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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!

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

Defenders of the Bronze Age

Longbox Graveyard #33

When I began Longbox Graveyard I’d never heard of the Bronze Age of comics. All I knew was that I had a pile of old books that I needed to catalog and appreciate. A check of the worth-what-you-paid-for-it listing at Wikipedia revealed that the “Bronze Age” runs from 1970 to 1985 — which almost exactly overlaps the majority of my comics collection — and so, bingo, Longbox Graveyard was a Bronze Age comics blog.

That same Wikipedia listing notes that Bronze Age books feature “… darker plot elements and more socially-relevant storylines … featuring real-world issues, such as drug use, alcoholism, and environmental pollution …” and while I didn’t think much of it at the time, I have found some truth in this as I’ve revisited my Bronze Age books these past six months.

Never has this definition been more on-target than in Steve Gerber‘s run on The Defenders. By that Wikipedia definition, Gerber’s Defenders is the soul of the Bronze Age.

The Defenders had run for about two years before Gerber took over scripting chores, and I don’t intend to review those early issues here. They were neither very good nor very bad, typifying the kind of mid-list quality that was a strength of Marvel Comics in the 1970s. Following the adventures of a loosely-connected group of heroes centering around Doctor Strange, the Hulk, and the Sub-Mariner, the Defenders came together to face world-threatening events, often supernatural in nature. Much was made of the group being a non-team, consciously distinct from the Avengers with that team’s more glamorous members and endless wrangling over rosters and bylaws. If the Avengers were the high school football team, then the Defenders were the dangerous kids who cut class and showed up for picture day in an AC/DC t-shirt.

In this book Gerber inherited a box of parts that didn’t fit, but rather than try to rationalize the team, Steve purposefully threw sand in the gears. To the core roster of Hulk, Doctor Strange, Valkyrie, and Nighthawk, Gerber added a revolving door of guest-stars and semi-teammates: Son of Satan, Daredevil, Power Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Yellowjacket, Red Guardian. Second-tier characters for the most part, and when you saw them in the same room it looked like a pack of honorable mentions from a cosplay convention got dressed in the dark.

No matter how many times they saved the world, “The Defenders” as an institution just never took root. No one called the Defenders for help — often it was the opposite, with the Defenders calling in someone like Luke Cage when the team needed more muscle. Of all the Marvel superteams, only the Champions were lamer.

If no one was supposed to take the Defenders seriously, Steve Gerber missed the memo, because his scripts were always grounded by real-world issues and emotions, whether his goofy heroes were fighting cultists, the race-baiting Sons of the Serpent, or an interstellar invasion from the baleful Badoon (and he made the Badoon interesting — a minor miracle!). Gerber seemed bored by superhero action — when a fight broke out, he’d find an excuse to break away from fist city to show some innocent being rescued, or he’d frame a single, wide shot to get the compulsory action out the way, then cut back to something he found more interesting.

today’s supervillian — poverty!

With Sal Buscema on pencils, this was an especially wise approach. If you dig this run of Defenders it will be despite the art, rather than because of it — our pal Sal can serve up any meal you like, so long as what you like is a mayonnaise sandwich. I’m sure there’s a virtue to Sal’s consistency, timeliness, and volume of work, and it’s not like what he’s done here is poor — it’s just undistinguished and instantly forgettable. The same poses, panel after uninspired panel, and everyone has the same damn expression on their face, too. Sal only looks as good as his inker allows (and he seemingly has a different inker every month during this run, with Klaus Jansen by far the best of the bunch). Doctor Strange has never been less dynamic than under Buscema’s pencils — a flying guy in a bathrobe, basically, and the Hulk a slack-jawed brute.

thanks, Klaus, for inks above and beyond the call of duty!

As mentioned, Gerber wasn’t all that interested in action, and he filled his scripts with stuff even Sal’s more talented brother, John, would have found difficult getting on paper. Gerber’s run on the Defenders sees the team battling slum lords, hate groups, brain-thieves, and cultists, and calls for the Hulk to go undercover in a trench coat, and wear a bozo mask. We also get the Headmen — including a guy with a gorilla’s body, and a deer occupied by the intellect of a cranky sorcerer — and the worst supervillain of all time (in a fill-in issue by Bill Mantlo) … the long-forgotten Tapping Tommy. Really, by any objective measure, this is a terrible run of comic-books, and I won’t even try to summarize the plot … but I still love these books, because they are so damn singular, and because Gerber holds nothing back.

undercover Hulk, in a Bozo mask

So rather than criticize Sal Buscema’s pencils, maybe the man deserves a medal, both for making sense of Gerber’s crazy ideas and for sticking with the book for Gerber’s entire run. And I think he was a part of something great here. Gerber’s Defenders are exhibit A for “Bronze Age” comic book writing — the same silly characters and plots of the Silver Age storytelling, but with an undercurrent of social realism. Poverty, racism, drug addiction, snuff films, gender issues, identity, new age religion, prison reform — Gerber’s Defenders tackles them all.

a trademark Steve Gerber technique — the all-text story page

For all that the world is threatening, it is not grim. An old man is burned to death by racist Sons of Serpent thugs, and the Hulk tosses people around in ways that look fatal, but for the most part, Gerber sticks to the sunny side of the street. Re-reading these issues really points up the divide between Bronze Age and Modern Age sensibilities. Touchy issues are addressed with a kind of 1970s television sensibility, lending the books depth but not veering off into some dark, depressing corner, or losing sight of the fact that these are adventure stories about people in tights with magical powers. There are drug addicts in Gerber’s world, but he’d never turn Karen Page into a heroin-addicted prostitute.

the Sons of the Serpent weren’t pulling any punches

There are some things that don’t work. The subplot with amnesic Valkyrie and the husband she no longer knows or loves careens from pathos to pathetic, and some elements never come to fruition — most famously Gerber’s crazy elf with a gun, who pops up out of nowhere to assassinate folks at random, and was just one of several plot threads left dangling when Gerber abruptly left the series after issue #41.

the infamous elf

I’ve hunted around the internet (without success) to determine if Gerber’s departure from Defenders was amicable. Creators were shuffled around all the time in this era, and the surprise shouldn’t be that Gerber left the book, but that he lasted over twenty issues on it in the first place. The letter column of the run’s final issue says that Gerber has been “relieved of his duties” after being “shipped off to the duck farm where he belongs,” and promises the Defenders will again “resemble a super-hero book” — doubtless tongue-in-cheek as were all the letter columns of the day, but it has a little bit of bite. (A later Defenders letter column discloses that Gerber penned that response himself). I can see where superhero fans might have just wanted a normal story, for crying out loud (and maybe I felt that way myself in 1976, I can’t remember), but all these years later, it’s a shame we didn’t get more of Gerber’s Defenders. There’s never been a book quite like it, before or since.

And neither has there ever been another guy quite like the deeply-missed Steve Gerber! Next week I will tell my own little Steve Gerber story — about a creator, a writer, a muck monster, a few life lessons, and a lost Steve Gerber comic script (sort of).

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #34 Gerber’s Baby

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