I’ve been reading a comprehensive history of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and it’s reminding me of a lot of the comic books I read in my youth – and have stashed in boxes in our basement. I’m tempted to go back and read some of them again but I’m worried that, like so much pop culture from my youth, I’m going to discover that my adult self is wondering what the hell my younger self was thinking. A lot of it is really not great.
However, by putting some of that old stuff in front of my kids I’ve found that their younger minds are just as forgiving of lame content as my younger mind was. Sometimes.
I thought that starting them off with early Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four, X-Men, and The Avengers would be a good way to introduce them to comics. The stories were simpler, the moral conundrums more black and white, the visual storytelling bold and colorful. For the most part that’s true, although Stan Lee’s approach to writing women during that period is shameful if not explicitly misogynistic. Sure, in the early 60s the so-called “battle of the sexes” was in full swing but this is ridiculous. Strike one.
Because geeks don’t need any help not understanding women I jumped to more contemporary stories but they are, for the most part, too dark and violent for my kids. Watchmen, widely considered the single greatest story in the history of comics, essentially gave permission to every story that came after it to be as dark and disturbingly violent as they wanted. Modern writers and artists have risen to the challenge. Perhaps you’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies and the new Superman. No fun allowed. Strike two.
As a side note here, Marvel Comics, the fun and interesting of the two major comic publishers, has managed to produce a series of wildly successful movies that are actually fun – if also very violent and explody. Too violent and explody for my kids.
The sweet spot would seem to be in the 70s and 80s when I started seriously reading comics. The quality of the writing could be good even if the subject matter was often lame. The only story I would actually trust from that time, however, is the X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga written by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. This is the story that defined the X-Men as one of the greatest comic books of all time and led directly to the wild popularity of the movies and the character of Wolverine.
So there’s one recommendation for the kids. An anthology of X-Men issues #129-137 known as the Dark Phoenix Saga. Although the stories leading up to it are pretty great as well and issue #138 is one of my favorites. Basically look at the entire run of Chris Claremont and John Byrne on X-Men #108-143.