Quarantined In the Bronze Age of Comics (Mostly)

Since I gave up having any kind of pull list several years back (because my beloved old comics retailer of three decades gave up having a store) comics have come into our home in bursts and binges. Never single issues, but always as book collections of one kind or another.

Almost never new, and never at full price. I pre-order things at a big discount, and I get a lot of stuff remaindered. So I am rarely current with what’s going on in DC or Marvel’s monthly titles, but on the other hand I find wonderful collections of all kinds of stuff– often in hardcover!– for ridiculously low prices.

We’ve had one of those burst-binge periods going on for the last few weeks here. Part of it’s just timing– spring and fall seem to be when a lot of these pre-ordered books come out. Part of it’s come from quarantine boredom, surfing retailer sites and finding amazing deals like a fifty-dollar hardcover going for eight bucks including shipping. Part of it is wanting to prop up our favorite bookstores as much as I can.

And if I’m honest, some of it’s been retail therapy. The times are uncertain, the news is depressing, and a great many of our fellow citizens seem to have lost their minds.

I’ve never seen so much mistrust and ignorance and sheer denial of basic scientific knowledge in my life. I mean, I’m just a guy who reads a lot, and even I know that a great deal of what allegedly smart people are saying on my television wouldn’t pass the laugh test in 7th-grade biology. (A class that even a humanities nerd like myself passed, by the way. I am not at all sure the pundits who get paid infuriating amounts of money to spout nonsense on national television–with no one correcting them!–can say the same.) In fact, the only other time in American history that I can think of where so many people were this paranoid and prone to mob hysteria is the Salem witch trials.

This has been hugely dispiriting to both my wife Julie and me, since we see the pandemic and the havoc it is wreaking on health care up close, every day. It’s bad enough dealing with the outbreak of a killer virus without also dealing with an even more virulent outbreak of stupid. Even though I remain certain the idiots are in the minority, somehow they seem to have the biggest megaphones… and they also happen to be in charge.

The helpless anger and frustration at all of this gets debilitating. Ever since I was a little kid, being dragged along on a course of action that’s clearly wrong, just because the people in charge are worried about appearances or something, has been a huge red-hot button for me. (I vividly remember yelling at my mother, “Isn’t BEING stupid worse that LOOKING stupid?!?” The discussion concerned why she refused to divorce the man who regularly beat her, and thus keeping my four-year-old brother and me trapped in a hostage situation. I was nine. Five decades later I still get angry thinking about it.)

Fortunately the coping mechanism I developed then still works, thank God; retreating to a safe place with a big pile of comics and a bottle of pop. It’s diet pop these days and the comics are books you can actually shelve, but it’s still where I go to hide out from the world. Mostly it’s Batman, as recounted here and here…. but some other stuff gets in too. Here’s the rest of the quarantine-acquisitions pile.

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Crisis on Infinite Earths Companion, Volume One

…and Volume Two.

These are books collecting all the tie-in stories DC was doing in the regular monthly comics during the summer of 1985, when the original Crisis on Infinite Earths was in full swing. Surprisingly, though the 12-issue Crisis series itself has been collected in various editions in both hardcover and paperback, never going out of print since its first appearance, no one got around to putting together the ancillary stuff until last year… I assume because of the television adaptation on the CW.

I was having a rough year in 1985, and the excitement generated by this event was one of the few bright spots. I know that now we’re all jaded about Big Event Crossovers that will Change Everything Forever, but this was the first one. (No, I don’t count Secret Wars over at Marvel, because those changes were minor.) But when Crisis rolled out, at the time it was unheard of for stodgy old DC Comics to be trying new things and shaking up their entire line. You really had to be there.

So this was mostly a nostalgia buy for me, especially since I got my copies for considerably less than half-price. Objectively, though, I have to admit the two volumes are very much a mixed bag and very much only for hardcore DC aficionados (but also objectively, if that’s you, there’s lots to like here and you will enjoy them.) Several of the stories reprinted here are little one-offs that don’t add too much to either the main Crisis plotline or to the current goings-on in the character’s own title. To take a handy example, the Swamp Thing entry in volume two, “Bogeymen,” is a perfectly good story from Alan Moore, with wonderful art from Bissette and Totleben; but it’s only included here because of a little two-page scene with Steve Dayton, John Constantine, and Batman.


That’s it. That’s all there is. Moore at least manages to advance his own upcoming Brujeria/Heaven-and-Hell plotline he was building to for Swamp Thing #50, but as you can see, the interlude really is very arbitrary and the whole thing feels absurdly pasted-on, with a vague “contractually-obligated crossover” vibe.

Fortunately, the rest of the stuff included here is more substantial. Volume one gives us the sprawling Roy Thomas All-Star Squadron space adventure that ran in parallel to the main events in Crisis, as well as Steve Englehart and Joe Staton’s six-issue “Green Lantern Crisis” which redefined Guy Gardner for the modern age and also restructured the entire Green Lantern Corps.

Volume two is a little weaker but it does give us the big arc from Infinity Inc., starting with the JLA/JSA crossover, billed as the last Earth-1/Earth-2 crossover story and going on from there through a bunch of twists and turns including the wedding of Alan Scott and the introduction of the new Hourman and Doctor Midnight.

Those are the main reasons to get these books; the big multi-issue arcs reprinted in full and also the added essays and overall Crisis timeline from Bob Greenberger. The rest is largely forgettable. (And it’s frankly annoying to have the two Titans issues included that are just the opening chapters of a much longer story, especially since that’s the story most fans agree is when Titans jumped the shark. I get it, leaving them out would just have everyone asking where those issues were, but…it’s annoying.)

None of these are essential reading as far as Crisis on Infinite Earths is concerned and honestly a lot of this would be incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the original Crisis storyline, so that’s the book to start with. Circle around to these afterward, but only if 1980s DC is your jam; because even with all the incomplete stories and second-rate tie-ins, it’s a great snapshot of the entire superhero line at the time. (It’s why I could forgive a lot, because 80s DC comics are TOTALLY my jam. Mid-to-late 1980s is about my favorite era for DC, they were just rocking it across the line from Watchmen to ‘Mazing Man.) I mostly got these for the long Roy Thomas stories, since I hadn’t seen them. I was curious because he was the guy who was getting the multiple-Earth continuity and legacy vibe that all his books were built on completely blown up by the Crisis event, and it seems he was determined to go out with a bang.

Anyway, I enjoyed them, but they’re not for everyone. Just those folks who might get a kick out of a deep dive into 1980s DC continuity, and even then for God’s sake don’t pay full price. There’s a volume three as well but as far as I can tell from the stories listed as being included, it’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Completists only. As for me, I think these first two will do me fine.

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Beware The Inhumans! from Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and others.

Another nostalgia-driven impulse buy, because I love 1970s Marvel as much as I love 1980s DC. (Considering how many creators migrated from the one to the other at that time, it’s not as odd as it sounds. It’s not a big leap to think that if I loved Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan on Marvel’s Dracula then I’d be all over their Night Force at DC. And so on.)

Anyway, this was a little before my time– I didn’t really go all-in on Marvel until later, so I didn’t get on board Amazing Adventures until the Beast took over. But I’d always been curious about this era of the book, which was, I believe, the last of Marvel’s “split-headliner” titles, starring both the Inhumans and the Black Widow.

That’s what I bought it for, because I already had the Widow’s half of the book collected in hardcover.

And like that collection, this also pads out the Amazing Adventures stuff with various guest appearances of the Inhumans, ranging from Fantastic Four to the Hulk Annual to odd one-off solo titles. I am never going to like the Inhumans as much as Jack Kirby did, and I don’t think there’s enough to the original concept to merit a solo series, but these are fun stories to have.

The Inhumans only have had a somewhat-lame TV miniseries and not a giant box-office smash movie series on their resume, so they only get a paperback, not a classy hardcover series like the Black Widow did. But it’s a nice hefty paperback and though these comics weren’t really meant to be read all in a row (seriously, by the third or fourth time Maximus attempts a coup, you’re wondering why the hell they don’t just execute the guy) I’m glad to have them here. Especially because the art, mostly from Jack Kirby and Neal Adams who were both at the top of their game here, is breathtaking.

Very much worth it if you are a Marvel fan.

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DC’s First Issue Specials, by… a whole bunch of people.

I have always loved the try-out comics Marvel and DC did: Showcase, Marvel Premiere, Marvel Spotlight, and so on– and First Issue Special was one of my favorites. The ones most people seem to remember from this title are the Pasko/Simonson Dr. Fate, which rebooted the whole concept of the character and has stuck ever since…

And the one real success story to come out of the book, Mike Grell’s Warlord.

Those are here, of course, as well as all the Jack Kirby one-offs like Atlas and Manhunter. (Those are of historical interest only, to be ruthlessly honest about it, since they didn’t really go anywhere till Steve Englehart picked up Manhunter for his Justice League and Millennium titles, and James Robinson took a swing at Atlas for his brief time on Superman. Robinson also revived the non-Kirby First Issue Special character Mikaal Tomas in his own Starman.)

A fair number of these comics can be found in other books: the Kirby stuff has been reprinted multiple times in DC’s various Kirby collections, and Dr. Fate and Warlord also have appeared in trade paperback. So really, you have to be a weirdo like me to want this particular collection since you’d think only the losers would be left to reprint.

That’s a fair assessment. But I can’t help it. I have a soft spot for the lame-o’s, like The Green Team and Return of the New Gods and even the wince-inducing Lady Cop.

So it’s not for everyone. But there is certainly more good here than bad, and especially if you don’t own the good stuff reprinted here in other books already, it’s moderately recommended.

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Weird Horrors & Daring Adventures (Vol. 1, The Joe Kubert Archives) edited by Bill Schelly.

This is for those of you that are into comics history; it’s a lovely archival collection documenting the more obscure parts of Joe Kubert’s comics career. It’s from Fantagraphics and it’s put together with the same loving care they put into their other historical archive comics collections. Really it’s a cool book just as an artifact.

And it also fills in a missing piece for me. I am embarrassed to admit that I always thought of Kubert’s career as Golden Age Hawkman, yadda yadda, Viking Prince, more Hawkman, Sgt. Rock, Tarzan, founded a school, masterful graphic novel originals like Fax From Sarajevo. But that leaves out the late forties and most of the fifties, which I always dismissed as ‘yadda yadda whatever.’ But the comics reprinted here are all from that period and they are awesome. Very much on the same level as what EC was doing, but for much more obscure publishing houses.

I have to admit I mostly bought this for the art, something I almost never do. But the stories were a pleasant surprise, especially the swashbucklers like Son of Sinbad.

The historical background provided by the late Bill Schelly is an added bonus. Recommended for pretty much anyone who likes good comics.

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These last two aren’t technically comics, but they’re sort of comics-adjacent. The first is THE CONAN COMPANION: A Publishing History and Collector’s Guide, by Richard Toogood with a foreword by Roy Thomas.

Now, I did pay full price for this one, and it’s a little spendy for what you get: 107 pages for $14.95. (I bought it for research purposes, so at least it’s sort of deductible, or it would be if I ever made any money at this writing gig.)

See, I had been playing with a column idea for a historical piece sorting out all the various paperback non-Robert E. Howard Conan pastiches that have been done since the 1970s and ranking them, but tracking down all that information seemed like way too much work. Fold in the ancillary stuff like Red Sonja and Age of Conan and it really gets daunting, and none of that includes the comics.


Well, I don’t think I need to do it at all now, because Mr. Toogood has it covered, and I have to admit it’s really more of a book project than a column. He works his way forward from the original Gnome Press Conan hardcover editions to Lancer and Ace and all the rest, with cover art from both domestic and foreign publications. He includes a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that was new to me, and though he has a lot of fanrage about L. Sprague DeCamp that I don’t share, this book is nevertheless interesting reading for those of us that always wondered about this sort of thing and it’s especially valuable as a reference/checklist/review. And it’s profusely illustrated with page after page of gorgeous painted book covers, which is a big plus for me. Your mileage may vary.

Now, the ancillary series I mentioned above aren’t covered, and the only mention of the comics is a brief acknowledgement of Earl Norem’s painted Savage Sword covers (apart from Roy’s foreword, of course… and a brief expression of horror in the afterword at Conan joining the Savage Avengers.)

A horror that, okay, I kind of share.

So I might still get around to a column covering that stuff, but since I have yet to read any of these offshoot stories, it’ll be a while. (Especially since the Red Sonja novels have become hugely sought-after collector’s items for some reason; as far as I know it’s not because they’re any good, so it must be a cover art thing.)

Admittedly, good girl art’s always going to be a collectible. But whatever the reason might be, there’s no way I’m paying the gouger’s prices dealers have been asking for these books, especially since I’ve never much cared for Sonja as a solo act.

The other outlier is also a Conan comics-adjacent book. Barbarian Life Volume Two by Roy Thomas.


I loved the first volume, a collection of mini-essays documenting Roy’s thinking behind his work on Marvel’s original run of the Conan the Barbarian color comics, going issue-by-issue. This second volume covers roughly the second fifty issues, which is when Thomas had Conan sailing with the pirate queen Belit and is the high point of the title for me. That was when they were really hitting their groove. Thomas had found his Conan voice, weightier and more lit’ry than the one he developed writing superheroes. And John Buscema was doing his career-best artwork; he did as much or more to define Conan’s look as Frank Frazetta did as far as I’m concerned.

Plus Thomas fleshed out Belit’s character in a way Robert E. Howard never bothered to do, as well as quietly eliminating a lot of the racist stuff in the original “Queen of the Black Coast.” Mostly, though, he made me believe Conan and Belit would really have fallen for each other.

So I found the story of how some of my favorite comics came about to be compelling and entertaining reading, especially as told by Mr. Thomas in his cheerful anecdotal style. If you’re interested in these comics, you want this book. Me, I’m very glad to hear there’s a third volume of these essays on the way.

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And there you have it. That’s what I’ve been holed up with. Writing about these is almost as soothing to me as reading them, so I hope you all enjoyed it too.

Back next week with something cool, and in the meantime, stay safe, wash your hands, and wear a damn mask when you go out. It’s working, so don’t screw it up for everybody.

10 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Wince-inducing? What’s wince-inducing about presenting the subject of venereal disease, without being able to even say “VD,” or hint at sex or anything even remotely related to the subject? Why it’s challenges like that that make great comics!

    Seriously, I loved the art in Lady Cop and there is a germ of a concept there, mostly inspired by Police Woman, by the looks of things and the timing (maybe Police Story) but DC just seemed to be caught whether to do it as a romance comic (which they mostly did) or an adventure one, so they split hairs.

    I also love First Issue Special and did a review thread of it over at the Classic Comics Forum. Codename: Assassin was always a favorite; more for the art and the concept than the actual story. I believe Robinson used him, as well. he seems to be the only one at DC who looked at those, apart from Karl Kesel (and he stuck with the kid gang stuff).

    I have never seen any of those Kubert Sinbad comics; they look fantastic!

    I also lament at the Global Stupid Pandemic; even more since my father taught science classes and even my mother, a die-hard Republican hated the Cheese-Faced Moron with a passion and would not vote to put a narcisistic, half-wit in the White House, especially one who surrounds himself with sycophants that make Smithers look rebellious. I am daily arguing with idiots who refuse to wear a mask in my store, when we have clearly posted notices that they must have face covering to enter. Only in this country can you have the mindset, “It doesn’t cure anything so why bother,” even when it will help minimize the impact. That’s like not wearing a bulletproof vest because it won’t stop all caliber of bullets.

  2. Roy Thomas did an amazing job with Belit. Poul Anderson used her in a Conan spinoff novel but he couldn’t make it work as well.
    I reread COIE a couple of years back and it holds up better than any of the later Big Events. I think that’s because Wolfman and Perez were as you say, trying something that had never been done, and everyone since has had to follow the template (X number of deaths, Y number of new characters, Z number of changes). And of course the changes from COIE were meant to take and some did, for years (Wally as Flash, most notably). I doubt anyone writing an event in the past 20 years has imagined that.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Holy cow! How did I not know about that Kubert book until this moment? That is a period of his art that I’ve always been interested in. It’s definitely on my want-list now…
    As to the other stuff you’ve covered, since I have yet to read CoIE, I’m not really interested in the tie-in volumes. And yeah, I agree that the Teen Titans issues are so peripherally to the main story that it’s virtually pointless to include them (and yeah, that probably was the point when they jumped the shark).
    The Inhumans book looks interesting, but honestly, I wish they would do a similarly inexpensive tpb knock-off version that collects the material from the second Inhumans Masterworks volume, i.e., the short-lived series from the mid-1970s.

    On the subject of John Buscema defining Conan’s look – for me, there’s no dilemma on that point. No disrespect to Frank Frazetta, or say, Barry Smith, but Buscema really created the definitive visualization of Conan and the whole Hyborian Age to me. Similarly – and, again, no disrespect to Manning, Kubert and others – he also drew the definitive comic book/strip Tarzan (with kid brother Sal coming in a close second in that regard).

  4. Alaric

    Like you, my favorite period for DC is the ’80s (well, and the early Golden Age), and my favorite period for Marvel is the ’70s, and I agree that the Conan comic was at its absolute best during the Belit era. On the other hand, I always hated Crisis on Infinite Earths, not because of the writing or art, but because I loved the multiple Earths aspect of DC, and because I loved what Roy Thomas was doing with Earth 2 in All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc., and because so many aspects of the Crisis really didn’t make sense. I have to admit, though, that it led to some great series in the latter part of the decade.

    1. The damage to Infinity and A-SS continuity was one of the worst things to come out of COIE.
      “I have to admit, though, that it led to some great series in the latter part of the decade.” I just started reading the reboot Captain Atom series and it lives up to my memories. Very good.

  5. Chris Schillig

    Great column! I love the term “virulent outbreak of stupid” to describe our fellow Americans who have embraced conspiracy theories and refuse to acknowledge basic science.

    I agree with the commentator above who says that “Big John” Buscema defined the Hyborian Age. He certainly did for me. (I’m less certain about the similar claim for the Buscema brothers’ Tarzan, believing that distinction belongs to Joe Kubert.)

    My own quarantine reading included fewer comics than I would have liked. Instead, my wife and I have been reading a lot of James Patterson, whose books are the literary equivalent of a good, but not great, episode of CSI: Whatever; a few apocalyptic-type novels, “Station 11” by Emily St. John Mandel and “The End of October” by Lawrence Wright; and two fat Library of America volumes reprinting the works of Raymond Chandler.

  6. John King

    on the Conan side I have tried the Cimmerian…
    Overall, not impressed by their version of Queen of the Black Coast. The art was not to my taste, the visualisation of Belit does not match up to the Buscema version nor to the more recent Dark Horse depiction (it’s odd that Marvel has featured the Buscema version on recent Conan covers but seemed to use the Dark Horse stories as the basis for her appearance in the Belit mini-series).
    As for the writing, the best bits were direct quotes from Howard (reprnted at the back of the comics enabling easy comparison), the worst bits weren’t.

    I have not tried Red Nails yet. It has a different writer and artists. The art looks better, but no where near the equal of Barry Windsor Smith.

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