All this month, we’ll be helping Children’s Hospital Los Angeles‘ Make March Matter campaign, which aims to raise over a million dollars in March alone for CHLA through the efforts of its corporate partners, among which we are proud to be numbered. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles sees over 528,000 patient visits annually, and is the top ranked pediatric hospital in California by US News & World Report. You can help Make March Matter by simply attending one of the many events or participating in one of the many initiatives being offered by CHLA’s partners (including our event on Saturday, March 17), all listed at www.makemarchmatter.org.
To help remind us all to Make March Matter to support children’s health, we’ll be focusing on kids’ comics and childhood favorites, because we firmly believe that escaping into literature is just as important in keeping children healthy and happy.
Who doesn’t love a good comedy? In the 1980s, we certainly had our fill. Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, Weird Science, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vacation, Beetlejuice, Ghostbusters, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—it was a breakthrough era for comedies. But few movies have defined a generation in the way that Back to the Future did.
It’s rare that comedy sequels manage to re-capture the magic of their progenitors, as anyone who paid to see the disastrous Police Academy, Revenge of the Nerds, and Look Who’s Talking follow-ups knows painfully well. But the Back to the Future trilogy pulled it off. Between the multi-colored sci-fi future of 2015, the dark “Biffhorrific” alternate 1985, the nostalgic revisiting of the first film’s 1955 sequences, and the sentimental Spaghetti Western riff in 1885, the sequels were practically on par with the first movie, which is a rarity in Hollywood.
Doc and Marty were like Kirk and Spock, Butch and Sundance, Han and Chewie, and Apollo and Starbuck (new or old), in that there was an amazing chemistry between them. Their friendship wasn’t just a concept on paper; it was alive, due in no small part to the phenomenal performances of Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. And the wonderful secondary characters with whom they interacted—Biff, Lorraine, George, Jennifer, Clara, and Mr. Strickland—made the trilogy even more enjoyable.
No matter what era Doc and Marty visited, everyone they encountered was hilariously written and acted, every joke spot-on, every observation keen, and every parallel and payoff from one generation to the next expertly executed. I can’t think of a single trilogy as consistently witty. There’s no Highlander II, Godfather III, Alien IV, Star Trek V, or Halloween VI in the bunch. How many film series can make that claim?
Since 2015, IDW Publishing has continued the Back to the Future franchise beyond the films and their short-lived animated television spinoff, which aired from 1991to 1992. The company has published forty comic book issues to date, and is still going strong. But did you know that IDW was not the first publisher to produce Back to the Future comics? Concurrent with the cartoon, Harvey Comics—an American publisher founded by Alfred Harvey in 1941, which offered up numerous comics based on licensed characters—published seven issues of Back to the Future, drawn to match the TV series’ aesthetic.
The comics, published bimonthly, were initially numbered 1 to 4 for an all-too-brief ongoing series, and then 1 to 3 for a limited miniseries. Ongoing issues #2, 3, and 4 adapted selected TV episodes, with some minor new bits added in, while the first ongoing issue and the full miniseries presented original tales. The debut issue was printed with preview and retail variant covers, for a total of eight comics featuring seven stories: four original and three adaptations.
Harvey’s decision to jump into adaptations as of the second issue, instead of continuing with new tales like in the first, likely accounts for the drop-off in sales that resulted in such a quick cancellation. By the time the miniseries resumed telling original stories, the damage had been done and readers were no longer picking up the series. Written by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock, Justice League Unlimited, and Ben 10) and illustrated by Nelson Dewey, Harvey’s brief journey back to the future featured covers by Dewey and industry legend Gil Kane.
So what were the stories about? Read on.
- Issue #1: “The Gang’s All Here”
Cover date: November 1991
When Einstein comes down with cat-aracts (a canine disease making him see everyone and everything as felines), Doc and Marty go back to 1927 Chicago to find a Prohibition-era liquor still with which to brew a cure. In the process, the two pose as mobsters in order to infiltrate the gang of Arine “Eggs” Benedict, whose members include Mugsy Tannen and “Bathtub Jim” McFly.
- Issue #2: “Forward to the Past”
Cover date: January 1992 (adapts episode #3)
Doc and his sons travel three million years into the past to test a disintegration device. A Tyrannosaurus rex tries to eat them, but a friendly Pteranodon, whom Verne nicknames Donny, helps them escape. When a meteor plummets toward Earth, Doc uses the device to destroy it, inadvertently preventing the extinction of the dinosaurs and halting human evolution. Upon returning to the future, they find a society inhabited by intelligent dinosaurs and realize they must un-do what they did in order to put time right.
- Issue #3: “Roman Holiday”
Cover date: March 1992 (adapts episode #5)
Doc and Marty visit ancient Rome, with Jules and Verne stowing away in the DeLorean. Marty insults gladiator Bifficus Antanneny and must face him in a chariot race, but lets the soldier lose, knowing that this must happen in order for Caligula to become the next Emperor. Doc is mistaken for a rebellious slave and sentenced to be fed to lions, but uses a holographic device to escape, while the boys befriend slave Judah Ben-Hur (yes, Charlton Heston’s fictional character from the 1959 biblical epic film).
- Issue #4: “Retired”
Cover date: June 1992 (adapts episode #12)
Jules and Verne perpetrate April Fool’s Day pranks on their father, including sabotaging his Brain Wave Analyzer to make him think his brain is full to capacity. A panicked Doc retires from science and pursues jobs in which he won’t need to think, such as parking cars and preparing pizzas, then travels to the Cro-Magnon period to avoid science entirely. After Marty nearly destroys Hill Valley with catastrophic storms while trying to create special effects at his band’s concert, the boys confess their prank and Doc uses his know-how to stem the danger.
- Issue #1: “Forward to the Future”
Cover date: October 1992
Doc’s family and Marty travel to 2585 to visit Robot City, a domed station in the Asteroid Belt at which hundreds of robots cater to humanity’s needs. Arriving amidst a robotic revolution against Governor Tannen and the droids’ lazy human masters, the Browns convince the automata to halt hostilities and help the humans become healthier and less dependent on technology. Suddenly, however, an electric shock from the time-travel locomotive’s Flux Capacitor leaves Doc with amnesia.
- Issue #2: “The Jewel in the Tower”
Cover date: November 1992
Jules tries to fix the damaged Flux Capacitor, but the train carries Marty and the Browns to the year 2,991,299,129,912,991 A.D. (the year 1992 in reverse, four times), where they find human civilization replaced with primitive villages. Setting out to locate platinum for the Flux Capacitor, they encounter Tannen the Barbarian, who elicits their help in stealing the Ruby Begonia for the Queen of Apocrypha. Jules finds platinum in the matriarch’s castle, after which the Browns leave the distant future behind.
- Issue #3: “The Great Indoors”
Cover date: January 1993
Verne uses Doc’s Extradimensional Storage Closet—a room offering access to multiple dimensions of time and space—in the hope of delivering a sufficient electrical shock to restore his father’s lost memory, but the resultant power surge turns the closet inside out, damaging the fabric of the space-time continuum. This causes the Browns and Marty to randomly jump around in time and space, and threatens to collapse the entire planet into a black hole. Luckily, Doc regains his memories in time to avert the crisis.
Finding these seven issues can be quite costly on second-hand markets, and the series has never been reprinted. That’s a shame, as they’re a great deal of fun, providing a nice melding of the movies and the cartoons. The films’ brand of humor is present, with the first movie’s template playing out in different eras and Marty often being a fish out of water, combined with the animated series’ tendency to focus on Doc, his sons Jules and Verne, and Marty—who meet Tannen analogs with silly names wherever they go.
The comics had their fair share of overt goofiness (the “cat-aracts” gag, for example). That’s not overly surprising, given that they were based on a TV show on which Doc Brown had custom-designed the DeLorean so that his dog Einstein could drive the car. Still, despite the more absurd moments, the Harvey stories also contained some memorably entertaining aspects.
Governor Tannen is especially amusing, as he spends his time reclining lazily, with an android servant programmed to slap people around and call them “buttheads” for him. This servant is drawn to resemble Woody Allen’s robotic household butler from Sleeper (a movie most of the comic’s child-age reading audience very likely had never seen). In fact, Robot City’s other android and robotic citizens resemble iconic characters from several science-fiction TV shows and films, including R2-D2 (from Star Wars), Twiki (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century), Robby (Forbidden Planet), Gort (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Mecha-Kong (King Kong Escapes), and Silent Running‘s Dewey, Huey, and Louie.
While visiting gangster-run 1927 Chicago, Doc Brown goes by the alias of… well… Doc Brown. “Eggs” Benedict recognizes his name from a brand of celery tonic, a particularly clever gag, since Doc Brown’s Celery Tonic (now called Cel-Ray) has been in production since 1868, and was quite popular in the 1920s. The entire Chicago mob issue is similarly amusing, with Benedict drawn to resemble Edward G. Robinson, a Hollywood film actor famous for playing numerous gangster characters—and for being spoofed in Looney Tunes shorts as Rocky the mobster.
What’s more, Tannen the Barbarbain hilariously looks like actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cinematic depiction of Robert E. Howard’s Conan character in the films Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. Biff Tannen washes himself with Doggy Dip for Fleas and Ticks during his infrequent baths, implying he suffers from a bug infestation. A dino-version of Marvel Comics’ The Amazing Spider-Man stars a reptilian analog of the superhero, after Doc changes time so dinosaurs never become extinct. And the Extradimensional Storage Closet is, in essence, Doc’s personal TARDIS (the time machine from British science-fiction TV series Doctor Who).
In addition, Eagle-eyed readers will notice several in-jokes regarding 1980s TV series Family Ties, starring Michael J. Fox. Marty reads a college textbook titled Keatonsian Economics, written by Alex Keaton (Fox’s character on that show). Keep in mind that an excerpt of Family Ties plays on a television screen when Marty visits Café 80’s in Back to the Future Part II. This implies that Michael J. Fox, Marty McFly, and Alex P. Keaton all exist in the same reality! Even funnier? In the animated episode “My Pop’s an Alien,” Marty sarcastically jokes that he’s Michael J. Fox.
If you can find copies of these long-overlooked comic books, they’re worth making like a tree and reading. It won’t be an easy task, as Harvey’s Back to the Future line is as elusive as James Stewart’s invisible rabbit Harvey, but with patience and luck, you can probably track them down online instead of having to hold your breath and hope that IDW will someday reprint them. Just be warned: the price tag will be heavy, Marty.