It Came from the 1990s: Youngblood “Babewatch”

Comic books in the 1990s had a great many weird, cheesy, ridiculous storylines and gimmicks. It was a decade of excess & speculation, with innumerable new titles popping up, attempting to grab attention.  Even by the standards of the decade, though, one of the strangest stories was the “Babewatch” crossover that was published by the Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in late 1995.

Youngblood v2 3 cover

Everyone say cheesecake!

Extreme Studios was overseen by Image co-founder Rob Liefeld, who to this day remains a divisive figure in the comic book industry. On the one hand, Liefeld’s work has often been characterized by both wonky anatomy & over-rendered pencils, and his constantly hopping from one project to another indicates a serious lack of focus.  On the other hand, it is obvious Liefeld possesses both a genuine love of the medium and an unbridled enthusiasm for creating comic books.  Certainly he deserves credit for helping to establish Image, which eventually grew into one of the most important comic book publishers, offering a venue for innumerable creator-owned projects.

The books that Liefeld and his collaborators released through Extreme were, well, extreme. Youngblood and its numerous spin-offs were insanely larger than life, featuring a parade of big guns, bulging muscles, buckets of blood, and sexy bad girls.  It’s that last aspect that’s front & center in the “Babewatch” crossover, which sees the male members of the government super-powered team Youngblood and many of their allies mystically transformed into a line-up of lovely ladies.  Yes, really.

Co-plotters Eric Stephenson, Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld, working with penciler Todd Nauck and inkers Danny Miki, Karl Alstaetter & Liefeld, get the “Babewatch” ball rolling in Youngblood volume 2 #3. The issue is topped off with a comically curvaceous cover by Roger Cruz & Danny Miki.

The immortal sorceress Diabolique has escaped from her frozen prison. She is an old adversary of Glory, the daughter of Lady Demeter, ruler of the Amazonians of the Isle of Paradise. (Suffering Sappho! I wonder how Liefeld avoided a call from DC Comics’ legal department!)  Diabolique wants revenge on Glory, her mother, and the rest of the Amazonians.

Diabolique possesses the power to control minds, but only those of males. Unfortunately for her, she has an extreme aversion towards men.  To get around this, Diabolique initiates the aforementioned mass sex change, which affects every male on Earth who has ever encountered Glory over the decades.  Diabolique then seizes mental control of the largest grouping of transformed heroes, namely everyone at Youngblood headquarters, and uses them to attack Themyscira the Isle of Paradise.

(No, really, I don’t know why Diabolique’s sorcery would work on men even after they’ve been transformed into women. What can I say?  I must have slept through Nonsensical Plot Twists 101 in college.)

Youngblood v2 3 pg 10

Stephenson understandably plays up the comedic aspect of this story. In one panel we see the transformed Youngblood members, with accompanying wacky dialogue, such as “My back is killing me” and “Um, I think I’ve got to pee.”  Thankfully there aren’t any arrows pointing to specific characters, so we’re spared finding out which smartass announces that this is “kind of a turn-on.”

I do have to say, even though the federal government is notorious for accepting lowball bids on military contracts, they must have actually gone with a firm that did quality work for Youngblood’s uniforms, because that’s some really durable, stretchy spandex they have on that’s holding in there, um, suddenly-enhanced attributes.

Even though “Babewatch” ran through the entire Extreme line, it was actually a rather modest affair, with the central story only two parts, continuing into Glory #8. That second chapter is written by Jo Duffy, with the art team of Mike Deodato Jr, Carlos Mota & Emir Ribeiro.  Duffy is a veteran writer, having previously worked at Marvel from the late 1970s to the early 90s.  She brings a light, entertaining tone to the scripting of this chapter, which sees Glory teaming up with Youngblood’s actual female members Vogue, Riptide and Masada to repel Diabolique’s invasion of the Isle of Paradise.

I’m a fan of Duffy’s writing. She did good work during her two year run on Glory, bringing interesting plots and characterization to a series that could easily have been a mere T&A fest.  Even though “Babewatch” was a majorly goofy concept, I really enjoyed Duffy’s wrap-up of the story in issue #8.

Glory 8 pg 10

The rest of the “Babewatch” tie-in issues that month saw the various other now-female Extreme characters having their own side adventures. This led to at least a couple of odd twists.

Over in Supreme #33, Eric Stephenson, with penciler Joe Bennett and inker Norm Rapmund, was continuing the ongoing storyline of the recently-introduced younger, amnesiac Supreme, who was working with the teenage sidekick Kid Supreme. Both are affected by Diabolique’s spell.  Soon, however, Supreme realizes that there’s more than this just going on and, after flying around the globe to clear her head, returns home, now clad in an outfit that emphasizes her, um, attributes.

Announcing that she was never actually Supreme, the woman launches into Basil Exposition mode. Long story short, as a result of time travel, a battle with a mysterious alien foe, telepathy, body-swapping, and explosion-induced amnesia (whew!) Supreme’s daughter Probe from the year 3000 AD briefly came to believe that she was her father.  But thanks to Diabolique’s spell, Probe regained both her memories and her true gender.

In this instance the change caused by Diabolique remained permanent, and going forward Probe became known as Lady Supreme, because of course there’s always room for another sexy babe in the Extreme universe!

Supreme 33 pg 16

Of course, if you think what happened with Probe / Lady Supreme sounds odd, then please consider Prophet. Unlike the rest of the Extreme books, the ongoing Prophet series wasn’t interrupted by “Babewatch,” instead receiving a Prophet Babewatch Special.  Liefeld had recently scored a coup in hiring popular creator Chuck Dixon to write Prophet volume 2.  This special was undoubtedly as a concession to Dixon to avoid interrupting his inaugural story arc, although he did end up also writing it, with pencils by Joe Bennett & Manny Clark.

Prophet was initially presented as a deeply religious man who was transformed into a super-soldier during World War II and then kept in suspended animation for the next five decades. Just imagine a Bible-quoting, gun-toting Captain America who fights alien invaders, and you more or less have the original incarnation of Prophet.  Of course, as his storyline progressed, we later found out that Prophet also did a whole bunch of time traveling (yes, that again) via technology provided by his creator Doctor Wells.

As the Babewatch Special opens, Prophet is once again in stasis in Wells’ lab. Diabolique’s spell is cast just as Prophet is transported back in time by Wells.  Now a woman, the semi-amnesiac Prophet arrives in Orleans in the year 1429, where she commences to lead the French against the occupying English forces.

I’m sure that if you have even a passing knowledge of French history you can see where this is going. Yep, that’s correct, the transformed Prophet is none other than… Joan of Arc!  Hey, did you know that Joan fought against the English while clad in a fashionable suit of armor that showed of her bare midriff and thighs?  I certainly didn’t!  Who says comic books aren’t educational?

Prophet Babewatch Special pg 12

Prophet of Arc spends the next two years leading the French armies, until history inevitably unfolds as written. Captured by the English in 1431, Prophet / Joan is burned at the stake, although in actuality he’s snatched from the flames at the last instant by Wells, returned to the present day, where he once again becomes a male.

Oh, yes, while Wells was busy monitoring Prophet’s adventures in France, he was attacked by another of Glory’s friends who was ensorcelled: Roman, amphibious monarch of the undersea kingdom of Neuport. (Imperious Rex!  I’m surprised Marvel’s lawyers weren’t also ringing up Liefeld!)  Diabolique’s spell fortunately ends before Roman can harm Wells.  Afterwards the scientist asks if there were any effects to the spell other than the physical change in gender, and Roman admits “Only an incredible urge to watch… what do they call them? Soaps!”  (Groan!)

Reading these issues 22 years later, I’m surprised that I found them enjoyable.  If Liefeld, or anyone else for that matter, had attempted to do this story at Marvel or DC, I would have hated it.  But since Liefeld owns Youngblood and Glory and the rest, I can just shrug and tell myself that these are his characters, so if he wants to do ridiculous stuff like this then it’s his business.  I sort of look at “Babewatch” as the comic book equivalent of an entertaining Summer action blockbuster movie, except that you don’t have to pay 15 bucks for a ticket, and you can bring your own popcorn.

cat with 3D glasses soda and popcorn

Looking at the artwork on these issues, there’s some rather poor anatomy, especially for the female characters.  Balloon breasts, arched narrow waists, elongated legs, thrusting behinds; all of the excesses that plagued the depictions of women in comics in the 1990s are on display.  Yet many of the creators who worked on these issues, as well as the other Extreme Studios books, would later grow & develop into very talented artists.  Just a few years later Todd Nauck, Mike Deodato, and Joe Bennett were all doing work that blew their efforts here out of the water.  I do have to give credit to Liefeld and Stephenson for helping them and a number of other artists get a foot in the door.

Of course, there is one other compliment which I can offer “Babewatch,” namely that no matter how cheesy it was, at least it didn’t have David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson. Although I wouldn’t be too surprised if they managed to sneak into the Glory and Friends Bikini Fest special.

Ah, the 1990s… what a decade 😛

Thoughts on Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I finally had an opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last week.  A few people who know that I’m a huge fan of the character of Mantis were curious what I thought of how she was used in the movie.

Mantis poster for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

I might as well mention that Steve Englehart, who created Mantis in 1973, was “not happy” at how Mantis was depicted in GOTG 2.  I can understand Englehart’s perspective on this.  Mantis is a character that he wrote on various occasions over a 35 year span.  He invested a great deal of time and energy into developing Mantis.  She is obviously very important to him.

Indeed, that is the primary reason why Mantis is one of my all time favorite characters. Englehart clearly put a great deal of thought into her, in the process creating a very interesting character with a wonderfully bizarre origin and an exciting, offbeat story arc.

So I realize that it must have been disappointing for Englehart that GOTG 2 writer / director James Gunn did not adhere closely to the original conception of the character.

Nevertheless, looking at it from my perspective as a reader and a longtime fan of the character, I felt that the translation of Mantis from page to screen was rather successful.  Visually she looked amazing.  The concept design of Mantis that artist Andy Park created for the movie was very faithful to the original character while also working as something that was both visually effective and functional in live action.  Mantis was played by Pom Klementieff, a well-regarded, talented actress who did great work with the material.

Mantis concept design Andy Park

I admit that I was somewhat disappointed that certain aspects of Mantis from the original Marvel Comics stories were neglected or altered.  She was too passive; I would have liked for her to be a more assertive individual.  I also wanted to see her utilizing martial arts.  Klementieff previously displayed a real adeptness at dynamic fight sequences in the 2013 movie Oldboy, so hopefully she will be able to bring that skill to her portrayal of Mantis in future installments.

Nevertheless, in spite of Gunn perhaps not utilizing the character Mantis as well as he might have, she made an interesting addition to GOTG 2.  I definitely enjoyed her interaction with Drax.  Gunn’s dialogue for these scenes was both funny and poignant.  Klementieff and Dave Bautista played very well off one another.

Actually, as someone who has seen many of the entries in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I think Mantis is much closer to the source material than some other characters.  Looking at the two GOTG movies from Gunn, the characters of Drax, Gamora, Groot and Yondu are all quite different from their comic book versions, but they each worked very well.

On the other hand, if you look at the second and third Iron Man movies, the villains Justin Hammer and the Mandarin were almost nothing like the original comic book characters.  In both cases this was definitely to the detriment of the movies.

Mantis and Drax GOTG2

Sometimes fans do not realize how difficult it can be to adapt comic books into movies.  They are two different mediums, each with their own sensibilities.  What works in one might not in the other.  This requires a delicate balancing act by filmmakers, as they attempt to remain faithful to the source material while simultaneously determining how to make these characters & stories work in a two hour live action movie.  Some filmmakers are more successful at this than others; Gunn is one of the better ones.

Even though the specifics of Mantis in GOTG 2 were altered, personally speaking I did feel that she was quite true to the spirit of the character Steve Englehart created.  I enjoyed seeing her in GOTG 2, and I am look forward to seeing Pom Klementieff reprise the role in Avengers: Infinity War.

Rich Buckler sketchbook drawings

Comic book artist Rich Buckler passed away on May 19th at the age of 68. I knew that Buckler had not been well for a while now, but I was still very sad to hear the news. Buckler was an incredibly prolific artist. He is probably best known for creating the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok, but at one time or another he drew pretty much nearly every major Marvel and DC character, as well as doing work for a number of other publishers. Buckler lived in the NYC area and was a frequent guest at conventions. I had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions. He always seemed like a nice guy.

I’ve already blogged about Rich Buckler’s great work on several occasions in the past (please check out my write-up on his Deathlok stories) so I wasn’t certain exactly how I could pay tribute to him now without repeating myself. It then occurred to me that I could feature the various convention sketches that I obtained from Buckler at comic conventions. Each of these was done in one of my theme sketchbooks.

1) DOCTOR DOOM

Doctor Doom by Rich Buckler

This great drawing of Doctor Doom from June 2009 is the first piece in my “villains and bad guys” theme sketchbook. When it came to deciding who to have kick off the book, Buckler quickly came to mind. Buckler penciled Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s, paired with inker Joe Sinnott and writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. Doctor Doom is one of Marvel’s all-time classic super-villains, and Buckler did a great rendition of the character during his run on FF.

I’m extremely happy with this piece. Buckler did an amazing job sketching the iron-fisted monarch of Latveria, starting off this sketchbook with genuine class & style.  This sketch was subsequently published in Back Issue #74, edited by Michael Eury, from TwoMorrows Publishing. The theme of that issue was the Fantastic Four in the Bronze Age.

2) The Vision

Vision by Rich Buckler

Bucker only worked on a handful of issues of Avengers over the years, but he did very nice work on the series. One of the stories that Buckler penciled, in issue #106, contained an incredibly dramatic depiction of the Vision on the splash page, inked by the amazing Dave Cockrum… what a wonderful collaboration! Buckler & Cockrum really brought to life the synthezoid’s somber brooding and contemplation of life.

After I started my Avengers Assemble theme  sketchbook, the question of who to have draw the Vision inevitably came up. Well, that splash page from #106 almost immediately leaped to mind, and I knew I had to ask Buckler to sketch the character. It definitely came out very well. I wish Buckler could have worked on more Avengers stories; he had a real affinity for the characters.

3) HAN SOLO

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

You might have previously seen this great sketch of Han Solo from the Star Wars movies on my entry for Super Blog Team-Up 7. I still think it’s an astonishing oversight that, outside of a single trading card for Topps, Buckler was never given the opportunity to contribute artwork to any Star Wars related projects. His work would have been such a wonderful fit for the series. He certainly did an amazing job on this sketch, capturing both the likeness and the personality of the character.

Years later, when Buckler was on Facebook, he shared numerous images of a great deal of his work, both published and unpublished. One of the pieces he posted was this sketch. Unfortunately he only had a small, blurry pic of it. When Buckler found out I was on FB, he asked me to send him a larger scan, a request I was more than happy happy to fulfill.

4) MANTIS

Mantis by Rich Buckler

Yes, I do have a Mantis sketchbook. She is, quite obviously, one of my favorite characters. I thought it would be nice to have the first piece in the book drawn by an artist who had worked on some of the character’s published appearances. Rich Buckler previous drew Mantis in Giant-Size Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four #325. He used that FF issue for reference, creating a beautiful portrait of the character.

This sketch, which was drawn in December 2015 at Winter Con in Queens NY, nearly didn’t happen. I approached Buckler early on Saturday morning about doing a sketch. Less then half an hour later, though, Buckler was feeling ill, and he had to be rushed to the hospital. Amazingly, though, in the afternoon he was back at the show. I thought he was crazy, and that he ought to be resting at home. However, since he was there, I asked him if he felt well enough to draw a sketch. Buckler said he was, and her did this great piece. That was the last time I got to see him before he passed away, so I’m grateful I had that opportunity.

I highly recommend reading the eight part essay series “From the Desk of Rich Buckler” that Daniel Best presented in 2010 on his blog 20th Century Danny Boy. These essays by Buckler offer an in-depth look at his career, his creative process, and his thoughts on the comic book industry.

Black Lightning in the 1990s

Black Lightning, the DC Comics superhero created by Tony Isabella and first published in 1977, will be appearing in an upcoming television series to air on The CW.  I looked at the first Black Lightning series in a previous blog.  Today I’m examining the character’s return to headlining status in 1995.  Once again written by Tony Isabella, this new Black Lightning series features artwork by Eddy Newell.  Inking the first two issues is Ron McCain.

Black Lightning v2 1 cover

Black Lightning, aka Jefferson Pierce, teacher and Olympic gold medalist, has relocated to “The Brick City,” an impoverished area within an unnamed city in the Great Lakes region.  Once again Pierce is hoping that he will be able to make a difference in the lives of inner city teens.  By day he seeks to educate them at Carver High School; by night in his costumed alter ego he attempts to defeat the drug-dealing gangs that have infested the Brick City.

Jeff’s twin tasks are literally herculean in nature.  With the gang culture having permeated the Brick City, its youths are in constant danger.  For many the gangs and the drugs they peddle are all too tempting, a seemingly easy escape from the overwhelming poverty & despair of the Brick City.  Even those who manage to avoid drug use or a life of crime are unsafe, constantly in danger of getting caught in the crossfire of the Brick City’s rampant gang warfare.

Isabella demonstrates the harsh realities of the Brick City through the character of Lamar.  An intelligent young man from a good family, Lamar has genuine potential, and Jeff seeks to guide him towards a better future.  Unfortunately Lamar had accidentally offended the Royal Family, the largest street gang in the Brick City.  Twice threatened with death for his supposed “disrespect,” Lamar is approached by Strapper, a member of the Home Crew, rivals of the Royals.  Lamar really doesn’t want to join the Home Crew, but he does so anyway, because he believes that without their protection the Royals will succeed in killing him next time.

Black Lightning v2 2 pg 14

In my look at the original Black Lightning series, I lamented that the then-common 17 page length of comic books in the late 1970s meant that Isabella had little room to explore Jeff’s personal life.  With an expanded length of 24 pages afforded him in volume two, Isabella has ample room to delve into Jeff’s relationships with his students, his co-workers, his neighbors in the Brick City, and his ex-wife Lynn.  Isabella does excellent work developing Jeff, his supporting cast, and his adversaries in these stories, as well as setting up several interesting subplots.

Probably the strongest story of this run is “Blowed Away” in issue #5.  Jeff is in the hospital, in intensive care, having been seriously injured in an attack by the Royals.  His ailment is as much spiritual as physical, as he despairs over the lives he has failed to save, and his inability to ever make a lasting impact against the crime and poverty he has been fighting for so long.

Isabella’s writing for “Blowed Away” is very introspective and moving.  The insights into Jeff’s personality and emotions are deep and genuine.  It is clear that Isabella has given a great deal of thought to the development of the character.

The art by Eddy Newell on Black Lightning deserves special praise.  Newell is an amazing artist whose work I had enjoyed since I first saw it a few years earlier on issues of The Twilight Zone published by Now Comics.  He does stunning work on Black Lightning.  The first four issues are genuinely gritty and atmospheric, yet also full of subtle characterization.  However with issue #5, “Blowed Away,” Newell excels even further, creating incredible storytelling and illustration to complement Isabella’s script.  Newell vividly illuminated the hospitalized Jeff Pierce’s mourning and existential despair.

Black Lightning v2 5 pg 7

Following on from “Blowed Away” is a three issue arc that sees Black Lightning forced to reluctantly work alongside the vigilante Gangbuster.  Lightning’s old enemy Tobias Whale has allied himself with the Royal Family, and they seek to ignite a brutal gang war in the Brick City, with the intention of swooping in afterwards to seize complete control of the drug market.  Lightning and Gangbuster narrowly manage to prevent the conflict, but Jeff’s relief is mitigated by the fact that the Brick City remains a powder keg, and by the knowledge that the Whale, his most implacable foe, remains waiting in the wings, the gangster’s voracious ambition and cruelty unchecked.

It is unfortunate that Isabella’s run on Black Lightning volume two was abruptly cut short.  Due to problems with an editor at DC, his last issue was #8.  Recently re-reading these issues, reaching the end of his last one was genuinely disappointing.  Isabella did incredible work on his eight issues, and I would have loved to have seen what happened next, with Jeff, with the war against Tobias Whale and the Royals, and with the great members of the supporting cast that had been introduced, especially Lamar, who after issue #8 finds himself on the outs with the Home Crew and facing a very uncertain future.

Black Lightning volume two lasted five more issues with another writer at the helm.  It’s difficult to say if Isabella’s departure played a part in the cancellation.  In 1996 the comic book industry was having  a lot of problems overall, and a large number of other titles were also getting axed.  Nevertheless, even if Black Lightning would have been cancelled no matter what, I still would have liked to have seen Isabella on board until the end.

Black Lightning Kwanzaa pg 1

Fortunately Isabella did have another opportunity to write Black Lightning in late 1997.  He was reunited with Newell on “Twas the Night Before Kwanzaa” which appeared in the anthology special DC Universe Holiday Bash II.  Once again Isabella crafted a great story, and the black & white artwork by Newell was beautiful.

Black Lightning volume two has not been reprinted in a trade paperback collection yet.  Hopefully the upcoming television series will motivate DC to rectify this oversight.  If not, then I encourage everyone to seek out these books in the back issue bins or online.  The stories by Tony Isabella and the artwork by Eddy Newell are spectacular.

Mighty Man flies again!

On more than one occasion I’ve commented that it’s really unfortunate that Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen isn’t a much better seller. There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that Larsen’s creator-owned series, which has been published for 25 years now by Image Comics, is a damn fine read. The second is that Larsen, within the pages of Savage Dragon, has created an enormous supporting cast made up of dozens and dozens of really interesting characters. Due to Savage Dragon not ever really being a massive hit, Larsen has only had a few opportunities to feature any of those great characters in spin-off titles.

It’s been quite a few years, but at long last we’ve finally gotten a new Savage Dragon spin-off: the Mighty Man special which came out earlier this month. It’s written by Larsen, drawn & colored by Nikos Koutsis, and lettered by Ferran Delgado.

Mighty Man special cover

Mighty Man is Larsen’s homage to the original Captain Marvel created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck in 1939.  An artificial entity created by the mysterious mystic Fon-Ti, the Mighty Man form has passed from one human host to another for centuries.  Throughout much of the 20th Century it was possessed by Bobby Berman.  Eventually the now-elderly Berman was attacked by muggers while in his regular human form.  Dying, he transferred the Might Man entity to Ann Stevens, a nurse in Chicago.  For several years she fought alongside Dragon and the other super-powered defenders of the Windy City.  Then, in a twist no one saw coming, when Ann became pregnant the Mighty Man entity was somehow passed onto her unborn child Elizabeth.

This current Mighty Man made her debut in Savage Dragon #170 (March 2011). You can just imagine the chaos and confusion that occurred when a one year old baby suddenly found herself transformed into an invulnerable super-powered adult.

In the Mighty Man special, Betty is now seven years old. Realizing that her daughter is going to possess these powers for life, Ann has agreed to let her be trained by veteran crime-fighter SuperPatriot, who previously worked with the last two incarnations of Mighty Man.  Also pitching in to help are several of SuperPatriot’s teammates from the government team Special Operations Strikeforce.

Mighty Man special pg 6

Larsen’s story and dialogue for the Mighty Man special are definitely comedic. He wrote a very fun, lighthearted story, which is appropriate, since I don’t think it’d be too enjoyable to see a pre-teen hero go all grim & gritty.  That’s one of the things I really appreciate about Larsen, he is a versatile creator.

This special is actually something of an informal Freak Force reunion. In addition to SuperPatriot, there are appearances by Ricochet, Barbaric and Horridus.  Freak Force was a fun Savage Dragon spin-off series which ran for 18 issues in the mid-1990s, and it’s always a joy to see those characters get back together.  Also appearing in this special are Malcolm Dragon, as well as Marsha Bradley, a teenager with electrical powers who is Malcolm’s kinda sorta half-sister (long story, don’t ask) who Larsen introduced just a few weeks earlier in Savage Dragon #222.

I’ve been curious what Larsen was going to do with all of his character who joined the SOS now that Trump has gotten into the Oval Office. I really couldn’t see SuperPatriot, who fought the Nazis during World War II, being all that thrilled with having to work for a guy who’s chummy with later-day National Socialists.  Indeed, when we see SuperPatriot on a mission with the SOS in this story, he’s exasperatedly venting to them “Christ, it makes me sick! Taking order from President Trump — How did it ever come to this?”

Mighty Man special pg 10

This is a cool tie-in story that fans of Savage Dragon will enjoy, as is provides Larsen with the space to do some more character development for his supporting cast than he is usually able, to explore some story threads from that series, and set up a subplot or two for the future. At the same time, the Mighty Man special also works very well as a stand-alone story, and casual readers will enjoy it.

My only complaint is that the ending of the special is very abrupt. It really needed at least another page to properly wrap things up.

Nikos Koutsis is the regular colorist for Savage Dragon, and he’s also drawn a few back-up stories for the series. I enjoyed seeing him have an opportunity to draw a full-length issue.  Koutsis’ artwork is both cartoony and highly-detailed, which works very well for these characters.  His layouts are very dynamic.

I definitely enjoyed this Mighty Man special. It was a lot of fun.  I really hope that Erik Larsen has further opportunities to publish more Savage Dragon spin-offs in the near future.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

Batman Aliens 1 pg 41

Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Comic book reviews: Midnight of the Soul

One of my favorite comic book creators is Howard Chaykin.  I was actually a little surprised to realize that I hadn’t written about him before on this blog, not even in passing.  So today I am looking at his most recent project, the noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul.  Published last year by Image Comics, the five issue Midnight of the Soul was collected into a trade paperback in December.

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Midnight of the Soul is set in 1950.  The protagonist is Joel Breakstone, a World War II veteran.  Injured during the war, Joel has spent the last five years as an alcoholic shut-in with severe PTSD.  During this time he was been attempting to start a career as a sci fi writer, but not a single one of his stories has sold.  All the while Joel blots out flashbacks of the war by staying inebriated around the clock.  His wife Patricia, now the sole source of income, has lost all respect for him.  Joel has even had to sign the deed of his house in Long Island to his smug brother-in-law Steve.  In short, Joel is stuck in a self-destructive rut, and he knows it.

Then one evening, while both Patricia and Steve are out, Joel is searching the house, trying to find where he stashed his bottles.  Instead what he discovers are photographs that reveal Patricia is working as a prostitute, along with a spare key to her apartment in Manhattan.  Still half-drunk, consumed by resentment, Joel digs out a gun and hops on his motorcycle, heading into the city in search of his wife.

Meanwhile, Patricia is meeting with her main client, a jazz musician named Cooley.  Before their session can get too far along, Cooley is murdered by an intruder, with Patricia barely escaping.  She is soon being pursued, not only by the killer, but by thugs working for the gangster who owned Cooley’s contract, since they mistakenly believe that she is the murderer.  Joel finds himself attempting to locate his wife before they do.

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Chaykin does an excellent job at developing Joel Breakstone.  The alcoholic veteran is very much a flawed, damaged, selfish asshole.  And yet Chaykin succeeds in rendering him as somewhat sympathetic, his actions and motivations understandable.  Even towards the end, when Joel does something pretty awful, offering up a rather self-serving justification, he remains a character who, even if you don’t like him, neither do you really hate him.

On the opening page Joel is reflecting on his lifelong obsession with parallels.  Midnight of the Soul is very much a story of parallels.  Joel and Patricia, once a couple, are now living separate, parallel lives.  Joel’s search through Manhattan for Patricia is paralleled by the mobsters’ pursuit of her.  Joel and the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessey also are traveling in parallel, with the two of them continually crossing paths across the length and width of Manhattan.

As he gradually begins to sober up and the fog in his head slowly starts to dissipate, Joel’s very memories begin to work in parallel.  Different versions of his near-death experience during the war begin to emerge, each one slightly different from the other, leaving Joel finally questioning what really did happen half a decade before.  Even the fiction that Joel is attempting to write is concerned with parallels, set in an alternate world where the Axis won the war.

Chaykin is more concerned here with character introspection, with the creation of a mood and the establishment of an atmosphere, than he is with the mechanics of a sophisticated plot.  Joel’s discovery of Patricia’s secret life is primarily intended by Chaykin to force his protagonist out of his alcoholic self-pity, to nudge him back into reality, and to confront not his wife but the mental baggage he carries.

Likewise the murder of Cooley is almost incidental, the identity of the killer revealed soon after, the motivation for the crime mentioned almost in passing.  Cooley’s death serves primarily to send Patricia running for her life, extending Joel’s search for her, resulting in him spending the night bouncing from one odd situation after another.

Chaykin also offers up his characteristic black humor.  At one point I literally burst out laughing, which given that I was reading the book on the M Train earned me a few odd looks.

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Chaykin has a genuine fondness for mid Twentieth Century American society.  He has set many of his stories during this time, or transposed the trappings and elements of the period to other eras.  Midnight of the Soul sees him returning to explore the post war period, with its good and its bad and its numerous contradictions.

Chaykin does an amazing job at rendering Manhattan of 1950 via his highly detailed artwork.  The fashions, the architecture, the music; all are vividly brought to life.  That tangible mood and atmosphere I cited before is as much the product of Chaykin’s art as they are his plotting, dialogue and narration.

Also impressive is Chaykin’s storytelling.  He expertly lays out his artwork, creating an effective, dramatic flow to the narrative.  As I have observed before, storytelling in comic books is a somewhat underrated skill.  Most really good pencilers are so effectively subtle with their layouts that you don’t really appreciate the talent and thought that is on display in causing the story to flow from one panel to another, one page to the next.  There is a really cinematic quality to Chaykin’s artwork.  He is equally adept at action sequences and quieter passages of dialogue.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chaykin’s talent for rendering beautiful, sexy women.  Midnight of the Soul is nowhere near as erotic as some of his past works such as American Flagg!Black Kiss and Satellite Sam.  Nevertheless, both Patricia and Dierdre are very attractive, stunning to look at yet also tangible as flash and blood human beings.

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The coloring on Midnight of the Soul is by Jesus Aburtov.  He does an excellent job here, his coloring complementing Chaykin’s art, a key element in the evocation of the story’s tone.  Chaykin and Aburtov have worked together on several projects, and they make an effective team.

Chaykin has been working in the comic book biz for over four decades now.  Over time he’s consistently grown as both a writer and artist.  I’m glad that he’s still active as a creator, crafting striking, unusual, provocative stories such as Midnight of the Soul.  His next project, The Divided States of Hysteria, is also coming out this year through Image.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.