The Joy of the Obscure Comic Story
What do I mean by an ‘obscure comic story’? I simply mean good stories which aren’t as popular as other comic stories and are therefore not as celebrated.
I think it’s no secret that comics have declined in quality (in terms of both story and artwork) over the last decade or so. I’m not going to examine why this is, but I would like to repeat something that Shia Labeouf once said while standing in front of a green screen: “If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.”
DC, for instance, are now 5+ reboots (soft or otherwise) in. Marvel also can’t make its mind up about what to do with any of its characters, so it just does everything and gives them all soft reboots left right and centre like it’s a soft reboot party and everyone’s invited.
Be it ‘timelines’ or ‘universes’, modern comics simply refuse to tell stories with any meaning any more. Heart? Yes. Meaning? No. Not to me, at least. It’s hard to find meaning in something when you don’t know how long the story will actually last (inb4 ‘new reboot next Tuesday‘).
For instance, my favourite Robin, Tim Drake, wasn’t ever Robin at all according to the New 52 reboot (which was in 2011).
That’s an issue (GET IT? ISSUE? COMICS? Sorry, I’ll stop now) because the whole point of Tim Drake’s character was that he was someone we could all relate to. Specifically, the only skills he had was that he was good with computers, and an amateur detective. If you’ve ever used google, I’m sure you can relate to that.
However, unlike any of us, Tim managed to use these skills to become the third Robin, at which time he received more training than any previous Robin. Training that enables him to – well, you’ll see as soon as I’m done with this whole intro business.
I think that’s why the movies (from both DC and Marvel) are doing so well – because they’re taking the best things from the entire catalogues, and telling the stories in one fell swoop.
But what about the multiple Spiderman and Batman film franchise reboots? That’s actually kind of my point. Unlike the comics, the movies have learnt from their past mistakes and are now well and truly in their stride.
In preparation for when comics are all rebooted next Tuesday (or whenever), here are five obscure comics storylines that deserve to be retold for a modern audience.
5. Robin Faces Joker All By Himself (Robin Vol 2 #1-4)
This storyline takes place not long after Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. Batman is away from Gotham and tasks Robin with continuing his nightly patrols around the city. However, things soon escalate when Joker breaks out of Arkham Aslyum to continue his studies in computer hacking, and yes I’m serious.
Joker even outhacks (that’s a word, right?) Tim and gains a little information from the Batcomputer in the process. Joker uses his newfound hacking skills to cause so many problems for Gotham that the Mayor ultimately ends up declaring the city a disaster area.
What follows is (I think) an amazing story which I won’t spoil for you here.
What I will say, however, is that it shows Tim dealing with issues (GET IT? Oh I already did that joke, never mind) in ways that Batman would never have thought of.
This obscure comic story taught me that independence can only be earned – if it’s given, then it’s not independence.
Speaking of the word ‘given’ – I really wish I hadn’t given away those comics.
4. Batman Meets Anarky For The First Time (Detective Comics Vol 1 #608)
I’m going to save us all a lot of time here, and just say that Anarky (WITH A K – sigh) is essentially V for Vendetta, but if he wore a red cloak with a golden mask and was a teenager who didn’t hang out with Darth Vader’s mum.
He did appear as minor sidequest in the Arkhamverse but he was simply used as just another low-level villain. He deserves so much better than that.
In his first major appearance in the comics, Anarky (ugh) operates by reading the letters to the editor page (insert glib comment about the death of printed media HERE) and personally dealing with the complaints from various Gotham citizens therein.
For instance, one old couple complains about a loud nightclub near them, so he goes to investigate the place and finds out that a member of one of the bands sells drugs. He beats the living daylights out of the drug dealer (just like Batman would) and spray-paints an ‘anarchy’ (without the K – yay!) symbol on the wall as a calling card.
The reason that Anarky (ugh) is a great character is that he’s essentially a poor man’s Batman (much like Christian Bale, fight me), and that makes him – and not Joker – a perfect foil for Batman.
This obscure comic story didn’t teach me anything as much as it marks the very first time that I believed that the villain was right and that the hero was wrong.
I really wish I hadn’t given away that comic.
3. Wolverine Is A Violent Babysitter (Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 #205)
Imagine, if you would, that you’re a young girl who’s lost on Christmas, in a snowstorm. You hear a strange growling noise, and see a man half torn to shreds stumbling towards you like some kind of mutant zombie.
This is because you’re Katie Power (of Power Pack fame/infamy), and the man is Wolverine.
As the story progresses, we find out why Katie is lost and why Wolverine is so banged up. I won’t say why, but I will say that the two events are connected.
As Wolverine’s berserker rage subsides and his humanity returns, he eventually recognises Katie, whom he’s met before. He then notices his enemies are nearby, and – well, Wolverine and Katie have a short conversation, which goes something along the lines of:
Wolverine: “Katie, do you trust me?”
Katie: “Well you’re scary and wild, but I know you’re a hero Mr Logan, so I guess so?”
Wolverine: “That’ll have to do.”
He sits her on a doorstep and continues the conversation.
Wolverine: “I have to go and deal with these bad guys. I can only do that if I become kind of a bad guy myself, just for a little while.”
Katie: “Let me help you, so you can stay a hero!”
Wolverine: “You can’t help with the battle, but you can help me in another way.”
Katie: “Okay, how?”
Wolverine: “I need you to sit here, and don’t move. I need you to cover your ears and close your eyes, and no matter what happens, I need you to keep your ears covered and your eyes closed. You’ll need to be braver than you’ve ever been. Do you think you can do that for me, Katie?”
Katie “I – I think so, Mr Logan.”
This obscure comic story made me realise that my parents were living breathing humans who had sacrificed their dreams just so us kids had food. That perhaps the reason they didn’t always give us answers is that they couldn’t figure out how to word things without traumatising us. That perhaps my father actually hated his job but still went anyway, and maybe that was the reason he didn’t like to talk about it with us kids.
Mum, Dad – if you guys ever read this: I F*CKING LOVE YOU GUYS. Thank you.
I think I’ll stop there because I need to go and find out who’s cutting onions around here, or maybe why there’s so much dust in my eyes.
Also – wait for it – I really wish I hadn’t given away that comic.
2. Elektra Starts Teaching Feral Wolverine To Reclaim His Humanity (Wolverine Vol 2 #102)
In Wolverine Vol 2 #75, Magneto forcibly removed Wolverine’s adamantium from him. Wolverine then found out that his adamantium had kept him from evolving into his true, much more feral, mutant form.
In Wolverine Vol 2 #100, Genesis tried to forcibly bond adamantium back onto Wolverine’s bones, so that he could control him and use him as a henchman.
It didn’t work.
It did, however, force Wolverine’s true mutant form to surface. While most people don’t remember this period fondly, it was my favourite Wolverine story arc. Wolverine is normally a man who tries to control the beast within. Here, he was a beast trying to understand the man within.
In my opinion, the story told in this issue is simply wonderful. It’s well written, it has pathos, charm, and most of all, just when you think that the story’s threads are pointlessly convoluted, it ties them all together in one neat package. I swear Larry Hama is the only writer that actually understood Wolverine.
The story itself is strange. All of the captions are Elektra (of Daredevil fame/infamy) telling a story from her youth, while all of the art panels tell a completely different (and wordless) story of Wolverine using his animal senses to try to relate to various people in the city around him.
I find it hard to say anything more without spoiling the story, so instead, I’ll share my favourite line from it:
“We must remove weeds, but we must be careful to take no pleasure or joy in it. How could we enjoy our Easter lamb if we saw that the butcher was grinning as he enjoyed the slaughter”?
This obscure comic-book storyline taught me that compassion is a better way to understand people than judgment is, because it allows you to more properly understand their motives.
Also, fans of patterns will realise that the above quote wasn’t verbatim because I don’t know the exact quote because I gave away this comic also.
1. The Origin of Ghost Rider 2099 (Ghost Rider 2099 Vol 1 #1-8)
I don’t even need to research this one – it’s hardcoded into my brain, I’ve read it so many times. I think it’s safe to assume that’s because I still own all of these comics because I didn’t give them away (Yes, I do actually know how to keep comics). I re-read these ones every few months or so, and they never seem to age.
I mean, being a 2099 comic, they use the word ‘shock’ as their expletive (e.g. ‘go shock yourself’, or ‘get shocked’, or even ‘Oh, for shock’s sake!’) which I can do without, but hey – that was the 90s for you.
I’m not even going to begin describing the story because I want you to find a copy and read it for yourself.
Much like Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern, this version of Ghost Rider is a transition from mystical powers to pure sci-fi, and every single panel shows it.
Although it’s my favourite story on this list, it’s probably the weakest in terms of character development. There’s betrayal, love, heartache, duplicity, drama, and even a mysterious group of AIs. But there’s no real character development (that would come later on in the series) apart from one scene.
In the scene, Kenshiro (a.k.a. ‘Zero’, the Ghost Rider of the piece) needs to save his ex-girlfriend by going into her mindscapes. He goes through certain rooms in her mind and learns a lot about her, and himself.
One room shows her opinion of him directly after a lovemaking session. It’s exactly as he remembers it happening in real life, with one exception. The Zero in her mindscape has a heart-shaped hole in his chest, implying that she thought he was heartless.
The way that he responds to that when he re-enters the real world chilled me beyond words. While I’d like to think that I wouldn’t respond in the same way, I can’t really say that’s true and that’s stayed with me for 20+ years.
That’s why this particular obscure comic story is at the top of the list for me – because it affected me so deeply on an emotional level, and affected my worldview.
In other words: It had meaning to me, and because the 2099 universe is basically left alone by Marvel, it’s allowed to continue having that meaning for me.
It remains, in my opinion, the perfect comic story.
It might not be yours, but it sure is mine.