A Brief History Of Teen Superhero Comics, Part 4

It’s probably the most famous panel in 60s Marvel history. A gag, a cliffhanger, a revolution. A young woman standing in a doorway, smiling, in total amused confidence, at the boggle-eyed kid she’s just been introduced to. “Face it, Tiger… you just hit the JACKPOT!”

It’s Amazing Spider-Man #42, a half-dozen issues into John Romita’s run on art. It’s the debut of Mary-Jane Watson, and a defining moment for the teen superhero comic. For the first three years of Spider-Man – under Steve Ditko – he’s been an awkward, put-upon nerd: teen frustration sometimes pushed into farcical territory. Then Romita replaced Ditko, long-running plot threads were put to rest, and Peter Parker could suddenly get a life. A love life. A complicated love life.

amazingspidey42-3 But it goes further. In one panel Romita changes the comic’s premise as much as any “everything you know is wrong” move. It’s a one-frame “The Anatomy Lesson” (Easy now, Tiger). Because MJ isn’t just beautiful, she’s fashionable. Well-dressed. Hip. Or a Stan Lee approximation of it. Peter Parker has hitherto been adrift in a world of tragic or psychopathic grown-ups: his peers show up mainly to shun or bully him. In an instant, that changes, and suddenly superhero comics aren’t just about typical teens, or outcast teens, or nerd teens. They can be about the cool kids. Cool? Well, maybe not cool exactly – though MJ is. But the possibility of adjusting well to life is suddenly a real one.

You can theorise about why this shift occurred. On the one hand, Marvel’s magazines were selling on campus, and Stan loved that. On the other hand, if you have Johnny Romita on staff, you don’t waste him drawing geeks.

Romita had a reputation for drawing beautiful women. In the 60s that implied something a little different from what it does now, when “drawing beautiful women” in superhero books means tracing porn stars’ O faces, or in the 90s, when it meant posing bodies to flex like an eel that’s swallowed some beach balls. Look up, o reader! Why are people beautiful, in the real world? So many reasons, but confidence and attitude and clothes are a big part of it – and I say this as someone who’s never dressed well in my life. “Drawing beautiful women” the Romita way meant being able to draw people out of costume, people who dressed well. He made it look clean and simple, but Romita cared about clothes and hairstyles in a way most long-underwear merchants don’t, and it meant his characters did too. After all, suggesting through art that a character thinks about what they wear is a way of giving characters some degree of implied autonomy and, yes, ‘strength’.

There’s a peculiar pop culture magic that happens in comics when a writer who cares deeply about representing a particular scene or culture meets an artist (or is an artist) with this genuine sense of style and appreciation for fashion. Arguably, it happened on Spider-Man back then – it depends how sincere you think Stan ever was. But it definitely happened on Jaime Hernandez’ Locas, and on Sandman as soon as Mike Dringenberg starts drawing it**, and on Gillen and McKelvie’s Phonogram too, and surely you can think of others.

Now this isn’t what’s happening in Young Avengers, and I wouldn’t ask it to, Young Avengers is terrific in other ways. Style is vital to this comic, but fashion and superheroics are often uneasy bedfellows, for the simple reason that superheroes are smart, hot young people who, er, hardly ever change their outfits. Superheroes are almost all Steve Jobs in that sodding black polo neck. So you can do a lot with hair, and gestures, and poses – and Jamie McKelvie, as Hazel just pointed out, is incredible with hair and gestures and poses. You can also do a lot with accessories – I recently stumbled upon this marvellous blog post about Milligan and McCarthy’s Paradax, almost unread but a milestone in super-couture, being the first hero to wear a jacket over his spandex.

But the superhero idiom makes it hard to represent a specific style, and Kieron Gillen wisely sidesteps the risks inherent in rooting his characters in specific cultures: superheroics is their subculture, an idea that works really well. Even so, every modern superhero comic starring attractive young things – particularly when they’re drawn as people, not blow-up dolls and action figures – owes some kind of debt towards Romita, and that November ’66 Spider-Man, and the panel that changed teen superheroes forever. The difference now – it’s a good difference – is that nobody would single out Jamie McKelvie’s women as beautiful.

*Are the Young Avengers cool? No, for the most part. None of them would call anybody Tiger, either. But they’re attractive with flashes of confidence, at least. Compared to early 60s Peter Parker, they’re sharp as hell. Though who isn’t?

**I’m re-reading Sandman at the moment, for the first time since the series ended. So it was “top of mind”. I should write about it.