This was written for my former online home, back when I was devoting the end of the working week to a feature dubbed “Flashback Fridays,” giving myself the prompt of a year to get me tapping keys on a range of subjects. I occasionally tried to stretch myself in that feature, but just as often I circled back to movies or music or comics. Inevitably, that’s what I do. The comic book in question here made its debut thirty-five years ago this spring.
1983: The first issue of The Badger is released
In 1983, I was living in a scruffy little town a few miles outside of Madison, Wisconsin. I was also reading a lot of comic books, as many as I could get my hands on (and stretch my modest budget to acquire). They were mostly set in Manhattan, a place so distant to me that it may as well have been one of the completely fictional locales like Metropolis, Gotham City, or Coast City that served as the homes for other superheroes I largely bypassed at the time. So it was with great happiness and an odd little surge of civic pride that I discovered there was going to be a comic book about a superhero living in Madison, one named after our state’s official animal no less.
The first issue of The Badger was a direct market release, meaning a trip to a shop specializing in comic books was required, something that was around at the time, but wasn’t yet the norm. Luckily, there was a bookstore in town that had a little corner devoted to such fare, and I was able to track it down. It was, I believe, the first comic book I bought that wasn’t published by one of the Big Two companies. Written by Mike Baron and drawn by Jeffrey Butler, the story told of a 5th century Druid known as Ham the Weather Wizard who encountered a disturbed young Vietnam War veteran named Norbert Sykes in a dairyland mental institution. The two quickly extricate themselves from the asylum, and, along with a psychotherapist named Daisy Fields, set up a household on the edge of town. Ham begins amassing a fortune, and Norbert dons a mask and costume to fight local crime and the occasional rogue demon with his formidable martial arts skills.
I don’t recall if the stories were particularly immersed in a sense of place, although at least one titanic tale centered around UW-Madison campus fixture Bascom Hill. For me, it was enough that they were just mentioning Madison, even in the most casual way. It gave me a different sense of connection to the book, which helped ease me into titles with different sensibilities, a grittiness and even anger that hadn’t yet infiltrated the more traditional superheroes. Norbert Sykes was in that mental institution for a reason, it turned out. Although writer Mike Baron played the character’s imbalance for laughs at times, there was also an attempt on his part to understand the ramifications of operating with a damaged mind. It wasn’t The Bell Jar or anything, but it was still a notch or two more ambitious than the meet!-fight!-next! comics that were dominating my attention at the time. And a pending crossover with sister title Nexus would introduce me to a different series that was impressively ambitious in wholly different ways.
It wasn’t just that the stories were set in Madison. The creators were from there, too. At least writer Mike Baron was. He could be counted on to crop up in the local free weekly newspaper from time to time, usually as the subject of an article, occasionally penning a music review. And his collaborator on Nexus, the spectacular artist Steve Rude, was listed in the phone book, with his nickname, “The Dude,” printed right alongside the number. That grounded the worlds they were creating even more for me, making these flights of imagination things that didn’t just appear, but were put together by guys who got up every day and went to work. It’s just that, instead of selling insurance or building houses, they were making comics, something that seemed like a dream job to me at the time. It helped make an intimidatingly large world seem a little smaller, a little more manageable to me.
Also, the Badger kicked ass. I liked that too.