The Kaz Signal is a new monthly column by regular contributor to The Book Smugglers: Karen “Kaz” Mahoney. Kaz will be covering all things comics and popgeekery.
#0.5: Origin Story
Everything and everybody has an origin. The origin story of this column is pretty simple: Ana and Thea asked if I’d like to do it, and I politely accepted. Okay, the truth is that I was thrilled to be given a platform where I can talk about one of the things I love most in the entire world: comics (and all things comics-related). Saying ‘yes’ to monthly popgeekery was a no-brainer.
An origin story, in comic book terms, is the story of how a character – often, though not always, in the world of superheroes – got their abilities and became the superhero or villain that we read about on a monthly basis. Or, these days, the characters that we watch movies or TV shows about. What’s their backstory? How did they become super strong or super fast or super douchey? What made them decide to dress up as a bat so they could run around at night terrorising petty criminals? How are they able to stick to walls? Spin webs (any size), and catch thieves just like flies? All this – and much, much more – is revealed in an origin story. An origin story that will be re-imagined and rewritten time and time again for each new generation of comic book readers and movie goers.
But comics are about far more than just superheroes, and as much as I love superheroes (and I really do love ‘em) I’ll also be covering many other genres in the comic book medium over the coming months. There’s just too much good stuff being made right now – some of it, sadly, flying too low under the radar, so it needs an extra signal boost. That’s one of the reasons behind the name of this column (hey, that’s another origin story!).
The Book Smugglers suggested I just introduce myself in this first month (consider it a prequel column), before we really get into it next time with column #1. I live for recommending stuff to read, so I freely and unashamedly admit that The Kaz Signal is going to focus on spreading comic book joy – I’ll be generally positive and talk mostly about the things I love. But that’s not to say I won’t occasionally use this space to talk about issues or themes in more depth. I reserve the right to use this platform for anything and everything comics related. I’m just giving you fair warning up front that I will definitely be giving the spotlight to recommendations rather than heavy think-pieces and super in-depth reviews. Also, I will only ever shout out comics and graphic novels that I’ve read myself, unless clearly stated otherwise.
My Origin Story as a Comic Book Reader:
So, even though I’m a Brit, I’ve read American comics for 35 years. That’s a looong time, and it probably explains why my blood type is G+ (Geek Positive). I started reading them in what is now known as the Bronze Age of comic books. It’s fair to say that I grew up with comics and that they shaped so much of my worldview. When I was a kid, I read only superhero comic books, because that’s all that was available to me back then. Before the Direct Market came in – before the rise of the comic book store, comics were distributed in newsagents (like US grocery stores) alongside British comics and magazines and newspapers. Every month, my long-suffering parents would take me and my brother to the only two newsagents nearby that stocked American comics, driving us to first one town, then the other, and waiting while we sat on the floor where the stack was generally dumped next to the newspaper rack, flipping through each issue. We’d spend every bit of our pocket money on as many as we could afford, then take them home, go to our separate rooms and read through our stash. Then we’d swap so we could read each others’ and have twice the reading.
The first comic book I ever bought was Wonder Woman vol.1 #272.
Just look at that cover and bask in the beauty! (The Wonder Woman art is by Dave Cockrum.) I was the grand old age of seven, and it’s not overstating it to say that my whole life changed from that moment on. Oh sure, the reason I initially bought this issue was no doubt because of the Wonder Woman TV series that had so captured my imagination, but seeing that cover – with Wonder Woman standing strong and tall – it was like a beacon of… I don’t know… something. Maybe hope? It felt joyful and heroic and I still, to this day, love that she’s smiling in that image. You couldn’t get more obviously proud American symbolism I suppose, but none of that would have registered to seven-year-old me. In my young eyes, Wonder Woman just looked cool. I spent hours reading and re-reading that comic. I spent many more hours trying and failing, to draw my own version of the cover. The story was pretty good too, with a cheesy-but-powerful villain called Angle Man threatening reality, and some great stuff showing Captain Diana Prince in her day job at the US Air Force.
Looking back, it’s interesting just how many strong female heroes I had as role models through reading comic books. There were only a tiny number of female creators at the time, but there were some genuinely great representations of ‘girl power’ inside the pages for a seven-year-old kid. I mean, look at the splash page from an issue less than two years later. This was the start of an epic three-part story that brought together ALL the female superheroes from all the different earths in the multiverse. It honestly blew my nine-year-old mind:
Even though images like that were inspirational to me at the time, it’s all looking a bit white now – but thankfully just a couple of years after that I fell in love with a new hero: Mari Jiwe McCabe or, as she was known outside of her secret identity, Vixen!
Vixen is still one of my favourite DC characters – she even recently appeared in the Arrow TV series, much to my delight:
I have to backtrack a bit here – sorry, I got carried away. Returning to those early issues of Wonder Woman when I first discovered comic books, what else did I love about them? The back-up story! There was always an eight-page short story at the back of the comic all about a superhero I had never heard of: The Huntress. Another girl! Not only another girl hero, but in the continuity of her particular world (the old Earth 2 for those fellow DC nerds) she was the daughter of the now-deceased Batman and Catwoman. My brother was buying and reading all the Batman/Detective Comics he could get his hands on and although I wasn’t particularly interested in Bruce Wayne, I loved Catwoman. And it was brilliant to see Helena Wayne fighting crime in Gotham, the way her father and mother had before her:
So I got two superheroes for the price of one, and my love affair with comics had only just started. Apart from Wonder Woman and Justice League, a little later I came across The New Teen Titans. The Titans were a revelation for me because the comics – a famous 80’s run created by George Pérez and Marv Wolfman – focused especially hard on the private lives of the characters. There’s a ton of teen angst and romance and friendship-building and growing and breaking up and, well… really, you should just try to get your hands on some of these stories. They are true classics.
Look at the way, once again, it’s the ladies (Wonder Girl and Starfire) saving the day!
So that was my origin story where DC comics were concerned. The other comic book publisher in the Big Two has a slightly simpler story attached. The first Marvel comic I bought was Dazzler #15.
Again, notice that I got two girl-heroes for the price of one, still making me a canny shopper at the relatively tender age of eight-going-on-nine. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time I would have read this, because although you can easily find out the cover dates on any of the old comic books, I have no idea when this was distributed to newsagents in the UK. Sometimes we got them pretty late. I distinctly remember this one catching my eye because of the “Guest Starring Spider-Woman” banner. I recognized her from the late 70s/early 80s cartoon, which I’d watch religiously after school. Do you remember the opening credits?
But of course I fell in love with Dazzler herself and continued to buy her comic. What I love about this issue is that Alison Blaire saves the day by getting Spider-Woman to sing. Dazzler can turn sound into light of all kinds – including lasers – so, as a disco queen and pop star she carries around a portable radio. If I remember rightly, while the two women are trapped inside a building protected by a murderous security system, her radio gets broken so she orders Spider-Woman, actually the far more experienced hero, to provide the sound. Genius!
Reading Dazzler soon led me to the X-Men (Alison eventually joins the team after resisting for as long as she can, because she just wants to be a singer, dammit!). You see, there’s something about getting into comic book collecting – and maybe it was more the case in the 80s and 90s – that is like a domino effect. You buy one comic and that leads you quite naturally to another, and then another… and another. Until you’re suddenly spending all of your pocket money, and later on all your earnings, on comics. At one point in the 1990s, at the height of the collecting craze, my pull list at my local comic shop (LCS), combined with the huge hauls I would buy at specialist ‘comic marts’ (giant indoor markets that set up monthly at weekends and sold all the old and new comics and collectibles you could dream of), meant I had several long boxes full of bagged-and-boarded comics. These days I am less of an obsessive collector – not that there’s anything wrong with that AT ALL – and I just buy whatever I fancy, dipping in and out of both the digital and physical formats. I also get quite a lot of trade collections and graphic novels, because as someone who lives and breathes books I just love the way they look lined up on my bookshelves.
Anyway. I could go on. And on. I could tell you about how I first started reading The Avengers in the mid- to late-eighties, and how the incredible Monica Rambeau – actually the first female Captain Marvel (much as I love Carol Danvers and the Carol Corps, I can’t ever forget that Monica was my first Captain Marvel) – was the leader of the Avengers.
You go, girl! If you’re interested in learning more about Monica – she’s still around in comics today, having gone through a ton of different superhero names – here’s an excellent article at io9.
So, yes… I could talk about that. Or I could tell you about the complete run of old X-Men comics that I sold when I was seriously broke – something I still regret to this day. But for now I’ll step away from the keyboard and work on my next columns. That’s probably more constructive.
Oh, all right! You forced me. Two quick recommendations before I go: If you haven’t already given it a try, one of the best origin stories in modern superhero comics is, without a doubt, that of Kamala Khan – the new Ms. Marvel written by G. Willow Wilson.
Secondly, having spent so long talking about my personal origin story with Wonder Woman, I have to include this brilliant work of non-fiction that explores the origins, not so much of the amazing Amazon herself (though of course it does that admirably well), but of the cultural and historical context in which she was created.
Lepore delves into the work of creator William Moulton Marston, but also throws a lot of the spotlight on the women in his life and their importance to the origin of Wonder Woman, as well as examining the wider feminist movement of the early twentieth century. In my opinion, it’s a fascinating and unique look at the most iconic female superhero of all time.
Things I have planned for this column aka thinking aloud:
I’m currently partway through writing a future column about all-ages comics (really excited about that one!), but I’m wondering whether to hold that back a bit as next month is October – maybe I should do horror comics then? I do read some scary stuff, but I have to admit to not being an expert. I wanted to match themes to months where possible (e.g. I LOVE romance comics, and could put that up in February), but I suppose I don’t have to be rigid with that. We’ll see. I am working on columns about comics in all genres with good POC and LGBT representation. I’d also like to do something focused on female creators, maybe I could get an interview or two. Recommendations in the style of, “If you like this novel/film/TV show, you might like this comic book.” Another book-related idea: novel-to-comic adaptations and continuations. I could maybe do columns on indie publishers and small presses that don’t get so much attention, web comics… There is SO much scope here and I can’t wait to dig in.
Let me know if there’s anything YOU would like to see me cover in future editions of The Kaz Signal. I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading and see you next month!
(Final note: I would like to thank the talented Skyla Dawn Cameron at Indigo Chick Designs for my wonderful banner – she was amazing to work with and really knocked it out of the park. I love it!)