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Retro: Capes, Cowls & Costumes #2

From August 2008: A column I wrote for the now apparently defunct website Bookgasm.com about comic book novels, Capes, Cowls & Costumes. CC&C was a labor of fannish devotion, researched exclusively from the almost 200 such titles I then had on my shelves. Ever since I read my first superhero prose story—Batman & Three Villains of Doom by Winston (William Woolfolk) Lyon (Signet Books, 1966), I was all in on the concept. As much as I loved the comic books themselves, translating the heroes into prose added an amount of depth to the characters that I'd never seen achieved on the two-dimensional, four-color page. Later entries in the form, particularly Maggin's Superman: The Movie era novels and later works by Maggin, as well as Denny O'Neil, Christopher Priest, Tom DeHaven, and others only confirmed the power of words over pictures.


S’Wonderful! S’Marvelous!

Thanks to Batman, comic books were cool in the 1960s. They’d been kid stuff in the ‘40s, a danger to the very moral fiber of our great nation in the ‘50s, but Adam West in a leotard got people to take a new and different look at comics. The growing awareness of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics were also of an enormous help. Now, when anyone over the age of 12 picked up a comic book, they were likely to find the more, for want of a better word, mature soap opera offering of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.


You could also check out the spinner rack at your local stationer, luncheonette or drugstore, anywhere the 50¢ paperback book was sold, which was often also the same outlet selling comic books. In 1966, New American Library published two Batman novels, Batman Vs. 3 Villains of Doom and Batman Vs. The Fearsom Foursome, a novelization of the 1966 summer movie filmed with the cast of the TV show, both by Winston Lyon (a pseudonym of former comic book writer, then novelist and TV writer William Woolfolk). The next year, Marvel Comics responded with a novel based on their team title, the Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker.


The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker was the first prose featuring any Marvel superhero and, it was, as a debut effort, pretty much a bust. Under a striking cover painting of Goliath, Captain America, Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver and Hawkeye beats a mediocre story hardly worth remembering. Veteran comic book writer and science fiction author Otto Binder, who was responsible for not only half the Captain Marvel stories ever written, but thousands of stories starring dozens of other comic book heroes, not to mention the excellent Adam Link, Robot short stories, authored the Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker but was, oddly, unable to successfully marry prose and comics into a smooth, readable package. The book opens with a laborious TV tribute to the Avengers where each character’s origin is tediously retold, accompanied by some pointless physical demonstration of their power or ability and then goes downhill from there. Make no mistake, when I was a 12-year in 1967 reading this fresh off the rack, I was hooked, not bothered in the least by the ridiculous schemes of Karzz, the so-called Earth-Wrecker from a future time, or his clichéd Earth-wrecking machinery (I didn’t even blink at the villain’s Rust-Ray, yes, he called it a “Rust-Ray,” when that was whipped out to stop Iron Man with one mighty blast of oxidation), but upon more recent deliberation, it’s obvious that Binder was trying to inject some “maturity” into the mix, but only succeeded in coming off as forced, out-of-date and, in some spots, awkward and silly. Of course, Binder was a grown man in his 50s when he wrote Earth-Wrecker and, like a lot of veteran writers of the time, was still using 1950s era beatnik lingo for modern speech patterns and, if the truth be known, were at least a little embarrassed by how they made their living.


The same could not be said for Ted White, author of 1968’s Captain America and the Great Gold Steal. White was almost thirty years younger and just the sort of reader modern Marvel of the 1960s was out to land, a comic book fan (and fanzine editor) who came of age in the 1950s, a New Wave science fiction author, and editor of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He took comic books and their characters seriously; there was none of Binder’s self-consciousness hipness or over-the-top gadgets like the Vulcan Machine to start earthquakes or the Storm Satellites to stir up violent upper atmospheric winds to wreak disaster. The Great Gold Steal leans towards superhero noir, a dark, nighttime world where angst-ridden heroes walk the streets lost in thought and well-coordinated teams of thieves plot the theft of more than $12 billion in gold bullion from the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan. It’s a caper flick all the way through, albeit with a detailed recap of Captain America’s World War II origins and his survival into the 1960s, not to mention a few laser beams, thrown in. The Captain America of the story is strong, good, and his many abilities are rooted in plausible science, while his continuity is respected to the point of several footnotes to refer readers to the issues of the comic books where certain events took place. The story takes a more comic book turn, vis-à-vis its villain, near the end but nothing that doesn’t fit with the rest of the story and which, in turn, serves to add a connection and a layer of richness to the theft itself. The Great Gold Steal also sports one of the best covers ever for a superhero novel, a grand and regal depiction of Cap marred only by the fact that he’s clutching a gun. To me, a real Steve Rogers wearing an actual Captain America uniform would have no choice but to look exactly like that.


I don’t know why the next Marvel novels took a decade to make it to market, but in 1978 comic book writers and editors Len Wein and Marv Wolfman signed with Marvel Comics and Pocket Books to package what turned out to be 11 books in the Marvel Novel Series. The first to make the jump from pictures to prose was Spider-Man who was, by then, Marvel’s flagship character and who had been appearing on TV in both live action and animated series. Wein and Wolfman co-wrote Spider-Man: Mayhem In Manhattan, which adhered closely to established comic book continuity of the time. Nerdy Peter Parker worked part-time at the Daily Bugle, owned by the Spider-Man-hating J. Jonah Jameson, to earn enough money to keep his ever-spiraling-into-disaster-life from totally falling apart and, oh yeah, Aunt May must never learn he’s Spider-Man or the shock will kill her! Into this, Spider-Man is accused of murder (he totally didn’t do it!) and spends the bulk of the book trying to clear his name and find the mysterious villain behind his troubles. The bad guy turns out to be long-tie foe Doctor Octopus, sporting tentacles, a bad attitude, and a plan in motion to get all of Big Oil under his control! (And no, it’s not the same plan implemented by the Bush Administration.) Mayhem In Manhattan unquestionably set the standard for the books that were to come, starring the Hulk (2.5 novels), Spider-Man (1.5 more novels, one co-starring the Hulk, both of which, in the interests of full disclosure, I wrote and if it’s really full disclosure, wrote with a lot of enthusiasm but little skill), and one each for Captain America, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, the Avengers, and one anthology.


Subtlety, on the other hand, is what makes the stand-out story of Marvel Novel Series #9, The Marvel Superheroes (Featuring The Hulk, The Avengers, The X-Men and Daredevil), work so well. The Marvel Superheroes offers four novellas by four different writers. Sharing the bill are the Avengers in “This Evil Undying,” by James Shooter, pitting Iron Man, Captain America, the Vision, Scarlet Witch and others against the evil computerized genius of the indestructible Adamantium robot, Ultron; the X-Men in “Children of the Atom” by Mary Jo Duffy, in which Wolverine and company take on nuclear proliferation and the ultimate doomsday weapon; the Hulk in “Museum Piece” by Len Wein, teaming the angsty green behemoth with Man-Thing (uhm, that’s a swamp monster, so get your minds out of the gutter) against a possessive foe, the Collector; and Daredevil in “Blind Justice” by Kyle Christopher, a pseudonym for comic book and TV writer Martin Pasko. Blind but with his other senses enhanced to a degree that he can “see” after a fashion, like some sort of radar, attorney Matt Murdock fights the bad guys as Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. He’s all the more remarkable because he’s a man without sight and Pasko managed to bring this unique sense to life from Murdoch’s POV with deft writing, superior descriptive abilities and subtle thought-pictures, like “The touch of maroon was vaguely unsettling to him,” and “The cellophane on the pack crinkled in a way that told him her hands trembled.” If a reader were after a more mature, respectful handling of the superhero in prose, this was a then rare example of a successful effort.


Next: Get out your popcorn and grab your Goobers! It’s comic books to novels by way of movie novelizations!


P.S. While we're on the subject, click on over to my Shop and check out my own contributions to the world of superhero novels:






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