A good, old-school Superman novel

I can’t remember when I got Elliot S. Maggin’s Superman: Last Son of Krypton or read it last. Probably sometime in the ’90s on both counts.

So, curiosity drove me to reread it. The novel is a fun, quick read. Even though it’s got Christopher Reeve on the cover and movie photos inside, it’s based on 1970s Superman comics, not the movie series.

This Clark Kent has moved on from the Daily Planet and is a TV reporter. This Superman has extra powers, including super-memory and the ever-useful super-ventriloquism. This Lex Luthor spent some of his childhood in Smallville and knew young Clark and Superboy (and lost his hair in a lab accident, because in old-school comics, even something as commonplace as baldness requires a special origin story).

The book’s cast also includes the Guardians from Green Lantern — and none other than Albert Einstein, who’s retconned into Superman’s origin story (which is unnecessary generally but works for the book).

Elliot S. Maggin’s novel reads like a fleshed-out version of a ’70s comic book, and he plays it straight, as though the strange, colorful world of old Superman comics is the most natural thing ever. It’s nice to find such a superhero story *without* any self-aware, self-deprecating meta humor. Instead, we just have Superman being Superman, with a very well-written Lex Luthor threatening to steal the show.

Maggin had a second Superman novel, Miracle Monday, which I’ve never read, but now I’m curious.

Super Substitutes and Super Successors

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Captain America got me thinking about superhero legacies, how some superheroes can have multiple incarnations while others work primarily or only as their original incarnation.

And since this is the internet, let me get this out of the way: I am NOT the slightest bit outraged about Sam Wilson becoming Captain America. You will not find any inflamed hot takes here, just a sober look at the situation.

But we’ll get to the captains later. Let’s start with the kids. 

Kid Sidekicks

No offense to the youth, but sidekicks are the most replaceable category of superheroes. Naturally, they should grow up and move on at some point, like how the original Robin became Nightwing.

Sidekick roles are like apprenticeships—training, not a permanent identity. A kid can assist until he or she grows up into their own identity, and then a new kid comes along and becomes the new Robin or whoever.

Green Lantern(s)

Green Lantern is built for multiple incarnations. There’s an entire corps of Green Lanterns, after all, so numerous Green Lanterns already existed from the get-go.

It is weird that there’s now a disproportionate number of Green Lanterns from Earth, but there are harder pills to swallow in the realm of superhero comics. 

As far as popular culture is concerned, Hal Jordan has the advantage of being Earth’s first Green Lantern (of the intergalactic space cop variety, that is), but John Stewart is just as valid (especially thanks to the excellent Justice League cartoon), as are the newer ones like Jessica Cruz.

Spider-Man (-Men?)

Establishing a non-Peter Parker Spider-Man was something I didn’t think possible, but Marvel pulled it off with Miles Morales.

Part of why this works is because Miles never fully replaced Peter. As far as I can recall, at no point was Miles Morales the only available Spider-Man appearing in Marvel Comics. Readers could choose one or the other or both.

The difference between Peter Parker and Miles Morales is essentially the difference between Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The latter keeps the spirit and core concept of the original but modernizes it for a new era with an all-new cast. Neither takes anything away from the other.

Flash: The Fastest Men Alive

When I read Flash comics in the ’90s, the Flash wasn’t Barry Allen; he was Wally West—the former Kid Flash all grown up and succeeding his deceased mentor.

That worked because Barry Allen at that point had always been a likable but fairly bland character, and Wally wound up receiving much greater development through more modern storytelling. 

Throughout the course of his series, while struggling to live up to the example of his uncle, Wally grew up from a self-centered 20-year-old to a respected hero in his own right and ultimately a responsible family man. He had such a great arc that it reached a solid conclusion and feels like a complete story told over twenty years of comics. Even with the success of the Flash TV show, I still tend to think of the Wally West version before any other.

Because he’s Batman

But compare that to Batman. Batman is such a distinct character that he can only be Bruce Wayne. Dick Grayson is a valid substitute on occasion, but he’s never more than a substitute. 

During the Knightfall storyline from the ’90s, Bruce tapped the wrong substitute, Jean Paul Valley, also known as Azrael, which was essentially a way of showing how terrible it would be to have a darker, more violent Batman without the ethical restraints of Bruce Wayne. (The Punisher as Batman, essentially.) The replacement validated the original, reminding us how great he is.

It’s Superman!

Superman had a contingent of substitutes after he died in the early ’90s, and like with Batman, the point of the story was to show that only Superman (Clark Kent) can be Superman. 

Three of the four substitutes were outright horrible. One, derived from his Kryptonian heritage (a “Last Son of Krypton,” if you will), was very cold and alien and didn’t mind killing criminals. And seeing any type of Superman kill is highly unsettling.

Then there was a cyborg version of Superman (a “Man of Tomorrow”), who represented the excesses of early ’90s comics—all style, no soul. This Superman was never a hero, and he indeed wound up being a villain in disguise.

We also had a Superboy, but this kid wasn’t raised by the Kents and therefore was a selfish, arrogant brat (though he matured in later stories). 

The fourth fill-in Superman was most obviously not like the original Superman on the outside but most like him on the inside. John Henry Irons was a steelworker whose life Superman saved, so when Superman died, Irons felt an obligation to pay it forward. He built himself a suit of armor (becoming a “Man of Steel”) and sought to help people in Superman’s memory. Unlike the other three, this character was actually heroic. But he never claimed to be Superman. He was the only one who didn’t call himself Superman, and the only one who evoked the authentic spirit of Superman.

Captains America

And this brings us to Captain America. The character was created as a propaganda symbol in the ’40s, but after his revival in the ’60s, he became a character in his own right. And that character was man-out-of-time Steve Rogers.

John Walker, like in the recent TV show, was used to show us how Cap should not behave (again, just like Azrael-Batman and the ill-behaved substitute Supermen).

Bucky and Falcon are both valid substitutes—the only valid substitutes, I would say. They both had their stints as Captain America in the comics (fairly recent comics, all in this century). Bucky’s Cap story was part of his redemption arc, and it was part of a Death of Captain America story not all that different in spirit from the Death of Superman story, though it took a different route. 

The main reason Bucky ultimately agreed to step into the Captain America role was because he knew no one could live up to it, least of all himself, but out of respect for his best friend, he would give it his all. Pretty much everyone reading the storyline understood that the “real” Captain America would inevitably return within a few years or so.

I’m less familiar with Falcon’s Cap story, as it happened during a time when I was reading fewer comics. I read some Avengers comics where Sam Wilson operated in the Captain America role, and I had no problem with the concept. It reminded me of Dick Grayson filling in for Batman—it was interesting to see, and he was legit, but we all knew the original would return before long and the substitute needed to return to his own superhero identity, which he had spent years of hard work establishing.

Comic books, however, don’t have to worry about casting. Chris Evans has moved on from playing Captain America, and Anthony Mackie will likely carry the torch until the MCU runs its course. Therefore, out of necessity, cinematic Sam Wilson needs to be less “Dick Grayson as Batman” and more “Wally West as the Flash.”

Granted, it also would have been perfectly fine to simply retire MCU Captain America and launch a series of solo Falcon movies, giving Marvel Comics’ first African American superhero his time in the spotlight in his original role. But “Captain America” is the bigger brand, so naturally the producers would want to keep using the name for as long as possible. And Sam Wilson is indeed a fine choice to fill the role.

Superheroes and cynicism don’t mix

I watched the first three episodes of The Boys on Amazon Prime. While it looks like a high-quality TV show, I found it very off-putting. (That may be by design, to some extent.)

I’m not sure if I’ll watch any more, and I’m not reviewing it since I haven’t seen it all, but I think it’s worthwhile to examine why it repulsed me so quickly. If you enjoy the show, please keep enjoying it. In terms of writing, acting, directing, production values, etc., it seems to have all the ingredients of a compelling series. Its hard-R rating isn’t even the real dealbreaker.

The problem, for me, is more philosophical. The series’ pessimistic worldview is what ultimately prevents me from wanting to spend further time in this particular superhero universe, despite the numerous technical strengths of the show.

The Boys features a cynical take on superheroes. They’re all physically super, but (in what I watched) only one might actually be at all heroic. The vast majority are portrayed as self-serving, self-absorbed celebrities who are content to let a large corporation package them and tell them what to do.

They demonstrate no moral compass, no compassion, no altruism. This could work as part of a redemption arc, but it doesn’t look like the show is going in that direction. (I’d be happy to be wrong, though.)

I read, watch, and write superhero stories because they show people becoming something better.

This could be a character like Superman who always does the right thing because that’s how he was raised, or it could be a character like Spider-Man who has to work at it harder, and who screws up from time to time but usually figures out the right thing to do in the end. Even more violent characters like Wolverine can adhere to a strict code of honor.

The corporate-superhero aspect of The Boys reminds of an earlier corporate, for-profit superhero: Booster Gold. Booster had a short-lived DC Comics series in the late ’80s, and throughout it, he grew from a self-serving glory hound to a bona fide (but still very flawed) superhero.

That growth was key to my enjoyment of Booster Gold. Same goes for ’90s Marvel series The Thunderbolts. That book starred a group of supervillains pretending to be superheroes as part of a scheme, but some of these villains discovered that they actually liked being heroes, which created all sorts of drama and tension and gave the book its heart.

The Boys may indeed portray a “realistic” version of superheroes, but that’s precisely why I don’t want to watch any more of it. I want aspirational superheroes. I want to see how we can be better, not how we’d be worse.

But if I’m completely wrong about the show, please let me know!

Neither a bird nor a plane — it’s a great Superman novel

I read the novel It’s Superman! by Tom De Haven not long after it came out, probably 15 or so years ago now. It’s, in part, Superman as historical fiction, placing the character in his original 1930s setting. Though I liked it the first time around, I figured I’d appreciate it more now, having read several nonfiction books about the period since then.

And I did, and not just for the historical detail.

The parts in Smallville feel like a cross between a Superman story and a John Steinbeck novel, which gradually transitions into old-school sci-fi, with a lower-powered, more vulnerable Superman battling robots.

This Clark Kent is young and awkward, feeling like the alien he is as he tries to figure out his place in the world. The novel repeatedly makes the point that while Clark isn’t stupid by any means, he’s not especially intelligent either.

That seemed to diminish him at first, but it does enhance the awkwardness and uncertainty the author is going for. This Superman hasn’t developed his confidence yet, and giving him a normal mind allows the character to retain plenty of vulnerability.

One criticism I keep seeing about Superman is that he’s too powerful—if nothing can hurt him, then why should we care? This overlooks the fact that there are many ways to hurt a character, and not all of them are physical. Plus, the aspirational appeal of Superman is that you’ve got this guy who can do virtually whatever he wants with his life … and he still chooses to help people.

Lex Luthor, by contrast, is highly intelligent and supremely confident, and he uses his skills for his own personal gain. While Clark tries to find his place among humanity, Lex prefers to distinguish himself from all of humanity.

Compare this description of Clark: “Finding people who are like him, even in the smallest ways, is always a comfort. It’s stupid, he knows, but it’s always some comfort.”

And this line of dialogue from Lex: “ ‘I don’t discriminate, Carl. All human beings are the same to me.’ ”

There have been various takes on Superman over the past 80+ years. In some, he’s Superman first and foremost while Clark Kent is little more than a disguise. In others, he’s Clark Kent first and foremost while Superman is simply the way he chooses to use his gifts to serve the world. I prefer the latter approach, which is the approach It’s Superman! takes.

This novel would fit in well in DC’s Elseworlds line. It should not be seen as the definitive take on the character. But as a way of fleshing out the version that appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938 and giving that Superman a detailed backstory, it’s excellent.

Taking Superman to the next level — parenthood

I’m happy to see the new TV series Superman & Lois is taking a cue from my favorite recent run of Superman comics.

Launching under the DC Universe Rebirth banner, this series took Superman to the next level—not in terms of epic storylines, a bold new tone, or even overall quality. For Superman, the next logical level was parenthood.

The series followed Superman and Lois Lane as they raised a 10-year-old super-son, trying to impart on young Jon Kent the same values that Jonathan and Martha Kent had imparted on young Clark back in the day.

It fit what Superman is all about, and it put Lois and Clark in a new status quo that suited both of them. We saw that even after eight decades, you can still do something fresh with Superman without betraying the character’s core premise. Not every issue was a winner, but the run as a whole was a lot of fun.

Superman & Lois isn’t copying the comic—they’ve got two teenage sons in the TV show—but it is recapturing the family dynamic to differentiate this Superman from his previous TV and movie incarnations.

I also appreciate that, even though it’s on the CW, it’s not following the same formula as the previous CW superhero shows. I enjoyed the early seasons of Arrow, Flash, and Supergirl, but it is time for a fresh approach. Based on the first episode, Superman & Lois is on the right track, and its own track.

WandaVision: A perfectly strange marriage of superheroes and sitcoms

I’m enjoying WandaVision for a host of reasons, and I especially appreciate what it demonstrates about superhero storytelling.

Superheroes can work in any medium, and different mediums can open up new possibilities. It’s a versatile genre, and embracing that versatility is to its (and our) benefit.

WandaVision is not the first excellent superhero television series. Among others, Daredevil was at times amazing, and I’ve been loving Doom Patrol so far. But WandaVision might be the first that can only be a television series (or streaming series).

The sitcom gimmick isn’t just a gimmick, nor is it parody. It’s occasionally adjacent to parody while always being a distinct entity. The series is playing with different tropes than superhero comics or movies get to play with, and it’s employing those tropes to show what Wanda is going through.

And it doesn’t dispense with all comic book tropes in the process. The series remains part of a previously established shared universe, building on years of stories and pulling together various characters from various sources. The plot incorporates elements from older comic book stories, but it’s all structured in such an original way that it stands on its own as something new.

WandaVision is a strange, fascinating marriage of superhero tropes and sitcom tropes, uniting them in innovative ways to offer something fresh for comic book readers and television viewers alike.

Marvel’s Top Ten Stories: 1976-1980

I wasn’t born yet during this half-decade; nevertheless, I’m quite fond of many Marvel comics that came out of it. After all, this is the era that relaunched the X-Men and elevated them to greatness, with a long string of all-time classic issues.

It should come as no surprise, then, that X-Men stories dominate half this list. Really, the main question should be obvious: Will the top spot go to the Dark Phoenix Saga or Days of Future Past?

And the other question: What non-X books make the cut for the other half of the list?

(Please note: The 1976-80 time frame is by release date, not cover date, which makes all the difference for a couple of the honorees here … which I suppose foreshadows the greatness of the ’80s.)

10) Avengers Annual #7, Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 (by Jim Starlin)

It’s like an early draft of the Infinity Wars, as well as providing the sequel to Captain Marvel’s Thanos War storyline and the conclusion to Warlock’s long-running saga. Thanos has collected most of the Infinity gems (known as “soul gems” at this point), and he sets out to destroy the sun in order to win the favor of Death herself. The Avengers, Captain Marvel, Moondragon, and Warlock, naturally, head into space to stop him. Great cosmic action ensues in an epic tale about life and death.

Spider-Man and the Thing join the action in the second part, and Spidey’s presence in particular brings the human perspective to the mix. He’s out of his league. He’s scared. He even panics at one point. And that makes his contributions all the more heroic.

9) The Avengers #164-166 (by Jim Shooter and John Byrne)

The Avengers vs. Superman! Well, not really, but it’s the Avengers vs. Count Nefaria with Superman-like powers!

The storyline features all-out action against an immensely powerful foe who craves nothing less than immortality. Defeating such a menace will require nothing less than the teamwork of Earth’s mightiest heroes. The problem—or another problem, rather—is the internal tension that puts the Avengers off their A-game. But it wouldn’t be a proper Marvel comic without feuding heroes.

This one has all the elements of a thrilling old-school Avengers storyline: high stakes, a formidable threat, fast-paced action, and—most importantly—interesting character dynamics. Add that all together and you’ve got pure fun for comics fans young and old.

8) Daredevil #163 (by Roger McKenzie and Frank Miller)

Daredevil was already recovering from years of mediocrity even before Frank Miller started writing the book (not to diminish Miller’s indispensable work at all). Issue #163 is a great example, with a very down-to-earth story that shows us the real measure of the title character.

The Hulk shows up in New York, and he’s confronted by … Matt Murdock, in formalwear. And ultimately, Matt just wants to help the Hulk, not fight him. He empathizes with the innocent man within the beast, and he understands how easily a Hulk situation can spiral out of control. If he can get the Hulk to calm down, and help Bruce Banner get out of town, great. And he almost succeeds.

Things go south when Banner hulks out again, and Daredevil realizes that he might be the only person who has a prayer of defusing the situation before it gets worse. Of course, one very human Man Without Fear is nowhere near the Hulk’s weight class.

As Daredevil tells himself after taking a beating: “Tried my best … to stop Hulk. Best wasn’t … good enough. If I quit now, nobody would blame me … nobody would even know. Nobody … except me. I’d always know that I backed down … that I ran …”

Pretty much everything you need to know about Daredevil’s character is shown right here in one excellent issue.

7) X-Men #98-100 (by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum)

The first great storyline of the X-Men’s “All-New, All-Different” relaunch. It begins as any good X-Men story should, with the team enjoying some downtime, just trying to live their lives, until the world’s fear and hatred get in their way … this time in the form of mutant-hunting Sentinel robots.

The Sentinels capture Jean Grey, Wolverine, and Banshee, who then must fight their way through bigots and robots. They’ve been abducted to a facility at an unknown location, which proves to be much farther from home than they thought.

Part of the X-Men’s success has involved mixing and matching great characters and watching them play off each other. The first issue gives an early example of that by pulling together three X-Men who had hardly ever functioned as a team, and certainly not with just the three of them.

This would have been a solid anniversary storyline to culminate in the 100th issue, complete with facsimile robots of the original team. But the final three pages bring it to the next level. The highly emotional scene, featuring Jean’s Big Damn Hero moment, portends just how amazing X-Men is going to get.

6) Daredevil #168 (by Frank Miller)

Frank Miller’s writing debut barely sneaks into this five-year period. True, the best comes later, but this is a strong start, a fantastic introduction to a pivotal new character, and a great example of a retcon that works. Matt Murdock’s first great love, neither mentioned nor even hinted at for 167 issues, suddenly emerges in issue #168. But who cares about such implausible oddities when said first love is as fascinating as Elektra?

Matt met her in college, when Elektra was the overly protected daughter of an ambassador. And, showing just how human he is, Matt threw caution to the wind and showed off his athletic prowess and hypersenses to impress the girl. Tragedy separated them then, but now Elektra reenters his life—by throwing her sai against the back of his head.

Daredevil’s ex-girlfriend has become a highly skilled bounty hunter. Further conflicts between the two are inevitable. But here’s what’s key: Miller’s script and art show how they both still care for each other, even after all these years. And the richer the emotions, the richer the conflicts.

5) X-Men #111-114 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

The classic Claremont/Byrne collaboration began a few issues earlier, but this is where it really kicks into high gear, never losing momentum from here on out. Right off, we’re dropped into the middle of a mystery, with X-Man-turned-Avenger Hank McCoy serving as our very confused viewpoint character for part one. The Beast finds the new X-Men performing as carnival freaks and investigates.

And that’s merely our starting point. This little misadventure with Mesmero soon turns into a memorable confrontation with Magneto at his villainous best (or worst), a few years before actual character depth was retconned into him. He places the X-Men in a creative and cruel trap, leaving them physically helpless and babied by a robotic nanny day after day.

This merely sets the stage for a truly fantastic battle within a volcano, one that leads directly into the next exciting stories.

It’s pretty much all greatness from here on out for the Claremont/Byrne team. Comics as they should be.

4) Iron Man #120-121, 123-128 (by Bob Layton, David Michelinie, and John Romita Jr.)

Iron Man faces his most insidious foe yet: alcohol. This could easily have veered into “after-school special” territory, and it does come close toward the end, but the storyline succeeds by weaving the alcoholism plot throughout several issues of otherwise normal (and very strong) Iron Man issues. Tony doesn’t immediately become an alcoholic in part one. His drinking gradually escalates, as do the detrimental effects.

At the beginning of #120, a stewardess asks Tony if he’s sure he wants another martini, and Tony quips to himself that he’s drinking for two. While fighting the Sub-Mariner, he does wonder if he maybe should have had one less drink, but his Iron Man performance is more or less unimpaired. So far.

Issue after issue, stresses mount, cracks spread, and Tony’s drinking increases, becoming a problem without his realizing it.

Another plotline involves Justin Hammer seizing remote control of the Iron Man armor, which provides an appropriate metaphor for Tony’s internal struggle. And it’s fitting that regaining control of the armor proves much easier than regaining control of himself.

(#122 omitted because it’s a filler flashback issue.)

3) X-Men #125-128 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

The X-Men confront their—and the world’s—worst nightmare: an immensely powerful mutant who lacks a conscience. To make matters even more tragic, this mutant is the son of the X-Men’s closest human confidant, Moira McTaggart.

Reality-warping Proteus pushes the X-Men to the limit. Even Wolverine is rattled. The tension never lets up until the end, and this gauntlet shows just how human, and strong, they truly are. Cyclops is in full leader mode, willing to do whatever is necessary to end the threat. Banshee, recently depowered, just wants to save his girlfriend. Colossus, confronted with pure evil for the first time in his young life, crosses a line he never thought he’d need to. And all along, Moira understands that despite her best efforts over the years, her son is beyond saving.

The story shows how evil doesn’t just come of nowhere, and sometimes, its origins are closer than we like to think. Proteus chose to focus on his father’s hatred rather than his mother’s love, and that tragic decision puts everyone in danger.

2) X-Men #141-142 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

I’m somewhat biased against dystopian alternate-reality futures, and yet I still love this short two-parter (which really could have been three or four parts, easily, without losing steam). It avoids what I like least about such stories—everything feeling inconsequential because it’s ultimately an elaborate “what if?” scenario. But in Days of Future Past, events matter. That’s kind of the whole point.

Present and future run along parallel tracks throughout both issues. The future shows how everything has gone wrong, and the present is where a time-traveling visitor makes a last-ditch effort to set events on a better path.

Present-day X-Men face off against the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in a fun, conventional showdown, with an anti-mutant senator’s life in the balance (also featuring Storm’s debut as team leader).

“Meanwhile” … the few remaining future X-Men, with little left to lose, wage their desperate last stand against the Sentinels. Their deaths are all the more tragic because their world should never have reached such a bleak state in the first place.

Additionally, we see young Kitty Pryde’s untapped potential as her older self takes control in the present—demonstrating how even such a desolate future can bring out someone’s greatness.

These two issues make full use of the X-Men’s core premise to fashion a cautionary tale about how important the actions of today are.

1) X-Men #129-137 (by Chris Claremont and John Byrne)

The Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t just the best storyline of this five-year period; it’s easily one of the best comic book storylines of all time, showing off the medium and the superhero genre at their best. Superhero stories excel when they balance the epic and the personal, the fantastic and the mundane. Saving the world means a lot less if we neglect the characters populating that world.

These nine issues take us through an incredible run of comics. New characters: Kitty Pryde and Dazzler make promising debuts in the relatively quiet early issues. New villains: The Hellfire Club immediately prove themselves to be formidable adversaries. Old villain: OG Brotherhood of Evil Mutants member Mastermind comes into his own with his gradual corruption of Jean Grey. Ongoing subplots: Jean acquired cosmic-level power nearly thirty issues earlier, and the payoff is imminent. Romance: Scott and Jean are reunited after a long separation and are more in love than ever. Iconic solo action: Wolverine continues to solidify into the Logan we all know and love as he’s let loose against the Hellfire Club. And so much more.

But at the core of all this is Jean Grey and her struggle to avoid being corrupted by her newfound power. And she fails—worse than any Marvel character has failed before or probably since. In her power-fueled madness, she consumes a star and destroys a planet populated by billions. And irredeemable action, but who’s responsible? Jean or the Phoenix force?

The X-Men choose to believe in Jean’s inherent goodness, and they put everything on the line in order to save their friend. Saving their friend is saving the universe. But in the end, Jean herself knows what really needs to be done, and what only she can do. In doing so, she proves the faith her friends put in her.

There might be better comics out there, but if so, you can count them on one hand.

(Previous lists: 1961-65, 1966-1970, and 1970-1975)

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.

Superheroes Must Aspire

I rewatch Superman: The Movie at least once every few years. I don’t expect to ever give Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman a second viewing.

Not one of those three movies is perfect, not even the 1978 classic. Did we really need Lois Lane’s aerial poetry slam? Or a Superman who could turn back time, thereby achieving a feat that Cher could only sing about? Of course not, but those are forgivable blemishes when we consider Christopher Reeve’s pitch-perfect portrayal of the first and greatest superhero.

Christopher Reeve’s Superman gave us an ideal to aspire to. Sure, we can never be him, but we can put others first, help people to whatever extent we’re able, conduct ourselves with dignity and maturity, and generally strive to be the best person we can be.

Compare that with the more recent movie Superman, a terrifying, joyless, godlike figure whose parents encourage him to put his own needs first. (The course correction in Justice League is too little, too late.) That Superman is nothing to aspire toward.

Superheroes should never terrify the innocent. In some cases, the responsibility can terrify the superheroes, but they work through any fears and rise up to the challenges before them.

The one recent DC movie that got it right, Wonder Woman, also isn’t perfect, but Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is a heroic, aspirational character who does what’s right, even when others assume there’s no hope of success. That’s the most important aspect.

The Marvel movies give us superheroes who are more flawed, but they’re still striving to be better. The first Iron Man movie shows Tony Stark rebuilding himself into a better man, literally and figuratively. Thor must prove himself worthy of his power. Ant-Man needs to get his life back on track so he can be a better father. Spider-Man screws up, but he takes responsibility for his mistakes and makes things right.

The powers have a wish-fulfillment appeal, but they also serve as a metaphor for improvement, for becoming something more than we are. And a strong moral foundation is necessary to use those skills properly and in a way that benefits other people. The focus isn’t on feeling superior to other people—it’s about being superior to who you were yesterday.

There are right ways and wrong ways to develop. The villains are the generally the ones who have stumbled down the wrong path.

So how does a superhero develop? A superhero should be a great role model, but how does that superhero become a great role model? After all, nobody is perfect. We all remember the mistakes we’ve made. Who are we to set an example for others?

The development of a superhero is what The Flying Woman (and, ultimately, the entire TERRIFIC series) is all about, and it represents maturation of any sort, whether someone is trying develop into the best teacher for their students, the best parent for their children, the best professional at the top of their chosen field, or generally just the most responsible and productive adult they can be while striving to make their part of the world a better place.

Superheroes aspire. They can make mistakes, experience setbacks, and struggle to find the correct path, but they work to better themselves so they can better the world.

Find The Flying Woman on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks. For a chance to win a Kindle copy, enter the giveaway on Goodreads by December 19.

Daredevil and Perseverance

I encountered some technical difficulties while making this video, but I persevered.

See what great lessons we learn from superheroes?

The best ’60s Marvel battles featured the superhero as the underdog. The classic Daredevil #7 (1965) features a lopsided fight between Daredevil and Namor the Sub-Mariner, in which DD showcases one of his greatest attributes — perseverance.