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Happy Marv Wolfman Day!

by  in Comic News Comment
Happy Marv Wolfman Day!

Marv Wolfman just had a birthday, which reminded me about a series of columns I’ve been meaning to do.

The passing of Darwyn Cooke yesterday is a terrible loss to the comics industry. But it also served to remind me that we have a remarkable gift in comics, in that the people who make the things are generally so accessible, and that so many pioneers of the form are still with us.

Despite this, though, it seems like I never write the column about how much a creator’s work has meant to me until the creator who did it has passed.

That’s dumb, when we have the gift of access that we do. I’d much rather tell them this stuff right now, while they’re here and can enjoy it.

So this is one of a series of appreciation columns honoring the folks who are still here and working. Since Marv Wolfman’s birthday was Friday, and I was going to spotlight his work in honor of that anyway, I decided he would be the inaugural entry.

*

As I’ve mentioned before, my personal Golden Age of Comics was the mid-1970s, when the grocery store up the street from our home changed magazine distributors and suddenly comics appeared there every month, at roughly the same time that I was becoming old enough to go out and mow lawns and babysit and generate my own income. Most of that newfound cash went for the Marvel books of the time, which meant that I was soon to become familiar with the work of Marv Wolfman.

He’d been around for a while then, getting his start in fanzines a few years previously. In fact, Wolfman’s Stories of Suspense was one of the first magazines to publish a young Stephen King, a piece of trivia I’ve been using in school since I started teaching.

(Not with the kids, although they like hearing it too. It’s usually the item I trot out when administrators are giving me a hard time about the students publishing their own zines or expressing bewilderment at why it’s worth doing.)

He broke in at DC soon after with fellow fan Len Wein, and together the two of them were soon doing all sorts of stuff. Probably the biggest hit from those early days was Jonny Double, a character that is still occasionally used in the DCU to this day.

That was a little before my time. My first encounter with Marv Wolfman was his Daredevil, in issue #126. The introduction of the Torpedo… and of Heather Glenn.

I liked that issue a lot, but for whatever reason– probably just lost track of the schedule, I was still trying to figure out when New Comics Day actually happened– it wasn’t until a couple of months later that I was able to add Daredevil to my regular pile. The Man-Bull story.

I had always liked Daredevil and Wolfman was doing a back-to-basics revamp of the book that made the transition for youthful me from Lee-Romita reprints to the new stuff pretty seamless. I adored the art from Bob Brown and Klaus Janson, but it was the plotting that kept me coming back. In particular, the saga of the sabotage of Foggy Nelson’s campaign for D.A. that led to the showdown with the Jester. Sadly, Bob Brown passed away in the middle of that run but John Buscema and his brother Sal pitched in with some nice fill-in work. Nevertheless, when Wolfman left the title soon after, I went with him.

Around that same time I got interested in the Wolfman-Colan Tomb of Dracula, because of the crossover with Dr. Strange. Wolfman had cleverly planted a couple of subplot cliffhangers in his half of that story that got me back next month– in particular, the meeting of Blade and Hannibal King– and after that, I was hooked.

Marv Wolfman’s tenure as Marvel’s editor-in-chief in the mid-1970s was a little tumultuous– in fairness, so was everyone else’s during that decade– but he got some very cool stuff in print. Wolfman was the guy that said yes to things like Howard the Duck getting his own book, and even the failed experiments like Skull the Slayer have a certain charm and ballsy daring about them. It was occasionally erratic but it was never boring.

When Wolfman took over the EIC duties it was traditional that he also got the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man writing assignments, and though I don’t think that was his best work he did do some fondly-remembered anniversary issues– the return of the burglar in Spider-Man, and also the final showdown with Dr. Doom in FF #200.

What I loved about that particular story was Wolfman making it very clear that it has never been about Doom vs. the FF– it’s always, always been Doom vs. Reed Richards. That’s the obsession. Wolfman later said that he was never really comfortable on the title but I always thought that he was cooking on that story.

I’m leaving out lots of other cool stuff– I could do a whole appreciation column on Wolfman’s 1970s Marvel tenure all by itself. There’s Nova, there’s the novels, there’s the launch of Spider-Woman, there’s his wonderful run on John Carter of Mars. Most of these– though not, sadly, the novels– are back in print in one collection or another.

But the novels are generally available used online for not too extravagant a price. Everything else– even Skull the Slayer!– is now out there in paperback.

It was about then that I fell out of collecting comics– college, girls, and booze eclipsed my interest in funnybooks, and after an interlude of bad behavior with which I shall not bore you, I found them again in the early 1980s, and it was Marv Wolfman that did it. I was working a crappy job in downtown Portland and passing a newsstand every day that carried comics. It was Marv Wolfman’s Batman with “The Lazarus Affair” that made me stop and look.

The cover caught my eye– anything to do with Ra’s Al Ghul always got me interested, and Wolfman at DC? On BATMAN? Hmmm. I ended up not buying the book but it put DC on my radar, especially the oddity of Marv Wolfman being there. After that I’d stop and glance through the racks every so often. mostly out of nostalgia; I hadn’t quite talked myself into buying comics again but I was skimming, enough to get a sense of what the story was about. (Enough to get the ‘this ain’t no library, kid’ reprimand at least twice.)

But it was the New Teen Titans— specifically, “The Judas Contract” and the introduction of Nightwing– that lured me back into collecting comics regularly. I remembered many, many letter columns throughout the 1970s where readers pleaded for Dick Grayson to be allowed to grow up and get a new costume, but Wolfman was actually DOING IT. I had to know what that was all about.

That was what got me buying the things again as well as seeking out back issues (including the Batman run with “The Lazarus Affair”) and eventually even setting up a pull-list at Future Dreams over on east Burnside. It was pretty Wolfman-heavy. Of course, the big achievements at DC for Marv Wolfman in the 1980s would be the Titans and Crisis on Infinite Earths. But that leaves a lot of other cool stuff out: I was also really into what most of us figured would be a return-to-greatness with Gene Colan, Night Force.

It wasn’t a hit, but I really loved what Wolfman was trying to do with the rotating cast of characters, and I’m still bitter that DC’s promised omnibus collection never materialized a couple of years ago. Likewise, although it was the revamped Superman work he did with Jerry Ordway that most people remember, including the new vision of Luthor as a ruthless business tycoon, it’s worth noting that Wolfman had also done a revamp of Brainiac a couple of years before that I liked quite a bit.

I also thought his Green Lantern run with Joe Staton that culminated in the space exile was pretty amazing.

I am talking mostly about the Marvel and DC stuff because that’s what I know best, but there’s lots of other work too. It’s largely unknown in both editions but I have to confess that my favorite Marv Wolfman project ever is his Doc Phoenix novel for Weird Heroes, The Oz Encounter.

The two times I’ve been able to meet Mr. Wolfman at a show, that was the book I asked him to sign…. the old edition and then the new. It’s a terrific book and well worth seeking out.

In looking at all these things, what I notice is that Marv Wolfman’s gift is building things to LAST. As a creator, he is remarkably gracious– he’s a genius at setting up possibilities for other folks to run with afterward. It’s not just the stories themselves– dozens of the characters and concepts he created have been picked up by others and built on and refined and improved, often to the point where people forget that it was Marv Wolfman that was the originator. Bullseye is usually associated with Frank Miller. Blade is known today because of the movies with Wesley Snipes. The Titans are largely famous because of the animated cartoons. Nova’s a supporting concept in Guardians of the Galaxy. Jonny Double got revived for Vertigo a while ago and I suspect most readers never realized it was a revival.

But the foundations are all Marv Wolfman’s. Particularly with Blade and the Titans and the modern Lex Luthor, today’s creators are living in the house that Marv built. He deserves credit– and probably more money than he’s getting.

But some of us remember where these things come from. It’s very much appreciated. And best wishes for a terrific birthday, sir. Hope it was a great one.

Everyone else, I’ll see you next week.

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