Friday, February 04, 2022

Today in Comics History, February 4: Welcome to My Nightmare (Happy birthday, Alice Cooper!)

This is an expanded and updated version of a post originally published October 31, 2011.

It's a birthday of note today, so let's take a moment to examine, from a safe distance, the spookiest, weirdest, scariest comic book that Marvel Comics has ever published!


Okay, now that we've seen that, let's look at a comic book about rock 'n' roller Alice Cooper, who was born today. Happy birthday, Alice!

from Avengers #153 (Marvel, November 1976), script by Gerry Conway, breakdowns by John Buscema, finishes by Joe Sinnott, colors by Petra Goldberg, letters by John Costanza

No, that Avengers panel wasn't the comic I'm talking about, altho' it makes it clear there were definitely fans of "The Godfather of Shock Rock" amongst the Bullpen. Didja know that Alice had a 1979 Marvel comic book? (And another one later, but we'll get to that, impatient ones!)

Advertised heavily when it was published in '79, Marvel Premiere #50 starred, like most Marvel Comics, a real-life personality from whom Marvel licensed the likeness and personality to create all-new tales. (Not unlike the Fantastic Four's real-life tales dictated directly to Marv Wolfman during the period.) It was even featured in that month's Marvel Bullpen Bulletins, ensuring that readers of everything from Daredevil to Conan and Fun and Games to Machine Man was clued in that America's Clown Prince of Rock now starred in his own comic book! So distressing was this news to Elvis Presley, founder of American rock music, that he died two years previously.

cover of Marvel Premiere #50 (Mavel, October 1979); pencils by Tom Sutton; inks by Terry Austin; colors by Marie Severin; letters by Gaspar Saladino and Irv Watanabe; Alice Cooper logo design by Jim Novak; cover design by Jim Salicrup, Ed Hannigan, and Marie Severin (whew!)

Thus was born Marvel Premiere (aka "Find someplace to plug those inventory stories!") #50...Alice Cooper's "From the Inside," based on his groundbreaking 1978 album of the same name, that based on his voluntary stay inside a New York City mental institution for treatment of alcohol abuse. (Just say "no," Alice!)

(Amazon ad)

The songs are about the persons Alice actually met in the asylum, and so is the comic book, although...not unlike the Thing's poker night...certain details have been...exaggerated for dramatic effect. Alice's frequent attempts to escape the ayslum are thwarted by the cruelly seductive Nurse Rozetta and the crazed Doctor Fingeroth.

from Marvel Premiere #50 (Marvel, October 1979); script by Alice Cooper, Jim Salicrup, Roger Stern, and Ed Hannigan; pencils by Tom Sutton; inks by Terry Austin; colors by Marie Severin; letters by Tom Orzechowski

Alice's adventures in wonderland are punctuated by the philosophical questions anybody in such an institution faces. Who am I? Where am I? And where's my snake? Accompanied by a cast of characters that could have jumped right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Alice is right up against the standard Yossarian problem (and they really oughta number that one): if you're crazy enough to want to get out, you must be sane!

At the time, there was nothing like this in the big two mainstream comics. Well, maybe Howard the Duck approached "From the Inside"'s manic social satire, and Marvel's misdirected underground Comix Book attempted to reach a more adult audience, but with no superheroes and no comics battles, Marvel Premiere was clearly the oddball comic out on the drugstore rack that month. It resembles the early issues of MAD more than it does its contemporary '79 books like Amazing Spider-Man or Iron Man.

But just how did the greatest threat to America's youth wind up in a mental institution? Flashback to a happier time of concerts, touring on the road, and giant on-stage snakes:

Suffering from exhaustion, Alice decides to check himself into a spa for relaxation and recovery, but is mistaken for a similar-named mental patient on his way to the mental institution/sanitorium.

And yep: that's Car 54, Where Are You?'s Officers Toody and Mulroon, picking up the patient. With Tom Sutton pencilling and Terry Austin inking, you know you're in for a ton of pop culture references and background hijinks.

> I'm blogging most of these panels as large as I can, but it's really worth hunting out a back issue of the book to see the insane level of detail in the comic. Here, newly admitted Alice (shaven and shorn) is introduced to the characters that will populate his comic, his album, and his nightmares.

And if you have Terry Austin on inks, you know you're gonna get Popeye and Company in the background:

As a different Alice was once confronted with:
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."

"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."

Alice's patented escape plans go oft awry:

Like other great Coopers of our time (James Fenimore, Agent Dale, Winnie, and Mini), Alice cannot be daunted in his plot to go over the wall. Or, actually, over the page...dropping an escape cord from the bottom of one page to the top of the next:

Alice recovers his beloved snake Veronica (she even gets her own song on the album!), and hits the road to find America. Hey, wait, that's a Paul Simon song! I call no way!

...only to come smack up against Alex Cooper, the lunatic who switched places with him in the first place, in the middle of a gubernatorial run. While Alice is trying to figger out why it's called "gubanatorial" and not "governatorial," he's recaptured and dragged back to the asylum, but not without a little political satire that's as apt today as it was in the late seventies. "We can't have any loonies mucking up the political system!"

Just like all comic books, there's an illusion of change but at the end things are pretty much at the status quo all over again. Our intrepid comic book hero is back in the bin, but at least reunited with his beloved Veronica. "We both been put in cages / We got our shots and tags / I got my sweatin' fist to shake / She's got her tail to wag."

But the final question is...

...who's more crazy...the man in an insane asylum...

...or the readers in there with him?!?

Actual real-life Bully historical note: this (in a shaggy, raggy coverless edition) was the first issue of Marvel Premiere I ever read, which put me on a lifelong quest to find that sort of weirdness and delight in my comic books again. An odd coincidence: Alice Cooper was also name-checked in the very first Thor comic (also coverless!) that I ever read. Which featured an Eternal named El Toro Rojo...the Red Bull! (He gives you wings!) Finally, I saw myself reflected in pop culture!

from Thor (1966 series) #290 (December 1979), script by Roy Thomas, pencils by Arvell Jones, inks by Chic Stone, colors by Carl Gafford, letters by Joe Rosen

Anyway, a few months after Marvel Premiere #50's publication, the tear-stained letters poured into Marvel Central. Did the readers approve? Did the readers hate it? Did the readers go insane?!?

So, what's the verdict, Marvel? Should Alice Cooper become a regular Marvel monthly comic book? Preferably teaming-up regularly with the Hulk? "We're liable to have some purely astonishing news before you'd even begin to suspect."

And sure enough, a mere fifteen years later, Marvel published another Alice Cooper comic book.

Marvel did their absolute best to make Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation (based on his then-newest album)...

(Amazon ad)

...look as much like the Dream King of the Distinguished Competition that they hired its writer, cover artist, and an interior cover artist from that series. And things were never the same at Marvel Comics!

from Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation #1 (Marvel Music, May 1994), script by Neil Gaiman, pencils and inks by Michael Zulli, colors by John Kalisz, letters by Todd Klein

At least until the miniseries ended two months later. Alice hasn't been seen in a Marvel comic book since then. But let me point out that in an age after Fear Itself and a time of Shattered Heroes, who could lead Earth-616 out of its doom and gloom better than Mister Vincent Furnier Alice Cooper, huh?

Hey, it worked for those dire, dreary, and dismal Muppets, didn't it?

Happy Birthday, Alice, from me, from the inside, and from comic books!

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