Look — up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a … Superman novel?
Guest blogger Ryan McSwain — author of Monsters All the Way Down and the upcoming Four Color Bleed, now on Kickstarter — offers this look back at a literary form that has finally come of age: the superhero novel!
There have been many attempts to capture long-underwear heroes in prose. There are the old Marvel Pocket novels, fast reads packed full of imagination. More recently fans have loved Soon I Will Become Invincible and It’s Superman! Jim Butcher of the Dresden Files even cast his hat in the ring with Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours. Add in indie hits like Who is Killing the Great Capes of Heropa? and Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, and you have plenty to choose from.
If you’re looking for something really special, you want the Superman novels by Elliot S! Maggin, Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday.
Maggin is no stranger to longtime Superman fans. He wrote many of the Man of Steel’s four-color adventures in the ‘70s and ‘80s, enjoying long runs on both Action Comics and Superman. He helped define Superman’s world in the Bronze Age, beginning with the landmark “Must There be a Superman?” in 1972.
Maggin wrote Last Son of Krypton based on his own idea for a Superman movie, and it came out the same day as the 1978 film. The book expands on Superman’s origins and early life, including a memorable retcon with Albert Einstein. Superman and Luthor have to work together to defeat an alien tied to Superman’s past.
Miracle Monday reads like a milestone event in the life of Superman. Luthor’s latest prison escape allows a demon to escape from hell, and Superman must save the earth without sacrificing his ideals. It’s a surprisingly modern story, but it holds true to the characters.
Maggin’s Superman, both in the comics and novels, resides in an era of the Big Blue Boyscout’s history that is currently overlooked. The collective consciousness of comic fans holds plenty of nostalgia for the frenzied creativity of the Golden Age, the naïve splendor of the Silver Age, or the crafted Post-Crisis continuity. For whatever reason, people aren’t reminiscing over the period when Clark Kent was a news anchor with Lana Lang and Luthor still broke out the purple and green tights.
Which is a shame, because the ’70s and early ’80s have a wonderful balance between classic Superman and mature themes. Nowhere is this more on display than in Maggin’s novels. At no point do you feel these stories are ashamed of their origins. Sure, Superman battles a mischievous imp from the fifth dimension. Why wouldn’t he? We’re here to have fun, right?
Maggin somehow takes these absurd elements and puts them into a believable context. He describes elements like Superman’s microscopic vision in detail, just enough to make you say, “Hey, that actually makes sense.” When Superman and Luthor head off into space, it feels natural in this fantastic reality.
Something modern adaptations get wrong, with the possible exception of Smallville, is the relationship between Superman and Luthor. The Bronze Age Luthor is still a villain, but he’s like the Flash’s Rogues Gallery. This Luthor has never killed anyone, which allows Superman to take a different approach to his capers.
In Last Son of Krypton and Miracle Monday, Luthor takes on the role of almost a secondary protagonist. Maggin also explores the childhood friendship between Clark Kent and Lex Luthor, showing where things went wrong. It’s tragic and intriguing, and it adds so much to the dynamic.
A little bonus trivia for you: The title Miracle Monday comes from a fictitious Superman holiday celebrated on the third monday in May. The concept later appears in Superman #400 (1984) and Superman/Batman #80 (2011). Maggin later imported Kristin Wells, an important character from Miracle Monday, into the DC universe as Superwoman.
I have only one complaint about these two wonderful books. Superman exists in this fantastic world, but the rest of the DC universe is missing. Luthor is there, and other villains are mentioned, but none of them show up. The Guardians of the Universe make a guest appearance, but Hal Jordan is nowhere in sight. Superman and Luthor are on their own to save the day, which serves the story, but it leaves me wishing Maggin had written a Justice League novel to complete the trilogy. Fortunately, he wrote a fantastic novel adaptation of Kingdom Come and a Generation X novel I still need to read.
If the idea of an entire comic universe in a book intrigues you, I have good news. Four Color Bleed is my attempt at a massive comic book event in novel form. It’s all the fun of a summer crossover without having to chase down the tie-in issues. It’s inspired by my love for comics from the Golden Age to now, and it captures the fun and imagination of the paneled page. It’s for fans of series like Astro City, Starman, and All-Star Superman.
Four Color Bleed is currently on Kickstarter. I’ve lined up eight fantastic artists for the project. Their illustrations will accompany fictional encyclopedia entries in the style of the old Who’s Who series, to expand the world of Four Color Bleed and its huge cast of characters. Any support would be incredible, so head on over to the Kickstarter and help us make it happen.
Thanks, Ryan … now I’ve got two superhero novels I need to track down. No, make that three superhero novels … I’ve just backed Ryan’s new novel, and I hope Longbox Graveyard’s readers will join me! We Silver Age fans have got to stick together!
X-Men: Apocalypse arrives in theaters this week, and while reviews have been mixed, there’s no denying that the X-Men have become a major movie franchise, with a half-dozen films so far, and plenty more on the way. It’s hard to believe these many movies began with a single comic series published by Marvel a half-century ago!
I recently re-read the first several issues of X-Men, and it was fascinating to see where and how this modern franchise was born. In celebration of the X-Men’s pending Apocalypse, I thought it would be fun to look at the team’s Genesis, in terms of the major mutant tropes that emerged in the earliest days of the X-Men!
Now, I have a confession to make. Despite my love of all things Marvel, I’ve never been a huge X-Men fan, and I’ve considered the earliest run of the book among the lesser works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It had been several years since I read this book, and I went into my re-read expecting unsophisticated stories and a lot of growing pains as the X-Men formula gradually took shape.
What surprised me was how much of the modern X-Men storytelling DNA was baked into this series right from the start. And the most magical moment of all was when the most important element of the X-Men ethos flowered into full life in issue #5.
But that’s getting ahead of myself …
The concept of mutant student/heroes was on display right from the start. From the first page of issue #1, class was in session!
And “class,” for the most part, meant the Danger Room … though it wasn’t called by that name quite yet.
Some of the X-Men’s personalities were also on early display. Scott Summers was already a humorless hall monitor. The Beast, conversely, was initially a rough-and-tumble thuggish type … but more about him in a moment.
The X-Men were united in their admiration of the school’s newest pupil — Jean Grey. Maybe not quite united — Bobby Drake, the Iceman, was vocal in his disinterest. I’m certain Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn’t mean for this to be more than an adolescent male expressing that girls are icky … but given that Bobby has come out as gay in recent Marvel continuity, this makes for an interesting footnote.
Most important, this first issue laid the groundwork for the core element of the X-Men mythos — that mutants are different than humans, and feared by them.
And mutants are feared with good reason! That’s right, there are evil mutants, too … And right on cue, we get a gloriously deranged Magneto, ranting about Homo Superior.
Our heroes put Magneto to flight, which earns them the appreciation of the Army. While hinted at earlier, that critical element of the X-Men — that society hates all mutants, good or evil, just for being mutants — hasn’t quite coalesced yet.
Issue #2 further wedded the X-Men with the mainstream. Cyclops and Iceman received the kind of welcome normally reserved for the likes of the Fantastic Four …
And Professor X was working directly with the F.B.I. to capture the Vanisher, communicating via some high-tech telepathic gizmo. (It might be easier to use the phone next time, Chuck!)
But there was one bit of X-Men lore that got well and truly locked in this issue — the Danger Room got its name!
Issue #3 saw the X-Men’s mission of reaching out to the world’s mutants start to come into focus, though the way Professor X was shown to do it was kind of creepy.
The Mutant-Of-The-Month was the Blob. It was amusing that Professor X had no “Plan B” if someone had the temerity of turning down an invitation to the X-Men. Someone might take a dim view of risking his neck in the Danger Room and getting bossed around by Scott Summers? Inconceivable!
The Blob clearly wasn’t X-Men material. That he used his newfound status to try to take over a circus speaks volumes … and also serves to underscore the emerging good-mutants-versus-bad-mutants theme taking root in the book.
This issue also saw the Beast reinterpreted as educated and sophisticated. In Son of Origins, Stan Lee wrote this change was because the original, rough-hewn Beast seemed too much like The Thing, from the Fantastic Four. And so the Beast started using big words and reading an advanced calculus book with his feet!
Issue #3 also introduced a pervy subplot where Professor X secretly pined for the teenage Jean Grey … but we will just pretend this never happened …
Issue #4 featured the return of Magneto, now in command of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants! Chief among Magneto’s crew were Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch — pretty much the odd-mutants-out in Magneto’s Brotherhood, and destined to to respond to the better angels of their natures and become heroes after an issue or two. But they did provide the perfect audience for Magneto to blast off again about the secret mutant war that was becoming the heart of the book.
That plot line continued into Issue #5, where there was a subtle change that really defined what made the X-Men special …
Did you catch it?
“Normal humans fear and distrust anyone with super-mutant powers! … If he’s a fellow mutant, we’ve got to help him! … We’ve got to help anyone who’s in trouble! That’s our oath!”
The friendly men-on-the-street and allied authority figures of the first few issues have given way to an ugly mob that turns against mutants because they are different … while the X-Men emerge as heroes who look out for their own kind, but also defend anyone who is in trouble, even the people who hate them.
With these two panels, the X-Men are well and truly born. The idea that our heroes were mutants, and that they were students in a school, did help to set the book apart right from the start — but these were external elements, and over time they would have been little more than gimmicks. By providing the X-Men with the internal dynamic of being hated by the outside world while still pledging to serve the common good — well, that’s a concept that could (and did!) sustain these heroes for decades to come.
Suddenly, X-Men was more than a superhero fist opera. It was a battle for hearts and minds! And the stakes couldn’t be higher, because that battle was fought inside the team itself — like in issue #8, where Beast stormed off the team after being set-upon by a bigoted mob.
“I think Magneto and his evil mutants are right!”
That’s an argument we’ve been having in X-Men to this day.
This is interesting stuff! Our four-color world is suddenly cast in shades of grey. And while it would still be a decade before the X-Men as we know them today really came together …
… you can still trace the genesis of this beloved Marvel super-team to those first, at-times-awkward issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Was there anything those two guys couldn’t do?
And has there ever been a longer-gestating comic book hit than the X-Men? The book was ten years in the wilderness before it turned into a phenomenon with that new team, above — ten years where the series flirted with cancellation, and was even a reprint book for a time. The reintroduction of the X-Men under Len Wein and Dave Cockrum (and Chris Claremont, who took the ball and ran with it) was pitch-perfect, using the core ideas and history of series as a jumping-off point, and introducing a colorful and (mostly) new cast of characters that connected with the audience in ways the originals never quite managed.
Given Marvel’s nature — and the necessity of keeping those trademarks fresh — I expect the X-Men would have continued to get times at bat even if the 1974 series had fizzled, but that would have been no guarantee of success. How many times has Marvel tried (and failed) to make us fall in love with the Inhumans? Deathlok, Blade, Ghost Rider … every couple years, these characters get a chance to seize the spotlight, but they’ve never pulled it off, certainly not to the degree the X-Men have enjoyed. In terms of unlikely success, I expect only the Guardians of the Galaxy rank higher in Marvel’s oeuvre, and while the Guardians used a clever comics reboot as a springboard for their success, that property has really been more of a movie phenomenon than a comic book success.
Anyway, it just goes to show that sometimes it take awhile to get it right … and that you can’t rush success. The idea and the moment have to meet, and even then, you need a lot of luck. But hope springs eternal, and one of the pleasures of being a comics fan is watching a tertiary book like X-Men or the Guardians turn into a runaway success. It’s the kind of thing that inspires collectors to hang on to even their most obscure comic books — you never know when some lame old first issue is going to turn into solid gold.
(And personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the Invaders, Son of Satan, and the Legion of Monsters!)
NEXT MONTH: #161 The Superman Novels of Elliot S! Maggin
4 Seconds is my original comics property, published by Mark Waid’s Thrillbent!
Here is a roundup all all the press the series has attracted so far (and this list is kept updated here, let me know if I’ve missed something!)
4 Seconds is a noir thriller about a petty thief who discovers she can see four seconds into the future. That’s just enough precognition to get into trouble, but not nearly enough time to pull off the heist that will save her sister’s life.
4 Seconds is a digital-native comic story that expands the boundaries of storytelling thanks to Thrillbent’s unique platform.
>>>>>>>> READ 4 SECONDS FOR FREE BY CLICKING HERE <<<<<<<
The 4 Seconds Team
- Writer: Paul O’Connor
Homepage, Instagram, Twitter
- Artist: Karl Kesel
- Colorist: Grace Allison
- Letterer: Troy Peteri
- Designer: Billy King
Homepage, Instagram, Twitter
- Editor: Mark Waid
Homepage, Twitter, Twitter
Making Of 4 Seconds
The 2014 Comic-Con open microphone pitch contest where I won the opportunity to create 4 Seconds.
Thrillbent blog about the contest.
Thrillbent’s Mark Waid discusses the pitch contest. Listen for the part where Mark told me “not to get hit by a bus!”
New York Daily News article about the pitch contest.
Interview at Mars Will Send No More (includes concept art!)
Interview with the creators at Diamond Comics Distributing’s Scoop.
4 Seconds Press
Thrillbent Blog announcing publication.
Facebook plug by DC Comics Group Editor Jim Chadwick.
Announcement at Between The Pages (includes cakes!)
Announcement at Comicosity.
Announcement at Bronze Age Babies (bottom)
Announcement at Mars Will Send No More!
Podcast interview with Her Dork World/His Dork World.
Podcast interview at We Talk Comics.
Review at ReGeeken.
You may have heard that there is a new Marvel movie in theaters … Captain America Civil War!
Captain America is my favorite superhero, and I’ve covered him a lot here at Longbox Graveyard. Get on board with Team Cap and prepare for the movie by reviewing these blasts from Longboxes past!
To help fill in your Captain America knowledge, I recommended these five graphic novel collections, including the iconic Captain America #1.
And since Captain America is an identity as much as he is a hero, I dedicated a whole column to the time Steve Rogers gave up being Captain America!
My heart belongs to the Bronze Age, but my favorite Captain America run is of considerably more recent vintage. Here’s my appreciation of Ed Brubaker’s Captain America!
My list of the Top Ten Captain America Villains is the most popular thing I’ve ever published at Longbox Graveyard, and it prominently features the main bad guy of this new move — Zemo!
You can get a load of Jack “King” Kirby in my Captain America Covers Gallery and my Captain America By Kirby Gallery!
And don’t miss my Captain America by Steranko Gallery, either!
Enjoy the movie … and go Team Cap!
It’s time for another Super-Blog Team-Up, where Longbox Graveyard joins with pop culture blogs from around the world to celebrate a particular comics trope. This time, in honor of this week’s release of Captain America: Civil War (and also Batman v Superman, I suppose), we’re looking at great “Versus” comics events!
For my contribution, I went all the way back to the source … to the summer of 1940, when the Human Torch fought the Sub-Mariner!
If you were expecting this titanic clash to appear on the cover of Marvel Mystery Comics #8, you could be excused for missing it. It’s easy to overlook that Torch vs. Subby sidebar on the left, especially when the dominant image features some kind of four-armed caveman gunslinger, and the Golden Age Angel coming perilously close to punching a monster below the belt.
But make no mistake — no matter what the cover might show, the first meeting of the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner was this issue’s main event!
Barely a half-dozen issues old, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch were still the new kids on the block in 1940, but after a debut that sold nearly a million copies across multiple printings, these two new superheroes had already managed to stand out from the host of Superman imitators hitting the newsstands. It was perhaps because these characters were so different from Superman that they found an audience. Harkening to the noir world of pulp fiction, which was just now yielding in popularity to comics, Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch were anything but an embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way.
To be fair, Superman hadn’t fully evolved into that all-American paragon quite yet, either … but these new characters were still a breed apart. Carl Burgos’ Human Torch was an android who ignited into a creature of living flame when exposed to air, and who was buried alive by fearful humans before breaking free to take vengeance on the world that shunned him. In time, the Torch mastered his emotions, and become a defender of the common good, but his Frankenstein-like origins made for an unpredictable and sometimes menacing hero. And if it was unpredictability and menace that you wanted, you needed to look no further than Bill Everett’s Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, an undersea avenger that made war on the human race, and was elevated above outright villainy only by his own noble nature and a slippery moral code that (sometimes) saw Namor doing the right thing.
When our story opened, Namor was in rare form, waging a one-man war of revenge against New York city. Now, the people of New York did send Namor to the electric chair (!) the issue before, having found him guilty, more-or-less, of being a maniac. Disastrously for New Yorkers, a jolt from the chair just awakened the powers of a groggy Namor, who escaped from custody and then made Gotham pay.
What a rampage! Namor got started by flooding the Holland Tunnel with a depth charge …
… then downing a police biplane. Poor fool!
Next Subby hit the Bronx Zoo, freeing wild animals to wreak havoc.
Plus, poisonous reptiles. Couldn’t forget the poisonous reptiles.
Or the killer (!) elephant. Turn ’em all loose!
Namor suffered temporary remorse when he saw a baby threatened …
… but no sooner did he deliver the baby to a hospital than he was off to knock the top off the Empire State Building, before wrecking the George Washington Bridge!
I don’t know about you, but I love this stuff. This was Golden Age comics at their raw, heedless, unbridled best, with little concern for consequences or continuity, or even making much sense from panel to panel. The Sub-Mariner is pissed off, and he’s a freaking force of nature. What more do you need to know?
It’s on the George Washington Bridge where the Human Torch finally catches up with Namor. And … it’s not a great page. At all. There is little drama when these characters finally meet — the action is remote and restrained, the Torch is seen at a distance throughout, and Namor has his back to the audience the whole time.
You can’t win them all. Bill Everett was all of twenty-three when he created this tale. Even Everett couldn’t be a genius all of the time.
Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek render the meeting in more dynamic terms when they revisited this scene, half a century later, in the pages of Marvels #1.
But Ross and Busiek had an advantage — they could look backwards through time. Neither Everett nor fellow twenty-something creator Carl Burgos could have guessed that their crazy comics story was giving birth to the Marvel Universe. Yet you can argue that is exactly what they did — bringing these two characters together, and proving they lived in the same world, where the consequences of each character’s actions would reverberate through each other’s stories. Heroes and anti-heroes, stories told in shades of grey, big events in real cities with hapless human bystanders caught in the crossfire — that’s the Marvel storytelling DNA, right there, decades before Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Sue rocketed into space in the pages of Fantastic Four #1.
Marvel Mystery Comics was an anthology book, with separate stories of the Torch and Namor in each issue, along with characters like the Angel and Ka-Zar. This team-up was notable in that it spanned two stories in issue #8. Bill Everett’s Sub-Mariner story led the issue, and concluded with that meeting on the bridge — then Carl Burgos’ Human Torch story took over, with the Torch, now a policeman, tasked with capturing Namor on his first day on the job!
Burgos’ entry largely re-told the Everett story, from Torch’s point-of-view, but where Namor was tearing things apart, the Torch was putting them back together, herding zoo animals back into their cages, and dispatching a rampaging gorilla with a flaming right-cross.
Issue #9 continued the clash, with a twenty-two page lead feature by Bill Everett, and (finally) a cover image worthy of this tale …
The battle even rated a splash page heralding the fight as the “Battle of the Comic Century!”
In this second part, the Human Torch was mostly a punching bag — not unreasonable, given that much of the battle took place underwater.
But in a strange turn of events, Namor seemed to lose his mojo — first failing to break a bubble (!) that carried the Torch to the surface, then falling prey to chlorinated reservoir water. So, yeah, Namor is the lord of the seven seas, but keep him away from the water park!
Weakened by chlorine, and with his ankle-wings singed off by the Torch’s flame, Namor escaped by highjacking a plane, and returned to his old homicidal ways, only to think better of his actions in the very next panel. He was nothing if not mercurial, our Namor.
He was also a thinking-man’s madman, rendering the Human Torch powerless by trapping him inside a “translite tube.”
And that’s how issue #9 concluded, with readers encouraged to think how they’d break the stalemate!
So, who was the greater hero in this hero vs. hero tale — Subby, or the Torch?
How about … neither of them?
The true hero of this story — and about the only person who behaves with an ounce of sense — was policewoman Betty Dean. As Namor’s only friend among the surface-dwellers, and as a member of the police force like the Human Torch, Betty was uniquely qualified to see both sides of this conflict, and propose a peaceful solution.
The problem was that she couldn’t get these meatheads to listen to her.
How many times was Betty supposed to offer the answer before someone got the point?
Four times, by my count. Gotta give Betty points for persistence, and bonus points for telling the Torch he was a fool, right from the get-go.
And so the conflict ended sensibly — if not very excitingly — when Betty brokered a peace in the single-page conclusion to the story in Marvel Mystery Comics #10:
Of course, it would have been cooler if they’d fought.
(And Ross and Busiek seemed to agree).
But what the heck? This was the Golden Age, where anything was possible — even Subby and the Torch turning into the Get-Along Gang because Betty Dean told them to make nice. Never mind what happened to the Empire State Building, or the Holland Tunnel, or the Bronx Zoo! I’d say it was all water under the bridge — but Namor knocked the bridge down, too!
Bridge or no bridge, this story was the high-water mark for Namor’s mayhem. Succeeding stories would mostly see the Sub-Mariner venting his rage on Nazis and Imperial Japanese agents, while the Human Torch fought corruption and gang bosses in New York City.
(Well, true, there was Human Torch #5 where Namor hurled a tidal wave against New York City, but we’ll just forget that ever happened …)
The two heroes teamed again in Marvel Mystery Comics #17 to foil a Nazi attack on America, and modern Marvel continuity would team them with Captain America in the WWII hero squad the Invaders. Namor would go on to become a featured Silver Age character in his own right, after being reintroduced in Fantastic Four #4, while the Human Torch — now identified as the “Original” version, to set him apart from the Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm — would suffer an even stranger fate in modern Marvel comics, getting bound up in the origin of the Vision, among other things.
But that’s really all too complicated, and serves only to obscure the core nature of these primal characters, who have rarely been better than in this story, in all it’s crude and unvarnished glory. My heart belongs to the Bronze Age, but sometimes the old ways are the best ways, as when fire and water clashed, with no punches pulled, at the dawn of the Marvel Universe!
Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think of the Golden Age Torch and Sub-Mariner in the comments section, below, but not before checking out these other “Versus” features from the Super-Blog Team-Up crew!
- Bronze Age Babies: Civil War, Silver Age Style — Tales of Suspense #58
- Between The Pages: Star Wars Versus
- Crapbox Son Of Cthulhu: Versus Edition
- Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Justice League of America
- Coffee & Comics Blog: Spider-Man vs Ghost Rider
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: Captain America vs Wolverine
- Superhero Satellite: Batman vs. Guy Gardner
- The Unspoken Decade: War Machine vs. Cable
- The Retroist: The Joker vs Sherlock Holmes
IN THREE WEEKS: #160 X-Men: Genesis!