Last Call — Calvin and Hobbes

Sometimes in pop culture there are clear end points, and — effective or not — they can provide insights to a whole series, oeuvre, or discography.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the last time a daily newspaper comic strip could reach a point of real cultural importance — could really matter — was the the era that spanned the nineteen-eighties into the beginning of the nineteen-nineties. In that stretch, there were three strips, launched at roughly the same time, that unquestionably dominated. And all three ended at roughly the same time, too, rejecting the common practice of continuing a funny pages success in perpetuity. One of those three strips, Berke Breathed’s Bloom County, returned as a regular web presence almost five years ago, and another, The Far Side, is evidently poised for its own, far more unexpected revival. All this dusting off of bygone highlights of the daily newspaper has, for me, mostly served to stoke further appreciation for the comic that remains retired: Calvin and Hobbes.

The inspired creation of Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes found its humor in the mischievous adventures of a towheaded boy and his faithful pet tiger, the latter always seen as a mere stuffed animal by everyone else. I miss having new Calvin and Hobbes strips appear every day, but I’m also grateful Watterson has stuck to his retirement. I’m happy enough to revisit the pop culture creations I love most; rejuvenations aren’t necessary. In the case of Watterson’s strip, bringing it back would diminish the poignancy of the final strip, perhaps the most elegant — and beautifully fitting — ending a comic strip has ever had. I’m content to believe Calvin and Hobbes remain out there on their own in the magical world, freed from the attention of others. They don’t need readers to pry into their endless exploring.


calvin last

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Last Call” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

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.

Watchmen comedian-001

I bought Watchmen, the limited series written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shortly after the twelfth and final issue was released. Watchmen #12 was cover-dated October 1987 and hit comic shop racks in the last week of July. DC Comics, the publisher behind the project, had a trade paperback collection available by early September of that year, but I didn’t wait. “Waiting for the trade” wasn’t a thing then as it is now. Instead, I wanted to get the entirety of this comic series I’d read about in exuberant articles for months and never previously held in my hands. I took several comics from my collection and traded them in to Lone Star Comics, which ran the subscription service that fed my compulsion for monthly superhero adventures. With the credit I earned, I ordered all twelve issues, including the first couple that by then had spiked in cost. I didn’t matter. In the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, I decided I needed this comic book series.

As I recall it, I read the entire run in a few big chunks, enthralled, and thrilled by the exhaustion I felt after scrutinizing every bit of it, occasionally doubling back to again read key sections. I lingered over Moore’s words, hunted for foreshadowing to the story’s many devastating riddles. In a way that I hadn’t previously, I studied the very structure of the narrative, eagerly hoping discern every last bit of meaning to be found in elements such as the concurrent rendering of a gruesome pirate comic book read by a cigarette-smoking youth camped out next to a surprisingly pivotal newsstand in the midst of a dilapidated city block.

Watchmen comic-001

With the many, many superhero stories I read, I was accustomed to homing in on the details, a common comic book reader practice that Moore and Gibbons leveraged in their deconstructionist saga. Originally pitched as a project that would give a modern, grim spin to the batch of old Charlton Comics characters recently acquired by DC, Watchmen became an original creation (albeit one that simply turned those Charlton characters into thinly disguised avatars). The invention of new characters, originally expected to be used for this one story and then taken out of rotation, allowed Moore to get deeper, darker, more daring with his tale. The fundamental premise was an imagining of the real ramifications of a world partially populated by super-powered beings, waging their battles in a reality where there’s no actual binary of good guys and bad guys, and where bystander citizens would sustain harm from the shrapnel of a slugfest. Other creators, learning the wrong lessons from this and the Moore-written Batman: The Killing Joke, released around the same time, extrapolated this striking new tone into the grim-and-gritty aesthetic that dominated — and stained — superhero comics for at least the next decade.

Much as I’d like to report that I saw through the surface appeal of the storytelling, that’s not wholly true. I was a teenage boy, blessed with only slightly more enlightenment that others in my lamentable brethren. Susceptibility to brutish cool was a side effect of the toxic norming I experienced. It was super awesome that Rorschach was so bleak and tough and uncompromising, just like Wolverine! Although Moore built nuance into the characterization, I wasn’t yet equipped to understand the damnable contradictions of the antihero.

And yet, I really do believe what captured me from the beginning, and caused me to proselytize for Watchmen as the only exhibit needed to prove that comics should indeed be considered true art, was the layering and complexity of the series. No matter how vast and sprawling my regular superhero sagas, they were obviously built to be somewhat disposable. Anyone could join or leave at any time, with only the most basic knowledge of the characters a prerequisite to joining midstream. That’s not how Watchmen worked. Individual issues had their own flavor, often structured around the tried and true superhero comic conceit of flashing back to an origin story, but they mandated an attentiveness to and consideration of the preceding entirety. In a way, Moore codified the primacy of the totality with the bravura issue focused on Dr. Manhattan, an atomic age hero approaching omnipotence. In the narrative, history stretches beyond reckoning and yet happens all at once, like a towering stack of comics.

Watchmen mars

The density of Watchmen left me stunned. That’s why I resisted the mighty temptation to race through it, treating it like other comics that I’d read and then toss aside, ready for the next multicolored potato chip. I sensed there was more to this work. It deserved more concentration and added time to sink in before careening to the next installment. I didn’t yet have the language to identify all its merits — or all the ways it stirred me to think in a meta-textual way about what I was reading — but I sensed its importance, both to me and to the canon of comic book storytelling.

Later, fortified by college English courses, I’d be able to expound on what made Watchmen special with a thesaurus full of high-falutin’ words. When I first read it, I mostly knew one simple thing: It floored me.

Watchmen plan

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Marvel Team-Up #74 by Chris Claremont and Bob Hall

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.

When I started collecting Marvel Comics at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties, there were a few issues from before my time that were highly coveted by me. Many of them represented revered, foundation runs (such as lengthy stretch of Fantastic Four by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, or the transformative work on X-Men by Chris Claremont and John Byrne), but there were also a few stray issues that I longed to possess simply because they were so blatantly ridiculous.

Particularly in the nineteen-seventies, the publisher had a strong tendency to weave major pop culture trends into its stories. If use of CB radios approached the level of craze, then Marvel was sure to concoct a new character with a connection to and affinity for CB radios, or a new foe might ply his nefarious trade in a disco. On rarer occasions, a figure or figures could become so prominently favored by the expected audience of Marvel that the real-life figures were hauled basically intact into the fictional world of superhuman, costumed do-gooders. It was this strategy which led Peter Parker to take his favorite date, Mary Jane Watson, over to 30 Rockefeller Center to sit in the audience for an episode of Saturday Night Live. It was not a little blip on the fringes of a real adventure, either. The cover of Marvel Team-Up #74 laid it out plainly: Spider-Man was joining forces with the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players.

Written by Chris Claremont and penciled by Bob Hall, the story swipes a plot point from the Beatles film Help! Like Ringo Starr in the earlier movie, John Belushi receives a mysterious ring in the mail, shoves it onto his finger, and then can’t remove it.

mtu snl ring

The special piece of jewelry was sent to Belushi by mistake. It was supposed to come into the possession of Silver Samurai, a Japanese behemoth who handily chose one of the most familiar signifiers of his homeland for the theme of his villainous identity. From his perch in the audience, Peter spots Silver Samurai’s henchman taking out crew members in the backstage area, leading him to realize trouble is afoot. During the opening monologue, delivered by that week’s host (Stan “The Man” Lee, natch), Peter dons his guise as Spider-Man and proceeds to investigate.

mtu snl spidey

Spider-Man weaves in and out of other backstage shenanigans, as the show gradually falls apart while the multiple conflicts stirred up by Silver Samurai’s efforts to retrieve the ring sends the costumed troupe members dropping through trap doors while others offer impromptu entertainment to keep the audience distracted from the mayhem behind the scenes. At one point, Garrett Morris has to fight off a crew of Silver Samurai’s flunkies while he’s dressed as the mighty Thor for a sketch.

The whole story builds to the inevitable moment when Belushi, in the garb of the recurring samurai character he played on the show, goes one-on-one with his chrome-adorned, nefarious counterpart.

mtu snl samurai

When I finally laid my happy eyes on this issue, it was everything I wanted it to be. Much as I valued the socially serious inclinations of Marvel storytelling, I maintained a weakness for pure goofiness from my time with more cartoonish fare. And I was a burgeoning comedy nerd, so the inclusion of the early iteration of the Saturday Night Live cast (technically not the original cast, because the issue came out comfortably after the point Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase) cheered me further. I wanted my comics grounded in strict continuity (that’s a big part of why I favored Marvel over their distinguished competition), but I instinctively recognized the value in occasionally stepping outside of what was canonical to follow a loopy idea to all its illogical conclusions.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

My Misspent Youth — Ghost Rider by Gary Friedrich and Tom Sutton

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.

When I started reading superhero comics — and probably vocalized about my new hobby at tedious length — I quickly discovered that friends, relatives, and acquaintances were all too happy to gift me with beat-up copies of fantastical classics that were just lying around their respective houses. At the time I became a collector, comic book were still available for purchase just about everywhere, and were basically positioned as an impulse item. People would grab them out of a weird curiosity or in a guess about what might appease a youthful visitor, and then the colorful periodicals would get shoved into magazine baskets or junk drawers until someone stumbled across them and remembered the weird little kid who suddenly couldn’t shut up about how much he loved, loved, loved superheroes. It is through that brand of bygone largesse that I came into possession of a battered copy of Ghost Rider #1.

ghost rider 1

Created by writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, along with artist Mike Ploog, Ghost Rider debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, cover-dated August 1972, and received a promotion to his own solo title the following year. For the new series, Friedrich teamed with artist Tom Sutton to tell the ongoing story of stunt rider Johnny Blaze who was coerced into a pact with Mephisto, the Marvel Comics stand-in for Satan, leading to his regular transformations into Ghost Rider, a leather jacket–clad, flame-throwing supernatural being. Most notably, his head was a human skull rippling with fire. He fought crime, or maybe did Mephisto’s bidding, or maybe just zipped around as a chaos agent. His purpose was never entirely clear to me. Mostly, Ghost Rider was there, it seemed, to give Marvel an especially badass figure on their roster, the sort of character who young acid rock fans might doodle onto the covers of their Mead notebooks.

ghost rider 3

I puzzled over that comic book, doing my level best to unlock its secrets. Although Ghost Rider was just getting started, his world already felt dense with lore. As opposed to other Marvel titles I read, the outlook of Ghost Rider struck me as grim, burdensome, always ready to collapse into existential disaster. I couldn’t articulate these impressions at the time (especially that last one), but I could feel the thickened gloom as I turned the pages. Threats to the ongoing existence of the entire universe were commonplace in my other comics, and Ghost Rider was still the one that filled me with an unnamable dread.

Realistically, the main problem was that I was simply too young for Ghost Rider when it first landed in my hands. Strangely, considering the boney, scalding visage of the main character, no adult in my sphere came to the reasonable determination that the comic book might not be entirely age-appropriate for me. To them, every comic book was basically the same. They were all meant for kids, right? Meanwhile, my soft, vulnerable psyche was inviting rejuvenated nightmares with every re-read.

ghost rider 2

I was able to contextualize Ghost Rider later on, in both its narrative particulars and, maybe more valuably, in its place within the Marvel publishing scheme. Launching in the early-seventies, Ghost Rider was part of the horror comics revival of the day and also exploiting the era’s keen interest in ludicrous stunt riding, the latter fulfilling the Marvel mandate of incorporating the most sensational pop culture trends. Without unduly impugning the sincerity of all involved creators, Ghost Rider was clearly built to tickle a multitude of teen boy predilections. Understanding that was key to appreciating the comic’s warped charms.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

The Art of the Sell — Hulk Sells Honeycomb

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Sometimes I’m prepared to expound at length about the nuances and intricacies I think I spy in an ad campaign. Sometimes I’m just amused that, incredibly, the Hulk was employed to see Honeycomb cereal in the nineteen-seventies, and I want to share it.

My Misspent Youth — What If? #29 by Steven Grant, Alan Kupperberg, and Al Gordon

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.

When I started reading superhero comics, the publications of Marvel were immediately granted favored stories status in my collection. It would be years before I regularly sampled the wares of the distinguished competition, and I could rattle off all the reasons for the unquestionable validity of my preference. Considering that one of the prime qualities I cited was the clarity of the publishing house’s continuity, unbounded by the dueling versions of the universe that abounded at DC, I operated in quite the contradictory state with my regular purchases of the series What If?

The bimonthly periodical presented alternative versions of vaunted tales from Marvel’s history, speculating on how the heroes’ stories may have proceeded different had Wolverine killed the Hulk in their first encounter, Spider-Man chosen to eschew crimefighting, or Captain America threw his shield into the ring for an United States presidential election. Because of general preference to look back with some distance for stories to revise, usually I hadn’t read the titanic tales that got twisted. On occasion, I didn’t even have the barest familiarity with the vintage comics serving as inspiration.

I was intrigued by the cover to What If? #29, which urgently asked “WHAT IF THE AVENGERS DEFEATED EVERYBODY?” and depicted clearly older versions of the founding Avengers — Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Giant Man, and the Wasp — standing triumphantly in the midst of a mass of fallen fellow superheroes. I didn’t know what story issue creators Steven Grant, Alan Kupperberg, and Al Gordon were riffing on, but I knew if had to be good. Like most boys that age, I craved wild mayhem in my comics.

What If 029-002 (AnPymGold-Empire)

The What If? issue held its funhouse mirror up to Avengers Annual #2, published in 1968, and brought Earth’s mightiest heroes face to face with a towering figure calling himself the Scarlet Centurion. The portentous fellow claimed he came from the future, and he traveled back in time to equip the Avengers with the means to correct a problematic path that would lead to a grim, dystopian outcome. The only way the Avengers could prevent this dire future was by defeating all of the superheroes and supervillians in the world, and allowing Centurion to ensconce them away. It sounds like a basic bad guy deception, but the Avengers sign on for the mission anyway.

What If 029-006 (AnPymGold-Empire)

Eventually, the last being boasting elevated abilities is bested by the Avengers, and, for good measure, the Scarlet Centurion transports Hulk away from the planet as well. All major foes vanished away, the remaining Avengers decide to hang up their respective costumes. It was the ongoing activity of super-power beings, after all, that led to devastation, according to the Scarlet Centurion.

Not long after the do-gooders have settled uneasily into their lives of leisure (or, in the case of Thor just went back to to battling giant ogres and other fiends in his homeland, Asgard), the Scarlet Centurion manifests again, this time demanding the world bow to his despotic rule. There are no superheroes there to stop him, so why not?

What If 029-013 (AnPymGold-Empire)

There are a couple superheroes left, though, so there was a little hitch in that nefarious plan. The mysterious friend who gives notice to Tony Stark that help is on the way is none other than Dr. Donald Blake, the mortal alter ego of the mighty Thor. So that Norse guard factors into the finale, as well. Indeed, the hammer-wielding hero delivers the final blow against the Scarlet Centurion.

What If 029-018 (AnPymGold-Empire)

Thor doesn’t realize it, but that mere man is Rama-Tut, who regularly bedeviled the Avenger in his identity as Kang the Conqueror. Getting much deeper into that slice of Marvel lore would require far more word than I’m currently prepared to tap out.

The Avengers win the battle, but What If? stories generally end on a rueful note. Tony’s enthusiastic expectation that the team will now reunite for good is dashed when his fellow Avengers announce they still want nothing to do with the superhero life, in part because they were so easily duped by the Scarlet Centurion. Tony is left standing alone, lamenting what has passed away.

The story had no resonance for me as an inversion of something I’d read previously, the way it must have for some other purchasers of this issue of What If? But within it was still the grand scale of Marvel’s superhero saga, the sense that everything was connected and could come crashing together at any moment. It thrilled me, even if, in this instance, the cataclysm was outside the canon. Seriously as I took all these colorful pages I flipped through, sometimes I was happily satisfied if the comic was simply fun.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.