In 1979 Billy Joel was awarded the, um, coveted Grammy for his 1978 release 52nd STREET. I was a pimply
15-year-old boy, laying on the carpeted floor of my parent’s house in western Pennsylvania and munching on
Cheese Doodles the night the ’79 Grammy’s aired. During the hour or so while Joel sat in his comfortable
auditorium seat, pondering what (if any) awards he would be taking home, I darted my eyes from the 24-inch














Magnavox console to a sketchbook that was adjacent to a compost heap consisting of comic books, ruled
notebook paper, pencils, and a few disposable Bic pens. I have no idea what Joel said during his acceptance
speech, as the shimmering Grammy was handed to him. I was 15, absorbed in sketching and probably just
hoping that the next commercial break would include the hot n’ spicy Enjoli Fragrance ad (the one in which a
sexy housewife declares that she can “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never never never let you
forget you’re a man”). More often than not, however, I was subjected to car ads (such as the disco-inspired
Ford Futura) or the vocal stylings of a wide-lapelled Sammy Davis Jr. as he melodically pushed Alka-Seltzer
onto a the undigested contents of the nation’s stomachs.

Toward the end of Grammy night the major awards were announced, and thus it was that Billy Joel left his
cushioned seat and stepped before the nation and his musician colleagues to accept the award for Album of
the Year. It was one of two awards Joel would take home that evening, the other being Best Pop Vocal
Performance, Male. Joel would capture Grammy gold the following year in the category Best Rock Vocal
Performance, Male (for the album GLASS HOUSES). Unfortunately, like so many others before him and since,
the Grammy would prove to be the touch of death to his career. Not to say he hasn’t forged ahead and
achieved considerable post-Grammy success, but how does one compare “Zanzibar” to “For the Longest
Time” without rolling one’s eyes? One doesn’t. To me, 52nd STREET is one of those perfect albums that a
performer is able to produce once, perhaps twice in his or her respective career. Joel’s precursor to 52nd
STREET entitled THE STRANGER, is equally as good (some would argue better), demonstrating Joel’s
capabilities as an artist. Thus, being able to appreciate the magnificence of songs such as “Scenes From an
Italian Restaurant,” “Vienna,” and “Until the Night,” (as I’m sure you are) you may perhaps understand why
tracks like “We Didn’t Start the Fire” just don’t do it for me. But 52nd STREET is, to me, more than a collection
of nine stellar pop recordings—it represents a moment frozen in time, autumn of 1978 to be precise. It was
during this time when Columbia Records released 52nd STREET, following the amazing four singles (from
THE STRANGER) that had placed in the Billboard Top 100 earlier that same year. I didn’t know any of that.

Sure, I listed to American Top 40 every Sunday morning like much of the teenage American radio-listening
audience, but I certainly didn’t pay attention to the standings. Heck, I didn’t even purchase THE STRANGER
until 1979 (and I bought it on 8-track, demonstrating my inability to sense that the ill-conceived players were
on their way out). But I knew 52nd STREET. It was one of the few albums I’d purchased at that time. I’d
already discovered comic books, and to give you a point of reference with regard to costs, consider this: In
1978 a vinyl record cost the same as 21 standard-length comic books, so record purchases were few and far
between. And even though the lyrics to “Big Shot” pretty much went over my head at the time (I mean, I had
no idea what Halston dresses and Dom Perignon were, nor why anyone would put a spoon up his or her
nose), I was drawn to the music nonetheless.

And having begun rabidly collecting comic books a few months earlier, I soon found an inexplicable
connection between DAREDEVIL and “My Life,” between MARVEL TEAM-UP and “Zanzibar,” much like I would
later equate Rush’s “Subdivisions” with the arcade game Galaga (which, believe me, is another story for
another time indeed). These associations make little sense even to me, except that because I enjoyed the
music of 52nd STREET and the cast of the Marvel universe circa 1978 at the same time, they are now linked
in my mind as one and the same. Yes, I can read issue 154 of DAREDEVIL without thinking of Joel’s “Half a
Mile Away,” and I can listen to “Until the Night” without reminiscing about CAPTAIN AMERICA 225, but, strange
as it may seem, sometimes I can’t experience one without the other. I’ll read a comic from that time and hear
Joel in my head, or play the CD (yea, I’ve graduated from 8 tracks to compact discs), and see the action from
MARVEL PREMIERE or the Byrne/Claremont issues of UNCANNY X-MEN.

Billy Joel doesn’t write songs like he used to—and I believe now he’s actually abandoned pop song writing and
has instead begun to pursue a more “serious” genre of music—classical. Marvel doesn’t publish comics like it
once did, except in reprint format. Vinyl was replaced by CD, and CDs are already obsolete. But that doesn’t
mean that what once was...wasn’t magic. 52nd STREET was magic. The self-proclaimed “Greatest FF Saga of
All!” in FANTASTIC FOUR 196-200 was magic. Daredevil’s ultimate battle with the Purple Man in DAREDEVIL
154, in which DD’s long-time nemesis finally learned DD’s secret identity, was magic. The X-Men/Magneto
clash in UNCANNY X-MEN 112-113 was magic. Those are magical moments from a not-too-distant past, but
one that does seem to become more and more distant. Is this age talking? Are these the reflections of a man
who will soon be 40? Maybe. But more than that, I think I’m reflecting upon these times as someone who grew
up in them and enjoyed them—and who still enjoys them.

There is a fair amount of improvisational jazz on 52nd STREET. The album features an amazingly diverse
group of musicians including the fabulous trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, percussionist extraordinaire Ralph
MacDonald, saxophonist and clarinetist Richie Cannata, and vocalists such as Milt Grayson and Chicago’s
Peter Cetera. Likewise, the Marvel comics of the late 1970s are, at times, equally improvisational, almost jazz
like. Arguably, the Marvel comics of the early-to-mid 1970s suffered greatly, lacking the sense of style and
quality they’d held a decade earlier. Much of this is probably because of the company’s efforts to continuously
release new titles and dominate the market year after year, with nary the hordes of craftspeople needed to
actually be able to give their all to the titles to which they were assigned. Certainly there were exceptions,
such as writers and artists like Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner, Tony Isabella, Ross Andru, Steve Gerber, and
Steve Engelhart, among others. But if you examine the products that were being released by Marvel during
the early-to-mid 1970s and compare them with either the 1960s output or the output of the late 1970s to mid
1980s, you’d be hard pressed not to agree that the early 1970s material, in general, had become somewhat
formulaic and, at times, is downright subpar to those other periods. But there was definitely a sense of jazz in
the comics of the late 1970s.

I hopped aboard the Marvel train in March 1978 with issue 12 of Marvel’s STAR WARS comic (you know, “At
Last—Beyond the Movie! Beyond the Galaxy!”) and was enticed enough by the 32 house ads to try out
practically every other title the “House of Ideas” was producing at the time. More than a few of these comics
are still among my all-time favorites. Here’s a few reasons why:

INCREDIBLE HULK 227& ANNUAL 7: I purchased issue 227 and ANNUAL 7 almost simultaneously, in June
1978. Issue 227 features a tale penned by the brilliant Roger Stern and illustrated by stalwart artists Sal
Buscema and Klaus Janson. Stern takes the concept of psychoanalysis to the extreme, with the Hulk
undergoing a therapy session overseen by supporting cast member Doc Sampson. Sampson attempts to help
Bruce Banner to find a way to control his mind at all times, ensuring that by doing so the world will never have
to fear the Hulk again. The Hulk and Doc Sampson walk through the Hulk’s dreaming mind with dire
consequences. Smart and straightforward, it’s an excellent chapter of a longer epic, but even as a stand-
alone story it’s highly entertaining. The INCREDIBLE HULK ANNUAL features the green-skinned goliath
battling alongside two of the original X-Men (Ice Man and the Angel) and taking on a huge robot Sentinel.
Stern wrote it, and it was illustrated by John Byrne and Bob Layton, both of whom were in top form for this
giant-sized issue (though Byrne was vocal in lambasting Layton's inks) that still stands the test of time.

THE AVENGERS 174: I purchased issue 174 of this title in May 1978, totally for the cover alone (which
features the Avenger Hawkeye going head-to-head against The Collector, meticulously rendered by George
Perez and Terry Austin no less). Little did I know I’d walked right into the middle of what is today known as the
“Korvac Saga.” There were many creators involved in the crafting of this Bronze Age epic that pitted The
Avengers against a foe known only as “The Enemy.” Jim Shooter, Bill Mantlo, George Perez, Dave Wenzel,
and Pablo Marcos were among the creative talents behind this classic chapter in the lives of Earth’s Mightiest
Heroes. Issue 174 pits the team against The Collector, a long-time adversary of the group. However, The
Collector himself is but a pawn in the Enemy’s plans. I’d tell you more, but it’s such an excellent story, a
veritable “Salt Peanuts” full of staccato twists and turns, that it would be unjust to simply give it all away.

GHOST RIDER 31: Issue 31, another May 1978 purchase, featured a hauntingly action-packed cover of the
cyclist from Hell being hunted down by a demonic adversary known as the Bounty Hunter. Solid, creepy
storytelling by writer Roger McKenzie and artist Don Perlin (who co-plotted the issue) had me reading this one
over and over on an almost nightly basis for two months until the fear-fraught conclusion in issue 32 went on
sale.

CAPTAIN AMERICA 225: My decision to buy this one was also based solely on the cover—it featured an
impassioned Cap hurling his red, white, and blue shield right at the reader (kudos to artists Frank Robbins
and Terry Austin on that one). The cover copy proudly proclaimed “This Issue—A Captain America You’ve
Never Seen Before! The Secret of…Cap’s Other Life!” The interior story, written by Steve Gerber and
illustrated by Sal Buscema, lived up to (and in truth, exceeded) the cover hype. In a tale perhaps seemingly
not altogether dissimilar to the one that was running through the pages of INCREDIBLE HULK at the time,
Captain America enters a dream-type world of his past, only, in Cap’s case, he does it to learn the definitive
answer to the question: Who is Steve Rogers? The truth, we find, is more than Cap can handle; it triggers a
bizarre chemical metamorphosis throughout Cap’s body. When the transformation is complete, Cap is no
longer a muscle-bound soldier of justice but has, instead, reverted to his former 98-pound-weakling self. With
a cliffhanger ending like this, I had no choice but to return next month.

PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN 21: Another May 1978 purchase (I certainly went
through a lot of change that month at the newsstand), issue 21 features Spidey against the Scorpion in a tale
writer Bill Mantlo entitled “Still Crazy After All These Years” (without apology to Paul Simon). Someday I’ll
compile a list of Bill’s titles that were taken from pop songs like this one; I always find Bill's use of pop song
titles enjoyable. Jim Mooney and Mike Esposito illustrated this tale in which the Scorpion seeks revenge upon
J. Jonah Jameson (the man who is responsible for the creation of the Scorpion and the man we all want
revenge on). This one has a nice twist and Bill makes a good commentary regarding madness and monsters.

I could continue this outpouring of memory and analysis. I could include the other titles that caught my interest
over the summer of 1978—titles like DEVIL DINOSAUR, MACHINE MAN, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, IRON MAN,
THOR, GODZILLA, DR. STRANGE, POWER MAN AND IRON FIST, MARVEL TEAM-UP, MARVEL PREMIERE,
BLACK PANTHER, TOMB OF DRACULA and others. But I’ll stop now; I think the point has been made. The
stories described above were published 26 years ago (give or take a few months), yet looking back at them it
doesn’t seem possible. Unlike the comics of the 1960s, which often seem instantly dated by Stan Lee’s often
flamboyant narration, the comics that Marvel produced in the late 1970s were toned down somewhat with
regard to overblown narration (though certainly there are narratives within the stories of this era that are, at
times, downright laughable); but in many instances, the narratives within these stories are often filled with a bit
more reflection and introspection and fewer nods to the likes of Irving Forbush. And like the jazzy highlights of
Joel’s 52nd Street, these comics are replete with enjoyable turns and unpredictable moments.

One final, somewhat unrelated, thought: In looking at the covers of the comics I’ve just described above, I’m
struck by one consistent element--the overall raw power they conveyed. So powerful are the images on these
four-color magazines that they seem to be taunting the consumer, “Look away if you dare, but if you do you
risk missing out on the magic that awaits you within. The battle is just beginning.” This power is conveyed
through the logos, the use of color, the copy/typography, and of course, the artwork. Unlike today’s Marvel
books, the covers of which are often full-color paintings that have little (if anything) to do with the interior
stories, the covers of these earlier periodicals tell you exactly what you’re getting, and they do it with flair and
style. They look like straightforward comic book covers (because, after all, they are), rather than gallery
paintings and abstract decoupages. Sure, the paintings that grace the covers of today’s comics are pretty to
look at. They scream, “Notice me!” But for the most part, they’re rather disassociated from the story and art
within. It’s as if the powers-that-be are so embarrassed by their sequential artists that they’ve chosen, instead,
to hire more “competent” cover artists to entice curious consumers. Which is kind of a disservice to the fans
(and the interior artists whose work would seem to be good enough for the story, but not the cover). In
comparison, Joel’s later pop music did much the same thing, trying all on its own to reinstate the do-wop
sound, as if his own sound had somehow become unworthy of the master tapes onto which it was recorded.

For me, that album and those comics transcend mere nostalgia. I think they represent examples of players at
the top of their games, and if you try the titles I’ve mentioned here, or MP3 yourself a little 52nd STREET,  
you'll likely agree that they are masters, and they belong together, a reflection of each others’ artistry.

                                                                                                                                                    
JUNE 18, 2004
B i l l y   J o e l   a n d   t h e   M a r v e l   C o m i c s   G r o u p ,  C i r c a  1 9 7 8
d a v i d    y u r k o v i c h