Marvel Redux

I jumped on a recent deal offered by Marvel Comics, to get a month's access to their online database of tens of thousands of comics published over a number of decades for only 99 cents. Like a lot of you, I suspect, comics formed a central part of my early teen and pre-teen years. Apart from a brief period in the early to mid-90s, however, when I drilled my way through a bunch of titles published under DC's Vertigo imprint, I've rarely returned to the form.

I can recall very vividly the moment I stopped reading comics. I was 12 years old. I had a large cardboard box crammed with hundreds of titles from Marvel UK: black and white reprints of Marvel titles in A4 format knocked out on cheap newsprint. I can't be sure which comic I was reading at that precise moment, but more than likely it was the Avengers. I was sitting cross-legged on a Saturday afternoon, with more comics spread around me, when it suddenly occurred to me: if all these guys are so incredibly smart, with all these incredible powers, how come they always wind up hitting each other all the time?

In the exact moment this semi-revelatory thought occurred to me, I lost interest. I put the comics back in the box, put it in whatever corner of my room I kept it, and ignored it for the better part of the next decade. Even so, I hung onto those comics for a long time until, finally, some years later and having moved into yet another student flat, I got sick and tired of them and binned the lot. Being just black and white reprints on cheap paper, they weren't worth a penny anyway.

But until that moment when I was twelve it was all Marvel, all the time - I had little patience or interest in DC characters such as Superman or Batman, with the aforementioned exception of Vertigo titles. Superman was an ubermensch wet dream; Batman a rich man's wet dream. At least when you saw Iron Man out of his suit, you knew he was an asshole, however good his intentions. Reed Richards? Brilliant, well-meaning asshole, but ultimately still an asshole. Spiderman on the other hand was a kid who had to make ends meet and didn't have easy access either to a Fortress of Solitude or a BatCave. Even when I was ten I knew Bat Caves were bullshit, whereas the Baxter Building made perfect sense. Yancy Street made sense. Doctor Strange living in, I think, Greenwich Village made sense.

So as soon as I had access to the full contents of the Marvel Unlimited app on my Ipad, I dove right in to check out some of the comics I remembered from way back when.

First thought: There is no sentence in a 60s Marvel comic that cannot, apparently, be improved by the addition of an exclamation mark.

Second thought: Steve Ditko is one of the finest artists of the 20th Century, period.

Third thought: man, they really crammed a lot of story in back in the day, to a point where it becomes unintentionally hilarious. In one comic, set in a Scotland apparently entirely occupied by ghosts, moors, castles and women inexplicably attired in head-to-foot Tartan, Nick Fury disappears offstage for two pages, and on his return blithely explains how he had to sneak down into the bottom of a locked tower where he found a secret Nazi base used by a U-boat commander and his crew pretending to be the Loch Ness monster for the past two decades, so Nick sneaks into the hidden submarine WITHOUT ANYONE NOTICING and crosses some wires so the next time the sub sails it goes blammo and GUESS WHAT, BLAMMO right in the middle of explaining this. Now there's no more submarine and by the way, the ghost is really the current Laird and he's been in cahoots with the Nazis, and...and frankly, you can smell the deadline, and the whisky on the writer's breath, and the knowledge he's got...what? Two hours? Maybe three? To get this verdammt story finished and on the spike and then maybe get some lunch all the way back there in 1963 or 1968 or whenever it was written.

Fourth thought: flying in the Marvel universe is a very dangerous activity, because the plane is guaranteed - guaranteed - to crash onto a mysterious island where a disaffected scientist has created a utopian society based on his ideas (they all said I was mad, but I showed them!) and is even now on the verge of destroying the world in order to recreate it. Which, I've got to tell you, must play havoc with the tourist industry.

And there's more of that cramming-it-all-in-before-the-deadline here, too, in this, yet another Nick Fury comic. Because after crashing on said mysterious island he encounters a film crew who help him save the day by, if the artwork is anything to judge from, punching out not only goons but a whole pile of mutated dinosaurs which, let me tell you, is pretty impressive for anyone who otherwise makes their career in Hollywood.

Fifth thought: I moved onto some old Doctor Strange comics because I used to love that stuff. Yet so often mystical battles seem to involve a whole bunch of...well, punching, except by shooting beams of light at each other instead of hitting with fists. But it's still cool, in a delightful, Ditko-ish, retro kind of way. Or at least it's cool for three or four issues, at which point, despite said enjoyment, you'll be happy to never read another Dr Strange comic again.

Then I started looking for some more recent stuff. It's a little bit of a lie to say I haven't read any comics since I stopped buying Vertigo in the mid-90s - not because of the content, but because of the sheer cost, as the books became more and more expensive.

I had, a while back, and after hearing a great deal of hype, found myself reading Brian Vaughan's Y: The Last Man. I was very, very impressed by the writing. So naturally I jumped on a Marvel title Runaways, written in the early 2000s by the same writer, and it didn't disappoint - and indeed it alone justifies the meagre expense of one month's access. Once the first story arc is completed, however, it begins to segue into being just another regular superhero comic, and thereby touches on the reason I'm not really interested in Marvel comics any more: superheroes simply don't interest me.

Next, thanks to favourable online reviews - and despite the whiff of mask and suit, however unseen - I then read through some issues of the current run of Hawkeye, with its Mod-flavoured cover art and down-to-Earth storylines. It's good. Or pretty good, anyway. The less superheroes, the better it is.

Other than that, I skipped through some different titles - some of the Ultimate comics I'd heard so much about, a few others besides - and it felt like visiting someone you used to hang out with, only to begin to remember why you stopped hanging out with them. I wanted to read Richard Morgan's take on Black Widow but, unfortunately, the first issue is missing from the app, which seems strange.

I do rather wish that DC might consider a similar pay-per-month model for, perhaps, their Vertigo titles, which even now retain a separate enough identity from other DC comics they get their own app. Another Ipad app, Sequential, offers the opportunity to buy more mature titles, such as Alan Moore's From Hell and many others. But it, like many others, I believe, uses DRM, and I'm loathe to buy from any DRM-based source where I can't make my own non-DRM backups.

But all in all, it's been an interesting experience.  


Marauder out in paperback

Naturally, having updated people via Twitter and Facebook that something just came out from me, I neglected to also post it here, on my blog. So: the paperback of Marauder, the fourth Shoal book and a standalone set in that universe, is now out. It's a UK publication, but my books have been found not infrequently, state-side, in Barnes and Noble, and there are many small independent bookshops and specialist science fiction and fantasy stores scattered far and wide that undoubtedly have a very good chance of stocking it. In the UK, where it is primarily published, it is my fervent hope that you will soon become heartily sick of the sight of the thing staring out at you from bookstore shelves everywhere. For an idea of What It's All About, click on the 'books' link up above, and scroll down - having, naturally, first admired the cover of Extinction Game, due out in hardback and ebook mid-September.