Taken within the context of the outrageous whole, rare is the comic book masterpiece. For the most part, comic book stories are adequate entertainment, serviceable and sufficient. In that light, the demands on them need not be so great and we can simply enjoy reading them, especially the older ones. What was once wholeheartedly dismissible becomes, in my humble view, quaintly tolerable, even downright respectable when compared to many highly-touted and subsequently disappointing comic books that I find myself purchasing lately (with one notable exception that I will be addressing in a bit).
For example, let’s look at Superman Family #222 (September, 1982). It was the title’s last issue. Supergirl would graduate to her own magazine, and Lois Lane would tag along as the backup feature. Jimmy Olsen would remain a supporting character in other Superman books, and Mr. and Mrs. Superman — the Golden Age Superman and his wife Lois of Earth-2 — would enter comic book limbo. Historically, that’s about it.
But you know me. It’s still a comic book to read. And at this particular time, given the disgusting, horrible and horrifying news stories being reported today and the sad fact that there weren’t many comics released last week that I’m jazzed about reading right now (with, I reiterate, one notable exception), it’s a terrific comic to escape in for a little while.
In the first story, starring Supergirl, the Maid of Steel, in her secret identity of Linda Danvers, has become a soap opera star and is feeling the pressures of the job, so much so that she decides to quit and go back to school. In the second story, Jimmy Olsen comes to the aid of a framed friend, Inspector Henderson. In the third story, Lois Lane, stuck in a dull day, has matters pick up when her identity is stolen and she is soon forced to solve her own murder (identity theft was certainly a lot more deadly in the early 1980s). In the fourth and final tale, Mr. and Mrs. Superman and pal Lana Lang as Insect Queen battle and defeat an invasion of super-evolved fleas. That’s right, super-evolved fleas.
Harmless as this book is, Superman Family #222 is the type of comic, unarguably one of thousands, that enraged and disturbed Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth, inspiring him to consider publishing his own comics. But when Groth stumbled upon the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets he knew he was on to something far removed from mainstream comics. What Groth had discovered and soon published was one of many literary gems that led the way in comics/sequential art attaining artistic respectability; in other words, a perfect example of that rare comic book masterpiece. So as catalyst for revolution, you can’t speak highly enough of Superman Family, Unexpected, and its ilk. So raise those dusty, neglected issues of Weird War Tales, The Unknown Soldier, and Ghosts high with pride and give them a read during the most trying of times! You will feel a little better. Then really show your appreciation by reading Locas and Palomar. You’ll feel a lot better.
Groth, bless ‘im, is the man behind the publication of The Complete Peanuts series, and the latest edition, 1961-1962, came out last week and that’s the notable exception I’ve been leading up to, for good reason, throughout this column. This book is a comics masterpiece. Charles M. Schulz had hit a remarkable creative stride with the strip; there are splendid sight gags and thoughtful philosophical humor, not to mention Lucy’s failed attempts to take poor Linus’ blanket away and Sally’s fear of kindergarten and Charlie Brown braving the baseball season with the worst team imaginable (although Snoopy’s fielding skills are quite good). Frieda, she of the naturally curly hair, is introduced, Shermy’s appearances continue to dwindle, Linus gets glasses, and Sally seriously doubts the existence of Santa Claus. This is hilarious material. My favorite Peanuts character, Schroeder, gets the cover spotlight for this latest edition of The Complete Peanuts, and I am one happy, happy camper.
When I was a kid reading Peanuts — years before I shifted to The Hardy Boys and then to The Three Investigators and finally to DC comic books — the strips were collected haphazardly by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. in softcover editions and then broken down into cheaper paperbacks, which unfortunately did no justice to the Sunday strips. I’ve included here the cover of Peanuts For Everybody, which published selected cartoons from We’re Right Behind You, Charlie Brown, which printed selected strips from the series run in newspapers during 1961 and 1962.
According to the release schedule at the DC Comics website, two comics of astronomical anticipation are due out at the end of October: Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers #1 and Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s Planetary #26. I believe Seven Soldiers was originally set to conclude on April 5 and then it got rescheduled to June and then it got bumped again to October, so if there’s one thing comics will teach you, it’s patience. Planetary started as a monthly comic in 1999 so theoretically it should have concluded a long time ago, but it’s one of those comics that takes its own sweet time getting published. However, protracted anticipation is not a bad thing when you’re waiting on a comic as great as Planetary. However, if the comics that came out last week aren’t tiding me over, and there’s still a ways to go before Seven Soldiers and Planetary come out, what is there besides The Complete Peanuts to while away the time on a high note? DMZ. The Civil War comic. Issue 12 due out this week.
I did read Detective Comics #824 last night and really enjoyed it (hey, there were good comics published last week!). I like how Paul Dini is writing self-contained stories, reminds me of the early 1970s when most Batman tales were told in a single issue. There’s still a major difference, though, in that those older Batman tales featured only Batman; there wasn’t much cross-continuity with other DC superheroes, and the Caped Crusader’s Rogues Gallery rarely made appearances. In Detective Comics #824, The Penguin, The Riddler, Lois Lane and Zatanna are all on hand, which makes for a fairly crowded 22-page story. To compare I read Batman #248 (April, 1973) and it keeps the necessary participants to a minimum: the second appearance of a new villain, Captain Sulphur, his hired help, a couple of panels with Alfred, and the heart of the story, a man released from prison after being incarcerated for thirty years for treason. The turncoat soldier had hidden a priceless diamond before he was convicted of supplying highly classified information to the Japanese during World War II, and it’s the quest for the diamond that drives the story. It’s actually very good, written by Denny O’Neil and illustrated by Bob Brown and Dick Giordano. Bob Brown did his fair share of Batman tales, but he’s hardly ever spoken in the same breath as Neal Adams, Irv Novick, Jim Aparo, and Frank Robbins, who were also depicting Batman at that time. There’s also a cool backup feature starring Robin, back in the day when he was a college student at Hudson University. It’s a surprisingly moving tale involving a ‘haunted’ castle and its tragic secret. And the whole package is empowered by a dandy Mike Kaluta cover!
I just know there are dozens of you out there who often wonder what a confrontation between Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter and Swamp Thing would be like, and I know it’s hard to accept that most likely we’ll never see that battle happen. Fortunately, there has been a close encounter of the Marvelous kind pitting Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu against Marvel’s mighty Man-Thing. It happened in the pages of The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu #19, way back in 1974. Written by Steve Englehart and illustrated by Paul Gulacy, Shang-Chi actually gets a good portion of his body stuck inside the Man-Thing’s torso and has to be pulled out by some pretty hardy rescuer. Eeewwww! Maybe DC read this and figured a Richard Dragon vs. Swamp Thing story wasn’t such a good idea after all.
What could possibly eclipse the Fall season, the new prime time television season, the college season, the pro football season, and the baseball playoffs season? Why, the General Election season, of course. I’ve got my California General Election Voter Information Guide right here, almost two hundred pages of convoluted political intrigue, packed full of measures, propositions, amendments, statutes, arguments and rebuttals. The oft-times indecipherable fine print makes The New England Journal of Medicine read like Highlights For Children. To counter my tackling this loaded tome I read a measure, read a comic, read a proposition, read a comic, ponder an argument, read a comic, study a rebuttal, read a comic. Now that’s the American Way. To make it even more lively, I’ve taken to reading Steve Darnall and Alex Ross’ Uncle Sam, a shamefully underrated portrait of the abuse of the American Dream. For all its despair there’s an uplifting edge to it, and politics aside (and there’s a lot of political finger-pointing in Uncle Sam, my apologies to the right), it’s nice to see a fallen American icon get back on his feet again. On that optimistic note, it’s time to discern Proposition 87.