by Scott Beatty
As a kid growing up during the Seventies and Eighties, my comics “world-view” was dominated by the so-called Bronze Age of storytelling. I didn’t discover back-issues until my 11th birthday, and what I knew of comics “continuity” (i.e. the long rich history that came before my newsstand purchases) was limited to the reprints in DC Comics’ BEST OF… and DC SPECIAL digest series. The following are a handful of stories that fundamentally changed how I read comics, and made me realize that both the tales and the tellers (both writer and artist) were working in a medium that had the power to move readers in ways that transcend its parts, prose and art, each made better in the melding…
SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING #24 (May 1984)
Most fans reference Alan Moore’s “Anatomy Lesson” as the story where the worm really turned for DC Comics’ seminal bog beast. For me, Alan’s genius culminated in this tale, where the Plant Master (or Floronic Man… or Jason Woodrue… take your pick) used all his ill-gotten knowledge vivisecting Swamp Thing to take a tiny Louisiana town hostage, and—by extension—humble the Justice League of America. Alan’s narrative depicted the superheroes as the demigods we’ve always known them to be, above humanity—both figuratively and literally—in their shiny, happy satellite perched some 22,300 miles over our heads.
And when Woodrue struck, turning the flora against mankind and having all those rebellious plants increase the oxygen content to create a potentially conflagrative atmosphere, you could feel the impotent frustration of the assembled JLA, powerless to do a damn thing about it. Firestorm offered to transmute the air back to a nice, non-combustive form. And Superman, in a rare outburst of sarcasm, asked the young Nuclear Man if he knew just how many oxygen molecules he’d need, offering to count said O2 if necessary. Rarely had we ever seen the Man of Steel show anything less than grace under pressure. Green Arrow punctuated the inconsequentiality of the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes by snapping one of his arrows in one of his trademark hissy-fits. Of course, since it was Swampy’s book, the creature formerly known as the monster who thought he might have been Alec Holland, proved that he had the greener thumb and saved the day. Woodrue didn’t bend like a reed in the wind, as they say. His mind snapped after Swamp Thing broke his wood-ish arm. The final coda, with Superman and Green Lantern descending from on high to take custody of Woodrue, illustrated what a changing world the superheroes had in store for them. You can see Alan building towards the ideas that became WATCHMEN. But I see this as less a deconstruction of the superhero archetype as a reminder that the capes and cowls are merely glamours. Underneath it all, those “Overpeople” are as flawed and scared and human as Swamp Thing thought he was…
DETECTIVE COMICS #441 (June-July 1974)
As an unabashed geek fan stalker, I regularly regale Walt Simonson via Facebook about my absolute adoration for his and writer Archie Goodwin’s Manhunter serial featured in early Seventies issues of DETECTIVE COMICS. For the uninitiated, the seven-part storyline—reprinted just a handful of times and desperately due for an ABSOLUTE EDITION—followed the trials and travails of Manhunter Paul Kirk, a Golden Age hero resurrected in modern times by a criminal consortium of evil scientists called the Council. Bequeathed with a healing factor and trained as a modern-day ninja, Kirk was brought back to life to serve the Council as head of its enforcement branch, staffed solely by a seemingly endless number of clones of Manhunter himself. Made nigh-immortal, but still possessing a pesky conscience, Kirk set about dismantling the Council’s insidious infrastructure to prevent its leadership from taking over the world. Think James Bond with superheroes and you barely scratch the surface of Manhunter’s appeal. I won’t spoil the ending—with Batman, no less—not to mention the clone body count along the way. But I will go so far to say that “Cathedral Perilous,” midway toward the serial’s conclusion, is a rare diamond in a dustbin full of nothing but diamonds. Set within an Istanbul cathedral with clones to the left of Kirk and clones to the right, and clueless American tourists in the middle, “Cathedral Perilous” illustrates just how far ahead of its time in story and art Manhunter was. The clone combating action largely occurs in the margins of panels as the Americans (father, mother, and cowboy costumed kid) meander through the cathedral.
Only the kid gets what is happening all around, an epic battle for world supremacy, clones versus Manhunter and his (yeah, I’ll say it) one true love, Interpol agent Christine St. Clair. This time, however, a clone Kirk actually gets the drop on his DNA donor, and only a pint-sized cowpoke can save the day. The late great Archie Goodwin wrote it and Walt drew the hell out of it. It’s a back-up story that does more in 8 pages than an entire issue. I love it dearly and I think of it every time I sit down to write a story that’s ten pages or less.
FANTASTIC FOUR #267 (June 1984)
“A Small Loss”
I should have seen it coming. The premise had nowhere else to go but to take a dark turn: Late in her pregnancy with her second child, Sue Storm Richards (the FF’s lovely Invisible Girl/Woman) developed complications requiring an expert in—wait for it—radiation. Yeah, I know… but all of this four-colored literature requires not just willing but mandatory suspension of disbelief. Strangely, Sue’s husband—über-genius Reed Richards—didn’t minor in this particular scientific savvy necessary to save the life of his unborn child. But… Dr. Otto Octavius did. I’m not (and never have been) a rocket scientist, but I knew from the cover that the story would somehow involve Mr. Fantastic versus Doctor Octopus. And writer/artist John Byrne delivered… for the bulk of the story. When Reed did manage to wrestle Spidey’s eight-armed foe to the hospital, it was all for naught, as the OB/GYN informed an uncharacteristically speechless Reed.
Two years ahead of Ozymandias’ big “I did it 30 minutes ago” jaw-dropper in WATCHMEN, Mister Fantastic learned the hard way what might be lost in the ticks of a clock while wasting time battling Doc Ock.
ALPHA FLIGHT #12 (July 1984)
“And One Shall Surely Die!”
Clearly not content to let his fans get over the shock of his FF climax the previous month (see above), writer/artist John Byrne shocked readers within the pages of his Canadian super-group. Following an epic battle with the treacherous “Omega Flight,” Byrne made good on the title’s promise (the story I mean, not the book itself) by killing a member of the team. All of us conscientious fiction makers are instructed in the value of “killing our darlings, but Jesus…
Twenty-one pages in, the membership of Alpha Flight survived the conflict. But as team leader James MacDonald Hudson flew home, his Guardian suit deconstructing in explosive fits and starts from the assault it had taken during the flight, Byrne delivered another shocker ending. Struggling to disarm his suit before a catastrophic meltdown, Mac ran out of time when his wife Heather distracted him in the final seconds. Beloved wife. Happily married wife. Not estranged wife or emotionally unresponsive wife. These two were happy. But not for long. Guardian imploded before Heather’s horrified eyes. It was a game-changer for me, not just learning that the heroes don’t always win—even after WINNING—but that any character is fair game. John wasn’t in any way afraid to kill his darlings. And since then, neither have I.
P.S. Heather became Vindicator, donned in another of Mac’s Maple leaf flavored power-suits, an even more interesting variation on the Guardian character (and abilities). Nicely done, John.
SECRET ORIGINS ANNUAL #2 (December 1988)
Starring The Flash
“The Unforgiving Minute”
And it wasn’t even the primary story. In a back-up feature, Wally West vented his frustrations to his therapist (yes, you heard right) during a tale that retold his origin (same as The Flash: rinse and repeat), but focused more on what it means to be a hero-in-waiting. In Wally’s case, at least post-CRISIS, the story was about what it means for a sidekick to replace his mentor. Wally’s ennui manifested in his fears that he wasn’t measuring up to the legacy of the Scarlet Speedster he replaced, the late great Barry Allen. Add to that Wally’s “de-powering” (he could only match the speed of sound, not quite as fast as his predecessor), and the story—guided by psychiatrist’s memory of Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem “If”—made Wally really seriously consider the actual good he accomplished by reflecting on the number of people he had saved during his superhero career.
By putting that heroism in clear, quantifiable terms, and making that tally list of marks in the “win” column, Wally came to grips with what “sixty seconds of distance run” really meant in his race from kid sidekick to man. Despite their chiseled jaws, our heroes are (as I argued before) fatally human and—just like us—put their running shoes on one foot at a time.
THE NEW TEEN TITANS #26 (December 1982)
“Runaways, Part I”
I’ll end with an issue of THE NEW TEEN TITANS, which fueled my comics mania during the 1980s like no other title. Four weeks between issues was more than I could bear, but this title—in its long heyday—rewarded me every single issue with taut storytelling, high concept adventure, and characterization that every comics writer should aspire to create. Ask a fan about a good character-driven Titans story and you’ll likely hear about “A Day in the Life,” “Dear Mom and Dad…,” or the unforgettable “Who Is Donna Troy?” For me, the denouement of a long summer following the Titans epic journey to the Vegan star system to save their own Starfire from her evil sister (several issues of the regular title plus the books first Annual), was this issue, a return to Earth and consequently the kick-off of a very down-to-earth story involving desperate and doomed runaways in New York City (hence the title, natch). The second half of the story—the real conflict, as it were—proved just how resilient the team was, whether battling interstellar empires or drug-dealing goons. Regardless of the setting, the Titans fit the battle. But for me, the first few pages of the story are so very memorable. The tale begins with a conversation between Cyborg and Kid Flash as they pilot a borrowed spaceship back home. The Titans, somewhat unfazed by the stars streaking by them, are instead moribund as they make small talk about what’s really at stake, the relationship between Robin and Starfire, a flirtation (albeit one-sided) driving the series since its first issue.
The conversation isn’t exposition, but it gets the point (and emotion) across that—despite their powers—these teenagers wrestle with even greater conflicts: young love and the perils therein. Kid Flash and Cyborg don’t have an answer, but they do realize that their friends have crossed the Rubicon. And just a few pages later, that white-knuckled emotional turmoil is even more awkward as a Teen Wonder has to do something that no amount of training by an emotionally arrested Dark Knight has adequately prepared him: Face his feelings. Space opera. Soap Opera. But handled so deftly and deeply as to number among one of the few comics (and comics series) with which I’ll never part. It’s not only an all-time favorite, but a primer on how to write young heroes and (perhaps just as important) young heroes in love.
Scott Beatty is a longtime writer of both comics and books about comics. He is perhaps best known for his standout work with Chuck Dixon on works such as the Year Ones for Batgirl, Robin and Nightwing and for being Mark Waid's successor on Ruse. He is currently writing Sherlock Holmes: Year One and The Last Phantom for Dynamite Entertainment.