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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

Stripped down: In praise of the humble newspaper comic

I love comic books, but I also love comic strips. And man, I miss them.

The ritual of paging through a newspaper and basking in the glory of an entire page or two of comic strips has been something I loved most of my life. One of the first things I remember reading were battered paperbacks of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” the Citizen Kane of strips. I remember clipping out old strips from The Union newspaper when I was growing up and making makeshift albums of them. 

One of my first jobs in real life was as a newspaper boy delivering that same Union, and so I got to read “Peanuts” and the rest before anybody else. Years later at a small town paper in Mississippi in my first job after college, one of my wage-slave gigs in a less computerised era was pasting up the newspaper’s comics pages by hand, clipping them out from the glossy sheets the syndicates sent and gluing “Shoe”, “Luann” and the like onto the page. Finally, I was making the comic strip pages! 

As I grew older, I moved on from “Garfield” and “Peanuts” to “Bloom County” and “Doonesbury” (where I learned more about US politics than I ever did in school) and finally the surreal charms of “Red Meat” and “Zippy The Pinhead.” I even achieved the ultimate dream when I drew my own comic strip “Jip” for a little more than a year for my college newspaper, where I unashamedly pilfered from all my favourite comic strips for inspiration. 

Comic books are huge intellectual property now and fodder for countless blockbuster movies and TV shows, but the comic strip feels somewhat cast aside, quaint, an echo of the past. Yet at its peak through most of the 20th century, the newspaper comic strip was probably far more influential on popular culture than comic books, an eclectic mix of cornball, adventure and gags that showcased how diverse the medium could be. 

Newspapers have been shrinking for years now and the comics page is one of the casualties. A lot of strips that have been going for a long time have ended this year, and it’s hard not to imagine even more will follow as papers fold and comic sections, where there are any left, shrink further. 

The immortal “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Bloom County” and “The Far Side” in the 1980s and 1990s might’ve been the last big gasps of the comic strip as pop culture giants. The death of Charles Schulz in 2000 seemed the end of more than just his era. It was a portent of the end of comics pages as a cultural touchstone. 

When I moved to New Zealand in 2006, it was a bummer to find out that the country’s biggest newspaper didn’t have a comics page at all. Pal Bob assures me that wasn’t always the case, and NZ newspapers once had robust comics sections too (including great Kiwi comic strips like the classic “Footrot Flats” by Murray Ball). But by the time I arrived down here, nuthin’. Somehow, a newspaper feels like it’s missing something irreplaceable without a page full of goofy comic strips. 

And yeah, I’ll admit, many comic strips have been pretty mediocre or gone on for literally decades longer than they should’ve. It’s hard to believe relics like “Andy Capp” or “Snuffy Smith” (mining that ever-topical hillbilly humour 90 years past its peak) are still going. When I do see the comic strip pages in America on visits now, they’re a pretty dusty lot. Given the ageing demographics of print media and their fetish for snorefests like “Mark Trail” and “The Lockhorns”, fresh new talent finds it hard to break in. There are a lot of “zombie comic strips” out there that take up the space that new talent might have. 

(As an example of comic strip inertia, that newspaper I worked for in Mississippi back in the mid-1990s still ran “Bringing Up Father,” surely one of the last papers anywhere to run a strip that began in 1913 and finally keeled over in 2000.)

The comic art form hasn’t gone anywhere of course, and endless legions of great, diverse creative folk are doing amazing comics online and elsewhere. But there’s a part of me that will always miss the humble newspaper comics page, where Garfield, Snoopy, Doonesbury and many more leapt out from the ink every single day.

That time the Son of Satan was a superhero

I’ve written before about my love for the weird stuff Marvel Comics put out in the early 1970s.  Perhaps one of their strangest gambles was a series that could only have risen from the grave in the age of The Exorcist and The Omen. Let’s give it up for … The Son Of Satan!

After years of comics being constrained by the Comics Code Authority, the reins were loosened a bit early in the 1970s, allowing previously taboo subjects. Marvel Comics went BIG on the horror in the early ‘70s, and as a result dug up some of its best work. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, a living mummy, a Man-Wolf, a werewolf, a zombie, hell, even a golem and a Manphibian … They’d throw anything at the wall of the horror superheroes boom to see if it stuck. 

So why not the Son of the Dark Lord himself? Hilariously, according to a feature in Back Issue magazine #21, Stan Lee actually proposed Marvel do a comic book starring Satan himself – in other words, DC/Vertigo’s Lucifer decades ahead of its time. Cooler heads prevailed and instead a feature called Son of Satan debuted in a 1973 issue of Marvel Spotlight, starring Damien Hellstrom – also confusingly sometimes called “Hellstorm” – the son of the devil and a mortal woman torn between two worlds. 

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah of calling a comic book Son of SatanFredric Wertham surely would be turning in his grave. I love the title, even when the book itself was rather schizophrenic – during his 20 or so issue solo run in Marvel Spotlight and then his own short-lived comic, Damien Hellstrom’s adventures fighting both evil and his own evil side ran all over the place and went through many creators (the best being the late writer Steve Gerber). At one point, he even got into a fight with Adam – yes, that Adam. Like many Marvel books of the era, Son of Satan constantly changed course to try and win readers. He was clad in circus-devil yellow and red and carried a pitchfork, teamed up with Human Torch and Ghost Rider and kept on with all his daddy issues. 

He did get flak – at least one letter writer accused the creators of being “tools” of Satan. Artist Herb Trimpe told Back Issue he was “uncomfortable” with “evil being the star of the book.” Years later, ol’ Son Of was even retconned so he wasn’t actually the son of that Satan, but of a more generic demon who sometimes called himself Satan. Son Of Someone Who Might Be Satan really isn’t as catchy.  

The original ‘70s run was all nicely collected in the Son of Satan Classic paperback. Later, Damien popped up in Marvel’s clearing-house non-team book The Defenders for some fun stories, and kept bopping around ever since. You can’t keep a good devil down. 

Hellstorm got grim and gritty in the 1990s, really leaned into the whole Satanic thing and started looking like Rob Zombie and gave up the superhero spandex in a 1990s well-received gory reboot by Warren Ellis. He’s often been an outright villain in more recent appearances. He’s even finally getting some kind of adaptation in a TV series (with a fairly underwhelming first trailer, and this time he’s spelled Helstrom!).

Admittedly, the entire concept is better geared towards dark horror than heroics, but I still kind of dig the era when a guy calling himself the Son of Satan ran around in a superhero cape. “Hellstrom” or “Hellstorm” or whatever is a decent enough name, but to be honest, if you’re the son of the devil, you need to own that. 

Son Of Satan is an intriguing little throwback to an era when such a character could be featured in what were ostensibly kid’s comics without major protests. So you know, hail Satan — he might just have cleared the way for much darker and grimmer comics yet to come. 

The dogged optimism of Mr. Terrific

My favourite superhero team will always be the Justice Society of America. The first superhero team in comics, the JSA made its debut 80 years ago this year, with the original Flash, Atom, Hawkman, Dr. Fate, Green Lantern and many more. 

One of their lesser-known members always intrigued me – the rather boastfully named Mr. Terrific, one of the most quixotic of golden age superheroes. He barely appeared with the JSA in their original ‘40s incarnation, and mostly lived out his life as a back-up feature in the Wonder Woman-headlining Sensation Comics. 

Mr. Terrific’s back story, such as it was, was laid out in Sensation Comics #1 – He’s Terry Sloane, first introduced as a “child marvel” who’ll be “smarter than Einstein when he grows up.” Basically, he’s good at everything, without being any kind of mutant or spaceman – the kind of guy who probably annoys the hell out of everybody around him, frankly. As he grows up, he’s a genius at business, sport and love. He gets so bored, he decides to kill himself. But instead of topping himself, he saves a suicidal woman jumping off a bridge and this gives him the spark to carry on, fighting crime as the masked “Mr. Terrific.”

To be honest, it’s complete nonsense of an origin, isn’t it? It’s not even having a bat fly through your window to inspire you. When roughly a dozen new superheroes were appearing a week in the 1940s, you worked with what you could, I guess. Mr. Terrific clad himself in a striking green and red costume with “Fair Play” emblazoned across his chest in huge letters, and the peculiar vehemence of his costume is probably why he’s remembered at all.

Nevertheless, I kind of like the goofy lug, who appeared in Sensation Comics until the late 1940s, then popped up occasionally in the 1960s. He was rather randomly killed off after years of obscurity in the pages of Justice League of America in 1979, and that was it for Mr. T. 

I don’t think there was probably ever a great Golden Age Mr. Terrific story. You’ve read one, you read them all. He was just kind of there, among dozens and dozens of other do-gooders living out very repetitive, yet somehow fun adventures. Yet the plucky charm of writing out “Fair Play” on your chest and deciding to fight crime because the only other choice is killing yourself out of sheer boredom sticks with me. Maybe Mr. Terrific was the first superhero to really struggle with mental health, although you’d never really guess that from his adventures. 

In what I’d call his greatest moment, even if it was after he was dead, Mr. Terrific made a wonderful little cameo in the 1990s in James Robinson’s fantastic series Starman #37. In it, “Starman” Jack Knight imagines himself dining with his dead brother and several other dead superheroes, including Mr. Terrific, who gets a brief page or so monologue about himself and his motto. In a few panels, Robinson somehow gives Mr. Terrific the real motivation and a wee bit of pathos that he’d been lacking for his entire career. 

A new Mr. Terrific was introduced in the 1990s as an African-American inventor with a tragic past, and was a very cool addition to the Justice Society and other comics. He’s probably been in way more good stories than his inspiration, but one thing I do like is that “Fair Play” is still prominently displayed on his costume all the same. 

In a world teeming with selfish politicians and preening social influencers and a real paucity of actual superheroes, the idea of sticking your head up and saying, “Hey – Fair Play! Let’s give everyone a decent go, shall we?” Well, that feels kind of heroic.