Thursday, June 19, 2014

Not Brand Echh and Megaton Man: An Impactful Influence

Back in the 1980s, my Megaton Man and Jim Valentino's normalman were often likened to Marvel's short-lived but fondly-remembered self-spoof Not Brand Echh, a curiously-titled and often rushed and sloppy humor book, more often at least than the more highly crafted and consistently funny Mad by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, et al. Not Brand Ecch, presumably a play on "Not Brand X" involving a not-at-all standard transliteration of a retching sound indigenous to the eastern seaboard (why not the more common "yuck" or "ick" of American comic strips and books?) was strongly influenced, if not the brainchild of, Marie Severin, Rose Marie-ish production manager at Marvel and veteran of Kurtzman's EC bullpen. Emulating the sophomoric humor of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, TV sensations in that era (shows that was in fact banned in my house because of their timid political irreverence), Not Brand Ecch would seldom elicit a chuckle from readers expecting the intelligence of Mad, but still had its moments.

Not Brand Echh #12 is personally significant because, although I had seen Marvel Comics floating around the neighborhood and in the possession of some of my friends, a coverless copy of that issue was the first Marvel comic book I ever owned. Consequently, it gave me a rather curious introduction to the Marvel cast of characters, and the completely wrong impression that Marvel had a sense of humor. To the extant that was true at the time (particularly in the case of a compulsively wise-cracking Spidey), this had been completely lost by the early 1980s (with the notable exception of the Steve Gerber Howard the Duck interregnum of the mid-seventies, during which even the most humorless sword and sorcery artists were practically compelled to learn to draw ironic funny animals). Hence the cult popularity (and market niche) of normalman and subsequently Megaton Man at the time.

Although I didn't possess any issues of Not Brand Echh at the time I was drawing the early issues of Megaton Man for Kitchen Sink Press, I clearly had one page for NBE #12 in the back of my mind as I drew this scene for Megaton Man #2. In John Buscema's original, the Avengers are sitting around their headquarters with nothing to do, a sly riff on the usually hyperactive exploits seen in superhero and particularly Marvel comic books (and in stark contrast to Buscema's later How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, a book that I studied exhaustively when it came out in 1977). This page is kind of a Rosetta Stone, if that is the right metaphor, that shaped my dual parody-straight sensibilities regarding superheroics. In my scene, where I am clearly recalling that moment, the Megatropolis Quartet (with a newly-costumed Captain Megaton Man) sit around with nothing to do, bereft of the See-Thru Girl, who has left Megatropolis to go back to college. The dead space in both Buscema's and my pages suggest the vacuum, quietude, and melancholy of the moment. This similarity alone demonstrates how much impact the original had on forming my sensibilities.

Left: The Buscema page caps a five-page Avengers parody by Tom Sutton. Right: my version shows an anti-climactic moment after Captain Megaton Man joins the Megatropolis Quartet. Sad to note the the supposedly superior, whiter Baxter paper stock used by cutting-edge Direct Sales comics in the 1980s has browned as badly if not worse than the cheap newsprint of newsstand comics of the 1960s,)

It is rather one of the oddest disappointments of my life that humor in general, and the legacy of Not Brand Echh in particular, has been so thoroughly rejected by the comic book industry in recent decades. It is a major symptom, to my mind, of the death of the American comic book, a phenomenon that has taken place slowly over my adult life, for a number of technological, sociological, ideological, and aesthetic reasons. While the work of Not Brand Echh is spotty an erratic, there are still a few laugh-out-loud moments, and especially Buscema's profoundly thought-provoking moment, at least in issue #12 (the last comic book I ever bought at a comic book convention, now over a decade ago, for cheap and with a cover!). There may never be an Essential Not Brand Echh collection put out by the humorless powers-that-be in New York, but it will still be essential to those of us it touched, and whose sensibilities it formed as young comic book readers and older cartoonists.

Correction: There will be a collected Not Brand Echh in 2015, and here is the Buscema page, beautifully remastered:

1 comment:

  1. I hardly believe it, but I learned just now that Marvel plans to collect NBE in 2015: