Thursday, September 10, 2015

198X: Eight of the 80s Best Done-in-Ones

By Jef Willemsen (

The Marvel Universe is founded on the magic of continued storytelling. Comics are like a spandex soap opera in which every issue is spent building up to a sense shattering cliffhanger. Yet, amidst all these continuous crossovers there are standalone tales that leave a lasting impression. Let's revisit eight of the 80s best...

Of course, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were the first to break with the tradition they themselves established. Back in 1966, after surprising all of comicdom with the cosmic threeparter that gave us Galactus and the Silver Surfer, the duo shifted gears with Fantastic Four I#51. In the now-classic "This Man, This Monster" they told a nigh Shakespearean parable about redemption and the measure of a man in spite of his looks. But these gems from the 80s, presented in no particular order, were no less memorable,

8) Uncanny X-Men I#199 (November, 1985)

Talk about a soap opera.

Chris Claremont was well into his 10th year on Uncanny X-Men when he penned this tale and his talents as a writer are on full display here. Deftly weaving together numerous, seperate storylines into a single issue, he managed to marry classic superheroics with human drama and pathos.

Consider what happens in a single issue: Moira MacTaggert reveals to a stunned Wolverine and Cyclops that their mentor Charles Xavier is dying. Mystique convinces Valerie Cooper that the government needs a super team and offers her the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. As a test case, the villains are ordered to bring in Magneto which leads to a fight between them and the X-Men at a World War II memorial service. This last bit was relevant because for the first time it firmly established Magneto was indeed a Jewish holocaust survivor.

And at the same time Rachel Summers, the alternate reality daughter of Jean and Scott, came to terms with her legacy as Phoenix.

                                    "Can you see me, mommy? What I am... all I've done?"

Talk about a touching bit of dialogue. Moved to tears by experiencing the essence of the mother she'd lost (alternate counterpart or not), Rachel accepted the power of the Phoenix. Ignore the cover, while the image itself is memorable, it's actually a shameless misdirect. Fans expected #200 to be all about Rachel Summers terrorizing the world as the new Phoenix. Instead they got treated to the trial of Magneto.

Charles Xavier was so upset, he died.

7) Avengers I#298 (December, 1988)

My word!

writers sporadically honor the team's trusty butler by featuring him in a solo story. Most of those are rather memorable because they showcase just how much of an unflappable gentleman Edwin Jarvis is. Walter Simonson made sure Jarvis' personality was on full display when he wrote Avengers I#298, the story of how Jarvis dealt with a demonically possessed New York City. The heat was so unbearable, even the late Joe Cocker's Summer In The City didn't do it justice and worst of all, inanimate objects came to life. As always, Jarvis took things in stride...

                              "Complete this call and I shall feed you all the change I possess...
                            Frustrate that effort and I shall return momentarily with bolt cutters..."

Truth be told, Simonson didn't have any actual Avengers to write about, after all he'd just disbanded the team a month or so earlier. But the adventures of Jarvis were a worthy and wonderful alternative to classic superheroics. If only because the butler bore more than a little resemblace to Mr. Steed from the utterly British 1960s Avengers series, complete with bowler hat and umbrella. But even the incomparable Patrick Macnee never had to fight this off-brand Transformer.


In the end, Jarvis was saved by Steve Rogers (as the Captain) and even got the girl. All in all, not bad for a day's work, eh?

6) Daredevil I#179 (February, 1982)

Smoking's lethal in more ways than one...

Leave it to Frank Miller to come up with a provocative cover. In early 1982, Miller had become the de factor Daredevil artist, providing words and pictures for a book about a character a far cry from the happy-go-lucky crimson crimefighter of yesteryear. Mixing classic crime noir with tragedy of ancient Greek proportions, Miller played up the ongoing rivalry between Daredevil and his old lover Elektra, who had become the Kingpin's latest personal assassin.

                                   "My name is Ben Urich. I'm a reporter. This is my story."

The mistress of the sai was sent to convince Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich to stop investigating Randolph Cherryh, a crooked New York politician bought by the Kingpin. In an unforgettable sequence she caught up with Urich as he was meeting an informant in a movie theater, quietly stabbing the man to death and leaving the petrified journalist with one heck of a warning.

The rest of the story is told from Urich's perspective. We finally meet his wife who loves Ben but fears for his life, we see him doubt the way he's living even as he worries for his friend Matt Murdock who he got involved in the case. In the end, he catches up with Daredevil just as the hero is facing down Elektra. At the height of their silent but deadly confrontation, Urich has a coughing fit that alerts Elektra to his presence... Leading to this telling scene.

                                                                 "Lousy cigarettes..."

Of course, Ben was fine...

5) Captain America I#250 (October, 1980)

                                                        I want you *not* to vote for me...

Spoiler alert: Captain America does not run for president. But that was never the point Roger Stern and John Byrne were trying to make in Cap's 250th milestone issue. After foiling a hostage situation at a political rally, a clever political powerbroker decided to present Captain America as a third party candidate for president.

Over the course of the issue, Cap mulled over the idea, discussing it with his friends in and out of costume. They all seemed pretty enthused about the notion of the Avenger-in-chief. Yet, he couldn't shake the feeling it wasn't for him. At first, he thought it was because it would mean he had to be Cap all the time, giving up on the life he'd been building for himself as Steve Rogers. But that unease turned out to be less selfish than we thought when Cap conveniently came acrosss his old primary school from the 1930s. Cue the even more convenient flashback...

"I pray that you do the right thing... the brave thing... Please don't let me down."

Motivated by his old teacher's words of wisdom, Steve Rogers realized that the brave thing to do was continue on as Captain America instead of pursuing a career in politics. This synopsis doesn't really do the sequence justice, it's truly a subtle and ennobling piece of writing. Sure, it's a tad cheesy, but that's the essence of what makes Captain America such a great character. His strength doesn't lie in the shield or the chest thumping, blind patriotism the costume envokes, it's the ideals of the man behind the mask. 

4) Iron Man I#232 (July, 1988)

Oh irony, thy name is Tony...

In a perfect universe, Barry Windsor Smith draws at least one monthly book... Or maybe it's the fact the British born illustrator only rarely showed up at Marvel during the 1980s that makes his contributions so memorable.

Ironically enough, Windsor Smith is often given the most ludicrous of plots to work with. The Human Torch pranks Thing by pasting cut up orange straws to his face so Ben thinks he's growing a beard...Wolverine teams up with Katie Power to fight cyborgs during a blinding NYC blizzard? Golden! Storm struggles to survive the African dessert in the midst of a sandstorm while caring for a very pregnant girl? Unforgettable! Tony Stark has a 20+ page fever dream about his armor turning against him? Magnificent... Don't believe me, just watch...

                         "I know... where I am... now... Hell. I'm the devil. Stealing my own soul."

This story was presented as a coda to the wildly popular Armor Wars arc, in which Tony Stark went to great lengths to reclaim his stolen (armor) technology. To achieve this, he was forced to compromise his principles, fighting his teammate Captain America in a duel that one could call an 80s style Civil War and taking down armored villains and allies left and right. In the aftermath, the man had to come to terms with the machine he represented.

Even without Smith's art, David Michelinie's prose makes this done-in-one tale well worth the effort of tracking down.

3) Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts I#66 (August, 1984)

When east meets west, who's to say which is best?

This blog has often and happily sung the praises of the Roger Stern/Paul Smith days on Doctor Strange and this entry is no exception. Doctor Strange is asked by three pilgrims from the far east to help them locate the latest reincarnation of the lama of Bjarghan. Using his mystic senses, the good doctor discovers this venerated holyman was reborn in the body of a 28 year old All-American slacker who spends his days as a caddy on a golf course and isn't the least bit interested in the ways of old.

What follows is a wonderful and poignant tale of cultures clashing, religious intolerance and people's inability to embrace change. When Strange presents the pilgrims with their new and unexpected lama, one of them is so upset he decides to  "remedy" this obvious "oversight" on behalf of the almighty.

"Our order has flourished for millenia. 
I will not see it destroyed by a single error of reincarnation!"

Ah, the shameless hubris... Stern cleverly points out the hypocrisy often shown by people of faith who commit violent, heinous crimes because they believe their take on peace and love is superior to others. It's doubly interesting because it must have been hard to swallow for the Ancient One's followers as well when the Westerner Stephen Strange was selected to succeed him as sorceror supreme.

In the end, Strange helped the monks accept Arnie Green as their new leader. He accompanied them back to the far east, but not without bringing a satellite dish. In fact, the first thing he planned to do was introduce his order to the enlightenment of cable tv and pizza with extra cheese.

Well, it takes all kinds.

2) The New Defenders I#131 (May, 1984)

If only it coulda been the Eggman...

The latter day Defenders stories were marked by an ever increasing sense of doom, gloom and existential horror. When your rogues' gallery includes demon possessing Afghani wizards, soul corrupting dragons of the moon and gamma irradiated cactus creatures, all bets are off. Especially when part of your team consists of a transgender sentient cloud, a bisexual telepath with a god complex and a blind angelic mutant who has his non powered girlfriend Candy lead the team.

Add to that the fact your writers are Peter B. Gillis and J.M. DeMatteis and not having any laughs seems pretty much a given... And yet, there's also New Defenders I#131, a shamelessly goofy standalone issue that is actually co-written by the aforementioned gentlemen. It's DeMatteis' last and Gillis' first contribution to the book and they wound up creating the terrifically terrible Walrus.

                                                                          "Woo woo!"

Don't expect any actual drama, it's mostly shtick and it's delightful. Meet Brooklyn based cab driver Hubert Carpenter, obsesssed with the Beatles and living with his mad scientist uncle who is desperate to prove his genius by granting Carpenter superpowers based on an animal. After dozens of unsuccesful attempts, they're down to the W in the alphabet, which leads Hubert to naming himself the Walrus after the famous LSD-inspired Beatles song I Am The Walrus.

Eager to show off his new powers, the Walrus and his uncle decide to attack the Beast who's scheduled to give a lecture at the local university. And then Frog Man shows up too because, hey... Why not?

                                     "Destroy them all! It's the Carson show for us for sure!"

Yours truly loved the story as a child, because there was so much silly, goofy and innocent fun to enjoy. But in retrospect, it seems obvious J.M. DeMatteis had actually intended this tale for Marvel Team Up, a book he wrote in the early 1980s. It featured the exact same relatively light hearted stories as seen here and also used Beast, Frogman and even the Kwikee Burger restaurant the Walrus is tearing up. Add to that the fact Iceman and Angel play an extremely limited role in this story and it's not hard to imagine New Defenders I#131 started out as an unused Marvel Team Up story featuring Beast and Frog Man. In order to give incoming New Defenders scribe Peter Gillis a little more time to get started, this old inventory story was modified. But I'll be darned if it wasn't fun... coo-coo-cachoo!

1) Fantastic Four I#234 (September, 1981)

              "Submitted for your approval, one mister L.R. Collins... The man with the power"

Very early in his tenure on Fantastic Four, John Byrne wrote, drew and inked the story of "Skip" Collins. A very ordinary, somewhat simple minded but dedicated working class hero who unwittingly possessed the power to alter reality. He gained this power in the military after prolonged exposure to the radiation of nuclear tests but didn't even notice that over the years his subconscious desires or worries shaped the world around him.

          "And it becomes a half-hour earlier, simply by virtue of the fact that "Skip" desires it so"

Judging by that quoted line, it's obvious Byrne was still finding his feet as a writer then. Any eagle-eyed editor would have pointed out that "simply by virtue of the fact that" was a bit verbose and a simple "because" would have sufficed. What's also clear is that John Byrne was basically writing an episode of Twilight Zone. The premise fits the classic sci-fi show and his scripting is reminiscent of the show's remarkable host and headwriter Rod Serling, who would introduce and narrate tales of ordinary people in anything but ordinary circumstances.

And it's a delightful, off beat tale that neatly brings the blissfully omnipotent Skip Collins in the world of the Fantastic Four when he lucks his way into taking a business trip to New York City. Fascinated by a chance encounter with Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, he decides to follow them around only to be alarmed when they're suddenly called away to deal with an unknown disaster of global proportions. The Earth is being ravaged by unknown forces (actually, it's Ego the Living Planet) and the last thing Skip sees is the FF's ICBM headed out for space. Believing his heroes abandoned him, Skip panics and that throws his powers into overdrive...

"It should never have happened!"

With the same ease as Anthony Freemont would wish people into the cornfield...  Skip restores the entire planet, undoing untold damage and deaths without even giving it a second thought. His powers burned out and everything around him back to normal, he quietly wanders into obscurity. 

So much for this Eight of the 80s entry. For the record: "obvious" picks like "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" or "Professor Xavier is a Jerk!" have been omitted in favor of somewhat more original choices... But of course, the classics are wonderful too! 


  1. Not to nitpick but Magneto had his holocaust past in X-Men 161 with a flashback of him and Xavier meeting in Israel. Also Xavier doesn't die at the end of 200 but is saved by Lilandra and the Starjammers on his deathbed by transporting him to their ship and whisking him away. (she knew he was in bad shape by their psychic rapport and came to save him).

  2. Well, for the record, Unknown... The Magneto flashback in Uncanny X-Men I#161 was initially represented as part of a fever dream Xavier had trying to fight off the Brood embryo inside him. Uncanny X-Men I#199 was the first real life confirmation Magneto had been a holocaust survivor. As for Xavier not dying in 200, of course he didn't. This is comics, after all... No on really dies.



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