Free Comic Book Day, Part One!

Displaced from the first Saturday in May, and erased in 2020 by the covid-19 pandemic, Free Comic Book Day this year is today, August 14! I decided to make a true day of it, recalling from past years that some comic book shops have strict limits on the number of free comics you can take home with you. Two years ago, my “home” shop, Comics-N-Stuff in Carlsbad, CA, instituted a hard and firm one-person-one-book rule. I pleaded with the clerk to let me choose two, since it was also my birthday, and he relented! Perhaps modest, but I decided to visit at least three stores in a few hours on a late-summer Saturday in San Diego, if for anything else to make up for the lost year–and the many, many lost years of Free Comic Book Day that I have endured, realized only too late (2013).

Well, this year, after a pandemic bye year, Free Comic Book Day continued and even grew in its bounty here in San Diego County. I began at CNS-Carlsbad shortly after opening. A pretty quiet day, considering. My most regular manager person was there. And I am so glad there is a “regular” to mention there; I got the VIP special, y’all. (OK, so I have a VIP card that I renew every year….) Three free comics for me from the rack of maybe three dozen behind the counter. And despite that this little perk is in part because I spend enough in that store to warrant it, I imagine, I allowed myself a sense of guilt at taking something for free without buying something, so I went to this week’s new comics rack and picked up Kelly Thompson‘s Captain Marvel #31. AND Black Cotton #4 was waiting in my file! In all honesty, I am most excited about the one thing I knew (or hoped–that pull list can be mighty iffy sometimes somehow….) was going to be there. Black Cotton is the shit. More on that awesome book in another post.

So, yes: Black Cotton (read this book!) and Captain Marvel (got on board with Kelly Thompson from her current Black Widow run; this is my second issue in this series). The free comics were tough. I like to go with titles I’ve never read, but maybe something I have heard something about or had my eye drawn to on the racks. The House of Slaughter I saw getting buzz on Instagram, and, well, I regret missing the Something Is Killing the Children train until it was too late and TPBs were my option, with too many other things to acquire for them to be a priority. Much like my side entrance into Black Hammer via Colonel Weird, which is not to say that they resemble in any Rick Springer’s side doors.

Rent-A-Girlfriend? Well, the title with the art made it hard to resist in its profound silliness, and I have been meaning to try any kind of manga, I mean actually buy some, for a while. I have a nephew who is into Tokyo Ghoul and such, and we trade perceptions of what we’ve been reading. The very orientation of the book–flipping and reading from what I would think of as the back, but in American comic book print format, helped me settle on this one; that same “regular” manager was about to tell me that I had to start from the back until he realized that I had already registered that.

And as for Vampirella: I have never opened a copy of Vampirella. I come across the covers often; they are eye-catching, to be sure, and conveniently are displayed between the T’s and X’s, where sit a number of titles I like to check in on but rarely buy. (There’s another question of taste and interest to explore in a later post.) I think I have seen a page or two in some anthology or preview. I’m not even sure what she does or what kind of world she inhabits, other than the evident horror themes. The Alex Ross cover for the FCBD issue was one I just decided I couldn’t pass up. I love his rendering of the Black Widow’s first actual costume on an issue of Marvel, and decided that this companion cover of sorts was my way to finally answer my curiosity about Vampirella.

Oh, but the bounty of three free books was just the beginning. As I drove south to Southern California Comics, I couldn’t imagine what I would find, and not having looked into it in advance, it would be a wondrous surprise. I’ll describe it in the next post.

Daily Black Widow: Amazing Adventures #8 (1971)

50 years ago this month! Today: Natasha’s curse, gaslighting, and “you”

Amazing Adventures #8 (September 1971)

Story by Gene Colan and Roy Thomas (cover by Neal Adams? or John Buscema?)

Art by Don Heck and Bill Everett, with letters by Jean Izzo

The Beach Boys, the Mothers of Invention, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Ten Years After, The Who, all released albums this month in 1971.

Number One songs included “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” by the Bee Gees, and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” by Marvin Gaye.

With this kind of music and a split title featuring the Inhumans and the Black Widow, Amazing Adventures #8, what a time to be alive!

Yes, and what a time to contemplate waste and mortality, failed projects and haunted pasts. The Inhumans half of the book has a lot going on, facing the inescapable reasoning of the Black Panthers’ demands for racial justice. But this is Daily Black Widow, so Black Bolt and the Black Panthers may require their own post another time.

As for the Black Widow, she and Ivan have been hunted down by the Watchlord, a villain who seems to have astonishing telekinetic abilities that he acquired, in some eerily green-tinged foreshadowing of Natasha’s partnership with Daredevil, which will begin in Daredevil #81: as World War II nears an end, invading Soviet troops killed the young future German supervillain’s father, who he insists was not a Nazi!, and then seeks refuge with a priest, “–a godly man–” our villain must specify, who hides the newly orphaned boy among some crates, which, he learns later, contained radioactive Nazi materials!

Much like Matt Murdock (father murdered for not throwing a boxing match), super-senses acquired from accidental exposure to radioactive materials, and constantly trying to seem like a good guy when in fact he is a sexist, misogynist jackass, as we will learn over and over during his forty-odd issue run with the Black Widow. Ahem.

But what if the real trauma here, and the Watchlord’s powers a kind of reaction formation, really have to do with the priest’s causing harm to him while hiding the truth from others? What if we allow abuse in the Catholic church into this picture as the unspoken trauma? He makes an excuse for his father, then a second one for the priest. There’s a lot to make of this in terms of a father’s death fulfilled and a reaction to it that justifies its happening, without fault to the father, in the mind of the son. The same semiotic gesture happens with the priest, who is blameless in the story Watchlord gives us. And whatever the source (the church? Nazi apologists? white men? is there much of a difference?), Roy Thomas seems to let him build this gaslit version of his trauma without critique or hint at its problems.

But there’s a pattern established that forces a question: if the Nazis murdered his father despite his non-political nature, why would they be looking for the boy child such that he would flee into the arms of a priest? I think there is a traumatic experience here hiding in plain sight–and it’s not the radioactive exposure.

The priest unwittingly, it seems, anyway, exposes the boy to Nazi radiation while seeming to hide him from the Nazis, with the result that the poor boy can now manipulate the world around him, defending himself and lashing out at perceived enemies (like Ivan and Natasha–just for being Russian, apparently, not for being superheroes or jetsetters or anything like that, which is a plot point repeated in other BW stories). An interesting form of condensation and displacement to punish the perpetrators of his trauma: Russians, any Russians!! instead of his father or, well, a father.

The final panel of the final issue of the Black Widow’s first run as a solo hero, reminds us of how Natasha seems unable to create condensed, displaced representations of her trauma like the Watchlord. She sees herself as essentially responsible for the death of so many people who come into her life–friends, lovers, enemies, random people sometimes. Or at least how her male writers inscribe her trauma on her character:

But what if the real trauma here, and the Watchlord’s powers a kind of reaction formation, really have to do with the priest’s causing harm to him while hiding the truth from others? What if we allow abuse in the Catholic church into this picture as the unspoken trauma? He makes an excuse for his father, then a second one for the priest. There’s a lot to make of this in terms of a father’s death fulfilled and a reaction to it that justifies its happening, without fault to the father, in the mind of the son. The same semiotic gesture happens with the priest, who is blameless in the story Watchlord gives us.

Natasha wonders about this curse many times. But in the Amazing Adventures storylines, most of the fatalities are accidents in the commission of some pretty dangerous acts. The fact that they are committing these acts usually in an attempt to harm or kill the Black Widow makes Natasha’s trauma an important early pop culture case of misogynist gaslighting. Making the victim seem to be at fault is a classic white masculinist control trope, and I think 1971 is a great year in which to notice this in an issue that actually hit stands a month or two before Woodstock, just weeks before Jim Morrison’s death in Paris on July 3.

Not convinced? For me, the tell is the narration boxes. For whatever reason, Roy Thomas decides to narrate in the second person, addressing Natasha herself, but, because of the ambiguous quality of “you,” especially in reading, the second person also functions as parabasis. I, the reader, and Natasha, are both the you, as I suppose you are also the you, were you to read this issue. That double address heightens the sense that Thomas is in control of Natasha, knows what is happening to her before she does, and seems, in telling us in the same time of his knowledge and control over her, to revel in it, if in a beleaguered, don’t be that way–I feel sorry for you, with what I have to put you through to crank out these bimonthly shorts, honey; good thing my friends are here to back me up in defining how all of this goes down, kind of way.

I, for one, am not sorry that the Watchlord is crushed by a landslide caused by the boulder with which he attempted to flatten Natasha–again, just because she’s Russian. And for one main reason: what a dumb name. There are plenty of others that might appear to you, also.

Very flawed, pretty much one-shot villains were the driver of the Natasha half of Amazing Adventures for too long after a superior inaugural story about social justice, dirty politics, and the ethics of civil disobedience. Indeed, AA #8 proves to be Natasha’s last issue.

As she has throughout this run, and in the Avengers issues that preceded it, Natasha constantly doubts her abilities, and often screws up. This early in her career, she is still finding her way from having some collateral damage to being a precise, deadly killer in her role as an independent superhero.

But that also makes it feel like the gaslit version. She always triumphs over the villain, helps solve the puzzle, whatever, and there is usually a death. Is Roy Thomas not telling us some “alternative facts” that Natasha is deadly efficient, preferring to gaslight us as he is her, making her seem less competent, even negligent, in her accidental victories?

Knowing that Natasha, as portrayed visually, is about to pass from Don Heck and Bill Everett to Gene Colan under the Daredevil title later in the fall of 1971, I find it hard not to judge the art in this issue as inferior to Colan’s more expressionistic renderings of the Widow in DD. Heck and Everett seem, on these pages at least, also to be stuck between decades: struggling with evolving out of a relatively traditional figural, and especially facial, representational approach to a perhaps trippier but at least broader range of approaches to line drawing and inks.

Check out some of the images I refer to, plus some choice ads from this 1971 gem:

Daily Black Widow: The Avengers #45 (1967)

Today: a brief appearance from Natasha during the Summer of Love–and the thick of the Vietnam War….

The Avengers #45 by Roy Thomas and Don Heck (cover by John Buscema)

Released in August 1967, in the heat of the Summer of Love, but also increasing protest against the Vietnam War, for which American troops had just reached 500,000 in country.

This issue brings the Super-Adaptoid story to a close. Natasha is out of action, in the hospital recovering from a self-sacrificing gesture that may be the kernel of the idea of her sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame. She has survived, however, and revealed to Hawkeye how her seeming villainy was part of a SHIELD mission, and that she wants to give up her Black Widow identity.

The fool Hawkeye proposes marriage. (See panels in slideshow below; I include a couple of the ads, just to ground us in what Marvel was doing outside of comic books, and for the nostalgia of these repetitive ads for things that I find it hard to imagine many people responding to.) The possibly former Black Widow appears in Hawkeye’s misty memory, leaving little to analyze about Natasha’s role in this issue.

However, Natasha’s injuries are the result of the fight with some embarrassingly stereotyped Chinese baddies, implying a Communist Southeast Asia connection. In this issue, the Super-Adaptoid waits for its moment at a Central Park event celebrating the Avengers. (I use “it” because it is revealed to be a sentient android with astonishing abilities to mimic superheroes’ abilities, but also a limited battery!)

In this confluence, the crowds are happy, ignorant of the trouble the Avengers have faced and are about to face, much as the majority of Americans still supported the war in the spring of 1967, when this issue was written. But the war itself was not going well for the Americans, and an intensification of the troop presence and tactics led only to higher casualties against an enemy that the US assumed would eventually wear down, out of batteries, like the Super-Adaptoid.

This contrast of a naive party in the park with a subtext of gloom (several characters are described as being gloomy, morose, confused about their roles and ethics, not at full strength, even hospitalized) with a seemingly insurmountable foe, reflects the strange contrast of Monterey Pop and other festivals, or just be-ins, as the Vietnam War rages.

Don Heck’s closeup faces are very impressive, and the relationships among Avengers–and random people in the crowd–that develop over just a few panels show Marvel’s DNA: comics about love affairs, work frustrations, friendships, long before superheroics became their bread and butter.

Weekly Wednesday August 18, 2021

New comics always drop on a Wednesday. I usually find at least one to check out. Even after Free Comic Book Day’s amazing stack from Saturday/Sunday, I went to Comics-N-Stuff Carlsbad to browse the new comics wall. I found myself struggling to pick just two, and then just three, and four, and finally five–and, well, after FCBD I was fresh out of boards, so I restocked the cardstock, too.

Spotlight: Maneaters: The Cursed #2

Chelsea Cain returns with Maneaters. This time it’s summer craft camp!! I loved the first series and noticed a couple of weeks late that The Cursed #1 had come out, so I was excited for the release of this issue.

Maude’s return, this time even more self-assured in occupying a space of change, self-realization, confidence, righteous resistance. Lia Miternique, Kate Niemczyk, Rachelle Rosenberg, and Joe Caramagna put together a visual and textual world that proposes that whimsy is possible, and indeed necessary, at points where the critique of hetero-masculinist ideologies becomes sharpest and most important. And the ads are hilariously sick, as always.

Other titles I bought:

I just thought it sounded cool, and it’s written by a woman, but apparently it’s an exciting release for other people, too: Boom! Studios’ Eat the Rich, by Sarah Gailey, Pius Bak, and Roman Titov.

Dark Horse Comics’ Killer Queens #1, because “Putting the Sass in Assassin!” and a gender role reversal on a classic sci-fi trope on the cover.

Fantagraphics’ Red Room: The Antisocial Network #1, by Ed Piskor. I got the Free Comic Book Day issue of this title and liked what I saw: some weird-ass shit in a kind of comix style. And a needle in the eye (almost) on the cover? In this pandemic era, some gore and horror sounds like a kind of vaccination, doesn’t it…?

Daily Black Widow: Daredevil #61 (2004)

Today: a Daily Double! A Double DD!

Daredevil (1998) #61

By Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev, August 2004

Appearing seventeen years ago, this issue of Bendis and Maleev’s rotoscoped noir Daredevil finds Matt Murdock and Natasha suddenly crashing back into each other after a long hiatus. The Widow has just been called off an assignment and told to disappear—by Nick Fury himself. Global politics is at play, and Nat is pissed, so she shows up at Matt’s brownstone for some comfort, and maybe some action. Meanwhile, Matt is moping (shocker) because his wife Milla has filed for divorce.

Each dumped in their own way, the former lovers reconnect. Bendis’s Daredevil discovers, as he enters his Hell’s Kitchen block, that someone is there, and then identifies Natasha by her heartbeat: “that thick rhythmic pounding that never varies. That never skips or jumps or accelerates. … The heartbeat that never tells me when she is excited or lying. ….”

I like this detail about Natasha’s heartbeat in the ears (“ears”) of Matt Murdock. And here’s your Double DD: It reminds me of Mark Waid’s description of how Matt interprets Captain America’s heartbeat as the latter waits in ambush: “It beats like a Sousa march” (Daredevil (2011) #2 (September 2011–ten years ago!). If we take Matt at his word, Natasha’s “entire body is a self-crafted instrument of deception.” She has trained her heart itself never to fluctuate, a detail that lets us enjoy even more her expression on receiving Fury’s texts to abort mission and disappear. What that might mean in the bigger picture of the many, many brainwashings and body switchings and such that the character has experienced–that’s something that will have to wait for now.

I’m not including the more cheesecake panels as Natasha surprises Matt as he enters. The brief conversation that follows, Maleev’s representation of what seems a PVC version of a Black Widow costume, holding Daredevil’s duds suggestively, suggest that Natasha’s real motive is to seduce Matt into a nostalgic superhero duo night on the roofs of Hell’s Kitchen, slipping into a different routine than what happens between Matt Murdock’s silk sheets. (Yes, Bendis specifies the material.)

But, just as her heartbeat conceals excitement and deception, her proposition conceals her real motive: to get some press from Ben Urich. Why? Just to tick Nick Fury off.

The sense of aborted missions, failed marriages, ambivalence or dread surrounding every obligation and role, their need to hide from a reality that has hunted them down, seeking the comfort of an older time and relationship that Matt and Natasha both know could never have succeeded: if we reconstruct what the rotoscope was capturing of the 2004 zeitgeist, it reveals a standoff in American ideological conflicts: foreign policy; the culture wars; actual wars that are just now just kind of ending, as Kabul is falling this week in 2021. Coming out of the Cold War and the tepid but secretly roiling Clinton years, the early 2000s were like a rebound relationship with unbridled patriotism, but without the pleasure of being long settled in it, and also without as clear and evident an enemy as the USSR after decades of anti-red propaganda had primed it for that role. Also: a sense of lawlessness, exceptionalism, and poisoned morality abound in this book and in the years of George W. Bush’s wars.

Free Comic Book Day, Part 3

At Southern California Comics, I was pleasantly surprised to find a micro-con going on: maybe eight or ten booths, one of which was the FCBD tables. Holy dilemmas, Batman! (I only say that because I did indeed choose the FCBD Batman first from the piles.) There the regular clerk I know best was calling out that we could pick ten free comics. Ten! So, yes, Batman, Blade Runner, The Mighty Nein, Red Room (sick!), and then the rest old back issues root pile style. I picked out some independent titles from the early 2000s, just based on the covers, a desire for some strangeness in my new comics encounters, and a quick glimpse at a page or two. The line was getting long!

Overwhelmed by the pile and the need to choose only ten–funny how the trouble of choosing only three is much less difficult than choosing ten, the nice lady topped it off with a free FCBD poster, created by an artist who was actually there, signing posters at the far end of the micro-con (four tables down). I would have gone immediately, had I not noticed that Accidental Aliens, a local publisher, was out in force with four artists and writers.

The first I immediately recognized as Emily Rocha, an illustrator but especially colorist whom I follow on Instagram. She was there drawing! And had a story in an anthology they were selling: Tales from the Mothership! It looks even cooler at first glance than the Super-Abled anthology I had picked up from SoCal Comics maybe a year ago. Accidental Aliens have some very interesting themes and concepts in their stories and collections.

Anyway, it was really cool to see Emi Rocha out and about, and her co-creators at AA. I then moseyed down to get my poster signed before entering the actual store. I had some ideas for a couple of back issues from the mid-1970s to fill a few holes in my Black Widow collection (closing in on 600 issues). SoCal Comics, as usual, did not disappoint. The mysterious absence of The Champions #10 and #11 was rectified, leaving only #5 to complete the series of Natasha’s first stint as a superhero team leader.

And on almost nothing more than a whim and the sense that things were leaning my way that day, I decided to check the Marvel Team-Up bin for #82, another book I was surprised I was still missing. And there it was! I am going to pretend to know that it was SoCal Comics’ refreshing their inventory since the last time I was there, and not my oversight while searching before.

(I will return to this Team-Up issue and the two following in a later post; the story is that Natasha has been brainwashed (ugh! again) into thinking she is a schoolteacher named Nancy Rushman. Spider-Man intervenes in a very creepy near-rape scene in an alley, to discover that it is Natasha, which she doesn’t believe. Lots to unpack there later on.)

I couldn’t believe my good fortune, and given the pattern so far, even if just a pair of data points, Heading down to a third store, Comics-N-Stuff on El Cajon Blvd in San Diego. Their “superstore,” it is the least mall-ish, not being in a mall, the dingiest, but also the best stocked for Marvel Legends and pretty fat pockets of back issues worth flipping through. Other than a full parking lot, there wasn’t much different from another Saturday as I dropped off the freeway, made the U-turn a quarter mile up the road, and parked. Oh, but what a deception that was.

I will conclude with details of the embarrassment of riches that was Free Comic Book Day for me this year, Part 4: Just when I thought it was over…. in my next post.

A Bountiful Free Comic Book Day (or Two)

With Comics-N-Stuff Carlsbad, Southern California Comics, Comics-N-Stuff El Cajon (the “superstore”!!) yesterday and Panels Coffee & Comics today, I stretched Free Comic Book Day into two days–and one free comic into nineteen free comics! And some extras: a FCBD poster, original art from Emily Rocha and Doc Comics (Sean Ortega), and a pile of free promotional and preview matter. I’m dropping most of the actual comic book covers and original art in the slideshow below. Hopefully tomorrow, I will have to process it all and tell tales of a terrific two days of FCBD 2021.

Check out the slideshow!