Novelist Jonathan Lethem, whose newest book is called The Fortress of Solitude, has written a couple of interesting essays (well, one interesting one and one silly one) on comics, specifically Marvel comics.
Lethem makes the well-observed point that almost all of the novels about comics - a growing number, especially post-Kavalier and Clay – aim straight for the iconic 1940s/DC characters rather than dealing with the messier, but perhaps more interesting and certainly more emotionally involving Marvel characters.
One exception is Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, which I finally picked up over the holidays (the same day I bought The Starry Wisdom), purely because it makes extensive references to early 70s Fantastic Four comics. Were that the book’s only virtue I would probably feel quite the idiot now, but happily, it turned out to be a great novel for many other reasons - one of those books that I read twice in rapid succession, the first time piecemeal because I knew I'd eventually sift through the whole thing word by word yet I couldn't wait to find out how it ended. (Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire, also visible in the Current Reading list over to your right, currently enjoys this status.)
But Moody does get the Fantastic Four exactly right, by providing straightforward and almost irony-free descriptions of the plots of individual issues. They work because Moody dutifully supplies all the continuity necessary to parse the issues, resulting in descriptions that are two, three pages long and exactly nailing what made Bronze Age comics so appealing. Moody understands how their slow accretion of detail somehow adds up to an aggregate emotional intensity larger than any single episode. Yet he also understands the dilemma of time in the frozen universe of Marvel Comics, how sixteen-year-old reader and fan Paul Hood will age and change and his family will fall apart and yet the FF still will be there, fighting and quitting and rejoining and curing Ben Grimm and then uncuring him.
If you're currently salivating over the prospect of an entire novel devoted to the Fantastic Four (even the 70s Fantastic Four), don't get your hopes up - the FF material is only a few pages, and the book's major appeal lies in its fond yet unforgiving depiction of a family's break-up amidst the general cultural collapse of Watergate and The Match Game. But I do enjoy reading a novel, a fine one, that includes sentences like,
He felt certain then that Stan Lee was in some direct communication with the universe - in the same way, say, that the Watcher, that most mysterious Marvel character, was content like some Gnostic entity merely to know of the machinations of creation - and that through Lee's spiritually advanced vision, Paul's own destiny was entrapped in the monthly serializations of these kitschy superheroes. He seemed both influenced and influencer in the world of Marvel.
Okay, so it's not wholly free of irony - that "kitschy" is just too self-aware for a sixteen-year-old True Believer - but it's close enough, and it shows that Moody himself truly knows what the High Marvel House Style was all about.
I liked the novel enough that, after I was done (for the second time), I rented Ang Lee's film adaptation. To say "the book was better" would be so obvious... and yet, so accurate.
I should state at the outset that I don't expect movies to replicate perfectly the books they adapt; to do so is impossible, and would usually make the films worse for the effort. But Ang Lee and James Shamus made some poor and unnecessary changes to Moody's novel, replacing a work of acerbic social observations with a few pseudo-profundities.
Regrettably, that includes the Fantastic Four material. Lee and Shamus go straight towards the big, easy cliché, the same one that, incidentally, dominates all the other comic-book novels except “The Ice Storm” - the Comic Characters as Metaphor. The movie has Tobey Maguire mouthing lines like "That was the meaning of the Fantastic Four, that a family is like your own personal antimatter..." Funny, I always thought the meaning of the FF was that in 1961 radiation could give you super powers, not cancer.
No, that's too literal, but that's my point - the FF are a family, the foremost one in comics, but rarely have they ever meant anything about family. They may be a convenient vehicle for talking about family, in the externalized and hyperemotionalized terms of Marvel comics, but they're a vehicle without the fixed tenor that Lee and Shamus apply to them. And that interests me a great deal more than all this antimatter crap. (Perhaps you could justify the line by saying it's the work of Maguire's character - the thoughts of a precocious preppie, projected onto the comic, not some meaning that inheres in the comic - but I'm not sure the movie is that sophisticated. I think we're supposed to buy this as some perceptive, fundamentally true insight.)
If you don't find that sentiment so difficult to swallow, then try this one: they do it again for the Negative Zone, employing it as the objective correlative for some kind of topsy-turvy emotional state. (I just described it about as well as they did, I'm sorry to say.)
I'm not sure if even Stan Lee at his most grandiose ever presented the Negative Zone as anything other than The Place Where Everything Blows Up A Lot. A backdrop for many plots charged with emotional energy, true (not the least of which was the great "This Man, This Monster"), but not a metaphor for anything.
These lines are so frustrating because they neatly undo what Moody does so well. Lee and Shamus take the comics out of their own terms and shape them into nothing more than metaphors – and rather forced ones at that. I still get that Maguire's character likes the FF an awful lot, but I no longer see why because I no longer see them as Paul Hood would have seen them, as I would have seen the Teen Titans or the X-Men a few years later. Instead the comics are didactic little parables, all too easily transferable to the world of the Hood family, and utterly charmless.
I'm tempted to say the disappointments of The Hulk make a little more sense to me now. That movie was, in some ways, ruined by its own metaphors as well - by Lee's determination to make Daddy Banner literally as well as psychologically responsible for Young Banner's suppressed rage and his transformation into the Hulk. But the Hulk is at his best, and the movie is at its best, when he expresses that rage within the terms of the comic-book world and not the pop psychology - that is, when he's bounding through the desert, free and angry and kicking the crap out of the military-industrial complex that's been trying to imprison and exploit him. Now that's a metaphor.