Beginning when I was only eight-years-old, these were my earliest formative years as a comic book reader. This is the period when comic books first imprinted on my consciousness in a way that would continue to influence me for the rest of my life. Many of the characters, creators and genres I was exposed to during this time still hold a special place in my heart to this day.
I own, or have owned at some point, all the comics pictured (if any fellow comics fans are wondering why a particular classic of graphic literature is not represented, it’s probably because I never owned a copy). The covers are arranged chronologically—from top to bottom, left to right—in order of publication dates (as best as I was able to determine them), even though I didn’t actually come to own some of these comics until many years later. Since comic book titles are usually published monthly, in most cases I chose 12 comic books to represent each year (although not literally one comic book published in each separate month of a particular year). The covers are not to scale with one another. I made all the images the same width to fit my grid arrangement, so comics that look smaller than those next to them are actually most likely larger (sometimes considerably).
My Golden Age: 3rd Grade to Junior High (1970-74)
(Click on each comic book cover collage to enlarge image.)
Personal history: Not to get too Freudian about this, but as I was working on this project I realized that I was also eight years old when my parents got divorced. Could comic books have made such a lifelong impact on me because, as a young child, I looked to superheroes to maintain order in the world at a time when mine was in chaos? Of course, I also read comics about monsters, ghost, cowboys, and soldiers, so could it have been less the content and more just the presence of a constant in my life that I could repeatedly turn to for reassuring comfort? Actually, neither of these possibilities feels like the realization of an “Aha!” moment to me, but I do find the coincidence interesting.
As I mentioned on the My 40 years in comics intro page, Daredevil #72, in which the hero faced Tagak the Leopard Lord, who came from another dimension accessible through mirrors, is the earliest comic book I can remember owning when it was originally published. Having apparently lost it as a child, for decades I wasn’t sure if I had imagined the existence of this comic book, until I finally tracked it down through an extensive Google search a few years ago (although I still haven’t purchased a replacement copy). I bought the other superhero comic books pictured above years later as an adult (more on them below).
Besides superhero stories, a staple of my early comic book diet was Marvel monster comics. Drawn by legendary comics artist Jack “King” Kirby, the cover stories featured giant monsters—from other times, planets or dimensions—bent on destroying or conquering the earth. Titles including Monsters on the Prowl, Where Creatures Roam, and Where Monsters Dwell reprinted stories published by Marvel during the early 1960s, when superhero stories were just beginning to come back into vogue at the dawn of the historic Silver Age of comics. Actually, these monster stories appealed to the same types of power fantasies that probably made superhero stories so popular with boys. The protagonist of each story is always a bookish young man whose fascination with science and unathletic physique earns him only scorn from the young lady of his heart’s desire—that is, until a giant statue, tree, insect, etc. threatens the planet and only his knowledge of geology, botany, entomology, etc. can save the day. For some reason, many of these monsters (or their parents) were fond of names containing double letters (and starting with “G”), such as Colossus, Fin Fang Foom, Gorgilla, Grogg, Groot, Grottu, Gomdulla, Moomba, Rommbu, Sporr, and Taboo.
Comic book history: Jack Kirby had recently left Marvel Comics—where he and Stan Lee co-created characters including the Hulk, Thor, and members of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and X-Men—and joined the company’s “distinguished competition,” DC Comics (home to the likes of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman). One of Kirby’s first solo projects for DC was New Gods, which chronicled the conflict between the super powered celestial beings of New Genesis and the demonic denizens of Apokolips, led by the evil Darkseid. This was Kirby’s attempt to create a modern mythology that would present ancient archetypes in superhero style.
Meanwhile, DC was shaking things up in its flagship Superman title by changing Clark Kent from a newspaper reporter to television reporter, and having a freak nuclear accident render all the kryptonite on earth harmless to him.
World history: The trial of the Chicago Eight—accused of conspiring to cause a riot during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago—began September 24, 1969, and ended February 18, 1970 (with all defendants found not guilty of conspiracy). During the trial, defendant and Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was gagged and bound to his chair after repeatedly disrupting the proceedings by demanding (in a sometimes less than respectful manner) his right to represent himself. The cover of Green Lantern #80, which went on sale about six months after the trial, showed its title character and his two companions bound, gagged, and similarly on trial for conspiracy. This was typical of the Relevance Movement in comics begun around this time, largely by the creative team on Green Lantern, writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams (who also collaborated on the issue of Detective Comics, featuring Batman, pictured above). This was a period when superheroes regularly began addressing social issues, which had been frequent topics of Depression-era superhero stories in the early years of the Golden Age.
One of the social issues being addressed in comics at this time was women’s rights, as shown on the covers above of The Avengers #83, featuring the super Lady Liberators, and Action Comics #385, featuring “A girl mightier than Superman.”
Personal history: For some reason I don’t understand, one of my clearest comic book memories from childhood is of buying a copy of Marvel Spotlight #2—which introduced Jack Russell, Werewolf By Night—at a subway platform newsstand in Boston, and taking it back to my grandmother’s house to read. Even though I haven’t seen a copy of this comic book since then (I probably lost it soon after reading it), I also remember the backup feature, a reprint of a 1950s romance/superhero story hybrid starring Venus, goddess of love.
Another fairly clear memory is reading the storyline that began in the 100th issue of The Amazing Spider-Man (the middle three covers in the bottom row above). Exhausted from the burden of great responsibility that came with his great powers, Peter Parker attempted to rid himself of his super abilities by injecting himself with an experimental serum. The drug ended up making him even more spider-like, causing him to grow two extra pairs of arms. While trying to find a cure for his cure, and maintain his now harder-to-hide secret identity, Spider-Man had to battle with arch enemy the Lizard and new foe, Morbius, the Living Vampire.
Comic book history: A wave of anti-comic book hysteria during the 1950s led comic book publishers to create the self-censoring Comics Code Authority as a way to address negative public opinion and avoid feared congressional regulation of their industry. Publishers had to adhere to a sometimes ridiculous list of decency standards* for their titles to earn the CCA’s seal of approval (which usually appeared in the upper right corner of the cover). Cut to 1971, when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asks Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee to publish an anti-drug message in Spider-Man. Stan the Man happily complied, only to find the story rejected by the CCA, which prohibited any mention of drug use—even if it was cast in a negative light. This led to Marvel making the decision to run the three-issue story (starting with Spider-Man #96, pictured above; second row, far left) without the CCA seal. After the positive public reaction Marvel received, the CCA decided it was time to loosen or abandon some of its most absurd prohibitions. (One of which, a ban on undead characters, Marvel had planned to circumvent with its introduction of the “living” vampire Morbius, mentioned above, not knowing that the CCA would end up lifting that ban—as part of its post-drug-issue revisions—just before Morbius made his debut).
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were still collaborating on stories featuring Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Batman, while Jack Kirby unveiled his latest character, Mister Miracle, a super escape artist whose ultra-advanced New Genesis technology allows him to get out of any trap imaginable.
Another social issue addressed during comics’ Relevance Movement was Native American rights, as illustrated on the cover of Action Comics #401, where Superman is clearly unwelcome on reservation lands.
* My favorite Comics Code decree was the requirement that “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
Personal history: One of my favorite comic book series of this year was the Marvel adaption of Doc Savage, a 1930s pulp magazine hero/adventurer. Growing up, I would make weekly trips to the used bookstore just across the train tracks next to my house in Riverdale, Md., to buy paperback reprints of Doc Savage stories for a dime a piece. There were 181 stories originally published in Doc Savage magazine, and I think I ended up owning about 30 of them in paperback format. The cover of the issue pictured above was drawn by Jim Steranko, who is acclaimed for his infusion of surrealism, op art, and graphic design into comics during its Silver Age in the 1960s. (I have met him on two occasions, most recently in April 2010.)
Other favorites of mine were the adventures of Superman told in Action Comics (where the Man of Steel made his first appearance in 1938); Adventure Comics, an anthology that featured B-List superhero stories and tales of the macabre; and The Justice League of America, where DC Comics’ A-List superheroes battled threats too powerful for any one of them to handle alone, like the giant, nigh-invulnerable android, Shaggy Man (pictured above).
Comic book history: This year DC Comics published the last issue (#89) of Denny O’Neil’s and Neal Adams’ socially relevant run on Green Lantern, with the image of a crucified environmentalist on the cover. Another sign of the changing times was the end of Denny O’Neil’s attempt to modernize Wonder Woman. When he took over as writer for her comic book in 1968 (issue #178), he tried to cast her as a more meaningful role model by taking away all her super abilities and presenting her as the wholly human, self-possessed, liberated woman, Diana Prince (who exchanged her traditional costume for mini dresses and pants suits). Well-intentioned as this experiment was, it outraged none other than second-wave feminist foremother Gloria Steinem, a life-long Wonder Woman fan who objected to the most famous and powerful female superhero in comics being stripped of her super powers. After Wonder Woman #203 (pictured above), Diana regained her powers and her star-spangled costume.
After a several-year hiatus from comics between the Golden and Silver Ages, Marvel Comics tried to relaunch Captain America’s career in 1954 by recasting him as a “Commie Smasher,” rather than the “Sentinel of Liberty” he once was. His new image didn’t catch on with readers, and his comic book was canceled once again after a few issues. Then, in 1964, during Marvel’s resurgence of superhero comics, Stan Lee decided to bring “Cap” back again, explaining that he had been frozen in suspended animation since the end of World War II. Cut to Captain America #153 (above), where the title character’s African-American superhero partner, the Falcon, encounters an ultra-right wing, racist Cap, mercilessly beating residents of Harlem. To reconcile the handful of 1950s Captain America stories with the fact that he had apparently been encased in ice at the time, writer Steve Englehart explained that the McCarthy-era Cap was a replacement, chosen by the U.S. government for his presumed dead predecessor, who was driven insane by a flawed version of the super soldier serum that had turned Steve Rogers into the original Captain America. This four-issue story line denounced what had once been the commonly accepted ideology in comics (and the country) 20 years earlier, making its dramatic point by having the real Captain America defeat his impostor in combat (see my post, Happy Days? (Part 2), for more on this counterfeit Cap).
Comic book characters who made their debuts this year included Swamp Thing, Ghost Rider, and two new Jack Kirby creations, the supernatural Demon, and Kamandi, the last boy on earth, who lived in a post-apocalyptic world ruled by mutated humanoid animals. Creative team Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams also introduced a villain who would become one of Batman’s principal adversaries, Rā’s al Ghūl (played by Liam Neeson in Batman Begins).
Personal history: Favorite series of mine at this time included The Flash and its backup Green Lantern feature, and Detective Comics featuring Batman (where he made his first appearance in 1939), which provided enough clues in each story for alert readers to solve the crime at hand.
I also enjoyed he series of 100 Page Super Spectacular issues put out by DC Comics, each of which was chock full of Golden and Silver Age reprints about a specific character or team. The Justice League of America issue pictured above also provided my first exposure to their WWII-era precursors, the Justice Society of America (the first superhero team in comics history), making me a lifelong fan of them as well.
One of my favorite artists during this period was Jim Aparo, who illustrated The Brave and the Bold, a series in which Batman teamed up with a different fellow superhero each month (such as the issue featuring Green Arrow, above); The Phantom Stranger, about a mysterious occult traveler, who appeared when needed to save people from various supernatural threats; and a series of stories about the apparitional Spectre (written by Michael Fleisher), in the anthology Adventure Comics. These stories have become legendary for their depictions of the Spectre’s macabre methods of dispatching evildoers—such as by melting them (pictured above), turning them to glass and shattering them, turning them to wood and running them through a lumber mill saw, or cutting them in half with a giant pair of scissors.
This year my stepfather was transferred to Pennsylvania, so our family moved that summer to the town of Jersey Shore, Pa., where I attended the 6th grade. During our stay there, my brother’s and my principle source for comic books was the local Jersey Shore Stationery Store (or “JS cubed,” as we usually called it). Comics at the time were 20¢ each, which meant we could buy five comic books for a dollar (sales tax only applied to purchases over a dollar). Two comics I distinctly remember buying with one of those dollars are Batman #251, featuring a darkly disturbing tale about the Joker by the ubiquitous team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams (both of whom eventually signed my copy of this issue); and The Shadow #1, another comic book adaptation of a pulp magazine crime fighter, also written by O’Neil (who later signed this for me as well) but drawn by Mike Kaluta, whose beautiful artwork wonderfully evoked the character’s 1930s roots. The issue of Superboy featuring the 30th century Legion of Super-Heroes pictured above may have also been purchased at the same time, and is included here not only because I was a great fan of the series (and its artist, Dave Cockrum), but because it apparently went on sale on my birthday that year.
Comic book history: Captain Marvel was a superhero introduced in 1939, who was eventually forced into retirement by DC Comics, which sued publisher Fawcett Comics for copyright infringement on Superman. Years later, Marvel Comics decided they should have a character with that name, and took the precaution of trademarking it so no one else could use it. Their Captain Marvel was a science fiction version of the original, both of whom shared their identities with teenagers. Rick Jones could exchange places with his alien warrior counterpart by clashing together the pair of “nega-bands” he wore on his wrists, much like Billy Batson transformed into Fawcett’s mythically powered predecessor by saying the magic word, “Shazam.” My brother Steve and I were both fans of Marvel’s Captain Marvel during this period when his cosmic adventures were being written and drawn by Jim Starlin.
Characters who debuted this year included Shang Chi, Master of Kung Fu (whose first appearance was also drawn by Jim Starlin) and the more famous Punisher, a self-appointed executioner of common criminals who was introduced as an adversary for Spider-Man (and has been portrayed in three different movies—none of which achieved much critical or financial success—by Dolph Lundgren , Thomas Jane , and Ray Stevenson ).
Personal history: One of my frequent purchases this year was Marvel Team-Up, the more straightforwardly titled version of DC’s Brave and the Bold, which featured monthly crime-fighting collaborations between Spider-Man and other Marvel Comics heroes (such as Daredevil, above).
This was also the year that I began reading a new series featuring Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe, which was written by Steve Englehart and beautifully illustrated by Frank Brunner. Dr. Stephen Strange was an arrogant, narcissistic surgeon whose career ended when a car accident caused permanent nerve damage to his hands. Searching the world for a cure, he eventually journeyed to the Himalayan mountain retreat of the Ancient One, where he learned humility, compassion, and mastery of the magic arts. Soon after his creation in 1963 by Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko (who also drew the earliest appearances of Spider-Man), Doctor Strange’s association with Eastern mysticism and travels across psychedelic landscapes on the astral plane made him a favorite pop icon of counterculture college students. Part of his appeal to me is that he reminds me of my brother, with whom he shares his first name. (During a visit to New York City in December 2006, I made a fanboy pilgrimage to the supposed Greenwich Village address of Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, 177 Bleeker Street.)
I was still reading The Shadow, with issue #6 being notable in that it was my first introduction to the ninja, long before these Japanese assassins became a fixture in American popular culture (although I’m not sure why the one on the cover is wearing an outfit of OSHA-approved but not very stealth-conducive fluorescent orange).
After I finished the 6th grade in Jersey Shore, Pa., my stepfather was transferred back to Maryland, where we returned just in time for me to start my first year of junior high school.
Comic book history: New Jack Kirby creations published by DC Comics this year included the Sandman, who protected sleepers from nightmares in the realm of dreams, and OMAC, the One Man Army Corp, a superhuman champion in a seemingly Utopian society. Marvel Comics introduced another favorite character of mine, Deathlok the Demolisher, a cyborg soldier in a more obviously flawed future.
World history: The Watergate scandal began with the Democratic headquarters break-in on June 17, 1972, and ended with President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 8, 1974. During the month’s leading up to Nixon’s resignation, Captain America ran a story line in which a secret organization was plotting the overthrow of the U.S. government. In issue #175, the leader of the Secret Empire is unmasked by Captain America in the Oval Office, with the implication being that he is none other than the President of the United States—who then takes his own life (his face is never shown). Writer Steve Englehart had originally intended to reveal the leader to be Nixon, but censored himself, thinking that Marvel would not have allowed it (actually, the Comics Code Authority, even with its recently relaxed regulations, still did not allow for specific government officials to be cast as villains). In the following issue (above), disheartened by his discovery, with his faith in the American system shaken, Captain America temporarily abandons his patriotic name and costume and becomes Nomad, the Man Without a Country. Eventually, he decides to resume his role as a symbol of the American Dream—rather than the often disappointing reality.