The Dark Knight Rises is in theaters this week, the third and final chapter of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, which with its bazillion dollars in box office has clearly become the consensus view. Few characters have sported as many different tones as Batman, and fewer still so successfully — between comics, TV, and movie series, there must be a half-dozen different versions of the Batman. The current grim-and-gritty motion picture Batman traces its roots to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though Nolan’s series has gone on to become a thing of its own, thanks to its not-a-superhero-but-really-a-crime-picture story beats, and a transcendent performance by the late Heath Ledger in the trilogy’s middle installment.
Batman wasn’t always this way, and the Batman of old didn’t become today’s Batman overnight. A couple weeks ago I spotlighted the late 1970′s Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run in Detective that arguably began Batman’s transformation into his modern form, but where was Batman after that series and before Frank Miller put his indelible stamp on the character?
The Batman of the early 1980s was defined by writer Doug Moench. Teamed with a number of pencillers — most notably Gene Colan — Moench’s 80-issue run, published twice monthly in the pages of Detective and Batman, gave us a final look at Batman before Crisis on Infinite Earths and Frank Miller’s vision helped bring down the curtain on the “Bronze Age” of comics.
Overshadowed as it was by the Dark Knight phenomenon, this Doug Moench era has been forgotten by many, and I think unfairly, as it has moments of rich characterization and a couple single-issue stories that hold up well today. To their credit, DC didn’t boot Moench to the curb, no matter how many times Dark Knight went back to press with the flavor fans clearly preferred. Moench’s run came to a celebratory end in Batman #400 … but then it’s like he was never there. Following Moench would be Batman: Year One, and then a run by crime novelist Max Allen Collins, and the modern age of Batman had well and truly begun.
nice cover by Don Newton, who did some of his final work on this series before his untimely death in 1984
So who was the Doug Moench Batman, this transitional shades-of-grey knight before the darkest dawn of our current era?
The familiar Bat-tropes are all on display. Bruce Wayne still moonlights as Batman, hangs around in a cave, and responds to Commissioner Gordon’s Bat-Signal. Gotham City is still menaced by the finest rogue’s gallery in comics, and Batman himself is obsessively driven to bring them all to justice. Batman roars around in his Batmobile accompanied by his young partner, Robin. There are plenty of fist-fights and shadowy show-downs with warehouses full of mooks up to no good, and one or two Gene Colan pages with costumes swirling all over the place.
yes, Harvey Bullock has three hands in that panel, but this is the masterful Gene Colan — just go with it!
Where this Batman most differs from the more recent vintage is in his humanity, or at least his emotionality. Far from the grim workaholic of contemporary Batman stories, Doug Moench’s Batman wrestles with his dual roles as Bruce Wayne and superhero, wondering if he can ever be happy so long as Batman is a part of his life. Themes of mortality and exhaustion are repeated throughout the run, as Batman comes to understand that he may be at his physical peak, but that he’s wearing down under the constant grind of battling Gotham’s crazies. He especially agonizes over whether he should allow Jason Todd to become his partner as Robin, and he gets positively tied in knots shifting his affections between four different women each appealing to a different aspect of his soul.
There’s plenty of crime, punishment, and superheroic punch-outs in this run, but it is in this handling of Batman’s interior life — and the lives of the book’s many supporting characters — where Moench is at his best.
Commissioner Gorden nurses a bad heart and works overtime to bear up under the gaze of his boss, the corrupt Mayor Hamilton Hill, who makes Gordon’s life miserable by saddling him with the piggish and disgraced Harvey Bullock as his assistant. Alfred Pennyworth is distracted from pressing Bruce Wayne’s trousers when his estranged daughter, Julia, re-enters his life. Jason Todd has mood swings and generally acts like a little kid, earning him a contempt from the audience that would famously end in his death by popular demand in a DC Comics telephone poll, but also painting an emotionally accurate portrait of an insecure and needy young man.
Four women form the points of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s emotional compass in this series. Bruce’s relationship with Vicki Vale goes downhill quickly, with Vicki proving demanding and strident; it isn’t long before Bruce has thrown her over, first for a momentary infatuation with Alfred’s daughter, Julia, then for a more serious involvement with Nocturna, one of several new characters Moench adds to the cast in this run.
Nocturna is introduced as a tiresome emo girl, physically and psychologically altered by an astronomy accident (!) rendering her skin white … but she recovers from that ridiculous beginning, and does what many of Moench’s characters do: change and grow as the series evolves. Nocturna puzzles out Batman’s true identity, then tries to ensnare Bruce by mounting a custody challenge for Bruce’s ward (and Robin-to-be) Jason Todd, only to find that her emotional needs are better met trying to be mother to Jason than paramour to Batman.
Along the way, Batman discovers he’s interested in Nocturna only when she’s playing the bad girl, an obsession thrown into stark relief when Catwoman returns to Batman’s life, but our hero finds the old sparks aren’t striking, largely because Catwoman has reformed and the thrill has gone along with her villainy.
Catwoman’s return doesn’t work out so great for anyone
Supporting players get their spotlight time, too. He’s changed a bit since his introduction here, but Harvey Bullock is Moench’s signature and enduring creation in this run. Initially a foil for Commissioner Gorden, the incompetent Bullock changes his tune after driving Gordon to a heart attack, and seeks to atone for past sins by becoming a genuinely dedicated cop. He’s used for comic relief, storming in at the worst moment and trampling on evidence, but he proves to be a genuine and emotionally reliable character, even revealing an interior thoughtfulness through his love of classic film …
… and inspiring a boyish loyalty from Jason Todd, who might see in Bullock a surrogate father more approachable than the remote Batman.
The bad guys are appropriately street-level, with most of their darkness on the inside. There’s the cop killing (and ex-cop) Savage Skull, and the aforementioned Nocturna and her ninja henchman, Night-Thief. Black Mask goes whacko and fashions a mask for himself from his father’s coffin lid, which is pretty wonderful. Moench trots out Batman’s traditional villains, too, but at times this feels compulsory. Batman’s battle with the Riddler was an off-the-shelf tale (though it is hard to be anything but formulaic with a written backwards-by-the book Riddler story), and Moench’s Joker story was a feathered fish, with that villain incongruously trying to set off a Guatemalan civil war. Poison Ivy fared a bit better, as did Deadshot.
Moench’s take on Two-Face was his best of all.
This is a Batman book, so of course it has its gothic shadows, but they aren’t so front-and-center as in contemporary books. This is an old fashioned series, employing storytelling conventions long out of style — like compressed story arcs that rarely run more than an issue or two, and copious use of thought balloons. So, too, is Batman a bit old fashioned, at times daring to smile and even seem happy to do what he does. On his first night’s patrol with his new Robin, Batman is positively giddy compared to the grim Dark Knight of page and screen this past quarter century. Batman even works in a photo opportunity after he and the Boy Wonder clean up a den of inequity.
To be fair, this isn’t a classic run of comics. A few of the storylines overstay their welcome, and the Green Arrow back-up feature in Detective is forgettable, save for a two-part Alan Moore story, and a delightful turn in Detective #559 — a full-length tale where Batman and Oliver Queen go after each other harder than they do the bad guys.
Select single issue stories stand out, like Batman #383, where we see an exhausting night in the life of Batman, or the excusably heavy-handed Detective #550, where Moench tries to get to the heart of what led an otherwise ordinary street thug into a life of crime. A two-part tale in Batman #393-394 reuniting Doug Moench with his Master of Kung Fu partner Paul Gulacy has some tasty art, but the espionage thriller story is a bit muddled.
Moench & Gulacy bring some Master of Kung Fu-style to Batman
In all, though, this is an average run of superhero comics, nudged to just-above-average grade owing to its length, and consistency. I am a big Gene Colan fan, but even Gene is less than extraordinary here, possibly limited by inadequate inkers (the forceful Alfredo Alcala, especially, is a poor fit for Gene’s flowing fog style). Approaching the end of this run in my recent re-read, when the “red skies” of the Crisis on Infinite Earths meta-event signaled that the end was near for the old order at DC, I found that I didn’t sadly shake my head or mourn for what Batman was about to become. I enjoyed this run, and I rank Doug Moench among my favorite comic book authors, but Batman is one of the few comic characters that I think is genuinely better served by his current incarnation. The contemporary Dark Knight may be a little short on melodrama and self-examination, but we have plenty of other superheroes running that playbook. Batman has evolved into a remote and unapproachable legend, but he’s earned that status, and it’s a big part of what makes him unique. Despite my love of Bronze Age comics, I think I’ll stick with the current take on Batman …
… but if you want to see Batman before the legend overtook the man, you could do worse than to hunt down this particular run of Bat books, which do offer their own leisurely, introspective, and slow-burning rewards.
- Titles: Batman & Detective Comics
- Published By: DC Comics, 1937-2011 (curse you, “New 52″ reboot!)
- Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: Batman #360-400, Detective #527-566, June 1983-October 1986
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-plus
- Own The Originals: Detective & Batman
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #58 Panel Gallery: Holy Hannah!
My Longbox Shortbox column last month has proven to be one of the most popular posts in Longbox Graveyard history … so I’m back with five more mini-reviews of comics past and present!
#5, August 1972
Maybe it’s cheating to review a one-issue “run,” but I wanted some Ghost Rider content to correspond with the release of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance this week, and my Accumulation and my Marvel Digital sub are both scandalously thin on the flame-headed adventures of Johnny Blaze. I’ll take what I can get!
As a motorcycle stuntman turned unwilling avenging spirit of Satan, Ghost Rider is a C-list Marvel character, and he hasn’t been helped much by the attentions of fallen A-lister Nicholas Cage, who seems as least as motivated by his tax problems as his genuine love of comics in bringing Ghost Rider to the silver screen. Cage’s first Ghost Rider picture was a guilty pleasure — I’m nostalgic for it because it was one of the first “scary” movies I shared with my son. My hopes are muted for the sequel, but I’m sure we’ll go see it. No matter how poor the movie might be, it shares the same advantage as the comic — a shit-hot character design of an awesome flame-headed skeleton dude on a motorcycle, man! I’m the guy who conceived of Trucks & Skulls — there’s no way I can resist this stuff!
Ghost Rider was introduced in Marvel Spotlight #5, illustrated by Mike Ploog and conceived and written by Gary Friedrich (who then signed away the rights in some kind of alcoholic haze). Ghost Rider’s origin is effective, if a bit muddled — as an orphan with two dead stepparents to grieve, motorcycle stunt man Johnny Blaze labors under four times the blood guilt of Spider-Man alter ego Peter Parker. Where Blaze takes it to the next level is in summoning Satan to solve his troubles! Contracts with the devil are rarely a good idea.
actually, Johnny, it’s not “the only way” … in fact, it’s pretty much the WORST way!
For awhile, Ghost Rider’s Satan was retconned as Mephisto (maybe he still is), but I don’t care — that panel doesn’t lie. Johnny Blaze summoned Satan, in the matter-of-fact way that only a 1970s Marvel Comic could allow! And, of course, that was just the start of his problems, as Satan double-crosses Blaze (duh!), claiming our hero’s soul even as Blaze’s stepfather still dies (though not from the disease that Blaze called upon the Prince of Lies to cure).
I can’t pretend that I really liked this “run” or even the character all that much, but a flaming skull head forgives many sins. I’d give the character more of a look if the books were more readily available. Here’s hoping Marvel releases more classic Ghost Riders in digital format soon.
And finally, because there’s some ridiculous judgment that’s been handed down prohibiting Mr. Friedrich from claiming that he conceived this character …
(You can read more about this latest creator/publisher death spiral and kick Mr. Friedrich a dollar or two at this link).
Read The Reprint: Essential Ghost Rider Volume 1.
Strange Tales (Dr. Strange)
#130-146, November 1963-July 1966
Though not as celebrated as their run on Amazing Spider-Man, the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko collaboration on Doctor Strange is in places just as wonderful. While lacking the rich characterization and supporting cast of Spider-Man, there is still much to like in this tale of the disgraced, worldly doctor who discovers his destiny in the study of sorcery. Stan Lee’s bombastic writing style suits the series well (as would also be the case with The Silver Surfer); we get some great names (the dread Dormammu!) and greater faces (about which more in this Panel Gallery). Most memorably, Ditko channels Salvador Dali to create the comic-book standard for weird, extra-dimensional space that persists to this day.
Debuting as the back-up feature to a not-very-good Human Torch book, Dr. Strange endures some turgid single-issue stories to open the run, before the series really takes off with issue #130, beginning a seventeen-part tale pitting our supreme sorcerer against Baron Mordo and the Dread Dormammu that would introduce Eternity and be Steve Ditko’s swan song at Marvel. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, Ditko took over more plotting and storytelling duties in this part of the run, and the book really does kick it up a gear, with the action ever-more bizarre and visual, and Dr. Strange himself receiving some (minimal) characterization as a resourceful mage ready for adventure even when his Cloak of Levitation isn’t close at hand.
Issue #131′s “Hunter And The Hunted” might be my favorite tale of the whole run, as the otherworldly battlegrounds of previous issues are discarded for the streets of Hong Kong, where Doctor Strange must elude the agents of Baron Mordo. Steve Ditko proves he can draw a mean-looking Asian mystery strip in a tale that concludes with a battle aboard an airplane, where earthly passengers are oblivious to the mystical battle that rages all about them.
Much as I like that story, it might be topped by the terrific battle between Strange and Mordo in issue #132, where Ditko lets fly with beautiful spell-slinging action, and Mordo surrenders his body to become a conduit for the power of Dormamu!
As a kid I didn’t care for Steve Ditko — I knew his work only through reprints, and he drew in a strange, reedy style out of step with the Marvel superhero house look of the mid-1970s. A fresh appreciation for Ditko has been a primary benefit of my Marvel Digital Unlimited subscription, where the detail, character, and characterization that Ditko packed into every panel shows especially well when blown up to fill my computer screen. Thanks to these superior reproductions, I’ve come to appreciate Ditko as a master cartoonist, who placed detail exactly where he wanted the reader’s eye to go, telling stories and setting mood in ways that few pencillers have equaled.
Ditko has been a revelation for me, and now I can’t get enough of his work!
Ditko departs the book with #146, and with him departed my interest in the series, but man, what a ride while it lasted. Ditko goes out in style, too, with a battle between Eternity and Dormammu, blown out with shots like this …
By the Vishanti — you win, Ditko! You win! I’m a fan!
Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store
#135-136, March-April 1971
You can sum up the appeal of these issues in two words: Gene Colan (with a helpful assist from Gene’s soul mate inker, Tom Palmer, in the first of this two-part story). Gene is wrapping up a not-quite two-year run on Cap with these issues, which have been largely forgotten, and not just because it followed Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko on the title. Gene’s pencils are strong throughout, but the scripts are kind of goofy, especially an extended storyline where Cap and the Red Skull switch bodies thanks to the Cosmic Cube.
This story shoots the moon for goofy — it’s like Stan isn’t even trying any more. The villain of the piece is S.H.I.E.L.D. biochemist Dr. Gorbo, who just getting out of bed already looks like a crazy ape, and his loopy serum doesn’t help any, transforming him into the genuine article. The highlight of these issues are the Jeckyl-and-Hyde-like transformations of the not-so-good doctor, which Gene gets to draw three times, and they’re all very strong.
Through a plot contrivance, Cap and the transformed Dr. Gorbo wind up at the site of some crazy dig that has created a bottomless pit, so of course our characters fall into it …
now THAT’S what I call a cliffhanger!
… which gives us an excuse to run into Mole Man in the second half of the story, who is always welcome in my book, not least of which because I’ve adopted his image as my Longbox Graveyard Twitter avatar.
The story only gets sillier from there, but there is some decent action, and we also get to see an early, pre-flying version of the Falcon in his green costume trying on a jet pack for size.
Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos
#1-7, May 1963-May 1964
I love war movies. Always have. Lately I’ve been on a tour of them with my oldest boy, Miles. In the last couple years we’ve soldiered through classic and not-so-classic films like The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Kelly’s Heroes, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Battleground, and Band of Brothers. And one of the things I most love about war movies are the cliches of the form — the stereotypes that make up the guys in the squad, the sentimentality and pathos, the patriotism, the crucible of war that transforms our heroes for better or worse.
Sgt. Fury takes all those cliches (absent the more recent and cynical ones), tosses them in a blender, and brings them to the comic book page courtesy of everyone’s favorite penciller (and World War II combat veteran) Jack Kirby. With that kind of DNA the question isn’t if I’d like the book or not (I do), but rather why I don’t like it more.
It was a familiar trope for Captain America to get all bent out of shape because he’d fallen into suspended animation in 1945, and woken up in 1961 — “a man out of time.” But really — how out of time could he be? That would be like someone falling asleep in the Clinton Administration and waking up today. World War II cast a long shadow, and when Sgt. Fury launched in 1963, the war was anything but a distant memory. The readers of Marvel’s new war book would certainly be the children of veterans, and a few would be veterans themselves. And while there were plenty of contemporary war dramas that took an insightful view of the conflict (the television drama Combat comes quickly to mind), for these first seven issues, at least, Sgt. Fury was just a boy’s war adventure book.
The book gives you exactly what you’d expect. Stereotypes are happily embraced — you’ve got your Southern Guy, your Black Guy, your Jewish Guy, your Italian Guy all thrown together in a war that feels familiar but never-was. This multi-ethnic reimagining of World War II was ground-breaking for it’s day, and would be mined for last Summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Our heroes do the things that war movie soldiers do — they make light of danger, talk about anything other than death, hang around the barracks and gripe when they aren’t in action, and bust on each other with brotherly insults. There are plenty of little details that ground the stories in reality, but once the action starts it’s clear that Sgt. Fury and his Commandos are essentially superheros without superpowers. Basically bullet-proof, it’s hard to understand why the boys don’t just howl their way straight to Berlin and hang Hitler from a lamp post.
Nearly every war movie makes superheroes of its soldiers, but Sgt. Fury goes beyond gung-ho and into a cartoonish realm of it’s own. In the first issue, Dum Dum Dugan takes out a ME-109 … while drifting in a parachute … by using a hand grenade. Yep, it’s going to be that kind of war.
It’s not that the series ducks the realities of war. In issue #2, the Howlers liberate a concentration camp. Stories deal with collaborators, racism, class warfare, and good old fashioned army chickenshit, too. Squad members are killed, and replaced.
These are welcome and honest touches that add weight to the series but they are more than counteracted by German foes whistled up out of central casting, who pronounce all their “W’s” as “V’s,” can’t shoot straight, and get blown up by the bucket load when a Howler so much as looks at them. Neither the humanized Germans of Das Boot nor the satire of Inglorious Basterds could be expected of a 1960s Marvel war comic, but this aspect of the series still hasn’t aged well.
To it’s credit, the book does develop some depth as it moves along, and the series did enjoy a long run beyond the broad strokes start of these first seven issues. I know I’m not seeing this book at it’s best here. Kirby left the book after issue #7, so that is where this review ends, but the series was starting to find its footing a little bit and I’d like to get back to it, to watch the Howlers meet Captain America, and to see Nick Fury’s doomed romance with a British nurse develop (and meet its tragic end).
I love Jack Kirby’s work, but Sgt. Fury isn’t the King’s finest hour. I suspect he rushed these pages — his action lacks its characteristic crackle, and (most peculiarly) his draftsmanship is sometimes poor. Several issues featured reference sheets where Kirby drew the guns and weapons of the war — and drew them well — but these models didn’t always make it into the stories themselves, which sometimes feature some strange-looking planes and tanks. Because Kirby has been canonized by Longbox Graveyard I will blame this on Dick Ayer’s inks, which didn’t do Kirby any favors (although Ayers would go on to become the definitive penciller of this series).
So … second-rate Kirby, cliched stories, poor villains. Sgt. Fury is worth reading for historical value, but only just (aside from a cameo appearance by Reed Richards, there isn’t anything in this run to anchor the books into our beloved Marvel Universe). But there is a silver lining! Because if not for Sgt. Fury, we never would have had Colonel Nick Fury, one of Marvel’s greatest characters, about which read on for more!
Read The Reprint: Marvel Masterworks: Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos, Vol. 1
Strange Tales (Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
#135-150, August 1965-November 1966
And since I’ve looked at his Howling Commandos days, it’s only fair that I heap some praise on Nick Fury’s (comparatively) more modern adventures as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. I opened this column praising the Doctor Strange backup feature in Strange Tales, and so long as the headliner in that book was the Human Torch, the smart play was to skip to the back of the issue and begin your read with the Sorcerer Supreme. But starting in issue #135, there’s was a new lead feature for Strange Tales. I love, love, absolutely love this fast-paced and weird mid-60s Marvel Comics answer to James Bond and the Man From U.N.C.L.E.
The series brings old war horse Fury back into action to head up Marvel’s secret agent organization with a breathless first issue that sees Nick Fury (and his many Life Model Decoy clones) on the run from the forces of evil, then never lifts off the gas in a sixteen issue wild ride of espionage, gadgets, super science, and non-stop action. The Brainosaur! The Betatron Bomb! Nick Fury’s rear-view mirror hat, burning tie, and exploding dress shirt!
explosive shirt, cigar, and flammable tie — who thought this was a good combination?
Brain Blasters and Scramble Helmets! Jericho Tubes! Satan Eggs! Radar Crabs! Even Nick Fury’s telephone is a contraption from a mad scientist’s laboratory!
sure, it’s JUST as good as an iPhone!
And that is to say nothing of the iconic S.H.I.E.L.D. Heli-Carrier or the greatest crime cult in the history of Marvel Comics — HYDRA, with their signature cry: “Hail HYDRA! Cut off a limb and two more shall take its place!”
With his stubbly chin, eye patch, omnipresent cigar, and casual disregard for danger, Nick Fury is unquestionably Marvel’s manliest hero (sorry, Wolverine, but lacking superpowers, Nick gets the nod in a photo finish). Nick’s non-super superhuman heroics felt out of place in the more grounded Sgt. Fury series, but here Nick is a normal guy in a world full of superheroes, and it never gives him pause. His exaggerated, square-jawed heroism feels more at home in this full-blown Marvel age. The character we got to know in Sgt. Fury — the “dumb” guy with more on the ball than any room full of brass hats — is fully unleashed here. Nick is always a jump ahead, always barking orders, always impatient with politics and the eggheads and footsoldiers at his command; but he also leads with his chin, takes more risks than any of his men, and barely conceals his affection for his fellow agents beneath his gruff, abusive facade.
Just don’t call him a traitor. Because then Nick will call you a pompous fop.
There’s also a sense that Fury is playing with house money — that some strange fate has plucked him out of the ranks and entrusted him with an awesome responsibility. I don’t think Fury thinks himself unworthy of his job, but he does attack a task like a guy who figures he should have been killed a long time ago. In any case, he’s going to do things his way and not apologize for it, come what may.
To be fair, this run is probably a C series, but for a Kirby nut like me, it gets bumped a full letter grade. Sadly, for most of this series, Kirby is restricted to “layouts,” with pencils from a revolving door of Marvel artists (including some nice work from the recently-departed John Severin; unfortunately there’s a LOT of Don Heck here too). But that Kirby power still comes through, especially in the crazy gadgets and wild machines that seem to lurk on every other page. It is astonishing the level of imagination displayed by Jack Kirby in this series — he creates insane engines that live just for a panel or two, and then he is on to the next thing. I’m convinced a gadget plucked from the King’s sketch wastebasket would be better than half the stuff today’s finest artists could conceive on their Elvis day.
And sometimes … sometimes those creations are just utterly out of left field. Like the giant rotary telephone display that HYDRA uses to ring up its divisional staff chiefs. How would you feel if you graduated with a degree in super-villainy, landed a job with HYDRA, and were assigned to the … Beaver Division? Would you tell your mom? Would you put it on your LinkedIn Profile?
Jim Steranko comes aboard with issue #151, which is a whole ‘nother topic, and this early run of S.H.I.E.L.D. is in some ways overshadowed by the karate chop Steranko would apply to the 1960s Marvel Comics aesthetic. But, darn, this is a fine run of books — fun, action-filled, imaginative, broad-shouldered, and relentlessly, even fearlessly creative. Don’t Yield, Back SHIELD!
(And for a full review of Nick Fury’s origin issue — “The Man For The Job” — check out my Dollar Box column over at StashMyComics.com!)
Read The Reprint: Marvel Masterworks: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, Volume 1
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #36 Longbox Bulletin
A grab-bag of five phantasmagorical mini-reviews this week!
Incredible Hulk #331-345, May 1987-July 1988
In his introduction for the first volume of the Marvel Visionaries reprinting this run, author Peter David admits that the Incredible Hulk was a book that no one really wanted to write when he took it over in 1987. And small wonder. For most of his history, the Hulk has been a great character underserved by crappy books. With Todd McFarlane on pencils, David would simultaneously take the book back to its roots (with the Hulk at war with his Bruce Banner identity) and also explore new territory (as the grey Hulk develops a persona more complex and nuanced than previously experienced).
I quite liked the dangerous, brutish personality that David developed for the Hulk, but the road story of the Hulk, Rick Jones, and Clay Quartermain hunting down Gamma Bombs was a snore (as was Bruce Banner’s marital problems with his wife, Betty), and the bad guys never rose to the broad-shouldered standard of the Hulk himself. Story themes tended toward the supernatural and morality plays, and in this they reminded me a bit of Saga of the Swamp Thing, where Alan Moore was completing his run right about the time David debuted on Hulk. But David failed to really dig into the dysfunctional side of the Hulk the way Alan Moore deconstructed Swampy — what we wind up with is a day tour of the dark side rather than an exploration of the inky blackness of the Hulk’s soul.
This will sound strange coming from a guy who writes a comic book blog … but reading this series for the first time recently was my first exposure to Todd McFarlane’s pencils. (Remember, I was in a comics cold sleep for decades). Most artists are a product of their age but I have to say that McFarlane’s pencils haven’t aged well. Aside from a select few panels I found his work static and overly posed. The range of expression in his humans was limited — a lot of clenched jaws and 80s hair — but he drew a pretty mean-looking Hulk.
Yeah, he’ll never amount to anything.
Anyway, I found this series a bit of a let-down, and can only assume the esteem in which it is held is largely due to Incredible Hulk having been such a terrible book before the Peter David gave it a fresh take. To be fair, these issues are just the start of David’s decade-long run on the character. I’ll come back and give the series another chance, but this year-long arc was enough for now.
* * * * *
Jungle Action #6-18 September 1973-November 1975
I filled in my collection of Jungle Action at San Diego Comic-Con for a song, and I touched on my affection for Black Panther in a previous column, but I must still rank this series as a disappointment. Make no mistake — this is an historic run that scores high points for ambition and degree of difficulty. It has a minority character in a leading role, it eschews standard superheroics for a tale of African civil war, and it can lay claim to being the first graphic novel. Author Don McGregor approaches his subject with intelligence, examining themes of betrayal and the horror of war, and the art and page layouts from artists Rich Buckler and Billy Graham were brash and fresh for the era.
My problem with the book is entirely down to Don McGregor’s writing style, which employs a tortured syntax that just never flowed for me. Read the two-page spread below and decide for yourself — it may work for you, and it may not, but either way you have to admit McGregor’s style demands a different kind of attention from the reader. I will concede that he may be an acquired taste, but it is not a taste I want to acquire — I reprogrammed my brain to read Patrick O’Brian but I’m not going to do the same thing for Black Panther.
So the problem with Jungle Action may be with the reader and not the book, but I found this a run to be admired, rather than enjoyed.
* * * * *
Daredevil #20-49, September 1966-February 1969
With the grim & gritty Frank Miller Daredevil so firmly engrained in my mind it is a bit jarring to go back to the character’s original “swashbuckling,” smart-Alec personality. And as much as I hate to disparage the original, the wise-cracking Matt Murdoch does come off a bit dim-witted in this run, showing little of his supposedly keen legal and seeming something of an airhead as he stumbles through romantic misunderstandings with Karen Page. A convoluted subplot where Daredevil tries to maintain his secret identity by masquerading as his wild and crazy “twin brother” Mark Murdoch has not aged well at all.
Stan Lee’s plotting is heavily reliant on gimmicks. Daredevil is rendered genuinely blind! Daredevil dresses up like Thor, and meets the real God of Thunder! Daredevil is about to be unmasked on live television! The villains are a third-string bunch, too — Stilt Man, The Beetle, The Trapster, The Owl — yeesh! Even when Doctor Doom shows up it’s for a silly body/mind swap story that doesn’t quite work. It’s pretty tiresome stuff, even by Silver Age standards, but the series is rescued by Gene Colan’s flowing pencils, which seem full of motion (and emotion) even when his subjects are at rest.
So effective is his action that I’ve long overlooked another of Gene Colan’s strengths — he was an excellent draftsman, too, and his automobiles, store fronts, and urban landscapes lend an additional air of authenticity to Daredevil’s street-level adventures.
The later half of the run improves a bit. Daredevil’s battle with Captain America in issue #43 is one of the classic stories of the age, and issue #47′s “Brother, Take My Hand” is melodramatic in a good way, as Matt Murdoch finally uses some of his lawyer smarts to help a blinded veteran. But overall, these issues aren’t Stan Lee’s finest moment as a writer, which is a real shame, because if the script had been as strong as the pencils, this would have been a run for the ages.
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The New Teen Titans #1-25, November 1980-November 1982
I took the plunge on the New Teen Titans Omnibus when I realized the twenty-five books it covered almost exactly corresponded with the issues missing from my collection. While the stories in this run are classic, the Omnibus is a bit less so, with an oddly stiff binding that sometimes makes it difficult to see the interior edges of the pages, and an introduction from author Marv Wolfman that apparently dates to some earlier collection, rather than offering fresh perspective on the occasion of this particular republication.
But it’s the content that counts, and returning to the Titans after all these years did not disappoint, though DC’s answer to Marvel’s X-Men seems quaint by modern standards, a Silver Age book in Bronze Age clothing. The stories are straight-ahead, uncomplicated, and compressed in old-school fashion, with heroes leaping directly into the action, and narrating their use of powers, their identities, and their inner conflicts so readers have no doubt who they are and what they are doing.
doing what they’re doing, saying what they’re doing, saying what’s happening, and showing it all at once
George Perez’s art is clear, clean, manically detailed, and displayed in deep focus, each page laid out with the precision of Dutch tulip fields — a perfect order of squares and rectangles parsing out consistently-paced superhero action. With its occasional “Epilogs” and portrait-emblazoned splash screen “Roll Calls” the book hearkens to Justice Leagues past, and the narrative captions used to set up some scenes might comfortably be narrated by Ted Knight, the voice-of-god storyteller from a 1970s Superfriends cartoons.
Marv Wolfman’s scripts reveal teenage yearnings in most un-teenaged fashion, his characters almost perfectly self-aware in the way they emote, stating out loud their insecurities and needs where the genuine article would more likely be sullen, or confused, or capricious in coming to grips with issues that can’t identify, let alone articulate.
But for a series where all the gears are on the outside, it works, and works wonderfully, giving our teen cast a richly detailed and evolving characterization. Like the book itself, our characters are orderly, proscribed, and predictable, even when they are coming off the rails. In a way the stories remind me of later-day Star Trek teleplays, with their A and B-stories, their arcs, their spotlit characters, and the sense of a not-so-invisible storytelling hand that will wrap this thing up, one way or the other, by the end of the current episode.
It’s a world where the bad guys call themselves “The Fearsome Five” and put an ad in the newspaper to fill out their roster. The tales are unambiguously about good versus evil. There are no shadows here and no shades of grey, in the story or the art. The heroes may argue with each other over methods or objectives, but there’s never a doubt about who the baddies are. And lest demons like Trigon think we find them cute for sporting Bullwinkle antlers, he drives home his point by killing little girls and blowing up planets (for starters).
It’s remarkable how the book handles heavy issues with a light touch. Raven is the daughter of a woman wedded to a demon by her coven; Donna Troy is sexually beguiled by a Greek Titan; Starfire was sold into slavery — but the story doesn’t dwell on salacious details, instead concentrating on the strengths of each character in overcoming these tragedies. The tales imply rape and genocide but remain nonetheless sunlit and optimistic even in their darkest moments, and it’s not that these events lack weight so much as the glossy nature of the storytelling is magnetically repelled from the grimmest corners of this particular comic book universe. The New Teen Titans are nostalgic, refreshing, and a pretty much perfect example of its form.
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Avengers #1-35 September 1963-December 1966
Full of anticipation for this year’s Avengers movie, and armed with a Marvel Digital Unlimited subscription, this seemed an ideal time to revisit the original run of the Avengers. The origin tale — with Iron Man, Thor, and the Hulk thrown together with all the chemistry of strangers stuck in an elevator — was familiar, but the rest of the run was new to me, as I first came to the Avengers in 1974. Jack Kirby’s pencils on the first six issues were serviceable, but the Don Heck run that followed was genuinely dire — twenty-nine issues of artistic bad road.
Heck, Don, this just stinks!
The first dozen issues are a bumpy ride, though they have an endearing, “gee whiz” Silver Age charm, with the Avengers democratically rotating their leadership responsibilities, and Rick Jones hanging around and coordinating the operations of his “teen brigade” via ham radio. With Tony Stark determined to hide behind his Iron Man identity, the way is clear for Ant Man/Giant Man to be the brains of the outfit, and that character is the best-realized cast member for the first year of the book, as his powers are (amazingly) used to clever effect, and Hank Pym comes off as a level-headed man of science. The Wasp is a one-note bubble-brain, though, and the internal conflict of the book is limited to arguing with (and about) the Hulk.
The book finds its stride with issue #16, when the headlining heroes are jettisoned, and only Captain America sticks around, to lead a spare parts team of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch as replacement Avengers. Now the book starts to simmer with internal conflict, as everyone seems to want Cap’s job leading the team, and the series begins to benefit from its own history, with villains like Kang returning to challenge the Avengers anew. So, too, do classic Avengers themes begin to emerge, with villains turning good (the Swordsman, the Black Widow, and an earlier version of the Black Knight figure prominently in this run, while the Avengers Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver all overcome villainous origins to join the team); the Avengers enjoying an uneasy relationship with government authorities eager to regulate them or shut them down; Captain America proving more entertaining here than in his own book; Hank Pym’s revolving identities; and continuing obsessions over bylaws, memberships, and leadership. We’re also introduced to characters that would figure prominently in later Avengers lore (like Wonder Man) and we get more Baron Zemo than anyone should have to endure.
The book would truly come into its own with the Roy Thomas/John Buscema run that kicked off in issue #41, but this early run is still a lot of fun (despite Don Heck), and it is a joy to watch the Avengers tropes appear. Plus you can watch Tony Stark smoke as he recharges his ticker!
The series does bottom out a time or two but the overall trend is up and to the right — even after all these years, it is still worth watching the Avengers assemble!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #32 Panel Gallery: To Me, My Board!
I discovered Tomb of Dracula near the end of the book’s run, tumbling to the unapologetic evil of the comic’s title character as he fought to regain his throne as the “Lord of the Vampires.” Though joining an extended storyline in the middle, I was tantalized rather than frustrated by the book’s footnoting and continuity, coming to regard the series one of my favorites of the 1970s. I’ve always wanted to read the series from the start, filling in details of the origin of Blade, the development of the vampire fighters who hunted Dracula, and Drac’s first arch-enemy, the mysterious Doctor Sun.
Fast forward thirty-five years and I am months into this Longbox Graveyard project. Tomb of Dracula made it off Ellis Island with no questions asked, and I’ve filled in a dozen or so back issues at Comic-Con sight unseen. With Halloween bearing down this seemed an excellent opportunity to re-open the Tomb, reading the series from the start, experiencing some new-to-me adventures of the Count and his hunters as I worked forward through the series toward tales I dimly remembered as being superior.
How fared the Count when dragged into the light of day for the ruthless examination of a fifteen-year-old turned fifty? Read on!
Marvel Comics had a long history of monster books, but they weren’t the gothic kind — the fun-seeking bullet that put EC Comics out of business in the 1950s put paid to axe murderers and zombies, leaving Marvel to get their monster kicks with giant, city-stomping freaks like Fin Fang Foom and It, The Living Colossus. But by 1971 the comics code would relax, cracking the vault door for literary monsters in the classic tradition of Dracula and Frankenstein. Comics publishers pounced on this formerly forbidden candy, with Marvel quickly publishing books like Frankenstein Monster (1973-1975), Werewolf By Night (1972-1977), and Adventure Into Fear (1972-1975) featuring Man-Thing and later Morbius the Living Vampire.
The longest-running and greatest Marvel horror book was Tomb of Dracula. Debuting in 1972, and lasting seventy issues, nearly every issue of the run came from the famously stable team of writer Marv Wolfman, penciller Gene Colan, and inker Tom Palmer.
Tomb of Dracula is an old school vampire book, written before Ann Rice, Joss Whedon, Charlaine Harris, and Stephanie Meyer popularized the idea of vampires as erotic anti-heroes. When Dracula feeds, it is murder, with little sense of seduction, and the objectified way Gene Colan draws Dracula’s victims — discarded in alleys, crumpled and with their limbs splayed out — can make them seem victims of sexual assault.
The series rarely wavers. This is a battle to the death between Dracula and his hunters — between good and evil, with little of the ambiguous middle ground of modern vampire lore. If we come to enjoy Dracula’s characterization and admire his icy nobility as the series develops — as in those those rare moments when the Count takes some hapless human under his protection — it is the arm’s-length admiration afforded a deadly serpent or sea creature.
There’s never the remotest doubt that Dracula is an evil bastard who deserves to die.
Most disappointing to modern readers will be the design of Dracula himself — he’s an old guy in a cape, designed to hew as close as possible to the Bela Lugosi template without alerting Universal’s lawyers. While the design has the unmistakable virtue of screaming “vampire!” to any twelve-year-old seeing him on a comic book cover, it lacks even the moderately updated look that Christopher Lee was rocking in the contemporary films like Taste The Blood of Dracula.
taste the blood of Christopher Lee!
While the covers of the book emphasized opera cape collars and gaping fangs, the interior depiction of Dracula was quite a bit better, where Gene Colan’s brilliant pencils described a more noble Dracula, with a broad forehead and wide face that hinted at intelligence when it wasn’t distorted into a mask of demonic fury.
Shadowy, swirly, and emotive, Colan’s pencils rarely show Dracula in his entirety — in practically every panel he seems half cloaked in darkness, or in some misty nether state between man and bat. When Dracula goes into action, Colan’s pencils — which seem to have motion even when his subject is at rest — depict the Count as a swirling cyclone of cape, fangs, and talons, hurling bodies across the room thanks to a strength that Dracula boasts is equal to that of twenty men.
The first nine issues of the book are a bumpy ride, with five different writers, and no better than lighting-flash glimpses of the book Tomb of Dracula would become. Gerry Conway’s origin story recycled Universal and Hammer movie tropes to tell the tale of a distant cousin of the legendary Dracula (Frank Drake), who comes to claim the Count’s castle in modern times. Heavily reliant upon Bram Stoker’s original story, Conway’s script is solid, but a tad over-written and predictable — as you would expect, Drake finds the Count is very much alive, and mayhem ensues
Archie Goodwin followed Conway, wisely introducing additional members of the supporting cast, building a vampire-hunting team around Drake and Rachel Van Helsing (grand-daughter of Dracula’s arch-nemesis) and her mute Indian servant, Taj. Gardner Fox wrote issues #5 & 6, and while his writing was melodramatic, his style pointed toward a new characterization for Dracula — the haughty, cruel nobleman, “Lord of the Vampires,” who views all beings as lesser creatures he is destined to rule.
Gene Colan’s art is worth seeing from the very first issue, but less patient readers can safely wait until issue #12 to jump aboard, when Marv Wolfman has gotten his feet under him, and Tom Palmer has permanently rejoined the creative team. That issue sees the primary cast of vampire hunters fully assembled — now including the wheelchair-bound gadgeteer Quincy Harker, and Wolfman and Colan’s original creation, Blade, the Vampire Hunter, who would outlast this series and appear on the screen in a trilogy of Wesley Snipes movies (the first of which remains a guilty pleasure).
For the most part, Wolfman would discard the old-fashioned, gothic tone of the early series and over time transform the book into a more modern and fast-moving adventure tale of hunters and the hunted. But even after Wolfman is aboard, the series is uneven, advancing in lurches and stops, and developing little of the multi-issue narrative that I remember from the end of the run. Wolfman’s first dozen issues are mostly a series of one-off stories of varying effectiveness.
But to criticize the book for this structure is to hold it to the standards of a different day. In the 1970s no one was “writing for the trade” (six or twelve issue epics intended for eventual republication as trade paperbacks). Stories were told in one or two parts with subplots that might go on for months before evolving into full storylines. In this the book was actually a little ahead of itself, in that its many stand-alone issues are linked, however tenuously, into a larger narrative revolving around Dracula and his pursuers.
What really made Tomb of Dracula unique for its time was that this was a comic book about a bad guy. Not an anti-hero — a genuine bad guy, a murdering demon who sought to enslave the human race. As such it always felt that the stakes were higher in Tomb of Dracula — that the deaths were more real, and that something greater was at issue than the four-color punch-ups of Marvel superhero books. This early part of the run wisely partitioned Dracula from the Marvel universe, giving the book a chance to develop its own tone and mythology, and avoiding the cognitive dissonance of crossing Dracula over with flying girls in tights.
let’s just pretend this never happened
After the formulaic-but-entertaining issues #12 & 13, Tomb of Dracula takes a step back. Issue #14 revolves around a preacher and a contrivance that positions Dracula’s body as the central attraction in a revivalist prayer meeting — it’s heavy-handed and forced. Issue #15 is a series of vignettes told in flashback by Dracula (which don’t quite add up) and #16 is a Tales From the Crypt-style story of the poorer sort, with a cool-looking monster but not so great an ending. Issue #17 is an intriguing and violent tale set aboard a train to Transylvania, but momentum is lost the following issue, the first of a two-part crossover with Werewolf By Night, which is mostly about Jack Russell and his girlfriend, and doesn’t advance Dracula’s story in any meaningful way.
Issues #19 and #20 are moody — set during a blizzard in the Transylvanian alps — but too reliant on coincidences and plot contrivances, with Dracula and Rachel Van Helsing the unlikely survivors of a helicopter crash, and Dracula unconvincingly failing to kill his foe because he needs to “save her for later.” The issue bottoms out when our heroes accidentally stumble into a secret headquarters of the mysterious Doctor Sun (last seen in a pagoda on the coast of Ireland!) …
Doctor Sun, just your ordinary murderous Chinese Communist brain-in-a-box
… but there follows some redemption, because for all that Doctor Sun is ridiculous, he’s also damn awesome — a Communist Chinese mastermind vampire brain in a box? What’s not to like? But before we can delve too deeply into the Doctor’s deeply weird plan — which involves mind-swapping devices and a plot to rule the world with an undead army — the base has been destroyed and Drac is wrestling with some minor vampire in the Russian countryside, a story based on authentic folklore (according to the letters page), but feeling that much more shoehorned into the book because of it.
It is with the cross-over starting in Giant-Sized Chillers #1 and concluding in Tomb of Dracula #23 that the series most closely begins to resemble my memories of the later run. Dracula gets pulled into a haunted house story revolving around an English castle he wants to inhabit, and along the way becomes emotionally involved with a mortal woman. It is also at this point that Wolfman’s subplots begin to get traction — Dracula’s hated daughter, Lillith, has been resurrected; Taj is summoned home to India on a mysterious mission; Frank Drake suffers an identity crisis; and Blade gets a starring role for an issue, fighting it out with Dracula in a London department store.
With issue #25, vampire-hunting private eye Hannibal King is introduced, in one of the better stand-alone books of the series, and it appears the book has genuinely found it’s footing … but it is here, arbitrarily, that I end my review, both because the sun is rising, and because The Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 1 (the black & white reprint I’ve relied upon for most of this run) only goes up through issue #25!
In time I will return to this series to see if it develops into the book I remember. I have nearly caught up with my collection of original books, and I look forward to abandoning the Essentials and continuing this tale in all it’s murky, poorly-printed, full-color glory. But for now Dracula goes back in his Tomb, having not quite lived up to my expectations, but with an undiminished promise of better tales to come.
- Title: Tomb of Dracula
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1972-79
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-25, April 1972 – October 1974
- Your Creepy 1970s Soundtrack Which Includes Vincent Price: Welcome To My Nightmare — Alice Cooper
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-
- Read The Reprints: Longbox Graveyard Store
NEXT WEEK: #20 Young Justice