NEW YORK — Greetings, true believers! Be prepared for another earth-shattering, spine-tingling, senses-dazzling column drafted in the dazzling Dauber design!
A bit much, maybe, but I can't help it. In order to provide a well-researched, in-depth analysis of the new "Spider-Man" movie, as well as comment on the slate of upcoming movies the "X-Men" sequel, "The Hulk," and "Daredevil," to name a few I've been reading hundreds of comic books from the golden age of Marvel Comics, the early '60s.
It's hard to believe, looking back from 40 years on, how saturated the comics were with the spirit of the Cold War. It's not too much to say that the secret identities of some of Marvel's biggest heroes, including the Hulk, Iron Man, and the leader of the Fantastic Four, were defense contractors, and even Spider-Man himself seems to have benefited from the post-Sputnik notion that a real American hero should have a strong science education.
And while fears of radiation have recently come back to roost, with "dirty bomb" plots making the front pages of newspapers everywhere, it's atomic energy that's both the wicked witch and fairy godmother of the Marvel Comics group between, say, 1961 and 1965.
In those years of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Reed Richards and his motley crew are irradiated by "cosmic rays" and become the Fantastic Four; Bruce Banner, testing a new "gamma bomb" for the government, is, as the old song has it, "Pelted by gamma rays - turned into the Hulk (ain't he unglamorous?)", and our old friend Peter Parker is, of course, bitten by an irradiated spider.
But the Cold War has lost its luster for the younger generation. Though it seems to make sense in the movie that Peter Parker should develop the genetic power to shoot webs, rather than design the webbing through his own scientific know-how (always keeping in mind that "making sense" is a bit of a strange criterion when talking about a man with the proportional speed and strength of a spider), it helps that the movie's writers and producers don't have this Cold War agenda in mind. Instead, they have created gobbledygook about genetically engineered spiders that sounds right to our ears. Certainly in this day and age, recent headlines notwithstanding, it's the genetic revolution that provides us with our bugbears, not the atomic one.
Yet the Marvel Comics' original Cold War canvas created an epic scope in a way that the explosions and big-budget scenes of their movie counterparts don't seem to provide. Oh, the explosions are very impressive but there's no real sense that the world is at stake, and, correspondingly, that the writers are shooting for the moon in chronicling these heroes' adventures.
I don't use the phrase "shooting for the moon" randomly. There's a Kennedyesque optimism in early comic books, not in the essential personal tensions of the main characters Stan Lee elevated the phrase "If I'm such a big hero, then why am I so sad?" but in the sense that they were present, as writers and artists, at the birth of something big. Something world-changing.
Part of that was hucksterism, sure. But not all of it. Now, half a century later, in a world that makes those early science fiction plots in Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four look laughably old-fashioned, we find that these stories are relevant enough to become the creative inspiration for several movie studios. Maybe they were right about being a part of something big after all.