Ask Chris #195: Making Connections In Comics History
Q: This "Connections Theory of Comics" is like *literally* all you talk about on Twitter. Can you please just explain it? -- @bigredrobot
A: Hey man, I think you're exaggerating just a little. I mean, anyone who actually reads my Twitter account knows that the whole Connections thing comes in at a distant third to commentary on whatever Power Rangers shows I'm watching that week and arguments about the definition of the word "barbecue." That said, I'll admit that it's something I have been talking about a lot lately. Connections is, after all, my favorite television show of all time. Well, except or The Prisoner, and that one episode of Brave and the Bold where Batman becomes a Dracula and fights the JLI, but I don't think those have affected the ways that I think about comics like Connections has.
For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Connections was a series -- three series, actually, starting in 1978 -- that was created by James Burke, a British "science historian" with an extremely interesting way of looking at how different elements came together to form the strange path of history. Rather than just following the direct causes of big events, Burke's work looks at a larger picture, showing how a problem in the distant past was solved with an invention that then influenced something else, forming this massive web throughout history where nothing exists in a vacuum, and everything can -- and is -- influenced in the most unexpected ways by the smallest innovations, whether they're scientific, cultural, or both. One of the early episodes, for instance, explains how modern telecommunication technology is, if you go back far enough, the direct result of how Norman horsemen used stirrups to keep from getting knocked off their horses during battle.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of Burke's historical connections go through the British colonization of India, which of course led to the development of quinine to combat malaria, and thus the invention of the gin and tonic, where gin was used to mask the awful taste of quinine on its own. And every time this comes up, which is like every third episode, Burke mixes and drinks a G&T on screen. Every time.
He is my hero.
It's fascinating stuff, and if you've never seen an episode or read one of Burke's books, you really ought to, if only to experience the unbelievable amount of charming dad jokes he'll base entire chapters on. It's one of the reasons I'm as big a (casual) fan of history as I am, and it's the sort of thing that'll change the way you look at history. And when all you do all day is think about the history of the comics industry, it'll change the way you think about those, too.
My knowledge of comics history isn't entirely all-encompassing, even for as narrow a field as just looking at superhero comics. I haven't read much that wasn't Marvel or DC from the '60s or '70s, I only know the high points of the black and white boom of the '80s, and there's a ton of Golden Age stuff that's just hard to get access to, even with the Internet and a lot of that stuff entering the public domain. Even today, I have a hard time keeping up with everything, and it's my actual job to read as many comics as I possibly can. Even if I was as well-read as I'd like to be, I still wouldn't be as good at building those "knowledge webs" as Burke is. But that said, I have read enough that I feel like I can at least try to step back and see about figuring out where things come from.
My biggest attempt was definitely my look back at Marvel and DC's rivalry from 1940 to today, but it works on the small scale too. With the amount of information we have available to us, whether it's the comics themselves, books like Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and Gerard Jones' Men of Tomorrow, or even just being able to interact with the people who have been working on these things for decades, it's really easy (and fun, for me) to try piecing motivations and influences together like puzzle peices to figure out how they work -- especially in superhero comics, which have never exactly been subtle about their influences. Look, I'm not saying Superman wasn't a great idea all on his own, I'm just saying that Clark Savage and his Fortress of Solitude may have factored in to how that character developed, you know?
The reason I've been mentioning it so much lately is that I've been working on a couple of pet theories in comics that have to do with how they came out the way they did, and why they were such a huge influence on everything that came after, and the first is this: As much credit as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko get for refining the superhero genre, the original Marvel books weren't just a take on superheroes themselves -- they were all based on the genres those creators were working in at Atlas in the days before Fantastic Four #1 showed up and changed everything.
I've mentioned this briefly before, mainly in that article above, but you can line those original books up with their pre-Marvel titles and see exactly how they worked. The first piece comes from Spider-Man. The origin story that ran in Amazing Fantasy #15, for example, is a straight up horror comic that follows the classic EC formula:
Boy gets strange, creepy powers, uses them for personal gain, and suffers as a result of his own hubris. You can hear the Cryptkeeper cackling as Peter Parker walks off in tears in the costume he used to make money on TV. If there had never been a second Spider-Man story, if that was all there was, you wouldn't think of him as a super-hero. You'd think of him as a weird one-shot horror character, and it wouldn't be a tough leap to make -- the other stories in Amazing Fantasy #15 are all from that mold, with titles like "MAN IN THE MUMMY CASE!" and "THERE ARE MARTIANS AMONG US."
Which, by the way, has one of the greatest splash pages ever.
Quite a problem indeed.
Fantastic Four is an easy one to line up, too, because up until 1961, Kirby had been spending a lot of time drawing comics about giant monsters with names like "GROTTU" menacing the population, which is exactly what Fantastic Four #1 is. The only difference is that both the title of the book and the story itself, eventually, shift the focus from the monster to the people being menaced -- one of whom just happens to be a monster with a weird name himself. Even the following issues stick with the Monster Comic formula, with the invading aliens who have the twist ending of being hypnotized into becoming cows. Even when Dr. Doom shows up and firmly solidifies the book by providing them with a genuine supervillain (sorry, Mole Man), there's still a throwback to a prototype monster that Kirby had drawn in Tales of Suspense.
Those two, along with Hulk, are the big ones, but as those new comics went on, they filtered and synthesized them into a new kind of superhero story, piecing together elements from the other genres they'd been exploring while the competition over at National was dominating the strictly superheroic adventure comic. With Ditko's departure and John Romita's arrival, Amazing Spider-Man combined the pyrrhic victories of the horror comics with the operatic emotions and catastrophic moping of teen romance stories. X-Men had the edge of a dystopian sci-fi comic (especially once those purple robots who tried to kill the sun showed up), Thor had its roots in visiting classic mythology, something Kirby had done at least twice before in his career, and so on. They were all invested with the same kind of pacing and storytelling of the non-superhero genres.
The difference, the thing that Marvel lifted from the world of superheroes (and westerns, of course) was that the main characters continued.
Comics from the non-superhero genres tended to be pretty binary in their conclusions. Romance comics either ended in bliss or heartbreak, horror comics in a gruesome death or an ironic escape, and so on. They were neatly packaged and formulaic, just like the superhero comics of the time, which always ended right back where they started. The Marvel twist was to just keep those going. What happens to the kid who gets his uncle killed after he throws the burglar to the cops? What happens to the man who was turned into a rock monster once he accepts that he's just going to be an orange rock monster now? What happens when the dude who has trapped himself in an iron suit to keep his heart beating has to go to work the next day? That was the twist.
And with that twist came the rise of modern comic book storytelling, where things stopped being so episodic and started building on each other. It would be another couple decades before comics would give up on the single issue as a storytelling unit in favor of multil-part stories and more intricate continuity, and it's easy to see how it would've eventually happened without those books, but you can trace it back to that small change, the introduction of blending those genres.
That's the kind of simple connection that's easy to explore to its logical conclusion, and can help form a bigger picture of how comics were influencing and reacting to each other. And for me, that's pretty fun to think about.
The other pet theory that I'm working on right now? Whether or not DC's current obsession with dismemberment can be traced back to Green Arrow showing up in The Dark Knight Returns, a dystopian future where his arm had been ripped off by Superman.
I mean, yes, Lightning Lad lost his arm in a fight with a space whale back in 1965...
...but I'm pretty sure they're not trying to recreate the success and maturity of "The Super Moby-Dick Of Space."