Tolkien and the Silver Age of Comics


J. R. R. Tolkien
spent nearly 20 pages defining fairy tales in his 1946 essay "On Fairy-Stories" (found in The Tolkien Reader). This essay, a favorite of his friend C. S. Lewis’s, summarizes many of the attitudes toward storytelling that guided his creation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
 
Tolkien’s insights provide general guidelines not only for the reasons behind the trilogy’s popularity, but the popularity of fairy tales in general: Through these stories, we satisfy "certain primordial human desires," including the desire "to survey the depths of space and time."
 
Oddly enough, that doesn’t sound like a fairy tale to me — it sounds more like an average issue of Fantastic Four. Tolkien also discusses "the longing for the noiseless, gracious, economical flight of a bird," bringing forth, for comics readers, images of Superman, while "the desire to hold communion with other living things" is reflected in telepaths from the X-Men‘s Jean Grey to the Justice League‘s Martian Manhunter.
 
Part of the appeal of the 1960s Batman series was obviously to make readers wish they were themselves Robin. "If [fairy-stories] awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded," points out Tolkien, and Batman comics in the mid-1960s succeeded — to the tune of millions of copies a month.
 
But the greatest desire in our hearts is often deeper than the wish to fly, or even the desire to become someone else: It’s what Tolkien calls"the consolation of the Happy Ending," a meaning he assigns to the word "eucatastrophe." Tolkien argues that our natural attraction to this eucatastrophe reflects our innate desire for justice, for mercy, and, in fact, for virtue.
 
Virtue, of course, implies religion. But I grew up in a family with little organized religion; and while we didn’t read Scripture or stories of the saints, my family still taught me the natural virtues.
 
What outside influences reinforced the moral teachings of my family, in the absence of church? Comic books. The simple eucatastrophe is a staple of comics from the Silver Age (usually considered the 1960s and early 1970s), many of which were reprinted while I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
Stories Tolkien Never Read
 
Nearly every issue of the Gardner Fox-written Justice League of America ends with the imprisonment, banishment, or outright disappearance of the antagonist (collected in Showcase Presents: Justice League of America Vols. 1-3). Detective Comics #407, "Marriage: Impossible," by Frank Robbins and superstar Neal Adams, features Batman aiding in the healing of the deformed Kurt Langstrom, the Man-Bat, so that he and his beloved could lead a normal life once more (collected in Batman in the Seventies). Even downright silly stories such as Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan’s Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #53, "The Giant Turtle Man" (collected in both The Amazing Transformations of Jimmy Olsen and Superman in the Sixties), reinforce the simple idea that in the end, everything will turn out all right. These tales provide a huge consolation, the effect of which is not limited to children. In point of fact, according to Tolkien, "Children have, as a rule, less need [for consolation] than older people!"
 
From Spider-Man’s classic origin in Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, I learned about justice, as well as the fact that going out of one’s way to help others is more than just being "nice," introducing me to the phrase "With great power, there must also come great responsibility."
 
From Amazing Spider-Man #33, "The Final Chapter," by the same creative team, I learned another lesson. In this classic story, Peter, trapped under heavy iron machinery and facing an imminent ceiling collapse in the villain’s underwater hideout, completes the impossible task of lifting the huge apparatus in order to get rare medicine to his dying aunt. As comics writer Peter David once pointed out, the series could have ended with this issue, for Spider-Man’s character arc had been completed. From "The Final Chapter," I learned about not only consolation, but also redemption. (These stories are collected in black and white in Essential Amazing Spider-Man Vols. 1-2 or in color in the hardcover Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man Vols. 1 and 4.)
 
I witnessed bravery and sacrifice in Stan Lee and Wally Wood’s Daredevil #7, "In Mortal Combat with . . . Sub-Mariner!" Daredevil has no chance of victory against such a superior foe, but when he finally falls, Sub-Mariner stops his attack on the city and departs in awestruck admiration of his defeated opponent, showing me that sometimes victory comes through defeat (collected in black and white in Essential Daredevil Vol. 1 or in color in the hardcover Marvel Masterworks: Daredevil Vol. 1).
 
This lesson, I later learned, found echoes in the rather obscure T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7, which included Wally Wood’s depiction of Menthor’s heroic death (collected in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives Vol. 2), and in Fantastic Four #51, "This Man, This Monster," featuring the redemption of a hero-hating scientist in a story that some readers consider Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s best (collected in black and white in Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 or in color in the hardcover Marvel Masterworks: Fantastic Four Vol. 6).
 
All these comics share "the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind . . . that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that heard it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art."
 
Comics served to broaden my moral worldview. Leo Dorfman and Curt Swan’s Superman #162, "The Amazing Story of Superman-Red and Superman-Blue," was my first literary experience of a utopia, a kind of heaven-on-earth (collected in D.C.’s Greatest Imaginary Stories). Yet another Stan Lee story, this one with art by John Buscema, is Silver Surfer #3, in which he meets the devilish Mephisto. This tale provided me with a basis for realizing that the value of nobility should reach far above the value allotted to one’s desires (collected in the black and white Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1 or in color in the hardcover Marvel Masterworks: Silver Surfer Vol. 1). These were stories designed not only to awe and amaze, but to inspire.
 
Conversion
 
As an adult, I converted from my agnostic beliefs to Catholicism, and I’m convinced that many of the ideas I saw in these Silver Age comics paved the way. "The [four] gospels," writes Tolkien, "contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. . . . [A]mong the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe," the Resurrection.
 
Tolkien’s essay helped put into words what I had been thinking for a long time, a way to write about how "comics have changed" without sounding like any more of a curmudgeon than I actually am. I wondered whether it was just prudishness and an affection for the old-fashioned that was making me spend more money on Silver Age reprints, and less of it on new comics. Was it hypocritical that I would read almost any comic printed when I was growing up, but I won’t let my ten-year-old son do the same? I wasn’t able to solve these problems without Tolkien’s help.
 
Nowadays, when I read, I look for stories that provide this eucatastrophe, this consolation, this "turn" in the story. And I am routinely disappointed.{mospagebreak}
 
I remember reading a recent interview with a popular comics writer who claims that he’s never known any heroes; he’s known some people who do a few more good things than bad, and a few who do a few more bad things than good. That’s it. So that’s what he writes.
 
I would love for this skilled but misguided writer to have been working at Marvel during the days when Jim Shooter was editor-in-chief. Shooter loved to point out that in comics, there are more super-villains than super-heroes, whereas if we look around, we generally see more people being "good" than "bad." In his view, the only possible explanation for this flip-flop was power itself. Lord Acton’s statement "power tends to corrupt" was a key to Shooter’s understanding of human nature. When you ran into somebody whom power did not corrupt — the X-Men’s leader, Charles Xavier ("Professor X"), or the original Superboy — you had someone of great moral integrity. And it tended to show in their actions; they always had a strong and definite moral center.
 
Comics of Today
 
In present-day comics, Captain America got an unmarried woman pregnant before his untimely death; Cyclops of the X-Men has just assigned Wolverine and a few similarly clawed allies to assassination duty; and Spider-Man’s late girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, was recently revealed to have had children with Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, the Green Goblin. Where is the consolation, the eucatastrophe, in these stories?
 
In fact, only three times in the last decade do I remember experiencing a true heart-catching "turn" (to use Tolkien’s term) in a comic book: Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s wonderfully done Superman: Secret Identity, Doug TenNapel’s heavily Christian graphic novel Tommysaurus Rex, and Don Rosa’s nostalgic "The Dream of a Lifetime" in Uncle Scrooge #329 (collected in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion). Other than that, it’s been slim pickings lately.
 
A few stories that dealt with Christianity explicitly have been excellent. Top Shelf’s Creature Tech (also by TenNapel), a surreally humorous adventure story, takes the protagonist through a religious conversion as he battles invaders with the aid of a symbiotic alien suit. Homage’s Astro City Vol. 2: Confession (Kurt Busiek and Brent Eric Anderson) is a mystery story that follows a teenaged boy in his quest to become a "teen sidekick" to a superhero, with increasingly Christian themes as the story progresses. D.C.’s Kingdom Come (Mark Waid and Alex Ross), a fully-painted book about a possible future of Superman, Batman, and their world, relies heavily and explicitly upon the book of Revelation for its plot and themes. Image’s Heaven’s War (Micah Harris and Michael Gaydos) is an odd book in which Tolkien himself, along with fellow Inklings C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, do battle with the satanic Aleister Crawley.
 
That being said, I don’t need explicitly Christian comics. I don’t need more gritty realism, either. After all, "the bridge to platform 4," writes Tolkien, "is to me less interesting than Bïfrost guarded by Hemidall with the Gjallihorn!" I don’t need realism; I need fantasy. I need consolation. A "turn." Eucatastrophe. I need something that will console me, inspire me, and surprise me. In short, I need fairy-stories.
 
Tolkien knew a few bad eggs in his career. But he chose to write about heroes. And while the characters in Tolkien always had their darkness, they directed their will toward what was good. Gandalf, Aragorn, and Galadriel all knew that they could fall under the One Ring’s sway, but they all refused it, knowing their weakness. How popular would The Lord of the Rings be if Gimli had made repeated advances toward Eowyn, if Aragorn had plotted for years to win the throne from Denethor through Faramir’s aid, or if Sam had schemed to wrest the One Ring from Frodo?
 
But that mindset frames how a lot of comics are being written today. Tolkien had more fundamental things to write about than whether his characters were acting precisely like the people he knew: He wrote about the people he wanted to know. His characters weren’t pure and perfect, but they were heroes.
 
Comics don’t need to "destroy or even insult reason. . . . On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make." One of the keys to Middle Earth’s popularity is its consistency, its completeness in every detail, its verisimilitude, the degree to which a character perfectly fits within it, the degree to which one longs to be there and to go there, even with the danger.
 
As a child, Tolkien "desired dragons with a profound desire" (though, he hastens to add, he didn’t want any in his neighborhood). "The world that contained even the imagination of [the dragon] Fáfnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril," than his "relatively safe world." I’d like comics to once again portray a world that I want to visit, to live in. After all, we know the imperfections of this world, and we don’t need them stapled and glued into the worlds we read about.
 
True escapism won’t work unless there’s a destination one wants to escape to — that place Tolkien simply calls "Faërie" and comics fans label "the Silver Age."
 


Eric Pavlat is a board member of Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., and a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com

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Eric Pavlat is a convert from Unitarian Universalism who entered the Church in 1996. He lives in Maryland with his wife and six children. He is also a perpetually professed Lay Dominican in St. Pius V Pro-Chapter, located in Catonsville, MD. He founded Democrats for Life of Maryland, Inc., in 2004, served one term as president, and stayed on the board of directors until 2010. He now considers himself more a Distributist than anything else. Eric teaches 10th grade honors and special education students in English literature, composition, and grammar at his alma mater, Parkdale High School.

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