KC Column: The Never-Ending Story Part 1

KC flanked by former Legionnaire artists, Cory Carani & Jeff Moy

KC flanked by former Legionnaire artists, Cory Carani & Jeff Moy

by KC Carlson

Though we may be inundated by it in current superhero comic books, long-form serialized storytelling is nothing new.

The idea of telling a long-form storyline as a series of chapters originally dates back to somewhere between the mid-8th and the mid-13th century. The work in question?  One Thousand and One Nights, more colloquially known in English as the Arabian Nights. They are actually a series of independent stories gathered together with a framing device, but as originally told, each story was shared over a period of nights, including some kind of “cliffhanger” ending, which would be resolved the following night. Some of the more famous of the stories include “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, all of which are probably much better known to several generations of American children as the basis for three very memorable (and historically important) Popeye the Sailor cartoons.

In the 19th century, many writers wrote serialized stories for popular magazines or newspapers. Best known for this was Charles Dickens (The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield, among others) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). In more recent times, author Stephen King has also experimented with serialization, first publishing The Green Mile in small paperback chapters.

Serialization was popular among writers in the Victorian Age because the more chapters that were written, the more money the writer was paid. This, especially in Dickens’ case, explains why many of his novels are so long. These facts will be interesting to tuck back into your brains for when we discuss decompressed storytelling later in this article. Also of note, Americans were whipped into a frenzy by Dickens’ serials – most noteworthy being the people waiting on the docks for the ship bringing the final chapter of The Old Curiosity Shop to see what became of Little Nell.

Such storytelling was also popular during the 1930s Golden Age of radio dramas, with scores of shows like The Shadow or The Lone Ranger and even Superman spreading their stories over several weeks. As television slowly developed, and eventually overtook radio, the new medium largely avoided serialization for done-in-one dramas, situation comedies, and variety shows. Early drama series also tended to be complete hour-long stories with very minimal subplotting. The big exception to this rule for TV was daily soap operas, which were largely being brought over from radio anyway.

Terry & the Pirates

Terry & the Pirates

Newspaper comic strips – especially the action/adventure type like Terry and the Pirates, Buck Rogers, or Rip Kirby – are obvious examples of serialized storytelling. What else could you do with only three or four panels a day? By the 1960s, even the gag-a-day Peanuts gang were off on adventures that lasted a week or more, as were Pogo Possum and his pals. More and more humor strips (Doonesbury, Bloom County, Calvin and Hobbes) followed suit as the decades rolled by.

The Golden Age

Early comic books, however, did not tell long stories. Book-length, maybe, on rare occasions. But for the most part, Golden Age comic books were anthologies – collections of many different short stories. Even comics that starred a single character usually told four to six different stories per issue, often by different creative teams. The early Justice Society stories in All-Star Comics were collections of individually produced, kinda-connected adventures, with the team only really coming together for the first and last chapters. (This would change, within a few years.) This formula was successfully repeated for Leading Comics’ Seven Soldiers of Victory and All-Winners for Timely’s All-Winners’ Squad.

Action Comics #1

Action Comics #1

Obviously, there were exceptions to this. The big one is also incidentally recognized as the first superhero story ever. That’s right, the very first Superman story in Action Comics #1 is directly continued into the next issue. That’s mostly by expediency rather than by design, however, since these first Superman tales were originally designed to be read as daily newspaper strips. They were only later cut and pasted into the comic book format, as the strip was historically rejected by everyone before being bought by DC. The early installments of the Superman feature in Action Comics were, in fact, recycled (but unpublished) newspaper strip continuity.

Other early long-form stories include the ongoing Human Torch vs. Sub-Mariner battles over at Timely (neo-Marvel), a seven-part Captain Marvel/Spy Smasher serial in Whiz Comics and the even longer Captain Marvel “Monster Society of Evil” storyline, from Captain Marvel Adventures #22-46 (March 1943 to May 1945), both of which were originally published by Fawcett. (Hey, whatever happened to DC Comics’ proposed reprint of “Monster Society”?)

Some of the longer stories in comics at the time were being done in the realm of kids’ comics, most notably at the House of Mouse in Walt Disney stories published by Dell Comics. “Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold”, written by Bob Karp and illustrated by Carl Barks and Jack Hanna, clocked in at a whopping 64 pages when first published in Dell’s Four Color #9 in 1942. Many of the classic Barks-written and -drawn Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories were also long by then-current standards – most of these clocked in at 28 to 32 pages when first published. None of the Barks work was serialized, however. His stories were always done-in-one.

This was not the case for the comic strip and comic book adventures of Disney’s flagship character Mickey Mouse. Mickey fist appeared as a newspaper comic strip on December 19, 1929. From the beginning, the strip featured Mickey starring in long adventure tales drawn by the legendary Floyd Gottfredson. These started with the May 5, 1930, strip (Gottfredson’s 25th birthday, incidentally). Initially, it was intended to be a temporary assignment, but Gottfredson would continue to draw the daily and Sunday strip for the next 45 years! Many of these stories would eventually be reprinted in the comic books, serialized in the pages of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. Beginning in the 1950s, new Mickey Mouse stories were specifically created and serialized in WDC&S, illustrated by Paul Murry, and written by a number of different writers, including Carl Falberg.

Incidentally, a number of the early Four Color comics feature extra-long 67-page stories – the story also ran on the inside covers and back cover!

Long-form comic stories were also popular in Europe during this time period. Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin began in 1929, first appearing in French and serialized in a children’s supplement to the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle. Other popular European series included the western Lieutenant Blueberry and the adventure series Corto Maltese. Later on, children’s features like Asterix and the Smurfs became popular. All of these series achieved greater readership once the strips were compiled into albums, which were the forerunners of the modern graphic novels (although that term really didn’t gain any traction until the late 1970s in America).

The Silver Age

Justice League of America #21

Justice League of America #21

Longer stories didn’t take much of a foothold until the Silver Age, when book-length Superman stories started to be cover-blurbed in 1957 (Superman #113) as a “3-part novel”. Even then, with DC’s strict format rigidity, their book-length stores were always divided up into three chapters of seven or eight pages each. Jack Kirby’s early Challengers of the Unknown stories were often book-length, beginning with their first appearance in Showcase #6, also cover-dated 1957. In 1959, a two-part Bizarro story appeared in Action Comics #254-255. The annual JLA/JSA crossovers in Justice League of America were always two-parters, but an early two-part JLA story preceded them in issues #10 and #11. Over in Action Comics, the Supergirl backup was generally only 8-10 pages, but that was occasionally serialized to tell longer stories. The 1961-62 storyline that culminated in Supergirl being revealed to the public was one of the earliest Silver Age serials, running for eight issues. When the story was later reprinted as an entire 80 Page-Giant, pages were edited out to get it to fit.

Avengers #4

Avengers #4

Marvel Comics, as we know it today, was just getting started in the 1960s, so experimentation was the name of the game. As primary writer for most of this decade (at least on the main superhero titles), Stan Lee created a verbal stew of ongoing, occasionally interconnected storylines. In an era where DC readers didn’t really know if the Doom Patrol and Superman existed in the same “universe”, it was a radical idea of the time to see Spider-Man swinging by in the background of other Marvel comics. Marvel’s heroes didn’t exist in a vacuum – they inhabited an entire universe together. Dr. Doom didn’t just menace the Fantastic Four; he took on Spider-Man as well. And Stan wasn’t shy about turning to the past, either, introducing Golden Age greats Sub-Mariner in Fantastic Four #4 and Captain America in Avengers #4. (Something magical about the number 4 in the MU.)

Cap’s reappearance in modern times offered the Marvel Universe something else in terms of storytelling – the specter of death. In Avengers #4, it was revealed that Cap’s WWII-era partner Bucky did not survive the end of that war, killed by the villainous Baron Zemo (who in turn met his own death in Avengers #15). These stories, as well as the death of Uncle Ben in the origin of Spider-Man, indicated to readers that the Marvel Universe was going to be a place where major events would actually happen and would play an ongoing part in the lives of the characters. (This being comic books, Bucky is now back as well, although – at last count – Ben and Zemo are still dead.)

Marvel was much more liberal in the use of continued stories, with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and Thor titles prominently featuring two- or three-part stories on occasion. Continued stores were a necessity, as unfortunate business deals limited the number of comics that Marvel could publish each month, leaving many of Marvel’s biggest or most interesting characters (Captain America, Iron Man, Giant-Man & the Wasp, the Hulk, Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange, and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) sharing space with each other in Marvel’s famous anthology titles, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, and Strange Tales. Since each character only had 10 pages a month to work with, most of these characters were forced into serialized storytelling as a matter of survival. An early, epic 17-part Dr. Strange story in Strange Tales #130-146 was especially notable.

Fantastic Four #49

Fantastic Four #49

Marvel’s most famous multi-part story in this era is the “Galactus Trilogy”, appearing in Fantastic Four #48-50 and introducing both Galactus and his herald, the sensitive and tortured Silver Surfer. This was hailed by many as an innovation in storytelling for revealing Galactus on the final page of FF#48 as a cliffhanger/teaser of what was to come (although this was not the first time this technique had been used). The most interesting storytelling technique in the “Galactus Trilogy” was that the actual Galactus story begins at the bottom of page 7 of issue #48 and is pretty much wrapped up on page 13 of FF #50 — indicating that stories could now begin and end wherever the hell they wanted to.


Meanwhile, DC Was Napping…

DC was slow to pick up on Marvel’s revolutionary storytelling style. Historians note that DC’s executives at the time were so slow on the uptake because Marvel’s books looked so much crappier than their own that they couldn’t believe that they were being outsold by this obviously inferior product. Granted, DC had amazing production standards and some legendary artists, but their characters and their writing seemed old, tired, and produced by 50- or 60-year-old men. (Because they were.) Marvel’s, on the other hand, were full of action, drama (or melodrama), and in-your-face excitement. The big secret was that, for the most part, Stan and many of the artists producing the Marvel books were about the same age as the DC folks — the difference being that guys like Stan and Jack Kirby refused to act their age! The most telling thing about this era at DC was that they had Neal Adams kicking around the offices for years, and they couldn’t figure out what to do with him. (He was drawing Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope comic books. I am not making this up.) When Adams started drawing Superman and Action Comics covers, and the sales shot up because of it, the DC brass couldn’t figure out why.

One of the rare exceptions here was 14-year-old Jim Shooter’s work on the Legion of Super-Heroes in Adventure Comics, beginning in 1966. Shooter continued the use of frequent two-part stories, while slowly adding issue-by-issue continuity to his memorable Legion stories.

Fortunately, things changed in a big way for DC around 1968. Most of the old management was out. Carmine Infantino, the artist known for drawing Batman, The Flash, and Adam Strange, was on the way up the DC corporate ladder, and people were listening to what he had to say. He brought in artists to be editors, an experiment that provided big dividends, at least in the short run.

Two of those editors were Dick Giordano and Joe Orlando. (A third, Joe Kubert, really revolutionized DC’s war titles, but that’s not the focus of this article.). I covered Giordano’s accomplishments in an recent article on his passing. Joe Orlando’s accomplishments were more subtle in the short run, but Joe was a guy who could really work well with young artists, which was something DC needed as, also around 1968, they got rid of a lot of their older editors, writers, and artists – and not in the most gracious (or morally correct) way. Suddenly, the doors of DC were open to younger talent, and guys like Joe, Joe, Dick, and even venerable Julie Schwartz (who like Stan, also had a young spirit) were prepared to welcome them – and more importantly train them. (Neal Adams, while not on the DC staff, also did much to train and support new talent at this time.)

Deadman

Deadman

Many core DC books were often “in transition” as new talents struggled to learn their craft, so the lesser, cult titles at DC became the ones to watch. Virtually overnight, minor titles like Aquaman, House of Mystery, and Teen Titans were suddenly interesting, and new concepts like Anthro, The Creeper, Deadman, Secret Six, Enemy Ace, Bat Lash, and Hawk and Dove were not like any other DC title (not really like anything Marvel, either). Meanwhile, even the concepts that didn’t quite work (Wonder Woman’s mod Diana Prince era, the Metal Men becoming “human”) were at least fascinating to watch. Aquaman became interesting when writer Steve Skeates and artist Jim Aparo were assigned to the series (long-time Aquaman artist Nick Cardy remained on the striking covers). They began a nine-issue quest storyline as Aquaman (no longer the polite, benevolent Sea King) set off after the unknown criminals who kidnapped his wife, Mera.

When Deadman ran its course (it was unique in comics at the time because the series had a built-in conclusion, similar to that of the extremely popular TV series The Fugitive), Neal Adams finally got on a regular Batman title (The Brave and the Bold), which eventually led him to Detective and teaming with writer Denny O’Neil, and a history-making creative team was born. The pair did a series of great one-shot Batman tales, and in 1970, they went on to create the award-winning Green Lantern/Green Arrow series, after Adams (with writer Bob Haney) performed a character makeover on Green Arrow in one of Adams’ last Brave and Bold issues. GL/GA became one of those “do anything you want to do” books (like Frank Miller’s later classic Daredevil run, incidentally edited by O’Neil) where the book was going to be canceled so they should at least have some fun before it went.

Green Lantern #85

Green Lantern #85

What O’Neil and Adams wanted to do in GL/GA was talk about the issues of the day – especially the ones that mattered to the era’s young people. So, becoming more news commentary and political allegory than superhero comic book, GL/GA set the comic world on fire – an early example of the outside world realizing that there was something interesting in those funny books. Format-wise, there wasn’t anything really revolutionary about the series. Most of the stories were done-in-one, the exception being the powerful two-part “Snowbirds Don’t Fly” where Green Arrow discovers that his ward Speedy (who he has ignored of late) has become a drug addict. What was revolutionary about the series was that the characters acted, argued, and fought like real people, not the cardboard cutouts that most DC heroes were at this time. This series forever altered those characters in the best way possible – they became “real” in the reader’s eyes.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. And didn’t – the series was canceled two years later. By that time there was another revolution brewing – Jack Kirby had left Marvel. And was going to write and draw Jimmy Olsen for DC Comics. No, really.

The 1970s: The King Has a New Kingdom

In August 1970, the first Jack Kirby-produced issue of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 hit the newsstands and spinner racks, and comics fandom collectively scratched its head in confusion. (Sharp-eyed fans also noticed that Superman and Jimmy’s heads were redrawn by Superman artist Al Plastino, an insulting thing to do to Kirby and frustrating and anger-inducing to fans, who wanted to see Kirby’s “take” on Superman. But it was DC’s policy at the time to keep their iconic characters “on-model” at all times for licensing purposes. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.) Several months later, Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen was joined by what would become known as his Fourth World titlesForever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle. It was an exciting time.

New Gods #7

New Gods #7

For this 14-year-old reader, the Kirby books were a tough slog. Oh, there were amazing concepts and wonderful characters and Kirby was doing a great job in anchoring these books to the larger DC Universe, but there was this underlying feeling that not everything was gelling properly. People started whispering that Kirby was a bad writer. He wasn’t. He excelled at coming up with new and entertaining concepts and characters – which is a writer’s primary function. But Kirby had a tin ear for dialogue. His conversations often ran false or seemed like shorthand (actually, like people normally speak). But comic book dialogue in that era was becoming more and more “sophisticated” (which nowadays we see as mannered purple prose, but then, it was a step forward), and what might have served Kirby well in the late 1950s and early 1960s was no longer cutting it with the more experienced comics fans.

It took me (and much of fandom, as it turned out) a while to figure out what Kirby was actually up to. The first real knockout Fourth World story for me was “The Pact” (New Gods #7, Feb/Mar 1972), where we discovered the secrets of both Orion’s and Mr. Miracle’s origins and heritage, as well as much history between the worlds of New Genesis and Apokolips. It was a quantum jolt to discover that Kirby was plotting all of these seemingly individual books as one massive story. Further, Kirby was creating concepts that were spilling over into many other DC comics – the Intergang/Morgan Edge storylines having a big effect on most of the Superman titles. It was another major step forward in the growing maturity of comic book storytelling.

Had they been more successful, these Fourth World books might have been the first to claim the Never-Ending Story title. As it was, it seems that Kirby never got to tell the conclusion the way that he wanted, due to premature cancellations. Eventually, he was able to bring the series to a conclusion of sorts, first in 1984 when the New Gods series was being reprinted in a six-issue miniseries. However, Kirby and DC clashed over how the story should end, DC insisting that all the characters remain alive for future use, while Kirby saw Orion and Darkseid battling to a fiery death on Apokolips. What eventually saw print was the compromised “Even the Gods Must Die” 48-page story, originally printed in #6 of the New Gods reprint series. It acted as the lead-in to the 1995 graphic novel The Hunger Dogs, which was Kirby’s last story with the characters (and the principals were kept alive as per DC’s mandate). So Kirby envisioned the entire New Gods saga as an extremely long-form story, with a beginning, a middle, and a definite conclusion. The end we got just wasn’t the conclusion he envisioned.

DC recently did the deed themselves. Due to editorial incompetence, the characters were killed off in different ways in different comics. Apparently, Death of the New Gods has been reconned out of existence due to the events of Final Crisis #7. Their attempt at creating a Fifth World seems largely stillborn at this writing. Truly a sad legacy for these once-great characters. For once I’m actually wishing for a “it was all a bad dream” story.

Marvel Marches On

Despite Marvel losing Kirby to DC at the dawn of the 1970s, Marvel pretty much ruled comics in that decade. Much of this dominance was due to the growing sophistication of the Marvel writers, who experimented with story forms for most of the decade. By this point, Stan Lee was largely weaning himself off regular writing assignments, as he became Marvel’s Publisher and had more executive activities behind the scenes to contend with. These eight writers changed the face of Marvel comics and set new expectations for what comic storytelling could be:

Avengers: Kree/Skrull War

Avengers: Kree/Skrull War

Roy Thomas first began writing in the 60s with long and interesting stints on the Avengers, X-Men, and Doctor Strange. In the 1970s, Thomas was at the helm for one of Marvel’s most famous long-form stories, “The Kree-Skrull War”. Told in nine issues of The Avengers (#89-97), the story sprawled all over the Marvel Universe and featured dozens of characters. Interestingly, Thomas – either knowingly or unknowingly – also planted some “Easter Eggs” (although they weren’t called that back then) in the storyline (such as clues to the Vision’s origin) that would pay off in subsequent storylines for years to come – another writing innovation of the era.  Elsewhere in the 70s, Thomas’ primary work was on the various (and exceptional) Conan the Barbarian (which was written like an ongoing saga, rather than a series of random adventures) and Red Sonja titles. While serving as Marvel’s second Editor-in Chief, he was instrumental in launching many memorable characters and titles including The Defenders, Werewolf by Night, What If, The Invaders, Iron Fist, Ghost Rider, and later in the decade, Star Wars.

Other newcomers began to make their mark on Marvel in the 1970s, including Steve Englehart, who broke into Marvel writing the memorable Beast series in Amazing Adventures. From there, he went on to Captain America, developing many long and involved storylines. Some proved controversial, such as the Secret Empire storyline which revealed that the President of the United States was actually the secret leader of the evil organization, who subsequently committed suicide in Cap’s presence. Which, in turn, led into the powerful Nomad/Man Without a Country story.

Englehart replaced Thomas on Avengers and wasted little time in messing with time – by adopting time-travelling Kang the Conqueror as his major villain. Englehart began changing the conventional “rules” of time travel by having Kang attack the Avengers time after time (and not always in the same order that the readers were reading). The Kang story dovetailed into Engleheart’s “Cosmic Madonna” storyline, featuring the enigma that was his new character Mantis. At the same time, Englehart was lavishing much time on the budding relationship between the android Vision and the mutant Scarlet Witch. They married during his Avengers run, and later, he wrote the miniseries in which (they thought) they gave birth to twin sons.

Avengers #116

Avengers #116

Englehart also initiated one of the first cross-book crossovers when his Avengers and his Defenders went to war in the (duh!) “Avengers/Defenders War”. Englehart was very active as a problem solver of tangled Marvel continuity, penning stories which explained how there was a Captain America in the 1950s, when Stan said that Cap was actually frozen in an iceberg then, as well as the story where it is revealed that the Vision is actually based on the android body of the original Golden Age Human Torch (picking up the torch – so to speak – from Thomas). Englegart also scripted an awesome Doctor Strange arc that was so cosmic and intense, that I don’t think I can do it justice here.

Tomb of Dracula #10

Tomb of Dracula #10

Marv Wolfman’s comic career finally kicked into full gear at Marvel when he wrote several of their flagship titles, including Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Dr. Strange. But he’s probably best known for his long-running work on Tomb of Dracula with artists Gene Colan and Tom Palmer. It was a unique series in that it was primarily written about a frequently evil antagonist rather than the usual heroic protagonist. This is also where Wolfman developed the popular Blade character, a vampire hunter who would eventually star in a series of major films starring Wesley Snipes, as well as several comic book series. Wolfman’s other original work of the era was Nova, a sci-fi superheroic series seemingly based on a lot of major influences and starring a teenage boy, aiming to re-create the magic of Spider-Man for a new audience. It didn’t quite succeed at that, but Nova is still a popular, if somewhat cult, character who has been regularly featured somewhere in the Marvel Universe (either as a New Warrior or a cosmic adventurer) over the last several decades.

Oddly enough, Steve Gerber was one of the more traditional storytellers of the bunch. His unbelievably out-there concepts and ideas won him his well-deserved reputation as one of the best writers of this era. He started out writing traditional superhero fare for Marvel like Daredevil and Sub-Mariner, but fans began to suspect something was up with Gerber during his run on The Defenders. The Defenders was a pretty strange book even before Gerber got to it, it being a team book of characters (The Hulk, Sub-Mariner, Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer) who didn’t want to be a team. Gerber soon loaded the book up with elves with guns, characters based on old Atlas-era mad scientists, and other absurdist situations, while at the same time telling stories about xenophobia and cosmic gamesmanship. Modern fans tend to look at it as pre-Morrison deconstructionism. I say it was just good old fun.

Howard the Duck #8

Howard the Duck #8

Howard the Duck, on the other hand, is probably Gerber’s autobiography. Or at least the tag-line (“Trapped in a world he never made!”) is. At the very least, it was his masterpiece, most likely the most pleasing and frustrating thing he ever was associated with. Hopefully, you know the history, as I don’t have the space to do it right here. I can say that Howard was a tour de force for Gerber. It had everything in it: Politics, stupid superhero tricks, allegory, slight-of-hand, real emotion, a villain named Dr. Bong, pianos, cigars, ostriches, and some of the most unique storytelling ever in comics. A giant tabloid edition featured the Defenders and somebody called Tillie the Hun. Why the hell not?

Gerber’s Man-Thing was another great book about a monster that looked like a movable swamp, couldn’t talk or think, and burned you to death if you were afraid of him (which most normal thinking people were). Since his lead character was totally useless in terms of storytelling, Gerber instead told stories about real people. Troubled, scared, and confused people. People like you and me. It was one of the most unique series in comics, because you never knew what you were going to get in each issue. Howard the Duck was born here. So was Bessie the Hellcow. Great comic? Or greatest comic?

More Marvel Madness

Amazing Adventures #28

Amazing Adventures #28

Don McGregor wrote both Killraven (in Amazing Adventures) and  Black Panther (in Jungle Action) as if they were ongoing, serialized novels, with amazing levels of depth and characterization Thus, it was no surprise that he was instrumental in developing the modern graphic novel format in 1978’s Sabre (with Paul Gulacy) for Eclipse Comics.

Doug Moench was equally adept at writing superheroes – but with a twist (Moon Knight, Deathlok) – old favorites (notable runs on Fantastic Four, Thor, and Hulk magazines), monsters (Werewolf By Night and Frankenstein), and even off-the-wall licensed properties (Planet of the Apes, Godzilla). But my favorite Moench series of this era is the criminally underrated Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. Co-created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin as a bizarre combination of the Kung Fu TV show and Sax Rohmer’s pulp novel villain Dr. Fu Manchu, Master of Kung Fu told the saga of Shang-Chi, the son of Fu Manchu. Other characters from Rohmer’s novels were used in the series, but no characters from Kung Fu ever appeared – just concepts from the show. Since Marvel no longer licenses either property, Shang-Chi’s (an original Marvel character and trademark) actual parentage is kept vague in current storylines. Because of the licenses, this is one Marvel series that will probably never be reprinted.

Englehart and Starlin left the series pretty quickly, and Moench stepped in and wrote over a hundred issues before the series ended. Moench was fortunate to have many excellent artistic collaborators, including Paul Gulacy, Gene Day, Jim Craig, and Mike Zeck. Gulacy, a noted film buff, snuck in dozens of likenesses of famous film stars (including Marlene Dietrich, David Niven, and Marlon Brando) as supporting characters. And Shang-Chi himself was modeled after martial artist/actor Bruce Lee. Moench joined the in-joke fun by developing characters modeled after Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields, since this was produced in the days before celebrity likeness licensing became big business (and when you could get away with doing stuff like this).

Master of Kung Fu is worth seeking out in back issues, as this is yet another excellent example of long-form, saga-like, sophisticated storytelling. Although Moench didn’t write the final issues, the original series comes to a definitive and thoughtful conclusion.

Warlock #10

Warlock #10

Jim Starlin was a major writer/artist for Marvel in the 70s, concentrating on Marvel’s cosmic characters Captain Marvel and Adam Warlock. He developed an ongoing saga involving his character Thanos that wound in and around the Marvel Universe over a number of years and several different books. Starlin’s work encompassed big themes, including life, death, religion, and politics, as displayed to great effect in The Death of Captain Marvel - Marvel’s first graphic novel. Later, Starlin would develop the long-form Metamorphosis Odyssey, originally for Marvel’s Epic Illustrated, and eventually published as a series of graphic novels. It also spun-out Dreadstar, another creator-owned long-form storytelling project, published by Epic and First Comics.

Chris Claremont was one of the luckiest guys in comics when he stepped into the world of the X-Men, right after the publication of the book that re-established the mutants in the Marvel U., Giant-Size X-Men #1. Claremont went on to earn the slot by becoming one of the best, most popular, and best-selling comic book writers of the era. But it didn’t happen overnight. Claremont, with his artistic collaborators Dave Cockrum and John Byrne (both of whom would develop into fine writers themselves), spent years building the just-off-to-the-side world of the Marvel Mutants to the point where there were so many different comics, characters, and concepts that the mutants threatened to dwarf the rest of Marvel from time to time. Besides the core Uncanny X-Men title, Claremont also wrote New Mutants, Wolverine, and Excalibur, and he created literally hundreds of characters and concepts for the franchise. But he was no one-trick-pony either, writing memorable runs of Iron Fist, Marvel Team-Up, Fantastic Four, Spider-Woman, and Ms. Marvel for Marvel over a long – and still ongoing – career.

X-Men #115

X-Men #115

Although characterization as a storytelling tool was not a new thing at the time, Claremont was a master at it, filling his characters with hopes, dreams, loves, and emotions, most of it conveyed through his character’s dialogue, something else he excelled at. Marvel’s mutant characters became so popular because there were so many wonderful characters, it was easy for us all to identify with at least one of them. Claremont’s work in this area is testimony to that. Read now, it’s very much a product of its times, but then, it was a major step forward. If it’s now become a cliche, that’s because it was so frequently reused and homaged.

DC did have a few interesting things going on in the early 1970s in the Superman and Batman books, as well as a groundbreaking new series called Swamp Thing. And that’s where we’ll pick up in Part 2!

COMING UP: Next week (on Tuesday because of the holiday), I’ll have my monthly Ten Things column, looking at new comic items for the month of August. Then on June 7th, I’ll be back with Part 2 of the Never-Ending Story (which is turning into the Never-Ending Column), where we’ll finish up the 70s and bring us up to date on how comic book storytelling has evolved throughout history. New formats (graphic novels! limited series!) lead to new storytelling opportunities (and problems). And what happens when you have a party and everybody in the universe shows up? Not enough cheese dip, that’s what!

KC Carlson has been working in comics since 1972, where, at the age of 16, he was employed at the local magazine distributor, stripping the covers off unsold comics to return to the publishers. Since then, he has worked for DC Comics, Westfield Comics, Capital City Distribution, and many other places, continuing to destroy comics at every step.

Special thanks to Bob Greenberger.

All classic covers used in this article came from the Grand Comics Database.

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    great post! i’m looking forward to pt 2!!!

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