Sal Buscema: fifty years of comic books

Sal Buscema is one of my favorite comic book artists.  This month, November 2018, is the 50th anniversary his professional debut.

Sal is the younger brother of artist John Buscema.  While he was still working on honing his craft, Sal would occasionally do uncredited background inking on John’s artwork.  In 1968 Sal finally felt he was ready to enter the comic book industry on his own, and brought sample pages to Marvel Comics.  He was quickly hired by editor Stan Lee.

Sal’s very first credited work for Marvel Comics was on Rawhide Kid #68, inking Larry Lieber’s pencils. According to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, this issue went on sale on November 5, 1968.

Rawhide Kid 68 pg 1

Sal’s second job also came out that month, on November 19th.  Silver Surfer #4 was penciled by his brother John.  It is now well-known that John was often critical of inkers, believing that only a few really knew how to do his pencils justice.  He would have preferred to do full artwork, pencils and inks, but time and financial constraints often prevented this.  John, from having had Sal assist him in the past, knew that his brother would do a faithful job inking his pencils on this issue.

“The Good, The Bad, and the Uncanny” features an epic confrontation between the Surfer and Thor, who have been manipulated into combat by Loki.  It is often regarded as one of the high points of John’s artistic career, and from all indications he was satisfied with Sal’s inks on it, as well as on the next three issues.

(For an in-depth look at Silver Surfer #4 please head over to Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.)

Silver Surfer 4 pg 34

Sal had initially intended to focus on inking, but he was very quickly recruited by Marvel to pencil.  He was immediately thrown into the deep end, assigned the team book Avengers.  His first work was penciling the cover to issue #67, and a month later did the full interior pencils for #68, paired with writer Roy Thomas and inker Sam Grainger.  The issue featured the Avengers in a titanic tussle with the diabolical robot Ultron.

Sal went on to have a very successful career in comics.  He worked on nearly every Marvel title published in the 1970s and 80s.  Beginning in the mid 1990s he also began working for several other publishers.  Sal was blessed with speed, an incredible work ethic, and a strong sense of storytelling.  This meant that he could always be relied upon to turn in a quality job on time.

Avengers 68 pg 1

Although officially retired, Sal continues to work in comic books, primarily as an inker, most often paired with penciler Ron Frenz, who he has inked on numerous occasions over the past two decades, on a long run on Spider-Girl, as well as several other series.  Sal is also currently working with Guy Dorian Sr. on several projects.  Among these was the Rom storyline “Battle Scars” which saw Sal’s return to the cult classic Space Knight.

For a really good, informative look at Sal’s career and artwork, I highly recommend the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist by Jim Amash with Eric Nolen-Weathington, from TwoMorrows Publishing.  The cover artwork is a wonderful showcase of Sal’s dynamic artwork, an explosive illustration by Sal of the Incredible Hulk and his longtime adversary the Abomination slugging it out.

Sal Buscema Fast Furious cover

I want to offer my congratulations to Sal Buscema on creating a half century of amazing comic book artwork. He has brought enjoyment to so many readers over the past five decades, myself included.  Thanks, Sal!

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Thanksgiving deja vu

One of the most iconic images associated with the American holiday Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom from Want.  I am going to quote from Wikipedia here, and hopefully it’s accurate!

Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.

The painting was created in November 1942 and published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Over the past 75 years Freedom From Want has been the subject of numerous homages and parodies, including within the comic book medium.  As my tongue-in-cheek celebration of Thanksgiving this year, here are 10 of those images.

JSA 54 cover

Probably one of the best well-known comic book covers to pay tribute to Freedom From Want is JSA #54 (Jan 2004) from DC Comics.  Drawn by Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino, it features Superman and Power Girl serving Thanksgiving dinner to the Justice Society and Justice League.

American Flagg 4 Thanksgiving

Nobody does political satire in comic books quite like the legendary Howard Chaykin.  Here is a panel from American Flagg! #4 (Jan 1984) from First Comics, featuring one of the most dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinners you are likely to ever come across.

Evil Clown Comics 4 cover

Hmmm, this turkey tastes a little funny.  Ha ha… sorry, couldn’t help myself.  Anyway, speaking of dysfunctional, not to mention just plain disturbing, here is the cover to Evil Clown Comics #4 by the late Alan Kupperberg from 1989. I’ve never found any physical copies of this series, but I believe that it collected together the Evil Clown Comics stories by Kupperberg that were published in National Lampoon.

Garfield 7 variant cover

A slightly less unsettling image is offered up on this variant cover to Garfield #7 (Nov 2012) published by Boom! Studios.  I’m certain anyone who has ever had cats can identify with the danger of your feline companions attempting to make off with the Thanksgiving turkey.  It’s certainly happened to us on a couple of occasions!

Flare 31 cover

The talented and much-underrated Gordon Purcell offers up this lovely tribute to Rockwell on his cover for Flare #31 (Feb 2006) from Dennis Mallonee’s Heroic Publishing, which has been releasing fun, entertaining comic books since the mid 1980s.

Barbie Fashion 37 cover

Back in the early 1990s Marvel Comics had not one, but two ongoing Barbie comic book series, both of which lasted for several years.  Both titles had some talented creators working on them.  It was probably one of Marvel’s more successful efforts to reach a young female audience. Here’s the cover to Barbie Fashion #37 (Jan 1994) by Anna-Marie Cool & Jeff Albrecht.

Chase 6 cover

Chase was one of those really good titles from the 1990s that unfortunately never really found an audience and was cancelled too soon.  Cameron Chase had some serious family issues, so of course here we are flashing back to Thanksgiving of days past on the cover to issue #6 (July 1998).  This striking image is by the superb team of J. H. Williams III & Mick Gray.

Mad Magazine 39 pg 43

Good old MAD Magazine, always ready to skewer politics, pop culture and society! This send-up of The Saturday Evening Post is from issue #39, published waaaay back in May 1958.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a credit for the artist.  Can anyone help out?

Fantastic Four 564 cover

Marvel’s First Family celebrates Thanksgiving on the cover to Fantastic Four # 564 (April 2009) by Bryan Hitch.  I’m sure that, among the various things for which the Invisible Woman is thankful for this year, it’s that Reed Richards opted to slice up the turkey in the traditional manner, as opposed to inventing an Atomic Powered Turkey Carver which would have undoubtedly blown the roof off of the Baxter Building.

Betty 119 cover

Let’s close things out with the cover to Betty #119 (Jan 2003) by Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith, which has the gang from Riverdale celebrating Thanksgiving.  I’m not completely certain if this cover is a specific homage to Rockwell, but it is certainly close enough.  In any case, Archie Comics too often falls under the radar, which is too bad, since they have some really great art.

(This was by no means a comprehensive list, and a quick search of the internet will reveal many more tributes to Freedom From Want.)

I hope everyone enjoyed this little selection  of Thanksgiving-themed comic book artwork.  Have a good holiday, and let’s all try to be thankful for for what we have, because there are a lot of people much less fortunate in the world.

The Legacy of Stan Lee

I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that Stan Lee had passed away.  He was 95 years old, and had been in poor health for some time now.

Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, was an incredibly important figure in American comic books.  Lee was the editor and main writer at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, when what is now known as the Marvel Universe came into being.  Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Steve Ditko.  He co-created the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Inhumans, and X-Men with Jack Kirby.  Other characters he had a hand in conceiving were Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil and Ant-Man.  It was apparently Lee who had the idea of creating superheroes who had flaws and who experienced everyday problems, just like normal people.

Lee also was an amazing publicist with an outsized public persona.  He enthustastically promoted the Marvel brand and characters with the zeal of a master showman.

Stan Lee photo 1968

In subsequent decades there has been a great deal of debate, often contentious, concerning the division of labor, of exactly who did what, in the conception of these various characters and series.  It is often difficult to parse these things in collaborative efforts.  One might as well try to precisely determine who did what in the Beatles.  I’ve heard Lee and Kirby likened to Paul MacCartney and John Lennon, and I think it is a valid comparison.  Both were talented musicians, but each in a very different way, and when they worked together something occurred, some creative magic that you cannot explain or break down in any sort of analytical manner.  So it was with Lee and Kirby, and with Lee and Ditko.

It is also worth mentioning that in the early 1960s no one – not Lee, not Ditko, not Kirby – no one had even the slightest idea that half a century later these characters would still be in print, much less become cultural icons worth millions of dollars.  No one was taking detailed notes regarding the creative process, because they were all too busy attempting to keep the nascent Marvel Comics afloat.

It is obvious, however, to even the most casual reader that Stan Lee had a central role in the creation, and success, of the Marvel comic books of the Silver Age.  Read any story by Ditko & Lee, or Kirby & Lee, and then read any story done by Ditko or Kirby working solo.  They are very different, especially in the dialogue and narration.

Fantastic Four 49 pg 1

Fantastic Four #48 page 1

One can argue that Lee could have made more effort to credit the precise contributions of Ditko, Kirby, and his other creative partners.  That is probably true.  But it is important to keep in mind that Lee made sure to credit to his collaborators, in a time when many comic books were published without any creator credits.  He demonstrated more consideration than most other editors, and his efforts in this area did later lead to more precise attribution in subsequent decades.

Stan Lee also addressed a number of political and social issues in the stories he co-wrote and edited.  I’ve heard Lee described as a “middle of the road” liberal by the standards of the 1960s, and nowadays he would probably be considered a moderate.  It has been said that Lee was too liberal for Ditko, and too conservative for Kirby.

Nevertheless, the fact that Lee was willing to discuss controversial topics, however tentatively, within what in those days was regarded as a children’s medium, is significant in and of itself.  Again, this laid the groundwork for subsequent creators who would more directly, and forcefully, tackle political issues within the comic book medium.

Silver Surfer 4 pg 10

Silver Surfer #4 page 10

In 2018, with Comicsgate trolls expressing hatred for politics in comic books and disparaging social justice warriors, it’s important to recognize that Stan Lee was extremely interested in social justice.  He co-created a number of black characters, and scripted numerous stories decrying humanity’s violent & intolerant nature.  This was most pronounced in the Silver Surfer series he worked on with penciler John Buscema in the late 1960s.  Although at times verging into the anvilicious, Lee’s pleas for peace & brotherhood were clearly genuine and heartfelt.

The above page from Silver Surfer #4, featuring beautiful artwork by John & Sal Buscema, provides an example of Lee’s progressive social commentary from that series.

Lee also promoted this message in Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages.  In one late 1960s edition of Stan’s Soapbox, he wrote:

“Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”

stanleesoapbox

I have written about Captain America #130 before, but I am going to touch upon that issue again here.  Published in 1970, it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan & Dick Ayers.  At one point Cap is asked by a group that claims to stand for “law & order” to make a speech on national television denouncing student protestors for their treasonous and un-American activities.  Cap supposedly agrees, but once he is on the air he makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, exactly how he feels…

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be!”

This scene was written by Lee almost half a century ago, but it still remains incredibly relevant.

Captain America 130 speech

Whatever his flaws & shortcomings, Stan Lee played a crucial role in the shaping of the American comic book industry, in the growth of Marvel Comics into a major publisher, in the careers of the creators who he mentored and who followed him, and in the development of comic book fandom.  He will definitely be missed.  ‘Nuff said!

It Came from the 1990s: Black Canary “New Wings”

A couple of years ago I sent a friend request to writer Sarah Byam on Facebook.  I had enjoyed Byam’s work in comic books in the early 1990s.  Having seen this blog, Byam asked me if I was interested in discussing her work on it.  I agreed, and she mailed me several books she had worked on.  Among these was the four issue Black Canary miniseries she wrote that DC Comics published in late 1991.  I read these back when they came out, but since then I sold off a lot of my collection.  So it was nice to once again have them.

Soon after Byam sent me those books life sort of got in the way.  I had to move into a new apartment, and find a new job, and so on.  Byam’s package ended up at the bottom of one of the countless boxes of stuff that I threw together during the move, and only recently did I finally dig it out.  So here, at last, is my retrospective on that Black Canary miniseries.

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

Written by Byam, the Black Canary miniseries has Trevor Von Eeden contributing pencil layouts, with the finished artwork by Dick Giordano.  Lettering is by Steve Haynie, and coloring by Julia Lacquement.

“New Wings” was, according to the text piece by editor Mike Gold in issue #1, the very first solo series to star Black Canary.  This was in spite of the fact that the character had been around, in one form or another, since 1947.  Serving as a longtime member of both the Justice Society and Justice League, the Black Canary also had a lengthy association with Green Arrow, cast variously as his girlfriend, partner and sidekick.  Nevertheless, it took 44 years for Dinah Laurel Lance to finally receive how own book.

Decades are an artificial construct, and truthfully there is very rarely a sharp delineation to separate them.  That’s certainly true of the 1980s and 1990s, with the end of the former and the beginning of the later serving as a period of gradual transition.

This miniseries certainly straddles the two periods.  In one respect it is very much rooted in the mid to late 1980s of DC Comics, which saw both the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with its revisions to long-term continuity, and the one-two punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which motivated a shift towards “grim & gritty” street-level characters.

It’s also very much of the early 1990s, when the comic book market was experiencing a huge boom, resulting in both DC and Marvel flooding the market with new books.  As a result of those market conditions, the Black Canary miniseries got the green light, something that might not have occurred a few years earlier.

The 1987 miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell had revamped Oliver Queen as a traditional archer, an urban vigilante based in Seattle, WA.  That story had also seen Dinah Lance brutally tortured, causing her to lose her “Canary Cry” sonic scream.

Although taking away Dinah’s superpower was undoubtedly an attempt to more realistically ground her alongside Green Arrow, in retrospect it is also an example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon, in female characters being reduced to helpless victims.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

The “New Wings” miniseries has Byam picking up those threads.  Dinah is still recovering from the trauma of being victimized, and of losing her powers.  She has also growing tired of constantly being in the shadow of the headstrong, arrogant Green Arrow, of playing the role of responsible adult to Ollie’s hotheaded thrill-seeker.  Angrily tossing the accounting ledger at Ollie’s head, Dinah at last asserts herself.  She informs him that it’s his turn to figure out how to pay the rent & bills, while she goes off to the mountains of Washington State in an attempt to find herself and regain her inner peace.

Visiting her “Auntie Wren” at the Quinault Indian Reservation, Dinah is introduced to Gan Nguyen, a reporter, radio talk show host, and social activist.  Gan’s activities fighting against Seattle’s drug dealers have made him very unpopular with certain powerful people.  On the trip back to the city Dinah is forced to change into her Black Canary identity to save him from a pair of racist assassins.

“New Wings” is, in certain ways, a very prescient piece of writing.  The drug operation that Dinah and Gan are pitted against is run by rich, powerful men with connections to both politics and private industry who utilize the people from poor rural communities to do the dirty, dangerous work.  The center of the cocaine distribution network is the town of Sandbar, which Byam describes thus…

“Sandbar is one of those quaint little seaside towns, too sleepy even for tourists to bother with. A little too ‘Mayberry’ for some, it’s a good place to raise your kids. A safe place.

“In Sandbar, people love the Fourth of July, and the old men press up their uniforms every Veterans Day.

“How does a town like that go bad? Stagnate? Lose its sense of purpose?

“Traditions of protecting freedom, of sacrificing, son after son, becomes traditions of protecting property, sacrificing truth after truth…

“Because the only thing more terrifying than the enemy… is change.”

Sandbar sounds very much like one of those Red State communities that in the last few years have wholeheartedly embraced Donald Trump.  Their economy is in ruins, devastated by trickle-down economics and corporations shipping jobs overseas.  Yet instead of recognizing who is actually exploiting them, they are all too easily distracted by the racist dog-whistles that scapegoat minorities, immigrants and non-Christians as the causes of all their problems.

Byam was clearly observant enough to perceive this burgeoning phenomenon way back in 1991, in the years immediately before the GOP, the Koch Brothers and Fox News would commence to enthusiastically fuel the fires of racism, xenophobia and paranoia among white rural communities over the next two decades, eventually bringing about the rise of the Tea Party and Trump.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

There are a couple of reasons why I have now finally got around to spotlighting this Black Canary miniseries.  One is the emergence of the hatemongering “Comicsgate” trolls in the last couple of years, angry white male fanboys who claim that diversity is destroying comic books, who want to return to the time when the industry was supposedly apolitical.  There is innumerable evidence to disprove their lies.  This miniseries, published in 1991, is certainly one example of how very wrong they are.

“New Wings” features a female character, Black Canary.  It introduces a Vietnamese American supporting character, Gan Nguyen.  It is written by a woman, Sarah Byam.  It is penciled by a black man, the Guyanese-born Trevor Von Eeden.  It is an extremely political story, tackling complex issues of racism, economic injustice, drug dealing, gun control and political corruption.  It raises some difficult, uncomfortable questions.

The other reason is the 2018 midterm elections.  This week over one hundred female candidates were elected to Congress.  This is important. It has been less than one hundred years since women finally gained the right to vote nationwide, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. And, as the last few years have vividly demonstrated, there is still so much work to be done in safeguarding equal rights, in making sure that they aren’t stripped away, in protecting women from once again being reduced to second-class citizens. We need to recognize that the struggle against sexism & misogyny, as well as all other forms of injustice, is ongoing.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

In additionally to being very well written and thought-provoking, the artwork on “New Wings” is exceptional.  The collaboration between Trevor Von Eeden and Dick Giordano is extremely effective.

Von Eeden’s layouts are dynamic, superbly telling the story, both in the action sequences and the quieter conversational scenes.  The finished artwork by veteran artist Dick Giordano is beautiful, with his characteristic slick, polished work on display.

“New Wings” did well enough that an ongoing Black Canary series was commissioned.  Byam and Von Eeden returned, with Bob Smith coming onboard as inker.  Byam continued to write stories that addressed political & social issues.  She was one of those writers in the medium who very much helped my teenage self begin to broaden his perspective, to consider the intricacies of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Regrettably the ongoing Black Canary title only lasted 12 issues, but the majority of them were very well-done.

It would be another few years before Black Canary would once again gain the spotlight.  In late 1995 she was paired up with Barbara Gordon / Oracle in the Birds of Prey special, which soon led to the long-running, very well-regarded series co-starring the two characters.

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

Both the Black Canary miniseries and ongoing were my introduction to the work of Trevor Von Eeden.  I instantly became a fan of his art.  I was immediately struck by both his stunningly beautiful depictions of the title character, as well as his amazing layouts & storytelling.

It’s very much worth noting that Von Eeden has been vocal about the fact that he never felt any real affinity for the character of Black Canary.  I say this because it definitely speaks to both his talent and his professionalism that he nevertheless did superb work on the series.

One other note: Whoever designed the series logo did a great job.  It looks amazing.

It’s unfortunate that “New Wings” and the subsequent twelve issue series have never been collected in a trade paperback.  However, it should be easy enough to find these in the back issue bins, or for sale online.  They are well worth tracking down.

Hopefully in the future I can offer a detailed look at the 1993 series, as well as some of Sarah Byam’s other works.  Cross your fingers!