BTFT: This Ain’t No Disco! (But It Is The Weird And Wonderful 1970s)

A column article, Bin There Found That by: Chris Wunderlich

I wasn’t alive it the 1970s. Heck, I only got one year out of the 80s, but for some reason comics from those decades really resonate with me. This week I found a huge, golden stash of 70s goodness for super cheap and decided to over-indulge. I read a lot of comics from the 1970s, and it’s safe to say I’ve fallen in love. Sure, they were still mostly melodramatic and over-written like their 1960s brethren, but there’s a sense of change in there—a sense of evolution, restlessness and perhaps most of all, rebellion.

Immediately, things seem strange. The writers hold your hand, describe the actions you’re seeing in the pictures and always have the characters announce their next moves. Artists never stray too far from established styles, and yet there’s certain energy to everything. Characters start to feel complex. Dialogue drips with tones we’ve never heard before. Stories start with cookie-cutter plots and take strange, strange turns. There’s attitude in the words and a physical feel to the pages—oh and let’s not forget that glorious “aged comic” smell. Do not, I repeat, do not buy these stories in trade unless you absolutely cannot find them in their original medium. The slightly yellowed pages, the dated ads for Grit and American Seeds—it’s a pleasure for the senses, truly.

Let’s take a trip, shall we?

Marvel, The Defenders #39, 40, 44, 45, 46, 48, 49, 50, 52, 53, 56, 57, 58, 74, written by Steve Gerber, Roger Slifer, Gerry Conway, David Anthony Kraft, Roger Stern, Chris Claremont, Ed Hannigan, drawn by Sal Buscema, Keith Giffen, Michael Golden, Dave Cockrum, Carmine Infantino, George Tuska, Ed Hannigan and Herb Trimpe, 1976-1979

 

First, allow me to direct you to a most wonderful look at The Defenders. After reading this article, I knew I had to give them a try. After finding them for $1 each, I knew I had to have every single issue in the bin.

The issues I’m covering here span quite a few Defenders eras. Like the super team itself, the creative forces behind these books were a rotating bunch, never strictly tied down. There were some great runs like Steve Gerber’s work (which I catch the tail end of here) and J.M. DeMatteis’s later tales. The issues I bought are mostly written by David Anthony Kraft and mostly drawn by Keith Giffen, but as you can see from the credits, there are a lot of issues and a lot of people involved. There’s a lot of story too!

First, Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema’s work—issues 39 and 40. I’d read Gerber’s early issues a long time ago and his Defenders work is simply brilliant. I have it on good authority! These issues pick up the last bits of his run and they remain solid. The “team” here (and remember they are a non-team, so members rotate in and out as need be) consists of the mainstays Hulk, Dr. Strange, Valkyrie and Nighthawk along with Red Guardian and Luke Cage. There’s some basic in-fighting, some less than memorable baddies and a light dose of politics. It’s nothing too exciting, just good clean fun. It’s also here that I’m reminded of the biggest problem with these books—the Hulk.

Now the Hulk isn’t a bad character or concept, but in the pages of The Defenders he’s pure nuisance. Every other issue (and that’s being diplomatic, sometimes it feels like every other panel) The Defenders have to deal with the Hulk. They chase him, try to control his destruction, get into misunderstandings and fights and generally go in circles. It seems like whenever the author has pages to fill, the Hulk goes on a rampage and The Defenders have to try and calm him down. It’s repetitive, boring and inconsequential. More often than not it interrupts the current story and just annoys the heck out of me. Honestly, within The Defenders, I can’t stand the Hulk.

Heading back into the specific issues, a few fill-ins follow Steve Gerber. Gerry Conway, Roger Slifer and David Anthony Kraft do an adequate job following Gerber, but it feels like they’re spinning their wheels. Luke Cage decides here that The Defenders aren’t for him and we quickly see Hellcat take his place. She provides some great levity and cheesy charm—something The Defenders have always needed. Just think about it, The Defenders are a bunch of serious, often disgruntled folk. Dr. Strange, Namor, Hulk, Silver Surfer, Nighthawk, Valkyrie—they are a humourless bunch. Not a laugh to be had. Hellcat was a necessity.

Issue 46 is where things start to get interesting again, and where my favourite story arc begins. Kraft takes over as the solo writer (and colourist, nice!) and Keith Giffen becomes the regular artist. “Who Remembers Scorpio” is, subjectively speaking, the best Defenders story there is, lasting until issue 50. Here the pathetic villain Scorpio tries to get Kyle Richmond’s (Nighthawk’s alter ego) attention. He fails, getting his butt handed to him by the Defenders. Running alongside this story is a sub-plot involving Jack Norris (the estranged husband of Valkyrie’s former human host) and the mysterious figures stalking him. Suddenly, Nick Fury seems to be involved, Scorpio tries to resurrect the Zodiac out of loneliness and Moon Knight joins the fray.

Scorpio is a special villain and the main reason this arc is so amazing. He’s socially awkward but in a very understated way. Understatement in a 1970s comic … it’s as refreshing, surprising and brilliant as it sounds. Kraft doesn’t write him as a lunatic, but instead a loner. He seems obsessed with offering people beer and acting grandiose where surely he feels inadequate. He doesn’t think of himself as a bad person, but certainly a super villain. If you’re familiar with Jim Steranko’s Nick Fury work this story will have extra weight, but even without those tales Scorpio is a one of a kind villain. His arc against The Defenders is perfectly paced (with the exception of the obligatory rampaging Hulk issue) and heartbreaking. I won’t ruin anything for you, but the end is something special.

Issues following “Who Remembers Scorpio” are decent, but nowhere near as good. Kraft and Giffen briefly turn towards Russia, focusing on Red Guardian and touching on some political hot topics. Eventually other writers and artists pop in and out and as far as my collection goes, the issues get farther and farther apart. I was very impressed with the introduction of Devil Slayer and even happier to see Foolkiller make an appearance. These later issues are great, but still Hulk’s pointless anger tends to ruin things.

If you haven’t discovered The Defenders yet, it’s time you did. Go look for these issues cheap, they are packed full of story and once you get used to the quirks (ie Valkyrie always mentions that she’s hitting villains with the flat of her blade) these tales are incredibly rewarding.

 DC, Kobra #3, written by Martin Pasko, drawn by Keith Giffen, 1976

I read somewhere that Martin Pasko didn’t like Kobra. He considered it a gig for money, not art. Stemming from what was considered a rather weak Jack Kirby creation, Pasko took the concept and wrote for a paycheque. It’s tough reading something when you know there was no passion behind it, but even so, Kobra is actually really great.

Here we get Kobra, a cult-leader like super villain is linked with his twin brother, a normal, law abiding good guy. If one dies, so does the other! This creates an interesting dynamic as government agencies use the good brother to try and stop the titular villain. They can fight, but their connection causes all kinds of trouble.

Issue 3 is especially cool. Kobra is a super villain, complete with henchmen, weaponry, vehicles and the like, but here he needs his brother’s help. See, there’s a rival super villain, Solaris, who may be an even bigger threat than Kobra. The two brothers must work together to stop him, but they certainly can’t trust each other. Add into the mix a girl who has a relationship with the good brother and a mysterious past with Kobra and things really heat up.

The dialogue here is smart. Clichés aren’t rampant and characters tend to have their own voices, which is nice. The story moves at a good pace and keeps you interested the whole way through. The dynamic between the brothers is the real winner and feels earned instead of, say, a manufactured team-up like Spiderman and Dr. Doom.

Giffen provides the art and it looks much different than his work in The Defenders. If there’s any artist that can ape a style and get away with it, it’s Giffen. Whereas his Defenders work was very Jack Kirby, here he pulls a Carmine Infantino/Neal Adams vibe. It works and, as usual, his visual storytelling is spot on. There’s a reason this guy still works in the business.

This book isn’t well known or well loved, but Kobra is a great under-the-radar title. I can whole-heartedly recommend this issue!

Marvel, The Champions #2, written by Tony Isabella, drawn by Don Heck, 1976

Oh Champions, you aren’t The Defenders are you? You certainly aren’t The Avengers! Who then, might you be? Why do you exist? After reading issue 2, I cannot answer that question. I do still have a few more issues to read, so maybe it will become clear later?

This much is clear: The Champions is a strange book. We’ve got Hercules who seemingly takes the lead, Iceman and Angel before they become relevant in the X-Men again, Black Window (and Venus, though she doesn’t figure very predominantly and isn’t listed on the cover) filling the female spot and Ghost Rider … for some reason. Honestly, I can’t answer any questions about this book, refer here instead (http://www.comicsbulletin.com/reviews/5808/the-champions-classic-v1/).

So Pluto is up to no good. He wants Hercules to marry Hippolyta and Venus to marry Ares, and apparently he’s got Zeus’s blessing. There are nefarious notions behind the wedding bells, of course, but it’s a silly concept nonetheless. The team bands together, fights off the bad guys and realizes they are up against some real tough enemies. Oh no, what shall they do!?

I love that this book exists. It’s weird and by all accounts simply shouldn’t be, but there it is—Angel and Ghost Rider dueling with Greek gods because Hercules doesn’t like being told what to do. Characters that you’d never think to interact are right there, fighting side by side. It’s fascinating if only to find out what they could possibly do next. This isn’t a cut and dry concept, this is an “anything can happen and it doesn’t make sense anyway” idea.

The dialogue is fun if not a tad reliant on Greek-speak. “Thee” and “hath” get overused at every corner but characters like Ghost Rider seem eerily normal. It’s campy and better for it. Don Heck does a fine job on pencils as well, putting the action front and center and giving each character a distinct look.

If you’re looking for something not too different but definitely unexpected, try The Champions. I’m looking forward to reading the other issues I bought, who knows what will happen!  

Star*Reach, Star*Reach #1, written by Jim Starlin, Steve Skeates, Ed Hicks, Howard Chaykin, drawn by Jim Starlin, Steve Skeates, Walt Simonson and Howard Chaykin, 1974 (though, I got the 4th printing from 1978)

And here we are, the crown jewel of my 70s find. Star*Reach (yes, the asterisk is necessary) was an independent, mostly sci-fi themed anthology featuring stories from superstars like Jim Starlin and Howard Chaykin. Mike Friedrich (a hero round these CB parts) published the series and would eventually contribute stories as well, but this first issue is all about the big names.

We open with a Starlin tale that, at first, doesn’t seem like much. A man rides an elevator, does drugs and battles Death (as in the personification of death, grim reaper style). At first he looks like a normal guy, but as he enters the realm of the dead he turns into a warrior, trained by a mysterious group to end Death’s reign. This is classic Starlin, with deep, cerebral writing and beautifully detailed, clean art. Our warrior fails, but next up on the elevator is Starlin himself. It’s a great little story that seems strangely trivial. Just you wait.

Next up is Steve Skeates and his short, personal indie strip “Fish Myths”. This one is kind of messy, telling a little story about growing into adulthood, getting married and such. It’s the kind of indie strip we see quite often these days. Deeply personal, allegorical and honest, it didn’t really capture my interest. It was neat to see this kind of 2-pager right after a crazy intellectual Starlin slugfest, but it lacked in comparison.

“A Tale of Sword and Sorcery” follows being written by Ed Hicks and drawn by Walt Simonson. Of course I was excited to read this one (I’m a huge Simonson fan—who isn’t?), which made it all the more disappointing. Simonson is not in his top form here and I can’t say I really understood the story at all. A warrior meets a mage and they fight, but the mage tricks the warrior. I think. The ending makes me believe this was one big Dungeons and Dragons in-joke. I just didn’t get it and it wasn’t pretty enough to keep me interested.

Skeates then fills in another strip which is much like his first and it feels similarly out of place. I like that it was included, but again it didn’t hook me.

Then we get Howard Chaykin’s “Cody Starbuck”, the original headlining tale of this book. Oh boy. I just don’t know what to make of it. From what I could tell, Cody Starbuck is the space pirate/mercenary type. He rescues a girl, gets revenge on a traitorous ally and beats out some nasty political players. It’s drawn gorgeously—I can see why Chaykin was such a big deal, but the story is simply a mess. Names of characters, locations and events are thrown around at the speed of light, characters interact like they’re on the clock and just about everything happens without actually building up any reason to care. I didn’t enjoy this story at all, though I wish I did. Look at the pictures, try to understand what’s happening, but don’t feel bad if it flies over your head. Maybe that’s what Chaykin was going for.

And then it’s all redeemed. Starlin, who kickstarted the book in such grand fashion comes back to close it. And how! This final story starts with an old man recounting a tale to a young boy at bedtime. This is the tale of God and Death. I won’t ruin anything for you, but this is possibly my favourite thing Starlin has ever done. It enriches his first story tenfold and ends in such a bittersweet manner that I had to stare at my ceiling for a good ten minutes afterwards. I felt like I had just finished a long, rich graphic novel by Chris Ware or something. Yes, that special “can’t move a muscle and certainly can’t sleep for another 3 hours” feeling came from this Jim Starlin tale, in this very special 1970s black and white independent anthology. Wow.

Needless to say, if you see this book, buy it. Simple as that! Starlin’s story alone makes this an issue I will always treasure.

 

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