As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster…oops; sorry, wrong article. As far back as I can remember I was reading comics. My family spent many of our weekends in a cottage on an extremely small lake in Central New York that had no rivers or streams connecting it to other bodies of water, making it isolated and mostly free from the continuous roar of motorized watercraft and pontoon boat parties. When tempestuous weather forced us to hunker down inside, I could always be found my comfort zone: listening to the aquatic assault on the tin roof, safely nestled inside an alcove of bunk beds and blankets – all of which remnants of the previous two generations growing up in the same spot with the same comforts.
I was surrounded by piles of tattered, ripped, and drawn-on paperbacks of Hagar the Horrible and Wizard of ID paperbacks and stacks of those terribly unfunny propaganda-masquerading-as-humor books like Sad Sack and Beetle Bailey. Somehow deep down I recognized these as trash well before I knew anything about history or current affairs. And then one day, like an effusion of color into a monochrome world, Justice League of America #253 appeared atop of one of the piles.
I have no idea where it came from. I certainly don’t remember anyone buying it for me off the spinner rack of the local grocer/bait shop/ice cream stand. The cover – our heroes Batman, Martian Manhunter, and the rest of Justice League Detroit chained up helplessly against a wall while a mad tyrant (Despero) cheers victoriously! The interior – alien races prone to genocide, patricide, war, destruction, sacrifice, and overly dramatic monologuing complete with dramatically shaded line work! A cliffhanger OF WHICH THERE CAN SURELY BE NO WAY FOR OUR TEAM TO RECOVER FROM!!! Certainly, considered tame by today’s standards, this was some dark stuff for a four-year-old and I unapologetically ate it up.
In retrospect it feels like an “Elseworlds” era of the Justice League. There were almost no heroes recognizable to someone so young (Martian Manhunter, Elongated Man, Vixen, Steel, Vibe and Gypsy). For one issue no one was safe – Gotham has been destroyed, our protagonists have been defeated, and evil has triumphed over good through sheer force of will. I didn’t get to read the subsequent issues in the storyline until many years later which is probably why it always felt so delightfully precarious.
Ever since, when it comes to cape and cowl comics, I gravitate toward the dark, macabre, or just plain twisted versions of the stories we already know – books like What If? and the Exiles and the aforementioned Elseworlds. The stories we already know often get repeated habitually. Give me something dangerous and unpredictable, even if it’s only for one issue.