Aardvarks and X-Men and Ducks, Oh My

26 Individual Books That, in One Way or Another, Changed the Course of the Comic Book Industry*

1. Funnies on Parade (1933)
Everything has to start somewhere. As the story goes, employees at Connecticut’s Eastern Color Printing Company, impressed by the popularity of the full-color Sunday newspaper comic sections that rolled off their presses, got the idea that those same comic strips could sell products other than newspapers if they were marketed in the right way. They figured they could quarter-fold a normal newspaper page to produce a full-color, 8 1/2-by-11-inch magazine, and then pitch this new “comic book” to companies looking for cheap promotional items (hardbound collections of favorite comic strips were already around, but no one had thought of reproducing them in a cheaper, more disposable format). Proctor & Gamble was the first client, with customers clipping coupons off their favorite P&G products to receive a free comic book in the mail. The idea was a success and it led to another great idea; namely, slapping a 10-cent price tag on a second title (Famous Funnies) to see if the kids would pick it up at the local newsstand, or automat, or wherever they bought stuff in those days. The rest, as they say, is history.

2. New Fun Comics #1 (1935)
With the success of Famous Funnies and other comics repackaging the great newspaper comic strips of the day, it was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of publishing a comic with all-new strips. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson has the honor of being that person, and while his motives weren’t the purest (he chafed at the hefty reprint fees that newspaper syndicates charged and figured unknown cartoonists would work cheap), he does deserve credit for being the first to see the potential in the medium, and for being the first publisher to give a couple of kids from Cleveland named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster their first shot at the big time (with a strip starring the mysterious Dr. Occult). This book can also be seen as the humble start of the DC empire, as it was National Allied Publications’ New Fun Comics (later Adventure Comics) and Detective Comics (which later lent the company its new moniker) that first set the company on the road to market dominance (until about the time Marvel discovered mutants).

3. Action Comics #1 (1938)
The difference between this book and the rest of the list? You wouldn’t sell your grandmother for a chance to own the others. One of the few remaining copies of this book was recently the first to break the $1-million mark for a comic sold at auction (a record that was soon overtaken by an issue of the next book on this list), and no one has to wonder why: who wouldn’t jump at the chance to own the comic featuring the very first appearance of Zatara the Magician or Scoop Scanlon? Oh yeah, and also that Superman guy created by two kids from Cleveland who got royally screwed by DC and whose estates are still embroiled in legal actions over the character’s ownership. That’s what’s so great about the comics: they’re entertaining and they teach kids about the legal system.

4. Detective Comics #27 (1939)
The thing you should know about Batman creator Bob Kane is that, well, he doesn’t come off as a nice guy in a lot of the stories recounting the origins of the character. Yes, the initial concept was his (and he deserves credit for being shrewd enough to negotiate his rights as Batman’s creator, unlike most other comic artists of the day), but for many years he downplayed the contributions of Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, who both helped flesh out one of the most famous fictional characters ever put to paper. Ah well, bygones, etc.: just try to imagine your formative years without references to Batmobiles, “Holy catchphrase!” and the like, and you’ll see how this book’s inclusion is a no-brainer.

5. Marvel Comics #1 (1939)
Let’s put it this way: if you’re not a fan of Marvel’s oeuvre and have access to a time machine, then this is the book that you (or your Teutonic android) must go back to destroy. Seeing the profits that other publishers were amassing from their own comic ventures, pulp publisher Martin Goodman bought a few strips from a fledgling comic studio and came out with a book of his own. This first issue (retitled Marvel Mystery Comics for issue #2) featured the debut of Marvel’s first two superstars: the ironically named Human Torch (an android who could control fire) and the half-human Sub-Mariner. It was a sales smash and Goodman quickly assembled an in-house staff, starting with writer-editor Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, to keep the hits coming. More than 70 years later, the company they founded is still at it.

6. Captain America Comics #1 (1941)
For the record, Captain America wasn’t the first patriotic hero to appear in the funnies; that honor goes to the Shield, whose owners harrumphed at the similarities between their hero’s shield and the one seen on this cover (which is why Cap now sports his iconic circular accessory). But Captain America was the first comic character to debut in his own self-titled comic book (suck on that, Superman!), and his patriotic adventures (eat fist, Hitler!) started months before most Americans had ever heard of Pearl Harbor. Cap and his comic-book comrades (and there were plenty sporting the red, white and blue in those days) didn’t singlehandedly bring America into World War II, but it’s hard to imagine the country going to war without their jingoistic escapades setting the stage.

7. Four Color Comics #9 (1942)
For decades, he wasn’t allowed to sign his own work because everything he created legally belonged to Walt Disney. No matter: soon after this issue hit the streets, Disney fans around the world knew how to recognize stories by “the good artist” when they saw them. Carl Barks was just another Hollywood animator when he accepted a job offer to write and draw comic-book stories starring Donald Duck — a difficult task, given the cartoon waterfowl had little personality to work with. Barks’s genius was in taking the one-dimensional movie star and turning him (and the other denizens of Duckburg) loose in gorgeously rendered and meticulously researched adventures that spanned the globe. More than anyone else (except Disney himself), Barks created the Disney empire that proved, as if there were any doubt, it really was a small world after all.

8. Pep Comics #22 (1942)
Archie Andrews’ debut story totalled just six pages, and he didn’t even get to appear on the book’s cover. That honor went to the Shield and the Hangman, two of MLJ Comics’ biggest draws at the time.  But let’s be honest: fighting Nazis is one thing, but could either of those guys ever get a hot blonde and a rich brunette to lust after them while wearing a bowtie and sleeveless varsity sweater? Archie and his gang proved so popular the company quickly renamed itself in Archie’s honor, just before legions of other teen-infested comic titles followed in its wake. Decades later, Archie Comics is still cranking out tales starring the Riverdale High gang — the perfect gateway drug to lure generations of young readers into an addictive comic-reading habit.

9. The Crypt of Terror #17 (1950)
William Gaines never asked to become a comic-book editor; that choice was thrust upon him when his father died in a boating accident and his mother begged him to keep the business afloat. Figuring he might as well have fun with it, Gaines gathered like-minded artists to create the kind of stories they wanted to tell: Picture Stories from the Bible was out; sci-fi and horror were in. The Crypt of Terror #17 (the first 16 issues were titled Crime Patrol; EC switched titles to save on postage costs) was the first in EC’s legendary horror line-up. Despite superior stories and art, the books (and their many inferior competitors in the horror and crime genres) came under heavy fire from parents and political leaders concerned about how these graphic stories were affecting impressionable young minds. Fearing sanctions and facing a tough enough battle from the newfangled television set, the comic industry blinked and agreed to set up the Comics Code Authority. Almost every rule in the new code of conduct seemed designed to push EC out of business (the new rules, for instance, stated that no comic could use the words horrorterror or weird in its title… words that  just happened to be front and centre on EC’s three biggest books), but it didn’t matter — the seeds of EC’s rebellious attitude had already been planted.

10. Mad #1 (1952)
Speaking of rebellion. Mad started out as a side project for EC editor Harvey Kurtzman; what set it apart from the blander humor comics of the day was its willingness to mercilessly parody and lampoon just about anything, including politics, religion and other companies’ comic characters in such strips as “Starchie” or “Superduperman.” When the Comics Code Authority came into force, Mad switched over to a magazine format to step outside the CCA’s jurisdiction, allowing it to continue skewering just about every aspect of American culture. Long before The Daily Show, The Onion, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and pretty much every other comedy outlet that followed, Mad proudly and defiantly pissed off parents and authority figures by giving kids one simple message: Everything they tell you is bullshit, including the idea that everything is bullshit. In other words: think for yourself.

11. Showcase #4 (1956)
Things weren’t looking good for the comic business in the mid-1950s, what with television, a recession, and constant won’t-someone-think-of-the-children attacks on the industry giving most publishers enough reasons to close up shop and send thousands of artists out on the unemployment lines. DC thought a revival of its Golden Age superheroes was their ticket back to better times, and it fell upon editor Julius Schwartz to oversee their resurrection. The Flash was the first to return, but not without extensive revisions to the character, including a new name, costume design and day job as a “police scientist” (all the better to give the series a more sci-fi feel, and also to allay parental concerns about the portrayal of authority figures in comics). Reader response proved that change was good, and the Flash’s success led to the revival of many more Golden Age superheroes — as sure a sign as any that the Silver Age of comics had officially begun.

12. The Flash #123 (1961)
So, are you one of those fans who likes stories where two heroes meet up, have a misunderstanding that turns into a fight, but patch up their differences in time to defeat the bad guy? If so, thank this book. No, the two Flashes don’t duke it out, but this was the first book to introduce the “multiverse” concept into the DC books, making it possible for the Golden Age superheroes to share adventures with their newer, Silver Age counterparts. Why is this significant, you ask? Superheroes have long played guest-starring roles in each others’ titles, but the idea of a shared universe in which all of a company’s characters could interact was something new (and something which Marvel, once it found its groove, took to the extreme). This book, and the hearty reaction it got from fans, ensured many more similar team-ups (including the annual JLA/JSA team-ups), gave hope to the many Golden Age heroes aching for a comeback, and made it clear there was a lot of potential in the “shared universe” concept — which definitely wasn’t lost on future writers and editors.

13. The Fantastic Four #1 (1961)
As Stan Lee tells the tale, he was getting tired of the endless monster tales that Marvel was putting out at the time and even considered getting out of the business. Then, as the legend goes, his boss had a fateful game of golf with a DC executive who bragged about the success of their new superhero team-up title, Justice League of America. Instructed to create a title to compete, Lee and FF co-creator Jack Kirby took the chance to do something different and just freakin’ ran with it. Comic fans, even those old enough to remember Kirby’s work from the ’40s, had never seen anything like the layouts and fight scenes in this series, and the stories that he and Lee came up with produced the very foundations of the Marvel universe, with dozens of concepts and characters still in use today. As early as the fourth issue, Lee (rather brazenly, in retrospect) plastered “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” across the top of every FF cover — and for 102 issues, nobody disagreed. (Also, Jessica Alba? Totally not their fault.)

14. Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)
You seriously need to hear the reasons why this book is on the list? All right, then. Finish this sentence: “Is he strong? Listen, bud…” Assuming you’re among the 0.000001% of the population who didn’t immediately sing “he’s got radioactive blood” in your head, here’s the scoop: editor with idea for new hero is told no one likes spiders and teenagers can’t headline their own series, so he puts the first Spider-Man story in a book slated to be cancelled anyway. Fans react positively to this hero much closer in age to them than most other superheroes (like, duh), so the company comes out with Amazing Spider-Man #1, in which our hero’s first instinct is to… try and cash in on his newfound powers. Right at the time they needed him most, America’s youth had found their spokesperson: a flawed hero who didn’t always save the day but recognized that with great power came… aw, you guessed.

15. The Amazing Spider-Man #121 (1973)
By the time this issue came out, readers were used to a certain amount of whining from Peter Parker about, well, everything. But most of us agreed that lacking money to pay the rent or having a perpetually-on-the-brink-of-death aunt is a small price to pay for the chance to be Spider-Man. This is the issue that raised the stakes for our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler, showing him in no uncertain terms just how evil the world could be. It may be hard for today’s jaded audience to understand, but back then super-villains simply did not kill… or if they did, they certainly didn’t kill innocent women who happened to be the hero’s one true love. Spidey’s writers have said they killed off Gwen Stacy because it was either that or marriage, and it was felt that a lost loved one added another layer of tragedy to the character. Maybe so, but fans were stunned by the way it happened, and for many that one single act marked the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of… well, something a little less shiny.

16. Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975)
Oh sure, it seems like a sure thing now, but back then? Not so much. Never one of Marvel’s top-selling titles, The X-Men fell into reprints and flirted with cancellation in the mid-’70s when Len Wein and Dave Cockrum took a crack at reviving the series. At the time, Marvel wanted an international cast to help boost foreign sales, and international is what they got with Germany, Ireland, Kenya, Russia and Canada sending their representatives to the new team, and Professor X and Cyclops representing the old guard. By the time writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne had set the stage for their seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the word was out: if it’s entertaining superhero drama with a twist of allegorical gravitas that you seek, then X definitely marks the spot.

17. Star Wars #1 (1977)
Yes, it seems like a long, long time ago now, but the original Star Wars movie had a profound cultural impact that extended far beyond the movie theatre. The mid-1970s was not a great time for any corner of the U.S. economy, but the comics were in a special kind of funk, with the Silver Age fading into memory and fewer fans picking up what publishers were offering (DC alone launched 50 new titles between 1975 and 1978; only six managed to survive into 1979). The business needed a shot in the arm, and so Marvel turned to Hollywood for a little cross-promotional help. But a Logan’s Run adaptation didn’t do well, and so no one at Marvel had high hopes for a book based on some crazy new movie with robots and laser sword fights… until the movie came out. The first issue of the ongoing series (which lasted until 1986) became the first U.S. comic to sell more than a million copies since the height of Bat-mania in the ’60s, and the book’s success was all the reason publishers needed to pursue other multi-media deals (hello, Care Bears the comic!) and push sci-fi/action anywhere they could (hence the star-spanning adventures of the X-Men and Teen Titans, among others).

18. Cerebus the Aardvark #1 (1977)
Is it Canadian favoritism that landed this book on the list? Hardly. Dave Sim’s Cerebus (so named because he unintentionally misspelled the three-headed monster in Greek mythology) began in 1977 and ended in 2004 after 300 issues and 6,000 pages, making it the longest-running English-language comic series ever produced by a single creative team (fellow Canadian artist Gerhard handled the backgrounds). While Cerebus never reached the merchandising heights of, say, a certain quartet of turtles mentioned below, it’s fair to say that quartet never would have happened without Cerebus, and Sim’s success as an independent publisher — as well as his fierce advocacy on behalf of independent artists — inspired many others to follow their own dreams, however mad those dreams might have seemed at the time.

19. Daredevil #158 (1979)
How influential was Frank Miller? Put aside any opinions about his own body of work (Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, Sin City, 300 — classics all) and try to imagine the past 30 years of comics without that sense of noir that he and his followers brought to the printed page. Before Miller, Daredevil was basically Spider-Man Lite, a wise-cracking, brightly colored vigilante facing off against garishly clad super-villains. Once Miller took over both art and writing for the book, DD’s world became a much darker place, figuratively and literally, with the line dividing heroes and villains that much harder to see. By bringing a sharper sense of realism to the picture — and showing us the fragility of a hero’s moral compass in uncertain times — Miller et al. made their heroes appear that much more heroic.

20. The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 (1984)
For the record, Brit Alan Moore took over the title with issue #20, which saw the titular creature captured for study by an evil corporation. But it’s in this issue’s story, “The Anatomy Lesson,” that American audiences got their first glimpse of Moore’s brilliance. His work on Swamp Thing drew legions of fans who appreciated his often macabre take on the titular creature’s adventures, and his success led to both a more mature approach to characters and greater clout for those writers who delivered the goods. Just as important, his work paved the way for a British invasion of the North American comic scene, which saw many talented writers and artists arrive stateside with their unique approaches to storytelling — proving, if proof was needed, that comics didn’t have to be just kids’ stuff.    

21. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 (1984)
The fact that this book came out of New Hampshire isn’t the strangest part, nor is it that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird started their venture with a tax refund and a loan from a relative. No, the real mystery is this: how did a self-published comic starring four mutated turtles living in the sewers and trained in the ninja arts by a wise old rat take over every young boy’s TV screen, lunch box, wardrobe and video game console for the better part of a decade? TMNT was intended as a parody of all the grim, ninja-infested comics of the early ’80s, but something about the combination of turtles and high-flying action clicked with the kids, and the book’s success encouraged a generation of independent writers and artists to try their hand at creating the next multimedia empire.

22. Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 (1985)
Worlds live! Worlds die! Nothing will ever be the same again! These days, it’s hard to believe the hype when every other month seems to bring the next mega-event crossover designed to awe our senses and vacuum our wallets. But in the mid-’80s, when killing billions on a whim (of snuffing out A-list characters) wasn’t as commonplace as it is today, the 12-issue Crisis on Infinite Earth series was a mind-blowing event. The series dramatically reconfigured the entire DC line-up, and writers spent years rehashing characters and rebooting titles to fit into the new universe; even today, DC’s writers continue to use events and characters first seen in Crisis for their own stories. For good or ill, Crisis was the first in a long line of must-read “blockbuster” events, which would dominate buzz in the comic business for years to come.

23-24. The Dark Knight Returns #1/Watchmen #1 (1986)
I mentioned both of these in a previous list detailing my reasons why 1986 was the greatest year to be a comic fan, so I won’t go into any long-winded discussions here about why they rocked. Suffice to say, both of these landmark series are notable for approaching the superhero genre with a level of sophistication that fans had never seen before. And while it’s easy to bemoan the parade of grim’n’gritty imitators that followed in their wakes, it’s worth noting these books were among the first (and certainly the highest-profile) in a wave of titles that proved you can tell engaging stories about the long-underwear crowd… as long as you’ve got someone at the helm with a few good ideas.

25. Spawn #1 (1992)
Technically speaking, Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood was the first Image Comics title to hit the streets, beating Spawn #1 by a month, give or take. But Todd McFarlane’s infernal creation stands out as the upstart company’s most successful character, “spawning” a mini-empire that made its creator a very rich man. Putting aside any opinions (and there are plenty) about the aesthetic qualities of Mr. McFarlane’s work, Spawn and the company behind it both arose from a deep dissatisfaction with the deal that virtually all mainstream artists had labored under for decades (the deal that said, in its simplest terms, “We’re the boss and we own everything you produce for us… and if you come up with the next million-dollar idea, we might — just might, now — throw a couple extra bucks your way as thanks”). The success of Image Comics (which was by no means assured during its formative years) was a blow for artists’ rights everywhere, and — file under “better late than never” — led to more favorable conditions within the industry for the people who actually come up with the stories.

26. Superman #75 (1993)
The legend goes like this: every year, DC staffers would go on a retreat to come up with Superman storylines for the coming year, and every year some smart aleck would yell out “Let’s kill him!” Then one year, the editors shouted back, “Why not?” No real comic fan truly believed the Man of Steel was gone for good, but media hysteria surrounding the hyped-up story arc only drove more people into comic shops to snap up all the “collectible” issues they could find (the premium edition of this issue came pre-polybagged with a gaggle of goodies inside for your don’t-you-dare-open-this pleasure). While it would be unfair to blame the entire mid-’90s speculator boom-and-bust on this one issue, Superman #75 was the last straw for a lot of fans, as it typified just how far comic companies were willing to place short-term profit ahead of fan loyalty — and how far they had to go in order to win it back.

* Specifically, the history of comics in North America, where the comic book was first conceived. We’ll tackle the Tintins and Akiras of the world another day.

 

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2 responses to “Aardvarks and X-Men and Ducks, Oh My

  1. Nice job, very imformative.

  2. I really enjoyed that, though I figured you could have found a place for Avengers #1 and/or The Incredible Hulk #180.

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