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Random Access Memory: December 2016

IT’S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE! Rand is back to share his fond memories of decades of comic collecting and reading in this month’s Random Access Memory.

Author’s Note: Random Access Memory is me looking back at the specific comics that shaped my life. Each month I go back in time – in five year intervals – to examine key comics that came out those months. (The idea is that after five years of monthly columns, I will have covered an entire lifetime – in this case, fifty years – of reading comics.) I also list all the comics I read that particular month. This will afford readers the opportunity to chastise me for not reading specific comics, and/or laugh at the horrible, horrible choices I made in the past.

December 1976

Amazing Spider-Man 166

Like many things associated with the holiday season, this comic provided me with lasting memories of both joy and sadness.

Stegron’s pitiful slide into an icy grave is made even more tragic by Spidey’s complete lack of awareness. As a child, the loss of Stegron made me sad, but what made the scene cross over into poignancy was the knowledge that Spidey had come so very close to saving Stegron. This was a secret I was given, and it was my duty to keep Spider-Man from ever knowing, as the guilt would surely destroy him.

As if to drive that point home, the final panel of the comic demonstrated just how blissfully ignorant Spidey was. And this remains my favorite Christmas-related comic book panel.

Incredible Hulk 209

My first exposure to Crusher Creel, the Absorbing Man – one of the many villains my band Ookla the Mok paid tribute to on the “vs. Evil” album.

Cover art by Art “Aw Yeah!” Baltazar

If you don’t know, Absorbing Man’s power-set allows him to become whatever he touches. It’s a simple idea, but I loved this issue’s notion of having him casually reaching up to grab a random piece of wood or steel from a cascading skyscraper, only to grasp a piece of glass.

Thor 257

An issue with an obvious – but sadly, still necessary – lesson, as Thor and the Warriors Three fought against the “evil” Sporr, who had captured Lady Sif and several others the previous issue.

“Well, it’s large and unpleasant to look at, so it must be evil, right?”

After defeating – and needlessly butchering – Sporr in battle, Thor puts his hammer down long enough to learn the truth.

Other Comics I Read From December 1976

  • Avengers 157
  • Captain America 207
  • Eternals 9

December 1981

Captain America 267

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, and even more sure I’ll say it again, but an alarming amount of my political beliefs were shaped by J. M. DeMatteis’ run on Captain America. Reasonably enough, he presented Cap as a Roosevelt-era liberal – always looking for the best in people, but grimly prepared to deal with the worst in people. This issue finds him battling a populist hero named – fittingly enough – Everyman.

DeMatteis’ Cap was prone to giving speeches, and even his thought balloons appeared to have gone through several drafts.

Significantly, Cap continues to struggle with his own beliefs, even as he stands up for what he knows is right. His willingness to consider the differing views of those he encounters in his day-to-day life is a huge part of what makes him heroic. DeMatteis’ Captain America understands that if you have a functioning moral compass then you need not fear exposing yourself to views you don’t agree with or understand.

In his quest to confront Everyman, Cap encounters some of the marginalized (i.e., poor, minority, female) people who were seduced by Everyman’s rhetoric. And it is so important that he immediately alters his goals from “defeating Everyman” to “saving these lost, misguided souls.”

And of course this isn’t “realistic.” But what are you doing looking for realism in a Captain America comic book? Like all super-heroes, Cap is supposed to be a metaphor for the best we can be. DeMatteis’ Cap was prescriptive storytelling, and I am glad to say that I grew up with a willingness to enact the heart of what I saw in these comics in the real world.

Daredevil 181

For most early 80s comics fans, if it wasn’t Uncanny X-Men 136, it was Daredevil 181. Sure he was a one-note character, but I still didn’t think they’d let Frank Miller kill Bullseye. Neither did I expect him to off Elektra. Honestly, I just assumed it was another example of overly-zealous cover copy and dove in.

These have become two of the most iconic pages of the Bronze Age. Perfectly laid out, penciled, inked, and colored. And, as overwritten as most comics were at this time, seeing seventeen panels spread over two pages with only one word of dialog was revelatory – and wildly influential – comic book storytelling.

Other Comics I Read from December 1981

  • Amazing Spider-Man 226
  • Avengers 217
  • Cerebus 33
  • Ka-Zar 13
  • Marvel Fanfare 1
  • Marvel Team-Up 115
  • Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man 64
  • Uncanny X-Men 155

December 1986

Avengers 277

Under Siege – probably the most memorable tale from Roger Stern’s 60+ issue Avengers run, and a storyline toward the top of many “Best Avengers Stories” lists – ends here. With Under Siege Stern created the bones of what has become the classic 21st century Marvel multi-issue storyline: Villains coming into power and threatening heroes in the first act, seemingly defeating our heroes in the second act, only to find themselves undone early in the third act, leaving time at the end for our heroes to consider and discuss what they have gone through.

Having the normally stoic Captain America break down like this provided a more powerful coda than a needless character death or last-minute plot twist would have. And a young Brian Michael Bendis was certainly paying attention.

Batman 405

Issue two of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s Batman masterpiece, perhaps most notable for having Batman – a character too often portrayed as a rich white guy who spends his free time beating up on poor brown people – turn his attention toward the 1%.

Legends 5

Time hasn’t been kind to the Legends mini-series. While many of the things it set in motion led to some important and memorable comics – Bwa-ha-ha Justice League, I’m looking at you – the series itself is pretty forgettable. Except, that is, for my personal favorite piece of comic book spite.

Artist John Byrne was never quiet about his hatred for writer/editor Jim Shooter, but his most obvious expression of loathing and animosity can be found in issue 5 of Legends, when Guy Gardner fights a new villain named Sunspot.

Things to know:

Sunspot looks an awful lot like Jim Shooter.

Many people – John Byrne chief among them – felt that when Shooter became Editor-in-Chief at Marvel the power went straight to his head.

Shooter’s last major initiative at Marvel as Editor-in-Chief was – literally – the creation of a “New Universe.” This attempt to create a second Marvel Universe – but with Jim Shooter’s name replacing Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko’s – was a rather famous failure.

Sunspot using his newly discovered powers to shoot himself in the foot may be a metaphor of some sort.

Moonshadow 12

Moonshadow is J. M. DeMatteis’ masterpiece, and one of the most criminally underrated comics of all time. Fully painted by Jon J. Muth (with the assistance of Kent Williams and George Pratt), Moonshadow is a science fiction bildungsroman that is as beautifully written as it is illustrated.

It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s smart. It’s spiritual. And, it’s amazing to me that a book so important and original – issue four boasted letters from both Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury – could be so totally forgotten today. The trade collection has been out of print for over 15 years, and the issues have yet to be made available digitally.

Throughout the story, the narrator promises (at the very least, a reasonably explanation of his own) enlightenment, and – perplexingly – the final issue ends with some words about the failure of language, and then nine pages of wordless images.

One would have to assume that other readers were as bewildered as I was, as the trade collection of the series included a new three page coda. Other tweaks included the addition of new text to pages 14 and 21, and the replacement of page 20 with entirely new art – as well as additional text.

original issue on the left, trade collection on the right

The last nine pages, however, remained wordless.

In 1994 the series was republished by DC’s Vertigo imprint. And DeMatteis saw fit to tweak the final issue once again, bowing to what must have been formidable pressure, and adding text to the mysterious nine pages.

1986 issue on the left, 1994 issue on the right

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention that one of the stranger connections I have to Moonshadow is that the main character bears an uncanny resemblance to my younger brother.

Other Comics I Read from December 1986

  • Action Comics 586
  • Adventures of Superman 426
  • Alien Encounters 10
  • Amazing Spider-Man 286, 287
  • American Flagg 39
  • Cerebus 93
  • Classic X-Men 7
  • Demon 3
  • Elektra: Assassin 6
  • Fantastic Four vs. the X-Men 2, 3
  • Fury of Firestorm 57
  • Grendel 3
  • Ironwolf 1
  • Justice League of America 260
  • Luger 2
  • Mage 15
  • Marvel Fanfare 31
  • Question 2
  • Scout 14
  • Superman 3
  • Swamp Thing 58
  • Vigilante 39
  • Watchmen 7
  • X-Men vs. the Avengers 1

December 1991

Doom Patrol 51

The cover of this issue – introducing a suspiciously Question/Rorschach-looking character named Yankee Doodle – was, believe it or not, illustrated in 1964. The cover was commissioned for Showcase 50, but only the cover was ever completed. Not one to back away from a challenge, Grant Morrison saw the cover and decided to incorporate the character into Doom Patrol. With nothing else to go by (the cover copy appears exactly as it did on the original cover) Morrison set to work.

Ostensibly, John “Yankee Doodle” Dandy is a hero in both construction and execution. But, the mechanics of the story conspire to cause both the reader and the characters to question just who the good guys are.

I mean, it’s kind of hard not to root for these “bad guys,” isn’t it?

Meanwhile, deep within the Pentagon:

Hellblazer 50

A double-sized, character-defining issue, where John Constantine is confronted by the King of the Vampires, who offers him immortality if he will agree to be his servant. John’s reply is pure Constantine.

The King of the Vampires offers one more challenge, affording Constantine a glorious opportunity to twist the knife.

Incredible Hulk 390

The cover image – of the Hulk firing a gun – was a disappointing one. Inappropriate, sensationalistic, and – given his power set – wildly unnecessary, to the point of being silly. But then all is redeemed by a single splash page.

The line is great. The bunny slippers are better.

Shade the Changing Man 20

The beginning of The Road, my favorite Shade storyline, and Jamie Hewlett continues his string of aggressively ugly covers. Most of the issue is set up, as the proper storyline begins next issue.

And speaking of set ups:

Kathy and Lenny spend a relaxing afternoon failing the Bechdel test, but ten pages later we get a delightful call back.

What If 34

The 34th issue of the original volume of What If was known as the “humor issue.” It was a series of very silly premises, often executed by the writers and artists most associated with the characters involved. I was 13 years old when it came out, and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever read.

Nearly a decade later, issue 34 of the second volume of What If offered a second humor issue. I wasn’t collecting the book at the time, but picked this issue up with expectations that were, sad to say, not met. My memory is that the book was written and illustrated by no one I had ever heard of, and the entire issue was utterly devoid of what we humans refer to as humor. While I could recount – for an alarmingly long time – just about every joke from the original What If humor issue, the only thing I can recall from this second humor issue is a punishingly long bit about the Watcher becoming Elvis. Or maybe Elvis becomes the Watcher?

[Side note: Looking online I see that the Watcher/Elvis piece was written by a very young Scott Gimple, a personal friend of mine who some of you may know as the showrunner of the Walking Dead. So, I guess I need to get ahold of this thing and give it another read.]

Other Comics I Read from December 1991

  • Animal Man 44
  • Badlands 6
  • Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children 24
  • Cerebus 153
  • Concrete: Fragile Creature 4
  • Detective Comics 640
  • Sandman 35
  • Swamp Thing 116
  • X-Factor 75

December 1996

Invisibles 1

The beginning of volume two of the Invisibles. This was to become known as the “American” volume, referring not only to the fact that our cast has relocated to the United States, but also that the storytelling adjusted accordingly – with slicker artwork and a bit of the old ultra-violence.

The storytelling may have become a bit easier to follow, but the never-ending stream of amazing/batshit crazy ideas kept flowing.

Another huge change between volumes one and two was Grant Morrison’s treatment of King Mob. Originally creating the comic as a massive spell, Morrison shaved his head and changed his style of dress before the book came out, in an effort to mimic – and align himself with – his character King Mob. But this may have worked too well. As the final issues of volume one came out – and King Mob was shot in the chest, causing a pneumothorax – Morrison took ill and suffered (among other physical problems eerily similar to King Mob) a collapsed lung. Not being stupid, Morrison opened volume two with King Mob in top physical condition and having vigorous, regular sexual congress with a preposterously hot redhead.

Preacher 22

This issue features one of Jesse Custer’s most powerful character moments. Having traveled around the world to rescue his friend Cassidy from the Grail, Jesse learns that they have Cassidy at their mercy – having figured out that Cassidy is a vampire, they threaten that they “can arrange to have him meet the dawn.”

During their negotiations, the leader of the Grail insults Jesse’s father. His response is one of the many moments where Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon combine to produce a perfect comic book page.

Other Comics I Read from December 1996

  • Aztek 7
  • Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 91
  • Batman: The Long Halloween 3
  • The Black Lamb 4
  • Cerebus 213
  • Flash 122
  • Hellblazer 110
  • Hitman 11
  • JLA 2
  • Seekers: Into the Mystery 13
  • Shadowman 2
  • Spectacular Spider-Man 243
  • Starman 27
  • Stormwatch 43
  • Untold Tales of Spider-Man 18

December 2001

Amazing Spider-Man 38

After all this time, this was the issue.

After much hemming and hawing, Peter does finally come clean. And May really lets him have it. And not for scaring her, or for risking his life, but for not thinking she was strong enough to trust with this secret.

Then, after hearing Peter’s tale of guilt and woe, May reveals that she has a confession of her own. That fateful night, while Peter was out being Spider-Man, May and Ben had a fight.

The entire conversation – especially the revelation that for all these years both Peter and May had been needlessly carrying the full burden of guilt over Ben’s death – was extremely well executed, and almost makes up for Marvel bringing May back after the perfect death scene J. M. DeMatteis gave her back in ASM 400.

Dark Knight Strikes Again 1

Hoo boy. This hot mess. And I can’t even say I was expecting much when I picked this up. I enjoyed Sin City and 300, but something about the interviews Frank Miller gave in advance of this book let me know it wasn’t going to be the sequel that fans of The Dark Knight Returns were looking for.

Yes, the story is problematic, but who can talk about that when the art is so mesmerizing in its insanity.

And it’s not just her shoes. Check out those cops in silhouette – their feet (and guns, don’t forget the guns) are also three times larger than they should be. And of course he’s doing it on purpose. It’s not bad art, it’s cartoony art. And Miller does a fine job of pointing out that for most turn of the century adult fans of super-hero comics, cartoony art equaled bad art.

But, more surprising (for me, at least) was the coloring of Lynn Varley. Varley is a master colorist, and this book looks like someone poured Skittles onto the pages and banged them with a hammer.

Now, let’s put it all together: Hands three times larger than a human head. Check. Skittles and hammer. Check.

New X-Men 121

This issue was part of Marvel’s line wide “Nuff Said” month, where every issue lacked dialog and text boxes. Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly deal with this challenge by having most of the issue take place inside Professor X’s head, where Jean Grey and Emma Frost are visiting. So, you get fantastic pages like this:

This images communicate the inner workings of Professor X’s brain and memory, ultimately revealing important information regarding his relationship with then current X-villain Cassandra Nova. And, in case the art was less than clear, the issue ends with a tiny bit of expository dialog, and a pretty good pun.

Ultimate Marvel Team-Up 11

Peter and his friends go to the mall, and bump into the Ultimate X-Men. And nothing happens.

Yet again, Brian Michael Bendis demonstrates his skill with dialogue, making what should be a fairly boring issue of Marvel Team-Up into something very much worth reading.

Eventually the conversation turns a bit grim.

Other Comics I Read from December 2001

  • 100 Bullets 31
  • Alias 4
  • Authority 27
  • Avengers 49
  • Avengers: Celestial Quest 4
  • Batman 598
  • Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 150
  • Captain America 50
  • Catwoman 2
  • Daredevil 28
  • Detective Comics 765
  • Eightball 22
  • Elektra 6
  • Flash 181
  • Four Women 3
  • Fury 4
  • Green Arrow 11
  • Hate Annual 2
  • Hellblazer 169
  • Incredible Hulk 35
  • JLA: Incarnations 7
  • JSA 31
  • Lucifer 21
  • Midnight Nation 9
  • Moment of Silence
  • Promethea 18
  • Punisher 7
  • Spider-Man’s Tangled Web 9
  • Star Wars Tales 10
  • Ultimate Spider-Man 16
  • Ultimate X-Men 13
  • War Stories: Nightingale
  • X-Force 123

December 2006

Iron Man/Captain America: Civil War: Casualties of War

Insanely, if you were to read all 98 issues of the Civil War cross-over in order, you’d have to muddle through a staggering 74 comics before Captain America and Iron Man have a real conversation about the Registration Act. The overly-dramatically-titled Iron Man/Captain America: Civil War: Casualties of War finally delivers on this conversation, and it’s worth the wait. Both men are written in character, their motivations aren’t plot-driven, and they respond emotionally to each other as you would expect old friends to. Importantly, it does a great job of presenting both men’s arguments without seeming to come down on one side.

And it’s also some serious continuity-porn, as there are visual and verbal references to all sorts of Avengers history throughout the issue.

This was the first comic I read by Christos Gage, and it impressed me enough to seek out his other work, which did not disappoint.

Nextwave 11

Nextwave is the sort of comic you either get (and adore) or don’t get (and ignore). Sadly, there weren’t enough in the former category to sustain the book beyond 12 issues. I suspect that if it came out today, it would be a lot more popular.

Monica Rambeau’s gritty pronouncement is followed by six (yes, six!) double-page spreads in a row. Here are my two favorites.

You must buy six copies of this comic now.

Elvis MODOK! Machine Man Scissorhands! Naked Ninjas Getting Kicked in the Nards! Iron Babies!

Nextwave should only be taken in 100 mg doses and never through the urethra.

Snake Planes! Chimp Wolverines! Giant Gorilla Wolverine!

Ultimates 2 13

The big action climax of Ultimates 2 takes place in issue 12. This is more of an epilogue/wrap-up issue, allowing some time to tie up loose character ends. As such, there’s nothing “kick ass” about this issue. But – and I really wish someone would find a way to communicate this message to Mark Millar – it’s these sincere, quiet moments that makes his work worth reading.

The first volume of Ultimates dedicated its entire first issue to Captain America’s backstory, climaxing with his descent into suspended animation, paired with Steve’s heartbreaking final letter to his girlfriend Gail. Fittingly, Ultimates 2 ends with their last moments together.

Other Comics I Read from December 2006

  • 100 Bullets 79
  • 52 31-34
  • Action Comics 846
  • All-Star Superman 7
  • American Virgin 10
  • Astonishing X-Men 20
  • Astro City: The Dark Age Book II 3
  • Authority 2
  • Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes II 2
  • Bakers Meet Jingle Belle
  • Batman: Confidential 1
  • The Boys 6
  • Bullet Points 2
  • Casanova 7
  • Criminal 3
  • Crossing Midnight 2
  • Daredevil 92
  • Desolation Jones 8
  • Detective Comics 826
  • DMZ 14
  • Ex Machina 26
  • Green Lantern 16
  • Hellblazer 227
  • Iron Fist 2
  • Incredible Hulk 101
  • Invincible 39
  • JSA 1
  • Loveless 14
  • Man Called Kev 5
  • Midnighter 2
  • New Avengers: Illuminati 1
  • Nightly News 2
  • Other Side 3
  • Phonogram 5
  • Punisher 42
  • Punisher War Journal 2
  • Runaways 23
  • She-Hulk 14
  • Stormwatch PHD 2
  • Teen Titans 42
  • Testament 13
  • True Story Swear to God 3
  • Ultimate Fantastic Four 37
  • Ultimate Power 3
  • Ultimate Spider-Man 103
  • Uncanny X-Men 481
  • Union Jack 4
  • Walking Dead 35
  • Winter Soldier: Winter Kills
  • Wonder Man 1
  • X-Factor 14
  • Y: The Last Man 52

December 2011

Batman Incorporated: Leviathan Strikes

DC’s New 52 was touted as a full-line reboot, but that wasn’t really true. Two of the properties that DC thought were working just fine – Geoff John’s Green Lantern and Grant Morrison’s Batman – were given a pass. Personally, I was glad that they allowed Morrison to finish his multi-year, multi-title Batman run, but it did make Batman continuity coming out of Flashpoint and into the New 52 pretty much impossible to understand.

Another problem was that Batman, Incorporated was still mid-story at the moment when the New 52 launched. So, rather than have the last two issues limp out in conjunction with the relaunch, they waiting until month four and released them as the Leviathan Strikes “special.”

This being a double-sized Grant Morrison Batman comic, there’s an awful lot here to digest, and it’s certainly been annotated much better than I ever could elsewhere online. Here are a few favorite moments:

I love this panel, with two Batmans and (technically) three Robins. Chris Burnham’s layout/illustration is perfect, and the fact that the Batmen are in full-on detective mode, while the Robins are more interested in discussing Batman’s personal life is hilarious.

My favorite page from the book. It’s the comic book equivalent of translating something from English into Japanese and then back into English – Batman filtered through Warhol and Lichtenstein, filtered back into Batman, and colored by Richard Avedon. And Burnham also managed to pack in visual references to both Batman Year One and the Dark Knight Returns.

Other Comics I Read from December 2011

  • Action Comics 4
  • Activity 1
  • Amazing Spider-Man 675, 676
  • American Vampire 22
  • Animal Man 4
  • Aquaman 4
  • Astonishing X-Men 45
  • Avengers 20
  • Avengers Academy 23
  • Avenging Spider-Man 2
  • Batman 4
  • Batman and Robin 4
  • Captain America 5, 6
  • Captain America and Bucky 625
  • Chew 22
  • Daredevil 7
  • Dark Horse Presents 7
  • Deadpool Max II 3
  • Defenders 1
  • DMZ 72
  • Fantastic Four 601
  • FF 13
  • Frankenstein: Agent of SHADE 4
  • Goon 37
  • Green Lantern 4
  • Green Lantern Corps 4
  • Green Wake 8
  • Grifter 4
  • Hellblazer 286
  • Hellblazer Annual 1
  • Hulk 3
  • Invincible 86
  • Invincible Iron Man 511
  • Journey into Mystery 632
  • Justice League 4
  • Justice League Dark 4
  • Kick Ass II 6
  • New Avengers 9
  • Northlanders 47
  • Punisher 6
  • Punisher Max 20
  • SHIELD 4
  • Scalped 55
  • Secret Avengers 20
  • Six Guns 3
  • Swamp Thing 4
  • Sweet Tooth 28
  • Ultimate Comics Ultimates 5
  • Uncanny X-Men 3
  • Walking Dead 92
  • Wolverine 20
  • Wolverine and the X-Men 3
  • Wonder Woman 4
  • X-Factor 228, 229

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The Author

Rand Bellavia

Rand Bellavia

Rand Bellavia is half of the Filk Pop Nerd Rock band Ookla the Mok. They’ve been playing at science fiction and comic book conventions since 1994. Their clever, media-savvy lyrics, catchy melodies, and accessible power-pop sound have made them a cult-sensation with nerds everywhere. With song titles like Super Powers, Welcome to the Con, Arthur Curry, Kang the Conqueror, and Stop Talking About Comic Books or I’ll Kill You, it’s easy to see why.

Rand and Ookla the Mok have won four Pegasus Awards, and the 2014 Logan Award for Outstanding Original Comedy Song. Ookla the Mok had the most requested song on Dr. Demento in 2012 (“Tantric Yoda”) and 2013 (“Mwahaha”). Rand co-wrote the theme song for the Disney cartoon Fillmore, and his vocals are the first thing you hear on Gym Class Heroes’ Top Five hit “Cupid’s Chokehold.”

In his secret identity, Rand is the Director of the Montante Library at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. He has lectured and presented at international conferences on the subject of comics and libraries, and whatever your favorite subject is, he probably knows more about that than you do.

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