The Beat’s Gregory Paul Silber has been accused of having a bit of an… obsessive personality. Each week in Silber Linings, he takes a humorous look at the weirdest, funniest, and most obscure bits of comics and pop culture that he can’t get out of his head.
It’s my birthday! Well, it will be on February 21st, two days after this gets published. Unlike last year, when I celebrated at a karaoke bar where dozens of New Yorkers, including The Beat’s own Taimur Dar, were treated to my rockin’ rendition of Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out,” I’m staying home and avoiding the plague outside. But dammit, this is my only chance to turn 30, so I’m treating myself with some weird, obscure comics that I never read before and could have fun writing about.
With that mission in mind, I visited my favorite Brooklyn comic book store, Anyone Comics. After picking up their last copy of DC’s Love is a Battlefield Valentines Day anthology (sorry, anyone else in Crown Heights who enjoys smoochy superhero stories) and the latest Daredevil, I told store handler Dimitrios Fragiskatos “I want the weirdest comics you have. Preferably under $5.” Because I’m poor, you see.
Dimitrios was kind enough to lead me to his dollar boxes, trashy treasure troves of everything from Silver Age obscurities to Steven Universe producer Chuck Austen’s reviled early 2000s War Machine run. With Dimitrios’ guidance, I picked out five comics that best resembled the weird fun I was looking for. It is now my pleasure to share my findings with you.
Story: Brandon Choi (plot) and Eric Silverstri (script)
Pencils: Brandon Peterson, Brett Booth, Marc Silvestri, Jeffrey Scott, Scott Clark, Greg Capullo, Jim Lee, and Wilce Portacio
Inks: Scott Williams, Sal Regla, Alex Garner, and Trevor Scott
Colors: Joe Chiodo, Wendy Fouts, and Paige Apfelbaum
Letters: Mike Heisler
While I have enjoyed Valiant and Image Comics since their respective early 2010s resurgences, I haven’t read much from their ’90s heydays. What better way to dive in than with this 1993 crossover jam featuring the likes of X-O Manowar and Prophet, right?
It turns out that was a terrible idea. I gave up after a few pages when I quickly realized it was a chore to read. My editor Joe Grunenwald will roast me for being a quitter* but it’s MY BIRTHDAY and I’ll do what I WANT. It’s not just that I had trouble following the story. I’ve never read most of the comics these characters come from, so that’s to be expected. It’s mostly that it’s wildly overwritten, exacerbated by confusing lettering.
(*Editor’s Note: He’s right. I will roast him for being a quitter. He gave up after a few pages?! He knew what he was signing up for with this project! I don’t care whose birthday it is. Honestly. I would encourage all of you reading this to tweet at Greg that he’s a quitter as well.)
I don’t know if my copy was printed weirdly or if the ink got smudged after going unsold for 28 years, but it sure looks like letterer Mike Heisler was bolding words and in some cases, individual letters for no apparent reason. Here’s one nugget from Gen-13 leader Caitlyn Fairchild: “ YOU NEARLY FRIED MY BUTT WITH THAT LAST BLAST!”
Anyway, this was unreadable. Hopefully I fare better with the next one.
Writer: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Akin & Garvey
Colors: Ben Sean
Letters: Janice Chiang
This is my first time reading ROM: Spaceknight, although I’ve been curious about it for a while. I’ve heard it’s an under-appreciated ’80s gem, but is it actually that good, or is it just the mystique surrounding its scarcity? After all, it’s never been reprinted because it’s based on a licensed toy robot (a bad one, by most accounts), and as powerful as Marvel became in the decades since, those rights are still tied up with Parker Brothers.
Judging just by this issue, I can confirm that ROM is… pretty okay! Grain of salt because I hopped on for 1984’s “special double-size 50th issue!” but like most Marvel Comics during Jim Shooter‘s reign as Editor-in-Chief, who was known to mandate such things, this anniversary issue is relatively new-reader-friendly. It didn’t knock my socks off, and I still don’t see what makes ROM himself a compelling character, but you can’t go wrong with Sal Buscema art.
Story-wise, I didn’t find anything particularly unique in this story either, but unlike Deathmate, I could at least follow it. ROM and his companion, Starshine, return to a small town on Earth that’s caught in the middle of a war between the “extraterrestrial” Skrulls and the Dire Wraiths. Marvel had published stories before about Earth being the unwitting center of a battle between two cosmic forces, and this would hardly be the last time, but there is at least one interesting wrinkle. As it turns out, the Skrulls don’t actually have beef with the humans. It’s just that they hate the Dire Wraiths so much that they’re willing to destroy Earth entirely just to wipe out the few Wraiths hiding here.
The Plaid Avenger #1
Story created by John Boyer
Co-written and drawn by Klaus Shmidheiser
Color assistants: Richard Miller and Erin Nolan
(No letterer credited)
I wanted to get at least one comic that I didn’t recognize in any way whatsoever, and this one from 2008 caught my eye with the tagline “featuring Vladmir Putin!” Weird way to sell a comic but okay!
I didn’t recognize any of the creators credited, but there’s no credited editor. It shows. Maybe I’m just a nerd about these things because I’m an editor myself, but this comic is riddled with as many spelling and grammatical errors as there are offensive ethnic stereotypes. Our first glimpse of the indigenous Arctic “natives” that the title character is ostensibly trying to help shows them clubbing seals for no apparent reason beyond the unfunny joke. Not a great look!
That aside, the creative team appears to have noble intentions in exposing the urgent threat of global warming, and how global politics threatens to exacerbate a problem that’s only become more perilous 13 years later. It’s a worthy cause, but as The Plaid Avenger inexplicably happens upon a meeting of international leaders including Dick Cheney and, of course, Vladmir Putin, it’s less a story than a comic book lecture with vague nods to comic book adventuring.
“Lecture” turned out to be a more apt descriptor than I thought, because as it turns out, creator John Boyer is a for-real professor. His extremely ’00s website doesn’t make it easy to find much information about the man himself, but he appears to specialize in international politics, with “The Plaid Avenger” being his adventurous alter ego. He seems like someone who would be fun to take a class with, even if his comic leaves a lot to be desired.
Fightin’ Army #145
No creators credited
I bought this one because of the title: “The Nazis Meet Billy the Kid!” I am extremely here for cowboys versus Nazis. I’m not much for Westerns, but no matter the genre, if the cover of your comic hints at Nazis getting the shit beaten out of them, I am in. Unfortunately, the title is wildly misleading.
First of all, the cowboy stuff doesn’t come in until the final third, as this Charlton title is an anthology. I like anthologies so that in itself isn’t the problem, nor is the fact that this is a war comic rather than a sci-fi Western. I’m more concerned about the “Yellow Scare” racism immediately on display from page 1, with American soldiers in “December 1951” warring against “Chinese communists.”
The Chinese combatants in “Merry Christmas, Cookie!” are drawn like the same offensive caricatures that unfortunately pervaded many American comics throughout the 1930s and ’40s, so I initially assumed that this comic was published in the ’50s at the latest. Nope, Charlton saw fit to release this in 1972 (the copy I read was a 1980 reprint). Not that racism is acceptable in any decade, but you’d think by then they’d realize how offensive those portrayals are.
The second story, “Bushwack Alley!” is a much less offensive, if immediately forgettable, World War II tank tale set in 1943 Italy. I should note that the art throughout this comic is quite good, so it’s a shame that none of the creators are credited, something else that by 1980 was standard practice at other publishers, but apparently not something Charlton Comics Group thought necessarily.
To my dismay, the third story, “The Nazis meet ‘Billy the Kid'” is not about the titular 19th century Old West outlaw time traveling to 1940s Europe to shoot up Nazis as I had hoped. Instead it’s about Luke Andrews, a period-appropriate American sniper in Nazi-occupied France who’s earned the nickname “Billy the Kid” from his rootin’ tootin’ gunslinging skills. It’s a decent enough adventure that indeed features several nazis getting shot up, but it loses points for false advertising.
And the whole issue loses points for racism.
Weird War Tales #85
Story: J.M. DeMatteis
Art: Tenny Henson
Letters: Esphid Mahilum
Colors: Jerry Serpe
Now this is more like it when it comes to war comics in 1980. DC publisher Carmine Infantino was said to have a theory that comics with gorillas on the cover sold better. I don’t know how scientific that is, but in this case, it worked for me. And in this case, the story within the pages, “The Edge of Reality,” turned out to be even better than the cover promised.
This sci-fi tale wastes no time, and by page two our lead characters, American sailors aboard a PT boat, are attacked by none other than a Nazi pterodactyl. Hell. Yes.
As the mysterious storm continues to envelop the vessel, the Americans are next ambushed by sword-wielding apes who appear to have once been Japanese soldiers during World War II. They’re then attacked by deformed humans on a ship called — and I promise I’m not making this up — the U.S.S. CAPITALISM.
While our heroes manage to fight off the U.S.S. Capitalism, the enemy ship sends out a distress call to the U.S.S. MASTER RACE, in case you were worried the metaphor would be too subtle. The protagonists are taken captive on the Master Race, where they soon realize this is the latest of a series of alternate realities the storm threw them into. In their current predicament, this version of the United States is a ruthless white supremacist empire.
Well, um… more than our current reality.
In fact, as our protagonists soon learn from the crew of the Master Race, the Americans started World War II in this reality as the final phase of their imperialist conquest. Naturally, they’re dismayed that our heroes in the PT Boat includes ethnic minorities and Jews.
There’s a gladiator battle and an EC-style twist ending in addition to the unexpectedly bold anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist themes. I may have been disappointed by the other books I picked up on my hunt for weird comics, but Weird War Tales #85 is the kind of weirdness that I read comics for.
The wonderful thing about dollar boxes is that you can roll the dice on random comics you’d otherwise ignore. If you end up disliking what you pick up, at least you didn’t lose out on much of an investment. But every once in a while, you land on something good and weird that feels like it was sent to you from another plane of existence because on some spiritual level, it was meant for you.
For five dollars, I got one comic that I couldn’t even finish, one comic that was just okay but enhanced by the novelty of its rarity, one amateurish educational comic that fascinates me by its existence, one comic that was fun but marred by racism, and one legitimately good comic that I never would’ve stumbled upon otherwise. That may not seem like a good batting average, but for my birthday, it was just the adventure into comics curiosities I was looking for.