JAIMIE VERNON – CONFESSIONS OF A MARVEL MAN

Comic books have been a source of light amusement most of my life. Both my grandmother and her second husband (God bless their souls) always had a stack waiting for me and my sister every time my family visited so there was always a diversion in the form of ‘Richie Rich’. ‘Baby Huey’ and ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ at hand as well as ‘Star Trek’ adaptations by the Gold Key company – oh, if I only had those in my possession today.

Then, during an unprecedented cross-Canada tour by car with my grandmother in 1975 when I was 12 years old, I decided to scoop up some comic books to read during the long, monotonous boring periods driving across Northern Ontario, Manitoba and the plains of Saskatchewan. Cover price: $0.25. I was completely engrossed in the adventures of Marvel’s Captain Marvel – not the 1950’s era Shazam! but the cosmic ranger who would later die in one of comicdom’s most honourable and well written eulogies many years later. I also grabbed copies of western inspired books like the zombie-vigilante ‘Jonah Hex’ by DC Comics. It didn’t take long for me to drift towards the sci-fi/superhero stories as my genre of choice. The dividing line had been drawn, subconsciously, and when the smoke cleared, I had chosen Marvel as my comic book company of choice. By the first year of high school I was buying comics more frequently – mainly as a time killer when I wasn’t busy learning how to play guitar (my newest pursuit). One day a school friend showed me his entire comic collection only because we were two of the few people publicly willing to admit to it. He said he was moving and had to get rid of his collection. He was determined to keep his ‘Incredible Hulks’ but allowed me to pick through the rest where I gravitated to the standards like ‘Fantastic Four’, ‘Spiderman’, ‘Avengers’, and a super-team I wasn’t familiar with: The X-Men. This series would change the way I, and literally millions of other comic book readers, looked at comics. Over the next decade it would prove to be good for Marvel but bad for the comic book industry as comic books would stop being harmless entertainment and, instead, a collectible commodity that would be sold and traded like stock portfolios. Marvel’s folly nearly destroyed the company. But I digress.

This was an exciting franchise based on characters that had fizzled in the Marvel canon and were mothballed years earlier until some enterprising new writers and artists at the company resurrected the characters as the all new Uncanny X-Men. The artist was British-born Canadian John Byrne. The writer was British-born American Chris Claremont.

So it was no surprise that the X-Men issues that caught my attention in my friend’s collection were issues 120-123 where Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm and the rest of the mutant clan come to Canada and battle it out with another super team: Alpha Flight. The story was so popular that Alpha Flight was spun off into its own monthly series. Not since Comely Comics’ ‘Captain Canuck’ had Canada been given its own superheroes.

The artwork was modernized. Jack Kirby was great but his art was always boxy and cartoonish. Byrne studied human anatomy and drew the characters realistically. Claremont’s stories were interpersonal and removed from the no-consequence capes and Kryptonite tropes of the 1960s. I was floored. Comics had leaped in a single bound from one-dimensional to two dimensional. The ‘Kapow’ and ‘Zoom’ era of Batman, Superman and Green Lantern in DC Comics was like some quaint newspaper comic strip that should never have left the back pages of newspapers. They lacked a crucial ingredient – humanity. Marvel was gambling everything on the X-Men and it worked. Soon, the entire Marvel Universe got a facelift and was injected with a sense of non-fantasy reality. The effort to suspend disbelief was now minimized and the escapism was brief. Spiderman would battle neurosis, marriage and a change in his long-standing trademark underwear; The Fantastic Four would grow as a family and two of the characters would actually have a baby; The X-Men would grieve the loss of one of its most-beloved characters.

The Marvel Renaissance began in 1979 and I was hooked. Marvel was cranking out books faster than I could afford to buy them on my newspaper boy salary. The cover prices started to climb as Marvel saw the potential in squeezing the last bit of cash from the hands of addicted comic junkies like me. My family lived a lower middle-class existence and I was capped at $2.00 a week allowance. The books were now $0.50. I’d travel all over Scarborough on my bicycle looking for convenience stores carrying the latest titles each month; It would take until the 1980s, during the comic boom, for specialty collector shops to pop up and assume control of comic distribution (fatal flaw #2 in Marvel’s control of the comic industry). If the titles I wanted exceeded my cash flow I would suffer the DT’s. Only once did I risk life and limb by stealing one from a store…and the owner caught me. Fortunately, the guy didn’t press charges. I learned my lesson immediately. Sort of. I was soon stealing the money I needed. There were too many close calls where that was concerned as well. What was an addicted geek to do?

I got a job long enough to fill my pockets and worked up enough money to buy truckloads of back issues from used book stores and new issues from the local dealers and then I’d quit the job because I wanted more time to read what I’d bought. Oh, the self-centred nerve. Now, comics weren’t totally to blame for my visibly delinquent behaviour. I was leading a rather hectic social life with school, friends, girlfriend and my new rock band. But I’d always escape into the books whenever any of these pursuits became too much to deal with. Teenagers lead such a rough life, don’t they?

I even started drawing my own comics with another buddy who’d been into the genre as well. My parents were so impressed with the artwork they sent me to art school. Hold on a minute. Now it’s getting too serious. I just wanted to sit in my room and draw or read comics and listen to rock and roll. Specifically, the world’s biggest comic book freakshows of them all: KISS; and in real-time Lawrence Gowan’s first band, Rhinegold, who I was able to see perform regularly used comic book themed music to create a theatrical spectacle. If only Gowan fans now could have seen him in his Spider-man leotards!

Even my own songwriting began to reflect these influences. I started writing concept albums like ‘Mindslaughter’ about an atheist who faces off against Satan and wins only to discover he’d been used as a pawn by God; and ‘Mission’ about a space pilot who lands on a parallel version of Earth that’s become an evil Matriarchy. Okay, so the ideas weren’t very original.

Eventually, as the success of my music career began to dominate my life and teen angst gave way to adult responsibilities, I began to drift away from comic books. On my honeymoon with my first wife in 1985, I found a comic book shop in the small metropolis of North Bay (oooh, I’m such a romantic) that offered me $1000 for my 1800 books. It wasn’t much money considering the blood and sweat I’d put into collecting them, but I had more pressing matters now – like paying the rent on a downtown apartment. I didn’t feel ripped off. The joy of collecting had become tainted by the fact that in only 9 years the cost of a comic had skyrocketed from $0.25 to $1.75 or even $2.25 a book on some titles. The stories Marvel was now creating crossed-over into multiple titles so if you missed any one of the books they released in a month chances are you’d lose the plot. I was tired of being manipulated this way and I think that feeling from the readers ultimately led to Marvel’s bankruptcy. They were no longer creating entertainment, they were making widgets. The soul and the care had been lost. And I took my leave of comic books that summer. Of course, 25 years later I’d give anything to have those copies of X-Men 120-123 again….cause they’re now worth hundreds of dollars each. But, I have no regrets. Instead I now go to the movies and revisit those characters on the big screen.

SEND YOUR CDs for review and your music news to:

Jaimie Vernon

180 Station Street

Suite 53

Ajax ON

L1S 1R9

CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia available at http://www.bullseyecanada.com/encyclopedia.html

4 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – CONFESSIONS OF A MARVEL MAN”

  1. My favorite was Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos, mainly because you had to love a guy who, when in trouble, always grunted “Why I oughtta” around that nub of a cigar he always had clenched in his teeth. Evidently, by the time Marvel was taking punks down the gilded highway to the bank, I had already moved on, trading my comics for old Paul Revere 45s (the pre-hit ones like “Swim” and “BFDRF Blues”. It would take Howard the Duck to reawaken my interest in comic books, and we all know what happened to him….. Where’s your book, Jaimie? Your biography? I want a signed copy.

    • Sgt. Fury was a little before my time…he’d already become the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. in my world 🙂

      Which book you looking for? I have the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia…but I’ve also turned the blogs I’m writing here into a book as well (should have copies next week!). Though the KINDLE edition is already available on Amazon. It’s called “Life’s A Canadian…BLOG”.

      The Encyclopedia can be purchased here http://www.bullseyecanada.com/encyclopedia.html

  2. Max Brand Says:

    Hey Jaimie, did ever read Archie Comics? I used to collect lots of them back in the 80’s and they’re still going strong and they the only real comics that made me laugh.

  3. Max – never read Archies.

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