The Mighty Marvel Age of Insanely Insular One-Shot Comics

One of the big appeals of Marvel Comics back in their pre-blockbuster movie days was that it seemed like a fun clubhouse, a friendly neighbourhood pub exclusively for comic-loving kids. 

Stan Lee had a salesman’s knack for pumping up his own product starting all the way back in the ‘60s, with his snappy notes to “true believers” peppering every comic, editorial page and story credits. It set Marvel apart from the staid stiffness of DC Comics back then, and that wacky “Marvel Bullpen” idea carried right on through the swingin’ ‘70s, as Marvel started fan clubs and magazines and Stan appeared on the cover of magazines. Marvel was hip, it was cool!

That clubhouse mentality reached a fever pitch in the 1980s, long after Stan moved on to Hollywood, with Marvel’s in-house fanzine Marvel Age and the goofy delights of “Assistant Editor’s Month,” where Marvel pretended that the assistants took charge for a month of especially offbeat comics. Entire insanely comprehensive “official guidebooks” to Marvel’s fictional universe emerged in this time too, manna from heaven for kid geeks like me. 

And then there were a series of early 1980s bizarre one-shot comics cashing in on that whole “ain’t Marvel fun?” mentality that I still kind of love, as silly and reeking of product-placement as they were. They were all experimental and heavily played up the exclusive club feeling Marvel strived so hard to keep going. Mostly forgotten now, these comics curios were peak Marvel gazing into the mirror at itself. 

The Official Marvel No-Prize Book of 1983 was my favourite of the lot, a print version of the “TV bloopers” shows of the time where Marvel looked back at its greatest errors and mistakes. Stan Lee was dressed up as Dr. Doom on the cover and it was a giddy inside-baseball lark, exhuming such mishaps as Peter Parker becoming “Peter Palmer” in one story or the Hulk having only three toes. These were the memes of the pre-meme era, and Marvel was showing us it could laugh at itself with this deep-dive into continuity errors and artist’s gaffes. “It’s like the internet, except with paper cuts,” is the best possible review of this one.

The Marvel Fumetti Book wasn’t quite as successful, mainly because of the utterly dismal print quality of the time. The artists, writers and editors of the Marvel Bullpen took centre stage in this collection of comic ‘fumetti’ photographs with silly captions, with all sorts of crazy hijinks in Marvel’s offices (and of course, mascot Stan Lee on the cover, again). It’s amusingly meta but for me, the dim grey reproduction of the almost illegible photos kind of ruins the idea. But boy, did they make Marvel seem like a fun place to be. 

Last and definitely least of these one-shots was 1984’s insane Generic Comic Book, a parody of the omnipresent fad for “generic” food products. It starred “Super Hero” fighting a “Super Villain” and hitting every by-the-numbers cliche about great power and great responsibility, secret identity dramas and more. Honestly, the best thing about is it the cover. The problem was within a few years an awful lot of comic books would fit this same generic template and the story lacks the go-for-broke spirit of a complete parody. It’s kind of like making a parody of Airplane! You could, but why would you? It’s an amusing curio, but about as essential as all those Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle parodies that littered the floor of comic shops a year or two later. (And of course, Marvel did one of those, too.)

We know now that much of the happy-go-lucky Marvel bullpen notion was a bit of a fantasy – it was a workplace, after all, and as full of backstabbing and rivalries as anywhere else. Sean Howe’s masterful Marvel Comics: The Untold Story delves into this a lot. While great, late personalities like Mark Gruenwald and Archie Goodwin do sound like they were a lot of fun to work for, there was also a fair share of drama at Marvel in the 1980s too and Jim Shooter – who was in charge when most of these came out – was no Stan Lee. These days, it’s a multi-zillion-dollar moviemaking machine, part of the Disney empire, and while the comics are still going they probably seem a bit ancillary to the MCU. 

But even though I know it was all a bit of a public-relations stunt, I still like the weird society Marvel pushed so hard in those days, the root of so many fan Facebook groups, message boards and channels today. These one-shots hyped the platonic idea of Marvel, and sure, they were selling you, but it felt fun to be sold to. Comics about creators of the comics were kind of a dead-end creatively, but I still like walking through that clubhouse door. 

When Dracula became the world’s worst superhero

Count Dracula has been many things over his century-plus career – a villain, a lover, a monster, a tragic romantic figure – but then there was that time a Dracula became the world’s most inept superhero.

Dell Comics was a publisher with its main focus on comics starring licensed characters from Donald Duck to Yogi Bear to Star Trek. But for a brief time in the mid 1960s, they attempted to create the next big superhero universe by licensing the Universal Monsters characters and creating superheroes based on Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man. 

None of them lasted more than three issues. Why? Because, basically, they were unspeakably bland and goofy stuff, and compared to the heyday of Marvel Comics and a slowly modernizing DC Comics, they screamed “generic superhero comic,” shoving the creepy classic monsters into ill-fitting spandex suits. 

Yet for pure kitsch value along, you can’t ignore Dell’s Dracula, perhaps the worst of all the Draculas out there. Dell’s Frankenstein was a misfire too but there’s a bit of a history with making him an antihero. But turning Count Dracula into an utterly assembly-line crimefighter, complete with spunky sidekick? To quote the original Dracula, “that sucks.” 

Dell’s Dracula isn’t the original Drac, but a modern-day Count Dracula, a scientist trying to defy the family legacy. Because he’s inept, he accidentally drinks a top-secret formula he was working on that allows him to turn into a bat. Just a regular bat. Which really isn’t the world’s best super-power, but never mind that.

He decides it’s time to fight crime and make the world a better place despite his tainted family name, dons a ridiculous costume that looks a lot more like “Cat Man” than “Bat Man,” and ends up fighting villains like Boris Eval (because he’s “Evil,” get it?) and Hob Goblin. His “secret identity” is the stunningly clever alias of “Al U. Card.” 

You might think hey, that’s not the worst hook to hang a comic book on, right? There might be potential there? Unfortunately, Dell’s Dracula was a prime example of the strained, stiff world of off-brand superhero comics of the 1960s, where writers tried to be Stan Lee and failed.

Dell’s Dracula had incredibly inert artwork and dialogue that sounded like it came from a first grader reader’s primer – “I wish to be a partner in your schemes of evil.” While silver age comics could often seem a bit childish by modern standards, Dell’s Dracula didn’t just seem immature – it was so removed from regular human interaction that it seemed like it came from another planet. 

But… that said, I still kind of love the kitschy charm of Dell’s Dracula (and Frankenstein, which is slightly less bad). With the third and final issue, the creators seem to realise this isn’t working as a serious comic.

By the time Drac’s buxom companion dresses up as “Fleeta” (short for “Fledermaus,” German for ‘bat,’ of course) in a costume that’s even worse than Dracula’s, you start to think maybe it’ll all go full camp, loosen up and embrace the absurdity of its concept. 

But nope – mere panels after Fleeta joins Dracula in his battle against crime, their comic adventures ended forever, the two would-be-heroes transformed into bats and flying off into the moonset, unmourned and forgotten.

Super-Dracula would never rise again. 

To make a comic book great, make it Weird

If you want a comic book to be truly great, in my humble opinion, add the word “WEIRD” to the title.

As I get older and quirkier, I find odd ways to satisfy my comic book needs. And Weird is always a good way to do it. There’s something about the word “Weird” appended to any comic book name that automatically makes it reek of pulpy charms, of dashing granite-jawed heroes and gorgeous dames, of creepy swamp-dwellers and horrible twists of fate. 

It’s a catchy adjective. There’s been something like 100 titles with the word “Weird” in them since the first comics more than 80 years ago. 

The granddaddy of Weird Comics was of course, EC Comics’ marvellous Weird Science and Weird Fantasy titles, which produced some of the most beautifully drawn, sharp-witted science fiction stories in comics history, led by the stunning art of Wallace Wood. I first read those Weird Science and Fantasy titles when they were reprinted in the 1980s, and to this day they’re stunning stuff. (When the market turned toxic for EC Comics, they briefly became the very oddly named Weird Science-Fantasy before the line ended entirely.)

Before Weird Science, there was the golden age Weird Comics, a grab-bag anthology that wasn’t so much weird as bargain-basement cheap, like a lot of forgotten lower-tier Golden Age stuff, featuring the adventures of The Dart, Panther Woman, Dr. Mortal, and … Thor? (No, not that Thor.)  

In the horror boom of the 1950s led by EC Comics and its many, many ripoffs/homages, there were things like Weird Terror and Weird Chills and Adventures Into Weird Worlds galore. 

But the weird kept on coming, with DC Comics leading the way with one of my favourite peculiarities, the 1970s’ Weird War Tales, which managed to combine the gritty he-man realism of the publisher’s Sgt. Rock type comics with the spooky horror of House of Mystery. You would think “war stories with an element of the supernatural” would run out of steam quickly, but it lasted a surprisingly long 124 issues and 12 years, dying off along with pretty much every other DC Comics war title in the early 1980s.   I always go out of my way to grab Weird War Tales when I see it in the back-issue bins; the stories could be rather daffy and the general theme of “hey, war is hell” hammered into the ground, but the art was almost always amazing and there’s a mad invention to the stories, especially when they started adding things like G.I Robot and the Creature Commandos (“What if the Universal Horror monsters were war heroes?”) to the mix. 

DC also saw Weird Western Tales, which mainly focused on the awesomely hard-boiled adventures of Jonah Hex and the Native American Scalphunter, and Weird Mystery Tales, one of the endless horror anthologies that thrived in the early 1970s.

Later, DC went full weird and introduced a compelling antihero simply CALLED “The Weird,” in a rather good offbeat superhero miniseries of the same name by Jim Starlin and the amazing Bernie Wrightson where a cosmic energy possesses a dead man.  

Marvel Comics never got quite as titularly weird as DC, although they did have the catch-all reprints series Weird Wonder Tales, which I dig because it introduced the modern version of the bald hero everybody loves to hate, Doctor Druid. Later Marvel even introduced a whole Weirdworld which was basically Lord of the Rings meets Elfquest, appeared sporadically in the 1970s and was briefly revived a few years back.

Meanwhile, if you care to indulge in the most adult side of things, you’ve got more adult-oriented underground comix series like Weird Sex and Weird Smut (I’ll let you google those yourselves). But my personal favourite weird comic in recent years was IDW/Yoe Comics’ series reprinting the strangest and silliest of the vast world of vintage romance comics, Weird Love.

It ran for 24 issues and every single of them was full of gems of a genre that’s almost forgotten nowadays and it was honestly one of my favourite comics in recent years, even if everything in it was decades old. Kitschy, sexy and pulpy as heck, Weird Love summed up the essence of what weird comics are all about. 

It’s a reminder that the very, very weird is often the best comics can get.

Superman and Lois: The hero the world needs now

I’m the first to admit that even a die-hard comics fan like me can’t keep up with the endless movies and TV shows based on spandex-clad superheroes these days. When a new Superman series from the “Arrowverse” stable of shows was announced, I was interested, but not exactly dazzled. But it’s turned out that Superman and Lois might just be the best take on the Man of Steel since the glory days of Christopher Reeve.

The secret? A Superman who smiles. A Superman who isn’t fraught with lonely alien tension or the burden of god-like powers all of the time. A Superman who’s got problems, sure, but who still is a beacon of hope. That’s not an easy character to get right – Batman or Wolverine will always seem cooler, but Superman was the first and is still in my mind the greatest of superheroes. And at his best, his adventures should make us feel good. It’s harder than it looks – but the best Superman stories, whether it’s Alan Moore’s “For The Man Who Has Everything” or Gene Luen Yang’s Superman Smashes The Klan, make it work. 

Look at this brief scene from the latest episode, and it sums up why Superman and Lois is becoming my favourite comics-based show on TV these days. 

“My mom made it for me” = Superman’s character in a nutshell.

A square-jawed mom-loving good guy can be boring, but all it takes is a good actor and decent storylines and Superman soars. (Look at Chris Evans, whose definitive take gave new life to Captain America, a character I always considered kind of boring.) There’s things I do like quite a lot about Henry Cavill’s Superman in the Snyderverse – he’s got the look down pat – but he’s ill-served by grim-dark storytelling that positions Superman as the haunted eternal outsider, instead of what he really is – the ultimate successful immigration story. 

Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman debuted as a guest-star on the Supergirl TV series and was striking but a bit unformed – he seemed a bit too thin at first, with a perpetual five-o’clock shadow – but in his own solo series with an excellent Elizabeth Tulloch as the best Lois Lane since Margot Kidder, Hoechlin’s portrayal of Superman is getting better every week. Unmoored from the increasingly complicated antics of the Arrowverse, this is an older, more settled Man of Steel. Superman and Lois comfortably breaks the old paradigms by showing a comfortably married Clark and Lois, with two teenage sons, moved back to Clark’s old hometown of Smallville from the big city. There’s plenty of super-action, but also the drama of Clark and Lois’s teen sons Jonathan and Jordan – one of whom is developing super powers of his own.

Superman and Lois may have started a little slow – the first few episodes were heavy on the teen angst which all felt a bit 90210, but gradually the show began to give Clark and Lois equal time. There’s been some excellent plot twists in recent weeks as a dire threat against Superman and Earth itself becomes apparent, but the biggest focus for Superman and Lois is family. It’s a show that’s unafraid to care about its characters, and instead of seeing Clark Kent as an aloof alien, he’s unabashedly human. He’s a father who sometimes stumbles but his love for his sons is uncomplicated and unwavering, which is nice to see. 

A recent flashback episode dove into Clark and Lois’ courtship, and was a beautiful love letter to the Superman mythos that also felt kind of fresh and daring. Instead of the whole rather played-out “spineless milksop” Clark Kent pining after a Lois Lane who only has eyes for Superman, this Lois Lane actually falls for Clark Kent first. Yeah, you still have to buy into the notion that a pair of glasses and a mild hairstyle change can keep people from realising Clark = Superman, but hey, that’s comics. Tulloch’s Lois is also terrific, with her go-getter independence and reporting tenacity intact and her mom energy strong. Superman and Lois could easily turn into a goopy family drama but the actors have a confidence and sincerity that makes the show stand out from the increasingly repetitive feeling of the surviving Arrowverse shows like Flash

Superman here feels more joyous than he has on screen in ages – between Bryan Singer’s misguidedly overwrought Superman Returns, which wallowed in the drama of the Christopher Reeve Superman movies without ever finding their heart and humour, or Zach Snyder’s increasingly militaristic and stern Superman, it feels like we’ve gone years without seeing a Superman who simply enjoys his life and his family. Reeve became an iconic Superman because of his elegant charm, and light touch. Hoechlin gets that. 

The Superman of Superman and Lois is certainly facing challenges – there’s a dark threat of his turning against humanity as one of the plot threads – but I like to think it’s still a show that will keep the optimism and hope of its titular hero at centre stage. After all, there’s nothing wrong with a Superman who likes his job, is there? 

Star Brand, the superhero who really sucked at his job

There’s a lot of competition for bad superheroes out there. But few of them are quite as catastrophically bad at the job as Marvel Comics’ Star Brand, who helped launch a “New Universe” of comics in 1986 and then pretty much destroyed it. 

Us old-timers remember the “New Universe” being a really big deal when Marvel and editor-in-chief Jim Shooter launched it in celebration of 25 years since Fantastic Four #1 kicked off the Marvel Universe. The hook was this new comics universe was “realistic,” and would detail the rise of superheroes in a world that had never had them. That might’ve been seen as innovative in the editorial planning meetings, but basically we ended up with a whole bunch of mediocre comics featuring superheroes who seemed vaguely embarrassed to be there, like Nightmask, Kickers Inc. and Spitfire And The Troubleshooters. The whole line was gone within three years or so. 

Star Brand, written by Shooter, was meant to be the big bang for this universe, the first real superhero and a catalyst for change. He was, but mainly because as written, Star Brand utterly sucked at his job. 

Shooter basically wrote Star Brand as a straight rip-off of Green Lantern, only with more “realistic” edges. A alien disguised as an old man grants human Ken Connell a mysterious tattoo that gives him impossible powers, but as it turns out this origin story is far more convoluted than that.  Connell is an unsympathetic, arrogant and sexist jerk, acting without thinking, and rarely truly “heroic.” The writing in Shooter’s first few issues is weirdly inert and distanced, as if in trying to be “realistic” they abandoned all the bombast and excitement of comics for something mundane.

Connell, an unimaginative mechanic, is unsure what to do with his powers, a conflict that could be interesting but basically ends up with lots of dull monologues and him doing things like visiting the Moon because he’s bored. He constantly screws up. He fights spies and muddles in the Cold War, and spends an awful lot of time cheating on his various girlfriends, and that “Old Man” who gave him his powers in the first place keeps popping back up, now apparently a villain, to fight with him every few issues. 

Shooter soon handed Star Brand over to other creators, and then it ended up in the hands of superstar creator John Byrne in his full “tear it all down and start over” mode. Byrne – who loathed Shooter – went on to do one of the biggest hit-jobs on a previous writer’s work in comics history. The cover of Byrne’s first issue finally shows Ken Connell wearing a superheroic costume after 11 issues, but it was a bit of a tease. Star Brand went public, and Byrne upped Connell’s fail factor to infinite levels by having him incinerate a comics convention full of fans during a battle, and then topping it all off by accidentally blowing up all of Pittsburgh (which was Shooter’s hometown, by the way) an apocalyptic moment that screws up the whole “realistic” vibe and basically leads into the end of the New Universe after a series of one-shots. Some of the characters and concepts have popped up now and again ever since, including a decent look back at Connell that examines his many flaws.  

A whole mess of other people end up wielding the Star Brand over Byrne’s tenure, including the President of the United States (!) and Connell’s abnormally-aged infant son (don’t ask). Connell himself dies and comes back a couple of times. After 19 issues, the series ends with a mess of timey-wimey handwaving that makes it clear that Star Brand was less a hero and more a toxic screw-up whose presence has left harm and death everywhere. At the end of the series, Connell sees himself as a man who’s caused endless suffering who deserves whatever punishment he gets. Not exactly a heroic epiphany. 

Star Brand is not a great series – those Shooter issues are weirdly slow and soulless, and the Byrne issues are rushed and rather mean-spirited in how thoroughly they tear everything down. Yet, Star Brand over its 19 issues is still fascinating to me because of how completely the “hero” at the centre of the story fails, and the story’s only solution is to negate him ever having been a hero at all.

Heroes have turned bad and been redeemed many times in comics, but there’s few series that seem to catalog one man’s utter unsuitability for great power and great responsibility quite like this one. 

Sneak preview: Amoeba Adventures #29!

Hey, it’s time for an Amoeba Adventures update!

It’s been a few months since Amoeba Adventures #28, but I’ve been busy – Amoeba Adventures #29 is all pencilled and lettered and will be 24 pages of all-new wacky adventures featuring twists, turns and shocking returns with Prometheus and Ninja Ant together in one wild detective mystery.

Look for it to premiere both digitally and with a limited-edition print version hopefully sometime in June! In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at my old-school pencils and lettering:

And remember that all 28 previous issues of Amoeba Adventures are available right over here as free PDF downloads. As always, give the Facebook page a like if you haven’t already!

WandaVision and at long last, the redemption of Monica Rambeau

Look, it’s been a long time since the last Marvel movie came out in theatres, so you had better believe I’ve been soaking up those WandaVision episodes to fill that spandex-shaped hole in my heart. 

I’ve always loved the Scarlet Witch and the Vision’s tragedy-tossed romance in the comics, and even though the portrayal on screen is pretty different, it still hits the spot mostly. But I’m not here to gossip about Wanda and the Vision, or to speculate on all those plot twists and spoilers. (Although if you’ve been a comics fan for decades like me, things that are obscure to many viewers are less of a surprise, unfortunately.)

No, I’m here to sing the praises of WandaVision supporting character Monica Rambeau, played excellently so far by Teyonah Parris. For those of us who grew up at a certain time in the mid-1980s, she was OUR Captain Marvel – not that guy, not that guy, and no, not that lady either. Without giving too much away about WandaVision so far, it’s clear that the TV show’s Monica is heading toward converging with her comics namesake in many ways. 

Monica Rambeau was “Captain Marvel” for about 6-7 years from 1982 to 1988, and unfortunately her story is one of the saddest stories of mislaid potential in comics to me. She made a dynamic debut in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 as a woman with mysterious energy powers, written by Roger Stern, who’d go on to chronicle her in Avengers as well.

I remember well picking up that Spider-Man annual and young Nik being dazzled by the splash page debut of this new Captain Marvel, standing tall and proud on the Empire State Building. Even in 1982, she was a striking character – a strong, confident Black woman from New Orleans who managed to utterly avoid a lot of the cliches about Black heroes – she wasn’t “angry” like Luke Cage or mysteriously foreign like the Black Panther. She was relatable in a way many previous Black heroes weren’t. She wasn’t quite like anybody I’d seen in comics before, which were still a pretty lily-white area in 1982. 

She joined Roger Stern’s Avengers shortly after her debut – the first Black woman Avenger! – and a common subplot in his stories was about her adjusting to superhero life and her powers and juggling a career and life back with her family in New Orleans. None of it was groundbreaking stuff for comics at the time, but this Captain Marvel always held my attention.

Captain Marvel gained in confidence and experience and eventually rose to become the leader of the Avengers, breaking a glass ceiling I applauded. And then everything went rather wrong. Roger Stern was sacked as Avengers writer, and a misguided storyline by the next creative team saw Rambeau constantly, obsessively questioning her leadership skills, then suffering the indignity of being both depowered and mind-controlled and essentially forced off the team by everyone’s least favourite Avenger, Doctor Druid. It was a real betrayal of her character and while I don’t think it was intentional, it was kind of offensive that the first Black woman Avenger was written off so abruptly. 

Marvel didn’t die and she got her powers back, but honestly, she’s never been quite the same character since. Marvel Comics didn’t seem to know what to do with her. She gave up the Captain Marvel name, which she had well and truly earned, to yet another Captain Marvel. She popped up in many Avengers tales, with vaguely generic new superhero names like Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum. She just became another one of Marvel’s many, many superheroes rather than the captivating self-made woman who blazed through the 1980s in a sizzle of light.  

A wisecracking, cynical version of her later appeared in Warren Ellis’ very funny 2006 superhero parody NextWave. It wasn’t hard to imagine this was a rather meta Monica Rambeau, pissed off as hell at the world of comics after rising so quickly and then falling into obscurity. Eventually Carol Danvers became the “official” Captain Marvel and well, she’s probably got the title for life now. 

So you’ll forgive me if I’m excited about Monica Rambeau showing up, apparently gaining powers and wearing an outfit that harks back an awful lot to her first appearance in the latest WandaVision. I’m really enjoying her role in the show and her likely further appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even if I know she won’t be called Captain Marvel there.

It’s been a long road for redemption for Monica Rambeau’s character, who deserved better as the first Black female Avenger. She deserves this shot, and more. 

‘Invisible Men’ brings Black comics history into the light

February is Black History Month, and a great new book sheds a much-needed light on the hidden history of Black golden age comics creators, mostly ignored or suppressed in their time.

There’s a lot more diversity in the comics field today than there once was. It really took until the 1980s and 1990s for things to open up some – for instance, despite comics as we know them debuting in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Black superheroes really came into their own. The first Black superhero was of course, The Black Panther, but the first to get his own book was Luke Cage, Hero For Hire in 1972.

There was a mini-boom in Black heroes in the ‘70s (pretty much every one of which got the word “Black” in their superhero name). I was always fascinated by the 1970s adventures of Luke Cage, the short-lived Black Goliath, The Falcon, DC’s Green Lantern John Stewart, Tony Isabella’s street-level hero Black Lightning, and of course, the Black Panther. 

Reflecting the industry at the time, the ‘70s Black hero adventures were pretty much always written by white men, although the late Black artist Billy Graham played a pivotal part in Luke Cage and Black Panther adventures. And sure, these comics overplay the “angry Black man” trope a bit, but they’re also very much a product of their protest-filled era. 

Before that, there were few brief sightings of Black leading characters in comics – the interesting short-lived western curio Lobo for instance – but much of Black comics history remains frustratingly obscured. The new book Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro attempts to correct that, with an excellent compilation of essays about and excerpts from Black-created comics from the 1930s on up to the late 1960s. 

Here you’ll find the life stories of a dozen Black men who blazed trails in comics, often discriminated against, sadly too often forgotten (women of any colour were exceedingly rare in Golden Age comics). You’ll meet Elmer Cecil Stoner, Owen Charles Middleton, Elton Clay Fax, Matt Baker and many more. 

Matt Baker is probably the best known Black comics artist of the Golden Age, a creator of spectacularly sexy 1950s “good girl” art with characters like Phantom Lady. Yet despite his amazing talent, Baker and his Black identity were obscure until long after his early death at just 38. 

Other Black artists edged their way into comics working on mainstream characters like Blue Beetle or Spy Smasher, while others attempted to tell stories about Black history or were pigeonholed into the “jungle comics” genre. Some of these artists only dabbled in comics and went on to far greater success in illustration, painting or other art endeavours, such as Alvin Carl Hollingsworth

Invisible Men includes an essay on and excerpts from the Black-created All-Negro Comics #1 – a title which admittedly is pretty problematic in 2021 – but in 1947, this short-lived title attempted to be a landmark showcase for Black cartoonists with characters like “Ace Harlem” and “Lion Man.”

Quattro’s done an excellent job of excavating the obscurest of historical details to fill in the lives of creators who in another era, might’ve been the next Christopher Priest or Denys Cowan. 

The history of Black comics artists in the Golden Age isn’t always uplifting – for every Matt Baker there were dozens of frustrated artists locked out of the medium – but Invisible Men is essential reading. The creators here paved the path for things like black-controlled Milestone Comics, for the Black Panther to star in one of the biggest movies of all time … and for a world where far more people are able to be visible instead of invisible. 

The mystery is the point: Omega The Unknown

I first saw an issue of Omega The Unknown back in the early 1980s when trading comics with another kid. I was a nascent comics geek even then but I’d never heard of this Omega character, who was battling the familiar Spider-Man villain Electro on the cover. Who was he? And why was he unknown?

Debuting in 1976 for what turned out to be a brief run, Omega was one strange comic – I felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of the movie, with a story featuring a mute superhero’s tentative adventures over portentous, philosophical narration tangled up with the story of a peculiar brainy but emotionally very stiff young orphan boy, James-Michael Starling. The two characters – the hero “Omega” and the boy – were linked somehow, but how? 

Over its 10 issues before cancellation, Omega The Unknown hinted at a lot, but told us very little. “Something is different now in his universe,” the omnipotent narrator told us at the end of that first issue of Omega I read, #3, “Burn While You Learn.” It was different. This wasn’t Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. The title character barely even spoke.

Steve Gerber, who cowrote the series with Mary Skrenes, was one of comics’ true originals, with his iconoclastic writing in Howard The Duck, Man-Thing, Son of Satan and other comics feeling like something that could only have come out of the let’s-try-anything 1970s at Marvel Comics. 

Re-reading Omega today more than 40 years on, it’s still a mind-trip. Omega is Unknown, and unknowable. The titular character doesn’t speak a word until #4, and even then it’s only to ask “why?” Gerber and Skrenes cast a haunting spell over those early issues, mixing rambling, borderline pretentious narration with a cruel realism about life in Hell’s Kitchen. Multiple innocent people are victims of crimes, unsaved. You get brief glimpses of the wider Marvel Universe like Electro or a quick Hulk guest appearance, but more often there are barely capable villains like “The Wrench” and “El Gato.” The mystery is the real villain here. Threads come and go without being resolved. It’s almost like a Charlie Kaufman version of a superhero comic. 

It wasn’t a hugely successful comic even at the time. The letters pages carried some highly critical views – “OMEGA is a sick comic book,” wrote one. 

Writers Gerber and Skrenes vanished for a couple of issues, which is particularly notable in a series that only ran for 10. When they returned, the series had lost a bit of momentum, but the final issue, #10, is particularly bleak and unsparing in its view of the world even by Omega’s standards. We jarringly have jumped through time and are at the funeral of a school friend of James-Michael who was beaten badly many issues ago and never recovered. This is a series where a bright young student, who could easily pass for much of the target audience, is beaten to death by other kids just for being who he is, with no Omega or other hero to save him. And that 10th issue itself ends with a big cliffhanger, with Omega himself shot to death by police while attempting to get his money back from a con artist. A wan “to be continued elsewhere” box running next to the hero’s dead body seals the story of Omega’s brief solo run.

Unfortunately, Gerber never got to resolve his creation, which was finished off rather inelegantly by another writer in a few issues of The Defenders, Marvels’ catch-all superhero team comic. The enigmatic narration is gone, the mysteries all tidied up in a bland, confusing and unsatisfying fashion (aliens, robots, et cetera) and the theme of duality and identity that Omega The Unknown so carefully crafted in its 10 issues just sort of melts away. Who were James-Michael and Omega, really? We never really get to know. An overview of the series back in the Amazing Heroes fan magazine put it nicely: “What began as a noble experiment in graphic fiction ended as nothing more than a poorly executed comic book story.” 

Gerber’s gone now – he died at just 60 in 2008 – but he left behind an awful lot of classic, questing comics. Omega is perhaps the apex of his style. 

There was a kind of reboot/retelling by the author Jonathan Lethem back in the early 2000s of Omega, which spun off in new surreal directions. It’s an interesting take in that whole indie style-meets-superhero vein, but it somehow feels like a cover band version of the gaudy original. 

Perhaps it’s its very nature as an unfinished experiment that makes Omega so captivating to me. No ending by Gerber would’ve lived up to the atmosphere of bitter enigmas the first few issues crafted. Omega The Unknown took superhero comics and spun them around until the colours blurred and the unknown leached into every panel. It’s imperfect by design, yet unforgettable in its weird, bluntly fatalistic view of the Marvel Universe. 

In defense of that New Mutants movie

The New Mutants were what the X-Men were supposed to be. 

A group of outcast teenagers, struggling with strange new superpowers they’d been born with, in a world that hates and fears them. The X-Men used to be about that, but the super-sizing of the franchise over the years meant that got more and more diluted with Phoenixes and Wolverines and Gambits and such. 

I was the perfect age for the New Mutants comic which premiered in 1982, on the cusp of teenagerdom and a bit of an outcast myself. At long last, after nearly 40 years they got their chance to star in their own movie this year. 

Considering its epic series of delays, reshoot rumours and studio squabbling, the New Mutants movie by Josh Boone actually isn’t that bad. I rather liked it. It’s certainly better than the cluttered, underwhelming last several actual X-Men movies have been. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a five-star classic, no game-changing Dark Knight or Black Panther, but it’s a tight little potboiler that doesn’t utterly betray the spirit of the comics it inspires. It keep the core cast of the comics – Native American Dani Moonstar, Scottish werewolf Rahne, human “Cannonball” Sam, literally fiery Brazilian Roberto and the magic-cursed Illyana. The movie is set almost entirely in one mysterious institution where the teenagers are being kept forcibly, and the movie follows their attempts to learn more and then deal with the mystery powers of one of their own. It’s an origin story, but never forgets its central metaphor: Growing up is hard, but eventually, hopefully, you get better and find your powers in life. 

They fight, they squabble and act like real teenagers, not superheroes-in-waiting. Again, it’s not perfect – while Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy is superbly charismatic as the nasty Illyana, Game of ThronesMaisie Williams makes a good Rahne, but “Cannonball” Charlie Heaton has the worst attempt at a Kentucky accent I’ve ever heard. Yet it looks and feels a lot like the comic I loved, and refreshingly, the stakes are small for a superhero movie. There’s no CGI-filled battle for the entire world. There’s a little bit of unnecessary sequel-baiting but it doesn’t feel quite as assembly line as some of the other Marvel movies have, and has a much more horror edge to its storytelling. Like the comic itself, it realises that being a teenager is often a living nightmare. 

For its first 40-50 issues, New Mutants was a terrific comic book – written by X-Men guiding light Chris Claremont, it really dug into the teenage metaphor in a way that the older X-Men at the time (with the exception of Kitty Pryde) couldn’t. In its first 17 or so issues it was sturdy fun mutant superheroics, with lots of angst and batting mutant factions. 

Then in issue 18, like a bolt of lightning, Bill Sienkiewicz came on board as the artist and New Mutants proceeded to blow my mind. His impressionistic, painterly art was a radical change from the solid but very traditional artists before him, and suddenly the chaos of the teenage mind was laid bare in colours and images that surged off the page. It was an astounding mutation and Claremont, who works best with great artists, twisted to meet Sienkiewicz’s challenge with the best stories in New Mutants history – the “Demon Bear” saga which is loosely adapted in the new movie, the introduction of the alien Warlock, a shape-shifting surrealist blob who looked like no hero ever seen in comics, the rise of mutant fighting rings and more. 

New Mutants frequently got dark. In one of the best issues, #45, a young mutant commits suicide, and it’s dealt with in a genuinely honest manner. Then there’s the shocking issue where as part of mega-crossover Secret Wars II, a cosmic entity, the Beyonder, literally slaughters the entire team. It’s one of the bleakest mainstream superhero comics of the 1980s, an unrelentingly nihilist battle against an unbeatable foe, and at the end of the issue, everybody is dead. (Yes, they came back, but to Claremont’s credit, several issues were then spent dealing with the trauma of the team’s resurrection.) That one storyline alone makes the rather muddled mess of Secret Wars II worth it in my book. 

Just like the X-Men comics, the New Mutants comics eventually spiralled into an insanely complicated mess of continuity, spinoffs and hip new characters (I have zero time for the totally x-treme Rob Liefeld/Cable years). The main characters are still around (and of course, because it’s comics, barely have aged into their early 20s) and I like to check in on them now and again, but for me the first 60 or so issues of New Mutants was all I needed. Growing up, they felt like companions.

Again, I won’t defend New Mutants the movie to anyone by saying it’s a total gem. But in a year when we surprisingly ended up with almost no new superhero movies at all, it felt welcome. It brought to life a lot of characters I fondly remember that meant something to me at their age, and didn’t make me groan. When we’re literally surrounded by superhero TV and movie products, something that felt a bit more tailored to my childhood nerd hopes and dreams personally kind of hits the spot.