As I contemplate what to write for Hooded Utilitarian every month, I find certain images float into my head on a regular basis. These are the comics I grew up with, and the comics I loved, despite the fact that the art quite often was cringeworthy, the writing was often excruciating and even the concepts were frequently embarrassing to consider. Nonetheless, these are the comics I think about the most. These were comics I bought with my meager allowance, off the spinner rack at the local newstand and everything, just like any stereotypical 70s comic reader. Frequently, even when I was collecting them, I thought they were trash, and it was my love of awful things that kept sending me back to buy these truly dreadful stories, until the comics companies killed them out of pity. Some of these are actually quite good, but that wasn’t why I liked them. ^_^
The Defenders – I liked this series because they were total losers as a group. “B”-team doesn’t cut it. Individually, they were only partially effective as superheroes, as a team, they were a joke…which was mostly the plot of the series, in between some personality switching, possession and, of course, fighting.
The key to enjoying the Defenders was to realize that each and every one of the individual members was significantly broken in some way and when they joined together to fight as a team, those problems were magnified, rather than minimized. In my memory, more of the story was taken up with them arguing with one another than ever effectively handling any problem they faced.
The Defenders became the home for all drop-out dysfunctional heroes who found it hard to play well with others, or who had argued with their real team and needed somewhere to go on a sulk.
My favorite character was Valkyrie (oh gosh, I’m sure that’s a total shock) but not because she was just a female warrior. She was a female warrior from Norse Mythology – that totally did it for me. In an early expression of cluelessness about feminism (that has now become so extreme that comics journalism is replete with articles and commentary on it) Val couldn’t hit other women, but happily beat the crap out of male chauvinists, which were, not all that surprisingly, all males, since obviously feminism=man-hating. To be fair, most of the men Val dealt with were pretty chavinist, and all the men were clueless. This does not appear to have changed much in recent years.
In high school, I discovered another deep love for a crappy comic. This time it was a retro look at the days when we were the good guys and the Nazis were the bad guys. The Invaders represented the Allies (well, the Allied countries and Submariner, because apparently the Nazis had it out for Atlantis too.)
I had this cover inside my high school locker. You’re probably assuming it’s because I found the idea of a leather-clad, giant female warrior physically attractive, but actually you’d be wrong.
My love for this cover has nothing to to with Krieger Frau herself, or the defeat of her and Master Man by the Invaders. My love of this cover has everything to do with a massive multi-media cross-over fanfic I wrote for about three years with a friend in high school. Krieger Frau just happens to looks a lot like the main bad guy in that fanfic. When I look at this cover, I see Snap Bar.
Nonetheless, there was joy to be found in the morality play that was a look at the “good old days” of World War II. There is a freedom in knowing that we were right, and someone else was wrong and there were no questions about the ethics of clobbering bad guys.
One of my prize possessions is a truly awful short-lived series by DC that was supposed to tell the Beowulf story, Beowulf Dragon Slayer. It didn’t. It strapped Beowulf into an uncomfortable-looking Michelin Man-esque costume, made of belts, and tortured a simple story beyond its own ability to tolerate. Many years later, I brought this series into my graduate class on Beowulf, and laughed while my classmates boggled that someone could get it so wrong.
This series really stands out for the inexplicable use of sentences written backwards as magical spells by the scop (who, in this series is a Druid-like wizard rather than a story-teller.) “Happy Birthday Caroline” becomes a Lovecraftian incantation “Enilorac Yadhtrib Yppah!” Surely I wasn’t the only one to notice?
There were so many things wrong with this series, on every level – indifferent art, incomprehensible story, that my reaction of loving it for its awfulness seems completely appropriate.
As I say, I love my awful comics. But there was one, finally, that I had to genuinely say was the absolute worst comic I ever read. It was killed at 13 issues, for which I was immensely thankful. Even I don’t know why it was created, except as a pathetic way to recreate the popularity of Spiderman, using all the wrong elements. Spiderman, you may remember, was a nebbish. He was a freelance photographer and a college student. He was a skinny, dorky guy. When the spider bit him, he did not suddenly become cool and suave – he was now a super-powered dorky guy. He cracked jokes to cover the fact that he was terrified. He now goes from dorky kid to cool dude in a matter of weeks, but that transformation took decades. In the 80s, he was still a dorky guy, a milquetoast by day, joke-cracking half-competent superhero in his free time.
So Marvel, cognizant that this kind of character had a readership, decided to try again. They created The Man Called Nova. I know they rebooted Nova in the 2000s, but they really laid the dorky loser on with a trowel the first time around. If you have never read the original Nova, and want to see how bad a comic can be, see if you can find a copy and read this.
The main character, Richard Ryder, has all the awkwardness of Peter Parker, without any of his sincerity or charm. He’s supposed to a science student (I might be wrong in remembering it as physics) but shows no understanding of anything. The premise is similar to that of The Greatest American Hero, except that instead of losing the instruction booklet, Richard is given his suit by an alien and has to get used to the thing. The first several issues follow him picking fights with street punks. When he first encounters super-powered villians, he fails spectacularly. Maybe it was just the time and place, but when Nova wrapped up, I set it aside with a sense of relief.
The one truly awful storyline that I adore with all my being from my American comics collecting days was when the ancient Egyptian gods kidnap and brainwash Odin into thinking he’s Osiris, in order to defeat Set. This storyline hit me in my weakest of weak spots – mythology as a hook. Could there really ever be anything sexier than Horus and Thor fighting on a pyramid, in order for Thor to retrieve his father? Yes, yes there could. There is a sequence mid-arc, where Horus and Thor fight together, on a giant causeway in space, against hordes of skeletons sent by Set, god of death (do not attempt to correct Marvel, they do not care about accuracy) while Jane beseeches Odin/Osiris to help his son.
Horus and Set fight one-on-one, while Thor protects Isis and Jane. Ultimately it is the human, Jane Foster, who awakens Odin from his trance, and so Horus is able to cast Set into the abyss of space and rescue his father, thus returning balance to the universe.
Now this is what comic books are all about.