The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” came out in August 1963, started building radio play, then hit the Billboard Top 10 by the end of September. A kid hearing it on the radio that month, walking around Ronnie Spector’s New York City with the drums in their head, passing a newsstand, might have pushed aside the Uncle Scrooge and Superman and found something different – one of those new mags Marvel Comics were putting out, and good value too. Three of their blocky, dynamic, aggressively weird heroes – plus two ant-size ones – against some guy in a horned helmet. “The Avengers”.
It’s a coincidence, maybe, that the song Noh-Varr dances to in space is a voice from the very time and place the idea of “Avengers” was born. But coincidences are there to have fun with. 1963 is the year Marvel Comics really started to motor. Going into that summer they were still just about bet-hedging, running romance and Western comics and squeezing new heroes into two-for-one books still called stuff like Tales To Astonish. By the end of the year they had Spider-Man, they had the Avengers, they had a universe taking some kind of shape, and maybe – maybe – they had the first inkling that their comics weren’t being bought by kids. They’d broken through into teens, and college-age readers. Their comics were part of something far vaster, something pop.
Look at the Avengers now – in the Marvel Universe or out of it – and they’re the archetype of a superhero team, several archetypes in fact. The best and brightest – the biggest stars against the biggest threats – but also Cap’s Kooky Quartet from the mid-60s, a bunch of rookies and doubtful heroes thrown together by fiat. The franchise has bounced between those ideas ever since – there’s no fixed point of reference for what an Avengers book should be like.
That’s what happened to the idea. What happened to the song? Within ten years – lifetimes for Marvel and for pop – “Be My Baby” was in a pantheon. Its potential for introducing things – “oh, the drums!” – was picked up on by Martin Scorsese in Mean Streets, the only thing I can remember from that dutifully-watched film. Like all the best girl group pop it brought the drama, spinning a moment into three minutes, packing a lifetime’s pent-up feeling into the same space. Unlike much of it the drama was non-specific, not tied to its moment: if “Soldier Boy” or “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was a romance comic it would be a shocker, stories-torn-from-today’s-headlines style. But “Be My Baby”, suspended in orbit by those fucking drums, has the freeze-frame teen purity of a Roy Liechtenstein print, or of the fourth panel on page 1 of Young Avengers #1 (2013).
“Be My Baby” was pop, and perfect, and became “perfect pop”, an idea as chilly as the clever, abusive, self-hating manipulator who helmed the song. “Perfect pop” is undead pop, its crooked skeletal finger wagging at living music – “you will never do anything as beautiful as this”. There must be hundreds of songs which start with that drum pattern, none of them as good as “Be My Baby”, none of them really alive.
DIVERSION: TEENAGE SUPERHERO COMICS, PART I
Phil Spector, uber-nerd and pop brainiac, had barely left his teens behind. Look at photos of him now, next to comics, and Spector is plainly a Steve Ditko character brought to clammy life. Ditko was drawing Marvel’s only real teen hero, Peter Parker, and filling him up with all the agony of the world, the pure wretchedness of the truly misunderstood. No pop got near Peter Parker’s experience – no voice that abject could break into the charts.
If Marvel had launched their superhero line a year or two later and picked up the same market they’d have realised the potential of their audience faster perhaps, done more teenagers. But they started in 1961, with Elvis in the army and the teen nation cowed. Boys were out, men were in, and men is what Marvel provided – pipe-puffing scientists, sleazy playboys, undersea princes and old soldiers. The party line now is that it was Marvel’s angst – its hard-luck heroes – which made them explode. But the sheer grizzled grown-upness of their dudes must have played a part.
But these comics about greying bruisers hit big at the birth of the teenage, and so it seems with hindsight that Marvel had an idea of how to do teen superheroes, whereas actually they just had Spider-Man*. Pretty much every solo teen superhero book for the last 50 years owes a debt to Spider-Man, which is unfortunate because while the Lee/Ditko Spidey is a wonderful comic it’s also a very strange one. Peter Parker is not an ordinary, relatable teen – in the early years his levels of misfortune and neurosis are gloriously, absurdly extreme. Peter Parker provided an archetype for the teen superhero which has had long and unintended consequences. If it wasn’t for Spider-Man, I’m not sure we’d be in a position where a guilt-free hook-up on page one of a comic about 18 year olds feels like some sort of breakthrough.
*The X-Men can get lost, incidentally. As we’re now having to learn all over again, they were a bunch of squares, man.
Does any of this heritage, these layers of 60s meaning, matter? According to Kieron Gillen, the original Young Avengers series was about wanting to grow up (and turn into your heroes), but this one is about growing up and becoming yourself whether you want it or not. So maybe there’s an irony in the comic opening with a boy floating above the world listening to a fifty-year-old record. What’s Noh-Varr going to become?
What does “Be My Baby” tell us about Noh-Varr? He’s an Earth fanboy, but not a hipster. This isn’t a deep cut – it’s gloriously obvious, it’s like picking the Avengers as your favourite superhero film. People have rightly commented on how refreshing it is that we’re seeing Noh-Varr’s hot boy ass from Kate’s female-gaze perspective, but in pop terms the entire scene is a gender-flip. In the rock imagination (and the geek imagination), girl pop listeners are pilloried for their rapt, uncritical fandom, their obvious choices, their shallow understanding of obscure detail – they’re all squeals and feels. And here’s Noh-Varr dancing round his space handbag to the Ronettes. And he’s so innocent. Noh-Varr could, in other words, have been like that odious meme, clueless Facebook girl or whatever it was, the keen fangirl who we’re invited to sneer at for coming late to the party. Well, fuck that, says Young Avengers. Loving music this much is a superpower.
It’s impossible, you’d think, to come fresh to “Be My Baby”. Imagine having never heard it, having no idea of what it’s meant to sound like or be. Well, maybe that’s not even so hard, but you’ve heard a lot of things since, you’ve heard its echoes. Imagine hearing it like it might have been heard in 1963. That’s Noh-Varr’s real gift, the power he has which his readers can only envy. He comes fresh to pop culture, he hears and sees it in a way we only can in tiny serendipitous snatches. “Perfect Pop” demands a perfect listener, and in this scene it gets one. Watching this boy fall to Earth might be heartbreaking.