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Friday’s Single-Issue Classic Countdown – part 2

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday’s Single-Issue Classic Countdown – part 2

As explained in last week’s column, I’m taking a look at my personal top ten favorite single issues of ongoing super-hero series. Last week we did ten, nine, and eight… this week we count down seven, six, five, and four.

My criteria for these picks are pretty simple. No mini-series or one-shots, just single issues of an ongoing series; the issue is something I bought off the stands on impulse, meaning the book sold itself on the strength of what I saw right there in the actual comic; and, though I neglected to mention it last week, each of the ten comics on this list holds some kind of personal meaning for me, each one led me to other stuff or was somehow significant in some other way. And in deference to the game on the CBR Classics Forum where this all started, all of these books are over twenty years old.

Quick recap:

#10 – Defenders #21. Which was a gateway book for me to 70’s Marvel, as well as my introduction to my favorite mainstream comics writer ever, Steve Gerber.

#9 – Savage Sword of Conan #14. My gateway book to Marvel’s magazine black-and-white books, as well as my introduction to Robert E. Howard and other pulp paperback fantasy that dominated spinner racks in the 70’s.

#8 – Marvel’s Greatest Comics #25. My first encounter with the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four, as well as my first look at classic Iron Man, Captain America, and Ditko-era Dr. Strange.

That was last week. And now…

In the number seven spot is Miracleman #2.

Comics in the 80’s… man, that was a great time. It seemed like anything was possible and there was that same feeling of anything-goes, let’s-try-this-and-see-where-it-leads that I had so loved about Marvel Comics in the early 70’s. Only now it was DC and, especially, all these new independent publishers that were leading the charge. In particular, this Cat Yronwode woman that I remembered wrote all those blathering letters to Dr. Strange…. she was apparently editing or publishing now or something, and not only did she get guys like Steve Englehart and Don McGregor and Marshall Rogers and Paul Gulacy doing stuff for her new Eclipse thing, she also went and found this British fellow Alan Moore. I had read some squib in Amazing Heroes or somewhere about how there was this British superhero strip that Eclipse was using to inaugurate its cheap color comics line and when I saw this, I was annoyed that I’d missed the first one but it looked interesting enough that I thought I’d give it a shot anyway.

Now, you have to remember that I hadn’t been reading Swamp Thing. I had no idea who this Alan Moore guy was.

But this book just blew me out of my chair. I immediately got on a bus back into downtown to start hitting the comics shops to track down #1 from the month before… found it at my second stop and I was a Moore believer for life. Never missed an issue of Miracleman from that point on, and within the next few weeks I’d tracked down all of his Swamp Thing too. No one was more ready for Watchmen than me when that started, a year or so later.

But nothing ever gave me the charge that I got from the Eclipse comics reprinting the original Warrior installments of “Miracleman,” with that incredible Garry Leach/Alan Davis art.

Because it took me so completely by surprise. I don’t know how to put across what a shock it was to read Alan Moore comics back when no one knew it was an Alan Moore comic, if that makes sense. It just came at you out of nowhere.

I don’t really know what I was expecting but this wasn’t it. The story of a grown-up Michael Moran, married, plagued by migraines, having dreams of flying, and unable to remember the word that had such significance in his dreams… and when Mike finally does remember his magic word, speaking it transforms him into a godlike superbeing. Mike and his wife Liz having to suddenly cope with Mike’s former life as the superhero Miracleman was a story unlike anything I’d ever seen in comics before.

I mean, I’d seen lots of super-hero fights, I’d grown up on Jack Kirby for God’s sake… but nothing I’d ever read had looked like this. Suddenly the bystanders weren’t just window dressing, they were real people in real danger. Johnny Bates, the former “Kid Miracleman” grown up into a superpowered sociopath, smirking at an awestruck little kid. “Why yes, I CAN fly… would YOU like to fly too?” and then Bates grabbing and throwing him, Miracleman racing to catch him, barely saving the kid’s life but the impact still breaks the child’s arm, the mother screaming at him …man. That still gives me the chills. I’d been reading about super-hero slugfests for over a decade and a half but that was the first time it hit home to me how scary one would be to witness in real life.

And Miracleman doesn’t even win. Bates cleans his clock. He’s just so busy gloating he forgets and says his magic word and is turned back to mortal Johnny.

And the innovation just kept coming. This magnificent fight scene only was the first third of the book or so. The story continued on with Mike Moran and his wife trying to figure out exactly how Miracleman’s powers functioned…

…while we readers were introduced to British government hitman Evelyn Cream, who is tasked with finding Mike Moran.

I didn’t even mind the cliffhanger ending with Cream drugging Moran in the elevator, because there was so much going on, it’s one of the densest comics I’ve ever read. This was probably a function of the fact that the strip originally had appeared in Warrior magazine in seven-page installments, but it was that ultra-compression that actually sold me on the book and made me a fan. When Moore eventually teamed with Rick Veitch and then John Totleben to finish the story, it turned into a very different kind of strip. It was still brilliant, but the adrenaline rush of those early chapters was gone… it was a more philosophical, meandering kind of story. To this day my favorite issues of Miracleman are the first three, reprinting the initial Warrior arc.

I miss Eclipse and First and the 80’s independent-publisher scene, all those guys that had grown up on the same stuff I did and were dying to give it a shot themselves.

But I still have Miracleman. It’s a damn shame the rights are such a mess because more people should see it. I’m just glad the book caught my eye, all those years ago.

*

At number six, we have The Brave and the Bold #182.

When I started re-assembling my run of The Brave and the Bold, this was the first or second one I went after. I knew I wanted something from Brave & Bold and something with Earth-2 on the list I was putting together here, and this is easily my favorite example of both.

One of the most powerful concepts of the DC Universe to me when I was growing up was their parallel-worlds idea. I especially loved the tales of Earth-2, which was a slightly askew version of the DC world I knew with its Golden-Age counterparts of the Flash and Green Lantern and so on. And this story is, I think, the single strongest one DC ever did with the concept.

The story is simple enough– our Batman is mysteriously brought to the Gotham City of Earth-Two, where he helps their Dick Grayson and Kathy Kane catch Dr. Hugo Strange.

But summing it up that way does the story a grave disservice. Because the power in this story comes from Alan Brennert’s willingness to explore the sheer weirdness of how it would be to meet a parallel-earth doppelganger of a person you’ve known for years and have them almost be the same… but not entirely. It works especially well here because at this point in the larger DC continuity, Paul Levitz had just killed off Earth-2’s Batman, which allowed Alan Brennert to do a story showing a Robin and Batwoman that were still raw with grief over it.

Brennert really milks it, showing Dick and Kathy suddenly having to see a Bruce Wayne that was in his prime and we can see both their joy at having a Batman back and the bitterness underneath that it can only be temporary.

The whole story is about acceptance and letting go, it’s the lesson everyone has to learn by the end. Even nasty old Hugo Strange. All that and it’s still a rousing Bat-adventure, too.

The art is from Jim Aparo and though I don’t think it’s his best work ever, it’s still damn good. It should be noted that Alan Brennert only ever wrote five or six Batman stories for DC and almost all of them have been included in various best-of collections. All but this one, because shortly afterward DC published the original Crisis on Infinite Earths and rendered this story no longer in continuity. Which is a shame, because it’s my favorite of those Brennert stories and it deserves a wider readership. But you can pick it up pretty cheap from quite a few dealers.

*

At number five is Marvel Premiere #32.

What initially sold me on this was the art. Just flipping through it at the newsstand I was impressed, and I liked science-fiction stories anyway.

Howard Chaykin never gets credit for this, but I think he is the man that pioneered modern comics-page design. Most of the books we see from the 1970’s tend to look a little dated and old-school to modern eyes, with the standard six-panel grids and heavy exposition. But Chaykin’s pages here look as fresh as if they’d been published this week. Look at how he’s playing with composition and panel design in this recap of Monark’s origins.

This isn’t a superhero story, strictly speaking. But it’s close enough that I included it on the list. Monark Starstalker is more of a prototype of the hero that Chaykin would go on to perfect in books like Cody Starbuck and American Flagg… a ruthless, cynical loner with a dark sense of humor and a deeply-camouflaged sense of decency. Despite its science fiction trappings, there’s a real old-West vibe about this story, with its story of a vicious outlaw’s mining-rights scam and the cowardly townspeople that are depending on Monark the bounty hunter to save them.

I’d only seen one other Chaykin piece before this one, “Judgment Day” in Detective #441. But this was miles beyond that. The angular faces and figures, the amazing use of spot blacks… seeing this kind of design work combined with my simultaneous discovery of paperback artists like Robert McGinnis and the stuff Steranko was doing on Weird Heroes crystallized my own approach to drawing. That movie-poster, in-your-face look became what I aspired to do with my own stuff and eventually led to my own career in commercial art. It all started here.

These stories are largely forgotten by most fans, but it was the chance of lucking into this kind of oddity that kept me hanging in there with the tryout books like Premiere and Spotlight and First Issue Special. Those are some of my favorite comics and this particular one tops the list. This story has never been reprinted, which is a damn shame because the paper the comic’s printed on is so awful. I would love to see this get a nice new edition on paper that doesn’t soak up ink like a Kleenex. Maybe someday Marvel will do a trade paperback collection of the stories featuring the also-ran characters like Monark…. after all, in a world where there’s an Essential edition starring Brother Voodoo and groovy Diana Prince reprint books are flying off store shelves, anything’s possible.

*
In the number four position is The Flash #178.

This is on my list for one simple reason. It was the First.

First comic I ever bought, the first one I spent one of those shiny quarters on that I talked about in an earlier pick. Cover-dated May 1968, which put it on newsstands in Feburary of that year, I imagine. I read this to tatters when I was a kid and replaced it at a show about a decade ago for $15, which would normally be way over my budget for a single issue of anything. But I had to have this one. It was the First.

Take a look at what’s in there. The first story had: Giants. Dinosaurs. Kid Flash. Time travel.

The second story: Parallel earths. Jay Garrick and the JSA. Captain Cold and the Trickster.

And we wrapped up with: The Green Lantern Corps. Alien takeover of earth.

What’s not to love there?

“Double Danger on Earth” was reprinted in Crisis on Multiple Earths: The Team-Ups volume one, and you’ll find all three of them in Showcase Presents the Flash volume two. Or you could probably get the original Giant Flash #178 without too much trouble, if you prefer; you see it from dealers for between five and twenty dollars or so depending on the condition.

Just a quick aside– note, again, the date. In February 1968 I was about 6 years old…. okay, 6 and a quarter. My only previous exposure to superheroes was Adam West as Batman on TV, and some Saturday-morning cartoons. And I had no problem with the concept of Earth-2. It was very clear and easy to follow for me and I was six years old. The only thing that didn’t dawn on me until about four years later, when Golden Age reprints became more common, was that the JSA were originally from the 1940’s and it suddenly became clear to me that they used to be the ‘regular’ comic characters. Up to that point I’d thought Earth-Two was a parallel world Fox and Infantino made up from scratch and the differences just made it weird and cool.

To be honest, the only thing that threw my six-year-old self a little as I was reading that 80-page issue of Flash was that Kid Flash looked different than he did in the cartoons. But I got over it.

That’s why I am so sneeringly skeptical when fans defend the Crisis as necessary to make DC “easier to understand.” I understood parallel Earths when I was six. But I’m damned if I can make sense of much of DC’s post-Crisis continuity, especially after all the “fixes” they’ve made to it in the years since, and I’m 47 now. Somebody missed a step somewhere.

But that’s a rant for another time. The point is that this was the book that sucked me into buying comics and thus changed my life. It’s possible that if I’d picked up a different superhero book in early 1968 I’d still have gotten hooked on comics. But this was the one that actually did it and that’s what makes it special for me.

*

And that’s the countdown for this week. See you back here next Friday with the top three, and in the meantime, those playing at home can feel free to chime in with choices of your own.

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