Wonder Woman's Golden Age Invisible Plane came when she called it.
Over at the DC message boards, someone just asked: "What story made you a DC Comics fan?" I've been reading comics since the 1970s, and have a collection that runs from the 1940s up to the present. It's interesting to ask what stories really stand out in my mind through all that pulp and all that fiction. There are lots of great stories of course - the New Teen Titans arcs The Hunt for the Killers of the Doom Patrol and The Judas Contract are part of one of my main comic reviews on this blog - so I won't mention them here. This isn't a 'best stories' list. The question involves stories that really left an initial, indelible, lasting impression, the very first ones that grabbed my imagination and that I still remember before all others after almost forty years. I'll save my non-DC fan inspirations for another entry.
Golden Age DC: The 1972 Fireside reprint of the original 1940s Wonder Woman stories
Wonder Woman, complete with an introduction by Gloria Steinem. Fireside reprint. 1972.
This was my first exposure to Gloria Steinem, classic World War II-era Wonder Woman stories, and the Invisible Plane. This edition had been out for a few years when it was given to me as a gift. I think I was six years old or so when I first read it and somehow survived all the subliminal, and not so subliminal, feminist messages. What really caught my attention, though, was the art and the mood in the war-time stories. You can almost hear the Glenn Miller playing in the background. The Wonder Woman reprint Fireside book, with some scans of content, is reviewed, with some scans, here. This was part of a series of classic Marvel/DC reprints.
Very James Bond. Batman #333 (March 1981).
Bronze Age DC: The Lazarus Affair
The Lazarus Affair (Batman #332-335, 1981) sticks out in my mind because it had Ra's al Ghul, and his daughter Talia, who always called Batman, "Beloved."
Bruce and Talia, one of comicdom's greatest couples. Batman #333.
This arc had a love triangle with Catwoman, plus Robin and King Faraday coming to the rescue, with Batman weaving in and out doing James Bond helicopter skiing tricks in Asia. Also, the Lazarus Pit. It's reviewed by bloggers here and here.
Ra's offers Batman immortality, and maybe his daughter. Batman #334.
Bronze Age DC: Trigon Lives
This was the first Titans Trigon arc in New Teen Titans #5-6 (1981). The New Teen Titan Raven has forced Wally West, aka Kid Flash, to love her in order to make him help her against her father. And she's lied to her new teammates, so at the beginning of the arc, they abandon her, assuming her to be a dangerous liar, which she is, but it's for a good reason.
Wolfman's writing here was phenomenal, because he managed to turn a very troubling situation with this majestic, frightening young heroine around and ensure the audience's sympathy. To date, Wolfman is possibly the only writer who has managed to tread the very fine line that Raven represents in terms of moral ambiguity. She's always been an 'end justifies the means' character. Yet even in future arcs, when she murders people, somehow Wolfman preserved her status as a heroine. Her difficult path begins with a terrible paradox. She is the daughter of the demon, Trigon, and her human mother, Arella. She has inherited the gift of mystical empathy, healing, along with various magical abilities still unexplored, and the capability of separating her soul from her body so that it can fly around, catch things, and sometimes threaten people. She can feel everyone's emotions of all around her, but is denied any emotions herself, lest Trigon latch onto her senses and burst free through her. This leaves her in a bizarre and torturous relationship with Kid Flash.
This story is the earliest which explored Raven's problems, and it's well before the first of many times when she's fallen and given in to Trigon. But it's still a fascinating contemplation of a character who is half-good, half-evil. In this arc, she and Trigon are still on speaking terms.
Raven is the Laura Palmer of the superheroine set. She's not just goth girl, or dark emo girl, as she's been recently portrayed in the latest volume of Teen Titans comics and in the Cartoon Network cartoon, which stripped her of all her depth, intelligence and originality. Wolfman and Perez toyed with terrifying symbolism when they introduced her father for the first time.
It took me some time as a young fan before I figured out what Wolfman and Perez were getting at about Raven and Trigon. It's not just a story about a demon villain, which is pretty standard comics fare. When I did finally get it, I felt even more sorry for Raven. I realized there will never be an easy way out for this character. She confronts and embodies one of the most terrible taboos in human society. This is the source of her power, her inevitable catastrophic failures with Trigon - and her broken, covert and heavily veiled intimacies and romances with men (Wally West, Dick Grayson, Joseph Wilson and Gar Logan) on the Titans teams. In her relationships with her father and the various male Titans, when you finally read between the lines and grasp what is going on behind the scenes the off-panel implications are scary and even stomach-churning. Yet Raven shows immense nobility and courage in her attempts to live a good life, and struggle on against evil. To protect her friends and the world, Raven repeatedly sacrifices herself.
The arc ends with Arella guarding the portal that will prevent Trigon from entering Earth's dimension and obliterating it, very akin to that 1977 cult film, The Sentinel. This is fitting, because it's Arella's original failure that created Raven and makes Arella's daughter's very existence a living hell.
Modern Age DC: Dark Knight Returns
My comic fandom was not all inspired by Elektra-ridden storylines! Dark Knight Returns (1986) always sticks in my mind for its relentless heatwave, the helter skelter mutant gangs that have overrun Gotham, the frightening relentlessness of violence, against which aging heroes and villains have trouble coping. But for me the climax of the series was that Frank Miller explained the heart of the DC Universe in the final showdown between Superman and Batman. This is the fight that one day has to happen, a final conflict over values between the big friendly, near-invincible alien Boy Scout and the flawed, broken, grim vigilante, who is very much of this earth. Perhaps it's a parable on the conflict between God and Man.
Modern Age DC: Newcastle in Hellblazer, vol. 1 #11
Speaking of God and Man, we have - ahhh, John Constantine. He's a character who practically represents flawed humanity - far more than Batman.
Brimstone and Treacle, 1982.
Modeled on Sting in his Brimstone and Treacle bad boy period, Constantine was all the angst of Thatcher's Britain expelled through one puff of a burnt Silk Cut.
Constantine playing Hamlet, described by some as a tragic hero.
At the time of its debut, John's title, Hellblazer, was superficially about New-Agey magic, and more about the open wound in the collective unconscious that developed beneath the glitz of the declining 1980s, especially in the underbelly of modern Britain. Early runs of Hellblazer also looked back to Liverpool and London in the 1960s and 1970s, when John was young and untested. John's an occultist, a magus, and at his greatest extent, he is Humanity's advocate between Heaven and Hell. He can see and speak to both demons and angels, and has the power to enter their realms occasionally on his own terms. There's something eternal about John, even though John is one of the very few - if not the only? - characters in the DCU who ages in real time. He's desperately flawed, a chain-smoking trickster Casanova, whose well-deserved reputation as a womanizer derives from the eponymous 1988 story which is the anglicized version of his Latin nickname: Newcastle.
Constantine's magic always hinges on some terrible double-cross, and he has left a long trail of dead bodies and live enemies behind him. Through their association with him, his friends are almost guaranteed to die or be left irreparably ruined. In "Newcastle," set in 1978, Constantine mistakenly tried to summon a demon to contain a magical entity raised by a little girl. The demon, Nergal, claimed the child's soul. Four of John's friends who were present were killed. The story is summarized further here. This was the fable that established the pattern of his life and set his reputation.
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