Happy birthday to Sal Buscema

Today is the 78th birthday of one of my favorite comic book artists, Sal Buscema, who was born on January 26, 1936.  “Our Pal Sal,” as he is often affectionately referred to by comic book fans, is the younger brother of the late, great John Buscema (1927-2002), another of the amazing artists whose work defined the look of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.

For an extremely in-depth look at Sal Buscema’s career, I highly recommend picking up the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, written by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weathington, published by TwoMorrows.  Also now out in comic shops is Back Issue #70, edited by Michael Eury, and also released by TwoMorrows. Examining the Hulk throughout the Bronze Age, one of the subjects naturally touched upon is Buscema’s record ten year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from late 1975 to mid 1986.  That said, I am going to look at a few specific, favorite areas of Buscema’s career.

Sal Buscema Comics Fast & Furious Artist cover

One of Buscema’s first assignments at Marvel was penciling Avengers in 1969.  This was something of a baptism by fire, considering Sal had the render numerous heroes and villains in the storylines being written by Roy Thomas.  Nevertheless, Buscema did great work out of the gate, turning in quality pencils for the Avengers’ now-classic encounters with Ultron, the Zodiac Cartel, the Lethal Legion, and the forces of the extraterrestrial Kree and Skrull, those later issues being part of the epic “Kree-Skrull War,” which also featured the artistry of Sal’s brother John and a young Neal Adams.

Around this same time, John Buscema, who was somewhat picky about who inked his work, asked Sal to embellish his pencils on several issues of Silver Surfer.  Looking at the black & white reprints of those stories in Essential Silver Surfer, I’d say that Sal did a great job, really bringing out the best in his brother’s work.

In late 1971, Sal Buscema became the penciler on Captain America, a book which at the time was floundering somewhat both in terms of sales and creative stability.  In mid-1972, Buscema was joined by incoming writer Steve Englehart.  Together, the two of them took the characters of Cap and the Falcon on a creative renaissance.  Their run is now regarded as one of the high points in the long history of the book.  It is certainly one of my favorites.   Englehart focused squarely on Cap’s uncertain place in the extremely unsettled social & political climate of the early 1970s.  Buscema turned in exemplary pencils, creating one of the definitive renditions of the character.  The high point of their run was undoubtedly “The Secret Empire,” a story arc that ran from #169 to #176.

Captain America 175 pg 1

Buscema departed from Captain America shortly afterwards.  His last regular issue was #181, cover-dated January 1975.  By the time he was already a few years into a run penciling The Defenders.  One of the main characters in that title was the Hulk, a character Buscema drew extremely well, and who he has stated on several occasions was a favorite of his.  He has expressed a fondness for the character, a tortured child-like creature perceived as a dangerous monster and cast out from society.  So it was certainly a judicious choice for Marvel to offer him the assignment to pencil Incredible Hulk later that year.  As I said before, Buscema had a decade-long run on that series, once again creating a definitive interpretation of one of Marvel’s icons.

I’ve written about Sal Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk a couple of times before on this blog, specifically issue #285 and #309.  Both written by Bill Mantlo, each of these issues had extremely different tones and atmospheres to them.  Comparing those two comics, you can really see Buscema’s versatility as an artist.

One of my favorite titles that Buscema worked on was Rom Spaceknight, beginning with the debut issue in late 1979, and remaining on the title until issue #58 in 1984.  Nearly the entirety of the series was written by the aforementioned Bill Mantlo.  He and Buscema worked really well together.  Mantlo’s Rom Spaceknight stories were a deft blending of superheroes, sci-fi, horror, and conspiracy fiction.  Buscema expertly illustrated this cocktail of diverse elements.  He also excelled at drawing Rom himself, a near-featureless metal figure.  Buscema had to rely on his mastery of capturing the nuances of body language to give emotion to the cyborg hero.  Buscema drew on his amateur theater background to make Rom a lifelike individual.

Rom Spaceknight 1 pg 1

Buscema had been the original artist on Spectacular Spider-Man when it debuted in 1976, penciling the first couple of years.  A decade later, in 1988, he returned to the book with a refined style to his art which was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Buscema, first with writer Gerry Conway, and then with J.M. DeMatteis, produced what I regard as some of the finest work of his career.  His storytelling and nuanced emotional depictions of characters were especially stunning on DeMatteis’ moody, psychological run from #178 to #200.

DeMatteis was following up on one of the threads from his time writing Captain America and the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story, specifically the tragic story of the man-rat Vermin.  The author wove this around the conflict between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the latter of whom, haunted by memories of his then still very much dead father Norman, became unhinged and took up the identity of the Green Goblin.  This all culminated in the tragic issue #200, which Buscema magnificently illustrated.

Spectacular SpiderMan 182 cover

Buscema remained on Spectacular Spider-Man until #238.  Towards the end of this run, he was inked by John Stanisci and, appropriately enough, Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist who had inspired him to experiment with his long-established style.  I really liked the pairing of Buscema and Sienkiewicz.

In the mid-1990s, when Marvel was in the uphevals of bankruptcy, Buscema had to look for work elsewhere.  For several years he was employed by Marvel’s distinguished competition themselves, DC Comics.  At DC, Buscema both penciled and inked a number of different titles, including various Batman and Superman books.  It was really interesting to see the long-time Marvel artist on DC’s flagship characters.  Buscema did some great work during this time.  One of my favorite stories he penciled at DC was “The Prison,” written & inked by John Stanisci, which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #8.  It examined the dark, convoluted relationship between Batman and Talia, the daughter of the Dark Knight’s immortal nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.  Buscema did a nice job on this, and it was great to see him paired with Stanisci again.

Batman Chronicles 8 pg 5

Since 2000, Buscema has been semi-retired.  Most of his work in the last decade and a half has been as an inker.  His most frequent artistic partner is penciler Ron Frenz.  The two of them make a great art team.  They had a long run on Spider-Girl.  Subsequently they’ve also worked on ThunderstrikeHulk Smash Avengers, She-Hulk, Black Knight G.I. Joe, and Superman Beyond.

After over four decades in the comic book industry, nowadays Sal Buscema is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Nevertheless, as a huge fan of his work, I am very happy that he does still venture back into the biz from time to time for the occasional job.  It is always a thrill for me to see new artwork from him.  Our Pal Sal is definitely an amazing talent.

I am happy to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talents. There is a Facebook group entitled SAL BUSCEMA POW! which currently has 619 members.  Somehow I ended up being the co-moderator of this one.  So, if you are also a fan of his work, feel free to join.

(One Year Later Update… as of today, January 26, 2015, the SAL BUSCEMA POW! group on Facebook now has 1,466 members.  A big “thank you” to everyone who joined in the last year.  It’s nice to hear from so many fellow fans of Our Pal Sal.)

Once again, happy birthday, Sal!  Thank you for all the wonderful stories and artwork that you’ve given us.

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Happy birthday to Joe Staton

I want to wish a very happy birthday to the super-talented comic book artist Joe Staton, who was born on January 19, 1948, and who turns 66 years old today.  Staton has had a long, productive career, working on dozens of titles from numerous publishers.

Staton, as with a number of other artists who broke into the comic book biz in the 1970s, got his start at Charlton Comics.  Beginning in 1971, Staton drew a number of stories for their various horror anthologies, plus licensed titles Space 1999 and The Six Million Dollar ManWith writer Nicola Cuti, he created the cult classic sci-fi super hero E-Man, which I covered in a previous blog.

In the mid-1970s, Staton also worked for Marvel.  He inked Sal Buscema’s pencil breakdowns on Avengers and The Incredible Hulk.  Staton, however, enjoyed both penciling and inking, and so starting in 1977 he began working at DC, where he would illustrate a wide variety of titles over the next two decades.

Brave and the Bold 197 pg 19

Early on, Staton made a lasting contribution to the DC universe when, working with Paul Levitz and Bob Layton, he created the Huntress, aka Helena Wayne, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman on Earth Two.  Six years later, in 1983, Staton collaborated with writer Alan Brennert and inker George Freeman on “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne,” which revealed how Batman and Catwoman fell in love and married.  This now-classic story originally appeared in The Brave and the Bold #197 and several years later was deservedly included in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told collection.  It is one of my all-time favorite Batman stories, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it.  Brennert’s script was very moving & memorable.  Staton & Freeman did tremendous work on this.  Staton’s layouts & storytelling are incredibly dramatic. He also succeeds in capturing some of the atmosphere of Golden Age artist Dick Sprang.

In late 1979, Staton became the penciler on Green Lantern, beginning a long, well-regarded association with the characters of the GL Corps.  Staton actually had three separate runs on the series, first from 1979 to 1982, then from 1985 to 1988, and finally from 1990 to 1992, that last time alternating with artists Pat Broderick and M.D. Bright.  During this decade-plus time, Staton co-created several characters in the GL mythos, namely Kilowog, Arisia and Salaak.  Although he didn’t create Guy Gardner, Staton is the artist who designed his now-iconic look.  Also making their debut in the pages of Green Lantern during this time were the alien freedom fighters the Omega Men, who Staton co-created with Marv Wolfman.

Green Lantern Corps 201 cover

In 1992, Staton was the artist on the Guy Gardner: Reborn miniseries, and then on the first year of Guy’s ongoing series.  Throughout the 1990s, Staton continued to work for DC, drawing a number of titles, including several Batman-related projects, in addition to the noir crime miniseries Family Man.  He also had work published by Caliber, Topps and Archie.  Beginning in 1999, Staton became one of the regular artists on the Scooby Doo comic book.

Staton has often commented that he enjoys working on mystery and detective stories.  He definitely has a real flair for that type of material, and in recent years he has fortunately had the opportunity to work in the genre.  With writer Christopher Mills, he worked on the four issue miniseries Femme Noir: The Dark City Diaries, published by Ape Entertainment in 2008, and collected as a trade paperback a year later.  Set in the fictitious metropolis of Port Nocturne during the rough & tumble days of Prohibition, Femme Noir chronicles the adventures of the enigmatic vigilante known only as “The Blonde.”  I really enjoyed this series.  Beginning in 2011, Staton has also been the artist on Dick Tracy.  His style fits the newspaper strip perfectly.

Femme Noir TPB cover

Joe Staton and his charming wife Hilarie live in Upstate New York, and so I’ve had the opportunity to meet them at a number of comic conventions in the tri-state area over the years.  I can honestly say that Staton is one of the nicest comic book creators I’ve ever met.  It is always a pleasure to see him at a show and chat with him for a few minutes.  I’ve been lucky enough to obtain a few sketches by him, as well as a page of original art from one of his Green Lantern issues.

Once again, have a very happy birthday, Joe.  Thank you for all the wonderful, enjoyable stories that you’ve worked on over the years.  And here’s hoping for further editions of E-Man and Femme Noir in the near future.  I really do miss Alec Tronn, Nova Kane, The Blonde, and all the other colorful characters from those series.

Comic book reviews: Love and Rockets New Stories #6

This one’s a bit late!  Love and Rockets: New Stories #6 by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez came out this past September, and Michele bought it right away.  I ended up procrastinating taking a look at it.  And then when I did want to read it, I couldn’t remember where the hell I’d put it!  Well, I finally found it a few days ago.  So here, at last, is a look at the 2013 edition of Love and Rockets.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 cover

Gracing the cover of New Stories #6 is Killer, the sexy granddaughter of Gilbert Hernandez’s longtime protagonist Luba.  Within his half of this issue, Gilbert successfully looks to the future, while at the same time acknowledging the past.  The fact that the teenage Killer is depicted clutching Luba’s iconic hammer is an apt symbol for how the young character successfully straddles present day and earlier years.  Killer divides her time between California and the Central American village of Palomar, and she has affection for each of these different worlds.  This is a very effective way for Gilbert to write about the next generation of his ongoing saga while maintaining roots with the older characters.

Actually, Killer is much more interested in the past than many of the elders of Palomar.  Killer is fascinated by the stories she’s heard about her late great-grandmother Maria.  Having found a surviving short sequence from a now-lost movie that Maria starred in decades before, Killer wishes to find out much more.  In certain ways she seeks to emulate her great-grandmother’s legend.  In contrast, Luba, who was abandoned as an infant by Maria, understandably could not care less.

Gilbert effectively illustrates how someone can be many different people, depending upon who they’ve known, and how they’ve acted, at various points in their life (reminding me of the song “Too Many People” by the Pet Shop Boys).  Through a few brief flashbacks, we even see Maria stating, or perhaps rationalizing, that Luba was better off without her.  I never had too much sympathy for Maria in the past.  But thinking it over, I realize that Maria was a flawed woman who led a difficult life, and who did change over time.  The Maria who gave away Luba is not the same Maria who years later did attempt, in her own imperfect way, to raise her other two daughters, Petra and Fritz.

Killer, as we see in New Stories #6, is actually a very fortunate individual.  Luba never really knew either of her parents.  Luba’s daughters each had varying degrees of difficulty in their relationships with her.  Killer, while her parents Guadalupe and Hector may be divorced, still has both of them in her life, offering her their love & support.  In a way, Killer is a glimpse at the woman Luba might have become if she’d had a more stable, loving upbringing.  Killer is confident and independent like her grandmother, but she is also, despite a seemingly impregnable exterior, much more capable of establishing friendships with and ties to other people.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 pg 52

Over in Jaime Hernandez’s portion of New Stories #6, the focus returns to Tonta, the teenage half-sister of Vivian “Frogmouth” Solis who was first introduced last issue.  As a reader, I felt that I didn’t really get to know Tonta all that well in her debut.  But, as I observed in my write-up of New Stories #5, just as it took Jaime time to develop Maggie, so too it was likely that it would also be a gradual process of witnessing Tonta grow as a character.  Indeed, she had a much stronger presence in New Stories #6, and I found myself becoming interested in her, invested in her story.

Last time I also commented that I hoped Jaime would bring Maggie’s friend Angel back, involving her in Tonta’s life.  Well, that is exactly what occurs, as Tonta is introduced to her high school’s new physical education instructor, Coach Angel Rivera.  And despite joining the hallowed halls of academia, Angel is still wild at heart, secretly moonlighting as a masked wrestler on the weekends.

We also get a close look at Tonta’s family life, meeting her mother and several of her other siblings.  And, oh boy, I’m starting to understand how Vivian turned out to be such a nut job!  Tonta’s family is so incredibly dysfunctional that they make Maggie Chascarillo’s childhood look like a portrait of sanity in comparison!  By the end of New Stories #6, I was really feeling for Tonta, as her already-screwy family splintered completely apart.  The teenager is left sadly wandering through half-remembered reminiscences of when she was a little girl, before everything in her life became horribly complicated by betrayal and insanity.

Those last few melancholy pages of New Stories #6 definitely left me wondering what’s in store for Tonta in the future.  At times like this, the annual format of New Stories is frustrating.  Part of me wishes that I did not have to wait until September for Fantagraphics to publish the next issue.  Of course, that is the mark of great creators, leaving you wanting to find out what happens next.  Jaime and Gilbert certainly possess that ability.

Love and Rockets New Stories 6 pg 31

Actually, I find it interesting to compare and contrast the work of the two brothers.  There are, inevitably, certain similarities.  But there are also undoubtedly very distinctive qualities to each of their individual writing and art.  In a way, it is almost like looking at Kirby and Ditko side by side.  They were the two preeminent Marvel superhero artists of the 1960s, but in very different ways.  I’ve sometimes likened Jaime to Kirby, and Gilbert to Ditko, in regards to the sensibilities of their work.  Jaime is rather more straightforward in his plotting & scripting, and his artwork has a, shall we say, polished look.  Gilbert, on the other hand, often utilizes more offbeat, unconventional narrative structures, and his art style possesses a gritty, quirky mood to it.

Hmmm, okay, I am probably not doing as sufficient a job at articulating this as I want!  But hopefully you will get my point.  In any case, both Gilbert and Jaime do wonderful work in their own unique ways.

After thirty years of Love and Rockets, Los Bros Hernandez are definitely still going strong, creating engaging, thoughtful, moving stories with beautiful artwork.  This one is highly recommended.

Khan Noonien Singh: Star Trek’s “benevolent dictator”

I thought it might be nice to sit down and re-watch my DVD of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan today.  As I’ve written before, it is a really great movie.  The script by Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards has so many fascinating aspects to it.  And then it occurred to me that it had been literally years since I’d actually viewed “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode written by Gene L. Coon & Carey Wilber to which The Wrath of Khan is a sequel.  I did a Google search, and found that you can view it for free online at Hulu.  Yeah, okay, you have to sit though several commercials, but it’s still better than watching a grainy bootlegged version.

Viewing “Space Seed” and Star Trek II back-to-back, I realized what an amazingly fascinating character Khan Noonien Singh was.  Obviously a major aspect of this is that the part of Khan was portrayed by the amazing Ricardo Montalban, who turns in a forceful, charismatic performance.  But I think that aspects of Khan’s character also speak to a quality present in society, the notion of the appeal of the so-called “benevolent dictator.”

The idea of one unifying individual bringing order to a state or nation, or perhaps even the entire world, is certainly not a new one.  In certain respects, it is understandable.  The alternative, democracy, is an extremely flawed, messy process.  Dozens upon dozens of dissenting voices have to be heard and appeased, compromises need to be achieved that often end up pleasing no one, politicians who are supposed to be the representatives of the people are swayed or outright bought by private interests, and the entire day-to-day functioning of government can be ground to a halt by a small group of elected officials who are unwilling to participate in the process.  One needs only look at the current deplorable state of affairs here in the United States to see this taking place.

But, really, just how much better is the alternative?  Lord Acton stated that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Or, as Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes in “Space Seed,” when commenting on the genetically engineered supermen who once nearly seized control of Earth, “Superior ability breeds superior ambition.”

Khan Space Seed

The crew of the Enterprise, having discovered the cryogenically frozen Khan and his band of followers in outer space, is of two minds about the man.  While Kirk (William Shatner) dislikes what Khan represents, at the same time, looking at the historical record, the Captain of the Enterprise sees that, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Khan’s dominion over a major portion of the globe was relatively benign & peaceful.  Indeed, over dinner with the ship’s crew, Khan passionately argues that the Earth made a terrible mistake in driving him into exile.  He states that his rule was not tyrannical, but “an attempt to unite humanity.”  He goes on to forcefully declare “We offered the world order!”

Khan is certainly an extremely charismatic individual with a magnetic personality.  However, the man’s true side begins to come out in his interactions with Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The Enterprise’s historian is immediately attracted to Khan and what he represents.  In an early establishing shot, we see McGivers’ quarters are decorated with paintings & sculptures of men of power such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Richard the Lionheart.  She possesses a much romanticized view of these individuals, who she considers superior to the males of her time.  And Khan immediately seizes on to that.

In his actions, Khan shows some of the signs of being a sociopath.  He is driven by ego, by the belief in his superiority over others.  He values other people primarily for what they can give him.  He knows how to talk a good game.  And he is superb at reading other people.  Khan immediately identifies that McGivers has this idealized view of individuals such as himself, and that she is attracted to him, both on a physical level and because of what he represents.  No doubt he also notes that she has a rather submissive side to her personality.  He takes advantage of all this, forcefully seducing her, and then ordering her to assist him in taking over the Enterprise.  When McGivers is at first unwilling to do so, Khan then appears to dismiss her, denying her the attention & affection she craves.  It is definitely an extremely unhealthy and twisted relationship built on abuse.

Once Khan and his followers, with McGivers’ aid, take over the Enterprise, his charming, civilized veneer continues to slip.  Khan realizes that Kirk and his crew are not going to easily capitulate.  He threatens Kirk with an extremely slow, painful death by suffocation, and promises to repeat this to the rest of the bridge crew, one by one.  However, if any of them swear to serve him, he will spare their lives.  In this way, at least in his mind, he appears benevolent.  As Khan no doubt sees it, he is basically saying “Look, I can be reasonable and merciful. Just do what I tell you to do and I promise no harm will come to you.”  Of course, the crew refuse Khan’s offer, and remain loyal to Kirk.  This just serves to further enrage Khan.  The more his enemies resist him, the more violent he becomes.  It is this that shocks McGivers into betraying Khan.  Witnessing first-hand the cold, hard reality of the types of men she had admired, she is repulsed, and she rescues Kirk, who organizes his crew to take back the ship.

However, Khan’s ego will not allow him to give up.  He attempts to blow up the Enterprise, wanting to take down everyone with him.  Kirk of course manages to thwart this.  Later, with the super-humans in custody, Kirk offers Khan and his followers the choice of settling on the untamed planet Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment by Starfleet.  He also gives McGivers the opportunity to join Khan rather than face court martial.  She agrees, and Khan declares “I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted: a world to win, an empire to build.”  There is Khan’s ego once more at work.  He forgives McGivers for her betrayal.  And he twists things around so that he can rationalize that despite being defeated he has achieved what he wanted in the first place.

Khan Star Trek II

Unfortunately, as we find out fifteen years later in Star Trek II, things turn out really badly for Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V.  Six months after settling there, the neighboring planet in the system exploded.  Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, turning it into an inhospitable desert, and for the next decade and a half Khan and his followers barely clung to existence.

When the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V, mistaking it for the exploded planet, Khan instantly recognizes its First Officer, Pavel Chekov, formerly of the Enterprise (Yes, I know, Walter Koenig didn’t join the cast of Star Trek until the second season, and so wasn’t in “Space Seed.” Koenig likes to joke that his character was serving on a different part of the Enterprise at that time, and that Chekov accidentally kept Khan waiting an uncomfortably long time to use the bathroom, hence the animosity.)  Here again Khan’s ego immediately comes into play.  Instead of recognizing an opportunity for rescue, he becomes full of resentment.  Looking around at the sorry state he is now in, Khan declares “On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions.”  He is disgusted at the notion that in the intervening years Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, no doubt seeing it as a further insult that his rival has had a successful career while Khan was off rotting in exile.  In fact, Khan places the blame for his circumstances squarely on Kirk for never returning to check up on him (which, admittedly, is a fair enough criticism).  Now Khan sees the opportunity for revenge.  He takes control of the Reliant and sets out to kill his hated foe.

It’s interesting that Khan refers to the death of his “beloved wife,” undoubtedly a reference to Marla McGivers.  I really do wonder if Khan loved her.  It seems somewhat difficult to believe so, based on their relationship in “Space Seed,” where he was manipulating her.  Maybe he genuinely did.  Then again, perhaps Khan merely convinced himself that he loved her, because it fulfilled his self-image as a good man.  Whatever the case, I think that when the opportunity arose to attack Kirk, he uses McGivers’ death as one more self-justification in pursuing his vendetta.

In watching Star Trek II, you do realize that Khan has ample opportunities to take a different course of action.  Instead, he is absolutely hell-bent on gaining revenge.  Even Khan’s utterly loyal right-hand man Joachim (Judson Scott) attempts on more than one occasion to argue that they have their freedom and a spaceship, they can go anywhere in the universe, lead their own destiny once again.  But Khan’s monumental pride simply will not allow it.  He will not let go of the idea of avenging himself on Kirk.

After the Enterprise barely survives an encounter with the Khan-controlled Reliant, Kirk bitterly notes “He wants to kill me for passing sentence on him fifteen years ago. And he doesn’t care who stands between him and his vengeance.”  It eventually transpires that this includes Khan’s own devoted followers.  He is more concerned with revenge than he is for their welfare.

It’s interesting to note that early in the film we see a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf.  No doubt he has had ample time to familiarize himself with the novel during his long exile.  Yet Khan ends up playing the role of Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain who leads himself and his entire crew to their deaths in his pursuit of the white whale.  Khan himself obviously recognizes the parallels, but he simply does not care.  As he activates the stolen Genesis Device in an attempt to destroy the Enterprise along with his own ship, he quotes the novel: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”Doctor Doom Jack Kirby

I had never noticed it before, but Khan actually bears some interesting similarities to the comic book character Doctor Doom, who was created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Like Khan, Victor Von Doom is often described as a “benevolent dictator.”  He is the absolute monarch of the country of Latveria.  In certain respects, Doom has transformed his homeland into a paradise.  There is no crime or poverty in Latveria; of course, neither is there any free will.  Some might argue that the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay.  The problem is that this seeming golden age is dependant solely upon the whims of Doctor Doom.  Like Khan, he is a creature of immense ego, convinced of his innate superiority.  He claims to love the people of Latveria, and by granting them peace & prosperity it allows him to demonstrate to himself and everyone else that he is right, that he knows what is best for the world.

However, just like Khan, when things don’t go exactly according to plan, off come the kid gloves, and suddenly Doom is an extremely dangerous, petty, vengeful individual.  Certainly his decades-long vendetta against Reed Richards for what is, in truth, a mistake Doom made due to his own arrogance, proves that.  In Doom’s mind, he cannot be wrong; it must be somebody else’s fault.  And he’s pursued his quest for vengeance against Richards, his desire to show everyone that he is the smarter, better man, with a fanatical single-mindedness.

As for the people of Latveria, as much as Doom claims to adore and cherish them, the second they become a liability, the second they stand in his way or cease to be of use to him as a propaganda symbol or a method of stroking his ego, he will casually cast them aside or destroy them.  In the end, Doom comes first, and everything else is secondary.

And that is why, as alluring as the concept of the “benevolent dictator” appears, it is really a terrible idea.  Yes, in the short term a supposedly well-intentioned absolute ruler may be able to create order & stability.  But it is the type of progress that cannot last in the long run, and which is ever subject to the frailties of the all too human egos of those in control.

Comic book reviews: Grindhouse #1-4

I was born a decade or so too late to have been the target audience for grindhouse movies, the kind of sleazy exploitation genre films to have played in second-rate cinemas back in the 1970s and early 80s.  By the time I was old enough to explore New York City on my own, most of those less-than-venerable institutions had closed their doors.  However, I caught quite a number of their successors via direct-to-video and cable TV releases.  And in the last decade, there’s been a surge in nostalgic interest in those old cheese-fests, at least partly brought on by the works of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

Already being something of a B-movie aficionado, I’ve seen a handful of those “classic” grindhouse flicks on DVD.  Most of them fall into the so-bad-they’re-good territory.  They’re campy and violent and quite often sexist.  But at the same time, it’s interesting to see what those filmmakers working on a shoestring budget could accomplish with imagination & ingenuity in those long-ago days before anyone with access to a laptop could easily whip up some CGI effects.

So naturally my interest was piqued when the eight issue Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight series was announced by Dark Horse Comics.  Written by Alex De Campi, the series is comprised of a quartet of two-part tales, each an homage to the exploitation films of days past.  In the first four issues, we have a pair of over-the-top romps into sex, violence, sci-fi and horror entitled “Bee Vixens From Mars” and “Prison Ship Antares.”

Grindhouse 3 cover

“Bee Vixens From Mars” sees the women of a small Southern town taken over by an alien insect queen, transforming them into horny, bloodthirsty femme fatales linked to a hive mind.  With nearly everyone in the town either mutated or brutally slaughtered, it falls to Deputy Garcia and the owners of the local convenience store, Wayne & Sergei, to battle the alien infestation.

I really think that Alex De Campi’s background as a woman who has lived & worked on three continents allows her to write from a different perspective.  In interviews, she has commented that one of the more interesting qualities of grindhouse fare was that often the protagonists were women and/or minorities.  Yeah, a lot of those movies were “sexploitation” or “blaxploitation” or whatever you want to call them, meaning the main characters were probably on the stereotypical or one-dimensional side.  But it nevertheless did provide some sort of avenue for depicting heroes who weren’t white males.  In contrast, as De Campi points out, the majority of big studio action & genre pictures nowadays usually feature handsome, macho, WASPy men as the main characters.

In contrast, in “Bee Vixens From Mars,” we have Deputy Garcia, an older Hispanic woman with white hair and an eye patch, as the ass-kicking savoir of humanity.  Backing her up are Wayne & Sergei, a gay couple originally from Eastern Europe.  You have a small group of individuals who can be considered outsiders to the traditional, mainstream population as the heroes.

The art on “Bee Vixens From Mars” is by Chris Peterson.  I’m not familiar with him, but he does great work on this book.  Peterson really draws the hell out of the erotically charged, ultra-violent story.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely strong.

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“Prison Ship Antares” is basically a women-in-prison story in outer space.  A group of hardened female convicts are sent away from Earth to settle Alpha Centauri, accompanied by their warden Kalinka and her contingent of cloned guards.  Yeah, I know, it doesn’t really sound plausible, trying to colonize another planet with only women.  But that’s the situation De Campi sets up in order to tell her second zany tale.  I’ve seen far more nonsensical scenarios in actual B-movies, so whatever.

In any case, Kalinka turns out to be insane, a sadistic religious nut who believes she is the reincarnation of a samurai warrior.  She decides to “burn away the sinful parts” of her prisoners, gruesomely killing them with acid and fire.  The convicts, led by a gal by the name of Spanish Fly, realize that they had better seize control of the Antares, and quick, before they all end up dead or mutilated.

With a set-up like this, you might be concerned that the book would devolve into “lipstick lesbian” pornography.  But, aside from a couple of cheekily playful sequences, for the most part De Campi writes the inmates as realistic, well-rounded individuals, giving them a certain amount of personality & background.  There’s only so much development she can fit into a 48 page story, but on the whole these women come across as real people, rather than merely objects of titillation. They’re sexy, but intelligent and tough.

Simon Fraser is the artist on “Prison Ship Antares,” and I could not have thought of a better choice to illustrate this tale.  Fraser is the co-creator, with writer Robbie Morrison, of the Nikolai Dante feature in 2000 AD.  Dante was, in his early tales, sort of a ne’er-do-well rogue, a hedonistic adventurer who got involved in all sorts of wacky sexcapades.  The first couple of Dante stories I ever read were “The Movable Feast” and “The Cadre Infernal,” which were set in, respectively, a gigantic brothel on wheels and a BDSM club.  So, yeah, Fraser knows how to draw smut… and I mean that in the nicest way possible.  No, but seriously, Simon is a fantastic artist.  He really imbues his characters with a great deal of personality & individuality through facial expressions and diverse body types.

Truthfully, there is actually a lot more violence than sex in “Prison Ship Antares.”  Some of it is horrific.  Other parts are just plain hysterical, such as when the prisoners riot against the clone guards while singing the “Toreador Song” from Georges Bizet’s Carmen.  Frasier does a superb job with that sequence.

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There is another distinct quality to both of these tales.  Since each of them are stand-alone stories, sometimes it really seems up in the air whether or not various characters will live or die.  Without a status quo to adhere to, you half-expect De Campi to bump off one or more of her lead characters.  It really does keep the reader a lot more on edge.

The covers for the first four issues of Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight are by Francesco Francavilla and Dan Panosian.  Both of them have designed a couple of nice, striking pieces, sort of faux movie posters which also have a rather retro, pulp feel.

If you are a fan of genre films and B-movies, you’ll probably enjoy Grindhouse: Doors Open At Midnight.  It’s a fun, strange homage to exploitation films, with something of a tongue-in-cheek feminist slant given to the old genre formulas.  I’m looking forward to seeing what De Campi and her collaborators have in store for the next four issues.  It should be crazy.

Strange Comic Books: Doctor Who “Junkyard Demon”

As a comic book fan who also loves Doctor Who, in the last few years I’ve been spoilt for choices.   Here in the States, IDW has published a slew of Doctor Who comics featuring both new material and reprinting the British comic strips from the 1980s and 90s (I’m quite sad that their license expired at the end of 2013).  In addition, trade paperbacks from the UK have regularly made their way to comic shops here in North America.

Back in the mid-1980s, circumstances weren’t quite so positive.  If you were lucky, you might find the occasional issue of Doctor Who Magazine, which featured an eight page comic strip, at a comic shop.  I managed to snag three random issues during my youth.  By the time 1990 rolled around, I was finally frequenting a store that was willing to order the Magazine for me each month.  But until that point, the majority of the Doctor Who strips I read were those that Marvel Comics reprinted.

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Marvel first began running the strips from Doctor Who Weekly (later Doctor Who Monthly, and then Magazine) in their anthology title Marvel Premiere in four issues that came out in late 1980.  Then, from 1984 to 1986, Marvel had an ongoing Doctor Who comic that lasted 23 issues, continuing the reprints of the British strips.  Dave Gibbons, the artist on many of the comic serials featuring the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, contributed some really great brand-new covers for those US issues.  Long before I picked up a copy of Watchmen, that’s how I discovered his work.

To tell the truth, the Doctor Who comic strips were often very strange.  Unencumbered by the shoestring budget of the television show, the writers & artists created an assortment of strange monsters and bizarre alien worlds.  Beep the Meep, the adorably cute but ruthlessly homicidal extraterrestrial tyrant, certainly epitomizes the weirdness that readers would find in those stories.  Many of the creators who worked on the Doctor Who strip were also regular contributors to the sci-fi anthology title 2000 AD, and they brought along their accompanying satirical, darkly humorous sensibilities.

All that said, one of the most unusual Doctor Who comic book stories is probably “Junkyard Demon,” which originally ran in Doctor Who Monthly #58-59 in 1981, and was reprinted in Doctor Who #13 in 1985.  It was written by Steve Parkhouse, who had become the strip’s writer a few stories earlier, imbuing it with a grim, sardonic atmosphere.  The artwork was by Mike McMahon & Adolfo Buylla, and it was an absolute 180 degrees away from the clean, realistic style of Gibbons.

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The TARDIS is snatched up mid-flight by the immense salvage ship Drifter, which is manned by the eccentric, oddball trio of Flotsam, Jetsam, and Dutch (keep in mind this was three decades before the television episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”).  The robot Dutch tries to open the TARDIS doors with a drill, in the process awakening the Fourth Doctor from his meditation.  Although initially annoyed at having been mistaken for scrap by the strange group, the Doctor quickly remembers that he needs a non-variable oscillator to repair the hot chocolate machine in the TARDIS.  Flotsam starts searching through her scrap for the part, in the process unearthing a Cyberman.  The Doctor understandably reacts in alarm and hurls a wrench at it, before realizing the cyborg is deactivated.  At this point Jetsam informs the Doctor that he’s planning to reprogram it as a mechanical butler!  A relieved Doctor brews up some hot chocolate for himself, Flotsam, and Jetsam.  However, they are then attacked by the Cyberman, which has now awakened.

“Junkyard Demon” is enjoyably offbeat, and I’d rather not give away the rest of Steve Parkhouse’s insanely clever story.  You can read the entire 16 page tale on Mike McMahon’s blog, where it is presented in the original black & white.  My thanks to the talented Simon Frasier (who himself worked on Doctor Who, illustrating the first issue of the Prisoners of Time) for posting a link to this on Facebook last month.

McMahon & Buylla’s artwork on this story is definitely striking.  I’m trying to remember exactly what my nine year old self made of it when I read this back in 1985.  Obviously I immediately noticed how completely different it was from Gibbons’ regular work.  As I recall, even though I thought it was strange, I did like it.  McMahon’s depiction of Tom Baker is, in one respect, a caricature.  Yet at one glance it is immediately identifiable as the Fourth Doctor.  It’s certainly not photo-realistic, but it is a fantastic encapsulation of Baker’s eccentric, bohemian persona.  That’s especially apparent in the intense, wide-eyed gaze McMahon gives the Doctor.

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I also loved the fact that the Cybermen in “Junkyard Demon” are similar to the original version seen in “The Tenth Planet.”  If you look closely, these Cybermen have physical characteristics from both their debut story and their second appearance in “The Moonbase.”  The Cybermen in “The Moonbase” were part of a group who had departed from Mondas a number of years before its destruction.  The ones we see in “Junkyard Demon” can be considered the transitional stage between their “patchwork creature” beginnings (to quote fellow blogger Paul Bowler), and the more functional, streamlined figures in subsequent television stories.  I don’t know if it was Parkhouse or McMahon’s decision to use early-model Cybermen, but it certainly made this story even more distinctive.

McMahon was definitely a good choice to pencil this story.  The US cover drawn in 1985 by Gibbons is perfectly fine, and I certainly do not want to disparage his immense talent.  But looking at McMahon’s depiction of the Cybermen within, they seem much more textured and organic, with a creepy, unsettling quality not present in Gibbons’ somewhat sleeker, robotic rendition.  McMahon brings across the notion of something once human, the product of spare-part surgery.

Actually, given that this whole story is about junk and refuse, a future of used, second-hand technology, McMahon’s style is perfect.  Years later, when I had the opportunity to see his work on various Judge Dredd stories for 2000 AD, I had that same feeling.  In those tales, McMahon definitely succeeded in creating a tangible atmosphere, bringing to life the post-apocalyptic dystopian metropolis of Mega City One.

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“Junkyard Demon” is apparently something of a fan favorite among both readers and creators who later went on to work on the comic strip.  Fifteen years later, writer Alan Barnes and artist Adrian Salmon created a sequel, which appeared in the 1996 Doctor Who YearbookYou can read the eight-page “Junkyard Demon II” on the Cybermantra blog.  I think Barnes and Salmon did a good job capturing the spirit of the original story, while also crafting a tale that also works well on its own.