Comic book reviews: Spider-Man “Kraven’s Last Hunt”

Each month Midtown Comics has their Book of the Month meeting, where one or more people involved in the creation of a graphic novel or trade paperback discuss the background of that volume.  This month, the featured book was “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which many consider to be one of the all time great Spider-Man stories.

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” was originally serialized across six issues during a two month period in 1987, appearing in the three ongoing titles: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.   It was written by J.M. DeMatteis, with artwork by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod.  Coming in to Midtown Comics to discuss it was editor Jim Salicrup (currently doing excellent work as editor-in-chief of Papercutz).

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“Kraven’s Last Hunt” deals with the relationship between Spider-Man and one of his old foes, Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter.  It also examines the (at the time brand new) marriage between Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane.

As the story opens, Kraven, who was born in the early 20th Century, is feeling the weight of age.  Although kept young and vigorous for decades by herbs and potions he discovered in Africa, Kraven now begins to suspect time is starting to catch up with him.  He is also dwelling on his long-dead parents, Russian aristocrats who fled to America in 1917.  And he has begun to obsess over his long string of defeats at the hands of Spider-Man.  Kraven comes to believe that no mere man could have bested him, that Spider-Man must be a dark spirit, the same spirit he now perceives as having toppled Czarist rule in his homeland.  Convinced that he will soon die, the Hunter is determined to best Spider-Man once and for all.

Ingesting strange drugs, Kraven goes on the prowl.  In the midst of a rainstorm, he ambushes Spider-Man, shooting him, seemingly killing him.  Burying his long-time foe, Kraven then takes on his costumed identity, to prove he is the better man, and begins a brutal crackdown on crime in New York.  When Kraven learns that the half-man, half-rat mutant named Vermin is on the loose in the city sewers, abducting & eating innocent people, he sees this as a further test.  Here is a foe that the real Spider-Man was never able to defeat on his own, one who he needed the assistance of Captain America to stop.  If Kraven alone can beat Vermin, he will then truly prove himself to be superior.

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Spider-Man is, of course, not dead.  Kraven has actually drugged him, and buried him alive.  Under the earth in a coffin for two weeks, Peter Parker experiences horrific hallucinations.  Finally, he is able to claw his way out of the coffin and up through the ground, driven by love, by the desire to be reunited with his wife, Mary Jane.

J.M. DeMatteis crafted a truly disturbing, dark tale with “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  In his introduction to the TPB, he explains the genesis of the story.  It’s interesting that this originally began life as a pitch for a miniseries exploring the relationship between Wonder Man and his brother the Grim Reaper, turning into an examination of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, before eventually (after a few more evolutions) becoming the climax to Spider-Man and Kraven’s long-running rivalry.

“Fearful Symmetry” was originally commissioned by editor Jim Owsley, and then fell under the auspices of his successor on the Spider-Man titles, Salicrup.  Although he wanted to take the three books in a less dark, more “fun” direction than Owsley had, Salicrup says he saw the potential in the story.  Like DeMatteis, he recognized that it was a brilliant way to explore the romance of Peter and Mary Jane.

As Salicrup explains it, although “Kraven’s Last Hunt” superficially resembles the “grim and gritty” comic books coming to the forefront in the mid-1980s, it really did not fall into that category.  It was actually the act of dropping the character of Spider-Man into a story along the lines of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and seeing what happens.  And what occurred was Spider-Man stayed true to himself.  Peter wasn’t driven by revenge to dig his way out of his grave, but by love for his wife.  As Salicrup observes, it is a scene that very much parallels the classic Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, when Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of wrecked machinery, struggles to lift it up, knowing that he is the only one who can bring a life-saving serum to Aunt May, who lies dying.

Despite his traumatic experiences and the temptation to kill Kraven, Spider-Man does not emerge swearing to wreck brutal vengeance, but wishing to bring his foe to justice.  Finally, when Spider-Man himself must stop Vermin, an opponent Kraven defeated by brute force, the web-slinger does not descend to the level of the Hunter.  Instead, he tries to reach out to Vermin with empathy & understanding, and to use intelligence to outwit him.

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DeMatteis does a superb job scripting Kraven.  As someone who did not start reading comic books until the 1980s, I am not especially familiar with most of the character’s earlier stories.  As I understand it, even though he was created by Ditko and Lee, he was never considered a major Spider-Man villain, and as time went on, with subsequent appearances over the next two decades, he became something of B-list character.

DeMatteis himself admits that he was never a fan of Kraven, and that it was in his unexplored Russian heritage that the writer saw potential.  The Kraven in “Fearful Symmetry” is a troubled, dangerous individual, teetering between nobility and insanity.  In this six part tale, DeMatteis takes what was formerly a one-note character and remakes him into an intriguing, tragic, formidable opponent.

The artwork by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod is absolutely magnificent.  I have been a huge fan of Zeck since he penciled Captain America in the early 1980s, paired up with, of course, DeMatteis as writer.  “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a stunning reunion for the two of them, and Zeck does some of the best work of his career.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic.  The inking by McLeod really provides the artwork with a palpable atmosphere of shadows and looming darkness.

I also want to point out the contributions of letter Rick Parker.  Comic book lettering is an extremely underrated art, even more so than inking.  I’m a fan of such professionals as Janice Chiang, John Workman, and Tom Orzechowski, all of whom do wonderful work putting down dialogue and narration.  Parker is also an excellent letterer, and on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” he really emphasizes the dramatic beats and emphasis of DeMatteis’ scripting.

Credit also has to go to Salicrup for the idea to run “Kraven’s Last Hunt” during a two month period through all three titles, rather than having it serialized as a six-part story in Spectacular Spider-Man, as was the original plan.  Nowadays this is an extremely common practice, but back in 1987 it was exceedingly rare.  Salicrup’s canny rationale was that if Spider-Man is buried alive in Spectacular while he’s off fighting someone like Doctor Octopus in the pages of Amazing, it would significantly cut down on the dramatic tension.  Also, the two month schedule really helped maintain momentum that might have been lost over a half year.

(Incidentally, flipping back through many of the Marvel comic books that I read and enjoyed in the 1980s, I see a significant number of them were edited by Salicrup.  He seems to have had a real talent for getting the best work out of the creators working under him.)

My one disappointment was that this TPB did not also include the 1992 sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” also by the team of DeMatteis, Zeck & McLeod.  That special examined the consequences of Kraven choosing to take his own life at the end of “Fearful Symmetry,” as well as the lingering feelings Spider-Man has for what he went through.  It was an extremely good story.  Next time I’m over at my parents’ house, I want to dig it out of the box it’s buried in and read it once again.

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Oh, yes, for the completists out there, you will also want to track down a copy of issue #3 of Marvel’s humor title What The–?!  Featuring a tale of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham titled “Raven’s Last Hunt,” this oddball comic is topped off with a cover by Zeck & McLeod spoofing their original image for Amazing Spider-Man #294.

Arachnid pigs aside, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is certainly a classic story, featuring brilliant work by an extremely talented creative team.  If you have not already read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collected edition.  It is well worth a look.

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Raymond Cusick, designer of the Daleks: 1928 – 2013

I wanted to take the time to remember Raymond Cusick, who passed away on February 21 at the age of 84.  Cusick was a long-time Designer working in the employ of the BBC.  It was in 1963 that Cusick made an indelible contribution to pop culture, when he designed the appearance of the Daleks for Doctor Who.

As many people are aware, the concept of the Daleks was originated by author Terry Nation, who wrote the original seven episode serial that marked their debut in late 1963, as well as many of the subsequent stories to feature the fascist mutant cyborgs.  But it was actually Raymond Cusick who conceived their iconic look.  The description that Nation provided in his original scripts was rather sparse:

“Hideous machine-like creatures, they are legless, moving on a round base. They have no human features. A lens on a flexible shaft acts as an eye. Arms with mechanical grips for hands.”

It was working from those few sentences that Cusick would create the now world-famous design for one of science fiction’s most enduring villains.  Obviously without Nation, there would have been no Daleks, period.  But without Cusick’s brilliant design, it is questionable that the monsters would ever have achieved anywhere near the fame and recognizability that they possess, in the process helping the entire Doctor Who series to achieve remarkable longevity.

Raymond Cusick alongside his iconic design for the Daleks

Raymond Cusick alongside his iconic design for the Daleks

I first became aware of Cusick and his work in 1986 when I read the non-fiction book Doctor Who: The Early Years, written by Jeremy Bentham.  In those pre-internet days, information about the show’s early seasons was pretty scarce, at least here in the United States.  Those few reference books that were imported here, such as Bentham’s, were an invaluable resource for young fans like myself.  The Early Years contained a wealth of in-depth behind-the-scenes information concerning the origins and development of Doctor Who in the early 1960s.  And a significant portion of the book was devoted to the contributions Cusick made to the series.

In addition to devising the look of the Daleks themselves, Cusick was the designer for their debut serial.  Among the other subsequent stories that he worked upon during the first three seasons of Doctor Who were “The Keys to Marinus,” “The Sensorites,” “The Romans,” “The Chase,” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan.”  His imaginative sets and props were extremely vital to the early innovative look of the series.

After departing from Doctor Who, Cusick went on to become a designer for a number of other productions filmed by the BBC.  He and his wife also opened a small hotel in South London which they decorated with many of the famous props and design illustrations he created during his time on Doctor Who.

I think that in the past Cusick’s contribution to the legacy of Doctor Who and the Daleks has often been overlooked or downplayed.  As a freelancer, Terry Nation retained ownership of the Daleks, and apparently made a fortune out of the vast licensing of them.  Cusick, in contrast, was a BBC employee, and so was only paid a regular salary.  At the urging of his supervisor, the BBC eventually gave Cusick a one-off “Special Merit” payment.  But for many years the majority of the recognition for the Daleks’ success, both in terms of money and publicity, clearly went to Nation.  I think it was due to the efforts of fans & historians such as Bentham that Cusick’s vital contributions were eventually recognized in subsequent decades.

The 2010 three disk DVD release of “The Space Museum” and “The Chase” contained a number of extras.  Among these was the 12 minute long “Cusick in Cardiff,” which documented the Dalek designer’s visit to the studios of the revived Doctor Who series.  I really enjoyed that one, because it was great to see the present-day creators of the show acknowledging Cusick’s contributions.

I’ve read that Cusick was not especially concerned with financial compensation, that it was more important to him to receive recognition for his role in the development of the Daleks.  His wishes were fortunately fulfilled in his later life, as fandom became more widespread & knowledgeable about the early days of Doctor Who.  Judging by the large number of obituaries that I have read over the last few days, all of which have credited him as “the designer of the Daleks,” it seems that the record has been clarified, and Cusick’s contributions to the Doctor Who mythos are now firmly established.

Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook

I began collecting convention sketches and commissions in the mid-1990s, when I was in college.  At first, I would get them on loose pieces of paper.  But after several years, I had seen a number of other comic book fans who had these really incredible sketchbooks full of artwork that they had obtained over the years.  Many of these had the theme of a particular character or group of characters.  So in May 2000 I decided that it would be nice to start a theme sketchbook of my own.

Before I began it, though, I wanted to come up with a really unique theme, something that I liked and that artists would also enjoy drawing.  While I was a big fan of Captain America, I already had a bunch of loose sketches of the character and his supporting cast.  I wanted to start fresh.  Also, it occurred to me that if I picked a sexy female character, artists would be more interested in drawing her.

Then, in a bolt of inspiration, it occurred to me.  I was a huge fan of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” titles that he had created in the early 1970s for DC Comics.  In one of these, Forever People, there was a curvy gal named Beautiful Dreamer, a sort of hippy chick who could cause psychedelic hallucinations.  Why not start a theme sketchbook around her?  Certainly the odds were exceedingly slim that, unlike a character such as Batman or Wolverine, anyone else would have a book of drawings featuring Beautiful Dreamer.

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

I wanted to get someone really special to draw an outstanding piece to start off the book.  Obviously asking Jack Kirby himself was impossible, as he had sadly passed away in 1994.  Then, once again, inspiration struck.  Over the last several years, at various New York-area conventions, I had met Silver Age comic book artist Dick Ayers and his lovely, charming wife Lindy.  I had struck up an e-mail correspondence with Dick, and obtained a few pieces of artwork by him.  At the time, I lived about ten minutes from their house, and they’d invited me over for a visit.

As part of his long, diverse career, Ayers inked / embellished Jack Kirby’s pencils on numerous stories in the 1950s and 60s.  Among these were a variety of monster, war, and Western titles published by Marvel Comics, plus early issues of Fantastic Four and Avengers.  Ayers had never worked with Kirby at DC.  By the time Ayers had moved over to DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby was back at Marvel, so I guess you could say they passed each other by like two ships in the night.  But one of Ayers’ assignments at DC was penciling post-Kirby issues of Kamandi.

So, in addition to being a very talented artist in his own right, Dick Ayers had that connection to Kirby.  Plus, from his recent work on the Femforce series published by AC Comics, I knew Ayers could definitely draw lovely ladies.  Why not ask him to draw the first Beautiful Dreamer piece in my sketchbook?  He agreed, and the resulting commission can be seen below.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

I must also give credit to Dick & Lindy Ayers for helping me to obtain one of the other early pieces in my sketchbook.  They were friends & neighbors with Dan & Josie DeCarlo.  Dan was, of course, a long-time artist at Archie Comics.  In the early 1960s, he had come up with what is now the “house style” at Archie.  In addition to that, he had created both Josie and the Pussycats (inspired by his wife) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  Before working for Archie, DeCarlo had done a number of playfully risqué Humorama pin-up illustrations.  He definitely knew how to draw cute, sexy gals.  I thought it would be great to have a Beautiful Dreamer illustration drawn by DeCarlo.  But I doubted that he would want to sketch a character he was totally unfamiliar with.

I ended up mentioning this to Dick Ayers shortly before a Big Apple Comic Con that was going to be held in late 2000.  Dick thought my idea was a good one, and he promised me he would put in a good word for me with Dan DeCarlo.  Well, about a week later, I’m at the convention.  Dick & Lindy had a table right next to Dan & Josie.  When I came over to say hello to the Ayers, Dan took me to the DeCarlo’s table, and said something along the lines of “Hi, Dan. This is my friend Ben Herman. He would like to get a sketch done by you.”  Yeah, that was seriously cool!  So I handed my book over to Dan, showing him the piece that Dick had drawn in it half a year earlier, and I gave him an issue of Forever People as reference, and asked him if he would like to draw the character.  DeCarlo seemed a bit bemused by my request, but he agreed.  This is the piece that he drew.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

Sadly, Dan DeCarlo passed away about a year later, on December 18, 2001.  I am really grateful that I had the opportunity to meet him and get a sketch done by him.  I am also thankful to Dick Ayers for making that possible by introducing me, as well as for starting off the whole sketchbook with class & style.

Fast forward a dozen years, and I’ve almost completely filled up the Beautiful Dreamer book with sketches and commissions by a diverse selection of artists.  I think there are less than 20 blank pages left in the back of the book.  You can view scans of them in my gallery on Comic Art Fans.  As you will see, the majority of these turned out very well.  And the two by Dick Ayers and Dan DeCarlo are, for obvious reasons, among my favorites.

My girlfriend grew up reading Archie Comics, and she thinks it’s amazing that I was able to get a sketch by DeCarlo.  She was the one who suggested I do a blog post about it.  Michele is also the one who came up with the cool idea that I get a Beautiful Dreamer tattoo… but that is a subject for a future post!

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #5-6

Writer Ian Flynn wraps up the initial New Crusaders story arc in the final two issues of the Rise of the Heroes miniseries.  “Trial by Fire” sees the nefarious Brain Emperor breaking into Z.I.P. Prison to liberate his inner circle of costumed criminals.  To facilitate the escape, he lets loose the entire population of the penitentiary.  When the New Crusaders arrive, the inexperienced teenage heroes, who would already have faced the daunting task of opposing the villain who defeated their parents, the original Mighty Crusaders, find themselves having to put down a full scale prison riot.

As the Brain Emperor goes about reviving his elite followers, the New Crusaders are quickly being overwhelmed by the dozens upon dozens of convicts who have been set free.  Unexpected help does come from a trio of prisoners, though.  Hangman, Black Hood and Deadly Force are all former superheroes who were sent to jail for excessive force and manslaughter.  Now they’ve decided to side with the children of their former teammates in putting down the riot.  But even with the aid of this threesome, and the veteran leadership of the Shield, the Crusaders face an almost impossible task.

New Crusaders #6 cover by Fiona Staples

New Crusaders #6 cover by Fiona Staples

Flynn does an excellent job showing how these neophyte crime fighters deal with their first mission.  The Jaguar, who previously faced the challenge of being accepted by the ancient spirit inhabiting her helmet, has to now struggle to contain the cat god’s wish to drive her to savagery.  Likewise, we also see Steel Sterling is attempting to take down the prisoners without resorting to lethal force, an approach that is challenged by Hangman as naïve.  The other Crusaders also face similar obstacles.

In the end, unsurprisingly, things do not go well, to say the least, and the Crusaders’ first mission, despite succeeding, has a most bitter cost.  And these dispirited young heroes still have to face a future encounter with the Brain Emperor himself.  Their story continues in May with the next miniseries, Dark Tomorrow.  I hope that that title doesn’t mean things will become all “grim and gritty.”  But Flynn has certainly built up enough goodwill during Rise of the Heroes that I’ll be approaching this with an open mind.

The art team of Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin continued to turn in excellent work in these concluding issues of the first New Crusaders miniseries.  They have an art style that at first glance may appear deceptively simple, in the vein of Mike Parobeck or Bruce Timm.  But I imagine that there is a great deal of craftsmanship & storytelling to their work.  They don’t have the luxury of hiding behind hyper-detailed renderings or excessive cross-hatching.  I’m looking forward to their return a few months from now on Dark Tomorrow.

New Crusaders #6 page 27 by Sergio Cariello

New Crusaders #6 page 27 by Sergio Cariello

There is also a back-up story in Rise of the Heroes #6 that is illustrated by Sergio Cariello, a retrospective look back at the career of the original Fireball.  I’ve enjoyed Cariello’s work at DC Comics in the past, so it’s nice to see him pop up here at Archie.  Hopefully he’ll be asked to contribute more work on the Red Circle imprint in the future, either on New Crusaders or one of the tie-in books that Archie has planned.

All in all, New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes was a solid, entertaining introductory arc by Ian Flynn and the various other writers & artists involved.  I’m looking forward to where these characters head next.

Strange Comic Books: The Invaders #31

Welcome to the latest installment of Strange Comic Books.  This entry features an issue I had intended to write up at some point in the near future.  But I moved it up to today as February 19th is the birthday of its writer, Donald F. Glut.

(If the name Don Glut sounds familiar to any sci-fi fans out there, it is probably because, among his numerous credits, he wrote the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back.)

Today’s comic book is The Invaders #31, written by Don Glut, penciled by Chic Stone, inked by Bill Black, and edited by Roy Thomas, with a cover by Joe Sinnott.  The cover date for this one is August 1978.  Set during World War II, issue #31 of The Invaders sees Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch facing off against a most macabre foe: Frankenstein’s Monster!

Invaders 31 cover

The Invaders was Roy Thomas’ love letter to the Marvel Comics superhero comic books of the Golden Age.  Thomas often wondered why, unlike DC Comics with their Justice Society stories, the major heroes of Timely Comics (Marvel’s precursor) had never teamed up.  When he was writing at Marvel in the 1970s, Thomas co-created The Invaders title, which he set in the early 1940s, and which featured Cap, Namor, the Torch, teenage sidekicks Bucky and Toro, plus a number of other heroes, join forces to fight against the Axis Powers and their superhuman agents.  The team was called “The Invaders” because they were “invading” Hitler’s Fortress Europa.  The series ran a respectable 41 issues, plus its inaugural Giant-Size special and an Annual.

During most of the final year of The Invaders, Thomas handed over the writing duties to his friend Don Glut, although he remained on as the series’ editor.  One of Glut’s first issues was #31, “Heil Frankenstein!”  As we know, the Nazis, among their myriad crimes, conducted terrible medical experiments on their prisoners.  This has resulted in innumerable subsequent stories in genre fiction that have depicted the Third Reich as churning out a legion of zombies, mutants, and cyborgs to bedevil the Free World.  In his story, Glut takes this trend to its logical conclusion, having the Nazis recruit a descendent of the original mad scientist himself, Doctor Frankenstein.

“Heil Frankenstein” opens with Cap, Bucky, and Namor arriving in the Swiss Alps.  The Human Torch and Toro had previously gone ahead to investigate rumors of Nazi activity in the neutral country, but have since gone missing.  Arriving in a small town, the three superheroes are greeted by a horde of pitchfork-wielding villagers, who inform them that a monster from nearby Castle Frankenstein has been stalking the countryside.  The skeptical Cap and Bucky think the villagers have been watching too many movies, and the pair go on ahead to investigate the castle, leaving Sub-Mariner behind.

Invaders 31 pg 7The patriotic duo is quickly discovered by a horde of goose-steppers who unleash Frankenstein’s Monster, clad in a Nazi uniform, on the disbelieving pair.  The Creature subdues Cap and Bucky.  Imprisoned in a dungeon with Toro, they are introduced to Basil Frankenstein who, with the assistance of Kitty Kitagowa, Imperial Japan’s top surgeon, has recreated his ancestor’s work.  In addition to his plans to build an army of undead patchwork soldiers for the Nazis, the clearly nutty Basil now wants to transplant his brain out of his crippled body into Cap’s physically perfect form.  First, though, he uses the android energies of the Human Torch to super-charge his Monster.

By now, the impatient Namor has come to investigate the castle, and he frees his captive teammates.  During a battle with the Creature, its head smashes against a bank of electrical equipment.  This shorts out the implant that Frankenstein had placed in its brain.  Now free to think and act, the Monster, outraged at its unholy existence, grabs Frankenstein and Kitagowa and leaps from the castle tower, killing them all.

The Invaders #31 is a pretty crazy issue.  Yes, it’s a bit on the silly side, but it is still fun.  I did like how Glut drew parallels between the android Human Torch and the Monster, causing the former to once again realize that, despite his name, he is an artificial being.  Long-time Thor inker Chic Stone draws one of his rare penciling jobs, and turns in solid work.  So, too, does Bill Black, who a few years later would go on to create the long-running Femforce series at AC Comics.  Veteran artist Joe Sinnott does an amazing job illustrating the cover.

Invaders 31 pg 28

I am quite a fan of The Invaders.  It took me several years, but eventually I was able to assemble a complete collection of the entire series run.  Roy Thomas and Don Glut both did some nice work with an interesting, colorful cast of heroes and villains.  Over three decades later, current Marvel writers are still building new stories on the comic books that Thomas and Glut penned.  As for the artwork by regular pencilers Frank Robbins and Alan Kupperberg, plus such talented fill-in artists as Stone & Black, it was all very impressive.  In the last few years, Marvel finally collected the entire run of the series into four trade paperback collections, Invaders Classic, which I highly recommend picking up.

Happy birthday to Mark Bode

I found out, courtesy of the Grand Comics Database (special thanks to my Facebook pal Steve Chung for pointing it out), that today is the birthday of artist Mark Bode.  I thought it might be nice to briefly spotlight some of his work. Mark is the son of legendary underground cartoonist Vaughn Bode, who passed away at the much too young age of 33 back in 1975.  Mark followed on in his father’s footsteps, working in a wacky, sexy, cartoony style that I’ve always found appealing.  In the 1980s, Mark collaborated with Larry Todd to revive and complete Cobalt 60, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series conceived by his father.

Cobalt 60

Among his numerous other credits, Mark Bode has worked on The Lizard of Oz and Miami Mice, as well as issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It was via Eastman & Laird’s quartet of martial arts reptiles that I first discovered Bode’s work.  In the 1990s, back during my high school & college days, I was almost exclusively into mainstream superhero stuff, i.e. Marvel, DC, Image.  TMNT was one of my few forays into “alternative” material (I preferred the Mirage issues to the all-ages Archie Comics title, but I did follow both).  And it was through those comics that I was first exposed to the work of a number of independent creators, among them Michael Zulli, Rick Veitch, Mark Martin, Rich Hedden, Tom McWeeney and, of course, Mark Bode.  I really enjoyed Bode’s TMNT issues.  He had a very distinctive sense of humor to his work.  And I was especially impressed by how he drew these cute, curvy women.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 32

I remember that I met Bode in the late 1990s at one of the Big Apple comic cons, and I asked him if he’d do a sketch for me.  I was secretly hoping for one of his sexy gals.  Well, I should have been more specific, because what I got was a picture of a funny hat with a pair of legs sticking out from it.  I had no idea what it was supposed to be.  Now, obviously, a few years later, once I became more familiar with Bode’s work, I realized that he had drawn Cheech Wizard, one of his father’s signature characters.  Well, it was a free sketch, so I had no reason to complain.  Hey, at least I got one of his TMNT issues signed by him.

Fast forward to 2009.  My girlfriend Michele and I were at another NYC convention.  Mark Bode was one of the guests.  Michele is a big fan of Vaughn & Mark Bode’s work.  She was thrilled to meet Mark, and got several books autographed.  Anyway, I had my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook with me, but I wasn’t sure who I was going to try to ask to draw something in it.  Michele absolutely insisted that I ask Bode if he would do a Beautiful Dreamer piece for me. As I said before, I love Mark’s sexy, big-eyed, voluptuous women.  So I thought this was a great idea, but I honestly didn’t know if he’d want to draw a Jack Kirby character he was unfamiliar with.  The whole Cheech Wizard incident must have been doing a re-run in the back of my mind!  But Michele persisted, and I finally asked Bode.  Fortunately he kindly agreed and, well, the results were absolutely amazing.  I should point out that Bode’s sketch rates were very reasonable, and I also think he drew me an illustration that was worth much more than what I paid him.  It’s definitely one of the best pieces in my Beautiful Dreamer book.

Mark Bode shows off his Beautiful Dreamer drawing

In addition to drawing comic books and graphic novels, Bode has also been working as a tattoo artist for nearly twenty years.  I’ve seen photos of his work on his Facebook page, and it looks great.  As you can imagine, he tattoos really fantastic  pin-up girls.  Oh, yeah, when it comes to painting murals, he slings a mean can of spray paint.

So, a very happy birthday to Mark Bode, who turns 50 years old today.  Hope there’s many more to come.

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #285

The very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983.  Prior to this, I had avidly watched the Hulk cartoon that ran on Saturday mornings in the early 1980s, and of course I had seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby & Lou Ferrigno.  But Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read any of the character’s actual comic book adventures.  And, I have to say, even at six-and-a-half years old, I knew that it was a bit of a strange issue.

Incredible Hulk 285 cover

Incredible Hulk #285 is topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott.  As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image.  But, even so, it wasn’t your typical Hulk scene, to be sure.  First off, rather than fighting the military or a supervillain or even some sort of monster, the Hulk’s enemy was this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames.  I hadn’t seen anything like that before.  And, even odder, instead of striding around in his usual pair of torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a suit & tie.  Very strange.  That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!

Flipping open the book, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life,” written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema & Chic Stone.  Once again, the Hulk was wearing a well-pressed suit, his hair neatly combed.  On top of that, rather than running around on a destructive rampage, there he was seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.

Incredible Hulk 285 pg 1

As I read onward, over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounted to the readers how Dr. Bruce Banner, creator of the Gamma Bomb, had been caught in the explosion of the weapon he created, mutating him into a being who transformed into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger.  Following this is an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrates the chaotic life of the Hulk over the next several years, the long and winding road taken by a green goliath who was more often than not hunted by humanity.  And, at the end of it, we find the cause of the Hulk’s current status: at long last, after all this time, Bruce Banner has managed to gain control, to retain his human intelligence when transforming into the Hulk.

While the Hulk has been busy recounting his life, a crew of workers from Stark Industries headed up by Scott Lang (Ant-Man) has been constructing Northwind Observatory, a laboratory where Banner can resume his scientific studies.  Turning back into his human form, Banner joins Lang to supervise the installation of the laboratory’s power core.  At the last minute, Banner discovers that the power core was not designed by Stark Industries, but acquired from a company called Soulstar.  Banner immediately recognizes the name, but before he can prevent it, the power core is hooked up, there is “a massive electromagnetic discharge,” and a strange being emerges.

This creature, we are informed, is Zzzax, the Living Dynamo.  Looking something like a humanoid lightning bolt, Zzzax is a creature that feeds on the human life force.  Before the monster can consume the stunned construction crew, Banner transforms back into the Hulk and tackles this old enemy of his.  Unfortunately, the Hulk quickly remembers that, in his old child-like persona, the angrier he got, the stronger he became.  But now, guided by Banner’s rational intellect, the Hulk cannot easily become angry, meaning his strength is limited.  And so the gamma-spawned giant realizes that, instead of relying on brute force to defeat Zzzax, he must now find a way to out-think his fiery foe.

Incredible Hulk 285 pg 17

As a kid, I thought Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy.  Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was a very unexpected change for me, but I just shrugged and read on.  Bill Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly presented through the plot device of Bruce Banner penning his autobiography.  The second half, with the Hulk fighting Zzzax, was really exciting.

On the art side of things, the work by Sal Buscema was high quality.  This was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him.  Buscema would become one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Several years ago, when “Our Pal” Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show, I had him autograph a copy of this issue.  It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that eventually the cover fell off!

(While I’m on the subject of Sal Buscema and Incredible Hulk, it’s definitely worth mentioning that he pencilled practically every issue of the series from issue #194 in 1975 thru to #309 in 1985.  Yep, he had a ten year run drawing the Hulk, and during that time I believe he missed only seven issues.  They definitely do not make artists like him anymore!)

In regards to Stone’s inking on #285, it is pretty good.  In the last three decades, having subsequently seen a great deal more of Buscema’s work, I have to admit that there were others who did a better job finishing his pencils, among them Joe Sinnott, Gerry Talaoc, and Buscema himself.  In the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows, he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking.  Looking at it as an adult fan, yes, I tend to agree with him.  That said, back when I was a little kid completely lacking in any knowledge concerning the subtleties of inking, I thought the artwork by Sal & Chic looked just fine.  I guess that’s probably the more important thing.

Even though I really did enjoy Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old and I very seldom had a chance to buy comic books on my own, I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years.  When I finally did, it was Incredible Hulk #309.  And if I thought #285 was odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre!  But I’ll be covering that story in a future edition of Strange Comic Books.

Doctor Who reviews: The Aztecs

The Doctor Who serial “The Aztecs” was originally broadcast back in 1964, as part of the show’s very first season.  I’ve been thinking of doing a write-up on it for a while now.  Since “The Aztecs” was just recently aired on BBC America as part of a special on William Hartnell’s era playing the Doctor, now is certainly a good time.

The TARDIS arrives in Mexico sometime in the Fifteenth Century, during the reign of the Aztec empire, materializing within the tomb of a high priest, Yetaxa.  History teacher Barbara Wright, portrayed by Jacqueline Hill, has long been fascinated by the Aztec culture, and she slips a bracelet she finds in the tomb onto her arm.  When the Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan emerge from the tomb, they realize that it can only be opened from the inside, and that they are trapped.  The  TARDIS travelers are quickly discovered by the two leading religious authorities: Autloc, High Priest of Knowledge (Keith Pyott) and Tlotoxl, High Priest of Sacrifice (John Ringham), the later whom the Doctor and Ian quickly deduce to be “the local butcher.”  Because Barbara was wearing the bracelet when she emerged from the tomb, the current High Priests believe she is the reincarnation of Yetaxa, and as such a deity.

Barbara decides that, having been elevated to the position of a goddess, she will command the Aztecs to discontinue their barbaric practice of human sacrifice.  Her hope is that if she can set them on a “better” path, when Cortes and the Spanish arrive several decades hence in 1519 they will find a more “civilized” culture, one that they will not destroy.  The Doctor immediately sees the futility of this mission, and unsuccessfully tries to dissuade her.  Indeed, Barbara’s attempts to halt the sacrifices immediately fail, and Tlotoxl realizes that she is “a false goddess.”  From then on, it becomes a race by the Doctor to locate a secret entrance back into the tomb so that they can escape in the TARDIS before Tlotoxl is able to disprove Barbara’s divinity to the general populace and have her & her friends executed.

Tlotoxl and Barbara

Tlotoxl and Barbara

“The Aztecs” contains the Doctor’s now-famous admonishment, “But you can’t rewrite history! Not one line! Barbara, one last appeal: what you are trying to do is utterly impossible. I know! Believe me, I know!”  (I like the implication in the Doctor’s warning that he was once in Barbara’s position, and learned a bitter lesson, one he now hopes to save Barbara from having to endure.)  Whereas most Doctor Who serials see the Doctor and his companions doing exactly that, altering events, changing history, fighting on the side of good against evil, here they are nearly powerless.  The Doctor recognizes that the eventual destruction of the Aztecs is what current show runner Steven Moffat defines as “a fixed point in time.”  The only “victory” that the Doctor, Barbara, Ian and Susan can possibly achieve here is to survive.

John Lucarotti’s writing on “The Aztecs” is magnificent.  He previously penned another historical serial in Season One, “Marco Polo,” the episodes of which unfortunately are believed to no longer exist, aside from the audio track and still photos.  So “The Aztecs” is the first completely intact example of his work on the series.  Lucarotti’s scripts really demonstrate a high level of sophistication and characterization, one seldom achieved subsequently by the series during its original run, but now quite common since its revival in 2005.  “The Aztecs” is very much Barbara and the Doctor’s story.  Jacqueline Hill and William Hartnell each give one of their strongest performances from their time on the show.

The two High Priests, Autloc and Tlotoxl, are both well cast.  Keith Pyott does a good job as the High Priest of Knowledge, who for much of the serial has an unflinching belief in Barbara.  Towards the end, when Autloc’s faith and his progressive attitudes are challenged by his loyalty to the Aztec culture and his wavering trust in Barbara, he becomes a troubled figure.  Pyott really brings this anguish across.  As for Tlotoxl, John Ringham’s performance practically steals the show.  As the High Priest of Sacrifice, Ringham sneers and schemes his way through the story.  Apparently channeling Shakespeare’s Richard III, Ringham’s Tlotoxl is a Machiavellian figure, successfully pitting characters against one another, including the TARDIS crew themselves.  Tlotoxl is, in my mind, one of the series’ all-time great villains.

No doubt “The Aztecs” sounds like a bleak story, and indeed it is.  The mood is somewhat lightened by the relationship between the Doctor and Cameca, a middle aged Aztec lady played by Margot van der Burgh.  The Doctor initially becomes close to Cameca when he hears that she knew the architect who designed to tomb of Yetaxa, hoping to learn if she knows of an alternate entrance back into it.  But as the story progresses, the Doctor becomes quite fond of Cameca.  And then he accidentally proposes to her!  Subsequently, when it becomes apparent that the Doctor is going to depart, Cameca sadly bids him farewell, and you can see from the Doctor’s reactions that he really has feelings for her.  So, yes, long before Grace Holloway or Rose Tyler ever crossed the Doctor’s path, we see him in a very heartfelt, bittersweet relationship.  William Hartnell and Margot van der Burgh do an excellent job developing this over the space of the four part serial.

It’s certainly worth mentioning that no small part of the serial’s success is due to the behind-the-scenes crew.  John Crockett’s direction is solid, if understandably limited by the restraints of early television technology.  Barry Newbery’s sets are stunning, and ably achieve the goal of recreating a historic, foreign setting within the studio.  Finally, the lavish costumes by Daphne Dare and Tony Pearce are quite impressive.

The Aztecs novelization

The Aztecs novelization

A special edition DVD of “The Aztecs” is scheduled to come out next month.  If you do not already own the regular version that came out in 2003, then I highly recommend picking up the new release.  “The Aztecs” is one of the all-time great Doctor Who stories.  Also worth tracking down is the novelization of the serial written by John Lucarotti in 1984.  The author utilizes the book to further develop certain aspects of the plot and the characters beyond what was presented on the screen.  I actually read the book before I saw the television story itself.  When I sat down and re-read the novel about five years ago, I tremendously enjoyed it, and that is what finally convinced me to buy the DVD, which I have subsequently viewed on several occasions.  In any case, the novelization makes a nice addendum to the television story.

Re-watching “The Aztecs” when it was on BBC America a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that it would be great to have a brand-new Doctor Who story starring Matt Smith that was a “pure historical.”  No monsters or alien invaders, just the Doctor and his companions arriving in the middle of past events on Earth, and seeing what happens.  I don’t know if Steven Moffat is interested in doing anything of that sort, though.  Fortunately, several of the Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays have been historicals in the vein of “The Aztecs.”  I’ve mentioned before the excellent Colin Baker audio “The Marian Conspiracy,” which is set during the tumultuous reign of Mary I of England.  Well worth picking up.

Getting back to “The Aztecs,” it’s definitely a favorite of mine.  And hopefully it has picked up a few more fans due to its recent re-broadcast.  Almost fifty years later, it is still one of the best Doctor Who stories ever made.

Misfits and Osaka Popstar at Forbidden Planet

I went to the signing at Forbidden Planet in Manhattan this past Wednesday.  At the store were Jerry Only, Dez Cadena, and Eric “Chupacabra” Acre, the current line-up of the punk rock band the Misfits.  Also at the signing was John Cafiero, frontman of the anime-inspired punk group Osaka Popstar.  I hadn’t actually heard of Osaka Popstar before, but of course I knew of the Misfits, even though I’ve only really gotten into listening to them in the last few years (my girlfriend, on the other hand, has been a fan since high school).

It was pretty darn cool meeting Jerry Only. I have to say, I was surprised to see so many fans who were in their teens and early twenties.  Nice to know that there are still younger people out there listening to real music, rather than that all of that Auto-Tune crap.  (Not that I’m really old or anything… I’m only 36!)  Yeah, you can argue that the Misfits are past their prime and that almost all the original band is gone (Jerry Only is the last founding member currently still in the group).  But at least they still play their own instruments, write their own music, etc.  I’ll gladly take the Misfits in their current incarnation over most of the new pop “singers” clogging the airwaves.

Jerry Only seemed like a really cool, friendly guy.  He appeared to be enjoying himself, and made a real effort to talk to all of the fans.  Certainly wasn’t playing the role of aloof, famous rock star, or anything like that.  I’m sure part of the reason he was in a good mood was because all these cute twenty year old punk and goth girls were lining up to see him!  But, hey, he made time for everyone.  When I mentioned that my girlfriend wasn’t able to make it because she had the flu, Only gave me a free Misfits mask autographed by himself, Cadena and Acre as a gift for her.  I think he knew that she was a true fan because I brought along her limited edition Jerry Only doll to get autographed.  He was thrilled to see that.

Misfits swag

Only, Cadena, and Acre were signing copies of the new Misfits album Dead Alive (or, if you prefer, DEA.D. ALIVE!) which is a recording of their Halloween 2011 show at BB Kings in Times Square.  I gave the CD a listen yesterday.  It isn’t the greatest live album that I’ve ever heard, by any means.  But it’s certainly a fun, enjoyable collection of cool sci-fi / horror inspired tunes, which is what has always been the appeal of the Misfits for me.  If you’re already a Misfits fan, you’ll probably like it.

Going by Dead Alive, you could argue that Jerry Only is a better bass player than front man, that perhaps he does not quite have the spark of either Glenn Danzig or Michael Graves. That said, Only is obviously passionate about keeping the Misfits going. You have to give him credit for keeping at it in the era of lip synching “artists” who cannot even play their own instruments.

Misfits Dead Alive

I enjoyed the Osaka Popstar CD I picked up somewhat more, at least.  Rock’Em O-Sock’Em Live is a really cool collection live punk music, including covers of a few Ramones songs.  It was recorded back during Fiend Fest ’06.  John Cafiero is on vocals.  Backing him up are Dez Cadena & Ivan Julian on guitars, Jerry Only on bass, and Markey Ramone on drums.  The CD is topped off by a cool cover illustrated by Garbage Pail Kids artist John Pound.  That really brought back memories!

Osaka Popstar just released a new single, “Super Hero.”  I didn’t have a chance to get a copy of that at Forbidden Planet, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for it.

Osaka Popstar

Anyway, even though I was pretty lukewarm about Dead Alive, I would still like to see the Misfits live one of these days.  I’m sure it would be a fun show.  And hopefully I’ll also have a chance to catch Osaka Popstar.  Judging by Rock’Em O-Sock’Em Live, John Cafiero is a heck of a good performer.

Richard III: Monarch or Monster?

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The recent discovery and identification of the skeleton of the English King Richard III (1452 – 1485) has certainly ignited a firestorm of interest in the deceased ruler.  Prior to this event, I expect that the majority of people who were aware of Richard III knew of him by the villainous reputation so ably propagated by William Shakespeare in the play penned in 1592, more than a hundred years after the monarch’s death in battle at Bosworth Field.

One of the more interesting aspects of this peak in interest in Richard III is the re-examination by certain historians of his character & policies.  The question has been raised as to whether or not he was truly as malevolent as the figure depicted both in Shakespeare’s play and the writings of 16th Century historians.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with a reappraisal of the past, as long as it is done with a certain amount of caution.  It does no good to completely throw out the long accepted views of historic events on nothing more than a whim.  Revisionism is understandably an ugly word, because too often it is utilized in service of presenting an extremely biased, skewed interpretation of events.  But, if approached properly, a revisionist examination can offer up alternate perspectives that challenge our thinking in a healthy manner.

Richard III

Richard III

I am no historian (although I did minor in History in college) so I am certainly not the one to be presenting any sort of overview of Richard III’s life.  Many, many books have been written on the subject, and a number of summaries of his history are also available online.  Suffice it to say, his two year reign was an unsettled one.  There was a certain amount of controversy surrounding Richard’s ascent to the throne of England.  The disappearances of his two young nephews, whom certain people saw as the legitimate heirs to the throne, led to much speculation that he ordered their murders.

However, there are a number of positive accomplishments during Richard’s brief time on the throne.  Among these, he put into practice the issuing of bail, meaning individuals charged with a crime would not have to be imprisoned for years at a time waiting for their trials.  He began what was later to be known as the Court of Requests, wherein the poor who could not afford lawyers could bring their grievances.  Richard also reduced taxes, something that I think many a politician wishes they could claim.

Yes, I expect Richard was involved in activities that should be regarded as immoral, if not criminal.  But consider this: he was a monarch in an era when abuse of power was common, and morality was much less well defined.  A look at Richard’s immediate successors to the English throne demonstrates that he was hardly unique:

Henry VII, who unseated Richard, retroactively declared himself to be King the day before the Battle of Bosworth Field.  This allowed him to declare that any who fought on Richard’s side were guilty of treason, enabling him to seize their lands & properties.  His son Henry VIII is notorious for having two of his six wives beheaded. His 1534 Act of Supremacy made it a treasonable offense to question the King’s authority over the Church of England, and various people were executed for defying it, among them Sir Thomas More.  Henry’s eldest daughter Mary attempted to return England to Catholicism, and was vigorous in the persecution of Protestants, which gave rise to her nickname “Bloody Mary.”

In other words, this was a brutal era in history, and Richard’s actions should at least be partially judged against that backdrop, and against the actions of those who followed him.

It is also worth noting that Shakespeare, when he penned his play, certainly had an eye on remaining favorable with the court of Queen Elizabeth.  Shakespeare knew that, as she was the granddaughter of Henry VII, Elizabeth would want to see the Tudor dynasty presented in the most positive light possible.  Which meant basing his Machiavellian characterization of Richard on the popular line of thought (some would say propaganda) advanced by historians writing during the rule of Henry VII onward.

In the end, I imagine that Richard III was not some sort of black-hearted fiend.  I expect that, like so many of us, he was a complicated figure, one whose actions resulted in both good and bad, positive and negative developments for the country he ruled.