Frank Miller once said that retro is “nostalgia with a nose-ring”—and the clear implication is that nostalgia is ultimately a bad thing, something to be avoided. Which might carry a bit more weight had it not come from the mouth of someone who went on to do a sequel to Dark Knight Returns—and even if you grant that Frank was attempting to do something new and different in DK2, the plain fact of the matter is that any attachment he feels for the character of Batman is ultimately nostalgia-driven as much as anything else.
Nostalgia has become the one of the prime movers in the comic book industry, particularly as the median age of the existing audience drift ever higher—and to a degree it has always been so. This medium, these characters, these stories exert a tremendous influence on those of us who have come under their spell long after the initial reading experience has left us. It’s these fond feelings of connection with the characters of the world of comics as much as anything else that keeps us coming back month after month, year after year.
Now, nostalgia can certainly be a bad thing in excess—a limiting factor, preventing one from embracing new ideas, new approaches, new characters, new stories. But at the same time, without nostalgia there’d likely be no comic book industry left. So while we shouldn’t be slaves to what-has-come-before, we should certainly be aware of the value of what those before us achieved and accomplished. A working knowledge of the history of the medium is no stumbling block to creativity. Awareness is strength. Information is power.
And so we come to the purpose of this column. Similar to the Brevoort History of Comics entries that I had previously posted at my own site (and which presently are serialized at Silver Bullet Comics: http://www.silverbulletcomicbooks.com/) I’m going to be rifling through my memory, pulling out selected comics and storylines from the past, and discussing their particular impact on me. This is completely a subjective exercise—your mileage may vary. But given that I’ve read more comic books in my 36 years than is actually advisable, at the very least I expect we’ll be exposing some people to some material they haven’t yet seen, and maybe providing an insight or two along the way.
I started reading comics in the summer of 1973, at the age of six. I was already a decent reader thanks to the efforts of my parents and the influence of shows such as Sesame Street and The Electric Company. And I’m pretty sure that I’d already encountered Superman and Batman via their syndicated live-action shows, and Spider-Man through his ubiquitous ‘60s cartoons. But up until then, I’d been blissfully unaware of the existence of those four-colored treasures, despite the fact that they were always somewhere on the periphery—in candy stores, supermarkets, the occasional toy store, and elsewhere.
I owe most of my early comic book reading to my father’s smoking habit—the same habit that contributed to his death at the age of 41. In those days, he’d burn through two cartons of cigarettes in any given week, so frequent trips to restock were constantly taking place. And what this usually meant was an excursion to 7-11. On this particular summer evening, he opted to take me along with him.
I can still remember certain specific things about that day. The comic book rack had been set up near the front door for some reason—thereafter, and for the next several years that I’d buy my comics at that particular 7-11, it would be further back in the store, near the rest of the magazines. But on that night, it was up front, and I was fascinated by it. I can still recall some of the covers that were on the rack at that time—most notably Justice League Of America #107, which depicted Superman and company passing through a dark cloud into the realm of Uncle Sam and his Freedom Fighters. But when my father asked if I wanted a comic book of my own, I ended up playing it safe. I purchased Superman #268.
It was, all things told, a pedestrian issue released at a pedestrian time. A quick check of the Time Machine over at the invaluable Mike’s Amazing World of DC Comics site (http://www.dcindexes.com/) shows that it was a bleak period for super heroes. Of the 41 DC releases bearing the same cover date of October 1973, only 14 could really be considered super hero titles. And among that lot, if you were looking for something not of the Superman or Batman families, you were pretty well limited to Wonder Woman (in a weak faux-‘40s style), Mister Miracle (by Kirby, but post-Fourth World), The Shadow, and Shazam. Flash and Justice League of America were both still being published, but they were coming out at less-than-monthly frequency, and so didn’t release issues with that cover date. Over at Marvel, things weren’t much better, at least where the core titles were concerned: Reed and Sue were separated and divorce was pending in Fantastic Four, Spider-Man was moping after the brutal death of Gwen Stacy, Thor was involved in one of a number of seemingly-endless quests through space, and X-Men was a reprint book. The best material of the era was being done outside the super hero mainstream at both Marvel and DC. But even with that, this was a particularly ugly time for comic books in general. The printing was awful, the covers an explosion of bad taste, overdone with dozens of blurbs and cluttered compositions. Inspiration was slight as sales grew sluggish.
And yet, thanks in large part to nostalgia, I have very fond memories of the comics of this era—even the ones that weren’t particularly good. The magic implicit in the phrase “the Golden Age of Comics is when you’re seven years old”(or six, in my case) is absolutely true, and forgives a lot. With the critical faculties of a child, the wonder of comics could be found and beheld even through the din and the muck of the then-current work.
Superman #268 contained two stories, as was the custom of the time in most of the Julie Schwartz-edited comics. The lead, “Wild Week-End in Washington” by Elliot S! Maggin (who replaced the period in his name with an exclamation point, since in comics every sentence ended that way) and Curt Swan teamed Superman with Batgirl for the very first time. Such crossovers were becoming more common as the influence of Marvel continued to extend across the field, but at that point it was still quite simple to find heroes who’d never shared a story with the Man of Steel. The back-up was a forgettable installment of “The Fabulous World of Krypton”, a feature which told stories set upon Superman’s fabled homeworld before it had been extinguished, and so added depth to the place. I can attest to the fact that it was unmemorable in that I have no recall of the story at all. This was the format for virtually every Superman issue of the period (though the back-up might be an installment of “The Private Life of Clark Kent” as often as “FWOK”), save for the rare full-length story. Multiple issue sagas were rare at DC, and almost ubiquitous at Marvel.
With the help of my mother, I was able to read my copy of Superman #268, and despite the fact that I didn’t quite understand it all, clearly I enjoyed it. The stories were straightforward and simple and colorful and satisfying. And the basic appeal of Superman was easy to click into, especially as depicted in the homey style of Curt Swan. It became the standard-bearer in terms of what I wanted from a comic book in terms of flavor and style—a flavor that, though I didn’t realize it at the time, could primarily be found within the titles edited by the aforementioned Julie Schwartz. One of the most important figures in the history of comics, Julie’s books were like a little oasis of sanity and stability in the often chaotic comic book field of the mid-‘70s. With a Schwartz book, you always knew where you stood, what you’d be getting—and you were always in safe hands.
In the weeks to come, whenever there was an occasion to go by the 7-11, I’d always yammer for a comic book—and my father would take to bringing books home with him if he’d had occasion to stop off for smokes on his way home.
I’d taken my first steps into a Four-Color World.