It was a great Christmas this year. Though I missed not getting home to see my parents and brothers, I had a lovely time with my girlfriend’s family, and the holiday held a number of wonderful surprises. I have a variety of wonderful new toys to play with, such as a great new, larger, flat monitor for my computer (thanks, honey!) and satellite radio for the car. When it comes to comics gifts, I’m not easy to shop for from my loved ones’ perspective, as they’re not into comics, and just about every peripheral, comics-related item that I really want, I tend to get for myself anyway. My girlfriend did well with picking up the DVD box set of the various Superman movies. But my parents — who at one time really wanted me to cast off comics as a relic of my childhood — really surprised me this year with an unusual, inexpensive little gift: a grab bag of old DC and Marvel comics from the 1970s and ’80s.
They’re dog-eared. They’re marred by ink and various unknown stains. They contain cheesy stories and clunky dialogue. And I absolutely love them.
I’ve received comics as Christmas gifts in the past, but they’ve been generally relegated to newer comics, bought at a newsstand and stuffed in my holiday stocking. And inevitably, they’d be books I’d already acquired. Furthermore, I don’t family and friends looking in comic-shop back-issue bins for hermetically sealed, Mylar-protected comics from yesteryear. No, my parents struck upon a great idea for a cheap but pleasantly surprising gift: beat-up, used-bookstore comics.
Among the obscure little nuggets in the small pile of old comics was DC Comics Presents #66, notable for a couple of reasons. By coincidence, my folks had happened upon one of the few gaps in my DCCP collection. Furthermore, the issue is illustrated by the legendary Joe Kubert, and writer Len Wein’s script bills the adventure as the first encounter between Superman and Etrigan the Demon. The plot and dialogue are a bit awkward at times, and Wein paints the ancient druids as a group of magical villains. But the art is stunning. Kubert’s style works surprisingly well at bringing the Demon to life, and the artist offers up a great “widescreen” perspective of the museum backdrop that serves as the setting for the opening scenes. Furthermore, Kubert’s loose style suits the organic manifestations of the villain’s elemental powers. One can really see the elder Kubert’s influence on his sons’ future pencilling styles as well. Speaking of whom, current Action Comics artist Adam Kubert is credited as the letterer on this issue, published in December 1983.
The selection of yellowed comics also included another DC team-up story: “Junkman — the Recycled Superstar!” from Action Comics #455, published in November 1975. Elliot S! Maggin’s plot is designed to bring Superman together with the stars of the title’s rotating backup features at the time: Green Arrow and the Atom. To say that the premise is forced is putting it lightly. The story is atrocious, but given the context of the plot and the campiness of the presentation, it entertains all the same. The great thing about these old comics is that readers are subconsciously free to judge them by different standards. The story is pencilled by the consummate Superman artist, the late Curt Swan, but the plot shows that even legendary talents have their weaknesses. While Swan’s style was perfect for Superman, he’s clearly not as comfortable with Green Arrow.
Also included in my small stack of six old comics was The Amazing Spider-Man #249. The December 1983 comic book was released before I developed an interest in Marvel Comics (which came a few years later, when a friend insisted I check out Marvel Super-Heroes: Secret Wars #5). Penned by Roger Stern, the issue sparked my interest now because it features some earlier work from John (Eternals) Romita Jr. Romita’s art is quite strong, and I was especially impressed with his take on the Hobgoblin. He also manages to offer strong visual storytelling despite the encroachment of Stern’s extremely wordy script; the first half of the issue seems focused entirely on exposition, which makes for an accessible but somewhat jarring read. The visual highlight of the book — at least from a cheesy retro perspective — is a bit of 1980s fashion, Marvel style, as we’re treated to a vision of Peter Parker walking around a housewarming part in a midriff-exposing muscle-shirt with the word “ANIMAL” emblazoned across the front.
The other comics in my unexpected gift pack boast equally odd, ham-fisted yet impressive storytelling as well, and I’m getting a great deal of entertainment value out of what I suspect cost my family a handful of change to purchase (if any money changed hands at all).
Today, publishers are making a lot of material from yesteryear — from the 1940s right up to the ’90s — available to their 21st-century audiences. I’m pleased these old stories — classic or otherwise — are being brought back into print — in some cases at low prices, no less. But there’s something about the experience of thumbing through the original comic, about smelling the worn paper, about seeing the child-like printing of a previous owned on the cover or first page… those are things no Marvel Essential edition or DC Showcase book can replicate.