This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday brings us memories of a good news/bad news variety.
The good news was that Marvel posted a contest challenging readers to write a comics page. That’s kinda cool … it gave fans a chance to participate in the creative process, and maybe learn if they were cut out to write comics.
The bad news was … readers were expected to write like Don McGregor?
Now, that’s just cruel. It’s hard enough trying to write a comics page without any kind of context (I tried just now, and I keep thinking of Scar killing Mufasa in Lion King!) …
… but there’s no way anyone besides Don McGregor could write like Don McGregor. His tortured syntax was unique in the field. Reading his Jungle Action nearly broke my brain!
Anyway, give it a go if you like, and post your scripts to my comments section. This particular Marvel contest is long since closed, but creativity is its own reward, and … you never know!
See you back here next week with a less cruel F.O.O.M. Friday!
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.
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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.
* * * * *
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!
A month ago I posted my Top Ten DC Comics Characters list, and today I weigh in with my favorite Marvel characters. That DC post ended up being one of the most popular entries here at Longbox Graveyard, with a nice little nerd skirmish breaking out in the comments section — hopefully this entry will provoke even more Geek Rage!
Thanks to Brian Cronin’s “Comics Should Be Good” column at Comic Book Resources for the survey that inspired these entries (and those CBR results are in now if you want to check them out).
Marvel Comics Top Ten
I had a hard time coming up with ten characters for my DC list, but as a “Marvel guy” I had the opposite problem this week. I could easily list two or three times as many characters than those mentioned here, but rather than resort to trickery like the scoundrel who runs the otherwise-excellent Mars Will Send No More blog, I’ve knuckled down and made the hard choices, holding myself to just ten Marvel characters! Agony! Pain!
You Might Also Like: Top 10 DC Comics Characters
#10 Black Panther
When I filled out my list for CBR’s survey, I was fresh back from San Diego Comic-Con with a stack of Jungle Action back issues and all hot for the Black Panther. I could have picked any number of characters for this #10 slot, but with that pile of books on my nightstand, Panther got the nod.
Since then, I’ve read those books, and found them a little … overwrought.
above scan snagged from the aptly-named (and recommended) Diversions of a Groovy Kind blog
The “Panthers Rage” saga from Jungle Action #6-18 is regarded as a minor classic, and even holds some claim to being the field’s first graphic novel. The run is certainly a cut above for 1970s-era Marvel, with inventive layouts and a storyline set entirely in Africa that was largely bereft of the usual superhero action. My problem with the series was that I thought Don McGregor’s script just didn’t flow. I found the books over-written, and presented in a kind of fractured syntax that I couldn’t quite grok.
“and the words lose their meaning,” indeed
Even if I found the series a disappointment, it only slightly dented my enthusiasm for the character, who is intriguing on a lot of levels. He’s the king of a hidden African kingdom, heir to the mystical powers of a panther cult, and his country is a weird mix of tribal tradition and sci-fi high technology thanks to the wealth afforded by Wakanda’s stock of the precious metal, Vibranium. Panther’s powers aren’t much (he’s just a guy who jumps around in a cat suit), but I respond to the character’s nobility, and in the 1970s it was a rare thing when a black Marvel hero wasn’t shouting “Christmas!” to remind us how “street” he was (sorry, Luke Cage). After struggling through those Jungle Action books I am a bit less attached but no less intrigued by the character, so maybe I’ll fast forward a bit and try the Christopher Priest run from the 1990s (which I sampled and remember as being too clever by half).
Like Black Panther, Warlock was born from Jack Kirby‘s pencil, and like the Panther, Warlock definitely had his best days on another author’s watch. Jim Starlin is one of my favorite comics creators (for all that I graded down his Captain Marvel), and of his Marvel work, I think his run on Warlock is his best.
Warlock himself is kind of a pain in the ass … he swans about the space lanes, swinging wildly between ennui and rage, stumbling into allegorical adventures against a weird gallery of villains (including his own future self). He’s a limited, doom-driven character in the mold of Michael Moorcock’s Elric. There are probably fewer than a dozen of his books that are genuinely worth reading. But as a tormented teen I identified with him … and he’s just so damn glam with that blonde perm and the SKULL clasping his cape to signal how he’s — you know — all grim and deep and stuff.
I could totally see myself walking around a Los Angeles airport hotel for a 1977 science fiction convention wearing that outfit.
One of the reasons I prefer Marvel to DC is because of Marvel’s many anti-heroes, with the Hulk being the best-known of the bunch. Hulk was the first comic character I ever knew about (probably thanks to those crappy 1960s cartoons), and purchase of a Hulk Aurora model kit got me started buying comic books stuff (followed shortly by actual comic books) in the first place.
aside from being unpainted, with gaps where the parts didn’t fit, and covered with glue thumb-prints, the Hulk kit I made in 1974 looked EXACTLY like this pro build!
I love the idea of the Hulk — the Jekyll/Hyde rage thing, the Hulkbusters out in the desert, the radiation-saturated villains, purple pants, “Hulk Smash!”, the works. Unfortunately, as I found when sorting through my Accumulation, I don’t own a lot of worthwhile Hulk comics. I came to comics too late for the Roy Thomas run, and was out of comics entirely during the Peter David era. I still have a pile of really bad Hulk books, though, which means I kept buying the comic, month after month, even though I knew it would be terrible.
What a damn idiot.
Sure, Daredevil is really just Spider-Man with his eyes closed, but Spidey never grabbed me, while I found myself collecting Daredevil books even before Frank Miller came along and made his magic. With his dark, street-level villains, and his subtle powers based on elevated senses of everything except sight, Daredevil seemed a more down-to-earth hero than Spider-Man (who blasphemously does not make my Top Ten).
I want to attribute some of my affection to Gene Colan’s flowing pencils …
… but the truth is I came to the book during Bob Brown’s less-than-memorable 1970s run. Memory is a funny thing, I could have sworn I had a bunch of Gene Colan Daredevils … guess I will have to knock over a bank so I can own those Silver Age classics. (And in the meantime I still have Colan’s run on Tomb of Dracula — one of my favorite Marvel books, though Drac himself doesn’t rate for today’s list).
#6 Red Skull
I won’t even try to suggest that the Red Skull is the best villain in a comic line that is home to Doctor Doom, Magneto, and Galactus … but he is my favorite, in all his two-dimensional glory. The Red Skull benefits by drafting behind Captain America, who (SPOILER!) heads this list, but the Skull is here mostly for punching above his weight.
The Red Skull doesn’t have a battlesuit, or magnetic powers, or a colossal physique letting him eat whole planets. Nope, he’s just a rage-filled bell-boy armed with a Luger, fear gas, and the impossible-to-satisfy expectations of Adolph Hitler.
With those scant powers, the Skull has gone on to battle Captain America to a standstill for three quarters of a century. And while most every other Marvel villain has had an issue or two where they seemed vaguely sympathetic, the Skull remains an unreconstructed Nazi bastard. I love to hate the Skull! That’s why I have a Funko Red Skull Bobblehead on my desk at work (one of only two bits of superhero swag I keep in my workplace).
To understand my affection for Thor, look no further than my recent columns (parts one and two) on Walt Simonson’s take on the character … but I loved the character from the moment I discovered his book in 1974, a decade prior to Simonson’s brilliant run.
That first Thor book blew my twelve-year-old mind. It had ancient mythological gods, in a space ship, fighting an insane living planet, told as a superhero story. Crazy, man. It scratched my interest for fantasy in a safe superhero setting (it would be a few years before I’d get into Conan), and it immediately broadened my mind to what a comic book could be. The Marvel Universe wasn’t just Spider-Man swinging around Manhattan — it was an actual universe, a wide-ranging cosmos of gods and men! That idea thrilled me.
An outright dick.
Seriously, Subby is a dick, and I love him for it. Perpetually pissed-off, trying to steal Reed Richards’ wife, leading sea monster invasions of New York City … and that’s when he’s a good guy. When Sub-Mariner is batting for the other team — as in the so-bad-it’s-good Super-Villain Team-Up — Subby emerges as Marvel’s greatest anti-hero, putting even the Hulk in the shade. I mean, Hulk is a moron, and not really responsible for his actions. But the Sub-Mariner? Guilty!
Sub-Mariner is ancient even by comic book standards, dating to World War II-era comic strips by creator Bill Everett. Originally re-introduced to the Marvel Universe as a quasi-villain in the pages of Fantastic Four, Subby has been like a professional wrestler, by turns a good guy and a bad guy as the story and audience demanded.
Subby was extra-cranky during his fashion disaster Pimp Suit era
During the war, Subby put aside his differences with surface-dwellers to battle Hitler, but he was still a prickly ally. When Ed Brubaker took over Captain America, he caught the soul of Sub-Mariner in this 21st century Christmas Eve exchange between Subby and the Winter Soldier (himself a resurrected wartime Bucky Barnes):
I love the concept of this character — the superpowered fishman, king of Atlantis, acting out his rage against everything that lives on the other 30% of the Earth’s surface. But here’s a crazy thing — for all that I rank this character #4 on my list, I don’t think I own more than a single Sub-Mariner comic book. I love him as a guest star, or a bad guy, or a crappy team-mate in the Defenders or the Invaders, but I never got into his solo books.
If the group wisdom of my readership would like to suggest a half-dozen best Subby stories, I’d sure like to read them. Give a shout in comments.
#3 The Thing
I have enormous affection for this character, the rocky elemental from the Fantastic Four that is the archetypal tough guy with the soul of a pussy cat. Defined by powers he regards as a curse, the Thing wears his heart on his sleeve and is the warmest, most approachable, and most heartbreaking of Marvel’s epic-scaled characters.
He reminds me of my Dad, and my old pal Bear Peters from Arizona, of my video game colleague Jeff Brown, my buddy Sarge at Appy, and of all the craggy, larger-than-life characters I’ve known through the years. In his long, slow coming to terms with his monstrous appearance, the Thing makes a powerful statement for diversity and identity. One of the best-developed characters in the Marvel line, it feels strange to call him “The Thing” — he’s a character that has evolved beyond his powers and his form. It’s much more natural to call him Ben Grimm.
Of all the characters on this list, he’s the guy with whom you’d most like to share a beer.
Maybe this is a cheat, because Conan isn’t even published by Marvel any more, but the classic 1970s run for this character was a Marvel production through-and-through.
in the 1970s, Conan was one of Marvel’s biggest books, garnering a cover feature of Marvel’s in-house fanzine, Foom
I’ve already enthused about the Barry Windsor-Smith era on this book, and the truth is I could write about Conan every week, but my sad devotion to Robert E. Howard’s barbarian already led me to waste fifty bones on that dreadful 3D movie earlier this year, so I shouldn’t push my luck by further trying the patience of a readership that’s already soldiered through two Conan blogs in the first ten issues of Longbox Graveyard. Suffice to say that Conan has virtue enough strictly as a comic character to rate highly on this list, even if he is a rapidly-diminishing part of Marvel’s history. Like Thor, Conan was a genre-stretching book that changed what comics could be.
(And in December, I’ll write about him again!)
Even if I didn’t telegraph my number one choice when talking about Red Skull, it should come as no surprise to Longbox Graveyard readers that Captain America tops my list, given that I’ve already devoted columns to writing about the character, both old and new. Another character that I’ve stuck with since childhood, Cap’s always been my favorite, owing to his iconic nature, spectacular costume, and his connection with another great fascination of my life — World War II.
As living legend, leader of the Avengers, and the most badass guy in any room full of costumes, Captain America is the hero that other heroes find heroic — the superhero’s superhero, and unchallenged champion of my Top Ten list of Marvel Comics characters!
All right, for better or worse, that’s my list … the comments section is open for you to tell me how I got it wrong!
NEXT WEEK: #17 Supergods
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