Rand Bellavia, of Ookla the Mok fame, returns for another trip down memory lane to look at 40 years of his favorite comics in this months’s Random Access Memory.
Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man 1
As a child, my favorite Spidey book was Marvel Team-Up. Of course I knew Amazing Spider-Man was “better,” but MTU promised a (hopefully unknown to me) guest star to share an adventure with Spidey every month. Sadly, by the time I got the table, the possibility of reading every issue had long gone. In 1976, MTU was nearing issue 50, and a seemingly impossible 150 issues of ASM had come out.
And that is why I thought of Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man as my Spidey comic. It was the first one I could read from the beginning. Sure, it never really reached the heights of Amazing, and it lacks the dazzle of Marvel Team-Up, and – to be honest – I gave up on the notion of reading every issue pretty quickly, but none of that mattered whenever I held issue one in my sweaty pre-adolescent hands.
Amazing Spider-Man 223
One of the primary advantages of being an aging nerd-rock musician is the frequent opportunity to share a stage with musicians who resemble the Red Ghost – and to do so in front of an audience that knows what I’m talking about when I make the comparison.
For reasons I can’t pretend to understood, I cannot hear someone speak the word “Suddenly…” without thinking the phrase “The Super-Apes!” I’ve never really been a fan of the Red Ghost, and this issue never really meant that much to me, but there you have it.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual 15
The second of two Amazing Spider-Man annuals by the writer/artist team of Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller. While both annuals are worth seeking out, this one is much more in Miller’s wheelhouse, pitting Spider-Man against Doctor Octopus, with a significant guest-appearance from The Punisher.
And as great as Miller’s art is here, what I recall most from this annual is a back-up feature, written and illustrated by Mark Gruenwald, titled “Just How Strong is Spider-Man?” This 3-pager stratifies the main characters of the Marvel Universe into the categories of “Super-Heavyweights,” “Heavyweights,” “Super-Mediumweights” (where Spider-Man resides), “Mediumweights,” and “The Rest.” I was still young enough to assume the author spoke with authority on such matters – as if the scientific method was employed.
What If 30
Daredevil Graphic Novel
Like Elektra: Assassin, I don’t think this has aged as well as Frank Miller’s work on the regular Daredevil comic. But Holy Man did I love this when it came out. Looking back, shifting a character’s thoughts from bubbles to boxes doesn’t seem very innovative, but for whatever reason, it seemed much more “adult” to me at the time. The story is fairly forgettable, and Miller is clearly more interested in writing Wilson Fisk and (newly created – and dispatched – character) Victor than Daredevil.
But the real hero here is Bill Sienkiewicz. The painted art is simultaneously more realistic and more abstract than traditional comic art. And imaging the Kingpin’s tiny head and monstrous body as concentric circles is pure genius.
Swamp Thing 55
This issue features Swamp Thing’s funeral, focusing primarily on Abby’s grief – and, since this is an Alan Moore comic, her grief is extremely well-expressed.
In a rather crass attempt at promotion, DC printed up Death Certificates for Swamp Thing and distributed them to comic book stores. I still have mine in a box somewhere.
Swamp Thing’s death at the end of issue 53 was horrific and unexpected. And after two hopeless months with no trace of Swamp Thing, I was genuinely surprised by the final page of issue 55.
It was also a bit annoying to have to wait 30 days to learn what that image might mean.
Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual 2
It was always a good month when you got two Alan Moore comics. This short story is really nothing more than Alan earning the DC-equivalent of a No-Prize by explaining why in the world Abin Sur (the alien who gave Hal Jordan a green lantern ring) was in a spaceship when we all know that flight is the first thing taught in Green Lantern 101.
Years later, in reimagining the entire mythology of the Green Lanterns, Geoff Johns would spin several years of story out of this minor tale. Alan Moore would later cite Johns’ appropriation and reinterpretation of this story as evidence that there are no new ideas in comics. What’s sad about this claim is that Moore first gained popularity in comics through his ability to use existing characters to tell adult stories without violating their previous continuity. In fact, his unique genius was the ability to reframe and reinterpret those older stories through an adult lens that made those innocent stories appear newly adult –often with horrific new implications. (See Swamp Thing’s origin, Marvelman’s early adventures, and this very story.) In order for his critique of contemporary comics to stick, Moore would have to disavow most of the work upon which his own career and reputation is built.
Looking back, I can neither explain nor defend why I collected this series from issue one until its (literally) bloody end at issue 50. It wasn’t terrible, but neither was it particularly good. There are really only three issues a casual reader should bother reading: The Alan Moore / Jim Baikie “Father’s Day” s two-parter in 17 and 18, and this issue.
A big part of the appeal of this issue is the art. I assume the art was a rush job, as neither penciller Denys Cowan nor inker Kyle Baker were regulars on the title, and the art looks very rough. But even the roughest, most rushed art from Cowan and Baker is remarkable. In fact, the raggedness of the art matches the darkness of the story far more than regular artists Tod Smith and Rick Maygar might have.
I believe this is the DC comic that introduced the Charlton Comics character Peacemaker (more famously known as the inspiration for Watchmen’s The Comedian).
I had no previous knowledge of the character, but years of reading Marvel Team-Up had led me to expect a typical super-hero team-up: New Character meets Established Character, mild misunderstanding leads to Super-Hero Fight, misunderstand is resolved, and – undaunted — our Heroes work together to take down the real Bad Guy.
As such, I was completely unprepared when – spoiler warning – the Peacemaker brutally murdered the comic’s titular character.
Not a dream! Not a hoax! Not an imaginary story! That is one dead Vigilante. Sure, by the end of the issue, someone else had taken up the mask and mantle of The Vigilante, but still…
Doom Patrol 48
Our heroes confront The Shadowy Mr. Evans, a riff on Mr. Mxyzptlk, who is dispatched in a hilariously predictable fashion.
I’m certainly not the first person to note that Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol has more interesting ideas per panel than are in most entire comics. As (more) evidence, I offer this page, where one of the characters is dreaming of a more “normal” Doom Patrol – i.e., a stereotypical “Fantastic Four” style super-hero group. In the first and fourth panel, you can see an odd logo – on the ship in panel one and on the costume in panel four. This logo – a circle with a vertical line running through it – is an absolutely genius Doom Patrol logo, as it simultaneously represents the strict binary notions of gender (the male “line” and the female “circle”) and the infinite possibilities symbolized by the numbers 1 and 0, as in binary notation, all numbers can be generated with these two numbers. Brilliantly, the logo image is formed by the joining of a lower case d and p.
Epic Lite 1
Epic Comics – Marvel’s “Adult” imprint – was known to take itself a bit too seriously. So, the slyly named “Epic Lite” was a rather welcomed comedy one-shot. Creators included Hilary Barta, Doug Rice, Mike Kazaleh, and Jim Valentino (doing one of his last Normalman strips). But the big draws for me were Evan Dorkin – debuting The Murder Family, which would become a staple of Dork – and Kyle Baker, whose Al Space strip is the gem of the book.
Al Space was basically a cynical old man who would dress up in a super-hero costume and break children’s hearts by introducing them to the realities of the comic book industry. In this episode, Al confronts a young speculator about his comic book “investment.”
Unsurprisingly, this strip turned out to be rather prophetic, as it appeared about two years before the actual 1993 speculator crash that nearly destroyed the comics industry.
While Sandman was certainly a great comic from the beginning, with at least one killer scene or idea per issue, I didn’t really fall in love with the book conceptually until the third major story arc – Seasons of Mists. The following storyline – A Game of You – begins this issue. Alternating between the “real world” and a fantasy realm known only as “The Land,” we follow Barbie (who was introduced in the second arc – The Doll’s House) as she finds her place in both worlds.
Shawn McManus’ cartoony story is perfect for this story. The various fantasy characters that make up The Land are super-cute, which makes their inevitable deaths so much more brutal.
Ookla fans should note that we did in fact compose a song based on this story arc – cleverly titled “A Game of You.” It was performed a few times in the mid 90s and then placed back on the shelf, where it almost certainly belongs.
Saint of Killers 4
Once it was established that Preacher was going to be a successful comic, Garth Ennis decided to stretch out a bit, and created a series of one-shots to flesh out some of the secondary characters. The Saint of Killers is the only character whose back-story required a four-issue mini-series.
Anyone who watched season one of Preacher will recognize a lot here, as – with the exception of one major plot twist added to the show’s version of events – the Saint of Killer’s origin was transplanted unchanged from the comic to the screen.
Ennis is at his gritty best, and artist Steve Pugh rises to the occasion, bringing an edge and darkness seldom seen in his usually clean artwork.
Savage Dragon 31
God vs. The Devil – with the Savage Dragon in the middle of it all, for some reason. I was never a huge Erik Larsen fan, but I know a good idea when I see one, and – no matter what you think of the man or his work – this issue contains one of the greatest splash pages in the history of comics:
Peter Parker: Spider-Man 35
Paul Jenkins has written two “done-in-one” comics that should be read by every comics fan, and Peter Park: Spider-Man 35 is one of them. (The other is Hellblazer 97, where John Constantine meets YHWH.)
This is a story of a child named LaFronce and his friendship with Spider-Man. LaFronce is having a tough time at home and in school, and regular visits and advice from Spider-Man are all that keep him going.
Using the old-school parlance, this is an “imaginary story,” which is to say, this story isn’t canon. Technically, it may be canon in that there is a character in the 616 Universe named LaFronce, but he almost certainly has never met Spider-Man.
That last image is made even more powerful when one remembers that this issue came out a full decade before Miles Morales was introduced.
Ultimate Spider-Man 13
Ten years before Miles donned the Ultimate Spider-Man costume, young Peter Parker told his best-friend Mary Jane Watson that he was Spider-Man. And who could blame him?
The entire issue takes place in Peter’s bedroom, and most of it is the conversation between Peter and Mary Jane that we’ve all been wanting to read since 1966.
It’s no secret that Brian Michael Bendis is better at scripting than plotting. This isn’t a knock against his plotting so much as high praise for his dialogue. And Mark Bagley gives a seminar in facial expression, taking what could have been a very boring penciling assignment and producing one of the highlights of his career.
Toward the end of the issue, Mary Jane has to leave, and the remainder of the issue shows a shorter – and much more uncomfortable, though no less entertaining – conversation between Peter and his Aunt May.
All-Star Superman 6
The loss of his father cast a large shadow over Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, nowhere more obviously than this issue.
Taken good advantage of a world where super-powers, time travel, and a guaranteed happy ending are par for the course, Morrison gives Clark Kent the final conversation with his father he had previously been denied. He also takes the time to remind us that Superman’s greatest power is his innate goodness, as taught to him by his earth parents.
Animal Man 1
The unexpected hit of the New 52, Animal Man also solidified the shift in Jeff Lemire’s status from indy darling storyteller to popular super-hero writer.
In the early nineties, several Karen Berger-edited DC titles had followed Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing down the “Sophisticated Suspense” rabbit-hole. These titles – Sandman, Hellblazer, Shade the Changing Man, Doom Patrol, and Animal Man – had, along with Swamp Thing, gained a devoted “mature” audience, but the books were still hanging out in the “all ages” ghetto. Enter Vertigo: A pretty good solution to a made-up problem.
Twenty years later the DC Universe did a 180, using the New 52 reboot to reclaim those six properties, freeing up Vertigo to publish the wildly successful New Deadwardians, Saucer Country, and Dominique Laveau: Voodoo Child (#sarcasm).
Interestingly, the New 52 Swamp Thing and Animal Man reentered the proper DC Universe with their horror trappings intact. In fact, if anything, Animal Man was more horrific than it ever was as a Vertigo title.
This was due as much to Travel Foreman’s offbeat pencils as it was to Lemire’s eerie script.
Spoiler Warning: Avoid this book if you’d prefer not to see a four year old child resurrect an entire pet cemetery.
Avengers Academy 19
Following Fear Itself, where the members of Avengers Academy found themselves in a literal war zone, Veil shocks the comic book reading public by responding to her circumstances like an actual living human might:
A delightful children’s story – or the closest Eric Powell is likely to get to a delightful children’s story. The story takes place at a failing circus, where a bearded girl named Lula obtains a giant egg that hatches into a new friend she dubs Chimichanga.
Convinced Chimichanga can save the circus, Lula trains him.
In a neat little twist, the jealously of the adult circus performers overpowers their desire to save the circus.
The ending seems a bit abrupt, but you’ll be happy to know that Lula and Chimichanga’s adventures will continue in a new series debuting in a matter of weeks!
New Avengers 16
Remember what I said above about Brian Michael Bendis being a better scripter than plotter? Well, in an idea that must have started as a bet, Bendis decided to write the Avengers and New Avengers issues of the Fear Itself cross-over as oral history. That’s right. Bendis was writing Marvel’s flagship titles during their big summer cross-over, and he devoted all eight issues to images of the team talking to a camera. And – of course – it works.
Long before you knew his name, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn wrote the screenplay for a charming little super-hero comedy called The Specials. The film features Rob Lowe, Thomas Haden-Church, Paget Brewster, Jamie Kennedy, Judy Greer, and James Gunn himself, all as super-heroes – who spend the entire movie in their super-hero costumes, sitting around talking. When asked what led him to write such a script, Gunn said that after viewing My Dinner with Andre for the first time, he found himself thinking, “You know what would have made that movie a lot better? If they were wearing super-hero costumes.”
Bendis gets that, sure, we love these characters because of their awesome super-powers, but we also love these characters because… well, they’re characters. Bendis knows these people – what makes them tick and what makes us care enough to come back month after month. What makes them heroes and what makes them worthy.