Tuesday, September 27, 2011

October 1971: Avengers #95

Courtesy of The Warrior's Comic Book Den, where the entire issue was recently reposted, I'll take the opportunity to actually re-read this one for this look back.
But before I do, let me try to remember what attracted me to this, my first sampling of Marvel Comics.
Actually, it's pretty easy to remember: I opened it up and took a look inside, and there, on the splash page, was a gorgeous rendition of a superhero that looked like the freaking Creature from the Black Lagoon! I'd eventually learn that this was Triton, one of the Inhumans, a secluded tribe of superpowered beings created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee years earlier in Fantastic Four. I didn't need to know that, now, though, all I needed was artist Neal Adams' irresistible rendition of the character to make the sale.
Despite the overload of colorful characters, which I surely appreciated, I remember being disappointed to read it and find that this was not only a middle chapter of a continued saga, with no satisfying resolution, but that it also continued from a different comic book that I'd never heard of or seen before (that is, the Inhumans series that had recently been dropped from the Amazing Adventures comic book series). From what I could piece together, I wanted to read this Inhumans lead-in, but I knew that there was no way for me to get it now.
Despite the disappointment, I must observe that I had been pretty lucky so far in my selections of first comics, sampling some of the best artists--Kirby, Adams, Anderson--ever to work in the business. And art would always be a primary point of interest, although I certainly would pull lots of third-rate examples off the spinner rack in years to come.
And now, off to actually read the comic again...!

September, 1971: Justice League of America #94

JLA #94 must have arrived in early September, because I remember reading it on a very sunny summer day. I read it out loud to my friend Kevin Quinn who lived down the street, while we played in a large cardboard box in his back yard. I remember being a bit scared and a bit emboldened to have the excuse to read the word "hell" out loud, because it was in the script to this issue.
This comic book confused the heck out of me. It was my first DC comic that wasn't self-contained, as this issue, as I was later to learn, was wrapping up loose ends from the Deadman backup in the cancelled Aquaman comic. This "Deadman" character impressed me a lot, probably in part because all of his appearances in this issue were drawn by Neal Adams, who was obviously a step above the less dazzling Dick Dillin, who drew all of the non-Deadman pages in the comic. But besides the art, the idea behind Deadman (a ghost who could possess living humans) and the audacity of his name (seriously, "Deadman"?! That's a real superhero?!) struck my fancy.
I was less impressed with Merlyn, an archer villain who debuted in this issue (although I remember assuming he had been around already; I wasn't accustomed to the idea that actual new characters could even be introduced to the comic books!).
In the back of this 48-pager were reprints of the first appearances of Starman and the Sandman, both from the 1940's. I know that I wasn't the only young reader who absolutely loved the Sandman's unconventional "costume", which consisted of a mismatched double-breasted business suit and hat with a gas mask. Later, I could never figure out why they would have ever put him in a boring yellow and purple union suit. While I loved the Sandman's look and gimmick (he put his enemies to sleep with a gas gun), the story wasn't impressive enough to stick with me, and this first appearance, contrary to the cover, wasn't really an "origin" story. The Starman story, though, was a geniune origin, the first one I got to read! "Origin" stories, which tell who the hero is and how he came to be, have always been important ones to comic book fans, maybe the most important, when routine adventures fail to live up to the initial promise of an exciting concept. Anyway, the Starman tale told me how Ted Knight invented his incredible "gravity rod".  Well, I guess the tale just told me that he invented the gravity rod, but that was good enough for me, that and seeing a hero debut in a newly-designed costume (although the maskless red-and-green outfit with the boring star as a chest emblem didn't exactly thrill me).

Thursday, September 1, 2011

September, 1971: Action Comics #406

As the summer vacation came closer to its end, and I prepared to enter 6th grade at Frayser Junior/Senior High School in Memphis, Tennessee, it was becoming apparent that more and more of the spare change I could get my hands on would be going toward comic books. With this purchase, I was staying in familiar territory: good ol' Superman, but with my favored monster-leaning touches, in this case, the headless ghost of the Man of Steel, and, once again, I took advantage of the more generous DC 48 page package to insure that I got plenty of reading material. I plucked this one off the spinner rack of the Big Star supermarket on the corner of James Road and Overton Crossing, while my mother did some quick shopping. I remember that place fondly; in the 60's and early 70's, there was not only the comic book rack to tempt a restless child, but at the checkout, there were displays of lots of goodies: Bubblegum cards featuring Wacky Packages, Batman, and sports stars, paddle balls, monster finger puppets, plenty of Wham-O products like the Wheel-O and Monster Magnet, Superballs, Clackers, yo-yos, and candy. And of course if you couldn't afford any of those, or talk mom into buying them, there were machines ready to accept any pennies you might have saved up for jawbreakers and gumballs.
I don't remember much about the lead story here, "The Ghost that Haunted Clark Kent," but I do vaguely recall the effective atmosphere generated by artists Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson. I flipped for the backup reprint, featuring a team-up of Flash and the Atom, from an old issue of The Brave and the Bold. I really liked the Atom a lot; his unique power of shrinking fascinated me, and between him and the Flash, we had two of my favorite costume designs of the Silver Age. There was also something that always intrigued me about one of the visual effects that was prominent this story, when the Flash was being absorbed into an "expanding planet", that is, as drawn by artist Alex Toth, the Flash being sucked bodily into a large sphere, sinking beneath its surface, like Patrick McGhoohan's The Prisoner being overtaken by the sinister "Rover". Those kinds of images would often prove an irresistable and haunting draw to my young eyes, and would crop up in more than a few comic books. In fact, a similar image had already been burned into my mind, in a comic book I had glanced at years earlier: Strange Tales #157 was a comic that I flipped through back in 1967, while waiting on my mother to pick up a prescription at the Rexall drug store (Stage Road & Whitney: you can see this drug store in the movie The Firm!). I didn't know any of the characters then, but in a Dr. Strange story, his mentor The Ancient One was absorbed into one of the stones of Stonehenge, leaving his disciple with the advice to "Remember the forelock!" That image gave me the heebee jeebies, and I remember the episode not only for that imagery, but because, upon returning to the car, I remember asking my mother the meaning of the word "forelock".

Friday, August 12, 2011

August, 1971: Justice League of America #93

Evidently armed with a generous bit of change, I was again able to buy one of the heftier, more expensive comics on the rack, with this "Giant" costing a dime more than the standard DCs of the time. I was becoming more enamored of the many costumed heroes, and with the JLA, I saw I could sample even more of them.
The robot duplicates were an essential part of the appeal, too. Close enough to "monsters" for my tastes (I'd been conditioned by Famous Monsters of Filmland to consider them near-equals to the likes of vampires and werewolves).
The artist on these reprints was Mike Sekowsky, whose work didn't have the "wow factor" of a Jack Kirby or Neal Adams, but had an appealing clarity and efficiency. His style made it easy for me to get comfortable with new characters like Green Arrow, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter, all of whom I was encountering for the first time here. And despite the lesser flair of his work, he produced some sequences that cemented themselves in my young head: I can still see the images of Green Arrow and his sidekick Speedy being ejected from their "Arrowcar" (I probably assumed that all of the heroes shared heroing tips, thus the similarity between Green Arrow's gimmicks and Batman's, which were familiar from the tv show).
This comic was where the disconnect between reprints and current stories caught my notice. In the letters page, there was a masthead proclaiming this page the "JLA Mailroom", and it featured a picture of the Justice League members sitting around a table opening letters. But the membership was slightly different: there was no Martian Manhunter (he had, unbeknownst to me, resigned a couple of years earlier), and there was a character that I would learn to recognize as "Hawkman", who wasn't in any of these stories, and there was no Wonder Woman at all, instead some blonde (who I would learn was "Black Canary"). And Green Arrow's costume was different, as was Green Lantern's if only slightly. I remember composing a letter to the editor asking about all these mysterious differences. I don't think I ever mailed the letter--I probably figured it all out before I got around to posting it--but that was a sign that I was beginning to invest in these comic books a bit more seriously than the casual reader. I wanted to know all about these guys; their fictional histories, their powers, their secret identities, everything. And the only way to learn was to keep heading back to the spinner rack.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

August, 1971: World's Finest #206

I'm a little bit surprised that I bought this comic so early. As I've established, I loved monsters, but that goofy beaked monster wouldn't have enticed my interest; it certainly couldn't compare to Kirby's dramatic vampire or Adams' Superboy/Bat creature monsters. I would have found the cavemen the most visually interesting aspect of this cover, but even that's not much of a draw. I was probably going for:
1) Economic value: even though this comic was 10 cents more expensive than the other DC comics I was buying, I could do the math and realize that i was getting more story for my money.
2) Familiarity: I was comfortable with the characters.
3) Satisfaction: I could tell that all the stories in this one were complete, unlike the as-yet-unsampled Marvel Comics that I must have at least been glancing at, but which all seemed to end on cliffhangers.
4) Oddballness: Besides monsters, I dug weird situations, and that was something that World's Finest delivered in droves, at least in the era from which these stories were being reprinted. Hero vs. villain slugfests were a harder sell (to me) at this point. Funhouse mirror distortions to Batman's real body? Cool!

This was a good transition to mainstream superhero comics for me. I didn't need to know a bunch of supporting characters or back-story or history. Stories plainly told with a generous helping of unconstrained imagination. The Superman/Batman team would never become one of my favorite combinations, possibly because the contemporary team-ups were less wild than these older stories.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

August, 1971: Superboy #178

Encouraged by my previous purchase of an issue of Jimmy Olsen, I began trying some other comic books. One of those that followed in August, 1971 was this issue of Superboy.
Remember, I was a monster fan, not a comic book fan, so it was definitely the vampire bat angle on this terrific Neal Adams cover that attracted me, as well as some familiarity with the Superboy concept, thanks to his TV cartoon adventures from a few years earlier.
Although I was not, in general, interested in the humor comic books, at the age of 11 I still had plenty of appreciation for the lighter stuff, and I think the Superbaby story had more of an impact than the forgettable Super-Vampire Bat lead. I was fascinated by the range of "Superman Family" characters that evidently had their own comics--Superboy I'd heard of, but Superbaby?! Just how far did these superhero families extend, anyway? I didn't know...I had no comprehension of the shared universe of comic book characters, but I was soon to learn how far and wide the threads between characters and titles spread.
Also in this issue, I encountered, for the first time, the Legion of Super-Heroes, in a reprint story that featured the debut of "The Lone Wolf Legionnaire," a.k.a. Timberwolf. I don't remember being at all put off by the massive roster of the Legion, and I absolutely loved this "Timberwolf" character. He was kind of like a werewolf (appealing to my monster-loving nature) and he had a brownish-orange costume, which seemed unique to me, and he had a great code name.
The lead story in this issue was scripted by Leo Dorfman. He died a few years later, and so his work never made enough of an impact on me for me to form an impression of his talent. Bob Brown pencilled the Superboy story, and his name was one I soon became quick to recognize, as he drew several of the earliest comics I bought. Brown looked better in this, my initial impression, than he did in later comics I would sample, thanks to the inking of Murphy Anderson, whose polish here set the standard for me. It would be a little while before I really started paying serious attention to the art credits, and even longer for me to learn to spot inkers, but Anderson's lush work must have made some impression, as I've ever since felt very comforted by his linework. (The same three-man team did the Superbaby back-up strip.)

Monday, August 1, 2011

August, 1971: Jimmy Olsen #142

I was 11 years old in 1971, and, like many boys my age back then, I was crazy about monsters. The only thing on the newsstand that I was interested in was Famous Monsters of Filmland. The only problem was that the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman's monster magazine wasn't easy to find on the racks of my local retail establishments. And so something led me to look over to the spinner racks full of comic books on that day in August 1971, but when I did, I discovered that there was no shortage of comic books designed to appeal to the monster fan. The first one on which I risked my 25 cents was this one, Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen #142.
Superman and Jimmy I knew well from watching plenty of reruns of the George Reeves tv series. Dracula and the Wolfman, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, I also recognized. Writer/Penciller/Editor Jack Kirby? He meant nothing to me. Inker Vince Colletta? Not on my radar. Cover inker/refinisher Neal Adams? Non-entity to young MWG. But this comic? This was something to satisfy my monster fix. I would have it.
As important as this comic book is, being the first of a huge number of comics I would buy over the next few decades, I don't remember where I bought this one. There are others, that we'll cover soon, the circumstances of purchase of which I remember distinctly, but this one? It could have been several possible places: the Navy Exchange in Millington, Tennessee, where we did our shopping (my father retired from the U.S. Navy), or maybe the Big Star grocery story on Overton Crossing (the line of local Memphis groceries from which the legendary pop band took its name), or maybe the 7-11 down the street at the corner of Delano and North Watkins?
It doesn't matter where I bought it, though...what matters is that I spent my own quarter on this, the first comic I picked out to buy with my money (I'd previously been given two comic books that I remember: a Gold Key Golden Comics Digest in 1969 or thereabouts, and an issue of the notorious Captain Marvel from MF Enterprises in 1966.).
This comic book hooked me. Although it was chosen in an issue of Amazing Heroes as one of the worst Jack Kirby comics, the King, even at his arguable worst, was good enough to seal the deal with an eager young fan. I was disappointed that the story was continued to the next issue, and I didn't understand a lot of the subplots, but I liked the monsters, and I liked the presentation, and I could feel the energy. The addiction began.
Almost 20 years later, in, I think, 1990, I met Jack Kirby for the first and only time at a convention in Atlanta. Astonishingly, the King was not being mobbed by fans, nor was he surrounded by people trying to get autographs or sketches (not that he was offering either). He was just right there, ready and willing to talk, and I had the chance to chat with the great man for about 20 minutes. He talked about Stan Lee and Joe Simon (referring to both men in glowingly positive terms), kid gang comics, science fiction, and imagination. It was a great joy to spend time with him. I was excited to see a stack of original art at his table, and I began thumbing through them. And guess what I found? A page of art from that first comic book I picked for my self, Jimmy Olsen #142! The first page of a 2-page backup about "The Hairies", called "The Mountain of Judgment". When I saw that page, there was no question but that I'd buy it. They could have asked any price, and I would have paid.
The price? $50. Fifty bucks. Wow.
There was a friend of the Kirbys there at the table, Mike Thibodeaux, I believe, who was handling the transaction, and he suggested that maybe if I left the page there for a while that he could get Kirby to sign it (Kirby was wearing a wrist strap that, I assumed, allowed him to graciously beg off from autograph requests). I didn't take him up on that. Come on, Jack's "signature" was already all over that page, and I didn't need to impose on him for his scribbled name, because I was never going to forget the circumstances behind getting this page of art.
While Jimmy Olsen is probably not the best place to go for a science education, this comic book was my first exposure to the idea of DNA and cloning. I wasn't fooled into thinking that these were scientifically accurate treatises; I recognized Kirby's imaginative spin on the possibilities that were on the fringes of our knowledge. But with this first comic book, I was learning bits and pieces that my non-comics-reading friends would not be exposed to for many years to come.
This comic book also had a reprint of an old Simon and Kirby Newsboy Legion story, which would, therefore, be the first Golden Age comic book story I ever read. Later I would discover that a lot of the older stories didn't hold up will in comparison to the standards of the 70's, but to me, this story was just as good as the lead, even without monsters. I'm pretty sure I didn't really even grasp the idea that this story was some 25 years old. I remember months later one of my few comics-reading friends talking about "old" heroes, and having to get clarification that he didn't mean that the character (in that case, Plastic Man) was supposed to be an old man.

New Link Added: Over at Comics Should Be Good, Brian Cronin spotlighted this issue and its followup. Head over there if you want an alternative take on this legendary issue, and get a look at a few of the pages that drew me in.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

1970: Golden Digest #8

I was sick. I'd come down with mononucleosis, and I'd missed months of school. I don't have much recollection of what happened during those months; Mama told me I'd slept most of them away. But I know that on the way home from the Naval Hospital in Millington, Tennessee (my father's veteran status allowed us to use the Navy hospital), we stopped at some small store and she bought me this:
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I remember very little about this period, but I do remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom, reading this digest while the small TV that Mama had set up to also keep me company was tuned to the PBS station, WKNO in Memphis. That was the only moderately kid-friendly programming one could find midday in 1970. As I tolerated the puppetry antics of "Mr. B", I found much more pleasure in the familiar comic antics of some of my favorite TV cartoon characters in this Gold Key publication. Its best feature was that it was relatively thick, so the stories lasted a while.
And that's the last of the comics before the big one, the first one I bought for myself. In one short year, I was going to finally take that big step, and pick a comic book off the spinner rack...