In Marvelous Mythology, Todd Frye traces the fascinating evolution of the Marvel Comics universe through the creation and introduction of its most famous superheroes (Read our review). Recently, Marcus had the the opportunity to chat with Todd one-on-one about his comic-loving roots, the characters that inspire him, and the deeper meaning of mythology. Take it away, Marcus!
First off Todd, thank you for taking some time to discuss your book, Marvelous Mythology, and your passion for comics. Let’s start by discussing your background. When and how did you get into comics?
Well, I was born in 1966, so I grew up in the 70’s. I had been exposed to comics when I was really small, thanks to an older brother who read them now and then, but 1974 was really the year when I started buying comics off the newsstand and collecting them. It was an exciting time for a kid to be into comics, because you had the Treasury-sized editions, the Marvel Giant Size issues and the DC 100-Pagers.
As to how or why I was into comics so much, I don’t know. It goes back too far into my childhood, I guess. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Superman or Tarzan or Spider-Man were. But their adventures always seemed just fascinating to me. How could a kid not be into comics would be a better question, I think.
What inspired you to delve into the mythology of the Marvel Universe?
I’ve always been fascinated by the continuity of the Marvel Universe, how all of the stories fit together and how so many characters and events are related to one another, across time. Something could be introduced in a Fantastic Four comic in 1964, then show up again 15 years later in a different story and context. Growing up, I thought that was brilliant, and I learned as much about the Marvel mythology as I could.
As any non-fiction writer can tell you, you don’t really know a subject until you try to write about it, and this was certainly the case here. Learning how all of these different concepts and characters were introduced, and watching them evolve from their humble beginnings, was really enlightening. And a lot of fun.
In Marvelous Mythology, you carefully describe most, if not all, the pivotal comics from the 60’s and 70’s. Did this research come from your own collection? Did you sit down and read everything you discuss? To be honest that seems like a dream job.
Well, a few came from my collection, plus I own a number of reprint books. I also had access to a killer collection belonging to a friend of mine. And yes, I really did sit down and read practically every Marvel superhero comic starting with Fantastic Four #1 up through, I don’t know, 1965 or so, then most of what came after, up through the late 70’s – early 80’s when I just read around sporadically. It was great fun, and fascinating stuff, but it took a lot of time, and frankly, I was ready to move on after several hundred issues.
Aside from key issues you discuss like Fantastic Four #1, Amazing Fantasy #15, and Journey into Mystery #83 (to list a few), are there issues from this era that you love – maybe not just for their importance – but because the story spoke to you or you enjoy it as a guilty pleasure?
Oh, gosh, you’re putting me on the spot. Yeah, of course there are plenty of stories from that era that don’t have a lot of ‘significance’ to the Marvel universe, I suppose, but which just make for great reading. The first two Fantastic Four annuals come to mind – I hadn’t been able to read them until I started researching this book. But, wow! I was blown away by how good they were.
The thing is, in my personal opinion it took a few years for Stan Lee to really get to a certain level of professionalism in his story-telling, even though he had been at Marvel since 1941 or so. Or maybe it was the mood of the times that allowed him to tell that type of story. But anyway, if you read through all of Marvel’s output starting at the beginning with FF #1, you really see a jump in quality in the mid-1960’s. It was like Stan and Jack Kirby suddenly said, “Okay, let’s do this right, the way it was meant to be done.” And suddenly Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man and Thor weren’t just good comics, they were mind-blowingly good. That’s the real reason why the youth of the mid-to-late 60’s latched onto Marvel, I think.
One aspect of the book that I found intensely interesting was the connections you drew between the characters and mythology. While those myths certainly had connections to ancient Greek, Roman, Norse mythology, there is definitely a modern myth-making about this story. Lee and company took those myths and made them into something that could shape the attitudes and perceptions of their audiences.
Do you feel Marvel superheroes still have the ability to shape the perceptions and attitudes of the readers as the heroes from the 60’s and 70’s did?
Hm. To be frank, I doubt it. For one thing, Marvel’s popularity is based upon heroes that are now, what, 50 years old? That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it seems to me that to have the same impact, they’d need to come up with all-new characters and concepts. They do some of that, certainly. But where else are you going to find a modern Lee/Kirby team to crank out brilliant stuff, one after the other?
If the Marvel heroes still have any impact on modern audiences, primarily kids, then it will be because of the movies. Kids don’t read a lot nowadays, except maybe in short Tweet-length bursts. Who can blame them? They’re constantly distracted by more immediate entertainment like console games, little phone games, video on demand, etc. The characters that speak to this generation of kids, and the next one, will almost certainly come not from reading-based media, but more modern forms.
You also had me really thinking about how Lee and company bent the character archetypes by discussing how groundbreaking it was that the Fantastic Four would fight with each other or that Peter Parker was just a geeky kid with everyday problems. Is there a character or characters that you think back on as more groundbreaking than others?
Well, you just mentioned the two big, obvious ones. As far as storytelling goes, yeah, those were the big titles/characters that broke new ground. But when you think about it, just about every Marvel hero broke the mold. Thor wasn’t even human, or even alien; he was an immortal god from a different plane of reality altogether. The Hulk was much more of a monster than a hero. Iron Man lived the life of a playboy, but he was on the edge of death at all times, and in the early days was forced to wear his metal chest plate 24 hours a day. Daredevil was a blind man, for Pete’s sake. Each one of these characters took the idea of the superhero as this super-capable, flawless, always-right archetype, and turned it over completely. Not to mention that so many heroes had girlfriend problems, or money problems, or family problems, etc.
Consequently, are there any characters from this era that you hold as inspirational or simply as an all-time favorite?
Amazing Spider-Man was my favorite comic, and still is. The art and stories and characters still just thrill me, especially that era from about 1966 through 1969. Stan was at the very top of his game, and the artists – primarily John Romita – made it all look fantastic. Like I’ve said elsewhere, I wanted to be Peter Parker, tooling around Manhattan on a motorcycle, meeting up with my gorgeous girlfriends, and fighting weird villains at night. That still sounds pretty good.
As you point out in the book, the Marvel Universe has grown significantly since the era of Kirby, Lee, Romita, and Ditko. From your experience as a fan, do you have an opinion on the current era of comics and subsequently is there anything you actively follow now?
I’m probably not the right person to ask, as I don’t really read any current Marvel comics, and hardly any modern comics by anybody, with the exception of Alan Moore, the Hernandez brothers, and maybe a few other creators. The few times I’ve dipped my toe into those waters over the past few years, I mostly didn’t care for what I found. I did read the first few issues of the 2008 Guardians of the Galaxy series, however, and I found I enjoyed those.
Modern comics have a different audience to appeal to. As I noticed when my nephew Sean was little, modern kids respond to different art styles, different forms of presentation than we did when I was younger. Which is fine. Things have to evolve and adapt. Nevertheless, I hope my book gets a few young people interested in the older, original stories, because many of them still hold up really well.
Along with impact of the creation of characters like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, you describe some of the behind the scenes processes; processes like Lee adding dialogue after Kirby had drawn the pages. Do you have an opinion on how changes in the creation processes today like going digital has affected the comics industry?
I don’t have any insider knowledge about how comics are being made right now, as far as how the process of their creation is concerned, but I’m sure things are largely the same as they were 50 years ago: you still have to have somebody drawing the pictures, and somebody writing the words. They may now use a stylus and Photoshop Elements for the art, and the writer may be sitting in a café noodling on his iPad, but the basic concept should be the same.
That being said, evolving technology and changing circumstances always have an effect on what is being created – that’s kind of the point of talking about what was happening behind the scenes at Marvel in the book, to show that such events often steered the fiction this way or that, for different reasons.
If you had unlimited resources at hand what Marvel superhero would you choose to track down and collect all the key issues for?
Amazing Spider-Man, easy question. I’d love to own a decent copy of every single issue, up to about #200 or so along with all of the annuals, and not have to worry about knocking $10,000 off the value just because I want to take them out and read them once in a while. It’s a very different experience to hold the actual books in one’s hand, as opposed to reading an electronic version off a screen, or holding a reprint. I even love the smell of the paper.
Finally, Marvelous Mythology, is truly an enlightening read. Do you have plans or desires to continue sharing your comic industry knowledge?
Thanks for the kind words. Well, I don’t have any plans for any more comics scholarship any time soon; I wrote this one fairly quickly, and it just drained me. Besides, I find the era of the 1960’s & 70’s to be far more fascinating than any other, so I’m unlikely to throw myself into the Golden Age, for example. It just doesn’t interest me.
Of course, I’d hate to let all of this comic knowledge and writing talent go to waste. I think I could be a good writer of comics, though, so if anybody like, say, a modern comics publishing company wanted to hire me, I’d entertain any offers they might make. (*cough* Marvel, call me *cough*)
Huge thanks to Todd Frye for taking the time to chat with us! Consider picking up a copy of Marvelous Mythology either from Amazon or at MarvelousMythology.com. You can also check out a preview chapter.