-republishes-first-mainstream-gay-superhero-comic-peter-milligan-and-duncan-fegredos-enigma/)↩
This is a reference to Marvel’s editorial staff before Jim Shooter’s ascension to Editor-in-Chief in 1978. ↩
More than pretentious, this scene is also unoriginal. Titus (or Milligan) is giving his readers a superheroic update of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem “Richard Corey,” which would have been more familiar to contemporary readers through its adaptation as a Simon and Garfunkel song in 1965.↩
Michael’s sexual orientation should still be seen as something of an open question. While it is possible to read Enigma as the story of Michael’s move from repression to queer acceptance, Enigma all but admits in the last issue that he made Michael gay so that their love could be possible. The context of LGBTQ progress, especially in a medium that had allowed so little room for queer representation, encourages a sympathetic reading (as does the use of the “mind control” trope in some slash fiction). But imagine how this story would read if Michael were female: Enigma uses his mind-control powers to make her fall in love with him. Instead of liberation, we have coercion and even rape (as in the notorious Avengers story in which Ms. Marvel gives birth to a baby who rapidly grows up and becomes the man who brainwashed her into falling in love with him). ↩
“The world outside your window” was Jim Shooter’s tag line for his ill-fated “New Universe" line of comics, launched in 1986. This slogan was both nostalgic and aspirational, in that it represented an attempt to return Marvel comics to its roots in the (relative) realism and timeliness of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko’s early 1960s work. Since then, it has become an unofficial catch-phrase associated retroactively with the Marvel ethos from its beginnings in 1961, with Lee himself invoking it in a memorable 2017 video address insupportable of diversity and tolerance (https://www.newsweek.com/stan-lee-quotes-legendary-comic-book-creator-dies-1212430). ↩
I specify Lee not in order to take a stand in the controversy over Lee’s and Kirby’s authorship of the stories that made them famous; it is quite clear that Kirby deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the ingenuity of such comics as Fantastic Four. But even a cursory comparison of the comics Lee wrote with Kirby to Kirby’s later solo works confirms that “being human” was not a particular concern of Kirby’s; by contrast, it comes up in a wide range of Stan Lee comics with different artistic collaborators. ↩
Technically, Don Rico, Ernie Hart, and a few other veteran comics writers had been hired before Thomas, but they did not stay long, and did not leave a significant imprint on the comics line. Thomas was the first novice writer to join Lee’s Bullpen. ↩
In the 1970s, Marvel employed virtually no female writers. One of the exceptions, Mary Skrenes, was Gerber’s credited co-writer on Omega the Unknown and uncredited collaborator on Howard the Duck, among other titles.↩
There is a case to be made that the difference between comic books and graphic novels should be approached according to Deleuze and Guattari’s opposition of a “flow” (which can be started and stopped) to complete “objects” (which can be present or absent). But I’m not entirely sure it’s worth making.↩
Or at least, it probably won’t. It’s best not to offer any guarantees. ↩