From the Archive — Batman: The Dark Knight by Frank Miller

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.

In 1986, I was the prime target for bold, edgy comics. At the age of sixteen, I was supposed to have grown out of superhero comic books and moved on to more serious fare, perplexing at that notion might seem in this era in which we have truly moved into the Marvel Age of Movies. Back then, it was still greasy kid stuff, so the emergence of darker fare — widely termed “grim and gritty” — complimented the enduring fandom of people like me. Packed with adult themes and cynical sensibilities, how could anyone think these publications were meant for wee ones?

Few titles better represented the new creative tone — and therefore forecast the industrywide shift to self-consciously bleak stories — than Batman: The Dark Knight, written and drawn by Frank Miller. The creator made his name with a character-defining run on Marvel’s Daredevil a few years earlier, so it was considered a major coup that he was putting his talents to one of the signature heroes of the distinguished competition. Accentuating the momentous feel of the four part story, it was presented in the new prestige format, with heavy paper, no ads, and a hefty price tag. Three dollars per issue!

Batman: The Dark Knight (which eventually became known as The Dark Knight Returns, because that was the title that appeared on the cover of the first issue) was set in a near future, ten years after Bruce Wayne retired as the caped crusader. Without its chief guardian, Gotham City is in chaos, which Miller largely relays through an ongoing Greek chorus of television broadcasts.

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In its look, structure, and interlacing of bombastic violence with thumping satire, Miller’s storytelling anticipated Peter Verhoeven’s RoboCop, released one year later. (Unsurprisingly, Miller was enlisted to work on the screenplays for the film’s two sequels.) In this instance, though, the caustic commentary was applied to some of the most iconic characters in all of comics, including the biggest of them all: Superman.

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At the time, this approach to DC Comics heroes was still very novel. These were the shiny, safe, approachable characters, far more fanciful than the Marvel equivalents, which were couched in pop psychology and social commentary. In effect, Miller was bringing his own version of the Marvel approach to DC (as was fellow House of Ideas defector John Byrne), instilling flaws into gods. It felt revolutionary. The publisher that invented superheroes was finally catching up to their rivals and arguably surpassing them in urgent sophistication.

There was also a veneer of importance due to the sheer denseness of Miller’s pages. The panels pile up on top of each other, crowding for space. And the ongoing narration, delivered in captions, similarly competes with vast amounts of plentiful dialogue of terse language. The overwhelming impression is that Miller has an overabundance of ideas he’s desperate to share.

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Batman: The Dark Knight was a sensation at the time, mentioned in conjunction with DC’s Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, as the future of comic book storytelling. Miller’s series hasn’t aged particularly well, but that’s in part because of how completely it did influence all that followed. Most clearly, the now persistent characterization of Batman as a haunted madman largely started here. The pessimism of the story is a river that runs just as long, as maybe even more wide, spreading to the majority of major superhero sagas in the decades since. For good or ill, nothing was quite the same after Miller’s first dance with Batman.

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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 — Mockingbird by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemcyk

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 was a younger, so much younger than today, I was always ready to expound at wearying length about the viability of comic books as an art form deserving of broad respect. This was in the era when major media outlet feature stories expressing gentle amazement about the widening demographic enthusiasm for material that was once thought of as little more than diversionary trash for the junior set. “Comics: They’re Not Just For Kids Anymore,” the headlines would blare, usually with the addition of a “Wham!” or “Pow!” so there was at least still a whisper of condescension.

These many years later, the endurance of comic book superhero storytelling has come to pass in ways I never would have dreamed. Never mind that costumed do-gooders have overtaken U.S. moviemaking to such a stunning degree that the mere release of a trailer is treated as a major event. Periodicals (or, more commonly, collected editions of those periodicals) I would have felt sheepish about reading in public are now consumed by enough people — and a diverse enough array of people — that they’re hardly shameful. It’s a cause for celebration, mostly. But then there’s a whole subset of combative, entitled fans who’ve spent the last few years empowering each other to raise a ruckus of online harassment whenever the legacy superhero publishers don’t continue to skew product lines to their particular, narrow interests.

In 2015, Marvel announced a new ongoing series featuring Mockingbird, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, former Avengers, and ex-wife of Hawkeye. Kate Niemcyk would handle art duties, and, in something of a coup, they’d recruited a novelist with a healthy collection of bestsellers to her name to write the series. Chelsea Cain made her comics writing debut with an earlier one shot about Mockingbird, and seemed ideally suited to bring an unique perspective backed with proven skills as a creator of engaging genre fiction. This should be an understood boon for the field, especially as overall superhero comic book sales continue to edge downward, even as the metaphysically gifted figures on their pages have infiltrated over other media. It turns out, though, that Cain’s unique perspective is exactly what made some of the brattiest comics fans tremble with idiotic rage.

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Let me assert this as plainly as I can: Cain’s writing on the series is wonderful in every way. It exhibits a strong command of character and a consistency of purpose. It establishes a clear extended arc, but also develops dense, engaging stories to fill the individual issues. This is especially welcome in an era too often marked by writers who fill multiple issues by taking stories that would be better in a shorter, tighter form and dragging them out with glacial dispersement of incidents. A skilled plotter, Cain covers a lot of narrative territory, every panel containing something that moves the story forward or provides a deeper understanding of the players.

That detailed approach already put her at odds with the modern Marvel preference for gimmick and spectacle. Her misguided detractors, though, took greater issue with the radical notion that Mockingbird, a.k.a Bobbie Morse, might have a worldview shaped by her own particular experience. More specifically, she expressed opinions any reasonably intelligent woman might have — maybe should have — when traversing a supposedly enlightened culture in which her contributions and capabilities are immediately, instinctively dismissed for no other reason than her basic biological makeup. In basic parlance, Mockingbird kicked ass. But she also existed in a space where it was occasionally required of her, in a way it wasn’t for a man clad in iron or a god of thunder, to point out that truth. Wisely, that’s how Cain wrote her.

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The themes of Mockingbird are important and valuable. But if the title were nothing more than those themes, it would be a mere diatribe. It still wouldn’t be worthy of the derision Cain and her collaborators eventually endured at the keystrokes of supposed fans who took malevolent pleasure in the book lasting only eight issues, but the series would be flawed, to be sure. That’s not the truth of it. Cain exhibited a delighted command of Marvel lore, peppering in cameo appearances from the likes of Howard the Duck and Hercules, taking the kinkiness of the villainous Hellfire Club to its logical conclusion, and generally showing she understood the inherent appeal of these colorfully clashing titans. Cain combined the zippy energy of Marvel Comics’ long-gone heyday with a vivid freshness that added relevance to a character that had been around for decades, but had previously had little driving purpose. Due to the inspired creativity of Cain and her collaborators, Mockingbird was perfection.

Comic book superhero storytelling needs more writers like Cain. It’s too bad Marvel still hasn’t figured that out.

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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 Treasury Edition #28 by Jim Shooter 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.

Through a good chunk of the nineteen-seventies and -eighties, Marvel Comics did their best to expand the reach of their comics storytelling, experimenting with different formats and presentations. The Marvel magazines line was fairly robust, in part because it was free from the smothering content controls of Comics Code Authority, which especially benefited the adventures of a certain Cimmerian. Those felt out of reach to me, mostly because they struck me as too adult for a wee lad such as myself. Instead, I longed to get my chunky little hands on the various Marvel Treasury Editions.

The Treasury Editions were essentially oversized comics, printed on heavier paper. Usually they reprinted earlier adventures of the publisher’s most famed characters, occasionally collated according to theme. For the issue that proved to be the last of the series, it was instead a whole new adventure, and a highly significant one. In a rare feat of cross-company cooperation, the most famed superhero in the Marvel stable teamed up with the DC Comics Kryptonian who started it all. At a time when getting a special edition like this required an arduous trip this rare, wondrous place called a comic book shop, I forced a weary adult to take me to shell out a whopping $2.50 to acquire a momentous meeting of Spider-Man and Superman.

A similar unlikely pairing happened five years earlier, and it was a true merging of talent from the two  publishers. In this instance, it was a heavily Marvel affair, which suited my youthful preferences. Jim Shooter, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, wrote the story, and mainstay artist John Buscema provided the pencils. Accordingly, it was especially comfortable with the internal lore of the Marvel universe, including a depiction of Peter Parker’s clumsily ineffectual love life, complete with a requisite Elvis Costello reference.

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So this comic was released in 1981, when Costello played three straight nights at the Palladium in support of the very strong album Trust. Squeeze opened, and Glenn Tilbrook routinely came out to join Costello on “From a Whisper to a Scream.” Tickets were $12.50. These were good shows, people. Cindy would probably still be with Peter to this day if he could have scraped up the bread.

Naturally, the story also peeked in on mild-mannered Clark Kent as he went about his day. Superman’s alter ego was a bit more adept at dealing with the nettlesome challenges that came his way.

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With a staggering sixty-two pages of story at their disposal, the creative team was able to pull out all the stops. Besides the main protagonists, other celebrated stalwarts of the respective periodical lines showed up. For example, the eternal schoolyard question as to who would win in a battle between Superman and the incredible Hulk was addressed.

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And ol’ Webhead encountered a certain Amazonian, who offered him some advice about his general sartorial approach.

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This mix and match was highly enjoyable, especially when fellow newspaper employees Kent and Parker participated in a sort of exchange program between the two metropolitan dailies. The main event, though, was the scintillating skirmish with supervillains. Relative obscure Superman foe Parasite represented DC Comics (Lex Luthor, the more obvious choice, was evidently busy with other nefarious endeavors). More to my personal liking, the Marvel baddie who stepped into the fray was none other than the despotic ruler of Latveria, Victor Von Doom.

As a Fantastic Four fanatic from the very beginning of my superhero collecting days, I was always ready to watch Doctor Doom throw down. He wasn’t a prime member of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, but Doom got around. Besides, there was no more fearsome fellow in the mighty Marvel saga. In a story this big, only Doctor Doom would do.

Shooter was often maligned for the mediocre writing he delivered when stepped from behind the editorial desk during his days at Marvel, but he wrote a great Doom.

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In those panels, the dismissiveness of referring to Superman as simply “alien” is bested only by the send-off “Farewell, cretins!” I also loved — even then — that this clash between titans is ended when the villain essentially invokes diplomatic immunity by retreating to the Latverian embassy. Some stories end with a whimper and some with a bang. This ends with a legal technicality.

I added this jumbo story to my collection fairly early in my time obsessively following superheroes, and read and reread this issue until it was as worn as the oldest dishrag in the drawer. Even when I occasionally consume comics these days, I lack the time and wherewithal to consume them at that insatiable level. More than even the comics themselves, I think that craving is what I miss. No matter the competing impulse, I always wanted to read more, even if it meant — especially if it meant — reading a favorite story one more time.

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 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 — 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.