Superheroes In My Pants!
by Mark Evanier
Mark Evanier’s Superheroes In My Pants is his third collection of essays, a follow-up to 2002’s Comic Books and Other Necessities of Life and last year’s Wertham Was Right! (Mark likes those exclamation points; comes from knowing Scott Shaw! all those years). As before, he’s revised and updated the pieces with some new material, and the nominal focus remains on telling the tale of one boy’s adventures in the comic book business.
Evanier’s remarkably balanced viewpoints make for valuable reading; he’s been blessed with both unique experiences and a knack for conveying them. I’m sure I’m imagining it, but this book almost feels like the conclusion of a trilogy, in the sense that the earlier volumes now seem to have been leading to it–the childhood, adolescence and maturity of a comic book fan.
In the essays selected for this book, there is a strange feeling of pulling away, as though the author were moving out of a house in which he once lived and was watching it recede in the rear-view mirror. Evanier is a man who will proudly tell you that he learned to read from comics, and who has counted as his friends, colleagues or both some big four-color legends. He clearly values and cherishes the experiences that loving comics have brought him.
Still this volume, bookended by appreciations of the recently passed DC Comics editor and “Goodwill Ambassador” Julius Schwartz, has a feel throughout of being about a passage of more than just one man. Some of this is because, as Evanier notes in his introduction, he had the dubious honor of writing these columns at a time when the first generation of comic book writers, artists and editors were dead or dying. He writes their obits well, almost always managing to convey what was meaningful to him about their work, or them personally (often both) to the reader. But it doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to know they’re pieces he’d rather not write. And good as they are, they help lend the book an ambience that is frankly disquieting. By the time you reach the penultimate, title chapter, you find Mark zeroing in on what he misses in superhero comics of today.
Here he comes close to identifying why comics have meant so much to him, and at the same time maybe, just maybe, why they don’t quite so much anymore. After reading about 10 modern comics in a row, he finds that in most of them:
“If [the hero] arrested the bank robbers, rescued people from burning buildings or prevented the conquest of our galaxy, that was incidental. The ‘A’ story, the dominant one, was the hero’s inner turmoil and personal needs.”
I think Mark’s dead-on here. This tendency has been the mutilation of once-heroic characters from comics (Green Lantern, too many others to list), television (the last two seasons of Buffy) and beyond (the worst excesses of the Doctor Who “New Adventures” books). I think this is something to do with the nature of serial fiction and its inevitable decay and decadence. However, though there is a piece to be written about that, this review isn’t it.
Evanier ends with memories of a couple of personal heroes and friends, the aforementioned Schwartz and the late Rich Morrissey. Morrissey was a comic book fan who took money out of his own pocket to arrange a reunion between Schwartz and one of his best friends and best writers, John Broome. The two men had not seen each other for years; and this also allowed a convention full of pros and fans to pay tribute to the writer(now also, unfortunately, deceased).
And I think I’ve just zeroed in on what my experience of this book was, what I think Mark was trying to say. Fictional heroes are great. Real ones are better. An obvious point, perhaps, but one worthy of making again and again. If you don’t look up from your comics every once in a while, you could miss these heroes. Or worse, you could miss becoming them.
Lest I make this book sound too thick with treacle I should say that it still ends with a story about one of those heroes as dirty old man as loveable charmer. And the book is not some kind of Necrocomiccon –though such a volume, illustrated as this one is by Sergio Aragonés, wouldn’t be worst idea anybody ever had. Aragonés himself once again features in one or two of my favorite Evanier stories, such as the day they made a detour while traveling to see great Disney comic book creator Carl Barks (also now deceased) and found themselves on a nearly-but-not-quite fruitless treasure hunt.
As before there are many lessons here. These are sometimes passed on by old pros (from Mort Weisinger to Kurt Vonnegut) via Mark’s prose, and sometimes they originate in the dusty file cabinet of his brain itself. They include what a good writer only needs to do once, what a writer with self-respect never does, and what humans do and why. Not to mention some important facts about censors.
There are funny stories, including that of the day Mark and actress Jewel Shepard went to Disneyland (be, vewy, vewy quiet…they’re hunting Eeyores). And memories of the time Mark wrote a television special starring a certain Scottish Teen Beat heartthrob pop band set at another amusement park. (He and the other writers revenged themselves upon a troublesome lead singer by writing lots of pieces that required him to ride roller coasters).
There are great convention stories…such as the time Mark decided to try to capsize an already overloaded panel by systematically inviting every member of the audience with even the slightest of qualifications onto the stage. Not to mention a few jokes and observations written about the 2000 election that could be recycled for 2004 by just changing one name.
Good stories, all–Mark’s worth his weight in Mad Magazines. This is as good a place as any to mention, in the interests of full disclosure, that he’s also kind of a friend of mine. “Kind of” covering that foggy area so often found on the internet: We’ve only actually met once — a passing meeting at a convention there’s no reason he’d remember. But we’ve exchanged a number of e-mail notes and plugs for and in our respective blogs (his: www.newsfromme.com, mine: blogs.ink19.com/soundcrowd).
A cynic might wonder if this has happened to such an extent that my view of his work has been compromised. For shame, cynic. Even if my sole contact with the man was through the books and comics in my library, I’d still think most of it first-rate. Oh sure, there are some things I’m not mentioning in this review — like the incredibly ironic mistake on page 156 — but that’s out of kindness, not cronyism.
Author’s Note: On a semi-related topic, the Collected Jack Kirby Collector has now reached its fourth volume. I don’t have too much to add to my review of the original book in this series collecting issues of the fanzine devoted to comics architect and Evanier mentor Kirby. But I wanted to say that the new one has thought-provoking interviews with Kirby inker Greg Theakston and editor/writer Roy Thomas, among others. Comic book fans may want to pick it up.