05 July 2012
Embrace the Void!
We all have favorite books that we re-read compulsively when we're sick; or favorite movies which we can't help but watch again while channel surfing, even though we own the five-disc collector's Blu-ray. There are songs that we want sung at our funerals even if the choice might only pile confusion onto the grief of the mourners (Radiohead's "Airbag" for me, please). And then there are works of art that aren't necessarily favorites, whose aesthetic merits we would be hard-pressed to defend, but which were somehow at the right place at the right time to burrow deep into our subconscious like psychic earwigs.
Back in the day, when comic books were still mainly sold in five and dimes, the practice was for unsold issues to have their covers torn off and sent back to the distributors. While technically these books were supposed to be written off, some did re-emerge at the very bottom of the retail food chain in plastic bags sold three for a dollar. I believe that it may have been through this dicey trafficking that a copy of Marvel Presents #7 (1976) made its way into my older brother's hands. All I know is that the ragged, torn, and smudged copy I re-read compulsively for the next several years of my young life never had a cover, which only added to the aura of mystery of the thing.
Except for me there was no other issue. Until I became an adult, this coverless issue was my one and only glimpse into this crazy universe and to say it left me with questions would be an understatement. But in spite of my confusion, the comic book haunted me. Actually, the confusion only fanned the flames of my obsession. This was a window into something cosmic, bizarre, and intensely sexual in a way that broke my brain. It made me feel like I was reading something forbidden that was just on the verge of making sense. And the art! The gorgeous sinewy line work by Al Milgrom, given a Kirbiesque flair by inker Bob Wiacek, so much more visceral and connected to the id than any digitally produced comics today. The author of this story was none other than Steve Gerber, writer of Howard the Duck, which makes perfect sense.
In recent years I've tracked down copies of the other issues in this run of stories—copies with their covers intact—and while the plot lines are more or less explained, I can't say that knowledge has led to enlightenment. I can now place this comic in the context of the culture of the mid-70s, of waning psychedelia's last gasps and a counterculture being absorbed into the mainstream. I can also see the comic for the narrative and derivative mess it sometimes is. But that doesn't matter. The damage was done long ago, and for that I'm grateful.