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The Mighty Thor: Mjolnir’s Song

Longbox Graveyard #172

Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters this week, and the movie looks a treat, full of Hulks and gods and laughs and action. Mostly, it looks … big.

But no matter how big this film may be, it can’t be bigger than this Thor story from thirty years ago …

Welcome to the Dollar Box, where I review comic book treasures with an original cover price of a dollar or less! For this installment I wanted to do something big … and you don’t get much bigger than Thor #380, where every page is a full-page shot!

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

The year was 1987, and Walt Simonson was nearing the end of his run on Thor. And not just any run — for my money, Simonson’s Thor is in the discussion for the finest comics run of all time. I’ve already enthused about the first issues of Simonson’s era over at Longbox Graveyard (in two parts — ONE, and TWO), but with this issue we are in Simonson’s late innings, and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. Simonson had ceded his pencilling duties to Sal Buscema after issue #368, but like one of his Norse heroes, the master returned to the page for one last epic adventure with the God of Thunder, doubtless feeling some pressure to top the stellar work he had done before. The result was this “all-splash page” issue of Thor, an attempt to tell a big story with the biggest possible images.

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

And this is a big story. Thor battles the Midgaard Serpent … the mythological, world-girdling wyrm destined to slay Thor at the end of time. Thor has always been a book heavy with mythological overtones, and never moreso than in Simonson’s run. When Thor takes to the field of battle against the Serpent, it is with the full, crushing awareness that this is a battle he cannot win, and that his death at the fangs of the Serpent — followed by the destruction of the Earth that he loves — is his inevitable fate.

But what makes heroes into heroes is how they face their doom, and defy the fates, and that is what we have in Thor #380. Weakened by Hela’s curse, and sustained only by his magic armor and the power of his mighty hammer, Mjolner, Thor faces long odds in this battle. The Serpent is well aware of Thor’s sudden mortality, and also knows that this strange circumstance may free him of the doom that binds him to Thor — if he can kill this godling now, weakened as he is, then he might re-write his own fate. After all, he, too, is destined to die on the last day in battle with Thor.

Big stakes, big pictures, and big storytelling, and it works (mostly), not so much as a stand-alone issue, but as a victory lap for the end of Simonson’s long run on this title. Telling a story in this format is epic, but not ideal. A comic story needs images of differing sizes to operate at best efficiency. When all panels are the same size, they are afforded equivalent visual weight, working against the emotional pace of a story. The absence of conventional panel structure is especially acute when showing rapid action, such as when Thor is swallowed by the Serpent, then bashes his way back out through the monster’s teeth, a sequence better suited to two panels than two pages. But as a once-in-a-lifetime event — and especially as a punctuation mark for Simonson’s stellar run — it is fun to see storytelling on this epic scale.

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

There’s that word again — epic. “Mjolner’s Song” is epic in more ways than one. Tying the whole thing together is an “epic” in a literal sense. Storytelling captions narrate Thor’s battle the way some skald might tell it in the mead hall. These captions serve to heighten the mythological import of the conflict, while at the same time offering juxtaposition for the dialogue of our combatants, who can be charmingly flippant at times.

Thor #380, Walt SimonsonIn the end this is a confident and fearless issue that echoes the confident and fearless approach Simonson took to his run on Thor. Throughout his time on the book, Simonson boldly reinvented the rich legacy of the stories and characters that had come before, and embraced the magical weirdness of his subject matter — Simonson confidently and unapologetically gave us talking serpents and heroes who were simultaneously bound by their fates yet also self-aware enough to note that they have an infinite capacity for stupidity!

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

In the end, it is that “capacity for stupidity” that may provide the most important secret sauce of all for these kinds of broad-shouldered, super-heroic tales. Simonson was a master at telling Silver Age stories in a modern style. He kept what worked of all that had come before, ignored what didn’t, and cheerfully reinvented comic book storytelling, leaving us work that still resonates three decades later. Since these stories were printed, Thor has gone on to become a major movie property (thanks in no small part to the foundation Simonson laid down during his tenure), but even the finest effects Hollywood can muster can’t lay a finger on the battle Simonson gives us here.

It’s big, it’s loud, it’s fun, and it may even be infinitely stupid … but it is also an example of what comics do better than in any other form of fiction. In the end, it is tales like “Mjolner’s Song” that keep us reading and collecting this unique art form. This issue is well worth tracking down, either in original form, in one of Marvel’s many reprints, or online (in it’s entirety) thanks to my fellow blogging pal, Mars Will Send No More!

Thor #380, Walt SimonsonSO BE IT!

This column originally appeared at Stash My Comics.

 

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Gamma Goes Grey: The Rampaging Hulk!

Longbox Graveyard #144

Once again, Paul has allowed me, your old pal, Dean Compton, to venture into the Bronze Age with you guys!  It’s funny, but I have noticed that whenever I get out of my 90’s comics bubble, (which all of you can read more about at The Unspoken Decade) and come here to chronicle some Bronze Age favorites, I only deal in the very bright (as my prior articles on SHAZAM! and All-Star Squadron prove) or the very seedy (Punisher, this article) elements of the age.  Just like Billy Joel, I don’t know why I go to extremes, but unlike Billy Joel, I allow characters like Hulk to take me to extremes.  Also unlike Billy Joel, I cannot play the piano.

Another thing Billy Joel and I do not have in common is the fact that he was a living, breathing being when The Rampaging Hulk debuted in 1977, while the world would have to wait with bated breath for two more years for me to emerge.  That’s just another reason for me to be jealous of Billy Joel.  I mean, he had a great career, he married Christie Brinkley, and he also had the chance to buy something as cool as The Rampaging Hulk right off the shelf.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 1

If your pulse doesn’t feel pounded after this first issue, you deserve your money back.

There’s no proof that Billy Joel frequented 7-11 after 7-11 while on tour, pushing back magazine after magazine until they were dog-eared so that he might find these Hulk comic books, but there really isn’t any proof that he didn’t either, and I prefer to think that we live in a world where the Piano Man demanded his tour bus stop at newsstands as he tried to find these.  I also prefer to think that his tour bus is shaped like a giant piano, so my thoughts are most likely not worth much.  Besides, isn’t that a funny image to have in your head now?

The images in The Rampaging Hulk usually are not so funny.  They tend to be somewhat visceral, as black and white does Bruce Banner’s green alter ego very well!  Of course, it does not hurt that we get some great art by several masters.  The first few issues are done by Walt Simonson in what i think may be his most underrated work ever, which is nothing short of a war crime in my book.

Before I show you any of that though, let’s discuss the magazine…I hear you whining,  Ok, one picture from Simonson, but then it is right back to the background behind The Rampaging Hulk!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 6

It isn’t just how beautiful the pictures look; it’s how magnificent of a storyteller that Walt Simonson is, and apparently always was.

Now that your appetite for Walt Simonson has been momentarily sated, let’s chat a bit about the background of this magazine.  It started in January of 1977, which is a good year and a half before Hulk debuted on TV. With issue #10 of the magazine’s run, the magazine will become full color and start to focus more on adventures like the ones TV Hulk would have, and it would also start to have lots of interviews with the cast and crew of the show. After those changes, I find myself disenchanted with the magazine.  I know this is probably blasphemous, but I have never cared for the Lou Ferrigno/Bill Bixby Hulk TV show.  Even as a youngster, I thought them to be cheesy and silly.  Later, when I saw the made-for-TV movies with Daredevil and Thor, I liked them more due to my penchant for crossovers, but I still hated the changes that were made to Thor and Daredevil.

That having been said, I wonder why this was launched when it was.  Was there an outcry for more Hulk material in 1976 and 1977?  Was this just added in anticipation of the TV show?  If it was added for the TV show, they did it in a rather odd way, as the first none issues deal with filling in gaps in Hulk’s history.

That’s right.  This title is set YEARS earlier than when it is released.  In fact, it is designed to fill in gaps between the end of Hulk’s original series (which only lasted six issues, believe it or not) and when he started appearing regularly in Tales to Astonish,so in many ways, this is one of the first “retcon” type of title.  Of course, it apparently caused more harm than good, and so later it was determined that these stories were all fake, told by one of the characters located therein. I find it sad that they could not work any of these into continuity (for whatever that is worth) because these issues are very fun and very solid.  Doug Moench writes most of them (Jim Starlin writes a GREAT issue) and while I do not think it stacks against his Master of Kung Fu or Moon Knight work, I still like it a lot, and it is probably unfair to make the comparison.  It is sort of like comparing albums by The Beatles.  I mean, Rubber Soul isn’t as good as Revolver, but they are both amazing albums by amazing creators.

One big complaint that I have about the magazine is that it did not really take advantage of its medium.  When I did my Punisher article here at LBG, I noted that the black and white magazines put out by Warren, Marvel, Skywald, and others during the 70’s had a dangerous vibe to them.  Many of them were a little more violent and offered a little more sexuality than color comic books (regulated by the code) could.  I was not interested in the Cinemax adventures of The Hulk, but I would have liked to have seen this medium used more effectively, even if the storylines were a little more mature with some social commentary and whatnot.  This magazine cost a buck in 1977, which means that the people who could afford it not only wanted more for their money, but they also were almost certainly an audience of an older age, one who would have expected some meatier stuff than what they got.  Jim Starlin’s issue has some excellent death/outer space imagery (IMAGINE THAT) that fits into the grindhouse/nigh-seedy feel of 1970’s black and white magazines, but the rest of the series sort of falls flat.

That doesn’t make it a bad read though, and in fact, I highly recommend it just for the art of Walk Simonson, George Perez, Jim Starlin, Kieth Giffen, and more!  In fact, there’s so much incredible imagery that it is going to be beyond difficult to keep this article to a manageable level; some of you probably already find it too wordy, so here’s some more Simonson!!!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 12

It’s the most awesome drawing of a staircase you have ever seen.

 I also want to give props to Alfredo Alcala for his great inking job; he makes Simonson come alive in a way I think many others could not.  Alcala is a favorite of many pros I know, and this really makes one see why.

The basic story is that Hulk is thwarting a secret invasion of Krylorians.  He does this working alongside his pal and the mascot of the Marvel Universe, Rick Jones.  Of course, we all are probably aware of how intertwined Bruce Banner and Rick Jones are due to Rick basically being the catalyst for the chain of events that formed Hulk, but in case you didn’t know, Walt Simonson and Doug Moench break it down in a really cool manner.

The second part of the origin story is above; Breaking all the rules!

The second part of the origin story is what I gave you when you were clamoring for Simonson; Breaking all the rules!

We see very little of the traditional Hulk supporting cast.  After issue #1, there’s no Better Ross, Thunderbolt Ross, or Glenn Talbot.  Due to flying saucers being spotted over London, Hulk and Rick Jones head for Italy.  What I especially enjoy though, is how jingoistic Thunderbolt Ross is.  I mean, there’s certainly no surprise that a general in the U.S. Army is very blindly patriotic, but few would convey it in as humorous a fashion as good ‘ol Thunderbolt.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 14

He calls the wine of Italians cheap while smoking a 15-cent cigar.

I have no idea what a milksop is, but I am working that into my everyday insult collection.  Instead of hurling expletives at the drivers in Atlanta, I will shoot a milksop or two at them.  My road rage is becoming more refined, and I feel like that makes me a better person.  It doesn’t, but at least it makes me feel like it.

That’s really the last we see of the usual gang of Hulk Hangers-On! (Hello Stan Lee alliteration)  Instead, Hulk and Rock head for Europe, where they meet the Krylorian who is on our side, Bereet!

That name may sound familiar, because she was the alien Starlord forgot he had aboard in the incredible Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  She is a neat character, and due to her gentle nature, status as a techno-artist, and neat tricks like a spatial distorter and a banshee mask that doubles as a supersonic ship!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 28

I feel like if I could just find that crown and put it on then I would become Space Emperor.

Once this trio joins forces, they gallant all across Europe, thwarting Krylorian plan after Krlylorian plan.  Their adventures also lead them to meet The Uncanny Original X-Men!  I do not know if Walt Simonson ever got to do the original X-Men elsewhere (other than a stint on X-Factor, which only sort of counts in my eyes), but he does them justice here.  His Danger Room sequence packs in more excitement than many other artists rendition of the X-Men in action against actual foes!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #2 - Page 7

You say that Cyclops, yet it looks like you are just playing a giant video game.

The Danger Room sometimes seems like a false danger, in that they are holograms and the like.  I know that these holograms can be deadly, but there’s something much more viscerally satisfying about watching these young mutants dodge spiked balls and knives on poles.  The danger comes to life, as it does when Simonson draws the Hulk completely unleashed!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #2 - Page 2

If this were the 90’s, I could make a “Talk to the Hand” joke. As it is, I will just let it go.

Moments like the X-Men’s arrival propel this title, but I think the best overall issue is the one Jim Starlin wrote and drew.  Jim Starlin has so much talent; I wonder if he could lend me some.  We often discuss Starlin and his greatness, and I think nearly everyone would agree that he is indeed one of the all-time greats, but I think we often overlook his ability to do good Hulk stories.  One of my favorite Hulk moments of all time happened in Infinity Gauntlet, where he and Wolvering are chatting on the roof of Avengers Mansion.  The dialogue is perfect, and the if the characterization where anymore spot on, Gordon Ramsay would be here to tell you all about it,

Jim Starlin also draws a tremendous Hulk, as evidenced by his bittersweet standalone story in The Rampaging Hulk.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 1 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 3 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 23

That’s some of my favorite Starlin work, and if that double-page splash doesn’t convince you of Starlin’s greatness, then I guess you only have about 439783498734983 other great things he did to convince you.  Something about the black and white of this magazine makes Starlin’s work sinister at the edges; that’s perfect for this book and the story he tells here, which takes Hulk away from the main tale of beating up Krylorians left and right.  Starlin does not ignore the main story though, as he bookends his tale of outer space and magic with how Hulk got there and how Hulk got home in one of those bittersweet tales that Jim Starlin is really good at doing.

The other two big highlights of the series are Hulk meeting people from the rest of the Marvel Universe before he “actually” would have met them.  His meeting with Namor, the Sub-Mariner is a 2-parter, and it is one of the highlights of the book to me.  Namor is a favorite of mine, and I love the line of nobility and savagery that he manages to walk!  Or is that swim?  OR EVEN FLY?  The possibilities remain endless!!!

A Hulk vs. Namor fight almost always delivers.  Namor’s arrogance and prodigious strength of his own almost never allow him to admit defeat in the face of a foe, even one as superior in strength as the Incredible Hulk, while Hulk, well, HUlk just wants to smash, of course.

I am unsure when Namor got all He-Man/Conan, but that is what he decided is necessary to beat Hulk on this cover.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #6 - Page 1

The Hulk in the corner box looks like he is trying to use Kung Fu on us. Wrong black and white mag, Hulk!

One thing is for sure, though; I have no problem believing that indeed, is the axe of Namor.  Look at how ornate it is.  Also, did they build a replica of the domed cities of Atlantis on his shield?  That seems pointless, seeing as how while it may look beautiful, that part of the shield is just gonna get crushed, unless you are fighting Hulk, in which case it will get SMASHED.

I especially like the post fight sequence where Namor sees off the Hulk and the Hulk’s pals.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #6 - Page 40

Namor has a friend-crush on Hulk!

Also, Namor obviously lays down his smooth game on Bereet, as they become smitten with each other.  I am glad Namor is not real, lest he would steal every single lady living on the surface…and some of the married ones too!  Just ask poor Reed Richards!  (By the way, I think there is no contest.  As much as I love Namor, Sue and Reed belong together.  Butt out Atlantean!!!!)

Also, isn’t it funny how Namor is talking up how green Hulk is?  I mean, we all know he is green and all, but it tickles my funny bone to see Namor refer to him as green when the comic book is black and white.  It shouldn’t, but hey, it’s a little pleasure, and if life isn’t about little pleasures, what do we have?  Maybe a Hulk vs. Avengers story?

The last two issues before the magazine went color featured Hulk taking on/teaming up with the original Avengers…BEFORE THEY WERE AVENGERS!  I find it a smidge surreal to see, but it gets pulled off fairly well, and if you say you aren’t intrigued by this cover featuring the funeral of crystal-encased Hulk, you’re guilty of perjury in the court of comic books, son!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 1

Thor is too cool to actually hold Hulk up, which is why I think Iron Man has that look of horror on his face; he is unsure how much longer he can support the weight of the Hulk. I see Wasp and Ant-Man back there, but no way they are supporting that weight very well. Quit being a dick and put your hammer in your other hand, Thor!

Sal Buscema does a great job on this issue, as we wrap up the retcon portion of The Rampaging Hulk (which would be renamed “HULK” with the following issue) with a bang.  The story starts in #8, and it is a really good example of the Marvel “when heroes meet” formula, in that when heroes meet in the Marvel Universe, they fight.

A lot.

One of those fights that I think we all love, is Hulk vs. Thor.  Thor, the noble warrior, the scion of Asgard, and the sort of arrogant prick, takes on Hulk, who is savage, unrelenting, and uncaring.  I think that on the surface, we are all required to cheer for Thor, but deep down, many of us hope Thor gets put in his damn place.  It’s sort of like watching a car chase on Cops.  I mean, we know that the people speeding away did something wrong and are causing problems, but man, those cops act so full of themselves and righteous that I’ll be damned if we don’t start cheering for the bad guys to get away about 3 minutes into the chase.

Unless you are me, then you are cheering for the bad guys the whole time (unless they murdered someone or are putting too many other drivers/people in danger).  But I am of the 90’s folks, when things were extreme and we loved “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for being the bad guy!  To the kids reading, I have two things to say:  Mine is not the example to follow, and also, go read an actual comic book!

For the rest of you, here’s Thor and Hulk punching on one another.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 7

Hulk has some drawbacks, but man, is he loyal to his pals.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 8

If this happened today, that cop would have already tased Rick Jones.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 30 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 31

So we get to see “The Avengers” team up and stave off a threat to the planet before they even existed!  I find great comfort in the fact that Hulk treats them about the same before, during, and after his tenure as an Avenger.  I like the world to be a simple place…at least sometimes.

The editor of the book provided an epitaph of sorts for The Rampaging Hulk era of this magazine:

Another of them?  The B & W mags must have been dropping like flies!

Another of them? The B & W mags must have been dropping like flies!

It is very true that some of the greatest artists stepped in to try their hand at Hulk.  I have already mentioned several of them, but I would be remiss if I did not show you some of what George Perez did.  Perez is, in my opinion, the best artist in comic book history not named Jack Kirby.  Controversial?  Perhaps, but no one makes the page live for me like him.

He never did a regular feature on The Rampaging Hulk, but he did do a pin-up gallery featuring the history of a few of Hulk’s associates and enemies:

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #8 - Page 37 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #8 - Page 39 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #8 - Page 41

One thing I found fascinating about this gallery (and there are a couple more Perez Pin-Ups in the book) is that one can see the vast impact different inkers can have on the same penciller.  That’s something that can be hard to notice for the artistically disinclined such as myself.  Here though, it’s as blatant as a bank robbery in broad daylight where the perpetrator is dressed like the Hamburglar and is carrying big sacks with “$” on them.  The Stranger looks mighty different than the Silver Surfer.  Kieth Giffen gets to do his own gallery in issue #4, and he channels his best Jack Kirby!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 33 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 35

I love Giffen’s work and how he has the ability to take on so many different styles.  Look at this next to his stuff from the 90’s, like Trencher, and one would be astonished to find out it was the same guy working on both.

The only other thing to really mention is the back-ups, but I won’t spend too much time on them.  For those picking up the magazine, like say, Billy Joel, they’d get treated to some sweet back-ups featuring Bloodstone, Man-Thing, and Shanna, the She-Devil, among others.

The back-ups are one of the most enticing elements to the black and white magazine boom of the 70’s.  I have heard many folks talk to me about Bloodstone.  I am not a huge fan, but just even just skimming through it made me realize that I will be back into these soon to learn more about this guy.  The Man-Thing stuff interested me a great deal, as Steve Gerber can really write that sort of character just so much better than anyone else.  Of course, it still could never live up to this pin-up:

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #7 - Page 2

Woe to the lumberjacks to who have to cut down spiky trees for a living.

All in all, I’d say the series is solid.  I’d say it is must-read for Hulk fans, and a I would say the Simonson and Starlin issues (#1-4) are must read for any fans.  The rest is good, but one would not be missing out on something spectacular if one were not to grab them.  The series is a fun read, and the arch does definitively conclude in issue #9, so if you have the completionist bug and get #1, you will find it enticing enough to grab all 9.  I also think that these have been re-printed in an Essentials volume, which would be one of the rare Essentials that would not lose anything by now being in black and white.

I want to thank Paul again for letting me write about these Bronze Age gems!  I highly encourage you to check out all the cool stuff here if you haven’t, and when you are out of cool stuff here, come check out The Unspoken Decade!  JNCO Jeans are coming back, so why not check out some 90’s comic book action as well?  You’ll find it at The Unspoken Decade!  Let Paul and I know what you think below, and I am looking forward to my next article here at The Longbox Graveyard!  Hell, I am looking forward to Paul’s too!

NEXT MONTH: #145 Here Comes Daredevil!

Thor Returns!

Thor returns to cinemas this week with the premiere of Thor: The Dark World!

Hopefully you read Longbox Graveyard’s coverage of the film’s Parisian premiere, which included an impossible suave Tom Hiddleston wowing the crowd by speaking French!

Thor The Dark World

Get ready for the movie by reviewing my Thor articles here at Longbox Graveyard, celebrating the classic run by Walt Simonson. These comics were a significant influence on the cinematic version of Thor (including the first appears of Malekith the Dark Elf, who serves as this movie’s “big bad.”)

The Stuff of Legends

The Mighty Thor!

and

Catching Lightning

Beta Ray Thor!

(and don’t forget my Thor Pinterest Gallery!)

I will also have an original Thor article published at Sequart later this week — about which more on Monday!

Mjolner’s Song!

Mjolner’s Song!

The Mighty Thor headlines my final Dollar Box column for StashMyComics.com!

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

I wanted to do something big for my swan song, and being an all-splash page issue, Thor #380 fit the bill! Plus this gave me an excuse to lavish more praise on Walt Simonson’ Thor (which I’ve previously covered here at Longbox Graveyard in parts one and two). Please visit StashMyComics.com for my review of Thor’s larger-than-life battle with the Midgaard Serpent!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my Dollar Box work this past year. I’ve elected to bring the column to a close as part of a general desire to reduce outside commitments (and more about that in a couple weeks in my two-year anniversary Longbox Soapbox). It is with some regret that I step away as it has been a great experience writing for StashMyComics.com.

Thanks to StashMyComics.com for hosting The Dollar Box this past year! While this concludes my regular posting for SMC I hope you’ll mouse over there and check them out — they’re good guys and they’ve been great friends to Longbox Graveyard!

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

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