Monday, January 24, 2011


Back in 1991—which, to my internal chronometer, feels like five or six years ago, not twenty—Marvel Comics put out a trade paperback called The Very Best of Marvel Comics.  (It’s out of print, but you can still find copies here.)  Writers, artists and editors were asked to list their all-time favorite Marvel stories and the winners were collected together, with introductions written by a small group of creators—myself included. 

I was cleaning up my office the other day and pulled The Very Best of Marvel off the shelf, paging through the stories and re-reading the introductions and end-notes I wrote for two of my all-time favorite comic book classics:  “This Man, This Monster” from Fantastic Four #51 and the two-part “End of the Green Goblin” from Amazing Spider-Man #39 and 40.  Those introductions got me thinking that it would be fun to periodically look back on my most beloved comics stories here at Creation Point, starting, of course, with the aforementioned F.F. and Spidey classics, then moving on to others that imprinted on my heart and imagination in the years before I became a comics professional.  With that in mind, I’ll run these two short appreciations today...and return for more in a month or so.  Enjoy!

Amazing Spider Man 39-40
What I remember most vividly is the cover:  the Green Goblin gliding through the sky with a bound and defeated Peter Parker—his Spider-Man costume visible beneath his street clothes—in tow.  To my twelve year old eyes—conditioned as they were to the neat and tidy DC Comics of the era—this was mesmerizing:  a villain who’d actually unmasked the hero!  A hero so utterly helpless!  As with all great comic book covers, this one fired my imagination.  I didn’t even have to read the story:  that one picture alone suggested dozens of wonderful tales.  And the truth is I didn’t read the story—not then.  I didn’t become a regular Spider-Man reader until the following month, with the story’s concluding chapter in issue #40:  it didn’t disappoint me; in fact it exceeded all my expectations (as did the preceding issue, which I tracked down at a local used book store.  There weren’t such things as comics shops in those ancient days).  The writing, the art...even the sound effects...were wildly different from what I was used to in the pages of Superman, Batman and—my favorite of the day—Justice League.  I think it’s impossible for a young comic book reader today to conceive of just how different the Marvels of the sixties were from everything that had come before.

I’m older now, more than a bit jaded when it comes to funnybooks; but when I look back at Spidey’s desperate fight to the finish with the original Green Goblin, I can feel that twelve year old coming alive inside me.  He’s there right now, standing, wide-eyed, in front of the comics rack in a Brooklyn candy store.

And he can’t take his eyes off that cover.

Fantastic Four 51
Hyperbolic opinion time:  Marvel’s greatest achievement of the sixties was undoubtedly The Fantastic Four.  Amazing Spider-Man may have been more popular, the “Doctor Strange” feature in Strange Tales may have been more mind-blowing, but the F.F.—well, they were the cutting edge of mainstream super-hero comics.  The energy, the emotion, the dialogue that managed to move effortlessly from celestial pomposity to zany wisecracks, the artwork that was (and, for my money, still is) the very best the genre had ever seen:  Lee and Kirby were at the peak of their craft—creating serialized extravaganzas, entertainments that were thoughtful, funny and just plain fun; equally accessible to children and adults.

But for all the epics—the “Galactus Trilogy,” the introduction of the Inhumans, Dr. Doom’s theft of the Silver Surfer’s power (and what a shocker that was, back in the eighth grade)—the story that stands out in my mind was a single-issue tale.  Sure it had its cosmic angle, with the introduction of Sub-Space (which later morphed into the Negative Zone), but it was a story of great simplicity; a tale of the human heart called “This Man, This Monster.”

The splash page said it all, quite eloquently:  no heroes and villains duking it out, not a word of dialogue—just the Thing, standing silent in the rain, lonely and vulnerable.  That melancholic feeling permeated the entire story, which was as much about the unnamed villain of the piece as it was about Ben Grimm; for, in becoming the Thing, in becoming a monster, what that nameless scientist learned was how to be a man.

Looking back from the vantage point of today’s so-called sophisticated comics, it all seems a little trite, a little corny.  But there’s an emotional chord that all the best stories strike, a chord that keeps vibrating every time we go back to them:  a chord of genuine emotion and emotional truth.  “This Man, This Monster” struck that chord.

And, to its eternal credit, still does.

© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis


  1. Both wonderful choices that I remember from my own childhood!

    But I was struck by your comment, "from the vantage point of today’s so-called sophisticated comics, it all seems a little trite, a little corny."

    It is, and it isn't, if you know what I mean. Certainly there's such a thing a cheap, mawkish sentimentality ... but I wonder if we've lost something sweet & true in the modern insistence on supposedly mature, edgy, grittiness? Sure, now we can see heroes being maimed, raped, killed in the goriest of ways. And for all too many, this equals mature, when it's really just as much adolescent fantasy as the Silver Age virtues such readers so eagerly deride. That strikes me as being nothing more than the shadow side of maudlin sentimentality.

    One of the things I especially like about your work is that you know the difference between earned & unearned grace, if you will. I've never known you to recoil from facing the darkness in your work; but you've never hesitated to remind us of genuine joy & decency.

    We could use a lot more of the latter today!

  2. The "trite, corny" comment wasn't saying that I felt that way, Tim, far from it; that's one of the reasons I referred to today's "so-called" sophisticated comics.

    I totally agree with you that what's often called "mature" is really adolescent -- in the worst sense of the word -- and today's comic book universes could certainly use a healthy dose of the "sweet and true."

  3. Great choices! I have those Spider-Man issues (39-40), too! Brilliant works! And I think I have that FF issue. One of my faves, as I've probably mentioned before, is FF 112. Hulk vs Thing. 'Nuff Said! I love the cover--says it all. And Stan and John Buscema told the BEST Hulk vs Thing match ever! It took almost the entire issue. The two behemoths slugged it out with great dialogue, originality, and classic, entertaining and smart action that only those two talents could produce. I still haven't seen a battle between the Hulk and Thing that compares--I guess they've since made the Hulk so strong that it's never really a contest when they go at it these days. Hulk wins pretty easily. Of course there are countless other Marvel (and DC) comic books out there that really took me to another world and made me feel alive. Too many to mention here. But that old FF 112 has always stayed with me. Have you read that one, JM?

  4. Read that one off the stands when it came out, A. Jaye—and I have a very clear memory of that great Buscema cover. Don't remember the story very well -- I'd love to re-read it -- but that cover tells the whole story in one image, doesn't it?

  5. Wow a discussion on the merits of the term "mature," I'm in. In fact I've wanted this for a long time.

    It seems to me that mature on a comic really just means more violence, more sex, and more cursing than a company wants in a mainstream book. I firmly believe that is the height of adolescent thought. A mature book needs to be more than that. Violence and sex shouldn't necessarily be banned, but the real world or adult views need to be acknowledged. Sex is the perfect way to demonstrate my view. a teenager will think, "sex alright, just give me a taste." that is the idea behind most so called mature titles where as a truly mature thought would be, "lets talk about sex, but lets also sit down and discuss what it means to relationship, or an individual, in one of many states of life." That last one sounds a lot more interesting to me.
    It just irks me that comics that are little more than a spewing of blood intermittently broken up by a minor orgy is praised for elevating the medium, but a great mainstream book is largely ignored. It genuinely seems like sometimes the more shallowly people explore their baser instincts the more they are loved. They don't examine, just show. I don't want to come off as one of those art school snobs who only reads Sandman, especially since 'ol Neil never did it for me, but lets put some thought in there. I love superheroes and don't need every comic to be a mini Dostoevsky, but when something says mature it should be just that, mature, not the complete opposite. I am an adult male, I do enjoy your average well crafted comic story, but sometimes I want more, and I don't appreciate being tricked into receiving drek from a guy who is merely celebrating being let off his chain, using sex and violence like a college freshman uses booze.
    I find it very appropriate that it was brought up in a discussion that started about 60's Marvel. Why? well my experience with the era was largely in the Essentials line when I was in High school... after I discovered mature comics, and I was stunned. I couldn't believe what they got away with. A completely dysfunctional family on the edge of ruin, A man turned monster struggling with questions of identity and the struggle to contain his own dark side (accidental alcoholism analogy, among others), a man in a tin suit who has trouble expressing his feelings, a teenager dealing with severe depression and guilt complex hiding it all behind a grin, a man out of time struggling between idealism and reality, a blind man making up a new identity so he can allow his dead father's wishes while simultaneously reviling in disobeying his wishes, a man seeking redemption with spells and hinted at philosophy and trying to contain his baser instincts, a prince torn between two worlds and holding nothing but contempt for half of what he is, teenagers fighting bigotry and a feeling of isolation, and the silver surfer speaks for himself. there is no need to add anything the material for mature themes, that they actually did touch on quite a bit back then.
    Sorry for the ramble, but I feel very strongly about it, and hope more can be said about it here. I have a lot more to say, so don't worry, even though I know it got a tad cyclical there. I also have a lot to say on your intended topic.

    wishing you nothing, but goodwill and hipness from here to the stars,

    here just to show I have a heart enjoy his harmonic treat don't let the name fool you it's a very happy song.

  6. Well said, Jack. And don't apologize for the "ramble": I enjoyed every word. I've been saying for years that much of what passes for "mature" in comics -- especially superhero comics -- should really be labeled "adolescent." And there's nothing wrong with that: We should just be honest about the material.

    I invite anyone else out there with an opinion on the subject to join in the discussion. And here's a question: What comic book works are genuinely "mature"? I'll put the first one on the table: Will Eisner's A CONTRACT WITH GOD.

    And, Jack, thanks for the link. I enjoyed the song!

  7. I've said this before, but my father lived in a small town in Alabama that carried different comics every month. My Dad had ASM 39, but it was YEARS before he ever read the finale in a reprint. To this day he resents Stan Lee's transition from done-in-one's to longer story arcs.

    The two stories that come to mind for me:

    Roger Stern's ASM #238, the first appearance of the Hobgoblin. This really influenced my view of Spider-Man as a "legacy comic." Not in the same sense of the Flash or Green Lantern passing the torch, but that of a hero haunted by his past in every way possible.

    The Hobgoblin was a perfect variation on the Green Goblin. A fitting tribute to the classic who's a character in his own right, and one who made Norman Osborn's legacy from beyond the grave seem as present as Uncle Ben's. Norman Osborn as the anti-Ben would play into a later favorite of mine, SSM 189 and 200.

    KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT. Maybe it's my bias, but I think nine was the perfect age to read this for the first time. I was young enough to feel anxiety over Spider-Man's "death," and old enough to grapple with themes like mortality and suicide.

    The timing was Providence. The story could have worked at any point, but Ned Leeds' death and Peter's recent marriage heightened the tension, and I was certain MJ was going to die at Vermin's hands.

    Mike Zeck's art is PERFECT. The cover of WOS 31 might just be the best in the character's entire history.

    And then there's the poetry. The narrative captions and the action complement each other so well I can only compare it to a seamless blend of music and lyrics. It's devastating, and haunting, and uplifting all at once.

    The realization that Kraven hasn't been mulling over Spider-Man's grave so much as his own is the perfect application of Chekhov's gun. I aspire to twists like that in my writing.

    For all the focus on its darkness, it's one of the most beautiful testaments to life and love I've ever read, highlighted by Peter's tender moment with MJ upon his first return. That Peter doesn't know the full story behind his absence at the end, and ultimately doesn't care because MJ is waiting, is so Peter Parker.

    It's arguably the greatest Spider-Man story of all time, and it was such an honor to write an academic essay looking at KLH.

  8. David, I think Roger Stern is one of the unsung heroes of Marvel Comics: a writer who -- especially in the 80's -- turned everything he touched to gold.

    As for KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT: all I can say is thank you...but I'll quibble a bit about the WOS #31 cover. Yes, it's a classic. But the "Spidey rising from the grave" cover of WOS #32 is, I think, even better. Talk about iconic! Mike Zeck is absolutely amazing.

  9. Oh, my mistake! You're absolutely right, and that's actually the cover I had in mind. The cover to WOS 31 is decent, but it doesn't rank anywhere close to WOS 32. So that's my bad, because I totally meant the "rising from the grave" one.

    (The nine year old me wouldn't have made that mistake!)

  10. I may go now in peace! I'm just obssessive enough about these things that I needed that absolution. I shudder at the thought of someone thinking I like the WOS 31 cover better than 32!

  11. J.M.,

    The Very Best of Marvel Comics was one of the first TPBs I purchased and I've given my copy a well-worn reading over the years. Stern & Golden's Dr. Strange#55 ("To Have Loved and Lost") was the most revelatory selection in the tome, but I enjoy the book cover-to-cover.

    In fact, I enjoyed your prefaces the most of all the contributing selectors because you drew from your own experiences as a fan and collector. Great anecdotes, great stories!

  12. Stern had a great run on DOCTOR STRANGE, Michael; proving, once again, what a versatile writer he is. Doc S isn't an easy character to write.

    I thoroughly enjoyed doing those introductions. It's always fun to reflect on the stories that touched us when we were kids. Which is why I look forward to doing more of it here at Creation Point.

  13. THE VERY BEST OF MARVEL COMICS was a great, great collection, and just this past week I gave a copy I had hanging around the office all these years to my 7-year-old nephews.

    Tom B

  14. The book is a great "intro point" to the Marvel Universe, Tom...I'll bet your nephews loved it.

    And congrats on your recent promotion! Best -- JMD

  15. Stopped by for some comics today, JMD.

    It looks as though you might need to send Sal Cipriano a card! With as few words as possible and a fake address...:)

  16. Don't worry, David: Sal's "threat" in the credits of BOOSTER GOLD #40 was just a gag.

    I think. :)

    But seriously, folks: it sometimes seems that I spend as much time writing the jokes for the credits as I do for the rest of the issue. And I have a great time doing it.

  17. It's a really fun book, and I think it's been getting better and better. You guys have got "drama-dy" down.

    I'd say last month's BG 39 was the high point so far. A really emotional issue, with lots of fun along the way.

  18. Sorry to say, David, that Keith and I are coming to the end of our BG run -- can't say much more than that right now -- but I hope we'll find another project to infuse with our patented idiocy.

  19. Well, that's not good news, but when God closes a door he opens a window, right? (Which explains the world's monster heating bill.)

    Speaking as a reader, I wouldn't mind seeing you and Keith work together in the SAVIOR 28-verse. Jimmy was a pretty grounded character, but you hinted at some wilder characters and happenings that would make for some Giffen/DeMatteis magic. And maybe that would turn some JLI/BG readers onto your IDW work.

    I may be dreaming here, but everything that's worth anything starts with a dream.

  20. I'd return to the SAVIOR 28 universe in a heartbeat, David, and bringing Keith along would be a treat. That said a) Keith's currently exclusive to DC and b) I don't think the folks at IDW are as excited about the S-28 universe as I am.

    But never underestimate the power of a dream!

  21. Ah, but corporate lawyers are a cowardly and superstitious lot. Perhaps if Keith took on a symbol that would strike fear into their hearts, he could be a company man by day and a fearless avenger of mainstream wrongs by night.

    "Michael Ellis and Wally Lombego ride again!"

    Just so I'm clear, though, I'm kidding about exclusive contracts and mainstream companies. I like mainstream, I like independent, I just like comics!

  22. All kidding is welcome at Creation Point, David: no worries there.

  23. In that case, I'm not sure why DC suddenly thinks they're too good for my money!:)

  24. Leavin' Booster?? Now what'll I do with Rhet Khan???

  25. Hey, y'never know, Jeff: Maybe YOU'LL be writing BG one of these days!

  26. I'd like to add a guideline for this discussion on mature. And that is that a a smart, well told, deep story does not necessarily mean mature. A lot of good, well thought out, deep stories that touch on the human condition are great comics I wouldn't want to do without, but not necessarily "mature."

    All that being said, "A Contract With God" is absolutely deserving of the title mature. That opening few pages spell it all out. The emotion hits you like an A-Bomb, I read that when I was 19 and was pondering how deep a wound the loss of my non-existent child would be. Eisner grabs you and pulls you into a truly dark place, but not kicking and screaming, but rather just like Hansel and Gretal you go into a horrifying place willingly. This in not melodrama, just drama... the drama of a man's soul. The Drama we all fear late at night more than any movie monster. And the following stories are no less impacting, That poor man tricked, and lost his one true friend... his dog. That was hardly the most usual of situations to find a protagonist.
    But Why is it "mature"? For me it's partially the subject manner, especially in the title tale. It's about disillusionment. A subject that is both the ludicrously unrealistic rear and very real, very dark reality of a mind which can not be felt by anyone, but rarely truly acknowledge until the unset of adulthood. Also the emotional resonance. Earlier I said it hits you like an A-bomb, and I stand by that. However it doesn't keep hitting you like that. After the initial strike it 's more like a tuning fork, vibrating inside you, then just as you still feel it though almost forgetting it's there... you remember and it's almost as strong as the first time. I believe feeling this, even enjoying it is not the mark of mature, but truly appreciating it is.
    Also who hasn't wanted to scream at God about their personal covenant at some point in there adult life when all Hell breaks loose, when you feel lost, alone , abandoned. In the end that I just hope the younger folk don't tuly know, and I mean TRULY know. No matter how much they claim they do.
    Know your thoughts J.M., and any other folks out there. And my picks (to start):
    Steve Gerber's Man-thing run, (with honorable mentions to Starlin's Warlock and Englehart's Doc Strange, who where close but a bit to inclusive to really make the cut.) and Ostrander's Spectre run, a truly, truly adult look at religion and spirituality. I know Gerber's run had a few moments of light storytelling, but when he hit those mature chords he really grooved, but maybe I just give old Gerbs extra points for being the first to attempt mature, honestly you tell me. If so then Starman or all three, I don't know.

  27. finishing my point, largely because of the limit on characters.

    But honestly, I'm glad your leaving Booster Gold. Why, you ask? because I love the Giffen Dematteis team, but because I hate Booster Gold, just... so much, and I don't want you wasting your talents on something I won't read. AS for your next project, one two words smashed into one, say it with me, "Nighthawk." Not Defenders, Nighthawk. It'll be great, and best of all you can have each cover based off of a different Ed Hopper painting, but never "Night Hawks." I know, I know Dc contract. So the answer is obvious, "Brother Power the Geek." No? What kind of aging Hippie are you? What could be better for you... for anyone than the Hippie Frankenstein, created when lightning hit a tailor's dummy, which for some reason had a face and hair. You could even set it in the late eighties/ early nineties, and have the Geek pondering on how all his friends have moved on and are now growning fed up with the reflection of what they once where, a reflection that can't grow older. Ricocheting between the smart real observations, melodrama, and the hilariously ridiculous like you to so love would be so easy here. It's a perfect fit for you two. No? Well, then that's not the same weirdo hippie who professed that he owed his whole career to a fake hit of acid back in "Brooklyn Dreams."

    And if you truly enjoyed that clip of the fabulous Ms. Marr, then you might want to check out this web site for a wider selection of Lisa MArr's work:

    or at least these clips:

    Wishing you nothing, but goodwill and hipness from here to the stars,

  28. Interesting thoughts, Jack (to say the least).

    The thing about "mature" labels -- as I think about it now -- is that the minute you label something, the label begins to disintegrate. There are great works of children's literature that are also profound and mature (perhaps far more mature than much so-called "adult" fiction); it's just that they're equally accessible to young and older readers.

    I'd say that -- to use one of your examples -- Englehart's wonderful run on DOCTOR STRANGE can be read and savored by both a twelve year old and a thirty year old. So perhaps -- for the purposes of this discussion -- "mature" would mean a work that wouldn't interest a child, that truly focuses on adult concerns. (Many, if not most, of Eisner's works fit that model. Gerber's brilliant MAN-THING run might not: though certainly not "kid-friendly," it absolutely straddles the worlds of Y/A and adult fiction.)

    I'm not necessarily comfortable with the above definition. Just putting it out there for group-thought.

    I'm beginning to suspect that, by the time we're done, we'll be throwing all labels and definitions right out the window.

  29. As for future Giffen-DeMatteis projects: BROTHER POWER, THE GEEK sounds like a suitably weird and interesting prospect. Giffen has mentioned THE INFERIOR FIVE as a possible project -- and that's equally oddball and interesting.

    We've often talked about taking a crack at FANTASTIC FOUR -- perhaps a mini-series or one-shot -- but with Giffen exclusive to DC, that's not going to happen anytime soon.

    Left to my own devices, I'd rather we cooked up another original -- ala HERO SQUARED -- but, again, I don't see that in the cards anytime soon.

    Time will tell, as it always does!

  30. The splash page for "This Man, This Monster" has got to be one of the best all-time splash pages in the history of comics.

  31. You'll get no arguments from me, Rob. It's an amazing piece of art: quiet but powerfully dramatic -- and deeply emotional.

  32. FF would be an exciting DeMatteis/Giffen project...of course, as of last Tuesday, they're the F3! But I suspect by the time their fiftieth anniversary rolls around, they'll be whole again.

  33. Take it from the guy who "killed" Aunt May, Harry Osborn and Kraven the Hunter, David: nobody stays dead in comics...ESPECIALLY if the character's an integral part of a movie franchise.

  34. Comic deaths always make me think of John Astin's "Buddy" character from NIGHT COURT:

    "...but I'm feeling much better now!"

  35. Reminds me of the character in Monty Python's HOLY GRAIL, David. As he's being carried out to the cart filled with deceased plague victims, he says, "I'm not dead!" Someone else says: "Well, he will be soon. He's very ill." To which the "dead" person replies: "I'm getting better!"

    All comic book characters eventually get better.

  36. LOL! True enough. It's just a flesh wound!:)

  37. By the way, did you see Nowhere Boy? I couldn't believe how accurate and well done it was. Like seeing all the best biographies of his early years come to life. My wife's not a big Lennon fan (didn't even know what was going to happen to his mother) but really loved it - going to show her Backbeat next which picks up almost exactly where this one leaves off.
    Did you know some original members of the Quarrymen still play together??
    Hope the snow didn't hit you too hard (here in NH we were slammed)!

  38. I just saw NOWHERE BOY the other night, Jeff, and really liked it. At first, based on the fact that my head's been over-stuffed with Beatles/Lennon books, I was a little bothered -- no, that's not exactly how it happened! -- but I soon saw how expertly the screenwriter was condensing and collapsing moments to get to the emotional truths of Lennon's life. No, the details weren't always exact -- really, how could they be? -- but the emotional core always was. And since Lennon was a guy who was all about getting to the core, I suspect he would have liked this movie. It certainly told the story of his coming-of-age far better than I ever expected. A powerful, deeply moving and incredibly well-acted movie.

    NOWHERE BOY and BACKBEAT would make a helluva double feature.

    As for the snow: Well, let's just say our local schools have been closed lately more than they've been open; which is always great fun, up to a point. I think everyone in my household has reached that point!

  39. Well! Not only is it great to read comments about Gerber's Man-Thing and Englehart's Dr. Strange at the bottom of a column about three wildly entertaining issues, but, in catching up with a friend I missed for twenty years, I'm digging in and discovering your first year or so of Defenders, even now! (I was overjoyed to find your letter in...#27, I think?) I remember being eleven and deciding you were surely the best writer in comics. I just want to say I love you, may your keys click and please!

  40. First of all, Cease, thanks for the incredibly kind words. Hope I didn't warp your eleven year old mind too much!

    I bow to no one in my admiration for Gerber's work in general and his MAN-THING run in particular. Imagine how delighted I was, years later, to finally work with Gerber's MT collaborator Mike Ploog on ABADAZAD and STARDUST KID. Englehart's work at both DC and Marvel in the 70's -- especially on CAP, DOCTOR STRANGE and JUSTICE LEAGUE (hey, DC, when are you going to collect that?) -- was absolutely classic.

    I'll do my best to keep the keys clicking!