Axel-In-Charge: "Secret Wars" Jam Session Talking "A-Force," "Ultimate End" and More
Every week, hard as it may be to believe, I try honestly to offer something I think might interest the larger group of DC Domics superhero readers. However, this week I am invoking a personal privilege. For one thing, with Halloween on a Wednesday (when I usually end up writing these essays), the holiday will more than likely take priority.
The main reason, though, is that today is my birthday, and as you might have guessed from the headline, this year is my 43rd birthday. Therefore, this week I have pulled together an especially memorable DC story and/or issue from each of those years, 1969 through 2012. (Note: They may not always line up with the actual year, but just for simplicity’s sake, all dates are cover dates.) These aren’t necessarily the best or most noteworthy stories of their particular years, but they’ve stuck with me. Besides, while I’ve read a lot of comics from a lot of sources, for whatever reason DC has been the constant. Maybe when I’m 50 I’ll have something more comprehensive.
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1969: First up is “Secret of the Waiting Graves,” from Detective Comics #395 (January 1970). It was the first Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams Batman story, and I don’t think there had been a Batman story quite like it. Mixing a rustic Mexican society setting with a gothic sensibility and a dash of EC-style morality, it expanded Batman’s horizons (which were already pretty broad) while bringing a new sense of heightened reality to his storytelling.
1970: Likewise, Jack Kirby blew up a little corner of Superman’s world in Jimmy Olsen #133 (October 1970). The King took Jimmy and Superman to the Wild Area, brought back the Newsboy Legion, and introduced Morgan Edge and the Whiz Wagon — and he was just getting started.
1971: By making architect John Stewart Hal Jordan’s new backup, “Beware My Power” (in December 1971-January 1972’s Green Lantern #87) offered fresh perspectives both on ring-slinging and on Hal’s emerging social conscience. For me it’s the high point of the O’Neil/Adams run, which is saying a lot.
1972: February-March 1972’s New Gods #7 brought the world “The Pact,” the ultimate revelation at the heart of Kirby’s Fourth World. Beyond its mythological overtones, it resonates as the story of one man’s unshakable commitment to peace.
1973: Detective Comics #437 (October-November 1973) introduced Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s version of Paul “Manhunter” Kirk, a man haunted by violence whose story could only end one way. It’s just the right length, but it always leaves me wanting more.
1974: In hindsight I’m a little conflicted about the “Twelve Labors” storyline, which began in June-July 1974’s Wonder Woman #212. On one hand, using some of DC’s most familiar creative teams (like this issue’s Len Wein and Curt Swan), and guest-starring at least one Justice Leaguer per issue, seems like a pretty reasonable way to gin up interest in the Amazing Amazon following the end of her de-powered “mod” phase. On the other, though, there aren’t a lot of actual women involved in the effort. Still, these are fine stories, and they do a good job making sure Diana gets her due.
1975: Dr. Light learns the Justice League’s secret identities in “The Great Identity Crisis” (Justice League of America #122, September 1975; by Marty Pasko, Dick Dillin, and Frank McLaughlin) — but everything works out fine, thanks to Aquaman. I re-read this story several years ago, for reasons which are probably obvious.
1976: May 1976’s The Flash #241 might well have been the first DC comic I ever read. It featured the 11-page lead story (!) “Steal, Flash, Steal!” by Cary Bates, Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin (and edited by Julius Schwartz, of course), in which the Mirror Master turned Flash evil — or did he? Dexter Myles played an important role, which was nice; and Denny O’Neil and Mike Grell provided a Green Lantern backup story, wherein Hal had to figure out how to reignite a yellow star. Important knowledge for later in his life, to be sure….
1977: “The Origin of the Justice League — Minus One!” in Justice League of America #144 (July 1977; by Steve Englehart, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin) is one of my all-time favorite JLA stories. It uses the conceit of “comic-book time” to explain a quirk of League history, but beyond that it’s a nifty tale of a late-‘50s Earth-One. Guest-stars include the Blackhawks, the Challengers of the Unknown, the original Robotman, and even Rex the Wonder Dog. It’s so sappy it makes Green Arrow cry, and to tell you the truth it gets me a little as well.
1978: Probably best known as the “Flash Spectacular,” 1978’s DC Special Series #11 lived up to its billing, bringing together Jay Garrick, Barry Allen, Wally West, and Johnny Quick in a story called “Beyond the Super-Speed Barrier!” Essentially, the disembodied consciousness of Gorilla Grodd harnesses super-speed energy to reintegrate his mind and body — real heady philosophical stuff, even in the pre-Speed Force days — and it takes Jay, Barry, and Wally to stop him. Also, Wally graduates from high school, reveals his secret identity to his parents, and retires from superheroics forever.
1979: The JLA tried to recruit Black Lightning in Justice League of America #173 (December 1979; by Gerry Conway, Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin), but for a couple of reasons it didn’t take. However, this story’s conceit — that they’d disguise themselves as supervillains — was fairly original.
1980: I had always liked the original Teen Titans, I knew George Pérez from his couple of JLA issues and his Avengers work, and I’d read the preview in DC Comics Presents #26 the month before — and The New Teen Titans #1 (November 1980) still blew me away. Marv Wolfman’s efficient characterization for the returning Titans (and Changeling/Beast Boy), three new characters, and an action-packed ending made me an instant fan.
1981: Alan Brennert has only written a handful of Batman stories, just about every one of them is a classic, and “To Kill a Legend” (drawn by Dick Giordano) is perhaps his best. In a nutshell, the Phantom Stranger sends Batman and Robin to an alternate Earth in time to prevent the Wayne murders — but it’s a universe without a Krypton and apparently with no other heroes to guard it. (Must there be a Batman? The answer may surprise you!) Appropriately enough, it helps make March 1981’s Detective Comics #500 one of DC’s best anniversary issues.
1982: “One of DC’s best anniversary issues” applies in spades to Justice League of America #200 (March 1982). It’s an overstuffed masterclass of a comic, written by Gerry Conway and penciled by George Pérez, with chapters from Brian Bolland, Joe Kubert, Gil Kane, Carmine Infantino, Pat Broderick, Jim Aparo and Dick Giordano. I trust I have said enough.
1983: I read Thriller #1 (November 1983) at least a year after the series had ended, but it was during my “coming back to comics” phase, and it remains a great example of DC’s experiments of the 1980s. Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor von Eeden created a nifty synthesis of pulp elements and anything-goes storytelling.
1984: On one of my all-time favorite covers, Robin and Kid Flash hang up their red-and-yellows in New Teen Titans #39 (February 1984). Of course, Dick Grayson never really goes anywhere, while Wally West fades into the background. Wolfman and Pérez wrote Wally as something of an outsider (no pun intended), perhaps to ease his transition out of the book — but as a kid not much younger than Wally, his alienation resonated with me pretty strongly. Oh, and also, this time Wally’s retirement is totally gonna stick.
1985: Speaking of DC’s ‘80s experiments, ‘Mazing Man #1 (January 1986; by Bob Rozakis, Stephen DeStefano and Karl Kesel) is still a pretty perfect first issue. It’s not a superhero sitcom as much as it is a sweet, heartfelt ensemble piece focused on a would-be superhero and the dog-headed writer who’s his best friend. I still don’t know why DC hasn’t collected this adorable series.
1986: We oldsters say this (or something like it) a lot, but you kids today may not realize just what a bombshell September 1986’s Watchmen #1 really was. For one thing, it was (clearly) one of the bleakest comics I’d read to that point, and it seemed to mock openly all the old superhero tropes. Regardless, it played on all the right world-building impulses, sucking me into its apocalyptic setting like it was a map of the Fortress of Solitude.
1987: Justice League #1 (May 1987; plotted by Keith Giffen, scripted by J.M. DeMatteis, penciled by Kevin Maguire, inked by Terry Austin) also played with expectations, but in a wildly different way. The Justice League which formed at the end of Legends #6 had a very traditional superhero pedigree: John Byrne drawing a Len Wein script about facing a minion of Darkseid and his robot-demon-dogs in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, this was not the tone of the series which followed. Instead, JL #1 was an excellent standalone introduction to a new (and perhaps necessary) stage in League history … and I’ve just sucked all the joy out of this paragraph, haven’t I?
1988: Doom Patrol #19 (February 1989; written by Grant Morrison, penciled by Richard Case, inked by Scott Hanna) was yet another ‘80s reinvention, but this time arguably a lot closer to the original’s spirit. Still, like the new Justice League, this first issue stood alone quite well. Although I had quit reading this volume of DP after only a few issues, I was curious to see what Morrison would do with the team, and I wasn’t disappointed.
1989: Batman #442 (December 1989; written by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez, penciled by Jim Aparo, inked by Mike DeCarlo) put Tim Drake in the classic Robin costume for the first and only time, in the conclusion of “A Lonely Place Of Dying.” Tim represented (if not personified) the start of what I’ll call a “new niceness” for Batman, who’d doubled down on grim ‘n’ gritty following Jason Todd’s death. Naturally, Tim was a huge hit, even if the pendulum swung back to “grim” eventually.
1990: Martin Pasko and Rick Burchett’s Blackhawk comic was the ongoing-series version of an Action Comics Weekly feature which took its cue from Howard Chaykin’s 3-issue mature-readers miniseries. Pasko and Burchett’s stories were set in the immediate postwar period, but Blackhawk #11 (February 1990) jumped the series ahead a few years to 1950 and (for them) an entirely new — and totally paranoid — setting. Unfortunately, it was the last storyline for a fairly smart, high-spirited adventure series.
1991: I was a little late to Sandman, but I caught up in time for “Season of Mists.” April 1991’s issue #25 (written by Neil Gaiman, penciled by Matt Wagner and inked by Malcolm Jones III) took a break from the arc’s main plot to focus on a boy terrorized by once-dead schoolmates. “SOM” is probably my favorite Sandman storyline, and I like the various pantheons competing for control of Hell, but this particular installment has an appeal all its own.
1992: William Messner-Loebs and Paris Cullins were the first regular Wonder Woman creative team to follow George Pérez and company, and their first big storyline kicked off in September 1992’s Wonder Woman #66. It finds Diana recruited to rescue a female cosmonaut, only to learn that the rescue is a trap. The two are thrown across the galaxy, and Diana ends up turning a slave revolt into an all-female band of space pirates.
1993: Wally West has cropped up a couple of times already, but May 1993’s Flash #78 (written by Mark Waid, penciled by Greg LaRocque, inked by Roy Richardson) was a genuine milestone. The conclusion of “The Return of Barry Allen” featured a twist so perfect I’m reluctant to mention it almost twenty years later, but more importantly it put an end to Wally’s self-doubt subplot and set him on the road to unlocking the mysteries of (yes) being a human thunderbolt.
1994: Like many of the other first issues on this list, Starman #0 (October 1994; written by James Robinson, drawn by Tony Harris) did more than just start a story, it set a tone. In Jack Knight’s case, that tone blended a healthy respect for DC history with a willingness to carve out its own identity.
1995: And then there’s Impulse #1 (April 1995; written by Mark Waid, drawn by Humberto Ramos), the simple story of a warp-speed boy stuck in a first-gear world.
1996: When September 1996’s Supergirl #1 premiered (written by Peter David, penciled by Gary Frank, written by Cam Smith), I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go deeper into Matrix’s history in the Time Trapper’s Pocket Universe, or her time in space, or her role at LexCorp … but I got over it.
1997: The new volume of Challengers of the Unknown traded heavily on the popularity of The X Files, but Issue 7 (August 1997; written by Steven Grant and Len Kaminski, penciled by John Paul Leon and Tommy Lee Edwards, inked by Shawn Martinbrough) began a 3-part storyline which explained the relationship between the original Challs and the ‘90s team.
1998: Today we know November 85,721’s DC One Million #4 (written by Grant Morrison, penciled by Val Semeiks, inked by Prentis Rollins) as a link to Morrison’s All Star Superman, but at the time it was just an immensely satisfying conclusion to one of DC’s best intertitle crossovers. Right when you’ve recovered from one fangasm, the big one knocks you for a loop.
1999: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #1 (March 1999) was Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill at their clever best, taking the head-slappingly simple idea of a literary all-star team and turning it into a romp through literature itself.
2000: The end of “No Man’s Land” meant a chance to revamp the Bat-line, and right out of the gate Greg Rucka and Shawn Martinbrough made their mark on Detective Comics. Their first issue was an “NML” epilogue, but their second (April 2000’s #743) started a Ra’s al-Ghul story which, apart from its own merits, laid the groundwork for Rucka’s Batwoman work.
2001: Mark Waid’s run as JLA writer ended too soon, but he packed a lot into each of his arcs. One of my favorite moments came in June 2001’s issue #53 (penciled by Bryan Hitch, inked by Paul Neary), when those Leaguers who had “civilian identities” were split into them. Specifically, Batman was divided among a rage-filled Bruce Wayne and a highly skilled, blank-faced bat-costumed cipher. To me it was a striking argument against the “Bruce is the real mask” approach.
2002: I didn’t know it at the time, but Young Justice was on its way out when its 50th issue (December 2002) brought together just about every teenaged (or thereabouts) superhero in the DC stable for an invasion of the criminally-controlled nation of Zandia. YJ was the sidekicks’ answer to Justice League International, and writer Peter David, penciller Todd Nauck, and inker Lary Stucker managed everyone with characteristic wit and charm.
2003: With a reality-warping plot able to encompass a limitless range of characters and situations, JLA/Avengers may be the perfect intercompany superhero crossover, and Issue 3 (December 2003) is the epicenter of all the nerdy fun. Told as if the Justice League and Avengers had always had regular team-ups, Kurt Busiek and George Pérez presented a mind-boggling scrapbook of lost adventures and meaningful moments.
2004: I have not always been the biggest Geoff Johns booster, but I haven’t had many complaints about his Green Lantern work. If anything would have soured me on his treatment of GL mythology, it would’ve been the origin of Parallax as related in February 2005’s Green Lantern: Rebirth #3 (penciled by Ethan van Sciver and inked by Prentis Rollins). Convincing this longtime reader that a giant yellow space-bug was literally at the center of the GL Corps’ power wasn’t easy, but Johns and company did it.
2005: Mike Allred’s issue of DC’s artist-centric Solo (December 2005’s issue #7) was one of the series’ highlights, and his “Batman A-Go-Go” (scripted by Lee Allred) was both a parody of the ‘60s TV show and a searing indictment of the overly-grim Batman of the time.
2006: July 2006’s Superman #652 was Part 5 of the “Up, Up And Away” arc, which showed the Man of Steel getting his powers back after Infinite Crisis burned ‘em out. Written by Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns, and drawn by Pete Woods, this particular installment sticks in my memory for the opening sequence of Clark trying to leap a tall building. If you can hear John Williams’ 12/8 rhythms pulsing in your head, that’s a good indication the Superman story you’re reading is doing something right.
2007: Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s “Architecture & Mortality” is a gem of a story. Serialized alongside a Spectre feature in the duplex miniseries Tales of the Unexpected, it featured the characters too obscure for even the margins of DC’s big crossover series — and doomed to limbo by the mysterious Architects. The revelation of the Architects’ identities in June 2007’s issue #7 gave the series an even bigger satirical bite, which remains potent as fan-favorites fade in the light of the New 52.
2008: Launched in the wake of Infinite Crisis, the Greg Rucka-written Checkmate mixed international politics with superheroes, and did it with style. Drawing from DC’s rich history, and blending characters and influences from Suicide Squad and Justice League International, it was intelligent and unflinching. Rucka’s final arc, “Castling,” pitted the Checkmate crew against the terrorist cult Kobra with (naturally) the fate of the world in the balance — and Checkmate got to call in all its favors, marshaling every big-name superhero around to help out. Issue #25 (co-written by Eric Trautmann, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Jack Jadson) was Rucka’s last, and all involved went out on a very high note.
2009: After the Grand Guignol of “Batman R.I.P.” and Final Crisis, and the gap-bridging Battle For the Cowl, the decks were cleared for Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely to get back to basics in August 2009’s Batman and Robin #1. Dick Grayson was a bemused mentor to Damian Wayne’s no-nonsense sidekick, and together they made an impressive Dynamic Duo.
2010: Gail Simone left Wonder Woman in about the best way possible — namely, as part of Issue 600’s oversized anniversary, in a story which could only have been drawn by George Pérez. Not only did Diana get to fight alongside her super-powered sisters, but she got to see one of her oldest and dearest friends graduate. Considering the two makeovers Diana’s had since then, the story’s doubly bittersweet.
2011: Much the same applies to Simone and J. Calafiore’s Secret Six #36 (August 2011), which didn’t make the jump to the New 52. In fact, where Simone and Pérez’s Wonder Woman story featured Diana leading an army of super-women, the final issue of Secret Six had the Sixers make a last stand against practically every superhero in DC’s then-current stable. It had always been an us-against-the-world book, and in that final issue, the world fell on top of ‘em.
2012: And so, over 3,200 words later, here we are. I’m not going to cop out and say I don’t have a favorite comic for this year — not quite, at least — because both Batman Vol. 2 #12 (by Scott Snyder and Becky Cloonan) and Action Comics vol. 2 #13 (by Grant Morrison and Travel Foreman) jumped immediately to the front of my brain. Batman #12 has a very satisfying bit of Bat-retribution, and Action #13’s tale of a dog and his beloved master is just impossible to resist.
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Accordingly, I guess the first 43 in this post’s title comes with an asterisk, but really, most of the list is like that. I’ve been reading comics practically since I was old enough to read, and regardless of where life took me, pretty much comics have come along for the ride. Not just DC superhero books, either — this list’s self-imposed restrictions simply made everyone else (including everything from Fantastic Four, American Flagg!, and Nexus, to Hark! A Vagrant and The Maze Agency) ineligible.
Still, while there are a few definite trends (or biases, take your pick), I tried to be diverse. DC hasn’t been the best comics publisher over the years, and I’ve been pretty critical of them on what seems like a fairly regular basis — but they’ve given me a lot of enjoyment, and I wanted to share that with you.