The river

He has his reasons

I know why Heraclitus cries

Picture the Marvel I first encountered, as a multi-year pile roughly centered on 1971: comics as physical objects are pure junk product; the brand is known to everyone but beholden to nobody; the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation (soon renamed Cadence) seeks Hollywood but the actual product is still selling ad space to X-Ray Specs and plastic rats. Picture it through reader’s eyes, not a modern fan’s or insider’s. Stan as “publisher” is clearly disconnected from the comics themselves; mass merchandizing is in its first cheap-plastic moments; Thomas is the intense and possibly harassed editor. Then shift a bit later, as I started to buy comics in about 1975, with Englehart, Buckler, Starlin, Gerber, and McGregor as my favorite names associated with long runs on titles, but creator appearances and disappearances swiftly set in, with strange ebbs and flows of quality. It’s now better understood that the shift to the renamed Cadence Industries and its new backers, as well as Al Landau as new “suit,” prompted an editorial meltdown that would last the rest of the decade, but obviously I didn’t know anything about that.

Look at my pile of comics then: the height of throwing any possible foodstuff at the wall in a replay of the early 60s, in this case, the mind-blowing cosmic zap, the onslaught of the barbarians, the height of the monsters, writing in the perfect storm of an unconstructed shared junkyard of material with no definitions or boundaries, having fun writing your title characters into your friend’s titles and vice versa. Howe’s account confirms the social and creative scene perfectly (my phrasing): half-straight, half-stoned; half-profound, half-stupid; half-earnest, half-satirical; half-informed, half-groping; half-intellectual, half-experiential; half-outsider, half-insider; half-hilarious, half-angry … and when not simply filling pages with pap, and very often, 100% committed to pouring every bit of artistic ability, visual or verbal or both, into the 22-page, panels-delineated, cheaply printed medium of this issue one was working on this very minute.

Then by 1978-1979, I stepped out. I think I remember Shooter, Milgrom, and Gruenwald as names. I knew Byrne’s style by sight but not by name, and not on the X-Men; I never heard of Miller; in the X-Men, I’d seen Phoenix originated and Wolverine reveal his claws, nothing after that. I’ll write more about what I’d see it become, under Wolfman and Goodwin. Suffice to say that I stepped out, restricting my comics to Conan the Barbarian (until issue #100) and The Savage Sword of Conan.

So, from about 1979 through 1985, all high school and the first half of college: no superhero comics.  I did buy a couple Marvel Team-Up issues at one point, exhausting my credit at the successor store to the one who’d bought my old stash (who were extremely surprised to find the documentation), and liked’em, but they were clearly workmanlike, treading water.

I came back to it in 1985 through friends. Think about it:

  • I missed the whole public split between Lee and Kirby
  • I missed the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Marvel Age
  • I missed the Secret Wars, including something-or-other about Spider-Man’s costume
  • I missed the inception of the Comics Journal
  • I missed the reboot of the Swamp Thing and the first inklings of the British invasion
  • I missed the launch of Pacific Comics, Capital Comics, and First Comics
  • I missed the movie Conan the Barbarian
  • I missed the sudden ramp-up of Elfquest and Cerebus following their first 20 issues
  • I missed the legal events culminating in the Meese Commission on Pornography
  • I missed the run-up into the so-called “black and white glut”

Thanks to my friends, I was looking at …

  • a pile of X-Men with the entire Claremont-Byrne run and Cockrum’s return, and into Paul Smith’s art and the appearance of the New Mutants
  • the whole run of Stern’s Spider-Man, Hobgoblin and all
  • the whole run of Byrne’s Fantastic Four as well as most of his Alpha Flight
  • the whole run of Miller’s Daredevil, as well as Ronin
  • a great deal of Simonson’s Thor, including the Beta-Ray Bill business
  • a whole lot of post-Englehart Avengers
  • the whole run of Power Man & Iron Fist
  • the whole run of Wolfman-Perez on the Teen Titans

You can imagine this was sort of like a huge pile of hallucinogen which also happened to taste good. After my head cleared a little, I looked at infrastructure. At the names Shooter and Gruenwald seemed to be in charge, with the most common creator names being Milgrom and Layton, and few familiar reliables like Sal Buscema. Clearly something had happened when I was away, more than simply specific creators working on specific books. And something else was happening – people were bouncing back and forth between Marvel and DC titles. Talk about Bizarro World – this was surreal, impossible. Clearly the money was doing something differently now.

That year and the next brought us The Dark Knight Returns, The Watchmen, Batman: Year One, and the startup of the Vertigo imprint. I’d started picking up a number of superhero titles, as who would not based on those reading piles I listed above, but overall, my purchases shifted: my titles were Grimjack, Elementals, Nexus, Swamp Thing, Akira, Cerebus the Aardvark, The Question, and soon, Omaha the Cat Dancer, Hellblazer, Those Annoying Post Bros, Marshal Law, Wendel, Sandman, Suicide Squad, and Wasteland.

As if they’d been waiting for me, the superhero titles nosedived in quality almost immediately, as this was just before-during-after the sale of Marvel Entertainment to Ron Perelman’s Andrews Group. Byrne’s Superman was mediocre and his work for Marvel on the Hulk and the Avengers appeared to me to be a massive diarrhea dump. Miller inveighed against the Corporate Man while merely switching among Corporate Tits. The X-titles shifted into pure franchise mode, doing their best to mimic McDonalds / Burger King / Wendy’s. Wolverine became the bad kind of ridiculous with dizzying speed, swiftly followed by Batman. The crossover mill ramped up in the most obviously mindless mode possible. Something was very smelly at Marvel – this “Secret Wars” business was happening again under new names, and the final year of my piles were all decidedly repetitive, most of the interesting stories either subverted or annulled via methods I knew very well. Far from being the “we respect the artists” alternative they touted, DC did its best to ape Marvel to the extent that they might as well have been one thing.

I sensed weird political vibes too, including a curious new lameness to the liberalism (the Simonsons, Claremont), what looked like rightwing underpinnings in liberal clothing (Miller, Byrne), and noting that these Brit anti-Thatcher lefties were apparently completely unrecognized as such by the readership.

The Mutant Massacre did it for me – yep, I recognized it all right, crossover madness full of allegedly OMG events and not a meaningful plot point to be found … and more importantly, not a shred of political courage or imaginative audacity. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I want to wax most philosophical, using a famous probable misquote.

I encountered Marvel Comics superheroes in 1970-1972 with a pile of my brother’s comics, and broke contact in about 1978-79. In, and then out. I encountered it again in 1985, with a pile of my friends’ comics, and that lasted about five years. In again, out again.

It wasn’t the same River: from cosmic as an adjective, ever-mutable, appropriating anything and going anywhere, and (a bit laughably) Meaningful, with its activity gleefully unhinged from its baffled business owners; it had become universe as a noun, a static thing with a fixed commercial function, in which any contribution could only be tinier triangles in a Mandelbrot snowflake. And I, too, was not the same Man: from a 14-year-old Suntop, with his visions of world peace, backrubs and hot sex, musician, starting a strange and enthralling new high school, excited by a world finally free of the Cold War, his quest for exploding colors of insight and inquiry into nature, whom women called the “little shaman;” to a 24-year-old Rayek, smoldering under pressure, veteran of city streets and many states’ highways, finished with a brutal and inspiring college degree, one of the last and most dedicated products of Hutchins’ program, deep in evolutionary research, friend to anyone but offending everyone, politics shattered by the perpetrators of Iran-Contra waltzing free, surprised by a girlfriend telling him she prized his “viciousness.”

Only he didn't say "fouled"

Only he didn’t say “fouled”

Cue Hawkwind, "Space Ritual"

Cue Hawkwind, “Space Ritual”

Or to put River and Man together, I’d wanted to become Adam Warlock, with the triumph and tragedy being at least always beautiful, and instead, I had become Howard the Duck, with little sustaining me but a shred of remaining hedonism, simple stubbornness, and rage.

I had a chance to start writing for comics right then. I chose not to take it.

Next: Never heard of’em

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on April 16, 2015, in Gnawing entrails, The 70s me, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. On substance: I think what you’re describing is pretty much every young mystic’s voyage into early curmudgeon-hood. It seems to be a pattern, and luckily we seem to grow out of it by the late 20’s if not sooner. But yeah, life happens. Sometimes you lose track of something you love, during those years, you rediscover what you loved about them in the first place, what you knew quickly disappoints. Maybe if you’re lucky, you still find something in the medium worth loving. For me this was RPG’s, which I gave up completely during the corresponding period of my own life, and only gradually rediscovered them. Super hero comics have been a much iffier prospect in my mind, apparently because of the commercial pressures you alluded to.

    And having the courage to describe yourself as a would-be Warlock turned Howard the Duck is… wow, nobody outside of Marvel nerds can appreciate the courage it takes to make that statement, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

    On incidentals: Definitely American culture in the mid-80’s was at a very different place than it was in the mid-70’s. Some strange plague decimated the Van Painters: their music got corporatized and coopted; their drugs more or less fell out of fashion; they seem to have had their shot, it didn’t make much of an impression on society at large, and that whole way of looking at things became faintly embarrassing 10-15 years later, like CB radio and (ahem) Dungeons & Dragons.

    I’m not sure what responsibility comics folks have to lead the zeitgeist. I think at all points in Marvel’s history, for example, they were basically riding whatever was popular, and it just so happens that between 1965 and 1975, these fairly progressive ideas enjoyed a vogue, and inevitably that began to shift away.

    From what I can gather, the corresponding trend in the 1980’s was the Punk movement, and it seems like those guys were doing DIY stuff or publishing in venues other than the Big Two.

    On geekery: The Mutant Massacre was awesome if you were 10 years old at the time. Jeez. I actually didn’t have the “main” issues where a bunch of no-name guys got killed. All I had were the aftermath when the X-Men, Marvel’s most bad-ass team, is in complete panic mode, with three of their most beloved characters completely wrecked, and they have to assemble a new team pretty much from scratch while living on the run. The very first comic I got as a subscription, rather than a bookstore purchase, was X-Factor #15 in which Angel gets his wings amputated and then commits suicide. The Mutant Massacre never felt to me like it was trying to be a complete story in its own right, but instead an overture to something apocalyptic and unimaginable . . . which never, y’know, actually arrived. It was a huge tease and when I finally figured out that they’d never solve this one, and in fact forgot all about it, I gave up on the X-World in disgust.


    • Among the many things I agree with in your post, there is something significant I disagree with very much. It’s the notion that sociological or cultural changes come about like the weather: a common outlook, seen in common phrases like “the mood of the country” or as you write, “the zeitgeist.” I think it’s instead like ecological change, which although many variables are involved, there are identifiable extreme causes every so often, tipping-points at various levels, and not that much difference between long-term stability and remarkably drastic effects. I consider ~1980 to have displayed such a drastic effect, of which the presidential election of that year was only a minor manifestation. The point being that I think variables and certain interactions among them can be identified for such events, again, with a decent analogy in community or ecosystems ecology, and that citing abstract things like “the times” or “national mood” or “a strange plague” has become, effectively, a form of denial.


    • A clarification for general reading:

      I’m not sure what responsibility comics folks have to lead the zeitgeist.

      I have not claimed that they should or shouldn’t, or have or haven’t. That mode of thinking or analysis is completely aside from anything I’m writing about here.


  2. “As if they’d been waiting for me, the superhero titles nosedived in quality almost immediately”

    YOU! It was YOU! I always knew that there was something odd in the way American mainstream comics turned to shit almost overnight! (and to think that I blamed for years greed and speculators, both among readers, publishers and shop owners….)

    OK, joking apart… I should have stopped right at the same time. I could see the drop in quality and even basilar common sense with the Mutant Massacre. After that there was nothing even resembling a storyline that made sense in the x-titles, and all the rests were the same. I should have saved a lot of time and money. But I was not someone who had already dropped comics once: I had brought my first marvel comic (in translation) in 1971, and from that moment I had never stopped reading them, even starting to buy the original comics when the translations stopped for a time. I really did grow up reading them, and stopping after almost twenty years was hard. So I grinned my teeth and resisted awful story lines, amateurish art, greed-fueled absurd expansion of the number of titles and of the cover price, hoping that it was a short phase and they would get better, up to the early 90s, when I realized how much I was spending on comics that I didn’t enjoy at all and I stopped cold reading Marvel comics (and limited my DC to some Vertigo titles).
    i started reading some title again, some years later (under Jemas), and I never really was out-of-the-loop with the recent storylines (following a lot of comic book newsgroup and forums), but it was never the same afterwards, I could easily stop reading any title I didn’t like anymore (and I stopped reading all of them again some years later, when they returned to the endless line-wide cross-overs).
    Thinking about how much time I played D&D even after I stopped enjoying it (I already told you that story elsewhere), it’s probably one of my bigger character flaws, it’s really difficult for me to break away from things I once enjoyed, even when they later turn to shit (this reminds me of some of my relationships, too, but I don’t want to go too personal…)

    You missed an interesting period in Marvel history, the beginning of Shooter’s “reign of terror”…. If you read the back issues of the “Comics Journal” at the time (I was an avid reader) there are a lot of interviews with disgruntled ex-marvel employees who had run afoul of him.
    After having saw what Marvel become under De Falco and Harras I really re-evalued the Shooter era, the good things he did for the line were more than the bad ones… but boys, he could be petty sometime… did you read the last three issues of Shang-Chi? The ones where Shang-Chi totally renounce his place in modern society that he did slowly reach in 125 issues and become a fisher in China? That was clearly a slap on the face on Moench…. the treatment Byrne did to Star Brand was even more petty but it was comeback for a lot of these things…

    I know that this blog is about comics, but I would like to read more about your travel from Suntop (backrubs and hot sex? Damn, I knew I should have been born in California, not in this catholic wasteland…) to Rayek. I get the impression that it would be a good Starlin comic book…

    I notice that in the list of political books of the time you never cite “Brought to Light / Shadowplay” by Alan Moore and Bill Sinkievicz, a book that should have been right to your alley: did you read it? It was so against USA foreign spy activities that for years there was the rumor that Moore could not return to the USA because of that…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Huh. It’s so funny because I have such a different view of the Mutant Massacre. Sure, there was the crossover BS, but it hit a lot of things that I thought were pretty damn daring for mainstream, Comics-Code-Authority comics at the time, which, was pretty much the only type of comics most kids and youth had access to:


    Here, we had been reading comics where people rarely died, and now a lot of people were dying. Heroes who don’t kill, finally hit their point where they do kill people. Moral lines are being crossed and no one’s feeling good about it. The situation is bad enough freaking Power Pack steps in – literally kids, in trying to save lives. The whole arc of X-Factor being the “good government front” wing of the X-men is coming back to bite them when it turns out the people they’re trying to save don’t trust them.

    This is all dropping while we’re getting murky reports of “death squads” in Nicaragua and before the whole Iran-Contra affair spills out showing the depth of CIA involvement, etc.

    To be sure, what comes after is terrible, as Marvel does this crappy attempt to make each crossover MORE EPIC and yet, they also don’t have the guts to follow through on real world issues – so then it’s demons, then aliens, and progressively more fantastical threats without any kind of good grounding to the stories. (Most of their good storytelling ends up going towards their Epic or New Universe imprints at this time, the latter being the only one I’d manage to get at the local drug store that sold comics).

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of these days there needs to be a really hard look at the New Universe. It’s a fascinating trainwreck to me.


      • Yeah, it’s like a thing where you see a bunch of the storylines take a sharp turn halfway through, then it collapses completely. Which, is kinda par for the course for Marvel. One of the major factors that led to manga taking over the market is simply having consistent creators who are allowed to finish out their storylines is a vastly superior way to go than shuffling your writers and artists around to bolster your flagging lines.


  4. Like James, my parallel is RPGs, and I guess the equivalent to a particular title/run is some amalgamation of gamebook and playgroup. For me, that second dip into the river was repeated (in wide-spaced, typically 1-evening bursts) over and over and over, from ’83ish to ’92ish. And there was NOTHING good, it was all unrecognizably alien. In retrospect, I’m sure some of those games I recoiled from were working just fine for their particular group. I mean, some of ’em really ought to have been unrecognizably alien to anyone possessing a scrap of authentic humanity, but some of ’em were only alien to ME (maybe some comic titles/runs fit that bill – adequate-or-better things in themselves, just not what Ron was looking for). It was only after moving to California I found Talislanta (created by a guy from my hometown back in Connecticut!) and a group of friends that actually felt like what I thought of when I thought “RPGing”.

    Waxing into potential ridiculous Meaning … there are, I think, various strong pulls towards, um, homogeneity? at the root here (where by “here” I mean what I see Ron saying about his experience with comics, what I’m coming to think about my experience with RPGs, and probably socio/politico/philosophical stuff too). There’s the commercial incentive to easy commoditization. The individual urge towards the comfort of (dare I say?) conformity – “official” rules, a clean, easily-understood “canonical” backstory/universe. And the defensive institutional reflex (sometimes, carefully planned and executed reflex) against disruption of just about any kind. I’ve come to see those pulls as the enemy. I mean, the Enemy, that against which we’ll never triumph – maybe SHOULD never triumph because they’re too useful to erase – and yet still, that which we must always struggle against. Not really knowing Adam Warlock or Howard the Duck, they seem to have that Enemy in common.

    Ron, in this particular post I see the struggle very clearly, in both “the river” and “the man”. I appreciate learning your take on how it went down in the comics world, and in your personal world. At your closing line, I felt both total understanding of a sanity-preserving choice and a wistful wonder about “what if?”

    Liked by 1 person

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