Comic book reviews: Jack Kirby’s Silver Star

Jack Kirby was, without a doubt, one of the most influential comic book creators of the 20th Century.  His dynamic art style and storytelling techniques influenced dozens upon dozens of other artists.  Kirby was also responsible for creating or co-creating literally hundreds of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics.  Among these were Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the original X-Men, the New Gods, Darkseid, the Demon Etrigan, OMAC, and Kamandi, just to name some of the major ones!

Unfortunately, Kirby spent the majority of his career working during a time when the legal rights of comic book creators were few and far between.  Both financial benefits and creative control were almost unheard of.  So, despite creating a major share of the Marvel universe, and contributing key concepts to DC, Kirby was sadly denied both creative and financial recognition by the owners of those two companies.

Nowadays, of course, this situation has improved somewhat.  If a successful creator chooses to, he has the option take his brand new ideas to a publisher such as Image Comics, Dark Horse, or IDW, where he will retain ownership of a series.

Creator-owned titles really did not become prevalent in the marketplace until the early 1990s, though.  By this time, Kirby was already in his seventies, suffering from poor health, and had retired several years before.  He would pass away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76.  I’ve always thought it was a great tragedy that Kirby did not live longer, and of course retain his health & drawing ability, so that he could have brought some of the many unpublished concepts he had conceived to a company such as Image and produced a long-lasting series on which he held full ownership and creative control.

Fortunately, Kirby did have the opportunity to work on a small number of creator-owned projects a decade before, in the early 1980s.  One of these was Silver Star, which was published for six issues by Pacific Comics in 1983.

Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby

Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby

In 2006, TwoMorrows Publishing released the Silver Star: Graphite Edition, a black & white trade paperback collection.  It was printed from photocopies of Jack Kirby’s penciled pages from before they were inked by Mike Royer, D. Bruce Berry and Mike Thibodeaux.  There are a handful of pages, mostly splashes and double page spreads, that there aren’t any photocopies of.  In those cases, the pages were printed from the inked artwork.

I had seen scans of the some of the original artwork from the Silver Star books posted on Comic Art Fans, and was intrigued, especially because of some striking pages from the sixth issue.  So when I found a copy of the Graphite Edition for sale at the Jack Kirby Museum table during MoCCA Festival 2010, I immediately purchased it.

(There is also a collection of the Silver Star material that was issued by Image Comics in 2007, an oversized hardcover printed in full color on glossy paper, with selected new coloring by Erik Larsen.  I’ve been meaning to pick up this edition for a few years now, but I’ve yet to come across a copy in the comic shops.  Sooner or later, once I have some extra funds, I’ll buy it at Amazon or Ebay.)

Silver Star is the story of “Homo Geneticus,” the next stage in human evolution, artificially jump-started by Doctor Bradford Miller.  Hoping to find a way for humanity to survive a nuclear holocaust, Miller created a “genetic package” that he injected into a number of pregnant women, including his own wife.  All of these women’s offspring were subsequently born with various superpowers, including “atomic manipulation,” the ability to reshape matter itself.

Miller’s son Morgan first manifests his abilities during the Vietnam War, when he unexpectedly uses them to save his comrades from an enemy attack.  However, Morgan’s body immediately begins emitting massive amounts of energy.  The military is forced to encase him in a metal suit.  This silvery outfit, combined with the medal for valor Morgan receives, causes the government to give him the code name “Silver Star.”

Unfortunately, not all of the recipients of the genetic package are as altruistic as Morgan.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Darius Drumm.  Born to a stern, wife-beating evangelical preacher, leader of the “Foundation for Self-Denial,” Drumm grows up in a strict, puritanical environment.  This upbringing, coupled with the discovery of his seemingly unlimited powers, leads Drumm to become a very twisted individual.  Mentally unbalanced, convinced of the inherent corruption of all humanity, Drumm is determined to wipe the world clean of sin.  He is the ultimate nihilist, ready to reduce the entire Earth to a sterile globe.

Before Drumm can proceed, he feels obligated to kill all of the other members of Homo Geneticus he can locate, lest they pose a threat to his scheme.  This he does via some particularly violent and gruesome acts, ones that not only take out his quarry, but also cause an immense loss of innocent life.

One of Drumm’s targets is Norma Richmond, an attractive stuntwoman whose main Homo Geneticus ability is near invulnerability.  At first, as with his other prey, Drumm attempts to kill her.  Morgan thwarts this attempt, and rescues Norma, but Drumm strikes again, this time kidnapping her.  At this point Drumm is unable to decide if he wants to seduce Norma or kill her, violently torn between his lust for the beautiful woman and his father’s strict discipline of self-denial.

In the final issue, Drumm, fully committed to his apocalyptic mission, uses his atomic manipulation on himself.  He transforms into the horrific, towering figure of the Angel of Death.  Spreading vast wings, Drumm sweeps out, scorching the surface of the planet with his flames.  Morgan sets off in pursuit, desperate to halt Drumm before mankind is completely annihilated.

Jack Kiirby's uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10

Jack Kiirby’s uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10

I have to admit, as a great fan of Jack Kirby’s work, I was a bit underwhelmed by Silver Star.  The story is not his best writing.  I think he probably hit his high point, both as a writer and an artist, a decade or so earlier, when he was creating the Fourth World books featuring the New Gods at DC Comics.

By the time Kirby was working on Silver Star in 1983, it’s quite likely that he may have been burned out on comic books, due to his shoddy treatment at the hands of Marvel and DC.  I cannot say I can blame him for that.  His advancing age & declining health may also have been a factor.  That said, Silver Star is not without its merits.

While it appears that while Kirby intended for the conflict with Darius Drum to conclude in Silver Star #6, he may have believed the book would last on past that as an ongoing series.  Kirby spends a significant portion of the first four issues establishing a supporting cast and status quo.  As a result, the pacing on these issues is too leisurely.  Things only kick into high gear with the final two issues, as Drumm becomes the Angel of Death, and the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.  It’s possible that if Kirby had known he would only have half a dozen issues to work with, he would have structured the story somewhat differently.

At least the conclusion, while somewhat abrupt, is quite inventive.  Realizing that he has little hope of physically besting Drumm in a contest of superpowers, Morgan instead is forced to use psychology to defeat his nigh-unstoppable opponent.

One story point that I felt was much too casually brushed aside was Doctor Miller conducting genetic experimentation on unborn babies.  I do not know if he ever received the parents’ consent, but even if he did, there are still ethical issues.  One can argue that Miller is at least partially responsible for the massive destruction Darius Drumm subsequently wrecks.

Kirby did something similar with “The Project” in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.  In that case, the government cloned numerous copies of Jimmy Olsen without his permission.  Jimmy, rather than expressing outrage at this violation of his person, merely seemed in awe by the whole accomplishment.  It’s strange, in that Kirby appeared to view concepts such as cloning and genetic engineering with a black & white morality.  In his stories, he either presented well-intentioned scientists such as The Project or Doctor Miller experimenting with human DNA for the selfless betterment of mankind, or he had insane nut jobs like Simyan & Mokkari or Arnim Zola transforming & twisting organic life out of some sort of sadistic, perverse curiosity.  Kirby didn’t seem to acknowledge that the act of genetic engineering itself, regardless of the intent of the scientists behind it, can have a host of complicated moral issues.

Looking at the Graphite Edition, it’s worth mentioning the penciling appears on the sketchy side.  There could be a few reasons for this.  I don’t know if Kirby’s art looks unpolished because these are reproductions of quarter century old photocopies, because he was getting on in age, or because he simply didn’t finish his pencils as tightly as he could have since he knew they were going to be inked.  As I said, there are several pages where TwoMorrows needed to print from the inked art by Royer, Berry and Thibodeaux.  This finished art looks fantastic.  Obviously, I understand the archival and instructional value of presenting Kirby’s rough, uninked pencil art, as it reveals a lot of the creative process.  And there is always the alternative of the Image hardcover to see the series fully inked.

That said, Kirby’s unlinked, black & white pencils for Silver Star #6, with the titanic Angel of Death unleashed upon the Earth, are amazing.  Perhaps the excitement of illustrating the end of the world inspired Kirby, because his artwork on these pages is dramatic, horrifying, and riveting.

Silver Star originated as a pitch for a film that Kirby and Steve Sherman wrote in 1977.  It was never produced, and Kirby used many of the ideas from the film treatment several years later in the Silver Star comic, albeit with certain alterations.  The entire story treatment by Kirby & Sherman is reprinted in the back of the Graphite Edition.  It’s interesting to compare their initial premise to the finished comic book version.  And, y’know, with today’s special effects technology, Silver Star would make a fantastic movie!

I also thought it noteworthy that Kirby suggested actor Jack Palance to play Darius Drumm.  According to Kirby’s former assistant Mark Evanier, the grand cosmic villain Darkseid from the Fourth World books was also modeled on Palance (an early concept drawing for Drumm printed in this book bears a more than passing resemblance to Darkseid).  Kirby obviously thought very highly of Palance’s acting abilities & screen presence.  Certainly he wasn’t the only comic book artist to feel that way, as Gene Colan acknowledged that his version of Dracula from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula series was also based on Palance.

Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby

Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby

There are several other concept illustrations and previously unpublished drawings by Kirby contained in the trade paperback.  My favorite would have to be the original design for Norma Richmond, or “Jayne Davidson,” as she was originally called in the Kirby/Sherman film pitch.  Several years ago, someone on a message board once suggested that Kirby was incapable of drawing sexy women.  That, I argued, was pure nonsense, and I listed at least half a dozen examples of curvy Kirby women who were absolutely gorgeous.  I have to add Norma to that list.

I don’t know if I would recommend Silver Star to a Kirby newcomer.  It is something of an acquired taste, and a better intro to Kirby’s tremendous body of work would be the Fourth World Omnibus editions from DC, or the various Essential Fantastic Four volumes published by Marvel.  But if you are already a fan of Kirby, then Silver Star is worth picking up.  It’s an unusual but memorable story, and one of the last complete works in Kirby’s long & varied career.

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Strange Comic Books: Savage Dragon #28-31

Choosing to feature Erik Larsen’s always-brilliant Savage Dragon in Strange Comic Books may seem an odd choice, simply because the majority of the time it is quite a weird series.  But even by its usual standards, Savage Dragon #s 28-31 are especially bizarre issues.

Savage Dragon 28 cover

Issue #28 opens with Sam Kieth’s quirky creation The Maxx showing up at Dragon’s apartment, looking for his friend Sarah.  He quickly settles down to watching violent cartoons with Horridus, one of Dragon’s friends from Freak Force.  Meanwhile, in the next room, Dragon’s girlfriend Rapture has announced she’s pregnant.  Dragon, who until this point in time believed he was sterile, puts his foot in his mouth by asking “Uh, are you sure it’s mine?”  Kicked out of the bedroom, Dragon discovers Horridus and Maxx making peanut butter & jelly sandwiches.  Dragon had a previously a run-in with Maxx in issue #6 of the latter’s series, and is surprised to find him here.  Maxx flees, the Dragon gives chase.  And then thing really get weird!

Dragon and Maxx slip into the other-dimensional dream world known as “The Outback.”  Because Dragon has his girlfriend’s pregnancy on his mind, this manifests itself as Rapture appearing as a gigantic naked woman, with dozens upon dozens of little kids sprouting out of her uterus to chase after Dragon, shouting “Daddy!”  As the pair flees from the horde of stampeding brats, Maxx comments “Cute kids. Randy little fellow, ain’t you.”  Eventually reaching a mountain of boxes, Dragon and Maxx climb up and begin chucking a crate full of mushy apples at the kids to get them to back off.

Suddenly, Dragon and Maxx get zapped back into the real world, where they discover they’re on top of a tree, surrounded by a bunch of barking dogs.  Maxx’s friend Sarah arrives to collect him.  At which point Dragon utters up one of the all time greatest lines of dialogue:

“I’ve got to start drinking more. My life wouldn’t make any more sense but at least I’d have something to blame it on.”

Savage Dragon 28 pg 15

Now, you may be thinking, how can subsequent issues of Savage Dragon possibly top #28 for strangeness?  Well, in the next issue, Dragon and the Chicago police department are dispatched to clear out a group of homeless super-powered freaks from the city’s “underground.”  Among those taking refuge there is Wildstar, the time-hopping hero created by Al Gordon & Jerry Ordway.  During a fight between the police and the freaks, Dragon grabs the starfish-shaped alien symbiote on Wildstar’s chest.  This causes the later to have a flash-forward vision where he, and the readers, see Dragon’s teenage son in a spacesuit crossing a desolate wasteland.

Yes, issue #29 was our very first look at Malcolm Dragon.  Fifteen years later, in issue #166, we would finally learn just what was taking place in Wildstar’s future vision, and how the now-teenage Malcolm figured into it.  It was a great pay-off for loyal readers who had stuck around for the duration.

At this point, the Dragon’s demonic enemy the Fiend crashes the party.  The Fiend irrationally believes that her daughter’s death was the Dragon’s fault.  Disintegrating his arms with heat blasts, the Fiend snatches up Dragon.  She delivers him into the hands of a sorcerer who conducts a spell sending Dragon’s soul to Hell.  Yep, that’s right H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks itself.

savage-dragon-30-cover

Dragon crosses over into the pages of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn #52.  Michael Simmons is stuck on the fifth level of Hell, attempting to get to Malebolgia, the demon lord to whom he sold his soul.  Spawn and Dragon meet up, and events lead back into Savage Dragon #30.  It’s an unusual team-up, because for most of it Spawn stands around raging aloud at how Malebolgia tricked him.  All the while, Dragon, who is an atheist, believes he’s hallucinating, and is cracking bad jokes left and right.

The Fiend, who wanted Dragon to suffer, is seriously pissed off that her enemy isn’t taking any of this seriously, and travels to Hell to deal with Dragon personally.  Spawn is finally able to move on to the next level of Hell, and the Fiend starts recruiting the souls of the damned to attack Dragon.  Unfortunately for her, Dragon quickly dispatches them.

It’s at this point, with #31, that the insane genius of Erik Larsen comes into full bloom.  The Devil, fed up with the Fiend fumbling the ball, decides to pop up and claim the Dragon’s soul directly.  And only one thing stands in his way:  God.  That’s right.  God Himself shows up to fight for Dragon’s soul.  Because he’s there unwillingly, Dragon cannot be claimed by the Devil.  And how does God back up His argument?  With a knuckle sandwich, that’s how!  Yep, God and the Devil get into a monumental fist-fight, a titanic rumble of, appropriately enough, Biblical proportions.

Savage Dragon 31 cover

When Savage Dragon #31 came out, I absolutely loved it.  You see, in superhero comic books, the Devil, or at least a reasonable stand-in, shows up quite frequently.  Mephisto, Satannish, Lord Satanus, Neron, and innumerable other infernal entities appear with alarming frequency to harvest souls, trick mortals, and sow chaos & discord.  You never do get to see any sort of hint of a higher, divine power opposing the diabolical machinations of these hell spawn.

I think things get even more muddied in the various Vertigo books, and in independent titles.  In these cases, God shows up, but he’s cast in a pretty bad light.  You have writers depicting Heaven as a corrupt bureaucracy, and God is either an egotistical jerk who demands unthinking obedience from the human masses, or an aloof entity totally disinterested in the concerns of his creations.

(The one exception to this that I can think of was when Tony Isabella introduced “The Friend,” a figure with a resemblance to Jesus who would show up from time to time in the pages of Ghost Rider to offer John Blaze advice and tell Satan to take a hike.  Unfortunately, Isabella’s story was later undone by Jim Shooter, who had the Devil claim The Friend was an illusion conjured up to give Blaze false hope.  Shooter supposedly did this because he felt it was offensive to Christians.  Myself, I think it’s more ridiculous & offensive to have a scenario where cosmic evil is totally unopposed by any hint of a higher power.  As far as I know, Isabella’s depiction of The Friend was very tastefully done.  I’m willing to write off Satan’s subsequent claim to Blaze as deception.  Why trust anything the Devil has to say?)

In any case, because of so many different stories like this, it was great to read Savage Dragon #31, where God steps up to the plate and kicks some major ass.  Dragon then has a discussion with Him about, well, life, the universe, and everything.  It’s simultaneously very thoughtful and humorous.

savage-dragon-31-god-vs-devil

I certainly recommend reading these issues of Savage Dragon.  They, along with several others, are collected together in the trade paperback A Talk With God.  The volume even has a witty introduction by legendary comic book creator Jim Steranko.  Even though I already owned copies of all these issues, I picked up the TPB anyway, so I’d have a back-up copy to read whenever I wanted.  Yeah, it’s that good.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Deathlok

On more than one occasion I have discussed Rich Buckler on this blog.  Each time, I made passing mention of Deathlok, the character he created at Marvel Comics, who debuted as an ongoing feature in Astonishing Tales #25, cover dated August 1974.

There is a reason why I keep citing Deathlok.  He was the first major cyborg character in comic books.  Buckler devised what is undoubtedly one of the most inventive, cutting-edge, influential series to have come out of Marvel in the 1970s.  It has continued to influence numerous other creators, both in and out of the comic book field, to the present day.  You can readily see the inspiration of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok stories in such films as Robocop, Escape from New York, and The Matrix.

Since I was born after Deathlok first made his debut, and I did not begin regularly following comic books until the late 1980s, my first exposure to the character of Deathlok was actually via a later incarnation.  Dwayne McDuffie & Greg Wright introduced a new Deathlok, Michael Collins, in a four issue miniseries published in 1990.  The Collins version of the character then went on to appear in an ongoing book that lasted 34 issues, which I followed on and off.

Unfortunately, at this time Marvel didn’t have any sort of major trade paperback program going, and so they passed up the opportunity to reprint the original Deathlok material.  The only glimpse I got of these stories was in 1993, when Marvel published Deathlok Lives, which reprinted the three issue Captain America story arc that wrapped up the original Deathlok’s storyline a decade before.

Of course, if I could have, I would have purchased the back issues of Astonishing Tales and read those.  But they were both difficult to locate and very expensive.  So eventually I just put it on the back burner.

Fast forward to 2007.  Issue #25 of Michael Eury’s superb magazine Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows, came out.  It contained a fascinating in-depth interview with Rich Buckler about the origins of Deathlok, conducted by regular BI contributor Michael Aushenker.  Reading that, I once again thought to myself that it really was long past time that Marvel reprinted those stories, because I really was interested in reading them.  So, a mere two years later, when Marvel finally published their Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok hardcover, I grabbed it up.  This collection contains the Astonishing Tales issues and a variety of other material, including the Captain America arc.

Rich Buckler's dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36

Rich Buckler’s dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36

A variety of creators worked on the Deathlok stories.  Rich Buckler is the main creator on the original Astonishing Tales material, turning in the majority of the plotting and pencil artwork.  Doug Moench co-plots and scripts the early chapters, before Buckler takes over penning the dialogue in the middle segments.  The latter issues are then scripted by Bill Mantlo.  A number of talented artists contributed to the finished pencils & inking, among them Klaus Janson, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones, and Pablo Marcos.  The Captain America issues are by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck and John Beatty.

Set in the dystopian future year of 1990 (I’m sure that seemed far-off back in 1974) amidst the devastated ruins of Manhattan, the Deathlok series features the anti-hero Luther Manning.  A soldier who violently died five years previously, Manning’s brain and remaining flesh have been bonded to a cyborg body code-named Deathlok.  The undead cyborg Deathlok is a tormented, horrific figure.  Snatched back from the abyss, his body a mix of cold metal and semi-decayed flesh, his consciousness cohabited by a logical computer, Luther Manning’s new existence is a living hell.  Deathlok desperately seeks to break free of the military’s control, and gain revenge on the man who resurrected him as a cyborg, Major Simon Ryker.

The ruthless Ryker is obsessed with control.  In Astonishing Tales #35, when Deathlok and Ryker finally come face to face, the later explains himself.  Seeing the country falling into chaos after the destruction of Manhattan, Ryker now seeks to impose a new order.  In an exchange scripted by Bill Mantlo, Ryker justifies his actions to Deathlok, saying “It was for their own good! People need someone to watch over them!” To which Deathlok shouts back “So you elected yourself! Dictator and God all rolled into one! You’re mad, Riker! You’re insane!”  The Major’s response to this is to say “I merely brought our society to a logical conclusion, along a path it had long ago chosen for itself: benevolent control by an impassionate military-industrial complex.”

It is explicitly stated that no one knows who actually bombed Manhattan.  It could have been foreign terrorists, or a Communist power, or perhaps just some madman.  Deathlok even alludes to the possibility that Ryker himself may have caused the disaster, to give him the opportunity to initiate his fascist policies.

Buckler’s plots are rather prescient, as they mirror real world events of the last twelve years.  One could easily draw parallels to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Certain politicians used the tragedies as an occasion to pass controversial, perhaps even unconstitutional, laws such as The Patriot Act that greatly increased government power while curtailing civil liberties.  And many in the populace were all too ready to embrace these measures, trading in their freedoms for the promise of order & security.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the Astonishing Tales issues do bounce around, with Deathlok wandering up & down devastated Manhattan, running into numerous enemies.  Reading these issues, I get the feeling that Buckler was making it up as he went along.  It doesn’t seem he had a detailed story arc planned out, just a loose idea of where he’d be heading.  While this does lead to something of an unfocused overall story, I suspect that this did allow Buckler to be innovative and go off in new directions as the series progressed.  It probably resulted in more spontaneity than if he had adhered to an iron-clad plot.

The strongest issues are undoubtedly the first few and the last few, namely the chapters that were scripted by Moench and Mantlo.  The middle segments, where Buckler was fully in charge of both the artwork and the writing, do ramble somewhat.  I think Buckler many have been over-extending himself.  I believe that at this point it time he was also the regular penciler on Fantastic Four, so he was probably very busy.  Once Mantlo comes aboard to take over the scripting, things really gain focus, and we get the riveting confrontation between Deathlok and Ryker.

The artwork by Buckler on these stories is incredible.  He is an underrated artist, I think in part due to his drawing Fantastic Four in a very Jack Kirby-influenced style.  This led some to incorrectly conclude that Buckler was incapable of drawing anything other than a Kirby pastiche.  But if you look at Buckler’s art on Deathlok, you see some amazing, dynamic, innovative work.  His layouts and storytelling are dramatic and unusual.  Buckler’s character design for Deathlok was innovative.  Likewise, his conception of Hellinger, the even more insane cyborg brother of Major Ryker, is horrific, with a metallic skull face and exposed brain.

Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace

Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace

In recent years, Buckler has found acclaim as a surrealist painter.  Looking at the art in this volume, I can definitely see the roots of that.  Especially notable is a surreal battle between Deathlok and Ryker within a computer network.  Keep in mind this was written & drawn more than two decades before The Matrix came out, before the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality became popular.  In other words, this is experimental work by Buckler.

As I mentioned before, a number of different inkers worked on the Astonishing Tales issues over Buckler’s pencils.  Klaus Janson’s inking probably works best, giving the art a gritty, atmospheric feel entirely appropriate for the grim settings.  It especially suits the bizarre imagery of the cyberspace confrontation seen in issue #s 34 & 35.

The war between Deathlok and Ryker comes to a conclusion towards the end of the Astonishing Tales run.  It is apparent that Buckler was setting up a new direction for the series, with Deathlok on course to come into conflict with Hellinger, and the introduction of Godwulf, a figure that Buckler seems to have intended to be across between Tarzan and Jesus.

Unfortunately, Astonishing Tales was cancelled with issue #36 in July 1976, and the contents of what would have been #37 didn’t see print until nearly a year later in Marvel Spotlight #33.  After that, Deathlok fell into limbo, making only sporadic appearances in Marvel Two-In-One, in stories that did little to advance the character.

In wasn’t until 1983 that Deathlok was finally given proper closure.  DeMatteis penned the arc in Captain America, which has Cap travel with Deathlok to his future.  Along with Godwulf and a motley resistance group, they set out to thwart Hellinger’s plan to wipe out humanity and replace it with a race of logical cyborg beings.  The story is illustrated with incredible flair and drama by Zeck & Beatty, one of my all-time favorite art teams on the Captain America title.

Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity

Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity

Yes, it would have been great to see how Buckler would have ended the saga of Deathlok.  But at least DeMatteis does a bang-up job at this task.  Aside from him apparently confusing Hellinger with his brother Major Ryker and some fiddling with Godwolf’s characterization, there is little to find fault with.

As Buckler himself charitably writes in his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks collection, “J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck did a fine job wrapping things up.”  (And I’m happy that Buckler was given the opportunity to pen a brand-new introduction for this edition.  It’s a very informative text piece.)

Reading the original stories by Bucker & friends, it seems pretty clear that initially Deathlok was not intended to be part of the regular Marvel universe.  The Buckler-plotted issues are bereft of any references to Marvel continuity.  Marvel Spotlight #33 does feature Devil-Slayer, a character who later joined the Defenders, but this was his first appearance, so that doesn’t prove anything.  (Indeed, Devil-Slayer is actually a reboot of another character Buckler created, Demon Hunter, who had a very short lived existence at Atlas Comics the year before.)

Deathlok’s first proper meeting with “mainstream” Marvel is in Marvel Team-Up #46, written solely by Bill Mantlo, although Buckler did draw the cover.  A time-traveling Spider-Man lands in the apocalyptic 1990.  After the usual misunderstanding and fight, Spidey and Deathlok team up against a horde of eerie mutant children.  That does give Deathlok’s world more of a horrific overtone, adding to the already established bands of roving cannibals populating devastated Manhattan.  Besides, the art is by another underrated artist, the great Sal Buscema, another favorite of mine.

Whatever the case, by the 1980s, Deathlok was firmly entrenched in Marvel continuity.  Various other creators took a crack at the character, with varying degrees of success.  Buckler himself has expressed a desire to return to the original Luther Manning version.  I’d love to see that, as Buckler is an even better artist now than he was in the 1970s.  Regrettably, Marvel does not appear interested in taking Buckler up on his offer.  This is a shame.  Marvel did, however, ask him and Klaus Janson to draw a variant cover for the Deathlok the Demolisher miniseries published in 2010:

Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover

Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover

As you can see from viewing this piece, Buckler still does an incredible work.  It is a real loss that Marvel seems unwilling to hire him to illustrate a full story for them.

At least we do finally have Buckler’s classic Deathlok stories collected together.  The price tag on this volume, $64.99, is a bit steep, but it is definitely worth picking up for some truly distinctive, groundbreaking, and entertaining material.  And hopefully at some point Marvel will print a soft cover black & white Essential Deathlok book.  The material is likely to find a much bigger audience that way.  That and I would like to have a cheaper volume to carry around.  Re-reading the Marvel Masterworks edition at least once a year, it does get kind of beat up!

No Official Umbrella

No Official Umbrella is the autobiography of Glyn Idris Jones, a man who over the decades has worn many hats in his life, among them actor, writer, and director.  I initially began corresponding with Jones a few years ago, after I penned an online review of the 1965 Doctor Who serial “The Space Museum,” which he had written.  I am of the firm opinion that “The Space Museum” is a clever, underrated story that is unfortunately let down by lackluster direction.  I contacted Jones through his web site to inform him of how much I had enjoyed his writing.

I quickly learned that Doctor Who was but a small part of Jones’ career, and that he had had led a colorful, eventful life.  Curious to discover more about this interesting individual, I ordered a copy of No Official Umbrella through Amazon.Com.  Despite clocking in at over 500 pages, the autobiography was an intriguing read, and I breezed through the volume.

In his book, Jones relates how, during his youth in South Africa, he discovered theatre & film.  His passion for these mediums would become one of the main driving forces in his life.  Jones recounts the teenage misadventures surrounding his journey from South Africa to Britain, where he hoped to find work on the stage.  His career in theatre and television are chronicled, with many ups and downs along his path to hone his skills and find regular employment.  Detailed are the various odd jobs, successes & failures on stage & screen, and the period teaching theatre at James Madison University in Virginia.  Along the way, Jones meets Christopher Beeching, who would become his partner, both as a professional collaborator, and in personal life.

No Official Umbrella, by Glyn Idris Jones

Jones narrative is imbued with a humorous, deadpan wit.  That said, from his writing, one can tell that Jones takes his craft very seriously, and that he holds similar expectations of those he works with.

The only problem I had with this book is that Jones does jump back and forth in time at certain junctures.  This made it somewhat difficult to follow the sequence of events from time to time.

From the tone of Jones’ memoir, he seems to regard his career as having been plagued by numerous missed opportunities.  I can understand Jones’ rather pessimistic outlook.  The various unproduced plays that he wrote sitting in his cupboard must have been a frustrating sight.

Even when one of Jones’ scripts would make it to the stage, it did not come with a guarantee of success.  That is most clearly seen with The 88, a painstakingly researched and thoughtful recounting of the 1920 mutiny in India by the Irish regiment known as the Connaught Rangers.  Unfortunately, the production met with a critical drubbing due to IRA terrorist activities coincidentally occurring immediately before the opening of the production in November of 1979.  The dispirited Jones must have been convinced the stars were aligned against him.

However, if a person looks upon the vast spectrum of wonderful experiences he has lived, the good individuals he has known, the passion that he has brought to honing of craft, and the enjoyment he has brought to other people, then Glyn Jones’ life must certainly be judged a success.

In recent years, retired to the Greek isle of Crete, Jones has found new life as a novelist, chronicling the oft-humorous adventures of his creation Thornton King, an agent of MI5 laid off by budget cuts who must build a new career as a private investigator with the aid of his lovely confidant Miss Holly Day.  The first book in the series, Dead on Time, was very enjoyable & witty.

Despite the apparent misgivings Glyn Jones expresses concerning certain events in his life, No Official Umbrella definitely establishes for the reader the many rich, fulfilling experiences of its author.  And it does so in an entertaining, engaging manner.

Strange Comic Books: Captain America #291

As I mentioned in the past, I really do not buy too many new comic books nowadays.  It’s a combination of lack of disposable income and less interest in most of the material currently being published.  So, I thought to myself, what other comic book subjects could I write about on this blog?  Then I came up with an idea for an occasional feature: Strange Comic Books.  Over the years, there have been all number of comic book issues & stories that have seen print which are, for one reason or another, odd or unusual.  Why not have some fun and spotlight some of my favorites?

Captain America #291 autographed by Herb Trimpe

Captain America #291 autographed by Herb Trimpe

The first entry in Strange Comic Books is Captain America #291, published by Marvel Comics with a cover date of March 1984.  It’s a fill-in issue, perhaps to give regular writer J.M. DeMatteis some breathing room before he plowed ahead full steam on his epic Red Skull arc.  The story in #291, “To Tame a Tumbler,” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by long-time Incredible Hulk artist Herb Trimpe, and inked by Jack Abel.  Topping off the issue is a dramatic cover by John Byrne.

A little background info: the original Tumbler was a very minor foe of Cap’s who appeared in Tales of Suspense #83 and Captain America #169.  At the end of his second story, he was murdered by another super-villain, Moonstone, and Cap was framed for the crime.  (This, incidentally, kicked off the classic “Secret Empire” storyline by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema).

Well, it turns out that before his death the Tumbler took out a one million dollar life insurance policy through the Guardian Life Insurance Company.  After the Tumbler was murdered, his brother, decorated army veteran Michael Keane, attempted to collect on the policy so that he could pay his mother’s enormous medical bills.  However, Guardian Life, represented by a smarmy, balding, gold-toothed sleaze named Matthews, refused to pay out, stating that the claim was invalid because the Tumbler had died in the commission of a felony.  Michael’s mother soon passed away due to inadequate medical care.  Furious at having been robbed by Guardian Life, he decided to assume his brother’s costumed identity, becoming the second Tumbler.

Cap "tumbles" on a crime in progress

Cap “tumbles” on a crime in progress

The new Tumbler’s first act is to break into Guardian Life’s offices and steal his brother’s file so that he can expose the insurance company.  However, the robbery is interrupted by Captain America.  The two spar, and the Tumbler flees.  Cap tracks him back to his apartment where, after another brief fight, the Tumbler is subdued.  Defeated, Michael explains what happened with his brother’s insurance policy.  Cap agrees to help Michael investigate Guardian Life, and the two return to the insurance company’s offices.  There, searching through the file room, the pair discover that Guardian Life has in fact issued policies to a large number of costumed criminals, with the intention of not paying out on any of them.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, Captain America #291 does not sound all that strange.  A bit unconventional, perhaps, having the villain turn out to be a life insurance company, but not especially odd.  And I would agree, except for one fact: Guardian Life Insurance is a real life company.

Yes, writer Bill Mantlo decided not to create a fictional corporate entity, but to utilize a real world organization.  And, it turns out, my father worked at Guardian for a couple of decades as an actuary.  He was hired by them about a year before Captain America #291 came out.  Guardian Life, that is to say, the real Guardian, not their evil fictitious counterpart, somehow quickly learned about the contents of “To Tame a Tumbler.”  I believe that words were exchanged between Guardian and Marvel’s lawyers, with the later promising that they would never use Guardian’s name ever again.

A Mighty Marvel Insurance Scam, courtesy of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel

A Mighty Marvel Insurance Scam, courtesy of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel

Now, even back then, at the young age of seven, I was already getting into comic books.  So of course my father had to explain this whole story to me, and he even let me read a copy of the issue that he had bought for his amusement.  This actually became only the second issue of Captain America I ever read (the first was #278) and, who knows, credit for my becoming a huge fan of the character may be at least partially due to this whole affair.

Many years later, I ended up working for a time at another health insurance company that was closely affiliated with Guardian.  I was in fairly regular correspondence with a number of people who worked over at Guardian.  And between my experiences and what my father tells me, I can assure you that in real life Guardian does not and has never insured any super-villains with the intent of defrauding their beneficiaries.  Swear to God!

But returning to the fictional Marvel Universe, this story has subsequently caused me to wonder exactly how life insurance would work in a world where people routinely come back from the dead.  For instance, Doctor Octopus is one of those criminals named as having an insurance policy, and the character has died & returned to life at least once (resurrected by the mystical ninja cult The Hand, of all things).  If you were a beneficiary on old Otto’s policy, once he came back from the grave, would you then have to give back the money?

Anyway, in addition to becoming a huge comic book fan, and reading the Captain America series for over two decades, I also began collecting original artwork.  I’ve obtained dozens of pages of published art, including several from issues of Captain America.  So of course I had to see if I could find any of the art by Herb Trimpe & Jack Abel from issue #291.  I’ve been able to acquire a couple of the pages.  They can be viewed, along with the rest of my collection, on the excellent Comic Art Fans website:

http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryRoom.asp?GSub=71499

I knew that the possibility of ever finding the original artwork to the cover of #291 was extremely remote.  Even if I did come across it, I’m sure it would be very expensive, seeing as it is a vintage cover drawn by the super-popular John Byrne.  I decided to commission Fred Hembeck, who does incredibly funny work, to draw one of his famous cover re-interpretations of the piece.

Captain America #291 cover reinterpreted by Fred Hembeck

Captain America #291 cover reinterpreted by Fred Hembeck

Hembeck is a fantastic artist, and a really nice guy.  I recommend checking out his website (he’s also on Facebook) and contacting him about getting a commission.

But let’s get back to Captain America #291.  Yeah, this is one of my favorite issues.  It has an interesting story by Mantlo.  Trimpe turns in some nice penciling, so much so that I really wish he had drawn Cap more often over the years.  And, yeah, it has that unusual personal connection to my father and me.

Even though it was a fill-in issue, #291 was included in the Death of the Red Skull trade paperback, which collects Captain America #s 290 to 301.  Yep, a benefit of it seeing print in-between chapters of that lengthy arc means that all these years later “To Tame a Tumbler” is back in print.  So, if you want to read this rather unique issue from the pens of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel, and you’re also in the mood to check out one of the all time classic Red Skull storylines, courtesy of J.M. DeMatteis, I suggest picking up a copy of the book.

By the way, I believe that this was the sole published appearance by the second Tumbler.  Having brought to justice the people who swindled his family, Michael Keane quickly retired his costumed identity.  Rumor has it he later found much greater success when he founded a popular social networking website 🙂

Delusions of a Ridiculous Mind

Last month, around the holidays, my girlfriend Michele got nostalgic and began re-watching clips of that 1970s talent show spoof The Gong Show on YouTube.  At first, I couldn’t see the point in this.  I was going solely by my memories of the revival that aired a decade later, which never seemed that good.  But then, watching the YouTube videos of the original, which was hosted by Chuck Barris, I soon came to realize how much better, and funnier, the original incarnation of The Gong Show really was.  Really, it’s absolutely ridiculous and insane.

Like Michele, I’d love to see The Gong Show come out on DVD.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all sorts of rights issues involved that would make a release difficult.  In any case, Michele wrote up a cool blog entry on The Gong Show, so go ahead and check it out.

Chuck Barris Gong Show

I became curious about Chuck Barris, who could be totally off the wall when hosting.  Looking up info on him, I learned that he was also the show’s creator.  In addition, he had devised a number of other famous, successful game shows, among them The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and the even more bizarre The $1.98 Beauty Show.  He has been referred to as “the father of reality TV,” although what he did nearly four decades ago is mild compared to the exploitive crap on television nowadays.  Barris was also the writer of the 1962 Freddy Cannon song “Palisades Park.”  My father is a fan of that one.  So, Chuck Barris had a very long & interesting career in show biz.

Oh, yes, in his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, published in 1984, Barris also claimed that he had worked as an assassin for the CIA, supposedly committing 33 murders over the years.

It was this last bizarre claim that led to a 2002 film, also entitled Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.  Since Michele was such a fan of Chuck Barris’ oeuvre, and I had also become interested in the man, I surprised her with a belated holiday present, a copy of the film on DVD.  We watched it a few nights ago.  And, wow, was it weird.  Really good, but weird.  (Mind you, if even ten percent of this “autobiography” turned out to have really happened, I would be genuinely surprised!)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind DVD

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the directorial debut of George Clooney, based on a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman.  Apparently there was a lack of communication between the two, which led to dissatisfaction on Kaufman’s part.  Well, at least according to Wikipedia, but that website is often only slightly more accurate in its adherence to reality than Chuck Barris was in his autobiography.  Whatever the case, whoever wrote the final script did a great job.  As far as the direction, Clooney is amazing.  It’s really astonishing that this was his first film behind the camera, because he totally knocked it out of the park.

The cast of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind all do superb work.  Heading up the film is Sam Rockwell, who does an eerily stunning job capturing the persona & mannerisms of Chuck Barris.  He portrays Barris as a veritable con artist, a self-involved, womanizing egotist who eventually descends into paranoia, isolation, and madness.  It’s an amazing performance.  Based on this, I’m genuinely surprised that Rockwell isn’t a bigger name.  But, of course, in Hollywood talent and fame don’t often align with the frequency that they should.

The rest of the film’s cast is also noteworthy.  Drew Barrymore plays Penny, the long suffering girlfriend of Barris who puts up with his constant bullshit.  George Clooney himself plays Jim Byrd, the icy CIA agent who recruits Barris and acts as his handler.  Julia Roberts portrays Patricia, a seductive spy who serves as Barris’ contact in the field.

Now, I am generally not a fan of Roberts’ work.  I honestly think Pretty Woman, which cemented her fame, and which most people seem to regard as a sweet, romantic fairy tale, was in fact incredibly hackneyed and sleazy.  However, watching her in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, I was actually impressed.  It was interesting to see her in a darker, more cynical role than she usually plays.  She certainly did fine work with it.  Rounding out the cast is the amazing, underrated Rutger Hauer.  His character Keeler is a philosophizing veteran hitman who befriends Barris.  It’s always a pleasure to see Hauer on the screen.  Even when cast in a relatively small supporting role such as this, he gives it his all, turning in a charismatic performance.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Sam Rockwell

At first, I was genuinely surprised to learn that Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was a box office bomb.  I thought it was an amazing film, and so did Michele.  But reflecting on it, I quickly realized that the movie is not easily classifiable.  It starts off as a comedy, but then transitions into a dark, disturbing look at a rather unlikable man living a double life who gradually experiences a mental breakdown.  Is it supposed to be humorous or somber?  Well, both.  But I think that for many viewers, who like to compartmentalize their entertainment into comfortable, easily absorbed categories, a film such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind can be a turn off, as it straddles so many genres.

I definitely recommend giving Confessions of a Dangerous Mind a try.  It really is an amazing film.  Myself, I’m looking forward to watching it again.  I think it is a movie wherein one may find different layers & interpretations on subsequent viewings.

Godzilla Vs. Biollante finally out on DVD!

For a long time I have been a fan of the Godzilla series of films produced by Toho.  As someone who is into both science fiction and monsters, I really enjoy the idea of a dinosaur awoken from suspended animation by a nuclear explosion and mutated into a 200 foot tall behemoth with radioactive fire breath that goes around smashing cities to pieces.  There have been a lot of Godzilla movies made since the creature’s debut in 1954, some excellent, some merely average, and a few truly dreadful.  One of my favorites, which falls squarely into the first category, is Godzilla vs. Biolante.  The film premiered in Japanese theaters in 1989, but due to various rights problems, took a number of years to make it onto home video here in the States.  And it took even longer to finally come out on DVD, at last being released in late 2012.

I have a confession to make: I actually bought a bootleg copy of Godzilla vs. Biolante at a science fiction convention in the early-1990s.  That’s not something I usually do, but I had no idea if the film was going to get a proper release on VHS.  It turned out that the videotape had a grainy picture and what seemed to be an especially poor dubbing job.  Nevertheless, in spite of all that, I really enjoyed the movie.

Godzilla Vs. Biollante DVD

Godzilla Vs. Biollante DVD

Godzilla vs. Biolante opens in the aftermath of the previous film, The Return of Godzilla (a.k.a. Godzilla 1985).  Amidst the rubble of a demolished Tokyo, a team of mercenaries working for genetics corporation Bio-Major steals a sample of Godzilla’s cells left behind in the wake of his attack.  The mercenaries, in turn, are ambushed by a hit-man in the employ of the Middle Eastern nation of Saradia.  The cells are smuggled to that country, where the expatriate Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) hopes to use Godzilla’s DNA to create a crop of wheat that can flourish in the desert.  However, Bio-Major launches a retaliatory strike, bombing Shiragami’s lab, killing his daughter Erika.

Flash forwarding five years later, Godzilla is beginning to wake from his slumber at the bottom of the volcano he was lured into at the end of the last movie.  The Japanese government, which possesses its own supply of Godzilla cells, approaches Shiragami to use them to develop Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria with which to attack the monster.  Shiragami has secretly combined the cells of a rose with that of his dead daughter in an effort to preserve some semblance of her existence.  The scientist now adds the Godzilla cells to this hybrid plant, hoping to imbue it with the monster’s restorative powers.  Instead, the rose develops into a towering plant creature which is dubbed Biollante.  While both agents from Bio-Major and the hit-man from Saradia make plans to steal the Anti-Nuclear Energy Bacteria, the newly awakened Godzilla begins to make his way to Japan, sensing the presence of his genetic cousin.

Also introduced in Godzilla vs. Biolante is the character of Miki Saegusa, a psychic teenager portrayed by actress Megumi Odaka.  The character of Miki would prove to be very popular, and Odaka reprised the role in the next five films of the series.

Godzilla vs. Biolante is an engaging story.  The script was written by director Kazuki Ohmori, based upon a concept by Shinichiro Kobayashi.  The direction by Ohmori is also excellent.  He certainly does a superb job staging the final confrontation between Godzilla and Biollante.  That must have been a lot of work, considering Biollante’s size, and her numerous vine tentacles thrashing about attacking Godzilla.

That brings me to the whole “men in rubber suits” aspect of the Godzilla movies.  Yes, seeing a guy in a monster costume smashing a scale model of a city may not appear one hundred percent realistic, especially with today’s CGI effects.  But I really admire & respect the craft and hard work that the technicians at Toho have demonstrated over the decades, creating these intricate costumes and models, and then filming all of the action in real time.  I also think there is often more of a weight (for lack of a better word) to those sorts of special effects than some of the stuff people put together on a computer.  It can seem much more convincing to me as a viewer.

Biollante adopts her final form

Biollante adopts her final form

As is pointed out in the “making of” feature on the DVD, both Godzilla and Biollante represent the dangers of unchecked scientific progress.  Godzilla, of course, is the embodiment of the post-World War II dangers of nuclear destruction.  Biollante, on the other hand, was inspired by the then relatively new fears of unsupervised genetic engineering, concerns that in the years since 1989 have certainly become more prevalent in the real world.

One aspect that I have heard criticized about the movie is the soundtrack.  Truthfully, in my opinion, for the most part the music by Koichi Sugiyama is pretty effective.  It is a bit odd or melodramatic in places, compared to the more traditional themes used in many past entries of the series by composer Akira Ifukube.  However, Sugiyama utilizes several of Ifukube’s compositions in certain places, making the soundtrack to the film a somewhat unusual, but nevertheless interesting, mix of new and old.

As I mentioned before, that old bootleg VHS tape of Godzilla vs. Biolante was not the best quality.  Watching the DVD of the movie yesterday, I was impressed at how much better the official release is.  Of course the picture quality was better.  What I was really pleased about was that the disk has the choice of being played with either an English dub, or with English subtitles over the original Japanese dialogue.  I chose to watch it with the later, and the story was a lot clearer that way.  Aside from the occasional typo or grammatical error, the subtitles appeared to have been put together with an eye towards accuracy.

One more thing about that bootleg tape.  Turns out that for some reason several key scenes from the movie had been cut out.  Yeah, really stupid, huh?  Watching the complete, unedited film on DVD, the story flowed a lot more smoothly, and a few areas where I had thought there were unexplained elements or plot holes vanished.

By the way, back in the mid 1990s, the toy company Trendmasters produced a series of Godzilla action figures.  When I was growing up, there had never really been any Godzilla-related toys available here in the States.  As a kid, I’d always wanted to be able to have stuff like that.  So, even though I was in college when the Trendmasters action figures came out, of course I had to buy a bunch of them.  And, collectability be damned, I made sure to take them out of their packaging!  After all, I wanted to put them on display.  Among the assortment of monsters available in the toy line was Biollante.  Given my fondness for the movie, of course I had to get that one.

Godzilla V.s Biollante (the action figure version)

Godzilla Vs. Biollante (the action figure version)

So, having re-watched Godzilla vs. Biolante on DVD, I then took those two action figures down from the bookshelf, dusted them off, and posed them facing off on the living room floor.  Wish I had some kind of backdrop or something.  I was considering using the rock from the turtle tank, but I didn’t think our red-eared slider Meeshee would have approved.

Anyway, after a very long wait, it was great to be able to get this movie on DVD.  I was thrilled when my girlfriend gave it to me as a present.  If you happen to be a Godzilla fan, I highly recommend picking this one up.

(Photo of the Godzilla / Biolante slugfest re-enactment courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  No action figures were harmed in the writing of this blog.)