Sunday, July 12, 2015

 

My Favorite Comics


Still not much astronomy going on around here, folks.  It is hazy and it is humid. It’s a typical Gulf Coast July in other words. The angry thunderstorms have abated—somewhat—however, and the Moon is now getting out of the way, so I hope to see something in the coming weeks. I should have a set of a famous telescope company’s new 100-degree eyepieces to evaluate in the near future, and that will no doubt impel me to get into the backyard and brave the mosquitoes no matter how milky the sky.

It wasn’t like I didn’t see anything over the last week or two, though. After being denied it by constant rain and clouds, I finally got a look at the grand Venus-Jupiter conjunction. It was a little past the best night—the two had begun to pull apart—but, man, did they still look great. So great that on that languid summer evening I somehow got up the energy to drag a Canon DSLR and a long lens onto the deck for a few shots of the famous duo.

Even more surprisingly, I thought I was finally going to get a crack at the deep sky last Saturday night. Conditions were not perfect all day, but initially the Clear Sky Clock predicted improvement at Sundown. My new GSO girlfriend, Zelda, and I had hopes of continuing my current visual project, and at 7 p.m. (Don't you just love this Daylight Savings Time?) we headed to the club darksite. Improvement? The night began with bugs and haze and evolved into bugs and clouds.

It wasn't a total loss. It was a near skunking, yeah, but I was able to try the new scope at high power on Saturn in reasonably steady seeing. Verdict? I was frankly amazed at what 500 buck Zelda did with the ringed wonder. The Crepe Ring was easy, Cassini's Division was sharp and dark, there were color variations across the A ring, I thought I spied the Encke Minima at 300x (8mm Ethos + TeleVue Big Barlow), the disk was loaded with subtle detail, and Titan was a tiny, tiny disk.

Before throwing in the crying towel and heading home for some Netflix, I observed M3, M53, M51 and a few others through haze. Continue my project, observing objects from Burnham's Celestial Handbook, though? Not a prayer of that. Track down Pluto as I'd planned? Don't make me laugh. As on our first Dark Site run, however, packing up my minimalist 10-inch telescope was so easy that I wasn't a bit sorry I'd given the night a try. 

So, what would I write about? My top sci-fi films article got an impressive response from you, and I should do a Part II. And I will do a Part II sometime, but I thought this time I’d do something along the same lines but different. This week, let’s talk about my favorite comic books.

I can remember reading funny books as a little bitty kid—I  clearly remember looking at the pictures in a Woody Woodpecker comic before I could read—but they were just an occasional fancy. I liked ‘em and usually saved the ones I bought when I could convince Mama or Daddy to give me a dime to spend at the neighborhood convenience store, but they did not become a passion until we were well into the Marvel explosion.

My idea of comics changed in 1965. I’d actually known interesting things were happening at Marvel Comics for the past several years. I’d got onboard with Smilin’ Stan Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby with Fantastic Four number five, which I stumbled across in Greers’ one afternoon when Mama took me grocery shopping with her. I read their magazine every month and even saved and reread the (soon tattered) issues, but comics were still not a huge deal with me.

Until I realized a couple of things. First, that what was coming out of Marvel Comics was crazy good. Amazingly good. Especially considering the fact that, pre-FF, the company had been known for—to me, anyhow—second string monster/scary books. Secondly, that I’d better start keeping up. There were new Marvel titles sprouting on that fabled comics rack (“Hey Kids! Comics!) every month and they looked great. Finally, and perhaps most illuminatingly, one day in the late 60s, I came to the realization that comics were something I’d love my whole life, not just kid stuff. It was at about that time that I discovered and began drooling over a very special magazine, the late, lamented Rocket’s Blast Comicollector.  

I am still here reading comics. They aren’t twelve cents anymore, and you can’t buy them at the convenience store, but they are still good. Maybe better than ever. That said, my reading habits have changed. I am mostly a DC guy now. The only Marvel book I pick up regularly is, natch, given my somewhat juvenile sense of humor, the new Howard the Duck. That has nothing to do with nostalgia or anti-nostalgia; it is because of two things. Mainly, DC’s heroes seem to speak more to my current self than the Marvel guys do. It is also because—and it doesn't matter why—I had the misfortune to lose my Silver/Bronze Age Marvel collection in the early 1990s. I started over with DC, spurred on by my love of Swamp Thing and Watchmen, and that is where I still am today.

Batman

No hero means as much to me at this stage of my life as The Batman. In my youth, I identified most strongly with poor put-upon Peter Parker. Today, being a little older, it's Batman striding the dark rooftops of Gotham, dealing with the night’s demons, both internal and external.

I read Batman often before I began collecting comics and, surprisingly maybe, stopped when I did. You see, my coming of age as a fan/collector coincided with the Adam West TV show, the famous Batman series of 1966. It’s fashionable today to look back on Batman fondly. DC even has a book that replicates it, Batman ’66. But you know what? I never could stand it. Its camp take on the Dark Knight was heresy to me then and it’s heresy to me now. I can’t get past that to the fun, I’m afraid. I do think the Barris Batmobile is beautiful and always will be (my other two faves among Bats’ many vehicles are the Batman: the Animated Series Batmobile, and the new one in Arkham Knight).

What saved Batman for me was the Neal Adams issues of the 70s. DC, to their credit, realized the short-lived TV show—it wore out its welcome in a mere two seasons—had put a hurting on the comic. Batman and Detective Comics went back to a darker more serious tone on the way to becoming darker and more serious than they had ever been. At first, I was kinda embarrassed to be reading Batman, but as the ears on the cowl grew longer and everybody in the book began to refer Bruce as THE Batman, I got over that.


The Fantastic Four

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s FF was for many years the be-all and end-all of comics for me. In some ways it still is, and I still reread those 100 plus Kirby issues on occasion. While I no longer have my Silver Age FF books, I’ve got them all on a DVD. This comic book was just so good because it was just so different. Oh, we’d seen the Four’s powers before on many other heroes. It wasn’t that; it was how real these characters, Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny, seemed at a time when Superman was plain ridiculous, playing with tropes like Super Monkey and Super Horse, and Batman was almost as bad.

The FF were real. They lived in a recognizable New York City, not some mythical metropolis. They bickered. They left the team in a huff. The public didn’t worship them, not always. And that Kirby art? His Golden Age work on Captain America is beloved of many fans, but I never quite got it—I’m not a Golden Age fan of any kind, admittedly. But over those years of doing the 50s monster books and other stuff, he matured. The second I laid eyes on his work on FF, his pencils became the standard by which I judged all other comic book artists.

FF today? There is no FF. Surprisingly, with another Fantastic Four film in the offing, Marvel has cancelled the book. Since the film shows signs of being a stinker (Doctor Doom is not a super-villain, but an alienated computer hacker), that might not be a bad thing. Not that I consider the cancellation much of a loss. When I’ve looked in on the team over the last decade, they didn’t much resemble the FF I loved. Will they ever be back? Sure they will be; in comicdom nothing is forever. When Marvel does bring back their book, I hope it is with some of the power of old as represented by Lee/Kirby.

The Amazing Spiderman

When I first became obsessed by Marvel, I preferred the FF’s sci-fi-ish stories to the more crime-drama-oriented slant that often maintained in Stan’s and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spiderman, but I was still powerfully drawn to the character. Why, he was a nerdy little kid who had a tough time in high school, just like me. Stan must have written the book with me in mind (said ten million lonely teen boys).

Spiderman was never my favorite comic, but it was always one of my favorites. These days, when I pick up an issue, I still feel some of that old magic. Today, I relate more to the tortured Bruce Wayne than the picked-on Peter Parker, but, yes, when I can figure out which Marvel spider book is the one about the Peter Parker Spiderman, the character still resonates.

Avengers

I was there for Avengers #1 in 1963, and loved it from the beginning. Back in that hallowed day, I was also a fan of the Justice League, but I had to admit this new team from The House of Ideas was, like the FF, blessed with a measure of reality that the JLA often lacked. Like the FF, the Avengers argued, they quit, they wondered where their next dime was coming from (well, Tony Stark didn’t). It was, again, great.

Actually, there’s not one Avengers. The team’s lineup has changed frequently over the years. My favorite? Surprisingly, not the team that debuted in Number One. My favorite is the late 60s group: Cap, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Vision, and Hercules. As Stan quickly found out, having Hulk and Thor in the group was a no-go. Who could stand up to the combined might of the Son of Odin and “Hulk Smash Little Men”? I’m sure old Smiley got tired of the constant dodges that had those two off somewhere or compromised.

I haven’t read the Avengers in a long time, but you know what? Seeing the movie made me want to spend a little time with my old pals. I may pick up an ish on my next visit to the comic book store.

Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories

In the early 1970s, I was Marvel superhero crazy and thought honest-to-god funnybooks were a thing of my childhood. Not so. Someone very dear to me introduced me to the Disney duck books and in particular the reprints (which I believe were mainly what appeared in the 70s issues) of Carl Barks' stories. Everything about his work—his stories, his art, his layouts—was top-notch and hardly only for kids.

Outstanding. Memorable. Engaging. Funny. Today the Comics and Stories of Barks is as fresh and (often) witty as ever. Another Gold Key Disney title with his work, Uncle Scrooge, was frequently as good or even better. The amazing thing about Barks' ducks? Their stories aren't just "cute" or funny. My sense of wonder is often stimulated by them. When the ducks go on an adventure, it feels that waylike a real adventure.

Thor/Journey into Mystery

I always liked Thor, and was onto the book not long after Marvel put the Norse god in their former scare title, Journey into Mystery. The Kirby issues are fantastic, and the comic maintained itself with good grace for many years after his departure and with the transition of the hero to his own title. Funny thing, though? What I really loved all those years ago was not the main title, but the little featurette, “Tales of Asgard,” Which brought us Thor’s questing, carousing friends, The Warriors Three: Fandral, Hogun, and, most of all, The Voluminous Volstagg.

One of my fond memories of those days is a summer afternoon spent at the swim club, sitting under an oak tree at a picnic table with my best buddy reading Journey into Mystery, talking comics, and eating the lunch Mama packed me in a paper sack. I haven’t read Thor in a long time, maybe because I am afraid of sullying that memory, but I have enjoyed his films.

Watchmen

There is no graphic novel as respected as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Even the hoity-toity New York Review of Books had to admit it is CRAZY GOOD as literature. And it is. I discussed it in the sci-fi movies article not long ago, so here I will just say this bookwhich, some people forget was initially a series of monthly comicsis everything comic books should and can be. Its tale of alienated (Charlton, more or less) heroes is unforgettable.

Strange Tales/Doctor Strange

Didn’t mention it above under “Spiderman,” but I was a huge fan of Spidey's artist, Steve Ditko. His style was utterly different from that of my main man Kirby, but it was right for his books and especially Doctor Strange (in Strange Tales). He could go hog-wild with his weird psychedelic panels and odd character appearances and expressions and it fit.

Oh, and I liked the character, too. Doctor Stephen Strange—Marvel’s version of Doctor Fate, I guess. Above and beyond his mastery of the mystic arts, it was Doc Strange’s competence that impressed me. He was steady and smart and knowledgeable in the face of baddies that could destroy the world. Reassuring in the days when we were all at least subconsciously afraid of someone doing just that with the push of a button.

While I love Ditko’s work on the book, my favorite issues are actually by Dan Adkins. I remember very clearly Daddy stopping to get gas at Pak-a-Sak when our family was on the way to the Greater Gulf State Fair one fall night. I walked inside, found a luscious Adkins Doc Strange, and, surprise, a dime and a nickel to pay for the 12 cent comic in my pocket. The big deal, though, was that when we got home and I read the issue, I noticed Stan’s mention (in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column) of this book called The Lord of the Rings. Before long I was seeking that out and being swept away by it thanks to old Smiley. Ah, memories.

Strange Tales/Nick Fury Agent of Shield

The other Strange Tales feature in those days was “Nick Fury, Agent of Shield,” Marvel’s attempt to cash-in on the James Bond/Man from UNCLE secret agent craze (I am lucky in that I still have Strange Tales 135, which is Nick’s first appearance). I liked Stan’s and Jack’s S.H.I.E.L.D. well enough, but the series didn’t really take off for me until Jim Steranko took over with Strange Tales 151. If there was a competitor for Jack Kirby in those days for me it was Jim. His art—and his writing—were over the top powerful. I’ve got his run on Nick Fury in graphic novel form, and you know what? Like Kirby’s art, it holds up amazingly well today, looking as fresh as ever and maybe even less dated than that of the Jolly One.

I don’t believe Marvel has a Nick Fury book at the moment, but maybe they will. The S.H.I.E.L.D series on TV is popular, and Nick’s (or is that his son?) appearances in the Avengers films have caused quite a bit of renewed interest in the character.

Tales of Suspense/Captain America

One of Marvel’s other former anthology books was Tales of Suspense. Which after the coming of the heroes began featuring Captain America, the revived spy-smasher and Nazi-buster of the Golden Age. I loved Cap. Not just for the Kirby art and outrageous stories like his battles against Modok and A.I.M., but because, unlike most other Marvel heroes, there was not a tiny trace of anti-hero in Cap. In the heyday of conflicted heroes in movies and even comics, Cap stood out because he was different. He was a Good Guy, good to the core. He knew exactly what was right and you could depend on him to do it.

Like many other comics heroes, Cap has been retconned a few times. He’s not even Steve Rogers anymore. That’s OK. As is the case with the other Marvel heroes, I have my memories and a few old comics. As above, I live mostly in the DC Universe these days, but some of my best comic-reading experiences have to do with Cap and Tales of Suspense.

Space Family Robinson

It wasn’t ever only Marvel, or Marvel and DC, for me. I often bought titles from the sometime looked down upon (back then, anyway) Gold Key, Western Publishing’s comic book outfit. At the top of my list of their books, which included the Disney titles, were “painted cover” comics like writer Del Connell and artist Dan Spiegle’s Space Family Robinson which came out of  an idea by Carl Barks.

Which was a great idea for a book. What you’ve got under a variety of competent artists and writers is the Swiss Family Robinson set in outer space. It was such a good idea that CBS borrowed it (without explicit credit) for Lost in Space. The comic doesn’t hold up quite as well as I’d hoped today—though it holds up much better than the TV show—but what a lot of fun it was.

Tarzan

Even as an older teen—or even today—I never quite lost my love for jungle stories. Bomba. Jungle Jim. Sheena. Most of all, Tarzan. The Tarzan comic I loved and still respect the most was the Gold Key version done by stupendous artist Russ Manning (Magnus Robot Fighter). Not only did the books look great, they were frequently literate, often adapting the real E.R. Burroughs stories. The good Tarzan issues are just as good as they ever were.

Still fresh in my mind is the summer day when Daddy dragged me along to Air Force MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) Field Day, an emergency preparedness test. I wasn’t much interested in that, but the day was saved by the new Tarzan and a stack of older ones (and Koraks) I brought along. The Spanish Fort, Alabama woods suddenly became the wilds of darkest Africa.


Batgirl

I never much liked Batgirl. Not in the 60s, not in the 70s. She always seemed like a supercilious little twit to me. That changed with the events of The Killing Joke, after she was paralyzed when the Joker shot her in the spine. Her evolution into Oracle, and, then, her rebirth as Batgirl with DC’s New 52, interested and moved me. Today, her book, which has brilliant art and a fresh tone of urban hipness, is a comic I read every single month.

Suicide Squad

I suspect that after next year’s movie a lot of you will become readers of DC’s New Suicide Squad. Me? I’ve been enjoying Task Force X’s often convoluted triple-cross tales since the 1980s. The concept is (almost) always the same. Amanda “The Wall” Waller runs covert missions out of Louisiana's Belle Reve Penitentiary. The members of the so-called Suicide Squad are convicted supervillians looking to work time off their sentences doing impossible missions for Waller’s shadowy arm of the Government.

The team members come and go, but my faves, some of whom will be in the film, have been Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, and silly old Captain Boomerang. If you want to get in on the fun right now, in addition to reading the current DC book you can pick up the outstanding adult oriented DC animated film, Assault on Arkham. It is marketed as being a Batman movie, but, while he appears in it, it’s really about the Squad. “They're getting the Squad back together?! Siiiick!

Batwoman

In the old days, Batwoman was “meh.” A female bat designed to take the heat off Batman. Heat applied by that infamous imbecile, Dr. Frederic Wertham. How could Batman be gay as the silly Wertham told us he was? He had a girlfriend, Kathy Kane, who was also a crimefighter. That was all Batwoman was for years and years. Until 2006, when she was reimagined in dramatically different fashion.

This Batwoman, Kate Kane, is an independent crime fighter, hardly a member of the Bat Family, and often at odds with Batman. Kate is of Jewish descent and is, ironically given her original reason for being, a lesbian. While the book has been, in my opinion, mishandled in recent times, which has led to its cancellation, Batwoman is a terrific character and I hope to see her make a comeback soon.


The X-Men

I wasn’t there for X-Men #1, but I was there early on. I didn’t really begin to love the book until my college days, though. If Spiderman moved me in high school, it was X-Men who did that in college. In the 1980s, X-Men was, along with Swamp Thing, my favorite comic.

In recent times, I’ve lost touch with the merry mutants. Maybe because of the bewildering (to someone who doesn’t do much Marvel anymore) proliferation of X-books, but mostly because of the events of Marvel’s Civil War. Still, if I were to pick a Marvel comic to start reading again, it would probably be an X-Men title.

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing has always been one of DC’s best titles. He was great in the old days when Bernie Wrightson was doing him, and he was great in his pair of Convergence books just the other day. What made him for me, however, was the incredible 1980s run of Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette (pencils). Their stories about the humongous lump of a plant man weren’t just interesting, as they’d always been, they were suddenly lyrical. Swamp Thing stopped being a somewhat ridiculous monster, which was all Marvel’s equivalent, Man-Thing, ever was and became more human than the humans around him.

What’s truly remarkable about ol’ Swampy is how well he’s always held up despite ever changing artists and writers. Heck, even the el cheapo 1982 movie is surprisingly watchable. Not bad, anyways, and there is Adrienne Barbeau to look at, of course.

Where am I with comics now? I am as into them as ever, and this is a great time to be into funnybooks. DC heroes rule our TV screens, and the Marvel gang dominates multiplexes this summer. If you haven’t picked up a comic in a while, why not trot to your local comics shop and give a couple a try? If you do decide to pick up some comics, which I hope you will, please get ‘em at a comic book store run by people who care about comics rather than at freaking Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million.

Anyhow, let’s see how many comics collectors/fans there are out there in astronomy land. If I get a good response on this, I’ll plan a Part II of this one as well. There are so many great books I didn’t even mention. JLA…Legion…Teen Titans…Daredevil…Iron Man…Sandman...and on and on and on... Till then? "Excelsior!" of course. 

Comments:
Also into Comic Cons. Been to two San Diego Comic Con, two Wondercons, two Wizard Cons and Stan Lee's Comikaze. I think comics and scopes go hand in hand.
 
I was always more into DC than Marvel myself.
Of course, I loved chemistry as much as astronomy, and for detective chemists (now called forensic scientists) we had the Flash and of course Batman. My first hero (besides Fess Parker as Davy Crockett) was George Reeves's Superman, so loved the JLA comics, where I could not only get Superman, Batman and Flash, but also my sci fi favorites Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter. A final si fi comic favorite: Adam Strange.
Well, I became a chemist and an amateur astronomer - and the comics helped spur me on to that!
 
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