In the summer of 1977 I was handed my first comic book, a 35-cent issue of Detective Comics, and I was transfixed. There was a caped corpse on the cover and in grim letters it said, "Batman is Dead . . ." (he wasn't, to my relief). In the bottom corner a contest advertisement announced "YOU could be in the Superman movie" (I wasn't, to my disappointment). Three decades later, I still have that comic book, in all of its torn, spindled and Slurpee-stained glory.
I couldn't help thinking about that beloved and tattered newsprint artifact as I got my first experience with the new "digital comics" from Marvel that made their splashy premiere earlier this month at marvel.com/digitalcomics. In essence, Marvel has taken thousands of classic issues (among them every 1960s issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Avengers" and "The Fantastic Four") along with selected current titles and re-engineered them panel-by-panel to make them into something akin to a sleek Internet slide show.
The elaborate venture is a bold one but it was driven as much by anxiety as ambition; even though comic-book heroes now bring robust returns as film and video-game franchises, the printed comic book is fading from the cultural consciousness of youngsters. Next year, the superhero comic book will celebrate its 70th year as a uniquely American contribution to pop culture, but it's now a foreign object to most kids.
The glut of slick magazines and the quirky business history of comics distribution has made it hard for kids to stumble on a comic book if they aren't looking for one. "We don't have a natural lifestyle intersection point for kids anymore," says Dan Buckley, president of publishing for Marvel Entertainment. "We think we can find one online." In other words, Marvel is banking on the idea that it can catch passing youngsters somewhere near the corner of YouTube and MySpace.
Well, the archive certainly looks good. These aren't photographs of faded old pages or unwieldy images that spill off the screen; Marvel has converted the glorious old artwork of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko and Neal Adams into bright, burnished panels. To check out this e-resurrection, I went straight to an old favorite, issue No. 33 of "The Amazing Spider-Man" from February 1966, which has a classic Ditko cover of the despairing hero being crushed beneath machinery. The art now seems to glow from within, which is precisely what's happening on a computer monitor. The website is easy to search and use and there's a deftly designed zoom-in function and "smart reader" feature, too, so a reader gets a smooth progression from panel to panel that lets you follow a story in a natural flow.
The archive opened with 2,500 issues and 20 more are added each week. There's a free offer to sample 250 of them and then there's an all-you-can-eat subscription price of $9.95 per month; if you sign up for a year, it goes down to $4.95.
I was pleased to see that many of the newer comics posted have been archived in batches so a subscriber can read entire story arcs by fan-favorite writers such as Brian Michael Bendis, who has energized the superhero motif with perhaps the smartest and wittiest dialogue in mainstream comics history. I can see the archive luring in prodigal Baby Boomers wanting to revisit the old Silver Surfer stories from the 1960s, then hooking them with the surprisingly compelling new stories such as Joss Whedon's "Astonishing X-Men" or the Bendis reworking of the wall-crawler legend in "Ultimate Spider-Man."
There's a lot of fun curiosities for a grown-up fan-boy, too, like the late 1960s horror anthology "Tower of Shadows" or the rare 1940s issues of "Sub-Mariner Comics." My great regret when perusing the archive, though, is the fact that the oldest comics are not reprinted with their original ads intact. The sales pitches through the years for war bonds, Sea-Monkeys, switchblade combs, X-Ray specs, K-Tel collections, Joe Namath footballs and Twinkies are wonderfully entertaining time capsules and maybe Marvel should consider including them (if legally possible) in certain issues.
The most important comics in the archive may be the gentle superhero titles geared toward the very youngest readers, such as "Spider-Man and Power Pack," which are a bit too new and tame to speak to anyone old enough to drive, no matter how nostalgic they are for the exploits of caped wonders. Yet those kiddie titles are the ones that have the best chance of hypnotizing some new fan the way that Batman comic book back in 1977 pulled me into a four-color fantasy world.
I've decided I will stick around as a subscriber for the Marvel archive (especially since a lot of the company's printed comics cost a jolting $3 to buy new), but will new fans really be found for paperless comics? I asked that question the other day while I was talking to Jeph Loeb, the accomplished comics writer better known for his work as a writer and executive producer of the NBC series "Heroes."
Loeb has comics on display at his house in an old-fashioned spinner rack that fascinates the friends of his young son. "One of them walked up to me and asked where can I get more of these? He had no idea where comic books were sold," Loeb told me. He said he doesn't buy the conventional logic that today's youth are too CGI-jaded to enjoy the simpler pleasures of comic books.
"There's something in all of us that loves stories and storytelling and I don't think video games satisfy that," he said. "I think comics are like chocolate chip cookies. If they're not around, kids don't know they want them, but once they are exposed to them, they want them."
"When I came home, my son and his friends were sprawled out on the floor reading those comics in the traditional pose, too, on the floor on their stomach with their feet dangling in the air, reading the book on their elbows," Loeb said. "Some things are natural."
Perhaps, but it's hard to assume that particular reading position with a desktop computer, just like it's hard to roll up a laptop computer and jam it in your back pocket when you ride your bike. Still, what I fell in love with in 1977 wasn't the cheap newsprint, it was simple escapism and fighting the good fight while walking on air. Whether they arrive via DSL or the spinner rack, I guess we take our heroes where we can find them.