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Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Today is Thanksgiving for all our readers living in the United States, and so for this week’s edition I’m going to be looking at five different comic book stories that I’m thankful for. These may not be the most historic comics of all time, but they each were important to me as a kid, and they all led to me becoming the lifelong fan I am today.
Keep in mind these books are all from my childhood, so you aren’t going to find a ton of indie comics or Vertigo titles. These are the books of my youth that defined how great comics could be for me. So these are the issues that deserve the praise. Or the blame.
Fantastic Four #13
First off, I’m not this old. I didn’t read it when it came out. But I did stumble across a battered copy in a quarter bin when I was around seven. It soon fell completely apart, and is no more. In fact, I think I read it literally to pieces. But it was among the first comic books I ever read that made my kid’s brain think, “How do they make these things?”
FF #13 is kind of a milestone issue in Marvel history in my opinion. “The Fantastic Four” was a groundbreaking title from the start, of course. You had Stan Lee crafting a cast that was different than any other collection of super heroes in the industry. The FF were combative, dysfunctional and neurotic, frequently clashing with each other even as they loyally stayed together and took on all comers. They were a family, in all the senses that both good and bad. In that way, Lee had truly done something new in comics, he had pushed what had previously been paragons of virtue towards something resembling complexity. And Jack Kirby‘s art, though still crude by his later standards, was already among the most dynamic and innovative in the business. The energy he crammed into every panel and page was palpable, and even if other artists of the era were more technically assured, no one else’s work had that vibrancy.
But what made my seven year old brain explode when I first read this issue was the story. Fantastic Four #13 opens as the team are making another rocket launch, still trying to beat the Russkies to the moon. Little do they know, a Russian scientist named Ivan Kragoff is preparing a launch of his own. Kragoff has trained three apes to assist him in his voyage, and his plan is to duplicate the accident that gave the FF their abilities. In an attempt to ensure he becomes even more powerful, Kragoff has made his ship transparent to allow greater penetration of the cosmic rays. Sounds like a great way to get cancer, but whatever.
The two rockets go up at the same time, and while Kragoff’s experiment is a success, gifting both him and his apes with abilities, the FF spot the ship, and conflict ensues. This would be enough of a plot for your average Silver Age issue. But what Lee and Kirby do with this set up is what’s really remarkable. They have the ships reach the moon, whereupon they discover ancient abandoned ruins of a dead civilization, as well as a pocket of breathable atmosphere. They subsequently encounter a massive, god-like being called The Watcher, who disparages the human race as savages and tells them he will be watching the outcome of their conflict.
That’s a ton of plot, a massive amount of creation, to pack into one little single-issue story. Lee and Kirby, with this issue, began showing off the innovation and boldness that defined their legendary run on “The Fantastic Four.” Not content to just tell an exciting story, they began pushing things with this issue, laying the groundwork for an entire universe of stories. As a seven year old reader, I remember wondering about how the people making the book came up with the idea for the story. Heroes fighting bad guys I was used to. But long-dead civilizations in atmospheric pockets on the moon overseen by a twelve-foot tall bald man in a toga? Where did THAT come from? For me, my love of the world of Marvel Comics came from this issue, as did my love of the limitless possibilities of what the medium of comics can achieve. And for that, I’m thankful.
DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #16
My parents sent me to summer camp one summer in the 1980s. I was probably eight or nine years old, and it went about as well as some people find summer camp to go. Some of you went to camp and had wonderful experiences. You learned how to canoe, light a campfire. You made bead bracelets and learned funny songs and told ghost stories and whatnot. Maybe you had a first kiss. And now in adulthood you bathe in the warm nostalgic glow of long summer days spent in the wild, hoping they would never end.
The rest of us had the summer camp experience that I endured, where one got ritually beaten by kids who had elected to eschew canoeing lessons and woodland exploration classes for advanced lectures in intimidation taught by ex-Stasi agents. Your clothes were dumped in the rain barrel. Your pants were pulled down at every opportunity. If you built something in arts and crafts, they broke it. If you went near a body of water, you were dumped into it fully clothed. I recall once having actual rocks thrown at me, like the ending of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Generally, for people like me, your summer camp experience didn’t resemble “Meatballs” so much as a slightly condensed season of HBO’s “Oz.”
But, while it was awful, the one solace I had was that my mom had bought a few of DC’s digest books to send with me. For those who don’t know, the digest books were reprints of classic DC stories packaged in the same format as the Archie digest books you saw at every supermarket. In the early 1980s, trade paperbacks were just beginning to get going, so there really wasn’t a way to read classic issues other than reprint titles or by digging through quarter bins. And there were very few collections of multiple issues. So the digests were great.
The one I particularly remember being my lifeline during this summer was Blue Ribbon Digest #16, which reprinted a bunch of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams‘ classic Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories. I had seen both of their work before, though I didn’t really know it. Their Batman work was in pretty wide circulation, and Adams’ realistic style was still the dominant one when it came to Batman. But this was the first time I really made a note of their names and became a fan of actual creators.
Maybe it was the environment I was in at the time, but the stories of the Digest really connected with me. O’Neil and Adams took Green Lantern, who was sagging in popularity at the time, and paired him with Green Arrow, who had never been all that popular in the first place, and used their partnership to tell stories about social inequality in America. The two characters teamed up and decided to criss-cross the country, encountering real people and facing real issues that couldn’t be solved with a giant green bubble or a boxing glove arrow. The stories looked at issues of race, feminism, environmentalism, drug addiction, overpopulation and consumerism. Lantern, the intergalactic police officer, represented the establishment while the bearded Arrow represented liberal social consciousness. While super hero comics at both Marvel and DC had dabbled in message books here and there, these were often single issue stories that ended with platitudes spoken with paternal authority by a square-jawed hero. O’Neil and Adams’ stories were arguments, they were committed explorations of the troubles that were being discussed and fought over around dinner tables. And they often didn’t provide any answers at all.
At camp, I didn’t know any of that, of course. But what did connect with me then was the idea that comics could actually be about things. They could actually talk about the real world and real ideas, and they didn’t have to solve everything with a knock on the jaw and a comforting speech. It was the first time I realized that a comic could have a point of view beyond entertainment, and these stories made me a better reader over all. And these comics got me through a pretty tough summer. And for that, I’m thankful.
Batman Special #1
“The Player on the Other Side” is, in my opinion, criminally underrated. It’s thought of fondly, no doubt. But to my mind, this is maybe one of the greatest single-issue Batman stories ever. It was my favorite Batman story for years, the reason it’s on this list is that this is the story that made me realize that aesthetics and structure of comic book story was vital to transforming it from entertainment to art.
The story is written by Mike W. Barr, with Michael Golden and Mike DeCarlo on art. First off, I have to admit that the premise is kind of goofy. The story postulates that just as the tragic loss of his parents to criminals motivated Bruce Wayne to become Batman, one of the world’s great heroes, a similar event at the hands of the police drove another boy to become the Wrath, a mercilessly effective criminal. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s also one straight out of comic books.
But what Barr and Golden do with the concept is what makes the book work. First, they treat it with as much realism and sophistication as a DC Comic would permit. It’s a grim and surprisingly down to earth story, and the Wrath is not some two-dimensional badass villain, but a real person whose goals and aims are motivated by as much pain and loss and trauma as Batman’s are. The plot of the story isn’t typical comic book goofiness either but a story that wouldn’t feel out of place as the setting for a contemporary gritty crime film. In that way, the story itself is something unusual for the Batman tales of the time, and could even be reasonably seen as the predecessor of the more grim work of Frank Miller that was soon to redefine the character.
But the art is what served to elevate the story for me. I’m sure I had read comics that were this atmospheric before, but none of them truly hit me as hard as Golden’s pencils and DeCarlo’s inks do here. They took the cue from Barr’s more noirish, sophisticated script to create a gorgeous book. The shadows are deeper black, and the use of light sources come straight out of a Fritz Lang movie. Golden’s layouts are brilliant. Take a look at the editing of this page, how effective the panel progression is to communicate not just story but tone and feel.
Aside from being beautiful, it’s a textbook example of storytelling in the medium, with the art serving the script and resulting in something that elevates both. “The Player on the Other Side” was the first comic I read as a kid that made me overtly aware that comics could be art. It was book that I thought about a lot, that I connected with emotionally, but I couldn’t tell you why. It felt like it was just outside of my understanding. I was eight when it was published, but I probably first read it a year later or so. But it had a subtlety in dealing with the motivations of the Wrath, his connection to Batman, and Wrath’s sincere love for Gayle that turns so tragic. Wrath was a bad guy in a every sense, and yet you finished the issue pitying him. It was sombre affair, over all, and yet still immensely satisfying.
Batman Special #1 was the first time that I realized that comics could be art, could be more than a story well told. That sometimes it could be some strange kind of alchemy of writing and illustration that would turn a good story into something more resonant, more lasting. Not because of content, but because of execution. And for that, I’m thankful.
Amazing Spider-Man #121-122
Somewhere around the age of ten, I read the classic Spider-Man storyline where Gwen Stacy died (spoiler for a nearly fifty year old comic book story, by the way). I found it in some reprint comic in a quarter bin or collected edition or something. Truth be told, I’m not sure how I got a hold of it, only that it wasn’t in the original issues, because you best believe I would have held onto those.
Spidey had long been one of my favorite characters. When I was ten years old, if I was reading a comic it would likely have been Spider-Man, Batman or the X-Men. So, I knew that Gwen had died before I read the issue. It was such a massive event that it was referenced pretty frequently in subsequent books.
But these two issues, written by Gerry Conway with art by Gil Kane, really knocked me for a loop when I finally read them. It was the pure emotion of the issues that got me. It was not only the fact that Gwen died, but it was Peter’s complicity in her death that the issue suggested that got to me. Much has been made of the tiny “snap” sound effect by Gwen’s neck as Peter’s webbing stops her fall, suggesting overtly that the sudden stop of his rescue is what kills her. But Peter’s role in her death goes further than that. Issue #121 and the subsequent one also imply that just being in Peter’s orbit brought Gwen to her death, that he is simply not healthy to be around. Peter’s dedication to his life as Spider-Man is also inherently dangerous to the people in his life, and if that’s true, then what level of responsibility does he have to those people?
Look, these issues are undeniably classics, maybe the most classic stories in the column, so there’s not much I can add to their esteem. But they were the first comics that actually effected me on an emotional level beyond being thrilled or captivated. Gwen’s death was profoundly sad, as was Peter’s reaction. For me, the hardest moments came from when he tries vainly to pretend she’s still alive.
Soon after this, I’d read “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, a virtual cavalcade of death and moments just like this. That series could have made this column too, but the first time that I read a comic and felt like crying were these two issues. It was the first time I considered that comics weren’t always fun, that sometimes they could be sad and heartfelt and tell a story that I didn’t really want to see happen and yet still be satisfying. In short, it was kind of an introduction to the idea of tragedy and how that kind of story could be cathartic. And while I had seen sad movies and TV shows before certainly, comics offered something different in that these tragedies were about characters and people I knew and had a relationship with through years of reading. To a kid reading comics at the time, these were stories about friends that you had read about hundreds of times. To have something happen to them that was permanent and awful meant something. These stories broadened my horizons of the kinds of stories comics could tell, and for that I’m thankful.
Swamp Thing #35 – 36
I’m not exactly sure how I was allowed to buy these issues. I found them in a quarter bin sometime in 1987 and promptly plonked down my two bits. Either the clerk didn’t notice the mature readers tag, or didn’t care. Either way, I was the proud owner of my first Alan Moore comic.
At the time, Moore was already a superstar. “Watchmen” had been published, but as an 11 year old I hadn’t heard of that. I couldn’t tell you why I picked this particular issues up, but once I got them home and read them, everything changed.
Moore’s “Swamp Thing” redefined the character and helped to create a whole new style of comics over at DC. Though the title was part of the DC Universe proper, its “sophisticated suspense”, banner was another way of saying that Moore was turning a horror comic into something wholly unlike anything ever seen in mainstream comics before, serving as a template for the style that would eventually come to define DC’s Vertigo line of books.
To call Moore’s “Swamp Thing” seminal is almost an understatement. Moore combines the supernatural, the gothic, metaphysics, ecology, psychedelia and philosophy about the nature of identity into a run of stories unlike anything else in American comics to that point. The book is weird, groundbreaking, adult and wholly the view of its creators. Alongside Moore was penciler Steve Bissette, whose whispy and organic style proved adept at capturing every creepily organic yet oddly beautiful moment Moore wanted to convey.
These two issues form a story called “The Nuke-Face Papers.” It’s a truly terrifying story that talks about the dangers of nuclear and toxic waste that is simultaneously an ecological cautionary tale, a gothic horror story, a 50’s science-fiction horror tale and character piece with real emotions at its heart. It’s hard to quantify what about these two issues made such an impact. It wasn’t just that they were clearly more sophisticated than any comic I’d read to that point. And though all of Moore and Bissette’s “Swamp Thing” run are classics, I’m not sure I’d place these two issues at the top.
I think it was that these issues were kind of the culmination of all the great stories I had read. It had the boundless experimentation of FF #13, the message and consciousness of the O’Neil/Adams works, the combination of script and art into high art that I saw in Batman Special #1, and the complex emotional storytelling I first encountered in the death of Gwen Stacy. From these two “Swamp Thing” stories, I could go anywhere in comics. I would go on to read indie books, underground comix, Vertigo tales and Image titles. Comics from other countries and different points of view. Comics without boundaries or limits. Comics in both good taste and bad. Works of lofty aims and works of crass entertainment.
But these two issues of “Swamp Thing” told me that rewards awaited me if I went outside my comfort zone. If I wasn’t afraid of being confused or challenged then a rewarding world waited for me, and for that I’m thankful.
As we all sit down and begin to chow down on our turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, maybe take a moment to think about the comics that you’re thankful for, that made you fall in love with the medium, and raise a glass to the creators, publishers and retailers that introduced us all to bold new worlds.
Until next week, see you in the quarter bins…