Herb Trimpe: 1939 to 2015

Longtime comic book artist Herb Trimpe passed away unexpectedly on April 13th at the age of 75.  I was a big fan of Trimpe’s work and I’ve written about him a few times previously on this blog.

Trimpe may not have been the most flashy, dynamic artist.  But he was definitely a great storyteller, drawing effective interior layouts and striking covers that grabbed your attention.  Like many others of his generation, Trimpe had an amazing work ethic, keeping a monthly schedule on numerous titles during his career.

In his early 20s Trimpe briefly worked as an inker for Dell and Gold Key.  After a four year stint in the Air Force from 1962 to 1966, he began to get work at Marvel Comics.  Among his earliest assignments at Marvel were such Western characters such as Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid.  He also inked Marie Severin’s pencils on the Hulk feature in Tales to Astonish in 1967.

Incredible Hulk 140 cover

In 1968 Tales to Astonish was retitled The Incredible Hulk beginning with issue #102.  Four months later Trimpe became the book’s penciler with issue #106.  This was a start of a mammoth run on the series that would last until issue #193 in late 1975.  During that seven and a half year run, Trimpe missed a mere two issues.  His work on Incredible Hulk resulted in his depiction of the Jade Giant becoming one of the most identifiable, iconic renditions of the character.

While on Incredible Hulk, Trimpe sometimes inked his own pencils, and he was also paired with inkers John Severin, Dan Adkins, Sal Buscema, Sam Grainger, Sal Trapani and Jack Abel.  He illustrated stories written by some of Marvel’s most talented writers, namely Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart and Len Wein.

One of the most memorable Hulk stories that Trimpe penciled was “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom” from issue #140.  Plotted by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, scripted by Thomas, and inked by Grainger, this was the introduction of Jarella, the green-skinned princess of a sub-atomic world.  Jarella is undoubtedly one of the Hulk’s true loves.  All these decades later this bittersweet tale is fondly remembered.  Trimpe’s layouts on the final few pages are extremely impactful, driving home the tragedy of the ending.

Back Issue 70 cover

Trimpe also became the very first artist to draw the now-popular mutant Wolverine in print.  Created by Wein, Wolverine’s look was actually designed by John Romita.  But it was Trimpe who penciled his first three published appearances in Incredible Hulk #s 180-182, with inking by Able.

In later years Trimpe would be commissioned on numerous occasions to draw re-creations and re-interpretations of that first historic battle between the Hulk and Wolverine.  One of those pieces, with a background illustration by Gerhard, was used last year as the cover for Back Issue #70 from TwoMorrows Publishing, the theme of which was “Incredible Hulk in the Bronze Age.”

During his lengthy stint at Marvel Trimpe drew many of the company’s characters.  His credits include Iron Man, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain Britain, Ant-Man in Marvel Feature, Killraven in Amazing Adventures, Captain America, Avengers, Son of Satan in Marvel Spotlight, Defenders, Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, Machine Man, and several stories in What If.

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 cover signed

Trimpe and writer Gary Friedrich created the World War I flying ace Phantom Eagle, who made his debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (Sept 1968).  The character obviously tapped into Trimpe’s longtime love for airplanes, and his artwork for this story was very dynamic.  Although the character of the Phantom Eagle never really took off (so to speak) he did make a few subsequent appearances over the years, including in Incredible Hulk #135 once again drawn by Trimpe.

Beginning in the late 1970s Trimpe drew a number of Marvel titles featuring licensed characters.  He penciled nearly the entire two year run of Godzilla.  This was a wacky and offbeat series written by Doug Moench that integrated Toho’s famous monster into the Marvel universe.  Trimpe illustrated Godzilla’s encounters with Dum Dum Dugan and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Champions, Devil Dinosaur, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  In issue #17 Moench, Trimpe and inker Dan Green even showed Godzilla getting shrunk down in size by Hank Pym, a condition that persisted for the next few issues!

Godzilla 17 pg 15

Trimpe also drew Shogun Warriors, Transformers, and The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones.  He was the first artist on the successful G.I. Joe comic launched in 1982.  He penciled the first several issues, and also plotted a few of them, with G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama scripting.  On issue #8 Trimpe even flew solo, plotting, penciling, inking and scripting “Code Name: Sea-Strike!”

Interviewed in 2001 for issue #53 of the Godzilla magazine G-Fan, Trimpe reflected upon his work on these various licensed titles:

“It’s funny, because you have a point about that. I never realized it before, but I have worked on a lot of licensed projects… I believe that it was probably because all of those titles involved the military, big vehicles and machines. [Marvel] knew I enjoyed drawing that stuff. Even the Hulk fought the army a lot. So, that’s no coincidence. I’m a big airplane freak. That’s really the connection there. I loved airplanes as a kid. I used to build models. I eventually got my pilot’s license, and even owned my own airplane for a number of years.”

Trimpe soon departed from G.I. Joe as he was not fond of drawing its (literal) army of characters.   Five years later he returned to work on the spin-off series G.I. Joe Special Missions which was also written by Hama.  With its smaller casts and self-contained stories, the book was more appealing to Trimpe.  “I actually liked doing the Special Missions better than the regular one,” he stated in Back Issue #16.

Plus, within the pages of Special Missions, Trimpe got to draw airplanes… lots of them!  On his Facebook page Hama fondly reminisced “Fave way to make Herbie happy was to give him a script with lots of airplanes in it.”  Trimpe drew nearly the entirety of the 28 issue run of Special Missions.

GI Joe 8 pg 14

The 1990s was a major decade of transition for Trimpe.  He began drawing in a manner reminiscent of the then super-popular Image Comics founders, particularly Rob Liefeld.  This new style was most notably on display within the pages of the giant-sized quarterly title Fantastic Four Unlimited which was written by longtime Marvel scribe, and Trimpe’s former Incredible Hulk collaborator, Roy Thomas.  Mike DeCarlo and Steve Montano inked the first few issues, with Trimpe himself embellishing his pencils on the later stories.

Many people thought that Trimpe was being pressured into altering his style to conform to the flavor of the month.  However, as he explained to Brian Cronin on Comic Book Resources in 2009, this was not the case:

“Truth was, it was a lark–but a lark with a purpose, all devised by myself. No one at Marvel suggested I change the way I draw or ink. I looked at the new guys’ stuff, and thought, hey, this is great. Very exciting. You can always learn from somebody else, no matter how long you’ve been doing a thing.

“I did, however, think the style might lead to new work at a time when Marvel was already in trouble, and it did. FF Unlimited was my last series at Marvel, and contrary to what a lot of fans think, I think it was the best work I’d done–and, I had a whole lot of fun doing it. Very expressive. I think the newer influences in comic book art brought out a better me. Like I said, most of the fans of the earlier stuff would not agree. On one occasion, I inked a whole story with a brush, which is what I was raised on, and the editor objected asking me not to do that anymore. But in general, no one pressured me into a change.”

Looking over Trimpe’s artwork on FF Unlimited, it is undoubtedly offbeat.  The anatomy of his figures is wonky.  Trimpe may have enjoyed this particular stylistic experiment, but as a reader I do not think it was entirely successful.  Having said that, his layouts and storytelling on those issues are dramatic and imaginative.  Despite the odder aspects of Trimpe’s early 1990s art, I enjoyed the stories he and Thomas told in FF Unlimited.

Fantastic Four Unlimited 2 pg 19

Unfortunately, with the comic book industry experiencing a huge downturn due to the collapse of the speculator market in the mid-1990s and Marvel declaring bankruptcy, Trimpe found himself out of work.  It was an extremely difficult period of time for him.  Trimpe would document his feelings on being unemployed in a journal.  His writings would later be published as “Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World” by the New York Times in 2000.  They can be read on Jim Keefe’s website.

Reading Trimpe’s journal entries, I have some identification.  I was laid off in late 2009, and since then have worked a series of temp positions, with periods of unemployment in-between.  I have yet to find a new permanent job.  If this is stressful for someone in their 30s, I can only imagine how much more so it was for Trimpe, who was two decades older, and who had been at the same job for over a quarter of a century.  Eventually he was able to make the difficult transition into a new career, working as a high school art teacher.

I regard Trimpe’s experiences in the 1990s as yet another reminder that, for all its excitement, a career in the comic book industry is also one that is fraught with uncertainty.  Trimpe’s story is sadly not unique.  Many others older creators have had similar experiences.  I am just glad that eventually, after much hard work, he was able to land on his feet.

In 1992 Trimpe had been ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.  A decade later, in the months following the September 11th terrorist attacks, he performed volunteer work as a chaplain in lower Manhattan.

Within the last several years Trimpe began working in comic books again.  A number of creators who were fans of his work when they were growing up started to hire him to draw various covers, fill-in issues and short stories.   In 2008 Trimpe drew the first issue of the BPRD: War on Frogs miniseries published by Dark Horse and a back-up story in the King-Sized Hulk special.

GI Joe 166 cover

In 2010 IDW began publishing G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero which continued the continuity, as well as the numbering, of the original Marvel series.  Larry Hama was once again writing the series.  A few issues into this revival Trimpe began contributing covers for the series based on layout sketches from Hama.  Trimpe’s covers were featured on the series for nearly two years.  He was also one of the pencilers on the 2012 annual.

Savage Dragon creator and Image Comics co-founder Erik Larsen is a longtime fan of Trimpe’s work.  As he recently explained, “The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was The Incredible Hulk #156.”  In 2010, when Savage Dragon was approaching its own 156th issue, Larsen approached Trimpe to draw a variant cover paying homage to that Incredible Hulk issue.  Working from Larsen’s rough layout, Trimpe illustrated a great cover featuring two versions of the Dragon facing off against one another.

Four years later, for Savage Dragon #200, Larsen asked Trimpe to contribute to two of the back-up stories.  On the first one Larsen inked Trimpe’s pencils; on the second Trimpe inked Larsen.  I really enjoyed how those came out.

Savage Dragon 156 Herp Trimpe variant cover

Within the last decade Trimpe became a regular guest at comic book conventions, especially in the Tri-State area.  This was when he started to realize just how much his work, which he had always been somewhat critical of, meant to people.  In his 2008 foreword to Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk Vol. 5, Trimpe wrote:

“…what finally sunk into my thick skull, was that hundreds, if not thousands, of comic book fans loved the stories I drew. And worse than that, they loved the style I had grown to dislike (I won’t use the word hate). Many a dear comic-book folk described emotionally to me how meaningful those stories had been to them. I’m sure many artists and writers in this crazy business have heard these same sentiments, but when you experience it for yourself, it is mind-blowing. One fellow described to me how a particular issue I had drawn had saved his life! How does a guy who worked to make deadlines and get the paychecks respond to that? I was flabbergasted, and I continue to be flabbergasted by the many thanks I have received for the work that I have done.”

I was fortunate enough to meet Trimpe at several conventions over the years.  He always impressed me as a genuinely nice person.  It was always a pleasure to see him.  I was able to obtain a few pieces of artwork by him over the years, and they are a much-treasured part of my collection.  They can be viewed at Comic Art Fans…

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Herb+Trimpe&GCat=60

Given the tremendous, widespread responses to Herb Trimpe’s passing that have been seen on the Internet within the past week, both from fans and former colleagues, it is readily apparent that he was both a talented creator and a good person.  He will certainly be missed by me and by many others.

Herb Trimpe Sketchbook Odds and Ends Vol 1

Here are some previous pieces where I’ve written about Trimpe:

Thank you for taking a look.  This post is dedicated to the memory of Herb Trimpe.

Saturday at the East Coast Comicon

For the last few months I was trying to decide if I should attend the East Coast Comicon that was going to be held on April 11th and 12th in the Meadowlands Exposition Center.  It sounded like it would be a cool show with a lot of great guests.  Unfortunately my finances were shaky, so I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I should skip it.

Then a few weeks ago 13th Dimension, who were organizing the show, announced a contest for free tickets plus Planet of the Apes action figures.  I entered the contest and then promptly forgot about it, since I was busy stressing about work and personal stuff.  That is until April 2nd when Dan Greenfield from 13th Dimension e-mailed me to let me know that I was one of the winners.  Okay, so I guess that meant I was going to the show after all!

East Coast Comicon banner by Cliff Galbraith

Michele and I went to the convention on Saturday.  Due to that aforementioned “personal stuff” both of us were exhausted and got a late start.  And once we got to the Port Authority the bus to the Meadowlands was running a half hour behind schedule.  So we didn’t get to the show until 3:30 PM, which gave us two and a half hours to try to take in as much as possible.

One of the first people we saw was cartoonist Rick Parker.  He is a really cool guy with an insane sense of humor.  I’ve met him at a few shows in the past, and we’re also friends on Facebook.  The last time I actually saw him in person was May 2011, when he was generous enough to give me a ride from the train station to the Hawthorne High School Comic Con.  I’m happy that I got to see him again after all this time.

Rick Parker East Coast Comicon

Rudy Nebres was another guest.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of his work.  He was at the show with his family.  He and his wife are always friendly.  This time I also met his son Mel, who I’m friends with on Facebook.  It’s always nice when you get to actually meet FB friends in person.

One of the guests I was really looking forward to meeting was Arthur Adams.  I’ve been a fan of his work for years but I’d never met him before.  Adams’ work is amazing.  He puts an absolutely insane amount of detail into his art.  Michele wasn’t familiar with Adams, but once she some of his work she was instantly impressed.

I brought along a few comics for Adams to sign, along with The Official Godzilla Compendium, for which he contributed a number of illustrations.  Adams is a lifelong fan of Godzilla.  He also really enjoys drawing gorillas.  Given those two passions, I mentioned to him that it was too bad Toho Studios does not like to have their Godzilla character appear in crossovers, because he would be the perfect guy to illustrate a graphic novel version of King Kong vs. Godzilla.  Adams actually responded that in the mid-1990s when he was involved with the Godzilla comic published by Dark Horse he pitched a “Superman vs. Godzilla” crossover.  DC Comics was all for it, but Toho had zero interest, and so it went nowhere.  Too bad, that could have been amazing.

Arthur Adams East Coast Comicon

Another creator I was happy to see at the convention was Ann Nocenti.  I’ve reviewed some of her work on this blog before.  Nocenti is one of the most distinctive writers in the comic book biz.  She brought with her unique sensibilities and an unconventional outlook when she began writing for Marvel Comics in the 1980s, which led to a number of memorable stories.  I look back very fondly on her run writing Daredevil in the late 1980s.

I’ve actually met Nocenti before, a couple of years ago when she was doing a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe.  But that was pretty crowded, and I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to her.  At the East Coast Comicon there was much more of an opportunity to share my thoughts about her work and ask her some questions.  Nocenti was definitely very generous with her time.

Ann Nocenti East Coast Comicon

Also among the guests who Michele and I got to meet  were underground cartoonist John Holstrom, current Heathcliff comic strip creator Peter Gallagher, the amazingly funny Fred Hembeck, longtime Marvel writer & artist Bob Budiansky, and Ren & Stimpy co-creator Bob Camp.  There were a bunch of other guests there, as well, but we just didn’t have enough time to catch everyone.

I was glad that at towards the end of the show I did have a few moments to stop by Eric Talbot‘s table.  Talbot has a long association with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book.  I was a huge fan of the series back in high school, and I fondly remember his work on it.  Most of my collection is packed away in storage but I was able to bring along a few issues of the more recent Tales of the TMNT anthology series that he contributed to and have those autographed.  I wish I could have afforded to get a sketch from Talbot because he was drawing some amazing pieces at the show.

Eric Talbot East Coast Comicon

Fortunately I was able to obtain one sketch at the convention.  Rudy Nebres drew a beautiful pencil head sketch of Vampirella for me.  I’ve really enjoyed his work on the character in the past so I was happy to be able to get this.

Actually It’s been a while since I’ve been to a convention and gotten more than one or two pieces of artwork, anyway.  I guess nowadays, with my finances being more limited, I’m concentrating on quality over quantity.

Vampirella Rudy Nebres

There were a lot of cosplayers at the convention.  Some of the costumes were fantastic.  Since we were rushing around Michele unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to take too many pictures.  As we were on our way out, though, she was able to take a great photo of this “Spider-Family.”  From left to right that’s Venom, Scarlet Spider, Spider-Woman aka Spider-Gwen and the original Spider-Man.

Spider-Man cosplayers East Coast Comicon

Oh, yes, one last thing… Michele is a huge fan of Planet of the Apes.  Last year she rented all the movies from the original series and we watched them over a five day stretch.

In addition to winning two tickets to the convention, I also won two Planet of the Apes action figures.  One was Charlton Heston himself, Colonel Taylor, who wishes those damn dirty apes would keep their paws to themselves.  The other was a gorilla soldier who looks ready to hunt down some of those pesky humans.  Sadly neither figure came with a half-buried Statue of Liberty, but despite that deficiency they are still very cool.  Of course I gave them to Michele, who I knew would appreciate them.

Planet of the Apes action figures East Coast Comicon

Despite only getting to the convention for less than half a day, and being on a really tight budget, Michele and I both had  a lot of fun.  Hopefully we will be able to make it again next year.

A big “thank you” to 13th Dimension publisher Cliff Galbraith for organizing the East Coast Comicon.  By the way, that’s his artwork on the cool banner up top of Darth Vader cosplaying as Doctor Doom.

(All photos are courtesy of Michele Witchipoo and her wonderful smartphone.)

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part two

Here is the second part of my look at Roger Slifer’s run on the DC Comics science fiction series The Omega Men.  (And here’s a link back to part one.)

Previously the tyrannical Citadel, which brutally ruled Vegan star system, was overthrown in an assault headed by Tigorr of the Omega Men.  As issue #8 opens, the inhabitants of Vega’s 22 worlds are celebrating their newly-won freedom.

Omega Men 8 cover

While the various members of the Omega Men begin to adjust to the idea of victory, the enigmatic human criminal Harry Hokum is working behind the scenes to take advantage of the chaos.  He decides that the former figurehead leader of the Citidel would make an ideal puppet ruler.  Guiding him, Hokum quickly begins organizing the surviving Citadel factions, rebuilding the fallen alliance with amazing speed.

It is quite interesting to see what Slifer is doing in these issues.  It is a common theme in sci-fi and space opera to have a resistance movement fighting a desperate battle against a ruthless dictatorship.  What you see much less seldom is the eventual outcome of such struggles.  What happens after you overthrow the evil empire?

As was demonstrated on numerous occasions in the real world throughout the 20th Century, more often than not when a totalitarian regime is overthrown, it is not replaced by a stable democracy.  Instead, another dictatorship steps in to take its place.  Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran… all of them saw one form of oppression supplanted by another.  Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, as the saying goes.  And in cases where that did not occur, the other likely outcome was complete disorder.  Just look at Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya within the last decade and a half.

Slifer obviously wanted to look at how the Omega Men would attempt to stabilize the Vegan system which, after decades of Citadel rule, is now in disarray.  Tigorr was so concerned with topping the Citadel as quickly as possible that he did not consider what would happen next.  The result is that the Omegans are caught completely off-guard when the charismatic Hokum begins consolidating power.

Omega Men 8 pg 18

The new Citadel is, in certain ways, more dangerous than the old one.  As was previously revealed, the First Citadelian made his regime so totally vicious because he wanted to drag the entire Vegan system down to his level of violence & ruthlessness.  In contrast, Hokum is not interested in proving a point.  He wants to rule over a stable empire.  Instead of merely relying on brutality, he also utilizes guile and deception, weapons which are much more difficult to detect and to fight back against.

Slifer addresses the question of what freedom really means.  I think that here in Western society we take for granted that freedom is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  Many of us do not give it too much thought.  But for other cultures and societies, freedom is a very different concept.

In the real world the question has often been asked of what to do when a tyrant is elected by democratic means.  If outside forces disapprove and decide to overthrow that dictator, in the process are they not taking away that country’s freedom to decide its own destiny?  Slifer has the Omega Men facing that very question when several Vegan worlds voluntarily join Hokum’s new Citadel, lured by promises of order & security.

The question is also explored on a more personal level by Slifer via the character of Broot.  He is still haunted by grief and uncertainty following the tragedy he unwittingly caused on his home planet of Changralyn.  Broot realizes that the lull in hostilities finally gives him the opportunity to search for his wife Kattayan, who was taken by the Gordanian slavers years before.

Broot tracks his wife to a harsh planetoid.  It is here that all of the children seized from Changralyn by the Gordaians have been taken, to spend the rest of their lives in brutal toil, mining valuable minerals under extremely dangerous conditions.

Broot is aghast to see these children relegated to this fate, and disgusted that they have embraced his society’s religion of extreme nonviolence, passively accepting their roles.  He is also shocked to discover that Kattayan has been teaching the children to follow that faith.

Omega Men 13 pg 9

At first Broot desperately wants to take his wife and the children away from their desolate existence.  He attempts to convey to them the vast possibilities of life:

“It is easy to choose the simple path, to take the path of least resistance in living your lives. But in the end they are empty lives, enriching neither yourselves nor your spirit. Each one of you needs to learn to look beyond your present lives, to the true potentialities of the universe. And of your true potentialities.”

In response, the children tell him that this is the only life they have known, that in their own way they are happy here, and that they do not know how they would exist in the vast universe outside.  Broot realizes that just as he will not allow others to dictate his own individual path, neither can he force these children to conform to his idea of freedom.  He has extended to them the choice to leave, and he must respect their decision even though he disagrees with it.

Slifer also focuses on Kalista, wife of the Omegan leader Primus.  After Tigorr’s victory over the Citadel, Kalista is preparing to resume her role of monarch of Euphorix.  She had only reluctantly given up the throne as part of a deal with the opportunistic Alonzo Dulak.

In exchange for Kalista letting him assume control of Euphorix, Dulak erected an energy shield around the planet, preventing the Citadel from conquering it.  Although this has spared her world the ravages of war, Kalista is nevertheless eager to resume her role as queen as quickly as possible, as she finds Dulak untrustworthy.  Indeed, we see that Dulak is quite the autocrat.  Under his rule Euphorix has adopted a zero tolerance broken windows policy, as an unfortunate pair of litterbugs discover when they are summarily vaporized.

Once hostilities break out again, and the revived Citadel attacks the now-defenseless Euphorix, Primus and Kalista find themselves at odds.  Primus is determined the attempt to salvage the peace in Vega.  Kalista, however, is now primarily concerned with her home planet.  She informs Primus that she intends to raise the energy shield again, this time permanently, and that if he will not join her on Euphorix then she is ready to end their marriage.

Omega Men 12 pg 6

Kalista is faced with a painful dilemma, between her planet and her husband.  Although her ultimate decision to safeguard Euphorix and abandon both Primus and the rest of the Vegan system seems cold, it is clear that the decision is a difficult one for her.  As the queen of Euphorix, she genuinely regards herself as the servant of her people, and perceives it as her duty to protect them, even if it means sacrificing her happiness.  For Kalista, the freedom of her people is paramount to her own.

In issue #11 Slifer looks at the origins of Harpis and her now-deceased sister, the treacherous Demonia.  They were both prostitutes in an upscale bordello on the planet Raggashoon.  Harpis was extremely good at her job, bringing pleasure and comfort to her many clients.  But her existence then came crashing down as a result of the machination of the Citadel officer Komand’r, aka Blackfire, the older sister of Starfire from the New Teen Titans.  The sadistic Blackfire forces several of the prostitutes, including Harpis and Demonia, to undergo genetic manipulation, transforming them into concubines for her various alien lieutenants as a way of cementing their loyalty.

As written by Slifer, Harpis is very much a victim.  She is constantly being manipulated, either by her sister or by the Citadel.  Harpis relies on others for strength, unable to find it within herself.  In the present, severely wounded by the bounty hunter Bedlam and learning of her sister’s death, Harpis is completely distraught.

I wish that Slifer had made Harpis an emotionally stronger character.  I feel that her backstory has not aged well, and that three decades later, when assertive female protagonists are fortunately much more commonplace, Harpis’ weakness seems even more apparent.  Perhaps it is a bit unfair to judge Slifer’s writing in this way.  After all, he did write Kalista as a strong individual.  As in real life, not everyone, be they male or female, is going to end up being assertive and independent.

Omega Men 11 pg 14

Lobo the bounty hunter returns to the pages of The Omega Men, this time as an ally of the Omegans.  Slifer appears to have recognized the character’s potential popularity early on.

Of course, given that Lobo was introduced as a brutal sadist, it would have been ridiculous for him to suddenly turn heroic.  The mercenary joins forces with the Omega Men because he feels that the Citadel did not uphold their end of their bargain with him.  Lobo also finds it highly amusing that the Omega Men, despite their disgust for him, are forced to enlist his services.  At the end of issue #9, Primus realizes that he has no idea how to effectively fight Harry Hokum’s new, manipulative incarnation of the Citadel.  Reluctantly Primus approaches Lobo and acknowledges “We need someone as twisted as they are.”  Lobo, of course, chuckles at this admission.

In these bleak stories, Slifer obviously realized that a certain amount of humor was needed in order to keep the series from becoming a depressing slog.  Lobo provides some of that humor, albeit once again of an extremely macabre type.  Slifer also continues to utilize the Omega Man known as Shlagen.  The goofy-looking yellow-hued member of the Omegans is a technician, not a warrior, and he is constantly finding himself in over his head.  Shlagen is definitely not the bravest of individuals, to say the least, and his reluctant, bumbling heroism certainly helps to lighten the stories.

Slifer also generates comedy via the interactions of Lobo and Shlagen, who are complete opposites.  Shlagen was the first character to encounter Lobo back in issue #3, and he only survived because the bounty hunter didn’t feel like killing him.  Since then, Shlagen keeps bumping into Lobo over and over again, much to the former’s alarmed consternation and the latter’s twisted amusement.

Omega Men 9 pg 9

If there is one significant weakness to Slifer’s work it is that he never seemed to find a way to balance out the huge cast of characters.  Various regulars disappear for several issues at a time.  I guess that not every writer can be a Paul Levitz or a Chris Claremont and excel at juggling large casts of characters and multiple plotlines.

The art team on The Omega Men #s 8-13 is penciler Tod Smith and inker / embellisher Mike DeCarlo.  They do excellent work throughout these issues, demonstrating genuine versatility.

Slifer’s stories featured some previously unexplored inhabitants and worlds of the Vegan system, and the art by Smith & DeCarlo really brings these exotic, alien creations to life.  They expertly illustrate the various action sequences.  They also do effective work rendering the quieter character moments.  And in the moments of comedy, they successfully bring Slifer’s humor to life.  Smith & DeCarlo are especially good at depicting Shlagen’s misadventures throughout these issues.

Slifer’s run came to an abrupt end with issue #13.  In the letter column, Slifer wrote “Because of irreconcilable differences between myself and DC, this will be the last issue of The Omega Men written by me.”

It is unfortunate that Slifer had to depart the book.  In his year on the series he did spectacular character development and world-building while telling exciting & challenging stories.  It would have been interesting to see where he would have gone from this point, exploring the fractured alliances of the Omega Men and the resurgence of the Citadel.  I wonder if he would have eventually revealed who Harry Hokum was , since the character literally showed up out of nowhere in issue #3.  At least in his final story Slifer was able to conclude the story arc he began with Broot a year earlier, providing the character with closure and peace of mind.

I regret that it took Roger Slifer’s recent untimely death to motivate me to re-read these first 13 issues of The Omega Men.  Looking through them, it is apparent that he was a talented, imaginative, thoughtful writer.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part one

Roger Slifer, a writer and editor at Marvel and DC Comics in the 1970s and 80s, passed away on March 30th at the age of 60 due to complications from injuries sustained in a hit & run accident in 2012.  Slifer contributed to a number of titles during his time in the biz.  His longest run was the first 13 issues of The Omega Men, a science fiction / space opera series published by DC in the early 80s.

The Omega Men made their first appearances in Green Lantern #141-144 (1983) created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton.  They were known as “Omega Men” because they were among the last free inhabitants of the 22 planet Vegan solar system (which is not, as far as I know, the home of the veggie burger).  Vega was ruled with an iron hand by the brutal Citadel, and the Omega Men were a desperate group of freedom fighters struggling to overthrow them.  Wolfman connected the Omega Men to some of the backstory elements of his super-successful New Teen Titans series.  Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran was in Vega, and her origin involved the Citadel’s occupation of her world.

Omega Men 1 cover

When The Omega Men series made its debut in April 1983 Wolfman served as the book’s editor.  Slifer was paired with co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen and inker Mike DeCarlo.

I must have picked up most of the back issues of The Omega Men in the 1990s, and probably haven’t given them much of a look since then.  Re-reading Slifer’s run over the past week I was struck by just how sophisticated his writing was, how he tackled genuinely difficult questions.  I guess that the same story can appear quite different to someone in their late 30s than when they initially read it in their early 20s.

The series was published without Comics Code Authority approval.  Slifer ramped up the violence, depicting the brutal costs involved in fighting a war against an intractable, savage enemy.  The Omega Men was “grim & gritty” before that term was coined, but Slifer definitely did not glamorize violence.  He utilized the conflict to explore philosophical & political issues.

Working off the dynamics set up by Wolfman in the Green Lantern issues, Slifer quickly establishes the Omega Men as a group very much at odds with itself.  Comprised of refugees from numerous different worlds, the Omegans have different viewpoints and are frequently seen clashing over how to conduct the war against the Citadel.  The only thing uniting them is a common enemy.  They are in as much danger of collapsing from within as being defeated from without.

The internal conflicts of the group are epitomized by Primus and Tigorr.  Primus is the leader of the Omega Men, and he approaches the war with the Citadel with caution, carefully mapping out the group’s strategies, hoping to slowly erode the enemy’s strength with a series of small but crucial victories.  The feline Tigorr, on the other hand, is hotheaded, a born fighter.  He wants to throw caution to the wind and mount a bold surprise offensive against the heart of the Citadel.  Primus and Tigorr are constantly arguing over strategy.

Omega Men 1 pg 8

The thing is, both of them are correct, and both are also wrong.  Sometimes their struggle with the Citadel requires methodically-planned maneuvers, and at other times a bold charge against the enemy is what’s called for.  On occasion Primus is shown to be indecisive and hesitant, while Tigorr is capable of being dangerously rash and impulsive.  What these two men need to do is sit down and develop a plan of battle that encompasses the strengths of both their approaches.  Instead, Slifer demonstrates that both Primus and Tigorr are too stubborn to do that.  Each is convinced that he should be leading the Omega Men, that the other is foolhardy.  As a result, the Omegans are almost fatally undermined when their teammate Demonia betrays them to the Citadel and manipulates Primus and Tigorr into fighting one another.

Slifer also addresses the question of whether or not violence is a productive solution by exploring the history of Broot, the Omegans’ massive grey-skinned strongman.  Primus decides to travel to Broot’s home planet Changralyn in an attempt to ally with the populace, despite Broot’s efforts to try to explain that he will be unsuccessful.  Primus and the other Omegans are shocked to discover that the entire culture of Changralyn revolves around pacifism.  They are fanatical in their adherence to non-violence, convinced that any act of aggression will inevitably bring about a horrible cosmic retribution.

Years before when the Citadel’s forces first landed on Changralyn the populace agreed to regularly give over a number of their children to the Gordanian slave traders in exchange for peace.  Broot, the only one to question his people’s religion in centuries, resisted and tried to prevent his son from being taken.  The Citadel responded with force, Broot’s son was killed, and he & his wife were taken along with the children by the Gordanians.  Since that day, Broot’s people have regarded him as a monstrous heretic.

Now back on Changralyn for the first time since then, Broot once again witnesses the Gordanians taking a selection of children to be used as slaves.  Reminded of his son, Broot snaps and slaughters them all.  In response, the Citadel’s orbiting forces drop a neutron bomb on the nearest city, murdering thousands.

Omega Men 2 pg 8

Slifer demonstrates that sometimes the choice between pacifism and violence is not a clear-cut one, that there can be negative consequences to both paths.  The non-violence by the people of Changralyn led them into slavery.  When Broot resisted, the result was that his people, instead of being subjugated, were slaughtered.  It is a no-win situation which leaves Broot devastated, gripped by paralyzing uncertainty.

Following on from the tragic journey to Changralyn and Demonia’s betrayal, Tigorr takes control of the Omega Men while a severely wounded Primus is recuperating.  Tigorr and his followers launch a frontal assault against the Citadel.  As word spreads of Tigorr’s battle through the solar system, revolts break out across Vega.  Most are brutally crushed, but enough resistance fighters make it to spacecraft and rendezvous with Tigorr to aid him in his assault on the Citadel’s home base.

Issue #6 sees the final assault against the Citadel.  Tigorr comes face-to-face with the true ruler of the empire, a once-living being now merged with a massive computer complex.  Tigorr then learns that the First Citadelian’s ultimate goal was not the conquest of Vega, but its corruption…

“I am the personification of aggression. Until I existed, the Vegan star system was pure, without aggression.  But I corrupted it – I corrupted it all!  Even you, who claim to want peace, have been driven to fight – to kill – for what you seek.”

The First Citadelian created a regime so unrelentingly brutal & savage that the only recourse for the inhabitants of Vega was to also embrace violence in order to defeat it.  The Citadel’s atrocities have been so horrific and widespread that the inhabitants of Vega are now consumed by hatred for their rulers, willing to go to any lengths to not just overthrow them but to achieve retribution.  The First Citadelian regards his destruction as a victory, for in order to attain it the peoples of Vega were forced to descend to his level.

Omega Men 6 pg 20

Issue #7 is by Slifer, DeCarlo and incoming penciler Tod Smith.  The First Citadelian, his computer intelligence quickly fading, reveals to the Omega Men the origins of the Vegan system, its goddess X’Hal, and the Citadel itself.  These revelations are horrific.

The First Citadelian explains that eons before the Psions, a group of scientists completely without morality, discovered there were two species within the Vegan system.  One was the Okaarans, a race to whom the concept of violence was totally foreign; the other was the Branx, who were “the embodiment of unbridled aggression.”

Fascinated by these diametric opposites, the Psions become obsessed with determining the true dominant trait in the universe, peace or violence.  They enact a grotesque plan: they kidnap the innocent X’Hal from Okaara and numerous warriors from Branx.  One by one, they set the Branx warriors loose on X’Hal, clinically observing her being raped repeatedly until she is finally pregnant, all so that they can learn whether the offspring of these two disparate special will epitomize love or war.

(I was definitely disturbed by this aspect of Slifer’s story.  It’s odd that I did not remember it from reading this issue years ago, and that it did not spur any unsettled reactions on my part.  It’s similar to what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, how as a teenager I wasn’t especially bothered by what the Joker did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, other than the fact that she was paralyzed and could no longer be Batgirl, but nowadays I am uncomfortable with that part.  I really do wonder if Slifer should have approached this part of his story differently.)

To the Psions’ surprise X’Hal gives birth to two children, one that appears Okaaran, the other that looks even more grotesque than the Branx.  The once-peaceful X’Hal, traumatized by months of abuse, finally snaps and stabs the Branx warrior that impregnated her.  Before it dies, the creature breaks her neck.  The Psions are alarmed that this will mean the end of their experiment since they do not know how to care for the two infants, and they frantically attempt to revive X’Hal.

Converting X’Hal to pure energy in the hopes of preserving her mind, the Psions unwittingly cause her ascension to godhood.  The empowered X’Hal grabs hold her two children and vengefully destroys her tormentors.  She returns to Okarra to raise them, but her innocence has been lost, and she is subject to violent mood swings.  One of her sons grows to become the Omegan named Auron.  The other, a victim of his Branx nature, feels completely alienated from the Okaaran people.  This son begins to fan the flames of aggression within the Okaarans, introducing conflict the formerly peaceful world, conflict that inevitably escalates.

Omega Men 7 pg 18

Eventually the Okaarans nearly destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust.  They blame X’Hal’s son, who they perceive as a corruptor.  Banished from Okaara, the son becomes the First Citadelian.  He makes it his life’s mission to prove that he was not unique, to demonstrate to all the races that had now grown throughout Vega that within each and every one of them was the potential to become a violent monster.  The First Citadelian is convinced that he has accomplished that.  He tells the Omega Men…

“The Okaarans sought to exile me, thinking I was the cancer that rotted their souls.  I was not a cancer but a harsh light, illuminating the lie within themselves.  And you, by killing me, showed only that you, like all the rest, want the power to decide for others.  Just like me.”

With that the First Citadelian dies.  Tigorr is convinced that the founder of the Citadel is full of it.  As far as Tigorr is concerned, he did what was necessary to finally free the Vegan system from tyranny.

Of course that was not Slifer’s last word on the subject.  In the next few issues he would examine in-depth the fall-out from the overthrow of the Citadel.

A look at the first seven issues of The Omega Men would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lobo.   The ultra-violent alien bounty hunter makes his debut in the pages of issue #3.  Devised by Slifer & Giffen, Lobo and his partner, the equally depraved Bedlam, are hired by the brutish figurehead ruler of the Citadel and his human advisor, the mysterious Harry Hokum.  Lobo and Bedlam kidnap the Omegans’ co-leader Kalista so that the Citadel can suck from her mind the knowledge needed to penetrate the energy shield protecting her home planet of Euphorix.  In the process the mercenary pair cut a bloody swathe through several of Kalista’s compatriots.

Despite the serious subject matter of these issues, with Lobo and Bedlam we see that Slifer & Giffen do have a more lighthearted side to their work, although that sense of humor is certainly very dark & sardonic.

Omega Men 3 pg 13 Humbek

Issue #3 sees the all-too-brief career of the Omegan known as Humbek, a political cartoonist exiled by the Citadel for his “subversive” work.  If Humbek’s name & appearance seem a bit familiar that is because he is a caricature of comic book humorist Fred Hembeck.  Even Humbek’s cursing is no doubt a nod to the Dateline:@#$% strips by Hembeck that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide.

Two pages after Humbeck’s debut, we are introduced to Lobo and Bedlam, as seen below.  Yes, that is Lobo in the orange & purple spandex.  What do you want?  It was the early 1980s after all!  I’m sure we all have occasions in our past when we embraced unfortunate fashion trends.  It seems even the Main Man isn’t immune to that sort of lapse in judgment.

Right from the start, though, Lobo definitely possessed his sick sense of humor and fondness for extreme violence.  Slifer & Giffen bestow upon Fred Hembeck, via his alien stand-in Humbek, the honor of being the very first character to ever be killed by Lobo in print.  Of course it is a spectacularly gruesome demines.  Yipes, that’s gotta hurt!

Omega Men 3 pg 15 Lobo intro

The artwork on these issues is certainly good.  I liked the team of Giffen & DeCarlo, who did good work depicting the warfare as well as the quieter character moments.  Giffen’s storytelling on these issues is very dynamic.  On his last two issues Giffen was only doing rough layouts.  DeCarlo’s finishes over these are very good.  His embellishment suits the high-stakes battle sequences.  Coming onboard with issue #7, Smith does good work rendering of the secret history of the Vega system.  His penciling has a rich amount of detail in these flashback sequences.  Once again, DeCarlo’s inking is strong.

Time permitting I will hopefully be taking a look at the second half of Roger Slifer’s run on The Omega Men in the near future.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to part two.

Ten years of new Doctor Who

On the 26th of March 2005 “Rose,” the very first episode of the revival of Doctor Who, was broadcast on BBC One.  Viewers were introduced to the Ninth Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston and Rose Tyler played by Billie Piper in a script written by new series showrunner Russell T Davies.  That was exactly ten years ago today.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Ten years.

Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler

Yes, I almost cannot believe that it has been exactly ten years since Doctor Who made its return to television screens after more than a decade and a half absence. TEN YEARS! If you had told me back in 2004 that just a year later Doctor Who would be returning, that the new series would run more than a decade, and that it would become a gigantic mega-hit not just in Britain but in America and numerous other countries, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are then years later and that is exactly what has happened. As Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was fond of saying, “Fantastic!”

I will readily admit that the first year of the revival was wildly uneven.  But even so, it contained a few genuine classics, namely “Dalek,” “Father’s Day” and “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.”  Certainly the portrayal of the Doctor by Eccleston was brilliant.

Since then we have had David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all portraying the Doctor, each bringing something unique and wonderful to the role.  We’ve also seen the final fate of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, the revelation of the existence of the War Doctor portrayed by veteran thespian John Hurt, and even cameos by past Doctors Peter Davison and Tom Baker.  Oh, yes, and the return of Sarah Jane Smith, played by the much loved (and now much missed) Elisabeth Sladen.

Oh, yeah, and there’s been a whole bunch of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” enough to keep fans endlessly guessing… and arguing.

doctors-9-10-11-12

Obviously not every episode has been a brilliant success.  There have inevitably been a few stinkers over the past decade.  However, on the whole I believe that both Davies and his successor Steven Moffat have done good work keeping the series going, bringing it into the 21st Century.

Maybe it is just the nature of Doctor Who fans to complain, to argue “It isn’t as good as it used to be!”  But, honestly, I really do think that some of the all time greatest installments of the series have been produced within the past decade.  And I am eager to see what comes next.

So here’s to the next ten years of Doctor Who!  Geronimo, allons-y, and all that!

About that Batgirl variant cover by Rafael Albuquerque

Here is a short postscript to my discussion of Batman: The Killing Joke.   Getting back to what prompted my reconsideration of Alan Moore’s story in the first place, I am going to take a look at that Rafael Albuquerque variant cover that was originally going to be used by DC Comics for Batgirl #41.

Albuquerque’s piece, seen below, is certainly well illustrated.  However, it is also very disturbing, especially that expression on Batgirl’s face.  Albuquerque is obviously taking direct inspiration from The Killing Joke.  This cover is clearly meant to evoke memories of that story’s events in the audience’s mind, specifically the Joker’s brutalization of Barbara Gordon.

Batgirl variant by Rafael Albuquerque

If we do regard what the Joker did to Barbara in The Killing Joke as sexual assault, then this would be the equivalent of a scene depicting a rapist returning to torment his victim anew.  So, yes, I can definitely understand why a number of readers were very unhappy with the idea of this being published.

Should DC have cancelled Albuquerque’s cover?  I don’t know.  As I have commented before, people do not have the right to not be offended.  However, it seems that other people got offended at people getting offended by the cover, and things went pear-shaped.  Batgirl writer Cameron Stewart tweeted:

“Something to clarify, because DCs statement was a little unclear. @rafaalbuquerque did not get threats. People OBJECTING to the cover did.”

Yes, that’s right.  Albuquerque requested that DC not publish the cover because people who were protesting it were receiving death threats from certain individuals who wanted the cover to be published.  This is exactly like that Gamergate bullshit where you have a group of assholes hiding behind the cause of “journalistic integrity” in order to peddle their hateful misogyny.

You could argue that people were overreacting to Albuquerque’s cover.  If they were, well, the sane and responsible manner in which to respond to them is to calmly articulate your own perspective.  What you should not be doing is tossing around death threats.  Next time maybe just agree to disagree.  Stop acting like someone whose castle is under siege by an invading army.

Albuquerque himself had this to say:

“My Batgirl variant cover artwork was designed to pay homage to a comic that I really admire, and I know is a favorite of many readers. ‘The Killing Joke’ is part of Batgirl’s canon and artistically, I couldn’t avoid portraying the traumatic relationship between Barbara Gordon and the Joker. For me, it was just a creepy cover that brought up something from the character’s past that I was able to interpret artistically. But it has become clear, that for others, it touched a very important nerve. I respect these opinions and, despite whether the discussion is right or wrong, no opinion should be discredited.”

Albuquerque is an incredibly talented artist.  Perhaps drawing this Batgirl variant was a misstep on his part.  However, according to Bleeding Cool he originally drew a less-extreme version but DC requested that he make it more creepy, resulting in the final piece.  I definitely must give Albuquerque credit for recognizing that it had become toxically divisive, that certain people were behaving reprehensibly, and requesting that DC pull the plug on it.

Anyway, moving along, Albuquerque and writer Mike Johnson currently have a new sci-fi miniseries entitled Ei8ht coming out from Dark Horse.  Go pick it up.  It looks good.

Batman: The Killing Joke – a reappraisal

The recent controversy over artist Rafael Albuquerque’s proposed variant cover for Batgirl #41 (you can read all about in on Comic Book Resources) has prompted me to take another look at the story that inspired it.

Batman: The Killing Joke was written by Alan Moore, illustrated by Brian Bolland and colored by John Higgins.  It was originally released by DC Comics in early 1988.  To say that it was a sales success would be an understatement; by the time I purchased a copy of it two years later it was already on its sixth printing.

Batman The Killing Joke cover

For a long time I considered The Killing Joke to be one of the all-time greatest Batman stories ever told.  Along with Year One, I must have read it at least a dozen times when I was in high school.

It’s been a few years, though, since I last looked at The Killing Joke.  Yesterday I pulled my copy off the bookshelf and read it again, hoping to approach it with a fresh eye.  In certain respects I found it to still be amazing; in other respects previously minor flaws suddenly seemed much more apparent to me.

I still think the basic concept is great.  The Joker recalls his (possible) origin, when he was an average guy who was vainly attempting to start a career as a stand-up comedian, a depressed mope who felt like a failure to his pregnant wife.  Desperate to provide for his family, he agreed to help a pair of crooks rob the playing card company next to the chemical plant where he used to be employed.  Then, in the space of 24 hours, everything in his life catastrophically falls apart.  And at the end of the day he is transformed forevermore into Batman’s insane arch-nemesis.

The Joker becomes obsessed with the idea that “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.”  He embarks on a scheme to drive Commissioner James Gordon crazy by completely destroying his life in order to prove his point, and not just to himself, but also to Batman, who he is convinced must have also had “one bad day” that resulted in him becoming an obsessed costumed vigilante.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 7

Moore’s scripting on The Killing Joke is fantastic.  His dialogue for the Joker is brilliantly twisted, humorous in the sickest way possible.  I absolutely love the first scene with the Joker where he is somberly reflecting on how the out-of-business carnival he wishes to purchase is a decrepit, hazardous wreck, only to turn around and, grinning ear-to-ear, announce “I’m crazy for it.”

Moore also writes Batman especially well.  He is a brooding, driven figure, yet also an introspective one.  Beneath his obsession with stopping the Joker is a concern that the two of them are locked in a spiral of self-destruction, and that sooner or later one or the other will inevitably end up dead.  Despairingly he asks “How can two people hate so much without knowing each other?”

The Killing Joke shows that Batman and the Joker are mirror images of one another, both very much alike and complete opposites.  A young Bruce Wayne saw his parents murdered in front of him and dedicated the rest of his life to restoring order to his existence, to doing everything in his power to protect other innocents and punish criminals.  Likewise, something happened to the Joker and his life totally collapsed.  Unlike Batman, though, the Joker’s response to this was to descend into insanity, and to actively work to drag the entire world down with him, to tear down society, to perpetuate utter chaos.

Of course, Moore then sweeps aside the Joker’s argument by having Jim Gordon emerge intact from the hell he has been subjected to.  Yes, thanks to the Joker this has probably been the absolute worst day of his entire life.  But he is still very much sane.  When Batman heads into the carnival funhouse to capture the Joker, Gordon gives him firm instructions…

“I want him brought in… and I want him brought in by the book!  By the book, you hear?  We have to show him! We have to show him our way works!”

Much as Frank Miller did in Year One, Moore demonstrates in The Killing Joke that, in his own way, Gordon is just as strong, perhaps even stronger, than Batman.  Gordon is the one who doesn’t take refuge behind a mask to operate outside the law.  Instead, Gordon is the one who chooses to remain within a corrupt, flawed system and attempts to fix it from within.  And he doesn’t retreat from life, but works to maintain family & friendships in the face of the horrors that Gotham City continually throws in his face.

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The artwork by Brian Bolland on The Killing Joke is astonishing.  It is exquisitely detailed.  Bolland’s layouts and storytelling are incredibly dramatic.  He does superb work telling the story, transitioning from one scene to another.

Bolland is an incredible artist, but he is also not an especially fast one.  He is very meticulous, and so usually works as a cover artist, or drawing short stories for anthology books.  The Killing Joke is one of the longest stories Bolland ever drew outside of the Judge Dredd serials he worked on in 2000 AD and the Camelot 3000 miniseries he penciled.  As I understand it, Bolland spent some amount of time completing The Killing Joke.  It really appears that the time & energy he put into it were worth it, because the finished artwork is stunning.

The coloring by John Higgins is also extremely effective.  It definitely plays a key role in establishing the mood & atmosphere of this story.

So, having explained what I think is amazing about The Killing Joke, what is it that does not work for me?  To put it bluntly and simply, I really am not happy with the treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl.

I don’t know what the exact behind-the-scenes circumstances were at DC Comics’ editorial in the mid-1980s.  Apparently post-Crisis either no one wanted to use the character of Batgirl, or there was an active directive to write her out of the Batman books.  So when Moore came along with his dramatic plans for Barbara he was given the green light with no resistance from editorial.

A specific, key component of the Joker’s plan to drive Gordon insane is through torturing his daughter Barbara.  Specifically, the Joker shoots Barbara in the spine, crippling her from the waist down.  Apparently the Joker intended to inflict precisely that damage on her, because he immediately begins making tasteless jokes about it.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 15

After the Joker’s goons drag Gordon away, the Joker undresses the gravely-wounded Barbara and takes photos of her.  Later on, when Gordon is his prisoner at the carnival, the Joker forces him to view numerous blown-up photographs of the naked, humiliated Barbara.

As a teenager reading The Killing Joke, what happened to Barbara annoyed me.  At that time I was just upset that she had been placed in a wheelchair and could no longer be Batgirl.  It seemed like a waste of a character and an unfortunate thing to do to a hero who had been around since the 1960s.

Looking at The Killing Joke now, though, I am much more unsettled by Moore’s treatment of Barbara.  The scene in the funhouse with the photos of her is genuinely disturbing.

This is probably going to be the most inappropriate analogy possible, but this reminds me of Tom & Jerry.  When I was five years old I loved the Tom & Jerry cartoon.  I watched it on TV every single day.  I could not get enough of Tom & Jerry.  Then, inevitably, I got older, and I my interests changed.  Then about two decades later when I was in my mid-20s I started seeing reruns of Tom & Jerry on Cartoon Network, and I was surprised at how incredibly violent they were.  I could not believe that I had watched these as a little kid and not come away warped by them… hmmm, then again, maybe I did.

Well, I’ve had that same sort of experience with The Killing Joke.  Re-reading it in 2015 at the age of 38, aspects of it that flew under my radar as a teenager now leap out at me as appalling.

In the past I have heard some people describe what the Joker did to Barbara as “rape.”  I was one of those people who argued that nothing sexual actually happened.  The thing is, though, looking at it again now it is definitely a form of sexual assault.  The Joker shoots Barbara, takes off her clothes and photographs her while she is completely helpless.  That must have been an incredibly horrifying, humiliating experience.

Batman The Killing Joke pg 26

In hindsight, this falls into the “women in refrigerators” phenomenon that Gail Simone documented early in her career, wherein a villain kills or tortures a female character solely to make a male hero suffer.  That is definitely the case here.  The Joker doesn’t even know that Barbara is Batgirl.  He cripples and sexually humiliates her because he wants to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.  And the Joker is only doing that in order to prove a point to Batman, which makes the torture that Barbara experienced even more indirectly related to the protagonist.

I really cannot help but wonder if The Killing Joke could have worked better if Moore had approached it differently, if he had not done what he did to Barbara.  At the very least, Moore could have just had Barbara wounded by the Joker and left the door open for her recovery and return to the role of Batgirl so that she could once again be a hero instead of a victim.

Credit where credit is due: writers John Ostrander & Kim Yale, who were upset at Barbara Gordon’s treatment in The Killing Joke, successfully revamped her into the computer hacker & information broker Oracle in the pages of Suicide Squad.  Oracle soon became a key member of Batman’s supporting cast.  In the Birds of Prey series first Chuck Dixon and then Gail Simone herself did great work with Barbara / Oracle.

When Barbara finally regained her ability to walk and resumed the identity of Batgirl in the New 52, Simone was again there to chronicle her adventures.  So fortunately, despite what happened to Barbara in The Killing Joke, other writers were able to make her an interesting, viable character again.

Suicide Squad 49 cover Oracle

Another aspect of The Killing Joke that I am not happy with is that it helped begin the escalation of the Joker into an unstoppable mass murderer.  It became a case of “Can you top this?”  The Killing Joke saw the Joker cripple Batgirl and try to drive Gordon insane.  Shortly after, in “A Death in the Family,” the Joker brutally murdered Jason Todd / Robin and attempted to poison the United Nations General Assembly at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini… no, really, that actually happened!  Since then there have been stories where the Joker mutilates newborn babies, runs over innocent people, attempts to blow up Gotham with a nuclear bomb and murders Jim Gordon’s wife Sarah, just to name a few atrocities.  It’s all culminated with the Joker cutting off his own face just to show us how evil and insane he is.

This is why I am generally not a fan of the Joker.  Yes, for most of his history the character has been a murderer.  But before the late 1980s the Joker wasn’t an indiscriminate killer.  His crimes, however horrible, were motivated by a certain sick humor and bizarre rationales.  Hell, even in The Killing Joke he isn’t going around murdering people left & right.  He kills one person, the owner of the carnival.  That’s it.  Despite that, Moore’s depiction of the Joker is one of the most frightening depictions ever.

But again, this is yet another example of subsequent writers looking at the success & innovations of Moore’s work in the 1980s and totally taking the wrong lessons away.  Just as they did with Watchmen, later Batman writers looked at The Killing Joke and said “Let’s make the Joker and all of Batman’s other enemies completely insane and violent and have them murder lots of people! Grim & gritty is cool!”

Batman The Animated Series Joker

That’s probably why my favorite version of the Joker is actually from Batman: The Animated Series.  Because the audience for that series was all ages, the Joker could not be seen killing anyone.  That required the writers to actually be creative and come up with other ways in which to make the character scary.  Unlike in the comic books, The Animated Series couldn’t simply rely on mindless carnage to show us the Joker was insane and evil.

Besides, Mark Hamill was brilliant at voicing the Joker.  His portray of the character was perfect.  Even though The Killing Joke was published four years before The Animated Series made its debut, re-reading Alan Moore’s dialogue for the Joker, I can totally “hear” Hamill’s voice in my head.

Summing it all up, Batman: The Killing Joke is a good story with superb artwork.  However, there are nevertheless aspects of the writing that are undeniably problematic.  While I still like The Killing Joke, it definitely has some real flaws, especially its treatment of the character of Barbara Gordon.