I’ll save you looking it up. Weltschmerz is a delightfully rude-sounding word for a certain kind of world-weary disappointment, a feeling that translates roughly as “nostalgia for a place you have never actually been and probably will never get to go.”
This seems like it should be a familiar state of mind to superhero fans.
What got me thinking about it in this particular case was how everyone I know in and around comics keeps asking me what i thought of First Wave #1.
First Wave seems like the kind of comic book I ought to really love. I keep trying, honest.
I figured I was obligated to check it out at some point just because I’m kind of the designated pulp-fiction guy around these parts. So when First Wave #1 came out I dutifully picked it up… and I’m afraid what struck me, reading that first issue, was, “Huh. Okay, here we go again.”
See, this has — sort of — happened before, starting in 1972 or thereabouts, and continuing throughout the seventies.
I guess you could say that the cycle had its beginning a few years earlier, starting in the mid-sixties with the publication of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes.
Feiffer’s book, which by the way is a great book in and of itself, talks at great length about the wonders of the Golden Age of comics. This was soon followed up by Lupoff and Thompson’s All in Color for A Dime and The Comic Book Book.
And of course there was Steranko’s very strangely-designed and hard-to-read but nevertheless magnificent History of Comics volumes one and two, that came out in 1970 and 1972 respectively.
So all of us kids that found these books in the library or perhaps sitting on the display table at the bookstore already had kind of a rose-colored view of Golden Age comics, especially the wonder of the superheroes created in the 1940s.
It didn’t take long for DC, with its vast archives and no need to pay royalties to anyone, to start experimenting with Golden Age reprints.
At first they were just putting 1940s strips like Starman or the Boy Commandos in the back of the 25-cent “Bigger and Better” comics that were partially composed of reprint material, and then eventually DC was building entire 100-page collections around Golden Age stories. Most of these were hand-picked by E. Nelson Bridwell, who had a good eye for this sort of thing.
There were even a couple of tries at an all-Golden Age reprint series and those did okay. Clearly, there was an interest.
It was also right around this time that DC acquired the rights to the old Quality Comics and Fawcett comics characters, and it didn’t take long for them to start capitalizing on that.
Nor was Marvel about to miss a piece of this action. Roy Thomas, who’d already been sneaking Golden Age references into The Avengers for years, gleefully launched The Invaders, featuring Marvel’s Golden Age heroes fighting World War II, and followed that up with a tryout for The Liberty Legion in Marvel Premiere. Both were obviously books he’d been waiting his whole life to write.
There was another pop-culture phenomenon fanning interest in the heroes of the thirties and forties right around that same time, and that can’t be emphasized enough. During that same period, paperback fiction publishers had discovered the joys of the pulp-magazine reprint.
Without question, the king of the 60s and 70s spinner-rack pulp revival was Doc Savage.
Doc Savage was a sensation, an unprecedented sales phenomenon. Pulp paperback series sprouted like mushrooms, as various publishing houses suddenly were flailing around for their own pulp-hero series to reprint so they too could start raking in the big dough. It seemed like a simple formula — find some pulp magazine character to reprint, commission a new cover with really stunning art, and lean back and watch the money roll in.
And likewise, it didn’t take long for publishers to start trying original material with the same pulp sensibility. When Warner ran out of original Avenger pulps to reprint, they commissioned Ron Goulart to keep the series going for another dozen books, and Avon experimented with paperback originals starring Flash Gordon and the Phantom.
This was also around the time when Byron Preiss launched his Weird Heroes series, billed as “A New American Pulp!” and also when Philip Jose Farmer’s Doc Savage biography came out in paperback. It was rumored there would even be a Doc Savage movie scripted by Farmer and directed by George Pal.
All of this nostalgia swirled around us comics fans of the time, filling our heads with visions of a mythical Golden Age where every magazine and comic book published in the 1940s was made of awesome. We were intrigued. We wanted more. You can’t blame DC and Marvel for trying to give it to us.
The trouble is, though, there really was no good place for them to go with it. Should they try and do adaptations of already-published pulp stories?
DC and Marvel tried that with their respective runs of Justice, Inc. and Doc Savage, and both series tanked. Fans of the paperbacks had already seen that stuff.
Pastiche in the style of the originals? That’s a better bet, but it wasn’t terribly successful, either.
Maybe crossover, shared-universe stories? Some of these were terrific and some were just kind of embarrassing, but the bottom line is that none of them really set the world on fire.
Really, the beneficiaries of this odd little fad were the original, new characters that launched out of it. The only real success stories out of the 1970s pulp/Golden Age nostalgia boomlet that I can think of are The Invaders over at Marvel, that introduced Baron Blood, Union Jack and Spitfire, and at DC it was the reimagined Justice Society– Power Girl and the Huntress in particular. (No, I don’t count Conan’s success in comics as part of this — the paperbacks, sure, they were riding that old-pulp-with-new-cover-art wave, but the comic very quickly became its own thing.)
But as far as reviving the characters of a bygone age is concerned, it always seems like a better idea in concept than in practice.
Here’s something I’ve always thought about the massive success of Doc Savage in paperback that I never see anyone bring up. Those books were deliberately designed to be not evocative of their pulp magazine origins. It wasn’t nostalgia that sold them. It was the aura of cool. And that aura came not from the content, but from the cover art.
Not just the front cover but the back, as well. Every Doc paperback had this picture on the back —
–and this copy, underneath it:
To the world at large, Doc Savage is a strange mysterious figure of glistening bronze skin and golden eyes. To his amazing co-adventurers – the five greatest brains ever assembled in one group – he is a man of superhuman strength and protean genius, whose life is dedicated to the destruction of evil-doers. To his fans he is one of the greatest adventure heroes of all time, whose fantastic exploits are unequaled for hair-raising thrills, breathtaking escapes, and bloodcurdling excitement.
Try to forget everything you know about Doc Savage and his pulp beginnings, the comedy stylings of Monk and Ham, all of that. Take that copy at face value and think about what it promises. There’s no hint of nostalgia there, nor a whisper of the campy humor that infused George Pal’s Doc movie. It’s selling a story that’s just pure adrenaline.
And that’s why it was those book covers that first caught my interest. Now, I loved the books and I enjoyed the comics, but somewhere, in the back of my head, what I hoped for and never quite got was the truly apocalyptic Doc Savage adventure that the Bantam paperback cover illustrations and jacket copy created in my head. The amazingly badass one that never quite existed.
It’s that same sort of nostalgia for something that never really existed that hangs over First Wave. (Did you think I’d forgotten?)
It’s early days yet, admittedly. But I’ve sampled this thing twice now, the Batman/Doc Savage crossover and First Wave #1, and both times I’m left with the impression that the whole project sounded the hell of a lot more exciting at the concept stage.
I read what Brian Azzarello and Rags Morales say they’re hoping to do, I look at the concept art and character sketches in the proposal, and it sounds great. It gives me the same anticipatory vibe as the old Bantam paperback jacket copy did for Doc Savage. And then it shows up and it’s…
…well, it’s most everything that’s annoyed me about modern comics for a while now. References that are lost on anyone not steeped in decades of pop culture history, glacially slow pace, paper-thin plot padded out to a length three times what it needed to be, and most of the important things being talked about rather than shown. And both books were priced way too high for what we got.
And what did we actually get in First Wave #1, anyway? So far it looks like we’re getting a loose adaptation of The Man of Bronze but combined with a shared-universe crossover and an updated ‘re-imagining.’ Sort of a one-stop shop for every revival technique anyone tried in the seventies.
I dunno. I want to love this. But in addition to the expectations that fans of the originals are already bringing to it, for me the project is burdened with the problem of living up to the image of coolness the preview pages created in my head, and all my preconceptions about who Batman and Doc and the Spirit are supposed to be.
I think maybe the story might have been better served for Azzarello and Morales to go with completely original characters, the way Moore and Gibbons did with Watchmen or Ellis and Cassaday have done so often with Planetary. At least then it might have had a better chance at people judging it on its own terms.
Like I said above, it’s early days yet. I could be wrong. But I have a hunch that this latest foray in bringing the heroes of the thirties and forties to a new comics audience is probably only going to do about as well as all the previous ones. Which is to say, not very.
I’m starting to think that for these vintage pulp and comics characters — the Spirit and Doc Savage, in particular — it’s one of those things where you just had to be there, and if you weren’t, maybe it’s better to let it go. Without a lot of wallowing in, well, weltschmerz.
See you next week.