Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.

 

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Memories of Notre Dame Cathedral

I was saddened to hear about the fire that devastated Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France today. The Cathedral was an iconic structure in that city for centuries.  Construction of the Cathedral began in 1163 AD, and it was considered officially completed in 1345 AD.

In July 1996 I had the opportunity to attend a three week study abroad program in London, England, followed by a ten day trip across the European continent.  The major stops on the tour were Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam.

I was only in Paris for three days.  Our group attempted to see as much of that beautiful city in that short period as possible.  The tour guide made some, um, unusual choices, such as spending barely half an hour at the world famous Louvre Museum, but later that day going to a perfume factory for a two hour tour.  As one of the ladies in our group sarcastically muttered, “Where are the priorities?!?”

Nevertheless, despite the breakneck speed and a couple of questionable choices of stops, for the most part it was a memorable visit.  Fortunately one of the places we visited was Notre Dame Cathedral.

I am not a religious person, to say the least.  (I consider myself spiritual, and I believe faith is a matter best left up to the individual.) However, I readily acknowledge that Notre Dame Cathedral was an incredibly beautiful building, a stunning work of art and architecture.  The devastation of the building is a cultural, historical and artistic tragedy.  I hope France will be able to rebuild it.

Here are the photos I took of the Cathedral on that trip.  I was told this was the coldest summer in Europe in 20 years, which is why it looks like the middle of winter instead of in late July. Grey, overcast skies aside, I think the beauty of the Cathedral is apparent.  I’m grateful I had an opportunity to see it in person.

Notre Dame Cathedral 1996 photo 1

Notre Dame Cathedral 1996 photo 2

Notre Dame Cathedral 1996 photo 3

James D. Hudnall’s Alpha Flight: A Brief Retrospective

Writer James D. Hudnall passed away on April 9th.  His earliest professional work was Espers for Eclipse Comics in 1986.  Hudnall had numerous comic book credits, but I was most familiar with his nearly two year run on Alpha Flight from early 1989 to late 1990. He wrote issues #63 and #67-86.

Alpha Flight 67 cover smallAlpha Flight is a series that even its creator John Byrne admitted he didn’t really know quite what to do with it.  He has been quite vocal about the fact that he only created the Canadian super-hero team to be able to survive a fight with the X-Men.  Byrne was genuinely surprised when Alpha Flight became popular enough to receive their own series, and he took on the assignment with a certain reluctance.

Byrne wrote & penciled the first 28 issues of Alpha Flight.  He did good work, but by the end he felt he had literally run out on things to do with the characters.  After he left, the series somehow managed to last nearly another decade, experiencing a lot of ups & downs.

Byrne’s successor on Alpha Flight was writer Bill Mantlo, who worked with several artists during his three year stint on the series.  Mantlo’s run started off showing potential, and a number of the issues from his first couple years were enjoyable.  However towards the end things had definitely petered out.  At the time, when Hudnall came on in early 1989, it really was a breath of fresh air.  Although somewhat uneven, I regard Hudnall’s stint on Alpha Flight as one of the better post-Byrne periods. (Of course, as I always like to say, your mileage may vary.)

Hudnall’s first few issues of Alpha Flight had him wrapping up a some dangling subplots from Bill Mantlo’s run, including bringing to a close the team’s conflict with the Dreamqueen.  With that out of the way, with issue #71 Hudnall embarked on a lengthy story arc involving an incredibly powerful, seemingly-unstoppable mystical villain, Llan the Sorcerer.

Alpha Flight 72 pg 4

Alpha Flight 72 cover small

According to Hudnall the Sorcerer storyline was initially planned to run all the way to issue #100, with Llan as an overarching behind-the-scenes adversary dispatching such villains as the Master of the World and Zeitgeist against the team to distract them while his ambitious master plan came together.  However, a lukewarm reception and conflicts with editorial resulted in Hudnall being replaced as writer on the book.  This necessitated him giving his story a somewhat quick wrap-up in issue #86, with Doctor Strange being brought in to aid Talisman in defeating Llan.

Hudnall was probably overly ambitious with his plans for Alpha Flight.  I don’t know if the Sorcerer storyline really would have had enough substance to it to continue running for another year in order to make it to issue #100.  However, I cannot fault Hudnall for attempting to at least try to do something spectacular and long-ranging in a book that had recently been lacking in a solid, interesting direction.

Alpha Flight 73 pg 7

Hudnall explained his plans an interview conducted in the early 2000s by the website AlphaFlight.net:

“I wanted to make the book more in line with Byrne’s vision, which I felt was generally a good one. I liked Byrne’s run except he was kind of unfocused direction-wise. Probably because he was bored. So one of the things I did was try to give Alpha Flight more of a purpose. And try to make them unique in the Marvel Universe, not just by virtue of their nationality. I also wanted to show off Canada, so I did tons of research.”

It had been a number of years since I have read those issues, but from glancing over them again this week I did like how Hudnall worked to develop the character of Talisman.  It had been one of Talisman’s predecessors who had fought Llan the Sorcerer when he had last attacked Earth’s dimension 10,000 years earlier.  It now fell to the current Talisman, who was fairly young & inexperienced, to lead the battle against this incredibly formidable, cunning foe.

I am not certain exactly how successful Hudnall was in his execution of Talisman’s character development.  At times she came across less as focused & determined, and more as bossy & arrogant.  But I do appreciate that Hudnall at least attempted to make her the focus of his overall storyline.  I think Byrne came up with a fantastic design for the character, and it was nice to see her in the spotlight here.

Alpha Flight 78 pg 12

Another highlight of Hudnall’s run was having former Alpha Flight foe Diamond Lil join the team.  Lil had been involved in the events that had led to the death of Alpha’s original leader James Hudson, aka Guardian, which put her at odds with the team’s current leader, the widowed Heather Hudson, aka Vindicator. Complicating matters even further, Lil was the ex-girlfriend of Madison Jeffries, aka Box, who was now engaged to Heather.  It was apparent that there was still an attraction between Lil and Madison, and the resulting love triangle was present throughout the background of the Sorcerer storyline.

I also think having Lil join the cast offered an outsider’s perspective on some of the events.  It was interesting to see her gradual development from a one-time enemy who was regarded with suspicion to a trusted member of the team. Plus, during the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover we got to see go toe-to-toe with longtime Spider-Man villain the Scorpion, which was cool.Alpha Flight 80 pg 14

With the benefit of hindsight, Hudnall was doing on Alpha Flight what is now referred to as “writing for the trades,” i.e. writing a lengthy, complex storyline serialized in a monthly series that would later work as a complete novel when collected together in trade paperbacks.  I think that if I was to go back and read Hudnall’s entire Alpha Flight run in one go, rather than broken up into monthly installments, it would work much better now.

Alpha Flight 78 cover smallFor the majority of Hudnall’s time on Alpha Flight he was paired with penciler John Calimee.  I personally think Calimee was a fairly good, solid artist, albeit one who was not particularly flashy or dynamic. In other words, he got the job done, but perhaps that was not seen as sufficient enough at that point in time, when several red-hot artists were exploding in other Marvel titles.  Most of the issues Calimee penciled were inked by Mike Manley, a very talented artist whose work I have always enjoyed.

Other artists who worked on Alpha Flight during this time were Hugh Haynes, the great Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc and a fairly young up-and-coming Mark Bagley.  The incredibly talented James Sherman turned in one of his all-too-rare rare comic book jobs, providing full artwork for Alpha Flight #73.  That issue flashed back to the conflict between the original Talisman and the Sorcerer in prehistoric times.

Alpha Flight 83 pg 17

John Byrne himself unexpectedly returned to the series to draw a couple of covers.  Jim Lee, who did some of his earliest work on Alpha Flight, also contributed to a few covers during Hudnall’s run.

Regrettably, except for Haynes, there did not exist a good rapport between the writer and the various artists.  Subsequently Hudnall would express his opinion that Calimee in particular had been unable to effectively execute the visuals contained in the plots.  Hudnall also experienced a number of disagreements with his editors.  Whether all of this was due to Hudnall wanting to remain faithful to his ambitious vision, or an indication that he was a difficult person to collaborate with, is up to the individual to decide.Alpha Flight 81 cover small

Whatever the difficulties between Hudnall and his colleagues, as I said before, at the end of the day I personally do think that his run on Alpha Flight was pretty good.  Possibly it is my teenage nostalgia talking, but all these years later it remains memorable for me.

As for the artwork by Calimee & Manley, looking at it in 2019 with a fresh perspective, I find that I still like it. Calimee is, as I said, a solid artist who knows how to lay out a page and tell a story. Manley’s inking here provided a polished finish to the pencils. One of his artistic influences was the legendary Al Williamson, and that shows in the inking on these issues.

The lettering on all of these issues was by Janice Chiang. I’ve always liked her work. Looking at these issues for the first time in years, I can immediately identify that it’s her lettering. She’s one of the best letterers in the biz.

Alpha Flight 86 pg 21

In addition to Alpha Flight, Hudnall worked on Strikeforce: Morituri and the graphic novel The Agent for Marvel.  Over at DC Comics he wrote the very dark graphic novel Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography.  In the 1990s Hudnall worked on Malibu Comics’ well-regarded Ultraverse imprint, writing the series Hardcase and The Solution.  With artist Andrew Paquette he created Harsh Realm, a six issue miniseries published by Harris Comics that was later loosely adapted into a short-lived TV series.

About a decade ago Hudnall began writing for the ultra-conservative website Breitbart, and espousing views I found very disagreeable.  Nevertheless, despite how I felt about his politics, I was sorry to hear that in the last few years he was experiencing serious health problems.  It’s unfortunate that he died at a relatively young age, a day before his 62nd birthday.  He leaves behind a small but interesting and imaginative body of work.