Four Comics Books That Shaped The Way I Read & Collect Comics By Rick B
GRENDEL #1 by Comico
Leading up to October 1986, I had bought and read comics off and on for roughly 9 years. Spider-Man, Batman, Hulk and anything with Wolverine on the cover. I started trying to collect GI Joe and Transformers but even back then, I unconsciously recognized that not all comics were made the same. Very early into my GI Joe collection if Snake-Eyes, Storm Shadow or Zartan was not on the cover, I would skip that issue to grab something else. My Transformers run suffered an even worse fate, not only did a favorite character have to be on the cover, they had to be inside. Sometime around then my friend showed me his brother’s Robotech comics from Comico. I really enjoyed all the Robotech cartoons, so I decided to pick up a few issues. Specifically, the New Generation comics, as I was enamored with Scott Bernard and his crazy motorcycle turned armor contraption. Anyway, back to Grendel. So eventually I picked up an issue of Robotech the New Generation. Innocently I read it, thinking it was both good and bad. Good as in it’s just the show good. Bad as in this is just the show again. Then BAM! one of the ads in that issue was for the new Grendel #1 and my adolescent 12-year-old brain lost it. Grendel was the coolest, sexiest (I did not even know what that meant), visually stunning thing I had ever seen on/ in a comic. Starting with my next trip, I was on the hunt for this Grendel. And I was not disappointed when I finally found it and brought it home. The Pander Bros’ artwork warped my brain even more. Up until that point, 99% of comic artists looked roughly the same to me. At the very least, they were all very on model artists. Wolverine, whether by John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, or Herp Trimpe still looked like Wolverine. I recognized that sometimes things were more exciting than others, but only really cared about who was in the story. The Pander Bros & crew’s crazy fashion designs, panel layouts, and wonderfully crazy colors was like the Sistine Chapel to me, literally jaw dropping. The artwork in Grendel shattered my illusion that all comics were by the same few guys. GI Joe and Transformers looked like kids’ drawings at this point. And holy crap the violence? I can’t remember Tomb of Dracula or Werewolf by Night being this bloody and scary. From this point forward I made sure to A) check for my GI Joes, Transformers, Robotechs, & super-heroes and then B) to look at everything else. Which lead to Grimjack, Nexus, Faust (yes, I was so tall I bought Faust off the rack with not a bat of the clerks’ eye), and so many other wonderful books.
BATMAN THE DARK KNIGHT FAILS #4 Aka Dark Knight Returns #4 by DC
Roughly a month later in November/ December 1986 as I slowly began to search every nook and cranny for my next gem, I saw in the back bottom corner a silhouetted Superman fighting Batman? But Batman with a knife? And a giant gun?! HOLY CRAP! I quickly grabbed it and saw Batman the Dark Knight Fails #4 on the cover, and the name Frank Miller! First things first. Up until this point in my life every interaction Superman and Batman had were as best friends. Mostly from the Super Friends TV but from random comics as well. Why were they fighting? Could anything be cooler than those gigantic black bodies posed against what had to be a nuclear firestorm? Nope. And Batman was using non-Batman weapons!!! To me, Batman never used weapons, he used Batarangs, Bat-alphabet Soup, Batshark repellant, not Batguns and Batblades. I checked inside and the first panel I saw had Batman punting Superman’s face! Life changing stuff for sure. And strangely enough I recognized the name Frank Miller, as his name was on the WOLVERINE mini-series. That mini-series was light years better looking than Incredible Hulk #181’s pedestrian artwork. Instinctively a bell rang in my brain and I knew this Frank Miller was in my new wheel house. I looked for #1, 2, 3 of Batman the Dark Knight Fails but unfortunately, I could only find Batman Hunt the Dark Knight #3. But it had the same creative names and look to it. Plus, a female Robin? What was going on? Indeed, what was going on was my continued discovery that no two comic books artists were the same. And that apparently after 60 years of status quo, a new generation of artists (and I would discover eventually writers) were bringing game changing ideas nearly every week in the 80s. At this point I was completely hooked and tried to go to the comic store at least once a week if possible and I started adding regular BATMAN (I’m looking at you 10 Nights of the Demon!) and occasionally Detective Comics to my reading list.
X-FACTOR #17 by Marvel
Sometime around March 1987, the next seismic change to my life would occur. A change that affects me to this day. Scott Johnson, a friend since kindergarten I believe, happened to be sitting next to me in English class. We were reading a fairly interesting book titled Norse Mythology. I slowly started to fall in love with the God of Thunder Thor. He had this amazing hammer, Mjolnir, that easily defeated his enemies, it never missed (I am unathletic and missed all the time), and it returned right back to him (I lost stuff a lot). It was described as a chunk of rock attached to a handle. So naturally on all of my notebooks and brown paper book covers, I drew a little Viking guy with a giant rock on a handle smashing all of my bullies. Thor’s myths were by far the best ones we read and I was hooked. Now to be fair, gentle reader, I had known who Marvel Thor was for years. I had watched re-runs of the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoons for years. I saw him appear on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends fighting Loki as well. I had even picked up Thor #325 in fall of 1982, you know the 2nd appearance of Darkoth, the demon Donny Cates randomly just used for no reason last month in Thor #28. Thor was just ok however up until then, Spider-Man, Hulk, and Wolverine were my go-to Marvel Super Heroes comics. Yet on that fateful spring afternoon, Scott was flipping through an issue of X-Factor. I knew X-Factor as the one-time original X-Men brought but I had seen a couple of covers by Jackson Guice, and was unimpressed so I stopped paying attention, but issue #17 had Beast holding on to Cyclops falling backwards out of a helicopter while military choppers fired on them. It was so dynamic and action filled, I had to ask Scott what was going on. He started with Jean Grey being back and that Angel died and blah blah blah. Then Scott opened to page number one and there was this massive figure with red cape and twirling hammer dropping off Iceman. My brain had a near Dark Knight Returns #4 moment. Who was that guy? Scott said oh that’s Thor’s new costume. He got beat up in his book and created a new suit of armor. WAIT! HOLD… THE… PHONE. That amazing looking thing is Thor? Like Thor from the Norse Mythology book we are currently reading, Thor? Marvel Comics Thor is Norse Mythology Thor? Sweet Nectar of the Gods! How cool is that? I skipped lunch that day to use my lunch money to buy comics after school. I walked home that day, right into the Naperville Graham Crackers, right to the “T” section and picked up THOR #378. That was the next coolest thing I had ever seen. Thor standing triumphantly in the most badass new armor I had even seen since Frank Miller dressed up Batman to kick the crap out of Superman. Inside it had Loki who also looked 1,000 times cooler than he did in cartoons and my imagination! With Iceman even! The next day I skipped lunch again and bought THOR #379 and #380. Issue #380 to this day, is the second greatest comic I have ever read. Full of splash pages of Thor fighting Jormungander the Midgard Serpent while the narration spoke as epically as the guy that narrated Arnold’s Conan the Barbarian movie! I actually checked the writer of this issue and surprise it was Walter Simonson, the artist of the book! I loved every bit of it and have bought every monthly issue of THOR till this day. And for the first time, I seriously started hunting down back issues. And years later I completed my task and have every issue of Thor from JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #83 to the newest one, including annuals, specials, one-shot, and mini-series. And up until the mid-2000s, I also had every cover too. On top of that, I began collecting nearly everything drawn and/ or written by Simonson as well. And for full disclosure, I have way too many books I would never read just because he drew the cover. JSA Classified with Hawkgirl says hello!
COSMIC ODYSSEY #1 by DC.
Then in the spring of 1988, while reading through my latest stack of Thor, Batman, Grendel, and other random things, I noticed in some DC books an ad for something called Cosmic Odyssey. It had a super cool looking Batman with Superman, the Green Lantern I knew nothing about, and a bunch of other guys who also looked fantastic. Batman especially looked just like the awe-inspiring cover of Detective Comics #583, which had terrific art by Norm Breyfogle inside but not that crazy cover guy, Mingol or something. Above that image was a name I recognized. Starlin, aka Jim Starlin of some Batman books I had just started reading. I had gotten the Hulk Thing in Big Changes GN by Berni Wrightson, which was my intro to Berni. Berni Wrightson happened to be drawing Batman the Cult written by Jim Starlin! Which I thought as terrific so, I was in hook, line, and sinker for Cosmic Odyssey. To say I got brain-slapped again after reading issue #1, would be an understatement. Firstly, Jim Starlin did not disappoint. The JLA with that crazy cool looking New Gods bunch, a blue & yellow Dr Strange guy, and some giant orange hulk Demon thing? Thrilling! But what really sold me was that every character was carved out roughhewn stone! Featuring all the dynamics of Walter Simonson and bulkiness of Frank Miller but covered in shadows, Mignola‘s artwork was out of this world. Once again, school lessons informed upon what I was seeing as I had learned about chiaroscuro, aka light vs shadow vs light as a way to define depth and shape in my art class weeks earlier. And this Mignola guy went super crazy with it. Wrightson had beautiful feathering to bring out his highlights, shadows, and textures, but Mignola was pure hard edges and creepy dark moodiness. It was almost as if the he was drawing the old black and white Universal Monster movies of Son of Svengoolie, but with the brightly colored costumes of Batman and Superman! On my next trip, I hunted down John Robinson, my Mimir’s Well of comic knowledge! I needed more of this Mignola guy asap. And John, as he always did back then, handed me the Chronicles of Corum mini-series, an issue of Marvel Fanfare with pirate Namor on it, and told me to check out Rocket Racoon. Much like Simonson a year earlier I desperately needed everything Mignola. And of course, I have since bought every Mignola produced comic. I have even bought every Mignola written thing as well and once again have bought too many iffy comics just because he drew the cover, hello Death of Lady Vampre #1! On top of that I hunted down Matt Wagner’s (holy poop, the Grendel writer?!) Demon mini-series. And started looking for the Keith Geffen’s Doctor Fate mini! I also started discovering/ rediscovering Jack Kirby at that time. Mignola’s New Gods were unbelievably visually stunning to me and I could not believe the terrible Defender’s cover artist Jack Kirby was the same guy that helped create/ inspire so much of the things I now loved. You have to realize at this point, I could not afford anything vintage Kirby and only knew him from the Super Powers comic & tons of subpar Marvel covers. But my eyes opening to Kirby is a tale for another day. What are four comics that changed your life?