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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

My Misspent Youth — Amazing Spider-Man by David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane

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 look back at the seismic events in the comic book field during my most devoted reading days, I’m never completely certain if I recognized the transformative moments as they happened. I’m not referring to the staggering turns of events with the narratives. Those were often touted urgently on the covers and in the agitated alliteration of Bullpen Bulletins listings. What I’m thinking of are those instances when a creator absolutely upended the field, whether by ingenuity or a lucky convergence with the zeitgeist. I liked Frank Miller’s Daredevil, for instance, but surely I didn’t have an awareness of the massive shift in the character and broader superhero storytelling it represented.

But I’m reasonably sure I knew Todd McFarlane tilting his pencil at Bristol board pages in the service of Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man title was a big deal, and I believe I knew it from the jump.

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Although far from the comic and toy magnate with enough excess cash to buy ludicrously expensive baseballs like they were mere gumballs, McFarlane was already a burgeoning fan favorite when he took over monthly art duties on Amazing Spider-Man, paired with writer David Michelinie. McFarlane came to the title straight from an immensely popular run on Incredible Hulk, including at least one issue that set collectors hopelessly aquiver. He was an up-and-comer, ushered onto the biggest, most important stage Marvel Comics had to offer.

Eventually, McFarlane’s art, defined by its hyper-aggressive line work, could grow wearying in its constant visual collisions, but when he first started with the wall-crawler the dynamism he brought to the pages was thrilling, even somewhat dizzying. He largely stayed on model — his Peter Parker was recognizably the same character invented visually by Steve Ditko and then fully locked into place by John Romita, a full generation earlier — reserving the most stylized renderings for side characters and new figures.

Among the main cast, the only one who was noticeably changed was Mary Jane Watson, who’s recently added a hyphen and a “Parker” to her name, thanks to a heavily hyped marriage that even spilled onto the field of Shea Stadium. Mary Jane had barely changed one iota visually since she first informed Peter that he’d hit the jackpot. McFarlane caught her up to the late nineteen-eighties in a big hurry.

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In the context of the fictional world, Mary Jane had grown up from the idealized girl next door to an in-demand fashion model. Reasonably, it was time for her to look the part. Of course, as many discovered retrospectively, trafficking too freely in late-eighties style was a dangerous endeavor.

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Be careful, gents! Legendary Casanova Paul Shaffer is on the prowl.

Even as McFarlane was jarring the fairly staid look and feel of Amazing Spider-Man in the art, Michelinie was poised to make his own monumental contribution. The antagonist in McFarlane’s first issues was the entirely forgettable zooming mercenary Chance, but another villain was lurking, ready to bring the requisite weight to issue #300, a milestone anniversary for the book.

In the wake of the major crossover event series Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, Spider-Man adopted a new costume, forgoing his familiar red-and-blue duds for a sleek black-and-white number. Found in its original form on a distant planet, Spider-Man learned that the costume he thought was a garment with remarkable pliability was actually a living alien being sheathing itself over his form, leeching some energy of him in the process. Spider-Man rid himself of the symbiote costume, opting for a fabric version of the same design, but the alien being found a different host. Both the human and the alien were bent on revenge against Spider-Man. Bonded together, they went by the name Venom.

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Bold and just a touch untethered from the basic human physics, Venom was a character made to showcase McFarlane’s skills. The anniversary issue delivers precisely the massive superhero punch-around outrageousness that any eager comic book reader would want. I’m not sure every bit of the story makes sense, but, in the manner of a summer blockbuster film, it didn’t really matter because the sheer spectacle of it was so satisfying.

In the end, the tussle with Venom was the catalyst for the return of Spider-Man’s best-known costume. Mary Jane was terrorized by Venom, and wasn’t all that excited about her husband working his night job with a similar look.

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The reset to the more familiar Spider-Man branding was basically inevitable, but it still felt somewhat like it was an extension of McFarlane coming onto the title. The guy liked drawing lines, and they’re all over the classic costume.

The run on Amazing Spider-Man cemented McFarlane’s fame in the comic book field, and was central to the expansion of his creative efforts. Just a couple years after his auspicious debut on the title, Marvel gave McFarlane his own Spider-Man series, which he would draw and write, mostly serving to establish that he wasn’t all that great at the latter. From there, he would go on to help form Image Comics, established in part with his series Spawn. McFarlane clearly understands the importance of the original Amazing Spider-Man issues in his career, as evidenced by his recent choice to pay homage to them as Spawn comes to its own milestone. Sometimes, the comics of historic importance are as clear as can be.

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 — X-Men #137 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne

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.

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I started my tenure as a buyer, reader, collector, and near-addict of superhero comics with Marvel issues cover-dated September 1980. With certainty, I can assert that I initiated myself into my fandom with then-current copies of Fantastic Four, Avengers, Daredevil, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, and Marvel Two-In-One Annual. For years, though, I was haunted by the comic I didn’t manage to purchase, the special double-size issue that I would strain and struggle to add to my collection for years. Had I nabbed it, I would have achieved the rough equivalent of watching The Rumble in the Jungle as a first boxing match or introducing oneself to the art of film with Citizen Kane. I don’t believe I ever spied it on the comic rack at my local grocery store, but X-Men #137 came out the month I committed to adventures of spandex-clad do-gooders.

Titled “The Fate of the Phoenix,” the story inside X-Men #137 was the crescendo of a saga that had stretched for multiple issues of the title spotlighting Marvel’s Merry Mutants. In the most expansion measure, it could be seen as reaching all the way back to X-Men #101, when the red-headed stalwart of the team, Jean Grey, first transformed from her former guise of Marvel Girl into Phoenix, her telekinetic and psychic powers dramatically heightened following exposure to cosmic rays. More accurately, the issue delivered the close of what would quickly be termed “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” which got properly underway eight issues earlier, when an nefarious assemblage of privileged elites dubbed the Hellfire Club slipped into the position as primary antagonists for our heroes. Because of the magnitude of Jean’s powers, she becomes a primary target for the villains, and the manipulations of a telepath Jason Wyngarde set off a series of event that culminate in the a full unleashing of the Phoenix force in such a way that she gives in to unhinged malice. In the useful shorthand of the storytelling, Jean becomes Dark Phoenix.

Beyond beating up on her teammates, Jean, as Dark Phoenix, soars across the cosmos to a distant galaxy where she destroys a star. A nearby planet and its population of sentient beings. That action runs her afoul of the intergalactic equivalent of the Hague. She and the X-Men are transported to a space vessel where the terms of Jean’s judicial reckoning are set. In keeping with the narrative need for laser-blasting, fist-flinging conflict, Jean’s future will be determined by a battle on the surface of Earth’s moon. And thus the operatic drama is set into motion.

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Employing a skill that’s all but eradicated from current comic series, X-Men #137 was the latest entry in a ongoing story that had a daunting number of preceding installments. But it also stood alone, using exposition — including captions that could admittedly get awfully dense with information — to get a new reader properly up to speed. In quick, meaty segments, the sizable band of heroes weighed the moral uncertainty they had in defending their teammate, who was, after all, culpable for the eradication of a planet and every living thing on it. And those inner monologues served to illuminate who each of these characters were, adding greater import to the requisite action.

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This story was the essentially the big, bold ideal of the fractious collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. Also credited as co-plotters, the individual creators saw the X-Men — and really the broad playground of the Marvel Universe — in markedly different ways. Doggedly devoted to his own view of the characters, often locked in from their earliest appearances, Byrne pushed for a continuity-bound consistency, a constant cycling and recycling of the tried and true. Claremont favored what would eventually be termed “big screen storytelling” on the comic book page, casting characters into unexpected realms and having them expound at length on the cataclysmic wildness of their predicaments. The dueling instincts created a thrilling friction in the work, the grounded and the fantastical sparking off of each other. It was the epic and the intimate as one, and it was transcendent.

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While “The Fate of the Phoenix,” by credits and by execution, belongs to Byrne and Claremont, there was another cook whose contribution to the dish was vital. Jim Shooter, the towering editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, decided that the offhand eradication of billion required a more decisive judgment than the team on X-Men was prepared to render. Originally, “The Fate of the Phoenix” ended with the alien overseers using their advanced technology to strip away all of Jean’s powers, leaving her a helpless human. Shooter felt that wasn’t enough and delivered an edict that echoed the simplified moralizing of the old Hollywood Hays code. In his estimation, Jean needed to die for her sins.

Under mild protest, Claremont and Byrne reworked the ending. The X-Men were felled by their interstellar opponents, but instead of Jean standing before a tribunal, she ended the drama on her own terms. Slipping away to a hidden cavern with her own true love, Jean, aided be her telekinetic abilities and a handy laser cannon, took her own life.

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Superhero comics, I would come to learn, always operated at a heightened emotional level, but this was a Shakespearean ending or a Greek tragedy with brighter, more form-fitting costumes. At this point, death of the major character in the Marvel Universe is about as permanent as the harm of a sprained appendage. Back then, though, it carried far more of a sense of finality. Villains often boomeranged back from seemingly certain doom with a wonderfully implausible tale of their ingenuity in survival, but the rare good guys who were felled  — such as Thunderbird and Gwen Stacy — often found their exit from the mortal plane to be permanent. When X-Men #137 landed, it definitely seemed as though, as the title of the story promised, Phoenix had met her final fate.

I eventually did manage to add X-Men #137 to my collection, paying far more than the seventy-five cent cover price to do so. It was arguably the most prize possession in my humble collection. I recently reread the issue and was struck by how it effective it remains. In a way that anticipates (or maybe influenced) the strengths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the story sets clear expectations and subtly subverts them (the X-Men lose the battle to save their friend) while relying greatly on shrewdly developed affection for the characters. In its particulars, the story is filled with goofball elements (the fight takes place on the moon, for pity’s sake), yet every one of them is somehow gravely serious and deeply plausible. In short, “The Fate of the Phoenix” held every characteristic I loved about superhero comics and took each of them to their pinnacle. It might be a good thing I didn’t buy and read it that very first month. It would have set an expectation so high that the comics that followed would rarely reach it.

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 — Swamp Thing by Alan Moore and John Totleben

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.

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When I committed wholeheartedly to superhero comics, it was difficult for me to explore other divergent — even slightly divergent — areas of sequential-art storytelling. This was a time — the nineteen-eighties — when the emergence of shops specializing in comic books meant there was a sudden boom of of strikingly different material to be had, often wrapped somehow in genre, but cutting against the normal path of costumed do-gooders streaking across the sky in service of cozy good-guys-vs.-bad-guys narratives. As true as it was that independent publishers did most of the heavy lifting, there were flickers of strangeness to be found among the roster of titles offered by the big two companies. And few were stranger than Swamp Thing as written by Alan Moore.

For a long time, I’d heard and read about Moore’s Swamp Thing, but I hadn’t sampled it, out of a combination of limited funds, marginal access, its status as a title published by the distinguished competition to my chosen house of ideas, and a touch of worry that my skittish sensibility might not be equipped to weather the reported horrors inside those pages. I finally snagged my first issue after trading in a bunch of my old comics to one of the behemoth national-presence comic stores. Understanding my own limitation and the need to perhaps ease my way into this bizarre corner of the DC Universe, I opted for a story that included the fairly fair instance of a more mainstream hero tangling with the muck-covered swamp dweller. So there in the shipment of coveted new comics sat a copy of Swamp Thing #53 with none other than the caped crusader on the cover.

I had only a passing familiarity with the lore around Swamp Thing, originally created in the nineteen-seventies by writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, and I knew even less about the ways Moore had turned the character’s history topsy-turvy after taking over the title. But this was still in the era when comic book creators were constantly committed to bringing new readers quickly up to speed, under the tenet that every issue was someone’s first issue.  And Swamp Thing was clearly as much about mood and tone as the mechanics of plot, as emphasized by the rich, emotive, trippy artistic renderings of John Totleben.

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If a Gotham City beat cop munches on one of the hallucinogenic tubers shedded periodically by Swamp Thing, he’s going to see some funky things.

The story was also easy to lock into because of the classic concerns favored by Moore, even as he twisted them is entirely novel ways. Swamp Thing is engaged in a tragic romance with Abby, a human with with her own arcane abilities. That provides all the motivation that’s needed in the issue. Swamp Thing is upset that Abby has been taken into custody by Gotham City authorities, so he uses his elemental powers to take over the town, enveloping the metropolitan structures in thick greenery. He’s essentially engaged in an act of terrorism, itself a strong indicator of the more complicated view to the moral universe of superhero comics taken by Moore.

Swamp Thing’s actions of course run him afoul of Batman, Gotham City’s protector. Batman is good in a fight, but even he is going to struggle against a foe who can grow at will, even replicating himself into a hive mind mob.

swamp thing batman

Although the horror elements are somewhat toned down in this issue (emphasis on “somewhat”), I could recognize this comic was wildly different than anything else I was reading at this point. It was merely dark. It was fiercely intelligent in every respect: Totleben’s manipulated images driving the storytelling, Moore’s dense and fevered language, the uncompromising floridness of its emotions. It was high opera transmogrified to panels on a page, with modern myths acting out the drama. It was scary, funny, romantic, poignant, angry, cynical, and enthralled with possibility all at once. I adored it, and I could barely wrap my head around it, a common combination, I would come to find, when I engaged with the work of Moore.

In the oversized issue, Swamp Thing’s conflict with Batman comes to a close, mostly because the mossy creature achieves his goal. And the issue ends on a harsh cliffhanger, but the normal come-back-next-month enticements mattered little to me. I didn’t start buying and reading Swamp Thing at this point, because I instinctually felt it would do a disservice to what Moore and his cohorts were creating. This wasn’t a story to engage with whenever I happened to see an issue on the spinner rack. While retaining the episodic nature of the form, Moore’s Swamp Thing demanded it be taken in whole. It was all or nothing, and it would be quite some time before the model of comic book publishing evolved to truly accommodate the “all.”

Eventually, I read Moore’s contribution to the Swamp Thing mythos, start to finish. As expected, it was a powerhouse, and it felt right to wait until the conditions were as close to ideal as possible. Although I loved them, I realized superhero comics retained a certain amount of their original DNA as disposable entertainment. Moore, with Swamp Thing, provide one of the earliest instances when I started to see how comics, no matter how fantastical the characters populating them, had a shot at truly being art.

swamp thing win

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