Monday, August 5, 2013

Opening Contract - Marvel Tales #182

This weeks column is something slightly different. In something of a companion piece to this column, I’ve gone back to comics ground zero, my very own first Opening Contract.

The panel/splash comes from Marvel Tales #182, which itself was a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man #42 by Stan Lee, John Romita and Sam Rosen.
The first panel is a one page splash, bursting with colour and topped with the legend “The Birth of a Superhero!” seared into the page in yellow type against a red background. The remaining 3/4 of the page are taken up by a shot of Spider-Man swinging away from a bank as he clutches a brown holdall emblazoned with a $ sign (they were out of bags with LOOT or SWAG on them). Below him on the sidewalk, denizens of New York look on in shock and horror (“Then…he is the menace people said he was!”).

The sole caption on the page explains that none of this is an imaginary tale or a dream, that this is Spider-Man clutching that snazzy brown holdall. This caption is directly addressing the reader, fostering the conversational style so prevalent in silver age Marvel titles. Given the title’s vintage one’s inclined to believe its claim that this isn’t some trick or visual sleight of hand. Retcons and reboots were foreign notions at this point. As a child, I had no frame of reference for these concepts anyway. I believed that panel, I bought into what it was daring me to do. Buy this comic. Turn the page.

To anyone else looking at this panel, it may not seem to be anything special. But the combination of words, images, the portability of the medium, time and place mean that no two initial experiences with a comic will ever be the same. I can open this book (I still have it) and remember the shop it was purchased in. I remember taking it off the shelf, flicking it open to that first image, the expression and pose of that guy in the dapper green hat/suit combo, the webbing and the sense of motion on the page. I remember Rhino’s rampage later in the issue, the climactic fight with John Jameson and the closing page as Mary Jane is revealed in the last panel. Others will remember something else. This is the power of the opening panel, the power of comics themselves.

I’ve had a lousy week. You don’t need to know the specifics. But I cracked open this comic and the feel of the pages, the colours on the page and even the smell of the damn thing made everything okay for a little while. But it was that opening panel that did it. It’s like coming home. A lot seems to be the same, but we’re aware that we’ve changed. There’s finding this comic and turning to that opening page aged around fourteen, being surprised I still had it before tossing it casually into a drawer with a bunch of Claremont X-Men and Moench Moon Knight with the covers missing. Arriving back from living in Canada heartbroken and homesick aged twenty one, seeking some kind of solace and comfort in the tale of a man in blue and red spandex fighting a guy mutated by moon rocks. Rummaging around in my parent’s loft in my mid twenties when the comic bug hit again, searching for the holy grail, the first ever comic, the first ever page I laid eyes on. Opening it up, seeing Spidey swinging once more and breathing a sigh of relief when I realised it was still intact. It was still here.

Few people can physically go back to the source of the things they love. The origin gets lost to the mists of time, shrouded in half truths and guessing games. I can remember the first film I ever saw (King Kong) but can’t remember the opening scene or where I saw it. Comics are different. They’re our myths, our past and future bound in paper. They present larger than life characters dealing with fantastical trials and tribulations and succeeding. They’re our daily struggle writ large, magnified tenfold and projected onto canvases of coloured ink and paper. Taken at their core they teach us about morality, guilt, redemption, self-sacrifice and the very best qualities the human spirit has to offer. They show us the flip side in their villains, the effects of corruption, narcissism, selfishness, and naked aggression. They teach us right from wrong, selflessness from selfishness, good from evil. They tell us that no matter how far we’ve come, how far we’ve changed, how low we feel, things can and will get better.

Peter Van Buren once said that “Some images remain like scars on my memory” and that’s as true of comics as it is anything else. Sure, someone else will remember different images from this issue, different story beats, different details. But it all starts with that opening panel. It serves as a time machine, the beginning of an invisible thread through Marvel continuity, comics history and our own personal history. Opening Contracts are markers for our personal journey through comics and life itself.

They’re our scars, our battles and our initiation into life and the medium we all love.

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American Zombie (R. A. Wonsowski) said...

Wow, Mr. Hill,

This was an amazingly heartfelt Opening Contract. I know exactly that spot you feel. (It was an issue of Detective Comics, with a villain nobody seems to know except me - Dr. Tzin-Tzin) Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

Dan Hill said...

I now need to find out about Dr Tzin Tzin. Thanks for reading!

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