Have comics officially entered the canon?

The slow acceptance of the comic book medium by elite audiences is a story with its own particular milestones, each marking a moment of sudden approval from previously disapproving voters. George McManus received a convention dinner and warm words from Franklin D. Roosevelt in celebration of his comic strip. raise father. Mid-century modern artists like Roy Lichtenstein adapted (okay, upscale) images and panels from comics. Art Spiegelman received a special Pulitzer citation for his graphic novel Mouse, first published in book form in 1986. That same year, that magazine featured a story titled “Comic Books for Adults” — an early entry into a genre of journalism so ubiquitous that fans sometimes go by the acronym CAFKA (as in “Comics Are Ain’t For Anymore Children”). Another 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Michael Chabon The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which suggested, alongside books like Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitudethat comics, particularly the branch of the medium devoted to superheroes, were a useful basis for high culture’s novel-like meditation.

And now, a generation later, the apotheosis: Marvel comics have become Penguin classics.

Last month, “the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world” (language from the company’s website), in collaboration with Marvel, released three volumes from what it calls the “Penguin Classics Marvel Collection,” featuring a handsome array of stories from the beginnings of the lives of three Marvel -Superheroes: Spider-Man, Captain America and Black Panther. We’ll get to the whys and wherefores of each choice a little further down. But let us forego the question of whether hand-wringing, gnashing of teeth and quoting “O tempora! O manners!’ or the jubilant recognition of a primogeniture.

Let’s start, perhaps, with the one person who, from the start, insisted these books were classics — though, to be fair, he had skin in it. “With this classic take, the Marvel age of comics reaches a new pinnacle of greatness!!!” cried the text on the first page of a typical Marvel comic, the words no doubt penned by the co-creator/wordmaster/company face/pitchman of the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee. Lee himself – the only character represented in all three volumes – has been the most vocal proponent of issues like those reprinted in these volumes The Incredible Spiderman and Stories of Tension and yes) jungle action, which were then considered ephemera, were later canonized, not only treasured but collected. (Especially when Marvel started putting out its own collections of these stories in the ’80s — archival editions, hardcovers, fancy paper, full-bodied Stan Lee intros — it called them “Marvel Masterworks.”) And for Lee — at least the way he did told the story – it wasn’t just hype. It was indeed the fulfillment of a long-cherished artistic ambition.

By his own admission, Lee had previously viewed the funny book business as a way of earning a living along the way to writing The Great American Novel. Even his birth name, Stanley Lieber, he had kept away from the four-color books for such occasions, preferring to rely on a pseudonym. But when his boss hired him to write a book about a team of superheroes to emulate DC’s current Justice League of America hit, his wife Joan told him to publish everything. And he did so, bringing new levels of sophistication, characterization, contemporaneity, wit, pathos and cosmic imagination to the business.

A lot of things in the story that have been polished to a high gloss over the years are left out, particularly the genius of Lee’s co-creator. Jack Kirby was Lee’s superior and, at the time, undoubtedly his superior in terms of influence on the medium. With a previous creative partner, Joe Simon, Kirby had essentially birthed the previous generation’s romance comic craze. And he knew it from superheroes, to say the least: he and Simon had come up with Captain America and thwarted Hitler on the cover of the first issue months before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Kirby had the creative energy and imagination of a dozen artists, and the speed of production to boot. His constant imagination to create new characters, locations, vistas, costumes, sets, plots, layouts, stories on a dazzling variety of canvases made him the architect of the Marvel Universe.

But – and this is a big one butbigger, sometimes, than some of Lee’s detractors will let on — it was Lee who kept publicly hinting at bigger ambitions for comics, even as it did Kirby (along with Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko and a few others), who created the work that made those ambitions less than ridiculous.

Marvel’s early successes led to an aging of audiences for superhero comics – perhaps not as old as they would be for decades to come, but old enough for college audiences to let Marvel’s offices know that the Hulk was their dorm was. Room mascot. (The Hulk, another Lee-Kirby creation, was a perfect metaphor for both teenagers—all testosterone masquerading as gamma rays—and baby boomers fussing, wreaking havoc and confusing their Greatest Generation parents.) They also led to, that Lee lectured at colleges across the country. A college student, a junior at Princeton in the ’60s—perhaps after he used Ditko’s quirky imagery for the strange worlds created by Lee Ditko creation Dr. Strange, memorably suggested that “we see Marvel Comics as 20th-century mythology” and Lee as “this generation’s Homer.”

Maybe. This argument of superheroes as modern myths and contemporary deities has a history almost as long as these CAFKA essays. (If you are looking for more details about the resonance and weight of these works, which, as we professors say, is beyond the scope of this article and includes topics such as geopolitical analysis and Afrofuturism, read the introductions to the volumes of best-in-the- Comics-study-businessmen like Ben Saunders and Qiana Whitted.) But the student had a point, and while he didn’t specify it, the Homer in question must be who he’s from That Odyssey. After all, the tradition that this particular classic has left us is the ability to continue a story full of adventures and monsters, the end of which is close to the horizon but never really reached. Remember, at the end of the epic, it is prophesied that Odysseus must leave home and set sail again.

One of Lee’s accomplishments – one that grew out of his role as CEO and line editor, not or not just a writer – was playing Odysseus, singing for his dinner and making sure the stories moved on. And on and on: these volumes feature scintillating forewords by current practitioners Jason Reynolds, Gene Luen Yang, and Nnedi Okorafor—all of whom, in various ways, have revisited these decades-old characters (Captain America, who’s a generation older, is closer to a centenarian) and shown how they arrive today. They have done so by telling stories that are generally written for older, more discerning audiences than those first stories, and are often more nuanced thematically, intellectually, and character-wise for this reason, among others. And at the same time they stand in continuity – in the general and comic-specific sense of the word – with these first stories, building on them, questioning them, deepening them and enriching them. is classic the right word for such rich soil? If not, it’s not too far away.

That said, some of Lee’s writing is most outdated — and rubbed — in these stories. He manifests a tongue-in-cheek comic style borrowed from Catskill Shtick that can feel as wide as a barn door at times, relationships between men and women ripped from the pages of the melodramatic romance comics he used to write and edit (with more than touch of standard-for-the-time-but-no-less-regrettable-60s-sexism).

And that’s the best argument for it special Selection from the archives as classics – in their widest embrace, not just with the fig leaf of “historical influence” or “marginalized genres” or “come on, half the international box office comes from these three characters” – emerges from the path in whom these stories continue to visually dazzle in this visual medium. Delights in these volumes alone include, but are not limited to, Kirby’s portrayal of Wakanda’s techno-magic; the magnificent, shadowy alienation that haunts Peter Parker in Ditko’s forays into territories bordering on noir; and Jim Steranko’s coolly elliptical, erotically knowing, psychedelic-tinged imagery.

Comedy is tragedy plus time, the saying goes, and the making of canons sometimes follows the same process, from pulped to valuable. JRR Tolkien apparently thought that Oxford’s English faculty should not teach anything written after 1800; all the newer stuff, he argued, is stuff for the students to read for themselves. Our culture has, in many cases successfully, called for dissenting opinions: institutions like the Library of America have produced authors whose first appearances were in cheap sci-fi paperbacks with garish, painted covers, but who are subject to stormy critical reappraisal were subjected to. Who knows? Perhaps parents will insist that their children stay up late to read these, and not just under the covers.

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