Hero worship: A simple twist of Dr. Fate

Some superheroes just grab your attention when you’re young, at the perfect age to be spellbound by flashy capes and cowls. It’s usually all about the look. Maybe you were blown away by Hawkman’s wings, or Batman’s cowl, or Wolverine’s claws. For me, it was the spell cast by Doctor Fate.

I’m cautiously interested in the upcoming Black Adam movie, although it’s not so much for Dwayne Johnson as the titular antihero. Instead, I’m psyched to see what they’ll do with one of my favourite super-teams, the Justice Society, with the spooky Dr. Fate personified by Pierce Brosnan.

My first exposure to Fate was an action figure, part of the Super Powers line of the 1980s. I still own that figure 37 years on. The catchy combination of blue and gold on his costume, perhaps, struck some primal chord for me, or maybe it was that cool helmet. I just knew I liked the way this guy looked. I still do.

Dr. Fate has never quite been a marquee attraction – debuting in 1940 in More Fun Comics, created by Gardner Fox and artist Howard Sherman, he was an original member of the Justice Society. He’s Kent Nelson, who owns the mystic helmet of Nabu giving him immense magical powers – in later interpretations, he’s actually possessed by the spirit of Nabu as Fate. 

Fate’s original early 1940s stories are a dark delight – he’s given no real origin for some time, and is a mysterious, omnipotent figure waging war against evil in the stark, dreamlike fashion of early comics.

Like a lot of Golden Age comics characters, Fate’s hard edges got smoothed off fast – his striking helmet became a rather dorky-looking half-helm, he lost the cape and he started dropping corny quips. 

Dr. Fate is always best when he’s mysterious – popping up to great spooky effect in books like All-Star Squadron and Justice League of America. 

There have been a handful of terrific Dr. Fate solo comics – a memorably strong adventure by Walt Simonson in the 1970s, and a very abstract, emotional miniseries by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen in the late 1980s I quite liked. His only solo starring series of any real duration was a 41-issue series that started out quite well, with Fate’s identity being shared by a troubled boy and his stepmother (long story) and a welcome sense of humour, before it kind of dissolved into new-age mysticism.

Fate has seen many ups and downs – an utterly awful “extreme” ‘90s reboot, a long parade of other characters than Kent Nelson donning the golden helmet. Kent Nelson himself isn’t a terribly strong character on his own, but somehow Fate still really works best when he’s the man wearing the helmet. Black Adam isn’t even his first live action appearance – he made a cool cameo on an episode of Smallville years back. 

I don’t know if Black Adam will be any good, but what little I’ve seen of Dr. Fate in it is pretty groovy… with one exception. For some reason, they’re depicting the Helmet of Nabu without any eyeholes. It’s … striking, but also weird, like having a Superman without the “S” or Batman without the pointy ears. The all-seeing eyes of Dr. Fate have always been a critical part of his look, and it’s a curious choice. Maybe it’ll look better on screen. 

I could never really pin my Dr. Fate fandom on one particular quality to the character – there are other spooky mystical heroes like Dr. Strange and The Spectre, after all, and like I said, he’s starred in a handful of good comics over the years, but more often, he’s the man in the background, popping up to drop some magical deus ex machina. 

In the end, it all still comes back to that distinctive look by Fox and Sherman more than eight decades ago now – sometimes, that’s all you need to make a character stick in your mind. A look can imprint on you when you’re young, and you might just always be a bit of a fan. Perhaps it’s just Fate. 

Hercules, the demigod who got Thor to loosen up

Look, I’m a New Zealander and a comics geek, so you better believe I’m excited to see homegrown talent Taika Waititi’s new Thor: Love And Thunder come out this week. And it looks set to expand the Marvel pantheon to the Greek gods, with Russell Crowe’s Zeus prominent in the trailers. 

Where Zeus goes, will Hercules follow? Marvel Comics’ version of Hercules has always been simmering somewhere around the B-list, and while the demigod Hercules has been around for eons as mythology and heroic TV and movie character, the Marvel-fied version of him has yet to debut in the MCU. 

I always kind of dug Marvel’s Hercules, who was a lot more relatable than Thor in the comics. He was a hard-drinking brawler who loved to share “the gift” (of combat!) with everyone he met. 

It’s easy to forget now with Chris Hemsworth’s winningly loose performance as the God of Thunder, but Thor was a lot less bro-tastic in the comics at first. When he debuted, Thor spoke a lofty, faux-Shakespearean prose, and even had a secret identity of sorts, a human named Don Blake he was cursed to transform into regularly. Thor began to loosen up in the comics after decades, but for years he was kind of a dull stiff. I’ve grown to appreciate the epic scope of those early Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Thor adventures more, but when I first came to comics, Thor often seemed a boring straight man. It took the energy of creators like Walt Simonson, Dan Jurgens and Jason Aaron to give him some much-needed life. 

To be honest, the MCU’s Thor owes a lot more of his character to Marvel’s Hercules. Thor’s stiffness was once a counterpoint to Hercules’ looseness, but if you squint now the characters are pretty similar. 

Now, Hercules – he was a slightly dopey bro-god from the start, impulsive and always with a flagon of ale nearby, right from his first appearance wrestling with Thor. But there’s only so many roles for god/superhero characters even somewhere as big as the Marvel universe, so Hercules was mostly related to supporting turns in Thor as a frenemy pal, some memorable runs in The Avengers and even the awesomely odd mix of characters in the short-lived 1970s Champions superteam. He’s had a few brief solo series of his own, including an excellent relatively recent run by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lante.

But the first exposure I ever had to Marvel’s Hercules was Bob Layton’s superb 1982 miniseries, an offbeat comic odyssey that wasn’t quite like anything else Marvel was putting out at the time. Hercules: Prince of Power took place in the distant future, where a still-carousing Hercules is once again banished from Olympus by his angry father Zeus, and ends up heading to the stars and having galactic adventures. Liberated from the bonds of regular continuity, Hercules could have universe-changing escapades and there was a goofy freedom to it all. Palling around with robots and Skrulls, Herc showed that being a god was kind of fun

Hercules: The Prince of Power was side-splittingly funny (name another comic that features Galactus getting drunk), but it also treated the demigod seriously. Perpetually immature, Hercules is still burdened by the weight of the years and his feats. In several sequel miniseries and graphic novels, Bob Layton proved one of Hercules’ finest chroniclers. At its heart the Hercules miniseries by Layton addressed the central question of godhood – what would it really be like to live forever? Would you learn anything or keep making the same mistakes over and over?

Marvel’s Hercules may or may not get a shot at wide cinematic universe fame at some point – hell, when She-Hulk, Rocket Raccoon and Ant-Man have all become household names, who knows? But I’d like to think he’s already had his impact, behind the scenes, by inspiring Thor to loosen the hell up. 

Gut-wrenching final issue! When comic books are cancelled

The problem with never-ending serialised fiction is just that – it never ends. Unless a meteor finally hits the planet, you’ll probably never really see a truly final adventure of Superman, Spider-Man or Batman. Sure, there’s plenty of possible final stories and alternative histories out there – but the powers that be will never let the underlying intellectual property go truly dormant. 

Heck, even stories we once thought were over, such as Star Wars circa 1985, have been prequeled and sequeled and sidequeled and likely will until they run out of steam until the inevitable next reboot circa 2045. 

There are comics characters I love, but I no longer obsessively follow their every adventure. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Spider-Man and Batman, but you know, you’ve seen Bats punch out the Joker once, you’ve seen it all. Sometimes, you just want a sense of closure. 

I guess that’s why I have a nerdy fascination with picking up the final issues of long-running comics series, because it feels like a definite ending to the story. It doesn’t really happen much anymore, because there’s always another reboot, but for a while in the mid-1980s, Marvel was kind of OK with wrapping up entirely the stories of characters who had reached the end of the line – Ghost Rider, Master of Kung Fu and ROM among them, while rival DC Comics cancelled almost every non-superhero comic they had in a massive genre purge in the early 1980s, as well as long-running series like Flash and Wonder Woman in favour of reboots. 

A cover trumpeting “final issue” teases the reader that this story really, truly matters, unlike the more common “stealth cancellation” tactic these days where a comic book just quietly vanishes.

The ending of these stories could be uplifting – Ghost Rider finally breaks his demonic curse to walk off into the sunset, ROM gets his humanity returned after winning the Dire Wraith war – or surprisingly bleak, when Iron Fist is shockingly murdered in the final 125th issue of Power Man And Iron Fist, ending what had been an entertaining bi-racial buddy superhero tale on a note of discordant tragedy. (Iron Fist came back from the dead, of course, but it wasn’t for several years.) 

Other final issues serve as a farewell to dying comic book genres – Jonah Hex #92 puts a capstone on the western saga’s classic years, while G.I. Combat #288 was one of the last war comics in a once-dominant subsector of comics. From the mid-’70s on, one by one the popularity of long-running horror, western, war and romance comics faded so that by 1985, from House of Mystery to Young Romance, almost none of them were left. Sometimes the endings were pretty abrupt – the saga of the bizarre “Creature Commandos” is wrapped up in an utterly slapdash one-page story in final issue Weird War Tales #124 that just shoots them off into outer space forever! 

Some got a happy ending that stuck – ROM ended his series in 1985 and while there have been a few revivals at other comics companies of the basic concept, the Marvel version of ROM has never returned – not for creative reasons, but because of tangled copyright wrangling. I do like the idea that the spaceknight got to just walk off into the sunset for good.

I know few characters stay dead when there’s valuable intellectual property to mine – pretty much all of the characters mentioned above have come back in some form or another – but the end of a series after 100, 200 or 300 issues still feels like a pretty firm full stop on a comic’s history. The modern revivals, even when they’re great, often feel like echoes of the past rather than something truly new. 

People have been predicting the death of print comic books for ages, and it’s still shocking to see how low sales figures for print comics are these days when their stars go on to headline multi-zillion-dollar movie franchises. But I’m hoping they stick around as long as I do. I do like a final issue, but I also don’t want to see the gut-wrenching collector’s item last issue of Action Comics or Amazing Spider-Man anytime soon. 

Here’s the Thing – the superhero as working-class stiff

Most superheroes are a little bit stiff, to be honest. They tend to be either godlike and unapproachable like Superman and Thor, or insanely focused like Batman or Dr. Strange. Even a guy like Spider-Man, whose whole schtick is being a friendly-neighbourhood sort, is still an insanely smart multi-tasking genius who started out as a shy teenage outcast. 

There’s not a lot of superheroes you’d want to have a beer with. Except for Ben Grimm, The Thing, who might just be the most everyman hero in comics. 

The Thing, one-quarter of the Fantastic Four, went through a curious period of solo stardom in the ‘70s and some of the ‘80s, striking out on his own with the classic team-up title Marvel Two-In-One and later, his own solo book for 36 issues. These days, he’s kind of mid-level superhero famous and a series of inadequate Fantastic Four movies haven’t helped his situation, but for a while there, he was an A-list attraction. 

The Thing didn’t start out as an obvious breakout star – in his first appearance in Fantastic Four #1 he still talks in grandiose Silver Age comics tones: “Bah! Everywhere it is the same! I live in a world too small for me!” For a while, he was just another tortured superhero like The Hulk or Iron Man. 

But after a while, although he’d always be a little bit agonised over his rocky curse and cut off from the human race, Ben Grimm seemed to accept his lot. He loosened up, peppering his language with slangy Brooklyn-ese banter, including that great catchphrase – “It’s clobberin’ time!” He drank beer and hosted superhero poker games. He wasn’t a dummy – he was a rocket pilot, after all, and before the comics aged beyond it being plausible, a World War II hero – but he was also very much an everyman. Over time, it was also revealed he was one of the first Jewish superheroes.

By the 1970s, the Thing was this cigar-smoking, wisecracking street poet of a character, grumbling away like Archie Bunker covered in orange rocks. There really wasn’t another voice quite like his. While they both were street-level superheroes from poor backgrounds, Spider-Man or Daredevil still tended to speak with a hint of stiffness, in that faux hipster I’m-down-with-the-kids lingo Stan Lee’s writers turned out reliably.

The Thing was always at home, which is why teaming him up with pretty much every hero in the Marvel Universe went down so well. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with Ben Grimm?

He wasn’t a logical choice to lead a marquee team-up title, teaming up with everyone from The Man-Thing to The Living Mummy over 100 issues. The ‘70s were the glory day of team-ups (before pretty much every comic was just a team-up on a regular basis), but the big titles were Marvel Team-Up, starring Spider-Man, Brave and Bold starring Batman, and DC Comics Presents starring Superman himself. The Thing wasn’t quite at the same level of fame as these characters, but maybe that’s why the run of Marvel Two-In-One is still such a joy to read years later. The comics were often great little odd-couple gems of character moments, with cantankerous Ben bouncing off guest stars from Ghost Rider to Moon Knight to Captain America, always taking them down a few pegs. 

Despite being covered in orange rocks, Ben Grimm often felt like the most human of Marvel heroes for big chunks of the ‘70s and ‘80s. In one of the great team-up stories of all time, he even sat down for a few beers with longtime foe the Sandman, and by the end of the tale even convinced the villain to reform, with barely a punch thrown. It’s hard to picture Batman doing that. 

Irreverent wit became more common as comics reached the age of Seinfeldian irony – witness the rise of Deadpool, Harley Quinn, Squirrel Girl or She-Hulk. But The Thing was a bit different – he never broke the fourth wall, or did parody riffs on other heroes – he was just, simply and unchangeable, his own irrascible irreverent self, and at his best, made every other hero look like they were in black-and-white next to his orange bricks. 

Access, or how to ruin a cool idea with a terrible superhero

Back in the misty 1990s, what seemed rare and fanciful suddenly started happening all the time – crossovers between the comics characters of the Marvel and DC Universe

There had been crossovers for a while, starting with 1976’s gold standard of a super-meet-up, Superman Vs. The Amazing Spider-Man. There’s still few things better than the goofy charms of this comic, watching the Man of Steel and webhead meet, fight and team up, originally told in a massive tabloid-size edition. 

It was a hit, so others followed – Batman and the Hulk, the Teen Titans and the X-Men, and they were pretty good, too. Then there was a long lull, until in the 1990s we started getting crossovers all the time – Batman/Spawn, Batman/Punisher, Batman/Daredevil, and probably some that didn’t have Batman. They were less inspired than the first few, lacking the thrill of the new, and mired in that same generic gritted-teeth stoicism that marred many 1990s superhero comics. Some were good – John Byrne’s Batman/Captain America totally rules – but nobody was dying for Spider-Man/Gen 13

And then in 1996, the fanboy’s dream happened – an entire miniseries devoted to comic culture clashes, DC Vs. Marvel Comics! This would be great! Wouldn’t it?

But no, DC Vs. Marvel (or, Marvel Vs. DC) was … adequate. It’s not a complete failure, but it’s unsatisfying and never lives up to the potential dreamed up by a legion of teenage fanboys. It was a case of trying to do too much, in too little space. Instead of the room to breathe that the original Superman/Spider-Man meeting had, you had every character from two universes jammed together fighting for a couple of panels, tied together with some balderdash about cosmic “brothers” who were avatars of each universe… and then there was Access. 

Meet Access, the superhero whose power is equivalent to that of your standard-issue functioning doorknob. A blandly generic kid named Axel Asher (owch), he gets named the “keeper” between the two universes. Access is meant to provide the balance between worlds, you see. If he doesn’t crazy, cosmic things will happen. 

Of course, Access screws up, and the two universes merge, providing the somewhat cool spectacle of a line of “Amalgam” comics featuring mashup characters like Spider-Boy, Super Soldier and Dr. Strangefate who were the 1990s equivalent of the endless ‘multiverse’ stories we see today. They were fanboy service as comic characters, featured in a series of one-shots ranging from good to terrible before the whole underwhelming DC/Marvel crossover wrapped up.

There were lots of brief fun moments in the DC/Marvel mess – who wouldn’t want to see Superman fight the Hulk? And Dr. Strangefate is pretty cool. But generally, everything is rushed, rushed, rushed, and as a result it’s just a blur of capes and colours. Having a Silver Surfer/Green Lantern matchup dispatched in two pages or an Aquaman/Namor fight treated as a joke is just lazy. And honestly, you could ditch the entire Access/cosmic gateway stuff and just say “the universes crossed over because of a space-time anomaly” to streamline everything.

Access has to be just about the most boring character ever given the spotlight, a generic collection of ordinary-guy tics (he worries about his girlfriend!). So of course the publishers gave us not one but TWO forgettable miniseries focused on Mr. Doorknob and a never-ending parade of DC and Marvel guest stars, All Access and Unlimited Access. (Unfortunately, Access was never seen again after about 1997, sparing us Backstage Access.)

It’s hard not to yawn every time Access steps into a panel. He’s the superhero as plot device – at one point he’s explicitly described as having the power to “create crossovers” by staying in one place too long. His comics simply exist to throw Marvel and DC characters together in a variety of underwritten, overcrowded adventures. Reading the adventures of Access over several miniseries is like a hit of Pop-Rocks in Pepsi – it may give you a momentary buzz, but you’ll pay for it later. There hasn’t been another official DC/Marvel crossover in decades, and probably won’t be anytime soon.

I guess Access might’ve been ahead of his time as we seem rather overwhelmed by combinations and alternate versions of superheroes across the multiverses at the moment. Every fanboy likes to play “what if,” but when there’s no follow-up questions, you have to wonder what the point is. 

That, or maybe Access was a harbinger of how starting in the 1990s superhero comics, in the end, started to eat themselves. No doorway needed. 

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.