The Way of All-Flash

Over the past few weeks while I’ve been sick, I’ve found myself oddly drawn back to “the old stuff” in comics. I’ve been rereading my crumbling paperback copy of *All in Color for a Dime*, for instance, and spending time perusing the *All Star Comics* Archive Editions — has DC published the final volume yet? — and rereading some DC and even Marvel Silver Age reprint editions like *Fantastic Four* #1 and *Showcase* #28.

I’m not sure yet what it is, but there’s something I’m looking for in these books — something lacking in almost every writer’s approach to comics today (self included, or I wouldn’t be searching) — but something that has *absolutely nothing* to do with nostalgia.

I think it may have to do with energy and magic.

24 Responses to “The Way of All-Flash”

  1. Richard Bensam Says:

    I’ve been doing the exact same thing…and I don’t know what this mysterious factor is either. Could it be something about those creators working without any history of comic books to guide them? They were drawing on elements they loved in comic strips and pulp magazines and movies, but having to invent the way this new hybrid could work…while working fast under intense pressure and with no reason to believe they were creating a whole new medium, much less that their work would be remembered more than sixty years later. The comics writer of today can’t function in that state of innocence becuse we now have those six-plus decades of successful craft to look back on and be informed by.

  2. Richard Bensam Says:

    Oops, forgot to mention — best blog entry title EVER.

  3. Cory!!Strode Says:

    I think it has to do with the fact that in the early All Stars, they were just throwing plots at the wall, not knowing if any of it would stick. By the time we got into the 60’s, DC had a solid formula and stuck to it, while Marvel was trying anything to see if it would work, but despite all of the “character driven” work than came later, I’m amazed at how plot driven the early Marvel stuff is, and the stuff before Kirby and Ditko showed up was even MORE plot driven.

  4. Bob Kennedy Says:

    Here’s a possibility: From about 1965-on, new comics writers (Denny O’Neil and Roy Thomas may have been the first) wrote in a way that made them try to appear hip. Before Stan Lee’s name was prominently affixed to stories, and before these stories had a distinctive and flashy quality, comic book writers (particularly for DC; certainly this doesn’t apply to EC writers) were fairly anonymous and a bit interchangeable. I always imagined Gardner Fox and John Broome looked and dressed like those generic Curt Swan background characters in suits and ties. But from Roy Thomas onward, I get the feeling that comics writers got an inkling that they were celebrities in some narrow context, and that if they wrote in a relevant, hipster manner, college speaking gigs and groupie action might be forthcoming.

    That’s just my impression, I wasn’t there. But there does seem to be a shift from the writers conducting themselves like science fiction writers to conducting themselves like rock stars, and it appears to be a generational shift.

  5. Craig Taylor Says:

    I think I know what you mean, Steve, about “energy and magic”. For me, the nostagia for childhood comics memeories is somewhat tainted by the friends which I shared these memories. However, I am finding that Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers captures perfectly that energy & magic. I am going to buy his All-Star Superman, and also – if the rumour mill is correct – his Detective Comics revamp of Batman (but it’s probably only a rumour).

    craigtaylor, australia

  6. Steve Gerber Says:

    Richard: “best blog entry title EVER.”

    Thank you.

    I gotta admit, I was proud of this one.

  7. Beth Says:

    You had less knowledge, etc. when you read those books long ago… I suspect that part of what’s “missing” is what has changed within you.

  8. Richard Bensam Says:

    Beth, to what extent can that come into play when it’s something you didn’t see or read in childhood, but you instead first encountered as an adult? I’ve been watching a lot of movies made twenty years before I was born — in most cases, these are movies I’ve never even heard of before seeing them, such as the unexpectedly hilarious “Ball of Fire” starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, from 1941. My utter delight at such films has nothing to do with nostalgia or childhood innocence. It has everything to do with their verve and wit and humanity; they make today’s films seem formulaic and overly constructed by comparison. In comic books, I have the same feeling for Jack Kirby romance comics from 1947…and I didn’t even know those existed until fifty years after the fact. They still felt special and different even though I was in my mid-thirties when I discovered them.

  9. Mark H. Says:

    There’s also the glaring fact that SHIT HAPPENED in Olden Thyme Comics Periodicals. Even if it happened to be that whole “illusion of change” thing I’ve ehard so much about, and Ben Grimm was orange and rocky again by the end of the next issue. Of course, like someone pointed out, there was no way of knowing at that point in time that he would, was there?


  10. Tom Walker Says:

    I was brought up on Silver Age mags, then stopped when all my favourites went away or became too dull. I think the magic seemed scarier back then…and the drama seemed more poignant and “mythopaeic”. Apart from the amazing Gerber stuff I’m thinking Moenech’s Werewolf by Night, Stalin’s Warlock/Magus saga, the early New X-Men… I have dont some recent rereading and find the same “kick” more from good Buffy, B5 or LOST TV episodes than from printed stuff.

    But surely the 1970’s also had that freedom of expression elsewhere. A defiance, a self honesty, an honest look at several sides of the same issue. We had freedom fighters along with the terrorists, evil islamic magicians along with the “good arabs”..

    Perhaps now we are in an apparantly globalised world with soundbites instead of opinions and lawyers’ arguements to replace healthy debate and exploration of controversial themes…

    Love and Ideas : in the 1970’s I had more love for the characters and found the ideas were quite amazing. I look back and this is still true – even in spite of a certain nostalgia. Gaiman is the only writer that can produce a Silver Age shiver or two in me. Perhaps there are others. Havent tracked down any HARD TIME yet – I’d assumed like OZ it explores the dark side of the american Id – plus magic!

  11. Joe Brusky Says:

    We have media coverage of everthing today. We’ve had four hours of media coverage of a hurricane every night for the last three weeks.

    Our views about sexuality, race and religion have changed. No one smokes pipes and wears fedoras anymore. We don’t have balck and white toilets.

    We don’t believe everything we’re told anymore, because we have the resources to research and question anything with our keyboards.

    But there wasn’t any continuity in comics, either. Week by week what evr had happened before wasn’t an issue and character’s powers changed to adapt to any situation.

  12. Tom Walker Says:

    I do find that most things I “research” with my keyboard brings back lifeless information, just like a boring ST:Next Generation episode. Where is the wonder? Where is the real storytelling now, the stuff that stirs and excites the imagination?

    Most fun I’ve had recently is watching Birth of a Nation for the first time and analysing my complex reactions to it. Was greatly impressed by the storytelling – I was engrossed…but then I’m always interested by the censoring of movies, (beyond hack and slash) and why.

    This reminds me of moore and gaiman’s Miracle Man: the birth and the descruction of London issues particularly. Visionary in a mind bending sort of way – most impressive. Just like Mr G gets when he’s on a roll.

  13. Steve Gerber Says:

    Beth: “You had less knowledge, etc. when you read those books long ago… I suspect that part of what’s “missing” is what has changed within you.”

    I might agree with that if I were blind to the flaws in those books, but I’m not. There are some inadvertently hilarious moments in the comics of the ’40s through the early ’60s, as well as some highly questionable plotting and ridiculously stilted and expository dialogue.

    Most issues of *All Star Comics* would never survive one of today’s television story conferences, with a roomful of writers trying to “break” the story.

    I can see all that — clearly. And yet there’s *still* something about those books that’s qualitatively different and, in some peculiar way, more interesting than what we have now.

    (On the other hand: One day I’m going to post the panel from the first JLA story that totally cracks me up every time I see it — and which struck me as extremely silly even at age 12 or 13.)

  14. micah Says:

    Maybe it’s the pace of storytelling. Because everything happened so fast you filled in more of the details yourself.
    For instance, with Howard the Duck and Beverly, I found that a lot of their relationship was implied. There was never a good explanation of why Beverly wanted to be with Howard and yet it seemed to make perfect sense.
    With graphic novels today, maybe too much is explained. A lot of the magic of comics is what is left out.
    Another thought is that a lot of classic characters are extremes. Howard is multi-faceted but can be defined as extremely cynical. That is the fun of the character. In the fantastic four, the thing is self pitying, the torch is cocky and reed is a genius. Everything and everyone are painted with bold strokes. The old Star Trek is like this too.
    These are my thoughts.

  15. Steve Gerber Says:

    Micah: “There was never a good explanation of why Beverly wanted to be with Howard and yet it seemed to make perfect sense.”

    The first night they met, he saved her life. Every day after that can be explained by the twin principles of habit and inertia — just like everybody else’s relationship.

  16. Tom Galloway Says:

    Btw, yes, all of the Golden Age All-Star JSA stories are now available in Archives (All-Star #1 and 2, which had JSA members-to-be in solo stories have not been reprinted, but All-Star #3-57 all have).

  17. A.L. Baroza Says:

    I’m a little too young to have had any real attachment to the Golden Age stuff. But, Steve, I know what you mean when it comes to the Silver Age Marvel stuff I grew up with. And like you, I can’t really describe what it was about those works, either.

    But I think it had something to do with confident creators firing on all cylinders and taking advantage of the medium itself in a way that today’s creators don’t. I think creators today are more interested in copying the pecularities and tics of more “popular” media. They’re trying to write novels or movies or TV shows instead of comics.

    Frankly, I think we’ve ceded the “energy and magic” to Japan and other countries whose cartoonists are probably less concerned with scoring a movie deal and are probably more interested in making comics for their own sake.

    And I’m not condemning anyone who wants that movie deal–if I could get it I’d go for it myself. But it does impact on the work, I think. It’s less pure cartooning and more like something that can be defined as generic “entertainment” product that provides maximum synergistic multimedia exploitation…or something.

  18. Steven R Says:

    there are lots of differences between comics then and now — and certainly some of what we like of then is due to nostalgia. and certainly there is lots of junk from back then too….
    I had the fun of reading the recent collection “Romance Without Tears” with the art by Matt Baker — but its the stories that are the meat of this collection…. the title gives the book away, these are romance comics without sob sisters….
    and that’s one of the things missing from comics (and society) for the past 30 years: optimism – the belief or even the hope that things will get better. That truth justice and the american way actually could exist or even should exist. Lee’s heroes with problems became problems with heroes.
    Im not saying that superhero comics should return to being “Little Miss Goody Two-Shoes” or “Pollyanna” – particuarly since that would kill their existing market before they could build a new one — but on the other hand, why pay for gloom and doom, when you can get that for free everyday?

  19. Brian Spence Says:

    I think there are two main differences.

    The first, as someone else pointed out, is that the pacing is different. More details went into the stories. The captions tended to explain a lot more than they do now. They were more expressive.

    The second thing is that people seemed to think that anything was possible back then. Everything didn’t have to be thoroughly explained or make sense. Back then, a guy who decided to dress up in a costume was cool, versus now, where the X-Men don’t have costumes in the movies. Nowadays, too much goes into whether things make logical sense, and not enough goes into whether it’s FUN.

  20. Jim Brocius Says:

    One big difference between then and now is that (with rare exception) the creators didn’t hold back – they gave it everything they had, the very best they could do, each and every month. There are a lot of primmadonnas in the field today who, if they were capable of producing Jack and Stan’s FF 48-50 would pitch it as a 12 issue mini series with multiple crossovers and tie-ins and special editions, alternate covers and such. Comics used to be jam packed full of ideas, concepts and events. I suppose todays creators are justified by not giving thier best, holding back ideas they deem more valuable. FF 1-75 gave us more characters, concepts, ideas and events than have been produced in the 400 plus issues since. In this day of ideas having more value (at least in the eyes of todays creators) I sincerely doubt we will return the glory days of creators giving thier best, there all, each and every month. Hell, many of them can’t produce monthly period, let alone pull out all the stops. Being a businessman, it’s hard for me to blame them. Being a comics retailer, it’s easy to blame them.

  21. Harvey Jerkwater Says:

    A major change in the pre-Marvel comics was the basic conception of the characters. A Superman story in 1955 was about a dude who could do just about anything who went around solving problems. A Superman story in 1995 is about a particular guy who happens to have powers and does some stuff with them.

    The olden-tymey stories focused on the powers and the permutations of playing with the powers. (“Superman’s sworn an oath not to hinder the Toyman for twenty-four hours! How will he protect the city?”) Modern-type stories focus on the people who have the powers, then extrapolate out. (“Spider-Man’s got a test to study for, a date with Gwen, and the Scorpion’s on the loose!” How will he juggle it all?”)

    Ask Gardner Fox “who is Hawkman,” and he’d say “a policeman from outer space who can fly and uses a mace.” Ask Geoff Johns, and he’ll tell you “a man reborn time and again to find and lose his great love.” Big change in focus.

    Old-tymey stuff valued the powers over the characters. That gave the stories a flavor that you don’t see anymore. Even crap writers who can’t handle characterization in the modern era don’t go back to “focus on the powers.” They still write soap opera; they just do it badly.

  22. Bart Lidofsky Says:

    We’ve had this conversation before, but here it is again. In the Golden Age, and for the first part of the Silver Age, comics were pretty much created by writers and commercial artists for whom comics was just one more medium. By the 1970’s (partially due to the DC purge), most of the writers were comic book fans, first. Stan Lee’s success can be largely attributed to his taking influences from many different sources that had not been used in comics before. far too many comic book writers took their influence from nothing other than comics.

    This created a downward incestuous spiral, where comics became by fans, for fans. Comics started losing readers, but they were not getting new ones to replace them. A big part of this was an obsession of continuity, which has gotten so strong that it’s virtually impossible to buy and read a single comic and get a full story; either there’s a bunch of reading you have to do to know what’s going on, or you wil have to buy a bunch of additional comics just to find out what happens.

  23. DarkMark Says:

    Well, Steve, I think the difference was just the newness and freshness of the product. Plus, the times had a lot to do with it…we were a lot more pro-American then, and we hadn’t lost our innocence. Now, there’s hardly any of it left to lose. And that’s a shame.

  24. DarkMark Says:

    And if you read Green Lantern of the Forties, will you be an “All-American” Boy?