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Pulp Culture
'80s publisher First Comics' legacy still felt

February 17, 2005
By Franklin Harris

I began reading comic books in the mid-1970s. Mostly, I read Marvel Comics books like "Fantastic Four" and "Iron Man," along with licensed titles like "Godzilla" and "Star Wars." But my reading was sporadic, confined to what I happened to find on the spinner rack at nearest convenience store. By the time I really started to get into comics in the 1980s, comic-book specialty stores were springing up, and new publishers were just starting to take advantage of this new "direct market."

Mike Grell's ''Jon Sable'' is one title formerly published by First Comics that has found new life. IDW Publishing will publish the new ''Jon Sable'' series later this year.
Courtesy Art From IDW Publishing
Mike Grell's "Jon Sable" is one title formerly published by First Comics that has found new life. IDW Publishing will publish the new "Jon Sable" series later this year.
One of those publishers was First Comics.

Founded in 1983, First Comics combined the four-color action of Marvel and DC with a broader range of subject matter. First published superhero comics, but they were atypical superhero comics. Mike Baron's "Badger" featured a title character who was certifiable. But First wasn't limited to superheroes. First published science fiction, fantasy and action/adventure comics in which the characters were normal people wearing normal clothes.

I was hooked, and two First titles in particular demanded my attention.

Baron and artist Steve Rude's "Nexus" was my favorite comic book during those years, mostly because of Rude's gorgeous artwork, which combined the influence of Jack Kirby with a gracefulness Kirby himself could never match. The series featured a mentally anguished hero driven to hunt down and kill the galaxy's most notorious mass murderers.

The other First comic at the top of my monthly reading list was Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!" which pioneered the social satire and commentary that Alan Moore ("Watchmen") and Frank Miller ("The Dark Knight Returns") would bring to mainstream superheroics a few years later.

I knew Chaykin from his work as a "Star Wars" artist, but "American Flagg!" was his baby. With it, he refined his drawing style and hit his peak as a writer. Nothing he has done since matches it.

Set in 2031, "American Flagg!" has proved amazingly prescient. In Chaykin's future, the Soviet Union has collapsed, Islamic terrorism is a major problem and the U.S. government has relocated to Mars. (And you were wondering why President Bush is so interested in a manned mission to Mars?) The hero, Reuben Flagg, is a former porn star turned lawman, or a reasonable facsimile, determined to restore the American Dream, or a reasonable facsimile.

Like most comics publishers from the early days of the direct market, First Comics is gone. It ceased operations in the early '90s, just as some former Marvel artists founded Image Comics and ushered in the direct market's second boom period. But of the companies that came and went during the first boom, none is more fondly remembered than First, which explains why some of the comics published by First are making a comeback.

Dark Horse Comics, which published new issues of "Nexus" for a few years after First collapsed, is planning a new 48-page one-shot and a hardcover reprint of the earliest "Nexus" stories for release later this year. Dynamic Forces and Image Comics, meanwhile, are planning to reprint the first 12 issues of "American Flagg!" Dynamic Forces will release all 12 in one hardcover volume, while Image will split the issues among two trade paperbacks.

Another First title, "Whisper," written by Steven Grant, may yet get new life at Larry Young's AIT/Planet Lar publishing house. But news on that front has been nonexistent since Grant announced the new graphic novel, "Day X," more than a year ago.

IDW Publishing, however, has one First revival already on the stands — writer John Ostrander and artist Timothy Truman's "GrimJack." "The Legend of GrimJack" Vol. 1 collects the earliest "GrimJack" tales, while "GrimJack: Killer Instinct" is an all-new miniseries that serves as a prequel to the original. And soon, IDW will give the same treatment to Mike Grell's First Comics series "Jon Sable, Freelance," publishing a new miniseries and reprinting the original stories.

First Comics may be gone, but it is far from forgotten.

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