Jan 19, 2012

Reclaiming History: Roger Stern

Welcome to a new installment of Reclaiming History, an ongoing series where the Comics Cube! tries to balance out what the history books say and what actually happened! Click here for the archive!

A week ago, I spoke about the Bronze Age of Comics and how it may be my favorite superhero age ever, as it seemed to achieve the perfect balance between fantasy and realism, a sense of wonder and a sense of groundedness. Now I'm here to talk to you about the man I feel was the best writer of that time period and, in my eyes, the best superhero writer of all time, Roger Stern.

"Now wait," you say. "How could you call him the best superhero writer of all time when people like Alan Moore exist?"

Rather easily, actually. See, people like Alan Moore have made it a point in their superhero work to take the established conventions and turn them on their heads. People like Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison (and even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, if you think about it) relied on the overturning of genre conventions, and such an approach would not have worked if these conventions were not firmly established to begin with. Although this approach definitely gets more acclaim and draws more attention to the writer, I think it is also quite a feat to actually be able to adhere to the conventions and to tell the best story you possibly can.

That's what Bronze Age writers did, and that's exactly what Roger Stern did. He did push some of the boundaries of superhero comics and ventured into territory that hadn't been done before, but he never went so far as to give superheroes complex psychological issues, have them meet their creators in a metaphysical tale, or stoop to rape or decapitation as plot points. What he did was to tell a superhero story in comic book form to the utmost capability of his talents. And his talents were considerable.

You can view a full biography and bibliography of Roger Stern's works elsewhere on the 'net (Here's Wikipedia for you), so I'm going to focus here on the comics of his that really grab me.

I recently finished CAPTAIN AMERICA: WAR AND REMEMBRANCE, written by Stern and drawn by John Byrne (when Byrne was in his artistic prime). The first five pages alone will convince you that Stern is one of the best there is at capturing a hero's awesomeness. I'm sure I overuse that word, but there really is no other word for it — Stern is a master at showing, as opposed to telling, just how good and capable a superhero is. In the first five pages alone, Captain America travels from the suburbs to SHIELD headquarters in inner Manhattan.

Stern handled exposition better than anyone.

Right after this particular page, Cap pays the bus driver, even though he's still riding on the roof. In the span of a short sequence, Stern and Byrne use Cap's acrobatics, his thought balloons, and the citizens' thought balloons to get the reader up to speed on the situation and to see what Cap's all about in terms of physical capability. They would continually do this. Note this sequence where the Nazi vampire (ah, how sweet and fun comics are) Baron Blood tries to sneak up on Cap in his sleep:

This was 1981 though, and as evidenced by Baron Blood's actual existence, the Comics Code Authority was relaxing its rules (upon its inception, vampires could not even be shown in a comic). So Stern used this transitionary period to amp up the violent aspects of a comic, though not, in my view, to an overtly graphic level so as to be unsavory. The resolution of the Baron Blood story is one such example. And honestly, this is as "realistic" as I need superhero comics to go — enough to ground the genre and give it real suspense, but nothing too extreme so as to make the fun roots of the genre completely unrecognizable. The moment we get into "Norman Osborn has sex with Gwen Stacy" or "Sue Dibny gets raped" territory, we've crossed the line.

Cap's resolve is displayed even further in Stern and John Buscema's considerably long AVENGERS run. I recently acquired a hardcover of AVENGERS: UNDER SIEGE (if Stern had a critical and commercial masterpiece a la Chris Claremont's DARK PHOENIX SAGA and Marv Wolfman's JUDAS CONTRACT, this would be it, I guess), and just as a primer, this story has Baron Zemo, one of Cap's arch-enemies, assembling a really, really powerful team of the Masters of Evil to take down the Avengers. The story is a real thrill ride, as Buscema's realistic art captures both the subtle moments and the tense moments perfectly. Check out this sequence where Zemo is tearing up one of the few pictures Captain America has of himself and his old (then dead) friend, Bucky.

"I'll remember this, Zemo." What a shot.

Cap wasn't the only hero that shone in this story, as the Wasp and Ant-Man II's standoff against the Absorbing Man and Titania in one issue marks the only time I have ever come to think the Wasp is awesome ever.

Stern was also a fan of using the lower-tiered heroes. One being Monica Rambeau, the other other Captain Marvel, who would soon be team leader after this story. The other one he would highlight quite a bit in this story was Dane Whitman, the Black Knight, whom I've never been a big fan of, but I couldn't help but think "This is great!" here in this sequence where he saves the Wasp from the Grey Gargoyle.

(Just as a side note, this is also the story that inspired Kurt Busiek to create THUNDERBOLTS.)

Uncle Rog, as he's affectionately known in the industry, probably made the biggest mark of his career on that spectacular and amazing arachnid, Spider-Man. Longtime Cubers will know that I love Peter Parker, and that he's one of my favorite superheroes. In fact, I probably have more Spider-Man in my collection than any other character on the face of the planet. So it is that I can say that I honestly believe that Spidey stories in between the deaths of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin (1973) and Roger Stern's run felt almost like fillers. Not necessarily that they were bad, but that they were treading water. (I haven't read them all, mind you, but that's the impression I get). And that's because Stern absolutely got it: he recognized that the Green Goblin was a key piece of the Spider-Man mythos, and so he decided to replace that — but with a twist. Where the Green Goblin was crazy and knew Spider-Man's secret identity, the Hobgoblin was perfectly sane, cool, and calculated. Where the Green Goblin was dangerous because he could strike at Peter at any time, the Hobgoblin was dangerous because he simply wanted power, and to take down Spider-Man just to prove he was better than the Green Goblin. There was no personal connection other than the one that he himself had manufactured, and in a way, for Peter Parker, this made him more unpredictable. (Almost three decades later, Dan Slott would then take this same formula and turn it on its ear.) It should be noted that the Hobgoblin was the first Spider-villain with staying power ever since that initial Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/John Romita batch (unless you count the Punisher as a villain).

The original Stern-penned Hobgoblin saga, collected in the recent trade THE ORIGIN OF THE HOBGOBLIN, never really reached a satisfying conclusion because Stern left the book before he could reveal the Hobgoblin's true identity (he would then get the chance to do so 15 years later in the 3-part HOBGOBLIN LIVES miniseries, but since the character behind Hobby's mask had faded into total obscurity by then, the reveal was anticlimactic. Other than that, the rest of the series is still pretty good in terms of characterization.), but it doesn't lessen the impact or the quality of those stories.

Stern's Spidey run is also known for a couple more stories, one of them being "The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man," which is a particularly impressive piece of work because of its very nature. This is a short backup tale in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #248, and was meant as an inventory piece. It's really one story just explaining Spidey's origin, his powers, and what he's all about — the kind of story often done when a book needs something to fill up its space, but no one ever takes note of. But this particular story makes "Best of Spider-Man" lists all the time, and that's because Stern was able to take the skeleton of the narrative and craft it into something truly heartwrenching. I've known people who've cried over this very short story. It's that good.

What could cause Spider-Man to reveal his secret identity to a little boy?

The other Spider-Man story Stern is known for is "Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut," a two-parter that is impressive on its own due to the mismatch. The Juggernaut, a villain that the Mighty Thor and the Incredible Hulk have a hard time with, is rampaging through the city and only Spider-Man is around to stop him. How does he do that? Short answer: he can't. He simply can't. But that doesn't stop him from trying.

And doing so, I might add, with style.

The story is a testament to Spider-Man's will, his resolve, and his bravery. I can only think of one other Spider-Man story that encapsulates that better, and it has to do with the Master Planner. (Look it up, folks.)

Over at DC, I don't think I've made it a secret how much I disliked John Byrne's take on the character. But one thing on which I may not have expounded is the fact that I really liked what Stern did with it. Although I may not have liked the framework, Stern's work was still able to grab me. At the time, the Superman books were going through interseries crossovers — meaning what started in SUPERMAN would continue in ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN would continue in ACTION COMICS, all with different creative teams — but Stern-written chapters were always top-notch. He was really helped out by having Kerry Gammill (an underrated artist if I ever saw one) and sometimes George Perez on art. One of the stories I really liked that he did was this story with basically no Superman, where Gangbuster fought the Guardian. It made me a fan of both.

Of course, Gangbuster was actually Superman, but that's neither here nor there.

I was also a big fan of "The Day of the Krypton Man," where Superman's mind got taken over by the Eradicator, an ancient Kryptonian artifact that prompted him to erase all of his humanity and embrace his calculating, cold, Kryptonian roots. Stern wrote the strongest chapters, first introducing Maxima (a character with actual staying power) and then doing the conclusion. It was the first time I actually saw something good being done with Byrne's vision of Krypton.

I'd be remiss in not mentioning SUPERMAN #30, which involves Clark exiling himself to an alien world after he'd just killed three Kryptonian villains from a pocket dimension (because this somehow seemed a good idea at the time...). Kal finds a world that looks like something he could tend to using his farming background. It is a testament to Stern's writing (and Gammill's art) that Superman is completely alone in this entire issue, and somehow I reread it over and over, and also, somehow, it made farming seem fun.

And of course, Stern is the guy DC turned to to do the whole "Lois finally finds out Clark Kent is Superman" story.

I'll always be grateful to Roger Stern as well for creating Will Payton, one of DC's many characters to bear the name of Starman. I only knew him from WHO'S WHO IN THE DC UNIVERSE entries at first, until one day I bought the 27th issue off the racks because I honestly thought his black costume was one of the coolest costumes ever. This was also the issue where he met David Knight, son of Ted Knight, the original Starman — making this the one real connection to James Robinson and Tony Harris' second STARMAN series later with Jack Knight, which is my favorite mainstream superhero comic ever. How's that for serendipity?

Stern would drift back and forth in and out of comics and other writing gigs over the years, but he's recently written a few AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues (including a sequel to his Juggernaut story, aptly titled "Something Can Stop the Juggernaut," which was pretty good) and the time-travelling miniseries, CAPTAIN AMERICA CORPS.

As a point of interest, I decided to poll some friends and fans about Uncle Rog, and this is what some of them had to say:
"The most emotional comics story I've read is still 'The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man' by Roger Stern and Ron Frenz." -Sean Patrick Brady, Werribee, Victoria, Australia

"Just read 'Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut.' The art was great. It was the storytelling that grabbed me. Spider-man was just a regular guy trying his damn best to protect a friend from an unstoppable force. Two issues, done. Stern makes buying his old work worth every damned overpriced comic I bought." -Danry Ocampo, Quezon City, Philippines

"My biggest favorites as a kid in the 70s were THE INCREDIBLE HULK and THE FLASH. The Hulk had the edge, because it was at a time when guys like Len Wein and Roger Stern doing some great work on the book, and Sal's pencils were some of his best; not Sal 'Fill in' Buscema on this title." -Darrell DeWeese, Roanoke, Virginia

"First Spider-Man book I ever had was Stern's AMAZING #244. I was only nine and wondering why the Hobgoblin wasn't green. He's easily my favorite Avengers writer, who brought in a new Captain Marvel, Starfox, added Namor to the team — and that little story where the Masters of Evil invaded the mansion was the best. I loved it when he returned to do some Avengers miniseries back in the 90s and wish to see him on a monthly book again soon." -Jeff White, Newfoundland

"The absolute best, most underrated work of Roger Stern is DR. STRANGE AND DR. DOOM: TRIUMPH AND TORMENT. If you haven't read this story, you're missing out on a true gem in any collection. Also, it features pre-Hellboy Mignola art." -London Elliott, Waynesboro, Georgia

"Cap(tain America) doesn't actually need to appear in any comics that don't take place in WWII or involve the Avengers. Although he has had some memorable solo adventures, mostly involving Roger Stern." -Debra Jane Shelly, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

"Looking back at Roger Stern, he seems to me like the precursor to a writer like Dan Slott. A guy that took continuity and a character's history, and used it to enhance his stories, instead of bog them down. He saw that the Spider-Man books were missing that regular Green Goblin type of menace, so instead of resurrecting Norman or putting Harry back in the suit, he created a new character to fill that role in the Hobgoblin. So there was a new permanent threat that wasn't going to get amnesia and go away, and also it paralleled the original Green Goblin identity mystery from the beginning of the series by keeping the Hobgoblin's true identity a secret. He also took Spider-Man out of his comfort zone, by having him fight a villain like the Juggernaut, and used it to perfectly encapsulate Spider-Man's refusal to give up, no matter the odds. Stern was a guy that wasn't afraid to break the comic book mold, to redefine what had become common comic book tropes by that time. He looked at the Masters of Evil and thought, "Why wouldn't these guys get as many bodies as possible to go at the Avengers, instead of matching them up body for body?" Up until that point, it was largely one hero for one villain at a time, or a group of heroes like the Avengers against one Kang or Ultron. Unless the story specifically called for overwhelming odds, like Spider-Man against the Sinister Six, and even they fought him one by one. (even as a kid I thought that was convenient). But he definitely looked at these characters and thought, no way would these villains play fair with the heroes. Thus is born UNDER SIEGE, another classic Avengers tale. " -Back Issue Ben

Here's the awesome thing about Roger Stern: throughout my entire comic book–reading career (if it can be properly called that), I just devoured his writing. But I never noticed his name, and I never made it a point to follow him. He worked perfectly in the service of a story; he didn't have the tropes that made me think "Who wrote this?" And he was certainly a name who let the characters take center stage.

But one day, I looked at my collection and noticed that I had a LOT of Roger Stern–written comics, and that with very few exceptions, I unabashedly loved them all.

Other people can keep wishing that Alan Moore comes back to DC to write Batman (I personally believe he has nothing left to say in the genre); others may want Grant Morrison to keep turning the genre on its ear (as I see it, the more you do that, the more meaningless doing so becomes); and some people may never get tired of the Brian Bendis/Geoff Johns supershow. But for my money, if I want a writer for a superhero comic book and I just want that comic book to just tell the best story it possibly can, then give me Roger Stern. Any day of the week.


Kid said...

An enjoyable read. I remember Stern once complaining in a magazine article about editorial interference on one of his Spider-Man stories.

I agree with you about comics trying to be 'too real' these days, what with rapes and whatnot. No wonder circulation continues to shrink.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful DUY! We have to have a Roger Stern Bibliography soon :)

Good Job!


Will said...

Vampire's were being used in the 1970s as well as werewolf

That's when the CCA's powerful grip was loosening

Duy Tano said...

I'm aware -- I meant that the CCA's grip had loosened BY 1981, not that it started to loosen in 1981. Sorry if that was unclear.

Unknown said...

Roger Stern was at the top of his game in Avengers. I tracked down the later issues of his Avengers run and was floored by Under Siege, especially the aftermath of that battle and Cap losing everything.

Doc Savage said...

Stern's Avengers are my all-time favorite Avengers tales. he gets every character just right and spins some fun yarns. A shame he was forced off the Avengers while still at the top of his game.

Ben M. said...

I'm a little late to the game here, but this is an excellent appreciation of my all-time favorite comics writer.

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