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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Wallace Wood, the best darn comic book artist there ever was

Image (17)Who’s my favourite comic book artist of all time?

It’s a hard choice to make. Of course, there’s Jack “King” Kirby, dynamic and passionate and the founding father of modern superheroes. There’s Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, nervy and intense and inventive, or the loose, energetic war and fantasy comics genius Joe Kubert, Robert Crumb’s neurotic creations, Herge’s elegant Tintin, and about a million more. 

But on most days, I’ll tell you that I think the best comic book artist of all time was WallaceWally’ Wood. 

Wood is one of the grand pillars of American comics – able to draw glorious science-fiction, chilling crime and horror and glamourous superheroes, all with a dense, classical sense of style that makes every panel of Wood at his peak seem like a museum piece.

I’ll look at a Wood panel for ages, drinking in the dense chiaroscuro of light and depth he created. Nobody drew gloopier, creepier aliens than Wood, more lantern-jawed spacemen, more gorgeous damsels. He’s one of the few comics artists whose work often looks best in the original black and white, without colouring.

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His greatest work was in the 1950s with the legendary EC Comics, on titles including Shock SuspensStories, Vault of Horror, and my personal favourites, the sci-fi duo of Weird Science and Weird Fantasy.

Wood illustrated many of the greatest science fiction comic stories of all time, singlehandedly crafting the images many of us think of when we imagine aliens and flying saucers (the creepy aliens of Mars Attacks? A Wood design). 

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He’d go on to projects like Marvel’s Daredevil (that iconic red costume? Wood), the Justice Society, the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, his pioneering magazine witzend, classic war and horror comics for Creepy, his amazing Mad magazine strips and much more. 

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Wood lived a tragic life, working himself far too hard, embittered by the way the industry treated him, suffering alcoholism, poor health and diabetes. He shot himself in 1981 at just 54 years old. 

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But man, those dreams from Wally Wood’s pen. They live forever. 

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Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet…

Hello, a brief post to make it clear I am neither dead not maimed, but I have been working on a few other non-blog writing assignments of late I should plug here.

Did you know that yours truly was a 13-year-old American lad during the summer of 1985, the same time that the new season of “Stranger Things” is set in? Head on over to Radio New Zealand to read my take on “Stranger Things 3” and what it was really like in the far-off mystical ’80s. 

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Also over at the excellent website The Spinoff, I’ve crafted a somewhat expanded and possibly even improved version of my piece on the end of Mad magazine, and how it influenced the culture that’s all around us – even here in little ol’ New Zealand.

Go forth and read my extracurricular wordage, and new content shall appear here in another day or so!