A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Tag: Spider-Man

Comic-Shop Memories: Spinner Racks and Corner Stores, Edmonton, Alta., 1973-1985

I realize the biggest gap in what I’ve written so far is that I haven’t explained my earliest experiences with comics.

My first memory of comic-book material was on television. When I was about 4 — around 1973 — one of the local TV stations in Edmonton aired episodes of the various 1960s DC animated series at about 12:30 p.m. each weekday, right after The Flintstones.

(A side note: The Flintstones ran every weekday at noon on CFRN-TV in Edmonton for pretty much my entire childhood. It was how we measured lunch, as the morning session at school ended at 11:45 a.m. You got home just in time to grab your sandwich or bowl of soup and sit down to watch The Flintstones, and then head back to school after it was over. School resumed about 12:55 p.m., so you usually had a few minutes on the playground before class resumed. I remember visiting Edmonton in the mid-1990s, and The Flintstones was still playing at noon!)

These DC toons alternated, with Superman, Batman, Superboy, and Aquaman all getting a day to themselves. I think Superman may have aired twice.

Then there were the 1960s Spider-Man cartoons. Because this show was produced in its first two seasons by Toronto-based Grantray-Lawrence Animation, the show counted as Canadian content. Even back then, the Canadian government required broadcasters to fill a certain percentage of their airtime with shows produced in Canada. Since Spider-Man qualified, and it was popular, it was in constant re-runs from the 1970s well into the 1990s — usually on the independent channel, CITV-TV.

We had cable back then, but it was minimal compared to what we now think of as cable TV. We got via cable all the local Edmonton broadcast channels, plus the broadcast channels from Spokane, Washington. This included an independent channel, as well as the CBS, ABC, NBC, and PBS affiliates — effectively doubling the number of channels we had. There was no cable box, but every channel from 2 to 13 had something on it.

It was through these channels that we got American Saturday morning cartoons. My earliest memories of Hanna-Barbera shows like Scooby-Doo and Speed Buggy, packages of classic Warner Bros. shorts, and, eventually, Super Friends. For years, getting up to eat cereal and watch cartoons was the best and only way to spend Saturday mornings without exposing yourself to dark and freezing winter conditions.

Before we got Super Friends, there was Shazam! This was a live-action show, made super cheap (not that I knew that at the time), and paired with a second superhero show, Isis. But what grabbed my imagination was the transformation sequence where Billy Batson yelled “Shazam!” and turned into Captain Marvel.

Opening credit sequence to the 1970s Shazam! TV series.

Which lead directly to the first comic book I remember owning: A Shazam! treasury edition I later came to know as Limited Collector’s Edition #C-27. I particularly remember one Captain Marvel Jr. story in which Freddy Freeman was captured at a circus, gagged, and left in a guillotine. He managed to loosen the gag enough to shout “Captain Marvel!” in time to transform — the guillotine blade broke on his neck. Cool stuff!

I didn’t buy that comic — or any others for a while — myself. But there always were comics around. We spent summers at various lake cabins with other families with older kids, and comics were just all over the place. There were plenty of Harvey Comics, Archie Comics, Gold Key Comics, Marvel Comics (especially Millie the Model), and DC books (Batman was popular). With no TV, comics were just what we all curled up and read when it rained or you were just tired from running around outdoors all the time.

When I got a little older, the corner store loomed large in the lives of all the kids in our neighborhood. We were constantly asking our parents for a quarter or two to fund a trip to “the store.” The great thing was you could get just about anything you wanted for a couple of quarters: a chocolate bar, pack of gum, bag of chips, small box of candy, a pack of trading cards (with gum), a bottle of pop, or a comic book.

The store did a lot of business with the neighborhood kids, so the candy and comics — displayed in a classic spinner rack — always were upfront. Located at 12305 63rd Ave., the store did not have a name that I can recall. It was a standard neighborhood convenience store that sold basics like bread, milk, canned goods, newspapers, magazines, and cigarettes. It was owned by a family that came to Canada from Lebanon, and they frequently seemed to sell it to a cousin or brother or uncle — but it always stayed in the family, and they always were very kind to the neighborhood kids.

Such stores were everywhere. Every neighborhood had one. And every one of them had a spinner rack of comics. Comics also could easily be found alongside racks of paperback novels at a drug store, and sometimes in supermarkets. Pretty much anywhere you could stop in for a pack of smokes, a newspaper, or a pack of gum was a place to get comics.

Most of the comics I bought were at “the store.” I remember stopping in one night with my dad, who let me buy a Superman and a Spider-Man — likely The Amazing Spider-Man #162 (Nov. 1976) since I pretty clearly remember Nightcrawler on the cover.

Science fiction was popular at the time, with reruns of the original Star Trek in full swing, so I bought several issues of the Gold Key Trek comic off the racks. I also liked Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man, and bought the Charlton comics based on those shows. I distinctly remember the story in the John Byrne-drawn Space:1999 #6 — and had no idea he lived just down the road in Calgary at the time.

Star Wars, of course, changed everything. I didn’t see the movie until June 1977, and the first Star Wars comic I saw was issue #3. A friend of mine had a copy of #2, and I managed to score a copy of #1 — the first comic I expressly went looking for — one day at Mike’s Newsstand on Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton. Actually, what happened is I spotted the comic there while visiting with friends and, having no money, pleaded with my Dad to go stop by from his office on the way home the next week and buy it for me. And he did!

The treasury editions that Marvel and Whitman published were easy to find, and that’s how I and most of my friends read the adaptation of the movie. Over, and over, and over. They had better printing, too, than the original comics, and were what we now would call oversize.

In the fall of 1977, I bought a copy of Star Wars #7 — the first original Star Wars comic book story. And that was it. I was on the hunt for all the issues after that. I missed #8 and #9, though friends of mine had them and I borrowed or read their copies while hanging out at their houses. Starting with #10, I figured out that Star Wars comics showed up about the third week of the month, usually on a Tuesday. I started timing my searches and successfully bought just about every issue from there through #31. Then there was a stretch where the store stopped carrying comics for a bit, then brought them back in time for Star Wars #39 and the adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back.

The other book I read at the time was Marvel’s Battlestar Galactica. I wanted the TV series to be good, but too many episodes were disappointing fill-in episodes using old Western movie sets. The comic, however, started to get really good after the show was canceled. Walt Simonson took over writing and drawing, and his talent in both disciplines was evident.

The last year of my early comics reading was 1981. The Battlestar comic was canceled. I read Star Wars through #54. And I also had the Marvel Super Special adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was the hottest movie of the year. I don’t remember making any conscious decision to stop reading comics, I just moved on to other things.

Marvel Super Special #18 cover.

Fall of 1981 was when I started junior high school, began to earn money by delivering newspapers after school, and became more interested in music and sports — particularly soccer and hockey. Edmonton was then a new addition to the NHL with the Oilers, and had this young hotshot named Wayne Gretzky who played for them. Gretzky and the other young stars of the Oilers were not much older than me — I was 12, they were around 20 — but their on-ice heroics made them appear almost like real-life superheroes who lived in our midst.

I don’t think I bought another comic until 1985, when I dug out my stack of Star Wars comics and rediscovered them. That lead me to the 7-11 and my purchase of Star Wars #96 — and I’ve never stopped buying comics since.

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1990, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 2

A lot changed at the end of my third year at University of Arizona. My family was living in Phoenix, just off North 19th Avenue, way up north of West Bell Road. I don’t remember how, but I landed a summer job at a nearby Minit Lube. I mostly took service orders from cars that drove up, squeegeed windows, and vacuumed the floor mats.

Everyone has a job they survive. This was mine. The people were nice, and that was the best part of it. This was an open-air, drive-through oil change place. That meant you were not working indoors, where the Arizona summer temps could be tempered with air-conditioning. The boss was generous with using petty cash to get us Gatorade, water, or sodas from the Circle K next door several times a day to help us avoid dehydration, so that was nice. It paid slightly more than minimum wage — about $4 and change per hour.

But this was an especially cruel summer. On June 26, 1990, the temperature in Phoenix set a record: 126 degrees Fahrenheit — that’s 52 degrees Celsius for those of you who live outside the U.S. I was not working that day. I was home, with the shades drawn, the AC on, cold drinks in the fridge, watching movies on VHS in the dark.

At one point, I remembered I had left several music cassettes in my car and decided to save them. I put on flip-flops, grabbed my keys, and went out to the car. I opened the door and quickly grabbed the hot tapes, pulling my shirt out like an apron to carry them indoors. As I was walking back to the front door, I thought I had stepped in some gum. Looking down, I saw my flip flops were melting on the concrete driveway. I hurried inside and did not re-emerge until the rotation of the Earth had put a merciful end to the sun’s daily punishment.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds"
One of the best TV cliffhangers of all time. It was uncertain that Patrick Stewart was coming back, so this really could have gone a number of different ways.

A few weeks before that, my Star Trek fandom hit new heights with the broadcast of the third-season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation: “The Best of Both Worlds.” What a stunner! The third season had really taken off, and the show was now firmly boldly going into new territory in exciting, well-crafted and thoughtful ways. I miss it.

I remember catching early that summer a couple episodes of The Flash on CBS, which clearly took a lot of visual inspiration from the Tim Burton Batman movie success of the year before. It didn’t click with me, and was canceled at that point after only one season.

Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy.
Don’t have much to say about this movie, other than it seemed like a business venture more than a creative one.

In theaters, there was Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. This movie was very hyped in a clear attempt to emulate the success, again, of Batman. The miscalculation was in not realizing that Dick Tracy hadn’t been a character people cared about for decades at that point. There had been no resurgence of interest, or reframing of the character for the times, as Batman had gotten from The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke. It was just an old comic strip, and the only strip back then that had any kind of active audience was Calvin and Hobbes.

Dick Tracy could have overcome that if the movie was better, but it wasn’t. It was a bunch of old actors putting on silly makeup to turn an old comic strip no one read anymore into a movie that no one really ended up caring much about. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, though I do have a DVD somewhere of it.

Back to the Future, Part III
I like Back to the Future, Part III a lot more than Part II.

Other cool stuff going on that summer included the release of Back to the Future, Part III, which prompted a thorough review on my part of the previous two films in that series. In the end, only the first is a really great film, but the others are at least entertaining.

Less interesting was Die Hard 2: Die Harder. Not at all up to the standards of the first one — a movie series of true diminishing returns.

It was Spider-Man #1 (Aug. 1990) that drew me back to AAA Best Comics. I had a day off work the day the issue came out, June 19, 1990, and decided to head over to Ken Strack’s shop to pick up a copy. He had moved down the street — he was always on North Seventh Street — into a slightly larger space.

He had ordered plenty of copies, and I picked up two each of the green cover and the silver cover, and one each of the green bagged edition and the black bagged edition. I believe the bagged editions are still unopened in my collection somewhere.

I distinctly remember Ken raving about a new DC series called Shade the Changing Man. The first issue was recently out, and he talked up the striking Chris Bachalo art. I can’t remember if he gave it to me or if I paid for it, but I found myself agreeing with him that it was cool, and coming back for the next issue for at least the next two or three years.

It was overall a fun time to be reading comics, which still were cheap. Most DC and Marvel series cost $1 per issue, which made it easy to buy a stack of new, untried books for not a lot of money.

Marvel had this new-series program, where they introduced a new first issue each month for the first half of 1990. Among them were Ghost Rider, the John Byrne She-Hulk, The New Warriors, Guardians of the Galaxy, Byrne’s Namor: The Sub-Mariner, and McFarlane’s Spider-Man.

I was in on Spider-Man and Namor. The others, for whatever reason, struck no nerve with me. With Namor, the appeal was the art. Byrne was using duotone paper that gave his work a new element. And he had some good ideas for the character that made for a really fun read, namely having Namor forage lost treasure from the ocean floor to turn himself into a captain of industry.

I was still reading comics that summer. I recall really enjoying the various Batman and Star Trek series.

X-Men was in an unusual but still very interesting place. In the main X-Men title, writer Chris Claremont split up the team after Inferno and scattered them across the world. Many found completely new identities, with older characters fading away and new ones, as always, coming in. There were a lot of single-issue stories, with the overarching story building in the background — sometimes so deeply, it wasn’t clear to the reader, or even perhaps to Claremont himself, where things were going and how. These were the last Marc Silvestri issues, which were followed by a series of fill-in artists awaiting the inevitable arrival of heir apparent Jim Lee later in the year.

Fans were impatient with this approach to X-Men.

I recall reading in a copy of the Comics Buyers Guide a letter from a fan who answered another fan’s letter asking what the hell was going on in X-Men. The reply letter ended with a plea to Claremont to return to more conventional comic book storytelling, and a note from the CBG editors stating they paid the letter writer a small fee for all the work he put into answering the question.

The Uncanny X-Men #266 (Late Aug. 1990). The first chronological appearance of Gambit, though X-Men Annual #14 (1990) was released first.

The introduction of Gambit was much hyped, though the execution of it was a mess. It took a while for the comics to find some space in which to convey anything about him that wasn’t superficial. And I remember reading that Days of Future Present crossover between the Fantastic Four, The New Mutants, X-Factor and X-Men annuals, and being flat out unable to make sense of it. There was some nice Art Adams art in the X-Men episode, though.

The other X-Men titles seemed like they were in a bit of another universe. Excalibur’s Cross-Time Caper seemed to go off the rails a bit as Alan Davis wasn’t drawing every issue and there were even a few writing fill-ins for Claremont. The momentum, clarity and humor the book had in its earlier days burned off quickly and the title soon was passed around the Marvel office like a hot potato.

The same was true for Wolverine. After the solid but underwhelming arc by Archie Goodwin, John Byrne and Klaus Janson, there were fill-ins galore with a variety of artists and writers. And these issues came out while the book was published twice monthly in the summer months. These were supposed to be highlight issues, top stuff meant to drive traffic into comics shops. And it was far from special material.

In Louise Simonson’s corner, X-Factor had been a bit lost since Inferno, and in 1990 also was rotating through a series of fill-in artists drawing stories that at best were treading ground. I understand there were plans for Cyclops and Marvel Girl to finally marry and be parents to baby Nathan, but soon crossovers and changes in creative direction would push back that actually happening for years.

I had stopped reading The New Mutants shortly after Inferno. But Ken recommended issue #93 to me, and I was indeed impressed at Rob Liefeld’s more testosterone-driven take on these characters. That issue had Wolverine both inside and on the cover fighting Cable. I quickly put together the issues I had missed, which was very easy — I paid $3 for issue #87, which is now a key from that time.

The New Mutants #93 (Sept. 1990). Art by Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane.

As up and down as Marvel was, DC was even more more hit and miss. I tried Green Lantern, with the original Emerald Dawn series, followed by a regular title. This character just didn’t work for me. It was the same with Lobo. Everyone went ape-shit crazy for this character, but it was all one joke to me, and not one I found funny at the time.

I did very much like Justice League, which at the time was the brainchild of J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, and really quite funny.

Another title Ken recommended to me was Doom Patrol, by Grant Morrison. This was my first Morrison book, and it immediately stood out as something different, daring, and fun to read. I came on with issue #32, and it was years before I filled in Morrison’s run back to #19. But I bought every issue going forward and really enjoyed that book.

It was a quiet summer, to be honest. I was looking forward to going back to university in the fall, mostly because I had been hired as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and was really excited to be a part of that team and to finally get some real experience in my chosen field of study.

For comics, it was in some ways the quiet before the storm.

These books were still enjoyable and worth buying while they were so cheap. But they also weren’t really satisfying, either.

When the bottom didn’t fall out after the year of the Batman movie, it felt like there was an explosion waiting to happen. That there were new heights to reach. That all it would take was the right book at the right moment, and comics would vault out of the shadows and into the mainstream. The signs were there, with an influx of brash boys in comics shops wondering aloud why Batman doesn’t use guns, or why Marvel doesn’t make Todd McFarlane draw Wolverine, or expressing in plainly lustful language their admiration for Jim Lee’s latest rendering of a swimsuit-clad Psylocke.

All things in their time.

Jim Lee Psylocke pinup from Marvel Illustrated: Swimsuit Issue (1991). Yes, such things existed.

Reading Comics: Iceman (2018) #1, 3

Bobby Drake has always been a bland character, all the way back to 1963’s X-Men #1. But, boy howdy, there’s been no shortage of writers who’ve tried to rectify that, with often strange results. Roy Thomas sent him off in suit with his pal Beast to haunt 1960s coffee shops full of beat poets and pretty girls. Chris Claremont sent him off to college to study accounting, not even bringing him back into the X-Men fold for the death of Phoenix in X-Men #137. Louise Simonson gave him a bunch of girlfriends in X-Factor, including Opal Tanaka, which began the first of many plots about how much of a bigot Bobby’s father was. And Scott Lobdell amped up his powers, had his body taken over by Emma Frost, and then gave Bobby’s dad redemption when he was nearly killed by the Friends of Humanity.

But nothing’s raised Iceman’s profile as much as Brian Michael Bendis revealing Iceman to be gay in 2015’s All-New X-Men #40.

That brings us to Iceman #1 and #3,  part of a five-issue series following up the 11-issue 2017 run, both from writer Sina Grace and both focusing on Bobby sort of learning to live life as a gay man who’s also a superhero. The problem with these stories is they’re way too on-the-nose. You can almost line up the expected plots and watch them get knocked down one by one: How does Bobby find a date? How does he introduce his boyfriend to his parents? Does he move out west to be with his new beau? Of course, there’s some superheroing in the mix, but the focus is clearly on the personal drama, which unfortunately reads like Bobby’s got a new job and has to figure out where the lunch room is.

Issue #3 offers a bit of fun in that it brings in the amazing friends of long-ago Saturday mornings: Firestar and Spider-Man. There’s a superhero thing to do, but it’s more about the three friends all dealing with the dates they’re on when the villain attacks. Maybe it’s just me, but everyone is so interested in getting along that none of the characters feels like a real person. The art is okay, but stiff — it feels like something a fill-in artist would have done in the 1980s.

If Marvel’s going to stick with Iceman being gay, it needs to come up with better stories that don’t hinge just on the fact that he’s gay. While I know there are fans who will eat this up right now as being very in the moment, it’s too one-dimensional to be remembered for any thing but that.

Last issues: Star Trek #61 and Marvel Team-Up #150

For some reason, I’ve always found final issues of comic book series to be of particular interest, especially ones from the pre-Internet, pre-fan press days. I’m always curious to see if there was any kind of attempt to wrap up the series creatively, or whether there was any kind of notice or explanation to readers that the book was going away.

Here is a couple of examples:

Star Trek #61 (Gold Key)

Star Trek #61 (March 1979) was the final issue of the original Trek comics series, published from 1967-1979 by Gold Key. I’ve long been a huge Trek fan and have all but eight issues from this series. (I’m missing 9-11, 14-16 and 58-59, in case anyone is interested in selling to me.) The Gold Key series was a real mixed bag. Some issues featured stories that deviated so radically from the Star Trek style that they are Trek in name only. Others, especially the later issues, were much better. They always featured nice art and, except for a couple issues like this particular one, very cool painted or photo covers. Also, there were no issue numbers on the cover, at least until this issue.

Marvel had long wanted the rights to do Star Trek comics, but was unable to get them away from Gold Key. That changed when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came along in late 1979. Paramount was looking to emulate the success of Star Wars with the picture, and Marvel was by this point looking like a pretty hot partner for this kind of licensing given the huge success of its Star Wars comic. So the plug was pulled on the Gold Key series, with this being the last one.

The story by George Kashdan is pretty entertaining. The Enterprise and the Klingons are both looking to secure a source of dilithium from an alien planet. The mysterious leader of the planet strikes a deal first with the Klingons. Kirk’s not pleased by this, and he’s even less pleased when Spock finds out this dilithium is synthetic and therefore highly unstable. The mysterious leader is revealed to be Harry Mudd, whose scam now threatens to destroy the Klingons’ vessel and start a war between the and the Federation — unless Kirk can stop it. The art by Al McWilliams is nice and polished — it’s clear and attractive and tells the story simply in that Gold Key style. It’s a really fun Trek comic.

And there’s absolutely no indication that it’s the last issue of the title. There’s no letters page, no blurb on the cover, no nothing. I’ve read online that a script exists for issue 62, so the end obviously came quickly for Gold Key’s version of Star Trek.

Marvel Team-Up #150 (Marvel)

Going in the completely opposite direction is Marvel Team-Up #150 (Feb. 1985), which alters the logo to read “The Last Marvel Team-Up,” and features a dejected Spidey in the corner box. The cover itself is a great Barry Windsor-Smith portrait of Spidey and the X-Men as they follow the cover blurbs’ advice and observe “A moment’s silence … before the action begins — .”

The story itself isn’t exactly an obvious finale. Written by Louise Simonson, the story sees Juggernaut go after the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak so he can give it (and Juggernaut powers) to his pal Black Tom Cassidy on his birthday. Black Tom is less than thrilled, and chaos ensues as both Spidey and the X-Men get involved in stopping the destruction. It’s a solid, mid-1980s Marvel comic, which means it has an actual story, competent and clear art from Greg LaRocque and Mike Esposito, and a lot of action. (All things Marvel should think about putting in its current releases.)

There is a blurb on the letters page from editor Danny Fingeroth announcing that MTU is indeed ending, but will be replaced by a new series called The Web of Spider-Man in six weeks. Of course, the “The” was dropped, and Web had a long life of its own.

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