Sunday 19 June 2011

Action Comics #402. It's all at stake for Superman.

Superman Action Comics #402, Neal Adams cover
If I had a taste for very old jokes, I might claim that comics are called a medium because they're neither rare nor well done.

But I don't.

So I won't.

Superman however is certainly in danger of being well done, as he's captured by the Navarro tribe who're angry that a dirty capitalist's building a rocket site on their land. As Superman's failed in his bid to change the developer's mind, the Navarro's leader Red Hawk decides the best thing to do is kidnap Superman and hold him hostage until they get what they want.

This is possible thanks to a red gem he possesses whose "magic" robs Superman of his powers, leaving him unable to break free of the stake they've tied him to.

Why a private developer's allowed to build his own personal rocket site's never explained but it turns out it's all a scam, as his rocket's nothing of the sort. It's actually a mechanical mole that he uses to drill into a local sacred plateau and get his hands on the vast Aztec wealth that Montezuma buried there.

Action Comics #402, Superman prepared Montezuma's Plateau for the tourists
Needless to say Superman escapes, and thwarts the developer's evil plan, before handing Montezuma's treasure over to the Navarro who use it to build hospitals and schools while turning Montezuma's plateau into a tourist attraction.

This is one of the first American comics I ever had, in that vague hazy summer of 1972 when the beaches of Blackpool were covered in greenflies and blackflies battling it out in the sort of insect plague we don't seem to get any more. It probably says something about childhood that forty years down the line I can look back at insect plagues with affection and I likewise have fond memories of all the comics I bought in that period.

It has to be said that, nicely drawn as it is by Curt Swan, the story's a lot less exciting than its cover suggests, as the Navarro have no intention of setting fire to Superman, or doing him any harm at all, merely tying him to a stake until their demands are met. Still, it is a chance for Superman to show what a nice guy he is by helping his kidnappers even as they hold him captive.

There are certain plot holes in the story. Red Hawk's plan's clearly doomed, as it relies on his red gem concentrating the light of a distant red sun at Superman, which, presumably means that as the Earth turns and the red sun sets below the horizon, Superman'll get his powers back. Red Hawk's supposed to be one of the nation's leading astro-physicists, so you'd have thought he'd be aware of that but seems totally oblivious to the concept of the Earth's rotation. There's also a section where the sympathetic Navarro Moon Flower claims that Superman explained his escape method to her but you have to wonder just when he was supposed to have done it as there seems to have been no point when they were ever alone.

There were few times in my youth when the life of Superman imitated the old BBC1 rag and bone sitcom Steptoe and Son but this issue's back-up strip does just that as Superman and Supergirl fall out so badly that, just as the Harold and Albert did in that show, they divide their home in half, with one half belonging to Supergirl and the other to her cousin. Things reach such a head they decide to kill each other, and the whole feud only comes to an end when Superman decides that, even if he does hate her, he can't let Supergirl die in the radioactive pit that they, like any pair of cousins, share in their basement.

Action Comics #402, Superman vs Supergirl

Unlike that episode of Steptoe and Son, it turns out it was all down to fumes from a mind-control device the pair destroyed a while back and, once the fumes are cleared from their fortress, they're the best of friends again. I do quite like this tale, as I like the sight of the normally Doris Day-esque Supergirl with a head full of murderous thoughts. She's also wearing her thigh-length boots again. I believe this tale would've been my first ever exposure to Supergirl and it gives me pleasure to know that my first encounter with the Maid of Might was in her lengthy boots phase.

The truth is that, like the insect plague that accompanied it, this comic probably isn't as great as I thought it was back then but, regardless, both its tales are enjoyable - the first for its siding with the rights of the American Indian, which seems to have been a fashionable trope at the time after decades of Hollywood hostility, and the second for the casting of its usually perfect leads in a negative light. So the old joke was wrong. It is comics. It is a medium. It's not rare and it is quite well done.

Friday 17 June 2011

19 comics that changed my life.

Talk of my first ever super-hero comic, in yesterday's post, has brought to mind other key issues of my comic book reading years of the 1970s. So, here's my list of the 19 comics that made the most impression on me when I was still knee-high to Ant Man.

In no particular order they are:

100 page Batman #256

Batman #256. My first ever 100 page DC comic. The older tales in it were crude compared to the newer ones but it was great fun to learn more of the history of everyone's favourite non-troglodyte cave dweller.

Mighty World of Marvel #4, Jim Starlin cover

Mighty World of Marvel #4. The first Marvel UK book I ever owned.

Even though I haven't read it for nearly forty years, I still recall the tingle as I thrilled to the Hulk vs the Toad Men, the Fantastic Four vs the Skrulls and Spider-Man vs the Chameleon. Those tales might seem juvenile now but, to an eight year old, they were the last word in "Gripping".

And dig that Jim Starlin cover.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6, the Sinister Six

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6. I've already said plenty about it both here and here, so I'll say no more than that it was almost certainly the first super-hero comic I ever read.

Vulcan Comic 1975

Vulcan, November 1975. Up until 1975, my knowledge of British super-heroes was limited to the adventures of Billy the Cat and Katie in The Beano but, unknown  to me, there'd been a whole slew of British-created super-heroes in the dim and distant past and, with its reprints, Vulcan introduced a whole new generation to them.

They were a quirky bunch compared to their US equivalents but who could forget The Spider, Mytek the Mighty, Robot Archie, Kelly's Eye, and The Steel Claw?

Highlight of each issue though was Don Lawrence's beautifully illustrated Trigan Empire, as the history of Ancient Rome was re-imagined as sci-fi.

2000AD #8

2000 AD #8. After years of British comics seeming like dull and pitiful things beside their American counterparts, we suddenly had a comic in this country that was every bit as imaginative as any American mag.

UK Avengers Weekly #9

Avengers Weekly #9. The first Marvel UK comic I had that came in a glossy cover, a fact that so impressed me I couldn't bear to throw it away, inspiring me to start collecting comics instead of reading them a couple of times before discarding them.

UK Avengers Weekly #95, first Conan

Avengers #95. This Marvel UK mag was already a classic but, with issue #95, it suddenly got even better as it merged with the suddenly defunct Savage Sword of Conan, giving us a comic that featured not only the Avengers, Shang-Chi and Dr Strange but also the very finest of Barry Smith's Conan stories. Seriously, with this, and Don Estelle and Windsor Davies on the charts, could life get any better?

Mighty World of Marvel #199, merges with the Avengers

Mighty World of Marvel #199. Marvel UK's flagship title merged with The Avengers and thus introduced me to the splendours of Neal Adams' Kree/Skrull War.

Planet of the Apes #2, Marvel UK

Planet of the Apes #2. At the time I was disappointed that, after an apes-only debut issue, the comic suddenly had to share its pages with Ka-Zar.

What a fool I was.

Thanks to that mag, over the years not only did I get my weekly fix of ape-mania but also the adventures of Ka-Zar, Warlock, Don McGregor's Black Panther, Gullivar Jones, Man-Thing, Captain Marvel, Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars and a whole host of classic one-off sci-fi tales.

Marvel Comic #330, UK

Marvel Comic #330. One that stuck in my mind for all the wrong reasons, as we hit 1979 and the glossy covers disappeared from the comic that had been Mighty World of Marvel and its tone became noticeably more juvenile.

If the then Marvel UK editor Dez Skinn hadn't been responsible for launching a host of top-notch monthly mags in that era, I'd have never forgiven him.

Titans #1, landscape format, Marvel UK

The Titans #1. Marvel UK's first landscape format mag gave us twice as many spills for our money.

Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes #171, landscape format, the death of the Green Goblin

Super Spider-Man with the Super-Heroes #171. I missed the death of Gwen Stacy but not the death of the Green Goblin. Personally, I don't think I'll ever get over it.

X-Men #100

X-Men #100. My first ever exposure to the New X-Men - and a revelation after years of the lame original crew.

Rampage Monthly #8, Marvel UK

Rampage Monthly #8. The New X-Men join the Hulk's monthly mag and it becomes compulsive reading.

DC Comics, Unexpected #150, snowman

Unexpected #150. I loved DC Comics' horror and mystery mags and, for some reason, this issue's always stood out for me above all others. I don't even remember any of the stories in it but there was something about that cover that caused it to lodge in my mind forever.

Mighty World of Marvel #69, glossy cover

Mighty World of Marvel #69. At this point in history, Marvel UK seemed like an unstoppable force as I got my hands on my first ever glossy-covered issue of the title that had started it all.

Spider-Man Comics Weekly #49, Dr Octopus, glossy cover

Spider-Man Comics Weekly #49. My first ever glossy cover of this mag.

Savage Sword of Conan #4, Boris Vallejo cover

Savage Sword of Conan #4. The cover alone was enough to gain it immortality in my mind but then there were the contents as well. More on that issue here.

DC Comics, The Shadow #8, Night of the Mummy

The Shadow #8. A comic that impressed me so much it caused me to create my own super-hero - the Red Shadow. Oooh I was so original.

Thursday 16 June 2011

The first super-hero comic you ever read.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6, the Sinister Six, the first super-hero comic I ever read
Sometimes I wonder what's going on in my head. Here I am, well over a year into inflicting this blog on the world, and I've never got round to asking you the most obvious of questions. What was the first super-hero comic you ever read?

If you're like me - and I sincerely hope you're not - your first experience of printed super-herodom may well have been a life-changing experience akin to taking LSD for the first time.

After nearly forty years, I still recall the mind-expanding thrill I got from seeing Captain America's costume for the first time and of experiencing the ulra-hip world of the Teen Titans.

Then again, there was the Angel's tussle with Red Raven in The X-Men #44, and Superman being tied to a stake by an angry group of American Indians. All these were amongst my very earliest experiences of the art form.

But I'm pretty sure the first one I ever read was Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6 which, like the only Dr Who jigsaw I ever owned, I got from the old open air market in Sheffield before it was replaced by the fancy new indoor Sheaf Market. Well, time marches relentless and both those markets are now gone with a newer fancy new market in the pipeline for the city.

That Dr Who jigsaw had a piece missing.

The comic didn't.

It featured more pieces than you could shake a stick at. It featured Spider-Man. It featured the Sinister Six. It featured Iron Man, Dr Strange, the Fantastic Four, Giant Man, Thor, the X-Men and no doubt a whole bunch more. If the fact that the first super-hero comic I ever had was so perfect an introduction to the breadth of the Marvel Universe didn't prove a powerful and knowing Fate was at work, I don't know what would. So, what was the first super-hero comic you can ever remember reading, how did you come by it and what impact did it make on you?

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Dynamic Tension injures ninjas in beach front barneys? Alas Charles Atlas, I knew him not? "You too could have a body like mine?" I already do - but then you have been dead for forty years

Charles Atlas advert
As we all know, there's nothing impresses a woman more than random acts of violence on a public beach. Thank God, therefore, for Charles Atlas, a man who can teach the meekest of us to turn into a rampant thug at the drop of a hat and thus gain vengeance on any not-worth-it bully who's ever kicked sand in our face.

"That's all well and good," people have asked over the years, "but what if the bully's a ninja? Then what would Charles Atlas do?"

What Charles Atlas would do is simple. He'd get stuck in an endless battle with said ninja - a battle that, like Dr Who's war with the Daleks, can never be won and can never be lost.

That's right. The results of our latest poll are in and, despite the fact that none of you voted for a draw, you the public have decided that a fight between Charles Atlas and a ninja would indeed be just that, with five of you voting for Atlas and five of you voting for the ninja.

Of course, if this were a Marvel comic, after their draw, Atlas and the ninja would realise they had an enemy in common and beat him up instead.

As always with my polls of vital importance, thanks to all who voted, and for answering at last this age-old conundrum that's kept me awake for more nights than I could ever dream of counting.

Saturday 11 June 2011

John Buscema's all-time Top Ten Avengers covers.

As my stat counter's gone mad and is currently crediting all my blogs with three times as many visitors as they normally get, I might as well cash in by posting another of those Top Tens that stat counters love. My favourite Marvel artist was always Big John Buscema, and The Avengers was possibly my favourite Marvel mag, so, what better excuse to combine my twin loves and create a Top Ten list of my all-time favourite John Buscema Avengers covers?

As always I have to warn the unwary that this list is compiled with neither expert knowledge nor unusual intelligence, so you may not agree with any or all of it.

Avengers #45, the Super-Adaptoid
Number 10.
Vince Colletta's inks aren't ideal for John Buscema's pencils but The Avengers #45 shows you can never go wrong in having a giant figure menacing your heroes - even if it's only the somewhat uncharismatic Super-Adaptoid.

Avengers #59, Yellowjacket
Number 9. 
The Avengers #59 sees the first ever appearance of Henry Pym's millionth incarnation Yellowjacket. I would rate this higher, as I love the drama of it but, as I've said elsewhere, I've never been able to stand all that red. So, although the colouring's in no way shape or form John Buscema's fault, I've been forced to mark it lower than I otherwise would have.

Number 8.
In Avengers #56, Captain America's still fretting over the death of Bucky, to the extent that he uses Dr Doom's old time machine to find out just what happened on the fateful day he and his own Boy Wonder had their last adventure together. There's something about this cover that doesn't feel typically Buscema-esque to me but it shows off his gift for visually conveying emotional drama.

Avengers #61, Ymir, Surtur and Dr Strange
Number 7. 
The Avengers #61 sees the Avengers and Dr Strange take on the twin threats of Ymir and Surtur. Maybe it's my imagination but, although it's credited to John Buscema, to me there've always seemed to be hints of Gene the Dean Colan in its portrayal of Surtur and Ymir.

Avengers #58
Number 6. 
Lashings of white, as The Avengers #58 has our heroes burst out of the cover at us. Buscema's strength was always drawing the human figure in elegant and dynamic poses, and he uses that gift beautifully here.

Avengers #60, the wedding of the Wasp and Yellowjacket, the Ringmaster's Circus of Crime
Number 5. 
The Avengers #60 presents the big day as the Wondrous Wasp marries the not so wondrous Yellowjacket - but not if the Ringmaster's Circus of Crime have their way. You've got to love that snake. You've got to love those floating heads.

Avengers #54, the Masters of Evil and the Black Knight
Number 4. 
With The Avengers #54, Buscema uses three visual planes to show us the plight of the Avengers, the malice of the Masters of Evil and the would-be heroics of the Black Knight, without overcrowding the page.

Avengers Annual #2, the original Avengers vs the new Avengers
Number 3. 
The Avengers Annual #2 literally flings the evil original Avengers up against the then current line-up. The power, the passion. It's like Michelangelo all over again. You have to feel sorry for poor old T'Challa though. Frankly, I don't fancy his chances against the Hulk.

Avengers #83, the Valkyrie and the Lady Liberators
Number 2. 
The Avengers #83, and a perennial Steve Does Comics favourite, as the male chauvinist pigs get a good bashing from the Valkyrie and the Lady Liberators. Aside from all else that's good about this cover, I have to love the way Buscema puts the Wasp right up front so we can see her.

Avengers #57, Behold the Vision
Number 1. 
What a way to introduce everyone's favourite synthezoid, as Avengers #57 sees the Vision makes his bow. Not that he looks here like he'd ever dream of bowing to anyone. With this kind of drama, could anyone be left in any doubt we're seeing the debut of a  character who'll change Avengers' history forever?

Friday 10 June 2011

How to kill everyone you meet, for just $5. That's what I call a bargain.

How to become a ninja
As I roam the streets of Sheffield, people often say to me, "Steve, how come you're a man who can either fight or disappear?"

And I say to them, "It's simple. My entire body's an invincible killing machine."

"But how can I become an invincible killing machine?" they retort.

"It doesn't come easy," I tell 'em. "It takes years of study and dedication - reading issue after issue of Iron Fist."

"I: Ron Fist?" They say. "Who's Ron Fist?"

"You've never heard of Ron Fist?" I demand. "The greatest exponent of the martial arts there's ever been? Did Misty Knight lose her arm for nothing?"

But what a fool I was. If only I'd spotted this advert earlier, I could've become an invincible killing machine with just a fraction of the effort.

Yes. It's true. The 1970s really were so great that it was possible to become a lethal ninja simply by handing over $5.

I hereby nominate this as the best comic book advert ever - even better than the legendary one for Duke the adventure dog whose exploits I touched on here.

Reader, Please tell me you sent off for this very booklet. Please tell me it enabled you to become a man/woman who can defend him/herself even whilst asleep. Most of all, please tell me you've used its secrets to gain mastery of the deadly Retrievable Stone.

(Addendum: Don't forget to vote in the matter-of-life-or-death poll to discover who'd win a fight between a ninja and Charles Atlas.)

Thursday 9 June 2011

Jim Shooter. Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210.

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210
Many are the legendary super-villains the world of the American comic has given us; from the senses-shattering menace of Dr Doom to the not so senses-shattering menace of Paste Pot Pete.

But above all other super-villains stands one so terrible, so ominous, the sun hides behind the clouds at the mere mention of his name, and one glance at his dread visage can reputedly reduce a man to dust.

I am of course referring to Jim Shooter.

Jim Shooter was, as we all know, for many years the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics who, with his ideas on man-management and story-telling methodology, cut a swathe of controversy throughout the industry. Anyone who reads James's blog will know he can cut a wilful and sometimes contradictory figure, one moment warming all our cockles with his heart-melting tales of his totally reciprocated love for his underlings, and the next sticking the boot into everyone in sight. He can also turn up on the blogs of people who criticise him, meaning I may be dicing with death just by mentioning him.

But, before he was The Most Controversial Man In Comics TM, he was of course a humble comic book writer and I'm pretty sure that Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210 must've been the first comic I ever owned that was written by the man they probably don't know as Shooty.

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, Mike Grell, Soljer
Soljer - a man with feet.
In Shooty's first tale of the issue, a 28th Century soldier, who was buried after throwing himself on a gamma grenade is, two hundred years later, accidentally resurrected by Lightning Lad and decides to complete his mission of destroying Metropolis. He KOs Superboy and almost kills Phantom Girl before Chameleon Boy and Princess Projectra convince him to drop dead on the spot. The tale's drawn by Iron Mike Grell who goes against one of Jim's prime directives by at no point establishing that Phantom Girl has feet. Personally, I don't hold it against him.

In the issue's second tale, Grell instantly establishes that Karate Kid has feet, as the Legionnaire goes to Japan and discovers his late father was a notorious criminal. KK then protects his father's killer from the revenge attack of his own father's lackeys. The tale's probably most notable for the fact that Karate Kid - who's never born any resemblance to the man before - is suddenly a dead ringer for Bruce Lee; a frankly terrible idea that somewhat undermines the story. In fact the outing doesn't really feel like a Legion tale at all, being devoid of other Legionnaires and lacking any super-heroics, while not having anything happen in it that couldn't have happened in a tale set in the present day.
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, Mike Grell, Karate Kid
Karate Kid - a man with hands.
So, what do I make of my first exposure to the words of the Shooty Man?

It's OK. I have to admit that until I recently re-read this comic for the first time since I was a kid, I couldn't remember anything of the lead story. Things came rushing back to me as I re-read it though, especially the near-fatal stabbing of Phantom Girl. The Karate Kid tale'd stuck in my mind a little better but mostly because of the hero-looking-like-Bruce-Lee thing. So, while it's all solid enough and both tales end with the sort of moral that was clearly designed to lift the spirit and impress the young at heart, I have to say, on first exposure to Shooter's Legion, that I do prefer the more expansive and dynamic world of Cary Bates and Dave Cockrum.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Forty years ago today. June 1971.

They always say, "Never cast a clout till May be out." I don't have a clue what that means but May's most definitely out and it's time to see what clouts our favourite Marvel heroes were casting in June of exactly forty years ago.

Conan the Barbarian #6, Barry Smith, Devil-Wings over Shadizar

I read this one a few years back, in the Essential Conan collection but I'm not totally sure what happens in it. I can say though that Conan clearly comes up against a giant bat and it's obvious from the cover that Barry Smith's art's getting better and better with every issue.
Amazing Spider-Man #97, the Green Goblin

Another Spidey classic as our hero comes up against the Green Goblin while flatmate Harry Osborn battles (not very hard) with drugs. How can our hero defeat the Green Goblin without the dastardly villain revealing his true identity? Personally I'd just snap his neck and incinerate the body but that's probably why I'm not a super-hero.

Captain America #138, Spider-Man

I remember reading this, most likely in the pages of Spider-Man Comics Weekly, but have no recollection of what actually happens in it. The cover feels a bit too jam-packed to me, especially with the red and blue of Spider-Man and Captain America's costumes blending into each other, and the Falcon suffering the even worse indignity of blending in with a bunch of girders.

Daredevil #77, Spider-Man

I really do wish Daredevil tales of this era were more memorable. I must've read this one but have no memory of it at all. The cover looks to have been drawn by Sal Buscema and isn't one of his best but he always did a nice Sub-Mariner.

Fantastic Four #111

Not for the first time in his career The Thing turns against his partners.

Incredible Hulk #140, Jarella, Herb Trimpe

The Hulk has his first ever encounter with Jarella - and wedding bells are beckoning. But will it bring ever-lasting happiness for our green skinned love lummox? I think we all know the answer to that one.

Iron Man #38, Sal Buscema

Iron Man with his arm in a sling and about to be killed by mere hoods with mere bullets? Has our metal clad mangler ever seemed more weak, feeble and useless than he does on this cover?

Thor #180, Hela

Hela decides its time for Thor to die and goes to look for him. I think this issue or the one after was the first time we ever saw her without her mask. She was drawn by John Buscema, so she looked very nice. Appearances though can be deceiving.

X-Men #70, Jack Kirby

I've no idea what happens in this one but it's not looking too good for our atomic adventurers.

Avengers #89, Kree/Skrull War, Captain Marvel

The Kree/Skrull war gets its overture as Sal Buscema gives us an all-time classic image that thankfully completely misrepresents what happens inside. I have it on good authority that Marvel would never dare kill off their greatest Kree-ation.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Marvel Treasury Editions.

Conan the Barbarian Marvel Treasury Edition, Roy Thomas, Barry Smith, Red Nails and Rogues in the House
Incredible Hulk Marvel Treasury Edition
Avengers Marvel Treasury Edition, Jack Kirby cover
Superman vs the Amazing Spider-Man, Treasury Edition

Mars Bars might like to tell us that small size is fun size but we all know better. Fun size is giant size.

And they didn't come any gianterer than Marvel Treasury Editions, those magnificently impractical comics that reprinted classic Marvel tales at a scale that would've made Black Goliath feel small. I'm pretty sure that Bronze Age Babies, in the not too distant past, invited us to nominate our favourite Marvel Treasury Editions and, as there's no idea too firmly nailed down for me to steal, I'm going to do the same.

I only ever had four Marvel Treasury Editions. In fact I only had three but, as I'm a Marvellite rather than a DC fan, I always count Superman vs the Amazing Spider-Man as belonging to the House of Ideas. My least favourite of the four was The Hulk on the Rampage. While it had such classic tales as Jade Jaws having  to fight all his greatest foes in one afternoon, Doc Samson's debut and the Hulk teaming up with the Thing to fight Kurrgo and the Leader, it also had a not very inspired meeting of the Hulk and Hercules that could only be called crude even by early Hulk standards. Superman vs Spider-Man is reviewed here and The Mighty Avengers was packed with a raft of Avengers debuts; from the Panther, to the Vision, to Yellowjacket and even the Valkyrie.

But of all these books, my most loved had to be the single Conan Treasury Edition that I had, which featured Barry Smith and Roy Thomas' adaptations of Robert E Howard's Rogues in the House and Red Nails. With its epic length, Red Nails really was something special, as Conan and sword-swinging piratess Valeria teamed up to take on a house that could only be described as divided. Packed with detail, style, drama, atmosphere, gloomy corridors, monsters and occasional nudity, if ever there was a tale that seemed designed to be reproduced on a giant scale it was Red Nails.

But, while those are my thoughts on the matter, a blog is no blog without feedback. It's merely one of those awful static websites that belong in the dustbin of history. So, that in mind, which were your favourite Treasury Editions?