So we have the social interwebs even out here on our remote nerd farm, and – as happens from time to time on the sociable netbooks – we got tagged on one of those “post 10 of your favorite whatevers” things. Now (being a huge dork), I love lists. And since this one was “post the covers of 10 funnybooks that made an impact on you, and that you still enjoy today,” I decided to answer it on the nerd farm’s own Facetube page.
Which means that those of you who follow us there will have already seen this in a slightly shorter, “rough draft” form. But I liked it enough that I decided to expand it for the main page, anyway. Also… It’s one of those times when real life’s getting in the way of writing, and I’ve been holding it in reserve for just such an occasion. The truth is sometimes not pretty, but it will set you free.
At any rate. The idea, as I decided to tackle it, is to look at comics that influenced you in some way, either by shaping your tastes for things that came later, or by simply wowing you so much that you weren’t the same after reading them. AND, of course, that you can still go back to and enjoy reading now. That last bit’s the real kicker, of course, because like most people, I often didn’t have very good taste when I was young. So, for instance, though I loved Roy Thomas’ The Invaders as a kid, and though it engendered in me a lifelong fascination with World War II… It’s not a book I read today and think, “Man, that’s a great funnybook.” I mean, I do own a collection of the series’ first couple of years, and I do enjoy revisiting it every so often. But it’s more of a “That’s really cool, and I see why I loved it so much” sort of reaction. So Invaders doesn’t make the list.
That being my approach, I also tried to do these more or less in chronological order. Or, as you’ll see, the order in which I encountered each book. So it’s not a complete funnybook autobiography (though that sounds like a fun project, too), but it does have a throughline that will hopefully make some kind of sense by the end. Fingers crossed, anyway.
Alright. We’ll tackle the first five comics this week, and come back with the rest next time (because real life’s going to be messing me about for a good long while). And we’ll start with…
BOOK ONE: MICRONAUTS
I bought the first issue of this comic because the Micronauts were my favorite toys. I bought the rest of them because it was the best comic, with the best artwork, my nine-year-old self had ever seen. Looking back at it now, the first 12 issues, from the original creative team of Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, really are pretty damn good. Amidst all the shameless Star Wars rip-offs and typical 70s Marvel scripting are mixed some pretty interesting ideas about bio-tech and class warfare, and a few seriously weird concepts that owe more to Stanley Kubrick than George Lucas.
On the surface, it’s a rollicking space epic, as Our Heroes fight against the tyranny of Baron Karza, a despot ruling over a galactic oligarchy, his power based in his control of the Body Banks, an advanced full body transplant facility that ensures eternal youth… for those who can afford it. Those who can’t live short, brutal lives that usually end in providing the raw materials that keep the Body Banks running.
Among Our Heroes are a disillusioned princess, a feisty alien thief, the deposed scion of a warrior race, and Commander Arcturus Rann, a 1000-year-old space hero whose journeys put him in contact with the mind-bending ENIGMA FORCE, a transcendent psychic god-power that manifests in the form of the enigmatic Time Travelers, who are like some kind of sci-fi angels linked to Rann in ways even he doesn’t understand. At turns funny, exciting, disturbing, and pretty freaking trippy, this book probably did more to shape my future taste in comics than anything else I encountered as a child.
For the first year, that is. Because while the series remains pretty good throughout its first 30 or so issues – Howard Chaykin follows Golden on the art, and he’s followed in turn by a young Pat Broderick – the grit and grandeur, and a lot of the weirdness, went out of the book after that initial 12-issue run. Things pick up again somewhere around issue 50, when a young Butch Guice comes on as artist, and Baron Karza returns to conquer the Microverse once again. But even then, Mantlo (who wrote the entire series) never quite manages to recapture the glory of the first year, and I don’t know that I’d still enjoy the later issues now.
Those first twelve are still fun to read, though. Now I just wish we could get a decent trade collection, so I could enjoy them without setting off my newsprint allergy…
BOOK TWO: HOWARD THE DUCK
The first Howard comic I picked up was issue 12, because the last page featured KISS as a host of demons possessing a young woman. And in 1977, NOTHING was cooler to a nine-year-old boy than KISS. The story I found inside (by Steve Gerber and Gene Colan) was weird and a little disturbing to me, made up mostly of hallucinations Howard suffered during a nervous breakdown. But, hey! KISS!
In an ironic side note, Howard had such spotty distribution in my area that I missed issue 13, which featured KISS for the entire issue. Such was the life of the rural funnybook collector in the 1970s. But something beyond KISS obviously spoke to me in that first Howard comic, because I came back for issue 14, and the annual (don’t remember which one came first), and I picked up the Howard Treasury Edition, too…
…which reprinted all the early Howard short stories from Man-Thing, and had a new wrap-around story guest-starring the Defenders (another weird Gerber book I was enjoying at the time). Bessie the Vampire Cow really appealed to me, as I remember, as did Howard’s human girlfriend Beverly. I wasn’t 100% sure what it was he and Bev were getting up to off-camera, but I knew it was probably dirty. And I think I liked the idea of a funny animal character who wasn’t entirely kid-friendly.
But ultimately, I think it was ALL the weirdness, and ALL the things that were just plain wrong in those Howard stories that kept bringing me back for more. I was a tiny iconoclast, even then, and all the wrongness appealed to my perverse and contrary nature (something that’s served my comics fandom well over the years).
BOOK THREE: THE SPIRIT
I first encountered Will Eisner’s Spirit in a book on comics history that I got through Scholastic Book Service in elementary school. It only had a couple of pages devoted to the strip, but it reproduced some of the striking, noirish art, and I immediately knew that I had to read it.
That took a while, granted. I have vague memories of maybe reading a story or two somewhere as a kid. Maybe in another book on comics (my local library had a couple of those), or maybe I got my hands on one of the Warren magazine reprints at some point. Whatever it was, I never owned any real Spirit reprints until I was an adult. That’s when I finally got my hands on The Spirit Casebook…
…an oversized collection from Kitchen Sink Press that reprints some of Eisner’s best Spirit stories in glorious black and white (which is how I prefer it; even though it was drawn for color, black and white reproduction brings out the best in Eisner’s inks).
Anyway… I’m not sure whether that early exposure to The Spirit kindled my love of noir, or if that love attracted me to The Spirit. But either way, it remains one of my favorite comics of all time. Granted (like everyone else), I mostly love the post-World-War-II stories. Eisner returned from the war energized, and infused the strip (already good masked hero stuff) with a humanity and a liveliness, an inventiveness in art and storytelling, that’s unlike just about anything else. So alongside the noir, there was also a feeling of possibility in the Spirit. Somewhere along the way, I picked up on the idea that the way a story was told could be just as exciting as the story itself. That’s something I actively seek out as an adult, and I think the seed of that preference was planted in my childhood exposure to The Spirit.
BOOK FOUR: NIGHT FORCE
So this pick should, technically, be Tomb of Dracula. But that book came just a tiny bit too early for me. I mean… I was alive for its entire run, and I’ve been a horror fan as long as I can remember. But Tomb got spotty distribution in my area, and by the time I found the local magazine shop that reliably stocked a wider range of funnybooks than the grocery store spinner racks I’d been shopping from, the series was done. But the handful of issues I did manage to get my hands on as a kid gave it, and the creative team of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, a legendary status in my mind.
So when that same team released Night Force in the early 80s (just three years after Tomb wrapped up), I was hooked. It was a decidedly modern horror series, dealing in psychic powers and demonic ritual…
…with morally-conflicted characters on a level I wasn’t accustomed to seeing in my funnybooks at that time. There was the well-intentioned, but arrogant and glory-hungry college professor conducting dangerous occult experiments. The alcoholic detective who saves the mentally-ill teenager with psychic powers from those experiments … only to give in to temptation and seduce the girl later that same night. Even the series’ central figure, Baron Winters, is something of a con man, sending people on dangerous supernatural missions that he knows many of them won’t escape from unscathed.
I ate that shit up with a spoon.
Night Force became an immediate favorite. And with last year’s release of a collected edition, I discovered that I still like it now. It’s very much got a pulpy Hammer horror feel to it, but with some of the sensibilities of the more adult horror films of the 1970s. It ain’t high art, in other words, but it’s solid horror comics from a great creative team.
Speaking of which…
This is the second book on the list featuring the art of Gene Colan, and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about him at least a little. I’m not sure where I first saw his work. Probably Tomb of Dracula, but I don’t really remember. The point is, I always really liked it. I responded strongly to the spooky stuff, of course…
…but on that first Howard the Duck comic I read, in particular, it struck me that he drew people who looked like real people. That made any comic he drew automatically feel more grown-up to me, and that was something I was looking for as my age went into the double digits, and my tastes became more “sophisticated.” Or what passed for sophistication at that age…
BOOK FIVE: FANTASTIC FOUR
So I may have mentioned a time or three that Fantastic Four is my favorite super hero comic. I love the characters, the premise, the super-science… It’s just my thing. But when I started trying to figure out what issue had the biggest impact on me, the issue that really cemented my love of the book… I had to go with FF 232, John Byrne’s first issue as writer and artist.
That was by far not my first FF comic; I started reading with issue 183, and didn’t miss one until Byrne’s run ended around 100 issues later. Just for good measure, here’s the cover to that issue. It’s George Perez inked by Joe Sinnot, and it brought me in right at the tail end of a super-complicated story featuring an evil alternate-Earth Reed Richards who turned into a hideous monster called The Brute, and about a dozen other plot threads I don’t remember all that well. But, man, did I ever love it when I was eight!
But we’re here to talk about John Byrne’s FF. His “back to basics” approach brought out a lot of what I love in the series. His earliest issues, in particular, blew me away. They were all tight, fun, done-in-one stories that dealt in mood, character, and big ideas. They’re just great little comics stories that owe debts to Kirby, Lee, Ditko, and (strangely) Eisner, whose ability to tell affecting stories in a limited number of pages obviously influenced Byrne in these earliest attempts at writing. One story in particular, “The Man With the Power,” is Eisner filtered through Kirby, and it’s still one of my favorite single-issue comics ever.
Anyway. Byrne’s work on FF made me go back and really pay attention to all those weird-looking Jack Kirby FFs I’d sampled as reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics as a kid. And if I thought I loved the FF after Byrne got his hands on them, that was nothing compared to how much I loved the Lee / Kirby stuff once I really got turned on to it.
Alright. That’s it for part one, and the comics of my adolescence. Next time, we’ll hit my high school days and beyond…