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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Thunderstrike, Hulk 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.