Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Most Influential Comic Book Series! In History!

The Most Influential Comic Book Series! 

First special thanks go out to Nick Caputo, Carl Thiel, and Michael J. Vassallo for their ideas and help with this blog.

I am not a big fan of lists on the internet. It is fine to point out important or significant items but I am not in favor of deciding whether The Godfather or Casablanca should be #4 or #5 on a “best movie list.” They both should be on the list, I don;t care what order. So I don't do that sort of ranking here.

This is a list of the most important and influential comic book (not strips) series. Because it is about only comic book series, great anthology comics including Tales from the Crypt and Mad are not here. Neither are Showcase, Brave and the Bold, or early Tales of Suspense. But their series are.

And they are not listed in order of importance, significance, alphabetically or otherwise. They either belong on the list or they don’t. There really are no firsts in comics. Many concepts, thought to be original when used by the major publishers, may have first appeared in more obscure titles, not available on the local newsstands. So, the most influential may not always be the first.

Feel free to add your own entry to this list in the comments section. But just don’t name the series, let us know why you think it belongs here.

  1. Superman: This strange visitor from another planet started the super-hero craze in comics that after 80 years (though with one hiccup in the late forties-early fifties) has not ended. He gave us a “scientific” background for his powers, not a magical or mythological one. Superman gave us the concept of a dual identity, complete with glasses, that has been used a zillion times, from Wonder Woman to Peter Parker. He also gave us the colorful costume, complete with a cape that did nothing more than look good. Superman was noble, he automatically fought crime, unlike Batman, he didn’t need a reason. The character of Lois Lane, the girlfriend and damsel always in distress was copied so often. And he never needed money. And while he didn’t create colorful recurring characters, the newspaper strips, such as Flash Gordon and Dick Tracy did, he introduced them into comic books. Superman was also the first super-hero to jump from the pages of the anthology comic where he started into his own comic, showing that one character could sustain a comic book title of his own and still be a draw for other titles. Superman also showed that a comic book series could also become a daily and Sunday comic strip series.

  2. Batman: While Batman borrowed from everyone, the cape and the costume certainly came from Superman. But Batman was human and did not have powers, just skills. (Inspiring Green Arrow, Hawkeye and so many others.) People could identify with him. Batman’s short and pointed origin gave him a reason for fighting crime. Batman, like Dick Tracy, fought crime in the seedy side of town, his world was not Metropolis. Bruce Wayne was a millionaire and used his money in fighting crime. This, too, would be a trait of many heroes. He had unique gadgets. But there was one other important thing Batman introduced into comics. By introducing Robin, Batman introduced a family element into super-hero stories not there before. Originally, he was a loner, now he was a father. This aspect has kept changing through the years as Batman gains and loses partners and becomes darker. Batman showed that characters need to evolve to keep readers.

  3. Justice Society of America: Starting in the year 1940, in issue #3, All Star Comics created the first major group of super-heroes. They stayed until issue #57. What would be unique today is that the Atom, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Hawkman were published by All-American Publications rather than DC Comics so this was an “inter-company” superhero comic. Also, only supporting characters who did NOT have their own comic titles could be full members, so Superman and Batman were on “honorary.” When the Flash got his own title the JSA replaced him with Johnny Thunder. I put up a scan of that tile page from issue #6. Wonder Woman would make her debut in issue #8. Needless to say, this set the standard so for so many teams. With issue #58 the title became “All Star Western” but never again would have the circulation it had with the super-heroes.

  4. Young Allies, Newsboy Legion & Boy Commandos: These three debuted Summer of 1941, April 1942 and April 143. These books were created, in a brief amount of time, by the incredible team of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. Teenage sidekicks including Robin, Toro and Bucky were, in the early 1940s, very popular. They were there to provide younger readers with someone to identify with. Simon & Kirby had created the Sentinels of Liberty in a two-page text story in Captain America #4. Martin Goodman, publisher, expanded it into a fan club with Bucky being the alleged “leader.” In its second text story in Cap #8 the club would be relabeled Young Allies and the group got its own comic book which became very popular. Simon and Kirby left Timely (which we now call Marvel) and went to DC. The Dead-End Kids, at that time, were a popular movie series. With them and the Young Allies in mind the pair created the Newsboy Legion. They were a Dead End Kids type group that was befriended by a police officer who reminded you of Captain America,  complete with a shield. As news stories showed the war in Europe and the role of British commandos, Simon and Kirby created The Boy Commandos, again having teenagers team to fight the bad guys. These group books, with super-hero teen-agers and non-super-powered one, open the door for many publishers to publish books with their teen characters. Of course, this will eventually bring us to the X-Men.

  5. Flash: The Barry Allen Flash began a great change. Many consider the Flash’s appearance in Showcase #4(October 1956) the start of the Silver Age. DC revamped a once popular character, Jay Garrick, and gave the Flash a new identity, a new sleek, jet-age costume, and a new life. The Flash showed that characters could be brought back and modernized. Soon, came a new Green Lantern, Hawkman, and Atom. It is interesting that the introduction of the Martian Manhunter, one years earlier, in Detective #225 is not considered as the beginning. The Flash was not an immediate hit. He would appear in only four comics in the next three years before getting his own in 1959.
  6. Justice League of America: For me, this is the real start of the Silver Age because the comic became a best seller. Revamping the old Justice Society, it became the first team comic to get its own title in over a decade. Many comics copied the formula here. Most important, the sales figures for this title inspired Martin Goodman to ask Stan Lee to create a new super-hero team for his company. The Justice League was the most important comic Marvel never published.
  7. Fantastic Four: The first successful comic of the Marvel Age. Here Stan Lee and Jack Kirby added strong personalities to this new super-hero team. The stories were not always plot-driven, but character-oriented. They weren’t just chasing villains, they were talking, and often arguing with each other. Fighting each other became very popular and remains to this day. (See Batman Vs. Superman.) The Fantastic Four had no costumes at first, showing visibly that they were not going to be a traditional super-hero team. The teen-aged Johnny Storm was a full member, not a sidekick. The Thing was a monster who did not want to be a hero. He just wanted to be Ben Grimm.

  8. Spider-Man: Certainly, a comic that changed comics. Spider-man was Marvel’s first teen-age super-hero in his own book. (The Torch was a team member with the feature story in an anthology title.) Here, unlike Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne, Parker worried about money, getting and keeping a job and a girlfriend. Lee and Ditko stressed personality and character, not just imaginative villains. At the end of a story, Spider-Man might win, but Parker could lose…a girlfriend, his aunt or a friend. In the best origin since Batman (both of which have been greatly imitated), Parker feels guilt for the death of his uncle, providing the motivation to fight crime. In the recent Batman and Superman movies, they adapted this type of guilt for their own stories. Also, and rare for that era of the early 1960s, Spider-Man stories were the full length of the comic, something only groups, such as the JLA or the Fantastic Four, were. Spider-Man, along with the Fantastic Four, introduced a heavy measure of continuity in comics, where character growth and story arcs developed over a series of issues. This was an ingredient that had been missing for some time.

  9. Sheena: Sheena is a bit forgotten now but she had a great influence in comics. This Jungle Girl was one of the earliest female heroes (1937) AND the first female to get her own comic, which lasted 18 issues. In the United States, Sheena first appeared in Fiction House's Jumbo Comics #1, (Sept. 1938). She got her own comic at the end of 1941,(Cover dated Spring 1942, street date December 12, 1941) seven months before Wonder Woman. Sheena changed everything in her tenth issue of Jumbo Comics when she replaced her full dress and put on a skimpy leopard skin outfit (which at least made sense comfort-wise; she’s IN the jungle, after all). in fact, she invented the Jungle Girl. That is the female Tarzan rip-off, a beautiful white woman who lived in the jungle, was smarter than the natives. and could control animals. Then came Cave Girl; Cavewoman; Fantomah; Tara Fremont; G; Jana of the Jungle; Jann of the Jungle; Jill of the Jungle; Judy of the Jungle; Jungle Girl (Jungle Girl serial); The Jungle Princess; Jungle Siren; Jungle Woman; Kara the Jungle Princess; Liane, Jungle Goddess; Lorna the Jungle Girl; Meriem, wife of Korak, Nyoka the Jungle Girl; Pantera Bionda; Panther Girl of the Kongo; Princess Pantha; Prymal; Queen of the Jungle; Rima; Rulah, Samoa, Queen of the Jungle; The Savage Girl; Shanna the She-Devil; Tarzana, the Wild Girl, White Princess of the Jungle and that’s not all of them.

10.    Wonder Woman: There is no question that Wonder Woman, created by William Moulton Marston, is the character that virtually super-heroines are measured against. She first appeared in All-Star Comics #8 (1941), and in the Summer of 1942 received her own title. Wonder Woman was soon made a member of the Justice Society of America (as their secretary). Later she was a founding member of the Justice League. This perhaps, started the trend that virtually all super-hero groups of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and into the 1970s had to have one female member. This included the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Doom Patrol, Metal Men, X-Men, Teen Titans, and so many more. No DC character has been remade and rebooted than Wonder Woman. Born during World War II she wore a costume that was made from the American Flag. But women’s roles changed over the decades and so did her creative team….and her readers. In trying to keep up with the time the character has so often changed.

11.    The Heap originally appeared in Hillman Periodicals' Air Fighters Comics #3 (Dec. 1942) and became a back-up feature when the comic changed its name to Airboy Comics vol. 3, #9. It had a large impact because his concepts were imitated, successfully by other comic book companies. Stan Lee said in 1998, “When I did The Hulk, I had the Heap in mind when I made up the name. I thought “The Hulk” sounded like “The Heap” and I liked it.” Roy Thomas recalls, “Stan Lee called me in; it would’ve been late ‘70 or early ‘71. He had a couple of sentences or so for the concept — I think it was mainly the notion of a guy working on some experimental drug or something for the government, his being accosted by spies and getting fused with the swamp so that he becomes this creature. The creature itself sounds a lot like the Heap.” This was the birth of the Man-Thing, which is connected to the birth of the Swamp Thing. But the Heap was not imitated by just heroes, The Glob, the first swamp creature in Marvel’s comics, debuted in Hulk #121.

12.    Avengers: When Goodman learned of the success of the J.L.A. he asked Stan Lee to create a super-powered team. But it was the Avengers, not the FF, that was the closest to the Justice League of America. If anything, the Fantastic Four were more like the Challengers of the Unknown, it was the Avengers that placed Marvel’s marquee players into one group. But this was not simply another JLA. Again, the Marvel heroes didn’t always get along. In the second issue the Hulk quits, no one did that at the JLA. But then, in issue #16, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby remove the marquee players that were the draw for the series. The Justice League always had Superman or Batman on the cover, now Iron Man, Thor and Giant-Man (all characters who had their own featured series in anthology titles) left. They were replaced by “lesser” powered heroes, Hawkeye, The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. The Avengers lost their stars and their power. Learning from this, soon, super-hero groups did not have to have the star power they once had.

13.    X-Men: Not a big seller when it started out, The X-Men adapted many of the concepts introduced in the aforementioned comic book series. The X-Men are a team of teen-aged super-heroes (See Young Allies) would live together (See Legion of Super-Heroes) who have a family relationship (See the Fantastic Four) and have many of the same issues as Peter Parker (See Spider-Man). Yet the X-Men are a unique team, telling unique tales demonstrating that good and imaginative comic book stories drive sales, not just characters. Still, the X-Men did develop great characters. Their sales influenced a great many books, especially a DC top seller at one time, the Teen Titans.

14.    Plastic Man (a.k.a. “The Eel”) was created by Jack Cole for Quality comics in 1941, which was later bought by DC. As I mentioned in the preface, there are no firsts in comics. So The Eel may not have been the first to be able to stretch (The Thin Man in Mystic Comics #4, July 1940 was) it was Plastic Man who had the most impact and influenced the creation of The Elastic Lad, Elongated Man, Mr. Fantastic, Elastic Girl (Doom Patrol) and even Metamorpho and Bouncing Boy. Also, Jack Cole has such a great sense of humor and imagination which he infused in the strips that many artists tried to duplicate.
15.    Watchmen: Admittedly not my favorite, one cannot deny the influence of the Watchmen published as a mini-series from 1986-1987. This dark series might have been influenced by the success of Frank Miller’s Daredevil. These super-powered beings were not heroes as we had known in comics. They were thrill seeking adventurers who cared more for themselves than the people they would begrudgingly help. Death seemed not to have repercussions here. That is, 15,000,000 people die and no starring or supported character in the book, is badly affected. In fact, the creators go out of their way to show pictures of a world at peace. There was no suffering. This attitude was picked up and used in many old and new characters. The Watchmen series also cemented the idea that mini-series can work and that they can be profitable for a long time as trade paperbacks.
16.    Captain Marvel: There’s no doubt, the original Captain Marvel was tremendously influenced by Superman. But he brought a few things to the table. First, Captain Marvel was a young boy, Billy Batson, who transformed into the hero. How many young readers (and Gomer Pyle) would yell “Shazam” hoping to change. (Don Blake had to use a magic hammer, but his physical transformation into Thor was similar.) There was lightness, a lack of seriousness to many of the stories that attracted younger readers. Captain Marvel also introduced a large family aspect to series comics, adding Captain Marvel Jr., Mary Marvel, a rare female hero at the time. and a bunch of others. (Including a tiger that children loved.) Marvel didn’t introduce continued stories in comics but, boy, did he show they could work.

17.    Archie: Archie Comics is still with us, one of the three companies (along with DC and Marvel) that have survived since the 1930 when comics were created. Archie Andrews debuted with Betty Cooper and Jughead Jones in Pep Comics #22 (Dec. 1941). His success, and the many comic titles he generated, were imitated endlessly by all the major comic companies of the time. The success of the love triangle between Archie, Betty and Veronica, I bet was an inspiration for many of the romance comics of the 1950s. Archie has crossed over into the Marvel universe when the Town of Riverdale is visited by the Punisher.

         Archie Andrews: 1941-2014
But the beat goes on!
18.   Donald Duck/Uncle Scrooge: The success and influnce of these series can be summed up in two words: Carl Barks. While people often think of comics as being dominated by super-heroes, in the early 1950s, these Dell and Western comics were selling 3,000,000 an issue. Since comics began there has always been “funny animal” comics. But the success here, aimed at younger readers, certainly encouraged Harvey’s Baby Huey, (whose triplets looked like Donald Duck's nephews) and many other comic characters. Even filmmakers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have mentioned that Raiders of the Lost Ark’s the boulder booby trap was inspired by the 1954 Uncle Scrooge story "The Seven Cities of Cibola" (Uncle Scrooge #7). Barks and his stories have also inspired many animators. And, I suspect that there would be no Howard the Duck if it weren’t for Carl Barks.While Carl Barks is deservedly most famous for the development of Donald Duck comics it would be unfair to leave out some information on his creation. Donald Duck first appeared in Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies comic strip on September 16, 1934. The strip was written by Ted Osborne and drawn by Al Taliaferro. Donald’s nephews were introduced by the same creators on Oct 17, 1937.

This is the scene that inspired the opening of Raiders of the Lost Arc.

19.     Pogo: To most people, Pogo was only a comic strip. Walt Kelly created the characters of Pogo the possum and Albert the alligator in 1941 for the first issue of Dell's Animal Comics, in the story "Albert Takes the Cake."  Pogo debuted as a comic strip in the New York Sun on October 4, 1948, and ran until the paper closed on January 28, 1949. A few months later the Post-Hall Syndicate picked up the strip for national syndication. Kelly used humor, satire and parody to address both social and political issues. He was the inspiration for many strips including Doonesbury and Bloom County, but it all started in a comic book!

First NY Sun

First national strip
20.   Conan, The Barbarian: Although Tarzan had appeared in several comics in a similar looking strip, Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor Smith took Conan to a higher level. These was a great sword and sorcery adventures, based on the stories of Robert E. Howard. It’s immediate influence was felt at Marvel when they adapted not only other Howard characters, including Kull, Soloman Kane and Red Sonja but other Howard concepts, such as zuvembies, wound up in series including Brother Voodoo.  Copies of the character appeared in DC comics as well as Martin Goodman’s Atlas Line. Of course Conan made it to the movies and TV and he was followed by similar series including a modernized Hercules and Xena.

Honorable mention:
  • Sgt. Fury: Sgt. Fury was the first national comic, in 1963, to “enlist” not just an African American, Gabe Jones, into a REGULAR, REOCCURRING role, but also, they included Izzy Cohen, who was Jewish, and Dino Manelli, an Italian. This broke the tradition of having all  white, and Christian characters in most comics.    Months’ before Bill Cosby was a spy in I Spy, Gabe was included in Nick Fury’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel did not stop there, they introduced Robbie Robertson, Bill Foster, Luke Cage and, of course, The Black Panther.  It would take more than a decade for DC, in 1976, to publish Tony Isabella’s wonderful Black Lightning.
  • Speaking of Nick Fury, Strange Tales’ Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but Jim Steranko, had a tremendous influence on the comics of the time.  Gulacy’s Master of Kung Fu and Buckler’s Deathlok are two of many examples. Gary Friedrich, Doug Moench and even George Tuska tried to emulate his storytelling structure.  But this did not last forever, darn it.

                                     Well, those are my choices, what’s yours?