Summer of ‘79

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This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest birthday gift I ever received. It was the summer of 1979 when my good friend and neighbor Maurice (whom we called “Reese” for short, though it should probably be spelled “’Rice”) gave me a healthy stack of eleven comics in honor of my birthday. (Full disclosure: I don’t think he gave them to me on my actual birthday though; I think it was a week or so after. It was four decades ago, however, so I don’t know that I’d trust even my vaunted memory 100% here.) Those comics were (drum roll please)…

Adventure Comics #465 (Sept. 1979)

Amazing Spider-Man #197 (Oct. 1979)

Captain America #238 (Oct. 1979)

Flash #277 (Sept. 1979)

Flash #278 (Oct. 1979)

Iron Man #126 (Sept. 1979)

Iron Man #127 (Oct. 1979)

Justice League of America #171 (Oct. 1979)

Marvel Team-Up #84 (Aug. 1979)

Marvel Team-Up #85 (Sept. 1979)

Marvel Two-in-One #55 (Sept. 1979)

(…There’s actually a ten-hour-long drum roll that some nut put up on Youtube—be glad I didn’t use that one.)

Ten of these comics were forty-cents cover price, and one (Adventure) was part of DC’s Dollar Comics line, so altogether that was five bucks worth of comics. This was a significant sum in 1979; this was what my aunts and uncles put in my birthday cards, one Abe Lincoln per card. So ‘Rice, a kid, was giving me a grown-up-value gift for my birthday. I was awed by the gesture. Even more incredibly—and likely the most important aspect of the gift, even though it was sheer, dumb luck—all of the comics were new to me. That’s right: somehow I’d managed to not buy any of them previously—an amazing set of circumstances given how comic-book crazy I was.

Looking back, it would seem clear that ‘Rice didn’t actually buy these comics for me; he bought them for himself. But because he was a secure and psychologically healthy young lad, he didn’t have this obsession with hoarding and re-reading his comics a million times like me. So after reading them once or twice, he passed them on to me for my birthday. Not that this has any bearing on what a boon it was to receive them—it still remains the best birthday gift I ever received.

One of the biggest clues that he originally bought them for himself is the selection. The Flash was ‘Rice’s favorite superhero, and there’s two Flash comics along with two others (Adventure and Justice League) that feature the character prominently. But I’m glad I got all of these specific issues—honestly, I don’t know how I could realistically imagine it turning out any better.

The Comics

…By the way, the comics pictured above are the actual comics ‘Rice gifted me forty years ago; never had to replace a single one of them. They’re all dog-eared at the corners and have clearly been read and re-read many times, but are still in pretty good shape. It’s even more impressive when you consider they were never bagged nor boarded.

I’ll admit I needed some help remembering all of them. I recalled the Flash comics, Adventure, and ASM #197 from the off. As these were all September or October pub months, I went over to mycomicshop.com and searched these two months for ‘79, plus August and November just to be sure. All I needed to refresh my memory was the sight of a cover and I knew instantly if it was part of the haul (or not). Pretty sure there were no other comics outside this pub range; they were all relatively new at the time.

Now there are some great, classic comics among this haul, but if there’s one clunker in the bunch, it’s Cap #238. It’s not a bad comic; there’s just nothing particularly great about it. A better art job likely would have helped—Fred Kida did pencils on this one and Don Perlin inked, and I think it might have been better if they swapped roles on this one.

But the rest? Strictly aces. In fact, I just love the snapshot of the moment in time captured by this collection of comics—and this doesn’t even include any X-Men, which was just taking off at the time, or Frank Miller, who had only just gotten started on Daredevil.

Amazing Spider-Man #197

This is the issue I probably remember most fondly from the whole group. First, it’s Spider-Man, my favorite superhero then, now, and forever. Then we’ve got the Kingpin, one my favorite Spidey villains. And then we’ve got a great story with tremendous action and drama. Finally, it’s of great historical significance in comic terms, as it’s essentially Kingpin’s goodbye to Spider-Man. Oh, we’d see him again in the future, but after this he was pretty much poached by Frank Miller and became hornhead’s primary antagonist over in the pages of Daredevil.

One of the things I most liked about Kingy was that he liked to get his hands dirty. By that I mean there would almost always be a great brawl between he and Spidey, and with his size, it always made for a theatrical, David-and-Goliath type showdown. And in this case, Spidey’s gotta fight with just one good arm!

At this point in my development, I was not staking out the newsstands waiting for new comics to come out, even though I knew, rationally, that they came out monthly. I was just going out and buying comics when the urge struck or when random circumstance put me in the vicinity of new comics. In this case, I hadn’t bought an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since issues 189 & 190 (a two-parter featuring the Man-Wolf). So I missed the beginning of Jameson’s breakdown, the debut of the Black Cat, and the (seeming) death of Aunt May, all prior to this issue. This served as a bit of a wake-up call, as it dawned on me that the 200th issue was coming up and I better start paying attention, lest I miss it.

So I picked up the series regularly again, beginning with ASM #198, got the dramatic story of the 200th issue (wherein Spidey went up against the burglar that killed Uncle Ben), and continued with the Punisher two-parter in issues 201-202, the Dazzler guest spot in #203, the return of the Black Cat in issues 204-205, and… wow. As I scroll through the issues on mycomicshop.com, I see that I’d never miss another issue of ASM again until I quit the book altogether circa ASM #400 in ‘94, when that clone nonsense (re)started. That’s 200 issues over the course of fifteen years, a run that began with ‘Rice gifting me ASM #197. So a lot of personal historical significance here as well.

Flash #277

Flash #278

And speaking of personal historical significance, these issues of The Flash also fall into that category—but I’ll get to that later. We’re right in the middle of Ross Andru’s run as editor of the title, which began seven months earlier with Flash #270 (Feb. 1979). The previous editor had been Julius Schwartz, who… honestly, I know he’s much beloved by most of my fellow old timers, but I’m not a big fan. I recognize he’s accomplished many great things, but there’s a lot of bad stuff on the back end of his career, in my opinion. Andru, on the other hand, injected a whole lot of life into The Flash when he took over. The fact that the writer, Cary Bates, remained in this same role under Andru proves my point: The writing and stories got markedly better even though it’s the same writer. So the presence of Andru (or perhaps the absence of Schwartz) has to be the reason.

Prior to this, Ross Andru had been the artist on ASM for nearly five years straight, from 1973 to 1978. One of the things Andru brought with him when he made the move over to DC (and The Flash) was a Marvel sensibility. This meant a lot more turmoil in Barry Allen’s personal life and subplots galore.

Oh yeah—and one shocking death. This house ad sums it all up fairly well:

Was the death of Iris West Allen a sales stunt? Yes. Did it work on me? Also yes. In fact, I would be captivated by tragic deaths like this in almost any media I consumed as a kid. Even the death of Gwen Stacy enthralled me, initially—it was only later, when I grew up and developed some maturity and taste (and actually read the original story), that I came to dislike it. Yet again, it likely comes back to my being adopted and losing my birthfamily. I think this led me to identify with characters that suffered great losses of loved ones in their lives.

So issue #277 begins in medias res, as the Flash is in the midst of a conflict with his fellow JLAers (picking up the cliffhanger from the previous issue). Flash really tosses them around here, looking like a total badass, before Green Lantern finally ties him up with his ring. But this leaves Flash’s feet free, as GL’s ring can’t affect his yellow boots, so Flash starts spinning and drilling through the floor of the JLA satellite before finally passing out. An examination reveals that Flash had a whole lot of angel dust in his system, enough to kill any ordinary man, but Flash survived due to his hyper-metabolism. Then we have one of the most touching scenes in superhero comics history, as Iris’s funeral is the next day and the Flash’s fellow JLAers are deeply concerned about him.

Dang, is somebody chopping onions around here? ‘Scuze me while I get a tissue and dry my eyes.

Forty years later, this still gets to me. The way Wonder Woman holds his hand, strokes his face, and her words: It’s up to us to make sure he doesn’t! We’ll stick to him like flypaper until it’s over! I miss this era of comics, when superheroes were good-hearted people that loved and supported each other and did the right thing simply because it was right.

When Barry wakes up the next morning, Clark (Superman) Kent and Hal (Green Lantern) Jordan are there with him to lend support and help him get through this awful day. Most of his fellow JLAers also attend the services. From here, it’s back and forth between subplots, as the Flash (briefly) considers retirement, Melanie the psychic (and Flash’s “mindmate”) reappears, and there’s a super-fun fight with Mirror Master along the way.

Flash #278 opens with another entertaining clash with a classic rogue—this time Captain Boomerang. (As promised by the cover—speaking of which, it is only signed by the inker, Dick Giordano, but the figures are clearly drawn by Andru. Take it from me, I grew up on Ross’s Spider-Man, I know his figures when I see them. Why he didn’t sign his work, I don’t know.) Then we follow Barry to the police headquarters of Central City, where he’s trying to crack two cases: Iris’s murder and finding out who drugged him. This transitions to the prime suspect in the murder, Clive Yorkin, who’s still on the loose and now demonstrating some awful new powers he gained as a result of the “Nephron Process.”

Clive Yorkin was nothing like your regular supervillain. He wore tattered prison grays, was clearly out of his mind, and never spoke—he just sorta growled like an animal. He had a real world, Charles Manson, Son of Sam quality that was rather terrifying to me at the time. Kudos to Alex Saviuk for the way he penciled him; in fact I really enjoyed Saviuk’s art throughout his tenure on this book.

So Yorkin’s wreaking havoc at this movie theater while the Flash gets entangled with yet another classic rogue: Heatwave. Yorkin inevitably shows up and uses his newfound life-draining power on Heatwave before the Flash chases him off. When Flash catches back up with him, Yorkin grabs him in a death grip and seems on the verge of draining away all his life energy as we end on another awesome cliffhanger.

I was completely caught up in this. So much so that (and here comes the personal historical significance mentioned earlier) these comics and this storyline compelled me to get my first comic book subscription. Yep, Flash was the first comic I ever subscribed to, all because I didn’t want to risk missing an issue and not seeing the resolution of the big mystery. The next issue (#279) ran the same subscription ad reproduced above, so I clipped it and sent it in. (Four bucks for twelve issues, can you imagine? Does four bucks even get you one comic book nowadays?) Of course, the first issue I got in the mail (in a brown, paper-bag type sleeve) was issue #281 and I missed #280 entirely. Naturally, #280 was the issue that ended the Yorkin plotline and it was YEARS before I was able to finally track down a copy and find out what happened to him.

For the record, I was convinced Yorkin killed Iris at the time, but there were twists ahead in the story that I could not have anticipated. Perhaps I’ll do an extended post on the whole storyline (or maybe Andru’s entire editorial run) at some point in the future and cover it all.

Iron Man #126

Iron Man #127

Does this even require explanation? We’re right smack dab in the middle of the legendary “Demon in a Bottle” arc here—in fact, the following issue after these two (#128) would be the actual “Demon in a Bottle” story from which the arc took its name. Every comic fan worth their salt knows about this story already, but I’ll try to lend some perspective as a kid that got to experience it firsthand.

Now #126 was an oddity, particularly for me. Nine of the first ten pages are spent recapping the last several issues, and the titular superhero doesn’t even appear (outside of the earlier recapping) until the very last page. (Granted, it’s one hell of a dramatic last page.) For an action-loving kid like me, this hadda hoit. If I had seen it on the stands and leafed through it, I don’t know that I would have bought it, so it’s precious good fortune that it was gifted to me.

The heavy is this gray-haired, old guy in a housecoat named Justin Hammer. Now a whole buncha supervillains will pop up right near the end, giving me some hope for the following issue, but I still wasn’t getting the big fight scene(s) I normally lived for. There was some action, as Tony Stark threw more than a couple punches, but no superheroes toppling buildings the way I normally liked it.

By the way, that smartass, wise-cracking, fun-loving alcoholic as played on the big screen by Robert Downey, Jr., was truly born during this comic-book run by Michelinie, Romita, and Layton. So if you enjoyed Iron Man in the movies, these are the first guys you should thank.

And if you were one of those types who liked their superheroes (and villains) more grounded in reality, you’ll appreciate how this story explains how/where the bad guys (or many of them, anyway) get the money for all of their high-tech equipment. (Spoiler: They get it from evil industrialist Justin Hammer.)

My aforementioned hope for Iron Man #127 would indeed be rewarded, as it’s one of the biggest superhero brawls I could have ever dreamed. Now had I seen this issue on the stands, it would have been a guaranteed purchase based on the cover alone! And that blurb: “Alone Against the Super-Army!” I guess it’s a good thing I hadn’t discovered it for myself on the stands, as I just might have passed out from excitement.

As the cover indicates, there are a whole lot of super-baddies here—a dozen altogether. They are: Spymaster, Melter, Discus & Stiletto, Constrictor, Beetle, Leap-Frog, Water Wizard, Blizzard, Man-Killer, Porcupine, and Whiplash. Iron Man whups ‘em all, with the exception of the Water Wizard, who has the good sense to exit stage left rather than mix it up with shellhead. (In hindsight, I’m not sure what Water Wizard was even doing there, as he doesn’t get his powers from any tech, unlike all the other villains present.) Iron Man finishes cleaning house about two-thirds of the way through the issue.

The back third (or so) of the book deals with Tony’s spiraling alcoholism, most of which was beyond my grasp—all I knew of alcoholism and drunks at the time I had learned from watching Foster Brooks as a panelist on Match Game. But when Tony chews out Jarvis while in a drunken stupor, leading to Jarvis’s resignation the next morning, it packed a punch. Viewing it through a modern lens, the storyline might seem a bit simplistic, but at the time it was certainly groundbreaking and very well done.

Adventure Comics #465

The real-world explanation behind these dollar-sized Adventure comics was that DC was left with a ton of stock to burn off in the wake of the DC Implosion. But hey, I ain’t complaining—that just meant more comic goodness for yours truly.

We kick it off with a fun little Flash tale by Bates & Heck. Then we get a Len Wein scripted Deadman story with an art job by José Luis García-López that is simply (no pun intended) to die for. Miraculously, Dick Giordano’s inks somehow manage to make the art even better. We end things with an Aquaman tale by Bob Rozakis and illustrated by the late, great Don Newton, but before this they gave us my favorite part of the comic: a tale featuring the Justice Society of America.

It was done by the same team that finished their run in All-Star Comics, Paul Levitz and Joe Staton. Seeing the JSA in their own comic story again was a pleasant surprise, and I knew I would have to track down some back issues of Adventure to see if I’d missed any other stories of them. (Spoiler Alert: there were.) This was an entertaining yarn of the team tracking down this capsule that could release a poison cloud capable of killing all the citizen’s of Earth-2’s Gotham City. Huntress and Power Girl take center stage for most of it, but the other Golden Agers get enough face time to keep me happy.

The next issue would be the last in this format, as the book would return to the more conventional 40¢ size and feature Plastic Man and the new Starman with #467, but #466 did have one of my fave JSA tales, “The Man Who Defeated the Justice Society!” (spoiler alert: it was Senator McCarthy), and I would not have been on the lookout for the issue if not for getting issue #465 from ‘Rice.

Ah, yes—and at the end of #465’s tale, we get an appearance from Mr. Terrific. He’s here to join the group for their annual get-together with the JLA, which took place in…

Justice League of America #171

I have discussed this comic and its storyline several times in the past on this blog, so I don’t know that I have very much to add here. But as stated previously, it is essentially a locked-room murder mystery aboard the JLA satellite, guest starring the Justice Society of America in their annual summer crossover. The character that bites the dust is the aforementioned Mr. Terrific.

A month or two down the line, I did have a bit of fun at ‘Rice’s expense over the mystery. He asked if I ever saw the follow-up issue, which I had. Naturally, he wanted to know who the killer had been and I told him, “the Flash.” The Flash being his favorite hero, his eyes bugged out in disbelief.

“The Golden Age Flash,” I added, and his eyes went back into his head, though he was still slightly perplexed.

“Really?” he asked.

“Well yeah, but it wasn’t really him. He was possessed by this bad guy called the Spirit King.”

His eyes narrowed and his face settled into an expression that silently screamed back at me, “you asshole.”

Marvel Team-Up #84

Marvel Team-Up #85

We land precisely in the middle of things here, with these two issues being the last two installments of a four-issue storyline. There sure were a lot of ongoing, to-be-continued, multi-issue arcs in this batch, weren’t there? This one was by Chris Claremont and Sal Buscema, with absolutely gorgeous inks/finishes by Steve Leialoha.

Now personally speaking, I have always held that Claremont’s best writing work was during this extended run on Marvel Team-Up. On nearly every other project he did (particularly if his tenure was a long one), I found his work would inevitably deteriorate into formulaic craziness and/or nonsense. For example, Kitty Pryde started out as a kid mutant that could phase through things. After five or so years of Claremont writing her in X-Men, she became a kid mutant that could phase through things that was also a computer genius with ninja training that had her own pet dragon from outer space. You can see what a mess of crap this is, right?

In hindsight (and I’ve mentioned this before), I think what made Claremont’s collaboration with John Byrne so effective was that each man seemed to curb the worst creative instincts of the other. With Team-Up, I think the nature of the book curbed Claremont’s worst writing instincts in a similar fashion. This is Team-Up now, not ASM or Spectacular, so he’s not allowed mess much with Spidey’s character, he’s forced to concentrate on plot/action. And he gave us some great plots and action over the course of his stewardship of the title, which ran from MTU #57 (May 1977) to #89 (Jan. 1980), with five fill-in issues (71, 72, 73, 78, and 87). So two and a half years with just a couple breaks sprinkled in there.

And in all that time, this storyline was quite possibly his high point. It’s yet another great battle royale, with Spidey, Black Widow, Shang-Chi, and Nick Fury on one side, and the Viper, Silver Samurai, Boomerang, and a Heli-carrier full of hypnotized S.H.I.E.L.D. agents on the other. It didn’t start like this from the off; it started in issue #82 with just Spidey and the Widow, then Nick Fury (#83), then Shang-Chi (#84), building to a crescendo with all three being listed on the cover with Spidey in issue #85.

Viper gives us a healthy-sized recap of her criminal career, from Madame Hydra on down, to kick off issue #84—very helpful for me, as I was getting started in the middle. In many ways, this four-parter was a culmination of events that started with Claremont’s first issue on MTU, #57, wherein Spidey first fought the Silver Samurai alongside the Black Widow. There was also this real juicy subplot with the Widow developing a split personality and this personality developing romantic feelings for Spider-Man. (Beware Pete! She’s just gonna bite your head off and eat you afterward!)

Marvel Two-in-One #55

Yet another well-remembered, long running arc, the six-part “Project: Pegasus” epic was written by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio. The first three installments featured art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnot while the back three were done by George Pérez and Gene Day. Guest starring across the six issues were Quasar, Thundra, Wundarr, and Giant-Man (Bill Foster, the former Black Goliath), with appearances from Deathlok, Nuklo, Klaw, Solar, and more. And once more, this issue plops us right in the middle of it all, being the third part of six.

This is also the issue where Bill Foster makes the name switch to Giant-Man. Somewhere out there is an interview with one or more of the creators involved, explaining why they made this switch, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere. But I’m guessing they decided to walk back the choice of calling him “Black” Goliath because that was getting problematic with the two prior white guys being just regular ol’ “Goliath.”

This was clearly the peak era for Two-in-One. Classic story arcs would continue in issues 61-63, featuring the quest of “Her” to revive the dead Adam Warlock; and “The Serpent Crown Affair” in issues 64-66, featuring the badass, new Serpent Squad.

Snapshot

As mentioned near the beginning, this stack of comics doesn’t even include any Claremont/Byrne X-Men or Frank Miller Daredevil—and the Wolfman/Pérez Teen Titans was still a little more than a year away. Yet this small, highly unscientific sample size shows that mainstream superhero comics were still vibrant and bursting with creativity in 1979. They were starting to venture into deeper waters with more long-running storylines, but nothing like the messes we’d get in the decade to come. None of it was overly complex and the stories remained accessible to most readers. No gigantic crossover events and nothing overly continuity-obsessed. And none of it felt poisoned by profit motive. No sales gimmicks—yet.

I miss this era. I miss riding my bike to one of the local newsstands and always being pleasantly surprised by (at least) one or two of the new comics I would find there. I miss paying for comics with loose change. I miss that feeling of anticipation when a comic would end on a juicy cliffhanger; or the joy of finding the conclusion of a previous cliffhanger. I miss the awe I felt at seeing the work of a García-López or a Pérez and dreaming of someday drawing comics like theirs.

I miss 1979. I miss being a kid. But until someone invents a time machine, the closest I can get to going back there is a blogpost like this one.

Thanks again for the comics, ‘Rice.

 

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