It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

Earlier this month was the birthday of the late, great Dave Cockrum, one of my favorite comic book artists. Cockrum was one of the greatest character designers of the Bronze Age, successfully creating or revamping dozens of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics during the 1970s and early 80s.

Over on the Dave Cockrum Art Appreciation Group, in a discussion about Cockrum’s greatest character designs, I mentioned that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard had some awesome designs, and I wished that more was done with them.

Who are the Imperial Guard? Simply put, they are thinly-veiled expies of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 1970s had been a dream assignment for Cockrum, and he had only reluctantly left DC Comics after they reneged on a promise to return original artwork to him. Going over to Marvel Comics, he co-created the all-new, all-different X-Men with Len Wein. After Wein departed X-Men, Cockrum was paired up with writer Chris Claremont, and in X-Men #107 (Oct 1977) they introduced the Imperial Guard, the elite super-powered soldiers of the alien Shi’ar Empire.

Insert obligatory smartass comment about the X-Men not wanting to fight all these guys because there’s a veritable Legion of them.

Now I’m not sure why Cockrum decided to toss in a veritable army modeled on the Legion into an already-crowded storyline, other than the fact that he really loved the Legion and he missed drawing them. But whatever the case, even if most of them were thinly-drawn on the characterization side of things, almost all of them had interesting visuals.

For most of their history the Imperial Guard were basically just blindly following the orders of whoever happened to be running the Shi’ar Empire, which typically put them into conflict with the X-Men or the Avengers or whoever. Other than their leader Gladiator the characters have only ever gotten the spotlight on a few rare occasions. The first of these was the three issue Imperial Guard miniseries which Marvel published in late 1996. It was written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Chuck Wojtkiewicz, inked by Ray Snyder, colored by Brad Vancata, and lettered by Jon Babcock, Phil Hugh Felix & Janice Chiang.

And, yeah, I cannot believe that it’s been 25 years since this came out!

Thinking back, I don’t know if at the time I was aware that the Imperial Guard characters were a homage to the members of the Legion. I didn’t actually become a huge Legion fan until about four years later, when I started picking up the hardcover Archives collections and various back issues. But re-reading the Imperial Guard miniseries a quarter century later, the nods to the Legion now leap right out at me.

The creative team on the Imperial Guard miniseries is also noteworthy. Augustyn is a longtime writer & editor at DC Comics, and Wojtkiewicz had just come off of a year and a half stint penciling Justice League America. This miniseries makes up pretty much the entirety of either of their work for Marvel. So this was pretty much a case of Marvel bringing aboard a creative team from DC to work on a team of characters modeled after a DC property.

Imperial Guard came out at an odd time in Marvel’s publishing history. This was immediately after the “Onslaught” crossover in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly died so that they could be exported to an alternate reality for the “Heroes Reborn” event overseen by Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. For the next year this led to some rather offbeat projects coming out from Marvel that perhaps might not otherwise have gotten published. The most notable of these was Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. We also got the much-underrated Heroes for Hire by John Ostrander & Pascual Ferry, as well as this odd little miniseries.

I’m FB friends with Wojtkiewicz, so I asked him how Imperial Guard came about. Here’s what he had to say:

“Once DC flipped the crew on Justice League, I floated around doing fill-ins and such for a while. Brian Augustyn decided to leave DC and asked me if I’d like to do the IG mini. We met in NYC and had lunch with Mark Gruenwald for lunch and launch. It seemed to be going so smoothly, but it turned out to Mark’s very last lunch, as he died the following morning. Somehow it kept going, and his assistant stepped in as editor.  I forget his name – I’m terrible that way. I decided to do the series in with a cartoony vibe, and nobody stopped me. Also: sideburns. 😊

“I really enjoyed this assignment- doing the costume, environment and prop concepts was a blast.”

The miniseries was ultimately edited by Terry Kavanaugh, and was dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald.

Following the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four, Lilandra the Majestrix of the Shi’ar feels partially responsible, as she was the one who way back when inadvertently awakened the dark side of Charles Xavier’s psyche (as seen in X-Men #106 or, if you were a teenager in the 1990s like me, “The Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Dark Shroud” on X-Men: The Animated Series) which ultimately led to the creation of Onslaught. Lilandra has covertly dispatched several members of the Imperial Guard to Earth see if they can provide assistance to our beleaguered world.

The members of the Guard featured in this miniseries are Gladiator (standing in for Superboy), Electron (Cosmic Boy), Sibyl (Saturn Girl), Flashfire (Lightning Lad), Nightside (Shadow Lass), Mentor (Brainiac 5), Earthquake (Blok) and the latest addition to the team, the Kree conscript Commando (Mon-El).

The introduction of Commando aka M-Nell ties in with another recent Marvel event, the Avengers storyline “Operation: Galactic Storm” which saw the Shi’ar apparently destroy the Kree Empire with the apocalyptic Nega Bomb. In fact the entire was between the Shi’ar and the Kree had been engineered by the Kree’s Machiavellian leader, the entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who sought to jump-start his people’s stalled evolution with the Nega Bomb’s energies. At this point in time the Supreme Intelligence is quietly biding its time, waiting for its deadly experiment to begin showing results, and Commando, ignorant of all this, finds himself having to serve alongside the Shi’ar forces who he regards as his conquerors.

Augustyn is a great writer who did high-quality work over at DC, and on his sole foray into the Marvel Universe he also crafts a compelling story. He does a good job of creating M-Nell, and of developing the other Imperial Guard members, the majority of whom, up until this point in their nearly 20 year existence, were basically one-dimensional ciphers.

Wojtkiewicz’s pencils are fun. He was a very underrated artist over at DC Comics, working in an “animated” style alongside the late, great Mike Parobeck on the Impact Comics line in the early 1990s. I always thought Wojtkiewicz should have had a bigger career, so I enjoyed seeing his art on Imperial Guard. His wrap-around covers for this miniseries were also great.

Besides, I really love that Wojtkiewicz drew Imperial Guard with “a cartoony vibe” during the exact same time that Marvel farmed out their main characters to Extreme Studios and Wildstorm with their hyper-detailed art styles. Honestly, the comic book industry could have used more artists like Wojtkiewicz in the 1990s who had their own fun styles.

It was enjoyable revisiting this three issue miniseries, and it makes me regret that the Imperial Guard have subsequently very seldom been in the spotlight since. They did have a five issue miniseries during the Realm of Kings crossover about a decade ago. I never did get around to checking that out, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.

Anyway, if you haven’t read this miniseries, it’s worth tracking down.

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit: Tales to Astonish #61

Here is an interesting addendum to my post from a couple of days ago about the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit which was held at the Society of Illustrators from July 15th to October 23rd.

Well, okay, I found it interesting; your mileage may vary.

One of the pieces of original comic book artwork in the exhibit was the splash page for the Giant-Man and Wasp story “Now Walks the Android” from Tales to Astonish#61, published by Marvel Comics with a November 1964 cover date.

The credited artists on this story were penciler Steve Ditko and inker George Roussos, the later working under the pseudonym “George Bell” so as not to raise the ire of his primary employer DC Comics.

However, there was a third artist involved in the creation of this story: Joe Orlando.

Joe Orlando had been one of the primary artists at EC Comics in the 1950s, working on both their iconic science fiction, horror & crime anthologies and the wildly successful Mad magazine. In the later half of the 1950s he drew several Classic Illustrated adaptations. Beginning in 1966 Orlando was an important artistic & editorial presence at DC Comics, where he remained until he passed away in December 1998 at the age of 71.

In 1964, shortly before he landed at DC Comics, Orlando did some work for writer / editor Stan Lee at the burgeoning Marvel Comics. It was, unfortunately, not an ideal match.

Longtime Marvel Comics editor and comic book historian Tom Brevoort details the behind-the-scenes problems that plagued Orlando’s short stint at Marvel in general, and the production difficulties of Tales to Astonish #61 in particular, on his excellent blog. I recommend reading Brevoort’s thorough examination of the subject…

In short, while Stan Lee’s “Marvel Method” of giving the penciler a brief plot of a few short paragraphs and then having him go off to draw a full 20 page story based on that, or even having the penciler do the plotting all on his own, led to some great, now-classic stories, it was not without its hiccups. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby both excelled at working in the “Marvel Method” but eventually both of them chaffed at the system and left Marvel to look for opportunities to write, draw & edit stories solo. John Romita, Herb Trimpe and Gene Colan all enjoyed the “Marvel Method” of creating comic books, and went on to be major artistic presences at Marvel after Ditko and Kirby departed.

But other artists found the “Marvel Method” difficult to work in, or were unhappy at having to do uncredited (and unpaid) writing, especially as Stan Lee would then appear to readers to be the sole writer on the comic books. That was definitely the case with Joe Orlando, who was an extremely talented artist. His experience at Marvel in 1964 demonstrated that he was much more comfortable working from full scripts.

So what does this tell us?  Well, it is a good demonstration that there is no “one size fits all” approach to creating comic books. An approach that works well for some writers and artists may be a complete failure for others.

It also demonstrates that, behind the scenes, the creation of comic books was often times a difficult, unglamorous, poorly-paying profession.  And I say this not to demonize anyone in particular, but to raise an awareness of the realities the industry in general, and to help bring about a more accurate understanding of the medium’s history.

Whatever the case, Tales to Astonish #61 offers an interesting example of the sometimes tortured, laborious realities of comic book production.

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators

Last month Michele and I went to the Society of Illustrators to see the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit. It was a great opportunity to see a very impressive & diverse selection of original artwork from comic books was on display, both from mainstream and alternative creators.

Here are just a few highlights from the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit, which ran from July 15th to October 23rd…

The unpublished cover artwork originally intended for Avengers #37 (Feb 1967) drawn by Don Heck for Marvel Comics that was eventually used as a cover by editor Roy Thomas for his comic book history magazine Alter Ego #118 (July 2013) from TwoMorrows Publishing.

A page from the Doctor Strange story “The Many Traps of Baron Mordo” drawn by Steve Ditko from Strange Tales #117 (Feb 1964) published by Marvel Comics.

The cover artwork for Green Lantern #56 (Oct 1967) penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Murphy Anderson, published by DC Comics.

The cover artwork for Hawkman #8 (June-July 1965) drawn by Murphy Anderson, published by DC Comics.

Two pages from Fantastic Four #116 (Nov 1971) penciled by John Busema and inked by Joe Sinnott, published by Marvel Comics.

A page from Incredible Hulk #196 (Feb 1976) pencil breakdowns by Sal Buscema and finishes by Joe Staton, published by Marvel Comics.

Two pages from the underground comix series The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers created by Gilbert Shelton.

The cover artwork for Laugh Comics #182 (May 1966) drawn by Dan DeCarlo, published by Archie Comics.

A daily installment of the newspaper comic strip Sky Masters penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Wallace Wood that ran from September 1958 to December 1961.

“Aqua Nut” illustration drawn by Rat Fink creator Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in 1963.

The cover artwork for Not Brand Echh #9 (Aug 1968) drawn by Marie Severin, published by Marvel Comics.

A page from Red Sonja #6 (Nov 1977) drawn by Frank Thorne, published by Marvel Comics.

While I definitely enjoyed this exhibit, it was slightly sobering to realize that in many cases the artists sold their original artwork many years ago for a fraction of the current asking prices. In some cases some of this artwork was given away by the publishers as gifts to fans, or flat-out stolen. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances. So I can certainly understand why in recent decades comic book artists have chosen to sell their original work at much higher prices.

Doctor Who writer Bob Baker: 1939 to 2021

Longtime British television & film scriptwriter Bob Baker passed away on November 3rd. He was 82 years old.

Baker, often paired up with creative partner Dave Martin, wrote for a number British television series throughout the 1970s, including the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who.

Baker & Martin’s first contribution to Doctor Who was the four-part serial “The Claws of Axos,” broadcast in 1971. A memorable story featuring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, it saw the shape-shifting vampiric entity Axos attempt to drain the Earth dry of its life energy. Their second contribution to the series was the six-part “The Mutants” broadcast in 1972. Containing strong anti-imperialist and anti-apartheid sentiments, it is one of the Doctor Who’s most overtly political stories.

Baker & Martin co-wrote a total of eight serials for Doctor Who between 1971 and 1979, with Baker working solo on a ninth story, “Nightmare of Eden,” which was broadcast in late 1979.

Among Baker & Martin’s contributions to the Doctor Who universe, they created the beloved robot dog K-9, who was introduced in their 1977 serial “The Invisible Enemy” during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. At the end of the story K-9 joined the Doctor on his travels, and the mechanical dog was a regular presence in the TARDIS for the next several seasons.

Although K-9 was written out of Doctor Who in 1981, the mechanical mutt has periodically returned over the years, and was paired up with fan-favorite companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by actress Elisabeth Sladen. Baker himself contributed to the K-9 spin-off series that ran for 26 episodes between October 2009 and November 2010 on Network Ten in Australia and on Channel 5 in the UK.

Among the other television series Baker contributed to was the police procedural Z-Cars (1974), the police action series Target (1977-8), the crime drama Bergerac (1981, 1983), and the children’s dark fantasy series King of the Castle (1977) and Into the Labyrinth (1981-2).

Beginning in 1993 Baker became associated with another iconic British dog. Created by Nick Park, the stop motion animation series Wallace & Gromit features the absent-minded inventor Wallace and his silent yet intelligent anthropomorphic beagle Gromit. Baker began co-writing the Wallace & Gromit series with the second animated short The Wrong Trousers in 1993. This was followed by A Close Shave in 1995, the feature-length animated film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, and the short A Matter of Loaf and Death in 2008. Baker also worked on the six episode television series Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention broadcast on BBC One in November 2010.

Notably, A Matter of Loaf and Death saw Baker, in a bit of dark humor, write in his own death via the demise of “Baker Bob,” one of the victims of a serial killer who is murdering British bakers.

Baker wrote an autobiography entitled K-9 Stole My Trousers! which was published in 2013. He co-wrote with Paul M. Tam the 2015 anthology The Essential Book of K-9. Another short story collection, K-9: Megabytes, was released in 2020.

Baker’s contributions to Doctor Who and Wallace & Gromit made him a beloved figure of genre fandom. He will certainly be missed.

Sal Buscema: An Inker For All Seasons

Sal Buscema and some of his friends from work

Sal Buscema is one of the four recipients of the 2021 Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame Award. I was honored to be asked by The Inkwell Awards to write a profile of Sal examining his work as an inker, and providing examples from across his impressive, lengthy career.

Sal Buscema issued a brief statement concerning his induction into the Hall of Fame:

“I want to thank everyone responsible for this award which I revere and cherish. I consider this to be truly a great honor. Once again, thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

Joe Sinnott, the award’s namesake and first winner, passed away in June 2020. His son, inker and Inkwell Awards Special Ambassador Mark Sinnott, has graciously assumed his legendary father’s position. He issued the following statement regarding Sal Buscema’s work:

“My dad always enjoyed working with Sal. He could do it all. He is as gifted a penciler as he is an inker. Joe was fortunate to ink Sal on The Hulk, ROM Spaceknight, The Fantastic Four, and the Sunday Spidey strip, as well as several others. Sal’s inks over his brother John on The Silver Surfer and his work on The Avengers is outstanding.”

Please follow the link below to read the The Inkwell Awards profile piece on Sal Buscema:

My sincere thanks to talented artist and good friend Guy Dorian Sr, who has collaborated with Sal Buscema on several recent projects, for his invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

Star Trek and Star Wars signings at New York Comic Con 2021

New York Comic Con 2021 was held a couple of weeks ago, and it was a tremendous amount of fun! After a one year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was great to have NYCC return to the Big Apple.

In addition to a wide variety of comic book creators (please read my write-ups on First Comics News) I got to meet a couple of actors who have been involved in Star Trek and Star Wars.

It’s odd: I’ve been a fan of both series for many years, but until now I’ve never obtained autographs from actors who appeared in those franchises. Well, okay, in the past I met a few people who had appeared in Star Trek, but I got their autographs for other roles. So I’m glad I was finally able to rectify that with two great actors who appeared in Star Trek and Star Wars, respectively.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was a little kid, watching reruns of the original series on WPIX Channel 11 on Saturday evenings in the early 1980s. It was definitely a thrill to meet actor George Takai, who portrayed Hikaru Sulu on the show and in the first six movies. I really admire the fact that Takai has utilized his fame from Star Trek to promote progressive political & social causes.

They Called Us Enemy, the graphic novel George Takei wrote about his childhood imprisoned in an internment camp, is a sad, moving book. I am Jewish, and when I was growing up I was taught about the Holocaust, about the Nazis forcing the Jews into concentration camps. So I remember that when I first learned about the internment of Japanese Americans I was horrified to discover that nearly the same thing had happened here, in this country. It is definitely one of the darkest chapters in American history. Unfortunately I now realize that there are many dark events and periods in this nation’s history. So I am grateful for works like this. They bring those failures to light, and serve as warnings as to what can happen again if we do not learn from the the past. They Called Us Enemy is a great example of how comic books & graphic novels can play a valuable educational role.

Takei came across as a good person. It was a pretty long line to get his autograph, but he took the time to speak with everyone for a minute or two. The day after I got Takei’s autograph, he had a panel discussion at NYCC. He was such an engaging, entertaining speaker.

Another guest at NYCC 2021 was Dee Bradley Baker, the actor who voiced Captain Rex and all of the other Clone Troopers in the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, among his many, many other voice acting credits in numerous other series.

My father and grandfather took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the theater for my fourth birthday, and I’ve been a Star Wars fan ever since. Admittedly, I only saw a few episodes of The Clone Wars during the original run from 2008 to 2014, and at the time I didn’t really care for it. However, I recently watched the entire series on Disney Plus. While the first two seasons were uneven, there were still several good episodes. The show then got consistently good with season three, and steadily improved from there. George Lucas, Dave Filoni & their collaborators also did a great job utilizing the show to explore adult topics such as war and politics, loss and faith, duty and patriotism. The later seasons are among the best SW material ever.

I was on line to get Dee Bradley Baker’s autograph, and at 45 years old I was literally the oldest person waiting to meet him. Everyone else on line was either in their late teens or in their 20s. These fans literally grew up on The Clone Wars animated series. For them, this is their Star Wars, just as the original trilogy was my generation’s Star Wars. I think it’s great that The Clone Wars became an entry point for a new generation of fans.

So I got Baker’s autograph… but until now I had no idea Momo and Appa were in the Grand Army of the Republic. Hmmmm… Star Wars / Avatar: The Last Airbender crossover, anyone? Now I’ve got this image stuck in my head of Ahsoka Tano riding around on a flying bison!

Seriously, I was saying to myself “Oh no! Did he mean to write ‘Captain Rex’ instead but I distracted him by gushing about how much I loved his work on Clone Wars and Bad Batch?” Eh, whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, it’s still his signature, and I got it personalized, so I’m obviously not going to be reselling it, and I got to meet him, which was very cool. I guess the Avatar reference just adds to the piece’s uniqueness.

Anyway, Baker is incredibly talented, I love his amazing work on the various Star Wars animated series, so it was cool to meet him & get his signature.

Happy 80th birthday Wonder Woman

Today is the 80th birthday of Wonder Woman, who was created by writer William Moulton Marston & artist H.G. Peter . The character made her debut on October 21, 1941 in the pages of All-Star Comics #8, published by DC Comics with a Dec 1941 / Jan 1942 cover date. The next month Sensation Comics #1 was published with Wonder Woman as the starring cover feature. Six months later, in the summer of 1942, Wonder Woman gained hew own solo comic book series.

I imagine that, as with many who were born in the mid 1970s, my first exposure to the character of Wonder Woman was the Super Friends animated series and the live action Wonder Woman television series starring Lynda Carter that originally aired from 1975 to 1979.

To this day I agree with the sentiment that Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman / Diana Prince remains one of the most brilliant casting decisions in any live action adaptation of a comic book property. About a decade ago I bought the entire series on DVD, and it definitely still holds up, in large part due to Carter’s warm, empathetic, strong performance.

The first time I ever read the actual Wonder Woman comic book series was in 1991, towards the tail end of George Perez’s groundbreaking run. In retrospect this was probably not an ideal time to get into the series, as this was right at the start of the convoluted War of the Gods crossover. However, several months later, in early 1992, there came a perfect jumping-on point, when William Messner-Loebs took over as writer on Wonder Woman. I know some fans feel there was a decline in quality under Loebs. Nevertheless, it was the ideal entry for a brand-new reader such as myself who was unfamiliar with the character. Plus the stunningly beautiful cover artwork by Brian Bolland made Wonder Woman a must-buy each month.

In the early 1990s I did pick up a number of the earlier Perez issues at comic conventions, and I agree that they were extremely good. To this day Perez’s work on the character remains among the strongest in her 80 year history.

I followed the Wonder Woman series for the next seven years, for the entirety of Loebs’ run, and then for writer-artist John Byrne’s stint on the series. Although I stopped picking up the book regularly in late 1998, in the years since I’ve periodically returned to Wonder Woman on several different occasions.

I especially enjoyed the short six issue run by Walter Simonson & Jerry Ordway in 2003, the New 52 Wonder Woman by writer Brian Azzarello & artist Cliff Chiang that began in 2011, and the 17 issue revival of Sensation Comics featuring a variety of creative teams bringing their different approaches to the character that ran from 2014 to 2016. Most recently I’ve been enjoying the Sensational Wonder Woman series, which also features different creative line-ups each issue.

Without a doubt I can say that Princess Diana of Themyscira remains one of my favorite comic book characters.

William Moulton Marston was an outspoken feminist, and he created Wonder Woman to be a symbol of female strength & empowerment. Over the last eight decades the character has certainly served as a source of inspiration to many female readers, and to female audiences who have seen her adapted to television, animation and motion pictures.

An interview with comic book artist Henry Martinez

Henry Martinez is a penciler whose work for Marvel Comics in the early to mid 1990s really stood out for me at the time as a teenager reader. Considering how many new artists there were bursting onto the scenes during that period, that really says something about Martinez’s art that it lodged itself in my mind so indelibly.

Earlier this year I learned that Martinez was once again working in comic books, and still producing great art. We became Facebook friends, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I am very grateful to him for providing such interesting, detailed answers to my questions.

This interview was conducted by e-mail between September and October 2021.

Henry Martinez will be at Table O-5 in Artist Alley at New York Comic Con from October 7 to 10. If you’re going, please stop by and say “Hello!”

BH: Hello, Mr. Martinez. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start out with your background. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?

Henry Martinez: Hello Ben, and thanks for having me on. My parents fled Cuba in 1966 and I was lucky enough to be born here within a month of them arriving in New Jersey. We lived there for a few months then moved to Queens, NY where I spent most of my childhood. They were always very supportive of me, buying me comics and cheap art supplies at the local Woolworth’s (who have been out of business for years now). So I was always sketching, coloring and building things with Play-Doh. I remember the books I bought then were Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, I loved the rivalry between Spider-Man and the Human Torch as I recall.

The only other interests then were reading and all things Star Trek and Space: 1999. I loved Trek so much I actually wrote the paperback publisher a letter which they replied to! It was an embarrassing letter from a kid who asked about the phasers on the show. What the hell did a book publisher know about how phasers work? I don’t remember their response, but I was so excited to get that letter.

Flare First Edition #9 (June 1993) cover penciled by Henry Martinez and inked by John Flaherty (2017 reissue)

BH: What was your educational background? Did you major in an art-related field?  Was the comic book industry something that you actively hoped to find work in?

Henry Martinez: I went to public school where I got to draw during art class. Like most pros will tell you, I was that one kid that could draw, and everyone would go to get drawings done. Later on in life as you move on to other schools you learn that you are not the only one! I learned that when I was lucky enough to get into the High School of Art & Design, whose alumni include Tony Bennet, Neal Adams, Larry Hama (who I later wind up working with) and others.

I’ve always wanted to be a comic book artist, and going back to my supportive parents, they bought me a cheap drafting table and the book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which I still use today. It’s the comic book bible that I refer to as I always seem to learn something new every time I open it. I set up my room then as I imagined my art hero John Buscema had his.

BH: According to the Grand Comics Database, your earliest professional work was drawing the “Spider-Femme” parody in Spoof Comics Presents #1 published by Personality Comics in 1992. Is that correct? (Just double checking, since the GCD is sometimes inaccurate.) How did that job come about?

Henry Martinez: Yep, that’s right. That was a fun time. I was submitting to everyone while working a fulltime job at an ad agency and they responded first. They wanted to meet me in person and asked if I’d work in their studio for a day, which I thought was unusual, but what the hell it was a new experience. So I asked for the day off from work, went out to Long Island and worked in the studio with Kirk Lindo who would later become my boss when he formed Brainstorm, featuring his book Vamperotica. It was a fun series to work on and they gave me three books all with Adam Hughes covers. I also did a few covers for them. I didn’t realize those books still have a following until I found a group on Facebook. One of the publishers is trying to gather the art to do a Kick Starter of the covers, I think.

League of Champions #12 (July 1993) written by Lou Mougin, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Rob Lansey,lettered by Jean Simek and colored by Frank Martin Jr.

BH: A year later you were drawing Sparkplug and League of Champions for editor Dennis Mallonee at Heroic Publishing. How did you come to work for Heroic? Did you enjoy penciling those comics? Were they what you might call a good “foot in the door” for your career?

Henry Martinez: One of the publishers that got back to me was Heroic Publishing. To this day I am still very proud of the work I did for them. I saw the work as gateway books, a chance to prove my chops to the Big Two, as they involved long stories and in the case of League of Champions, a team book. I loved the story, written by Lou Mougin, who really should be getting more work, as he is a great writer who is well informed and researches everything. We’re trying to work together, but it’s been difficult. I still work for Heroic, but finances make it difficult. Otherwise I would work for them regularly, as I really like the characters; I’ve even designed a few.

BH: Later on in 1993 you did fill-in pencils on Morbius the Living Vampire #13 for Marvel Comics. How did you get that job? What was it like getting work from Marvel only a year into your professional career?

Henry Martinez: At that time, I was still working fulltime at an ad agency. The hours are insane, lots of late nights and weekends, and I was still sending out packages to the Big Two. One day I get a letter and a script from Bobbie Chase telling me I am being given the opportunity to do a fill-in on Morbius.

Morbius the Living Vampire #13 (Sept 1993) written by Gregory Wright, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Bud LaRosa, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Renee Wittersaetter

I flipped out! My dream of working for Marvel is coming true. I couldn’t leave my job on a fill in with no promise of future work, so I would work full days and OT, then go home and pencil until 3 AM, sleep 3 hours then go to work and do it all over again for a month. When I turned in the last pages, my pals took me to the Blarney Stone to celebrate. I had to pull an all-nighter to make the deadline though, so I was half-asleep during dinner, then slept for 2 days. Sacrifice kids!

At that point I was offered Ghost Rider/Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance with the promise of getting Blaze since SoV was being cancelled, along with a few other books. I then had a decision to make…do I try to keep this impossible schedule and turn in subpar work or take a chance on a dream that may only last a few months? Advertising offers security and good money, but Marvel! I took the plunge and have no regrets. I would’ve been very happy staying there on any book but that was when the industry bubble burst. So many books were cancelled, and so many people lost their jobs. For some this was all they knew and they spent alot of money thinking it would last forever, but all things come to an end. I was lucky, I had storyboards to fall back on, others weren’t so lucky.

Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance #17 (Dec 1993) written by Howard Mackie, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by John Kalisz

BH: Towards the end of 1993 you became the regular penciler on Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance beginning with issue #16. The previous penciler on SoV had been Adam Kubert, with his father, the legendary Joe Kubert, even contributing to a couple of issues. Was it intimidating following in their footsteps?

Henry Martinez: Oh yes. Those were beautiful books that I appreciate even more now that I have been revisiting them. There is so much action, energy and the story is even better than I remember. I could only do my best and hope that the reader liked it. I’ve been fortunate in that the work was received well and I still get comments on how much readers enjoyed my run.

BH: On your first two issues of Spirits of Vengeance you were inked by Keith Williams, but for the remainder of your run, through the book’s end with issue #23, you were paired with inker Bud LaRosa. How did you find their inking? Any particular preference between the two of them?

Henry Martinez: Everyone contributes in a different way. So, when I say I liked them both I’m not trying to be polite, but I really do like them both. Keith’s inking is more organic than Bud’s if I were to differentiate between the two. At the risk of offending a friend, I prefer organic inking.

Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance #19 (Feb 1994) written by David Quinn, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Bud LaRosa, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by John Kalisz

BH: Following on from Spirits of Vengeance, you penciled the first 8 issues of the Blaze solo title. How did working with writer Larry Hama on that compare to working with Howard Mackie and David Quinn on SoV? I do remember I was a bit disappointed that you didn’t stay on Blaze for the entire 12 issue run. Was there a specific reason why you left the series?

Henry Martinez: I loved penciling Blaze. Larry wrote in characters that hadn’t been seen in a very long time that I loved and I will always be grateful to him for that. Just working for Marvel was amazing, but to start a new book?

Howard, David and Larry are incredible writers, and have different styles as a writer should. I loved working with all of them. They are all great world builders who can tell large stories involving many characters while still getting very personal with individual characters. That’s a very specific toolset. I don’t have a preference since they all have a unique voice that I like. And since you mention David Quinn, I really enjoyed that issue, it was a break from the SoV storyline, a quiet break. Although this break involved vampires!

Blaze #4 (Nov 1994) written by Larry Hama, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by John Kalisz

I reluctantly left Blaze frankly because I was burning out. My father was a hardworking man who put in long hours, rarely slept and never complained. I thought the same way and just kept working, barely sleeping and my work suffered as did my personal life. Comics are out there forever, so there is so much pressure to do the best you can, within reason. You still have to make that deadline after all.

What a lot of people may not understand is how much work is involved in creating a comic book. There are so many people involved who depend on each other to deliver on time. You are only as good as your last book, so if you miss a deadline or two, you may not get another issue from that editor and even develop a bad reputation. So when I read reviews or comments like “he/she sucks!” It hurts, knowing now hard so many creators work, how much they sacrifice to do the best they can under the restrictions of a deadline. So I decided to stop, take a break and go back to advertising, especially considering he industry was suffering. I do wish I could have finished the title, though.

Fortunately, right after Blaze, Malibu Comics offered me a fill-in issue of All New Exiles, where I got to draw the Juggernaut. That was followed by 3 issues of Mantra which I loved working on. It was looking like I was going to be the regular penciler on that book when Marvel (who had bought Malibu) shut them down, and those characters never saw the light of day again. In the meantime, I had 3 issues and a half-finished 4th when I was told the news. I had also designed some characters for a storyline they were developing. Thanks to Facebook, I’m still in touch with the Malibu folks today. I just finished a story with my editor then, Roland Mann. I also did a 6 page proposal with him to bring back his characters, Cat & Mouse.

Vamperotica #19 (Sept 1996) written by Kirk Lindo & Dan Membiela, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Eman Torre, lettered by Studio-B and colored by Scott Harrison

BH: In 1996 you drew a few stories for Vamperotica for Brainstorm Comics. Any particular thoughts on those? I know in the years since a lot of 1990s “bad girl” comic books have been the subject of much ridicule. For myself, as a fan of sci-fi and horror B-movies, I find that sub-genre to be similar, entertainingly cheesy. I thought you did solid work on Vamperotica. Your aptitude for rendering beautiful women that you previously demonstrated at Heroic and Marvel certainly served you well here.

Henry Martinez: Thanks for the kind words. That’s another book I was very proud of, I did my best work (at that time) then, I always try to give you my best. As I mentioned earlier, I would be hired by Kirk Lindo the publisher of Brainstorm who was the studio artist at Personality Comics. That’s why it’s always good to maintain good relationships with people, you never know. I have never been opposed to doing any genre as long as I enjoy the work, and I had a good script to work from. I was looking forward to doing more wok for them, but I think they were struggling at the time and went under. It was a storyline that had great potential and could’ve gone on for a while.

BH: You left the comic book filed in 1996. This was around the time when the industry unfortunately imploded, so I am going to guess that was the reason for your departure. What types of work did you do over the next decade?

Henry Martinez: As I mentioned I went back to adverting for security, but as a freelancer, so I had more control over my schedule and was able to tackle other things. I’ve been working for Heroic Publishing just to keep doing comics, I can never stop doing comics. I’ve also done some character design for them that never saw the light of day, and some editorial work for Muscle and Fitness magazines. There is also some commission here and there, you never know what people will ask for.

League of Champions #17 (April 2017) cover penciled & inked by Henry Martinez

BH: In 2004 you returned to comic books, once again doing work for Heroic Publishing. What brought you back to the industry?

Henry Martinez: I wouldn’t say it “brought me back” as much as I pop in when I can. I approached Heroic because I always liked their characters and Dennis is easy to work with. I still get to draw superheroes, and as sophistified as I pretend to be, I really enjoy drawing superheroes, despite doing some serious stuff, here and there.

BH: Those covers and stories for Heroic gave you your first opportunities to ink your own work. What prompted you to switch from penciling to doing full artwork?

Henry Martinez: To be honest, it was finances. I always say I would never begrudge someone from earning a living, but I came to a realization that there are a handful of people whose inks I like over my work. And outside if those creators, I do like my inks, so I made the offer to Dennis which agreed. I can ink my own work and get extra income, so why not? There are still times that I want a certain someone to ink my pencils, so I always ask first. There are two people I would love to have ink my work, one is my friend from high school, Jose Marzan Jr., (for those that don’t know, Jose is known for inking a popular Flash run and Y The Last Man) and I am lucky that Dennis agreed to his rate, so Jose and I will be working together on League of Champions which I am currently penciling.

Tragedy #1 (2021) cover penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Keith Williams and colored by M. Zapata

BH: As a fan of your work at Marvel in the mid 1990s it’s been good to see you back in the biz. I certainly enjoyed your variant cover for Tragedy #1, where you were once again inked by Keith Williams. What other projects have you been working on over the last few years?

Henry Martinez: I really loved Keith’s inks on that cover, and I hope we can collaborate again soon. I requested him and writer/publisher Phillip Russert made it happen. He’s a good guy, always looking out for the artists.

As for my most recent projects, I did the first two issues of Cult of Dracula which was well received, and as I mentioned before I am penciling a League of Champions story, wrapping up a storyline that will lead to a full-sized issue right after. The cover is already done. I am also working on a Kickstarter of my own and a book to submit to Ben Dunn @Antarctic Press.

A recent commission of Nightveil from Femforce that Henry Martinez drew for me. He’s really good, and I highly recommend getting artwork from him.

BH: Finally, I know you’re available for commissions. How should people who want to get work done by you contact you?

Henry Martinez: Thanks, I’m always open to commissions. My social media links are:

www.dragonbrushstudio.com

twitter.com/Dragonbrush_Inc

www.instagram.com/dragonbrush_studio/

Thanks again!

Female Furies: feminism vs fascism

I recently had the opportunity to pick up the trade paperback collection of the six issue Female Furies miniseries DC Comics published in 2019. Cecil Castellucci’s story re-imagines Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters from a feminist perspective, and reads very much as a response to the Trump administration. Sadly the main aspects of Castellucci’s story are still all-too-relevant, as the blatant sexism & misogyny that Trump helped to once again make socially acceptable still linger on strongly in conservative circles, and the GOP continues its war on women’s rights.

I had never considered Darkseid and his dystopian hellhole of a planet Apokolips to be suffused with toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, the “Fourth World” stories written & drawn by Kirby were highly political, with Richard Nixon serving as one of the main inspirations for the arch-villain Darkseid, a character who was the literal embodiment of fascism, and one of his lieutenants, the propagandist Glorious Godfrey, being directly based on evangelist Billy Graham.

And, whether he specifically intended it or not, when Kirby introduced Big Barda in Mister Miracle #4 (cover date Sept 1971) he was making an advancement in the depiction of women in American superhero comic books. There had certainly been strong, powerful women in comics before, most notably Wonder Woman. Big Barda, however, was among the first occasions when a male superhero’s love interest was shown to be an equal partner, as well as his physical superior. There really had not been a relationship like Scott Free & Big Barda in superhero comics up to that point. And to then reveal there were numerous other powerful women on Apokolips who were Barda’s peers… that was certainly highly unconventional for the early 1970s.

Whatever the case, I think it speaks to the strength & flexibility of the characters & stories that Kirby created fifty years ago that Castellucci can so effectively utilize them to craft a feminist parable that is relevant to 21st century American society.

I would prefer not to describe the plot of Female Furies in detail, as I highly recommend picking up the collected edition, and I do not want to spoil the specifics. In short, the miniseries depicts how Barda and the other Female Furies struggle to gain acceptance by Darkseid and his male lieutenants, all of whom believe women to be naturally inferior to man. The Furies are subjected to discrimination & sexual harassment by the patriarchy of Apokolips in their struggle for equality.

An interesting aspect of the story is how Castellucci demonstrates that a patriarchy often turns women against one another, making them their own worst enemies. When their teammate Aurelie is selected for “special training” with Darkseid’s lieutenant Willik, the other Furies assume that Auralie is sleeping her way to the top. In actuality Willik wants to “train” Auralie so that he can get her alone with him to force her to have sex with him. When Auralie attempts to explain to her sisters what is happening, they accuse her of lying.

The brutal drill sergeant Granny Goodness, the Furies matron, is shown to be politically ambitious, craving to hold the same high rank as Darkseid’s other, male lieutenants. She will do anything to achieve this, including throw her charges to the wolves. When the Furies protest against their treatment by the men of Apokolips, Goodness basically tells them to grin & bear it. She pushes them to succeed in the field so that their successes will reflect well on her, enabling her to amass personal power.

In the end, Barda realizes that the women of Apokolips must work together if they are ever to overcome their oppression:

“Apart? We are held back from our true potential. United? We’re unstoppable.”

I do think the one area where Castellucci’s message falls short is with Heggra, the former Queen of Apokolips, and Darkseid’s mother. Heggra is one of those people who, regardless of gender, comes across at thoroughly rotten & irredeemable. Heggra was the one who ordered the murder of her son’s first wife, the sorceress Suli, solely because Heggra disapproved of their marriage and believed that Suli would make Darkseid too weak and empathetic. If Darkseid is a monster, then it is at least partially due to the machinations of his mother. When the emotionally hardened Darkseid later orders his own mother’s murder, it is difficult not to feel that Heggra has reaped what she has sewn.

I did appreciate that Castellucci gave Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People a central role in the story. Beautiful Dreamer is a character who seldom receives any sort of spotlight or development. I liked how Castellucci showed Dreamer’s telepathic, hallucinogenic powers as playing a part in opening the Furies’ minds, and her faith & kindness demonstrates to them that there is another path for them to walk aside from the cold, totalitarian one of Apokolips.

Castellucci also presents an interesting characterization of Darkseid. Eschewing the terrifying cosmic menace that too many later writers have advanced, Castellucci returns to Kirby’s original conception of the lord of Apokolips. At heart, for all his incredible power, Darkseid is a coward, a miserable & unhappy being, and it is his own fears & insecurities that drive him to try to control & manipulate others.

At times Castellucci’s writing is bluntly unsubtle and her dialogue idiosyncratic. Perhaps on another project this might have been a defect. But the original Kirby stories were frequently operatic and allegorical, his scripting containing a particularly offbeat cadence. So Castellucci’s work here feels rather akin to Kirby’s own.  Perhaps the plot of Female Furies does not hold together as strongly as it could, at time meandering, but it is nevertheless a very passionate story in delivering its message.

The artwork on Female Furies is by Adriana Melo. She is a very talented illustrator & storyteller. Her previous work includes Star Wars, Birds of Prey, Ms. Marvel and Doctor Who. I’ve always appreciated how Melo has rendered female characters. She draws them as beautiful & sexy without ever making them exploitative. As I have observed before, I feel that women often excel at drawing female characters, because they understand the anatomy from firsthand experience, and know how women should stand and move. Melo’s work on this miniseries is very expressive, emotional and dynamic.

I also imagine it is no accident that Willik, a character originally introduced by Kirby, is redesigned in this minsieries by Melo to have a more-than-passing resemblance to the Disgraced Former Occupant.

The lettering is by Sal Cipriano & Carlos M. Manhual, and the coloring by Hi-Fi. The extremely striking cover artwork to the collected edition, originally used for issue #6 of the miniseries, is by line artist Joelle Jones & colorist Laura Allred.

The trade paperback also reprints Mister Miracle #9 (August 1972) by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer. It’s one of Kirby’s strongest Mister Miracle stories, as well as one of the main inspiration for the Female Furies miniseries by Castellucci & Melo. Half a century later Kirby’s work still holds up absolutely, demonstrating what a brilliant & groundbreaking creator he truly was.

I Am Pro-Choice

I have previously blogged about my feelings concerning the controversy surrounding abortion. Perhaps I was too ambivalent in my past statements. So let me state now, unequivocally, the following:

I am pro-choice.

I support the rights of women to have access to abortions. I believe that the decision to have an abortion is something that should be made solely between a woman and her physician. It is not the business of anyone else, especially the government.

Therefore I have been absolutely disgusted by the passage of a draconian, repressive law in Texas that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a law that criminalizes reproductive rights, that empowers private citizens to sue anyone who has assisted a woman in any capacity in obtaining an abortion, and that makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

I am horrified and frightened by this assault on reproductive rights, and I am a man. I can only imagine how the women of this country must now feel.

Why do I support a woman’s right to abortion? This statement by Dave Barnhart from 2018 articulates my reasoning far better than I ever could do so myself…

Republicans who claim to be “pro-life” and who actively seek to outlaw abortions have also done the following:

  • They have cut off women’s access to contraception & family planning services.
  • They have prevented poor pregnant women from obtaining access to affordable prenatal care.
  • They have repeatedly excused the actions of rapists, pedophiles & sexual predators.
  • They have blocked efforts to make it easier for families to earn a living wage.
  • They have attempted to present poverty as a moral failing, and demonized those who struggle to make ends meet.
  • They have spent the last decade attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, even though its repeal would result in millions of Americans losing health insurance.
  • They have opposed the use of mask mandates and vaccines which would prevent the spread of COVID-19.
  • They have allowed corporations to pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, resulting in widespread illness & environmental degradation.
  • They have endlessly obstructed any & all efforts at reasonable gun control that would help to curtail the epidemic of mass shootings throughout this country.

Republicans are not “pro-life.” At best they are “pro-fetus,” and they certainly don’t give a damn about a child’s health & life once it is out of the womb.

Make no mistake, the law that Texas passed, and others like it, have NOTHING to do with protecting the lives of unborn children. This is all about controlling women, criminalizing their sexuality, returning them to a 19th Century status of second-class citizens.

And I absolutely guarantee you that all of those male Republican politicians who claim to be so concerned for the welfare of the unborn will make certain that their girlfriends and mistresses who they knock up will have quick & easy access to abortions.

We need to fight back against this terrible injustice. The Woman’s March is organizing protests in all 50 states to be held on October 2nd. I urge everyone who supports reproductive rights to participate, and to contribute to their cause. Thank you.