Superman #411

Comic books have a long history of real-life creators being thrown into fictional narratives, often in smaller cameo appearances, but also in grander ways that have a deeper impact on the narrative. This inventory looks at examples where comic-book characters interact with their creators, which has two different interpretations: The first is when these characters meet the people that originally created them; moments that are occasionally crafted by the original creators, but can also be imagined by writers and artists that wish to pay tribute to the people that spawned these ideas. The second is when the writers and/or artists of specific issues insert themselves into the action, a technique that can be used to add meta comedy and commentary to a story. These character/creator meetings have a variety of narrative applications, and this list shows off a range of approaches for putting creators on the comics page.

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1. Stan Lee in Stan Lee Meets Superheroes

(Olivier Coipel)

In the Marvel movies, Stan Lee has made his love of cameos into such a big deal that he’ll (jokingly) pin a movie’s faults on whether he was asked to make an appearance. But in the comics, he actually got an entire limited series based on him popping up in a superhero’s world for no reason. Appropriately titled Stan Lee Meets Superheroes, the Lee-written books featured him appearing alongside Spider-Man, The Thing, Doctor Doom, Doctor Strange, and the Silver Surfer for offbeat, self-referential adventures. In a weird twist, Lee often plays himself—the iconic comic book writer who helped shape the Marvel Universe—but none of the heroes seem to think that’s unusual. In fact, most of them don’t even like him all that much, but it all plays nicely into the same goofy shtick that allows Lee to play Hugh Hefner in Iron Man or a space creep in Guardians Of The Galaxy. Really, only a self-promotion master like Stan Lee could come out looking cool even after several pages of Spider-Man making fun of him behind his back. [Sam Barsanti]

2. Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules #4

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Fantastic Four has a long history of writers and artists putting themselves in the series, but one of the most effective instances takes a very different approach to the creator guest appearance. The concept of James Sturm and Guy Davis’ Eisner Award-winning miniseries, Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules, is that it tells the “true story” of the “real” family that inspired Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to create the Fantastic Four. Sturm and Davis craft a grounded, emotional late-’50s period piece rich with symbolism and complex personal dynamics, and all the drama of the first three issues builds to a climactic house party where tensions explode and the Sturm family is rocked to its core. Some of the guests at that party include Fantastic Four creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (along with long-time Marvel letterer Art Simek), who discover the seeds for their future idea by witnessing the volatile interactions of their hosts. These appearances are instrumental in selling the book’s concept, but they also introduce moments of levity as the comic creators comment on the state of the industry, bringing much-needed humor to a dire situation that ultimately births Marvel’s First Family. [Oliver Sava]

3. The Incredible Hulk #418

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Peter David had been writing The Incredible Hulk for seven years when he wrote himself into the wedding of Rick Jones and Marlo Chandler, serving as the officiating priest for a ceremony that quickly gets sucked into superhero craziness. A new superhuman, alien, or mystical presence interrupts David each of the three times he tries to begin the service; most come as late guests (Drax The Destroyer, The Frighful Four, Kree and Skrull representatives), but Mephisto arrives to demand Hulk’s soul in exchange for that of the bride, who made a deal with the devil in an earlier dream. This light-hearted issue highlights the comedy that David brought to his 12-year run on the series, and artist Gary Frank does great work capturing David’s likeness on the page. David is increasingly exhausted by the parade of colorful characters he has to deal with in this issue, but at least he only has to put up with them for one day instead of 12 years. [Oliver Sava]

4. Animal Man Vol 1 #26

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Grant Morrison may not have created Buddy Baker, but for many fans he is the writer that solidified him and made him worthy of attention. In Animal Man #26, the final issue to his late-’80s run on the book, a Sandman-looking Morrison meets his character face-to-face and deconstructs Baker’s life. Morrison is talented, intellectual, and prone to meta-commentary, which makes this an ideal issue for him. Each panel is beautifully constructed by Chaz Truog, Mark Farmer, Tatjana Wood, and John Costanza; dozens of them could be used for fodder in any think piece on the comics industry, even 25 years later. Morrison comments on the cheapness of using death for drama, the interchangeability of “generic blond superheroes with good teeth,” the tension of using personal loss to fuel narratives, and even thanks his co-creators and readers by name. The panels are dialogue-heavy—not uncommon for Morrison or the time—but the words pull no punches for Buddy or his writer. The commentary isn’t cruel, but it is pointed, and Morrison questions his own intensions in giving Buddy an unambiguously happy ending. He ends Animal Man on a request for joy and integrity, a plea to return to something lighter and kinder, which is a message a lot of current creators could take note of. [Caitlin Rosberg]

5. Howard The Duck Vol 1 #16

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Comics that heavily feature creators as themselves are in many ways the perfect snapshot not only of the individual, but also of the time in which they were creating. Howard The Duck #16 (Marvel) is no exception. Steve Gerber, in the throes of taking on far too many jobs, wrote an entire issue of self-referential prose and huge double-page spreads that are at once very Gerber-esque and also very late-’70s in attitude and execution. Overwhelmed by his deadlines, he created a book that features 20 pencil artists and inkers, with colors by Doc Martin and letters by Irv Watanabe the only unifying factor from page to page. The result oscillates between introspection and industry observation, from self-pitying to bitter and back again. The issue shows Gerber, creative and innovative storyteller, boggled and perhaps a little hurt by how the popularity of his odd little duck has surpassed his expectations and perhaps outgrown him; he talks about and to Howard like a spouse braced for divorce. When he wrote that he relates to Howard because the duck “won’t become an institution,” it’s probably with the assumption that his success can’t last much longer. With Howard’s big-screen debut a decade away, his newfound popularity under a writer nearly as surrealist as Gerber himself 40 years off, Gerber had no way of knowing just how wrong he was. [Caitlin Rosberg]

6. Hellblazer #120

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When John Constantine’s first book observed its 10th anniversary, a whole bunch of folks came to celebrate—including most of the creators who had worked on the character to that date. Depending on your familiarity with British comic-book creators of the 1980s and 1990s, you might recognize any number of faces at the party, including the likes of Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, and the comic’s own writer, Paul Jenkins. Special respect is accorded, however, to the older gent who sits in the corner. You can’t see his face very well, but you can’t miss the silhouette of unkempt hair and beard that unmistakably mark the magus of Northampton. As John says, “Old mate of mine, from before I was even a player… We’ve dropped out of touch a bit since then. I mean, we run into each other from time to time, but nothing much of consequence.” Even though he created the guy, Alan Moore never wrote a single issue of Hellblazer, having been mostly already out the door at DC before Constantine scored his own series in 1987. John still remembered to raise a pint in salute to the man without whom he would still be just another anonymous Sting lookalike wandering the back alleys of Thatcher’s England. [Tim O’Neil]

7. The Flash #179

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If you know your DC Comics lore, you know that Earth-One was the home of the Silver Age superheroes, a period that began with the introduction of the Barry Allen Flash in 1956. Earth-Two was the parallel world where the heroes who had been published in the earlier Golden Age lived—essentially, everyone from the first appearance of Superman up through the mid-1950s. There were more, in fact, a supposedly infinite number, which were subsequently demolished during 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths miniseries. We’re part of it, too—yes, you and I, dear reader—because we live on Earth-Prime. This issue marks the first appearance of Earth-Prime, as Barry Allen finds himself unexpectedly zapped off Earth-One by a mysterious monster named Nok. He finds himself trapped on a world where Barry Allen is a character in a children’s comic book, and where the only man who can help him find his way home is the editor of that very comic, Julius Schwartz. Schwartz helps the marooned Allen rebuild his cosmic treadmill in order to return to Earth-One, where Allen cobbles together a scientific solution to the menace of the Nok. Although Schwartz was The Flash’s editor for almost 25 years and maintained a close connection with the character throughout his history, his inclusion in the story would later assume a more regrettable air, for reasons that will soon become obvious. [Tim O’Neil]

8. Justice League Of America #123

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A few years later, writers Cary Bates and Elliot S. Maggin found Allen’s jury-rigged cosmic treadmill in the back of Schwartz’s office. After materializing on Earth-Two Bates suddenly turns evil and sets about trying to conquer the world, because comics. Maggin follows, only to end up on Earth-One, where he alerts the Justice League to the menace of unwanted intruders from Earth-Prime. This was one of the annual JLA/JSA crossovers that appeared in the pages of Justice League Of America every year between 1963 and 1984, and as such it’s a bit of a jumble, as many of these crossovers are. Bates becomes evil because he is secretly under the control of Earth-Two supervillain The Wizard, but he’s still smart enough to use his newfound powers to manipulate the Justice League into murdering their Earth-Two counterparts in the Justice Society. Only the timely intervention of the Spectre, praying to God to restore the JSA to life, saves the day, as the Heavenly Presence complies and resurrects the dead heroes. Bates is cleared of all wrongdoing after The Wizard’s spell has been countered, and he and Maggin are promptly returned to Earth-Prime, where they find Julius Schwartz sitting in his office eating bean soup—which was surely hilarious for the dozens of people who worked at DC in 1975. Maybe you had to be there. [Tim O’Neil]

9. Superman #411

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The saga of Earth-Prime came to an end in 1985. With Crisis breathing down the necks of everyone at DC, they took one last opportunity to say goodbye with “The Last Earth-Prime Story.” The issue also served double-duty as a surprise 70th-anniversary birthday present for Schwartz, who stars in the story. His Earth-One counterpart has seen better days, reduced to living on the street and jumping off buildings in order to get Superman’s attention. After a few twists the story ends with Superman taking the dying Earth-One Schwartz to meet his successful Earth-Prime counterpart, just then celebrating his birthday surrounded by generations of DC staffers. Although Earth-Prime may have been a gimmick setting designed to give creators the opportunities to tell some friendly in-jokes about the office, in hindsight its status as a vanity setting for Julius Schwartz stories seems questionable, given the multiple and sustained allegations of sexual harassment over his long career that have surfaced in recent decades. Superman couldn’t have known, obviously, as he is just a comic-book character, but the heartfelt plaudits are hard to read nonetheless. [Tim O’Neil]

10. Spawn #10

This is a weird one. To conclude the first blockbuster year of Spawn, as well as to counter criticisms that the early Image books were poorly written, creator Todd McFarlane commissioned stories by four of the industry’s biggest names: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, and Dave Sim. While Gaiman’s contribution would eventually return to bite McFarlane on the ass, it was Sim’s issue that most baffled readers and critics on initial release. The “story,” such as it is, features Spawn brought face-to-face with the metaphorical imprisonment of every great superhero character in existence. They are not free because their creators have sold them. Despite his great power Spawn is unable to free these heroes, and soon encounters Sim’s own creation Cerebus. Only, it’s not “Spawn” who meets “Cerebus,” but Sim who meets McFarlane, through the medium of their most famous creations. They walk around Sim’s neighborhood of Kitchener, Ontario for a while before ending up at McFarlane’s palatial estate—quite literally the house Spider-Man built—where McFarlane meets his own wife and infant daughter. “Your creator is still with you,” Cerebus/Sim tells Spawn/McFarlane, “He didn’t sell you. It’s as simple as that.” As strange as it may seem, the story’s message couldn’t be clearer: Spawn and Cerebus are the trademark and copyright of their respective creators, forever. [Tim O’Neil]

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11. Cerebus The Aardvark “Minds” arc

Each “act” of Dave Sim’s sprawling, 300-issue epic Cerebus ends with the titular Earth-pig undergoing a religious ascension, rocketing into space to be confronted with the harsh truths of his funny-animal-meets-Conan The Barbarian life. For the last of these—the Minds arc—his interlocutor comes in the form of a voice in his head, identifying itself simply as “Dave.” Presented with a chance to talk to his creation one-on-one, Sims lays out every self-destructive mistake Cerebus has ever made, lambasting him for his endless hungers, his thoughtless idealism of the women in his life, and his inability to be happy even when he’s got everything he wants. During their conversation, “Dave” claims he has no control over what Cerebus chooses to do, that his role is only to present his characters with situations and see how they react. But given that Sims spent the next hundred issues of Cerebus descending into a sort of lavishly drawn, misogynistic fugue state—spurred on by the wide-scale collapse of his personal life and a supposed religious revelation of his own—it’s hard not to read Minds as the author’s last gasp of sanity and self-critique. [William Hughes]

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12. Opus

Satoshi Kon has made a career of blurring the borders between reality and fiction, but Opus is the only one that dives directly into Kon’s own wheelhouse: comics. The unfinished comic tells the story of Chikara Nagai, a cartoonist who is sucked into the pages of his own manga by a character who doesn’t want to die. Nagai interacts directly with his characters, the structure and quality of his own work, and the emotional origins of his material. It’s metafiction at its most controlled. Thematically, Kon compares storytellers to gods, commenting on the frustrations of fate, destiny, and the inability to self-determine. In addition, it’s perhaps a lesson for other creators: Your characters should be people; treat them with care and think of them as such. However, the greatest magic of Opus is in its ending. Though the comic is technically “unfinished,” an ending to the comic—pencils only, itself unfinished—was found among Kon’s things after his death in 2010. With the agreement of his family, the comic was republished with this new ending and a note describing these events. Let’s just say there’s a reason this comic solidly qualifies to appear on this list. [J.A. Micheline]

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13. Fantastic Four

Of all the long-running comics series, none have had quite as much fun inserting its creators into the action as the Fantastic Four. The tradition began all the way back in Fantastic Four #10, when Dr. Doom burst into the Marvel offices to confront Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (as part of a complex plot to switch bodies with Reed Richards), even removing his iconic mask in order to show them his grotesquely disfigured face. Lee and Kirby showed up again at the wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm, being shown the door just as the celebration commenced in Fantastic Four Annual #3. Later creators got in on the fun, too: Comedy menace the Impossible Man ran roughshod over the mid-’70s Marvel bullpen in an attempt to talk Lee into giving him his own book in Fantastic Four #176. Writer-artist John Byrne later drew himself into the conclusion of the long-running “Trial Of Galactus” storyline in Fantastic Four #262, an event which also coincided with the notorious “Assistant Editors’ Month” event, which saw similarly goofy stunts across the Marvel line.

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It wasn’t all fun and games, either. Steve Englehart’s run on Marvel’s first family was truncated by editorial interference so severe that eventually Englehart felt obligated to remove his name from the last issues of his run, which were instead credited to “John Harkness.” Harkness appears, alongside his family, in the last issue of Englehart’s run (#333), to explain to the FF just why their last string of comic book adventures appeared so out-of-character. The tradition continues to the present, with Matt Fraction and Mike Allred appearing alongside the FF during their recent run. Whenever the FF return from their current limbo, it’s a fair bet that the book will continue to find the strangest ways to fit in cameos from the men and women who produce it. At this point, it’s expected. [Tim O’Neil]