My love for Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe goes back almost as many years as this blog, when I first discovered scans of it and later collected many of the original nine single issues. Cartoon History won my heart with a first issue that features some of my favorite topics: the origin of spacetime, the lives of dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals and birds. From there, the series leaves behind the “universe” to tell the stories of human civilizations throughout Africa, India, China, Greece, Rome, and Europe. It’s a monumental tour de force with a great sense of humor, and it’s way more fun than most history classes.
So, this Spring, thanks to this blog’s readers, I expanded my Cartoon History collection with a few collected paperbacks. Three large paperback volumes collect issues 1–7, 8–13, and 14–19 in almost 1,000 pages of awesomeness that start with the Big Bang and end as Columbus sets sail from Spain in 1492.
On top of that, a paperback collection of nearly 400 pages offers The Cartoon History of the United States, which was originally published in two smaller volumes. Gonick adroitly strikes a balance between giving us history’s broad brushstrokes and revealing some of its complex nuances. For example, most Americans might tell you, “Lincoln freed the slaves,” but the reality was not so simple. Gonick tackles complex topics like this without ever being dry and academic about it.
He also succeeds in unraveling such complexities in a way that someone in sixth grade or junior high school could read and understand, and it’s a shame that these books are not used as textbooks in high school courses—or even college. Stylistically, this collection shows a departure from the crisp panel layouts and inking style of the “Universe” series, with Gonick abandoning his prior preferences for panel layouts in favor of a more open style and adopting a rougher inking technique that incorporates prior period-specific artwork in some of its panels. This style still works; it’s just noticeably different from what came before.
You’d think that after all that history, we might be done. But I also picked up Gonick’s collaboration with Mark Wheelis: The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. Visually, this book looks more like the volumes of United States history, and the material is more scientifically complex. It adeptly delves into not just the history of genetics pioneers such as Gregor Mendel but into the molecular structure of DNA and the inner workings of cells. I’ve read more detailed books on cells, such as the masterful The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell, but this is a book that even your average high-school student should be able to read and understand. It isn’t quite as funny as the “Universe” series, but it’s an enjoyable and informative read that will give you a strong foundation for understanding this topic.
Larry Gonick has done more books than these, but that’s where my store credit ran out! After working my way through all these volumes, I’m left with a profound admiration for his skills at using cartoons as a teaching method, for his ability to discuss complex aspects of history and science in way that renders them comprehensible without sacrificing an awareness of their subtleties, and for his use of humor to turn what could be rather dry reading into an enjoyable and memorable romp through history.
For a few months in 2013, I had a complete collection of all the individual issues of Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle series. When I sold it as a set on Ebay, I knew I would miss it. But thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this summer with this classic series in the form of a full-color, collected edition. Many other reviewers have focused on the dynamic art and the high-energy storytelling that characterize this and other “Fourth World” Kirby stories, so I’d like to discuss a few things that don’t get talked about very much.
But first, this collection is a great way to own all eighteen of the original Kirby issues. It’s complete, compact without reducing the page size, and “remastered” so that the art, ink, and colors are crisp and perfect. It includes all the original covers, which are brilliant works of art on their own, and all the back-up stories about the title character’s childhood. Kirby did amazing double-splash panels for this series that unfortunately get their centers lost in the gutter in a paperback-bound book, but I scanned some of the originals for you way back when.
If there’s one thing that bugs me about owning the series in this format, it’s that same perfection. When I collected the single issues, I settled for many low-cost VG+ and Fine gradings where the paper was severely yellowed (which affected the colors), and the covers had a worn, tattered look with folds and even bits missing around the corners and spines.
Only a complete maniac would claim that as a plus. But I enjoyed it. Having Mister Miracle in its original but degraded printings felt like I was unearthing some prehistoric fossil of primordial comic book awesomeness. In pristine form, it feels more like a current book that should be judged by current standards.
But current standards aren’t quite the right lens to look through for this book. In terms of the garish colors, modern mainstream comics now employ far more sophisticated coloring techniques in even the most run-of-the-mill titles. But in the 1970s, due to the pulp-quality paper, using super-bright primary colors made a whole lot of sense. Many online reviewers praise the bright colors of this collection, but sometimes they seem a bit too bright for the darker, more sinister aspects of life under Darkseid’s fascist reign explored in this series.
Also by current standards, Kirby’s treatment of “hip” slang, female characters, and “ethnic” characters might seem clunky and awkward to modern, younger readers. But it’s important to consider the standards of the day and realize Kirby was making a serious effort to be inclusive and progressive in the mainstream. When Mister Miracle began in 1971, it was three years before women in the United States could have credit cards in their own name without a husband co-signing for them. It was four years before the TV show The Jeffersons broke media stereotypes to portray a financially successful black family and their interracially married friends.
In the pages of the Fantastic Four, Kirby had already created Marvel’s first black superhero: the Black Panther. And from his editorial columns in his comics—including his 70s work at Marvel on Devil Dinosaur, the Eternals, and 2001—we know he was genuinely interested in scientific and social trends and in creating stories that reflected not just the current culture but its progress and potential.
For me, the standout character of Mister Miracle isn’t the lead, but Big Barda. She is lightyears apart from the Sue Storm character in the early Lee/Kirby issues of Fantastic Four, who was constantly talked down to for being female. Sue was a weakling whose biggest power was to go away, at least until John Byrne wrote the series in the 1980s and changed the Invisible “Girl” into the Invisible Woman whose power became formidable.
In contrast, Big Barda totally owns her scenes through force of character. Where Sue Storm was originally a shrinking violet to be protected by the males in her group, Barda is never less than a total bad-ass. She might have a soft spot for the title character, but she never hesitates for one second to beat some ass or carve a path of destruction through her enemies, and she has zero qualms about assuming leadership and telling other characters exactly how shit will go down on her watch.
Barda also has a somewhat evil all-woman crew of warriors — the Female Furie Battalion — with hilarious names like Bernadeth, Gilotina, Lashina, and Stompa. They deal damage in ways you can guess from their names. They’ve got sweet costumes and boss weapons, and they read less like villains and more like your favorite all-girl roller-derby team starring in a modern movie.
Barda is so awesome that I even forgive Uncle Jack for giving her a gratuitous bathtub scene. You know your writer is male when he puts a female character into a naked bathing scene for absolutely zero plot-related reasons. As a male reader who thinks Barda is the greatest thing ever and would bet money that she could even kick Conan’s naked ass, I vote that we give a pass to Kirby for this one. And a pass to me for enjoying it.
It’s that kind of tension between “great female lead” and “gratuitous female bath scene” that marks this run. Kirby was both a product of his time and way ahead of his time. Mister Miracle stands on the cusp of American history in the 1970s where society was in the midst of a massive and progressive cultural shift, one that even today we have not yet fully realized. I like the direction Kirby was trying to push that shift.
Kirby was a soldier in Europe during World War II, and his portrayal of the oppressive, fascist society on planet Apokolips might be read as a simple indictment of the Third Reich. But Kirby was no stranger to discrimination in the States, having changed his name from the Jewish “Kurtzberg” to “Kirby” to improve his chances of being accepted and making a living.
He was the son of two Austrian-Jewish immigrants in New York in a time when anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and anti-semitism abounded in America. While the Third Reich turned those ideas into a massive extermination program, the Nazis did not invent those ideas, and they had many adherents in the States. Sadly, that is still true today. When I read Kirby’s 1970s works, I sense a subtext that he saw fascism and discrimination not as merely “foreign” problems but ones that troubled many nations, including his own.
It’s easy to read Mister Miracle as a series of simple adventure stories full of gadgets and gimmicky escapes, and Kirby clearly wants us to be entertained, first and foremost. But we would do him a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge the socially progressive ideas he wrapped in that cloak of entertainment. Kirby didn’t finalize his ideas about humans and our place in the universe when he was a young man. He continued to explore new ideas and grow. He saw our knowledge of science, humanity, society, and ourselves as an ever-expanding field that had no lack of new horizons to explore.
And where there’s an unexplored horizon, there’s a kick-ass story waiting to be told.
Thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this year with one of my all-time favorite comic book runs: the first fifty issues of the Conan series by Dark Horse. These stories have been reprinted in so many formats and mini-collections that you might want to throw up your hands in despair rather than try to collect them all in chronological order. But before you give up hope, the Conan Chronicles comes to the rescue.
Despite the Marvel banner across the top, the first three volumes are high-quality reproductions of the Dark Horse series, complete with the original covers, variant covers, sketchbook pages from the artists, and the original forewords and introductions by authors and artists from the collections. There’s a fourth volume to the series, too. It continues into the next phase, when the title changed from Conan to Conan the Cimmerian after issue fifty.
These editions also include pages that reproduce the unique wrap-around covers from the various mini-collections. That’s a thoughtful bonus, even if the original cover size did get reduced to fit on one page. It would have been fun to also see the comic strips about the life of young Robert Howard that appeared on the original letters pages, but that’s a minor nitpick in a flawless and beautifully designed collection.
Also, these reprints do not include the recalled cover that showed full frontal female nudity. The only bare boobs you will see in this collection are Conan’s, since he rarely wears more than a loin cloth and a pair of moccasins while decapitating and dismembering his way through brutal, blood-soaked battles on every other page.
Conan is like the male flipside to the hyper-sexualization of women in mainstream superhero comics. He flexes and poses through the most insane adventures, nearly naked the entire time, and he’s got a totally ripped, massively muscular body it would take a regular guy 100 lifetimes of body-building, cosmetic surgery, and laser hair removal to come close to matching.
That’s part of the fun of the character. Everything about Conan is over the top and larger than life, from his physique, intellect, and attitude, to the landscapes and enemies he encounters. There’s nothing small or timid about this hero. He isn’t your average dork with tedious concerns trying to live a normal life. He starts off as an all-around bad-ass who wants to see the world and plunder her cities, and he charges headlong into trouble just because he likes a fight. Though he often succeeds or at least survives, his arrogant attitude constantly trips him up.
Throughout the stories in the first three volumes of the Conan Chronicles, he learns many lessons the hard way. By the end of those volumes, Conan has matured from a careless, hot-headed youth into the kind of man who can unite and lead a kingdom. Along the way, he kicks the most ass I’ve ever seen kicked in a single series—from demons and wizards to hordes of undead soldiers and anyone who ever messed with him in a tavern.
Although these volumes reprint the Dark Horse series, they were published by Marvel, continuing the back-and-forth publishing deals the two companies have had with Conan licensing for many years. Note: Don’t confuse this series with The Chronicles of Conan, which was Dark Horse reprinting the 1970s series by Marvel!
It’s no secret that one of my favorite pieces of fiction is Frank Miller’s Sin City series. I discovered it at the Las Vegas public library about eighteen years ago when I checked out the A Dame to Kill For TPB. It was the most awesome thing I’d ever read, with over-the-top brutality and an atmosphere that was darker than the blackest noir. It was so intense about being intense that it was funny and morbidly serious at the same time, and the first thing I did after reading it was read it again. Then I tracked down the other stories! One had dinosaurs.
For a while I had the complete series in an awesome collected edition, but those books were smaller than the full-sized TPBs, and there’s just something about this series that suits being as big as possible. The original TPB collections also appear to include more pages than were printed in the original serialized formats, such as extra splash pages for multiple perspectives of Dwight holding a dude’s head underwater in a toilet in The Big Fat Kill. The one missing ingredient in the earliest TPBs is color, the use of just one primary color as an accent to individual stories, such as the yellow highlights in the TPB for That Yellow Bastard. Still, I’m okay without the color if I get a bigger page size!
The black and white art is insanely melodramatic, as shown in a couple pages of Marv walking in the rain from the first Sin City TPB, later titled The Hard Goodbye. The text is like a hard-boiled detective novel with the volume turned up to eleven. I not only love this scene, I love that it goes on for ten whole pages — eleven in the TPB!
While writing last week’s post about Next Men, I looked into some other John Byrne works I hadn’t seen yet, including his stint on The Sensational She-Hulk. That run is best known for relentlessly breaking the fourth wall and having the characters be aware they were in a comic book. Byrne based the fiftieth issue on a gag that he had been killed, and the cast needed to find a new writer and artist. So, he showed how some of his friends in the industry would do a She-Hulk story. That’s how we got a couple pages of a Sin City She-Hulk.
This post was made possible by this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to buy comics. Recent store credit made it possible to reconnect with the Sin City TPBs that first hooked me on the series. Thank you!
DC’s New 52 is now old news, and it came and went without my paying any attention to it. But the one thing I missed that I really wanted see was Greg Capullo drawing Batman, beginning with Bat’s first New 52 adventure The Court of Owls. So, last year, with some of the store credit I earned thanks to this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to find books, I got the first paperback collection.
It’s a wild ride, and I’ve since read a digital version of the rest of the Snyder/Capullo run just to see what happened next. I plan to get the second TPB, but after that one, the series began to lose my interest. The second TPB features an amazing Mr. Freeze story, and if you’re expecting the cartoon silliness of Arnold Freezinator from the movies, you won’t find any of that. Snyder writes Freeze as a mentally and emotionally disturbed villain, playing up the sympathetic tragedy and ultimate self-delusion that drive his maniacal actions.
After that, the series goes into a Joker story that starts off well and is exquisitely drawn but eventually collapses under its own weight. It asks us to believe that everything that happens is all a part of a wildly complicated “evil genius” plot, kind of like the Saw movies or virtually any of the “serial killer” thriller films, except there’s no way anyone could plan for all the eventualities, and much of it is downright implausible. Then the series goes into a lengthy plot involving Commissioner Gordon becoming Batman, and a whole lot of “Batman’s early days”. I didn’t care for either development.
The first two story arcs for Court of Owls feature an inventive mix of crime, horror, and superheroics, and it’s a perfect blend of genres for a “world’s greatest detective” who dresses like a frickin’ bat. I can’t even describe how glorious it is to see Capullo drawing Batman in action, and the first arc does an inventive thing with page layouts when Batman is caught in a maze and hallucinating his ass off. I won’t spoil it for new readers, but I will say that I got just as turned around as Bats did at that point in the story, and I thought that was brilliant.
While Court of Owls and its follow-up arc are dramatic and gripping, it soon becomes apparent that they lack any consequence. For example, Bats is subjected to unimaginable beatings and torture, but then a few pages later, he’s totally fine. No bruises on his face. No long-term disability from being stabbed almost to death and drowned. He just sort of gets back to business. I was worried he was going to die, but then he’s okay because the plot demands it?
Plus, the Owls succeed in killing off many prominent local politicians and governmental figures, but all this does is give the rest of the Bat-family an excuse to jump into the story to protect whoever is still alive. If you killed most of the public officials in a city, there would be ramifications, but Court of Owls never deals with them. I didn’t want a series exploring the politics of Gotham—although I loved Brian K. Vaughn’s politically themed Ex Machina—but I did want some sense that what happened in the story mattered. Instead, it’s glossed over as quickly as Batman’s mortal wounds.
There are a few other details like this. The Owls figure out where the Batcave is, but after Bats defeats the cave invaders, that knowledge is never used again. That’s powerful information! They wouldn’t—I don’t know—send an email to Lex Luthor with the GPS coordinates? Or spam every person on the planet? Or announce it on Twitter? Are they serious about Bat-termination or not?!
Also, in the first issue, Bats uses an amazing facial recognition technology that is never mentioned again. It only serves as a plot device to give us information dumps about characters—apparently to get new readers on board with the cast by disguising the info dumps as Bat-science. It’s a cool trick, but it’s a tech without any lasting consequences.
Despite those flaws, Snyder gave Capullo some amazing, moody material to work with visually, and the first couple of Snyder/Capullo TPB volumes deserve a place in a “best of Batman” collection. And, if you don’t mind implausible “serial killer movie” plotting, the third volume with the Joker is also visual feast.
Once upon a time, I had the complete Next Men series, except for the Hellboy issue. Though I read the series three or four times, I’ve missed having it around ever since I sold it. This month, thanks to this blog’s readers who use my affiliate links to find books, I earned enough store credit to get all six of the 1993 trade paperback collections. Reading the series again reminds how much the series blew my mind the first time through, and as a bonus, it includes the Hellboy issue with pages drawn by Mike Mignola.
Hellboy’s appearance in issue #17 makes it the most expensive one to collect. It’s easy to collect all the other original, single issues for less than $3 each, but #17 will cost as much or more than all the other thirty issues combined. That’s not a problem with the collected paperback.
Hellboy might be part demon, but he is a far cry from the absolute evil of the series’ main villain. Sathanas is the remnants of a mutated energy vampire who kills people by draining their lifeforce, and since so much of him got blown up, he survives in a mechanical suit. Despite his silly name, he’s among my favorite John Byrne villains.
Despite the fun of the paperbacks, they have three disappointments, possibly because they were made more than a quarter-century ago before TPBs became so popular. These days, we expect the TPB to include all the original covers and, if any, all the variant covers. But the Next Men covers get treated terribly, reduced to about 1/6 of the page size and combined in a “gallery”. It’s an odd design choice, considering that there’s a useless page between each “issue” that just splits the words “Next Men” across its front and back. That would be a lovely place for a cover!
Second, the story is so intertwined with the short graphic novel 2112 that the original Next Men series isn’t complete without it. This oversight is forgivable, since the events of 2112 get summarized by one of the characters.
What’s unforgivable is the omission of the entire series of “back-up” stories, M4. These were short episodes with characters who, at first, seemed only tangentially related to the main series. But the stories intersected eventually, and the M4 characters were essential to the finale and resolution. Leaving out the M4 pages makes these characters appear to pop out of nowhere in the main storyline, which makes for utterly confusing plot developments for unfamiliar readers. Plus, M4 had its own covers, featured on the back of the single issues where it ran, and the TPBs have none of them.
For the completists: When IDW reprinted the series in color in 2009, they included M4 but not 2112. IDW’s 2011 reprint series (“Classic Next Men”, in three TPBs) includes both M4 and 2112, and it’s also in full color. I’ve only ever seen it in stock on Amazon for around $40 per volume in paperback, but you can get them for $10.99 each for Kindle and Comixology, and as a set with the sequel for a total of $43.
Even with these omissions, I loved re-reading this imaginative and intricately plotted series that features some of Byrne’s most humanized and fully realized characters. Consider what he does with three wordless pages to show Jasmine’s emotional state as she flees from an attack in underground tunnels. Her old, perfect life was taken from her, and she’s not adjusting well to reality, where trauma awaits her at every turn. Without a single line of expositional captions or thought balloons, Byrne portrays her fragile condition in these pages.
One of my favorite Avengers stories features the time-traveling psychopath known as Kang The Conqueror. He sports a ridiculous outfit that only John Buscema and Tom Palmer could make cool.
What kind of evil plan can a person hatch in striped purple thigh-high boots? Stripping to pay his way through college? But don’t judge Kang by his fashion sense, because he rocks hard in this minor masterpiece.
I was 13 when this issue appeared on the comic book rack at the Walgreens on Manchester Road in Ballwin, Missouri. The opening sequence blew my mind, and I still get a thrill reading it years later. The complete three-issue story is one of the few mid-80s superhero yarns that still holds up for me as an adult reader, and though I no longer have the complete Stern/Buscema run, I’ve read it a bunch of times. These days, I just reserve a little space for my absolutely favorite Avengers stories, including this one.
It begins the day Colossus joins the Avengers, and opens with Storm descending from the sky like the weather goddess she is. Goddess and, as we discover, an Avenger.
I love the mood and tone of Stern’s captions on that page and generally for the entire run. Despite some typical comic-book clunkers such as expositional thought balloons, his prose always made me feel like I was reading a book for adults, not children. But back to our story.
The President of the USA escorts Colossus onto the scene to induct him into the Avengers and become an American citizen.
What’s that? You don’t remember Storm and Colossus being Avengers in the 1980s? Pay attention!
Iron Man flies onto the scene to give a gift to the POTUS on this momentous occasion. And gosh, isn’t Tony Stark such a great guy?
Just tug a little harder, sir! But suddenly…
Wait, what? The whole team just got nuked into oblivion? Is the series cancelled? What do you do after THAT?!
If you’re a super-villain, you gloat.
The nuke was just a warm-up. Now, it really starts to hit the fan. It turns out that Kang’s time-traveling adventures are creating all kinds of alternate timelines, and each has its own Kang. A mysterious council has summoned our nuke-loving Kang to their secret chamber in a limbo outside of time. When Kang questions the council’s authority to tell him what a massive screw-up he is for getting his entire planet destroyed, they reveal themselves to be a trio of alternate Kangs!
They kill him then adjourn and vanish. But one Kang comes back to snoop around the building, and who does he run into? One of the other Kangs! John Buscema gives the Jack Kirby treatment to the wonders inside the secret chambers inside the secret chamber, and Kang gives Kang a tour of his time-monitoring operations.
In fewer than ten pages, Stern gave the Avengers new members, nuked an entire planet, discovered alternate realities, hatched a nefarious plot of betrayal and murder spanning centuries and multiple universes, and plumbed the depths of grief, greed, and evil in the human soul. And the real Avengers, the stars of the series, haven’t even appeared yet!
The heroes show up soon enough, and the adventure is a solid one with plenty of twists and turns and mysteries to solve. Despite his goofy outfit, Kang is a strong villain with a plan he seems entirely capable of pulling off, and he steals the show in a way usually reserved for Dr. Doom. Fitting, I suppose, since Kang originally came from the future using Doom’s time-machine and, after becoming an Egyptian Pharaoh in the past, patterned himself after Doom. As far as alternate timeline stories go, I’d rather re-read this classic than re-watch Avengers Endgame any day.
Collector’s Guide: The full story appears in issues 267, 268, and 269 of the original Avengers series, and they cost about $3 to $6 each, depending on their grade.
A big “thank you” to this blog’s readers for making it possible to get these issues as part of my ongoing big box of free comics series.
This week’s pick from the indie short box of comics is the complete four-volume collection Queen & Country: The Definitive Edition. It’s also an entry in the big box of free comics series, because I wouldn’t have this collection if not for this blog’s readers. This espionage thriller featuring a British female spy comes from the mind of crime novelist Greg Rucka and an art team that changes with every major arc, giving each episode a unique look and feel.
The four volumes total nearly 1500 pages, which includes the entire single-issue series and three supplementary Declassified series, plus a slew of extras such as interviews, scripts, and sketchbooks. I loved it, with a few reservations, and it was maybe the third time I read the series.
Years ago, I sold a complete collection, and you can see photos of the interior art and full-color covers in my old post about the collection. I had discovered a few scattered issues in a used bookstore and gradually pieced together the set before selling it. With the Definitive Edition, it was great to read it all again in chronological order.
Still, you will find a few a gaps in chronology. Queen & Country is also a series of prose novels, and the comic-book adaptations sometimes skip a novel. “These events take place after the events in [novel]” comes up at least once. But, you get enough context from each story to follow along anyway, and a helpful flashback or two fills in the important gaps.
With the Definitive Edition, you won’t get the full-color covers, though the black-and-white versions are high quality. The page size is slightly smaller than a typical comic book, which occasionally makes the lettering a little hard to read. It was not as bad as the Tintin collection, which practically required a magnifying glass. I only struggled in a couple of stories, such as the first one where Tara’s thoughts appear in a cursive script that didn’t fare well from being shrunk.
The black-and-white art of the original series still looks incredible at this size, though some of the edges of panels disappear in the gutter — unless you want to test the limits of how far you can force the book’s spine open. A wider blank space in the gutter would have been a good thing. But, each of the four volumes is a sturdy paperback with a solid binding and high-quality paper.
Overall, it’s an awesome way to enjoy the complete series, and way easier and more cost-effective than trying to hunt down all the single issues one-by-one.
The art and writing are top-notch, with a compelling lead character who does some bad-ass spy stuff but has way more interesting internal and emotional conflicts than, say, James Bond. Tara Chace has depth, and she changes over the course of the series, and her world is turned upside down more than once. She has a strong supporting cast, and several merit standalone stories as leads in their own right.
Toward the end of the series, reading it one weekend as I did, I noticed there were an awful lot of scenes of people talking in offices, and pages of people having discussions that made a point but didn’t really advance the adventure. These were interesting for a while in the beginning, but by the end I was way more more invested in what Tara was doing than what some guys in offices were droning on about, and I skipped a few scenes.
You’ll probably feel the same way about the leading lady, and your mind might be blown at the cliffhanger ending of the series, and you might even want to pick up some of the novels afterward!
The big box of comics series is a tribute to the fun things I wouldn’t have in my life without the readers of this blog who help me earn store credit at MyComicShop.com or Amazon.com every time they use my handy “Collector’s Guides” links to make a purchase.
It’s a symbiotic relationship — much like when an alien
symbiote bonds to your nervous system and drinks your adrenaline for survival.
This month, thanks to readers’ generosity, I put together a run of inexpensive reprints of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #2–5, courtesy of IDW’s “Color Classics” versions of early TMNT. A few months ago, readers helped me reunite with the ridiculous majesty of TMNT #6, and I couldn’t go on without reading the preceding issues at least one more time!
Was it fun? Oh, hell yes. But maybe not as great as I remember from my black and white collections or the original colorized graphic novels from First. IDW’s coloring is part of that, since they put dark colors over the original Zip-a-Tone midtones, and obscuring the mid-range tends to flatten the artwork and make it less dynamic. Also, one of the pages in one issue seems to be a misprint that duplicates a page from earlier in the story.
But in terms of being an affordable way to read the Turtles’ earliest adventures, these reprints did the job admirably. Because #6 is one of my all-time favorite comics, I enjoyed reliving the outrageous plot that led up to it, and seeing how the storytelling evolved and improved in the early days. As a bonus, I got a few issues from the second volume of Color Classics, including a solo Michelangelo adventure in a kind of Lone Wolf & Cub fantasy of feudal Japan mixed with mystic lizard demons from hell. That issue includes one of my favorite Turtles pages:
Also from the second volume, a color version of an issue of the Return to New York story that’s a favorite of mine.
Along with the batch of ninja nostalgia, I picked up some bargain-priced Fine copies of Paul Chadwick’s The World Below. It’s no secret I love Chadwick’s Concrete series. World Below and its sequel, the four-issue Deeper and Stranger, don’t have the same depth of storytelling and lush rendering as Concrete, but they are a fun romp through Chadwick’s science-fiction imagination.
I like the sequel better than the first series. The sequel uses black and white art with no color, which is almost always how I prefer to see Chadwick’s art. And, the first series suffered from too many flashbacks trying to make me care about characters I never properly met, since the story started right in the middle of the action. Each time a character faced a crisis I wasn’t invested in, the character flashed back to a similar situation in their early life to beat me over the head with how huge an emotional deal it all was. That didn’t work for me.
Also, I could have lived without seeing the characters say, “eff this” and “eff you, you effing effer” instead of using the actual profanity. Those pages in World Below #3 were physically painful to read, and even old-school characters like F@%$ would have been preferable.
It seems to me that if your dialogue depends on using the word “fuck”, then you should probably just say “fuck”.
The narrative problems (mostly) smooth out in the sequel, which has my favorite issue of the series and an unexpected ending that blew my mind. Deeper and Stranger fulfills the promise of the first World Below and the tagline on those covers: the deeper you go, the stranger it gets!
Finally, this month’s box of comics included a favorite from my Avengers collection that I sold off a few years ago. Recently, someone commented on my old post about the Stern/Buscema/Palmer run on Avengers in the 1980s. It reminded me that while I basically memorized those issues after reading them so many times, Avengers #266 featuring the Silver Surfer really needed to come back to my modest “Avengers favorites” collection.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: the issue is a post-script to one of the most god-awful, tragic dumpster fires Marvel produced in the 1980s: Secret Wars II. Don’t even get me started.
But this issue focuses on two powerful beings—one a
respected hero, and one a reviled villain—who need to work together to heal a
cataclysmic wound in the Earth before the planet falls apart and kills
everyone. All in 32 ad-free pages, in which the fate of the world might depend
on one total nerd’s desire to watch sitcom re-runs with his girlfriend instead
of letting the disaster take its fatal course. It’s so insane!
This issue has many examples of Stern’s dialogue that endeared me to his Avengers. Namor and Hercules bust each other’s balls like only gods can do, but below their arguing I sense a mutual respect born of the knowledge that they are both beings of power, and maybe they need each other to call each other out sometimes to help keep their rages in check.
She-Hulk isn’t turned off at all by Hercules’ temper
tantrums; she flatters him and straight-up asks him to dinner, which is almost
as awesome as that time she hooked up with Juggernaut. Jennifer’s a being of
great power, too, and she seems perfectly comfortable and relaxed about it.
Hercules’ thoughts on nobility and heroism after the villain
supposedly “loses his powers” while saving the Earth — also a lovely piece of
But my favorite part is the final scene where the villain reveals he never lost his powers at all, and that the hero was complicit in this deception.
The Silver Surfer’s comment on courage and vulnerability
really sums up what I love about this Avengers run. Sure, it’s all fun and
games in spandex with lots of punching and the fate of the universe at stake,
and there’s no shortage of expositional thought balloons. But every now and
then, Stern’s humanistic and thoughtful depictions of his characters meld with
John Buscema’s and Tom Palmer’s artwork to create high points of visual
You know what? I might need to reclaim a few more of my favorite story arcs from this run — especially the Kang saga and the assault on Avengers Mansion.
That’s it for September’s big box of free comics, and I am excited to tell you about the October box that is on its way!
Just when I’d wrapped up a series of posts about the big box of free comics I got thanks to readers who used my affiliate links to find books at MyComicShop.com, another note from the retailer arrived to say I’d earned an additional $80 in store credit. That same week, I’d found a good deal on eBay to replace one of my favorite (and previously sold) action/crime series, DC/Vertigo’s The Losers, so I was left with very few holes in my collection. The Dark Horse Conan stories I’d like to read again were either too pricey or currently out of stock, so I dug around in my short boxes until it hit me: I still don’t have the complete original Miracleman series!
Over the years, I’d tracked down affordable copies in respectable condition of issues #1–20, and this quest was aided near the end by Marvel’s reprints of the original series. As Marvel made new, high-quality reprints available, the ridiculous prices for the original books decreased. Issue #15, one of the last gems to enter my collection, used to run from $150 up to several hundred bucks, for example. Now I have a copy in wonderful, though not perfect, condition, and it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.
I didn’t worry too much about collecting issues #21–24 because Marvel reprinted #21 and 22 in their repackaging of Neil Gaiman’s Golden Age storyline, and it seemed that Gaiman was slated to finish the Silver Age story that ended with a cliffhanger and was never completed due to Eclipse Comics’ demise. But here we are, years later, and we still haven’t seen the end of that story. I’m glad for Gaiman’s recent success with American Gods, but it isn’t a project that interests me. The gods I want to read about have “Miracle” in their names!
So, armed with some store credit, I picked up issues #21-23 of the original series, leaving me with only the rare (and still a bit pricey) #24 on my wish list. I’ve read them all before, thanks to scans posted online, but it’s just a different and more satisfying experience to read the physical copies. (You can find scans of the original series at https://readcomiconline.to/Comic/Miracleman-1985)
Those three books ate up most of my store credit, but I had just enough left over to pick up another story I’ve read before but was partially incomplete in my collection: The Price by Jim Starlin. Sure, I have the color “remastered” version that was the Dreadstar Annual, but I have never seen nor owned the original magazine-sized black-and-white edition, and I just love the black-and-white painted art of the original Metamorphosis Odyssey that appeared in Epic Illustrated and started the whole Dreadstar saga.
The original art reveals just how much the coloring/painting process enhanced the artwork’s mood and the story’s vibrancy. The original feels cold compared to the color version. It lacks the brilliant reds of the robes worn by members of the Church of the Instrumentality, the eye-popping colors that bring various cosmic and mystical energies to life on the page, and the powerful emotions suggested by the reprint’s color artwork.
However, the front and back-cover paintings are rendered in their original full-color and full-size glory, unlike in the reprint where they are shrunk and surrounded by additional cover elements that distract from their beauty—a complaint that at least one reader expressed in the original letters column of Dreadstar when the Annual was discussed.
I’m pleased to now have both versions of The Price in my Dreadstar collection, and the original was the one piece I’ve felt was missing over the years. How I assembled, lost, and re-assembled the entire original series fourtimes is a saga of collector triumph and tragedy, but I’m happy to now have every issue I ever wanted from one of my all-time favorite stories in any medium.
Now if we could just see the end of Miracleman, all would be right with the universe.
Thank you, readers and fans of sequential art for visiting this site and using it to find the books you want!
What can I say about Planetary that hasn’t already been said in the 20 years since its first issue? From the series’ chronic delays of up to years between issues, to the Eisner-award-winning artwork, Planetary has been documented about as thoroughly as the weird events in Elijah Snow’s annual “Planetary Guides”.
The 864-page hardcover Omnibus edition looks like one of those Guides when you remove the slipcover, and that’s just one example of the high-quality design that was a hallmark of the series. People might have waited months or years for the original issues, but when each one finally came out, it looked damn good. So does the Omnibus.
Reading the Omnibus cover-to-cover puts Planetary in a fresh light. I gained a greater sense of the series’ continuity and complexity since I could read each chapter with the previous one still fresh in my mind. I got an even stronger impression of the amazing work by colorist Laura Martin (with assistance from Wildstorm FX). Although writer Warren Ellis and artist John Cassaday usually get the credit for the series, Martin’s contribution is integral to its visual splendor and the emotional effect of every page and panel. Maybe Planetary could have been good without Martin, but I doubt it would have been legendary.
The Omnibus also dissipates the major annoyance I had when I was originally piecing the series together from single issues; namely, a feeling that every installment consisted only of the three main characters visiting a random location where they met a random person who delivered lengthy exposition about a scenario based on pulp fiction or vintage superheroes, and that this exposition filled most of the pages before reaching a vague and hasty conclusion tacked on as an afterthought to the “cool concept” of the issue.
While several chapters do this, they are not as numerous as I remember, and they mostly take place in the beginning of the series. Reading the Omnibus makes it clear how the individual chapters fit into the big picture; it was just difficult to sort all that out with a series that took ten years to publish 27 issues, and because it was challenging to find affordable copies in complete chronological order if you came to the series late like I did.
Though I’ve thought highly of Planetary since the day I discovered a beat-up copy of #5 at a used bookstore, the Omnibus made me enjoy and appreciate it even more.
The Return to New York story in the original TMNT series #19–21 is even better than I remember. I think I was in turtle overload when I read it years ago, and I’d forgotten much of it. Visually, it’s one of the greatest TMNT stories of all time, with stunningly detailed artwork, creative layouts, extensively choreographed fight scenes, and incredible double-splash pages.
The black & white artwork creatively uses both black and white ink in addition to detailed screentone shading (sometimes called by the brand name Zip-A-Tone). The result is some of my favorite artwork in any TMNT story, and it’s a joy to watch the Turtles hack and slash their way through sewers full of enemies while their new Triceraton friend destroys everything in sight with his blaster.
But I was in for a shock when I read issue #6. It wasn’t just the wraparound cover that’s even more awesome than I remember. It wasn’t just the visual splendor of Turtles and Triceratons in combat. No, the shock was the discovery of just how many ideas I apparently stole from this single issue for my fiction series, The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
Issue #6 has asteroids, dinosaur-type aliens in a combat ring fighting to the death, a ruling body referred to only as the High Council, silly satire, aliens who dislike mammals (“Shut your face, you puny piece of mammal droppings!”), heroes who insult the dino-aliens (“Where I come from, bozos like you know their place—in museums, displayed as skeletons of long-dead ancient freaks!”), fight scenes that last for several pages with scant dialogue, and a shoot-out while attempting to board a spaceship. Somehow, this mid-1980s masterpiece burrowed so deeply into my brain that I was unconsciously drawing on it for inspiration decades later.
I wasn’t planning on picking up the original ten issues of the series, but after reading #6, I want to read the whole storyline again!
I really wanted to like this story, which is split across the fifth and sixth Conan Omnibuses. I hoped the negative reviews were simply cynical. But I couldn’t even read the whole thing. In the interest of expanding Robert E. Howard’s original tale, this version adds characters I didn’t need, adventures I didn’t care about, and questionable depictions of Conan and his pirate queen. Least believable is how Conan allows himself to be beaten, chained, and imprisoned in a ludicrous subterfuge to plunder a town. This goes against everything we know about Conan’s forceful character. Cloonan, whose artwork I usually love, chose to portray Conan with a slimmer, more realistic anatomy—something more like Steve Rude’s Nexus than your typical comic-book he-man—but that doesn’t fit Conan either. Conan is larger than life, and if there was ever a character who should appear large, intimidating, and insanely muscular, it’s Conan.
Just as troubling was the treatment of Bêlit. She has a crew of strong, skilled sailors who worship her like a goddess, but she lacks the fighting ability we would expect from a battle-hardened pirate. Instead, she gained leadership of the crew by leading them on a somewhat cunning mission in which her main contribution was planning. While I like the idea of Bêlit using her brains and not just her brawn, this approach gives us zero reason to believe her pirate crew would revere her so devoutly. She appears to have a hypnotic sexuality, but it takes more than being sexy to command a pirate crew. She comes across as a horny waif, not a total bad-ass, and that does her a disservice.
The visual depiction of her is even more troubling than that of Conan. Bêlit looks like a raving psycho with madness in her eyes, a slender goth sexpot on the verge of a breakdown instead of a conquering queen of the seas. Though she’s drawn with a nice enough figure, her face could only inspire fear, not love. What exactly does Conan see in her? To make matters worse, the colorists usually make her skin a stark white. She isn’t simply “pale” with “milky skin” as described in the text. She’s been painted bright white like she’s auditioning for Marilyn Manson or the Misfits. (Oddly, her skin is given a normal flesh tone in some scenes or issues, and this just makes the pasty white look seem even more out of place.) The color of Bêlit’s skin is one thing this adaptation should have changed from the original text, because it never made sense to have a sailor with milky white skin. Unless she was a sailor in Arctic seas, she would have been quite tan from exposure to the sun on the deck of her ship. Instead, she is someone’s goth-rock fantasy girl, and Conan is her long-haired boyfriend who listens to Joy Division, and it’s doubtful these two could command a ship, much less conquer many of them.
The story expansion also screws up the final, poignant scene from the original story. Bêlit’s fiery burial at sea is spliced in chunks with an unnecessary scene from after the funeral, where Conan is talking to someone in a tavern, someone who can see what an emotional wreck Conan is. If this scene was entirely cut from the story so we could simply witness the burial, we would know Conan was wrecked because we would be wrecked with him. Instead, we keep getting pulled out of the moment to visit the uninteresting tavern.
That’s just a few of the problems in this adaptation, and despite my enthusiasm about female pirates in general and the original Queen of the Black Coast specifically, I cannot recommend it.
Concrete is just as good as I remember, except for the Fragile Creature series in which Chadwick experimented with a Moebius-influenced line story that is less beautiful than his other artwork on the series and lacks the physical weight suggested by a heavy character like Concrete. Plus, I found the story boring compared to the 10-issue series and the six-issue Think Like a Mountain.
Mountain features one of my favorite scenes: Concrete walks underwater along the Pacific Northwest coast. He encounters a shark swarm, a hidden octopus, and a horrific “ghost net”: a fishing net lost at sea that traps fish, birds, seals, and other animals in its inescapable tangle until they die.
Like Mountain and the story about building a sustainable farm, the six issues of The Human Dilemma focus on Chadwick’s ecological concerns, which he discusses in more detail in supplementary articles and responses to readers’ letters. Chadwick does a remarkable job of giving his characters opposing viewpoints to argue and question, so that even if some characters are preachy, it doesn’t feel like the storyteller is preaching.
Instead, the stories reveal the complexity of taking action or even reaching a solid conclusion about environmental concerns (and everything else in life). Characters reach a decision then find reasons to doubt they made the right choice. They change their minds. Characters make bad decisions and suffer the consequences, or even suffer for their more noble actions. Besides telling a damn good story, Concrete invites readers to question, ponder, and re-evaluate.
Chadwick’s art is a delight. Although I liked the full-color art in Mountain, Concrete shines brightest in black & white printings that show off the compositional beauty of every page. Chadwick uses creative points of view in many panels, such as in Dilemma when we see a character through a wine bottle that distorts his image, which is perfect for a scene in which the character’s emotions are out of control and leading him to make a poor decision.
The first six issues of the original series were collected, in pairs, in three slim paperback volumes. The first two paperbacks are worth getting for the additional pages of story Chadwick had room to include in those editions, pages which are not simply “deleted scenes” but enhance the story. I got all three paperbacks and the original single issues because the reprints do not include the original back covers I am so fond of.
I was surprised to find the final two issues of Dilemma were not in the big box. But this is a mistake that turned out well. When I went to MyComicShop.com to order them, I found my missing ninth issue of the original series had become available. Yes! Into the shopping cart! (I even had just enough store credit remaining to pay for them and their shipping. Bonus!) I did not replace some issues of odds and ends, nor the Killer Smile limited series I don’t recall being thrilled with; but aside from the hard-to-find second volume of collected short stories, I’m happy to once again have a Concrete collection that includes the best of the best.
In the first five months of 2019, Mars Will Send No More earned just over $200 in store credit thanks to readers who followed links to find and buy comics at MyComicShop.com. That store credit means a big bonus box of comics for me this month, and it does more than justify the endless hours I spent finding various issues and series in the store so readers can get right to what they want with a single click. It means hours of happily reading old favorites and exploring new books! So, let’s open the big box of virtually free comics and see what awesomeness awaits!
Note: Although this post celebrates the results of affiliate links, every hyperlink below leads to a previous post here on MWSNM where the books are discussed in more detail.
First up: Armadillo #2 by Jim Franklin. This off-beat 1970s underground publication by Rip Off Press cost 50 cents when it came out, and I sold my copy in VF+ condition for $50. The book is on my list of 20 All-Time Favorite Comics, and I have sorely missed it. This time around, I got a VG+ copy that was selling for about $9, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that other than some creases along the spine and a few dings on the back cover, the book is in outstanding shape. For some surrealist art featuring armadillos, see my post with images from the interior.
Next up: Wolverine #75 and Wolverine #100. Both of these feature Wolverine holograms, and #100 has Wolverine switching back and forth between his costume and his skeleton. Yes! I don’t even care much for the interiors of these books, but of all the books I sold with holograms in 2013, these are the two I regret not having on hand. I’ve posted about both these books and scanned the hologram covers, so see my posts about Wolverine #100 and about the Fatal Attractions event that features a slew of holographic X-Men covers.
Next, something I’ve wanted for a long time: replacement issues for the complete Concrete collection I used to have! I didn’t covet every issue, just the ones I loved most. Last year, thanks to another dose of store credit, I started to put the series back together. I am still missing #9 of the first 10-issue series, and Volume 2 of the Complete Short Stories, but I am looking forward to re-reading the six-issue series Think Like a Mountain, and The Human Dilemma, plus the gorgeous covers and interior art from the original series. You can view the glorious back covers and more in my post about Concrete.
The fun doesn’t end there. I have never stopped missing my complete collection of Planetary, so this time around I got the Planetary Omnibus. It’s a giant beast, with more than 850 pages, and beautifully done. Even though I know the whole story, the artwork in Planetary is just incredible to look at. This is the one I am most looking forward to devouring, and you can take a look at my posts about Planetary to see what madness and mayhem fill its pages.
Speaking of mayhem: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Once upon a time, I had a lovely reprint collection consisting of the four full-color Mirage “Graphic Novel” editions, plus 3 or 4 of the black & white “Collected Book TPB” editions, and about a dozen other single issues of the original Mirage series by creators I liked. They were fun to read and fun to own, but I was only sad about selling a few of my favorites. This time around, I got the three Michael Zulli issues that are super weird and dark, the three issues of the Return to New York story that feature a Triceraton from the earliest stories, and issue #6 of the original series, which features a fun drawing of Turtle vs. Triceraton on the cover. There are still a few Turtle goodies on my wish list, such as issue #10, but this batch will keep me in Turtle heaven for a good long while.
Completing this massive stack of comic books are the two books that collect the entire Queen of the Black Coast story as told a few years ago by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan in Dark Horse’s ongoing Conan series. I used to have a complete set of the first 51 issues of that series, plus the reprints with Frank Frazetta covers, and I considered trying to replace all of them because of how awesome they were. But I was in the mood for something new, and despite the mixed reviews I’ve read about this version of the Conan classic, Queen of the Black Coast is hands-down my favorite story from the original Robert E. Howard publications. Considering my obsession with female pirates, that should come as no surprise.
I’ll let you know what I think of the Conan story. Until then, thank you for dropping by to plunder my comic book archives, and for your generous use of my affiliate links to find books you want to buy.