Tony Wolf is an actor, voice-over artist, and illustrator in New York City. He co-hosts a pop-culture podcast (theactionroom.com) and will be drawing an upcoming webcomic written by Flash Gordon and Casper writer Brendan Deneen. Tony talks in-depth about his introduction to comics during the Bronze Age, and then his nostalgia for really getting into collecting during the Copper Age…
Tony: My mother would get me some digest comics to keep me occupied while she drove me all around town with her on various shopping trips, running errands, etc. I remember lots of little Archie digests and a few of the early ‘70s DC Comics digests where they reprinted old All-Star Comics, Justice Society stuff, and one digest in particular which reprinted a bunch of DC’s Super Friends comic books (which contained both Super Friends stories and some ‘60s and ‘70s Justice League stories).
I also remember some Legion of Super-Heroes digests from way back then, as well as some reprints of classic Joe Kubert Hawkman stories. This was when I was anywhere from 5 to 10 years-old, I think. I loved these books and devoured ‘em. I also remember getting those odd reprints of the first thirty or so issues of Ditko’s Spider-Man (I say “odd” because they were digest-sized, but yet much more shaped like a regular small paperback book than the typical “square” digest format). Those first Spider-Man stories were a revelation.
I remember Marvel’s over-sized books. I had a bunch of those before I got into real comics collecting — I remember Herb Trimpe Hulk stories being reprinted in those, DC “Heroes vs. Villains” collection (complete with classic cover of all the heroes lined up on the left side and villains on the right), and I think I had the Superman / Muhammad Ali treasury edition too.
I also was an artist as a kid, and was constantly drawing comic book and cartoon characters, just drawing non-stop. My older brother was a talented artist and I may have started emulating him a bit. But all these little reprints and digests were before I went real hardcore into comics.
Another thing that contributed to my interest in comics and superheroes was the endless stream of (new and rerun) cartoons available to a kid in the mid to late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Bugs Bunny, Mighty Mouse, Speed Racer, Courageous Cat & Minute Mouse(!), Popeye, the Plastic Man cartoon, Herculoids, Thundarr the Barbarian, the Tarzan cartoon, Robotech, Star Blazers (LOVED that show intensely), Super Friends (which later became Super Powers), those old Filmation Aquaman, The Atom, Hawkman and Flash cartoons (instrumental in introducing kids to DC’s B- and C-list characters), the wonderful and bizarre Ralph Bakshi Spider-Man cartoons made in the late ‘60s, and the Marvel cartoons that were those overly simplistic Jack Kirby drawings which had an arm or leg move here or there (jokingly referred to here as “the first motion comics”).
Also, the great Hanna-Barbera Fantastic Four cartoons — which featured pretty literal retellings of early Lee / Kirby FF stories, like Dr. Doom in the pirate era, something like Kang in ancient Egypt, if I recall correctly, etc. The early ‘80s FF cartoon with Herbie the Robot in lieu of the Human Torch was also fun.
I think any kid who was remotely into fun genre entertainment like I’ve listed above would also have been into the Godzilla movies, which played over and over in local NYC and Long Island TV stations. Add to that anything remotely sci-fi or monster-related.
And then, of course, the phenomenon that hit countless young kids in 1977 — a little thing called “Star Wars”. Although not (initially) a comic book, of course, the adventure / pulp / comic sensibility was undeniable, and any child who was into that sort of stuff was going to fall in love with Star Wars.
Marvel’s Star Wars comic (and Battlestar Galactica comic) was a major gateway drug for me into comic books. I think I first started picking up Star Wars on a regular basis just before they adapted The Empire Strikes Back within the pages of the ongoing title, around issue 39.
I first got the comics at a local candy store / drug store and after about six months of that, I subscribed to Star Wars via Marvel’s mail order service. This was when I was in 6th or 7th grade, I think. Marvel was very smart in publishing the Star Wars line and securing that license — they peppered the books with ads for other Marvel Comics, of course. That was my gateway to the mainstream Marvel Universe.
One of the first house ads within the pages of Star Wars that got me really, really curious about the mainstream Marvel Universe, was an ad for Alpha Flight. I bought Alpha Flight #1 off the shelves when it came out, but then bought each successive issue as it came out as well.
Loving John Byrne on Alpha Flight led me to getting his Fantastic Four. A house ad for Secret Wars then led me to that series, which then opened the floodgates to the larger Marvel Universe for me.
At the time, I’ll note that I really didn’t pay much attention to DC’s characters beyond the collections I’d read as a kid. Those digests showed me that DC seemed very into their 1940s and 1950s characters, and I couldn’t really muster up nearly as much interest in those characters as the Marvel pantheon.
VF / NM: When / how / why / at what age did you make the leap into collecting titles on a monthly basis?
Tony: Loved Alpha Flight. It was fun, dynamic, new, and irreverent in all the right places. It played with the notion of a team book in ways I hadn’t seen before. So, then I started up on Uncanny X-Men — at the time I started collecting, it was Chris Claremont and Paul Smith’s Brood Saga, and my friends and I all then tracked down the old Claremont / Byrne issues in short order.
After reading Secret Wars, I realized so many plot threads from it led into other Marvel titles (Avengers, the black costume in Amazing Spider-Man), so I started snapping up other Marvel books too…my curiosity spurred by the event.
I then discovered Walt Simonson’s Thor and Frank Miller’s Daredevil. It was quite a thrill, buying these comics when they were either brand-new on the racks, or buying back issues that were just a few months old to catch up on what I knew, even at the time, was an age of modern / instant classic books.
I also got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and wrote fan letters to Eastman & Laird — and even got a signed handwritten letter from them in response, complete with a Raphael sketch on a separate piece of paper!
At this time I started going to the one local comic book convention in my hometown; at a Holiday Inn, in Rockville Centre, NY (Long Island). They had some decent creators (people like veteran Marvel inker Bob Wiacek) at the convention…we would buy back issues, watch anime movies (oftentimes the Japanese versions on VCR tape, with a guy loosely translating what was going on for us, which was a riot).
It was at one such convention — they were monthly — that I saw a free preview / giveaway of something called Mage by Matt Wagner, from a company that I’d never heard of, Comico. Again, I was instantly hooked. Mage led me to The Elementals, that wonderful series from Bill Willingham.
So, by the time I was in 7th grade, I was “all in,” as they say in poker. A hardcore comic collector, going to the comic store once a week, all my life, since 7th grade. I got a few of my good friends into comic books too, although I was one of the only ones who had “the bug” really bad — most of them fell out of the comic book world after a few years.
I didn’t have a pull list, I just went to the store and picked out what I wanted each week (because pull lists couldn’t always anticipate the odd one-shot or the new title debuting from some indie company). The store was Cosmic Comics in Rockville Center, NY, owned by Ken & Lou Diamond. The store still exists; it moved to Oceanside, in the late ‘80s / early ‘90s, and I believe is still owned by Ken Diamond, a fan and retailer. They were friends with Jimmy Palmiotti and had him do promotional art for the store, back when he was just doing little commissions at the local comic convention and whatever art jobs he could get, out in Long Island.
I have fond memories of buying the first issue of Miller and Mazzuchelli’s classic “Born Again” Daredevil story — man, that issue blew our minds. I remember a visceral impact as I read the final page. No one had ever done anything like that in comics before — have the main character’s secret identity get discovered by his arch-enemy and then the villain frames him, has him lose his job and blows up his entire apartment building!? Unreal. The stellar art was futher icing on the cake. I also remember each issue of Dark Knight hitting the stands, and when the first issue of Watchmen hit the stands after some anticipation.
I think that after a year or two of being a Marvelite, I heard about DC’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, and thought, “Well, maybe this will clear up DC’s troublesome continuity, various confusing Earths, etc.” EXACTLY what they wanted the readers to think. They had their target audience in me — a guy who thought Marvel was clear and streamlined and that DC was a mess. Also, this is back when the Superman titles weren’t selling well, Superman was too powerful and therefore boring, and the Barry Allen Flash had just killed a guy and gone on trial for it. DC’s comics and art even looked old to me — the styles and design work looked ‘70s to my young eyes, whereas Marvel’s books felt shiny and current, glossy and fresh.
Crisis more than achieved its objective with me — I loved it. It was my introduction to George Perez, and after Crisis, I was more than happy to follow my then-idol, John Byrne, over to DC when he took the reins on Superman.
I also was (and still am) a HUGE fan of Paul Chadwick’s melancholy yet curiously uplifting book Concrete, which was one of the first indie books I discovered. It was a beautiful spin on the human condition, the themes of simultaneous isolation and engagement with the world. Chadwick is a truly gifted artist / writer whose work hasn’t been seen in comics recently, and I know many (thus far unsuccessful) attempts have been made to bring Concrete to the big screen. The technology is there now for it, and I think the time is right — make it happen, Hollywood!
VF / NM: Memories of specific covers or issues during the Copper Age, that were new at the time, jumped off the rack at you and evoked, “Oh man, what’s this?”
Tony: I do remember seeing early Alan Moore Swamp Thing covers by John Toltleban and Rick Veitch and being very intrigued. I picked up that book right around the “American Gothic” saga, just before Swamp Thing #50 and then got all the back issues. I also loved Scott McCloud’s Zot! and Larry Marder’s Beanworld books (glad to see both of those having been reprinted recently and given some respect and mainstream exposure).
I also remember seeing advance / preview art (a rare thing in those days) for Watchmen #1 in the pages of the wonderful Comics Buyers’ Guide, the weekly newspaper that was one of the ONLY sources for comic book and other pop-culture news in that area (the others being The Comics Journal and Amazing Heroes). I saw that art by Dave Gibbons, sensed the anticipation and knew this could be something really special. Those promotional posters with the quotes and scenes like The Comedian on a rooftop about to assassinate some political figure were very striking, powerful images.
VF / NM: And you got into original art?
Tony: Yeah, I had a brief foray into the world of buying original art, spending $300 (which was a LOT back then, especially for a high school student with a not-wealthy family) for the John Byrne cover to Hulk #316, the one with the four Avengers flying towards the Hulk from each corner.
My parents thought I was nuts for wanting to spend my saved-up money on that, but I wanted it and I still have it to this day. I also have one page of Mage #14, Vol. 1, by Matt Wagner and then-inker Sam Keith, lettered by Bob Pinaha, and a sketch of Vortex of the Elementals by Bill Willingham.
I did also pay something like $5 for a Jimmy Palmiotti sketch at a local convention — I think it was something he had on the table, not something I specifically requested. It was “The Smurfs vs. Jaws,” and showed (of course) the shark eagerly devouring the Smurfs. Since I hated the Smurfs, I bought it. But I don’t have it anymore (sorry, Jimmy!).
VF / NM: Name a Copper Age comic that you snagged at cover price, and glad you got it at cover price, because then it shot up in value.
Tony: I bought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1, 3rd printing, for cover price, back when it was just starting to catch fire with fans. Even the 3rd printing rose to a considerable value! And I had first printings of Turtles #2 – 9 and the rare Fugitoid #1 by Eastman & Laird.
I had several first printings of every issue of The Dark Knight Returns. Plus first printings of every Watchmen issue. There are a bunch of comics I had that were worth $30-50 each…I sold my collection to Midtown Comics recently, and they treated me right. Love Midtown Comics in NYC! I also had first printings of every Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman Miracleman books, and I think I held on to a few of them and didn’t sell those off.
Oh, and I vividly remember my comic book store owner / retailer in ’88 yelling “VOTE FOR DEATH!” in his thick Brooklyn accent when the 800-number gimmick determining the fate of the Jason Todd Robin took place. I remember thinking, “I don’t really care about this character, he seems like kind of a rip-off of Dick Grayson anyway and his only distinguishing character trait is that he’s too aggressive, too violent and a badass, so let’s kill him.” And I knew that you get more dramatic (and usually better) stories when comic book characters have to deal with tragedy. So, I made my “Call for death.” It still makes me laugh, though, hearing Ken Diamond’s voice echoing in my head as he urged all his customers with a gleeful smile to “Vote for death!”
VF / NM: Memories of other comic related stuff; posters, buttons, promotional items, etc.?
Tony: As you’ve mentioned things like this on your blog here at Very Fine / Near Mint, I thought I’d mention that I saw a poster, beautifully designed and painted by Steve Rude, for the Dave Gibbons-written, Steve Rude-illustrated three-issue Prestige Format miniseries World’s Finest at a comic book store outside of Worcester, Massachussetts when I was in college. I loved Rude and Nexus so much by that point, and I loved the poster (which was a design not incorporated in the books themselves or any other promotions I’d seen), so I asked the store owner how much he wanted for it. $15 later, it was mine. I had it on my walls for years.
VF / NM: Did you ever sell anything off that you really regret now? Stuff that may be difficult or expensive to replace now, twenty or so years later?
Tony: Some friends gave me a hard time for selling ANY of my Alan Moore Miracleman stuff, since it’s obviously famously legally-contested and out of print. I just felt like, “I know the stories inside and out and I need some money.” Now that Marvel owns the rights (or at least arguably does, if you follow Rich Johnston’s terrific coverage over at BleedingCool.com), I trust we will eventually see reprints in some form of those classic stories, even if it takes a few years.
VF / NM: Memories of the anticipation for the Batman movie during the first half of ’89?
Tony: I actually went to opening night of the first Tim Burton Batman movie as a high school graduation party / outing that I organized. I even drew up an invitation for my friends, with several comic book panels showing me at graduation, opening my graduation robes in true, “Clark Kent opens his shirt to reveal the ‘S’ logo” style and showing a Batman t-shirt underneath, then rushing to the movie theater. We had a great time.
VF / NM: Looking back now, your overall memory of collecting comics at the time…why are YOU nostalgic about the Copper Age?
Tony: I know that some people will say every generation feels this way about their teen years, and maybe that’s true, but there is something about the ‘80s. Not just in comics, but the innovations and quality of music, comics, TV, entertainment, and movies in the 1980s are just unparalleled. We’re talking about the era of Prince, Madonna, David Bowie, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Hughes, and so much more…I think it’s telling that many people in their late teens and early ‘20s are still grooving on ‘80s pop culture.
And obviously, I was lucky enough to be a fan at a time when creators like Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Matt Wagner, Bill Sienkiewicz, Michael Golden, John Byrne, Chris Claremont, and so many more coming to the forefront. There are so many more great writers, artists, titles and concepts from that era — too many to ever summarize in a blog or an interview. And I suppose the fact that it was the pre-internet age made information, and discovering new books, something a little more magical, more special somehow. When you sought out something, you really had to work for it. I’ll stop before I begin sounding like someone of the Older Generation.
A golden age of comic books? Maybe. But it seems fitting to call it the Copper Age, too. Thanks for having me as a guest here on your blog!
More info / resources:
We thank Tony for a great interview, and his segue from late ’70s super hero cartoons / Star Wars to ’80s Copper Age Comic collecting is probably a shared memory of LOTS of Generation X’ers!
If you wanna hunt down back issues of any of the series Tony talked about, first check your local comic shop or convention. (mycomicshop.com is our online back issue retailer of choice.)