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Happy (Late) Superhero Christmas!

Happy Holidays to Longbox Graveyard readers far and wide.

The holidays ate me alive this year (in a good way), and so I failed to participate in last week’s holiday installment of Super-Blog Team-Up … but the week after Christmas is prime time to sleep in and catch up on cool comics, so I hope you will visit each and every one of these blogs for a special helping of super-powered holiday cheer!

Super-Blog Team-Up

Here’s wishing my Super-Blog Team-Up comrades and comics readers everywhere a peaceful holiday season and a better 2017. See you in the new year!

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Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag (Of Coal)

Longbox Graveyard #80

The Christmas season is traditionally a slow time for newsstand comic book sales, so you can’t blame Marvel Comics for trying to create some holiday cheer with with their 1975 Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag … but would it have killed them to hunt up some actual holiday-themed stories for their holiday-themed collection? “Marvel’s Yuletide Gift To YOU!” turns out to be a lump of coal!

It starts well enough, with a genuine grab-bag of superheroes hanging stockings by the chimney with care. Luke Cage thoughtfully drapes the tree with chains, but I’m not sure which is more disturbing — that the Hulk must have mugged a plus-sized Santa to get that St. Nicholas suit, or that Nick Fury thinks its appropriate to attend a tree-trimming in a bondage costume.

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag

It’s a charming bit of hokum, and it appeals to me now just as it did in 1975, when I bought this book off the rack. As a thirteen-year-old I appreciated anything that connected my comic book world with the spirit of the season, and I especially enjoyed those monthly books that included Christmas content in their December issues (especially considering that the teams must have been sweating out a New York summer when they first created those pages). But if my regular comics adventures couldn’t manage some snow and mistletoe, then a big holiday reprint collection was the next best thing.

And I do mean big. This Holiday Grab-Bag was a part of the Marvel Treasury Edition series — a big, over-sized, 10″ x 13″ edition (and for more about Marvel’s Treasury Editions, check out the spectacular TreasuryComics.com). That means this Grab-Bag wasn’t the usual Marvel reprint — it was a double-sized reprint, providing an unusual opportunity for Marvel fans to see their favorite characters big, blown-up, and beautiful.

So why oh why does Marvel lead this edition with a story penciled by Frank Springer?

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Actually, as Frank Springer goes, this tale isn’t bad. Originally appearing in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #10, ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” shows some ambition, starting with a typographic splash page in the Will Eisner/Jim Steranko tradition.

Frank Springer and Gary Friedrich, Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD #10

Nick foils a street crime, then hustles home for some real sixties spy action …

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This is a Nick Fury comic, so the mushy stuff doesn’t last long, and before you know it Nick is called away by S.H.I.E.L.D. to battle Hate Monger (née Adolph Hitler) on the edge of space, foiling a plot that involves germ warfare, an atomic bomb, and (just maybe) Santa’s sleigh!

But it’s all in a night’s work for S.H.I.E.L.D.’ top cop … and even more impressive is that ol’ Nick doesn’t miss a beat when he returns home to find his paramour (whatever her name might be) still in her Christmas Eve party dress. Hey, there’s a reason we named Nick Fury the manliest character in all of superhero comics!

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I’ve made the story seem better than it reads. This is a pretty by-the-numbers Nick Fury tale, the best part of which may have been the original cover, which sadly appears only in black & white on the inside back cover of this Grab-Bag Treasury Edition:

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #10

It’s a silly tale with a poor conclusion and it doesn’t do Frank Springer any favors showing his art at this expanded size. But you know, compared to the stories that follow, this tale looks like The Great Gatsby.

Take the next tale, for example — a reprint of “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” from Amazing Spider-Man #24. This is a great Spider-Man story — maybe my favorite single-issue story from the unmatched Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run on Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man is attacked where he is most vulnerable by a mystery villain — directly in his neurosis, triggering a near-psychotic experience and a genuine crisis of confidence for Web-Head.

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The only problem is this story has nothing to do with the holidays (aside from the part about losing your mind). I looked in vain for a street Santa or a wreath or a menorah or even a throw-away line referencing the time of year but no luck — this is a seasonally-neutral superhero tale. Treasury-sized Steve Ditko is always welcome (and I’ve devoted an entire post just to blowing up Mr. Ditko’s Spider-Man panels), but however much I like this story, it’s a peculiar inclusion for a holiday collection. (And a question for Spider-Man scholars — was there a worthy pre-1976 Spider-Man holiday story that might have better served here?)

The holiday returns (though the quality does not) in the next tale, reprinting “Jingle Bombs” by Steve Englehart and George Tuska from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #7. Sadly, Luke does not decorate Christmas trees with his belt-chain, as he does on this collection’s cover, but this story does have Luke doing what he does, with a holiday twist, like making out in the snow with his foxy girlfriend:

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The plot is a muddle, with Luke bedeviled by some quick-changing knucklehead who tests our hero with moral dilemmas before ultimately threatening to blow up New York with an atomic bomb. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and as was the case with Mr. Springer, George Tuska doesn’t immediately leap to mind when listing the Marvel artists I’d like to see in double-size format.

But this tale does get points for being a holiday story — there’s even a Santa Claus in it. There are also some vintage Luke Cage moments, like his quasi-hippy rant over “Freakin’ GUNS!” …

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… and Luke’s out-loud reference to the day they lay pennies on his eyes …

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Overall, this story is just a little bit better than the Nick Fury issue that leads this collection. It’s full of snow and Santas and it is neither very much better or very much worse than other Luke Cage stories of the era.

Except for one problem (and it’s a big one).

How can we get through an entire issue of vintage Luke Cage — a Christmas issue, especially — without Luke exclaiming, “Christmas!” ??

It’s just not right.

surprise!

NOT from the Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag

At least there’s snow on the ground in Luke Cage’s story — something that can’t be said for the next story, “Heaven Is A Very Small Place,” from Incredible Hulk #147 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe.

This story looks great in the expanded Treasury format, with Trimpe’s pencils softened by the skillful sable brush of John Severin.

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This is a short, nine-page story with the Hulk coming to the usual heartbreak in the illusory town of his dreams. It’s thin on supervillains and smashing but it is a well-told and heartfelt story. Again, the problem here is that this is not a holiday tale. It’s too much to expect snow in a desert mirage town, but there isn’t even a hint of Hanuka here. If you squint just right I suppose there’s an echo of It’s A Wonderful Life on display but with none of that classic tale’s uplifting reason-for-the-season message.

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It isn’t spoiling much to reveal that the Hulk feels safe and at home in his idyllic hometown-of-the-mind, before it is all yanked away from him. That’s the way it had to be, because this is an early 1970s Hulk story …

… and because nothing says “Christmas” like a tormented man-brute!

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Our Giant Superhero Holiday Treasury Edition has been a (mixed) Grab-Bag so far, and it’s all down to the fifth story — “Eternity” from Doctor Strange #180 by Roy Thomas & Gene Colan — to determine if our collection will ultimately prove naughty, or nice. And there is some cause for optimism here. These Gene Colan/Tom Palmer pages look as spectacular as you would expect in this expanded format, and the tale nails it’s holiday bona fides early as Strange and the lovely Clea hook up for a New Years Eve date.

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The story unwinds at a languid pace, offering touching insight on Strange & Clea’s relationship. For for a panel or two, this story is as snuggly and seasonal as a Norah Ephron rom-com.

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I award bonus points for a Times Square New Years Eve reference …

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… and BONUS bonus points for the inevitable supervillain attack taking the form of a rampaging T-Rex!

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Alas, it all ends in tears.

First, there’s the unfortunate fact of Doctor Strange’s costume, dating from that forgettable era when Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme wore a full-face mask to conceal his identity from extra-dimensional, mind-reading alien gods. Of Marvel’s many costume-revision gaffes, putting Doctor Strange in a ski-mask ranks second only to giving Iron Man a nose.

Second … this tale ends in the middle! No sooner does the Big Bad stride into Times Square than we get this lame denouement telling us that the Marvel Bullpen wishes us a swell time and get the hell out, kid, you’re out of pages even if the story is just getting started!

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And so the Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag turns out to be a lump of coal after all — a haphazard, thrown-together box of parts that don’t fit, comprised of stories with no business being in a holiday anthology and a New Years Eve tale that makes us go home right when the clock strikes midnight!

But, you know … when it comes to gifts, it is the thought that counts, and there is that great front cover, and the back cover isn’t too shabby either …

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag Back Cover

… and shucks, there’s Santa Claus waving at us, and even the Hulk is smiling. Having just torn this collection apart, I still get a warm feeling when thinking about this book — maybe because it transports me back to a simpler time when it was just cool to have superhero friends for the holidays. After all, in 1975 you couldn’t walk into a book store and find row after row of graphic novels or superhero movie tie-ins. These geek ways were held more closely then, and we were happy with what we got, whether it was Hulk in a Santa suit, Doctor Strange in a body sock, or just a collection of moldy old Marvel superhero stories to read under the tree. They don’t all have to be books for the ages.

And so I am content with this “Merry-Marvel Season’s Greetings To One And All!” … and please accept Longbox Graveyard’s greetings, wherever you may be this holiday season. Be peaceful to each other, and thank you for reading this blog, on Christmas and every other day of the year!

Longbox Graveyard Holiday Comic Book Gift Guide

Longbox Graveyard #77

The end of the year is coming into view and with it comes the happy duty of buying gifts for friends, loved ones, bosses, and even arch-enemies. Fear not — the Longbox Graveyard Holiday Comic Book Gift Guide is here!

My selections are idiosyncratic and make no attempt to be comprehensive. Items listed below are things I like and write about here at Longbox Graveyard, and if you like this blog, then chances are you will like them too. In the unlikely event that you have wandered here from some Google search looking for comic book Christmas gifts, then you can get an idea of my ethos by reading this blog’s first entry … or just trust that I know what I am talking about, and that I will point you in the right direction when it comes to comic book gifts, particularly for someone who loves older comics from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

(And if you want a more comprehensive and contemporary gift-giving guide, you won’t go far wrong with Tom Spurgeon’s exhaustive survey over at The Comics Reporter).

I don’t care if you’ve been naughty or nice — if you’re a comics fan, you’re bound to be happy finding any of these items beneath your tree (or the non-denominational holiday avatar of your choosing).

SUPERHERO CLASSICS

Longbox Graveyard is mostly about superheroes, and here are some of my favorite collections.

Walt Simonson’s Thor

Simonson’s take on Thor from the 1980s remains my favorite interpretation of one of my favorite characters. In his fifty-odd issue run, Walt took all the classic elements of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Thor mythos — Asgard, the gods, Loki, the Destroyer, Thor’s battles with his father, romance, the whole shooting match — and made everything old seem new again. These books are fast-paced, adventurous, sometimes funny, and always full of heart. (You can read my review of the first part of Simonson’s run in two parts, here and here). Simonson’s work has been collected in the Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus, a beautiful volume that includes the entire run, including the seminal Beta Ray Bill storyline, and the Malekith the Dark Elf arc, which appears to be at the center of 2013’s Thor movie sequel.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man is fifty years old but I think the character’s initial Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run has never been bettered (and you can find out why I feel this way, here). The entire Lee/Ditko run is collected in a hard-to-find Omnibus, and you can also get at least part of the saga in a more readily-available Masterwork edition.

Conan The Barbarian

It has been awhile since I blogged about Conan’s earliest comics appearances, his romances, and his mishandling in film, but I am still a devoted fan of the Cimmerian, and very fond of the Dark Horse Comics reprints of the Marvel Conan books of the 1970s. The entire Marvel run is available — along with reprints of Savage Sword of Conan and King Conan too, if you are a completest — but I can most recommend the Barry Windsor-Smith reprints in volumes 1-4 of the series, and the following Roy Thomas/John Buscema run that is reprinted up through volume 14. The clarity and color of those reprints is a sight to behold — in many cases it’s like seeing the art for the very first time.

Captain America

File this one under new classics — while the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby tales are collected in an omnibus of their own, author Ed Brubaker’s take on Cap from 2004-2012 is my favorite interpretation of my favorite character. Mr. Brubaker has wrapped up his run but his tales are collected in several volumes, beginning with his Captain America Omnibus Volume 1, and continuing with the Death of Captain America, and others. A bit of these tales were mined for 2011’s Captain America movie, and Brubaker’s Winter Soldier arc is reported to be the basis of 2014’s movie sequel.

Infinity Gauntlet

And since we’re talking about movies … if you want a look ahead to future Marvel movies, you could do worse than to read the recent Infinity Gauntlet collection. This mini-series by Jim Starlin, George Perez, and Ron Lim tells of the tale of the mad Death God of Titan taking on the entire Marvel Universe and (almost) killing them all. It is a cosmic fist opera of the first order (and you can read my review here), but it’s most worth reading to give yourself a crash course in the series’ central villain, Thanos — otherwise known as that mysterious purple guy from the end credits of The Avengers, who promises to loom large in the Marvel movies to come.

ANIMATION

There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to superhero movies, and you don’t need me to tell you that Avengers and Dark Knight Rises should be on your shopping list. But don’t overlook the charms of superhero animation, which tell a broader range of stories and introduce more obscure, weird, and wonderful characters than you will ever see in a live action move.

Young Justice

My favorite comic-that-isn’t-a-comic got a full review here, and with Cartoon Network yanking this title off the air without warning, the best way to watch it now is through these DVD sets. Young Justice is a serious, straight-ahead superhero series about insecure young heroes facing a monstrous super-conspiracy, full of action, surprises, and some sophisticated characterization that lends punch to a couple genuinely surprising cliffhanger twists. There’s a good chance this is the best superhero series you’ve never seen, and I’d put it up against some of the second-tier live action superhero films of recent years in terms of entertainment value. These DVDs are an inexpensive and very cool gift for comics fans.

Batman: Brave & The Bold

A distinct departure from the grim-and-gritty screen Batman of today, Batman: Brave & The Bold is a throwback to the silly Silver Age Batman of the 1960s, and will also be familiar to anyone who enjoyed the Adam West television show of that era. Taking its name from Batman’s legendary team-up book, the series sees Batman paired with a different DC hero each week. It is a breathlessly inventive show, with musical episodes, surrealistic dream episodes, and the BEST depiction of Aquaman, anywhere (yes, Aquaman). This series will connect with hipster adults (who don’t need to be mind-altered to enjoy it) and kids alike, and it’s a great series for adults to watch with their children, truly a show with something for everyone.

BOOKS ABOUT COMICS

The perfect gift for the comics fan who has everything may not be comics but instead book about comics — tomes that provide insight on the history and development of the comic book form. Here are a few of the essential volumes you’ll find on my shelf, which I think any devoted fan would enjoy.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

Sean Howe’s unauthorized history of the most important company in comics is a terrific read — and I enthused about it at length here. Far from a fawning fan history, this book is for those who want to see how the sausage is made, and for anyone who wants to know more about the larger-than-life personalities in Marvel’s creative “bullpen” (spoiler: some of these people aren’t very nice). This was my favorite book of 2012 and I recommend it even to non-comics fans for its look at a unique business, and for its chronicle of how Marvel rose from bankruptcy to become one of the most powerful companies in modern media.

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Scott McCloud’s book isn’t a history of comics so much as a guide to understanding what makes comics a unique storytelling form, revealing the unexpectedly complicated wheels-within-wheels that make a comic tick. The book is scholarly but very approachable thanks to being a comic book itself, and it’s a good choice for convincing your on-the-fence friends that there may be more to these funny books than meets the eye. Confirmed comics fans will also enjoy McCloud’s insights on how the form of comics has changed through the years, and will also be exposed to greater breadths in the medium than we sometimes perceive when we’re locked into the monthly adventures of Captain Whatsisname.

Comics & Sequential Art

Will Eisner’s instruction manual on his singular way of telling a tale in words and pictures is intended for artists but still contains insights for fans and laymen. I go back to it every couple years just to remind myself how angry I am that I can’t draw a lick — Eisner lays out a grammar for comics that definitely favors the role of the artist/writer, but everyone will enjoy looking at the way Eisner breaks down a page, conveys emotion, and (most famously) depicts the passage of time. A master work from a master creator that modern comics authors and artists would do well to read.

MODERN STUFF

I do read contemporary comics, even if I don’t blog about them here at Longbox Graveyard, and if you want stories from the present century I can offer some guidance. For the most part these collections have the same storytelling values as those older books that I cherish, but they are dressed up for a modern sensibility. Some are revisionist takes on classic superheroes while others are new tales for a new age. Most of them will even stand up to critical scrutiny, meaning you can leave them out on your coffee table with only (minimal) fear of derision and embarrassment!

The Walking Dead

Robert Kirkman’s harrowing tale of our inevitable zombie-haunted future is both a television and publishing phenomenon, and my review of the first fifty-odd issues of this series headlined my Halloween column here at Longbox Graveyard. These books are well-written and approachable — a little slow at times, but taken together make for a terrific (and sometimes difficult) long read. Nearly every issue printed to date have been collected in Walking Dead Compendium One and the newly-released Walking Dead Compendium Two. For fans of a less literary bent, box set collections of seasons one, two, and three are also good viewing, but even fans intimately familiar with the television series are likely to enjoy the original graphic novels, which provide more in-depth characterization and also offer some twists and turns not (entirely) in line with how the show has developed.

The New 52

A little over a year ago, DC Comics hit the “reset” button on their superhero comics line, with the intent of making their comic book universe more inviting for new and lapsed readers. The “New 52” is DC’s line of 52 monthly comic books covering everything from Superman to Frankenstein, fitting everything into a (more-or-less) editorially cohesive whole.

Now that DC is several months into their reboot, the first issues of the New 52 are appearing as trade paperback collections, and I’ve liked most of the few that I’ve read. You can’t go far wrong with any of these titles (except the Rob Liefeld ones!), and if you have a lapsed Superman reader on your shopping list, or know a fan of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight film trilogy, then grab one of the many titles featuring those characters and you are good to go. If you’d like something a little further afield, then I recommend the New 52 collections of Aquaman (yes, Aquaman!) and Supergirl, as well as the continuing story of Batwoman (though new readers would be wise to begin with her pre-New 52 adventures).

I also enjoyed the medieval superhero adventures of the Demon Knights, the secret undead war of I, Vampire, and the gonzo monster-fighting exploits of Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.(since sadly cancelled, so this first collection might be the only stories we’ll get). Wonder Woman, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing all come highly-recommended, too, but I haven’t yet read them myself, so maybe thumb them in the store before buying.

Ed Brubaker’s Crime Stories

I’ve already enthused about Ed Brubaker’s take on Captain America, but his original crime stories are also well worth reading. There are echoes of Pulp Fiction in the multiple, interweaving narratives of Brubaker’s Criminal, a gritty look at street-level crime without a cape in sight. If you want a little more superheroics in your Brubaker crime drama, his Incognito is worth a look, about the trials of an irredeemable supervillian in the witness protection program. And even though they feature mainstream superheroes, Brubaker’s take on Daredevil and Catwoman owe more to crime books than they do capes and masks, so give them a look, too.

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited

If the best gift is something a person would love while never buying it for themselves, then a year’s subscription of Marvel’s library of digital comics may be the best option on this list. The service has its strengths and weaknesses, but the content is without peer, particularly for fans of older Marvel books. Recent titles run about a year behind their street publication but the back catalog is impressive and growing every week. This was the gift my family gave me last year and a renewed subscription is printed in bold crayon in my own letter to Santa this season.

Saga

Finally we have Saga, the “it” book of 2012. This Image Comics space fantasy from Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples is just getting started, and the recently-released first trade collection is a great place to jump into a difficult-to-summarize story that features a rocketship forest, TV-headed spacefaring noblemen, bounty hunters with complicated moral compasses, Lying Cat, a breastfeeding narrator, and … well, just go with it. Saga is a fast-paced, inventive, and surprising story and you can get in on the fun before most people even know it exists (or before the wheels come off of this ambitious tale). Plus, as a special bonus, reading this story will give you instant comics shop credibility, and may be the key to winning a date with that mousy comics girl behind the register who only reads cool stuff you’ve never heard about. Check it out!

So there you have it … a sack so stuffed full of comic book goodness that even Ben Grimm in a Santa suit would have a hard time carrying it through the door. I hope you’ve found a book or two for someone on your list (even if that someone is you), and if you do purchase something based on my recommendation, I hope you will write and let me know how it turned out. I also welcome your holiday gift suggestions in my comments, below.

Happy Holidays from Longbox Graveyard!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #78 Longbox Soapbox

Super Tuesday: Christmas!

Christmas is fast upon us and this week’s Super Tuesday seeks to put you in a superhero holiday mood. This Christmas wreath is largely without spirit, and appears quickly slapped together from Marvel clip-art but what’s most interesting to me is that image of Conan, bottom center, because it looks to me to have been drawn by Jack Kirby. If so, it was right at the end of Kirby’s final tenure with Marvel, as he transitioned to full-time film and animation work in 1979, the year this ad saw print.

Also of note — why does Luke Cage have blue teeth? And wouldn’t this have been a perfect time to have Luke declare, “Christmas!”

Merry Christmas, Mr. Cage!

Please accept these early season’s greetings from Longbox Graveyard, and join me here tomorrow when I offer the perfect holiday gift choices for the special geek in your life (who may very well be YOU!)

TOMORROW AT LONGBOX GRAVEYARD: Longbox Graveyard Comic Book Holiday Gift Guide

CAPpy Holidays From Longbox Graveyard

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