Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Jersey Shore

I'm currently in the distant land of Wildwood, a wonderful little resort town on the Jersey Shore, for a singing competition (hence my sparse posting).

If' you've never been, know that Wildwood is the kind of beach town that almost seems the fictional ideal of such a place, like Coney Island or Palisades Park. The boardwalk, the amusement piers, the crab shacks -- all of it is eerily semi-abandoned in October. This time of the year could only with great generosity be called "the shoulder season", and the number of open lodgings and eateries is far outweighed by the locked buildings and shuttered establishments.

It is, in fact, a giant ghost town, and therefore, creepy as all get-out. Particularly when the first comic book you ever bought was...

Batman 251


In the summer of 1973, my family was at the shore. Either there on or the way, I bought Batman 251. I'd certainly read other comics before, and I may have bought myself other comics before then, but this is the first occasion I can actually remember buying the comic book for myself with my own (allowance) money.

If you've never read it, Baman 251 (1973) had the story "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge", which is pretty significant, as far as single issues go.

TJFWR was one of the first issues of the O'Neil/Adams run on
Batman, which redefined (or, perhaps more accuratel, re-established) the character as a dark creature of the night, at home among supernatural elements as well as gritty crime drama.

TJFWR was the first story to really portray the Joker as INSANE, not just, you know, kind of flamboyent. This story is the greatest turning point in the Joker's history, and is the source of his every portrayal for the last twenty-five years.

TJFWR also set a new standard for the Joker's cruelty and disregard for human life. Once you've seen the Joker push an old man in a wheelchair into a shark tank-- well, anything seems possible after that. And that's not just for the Joker. This story recalibrated how an entire generation of comic book readers defined "evil".

TJFWR introduced (and removed) the character of Bigger Melvin, one of the Joker's five intended victims in the story. His chase scene with Batman in that issues is so classic that it was homaged, in its entirety, in the most recent issue of
Trinity.



The issue is not without flaws: for example, subtley is not a virtue of O'Neil's writing. But Adams' art remains unforgettable: the image of Bigger Melvin thinking,
"My troubles will soon all be over," while a starkly lit Joker lurks right behind him is a masterpiece of ironic comic book terror.

But, in addition to all this, the story had a great impact on me because the Joker's hideout is at -- you guessed it -- a closed down facility on the boardwalk during off-season, and the beach is a prominent plot point in the story. As a result, the story inextricably linked the image of an abandoned beach resort-- a place of happiness gone dark and sinister -- with the image of a clown gone bad. Together, those images cemented in my mind the concept that, in the words of
Batman: The Animated Series, "the brighter the picture, the darker the negative."

That's the kind of power that a strong comic book story can have, even decades later. If you have a story like this to it, what is it, which comic book story gave it to you, and why?

15 comments:

SallyP said...

That sounds like an amazing Batman story.

I have to admit that to this day, I can't go to a convention without thinking of the "Cereal Convention" story from Neil Gaiman in Sandman. I loved it, but it always makes me laugh rather nervously.

Frank Lee Delano said...

I'd already been reading Jim Starlin's work for several years, which instilled in me a healthy skepticism for organized religion. Then I picked up Dreadstar #3, where Vanth and Syzygy make their presence known in a heavily populated city as a distraction play, while their compatriots ran another operation. In their zeal to bring an end to Dreadstar's guerrilla war with the Instrumentality, the High Lord Papal orders a nuclear strike on the city, which Vanth and Syzygy have power enough to only just survive. Dreadstar must then carry Syzygy through the apocalyptic landscape to safety, breaking down into tears at the end as he damns the whole mad world.

The story made me aware of how little regard governments have for not only individual life, but even whole societies that in any way obstruct their path. I've seen this reflected so many times in the real world, its disheartening, but I'm better for having my illusions shattered early on.

L. David Wheeler said...

I'll have to think about that question for a bit -- but just wanted to note that I worked at Wildwood Linen Supply for a summer back during college and still have friends there -- and I'll confirm everything you said about it. In the off-season, it's a tetch creepy. Even more so back before they started sticking those cookie-cutter townhouses all over the place. (They're creepy in another way altogether.)

farsider said...

Batman 251 was one of first comics as well. My copy is pretty ratty by now since I've loaned it to a lot of people as an example of a good comic.

totaltoyz said...

This time of the year could only with great generosity be called "the shoulder season", and the number of open lodgings and eateries is far outweighed by the locked buildings and shuttered establishments.

Sounds like Rehoboth Beach in the 70s. As a kid I loved the "ghost town" aspect of that place between Labor Day and Memorial Day. It's only since the mid-80s that the town became an all-year place, with winter businesses like the outlets and the Super K Mart.

Nightwing Wannabe said...

Well I have only been reading comics for about 2 years and aside from Wonder Dog mauling Wendy and Marvin...I can't really say a specific story has affected me like it did you. There are always the stories where someone, whether hero or not...loses a parent and the devastation that is felt in their loss always makes me reflect and think about my own parents (still alive) and that some day it will have to happen to me...so seeing someone else's parents in comics or what ever pass on and the character's reactions to that affects me a lot.

I mainly just wanted to say that this is some really good writing in this post. The visuals were there and though I have never read the story, living on the east coast (New England areas), most of my life, I know a little something about little beach resort towns that close up and can really feel and understand the creepiness you are feeling and how you could think of such a story. Thanks for sharing this piece with us...I know I can't visit a fishing town without thinking "I know what you did last summer"! :)

Cassius6303 said...

The first comic that I think left an indelible impression on my was Crisis on Infinite Earths #8. The one where Barry sacrificed himself to stop the Anti-Monitor.

Coming immediately off the heels of Supergirl's death the issue before this story cemented within me the ideal of sacrifice and showed what a true hero could be. Combined with years of Superman and Spider-Man comics, this moment really helped shape my inner moral code.

Which is why I'm on the fence about his recent return...

As for the first comic I remember purchasing:

Marvel Premiere #55

Thankfully, this comic didn't affect me in quite the same way.

Regards,

Jamie

dannyagogo said...

I was in Atlantic City just last month to see Lynda Carter in concert. It was quite a journey as I live in Canada. I visited Cape May for lunch one day - talk about your picture perfect beach community. My Facebook photo was taken at that beach.

Nightwing Wannabe said...

I know this is off Topic...but I hear Lynda Carter lives around the DC/Maryland area.

michaelrbn@aol.com said...

One correction: this Joker story is actually one of the last of the O'Neill/Adams collaborations, coming well after the period of '68/'70 when NA started drawing Batman for Brave and the Bold and Batman/Detective.

Robot Devil said...

When i was around 11 my dad got me into comics. He'd bring home stuff for me to read. One day he brought home my usual Spider-Man and a Superman comic he told me not to read. I was like 'how bad can it be? Its Superman' so i read it
It was the issue where Toyman killed Cat Grant's kid
that comic SCARRED ME. even now i can't look at that issue. i won't watch any new Superman cartoon with Toyman in it. Toyman scares me more than the Joker
just the pure unexpected creulty of it - Toyman stabbing a kid to death with a clown-handed knife. ugh ugh ugh

plok said...

Mine was an old Marvel Team-Up, featuring the Human Torch and Iceman. Spider-Man appears on the splash page, on his way from his own title to Giant-Size Spider-Man Number Something...possibly #1, even. I was a kid, drawn in by the irresistible cosmic allure of a cover featuring Hot-Man vs. Cold-Man -- who would win? -- and then suddenly there's Spider-Man flying off in a borrowed sky-sled. And then, mystifyingly, he's gone. The X-Men then show up for a panel or two, on their way out of one X-Men comic and into another -- they show up, in gaudy costumes, in a big black car, not an X-mobile, just a regular car. I have no idea who the hell they are, I haven't really read any Spider-Man, the Human Torch I know from the 60s FF cartoon. This issue also exposes me to the mistaken-identity fight between two heroes. And it was Gil Kane art, so I'd never seen anything that looked remotely like it.

It made me a Marvel reader -- because what in the world did all this mean, what was going on, who were all these people, and what were all these other books they seemed constantly in transit between? Was this normal? Did it happen all the time? I HAD TO KNOW! In that one book, Amazing Spider-Man, Giant-Size Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men (whatever that meant), and Fantastic Four met, shook hands, and walked away...to meet up later? In some other book, or continuum of other books? Possibly there was one enormous story that was going on out there somewhere, "crossing over" as it were, between books? It was a fascinating thought. All that and a Len Wein script, too, trading on strange new cliches I didn't know yet: "critical mass", etc. Heroes who fought each other over trivial misunderstandings. Lots of talk about what New York's like. Really, all of Marvel in one comic.

That's one of mine. I was also partial to a Flash/Green Lantern team-up against Professor Zoom and I guess somebody else, in the future -- Hal Jordan met Earth's GL of the future, and fought a ring-duel with him, which Hal won by sending a beam from the ring, which he held behind his back, all the way around the world to punch the future-GL out from behind. And me, too -- there aren't words to describe the brain-warping visual coolness of this story, to my young and innocent eyes.

Been looking for that one a long time, could anyone tell me what issue and number it was, by chance? Pretty sure it was a Flash comic.

And oh yeah -- I've got more.

Mike Loughlin said...

The first comic book that intruded into my real world was an issue of The Maxx. #4 or 5, I think. I was 16 years old. It was the first appearance of Sara, a teenage supporting character. She had problems, and was driven to extreme actions- just like a very close friend of mine (Sara used a gun, my friend had substance abuse and mental health issues. She's fine now, although we drifted apart years ago). Sara's story didn't end so much as stop, as her actions did not solve anything.

I put the book down and felt clashing waves of hope and helplessness. To that point, no other comic had affected me on a personal level. It's happened a few times since, but never quite as forcefully.

The Fortress Keeper said...

I'm going to have to look up that Gl story with the round-the-world punch...

As for me, the death of Gwen Stacy was a book that pretty much haunts me to this day. I'd never really seen a comic book character - especially a prominent supporting cast member - "die" before and Spidey's grief and anger felt real to my 11 or 12 year old mind.

Of course, nowadays the image of a hero crying "nooooo" over the body of a dead compatriot/friend/lover is a lot more common.

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