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Thursday, September 7, 2023

Book review: Marvel Comics in the 1970s: The World inside Your Head by Eliot Borenstein

 by CT Lim

Marvel Comics in the 1970s: The World inside Your Head. Eliot Borenstein. Cornell University Press, 2023. 267 pages, $23.95.

Do we really need another book on Marvel Comics? Hot on the heels of Douglas Wolk's monumental All of the Marvels (2021) comes a book about lesser discussed Marvel comics of the 1970s - focusing on the literary efforts of Steve Englehart (Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Captain America, the Avengers), Doug Moench (Deathlok, Werewolf by Night, Master of Kung Fu), Marv Wolfman (Tomb of Dracula), Don McGregor (Killraven, Luke Cage, Black Panther) and Steve Gerber (Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, Howard the Duck). I am definitely more of a Marvel zombie than I thought, and I was intrigued enough to volunteer to review this book.

There are several questions to answer:

·         Why would Eliot Borenstein, a Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, write a book about Marvel comics in the 1970s and what is the connection between that and his own discipline of Russian and Slavic studies?

·         How does this book compare to or complement Wolk's All of the Marvels?

·         Is Borenstein convincing in his arguments?

First, Borenstein has been teaching an annual general education course on graphic novels at New York University since 2007. As he explained in his preface about his 'secret origins.' the 1970s was the decade he discovered comics. But more importantly, in Marvel comics, he found a reflection of the concerns that occupied his teenage mind. As he explained, "Marvel was filled with characters who narrated their experience, second-guessing themselves. They got me out of my head by getting into theirs, which in turn helped me explore my own head better." In that sense, Borenstein pointed out Dostoyevsky was inevitable. While the fate of Rodion Raskolnikov now matters to him as much as the fate of Jean Grey, Borenstein never stopped being a comic fan nor forgot about the inner worlds and turmoil of Shang-Chi, T'Challa and Howard the Duck. (Borenstein also acknowledged the model provided by Jose Alaniz, another Slavist and fellow comics scholar, who also blurbed the book.)

It took some decades to reconcile the two worlds of Pushkin and the Punisher and to avoid incursions of having two parallel universes colliding and destroying one of them (apologies to Jonathan Hickman). Borenstein managed to construct a Battleworld (more apologies to Jim Shooter) where his two worlds coexist in his serialized blog on Marvel comics in the 1970s. This book is an extension and expansion of that - it is like the Ant-Man entering the body of the Vision to save him in Avengers #93 (drawn by Neal Adams, cover date Nov. 1971) but presented in the deluxe over-sized artist's edition format. But unlike superheroes, when we go deep into inner worlds, it is not just to save others. It is to save ourselves.

As for the comparisons with All of the Marvels, Borenstein acknowledges it as a book with "many points in common" especially Wolk's deep dive into The Master of Kung Fu, but the two approaches are very different. Borenstein made it very clear that his book is firmly planted in a crucial yet understudied decade that marks a turning point in the artistic development of the comics medium. To me, both complement each other. After reading Wolk's take on the Black Panther, you can easily pick up the Penguin classics Marvel collection with its valuable foreword and introduction by Nnedi Okorafor and Qiana J. Whittted respectively. And then move into Borenstein's chapter on Don McGregor's tortured romantic individualism and suffering black bodies.

For my third question, I must say Borenstein, makes a compelling case of the world inside your head created by the above-mentioned Marvel writers. This underscores the intentionality of these writers in focusing on creating an internal world of subjectivity for their readers. The action and violence in these Marvel comics mirror the inner (conflicted? confused?) state of the heroes and villains. I would like to linger on Borenstein's choice of phrase, "your head." It could be "our heads" but he chose yours. But this “yours” is not just the readers, but the fictional characters of Captain America, Captain Marvel and the Man-Thing as well. As Borenstein said, "I felt more like myself when I was able to sink into the minds of others." Is it a form of escapism? Or a way to figure out ourselves when we see some of our internal selves mirrored in the inner worlds of a Marvel comic?

As for the chapters, I enjoyed the Introduction the most - where Borenstein made the case for a 1990s Vertigo title, Enigma as the best Marvel comic of the 1970s. I won't go into the details as it is quite delightful to follow Borenstein's arguments when he made his case. I would just add that writer Peter Milligan's explorations into "your heads" began much earlier in his 2000 AD days when he wrote a wonderful strip, Hewligan's Haircut, drawn by the mercurial Jamie Hewlett.

You may ask what's new about these 1970s writers' approach. Didn't Stan Lee in the 1960s put forth the "drama of the visible self?" Spider-Man will talk through his problems (via internal and external monologue) while fighting Doctor Octopus. Borenstein explained: "If Lee's plots provided the opportunity to learn about his characters' inner lives, the 1970s writers often came close to prioritizing interiority over plot itself."

This goes back my own first encounters with Marvel comics in the 1970s. Having read The Beano and The Dandy British weeklies, some DC, and also Chinese comics, one of the first Marvel comic I laid my hands on was, of all things, Man-Thing #22 (cover date Oct 1975). I can't remember how I got it, but it was the most bizarre thing I had read when it landed in my hands. It starts with writer Steve Gerber writing to editor Len Wein about why he cannot continue to write the Man-Thing anymore and it just becomes more metafictional and internal from there. My curiosity about Borenstein's book probably stems from this primary reading experience.

If there is a weak chapter, it is the coda of Chris Claremont’s rise in the popular Uncanny X-Men comics of the late 1970s and 1980s. After making his argument of the complex inner worlds created by writers like Steve Gerber, Borenstein's concluding line leaves much hanging: "Claremont, his collaborators, and his heirs found that presenting their heroes as superficially complex open books was a recipe for success." He argued that Claremont's X-Men invites readers into the heroes' minds while making the process of identification effortless. I feel more elaboration and examples are needed. What led to the 'decline' of writers like Steve Englehart (who went on to write a memorable Batman run at DC as well as the Justice League of America - how does that compare to his Avengers?) and the rise of Claremont, whose interiority was not that of Gerber or Moench or Wolfman? What happen to these writers when they left Marvel and the 1970s receded into the past? Did they leave interiority behind? For example, did Wolfman follow the success of the superficiality of Claremont for his Teen Titans series in the 1980s? For that, one would have to look for answers in recent books like The Other 1980s: Reframing Comics' Crucial Decade which has chapters on Moench and Gerber, and also Steve Gerber: Conversations. It is unfortunate the Kickstarter of Moench's Aztec Ace has gone off rails with money collected and the backers not receiving their copies. Some of these comics can be reprinted and reevaluated - Gerber's Phantom Zone stories for DC, Gerber's return to Howard the Duck in She-Hulk, and McGregor's Sabre.

Borenstein states that Claremont's approach was a much more commercially appealing formula that combined the prolixity of McGregor with the declarative tradition of Stan Lee. This deserves fuller exploration. I, for one, would like to understand the rise of Claremont studies, as seen in The Claremont Run on Twitter at and now also collected as a book, The Claremont Run: Subverting Gender in the X-Men by J. Andrew Deman (University of Texas Press, 2023).

Nonetheless, this book is an excellent read for the Marvel fan and a worthy contribution to comics studies of serialized American superhero comic books of the 1970s. Long may the 70s run. 

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