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There's a misconception in some quarters that anyone who demands quality in comics -- especially superhero comics -- must be some sort of elitist artcomix snob.
While I don't deny my firm conviction that historically the best and most vital comics have been personal works with a single creative vision -- often autobiographical in nature, such as the works of R. Crumb, or Art Spiegelman's Maus, but not always, as in the case of Louis Riel or Palomar -- I spent my formative years reading and absorbing superhero comics, and I have to admit that even now, as I get perilously near four decades walking the Earth, there's a special kind of thrill I get from the very best superhero comics being done today. Grant Morrison's recent run of New X-Men and its exploration of family, persecution, power, destiny and betrayal, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's deconstructionist Planetary, or Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier with its unapologetic celebration of superhero traditions and iconography -- all of these give me very near the same thrill as the best independent/alternative/grownup/artcomix do.
When I was 6 years old, my exploration of the comics artform began. I was far from a discriminating reader in my single-digit-years -- in fact, once I discovered comics, I was rapacious in my appetite for as many as I could possibly find, read, and cherish. I can remember back in the 1970s regularly walking a mile or so to the nearest convenience store near our house in Florida. I was around 10 years old, had a couple of parent-given bucks in my pocket, and after studying the spinner rack carefully for new releases, and perhaps spending any leftover change on a SlurpeeŽ, I would go home with 6 or 8 titles ranging from Amazing Spider-Man (Ross Andru was an early artistic favourite, and although I see his work very differently now, I still can't help but see see something of the excitement in it that I did then) to Richie Rich (Ernie Colon was one of the first artists whose style I identified) to E-Man (man, did I love Nova Kaine) to Little Dot (the story where smokestack pollution control devices turned smog to dots that unexpectedly and ironically littered the landscape haunts me still), to the Christian comics of Jack Chick, where I learned that the world is a bad, bad place and only by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord could I avoid the dangers of drinking, drugs, homosexuality and of course seemingly worst of all, that abominable rock music; I was sure the Doobie Brothers were doing Satan's Work back then...hmm, maybe Jack wasn't far from wrong. The point is, and I do have one, if it was comics, I read it.
My tastes evolved slowly, probably thanks in large part to parents who approved of my reading comics, likely because reading comics is reading, and because when I started reading them, they cost all of 20 cents (which also may have played a role in my diverse tastes, come to think of it). It wasn't until I stumbled over things like The Overstreet Price Guide, The Comics Journal and The Buyer's Guide in my early teens that I realized just how wide the artform truly was, and it wasn't long after that that I discovered, seemingly almost at once (and very likely through the Bud Plant Catalog, now that I think about it) the triumverate of Cerebus, Elfquest and The First Kingdom, each an alternative title with a very different creative vision from, say, Richie Rich. Soon enough works like the original Love and Rockets came along, and I was well on my way to seeing how comics could be -- should be -- a vehicle for individual artistic expression.
In my mid-teens I really became addicted to such comics, although some creators -- Crumb, for example -- would take years more life experience and exposure to the work for me to truly begin to appreciate. And while I still bought superhero comics, my favourites were those that intersected with that same individual artistic expression. Frank Miller's Daredevil, Walt Simonson's Thor, and the Kitchen Sink magazine-sized reprints of Will Eisner's The Spirit (an incredible magazine for its time, really, packed with some of the best comics in history) -- here were creators given free reign (or nearly enough as to not make a difference) to do what they wanted with the characters they were creating stories about. And how much better, I noted, even these superhero comics were when the men and women creating them were allowed to follow their vision and see where it took the creators, the characters, and most importantly, me.
Not every comic described here is a visionary work by a single, uncensored creator. In fact, none of them really are, although at least one (Daredevil #233) was clearly the work of creators following their muse and blazing new trails. But for the most part, as a child and as a teenager these individual issues are the ones I read again and again, dazzled by their drama, action and storytelling. There's a baseline quality to even the most banal of these comics that I find missing in a lot of today's entry-level superhero comics, and I'm convinced that that's the reason so few children are interested in what Marvel and DC have to offer in titles that should be instantly addictive to young minds, like Iron Man, The Flash, Wonder Woman or Superman.
The comics below are ones that I am sure I could have enjoyed even if I didn't encounter them until I was an adult, but they were simple and engaging enough that even at 9 years old, or into my early and mid-teens, I could appreciate what was being offered and be fascinated enough to want more. It seemed then like the writers and artists and editors knew how to walk a line that allowed readers both young and, well, older to get something positive out of the experience and look forward to the next issue.
I think it's because, as Alan Moore notes in The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore from TwoMorrows, the best comics give the reader what they need, not what they want. It's possible to deliver action and adventure with a spark of creativity and ingenuity without pandering to the mobius-strip storytelling that the aging fanboy audience seems to demand. A lot of today's lackluster, unengaging corporate superhero titles are clearly designed to deliver what the average comics shop customer wants in the way of comfort, nostalgia, and/or snickering, naughty sexuality; think of Hank Pym's superpowered exploration of his wife's vagina during a recent issue of Avengers or a deviant, possessed Power Girl sticking her tongue down Superman's throat in an expensive hardcover team-up of the Justice League and the JSA in what can only be described as a corporate comics moment of meta-incestuousness. The mind reels at the lack of imagination on display in comics like these and others, which by their very nature exclude younger readers through their inbred (in more ways than one, clearly) nature.
It seems to this observer that the mandate that entry-level superhero comics meet the reading needs of a wide range of ages was probably enforced by editors, and it further seems that there are few editors working in corporate comics today who have the skills, or the power, to work with creators to make their comics the most creative and entertaining as possible. Some editors, like Marvel's Tom Brevoort, seem to understand both the characters and the needs of the readers and is able to form a creative partnership with his writers and artists that results in something like the comics I remember from childhood. Certainly his work with Kurt Busiek and George Perez on Avengers Vol. 3 is evidence of that. But in many cases, I would guess that the editors are either powerless in the face of industry "superstars" given the keys to the kingdom, or they do not have the desire, energy, time or even knowledge of how to achieve the necessary balance to create true entry-level superhero comics suitable for most readers and engaging enough to even, oh, I dunno, attract new readers year after year. Which strikes me as a better, saner response to audience attrition than multiple covers, stunt storylines, pandering to fanboys, and the near-constant rebooting of series with new #1s.
But when I was younger, it seemed most superhero comics were purposely aimed at readers of a wider age range, and it seemed like the most exciting and complex ones were published by Marvel Comics. Here now is a look at a few that made a huge impact on my developing mind -- for varying reasons, as you'll see -- and each of which retains today at least a portion of the power that they had over me even back then.
Avengers #161 by Jim Shooter, George Perez and Pablo MarcosI read DC comics as a child and liked 'em well enough, although I didn't really get excited about them until Marv Wolfman and George Perez introduced Marvel-style super-soap operatics into the DC milieu. Perez, as you're about to see, was a big favourite of mine in my pre-teens, and I retain a nostalgic affection for his glory days even today, although he has chosen to illustrate enough poorly-written books in recent years (Solus, Crimson Plague) that I remain skeptical if he'll ever again reach the creative heights he did as recently as his his run on Avengers with writer Kurt Busiek.
Speaking of which, anyone who enjoyed Kurt Busiek and George Perez's lengthy run but found succeeding creative teams not quite as engaging should investigate the original Perez era on the title, especially my favourite, Avengers #161.
Looking at this comic as an 11-year old boy, I was entranced by the level of tension and drama in this issue; looking back decades years later, I can see it's one of the few comics that have held up for me through my transition to adulthood -- I think it's one of the most exciting and visceral Marvel comics ever.
As an 11-year old, the only superhero identity I ever knew for Henry Pym was Yellowjacket. Oh, I may have seen a flashback here or there that referred to his other identities, but to me, he was Yellowjacket, and Yellowjacket was one of my favourite characters. A two-part appearance by YJ and the Wasp over in Marvel Team-Up (drawn by John Byrne in his glory days) made for two comics that I read and re-read constantly. I was fascinated by the fact that the two of them were married (that was a rarity for superheroes then), and the fact that they could shrink down to insect size just seemed too cool.
When Scott Lang stole Pym's old Ant-Man costume in Marvel Premiere #47 (again drawn by Byrne, and discussed below) and assumed his former identity, Pym not only didn't mind but helped Lang in his quest to save his daughter. My young mind was enchanted by the awakening sense that these characters were living in a shared universe and that I was in on the behind-the-scenes intrigue.
In Avengers #161, the excitement started building right on the cover (drawn by Perez and inked by Marcos). Ant-Man rises up from insect-size and clocks Captain America and the Black Panther in a single effort, while ants swarm over the Vision, Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man. Surely puny Ant-Man could never do such harm to Earth's Mightiest Heroes? And why would he, anyway? The intriguing cover is a lesson to today's corporate comics mindset of generic group shots that do nothing to even get your attention on the stands, never mind engage your imagination as to what the heck might be the story behind that cover.
I don't think it's any coincidence, by the way, that I was so pleased with the Avengers lineup Kurt and George chose for their first couple of years of Avengers tales together in Avengers Volume 3. Virtually the same lineup is present in #161, and the strength of the interaction between these characters shines through despite the occasional ham-handedness of Jim Shooter's dialogue.
While the dialogue is occasionally stiff, though, the plot is straightforward action, grounded in Avengers history and enhanced by the dynamic of this particular assemblage of heroes. The splash page focuses on Ant-Man as he looks in on the Avengers, surrounded by his only allies in this story, a swarm of obedient ants. Pym is confused to see unfamiliar strangers at Avengers mansion, and is strangely hostile and ready to attack.
As the Avengers get a look at Wonder Man's new costume (the first he's gotten since his original, Kirby-designed outfit was destroyed in #160), Ant-Man announces his presence and demands to know who these strangers are. Pym explains angrily that he is there for the first meeting of the Avengers, and while he recognizes Iron Man (but doubts the man in the unfamiliar armour is the Iron Man he knows), he doesn't know any of the other heroes and is infuriated by the imposter pretending to be Captain America.
By now, the reader is thoroughly confused. This team of Avengers had more or less been the book's lineup for a year or more, and it's becoming clear that something is quite wrong with Ant-Man.
Whatever his problem is, it has not affected his fighting skills one bit. I'd go so far as to say his hostility has given him an even greater edge than he might otherwise have, as he single-handedly overcomes (albeit briefly) Iron Man, Captain America, the Scarlet Witch and even Wonder Man (newly returned from the dead and unsure of both his abilities and his place on the team). The use of flying ants to swarm through Iron Man's eye-slits struck me back then as brilliant, and the ingenuity of the move retains its impact and wit even now. Any doubts about Ant-Man's ability to carry off the image on the cover are completely erased in this terrific sequence. Only the Vision is immune to the onslaught of Hank Pym and his ants, but the Synthezoid's powers are shown to be pretty useless in any kind of offensive move against the attacking Ant-Man. Only the Wasp, able to shrink down to Pym's level and attack him close-up amid a swarm of flying ants, is able to bring down her enraged husband.
I have to say something here about George Perez's depiction of these events. While he is generally regarded by superhero fans as one of the most exciting and energetic artists working today, Perez was pretty goddamned good even all those years ago. His earliest Avengers issues demonstrated enthusiasm and interesting layouts, but his faces were often weak and his backgrounds often non-existent. In #161, Perez obviously has gained confidence and skill and stretches his muscles in the way that endeared him to readers for decades to follow. He uses a variety of angles to add visual interest to the battle, and his powerful depictions of such powerhouses as Iron Man and Wonder Man add depth and drama to the fact that Ant-Man is able to render them helpless in such short order.
This entire issue is filled with visual power and tension rarely seen in superhero comics. The inks by Pablo Marcos (Perez's best inker back in those days) could only enhance the design and layout of Perez; in those days you often saw the quality of Perez's work degraded under the inks of craftsmen like Jack Abel or Vinnie Coletta. It's hard to imagine I would continue to hold this issue in such high esteem 23 years after the fact if it had been inked by one of those sorts of inkers. While Marcos might have exhibited a heavy hand in inking Perez, he did so in a way that complemented the work rather than obliterating its appeal.
As Pym is brought down by his (clearly distraught) wife, the team gathers its wits and tries to get to the bottom of the unexpected attack. Jan explains that her husband has had a history of mental problems (explained in flashbacks) which seemed to be resolved when Pym took on and kept the identity of Yellowjacket. The stability and passion of their marriage is explained in a single panel in which the heroes are apparently making love, nude. A panel that struck me as provocative at the age of 11 still strikes me as daring. Not only are the heroes clearly naked, but the close-up panel of the two of them intimately kissing expresses not only passion, but love.
Jan tells the team that her husband unexpectedly flew off during an in-flight conversation the day before, and that she returned to his lab to find it in ruins. She was coming to the Avengers for help when she interrupted Ant-Man's assault on the team.
Iron Man suggests using "the subliminal recall-inducer" on Pym to learn the reason for his attack. I don't know if this device had ever been seen before in continuity, but it certainly struck me as something Shooter probably bought on clearance at his local Deus Ex Machina Superstore.
The Beast is assigned to drive Jan home so she can find some items to spur her husband's memories. Captain America and Iron Man chide the Beast for his patented humour in the face of the day's events in a sequence that seems a bit harsh and even clumsy now. Plotting was always more Shooter's strength than dialogue.
As McCoy escorts Mrs. Pym to her Creskill home, we see through thought balloons that the Beast's humour disguises his sense of self-pity over his own plight. While Jan heads into her home, McCoy muses "Henry Pym is one lucky guy to have a lady like that! A lot luckier than a Beast could ever be." McCoy came to accept and even enjoy his furry blue condition in later issues, but in those days the Avengers was the only place his character was being developed at all.
Jan is attacked while rummaging through her husband's things. The picture we see of Reed Richards on the wall was a reminder in those days that this was a shared universe -- today it strikes me as a bit comical. Not only do I question why the Pyms would have such a photo, but why Richards has such a wide grin on his face.
As Jan is taken down by a mysterious attacker, back at the mansion the Avengers zap Ant-Man with their memory-inducer. The panel is bathed in yellows, reds and oranges, and Kirby Dotz suffuse the air. Whatever that machina, er, machine, is doing, it doesn't look like fun. It also does not succeed in answering the question of why Hank Pym would attack his teammates.
Captain America sends out a call for absent Avengers, but we're shown in brief vignettes why Thor, Quicksilver and Hawkeye (along with the Two-Gun Kid...don't ask) won't be coming to the rescue. By the end of the issue, Cap'll be wishing he'd had their help.
As the team gathers to discuss their inability to discover Pym's motive for attacking, the Beast stumbles in, obviously having been assaulted himself. Then, the answer. It probably comes as no surprise to anyone now (or then, I'd wager) that Ultron is to blame for the strange turn of events. The killer robot explodes into Avengers Mansion, and as the Scarlet Witch gets close to defeating him with her probability-altering powers, she is distracted by Ultron's attack on Captain America. Ultron defeats the rest of the team in short order, and shoots off skyward, Ant-Man having been sucked into his "fingertip capsule-prison." That Shooter sure had a way with naming stuff.
Jarvis returns to the mansion to find it plunged into darkness, and flips the light-switch. The final, memorable panel shows the team's butler as he takes in the carnage Ultron has left behind. Wonder Man, Iron Man, the Vision, Captain America, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch and the Beast -- among them the some of the most powerful Avengers ever--utterly defeated. Possibly dead. To be continued.
The repercussions of this storyline were felt for decades. This was the first time, I believe, that Perez was assigned to depict a storyline focusing on the robotic villan Ultron, and the power and fury on these pages resonates well with the fairly acclaimed Busiek/Perez Ultron storyline in Volume 3. The fact that Yellowjacket wasn't as stable as he might have seemed was a major plot point here, and that also nugget played a big role not only in the Vol 3 Ultron story but also in the Avengers Forever 12-issue series by Busiek and artist Carlos Pacheco. Additionally, you'll eventually learn that Ultron's machinations (heh heh) here resulted in the creation of Jocasta, later an Avenger herself and a supporting character in Iron Man's solo series.
As I implied earlier, many superhero comics from the '70s do not hold up well when looked back at through nearly three decades of improvements in production techniques and more sophisticated visual and written storytelling techniques. But Avengers #161 cemented my affection for the title, an affection that was reignited under the later stewardship of Kurt Busiek and George Perez. Avengers #161 not only serves as an obvious inspiration for Busiek and Perez's run, but it stands up just as well today as it did back then. If you've never read it, and especially if you enjoyed the Busiek/Perez Avengers, by all means seek it out. It remains my all-time favourite single superhero comic book.
Marvel Premiere #47-48 by David Michelinie, John Byrne and Bob Layton
When these issues first appeared in early 1979, it seemed obvious to me that a regular Ant-Man series must soon follow. Not only was I completely off-base, but Scott Lang (the new Ant-Man introduced here) languished as third-rate window dressing for the Marvel Universe until very recently, when he was given a brief moment in the spotlight in some Brian Michael Bendis-written comics before being utterly obliterated in Bendis's first Avengers issue.
The Bob Layton-drawn cover of #47 jumped right off the stands and grabbed my attention. The image of Ant-Man atop an ant, standing on a newspaper, reaching up toward a handheld magnifying glass (with a gun barrel pointing at him as well, although this was an unnecessary threat on an excellently designed cover) was a real eye-catcher. No one has ever improved on Kirby's original, retro-five-minutes-after-it-was-created costume design for this character, not even Kirby himself. Decades later, a mere glimpse at that cover sends me back to that period of my life. Marvel Comics was the best, and this comic proved it again in spades.
What we have in these two issues is a clever, if fairly standard, origin story. As I say, it's obviously a set-up for an ongoing series, and it's too bad Scott Lang never again got this kind of quality spotlight in the succeeding decades -- because he was given an exciting and top-notch introduction here by some of Marvel's top talents at the very top of their game.
Writer David Michelinie is much better known as a longtime Iron Man scripter whose work with inker/co-plotter Bob Layton remains some of the best-loved tales of the Golden Avenger. Layton is along for the ride here as well, and these two issues are very bit as entertaining and demonstrate the same solid storytelling found in their best Iron Man issues.
Penciler John Byrne was really getting into his prime here as well, turning in work that is both action-packed and well designed. It's probably much too late now to find out whose idea it was to begin the tale in the middle of the action, but the splash page of #47 features Scott Lang (we don't know yet it isn't Henry Pym) in the middle of a pitched battle with armed (and armoured) guards while a doctor tries to protect a covered patient obviously in the middle of surgery.
It's obvious from the dialogue on this splash page that this probably isn't the Ant-Man we all know and love. His thought balloons reveal he is worried because if the doctor's patient lives -- "My daughter will die!"
Ant-Man battles the goons for a few pages before we kick into flashback mode and find out our protagonist is not Henry Pym, but an ex-con named Scott Lang. We see Lang released from prison after a brief expository interlude where the prison warden informs Lang (and us, of course) that he has been a model prisoner and an electronic genius. See, as recently as two decades ago, heroes who were reformed bad guys had to have always had a heart of gold. Former serial killers and hitmen generally were not thought of as good super-hero material.
We meet the light of Lang's life, his 9-year old daughter Cassie (whose became a superhero herself in Tom DeFalco's A-Next), a "bundle of towheaded love," who Lang soon discovers is suffering from an inoperable medical condition. Michelinie creates a true human drama here; imagine spending years in prison, only to get out ready to start again (Lang scores a job working for Tony Stark) and almost immediately learn your daughter is dying. It's tragic, and as it might in the real world, it forces Lang to consider turning to his old ways to pay for the mounting medical bills.
Lang learns about a cutting-edge surgeon, Erica Sondheim, and resolves to meet her to ask if anything can be done for his daughter. As he arrives at the Sondheim Institute, he finds a bunch of thugs "helping" the doctor move her practice to a new location. A gigantic arm reaches from a sedan and throws Lang into a wall, then the car departs with the doctor. Lang notes the license plate number, and uses his "contacts in the Department of Motor Vehicles" (yeah, we all have those, right?) to trace the car's owner.
Lang's investigation brings him to the heavily barricaded Cross Technological Enterprises facility. He decides he'll need to hire a small army to get in to talk to Dr. Sondheim, so he breaks into one of the houses he had been casing earlier. Luckily, the home is the Creskill digs of Henry Pym, and Lang stumbles upon Pym's old Ant-Man getup. Realizing the costume will allow him to get into CTE all by himself, he takes it back to his apartment and summons an army of ants.
Lang quickly (perhaps too quickly, but hey, it was the '80s, folks) figures out how to work with the ants and use the costume's shrinking canisters, and flies off to CTE to find the good doctor.
It should be noted here that Michelinie never wavers from the idea that Lang is basically a good guy. The Ant-Man costume would have allowed him to steal the money he needed to pay his daughter's bills, and he could have had a very profitable criminal career, but his first and only focus is his daughter's health. Arriving at CTE, the new Ant-Man finds Dr. Sondheim operating on an unknown patient, and we end up at the point we came in on the splash page.
As Lang battles the CTE armored guards, the patient on Sondheim's operating table wakes up. He looks a bit like a gigantic, muscular Richard Nixon as he informs Lang he intends to destroy him -- "Rather utterly!" (Isn't that a split infinitive or a dangling participle or somesuch?)
There are some terrific artistic touches in this first part of the two-part tale. Layton was probably second only to Terry Austin in terms of meshing with Byrne's still Neal Adams-esque style in those days (although rumour at the time had it Byrne disliked Layton's inks), and the shots of Ant-Man's gleaming helmet or the Zip-A-Toned helmets on the CTE thugs gave the art a real shine that came through even on the crappy paper the books were printed on. Byrne has some fun with the angles, as any clever artist working with a shrinking hero always does, and the double-page spread that concludes this issue is quite dramatic, despite the somewhat goofy dialogue and the Nixon-esque look of the villain.
Part two of the origin of the new Ant-Man in issue #48 doesn't start as strong as part one, given a fairly unspectacular Dave Cockrum/Bob McLeod cover. The most prominent item on the cover is the ass of the ant Scott Lang is riding, although the big, goofy pink villain Darren Cross is also a large part of the design. Compared to the cover of the previous issue, to my mind a classic of the era, this one seems pretty generic.
The story itself picks up right where #47 left off, as big, pink, Nixon-esque Darren Cross rises from the operating table and confronts Ant-Man. From page one, the issue suffers from the loss of #47's letterer Tom Orzechowski, whose elegant work always lent Byrne's Uncanny X-Men a gravitas it might not have had with the more ordinary lettering style of Diana Albers, who handles the task here.
And while these two issues remain some of my all-time favourite Marvel comics, I have to say they'd be more well-regarded in my memory if more thought had been put into the look of the villain. While Darren Cross's origin (he became big, grotesque and pink after suffering a heart condition and receiving an experimental treatment) is serviceable, his appearance, especially the black Speedo, is just goofy. I think part of the reason I remain fonder of part one than part two of this story is that Cross hardly appears in the first half. Once he comes out from under the sheet of that operating table, the drama of the story is somewhat undermined.
The plot and the artwork are otherwise strong, as Cross breaks the antennae off Lang's helmet, takes his shrinking gas cylinders and tosses his ass in the convenient CTE slammer. We learn through flashbacks that since contracting his unfortunate condition, Cross has had to undergo a series of heart transplants, lately using his army of thugs to round up winos and bums who he keeps imprisoned until he needs a new ticker. But Cross now decides he will forego the use of the heart of the next appointed bum and instead have the heart "of a strong and irritatingly clever superhero." Oh, my, what a turn of events!
In a stunning display of Deus Ex Machina, we learn Lang hid a pair of back-up antennae in his boots, fearing he might break the helmet's original pair because of his inexperience. Lang calls in the ants, who bring him his (well, Hank Pym's!) gas canisters. He escapes his cell, and confronts Cross once more. In the heat of their second battle, Cross suddenly crumples -- and we learn Dr. Sondheim had had enough of the evil industrialist's illicit transplants. She had put Cross's old heart back in his chest during the operation Lang interrupted at the beginning of the story, knowing full well that Cross would die as a result of her (heh) double-cross.
Sondheim is anguished at what she has done, but she knows she has saved lives by taking that of Darren Cross. Ant-Man tells her there's one more life waiting for her to save -- his daughter.
It's a fairly convenient wrap-up to the story, and as an adult it seems a little more contrived and abrupt than it did when I was 13 years old. But the two-part tale is an excellent setup for the new Ant-Man, giving him both a good reason for taking on Henry Pym's former identity and a well-drawn supporting cast including Dr. Sondheim and Cassie Lang.
In the epilogue in #48, Scott Lang learns Sondheim's surgery has been a success and his daughter will fully recover. Lang knows he will have to go back to prison once the ants tell Henry Pym what went down -- he's such a hero it never occurs him to just stomp the little buggers -- but then Pym himself appears, and we learn it's not his first appearance in the tale.
In the first part of the story, we saw a security laser blast that Lang had assumed was controlled by a timer. Here, Henry Pym tells him he was following him all along, from the moment Lang broke into his Creskill home, and it was he, Pym, that was zapped by the laser. Pym was stunned, but able to observe the events that followed, and tells Lang to keep the Ant-Man costume. After all, "The world can always use another hero."
In reading this story again (I've read it dozens of times since buying it new off the stands in 1979), I agree wholeheartedly with Henry Pym. It's too bad no regular series ever followed. Scott Lang (and his daughter) have appeared off and on in the decades that followed, but I can't help but think that his potential as a character was really thrown away even before he was incinerated in Avengers #500. Here was a real hero, who put his life in jeopardy to save his daughter, and who found forgiveness and redemption in his brief moment in the spotlight.
Daredevil #233 by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
It's difficult for me to pick a single issue of Frank Miller's Daredevil as my favourite. Miller made his reputation in a spectacular run on the title (#158-191, with only a single fill-in issue by Steve Ditko very early on), first as artist (#158-167) and especially once he began scripting with #168, which also introduced the character of Elektra and set the tone and pace of the rest of Miller's initial run.
Even after Miller left with the extraordinary Daredevil #191 (in which Matt Murdock plays Russian Roulette with a paralyzed Bullseye), he was never far from the character. He did some graphic novels, including Elektra Lives Again (a solo hardcover) and some collaborations with Bill Sienkiewicz and John Romita Jr.
But despite my love of Miller's first stint on Daredevil, my all-time favourite superhero storyline has to be Daredevil: Born Again, which ran from #227-233, and was drawn by David Mazzucchelli (who also illustrated Miller's Batman: Year One).
Mazzucchelli had been pencilling the title for a while, but was not considered an extraordinary artist. Competent, but not that exciting. When Miller returned to write this outstanding run of issues, Mazzucchelli was seemingly transformed as a talent. Whether he was energized by Miller's scripting (far superior to the issues Mazzucchelli drew under other writers), or guidance from Miller or editor Ralph Macchio, Mazzucchelli turned in a transformative comics work that stands as one of the finest examples of American superhero comics ever.
Miller and Mazzucchelli's story told how a heroin-addicted Karen Page sold Matt Murdock's secret identity for a fix, and how the Kingpin subsequently dismantled the entire life of the Man Without Fear.
If you've never read this story, you are denying yourself the single finest story Marvel has ever published. Miller used adult themes in a way that surpassed his previous run, and Mazzucchelli's artwork complemented it perfectly. Even Miller himself illustrating this story would not have achieved the impact of the two of them working together.
By "adult themes," by the way, I don't mean sex and drugs, although both make significant appearances here. No, I mean such adult themes as trust, loss, betrayal and redemption. I am not kidding when I call this the most adult superhero story I've ever read. Yeah, stuff blows up, but this is a story grounded in the simplest parts of being human, and the heights and depths to which people can go, of their own design or not. And it all comes to a head in this final issue of the arc.
For a story that so wonderfully incorporates some of his finest creations, Jack Kirby gets a "Respectfully dedicated to" box on the explosive splash page. The Kingpin's trump card, a psychopathic super-soldier named Nuke, is dropping napalm on Hell's Kitchen, and Matt Murdock has finally reclaimed his identity as Daredevil, now struggling to save lives amid the carnage.
Nuke is a good answer to those who say Miller's Batman in Dark Knight Returns was some sort of Neo-Fascist. We see what Miller thinks of mindless dedication to the cause of American Justice, and it's not much. Nuke is a pathetic, hulking brute of a moron, literally painted with the flag and ready to lay down lives (except his own) at the behest of any properly-garbed authority figure. Batman in DKR may have wanted things his way, but at least he wanted to make a better world. Nuke just wants to kill things and uses patriotism as an excuse.
Frank Miller did not create Ben Urich, but he certainly developed the character into one of the most human supporting characters ever seen in superhero comics. Here, he has been put through his own personal hell (also at the hands of the Kingpin), and finally has found his redemption. Urich documents the battle in Hell's Kitchen at the risk of his own (and his photographer's) life. He knows this story is more important than his safety.
Suddenly, in one of their most riveting appearances, and quite unexpectedly, the Avengers show up. Captain America was on the cover, but when he and Thor and Iron Man arrive on the scene, each is given a single panel which defines their character better than dozens of issues of attempts by other writers on their solo titles.
Matt Murdock and Captain America have an extraordinary exchange a little while later on a rooftop, which ends not with the thoughts of Daredevil but Captain America, offended by Nuke's flag tattoo, and bewildered by DD's seeming indifference to it (he can't see it of course, but Cap doesn't know that):
It doesn't mean anything to them, thinks the soldier. To them, it's just a piece of cloth. Sometimes I feel so weak.With this one sequence, the story belongs as much to Captain America as it does to Daredevil.
Captain America gets to the bottom of Nuke's origin as the brutal madman escapes military custody. A battle ensues in which Nuke is mortally wounded, and in his dying moments Miller manages to give even this horrific creation a modicum of redemption. The Kingpin has been thwarted, utterly. The final shot of the villain of this piece is reminiscent of the final panel we saw of Bullseye when he was crippled at the end of #181, and we are left with the impression that the Kingpin's efforts to destroy Matt Murdock have crippled the Kingpin's empire as much as that fall many months ago crippled Bullseye.
The final page is a wonderful, full-page spread of the newly-reborn Matt Murdock and Karen Page walking along the street of their (also being reborn) Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood. Miller's final words are both simple and profound, and the reader is given a supreme sense of closure: this story had a definite beginning, middle and end, as the best stories do, and it retains a depth and power unmatched by any other superhero story in the 60-plus years of American comic books.
Daredevil: Born Again is as good as superhero comics get, and probably as good as they will ever get.
Uncanny X-Men #141-142
It occurs to me that many of my favourite comics have gone on to infamy as the beginning of trends or plotlines that later went on to be vilified by fans.
Watchmen, along with The Dark Knight Returns, of course, heralded the Grim 'n Gritty Age of comics, in which creators with none of the skill of Frank Miller or Alan Moore attempted to ape the complex, morally ambiguous milieu of those stories. The fact was that most imitators focused on the darkness and despair found in those stories without having a clue that the tales were both grounded in hope and crafted by writers at the very top of their creative game.
So, too, has the storyline in these X-Men issues been followed up on for many years by creators unable to grasp the essence of the tale. Sure, Days of Future Past is about time travel. Titanic is about a boat sinking. Star Wars is about a war in space. Just because you can break the plot of a great story down into a single phrase doesn't mean just anyone can create a similarly worthy tale. The stink from the two decades of crap that followed these two X-Men issues can be smelled from the galaxy of Andromeda. By someone with a very bad head cold. But that does not diminish the power of the original story, or the joy to be found in re-reading it.
In retrospect, Days of Future Past was really the high point of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne X-Men era, not to mention of the careers of the primary creators. The team (along with inker Terry Austin) had taken the mutants from deep space to the Savage Land, delivering mind-bending sagas on a monthly basis for many, many months. Unusually complex (for the time) characterizations and slick, dynamic artwork and clear storytelling were the hallmarks of the run. But this two-part story got to the heart of what made the Claremont/Byrne era the classic it remains today. As many of the best stories are, it was about family.
Stan Lee's X-Men, Roy Thomas's X-Men -- they were superheroes. Sure, they were occasionally exciting, and the concept was always strong, but Claremont (for all his excess verbiage) really got inside the heads of these people and let us know what they were thinking and feeling (occasionally to excess, but it was a successful technique during this run). The end result was that readers cared about the Uncanny X-Men in the late '70s and early '80s in a way rarely seen before or since. It was one part soap opera and one part superheroics, and for a few brief years, it was magic. Every 30 days.
The story begins with Kate Pryde (a much older Kitty Pryde) seen crawling through a ruined New York City in the far-off (it seemed then) 2013. Mutants have been rounded up and either killed or interred, and the Sentinels rule the United States of America. Kate gets herself into jeopardy, and a graying Wolverine comes to her rescue. We learn Logan is part of the Canadian Resistance Army, and that he is working with Kate to overthrow the Sentinels.
There was no set-up for this situation; Claremont and Byrne just tossed the reader right into the midst of this unexpected, dystopic future. It was disorienting, it was disturbing -- it was marvelous. The look we got at the future Wolverine (not, back then, an overexposed joke) was intriguing, and the glimpse of the graveyard in the Sentinel camp was chilling. So many heroes, we learned, were now dead. How could this have happened? And how the hell can it be made right? What price would have to be paid?
Inside the Sentinel camp, we meet the surviving mutants -- including a now wheelchair-bound Magneto who has apparently gone over to the side of the angels. The sense of family among these survivors is palpable. Kate Pryde has been married for years to Colossus, and Franklin Richards is involved with Rachel, a telepath we meet here for the first time. But beyond that, Colossus refers to Magneto as "old friend," a designation almost beyond comprehension back then. It was clear that the struggle against the Sentinels had united mutantkind in ways we could only begin to understand.
Rachel has been tapped to use her powers to send Kate Pryde's adult consciousness back into her 13-year old self's body, and suddenly the story shifts gears back to a world we know. The Danger Room in the Westchester academy that is the secret headquarters of the X-Men. The X-Men we know. Our X-Men.
Kate, now inhabiting the body of her younger self, is quickly able to convince the team that she is not the Kitty they know and love, and that she has come back in time to prevent the assassination of anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly, and a subsequent nuclear holocaust. Remember, too, that this was 1980. Such tales were not as commonplace (or cliched) as they might be considered now. The team makes off for Washington, where Kelly is leading a senate hearing that Charles Xavier is testifying at.
The plot in the present really isn't all that interesting in and of itself. The X-Men have to prevent an assassination. It's the glimpses of the future that we get that really make this compelling reading. For years now we had gotten to know the characters of Colossus, Storm, Wolverine and the others. We had just met Kitty Pryde a few issues back. Now, we were seeing where they would all end up decades down the line, and because of the skill and talent of the creators, we really, really cared about all these characters. This horrific future had to be prevented, no matter what.
Of course, the X-Men manage to prevent Kelly's death in the next issue, at a terrible cost to the future version of the X-Men, and with many unanswered questions (would that many of them had remained unanswered). The cover caption, "Everybody Dies!" was, for once, completely accurate. Claremont and Byrne carried through in part two on the setup of the first part. It is a tale filled with drama, intrigue and excitement, that at the last reaffirms the sense of family that both the reader and the characters feel. Claremont and Byrne as a team had one more issue in them, but it was a slight tale by comparison; this was their true farewell to these characters. Claremont remained for years after, but never again reached the level of quality and drama he did here. Days of Future Past gave Claremont and Byrne reputations they fed off of for years, but the tale has also haunted them. In the original version of this article, written a few years ago, I said "Even if you could reunite the creators of this tale, we all know they could never capture lightning in a bottle like this again." That was proven with the Claremont/Byrne JLA arc that served to introduce an effeminate vampire into the JLA rogue's gallery and launch a new Doom Patrol that precisely no one was demanding.
Days of Future Past has been mined for new story fodder now for over 20 years, with all the diminishing returns that implies. We've seen countless other time-travelers try to prevent dystopic futures like the one presented here (and endless variants thereof), to the point that I suspect many readers may have forgotten the power, quality and simplicity of this initial tale, if they've ever read it in the first place. But the junk that came after this story does nothing to diminish the quality of the original.
Amazing Spider-Man #121 by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, John Romita Sr. and Tony Mortellaro
Much like Batman, Spider-Man is a character firmly grounded in tragedy. Sure, he's a wall-crawling wiseass, but let's remember he became a hero only after his callous disregard for helping others resulted in the death of his beloved uncle. Death has stalked this character throughout his history, and never with more impact or bitter sense of loss than the death in this issue.
When we first met Peter Parker, he was a nerdy high schooler who had received amazing super-powers. As the years wore on, Peter graduated high school, went to college, and as even nerds sometimes do (although by now Parker was no longer a nerd), he fell in love.
Gwen Stacy was the love of Peter Parker's life. Blonde, beautiful, full of life and vibrancy, she was a great companion for Spider-Man's alter-ego. Despite the fact that the writing in those days often fell into cliched melodrama, Gwen was depicted as spunky, independent, and very much a young woman of her time.
Spider-Man in those days was blessed with one of the strongest, most diverse supporting casts ever seen in superhero comics. The dual milieus of college and the Daily Bugle allowed for a wide variety of personalities to interact with our hero, and they were put to good use. As this issue opens, Pete's longtime best friend Harry Osborn has once again fallen into illegal drug use, and is suffering from clinical psychosis and schizophrenia brought on by an LSD overdose.
Whether such a drug could bring on such a reaction, Harry's condition was a likely red herring for the cover image, which featured Spider-Man, spider-sense blaring, wondering which friend or family member was about to die.
Gwen, along with Mary Jane Watson, is at Harry's bedside, as Peter Parker enters and is tossed out on his ear by an enraged Norman Osborn, Harry's father and the former Green Goblin. Norman is showed in a feverish rage, and Peter tries to calm him down, perhaps fearing that Osborn could slip back into his evil alter-ego in this time of crisis. Peter, Gwen and Mary Jane leave, wondering why their friend has fallen so far.
Norman Osborn was always shown to be a cold, distant father. He was a ruthless businessman, enormously successful, but unable to be a decent father to his son, who only wanted his dad's approval. The Goblin legacy that has run through the Spider-titles for decades has at times been one of the most compelling dramatic elements of the series. The evil being passed from father to son has a disturbing, almost incestuous air about it, while at the same time being completely believable within the context of a superhero saga.
And here, both father and son are in a state of crisis. Harry is a drug-addled wreck, and Norman Osborn again stands at the brink of madness. No artist before or since could have been better chosen to depict the fevered, sweaty brow of these characters than Gil Kane. His wide-eyed Norman Osborn seemed utterly mad. His pinpoint pupils conveyed a sense of insanity better than volumes of text could have. He was a dangerous man, and readers certainly knew the Goblin was likely to resurface. But I doubt anyone at the time could have anticipated the permanent change about to occur in this title, or indeed in the entire American superhero canon.
Peter Parker arrives at the Daily Bugle, feeling unwell. He sells some pictures of his latest slugfest with the Hulk to Robbie Robertson and J. Jonah Jameson, and then turns back into Spider-Man, to make the trip home as quickly as possible. We then see Norman Osborn, haunted by a hallucination of Spider-Man, and finally his paranoia and fear and sense of failure become too much for him -- Osborn's sanity snaps and once more his memories flood back, reminding him of the only solution to his problems that has ever given him any satisfaction. Osborn once more becomes the Green Goblin.
At this point, readers were probably gearing up for another battle royal between their favourite hero and his most dangerous foe. Perhaps someone's life would even be endangered, as hinted at on the cover. But this was to be a grudge match like no one had ever depicted in superhero comics. And the story and art at this point take on a pinpoint focus that narrows and narrows until we reach the horrific, inevitable conclusion.
Spider-Man arrives at his apartment, a struggle obviously having just occurred. Spidey finds Gwen's purse and a pumpkin-bomb, and he realizes the Goblin is back and has taken Gwen. It's a scenario he's experienced dozens of times before, the girlfriend in jeopardy. At this point in the average superhero comic, we know all the moves and just hope the writer and artist will find some twist on the tale that will make it entertaining enough to hold our interest.
Spider-Man uses his spider-sense to track the Goblin to the top of the George Washington Bridge. The dance begins, as the hero and villain engage each other in battle. Spider-Man, though, is sick, and he fears that the Goblin will realize this and quickly gain the upper hand. Despite his illness, Spider-Man manages to clock the Goblin a good one, and the villain goes toppling over the side of the bridge. As Spider-Man reaches Gwen, we see the Goblin land on his Goblin-glider and zoom back up to reach his target. But instead of attacking Spider-Man, the Goblin takes his ultimate revenge. He knocks Gwen off the bridge.
It is a moment that for readers of a certain age remains suspended in time, even decades later. Gwen Stacy, forever in freefall as Spider-Man, shocked, reaches down and shoots off a web-line to save his love. In that moment, of course, remains a universe of possibility. It is the final moment Gwen Stacy will ever draw a breath, and as a heartbroken fan (to this day, I admit it -- I loved her as much as Pete did), the moment stretches out into infinity. It is a universe unto itself.
Until the webbing reaches Gwen's leg, and we see the large "SWIK!" sound effect, almost distracting us from the more significant but smaller "SNAP!" effect by Gwen's head. Her neck is broken. Her life is over.
Parker, of course, doesn't know this, and (arrogantly? presumptuously?) lifts Gwen up to his perch at the top of the bridge. He cradles her in his arms, bragging to himself about how dashing and versatile a hero he is. Gwen's head tilts back at an odd angle, and the truth hits. It hits our hero, and it hits us.
Gil Kane gives us one last, loving close-up of Gwen's beautiful face, now forever silenced, before pulling back and showing us from hundreds of feet away how small Spider-Man's world has just become, how dim his future. All is lost.
It should be noted that the choice of John Romita Sr. as one of the inkers in this issue was perfect. After all, "Jazzy Johnny" had depicted Gwen as the vibrant, beautiful young woman who became a comics icon, and it looks to me like Romita inked the panel where Peter first looks at Gwen's now lifeless face, her eyes now closed. It's utterly appropriate and utterly effective in recalling all the stories we'd read about her before, all the time we'd spent with her. Spider-Man, the readers, and even her best artist, are all rendered heartbroken, all saying goodbye to Gwen Stacy forever.
The Goblin swings back around on his glider, ready to engage in the battle that next issue will cost Norman Osborn his life. Spider-Man swears on the final page he'll kill the Goblin, and while that isn't quite how it will turn out, Osborn will indeed be dead at the end of the next issue.
It's a fitting price that had to be paid for what went on in this issue. After all, Osborn not only killed Gwen Stacy, but he murdered the Silver Age of Comics as well. This issue, and the death of Gwen Stacy, are considered the end of an era, and indeed that's just what this was. Gwen's death really was the completion of Peter Parker's journey into heroism. While his uncle's death was tragic, he was still able to go on and enjoy college and fall in love and believe there could be a happy ending. Gwen's death was the death of happy endings for Peter Parker. Despite numerous returns in clone-form, the genuine Gwen has remained dead, and rightly so. As I noted in the first column I ever wrote about comics, "Some dead people should remain dead." Unlike Thomas Wayne or Uncle Ben, though, Gwen's loss still stings, probably because we spent so much time with her as a character before she was taken away from us. She wasn't mere origin fodder like Batman's parents or Peter's uncle. She was as real to readers of Spider-Man as Peter Parker was himself.
Her death ushered in a new dark, more cynical age that included such sagas as Jim Starlin's Warlock and Captain Marvel, Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers' Batman, Steve Gerber's Howard the Duck and Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's Swamp Thing. A dark, though often marvelous new age had fallen on comics, and this issue marked its beginning.
Nostalgia is a clear and present danger in any artform -- visionary creators can utilize the inspiration they get from beloved works to spur them on to even greater exploration of their own creative boundaries, but many bad entertainments have been crafted in the cynical hope of cashing in on the closed-loop nostalgia of stagnant "fans." How much greater work would result, one wonders, if instead of merely going through the motions for easy money, corporate comics creators would instead focus on what they found exciting and energizing about the comics they loved as a child and tried to instill in their own work that same sense of wonder they once felt.
Perhaps if that were to happen, a whole new generation of readers could look decades hence at today's superhero books as their own inner child's favourite comics.