Back in The (Sick) Day Comics Should be Good

  

Back in The (Sick) Day

Been under the weather this week, so we’ve been doing very little other than the bare minimum. Work, mostly. The coping mechanism for this has not changed in four decades… All I want to do when I get home is crawl under a quilt on the couch and read old comics. Mug of soup and toasted-cheese sandwich optional.

I’ve been doing a lot of this kind of reminiscing lately, what with the recent passing of Murphy Anderson, the visual architect of DC’s Silver Age… and now George Barris, designer of the 1966 Batmobile (or as we call it in this household, the “real” Batmobile) is gone as well.

Moreover, this weekend the Decades channel is running a Green Hornet marathon. It’s 1968 all over again here as far as popular culture is concerned.

As it happens, I have a pile of old DC Giants and other childhood faves here that I picked up at various shows we’ve been to over the last year that I haven’t gotten around to putting away. It occurred to me that this is the perfect time to go through that pile and reread them, and I’m having vivid flashbacks of where I was and what I was doing when I first got them.

For example, here’s the 100-Page Sgt. Rock Super-Spectacular.

I remember my first encounter with this comic because it was such a pleasant surprise. I was all about the superheroes back then, and anything that wasn’t that got ignored. But this one happened to be in the barber shop where I was getting my hair cut, and it was the only comic in a pile of tattered back issues of Sports Illustrated and Field Stream. So. figuring it was the only game in town, I picked it up and was immediately sucked in. This was my first-ever war comic and my introduction to DC’s entire lineup of battle heroes… and a great introduction it was, since the theme of the issue was mostly ‘origin’ stories and first appearances of characters like Johnny Cloud, Mlle. Marie, and Cap’n Storm. I don’t know why I didn’t look for more of these, because I really enjoyed this. But I’m making up for it today; I was first in line for every SHOWCASE PRESENTS featuring those characters.

Here’s another one that I just purely enjoyed the hell out of seeing again. Batman #218, featuring “The Strangest Cases from Batman’s Crime File!” (Not to be confused with the Treasury Edition of “Batman’s Strangest Cases!” that came a couple of years later.)

This was, I believe, a vacation treat. We were spending a weekend on the coast, in Lincoln City, and it was pouring down rain. This was a consolation prize for not getting to go out on the beach, and considering that I’d rather read comics than go out on the beach in ANY weather, it was a great deal for me. The stories in the Giant are all older ones; but for the most part they’re really entertaining and work pretty well even today. Certainly I found them utterly absorbing at the time. Probably my favorites were “Batman and Robin’s Greatest Mystery,” in which the amnesiac duo must figure out their own civilian identities, and “The Hand From Nowhere,” a pretty nutty story in which the twist is that it’s NOT actually a big alien hand, but instead Lex Luthor pretending to be a big alien hand.

And I remember being hugely intrigued by the newspaper strip reprint, “Four Hours to Live!” Oddly enough, I think this is the only story in the bunch that’s available today– in the Batman Sunday Classics collection.

It’s a pretty good story, but what fascinated me was the idea of Batman in the newspaper comics. I felt vaguely robbed at missing out on that. Of course, had I known then that I was also missing out on CURRENT Batman newspaper comics as well, I’d have been disconsolate.

Fortunately, I did not, and as it turns out those are available in book form today as well, if I am overcome with an urge to get caught up.

But I have plenty of old-school stuff right here. For example, Superman #239, a giant collection featuring “Superman’s Greatest Battles!”

This was a comic that I bought off the stands at the old Village Drug, which was the only comics stand I could get to back then, and that only once every six weeks or so. So my quarter always went for the Giants; I wanted something that would last me.

The first half of the book is a somewhat goofy two-parter featuring Hercules trying to beat out Superman for the hand of Lois Lane. It didn’t do much for me then, and not even the stellar art job Wayne Boring did on the thing saves it for me.

BUT! The rest of the comic makes up for it. We get the origin of Titano the Super-Ape, which I sort of remembered from the then-current Filmation cartoons.

The real showpiece is “The Showdown Between Luthor and Superman,” a classic story from the Weisinger era that blew me away when I first encountered it, and I still like it today.

“My” Superman lives here, in the Kryptonite Sixties, and I never completely stopped checking in with him, all the way up through his swan song in “Whatever Happened To the Man of Tomorrow?” I’m a little annoyed that DC quit doing the Superman Showcase Presents volumes just as they were getting to the good stuff, the galaxy-spanning stories like this one.

The premise is a bit silly but I was on board with it when I was ten. Mostly because it involved the same kind of playground politics that were the bane of my own existence back then. Luthor challenges Superman to a ‘fair’ fight, claiming the big guy is too much of a coward to take Luthor on without super-strength. Superman accepts, flies both of them to a red-sun planet where he has no powers, and promptly gets the shit beat out of him.

You’d think that Superman would realize that even a super-genius like Lex Luthor would have to be pretty ripped, what with all that time spent in the prison yard. Superman learns to take a punch, though, and is starting to rally when it’s the end of the round. During the water break Luthor escapes into a nearby forest of alien cactus and starts trying to flat-out murder Superman in a totally UN-fair fight, because, well, he’s Luthor. Then there’s a sandstorm and the two are separated, wherein Luthor is found by the local inhabitants, and it turns out they think he’s pretty awesome.

By the time Superman catches up to him, Luthor’s enlisted the whole planetary population.

When you’re ten, that shit is HARDCORE. I was always more about Batman than Superman, especially after he got his coolness upgrade from Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams– but what I loved about Superman comics was the world he inhabited, the galactic scale of it. His adventures ranged across all of time and space. (What I was really responding to, though I had no idea this was true, was the giant imagination of Edmond Hamilton, who’d been committing galaxy-sized mayhem in the pulps since before I was born. When I did find that out in the late 1970s, I made it my business to go find his books.)

Anyway. I got all that AND this amazing map of Krypton.

Both hemispheres!

You know, I love that comics have moved from being disposable drug-store newsstand filler to being actual books, but I can’t really think of a comparable gateway comic-book experience for kids today. Maybe some of the trade paperback collections that are out there. But I look at my 6th graders that are responding so enthusiastically to Supergirl and the Flash on television, and it baffles me that no one’s put together some kind of inexpensive introductory “Best of” collection featuring either of those characters to put in grocery stores. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

But that could just be the cold medicine talking. Speaking of which. I’m going to heat up some more soup and dive into the Pile again.

See you next week.

12 Comments

Acton

November 8, 2015 at 4:13 pm

Sorry to hear you and Julie aren’t feeling well. Hope you get well soon.

As it happens I’m watching the Decades Green Hornet binge right now – and enjoying it immensely. The only time I’d ever seen this iteration of the character was his guest appearance on Batman, so it’s great to see how he and Kato were presented on their own show. It’s not gritty enough for today’s viewers, but I enjoy its “bright pulp” sensibilities. Not every episode is equal, of course, but most work as neat little adventures.

You hit on the reason why I always enjoyed the space age Bronze Age Superman/Supergirl – the scope of their adventures and the wonder of them. It’s part of the reason I snapped up the Nightwing Flamebird collection that came out a few years ago – they might be in a bottle, but they’re still having outer space adventures. And as a sidenote, I have that same STARWOLF book and love it. Hamilton had a great way of creating a sense of wonder with relatively few words, while keeping the story moving. I miss the feeling in some of the current SF.

Thanks for the column and, again, hope you get feeling better.

Jeff Nettleton

November 8, 2015 at 4:28 pm

First comic I ever got to pick out, Shazam #10, came about because of bronchitis. I can relate. I also got a Thor issue and a Teen Titans, for trips to the hospital.

Of course, the Star Wolf books, from Edmond Hamilton, would eventually lead to the infamous Fugitive Alien movies (edited from tv episodes) on MST3K..

John Trumbull

November 8, 2015 at 4:57 pm

Greg, kudos to your professionalism for still writing a column when you’re sick. Swift recovery!

Man, Vathlo Island is just a segregationist’s DREAM, isn’t it?

And Jeff, I never knew the Edmond Hamilton/Star Wolf/Fugitive Alien connection before. Interesting.

Tim Rifenburg

November 8, 2015 at 5:10 pm

I am with you on old comics being good for what ails you (be it sick day or bad day). The nostalgia factor plus just losing yourself in an older story makes a bad time good. I never understand why there isn’t a cheap reprint format to introduce kids to the older stuff. I would hope DC would capitalize on Supergirl and Flash. They over priced those anniversary volumes that are currently published and picked some really strange stories to put in them. Continued stories without an ending or a beginning. Issues that were done in one but not always the best representation of a title or era. Whoever handles reprints really needs to know what they are doing. I see there is a Batman volume 6 Showcase due in January. It has classic 70’s Batman so I hope it really comes out. Feel better Greg.

T.

November 8, 2015 at 5:35 pm

I love those Jack Shiff edited Batbooks with the aliens and all the wacky stuff. I’d love to see it revisited in the modern era, but not in that self-consciously clever meta Morrisonesque way.

I hate the Weisinger Superman era and think it’s all terrible, the worst thing to happen to the character, so I can’t really weigh in there.

Jeff Nettleton

November 8, 2015 at 6:40 pm

@John Trumball
The Japanese tv series title was Star Wolf (in Japanese, obviously). Sandy Frank edited a few storylines into the Fugitive Alien movies, dubbed them, and then the Mysties got their hands on them.. Most awesome MST3K song, ever……..

Travis Pelkie

November 8, 2015 at 11:53 pm

While I’m younger than you, I encountered that Superman/Luthor showdown story in the ’30s to ’80s BW HC collection around age 12, and yeah, that story is awesome.

Last weekend at a record show, a dealer had a ton of old comics, so I picked up a bunch for what came out to be 2 bucks a pop (and got 2 copies of the same issue of Tubby because I wasn’t paying attention to what was in my pile, argh!). I got several of the bigger page count comics, including the Detective with Night of the Stalker that you discussed several weeks back. (It’s amusing to me that when I get certain comics, my thinking is as much about how much fun I’ll have discussing them here as in actually reading them!) Can’t wait to dive into them. Just hope I don’t have to come down with anything in order to carve out the time!

And in other things discussed here recently, I watched the first 2 eps of the Supergirl series, and yeah, that’s good stuff. It’s working quite well so far, and I’ll be trying to catch it on demand as much as I can. I also saw the bit where you featured pics from before, where 400 girls and their moms were shown a preview screening and Melissa Benoist herself hung out with the kids after. Great job at hooking kids young, it looks like! And apparently the male/female viewer breakdown for the audience is almost 50/50! Cool.

Derek Handley

November 9, 2015 at 12:42 am

Get well soon!
Thanks for another column filled with great memories! Even when you’re ill, you find a way to make reminiscing and book-hunting fun.

Edo Bosnar

November 9, 2015 at 5:08 am

Hope you’re both feeling better – still, it’s nice to have an excuse to indulge yourself in some enjoyable light reading. And I totally remember reading that depowered Superman vs. Lex Luthor story somewhere – maybe in one of those digests from the early ’80s?

By the way, you’ve made the point about some kind of reasonably-priced, entry-level reprints aimed at younger readers several times (a point I wholeheartedly endorse), and I have to note that someone is putting out comic reprints like this in an affordable format: Panini, a publisher based in the UK which has a license to print Marvel materials. They have a whole series of pocketbooks that reprint tons of great stuff Here’s a useful site that contains a list of all titles printed so far and their contents. I’ve bought a number of these from the Book Depository, and never paid more than $10 for one (mostly I’ve paid about $7/8 each). Most recently I bought and read the Ant Man volume – published to coincide with the movie. For me, it was a great stroll down memory lane reading all of those early Scott Lang stories, but it’s also a nice introduction to the character. The problem is that Panini hardly promotes these – but Marvel should really be putting these on the US market, in grocery and drug-stores next to the Archie digests. They’re exactly what your talking about: reprints featuring major, popular characters, with accessible stories and a relatively low price.

demoncat_4

November 9, 2015 at 7:08 am

hope you and julia get better greg. as for a tie in collection of comics for the flash and supergirl tv shows. give it time and dc will but the days of comics showing back up in grocery stores at the check aile are long gone.

Gavin Bell

November 9, 2015 at 7:09 am

Seconded on the Panini pocketbooks – I’ve got all of the classic Claremont X-Men in that format. They also publish a few monthly collections of modern comics. For around $5 you get three US issues.

David Unlikely

November 9, 2015 at 11:51 am

I was exactly the right age for that Giant Superman 239, when I found it. I must have studied that Sal Amendola map of Krypton for weeks, imagining stories about Fungus Caverns, glass birds, the Island of Zith and oddly androgynous,”highly-developed Black” separatists.

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