Stan Lee Has Passed Away

We’ve lost comics giant Stan Lee.

I’ve been waiting on this sad news for a while now, but it still doesn’t make it any easier. Reading the posts all over Facebook today has saddened me on a level that I wasn’t quite ready for, even though the news wasn’t totally unexpected. After all, Stan was 95, hadn’t been well for a while, and had been having a rough time since his wife died a couple of years ago. But it’s still hit me hard on an emotional level that I wasn’t expecting. I am almost 58 years old, after all, and I’ve supposedly long since ‘grown out of’ mainstream superhero comics many years ago (still love the old Silver and Bronze Age comics, though, for the sheer nostalgia). So why has the not-unexpected death of an old comics guy hit me so hard?

When looking back at my childhood, it’s obvious just how much of a towering giant Stan Lee was in my life. I discovered the first of the Marvel UK titles at the end of 1972, just before my 12th birthday, when I found the Mighty World of Marvel issue No.6 in a local shop. I was hooked immediately, and sent off the princely sum of 50p (yes, half of one pound) for the first five back issues. That was 25p for the five comics, and 25p for the postage. Unbelievable what you could get for your money back then! It was like a dozen Christmases rolled into one when that package came in the post.

I was already a Marvel addict, and collected every single issue of MWOM, and later Spider-Man Comics Weekly, the Avengers, Conan the Barbarian, and whatever other weekly comics that Marvel UK threw at us. Also, around 1974 or so, I started buying a large number of the then-current Bronze Age US Marvel titles via mail order from specialist UK comics dealers. From the moment that I bought my first issue of MWOM, Stan Lee and his stable of Comics Titans had a HUGE influence on my young life, from that point onwards at the very start of my teens, all the way through the 70s, into the 80s and beyond. For the first half of my life, I was a total Marvel Junkie.

Even now, in late middle age, the memories and the nostalgia of those early years are incredibly important to me. My love of comics (particularly Marvel Comics), SF/sci-fi and music have always been a foundation and fundamental part of who and what I am. I wouldn’t be me without them. I can’t even begin to guess how much of an influence Stan and the rest of the guys at Marvel Comics have had on my life. The passing of Stan Lee is yet another great figure from my childhood now passed beyond the Rim, another part of my past gone. So it saddens me at the deepest level.

I’m sitting here with a big lump in my throat and tears in my eyes right now. RIP Stan ‘The Man’ Lee. You lived long and hard, and brought joy to countless millions. You will be missed. 😦

Golden Age Comics Characters: Captain Marvel

Whiz Comics 002
Captain Marvel first appeared back in February 1940, in the classic Golden Age comic Whiz Comics #2, published by Fawcett Comics. The Captain Marvel character was created by artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, and was the most popular superhero character of the 1940s (going by sales alone).

The character may seem quaint by modern standards, but he was hugely popular in the 1940s, a much simpler, more innocent era (at least when it comes to comics). Thirteen year-old newsboy Billy Batson is given incredible powers by an old wizard, and whenever he says the magic word Shazam! he is struck by a bolt of lightning, transforming him into Captain Marvel (saying Shazam! again changes him back into Billy Batson). Shazam! is an acronym for the first letter of each name of the six gods and legendary heroes from whom Captain Marvel gets his powers – the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the invulnerability of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury. That’s quite a powerful mix!

Captain Marvel later acquired two super-powered sidekicks, Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel, the three being known collectively as The Marvel Family. There were also later additions, both human and animal, all non-super powered. And there was also a retinue of nasty villains – Black Adam, an evil Captain Marvel analogue, Captain Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s champion, mad scientist Doctor Sivana, and, worst of all, Mister Mind and his Monster Society of Evil, which provided his longest running and most deadly adversaries.

Captain Marvel continued in Whiz Comics until #155 (June 1953), when the strip was forced to stop publication due to legal action initiated by National Comics, now DC Comics, who claimed that the character was too similar to Superman. That may have been technically true, but the lawsuit was quite cheeky and, in my opinion, ridiculous, as Superman himself was a blatant copy of earlier heroes such as Hercules, Samson, and even the character Gladiator, created by science fiction writer Philip Wylie in 1930, less than a decade before the creation of Superman. The influence of the Gladiator character on Siegal and Schuster in their creation of Superman is well known. After a couple of legal decisions in favour of, firstly, Fawcett, and then DC, Fawcett Publications finally settled out of court, Fawcett Comics ceased operating and stopped publishing all of their superhero comics, including the entire Captain Marvel stable of characters from 1953 onwards.

This legal nonsense was quite obviously an opportunistic act by National/DC to snuff out a more successful competitor, a perfect example of a large company using its greater legal muscle to bully a much smaller company into submission. More than any supposed legal objections, the major motivating factor in DC taking legal action against Fawcett was almost certainly financial, because Captain Marvel had been consistently outselling Superman and DC’s other titles by a considerable margin during that era.

I find it ironic that, in a nation which supposedly prizes competition, big companies prefer to use legal muscle to put dangerous competitors out of business, rather than take the more moral and logical route of trying to out-compete their adversaries in the marketplace. Even more ironic is that DC licensed the Captain Marvel stable of characters from Fawcett in 1972, and bought the rights to the characters outright from Fawcett Publications in 1980. As most DC comics fans are aware, Captain Marvel and Fawcett’s other characters live on to this day, and are now integrated into the DC Universe.

Some of the best battles in the DC Universe have featured Superman vs Captain Marvel, as both characters are so similar and equal in strength, one born of science and the other born of magic. There aren’t many characters in DC’s stable who can fight Superman to a standstill, but the Big Red Cheese is one of them!

Earliest Comics Memories (Part 1)

I was looking through some of my old UK Annuals earlier today, which brought back a lot of old childhood memories for me about the very earliest comics that I ever read. I started buying my first comics when I was about four years old, which would have made that sometime during 1965, and I read and (later) collected comics without a break from that point up until 1982, when I stopped reading them for about a decade.

Back in 1965 was the prehistoric past, decades before anything like specialised Local Comics Shops and the Direct Market even existed. Back in those dim and distant days, the UK comics industry was flourishing, and every little corner shop and newsagents had dozens of British comics on display. There were comics of all kinds, from the “funnies” like the Beano, the Dandy, Topper, Beezer and others, to war comics like Hotspur and Victor, sports comics like Tiger, and mixed-genre comics like Lion, Valiant and Eagle, containing everything from sci-fi and fantasy, to action adventure, to humour strips.

For me, it all began in back 1965, when I started to spend weekends at my granny’s (I used to spend every weekend with her between the ages of 4-8). Next door to her house was one of those wee corner shops (except it wasn’t actually on a corner), just like the thousands of other similar little shops (what Americans refer to as “Mom and Pop Stores”) so common on almost every street in the UK and Ireland, back in the days before the big supermarkets came along and put them all out of business. This particular shop was run by an elderly brother and sister team, and on my earliest visits to my granny’s, I initially started visiting the shop to buy sweeties, as any normal four year-old would do. But I very quickly learned that there was a heckuva lot more than sweeties in this shop.

Talk about a big Box of Delights. This one little shop had a long counter-top covered with almost every UK comic available during that period, spread out flat to cover an area about six feet deep and twenty feet long. I had never really paid attention to comics before, but, then, I’d never seen so many of them in one place, and so beautifully put on display. It was mesmerising, and very soon, I was completely hooked. I started off buying my first regular comic, the Lion, followed closely by the Valiant, both of which I would pick up every Saturday morning as soon as the shop opened.

The shop had one of those wee bell things above the door that rang every time someone entered or left the shop. The sound of this bell woke me up every Saturday morning at 6.30am on the button, as soon as the shop opened. I was up like a shot, got dressed, ran next door to the shop to pick up my copies of the Lion, Valiant and whatever else I could afford (sadly never anywhere nearly enough, as pocket money was very short back in those days), and then back into my granny’s, where I’d sit at the kitchen table, eating my breakfast and reading my comics. Sheer heaven. 🙂

This is where my life-long comics reading obsession began, and I have some of my fondest memories from this time in my life, when I was so young and innocent, and full of wide-eyed wonderment, and when I discovered comics for the very first time.

Nostalgia Collecting – Old UK Comics and Annuals

They say that nostalgia is the narcotic of the over-forties. I’m almost fifty-three, and I can definitely admit that it’s particularly true of me. I’ve always been a very nostalgic person, always fascinated by the past, even back when I was a kid. So pretty much my entire life, I’ve been on a quest to collect old stuff, particularly stuff that has some meaning for me, or which connects me to the “Golden Age” of my youth.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time and money on Ebay, picking up many of the rare relics of my childhood and early-to-mid teenage years. One of the things that I like most is to grab the occasional old (and by old, I mean 1950s-1970s) British comic, as opposed to the US Marvel comics (which I also enjoy collecting) that I became a fan of from my mid-teens onwards. Way back in the day, before I ever encountered my first superhero comics, I was an obsessive collector of several of the traditional British weeklies. But that was before Marvel UK exploded onto the UK comics scene with The Mighty World of Marvel and its offspring from late 1972 onwards, and changed everything.

Over the years I’ve bought a lot of old issues of my favourite pre-Marvel UK British comics from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, mainly Lion, Valiant, Eagle and Thunder. I would also dearly love to be able to buy a whole bunch of Countdown and TV21 (otherwise known as TV Century 21), but these seem to be harder to find on Ebay and when you can find them, they are invariably a heckuva lot more expensive than the likes of the Lion, Valiant and Thunder. Maybe someday, when I’m rich. 🙂

Another particular focus of my collecting has been those old UK annuals, the hardback, once-yearly collections of strips and other goodies from our favourite comics. I remember these annuals very fondly from when I was a kid. They were the “Holy Grail” for me back then, something that I eyed up enviously in the shops, and which I really, really wanted to get my hands on, but which were way, way out of my price bracket. We were from a poor family, and I didn’t have a lot of pocket money back in those days (the late 60s and early 70s). And annuals unfortunately did cost on average ten times the price of those weekly comics which were already stretching my meagre resources to the limit. Back then, annuals were simply far too expensive for me to buy on a regular basis, and so were usually only acquired when I got them as occasional Christmas presents from my Dad or other relatives.

So, in adult life, I’ve been trying to rectify things a bit by picking up a lot of these old annuals, and I’ve developed a real knack for snapping them up dirt cheap, or, at least, relatively cheaply. I’ve managed to get my hands on most of the Valiant, Lion, and Thunder annuals, and a whole bunch of assorted other UK comics-based annuals including Hotspur, Battle, 2000AD, Starlord, Eagle, Dan Dare, Countdown, The Trigan Empire and a few others. Add to those the various 1970s annuals put out by Marvel UK, and that’s a lot of annuals.

And just to add quite a few more to the already huge pile, I’ve also built up quite a collection of annuals based on various television sci-fi series, including pretty much all of the Doctor Who Annuals right from the very first one in 1964 up until the late-1970s, plus a bunch of Star Trek, Space: 1999, Blake’s 7, UFO and other assorted television-based annuals.

I often look at these ever-growing stacks of old annuals and comics in my spare room, and wonder “Am I going mental? Why am I collecting all of this old stuff? What the hell am I going to do with them?” Then I open one of them and feel the tidal wave of nostagia wash over me, all the old memories boring up from the depths of my moth-eaten excuse for a brain. And I feel good. Really good. Maybe nostalgia is the narcotic of the over-forties after all, and if it is, I hold up my hands and proudly proclaim that I’m a complete addict.

At least nostalgia is a much safer and more productive addiction than cigarettes, booze and drugs. And we all need our little hobbies to spend our money on, or life would be unbearable, all bills and shopping and crappy Real Life nonsense. The thought of that being all there is to life makes me shudder…

When I Was Young – The Day I Fell in Love with Superhero Comics

There are certain defining moments in our lives, when we make a decision that greatly changes or influences the way things will turn out from that point onwards. For me, as a comics fan, one of those defining moments was the day I fell in love with superhero comics.

I remember it like it was yesterday, a cold, wet lunchtime at the start of November 1972. I was eleven years old, and had just started, only two months before, as a first year pupil at our local grammar school, the most prestigious school in the north-west of Ireland. We had no canteens in that old school, so we had to bring in a lunchpack. The long lunch break (well over an hour), after scoffing a few sandwiches, a bag of crisps, and a small bottle of lemonade, was a real drudge. We always had about an hour or more to kill before the start of class, so I would head out of the school grounds to do a bit of exploring.

The school was about a mile and a half from the city centre, which was an unfamiliar place to a young boy like myself. I lived several miles outside the city, and I very rarely went into town, and never without my father. However, that was all to change pretty soon. As I became more familiar with the surroundings of my school, I began to venture further and further away from it. At first it was just a half-mile up the road to the chippy, where I often supplemented my meagre lunch with a bag of chips (French Fries, for our transatlantic friends). But gradually I started exploring further and further away.

Then, as time went on, I’d venture up towards the top of Bishop Street, the very long road that wound its way past our school from the outskirts of the town, and extended all the way into the city centre. Eventually, a few weeks after I’d started at the new school, I nervously wandered into the centre of our town, determined to explore all the shops (what was left of them, that is). The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland were, by that time, in full swing, and the year 1972 is generally regarded as being the worst year of the Troubles. The city centre was not a safe place to be in those days, with bullets flying and bombs going off almost every day. It looked just like London, during the Blitz. Ruined buildings and gutted shops everywhere. It was a wasteland.

And William Street was one of the worst hit areas of them all. Even the City Cinema, where I’d watched many films as an even younger kid, was by this time a gutted ruin. There were barely three or four shops left intact in the entire street out of dozens. One of those lucky enough to remain untouched was McCool’s newsagents. I liked newsagents. They tended to stock lots of nice books and comics. This particular wet day, I went into McCool’s, mostly to escape the rain, which had soaked right through my overcoat and clothes to the bare skin, but also out of sheer curiousity, to see what comics were on the shelves.

I was an avid comics reader even then, although only of British weekly comics, particularly the more sci-fi oriented titles such as the Lion, the Valiant, the Eagle, and Countdown. I’d had very brief, fleeting encounters with US superheroes before, in the short-lived black and white Power Comics of the late-1960s, which published a mix of original British strips and reprints of US Marvel and DC superhero strips. Smash, Pow, Wham, Fantastic, and Terrific, were the direct inspiration for what was to come later, in the early 1970s, from Marvel UK. But I was too young when those were in the shops (only seven or eight years old), and so I paid very little attention to them.

I’d also seen a few of the much rarer import US colour superhero comics (Marvel and DC), which appeared sporadically during the late 1960s and early 1970s, in local newsagents, corner shops, petrol stations, and in the new breed of supermarkets springing up all over the place. I liked the look of these, but they were quite expensive. I had only very limited pocket money, there were so, so many comics out there, and I could only afford to buy two or three anyway. I usually just stuck with my regular diet of the same two or three British weeklies that I’d been buying regularly since I was four or five years old.

So up until the age of eleven, superheroes didn’t make any real impact whatsoever on my consciousness or buying habits. All that was to change that miserable, wet November day in McCool’s shop. I was scanning the shelves, looking for anything interesting, when I spotted a bright, colourful cover in among all the relatively drab British comics. The colours and quality of the comic stood out like a beacon. The incredible scene of four superheroes (who I later learned were the Fantastic Four) battling it out, seemingly in vain, against a huge green monster, with orange brow ridges and an orange mohican and lumps on its head, pulled me to this comic like a magnet.

MWOM 006

It was The Mighty World of Marvel #6, the very first of the classic Marvel UK weekly titles, and the start for me of a life-long love affair with superhero comics. A few minutes browsing through it, and I was hooked. I whipped out my 5p and paid for it (5p? – you’d pay a hundred times that – £5, if not more, for a UK comic these days). The 5p was part of my dinner money, but some days I didn’t bother going to the chip shop, and spent the money on comics instead. After this particular day, that was to become a much more frequent habit. I wrapped the comic in a plastic bag and put it into my schoolbag, making sure it was well covered so that it wouldn’t get damaged by any rain seeping in. Then I made my way back to school, getting there just as the bell rang for the end of lunch break.

I didn’t get a chance to read the comic until after school. When I got home, I rushed up the stairs to my bedroom, took it out of my bag, and, for the very first time, encountered the magical adventures of the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and the Amazing Spider-Man. The only one of these that I vaguely recognized was Spider-Man, whom I had seen in an earlier British reprint comic (I think it was Smash), four or five years before.

These three sets of characters were to become, very quickly, a near-obsession with me (especially my favourite, the Hulk), and I was so caught up in it all that I nagged and nagged at my Dad until he gave me the money (all of 50p, and that’s including the cost of p&p) to send off for the first five back issues of MWOM, which I’d missed. When they arrived, a couple of weeks later (the wait seemed like forever), you’d have thought Christmas had come early :).

I’d become a superhero comic fanatic, and remained a regular reader of The Mighty World of Marvel for many years, at least up until the end of the 1970s. I also collected the newer spin-off Marvel UK comics such as Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers, and I still have large collections of these as well. This obsession with collecting the Marvel UK b&w weeklies also started me on buying some of the US colour import Marvel and DC comics, whenever I could find them, that is (distribution of US imports was very unpredictable).

The irony was that while I was reading the classic Silver Age reprints of Marvel characters in the Marvel UK comics, at the very same time I was reading the then-current up-to-date Bronze Age adventures of the same characters in the US Marvel imports. I became a confirmed Marvel Junkie for the best part of a decade during the 1970s and early 1980s, and The Mighty World of Marvel and its successors were the direct cause of that.

Conversely I was never as big a fan of DC superheroes, with the exception of the Legion of Super-Heroes, which I loved, and the occasional issue of the Justice League of America and the Brave & the Bold. DC made the big mistake of not following Marvel’s example, and releasing a strong line of British reprint titles during the 1970s. Marvel had the entire UK superhero comics market to themselves.

After I started buying the Marvel UK comics, I dropped all of my earlier British weekly favourites, which now seemed pretty dull and old-fashioned compared to the colourful, exciting new superhero titles. Of course I now greatly regret doing that, and it certainly seems very short-sighted in hindsight (we all have 20-20 vision in hindsight). But I was young and stupid, and like I said, I only had so much pocket money to spend, and the Marvel UK comics took first priority back then, by quite some margin. Ironically, I’m now trying to track down back issues of some of the old non-Marvel UK comics that I was most fond of before I dropped them for the Marvel titles.

I still have all those early issues of The Mighty World of Marvel, an unbroken collection of the first 120 issues, locked away in storage. Every so often I pull them out and browse through them, drifting off on a sea of fond memories, a complete nostalgia rush. And every time I look at my old copy of The Mighty World of Marvel #6, in my memory I relive that cold and wet distant day in McCool’s shop, when I fell in love with superhero comics.

Berlin, Book 1: City of Stones, by Jason Lutes

Berlin is written and drawn by the extremely talented comics creator Jason Lutes, who also previously brought us Jar of Fools. It is one of the true classics of modern comics, on a par with the “greats” of the medium, such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Berlin: City of StonesSo far, there have been eighteen issues out of a projected twenty-four, and two trade paperback collections, taking us up to Issue 12, the half-way point of the story.

Berlin: City of Stones is the first of the two trade paperbacks, published by Drawn & Quarterly, and collects the first six issues of the series. The level of attention to realistic detail in this story is remarkable. For history buffs (and the historical accuracy in this series is also spot on), Berlin is set in Germany during the final years of the Weimar Republic (end of the 1920s – start of the 1930s), as things start to go down the tubes, and the various factions (Jews, communists, nationalists, socialists, republicans, First World War veterans, and others) are battling it out in a vicious near-civil war to see who comes out as top dog in this cut-throat grab for power.

The narrative details the tragic inability of the German government and society in the chaotic inter-war period to adjust to and sustain their fragile fledgling democracy in the face of determined extremists. Starting in September 1928, the story follows the hopes and struggles of a small group of people, normal everyday folk of various ethnic groups, all trying to live their lives in a turbulent Germany, as the future becomes ever darker and grimmer against a background over which looms the ever-growing menace of Nazism.

Lutes always concentrates on the people first, the dreams, hopes, emotions and personal suffering of the average man and woman, the groups and individuals comprising the citizens of the city of Berlin, as their plight grows ever worse. The reader, aware of the dark chapter of history that is about to unfold, cannot help but feel sympathy for the various characters trapped in this ever-worsening situation, amidst all the conflicts, demonstrations, and the rapid, spiralling descent into lawlessness and chaos, as democracy is overthrown and ruthless dictatorship takes over.

I’ve often heard many “enlightened” types criticize the German population, and their inability to see where things were heading. How could they ever let animals like the Nazis come to power and get away with the atrocities that they committed? Were they stupid? Did they not see how things would turn out? It’s all too easy for anyone to look back from our cosy vantage point of eighty years after the events, and ask accusing questions like this. But we weren’t there. We didn’t live through those dark days. And everyone’s a genius in hindsight, right?

Berlin: City of Stones is a remarkable piece of work, a perfect example of comics at their best, as both a work of art and “literature”. If you want to impress someone who is not a fan of comics (or is positively derogatory about them), you don’t hand them Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman or Superman. These people will laugh in your face, as the guys and gals in tights are a particular focus of their ridicule. Instead, you give these people something like Maus or Berlin, or A Jew in Communist Prague, and watch the amazed expressions grow on their faces. This is serious stuff, the comics equivalent of real literature/art, the “real deal”.

What we don’t have here is your typical, silly, mindless superhero crap published by Marvel or DC. If you don’t like to tax your mind too much, and that kind of thing is your limit with comics, then Berlin is most likely not for you. This type of graphic storytelling is aimed at readers who prefer comics of a more realistic, intelligent, and serious nature, and who aren’t fans of the more juvenile examples of the medium. People who like their reading material to be something a bit more substantial than endless moronic superhero punchfests.

And if you’re like me, and read all kinds of comics, and like to read something different from mainstream superhero stuff every now and again, Berlin is a perfect change of tone. As a huge history fan, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s easily one of my favourite comic books, ever.

When I Was Young – Christmas 1975

I think it’s fair to say that spoiling children is not a good thing, as spoiled kids have absolutely no appreciation for anything that they’re given. It seems that the more you spend on them, the LESS they appreciate it.

Spoiled, ungrateful kids really piss me off. You know the sort I’m talking about, spoiled brats throwing a tantrum, hurling a £300 games console back at their parents because it isn’t what they wanted for Christmas. “I want an X-Box! You got the wrong one! Wahhh!” (I have actually seen this happening). If any kid of mine ever threw a tantrum like that, they would find themselves playing with Lego and not a £300 games console. Those kids need a good, swift kick up the arse, if you ask me. And the parents need an even swifter, harder boot to the rear end for making their kids turn out like that in the first place.

Modern society has become so materialistic that it sickens me. It’s all about (for both kids and adults) how many nice, shiny, expensive new things you can acquire. I get so angry when I see how much more is spent on Christmas presents these days compared to when we were kids, and the complete ack of gratitude on the part of most of those kids receiving those expensive presents. Speaking as an Old Phart, I can state with some authority that back “in our day” we got a heckuva lot less, but we appreciated it a lot more. Which brings me to Christmas 1975, and one of the best Christmas presents I ever received.

I came from a very poor family (I could give you a “We were so poor that… ” story, but you get the picture). My Dad had to raise five kids on his own, after he and my Mum split up. He gave up his job to look after us, and, as a typical working-class man in the early-1970s, he was very ill-equipped to do so. Indeed, he almost gave up on many occasions, but he loved us, so he hung in there against all the odds, refusing to leave us hanging high and dry, where many other men would’ve given up altogether.

The worst part of all this was that our lives were a constant struggle against poverty. Life on the dole in Northern Ireland at the start of the 1970’s was no laughing matter, especially if you had to raise a family on it. Maybe it wasn’t exactly Bangladesh, but it was as near as a so-called advanced western society came to it. We managed to eat, just about, and very poorly. Meat only two or three times a week at most (I got real sick of chips ‘n’ beans), and chicken only very rarely, on special occasions (like Christmas and New Year). Buying clothes for the kids and paying the bills and debtors was a major problem. What we would take for granted today as the everyday little luxuries in life were totally out of the question for us back then.

And, most of all, Dad dreaded Christmas, with a passion that even I could only imagine, for all my strong dislike of the Festive Season. Christmas meant extra spending on food and presents. But how could you spend extra when you didn’t have it in the first place? Trying to feed the kids and buy a few cheap presents to give at least an impression that it was Christmas was a recurring nightmare for my father. And this went on every year for at least a decade (until we were old enough to work and contribute to the household ourselves). He’d buy a few little toys and confectionery items for the younger kids, but I was older, and toys didn’t do much for me. He knew I liked books, but wasn’t too sure what kind of books. So he’d usually pick up something on space or prehistoric animals, which he knew I had a thing for, and that generally kept me quiet.

Then one year he struck gold. I remember it well. Christmas Eve, 1975. He landed back late with the Christmas presents, and handed them out to us. Nobody in our family believed in Santa, aside from the two youngest, who were very young and already in bed. I was fourteen years old, and the other two brothers were twelve and eleven, so we were too old to believe in Santa. We knew Dad was the Man with the presents, and we were waiting like hawks when he came in the door.

The younger brothers got their usual ration of toys and sweets, which kept them very happy indeed. Then he handed me my present, obviously a book of some kind, large format and hardback. I ripped off the wrapping paper eagerly, expecting another book on dinosaurs, or spaceships, or Doctor Who. But I was in for a real surprise. It was an Annual, and not just any old Annual. It was the Avengers Annual 1975. I’d already been a crazy superhero fan for several years by that stage, and collected all three Marvel UK weekly comics, the (Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, and The Avengers), even if it meant walking the four miles home from school every day in order to save my bus money for them (no such thing as pocket money for poor kids like us in those days). But I’d never been able to afford the expense of any of the Marvel Annuals, which, at nearly £1, almost twenty times the price of the average Marvel weekly, were well outside my budget at that time.

And here was my father handing to me the Avengers Annual 1975! He might as well have been giving me the Crown Jewels. I threw my arms around him and gave him a big hug. He was very taken aback by this, as he wasn’t one to display much overt affection in public (Real Men didn’t do that kind of thing back then), although we all knew that he loved us. But he was obviously surprised and delighted that I was so happy with the present. He’d taken a chance on it, thinking that I might like it, being a fan of superhero comics. But the degree of joy I’d shown was completely unexpected. He shook his head in bewilderment, smiling, as I rushed off to find a quiet spot to read my new found treasure.

You wouldn’t even have known I was in the room, as I sat in that corner, reading the annual over and over again for hours on end. I was captivated by the gaudy front cover, with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Vision smashing through a wall. And the even better back cover with all the Avengers together in one pin-up. There were more pin-ups inside. And the stories! Wow! The first one was a great Steve Englehart/Don Heck strip featuring The Mighty Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men at the mercy of Magneto.

The second strip was part two of the same story, with the three remaining Avengers, plus Daredevil, and the Black Widow, all taking on the power of Magneto and his mind-slaves (namely all the other Avengers plus the X-Men). In another strip, the Avengers took on the Lion-God, my least-favourite of the stories in the annual, but still interesting. But the greatest eye-opener for me was a classic Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Captain America and Bucky strip, set during World War II. I loved that one! I’d never seen any stories in a Golden Age setting before, and I found it completely fascinating.

Overall, this was a fantastic gift from my father, and out of all the Christmas presents I have ever received, that Avengers Annual from 1975 has always meant the most to me. And the cost of that amazing present? A cool ninety pence. That’s right, not even one lousy English pound. Sometimes the value of something, no matter how cheap, goes way beyond anything monetary. Which is a big reason why I get so riled these days by spoiled kids and their lack of gratitude for the vastly more expensive things they get, and the stupidity of their dumb parents for splashing out so much money on the ungrateful little brats.

I still have it, that 1975 Avengers Annual, and all the other annuals that my father made sure to buy me for the next few Christmases after that. I wouldn’t part with any of them, not for any amount of money, even though they’re aren’t really worth a lot in money terms. They mean too much to me, carry too many fond memories for me of my late father, and all those Christmases from long ago, when we struggled just to survive the Festive Season, when we were lucky to get fed, let alone receive presents.

That cheap little present still means more to me than anything I’ve gotten for Christmas in all the years since then. There are some things that money simply can’t buy!

Marvel Gets Their Man – The End of the Great Marvelman Rights Saga?

So Marvel Comics have bought the rights to the classic Marvelman character (known as Miracleman in the US) from original creator Mick Anglo? Interesting. Very interesting. Given the rather “colourful” legal history between Marvel and the folks who worked on Marvelman/Miracleman throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s, if the situation wasn’t so ironic, it would be hilarious. That Marvel would’ve ended up the saviours of Marvelman? I can barely believe it myself.

The classic Alan Moore reinterpretation of the original 1950’s Marvelman first appeared in the famous British monthly comic Warrior back in 1982, and was later reprinted and continued as Miracleman (I’ve always greatly preferred the original name “Marvelman” over “Miracleman”) by Eclipse Comics. It is my all-time favourite superhero strip, by a huge margin. I also rate the Neil Gaiman version which continued on directly from Moore’s version very highly, if, perhaps, not quite so highly as Moore’s.

Coming at a time when the Bronze Age (which I had been a huge fan of) at Marvel and DC was starting to seriously run out of steam, Marvelman was the precursor to a new breed of superhero comic. It was the first of its kind, and started a storm which was to change the entire comics landscape during the ’80s, leading directly to classics such as the Watchmen and the Dark Knight Returns. We didn’t know that at the time, of course, although it all seems so obvious now, but everything is always 20/20 in hindsight. But after being raised since childhood on a diet of classic British comics and Silver and Bronze Age Marvel’s and DC’s, all I knew at the time was that Marvelman was absolutely mind-blowingly incredible, and I had never seen anything like it before.

I have all the issues of the original Warrior, and it didn’t just contain Marvelman, but also a few other classic strips, including another all-time favourite written by Alan Moore, the original V for Vendetta. I liked V for Vendetta a lot, but Marvelman was by far my favourite. I distinctly recall my anger, rage and total disbelief when the strip was dropped from Warrior after about twenty issues, due to the legal wrangling with Marvel over the name. I was absolutely livid. The best superhero strip I had ever read, cut short due to petty legal squabbles.

When Warrior folded a half a dozen issues later, and I saw that mainstream comics had nothing left of quality to offer (or, rather, nothing to offer ME), I dropped out of comics in disgust for over a decade. I didn’t find out until many years later that Eclipse Comics had reprinted and continued the Marvelman story, now rechristened Miracleman (due again to continued legal wrangling with Marvel), during my time away from comics.

I came back into comics full-time again around 1997 or so, and I’ve spent the years since tracking down the Eclipse series, and now have the entire 24-issue run, with the exception of the classic Miracleman -vs- Kid Miracleman finale in Issue 15. I also have the 3-issue Apocrypha mini-series, and the Apocrypha trade paperback, plus two of the four collected trade paperbacks of the main series. The original collected editions haven’t been available for years now, and collectors are paying exorbitant prices for them. The trade paperbacks frequently go for £70-£80 or higher on ebay.co.uk, where, at this very moment, a hardcover of Book 1, A Dream of Flying, is asking for a Buy It Now price of £175, and the hardcover of Book 2, The Red King Syndrome, an incredible Buy It Now price of £375. As much as I love Marvelman/Miracleman, I wouldn’t pay these ridiculous prices for them, particularly since I already have the entire run (bar one) of the Eclipse series.

Eclipse went bust in 1994, and, since that time, Marvelman/Miracleman has remained in limbo, the focus of one of the longest running, most complicated, and bitter legal conflicts over character rights in the comics world. This dispute got even worse when Todd McFarlane acquired the rights to the bankrupt Eclipse properties in 1996, and it has dragged on, year after year. The issue of who owned the rights to which part of the character has always been a muddied minefield, with so many different individuals involved in the matter, each claiming to own a share – Quality Communications/Dez SkinnAlan MooreNeil GaimanGarry LeachAlan DavisMark BuckinghamTodd McFarlane, and the original creator, Mick Anglo (dunno if I missed anyone – like I said, it’s a really confusing mess). It got so bad that for years most of us were none the wiser as to who really owned what.

In recent years, the legal situation seems to have been resolved, with the courts settling in favour of original Marvelman creator, Mick Anglo. Despite the grumblings of Todd McFarlane, it’s emerged that Quality Communications had never owned the rights to Marvelman in the first place, and that they still resided with Anglo, which make’s all the other creators’ claims to ownership of the character null and void. Considering the legal quagmire over rights that the character has been mired down in for years, now that they’ve been bought up by Marvel, we might just see an end to the endless legal wrangling that has kept Marvelman in limbo for so long.

That is, unless Todd McFarlane somehow manages to kick up a legal fuss of some kind, if he has any legal legs left to stand on. I would assume that any trademark rights he may own, if any, relate only to the Eclipse character Miracleman, not the original Marvelman. But even with Marvel buying the rights to the character from Mick Anglo, the legal situation still isn’t completely crystal-clear. They might have the rights to the 1950’s/1960’s version, but what about the 1980’s Moore/Gaiman version, which is the real jewel in the crown? We do know that Marvel has been discussing plans for the character and its stories with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Alan Davis and Mark Buckingham. I guess we’ll just have to wait to find out exactly what they’ve agreed on.

However Marvel may decide to revitalize Marvelman, I’m just hoping that they do the character justice, and don’t make a complete mess of it. I would dearly love to see Alan Moore revisit his best-ever (in my opinion) creation, but that seems highly unlikely. It would also be great to see Neil Gaiman and Mark Buckingham get to finish their original run on the comic, completing the trilogy of stories that they were in the thick of, and closing out the unfinished Silver Age, and the final Dark Age sequences that they were working on when Eclipse went to the wall. The fact that they had at least another full issue (or more) completed (but never published) before Eclipse went bust has kept hard-core fans chomping at the bit for years to see this unfinished work. And I’m one of those hard-core fans. The hardest of the hard.

But if none of the above happens, and if they were to start from a completely clean slate, Marvel really would need to bring out their big guns for their new acquisition, given the importance of the character, and put together a massive creative team to give it their best shot. A writer of the caliber of Joe StraczynskiWarren EllisKurt Busiek, Mark MillarGrant Morrison (now THAT would be ironic, considering the slating he gave Moore over Marvelman back in the day), would be an absolute must. Absolutely no second stringers or hacks – this revival has the importance and potential to be one of the biggest events of the decade, so don’t fumble the ball, Marvel, please. Pick a top-notch writer and pair him with an artist of equal standing, and make sure they stay on the strip. Avoid the instability of creative teams constantly chopping and changing, something which would surely guarantee the failure of the new title.

Whatever happens with Marvel, the current situation has to be better than the stalemate the character has been trapped in for fifteen years. Even if they make a total disaster of their new version (and fingers crossed that they don’t), I’m really hoping that we will, at last, be able to get regular reissues of the classic 1980’s strips in trade paperback or hardcover. I’d dearly love to see a huge hardcover omnibus edition with the entire Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman run, plus the Apocrypha mini-series and other bits ‘n’ pieces thrown in as extras. And, who knows, maybe, somewhere down the line, even reprints of the original Mick Anglo strips. Please, please, please. Here’s hoping.

That is, unless Toddy or some other gremlin doesn’t manage to throw yet another spanner in the works, re-starting the old legal merry-go-round and consigning our hero to limbo once again. For all fans of Marvelman, I really, really hope not. Let’s have this fantastic, ground-breaking character back in circulation again. A generation of comic fans – all but the most determined collectors – have been deprived of one of the greatest superhero strips of all time. It’s well beyond time for him to be back in the public eye again, receiving the recognition and adulation that he so richly deserves.

Marvelman deserves to be up there with The Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The Dark Knight Returns, and the other 1980’s mega-classics of the comics medium. He’s the equal of any of them, and, in my opinion, the best of the lot.

Reborn #1 and Marvel’s “Hard Sell” Tactics – A Step Too Far?

I’m rarely surprised these days by any of the seemingly ceaseless dirty goings-on in the comics industry, particularly the never-ending merry-go-round of hype and sneaky “crossover” tricks that the Big Two (Marvel and DC) use to con us into buying their (mostly rubbish) titles each month. But the latest issue of Marvel Previews contains possibly the newest “low” in a long line of questionable tactics employed by Marvel in their eternal attempts to part us from our hard-earned pennies.

It centres around the first issue of a new, upcoming five-part Marvel mini-series, known only as Reborn, which, apparently, is the next Big Event in the Marvel Universe. Leaving aside the fact that I dislike these Big Events intensely, and avoid them like the plague – they’re so common these days, and mean so little now that they have no real impact or meaning anymore (why the hell can’t we just have normal, decent stories, without everything having to be Yet Another Boring, Bland and Irrelevant Marvel Big Event or Crossover?) – there’s something new about this one that disturbs me like none before it has.

There’s always a certain amount of secrecy involved in the run-ins to these Big Events, as the publishers don’t want to give away too much, too soon. But there’s also always some information available, just enough to whet our appetites or to let us know enough about it that we can decide whether or not we want to buy it. But in the case of this new Reborn mini-series, there’s an incredibly high level of secrecy involved, way beyond anything we’ve seen before. Marvel won’t give us any information. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Not the slightest clue what it’s about or who’s in it.

They’re messing with our heads. We’re expected to buy it without knowing anything about it, like we have to take Marvel’s word that it’s gonna be great. Like we’re dumb shits who can’t be trusted to make up our own minds, mindless sheep who will pay up without question for anything that they throw at us. They regard their customers with total contempt, arrogantly assuming that if they tell us absolutely nothing about this new “event”, we’ll all be so overcome with anticipation that we’ll rush out in droves to buy it.

Well, guess what Marvel? No thank you. At least from this particular customer. Some of us have enough intelligence to know when we’re being insulted and manipulated, and I, personally, feel really insulted and irritated when confronted by cynical con-man “hard sell” tactics. And this new Marvel selling tactic stinks. It bugs me, I mean REALLY bugs me, extremely, big time, with lashings of cream on top.

The vile stench of cold, hard, cynical manipulation of comics buyers by the marketing department of one of the so-called “leading lights” of the comics industry is positively nauseating. As a long-term Marvel junkie – I’ve been buying their comics for four decades now, and more than 75% of my $400+ monthly comics spending goes into the Marvel coffers – I find this level of sneaky, underhand, taking-for-granted manipulation of their ultra-loyal customer base totally repulsive. At this moment I’m thoroughly disgusted and ashamed to be a Marvel fan.

And it isn’t just the lowly customers. Marvel are also keeping comics retailers in the dark about Reborn, a fact that shocks and surprises even me. They’re being messed around even more than we are, since they’re expected to pay handsomely and upfront for the honour of stocking a whole bunch of these (non-returnable) Reborn #1 thingies, unseen, and all just on Marvel’s say-so. Well, at least one of these retailers is really pissed off about it (and good fer him).

Yesterday I received this rather interesting email from my friend and esteemed comics supplier Jack Curtinhttp://www.jackcurtin.com (well worth a visit). I’d urge you to click on the link for Savage Critic and have a read for yourselves:

“Those of you who became pals with Brian Hibbs back in the CIS days, might appreciate seeing this… http://savagecritic.com/2009/05/on-marvels-reborn-1.html

Much of what Brian Hibbs says in his article echoes my own sentiments. I recall Brian from my days on the Compuserve Comics & Animation Forum (known as CAF to long term members and ex-members), although he probably wouldn’t remember me, and I’m not one bit surprised he’s taken this stand. He’s definitely one of the good guys, and we need more like him in the business.

On the Reborn #1 thing, Marvel is treating both its retailers and customers with astonishing arrogance and contempt, and it’s absolutely refreshing to see a comics retailer act on his conscience by telling them to sod off, thankyouverymuch, rather than letting greed rule his head. Far too often, single-minded greed is sadly the bottom line for too many retailers out there.

It’s not a question of whether or not retailers will shift all the copies of Reborn #1 on the shelves. It’ll probably sell by the truckload. Rather, it’s the principle of the thing, and we need far more people emulating Brian Hibbs, retailers sacrificing a few sales and customers a refusing en masse to buy this particular title, just to let Marvel know in no uncertain terms that they can’t treat us all like shit. Most importantly, we have to make darned sure that this despicable new sales tactic they’ve employed does NOT become accepted industry practice.

Boy, do I hate these Big Companies… Speaking as a customer, I myself will definitely not be buying Reborn on principle, whether or not it might be my cup of tea (probably not, being a Big Event thing), and despite the fact that I usually like the work of both Ed Brubaker and Bryan Hitch. Even if I really, really want to have it, I’m still sticking to my guns and refusing to buy it, either in comic book or trade paperback form, precisely and solely because of Marvel’s new selling tactics.

Nor will I buy ANY other Marvel title employing the same approach. And if they adopt it as a general marketing tactic, I will boycott their entire range – and believe me, I do not say this lightly, since I’m a die-hard Marvel fan and the bulk of my comics spending goes on their products. But I’m sure there are a lot of deserving indies and small press titles out there who who be glad of a larger chunk of my monthly $400.

In my case, Marvel’s new “hard sell” has backfired, badly, and I reckon (at least I hope) it’ll also backfire with a sizeable percentage of the customer base. When I read the Reborn entry in the current Marvel Previews, my only thought was “BASTARDS!!! They can take Reborn and stick it where the sun don’t shine”. I make a point of reading Previews each month solely to get information on upcoming releases, so I can make up my own mind on exactly what I’ll be ordering. Marvel’s refusal to give any information whatsoever about Reborn prevents me from doing just that, at least in the case of Reborn. So I won’t be buying it, simple as that.

I really am quite livid at what I see as Marvel’s latest, and possibly most blatantly cynical and arrogant attempt to hook and reel in the Marvel Faithful. Most of the obsessive Marvel Lemmings will most likely just behave like crack addicts, and buy this thing in droves, so Marvel will see the new approach as being successful, at least in terms of sales. But I’m sincerely hoping that enough of the more discerning general readership may just see through this cynical marketing ploy, and that there’ll be some kind of backlash.

We badly need a lot of retailers and readers to do the Right Thing for once, giving Reborn #1 a well-deserved raised middle finger, and sending an emphatic message to Marvel that they really should quit messing around with their customers and retailers, the people who have made them what they are.

If this doesn’t happen, and, unfortunately, there’s a strong chance that it won’t, since most comic fans are mindless sheep – no offense intended to the more intelligent and discerning minority, nor to the younger readers, who haven’t yet learned about the cynical side of the comics industry – I anticipate lots of bad shit descending upon us down the road a bit if Marvel continues on this path, and DC and others start to follow in line.

It looks like a certain greedy company has forgotten the very stark and costly lesson provided by the implosion of the industry back in the ’90s. But remember this, Marvel. Piss off enough customers, and history might just repeat itself. Biting the hand that feeds you is not a good long-term business practice.

I’m sincerely hoping that many, many more retailers will follow the brave lead set by Brian Hibbs, and refuse to order Reborn #1. For once, please, think longer term, beyond the extra bit of money you’ll bring in for the few weeks that Reborn is the new Big Event on the block. Take a stand, ‘cos even if it costs a few bucks now, it may just cost a heckuva lot more in the future if you don’t. Send a loud, clear message to Marvel that the Direct Market should never be abused in this way, and that this kind of behaviour simply will not be tolerated. My most fervent hope is that this cynical, underhanded game-playing blows up completely in Marvel’s greedy face.

Did I mention that I hate these Big Companies? They’re a lot like the Ferengi in Star Trek: The Next Generation and DS9. To them, Profit is God, and they’ll use every low-down trick in the book to bleed us dry. If they’re allowed to, that is. The Big Guys really do need the occasional swift, hard kick in the nuts to bring them right back down to Planet Earth. Be warned – apathy and mindless subservience to Marvel now on the part of retailers and collectors will reap lots of pain for all of us later on down the road.

It takes guys in the industry like Brian Hibbs to bring this sort of thing to the public’s attention, to get us all to sit up and take notice, because most people are, lets face it, apathetic and easy-going at the best of times. So a big Thank You to Brian, and, come Friday night, when I’m in the pub with my mates, enjoying the music of a decent local rock band, and imbibing a few glasses of the old liquid pick me up, I’ll make sure to take a minute or two out to toast Brian’s good health.

I wish there were a lot more like him in the comics industry.

Classic Comics – Miracleman (Eclipse Comics)

Some very nice comics arrived from Ebay.co.uk today. A bunch of Miracleman comics, from the classic Eclipse Comics series. Issues 12, 14 , 22, 23, and Miracleman: Apocrypha #3 (of 3), to be exact. Leaves me just #’s 11, 13, 15 and 24 of the main series to complete the entire run. I was outbid on #24 at the last second (with the previously winning bid from me sitting at £21), something that I was rather pissed off about (to put it very mildly).

This series is a much sought after classic title. And the asking prices reflect that. Certain individual issues will pop up regularly at £30 or more – I expect the hotly demanded #’s 15 and 24 to cost me a pretty packet at some point. The four trade paperbacks of the main series – A Dream of Flying, The Red King Syndrome, Olympus and The Golden Age (there is also a fifth, covering the Miracleman: Apocrypha 3-part mini-series) – go for exorbitant prices (and only cover up to #22 of the 24 parts).

I still need A Dream of Flying and Olympus, but the high asking prices for the trade paperbacks have forced me to concentrate on the original comics instead. In a way, this is preferable, as the original comics are worth more anyway – the trade paperbacks only have artificially inflated prices only because of the fact that the series is unlikely to be reprinted anytime soon due to the complicated legal situation surrounding the creators rights. But I’d definitely like to get the other two tpbs, eventually (and at the right price), as this series is structured to fit four “books”, and are extremely collectible in this format.

I don’t usually pay this kind of inflated collector’s prices for comics – I have better things to do with my money – but, for a series like Miracleman (originally known as Marvelman, an infinitely better title, at least in my opinion), it’s well worth paying out over the odds. The original modern incarnation of Marvelman first appeared as a black and white strip in the classic British comic, Warrior, at the start of the 1980s. It was written by a then relatively unknown Alan Moore (later an equally relatively unknown Neil Gaiman – this comic has some serious creator pedigree) and drawn by Garry Leach (later Alan Davis and others), and totally redefined the stagnant superhero genre. It blew me away. It was, and remains, my favourite superhero strip of all time. By a huge margin. When you rate something as highly as that, you’ll pay what it takes to get it.

I’ve been following the Gaiman vs McFarlane legal squabble over Miracleman copyrights with interest. Apparently Gaiman says that issue 25 was mostly completed before Eclipse went under, and that he’d get it finished, and the Miracleman story finally wrapped up, if the legal situation ever gets resolved in his favour.

Lets hope that’s how it turns out, and sooner rather than later.

Collecting Old Comics Stuff

I’ve been going through a bit of a crazy phase recently. Almost a reversion to my youth, or, at least, my youthful collecting habits. I’ve been spending a lot of money on Ebay, trying to pick up some of the rare relics of my early-to-mid teenage years, when I was an obsessive collector of British comics, as opposed to the more easily found US comics that I became a collector of from my later teens onwards.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been buying a lot of old issues of my favourite British comics from the 1960s and 1970s, mainly Lion, Valiant and Thunder. I would dearly love to be able to buy a whole bunch of Countdown and TV Century 21 (aka TV21), but these are a lot harder to find and a heckuva lot more expensive than the Lion, Valiant and Thunder. Maybe someday, when I’m rich.

I’ve also started collecting old annuals, those hardback, once-yearly collections of strips and other goodies from our favourite comics. Again, mainly Valiant, Lion and Thunder, although I did also pick up a nice Countdown Annual from 1972. I remember from when I was a kid – these were the Holy Grail, usually too expensive for me to buy (I didn’t have a lot of pocket money back in the ’60s and ’70s, and annuals cost on average ten times the price of the weekly comic), and usually confined to Christmas presents from my Dad or other relatives.

Well, I’ve made a really good start on picking up many annuals from the ’60s and ’70s period, and I’m starting to develop a real knack for picking them up dirt cheap, or, at least, relatively cheap. (I’ve just won two more as I’m typing – Lion Annual 1973 and Thunder Annual 1973). I often look at this ever-growing stack of annuals beside me, and wonder “Am I going mental? Why am I collecting all of this old stuff? What the hell am I going to do with it?” And then I open an annual and feel the tidal wave of nostagia wash over me, all the old memories boring up from the depths of my moth-eaten excuse for a brain. And I feel good. Really good. Maybe nostalgia is the narcotic of the 40-somethings (I’m 46). If it is, I’m a complete addict. Since my son died in April 2006, I have little else left in my life.

At least nostalgia is a much safer and more productive addiction than cigarettes, booze and drugs. And we all need our little hobbies to spend our money on, or life would be unbearable, all bills and shopping and crappy Real Life nonsense. The thought makes me shudder…

Silver Surfer: Requiem

One of my current favourite comics is a four-part mini-series published under the Marvel Knights imprint, Silver Surfer: Requiem. The series is is written by none other than J. Michael Straczynski himself (yep, he of Babylon 5 fame), and the beautiful, painted art is by Esad Ribic, someone whom I haven’t come across before, but I’ll certainly sit up and take notice if I see the name again.

As you might have guessed, the overarching theme of the mini-series is the impending death of the Silver Surfer, due to the molecular disintegration of the silver “skin” which covers his body, and which is part of him, right down to the deepest level of his nervous system. Even Reed Richards, one of the smartest humans on the planet, can do nothing to help. So the Surfer, in his own stoic, pragmatic fashion, resolves to accept his coming fate, and enjoy his remaining time to the utmost. He hops on his surfboard, and heads off into the big blue (or black) yonder, to see as much as there is to see of the world and universe before he dies.

So far, there have been three parts published out of the four, and each issue is a separate-but-linked segment of the whole story. The first part deals with the visit to Reed Richards, who confirms the diagnosis of the illness, with a bit of a recap of the Surfer’s origin and the fateful adventure in which he rebelled against Galactus and sided with the Fantastic Four and the people of Earth against his former master. The second revolves around a fascinating encounter with Spider-Man, with a nice ending to that segment of the story. And the third issue takes the Surfer away from Earth out to the stars, where he gets involved in a “Sacred War” between two interplanetary races.

The series looks beautiful, and is very well written (as you’d expect with Straczynski at the helm). What I really like about it is the way it deals with people, examining with a critical eye both the beauty and the ugly flaws of humanity (even when the “humanity” is two alien races), the religious fanaticism, the aggression, and the corruption and greed of powerful rulers. Powerful stuff.

Excellent story so far. Can’t wait for the fourth and final segment of the mini-series.

Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr.

I tend not to follow modern mainstream Marvel or DC comics at all these days. With the exceptions of the various collections of Silver and Bronze Age material and the occasional, very rare, collection of modern material by authors that I like (Ed Brubakker, Warren Ellis, Mark Waid, Mark Millar, Kurt Busiek, James Robinson and a few others), they do absolutely nothing for me. Compared to the glory days of the Silver and Bronze Ages, the quality of new comics output by both companies is generally absolutely abysmal these days.

But every once in a while they do come out with something worthwhile, something a little different, like a brand-new kind of superhero story, or a high quality reimagining of an old one. One of the better “reboots” of a classic superhero comic that I’ve read in recent years was Eternals, a seven-part mini series produced by Marvel Comics, written by Neil Gaiman, and with art by John Romita, Jr.

This is a reimagining of Jack Kirby’s old Eternals title from the 1970s and early 1980s, and elevates what was really a second or third rate (although fun) Bronze Age Marvel series to true “classic” status. Although the original was an interesting enough series in its own right (and I myself almost always prefer the originals over reboots), in my opinion, Kirby was well past his best when he worked on it, and it showed.

I know that the purists will be screaming “BLASPHEMY!!” from the roof-tops at these comments, but I cannot emphasize just by how much this modern, “Gaiman-ized” version of the Eternals completely blows the original out of the water. Gaiman takes the original concepts and story and runs with it all, creating a fresh new look at the original, a more adult (in the good sense) story, and great characters. What else would you expect from Neil Gaiman?. All of the original characters, both protagonists and antagonists, get a real make-over in this new version.

The Deviants, in particular, are given the expert Gaiman treatment. These were the one-dimensional, bad-guy cannon-fodder in the original series. Now they’ve been fleshed out, made more three-dimensional, and given a lot more depth, darkness and outright menace. The two lead Deviant antagonists are a nasty team altogether, obviously modelled on Vandemar and Croup, Gaiman’s own creations, the two vicious assassins in his classic novel Neverwhere. These two are by far my favourite characters in the entire story.

Romita’s excellent art also sets off Gaiman’s writing perfectly, and the series was published in a number of variant covers (most by Romita) that all collectors will want to grab. I usually am NOT a fan of the multiple “variant cover” nonsense, but I made a point of grabbing most of these, because the Romita covers are so good.

I won’t spoil things by revealing details of the story itself. Just go buy it. The series was collected in both hardcover and trade paperback. I bought both, and I’d definitely recommend grabbing a copy of the trade paperback, at least. I’d say that anyone who is not a hardcore original Kirby Eternals “purist” should enjoy this one.