One of my firm conditions for starting up this site was that we wouldn’t feel like we were obligated to keep up with new comics news, because frankly only a couple of us are actually current with industry doings. And after over a decade at the old stand as a columnist and as a forums admin, I’d had more than enough of fan slapfights about what DC or Marvel should be doing.
So the news about the big purge at DC came as a complete shock to me; I only heard about it because some friends found themselves suddenly out of work, including our old boss Jonah. Suddenly all my social media feeds were filled with doomsaying blog posts about how it’s the end for DC and maybe even monthly comics as a whole.
Honestly? It might well be. It’s happened with pulps, with men’s adventure paperbacks, with movie serials, and probably other things I’m forgetting. Time passes. Popular tastes fade.
Eventually there are only a few of us hardcore nerds that even remember these things. I mean, I’m used to being the only guy in the room that remembers Attar the Merman or The Fantastic Journey, but I’ve met young people who have no idea who the Lone Ranger is, other than the vague memory of a flop movie starring Johnny Depp.
I have to own up. I just can’t get worked up about the death of comics as 32-page monthly booklets. They stopped being what I think of as comic books almost three decades ago. I’ll spare you the rant about how once upon a time, a single issue of a comic book was a complete reading experience, as opposed to an under-written, incomprehensible-to-new-readers chapter in an absurdly-prolonged and padded narrative — you’ve already heard it from me, and Jim MacQuarrie, and others all over the internet. Many, many times. If it really is the end for monthly comics, we’ve seen it coming for years now. Assuming the bigwigs at DC’s parent corporation are finally figuring out they don’t know how to sell the actual comics to anyone but the Wednesday faithful, well, it’s not like we weren’t warned.
Still, I can’t help but feel a little twinge.
As annoyed as I have been with various publishing decisions they’ve made over the years, nevertheless, DC Comics as an institution has literally shaped the course of my life: starting from the age of six all the way up to the almost sixty-year-old typing these words today. Throughout grade school and junior high school, especially, the fictional DC heroes were probably a bigger influence on me than anyone in real life, including my parents. I have very little recollection of times with my family back then but my memories of the comics and where I first found them are as sharp and vivid as yesterday.
I got to thinking about that, and reminiscing, and I decided I’d share some of those reminiscences with you.
It started in 1967, really. I had been introduced to superheroes through the Adam West Batman and Saturday morning cartoons back in 1966 but the gateway to the comics themselves came a little later. It was the 1967-68 revamp of the Filmation Superman, when it became The Superman-Aquaman Hour.
I absolutely adored this show. And I was overjoyed to discover there were books as well: the first book I ever bought with my own money was the Aquaman Big Little Book Scourge of the Sea, for the staggering sum of thirty-nine cents.
It was a pretty damn big hunk of Grandma’s birthday dollar but it was so worth it. I read it to tatters.
However, my favorite part of this show wasn’t the cartoons starring either of the title heroes. No, it was the in-between filler ones starring the B-listers like Flash and Green Lantern and Hawkman and the Atom and the (Robin-less, because of the aforementioned Adam West show) Teen Titans. And the best of all was when they combined forces as the (Batman-less, same reason) Justice League of America.
My experience with the Big Little Book had alerted six-year-old me to the notion that there were print versions. And I sort of knew what comic books were from seeing Gold Key and Classics Illustrated stuff at the doctor’s office. But still, when I saw this on the drugstore spinner rack, it just about took the top of my head off. Flash #178.
These were the same characters I knew from the cartoons…even though they were in the wrong outfit sometimes, like Kid Flash.
…but there was so much more. In just this one book I saw Flash and Kid Flash having to cope with dimensional rifts, time travel, and also fighting giants and dinosaurs.
Then there was the Golden Age Flash, who I’d never heard of, but I was entranced with the idea of parallel universes.
Even better was the throwdown with the two supervillains… that was just a side issue along with the menace to all life on Earth.
And then Flash and Green Lantern have to deal with an alien invasion.
A seriously hardcore alien invasion.
That was it. From that day forward for the next three years I was ride-or-die with the DC Giants. Any time I could scrounge a quarter that was where it went.
Mostly Superman and Batman, just because there were more of them. But I was always up for a Flash Giant as well. And I really loved the special collection of old Aquaman stories that showed up out of the blue one month, after Aquaman’s regular book was canceled. The Ramona Fradon art was a revelation.
By the dawn of the seventies, though, the bloom was off the rose a little. I was in the fourth grade or thereabouts, and I’d discovered that admitting to liking comics was a good way to get beaten up. Especially “Na-na-na-na-na-Batman!” comics. I was also beginning to grasp, after seeing it again in syndication, that maybe the Adam West show wasn’t as serious as I’d thought it was when I was six. That maybe… it might even be making fun of Batman, which meant it was making fun of me.
I was going to be ten pretty soon. Maybe it was time to put away childish things. Maybe the jocks were right that Batman was stupid and Robin was even stupider.
But then, in the summer of 1971, two books changed my mind.
The first was Batman #234.
This was my introduction to the O’Neil-Adams Batman, and it felt as life-changing as Flash #178 had been a few years before. This was the hard-edged, serious take on Batman I had been craving. And Two-Face, even though I’d never heard of him before, immediately became my favorite Bat-villain ever.
Acres of words have been written about how groundbreaking this was and there’s no need to rehash it all here.
But even more amazing, as far as I was concerned, was that not only had this comic served as reassurance that Batman was still cool, it showed me Robin could be cool TOO. “Vengeance For A Cop!” from Mike Friedrich and Irv Novick was as awesomely tough as an episode of the (then-current) Mod Squad, a show my brother and I were very fond of despite our mother’s dark mutterings about ‘hippie cops.’
And the comic’s format in and of itself was kind of a new, hip version of the 25-cent Giant format I’d fallen in love with back in January of 1968. New story in the lead, an interesting backup in the middle, and then a reprint (often with relevant historical context noted) to close it out.
The one that sealed the deal came out at the same time and I bought that one too.
Justice League of America #92 was another 25-cent giant bonanza as far as I was concerned. First of all, it was a team-up with the Justice Society of Earth-2, which was still a concept that delighted me. This time the gimmick was to have the heroes doubled straight across– Superman and Superman, Hawkman and Hawkman, and so on.
But the coolest thing about it was that it guest-starred the same modern cool Robin I’d loved so much in the Batman book (not surprising, since both were scripted by Mike Friedrich)– AND he got a groovy new outfit, too.
The reprints weren’t world-shaking, but they were good. A relic from DC’s science-fiction era….
And also an interesting Flash tale, “The One-Man Justice League.”
I swear I remember this like it was last week. We were on a family vacation at my grandma’s cabin on Mount Hood, and both books came from the spinner rack at the supermarket that anchored a tiny strip mall in Welches. (Julie and I went looking on one of our trips a few years back. It’s still there. No longer just a market, though. Like so many other places in Oregon, it’s gone all Portlandia on us.)
Those comics saved the trip for me, believe me. I spent most of the rest of it trying to figure out how to draw both the Robin outfits– the adult Robin’s odd hybrid Bat-Robin outfit intrigued me, too.
At any rate, that was the end of my doubts about liking comics. The one-two punch of those books got me back on board. My nine-year-old self was all the way in. Never leaving you, superhero comics. We’re together for all time.
When we got back home there was another wild innovation from DC waiting for me on the spinner rack at Village Drug. (That was the hell of a good summer for DC; take a look at just that month.)
It seems ridiculous now but I really had to think about dropping fifty whole cents on a comic book. But it looked so awesome… and finally I caved, though I hid it from my mother, who would have been horrified by such an extravagance. But just check out what was in that thing.
I cannot stress enough how all of this was new to me, and it reawakened my driving need to know all the history. Marvel was pretty easy to get caught up on in 1971, their heroes had only been around for a decade and their old stuff was in print every month in Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest and so on.
But old DC stories were often tantalizingly out of reach, because there were just so MANY of them. I know that seems insane to a modern audience that can whistle up archival hardcovers of damn near anything just with a credit card and an internet connection. Nevertheless, in 1971 it was almost like trying for a Ph.D in archaeology to get all the DC superhero lore straight, what with the multiple Earths and all the attendant superheroes and alien worlds and so on… and of course the books were long out of print and there was no option other than mail-order to sketchy dealers for back issues. Or maybe, if you were in a big city, you might luck into a used bookstore or thrift shop that had a random pile of old comics. The point is, at DC older stories were often alluded to but there was no way to READ them except for maybe this book if you could find it.
(Even the beloved “30s to the 70s” hardcover collections featuring Batman and the Marvel Family were a little ways off, though I think the Superman collection might have been out in 1971; not anywhere in my neighborhood, though, that’s for sure.)
But that was IT. In 1971 there were no Les Daniels coffee-table histories, no comics shop back-issue bins, nothing. Comics were magazines; most kids didn’t keep them any more than their parents kept old copies of Better Homes and Gardens. Unless you had been a hardcore fan collecting since the late fifties there simply was no way to get AT the stuff. (That was the eventual justification for Crisis on Infinite Earths, but what Marv Wolfman and Len Wein never understood was that though it probably was hard on the writers, for us youthful nerdy readers, discovering the answers to various historical and continuity things was part of the fun. )
Which was why it was finally getting to see the first JLA/JSA crossover at last that sold the book to me. Although the other stories were all great too: Nelson Bridwell was the guy putting these anthologies together and he had a real knack for it.
A couple of months later this one showed up.
And this one.
I had a birthday dollar from Aunt Bea and my resistance to the expenditure had broken by then. I forked over the entire bill with a song in my heart, vibrating with anticipatory glee at my 200-page purchase all the way home.
The Superman one was interesting just for the sheer weirdness of its roster: I had never heard of Kid Eternity, Air Wave, or Super Chief, but I was always up for learning new DC arcana. The badass Batman on the cover sold the second one to me, but of the two books, overall, as far as I was concerned the origin of the Doom Patrol was the showpiece.
I fell swooningly in love with them and it was maddening to realize that their comic was canceled. This was all I was ever going to get, probably.
(It was, too, until I finally managed to snag the DC Showcase books a couple of years ago.)
As much as I dug the Doom Patrol, a close runner-up was the Legion story introducing Duplicate Boy.
And I was entranced with the key to the characters on the cover. FINALLY I knew who everyone was in the Legion.
That time when the regular books were 52-page giants, with the occasional 100-page MEGA-giant showing up, is probably my favorite period of DC history. I was just a kid and had no idea of the frantic sense of competition with Marvel, to say nothing of the ultimatums DC was getting from Independent News Distributors about price points and so on, that were fueling most of these publishing decisions. All I knew as a reader was that it felt like they were just swinging for the fences, every month. The new stuff was extraordinary, with Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Kirby’s Fourth World and THE Batman, and even lesser books like Lois Lane and Superboy were trying things I’d never thought possible. Suddenly Tarzan and the war books were on my radar too.
I was in for almost all of it but it was the 100-pagers I liked best.
Jeff Nettleton has occasionally remarked that these were the trade paperback collections of their time and certainly, at age eleven, 100 pages was absolutely a book by my reckoning. Hell, that was longer than some of the Scholastic Book Club paperbacks you got at school.
So when DC went all-in on that format a year or so later I was THERE for it. I didn’t even mind the raise in price from 50 to 60 cents. I was doing yard work and such around the neighborhood by then and could afford it.
My very favorite, as I have said in print many times, was the extraordinary run on Detective with Archie Goodwin and other stellar talents that gave us classics like “Night of the Stalker.”
…and, of course, Manhunter.
The reprints were cool too; they kind of had their own continuity thing going, as you can see from the house ad on this page.
Detective wasn’t the only game in town, though. As far as I was concerned Batman was right up there with it. Take this one, another favorite from that time. Batman #255.
That one led off with “Moon of the Wolf” from Len Wein and Neal Adams, one of my all-time favorite Bat stories.
The reprints were pretty awesome too. “The First Batman,” a story that would play a huge role in Grant Morrison’s Batman run four decades later…
…and Robin’s first clash with Crazy-Quilt, another story we’d see referenced a couple of decades later when Doug Moench and Don Newton showed us Jason Todd taking the role of Robin.
(I occasionally wonder if Doug Moench and Grant Morrison had this comic. I mean, it reprints stuff they both mined for their own material….)
Speaking of Len Wein, he and Dick Dillin were killing it on Justice League. Issue #110 is another one I read to pieces.
The lead story was a nifty Christmas offering that was also my introduction to Green Lantern John Stewart.
And the denouement with the surprise appearance of the Phantom Stranger was just candy to my twelve-year-old self. I didn’t even care how he saved everyone, though in hindsight it is a bit of a cheat on Mr. Wein’s part.
I still loved it, corny as it was; although I have to admit the bit with Black Canary doing the Christmas baking and sewing (BECAUSE SHE’S THE GIRL) certainly hasn’t aged well. Nevertheless, even today it makes me smile.
The reprints were solid too. The Justice Society story about kid gangs is deservedly regarded as a classic and worth it just for the art from Alex Toth and Carmine Infantino.
And the other reprint was the wrapup of Zatanna’s search for her father.
Remember the house ad up above? Well, SPOILER– in one of the weirdest plot twists Gardner Fox ever dreamed up, it turned out the witch was Zatanna herself, hypnotized by the Outsider and sent in disguise to attack Batman and Robin. (You can find the whole saga collected in the paperback Zatanna’s Search with a nifty new cover from Brian Bolland.)
(Don’t even ask me about the mysterious Outsider. That plot twist was even nuttier than the Zatanna/witch thing.)
That was my Golden Age at DC. Man, those were exhilarating days to be reading comics.
But then, suddenly, it all went to hell. By the end of 1974 it was over. The super-sized books apparently had been losing money hand over fist, even printing on the cheapest newsprint possible. With no warning at all the books shrunk from 100 pages for 60 cents to 17 (plus ads) for 20 cents, soon to be raised to 25. And on that shitty paper they felt thinner than a realtor’s brochure.
Worse, all the cool experimentation mostly went away as well. It wasn’t like they weren’t trying— we got the sword-and-sorcery stuff like Stalker and Claw, interesting SF like Hercules Unbound and Star Hunters, and pulp-derived titles like The Shadow and Justice, Inc. and Richard Dragon.
But none of it stuck. Most of the books didn’t make it to double digits. Even stuff that started out looking like a home run, for example the revived Green Lantern/Green Arrow from Denny O’Neil and Mike Grell…
…seriously, that debut issue is probably one of my favorite stories from that era. And Grell even put in a Vulcan, which felt like something extra just for me.
But O’Neil and Grell couldn’t keep it up. The quality of the stories fell off pretty quickly– this was a low point for Mr. O’Neil in his personal life, he admitted years later, and he was kind of phoning it in. And Grell was getting remarkably shitty inking from Vince Colletta. By the time Grell left the book a dozen or so issues later it was a mess.
And that was pretty much the case all over the DC line. By 1975 I’d largely swung over to Marvel for my superhero reading. By the time I graduated high school in 1979, I’d discovered booze and weed and girls and mostly given up comics altogether.
Five remarkably shitty years for me followed, about which further deponent sayeth not. But I did come back to comics eventually, and it was DC that got me there.
This is running long, though, so we’ll save that particular reminiscence for next time. See you then.
Housekeeping Note One: Julie’s continuing to mend, and many thanks to those who’ve sent good wishes. She says love to you all. We’re still spending way too much time in hospitals– I’ve written a couple of columns there while waiting for her to have tests done, just as a distraction to keep from stewing myself into a seizure or something– but we’re hanging in there. The schedule is still pretty erratic, though, so I won’t commit to being here every single week again for a little while yet.
Housekeeping Note Two: As usual, if you should happen to click on one of the many Amazon links above and you end up purchasing an item– ANY item, not necessarily the one at the link — the Junk Shop gets a referral fee. If you feel a shopping spree coming on, please consider using our gateway. It helps to defray the costs around here and then we don’t have to put up annoying ads. Thanks.