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.  

Romance comics: Sometimes, all you need IS love

I’ve been collecting comics for something approaching 40 years now (argh), yet there’s always new stuff to surprise me. Lately, I find myself besotted with, possibly a little in love with, one of the most maligned genres of comics – the romance comic book.

Romance comics haven’t been cool for decades. Yet for a comics fan looking for something novel to distract themselves during these plague days, there’s something inescapably alluring about the kitsch-soaked, tear-stained pathos of the romance comic. 

And romance comics were bloody HUGE back in the day. According to Love On The Racks, a very entertaining overview of the genre by Michelle Nolan, more than 6000 titles were published between 1947 to 1977. Then they basically vanished, gone like the westerns and war comics that also thrived back then. 

To be fair – these comics offer up a fair bit of cringeworthy sexism, the people mostly were white and protestant, and the only sexuality is heterosexuality. Yet in between the cliches and cuddles, there’s a lot of subtle statements on life in America in the last century. They’re theatrical pageants for a world that never actually existed. They’re history writ broad in four-colours and cartoon tears.

A lot of the romance comics were just dire, cookie-cutter dramas. But for me, many of the most enjoyable romance comics are the ones where women take their own agency and slap back at the stereotypes. I admit to being particularly partial for the romance comics of the swingin’ 70s, where feminists, hippies and biker dudes sit a bit uneasily with the traditional tropes of the genre. 

I’ve added several romance comic collections to the ol’ library in recent years, each of which is well worth seeking out to take a dip in the waters of this almost-forgotten genre: 

Young Romance was the very first major romance comic, by the legendary Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The best of its 1940s-1950s run was collected in two nice thick tomes by Fantagraphics a while back. While Kirby’s art is rawer, looser than it later became, “Young Romance” holds up very well, mainly because the stories are surprisingly edgy and less sappy than many romance comics became. 

“Marvel Romance” and the long out of print 1970s DC Comics collection “Heart Throbs” collect the best of each of those publishers’ romance comics from titles like My Love, Secret Heart, Young Romance and more. They’re less eccentric than some of the smaller publishers, but these comics often featured absolutely stunning art by the likes of John Romita, Sr. 

“Return To Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney” is an utter hoot.   One of the great off-the-wall comics in history is Odgen Whitney and Richard Hughes’s Herbie, the surreal adventures of an obese young boy with a magic lollipop. The rare romance comics by the same creative team were recently released in a book and they are far out, romance comics as if they were done by John Waters and David Lynch working together. They zig when you expect them to zag and they’re always highlighted by Whitney’s dazzling, crisp and expressive cartooning.

Two other excellent post-2000 compendiums of random romance comics are “Romance Without Tears” by Fantagraphics and “Agonizing Love” by Harper Collins, both of which present a great assortment of stories and commentary on the era. 

Weird Love was an utterly fantastic reprint series by Yoe Books that ran for 24 issues up until last year, collecting the strangest love stories from the medium’s history – it was one of the kookiest, best comics in years, featuring at least TWO separate stories about women falling in agonising love with circus clowns.

I won’t say that romance comics are the creative peak of the medium. Yet perhaps more than any other subgenre of comics, superheroes included, they’re a time capsule of the era they were created in, and if you don’t mind how dated they might be from a 2020 perspective, they’re still often a swingin’ good time. 

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. 

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.