Apparently today marks thirty-four years since the debut issue of the post-Legends “Bwah Ha Ha” incarnation of the Justice League.
It’s a day I remember well, though for more personal reasons than its significance within funnybook history. My paternal grandmother had moved out of our house the month before, returning us to nuclear family status after seven long years. My parents were eager to make up for lost time, bragging Lil Bro and I on a series of weekend drives and restaurant dinners.
Looking back, there was a definite forced quality to it all — the notion that we could just go back to being a “normal” family by taking a day trip to Rockport followed by a meal at the 99, all the while ignoring my parents’ co-dependent downward spiral. Not that I concerned myself too much with that at the time, though. Lil Bro and I now had separate rooms, my parents seemed happier, and misguided hope springs eternal…especially when you’re just shy of 15 years old.
On this particular weekend, I’d convinced my parents to make a pre-drive detour to the local comic shop in Stoneham. I’m not sure why. My interest in comics had all but fizzled out after Secret Wars II‘s protracted nonsense and DC’s fumbling for a post-Crisis throughline. By end of 1986, I was down to occasional purchases from the slim selection of comics that made it onto the magazine rack at the CVS in the Woburn Mall.
I’m sure there was a reason I cajoled my parents into making a side trip to the comic shop, but it has been lost to time. I do recall the place being more crowded than usual and feeling a bit overwhelmed by multiple weeks of new releases which had passed me buy. I can also remember feeling that I overspent, though that wasn’t an unusual sensation in those days when money was tight and every purchase I made came with a side order of buyer’s remorse.
However big the stack of books I bought that day was, I can only remember two of them — Justice League #1 and Dragon Magazine #117.
Justice League did not click with me at all. Despite the comedic reputation the run would later acquire, the debut issue was pretty dark and dour, ending with Batman walking away after passively encouraging a mentally ill man to commit suicide. Kevin Maguire’s art was amazing but I couldn’t get into the overall vibe, not that I was really looking for new series to follow at the moment, anyhow. (It would be another year before I gave the series another shot, after which it became my favorite comic on the stands through my freshman year in college.)
Dragon Magazine #117 was purely an impulse purchase, pulled from a magazine rack by the counter as I was checking out. I came late to the fad-driven Dungeons & Dragons mania of the 1980s, mainly because of the high (for me) buy-in cost and my inability to grasp what the game was about. The bewildering array of ancillary artifacts — toys, cartoons, spin-off board and video games, miniatures, model kits — buried the core concept of role-playing (or painted it as Tom Hanks playing dress-up and murdering people).
It wasn’t until the summer of 1986, after I’d muddled around in a friend’s one off adventure and tooled around with a couple of Fighting Fantasy books, that I finally took the plunge with a dinged up copy of the D&D Basic Set found in an Osco Drug clearance aisle. From there I went all in as far as the game’s diminishing retail presence allowed, picking up an oddball assortment of sourcebooks and supplements from the ever-shrinking RPG sections at chain toy stores and mall bookstores.
The hobby filled the space funnybooks had occupied in terms of both my interest and my limited spending money. Yet while I was willing to drop a tenner on marked down copy of the Oriental Adventures hardback or Monster Manual II, when it came to Dragon Magazine, I limited myself to the pair of “best of” issues which contained a roster of badass *nudge nudge wink wink* nonplayer character classes which were not *nudge nudge wink wink* to be used by player characters. With a $3.50 cover price, an issue of Dragon cost more than a GI Joe figure, mini Transformer, or small scale Go-Bot — all of which could provide a more instant form of gratification.
Giving in and finally buying the latest issue was like crossing a minor personal Rubicon, an admission via impulse purchase. It’s hardly world-shaking shit and would be short-lived as hell, but such is the nature of adolescent epiphanies. The punchline is how utterly unremarkable Dragon #117 turned out to be. Unlike most issues from that era, it did not take a multi-article deep dive into a single theme or concept or include some nifty pack-ins or extras. The issue is an odds and ends assortment of pretty underwhelming addenda and campaign advice. The only bit of it I actually ended up using around the gaming table was a price guide for sundry items excluded from the official rulebooks.
Yet the featured content was secondary to the package as a whole — the gloriously lurid ads for systems and publishers I’d never heard of, tantalizing glimpses of games across a wide variety of genres, listings for mail order services and specialist shops. All of it pointed to a scene much larger than the handful of toy, book, and mall hobby stores and their limited inventory. It opened up so many paths, and holy shit did I spend the better part of a decade wandering them.
One of those paths turned out to be Champions, a superhero RPG I discovered through Dragon #117 and which would rekindle my love of funnybooks by the year’s end. Geek life is a flat circle, after all.