There’s this thing going around the net that I decided would make good column fodder. “Four comics you bought and read at age fourteen.”
Now, I was reading a LOT of comics at age fourteen. I had learned to generate my own income by mowing lawns and babysitting and so on, and the grocery store just up the street had changed newsstand distributors; they now stocked comics and lurid paperbacks instead of Sunset magazine and Taylor Caldwell.
I turned fourteen in November 1975, and just to make it easier I decided I would limit my picks to that month– that is to say, from my actual fourteenth birthday in the second week in November, to the second week in December. Even at that it was hard to narrow it down.
Here’s why. Let me set the stage a little. In the fall of 1975, in my little Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, nerd culture looked like this:
TV was slim pickings. There was no HBO, no home video– hell, there wasn’t really cable television as we know it today. TV consisted of the three networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS (Fox and the CW did not exist yet) and public television, PBS. Most cities had at least one independent as well– ours was KPTV, where you found syndicated reruns, the afternoon movie, and Portland Wrestling on Saturdays. Former governor Jesse Ventura got his start there, playing a heel with his partner Bull Ramos.
He had arrived the month before, in October, and was a fixture in Portland for quite a few years. (Blew my mind when he suddenly showed up in movies; I couldn’t believe it was the same guy at first, but there was no mistaking that voice.)
As far as my little geek corner of TV was concerned, it was all about the bionic wave. The Six Million Dollar Man was a hit and everyone wanted a piece of that action– the premieres that year included The Invisible Man with David McCallum and The Bionic Woman, among others, with many more to follow. (I still have a soft spot for 1977’s Exo-Man… not Martin Caidin’s finest hour but I still kinda like it. Mostly because leading man David Ackroyd leans into it like it’s Oscar bait.)
Star Trek was just reruns of the original series during the week– sometimes, it wasn’t always there– and the animated show on Saturday mornings.
This new thing Space: 1999 was pretty cool-looking and some kid named Byrne was tearing it up on the comics adaptation, though I’d learned pretty quickly that most episodes of the show ended with some sort of ambiguous WTF plot development, followed by Barry Morse staring out a viewport at the stars and shaking his head. “We may never know.”
Movies, a year and a half before Star Wars, weren’t offering much either. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Other Side of the Mountain were the big hits in theaters; I had no interest in those, though if I’d known about A Boy and His Dog I’d have really been trying to figure out how to see that. As it was, I was mostly being tormented by the ads for Dr. Syn. (Which I still haven’t seen, damn it. Even the Disney paperback is maddeningly elusive, though we have the Hammer version of the story here.)
I’d just started high school and the nerd posse I’d have there for the next four years was taking shape. In particular, I’d met my friend Joe, who played guitar and knew about all sorts of cool bands. Under his influence I’d recently started to haunt record stores as well, and my first purchase with my own money was Moonmadness, from Camel; a shudderingly expensive $7.99. For my birthday Joe had gifted me with Young And Rich from the Tubes.
All on vinyl, of course– it was the only game in town. I played those records until almost all you could hear was the crackle of the scratches. (Today’s vinyl snobs are idiots. When CDs showed up in the 80s, all of us who’d spent years screwing around with needles and cleaners and everything else jumped on board and never looked back.) But mostly for music we hung out at Joe’s, who had a huge record collection and far and away the best stereo.
Such was the landscape. Which was why, at age fourteen, my primary entertainments were books and comics from places I could walk to–I hadn’t quite reached the age where I was okay with defying my mother’s edict about never taking the bus into The City–and since this was all acquired with lawnmowing money, the best bang for the buck were paperbacks at ninety-five cents (recently up from seventy-five) and comics for a quarter.
Paperbacks first. I’m approximating this from memory and publication dates, but this is my best recollection. In that fall of 1975, I’d just discovered Doc Savage and the Wold Newton Family, which served as a sort of shopping list for me, and I’d fallen in love with the Steranko Shadow paperbacks from Pyramid. I’d also started picking up the Laser Books series edited by Roger Elwood (the numbering and the Kelly Freas covers directly targeted my fannish OCD, though there was nothing linking the stories beyond that.) And I was usually a sucker for movie and TV tie-ins (no home video, remember– I used these books as a substitute. Sometimes I’d stumble across interesting authors to follow in cases like The Night Stalker and Cyborg and Logan’s Run, where the tie-in was actually just a re-issue of the original novel with a new photo cover.)
But mostly it was comics. I was all about Marvel, that fall. Here’s what was going on in the Marvel Universe, courtesy of the Mighty Marvel Checklist.
Over in Daredevil we were meeting Bullseye for the first time, Kirby was going full-tilt on the Madbomb Saga over in Captain America, and Thor was wrapping up his battle with the Time Twisters. Those were the ones I remember the most vividly and they almost made the cut for this column… but really I was in for most all of those listed here, and the ones I missed back then I’ve acquired in the years since; some in the single issues, but most of them are here in reprint paperbacks of some kind or another.
I was still picking up a few titles from DC, as well…. mostly oddball fringe stuff. Let’s start with one of those as the representative four, in a spirit of fairness. Hercules Unbound #3.
I had picked this title up primarily because it was a #1 issue a couple of months back, but Gerry Conway’s hot mess of a post-apocalyptic Earth mashed up with classic Greek mythology had me hooked, and I liked the DC version of Hercules here a lot better than the Marvel one then currently on display in The Champions.
This one had Hercules venturing into the depths of Hades to rescue Jennifer Monroe, accompanied by his friend the blind youth Kevin and his dog Basil. Kevin was still a little dubious about this whole mythology-is-real thing. For my part, I was digging it, and it didn’t hurt that the art was from Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez with finishes by Wally Wood. Along the way, Herc and Kevin run into Orpheus, who decides he’s in on the rescue.
Of course there’s a big fight. And Lord Pluto has Opinions.
Jennifer is rescued, eventually, and the surprise ending is that Orpheus turns out to be DEAD ALL ALONG! Which is not much of a surprise for those of us that knew the myths, and I’m a little surprised Hercules didn’t already know, but what the hell; it’s a fun comic. The entire run of Hercules Unbound is reprinted as part of Showcase Presents The Great Disaster.
My favorite Marvel title at that time was unquestionably The Defenders from Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema. So absolutely that title had to be included on this list of four. That month was #32, the second chapter of the “Nighthawk’s Brain!” saga, featuring the Headmen.
As we open, the Defenders are very concerned after Nighthawk, one of their own, has turned on them. Dr. Strange has called in a consultant…
…but the Son of Satan has no luck figuring out what’s wrong with Nighthawk either.
One of the great things about that era of the book was that other Marvel heroes would just drop by. If the team needed something, Doc or Clea would get on the phone to Daimon Hellstrom or Luke Cage or whoever and they’d come help out. The reason none of the mystics are having any luck with Nighthawk is because the cause is not magical, but scientific. His brain has been surgically replaced– with that of Chondu, the Headmen’s resident sorcerer. The real Nighthawk’s brain is sitting in a dish at Headmen HQ. Where the group’s fourth member is about to debut.
Sal Buacema, at the time, was somewhat looked down on; it’s not his fault, since he was almost always compared to his brother John, and Sal himself would have been the first to tell you that John was infinitely better. But that doesn’t mean Sal wasn’t good. As a character artist I think he was one of the best ones working then. His faces are all consistent but they have a huge variety of expression. Moreover, in Defenders Gerber was throwing all kinds of crazy shit at him to draw and Sal just handled it. Like in the hallucinatory autobiographical sequence here– as a disembodied brain, Nighthawk has no sensory input at all, so he is just reliving his memories.
Even in this hallucination sequence, Sal managed to sneak in that patented Sal Buscema punch.
The whole story took about a year to unspool and you can find it here, in Essential Defenders volume three.
The other big Marvel event for me that month was the beginning of the epic crossover in Invaders #5 that introduced the Liberty Legion.
I had gotten into Invaders the same way I did Hercules Unbound; I picked up #1 just because it was a #1. I was not really a serious collector, not at fourteen, but I had internalized the idea that a #1 was a Big Deal. And I liked the idea of getting in on something from the beginning, since catching up was a lot more work back then.
What kept me around was the infectious fanboy enthusiasm of scripter Roy Thomas, who was clearly having a a ball. This was also the title where I learned to appreciate the art of Frank Robbins, whose jagged, improvisational look that had bothered me so much on Batman fit the Golden Age vibe of the Invaders perfectly. As it happens he was supplanted in this issue by Rich Buckler and Dick Ayers, but I didn’t mind. The vibe was still there.
The Red Skull captures the Invaders and brainwashes all of them into fighting on the side of the Nazis… all but Bucky, that is, who the Skull can’t be bothered with: he’s just a mascot, he doesn’t have powers. As soon as Bucky recovers from his beating, he is off to the White House to demand help from FDR.
Roosevelt blows him off, so that sets the stage for Bucky to go recruiting, as we would see a few weeks later over in Marvel Premiere.
You get the sense Thomas really wanted the Liberty Legion to be a thing. In just a few months he wrote another big story where the Legion co-starred in a big crossover between Fantastic Four and Marvel Two-In-One. I guess nobody bit, though, because that was it for a while. But as for me, I loved it all. You can find both crossovers in this nice hardcover.
Some may be wondering where the Batman books are on this list. I mean come on, we all know Hatcher’s a Bat guy, one of the four has to be a Batman book.
But honestly I was still bummed out that the wonderful 100-page spectaculars were gone; DC comics in 1975 had shrunk to anemic 17-page things that felt like brochures. My favorite writers Denny O’Neil and Archie Goodwin weren’t in evidence on the Batman titles either. Instead we were getting bloodless gimmick stories by David V. Reed. Nuts to that.
But on the fringes, you had interesting stuff like The Joker, and I was down for that.
Especially since this seemed to be where Denny O’Neil had migrated to. That month was a delightful clash between the Joker and– sort of–Sherlock Holmes.
I had recently had my interest in Holmes reawakened by the paperback of The Seven Per Cent Solution, and though it was nowhere near the tsunami that was coming, I’d started picking up Holmes pastiches when I saw them. I had just begun this quest that would grow over the decades to take over almost an entire wall-high shelf in the front room (as of this writing.)
But even just a few weeks into the quest I’d scored a couple, off that same paperback spinner rack.
We didn’t actually get to SEE Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother until last year. Found it on YouTube. Someone made them take it down or I’d point you to it.
Somehow I’d managed to miss the DC adaptation of “The Final Problem”/”The Empty House.” Again scripted by Denny O’Neil, with some very nice art from E.R. Cruz.
But O’Neil quickly established his Holmes cred with me in this Joker story, and it was just fun. Of course it’s not really Sherlock Holmes, it’s a method actor that gets clonked on the head; but it’s enough, and O’Neil quickly provides him with a Watson.
There’s lots of clever wordplay and clues and puzzles and it was just a delight from start to finish. This was back when DC actually allowed the Joker to make, y’know, jokes.
You can find this story a couple of different places today, but the easiest is in The Joker: Clown Prince of Crime.
So there you go. After an absurd number of revisions and rationalizations, that’s my four-at-fourteen. Feel free to play along with your own down in the comments. And I’ll be back next week with something cool.
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