"Let Us Cast Aside For This Night At Least The Cares And Dangers Which Beset Us, And Make For The Children An Evening Of Happiness In a World Of Storm." - Winston Churchill, All Star Squadron #7 December 1981.
hristmastime 2015 and what have we to mark the festive period from DC and Marvel Comics? Anything
That DC ignores the feelgood factor that comes with this time of the year is as much a reflection of the cynicism of their current management and its dedication to producing conflict driven, angst-ridden, material that will appeal to their theoretical target audience. That the actual audience might like to read something more uplifting this time of year and with more convincing three-dimensional title characters does not appear to register. In times past, when the audience for comics was more extensive and broad, publishers did make annual efforts to mark the Christmas season. Sometimes with surprisingly intelligent output. Let us take 1981 as an example and look to what you and I found out on sale in December from DC and Marvel Comics that Month... as always there is some surprising material out in this month, and contrasts. Let us take a trip back in time - maybe you were actually there for all of this!
*As Roger Stern and John Romita return The Black Cat in The Amazing Spider-Man #226 Peter Parker The Spectacular Spider-Man
under Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan introduces us to a pair of new vigilantes called Cloak Dagger, these two were an instant hit due to their memorable abilities and light contrasting darkness. That they were also rather violent and uncompromising when facing drug dealers may also have been a factor in their impact on the audience, but 'Peter Parker' was a book that, at this time, cut a different feel to its brother title The Amazing Spider-Man and would lean to longer range plotting. Mantlo's relationship with these two new characters would see further outings for them, and for me at least his was the best interpretation of them. Following writers simply did not appreciate what drove them and what made them outcasts working on the periphery to save others from the miserable exploitation by drug running scum that would have destroyed them.
*The Uncanny X-Men reaches issue #155 and still trying to adjust, and find a firm direction, after the Claremont/Byrne partnership concluded just a year before. This issue was a mid-point entry into the ongoing Starjammers storyline, that saw the X-Men linking up with outer space empires and fighting to save space-whales from extinction. It is as unlikely an X-Men story as you could imagine, but at this time this book was still nominally seen as a conventional superhero title and as such superhero
things were seen as essential... forward just two years later and the style and tone has changed considerably as the X-men becomes more earthbound and politically aware. But at this time, with Collossus mortally wounded and the Star Wars influence in full effect here was a book that was typical of its time - seeking and serving the tastes of a mass all-ages audience.
*The Avengers also finds itself in a state of transition, from the days of John Byrne, George Perez, and the seriously underrated Gene Colan, writer Jim Shooter is paired with the somewhat less impressive likes of Bob Hall and Al Milgrom. And his choice in material was dominated by the taboo subject of domestic abuse and the deconstruction of Hank Pym as a heroic title character... for its time this was daring and disturbing material, whatever the merits of its execution. Mid-way between the Perez/Colan era and the Roger Stern era this brief phase of The Avengers is rarely looked at beyond its tearing down of Hank Pym, perhaps deservedly so, little sticks in the memory.
*As an early sign of the way comics distribution was headed Marvel Fanfare #1 was seen as a prestigous new title from the publisher, not available on the newsstand this Chris Claremont & Michael Golden release was certainly rather impressive to look at, but out of reach of a large section of its readership. But in as much as anything Marvel Fanfare's reason for existing was to test the viability of direct to Comic-shop distribution and reception, something it quite evidently succeeded with...
*The Mighty Thor reaches issue #317 and a more unmemorable run as there has ever been for the character. Between the end of Roy Thomas' run ending in #300 and the arrival of Walt Simonson thirty-seven issues later exists a creatively barren stretch of literature. Writer Doug Moench paired with Keith Pollard was best known for his more streetlevel work on Master of Kung-Fu and Batman, but it tends to be unnoticed that he worked extensively on books as diverse as Thor and World's Finest Comics for DC, as with Larry Hama that it is the streetlevel characters like Shang-Chi and Batman he is emembered for though tells the tale when it comes to where his strength as a writer lay.
*Daredevil reaches the double sized #181 and the death of Elekta. In an era when franchising was minimal death still meant a great dealin comics, today killing Elektra would barely raise an eyebrow of surprise or concern. But this is then
, it mattered a great deal, and this is Frank Miller at the height of his power, Enough said.
*Marvel Two-in-One #86 which see's The Thing spend the issue with The Sandman in a bar,and as unexpected a tale as any Marvel and DC could put out at this time. Team-Up books from this era contain many an unusual and exceptional storyline, but it is this issue that stands tall and demonstrates the power of the Team-Up book to deliver the unexpected and the original.
*Captain America #267 presented one of the most memorable coverpieces of the entire early 1980s, indeed one of many from Mike Zeck.
Zeck's impact on early 80s Marvel is arguably underappreciated, success on Captain America with JM DeMatteis led to the landmark Secret Wars in 1984 and one of the era's forgotten gems with Steven Grant two years later on a five part Punisher series. One of several artists from the early 80s who sadly slipped away into obscurity... but as with Frank Miller's Daredevil at this time Captain America under him and DeMatteis stands the test of time.
*The Fantastic Four #240 and John Byrne's attention is on the plight of The Inhumans. Great spectacle abounds as Byrne successfully channels the energy of the Lee & Kirby years with a fresh and modern sensibility. These early months of his tenure are especially memorable as the love and effort Byrne pours into his work still crackles from the page even when read these near 35 years later.
If the most recent Fantastic Four seen here was as streamlined, absorbing, and exciting as the one seen under Byrne's earliest years then we would still have a Fantastic Four to read every month.
*The Incredble Hulk on the other hand, now at issue #269, is a book entirely representative of this era of Marvel and DC. And I mean that in the most positive of ways.
Traditional in outlook and execution it has no great ambition to reinvent the character, nor some creator out to make his mark by enforcing radical new directions, no, like many other longstanding books of this era The Incredible Hulk was steered by a stable creative team who were capable of delivering reasonable material each month and had an understanding of the character they were charged with. The Bates & Swan Superman is one good example of this degree of longterm stability and ability to deliver a degree of quality. So too was Gerry Conway and Jose Delbo's Wonder Woman or Roger Stern and John Romita's Spider-Man. They were never as individualistic or ferociously driven as a Frank Miller or John Byrne, but some creative pairings gel so well that like Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema on the Hulk they are remembered fondly and with great respect even today... jobbing creators who just got on with the work they were given and delivered their best month-in month-out.
A cursory glance over DC Comics' offerings for this month shows some interesting signs of how the company was reacting to both Marvel's successes and the changing of timesin entertainment in general. With Wolfman & Perez' New Teen Titans the publisher had an unqualified and ever growing success that mimiced the Marvel formula but also clearly demonstrated just what the audience wanted from the company... and were not getting!
The Legion of Super-Heroes however was certainly taking note of this changing of the times and casting for slicker fresher artists who could deliver the sort of energy and modern sensibilities of Perez and Byrne, so came the talents of Pat Broderick and Keith Giffen to revamp the entire feel and presentation of the Legion and thrust it into an era of success many other such books could only envy. But with Frank Miller on Daredevil and Bill Sienkiewicz defining Moon Knight with Doug Moench one wonders whether the decision to steer Wonder Woman into an equally moodier direction and style courtesy of Gene Colan and Roy Thomas was another sign of things changing at DC, slow though this change was. Regardless of these considerations this was still an impressive months worth of material on the whole...
*What strikes most about December and the turn of 1982 is the depth of differing genres catered for by DC and the wealth of titles for tastes other than superheoes. House of Mystery, Sgt Rock, Unexpected, Weird War Tales with The Creature Commando's, Ghosts, Captain Carrot!, Jonah Hex, Arak, The Warlord, Secrets of the Haunted House, GI Combat, The Unknown Soldier - All of these are individual titles, most are lonrunning, and yet just two years later nearly all would be gone.
*The Phantom Zone, a four part mini-series from Steve Gerber and Gene Colan and it reaches issue #3 this month. This exceptional series was the darkest and most unsettling, yet absorbing, take on the darker side of the Superman mythos there has ever been to my mind. One of the forgotten gems from the 1980s it has a scope and depth to its storytelling that make it a timeless read, that DC would sanction such a dark treatment to its flagship character is another hint of the times slowly changing at the publisher, nontheless for its time this series content and execution was most unique for mainstream Superman book. Several years before its time in fact. Whatever Gene Colan touched was wonderful, but paired with Steve Gerber the result is something that keeps its quality forever.
*Green Lantern reaches #150 with the solid work of Joe Staton having made a stamp on the character that would make him associated with the character for many years after. Staton's accomplishments go much further than Green Lantern however. What is notable about this issue is that it marks the end of a period of reasonably strong quality to Green Lantern, two issues later is a poorly executed and longterm exile into space that would bring the title to near ruin. Only the arrival of Len Wein and the untried Dave Gibbons would arrest and reversean exceedingly steep decline and return the book to a degree of popularity and prominence.
*Justice League of America was another book reaching a milestone, with its 200th issue delivering a sledgehammer's worth of truly awesome talent wrapped up in a double-sized tale honouring the teams past and present. In these days anniversary issues were not just an excuse to make money, they were genuine events
that demanded a special effort from the publisher to deliver something truly special. And in JLA #200 you have the very zenith of this belief made manifest.
*Wonder Woman was two issues in to a significant and impressive overhaul courtesy of Roy Thomas and Gene Colan, and it is extraordinarily sad to think that DC would utterly fail to capitalise on the success of this revamp and instead opt for the decidedly unimpressive talent of... No, never mind.
I think this run from Colan and Thomas has to be my own alltime favourite on the character in many ways as it combines everything great about the character and re-presents it in an unexpectedly atmospheric way. Wonder Woman had a reality about her that hadn't been there before and more than any this is the run that shows why a secret identity for the character is a key ingredient of her appeal...
*I mentioned House of Mystery
up above but a second mention here at at #302 the title was starring one of my favourite characters at the time in 'I-Vampire'. The story of Andrew Bennet precedes the modern-age of romanticism for the Vampire genre and while an obscure character today the context of his appearances in House of Mystery lent him a lead-man air and gave him importance. This issue's story was atypical as Bennet functioned in a perpetual air of depression, a doomed soul never to find peace. These alternate genre titles are rarely talked about today, and not even particularly remembered, and that is a shame as this range of alternatives serves the publisher well.
*In a month that sees Superman about to meet Brainiac for the 'last' time in Action Comics and another issue of the soon to end 'Superman Family' DC Comics Presents
features a memorable team up with Superman and the Legion of Superheroes, and like much of this era's output there is more plot and meaningful characterisaion put into this standalone story that you see in todays eighteen part storylines.
By Paul Levitz and Curt Swan this is one of the finest entries in the entire series, but more than that an excellent story in itself of the value and importance of friendship and loyalty to those friends - The Legion and Superman would always be there for the other, no matter what.
*Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew #1. I confess to enjoying this book unreservedly back in its day, that is mucked with canon and the Superhero convention made no differnece to me - fun is fun. And these were very likable and distinct characters in their own right.
This book could never happen today. Whch is one more reason you should love it... Yankee Poodle, Rubberduck, Pig Iron, an inverted Justice League or more in common with the All-Star Squadron? Probobly Justa Lotta Animals as more modern observers have judged them...
*The New Adventures of Superboy reaches issue #27 under Kurt Schaffenberger and Cary Bates and looking at it shows how attention grabbing covers from this era could be. New Adventures of Superboy was a poorly distributed title in my area and I only ever found a very few issues as a result, old fashioned even then the presentation and general direction of this series seemed rather lost. We knew Superboy would evolve naturally into Superman, and without the Legion of Super-Heroes' support as a distraction the flaw in the character and his appeal were very evident. Still, the Legion was at #385 this month and with the arrival of Pat Broderick and subsequently Keith Giffen it was very clear that the Legion of Superheroes was more than able to stand on its own and succeed. In a real sense The New Adventures of Superboy showed the publisher and audience that times had changed, Superboy was no longer capable of appealing on hls own merits. Not in this form. Which given the publisher was slowly recognising the value of younger heroes and audience identification was ironic indeed. One wonder at this distance in time whether Superboy might have been saved,,, what could have been done to redirect the character and make him appeal to the youth in the audience?
*Detective Comics and Batman had both linked themselves at this point and were sharing the same storyline. This attempt to level out sales on both titles must have been a success as it would continue to 1985, but while Gerry Conway was generally successful on most books he wrote Batman was surprisingly proving a tougher proposition for him. Not bad work as such, but certainly eclipsed by those who preceded and followed him.
But what of Christmas?
Surprisingly nothing of significance came from Marvel to mark the Yuletide, but DC Comics had no less than three titles that made use of the occasion to deliver three distinct types of commentary on what Christmas means. And two of these especially do so in a surprisingly intelligent way.
marked the occasion with a surprisingly candid focus on what this time of year means to Superman and Clark Kent, and the answer is not at all what one expects. And yet it IS entirely logical given his social position and status as Orphan. One could assume Bruce Wayne would share his friends point of view on the season and the loneliness that is symbolises for himself, though Wayne at least has Alfred and potentially Dick Grayson and/or Jason Todd to ameliorate the potential pain. Superman/Clark Kent has absolutely no one. What is left for him when cousin Kara has retreated to her own parents the Danvers and Lois and Lane head for their own family get-togethers...?
It is an aspect of the character few have ever though about, and yet the ever probing Cary Bates spots the chink in Superman's emotional armour and addresses the unspoken question with an unexpectedly depressive edge to it. As with DC Comics Presents up above the result of this issue is a deeply admirable example of how skillful comics writer of yesterday were, to be able to do a character examination like this and join it with teo other plotlines and bring it altogether seamlessly and naturally in just 22 pages is something alien to todays writers and comics presentation. Whether Alan Moore read this issue and took note is unknown, but as a sequel his Superman Annual some few years later is a fine follow-up to this Bates/Buckler outing.
Lest you think this post is out of place on the JSA board here we arrive at the point of legitimising its relevance, as Joining the Christmas theme and delivering similar, though far more saccarine fare, to Superman #369 is The Brave and the Bold #184
which pairs Batman with Earth-2's The Huntress. And I expect I am not alone in being rather fond of this particular issue, The Huntress was one of DCs successes from this era of conservatism where young heroes were frowned upon and these new arrivals had to fight their way to past a reluctant editorial regime and gain the popularity and right to exist in the schedules.
Helena Wayne was special as she was the daughter to Earth-2's Batman, recently killed. This fascinating alternate history to Batman was one of the elements that made her and the Justice Society so appealing at this time and creators were not slow to spot the potential of the character and her unique relationship with the Batman mythos. Already having met the Earth-1 Batman and visited him personally here she appears on a wintry day atop an Earth-1 building via the JLA transporter, and swings her way over the city to search for 'Uncle' Bruce. It was such an unusual thing, this resident of another earth appearing in another Gotham City not her own to visit a friend and relative of sorts.
This is another story about loneliness, Helena's in this case, her father was only recently departed and like Batman her parents were now both gone in tragic circumstances. This sort of friendship between heroes as seen in this issue is largely alien to todays DC Universe, and that is a great pity as while Brave and the Bold #184 is far from the Batman persona we know today this >was
a tale aimed at a mass audience as opposed to a niche as we see today. And while lightweight and deeply sentimental this tale is not at all very different from previous Batman outings such as Mike Friedrich & Neal Adams' The Silent Night of The Batman
*Earth-2 despite not having a centralised book set in the modernday was certainly well catered for regardless. In The Flash you could find out what Doctor Fate was up to thanks the the back-up strip from Martin Pasko and Keith Giffen. Wonder Woman was now home to The Huntress courtesy of Paul Levitz and Joe Staton, a fact which likely did sales no harm at all given her popuarity and uniqueness as one of the new younger generation breaking through at this time.
But for monthly adventures on Earth-2 it was the World War II setting of The All-Star Squadron
we had to serve us, and here was a book you either... appreciated, or you didn't.
In its day All-Star Squadron was as much an oddity on the shelves as Arak or Arion were, super-heroes in a World War II setting was a difficult sell to an audience accustomed to the modern up to date JLA and Teen Titans formats, add in a Superman who was of that 1940s era and not even shell proof and the bridge to acceptance for the mainstream audience became too great for the most part. It is only with the passing of time and a grown awareness of comics lore and the Golden-Age that All-Star Squadron can truly be appreciated for what it is - an attempt to offer an alternative. For December 1981 as the Wolfman/Perez Titans faced the megnetic power of Wally West's girlfriend and the Justice League celebrated its 200th issue, Roy Thomas chooses to build his latest installment os All-Star Squadron around events following the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and its effects on both country and the then Justice Society. Opening the pages of issue #7 here the JSA have disbanded to enlist with the civilian army, an odd thing perhaps if judged today given the power of Starman, Hawkman etc. but whisked along with patriotic fervor and the desire to join with the common man in his shared duty it does make some sense. With art from Adrian Conzales these early All-Star Squadron issues are an impressive production when looked back on today, Gonzales art on its own was unremarkable, look to his contributions to World's Finest around this time and it is clear that Jerry Ordway was supplying the muscle to his All-Star
work but this in itself can lead to some jarring juxtapositions within the series as Ordways preference for realsism in his work can clash with what is in the script. This issue for example revolves around the remaining All-Star Squadron foiling a plot by the over-the-top Baron Blitzkrieg and associates, and a more cartoonish villain you will struggle to find in comics, here this garish villain struts through a world that is rendered in convincing hyper-detail and atmosphere by Gonzales and Ordway, but the finished result can evoke Roger Rabbit if I was being completely uncharitable... Blitzkrieg was not created for the subtlety this finished series design called for.
Nontheless this issue rises above such a detail to deliver an extremely wordy story, Roy Thomas' commitment to making this series a rich read and with a historically accurate backdrop is matched by his willingness to give value for the readers time and money. A very wordy script sees the Squadron summoned by President Roosevelt to foil a plot to intercept and kill Winston Churchill on a secret visit to meet thee President, but while this forms the bulk of the issues plot it is the final pages that contain the true power of this issues story, a coda set against the clouds of War and the still raw catastrophe of Pear Harbour on December the 7th. As the scenes move to the front garden of the Whitehouse the theme is very much on marking solidarity in this darkest of times, when the future is grim, and on this Christmas evening of 1941 the front lawn of the Whitehouse with Roosevelt and Churchill lighting the Whitehouse tree a beacon of hope and solidarity is exactly what this book manages to project. And It makes for a partucularly powerful moment and a finely judged ending for the storyline and background told behind this Joe Kubert drawn cover.
Although Marvel Comics ignored its possibilities Christmas was certainly marked well at DC in this year, three very different messages but all well told and well appreciated... By Me at least!