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Friday’s Single-Issue Classic Countdown – Part 1

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Single-Issue Classic Countdown – Part 1

This is a project I’ve been meaning to get to for a while in this space.

Thinking about my own personal pull list a couple of weeks back reminded me that on the whole, you really don’t see self-contained, single-issue superhero comics any more. Not from Marvel or DC in their main-line books, anyway. They’re almost always chapters of a much larger story. These days, single-issue superhero stories are generally regarded as kid stuff, fit only for the younger-audience-slanted books.

This is kind of a shame. There is something punchy and powerful about a well-done single issue of a comic book, an immediacy that’s hard to describe. Maybe it’s just because that’s the way it was when I came into comics, but I think there’s a lot to be said for compression in storytelling, and a real art to getting a story told well in the space of one issue.

So just for the hell of it, I thought I’d take the next couple-three weeks to look at some of my favorite single issues. I have to give credit where it’s due– this was actually instigated, sort of, by my old friend Kurt Mitchell.

Those of you that are CBR regulars probably know Kurt. He’s a presence on the forums here under the handle “Cei-U,” and he’s one of the contributing authors to the TwoMorrows All-Star Companion books (which are extremely cool reference volumes for anyone who is at all interested in the Justice Society, and available from finer comic book retailers everywhere.)

For several years Kurt has done a thing on the CBR Classic Comics Forum called “Classic Comics Christmas,” where people count down their top ten comics adaptations in other media, or top ten covers, or whatever it might happen to be that year. It’s always an interesting read, seeing what the various Classics aficionados at CBR list as their favorites.

I participated the first year, which was listing your top ten single-issue comic books. I’ve always wanted to go back and revisit that list and really write up each issue, one by one. Seeing Kurt over New Year’s reminded me that I still haven’t done that…so for each of the next three columns, I’m going to write up the issues on my list, in depth, and explain why I picked each one. We all like countdowns here at Comics Should Be Good, and I’ve decided that, by golly, I’m getting a piece of that action.

I added some rules for this of my own: no mini-series, no specials, no one-shots. All of these are just single issues of an ongoing series. So that automatically excludes a lot of the stuff that shows up on everyone’s list like Watchmen, Dark Knight, et al.  Likewise, all of these were impulse buys for me, new off the stands. Something about picking the book up and flipping through it engaged me to the point where I decided to buy it. And since I originally wrote this up for CBR’s Classics Forum, these comics are all over twenty years old; I kept to that last rule, even though I made changes to the list itself.

In the number ten spot…. The Defenders #21.

This one is on here for a number of reasons. Mostly because it was one of my first exposures to the then-current Marvel Universe– everything for me up to that point had been reprints in Marvel Tales and Marvel’s Greatest Comics, featuring Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four respectively. I sort of knew about Dr. Strange and the Hulk from those books, and the thought of a comic that starred both of them together… that was interesting enough to reach for and pull off the rack.

Back then Stan had mandated a little caption box at the top of the splash page explaining the premise of the title in a couple of lines, so I was quickly brought up to speed on what The Defenders was about. And seeing Ben Grimm on the splash page, that was a touch of the familiar. Even though he was leaving.

By the time I’d got to the bottom I was already a little bit invested in “Val” and her problem. And the next couple of pages, with Val looking with a kind of horror at a family album of Barbara’s, full of pictures of a life she didn’t remember… I was getting more interested. And when the capper was a shot of a wedding she had no memory of…

…well, I’d seen variations of this kind of drama play out among my socially-impaired set many times. This was a totally familiar scene to me: you’re almost, ALMOST ready to –gulp– tell the girl you like her, and then a hideously unlucky blow from fate screws it all up and you explode with bitterness. This was my life at school. Only with superpeople. I was hooked.

But Steve Gerber wasn’t done knocking the emotional pins out from under his characters. Here’s how we said hello to the Hulk that issue:

Classic combination of Gerber pathos, humor, and snark.

And in a model of compressed storytelling, it’s revealed that this very neighborhood is where our villains reside, as we see Dr. Arthur Nagan getting up to some nasty stuff.

The Hulk, naturally, goes where all these troubled super-types went… to hang out with Dr. Strange in the Village. The Hulk was so freaked out by the little girl yelling at him, in fact, that he actually changed back to Bruce Banner.

Just like I used to go hide out from my life at my friend Joe’s house, Doc’s place was clearly where all these damaged people went when they needed a break.

Meanwhile, Nagan and his pals are revealed to be even nastier– and considerably freakier– than I would ever have guessed. Meet the Headmen.

Thirty-five years later and this still creeps me out. Drugging him with a drill into the skull? Ugh.

And here’s where it all comes together…

Yikes.

The Defenders don’t really pull out a win, they just fight a holding action until the madness passes. (I was to learn that this was another Gerber trademark– the violence in the book was always viewed as being ultimately pointless.) Meanwhile, Nagan and the Headmen got safely away and we wouldn’t see them again for another year or so.

That was my introduction to Steve Gerber and the Defenders. Looking back on this and having since read all the stories that came before it, I think that this issue is easily where Gerber himself found his groove on the book. Everything just worked. The plot was tight, the character work was great, everything I’d come to look for in a Marvel book was all there between two covers. This story made me a Gerber fan and a Defenders fan…. a great deal of my affection for both Dr. Strange and the Hulk just as characters comes from this series, and I still think Gerber wrote the best dumb-brute Hulk of anyone. Rereading the comic in order to write this up, I was impressed all over again at the sheer economy of storytelling. Each scene in the book has at least two jobs to do, both setting up a plot point and revealing some essential piece of character.

This particular issue is reprinted in Essential Defenders volume two, and the entire “Headmen” saga that it foreshadowed is in volume three.

*

At number nine, we have Savage Sword of Conan #14.

When I was a kid, my family used to vacation on Mt. Hood in Oregon. Since I am a bookish, urban sort and my family is a dysfunctional mess, well… these trips’ only real charm for me was the general store in Brightwood, Oregon. They had comics. A lot of them. The Defenders issue I listed above was bought there, and so was this. That store’s magazine rack got me through a lot of otherwise miserable weekends.

This one was special because it was the introduction of Marvel’s black-and-white line to me. I’d read a color Conan comic at the barbershop or something before and thought it was just okay, but this looked way cooler. I think it was the Neal Adams art that sold me.

It was also my introduction to the fact that Conan was created as a pulp character, that there were Conan books, that there were other Howard characters besides Conan… I was just discovering pulp paperback reprints at the time and this magazine helped to start the ball rolling down the hill for an interest in pulp fantasy that has never abated. As soon as we were home from the mountains I hit stores looking for Howard paperbacks, and since it was the mid-70’s, there were lots of them to be had.

The comic itself featured an adaptation by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams of the Conan classic “Shadows in Zamboula,” with its heady mix of madness, court intrigues, sorcery, and topless dancing girls (albeit kept more or less decent by their strategically placed long, flowing hair.)

Then a review of a collection of Bran Mak Morn stories (a book I have been meaning to get around to ever since I first read this review. One of these days.)

And finally, a backup 8-pager by Doug Moench and Mike Zeck featuring Solomon Kane against a werewolf.

This was a fun little story, and it was my first look at Mike Zeck’s art; I remember, even at the tender age of thirteen, being really impressed with the linework.

“Shadows in Zamboula” is reprinted in the second volume of the Dark Horse Savage Sword collections, but the rest of it, sadly, languishes in limbo. If you want to see the Kane story you’ll have to get it from a back-issue dealer. I think it’s worth it; the cost of replacing my copy a couple of years ago was very reasonable.

*

Clocking in at number eight we have Marvel’s Greatest Comics #25.

As I said above, you have to understand that when I was a little kid, told I could have a comic and given a quarter, I almost never looked at the new books. They were 15 cents each and I never could wheedle the extra nickel out to spend the 30 cents it would have taken for two. (Had I been able to do that, my comics tastes would have been formed in a completely different way.) But a quarter is what I got and that’s what it stayed for the next three years until I was old enough to start mowing lawns and get my own money to spend.

So, for a quarter, you could get an 80-page Giant from DC or a Marvel reprint book. This was the first time I went for the Marvel reprint, Marvel’s Greatest Comics #25.

This was my introduction to the Marvel Universe. The Fantastic Four, Sub-Mariner, Attuma, Iron Man, Captain America, and — with the weirdest and coolest art — Dr. Strange. The FF I knew from their Saturday morning cartoon, but the rest was all new. And it blew my little nine-year-old mind.

The Fantastic Four story was “Side By Side With Sub-Mariner!” I honestly can’t remember– I was barely eight years old– but I think I may have seen the cartoon adapting this story, and that was what prompted me to pick it up. The Lee-Kirby version was way beyond the cartoon, though, and the backup stories were a whole new world of wonder.

The Iron Man and Caprtain America stories were both amazing. The Cap entry was that classic that kicked off his solo series in Tales of Suspense #59. You remember, when the gang of bad guys decides they’ll storm Avengers Mansion because Cap’s the Avenger minding the store that night, and he’s the only one without super-powers… so hey, how tough can it be? And of course Cap mops the floor with them.

The Iron Man story was reprinted from Tales of Suspense #67, where Count Nefaria aims his dream-making machine at Stark and makes him hallucinate all sorts of battles.

Both stories served as a great introduction to the characters. But the Dr. Strange entry was my favorite, I think: “What Lurks Beneath The Mask!” That was part of Doc’s search for Eternity, that led to the epic showdown with Baron Mordo and Dormammu. The story was engaging enough, but I just loved the otherworldly quality of the art. That was Ditko in his prime and this was one of his best Doc adventures. Searching for Eternity, Strange seeks the help of the aged Genghis, who sadly is a little bit senile, but digs out a scroll that he is sure will be helpful. Strange reads the spell on the scroll and is catapulted to another dimension, only to find that the recipe was actually not for “Eternity” but rather “Eternal Doom.” Oops.

The only annoying part was that the Dr. Strange entry was a hated “continued” story, which is why I basically remained a DC guy till about 1975. I got a quarter every six or seven weeks, maybe once a month. Never a sure thing. So for me it had to be done-in-one. But sometimes the Marvel stuff was so cool-looking that I couldn’t help myself, I HAD to go for it. And it was either Marvel’s Greatest or Marvel Tales that got my precious quarter, and though I tried to check and see if they were – ugh – continued, sometimes I missed. (One of the reasons I so adore the Essentials is because I was able to find out how a lot of those early 70’s reprint cliffhangers ended, finally.)

All of these stories have been reprinted individually in both Essential and Masterworks editions, but to be honest, I think if I saw this comic book at a show or in a back-issue bin I’d still grab it. It’s such a great combo package. I bet if I gave it to a bright eight-year-old that sort of knew the characters from cartoons or movies it would hook him, too.

*

And I think that’s a good start. See you here next week for the second installment, where we count down the next four entries.

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