Thursday, August 31, 2006


In the 1960s, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Steve Ditko revolutionized the world of comic books by casting as their superheroes real people with real problems, private lives, and even neuroses. In 1977, New York journalist Robert Mayer took their revolution one step farther: he let his hero get old, sunk in middle age and retired from adventuring, watching the urban world get old and run-down and dark around him.

But since he did it in a novel, Superfolks, rather than in a comic book, pretty much no one noticed. But a few creators (and future creators), such as Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek, did, and Mayer’s vision of a superhero and his world both stripped of their innocence stayed with them, providing one of the sparks for the darker-themed, more realistic comics of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Superfolks, meanwhile, went out of print and stayed in obscurity for decades. But it was reprinted a couple of years ago, and my friend Jeremy gave me a copy for my birthday. It’s by no means great literature: it suffers from frequent journalism-style single-sentence paragraphs, the descriptive prose is frequently perfunctory, and the plot, as appropriate to a novel about comics, is a shade beyond absurd. But the merits of Superfolks easily outweigh those complaints. Along with Mayer’s creative rethinking of the concept of the superhero, he also paints a surprisingly vivid picture of decayed, downtrodden mid-70s New York (That’s the New York I imagine when I read the plaques on the statues in Central Park that read, “This statue fell into disrepair in the 1970s.”)

Mayer throws a lot of jokes and references at the reader, so though some, inevitably, fall flat, Superfolks is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. At a bar called the Mafia Club, for example,
The topless dancer called herself Bermuda Triangle. She had auburn hair, and a bored expression. Her breasts were shaped like Florida. There were gleaming silver pasties over Miami.

The Mafia Club was known by the organized crime section of the police department as a hangout for the mob.
At a table in the corner sit Mario Puzo and Gay Talese, while at another Frank Sinatra and Spiro Agnew chat up two blondes.

The best of Mayer’s jokes also include an element of social commentary. Here’s a Long Islander (called Swansdown island) thinking about mid-70s New York:
Most of the inhabitants of Swansdown Island had grown up in the streets and alleys and brick tenements of the city, and had moved to the suburbs after their children were born. The only people who still lived in New York were Negroes, Puerto Ricans, artists, writers, Eli Wallach, old people waiting for death, and the ultra-rich.

But for all the social commentary, ultimately what Superfolks has in common both with the old-style comics whose conventions it’s defying and the more self-aware comics that would appear in its wake is that it’s great fun. It’s clearly a labor of love, the culmination of a childhood spent immersed in comics, followed by an adulthood wondering about them. If you’ve ever studied the Marvel Chronology Project with awe or corrected an error in the Wikipedia entry for the DC multiverse, Superfolks is for you.

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