I started buying comics in 1969 at a little place called “Enright’s General Store” in North Andover Massachusetts. They were 15 cents each. I bought Marvel and DC, strictly the superhero books. My best friend Mike bought the war books, the westerns and anything with a car, but not me. I wouldn’t even buy ‘Challenger’s of the Unknown” on account of their uniforms weren’t superhero-y enough.
Earlier that year I’d been introduced to the medium by Reg Aubrey, quite possibly the greatest babysitter in the history of babysitting. He was a teenager. He was the only son of the only African-American family in my lily white hometown. He had a room full of scientific junk including that thing you see in every sci-fi movie of the period with the round green screen and the glowing green dot that moves across it in a jagged line and goes ‘beep’. And Reg read comics. We were pretty much the only Jews in town, which was different enough, but not black different. The only electronic junk I had was our discarded black and white TV that took five minutes to get a picture after you turned it on, and received three stations which you needed a pair of pliers to switch between. Comics was the only thing he did I was capable of doing.
He gave me four brown paper grocery bags full of comics going back to about ’62, the year of my birth, and they BLEW MY MIND so completely it is still blown and I have continued to read superhero comics my whole life.
When I tell you what was in those bags, some of you are going to cry like the irritating little fanboys you almost certainly are since you’ve read this far. You’ll think of how much the comics I had would be worth today had I slipped them into mylar bags with acid free backing boards without ever having read them (which damages the spine, dontchaknow) and stored them in a temperature controlled locker. That is not what comics are for. They are to be read, over and over, until the staples are coming out and the corners are stained with the sweat of your little boy fingers. They are for getting chocolate on and leaving in your tree house and piling up in the bottom of your closet until your mom throws them out when you’re overnight at your best friends house. They were never meant to be fetishized like the finger bones of Catholic saints. That shit is for stamp collectors, who are called philatelists, which sounds dirty, as well it should. If I still had them, I could go read them, and the mythic status they hold for me now would whistle out making a vaguely farty sound like the air hisses out of the balloons at my kid’s birthday parties because I suck at tying knots in balloons.
THE GALACTUS TRILOGY
Fantastic Four 49-51 came out in 1966. It may be the first instance of a comic book story lasting more than a single issue. It was certainly the first such instance I’m aware of.
SPLASH PANEL: some anonymous, overweight, lonely, son of a bitch with coke bottle glasses reflecting the monitor he’s slouched in front of like a big bag of Fritos. A really big bag. The kind of bag you can only get at one of those food warehouses where you have to buy a membership. A thought bubble next to his head reads: “Oh ho! Obviously Mister Burbank is not aware that the ongoing storyline was first pioneered in 1948 by Si Grumpus during his short lived but noteworthy run on The Crimson Chigger for Tip Top Publications.” That may well be true, but shut up,fictional nerd stickler. I’m married. Try that on for size. Also, thought bubbles are no longer used in comics. Why? Because, unlike the idea that the bite of a radioactive spider gives you anything besides cancer, thought bubbles are unrealistic.
Marvel comics were already using a sort of Soap Opera approach in that each issue led into the next, and hell, I don’t know, maybe the Galactus Trilogy isn’t the first multi part story. It was for me, and the sensation of finishing that first issue and thinking “OH MY GOD, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?” was something I’d felt at the end of chapters in books, but never with a comic. But that was not what BLEW MY MIND!
It was a very cosmic Trilogy. It introduce Uatu, The Watcher, giant, silent, baby-looking bald dude who lived on the moon and who was just about as enigmatic as hell. It introduced The Silver Surfer, who was all silver and surfed around on a flying, silver surfboard, creating dramatic tension by juxtaposing incredible, soul-searching, angst and goofy-ass, silvery,flying surf board riding. And most of all, it introduced Galactus, Devourer of Worlds,
a purple suited, helmet wearing, giant even gianter than Uatu the Watcher! Galactus was beyond good and evil! Galactus took no more notice of the Fantastic four than you or I would pesky gnats! And Galactus was going to EAT OUR WORLD! By devouring it’s energy, not, you know, carving up chunks and eating them. That would be as stupid as a silver guy in a silver speedo flying around on a silver flying surfboard. But none of that was what BLEW MY MIND!
There’s this scene about two thirds of the way in. The FF have not been able to do squat to even get Galactus to pay attention to them, let alone stop making his earth eating machine. Reed Richards, Mister fantastic, has been up for two days straight trying to invent some shit because apart from being able to stretch like a rubber band (which it took us kids no time to realize was a sex thing, and why he was called Mr. Fantastic), he was also this big science braniac. So he’s up all night inventing. And there’s this splash panel, and there’s Reed and HE LOOKS LIKE CRAP! He looks like your dad the morning after a bender before he’s had a shower! REED RICHARDS WAS ALL SCUZZED OUT AND HE NEEDED A SHAVE!! Did Superman ever need a shave? He did not. Did Batman ever say “Excuse me old chum, but I need a Batshower.”? No. But when Reed Richards was up all night he looked like it! If he needed to shave, what else did he need to do? Did he brush his teeth, After a big bout of stretching did he STINK of FANTASTIC SWEAT, did he GO TO THE FANTASTIC BATHROOM?! SWEET JESUS, REED RICHARDS WAS REAL and that BLEW MY MIND!!
Which of course was just what Marvel had been trying to do. They were trying to make their Heroes real people with lives that you could, to some small degree, relate to. Spiderman got his ass handed to him by the Lizard because he had the FLU and that BLEW MY MIND! Captain America couldn’t make friends because he was too emotionally scarred by the death of his Teen partner, Bucky and that BLEW MY MIND! Cyclops could never admit he had the burnin’ teen hotties for Marvel Girl because he COULDN’T CONTROL the force beams that SHOT OUT OF HIS EYES and he was ashamed and afraid he might hurt her and it BLEW MY MIND! But none of it freaked out my seven year old head more than Mister Fantastic looking like a friggin’ bum. I stared at that picture for hours, I tried to explain it to my parents “Dad, look at this, Mr. Fantastic needs to SHAVE! Do you have any idea what that MEANS?!’ You kids today with your piercings, your’apps’, your bathtub methamphetamine labs, you have no damn clue what I’m talking about. For you Wolverine and Nick Fury always need Grooming tips. Gambit sometimes goes weeks without washing his filthy Cajun hair. But Reed Richards was the first superhero on whom superheroing took a toll. Did Stan Lee write “Reed stretches forward holding bizarre tech. He looks like a pile of roasted crap.” Did jack Kirby think “Well, when I stay up all night long drawing comics, the wife says my face looks like a used up welcome matt. Maybe Reed oughta look that way.” Who knows?
You know what they did in comics before this to give you something to latch on to? They gave the heroes kid sidekicks. First the dark, brooding Batman got some snot nosed circus tumbler, and then Cap got Bucky who somehow kept up with him through most of World War Two before getting blown to bits, and then almost everybody had a kid tagging along. The idea was, the reader could pretend they were the teen sidekick. Ask your Grampaw if it worked. First of all, nobody wants to be Robin. Second, nobody believes Robin can keep up. Robin is a liability in tights and everybody knows it. Third, You only played Robin if your brother was playing Batman and he was threatening to make you play Batgirl. Fourth, there is something deeply unsavory about the relationship of the Hero and the sidekick. Reed Richards unshaven mug was a quantum leap forward. It made comics seem real without making you worry about protecting your Bat Cave.
MEANWHILE, IN ANOTHER BAG, DENNY O’NEIL REINVENTS PERSONALITY FOR DC
DC briefly had personality for about a year in the so-called ‘Golden Age’. Bob Kane invented it for them in the form of a Gun totin’, film noir Batman with funky ass purple gloves. Then DC de-invented it by commanding Kane to create Robin, the Boy Wonder. Now don’t get me wrong, I like tumbling, eleven year old, crime fighters in green spangly bathing suits and bare legs just as much as the next guy. Hell, if they’d gone with pederasty as an actual personality element for the Batman, that would have had lots of personality. No such luck, all the undertones were unintentional, the only point of Robin was to lighten Batman up and no costumed DC hero showed any signs of having an individual personality again until…
Justice League of America #66. At a League meeting Green Arrow… disagreed! With SUPERMAN! And it BLEW MY MIND! I know, I know, you don’t get it, because for you Green arrow is just ‘Arrow’; that buff, tormented dude on the WB who is basically just Batman with arrows, which is ironic.
See, here’s how Green Arrow started out in 1941. He was this really rich guy and he wanted to fight crime. So, since he was good at archery, he got himself an Arrow car, an Arrow Plane, an Arrow cave, and an eleven year old side kick. Hmmm, that sounds so familiar, where have I heard all that before? Wait, I know, it’s Bruce Wayne minus his parents getting killed in front of him, which makes Green Arrow sort of Batman only with NO MOTIVATION AT ALL!
I think we can all agree, Green Arrow was very, very sad. And here’s the amazing thing, he stayed that way for twenty years and people were okay with it. Why? Shamefully low readership standards. But then Marvel, the new kid on the block, upped the stakes with Reed Richards and his huge, stretchy, unshaved Kisser.
Prior to Justice League #66, the magazine was a personality free zone. If you were blind and someone was reading the comic to you (shut up, I’m moving towards a point here) the only way to tell who was who would be what the Heroes said when they were surprised. Wonder Woman said “Great Hera” cause she was Greek and Hera was a Greek Godess. Aquaman said (I’m not making this up) “Sufferin’ starfish!” on account of he lived underwater and hated to see starfish suffer. Martian Manhunter said “By the Red sands of Mars!” because he was from mars. Superman said “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Why? Nobody has a single solitary clue. But if you took an exacto knife, sliced out a ‘sufferin starfish!’ and glued it over a ‘great Caesar’s Ghost!’ it would not make an iota of difference. Any word bubble could be coming out of any hero’s mouth because there was no more difference in personality between Batman and the Flash than there was between one Stepford Wife and another.
And so when writer Denny O’neil has Green Arrow stand up and vocally DISAGREE with Superman, it BLEW MY MIND! Less than a year later, artist Neal Adams gave GA a Goatee and some cool new duds to go along with his developing personality. And then O’neil finished erasing the clone like Batman/Green Arrow similarities by getting rid of GA’s Fortune, cave, car plane, and sidekick (more on him later).
Green arrow continued to keep it real by teaming up with Green Lantern, ‘cause, you know, he was Green too, and Kermit the Frog had yet to be invented. Little was made of the fact that Green Arrow broke up the Green lantern and Flash, his prior Super buddy, who had a whole Green/Red Christmassy thing going on. It’s possible Flash actually dumped Green Lantern first, for the Elongated Man, because he could… you know… elongate.
O’neil and Adams brought the relevance for thirteen issues. Check what an elderly black man asks Green Lantern in issue #76, 1970: “I been readin’ about you…How you work for the blue skins.. And how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins…And you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with–! The black skins! I want to know… How come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” Now okay, there’s a little embarrassing dialect going on there, but it was 1970! Green Lantern/Green Arrow dealt with racism, poverty, whacked out Manson Style religious cults and my personal favorite, a slum lord Villain who was a dead ringer for Spiro Agnew! (If you don’t know who Spiro Agnew was, that’s an education in itself. The bare facts are, he was Vice President under Richard Nixon, and he resigned even before Nixon did, because he was such a huge a-hole. Nowadays Presidents and vice Presidents don’t have to resign when it’s discovered they are huge a-holes. They get re-elected instead. On a side note, I use the ‘a-hole’ not because I am squeamish, but because it’s a funnier word than ‘asshole’. See?)
(P.S., having to tell you who Spiro Agnew was makes me want to cry, but you’re a comic book fan so the chances of you knowing shit from Shinola are just about squat.)
(P.P.S. ‘Shinola’ was a shoe polish. See, folks used to wear leather shoes, and they’d get scuffed up and… ah, screw it. Goddamn whippersnappers.)
O’neil and Adams put the Cherry on the personality cake in their final two issues by taking Green Arrows forgotten Robin Substitute Speedy, and making him a Smack addict.
The title of the story arc, and I wish to god I was making this up, was ‘Snowbirds Don’t Fly.” The idea of a teen sidekick riding the white horse went over so well that DC abandoned the idea of Superheroes having personalities for another decade.
But it wasn’t Speedy’s heroin addiction that blew My Mind. It wasn’t GA’s hipster beard or the time he convinced Green Lantern to take off his power ring so they could punch the living crap out of each other. It wasn’t even the way Neal Adams drew GA’s girlfriend Black Canary in leather and fishnets. Okay, that did blow my mind, but in a whole different way that belongs in another article that discusses things like Zatanna and whatever material they made the Catwoman and Batgirl costumes out of on the Batman TV show, and is frankly none of your damn business. It was Green Arrow standing up to Superman that BLEW MY MIND almost as much as Mr. Fantastic’s five o’clock shadow. It was those four grocery bags full of comics that if my mother hadn’t thrown away and if I’d kept in pristine, near mint, completely anal condition, I could now sell to pay my daughters tuition. Except I’d never sell them and my daughters would tell their boyfriends and therapists about how their crazy ass dad was sitting on a friggin’ gold mine they’d never get their hands on ‘till he died! Yes, died! Alone and broken in a YMCA with nothing but a stack of well protected comic books to love him! Comic books that had once and forever BLOWN HIS MIND!
Now get the hell away from me. I have something in my eye.