Comics have slowly corrupted the moral fiber of youth for generations. Let's chart the decline ...
60 YEARS AGO
EC comics were the greatest comics ever, they combined clever stories with memorable endings (usually ripped off from literary classics) with unquestionably the finest art in comics at the time and they did it in an irreverent way by cutting down the tension of their dark Tales with humor. Tales from the Crypt #45 isn't one of the best issues from the series. This was the penultimate issue of the magazine, published at the tail end of a long period of decline, when the edge that the publisher had so carefully maintained for years had been dulled towards self-parody, when splattered brains began to trump the cereberal on the page and it was for that reason that the company drew the unwanted attention of no less an esteemed body than the U.S. Senate. But this issue does hold one of the classic stories, "The Switch", drawn by "Ghastly" Graham Ingels. In it, an elderly miser meets the girl of his dreams and attempts to woo her, but wishes to do so in a way that doesn't reveal his wealth, so that "she love me ... not my money". When he proposes and declares his love for her, she rejects him for being "so old ... so withered ... so wrinkled". He finds a well-built young man willing to trade youth for money and after a series of surgeries, each one rejected by the lady fair and each one hilarious in its turn, he's left with a young man's handsome face and well proportioned body, but no money. He's now the man of her dreams, but she rejects him one final time telling him she's getting married ... to the man who traded his youth for wealth! Genius!
50 YEARS AGO
"Enter the Avengers"
By Stan Lee (w); Jack Kirby (p); Chic Stone (i) & Sam Rosen (l)
Not the greatest of Marvel's silver age mutant adventures, but a memorable nonetheless. There's actually a graded copy at a local shop here in decent condition selling for $150, which is a decent price. Anyway, in this issue the earth is under attack by the nefarious (Quist)alien Lucifer. The villain bursts onto the scene when Professor X locates his underground lair attached to a harness and badass tank chair (see cover photo). In a complete affront to what would later become the established character of Charles Xavier, he's there to murder Lucifer, who reveals a device attached to his heart will detonate a world-devastating bomb if it ever stops beating. And the drama that Kirby inserts onto the page is as good as you could imagine. Meanwhile, the Avengers show up because ... why not? Crossovers were fun in those days and didn't come across as tired and cynical marketing ploys. So obviously when two teams of costumed adventurers cross paths in the Marvel universe they must fight. And they do! But unbeknownst to both teams, Xavier's in a battle of his own beneath their feet, when Lucifer pulls up lame. All the excitement ... there's something wrong with his heart! Before long the Avengers realize that they're only getting in the way and the two teams part company in an air of grudging respect. No matter that the earth is about to explode, the Avengers have photo ops to stage, apparently. Anyway, the strangest teens of all act quickly and in a very memorable scene, Cyclops must focus his eyebeam to a pinpoint in order to de-activate the bomb, at which point Lucifer recovers from his ailment. All this in just 20 pages. This story would take 20 issues for Marvel to tell today.
40 YEARS AGO
"Red Sails at 40,000 Feet"
By Steve Gerber (w); John Buscema (layouts); Tom Sutton (finishes); John Costanza (l); Petra Goldberg (c) & Roy Thomas (e)
Steve Gerber was just the greatest. It's impossible to read a Steve Gerber story and not get what he was trying to say, he was comics's greatest propagandist. Thankfully his heart and mind were usually in the right place. Man-Thing was a low priority comic for Marvel, a critical darling but not a huge hit the kiddies. And because there was less scrutiny on this book it became Gerber's greatest springboard for social ideas. The Captain Fate issues (#13-14) were among the most memorable. The first thing you'll notice is the liberal use of captions, which were Gerber's only way of expressing the unspeaking Man-Thing's internal experience. It's the kind of thing you won't find in comics being produced today. If nothing else Gerber made John Costanza earn his paychecks. What happens is, a scientific expedition aboard a freighter is attacked by a seeming pirate ghost ship under the command of Captain Fate. The pirates kidnap the leader of the expedition, and tell her that only she can free them from the curse put on them by the demonic-looking satyr Khordes. It turns out, in the next issue (featuring terrific art from the Barry Windsor-Smith inspired Alfredo Alcala) that the pirates had betrayed her 200 years ago by selling her out to Khordes in exchange for "all the treasure you desire". It gets slightly convoluted, but the theme of the story is that appearances are deceiving and sometimes someone who looks evil has the best intentions, and when Man-Thing resurrects Khordes, both monsters embody this idea. I think Gerber was talking about the hippies and outsiders that mainstream America reserved large cargoes of mistrust for. Though his peak period lasted only about five years, Gerber was a great comics writer, arguably the best of the 1970's.
30 YEARS AGO
"Ragnarok & Roll, Too"
By Walt Simonson (w, a); John Workman (l); Christine Scheele (c); Mark Gruenwald (e)
Things were heating up during Walt Wimonson's classic Thor run and this is one of the marquee issues with an unforgettable cover. Thor fills up virtually the entire cover space and his hammer, Mjolnir crackles with energy, while the rainbow bridge, bifrost burns beneath his feet. It's a Kirby-esque image and it denotes the thunder god's senses-shattering power. This is one of the first comics I ever owned and I grabbed it because of the cover. I've gone and looked through it so many times that the cover is just barely hanging on by a thread. There are so many classic panels and images in this book. The story starts off in medias res with Thor pounding a fire demon on the chin amidst an epic battle (BWA-WHRAAMM). As we flip through the book, it turns out he is not alone. He fights alongside Sif, Beta Ray Bill, the Warriors Three, The Avengers and the Fantastic Four, repelling Sutur's invasion forces from Earth (or New York City, which Marvel seemed to think were synonyms at the time). Thor leaves the battle to pursue Surtur into Asgard. He finds the fire demon on the rainbow bridge. He smites the bridge with his sword called Doom and little shards of color fall like snow upon the battle in Manhattan. When Sif notices and realizes what's going on she slices a fire hydrant in twain ... and it is freakin' cool (see pic)! Thor attacks Surtur but he's really no match for the demon, who bats mjolnir aside like a baseball. On the very last panel, their battle is joined by none-other than the all-father of Asgard himself, the regal Odin.
One final note: I always thought the work John Workman did on Thor was the best hand lettering comics has ever seen, the style he used is distinctive, it looks great and it has a runic feel, tailor-made for that particular strip.
20 YEARS AGO
"Comes the Blast!"
By Mike Allred (w, a); Laura Allred (c); Sean Konot (l) & Bob Schreck (e)
These early Madman issues are some of my favorites. Mike Allred had really carved out a style all his own, not just in terms of his art, which was very much Osamu Tezuka meets Jack Kirby, but also in the dialogue, wherein Madman and his ladyfair can leave Snap City and travel to Buzztown and it's all very nifty and snappy.Most of all these were fun comics. Madman himself was charmingly impulsive, "Lookit! A vending machine" (after having just been told he is expected for supper with Dr. Flem). All of the characters and bizarro villains had a surprising level of depth, and Mike Allred was skilled enough to break the rules of comics storytelling and have everything in the story remain clear as day to the reader. Issue 5 was no exception. We meet a terrorist named Mick as he is caught in a blast. Then in a scene reminiscent of Billy Batson's discovery of Shazam and his transformation into Captain Marvel, Mick stumbles upon a stone artifact with the inscription "Yool Doo Az Aye Sae". The artifact is a representation of a many-eyed god who speaks to Mick, obscured behind the clouds and tells him that Madman is plotting against him. The many-eyed god then gives Mick a battle suit with which he can use to cleanse his life of Madman's intolerable influence. Madman is just going about his day, minding his own business when he runs into Mike Mignola's famed character, Hellboy, whom he is frightened by until he offers Madman a lollipop, which he gives to his girlfriend, Joe. Madman then goes back to the lab and tries out his nifty new battle armor (with propellers on the back and roller skates on the boots), which I believe was designed by a fan in a contest if memory serves. Anyway, it's during this outting that Madman is confronted by Mick who tells him "knowledge comes with death's release ..." They get into a scrap, but Mick is repelled by the intervention of Madman's friend Astroman. Later, Madman gets outside the lab for a late night walk when he is confronted once again by Mick who promptly blows a massive hole through his chest and kills him. But Hellboy shows up again with the real Madman and it's revealed that Astroman took his place and therefore took a bullet for him. Look, the story's much more well organized and clear than my summary here, but this should give you an idea of the kinds of twists, turns and zaniness of Madman Comics. It was twenty years ago, today.
10 YEARS AGO
By Joss Whedon (w); John Cassady (a); Laura Martin (c); Chris Eliopoulos (l) & Mike Marts (e)
It's one of the most beloved X-Men creative team runs in the history of the team, Whedon & Cassaday, Astonishing X-Men. It wasn't without its problems, lateness of arrival being chief among them, but those problems didn't come up til later and the first 12 issues are untouchable in terms of quality. Issue 7 begins a new storyline "Dangerous" about the X-Men's training facility, the Danger Room, which had been enhanced with alien tech, gaining sentience and coming to life to menace the team. I'm not going to tell you this is a perfect issue, but you have to look pretty hard to find fault here. The X-Men do something we've rarely seen them do: repel a giant monster from the streets of Manhattan. It makes for a nice change of pace and maintains a kind of "Marvel realism" when the Fantastic Four show up and The Thing complains that the mutants are stealing their bit. It's all a P-R campaign, which is ultimately fruitless anyway as there's a scene near the end of the book when the assembled team is watching the nightly news broadcast, disappointed that they only got 30 seconds of coverage for their efforts and only after a three minute piece about a useless celebrity doing something useless. That whole portion of the issue is it's own complete adventure and ensures that though, this issue is part one of a six part story, it can be read and enjoyed independently of the others. That's a rare find for comics these days. The issue is bookended by what will develop into the main storyline of the "Dangerous" story arc. The newly introduced and recently de-powered character of Wing stands on a precipice. He can't come to grips with the loss of his ability to fly. He is goaded into jumping by his friend whom he trusts. After the team's adventure is wrapped up we see Wing lying at the bottom of the cliff, bloodied and broken. As the life leaves his body we see that the canyon floor gives way to a metallic surface. It was all happening in the danger room all along. High marks for this one.
"The Verge, The Silence"
By Caitlin Kittredge (w); Inaki Miranda (a); Eva De La Cruz (c); Travis Lanham (l); Shelly Bond (e)
Coffin Hill is one of the better comics out there today. It's the child of novelist Caitlin Kittredge and artist Inaki Miranda. I like Kittredge, creatively she lives on my street, only in a nicer house, with a bigger yard and freshly cut lawn that smells better than mine. I find so many of my own storytelling techniques and concepts and overall tone that I go for in her pages that it can be embarrassing reading this book because her vision is so much stronger, more organized and clearer than mine. It's like looking through the wrong side of the funhouse mirror. And Miranda is an excellent artist, His unique, simplistic style seems to border on the cartoonish but is deceptively detailed and representative. The thing I'm most impressed about with Miranda is that the book has stayed on schedule (monthly) for over a year without any fill-in artists taking over. That's the rarest thing of all in today's world of comics. In this issue, the second major storyline ("Dark Endeavors") comes to a close, as does the first overall larger story cycle. Coffin Hill is about a legacy witch named Emma Coffin, whose family has lived in the greater Boston area for generations. In that time they have built a reputation, which Emma is trying to distance herself from. The story is split between Emma's time as a rookie cop in Boston in 2012 and her return to her home of Coffin Hill, MA after it's over. Emma's back/origin story finally reaches a long-withheld climax here, her investigation into the Ice Fisher serial murders conclusively finishes in a multi-layered witch-on-witch battle, but her career is effectively futzed when the dust and snow settles. And we finally find out how Emma's right eye became black (see cover).
One thing I often see creators and publishers get wrong today is to create an unnecessary jumping off point by the simple mistake of throwing a "End" caption in the last panel on the final page of a story/storyline. Kittredge, Miranda and editor Shelly Bond don't do that here. They leave us with a cliffhanger, which you're allowed to do in comics, especially when you have parallel storylines running. You can end one storyline in a satisfying way, but leave the other with a cliff hanger. Potentially, this could go on forever. I hope it does. Issue 14's already on shelves but I haven't picked it up yet, based on the first 13 issues, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Key to abbreviations:
(a) artist [pencils & inks]