Thinking About Inking: the role of comic book inkers

As a long-time comic book reader, I have come to recognize that one of the most important aspects of the creation of comic artwork is inking.  It is also, unfortunately, one of the least understood.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that all inking is the same, that it is little more than going over the penciler’s work with a pen (I sometimes think that Kevin Smith should be dunked in a giant vat of India Ink for that line he wrote about “tracers” from his movie Chasing Amy).  But the reality is that no two inkers are the same.  The difference between one inker and another is often the difference between a very polished finish and a rough, gritty mood.  Therefore, it is important to recognize the vital role that inkers have in the crafting of the final, finished look of a comic book story.

I think that the major reason why inkers often do not receive their due credit is that is usually difficult for the casual reader to recognize what, precisely, the inker has brought to the finished artwork.  True, there are certain inkers with easily spotted styles, among them Terry Austin, Klaus Janson, and Tom Palmer.  But the majority of inkers have work that is of a more subtle sort.  John Beatty, Scott Hanna, Mark McKenna, Josef Rubinstein, and Bob Wiacek are all excellent inkers.  But when looking at their work, to my unfortunately untrained eye, there isn’t often an occasion where a particular stylistic signature leaps out at me so that I can readily identify them at a casual glance.

Certainly, when a reader only sees the finished, inked work, it can be difficult to discern who did what.  And unfortunately most of the time if the reader sees something he really likes in the artwork he is more than likely to ascribe this to the penciler.  You really need to be able to view a “before and after” piece, with the raw, uninked pencils side by side with the finished, inked work, in order to fully appreciate who did what.

Bob McLeod is an extremely talented artist, both as a penciler and an inker.  He is often at the forefront of the voices rightfully proclaiming that inkers do not receive the credit due them.  To that end, on his Facebook page he has posted scans of a number of before and after examples of his inks over other artists’ pencils.  Below, reproduced with his kind permission, is one of these (click to enlarge).

This is a page from Spider-Man #34, cover dated May 1993.  Lee Weeks provided the pencil layouts on this page, and McLeod the inks / finishes.  As you can clearly see by viewing these two pages side-by-side, while Weeks is responsible for the storytelling & pacing, the majority of the important details found in the finished artwork are courtesy of McLeod’s inking.

It can be even more informative when one is able to see how the same penciled piece is inked by several different individuals.  I remember that in the early 1990s DC Comics on one of their editorial pages had reproduced a panel of pencil art from a then-recent Batman story.  They had three different artists re-ink this panel.  Looking at these next to one another, it was readily apparent how each inker brought a very different mood & sensibility to their work, resulting in several very different pieces of art.  I really wish I could find that so I could post an image here.  It was extremely enlightening, and must have been one of the very first occasions when I realized the importance of the inker.

UPDATE: Here is a scan of that DC Universe piece “What exactly does an inker do?”  Thanks to Steve Bird for locating a pic of this and passing along a link in the comments section below.

Batman inking examples

This clearly demonstrates that Scott Hanna, Gerry Fernandez and Jed Hotchkiss have their own individual styles, and utilized different approaches to when it came to inking Jim Balent’s pencils.  This has resulted in three distinctive finished images.

Another earlier example of this sort is equally useful.  This was posted on Facebook in January 2013.  Originally published in Comics Scene #5 in 1982, a Mike Zeck pencil drawing of the Hulk was inked by four different artists.

As is readily apparent from the images below, Bob Layton, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, and Josef Rubinstein each bring something very different to the final look of the artwork.  (My personal favorite is the one by Rubinstein.)  If you were an editor who was going to hire Zeck to pencil a story, and if you had any common sense, you would not just randomly pick a name out of a hat to choose who was going to ink it.  Hopefully, if you were doing your job and knew the styles of the various inkers in your rolodex, you’d give some consideration as to which one would be the best match-up for Zeck’s style, and would bring the desired finished look to the story that you were seeking.

Hulk inking examples

Bob Almond, a very talented inker, is responsible for setting up the Inkwell Awards, which recognize excellence in inking.  One of the great things about the Inkwells is that they have helped to demonstrate the importance of inking by putting out various examples of both “before and after” pieces and penciled artwork that have been inked by different artists to demonstrate what each illustrator brings to the table.  I encourage everyone to look through their website and Facebook page.  There’s a great deal of beautiful artwork on display that really puts the spotlight on the crucial role inking plays.

One last indication of the importance of inking is the rise in prevalence over the last decade of comic books that have been printed from uninked pencil artwork.  I first noticed this in 2001 when Marvel began publishing X-Treme X-Men, featuring the art of Salvador Larroca.  The book was shot directly from Larroca’s extremely tight, finished pencils.  I was never a huge fan of this, because however detailed the penciling may have been it still seemed to be missing something, and the printed comics just looked rather faint and, well, blurry.  It’s a bit difficult to describe.  But I would have much preferred it if there had been an inker on the book.

Art wise, I felt X-Treme X-Men was much improved in its third year, when the art team of penciler Igor Kordey & inker Scott Hanna came on board.  And, again, that also demonstrated the importance of an inker.  Anyone who is familiar with Kordey’s work will probably know that when he inks his own pencils, it has a rough, gritty style a bit reminiscent of Joe Kubert. In contract, when he was inked by Hanna, the result is a more polished, slick look. Kordey is usually his own best inker, but he and Hanna definitely did make a very good art team.

In any case, as far as the practice of printing from uninked pencils goes, one of the main publishers to use this is Dynamite Entertainment.  They have many talented artists working for them, but the uninked art has its drawbacks, the same I cited concerning Larroca’s work.  This especially stood out for me when Mike Lilly was working at Dynamite.  I love Lilly’s art, and he did nice stuff for Dynamite.  But it would have been even stronger if he had been paired up an inker.  Someone like Bob Almond, who had worked very well with Lilly in the past, would have given it a very polished heft, making it more substantive.  The lack of inkers on so many of Dynamite’s titles is the major reason why I do not purchase more of their books.

In conclusion, inkers play an extremely vital part of the creative process in the production of comic books.  I hope that this blog entry has helped to shed a little bit of light on the role that they play, and leads to a greater appreciation for their talents & efforts.

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Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon

Today would have been the 82nd birthday of legendary artist Al Williamson, who was born on March 21, 1931.  Williamson passed away on June 12, 2010, aged 79.  He left behind an impressive body of richly illustrated work that spanned decades.

I was very fortunate to meet Williamson on a couple of occasions at comic book conventions.  I can confirm that his talent was matched by his kindness & generosity.  He once drew a quick sketch for me of a warrior fighting a dinosaur.  During the other encounter, I witnessed him very helpfully giving advice & feedback to an aspiring artist who had brought along samples of his work.  Williamson took the time to patiently walk this fan through various steps & suggestions to show how he could work to improve as an illustrator.

To commemorate the legacy of Al Williamson, I am presenting a revised piece I originally wrote a couple of years ago concerning his work on one of the characters he became very closely associated with throughout his career:

Out of all the artists who have drawn Flash Gordon in the newspaper comic strips and comic books, there are two who are most frequently associated with the character.  The first is Alex Raymond, who created the series in 1933.  The second is, of course, Al Williamson.

Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic, issued by Flesk Publications, assembles together for the first time Williamson’s complete works on the series.  Accompanying this material is in-depth historical and critical commentary by writer/artist Mark Schultz.

Al Williamson Flash Gordon 1

Al Williamson was an amazing artist, a creator who could depict vast, sweeping science fiction vistas populated by two-fisted heroes, stunningly beautiful heroines, sneering villains, exotic aliens, and monumental high-tech fortress cities.  He was probably one of the greatest illustrators of the twentieth century when it came to drawing space opera.

In his commentary, Schultz examines how Williamson, a shy child in an unhappy family environment, turned to drawing as a form of solace.  And then, in 1941, at age ten, Williamson went to the cinema and saw Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.  It was a life-changing experience, one that caused him to begin following the Alex Raymond newspaper strip.  Williamson became a lifelong fan of both the character and his creator.

When I picked up this book, I was genuinely surprised at the relative paucity of published work that Al Williamson had done featuring Flash Gordon.  So synonymous were the names Al Williamson and Flash Gordon to me that I actually believed he had worked for years on the newspaper strip, and illustrated dozens of comic books featuring the hero.

In reality, Williamson only drew three issues of the Flash Gordon comic book in the 1960s, illustrated the movie adaptation in 1980, and did a two issue miniseries for Marvel in the early 1990s.  He also drew various comic book covers, prints, and advertisements featuring Flash, and occasionally pitched in as an assistant on the comic strip.  And that was it.

(Williamson actually did have extended runs on two other newspaper strips, Secret Agent Corrigan and Star Wars, both of which he worked on with writer Archie Goodwin.  The two of them collaborated frequently throughout the years, always to great results.)

It really says a great deal that, despite this rather small body of work on Flash Gordon, Williamson became so very closely connected with the character in the minds of readers.  In a way, this is understandable, as Williamson was very influenced by Alex Raymond, and can be seen as something of a successor.  But, as Schultz observes, the young Williamson quickly grew beyond a slavish imitator, and throughout the majority of his career continually developed and refined his individual style.  Really, I think the fact that Williamson’s love for the character and universe of Flash Gordon is so readily apparent in the work that he did illustrate is what played a major role in his becoming so intimately associated with the series.

Al Williamson Flash Gordon 2

Williamson’s earliest work on Flash Gordon was assisting on the inking of the newspaper strip in 1953, when it was being drawn by Dan Barry.  Obviously, Williamson’s impact on the look of the strip was minimal.  The book does reprint one example that demonstrates his artistic contribution to the strip.

It was in 1965, when King Features, the owners of the Flash Gordon property, decided to venture into comic book publishing, that Williamson got his first proper crack at illustrating the character.  Due to tight deadlines, Williamson was only able to draw three issues, plus an additional cover.  But, oh, in that short space of time he rendered some incredibly exquisite artwork, full of both dynamic excitement and delicate beauty.  The writing on these stories, of which Williamson also had a hand in, is at times a little simplistic, the plotting a bit dodgy.  But the stunning artwork by Williamson more than makes up for any deficiencies in the stories.

Williamson’s next opportunity to draw Flash Gordon came in 1980, when the Dino De Laurentiis-produced movie was in the works.  Williamson was hired to illustrate the comic book adaptation of the film.  Initially enthusiastic at the assignment, Williamson soon found it becoming a chore due to a lack of reference material and last-minute script changes.  Also, when De Laurentiis decided to take the film in a more campy direction, Williamson, long-time Flash Gordon fan that he was, felt disappointed.

Nevertheless, despite these obstacles, and Williamson’s dissatisfaction with the film, the artwork for the Flash Gordon movie adaptation is amazing.  You can see an artist at his peak, as Williamson renders the story in a grandiosely detailed, operatic manner.  Appropriately, there is a very cinematic quality to his artwork.  It appears that, despite the filmmakers’ intentions, Williamson and scripter Bruce Jones took the material seriously.  The adaptation offers a glimpse of what the film might have been like if it had not veered so far into camp territory.

(Myself, I rather like the film, although at times it does have a “so bad it’s good” quality to it.  As fun as it is, I think it would have been improved by taking things as least a little bit more seriously.  And having Flash Gordon as a quarterback for the New York Jets was annoying.  I mean, in the comic strip the character graduated from Yale.  He had brains and brawn.  I really do love the soundtrack by Queen, though.  But I can understand why Williamson, who came from an earlier generation, might not have been as keen for the music of Freddie Mercury & Co.)

Al Williamson Flash Gordon 3

Williamson’s final major foray into the world of Flash Gordon came a decade later with the Marvel Comics miniseries, which was written by Mark Schultz himself.  At the time, Williamson may have been starting to experience the onset of glaucoma, a condition that would plague him at the end of his career (honestly, I cannot think of a worse fate for an artist, especially one as talented and precise as Williamson, as losing your sight).  Despite his difficulties in completing the project, the two issue miniseries has some wonderful work.  To my untrained eye, I really cannot see much, if any, of a drop in the quality and detail of Williamson’s work.  I bought this when it first came out, and really enjoyed it. Schultz writes a high-energy adventure that also reveals the secret origin of Flash Gordon, while Williamson gets to draw the diverse, exotic regions of the planet Mongo and its colorful inhabitants.  So it was a pleasure to re-read it.

The dimensions of Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic measure 9” by 12” (as opposed to the typical 6.5″ by 10″ of regular comic books).  The majority of the artwork is presented in back & white.  The oversized nature of the book, coupled with this black & white reproduction, really enables the reader to see the precise detail and fine quality of Williamson’s work.  For example, as impressed as I was by his art on the Marvel series when it was published at standard comic size and in color in the early 1990s, here it looks even more amazing when blown up and in crisp black & white.

The text by Schultz is extremely informative.  It is respectful to Williamson without being slavish.  An artist himself, Schultz possesses the technical knowledge and aptitude to critically examine Williamson’s development as an artist over the years, to point out his major accomplishments within the material he did for the series, and to recognize the unfortunate beginnings of decline in his later work.

I highly recommend Al Williamson’s Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic.  It assembles a wealth of material that has never been collected before, much of which has been out of print for decades.  The book is a stunning showcase of Williamson’s artistic accomplishments.

As I said before, Al Williamson passed away in 2010.  Looking at the copyright page of the book, I see that it was printed a year previously, in June 2009.  I was certainly happy to find out that Williamson lived long enough to see the publication of this fantastic volume.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Vol 5

I have to admit to being an old-school Marvel Zombie, and that often extends to my opinions of which artists drew the definitive versions of certain characters.  When it comes to the Hulk, the two names that immediately come to mind are Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema.  If I had to pick a third artist, I’d go with Dale Keown, who penciled some astonishing issues of Incredible Hulk in the early 1990s.  But “Happy Herby” and “Our Pal Sal,” as they were referred to back in the day, are tied for first place, at least in my mind.  I’ve written about Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk before.  So here are a few thoughts on Trimpe, who I have always felt is a very talented, underrated artist.

Herb Trimpe had a seven year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from #106 in 1968 to #193 in 1975.  During that period, he missed a mere two issues.  Strange as it is to say, though, I haven’t actually read a large number of the issues that Trimpe worked on.  But there have been certain covers and pin-ups of the character drawn by him that have been repeatedly reprinted over the years.  And, of course, Incredible Hulk #s 180-181, the first Wolverine story, periodically gets the reprint treatment.  So it really seems like I’ve seen a whole lot more of Herb’s Hulk than I actually have.

I set out to rectify that.  I think most of his issues have been collected in black & white Essential volumes.  But I found a copy of Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which reprints #s 111-121, for sale at half price.  I’d much rather read some of his stories in color.  After all, the Hulk just isn’t the same if he is not colored green.

Incredible Hulk 111 pg 13

The majority of the writing on this volume is by Stan Lee, with Roy Thomas coming in to script #120 before taking over fully with #121.  My favorite story had to be the two-part tale that opens this volume, which sees the Hulk snatched off into outer space, pitted against the menace of the cosmic-powered Galaxy Master and his army of alien pawns.  And once those servants see the Hulk resisting their tyrannical master, they decide to throw of the shackles of slavery, resulting in a huge battle between the Galaxy Master and a fleet of space rockets.  Trimpe must have been really inspired by Lee’s plots, because the artist does phenomenal work.  Trimpe’s layouts & storytelling are absolutely dynamic in these two issues.  This really shows that, even this early in his career, he knew how to draw a riveting story.

Once the Hulk returns to Earth, I think the stories become rather more mundane, with the Hulk settling into a pattern of fighting the military over some misunderstanding, or being tricked into a partnership with various supervillains.  Perhaps Trimpe was somewhat less inspired by the plots on these issues, because his work, while solid and professional, doesn’t really display the dynamic energy of the Galaxy Master story.

In the midst of this is a three-part story featuring the Hulk’s arch-foe, the Leader, who pretends to want to turn over a new leaf and seemingly proves himself by helping General Thunderbolt Ross imprison the Hulk.  Of course the Leader is really just doing this to get his adversary out of the way while simultaneously gaining the trust of the military, enabling him to enact a plan for global domination right out of a James Bond movie.  He’s going to seize control of General Ross’ base and launch a nuclear missile at the Soviet Union, starting World War III, with the intent of ruling over all the survivors.  Of course the Hulk, with an assist from Betty Ross, breaks free and smashes the Leader’s plans.

Incredible Hulk 115 pg 4

I think that before these issues, the Leader had been drawn as having a large but round skull to correspond to his gamma radiation-enlarged brain.  Trimpe seems to be the artist who tweaked the design, giving us the Leader with the now-famous head that shoots straight up, a version that would endure for the next two decades.  While I do wonder how this guy walks around without bumping his head in doorways or on the ceiling, it is an instantly recognizable look.

After splashing down into an aquatic scuffle with Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk encounters Maximus the Mad and his renegade faction of Inhumans.  Maximus manages to manipulate the Hulk into fighting the U.S. armed forces, and we get some more excellent action sequences from Trimpe.  Certainly the stand-out piece is the cover to issue #120, a truly iconic image of the Hulk fighting the military.

Incredible Hulk 120 cover

With the shift to Roy Thomas as writer in #121, we get an interesting, unusual tale, “Within the Swamp, There Stirs… a Glob!”  Amidst the Florida wilderness, the Hulk encounters an eerie muck monster, a dead man resurrected as a shambling monstrosity by radioactive material and, it is implied, some mystical element of the swamp itself.  The Glob, prodded on by the memory of a long-lost love, kidnaps Betty Ross.  Of course the Hulk pursues the creature, intent on rescuing the one human being who has expressed sympathy & understanding for him.

Years later, in the pages of his magazine Alter Ego, Thomas freely admitted that he conceived the Glob in homage to the Golden Age character the Heap.  A self-proclaimed fan of the Heap, Thomas also later was involved in creating the similar Man-Thing.  Thomas even worked in a one-panel cameo by the Heap into an issue of Avengers during the famous “Kree-Skrull War” storyline.  And a few months ago a hardcover volume reprinting some of that character’s earliest appearances, Roy Thomas Presents The Heap, was released.  I wish I’d had a chance to pick that up when it came out.

In any case, Trimpe’s art on #121 is very good.  He does some rather moody, atmospheric work.  The Glob is quite effectively rendered by the artist.  I enjoyed this one so much that I wish it could have been a two part story.

Incredible Hulk 121 pg 17

If you pick up Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, you’ll certainly find some nice art by Herb Trimpe.  In his introduction to this volume, Trimpe is somewhat dismissive of his work on these issues.  They do say artists are their own harshest critics.  Admittedly this was early in his career.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s he would certainly grow & develop as an artist, seeing much improvement.  But there is definite potential in this early work.  Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of his work here is his superb storytelling.  Trimpe really knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.

So, yeah, I’d recommend checking out Trimpe’s amazing run on Incredible Hulk.  If you don’t want to pick up the expensive Marvel Masterworks volumes, the Essential collections are perfect for the reader on a budget.

Comic book reviews: Femforce #162

Femforce #162 is the 30th anniversary issue of AC Comics.  I cannot say that I’ve been following the company since the beginning.  But I have been a Femforce fan for a dozen years now, and I’ve bought a whole bunch of back issues from before 2001, so, yeah, I guess I qualify as a long-time fan.

In any case, it’s great to see an independent publisher last this long, especially when so many other small press publications have been forced to fold up their tents.  So, my hat is off to AC publisher Bill Black, his long-time collaborator Mark Heike, and the line-up of talented creators who have been working with them.

Femforce #162 cover by Brad Gorby
Femforce #162 cover by Brad Gorby

Issue #162 is topped off with a beautiful, trippy cover by Brad Gorby featuring Synn, Nightveil, and She-Cat.  As Black acknowledges inside, it really doesn’t have much to do with any of the actual stories in this issue.  But it is certainly a very beautiful piece of art by Gorby, who I have always felt was a super-talented artist.

The main story in #162 is the two-chapter “The Commandos Are Coming,” penciled by Eric Coile, and written, inked & lettered by Black.  The Black Commando, paramour to Femforce stalwart Nightveil, has returned to Earth and, once more seemingly insane, has apparently attacked the woman he loves.  As Ms Victory and Synn pursue the fleeing Commando, the rest of the team attempts to revive their fallen comrade.  However, all of them soon learn that one of Nightveil’s most bitter enemies is actually behind these events.

“Golden Years,” the issue’s second story, takes place concurrent to the main tale.  It is written by Heike, with pencils by Rock Baker, Heike & Black, and inks / finishes from Jeff Austin.  While Femforce is off attempting to solve the mystery of the returned Black Commando, Ms Victory’s husband Paragon is in a face-off with the angry, violent Rad.  Ms Victory’s daughter Jen is furious at her house having been destroyed last issue, and she’s more than willing to take it out on her step-father, who she has never had a good relationship with.  But the fight between Rad and Paragon is interrupted by a startling revelation.

Femforce 162 pg 8

Ms Victory confronts Black Commando

Both “The Commandos Are Coming” and “Golden Years” will be very rewarding reads for long-time Femforce fans.  In the first story, a lot of old angers held by Ms Victory come bursting forth while she is facing the Black Commando.  We learn that, all these years later, Joan Wayne still blames the Commando for causing her to go insane & become the first Rad, an event that knocked over a whole row of tragic dominoes.  In Joan’s absence, the government forced her daughter Jen to assume the mantle of Ms Victory, which led to the disintegration of her marriage and the death of her son, and culminated in Jen becoming the second Rad.

Likewise, in the Rad / Paragon story, once again Jen is casting the blame for her tragic existence solely on her mother’s shoulders.  But when Paragon reveals previously-untold facts about Ms Victory’s past to Rad, it forces Jen to admit that her mother never had a perfect existence, and that she might have been unfairly targeting her as the cause of all her ills.  Considering how long Rad’s resentments against her mother and step-father have been simmering, it was refreshing to see her begin to come to an understanding about Ms Victory, and to reconcile with Paragon.

Femforce 162 pg 20

Rad and Paragon engage in family therapy… superhero style

This is why I’m such a fan of Femforce.  Black & Heike have given the characters rich back stories, creating an engaging continuity.  And they’ve invested their cast with very real personalities, causing you to care about them.  At the same time, I think Black & Heike do a good job at making the series accessible to newer readers.  There were certain past events referenced in #162 that I was unaware of, but the scripts presented them in such a way that I was quickly brought up to speed.  I love that the book still has the editor’s notes pointing you to specific back issues, something that unfortunately has fallen out of style at Marvel and DC.

There were several back-up stories in Femforce #162.  My two favorites were illustrated by Andre St. Amour.  He works in a really cool animated style.  Of the two stories, the one I enjoyed more was “The Evil That Time Forgot.”  It’s an unconventional team-up story, as it sees Laura Wright, the sorcerer Nightveil, travel back in time to 1942 and team up with her earlier non-magical self, the pistol-packing vigilante Blue Bulleteer, to battle a Lovecraftian horror.  The story had a real sense of fun about it.

Femforce 162 pg 38

Laura Wright is beside herself: Blue Bulleteer meets Nightveil

The second story drawn by St. Amour is “Nosey,” written by Mark Holmes.  She-Cat is assigned to the Middle East to help battle a pair of super-powered terrorists.  Holmes’ tale was also rather enjoyable.  I found it just a bit odd that She-Cat would be fighting a couple of female super-human extremists, as most Islamic fanatics are very misogynistic.  So even in a comic book it seems a bit odd that terrorists would work alongside a pair of women.  That detail aside, I did like the story, and I hope that Holmes does some more writing for AC.  Certainly the artwork by St. Amour was, once again, fantastic.

All in all, Femforce #162 is a really good issue, with some entertaining stories.  I’m certainly looking forward to seeing in future issues how Black and Heike develop the plotlines that they’ve set up here.

One last thing: perhaps the $9.95 price tag on Femforce seems a bit expensive.  Keep in mind that AC Comics is an independent publisher struggling to succeed in a difficult market.  And, as far as value goes, I would much rather pay $9.95 for a 76 page issue of Femforce than three or four bucks for a 22 page comic from Marvel or DC that takes less than 15 minutes to read.  So, yeah, I definitely see Femforce as being well worth the price of admission, and I encourage others to check it out.

Doctor Who reviews: Timelash

Recently, Michele was working on a paper for school that examined how H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine influenced Doctor Who.  It was an excellent piece of writing.  I cannot believe that I’d never before noticed how significantly Terry Nation had borrowed from Wells when writing the first Dalek storyline, i.e. the Daleks equal the Morlocks, the Thals equal the Eloi, etc.

So, as she’s working on this paper, I happen to casually mention to Michele that on one occasion the Doctor actually met H.G. Wells.  Oops!!!  Suddenly she wants to see this story.  I tried to explain to her that “Timelash” is not a well regarded Doctor Who serial.  In fact, one commentator went so far as to point out that the title is an anagram for “lame shit.”  Michele was amused by this, but undeterred.  So I popped “Timelash” into the DVD player, and we watched it.  She ended up laughing at most of what came up on the television screen.

As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, and on the whole I find his brief tenure on the series to be very enjoyable.  Even so, I will readily admit that “Timelash” is not an especially good story.  That said, I will argue that it is rather underrated… which basically translates to my saying that is nowhere near as awful as most other people claim!  Certainly Baker himself is in fine form, bringing his brash, argumentative, authoritative Doctor right to the forefront.  It definitely suits this story, given that he is handed a pair of larger than life adversaries to verbally fence with in the forms of the Borad and Maylin Tekker.

Doctor Who: Timelash DVD

Doctor Who: Timelash DVD

The plot by Glen McCoy definitely has potential, exploring what happens when the Doctor returns to a planet several decades after he had a prior (untelevised) adventure.  We very rarely see the lasting consequences of the Doctor’s actions anywhere, so this trip to Karfel offers us a chance to examine how a previous encounter with the Time Lord can affect a civilization for good or bad.

The main villain, the mutant Borad, is actually a novel, intriguing foe, one who is well played by actor Robert Ashby, with an excellent make-up job realizing the character.  Considering the Borad survives the events of “Timelash,” albeit as a deposed despot left to spend the next several centuries swimming about Loch Ness, I’ve always hoped that one day he would turn up again in another story.  Given the generally poor perception of “Timelash,” I doubt that Steven Moffat will be dusting off this vintage baddie any time soon, but there are still the Doctor Who audio plays and novels.

I think the main area where “Timelash” fails is in the budget.  It definitely had a very cheap, shoddy look about it, with plain sets and very drab costumes.  One of the worst offenses has to be the inside of the Timelash tunnel itself, which looks horribly tacky and is so obviously a glittery Styrofoam wall.

I really cannot fault McCoy for any of this, though.  He was a relatively new writer who had never worked on Doctor Who before.  In this case, I think the lion’s share of the blame should be laid at the feet of script editor Eric Saward.  It is all well and good for Saward to bemoan the fact that producer John Nathan-Turner forced him to work with a succession of inexperienced writers.  But it was Saward’s job to look at McCoy’s script, point out to him what was not achievable on the limited money allocated to the show, and suggest other alternatives.  Saward seems to have abdicated his responsibilities, though, content to let McCoy’s ambitious vision be poorly realized on a shoestring budget, all the while blaming JNT for the substandard end result.

Paul Darrow Timelash

Paul Darrow takes it to eleven as Maylin Tekker

I was also extremely underwhelmed by how the Doctor’s companion Peri was portrayed.  Nicola Bryant, as I’ve observed in past blog posts, was often handed subpar material to work with.  But this has to be one of the character’s all time worst stories.  Except for a few scenes where she’s squabbling with the Doctor, poor Peri spends nearly the entire serial running from trouble, getting captured, being left tied up, and screaming for her life.  Makes me appreciate how the character has been handled on the Big Finish audio plays all the more.

As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor meets H.G. Wells in  “Timelash,” although for almost the entire story he is just a young man named Herbert.  It’s only in the very last scene that the Doctor discovers his full name, and realizes that he’s probably had a huge impact on the future author.  There was definitely — and again I use the word — potential to a fictional encounter between the Doctor and Wells, the real-life writer whose influence on the series cannot be denied.

Regrettably, the meeting between the two does not come off especially well.  For most of the story, Herbert is written as a naïve bumbler who is in way over his head, as well as a bit of a wet blanket.  I think David Chandler gives it his all, though.  I had always hoped, as with the Borad, that we would see another meeting between the Doctor and Wells, hopefully when the later was an older, more seasoned individual.  I think Chandler expressed interest in reprising the role.  Even though that never did occur on television, Wells does meet both the Tenth Doctor and the Victorian incarnation of Torchwood in the comic book special The Time Machination by Tony Lee and Paul Grist which was published by IDW in 2009.

H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination

H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination

Before closing out any look at “Timelash,” I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention Paul Darrow in the role of Maylin Tekker.  To say that it is a broad performance would be a vast understatement.  Reputedly this was inspired by Colin Baker’s appearance as a larger-than-life space pirate, Bayban the Butcher, on Darrow’s series Blake’s 7 a few years previously.  When Darrow was then cast in “Timelash,” he apparently wanted to see if he could out-ham Baker’s earlier performance.

I honestly do not know if Darrow’s over-the-top villainy should be considered one of the most risible aspects of the serial or if it takes a mediocre production and rockets it into high melodrama.  I will tell you this, though: I half-suspect the reason that that there’s so little scenery in “Timelash” is not the result of budget problems but due to Paul Darrow chewing it up.

Strange Comic Books: Magik

Chris Claremont is the writer who guided the X-Men for nearly twenty years.  With artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, he crafted what are now regarded as classic storylines, material that decades later continues to influence current writers on the now-sprawling franchise.  After the departure of Cockrum and Byrne, Claremont continued on for over a decade on Uncanny X-Men and its spin-off titles, collaborating with a succession of talented artists, among them Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.  During this time, Claremont penned a number of memorable, intelligent, witty stories.  Oh, yes, and strange, definitely strange.  Claremont certainly knew how to plot & script material that was undoubtedly unusual.  One of these would be the four issue miniseries Magik: Storm & Illyana, originally published in 1983.  It was reprinted in a hardcover collection in 2008, which is when I finally had the opportunity to read it.

Magik cover

The Magik miniseries has its roots in Uncanny X-Men #160, which was by Claremont & Brent Anderson.  In that issue, the demon sorcerer Belasco kidnapped Illyana Rasputin, the young sister of Colossus, and took her to his strange other-dimensional realm of Limbo.  The X-Men followed, and were shocked to encounter a middle aged version of Storm.  In an alternate timeline, another group of X-Men had journeyed to rescue Illyana.  They were able to send her back to Earth, but had themselves been trapped in Limbo, where over the years Belasco killed or corrupted the entire team.  This elder Storm now helped the current X-Men to find their Illyana, and opened a portal back to Earth.  At the last moment, Belasco snatched back the young Russian girl.  On the other side of the portal, returned to Earth, Kitty Pryde reached back in to try and grab Illyana.  She succeeded, but the X-Men were in for a massive shock.  In the few seconds that had passed on Earth, years had flown by in Limbo, and the formerly six year old Illyana was now a teenager.

With the Magik series, Claremont had the opportunity to examine exactly what happened to Illyana between pages 20 and 21 of Uncanny X-Men #160, during those missing seven years of her life.  As the first issue opens, Belasco, having successfully snatched Illyana from the X-Men, attempts to corrupt her soul.  His end goal is to eventually make her a living portal through which his masters, the elder gods known as the Dark Ones, may return to Earth.  Belasco begins his corruption of Illyana’s essence, declaring in a standard Claremont monologue, “She is bound to me, body and soul, and through me, to my dread lords. Forever.”

Illyana is rescued by the middle aged Storm and her former teammate, Cat, an adult incarnation of Kitty Pryde who has been transformed into a half-feline creature by Belasco.  Storm attempts to teach Illyana to learn how to use sorcery, hopeful that the young girl can overcome the darkness that has begun to grow within her.  Cat is extremely skeptical, and prefers to instruct Illyana in physical combat.  At the same time, Cat believes that Illyana may already be beyond help.  The only two alternatives to Illyana’s salvation that Cat can see are to either find a way to return Illyana to Earth, or to kill her before she becomes irredeemably evil.

One of the favorite themes that Claremont often examines in his work is the nature of identity.  Another is the corrupting temptations of power.  Both of these are central to the story in the Magik miniseries.  Illyana frequently finds herself questioning her very existence.  Who is she, the innocent young Russian child, the pawn of Belasco, the student of Storm, or the warrior forged by Cat?  Pulling her back and forth between each of these aspects of her self is the allure of the mystical abilities that Belasco has awoken in her.  Illyana is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lord of Limbo.  On the one hand, she wishes to return home to her family & friends; on the other, she seeks to explore the powers that Belasco promises to enable her to utilize.  She tries to remember Storm’s warnings about using her magic in harmony with nature, but is tempted to shape reality to her whims like a toy, much as Belasco has done to Limbo and its ghoulish inhabitants.  The stakes are nothing less than her immortal soul.  Claremont does excellent work examining how this character, so far from home, attempts to discover who she really is while struggling with dark temptations.

Magik 3 pg 22

The artwork on Magik: Storm & Illyana is by a trio of talented pencilers.  John Buscema does pencils / layouts for the first two issues, Ron Frenz pencils the third issue, and Sal Buscema draws the final installment.  Tying everything together, giving all four issues a uniform look is Tom Palmer on inks / finishes.

Palmer is one of those artists who possess a strong, easily identifiable inking style, and it especially comes across here.  He probably deserves the most credit for establishing the eerie, unearthly, disconcerting atmosphere of Limbo.  I was very disappointed that Palmer did not receive credit on the cover of the collected edition.  Unfortunately at Marvel Comics it seems to be the standard practice to omit inking credits from TPB covers.  That is especially a shame here, given how key Palmer’s work is to the final look of the entire miniseries.

Bret Blevins also contributed, penciling a stunning, creepy cover of issue #4.  (I checked with Blevins on Facebook, and he confirmed he drew it. So the credit for Bill Sienkiewicz in the collected edition is incorrect. Just setting the record straight.)  It is a striking, twisted image of a satanic Illyana, soulsword in hand, levitating above a fiery inverted pentagram.  Palmer inks that piece, as well, which results in a really unusual but effective collaboration.

Magik 2 pg 5

Oh, yes… out of all the strangeness in the Magik miniseries, the figure who especially stands out is Belasco’s minion S’ym.  For years, whenever that odd baddie would pop up in the various X-Men books, I was really puzzled.  I could never figure out why there was this gruff-talking, cigar-smoking purple demon who wore a vest striding around.  Then someone finally pointed out to me that S’ym was Claremont’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Cerebus the Aardvark, who was created by Dave Sim.  Yeah, okay, it all makes sense now.

When it comes to examining Claremont’s numerous X-Men stories, a few leap out of the crowd: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” “Days of Future Past” (and for that last one I plan to do a separate blog post).  Those are understandably among the highlights.  But obviously Claremont wrote a lot of other entertaining, thought-provoking, and, yes, strange issues, both throughout his original 17 year run and during his subsequent turns with the characters (I absolutely loved his X-Men Forever series).  Among the numerous gems, Magik: Storm & Illyana is certainly up there.  Undoubtedly an odd series, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece of character building on Claremont’s part.  And some three decades later, other writers continue to find it influential when penning the character of Illyana Rasputin.

Comic book reviews: Human Bomb

Human Bomb is the latest four issue miniseries written by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti to reboot the characters from DC Comics’ old Freedom Fighters series for the post-Flashpoint / New 52 continuity.  The new Human Bomb is Michael Taylor, a former member of the United States Marine Corps who served with distinction in Afghanistan.  Michael is due to receive the Medal of Honor from the President, but in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, he is having nightmares that he is somehow going to explode, destroying the White House.

Reporting to work at the construction site for the new World Trade Center in Manhattan, Michael and his co-workers are horrified when a series of explosions begin going off, first throughout the City, and then the rest of the country.  Encountering another member of his unit, Michael suddenly remember how, during their deployment, they were captured & experimented upon by an organization called C.R.O.W.N. and turned into sleeper agents, literal human bombs who can explode when ordered to.  For some reason, Michael is able to disobey the command to detonate, and discovers he can fire off energy blasts.

After a battle with members of C.R.O.W.N., Michael is brought in by agents of the covert government agency S.H.A.D.E. (presumably the same group Frankenstein & the Creature Commandos work for).  Two of S.H.A.D.E.’s operatives, Uncle Sam and the telepathic Joan, fill in Michael on C.R.O.W.N.’s background.  They inform Michael that the reason why he is able to control his ability to explode, and not be killed, is that unlike the hundreds of others abducted by C.R.O.W.N., he was a latent meta-human, and the experiments gave him permanent super powers.  Michael decides to join S.H.A.D.E. and take the fight to the terrorists who turned his compatriots and many other innocents into unwitting suicide bombers.

Human Bomb 1 cover

Human Bomb has some quite good writing by Gray & Palmiotti.  The first issue effectively sets up an intriguing mystery, the second is an extended piece of exposition that details the background of these events, and the third & fourth issues contain some really exciting action sequences.  Gray & Palmiotti also do a nice job with the character of Michael Taylor, a patriotic everyman who is thrust into extremely bizarre circumstances.

I appreciate how C.R.O.W.N. was developed by Gray & Palmiotti.  After the first issue, I thought that it would be explained to be the usual nefarious shadow conspiracy you see lurking about comic books.  Instead, the forces behind C.R.O.W.N. are alien.  Yep, as in invaders from outer space, which takes the story to an entirely different level.

As much as I enjoyed the writing on Human Bomb, the major reason why I picked up this miniseries was the artwork by Jerry Ordway.  I’ve been a fan of Da Ordster for some time now.  He’s done amazing work over the years.  Among his diverse credits, he worked on the Superman books from the mid-1980s to the early 90s, co-created WildStar with Al Gordon at Image Comics, wrote, illustrated & painted the Power of Shazam graphic novel (featuring the original C.C. Beck version of Captain Marvel), both wrote and created beautiful painted covers for the follow-up monthly Power of Shazam title, and drew several issues of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong.  It was Ordway’s Captain Marvel stories that really caused me to become a huge fan of his, both as a writer and an artist.

Human Bomb 3 pg 12

The unfortunate thing about Ordway is that, even though he does amazing work, he is often quite underrated.  I do not think he has had a regular assignment drawing a monthly title for a number of years now.  He’s drawn plenty of fill-in issues and miniseries such as Human Bomb, but not a single ongoing book.  I try to keep an eye out for Da Ordster, so that when he does have new work published, I can pick it up.  But sometimes that’s difficult.  I did not even know Human Bomb was coming out, or that he was drawing it, until I saw a review of the first issue on one of my favorite blogs, Too Dangerous For A Girl.  Yeah, as far as I can tell, DC did little to promote this miniseries.  And that is a total shame, because the artwork by Ordway is up to par with his usual extraordinary efforts.

Coincidentally or not, a few days before Human Bomb #4 came out, Ordway wrote a post on his blog Random Thoughts entitled “Life Over Fifty.”  He addresses how, despite the many years of dedication he has given to DC Comics, currently it is difficult for him to locate steady work.  It is an excellent piece, and I highly recommend reading it.

Really, it is such a shame that this is the current state of affairs because, as I said before, Ordway is an incredible artist.  I sent my girlfriend a link to his blog post, and she agreed with me, that it’s a very unfortunately situation that Ordway has found himself in.  And when I showed her a few pages of his artwork from Human Bomb, she flat out declared “That’s so much better than half the shit being published nowadays!”

Human Bomb 4 pg 6

Okay, I didn’t mean for a blog about the Human Bomb miniseries to turn into a rant about ageism in comic books, or a rambling piece about how much Jerry Ordway is underrated.  But he did an amazing job on this book, so I really encourage people to track down the issues.  Combine that with an exciting story by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, and this really is a miniseries that is well worth reading.

You might want to drop an e-mail to the folks at both DC and Marvel encouraging them to hire Jerry Ordway for an upcoming project.  He says he’s years away from wanting to retire, and judging by his recent work, he’s still very capable of producing top-notch work.

And considering that Gray & Palmiotti have done a lot of good, solid work rebooting various members of the Freedom Fighters — The Ray, Phantom Lady, Doll Man, and now Human Bomb — hopefully DC will let them at least write a miniseries featuring the characters working as a team.  That would be a great book for Ordway to draw.

Oh, yes, one last thing.  I’m usually not a huge fan of computer coloring.  But I thought the colors by Hi-Fi were excellent, and complemented Ordway’s artwork perfectly.

You are watching Me TV

The last couple of months, Michele and I have been watching a lot of television.  It seems like we’re paying a small fortune to Time Warner for cable, so we figure we might as well take advantage of that, instead of buying even more DVDs.  Out of what we’ve been watching, a pretty good portion of the viewing material has been reruns on the cable channel Me TV, aka Memorable Entertainment Television.

This whole thing started in late December of last year.  Actor Jack Klugman had just passed away, and there was a 24 hour marathon of The Odd Couple on some channel or another.  For those who aren’t familiar with it, The Odd Couple is based on a play by Neil Simon.  The premise of the series is that neat, fussy photographer Felix Unger, played by Tony Randall, is kicked out by his wife, who has finally gotten completely fed up of his anal retentive behaviors.  He moves in with his old friend Oscar Madison, played by Klugman, a sloppy, grumpy newspaper sports writer who several years before was divorced by his own wife.  The opening narration asks “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”  And the answer to that is usually a resounding “NO!”  Felix and Oscar are complete polar opposites, and the comedy of the show derives from how the two of them react in completely different ways when they get thrust into a variety of bizarre and oddball situations.  Most of the time Oscar is convinced that nosy, neat freak Felix is ruining his life, and badly wants him out of the apartment.  But underneath his grumpy exterior, Oscar is a decent guy, and inevitably he ends up letting Felix stay because he can’t bear to see his pal get cast out, no matter how much they aggrivate each other.

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman on The Odd Couple

Tony Randall and Jack Klugman
on The Odd Couple

Anyway, after watching a few hours of this marathon of The Odd Couple around the holidays, Michele, who used to watch it when she was growing up, became totally hooked on it again.  She had me do a search on the DVR to see if any channels were repeating it.  That’s how we found Me TV, which airs it every weekday night at 10:00 PM.  So now it’s set to record every episode.  And, yeah, after watching it for a week or so, I ended up becoming a fan, as well.

We soon discovered that there is a lot of other cool stuff on Me TV.  There is Dick Van Dyke and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  I used to watch both of those in high school when they were rerun on Nick at Nite.  There’s “Sunday Night Noir” with shows like The Fuguitive.   I’ve also taped a couple of episodes of Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on the DVR, but I haven’t had a chance to actually view them yet.

For fans of more spooky fare, there are Rod Serling’s two famous anthology series, The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery.  Obviously I’ve seen endless reruns of The Twilight Zone in syndication.  But Night Gallery pops up much less often on television, so even though it wasn’t nearly as good as its predecessor, I’m enjoying being able to see many of the shows for the first time.  Serling was certainly a brilliant writer, and he did such an amazing job of seamlessly working social commentary into sci-fi and horror material.

Rod Serling hosting Night Gallery

Rod Serling hosting Night Gallery

Michele and I were reflecting that some of the best material we’re currently watching on television originally aired decades ago.  I’m not going to go so far as to say that everything that’s on the networks nowadays is crap.  And certainly there was plenty of awful stuff on in the 1960s and 70s.  But I really do have to wonder how many shows that are currently on the main channels will be considered classics thirty or forty years from now.

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #309

As I mentioned on my February 14th blog post, when I was seven years old the very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I read was #285.  While I really liked that comic book, I did not have an opportunity to pick up another issue of that series until exactly two years later.  That was #309, which was published in 1985.  And, as I commented before, if I thought #285 was odd, well, this new issue was simply bizarre!

Incredible Hulk 309 cover

The cover to Incredible Hulk #309 is by Mike Mignola.  It is a pretty early piece of work by the future creator of Hellboy.  But you can certainly see his potential as an artist in this unusual cover image.  This has to have been the very first time that I ever saw Mignola’s art.  It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.

Inside the comic, it quickly becomes apparent that things had changed dramatically in the two years that I was away from the title.  Formerly, Bruce Banner gained full control of his bestial alter-ego, and been accepted as a hero by the people of Earth.  Now, though, the Hulk appears to be somewhere far, far from home, struggling to string together a simple coherent thought.

“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema and Gerry Talaoc.  Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brings the reader up to speed, in a dramatic splash page montage drawn by Buscema & Talaoc.  The now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s old foe Nightmare, his dreams twisted to re-awaken the green goliath’s bestial alter ego.  Nightmare hoped to use the Hulk as weapon against the Sorcerer Supreme.  However, Strange was able to help the remaining spark of Banner’s consciousness strike back at the demon.  Unfortunately the Hulk was left with no mitigating human influence, and became an uncontrollable monster.  Rather than have to destroy his old friend, Strange exiled the Hulk to the extra-dimensional Crossroads, which links up to a myriad of other realities.

Now, after some time in the Crossroads, traveling from one strange world to another, the Hulk’s sentience is very gradually awakening.  And with this renewed awareness, the Hulk discovers that he is accompanied by a trio of unusual figures.  The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon named Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl called Guardian, and a shining magenta star known as Glow.  These mysterious figures are somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help fully restore his psyche.

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 1

Walking through one of the Crossroads portals, the Hulk and the Triad are transported into the middle of a vast alien desert.  Although the desolate sands stretch as far as the eye can see, and the harsh sun beats endlessly down, the Hulk refuses to activate the “fail-safe spell” cast by Doctor Strange that would return him to the Crossroads when he feels discontented.  As a massive sandstorm sweeps in, the Triad attempt in vain to convince the Hulk to wish himself off this planet before they all perish.

Finally, having survived the brutal elements, the Hulk at last finds that which his inhuman senses had detected from far off: a lush oasis.  The Triad realizes that the Hulk was not on a mission of suicide, but was driven by the will to find this oasis, meaning his mind is continuing to heal and come back together.

This was a really odd story to read as a kid.  The Hulk stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome.  Bill Mantlo really crafted an unusual story, having the Hulk’s struggle against nature juxtaposed against the Triad’s examination of and insights into his mental state.  It is a very introspective tale.

At the time, I had no clue who the Triad was supposed to be.  Within the next few issues, Mantlo would reveal that they are the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought.  Certainly this was a very clever, innovative idea.  Looking back on #309, I can see that Mantlo sprinkled the dialogue with a number of hints as to the true identity of the Triad.

Mantlo really broke a lot of ground with his run on Incredible Hulk.  Having already given us an intelligent Hulk, he has now exiled the jade giant from Earth and begun to embark on an examination of Bruce Banner’s psychological background.  A cursory glance at the Hulk stories that have been written in the decades since readily demonstrates just how much all of this influenced subsequent writers.

This issue’s artwork was absolutely incredible.  The thing that really struck me was the depiction of the Hulk by Buscema & Talaoc.  Obviously in other comic books and in television cartoons, the Hulk had always been a big, strong creature.  But this was the first time I had ever seen him drawn as such a huge, bestial, imposing figure.

The illustrations of the Crossroads and the desert planet that the Hulk and his strange companions visited were very vivid and detailed.  Buscema did a great job on the pencils, crafting these alien environments.  And the inking by Talaoc was absolutely superb.  He created a tangible atmosphere of oddness for the Crossroads.  On the desolate world, his embellishments bring to life a harsh landscape that alternates between cutting winds and a brutal sun.

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 10

In the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, “Our Pal” Sal states that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with.  I can certainly see why.  They went together exceptionally well.  Talaoc really enhances Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.

Incredible Hulk #309 was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending a decade-long run.  Mike Mignola came onboard as the new penciler.  A few issues later, the entire team of Mantlo, Mignola & Talaoc relocated to the pages of Alpha Flight.  Mignola departed that book after only a handful of issues, but both Mantlo and Talaoc stuck around longer, at one point even reuniting with Sal Buscema on pencils for a couple of issues.  Meanwhile, the Incredible Hulk book, after brief stints by first John Byrne and then Al Milgrom, had Peter David come onboard for a lengthy, brilliant run that, as I said before, has some of its roots in Mantlo previous work.

By the time Incredible Hulk #309 came along, it had become a bit easier for me to follow comic book titles.  So I was fortunately able to pick up most of the next several issues of the series, plus follow Mantlo and friends onto Alpha Flight.  And those issues I did miss I eventually bought as back issues.

Looking back on Bill Mantlo’s run writing Incredible Hulk, yep, it was really strange, but also innovate and exciting.  The artwork by Sal Buscema was superb, and for the later part he was paired up with the excellent inking of Gerry Talaoc.  Fortunately, after all these years, a good portion of the Mantlo issues, #s 269 to 313, is finally being collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks.  The first two, Pardoned and Regression, are already out, with the third, Crossroads, due in May.  I highly recommend picking them up.  They remain some of the best Hulk stories ever written.

Strange Comic Books: Unknown Soldier #268

Those with good memories may recall that last year I wrote about the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier trade paperback.  I tremendously enjoyed the stories collected in that book, and that in turn led me to purchase a bunch of the later issues of the series on Ebay.  One of those comics was the final issue, Unknown Soldier #268, which was published in 1982.  This is a memorable yet also quite strange issue, one which sees the Soldier embark on his final mission, which brings him face to face with his most hated enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Unknown Soldier 268 cover

Like most issues of Star Spangled War Stories and Unknown Soldier, #268 is topped off by a superb cover drawn by the legendary Joe Kubert.  This macabre image shows the corpses of Hitler and his bride Eva Braun sprawled across the floor of the Fuhrer’s bunker.  Hovering before them is a ghostly image of the Unknown Soldier.

Inside is “A Farewell to War,” written by Bob Haney, with pencil layouts by Dick Ayers and finishes by Gerry Talaoc.  Haney was one of the writers of the character’s early adventures in Star Spangled War Stories, and he returned to chronicle the Soldier’s adventures after the series was re-named after the character.  Ayers, among his numerous credits, worked on Marvel Comics’ war titles in the 1960s.  In the mid-1970s he moved over to DC, and Unknown Soldier became one of his regular assignments.  As I’ve mentioned, I used to live about ten minutes from Dick, and I visited him a couple of times.  Finally, Talaoc is one of the very talented Filipino artists who broke onto the American comic book scene in the 1970s.  As a kid, I first saw his work when he was inking Sal Buscema and Mike Mignola on Incredible Hulk.  It was a pleasure to re-discover his art through his lengthy stint drawing Unknown Soldier, a series where he did amazing work.  Nowadays Talaoc lives in Alaska, but he was kind enough to autograph a few books that I mailed to him.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 1

Unknown Soldier #268 opens with a splash page, a combination of Ayers & Talaoc’s artwork and a photo montage, which harks back to the pieces Kubert would use to open his stories a decade before.  It is May 2, 1945, and the Soviet army has discovered the corpse of Hitler.  The story then flashes back four days, to April 28.  The war in Europe is nearing its end, and Berlin is undergoing intense bombing by the Allied forces.  The Unknown Soldier is parachuting into the besieged city, hoping to make contact with the German Resistance, which is in possession of a dangerous secret.  The Soldier slips into disguise, but is unable to do anything as, one by one, his confidants are killed by a fanatical Nazi officer named Kessler.  All the Soldier is able to learn is one word: Nosferatu.

Finally, the Soldier himself is unmasked by Kessler, who pursues him into the city’s subway system.  Furious at having seen those close to him, his adopted family, brutally murdered, the Soldier attacks Kessler in a darkened tunnel.  After a furious fight, the Soldier knocks Kessler against the third rail, electrocuting him.  The master of disguise assumes the identity of his fallen foe and slips out across the city, heading to the Reich Chancellery, hoping to learn what the dreaded secret is that his friends died trying to uncover.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 15

Still disguised as Kessler, the Soldier is admitted to Hitler’s bunker, coming face-to-face with the infamous ruler of the Third Reich.  There, he learns the horrific, not to mention utterly bizarre, meaning of Nosferatu.  It is Hitler’s doomsday plan.  In the event of Germany’s impending defeat, the Nazis will unleash a swarm of genetically engineered bio-weapons, flying octopi mutated with vampire blood that will swarm all across Europe, decimating the Allies.  Yes, really!

Before Hitler can give the order to release the Nosferatu, the Soldier attacks him.  Grappling with the madman, he calls up the memories of his fallen comrades and summons the strength to shoot the dictator in the face, killing him.  Quickly altering his disguise, the Soldier takes on the identity of Hitler himself.  He issues the order for the Nosferatu to be destroyed.  Then, once again donning his Kessler mask, the Soldier slips out of the bunker, having staged the bodies of Hitler and his wife so that they appear to have committed suicide.

Back in his usual outfit of trench coat and bandaged face, the victorious Unknown Soldier attempts to make his way out of Berlin alive.  However, he spots a child about to be killed by a falling bomb.  Quickly throwing her to safety, the Soldier is caught in the blast, seemingly perishing.  But before Bob Haney closes the story, he includes a hint in the final panel that maybe, just maybe, the Soldier might possibly have survived.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 23

Whew!  What an exciting, jam-packed, strange comic book!  Bob Haney really brings the saga of the Unknown Soldier to a cataclysmic conclusion, doesn’t he?  I classified this as a Strange Comic Book because not only does the Soldier kill Hitler, but because of the whole Nosferatu subplot.  It what is a very gritty, hard-edged story of war and sacrifice, the inclusion of such a far-out science fiction concept is just plain weird.  Perhaps this is a misstep by Haney.  He might have been better off having the Nazis planning to release some sort of super-virus.

Also, from a dramatic standpoint, it would have been more exciting if, during the struggle with Hitler, the Soldier’s mask would have been torn off.  It seemed a bit odd having Hitler think he was fighting a traitor, when instead he really ought to have found out that his opponent was the Allies’ greatest covert operative.

But aside from these two points, “A Farewell to War” is quite well written.  It brings definite closure to the Soldier’s story.  For a figure who had dedicated himself to the destruction of war, it is appropriate that he meet his (seeming) demise at the end of the conflict that spawned him.  Somehow, it just would have not had the same impact if he’d retired or, worse yet, lived to become some sort of post-WWII superhero who fought costumed criminals alongside the Justice Society.  No, Haney made the right decision to close out the final issue the way he did.

The artwork on issue #268 is stunning.  Dick Ayers does solid work with his layouts and storytelling.  There’s a great deal of drama to his work.  And the finishes by Gerry Talaoc are exemplary.  He gives the story a real, tangible sense of atmosphere and gloom.  Talaoc’s inking brings to vivid life the chaos and destruction of a crumbling, ruined city under siege and its tragic, desperate inhabitants.  It really communicates the horrors of war.

Ihe likelihood of DC publishing any additional Showcase Presents volumes of Unknown Soldier seems rather small, unfortunately.  So I do not know if this issue will ever be reprinted.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to find rather inexpensive back issues of this series for sale online.  These comics are definitely worth tracking down.  Joe Kubert’s magnificent covers and Gerry Talaoc’s lushly illustrated interiors are among the best artwork I’ve ever seen.