Sunday, December 22, 2013

I was a Teenaged Marvel Zombie: In the Beginning

I don’t read superhero comics much these days. I used to. Boy howdy, did I. But that’s been over for a long time now. I’ll pick up the occasional trade paperback if I find myself standing in the graphic novels aisle of Barnes & Noble reading one for a long time, but mostly the magic’s been gone since I jumped off the bus in the ‘90s. One of my favorite blogs is called “Comics Should Be Good.” I agree and very little that I’ve read there tempts me to start making that weekly journey back to my local comics shop. I’m not even sure I have a local comics shop.
It wasn’t always like that. I’d read comic books as a kid, mostly Harvey and Gold Key titles.

Believe it or not, I remember owning all three of these at one point: Baby Snoots goes to elephant summer camp and all the other elephants are horrified by his mouse friend; Daffy talks Elmer Fudd into traveling the world to take pictures of him to win a photo contest; and the Headless Horseman turns out to be fake, but he would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for those meddling kids and their ... ghost? (Actually, the Funky Phantom locked himself inside a grandfather clock while hiding from some Redcoats during the Revolutionary War and couldn't get out afterwards, which is actually a pretty horrible way to die. This should also be a plot for Sleepy Hollow next season.)

Then there was this: Dinosaurs and Indians. Maybe you didn't hear me: Dinosaurs. And. Freaking. Indians. Turok and his teenaged sidekick, Andar, get lost in a cavern and emerge in a world full of dinosaurs and pronoun-challenged cavemen. It was the most awesome thing in the history of ever. (I also learned a valuable lesson about not believing things you read in comics. In the story, Turok and Andar are lost in the caverns when they find a pool of water. Turok wisely counsels Andar not to drink from it and, sure enough, there's a skeleton next to it. Later on, they find an underground river and Turok hypothesizes that running water ought to be safe to drink. I put this theory to the test on a camping trip a couple years later and missed a day of school.)
I was aware of other sorts of comics. Remember one time a babysitter’s boyfriend left me a Batman and a Superman comic. I don’t remember what was going on in the Batman one, but in the Superman one, he battled some anti-matter version of himself and accidentally destroyed Metropolis. Spoiler: It was just a dream. There were also war comics on the rack, I remember one title called The Losers, which always showed the main characters thinking everything was under control just as they were about to walk into an ambush or trap or pit full of snakes or otherwise get totally killed. Intriguing, but never enough so for me to actually pick one up, much less plunk down 20 cents for one.
Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Wait. Too far. Rewind that. It was a sunny day in the summer of 1975. I had ridden my bike down to the newsstand for some reason when I saw it: Giant-Size Fantastic Four #6 featuring the birth of Reed and Sue’s son. I remembered the Fantastic Four from the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons and was familiar enough with the characters, but Reed and Sue having a baby was definitely something that hadn’t happened in the cartoon. So I plopped down my 50 cents (it was a giant-size issue, after all) slipped the comic in my backpack and rode home.
As Stan always likes to say: 'Nuff said.
Now, at the time, I didn’t understand that this was actually a reprint of Fantastic Four Annual #6, which was originally published November 1968. Why the Human Torch was shouting “He’s back! Annihilus is back!!” on the cover when the story inside chronicled their first meeting with that particular bad guy remained a mystery to me for years. What I did get was 68 pages of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at their very finest.
The story starts with Reed, aka Mister Fantastic, about to go into the Negative Zone (another dimension). Sue, aka the Invisible Girl aka the Invisible Woman since sometime in the 1980s, is about to go into labor and Reed has learned that she and the baby will die, victims of the very cosmic radiation that gave them all their super powers, unless her retrieves some cosmic energy MacGuffin. Before he can depart, Ben and Johnny, aka the Thing and the Human Torch, inform him that there’s no way he’s going without them, so off the three of them go through the interdimensional portal in the interdimensional portal lab into the Negative Zone. Short version: They find the MacGuffin, defeat Annihilus, drain just the amount of energy they need from the MacGuffin, return home and save Sue and the baby.
Longer version: Jack Kirby’s Negative Zone was full of explosions, crackling lightning, those black “Kirby dots” that you see after a flash goes off in your face, insane-looking monsters and aliens, and Annihilus himself, the tyrannical ruler of the Negative Zone. Annihilus looks like a nightmarish cross between a giant insect, a dragon, and the latest model killer robot. He is, of course, utterly without mercy.
Meanwhile, Stan Lee moved the story along at a breathless pace. Our three heroes have to battle harder and harder and never give up. I mean, it’s a comic book, of course they’re going to succeed; but Stan Lee pulled twelve-year-old me in to the next layer below that where the whole thing had a very good chance of ending in tragedy as far as our heroes were concerned.
What grabbed me even more than that, however, was Ben’s non-stop wisecracks. I had been reading “funny” comics for years, but I found him hilarious. The Thing instantly became my favorite character.
I was hooked. I ended up reading that issue over and over again until “mint condition” was a distant memory. Within days, I was back at the newsstand looking for more. I got Fantastic Four #164 wherein they battled the Crusader, a vengeance-crazed former 1950s superhero whose gear was eventually passed on to current-day good guy, Quasar. That issue also introduced Johnny’s new girlfriend Frankie Raye who went on to become Galactus’ herald, Nova. The great George Perez was the artist at the time and he had Johnny in an outfit that would have made Greg Brady blush.
We all wore silly stuff in the '70s. But yikes!
Around that same time, I bought an issue of Marvel Two-in-One featuring the Thing and Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk featuring the Shaper of Worlds, Marvel’s Greatest Comics featuring reprints of even-then-classic Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four stories, and more. To paraphrase Nick Fury at the end of the first Iron Man movie, I’d taken my first step into a much larger world.