Comic books. Cheap stuff. The lowest form of literature. Parents and educators alike condemned comics as barrel-bottom escapism, juvenile delinquent fare. When kids were found reading Tales From The Crypt instead of studying algebra, adults assumed a rot was forming on the impressionable minds and tried to dissuade the kids from comics. But the kids weren’t gonna be fooled. Comic books were pure fantasy, and it was fantasy these kids demanded. There was a superman in every eight year old’s mind that wanted freedom. Up, Up, and awwwwwaaaayyyy. Look, up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane. No! It’s Super Joe Average, head in the clouds, face deep in a comic mag. For ten cents, comic books were the best movies in town.
San Diego Comic Convention was held last week at the Sheraton Inn. Comic freaks have finally come out of the closet and brag about, even flaunt, their comic book fixation. Host and hostesses walk about dressed in Star Trek costumes, rubbing elbows with straighter tourist types who try hard to understand what is happening. Captain America t-shirts are seen everywhere. These people are serious about comics. Comics are an art, and nothing less will do. Talk is passionate, opinionated. Names of artists flash by, marked by solemn intonation. Jack Kirby (creator of the Marvel series) is a genius but he needs an editor. Frazetta should handle Conan the Warrior always.
A Dealer’s Room for comic book collectors has been set up in the Banquet Room. Convention goers seeking to sell their stock of back-issue comics display their goods on folding tables. Comic books are lined side by side at many tables, with a protective clear plastic sheet covering the yellowing pages. “Sir, don’t lean on the comics,’’ a seller tells a guy who lets his weight rest on a box full of Marvel comics. The guy moves on, and another one replaces him as potential customer. The dealer smiles.
“Say, I can make you a great deal,’’ he begins. The buyer backs away, startled. “Interested in the Fantastic Four? Got the best collection on the floor right here.’’ Still smiling, he pats several boxes. “Got ’em all in good condition. Say, you seen this one? The Thing goes berserk and destroys half of New York City. Really a fast selling item.” He hands the issue to the man. Dazed, the buyer leafs through the pages gradually. The dealer begins to speak again, but the buyer mumbles something about only having bus fare home. The dealer continues to smile, but his smile is tighter, less congenial. The would-be buyer disappears into the milling throng.
“A redneck can enjoy pornography, but he can’t get into something like an Underground comic,” says Scott Shaw, a San Diego cartoonist; which has a lot of sex but also has a lot of social relevance. In a Crumb strip (R. Crumb, creator of Fritz the Cat) people might see some fantastic orgy, but a person can’t get excited sexually about it because it’s too funny. It’s physically impossible. Most of the porno things are so dead serious that it’s sad.”
The scene is a hotel room filled to the brim with cartoonists and aspiring cartoonists, loyal fans all. Between huge gulps of Olympia, the comic talk narrows down to specific issues of favorite mags.
“That issue where the Fantastic Four lost their powers and had to battle Dr. Doom who took over the Baxter Building was really hot. Sinnot’s inks on that job were a bit blunt, but Kirby’s fight sequences saved it. I sorta wish Stan Lee hadn't relied so much on that hack plot so much But still...” Scott's voice fades, others give their views. The talk becomes so specialized that the layman feels lost. Like movies and rock music, comic book-ism has its fanatics. These folks know what they are talking about. No shame at being called a comic fan. But it hasn’t always been an easy matter to be open with one’s devotion. Says Scott ” “You had to get a comic off the stand, you had to be seen buying it, you had to carry it home, it was like going out and buying rubbers or something.”
The first Star Trek episode is being shown, and the film hopelessly grainy. The image slips out of focus, and the indignant people upfront respond, “Focus, Goddamnit, focus!!!” Obviously, the crowd has some liking for the axed T.V. show. The sober mug of Star Trek’s Spock appears, unemotional, and applause drowns out the soundtrack. “Ooohhh, Spock,” coos a girl. Spock is sexy. Captain Kirk appeals to the guys for being indestructibly tough. Silhouettes of bushy heads give the screen a detracting skyline. The Comic Con Chairman mentions a new Star Trek cartoon show slated on NBC for Saturday mornings. “They seem to think it’s pretty much kid stuff,” he says. “NO!” protests an angered chorus.
There is not much going on. Devoted fans trail their favorite artists around, making small talk while asking for autographs. An art show is in the process of being judged by the elite of the Comic Industry, Carmine Infintino, Jack Kirby, Neal Adams.
Jack Kirby stands out in the comic field as its Picasso; he has freed the comic hero from stiffness to sharp, fluid movement. In Kirby’s hands, arms and legs have become muscled, gloriously alive and bounding from panels into the reader's memory. Fight scenes at last resemble something with tension and action. Stories proceed with the pace of a stampede. Open the first page, and you are engulfed in action so fast that you often have to re-read the first pages to make sure you haven’t missed any vital parts. His heroes are brave, Nordic types. Square jaws, blonde hair, finely tuned bodies, perfect teeth, short, pointed noses.
In person, Kirby contradicts his characters’ appearance. He is a short, stocky man with short hair, smokes a pipe, speaks to everyone as if he were his best friend. No surly Nick Fury gruffness here. Kirby's patriotism is balanced with a seemingly boundless like for people. His fans listen to him with a kind of respect they wouldn’t give other adults delivering the same talk. And his philosophy on the comic book phenomenon bridges the putative generation gap: “Comics are American. They reflect who we are, what we are, and what America was made to be.”