Archive for the ‘way back machine’ Category
Geez, all these posts I’ve made and I’ve never gotten around to talking at length about how incredibly cool Ross Andru was. Alongside Herb Trimpe, he was one of the earliest artists that turned me onto comics. Like Herb on the Hulk, he illustrated the exploits of my favorite character for the better part of a decade during what may have been the peak of the series’ popularity (someone check the sales figures and let me know if I’m right or not), defining Marvel’s flagship character for an entire generation of readers like me. First with Gerry Conway then Len Wein, he helped guide the series from the full spectrum of urban gothic clone sagas and Punisher debuts to goofy 1970’s Rocket Racer origins and giant dinosaur battles, keeping them all grounded in a world I could relate to.
While I’m skipping around my long boxes, I usually try to avoid repeating creators or series’ as much as possible, but we’re in for some repeats over the next couple posts. I hope no one will object if two posts regarding Neal Adams appear in a row, and if someone does, what the hell is the matter with you?
Amazing Adventures #8
This one I waited too long to post about. I have several issues from this series and have always had it on the back burner to write about, taking the opportunity to chastise Marvel for not getting around to reprinting this series since it first appeared in 1971. Seriously, if you had a multi-part story lying around that was started by Jack Kirby and handed off to Neal Adams, would you wait 38 years to collect it into a single volume? Who’s been asleep at the wheel all this time? I picked up another issue at MidOhio and decided to finally get around to writing that post, only to discover that coincidentally a Masterworks edition including this very series is being released later this month. So at the risk of doing something nice for corporate Marvel, let me finally get this one out of the way and recommend that Masterworks to everyone. They’re still idiots for sitting on this one for so long, though.
Good lord, MidOhio Con was good to me this year– at least from a buyer’s perspective. I left Bell, Book & Comic’s table with enough goodies to keep the WBM going until Gem City rolls around next year and I can visit them again to replenish my supply. We’ll start with the issue that is the standout from the huge pile I have to read through: A Ka-Zar appearance by Roy Thomas and John Buscema with all sorts of surprise appearances.
A couple of federal agents have recruited Ka-Zar (wearing the dockers he favors when visiting civilization) to help track down a scientist who has disappeared in the Florida everglades. A group of researchers had isolated themselves in the swamps to focus on their work: the recreation of the super soldier serum that gave birth to Captain America a few decades before. Just a few weeks ago, lead scientist Ted Sallis went missing when agents of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) attempted to raid the compound to steal their research. The feds hope to find Sallis alive before he is captured by the spy organization.
This is where a very pleasant surprise appears in this issue. As everybody better already know, Ted Sallis escaped his A.I.M. pursuers by injecting himself with the prototype super soldier serum and crashing his car into the bog, where the chemicals interacted with the strange environment to transform him into the Man-Thing. This is Manny’s first color comic appearance; he first appeared with Conan the Barbarian in the b & w mag Savage Tales for all of one issue. A second story by Len Wein and Neal Adams was prepared but never saw print until it was integrated into this very Ka-Zar adventure. So it is that I discovered a happy interlude with Neal Adams illustrating my favorite Marvel b-lister, written by Len Wein months before the arrival of Swamp Thing #1 (adding to the layers of coincidence surrounding the two characters, his roommate Gerry Conway had written that Savage Tales story months before that).
In the Man-Thing flashback, A.I.M. agents have riled up the superstitious locals into believing the old woman leading the group of researchers is actually a witch, a charge made plausible in their minds by the recent monster sightings in the area. During an encounter with the angry mob, the woman is shot before the Man-Thing’s very eyes just as she has put two and two together and figured out who the mute monster really is. Now he hovers nearby as his only hope for regaining his humanity lies on her deathbed.
Even next to Neal Adams’ amazing work, I’m impressed by how well Buscema’s pages stand out. Tastes being relative, my ideal for comic illustration is to convey as much information as simply as possible, and John Buscema is the paradigm. Even more than Kirby, his work defined Marvel’s “house style” for decades. His simple lines carry a tremendous amount of power; you can practically feel the weight of the jungle lord as he slams into that hapless A.I.M. goon, and Ka-Zar’s crouched form in the next panel is bursting with energy. This is what us old-timers once called drawing comics “the Marvel way.”
For today’s post, let’s dip back to a simpler time and pick up a comic geared just for children that won’t challenge our preconceptions; something shallow, purely juvenile, that doesn’t make any attempt to provoke thought. We’ll return to the simpler days of 1971, where we find…
I have a dirty little secret. Like a Republican senator railing about the sanctity of marriage, I harbor a secret love in my heart that until now I have been unable or unwilling to give voice to for fear of exposing my own hypocrisy and secret, terrible shame.
I really, really enjoyed Steve Englehart’s late 1980’s tenure on the Fantastic Four.
That’s right… at the same time the once-mighty scribe was driving the train called West Coast Avengers off the tracks, I actually took out a subscription to the FF title he was writing so I could be spared the embarrassment of slipping each new issue into the middle of my stack of books as I approached the register at Central City’s east side location.
It was a dark time for the FF, coming during the era in which Marvel dictated across the board cosmetic changes to all their non-mutant core titles– black costumes, Grey Hulks, goofy yellow and blue armored Thunder Gods… The FF got saddled with turning the Thing into a talking pineapple and replacing Reed and Sue Richards in their membership with the Inhumans’ Crystal (not necessarily a bad idea) and a She-Thing (THAT was a bad idea), all under the umbrella of Englehart’s relentlessly goofy plots. What did the book have going for it? Well, Ron Frenz was supplying some beautiful Kirby-Klone covers that pretty much sold the book (he was doing the same for Thor and Captain America at the time), and something about the interior artwork appealed to me. My former arch-nemesis Keith Pollard provided some “poor man’s Buscema”-style layouts, while inker Romeo Thangal and colorist George Roussos both took a light approach to their respective crafts that gave the art a very crisp look. Plus, there were Englehart’s relentlessly goofy plots…
So it is that I owe Dara an apology for the scorn I have so frequently heaped upon his own fondly remembered and much-maligned WCA series. I’ll probably continue to do it in the future, though.
Tony has his Geo-Force, but I’ve got Machine Man…
There are great cosmic mysteries that baffle our minds, from the secrets of Stonehenge to male nipples, but none are so puzzling as the D-list status of Aaron Stack, aka X-51, aka Machine Man. Birthed in a premise taken from a Clarke & Kubrick movie masterpiece, translated onto the page and injected into the regular Marvel universe by Jack Kirby, picked up by Steve Ditko before being passed on to the hands of Barry Windsor-Smith; in terms of pedigree alone, Machine Man has enough going for him to make him ten times as popular as Wolverine, yet somehow he has been relegated to the sidelines, a blip on the radar less impressive than a third string Defender. In an ordered, sane universe, the character would occupy the center of our cultural consciousness. Instead, he has as much credibility as a prototype Inspector Gadget. Go figure.
It’s a new Friday the 13th, only instead of the Knights Templar being put to the sword by the Vatican, it has been decreed that the new X-series robot, built for deep space exploration, must be destroyed en masse by the U.S. military. Like their predecessor the HAL 9000, these mechanical men have developed a rudimentary sentience, which leads to psychosis brought on by existential angst. The first fifty robots perish when their self-destruct mechanisms are triggered, but X-51 has bigger things in store for him.
Not dipping as far back this time, and revisiting a run I’ve previously posted on: the DeFalco/Frenz Thor series that followed the Simonson issues I got into too late. I recently dug through a pile of these to loan a sampling of this Lee/Kirby homage to Matt and got the notion to dust off this particular issue along the way. This title was one of a handful that kept getting better while everything around it went to hell in the late 80’s/early 90’s, so this run remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.
An odd appeal to me from this era as well: we’ve all heard of the nostalgic “feel” of old comics– the smell of those old pages when you crack open a back issue. For me, the books from this time carry that effect the heaviest. Silly as it sounds, whatever combination of paper weight, cover stock, and ink they were using around this time made the biggest tactile impression on me of any books I’ve ever bought new off the rack. It’s a pleasure opening most Marvel or DC books from this time period (I would have plucked this one from the shelf of Central City’s east side location in December of 1987, don’t ask how I know off the top of my head) for that effect alone, and I miss whatever combination of materials they were using at the time.
Things soon go sour, though, especially when Thor is separated from his hammer and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of his enemies. The thunder god is on the ropes, and a squad of super-beings bears down on Cap…
That was so cool the first time I turned the page and found that surprising splash, and it has the benefit of making perfect sense. The magic behind Mjolnir isn’t that only Thor can lift it, but only those as noble and virtuous as the norse warrior god can (check out the inscription on the side of the hammer as seen in Journey Into Mystery #83 if you don’t believe it); if Captain America doesn’t fit that bill, who the heck does? Our heroes rally, and Thor delivers one of those brutal one-sided villain thrashings I dearly love to see, paraphrasing Shakespeare as he deals the knockout blow. We’re treated to a touching farewell scene as Thor is reassured by his newfound kinship with Cap that his friend’s honor remains intact– and Iron Man must be a dick.
Hot damn, here’s another new favorite thanks to an impulse buy at Gem City a couple weeks ago:
Let’s ponder the cover for a little while before moving to the interior pages. That’s obviously a John Romita drawing, yet done in a strange Kirbyesque fashion. Could this have been derived from an unused Kirby layout? Was Marvel trying to “Kirby up” the look of some of their covers since the King had defected to DC? Was Jazzy Johnny just feeling frisky that day? I have no idea. This just struck me as a strange piece coming from Romita.
Another detail to ponder: Strange Tales #168 was published five years prior to this issue, just before that anthology series’ features graduated to their own titles (Doctor Strange, Nick Fury). When fishing for a new title to showcase new characters in, Roy Thomas reached back to revive that title with issue #169. Imagine that kind of thinking today– not only a series devoted to generating new concepts, in a market that hasn’t seen a lasting new ongoing character since John Constantine stepped off the Gordon Sumner back in my high school days, but also that the issue number was completely an afterthought.
This is a series I missed when it was first published. Having almost entirely given up on new comics, I’m finding there are plenty of gems from yesteryear that I didn’t have the allowance for or that simply didn’t make it to the shelves of the Groveport Pharmacy. Cruising the “bronze age comics” category on eBay, I expect it will be many years before I run out of books to discover for the first time. In the case of Master of Kung Fu, this was a book which was over my head when I first encountered it, being one of a number of non-superhero books with an adult slant which Marvel was launching during their “Phase 2” period in order to expand their readership (the version I briefly saw was the Moench/Zeck model). I’ve recently discovered this little gem thanks to the guest appearance of another old favorite, Man-Thing, in this issue which is Shang-Chi’s fifth appearance in a comic book.
How can issue 19 of the series be the fifth appearance of the title character, you ask? The series was originally called Special Marvel Edition, and featured (if I am not misinformed) old superhero reprint material until Master of Kung Fu debuted in issue 15; the character was a hit, and the title became The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu with issue number 17. Imagine that! No passing up a high-numbered issue because you didn’t “get in on the ground floor”; the biggest draw to an issue on the stands was the cover and the promise of story within! If you did get an issue #1, the story was still likely continued from the anthology title the character had previously appeared in (Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Werewolf By Night, to name a few). The numbers were totally irrelevant except for organizing a stack of your favorite books. Must have been nice. My 11th issue of the Dave Gibbons Doctor Who reprint series became “Series 2, #1”, Dark Horse’s Conan series has inexplicably reverted to a first issue even though it originally promised a continuous narrative of the character’s life, Captain America has seen at least four 1st issues in the last decade… but good luck finding (silver age) Captain America #’s 1-99, Hulk 7-100, Thor 1-82… or Master of Kung Fu 1-14. The necessity of a completist mentality didn’t come into play at all, not fostered by the demands of the audience or the marketing strategy of the publishers. How strange. How, dare I say, accessible.
Back to MOKF: Allegedly Marvel had gained the rights to Fu Manchu and related characters at the same time as securing rights for a comic series based on David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV show. Someone had the notion to meld the two concepts together, giving us Shang-Chi, who discovers one day that the father he revered is actually the greatest force for evil on Earth, so he splits from the family temple to walk the Earth helping people– like Julius from Pulp Fiction– and battling against his father’s plots. This issue opens with a couple of Fu Manchu’s assassins chasing Shang Chi into the Florida everglades, where waits a shambling, barely sentient pile of mud and moss not quite known for his kung fu skills. Our hero is already tripping before he even sees Man-Thing, thanks to an assassin’s poison his body is fighting, so the encounter goes about as badly a conceivably possible.
(Gulacy is inked by Al Milgrom here; I was surprised to see both of these gentlemen’s careers stretch back to 1974.)
I’ve had this one on deck for a while; since I want to return to the bronze age for a couple posts before starting the anniversary month theme I’ve been planning (which Dara pointed out is fast approaching), and since it’s been a pretty busy day here on the web log anyway, I’ll go ahead and wrap up my 2nd Golden Age theme.
This one might surprise someone almost as much as the earlier Cable entry. Now I’m throwing a book by one of the founders of Image Comics onto my list. Check off another sign of the end times…
This series came along in 2001, marking the closing days of my personal 2nd Golden Age. It was doomed to fail from the start; being published at a time when comic readers were starting to take things far too seriously, a comic book series whose characters were portrayed in a comedic tone wasn’t going to last long when the audience was being trimmed down to a core group unable to look at the material with a nod and a wink. This series lasted twelve issues before being morphed into a new series which was dark and moody, then withered and died completely. Too bad. I’d compare this effort to the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, which flourished a decade previous while everything went grim n’ gritty around it.
Having argued that my 2nd Golden Age isn’t about Roy Thomas’ “rule of 12”, I’ll now present a post about… the artist I’ve been following since the fourth grade.
This one was tough to choose, for a good reason: my favorite artist was in the midst of a creative peak during these few years I‘ve labeled my personal 2nd golden age. It may be painful to see John Byrne’s work turning up in wrestling magazines today, but during this stretch of years he proved he’s still got the same touch that made his time on the FF or Superman so enjoyable. He had a stellar run on his own X-Men book, Hidden Years (chronicling the time that passed in the Marvel universe while the X-Men series had gone into reprint in the early 1970’s), and produced a near-perfect comic with his Batman/Captain America crossover. But my favorite from this time, and among my favorite of all his works, was the mini series that spun out of that crossover: Superman/Batman: Generations.
The concept behind this “Elseworlds” series was that there was no “comic time”, and the characters age naturally from the days when they were first introduced in the late 1930‘s. Superman’s alien nature and super powers make him nigh-immortal, and a later chapter shows an aged Bruce Wayne taking a dip into the Lazarus Pit, so both characters have a presence throughout the series. With them, however, we get a decades-spanning family saga that reads like Giant with superpowers. Bruce Wayne passes the mantle of Batman to Dick Grayson, who takes on Bruce Wayne jr. as his Robin, who becomes Batman when Dick Grayson is killed by the Joker, and is engaged to Kara Kent, son of Clark and Lois and sister to the tragic Joel. Through the decades we see Lex Luthor lurking in the background, plotting against both families.
Byrne adds another temporal device to the series, altering his writing and drawing style to mimic the tone of the decades he represents in each chapter, moving in ten-year segments. The title characters are both brutal vigilantes in the 1939 chapter, but soften their rough ages over the decades before growing into forms more familiar to a modern reader. The most jarring (in a good way) example is the second book, whose first chapter is set in 1959 and uses a Jimmy Olson adventure to segue into a Bat-Mite/Mr. Mxyzptlk story, then moves on to 1969 filled with topical references to Viet Nam and the murder of Batman II.
The 1979/1989 issue is the one that is set during the time Byrne himself was a major player at Marvel and DC, so on some level it reads like a regular John Byrne comic. This is the issue where all the plot threads come together and it’s all kinds of awesome, so I’m focusing on this one anyway.
Mark Waid is one of only a handful of contemporary comic writers who gets how superhero comics should be written. He manages to write stories that provide insights into a character’s persona without losing the sense of reverence and awe that should surround these heroic figures. My favorite of his works will probably always be the “Return of Barry Allen” story from Flash, but a very close second is his run on Captain America with Ron Garney and Andy Kubert.
Waid is very good at providing cliffhanger moments throughout this series; instances where the story pauses long enough for the reader to think “sweet bejezus, how are they going to get out of that?” before turning the page to see the hero step in front of a runaway train and somehow save the day despite impossible odds. Properly done, that kind of storytelling should be what drives a regular superhero comic; excitement, inspiration, idealism, and all those other charmingly naïve emotions. That’s what I took away from Waid’s Captain America.
When writing the “Desert Island Comics” list many moons ago, I cited an issue of Flash in which Wally West throws himself out of an airplane to try to rescue an innocent bystander as an iconic moment capturing the spirit these books are supposed to convey; I neglected to mention that book has a cousin:
A “sonic cancer” is sweeping the globe, a sound wave which is causing the molecules in the super-metal called vibranium to become misaligned. An early casualty is Cap’s own shield, which has been shattered into pieces. For months, Cap went through a series of replicas and substitutes (see those Avengers panels scanned a couple posts below) before Tony Stark identified the problem and delivered some dire news: the sound wave is heading for the vibranium mounds of Wakanda, and will destroy a hefty chunk of planet Earth when it hits. Stark offers a solution, a device that will alter the pitch of the sound wave, rendering it harmless– but destroying the remnants of cap’s old shield in the process.
Get this: I was enjoying the comics of the late 1990’s so much, I’ll even list as one of my favorites a second generation X-Men spinoff featuring a character created by Rob Liefeld!
I came into this series rather late, for obvious reasons. The title character was a central figure in the worst books of the early part of the decade, and was a product of the doodlings of one of the hot superstar artists who made things so unbearable in our corner of the world for several years. Not being familiar with much X-Men related comics since before Romita jr. was drawing them, I’ve inferred that the backstory which dragged along behind this guy was one of the more convoluted elements of the mutant universe.
Shortly after the speculator bubble burst in the 1990’s and the Ponzi scheme known as comic collecting had been dealt a brutal blow, I was speaking with a friend whose father owned stock in Marvel (the guy was a comic collector since his own childhood– I could show you a shed full of old comics you’d love to spend a few hours in) about the state of the industry. He made a remark that rang true to me: for all the talk about the terrible shape Marvel and DC were in, the books they were putting out at the time were as good as they had ever been. Tony wanted some examples of my “second golden age” of comic collecting, so I’ll add to Matt’s impressive list (ooh– I’d forgotten about Orion. The best non-Kirby Kirby book ever!) with a few weeks of the WBM dwelling in more recent history.
The Busiek/Perez Avengers stands right up there with the Thomas/Buscema or Stern/Buscema days in my mind. This issue is the concluding chapter of the four-part “Live Kree or Die” story that wound it’s way through several Avengers-related titles. The strangest thing about this crossover event is that each issue was a self-contained story! Any chapter can be enjoyed as a complete read without having to chase after other titles you might not normally pick up; take that, Grant Morrison. This issue is also wonderfully compressed, giving us a story that would have been spread over four to six issues and cost up to $18 today. I write as if those things were remarkable; back in 1998, that wasn’t the case. These days were the last gasp of accessible, story-driven all-ages books that set the bar for quality pretty high.
The first part of the book deals with the court-martial of Carol Danvers, the once-and-future Ms. Marvel then known as Warbird. She had developed a problem with alcohol that endangered her fellow Avengers on a couple missions, so the team had to drop everything to stage a drumhead trial to determine her fitness to continue with the group. Writer Kurt Busiek uses the trial setting as a device to supply the reader with all the context needed to catch up on the plot and enjoy the story, something which was once taken for granted in just about any comic.
The trial is interrupted by a signal from the moon; a group of Kree fanatics have assembled a weapon that, when aimed at Earth, will alter the genetic structure of any humans that survive its activation, turning them into genetic duplicates of the Kree and making them susceptible to the mind control of the Intelligence Supreme. The Avengers scramble for the Earth-like atmosphere of the moon’s Blue Area, leaving an embittered Warbird behind. She attempts to fly to the moon under her own power in order to prove her worth to her teammates– and fails spectacularly.
I may have mentioned before: there was a brief spell when at about the age of 14 I decided to become a serious young man and gave up collecting comics. It was only a year or so later that I wandered back into Groveport’s newly opened, hole-in-the-wall comic shop, but I credit a handful of titles for sucking me back into the joyful habit of reading these four-color funny books: Flaming Carrot, Simonson & Buscema’s Thor, and The Bozz Chronicles by David Michelinie and Bret Blevins.
Bozz was a product of Marvel’s mid-1980’s Epic Comics line. This was one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of series’, featuring a Victorian England filled with aliens, demons, and time travelers– like a Sherlock Holmes detective story with Doctor Who monster weirdness and a Wild Wild West-style steampunk sensibility (others may be familiar with these concepts when they were done by Waid and Guice under the name Ruse). How influential was this series on my own creations? Well, my first ever, best-left-forgotten self published series was an old west tale with a gambler, an Indian sorcerer, and a tough barmaid battling aliens and time travelers, and the character dynamics of this series even peek through the panels of The Ineffables.