Batman: "What if our wolf-like prowler is not wearing a mask?"
from: "Moon Of The Wolf" by Len Wein, Neal Adams & Dick Giordano (Batman # 255)
"The sun is going down, the streets are still as bright as day.
See the shiny cars driving round detecting crime.
Hear the sirens wail; the cops are only killing time.
I've been searching all through the city."
from: "All Through The City" - Dr Feelgood (BBC session version)
There's a terrible melancholy which comes from feeling able to identify the precise point at which a favourite creator's style ceases to become entirely compelling. From the time of "Moon Of The Wolf" onwards, the art of Neal Adams would become gradually more and more characterised by a sense of the monumental, by ever-broader and more exaggerated cartoon gestures which at times quite seemed to overwhelm that part of his art which had previously been marked by restraint and delicacy. It's a development which worked to the considerable advantage of 1978's "Superman v Muhammad Ali", but then what else but a great monumental shift up in gears would have suited the grand sweeping spectacularisms of that tale? But "Moon Of The Wolf" is the product of a somewhat different Neal Adams, struggling with the challenges of Len Wein's serviceable script and the constraints of just 20 page of story. Every page strains with invention, as if he were an artist furiously attempting to express so much more than the page-count might ordinarily permit. Innovative and yet always story-serving layouts abound. There's a mass of panel-heavy sides suggesting a far more complex story than really is at hand, and yet those somewhat-crowded pages are brilliantly structured to compel the reader to drive faster and faster into the narrative. Having struggled one last time against the limitations of another's script combined with the standard format of the comics of the time, his work having been enhanced by Dick Giordano's gorgeously rich and atmospheric inks, Neal Adams abandoned regular work for the Big Two, and in doing so left behind something of that vital pearl-stimulating grit too.
"It has been necessary to shatter the globular light fixture - - - - to attain a position from which you may - - - - shatter their faces ... with a forearm smash and a knee smash, respectively."
from: "Citadel On The Edge Of Vengeance" by Doug Moench, Larry Hama & Dick Giordano (Marvel Premiere featuring Iron Fist # 17)
"Do the Wall Street Shuffle,
Let your money hustle,
Bet you'd sell your mother.
You could buy another."
from: "The Wall Street Shuffle" by 10cc
The first four of Iron Fist's tales are, for stories placed in a monthly book whose covers carried the Comics Code Authority seal, often notably brutal. It's a level of deliberately-inflicted and precisely-directed violence which, in juxtaposition with the setting of sterile corridors and strip-lit offices, creates an almost psychedelic sense of the everyday and the extraordinary colliding. Relentless, bleak, hopeless, this Iron Fist feels like every capitalist's most terrifying nightmare, the indomitable embodiment of the most savage retribution owed to all of those whose lives were squandered in the name of whatever it was that avarice had wanted to extort from the powerless.
Henry: "By golly, Emma ... Today's convinced me! You're right! Mosques ... Cathedrals ... after a while, they all look alike!"
Nico: "But, Dad ... !"
from: "Cathedral Perilous: Chapter 5" - Archie Goodwin & Walt Simonson (Detective Comics # 441)
"Here I stand. Look around. You won't see me.
Now I'm here. Now I'm there.
I'm just a new man. Yes, you made me live again ... "
from: "Now I'm Here" - Queen
If there's a more perfectly judged homage to Will Eisner's Spirit stories in the canon of superhero tales than "Cathedral Perilous", I've yet to read it. Goodwin and Simonson established just how secret the Manhunter's world, and indeed the Manhunter's war, was by showing how it just occasionally peaked out into plain view before the eyes of a young bored tourist desperate for a more exciting holiday. In the background, cloned assassins grown from the DNA of the Golden Age Manhunter are picked off by the resurrected Paul Kirk himself, while in the foreground, everyday life rolls on dully under an ice-cream-melting sun. Enchanting, exciting, heart-breakingly suggestive of a lost future in which comic-book modernism and traditionalism might combine to create a new way of telling even the back-up stories in "Detective Comics", "Manhunter" still stands as the road which ought to have been more travelled.
Nameless Old Man: "I have head tales of your coming ... on a horse, it was said ... I rode a horse once ... as did my two brothers. We rode with the one you seek, Dr Strange! Aye, we rode with Death, Dr Strange! My name is Famine!"
from: "... Where Boundaries Decay" by Steve Engelhart, Frank Brunner and Dick Giordano (Dr Strange # 4)
"As I walk through this wicked world,
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity,
I ask myself, is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery"
from; "What's So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding" by Brinsley Schwarz
Engelhart and Brunner's solution in the "Silver Dagger" stories to the problems of how to portray a terrifying comicbook world of magik drew upon the late Medieval traditions associated with the wake of the Black Death. Trapped in a realm of the most hopeless poverty and suffering, surrounded by "plague-ridden" men who cannot die although they hurl themselves from the heights to do so, Stephen Strange and a simulacrum of the winged horse Aragorn must track down and fall before death in an attempt to escape back to Earth. In places almost sickening in its horror, "... Where Boundaries Decay" offers subsequent generations of creators a simple guideline as to how to frighten their readers, namely; tap in the material generated by the cultures of folks who really have lived through hell, and only just survived.
Doc: "What is that ... that thing, Mr Tork?"
Tork: "He ain't no thing, Doc. He's a good friend of the family, same as Dawg wuz."
from "Nobody Dies Forever" by Steve Gerber, Mike Ploog and Frank Chiaramonte ("Man-Thing # 10)
"But remember Brothers and Sisters,
You can still stand tall.
Just be thankful for what you've got."
from: "Be Thankful For What You Got" by William DeVaughan
Marvel, it's said, had never received so many letters pleading for the life of anyone, let alone that of a poor old dead dog, or 'Dawg', as they had posted to them in response to "Nobody Dies Forever". The trope of the beloved hound murdered while bravely defending its family is a strange almost-commonplace in many of the era's best comics, but it's probably presented in its most touching form here. From the street mutt slaughtered in "Swamp Thing" # 7, to the Werewolf-slain pet in "Night Of The Moon" in "Batman" # 255, to the poor canine sidekick of Jonah Hex in "Weird Western Comics" # 14, the comic book readers of the Seventies must have developed an anxiously quickening heartbeat and a prickly sense of unease whenever a dog appeared in the comics before them. The very sight of Krypto in any of the Superman titles must have unwittingly caused panic attacks across America and beyond.
Private Cop: "You can't enter this city . . It's been rented for the night by a private citizen!"
OMAC: "I'm OMAC! No city is closed to me!!"
from: "In The Era Of The Super-Rich" by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer
"For the love of money,
People will steal from their mother.
For the love of money,
People will rob their own brother."
from: "For The Love Of Money" - The O'Jays
Jack Kirby, as we know, loathed bullies, and, from Will Eisner's tale of a young Kirby "explaining" himself to a hoodlum trying to shake down the studio in which they worked, it was a hatred of the abuse of power which he'd carried with him all his life. And OMAC is at its heart a tale of how the bullying elites of the West are slipping from the possibility of democratic control and fundamental human decencies, and of how someone is desperately needed to step in and deliver a few heavy blows in order to bring our supposed betters back into line. In these concerns, OMAC is one of the most profoundly political comics of its time, and it's unfair that it's rarely ever granted the respectful attention it deserves for that beyond the estimable ranks of Kirby fans and scholars. OMAC's world is one of environmental collapse and de-humanising technology, of global corruption and individual helplessness. It's a picture of the whole of the Earth reduced to a great broken playground for warlords of one class or another to lord over it. "In The World That's Coming" ran the tag-line for the series, but almost 40 years later, that world seems practically here. Yet, it appears, there's no Brother Eye or Buddy Blank in sight to inspire our resistance, and the various takes of OMAC which we've been given since carry not a trace of the radical loathing for power which the original so brilliantly embodied.
Earl Crawford: "Wh-What are you? Wh-why couldn't you at leave his family s -- something to ... to bury?"
from: "The Man Who Stalked The Spectre" by Michael Fleisher, Russell Carley and Jim Aparo (Adventure Comics # 435)
"Remember your guard dog?
Well I'm afraid that he's gone.
It was such a drag to hear him whining all night long ..."
from: "Revolution Blues" by Neil Young
In the comics marketplace of the first half of the Seventies, Michael Fleischer's Spectre scripts were quite literally shocking to more traditional-minded readers. His corpse-white guardian wasn't a super-ghost on a learning curve, discovering how not to judge too harshly we poor fallible mortals, but rather a creature of the most resolutely malicious and savage of natures. And so, each Spectre tale followed a simple and predictable and entirely satisfying path. Someone would do something profoundly terrible and the Spectre would track him down and do something profoundly and imaginatively terrible to him. What was most remarkable was that the stories never became as dull as they were over-familiar and utterly predictable. Fleischer and Aparo's absolutist glee was channelled so joyfully into this month's gruesomely final punishment that the slightest variation in the Spectre's murderous business became funny in itself; the formula worked like that of a Warner Brother's cartoon or the closing havoc of a spaghetti western, teasing the reader towards the satisfaction of a nasty, nasty baddy-killing climax. And yet, these were tales which were so apparently unambiguous in their hang-'em-high, far-right morality that even instinctively liberal-humanist readers could read them and enjoy them, as if they were brilliant satires of notions of frontier justice. Well, perhaps they were. But even the presence of a crusading bleeding heart journalist looking suspiciously like Clark Kent placed as a moral counterpoint in the stories couldn't diminish the sense that the pleasure of these tales was that of schadenfreude. When the Spectre transformed a murderer into a wooden statue of himself and then took a chainsaw to his art, there's nothing but the joy of the most bloody-handed of vengeance-porn sitting there right before the reader's eyes. Even in the era of the slightly-transgressive monster book, there was nothing to match Fleischer's scripts for their message that life's hard, mistakes get made, and then you get transformed into a candle so that the Spectre can melt you down.
"Lu Sun ... Would you contend against Fu Manchu?"
"Would you, Shang Chi?"
from; "Retreat" by Steve Engelhart, Paul Gulacy and Al Milgram (Master Of Kung Fu # 19)
"She's reading comics, eating Chinese food,
She chopped the coffee table right in two.
Kung Fu; it's messing with my life."
from: "Kung Fu" by Sharks (Shockingly, not on Youtube!)
It's sometimes easy to forget how pretentious Pop culture can be, and there never was a pop craze as pretentiously vapid as the Kung Fu excesses of 1972/5. Justifying hours and hours of screeching men smashing themselves in puree with a few seconds of faux-Daoism was the spirit of the times, and "Retreat" perfectly captures both the glee and the portentousness of Bruce Lee and his deadly little brothers. Like a great pop culture mash-up, the script carries an obvious and unofficial guest appearance by Kwai Chang Caine from TV's "Kung Fu", a host of characters from Rohmer's Fun Manchu novels, Shang-Chi himself, and, as if that wasn't enough, the Man-Thing, burning whatever it is that knows fear as the Man-Thing must. It's exactly the kind of smart and unrestrained thieving from popular culture which comics seem to have almost entirely forgotten how to do, and yet here stealing from left, right and centre immeasurably enriched the whitebread superheroic staples of the Marvel Universe. If you could stomach the deeply meaningful as well as revel in the patently ridiculous, the early "Master Of Kung Fu" could be a tremendously enjoyable, if almost entirely insubstantial, ride.