by KC Carlson
Next weekend is Labor Day 2011. In America, that’s the symbolic marker that most of us use to designate the end of the summer. For many Americans, it means a three-day weekend to celebrate. (Celebrate what exactly, I was never really sure of. But then again, most humans don’t need much of a reason to celebrate.) This year, I’m thinking a lot of East Coasters will be pretty partied out by then, what with all the earthquake and hurricane parties last week, as well as the ongoing (and apparently never-ending) thank-god-the-NFL-isn’t-on-strike-anymore bacchanal.
When I was a kid, Labor Day also meant that it was time to go back to school. I’m now aware that wasn’t as universal as I once thought it to be, but when I was 12-ish, Labor Day weekend was the last gasp of summer — the final three days of a hammock, endless ice-cold lemonade or Funny Face (my preferred brand, since that Kool-Aid guy scared the hell out of me, constantly screaming “Oh, Yeah!” and causing all kinds of wanton destruction. Give me Goofy Grape or Choo-Choo Cherry any day), and a big stack of comic books.
That last thing was the key element. It was the last chance to read (or more likely, re-read) a giant stack of comics, because by Tuesday morning, I’d be back to school splitting infinitives, discovering what was so important about Bimini, Florida, or dodging dodgeballs (what a brilliant name for them!) aimed directly at my head. So I had to fill my brain up with mindless junk before any of that horrible stuff happened. If I filled up my brain to capacity with stuff I liked, maybe I wouldn’t have to learn anything new. (What? I was 12! I was still using a lot of airplane glue and rubber cement!)
Parallel Universe Summers
Anyway, my big stack of comics was usually a bunch of comics I wanted to re-read. Like maybe this summer I wanted to read all my Batman comics. Back then, I could probably do this in a matter of a few hours. Today, if I were to read all my Batman-related comics, you probably wouldn’t see me for a couple of months.
Batman was cool, but he wasn’t my favorite. That honor went to the Justice League of America, DC’s super-team of all their great superheroes (which we spelled super-heroes back then). For one thing, I didn’t have to pick from individual characters — in JLA, I got them all!
My favorite JLA issues were the annual team-ups with the Justice Society of America (JSA), which were so big, they required two full issues to tell the tale! (Nowadays, the JSA doesn’t even show up unless they’re guaranteed five issues!) The JSA were comics’ first super-team, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time. What was interesting was that the JSA had first gotten together during World War II, so they were older than the JLA characters — and were actually (mostly) retired by the time the Justice League learned about them — except for Barry (Flash) Allen, who was aware that there was an older Flash character who starred in the comic books that he read. Both Barry (and the readers) would soon discover (in the pages of The Flash, before the JLA met the JSA) that there were parallel Earths and that (deep breath) “our” Earth (which was called Earth-1) was where the JLA currently lived and fought crime, and this other world (called Earth-Two), was where the JSA lived, fought crime in the 1940s and 50s, and then, somewhat mysteriously, retired.
If this sounds confusing, it’s because I’m trying to explain it the way that I originally learned it — out of sequence. I read the early JLA/JSA team-ups first, and it may have been years until I read the earlier Flash stories (including the classic “Flash of Two Worlds”), because I either had to find a way to track down the Flash back issues (years before the first comic book stores) or wait for DC to reprint them (which they eventually did).
Fortunately, back then, comic book writers and editors (in this case, Gardner Fox and Julius Schwartz) took the time to carefully recap the gist of what previously happened — including footnotes indicating the issue numbers of the original stories. It’s a good thing they did, because today these issues are the foundation of the entire DC Universe — now carefully collected into convenient and permanent collections. I often wonder if these footnotes and recaps were the things that kept me reading comics for over 40 years. Without them, I would have been totally lost — especially in trying to rebuild the early Marvel continuity in my mind, having come to the Marvel party years late (due to local distribution problems in the early years of Marvel). Crazy as they were, Stan Lee’s footnotes were a lifeline for me — not having read any Marvel comics until Fantastic Four #100. More on this later.
The early JLA/JSA comics were perfect for readers my age who (then) just wanted slam-bang superhero action. That these stores were overloaded with superheroes — always identified by name and headshot on Page One on every story — was the key ingredient to youthful enjoyment. And that the stories were always timed to take place in the summer months — brilliant and memorable.
As I got older, I began to realize how “formula” the Fox JLA stories often were. (Establish menace. Split into smaller teams to deal with smaller aspects of the overall story. Frequently fail, but gain a key piece of information — leading to the eventual defeat of the villain(s) after everybody comes back together for the Big Finish.) But by then, they were adding new elements to the stores, like a third team joining in — often introducing a new element to the DC Universe. Such as forgotten Golden Age characters, revamped for “today” like the Seven Soldiers of Victory or the Freedom Fighters. Or the Shazam/Fawcett characters. Or maybe bringing in another DC team for the first time, like the Legion of Super-Heroes or the New Gods, or even the Secret Society of Super-Villains. Every summer, there was a new surprise. And back then there was no internet to spoil it months before!
So, every time I think about summer and comic books, I always think about the annual summer JLA/JSA team-ups. And smile.
Instant Summer Marvel Correspondence Course
Marvel really didn’t have anything special in the summer like the JLA/JSA books. The closest thing was in the summer of 1973, when the Avengers met/fought the Defenders. But that was only a one-time thing (apparently there was some sort of misunderstanding…). But Marvel did have one summer thing that DC didn’t — All-New Annuals! (DC had Annuals first– but they were almost always reprints.)
The original Marvel Annuals in the 1960s and early 70s were very special, as they always offered up an extra-long story, plus several exciting and unique back-up features. Pin-ups! Villain Galleries! Behind-the-scenes tomfoolery! And in one Annual (Fantastic Four Annual #7) — photos of all the Marvel Bullpenners! (Except for the ever-mysterious Steve Ditko — who was gone by then!) And the main stories almost always told some epic, legend-in-the-making kind of story.
Fantastic Four Annual #1 featured the long-awaited story of the Sub-Mariner finally locating the remnants of his undersea race (Atlantis), and then turning around and attacking the Human Race! And it’s by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers — no fill-in nonsense here! Subsequent original FF Annuals included the wedding of Reed and Sue in #3. (One of Marvel’s first multi-character “event” books — guest-starring EVERYONE! Even Millie the Model and Patsy Walker!) A Fantastic announcement from Reed and Sue in #5 lead to the result of that announcement in #6 with the birth of Franklin Richards. It was just like As The World Turns — except everyone was wearing spandex!
In 1964, the Amazing Spider-Man got his first Annual — the now-classic battle with the Sinister Six — and the sad mystery of Peter Parker’s parents was memorably revealed in Annual #5.
Other Annuals followed. Journey Into Mystery Annual #1 featured the first Thor vs. Hercules battle, and the Hulk fought the Inhumans in Incredible Hulk Special #1 (with a now-iconic Jim Steranko cover). Old meets new as the original Avengers met “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” in Avengers Annual #1 (a 49-page story!). The same concept (but different characters) featured in Annual #2. Even the first few issues of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Annual featured all-new stories (plus reprints). But not all the Marvel stars got original Annuals right out of the box. Captain America and Iron Man both had to wait a few years for new extra-length adventures. And the not yet Uncanny X-Men had to wait forever for their first extended length story — or at least until Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975. But that was worth the wait as it famously introduced an all-new team! Now that was a great summer!
[Actually, Giant-Size X-Men #1 was on sale in February of that year -- but I must have read it a dozen times over the summer!]
Of course I didn’t get to read any of these original Marvel Annuals until much later after they were published. By the time I was 12, I was riding my bike all over town buying up collections of Marvel back issues that I saw being advertised in the local classifieds. They were usually being sold by slightly older kids (or their moms) who had “grown out of comics” and just wanted to get the stupid things out of their basement. I had two paper routes by then and was flush with cash, so I was able — over the course of a summer or two — to get most of a Marvel collection. Since they didn’t want them anymore, I usually got big stacks (50-100 comics) for almost nothing. (Getting them home was often a problem. Occasionally, I would obtain a couple hundred books and have to call mom for a ride — to take the books home. I’d still have to ride my bike back.)
Of course, no one was selling me FF or Spidey first issues for pennies, but since some of the cheap books that I was buying included classic Marvel reprint books like Marvel Tales, Marvel Super-Heroes, Marvel Collector’s Item Classics, and Marvel’s Greatest Comics, pretty soon I had complete “reading” collections of all the major Marvel series (if not the actual comics), and I spent many a summer day in that hammock reading entire runs of Spidey, FF, Avengers, Daredevil, and others. Those were some of the best days of summer.
America’s Oldest Teenager Owns Summer
Of course, nothing says summer like Archie comic books. It’s like stupid boys doing stupid things and cute girls in bikinis just scream “Summer!” Who knew? Archie Comics sure did. They would often arrange their publishing schedule to publish extra issues of their monthly books during the summer (like Marvel does today), while other books would be scheduled to publish monthly during the summer months and bi-monthly (or quarterly) during the winter. Plus, they always had plenty of Summer Specials, and artist Dan DeCarlo would go crazy showcasing the current swimsuit styles in Betty and Veronica. My childhood memories of vacations at the beach or the Wisconsin Northwoods included baskets of Archie (and other kids’ comics), for entertaining yourself when it was raining or waiting for the parentals to wake up. Here’s a fun Archie summer cover gallery:
The other great (and now almost forgotten) summer comics that I remembered from those big baskets were the classic Dennis the Menace comic books. I always enjoyed the comics more than I liked the single panel newspaper strip. Much more opportunity for Dennis to get in big trouble in an extended storyline.
The Dennis the Menace comic books were published from the 1950s through the 1980s. The ones I remember the most were those published by Standard/Pines. (The Pines Comics had a pine tree logo.) Interestingly, Fawcett Comics actually came back from the dead (out of business due to the fallout from the DC/Fawcett Superman/Captain Marvel lawsuit) in the 1960s to publish Dennis — for a run of over three decades of comics and digests. Amazingly, Dennis finished up his comic book career at Marvel comics in 1981 and 82.
I mostly remember the Dennis comics from the 1960s — especially those issues of the Dennis Giant series of comics specifically devoted to summer vacations. The Mitchell family traveled all over! Some of the places they visited include Hollywood, Mexico, Washington D.C., California, and Hawaii. This last one was probably the first comic book that ever made me cry — when the family solemnly visited the memorial at Pearl Harbor. There were also a number of Seasonal specials as well. One of my favorites was Dennis the Menace Goes to Camp — guest-starring Mark Trail, with important “Camping Tips”! (I hope what Dennis uses for bait while fishing wasn’t Mark’s idea!) All of the Dennis Giants were tremendously popular — and frequently reprinted every few years.
Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham seldom drew any of the comic book adventures of Dennis (although many of the newspaper strips were reprinted in the comic books). Many of the most memorable Dennis comics were produced by Ketcham’s assistants — notably Al Wiseman in the 1950s and 60s and Ron Ferdinand (who drew the Sunday Dennis strip) who did work for the 1980s Marvel series.
With all the recent interest in reprinting and archiving great kids’ comics (with projects including Disney, John Stanley, and classic Archie), I’m really surprised that some enterprising publisher hasn’t yet elected to reprint these wonderfully great comics. The Vacation Specials alone would be an awesome collection of timeless classics. And Dennis is still a comic icon today.
Hot Fun in the Summertime
So yeah, I’m feeling nostalgic about summers past and looking back at a great era of classic, lazy comic book reading. Ironically, in just a few days from now, there may be a new era dawning of comics reading, with the publication of DC’s New 52 initiative. (And one that may not involve staples or pulp paper!) Amusingly, it’s beginning with a new incarnation of the Justice League (but probably not including the Justice Society). I’m not really sure how I’m going to feel about the New 52 — but they’re really not for me, are they?
Forty-some years from now, some now-12-year-old kid will be blogging (or whatever it’s called then) about the time he read Justice League #1 on his iPad, crashed out on the basement game room sofa with an ice-cold Monster Energy drink, and how it changed his life.
Time — like comics — marches on!
KC CARLSON: Has gone insane and is going to attempt to review all 52 of the New 52 DC books over the next few weeks (with the occasional assistance of his charming webmistress wife Johanna) over at ComicsWorthReading.com. Watch here at the Westfield Blog for links when each week’s reviews have been posted. (And yes, I’ll still be doing regular Westfield columns!)
NEXT MONDAY: It’s Labor Day. I have the day off.
NEXT TUESDAY: (Diamond permitting) 10 Things I Like About October ‘11 Comics. Let’s hope I have some…
BY THE WAY… Bimini, Florida was originally thought to be the location of the legendary Fountain of Youth. Who knew? Isn’t it funny what sticks to your brain?
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.