It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam

Last month I started doing a re-read of The Power of Shazam comic book series that was published by DC Comics for four years between 1995 and 1999. One of the reasons why I like to do this “It Came from the 1990s” feature here on this blog is because the decade as a whole tends to get a bad rap among comic book fans. There were some great comic books published during the 1990s, and The Power of Shazam, which was written by Jerry Ordway for its entire run, is among the very best.

The Power of Shazam features Billy Batson, the original Golden Age version of Captain Marvel originally published by Fawcett Comics from 1939 to 1953 before DC Comics ultimately litigated them out of existence, with the character subsequently being acquired by DC itself two decades later. Ordway’s run is often regarded as the best incarnation of the character since the original Golden Age version.

The Power of Shazam actually started out as a standalone graphic novel written, drawn & painted by Jerry Ordway, with lettering by John Costanza, that DC published in early 1994. Coming off the Superman family of titles, on which he regularly worked in the late 1980s and early 90s, Ordway set out to tell the definitive post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin of Billy Batson / Captain Marvel.

The graphic novel initially opens in the Egyptian desert several years in the past. Husband and wife archaeologists Charles Clarence Batson & Marilyn Batson are excavating a previously-undiscovered tomb. With them is Theo Adam, an agent of the expedition’s financier Thaddeus Sivana. In a hidden chamber the trio discovers a sarcophagus with a beautiful scarab necklace. The thuggish Adam becomes strangely fixated on the scarab. He brutally murders C.C. and Marilyn, but not before Marilyn hides the scarab inside her daughter Mary’s stuffed Tawky Tawny doll. Adam kidnaps Mary and flees back to America.

Some months later the Batsons’ other child, ten year old Billy, is living on the streets of Fawcett City, his inheritance having been stolen by his miserly Uncle Ebenezer. A ghostly figure beckons to Billy one rainy night, leading him into a subway tunnel which is connected to the other-dimensional Rock of Eternity, the home of the ancient Wizard Shazam. The Wizard bids Billy to say his name. Calling out “Shazam!” Billy is transformed into the super-powered adult form of Captain Marvel.

The understandably confused & angry Billy takes some time to adjust to this new body and its amazing powers, but he soon finds himself on a collision course with Theo Adam, who is revealed to be reincarnation of Black Adam, the Wizard’s original champion from ancient times who was corrupted by his awesome powers. Finally locating the mystic scarab, Theo transforms into Black Adam for the first time in the modern age.

Billy defeats Adam and resists the temptation to exact vengeance against the man who murdered his parents. The Wizard robs Adam of his powers & ability to speak. The figure who led Billy to the Rock of Eternity is none other than the ghost of Billy’s father, who drops enough clues to cause Billy to realize his sister Mary is still alive somewhere.

Ordway did a superb job updating the concept of Captain Marvel for the 1990s while still retaining much of the charm & whimsy of the original stories. Ordway’s painted artwork on the graphic novel was stunning.

The graphic novel was a huge success and DC greenlit an ongoing monthly series which made its debut in early 1995. Leaping forward four years to the “present day” the series features the now 14 year old Billy still attempting to juggle the life of a teen with the powers of Captain Marvel. Complicating matters, Billy continues to hide the fact that his uncle threw him out on the streets, because he doesn’t want to end up in foster care or an orphanage.

In addition to writing The Power of Shazam series, Ordway created gorgeous painted covers for each issue. The new art team was Peter Krause on pencils / layouts and Mike Manley on inks / finishes. John Costanza returns as letterer, with coloring by Glen Whitmore. Rounding things out were assistant editor Chris Duffy and editor Mike Carlin.

The first 12 issues of the monthly title formed a complete story arc. Billy at last discovers his long-missing sister Mary, who has been adopted by her mother’s cousin Nora and her husband Nick Bromfield. Mary is prompted by the magically animated Tawky Tawny stuffed animal to call out the magic work “Shazam” also gaining the Wizard’s powers.

Billy and Mary are reunited and befriend fellow teen Freddy Freeman. When Freddy is crippled by the superpowered fascist Captain Nazi, the Batson siblings share the powers given to them by the Wizard with their friend, enabling him to become Captain Marvel Jr. With the intro of first Mary as a second Captain Marvel, and then Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr, The Power of Shazam quickly became an ensemble title.

Just as he did with Bill Batson, Ordway does fantastic work with the character of Mary Bromfield. In certain respects Mary actually makes a better Captain Marvel than Billy, with the Wizard telling her:

“You have shown an intuitive grasp of my powers, Mary… in many ways, using them better than your brother had, when he first received them.”

It actually makes sense that Mary has that ability, as she was adopted by the Bromfields and given a loving, stable upbringing, whereas poor Billy was thrown out by his greedy uncle, forcing the young boy to survive by his wits on the streets of Fawcett City. I like that Ordway shows the siblings having very different approaches to crimefighting. Ordway also did a superb job rendering Mary on the book’s painted covers.

I definitely want to acknowledge the work of Peter Krause. I’d classify Krause as one of those good, solid artists who can turn in clear, dynamic pages on a deadline. I think if Krause had been around 20 years earlier he probably would have been one of the top artists of the Bronze Age. Regrettably by the mid 1990s his sort of art style had mostly fallen out of fashion. Fortunately this series was the perfect venue for Krause’s work.

Krause perfectly balanced the action & drama with the comedy & whimsy. He was equally adept at drawing dynamic action sequences as he was at bringing to life the humorous characters & moments in Ordway’s stories such as all of the really fun Tawky Tawny scenes. Manley’s finishes superbly complemented Krause’s pencils. They made a top-notch art team.

Silver and Bronze Age legend Curt Swan penciled a flashback sequence in The Power of Shazam #8 featuring Bulletman, Minute Man and Spy Smasher mixing it up with the diabolical Captain Nazi and his goosestepping lackeys during World War II. Swan’s lovely traditional style is a good fit for this segment, and Mike Manley’s inking complements his work really well.

Ordway himself pencils a pair of flashbacks in issue #10 and #12, which reveal the origin of the Wizard Shazam and his role in the history of Fawcett City and the Batson Family. We discover the Wizard had an origin very much like Billy, when as a young boy his family was murdered by bandits thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Entreating to the gods for the power to fight against injustice, the future Shazam became a champion in the region, protecting the innocent, allowing civilization to flourish.

Unfortunately, much as would one day happen to his successor Black Adam, the Wizard became overconfident, and his arrogance led to him being seduced by a beautiful demonic temptress. The inhuman seductress then gives birth to twins, the diabolical siblings Blaze and Satanus, who had previously been introduced in the Superman books during Ordway’s time on them.

Much of the events in the first year of The Power of Shazam revolves around Blaze’s efforts to undo the good works of her father the Wizard Shazam, and her brother Satanus’ own machinations to prevent his sister from becoming the ruling monarch of Hell.

The graphic novel and first 12 issues of The Power of Shazam were collected together by DC Comics in 2020 in the hardcover In the Beginning. There are tentative plans for a second collection, which I really hope will materialize, because it would be great if eventually the entire series got reprinted.

In any case, I’ll be looking at the second year of The Power of Shazam in a future blog post. Maybe I’ll do one post for each year of the series? I guess I’ll see how it goes. Anyway, I’m really enjoying this reread, and I hope those of you who follow this blog will enjoy my retrospectives of this great series.

David Warner: 1941 to 2022

Prolific character actor David Warner passed away on July 24th, just five days shy of his 81st birthday.  I think that my fellow blogger A Middle Aged Geek summed up Warner’s appeal on his own retrospective:

“The actor’s range was his shield from typecasting, and he could play deeply sympathetic characters just as he could play the very embodiment of evil–all with complete believability.”

Warner was born in Manchester, England on 29 July, 1941. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and in 1962 joined the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner’s stage work brought him acclaim, but due to a case of stage fright in the early 1970s he made the decision to shift his career to movies & television, where he would work regularly for the next four and a half decades.

David Warner in Nightwing (1979)

Warner is one of the first actors who I became aware of, as he was regularly appearing in movies that I saw in the theater and on television when I was a kid in the early 1980s.

Acting opposite Malcolm McDowell as novelist H.G. Wells, Warner played John Stevenson aka Jack the Ripper in Time After Time (1979) directed by Nicholas Meyer. His identity as the infamous serial killer uncovered in Victorian England, Stevenson flees to then-modern day San Francisco via Wells’ time machine, with the author pursuing him in the present in an effort to finally bring the Ripper’s killing spree to an end.

Warner played the physical embodiment of Evil in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure Time Bandits (1981). A year later he appeared in the triple role of Ed Dillinger / Sark / the voice of the Master Control Program in the groundbreaking sci-fi virtual reality movie Tron.

Also around this time, in the 1979 horror movie Nightwing, Warner was cast in the somewhat more sympathetic role of scientist Philip Payne, who assists Nick Mancuso as Native American police officer Youngman Duran in fighting a swarm of vampire bats infected with the bubonic plague.

David Warner in Tron (1982)

Having seen Warner in all of these, I was subsequently very pleased whenever he would turn up in a particular movie or television show.

Warner was cast as the human diplomat St. John Talbot in the underwhelming Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and as such he was quite surprised when he was then asked to appear as a different character in Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country (1991) by Nicholas Meyer, who had previously directed him 12 years earlier in Time After Time.

Years later Warner would jokingly suggest that everyone had simply forgotten he was in Star Trek V when they asked him to appear in the next one, and truthfully I barely recall him from it. In contrast, his performance as Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI, who Meyer conceived as a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Mikhail Gorbachev, was incredibly memorable. Warner brought genuine dignity & compassion to the role of Gorkon. As a result, it carried a real impact when the Chancellor was assassinated, and with his dying breath begged Captain Kirk not to let the peace negotiations between the Federation and the Klingon Empire die with him.

David Warner in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered County (1991)

Warner made one last Star Trek appearance a year later when he played sadistic Cardassian interrogator Gul Madred in the two part Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Chain of Command.” Warner made Madred a figure of quiet menace. It was such a powerful, sinister performance, and it was surprising to learn that Warner had only been cast shortly before filming began when another actor dropped out at the last minute. As he explained to The A.V. Club in 2017:

“So I took over with three days notice. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but there was a lot of dialogue in it. And I said, “Look, I’ll do it, but I’ve got three days, and I can’t learn that kind of dialogue in three days.” So they wrote it all up on boards for me to read. So if you ever see it again, you won’t see my eyes moving, but I read every single line that I spoke, because I just couldn’t learn it in time.”

Also around this time Warner appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze as Professor Jordan Perry, the scientist who was indirectly responsible for the Turtles mutating. Now, I was a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic books at the time, but even so I’ll readily admit The Secret of the Ooze was quite a silly movie. I feel Warner brought a touch of class to the proceedings. He apparently enjoyed working on it, as he told The A.V. Club:

“It was just great fun being in a movie like that. You know, for kids. I didn’t often do kids pictures… it was just great fun to be on the side of the good guys!”

David Warner voiced Ra’s al Ghul on Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1995)

From 1992 to 1995 Warner voiced Batman’s immortal adversary Ra’s al Ghul on Batman: The Animated Series, reprising the role on Superman: The Animated Series in 1999 and Batman Beyond in 2000. Voice director Andrea Romano made some brilliant casting decisions on Batman: The Animated Series, and Warner as Ra’s al Ghul was absolutely one of them. The first time I saw an episode with Ra’s and heard him speak I knew that Warner, with his rich, theatrical voice, was the perfect casting. To this day whenever I read a comic book in which Ra’s al Ghul appears I “hear” Warner’s voice in my head whenever I read the character’s dialogue.

Another solid performance by Warner was archeologist Aldous Gajic on the Babylon 5 episode “Grail” (1994). Gajic comes to the B5 space station in search of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be alien in origin.

In his later years Warner became associated with the British science fiction series Doctor Who. He acted in several of the Big Finish audio plays, including two, “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Masters of War,” where he played an alternate-reality incarnation of the Third Doctor who, instead of being exiled to Earth in 1970, arrives in 1997, where in his absence events have taken a definite turn for the worse. Warner also voiced the villainous Lord Azlok on the Doctor Who animated serial “Dreamland” in 2009.

Warner at last had the opportunity to appear in a live action episode of Doctor Who in 2013, guest starring in “Cold War” as the lovably eccentric, pop music obsessed Soviet scientist Professor Grisenko. “Cold War” was definitely one of the best episodes from Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor, and I feel that’s at least partially due to Warner’s presence. Grisenko and Clara had some good scenes together, with Warner and Jenna Coleman playing off each other very well.

David Warner in Doctor Who “Cold War” (2013)

All of this is only just a small portion of Warner’s career. Following has passing earlier this week, his career was covered in a number of retrospectives, and on several occasions while reading them my reaction was literally “Oh, I forgot he was in that one!” The IMDB lists 228 acting credits for him.

Warner leaves behind an impressive body of work. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.

It Came From the 1990s: Capwolf

This summer is the 30th anniversary of one of the more, um, unusual superhero comic book stories ever told. In the summer of 1992 a seven part bi-weekly serial entitled “Man and Wolf” ran in the pages of Captain America published by Marvel Comics. However this story is much more often referred to by another name: “Capwolf.” Yes, this is the time when Captain America was turned into a werewolf.

“Man and Wolf” ran in Captain America #402 to #408, cover-dated July 1992 to October 1992. The creative team was writer Mark Gruenwald, penciler Rik Levins, inkers Danny Bulanadi, Don Hudson, Ray Kryssing & Steve Alexandrov, letterer Joe Rosen, and colorists Gina Going & George Roussos. Ralf Macchio was the editor for most of the story, with Mike Rockwitz stepping in to begin his editorial tenure with the “Man and Wolf” epilogue in #408.

Let’s set the stage: Mark Gruenwald had been writing the Captain America series since issue #307 in 1985. From my own perspective as a reader, after several years of really good, interesting storylines by Gruenwald, for the last year or so the book had really been floundering. This dip in quality seemed to occur right when Rik Levins came onboard as a penciler. I’ve written before about how disappointing I initially found Levins’ work. So, between the drop in quality in Gruenwald’s writing and my definite lack of enthusiasm in Levins’ art, my interest in the series was really flagging.

And then came “Man and Wolf.” Okay, this is going to perhaps sound weird, but I felt, even though this was a ridiculous storyline, it was actually the beginning of an uptick in quality for the series.

I’m curious what the genesis was of “Man and Wolf.” I half-suspect that it was conceived as an excuse to bring in Wolverine, Wolfsbane and Cable as guest stars. In the early 1990s the X-Men group of comic books was absolutely red-hot, insanely popular, among Marvel’s bestselling titles. In contrast, the character of Captain America was unfortunately regarded as uncool, even lame. I mean, I liked Cap a lot, but I knew I was the very much the exception among teen readers at the time. So I wonder if Gruenwald or Macchio or someone else decided to have several mutants appear to bump up sales.

As Captain America #402 opens, Steve Rogers has decided to take a leave of absence from the Avengers to search for his two missing friends: his pilot John Jameson and his girlfriend Diamondback. Cap hears about a series of “werewolf killings” in northern Massachusetts and recalls that former astronaut John Jameson was once turned into the Man-Wolf by the mystical “Moongem” he discovered on the Moon. Cap heads to Boston to enlist the aid of the mystic Doctor Druid, who himself is planning to investigate the werewolf murders. (And, wow, it’s got to be sort of a bummer for Druid that he’s “the world’s second most celebrated authority on the occult” who everyone consults with only if Doctor Strange is unavailable!)

Cap and Doctor Druid head north to the small town of Starkesboro, where they are attacked by a literal army of werewolves. It soon transpires that these werewolves are the citizens of Starkesboro, transformed by Cap’s old foe Nightshade, the “Queen of the Werewolves” whose dual fields of expertise are biochemistry and mind control. Nightshade, in turn, is working for another of Cap’s enemies, the so-called Druid, now going by the name of Dredmund (no doubt to avoid confusion with Doctor Druid). Nightshade and Dredmund two of them are in possession of the Moongem, whose supernatural emanations are drawing other wolfen beings to Starkesboro, among them Wolverine and Wolfsbane.

Cap and Doctor Druid are both captured. Cap is transformed into a werewolf by Nightshade. Attempting to escape, “Capwolf” gets into a brutal fight with Wolverine, who has been hypnotized by Dredmund. Realizing that Nightshade is the only one who can turn him back to normal, Capwolf returns to town. Nightshade uses her pheromones to entice Capwolf into “the Pit” where all of the “disobedient” werewolves are imprisoned. The mutant lycanthrope Wolfbane from X-Factor is one of the prisoners, and she teaches Capwolf how to speak and to think more clearly in his werewolf form.

Giving one of his characteristic inspirational speeches, albeit with a lot more growling than usual, Capwolf organizes the other werewolves in the Pit and they stage an escape. Capwolf makes his way to the town church, arriving just in time to see Dredmund slit Doctor Druid’s throat. Druid’s lifeblood empowers the Moongem, enabling Dredmund to transform into the Starwolf.

Capwolf takes the fight directly to Dredmund, but he is helpless against the cosmic-powered Starwolf. The other wolves from the Pit, led by Jack Russell, Werewolf by Night, arrive and attack Dredmund’s forces.

And then Cable shows up. The gun-toting cyborg leader of X-Force has been tracking his teammate Feral, who has also been lured to Starkesboro by the Moongem. As is typical for the character from this period, Cable immediately opens fire with one of his ridiculously large automatic weapons, deadpanning “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” Hoping to prevent a massacre, Capwolf leaps at Cable and the two tangle, only to be imprisoned in a giant carpet by Starwolf, leading Cable to deadpan “Whose mutant power is it to control carpets?”

A mysterious white-furred werewolf from the Pit rescues Doctor Druid, taking him back to Nightshade’s laboratory. The white wolf captures Nightshade and injects her with her own werewolf serum so that she will be forced to create an antidote. Druid manages to heal himself enough that he is able to break Dredmund’s control of Wolverine. Logan heads to the church, where he frees Capwolf and Cable, and the three of them join forces to defeat Starwolf.

In the epilogue Nightshade finally turns everyone back to normal. The white wolf is revealed to be none other than the missing John Jameson. Cap himself is injected with the antidote just in time to be attacked by an evil doppelganger from the then-ongoing Infinity War crossover event. Dispatching his dark duplicate, Cap summons the authorities.

John explains that as much as he liked being Cap’s pilot he needs to find his own path. Cap reluctantly accepts his resignation, letting John know there will always be a place for him with the Avengers. Fortunately Cap quickly gains a new pilot: ace daredevil Zack Moonhunter, who had been hypnotized by Dredmund to be his “werewolf wrangler.” His mind now free, Moonhunter eagerly accepts Cap’s job offer.

Some time later, back in New York City at Avengers Mansion, the Falcon stops by for a team briefing. Brought up to speed by Cap about his recent activities, the Falcon agrees to join his old friend to search for the still-missing Diamondback, who readers know has been kidnapped by the brutal Crossbones and delivered into the clutches of Cap’s arch-enemy the Red Skull. To be continued!

Whew! That was quite a ride. A lot of people thought “Man and Wolf” was ridiculous, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. Re-reading it again this week, I still liked it.

I’ve heard it suggested that “Man and Wolf” could have been a much more effective story if it had been drawn by an artist such as Mike Mignola or Kelley Jones who really specialized in the horror genre. I definitely think there’s validity to this. But I do think Rik Levins did some decent work on these issues. His penciling & storytelling began to show some definite improvement over his artwork from the previous year.

(Update: I feel that the point when Levins really began to step up his game was right before this, in issue #401, which Mark D. White just covered on his excellent, insightful blog The Virtues of Captain America.)

The main inker on “Man and Wolf” was Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi. Although his inking is nowhere near as overwhelmingas many of his countrymen, it is still fairly heavy. Bulanadi had already been the regular inker on Captain America when Levins came onboard. Initially I did not think the two of them made a good art team. But on “Man and Wolf” the rich, textured style of Bulanadi’s finishes really enhanced Levins’ pencils, giving the story a certain atmosphere that very much suited the supernatural elements & settings of the story.

It’s interesting to contrast the pages by Bulanadi to those done by the other inkers, which are much more of a traditional Bronze Age superhero style, and therefore not nearly as effective for this particular story. An example of this can be seen up above on the page from issue #405 featuring Capwolf fighting Wolverine, which was inked by Steve Alexandrov.

I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps Levins was hitting his stride. Or perhaps incoming editor Mike Rockwitz prodded Gruenwald to up his game. Whatever the case, the next year or so on Captain America after “Man and Wolf” concluded is one that I found really enjoyable.

I do wonder if Gruenwald might have stuck around on Captain America a bit too long, since I feel he did once again sort of run out of energy a couple of years later. But there is definitely something to be said for writing more than 100 consecutive issues of a series. Likewise, I believe Levins still hold the record for penciling the most issues of Captain America ever, having drawn the book for 36 consecutive issues, from #387 to #422.

All these years later, “Capwolf” is still remembered by readers. I think a lot of the derision has given way to bemused nostalgia. In 2015, when the Falcon had assumed the role of Captain America, he briefly turned into a new Capwolf. Several alternate reality versions of Steve Rogers as Capwolf have appeared, including in the video game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 in 2017. And last year a Funko Pop of Capwolf was released.

So, three decades after Captain America first howled at the Moon, it looks like Capwolf is here to stay. Now if we could just get a team-up of Capwolf and Captain Americat, that would really be something!

Happy birthday to Jamal Igle

Wishing a very happy birthday to comic book artist Jamal Igle, who was born 50 years ago today on July 19, 1972 in New York City.

Igle got his start in comic books in 1994 doing fill-in art on Green Lantern #52 from DC Comics. Soon after he penciled Kobalt #7 from DC / Milestone. Two years later Igle was doing work for Billy Tucci’s Crusade Comics, penciling Shi: The Way of the Warrior #8, Tomoe / Witchblade: Fire Sermon and Daredevil / Shi. Right from the start he was producing good, solid work, and I was definitely a fan. Every time new work of his appeared you could see definite growth & improvement.

Tomoe / Witchblade: Fire Sermon written by Peter Gutierrez, penciled by Jamal Igle, inked by Ravil, colored by Dean White & Top Cow Color, lettered by Dennis Heisler, published by Crusade Comics in Sept 1996

Igle finally got an ongoing book to draw in 2000 when he became the regular penciler on the revival of New Warriors from Marvel Comics written by Jay Faeber… only for the book to be cancelled a mere four issues later. Fortunately Igle was immediately given a four issue Iron Fist / Wolverine miniseries, also written by Faeber.

The next few years saw Igle draw several more fill-ins, among these various Green Lantern issues. I’ve always felt that Igle pitched in on the series so often, always doing such good work, that DC should have just made him the regular penciler. Igle also penciled the four issue creator-owned series Venture published by Image Comics, which once again paired him with Jay Faeber.

Firestorm #23 written by Stuart Moore, penciled by Jamal Igle, inked by Keith Champagne, colored by David Baron, lettered by Travis Lanham, published by DC Comics in May 2006

In 2005 Igle at long last got another regular assignment when he began penciling the revamp of Firestorm from DC Comics, beginning with issue #8. I really wasn’t interested in the series, but because Igle was penciling it I started picking it up. Between his artwork and the writing, first from Dan Jolly and then Stuart Moore, I definitely became a fan of the Jason Rusch incarnation of the character. Igle stayed on Firestorm thru issue #32, doing incredible work. I was genuinely disappointed when first Igle left and then the series was cancelled three issues later.

Following a short run on Nightwing in 2007, plus issues of 52 and Countdown, in late 2008 Igle became the penciler on Supergirl, paired up with writer Sterling Gates. The work by Gates & Igle on the character was a breath of fresh air. When she was first reintroduced to the post-Crisis DCU in 2004 and given a new series, Kara Zor-El unfortunately looked like an anorexic porn star… at least that’s how I feel Michael Turner and Ian Churchill depicted her. When Igle became the penciler he actually drew Supergirl to look like a real teenager. I did feel there were too many editorially-mandated crossovers imposed on Gates & Igle during their time on the series. Nevertheless, they did very good work Supergirl. Their run wrapped up with issue #59 in early 2011.

Supergirl #53 cover drawn by Jamal Igle, colored by David Baron, published by DC Comics in August 2010

Igle’s next book was Zatanna, written by Paul Dini, followed by the four issue miniseries The Ray written by Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray, which revamped the character for the New 52 continuity. That was another one I really enjoyed, and I wish more had been done with the character.

Beginning in 2013 Igle decided to focus on creator-owned and independent projects. The first of these was the Molly Danger graphic novel, which he wrote & drew. The book was published by Action Lab Entertainment. Molly Danger is a super-powered teenager who, alongside Vito Delsante’s The Stray and several other costumed crimefighters, occupies Action Lab’s “Actionverse” with the various characters crossing over in the six issue Actionverse miniseries in 2015. Molly Danger was a fun, engaging story, and I really hope one of these days Igle has an opportunity to finish the promised sequel.

Actionverse #2 written & drawn by Jamal Igle, colored by Ross Hughes, lettered by Full Court Press, published by Action Lab Entertainment in March 2015

Most recently Igle has been working on The Wrong Earth with writer Tom Peyer from Ahoy Comics, featuring the upbeat, cheery costumed crimefighter Dragonflyman and the brutal, grim & gritty vigilante Dragonfly. The premise of the series has been described thus: What if the campy Adam West television Batman and the Frank Miller Batman from The Dark Knight Returns somehow swapped places, finding themselves in each other’s world? The initial six issue The Wrong Earth was published in 2018, and has been followed by several sequels.

As I said before, I’m a fan of Igle’s work. I’ve met him on several occasions, and he’s always come across as a good person. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next. He’s an incredible talent.

Happy birthday to John K. Snyder III

As I recently observed, I’ve seen a number of very talented creators whose work I enjoy pass away in a relatively short period of time. With that in mind, I want to make more of an effort to recognize the contributions of those artists and writers who are still with us. It is definitely important to let creative individuals know how much we appreciate their work while they are still with us.

Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to wish a very happy birthday to comic book artist & writer John K. Snyder III, who was born on July 14th, 1961, and to recognize him for his artistic contributions.

The first time I ever saw Snyder’s work was in 1990 when the revival of Classics Illustrated from First Comics released his adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Snyder’s eerie artwork, his storytelling & coloring, absolutely stunned me. I had only been reading comic books regularly for a short time at this point, but even so I could immediately recognize that here was a unique, distinctive talent. That adaptation really imprinted itself on my 14 year old mind.

Throughout the 1990s I often went to comic book conventions with my father where I searched out back issues from the previous two decades. Among the many great books I found at those shows were some of Snyder’s earlier works. I picked up a few issues of Timothy Truman’s great creator-owned series Scout which had been published in the mid 1980s by Eclipse Comics, and which featured Snyder’s first published work in the “Fashion in Action” back-up serial. Looking at the “Fashion in Action” stories, it’s apparent that Snyder really hit the ground running both as an artist and a writer.

Among the other comic books I picked up at those conventions were John Ostrander & Kim Yale’s acclaimed, groundbreaking super-powered political thriller Suicide Squad published by DC Comics. Snyder penciled several issues of that title, paired up with inkers / embellishers Karl Kesel and Geof Isherwood. Once again, Snyder did great work.

Throught the 1990s and beyond I saw Synder’s artwork in a number of places. He drew several striking, offbeat character profiles for the early 1990s looseleaf edition of Who’s Who In the DC Universe, a pair of covers for Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron for Dark Horse Comics, an astonishing, atmospheric three issue painted Doctor Mid-Nite bookshelf miniseries written by the incredible Matt Wagner, and covers of the three part “Morningstar” story arc that ran in Greg Rucka’s espionage series Queen & Country from Oni Press.

I got to meet Snyder when he was a guest at Cradle Con in Garden City, Long Island in June 2019. It’s always great when you meet creators whose work you enjoy and discover that they are also good people. That was definitely the case with Snyder. I purchased a copy of the Fashion in Action collected edition from him, and at long last finally had the opportunity to read the story in full. Snyder also did a really lovely drawing in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

Since then I’ve followed Snyder on Facebook and Instagram where he regularly shares the incredible new artwork that he’s been working on. In the last decade he’s done some amazing work.

Snyder painted covers of the Infestation event from IDW that crossed over the worlds of Star Trek, Transformers, G.I. Joe and Ghostbusters. He reunited with Matt Wagner on Zorro Rides Again for Dynamite Entertainment, drew several issues of Bloodshot: Rising Spirit for Valiant Entertainment, and wrote & drew a graphic novel adaptation of Lawrence Block’s noir novel Eight Million Ways To Die. He briefly had the opportunity to return to the world of Suicide Squad, depicting the most recent incarnation of the superhuman black ops team on a pair of variant covers for the Infinite Frontier miniseries. All these years later Snyder’s work continues to astonish me.

So, once again, happy birthday to John K. Snyder III. Wishing you many more to come.

Star Wars thoughts: The Redemption of Reva

Having reviewed the six part Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries that recently appeared on Disney+, I wanted to take a closer look at the status of the character of Reva / Third Sister at the end of the series.

Reva, superbly portrayed by actress Moses Ingram, is an incredibly damaged figure. She was a Jedi “youngling” who was in the Jedi Temple when Order 66 occurred. All of her fellow students were murdered by Anakin Skywalker and his Clone Troopers; she only survived by playing dead. Consequently Reva was one of the few beings in the galaxy who knew that Darth Vader is actually Anakin.

The loss of her figurative “family” deeply traumatized Reva, and she desperately wanted “justice” for them. She joined the Imperial Inquisitors who served under Vader in in the hopes of climbing up through the ranks until she might one day get close enough to Vader to kill him. She didn’t care that she was hunting down her fellow Jedi survivors and other force sensitives, that she became everything she hated; all that mattered to her was gaining revenge, no matter how steep the price.

I honestly was not expecting Reva to survive the miniseries; I really believed she was going to get killed either by Obi-Wan or Vader. So it was actually a pleasant surprise that she was still alive at the end of the final episode and, more importantly, that she had chosen to turn away from the dark side of the Force.

Let me explain: In the Star Wars universe there’s a tendency for villains to choose to redeem themselves only to die soon after. The most notable examples are Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. In both their cases, the fact that they died after turning away from evil removed the problematic issue of anyone having to deal with the crimes they committed while they were alive.

There is a saying: “Dying is easy; living is harder.” Redemption is not simply a matter of saying that you will no longer commit evil acts, it also involves making amends for those past crimes. Reva committed numerous terrible atrocities as Third Sister. Now, having made the decision to turn over a new leaf, she ought to have to pay penance for her actions.

Earlier on in the miniseries, a horrified Obi-Wan asks Vader “What have you become?” In the final episode Reva must ask this of herself when she poses a very similar question: “Have I become him?” In response, Obi-Wan tells her “No. You have chosen not to. Who you become now, that is up to you.”

I think there’s a great deal of potential to the character of Reva, to seeing who she now chooses to become.

I wonder if it was a coincidence that Quinlan Vos was name-checked in the third episode of this miniseries. In both the comic books stories by John Ostrander & Jan Duursema from the old “Legends” continuity and in the more recent canon novel Dark Disciple by Christie Golden, Quinlan fell to the dark side and faced a long, difficult struggle to return to the light. Now Reva faces a very similar path.

Having read other blogs, I see there are other Star Wars fans who feel similarly about the character.  There could be some interesting stories to tell about a character Reva now that she must find a new path and work towards correcting the terrible mistakes that she’s made. And I’m sure Moses Ingram would do an amazing job with the material.

Star Wars reviews: Obi-Wan Kenobi

The six episode Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries has come to its conclusion on Disney+. Quite a few other people have already posted in-depth reviews & analyses of the show. Since I’m a huge Star Wars fan, I did want to also share some of my thoughts on it, too.

1) Hello There

Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan Kenobi was, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant casting decisions of the prequel trilogy. McGregor is an incredibly talented actor, and he admirably succeeded at evoking Alec Guiness’ performance while bringing his own particular take to the role.

McGregor continues to do quality work in this miniseries. He really brings to life an Obi-Wan who, a decade after the events of Revenge of the Sith, is suffering from depression and PSTD, crippled by the fall of the Jedi and by his own guilt at not having prevented Anakin Skywalker from turning to the dark side of the Force and becoming Darth Vader.

There are moments here where McGregor’s performance, solely through facial expression & body language, evocatively brings across the pain this man is feeling. Deborah Chow did a superb job directing McGregor and the other actors. That moment at the end of episode two, when Obi-Wan learns that Vader is still alive, is an absolute gut punch, with the devastation & horror on McGregor’s face communicating volumes.

Likewise, as Obi-Wan sets out to rescue young Leia Organa from the Imperial Inquisitors, McGregor effectively shows the character’s gradually journey back from the despair event horizon, eventually bringing him to the place where he finds peace & acceptance.

Besides, Obi-Wan’s infiltration of Fortress Inquisitorius and his rescue of Leia was absolutely riveting. Plus that scene where he discovers the “mausoleum” with the dead Jedi displayed as trophies was one of the most disturbing in the entire Star Wars mythos.

2) Retcons R Us

There was some skepticism among fandom over this show inserting a major encounter between Kenobi and Vader in the time between the prequels and the original trilogy. Honestly, though, Star Wars has been revising is history & backstory pretty much from the word “go.” Despite what George Lucas likes to claim, he did not intend for Darth Vader to be Luke Skywalker’s father right from the start. Luke and Leia being brother & sister was also a late development. So there’s a long precedent for this sort of thing.

The key here would be how well this retcon got pulled off. I actually feel there was some wiggle room that allowed for it. Obi-Wan believed Anakin was dead at the end of Revenge of the Sith, but he’s aware Vader is alive in A New Hope, and when the two meet on the Death Star Obi-Wan shows no surprise at Vader now being a black-clad armored cyborg. At some point he must have learned that Anakin survived their duel on Mustafar and been radically transformed into a creature “more machine than man.”

And we get just that as Obi-Wan first comes face-to-face with his former apprentice on Mapuzo and utters an absolutely horrified “What have you become?” It’s another emotional gut punch, especially as we then see a badly out-of-practice Obi-Wan literally get raked over the coals by a vengeance-obsessed Vader.

Likewise, in their rematch in episode six, with the two on much more equal footing, we get an incredibly dramatic confrontation.

I try to look at this from the perspective of a younger fan. If you traveled back in time some 39 years to 1983 and said that one day we’d get to see a live action Star Wars television series featuring a stunningly fierce lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Vader, with each of them hurtling entire chunks of a planet at each other, seven year old me would never have believed you.

So, yeah, maybe it doesn’t fit 100% neatly into established continuity, but it was damned exciting, and I’ll take that over being overly anal about the consistency of a fictional universe that, as I said, already has a long history of being inconsistent.

3) From a Certain Point of View

“Anakin Skywalker was weak; I destroyed him.”

That is what Darth Vader tells Ahsoka Tano in the Rebels second season finale “Twilight of the Apprentice.” I always found that to be one of the most heartbreaking lines in Star Wars. It really encapsulates all of Vader’s self-hatred & loathing for himself, revealing just how far he has fallen.

Vader something similar in episode six. When Obi-Wan once again apologizes for having failed his former student, Vader flat-out tells him “I am not your failure, Obi-Wan. You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did. The same way I will destroy you.”

This appears to be the first time that Vader finally admits to himself that everything horrible that ever happened to him is his own fault. And it does help explain how Obi-Wan gets to the point where he is at in the original trilogy, where he truly believes that Anakin is “dead” and gone forever.

4) The Circle Is Now Complete

I’ve mentioned in the past that I enjoyed the prequels and found them underrated, and that certainly extends to Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin Skywalker.

I admit, at first I was puzzled by the decision to have Christensen reprise the role, since he was fully encased in the Darth Vader armor, with James Earl Jones supplying the voice.

But then in episode five we get an extended flashback to a training duel between Obi-Wan and Anakin the days before the Clone Wars. It was an effective sequence, especially as the narrative cut back & forth between this past segment and the “present” where Vader is hunting his former master, and Obi-Wan is able to draw on his knowledge of Anakin’s impatience, impulsivity & need to visibly achieve victory to outwit him and get the members of “The Path” to safety.

And then in episode six when we see Vader’s helmet split open, revealing his scarred face to Obi-Wan, enabling Christiansen and McGregor to act opposite one another when we get to the all-important moment when Vader tells Obi-Wan that Anakin is dead.

5) Fear Leads To Anger, Anger Leads To Hate, Hate Leads To Suffering

There’s a moment in episode three where Yoda’s warning to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back very much came to mind. After Obi-Wan and Leia arrive on Mapuzo, a fearful Obi-Wan panics & becomes angry, believing they’ve been betrayed. So it falls to ten year old Leia to have to try to take charge, leading her to accept a ride with the seemingly-friendly Freck… who unfortunately turns out to be an Imperial sympathizer.

It can be argued that if Obi-Wan had not let his fear get the better of him, if he had been patient and waited then Tala would have arrived soon after & quietly taken them to safety, and everything that subsequently went wrong, all of the death & suffering, might never have occurred.

6) Make the Galaxy Great Again

The alien truck drive Freck, voiced by Zach Braff, comes across as a commentary on Trump supporters. Freck is a working-class alien, just the sort of individual we have seen exploited again and again by the Empire. Yet Freck, with the Imperial bumper sticker on his truck, his chumminess with Stormtroopers, and his fondness for “law & order” is very much siding with the oppressors.

When Freck turns in Obi-Wan and Leia, two people who want to genuinely make things better for people like him, it really evokes the phenomenon of voting against your own interests, of blindly swallowing propaganda, of treating liberals & progressives as “the enemy.”

(Gee, you’d think that, considering they co-starred in Garden State, Braff would’ve been more conciliatory to Nalalie Portman’s daughter 😊)

In contract to Freck we have Tala, portrayed by Indira Varma, an Imperial officer who joined up because she genuinely believed the Empire would make the galaxy a better place. Unlike Freck, Tala doesn’t have her head in the sand. She is able to face up to reality, to recognize that the government she serves is irredeemably evil, and as a result she now helps Jedi fugitives & force-sensitives escape the Empire.

7) “They were the only family I knew.”

I guess there has always been a small-yet-vocal subset in sci-fi and comic book fandoms who are angry & narrow-minded. Unfortunately social media really amplifies their voice out of proportion to their size. I was disgusted at all of the vitriol directed at actress Moses Ingram for her performance as Reva / Third Sister. Honestly, I felt Ingram did a great job with the role.

Reva, a former Jedi youngling, encapsulated just how dangerous & all-consuming the quest for vengeance can be. Reva joined the Inquisitors solely to get close enough to Vader so she could ultimately gain revenge on him for having slaughtered her friends & loved ones years before. So overwhelming was her desire to kill Vader that ANY price, no matter how horrible, seemed reasonable to Reva, even if it turned her into everything she hated.

In the end Reva is finally able to step back from the precipice. Before the final episode aired, a few viewers expressed the desire that she NOT reform, stating that that there have been too many redemption arcs in Star Wars and that some people simply cannot be saved from themself. And that’s true. But Lucasfilm ultimately wanted this series to be a hopeful one, and so, having seen that Anakin was seemingly beyond redemption, it was important for Obi-Wan to witness someone else make the conscious choice to walk away from darkness.

8) Cry “Uncle”

Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru have never been what you would consider three-dimensional characters. They exist in the original movie to basically be an impediment to teenage Luke’s dreams of the future. Owen comes across as unreasonably harsh & inflexible.

The final episode of this miniseries does a good job of fleshing them out. Underneath it all, they both love Luke, and they’re willing to risk their lives to protect him from Reva. It definitely adds some important nuance to the couple. It also helps explain why Obi-Wan left Luke with them in the first place. He knew they would care for Luke and, having witnessed the failings of the Jedi Order in raising Anakin, realized it was important for Luke to have a real childhood.

It also ultimately makes Owen and Beru’s off-screen deaths at the hands of the Empire in A New Hope all the more tragic. They were probably protecting Luke right up to the end.

9) The Sass is Strong with This One

Ten year old Vivien Lyra Blair does a good job playing young Leia. Working with child actors can be tricky, but Blair really pulls off the role, doing a good job playing off McGregor, as well as feeling like she could be a young Carrie Fisher.

Having Obi-Wan and Leia interact with each other at this point in the timeline is another one of those pesky retcons that the show manages to pull off.  You can argue that it’s rationalizing older plot & character beats long after-the-fact, but this story does explain why nearly a decade later Leia went to Tatooine to find Obi-Wan, why when Luke showed up on the Death Star and told her he was with Ben Kenobi her immediate reaction was an excited “Ben Kenobi? Where is he?” and why she eventually ended up naming her own son Ben.

I really did like the scene at the end where Obi-Wan told Leia about her parents; some viewers said it moved them to tears.

10) A Jedi with a Very Particular Set of Skills

I’m sure most of us were half-expecting it to happen, but it was still cool to see Liam Neeson return to live action Star Wars as the Force ghost of Obi-Wan’s old teacher Qui-Gon Jinn. Neeson had already reprised Qui-Gon when he voiced the character in The Clone Wars animate series, revealing how Yoda first learned that the fallen Jedi’s spirit lived on within the Force. But it was nevertheless great to see McGregor and Neeson share the screen again one more time.

Speaking of Jedi who’s names begin with the letter Q, the show had a very cool Easter Egg when Obi-Wan learns in episode three that his old comrade Quinlan Vos (created by writer John Ostrander & artist Jan Duursema for the Star Wars comic books published by Dark Horse) survived Order 66 and escaped to freedom along The Path.

11) “You should have killed me when you had the chance.”

Okay, so why didn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi kill Darth Vader when he had the chance?

Yes, obviously Vader couldn’t die here, because he’s still very much alive nine years later in Rogue One and the original movie trilogy. But I do think there should have been more of an explanation for Obi-Wan not finishing off Vader. Maybe the Grand Inquisitor and a bunch of Stormtroopers could have arrived at the last minute to save Vader, forcing Obi-Wan to flee? That might have made more sense.

I guess in-story Obi-Wan did not want to kill a foe who had already been defeated. He also might have felt that killing Vader wouldn’t have changed anything, because the Empire would still be in power, and Emperor Palpatine would have just found a new apprentice.

Whatever the case, it did feel to me like the one misstep in an otherwise well-done miniseries. Definitely could have used a bit of clarification.

Obi-Wan Kenobi wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but it was enjoyable. Hopefully we’ll continue to see further quality Star Wars content coming out soon.

Six sketches for Spider-Man’s 60th anniversary

This month is the 60th anniversary of the debut of Spider-Man. The iconic Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, which went on sale in June 1963.

I’ve never been a huge Spider-Man fan, but I have followed the character’s various series from time to time, especially when he’s been written and/or drawn by creators whose work I enjoy.  And I’ve ended up with a few Spider-Man convention sketches over the years.

So, to celebrate Peter Parker’s 60th birthday, here are six sketches featuring the web-slinger…

First up we have Spider-Man by John Romita Jr. Romita has been associated with the character for over 40 years, having had several lengthy runs penciling Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. This was drawn as part of a charity event in May 2002. To raise funds to help pay for his niece’s medical bills, Romita sat down for a marathon sketch session in Manhattan, drawing Spider-Man sketches for $25 donations. As you can see, this is sketch #115. There was a really large turn-out for this event, so I believe Romita was able to raise a good amount to help out his niece.

Next we have Alex Saviuk.  He’s drawn a great may characters over a 45 year long career, but the one he undoubtedly most associated with is Spider-Man.  I fondly recall Saviuk’s work on Web of Spider-Man back when I was a teenager. He penciled nearly every issue of that series from 1988 thru to 1994. I’m glad I had the opportunity to get a sketch of the web-slinger from him in 2008.

My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo shared a table with Matthew Southworth in Artists Alley at the 2010 New York Comic Con. At the time Matthew was relatively new to comics, having made his debut a few years earlier drawing back-up stories for Savage Dragon and Infinity Inc. He had recently come off of the critically acclaimed noir miniseries Stumptown written by Greg Rucka.

I had the chance to chat with Matthew throughout the weekend, and he definitely came across as a good guy. He had also just  worked on an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, so I asked him if he could do a quick sketch of Spidey for me. Instead, Matthew went all out, drawing a nice color piece for me. In the decade plus since then he’s continued to do superb work.

Former long-time Marvel and Topps Comics editor, and current editor-in-chief of Papercutz, Jim Salicrup draws what he refers to as “lousy full color sketches.” More often than not, though, they turn out to be of the non-lousy variety. I asked Jim if he’d sketch Spider-Man, since he edited the web-slinger’s books for several years, specifically from 1987 to 1991, which is the period when I really got into comic books. Consequently he edited some of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read. Instead of just doing a quick doodle, Salicrup proceeded to produce this magic marker masterpiece featuring Spidey in combat with Doctor Octopus.

Michele and I had a great time at the Forest Hills Comic Con held at Forest Hills High School in Queens, NYC last month. It was a fun little show. As any long-time Marvel Comics fan can tell you, Peter Parker is from Forest Hills, so I asked artist Keith Williams, who’s worked on a lot of Spider-Man comic books, including a four year run inking Web of Spider-Man, for a sketch of the character. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate piece to get done at that show.

Hey, what’s the Green Goblin doing here?!? Okay, seriously, I only have five Spider-Man sketches in my collection, and I needed one more for the “Spider-Man six sketches at sixty” alliteration thing. This one seemed like a natural fit since the Green Goblin is Spider-Man’s arch-enemy.

Veteran artist Sal Buscema was the initial penciler on the Spectacular Spider-Man series in the mid 1970s. He returned to the title in 1988 and remained on it for eight years, drawing over 100 issues. My favorite period from this lengthy run was issues #178 to #200 where he was paired with writer J.M. DeMatteis, which is when the Green Goblin showed up. “Our Pal Sal” did a spectacular job on the macabre Spider-Man villain. And that’s the reason why I asked him to sketch the Green Goblin for me.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little artistic spotlight. Truthfully, part of the reason why I put it together is that I’m sort of depressed from doing so many obituaries on this blog. This was an opportunity to showcase the work of half a dozen talented creators who are still with us, and who hopefully will continue to be for a long time to come.

Ken Kelly: 1946 to 2022

Longtime fantasy artist Ken Kelly passed away on June 3rd. He was 76 years old. During a career that lasted half a century, Kelly became renowned for his incredible paintings of fiercely heroic warriors, stunningly sexy women and hideously awful monsters. Kelly was also acclaimed for his work illustrating album covers for rock bands.

Kelly was born in New London, Connecticut on May 19, 1946. He had always liked to draw & paint and so, after four years overseas serving in the Marines, in 1968 Kelly returned to the States and decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. Kelly’s uncle by marriage was Frank Frazetta, and he studied under the acclaimed illustrator for the next few years.

Kelly’s first professional sale was the cover painting for Vampirella #6 from Warren Publishing, which was released in July 1970. Kelly would regularly contribute covers to Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, when Warren finally shut down. The work was low-paying, but as Kelly would explain in a 2018 interview, the experience got him used to producing quality work while hitting deadlines:

“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast. You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one.”

After several years of toiling at Warren, Kelly’s life & career was literally changed almost overnight when he was hired to paint the cover artwork for “Destroyer,” the fourth studio album from hard rock band Kiss. “Destroyer” was released on March 15, 1976 and over the next several months became a hit record. Kelly’s cover painting for the album put him on the map, making him a very much in-demand artist from that point onward.

I certainly cannot say that I’m a huge Kiss fan, but even so I’ll readily acknowledge that Kelly’s dynamic cover painting for “Destroyer” is one of the most iconic images featuring the band.

Kelly was subsequently hired to paint the cover for Kiss’s six studio album “Love Gun” (1977), as well as the Rainbow album “Rising” (1976) and half a dozen album covers for Manowar between 1987 and 2007, among others.

The cover to “Destroyer” also brought Kelly’s work to the attention of paperback publishers, and from the mid 1970s onwards he was regularly hired to paint heroic fantasy covers. Among the authors whose work Kelly was most associated with was the late Robert E. Howard, creator of the barbarian anti-hero Conan.

It was through Howard’s writings that I first became acquainted with Kelly’s artwork. In the mid 1990s Baen Books published seven paperback volumes of The Robert E. Howard Library. Up until that point in time Howard’s Conan stories had been widely released, but much of his other fiction had never been properly collected together. One of the Baen volumes was the first complete collection of Howard’s stories featuring the grim swashbuckling Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I’d heard of Kane in the past, and been intrigued by him, so when Baen released that collection in late 1995 I eagerly snatched it up.

That book had a gorgeous painted cover featuring the climax of REH’s story “The Moon of Skulls.” Looking at the copyright page, there was a credit that read “Cover art by C.W. Kelly.” Well, I had no idea who this C.W Kelly was, but he certainly seemed like a talented artist.

“C.W. Kelly”would provide the other lushly illustrated painted covers for The Robert E. Howard Library. I bought several of those volumes, although in the intervening years, having moved half a dozen times, I misplaced a couple. I still have the Solomon Kane collection as well as a couple others from the series.

In the late 1990s Kelly produced a number stunning covers for Dark Horse Comics for their Star Wars line of comic books. He painted several covers for the ongoing Star Wars series set during the Prequel era, as well as covers for the four issue miniseries Star Wars: Boba Fett – Enemy of the Empire and its collected edition. Kelly created some really great art for George Lucas’ epic space fantasy, and I wish he’d had more opportunities to work on the series.

I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly on a few occasions, at the Chiller Theatre conventions held in New Jersey in 2007 and 2008, and at one of the I-CON sci-fi conventions held at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

Kelly came across as a genuinely decent guy. The first time I met him I purchased a copy of his oversized art book Ken Kelly: Escape. It was a gorgeous collection of his paintings & illustrations. Looking through it I saw several familiar pieces, and I finally realized that the “C.W. Kelly” who had painted those covers for Baen Books was Ken Kelly.

Even though he was best known for his paintings, Kelly also worked in pencil and pen & ink, and when he was at conventions he would sell these types of illustrations, as well as do fairly basic convention sketches, for quite reasonable prices. I thought that was a nice gesture, as he obviously understood that a lot of his fans who would like to own a piece of his art would not be able to afford his paintings.

I got a couple of sketches from Kelly. Due to his aptitude for depicting heroic fantasy, I asked him to do a Thor drawing in my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook. The next time I saw him I had him draw Boba Fett in my Star Wars theme book. He did nice work on both.

Kelly painted literally hundreds of beautiful, striking pieces during his five decade career. There’s no way for me to adequately present an overview of his work within the confines of this blog. So, instead, I’ll merely present a few of my favorite pieces by him.

First we have the dark fantasy armored figure of “Death’s End” which Kelly described as “one of my most popular paintings.”  Kelly utilized the central armored figure for the cover to his Escape collection. A limited edition 20” tall resin statue sculpted by Tony Cipriano was later issued.

The beautiful, sensuous “Anastacia’s Lair” appears to have been one of Kelly’s personal favorites. In the Escape collection he described it thus:

“This is a personal concept I wanted to pursue, focusing on an interior setting. It’s always interesting to paint cats to I included one as her protector and pet. I am at any given time working on five or more of these types of paintings, it’s very relaxing for me.”

Stepping outside of the sword & sorcery genre, Kelly produced “Snowtrap” in 1997. As he explained it:

“Scenes like this are most liberating for me. There’s no alternative universe to create, no debating whether the weaponry matches the era or architecture, or whether the plausibility of the creatures detracts from the scene. This is simply a female mammoth desperately struggling to keep her calf from the jaws of death.”

That’s the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kelly’s artwork. I highly recommend visiting his official website to see a wide selection of his paintings.

Kelly was apparently active as an artist up until almost the end of his life. One of his most recent pieces was sci-fi swordmaiden Taarna for the cover of Heavy Metal #308, which was released last year.

Ken Kelly was a very talented artist who had an incredible career, impacting comic books, fantasy and American hard rock. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.

Astro City returns to Image Comics with That Was Then…

Super Blog Team-Up celebrates the 30th anniversary of Image Comics. In 1992 a group of red-hot artists decided to quit their extremely lucrative gigs drawing for Marvel Comics and found a brand-new company dedicated to publishing creator-owned series.

Image Comics may have gotten off to a rough start, but no major comic book company ever emerged fully formed, and within just a few years Image had already become an important force for creators’ rights in an industry that had a long history of exploiting talent.

Over the past three decades Image has published hundreds of great creator-owned projects. Among these is Astro City by the team of writer Kurt Busiek, interior artist Brent Anderson, and cover artist & character designer Alex Ross.

Astro City was first published by Image as a six issue miniseries in 1995. It was followed a year later by an ongoing series published under the Homage Comics imprint of Image co-founder Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Productions.  In 1998 Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, and with that sale Astro City moved over to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

I have absolutely no idea what the specifics were of the arrangement between Busiek and Wildstorm. But apparently Busiek retained ownership of Astro City even after Wildstorm was bought by DC. After 20 years of Astro City being published by DC under various imprints, Busiek finally made the decision to bring the series back to its original home, Image Comics.

Astro City: That Was Then… by Busiek, Anderson, Ross, colorist Alex Sinclair, letterers Tyler Smith & Jimmy Betancourt of Comicraft, and editor Kel Symons is the first new Astro City book released since the series’ return to Image.

From his afterword in this issue, it sounds like for the most part Busiek had a good working relationship with DC Comics. Nevertheless, I am genuinely glad that Astro City has returned to Image. DC and Marvel, the so-called “Big Two,” have ownership of more than enough characters. Certainly both DC and Marvel have also bought up more than their share of properties throughout the decades, so it would have been a pity to see the denizens of Astro City also get permanently absorbed by one of the Big Two.

UPDATE: To clarify matters, I did hear back from Kurt Busiek himself on this subject…

“DC never owned ASTRO CITY, nor did Wildstorm. It’s always been owned by Brent, Alex and me.”

Thank you, Mr. Busiek.

To date there have been over 100 issues of Astro City published. I have probably only read around 15 to 20 of those comics. Nevertheless Busiek makes the That Was Then… special very accessible to new & casual readers such as myself.

That Was Then… is set during the summer of 1969. The teen superhero group the Jayhawks have shockingly died, having lost their lives fighting the eldritch abomination The Master who was powered by the racism & hatred of the white supremacist group the White Knights.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, several other teenage heroes have gone “on the road” to figure out what to do next. Adulthood is right around the corner for these five troubled youths, and they need to decide: should they keep fighting crime, or move on with their lives?

Bugleboy, Majorette, Sunshrike, Rivets the Robot Kid and Rally can feel that change is coming, an end to the initial bright optimism of the 1960s. Both the script by Busiek and the art & coloring by Anderson & Sinclair are suffused with a contemplative, tangible mood. There is a very tangible feeling of loss and uncertainty.

Honestly, it amazes me that Anderson is not a much more popular artist. Way back in 1982 he did a superb job on the critically acclaimed X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel for Marvel, and for a quarter century he’s been doing incredible work on Astro City. Anderson is, in my mind, a very underrated artist & storyteller.

Busiek has always been incredibly adept at writing character-driven stories. Astro City is a series that definitely plays to that strength, enabling him to tell very personal, intimate stories set against a tapestry of vast, epic events, at examining the human aspects of superhumans. That is yet again on display in the That Was Then… special.

The present-day epilogue to That Was Then… featuring Astro City’s flagship hero Samaritan effectively parallels the main story. Just like the five teens from 1969, the Samaritan feels worn down & purposeless, haunted by the ominous feeling that “something’s coming, something dark.”

This reminds me of something that Alan Moore wrote in Watchmen. “Nothing ends… nothing ever ends.” Just as the progressive idealism of the 1960s was wiped away by assassinations, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and finally Ronald Reagan, so to were the hopes & dreams of Barack Obama’s election eclipsed by the resurgence of American racism, the rise of Donald Trump, and the radicalization of the Republican Party. Unfortunately so long as there are human beings there will very likely always be these struggles between the light and the darkness… and the good men & women the Samaritan represents will understandably feel beaten down by the unending fight to preserve liberty & justice.

I am looking forward to seeing what Busiek, Anderson & Ross have planned for Astro City in the future at image Comics. And I’ll also be taking the opportunity to check out their earlier stories, which Image is re-issuing as oversized MetroBook collections.

By the way, I very rarely ever purchase more than one copy of any comic books to get different variant covers. But I made an exception with Astro City: That Was Then… picking up both the main beautiful painted cover by Alex Ross and the variant cover drawn by Image co-founder & Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen featuring Malcolm Dragon alongside the Samaritan.

Larsen is one of my all-time favorite comic book creators. He and Busiek had a good working relationship in the past, having collaborated on Defenders and Fantastic Four: The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine at Marvel in the early 2000s. I’d love to see them work together again, this time on something at Image.

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