Rand Bellavia takes a moment to travel down the timeline to look at 40 years of his favorite comics in this week’s Random Access Memory.
40 Years Ago
All-Star Comics 62
This comic scared the crap out of me. Not only did it end with all of the heroes either seemingly dead or utterly defeated, but the main villain was absolutely horrifying.
If I had to point to one issue that made me into a rabid comic book fan, it would be this one. It included just about every character in the Marvel Universe, and was my first exposure to most of them. (I had no idea who or what The Swordsman was, but he sounded freaking awesome.) There wasn’t much action – it was mostly a recap of the Avengers history up to that point – but the constant barrage of super-hero names and costumes was more than enough for me.
It opens with The Thing watching the Avengers on TV. Except it’s Ben Grimm in a Thing costume. I still don’t know what that was all about.
In one panel they mention Marvel Girl. No image or descriptive information. They just drop her name and move on. In my mind, she wore a costume covered with the faces of all of her favorite Marvel super-heroes, and had their combined powers, or maybe she had the power of whatever face she was touching at the time. I don’t know, I was seven.
The final pages reveal a new Avengers team: Captain America, Iron Man, Yellow-Jacket, Wasp, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and The Beast. I had no idea this sort of thing happened every eleven issues, so it seemed super exciting to me. And then, moments after Cap raises his shield and shouts “Avengers Assemble!” the issue ends with the revelation that Wonder Man (who?) is back from the dead. I later learned that this was quite a call back, as he had died all the way back in issue 9.
35 Years Ago
Marvel Team-Up Annual 4
Pencilled by Herb “No One’s Favorite Artist” Trimpe, this annual was written by a young – and oddly light-hearted – Frank Miller. At one point The Purple Man makes Spider-Man climb a flagpole and sing Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army.” Doesn’t take more than that to lodge a comic book in my mind.
30 Years Ago
Action Comics 583
In the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC decided to hand Superman over to John Bryne for a full reboot. Then they asked Alan Moore to write the final issues of Superman and Action Comics before the reboot, presumably because they were mad at Byrne.
This now classic two-parter, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” is widely considered to be the perfect Superman story, perhaps only eclipsed by Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman. In my most recent rereading, I noticed something that had escaped my attention before: Moore appears to be implying that Mr. Mxzyptlk is God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
Working backwards, the 2000 years of mischief Mxy mentions began soon after the advent of Christianity, and the previous 2000 years of “saintly, benign, good deeds” would be documented in the Old Testament and the life of Jesus. And the preceding 2000 years of inertia maps nicely to Western culture’s dearth of historical records. That Alan!
Batman: The Dark Knight Falls (or, The Dark Knight 4)
What can I say? I recall that the wait for this issue was excruciating. And I will say that I think this book gets a bit of a bad rap as a “dark, brooding” comic, due largely to its getting lumped in with Watchmen. Yes, it’s a fairly dark look at the future, but a.) it is politically of its time, and b.) its ending isn’t nearly as cynical as Watchmen’s. Ultimately, The Dark Knight is a story about raging against the dying of the light and, as such, is as much a vindication of the traditional super-hero narrative as it is a deconstruction of it.
As a teenager I recall thinking Superman was a fascist – no doubt because Bruce implies it, and Oliver outright states it – but now I see Bruce’s actions as more in line with fascism than Clark’s; Right down to the fact that the nazi-youth all line up right behind Bruce as soon as he emerges as a “strong leader.”
The first really successful ongoing comic from Marvel’s adult Epic line hops ship to First Comics with this issue. To sweeten the pot, writer/artist Jim Starlin chooses the First debut issue to (finally) reveal who the traitor among Dreadstar’s crew was. The reveal wasn’t all that satisfying – the traitor ended up being Syzygy Darklock’s cybernetic ear (I know) – especially when the previous issue’s revelation that Oedi was still alive had me hoping that they would find a way to save Doc Delphi. (Spoiler warning: They didn’t.)
Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man 118
It might come as a shock to his modern fans to hear that Peter David first gained attention by killing off a popular supporting character in a second-tier Spider-Man title. To give the man his due, David’s Death of Jean DeWolff four-parter still holds up, even though it lacks the humor one has come to expect from a Peter David script. And this stand alone issue is ever darker.
Not an imaginary story! Not a hoax! This issue just flat-out ends with a SHIELD agent murdering a little boy. I’m sure this death was retconned in some future issue I didn’t read, but no one can tell me they didn’t intend me to walk away from that issue thinking I’d just watched a child get shot to death.
The last issue of The Dark Knight Returns and the first issue of Watchmen in the same month? What god did I please?
25 Years Ago
I always thought it was a bit of dirty pool for Dave Sim to brag so much about his slavish devotion to creating and executing a monthly 300-issue graphic novel, when it became clear that his definition of “novel” included anything he wanted to write about that month, so long as he eventually found a way to tie it in (however tangentially) to the broader Cerebus narrative. For instance, issues 140-150 of Cerebus made up the Melmoth storyline, which was – literally – a ten-issue meditation on the death of Oscar Wilde. Cerebus spent the entire ten issues sitting outside a building, silently clutching a doll. Now, some of you may read that and think I’m trying to be funny or exaggerating to make my point. Listen to me: The titular character spends nearly a year of the comic sitting outside a house, silently clutching a doll. How long would you continue to read Power Man and Iron Fist if the comic “proudly presented” the history of orthodontics, while making sure to cut at least once an issue to a shot of Iron Fist sleeping while Luke Cage quietly wept into a napkin?
And perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I quite liked Melmoth. I’m simply stating that if Dave Sim wanted to write a ten-issue mini-series about the death of Oscar Wilde, he should have done that, and not wedged it into Cerebus.
But the real attraction here is the back-up story, “Being an Account of the Life and Death of Emperor Heliogabolus,” written and illustrated by Neil Gaiman. Start checking those back issue bins, kids!
Incredible Hulk 354
A solid issue from Peter David and Dale Keown, mentioned here because it was my reentry into mainstream super-hero comics. I was at a book store with a friend I hadn’t seen in some time and he mentioned how great the current Hulk team was, then goaded me into buying this issue. And he was right to do so.
Swamp Thing 110
The first issue of Nancy Collins’ underrated Swamp Thing run. The first few issues were a bit scattershot (in story and quality) but once she paired with the art team of Scot Eaton and Kim DeMulder, things really took off. Too bad no one stuck around to read it.
20 Years Ago
Aztek: The Ultimate Man 1
This book ran only ten issues, so it never really got a chance to find an audience, and its ambitious storyline was cut short far too soon. It’s not unusual for a superhero comic featuring a brand new character to fail so spectacularly, but when you consider that the book was created and written by Grant Morrison and Mark Millar… Well, let’s just say the book would probably have lasted a few issues longer had it come out more recently.
15 Years Ago
This hardcover graphic novel featured original stories featuring DC super-heroes, written and illustrated by indy comic artists like Evan Dorkin, Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, and Bob Fingerman. But the real attraction here was Kyle Baker’s much anticipated “Letitia Lerner, Superman’s Babysitter.” This short story was originally printed in 1999’s Elseworld’s 80-Page Giant. For reasons passing understanding – okay, probably because the story featured Superman as a baby being put through all sorts of horrors that would kill a normal child (most famously, being cooked in a microwave for a very long time) – DC decided to pulp the entire run of the book, making the few issues that escaped very valuable. It also made an otherwise uninterested public extremely curious about Baker’s story. Never one to waste such an opportunity, DC made sure that anyone wanting to read the story had to shell out 30 bucks for the shrink-wrapped hardcover.
10 Years Ago
Image priced this debut issue just cheap enough to get me to buy it, and good on them. If you’ve only ever read Matt Fraction’s Marvel work, you really should check this one out. It’s Grant Morrison writing James Bond.
And why haven’t you read Sex Criminals yet?
De: Tales – Stories from Urban Brazil
If you’re not already familiar with twin brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, this is a great place to start. If you are familiar with their work on Daytripper, Two Brothers, Umbrella Academy, and the above mentioned Casanova, this is where they started.
(Okay, actually my first exposure to them was the graphic novel Ursula in 2004, but good luck finding a copy of that one.)
I first read the work of Dan Slott in the Ren and Stimpy comics in the early 90s. Then I lost track of him for a while. Sad to say, I missed his amazing She-Hulk run when it first came out. And I got on board The Thing train just as it left the station. My first issue was this one, which was the last of the run.
You will believe a man can play poker.
5 Years Ago
Criminal: Last of the Innocents 1
When Criminal first came out, and my local CSG asked me why I wasn’t reading it, I said I wasn’t really into crime comics. Apparently what I meant to say was that I didn’t really like Sin City all that much. Really glad I eventually gave Criminal a shot.
Like all of the Criminal storylines, this one stands on its own, though it does form a larger narrative with the other stories. One unique aspect of this story is that it maps to the Archie universe. It doesn’t take too much creativity to see which character in this story represents which character from the Archie comics.
Flashpoint: Batman: Knight of Vengeance 1
For my money, this is the only Flashpoint mini-series that really takes advantage of the story opportunities presented by the Flashpoint concept, and delivers an exciting, well-thought-out narrative. Plus, its Azzarello and Risso working together again. So there’s that, too.
The Goon 34
If this cover doesn’t make you want to read The Goon, then I’m not sure how I can help you.