Marvel’s Top Ten Stories: 1971-1975

I ranked my favorite Marvel Comics stories of 1961-65 and 1966-1970 a while back, so it’s long past time I examined the next five-year period.

The early 1970s isn’t my favorite Marvel era, but it’s definitely a fascinating one, as well as an improvement over the late ’60s (which needed some shaking up). In a way, it’s almost like a proto-Marvel Cinematic Universe. The X-Men have been sidelined. The Fantastic Four have waned. Spider-Man’s still going strong. The Avengers are on top. Thanos is coming into prominence as one of the most powerful villains in the MU. Marvel’s original Captain Marvel is enjoying his heyday. And all sorts of interesting new characters are joining the mix.

It’s also an era of comics creators breaking free from past constraints, with new titles, new genres, new ideas, and bigger, longer storylines that occasionally delve into philosophy and social issues.

So, here’s what I consider the best of this bunch (45+-year-old spoilers ahead!) …

10) The Avengers #113 (by Steve Englehart and Bob Brown)

Vision and Scarlet Witch’s romance goes public, and while most people are excited for them, a small group of bigots decides this is the end of civilization as we know it—androids are going to replace us! So, like bigots do, they turn themselves into living bombs so they can blow themselves up and take the Vision with them.

In this straightforward, single-issue story, the Vision and Scarlet Witch represent the interracial couples of their day, the homosexual couples of the future—really, anyone whose lifestyle is met with unreasoning hostility in any era. Interestingly, the bigots depicted in the comic are a multicultural group; even though they’ve overcome their racial prejudices, they’ve latched onto a new excuse to hate someone for being different. And their hatred ultimately infects the Scarlet Witch, renewing the mutant’s animosity toward humans, even though the overwhelming majority of humans were supportive of her and the Vision.

The comic isn’t subtle, but rather than just preaching, it shows us that hatred is destructive, unreasonable, and, sadly, cyclical.

9) The Incredible Hulk #140 (by Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas, and Herb Trimpe)

In quite a few early Hulk comics, Hulk was just looking for a place to belong. He was, in a way, undergoing the hero’s journey home—even though he had no idea what “home” was. With this Harlan Ellison plot, we get the best of this Hulk genre so far.

The Hulk is stranded in a subatomic world, where he inadvertently saves a kingdom of green-skinned people, immediately earning their adoration. Bruce Banner’s brain takes over Hulk’s body, and he becomes engaged to the queen of this world. He’s respected and admired, and he has much to offer. He’s not a monster here. So of course it’s all going to get ripped away from him.

The ending has a perfectly tragic touch. As the Hulk reverts to his usual brainless self, he’s vaguely aware of the happiness he had, and he bounds off in search of that place—unaware that it’s within a mote of dust clinging to his clothes.

8) Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #8-9 (by Steve Englehart and George Tuska)

One of the joys of the Marvel Universe is the never-ending opportunity to pair wildly divergent characters who have no business being in the same book. And one especially delightful example is when Doctor Doom hires Luke Cage to track down some runaway robots hiding out in New York.

The second part is where the fun kicks into high gear. After Doom stiffs Cage on the payment, Cage borrows transportation from the Fantastic Four and flies all the way to Latveria to collect his bill. He stumbles into the middle of a revolution already in progress, having no allegiance to either side—just his own values.

It’s a ridiculous scenario that paints a vivid picture of what kind of man Luke Cage is.

7) The Avengers #89-97 (by Roy Thomas, Sal Buscema, Neal Adams, and John Buscema)

The Kree-Skrull War makes a great bridge from Marvel’s Silver Age to its future. It’s a sprawling epic, at different times both micro and macro in scale, one that draws inspiration from recent real-world history as well as Marvel history. There’s a thinly veiled McCarthy figure over here and an android in love over there, plus a loose end from an old Fantastic Four story tied up for good measure—all that and more inside the framework of an interplanetary conflict, with Earth caught in the middle.

If anything, there’s too much going on, so much so that the Avengers themselves nearly get lost in the shuffle sometimes, but part of the charm is the unbridled imagination at play as Marvel breaks into new storytelling possibilities while respecting what has come before.

6) The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (by Stan Lee and and Gil Kane)

Spidey fights drugs! The storyline’s main claim to fame is defying the Comics Code Authority to actually show drug use rather than just preaching against it. There’s still some preaching within, but the showing bolsters the message. And by weaving the message into exciting superhero action and relationship drama, Stan Lee elevates these issues into a classic.

The Green Goblin remains Spidey’s most compelling villain of the era. His knowledge of Spider-Man’s secret identity raises the stakes, and the fact that he’s the father of Peter’s best friend adds another layer of tension and gives Spidey the opportunity to appeal to the humanity beneath the garish mask.

5) Doctor Strange #1-2, 4-5 (by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner)

An anti-magic zealot stabs Doctor Strange in the back and kills him. Or does he? Strange’s attempt to flee death itself plunges him into a surreal odyssey through “unreality.” He’s dying, and nothing makes sense anymore, as a guest appearance by the Alice in Wonderland caterpillar makes abundantly clear (or unclear?).

What starts as a struggle for survival takes on greater meaning, as Strange learns it’s not enough to merely continue living. To beat death, he must conquer his own fear of death. Death is inescapable, after all. And as Strange conquers this fear, the story highlights the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. This is Doctor Strange as it should be—juggling big ideas and memorably weird visuals.

(Issue #3 omitted since it’s mostly a reprint.)

4) Captain America #153-156 (by Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema)

Captain America vs. … Captain America? Marvel had previously attempted to resuscitate the character of Captain America (with sidekick Bucky) in the 1950s. It didn’t work out nearly as well as the next such attempt in the ’60s.

And out of this piece of Marvel trivia, writer Steve Englehart manages to simultaneously turn forgotten stories into canon and confront Captain America with his own potential dark side. Cap sees himself as he might have been—so consumed with blind patriotism that he descends into bigotry and madness.

Recasting the 1950s Captain America as a failed successor may be a retcon, but it’s a retcon with a purpose, one that shows just how exceptional the real Captain America is.

3) Captain Marvel #25-33, The Avengers #125 (by Jim Starlin and friends)

This wasn’t the first Thanos story, but it was the first Thanos epic and the first time he used a supremely powerful artifact to attain godhood. This also happens to be the best the original Captain Marvel series ever got.

Captain Marvel, at this point, is less a character and more an avatar of self-actualization. He’s linked with perennial sidekick Rick Jones; only one can exist in the universe at a time. Rick has long since been the young reader’s stand-in character, and Captain Marvel is, in a sense, his stand-in character, representing the stalwart superhero Rick and the reader have always yearned to be.

During the course of the Thanos War, Captain Marvel evolves, transcending his warrior past to become a universal protector with cosmic awareness. Thanos, meanwhile, uses the Cosmic Cube to elevate himself into a god, but he’s unable to leave his ego behind—and that’s his downfall. Both Captain Marvel and Thanos ascend, but only one does so with wisdom. It’s not so much a superhero story as it is a cosmic tale of philosophy, using aliens to explore human nature. And it’s all written and drawn passionately and exuberantly.

2) The Amazing Spider-Man #123 (by Gerry Conway, Gil Kane, and John Romita)

The runner-up is the follow-up to the #1 story. We spend an issue dealing with the consequences of Spider-Man’s failure, and Spidey works through the anger stage of his grief by battling Luke Cage, hired by J. Jonah Jameson to bring Spider-Man in, dead or alive, for the murder of Norman Osborn.

Superheroes meeting while fighting is hardly uncommon, but as a nice change of pace, this fight feels organic. Cage is just doing his job, and throughout the altercation, Spidey and Cage keep pushing each other’s buttons, escalating the conflict further. Meanwhile, various subplots brew. Previous comics on this list might be more ambitious in scope, might tackle bigger ideas, but this one excels all the more by focusing on character.

1) The Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 (by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane)

Remember on Seinfeld when they wanted to get rid of George’s fiancé, so they just casually killed her by having her lick toxic envelopes? The Amazing Spider-Man had a similar problem, and similar solution, but the execution was so much better (and devoid of toxic envelopes).

Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, wasn’t working out story-wise. There was nowhere for the character to go. She simply wasn’t that interesting, but Peter loved her and there was no plausible way to break them up other than to keep wedging Spider-Man between them.

So they killed her. But they made the death count, dealing Spidey his most tragic failure yet, one that would continue to haunt him as much as Uncle Ben’s murder. Gwen’s murder occurs during a climactic conflict with the original Green Goblin, a quarrel that brings Spidey right up to the edge and requires him to be strong and decent enough to step back from that edge.

And the final page, where Mary Jane awkwardly attempts to comfort Peter, is a work of beauty and says so much about both characters, using relatively few words to do so. A masterpiece of superhero comics.

Time for an experiment — one month without social media!

I’m going to experiment and try a month with no social media whatsoever, August 22 – September 21.

I shall take the red pill and unplug from the Matrix. Granted, I run the risk of finding myself in a dystopian wasteland in which machines have conquered the world and are using everyone I know as living batteries, but that’s a chance I’ll have to take.

I won’t be checking any notifications during that month. I’m sure Facebook will send me emails telling me I have notifications, but I’ll ignore those and carry on with my day. And then Facebook will no doubt email me again, informing me that so-and-so has shared a link! And Friend X has liked Friend Y’s photo! And Friend Z has posted an update! Don’t you want to see what Friend Z has posted? Don’t you? Don’t you?

I wonder how desperate Facebook will eventually get? Will it show its true colors and go full-on General Zod? “You will bow down before me, Facebook User. I swear it, no matter that it takes an eternity! You will bow down before me! Both you … and then one day … your heirs! “

This will be not only a month with no Facebook, but also a month with no Twitter, Instagram, or even Goodreads. No YouTube either, as that counts as social media (though I may make exceptions for legitimate research or practical how-to videos, if needed). Scrolling will not slay any of my time.

If you really miss me, there’s a certain superhero novel that’s worth hundreds and hundreds of posts … and whose sequel I’m very behind on because I keep thinking of better ways to do it. That will be the priority during this month.

Behave yourselves while I’m away.

Muppets aren’t supposed to focus on ‘Now’

Muppets Now premiered on Disney+ July 31, and of course I had to check it out. Unfortunately, something about it felt off.

I appreciate the intent, and it certainly comes closer to the mark than the misconceived Muppet series on ABC a few years ago. But it’s just weird to watch the Muppets stringing together what’s essentially a collection of YouTube videos.

At first, it struck me as anachronistic. Perhaps the Muppets simply belong in the ’70s and ’80s.

But that’s not it. The Muppets are supposed to be theater folk, always just barely pulling together a show in a specific, solid place. A theater not only gives them a home, but it also makes them timeless.

A streaming-based show feels very current year. A theater-based show can be any and every year. The only thing dating a Muppet show should be the very special guest star. Kermit singing “Happy Feet” on the original Muppet Show entertained me in the ’80s, and I’ll never forget my oldest niece cracking up at the same sketch circa 2013.

Muppets are ageless, and in a way, they almost exist outside of time. Muppets Now has potential, but I’d rather they stick to the formula of the original series and aim for another timeless classic.

Speaking of The Muppet Show, why isn’t that on Disney+? And why didn’t the fourth and fifth seasons ever come out on DVD? The world needs classic Muppets.

Watching Disney’s earliest movies for the first time

I watched the earliest Disney movies recently. I was curious from the historical perspective, particularly after having read the excellent biography of Walt Disney by Neal Gabler. I’m about to spoil these movies, but you’ve had eight decades to watch them.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): Walt’s labor of love, and a movie with massive cross-generational appeal when it was released. The animation is indeed superb, but I couldn’t get into the story, perhaps because Snow White never really triumphs at all. The last thing she chooses to do is bite into the poison apple. She doesn’t save herself. She never defeats the evil queen.

There’s really no reason for the queen’s failure. What are the odds that lightning would strike at exactly that wrong spot at exactly that wrong time? Or that seven dwarfs would want to look at a dead girl for several months instead of burying her? Or that Prince Charming would want to kiss a girl who’s been dead for that long? Some evil queens have all the worst luck.

Pinocchio (1940): This movie was far less successful during its initial release, but I found it to be more interesting than its predecessor. It’s incredibly dark at times. That Pleasure Island scene is a horror movie within a children’s movie. All those boys turn into donkeys and never turn back. They clearly know what they’ve become and retain the knowledge of who they were, but it’s too late, and they’re sold to perform slave labor for the rest of their lives. The movie has multiple villains, and none are brought to justice. As Pinocchio gets his happy ending, they’re all still out there, looking for their next victims. All I could think of was the catchphrase of Melisandre from Game of Thrones: “The night is dark and full of terrors.”

And let’s not overlook Pinocchio’s death. He dies even more thoroughly than Snow White did. Though he can breathe at the bottom of the ocean, he’s evidently unable to breathe at the top, so he drowns to his death. We see him face-down in the water, dead. He’s eventually reborn better than ever, of course, but he has to literally die to become a real boy.

Earlier, we also see him getting high off a cigar. This movie pulls no punches. The kids of the ’40s were a hardy lot, and adults clearly didn’t bother hiding the fact that the night is dark and full of terrors.

Fantasia (1940): The perfect movie to have on in the background as you’re doing something else. Though an interesting experiment, it’s no wonder the format never caught on, and it’s no surprise that the best segment is the one with the strongest narrative. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is excellent. The rest varies.

Dumbo (1941): Dumbo is an even more passive protagonist than Snow White (if you can even call either of them protagonists). Other characters shun and humiliate him, and he just takes it. His mother sticks up for him, and she gets locked up for it. His mouse friend hypnotizes the ringleader into giving him a chance, but Dumbo is too hesitant to properly seize the opportunity given to him.

Poor Dumbo is trapped in a downward spiral until he accidentally drinks a lot of alcohol and wakes up in a tree, leading to the realization that he can fly. Then, like Spider-Man before Uncle Ben’s murder, Dumbo uses his super-power to pursue fame and fortune. The End.

It’s an odd movie. Pinocchio’s journey had a clear purpose—to teach kids life lessons through metaphor (and perhaps scare them straight). Cigars nearly make a jackass out of Pinocchio. Alcohol leads Dumbo to a breakthrough of self-discovery. The message is supposed to be about believing in yourself, but there had to be better ways to get there.

Also, Disney+ warns that the movie “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” “May”? Are they on the fence about the roustabouts and crows?

‘The Flying Woman’ now on Kindle Unlimited

I’ve bent the knee to Amazon, which means Kindle Unlimited subscribers can now read The Flying Woman at no extra charge.

Also, for a limited time, Kindle readers can purchase the ebook at a discounted price. It’s currently down to 99 cents, but it will gradually rise back up to the full $3.99. So, now’s the perfect time to take a chance on a new superhero.

Thank you to everyone who’s read The Flying Woman so far. If you enjoyed it, please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads. In any event, I greatly appreciate everyone who takes the time to read it.

A bit about the book:

The impossible has become reality! A masked man possesses extraordinary powers, and he’s using those fantastic abilities to fight crime and pursue justice. Meanwhile, Miranda Thomas expects to fail at the only thing she ever wanted to do: become a famous star of the stage and screen. One night, Miranda encounters a woman who’s more than human. But this powerful woman is dying, fatally wounded by an unknown assailant. Miranda’s next decision propels her life in a new direction—and nothing can prepare her for how she, and the world, will change.

A dramatic reading of “The Book With No Pictures”

One of my favorite (non-) picture books is The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak. It’s written to be performed, and I’ve enjoyed reading it to my nieces’ classes. Kids seem to love it, too, and small children seldom humor us with polite laughter.

So, while so many of us are stuck at home, here’s my dramatic reading of this fine piece of children’s literature.

If you enjoy the book, consider ordering a copy for your family.

Rethinking Game of Thrones

I’m very much behind on this one, but I’m currently reading the Game of Thrones books (or should I say the Song of Fire and Ice books?). I started the first novel several years ago and read a little over a hundred pages, but it wasn’t grabbing me. So, I left the bookmark in, put it back on my shelf, and moved on to other books.

On a whim recently, I decided to give George R. R. Martin’s series another chance. I just picked up where I left off, and this time I found myself appreciating how well done it is, and how engrossing. I’m about halfway through the third book, A Storm of Swords.

(And I’ve watched the first two seasons of the HBO series, but the books come first … until the series runs out of book source material, of course.)

I love the technique of alternating POV characters. The world-building is extraordinary; it’s almost like a historically plausible fantasy epic, and the gradual introduction of those fantasy elements is intriguing. More important, the characters remain grounded in humanity, for good and for bad. And Arya Stark is quite possibly the greatest child character created for an adult series.

It’s not a perfect series, of course (what is?). The second book, A Clash of Kings, while still very good overall, drags a bit too much at times. Personally, I could do with fewer sex scenes (and less nudity in the TV series). And never mind all the blood and guts—the incest is what’s truly disgusting. This is not a fantasy world I’d want to live in.

So, I’m certainly not a hardcore GoT fan at this point. Nevertheless, I finally see what so many others have seen in it all this time.

This is why I don’t like to bash books that aren’t working for me. In some cases, it might actually be just a bad book, but it could also be that it simply didn’t work for me at that point in time. I could have been in the wrong mood or the wrong frame of mind, or perhaps its flaws just bugged me more than others. No book is perfect. No book is beyond criticism. At the same time, a book that’s deeply flawed may still resonate with some people.

We’re not smarter just because we hate what everyone else loves or love what everyone else hates. There are certainly well-established principles of storytelling that are worth paying attention to. Ultimately, though, reading is a subjective experience.

I started reading Game of Thrones and didn’t like it. I resumed reading Game of Thrones and am enjoying the series. Which me is correct?

So here’s why I write…

I recently reread George Orwell’s famous essay, “Why I Write.” In it, he ascribes four primary motives to writers: egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Different writers will feel a stronger pull from one or two than the others, and the precise balance might shift over a lifetime, but those four motives drive much of the prose that exists and will exist throughout the world. I’d be lying if I claimed immunity.

Looking at my superhero novel The Flying Woman, I can see those four motives playing roles of varying sizes.

Ego certainly factors into the equation. I would like to think otherwise, but that would be self-delusion. There’s a line in the musical Hamilton that goes, “God help and forgive me, I want to build something that’s gonna outlive me.” And yes, I’d like that, too. I won’t live forever, and I can’t take any books with me, but I can leave them behind and hope they endure.

Along those lines, I also wanted to write the best superhero novel ever. There are certainly many good and even great superhero prose novels out there, but which has the reputation as being the pinnacle of the genre in this medium? I’m not saying I succeeded—that’s ultimately up to the readers, not the writer. But after a lifetime of reading superhero comics, I wanted to put my own stamp on the genre.

Aesthetic enthusiasm is more a motivation for editing than writing, but I do certainly appreciate aesthetics and value their importance. I’m happy to take the time to ensure the correct word is always in the correct place, and unbroken walls of text often look plain ugly. Dialogue must always “sound” right and flow with a natural rhythm.

So there’s some aesthetic enthusiasm in the mix, but I wouldn’t call it my reason for writing in the first place.

When I was a newspaper reporter, the historical impulse was by far my strongest motive for that particular type of writing. My job was to present people and events as they were, and to provide readers with enough information to help them form their own conclusions. It was never my place to tell them what to think.

With fiction, and especially superhero fantasy fiction, I’m obviously not presenting factual accounts or even slice-of-life drama. But I do strive to present human nature as it is—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And stories of superheroes and supervillains can tell us quite a bit about ourselves. It’s no surprise that superhero origin stories are often great coming-of-age stories, too.

In The Flying Woman, a young woman acquires powers she never expected, and she has to figure out how to become this perfect superhero even though she knows she’s nowhere near perfect. Effectively, she has to figure out how to become the adult she needs to be. The development of a superhero, then, is another way to show how a person matures.

So maybe that’s not quite a “historical” impulse, but it’s adjacent.

And then there’s political purpose. I generally steer clear of this, as I believe partisan politics and fiction don’t mix (though perhaps that is a type of a political opinion).

Writing a female superhero lead might get me involved in current issues of representation in entertainment. Maybe I’m just looking through rose-colored glasses thanks to a youth of reading X-Men and watching Star Trek, but to me, a female superhero already seemed every bit as natural as a male superhero. As I type that, I worry that I sound like I’m pandering, when that’s the last thing I want to do.

In my mind, the way to reduce any disparities in representation is simply by writing (for example) a female lead in a matter-of-fact way, without any overt agenda. I wrote Miranda as a person first and foremost, not a “strong female superhero protagonist.” I focused less on issues that are unique to women today and more on issues that are common to both men and women—fear of failure, accepting responsibility, new responsibilities conflicting with previous ambitions, striving to live up to others’ expectations, and so on—the universal, timeless issues where we can find common ground, not the contemporary identity politics that can divide us … the broader human nature that I mentioned earlier.

So I wrote a non-political female superhero. The statement is that it shouldn’t be a statement. Is that political in a roundabout way? Anti-politics as a type of politics? I’ll let others decide.

That wraps up Orwell’s four motives, but I’ll add one of my own: the joy of creation, of building something new.

Sure, I’ve drawn on elements already present in the culture—established conventions of the superhero genre, themes others have previously tackled, tried-and-true plot structure, and so on. But I assembled those pieces in my own unique way, to create something that only I would have created.

There’s nothing like that thrill, though maybe this is just another form of egoism. Who am I to argue with Orwell?

Originally posted at Silver Dagger Book Tours.

Sequel: The Sequel

I encountered an unexpected obstacle while working on the sequel to The Flying Woman. After months of writing and revising, I realized I was actually working on the third book in the series. Unfortunately, math tells us that among the second and third books, the second should come first.

The main issue was that I jumped too far ahead in time, inadvertently skipping much of Miranda’s development as a superhero. The first book is all about accepting the responsibility and building the superhero persona, but how does she get good at it? How does a superhero receive training when she’s one of her world’s first ever?

That gave me a way in to an actual second book. I don’t have a title yet, but I’ve got the premise locked down. Describing the premise in too much detail would risk spoiling the first book (which you should of course read first), but it involves a superhero/fantasy genre mash-up.

There’s an old comic book trope in which the superhero gets sucked into another world, dimension, or reality and gets involved in whatever conflict is going on there. The superhero figures out who the good guys are, helps them out, and eventually finds a way home. It’s not my favorite trope, but the reasons for my ambivalence showed me how to make it work for my story.

In the comics, especially in the ’60s and ’70s, these outings would often feel inconsequential. Yeah, it might be fun to see a familiar character navigating an unfamiliar environment, but these issues tended to feel like a break from the main storylines, the superhero equivalent of a vacation. Then the main character would return home, and that would be that.

The concept fits perfectly in the Voyage and Return plot type, in which “[t]he protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return with experience.” In the old-school comics, though, the superhero didn’t always come away with any lasting lessons.

Experiences in far-off lands should leave indelible marks, especially on a young superhero who’s still trying to figure it all out. And thus I have my second book.

Admittedly, this puts me a bit behind schedule. However, I’ll be ahead when it’s time to resume work on the third book (unless I realize the third is actually the fourth).

My goal is to have the second book out this fall, though it’s too soon to promise that. I’d rather take extra time to get it right than put out something below par.

So in the meantime, continue to enjoy The Flying Woman.

‘The Flying Woman’ soars as a Book Excellence Award Finalist!

I’m thrilled to announce that I have been recognized as a Book Excellence Award Finalist for my novel, The Flying Woman, in the Fantasy category.

To toot my own horn, my book was selected based on criteria such as writing, design, and market appeal.

To see me listed among the finalists, please go here.

Released last fall, The Flying Woman adapts the superhero genre for the novel medium. The story follows a young woman learning to accept a responsibility far greater than anything she ever contemplated. It’s an entertaining time for superhero fans, whether in middle school or middle age.

And work on a sequel, The Silver Stranger, is under way!

Join the fun by getting your own copy of The Flying Woman here.