I was really happy to finally pick up a copy of the trade paperback E-Man: The Early Years from Joe Staton at this year’s New York Comic Con. Crash course for the uninitiated: E-Man is the creation of writer Nicola “Nick” Cuti and artist Joe Staton. Cuti has described the character of E-Man as a cross between Plastic Man and the theories of Albert Einstein.
The being who would become E-Man began life thousands of years ago when a packet of sentient energy erupted from an alien star. For millennia this energy wandered the universe, searching for other intelligent life. Eventually it came across the spaceship of the Brain from Sirius. Boarding the craft, the unexpected extra weight caused the Brain’s ship to crash on Earth. Exploring the planet, the sentient energy eventually got caught up in power lines which led him to the dressing room of Nova Kane, who was working as a burlesque performer to pay her grad school bills. Taking on human form, the energy being adopted the identity of E-Man, and Nova gave him the civilian alias of Alec Tronn. With Nova as his guide, introducing him to the customs of Earth, E-Man became the planet’s protector against the vengeful Brain and a variety of other bizarre foes.
The E-Man series first debuted in 1973, published by Charlton Comics. It lasted ten issues there before being canceled due to low sales, but garnered a cult following. A decade later, when Charlton went out of business, the rights to the series were purchased by First Comics. In addition to reprinting the original Charlton stories, First published 25 issues of brand new material between 1983 and 1985, drawn by Staton. At the time, Cuti was on staff at DC Comics and wasn’t readily available to return to his baby, so other writers such as Martin Pasko and Paul Kupperberg penned the series, as well as Staton himself. Cuti was finally able to return to E-Man for the last few issues of the First run.
In the years since First ceased regular publication, the situation, as Staton explained it to me once, eventually resolved itself as such: First still retains ownership of all the E-Man stories published under their banner and by Charlton. Staton has the rights to create brand-new E-Man material, which he has done so with Cuti on several occasions. Cuti & Staton have created new E-Man stories at Comico, Alpha Productions and, most recently, a trio of one-shots published by Digital Webbing between 2006 and 2008.
Since I was born in 1976 and begin reading comics regularly in the mid-1980s, I obviously missed the Charlton and First stories when they originally appeared. I actually discovered Joe Staton primarily via his work on Green Lantern in the early 1990s (which was actually his third time drawing that series). His style was really appealing to me. A lot of people describe it as “cartoony,” which makes sense, yet at the same time oversimplifies things. Really, what I think that means is that Staton’s work is not-hyper detailed like, say, Perez or Maguire or a lot of the artists who became popular in the 1990s. Staton’s illustrations have a charming quality, but at the same time he is able to draw extremely serious material. He can easily transition from the goofy misadventures of Guy Gardner or Scooby Doo to the cosmic space opera of Green Lantern to the noir tales featured in The Huntress and Femme Noir.
E-Man was definitely a really great fit for Staton’s talents. Cuti wrote stories that were fun and humorous without being silly or excessively mocking the characters. Alec and Nova often faced life & death situations, but Cuti scripting was never overly grim, and there were plenty of silly jokes to liven things up. Staton got to draw Alec Tronn transforming into a variety of weird & wonderful forms, as well as throw in lots of great visual gags.
The cast of characters in E-Man is a really nice group. Alec, as a stranger in a strange land, is at times charming naïve, which leads to a lot of comedy. At the same time, though, Cuti doesn’t write Alec as an idiot, but rather as a genuinely nice guy who just happens to have a lot to learn about his new home. His companion / love-interest is Katrinka Kolcnzski, aka Nova Kane. She is a thoroughly modern woman, independent & smart, as well as drop-dead gorgeous. I like that Cuti writes her as a confident, self-assured individual without resorting to having her act catty (although she does occasionally get jealous when Alec is seemingly eyeing other ladies). Later on, when Nova gains super powers similar to Alec, they really do have an equal partnership. Also hanging around is sloppy but clever private investigator Michael Mauser (think Sam Spade meets Oscar Madison) who loves a good game of cards and a liverwurst sandwich with raw onions. And then there’s the adorable Teddy-Q, a koala bear who comes to live with Alec & Nova.
Oh, yes, Nova’s career as a burlesque dancer provides Staton with the opportunity to draw some incredibly sexy sequences. I know that Staton’s name typically doesn’t come up when thinking of artists who draw cheesecake and good girl art. But I have always thought that Staton rendered very beautiful women. And his depictions of Nova Kane are definitely stunning.
It’s really interesting to look at the original ten issues from the Charlton run, which are reprinted in The Early Years trade paperback. In 1973, Staton had only been a professional artist for a couple of years. Yet already he was doing some amazing work. Staton even illustrated painted covers for the last four issues of the series. So right from the start, it was clear that he was a talented individual. Of course, a nice aspect of the TPB is that it also includes his covers from The Original E-Man miniseries published by First in the mid-1980s that reprinted the Charlton stories. Viewing these, you can clearly see how much Staton had developed as an artist, and how his style was evolving.
I really hope that First is able to publish additional E-Man trade paperbacks. I only have one issue from the 1980s series, so it would be great if those could be collected. Even better, I would love to see new stories from Cuti & Staton. Those three specials released by Digital Webbing a few years back were fantastic. They had all of the fun and excitement and humor of the original Charlton issues. It really felt like there hadn’t been a lapse of decades, and that Cuti & Staton had just picked up right where they had left off all those years before.
By the way, for additional information on E-Man, plus an interesting, detailed look at Charlton Comics in the 1970s, it is worth tracking down Comic Book Artist #12, which was released by TwoMorrows Publishing in 2001. The magazine is topped off by a brand new cover drawn by Staton, featuring E-Man, Nova Kane, Teddy-Q, and the many colorful, macabre hosts of Charlton’s horror anthologies. TwoMorrows still has copies for sale at their website.