Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
During the summer of 1975, the way I read comics went through a major sea change. And because of that, the course my life eventually took changed as well.
In August of 1975, I was thirteen years old. My father’s alcoholism had reached the point where he was unable to hold a job, and my mother was trying to hold things together all on her own. She had taken a teaching job and we were scraping by, but money was very tight. It was no longer possible to wheedle a quarter or fifty cents out of her for a comic book on our occasional visits to the drugstore. Instead, she snapped, “Why don’t you go earn some money of your own?”
I suspect she might very well have just been venting about having to be the sole breadwinner, because usually she was a pretty soft touch. Anyway, I didn’t take it as a rebuke. Mom had been bitter and grouchy from about 1968 on, and in fact she pretty much stayed that way until her passing earlier this year. It had become her normal tone of voice. So I assumed her remark was an actual parental directive, and prepared to enter the work force.
At thirteen, my options were limited: I could mow lawns or babysit. I did both, and soon I had a regular customer base and was earning anywhere from $10 to $12 a week. Back then, that was a lot. Suddenly, I was a man of means.
At roughly the same time, the grocery store up the street changed hands. It went from being a Thriftway to being a Sentry Market. And now that it was a Sentry…
…they started to carry comics. (And much cooler paperbacks and magazines, as well; the new magazine distributor specialized in infinitely more lurid fare than the previous guy did.)
This was a huge, huge deal.
Reading had always been a big part of my life anyway, but to really put across why this was so momentous a development for me, let me try to give you a glimpse into those misty days of yesteryear. Here is what the pop culture landscape looked like to a thirteen-year-old boy back then.
In August of 1975, video games were in the embryonic stage, hardly more than phosphor-dot pinball on a TV monitor. There was no such thing as home video: Sony’s introduction of VHS was still a year away. Movies played in theaters for a couple-three weeks and then disappeared, until — if you were lucky — they played again on television, which generally only had five channels or so to choose from, the three major networks and a couple of local stations. There was no HBO or Turner Classic Movies or Cartoon Network — hell, there was hardly cable.
In terms of adventure, SF and fantasy? There was no Star Wars. The original Star Trek showed in the afternoon as scratchy syndicated reruns on the local station, and the animated Filmation series was available on Saturday morning. In theaters, the big hit was Jaws, which was setting box office records all over the world. On the geek front, though, it looked pretty grim. The most recent James Bond movie had been the disappointing The Man With The Golden Gun, over a year and a half previously. George Pal’s Doc Savage had just tanked in theaters a couple of months before, but I and several friends were hoping we’d be able to talk our parents into letting us go see The Land That Time Forgot when it came out in a couple of weeks. We would have loved to see Death Race 2000 back in April, as well, but we’d known we’d never get permission for that one.
Parenting was quite a bit stricter in those days, too — at least, it was for me and the other kids in my neighborhood. If we went to a movie alone (a tough sell in itself) it was damned well going to be rated G, and in 1975 that meant Disney. Period. Back then Disney was doing stuff like The Apple Dumpling Gang and Escape to Witch Mountain; their last animated feature had been Robin Hood in 1973.
Even at age thirteen I’d already outgrown that crap. But for me to see any movie that actually looked cool, like Jaws or The Land That Time Forgot or Legend of the Werewolf, I had to have an adult along — which in practical terms meant that I never got to see anything cool in the theatre. We didn’t really do family outings or movie nights when I was growing up.
Generally, we never got to see any truly badass movies until they played on Saturday night’s late-show horror broadcast — ours was called Sinister Cinema, and it had local radio host Victor Ives in a Dracula cape introducing vintage scare films, occasionally abetted by fellow radio personality Jimmy Hollister.
Sometimes cool fantasy and SF would show up there; that was where I first discovered Hammer films. Riddled with annoying commercials from local used-car maven Ron Tonkin, but at least I got to see them.
Elsewhere on television it was almost as bleak. Kung Fu had ended, but The Six Million Dollar Man was going strong. There was as yet no Bionic Woman, nor any of the other half-dozen television superhero-type shows that launched from that trend; we had seen the Cathy Lee Crosby Wonder Woman, but not the Lynda Carter one. The Planet of the Apes movies had done so well rerunning in prime time on CBS that they’d tried it as a weekly television show, but that had gone south a few months previously. Kolchak: The Night Stalker had lasted a little longer, but by that August it was gone too. Saturday Night Live didn’t exist yet.
The reason I’m giving you this litany is because to really get a sense of how life-changing it was for me to suddenly have access to a regular source of both comics and paperback novels, you need to realize how limited the entertainment landscape was back then. Especially for me… a thirteen-year-old kid that didn’t live close to a movie theater or a big bookstore. Basically, my choices consisted of what I could get to on foot or bicycle. Even our local branch library was across town, a forty-minute trek on my little Schwinn Stingray, and that trip always held the possibility of me being grounded for a month if Mom found out I’d gone downtown on my bike. Despite that looming threat, there were times I was bored enough to chance it.
Comics? I had to finagle a ride to where they were sold — Village Drug, usually, way out of range for me or my bicycle back then. Once I was there, it was a question of whether or not I could persuade Mom to part with a quarter. Until I had an income of my own… but even then, prospects were still pretty bleak. Money was only half the equation. The other half was access.
So, that day when I ventured into the new Sentry Market, a mere seven blocks from my house, and saw that comics rack…. well, you can imagine. I rounded the corner of the candy aisle and suddenly there it was, bathed in a halo of golden light. For a moment I could only stand and stare as the angel chorus swelled in volume.
At least it felt that way.
I developed a routine over the next couple of weeks… mow a lawn or something to acquire cash, then bicycle up to the Sentry for a bottle of Coke and a couple of comics. I was like a guy who went on a spending spree after winning the lottery… I went from one or two comics a month, three if I was lucky, to six or seven a week. It was glorious.
It occurred to me that it might be fun to look back at the books that were actually on that rack in August of 1975. The ones that started the rock rolling down the hill, the process of my immersion in the world of comics and superheroes that ended with me teaching cartooning classes in public school, as well as writing this weekly thing for you all.
Here’s what I snatched up, those last days of August. I can’t swear to this being the actual order in which I bought them, but it’s pretty close to what I’m giving you here, I think.
Defenders #28 was the first one, I can tell you that much.
I’d only seen three issues of The Defenders before that. #21, introducing the Headmen, and to this day one of my favorite single issues ever… and #24 and #25, the concluding issues of the Sons of the Serpent arc. That was enough to make Steve Gerber’s Defenders my favorite Marvel book ever (still is, in a lot of ways) and thus I was willing to buy a book that was “continued.” This was part three of the story that re-introduced the Guardians of the Galaxy, who were all new to me, but Gerber did a good job of bringing me up to speed. I never got lost and enjoyed this enormously.
I also grabbed Amazing Spider-Man #149, the conclusion to the (original) Clone Saga.
This particular arc had been really goddamn frustrating for me to try and keep up with. Earlier that year, vacationing with the family on Mt. Hood, I’d managed to get hold of #141, #142, and #143. Getting three in a row like that was enough to persuade me to give the regular monthly Spider-Man title a try again, rather than just the Marvel Tales reprints. (I still wasn’t crazy about Ross Andru’s art, but the story was interesting enough that I got over it.) The Gwen Stacy clone subplot had started to unfold there, and then I’d missed a couple. I’d grabbed #146, where Gwen was sort of back, and then missed a couple more, though I knew the Jackal was the big villain. I’d missed a couple more, though I’d flipped through #148 just in passing one day at a Fred Meyer store… hadn’t actually read it, but skimmed enough to see the big reveal at the end. So this appeared to be the conclusion and there was no WAY I was missing out on that.
Doctor Strange #10 caught me with the cover.
I loved Doctor Strange anyway, and I remembered Mordo from the old Lee-Ditko reprints in Marvel’s Greatest Comics. That, coupled with the way Gerber’s Defenders had raised Stephen’s stock with me in the last few months, made this a pretty easy pick. As it turned out, the action poses on the cover had nothing to do with what was going on in the actual story, but I didn’t care… Englehart’s trippy take on the Sorcerer Supreme sold me, and this was the first time I’d really appreciated Gene Colan’s work. Even Frank Chiaramonte’s scratchy inking couldn’t hurt it.
Daredevil had been a favorite of mine since I’d seen him guest-starring at Reed and Sue’s wedding in Fantastic Four, years ago. I also had fond memories of the 1972 Daredevil Special that had reprinted the Lee-Romita story from #16 and #17, featuring Spider-Man. That was enough to persuade me to try the solo title.
This issue, #126, was my introduction to the work of Marv Wolfman. I liked it quite a bit, though for some reason I managed to miss the next couple of issues, it wasn’t until the Man-Bull story a couple of months later that Daredevil was firmly on my personal list. (In fact, I never did track down #127 until our trip to Seaside last year.) It wasn’t lack of trying. Somehow I kept missing Daredevil when the books showed up. I think part of it was due to me failing to figure out the distributor’s routine; back then, “new comics day” was not nearly as regular an event for newsstand distributors as it is for us today. But when I eventually worked it out, Marv Wolfman’s Daredevil quickly became one of my favorites. (Yes, even #133, the Uri Geller issue.)
I liked the Fantastic Four and I liked Roy Thomas’ writing, so this was a pretty easy sell.
I’d been avoiding the FF; flipping through the book on the stands in recent months, I’d gotten the impression that everything I liked about the Lee-Kirby days was gone. But Fantastic Four #164, the first part of the two-part Crusader story, had a pleasantly old-school feel about it, starting with that Kirby-Sinnott cover. I’d never heard of this George Perez guy that was drawing the book, but he had kind of an interesting approach, and the Joe Sinnott inks kept everything looking the way my thirteen-year-old self thought it should.
Generally, my preferences had slowly swung towards the Marvel books that year… the DC offerings in 1975 just felt tepid, for the most part. The 100-page books that I had loved so much were all gone, and in their place were these horrible little anemic 17-page things. Usually with lame stories and really lame art. The state of the DC superheroes in 1975 didn’t seem so much like a decline as it did a crash dive, especially considering the heights to which they’d risen at the start of the seventies, the Batman books in particular. Just the year before, Detective had been kicking ass with Archie Goodwin and Manhunter, and that was followed by Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s “Bat-Murderer!” Right around the same time we’d had Wein and Neal Adams’ “Moon of the Wolf!” over in Batman, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge,” a couple of stories teaming Batman with the Shadow… and then in 1975 it was like everybody forgot what cool Batman stories looked like. Suddenly it was dumb gimmick stories by David V. Reed and Ernie Chan. Even Denny O’Neil, one of my favorite Batman guys, seemed like he was phoning it in… and the Bat-books were generally the high end. The other DC books looked worse.
But I couldn’t bear to completely walk away. The right cover could still catch my eye.
Justice League of America #124 hooked me with the cover. I was still a sucker for a good Earth-Two story, especially one featuring the adult Dick Grayson in his freaky hybrid Bat-Robin costume. The story was the conclusion to the goofy two-parter featuring Elliott Maggin and Cary Bates, the Crisis on Earth-Prime. I liked it okay (especially Maggin’s line, “Hawkman’s got a personality that would bore a grapefruit!”) but not enough to start picking up JLA regularly again.
A book I did like enough to add to the personal pull list I was creating that month was, surprisingly, The Joker.
Joker #4 was a smart, fun story featuring the Joker facing off against Green Arrow and Black Canary. And having the villain as the ostensible protagonist was a weird enough idea to intrigue me. That ended up being a DC title I stayed with.
The other DC book that intrigued me that August was Hercules Unbound.
I bought this because it was a #1 issue, plain and simple. I wanted to get in on the start of something. And I recognized Gerry Conway’s name from Spider-Man, so I figured why not? The post-holocaust-SF-meets-Greek-myth angle was enough to keep me around, especially since it featured spectacular art from Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Wally Wood. This series and The Joker were the only DC books I bothered with that year. Sadly, neither one of them lasted.
I had only the vaguest notions of what ‘collectible’ meant, but I still was enough of a collector to be interested in getting #1 of a series. That was what had prompted me to pick up The Invaders a couple of months before on our family’s Mt. Hood sojourn, so I was overjoyed to discover the conclusion to that story right there in my local grocery.
I grabbed Invaders #2 the second I saw it, delighted to have both parts of a two-part story. That was a rare goddamn occasion for me in those days.
I picked up Super-Villain Team-Up #2 for essentially the same reason. I’d bought #1 on the Mount Hood trip and here was #2.
However, I was irked to find that this one was continued again. I ended up staying with it a little while longer, but a few months later when Englehart quit, so did I.
Another #1 issue that I picked up simply because it was a #1, I liked enough to keep up with from that point on.
Iron Fist won me over despite the fact that the year before, I’d seen one of the Marvel Premiere issues and been underwhelmed. But this had Iron Man, and it was a #1. As it turned out, it also had Chris Claremont and John Byrne in their prime, so I was hooked.
Captain Marvel was another one I’d sampled on a whim during one of our Mt. Hood trips. I’d mostly fallen in love with the art from Al Milgrom and Klaus Janson, as well as Steve Englehart’s accessible-yet-cosmic take on the character.
Previously I’d gotten hold of #37 and #39, parts one and three of “The Trial of the Watcher.” That was enough to get me on board. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve actually seen the stories, but…there was something deliciously counter-cultural and subversive about Englehart’s Captain Marvel and I fell in love with it from the moment I saw it. (Honestly, to this day I much prefer it to the more famous run by Jim Starlin.) So I was tickled to find #41. That was another one that went on the ‘regular’ list.
I should pause here and point out that as sporadic as my comics purchases had been in the months leading up to that momentous two-week period in August, it was nevertheless possible to sort of keep up with a lot of Marvel titles simply because so many of them were bi-monthly. Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, Invaders, Iron Fist… they only came out every other month, and often stores — especially little mom-n-pop outlets like the Brightwood General Store up where we went to vacation on Mt. Hood — let back issues just stay on the stand and pile up. (That was why I loved the place so. I didn’t give a damn about the great outdoors — it was getting to go to the Brightwood market that lit me up.)
There were a couple of B-list, also-ran books that I picked up as well during those two weeks. Strictly impulse buys, just because I wanted a comic and I’d already cleaned out all the “good ones”… but I still remember them fondly.
Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One tended to be books I never bothered with unless there was nothing else out I wanted or the guest star was particularly intriguing. In these particular cases, neither of these were continued stories, I had fifty cents to burn, and I remembered liking the Beast from his Amazing Adventures days. I didn’t regret the purchase, they were entertaining enough books… though Marvel Two-In-One #12 had the dubious distinction of being the story with a plot point that Jim Shooter would use to define ‘stupid’ for a number of years afterward. (If you’ve read it, you’ll know. If not… well, let’s just say that Shooter wasn’t mistaken. Even thirteen-year-old me, who loathed science class, knew there was no way a rocket would do that.)
I wasn’t all that interested in Captain America or Iron Man, either, but I was still basking in the joy of being able to go to the store and buy a comic any damn time I felt like it. The novelty hadn’t worn off yet. These two I picked up mostly because I saw they weren’t “continued.” Glancing at the last panel and checking for the dreaded “continued” was a habit I’d gotten into years ago. For a long time when I was growing up, that was often the deciding factor in whether or not I bought a book.
Despite featuring Captain America and Iron Man, both characters I liked a lot, and both being done-in-one, neither one was good enough to keep me coming back. The Iron Man issue was a fill-in and the Captain America was a somewhat perfunctory and lame wrap-up to the whole “Snap Wilson” subplot with the Falcon, a collaboration between Tony Isabella and Bill Mantlo after Steve Englehart had left the book. (I did add Captain America to my ‘regular’ book list a couple of months later when Jack Kirby came back.)
Then, in September, it all started again….
… and really, that was what changed my life. Being able to get the next issue of a book I’d picked up a couple of weeks before.
To a kid who’d always had to struggle just to get to where comics were sold… this was truly intoxicating. It made me a regular monthly reader of comics instead of a sporadic, occasional one. I found that it was possible to follow a book, that I could stop worrying if an issue ended with “To Be Continued.” At long last, I could keep up. This was when I learned to relax a little more in my comics reading, to enjoy a big sprawling story that unfolded at its own pace. (Bearing in mind that in 1975, a “big sprawling story” was five or six issues.)
If I hadn’t had that… I don’t know. It’s possible I’d have found a way to keep in touch with comics, but it wouldn’t have been the immersive thing it was, I wouldn’t have ended up the scholar of comics and pop culture that I eventually became. I’m not sure what I’d have become, to be honest, my home life being what it was — comics and junk culture were an escape hatch that I desperately needed. That Sentry Market comics rack entered my life at the perfect moment. That much, I’m sure of.
There’s a saying that “the Golden Age is twelve.” But for me… it was thirteen. At least as far as comics were concerned.
The market is still there, though it stopped being a Sentry long ago; it’s a much more upscale place now, anchoring a little strip mall of gift shops and the like. When I brought Julie home to meet my family a few years ago, we stopped in there so she could buy a toothbrush and they were hosting a wine-tasting. It’s a long way from the place I remembered getting all my Marvel comics and Doc Savage paperbacks.
Those original comics are long gone too, sold off or lost in a move or… hell, I don’t even know what happened to half of them.
But here’s the great part. Almost all of them are currently available in paperback, and some, like the Guardians of the Galaxy Defenders arc, are even out in hardcover.
The Defenders, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, Super-Villain Team-Up, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-In-One and Iron Fist are all available as Essentials.
The Joker story is reprinted in the Green Arrow/Black Canary collection, For Better or For Worse. The Justice League story is in Crisis on Multiple Earths volume four.
The Crusader story is the first one found in Fantastic Four Visionaries: George Perez volume one. The Invaders story is reprinted in Invaders Classic volume one.
….and so on. The only ones that haven’t been reprinted anywhere are Daredevil, Hercules Unbound, Iron Man, Captain Marvel, and Captain America. The Daredevil and Captain America stories are certain to be included in the next Essential volumes of those series, and it’s likely that the Captain Marvel and Iron Man issues will eventually get the Essential treatment as well. The Hercules Unbound was actually scheduled for reprinting in Showcase Presents The Atomic Knights but for whatever reason, it never materialized.
To me that’s just a dazzling wonder, that all those stories are so easily available. My personal Golden Age might have been thirteen… but when I look around my office library where I’m typing this, surrounded by dozens of reprint volumes of my favorite comics, and consider the amazing inroads we’ve made into bookstores over the last decade, I can’t help but think, Damn if today isn’t looking pretty good too.
See you next week.
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