Happy July 4th from the Avengers

Here’s wishing everyone in the United States a very happy July 4th.  For those of you elsewhere in the world, I wish you all the very best, as well.  I hope that one day “liberty and justice for all” truly becomes a reality no matter who you are or where you live.

To celebrate, I am posting a scan of this wonderful Avengers pin-up.  It was published in the Avengers: The Ultron Imperative special that was released in late 2001.  Described on the credits page as an “Unused Avengers promotional drawing,” it depicts Avengers members Hawkeye, Captain America, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch celebrating American Independence Day.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are immigrants from Europe who came to the United States in search of freedom from intolerance and the opportunity for a new beginning.  So they definitely deserve to be here as symbols of the American Dream.

Avengers July 4th Don Heck

The pencils on this piece are by Don Heck.  A good, solid, often-underrated artist, Heck worked on numerous comic book titles in a career that stretched over four decades, from the 1952 to 1993.  Among his credits were stints penciling Avengers for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.  Yes, that includes the time period when “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” were the headlining members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Heck passed away at the age of 66 in 1995, so this drawing was obviously done a number of years before it was published.  Given the subject matter, perhaps it was left over from the Bicentennial in 1976.

Inking / embellishing this pin-up is the ever-amazing Jerry Ordway.  As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Da Ordster.  Ordway has gone on record with his appreciation for Heck referring to him as “a truly underappreciated artist.”  I expect that he enjoyed having the opportunity to ink this piece in 2001.

The coloring is by Tom Smith, who was the regular colorist on the monthly Avengers series at this time.  He definitely did a very nice, vibrant job on this piece.

Thanks for taking a look!

Happy 75th birthday Neal Adams

I wanted to write a quick blog post wishing Neal Adams a happy birthday.  The legendary comic book artist was born 75 years ago today on June 15, 1941.

In a lengthy career that stretched from 1960 to the present, Adams has worked on numerous series, drawing some of the all-time greatest depictions of many different comic book characters.  At DC Comics he worked on Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Deadman.  Over at Marvel Comics he had short but extremely well-regarded runs on both Avengers and X-Men.  At his company Continuity Studios he worked on several creator-owned characters, most notably Ms. Mystic and Samuree.

Adams has also long been a vocal champion of creators’ rights in the comic book industry.  In the late 1970s he played a major role in DC finally awarding long-overdue public recognition & financial compensation to Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.  Among the other creators who Adams aided over the years were Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Dave Cockrum.  Adams was one of the first creators to strongly lobby publishers to return original artwork to artists.

nealadams01

Adams remains active in the biz.  Recent projects include the bizarre Batman: Odyssey for DC and First X-Men for Marvel.  Early this year he penciled a series of variant covers for DC Comics that paid homage to many of his now-classic Bronze Age covers.  On these variants Adams was paired up with a number of talented artists inking him.  Adams is currently working on the six issue miniseries Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, which features some really dynamic artwork.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Adams’ prolific presence in the comic book biz.  Perhaps in the future I will have a chance to take a closer look at some of his works.

If you’ve met Neal Adams any time in the last few years, you will probably find yourself saying that he doesn’t look like he’s in his 70s.  Hopefully he will be with us for many more years to come, creating still more amazing artwork.

Comic book reviews: Bronx Heroes 2.0 Ultimate Edition

The anthology series Bronx Heroes 2.0 from Ray Felix and Cup O Java Studio is a comic book I’ve been planning to review for a while now. This past Saturday at the White Plains Comic Con, I bought Bronx Heroes 2.0: The Ultimate Edition special.  It collects together the “Black Power” chapters from the first three issues.  This seemed like the perfect time to finally review the series.

Bronx Heroes Ultimate Edition cover

Of course, as it turned out, Saturday was also the day that Muhammad Ali died. Ray Felix’s work on Black Power was very much inspired by the life and beliefs of Muhammad Ali.  So it was rather sad reading though that collection this weekend, knowing that the man who Felix was paying homage to had passed away.

On June 4th Felix wrote on his Facebook page:

“In 2008, I released “Black Power” which was the story of Ali in the pages of Bronx Heroes 2.0. His wisdom and outspokenness inspired generations and his memory will live on forever.”

Black Power, aka Muhammad X, was introduced by Felix in A World Without Superheroes #4, published in 2007. A professional boxer and Olympic gold medal winner who converted to Islam, Muhammad X refused to serve in the Vietnam War.  Unlike his real-life inspiration whose conviction for draft evasion was overturned by the Supreme Court, Muhammad X faced going to jail.  At the urgings of his family, Muhammad X reluctantly agreed to participate in Panther X, one of the experiments by the military to create super-powered soldiers.

All of the participants in Panther X were African American.  Serving in Vietnam, the Panther X unit grew disillusioned with the war and went AWOL.  They worked to broker peace between the North and South Vietnamese, as well as to drive Western forces out of the country.

Bronx Heroes Black Power 1 pg 4 and 5

The “present day” of the story is 1975, as Black Power fights against a government assassin while the military brutally cracks down on protestors in Harlem. Flashbacks reveal Muhammad X’s history, as well as the machinations of the Nixon administration in their efforts to bring him down.  It’s an interesting read, although somewhat light on development for the various supporting cast.  Hopefully Felix will have more opportunities to examine these characters in the future.

Felix has Muhammad X deliver a speech similar to the one that Ali gave on February 17, 1966 to explain his opposition to the war. On the opening page of Bronx Heroes 2.0 #2, Muhammad X speaks to the press…

“I am not going to fight the Viet Cong, because they want the same freedoms that I do. My people are dying and fighting for freedom back home. The United States is my opposer not the people of Vietnam.”

Muhammad X and his allies have a definite allegiance to a communist ideology in these stories. At first this seemed a bit odd to me.  For all its flaws, I thought to myself, the United States was never as bad as the Soviet Union or Red China.  Of course, that was my perspective as a white man.  I suppose that if I had been non-white and had spent my entire life facing virulent racism and institutionalized discrimination, I would possess a much less charitable view of this country.  Communism might appear a much more appealing proposition to someone who has spent their entire life enduring systematic persecution.

Reading this story, I was once again reminded that people who have led very different lives than my own are naturally enough going to have very different perspectives on a wide variety of issues. I think that it is important to not take your own point of view for granted, to assume that it is some sort of immutable truth.  Instead, you should try to think outside of your own experiences, to work to achieve an understanding of how and why others perceive things.

Bronx Heroes Black Power 2 pg 5

The first two chapters of “Black Power” are illustrated by the Trevor Von Eeden, an artist whose work I enjoy immensely. Von Eeden wrote & illustrated The Original Johnson, a graphic novel biography of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Von Eeden’s work on The Original Johnson, which was published in 2010, led Felix to ask him to draw the Black Power feature for Bronx Heroes 2.0.

Von Eeden’s artwork for Black Power is dynamic, featuring powerful layouts & storytelling. His pencils are packed with detail.

On the third chapter Felix himself provides the artwork. His style is much more loose & cartoony, at least compared to Von Eeden, which made the transition a bit jarring.  Felix nevertheless does good work, and I found his layouts to be effective.  He certainly knows how to tell a story.

The coloring on “Black Power” is also by Felix. It’s a nice job, displaying real range.  There’s a very vibrant quality to certain scenes, whereas in others he utilize a more muted pallet that suits the mood.

Bronx Heroes Black Power 3 pg 12

My only real criticism is in regards to the lettering. There were a number of typos.  Also, some sentences started in one word balloon, only to finish in another separate caption.  I find those things to be very distracting, and they end up taking me out of the story.  Lettering is as much of an art form as writing or illustration or coloring, and I think it should be given as much care & attention.

There are several pages of behind-the-scenes material in The Ultimate Edition. I enjoyed seeing a few examples of Von Eeden’s pencils, and Felix’s experimenting with different color schemes.  Felix also wrote a two page text piece explaining the project’s influences.

The inside back cover promises the upcoming release of Bronx Heroes 2.0 #4, with artist Paris Cullins joining Felix to chronicle the saga of Black Power. Cullins is another great artist, so I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Bronx Heroes 2.0 and other fine comic books by Ray Felix & friends can be purchased online. No, they are not paying me to say that😛

Darwyn Cooke: 1962 to 2016

Comic book creator Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. He was only 53 years old.  Cooke was an amazing artist, and his death at such a young age is a tragedy.

The first time I ever noticed Cooke’s name was in 1999 for the credits of the animated series Batman Beyond. He designed the stunning title sequence for the show.

Cooke’s work with writer Ed Brubaker on the first four issues of the revamped Catwoman series for DC Comics in 2001 was amazing. Cooke both wrote and illustrated the epic, beautiful DC: The New Frontier miniseries published in 2004.

Wonder Woman and friends Darwyn Cooke

There was a quality to Cooke’s work that stood out for me. He successfully took the colorful, upbeat qualities of DC Comics in the Silver Age and blended them with a hardboiled, noir sensibility, resulting in a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Cooke’s art was both atmospheric and fun.

Cooke also rendered incredibly beautiful women. I love how he depicted both Catwoman and Wonder Woman.  His drawings of Selina and Diana were sexy, confident, strong and graceful.

For all of their titles cover-dated February 2015, DC Comics published variant covers illustrated by Cooke. He created some incredible images for these.

To me, the timing of these covers was so weird. DC’s New 52 reboot was entering its third year.  Most of their titles were grim and downbeat, bereft of joy, featuring busy, hyper-detailed artwork.  The variant covers by Cooke for these issues were a complete 180 degrees apart.  They were colorful and exciting and fun… yes, I used the “fun” word again.  I remember looking at these covers by Cooke, then looking at the interiors, which paled by comparison.  I found myself wishing that DC would ask Cooke to work on an ongoing series for them.

Supergirl 37 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

One of my favorite of these Cooke variants was Supergirl #37. It was such a cute depiction of the Maid of Steel and the Super-Pets.  I especially loved Cooke’s adorable Streaky the Supercat.

Another one of these variants that stood out for me was Batman / Superman #17. For the past three decades, ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the relationship between Batman and Superman has been characterized as adversarial and tense.  Numerous stories have seen the two of them butting heads over ideologies and methodologies.  It would be fair to say that they fought each other more often than they actually worked together to save the world.

In contrast, on his cover for this issue Cooke shows the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel as close friends, allies in the war on crime who, in spite of their differences, like and respect one another. In that one image Cooke perfectly encapsulates how the relationship between Batman and Superman should be.  I’m not saying they should agree with each other all the time, but neither should they be at each other’s throats the instant they both enter the same room.

Batman Superman 17 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

Last year Cooke illustrated The Twilight Children, a four issue miniseries from DC / Vertigo. It was written by Gilbert Hernandez, with coloring by Dave Stewart.  As he had done in the past on Love and Rockets, Hernandez blended elements of sci-fi and magical realism for this story.  Cooke’s artwork was excellent, very much suiting Hernandez’s sensibilities.

Recently talking to Comic Book Resources about their collaboration, Hernandez had this to say…

Working on “The Twilight Children” with Darwyn Cooke was perfect timing because they asked me to do it and I took a look at Darwyn’s work — I know his work, but I looked at it closer and I go, “This guy knows how to make a comic.” He doesn’t need me, but let’s do this. Let me write this story, but I was gonna write it as simple as possible, As directly as possible, mostly dialogue, not a lot of description of what’s going on, just letting him know it’s a little fishing village, it’ll move along at a certain pace and this and that. And he just ran with it, beautifully, he just knew what to do. So the synergy was there, and he hooked up with his friend and colorist, Dave Stewart, who just made the beautiful colors. It was just an ideal situation because we let it happen. A lot of times when people collaborate who have their own careers separately collaborate there’s a lot of head butting. We were head-less. [Laughs] We basically just let it happen. Let it happen the script, let the art happen, he just let himself do it. That worked really well. We’d like to do another project together later on where he writes and I draw, so we’ll see about that.

The Twlight Children 1 pg 13

Cooke’s artwork on The Twilight Children featured very powerful layouts and storytelling.  He invested the characters with real, palpable emotions.

I was fortunate enough to meet Cooke last October. He was in town for New York Comic Con to promote the upcoming release of The Twilight Children.  Cooke and Hernandez did a signing at St. Mark’s Comics.  Cooke was definitely very friendly, laid-back, and possessed a really good sense of humor.  He made us fans feel welcome.

I had brought along my convention sketchbook with me, just in case Cooke was willing to do sketches. I asked him and he said okay.  I handed my sketchbook to him and asked him to draw whoever he wanted.  He did a nice head sketch of Catwoman in my book.  I really appreciated his generosity.

Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke

From what I have heard, this was typical of Cooke. Everyone regarded him as a genuinely nice guy.  Reading the online reactions to his untimely death, it is apparent that his passing at such a young age is all the more tragic because not only was he an immensely talented artist but also a good friend to many people.  He will definitely be missed.

Captain America Annual 8 cover

Super Blog Team-Up 8: Captain America vs. Wolverine

Welcome to the eighth edition of Super Blog Team-Up! Since the movie Captain America: Civil War is now out, our theme is “versus” as the various SBTU contributors spotlight famous comic book battles and rivalries.

SBTU8 OFFICIAL Banner

I’m taking a look at the volatile relationship between two of Marvel Comics’ most iconic characters, Steve Rogers aka Captain America and Logan aka Wolverine.

Although Wolverine made his debut in 1974, he did not meet Captain America until a decade later. In 1980 there were tentative plans by Roger Stern & John Byrne to have Cap and Wolverine meet and for it to be revealed that Steve and Logan actually knew each other from World War II.  Unfortunately Stern & Byrne left the Captain America series before they could tell that story.  Cap and Wolverine did not run into each other until 1984, in the first Secret Wars miniseries, and they did not have their first extended one-on-one meeting for another two years, in the pages of Captain America Annual #8 (1986).

Captain America Annual 8 cover

“Tess-One” was written by Mark Gruenwald, penciled by Mike Zeck, and inked by John Beatty & Josef Rubinstein. The story opens with Logan hanging at a dive bar in northern Westchester County.  Logan’s boozing is interrupted by a huge brawl, as several thugs attack a large figure who they believe to be a mutant.  This turns of to be Bob Frank, aka Nuklo, the intellectually-challenged son of the Golden Age heroes the Whizzer and Miss America.  Nuklo was cured of his out-of-control radioactive powers, but still retains enhanced strength, and he wipes the floor with his bigoted assailants.  Logan is intrigued, and stealthily follows Bob after he leaves the bar.  He is surprised when Bob is suddenly attacked by a giant robot, Tess-One.  Wolverine leaps to his rescue, but the robot flies away, controlled by a costumed figure.

Several states west, Captain America is investigating a mysterious hole that has appeared in the middle of a parking lot. Going underground, Cap navigates a series of death traps, eventually coming to an empty chamber.  Looking at the machinery and the giant footprints in the dust, Cap deduces that the chamber’s previous occupant “must have been some sort of robot.”  And if you can see where this is headed, faithful readers, then feel free to award yourselves a No-Prize!

After rushing the critically injured Bob to the hospital, Wolverine begins tracking down the robot and its human master. The trail leads to Southern New Jersey, specifically Adametco, “the nation’s leading manufacturer of adamantium,” the Marvel universe’s near-unbreakable metal alloy.  Tess-One and its human controller Overrider have forced a truck driver making a delivery to Adamentco to smuggle them in.  After they arrive, Overrider knocks out the driver, but he recovers enough to contact Captain America’s emergency hotline.  Cap arrives at Adametco just as Wolverine is sneaking in.

At last Cap and Wolvie meet, and they are immediately off to a rough start. Cap is upset that Wolverine is trespassing in a high-security area.  He also expresses serious doubts about the X-Men as a whole, given their recent association with Magneto… and, yes, if you were not actually reading Uncanny X-Men over the previous few years to see Magneto’s efforts at redemption, you could be forgiven for thinking the team had thrown in with an unrepentant terrorist.  Y’know, I’ve always said that what the X-Men really needed was a good public relations manager.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 23

Wolverine, who back then was still very much a temperamental loner with little respect for authority figures and a seriously short fuse, quickly has enough of Cap’s attitude. Before you know it, sparks are literally flying, as Wolverine’s claws meet Cap’s impenetrable shield.  The two spar for a couple of panels before they are interrupted by the arrival of Tess-One, now coated in adamantium.  The already-formidable robot is now even more dangerous.  Cap and Wolverine are unable to prevent Overrider from escaping with it.

Realizing they are working on the same case, Cap apologizes for his earlier attitude and asks Wolverine to work with him.  Wolverine isn’t thrilled at the idea, but he wants another shot at Tess-One, so he grudgingly agrees.

Cap heads to Washington DC to search government records on Daniel Schumann, the now-deceased owner of the property underneath which Tess-One had been hidden. Cap discovers that back in 1939 Schumann proposed the creation of an army of robots as a failsafe in case the super-soldiers created by Project: Rebirth ever revolted.  The subsequent murder of Professor Erskine meant that Steve Rogers would be the only successful super-soldier to be created, and so Project Tess (Total Elimination of Super-Soldiers) was shut down.  Tess-One was the only robot ever produced.

Wolverine meanwhile utilizes the mutant-detecting Cerebro device to learn that Overrider is Richard Rennselaer, a former SHIELD with the ability to control machinery. Rennselaer’s son Johnny suffers from “nuclear psychosis,” a fear of the nuclear bomb so overwhelming that he has withdrawn into a catatonic state.  Overrider, desperate to cure his son, wants to destroy America’s entire nuclear arsenal, believing this will end the international arms race.

The next day another member of Cap’s emergency hotline spots Overrider transporting Tess-One to the nuclear command base at Offut Air Base. Tess-One attacks base security, enabling Overrider to sneak in.  Cap and Wolverine arrive via Avengers Quinjet, but are immediately at each other’s throats again, with Logan balking at taking orders from Cap.  Despite this they manage to finally defeat Tess-One, as Cap uses his shield to hammer Wolverine’s claws into the robot’s neck.  Cap, in spite of his dislike for Wolverine, has to admit that the X-Man is one tough cookie to have endured the excruciating pain required by this plan.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 35

The pair head inside the base to confront Overrider. Neither of them is able to talk Overrider down, and finally Cap uses his shield to knock him off his hover platform, hoping he will be too stunned to trigger the nukes.  Cap orders Wolverine to catch the falling Overrider; Logan, however, has other ideas, and pops his claws, ready to skewer the plummeting foe.  At the last second he decides to split the difference; he doesn’t kill Overrider, but neither does he catch him, letting him hit the ground hard.  Overrider is seriously injured but still alive.

Cap, disgusted both by this particular act, and by Wolverine’s general attitude, goes off on him…

“As for you, mister, you’d better hope the X-Men never get tired of putting up with you, because I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you.”

Captain America Annual #8 is interesting if you look at it as part of Mark Gruenwald’s decade-long stint as writer on the series. During his time on the book, Gruenwald would often contrast Cap to the violent anti-heroes who were becoming more and more popular in superhero comic books.  Gruenwald obviously favored the more traditional heroes of the Silver Age, and he sometimes overcompensated by making Cap too much of a humorless, overly-moral boy scout.

Keeping this in mind, it’s surprising that when Cap meets Wolverine, Gruenwald offers a rather nuanced depiction of the later. Yes, he shows that Wolverine is a very different type of person from Cap, someone who is unpleasant and quick to anger and who regards killing as a perfectly reasonable solution.  But Gruenwald also depicts Logan as a very competent individual who will endure hardship & pain to achieve his goal.  He shows Wolverine risking his life to rescue Bob Frank from Tess-One.  On the last page of the story, after gets chewed out by Cap, we see Logan visiting Bob at the hospital to make sure he’s okay, demonstrating that there’s more to the man than just attitude and berserker rages.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 40

I am not a fan of creators who have guest stars show up in books they write just so they can be completely humiliated by the title character.  Garth Ennis writing the Punisher teaming up with pretty much anyone is a perfect example of that sort of thing.  In contrast, you have this annual.  Gruenwald has Cap remaining very much in-character and expressing grave reservations about Wolverine.  But at the same time Gruenwald also writes Logan in a manner that was respectful of the work Chris Claremont had done with the character.  It’s a delicate balancing act, and I appreciate that Gruenwald made the effort.

One of the reasons why this annual is so well remembered, in addition to the Wolverine appearance, is that it is penciled by former Captain America artist Mike Zeck, who does an amazing job. His pencils are ably embellished by John Beatty and Josef Rubinstein, two of the best inkers in the biz.  Certainly the action-packed cover of Cap and Wolverine fighting is one of the most iconic images that Zeck has ever penciled.

This annual was a really expensive back issue for a long time. I missed getting it when it came out, and I had to read someone else’s copy at summer camp.  For years afterward every time I saw copies of this annual for sale at a comic shop or convention it was $20 or more.  In the late 1990s I was at last able to buy it for a mere three bucks.

“Tess-One” would not be the last time we would see Captain America and Wolverine side-by-side. Four years later, in 1990, we would finally see that first time Cap and Logan met during World War II, although it would be recounted by Chris Claremont, Jim Lee & Scott Williams in Uncanny X-Men #268.

Adamantium claws would collide with unbreakable shield several more times throughout the years as Cap and Logan would find themselves at odds with one another. One of the more unusual of these was courtesy of Gruenwald himself in the 1992 storyline “Man and Wolf” with artwork by Rik Levins, Danny Bulanadi & Steve Alexandrov.  This time Cap and Wolverine ended up fighting each other because Logan was hypnotized.  Oh, yes, and Cap got turned into a werewolf.  Yep, that’s right, this was the epic introduction of Capwolf!

Captain America 405 pg 15

Truthfully, Capwolf looked less like a werewolf and more like a Long-Haired Collie. “What’s that, Capwolf? Timmy fell down a well? I tell ya, that’s always happening to that darn kid!”

Despite Cap’s promise on the final page of Annual #8, years later Wolverine did indeed become an Avenger. To be fair, it was Iron Man’s idea to have Logan join the team, and at first Cap was dead-set against it.  Not surprisingly, as teammates Cap and Wolverine would continue to clash over tactics and methodologies.

Eventually, after they had to team up with Deadpool to prevent North Korea from using the technology of Weapon Plus to create an army of super-soldiers, Cap and Wolverine would grow to respect one another. Later, when Wolverine died — he’s not only merely dead, he’s really most sincerely dead… at least for now — Cap was genuinely saddened.

In the special Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America by writer Gerry Duggan and artist Scott Kollins (December 2014), Steve Rogers and Wade Wilson get together to mourn Logan, as well as prevent AIM from creating a clone of him. Thinking back on their tumultuous relationship, Cap briefly recounts the time he and Wolverine fought Tess-One.  When Cap gets to the “I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you” part, naturally enough Deadpool bursts out in hysterical laughter.

Death of Wolverine Deadpool Cap pg 8

Y’know, I really would like to see a live action face-off between Captain America and Wolverine, with Chris Evans and Hugh Jackman reprising their respective roles. Unfortunately at this point in time it doesn’t seem like Disney and Fox are able to iron out their differences enough to enable that.  Well, in the meantime at least we have the actual comic books where more often than not Cap and Logan will inevitably end up butting heads over one thing or another.

SBTU Continues below

Thanks for reading my entry in Super Blog Team-Up 8.  Be sure to check out the pieces written by the other fine contributors…

Black Lightning strikes twice!

For a number of years I’ve very much wanted to be able to read the original Black Lightning series created and written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden published by DC Comics in the late 1970s. Due to disagreements between Isabella and DC management, for a time the possibility of a trade paperback seemed extremely unlikely.  Fortunately last year Isabella and DC were able to begin working out these differences, which paved the way for the release of a collection.

Black Lightning trade paperback

The trade paperback contains the eleven issue run of Black Lightning that was published between April 1977 and September 1978, as well as the material that was originally intended for issue #12 before the series was abruptly cancelled as part of the infamous DC Implosion (it eventually saw print in World’s Finest Comics #260 in December 1979). Isabella wrote the first ten issues, and the final two are by Denny O’Neil.  Von Eeden was the penciler on all of the issues except the last one, which was by Mike Netzer.  The series was edited by Jack C. Harris.

Isabella wrote a brand-new introduction for this volume that details the conception of the series, and the idealism which guided him as a writer:

“I kept thinking about creating a new African-American hero. I wanted a character to whom our young readers could relate, a character who would inspire them as Superman and Captain America had inspired me.”

Jefferson Pierce grew up in the “Suicide Slum” of Metropolis. He possessed both a strong affinity for academics and tremendous athletic abilities.  After winning gold medals at two Olympics, Jefferson went into teaching.  As the first issue opens, Jefferson has returned to Suicide Slum for the first time in years to work at his alma mater Garfield High.  He hopes that just as he was able to escape the crime & poverty of the ghetto, he can help to inspire the next generation to do the same.

Jefferson is alarmed to discover that the organized crime entity known as “The 100” has established a stranglehold on Suicide Slum, and that its drug dealers are a regular presence in the hallways of Garfield High. Jefferson attempts to drive them off, only to see The 100 strike back at him through his students.  This prompts Jefferson, with the aid of his mentor, tailor Peter Gambi, to create the costumed identity of Black Lightning.  Thus disguised, Jefferson launches a one-man war against The 100.

Black Lightning 1 pg 14

It’s interesting that Isabella decided to set this series in Superman’s hometown. At first it might seem odd that The 100 have taken root in the same city inhabited by the Man of Steel.  But of course Superman has usually specialized in tackling menaces that threaten the entire world.  More importantly, Superman really is not able to do a great deal about the social & economic ills that create fertile ground in which the weed of The 100 flourishes.  So it makes more sense that a “street-level” hero such as Black Lightning, who grew up in Suicide Slum and who knows its people intimately, is more suited to combating The 100.

Nevertheless, Isabella does establish that although The 100 and their Metropolis chief Tobias Whale (imagine Al Capone meets Moby Dick) are primarily concerned with eliminating Black Lightning, they also regard Superman as a potential threat, and so have plans to eventually deal with him. This leads to the two crime-fighters meeting, and Isabella does a fine job highlighting both their differences and their similarities.

It is readily apparent that Black Lightning was a labor of love on Isabella’s part. He put a great deal of thought into who Jefferson Pierce is, what motivates him, how he feels about his students, and his ambivalent feelings regarding his violent alter ego.  In the first ten issues Isabella did excellent work developing the character and establishing his supporting cast.

I wish we could have seen more of Jefferson in his role as a teacher at Garfield High, which was often barely touched upon in these stories. Unfortunately at this time American comic books had been reduced to 17 pages, rather than the usual 22, which severely curtailed the ability of many writers to develop subplots.  Given the abbreviated page count, Isabella no doubt did the best he could in the space provided.  As I recall, years later when Isabella returned to Black Lightning for an acclaimed eight issue run in 1995, he focused as much on Jefferson’s work as a teacher as he did his vigilante activities.

The two stories written by O’Neil are somewhat more underwhelming, at least in my estimation. O’Neil is definitely a very good writer when he is passionate about a character or a story.  His work on Batman is justifiably regarded as legendary.  This, however, just seems more by-the-numbers, at least compared to the energy that Isabella obviously brought to the series.

Black Lightning 7 pg 15

The penciling by Von Eeden on Black Lightning is very good, all the more so when you consider that this was his first professional assignment. He was only 17 years old when he began on the series.  Although much of his wonderful signature style and the dynamic, unconventional layouts he would later utilize are not yet on display, you can still see from these issues the great potential and that Von Eeden was just beginning to develop.

On the first two issues Von Eeden is inked by Frank Springer, a talented artist who had been working in comic books since the early 1960s. The collaboration between newcomer Von Eeden and veteran Springer is very effective, resulting in some great artwork.

Beginning on issue #3, though, Vince Colletta assumes the inking chores, and the difference is immediately noticeable. His characteristic feathery line is on display, and in places it threatens to overwhelm Von Eeden’s nascent style.  I certainly would not say that Colletta’s inking on Black Lightning is among the worse work that he’s done.  Some of his work on these issues is actually rather effective.  It is just that, speaking from personal taste, I’d have preferred if Springer could have remained on the series longer.

Much like Von Eeden, Netzer was relatively new to comic books when he penciled the final story in this collection. He was already doing good work around this time, although his style was still developing.  Colletta’s inking unfortunately does Netzer few favors on this story, although there are some nice layouts on display.

Black Lightning 9 cover

Topping it all off, so to speak, is Rich Buckler. The Bronze Age legend penciled all but two of the covers for Black Lightning, creating some very dynamic pieces.

Definitely pick up a copy of the first Black Lightning collection. It’s a really good read.  And hopefully it does well enough that it prompts DC to release further trade paperbacks.  The excellent 1995 series that Isabella did with artist Eddy Newell is also long overdue for reprinting.

Howard the Duck for President

There has been certain skepticism regarding my cat Squeaky’s presidential campaign, with some wondering if a feline can actually even run for President. Well, let me assure you, Squeaky is hardly the first non-human to seek election to the highest office in the land.  Let us cast our gaze back four decades to the year 1976, when that foul-mouthed fowl Howard the Duck ran for President.

Howard the Duck 8 cover

Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s was a madhouse, and the lunatics were running the asylum. The company was in chaos, with little editorial oversight, deadlines being missed left & right, and sales on numerous books hovering at precipitously low levels.  On the one hand, this meant that for a time Marvel was teetering on the brink of collapse; on the other, this chaos enabled creators to experiment, to try all sorts of crazy ideas.  Howard the Duck was definitely one of those far-out concepts.  For a time the character was a tremendous success.

Howard the Duck was created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. In many ways Howard was Gerber’s baby (no pun intended).  Gerber possessed an extremely offbeat and farcical sense of humor.  He utilized the character of Howard, an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension stranded on Earth, to brutally skewer a variety of topics, among them politics, religion and popular culture.  So it was natural enough that Gerber would utilize Howard to mock the 1976 presidential race.  It’s the sort of storyline that even a few years later he simply could not have gotten away with at Marvel.

The main narrative of Howard’s quest for the Oval Office took place in issue #s 7-9 of his monthly title and in the oversized Marvel Treasury Edition #12. Artwork on the Howard the Duck series was by the team of Gene Colan & Steve Leialoha, while the Treasury was illustrated by Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson.

In issue #7, Howard and his human companion, the lovely redheaded Beverly Switzler, are hitchhiking through rural Pennsylvania. After their run-ins with the loony Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and the Incredible Cookie Creature, the pair catch a ride with country singer Dreyfus Gulch.  The rhinestone cowboy is scheduled to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the national convention for the All-Night Party at Madison Square Garden.  Arriving in NYC, Gulch arranges jobs for Howard and Beverly at the convention.  Howard work security, which mostly entails breaking up fights between delegates, while Beverly is a Hospitality Girl, which mostly entails her getting pinched in the ass by those same delegates.  (As far as I know, Bill Clinton was not on the premises.)

Howard ends up foiling a plot to blow up the convention. The delegates, impressed by both his bravery and his extremely blunt honesty, decide to make him the All-Night Party’s presidential candidate.  This immediately puts a target on Howard’s feathered backside.

Howard the Duck 7 pg 17

In the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition #7, the first assassination attempt on Howard is made by a quintet of lame wannabe super-villains led by Dr. Angst, Master of Mundane Mysticism, who convinces his fellow losers that fame & fortune awaits them once they kill Howard.

Meanwhile, the still-broke Howard and Beverly are in Greenwich Village searching for a place to crash. Mistaking Doctor Strange’s sanctum sanctorum for the home of Beverly’s old high school friends, the pair instead comes face-to-face with the Defenders.  At this point the legion of losers attacks.  Strange is knocked out by a mystic barrage of baseballs and the unconscious mage temporarily transfers his powers to Howard.

Yes, that’s right. Only one day after receiving the All-Night Party’s nomination, our plumed politician assumes the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.  If that’s not Commander in Chief material, I don’t know what is.  True, Howard’s turn as a veritable Ducktor Strange, Mallard of the Mystic Arts is short-lived, but he acquits himself well, playing a key role in helping the Defenders to defeat the despicable dimwits who have attacked them.

Howard the Duck as Doctor Strange

Also in the pages of the Treasury is an interview with Howard conducted by Steve Gerber himself. Queried about his qualifications and political experience, Howard articulates his reasons for running…

“I never kept one job more than three an’ a half weeks. Which is another advantage of the presidency. They can only fire ya for high crimes an’ misdemeanors. That stuff, I don’t pull. I just mouth off a lot.”

Perhaps you may be thinking to yourself that this is a terrible attitude for a Presidential candidate to have. But just look at it this way… ask any old human why they want to be elected to the White House, and they’ll give you some song & dance about “serving the public” and “patriotic duty” and “making America great again.”  But, truthfully, that’s all a load of horse pucky.  What they are really after is power and adoration and wealth.

In contrast, Howard comes right out and admits he wants to be President because he’s looking to (appropriately enough) feather his nest. How often do you come across a politician with that kind of honesty?

Moving on to Howard the Duck #8, having defeated their attackers, Howard and Beverly depart from Doctor Strange’s house. Within mere seconds they are attacked by a succession of would-be assassins hoping to earn the $10 million bounty that’s been placed on the duck’s head.  Fortunately Dreyfus Gulch zooms to the rescue in his armored limo.

Howard and Beverly are ferried to the offices of G.Q. Studley Associates, whose image consultants want to make Howard into the perfect pre-packaged candidate. Howard, of course, violently rebels at this.  Hiring Mad Genius Associates to manage his campaign, Howard embarks on a series of nation-wide appearances where he bluntly dishes out the unvarnished truth.  The misanthropic duck feels perfectly free to do so because he really doesn’t care if he wins or not, and he’s totally thrilled to finally have a soapbox from which to mouth off and tell everyone how stupid they are.

Howard the Duck 8 pg 10

You might say that Howard the Duck as a presidential candidate possesses the ideology of Bernie Sanders and the personality of Donald Trump. As one person in this issue comments, “My god, he’s telling the truth!  He’ll be dead in a week!”

Much to his surprise, Howard makes significant gains in the polls, and as Election Day approaches it actually appears that he might have a shot at winning. This all comes crashing down when a doctored photo that appears to show Howard and Beverly having a bath together is published by the Daily Bugle.  Yep, there’s nothing like the whiff of extramarital hanky-panky to send a promising political career into a tailspin.

As issue #9 opens the election is over and Howard has lost.  Truthfully he really doesn’t care, but Beverly is horrified at having been humiliated, “branded nation-wide as a shameless hussy.”  Dreyfus Gulch taps his CIA contacts, and they discover the forged photo originated in Canada.  Beverly insists to Howard that they head north to clear their names, explaining “My meticulously fabricated rep is at stake!”

Howard and Beverly journey to Canada, joining forces with Sgt. Preston Dudley of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Dudley leads them to the most likely suspect, “the infamous Pierre Dentifris, Canada’s only super-patriot!”  Dentifris has a burning hatred of America, regarding it as an arrogant bully that is constantly encroaching on Canada.  The attempts on Howard’s life and the forged photo were parts of an insanely convoluted (and just plain insane) plot to destroy America.  Further casting doubt on his sanity, Dentifris dons a suit of armor shaped like a giant beaver and challenges Howard to a fight to the death on a tightrope strung across Niagara Falls.  Howard, of course, perseveres, although the entire experience leaves him completely opposed to ever again entering the political arena.

Howard the Duck, as well as Steve Gerber’s other works, are something of an acquired taste for me. When I was younger I didn’t really appreciate his writing.  Quite a bit of his material went over my head.  As I got older, and my horizons broadened, Gerber was one of those creators who I grew to appreciate.  Looking at his work now, it’s apparent that Gerber was not the type to write down to his audience.  He certainly enjoyed pushing the boundaries.  Gerber was also very on-the-nose with his withering satire.

In regards to the blurb on the cover to issue #9, “When Bites the Beaver,” I’m curious if Gerber was sneaking in a crude sexual innuendo. Then again, sometimes a beaver is just a beaver.  After all, a few months after this storyline Gerber introduced the villainous Dr. Bong, whose head was a giant bell.  Despite much speculation over the years, Gerber always insisted that, no, the name Dr. Bong was not a drug reference.

Howard the Duck 9 cover

These issues have some really nice artwork. Gene Colan’s unconventional pencils are a nice fit for this series.  Colan specialized in rendering the genres of horror and mystery.  As can be seen by his work on Howard the Duck, he was a versatile artist who was also adept at humor.

Steve Leialoha is a great artist in his own right. He had only been working professionally for about a year when he inked these issues.  As has often been observed, it could be a difficult task to ink Colan’s pencils as he utilized very subtle shading.  Leialoha certainly acquits himself very well.  He possesses a rather abstract, flowing quality to his work, and his inking gives Colan’s pencils a slightly more cartoony quality that suits the tone of these stories.

I asked Leialoha on his Facebook page if he had any thoughts to share concerning his collaboration with Colan, and he was kind enough to respond…

“I like to think I took to inking Gene’s pencils like a duck to water! But, seriously, out of all the pencilers I’ve had the pleasure to work with he was my favorite.  Beautiful stuff!  Doing a little math: I figure I’d inked about 250 pages up at Marvel before Howard the Duck # 7 rolled around with about 70 of them over Gene’s pencils, so I was ready for it!  I look back at it now and see things I would do differently but I’m grateful for the opportunity, all those years ago.”

I’ve previously written about my great fondness for Sal Buscema’s art. He does a very nice job penciling the oversized Treasury.  It’s interesting to see him render the more oddball, cartoony elements of the story, such as Howard himself.

Klaus Janson, even this early in his career, was doing great work. As he has a distinctively gritty style, it’s noteworthy that he’s working on a humorous story like this one.  He and Buscema do make a good art team.

These issues are among the material contained within the Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 trade paperback. I highly recommend picking it up.  Trust me: in this insane election year, we can use all the humor that we can find!