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

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Indiana Jones and the True Believers of Marvel Comics

Not a bad title, eh? I’d watch that movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark movie poster.

I was 11 going on 12 in the summer of 1981. I loved movies, but knew nothing about Raiders of the Lost Ark until some friends of mine who’d seen it told me how great it was. I pestered my Mom into taking me and a friend to see it at a matinee, which was required by Alberta’s movie ratings system of the day. She thought it was going to be a boring movie about Noah’s Ark or something, and I didn’t know enough about the movie to tell her otherwise.

So me, my friend, and my Mom all headed to the Westmount cinemas in Edmonton one summer afternoon in 1981 to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. We all loved it. I mean loved it. My Mom said after: “Why didn’t you say it had Han Solo in it!” I really didn’t know.

Seeing Raiders was a big deal that summer. I think I saw it six times in movie theaters — most of them requiring me to buy a ticket for Superman II, which started 10 minutes before Raiders, and then slipping into the other theater. I got caught once or twice, sent back to Superman II, and then usually slipped back into Raiders.

Marvel Super Special #18 cover.

Unlike Star Wars, there wasn’t much in the way of merchandise for Raiders. I read the novelization, but preferred the Marvel Super Special adaptation, which Marvel later split up into three standard comic book issues the same way they had done with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The magazine-size edition had a great painted cover by Howard Chaykin, whose name I recognized from Marvel’s adaptation of Star Wars.

I wasn’t reading comics in 1982 when Marvel finally launched its new series The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones, and it took more than 20 years for me to come back around and collect this 34-issue run. Even then, I don’t know if I read them all. Some of them seem familiar, others not.

Unlike Star Wars, Indiana Jones struggled to adapt to comic books, which seems strange in retrospect given how much Indy borrows from comics classics like Terry and the Pirates.

For me, Indiana Jones is a frustrating movie franchise, in a way. I consider Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a perfect movie. I can watch it anytime and each viewing is as thrilling and as fun as the first.

From there, it’s a direct downhill slide.

My and friends stood in line to see on opening day Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at the Paramount Theater on Jasper Avenue in Edmonton. It’s not as good as Raiders, but I still find its freaky energy entertaining and original. I love that it’s gross and dark and weird —  qualities major movie franchises no longer have.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a further step down. If Indy was a TV series, this would have been a fifth-season episode that proved it was time to wrap it up. Sure, Sean Connery is great (I met him once), but this movie plays it very safe, with imitations of Raiders and goofy comedy bits that would be more at home in a sitcom.

I know I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the theater, and I have a copy on DVD somewhere, but I can’t remember much about it save an early sequence where Indy locks himself in a refrigerator to protect himself from an atom bomb test.

I’m looking forward to Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. I overall like James Mangold’s films — in particular Cop Land and Ford vs. Ferrari — and enjoyed interviewing him for the DGA magazine at his office when Logan came out. (He had a large blown up poster of Marc Silvestri’s art from the cover of The Uncanny X-Men #251 on the wall, and a huge collection of classic vinyl albums in his office at Fox.) But we’ll have to see if Dial of Destiny can defy the downward spiral after so many years away.

I’ve been re-reading the old Marvel series and will try to post some highlights here in the lead-up to the new movie. Based on the early issues, it may be rough going, but we’ll see if we can find some comics treasure in this largely forgotten comic serial.

Comic-Shop Memories: AAA Best Comics, 1991, Phoenix, Ariz., Part 3

The summer of 1991 was huge for two reasons: X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991) and X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991).

I was mostly buying new comics from AAA Best, where I had a pull list. But I was really into it at this point and spent most of my free time that summer hitting every comic shop I could find in the Phoenix area. All About Books and Comics was my No. 2 choice. They had their main store on Camelback Road and also a small Scottsdale location close to where I was staying with my parents.

Most of the comics I was reading at this point were solidly entertaining, and I was buying a lot of them, so I wasn’t trying a ton of new books. Batman, Spider-Man, Justice League, Doom Patrol, Avengers, The Sandman, Hellblazer and probably a few others were keeping me pretty busy.

It was all about the X-Men that summer. The commercial success of the book with Jim Lee on it just spilled over into everything. Interest in X-Men comic books may never have been higher. Both the collector crowd, dominated at this time by speculators who bought up multiple copies — even cases! — of new issues as they came out, and the fans more into the creative and storytelling side of things were unable to resist the oncoming onslaught of X-Men books.

But this interest also was so intense, it couldn’t help but radically change the comics themselves. When Chris Claremont took over as writer on X-Men in 1974, this was a very small and unimportant corner of the Marvel Universe. A mere 17 years later, X-Men and its various spinoffs were an industry of their own. The demand for X-Men material was insatiable, and Marvel was more than happy to do its best to deliver.

There was one problem. Claremont and his closest collaborators — the artists he worked with, as well as the editors who backed him, most notably Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti — couldn’t deliver on their own nearly enough material to meet that demand, though they appeared to have a solid grip on the core of the X-Men franchise. And other comics creators, spying the very large checks X-Men books generated under Marvel’s sales incentives program, wanted a piece of that pie.

That changed with the publication of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Weapon X serial in Marvel Comics Presents #72-84 (March-September 1991). Claremont for years resisted any attempt to fill in the gaps in Wolverine’s past, and now another creator was doing exactly that.

Marvel Comics Presents #84 (Sept. 1991).
Cover art by Barry Windsor-Smith.

Suddenly, copies of Marvel Comics Presents were hard to find. I had missed a number of issues prior to Weapon X and had to track down the first issue in particular by visiting just about every store in the Phoenix area before finding one at, I believe, All About Books and Comics.

As the release of X-Force #1 approached, there was a lot of excitement because, for the first time I could remember, comics were becoming popular within the larger culture. I saw people wearing X-Force T-shirts at Target. The Levi’s TV ad featuring Rob Liefeld and Spike Lee was a minor sensation on TV. Comics shops on new release day and weekends were crowded.

And suddenly the comics world didn’t seem so distant from the rest of the world.

I stopped by AAA Best the day that X-Force #1 came out — the first week of June 1991 — to pick up my regular stack of comics as well as take part in that momentous event. The store was more crowded than I’d ever seen it, with people lining up to buy huge stacks of copies of that issue. One guy proudly boasted that he was buying 25 copies of the book – and that this was nothing compared to what he was going to get when X-Men #1 came out.

Polybagged copy of X-Force #1 (Aug. 1991).
Cover art by Rob Liefeld.

While there was only one cover, each copy of X-Force #1 was polybagged with one of five trading cards drawn by Liefeld. That means most people bought six copies — five to save, and one to open and read. Within a week, I saw All About’s main location was selling the extra cards from opened copies — for a premium. There also was a brief sensation about a certain number of copies that for some reason had a reversed image of Captain America in the UPC box on direct market issues. I don’t know if that’s a legit variant, but I did scoop up an extra set of those for some reason I’m glad to have forgotten.

I spent most of my free time that summer driving through the desert heat from comic shop to music store to movie theater to bookstore and back around again. One of the nearby stops was a Bookstar outlet in the then-still-new Scottsdale Pavilions. They didn’t have much in the way of comics, but they did have a big newsstand that included copies of the Comics Buyers’ Guide. I doubt I’ll ever forget picking up the July 12 issue and reading that Jim Lee was taking over as plotter of the book, with John Byrne stepping in to script, while Claremont took a “sabbatical.” This was less than a month before X-Men #1 was due out.

Cover story in Comics Buyer’s Guide #921 (July 12, 1991).

There was no internet back then, and few publications that carried comic book news in a timely enough fashion to learn any more details before X-Men #1 came out on Aug. 13, 1991. The new issues of The Uncanny X-Men offered no hint of what was to come. Jim Lee stopped drawing the series after issue #277 (June 1991), with the incredible Paul Smith returning for #278 (July 1991), and Andy Kubert on #279 (Aug. 1991), on which Claremont’s run ended halfway through the comic. The rest was by Fabian Nicieza, who wrapped up the storyline in #280 (Sept. 1991) and set the stage for the Mutant Genesis relaunch.

That summer also was a big one for Star Trek, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued to thrive on TV, its reputation growing with every new episode that aired. The original crew also was due back for one final voyage, with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country scheduled for a December release. Not only was the original crew getting back together, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan director and writer Nicholas Meyer was returning to both roles. There also was a rumor that TNG’s Michael Dorn had been cast in a small role in the movie.

The teaser trailer was frustratingly unspecific, but the title — originally meant by Meyer for Star Trek II — was terrific and built up expectations for a satisfying and very final finale.

On the comics side, DC put two more great Star Trek annuals, and put together the first sanctioned crossover between TOS and TNG with a pair of four-issue miniseries called The Modala Imperative. The creative teams swapped, with TNG comic scribe Michael Jan Friedman starting things off with a four-issue story of Kirk and Co. that was released biweekly that summer.

It was followed up with a sequel TNG series by regular TOS scribe Peter David that brought back Admiral McCoy from the TNG premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” as well as an older Spock who was now an ambassador. (That last detail later panned out on the show itself when Leonard Nimoy returned that fall for a two-episode run as Spock on TNG, “Reunification.”)

There also was to be an original hardcover TOS graphic novel titled Debt of Honor from Chris Claremont and artist Adam Hughes, but it was delayed into 1992. More on that later.

August was the big month. With X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991), Marvel was releasing five variants of the double-size first issue. The first four would be standard format comics with covers that would connect to form a single image. Each also had its own pinup spread by Jim Lee. The fifth edition was a deluxe edition on glossy paper with no ads, all the spreads from the other four variants, a double gatefold cover with all four of the other covers as a single image, and some bonus sketches by Lee. The editions were released once a week, rather than all at once, with Marvel pushing back the release of X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991) a week to make room for the deluxe edition room to have its own week in the spotlight.

X-Men #1 — Cover E (Oct. 1991). Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Ken Strack at AAA told me that he thought the deluxe edition might be hot enough to be worth something. But at that time no one expected Marvel would print and ship 8 million copies of the book, making it the highest-selling comic of all time (at least to comics shops) and the most common. I picked up a couple copies of the first edition at AAA Best on the day of release, also swinging by All About’s Scottsdale location just to get some of the contact buzz.

Reading the book was bittersweet. It was much better than X-Force #1, featuring the full-on return of Magneto as a villain, some cool Danger Room shenanigans to introduce the new Lee costume designs, an orbital nuclear blast, and a final showdown in Genosha. To be continued!

The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991).
Cover art by Whilce Portacio and Art Thibert.

The Uncanny X-Men #281 (Oct. 1991), came out the same day as the first edition of X-Men #1, and was more of a mess. Marvel countered Claremont’s departure by bringing back John Byrne to script both series over plots from Jim Lee (starting in X-Men #4 (Jan. 1992)) and Whilce Portacio in Uncanny #281. While Portacio’s art was exciting, let’s just say letting an artist with limited writing ability plot one of your most visible and top-selling series is about as good an idea as it sounds. The story involved some Sentinels, the return of the Hellfire Club, and some new villains that didn’t make much of an impression at the time.

X-Men #2 (Nov. 1991).
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Claremont changes his plans for the series to wrap things up as best he could. While X-Men #1 was originally intended to be an introductory issue Claremont referred to as “X-Men 101,” it now kicked off a three-issue storyline that attempted to resolve the Xavier-Magneto conflict in some kind of convincing manner. When X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991) shipped in October, it was truly the end of an era. There was no acknowledgement of Claremont’s departure, no farewell message — no mention in any way that the man arguably most responsible for this commercial triumph was being displaced from that role.

X-Men #3 (Dec. 1991).
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams.

Between the release of the first edition of X-Men #1 and the fifth edition, I returned to Tucson and the University of Arizona for my final semester. I was originally slated to be the assistant news editor for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, but after only a few weeks found myself promoted to full news editor, in charge of keeping something like eight reporters busy covering the goings on of a campus of 36,000 students. Oh, and a full load of classes, too.

Next: How I almost — almost! — stopped buying comics after graduation.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fantasy Comics, 1990-91, Tucson, Ariz., Part 2

Things changed again for me in in the autumn of 1990. In pursuing my journalism career, I began working as a reporter for the the college newspaper, the Arizona Daily Wildcat. I worked three days a week at the Wildcat, and my beat was the University Medical Center, and general assignment.

This took up a lot of my time and instantly expanded my social circle from almost nothing to an entire newsroom of like-minded people. My first published article was about students who worked as lifeguards at one of the pools and were suddenly laid off despite new pools opening up in a new recreation and sports center. I wrote about some of the research being done at UMC, covered some student health issues, and did a fair bit of general assignment stuff on whatever needed to be covered.

Boy, was it fun. Very hard, at times, but a lot of fun.

It also cut into my comics time. I didn’t mind so much — it was good to have those new experiences. I had gone back to buying from Fantasy Comics over on Campbell Avenue. I was enjoying the increasing energy in the overall superhero field with the rise of the artists who would soon form Image Comics, and started to branch out more into other types of comics.

I already mentioned I was digging Shade the Changing Man by Peter Milligan and Chris Bachalo. This was before Vertigo was its own imprint. But the “mature readers” section of DC was already pretty unified, as it was all under the leadership of Karen Berger. I started checking out the other titles from this corner that were mentioned in the Shade letters column. Two of them made an immediate impact: Hellblazer and The Sandman.

I saw the ads for the new writer taking over Hellblazer with issue #41 (May 1991), a writer named Garth Ennis. The ads made clear that the series’ protagonist, John Constantine, had lung cancer from smoking in almost every single panel he’d ever appeared in. The art looked cool, so I picked up that first issue and liked it.

But what really blew me away was the second issue, Hellblazer #42 (June 1991), and it remains to this day one of my favorite single issues ever of a comic book.

Hellblazer #42 (June 1991)
Cover art by Tom Canty.

This story, titled “A Drop of the Hard Stuff,” has cancer-stricken Constantine heading to Ireland to seek the help of his old pal, Brendan, who lived in a lighthouse with dark-haired beauty Kit and dabbled in magic himself. Brendan loved to drink, and always had time for a pint of stout, glass of whiskey, or goblet of wine.

After catching up and getting pleasantly sloshed, Constantine tells Brendan he’s got cancer and he was hoping that his old pal might know a spell that would help him out of this spot. Brendan replies by saying he was hoping John would be able to help him in the same way, though for him it’s liver cancer, and he’s got very little time left.

So they decide to get completely sloshed, and Brendan takes John down to the cellar of the lighthouse where there’s a pool of holy water blessed by St. Patrick himself. He lights a candle, casts a spell — and turns the holy water into stout beer. John and Brendan start drinking it, and Brendan reveals that he made a deal with the devil to be able to acquire and enjoy the greatest life of drink known to man, in exchange, of course, for Brendan’s soul. Brendan says he tried to get one over on the old man by stipulating that his soul must be claimed by midnight on the day he dies or it goes free.

Brendan spends his final few hours with John, who gets up to leave noting it’s almost midnight. At the top of the stairs, he comes face to face with the devil himself, who’s come to claim Brendan’s soul. John figures he owes it to his pal to try to delay him until midnight, so he offers the devil a drink, saying that doing so would put all Brendan’s drinking adventures to shame. The devil likes this and agrees. John fills two pints of Guinness from the well, they say cheers, and each take a deep drink.

“So that’s what he was up to! Magic stout …” says the devil.

“Yup,” says John. “As long as that candle burns it keeps it from turning back into holy water.”

The devil panics, John smiles, and kicks over the table with the candle and it goes out. The devil screams in pain. John lights a cig and pushes the devil into the pool of holy water, and the devil dissolves in a hideous howl.

The clock strikes midnight. John’s saved his pal, but now he knows for sure he must do anything he can to avoid dying and ending up in hell because he’ll have to pay big time for this offense.

I was so completely hooked by this story, I began to buy every back issue of Hellblazer I could find. The previous issues, mostly written by Jamie Delano and drawn by the likes of Mark Buckingham and Richard Piers Rayner, were quite different, but unlike anything else I had ever read and quite fascinating. Once I figured out stout was Guinness, it became my adult beverage of choice.

Then there’s The Sandman. As I’m writing this, the first season of the Netflix series adapting the first two major arcs of the comic has just debuted. I’ve seen the first episode and adored it, and I can’t wait to see the rest of season one and what’s coming up in season two.

The first issues I bought of the comic book was The Sandman #22 (Jan. 1991) and #23 (Feb. 1991). This was the beginning of “The Season of Mists” storyline, with art by Kelley Jones and script, of course, by Neil Gaiman. I distinctly remember the literary quality of this comic stood in stark contrast to anything else I had read before, even the likes of Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns. I quickly scored back issues through #16 at Ken Strack’s AAA Best Comics in Phoenix, and in those issues found two stories that made me a forever fan of The Sandman – and comics as a medium.

The Sandman #17 (July 1990)
Cover art by Dave McKean

The first was “Calliope,” in The Sandman #17 (July 1990). This was one of Gaiman’s single-issue stories and it was devastatingly good. The story followed Richard Madoc, a novelist with writer’s block who acquires a real life muse named Calliope. Her services are not acquired freely — he rapes her to get the inspiration that not only undoes his writer’s block, but fuels his rise to literary and cultural stardom unknown in modern culture. Calliope pleads with Morpheus in a dream to help free her — they had one been intimate. The Sandman appears before Madoc and makes his case. But when the writer complains that he’d have no ideas without her, Morpheus unleashes his anger and fills the writer’s mind with so many ideas it drives him mad. He frees Calliope, and the rush of ideas fades away to nothing at all. This was all in 22 pages with fantastic art, and made a huge impression on me.

The Sandman #19 (Sept. 1990)
Cover art by Dave McKean

The other was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in The Sandman #19 (Sept. 1990). This is one of the most famous issues of the series, as William Shakespeare and his troupe perform the first of two plays commissioned by Morpheus for a unique audience — the faery folk the play itself portrays as a way to ensure they are never forgotten. It’s clever and engaging beyond words, with delightful, delicate and expressive art by Charles Vess.

I hope both episodes are adapted for season two of the Netflix show, even though I know that even the greatest adaptation could never equal the stature of the comics in my mind.

The Sandman was one of the first comics I set out to read trade paperbacks on. This is because the back issue prices were already pretty high. There already was The Doll’s House, which collected issues #8-16 — a steal at $12.95.

The Sandman: The Doll’s House trade paperback
Cover by Dave McKean

I remember looking forward to buying the trade paperback of the earlier issues, and picking up a copy at Fantasy Comics on the day it came out. Preludes & Nocturnes collected issues 1-8 of The Sandman, and did not disappoint. (Yes, both editions included issue 8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduced Death. At the time, I’m sure it made sense to kick off The Doll’s House with that terrific story, but it more correctly belongs as the epilogue to Preludes.)

Back and front covers to The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Cover art by Dave McKean.

In direct opposition to pre-Vertigo DC comics was the explosion of energy new artists were bringing to mainstream Marvel and DC superhero comics.

The X-Men were top of the heap at Marvel, with Jim Lee and his Homage Studios mates taking over the art chores on The Uncanny X-Men, starting with issues #267. The following issue, #268, which came out in early fall of 1990 was a huge jolt of excitement with Lee drawing a single-issue tale by regular scribe Chris Claremont that alternated between an 1940s meeting between Captain America and Logan, and a present-day tale involving Logan, Jubilee and Psylocke helping out the Black Widow.

The Uncanny X-Men #268 (Late Sept. 1990)
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams

That was followed up by the return of Rogue in The Uncanny X-Men #269. Always a favorite, Rogue had vanished into the Siege Perilous some 20 issues before and just now returned. She ended up in the Savage Land, just getting by on her own — in a wonderfully revealing torn up costume that fueled the imagination of many a male reader. She runs head to head in her mind with Carol Danvers, and comes out face to face with Magneto.

The Uncanny X-Men #269 (Oct. 1990)
Cover art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams

The Extinction Agenda crossover was next. Compared to today’s crossovers, this was a modest affair — it ran a mere nine issues, three each for X-Men, X-Factor and The New Mutants.

But it was Lee on X-Men that drew everyone’s attention and jump-started sales to a new level. I remember being home at my parents’ house that spring with a cold. My mom was driving past AAA Best and stopped in to get some comics. Ken knew who I was, and my mom came home with copies of Superman #54 and the double-sized Jim Lee glory of The Uncanny X-Men #275 with a gatefold cover.

Things were building now toward the relaunches that defined the summer of 1991. Louise Simonson dropped off of The New Mutants, and Rob Liefeld instantly began transforming it into X-Force. Whilce Portacio took over X-Factor and, with Chris Claremont scripting, finally resolved the identity of Cable and set up the eventual return of the original X-Men to the team.

One of the nice thing about comics at the time was they were still cheap. Most Marvel and DC comics cost $1, and most stores were moving lots and lots of copies of Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man and other top heroes. Batman books especially were doing well, with sales strong across the board two years after the Tim Burton movie. We now awaited the sequel, which was due in 1992.

Speculation also was coming into play in a more obvious way. There had for years been people buying multiple copies of certain hot comics as they came out in the expectation that they would increase in value. While the vast majority of Marvel and DC back issues were common and relatively cheap in the 1980s, the influx of both readers and speculators started to have an effect. Once-common back issues became a bit harder to find, and prices started to edge up a bit. DC and Marvel both had hits with multiple covers on Legends of the Dark Knight and Spider-Man, and had now bought into this promotional tool wholeheartedly with X-Force #1 and X-Men #1, coming in the summer of 1991.

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.

Comics Letters Pages, Part 2

Cover to Avengers #289
The cover to Avengers #289 (March 1988). Art by John Buscema and Tom Palmer.

It was 1985 when I returned to comics reading and collecting. I still dug the comics letters pages.

The letters in Marvel’s Star Wars series — the book that got me into the hobby — were solid. I remember seeing in issue #103 that the next issue was coming in 60 days, instead of the usual 30. I thought it was a typo. The two month wait revealed the book’s schedule had been demoted to bimonthly. Not long after that, the series was canceled.

I also read V, which DC published based on the TV miniseries and then regular series. The original miniseries was terrific, and the followup, V: The Final Battle, was five-sixths great — the ending left a lot to be desired. The weekly TV series was a disaster and put out of its misery after one season. But I really wanted the show to succeed and stuck with it. There was nothing else sci-fi related on TV. If you liked that stuff, V was it.

The comic book version ran 18 issues — long past the series’ cancellation. And it had its high points: The covers by Jerry Bingham were terrific. Carmine Infantino penciled the series and his art had many of the same qualities I had come to like from his Star Wars run. And the letters pages also were lively, with lots of fans writing in and good engagement from the editor, Bob Greenberger. More on him later.

Cover to X-Men Annual #10 (1986). Art by Arthur Adams.

I wrote one fannish letter to X-Men editor Ann Nocenti and writer Chris Claremont in autumn 1986, after we had moved to Arizona. I was trying to work out the continuity of the Mutant Massacre storyline, and where X-Men Annual #10 occurred in the run. I’m still not clear on that point, but I’m also glad they didn’t publish it.

A year later, I was a student at the University of Arizona. My initial major was general business, mostly because I had to pick something and had no idea what else to choose.

In Canada, I had been a strong science and math student. But my interest in those subjects was frustrated by the way they were taught at the Arizona high school where I finished my diploma, and in my freshman year at university.

I had intended to take calculus in high school in Alberta, but Arizona — to no one’s surprise — lacked that option. In university, it was taught in an auditorium with 600 freshmen. The weekly session with a teaching assistant was not helpful. Teaching my group was a thick accented man unskilled at — and apparently uninterested in — helping us make sense of the topic.

Buying a set of notes for the class from a local copy shop, I basically re-took the class at home in the last weeks before the final. I got an A, but none of it stuck, and I was already looking at other interests.

I enjoyed being a university student, and liked taking classes on topics as diverse as psychology, world literature, and military history. Few of the other students in my classes, however, seemed to have any real interest in learning about these things. They loved the social scene, but classes were merely tolerated. They were something to get through on the way to the degree and job that would afford them the flashy car they wanted. It was disheartening to see so many people just going through the motions and failing to take an interest of any kind in the amazing world we live in and the opportunity we had as students to learn so much about it.

I also had always liked current affairs, history, and politics. In school, we had studied the history and culture of Canada, obviously, but also places like Africa, India and China. We also studied the industrial revolution, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Russian Revolution. Given the threat of global thermonuclear war, the latter fascinated me as much as it scared me. For more than a year after watching “The Day After,” I had to distract my mind with the radio to fall asleep each night.

At university, I took advantage of being a student to read lots of newspapers, magazines and books I had never had access to before. I often stayed up late to watch Nightline, with Ted Koppel. That was a great show, though I always wished he had more time to discuss things — an hour instead of a half.

All this inspired me to put more effort into my writing at college and the results were immediate — good grades and some very flattering compliments from teachers. That had never happened before. I also was really enjoying it, following topics down a rabbit hole and using the power of revision to refine ideas. It was at minimum very satisfying, and more often than not a lot of fun.

I also was reading as many comics as I could get my hands on. I was particularly fond of the X-Men titles and the writing of Chris Claremont. He had a strong style, but he also told complicated stories and defined his characters in ways other comics and books did not. I was a fan. It made me think that one day I could do something related to comics. Maybe.

I would read the Writer’s Market — a guide to publications that buy freelance work — in the university bookstore. It reported at the time that top talent at Marvel earned six-figure incomes. That seemed unreal to me.

But a career related to comics just didn’t seem like a viable goal. And certainly not a serious one you could confess in Tucson, Arizona, in 1987.

All of this came together in the pages of Avengers #289, which came out in November 1987. The book’s editor, Mark Gruenwald, had a series of columns he wrote, called Mark’s Remarks, that ran in the titles he edited. And in this one, he was talking about what it takes to be an editor at a company like Marvel. He wrote that comics require highly structured writing, like journalism. So knowing something about journalism was helpful. Read the whole thing here, especially section 3:

The Mark’s Remarks column from the letters page of Avengers #289.

That stuck with me. It definitely played a role in my decision to switch my major to journalism. It wasn’t the biggest or most important reason. I had noticed in reading so many publications of all types that the people who worked on them seemed to really enjoy what they did, and that they felt it was important and worthy work. And that seemed like the right reason to point myself in that direction.

That choice was the right one for me. And I’ll never forget that moment of clarity, of the fuse that led to that decision being lit by reading that column.

I never had a chance to meet Mark Gruenwald, who died unexpectedly at the age of 43, in 1996. But I owe him at least a thanks for some simple words of encouragement. It’s amazing what a little of that can do — most people hear so little of it.

Next: Writing letters that actually got printed!

Comic-Shop Memories: Fantasy Comics, 1989-90, Tucson, Ariz., Part 1

I don’t remember why I stopped shopping at AAA Best when I started my junior year at the University of Arizona. Instead, I starting shopping weekly in Tucson at Fantasy Comics, which is located at 2745 N. Campbell Ave.

Fantasy was in an unremarkable one-story building, with a glass case at the front full of its more expensive comics. New releases were racked to the immediate right. The rest of the current comics were stocked in alphabetical order in racks that stretched to the back of the shop. The main floor featured lots of back issues. Charlie Harris, a frequent DC “letter hack,” either owned the store or worked there.

One of the most memorable things for me about shopping at Fantasy was that back issues were in heat-sealed bags. To get them open, you needed scissors, so there were lots of discarded comic bags in my trash.

Into the Trek comics wormhole

I fell deep into Star Trek at the time. DC published in August new Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series that I really enjoyed. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier had done poorly at the box office and with critics, but Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third series debuted in September and was by far its best to date.

But it was the classic Star Trek comic that really caught my eye. It had clever scripts by Peter David and slick art printed on good paper from the team of James Fry and Arne Starr. And nothing beat those covers by Jerome K. Moore. They are spectacular and I never tire of looking at them or admiring the skill Moore brought to those illustrations.

My Star Trek obsession led me to a Star Trek convention experience that cemented my fandom for that franchise. It was a weekend Creation Convention at the Tucson Convention Center, with special guest Patrick Stewart.

Prior to Stewart’s entrance, Gene Roddenberry’s assistant, Richard Arnold, previewed upcoming episodes of The Next Generation. These were sneak peeks at some of the best in the series’ run: “Deja Q,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Sins of the Father” and “Captain’s Holiday.”

Stewart appeared for a charming Q&A session at the end of the day. Among the secrets he revealed: He had accepted a teaching job at the University of Arizona. But the offer slipped through through the cracks and after landing the role of Captain Picard, he never looked back. What might have been!

Marvel’s X-Men on the rise

The other hot franchise was X-Men. It had been a best-seller for years at this point, but new artists raised the excitement to a new level. Jim Lee’s arrival on X-Men seemed inevitable after lengthy runs on Alpha Flight and Punisher War Journal. He did a few issues here and there at first, before taking the full reins in the summer of 1990. At the same time, Rob Liefeld also was pitching in on X-Men titles and getting some heat. He took over the penciling chores on The New Mutants in 1990 and introduced Cable, another high point. Erik Larsen took over penciling The Amazing Spider-Man from Todd McFarlane, who was set to launch a new Marvel title. With Marc Silvestri jumping from X-Men to Wolverine, the seeds of the Image revolution were taking root.

But Star Trek had sort of taken over my mind. I collected the first DC series, re-watched the movies and original TV shows, and even enjoyed some of the Star Trek novels. “Writer of Stuff” Peter David was the creator whose work I most enjoyed, leading me inevitably to The Incredible Hulk.

Lost in the aisles of Bookman’s

Fantasy was but one of the shops I frequented that year. Another mainstay was Bookman’s, a used-book store that filled a former grocery store space with tons of fascinating objects. Each visit took hours, it seems. I’d start with out-of-town newspapers and move on to a newsstand section full of old and new magazines. Then there were aisles full of used books, cassettes, CDs, and bargain low-grade comics. I always flipped through Comics Scene and the Comics Buyers Guide, catching in the latter news of a Peter David signing at All About Books and Comics in Phoenix. I skipped out on school to drive up from Tucson in time to hit the Thursday evening event.

The Hulk tour hits Phoenix

The signing was part of a tour promoting David and artist Dale Keown’s work on The Incredible Hulk. Keown had only drawn two issues of Hulk at this point, and the signing was sparsely attended. That gave everyone a chance to hang out with David and Keown and chat about a lot of things. David signed several Star Trek issues for me, a Next Generation novel he’d written, and some Hulks. He joked about calling his editor back in New York to rave about the warm Arizona weather.

To my surprise, Keown hailed from Alberta, so we talked about Canada and Arizona, as well as comics. I remember he sold the splash page to The Incredible Hulk #367, his first issue, for about $150. A few years later, I saw the same page for sale in another Phoenix-area store for many multiples of that.

The signing was part of a mini-tour that continued that weekend to comic shops in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All About produced a poster for the signing similar to the McFarlane one I wrote about previously. Mine is framed but in storage.

Hunting for back issues in Tucson

After that, I started seriously looking for back issues of The Incredible Hulk. David had been writer on Hulk for about three years, and I began by tracking down his back issues. I often visited a Tucson shop called Comics and Things, located in a strip mall at 3934 E. Grant Road, in search of Hulk and Star Trek back issues. It had a good selection of recent back issues but soon vanished into the ether.

The writing and art on Hulk surprised me. David started with a fairly conventional Hulk story with McFarlane on art. Their collaboration ended with a satisfying climax that completely changed the series’ premise. David next turned the Hulk gray and got him a job as a high-end Las Vegas bouncer named Joe Fixit. Jeff Purves drew this run and did a fabulous job before disappearing from the world of comics.

Hulk was so good that Sam Kieth drew the fill-ins — if you could call them that.

Keown drew Hulk for the next three years, and it became was a huge hit. David stuck with the title for years after, and still writes new Hulk stories from time to time. Great stuff.

How much is too much Batman?

This also was a time when Batman was still riding high on the popularity of the Tim Burton movie. So Batman was super-hot and DC released in the autumn of 1989 Legends of the Dark Knight #1. Promoted as the first new solo Batman book since 1940, this series set free top talent to do their ultimate Batman story.

The first issue also marked the first time I remember variant covers from a major publisher, as DC promoted the book with a second cover that came in four different colors. They said in the book that it was “just for fun,” but the result surely made DC’s accountants happy as fans decided they needed to have a copy of each color — and therefore bought four copies of that first issue.

Pointing out the differences between Tucson and Phoenix, that first Legends of the Dark Knight sold out immediately down south. The same was true of The New Titans #60 and 61, which were key parts of the current Batman storyline, “A Lonely Place of Dying.” I easily found both on my first comic shop stop on my next trip to Phoenix.

Next: My short career as a “letter hack.”

Comic-Shop Memories: David’s Used Books And Comics, aka Comics Corner, 1987-1988, Tucson, Ariz.

Picking up from where I left off: I left home in Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson shortly after my 18th birthday, in late August of 1987. My birthday gifts that year included a box of Tide powder, to do my own laundry with; and a dish-drying rack. All profoundly sensible items I needed and used.

I did not live in the dorms at U of A because doing so was so popular at the time that you had to apply a year in advance to get a spot. A year before, I still was in Edmonton, so my application was far too late to get me in. Instead, my Dad took me down to the Tucson sometime that summer and we found a two-bedroom apartment to rent and put out an ad for a roommate. I eventually got a response to the ad from a student coming to Tucson from New Jersey — also a freshman. We ate a lot of Domino’s Pizza those first months.

The apartment complex was quite nice. Our lower-level apartment had plenty of space and came furnished. There was a pool and hot tub in the complex, along with coin-operated laundry machines and grills for cooking. There were plenty of students living in the complex. A few fun girls, too. It’s still there, now called the Arcadia Park Apartments. There was an ABCO grocery nearby and bus lines we could pick up along East Fifth Street that took us directly to campus for classes. Neither me nor my roommate had a car.

I brought along my comics, and stuck them in my bedroom closet. I had maybe two and a half long boxes at this point. What I wasn’t sure of was where I could get comics in Tucson. Turns out, the answer was easier than I thought.

A quick look at the phone book revealed a comic shop within walking distance — not far from where I caught the bus to campus. It was called David’s Used Books And Comics most of the time; other times it was The Comic Corner. I don’t remember what the sign out front said, but I do remember it being in a small mall-type building at 5031 E. Fifth St. that is still there today.

The shop was set up in the standard way: New comics on racks around the side, with bins full of back issues in the center. There was a section at the back that had magazines, British comics and fanzines. The walls featured the usual higher-value back-issue comics, with the counter area at the front with display cases for the most-valuable and rare comics. This was all on the left half of the store as you walked in; the right side featuring mostly used paperbacks of all sorts.

So this solved my comic book sourcing problem, and I quickly set up a free pull list for all the titles I was following at the time. Still pretty heavy on the Marvel and X-Men line, which was gearing up for The Fall of the Mutants crossover.

I have a very clear memory of awaiting Excalibur, and buying the bookshelf special edition in December 1987, on probably my last visit to the shop before my first semester wrapped up. (I did well with grades — 3.6 GPA that first semester, I think.)

Cover to Excalibur Special Edition, released in December 1987. Cover art by Alan Davis and Paul Neary.

I also remember looking forward to Marvel ramping up its annuals with the Evolutionary War storyline that spring. And the artwork of Marc Silvestri on X-Men and Walter Simonson on X-Factor was exciting and vital.

Cover to The Incredible Hulk #340 (Feb. 1988). Art by Todd McFarlane and Bob Wiacek.

I definitely remember buying everything related to Fall of the Mutants at David’s, including a copy of The Incredible Hulk #340, with the now-famous Todd McFarlane cover, for cover price. McFarlane’s art was starting to gain attention in Hulk, especially once he started inking his own pencils.

I was already subscribing to The Amazing Spider-Man when Todd started working on that title with issue #298, meaning I bought my copy for 20 percent off the cover price of 75 cents! And I distinctly remember the sense of excitement that came along with picking up The Amazing Spider-Man #300, which McFarlane penciled and inked, and features the first full appearance of Venom. It’s still a very popular book. I will get soon to the tale of how I got my copy signed by McFarlane the following year.

I also remember very vividly the debut that fall of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show aired on the Tucson Fox station in syndication on weekends, which meant episodes aired on Saturday afternoon and repeated the following Sunday morning. That made it an easy show to catch, and I remember the hubbub when the DC Comics adaptation arrived at David’s, with that great Bill Sienkiewicz cover, the same week the show premiered. I didn’t scoop it up that first day it was on sale, and had to wait a while to grab a copy.

Cover to Star Trek: The Next Generation #1 (Feb. 1988). Cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz.

It’s hard to explain now how much that show meant to fans back then, even as it was roundly and correctly criticized for not being especially good. And the only reason I can think of that sticks is that at the time there was almost no sci-fi of any kind on TV at that time.

Earlier in 1987, ABC had a minor hit airing the sci-fi series Max Headroom, which starred Matt Frewer as futuristic journalist Edison Carter and was based on the British talk-show character concept. (I’d like to think it had some kind of influence on Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan comic book, which came along about ten years later). It was really good — a minor classic, even — but short-lived.

There also had been a very interesting ABC series called Probe, which Isaac Asimov was involved in and featured former The Hardy Boys star Parker Stevenson as a scientific prodigy who drove his assistant, played by Michelle Castle, more than a little crazy in the mode of Holmes and Watson. It ran for eight episodes in 1988 and was canceled. One of its producers, Michael Piller, later went on to contribute many great episodes to Star Trek: The Next Generation and co-created Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager before cancer took him at far too young an age in 2005.

And there was Sable, based on Mike Grell’s excellent First Comics series, Jon Sable, Freelance. This one only lasted seven episodes in late 1987 and early 1988, but was almost a decent adaptation of the comic. I recall reading a few issues of the book back in the day and seeing a trade paperback as one of the first graphic novel collections to be found in regular bookstores at the time, alongside Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Saga of the Swamp Thing. I’ve since read the whole series and really enjoyed it. The show was a pale imitation, but it was at the time the only TV adaptation of a comic to air on a network since The Incredible Hulk.

Cover to the Warner Books edition of Jon Sable, Freelance. Art by Mike Grell. Collects Jon Sable, Freelance #1-6, originally published by First Comics.

I think with Star Trek: The Next Generation, the collective audience for that kind of material — today scattered across endless series and streaming services — was concentrated in this one show. The ratings for it were very good, and I remember hearing very soon after it began airing that a second season was already ordered. The rest, of course, is history.

I really enjoyed the show, myself. It didn’t really matter that it wasn’t as good as the original. It was new Star Trek, and I liked the characters despite the often-weak early scripts. I remember one rainy Saturday afternoon when I took a study break to grab some comics at David’s, a sandwich from the deli next door, and watch the newest episode of the show, in which Tasha Yar met her demise at the hands of a pile of oily goo. I also spent a lot of time reading news magazines and newspapers, and watching current-affairs shows like Nightline with Ted Koppel. That was part of what led me to study journalism. Good times.

Back to comics: There was a growing sense that something was happening in comics. As I mentioned, graphic-novel collections from Warner Books started showing up in bookstores, and almost every newspaper and magazine in the country ran at some point a story on comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Love & Rockets and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’d noticed for the first time fans buying multiple copies of new issues in the hopes their value would go up. And the entire hobby seemed to be rising. Debates in shops were lively, respectful and pretty fun to take part in.

When that first year ended, I packed up and went back to Scottsdale for the summer. I didn’t know then that David’s would be gone when I came back a few months later. It was a great spot and a lot of fun to visit. I don’t know if I would have continued buying comics without it being so close to my first home away from home.

Comic-Shop Memories: All About Books & Comics (Part I), 1986-87, Phoenix, Ariz.

I don’t know how quickly I was able to discover All About Books & Comics after moving to Arizona, but it was pretty quick, likely within a month or so after arrival.

The shop was farther from home, about 16 miles from home or a half-hour each way in the car, at 535 E. Camelback Road. Like most comics shops, it was in an unremarkable building, albeit one that had bright letters and even characters at times painted on its street-facing windows.

It would be an understatement to say I was impressed when I first walked into the store. Not only was the space large, but it was crammed to the gills with new and back issue comics — more than I’d ever seen in any other shop. And, I quickly learned, there was lots more in the back. If you couldn’t find what you were looking for, just ask, and they’d come back shortly with the book you needed in fantastic shape. I have a stone-cold mint copy of X-Men #147 I acquired from the “back room,” and an equally nice copy of X-Men #142.

What impressed me most at first was the back issue selection, which was deep. I checked out the X-Men selection and — just in the box — they had just about every issue back to #143, the end of the John Byrne run. The issues before that were prominently displayed along the walls in mylar sleeves for “exorbitant” prices that ranged from $10 to $30 for most except the earliest issues of the “new” X-Men run. Every other title was stocked just as deeply, if not more so, since those early new X-Men issues were the hottest thing going at the time and there were no reprints. So to read them, you had to get the originals. Classic X-Men had just started and it was going to be a while before it got to the Dark Phoenix issues.

A later printing of the first X-Men trade paperback, with a great cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.

I say that with one exception, that applies directly to this visit. While checking out a rack in the corner, I came across the first X-Men trade paperback, published in 1984, collecting issues #129-137, for the cover price of $7.95. I had to have this book, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Luckily, Christmas was coming up, and I told my parents this is what I wanted. So my dad drove me down to the store again, we bought it — I was sure it would be gone by that point — and it went home to be wrapped awaiting Christmas morning. I remember reading it that Christmas Day of 1986 and absolutely loving it. I’ll have to do a whole post on that book another time.

The following May, I graduated high school and was due to attend the University of Arizona in Tucson starting in the fall. My dad was working for a personnel company that had a temp business that served American Express, which had extensive operations in the Phoenix area. So he got me a summer temp job at one of their call centers, answering a national informational toll-free number for the Amex business card. The hotline was advertised in USA Today and other high-profile places, so my job was to answer these calls, answer basic questions about the card, take down the caller’s information and pass it on so that an application would be sent to them, or — if they were a larger company — a sales rep could contact them. It was boring and easy. Most of the calls came from the East Coast, so the afternoons slowed to a crawl and I’d read sci-fi books I borrowed from the library at my desk until I was done at 4:30. The perks included being able to look up cardholder addresses in the computer — few comics folks seemed to have Amex cards, but I never stopped putting their names in the system — and a fantastic deli in the complex called The Duck and Decanter, which is still there and makes the most incredible sandwiches. And it was located at 16th Street and Camelback road, just nine blocks down the street from All About Books & Comics!

So 4:30 would hit and, about twice a week, I’d make All About my first stop. I had this summer job and sufficient financial aid to pay for university, so I felt free to spend a little money on comics. I was in full-on X-Men fandom mode at the time, and so these trips were used primarily to raid those deep back issue bins. I’d grab four or maybe five issues per visit, adding in a few other back issues to series I still had holes in — The New Mutants and Alpha Flight in particular. When I started frequenting All About, my X-Men collection ran back from the current issue (around issue #220) back to about #174, with a couple of older issues in there. By the end of the summer, I’d filled it in all the way back to #141, plus annuals. I’d also brought up to date my run of The New Mutants.

I was really interested at the time in the issues from Dave Cockrum’s second run as artist, which I was reading for the first time. They were very different in tone and style than the stuff that hooked me on X-Men: issues Claremont produced with artists Paul Smith, John Romita Jr., John Byrne and Art Adams. But the more I read the Cockrum stuff, the more I really came to love it fully and completely, faults and all.

I also started trying out more comics, still mainly Marvel. Favorites included: Avengers by Roger Stern, John Buscema and Tom Palmer; West Coast Avengers by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom; and Silver Surfer by Englehart and Marshall Rogers. All About was well stocked, and you could pick up at cover price, new off the racks, the last six or so issues of these titles plus any recent annuals. And new comics cost 75 cents at the time, so it was not terribly expensive to try out six or so issues of a new series.

I recall flipping through a copy of an issue of Batman: Year One and not buying it — which was, again, really dumb. I did later acquire those originals for a very reasonable price.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had been getting my subs through Fog Hollow Comics until it closed, and then those subs were transferred to a shop called AAA Best Comics. On Fridays, I would often hit All About and then drive up to Fog Hollow for my subs and then home. It took an hour in the car in Phoenix summer heat — without air conditioning. But this was my thing and I was all in. I almost always went for a swim as soon as I got home to refresh my sweaty self and remember for a moment what it was like to be cool.

The day before I was scheduled to drive down to university with my parents and move into my first apartment with a roommate I had yet to meet, I wanted to get my new comics from All About. It was new comics day, but in those days that was far less of a weekly event than now. The books came in and sat in piles on the counter throughout the afternoon as the staff worked to verify quantities before they could be put on sale. So I waited. For quite a while. I looked through back issue bins. I checked out the small section next to the comics where All About stocked used paperbacks and discount comics. Finally, the new books were freed and I picked up my comics, including X-Men #224, and began the long drive home in the late-afternoon heat.

Cover to X-Men #224 (Dec. 1987). Cover art by Marc Silvestri and Bob Wiacek.

If you’ve ever been to Phoenix in the summer, you know it gets really damn hot. And when the monsoons come, it gets worse because the humidity goes up from nothing to something. This was a monsoon day. I could see the thunderheads building up in the mountains, and was driving toward them as our house was near the foothills of the McDowell mountains. I had sweat through my clothes several times over in my AC-less VW Beetle. And then I got a flat on Hayden Road, just north of Via de Ventura. I pulled off onto a side street and, having no working spare, found a nearby pay phone to call for help. Which took a very long time to come because it was rush hour and our other car was otherwise occupied. So I found some kind of shop to sit in, with my comics, and read them until I got some help and could get home, wash off the day with a dip in the pool and try to prepare for the next day’s events. But I had my comics. That made me happy. And since I had an apartment, I did take with me my collection — about three long boxes at this point.

On to Tucson, and another town of new comics shops.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fog Hollow Comics, Phoenix, Ariz., 1986-87

Old Town Scottsdale is the kind of place where tourists like to overpay for snakeskin cowboy boots, extra-hot salsa, cheap turquoise jewelry and elaborate Kachina dolls. On the plus side, you can just as easily find some really good tacos and cold Mexican beer.

My family moved Oct. 2, 1986, to Scottsdale, Arizona. We lived in a home in what was then the north edge of town, somewhere between Shea Boulevard and Cactus Road, just west of 92nd Street. My comics collection at the time fit in one long box.

Of course, the first thing I did was consult the phone book for a nearby comics shop, finding several listings but none nearby. The first one I found and the closest was Fog Hollow Comics, located at 3215 E. Thunderbird Road, almost nine miles away. (Thanks to the AZFandom.org folks for recalling its name!) It’s still today an 18 minute drive, without traffic, each way, from our old address. So it wasn’t convenient, but at least it was a place I could make it to once my perception of what’s too far away to drive to adjusted to Arizona standards.

At the time, there were no freeways in the area. Phoenix and Scottsdale were massively spread out areas with nary a two-story building in sight. It was, truly, a city built more for cars to live in than people. And being on the edge of Scottsdale made pretty much everything you wanted to do, aside from going to the grocery, a trip of 10 or more miles on surface streets with lights that never synched up except to ensure you hit every single one in red.

Not the actual car I owned, but a photo of the same model and color. It had the original floor mats, 4-speed manual transmission and ran on regular gas — back when you could still buy such a thing.

Nonetheless, with two younger sisters and two working parents, my drivers license made sure I was kept busy dropping off or picking up somebody around the entire north quarter of Phoenix in a yellow 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Thank god it had a tape player. It did not have AC. That deficit’s seriousness would not make itself fully known, however, until the following spring and summer. Either way, it was a lot of time spent in the car.

At the time, I was buying pretty much only Marvel comics. I knew exactly which ones were coming out each week, thanks to Marvel Age Magazine, and I had them on subscription at Fog Hollow — my first pull file. Money was tight, so I’d calculate the exact cover price minus the discount plus the sales tax to ensure I could pay for my comics before making that drive. More than once I paid for my weekly haul to the penny.

Fog Hollow was located in a strip mall suite and, unlike many comics shops, had large windows on two sides of the space and was therefore bright and open and inviting. There was the usual back-issue bin in the center, with new releases on racks around the edge. Under the back-issue bin, behind a small door, was where the subscriber books were kept.

I remember on my first visit finding at least two comics that eluded me in Edmonton and really shouldn’t have: X-Men #192 and Power Pack #27. The former I just never could find in any of the back issue bins at the shops I frequented despite being only a couple years old and all the issues around it being easy to find. Power Pack #27 was part of the Mutant Massacre storyline and had sold out instantly in Edmonton, but was still racked in the new comics when I rolled in to Fog Hollow. That made me happy, and I was a steady customer of the shop through the summer of 1987, when it closed.

I remember stopping in on Friday afternoons to pick up my books. (New comic-book days on Wednesday were not a thing at that time — at least not one I was aware of.) I’d take home the comics I was reading at the time — from memory, standard Marvel stuff, such as X-Men, The New Mutants, Alpha Flight, The Amazing Spider-Man, Classic X-Men, X-Factor, Marvel Saga, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, The ‘Nam, Strikeforce: Morituri, Power Pack, some New Universe titles and Cloak & Dagger — and would spend most of the evening after dinner reading, re-reading, admiring and thinking about the new books. I didn’t have anything else to do, really.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 (Feb. 1987) is one of my all-time favorite comics. Cover art by Mark D. Bright.

Among the cool items I procured at this shop: A copy of X-Men #141 that I scored for a whopping 50 cents in the back-issue bin, and later took to the 1993 San Diego Comic-Con to be signed by both Chris Claremont and John Byrne; a second printing of The ‘Nam #1, as I was completely in love with this series and the great Michael Golden art; Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1, which was easily one of my most re-read books for the next year; and a copy of the first printing of the Wolverine TPB, collecting the original miniseries by Claremont and Miller, costing me a whopping $4.95, plus Arizona sales tax. (A quick note: I had a tough time adjusting at first to sales tax because there was none in Alberta. There, if it cost 99 cents and you gave them a dollar, you got back a penny. In Arizona, if it cost 99 cents, you had to hand over $1.07.)

Cover to the first printing of the Wolverine trade paperback, which collected the four-issue series by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein for the first time. Cost me all of $4.95!

Fog Hollow was run by a woman named Susan Putney, whom I later realized wrote a graphic novel for Marvel called Spider-Man: Hooky, that was drawn by no-less-a-great than Bernie Wrightson. When I eventually acquired a copy, I really enjoyed it. I also found a site that referenced a quote from former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who said he really liked Putney’s work and thought she could be good — but she kind of vanished after Hooky and Shooter himself was out at Marvel around the same time.

Cover to Spider-Man: Hooky, published in 1986. Art by Berni(e) Wrightson.

A little Googling reveals Putney also wrote a science-fiction novel called Against Arcturus that was published in 1972 as a a flip-book paperback with Time Thieves, by no-less-a-great than Dean R. Koontz.

From Google, the flip covers to Against Arcturus and Time Thieves, published in 1972.

I remember she would ring up my sub titles and give me a knowing “good reads,” especially the third week of the month when X-Men, The ‘Nam and Marvel Saga all arrived.

I also remember lusting after the copy of X-Men #94 displayed behind the counter. I recall her mentioning how she’d already sold one to a kid who paid the $100 or so the book cost in cash. You never know what a motivated kid can do.

There was an arcade-style video game in one corner, that played a music loop the staff had memorized and timed down to the second. And I remember one time the staff opening a box from the distributor that included fresh copies of First’s Lone Wolf & Cub reprints. I was not yet smart enough to pick those up, but the staff was sure excited.

Later that summer, I remember coming in to pick up my books one Friday afternoon and Susan was upset, said that the store was closing and subs’ orders had been transferred to another store, called AAA Best Comics, over on North Seventh Street — even farther away from home. It was sad, she was nearly in tears. I said thank you, I had really enjoyed shopping at the store and was sorry to hear it was closing. I didn’t know what else to say — I was only 17 years old.

I proceeded to get into my car, and trek on down to AAA Best Comics, which was a fixture in my life for the next eight years or so.

And I think I may track down a copy of Against Arcturus.

But before that, my next post will feature a detour to the longstanding champion of Phoenix comic-book shops, also sadly no more. Stay tuned.

Comic-Shop Memories: Fragments and an Alpha Flight mall Fantasy, Edmonton, Alta., 1985-1986

There were a few other Edmonton comic shops from the time that I visited but no longer remember. I’ve hunted online for any trace of these shops and they are, I’m sure, long gone and exist now only in the memories of those who shopped at them.

I recall one shop located on Stony Plain Road that I visited some time in 1986. I know the year because the woman who was working there was having a loud conversation with a friend about how much she was enjoying both Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne’s The Man of Steel. There were plenty of back issues in this shop, which is what I remember the most. And I remember scoring a beautiful copy, that I still own today, of this pivotal issue of X-Men:

X-Men #166 (Feb. 1983). Cover by Paul Smith.

This was my first issue with Paul Smith art and, when I got it home, I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it. It was double-size, had all kinds of amazing stuff happening in it, and it concluded the long-running Brood saga with a satisfying punch — and still ended with a cliff-hanger that ensured next issue was going to be even better. This was a high point of writer Chris Claremont’s long run and did a lot to cement X-Men as my favorite comic book.

The other shop I recall was located in West Edmonton Mall. For those who don’t know, WEM was as much an amusement park and tourist attraction as it was shopping mall. When it opened in 1981, it was just a nice mall. Big for the times, but nothing too special. It had the usual anchor stores, food court and movie theater (six screens!) where I saw Time Bandits more than once. In 1983, the mall doubled in size and exposed its ambitions, adding an NHL-size skating rink, even more movie screens, a huge McDonalds, and an amusement park area called Fantasyland that featured a handful of rides and attractions for mostly younger kids. In 1985, it doubled in size again, adding a third set of movie screens, a second food court, submarine rides, a dolphin tank, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria, miniature golf, a massive water park with a wave pool and slides, and two theme streets: Europa Street, which evoked a European feel for high-end fashion stores as tenants, and Bourbon Street, with restaurants and bars for lovers of the night life. There was a hotel with theme rooms planned, and Fantasyland doubled in size, adding a triple loop rollercoaster and “drop of doom” style ride for older thrillseekers. Yes, it was a lot. And legal action from Disney did prompt a name change from Fantasyland to Galaxyland.

Cover to Power Pack #1 (Aug. 1984) by June Brigman and Bob Wiacek.

When the second phase opened, it included an area for smaller retailers who sold things like sunglasses and jewelry. I forget the name of that part of the mall, but it was located above the massive video arcade in Fantasyland. You’d take an escalator up from Fantasyland, and then if you went to the immediate left, there was a small comics shop that sold new issues and had a modest selection of back issues. I remember buying there a copy of Power Pack #1 for $3, which was a good deal at the time. And the store ended up being drawn by former Edmonton resident John Byrne into Alpha Flight #26 (Sept. 1985).

Alpha Flight #26 (Sept. 1985). Cover by John Byrne and Bob Wiacek.

The issue starts with Alpha Flight — newly reunited in the previous issue with its founder, Guardian, who was believed killed in Alpha Flight #12 — undergoing a training exercise with the Canadian Military near Red Deer, Alberta. This takes up 12 pages of the issue’s 22 pages. Guardian then gets a message from his wife, Heather Hudson, that Alpha Flight is needed at West Edmonton Mall! They arrive and some man in a suit tells them everyone was chased out of the mall by these super-powered types who called themselves Omega Flight! The team splits up and each member is defeated by a member of Omega Flight — with help from a mysterious benefactor. Finally, we find Heather, who’s in front of the mall’s real comic shop when Guardian finds her.

Heather Hudson strolls past a comic-shop in West Edmonton Mall in Alpha Flight #26 (Sept. 1985).

Byrne draws the shop pretty much exactly as I remember it, though there appears to be more Byrne issues on sale there than I remember them having.

The story concludes with Guardian revealing himself to not be James McDonald Hudson, but the android that previously posed as Delphine Courtney in the death of Guardian arc. The story continues into Alpha Flight #27 (Oct. 1985), Secret Wars II #4 (Oct. 1985) and concluded in Alpha Flight #28 (Nov. 1985), which was Byrne’s last as writer and artist on the series.

The comic shop eventually moved to a larger retail space on the lower floor. There, it was the last comic shop I visited prior to our family’s move to Arizona. I distinctly remember that visit, and buying copies of the just-released X-Men #213 (Jan. 1987) with Sabretooth fighting Wolverine on the cover, and a copy of The ‘Nam #2 (Jan. 1987), which I had seen in a report on one of the American network news shows and decided to give it a look.

The only other comic shop I can recall was in the now-defunct Heritage Mall. It was mostly a gaming store, but they did have a small rack of comics and I recall thumbing through copies of Star Wars #104 (March 1986) and Power Pack #21 (April 1986) there, likely while just killing time until the next bus home.

And that’s it for Edmonton comics shops. I’ll do one more post on my newsstand experiences there, then move on to shops in Arizona.

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