I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
I acknowledged before that I absolutely craved a veneer legitimacy for the storytelling form I loved so much through my teenage years — and, ahem, beyond — which could and did lead to me developing an outsized enthusiasm for those titles released under the “prestige format” during the latter portion of the nineteen-eighties. These were comics that were printed on heavier, glossier paper and squarebound like a paperback novel (rather than staples together like a thin magazine) and ratcheted up to a higher price point. While there are probably some earlier examples, DC Comics basically inaugurated the format as a means of delivering their more high end, important fare with Frank Miller’s massively influential Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, originally published in 1986. The venerable publisher’s chief competitor took a few stabs at the format, often with decidedly subpar fare that suggested they didn’t really understand that the “prestige” part should probably apply to more than the quality of the paper, but DC really owned it, largely reserving it, at least initially, for projects that felt like they stood apart from the stuff on the regular schedule, one way or another. Easily suckered, I gravitated to many of these limited series — they were always limited series — with the belief that I was dutifully picking up an important piece of comic book history.
I believe the first one I bought as it came out (I went back and secured the Miller Dark Knight comics as pricey back issues) was Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, written and drawn by Mike Grell. The creator had gotten his start at DC, but he spent the years immediately preceding this project working in the realm of independent comics, notably on his own Jon Sable, Freelance which was enough of a well-regarded cult success to serve as source inspiration for a television series well before comics were seen as potential breeding ground for broader pop culture hits. So Grell working for DC was a big deal, and he was intent on elevating a longtime character who was seen as something of an outdated relic, the sort of gimmicky figure from another era, before comics were properly serious. This perception lingered despite the face that Green Arrow was the co-star, along with Green Lantern, of a famed run of socially-conscious stories in the early-seventies that were the foundation for the more mature fate that become commonplace a decade later. Those comics were created by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, two creators Grell cited as key influences in the back pages of his comic.
The Longbow Hunters found Green Arrow, who devoted viewers of the CW know is really named Oliver Queen, relocated to Seattle, trying to forge a place for himself as his passes into his forties (this “old man” version of the character is younger than I am right now, which hurts a little). He’s there with his longtime love, Dinah Lance, better known as the fishnet-sporting crimefighter Black Canary. Grell wastes not time in established this story is not going to feature the superheros facing down a bevy of similarly-clad, fairly harmless, goofball villains (in the nineteen-sixties, Green Arrow was likely to do battle with, say, the Clock King). It is going to be about vicious murder, heavy-duty drugs, and grown-up misery. And, of course, there’s going to be sex.
Take note that Dinah is actually a brunette who wears a long blonde wig as part of her disguise when fighting crime. She also chose to wore it to help rev up Oliver’s engine. That can be placed any number of places of respective readers’ creepiness scales.
Naturally, as a maturing fellow who wanted to believe his favorite childhood reading pastime was appropriately calibrated for my supposedly advancing tastes, I thought all of this was fantastic. Why did I need thick, challenging novels that tickled my intellect and stirred my soul? My comics could handle that just fine. Looking back, I recognize the hollowness and sensationalism that is present, a striving to place well-established comic book heroes into a bleak world where they maybe didn’t exactly fit. The Longbow Hunters was part of the initial wave of “grim and gritty” comics that haunted the field for years after, even into today. Seriousness was established not through thoughtful themes or carefully considered treatises on the state of the culture, but by engaging in outright brutality against the characters, typified by the now notorious plot turn that left Dinah tortured (at least) drug peddlers, a progenitor of what Gail Simon later identified as the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon. Especially prevalent at DC, the tendency diminished the various female characters, even the superheroes, by basically making them disposal or, worse yet, handy victims to prove the sadism of the villains.
That’s Shado overlooking Green Arrow’s rescue of Dinah. Introduced in the limited series, she represented another unfortunately byproduct of the era, a dopey excitement over introducing Japanese characters as uniformly mystical ninjas who traverse the world as dispensers of deep wisdom while also kicking ass. (As I’ve argued before, the acorn that grew the mighty oak of this era of grim and gritty comic book stories is Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine limited series.)
There’s a craftsman’s beauty to Grell’s art that still pleases my eye. Even more than that, I remember enough of the middling material that surround it on comic shop shelves to respect what seems a genuine of flawed attempt to bring some of the smart sensibility of independent comic book storytelling to one of the big publishers. Prestige really was the goal. If I can now see all the ways it fails to live up to its aspirations, I admit that back then I feel right under its gloomy spell.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck
Micronauts by Bill Mantlo and Butch Guice
Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
What If? by Mike W. Barr, Herb Trimpe and Mike Esposito
Thor by Walt Simonson
Eightball by Dan Clowes
Cerebus: Jaka’s Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard
Iron Man #150 by by David Michelinie, John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Bone by Jeff Smith
The Man of Steel by John Byrne
Fantastic Four by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz
“Allien and How to Watch It” by John Severin
Fantastic Four Roast by Fred Hembeck and friends
The Amazing Spider-Man #25 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Marvel Two-in-One #7 by Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema
The New Mutants by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod
Dark Horse Presents
Bizarre Adventures #27
Marvel Team-Up #48 by Bill Mantlo and Sal Buscema
Metal Men #20 by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru
The Avengers by Roy Thomas and John Buscema
Fantastic Four by Marv Wolfman and John Byrne
Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
American Flagg by Howard Chaykin
Marvel and DC Present by Chris Claremont and Walter Simonson
Batman by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #5 by Alan Kupperberg and Pablo Marcos
Web of Spider-Man by Louise Simonson and Greg LaRocque
Super-Villain Team-Up #12 by Bill Mantlo and Bob Hall
What If? #31 by Rich Margopoulos and Bob Budiansky
Fantastic Four by Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis
Magik by Chris Claremont and John Buscema, Sal Buscema, and Ron Frenz
Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7 by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson