Darwyn Cooke: 1962 to 2016

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

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

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

Wonder Woman and friends Darwyn Cooke

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

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

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

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

Supergirl 37 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

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

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

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

Batman Superman 17 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

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

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

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

The Twlight Children 1 pg 13

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

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

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

Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke

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

Captain America Annual 8 cover

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

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

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

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

Captain America Annual 8 cover

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

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

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

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

Captain America Annual 8 pg 23

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America Annual 8 pg 35

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America Annual 8 pg 40

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America 405 pg 15

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

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

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

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

Death of Wolverine Deadpool Cap pg 8

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

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

Black Lightning strikes twice!

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

Black Lightning trade paperback

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning 1 pg 14

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

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning 7 pg 15

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

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

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

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

Black Lightning 9 cover

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

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

Howard the Duck for President

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

Howard the Duck 8 cover

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

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

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

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

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

Howard the Duck 7 pg 17

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

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

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

Howard the Duck as Doctor Strange

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard the Duck 8 pg 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howard the Duck 9 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering comic book artist Paul Ryan

In an 1997 interviewComic book artist Paul Ryan passed away on March 6, 2016 at the much too young age of 66. Ryan was a prolific artist whose career spanned from 1984 until the time of his death.

Fantastic Four 358 cover

A lifelong comic book fan, Ryan did not made his professional debut until the age of 35. He submitted a story to Charlton Comics which was originally scheduled to see print in the anthology title Charlton Bullseye, but the company folded before it could be published.  Much of Charlton’s unused inventory was acquired by AC Comics head honcho Bill Black, and Ryan’s debut finally saw print in the AC title Starmasters #1.

Shortly after Ryan met professional artist Bob Layton at a comic book convention. Layton had recently moved to the Boston area and was looking for an assistant.  Layton recounted on his Facebook page

“I trained him as my apprentice, inking backgrounds for my various Marvel projects. All that time working together, Paul worked on his penciling samples for Marvel.”

Eventually accompanying Layton on a trip to the Marvel Comics offices in Manhattan, Ryan was introduced to the editorial staff. This led to Ryan beginning to receive assignments from the company.  His first job was inking Ron Wilson’s pencils on The Thing #27 (Sept 1985).

Shortly afterwards Ryan was tapped to take over as penciler on the 12 issue Squadron Supreme miniseries written by Mark Gruenwald.  Ryan penciled issue #6 (Feb 1986) and then issues #9-12.  Ryan was paired with inker Sam De La Rosa, and also had the opportunity to work with his mentor Layton, who inked four of his five covers.

After completing Squadron Supreme, Ryan again worked with Gruenwald, co-creating D.P. 7 which debuted in November 1986. D.P.7 was considered one of the high points in Marvel’s very uneven New Universe imprint.  Ryan was the penciler for the entire 32 issue run of D.P.7.  It was on D.P.7 that Ryan was first paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi as his inker. I really appreciated the rich, illustrative quality that Bulanadi’s inking gave Ryan’s pencils.  They made a great team.

During this time, in 1987, Ryan penciled Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, the historic marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Avengers 330 cover signed

After D.P.7 came to an end, Ryan became the penciler of Avengers with issue #305 (July 1989). He was teamed with writer John Byrne and longtime Avengers inker / embellisher Tom Palmer.  After Byrne departed, Ryan worked with succeeding writers Fabian Nicieza and Larry Hama.  Ryan and Hama introduced the African American teenage hero Rage who, after a short stint as an Avenger, became a longtime member of the New Warriors.

In late 1989 Ryan also penciled the first six issues of the ongoing Quasar series written by Gruenwald. Ryan was inked by Bulanadi on these.

Ryan was an incredibly fast artist, and in 1990 at the same time he was penciling Avengers he was also working on the Avengers West Coast spin-off series. Ryan inked Byrne’s pencils on issues #54 -57.  He then penciled issues #60 – 69, working with writers Roy & Dann Thomas, with Bulanadi once again inking him.

After departing AWC in early 1991, Ryan was once more paired with Byrne, this time on Iron Man. Bob Wiacek inked Ryan on these issues.

Later that year Ryan and Bulanadi joined writer Tom DeFalco to become the new creative team on Fantastic Four. Their first issue was #356 (Sept 1991).  Two months later, in the giant-sized FF #358, the series celebrated its 30th anniversary.  Among the numerous features contained in that issue, Ryan & Bulanadi illustrated an amazing double-page pin-up featuring many of the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe.

In an 1997 interview Ryan stated that FF was his favorite Marvel title.  He had bought the very first issue when it came out back in 1961 when he was 11 years old, and was “very excited ”to be working on the series 30 years later.

Fantastic Four 358 Marvel characters

Ryan began co-plotting Fantastic Four with DeFalco beginning with issue #260. He remained on the series until issue #414 (July 1996). He penciled 59 consecutive issues, one month short of a full five years.  Ryan would undoubtedly have stayed on FF even longer if he and DeFalco had not been given the boot to make way for “Heroes Reborn.”

Reader reaction to DeFalco & Ryan’s time on Fantastic Four was decidedly mixed. I personally enjoyed it, but I understand why others were less enthusiastic.  Looking back, it is obvious that DeFalco & Ryan wanted to emulate the classic Lee & Kirby era, but they were also attempting to make the book competitive at a time when X-Men was Marvel’s hottest property, and everything else was falling by the wayside.  They wanted to give FF a retro Silver Age feel and make it appealing to younger readers, i.e. sexing up the Invisible Woman and making her more ruthless, giving the rest of the team a more gritty look, generating numerous long-running subplots & mysteries, introducing a younger “next generation” of FF-related heroes, and tossing in lots of stuff involving time travel & alternate realities.  At times perhaps those styles did not mesh well, but DeFalco & Ryan were clearly giving it their all.

Understandably annoyed at being tossed off Fantastic Four, Ryan left Marvel and went to DC Comics. He worked there from 1996 to 2000.  His main assignments at DC were the quarterly Superman: Man of Tomorrow and the monthly Flash series.  He also penciled issues of Superboy, Aquaman and Batman: Gotham Knights, as well as a four issue Legion: Science Police miniseries.

Superman Man of Tomorrow 9 pg 6

One of my favorite DC issues that Ryan penciled was Superman: Man of Tomorrow #9 (Fall 1997), written by Roger Stern and inked by Brett Breeding. As Superman is busy adjusting to his new energy powers, Jonathan & Martha Kent recollect on their son’s life.  This provided Ryan & Breeding with the opportunity to illustrate many of the key moments in Superman’s post-Crisis history up to that point in time.

Notably, Ryan was one of a number of artists to work on the Superman: The Wedding Album in 1997, penciling 11 pages of this giant-sized special. By his involvement in this, he had worked on both the wedding of Clark Kent & Lois Lane and the wedding of Peter & Mary Jane.

I was glad to see Ryan receive work at DC.  I was a regular letterhack back then, and I wrote in to the Superman editors with the following…

“Paul Ryan is a superb penciler, and I’m glad you guys got him to work on this book. It’s nice to see that you guys can appreciate true talent.”

Yes, that was something of a swipe by me at Marvel for their treatment of Ryan the year before.

After his time at DC concluded, Ryan penciled a handful of fill-ins for CrossGen.  He worked on several issues of Crux and Ruse.

Phantom newspaper strip 04 13 2007

In 2001 Ryan began working on The Phantom comic books published by the Swedish company Egmont. This was the start of an association with Lee Falk’s legendary comic strip hero that would last for the next decade and a half.  Ryan was tapped to take over The Phantom weekly comic strip in 2005, working with writer Tony De Paul.  Two years later Ryan also assumed the art duties on the Sunday comic strip.

Ryan was a longtime fan of The Phantom.  He produced quality artwork on both the comic books and the newspaper strip.  He was still working as the artist on the daily strip at the time of his passing.

(For fans of The Phantom, the comic strip is archived online going back to 1996 on The Phantom Comics website.)

I really feel that Ryan was an underrated talent who was too often eclipsed by the “hot” artists of the 1990s.  Unlike many of those guys, Ryan was a very good penciler with strong sequential illustration skills, an artist who turned in quality work while consistently meeting deadlines; in other words, a true professional.

Paul Ryan 2000 photo

I was a fan of Ryan’s work ever since I first saw it in the late 1980s. Over the years I corresponded with him by e-mail on Facebook.  I was fortunate enough to meet Ryan once, back in 2000.  He was a guest at a major comic convention held at Madison Square Garden that was organized by Spencer Beck.  Ryan drew an amazing color sketch of Beautiful Dreamer for me at that show.  I had always hoped to one day meet Ryan again so that I could obtain another sketch from him.  Sadly that is no longer possible.  But I am grateful that I had that one opportunity to meet him all those years ago.

Squeaky Squeakums for U.S. President

As a proud and loyal citizen of America, I have spent the last several months aghast at the train wreck that is the campaign for the 2016 election for President of the United States. It has been both embarrassing and more than a bit terrifying watching a succession of fools and crooks attempting to out-pander each other in pursuit of the office of the Presidency.  The possibility that one of these clowns might very well be elected to the White House is genuinely unsettling.

Therefore, I am proud to present an alternative to these opportunistic fear-mongers, a candidate who possesses strength, wisdom, courage, humility, and bravery in abundance… my cat, Squeaky Squeakums.

Squeaky Squeakums for President

In a year when nearly every candidate on two legs appears to embody the very worst aspects of humanity, let us look to another species entirely, namely Felis catus, the domestic cat.  Squeaky Squeakums is a wonderful representative of this proud and sage breed.  Yes, she sleeps for an average of 15 hours a day, but during her time awake she is a coiled spring, ready to leap upon intruding mice.  So, too, will she pounce at the first sign of trouble to this great nation, to threats both foreign and domestic.  If elected, she vows to serve all species, be they human, cat, or other animals. Yes, including dogs.

Squeaky is no pampered house cat. Born in Salem, MA, young Squeaky was sadly abandoned by her first human on a trip to New York City.  She spent several years living in an overcrowded apartment in the Bronx, competing with seven other cats, two dogs, and a variety of lizards and birds for space & food.  Seven years ago my girlfriend Michele and I rescued Squeaky and brought her into our home, where we have showered her with love & affection.  But she has not forgotten her humble beginnings.  She possesses a great deal of empathy & understanding for all Americans who struggle to make ends meet.

Squeaky also required extensive veterinary care when we first took her in. That experience has convinced her of the crucial roles that health insurance and affordable medical services must play in our society.

But do not let Squeaky’s compassionate side fool you. She also possesses nerves of steel and a fierce determination.  She will stare down any opponents who seek to take advantage of her good nature.

Squeaky stare closeup

There have been some questions raised as to Squeaky’s eligibility to run for President. Let me assure you that these are unfounded.  Certain people have asked if she is at least 35 years old, as specified by the Constitution.  Squeaky is 13 cat years old, which as per the experts at Purina is 68 in human years, definitely making her qualified.  She is also most certainly a natural born citizen, and if requested we will release her long form birth certificate for review.

Perhaps you are asking yourself “How could a cat possible gain the support necessary to be elected President?” I can understand your skepticism.  However, Squeaky has already gained a large and enthusiastic group of supporters, Americans male and female who span all ages, races, religions and cultural backgrounds.  All of her campaign appearances have been attended by large crowds of voters who are eager to hear her message.  In fact, here is a photo of Squeaky being greeted by her numerous supporters at her last campaign rally…

Squeaky campaign rally

If you are dissatisfied with the direction this country has taken, and if you believe that this nation deserves better leadership than it has had in many decades, then pledge your support for Squeaky Squeakums. You can find out more about Squeaky and her message for America on her official Facebook page, Squeaky Squeakums for U.S. President.

Vote for pussy – We’ll all be happy.

This blog post has been brought to you by the Squeaky Squeakums 2016 Super PAC (Pet and Animal Committee).

Love and marriage for Savage Dragon

Valentine’s Day is here, which makes this a good time for me to look at the three most recent issues of Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen from Image Comics, as Malcolm Dragon marries his high school sweetheart Maxine Jung Lai.

Savage Dragon 209 cover

As you can see from the cover to Savage Dragon #209, Maxine is very pregnant. Malcolm did use protection, but he soon discovered that his super-strength extended to his, um, reproductive processes.  Those condoms didn’t stand a chance!  And now I’m reminded of that old essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by science fiction novelist Larry Niven.  Fortunately Malcolm and Maxine had already been thinking about getting hitched, but the pregnancy did result in those plans getting pushed forward ever so slightly!

Of course Maxine still has to worry about a super-powered fetus kicking its way out of her womb, something that occurred nearly two decades earlier with Malcolm’s own mother Rapture. Indeed, as we see in these three issues, this turns out to be a very real, fatal concern for Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend Tierra.  I remember commenting several months ago that the sexual shenanigans between Malcolm, Maxine, Tierra and Angel were like something out of a cheesy porno flick.  However, as we see here, Larsen is continuing to follow up on the very serious consequences of this act of reckless teenage sexuality.

Larsen scripts Maxine as an irreverent smart-ass. She’s very well suited to be with Malcolm, whose life is just plain crazy.  The banter between the two of them is wonderful.  Larsen gives them good chemistry.  Malcolm and Maxine make a great couple, and I look forward to seeing how Larsen continues to develop their relationship.

Savage Dragon 210 cover

In the next issue Malcolm and Maxine head off for their honeymoon, only to find themselves in yet another bizarre misadventure. They run into a very old foe of Malcolm’s father, as Larsen dusts off a baddie from the very first year of his run on Savage Dragon.

I love the cover for issue #210. There are so few comic book covers like this anymore.  That style of cover artwork unfortunately became unfashionable in the late 1990s, replaced by pin-up or poster types of images.  Yeah, those can be pretty to look at, but they very seldom tell you anything about the stories inside.  They don’t grab you attention and make you want to pick up the comic book to find out what the story is behind it.  Fortunately in a number of respects Larsen remains an unapologetic traditionalist, and Savage Dragon has often featured cover artwork that jumps out at you.

Issue #210 also has a humorous six page back-up written by Larsen featuring Flash Mercury, Powerhouse and Fever doing their professional monster hunters thing. The talented Frank Fosco, who most recently illustrated the Vanguard serial, provides some excellent artwork.

As I’ve observed before, Larsen has a huge cast of characters, and the back-ups are a great way to give some of them the spotlight.  I hope there will be more in the future. I’ve heard that series editor Gavin Higginbotham is eager to write some new ones.  And, hey, speaking for myself, I’d love to pitch one!  How about something looking at Horridus as a single mom / crime-fighter trying to make ends meet after the death of her husband Rex Dexter?  Ever since seeing Horridus in mourning at Rex’s grave in issue #208 I’ve been wondering what happens to her and her daughter.

Savage Dragon 211 cover

In issue #211, now that Malcolm is out of high school and married, it’s time for him to get a full-time job. He follows in his father’s footsteps, joining the Chicago police department.  Much of the material from #211 originally appeared in the Savage Dragon: Legacy special that came out as part of last year’s Free Comic Book Day.  Larsen adds several new pages and re-scripts some dialogue to reflect various events and developments that he either changed his mind about in the succeeding months or wanted to keep secret between then and now.

Issue #211 has a “1st Issue In A Bold New Direction” blurb, just as issue #193 did two years previously. It’s nice that Larsen devises jumping-on points from time to time.  Since Savage Dragon has been running for 23 years, it’s good to have periodic issues that bring newer readers up to speed, and that refresh the memories of long-time fans such as myself.

Larsen’s scripting in Savage Dragon often has something of an exposition-heavy quality to it. While at times this means his dialogue does not sound quite natural, it nevertheless ensures that important events are recapped for readers on a regular basis.  That’s certainly an asset in #211, as Malcolm explains his somewhat convoluted origins.

Notice something else? Despite these two “Bold New Direction” issues, both times Larsen resisted the urge to re-start the numbering on Savage Dragon with a brand new issue #1.  Honestly, I am sooooo sick of Marvel and DC doing that.  Perhaps that might result in a temporary bump in sales.  But at the same time, a new first issue can actually present a jumping-off point for readers whose interest in a series is wavering.  That’s certainly been true for me on a few occasions.

Whatever any case, I’ve barely read anything the Big Two have published in the last several years. And as I’ve stated a few times on this blog, Savage Dragon is my favorite ongoing comic book series.

Right before Savage Dragon #211 came out I recently took the opportunity to re-read issues #193 to 210 in one sitting. Larsen did very good work during this two year period, writing and drawing some entertaining, weird, humorous stories.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he now proceeds onward from #211.