15 Comics (and 1 Honorable Mention) That Offered Readers a Different Perspective on Life by, in Whole or in Part, Turning Themselves Sideways
1. Fantastic Four #252 (03/82)
Picture it: St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1987. While travelling with my parents through Canada’s easternmost city, I came across an odds-and-ends shop that (to my great surprise) happened to have a card table filled with boxes of old comics for sale cheap. Being the budding comic nerd I was, I leafed through a few boxes in search of anything interesting… and when I saw this Fantastic Four cover, I honestly stood there thinking: The hell? By the time this issue came out, writer/artist John Byrne had already been at the helm of the Fab Four’s title for a couple of years, and the many improvements he brought to the floundering title earned him the right to be a little experimental. This issue of “the world’s most innovative comic magazine” was the first of a four-issue journey into the Negative Zone, and Byrne marked the occasion by turning the book 90 degrees clockwise and using the new horizontal dimensions to create “widescreen” action sequences. No doubt, it was a bit jarring to fans who were used to a comic book’s vertical alignment, but you have to wonder why the end result didn’t give other artists the idea to make this a more common occurrence.
2-3. Spider-Man #16; X-Force #4 (11/91)
From the sublime to the ridiculous. By the time these two sideways issues (each containing half of a two-part story) hit the racks, it was common knowledge that Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld (along with a few other Marvel heavy-hitters) were on their way out to form their own company (hence the “Bye, Todd” balloon on the Spider-Man cover). This was, in fact, the last Spider-Man issue with McFarlane’s input; Liefeld would soldier on for a few more issues of X-Force before his replacement stepped in (one Mark Pacella, whose work was highly derivative of Liefeld’s, as depressing as that sounds). The story in these two issues is almost completely besides the point: Spidey and X-Force team up to fight the Juggernaut with New York City’s World Trade Center serving as the battleground (a curious locale for a horizontally inclined pair of issues, to be sure). The only interesting sideways-related fact about this issue is that, for the first time ever, Liefeld was afforded the opportunity to show readers his complete ignorance of perspective and human anatomy in a widescreen format. He didn’t disappoint.
4. Panic #5 (10-11/54)
Panic was, like so many other humor-oriented comics of the mid-1950s, a book that tried to get a piece of Mad’s action, the only difference being Panic and Mad shared the same publisher (“the only authorized imitation of Mad” was how EC Comics described it). Despite sharing many of the creative minds behind Mad’s success, the bi-monthly Panic only lasted 12 issues, possibly because of the challenges inherent in producing two high-quality humor mags at a time when humor was in short supply (it certainly didn’t help that Panic’s parody of “The Night Before Christmas” — complete with mice hanging from meat hooks and a pill-popping Santa — got the book banned in Massachusetts). The cover of the fifth issue poked fun at the then-new Cinemascope technology behind wide-screen movies, which movie studios and theatre owners were pushing to compete against the new threat of television. Ironic, since the comic companies had a lot more to fear from the boob tube than the movie folk ever did.
5. Cerebus #48 (03/83)
Dave Sim, the creative force behind Cerebus, has been accused of many things over the course of his long career, but “unwilling to take artistic risks” is not one of them. This particular issue starring his cantankerous aardvark is actually just one of several within a larger story arc in which all the pages were horizontally aligned, all the better to depict Cerebus’s tenure as the besieged prime minister of a land whose people didn’t seem to realize a short, ill-tempered aardvark with personal-pronoun issues was determining their fiscal policies. (Then again, we’ve done a lot worse in the real world with our leaders.) And that’s not the only time Sim played with the format: there were other issues where the orientation changed from page to page, requiring the reader to continually revolve the comic book in order to read it. Bold artistic innovation or pain-in-the-ass cutesiness? You decide!
6. Elvira’s House of Mystery #6 (08/86)
Never heard of this Elvira person, you say? Way to make a child of the ’80s feel old. Back in those days, before any average person could go on YouTube or a reality TV show and become famous (well, “famous”), people turned to their local low-budget cable stations for their C-list celebrity fix. Elvira was born when actress/singer Cassandra Peterson auditioned to host a local Los Angeles weekend horror show, a gig that involved introducing (and occasionally interrupting with sarcastic commentary) classic and not-so-classic horror flicks. Her curvaceous figure, Cryptkeeper-worthy puns and Valley Girl delivery proved a popular combination, and she parlayed the gig into a pretty lucrative career by lending her likeness to TV commercials, arcade games, Halloween-themed products… and this short-lived series from DC, which cancelled its long-running House of Mystery title shortly before giving Elvira her own book. While the book’s cover trumpets itself as a “special sideways issue,” the stories inside are actually laid out in the normal fashion, so… not so much. But at least Elvira’s main assets were front and centre.
7-9. Uncanny X-Men Annual 2001; New X-Men Annual 2001; X-Treme X-Men Annual 2001
Leave it to Marvel to take something fairly simple like “turning a book sideways” and slap a self-congratulatory moniker on it (“presented in MarvelScope format!”). This trio of annual issues from 2001 contain everything one would expect from a 2001-era X-Men issue only, you know, wider. The end result was a big of a mixed bag; the artists clearly relished the chance to work in widescreen, but several online critics noted the books didn’t make the best use of the dimensions (and why Marvel didn’t choose Spider-Man for this experiment is a mystery, as his skyline-spanning adventures seem tailor-made for the format). In a 2009 interview, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada said he’d like to revisit the format with the right creative teams, as soon as they figured out one small problem: keeping the horizontal books, with their staples at the top, from flopping over on most comic store shelves.
10. Promethea #11 (12/2000)
Given this book was Alan Moore’s ultimate deconstruction of the comic medium, it’s not surprising he was willing to experiment greatly with both the literary and physical concepts of a “comic book.” Not only did Moore and (primarily) artist J.H. Williams III experiment with different art styles throughout this series about a young woman with mythical powers, they also created issues in which no panels appear, the story can be read in different ways, or the panels are arranged in a Moebius-like strip (you have to see it to believe it). This issue, with a cover spoofing a B-movie theatre lobby card from the 1950s, was clearly in keeping with that spirit of experimentation, as the story featuring a “cast of thousands” inside is rendered entirely in a sideways format.
11. Wonder Man #19 (03/93)
Wonder Man is typical of Marvel fare from the early 1990s, when virtually every Marvel hero (and then some) was given his or her own series just to pump out product to the speculating masses. The title’s gimmick (as such) was that it featured the adventures of a superhero with a Hollywood career, so cue the jokes about vapid celebrities and L.A. culture. This story finds our hero’s “ionic energy” spiralling out of control when eight of his friends try to help him; for their troubles, they end up with their own super powers and decide to form a team. Writer Gerard Jones and artist Jeff Johnson turn in serviceable work on this one, though there’s no particular reason (other than sheer novelty) why a sideways format was used… come to think of it, “no particular reason” pretty much describes 9/10ths of Marvel’s output during this period.
12. Eden’s Trail (2003)
Eden’s Trail is a curious addition to this list, as it (aside from the X-Men annuals listed above) is, as far as I know, the only Marvel series to sport the “MarvelScope” tag. Set outside the official Marvel universe, this five-issue mini-series by Chuck Austen and Steve Uy focuses on a young woman named Tila and an immortal man named Latch who seeks a way to rid himself of his immortality. Oh, and they live in an Old West-style town on an alien planet and cybernetically enhanced bad guys are somehow involved — anime fans will not leave disappointed, let’s put it that way. The plot may be derivative, but Uy makes good use of the extra space afforded him by the widescreen format, churning out lovely images of the forlorn landscape (as you can see above). Another bonus: Marvel, perhaps learning from its X-Men experiments, used a heavier-than-usual paper stock for this series’ covers, making it a little easier for fans to preserve their Near Mint babies.
13. Hepcats #2 (08/89)
Hepcats began life in the mid-’80s as a comic strip in a college newspaper, so it’s entirely possible that’s where Martin Wagner got the inspiration to turn the second issue of his independent comic sideways for a more horizontal experience. Cerebus’s Dave Sim was also an obvious influence, so perhaps the sideways orientation was intended as an homage to Sim’s own experiments in that field. Whatever the reason, Hepcats, a short-lived comic with a huge cult following, chronicled the lives of four college students who were depicted as anthropomorphic characters. In this issue, the gang heads to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, where one of them runs into old friends and does a little topless dancing (woo!), forcing another member of the gang to deal with his jealousy. In all, it was a character-driven story that wasn’t as reliant on the widescreen format as some others on this list to make an impact… but then, a good story is a good story, no matter which way you look at it.
14. Saga of the Swamp Thing #34 (03/85)
This series first introduced a young (and not yet entirely mad) Alan Moore to American audiences, and it was clear right from the start of his tenure (#21’s “The Anatomy Lesson”) that things were going to be a little different with him in charge. One of the racier subplots of the series was the romantic relationship between Abby Swamp and the decidedly non-human Swamp Thing — a relationship that couldn’t be consummated in the usual way, for obvious reasons. But no matter: Swampy allows Abby to ingest a juicy fruit that he grows out of his body (it’s less disturbing than it sounds, trust me), and the result is that Abby has a hallucinatory experience in a sequence that’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer in terms of saying “this is really about two people HAVING SEX, in case anyone was wondering.” To emphasize Abby’s altered state of perception, the book shifts midway through the story from a vertical to a horizontal layout, then shifts back again at the end where a splash page shows Abby enveloped by vines as the two of them share a kiss. Just try to find blatant sexuality like that over in that month’s issue of Atari Force or ‘Mazing Man.
15. The Sandman #10 (11/89)
Fans of this title signed up for many reasons: the lovely artwork by a succession of guest artists, the evocative (and damn near confusing) covers by Dave McKean, the clever ways in which writer Neil Gaiman re-used classic characters from DC’s vaults to suit his storytelling needs. For my money, though, the biggest draw was the sense of wonder that came with every title, since you did not know from one issue to the next where the story would go next. Ancient Rome? Post-revolution France? Modern Baghdad? The pits of Hell? A serial-killer convention in a Georgia motel? Anything was possible. Oddly enough, given the fact the book starred the literal embodiment of imagination, Sandman rarely deviated from the usual standards of layout and design — with one or two notable exceptions. In issue #10, the first chapter of the “Doll’s House” storyline, a young woman falls asleep and begins dreaming, with the panels depicting her dreams rotated 90 degrees to emphasize their unreality. Her dream concerned a meeting between Morpheus and his aide-de-camp about some missing Dreamland creatures — and the truly odd thing was that they were aware of her “watching” them through her dream. Say wha…?
Hawk & Dove #5 (Holiday 1988)
Rob Liefeld’s first big break in the comic business was this series, a five-issue affair that re-introduced the Silver Age-era Hawk & Dove team into the DC universe. If I sometimes seem overly critical of Liefeld’s talents, it’s only because this early example of his work suggests the talented artist he could have become if fame and adulation hadn’t come so easily to him at a young age. At the very least, this issue suggested he wasn’t afraid to experiment with formats; as detailed in an installment of Comic Urban Legends Revealed, Liefeld drew a portion of this issue sideways as a way of illustrating the “Chaos Dimension” the heroes found themselves in. Editor Mike Carlin was not as enamored with the concept, though, and with deadlines fast approaching he had the sideways sequence rotated and cut-and-pasted into a vertical alignment before Karl Kesel completed the inking. As a fun coda, the issue’s letter column contains an oblique reference to the incident, mentioning that Liefeld “showed something new to an editor who thought he’d seen everything.” (And that was before he went and got his mitts on Captain America…)