In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that this is a little bit of cheating; I only just read 7 Soldiers of Victory last month (June 2008), so it doesn't exactly fit in with the 'influential comics of my reading career pre-2007' which I intended these written pieces to describe. But the 7 Soldiers' writer, Grant Morrison, has made a career so far of muddling timelines, breaking rules of narrative and defying expectations, so it's sort of fitting that I stick this in anyway.
In fact, it's Morrison's particularly eclectic style that has made him a bit of Marmite writer for me in the past. I absolutely loved the high concept and hyper-realism of his sci-fi yarn We 3, and I certainly enjoyed the first arc of his run of JLA (despite it's generic 90's style bulging-muscles superhero artwork). On the other hand, I was personally left a bit cold by the first few arcs of his New X-men run; his reinvention of the iconic mutants created an interesting status quo, but failed to engage me in any of the characters. The Jack Kirby/Bollywood cross-over Viminirama seemed like a terrible waste of a great concept, and I couldn't get past the second issue of his epic metaphysical thriller The Invisibles without getting horribly lost. I've often felt that Morrison can 'over-write' a book; derailing the reading experience in his attempts to put an original spin on the accepted comic norms. Actually, the truth is that for over 20 years he has consistently spun experimental plots, with intellectual scripts and challenging storytelling techniques; they sometimes just don't fit with my particular groove.
In 2006, Morrison must have wanted a new challenge, as he chose to simultaneously relaunch 7 minor/ obscure characters in the DC comics pantheon, each in their own self contained 4-issue limited series, but within an overarching mega storyline which would touch upon each of the series and serve as bookends to the entire 29 issue epic. Two intriguing factors differentiated this crossover from the slew of comics 'events' that were crowding the shop shelves at the same time. Firstly; the genres of the seven series would span every corner of the DC canon, from superheroes to fantasy, science-fiction to off-beat black comedy. Secondly; the seven heroes who formed this disparate superteam would never actually meet throughout the course of the story. The final inspiration for this off-beat collaboration was taken from The 7 Soldiers of Victory; one of the pioneering super-teams from the 1940's who hadn't seen regular publication in fifty years or so.
The timing of this ambitious undertaking unfortunately coincided with DC's biggest publishing event in 20 years; Infinite Crisis. Far more mainstream in focus, Infinite Crisis encompassed dozens of the biggest DC superhero titles, and placed some considerable demands on the comic-buying budgets of many fans at the time. When the 7 Soldiers crossover debuted with the introductory special 7 Soldiers of Victory issue 0, I was intrigued by the set-up, but my wallet couldn't accommodate the extra demands of the 28 issues to follow. I wonder if the series was possibly denied it's fullest audience because other potential readers may have been suffering a similar financial pinch? Luckily for me; DC collected the entire epic into a series of 4 trade paperbacks, which I was able to take out of my local library.
In the opening chapters, I did still find myself slightly frustrated by the rampant Morrisonisms; the moments of storytelling shorthand and absence of explanations for some of the more surreal developments. The Zatanna miniseries suffers from this particularly, as several crucial plot developments were confusingly muddled. But at a certain point I found myself slipping into the Morrison mindset; this is both a sequel to the original adventures of the 7 Soldiers, and yet also a re-imagining of several elements of it (adventures of the original 7 Soldiers from the '50s are referred to here, although the new Shining Knight character seems to be an unconnected reboot of the similar Shining Knight character in the original line-up); so the reader shouldn't expect everything to be completely coherent. The mixture of genres complement each other surprisingly well, and there is certainly an outlandish 'anything can happen' mentality to the story developments. This is comes to an impressive crescendo in the Zatanna series when, at the climax of a magical incantation, the title character breaks the fourth wall and reaches out of the comic page to touch the reader.
The artwork is diverse, and fairly uniformly brilliant. Some top drawer talent was assembled for this event, including JH Williams III, Simone Bianchi, Ryan Sook, Frazer Irving, Pasqual Ferry and Doug Mahnke, who all excelled in some of the more off-beat series. I was also impressed by Cameron Stewart; whose work I hadn't seen before, but who produced art with dynamism and warmth for The Manhattan Guardian, probably the most conventional of the heroes here. My personal favourite has to be Mahnke's work on Frankenstein, which particularly plays to his strengths (black humour; visceral horror and a hulking protagonist) as well as introducing some new delights (his alien/futuristic panoramas are jaw-dropping). The weak link in the chain unfortunately is Mister Miracle; Pasqual Ferry's sci-fi art is a perfect fit for the classic Jack Kirby character, but he left the series after the first issue, and a suitable replacement was never really found over the next 3 issues. In fact, I found myself being quite frustrated by the Mister Miracle story in general; it bore minimal relation to the other 6 mini's, and the plotline didn't really seem have much direction to it. In hindsight it's now clear that the themes introduced here (the covert machinations of evil New God Darkseid on earth) were a direct set-up to Morrison's next 'big DC project', the super-hero armaggedon-level event known as Final Crisis. It is good to see that, as a result of Mr Miracle's involvement, this quirky event will ultimately be tied very firmly into DC comics continuity, but I still feel the latter parts of the storyline would be stronger without it.
I was a little confused at first that the 29 issues were not collected together by specific miniseries, but were instead arranged in order of original publication (the mini's were published in a staggered schedule). It turns out that this choice was pretty crucial for enjoying the unfolding storyline that interlinks each of the mini's. And in fact it's the key to the success of the whole event. It forces the reader to step back from each separate character and consider the whole; as well as highlighting the subtle and often touching ways in which Morrison was interlinking the various series. This is a fantastical adventure unfolding as commentary on how we live our everyday lives; each one of us having an indirect effect on the lives of hundreds of others around us, whether we are aware of them or not. And at the end of day, despite it's faults, I hope that is what will make the 7 Soldiers of Victory warrant revisiting again and again, after the more spectacular crossovers of Marvel and DC have faded from memory.
On the face of it, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars was a 12-issue maxiseries that was published between May 1984 and April 1985, although the story was infact conceived as a thinly disguised marketing device for a series of action figures being produced by Mattel at the time. As would be expected, Secret Wars was hugely hyped at it's time of release, not only was it the flagship comic of the Marvel superhero universe, but it was the lynchpin of a lucrative licensing empire that was being built around Stan Lee and co's creations. Hailed as the first company-wide crossover every published, it built upon 2 decades of comics continuity since the Fantastic Four first debuted in 1961; and it was followed exactly 20 years later by a sort of spiritual sequel, Secret War by Brian Michael Bendis in May 2004, which in turn would serve as the spring-board for the recent era of blockbuster event driven storytelling from Marvel. It's therefore tempting to view Secret Wars as something of a nexus in the history of Marvel comics; a culmination of all that came before and a portent of all that would follow. Or this could just be wishful thinking on the part of ageing fan-boys who clamour for the halcyon days of their comics buying youth.
Speaking of which; I was 6 years old in 1985 when the Secret Wars franchise landed in the UK in the form of comic reprints, sticker albums, toys and fancy-dress costumes. At that age, my attention span was too short to follow the story through the entirety of the comic run, although I do remember picking up several issues; in particular being mesmerised by the iconic cover image of the heroes being trapped in a cave-in, with only the Incredible Hulk supporting the weight of an entire mountain which was about to collapse ontop of them. The Doctor Doom action figure was one of my favourite toys at the time; to the extent that I even dressed up as the character for Halloween that year. My main exposure to the brand was without a doubt through the Panini sticker collection, which I collected and swapped with my primary school friends. The sticker album recounted an editorialised version of the epic story, and this was my first exposure to mind-blowing characters such as Charles Xavier's X-Men, the villainous Absorbing Man, the bewitching Enchantress and the awe-inspiring Galactus. To be honest though; my fickle attentions did move on pretty quickly, when the Thundercats cartoon and toy-line launched in the following year with a big a splash and an even bigger range of collectible figures and accessories.
As part of Marvel's new deluxe 'Omnibus' model for publishing reprints, Secret Wars became available on nice glossy over-sized pages in one big bumper hardback, and I recently snapped up the opportunity to revisit it. Fittingly for a comic which serves to advertise a toy line; the pitch for the storyline is childishly simple. As the first issue opens, two groups of characters, comprising respectively some of Marvel's highest profile superheroes and supervillains, have been teleported from earth and are being transported to a mysterious planetary body, constructed before their startled eyes by an omnipotent force known only as 'The Beyonder'. The heroes are led by the courageous Captain America, while the villains are begrudgingly under the leadership of Doctor Doom, and Professor X forms a splinter group of his X-Men and Magneto, who keep their allegiances deliberately ambiguous. The only explanation which is offered for this cosmic-level display of technology and power is given by The Beyonder's brief introductory monologue: "I am from beyond... Slay your enemies and all you desire shall be yours... Nothing you dream of is impossible for me to accomplish!".
The plot and script in these opening chapters, by then Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter does a brilliant job of introducing over thirty different protagonists, even if it does lay the expository dialogue on a bit thick. With this volume of characters, it was obvious that each would be largely 1-dimensional, but the characterisation of the various heroes and villains is established with colourful drama, and it lays a solid groundwork for the alliances that are made and broken over the first two acts of the series. The artwork in the opening chapters, by Marvel stalwart Mike Zeck is spectacular stuff, delivering a dynamic and modern interpretation of Kirby's classic cosmological designs. The creation of Battleworld is a particularly striking image, and is one that I still have memories of from my youth. I don't know if time contraints were an issue for Zeck, as Bob Layton was brought in as a replacement penciller on issued 4 and 5. In later issues of the series, Zeck's style does become noticeably looser and cartoonish, although Doctor Doom's spectacularly brutal battle to the death with The Beyonder in issue 10 marks an artistic high-point of the series.
A lot of mileage is wrought out of the attack and counter-attack developments in the plotting of the first 8 or 9 issues. There's a healthy sense of self-awareness aswell, particularly in the tongue-in-cheek commentaries from some of the more comedic characters like The Thing and Spider-man, or the Absorbing Man and the Wrecking Crew. Although in retrospect, perhaps this exchange between the supervillains wasn't intended to carry quite as much latent homo-eroticism...
When it gets into full swing, Shooter was gleefully spinning soup opera style subplots into the mix, celebrating the sort of high-drama that Lee/Kirby/Ditko et al. revelled in throughout the silver age. The love triangle between the Human Torch Johnny Storm, alien native hottie Zsaji and lovelorn X-Man Colussus is particularly cheesey, and can be enjoyed in a so-bad-its-good sort of way. It's not all poops and giggles though; and there are plenty of nuggets of real drama, like the aforementioned mountain cave-in, Thor's doomed stand against the army of supervillains, and further developments that I'd rather not spoil. For the most part, there is a palpable sense of danger, and there are fatalities amongst the main cast (even though these are almost universaly reversed by close of play). It's a storytelling mix which, surprisingly, reminded me of the tv show 'Lost', in the best possible way.
There are two critical flaws with the series though. Firstly, it goes on for about 2 issues too long; the high stakes end-game of the heroes versus Galactus, then The Beyonder, then Cosmic Doctor Doom is thrilling stuff, but it arrives too early. The pace slows to a crawl in issue 11 and by issue 12 the denoument asks the reader to swallow a plot-reset conceit which amounts to 'wishing everything better'. Secondly, the whole story really doesn't have any point; over a year of comics, absolutely no plotting was attributed to explaining the omnipotent motivations of The Beyonder, or the reasoning behind this gathering of Marvel universe misfits on a savage new planet. As plot holes go, that's a pretty bloody big one. By the time Jim Shooter wrote Secret Wars he had a wealth of experience under his belt; with 18 years as a comics writer and 6 years as the EiC of Marvel comics. He had overseen, and no doubt learned from, such groundbreaking super-hero writing as Chris Claremont's X-Men and Frank Miller's Daredevil, and amazingly he was still only 33 years of age; young enough to be clued into his adolescent target audience. It is quite surprising then, that Secret Wars is not infact more of a magnum opus, and that despite a strong initial concept, drawing upon a load of cosmic plot ideas and some cracking characterisation, it collapses in the later stages under the weight of tired plot devices and a series of ridiculous deus ex machina resolutions.
Some criticisms which are commonly levelled at modern Marvel superhero crossovers are that they feature decompressed storytelling, and are editorially driven to shift the overall continuity onto the next status-quo. In their defence though; I would argue that the newer storylines (particularly the shorter, more self-contained series like World War Hulk and Seige) benefit from relatively strong internal logic, foreshadowing of critical plot developments and, most importantly, a sharp focus in theme. The real legacy of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars has perhaps been to allow today's creators to learn from it's mistakes.
So, a funny thing happened when I got married last year (2009); the ceremony was going really well, until about half-way through, I realised that my fiancee was actually a Kryptonian convict who'd escaped from the Phantom Zone, and then this Circus of Crime took all the guests hostage, and finally my doppelganger ran into the ceremony and accused me of being an evil imposter from the future. Which you can imagine, was really embarrassing.
Nah, I'm just kidding, the wedding was fine; I got a bit too drunk afterwards and danced really badly to the Ghostbusters theme tune, but that was about as scandalous as it got. But one of my good friends did give me a pretty amazing wedding gift; an ornate bespoke carved wooden box containing a collection of 20 different wedding based comic books, all individually bagged, boarded and wrapped in tissue. The comics covered an amazing range of super-heroics, from Silver-Age up to Modern-Age, and included just about every big character in the Marvel and DC stables. I don't know how he managed to track down all these comics, but it can't have been easy, and I wanted to treat the gift with the respect it was due. As I worked my way through the comics, I found myself researching into the history of these characters, and the context of the stories; filling quite a few gaps in my comics-trivia knowledge along the way. I'm not going to over-romanticise this, some of the comics were pretty lousy, but some others were absolute gems.
I've written an 8-part journal of the experience, which I have decided to name, with much poignancy and subtlety: SUPER-HERO WEDDING WARS! Only one Wedding shall remain standing by the end; to find out which one - read on...
The first 2 weddings coincidentally happen to be probably the 2 biggest in superhero history so far. It's interesting that, although they are equally significant, they were separated in publication by over 30 years, and it's arguable that the older one is by far the more readable.
The wedding of Clark Kent (Superman) and Lois Lane saw publication in a one-off Superman Wedding Album special, from DC comics in late 1996. It was hot on the heels of that year's big DC event, Final Night, which came out as a 4 part weekly mini-series only one month beforehand. In this blockbuster storyline Earth's Sun was at risk of being extinguished, endangering all life on the planet until Hal Jordan, the disgraced Green Lantern, sacrificed himself to relight the failing star. As a slight digression, it's worth noting that throughout the '90s, DC comics carried out annual 'events' which would encompass the majority of the superhero titles published by the company, but only for a single month, during which time a brief weekly mini-series would form the backbone of the plot of the inevitably sprawling storyline (see Zero Hour, Final Night and Day of Judgement). In the current publishing model embraced by both DC and Marvel, the big events are now roughly bi-annual, and can be spread out over as much as 9 or 10 months of comics. All this is of relevence only as a way of explaining that (due to the recent lack of solar energy available), Clark Kent had lost his superpowers at the time of his wedding.
The comic itself is a 91 page extravaganza, featuring 5 writers (the writers of each of the 5 main Superman titles of that time) and 31 artists (supposedly most of the noteworthy artists from Superman's career in print to that point). Perhaps 'extravaganza' was a bit of a strong word to use though, as the creators chose to tell a story which was surprisingly mundane. As I mentioned earlier, Clark is without powers, which precludes the possibility of any traditional Superman action. However, appearances from any other heroes of DC's extensive pantheon are pretty thin on the ground too; amazonian-style maneater Maxima appears for a 2 page cameo; Batman stops by for a 5-page chat and the rest of the Justice League are crammed into a single 2-page splash spread. What remains is a fairly standard wedding day soap-opera; and not even a particularly dramatic one, as the majority of the ceremony plans go without a hitch, as it were. I'm guessing the aim of the writers was to portray the interactions of the core characters along with the supporting cast in such an orthodox manner as to make the readers feel as though they themselves were actually guests at the bachelor party/ bachelorette party/ wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for new readers or casual fans without an emotional investment in many of these characters, it all comes across as a bit bland. What's worse, I even fealt like a bit of an uninvited voyeur, peeping in on some strangers' most private moments.
The comic isn't completely without merit; for the ceremony itself, Clark Kent did have the decency to cut off the ridiculous ponytail that he'd been sporting since his death and subsequent resurrection 3 years earlier. There is a fair amount of poignancy to the closing of the ceremony also; it's just a shame that it took quite so many pages and creators, along with $4.95 of the customer's money, in order to get there.
On the other side of the fence at Marvel comics, way back in 1965, Reed Richards and Susan Storm got married only four years after the spectacular debut of their flagship comic, The Fantastic Four. In fact, the whole Marvel Universe as we currently know it had only been around since the start of that decade, and was still very much in it's infancy. I can only imagine what kind of a buzz must have surrounded the publication of the Fantastic Four Annual 3, which combined in one single adventure of the titular heroes, together with appearances from such hot new creations as The Avengers, Iron-Man, Thor, The X-Men, Spider-man, Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Nick Fury. It's almost the polar opposite of the Superman wedding, with the true-to-life trivialities of the wedding day being paid scant lip-service in between the bouts of a super-powered slobberknocker.
The catalyst for the adventure is of course Doctor Doom, who within the first page and a half has created a macguffin device designed to subliminally influence all the Marvel supervillains within the New York State area (and some from as far as Atlantis) to simultaneously attack the Fantastic Four on the very wedding day of Reed Richards and Susan Storm. As the story unfolds, the initial scenes are a neat twist on the matrimonial norms; as the best man, in this case the Thing, struggles to keep a lid on the rapidly deteriorating wedding plans. Even as the wedding venue is bombarded by a cavalcade of malevolent freaks and monsters, and the super-powered wedding guests help to fight off the attack, the Thing's priority is that none it should be allowed to disturb the happy couple, who are still blissfully ignorant of the danger as they prepare for the ceremony. As nuptial crises go, it's a step above the caterer being late.
The cast is huge, with the set-pieces granting each character a moment in the spotlight. But far from becoming episodic, the various plot threads of the conflict are interwoven, to provide a satisfying whole that manages a few genuine thrills. Once chaos has ensued for the majority of the 23 pages of story, the conflict is wrapped up just as quickly as it started by yet another macguffin machine, this time provided by the plot device personified; The Watcher.
The wedding spectacular was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, no doubt created in the symbiotic manner which Lee pioneered in the early days of the Marvel Universe (Lee would write a loose plot treatment, Kirby would create a full plot and produce the finished artwork, which Lee would use to inspire his full script for the issue). The benefits of this are readily apparent here, since dynamic visual storytelling was clearly Kirby's forte, while Lee could focus his efforts on ensuring that each character was given a truly distinctive voice. And the script absolutely crackles with lively one-liners; my favourite being at a point when the Fantastic Four are particularly besieged by the legion of attacking villains, and as Reed tries to comfort his traumatised bride, the Thing offers the sage advice in a thick Bronx accent: "Mebbe you shoulda just eloped!".
The end of both of these wedding comics highlights the similarities and differences between both issues, as creative staff are immortalised by cameos at both ceremonies. In the case of Clark Kent and Lois Lane's wedding, the climactic 3-page splash spread illustration reveals the crowd of onlookers to be full of dozens of Superman creators. Alternatively, the final panels of the Fantastic Four Annual see Lee and Kirby being barred entry to the ceremony by Nick Fury since they are not on the invite list. As they stroll away dejectedly (wearing matching top hats), the duo vow to go and write the next issue of the comic straight away, so that they can get their own back...
So, superheroes first arrived in American comics around the late '30s, growing in popularity through the course of WW2 and much of the subsequent decade, known as the Golden Age of comics; with Batman, Superman and the Justice Society at DC, and Captain America, Namor and the original Human Torch at Marvel (then known as Timely Publications). The '50s saw a decline in sales for superheroes, as Cowboys, Romance, and Cowboy Romance titles began to capture the public interest. Superheroes would enjoy a resurgence in popularity in the '60s though, in part thanks to Stan Lee's five year creative winning streak for Marvel, starting with the debut of the Fantastic Four in 1961.
But the dawn of the Silver Age of comics preceded this by a couple of years, when DC comics successfully relaunched a number of their Golden Age heroes, like The Flash in 1956 and Green Lantern in 1959, sporting modernised costumes, updated secret identities, and featuring contemporary sci-fi motifs. In fact, the Fantastic Four actually came around as a reaction from Marvel to the success which DC were having with their new super-team, The Justice League, who first appeared in a 1960 issue of The Brave and the Bold. And the editor at DC who was the architect of the Silver Age renaissance was Julius (Julie) Schwartz. Julie Schwartz went on to become a truly iconic figure in DC comics over the following decades, and towards the end of his career was instrumental in helping Alan Moore to break into the US mainstream, with the seminal Superman story 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorrow' in 1986. Throughout the halcyon days of Schwartz's tenure at DC editorial in the late '50s and '60s, his MO was to create intriguing comic cover images for each of the titles, which would encapsulate the zany high-concept for the adventures contained within that month's issue. The images would invariably display the comic's hero in some devilish life-or-death predicament, or present the reader with a puzzling conundrum, along with the promise of answers within! It would be the job of the series' writer and artist to flesh the concept out into a full-size four-colour thriller. I can't say whether Schwartz personally oversaw this approach throughout all the comics in the DC catalogue during this period, but his influence is certainly apparent in some truly quirky and off-beat covers and plot concepts, including some of the most bizarre superhero weddings to ever see print.
Issue 121 of Justice League of America saw publication in 1975 (during the Bronze Age of comics), and featured a team roster of heavy-hitters, who to this day are still the mainstays of the DC Universe; Batman, Superman, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Hawkman, Atom, Aquaman, Black Canary, Elongated Man and Red Tornado. And yet the hero of the issue, not to mention the groom of the climactic wedding ceremony, is infact a guest-star; galaxy-spanning adventurer Adam Strange. Strange debuted in Mystery In Space around the same time as the other silver-age revivals, in 1958. Although as a space-faring character with more than a few similarities to Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars, his adventures were more cosmically oriented than his colourful super-hero stablemates. The presence of Strange and his outer-space technology gives the issue's creators, Cary Bates, Dick Dillin and Frank Mclaughlin, an opportunity to truly open the scope of the story up. The rollercoaster plotting features several heroic battles, an apparently unbeatable foe, a last minute planet-hopping dash to save the day, a heart-tugging reunion and a galaxy-spanning wedding. All pretty standard super-hero stuff actually, but it's absolutely amazing that all this content is crammed into just 18 pages. A similar storyline using the current superhero publishing model would have spanned 6 issues and over 130 pages! To be fair, the villain of the piece; a bug-eyed intergalactic criminal named Kanjar Ro, is completely forgettable, and the reduced page count means that some fairly ridiculous contrivances come into play to ensure that the Justice League can be roundly defeated by their foe in the first act, without being laid so low that they can't snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at the last moment. Storytelling shortcuts aside, the story of Adam Strange's wedding to his alien sweetheart Alanna really does hit all the right buttons, and over 30 years later their relationship is still central to many of DC's space-bound titles (including Adam Strange, Rann-Thanagar War and 52).
Another comic from the same period under Schwartz's editorial control, the Batman Family Giant, was an altogether different animal from Justice League of America; instead of big stories featuring superstar heroes, this anthology title was intended to allow some of Batman's supporting cast a moment in the spotlight in smaller, more tightly plotted adventures. Issue 11 of Batman Family Giant came out in 1977, and featured the adventures of Man-bat, Alfred, Commisioner Gordon, and a head-line thriller with Robin and Batgirl, titled 'Til Death Do Us Part'. To compliment the foreboding title, the brilliant front cover features the original Robin and Batgirl (Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon) standing in wedding attire at a church altar as the entire wedding party, including ushers and priest hold them at gunpoint. Extra kudos to the writer Bob Rozakis that this unlikely scene actually occurs in the comic, and that it fits naturally in the context of the story. And it's a smart little plot, a puzzle-box which unfolds neatly over the course of 3 distinct acts and a surprise epilogue. Traditional wedding ceremonies involve a high degree of anticipation for the bride and groom anyway, so the development that each of the guests is actually a homicidal criminal is a brilliant way to spin the situation on it's head, and inject palpable tension into the climax of the story. When the twist was explained at the end, I was impressed that I'd never seen it coming, and even more, that no other writer has pinched the device in any comics published in the time since. The art by silver-age Superman veteran Curt Swan and Vince Colleta featured slick and attractive linework, and packed some real punch into the plot's 3 different action set-pieces too.
The real joy of the comic though, was in a couple of minor contemporary touches which place it squarely in the mid-'70s. Firstly, Barbara Gordon was at this point working as a congress-woman in Washington DC; a clear editorial nod to the public perception of corruption in the senate at this time. After all, the comic was published just 4 years after the Watergate scandal, and only 12 months after the release of the blockbuster movie adaptation of the events, 'All the Presidents Men'. One of the chapters is even set in a deserted Washington underground parking garage, in an outright reference to the clandestine meetings of Bob Woodward and his contact Deepthroat. As a hidden bonus, after the story has wrapped up, tucked away in the corner of one of the numerous adverts for body-building programmes and equipment, which were common in comics through the '60s and '70s, is an endorsement by the former Mr Olympia winner; one Arnold Schwarzenneger. It would be another 5 years before he got his proper big break at international mega-stardom in Conan The Barbarian. As a footnote, one of the supporting stories featuring Alfred the Butler and Commisioner Gordon seems to suggest in it's conclusion that the Commissioner deduces Bruce Wayne's secret identity as the Caped Crusader. I don't think that this shock development has been referenced in any of the bat-comics since, so I assume that it's one of the many tales that is now considered non-canon.
Here's an interesting fact; it is a fairly common comics publishing tactic from the last decade or so to gain new readers for an ongoing comic by rebranding the title with a new creative team, and relaunching it from a new issue 1. For example, Captain America has had 3 issue 1's in the last 12 years, and I think Iron-Man has had 4 in the same timespan. The logic behind this is that relaunches are good jumping on points for a new audience, and are therefore an opportunity to boost the readership. And yet 50 years ago, before the direct market (ie. specialist comic shops) enabled comics to easily reach a dedicated fanbase, the numbering practise was the opposite. Since comics were sold primarily through news-stands, a higher issue number was seen as a benefit- it was a measure of the longevity of the title, which indicated to the news-stand vendor how popular the comic would be. In fact, it was pretty common practice in the '50s for Marvel (who were limited in the number of titles they were permitted to publish each year) to transfer the numbering from a cancelled series onto a new comic which was debuting the month afterwards, creating the illusion of longevity, even when the genres of the two titles were completely different! DC pulled a similar trick when they relaunched The Flash in 1959. This new version of the character, the alter-ego of a police pathologist named Barry Allen, had first appeared in another title, Showcase, in 1956; but when he was popular enough to get his own monthly comic he picked up the numbering from a completely unrelated Golden Age title, called 'Flash Comics', which had been cancelled years earlier. And so the Silver Age version of The Flash debuted at issue 105, and 7 years later he got married, in issue 165.
The Flash wedding issue was put together by editor Julie Schwartz, writer John Broome and artist Carmine Infantino; creators who had all been intrinsically linked to the character since his revamp. And the cover is vintage Schwartz, as Barry Allen's wedding to his long-time sweetheart Iris West is interrupted by none other than The Flash himself. It's a nifty hook; with the cheeky added touch that the Flash, as he desperately races to the altar to interrupt the vows, is shouting out "Stop the wedding! Iris is marrying the wrong man!". Is that because The Flash believes Iris has made poor judgement in the partner that she has chosen to spend the rest of her married life with? No actually, we soon discover that it's because the Barry at the ceremony is infact a psychopathic imposter who has come back in time from the future to destroy the real Barry's life. It's a pretty entertaining comic, with the aforementioned psychopath being Barry Allen's arch nemesis Professor Zoom, also known as The Reverse Flash. It's another example of the incident-packed action-adventures which Schwartz masterminded so well. But I've got to say, Broome filled the issue to bursting with the contrivances which were typical of the Silver Age, and in particular which characterised the adventures of The Flash.
Professor Zoom escapes from his prison in the future because the radiation which is being used to cage him has infact given him psychic powers enough to swap places through time with the hapless Barry Allen! Professor Zoom's first act in the 20th century is to easily recalibrate ("with a few simple adjustments") a household electric shaver into a gadget known as a 'matter-distributer'; although a more appropriate name would surely have been a 'plot-device' (chortle)! And although The Flash's climactic pursuit of The Reverse Flash packs a load of thrills into just 4 short pages; the ingenious villain is finally captured because he decides to flee onto the one surface which everyone knows he can't run on (water). That's not very smart, especially for someone who is so intelligent that they can travel through time by force of will alone. Like I said though; it's all good fun, and a reasonably mature sub-plot involves Barry agonising over the decision of whether or not to share the secret of his super-heroic alter-ego with his bride before the wedding. In fact, what with all the time-travelling shenanigans, Barry doesn't get a chance to tell Iris, and the final panel sees him breaking the fourth wall as he drives off on his honeymoon, to ask the readers for their advice on his matrimonial quandry.
Barry would later become characterised as a bit of an unreliable husband; despite his high-speed super powers he was always late for any meetings or commitments with his wife because of all the crime-fighting that inevitably sidetracked him. But that's what you get when you take relationship advice from a target audience of a couple million pre-teens.
It's fairly common knowledge that it was the godfathers of Marvel comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who first assembled the Earth's Mightiest Super-Heroes in issue 1 of The Avengers in 1963. This was barely a year after the solo introductions of the founding members, Hulk, Thor and Ant-Man; and Iron Man's debut was a mere 6 months previous. Yet despite the unproven publication history, the resonance of these Avenger's adventures, under the penmanship of Lee and Kirby, was strong enough that the characters remained lynchpins of the Marvel universe for decades to follow. It's important to note though, that a great deal of the Avengers legacy which fans cherish so strongly, and which influences the team's contemporary adventures even today, is derived from the work of Lee and Kirby's successors on the title; writers like Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart, and artists like Don Heck, and John and Sal Buscema. This includes the weddings of two of the team's most central couples, Giant-Man with The Wasp, and The Vision with the Scarlet Witch.
The wedding of Giant-Man and The Wasp was held in issue 60 of The Avengers, written by Roy Thomas, drawn by John Buscema, and published early in 1969. The Wasp's alter ego was Janet Van Dyne, and Giant-Man's was Hank Pym, although he'd earlier gone by the names Ant-Man and Goliath, and was currently using a fourth superhero identity of Yellowjacket, but the rest of the Avengers didn't know this. Confused yet? It's a pretty colourful affair, with guest-appearances from a bevvie of heroes; and there's something charmingly endearing about the editorial note which assures us that the heroes' reception aperatifs are all non-alcoholic. The party-crashing antagonists of the piece are pretty throw-away though; The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime seem to be indicative of the cookie villainy which the Adam West Batman TV show had popularised at this time. It's not the only dated aspect of the writing; Hawkeye's authentic 60's lingo includes such patter as "Waitaminnit! It's plain as pie you Carny Cornballs aren't here to throw rice...".
Most curious though, is the sudden development of Hank Pym's 'schizophrenia' to explain his uncharacteristic new alter-ego Yellowjacket (I assume that the affliction Pym suffers from is now more commonly known as split-personality disorder). Janet Van Dyne accepts the revelation of her new husband's mental state surprisingly easily, and the gravity of the affliction seems completely at odds with the levity of the rest of the narrative. As a plot device for cinema villains, split-personality had been used for Norman Bates 9 years earlier in Psycho, and the comics precedent had been set with Norman Osborn 3 years earlier in Amazing Spider-Man issue 40, so perhaps the reading audience of the time were more ready to accept such a development. In any case, it certainly foreshadowed the spousal abuse which Janet would later suffer at the hands of Hank in the years to follow.
My slight misgivings with the plot aside; John Buscema's artwork on this issue is absolutley lush, with dynamic panel layouts and points-of-view, kinetic action, effortless line-work and elegant characterisation. I'm more familiar with Buscema's later work on such non-spandex anti-heroes as Conan, Wolverine and The Punisher; but one of my first experiences of Buscema's classic illustrations was from his comics master-class collaboration with Stan Lee, How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. It's a real treat to once more see his take on the more mainstream Marvel icons.
6 years later, the Avengers line-up had not changed a great deal, although the storyline was now under the stewardship of writer Steve Englehart. By 1975 the monthly Avengers title was being complimented by a quarterly sister-title, Giant-Size Avengers, and it seems that Englehart had been making full use of this expanded release schedule to craft a metaphysical multi-stranded sci-fi saga. Issue 4 of Giant-Size was a denoument of sorts to the epic, which tied up a number of loose ends from the previous year of comics, including: the secret decades-old link between mysterious new team members Mantis and Moondragon, the tragic demise of the Swordsman and the ghostly apparation who had appeared since his death, the machinations of the villainous time traveller Kang the Conquerer, the unspoken love affair between The Vision and Scarlet Witch, the unholy activities of The Dread Dormammu, and a dozen other plot threads that are too abstract to even mention. As you might expect, it's a dense read, and is very exposition heavy. It's also not a great jumping on point for new-comers, although the gaps can mostly be filled in by reading the letters pages.
From here it is clear that Giant-Size Avengers issue 4 was infact planned to be the apex of a number of intersecting character arcs, which were intended to challenge the established hero/villain dynamic. It was also intended to be a critical chapter of the ongoing Avengers saga with permanent repercussions to the status quo, and as such it climaxes with not just 1 but 2 weddings. The first (and most famous) nuptials were that of The Vision and Scarlet Witch; where the creepiness of a woman marrying a robot is eased by highlighting the complimentary nature of their union; she has powers over everything organic while he is a synthetic man (ie. an android). The second wedding is that of relative newcomer heroine Mantis to a magic space tree called the Cotati, which was personified by the glowing green aparation of Mantis' deceased boyfriend, The Swordsman. The latter couple then saved money on a honeymoon by subsequently transforming themselves into beings of pure energy and transcending into the stars. It's an utterly bonkers, and very brave plot development to end the story with, even for a genre that's as off-the-wall as superheroes.
The issue brings to mind some of the more experimental sci-fi from the previous decade, such as Arthur C Clarke's 2001 and Frank Herbert's Dune. What's more, judging by the letters page, Englehart was writing for a readership who were educated, mature, and understood complex character dynamics, which is a bit contrary to the notion that super-hero comics didn't 'come of age' for adults until the '80s.
Just as many Hollywood marriages seem doomed to failure, a lot of super-marriages seem to end badly also. Not many are as tragic as that of Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk) and Betty Ross, as poor Betty died of radiation poisoning following years of exposure to her gamma iradiated spouse Bruce. This is especially cruel, since the couple actually needed 2 wedding attempts, separated by over 15 years, before they finally managed to get married.
The first attempt occured in The Incredible Hulk #124, published in 1970. It was at this point that Banner had finally managed to conquer his Hulk affliction, thanks to the help of Reed Richards. The ceremony didn't go quite to plan though, when The Hulk's arch-nemesis, The Leader, zapped Banner at the altar with a giant gamma laser, causing him to Hulk out just in time for some brief super-fisticuffs with the Rhino, who happened to be in the vicinity of the chapel. It's a pretty forgettable tale actually; with curiously slow pacing for the first 14 pages that takes ages to get to the point, and only leaves 6 pages at the end for the gamma-powered carnage. The characterisation is quite bland too; Bruce Banner is a by-the-numbers romantic leading man (looking like he was visually based on George Lazenby), while the Hulk seems more like a melodramatic teenager than the raging brute which he normally manifests as. The creative team (writer Roy Thomas, with artists Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema) all went on to become some of the most important figures in Marvel's publishing history, so I'll assume the rest of their work on the Hulk packed a bit more of a punch than this issue...
Marriage vows were not exchanged properly between Banner and Ross until The Incredible Hulk #319, published in 1986. By now, Banner and the Hulk had been separated into 2 distinct physical entities. Without Banner's intellectual alter-ego, the Hulk had reverted to a completely primitive and savage persona, a dangerous creature of pure instinct, and Banner led the team of human 'Hulk-Busters' who were tasked with the job of catching it. More importantly, this was the climax of John Byrne's brief run on the title, and he had just enjoyed a decade-long run of blockbuster comic hits, redefining and re-invigorating Marvel titles like Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, Alpha Flight and The Fantastic Four.
The separation of Banner and The Hulk allowed for a neat twin storylines structure to this issue. The wedding preparations and ceremony itself allow for a recap of the main characters' long and storied relationships, while the action quota was filled by a brutal 3-way battle between the Hulk-Busters squad, Doc Sampson and the Green Goliath himself. The characterisation of Banner is especially interesting during the pre-wedding scenes; as heroic and noble as he might be, Bruce's monologues still reveal a socially awkward and slightly power-hungry side to his nature. The denoument allows a happy ending of sorts for Bruce and Betty, although it is clear that melodrama and pulse-pounding action are to follow in equal amounts once Banner and the Hulk cross paths again in the future.
Byrne left Marvel after this issue, but went on to even bigger success as he relaunched the entire Superman franchise for DC in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths. In current Marvel continuity, Betty Banner seems to have made a miraculous recovery, although is estranged from her irradiated spouse. I've got my fingers crossed that the couple do manage to renew their wedding vows at some point in the future; hopefully with a healthy dose of gamma-fuelled rampaging at the reception.
In 2009, Hugh Jackman brought to the silver screen (after it had already passed through several bit-torrent websites) the first solo adventure of the hirsuite Canadian superhero Wolverine. It was a spectacularly dumb, if undeniably entertaining origin story, which amongst it's faults, failed to find a compelling emotional core. If only Jackman and his production team had been allowed to stick to their original plan, and tell the tragic tale of Logan's misadventures in Japan. For it is a melodrama of almost Shakespearian proportions; and includes one of the most heart-breaking of the (many) doomed Marvel marriages.
Wolverine made his comics debut in late 1974, in The Incredible Hulk issue #181; appearing as an antagonist to the Green Goliath. Only 7 months later Wolverine was one of the colourful new mutant heroes who spearheaded the X-Men revival in Giant Size X-Men #1. The popularity of the Uncanny X-Men title blossomed over the years to follow as writer Chris Claremont with artist Dave Cockrum and then John Byrne spun the mutant heroes on a globe-trotting, planet-hopping rollercoaster of adventures. By the year 1979, the team were scattered across the continents, and in Uncanny X-men issue #118 Wolverine found himself in Honshu, Japan, where he met for the first time Mariko Yashida, the cousin of fellow X-Man Sun-Fire. Romance blossomed between Logan and Mariko, to the extent that the relationship was the catalyst behind Logan's adventures in his first ever solo title, the 4-issue Wolverine series published in 1982.
This mini-series was a bit of a landmark moment in superhero comics; besides being the first solo outing of a character who now appears in more monthlies then he has extendable adamantium claws, it was also a collaboration between superstar creators Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. Miller had rocked the monthly Daredevil title to the core with his mysterious Ninja assassin sub-plots and the shock death of Elektra only a few months earlier. His contributions were clearly apparent in the gritty anti-heroics and the tightly choreographed hand-to-hand combat sequences of Wolverine's adventures. The events and influence of the mini-series soon spilled over into Chris Claremont's main Uncanny X-Men title in the next year, when in issue #173, the current roster of the team found themselves returning to Tokyo for Logan and Mariko's wedding.
If you have a passing awareness of X-Men history, this is an absolutely fascinating issue to read; it features the reasonably new addition of Rogue to the roster, who had quite recently absorbed the super-strength and invulnerability of Miss Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, and because of this Wolverine treats her with a considerable amount of disdain and mistrust. In fact, as Logan attempts to solve the mystery of who poisoned his team-mates, and works his way towards a show-down with his deadly adversary Silver Samurai (incidentally, a villain who first appeared in the pages of Daredevil), it is the development of the relationship between himself and Rogue which forms the emotional backbone of the plot. Other events of note in this issue are the debut of Storm's biker-chic mohican look, and the first introduction of Madelyne Prior (originally thought to be a reincarnation of the deceased Jean Grey, but turning out to be a clone created by the villainous Mister Sinister, and eventually becoming the malevolent Goblin Queen) to the rest of the X-Men team. Once Logan's vendetta against the Samurai has run it's course, the wedding ceremony takes a unexpected tear-jerker of an ending as Mariko rejects Logan at the altar, walking out of the ceremony and out of his life.
Earlier events suggested that Mariko had been hypnotised during a visit on the previous evening from a mysterious stranger; who appeared to be the dastardly Jason Wyngarde from the Hellfire Club. As is probably clear from the last 2 paragraphs of synopsisising, this issue was one small part of an epic tapestry of continuity which Chris Claremont and his artist collaborators had been constructing for the previous 8 years. The important thing is though, that despite all this, the issue is still a hugely compelling read, delivering cinematic action and poignancy in equal doses. It's no wonder that under Claremont's stewardship, the X-Men would go on to become the leading franchise in Marvel's catalogue. And it gives a glimmer of hope to those that are looking forward to Jackman reprising his signature role in the imminent movie sequel.
Of course, the popularity of the Uncanny X-Men comic continued to rise throughout the '80s, in particular with the addition of the ultra-detailed, action-packed artwork of superstars Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee towards the end of the decade. In fact, when a second regular monthly title was awarded to the team in 1991, with Claremont's writing, Lee's artwork and a blockbuster storyline which brought many of the classic cast-members back into the line-up, sales went through the roof, to the tune of a record breaking 8 million copies. That's EIGHT MILLION - by comparison in today's market, the highest sale has been Barack Obama's first cameo as the American President in Amazing Spider-Man, which only mustered around 350,000; most comics outside the top 20 shift under 50,000. The new regular title was called simply X-Men, and by issue #30 in 1994, a while after Claremont and Lee's departure from the series, it was the venue for the wedding of one of Marvel's longest serving (and long-suffering) couples, Scott Summers and Jean Grey.
As a chapter in an ongoing super-hero soap-opera, it's a deliberately low-key affair. Andy Kubert had been handed the art chores thanks to his capability to match Jim Lee's sexy cross-hatched line-work; ideal for the dark sci-fi action and thrills which normally filled the pages of X-Men. Not so ideal though, for an issue with almost no action or thrills; that concerns instead the preparations, ceremony and reception of a fairly traditional wedding (admittedly with some pretty wierd guests). In the tranquil and mundane setting of Professor Xavier's mansion the body language of the characters seemed somewhat forced, with Kubert's preference of chiselled cheekbones and melodramatic lighting effects looking quite out of place. By the point when the bride threw her bouqet and garter to the frantic mutant crowd it almost seemed as if the art team were parodying themselves.
Possibly lessons were learned here, as 7 years later in 2001, when Andy Kubert provided the artwork for the landmark Wolverine series Origin, the drawings were un-inked. The digital colour was applied directly to the naked pencils; a technique which complimented the pathos and poignancy in the tale of Logan's early years, and would probably have worked quite well for the Summers/Grey wedding too, had the printing technology existed at that time. The script for the wedding issue by Fabien Nicieza is fairly wordy, and a few too many times crosses the threshold from 'sentimental' into 'soppy'. However it is nice to see each of the many characters get a moment in the spot-light as the comic progresses, with a sweet highlight towards the end as Jean Grey uses her telekinetic powers to allow the paraplegic Professor Xavier to waltz with her. It's just a bit ironic that some of the storytelling aspects which made this issue seem so cutting edge in the early-mid '90s may in the future serve to date the comic worse than issues from the decades which preceded it.
Providing a curious counter-point is What If... #60, which was published the month after X-Men #30. A hypothetical anthology title, this issue proposes 3 imaginary scenarios inwhich the Summers/Grey wedding did not occur as previously told, and it bursts with all the action and spectacle which the original lacked. Needless to say, they all end with varying degrees of calamity, but my favourite one is where Jean Grey, in her Dark Phoenix persona, rejects Scott Summers and instead becomes romantically involved with Wolverine; a course of events which eventually leads to The End Of The Universe As We Know It.
The clue's in the name I guess, but it's still got to be said that The Inhumans rank amongst the barmiest of Marvel superheroes from the Silver Age. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby at the zenith of their collaborative streak on Fantastic Four; The Inhumans debuted in 1965, within a few months of the Four's classic encounters with Galactus and the Silver Surfer. Truly a product of their time, The Inhumans typified the counter-culture which was beginning to blossom throughout America in the mid-late '60s. Much like Lee had been exploring with The Uncanny X-Men since 1963, The Inhumans raised issues of not only segregation and intolerance, but also class-divisions and sovereignty. Uniquely, there is an undeniable fairy-tale quality to the characters aswell, like a contemporary legend of King Arthur and Camelot. So it's no surprise that weddings taking place in the Inhuman stronghold of Attilan were amongst some of the most fantastical in comicdom.
The origins of the Inhumans do seem a bit overcomplicated and contrived to me; even by the standards of '60s Marvel mentalism, but I'll try and lay them out. The Marvel Universe had been established to contain 3 super-power alien races who seem to be in a permanent configuration of conflict with one-another; the regal Shi-Ar, the shapeshifting Skrulls and the warrior-like Kree. The Inhumans are a result of an eons-old eugenics experimentation program by the Kree, and are essentially genetically enhanced hybrids of Kree and Human DNA, fostered to serve as a slave race. Supposedly abandoned on Earth by their Kree masters many generations beforehand, the race of Inhumans have now formed an advanced society, athough they are forced to live in secret in their high-tech fortress city of Attilan, originally located deep within the Himilayas. In addition to their unique geneology though, the institutions of Inhumans society also include passing through The Terrigan Mists at childhood, a ritual which results in the manifestation of unique (and often gruesome or outlandish) super-powers around the point of puberty.
The most prolific of these Inhumans are the members of the Royal Family; in particular the mute King Black Bolt, his beloved Medusa, and her younger sister Crystal. Further members of the family include half-man half-fish Triton; centaur-like Gorgon, and dimensionally challenged kung-fu master Karnac. Without a doubt, it's a rag-tag group, and this leads to one of the characters' central conceits; that in this race of thousands, every single person lives within a minority of one. The characters each have more than their fair share of internal demons and insecurities, which make for compelling plots, but perhaps at the expense of relatable characterisation. As a result, The Inhumans have never really been able to sustain an ongoing title by themselves, but have starred in a number of successful miniseries and one-shots; and have provided an electrifying supporting cast for the adventures of many other Marvel heroes like The Avengers and the Fantastic Four.
In 1974, the landmark 150th issue of the Fantastic Four saw the wedding of Inhuman Princess Crystal with the Avenger Quicksilver (who also had links to the X-Men, as a former member of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants). More than just the conclusion of a two-part crossover with the Avengers, this marriage therefore represented a bridge between three of the major Marvel franchises. Thankfully, it was under the creative control of two of Stan Lee's heirs apparent; writer Gerry Conway and editor Roy Thomas. By this point, the legendary creators of the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, hadn't worked on the title for respectively 48 issues and 36 issues, and Conway had apparently been raising the dramatic stakes for the titular team by putting them through the proverbial wringer. In fact, it's commonly perceived that the Silver Age of comics was ushered to a close by events which Conway himself had scribed in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man during the previous year, when he made the daring move of killing off Peter Parker's popular girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and introduced such anti-hero characters as The Punisher. Judging from the plot recaps in Fantastic Four #150, he'd been giving the Fantastic Four an equally rough ride, including marital problems for Mr Fantastatic and the Invisible Woman, and broken hearts for both Human Torch and The Thing. Even more alarmingly; the young son of Reed and Susan, Franklin Richards, had been suffering catastrophic problems following from the superpowers inherited from his parents, and had been in a coma for several months.
Even though the adventure itself is set in Attilan, the Inhumans themselves take the backseat during the action of this issue, as the villain of the piece is revealed to be perennial Avengers psycho-robot Ultron. The artwork from Rich Buckler seems to be a deliberate homage to the Kirby style, perhaps aided by the inks from Kirby veteran Joe Sinnott. The colours absolutely pop off the page too; I don't know if it was a deliberate intention to apply hues from across the entire visual spectrum, but the technicolour cast and explosions make for very attractive artwork, without ever looking too cluttered. The conflict with Ultron is concluded in an unexpected but effective manner, which ties up a number of the Fantastic Four's ongoing plot-lines for the better, and the feel-good factor of the victory is palpable. Judging from the letters column, it seems this denoument had been in the pipeline for a while, with many readers pining for lighthearted adventures like in the halcyon days of the '60s. To those readers, this pay-off must have been a real gift.
I know it's stating the obvious to say that trends in comics are cyclical, but the gripes displayed by the audience back in '74 have been echoed very recently from readers regarding the trend towards downbeat plot developments in current mainstream comics. It's interesting to note editor Roy Thomas' response in the letters page of Fantastic Four #150, when he defends tragedy as being the element which injects drama into the comics, and which captures the truest nature of humanity. The editor was desperate for fan feedback on the comics, so he must have been acutely aware of the balancing act he had to achieve; both to lead the Marvel Universe forward and to develop the growing comics medium, all whilst honouring the blockbuster work which Stan Lee and Co had carried out during the previous decade.
The wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver itself unfolds over the 7 page epilogue to the story; but instead of relating the minutae of the ceremony, Conway uses the pages to allow some of the key heroes to reflect on the state of their own love-lives. It includes a bizarre and yet strangely touching sequence inwhich Thor and Iron-Man agree that, despite their vast differences, they share the common bond of being perpetual losers in love (an interesting curiosity within this issue is that it was released during the 2 year period inwhich Iron-Man's armour was editorially mandated to have a nose encorporated into the face mask). And when it finally comes, the full page splash wherein Black Bolt silently leads the bride to the altar and to her waiting groom is a surprisingly poignant image, mercifully uncluttered with needless exposition or dialogue. 3 months later, in October 1974, the character of Wolverine made his first appearance in the pages of Incredible Hulk #180; surely the strongest indicator that the days of escapist Silver-Age heroics had passed.
The era of comics which followed this period is commonly referred to as The Bronze Age; when storylines tended to become more mature and introduced themes of social commentary, elongated plot-arcs over multiple issues became the norm, and eventually when the direct market (ie. specialist comic shops) began to emerge. The era was typified by the resurgence of the X-Men in 1975 as an international strike-team, and one of the landmark storylines of The Bronze Age was the Dark Pheonix Saga by writer Chris Claremont and co-plotter/artist John Byrne, which ran in The Uncanny X-Men through much of 1980. The Bronze Age for Marvel continued until the release of Secret Wars in 1984; this saw the debut of Spider-Man's infamous black costume, and was one of the first company wide crossovers of it's type; both hallmarks of The Modern Age of comics that was to follow. The Fantastic Four Annual #18 was released in the shadow of Secret Wars, published at the same time but taking place chronologically afterwards, when She-Hulk had taken Ben Grimm's place as the power-house of the team while The Thing went for a celestial sojourn. John Byrne had progressed from Uncanny X-Men to full writing and art duties on Fantastic Four at this point, and he wrote the 1984 Annual as well, with Byrne lookee-likee Mark Bright providing the pictures.
As a treat for loyal readers, Byrne crafted a prologue to the Annual which took place during the events of Uncanny X-Men #137; the slobberknocker climax to the Dark Phoenix Saga, which involved a fight to the death between the X-Men and the Shi-Ar Imperial Guard on the surface of the Moon. Here it was revealed that two of the combattants from the Imperial Guard, respectively a Kree and a Skrull warrior, diverged from the conflict with the X-Men in order to continue the blood-feud between their races. The battle between these two took on added significance when the all-powerful Watcher intervened, and decreed that the winner of this duel-to-the-death would determine the outcome of the entire intergalactic war between the races. The cat and mouse battle between the two carried on for untold months beneath the lunar surface, unknown to the inhabitants of the city of Attilan (which had recently been transported to the dark side of the Moon), who were busy planning the long awaited marriage of their Inhuman King and Queen, Black Bolt and Medusa. The Fantastic Four, with their close ties to the Inhuman royal family, were guests at the wedding, and so were on hand when the Kree/Skrull scrap spilled into the walls of Attilan. There's a high action quotient to the resulting battle royale, but refreshingly there is no 'big villain', and the heroes are presented with a problem that cannot be solved by brute force alone; since interfering with the conflict or harming either of the combattants would be tantamount to an act of intergalactic war. A passive resolution to the conflict was found, and although it's entirely ridiculous, it's not a lot more far-fetched that any of the other developments in the story. The result is a fairly forgettable but enjoyable piece of escapism, with the benefit that it's entirely self-contained, but which suffers from the absence of Ben Grimm's trade-mark quips.
4 years later, by 1988, the marriage of Black Bolt and Medusa took a marked turn for the worse in the Inhumans entry to the Marvel Graphic Novel series. Written by Ann Nocenti, with art by Bret Blevins and Al Williamson, this over-sized album format one-shot saw Medusa exiled from Attilan by the council of elders when it was ruled that the unborn child she was carrying with Black Bolt was not approved, and therefore was against nature and was to be destroyed. The resulting adventure saw many of the Inhumans royal family enter introverted exiles of their own, and layered levels of Shakespearian melodrama ontop of an ecological parable to create a storyline that was as haunting as it was thrilling. Things have only gotten worse for the Inhumans in the two decades to follow, since the moon-based race have declared war against Earth, been captured by Ronan the Accuser and been turned into a slave-army for the Kree. Quicksilver's marriage to Crystal crumbled, and the split was compounded when, after the events of the House Of M crossover, a depowered Quicksilver stole the Terrigan Mists from Attilan. Although the Inhumans have had active involvement in many major events of recent years (World War Hulk, Secret Invasion and War Of Kings), they have continued over 5 decades to exist at the fringe of the Marvel Universe, maintaining a hard sci-fi ethos which seperates them from their more mundane earth-bound brethren. Their roots might be in funnybooks, but the Inhumans are aiming for the giddy stratospheres of Herbert, Jodorowsky and Lucas.
Marvel weren't the only comics publisher to enjoy the explosive resurgence in popularity of super-hero titles in the 1960s; DC (National Periodical Publications) had a great deal of success with their tent-pole characters Batman and Superman, and built them up into 2 titanic super-hero franchises. The Superman family of comics alone straddled several different regular titles, including the perennial Action Comics and Adventure Comics, as well as off-shoot books for some of the more popular supporting cast members; Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen and Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane. By also covering the exploits of Superman's cousin Supergirl, or of Superman's earlier adventures as Superboy with the Legion of Superheroes in the 30th Century, the publishers managed to avoid stretching the character of Superman too thin, whilst still capitalising on the iconic trademark.
It also allowed them to tailor each of the different titles to specific demographics within the comics reading market; a flourish of canny salesmanship that is rarely seen amongst the homogenised super-hero franchises of today. With the romance genre of comics still proving to be a strong seller amongst female teens, and 2 self-contained stories in each issue to fill, it was a statistical certainty that weddings would be featured. And the 'anything goes' plotting ethos which typified the Silver Age DC output under Julius Schwartz ensured that the nuptials were anything but traditional. Regrettably; DC didn't publish the creator's details in any these comics, so it's difficult for me to give credit (or criticism) where it's due for these particular super-weddings.
Action Comics #307 from December 1963 predated Stephenie Meyer's Twilight quadrilogy by over 40 years, and yet it anticipated a number of the themes and plot devices which that fantastical teen romance zeitgeist would tap into. In Supergirl's Wedding Day!, Superman's teenage cousin Kara (Supergirl) is living a double life with her adoptive parents under the secret identity of Linda Lee Danvers when Tor-An, a handsome stranger exhibiting all the same Kryptonian powers as herself, steps into Kara's life and sweeps her off her feet. Supergirl quickly falls head over heels in love with Tor-an, not realising that he is infact an escaped criminal from the Phantom Zone (the Kryptonian pocket dimension invented by Superman's dad and used to imprison Krypton's most heinous offenders), out to break Kara's heart and get revenge on Superman himself. The reader is in on the duplicity from the get-go, and the story is told from Tor-an's point of view, which turns the plot structure into that of a thriller, with the audience anticipating how sweet Kara might be able to escape a fate worse than marrying a jailbird. Kara's super-powered teenager friends come to her rescue, in a bait-and-switch type twist which seems to have been commonplace in '60s superheroics.
It's an effective story, told succinctly over 13 pages, with some seriously creepy undertones; for example, the antagonist doesn't have the appearance of a traditional supervillain, infact he looks wholesome and charismatic, when in reality he's a voyeuristic perv who's been spying on poor Kara from the confines of a penal astral plane. It all seems to be a bit of a surreal metaphor for online paedophilia. Creepier yet are the contents of the letters page, in which one male reader complains about a perceived deficiency of scenes with Supergirl kissing boys, arguing: "Supergirl is over 18 years old and kissing should be more common at that age rather than rare" - a terrifying glimpse into the psyche of horny pubescent boys before the age of free internet porn. Superman doesn't actually feature in this tale, but he is the star of the leading strip Clark Kent - Target For Murder. It's a plot which is actually surprisingly violent, featuring the Man of Steel in his Clark Kent persona being 'assassinated' by mobster gunmen on 2 separate occasions. This makes for a bit of a bizarre double-bill, teenage love and gangster crime, although comics readers at the time were probably more receptive to a wider range of genres than today's audience.
The Adventure Comics title had been the home of several of DC's iconic golden-age heroes, including Green Arrow, Aquaman and Superboy, but by the mid-'60s it chronicled the adventures of Superboy's buddies from the 30th Century; The Legion of Super-Heroes. Being a club of juvenile super-heroes in the future, the premise had the potential to comfortably straddle the super-hero and High-School drama genres. The Legion represented the most popular and successful clique of kids, which every young hero aspired to belong to; while those deemed not worthy to join were relegated to the 'substitute heroes'. Those lucky enough to be members of the Legion enjoyed many of the traditions that American college fraternities included, such as a clubhouse, a constitution and even membership rings (although these ones granted the wearers the ability to fly). As is to be expected when there were that many super-hormones flying around the clubhouse, there were a few romances blossoming amongst the youngsters; and issue #337 of Adventure Comics from October 1965 explored the conundrum of how the young Legionaires could juggle heroics with other important matters, such as, you know, kissing and stuff.
In fact, the plotting walks a fine line; both admonishing the romantic liaisons between the Legionaires, which contravene the Legion constitution, while also celebrating the thrills of snogging your intergalactic sweetheart in the clubhouse trophy hall. The twist ending which reveals how an imminent alien invasion was averted seemed reminicent of a few of the other Silver Age plots I've been reading (hint: the heroes had been playing a ruse all along, and the Legionaire weddings were in fact faked), but the innocence of it all was still utterly charming.
Although it doesn't involve any weddings, I should mention that the eight page Superboy back-up feature was very readable too; and gave an interesting spin on the adventures from the early years of the Boy of Steel. As a toddler, Super-baby's powers were starting to develop, and yet the childlike behaviour which was seen as a nuisance by his adoptive mother and father were in fact counter-measures to potential catastrophies - behaviour bordering on prescient. It's a quirky and action packed story; underlining the otherwordly characteristics of the hero which seem to have been forgotten as Superman has become more humanized in adulthood. In contemporary Legion comics, published 45 years after these tales, the Legionaires have also been allowed to age into their mid-late twenties, and as a result have sadly become somewhat generic super-heroes, distinguishable from the rest of the DC Universe of characters only because they live in a different time period. It would've been fun if DC had taken a leaf from the book of the 'American Pie' movies, and allowed the Legion kids to enjoy a more modern college lifestyle; maybe throw a few wild beer-keg parties in between repelling the alien invasions. Although James Kochalka has already delivered a hilariously dark take on that premise in SuperF*ckers, I suppose.
Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen is a character that's never quite managed to adjust to reading tastes outside of the '60s DC funnybooks. In modern comics continuity (known as Earth 1), he is far less ubiquitous than he was in Silver Age continuity (known as Earth 2), and when he does make an appearance, it's more than likely to be as the punchline of a joke rather than as a bonafide protagonist. The characteristics that made him hugely popular in the Silver Age, as a boy-next-door character who the readers can connect to, and who vicariously acts as a projection of them into the DC Universe, does not have a place in modern comics where even the most outrageous characters have become much more humanised and relatable. But Olsen was popular enough in the '60s to carry his own comic book, which had regular guest appearances from the main Superman cast. What might sound like a tenuous extension of the super-franchise infact provided a fresh perspective on the mythos. The hook of having a superhero series where the actual superhero is playing second fiddle to the un-powered main character of the story certainly provided a natural platform for comedy storylines; and yet it also heightened the peril of the thriller elements. I was pleasantly surprised by Olsen's characterisation; here he's actually a conceited minor-celebrity, a globe-trotting reporter who has achieved limited fame due to his association with Superman; all whilst being blissfully ignorant of the fact that his mild-mannered partner Clark Kent is secretly the real deal. Clearly this is not a character who was ever going to have a straightforward wedding.
Cue issue #98 of Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen from 1966, featuring The Bride of Jungle Jimmy, which saw Olsen and Kent on an exploration of the African Jungle and, in a cheeky twist on the King Kong tale, resulted in the hapless Olsen getting married to a great ape. Unfortunately, the story is rife with jungle cliches which were offensively bad even in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies of the '30s. Perceptions of racism in childrens comic books is a really sticky wicket; certainly wartime funnybooks produced some corkers (Musso the Wop, being an obvious one from The Dandy), but even in peacetime the nature of kids entertainment is to use broad strokes and stereotypes, which will inevitably apply to foreign cultures and habitats if and when those settings are used. For example, in 1931, the year before the release of Tarzan The Ape Man, Tintin infamously went to the Congo in an adventure that was later judged in terms of racial equality to be all kinds of wrong.
Herge subsequently defended the portrayal as reflecting the colonialist perceptions of the time; Jimmy Olsen went to Africa 35 years later and should really have been quite a bit more enlightened.
Even for a mad-cap comedy adventure, the resolution makes very little sense and really, Superman, the great paragon of truth and justice, shouldn't have been anywhere near this twaddle. From what I can tell; Jimmy Olsen's solo comic is probably most famous amongst today's audience from it's last hurrah in the early '70s when Jack Kirby took over the reigns of the title and encorporated it into his ambitious Fourth World Opus (along with The New Gods, Mister Miracle and The Forever People). But with the recent popularity in reality TV shows, perhaps there is once again some mileage in reviving the character's hapless celebrity persona; just imagine the potential of a ginger version of Ricky Gervais' David Brent rubbing shoulders with the Justice League.
In sharp contrast; the following year saw Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane tackle topical womens issues in a plot which was both progressive and largely entertaining. Issue #79 featured the tale The Bride of Titanman, in which Lois Lane is struck by a Macguffin laser beam that knocks her into an allegorical parallel dimension (called Parallelo), where the societal norms are backwards and irrational. In a Lewis Carroll-style development, the policemen are all midgets, dinner is eaten in morning and breakfast in the evening. More topically, the prevailing fad amongst the citizens of this topsy-turvy reality is to be painfully underweight and scrawny; in what is an open critique of the Twiggy phenomenon which had been spreading across the country since the waifer-thin Cockney model had first come to fame in the U.S. earlier in '67.
Lois's fortunes go from bad to worse by the story's climax, when she finds herself the unwilling bride to a polygamist super-villain called Titanman. Clearly the creators decided to throw subtlety aside as their story attempted to introduce a number of mature themes to a potentially young audience; a bitter pill sweetened by cartoonish art and outlandish superheroics. This is at least a step up from the female-led comics of today, which struggle to maintain compelling female-driven storylines which can counterpoint the machismo of the iconic male heroes. Possibly the current market which is driven by tastes of a predominantly male readership is to blame for this; Manhunter and Spider-Girl were probably the most successful recent titles for respectively DC and Marvel, and neither could gain a significant enough audience to escape cancellation.
Lois' polygamist wedding wraps up with an 'it was all a dream' resolution which I can't help but find a bit disappointing; particularly since Lois' character arc had been developing into a more strong-willed protagonist as the story progessed, and it would've been great to see an independent woman rescue herself from the chauvistic obstacles which had been stacked against her. On the other hand, Lois seems to have had a tendency to fall for any handsome alpha-males that she meets, an unsettlingly shallow characteristic that she shared with Supergirl in the aforementioned Action Comics issue. But I'll confess to getting a chortle out of the punchline where Lois, having woken up, admonishes the real version of Superman for the bad behaviour of his dream-time counterpart (sigh, it's funny because it's true).
The most controversial wedding comic I got the opportunity to read was, without a doubt, that of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson from 1987. In fact, it's probably one of the most contentious moments in the history of super-hero comics; because the editorial measures that were subsequently taken to quell the dissension amongst the Spider-Man readership only served to deepen the scandal. It's a perfect storm which combines some of super-hero comic's most fundamental dilemmas; that of how to maintain the consistency of a property across multiple media formats (eg. comic-books, newspaper strips, movies and cartoons), and the precarious balance between developing a character's life-story as they inevitably age, whilst also preserving the fundamental (and often flawed) status quo that the mainstream audiences identify them with. The solution to these issues has famously been referred to as 'creating the illusion of change', and the Spidey creators have made quite a fist of it over the years. But I'm getting ahead of myself; Spidey's wedding-woes actually started over a decade before he even stepped foot in the church.
It's a story beat that has never appeared in any of Spider-Man's incarnations outside the Marvel comic-books continuity, but one of Peter Parker's most defining moments occurred after more than a decade of published adventures, when in June 1973's Amazing Spider-Man #121, Spidey-scribe Gerry Conway crafted the demise of Parker's first true love, Gwen Stacy. It was a tragic death, occurring in the line of battle between Spider-Man and his arch-foe Green Goblin, and Parker would go on to hold himself partially responsible for the horrific turn of events. 10 issues later, Conway steered the plot in a less melodramatic direction, when Spider-Man was faced with a potentially far more heinous development; the marriage of his beloved Aunt May to the villainous Otto Octavius (aka Doctor Octopus).
This was the culmination of a slow-burning sub-plot which the writer had been cooking for a couple of years, with dear old Aunt May first serving as Octavius' housekeeper, and subsequently being romanced by the mad Doctor when he learned that she had inherited the mining rights to a remote island which was rich in natural uranium. As Spider-Man adventures go, this was pretty sub-par stuff; Doctor Octopus was not nearly as threatening as his debut back in the classic Amazing Spider-Man #3, and in fact he had become a somewhat spoof villain, spouting ridiculous hyperbole and commanding an improbably well-equipped lair. The comical aspects do build to an entertaining crescendo though, when, in the midst of a gang-war for control of the uranium plant, the thick-skulled gangster Hammerhead causes a thermonuclear chain-reaction - by headbutting an atomic breeder reactor. A christmas party sub-plot reinforces some interesting characterisation for Mary Jane, as she attends the festive celebration without Parker (who was tied up with the whole Doctor Octopus/exploding island thing). MJ is independently successful and an assured social animal, yet she is confused about her true feelings towards Parker, probably growing from his failure to confess the nature of his double-life to her.
In parallel to the core Marvel Comics titles, there has also been a daily Spider-Man newspaper strip published since 1977. The strip was written at first by Stan Lee, and then by his brother Larry Lieber; and occupied a separate continuity to the canon comics. An urban legend on the interweb posits that in 1987, Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter caught wind that the newspaper strip creators were planning to wed Peter Parker and Mary Jane, and to avoid being scooped, Shooter rushed through a storyline to marry the two in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man in a matter of months, even though the pair were not even romantically involved at that time in Amazing' continuity. Whether it was a rush-job or not; the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane occurred in the Amazing Spider-Man Giant-Sized Annual 21, written by David Michelinie. Even though it's not a particularly action packed episode, a lot of character ground is covered in it's 43 pages.
In fact, the other super-hero wedding that this bears the closest resemblence to is that of Clark Kent and Lois Lane; the one that kicked off my Super-Hero Wedding Wars. But where the Super-wedding preparations were somewhat prosaic and pedestrian, the Spidey-wedding was prefaced with the emotional soul-searching that is Peter Parker's trademark. With his Big Day looming, the tragic hero found himself once again mourning the loss of this first love, Gwen. Parker's insecurities were amplified by the juxtaposition of MJ's successful modelling career and booming social life against his own meagerly paid photography assignments and small (but tight-knit) circle of friends. Indeed, on the eve of the wedding, as Spider-Man sits ontop of the Brooklyn bridge in the midnight black costume of the period, he had never seemed more alone amongst a city of millions. It's a character arc which would have become dull if it was drawn out over a number of issues, but is effective as a one-off. Of course, there's never really any doubt that the wedding will go ahead, although it does feel like Parker did not fully resolve his feelings before making the big leap.
The ramifications of the wedding would put subsequent editorial teams in quite a pickle; since an intrinsic part of Parker's audience appeal was his everyman loser-in-love status, which was blown out the water when he married a gorgeous super-model. The wedding could not be undone using conventional methods, as it was viewed that anulment or divorce would tarnish the marketability of the Spider-Man property. A temporary solution was reached in the '90s when MJ moved from New York to Hollywood to further her career, but this solution left Parker with an absentee spouse, and didn't allow any future love interests to enter the frame.
The solution which Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada implemented in 2007 was to create a storyline which would retrospectively 'undo' the previous 20 years of continuity, including the wedding. It was a daring editorial gambit, although it perhaps failed to take into account the amount of investment that the readership had made into 2 decades of storylines that had now been rendered moot. I, for one, felt that it was a bit of a dumb idea, but I'll maybe come back to that another time. Starting with #546 of Amazing Spider-Man, the Brand New Day status quo began an accelerated thrice-monthly publishing schedule, which reached #600 in September 2009. By this point, Daily Bugle editor and longtime Spidey-antagonist J Jonah Jameson had been elected mayor of NYC. What's more, Jameson's estranged father, J Jonah Jameson Sr, had returned to the city and was romantically involved with Aunt May. And so, in a gesture of unabashed sentimentalism, #600 was marked by the wedding of May Parker and Jameson Sr.
It was a hugely oversized milestone issue, about 3 times the length of a normal issue, with 7 different strips for only $1 more, but the main story absolutely crackled, written by relative new-comer Dan Slott and drawn by Spidey veteran John Romita Jr. The plot sees the return of a terminally ill Otto Octavious, finally succumbing to brain damage from all the knocks to the head that he's taken over the years. But the villain with nothing to lose is more dangerous than ever, and once Doc Oc comes across news that his once betrothed, May Parker, is to be married, he hatches a plot to ruin the wedding and turns the whole of New York City into a weapon against the webslinger along the way. The script is bursting with witty one-liners, guest cameos and references to Spider-Man canon. The development that J Jonah Jameson, once Spider-Man's most bitter public opponent, is now unwittingly his brother-in-law, is a touch of inspired genius; and I've got to say, Amazing Spider-Man #600 is about as entertaining a superhero wedding comic as I can possibly imagine.
And the surprise last panel does see the return of Mary Jane into Peter's life, so who's to know what may yet come for the web-slinger?