a KC Column by KC Carlson
(first of a series)
I’ve always been intrigued by historical stories. You know the ones — where new details are brought to light, or something important in the past happened, yet we don’t find out about it until now. In comic books, this is frequently referred to as a continuity implant. Or, more frequently, a “lost” story.
It’s only in comics that you have these kinds of retro tales. No other medium has the kind of long-running continuity and characters (and the resulting years of stories) where it would even make sense to look backwards instead of forwards. That’s what’s interesting about these stories I’ve been reading lately. They aren’t structured to say “and this is the hero’s next adventure”; instead, they tuck a new adventure into a previous time period.
I’m not talking about retcons or stories geared to tell you “everything you thought you knew is wrong!” I’m mostly talking about period pieces, stories flavored with nostalgia for a time further back. Maybe one where good and evil were more obvious and moral decisions not so grey.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF STORYTELLING ERAS
There’s a difference, though, between stories set then and written now and those originally written in those older time periods. Marvel, in their earliest Timely era, didn’t tell stories like they do today. Now, we get multi-part epic storylines that eventually become blockbuster movies. Even simple stories may be overly stretched out to fill a TPB collection. Back then, comics were full of quick, action-filled conflict stories, with little room for characterization or even continuity — neither of which were really applied to comics in that era.
There’s something to be said about pure action tales. They’re like a sugar rush, keeping your head spinning, even beyond what’s good for you. But eventually, a diet of pure action gets repetitive — even boring — and a certain sameness creeps into things and you keep plugging along. Maybe that’s why the Golden Age ran out of gas eventually. Sure, it’s usually said that most superheroes died out after the war ended because there was no one important to fight anymore. But what if it was that, plus the stories got boring and unfocused? Hitler and Tojo were not only scary — they were real.
So, time passes and comics got boring except for little bumps (like horror comics which were eventually squashed by government oversight) and things got even more boring. Superheroes finally make a comeback, but the real buzz about them comes from the (slightly) more sophisticated relaunch of Marvel Comics in the early sixties, mostly by guys named Stan, Jack, and Steve, and next thing you know the Hulk is the darling of American college campuses (if not actual comics sales). There are articles in leading newspapers and magazines about how sophisticated (and groovy) comic books now are. The publicity saves Marvel Comics from decades-long distribution and sales problems, and even other publishers are cool by association. Then Batman hits TV, and it’s a whole new ball game, at least for a few years.
Skip ahead another decade or two, and comics have gotten even more sophisticated. Artwork is amazing, and artists are finally pushing against the limitations of decades-old poor printing on crap paper. More and more writers are telling more and more sophisticated stories.
Yet in the modern age, there’s also room for throwbacks. Some writers find the older, visceral characters better suited for new stories, even though the characters date from their (or even their parents’) childhoods.
But this doesn’t happen immediately. First, The Invaders have to be (re-)created.
THE INVADERS: HEROES OF ANY ERA
Among the earliest of these kinds of stories were The Invaders, the team that officially debuted in 1975 in Giant-Size Invaders #1, by Roy Thomas and Frank Robbins. The special was quickly followed by an ongoing series later that year, set in the 1940s and starring Captain America (and Bucky), the Original (Jim Hammond) Human Torch (and Toro), and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. All of these characters were early Marvel stars when the company was called Timely back in the ‘40s, back before team books were the rage. It should be noted that there was a prototype debut for the team in a 1969 issue of The Avengers (#71, written by Roy Thomas), where a time-displaced Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch all appeared and briefly battled The Avengers, Kang, and the Grandmaster.
Another team of Timely-era characters actually banded together in the 1940s (post-WWII). The short-lived All-Winners Squad’s membership included all five of the future Invaders, plus the super-speedster with the unfortunate name — The Whizzer — and Miss America. These last two were quickly re-introduced into the 1970s The Invaders series, eventually becoming short-term members. The odd thing about the All-Winners Squad was that it didn’t last long. The team had only two Golden Age adventures together in All-Winners Comics #19 and #21 in 1946. (Before you ask, there was no All-Winners Comics #20. Gotta love Golden Age comics publishing…) Also, because this team was post-war, their original adventures didn’t factor into any 1970s Invaders stories, because that team was all about WWII!
This didn’t stop Roy Thomas from creating another Timely WWII-era super-team. The Liberty Legion was created in 1976 (beginning in The Invaders #5-6 and crossing over to Marvel Premiere #29-30), but their actual adventures took place during WWII alongside the Invaders. Liberty Legion members the Whizzer and Miss America were retconned into meeting and teaming with the Invaders characters in “1944” before they were actually created (real world) in 1946.
The Invaders of this era was never a sophisticated superhero series (because it really wasn’t designed to be), but it was a very important link to future creators who did very interesting things with some of the characters in coming decades.
If you’re not confused enough by now, I’ll probably come back to this later when I do a whole column on The Invaders. Betcha can’t wait!
OUTTA TIME, OUTTA PLACE
The Invaders are just the beginning. There’s a lot of forgotten out-of-time, continuity implant Marvel series and characters that I’m going to take another look at, including:
Dominic Fortune is a pretty unique character in Marvel Comics. He’s a self-defined “Brigand For Hire” who has appeared in stories set in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and so on to the modern era. (And, yes, he’s depicted as a very old man when he appears in stories set in “present day”.) Fortune is a Howard Chaykin-created character (technically co-created with Len Wein, but there’s an even deeper history there to be explained later). He also first appeared in 1975, but he’s been published off and on every decade since. Plus, he’s a difficult character to follow, as many of his Chaykin episodes were published in odd anthology magazine-format publications, seldom in standard format comic books. (That’s where the older version of the character generally appears.)
Chaykin prefers to tell Fortune stories set in the character’s (and Marvel’s) colorful past, while the rest of the (until recently) current Marvel U. depicts him as an elderly, but still very capable, man with little input from Chaykin. Fortune is a classic Chaykin character: a tough-talking, slightly befuddled, swashbuckling man’s man, who attracts beautiful women that are much smarter than him, but fall all over him anyway. I can’t wait to tell you more about him and his adventures, which are scattered all over the Marvel Universe and its history, like buried treasure.
The Agents of Atlas were one of Marvel’s more quirky super-teams. The most current “series of miniseries” (beginning in 2006, following a one-shot appearance in What If #9 from 1978) depicted them as current-day characters, but their roots actually stretch back to the not-so-well-depicted by Marvel in the 1950s. It’s another great series/team that should have had more fans. Thanks to well-curated collections, it’s not too late to get to know them.
If you want really obscure characters and adventures, you’ll want to check out Marvel: The Lost Generation (2000-2001), a 12-part limited series by Roger Stern and John Byrne which has criminally never been collected by Marvel. Granted, it tells the tale of the most unsung, unknown characters of the Marvel Universe (the team called First Line), and some fans complained about it being told “backwards” (the story starts in issue #12 and counts down to #1). It also defines the era of the Marvel Universe that I find so fascinating — the post-WWII period of obscure superheroes, (Kirby) monsters, and other odd goings on — that as long-time Marvel readers know, we didn’t find out about until much later. Some of that starts here. The end of that era is marked by Fantastic Four #1 — both as the beginning of “modern” Marvel continuity, as well as the real-world publishing landmark that it has become.
There are a lot more of these hidden/unrevealed stories from this era that I’m dying to introduce you to.
- The Marvels Project (2009) by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting stars Marvel’s 1940s super-heroes.
- The Twelve (2008-2012), by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston, is set in the same time period but stars 12 obscure characters from that era.
- Writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker teamed for Truth: Red, White and Black (2003), a series inspired by the US Government-sponsored Tuskegee Experiments, recasting them into an examination of Marvel’s famous Super Soldier experiments in WWII.
- If all goes well, I’ll also eventually get to things like Monster Hunters in Marvel Universe #4-7 (1998), Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty (1998), other interpretations of The Invaders, and possibly even looks at pre-Fantastic Four #1 FF and X-Men characters (like Wolverine and Magneto), who had fascinating pre-FF adventures, as told by more modern creators. Many of these I’ll be reading for the first time, because they originally slipped through the cracks in my reading in the days that I preferred DC’s series over Marvel’s.
Consider it kind of the Underground History of the Marvel Universe. I’ll be your mysterious host, Zemu/Xemu. (Well, which is it, dude?…)
XEMU CARLSON is a would-be conqueror from the Fifth Dimension (“Up, Up and Away! In My Beautiful Balloon!”). I have a terrible complexion, but I have a cool metal hat and harness that plays Little Steven’s Underground Garage 24/7. I’m also created by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Jack Kirby, so there! I must have been hung-over when I designed my outfit… Green and purple! Who would do tha— Oh, hello, Mr. Hulk! Nice pants!
WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. Forbush.
Classic covers from the Grand Comics Database.