Via I Love Comics comes this link to a remarkable collection of pictures from a 1982 comics convention. It’s a parade of earnest men – mostly men – in polyester suits, from a time when even respectability was an aspirational dream for the industry, let alone cool. Which doesn’t stop a politics of cool emerging from the pictures – several men from the emergent indie comix scene are (gasp!) tie-less, and there’s a picture of indie publisher Gary Groth smirkily enjoying being a hep fish in a hopeless pond. (The radical firebrands of early 70s comics, like Steve Engelhart and Steve Gerber, look awkward and morose in their suitiness, but suited they are).

There are no Brits in visible attendance – only one European, the magnificently moustachioed Sergio Aragones. There are no film-makers or TV writers, there are a few fans in costume but no “booth babes”. Nobody looks like they’ve heard a record made since 1976. It’s a different world, though you can see here and there the seeds of what comics were going to become. A young, sharp-eyed Frank Miller is pitctured sketching, and on one of the panels Engelhart sits next to Jim Shooter, Marvel Comics’ then Editor-In-Chief, who was busy purging Marvel of its seventies quirkiness and tying up branding and toy deals. So there’s an innocence about the pictures too (though of course innocence is the easiest thing to spot in old photos).

It makes me think about the public faces Marvel and DC comics offer now. I find both of them pretty unappealing, but then I’d guess I’m a little outside the target market these days. Historically the two companies have presented themselves quite consistently – Marvel as a gang of mavericks engaged on a crazy plan to remake comics, DC as a more staid place where top writers craft solid, fan-pleasing stories. Marvel has always tried to give the impression their staff all hang out together, DC pays only lip service to this notion. DC’s reputation has often rested on its more experimental or highly-targeted lines of comics, Marvel lives or dies by the same core properties – Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers – that it did in the sixties and seventies. In fact, to go back to the distinction I made at the top, DC’s secret dream has always been to be respected, Marvel’s has always been to be cool.

The modern Marvel and DC don’t stray too far from these parameters. DC’s current communications style, under Dan DiDio, is brisk, slightly impersonal, a bit too sales-y. DiDio came from a marketing background, and like a politician who talks about his boyhood love of football, his grasp of what makes fans fans often seems erratic. He has a terrible habit of giving away major plot points in interviews, while playing less interesting cards tediously close to his chest. He also has the marketer’s skill for flogging dead horses – when an idea works commercially, he does it again immediately, so following a twenty-year gap between one big-selling “Crisis” series and its sequel, a third “Crisis” is hot on its heels only two years later. He often sounds combative in interviews, irritated by fans and their opinions, and very rarely do you get the idea he’s having any kind of fun.

All this isn’t a great impression for the editorial head of an entertainment-based publishing company to give, but the current heads of Marvel somehow manage to put me off more. Joe Quesada, the editor-in-chief, is mostly blameless in this: he has a common touch the like of which the industry has been missing since Stan Lee, and is always friendly and funny in interviews – gently baiting readers but never seeming peevish or stand-offish. As a face for Marvel, he’s perfect, even if editorially he tends to give star writers too much leeway, and has a spotty track record for noticing bad ideas. His style has struck a chord with readers, too, helping push Marvel further and further ahead of DC in market share. So why do I find Quesada’s Marvel so hard to like?

Mostly it’s the way Marvel under Quesada has positioned itself, as a toadying adjunct to a wider fandom-entertainment complex. Marvel’s selling point now is basically that some of its writers work on TV, and that it gets TV guys to come and write for it, and they all know each other and hang out in a groovy nerdy suburb of TVland. There’s a jockish, backslapping tone to Marvel nowadays which always has an edge of fear – fear of not being cool, of being dragged back into the polyester suit world from which their business came. Marvel has always thrived on giving the sense that its creators are a gang – but where once that was a gang of likeable creative doofuses, these days it feels more like a high school clique, with a definite pecking order: Quesada gave several horribly embarassing interviews last year gushing over how a roomful of writers would fall silent when Buffy creator Joss Whedon would casually toss an idea into the ring.

Marvel’s sense of where the wind is blowing is as strong as ever: the talk at this year’s comics convention seemed to be mostly about movies and TV shows. Real stars were in attendance, actors luminously good-looking when pictured next to fans, relaxed with themselves in a way which still feels foreign in comics (I project a little, of course). But polyester suits or no polyster suits, comics are still for nerds, even if we kid ourselves they’re not by nerds anymore. The raw material – outsider wish-fulfilment and secret power-fantasies – is the same as it ever was, and as powerful. Marvel’s genius – as it ever was – is to project those fantasies onto the creators as well as the characters.