Rand Bellavia returns for another trip down memory lane to look at 40 years of his favorite comics in this week’s Random Access Memory.
Having been spoiled by the work of Sal Buscema, John Byrne, and George Perez, my young brain didn’t quite comprehend more stylized artists. The sheer dynamism of Jack Kirby’s mid-seventies work was enough to win me over, but nothing could have prepared me for the artwork of Frank Robbins.
At seven, I still took cover copy very seriously, so the promise of “the end of an Invader” shook me. I admit I had no idea what an Invader might have been, but I certainly recognized Captain America, the Human Torch, and Namor (who I was referring to back then as “the Submarine-er”). Also, vampires!
The issue ends with the death of Baron Blood, which I recall as a brutally violent panel. Looking at it now, it’s pretty tame.
Despite this rather conclusive looking death, Baron Blood made a comeback five years later during Roger Stern and John Byrne’s classic Captain America run. I presume it was a different Baron Blood. Anyone?
Pushing back stiff competition from Man-Thing, Ulik held the undisputed title of Worst Sexual Innuendo Name for over twenty years until he passed the crown to Deathblow in 1993. (His tagline should have been “All men fear Deathblow!” Real missed opportunity there.)
This issue ended with the death of Thor! At least I was naïve enough to think so in 1976. I never read issue 253, but somehow I imagine Thor was okay.
The legendary first appearance of Phoenix. And – retroactively – the last appearance of Jean Grey for a decade. Not much else happens this issue. Things get so dull that Storm decides to take a shower.
35 Years Ago
How many panels of Henry Pym being a dick can you cram into 18 pages? Not as many as Jim Shooter can.
Also, in the interest of gender equality I present this panel of Captain America taking a shower.
30 Years Ago
Elektra: Assassin 1
I was so in love with this series in 1986. Hard to recall why today. To give a sense of what a hopeless nerd I was, I recall having an argument – that went on for far longer than it should have – about whether Elektra’s costume – as painted by Bill Sienkiewicz – revealed her buttocks or just the top of her thighs. People: we were in college.
Swamp Thing 53
A double-sized issue of Swamp Thing written by Alan Moore and illustrated by John Totleben! Someone at DC was reading my diary. I recall being unsure if Moore staying on the book past the American Gothic storyline (which – along with Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s tenure as the art team – ended with issue 50) was a good idea, but this issue cleared all lingering doubt.
Tales of Terror 7
Generally speaking, Eclipse Comics’ Tales of Terror was a pale imitation of Pacific Comics’ Twisted Tales – which was, of course, a pale imitation of Warren’s Creepy and Eerie, which were pale imitations of EC’s Haunt of Fear, Vault of Horror and Crypt of Terror. (As Dana Gould said, “it’s like a photo of a drawing of a hologram.”) But that didn’t stop the occasional great issue from coming out. This one featured what has to be the only collaboration between Steve Bissette and David Lloyd, as well as a story from the always welcome Bruce Jones and John Bolton. And Sam Kieth started to burrow his way into my heart with his Bernie Wrightson-inspired art.
But the biggest treat was a short story drawn by a young Carol Lay, using a much more traditional comic-book art style. I defy anyone to find a trace of her current style in these pages. (And, if you’re thinking, “Who’s Carol Lay?” do yourself a favor and Google image search her name.)
25 Years Ago
Animal Man TPB
While I did read Arkham Asylum when it came out, the charms of the script evaded me on my initial reading. As such, I first fell in love with Grant Morrison after reading this trade collection of the first 9 issues of Animal Man. I recall disliking Chas Truog’s “simple” art, but today it is clear to me that his sure camera and clear storytelling made it easier for me to focus on the strengths of the writing. And, as awe-inspiring as Dave McKean’s painted artwork for Arkham Asylum was, it was clearing working at counter-purposes to Morrison’s script. (It didn’t surprise me years later to read that Morrison has written Arkham Asylum under the impression that Brian Bolland would be illustrating it.)
Marvel Comics Presents 85
I was growing obsessed with Peter David around this time, and teaming him up with Sam Kieth finally convinced me to give Marvel Comics Presents a shot. Hairiest. Wolverine. Ever.
Anyone else notice that Kieth’s Wolverine looks like it was filtered through Dave Sim’s Wolveroach?
20 Years Ago
Flex Mentallo 4
Grant Morrison’s first major collaboration with the mighty Frank Quietly ends here! If you like Grant Morrison’s pre-occupations, you’ll find pretty much all of them in this issue:
Blurring the line between reality and fiction: Check.
Created Characters Creating Characters Creating Creators: Check.
Thinly-Veiled Shot at Alan Moore: Check.
Super-Hero Saves the World Simply by Existing: Check.
A Photo of a Drawing of a Hologram: Check.
Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo are one of the great unsung writer/artist teams in comics. This 3-issue series – part of the ill-fated Vertigo Vérité line – is quite pleasantly strange. Milligan is at his best as an entertainingly unreliable narrator, and the story, characters, and tone of this piece come together rather nicely.
I include the first and final panels of the issue, on account of just in case:
Hitman is so good that it makes people pause a moment before saying the word “Preacher” after being asked what their favorite Garth Ennis comic is. That being said, the first three issues are just okay. Things really get going with the introduction of Nat the Hat and the 10,000 Bullets storyline.
I’m including this specific issue of the 10,000 Bullets storyline here because looking at it made me realize I had inadvertently adapted (i.e., stolen) the cover copy in the Ookla the Mok song The Wrecking Crew (“I’ll hit you all right. With my fist!”)
This issue was the climax to the first volume of The Invisibles. While there was one more issue, it didn’t feature any of the main characters, and existed mostly to set up volume three – which would have been much less annoying had it been the final issue of volume two.
While much hay has been made over Grant Morrison’s ability to alter reality through his fiction – most famously in Morrison suffering a collapsed lung after writing King Mob’s near death from a collapsed lung in this very issue – there’s not enough talk about how willing Morrison is to write his own life (specifically his dreams and visions) into his work. While having his own near death experience, Morrison was visited by what he referred to as “some sort of gnostic Jesus” who spoke the exact words read on the third and fourth panel below.
This is the sort of stuff I was obsessing about in 1996, in case any of you were wondering.
Issue 37 of Stormwatch was the first issue to feature Warren Ellis as writer. To put it another way: Somehow Stormwatch survived 36 issues before Warren Ellis starting writing it. The early issues are by no means masterpieces, but it’s immediately clear that something different – and perhaps something special – is going on here. Fans of the Authority and its brand of late-twentieth century wide-screen pro-active super-hero action should take note that this is where that whole thing started.
15 Years Ago
Spider-Man’s Tangled Web 4
Traditionally, Spider-Man comics had fairly clear concepts/marching orders: Amazing Spider-Man was the flagship title. Major life events happened here. This is where all the real action took place. Marvel Team-Up was a place for not very important (but, in theory, no less entertaining) stories featuring Spider-Man and at least one other super-hero. Marvel Tales simply reprinted classic issues of Amazing Spider-Man (and thank God for their good work, as without it I would have discovered many classic Spidey adventures much later in life). Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man was (ostensibly) about the man beneath the mask. This is where you learned the names of the three bikini models who shared Peter’s apartment building at 410 Chelsea Street.
The water’s got a bit muddied with Web of Spider-Man. Web replaced Marvel Team-Up but wasn’t a team-up book, and didn’t seem to have any clear purpose other than extracting another seventy-five cents a month from Spidey fans. Then it all went to hell with Todd McFarlane’s “advantageous” Spider-Man in 1990, whose only agenda appeared to be letting Todd do whatever the hell he wanted. (Including his own coloring for one gloriously horrifying issue.)
It wasn’t until Spider-Man’s Tangled Web in 2001 that we got a Spider-Man book with a clear and defining agenda.
The concept of Spider-Man’s Tangled Web was that it would tell stories that focused on the unintended consequences of Spider-Man’s actions. The book launched with a much ballyhooed list of creators, including Garth Ennis and John McCrea on the first three issues and Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo on issues five and six. But it was issue four that stood out, and – at this late date – appears to be the only story from this series with any legs.
Greg Rucka’s “Severance Package” is a pretty straightforward story. Spider-Man foiled yet another of the Kingpin’s operations. It’s a picture we’ve seen before, but never through these eyes:
It’s a brilliant character piece, perfectly illustrated by Eduardo Risso. Our man maintains his composure and professionalism to the very end, which somehow makes the Kingpin even more frightening.
10 Years Ago
All-Star Superman 5
Are you familiar with the theory that Leo Quintum is Lex Luthor from the future? If you read All-Star Superman with that in mind, it’s a hard theory to reject. While there are many visual, character, and plot clues throughout, issue 5’s obsession with the number 5 makes a more subtle case. Quintum is the singular of the latin quintus (five).
Grant Morrison’s insane, meandering, brilliant run on Batman begins this issue. Morrison always asks a lot of his readers, but this storyline was made even more complex by virtue of the fact that it ran over several titles. To fully comprehend Morrison’s Batman novel, you have to read 28 non-sequential issues of Batman, 16 issues of Batman and Robin, 6 issues of the Return of Bruce Wayne, the Batman Returns one-shot, and 22 issues of Batman Incorporated. (And, you’ll probably also want to read Final Crisis, several 1950s issues of Batman – conveniently collected in The Black Casebook – and at least two issues of 52, just to be safe.)
Civil War 3
The early issues of Civil War has pretty dramatic climaxes – issue one ends with perhaps the best set piece of the series (Captain America escaping S.H.I.E.L.D. arrest), issue two ends with Spider-Man voluntarily revealing his identity to the world, and issue four has the shocking death of Goliath. Issue three lacks a similar plot punch, but it does have this:
The best comic book writers are often the most divisive. I love Warren Ellis, but I wouldn’t necessarily push his work on everyone. Even his best work can be an acquired taste. But all comic writers have that one work that you can recommend to anyone, no matter what their specific tastes. Make no mistake; Nextwave is that book for Warren Ellis. It must drive him insane that so few people read this thing.
In my defense I offer three random pages from a random issue.
Still not convinced? I present perhaps the greatest panel in the history of comics:
5 Years Ago
Avengers Academy 16
Generally speaking, Christos Gage doesn’t get nearly enough love, and Avengers Academy was seriously ignored. In one of the rare instances where a big company crossover allowed a series to reach its pinnacle, the students of Avengers Academy are thrust into the middle of the Fear Itself event with not nearly enough training, and the results are predictably horrific for all of the characters. The Avengers Academy series can be divided into “Before Fear Itself,” where we get to know our characters, “Fear Itself,” where we see them put through their paces, and “After Fear Itself,” where we see them trying to pick up the pieces.
Frank Miller’s shadow looms large over Daredevil. In the late seventies, Miller established Daredevil as a dark and gritty urban crime comic. This reimagining was so popular (and influential) that no writer who came after dared change the successful formula. Until nearly 40 years later, when Mark Waid and Chris Samnee pitched returning to Daredevil’s late sixties roots as a goofy superhero about town. Bear in mind that this pitch coincided with the release of the Daredevil television series, which took Miller’s dark interpretation to the extreme.
Marvel editorial’s faith in Waid and Samnee was well founded, as Daredevil quickly became Marvel’s signature title, and that rare mainstream super-hero comic that received universal praise from even the most snooty of comic book critics. Most unexpectedly, Samnee’s classic line and clear storytelling became a sort of house style for Marvel over the last five years, with artists like David Aja, Steve Lieber, and Michael Walsh bringing their talents to Marvel.
Defenders: From the Vaults
The concept behind this one is pretty insane, and – as such – the execution is nothing short of remarkable. Best to let writer Kurt Busiek explain it himself:
If that doesn’t make you curious to read the story… well, then we’re very different people.
Detective Comics 880
While I enjoyed Scott Snyder’s run on Batman, I thought it was a tad overrated. This issue is included only so we can all have another opportunity to look at that amazing cover. Nice one, Jock!
Invincible Iron Man 506
During the Fear Itself crossover event, things got so back that Tony Stark – futurist scientist Tony Stark – was forced to summon Odin. To get Odin’s attention, Stark had to make a sacrifice. Indeed, he had to sacrifice that which was most important to him, which led to the best moment of the entire cross-over.
Ultimate Fallout 1-2
Ultimate Fallout was a series that chronicled the events in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe immediately after the death of Peter Parker. It was written and illustrated by multiple artists, so the series was uneven, but there were two powerful moments. Both were written by Brian Michael Bendis, and both featured May Parker.
The first was a moment of sorrow and hope between May and a girl Peter had saved.
The second a moment of righteous anger, as May shames Steve Rogers and Tony Stark.