Give ‘Em Elle: Classic Comics to Help You Escape the World
Welcome to Give ‘Em Elle, a weekly column that hopes to bridge the gap between old school comics fandom and the progressive edge of comics culture. This week I was looking for some big issue to tackle, but then I got this tweet from my friend Al Kennedy:
And Al’s right, things are messed up right now. So yes, let’s talk about comfort comics. Comics as escapism. There are a lot of current and recent comics that could work for this — All-Star Superman, Lumberjanes, and Squirrel Girl come to mind — but I want to go back a little farther.
Because here’s the cool thing about comics: They all used to be for kids. Which means that a lot of the classic comics, the influential ones that made the medium what it is, are also escapist fun. So when you want to read something that’s going to let you forget your problems and get lost in fantasy, you can also read something that will help you become well versed in comics canon. This is literally how I became who I am today.
So with that in mind, the first thing I’m going to recommend is Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. But I’m not going to tell you that you need to start at the beginning and read 100 issues. If you want the real core of that run, the point when everything was firing on all cylinders and every issue was revolutionizing comics, you need to go right to the middle. Depending on what collection you find or what’s available to you, I recommend starting in the neighborhood of Fantastic Four #44 and reading until somewhere around #60.
These issues probably compromise the best year and a half that any single comic ever had. First, you have the story that introduces the Inhumans. Now I know everybody is sick of hearing about the Inhumans these days because Marvel’s pushing them like they’re Roman Reigns. But the original Inhumans, as created by Jack Kirby (and nominally co-created by Stan Lee), are a lot of fun. Also, Black Bolt has one of my favorite costumes of all time.
After the Inhumans, the Silver Surfer and Galactus are introduced. After that comes “This Man, This Monster,” one of the greatest single issue stories of all time. Then comes the story that introduces the Black Panther, after which there’s more Silver Surfer, more Inhumans, and some Doctor Doom. There are literally no gaps between the great stories in this run, and all them of high-flying melodramatic sci fi adventures that will get your mind off of the collapse of your home country.
But maybe you’ve read that. It’s super-famous and widely acclaimed, so that’s not unlikely. What else is worth a look from that era, that will enrich your knowledge of comics while also putting you in a better mood? How about Metamorpho?
Metamorpho, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the Element Man, a weird-looking dude who can change shape and turn into any of the elements contained within his body. He had his own DC comic in the mid-‘60s. It’s by Bob Haney and Ramona Fradon, which means that the art is amazing, the plotting is bizarre, and the dialogue is jivetastic.
The best thing about Metamorpho isn’t his powers, it’s his situation. He’s in love with a woman named Sapphire Stagg, who still loves him back (although there’s no shortage of drama about it) even though he’s a freakish element creature. The problem is that Sapphire’s dad Simon is a supervillain. He’s the one who got soldier of fortune Rex Mason transformed into Metamorpho in the first place, and he hasn’t gotten more trustworthy since then. But love makes us do strange things, so Rex continues to go on missions for the super-shady Simon Stagg, even though he has every reason to believe the real goal is to get rid of him. Simon also has a literal Neanderthal as his butler, and later on there’s Element Girl, a government agent who gained the same powers as Metamorpho and helped him on his adventures.
The best word I can think of for the classic Metamorpho comics is zany, and that’s not a word I use lightly. It’s not a comedy series, although there’s comedy in, but it’s a series that’s not invested in being taken seriously. Not at all invested. Not even a little bit.
But maybe you need something even lighter than these books? Maybe all the conflict in the world has you feeling a need to read something in which nobody gets punched or blasted with rays or thrown off an airplane. I can understand that. So how about some Archie Comics?
And look, I love the stuff that’s been going on in the Archie reboot, both in Archie and Jughead. But for pure comfort comics I’m going to suggest sticking with classic Archie. And the great thing is, there’s tons of it, it’s easy to find, and never very expensive. Go to the store and buy any Archie Digest. Or download the Archie app and get whatever you want. Or, in keeping with my earlier suggestion about educating yourself with your escapism, buy one of the Best of Archie Comics volumes and read that.
Classic Archie stories are often incredibly formulaic, but that’s a big part of what makes them so comforting. The conflict is usually a misunderstanding, or some kind of prank, or lightweight teenage dating drama, and then eight pages later everything is fine. Archie loves Betty and Veronica. Betty loves Archie and Veronica. Veronica loves herself and money. Jughead loves hamburgers and naps. It’s a simpler world, and there are millions of pages of comics about it.
There’s also stuff like how everyone has a superhero identity (sometimes), their friend is a literal witch, and Jughead occasionally assists a time-traveling temporal police force from the future. But that’s all just icing on the cake.
I don’t know how to make the world a better place. And I know that ultimately, that’s something we’re all going to need to help with. But in the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with taking to the sofa with a pile of old comics and letting that be your world for a while.