Thursday, July 31, 2008

Groovin' Back in Time: Summer, 1973, Part 2

Welcome back to the summer of 1973! Click on the Playlist player on the left to get in the mood, and let's dive right into the wonderment that Mighty Marvel (plus a surprise publisher) was dishing out to us four color fanatics!

First up, we have one of the coolest things to ever happen in comics, writer Steve Englehart's innovative summer long "team-up" (everyone knows that in Marvel Comics, "team-up" means fight a while, then go after the baddie) between the Avengers and the Defenders. Oh, there had been crossovers before, with a story starting in one title, then ending in another, but this was to be an epic that spanned both titles for the entire summer! (Yeah, comics publishers have milked these "events" for all their worth since the 80s, but we're still in 1973, so it's cool, baby!) Englehart's premise was to have uber-villains Loki and Dormammu team up against their arch-nemeses (Loki hated Thor and the Avengers, Dormammu was steamed at Dr. Strange and the Defenders) and trick the two teams into thinking they were enemies. The bad guys accomplished this by telling the Defenders that a contraption called the "Evil Eye" would change their pal, the Black Knight, from his stone-statue form (another story, maybe later...) back to human. They then tricked the Avengers into thinking that the Defenders had gone bad and wanted the Evil Eye as a weapon for world domination. As usual, Marvel heroes always think the worst of each other, so the battle was on! And, oh, what epic battles they were! Vision and the Scarlet Witch against the Silver Surfer! Iron Man versus Hawkeye! Captain America battled the Sub-Mariner! Thor in a smack down with the Hulk! Valkyrie crossed swords with, well, the Swordsman! Dr. Strange against Mantis and the Black Panther (well, they couldn't ALL be awe-inspiring)! After several issues of big fights, our heroes learned who the real villains were and ganged up on 'em, natch. The art on the Defenders was by the always awesome Sal Buscema, while dull-but-dependable Bob Brown handled the pencils on the Avengers. All those heroes! All that fighting! Fun, fun, fun in the sun (for the readers, not our heroes)!

Marvel was also shaking up a couple titles over the summer of 73. The Sub-Mariner suddenly became the Savage Sub-Mariner, though it took writer Steve Gerber and artist Don Heck three issues to get him angry enough to be called a savage. The while Namor was battling an extra-dimensional demoness called Virago, an especially vile type of nerve gas was unleashed upon the citizens of Atlantis, placing them all in a coma, and upsetting Subby's body chemistry so that he had a hard time surviving on land or in water. After getting help from his sometimes friends, sometimes foes, the Fantastic Four--namely a sleek new "life preserving" costume courtesy Mr. Fantastic (which made Namor seem LESS savage than when he wore his green swimming trunks...)--Subby declared war on the surface world (again) and vowed to never rest until his people were revived and his kingdom restored. Sadly, it was too little too late, as his mag only lasted 5 more issues, leaving Sub-Mariner in limbo until he was revived in Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up months later.

Another Marvel hero was going through a more successful, subtle, and much more substantial change. Jim Starlin had taken over the art and plotting of Captain Marvel, pitting the good Kree Captain against Thanos and his minions, giving the strip a much more sci-fi, and yes, "cosmic" bent. With issue 29, Starlin took over the writing and things really got wild! Judo Jim had to have been smoking wildwood weed or licking postage stamps, because he put Mar-Vell in some kind of limbo/head trip that had him battling his own demons (literally!) before being given a subtle costume change (the star on his chest became more streamlined, the design of his boots and gloves were swapped out, and his hair turned from silver to blond) and the gift of "cosmic awareness" (I'm still not sure what it was, but it was a really cool effect when he used it--stars and planets appeared on his face! I kid you not!). Also, when Cap flew, he left a trail of "cosmic dust" a la Captain Atom (of whom Starlin was a big fan, hence a bit of homage). I didn't really know what was going on, but the art was awesome, the Avengers guest-starred a lot, and the fight scenes were incredible. Starlin became my favorite writer/artist, and has pretty much held that title ever since.

Just as summer was coming to a close, Charlton Comics, a publisher whom I pretty much ignored since they published "kiddie", "scary", and "romance" comics (none of which I had any interest in at the time), knocked me out with a new super-hero title. I was about to get in the check-out lane when there on the floor was a pile of new comics waiting to be placed in the spinner rack they were lying beside. On top of the stack was E-Man #1. The bright blue background and E-Man's orange costume grabbed my attention, and I grabbed the comic off the stack, got in line, pulled a quarter out of my pocket, handed to the cashier, and waited for my change (change from a quarter! Those WERE the days!). I plopped in the back seat of the car and began reading. It was one of the craziest comics I'd ever read. It was funny, thanks to the scripting talents of Nick Cuti, who knew how to do humor while keeping a straight-forward superhero tone. The art by Joe Staton wasn't as slick as Marvel or DC, but it was very cool. I was so enamoured with sci-fi (thanks to Starlin) that E-Man quickly became one of my favorite comics. How could you not love a sentient star who takes the shape of a human to battle evil and date an exotic dancer? (I had to ask my dad what an exotic dancer was. His response was, "What in the world are you reading?") E-Man was the stranger in the strange land, the innocent abroad, and his girl, Nova Kane (yeah, puns abound in the strip) was his link to humanity. (Hey, Mork and Mindy was a rip-off!) I didn't know at the time, but E-Man owed more to Golden Age comics like Jack Cole's Plastic Man, the original Captain Marvel, and Will Eisner's The Spirit than to Stan and company. All I knew was that it was a cool way to end a truly groovy summer!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Groovin' Back in Time: Summer, 1973, Part 1

Has it really been 35 years since Watergate, Bad Bad Leroy Brown, Smoke on the Water, Delta Dawn (listen to 'em--along with a ton more hits from July, 1973 with the player on the left!), Match Game, the Waltons, American Graffiti, Enter the Dragon, Live and Let Die, and Paper Moon? Sheesh, I suppose it has. Well, if you were a kid like me back during that scintillating summer, all of that was just in the background. We kids had more important things to think about like...COMICS!

The summer of 1973 was a good one for comic fiends like me. It was truly a summer of milestones, for instance, Detective Comics #437. That issue looked different from the past year or so. Moodier, darker, scarier. Archie Goodwin had taken over editorial duties from Julie Schwartz and immediately put his experience at editing Warren horror mags to good use. He brought back the original logo, added a Jim Aparo bust of Batman scowling at us to it; hired Aparo to do the art while Goodwin himself handled the scripting--that was awesome enough. BUT, Goodwin wasn't satisfied with simply stunning us with a cool and moody Batman. Nope, Archie hunkered down with a newcomer named Walt Simonson to create a new back-up feature called Manhunter. The strip was a continent hopping mystery with enigmatic characters and slickly detailed cinematic art. It was like no other DC strip I'd ever seen and I was hooked from page one. Evidently a lot of folks were, as the Manhunter is a legend to this day, winning gobs of awards during its short run.

That wasn't enough. In the pages of the JLA, Len Wein and Dick Dillin, were giving us the latest of the summer team-ups between our heroes of Earth-1 and their Earth-2 counterparts, the Justice Society of America. For a change, this wasn't a cosmic, world shattering storyline. It wasn't an extra-special superheroes beat down supervillains romp. This issue took us to Earth-X, where a group called the Freedom Fighters (Quality heroes Uncle Sam, the Ray, Dollman, Phantom Lady, Black Condor, and the Human Bomb) are the last heroes on earth. The other heroes weren't wiped out by cosmic, sci-fi, or supernatural means. They had been annihilated by the Nazis who had won WWII! Tons of superheroes fighting Nazis in 1973? Two more dimes for DC!

My dad used to tell me about the radio shows he listened to as a kid. He made them sound so cool, especially the Lone Ranger and the Shadow. When I saw the ads for DC's new Shadow comic, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. When issue number one hit the stands, I wasn't disappointed in the least. Batman writer supreme Denny O'Neil was on hand to provide the taut, atmospheric scripting while mystery/horror mainstay Mike Kaluta turned in some of the most detailed, atmospheric, and beautiful art ever to grace a comicbook.

For a few months, a slick new Legion of Super-Heroes strip had been running in the back of Superboy. With scripts by Cary Bates and gorgeous art by (yet another newcomer!) Dave Cockrum, I was back in the habit of buying Superboy comics. Issue 197 gave us a longer tale with Superboy shoved to the back, and man, did I think that was cool. Imagine my ecstatic response when I cracked open the covers of issue 198 and found that Bates, Cockrum, and the Legion had taken over the entire issue of Superboy! Legionnaires in their cool new costumes fighting their greatest foes, the Fatal Five, in a battle that takes them back in time to Superboy's Smallville made for a rollicking great comicbook experience!

Finally (for this installment), from the twisted minds of Steve Skeates, Sergio Aragones, and Joe Orlando sprang the one and only magazine of weird humor, PLOP! From the freaky Basil Wolverton cover to the final page (with no ads to interrupt my reading pleasure!), I laughed, I groaned, and I held down my cookies (Skeates' and Bernie Wrightson's "The Gourmet" was so cool/gross!). I'd never seen anything like PLOP! before, with its mash up of DC mystery, Mad Magazine style irreverence, and downright strangeness, I doubt I'll ever see anything like it again.

Okay, okay. So DC put out some real winners in the summer of 1973. Didn't anybody else publish comics then? Glad you asked! In Part 2, we'll take a look at what Marvel was dishing up to help us beat the heat. Oh, and I'll fill you in on something a little company called Charlton sprang on us then, too.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Bat Lash

In the late 60s, DC was trying to take up as much space as possible so upstart Marvel couldn't do the same, so they began unleashing tons of new titles hoping they would take off. I don't think any of them did, but some did, at least, attain legendary status. The original Bat Lash, by Sergio Aragones, Denny O'Neil, and Nick Cardy was one such comic.
Originally conceived as a sort of Maverick knock-off, the strip took on it's own life and identity due to the tlc lavished upon it by its creators (including Editorial Director Carmine Infantino). The series didn't last long, but it is revered for its thoughtful characterization and superb art.

Recently, DC has had some success in bringing back their most successful western hero, Jonah Hex. Bat Lash has made a couple great guest-star appearances in that title, leaving those of us who are fans clamor
ing for more. Well, DC heard us, and I have to say that, while not as charming as the original series, they've published a very nice western comic! It didn't hurt to bring aboard co-creator/plotter Sergio Aragones, nor could they done much better than to have assigned the art chores to the magnificent John Severin. My only concern going in was scripter Peter Brandvold, a respected western novelist whose work I'd never read. My concern was based on recent disappointments from novelists taking a shot at comics but having to "put their stamp" on them (Jonathan Letham on Omega the Unknown, for example). Brandvold did a fine job, though. He didn't try to remake or revamp anything. His prose was taut and mostly realistic (though there was a lot of name-calling, especially the kind that casts aspersions on one's mother).

Other than the name calling complaint, I thoroughly enjoyed this mini-series. I suppose they could have called it "Bat Lash: Year One", since it fleshed out the character's origin, explaining why he's on the run. His love of poetry is still there, and I love the origin of the flower in his hat band. Now we need another mini-series showing us how he got to be the happy go-lucky, gambling scamp we know and love, 'cause there sure wasn't much to be happy go-lucky about in this story!

Better yet, keep this creative team together and give us an ongoing Bat Lash series, DC! If Dynamite can have the Lone Ranger, t
he Man With No Name, and Zorro, surely you can handle both Jonah Hex and Bat Lash!

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Warlord Returns!

Out of all the news that's come out of the SDCC, this piece from Newsarama has me the most excited. Mike Grell's Warlord was my favorite DC comic of the mid-to late Seventies (evidently, it was a lot of folks' favorite, as it was DC's best selling title during that time period!). While there aren't many new comics on the horizon that have me in the "can't wait" mode, the fact that the Warlord is coming back, with creator Mike Grell at the helm as writer, has me a geekin' out just a bit.

Forget the horrible relaunch by Bruce Jones and Bart Sears of a couple of years ago, Grell is picking up the real Warlord right from where he left him and diving headlong into new adventures. All that remains to be seen is who the artist will be and the exact release date.

If you are a fan of sword and sorcery, fantasy, high-adventure, or science fiction--or better yet all of the above combined, do yourself a favor and jump on the new Warlord comic when it comes out!


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Special thanks to Mike's Amazing World of Comics and Grand Comics Database for being such fantastic resources for covers, dates, creator info, etc. Thou art treasures true!

Note to "The Man": All images are presumed copyright by the respective copyright holders and are presented here as fair use under applicable laws, man! If you hold the copyright to a work I've posted and would like me to remove it, just drop me an e-mail and it's gone, baby, gone.

All other commentary and insanity copyright GroovyAge, Ltd.

As for the rest of ya, the purpose of this blog is to (re)introduce you to the great comics of the 1970s. If you like what you see, do what I do--go to a comics shop, bookstore, e-Bay or whatever and BUY YOUR OWN!