With all the minutiae of comics history being perpetually excavated and dissected all across the comics blogosphere, I’ve been surprised to see so little talk—in praise or condemnation—about “Assistant Editor’s Month,” an . . . event? . . . that affected most Marvel comics cover-dated January 1984. The notable exceptions to this general silence are Deercrack.com, which hosts a cover gallery and a partial set of annotations, and noted fashion photographer Dave Campbell, who has held forth on John Byrne’s Alpha Flight #6.
The premise was that, with all Marvel’s senior editors away at a convention in San Diego, their assistant editors would be running the show—running it into the ground, in fact, by approving stories that would never have seen print had the real editors been around. Assistant Editor’s Month (AEM) is an idea that could only ever happen at Marvel. It’s the absurd extension of one of Stan Lee’s most successful comics innovations: making the reader a part of the “Marvel Bullpen,” making the behind-the-scenes work at Marvel as much a part of the stories as the adventures of the heroes themselves. Lee’s strategy shrewdly tapped into the desires of fans to love their comics with great passion but to be in on the joke, too—ironic distance as another way to obsess. AEM took that to a whole new level. When DC Comics wanted to publish a strange or offbeat story, they labeled it “imaginary” to force it outside the canon. At least for this month, when Marvel wanted to do it, they actually pitched their oddball stories as mistakes, as errors in taste or judgment, and invited the readers to play along. I imagine Stan was proud.
I’ve run across quite a few of those issues during my weeks-long comic book reorganization project. (Would you like to come visit and sleep in our guest room? Sorry! The bed is covered with a complete run of Peter David’s Captain Marvel that I have no memory whatsoever of having read!) Some of them are more familiar than others: the last chapter of The Trial of Galactus in Fantastic Four is in the former camp, of course. It features no wacky hijinks, but writer/artist John Byrne did write himself into the story so that he could fuss and fume about how poorly Reed Richards was being treated. Byrne also wrote himself into that month’s issue of The Thing, in a self-deflating little comic piece that nicely pre-empts any effort at making fun of his pretense and pomposity. And there’s Marvel Team-Up #137, featuring Aunt May and Franklin Richards, in which Aunt May becomes a herald of Galactus. I have actually never read this comic, and now I think my life will never be complete until I do.
The ones I do have are something of a mixed bag: the Avengers appear on David Letterman’s show and get attacked by tech wizard Fabian Stancowicz. The Roger Stern-penned tale is more antic than funny, and leans a little too heavily on the idea that the premise itself is really high-larious. An enjoyable issue, don’t get me wrong, but it could have been a regular issue of the series. AEM caught Captain America in mid-storyline. Most of that month’s issue (#289) is taken up with the conclusion of the Deathlok/Nth project saga, and it features Cap’s attempt to prevent a dystopian future from coming to pass. It also features this gem of an unintentional parody of the title character’s legendary loquaciousness on the field of battle:
That is one slow-reacting deathbot. Perhaps he just wanted to hear the end of the speech. In fairness to scripter J.M. DeMatteis, whose praises I’ve sung to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing” and “Eidelweiss,” Cap is really only hallucinating the deathbot, so I guess he can speak as quickly as his fevered brain will allow.
The AEM action in this issue is in a short backup story starring Cap’s then-girlfriend Bernie Rosenthal. Because Bernie was Cap’s love interest when I began reading the series, I am bound my the immutable laws of the Fanboy Charter to prefer her to all other Cap ladyfriends. Although I’ve got a soft spot for Diamondback, too. My real fear is that in 20 years some fan-turned-pro who came of age during the turn of this century is going to bring back Connie Ferrari, and if you got that reference then you and I should get together and roll Dan Jurgens’ yard some drunken weekend. Yeah, we all love Diamondback, but I suspect Cap has always nursed a crush on one of her Serpent Society colleagues:
But my point, which I’ve totally killed in this seemingly endless digression, was that Bernie’s tale is the chronicle of a dream in which she is Bernie America, champion of liberty, and Steve Rogers is a square-jawed doormat. Its silly humor—Bernie, who clearly doesn’t listen closely to Cap’s stories, for reasons that should be all too apparent by now, conflates MODOK and the Red Skull into Mo-Skull, who is actually sort of awesome and who is pictured on the Mike Zeck cover below—anticipates DeMatteis’ later work on Justice League with Keith Giffen.
I think my favorite of these issues, though, is Iron Man #178. AEM was not well timed for this particular series. Writer Denny O’Neill and penciller Luke McDonnell were in the midst of their long-running “Demon in a Bottle” storyline, in which Tony Stark’s alcoholism cost him his company, his wealth, his friends, and his superheroic alter ego. Half of this issue is given over to examining Tony Stark’s new life on the streets and his attempts to hit up former friends and employees for just enough money to buy one more drink. Exactly what I was expecting when I bought this comic in a Stuckey’s 3-Pack on the way to Gulfport one summer!
But it’s the deliberate contrast between that story and the one that opens the issue that is so affecting. That first tale, penned by Bob Harras, is about a gang of kids who idolize the Avengers so much that they dress up just like them and imitate them with as much fidelity as their parents, budgets, and limited haberdashing skills will allow. Here they are apprehending notorious vandalist Blackie Donovan:
Li’l She-Hulk really isn’t even trying, is she?
Of course, their idyllic lives are shattered when they find out that Iron Man has been expelled from the Avengers, a development which means that they will have to expel their own Iron Man as well:
And what happens next is kind of inevitable: Blackie Donovan begins impersonating Iron Man, wreaking havoc in the neighborhood and giving the Avengers a bad name (since, after all, their roster changes aren’t widely publicized, what with them being small children and all). The Avengers think it’s their Iron Man, who even doubts himself for a moment:
I get a kick out of this story (particularly those last couple of panels), because it actually pretends to do what AEM stories should pretend to do: It pokes fun at the Very Serious Story Arc going on in the series—indeed, in the very same issue! There’s certainly a deliberately nostalgic element to the story—naturally, Li’l Iron Man battles Li’l Fake Iron Man and wins acceptance from his old chums—and I don’t mean to suggest that those simplistic stories are better than the character-driven drama of Stark’s alcoholism. We can argue about that, of course—although hell, by this point I’m nostalgic for the era when drinking his life away was the worst thing Tony Stark had to answer for. But that’s all a sidelight to me. What makes me chuckle every time is that opening story’s deflation of the overwrought, over-earnest melodramatics of Iron Man in the O’Neill years. We’re invited to laugh at that excess in the very same issue that we’re supposed to nod soberly (ha!) about Stark’s slide into poverty and obscurity—and so it’s almost impossible to take seriously the “serious” story’s final panel, in which a cop whose “old man was a drunk” sheds a single tear for Tony Stark. It seems, well, ridiculous, even though I’m sure Denny O’Neill didn’t mean for it to be. The issue is tonally uneven and self-undermining—exactly the sort of thing an experienced editor would have prevented.
So I salute you, Iron Man #178, perhaps the purest expression of the Assistant Editor’s Month ethos, except maybe for that Marvel Team-Up I haven’t read yet. I don’t think Marvel would have the courage to publish a comic like you again.