How To Collect Comics
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the
All-American Comic Shops Monthly Newsletter No. 15 October 1993 as part of the All-American Collectors Guide.
The easiest way to start collecting comics is to choose a character, characters, or character group (Avengers & Various Members, JLA & Various Members, Batman Family, etc.) or your favorite company (Marvel, DC, etc.) and start buying the new adventures of the book(s) you enjoy off the new comic racks each week.
After a while you may decide that you want to collect more or older adventures of your favorite comic book. For example’s sake, we’ll use Superman in this article.
A popular misconception is that you have to be able to get the #1 issue of a comic to start a collection, and that it has to be in mint condition if you ever wish to resell it.
The most fun and most satisfying way to collect comics is to collect backwards (in the ‘best condition’ available) from the current issue of a title to a predetermined starting point.
For example, if you were a brand new collector who walked into an All-American Comic Shop today and wished to begin collecting Superman, we would have many helpful suggestions for you.
A new artist (Ed McGuiness) starting drawing the main Superman book in the year 2000, and his art style and a new method of storytelling is reflected in all of the core Superman titles. This is what’s called a jumping on point. You can start with McGuiness’ first issue and try to collect all of the 4 Superman titles up to date, and continue to buy the current ones.
Superman adapted a unique numbering system on it’s titles a few years ago called the ‘Diamond Number’ which makes Superman by far the easiest new comic line to collect. Each one of Superman 4 core titles come out once a month. One issue of each title (Superman, Adventures of Superman, Action Comics, and Man Of Steel) comes out every week. Ed McGuiness’ first issue of Superman was #154. Dated Mar 2000, Diamond #2000/10. The next week Adventures of Superman # 576 came out which is Diamond #2000/11, the following week was Man of Steel #98 dated 2000/12, and finally Action Comics #763 dated 2000/13 hit the stands. You can try to collect each of these titles through the rest of the year 2000 and 2001, read them in the order of the Diamonds, and have a fine start on a Superman collection. Issues in this range average about a quarter over cover price ($2.25-$2.50) and won’t break your bank.
If you wanted to delve a little farther back in to the adventures of Superman, we would recommend going back to the famous ‘Death of Superman’ storyline in 1992 and the ‘Doomsday’ issues directly preceding it. Doomsdays first appearance was in Man of Steel #17 (the same Man of Steel cited above with the new direction in #98) Superman #73, Action 683, and Adventures of Superman 496 are the other jump on points. The vaunted ‘Death of Superman’ Black Bagged Issue was #75 and despite all the hoopla surrounding it, it is readily available for about $8-$10. Best of all, all of these titles flow seamlessly into the current issues and into the issues highlighted. All of these comics except for a few of the ‘Death Issues’ are still under $3 each and easily collectible.
The trick now is to pick up any and as many issues of Superman within your determined range whenever you see one in reasonable condition at a reasonable price. Don’t pass up a nice Man of Steel #19 because you don’t have a #17 yet, because you don’t know how long the #19 will be around. Feel free to ask us at All-American about determining such collection starting points and the availability of issues therein. We may be able to find copies within our backstock or take your want list and be on the lookout for them.
Now say you want to collect Superman more seriously. The next step would be to collect the whole POST CRISIS collection of Superman from 1986 to present. This kicks off with the six-issue John Byrne Man of Steel mini-series from 1986 and include Superman(1986) from #1 to present (or #73 if you already have all of the Doomsday up issues, Adventures of Superman #424 to present, Superman Man Of Steel #1 to present, and Action Comics from #584 up. Also published in this era are many Annuals,Specials, and Mini-Series which enhance the collecting experience, and are at your discretion to collect. This gives you a wider Superman palate to choose from, and the best part that except for a few key issue, there’s no comic in this collection that will cost you over $5!
The next Superman tier begins in 1972 with the previous Superman revival/update. Superman #233 (which changes it’s title to Adventures of Superman with #424 and continues the numbering) goes for about $40 in Near Mint Condition, but an average (VG)collectible condition copy can be had for about $15. This book was also reprinted recently in a Millennium edition and is available for your perusal for about $3. Action Comics #400 to 583, DC Presents (Superman Team-Ups) #1-97, World’s Finest (Superman/Batman stories) #200-323 and 70’s issues of Superboy also fall into this more extensive collection, and most books can be found in the $3-$10 range.
I personally collect Superman comics from the advent of the Silver Age to present. My starting points are Superman (1st Series)#96 published in 1956 which was released the same month as Showcase #4 which was the 1st appearance of the SilverAge Flash. Other collections include Action Comics #252(1st Supergirl ) or #242(1st Braniac) up, World’s Finest #71 (1st Superman/Batman team-up)up, Adventure Comics #247(1st Legion of Super-Heroes) up, and the complete runs of Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane, and the Superman Family. Superman also appeared in Justice League of America and guest starred in many other DC Comics. Books in this range price at as little as $3-$4, or as high as the $100’s.
If I were a rich man, I would collect Golden Age Superman. Either back to #1 or to wherever the current issue of Superman Archive leaves off. DC Archives are $50 hardcover deluxe editions which reprint key Golden Age and Silver Age titles quite beautifully at a cost just a fraction of what the back issues would cost. Add Action, World’s Finest. Adventure and the like and you would need Alex Rodriquez money to complete the collection.
If you think all of the above cited example are confusing and difficult to grasp, remember this: Superman is the oldest and most popular of all existing comics characters and his origins go back to 1938. Every single other comic book character or title is EASIER to collect! Even Batman! We at All-American are here to help you make these collecting decisions!
You may want to check such publications as The Overstreet Price Guide, Comic Book Marketplace, Alter-Ego, and even with some reservations, Wizard for more information about collecting comics.
Now it's time to have some fun!
Hi! My name is Carl Bonasera, and I’m owner and operator of All-American Comic Shops in South Chicagoland, Illinois. I opened my first store in October 1981 in Evergreen Park (which is still the flagship today) as the second store in the new Amazing Fantasy chain of comic shops. Former partner David Kosinski and I parted ways in 1985 and so was born All-American Comic Shops. I opened a store in suburban Orland Park that spring and never looked back.
My goal in starting AACS (as we shall call All-American) was to build the comic shop I wanted to go to. That being a gathering place for real comic collectors, and a friendly environment for casual readers. We’ve always stocked a complete line of new comics, and the best back issue selection in our relative area. But besides collectors supplies, and a few related items, we’ve never gone in for the latest fad. From the black & white explosion, thru the ‘investor years’ and up through Magic, Beanie Babies and Pokemon, we never gotten caught up in it. Sure if you really want something, we’ll get it for you, but I’ve always preferred to keep AACS a pure ‘Old Fashioned’ comic shop.
We grew through the late eighties and early nineties as my philosophy of ‘putting comics where they ain’t’ proved highly successful. In 1993 we ranked 30th in the nation (out of the then 6,000 operations) in new comics sales, WITHOUT the benefit of selling multiple copies of the so-called ‘investor books’. I bet we were in the top 5 in sales of comics that were actually opened and read. This is a mark I’m still very proud of today. In 1993 we also opened our 8th, and what proved to be our final new store.
As the ‘investors’ quickly left the field, regular customer, publishers, and new titles went along with it. Although we were selling more books to the ‘investors’ than we knew at the time (most didn’t wear name tags saying ‘investor guy’), and many of our newer and younger customers were leaving our stores, we managed to keep our heads above water without ‘selling out’. Meaning we didn’t desert out comic customers to devote our stores to the latest fad.
What we did do however, was to effectively downsize in an industry where almost half of the vendors went out of business. By closing down our smaller stores and moving and/or repositioning others, we survived the tumultuous years in our industry and have remade ourselves into a leaner (the business, not me), meaner, funner operation. 2000 was our most profitable year since 1994, and the future of AACS looks even brighter.
In 2001 we stand at our original location and hub in Evergreen Park, where you’ll find yours truly ‘almost’ 7 days a week, our new big store in Palos Hills which combined components of our Orland Park and Burbank stores which is managed by Dave ‘Stud-Man’ Studzinski, and our fledgling mail order, web based, and back issue auction business.
The most important thing I’d like to tell you guys is simply….I LOVE COMICS! Golden Age Comics, Silver Age Comics, Bronze Age Comics, 80’s, 90’s and New Comics! I also personally collect pulps, paperbacks, hardcover books, movie serials, and B movies of the 30’s thru the 50’s.Even an occasional action figure (we call them guys). And I won’t even go into my music collection. Batman and the Silver-Age Flash are my favorite DC characters, and Daredevil and Spidey are my favorite Marvels. Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson and Steve Ditko are my favorite artists, and no one has greater respect for the people like Jack Kirby who set precedents in our field so new talents like Ed McGuiness, Paul Ryan, John Romita Jr., Howard Porter, and Carlos Pachaeo can do the fine work they are doing today.
Hopefully you’ll drop by one of our stores, or maybe you’ll bid on one of our items on E-Bay. But I’d really enjoy it if you dropped by our site once in a while and visit.
As time goes on, I hope to have a monthly newsletter up, with information about what’s going on in the industry and our stores. I have lots of opinions, most of them educated, and with this site I’ll have a forum larger than our customers already reddened ears. A also hope to amass a library of comics articles by myself, and the legion of friends and customers that have patronized AACS over the last 20 years. Full Circle by Tony Fernandez is the first of such articles and is great reading. Maybe I’ll even try to sell a comic now and then.
Put us on your list of favorites and check us out now and then. The updates will come slow at first, but just like a big boulder rolling down a hill, I’ll pick up steam eventually.
PART II: 2007
Well, the winds of change are upon us. 2006 was our best year at Evergreen Park since the beginning of the 'Investor Exodus' of 1996. Unfortunately 2006 was also the worst year in the 7 year history of our Palos Hills store. Some of the finest product in years combined with the growth of our Mail Order Subscription and E-Bay Auction departments helped with the growth of Evergreen. Unfortunately these added responsibilities cut into my time at Palos.
Our lease at The Palos store was to expire in May and we were faced with a 20% increase in rent and taxes. We did not need all of the space there because of the gradual sale of the Swiss Chalet Collection, our left-over inventory from older stores and the fixtures and equipment from those same stores. I set out to find a smaller (and cheaper) location in the same general area, but was having little luck. At the same time our lease at Evergreen with our first new landlord in 25 years was also set to expire. I thought we had a deal in place, but was unexpectedly hit with another large tax increase AND the possibility of a late hours greasy spoon opening next door. I looked at a spot a block away from our original location that was about 300 square feet larger than either of our stores, a deal was quickly made and we moved into that store on May 31, 2007. Moving out of our original location after nearly 26 years has been quite a shock to my system that I'm not quite over yet. I hope all of our Evergreen customers enjoy the added space and selection (it doesn't even have that old comic guy smell yet) and I trust all of our Palos customers that have made the move find these amenities worth the extra drive.
However, there is no rest for the weary (or the wicked). I now get to keep my eye on everything and everyone, and the time I save in driving will transfer over to the electronic side of my business. Thank goodness I still love comics!!
Peace and Ditko,
It can’t have been 15 years since Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns hit our favorite comics shops.
It seems like only yesterday that the two prodigious series of the 1980s were being released. At the time, we long-time readers got what we wanted: series for adults, with adult themes that took the superhero genre seriously. Here were two series that we could show our intellectual friends that looked down their noses at our favorite hobby. I have loaned out softcover copies of the two series so many times that the books are dog-eared and badly worn, but it was worth it to make a point: this was literature. Here were two series that proved that comics were highly intelligent, taking up the topics of age, death, the nuclear future, and what is would be like to be a superhero in the world we live in, and how would ordinary people handle the knowledge that these beings exist.
The men responsible for this comics renaissance were the brains behind the two series: Frank Miller for Dark Knight and Alan Moore for Watchmen. Miller wrote and drew the four issue Dark Knight Returns, a series set outside of the regular continuity where a 50-something-year-old Batman was forced out of retirement to face a new world and new enemies. A nice twist was that Robin was a girl who saved Batman’s life and was repaid with being the latest sidekick. Watchmen was drawn by Dave Gibbons, a British artists with a very motion picture style. With Moore, they created a story about what may happen in a world with superheroes and nuclear weapons. Watchmen was very ambitious; painting a lurid sexual context to putting on tights and fighting crime. Both series incidentally dealt with vigilantes against former heroes who had been bought and co-opted by the government. Both series were limited: unlike ongoing series, both of these works had beginnings, middles, and very definite endings.
In part due to these series, the 1980s spawned a new look at comics and superheroes. At first, the comics industry thought that the secret to "adult comics" were grim and gritty anti-heroes. Every vigilante had to be willing to kill anyone that got in their way. For those who wanted "edgier" comics, there were books that, to me, took over where Alan Moore and Frank Miller left off. There was Howard Chaykin, who brought a film noir quality and overt sexuality into comics with American Flagg! and Black Kiss. There was Steve Rude and Mike Baron’s Nexus that took up the ideas of vengeance and politics. Camelot 3000 was took the Arthurian Legend, updated it, and did some nice twists on sexuality and adultery.
More recently, there has been what I like to call the "Age of the Writer" where writers have gained rabid followings as loyal as that of an artist. At first, there were the solid storytellers, some who wrote and drew; others that went from the drawing board to the typewriter. Some were always writers, but they each told their stories in very effective ways. There were Peter David, and Dan Jurgens, and Jerry Ordway, doing the standard super hero stories but with style and panache. Following Alan Moore’s lead, DC began the Vertigo line of "stranger tales:" either new series, or old series that were more suitable for this type of treatment. These books were for adult readers and included fine series like Hellblazer, Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Swamp Thing and the excellent Sandman Mystery Theater. The most popular of these books was Neil Gaimen's Sandman, a fairy story featuring the "conjuror of dreams," Death, and the rest of the family of the Endless. The mini "boom" caused by people reading Sandman is over; the series ended in a confusing mush, and those people captivated by Neil Gaiman’s writing have gone back to Edith Piaf and Ayn Rand. Some of the other series are over; some are still going strong. All of them make for worthwhile reading and collecting.
Some of the most talented writers from the Vertigo regular books were Englishmen, so we have seen the "British Invasion" of writers like Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano. They have continued to stretch the boundaries of the comic book form and have taken the strange and the perverse to new heights in series like Preacher and Hitman. Preacher just ended and was the one series that was reprinted and sold to casual readers in the big bookstores. But what a perverse story it was: filled with kinky sex, violence, and cast of characters that will not soon be forgotten by anyone who picked up the series.
We have also seen the rise of solid writers like Kurt Busiek, whose greatest strength is the ability to bring a modern sensibility to comics while still retaining the feel of comics of our youth. His Astro City series has been the most consistently excellent superhero series in years. He turned the industry on its ear by writing Marvels with impressive painting by fan favorite Alex Ross, which viewed "historic" events in the Marvel Universe, but from a normal human reporter and bystander’s point of view. Where Marvels showcased important events in the past, DC’s Kingdom Come showed the end of the DC Universe. To this writer, Marvels and Astro City are the direct stylistic and thematic descendents of Dark Knight and Watchmen
Maybe it has been a long time. Since these two series, we have seen four Batman movies, the first of which took lots of ideas from Dark Knight. We have seen the dizzying rise in interest and sales in the industry due to the influx of investors. We have seen more comics companies than we can count and big companies were publishing anything that had an interesting premise. It was just 10 years ago that Marvel published over 300 titles a month. Comics were the hot thing, and some people made a lot of money.
Then came the inevitable crash of the industry when the average person learned that it takes timing and luck to make big money in anything. It is too bad that those investors did not learn the true rule of this hobby: read what you like, and let the rest take care of itself. If the major companies and retailers had tried to push this lesson on people, when the market crashed, we would have at least seen a few people, those who actually enjoy reading, stay with the hobby. Instead, kids and adults felt burned by the lack of immediate profit potential in the hobby, and dropped out completely. The industry has gone from a base of 225,000 readers (approximately) to over 2,000,000 buyers and now back to the same old 225,000 of us who love this hobby.
The times have been hard on the creators as well. Alan Moore dropped out of the comics game for a long time. He said that he was tired of writing superheroes and outside of a couple of projects like From Hell and a solid run on the Supreme series, the Ian Anderson-looking-gnome was conspicuously absent. Well, the Watchmen money must have run out, because for the past year and a half, Moore has found his way back to the medium with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the America’s Best line.
So, to keep up the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed, Moore is writing the America’s Best line of comics. Strangely, DC (who distributes the America’s Best line) and Moore have come to an impasse over a celebration of the anniversary of Watchmen. The project was supposed to include PVC figures of the major characters and a new special edition hardcover reprinting which would have character designs, foreign poster art and more extras than you could have asked for. Even I, who have a softcover edition of the series (my lending copy for naysayers that think comics are for kids) and the hardcover Graffiti Deluxe Edition , was prepared to cough up another $100 for the hardcover and $40 each for the PVC sets.
Alas, that is not to be. DC exercised editorial judgment in an issue of Top 10, the line’s worst seller, that made a disparaging remark about Scientology leader L.Ron Hubbard. After the multi-million settlement that hockey player Tony Twist was able to win against Spawn writer/artist Todd McFarland, I’m sure that DC’s lawyers did not want to risk a similar suit by the late Hubbard’s heirs. But this incensed Moore, who perhaps thought he was bigger than McFarland, and he announced that he would not support the planned anniversary project. Artist Dave Gibbons was painted into a corner and chose to stand with Moore and would not donate anything to the project. So, DC, who was going to give considerable sums of money to Gibbons’ and Moore’s banks accounts, pulled the project completely. Why would they do something that will earn these crusty bastards money?
Frank Miller has been able to turn out gritty hard-boiled detective stories that took little time or effort and in the beginning, reaped big rewards. And Miller has put himself out as the defended of creator rights, even if some of his "facts" and revisionist history are as dubious as the people who don’t believe in the Holocaust. It wasn’t long before even his core audience had become tired of the detective genre and his opinionated take on the state of the industry and sales have declined like every other book. A couple of years ago, DC reprinted Dark Knight in a special edition (even though there were three different hardcover editions released when it came out the first time) and it sold decently. Younger readers and those less experienced in the hobby encountered Dark Knight, and while they would not touch Sin City, they would look at another Batman project. So, Miller has decided to go back to Batman, writing and penciling a wholly unnecessary sequel to his most popular project. At the end of Dark Knight, the world thought Bruce Wayne dead; the Joker is dead; Alfred was dead; Wayne Manor was a crater; and the Wayne fortune had disappeared. But underneath the manor in the caves, Batman lived, training his followers, members of the street gang that brought him out of retirement in the first place.
That would have been a great ending to the legacy of Batman, but Miller needs money, and DC needs another hit that they can collect and sell in bookstores around the world. But will it be what they expect? An early story in the newspaper "Comics Buyers Guide" has young Robin turning into the new Catwoman. Batman would have to be in his 60s. Superman, shown to be a stooge to the President of the United States, thought that he killed Batman, but knows better. Where is this series going to go? What is there left to say?
Moreover, since the decline in the industry, the Dark Knight II is not going to sell the kinds of numbers that the first one did. It won’t sell one-half as much. It 'might' sell to the regular 225,000 comics readers, but they won’t buy multiple copies, which inflated the numbers 15 years ago, because there just isn’t the demand. It might sell a few more copies to occasional readers, and a few more if there is an AOL/Time-Warner media push. But that’s it. No multi-million seller; no big trade paperback sales.
And if that wasn’t enough, Miller’s next project will be a comic about the life of Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. I’m not sure it would sell since Jesus will not be wearing tights and beating Satan with his Uru Mallet Furthermore, knowing Miler’s work, it will probably set off a boycott by fundamentalist groups much like Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ did in movie theaters.. Such a controversy would bring the series attention and perhaps sell a few more copies, but, unlike the movie industry this is perhaps not the kind of attention that a struggling industry needs at a crucial juncture in its history.
The industry has gone full circle. Bust, boom, bust. The same can be said for Frank Miller and Alan Moore, building an audience; having a mega-successful hit that allows them to work less, and only on projects that appeal to them. Then came the hard times: the money wasn't there anymore. The readers wanted superheroes. And Moore and Miller had to acknowledge that and go where the market took them: back to superheroes.
Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate both Miller and Moore for their outstanding work, and am even more appreciative of the doors that they opened that allowed the great talents of the last 15 years to follow in their footsteps. I liked Sin City. I am enjoying the America’s Best Comics. I hope that their futures and the future of the industry are bright. I hope that Dark Knight II is good. I just wish that these projects were done because of a burning desire to tell a strong, exciting tale, not just for money or to try and get another curtain call like the punch-drunken fighter who doesn’t know when to quit.
MY TAKE ON THE 70S
Writing an article on the comics of the 1970's could be real hard. As a matter of fact, trying to remember the comics of the 1970's is kinda similar to trying to remember the 1970's in general. You can't remember most of the comics you've read, and some of the books you do remember had to be real important because you still remember them today. Also, when you look back at everything, you could at least chalk it up on you being a dumb kid who didn't know any better at the time.
The first thing I remember about the comics of the 1970's was that I could buy them everywhere. Before there was such thing as comic book stores, anybody could get comics at any convenience/discount/drug/grocery store, where they usually have a special place for them at their newsstands. A lot of these stores would also put comics in "spinner racks" so they could segregate them from the regular magazines they sell(Waldenbooks have a modernized version of the "spinner rack" where they sell comics and the WIZARD magazines). I believe those "racks" could sell up to 24 different comics, and they cost probably $ .20-$ .25 each in those days. For the cost of the FLASH: IRON HEIGHTS special, one could buy a copy of each of those 24 books.
Another thing I remember was that I wasn't aware of a lot of things that today's comic fans are so attentive toward. I didn't know there was such a thing as a "collector's market", and I also didn't know which writer and artist did what because I really couldn't tell their works apart from each other, I just liked the comics. If I managed to lose some of my books or they accidentally get thrown away(admit it, this sort of thing happened to you too), it didn't matter to me. I could get the next bunch of books the next time I go to Zayres or someplace.
Maybe it was a good thing I had this Zen attitude toward comics, because a lot of the comics I've read growing up seem to have been done by Ident-A-Kit. We got stock characters, stock situations, and stock fight scenes slapped together for the purpose of getting the books out there on schedule. It wasn't until later that I found out that there was actually some good books out there, just that we never had the chance to see them. It's because the publishers wouldn't give these books a chance, cancelling them because of "low sales" due to a new math that only they could understand. We also had some great artists working out there also, but because of the scutiny placed upon them by these same publishers, they took their tools and moved on. That's all well and good, but what about the books we got now? What's it going to take to make us readers see comics as something real special instead of disposable entertainment?
For me, I think it happened sometime around 1978, and the comic was THE UNCANNY X-MEN No. 111. When I looked through the book, the first thing I noticed was John Byrne's art because it didn't look like anything I've seen before in any comic. Another thing that impressed me was the characters, who also weren't like anyone that I've seen before in any comic(the best characters to me were Wolverine, of course, and Storm, probably because of her exotic look). I couldn't put the book down, and my impression was, "Why couldn't all the comics I've read be more like this." Because of that, I was looking for either more issues of UNCANNY X-MEN and/or more books with Byrne's art. It also made me more savvy about comics, especially in regards to what I'm looking for.
I told you at the beginning that it has to be real important that I could still remember it.
But it wasn't just me, I figured a lot of my fellow readers were seeing signs that things were looking up. Maybe it was the X-Men and John Byrne. Maybe it was STAR WARS(according to Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs' book, THE COMIC BOOK HEROES) and the SUPERMAN movie. Maybe it was the Legion of Doom being part of the SUPERFRIENDS TV show. We all knew it wasn't the CAPTAIN AMERICA TV movies, that's for certain. But there was something happening, we all just didn't know where, when, and how it's going to happen. More likely, the answer would be found in the 1980's.
To sum up the comics of the 1970's, all I could say is that by the end of the decade, it gave us something to look forward to.
THE HOUSE OF BAD IDEAS
Dear Sir or Madam:
It is too bad that in your “Bad Ideas” article in CBG # 1599 you couldn’t have waited another month, to allow you to include the “Sins Past” storyline which culminates in the worse plot twist in the history of comics. Notice I said comics, not Marvel, not the Silver, Gold, Platinum, etc. Ages. No, the worst editorial decision in the history of comics Period.
Now, let me say that I know that comics are imaginary stories, and I am not a person who is caught up on continuity for continuity’s sake. As comics fans, we have seen Superman return from the dead; the same with Jean Grey. We have to suspend reality in order to read stories of flying people, web swinging heroes, grim avengers, and all the rest.
However, as in any other storytelling medium, we read comics because of the characters. Marvel Comics’ greatest strength is in the characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and all of the tremendously talented people who have come behind them. Why else would many fans continue to read X-Men comics, with the most convoluted, impossible to follow, and almost ludicrous storylines in all of comics? (And no, the movies are not the reason.) It is because of the strong characters and the fact that, over the years, the characters have become like old friends: we care about what happens to them; we have been through their lives together.
And if there is one character in all of the Marvel Universe that comics fans identify with, it is Peter Parker, also known as Spider-Man. As the comics demographic skews older (over 30, particularly over 35 years of age), it is more likely that we long time fans either have read the seminal comics in the history of the character, and probably own many of them. Such is the case with Amazing Spider-Man #121-122. In it, the Green Goblin, who knows Spider-Man’s identity, kidnaps Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy and in the resultant melee, Ms. Stacy is thrown from the George Washington Bridge . In all of comics to that time or since, there hasn’t been a more poignant death, because it was solely due to the hero’s actions in doing good. In many ways, Gwen Stacy’s death was as important to the shaping of the character as Peter’s Uncle Ben’s death in Amazing Fantasy #15.
And there was no more important issue than ASM #122 when Peter, looking to exact revenge from the Goblin, can’t bring himself to kill his arch enemy, but, when Norman Osborn (as the Goblin) tries to impale our hero on his wing glider, Spider-Man jumps out of the way. The glider impales (and for many years, kills) the Goblin. But Peter Parker does not feel better for his foe to have died, just the emptiness of the loss of his true love and the senseless death of a brilliant man gone mad.
Over the intervening years, we have seen both Gwen and Peter cloned, killed, and brought back again. Norman Osborn, as so many villains in the comics pages, miraculously “got better.” Jean Grey returned from death; so did Superman at the rival company. As Marvel Editor emeritus Stan Lee himself said, unless there is a bullet through the head anyone could come back. And we as comics fans accept the return. Sometimes it works with skillful writing and imaginative storytelling. All too often, it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t leave us with a sense of outrage. That is until the “Sins Past Storyline, especially issue Amazing Spider-Man #514.
In this storyline, a pair of super powered twins have attacked Spider-Man and have come very close to killing him. Spider-Man wants to know who these people are, why they seem to have a murderous grudge against him, and how can he stop them? These are all good questions, and ones that are typical to super hero comics. Eventually the pair is unmasked and the female of the pair looks remarkably like (guess who?) Gwen Stacy!
For us who lived through the 1960s and early 1970s, we remember the sexual revolution, free love and all the rest, even if we were too nerdy to partake of the newfound freedom. Still, our comic book characters were still chaste. We knew that Gwen and Peter were dating, and probably made out. Maybe they even came close to having sex, but it was something that we just didn’t think about. Maybe it was a simpler day.
Anyway, Peter was concerned as to where these kids come from, and in #514 we find out that these couldn’t have been Peter’s kids since he and Gwen never consummated their love. But in the issue, we find out that these really were Gwen’s kids, that she had a one-night stand with, who else, Norman Osborn. Now, I would doubt that a young woman with a steady boyfriend that she “loves” would have sex with someone else. One would think that a young woman would want to have her first sexual experience with her boyfriend. But not in the revisionist history that is portrayed as a storyline in Amazing Spider-Man these days. No, Gwen had sex with a man who not only was old enough to be her father, but was the father of one of her friends, Harry Osborn. And Peter’s wife and long-term friend Mary Jane knew about it all this time (30 years in our reality, 6-7 years in “comic time”). Knowing that Peter’s first love was and always would be Gwen, a woman who might have a hard time dealing with this, might want to tell the story to keep her husband from pining too much for his lost dead love.
So, this revisionism changes the character of one of comics’ most beloved characters, and also eliminates the pathos of the event all those years ago. Instead of being a seminal event in Peter Parker’s life as Spider-Man, the Green Goblin’s murder of Gwen Stacy is a much more mundane, if cheap and tawdry lover’s quarrel. Yes, it would fit in continuity: Gwen did leave New York for Europe after her father died, to sort out her feeling after her beloved father died. So, she could have left to have her children. But the reason for the sexual liaison is flimsy as toilet paper: that Norman Osborn was “powerful” and a “forceful personality” as a reason for her sexual tryst is out of character for Gwen.
And now, what do they do? One of the major reasons that Peter Parker continues to be Spider-Man is the tragedies in his life that he tries to keep from happening to other people. With one of those tragedies now a cheapened event, what reasoning does Peter Parker have for putting on the costume again? Maybe he should go and kill Osborn for the final time, get caught, go to prison and someday get out. Maybe he should become a super villain like DC did to Hal Jordan before finally coming to its senses. Maybe Parker should get mad and divorce Mary Jane and move to Indianapolis and leave super heroics to others. One of the smartest things that DC did after the Crisis on Infinite Earths was to eliminate Joe Chill, the murderer of Batman’s parents. In the earlier continuity, once Batman avenged his parents’ deaths, there really is little motivation left to continue putting on the bat suit. But by making the murder unsolved, the motivation for Batman remains the same.
Once again, these are imaginary stories and wrongs and missteps in history and continuity can be corrected. Gwen and Peter and Mary Jane and Norman are two-dimensional characters of ink and paper. They have as much reality as Luke Skywalker, or Vito Corleone or even Hamlet or Macbeth. But in the hands of great writers (and in the comics medium, illustrators) these bits of average tree pulp turned into paper, become three-dimensional: they breathe; walk; talk. They resonate with readers and in this way; they live, as vibrantly as we do. So, we shouldn’t care what happens to them, but that is why we keep reading month after month. This is why so many of older comic readers like myself feel dirty after reading the current storyline. I myself felt like I needed a long bath to wash the cheapness and tawdriness off. If this had been a “what if” story, or a graphic novel outside of the normal continuity, who cares, but to besmirch the good name of a comic character for shock effect alone strains the relationship of comics creators and the readers which read them. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that it’s all right. Making Bucky Barnes into a heroin junkie during World War II can be done, but to what purpose? We could turn Aunt May into a former hooker and madam. That would solve the character’s chronic money problems, but would it be right to the character the way she has been written for 40 years? And this is what the power that be at Marvel have done.
Make Mine Someone Else’s
THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES
To start, let me say that I love Frank Miller's work. All the way back to his first stint on Daredevil, through Ronin, Dark Knight 1, Sin City and even 300, I have loved Mr. Miller's take on superheroes, sci-fi-samurai, superheroes again, hard boiled detectives, and historical events. This is not even mentioning the material that he has written and not illustrated like the Martha Washington series or Hard Boiled or even Batman Year One. I even own a piece of Mr. Miller artwork, the page from Daredevil 168 in which Elektra's father is killed after a disguised Matt Murdock leads an attack on the terrorists that hold Elektra and her father hostage. But I am writing this letter to say something that no one else in comics is willing to say publicly: based on the first issue, Dark Knight 2 is a disappointment.
To retailers and as a shot in the arm to an industry that is seeing its first light at the end of the tunnel financially since 1994, Dark Knight 2 is everything that comics needs. A solid story with recognized characters. A sequel to one of the most influential pieces the comics medium has produced in the past 20 years. It was almost too much to hope for. Unfortunately, the execution is far lower than we could have hoped.
First of all, the whole project always appeared as a blatant grab for cash, which is always the death knell for quality. When "masters" return to comics or a particular genre after a prolonged absence, there is always the presence of desperation, especially when their latest enterprises don't rack up the kinds of sales that their previous efforts have generated. A good part of this fall off can be blamed on the decline in the overall industry, but still, it must be a bit of an ego blow to no longer have the sales of yesterday, or, for that matter, the huge paychecks that go with it. Fellow "legend" Alan Moore has not tried to compete against his previous successes, instead, just written very good comics in the America's Best line. Later Sin City episodes have not sold appreciably well in comparison with earlier episodes and while good work, 300 was often confused by the buying public, thinking that the stylized title was "ZOO."
So, suddenly Mr. Miller proclaims that he has decided to return to mainstream superhero comics, and to arguably his greatest achievement: The Dark Knight Returns. First, although Bruce Wayne still lived, Dark Knight 1 had a definite ending, much as the other great mini-series of the time period had: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Even Mr. Miller himself said that he had left Batman in a place where there was little more to say. But now, seemingly out of nowhere, he has something more to say on the life of the World Greatest Detective.
Like every fan, I was curious as to what Mr. Miller had to say, and how he would continue the story. However, the first drawings printed in Comics Buyer's Guide and elsewhere were not promising. Mr. Miller had changed the young female Robin from DK1 into "Catgirl" for no good reason (disclosed as yet). This is "creative license," but the art looked like it had been done with a Magic Marker. The line work was heavy and it looked like there had been no pencils whatsoever, just these very heavy inks. It looked like a little kid trying to draw like Frank Miller. I admit to being partial to Mr. Miller's work when Klaus Janson inked his pencils back in the Daredevil days. While Mr. Miller has done good art since then, Mr. Janson's inks were the perfect counterpoint to the gritty city stories that Miller was telling. But, the CBG material was early art, we fans still held out hope that Dark Knight 2 would be a worthy successor to the first story.
Two weeks ago, issue 1 of the new series came out, and our worst fears were realized. The sketches were not just sketches, the art was in the same style, with the Magic Marker inking. Everyone in the story was ugly, even Superman. Wonder Woman looked like she had escaped from 300. Mr. Miller certainly has the right to render the characters in his milieu in any way he wishes, but it was difficult to make out characters, like the first appearance of Lex Luthor. I thought that this was whom he was trying to render, but it took me a few panels before I was certain it was Superman's greatest nemesis. He looked like Marvel's Kingpin having the worst day of his life. A few years ago, many comic fans used to make jokes about Rob Liefield's characters with little heads and unnaturally huge torsos, shoulders and arms. In DK2, everyone seems to have huge hands, like Gorilla Grodd or Monsieur Mallah. What is he trying to say? Is it stylistic, meaningful or just lazy?
Even this could be forgiven if the storytelling was sharp. The story is interesting, but haven't we been down this road before? While it has only been three years since DK1 in story time, it seems that the politics that Mr. Miller is railing against in DK2 remains rooted in the Ronald Reagan era. Maybe the powers that be in comic time would be the same, but the real world we live in has moved on. Mr. Miller's take on George W. Bush and his aspirations to mimic the right wing fascism of "the Great Communicator" would be interesting to read. Even in the wake of 9/11, Bush is ripe for parody. The political landscape of a son who is making many of the same mistakes that his father made; that is, becoming too conservative on domestic issues, is fertile ground. A man who acts as though he had a mandate despite getting less popular votes than his opponent is ripe for satire. Meanwhile, Reagan is in California suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Not only is his politics outdated, but picking on a former President who can't remember anything in any event is low.
In an interview, Mr. Miller stated that he is trying in DK2 to not only revitalize Batman, but the entirety of the Justice League. Well, while it is obvious by the politics of DK2 that Mr. Miller has not read a newspaper in nearly 20 years, he obviously has not read a mainstream comic in the same period of time. The JLA has been revitalized, by Grant Morrison and others, and sales of the comic and the sheer number of related projects, one-shots and hardcover editions attest to that fact. "Kingdom Come" has portrayed a different, but equally interesting future of the DC Superheroes. Mr. Miller has ever right to use the characters as he sees fit, but to portray himself as a savior is self-serving if not meglomaniacal.
Don't get me wrong, there are some interesting ideas in DK2: a President with high approval rating who may be a holographic projection; the "Batboys," freeing the Atom; an aging Captain Marvel. I admit to looking forward to the final two issues of the series. I wrote this letter just because I am so surprised that no one in the comics media seems willing to be honest about the series, instead of just heaping praise on DK2 because it will be a needed commercial shot in the arm to the industry.
Finally, I just wish that Mr. Miller (and most other great creators, as well) would do projects that he is really committed to instead of picking up a paycheck. And perhaps, instead of aiming to do a magnum opus on mythic icons, he would just do a great story and let the readers, critics, and comics historians assess its greatness and impact on the medium and sing his praises if appropriate.