Anniversary year: 30 years of publishing comics

This year marks a surprising number of comic-related anniversaries for me as a creator. For instance, 30 years ago this month was the first time I went beyond making one-off pencil on-notebook-paper comics for my own enjoyment, and publishing them in a format I could share and distribute to my friends and other readers. Granted, the first few such issues were done with such miniscule print runs that it wasn’t all that different, but it still planted a seed that continues to grow even today…

During early 1982, while not doing the projects in our 9th grade honors science class, I started making comics with my friend Robert Macke (somehow I passed that class with an A, though all I remember from it is drawing comics and playing Ace of Aces). Robert liked my pencil on notebook paper minicomics of Hulk vs. the X-Men (in the Obnoxio the Clown vs. the X-men mode, for those of you who remember that one-shot comic), and we worked together to produce four issues of Black Market Comics— so named because we were illegally using DC’s Firestorm character (who, coincidentally, had recently debuted in his second series) as our protagonist. Even though we came up with all-original villains for him to fight in the stories, we didn’t think to come up with a hero of our own, for some reason. I wrote and penciled the stories (15-page 8.5 x 11″ issues), with Robert providing a slick finish I couldn’t pull off (& still can’t be bothered to do most of the time even today) for the first three issues; the fourth issue I largely finished on my own over summer vacation.

Issue #1 opened with “The Fury of Phase”, which begins with Professor Stein at his bank which is being robbed by the supervillain Phase. Phase (created by Robert) has powers that enable him to convert matter into their various states: solid, liquid, gas, or plasma– whattaya know, I guess we were paying attention in science class, after all! Once Phase escapes with his loot and the bystanders are safe, Stein merges with Ronnie Raymond into the nuclear hero, Firestorm, and they begin the search for Phase. Meanwhile, we look in on the Professor’s workplace, Concordance Research, Inc. to find Dr. Devon Mitchell completing his brainwave amplifier, a device he intends to use to gain revenge on Professor Stein for dethroning him as CRI’s chief scientist. Just as Firestorm is about to catch Phase, the device attack’s Stein’s half of their shared alter ego, causing Firestorm to black out. Only his quick thinking saves them from a fall to their death! Phase notices his narrow escape and takes off, lamenting the fact he couldn’t test his powers against those of Firestorm. Montage through newspaper headlines of other Phase robberies, ending with the cover to BMC #1, where former Firestorm artist George Perez is knocking the layouts to Firestorm editor Len Wein, when someone interrupts to say that the DC Archives have been stolen (by Phase, coincidentally)! Firestorm arrives on the scene, turning the gas cloud around Phase into a glass cloud, which shatters on impact … that cloud being the DC Archives, converted to gas form by Phase for easy transport!! As the pair battle, their powers collide, sending Firestorm sailing across Manhattan. Before he can continue the fight, Dr. Mitchell attacks again, and Firestorm plummets to his imminent demise!!

Issue #2 picks up immediately, with Firestorm floating on the East River. Unable to find Phase, Ronnie and the Professor decide to try to save the destroyed DC Archives, and seek help from their JLA teammates … but Kryptonian, Atlantean, Thanagarian, and even Oan Science fails to restore it. While waiting for Zatanna to arrive and attempt a save, Firestorm returns to New York City, where he is promptly attacked by Digitor, the Pyro Man (my attempt at a throwaway villain, out to make his rep by taking down the newest JLAer) … who is just as promptly dispatched when Firestorm turns his combustible fuel into water! As Firestorm carries his foe off to jail, he’s once again attacked by Dr. Mitchell’s brainwave amplifier, and Digitor makes his escape. Mysteriously, we see that feedback from the attack has affected Dr.Mitchell, causing his frontal lobe to grow larger…  As Digitor stumbles off, vowing revenge on Firestorm, we cut to Phase in a nearby seedy apartment, deciding to lay low for a while. He thinks to himself that a few more jobs will free him from a curse! Cut back to the JLA satellite, where Zatanna is making an attempt to restore the DC archives. She also fails, but laments to Firestorm how it’s too bad his powers didn’t work. One dope slap later, Firestorm is solving his own problem, and returns the Archives to their home at the DC offices. The issue ends with Firestorm separating into his component identities, when Ronnie mentions that he’s becoming smarter, and wonders if the Professor is “rubbing off on him”. Doubtful, says the Professor, since he’s also been feeling smarter lately. Stein returns to his offices at Concordance Research, and is confronted by a transformed Dr. Mitchell, who now goes by the sinister and intentionally silly name of Brainwad (for which I can take the credit/blame)!!

Issue #3, “Wadded up!”, features the long-awaited smackdown between Brainwad and Martin Stein. As Stein is being beaten up by Brainwad, Ronnie feels the danger through their shared connection, and joins them into Firestorm, whisking Stein out of harm’s way. While Stein gets Ronnie up to speed, we look in on Phase, who is thinking how just one more heist is all he needs before “we” will be free of the curse (in a tease for the next issue). Meanwhile, Firestorm arrives at Concordance Research, and battle ensues between Firestorm’s nuclear powers and Brainwad’s mental powers. Brainwad turns a weapons storehouse into a giant armed robot, but Firestorm separates them into their constituent parts again. The fight leads back into Dr. Mitchell’s lab, where Ronnie realizes that the brainwave amplifier is causing pain to the Professor, and he destroys it, returning Brainwad to the powerless form of Dr. Mitchell once again. In the dénouement, Dr. Mitchell reveals his jealousy of Professor Stein, and how he tried to use the brainwave amplifier to destroy him; but, while the device gave Dr. Mitchell mental powers, it also siphoned off his intelligence (explaining Ronnie recent smarts). Unable to keep his job as a scientist, he begs for Firestorm to imprison him, and they take him to Superman’s flying prison.

By the time we were working on issue #4, Robert and I were done playing around with someone else’s character, and wrapped things up in “Images through a cracked mirror” with a Firestorm/Phase rematch! After thwarting Phase’s latest bank robbery, Firestorm tracks him down and defeats him. Remorseful, Phase agrees to turn over all the money and come clean with his reasons. He reveals that he is actually two people, merged into a single super-powered being in a chemical plant explosion! Unable to deal with this strange situation, he came to New York after reading about a scientist (guess who?) who was working on a brainwave amplifier that could split them apart, robbing banks only to steal enough money to pay off Dr. Mitchell. Knowing that he’d destroyed Phase’s only hope of returning to a normal life (since Phase was unable to split apart like Ronnie and the Professor could), Firestorm helps Phase return the ill-gotten gains and set things right with the authorities. The issue (and the series) ends as Phase speeds off to make the best of his difficult new life…

Our intention was to continue making comics with a new series featuring the newly-rehabilitated Phase alongside other original characters during the next school year. Whether it was the increased workload of high school, less convenient schedules, or my inability to write a team book (a monkey I still haven’t been able to shake off my back in later attempts, either), that project never got off the ground, even though we’d worked (to varying levels of completion) into at least the third issue.

My brief little foray into fan fiction did teach me a thing or two, though. It definitely improved my plotting, and showed me a way to juggle multiple characters in a storyline that stretched across a number of issues. On the other hand, it didn’t really teach me much about characterization, as I just piggy-backed on my (and likely readers’) knowledge of the character as established by Gerry Conway and his collaborators … though I did at least attempt to provide motivation for the villains in the story. Still, seeing my work copied into a finished form I could share with others was really inspiring, and over the next few years I created a number of other stories in the same 8.5 x 11″ format, including an issue of The Unknown Hero (yer basic Captain America/Batman-type hero), an issue of Siren and the Owl (opera singer and inventor team up to fight mind-controlling mutant), and a “Dungeons and Dragons”-type fantasy comic with my siblings. However, even though I recall finishing all of those stories, I never actually “published” them, and the artwork to those stories met a sad fate. On trips back home during my college days I pitched most of my “amateurish” work (thinking my college work was SOOO much better), including the original art for those comics I had drawn, but never published (which meant that, for better or worse, at least the stories from Black Market Comics survived). It still grates on me when I think how much of my art from those years I just threw away!! To this day I regret the way I shortsightedly cut myself off from my own artistic beginnings …

However, it was during the same summer I was finishing up Black Market Comics #4 that I translated the first of my pencil-on-notebook-paper comics into inked and published form as my first “solo” comic. This would turn out to be the title I was first associated with beyond my circle of immediate friends, and a title I would stick with for a number of years. But more about that when its anniversary rolls around in August…

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4 Comments to “Anniversary year: 30 years of publishing comics”

  1. Thanks for sharing your BLACK MARKET COMICS saga and happy anniversary! Like you, I threw away some of my early work from childhood that I would love to have today. All of my early homemade comic books were trashed by my stupid middle school self and I still wish I could kick his butt for doing it! By the by, the name Brainwad made me laugh. Maybe The Human Spring could tackle the 21st century version of Brainwad? And your mention of Superman’s flying prison got me dewy with nostalgia! 😉

  2. I had made plans to integrate this storyline into my comics back in the late 80s, but didn’t fully realize them. Brainwad could be a good foil for the Human Spring, though. Something for me to think about…

  3. So awesome! I’d love to see even more scans of these old comics.

    • Glad you enjoyed them! It was fun to revisit these comics after so long; they actually held up better than I thought.

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