How comics grew up (and so did I)

They were once deplored by parents and teachers as moronic, trashy and culpably American. Today supe

There are children, so rumour has it, who feast their growing imaginations on the likes of Jemima Puddle-duck and Peter Rabbit, Ratty, Mole and Toad from Wind in the Willows, Alice and the Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat, on tales of Narnia and the Wouldbegoods, hobbits and Moomins. And then there are the kids who have read none of the above but who sit, jaws agape, over the exploits of Spider-Man and X-Men and the Mighty Thor, of Batman and Superman and the Green Lantern.

I was one of the latter, and consider myself privileged to have enjoyed those early, formative contacts with the worlds of Marvel and DC Comics. Roz Kaveney, author of Superheroes!: Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films, would no doubt agree: her book is a plea for this type of tasty juvenile brain fodder to be taken seriously as an art form - not just greasy kids' stuff, but something that can be mentioned in the same admiring sentence as Wagner or Mozart. (For example, she describes one Daredevil strip as being "blissful as a Mozart rondo". Hmm.)

Since one's reactions to such extravagant claims will depend largely on experience, a spot of autobiography is in order. I was born in 1955, which made me exactly the right age to discover what comic-book fans now call the Silver Age of the form. The pivotal moment came in August 1962, when that month's issue of Amazing Fantasy introduced a character called Spider-Man - aka Peter Parker, a neurotic and perpetually skint teenager who is given all manner of interesting abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider. (Radiation was in the air during those Cold War years; 1962 was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, as even I knew at the time. In the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films of the past few years, the chomping spider has been genetically modified.) The character was an enormous hit, and in March 1963 was given a series of his own. A renaissance had begun.

The next five or so years were blissful. I had already dabbled in the more prosaic comics produced by DC, the home of Superman (often boring) and Batman (a bit more interesting - a wounded neurotic, like Spider-Man) and still looked at them for want of anything more satisfying, but Marvel was, self-evidently, vastly superior. One critic, already an adult when Marvel began to blossom, said that the experience of reading these new titles was like seeing a Godard film (Godard, by the way, was fascinated by comics) after a steady diet of Doris Day and John Wayne. Every title had some wonderful conceit of its own: the Fantastic Four with their enviable Manhattan penthouse full of laboratories and gizmos, the angst-ridden mutants of X-Men (different characters from the ones in the recent Bryan Singer films), blind Daredevil, the defrosted Second World War hero Captain America . . . And the villains! Doctor Doom! Doctor Octopus! The Red Skull! Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a Doctor Strange reader was very cool indeed.

I kept reading these titles until the first early tinkles of hormonal change became faintly audible. It had not escaped my attention that the comics had been growing up as I had, though in a different way. They began to comment on social issues: Stan Lee, the Marvel supremo, had decidedly liberal views, as did many in his stable of gifted artists and writers (notable exception: Spider-Man's co-creator, Steve Ditko, who was a kind of right-wing anarchist and admirer of Ayn Rand). The Marvel heroes were all on the right side when it came to civil rights as well as super-villains, and African-American characters were always treated with sympathy and respect. In fact, I drifted away from the comics just as they were starting to be interesting in entirely new ways, with commentaries on the Vietnam War, race relations, hard drugs and the like. By the parting of the ways, I had stopped reading all of the mainstream superhero titles save the ones drawn by the extraordinary Jim Steranko, such as Nick Fury. Steranko's work was an eye-smacking, brain-stretching amalgam of surrealism, op art and the psychedelia coming out of San Francisco. The times they were a-changing, all right.

Giving up the addiction was largely painless. Stan Lee's fantasies gave way to the rather meatier conceits of Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock and J G Ballard; Keats and Dostoevsky were warming up in the wings. Surrealism à la Steranko passed effortlessly into surrealism à la Dalí and Ernst. Had years of immersion in Marveldom done me any harm? I very much doubt it, though my parents were scornful about these American products: as they would not have put it, but Wim Wenders later did, they were worried that America was making a colony of my un conscious. On the contrary, I think that Marvel comics made me in some respects precociously aware, and - pow! wham! - equipped me for adult life in ways that Enid Blyton or the Jennings books never could. Jennings never talked about "unstable molecules".

So, I approached Roz Kaveney's work with some sympathy, a sympathy soon deepened by the ghastly anecdote she tells in her opening chapter: a young feminist woman in Leeds, entrusted with Kaveney's entire comic collection - the record and the fruit of many years of avid hunting and gathering - had taken a peek at the things, decided that they were sexist, and burned them. Fiend! Reading this passage had something of the effect on me that Kryptonite had on Superman: it enfeebled me; it made it almost impossible to judge her work unkindly. But it also suggested a possible reason for the book's marked chronological bias. Kaveney obviously knows all about the glories of the Silver Age, but doesn't talk much about them. Did she lose all her early Spider-Man texts in that terrible conflagration?

A good part of Superheroes! - say, roughly three-quarters - is given over to comics that have appeared in the past 20-odd years, when the nature of the beast has changed in many ways, not least because fans have grown more aware of the writing and drawing credits. We are now very much in the age of the comic-book auteur, and a surprising number of the big names are British: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison. Throughout the same period, the raw material of comics has grown harsher and darker, both in the mainstream titles and through the specialist imprints, which aim at a mainly adult audience.

Kaveney is greatly concerned with matters of what fandom calls "the continuity" - roughly, the ways in which the fantasy universes created by Marvel and DC are kept internally as coherent as possible, so that fans are not dis appointed or betrayed. One of the greatest of all aesthetic crimes, in Kaveney's eyes, is what she terms "strip-mining the continuity": closing down, muddling up, or otherwise ruining the threads of character and circumstance built up across years and decades.

She devotes considerable attention, and quite rightly, to Alan Moore's Watchmen series of 1986-87. Watchmen is the Ulysses of comics: at once an affectionate tribute to comic strips of both the Golden (the 1930s to 1950s) and Silver (1960s to 1970s) Ages, a ripping yarn in its own right, a madly erudite compendium of 20th-century politics and culture, and a kaleidoscope of Moore's private obsessions. Moore is clearly some kind of genius, though it is hard to pin down the category of that genius. Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (as hard as Watchmen to summarise, or harder, so let's just say it's about dreams, myths and the creative imagination) also wins Kaveney's affectionate praise; and so, more cautiously, does the work of Frank Miller, a right-wing maverick who did much to refashion the Batman franchise for our pessimistic times and went on to build a hard-bitten, pulpy cosmos of his own in the Sin City series.

The book concludes with an examination of the "fanboy" phenomenon - tales of those former readers of comics who have gone on to work in the genre, such as Joss Whedon, who moved from writing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on television to X-Men in print - and with a critical summary of the main Hollywood movies that have been developed from Marvel and DC titles. In accordance with a logic found in so many super-hero tales, the great virtue of Kaveney's book is also its weakness: it is written with a deep and enduring love of its subject, which makes it great fun for the already converted. For the cooler and more sceptical reader, this book is far too ready to take the virtues of the form as a given. I am very glad to have enjoyed these things in my childhood, but also glad to have put them aside at the right age; and even though the comics of the 21st century are vastly more sophisticated and "adult" than those energetic pioneer works, there remains a stubborn, irreducible core of . . . well, silliness, daftness, plain old geekishness about them.

No amount of critical rhapsody is going to make it acceptable for members of the Garrick to flip open the latest Hulk comic after lunch, and quite right, too. One of the minor reasons I enjoyed comics so much as a child was that my parents disapproved of them so much. And although it is good and proper that such a vast and influential phenomenon should be investigated and discussed in a serious way - Gerard Jones's admirable history Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (2004) has pointed one way forward - undue solemnity about their intrinsic artistic greatness seems not only pumped-up but irrelevant. In the worst outcome, you could end up sounding and looking like the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons. And not even Spider-Man could save you.

Kevin Jackson has just completed a biography of John Ruskin and is looking for a catchy title. Sadly, "No Wealth But Life" is already taken

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it