Thursday, April 19, 2018

This Is A Terrific Read If You Enjoy Comic Book History

Writer: Bill Finger and Gardner Fox; Pencilers: Bob Kane and Sheldon Moldoff; Inker: Kane; Letterer: Moldoff

Finger teamed up with Kane for one of the most important Batman stories ever, the origin of the character in Detective Comics No. 33. At this point in comic-book history, most superheroes had no underlying motivation for being heroes other than a desire to do good. With Batman’s origin, Kane and Finger introduced the novel idea of a young boy witnessing his parents’ murders and being driven to avenge their deaths by becoming a superhero. It was the building block of Batman’s characterization for years to come and inspired countless angsty superheroes with similar sob stories.

Writer: Al Feldstein; Penciler and inker: Joe Orlando; Colorist: Marie Severin; Letterer: Jim Wroten
When the comic-book industry banded together to form the Comics Code Authority in September 1954, EC Comics publisher William Gaines believed that the new rules were effectually designed to hurt his company. They banned the words “crime”, “horror,” and “terror” in comic-book titles, which directly targeted histop-selling series — Crime SuspenStories, The Vault of Horror, and Tales From the Crypt. Gaines tried his best to keep EC Comics afloat post-Code, and EC Comics launched a “New Direction” in 1955, with a collection of new series that they hoped would not offend.
However, at the end of 1955, they ran afoul of the Comics Code in the production of Incredible Science Fiction No. 33. The Code opposed a new story in the issue, “An Eye for an Eye”, by Angelo Torres, as being too violent. So it was replaced with a reprint of a classic Weird Fantasy story. Titled “Judgment Day,” it depicted an astronaut representing the Galactic Republic visiting the robot planet Cybrinia to see if Cybrinia could be included in the Republic. He has to turn them down because blue robots were treated worse than orange robots for no reason. As he flies away in his ship, he takes his helmet off and we see that he is black. The Comics Code would not allow the story unless the astronaut was recolored to be white. Writer Al Feldstein was outraged and so was Gaines. They threatened a lawsuit. Eventually, the Code relented and the story was published as originally drawn. However, this was the clear sign that EC Comics could not work within the parameters set by the Code, so Gaines ceased his comic-book production, concentrating instead on his popular humor magazine, Mad, which skirted regulations because it was technically a magazine. EC are sometimes accused of being shock merchants, but this page reminds us that they were also idealists.
Writers: John Byrne and Chris Claremont; Penciler: Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Colorist: Glynis Wein; Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Since the 1930s, countless legions of superheroes have been created. But only a select few have become iconic, household names. Wolverine — a.k.a. Logan — is one of those names. Introduced as “the world’s first and greatest Canadian superhero” in 1974’s Incredible Hulk No. 180, the character became a permanent member of the X-Men when their series was relaunched in 1975. Originally written by Len Wein and pencilled by Dave Cockrum, the new group of X-Men characters took off. The book hit legendary status when the new team — writer Chris Claremont and artists John Byrne and Terry Austin — took over the book. Claremont made Wolverine into a cynical, fearsome warrior, prone to “berserker rages,” but with a softer side that was slowly revealed. And under the magical pencils and inks of Byrne and Austin, the character was a short, solid, scruffy, cigar-smoking powerhouse.
Wolverine truly broke out in the Dark Phoenix Saga, which played out in Uncanny X-Men Nos. 129 through 138. Early in the story, Wolverine is taken down by members of the Hellfire Club, seemingly left for dead in a sewer. As we find out, though, Wolverine can take a beating like no one else: The last panel, with a grimy and gritty, utterly determined Wolverine swearing revenge in the rushing waters of the sewer, established the template for his future visual and narrative depictions. The character would soon get his own regular series and appear in many, many other characters’ books — becoming, in a short time, one of Marvel’s most popular and enduring heroes.
Writers: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (it’s complicated); Penciler: Kirby; Inker: George Klein; Colorist: Stan Goldberg; Letterer: Artie Simek
There is some confusion over why Martin Goodman was inspired to have Stan Lee bring back superheroes for the first time in nearly a decade to the comic-book company that was known as Atlas Comics at this point in time (was it really due to a National higher-up bragging about Justice League of America’s sales during a golf game with Goodman?) and there is even some dispute over who came up with the characters in the Fantastic Four. It was almost certainly through a collaboration between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but both men claimed it was their sole creation that they then brought to the other. (It did bear considerable resemblances to Kirby’s earlier work on DC’s Challengers of the Unknown). Either way, there is no doubt about why this story changed comics for good.
Even leaving aside the fact that the Fantastic Four gain their powers from stealing a rocket ship and then crashing it (it was the early 1960s, though, so at least they had a noble cause: beating the “Commies” to the stars), which was already an innovative superhero origin, the genius of Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four was clear as soon as they crashed, gained superpowers … and promptly began fighting with each other. These were superheroes who acted like actual people. They had genuine reactions to each other and their situation. This was the key to Marvel’s success in a nutshell: Real people, real problems, plus superpowers. Within a year or so, Lee and Kirby (as well as others, perhaps most notably Steve Ditko) were applying this formula to all their new heroes and the Marvel Age of Comics was born.
Writers: Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (it’s also complicated); Penciler and inker: Ditko; Colorist: Andy Yanchus; Letterer: Artie Simek
The lead feature in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy No. 15, crafted by writer/artist Steve Ditko and writer Stan Lee, is one of the most efficiently constructed origin stories in comic-book history — and yet, the final page is so powerful that it practically obscures the impact of what came before it. Since the launch of Fantastic Four No. 1 a year earlier, Lee and Jack Kirby had applied their “real people with superpowers” approach to two other heroes: a scientist whose anger transforms him into a monstrous Hulk, and a handicapped doctor whose cane transforms him into a literal god of thunder. Working with Ditko on Spider-Man, however, Lee advanced the idea to a gut-wrenching new level.
After nerdy Peter Parker gets bit by a radioactive spider, he not only doesn’t become a superhero like a standard Silver Age hero, but he specifically goes out of his way to not be a hero. He instead decides to use his powers to make money and become famous. This is all setup for the shocking ending, when a criminal whom Peter didn’t stop while at a TV appearance later murders his beloved Uncle Ben. Ditko’s depiction of Spider-Man discovering the identity of his uncle’s killer is one of the most striking panels of the era. Then comes the famous kicker: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!” Later versions of that phrase would be shortened and often attributed to Uncle Ben, but whichever form it took, Spidey would live by this principle for his entire career.
Writer: Denny O’Neil; Penciler and inker: Neal Adams; Colorist: Cornelia Adams; Letterer: John Costanza
As often happens, a major innovation arrived in something that was on its last legs and thus had nothing to lose. When writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams took over Green Lantern, it was on the verge of cancellation, so editor Julius Schwartz gave them the go-ahead for a story line wherein space hero Hal Jordan decides his powers could be put to better use helping the downtrodden people of Earth. He teams up with newly woke archer Green Arrow, who introduces his fellow Justice Leaguer to an old man on a ghetto rooftop who delivers this famous speech. The emerald duo then embarked on a series of social-issue-of-the-month adventures, tackling various ills like overpopulation, drug addiction, and pollution the only way superheroes have known how since Action Comics No. 1: by punching them in the face.
Their efforts seem a little cringeworthy today, like your dad trying to be cool while wielding an extraterrestrial ring of power; indeed, the ultraestablishment New York Times featured this rooftop scene in a typically condescending survey of superhero wokeness. The Arrow-co-starring run on Green Lantern wound up not selling very well, but was hugely influential among creators young enough to be hippies themselves and ushered in a new generation of socially aware heroics. (By the way, if you’re wondering why it’s just two-thirds of a page: This was back in the days when DC would run ads on some story pages where that Green Lantern symbol is now.)
                   Daredevil No. 181 (1982) 
Writer: Frank Miller; Pencilers: Frank Miller and Klaus Janson; Inker and colorist: Klaus Janson; Letterer: Joe Rosen
When Daredevil No. 181 was published in 1982, it was already clear that Frank Miller’s involvement in the book — he had been writing the series for a little over a year at that point, and setting comics readers on fire with his art for longer — was hugely influential. Under Miller, Daredevil had gone from swashbuckling superhero to moody crime epic; the preternaturally talented Miller, along with Klaus Janson, began to casually blow up everything the world thought a Marvel comic could be. And it culminates here, in one of the most dramatic pages in Marvel Comics history: Elektra Natchios, killed at the hands of Daredevil foe Bullseye with her own sai. Even now, the page is striking: entirely wordless, but full of artistic choices by Miller and Janson that wring every ounce of drama from the scene. Bullseye’s victorious smile, the sickening image of the sai impaling Elektra’s chest, the fabric of her costume tenting around the prong that pierced her. The two panels of her staggering away, followed by five panels that draw out her falling to the ground and struggling back up. Elektra isn’t dead at the end of this page, but she will be.
Miller would go on to tell many more acclaimed and memorable Daredevil stories. But this page will always stand out as the moment he forged the culmination of his influences — a bit of Raymond Chandler, a healthy dose of Will Eisner, and a lot of Japanese manga — into something distinct, something that made superhero comics feel brand new all over again. Superhero comics, for better or worse, have never fully stopped chasing Elektra, bleeding out into the street, as the man who killed her indifferently puts on his jacket and walks away into the night.
Writer: Marv Wolfman; Penciler: George Pérez; Inker: Jerry Ordway; Colorist: Tony Tollin; Letterer: John Costanza
By 1985, DC Comics’ cosmology was, to many readers and more than a few creators, a baffling mess. A so-called “multiverse” had gradually grown, in which conflicting versions of characters were explained away as existing on parallel universes. While initially a novel solution to the “problem” created when they introduced new versions of a number of their then-defunct Golden Age superheroes, the multiverse was seen by many creators at DC Comics in the 1980s as a major drawback for the company in its competition with their chief rival, Marvel, which focused on one main universe. Thus, working with his New Teen Titans collaborator, George Pérez (their New Teen Titans was DC’s best-selling series and Pérez was one of the most popular artists in comics), writer Marv Wolfman launched the very-first company-wide crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths, to solve this problem.
The idea was to set DC’s superheroes against a villain, the Anti-Monitor, who wanted to destroy the entire Multiverse. In the end, the heroes were able to defeat him, but not before the Multiverse was condensed to simply one Earth. This allowed DC to then reboot a few of their titles with new continuity. As a way of making the crossover feel like it was important beyond the reboot, DC decided to kill off a few major characters. One was Supergirl; the other was Barry Allen, the Flash. (As superheroes are wont to do, they came back years later, but that’s beside the point.) Barry’s death, brilliantly depicted by Pérez, saw the Flash outrunning an energy beam to save the multiverse from the Anti-Monitor in Crisis on Infinite Earths No. 8. It was highly symbolic of the superhero who launched the Silver Age of comics dying in a comic that eliminated the multiverse entirely. Subsequently, a new, darker age was born.
Writer: Mark Waid; Penciler, inker, and colorist: Alex Ross; Letterer: Todd Klein
Superhero comics had gone too far. That’s the main thrust of Kingdom Come, Alex Ross and Mark Waid’s four-issue mini-series about what happens when a new generation of superheroes arises without the scruples of their mentors, abandoning the ideals that caused their forebears to keep their power in check and not kill the criminals they fought against. Disaster strikes when these younger, edgier heroes, in their recklessness, inadvertently cause a nuclear disaster in the American heartland, causing Superman to come out of retirement to lead a crusade for the ideals he once stood for. Primarily a showcase for Ross’s unique painted photorealism and affection for Greatest Generation iconography, Kingdom Come framed Superman’s return to this wayward world as a harrowing chronicle of the signs of the times. In 1996, edgy, amoral superheroes were overwhelmingly popular as creators attempted to recreate the aesthetics of the the previous decade’s grim deconstructionist hits, but without the thoughtful criticism those revered stories evoked.
It builds to one remarkable full-page splash of Superman, making his presence known with a striking, darker shield on his otherwise classic costume, lawless vigilantes helpless in his grasp. Between the timelessness of Superman as an icon and Ross’s reverent brand of superhero classicism, this page is where Kingdom Come throws the gauntlet: The old heroes still matter. Being good for its own sake is still enough. The rest of Kingdom Come would test that assertion, and despite coming to a conclusive answer, it’s a debate that superhero comics continue to have to this day.


Tim Knight said...

Some amazing stories there. Always nice to revisit the classics.

Linneman said...

Awesome...thanks for the highlights and the link!

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

The whole article is a great read. I could have picked many examples but chose the ones I have a personal connection to.