Meet Vartox, the most inappropriately costumed superhero of all time

When it’s midsummer and it’s hot and the news is all politics and doom, I turn to old Superman comics, the balm for many an ache. 

I love the ‘pre-Crisis’ era of Superman comics prior to 1986, when Superman could basically do anything and the stories were often batshit crazy. Often drawn by the terrific trusty Curt Swan, these stories juggled planets and killer robots and cosmic coincidences. The Superman stories of the 1970s and early ‘80s are overlooked (you can usually buy issues dirt-cheap), but they’re great fun comics. 

Which brings me to Vartox. Vartox appeared in a dozen or two stories between 1975 and 1986, a superhero from another world who was often Superman’s frenemy. An older man, Vartox could be an interesting counterpoint to the younger Superman. But nobody remembers Vartox because of that. 

They remember what he wore. For some reason writer Cary Bates and Swan decided to make Vartox an EXACT ripoff of Sean Connery’s unflattering nearly nude space cowboy character in the oddball 1974 sci-fi movie Zardoz. Clad in a bizarre orange space diaper, ammo belt, thigh-high boots and a man pony-tail, this was not Connery’s finest hour. 

Why Vartox was designed to so clearly mimic Zardoz is weird and never more so than when this half-naked, excessively hairy character shares panel space with the more modest Superman.

I felt vaguely embarrassed for Superman, having to spend so much time staring at another man’s hairy legs and chest. And dude, you’re flying through space, why the heck wouldn’t you wear something a bit more practical than a vest and thigh-high boots?

All that said, the Vartox stories are often good fun – I like the idea of a balding, older, slightly more melancholy superhero being a mentor to Superman and his “hyper powers” are completely wonderful comic-book gibberish – he apparently can do just about anything, including hyper-future reading, hyper-teleportation, hyper-energy blasts, et cetera. It’s a good drinking game just seeing how many times the phrase “hyper” is used in Vartox tales. 

Vartox has apparently occasionally appeared since his ‘70s-‘80s heyday, but never quite broke out of the C-list. I lift a glass to Vartox, a contender hobbled by perhaps the least flattering costume in comic-book history. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen, and the worlds you created

Arrow could be subtitled, “The Evolution of a Hero.” Oliver Queen started out as a guy running around in a hood murdering bad guys; he ended it as a cosmic Christ-like figure literally sacrificing himself for the entire universe. 

With its final episode this week, I bid a sad farewell to my favourite superhero TV series after 8 years and 170 episodes, which left an entire comic book cosmos spinning it its wake. 

Batwoman? Black Lightning? Supergirl and The Flash? Who could’ve imagined when the dark, gritty first episode of Arrow aired in 2012 it would amount to all this?

Stephen Amell was never really the comics Oliver Queen, a grouchy cynical disillusioned liberal who has always seemed prematurely middle aged. In a lot of ways, TV Arrow was more of a Batman stand-in. Yet Arrow made its Green Arrow work, thanks to Amell’s constantly growing charisma and his sturdy moral centre. 

Arrow started out running away from being a ‘superhero’ show but soon embraced all the goofy possibilities of the medium. Pretty darned obscure comics characters were dredged up – Ragman? Mr Terrific? Wild Dog? It took until Season 4 for the title character to actually call himself “The Green Arrow,” for pete’s sake. 

It all wrapped up with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the live-action adaptation I’d never have imagined possible. Crisis, like most Arrowverse shows, wasn’t perfect, but it was damn close, a giddy, universe-shaking salute to the DC universe. 

“Arrowverse” shows lack the machine-tooled precision of the Marvel movies, but in some ways, their awkwardly episodic charm feels more comic booky to me. Unlike Marvel movies, which tend to be big event after big event, these TV series feel more like the comic books, which just keep coming month after month. 

The shows have been all over the map, quality wise – Flash started great and has gotten progressively worse, Supergirl has gotten better each season, while Legends of Tomorrow is now a completely different show than it started as. Batwoman and Black Lightning do a terrific job of expanding the diversity of comic-book stardom. 

They’ve been far more diverse than the Marvel movies – gay characters have been in the mix since the start, including the first gay superhero to get her own series. Supergirl debuted the first trans character. Meanwhile, all the Marvel movies have mustered up so far is a brief nod in the direction. 

Subtlety isn’t an Arrowverse strong suit – a theme will be hammered home repeatedly. They can be repetitive, cliched and sentimental (number one on my hit list – ending any episode with a sappy montage set to a lame pop song). There’s a lot of plain mediocre and some truly awful episodes in the Arrowverse. But also a lot of moments I’ve loved. 

Yet in many ways the Arrowverse is just as successful as the Marvel Universe has been in movies – introducing entire worlds, broadening horizons and ultimately embracing the joy behind the superheroic concept. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen. You kicked it all off. 

Comic conventions and me: Being a fan and a dad

(Been a bit busy lately, but here’s a freelance piece I did late last year that never quite found a home, tied into the local Armageddon Expo series of pop-culture conventions held around New Zealand. It’s also a kind of ramble about being a fan and being a dad. Give it a read and more “content” soon!)

Having a child means passing on the things you love to them, and hoping they stick. 

Every parent does it, whether it’s the All Blacks, the Beatles or Star Wars

When they’re young and malleable as modelling clay, you imprint them with your likes. 

Then as they start to form their own opinions, their shape changes, and as a parent you just hope they kind of hold on to the geeky love for Spider-Man that their dad once taught them. 

For years, my son and I have had a ritual of heading each Labour Weekend to Armageddon Expo, New Zealand’s biggest pop culture convention. I’m a comic book fan, and no son of mine was going to grow up not knowing his Green Lantern from his Green Arrow.

We’ve been at Armageddon pretty much every year from the time he was 5 until now when he’s pushing 16. 

Armageddon is small potatoes compared to some of the massive US comic book conventions I’ve been to, but it’s just right for New Zealand. It’s an assault on the senses with celebrity visits, hundreds of booths filled with every cult item you can imagine, video games blaring, bodies packed tightly together in the aisles and the occasionally overpowering odour of other fans. 

It’s crowded. It’s hot. It’s full of people in amazing costumes, sometimes with really pointy edges. It’s a Disneyland for three days of fans and fandom, and for years we wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I look back on my muddled journey of being a dad, I often think of how the boy and I journeyed deep into the world of Armageddon each year, and I tried to show him how to be a fan. 

There was the year we saw two Doctor Whos (well, OK, two actors who played The Doctor) and the boy became very keen to watch this long-running TV show that started years before his parents were even born. 

Over time, we got to see some of the greatest names in science fiction and fantasy history. Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future, Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, Nathan Fillion from Firefly.

We met New Zealand comics creators and bagged weird toys and big bargains and junk food, and ended each visit weighed down by our loot and overstimulated by sensation. When the boy was younger, I’d sometimes carry him back to the car and he’d fall asleep before he even hit the seat. 

It was a little different when I was his age. I was embarrassed to tell most people I read comic books. I had grand mythic adventures with a few like-minded pals playing Dungeons and Dragons until I worried what everyone else would think of me and grew out of it. 

These days, movies starring the Avengers whose comics I tried to hide reading make billions of dollars and what once seemed a bit nerdy and uncool is mainstream culture. People on the street know who Thanos and the Black Panther are. 

At some point in my life – embarrassingly late, I must admit – I got comfortable with telling other actual grown-ups that I’m a huge comic book fan, that I can rattle off obscure trivia about Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to you until the sun sets. 

Pretty much everyone who’s an avid fan of something feels a bit like an outcast sometimes. Maybe someone bagged on you for liking anime, or digging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at a pop culture convention, everyone’s a fan. There’s no shame in your passion. 

It’s OK to like what you like, be what you want to be, embrace whatever fantasy world turns you on. 

That’s the message of a place like Armageddon, where you can dress up like a samurai, a robot or a superhero for a day and be surrounded by your people. And it’s cool. 

That’s not the worst message to teach your son. 

I don’t know how much longer the boy and I will go to Armageddon together, before I become an embarrassment to him or he’d rather hang out with his friends. 

You measure parenthood by rituals, things you do every year which become commonplace until one day you don’t do them at all anymore. 

The boy I once had to crouch down to hug is now nearly as tall as I am, and I still can’t get used to it. He seems to grow a few centimetres a day. 

Now he’s into big epic World War II video games that kind of give me a headache to watch, and the Lego he once spent every waking moment playing with is getting dusty. I still read comic books and keep running out of ways to rearrange my shelf space. 

Once, he would watch Cars over and over. Now, he and I are sitting down to watch Apocalypse Now. He’s not the same little boy I once hopefully tried to tutor in the ways of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He doesn’t like everything I like. 

But he likes a lot of it. 

He still loves Star Trek and watches reruns with us at least once a week. He’s into his own things, his own passions, and instead of me teaching him about Jedi Knights and Earth-2, he’s the one rattling off factoids to us about the things he’s into. Now he’s the fan, trying to convert us. 

Armageddon is a big, huge, crazy crowded event full of people who are all fans of something, whether it’s Pokemon or Call Of Duty or Deadpool. 

But for me it’ll also always be a place where my son and I bonded over superheroes and spaceships, and I watched him grow from a tiny boy dwarfed by a Dalek to a hulking teenager with his own obsessions, his own thoughts and his own fandom.

May it live long and prosper. 

Year in review: Disappointments of 2019

Let’s kick 2019 one last time as it goes out the door!

I waxed enthusiastic and positive about my favourite 12 pop-culture moments of the year just dusted, but now let’s look at the things that weren’t so great. 

* The internet and toxic fandom. Wayyy back in the early 2000s I found the net a welcoming place to discuss my geeky afflictions, to find like minds and hunt down rare information. These days, it’s more like a toxic waste dump filled with fetid landmines, with occasional patches of grace you have to contort yourself to find. Picking up blogging again for me has become a hell of a lot more positive action than making random nasty tweets and posts. I gave up entirely trying to be a Star Wars fan online, for example, keeping it to myself like a secret fetish rather than engaging with a world where too many fans think fandom is about hate rather than love. I don’t even want to TALK about Rise of Skywalker online because it’s like a magnet for the worst of us, and I actually more or less liked it. 

* Terrible comic book “events.” I’m a sucker for hype but I’ve gotten a lot more judicious about buying into overwrought, dull comic book apocalypses these days. This year I got suckered by a few – the ponderous, pretentious and unnecessary Heroes In Crisis by Tom King, a writer whom I generally like; Doomsday Clock, the never-ending Watchmen sequel/crossover that read like bad Alan Moore fan fiction and I only read out of a kind of misguided curious masochism; or DC’s endless “dark” versions of their existing heroes like The Batman Who Laughs. I’ve seen enough twisted evil versions of superheroes or dystopian alternate realities to last a million multiverses, thanks. Resolution for 2020: Don’t believe the hype.

* Cari Mora by Thomas Harris. Look, I always go into a book *hoping* it will be good. And I am a fan of Harris’ pulpy, compulsively readable Hannibal Lecter series. But this reads like Harris scribbled a few notes for a bad episode of CSI: Miami on a cocktail napkin and handed it in. It’s his first non-Lecter novel since the 1970s and was definitely not worth the wait. Predictable and stale with no characters as indelible as Lecter or Clarice Starling, and typeset in a 15-point or so font that makes this brief read seem longer than it is, Cari Mora is the worst book I read in 2019. Glad I only borrowed it from a library!

* Death, in general and specific. Grand, doom-pop singer Scott Walker. Creature of the Black Lagoon muse Julie Adams. Pioneering gay cartoonist Howard Cruse. Psychedelic legend Roky Erickson. Comics journalists Tom Spurgeon and Bill Schelly. Terrific character actor Robert Forster. Pop magician Ric Ocasek. Monkee man Peter Tork. Two stars of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Rene Auberjonois and Aron Eisenberg. Easy ridin’ Peter Fonda. So many more. The year also saw the loss of old friends and family too soon like Oxford, Mississippi’s great bohemian cultural envoy Ron Shapiro; my uncle James House, who I wish I’d known better, and my ’90s small press pal and seriously underrated weird fiction writer Sam Gafford who died at just 56 years old. RIP to all and many more. Let’s hope 2020 is kinder.

Year in Review: My top 12 pop-culture moments of 2019

It’s 2020, and I’m still getting used to that fact. While I’m recovering from three weeks in California and a return to New Zealand summer, let’s hit my 12 favourite pop-culture moments of 2019!

* It’s an obvious pick, but … Avengers: Endgame, Captain America and that hammer. Marvel fanboy bliss in a movie full of great moments and the culmination of an act of movie world-building this comic book geek couldn’t have imagined possible back in 1984. 

* Exploring the bizarre world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag with his novels The Scar and The Iron Council. Superb reads and a doorway to exploring the whole remarkable “new weird” genre for me (latest obsession, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne and Area X trilogy).  

* Accepting middle-aged manhood with a newfound appreciation for jazz and sax men, mainlining Miles Davis and Coltrane riffs, and catching an awesome Auckland show by Kamasi WashingtonThe wails of a saxophone soothes the savage breast of a middle-aged dude.

* The Chills are some of the greatest pop musicians New Zealand has ever spawned, and a fantastic documentary on the ups and downs of their mastermind Martin Philipps is a great look at their career. Seeing it at a special showing with Philipps himself in attendance and singing a few songs was fantastic. More reading: Martin Phillipps and the endless cool of The Chills

* The Hulk can be anything, and Al Ewing’s Immortal Hulk continues to be the best comic book Marvel’s done in ages, combining horror, heroics and awe as we discover there’s life galore in the gamma giant yet. This is the only entry to repeat from last year’s list, which tells you how good it is. 

* Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in a cinema for the first time in years on Halloween night in a benefit hosted by creator, songwriter and actor Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien. Go-go dancers, flying toilet paper and profanity, spooky, hilarious fun and sweet transvestites galore. 

* The Mandalorian and finally seeing an IG droid do its thing nearly 40 years after The Empire Strikes Back. I can’t tell you how geeked out IG-11 made me feel. More reading: The Star Wars scene I’ve wanted for 38 years.

* Rediscovering Akira Kurosawa. Even though I love Seven Samurai, Ikuru and the Yojimbo series, my knowledge of Kurosawa’s deeper filmography has been sadly lacking, until now. High And Low, Stray Dog, Red Beard, The Bad Sleep Well and so much more are like full-course meals for the head and heart. 

* Volunteering at the Pop-Up Globe for a third season this year and, particularly, seeing their fine version of Hamlet at least 8 or 9 times, each time the performances and bottomless wisdom of the play getting deeper and deeper for me. More reading: Hamlet, the play that never ends 

* Superheroes are everywhere, and it’s impossible to see every movie and TV show, but a real highlight this year was DC’s quirky, foul-mouthed Doom Patrol series, which captured the surrealism and horror of Grant Morrison’s epic run nicely. More reading: It’s the end of the world and I like it

* Bong Joon-Ho’s astounding Parasite and those stairs. Best movie of the year in a year with a whole lot of great movies? I have to suspect it is. 

* The opening of the heartfelt and gorgeous Tongan/New Zealand documentary For My Father’s Kingdom at the NZ International Film Festival, in a colourful gala packed with Tongan spirit, music and pride. Tongans are among my favourite of New Zealand’s rich tapestry of diversity, and in a year that also brought us the horror of the Christchurch attacks, this night at the movies was an inspiration of what this country is really all about. It was a privilege to witness this. More reading: Film festivals are the best-ivals

Next time, I’ll get negative with a look back at a few cultural lowlights of 2019! 

Tales of an obsessed comics geek, Part II

The amazing Evan Dorkin and the Eltingville Club.

The quest for comic books drove much of my youth. I wrote in Part One about the thrill of the hunt, of trying to find my comics in a small mountain town where shops came and went like the wind. (Big thanks to pal Bob for his very kind words on that essay!) Let’s turn the page now to the late ‘80s. 

Eventually, I got older, learned to drive, even got jobs so I could buy more comics (notably a rather unsuccessful 6-week stint working at McDonald’s in the summer of ’88). After Kayo closed for the final time, there was a year or so there where the only places I could find new comics was at supermarkets. 

Then, in the shiny new shopping mall at the south end of town, a brand new comic store opened around 1989. It was a glorious change from the rather poky, uncertain shops I’d been used to. This was in a MALL, and it was a big, well-lit, clean space, with row after row of comic books. It hit during the peak of Batmania thanks to the ’89 blockbuster, and I recall an entire rack being filled with copies of the multi-coloured first issue of Legends of the Dark Knight.

It was a boom time, comics were cool, and I was old enough to have a part-time job and spent way too much money on Batman and X-Men and Amazing Spider-Man, where this weird artist named Todd McFarlane was making a splash. It was kinetic and expressive but I wasn’t entirely sure I liked it, being a fan of John Romita Jr.’s sturdy Spidey. The art seemed flashy, but lacking in substance. Welcome to the 1990s.

That mall comic shop – whose name I can’t even recall – was blandly professional but it did lack a certain style that the McNeil’s and Kayo’s of my youth had. Maybe I was just older, and less easily dazzled. But it was gone by the time I finished high school and moved across the country to little ol’ Mississippi to go to college.

My transient state and lack of a car led me to sign up for Westfield Comics, a thoroughly cool mail-order comics service I used on and off for many years until I moved overseas – they were great, but I’ll admit, I mainly used them because I didn’t have a comic shop within walking distance for long periods of my life. There’s nothing quite like discovering a new comics shop, with its hidden treasures and quirks. 

And I found a great one in Memphis, an hour or so away, that I made frequent trips to for years – Comics & Collectibles. This was now the mid-1990s, when I became less and less interested in Marvel and DC as the “Image Comics” art style became prevalent and stories and artwork became contorted, incomprehensible messes for too many years. 

Fortunately at the same time there was a golden age in great independent comics, and I would regularly hit up C&C for my fix of Hate, Eightball, Dork, Naughty Bits, Yummy Fur, Cerebus and more. Those creators kept me going through what I still consider the direst years of mainstream comics, the naughty ‘90s.

I don’t collect quite as many titles today as I once did – maybe 6-8, and a handful of miniseries and specials. I don’t do digital comics – they’re fine for some, but not for me. I’ve got two very good comic shops in my current city, which I dig.

I do still trawl the shops and online an awful lot for the old comics, because the things you grew up with are always the best things. Comics from roughly 1976-1988 hit that sweet spot for me, and always will. Obsessed comics geek for life, yo.

Consider the Man-Wolf: Marvel’s misfit lycanthrope

Marvel Comics in the 1970s was this great mad sprawling bestiary of ideas. Comics were hip, and Marvel was cool with Smilin’ Stan Lee always out hustling, but we were a long way from billion-dollar blockbusters and everyday people on the street knowing what Wakanda was. 

There’s always been a soft spot in my heart for the coulda-beens, the never-was of Marvel’s 1970s. Comics like Black Goliath or Human Fly or Shogun Warriors. And of course, the Man-Wolf, whose entire gloriously weird short resume has been collected in the new Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection TPB.

The Man-Wolf remains obscure. He’s a werewolf, see, but he’s Spider-Man’s werewolf. He’s also an astronaut, and the son of tabloid terror J. Jonah Jameson. Oh, and he carried a sword for a while and fought aliens. Gloriously weird, indeed.

The Man-Wolf first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #124, one of the oldest Spidey comics I owned until my moth-eaten copy fell apart. It’s a groovy Gil Kane cover practically ordering you to read it. The Man-Wolf ticked all the Spidey villain boxes – creepy animal alter-ego, tragic backstory, plenty of guilt. He must’ve been popular in the early 1970s, because he suddenly got his very own starring role in Marvel’s C-list Creatures on the Loose comic.

It’s weird because Marvel actually already HAD a star lycanthrope, Werewolf By Night. But this was the monster-filled 1970s, where Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, “living vampires,” mummies and zombies all had their own comic books. The problem was nobody at Marvel really seemed sure what to do with Werewolf #2, who mainly differed from the Night guy by being greyish-white instead of brown, oh, and an astronaut.

Reading Man-Wolf: The Complete Collection is the diary of a character who never entirely fit in. Was he a rampaging beast, a quasi-superhero who battled the Nazi villain the Hatemonger, or something else? 

In one of those glaring comic book about-faces that gave fans whiplash, suddenly he was a “chosen one,” the Star-God, saviour of another dimension in a strange fantasy adventure, drawn by a great young George Perez and featuring on one of the most honestly daft comic book covers of all time – he’s a Man-Wolf! In Space! With a sword! 

This collection follows the wolf’s rambling travels across dimensions and comic books, from his short-lived solo tales to guest appearances with Spider-Man and a very odd stint in Marvel’s Savage She-Hulk comic, one of the most blandly generic titles ever published. It all ends with the werewolf curse being kicked… for now. 

The Man-Wolf’s appeared since his ‘70s heyday, but really, this book collects the best of his strange saga, and while I’d balk at calling it great comics, it’s tremendously fun comics, the story of a C-list character who never quite caught on.

But you never know… by the time Marvel Studios gets to Phase 5 or 6, a space werewolf with a sword epic starring Timothée Chalamet might just be the ticket. 

Tales of an obsessed comics geek, Part I

The author with a prized copy of Marvel Team-Up Annual #5, circa 1982.

I’ll do some crazy stuff to get my comics. 

It’s easier now, that I live in a big city with a few very good comic shops, and of course the internet, but back in the ‘80s a young Nik spent a lot of time on the comics hustle. 

I got sucked into the addiction that would claim most of my life by spinner racks at Lucky’s in 1982, where our family would sometimes stop in after church. Marvel’s Star Wars, Roger Stern’s Amazing Spider-Man, Gerry Conway’s Batman, Claremont’s X-Men, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four… these were the hooks. These spinner racks were like Christmas trees to me. 

Right around that time circa 1983, an actual comic book STORE opened for the first time in my small California mountain town, right on Main Street. It was called McNeil’s, and run by a laconic man who seemed ancient to this 12-year-old. There were long boxes full of OLD comics, which I could never afford, and stopping by there on the way home from school once a week became a must. You’d inhale that peculiar smell of old comics, an entire room filled with them, and I was done for. 

But then McNeil died (he actually WAS ancient), and the store soon closed. Back to hustling for comics off the spinner racks at the supermarkets across town, or occasional trips to the amazing Comics & Comix down in Sacramento, which was like a Catholic visiting the Pope for me. Unfortunately, a pre-teen kid couldn’t get down there very often. 

I’d go hunting for anything, once even walking a ridiculous distance in summer heat to find the only comic even slightly interesting was an issue of G.I. Joe Vs Transformers. I didn’t even really LIKE G.I. Joe. 

Then another comics store opened in town, in a weird suburban spot just down the road from my house. It was called Kayo’s, run by a peculiar little elf-like man out of what seemed to be a converted front living room, with the rest of the house crammed away behind another door. 

It was a tiny but decent comic shop at an amazing time for comics circa 1986. DC was suddenly exploding with the creativity of Alan Moore, Crisis and Dark Knight. We were just getting into the great indy comics era then, with publishers like Eclipse, First and Renegade putting out strange, cool books that weren’t at all like the Marvel and DC stuff. Mr Monster, The Flaming Carrot, DNAgents, Cerebus. I picked up the third issue of some oddball black and white comic about ninja turtles on Kayo’s recommendation. I do wish I’d kept that. 

Kayo’s was a good fix, so of course it closed down. But then they opened again. And closed again. They did this several times over the course of a couple of years, moving around town to various locations – an old beauty parlor, a tiny space hidden upstairs in an office building downtown. 

Kayo was one of those hustling optimists you often see in life, sweating and trying to hold something together. He loved comics, but couldn’t give the business a go. The makeshift appearance of his shops said something – they seemed slapped together overnight, ready to move at a moment’s notice. One of the stores closed so suddenly that the next time I popped by it was empty, abandoned save for a big box of old Comics Buyer’s Guides left out on the porch. I took them all, of course. 

But he was my comics fix for a few desperate years there. Kayo hit his low when he was briefly selling comics out of a motel room. I still remember knocking on a hotel room door and getting an issue of West Coast Avengers from him. There was something vaguely seamy, absurd about the transaction, me a teenage kid going to cheap hotels to buy my comics. 

Kayo vanished eventually, but not without a whiff of scandal. There was a crime in the family, maybe even a murder – not him, but as I vaguely recall it was a son or a son-in-law – something that briefly made the local news, and then shortly after Kayo and his comics disappeared forever. I often wonder about the mysterious Kayo. 

But he left with me getting a final prize – in the final throes of his business, everything had to go, and so I ended up buying a comics spinner rack from him for $20, and hauling the stupid, awkward thing at least a mile or two back to my parents’ house. I kept it for years, moving from California to Mississippi with it, on into college, into tiny apartments. Eventually in my more vagabond years it ended up in a barn at my parents’ house, covered in spiderwebs, before it vanished entirely from my history. 

The comic shops I grew up with were always temporary, and the hustling, impermanent state of Kayo’s summed something up about them. But eventually that would change. Comics would get big time.

Next time: Flashy new shops, Batman goes Hollywood, and a move to Memphis

Trashed treasure: ‘Batman From The ’30s To The ’70s’

Some books are worth their weight in gold, even as they fall apart.

This treasured copy of “Batman: From The ‘30s to ‘70s” was given to me by my parents sometime around 1977 or so, and while it shows the wear and tear of 40+ years of avid re-reading, I’ll never part with it. The book needs regluing, there’s a few pages missing, the dust cover has been gone for decades, and for some reason I cut an interior page out and glued it on the front cover, but if there’s a single book I can blame for my lifelong comics addiction, it’s this one. 

This copy has been around the world with me, from California to Mississippi to Oregon to New Zealand. About 15 years ago or so I “loaned” it to my then-teenage nephew, and it eventually ended up on the shelf out at our family’s beach house here in New Zealand. There it sits, dusty but alive. 

Published as a “best of” collection celebrating Batman’s first 30 years or so, it’s a marvellous summing up of why Batman still works after all this time. You had the raw, primitive early Bob Kane stories – the debuts of The Joker and Doctor Death were dark, bloody stories with a high body count. Then Robin came along, and the tone started to get lighter – culminating in the great crazed sci-fi Bat of the 1950s, with Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-Mite and Ace The Bathound all joining the crew. Batman traveled back in time and went to alien planets and yet this was the same Batman who once brooded in the shadows of Gotham, too. Over the pages of this thick tome, you could watch Batman progress from pulp hero to sci-fi star to the classic realistic Neal Adams-styled Batman who leapt off the page in the early 1970s. You could see how Batman could fit in almost anywhere and anytime.

There were several spreads of covers of various decades in Bat-history, going from the Gothic 1940s to the kitschy 60s to the lean, brooding Bat of the early 1970s. Pre-internet, pre-discovering fandom, this was the only window into the mysteries of comics history for me. It’s really hard to describe in our wired world what it felt like to discover hints of the past without being able to Google them up. At just age 8 or so, I began to understand the concept of history. All thanks to Batman.

 I long since bought another copy of the same book that’s less battered, just to be able to read it easily. I’ll still keep my original copy of “Batman From The ’30s to the ’70s” around somewhere until it disintegrates into crumbs, I imagine. It was the key to unlock a four-coloured world of heroes and villains I’ve never entirely left. 

You really can judge a comic book by its cover

Batman_184I’ve been hunting for the Batman issue above for a long time. It’s perhaps one of the best comic book covers ever – how can you NOT want to read the story inside? (Spoiler: It’s not actually all that great, but how could it measure up to that cover?) As a comic book cover alone, it’s a work of art.

The_Flash_Vol_1_163We live in weird times, when comic books dominate pop culture and box office receipts, yet the humble printed item itself still struggles for sales. They’re still out there, and I hope they’ll be out there a long time, but we’re a long way from when an X-Men comic sold 8 million issues in the ‘90s. But great comic book covers have pretty much died as an art form, despite their still being a lot of very good comic books published. It’s like everyone stopped caring about the covers. Maybe I’m just a design nut, but to me the cover is an integral part of the whole comics package.

Comic book covers slowly changed around the turn of the century, when kids stopped buying comic books at grocery store spinner racks and the art of selling comics rested less on a dynamic cover image and more on short-lived gimmicks (ah, for the chromium foil covers of the 1990s) or story-telling events (Crisis that, Crisis this, Marvel relaunching their comic titles over at #1 about every 15 minutes). Comics sell now to a fairly entrenched group of older fans like me, and the covers stopped trying to be about grabbing your attention. 

tumblr_pipexotLzg1vvfgwko1_400I don’t know why comic book covers have gotten so boring, really, but Christ almighty they sure have. Instead the kind of dazzling images you see here from the 1960s-1980s, sometime around 1999 comic book companies settled into publishing bland generic pin-up shots and chaotic battle scenes which vanish from your mind soon as you see them.

Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man comic was so bad at this for a while in the early 2000s that I honestly could never tell whether I’d read an issue or not from its cover, usually yet another generic shot of Spider-Man swinging through the city. The Alex Ross school of lush, artsy painted comic book covers also took over – and I like Alex Ross’s work, but painted comic covers in general don’t grab the eye like they first did. 

cleanComic books are at their heart a unique form of storytelling that combines words and pictures and have created some of the greatest fiction of the last century. There’s a reason Avengers movies and Aquaman movies rake in the big bucks, because there’s an iconic, mythological heft to these characters.

Yet for some reason the big brains putting out the comics stopped trying to showcase their storytelling on their covers. I don’t want yet another boring pin-up image of Batman.

I want you to tell me a story that makes me want to read that comic book, just like that battered Batman #184 from the 1960s that I finally tracked down a copy of. I’ll never forget that cover, because it told me a story and I had to know what happened next. 

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