In a time before the British Author Invasion and the rise of Vertigo titles, this issue of GIANT-SIZE MAN-THING was quite possibly the most literate and literary comic book as-yet published. A heartfelt, emotion-driven Steve Gerber story concerning a dead, bullied schoolkid anchors the issue. Gerber experiments with using huge blocks of text on certain pages, effectively writing prose rather than comics. Back that up with the first solo Howard the Duck story as illustrated by Frank Brunner and you’ve got a release for the ages.
This one is an obvious choice–so obvious that it becomes easy to forget what was accomplished here. Not only do Len Wein and Dave Cockrum revive and revitalize the dormant X-Men franchise by introducing four brand-new iconic characters and pulling others in from throughout the Marvel Universe, but they set the foundation for a dynasty that will rule the comic book field for two decades. Cockrum was the most progressive and finest costume designer of his era, and his designs for Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Thunderbird still look great (and are still in use with some minor modifications.)
Jim Starlin’s run on the Warlock strip in STRANGE TALES was a particularly early 1970s concoction, combining freaky mind-bending visuals with nihilistic concepts in the manner of Michael Moorcock. But this issue is perhaps his most pointed. While it works perfectly well on its own as an absurdist fable if you don’t get the inside joke, “1,000 Clowns” is a condemnation of the then-current Marvel that Starlin finds himself working for. He parodies and outright slanders co-workers whose opinions or activities he doesn’t agree with–it’s truly amazing that this got published. Either way, it’s a very compelling read.
This is likely going to be a divisive choice, but I don’t really care–this issue blew my mind when I first read it (and by that point I was already aware of the broad strokes of what went down in it.) It’s the big finale of writer Gerry Conway’s multi-year defining run as well as the wrap-up of the original Clone saga, a storyline that Conway was backed into doing when publisher Stan Lee insisted that he find some way to bring back Gwen Stacy and take the fan heat off of Stan. A bunch of the details of that story don’t really make a whole lot of sense, but the verve with which it’s all done carries the piece through–and the lingering question at the end as to whether the real Spider-Man or his clone is the one that perished will become hauntingly prophetic.
It didn’t make much of a ripple at the time in terms of establishing the character as a heavy-hitter, but the Marty Pasko/Walt Simonson Doctor Fate story in this issue of FIRST ISSUE SPECIAL was hugely popular among the fan community–and a decade later, it would be the template used when it was eventually time to give Fate his own series in the 1980s. Simonson’s design-oriented artwork fit the Egyptian motifs of the character like a hand in a glove, and the Kirby dynamism of his figures made this one of the best-looking DC comics of the decade.
Special Extra Bonus Entry: It would have been a huge cheat to include this one on the main list, as it’s just a treasury-sized reprint of a comic book published in 1940. But there was no comic book published in 1975 that I loved more, or that had a bigger impact on me than this FAMOUS 1st EDITION replica of ALL-STAR COMICS #3 featuring the first meeting of the Justice Society of America.