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Friday at the Kids’ Table

This is another one that bounces all over the place, so bear with me.

There’s a story that Lillian Hellman used to tell about Dashiell Hammett, a time when he was reading one of her early plays. As he read it, his scowl got progressively more fierce, until finally he hurled the manuscript down and cursed. She was horrified and asked him, “Was it that bad?”

“It’s worse than bad,” Hammett gritted. “It’s almost good.”

That’s how I feel in recent years, every time I see what Marvel and DC are trying to do as their “kid’s comics.”

I love that they are trying. Seriously, I do. There should be superhero comics out there that kids can enjoy. And to be fair a lot of the time DC and Marvel have the basic idea right. And then… they make a mistake so elemental, so maddeningly bone-stupid, that it negates the whole effort.

It’s at that moment that I completely understand Hammett’s annoyance. Because to get so close to something wonderful and then just boff it… that really is far more frustrating than to see someone who’s clearly messed it up from the get-go.

I’d been meaning to talk about this for a while anyway, but since Joe Rice clearly touched some kind of a nerve yesterday with his column about Mike Kunkel’s new Captain Marvel book, I thought I might as well get to it now.

I really like Kunkel's art. His heart's in the right place. The execution... ALMOST, but almost is still a miss, you know?

But first, as usual, a brief reminiscence.

*

Seeing as how today is the Fourth of July, it’s oddly appropriate that Joe’s grumping about the new Captain Marvel book inadvertently reminded me of one of the most hellish of American family traditions… being forced to eat at the kids’ table.

In our family, when we’d go over to my grandparents’ house for the big barbecue on the Fourth, my uncle Vance would show up with this hideous yellow-and-orange flowered aluminum valise thing that unfolded into a rickety picnic table about two feet tall. That was the kids’ table.

I hated it.

Part of it was that I was the oldest of the ‘kids’ (my cousins Mike and Jim were in high school, they got to eat with the grown-ups and Jim was even allowed a beer.) So I was always held responsible for my brother and younger cousins. Part of it was just the damn table itself, which was cramped and uncomfortable if you were over the age of seven. Part of it was simply that in my family, gatherings always had a way of going sour no matter where you sat.

But the specifics don’t matter. I bet if you were ever consigned to the exile of the “kids’ table” at your family gatherings, you learned to hate it too.

Because if there’s anything that kids hate, it’s being told that they’re just kids.

This is the part where the wheels always come off the wagon for Marvel and DC when they are doing these ‘all-ages’/’Johnny DC’/whatever titles. Considering the entire superhero industry is run by aging fans, fans who are so obsessed with making sure superheroes get taken “seriously” that the sex and violence quotient of your average spandex book is through the roof… how is it that these same fans can’t remember what it felt like to actually be a kid getting into superheroes and fantastic adventure?

I’m assuming if you’ve gotten this far, you’re a comics fan. Okay. Think back, all of you reading this. What was your first experience with the Real Stuff, the comic that turned your casual reading/hobby/pastime into a passion?

I can tell you exactly what mine were. I’ve spoken before of how TV’s version of the DC characters, and Batman in particular, were a gateway to the comic books for me. And make no mistake, I loved comic books from the moment I set eyes on one.

But there was also a time, in the early seventies, when I was thinking maybe I’d outgrown them.

This was back when comic books were considered fit only for ‘little’ kids, remember. And I was about to enter junior high, I wasn’t a little kid any more.

Apart from all that, comics were a liability for me in many ways, as much as I loved them. I was already one of those nerdy types that got picked on and pushed around at school, and I’d learned back in the fourth grade that taking a comic book to school was a good way to get it taken away from me and torn up by some playground thug. My parents were always after me to give them up too. As a result, my funnybook reading was a bit furtive, something I kept private so I wouldn’t have to defend it. The older I got, the more defensive I felt about it.

Watching the Adam West Batman surfing against the Joker in afternoon syndicated reruns, I couldn’t help but feel that maybe all those people jeering at superheroes had a point.

Hey, Romero had some chops, too. You think Heath Ledger could go there?

Maybe it was time to let Batman and the other super-guys go. Maybe… maybe I really was too old for them. After all, I was in double digits now… I was ten.

I'm TEN and a HALF now! I can tell when I'm being smirked at, dammit!

Actually, in June of 1971, I was ten and a half. (Remember how important it was when you were younger to get that half-year in there?)

Even a little kid can tell when something is just dumb.

And at ten (and a HALF!) I had begun to think that yes, perhaps it was time to put such childish things behind me. How could I ever have thought this silly stuff was cool?

But then I found this comic on a spinner rack at a grocery store — and it made such an impression on me. We were on vacation in Oregon, up on Mt. Hood, and we had stopped at the Thriftway Market in Wemme. I had been given a quarter to spend and of course I sprinted for the comics. (I wasn’t quite ready to quit cold turkey, especially since I was far away from school where I might get laughed at. It was an oddly guilty moment, like sneaking a cigarette.)

Anyway, this caught my eye.

Little did I know that Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams were as fierce in their Batman's-not-a-joke convictions as I was.

I saw this cover, I spent my quarter…and I fell and fell hard. This was my first encounter with what we Bronze Age kids learned very quickly to call “THE Batman.”

I sort of knew that Batman had gotten revamped with a longer cape or something from reading Justice League of America, but this was the first time I’d looked at a Batman solo comic in a while. And it was a revelation. This was everything that was cool about Batman, and all the corny parts were gone.

Of course, we all know now that “Half an Evil” is a Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams classic, it’s been reprinted all over the place. But let me add that a big part of the total impact this book had on me was due to the backup story by Mike Friedrich and Irv Novick, featuring Robin (the TEEN Wonder) in a solo adventure called “Vengeance For A Cop!” that had our boy all grown up and investigating a shooting on a hippie commune. There wasn’t a whiff of Burt Ward’s Holy Whatever about it.

That was it. I was in love all over again. I was back for the next issue, because I had to see how Robin worked it out with the hippies and who the killer was. And here again was another clearly non-kids’-table cover with a kind of Batman I’d never seen.

Believe it or not, a big part of the appeal of this era of the Bat-books for me was Robin the TEEN Wonder.

And the Robin backup was cool too. (I’m sorry I don’t have scans of the pages here, but you can find the stories, they’re reprinted in the Robin Showcase volume.) They haven’t aged quite as well as the O’Neil/Adams classics, it’s true… but try to imagine the way that stuff would read to a ten-year-old kid in 1971, living in a time when campus riots and hippies and teenage revolution were all front-page news. Robin the Teen Wonder, holding his own, in a story ripped from the headlines!

And the next month? This one.

Holy HARD STUFF!

“Night of the Reaper.” A Batman and Robin story like I’d never seen before in my life.

Robin... but cool? Was that possible?

I know I’m getting a little carried away, but I found some cool scans to refresh your memory if you haven’t looked at this stuff recently.

Okay, still not as cool as Batman, but quite a step up from Holy-Shithead-Boy.

Still with me? Try to wrap your head around what it would be like for a ten-year-old boy, whose primary experience of Robin the Boy Wonder was Burt Ward, to be suddenly faced with this kind of approach. It was fresh, it was exciting, and it was definitely NOT the kid’s table.

That’s why it’s stuck with me for going on thirty-seven years, it’s why I remember the time and place so vividly. It was a big step forward. I had to struggle with it — some of the Nazi and concentration camp references were a little over my head — but that was also what made it cool.

The best kid’s stories, the ones that really engaged me, were the ones that were just a hair out of reach. Not so dark and nasty that they would upset me, but there was enough to them that they were a challenge.

Here’s another one, from 1973. I was twelve.

I was completely on board with this new version of THE Batman. And I was also digging the new 100-page format DC was experimenting with. So I’d been picking up Batman and Brave and the Bold pretty regularly. (And damn, those were some fine books… one of these days I’ll go through DC’s 100-page era in more detail, it deserves its own column.)

Detective was a lower priority because it was a kind of catch-as-catch-can book. Frank Robbins had been doing it, and his Batman wasn’t as cool as Denny O’Neil’s. Of the Batman books, Detective was kind of the oddball in the early 70’s. I could always count on a cool Bat story up front, but what went in the back of the book was anyone’s guess. Batgirl? Jason Bard? Whatever. Who knew?

Then I picked up Detective #439, my first try with the book in the 100-page format, and was blown away by “Night of the Stalker” — to this day, one of my five favorite Batman stories of all time — but the backup strip was something called “Manhunter” that was really fast-paced, very densely-written, and for me, a little hard to follow. Ninjutsu and clones and Interpol and all kinds of weird stuff… and the art was kind of strange-looking, too.

Yes, I know this is from #438. There wasn't a scan I could find of #439's.

Simonson’s tightly-packed layouts were something of a puzzle to twelve-year-old me, who was used to the clean, open look of Jack Kirby or Curt Swan. Adams and Aparo on Batman was about as exotic as I had seen up to that point. And the writing was packed even tighter — this was the polar opposite of today’s ‘decompressed storytelling.’ If anything, Manhunter was ultra-compressed. #439’s story was chapter three, “The Resurrection of Paul Kirk,” and it was apparently an origin story. I reread it two or three times. It was kind of rough going for a twelve-year-old who didn’t know much history; I got a little lost in places.

But I was intrigued enough that when I saw the following issue, I grabbed it — and again, I remember this vividly. I was with some other kids on a church retreat, in Seaside, Oregon. And I saw Detective #440 on a spinner rack in a drugstore, we’d stopped on the way back to the hotel for… something or other. I forget.

This is a great goddamn comic book no matter what age you are.

What I remember is the experience of reading that comic the first time. I bought it, and flipped to the first couple of pages of the Manhunter story… and it grabbed me. I understood it. It clarified the parts that I’d been sort of confused about in the previous issue… especially since the Simon and Kirby reprint happened to be one of their original Golden Age Manhunter stories, which helped a LOT in understanding some of the puzzling references in the previous issue’s story.

And it was just amazingly goddamned cool, too.

'Rebellion' is still my favorite chapter, too.

Walt Simonson’s visual storytelling tricks, that had seemed so jarring to me the previous month, suddenly became an extraordinary new way of doing this superhero thing. The pages still looked weird to me — the panel layout, the sound effects, none of it was like anything I’d ever seen. This wasn’t like what I thought of as a “DC comic” at all… but it was starting to dawn on me that it was that very weirdness that made it so cool.

One of my favorite action pages of all time.

Again, remember two things — what this would look like to a twelve-year-old boy whose ideas about superhero stories had largely been shaped by the Mort Weisinger Superman and the Lee-Romita Spider-Man, and also that I had to work at this story a little bit to get it. When I did, the moment of epiphany got me so excited that when the other kids went off to an amusement park I opted to stay at the hotel and read. (I think the youth pastor wondered if I was sick or having a breakdown or something…. I was, admittedly, kind of a misfit kid.) But I was just having a breakthrough moment and wanted to savor it. The rest of the comic was good too, and I’ll always have a soft spot for the Batman entry, “Ghost Mountain Midnight,” as well as the reprints in that issue — but Manhunter was the star. I think I reread that story three or four more times, and then I found some paper and tried drawing my own Manhunter pin-up. It grabbed me that hard. To this day, when people ask me what my all-time favorite comic book is, I reply, “Goodwin and Simonson’s Manhunter.”

Best superhero book EVER.

(Which you should all check out, if you haven’t already. Just saying.)

It was (The) Batman and Manhunter, respectively, when I was a kid, that turned me from a comics reader to a lifelong comics fan.

So what’s all this got to do with DC’s new Captain Marvel?

We’ll get to that, I promise. But this is already running kind of long, so I think I’ll stop here and we’ll pick it up again next Friday.

But here’s what I’d like you to consider in the meantime. Forget your opinion of Kunkel’s new book, or how DC needs to handle Captain Marvel, or whatever, for the moment. Put that off to one side. Or go back to Joe’s column and thrash it out in the comments there if you must, but for right here and right now, forget that stuff and just try to remember something for me.

Think back to when you were eight, ten, twelve years old. Think of that comic that really grabbed you. Not your first or your favorite but the one that was the…. call it the tipping point, the one that made you a fan. If you’re one of those mutants that didn’t get into comics till you were a teenager then forget comics, you’ll skew the sample. It doesn’t have to be a comic. A book, a story. The important factor is the age. The thing that got hold of you and wouldn’t let go, that made you say, “Yes. I want more like this,” when you were between eight and twelve.

Got it? Good.

Now ask yourself — whether it was a children’s book or a ‘young adult’ book or whatever, the key thing is, was it something that made you feel like you were trapped at the kid’s table?

Think about it, list your particular choice in the comments if you are so inclined, and come back next time for part two, where we try and find the common thread…

…and, oh yeah, talk about Captain Marvel.

See you next week.

50 Comments

My first superhero comic was Wolverine #84 (August 1994). I was eleven, and my only previous experience with comics was with Disney, so needless to say, it blew my mind. I didn’t follow the story completely – I had no idea about who 90% of the characters were – And since English is a second language for me, I also had some problem understanding what they said. But it was so exciting that I re-read it multiple times during my teen years, understanding more every time.

So, basically, I get what you’re saying.

Andrew Collins

July 4, 2008 at 2:29 am

My parents used to buy me the 3-packs of comics from K-Mart when I was a kid, so I used ot have these 3-issue runs of books like Action Comics and Batman and Superboy & The LOSH. I pretty much learned to read off these things. The first comic I remember buying myself was G.I. Joe #21 when I was around 7 or 8. I had a few of the earlier issues (including a copy of #1 that I cherished) but I picked this issue up because it had a neat cover and when I opened up- there were no words! Just pictures illustrating the silent story. I didn’t know what to make of it at first but as I read it, and re-read it, and re-read it, over and over, I knew it was something special. That issue opened my eyes to what comics can do with their medium and really began my love affair with comics that has continued for 20+ years since. That issue remains possibly my single favorite comic book of all time for that very reason.

It doesn’t have to be a superhero comic, does it? Because my personal moment of epiphany came with ‘Asterix the Legionary’. I didn’t get many of the references, probably most of them. I didn’t grasp why that Egyptian was speaking in hieroglyphics, or the fonts used for the Greek and the Goth soldiers, and couldn’t possibly have identified that homage to ‘The Raft of the Medusa’ if my life depended on it. But I knew for a fact that I loved it, and that comics could be something special.

My second comic — the one I actually bought for myself, I mean — was ‘Asterix the Gladiator’, which I liked even better than the first one. I had a complete set of Asterix, and then Tintin, well before superhero books entered the picture for me.

Mike Loughlin

July 4, 2008 at 4:23 am

I wrote extensively about Incredible Hulk 372 during the Top 100 runs countdown. Peter David’s superior scripting & Dale Keown’s awesome art sucked me in, and made me want to see what happens next. I didn’t have to “work” to understand the story, but the greater attention to characterization was a cut above the usual fare.

Speaking of the kids’ table: at 10, the kids’ table was not where I wanted to be. At 7, however, the kids’ table was way more fun than the boring adults’ table, where I would have been forced to eat vegetables.

It doesn’t have to be a superhero comic, does it?

No, no. Doesn’t even have to be a comic, really; some people come to comics late. But even those folks usually get the taste for larger-than-life adventure pretty early on. Maybe for them it was the Narnia books or The Hobbit or Have Space Suit Will Travel. Whatever. The point is, I’m talking about the story that tipped you from casual reader to devoted fan around the ages of eight to twelve.

Of course, we’re comics folk here, so the comic would be preferable.

Captain Yesterday (AKA Thomas)

July 4, 2008 at 6:03 am

Okay, for me it was Star Trek, Star Wars, and Doctor Who novels (also goosebumps, but everybody read those so they may not count). The stories were so much more challenging for me mentally, and no decision (for the characters) was simple. I had a similar desire to hide my interests from my schoolmates, and would find the most unoccupied sector of the grounds to read in. Ironically the very same “loner” behaviour I was teased over in Primary School (grades 1-7 for the Northern Hemisphere) made me somehow “cool” in High School (Junior and Senior High for the Northern Hemisphere).

The thing I found most annoying about the majority of children’s fiction was the need to impart a simple (i.e. useless) message at the end. Why tell kids that the world is simple and then reveal the truth when they’re not expecting it? Because it’s awkward when they demand answers, that’s why.

Heh. Asterix was my first comic too. I think I was about five or so, and there it was in the Dentist’s office. I hadn’t a CLUE who he was, and could barely read, but I loved it. As I got older, I started to get into Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, then Marvel’s Thor with John Buscema, which lead me to the Avengers, and the Averngers lead to the X-Men, and then I discovered DC, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The big breakthrough for me came a bit earlier than it did for Greg but I had a similar epiphany on reading one of my dad’s Pogo paperbacks (“I Go Pogo, specifically). I’d already learned to recognize when a comic was talking down to me (any Weisinger-era Superman title, for instance) and when it wasn’t (any Barks Duck story) but Pogo was the first to make me realize that comics could work at multiple levels (though I couldn’t have articulated the thought that way at eight) and, more importantly, that it could be ABOUT something. Not only was Pogo full of subtle political allusions (which my father explained, albeit filtered through his particular Junior Chamber of Commerce sensibilities) but these “funny animals” displayed an emotional range that reflected the real world as I experienced it, certainly moreso than Lois Lane or Pete Ross did. And when I read Lee and Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 not long after, I got a similar vibe, guaranteeing I’d spend the next decade as the proverbial Marvel Zombie. (Later still I discovered Earth-Two and Golden Age reprints, which sent me down a path I’m still on 30+ years later, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

That emoticon is supposed to be the numeral 8 followed by a right parenthesis. This blog has some weird formatting issues.

heh….Have Spacesuit, Will Travel….. I was going to write that!!! Very influential in starting me in the sci-fi genre as a pre-teen.

Comics became an obsession with Superboy and Legion of Superheros 203(IIRC). Bought new off the rack in this 10-12 year old age range. The death of Invisible Kid. My God!! Dream Girl practically nude!! Saturn Girl practically nude!! And Phantom Girl with all that cleavage!! And who is Dream Girl, Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, Lightning Lad, Element Lad, Karate Kid, Invisible Kid, Mon-el!!!???….and who was this “Superboy” who was really a young Superman!! The artwork….wow!!! The concept…wow!! The characters…wow!!!

I was already a fan of Batman, Superman, etc….but….

That issue(and #206….the return of Invisible Kid and Ferro Lad) just blew my mind away!!! Unbelievable!!! Makes me want to go up to my LSH long box and start re-reading them right now.

Excellent points, Greg. I think probably the biggest problem that Marvel & DC have today is that the look at pleasing adults and kids as an either/or question — when you can very effectively write & draw stories that appeal to BOTH.

“Night of the Reaper” is a perfect example. You read it as a kid, it’s just a cool adventure story. You reread it as an adult, and there’s more to chew over, like the concentration camp survivor angle or even the Rutland parade in-jokes.

This has been done recently, too, just outside of comics. The Bruce Timm DC animated shows appeal to both kids and adults.

That emoticon is supposed to be the numeral 8 followed by a right parenthesis.

I went ahead and fixed it.

This blog has some weird formatting issues.

Oh, if you only KNEW. I’m told it’s being worked on.

Not the first comic I ever read, but the first one I distinctly remember buying was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #1 back in ’76 (I think it was the #1 that caught my eye… even at age 8 I knew that Amazing Spider-Man had been around for years, but this was something new). That early run of PPSSM wasn’t exactly great literature, but it did have stuff that was aimed at an older audience, especially when it dealt with the Unification Church… er, I mean the “Legion of Light”. Many of the comics I read as a pre-teen had stuff that was over my head, but I didn’t mind that because, honestly, what kid *doesn’t* like to feel smarter than their age? For the same reason as a kid I really grooved on reading Robert E. Howard and Andre Norton. Those stories weren’t aimed at pre-teens, and the fact that I could enjoy and understand those stories helped to boost my self-esteem. After all, I was reading stuff aimed at an older audience, and if I occasionally had to figure a few things out from the context of the story, or even ask an older sibling about some cultural reference, I could still read and follow those stories… stories that weren’t aimed at the ‘kid’s table’, as Greg puts it. Part of the appeal in such stories is that, by many people’s standards, you aren’t supposed to be reading them just yet, they’re aimed at an audience that is perhaps a few years older than you… but you’re reading them anyways, and that’s pretty darned cool.

As I mentioned in Kunkel’s blog, I’d been reading comics since I was at least 6. I dunno how it was elsewhere, but here in the Puerto Rico (in the 70s) we mostly got our comics by trading them around. I wouldn’t ‘collect’ comics until later; just read them, then trade them with someone else for ones I hadn’t read yet. Didn’t matter which- I read Superman and Batman, but also Uncle Scrooge, Turok, or anything else as long as it was new to me. Oh, and all of these were actually Spanish reprints.

So, to me, comics were never a matter of shame, nor were they an expensive hobby… not yet, anyway. Nor did I distinguish much between types, though I clearly liked superheroes the best. I had no shame reading Richie Rich at ten, for example.

This all changed in 1978 (I was 12) when I wandered into a drugstore and found a stack of comic books- in ENGLISH!? Why would they sell those in Puerto Rico? More importantly- included among those were MARVEL comics, which, for some reason, were not reprinted here in Spanish. I guess some other distributor had the rights for them.

I was blown away. I barely understood what was going on, but just looking at the variety and action in those comics, I just HAD to read them! But nobody I knew was trading these. I would have to *gulp* BUY them, using my milk money! I actually resisted for a while, but eventually gave in. My first English comic book was Super Friends #10. I went with familiar stuff first… but soon was buying ANYTHING that had an intriguing cover. Even Miller’s Daredevil. I had to spend like a week deciphering each story using an English/Spanish dictionary, but it was worth it! (helped me learn the language, too! ;-) )

Marvels had the most profound effect on me. Not just for having more realistic action, but for the sheer VARIETY of characters I knew virtually nothing about! As luck would have it, some of my first Marvels were the “Defenders For a Day” and “Korvac Saga” storylines- both of which featured LOTS of characters, with eye-popping designs (Starhawk, Havok and The Torpedo come to mind.) Oh yeah, this wasn’t kid-stuff anymore, and I was hooked.

But note that I STILL bought Super Friends, and Superboy, DC Comics Presents and plenty more comics that might be considered “kid oriented” today. I still found them fun to read, though in a different way than the “new” comics I read. I still read the reprints, too.

Those were happy times. I bought almost ANYTHING on the stands, on a whim. Never mind titles, companies or creators. And the worst that would happen, would be that I would go “bah, that wasn’t so good.” The next ones would make up for it. (Then again, comics were only 50 cents back then!)

I had no peer pressure, either- not from other kids, anyway. It was my own family who complained about my buying habits, arguing I was too old for comics, and where was I going to store all this stuff? Needless to say I ignored them, and I’m glad I did.

Ironically, I always assumed that I would grow out of comics someday… instead, my buying habits were curtailed, first by the absurd costs (most comics today are just not worth 3$, much less 4, sorry) and then by the stories themselves, which have become so obsessed with “realism” that the good, old “magic” they had is just gone. it’s hard to cheer for Superman when everybody else in DC comics is either killing or getting killed. :-(

So, I guess I was lucky back then. I enjoyed comics almost freely, with no pressure. But I certainly agree, that in general comics just aren’t aimed at a young audience anymore. I guess we *are* the last generation of comics readers, and the comic companies have nobody to blame but themselves for letting it happen.

X-Men Adventures season 2 hooked me in, that comic didn’t feel like it talked down to me, was very compelling at the age of 11 or 12 (I forget)…and the art was very good. In particular what hooked me was my second issue buying it, featuring a very detailed fight between Omega Red and Wolverine, Wolverine got the crap kicked out of him, talked a lot of him being past his prime, and for whatever reason I really liked that hook and how it thematically was the same as the “real Wolverine” and “real Uncanny X-Men” were at the time (in tone and with the character). I didn’t get Fox on tv, so this was my only access to the show, and in all in all felt the tie-in comic ended up feeling superior to the show.

But yeah, I remember reading and rereading and staring at this spread of the two going at it…been a fan of the medium ever since.

Manhunter is the best lesson in story compression ever. It’s brilliant.

I don’t think I ever really considered “outgrowing” comics– for me, comics were always “the business.” Not sure what made me a devotee– maybe an issue of Action Comics when I was 4 or 5. I’d have to check through my bins.

And just look at your example of Adam West Batman– as a kid, I took it deathly seriously and loved it for the explosive sound effects; as an adult, I appreciate its true intelligence, its hilarity, and its ability to work on two incredibly distinctive levels. It’s the smartest TV show ever made.

@Hagiler

Cool
I was 11 and my first Wolverine comic was 83, I think it had something to do with sentient Wolves and being stuck in an Alaskan facility in a snowstorm…that one really resonated with me, I adored those Larry Hama stories.

For me it was Hulk #255, the Hulk vs. Thor! I would’ve been 6 or so and I think I’d been reading Archie and Richie Rich comics here and there, but that Hulk issue was the first superhero comic I can remember. I read and reread that thing, and I still have my copy (in sad, sad shape, the cover vanished long ago).

The progression into superhero comics (or “adult” comics) for me was the Archie line of TMNT comics. I had been reading the regular Archie books for years as a kid, and then TMNT hit around the time I was ten in 1990. I actually still own my TMNT run – something like the first 50 plus issues. Archie Comics did it clever – the first few issues were direct adaptations of some early episodes, and then they branched out and gave them their own universe. It was the perfect time for me to read, as it was something of a “training universe” for me before jumping to Marvel a few years later when the X-Men cartoon started. The TMNT run had ongoing storylines, they had original characters, spin-off minis (Mighty Mutanimals!) and so on. I even remember when Raphael started wearing a skin tight black suit in an obvious nod to Spidey’s black suit (it was even organicaly integrated into the storyline – it was a wrestling costume he wore when they were kidnapped to fight in some intergalactic wrestling federation). I still have many fond memories of this run.
But as I said, once X-Men hit and I was introduced to Gambit, I was sucked into Marvel. Uncanny X-Men #298 was the first “real” superhero comic I bought, based solely on the fact that Gambit was prominent on the cover. I haven’t looked back since.

The comic that first started to grab at me was G.I. Joe when I was eight. My first issue was- I think- number 27, where Snake-Eyes and Storm Shadow are fighting all across the city, including on top of an elevated train. But the one that my young mind latched onto knowing that there was more happening than I could quite grasp was a later G. I. Joe (might have been number 35 or so) where a Joe’s jet fighter and a Cobra jet fighter are in a dog fight, each one with high ranking passenger in the back of the cockpit. The dogfight was awesome and both jets got really ripped up, but at the end both fighters have each other in their sites only to discover they are both out of ammo. While it looks at first like the two jets are going to ram each other, the pilots swerve away at the last moment. And while the high-ranking passengers are screaming at the pilots, to do something to stop the other guy, the two pilots just salute each other and fly away.

I was fascinated at the time because my eight year old brain of why the pilots did that, but that I knew that salute meant something deep for them. I haven’t read it in ages, so I don’t know if it holds up, but it is still what I think of it when I hear terms like “honor” and “chivalry.”

It’s supposed to say “My eight-year old brain had no idea why the pilots…”

I was hooked by Batman the Animated Series and it’s tie-in book. I’d read some comics before — mostly titles based on cartoons like Talespin and Chip and Dale and the Ninja Turtles — but Batman the Animated Series was something else. It was the kind of thing I used to show my parents to surprise them at how mature a cartoon could be. And when I saw the third issue at this convenience store I used to go to all the time with my Dad I was hooked, buying every issue, including the trade paperback collection which I knew was kind of pointless since I already had the issues but didn’t matter anyway since I wanted a complete set. I followed the Adventures of Batman and Robin series for it’s first year, but then I entered high school and had moved on to “real” comics like Spider-Man and X-Men. Even when I accidentally put a few issues in a stack of Archie comics I gave to a friend who had gotten into Archie ironically in the eleventh grade and was offered the issues back, I didn’t bother having them returned.

And then the DVDs of the show started coming out and I suddenly remembered everything I’d loved about the show in the first place and have spent the last three years getting a complete set of DC Animated Universe comics. And just going through the tpb collection I’m blown away by how mature Batman Adventures #3 actually is — Batman confronting a murderer in the opening pages, Joker beating Commissioner Gordon with a baseball bat… I’m not sure if it played a part in my wanting to follow the series, but seeing the show replicated in the comic and seeing it being taken so seriously that they’d include stuff like that in it, it must’ve helped in getting me hooked. Just knowing that this was something with all of the familiar trappings of the show but that they weren’t toning it down and weren’t making it a “kid’s table” book was probably one of the big reasons I got hooked in the first place. It makes me wish Marvel or DC would put out a comic that looked like one of their shows or movies and weren’t afraid of toning it down too much for fear of upsetting someone. That, and that DC were still publishing Justice League Unlimited, since that was fun title (and a nice continuation of the whole DC Animated Universe that got me hooked on comics in the first place).

Have a good day.
John Cage

To Derek J. Goodman,
Wild Weasel, the Cobra Guy, had the Baroness; and G.I. Joe’s Ace had Lady J.
And I’m with you on that one – it is a favorite of mine and one of the most re-read comics in my collection.
Great choice.
LJ

"O" the Humanatee!

July 4, 2008 at 11:58 am

By asking about “the story that tipped you from casual reader to devoted fan around the ages of eight to twelve,” Greg, I think you’re really stacking the deck with regard to considering Marvel’s and (especially) DC’s recent attempts at kid-oriented comics. Going from reader to fan at those ages requires a number of things, it seems to me: the development of an inchoate form of critical intelligence (note your “something’s intriguingly different here” reaction to Manhunter); the wish to establish a certain kind of personal identity; and relatedly, having the financial wherewithal (even if it’s just an allowance) to pursue one’s own interests and make one’s own decisions. But DC’s most recent kid-oriented comics – Tiny Titans, Super Friends, the Shazam book – seem aimed younger, certainly younger than the Batman Adventures-type books that came earlier. Given that, it doesn’t seem surprising that a number of the people I’ve seen praising the kid-worthiness of the Shazam book on-line report that their kids really enjoyed having it read to them. When you’re at the age where you enjoy being read to by your parents – or at least with your parents’ assistance – I think you’re not yet at the age where you’re resenting the kids’ table or seeking reading experiences that make you feel more mature. And if that’s the age group DC is targeting, I think that’s the yardstick by which we should judge their attempts. As I wrote in response to Joe’s criticism, I shared a lot of his misgivings about the Shazam book – but then again, I’m 49.

To somewhat answer your original question, and maybe put the bigger question in perspective, here’s some of my own personal history. The first superhero comic book I remember reading was an issue of Legion of Super-heroes – I guess it was really Adventure – that I borrowed from a friend around 1st grade. I liked it a lot. Later on, I was a huge fan of the Batman TV show, and my parents would buy me the occasional comic when we were on vacation. I read other friends’ comics whenever I could, and bought trading cards featuring super-heroes (Batman, of course, and the legendary Comic Book Foldees) at the local stationery store. I also had a subscription to Mad and got into reading Pogo via my mother’s one paperback of the first Pogo collection and my best friend’s parents’ copies of other paperbacks. Plus I would read my father’s collections of cartoons from the New Yorker, and by Charles Addams, Peter Arno, Vip (Virgil Partch), and the like. It was really these humor titles that were above my level, and I’d often have to ask my parents to explain jokes to me – even in Mad, which could really be quite sophisticated and, mindbogglingly, would parody R- or even (in the case of Midnight Cowboy) X-rated movies its young readers were unlikely to ever see. So I was into comics and closely related forms throughout childhood. I knew a couple of other kids who did collect comics, and somewhere around junior high I remember having my own “The Batman” experience, when I bought Detective #423 with its remarkable Mike Kaluta cover showing a top-down view of Batman – I mean, the Batman – sitting high atop a factory chimney and firing a rifle(!). But I didn’t become, in your terms, a devoted fan till one summer at camp, when one of my bunkmates had the latest issues of Spider-Man and Captain America. Spider-Man was in the middle/end of the first Morbius story, and Captain America was in the middle of Englehart’s “second Captain America” story. When camp ended, I just had to know how the latter ended, so I went to the newsstand in the local hotel and hunted it down. But I saw a lot of other intriguing-looking books on the stands – such as early Swamp Thing, Kamandi, and Werewolf by Night – and soon enough was buying those out of curiosity. And I’ve been buying ever since. Interestingly, this coincided with my going to a new school out of my neighborhood at which I knew very few other students, so the comics also served as a bit of a refuge from my new loneliness (though I’d been a bit of misfit even before then).

But I’ve omitted a crucial bit of history from the preceding – one I rarely give much thought to nowadays, and that only came to mind because of your question. At some point in my childhood – I’m guessing it was before the Batman TV show ever aired – a neighbor had given me a big pile of old Harvey comics that he’d outgrown: Casper, Wendy, Hot Stuff, Sad Sack, and the like. I used to keep that pile under my bed and every night, pull out a few and read them. (Of course I was supposed to be going to sleep when I did this, so it became part of the routine that my parents would come to check on me and I would rapidly throw whatever book I was reading on the top of the pile and pretend to be sleeping.) I no longer have those books; I don’t even remember what happened to them. But I sure liked them, and there was nothing about them that was particularly mature or “just out of reach.” They were kids’ books, made for kids – young kids. And those Harvey books may be the closest comparison to what DC’s going for with its newer kids’ books. There are certainly a lot of kids’ entertainments that also work well for adults – the classic Warner Brothers cartoons come to mind – but I don’t think they necessarily have to.

I was a very sheltered kid from overprotective parents, so I was late-starter. I only got into stuff that challenged me and made me a devoted fan when I was a teenager. And I feel like it happened all at once, when I was 13-14. So I went from Disney to Marvel to Watchmen in a couple years. Obviously, I only really understood all the nuances of Watchmen several years later.

Greg’s essay is very nice, though. Human beings have a period that goes from just before puberty all the way through the early-20s that is all about discovery. Those are the years when we most crave new stuff, new ideas, new experiences. New reading material. We’re open to change, and I believe most people have their tastes defined and sedimented by then.

Afterwards, most people start to crave stability instead, and nostalgia starts to set in. And with nostalgia comes a forgetting of how kids crave discovery.

Asterix was a big influence on me when I was 6-7, as were hardcover reprints of British comics – not superhero stuff, but boys’ own stories kind of things. I remember there were stories about football stars and badgers (not talking ones, actual badgers) and mundane stuff like that. I can’t remember what magazines they were published in, and I’m sure I no longer have them, but maybe someone here has a vague recollection about British comics from the 1970s.

When I was 8-10 I really started to get into science fiction. I didn’t buy comics in the U.S. until I was 18, but sci-fi was the shit for me in the early 1980s. Ender’s Game was one of my favorite novels ever (I’m not sure if I read it when I was 10 or if I was a bit older), and around 1980-81 was when I started to get into Arthur C. Clarke. Fountains of Paradise remains my favorite Clarke novel, but I devoured everything by Clarke I could find.

None of those books, even Ender’s Game, was really written for kids. I don’t remember really being thrilled by literature for kids when I was 10, even though I liked watching Star Blazers and other kid-oriented cartoons. Odd.

And no, I don’t know why I was such a typical sci-fi nerd in so many ways but never read comics until I was much older. It’s a great mystery of life!

“But DC’s most recent kid-oriented comics – Tiny Titans, Super Friends, the Shazam book – seem aimed younger”

Perhaps that’s the point? The books that drew many of us in *weren’t* aimed specificaly at a younger audience. There were books like that – Spidey Super Stories, when I was growing up – but those were always easily ignorable. It was the stories that weren’t aimed at a younger audience, the ones that had the extra substance and complexity, that were able to draw us in as readers, to make us come back for more. If Marvel and DC really want to get their hooks into the next generation, perhaps they shouldn’t be pushing kiddified versions of their regular books. Instead, perhaps they should publish books that, while avoiding certain excesses (like raping Sue Digby) are not written ‘down’ to a younger audience, but instead have enough meat to the stories so that both older readers, as well as younger readers who are intrigued by something a little more complex than what is generally aimed at them, can both enjoy it.

After much though, I think it was the 8th or 9th printing of the first issue of Bone, purchased in a lousy, ratty comic shop in West Virginia that’s no longer there. The X-Men cartoon drew me to the comics, but they weren’t as much fun to read as I’d hoped. Bone was more fun to read than I would have thought possible.

Annoyed Grunt

July 4, 2008 at 7:51 pm

I had been a very young fan of the 60’s Spider-man cartoon when I was 4 or 5. I even remember crying because my Mom could only find an action figure with the black costume and not the real one. So I remember one day we were getting a family picture taken and my Grandma gave me two comic books. One was a late era pre Crisis Superman and the other was an issue of Spectacular Spider-man where a burglar broke in to Peter’s place and stole his costume. So with his black costume gone he had to wear the regular one as he tracked down the punk, in the process making me very happy that there’s a comic with both Spider-men. I still have both issues somewhere.

However, I don’t think it was those issues that made me a fan. I think it was more to do with trading Marvel cards with my friends a few years later and discovering all sorts of cool characters in a shared universe.

I never read a superhero comic until I was 19 years old. I was watching Spider-Man in my dorm room (this was spring 2004), and I decided that I should probably give actual comics a try. I bought up a bunch of Essentials and DC “Greatest ______ Stories Ever Told” collections, and eventually other trades. I soon discovered I was a DC guy. So it was all very methodical and I never had that epiphany moment.

At least not about superheroes. That moment – when I knew I’d be a fan of the comics medium forever – came when I was 14 years old and rereading some old Calvin & Hobbs books for the first time in a couple years. I realized it was even better than I’d thought as a child, and I was hooked forever.

Greg (Burgas, not Hacher), I think you’re referring to the British football comic ‘Roy of the Rovers’. I read a fair amount of that, plus other British comics like the Beano annuals, growing up in India.

The first superhero comic to leave any kind of impression was All-Star Comics #69 by Levitz and Staton.

Michael Mayket

July 4, 2008 at 10:47 pm

For me it was the original Nova #11 in which he gets the living crap kicked out of him by the Sphinx. Man, I read that thing until it fell apart and then bought it again at a comic store like 20 years later.

But that didn’t mean I still couldn’t enjoy the hell out of a Little Archie story. When I actually became a collector in the sense of following a series the two books I originally got every month were Amazing Spider-Man (during the Stern/Romita Jr. era) and Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew.

You see it’s actually possible to like more than one kind of thing at the same time. I used to read Spider-Man and Spider-Ham. Teen Titans and Captain Carrot. Airboy and Archie. X-Men and Uncle Scrooge. And I enjoyed them all. Couldn’t it be possible to like Goodwin and Simonson’s Manhunter AND Shazam by Mike Kunkel (pretending for a moment that they were contemporary to one another). And even if the new Shazam book is never anyone’s “the one” does every book have to be “the one”? I grant you that it’s an entire week until the rest of your point is made so I might be totally misreading where you are going.

Anyway… I apologize for any rambling I may have done and/or terrible usage of punctuation and grammar. I am so very tired right now.

X-Men 8 and Uncanny X-Men 290.

I was eleven and had read a few comics here and there. Of course, I knew all the big superheroes from cartoons and toys, the ones that would have transcended the format. I was actually more into collecting baseball cards at the time, and a friend gave me some of the Marvel trading cards. Combine all that together, and I figured I’d give comics a more serious try. I picked out those two issues (for whatever reason, I can’t recall) had no clue what was going on, and was hooked.

I loved the sense of mythology and the promise of backstory, issues and issues of it. It was like the Edith Hamilton book about Greek mythology I had read over and over just had new material added to it. And it just exploded from there.

When I was around 7, I remember being hooked on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon (and actually, reruns of the 60s Batman show). This led to me seeking out this ‘superhero’ thing. Around 8 or 9 Batman: The Animated Series came on the air, followed by the X-Men Animated series (and two years later by the Spiderman one). This led me to try out the Spiderman and X-Men comic books. I remember not liking the main title very much, but I know I had bought some copies of “The Deadly Foes of Spiderman” and I think “Web Of Spiderman” and loving them. I had never given DC a shot until I saw all four issues of the first “Damage Control” series together in a convenience store. I was hooked from then onward.

Magik. I forget why i bought the first issue of that miniseries. I’d read a couple x-men, but had never encountered the character before. But I picked it up and found it really fascinating. Went on to pick up almost the entire series of new mutants primarily to follow her story. I think what really grabbed me was that the morality was so gray. they kept repeating that “she had the face of an angel and the heart of a demon sorceress” hundreds of times, but the simple truth was that she fought against the evil within her. she struggled not against the next supervillain of the week, she struggled against her own urges. for a kid just reaching the teenage years, that resonated.

I feel a bit old saying this, but it was either Avengers Annual 16 (1987) or Uncanny X-Men 211 (late 1986).

The Avengers Annual had the Grandmaster interjecting on the East v. West Avengers softball game (which, conveniently, ALWAYS got interrupted). He reanimated the Avengers’ dead foes, and a few dead former allies, and split them into random teams against random teams of Avengers. Each mini-story usually ended with at least one hero dying. After the first round of fights, there were noticeably fewer Avengers, and they had to fight their newly-dead friends in addition to everyone they fought in the first round! At the end, Hawkeye convinces Grandmaster to play a game of chance, and uses his carnival background to trick him into losing, thus returning all the heroes to life (and back to their softball game).

Uncanny X-Men 211 is similar in that it features heroes getting beaten down, and sometimes losing. What is different is that the story doesn’t “clean up”. This is serious Mutant Massacre stuff. I recently spoke to someone who was more mature at the time this story happened, and he was appalled at the wholesale slaughter of the X-Men team. I, on the other hand, was merely intrigued, wondering (after other readings a few years down the road) how the team recovered, because I knew that they had.

Both books came out when I was seven, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t get them “new”. If I recall, they came from Sears mail-order in a bulk package as a Christmas present (or my mom used a Sears box to package them). I read both books until they disintegrated, because they were so fascinating. Even when I knew what was going to happen, I had to revisit the story and enjoy it all over again. I had to dissect each panel, each piece of combat, where the characters were standing relative to each other, so my mind could construct it as a three-dimensional event, like a play in my mind. The Avengers book made me excited to see more character interaction; the X-Men book made me want to see the Marauders get what was coming to them.

Luis Jaime,
Thanks. I remembered Ace and the Baroness, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember the Cobra pilot’s name.

the batman tv show got me into comics as well. i remember watching day time re-runs of the show and just enjoying the hell out of it. vincent price’s egg head really sticks in my mind. so the first comic i bought was detective comics, i can’t remember the issue number.

this was back when comics were 75 cents and spinner racks in every grocery store. so it was easy to earn enought money during the week to get a comic or maybe even two. now with 3 bucks an issue, or $2.25 for the kid books, it’s too expensive for a kid to pick up a book because a cover or character looks cool. that’s why every comic shop should have a quarter or fifty cent bin. i’ve noticed those and back issue boxes in general disappearing.

yet another great post greg! it always causes the best comments.

It took me a day to take myself back to when comics were at that “this is all brand new to me” feel. To some extend that’s what you are talking about, too.

I had to look for that wow moment when I was so enthralled by the story that I was emotionally invested in the hero’s struggle. For me (and boy am I showing my age) it was two issues (32-33, I think) of Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man is desperate to say Aunt May but he is trapped under an enormous collapse of machinery with no room to get out or get leverage. He struggles and strains and fails and tries again until I had that euphoric moment when by sheer will power he frees himself. Needless to say, battered, bruised and half out of his head he goes on to save the day and Aunt May. I think from that point on I was sold on the heroic concept and never looked back.

On a side note, there was a time when Roy Thomas in writing the Avengers would reference works like the Lord of the Rings and Moorcock’s Elric stories in the letters columns. Then sometime later lo and behold in two issues of Conan – Elric himself appears. It gave comics a literary legitimacy to me at that age that enabled me to brush off the notion that they were kids stuff for years to come.

I didn’t read too many comics before I was 12. To be honest I was in the same boat as Greg. After I outgrew Superfriends reruns I was starting to get into other stuff. Even to the point where I was nine and really wasn’t interested in seeing the new Batman movie (which I didn’t see until it was on video after I saw Batman Returns,which I thought was pretty cool). Whatever comics I read at the time were either low stakes “kiddie books” or wrapped in some confusing storyline I couldn’t find back issues for (I’d mainly find comics at the grocery store). So it took a while for me to be a comic book fan.

This may make some people cringe. As hokey as they were the things that got me back into superheros and comics when I was a kid were Batman Knightfall, the post Chris Claremont X-Men and Image Comics.

I got into Knightfall based on the really cool moody Kelley Jones covers and I heard this was the Batman equivalent to Death of Superman (which interested me until I saw the art). Plus I was on a Batman kick since Batman Returns and the cartoon. I was watching the X-Men cartoon so I was picking up that up occasionally. And then there was Image.

A friend of mine was really into Image so I would read his stuff. And to be honest I got sucked into the glossiness of Image comics. The slick paper, the computer coloring and highly stylized art hooked me. Not to mention the faux maturity of it. Superheros cursed and drew blood. Stuff that wasn’t happening in most the DC and Marvel books I was reading. It was pretty cool when I was twelve and their was a forbidden fruit aspect about it. These were books I didn’t want my parents to find lying around.

And the best part it was all new. I felt like this could be the start of something big and my generation could have their own set of superheros instead of ones that inherited from a couple decades ago. So yeah I use to get excited about some of these generic new teams that Jim Lee, Marc Silvestri and Rob Liefeld would come up with. They weren’t terribly original but they felt like mine.

Now I realize most of this stuff is shit. I’ve since sold off most of these books. Youngblood never became the Fantastic Four. But it did appeal to my younger self and led me to much better books. I was also willing to skip the big two (I had no loyalty to either when I started buying comics) and discover books like Hellboy. Heck it help me discover classics like the Watchmen and Dark Knight. And when I started getting bored with superheros I was moving towards books like Sandman and Preacher and later indie books like Hate, Optic Nerve and Eightball.

indeed, tho’ some won’t grasp the concept, if marvel/dc want to get younger kids reading, they can’t give them 40’s nostalgia.

Unless, y’know, it’s ’40s nostalgia written by the guy who already sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his kid’s comic. Stick Jeff Smith’s Captain Marvel in Digest Format and I can’t imagine it won’t sell by the truckload.

P.S. My first comic? Spidey Super Stories. Take that, Greg’s theory!

All I know is every issue of Tiny Titans is a joy from cover to cover, and I’m way past the target age.

I followed the pattern Greg outlined: I was a casual comics reader starting at age 6, and then at age 8 I read my first issue of Daredevil by Stan Lee and Wally Wood. For the first time, I made sure to buy the next issue as soon as I saw it. I was hooked.

[…] Last week I was talking about the comics that really hit me right between the eyes when I was a kid, and how they were emphatically not designed specifically as “kid’s” comics. That they were, in fact, a little hard for me to grasp here and there and part of the appeal was that I had to struggle with them a bit. And I wondered how many of you out there had a similar experience, if the things you read when you were young that hit you where you lived had been maybe a little over your heads. Quite a few of you chimed in with an affirmative. […]

Coming late to this discussion.
As a young’un (early 70s) I watched and enjoyed George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman, and the Spider-Man and Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon TV shows. When I was about 3 I went as Superman for Halloween. In 2nd or 3rd grade I went as Iron Man from the TV series (for which I was later made fun of for by my classmates, who thought I was “Steel Man!”) (Also my mother refused to make a full face mask for me, so it didn’t really come across well IMO.) But I never got any comic books at that time. It didn’t even occur to me, and I don’t remember seeing them in any stores we went to. We had a few old Archies around the house – I don’t know where those came from originally – which I read and reread, and some mass market paperback Peanuts collections. When The Incredible Hulk TV series started I enjoyed that based partially on my having like Hulk the best from MSH, despite my brother’s (and to a lesser extent father’s) taunts of my being the “Bulk.” At 11 I tried to go as the Hulk for Halloween, but my mother didn’t buy the right kind of makeup and it didn’t work so I was nothing for that Halloween. (I had made some tattered clothes to wear, it would have been awesome. I saw someone else as the Hulk that year but it was terrible, it was a little green face makup and a football uniform!) Anyway, one day at the local drugstore I saw a display of comics including the Hulk. My first purchase that I remember was Hulk 258 or 259, with the Soviet Super Soldiers. I was 13. I bought all my comics from the drugstore until sometime around 16-17 a friend introduced me to the LCS. (His obsession was Dr Who.)

At thirteen I was also introduced to John Norman’s Gor series, which affected me greatly, but that’s another matter.

[…] about whether comics for kids should blatantly look like comics for kids. Last week, Greg Hatcher wrote about how the comics that really engaged him as a child were the ones that were just a little bit […]

[…] was something of a landmark for me, because this was the place I’d bought the copy of Detective #440 years ago that had so completely mesmerized […]

[…] You could say it started with my discovery of the television Batman in 1966, or perhaps with my discovery of the O’Neil-Adams version of Batman in the early 70’s. Or when I determined in high school that I would somehow, someday, get my own stuff published. Any […]

[…] don’t. As I have documented many, many times — here and here are the most prominent — the DC characters were my gateway to comics and superheroes. And […]

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