BILLY JOEL AND MARVEL COMICS: CIRCA 1978
June 18, 2004
The following essay was originally published a few weeks ago at POP THOUGHT (until I accidently overwrote it). Here it is in case you missed it...
JUST A HALF A MILE AWAY FROM 52nd STREET
Billy Joel and the Marvel Comics Group, Circa 1978
In 1978 singer-songwriter Billy Joel released the Grammy-winning album 52nd Street. Writer David Yurkovich reflects upon other magical moments that occurred that year, particularly from Marvel.
In 1979 Billy Joel was awarded the, um, coveted Grammy for his 1978 release 52nd Street. I was a pimply 15-year-old boy, laying on the carpeted floor of my parent’s house in western Pennsylvania and munching on Cheese Doodles the night the ’79 Grammy’s aired. During the hour or so while Joel sat in his comfortable auditorium seat, pondering what (if any) awards he would be taking home, I darted my eyes from the 24-inch Magnavox console to a sketchbook that was adjacent to a compost heap consisting of comic books, ruled notebook paper, pencils, and a few disposable Bic pens. I have no idea what Joel said during his acceptance speech, as the shimmering Grammy was handed to him. I was 15, absorbed in sketching and probably just hoping that the next commercial break would include the hot n’ spicy Enjoli Fragrance ad (the one in which a sexy housewife declares that she can “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never never never let you forget you’re a man”). More often than not, however, I was subjected to car ads (such as the disco-inspired Ford Futura) or the vocal stylings of a wide-lapelled Sammy Davis Jr. as he melodically pushed Alka-Seltzer onto a the undigested contents of the nation’s stomachs.
Toward the end of Grammy night the major awards were announced, and thus it was that Billy Joel left his cushioned seat and stepped before the nation and his musician colleagues to accept the award for Album of the Year. It was one of two awards Joel would take home that evening, the other being Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. Joel would capture Grammy gold the following year in the category Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male (for the album Glass Houses). Unfortunately, like so many others before him and since, the Grammy would prove to be the touch of death to his career. Not to say he hasn’t forged ahead and achieved considerable post-Grammy success, but how does one compare “Zanzibar” to “For the Longest Time” without rolling one’s eyes? One doesn’t. To me, 52nd Street is one of those perfect albums that a performer is able to produce once, perhaps twice in his or her respective career. Joel’s precursor to 52nd Street entitled The Stranger, is equally as good (some would argue better), demonstrating Joel’s capabilities as an artist. Thus, being able to appreciate the magnificence of songs such as “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” “Vienna,” and “Until the Night,” (as I’m sure you are) you may perhaps understand why tracks like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” just don’t do it for me. But 52nd Street is, to me, more than a collection of nine stellar pop recordings—it represents a moment frozen in time, autumn of 1978 to be precise. It was during this time when Columbia Records released 52nd Street, following the amazing four singles (from The Stranger) that had placed in the Billboard Top 100 earlier that same year. I didn’t know any of that. Sure, I listed to American Top 40 every Sunday morning like much of the teenage American radio-listening audience, but I certainly didn’t pay attention to the standings. Heck, I didn’t even purchase The Stranger until 1979 (and I bought it on 8-track, demonstrating my inability to sense that the ill-conceived players were on their way out). But I knew 52nd Street. It was one of the few albums I’d purchased at that time. I’d already discovered comic books, and to give you a point of reference with regard to costs, consider this: In 1978 a vinyl record cost the same as 21 standard-length comic books, so record purchases were few and far between. And even though the lyrics to “Big Shot” pretty much went over my head at the time (I mean, I had no idea what Halston dresses and Dom Perignon were, nor why anyone would put a spoon up his or her nose), I was drawn to the music nonetheless. And having begun rabidly collecting comic books a few months earlier, I soon found an inexplicable connection between Daredevil and “My Life,” between Marvel Team-Up and “Zanzibar,” much like I would later equate Rush’s “Subdivisions” with the arcade game Galaga (which, believe me, is another story for another time indeed). These associations make little sense even to me, except that because I enjoyed the music of 52nd Street and the cast of the Marvel universe circa 1978 at the same time, they are now linked in my mind as one and the same. Yes, I can read issue 154 of Daredevil without thinking of Joel’s “Half a Mile Away,” and I can listen to “Until the Night” without reminiscing about Captain America 225, but, strange as it may seem, sometimes I can’t experience one without the other. I’ll read a comic from that time and hear Joel in my head, or play the CD (yea, I’ve graduated from 8 tracks to compact discs), and see the action from Marvel Premiere or the Byrne/Claremont issues of Uncanny X-Men.
Billy Joel doesn’t write songs like he used to—and I believe now he’s actually abandoned pop song writing and has instead begun to pursue a more “serious” genre of music--classical. Marvel doesn’t publish comics like it once did, except in reprint format. Vinyl was replaced by CD, and CDs are already obsolete. But that doesn’t mean that what once was...wasn’t magic. 52nd Street was magic. The self-proclaimed “Greatest FF Saga of All!” in Fantastic Four 196-200 was magic. Daredevil’s ultimate battle with the Purple Man in Daredevil 154, in which DD’s long-time nemesis finally learned DD’s secret identity, was magic. The X-Men/Magneto clash in Uncanny X-Men 112-113 was magic. Those are magical moments from a not-too-distant past, but one that does seem to become more and more distant. Is this age talking? Are these the reflections of a man who will soon be 40? Maybe. But more than that, I think I’m reflecting upon these times as someone who grew up in them and enjoyed them—and who still enjoys them.
There is a fair amount of improvisational jazz on 52nd Street. The album features an amazingly diverse group of musicians including the fabulous trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, percussionist extraordinaire Ralph MacDonald, saxophonist and clarinetist Richie Cannata, and vocalists such as Milt Grayson and Chicago’s Peter Cetera. Likewise, the Marvel comics of the late 1970s are, at times, equally improvisational, almost jazz like. Arguably, the Marvel comics of the early-to-mid 1970s suffered greatly, lacking the sense of style and quality they’d held a decade earlier. Much of this is probably because of the company’s efforts to continuously release new titles and dominate the market year after year, with nary the hordes of craftspeople needed to actually be able to give their all to the titles to which they were assigned. Certainly there were exceptions, such as writers and artists like Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner, Tony Isabella, Ross Andru, Steve Gerber, and Steve Engelhart, among others. But if you examine the products that were being released by Marvel during the early-to-mid 1970s and compare them with either the 1960s output or the output of the late 1970s to mid 1980s, you’d be hard pressed not to agree that the early 1970s material, in general, had become somewhat formulaic and, at times, is downright subpar to those other periods. But there was definitely a sense of jazz in the comics of the late 1970s.
I hopped aboard the Marvel train in March 1978 with issue 12 of Marvel’s Star Wars comic (you know, “At Last—Beyond the Movie! Beyond the Galaxy!”) and was enticed enough by the 32 house ads to try out practically every other title the “House of Ideas” was producing at the time. More than a few of these comics are still among my all-time favorites. Here’s a few reasons why:
Incredible Hulk 227& Annual 7: I purchased issue 227 and Annual 7 almost simultaneously, in June 1978. Issue 227 features a tale penned by the brilliant Roger Stern and illustrated by stalwart artists Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson. Stern takes the concept of psychoanalysis to the extreme, with the Hulk undergoing a therapy session overseen by supporting cast member Doc Sampson. Sampson attempts to help Bruce Banner to find a way to control his mind at all times, ensuring that by doing so the world will never have to fear the Hulk again. The Hulk and Doc Sampson walk through the Hulk’s dreaming mind with dire consequences. Smart and straightforward, it’s an excellent chapter of a longer epic, but even as a stand-alone story it’s highly entertaining. The Incredible Hulk Annual features the green-skinned goliath battling alongside two of the original X-Men (Ice Man and the Angel) and taking on a huge robot Sentinel. Stern wrote it, and it was illustrated by John Byrne and Bob Layton, both of whom were in top form for this giant-sized issue that still stands the test of time.
The Avengers 174: I purchased issue 174 of this title in May 1978, totally for the cover alone (which features the Avenger Hawkeye going head-to-head against The Collector, meticulously rendered by George Perez and Terry Austin no less). Little did I know I’d walked right into the middle of what is today known as the “Korvac Saga.” There were many creators involved in the crafting of this Bronze Age epic that pitted The Avengers against a foe known only as “The Enemy.” Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo, George Perez, Dave Wenzel, and Pablo Marcos were among the creative talents behind this classic chapter in the lives of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. Issue 174 pits the team against The Collector, a long-time adversary of the group. However, The Collector himself is but a pawn in the Enemy’s plans. I’d tell you more, but it’s such an excellent story, a veritable “Salt Peanuts” full of staccato twists and turns, that it would be unjust to simply give it all away.
Ghost Rider 31: Issue 31, another May 1978 purchase, featured a hauntingly action-packed cover of the cyclist from Hell being hunted down by a demonic adversary known as the Bounty Hunter. Solid, creepy storytelling by writer Roger McKenzie and artist Don Perlin (who co-plotted the issue) had me reading this one over and over on an almost nightly basis for two months until the fear-fraught conclusion in issue 32 went on sale.
Captain America 225: My decision to buy this one was also based solely on the cover—it featured an impassioned Cap hurling his red, white, and blue shield right at the reader (kudos to artists Frank Robbins and Terry Austin on that one). The cover copy proudly proclaimed “This Issue—A Captain America You’ve Never Seen Before! The Secret of…Cap’s Other Life!” The interior story, written by Steve Gerber and illustrated by Sal Buscema, lived up to (and in truth, exceeded) the cover hype. In a tale perhaps seemingly not altogether dissimilar to the one that was running through the pages of Incredible Hulk at the time, Captain America enters a dream-type world of his past, only, in Cap’s case, he does it to learn the definitive answer to the question: Who is Steve Rogers? The truth, we find, is more than Cap can handle; it triggers a bizarre chemical metamorphosis throughout Cap’s body. When the transformation is complete, Cap is no longer a muscle-bound soldier of justice but has, instead, reverted to his former 98-pound-weakling self. With a cliffhanger ending like this, I had no choice but to return next month.
Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man 21: Another May 1978 purchase (I certainly went through a lot of change that month at the newsstand), issue 21 features Spidey against the Scorpion in a tale writer Bill Mantlo entitled “Still Crazy After All These Years” (without apology to Paul Simon). Someday I’ll compile a list of Bill’s titles that were taken from pop songs like this one; I always find Bill's use of pop song titles enjoyable. Jim Mooney and Mike Esposito illustrated this tale in which the Scorpion seeks revenge upon J. Jonah Jameson (the man who is responsible for the creation of the Scorpion and the man we all want revenge on). This one has a nice twist and Bill makes a good commentary regarding madness and monsters.
I could continue this outpouring of memory and analysis. I could include the other titles that caught my interest over the summer of 1978—titles like Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Godzilla, Dr. Strange, Power Man and Iron Fist, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Premiere, Black Panther, Tomb of Dracula and others. But I’ll stop now; I think the point has been made. The stories described above were published 26 years ago (give or take a few months), yet looking back at them it doesn’t seem possible. Unlike the comics of the 1960s, which often seem instantly dated by Stan Lee’s often flamboyant narration, the comics that Marvel produced in the late 1970s were toned down somewhat with regard to overblown narration (though certainly there are narratives within the stories of this era that are, at times, downright laughable); but in many instances, the narratives within these stories are often filled with a bit more reflection and introspection and fewer nods to the likes of Irving Forbush. And like the jazzy highlights of Joel’s 52nd Street, these comics are replete with enjoyable turns and unpredictable moments.
One final, somewhat unrelated, thought: In looking at the covers of the comics I’ve just described above, I’m struck by one consistent element--the overall raw power they conveyed. So powerful are the images on these four-color magazines that they seem to be taunting the consumer, “Look away if you dare, but if you do you risk missing out on the magic that awaits you within. The battle is just beginning.” This power is conveyed through the logos, the use of color, the copy/typography, and of course, the artwork. Unlike today’s Marvel books, the covers of which are often full-color paintings that have little (if anything) to do with the interior stories, the covers of these earlier periodicals tell you exactly what you’re getting, and they do it with flair and style. They look like straightforward comic book covers (because, after all, they are), rather than gallery paintings and abstract decoupages. Sure, the paintings that grace the covers of today’s comics are pretty to look at. They scream, “Notice me!” But for the most part, they’re rather disassociated from the story and art within. It’s as if the powers-that-be are so embarrassed by their sequential artists that they’ve chosen, instead, to hire more “competent” cover artists to entice curious consumers. Which is kind of a disservice to the fans (and the interior artists whose work would seem to be good enough for the story, but not the cover). In comparison, Joel’s later pop music did much the same thing, trying all on its own to reinstate the do-wop sound, as if his own sound had somehow become unworthy of the master tapes onto which it was recorded.
For me, that album and those comics transcend mere nostalgia. I think they represent examples of players at the top of their games, and if you try the titles I’ve mentioned here, or MP3 yourself a little 52nd Street, you’ll likely agree that they are masters, and they belong together, a reflection of each others’ artistry.
NEXT: Going fishing in the stream of consciousness...
About the Author
David Yurkovich is a writer/artist whose works include The Broccoli Agenda, The S.H.o.P., Altercations, and the Xeric Foundation-funded Death by Chocolate for Sleeping Giant Comics. The first compilation of his work, Less Than Heroes, hits comic shops in June; the 152-page collection can be ordered directly from Top Shelf Productions. To contact David via email, click Here.