My Misspent Youth — The X-Men Companion II

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.

Once I locked into superhero comics as a youngster, my appetite for them was insatiable. The array of colorful wonders available for purchase at the local grocery store underwent fierce scrutiny from me every time I was toted along on a shopping trip, the adults undoubtedly pleased to leave me rustling through the periodicals in an eager hunt for exciting new issues. (Otherwise, I would have been following close behind them making a plea for every sugary nightmare foodstuff with a clownish character on the package.) By financial necessity, I needed to be selective, but that didn’t prevent me from doing my level best to glean what was happening in every odd corner of the Marvel Universe from the studying beautifully bombastic covers and snatching the occasional glimpse at the pages within.

That craving to know everything about the fictional adventures that captured my imagination led me to further seek out reference material that both provided creative background and traced character continuity with a reverence usually reserved for musty detailing of the mythology around the United States of America’s founding fathers. Magazines and other more modestly priced periodicals, difficult as they were to come by, were my usual source of such material, but on occasion I whined just relentlessly enough to get a surrendering caretaker to shell out the extra money required to get something a little thicker. In appreciation, I would usually read those books until they were worn down like an ancient shoe. That was certainly the case with one of my most prized possessions: The X-Men Companion II.

xmen companion austin

The trade paperback was published by Fantagraphics, home to peak-of-the-form comic series and, more pertinently, periodicals offering news and criticism of the various sequential art creations. According to Gary Groth, co-founder of Fantagraphics, it was the fearsome reputation of the the company’s flagship magazine that helped secure the material needed for a book covering Marvel’s merry mutants.

“I cut a deal with Jim Shooter, who gave us carte blanche to use all the X-Men images we wanted to for the X-Men Companion,” Groth later remembered. “They even supplied black-and-white stats for us. My gut told me that there was a sort of quid pro quo implied, that we would be nice to Marvel in The Comics Journal as a result of this largesse. I chose to ignore that implication, of course.”

xmen companion jean

The second volume of The X-Men Companion focused intently on the era of the superhero team that had just concluded, but was already on its way to legendary status. Written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by John Byrne (who also co-plotted most of the run), and inked by Terry Austin, this stretch of issues took a reinvention of the team book that had already begun to a whole new level. Claremont was able to convey a deep sense of character with a few quick strokes and had a knack for storytelling with a soap opera momentum. And Byrne’s art was crisp and vivid, especially when boosted by Austin’s finishes. It practically popped off the page at a creative intensity almost unseen since the heyday of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

The issues were middling sellers upon release and developed a heightened reputation not long after, mostly because of the informally dubbed “Dark Phoenix” saga. Most of the comics hit stands before my time as a true blue collector, and the back issues had already skyrocketed in value, putting them well beyond my means. And this was before comic stories were routinely collected into bound volumes. For me, the generous reprinting of panels and thorough recounting of story elements — in long-form interviews with the creators — was my entryway into comics I longed to read, but felt were nearly impossible to attain.

xmen companion xmas

Eventually, I properly read every comic the Claremont-Byrne run. The experience was tinted by memories of my countless hours with The X-Men Companion II, because of both individual pages that were instantly familiar from the reprinted chunks and the retrospective perspective of the creators on what elements worked best. Byrne, in particular, was a completely unguarded interview subject, spilling opinions on every bit of the experience. I could see what was on page, but also the specter of what the artist felt should have been there. It was like having a commentary track embedded into my brain, always there for easy access.

It’s entirely possible that these X-Men issues were my favorites from the era of Marvel when I joined the grand saga. (As I’ve previously recounted, my inaugural purchases took place the same month that the monumental X-Men #137 was released, though I sadly didn’t acquire it at the time.) That I my exposure to those issues was shaped far more by The X-Men Companion II than the original comics themselves doesn’t diminish my affection one bit. It probably enhances it.

xmen companion hembeck

All images in this post nicked from elsewhere.

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 — What If? #19 by Peter Gillis and Pat Broderick

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 was snapping up as many Marvel mags as my humble boyhood budget allowed, the regular adventures of my Marvel superheroes weren’t always quite enough to sate my need for wild imaginings. Because a diligent adherence to continuity was one of key ways Marvel set itself apart for their distinguished competition, the publisher was far less likely to indulge in so-called “imaginary stories” or, say, dropping in Don Rickles as a supporting character (though other real life figures were known to cameo). But Marvel had a space where creators could fully follow their thought experiments: a bi-monthly, double-sized comic called What If?

Those extra pages meant extra silver to secure a copy, so I needed to be selective, but when a premise caught my eye, I was helpless. One of the very first issues I bought posed the question, “What if Spider-Man had never become a crimefighter?” and featured a cover with everyone’s favorite neighborhood being introduced as the host of last night talk show. As much for the snazzy showbiz milieu as anything else, I eagerly grabbed it off of the comics rack at the supermarket.

Written by Peter Gillis and pencilled by Pat Broderick, the story began with the usual recounting of Spider-Man’s origin story. Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider and tries to use his newfound powers to win some cash at a wrestling match where audience members are challenged to last a round with a burly grappler. In the established lore, it’s Peter’s callous refusal to stop a fleeing burglar that sets into motion a chain of events that results in him fighting crime, at least initially to assuage some guilt. In this alternate version, Peter makes a different choice.

what if 19 start

As explained by Uatu the Watcher, the title’s usual narrator, Peter’s motivation is still selfish. He envisions the positive headlines that will follow his act of bystander intervention, guessing they will help him leverage his colorful personage into fame and fortune. As the cover promised, the resulting notoriety even nabs him a gig filling in for Johnny Carson.

what if 19 tonight

There’s a big Hollywood movie about his exploits (starring Marlon Brando and Gene hackman, natch) and a familiar fearsome feud with J. Jonah Jameson, the publisher of the Daily Bugle, who’s angered that the public is more enamored with the empty showboating of the webhead than the tragic heroism of his son, John Jameson, an astronaut who perished on a mission. Jameson’s investigative reporters are a little more talented in this particular timeline, and they wind up uncovering Spider-Man’s secret identity, which is printed onto the front page of the paper as a major scoop.

In the main continuity, Peter Parker is worried about being unmasked because of the way it might put his loved ones in harm’s way. When he’s just another celebrity hustling for the next gig, he simply uses the revelation as a prompt to start his own PR firm, recruiting a bunch of other costumed do-gooders into his stable of clients.

what if 19 spiderman productions

This is What If?, so things are bound to go very, very bad. It was practically a requisite of the issues to have every road untaken lead to a dire outcome, as if to reassure readers that the Marvel writers got it correct in the first place. In this instance, the ill will between Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson escalates until our hero seeks revenge, ruining the newspaperman’s career with a story about supposed mob connections. Later, Spider-Man is confronted by a band of super-powered foes and discovered the mastermind behind their attack.

what if 19 end

Spider-Man collapses in shame, realizing Jameson’s accusations of villainy are basically true. The cosmic comeuppance is that the heavy guilt that has been part of Spider-Man’s existence since the beginning managed to find him after all.

It was a fairy heavy-handed morality fable, and I loved it unequivocally. And I still wouldn’t mind seeing Spidey host The Tonight Show.

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 — West Coast Avengers by Roger Stern 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 West Coast Avengers first hit comic shops, in the summer of 1984, it pressed in on a lot of my weak spots. I had already proven to be ludicrously susceptible to Marvel’s limited series, then still a relatively new part of their publishing model. If one of the planned shortened series held even the most meager of appeals to me, I sought it out, swayed by the promise of a finite store and — probably — because of the collector’s urge to nab every possible first issue.

Written by Roger Stern and pencilled by Bob Hall, West Coast Avengers held the added promise of introducing a major new group in the Marvel Universe, promising a Pacific Coast branch of the Avengers, back before there were about a jillion spinoff iterations of Earth’s mightiest heroes. That it also had a central role for Hawkeye — a favorite character whose own limited series I’d recently consumed eagerly — absolutely mandated my investment in all four promised issues.

wca 1

A longtime figure on the main Avengers squad, albeit one who could be a touch cantankerous about his membership, Hawkeye was dispatched with his newlywed bride, Mockingbird, to California with instructions to assemble a satellite branch of the super-team. Although the Avengers often had a few major heroes on the roster, the title was also something of a holding pen for characters without enough appeal to anchor their own books. This is the tradition West Coast Avengers upheld. Except for Iron Man (whose armor was then being worn by James “Rhodey” Rhodes), the team was further populated by a Marvel B-Team, including Tigra and Wonder Man, with weirdo Batman analog Shroud hanging around, as well.

Accordingly, the newly aligned heroes were beset by minor league troublemakers. They first tussled with a loopy empty void who went by the Blank (so dubbed by a bystander at a bank robbery he tried to perpetrate as his inaugural criminal act). In his bad guuy endeavors, the newcomer was joined by an old supervillain from the pages of The Avengers, the probably self-explanatory Graviton.

wca 2

Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t disparage Graviton. According to Wonder Man, he’s one of the most dangerous men the Avengers ever fought.

It was a strangely epic piece of storytelling, stretching the main conflict across most of the four issue series. This was well before the era of decompressed storytelling, so the mechanics of the story felt novel, almost exciting because it suggested an authorial purposefulness apart from the more common pinging from one villain to the next. For me, those qualities were central to the appeal of the limited series format.

I also really liked it when superheroes stayed in full uniform to perform mundane activities, like grilling dinner.

wca bbq

Marvel might have launched the limited series format to tell stories they didn’t quite have any other place for, but it quickly dawned on the editorial chiefs that these short runs were a fine avenue for tryouts. Less than a year after the limited series was completed, West Coast Avengers launched as an ongoing series. It had surprising longevity, stretching to over one hundred issues.

The shiny promise of a decisive endpoint eliminated, I didn’t follow the team in their ongoing efforts (at least until a certain writer-artist took over the title in the midst of its run). Hawkeye, Mockingbird, and the rest of the gang were going to need to save residents of the Pacific Time Zone without my attention and monthly contribution of sixty-five cents to the Marvel coffers.

wca4

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 — Raiders of the Lost Ark by Walt Simonson and John Buscema

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.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was released into theaters less than two weeks after my eleventh birthday. That should have made me an ideal member of the film’s target audience, ready to scrape together whatever nickels I had to plop myself down front row center to see this zingy adventure story, practically constructed out of goods mystically extracted from the hive mind of American boys who knew more about the world from comics and movies than any actual ventures into the woolly world.

The significant impediment I faced was a home located a significant distance from any theater and a dearth of adults who were interested in taking me to the movies. Although I was eager to meet Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. (whose given name was “Indiana,” given to him by him), I sadly knew it would take an extensive amount of cajoling before I would ever have a ticket stub in hand. So my introduction to the thrills and spills of Steven Spielberg’s masterwork happened via an entirely different format than the flickering beauty of a wide screen.

Raiders boulder

In 1981, Marvel Comics highly valued their relationship with Raiders of the Lost Ark producer and co-writer George Lucas. By all accounts, the licensed ongoing Star Wars comic book series had saved the publisher from going under in the mid-nineteen-seventies. (Imagine the drastic difference in the current cinematic landscape had the various Marvel titles gone the way of E-Man and Doomsday + 1 four decades ago.) So any new film project spotted by his fingerprints was something Marvel wanted to quickly bring into their stable.

Written by Walt Simonson and penciled by Marvel legend John Buscema (with highly distinctive inks by Klaus Janson), the adaption of Raiders got the same oversized “Special Edition” treatment of other transposed film properties. It also made its way to spinner racks as a monthly comic book. This wasn’t an entirely unique situation. Other film adaptations were similarly multi-purposed. But it felt a little different seeing Indiana Jones in his own Marvel corner box, as if there were a new hope for an ongoing periodical to help supplement the coffers, further ensuring the continued presence of merry mutants and cosmic-irradiated heroes. Spread across three issues, the series had the interesting challenge of finding the optimum cliffhangers in a story that happily indulged in placing characters in nearly inescapable threatening situations with the regularity of the old serials that inspired it.

Raiders cliffhanger

Before I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark repeatedly, I read it with similarly inexhaustible zeal. Like all my favorite comics of the era, it wasn’t preserved with delicacy and care. Instead, it was worn to near tatters. By the time I was through with it, it felt like it was printed on homemade paper.

Of course, my war of attrition eventually yielded results, and I sat in a showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark before the summer was up. As I’ve shared previously, the movie was momentous for me, for all sorts of reasons. And even though I was seeing it for the first time, it had the happy comfort of the familiar. Thanks to my visits to the newsstand, it was like I was already revisiting moviedom’s most famous archeologist.

raiders snake

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 — Black Panther by Jack Kirby

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.

Well before there was a comic book industry press eager to cover every instance of a noted creator signing up to work with one publisher or another, there was only person whose place on the payroll was notable enough to be an event in and of itself. And he was the King.

Artist Jack Kirby effectively co-created the Marvel Universe, and it’s reasonable to infer that the loftiest, boldest inventions came straight out of his pencil. When, fed up with his treatment, he left Marvel to join the distinguished competition, it was an event touted with breathless excitement in full-page ads. And when Kirby had his House of Ideas homecoming, it was similarly cause for fevered promotional celebration.

Reflecting his rampant, restless creativity, Kirby largely devoted himself to crazy new concepts, even if he had to shoehorn them into titles based on licensed material. There were exceptions, including a return to Captain America, a character he’d helped create over thirty years earlier. Because of my abiding affection for the Fantastic Four — and Kirby’s legendary, transformative original run with the characters — nothing from the King’s nineteen-seventies Marvel stretch so quickly stirs up for joy for me than his tenure on Black Panther, a series he launched with a first issue cover dated January 1977.

Black Panther 001-004

Kirby was the co-creator on Fantastic Four #52, published in 1966, which introduced Black Panther and much of the lore around the character, including the African nation of Wakanda. According to his son, it was Kirby’s idea to introduce some notable diversity into the Marvel Universe, though, as with all things in the fruitful, fraught partnership between Kirby and writer Stan Lee, differing memories abound.

“I recall during the winter or early spring he asked me what I would think of a black superhero in the comics. Of course he was very much for it, as we all were at the time,” Neal Kirby recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “My father was a very social liberal person. He would have been the Bernie Sanders of his day. He very much believed in social justice and equality, so he honestly thought it was time. Why shouldn’t African Americans have their own superhero?”

Some ten years later, Kirby was both writer and artist on a series starring Black Panther, largely ignoring the history of the character that had built up in the interim, opting instead to plunge him into bold, colorful stories that bent reality in a way only possible in the comics and allowed for plenty of patented Kirby Krackle.

Black Panther 002-010

Marvel Comics in the nineteen-seventies were inclined toward wild flights of fancy, but no one could go wilder than Kirby. His opening storyline involving frog statues imbued with metaphysical powers that could send or beckon figures hurtling through time. This, naturally, led to Black Panther being pressed into battle from a strange being from millions of years in the future. And there was more and more, the universe of Kirby’s ideas truly so boundless even he sometimes couldn’t describe what he concocted.

Black Panther 002-012

As Kirby’s son Neal noted, the great comic book creator had strong political beliefs, but those usually didn’t intrude in an overt way to the stories he created. Social issues were given no more than glancing attention. Instead, Kirby honored a character like Black Panther by simply giving him the same platform he’d give any other figure. Although I doubt he would have used this precise language, he knew that representation mattered. He was a hero. And he was super.

Black Panther 003-010

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 — The Amazing Spider-Man by Roger Stern and John Romita, Jr.

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 believe Spider-Man was supposed to be my generation’s gateway into superhero comics. When I transitioned from ravenous consumption of the childish fare published by Harvey Comics — particularly the boy plutocrat Richie Rich — into highly mature tales of physically-alarming beings who squeezed into spandex outfits to fight crime, I larger steered clear of Marvel’s famed wall-crawler, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me. This was the character who regularly appeared on Electric Company — and starred in a corresponding kid-friendly comic series — so he should have been the likeliest character to ensnare my attention. I bought loads of Marvel comics, but I resisted Spider-Man’s titles.

But I also learned my Marvel Comics history quickly and with studious devotion. As new comics hit the spinner rack, I knew a major event when I saw it. So when Amazing Spider-Man #238 arrived, bearing a cover dominated by a new villainous character who evoked the stylings of Ol’ Web-Head most fearsome — and long-departed — foe, I knew I had to get it. This, I was certain, was going to be big.

In a story written by Roger Stern and drawn by John Romita, Jr. (and inked, in the first issue, by his namesake pop, who plied his pencils on some of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever published), our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is up to his usual do-gooding, but one the small-time crooks he’s after slips away. The miscreant finds his way into a secret underground lair.

asm green goblin lair

The Green Goblin was Spider-Man’s arch-enemy, having delivered the cruelest emotional turn in the hero’s life many years earlier. The Green Goblin himself perished not long afterward, and the various creators never quite filled the hole left by the character’s absence, despite some misguided attempts. (Back then, characters who perished largely stayed dead, a standard Marvel abandoned with increasingly tiresome frequency later.) Stern’s fine idea was bypass any sort of strained revival and instead start anew with a character who evoked the bygone adversary.

The hood who found the Goblin costumes and weaponry leads a shadowy figure to the stash of goods. Bringing his own panache to the design, this dastardly fellow emerges as the character sensation of 1983.

hobgoblin

With the Hobgoblin, the Spider-Man saga was jolted by the familiar presented as something striking and new. Although it was technically a new character, Stern was able to take advantage of transferable menace before our hero had even set eyes on the crafty criminal.

spiderman in action

In setting up the new foe, Stern even replicated a bit of storytelling lore around the Green Goblin. The earlier villain’s secret identity was hidden from the readers for ages, with little hints parceled out, always implying it was a member of Spider-Man’s supporting cast. By some accounts, the creators themselves weren’t all that sure about the Green Goblin’s alter ego, even squabbling about it so much that the dispute is often cited as the motivation for artist Steve Ditko — Spider-Man’s co-creator — jumping ship from Marvel.

With the Hobgoblin, the strategy was repeated (as were the internal disagreements). The reveal was teased out to a ludicrous degree. And I loved every bit of it. I couldn’t have named it at the time, by the ongoing tale was exactly what I was looking for in my superhero comics. It was twisty and thrilling and rewarded an appreciation for the arcana of Marvel continuity without being overly reliant on a knowledge of it. Individual issues read fine in isolation, but familiarity with the whole span of the story made the material seem richer and little more audacious. It might have taken me a while to get to The Amazing Spider-Man, but its web was all but inescapable when I finally arrived.

 

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 — Moon Knight by Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz

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 superhero comics, I adored first issues. There was probably some speculator instinct I picked up by osmosis, since this was the beginning of the era when comic books were occasionally positioned as a potential boon for nerdy investors by an aghast and amused mainstream press. Mostly, though, I loved the idea of being with a character from the very beginning of their existence. The true Marvel heyday of spectacular character debuts coming at a rapid pace was nearly twenty years before I started seriously scrutinizing the offerings propped up in the spinner rack, and I was envious of my ancestors in the pastime of feverishly consuming comics.

Although I didn’t really know it at the time, the boldly announced PREMIERE ISSUE of Moon Knight didn’t actually contain the first appearance of the title character. Moon Knight was introduced roughly five years earlier, tangling with Werewolf by Night. He then romped through some tryout adventures in Marvel Spotlight and the back pages of The Hulk!, a full-size magazine starring Marvel’s resident green goliath. Hoping to grab a more mature audience than the kids who usually read their monthly mags (you might not know it from inspecting the average clientele in a comics shop these days, but there was a time in the not-so-distant past when the periodicals were primarily aimed at and read by individuals too young to get a driver’s license), the magazine tried to deliver slightly racier and artistically-refined content. That motivation undoubtedly helped direct the choice of artist Bill Sienkiewicz to join writer Doug Moench.

The team of Moench and Sienkiewicz obviously made an impression with the fans, allowing Moon Knight to graduate to his own comic series. It was the first issue of that ongoing title that I eagerly grabbed off the stands. Maybe it wasn’t the true debut of Moon Knight, but, in mighty Marvel fashion, it absolutely played that way, presenting the superhero’s origin story.

moon knight 1

The short version is that Marc Spector was a mercenary on assignment in Egypt when a villainous African in the same line of work beats Spector and leaves him for dead. Spector’s heart does stop at one point, but he awakens fully alive in front of a statue of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu. Naturally, that prompts Spector to dress up in a costume and fight crime. Because, you know, comics.

Not content to operate with a single secret identity, Spector takes on a whole portfolio of alter egos.

moon knight 2

The concept behind Moon Knight seemed to be: What if Batman was actually crazy? Moench’s writing played up the idea that the character sometimes struggled with maintaining understanding of the realities of the separate personae he’d cooked up for himself. And then there was the looming Egyptian god statue that held sway over his confidence.

The moody, inky art of Sienkiewicz melded perfectly with Moench’s inclination to send Moon Knight into the seedier corners of Marvel’s Manhattan. Moon Knight was a kindred spirit to the original Daredevil run crafted by Frank Miller, which held my imagination tight.

moon knight 3

Where Miller pitted Daredevil against mobsters and ninjas, Moench took Moon Knight into far more bizarre territory. Before long, the cowled crusader was doing battle with all sorts of supernatural forces. It was a bizarre contrast to the more conventional villain-of-the-month fare that shared space in the Marvel publishing line. At times, I could barely wrap my growing brain around the material dished up by Moench and Sienkiewicz. That only made me appreciate it more.

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