It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

Earlier this month was the birthday of the late, great Dave Cockrum, one of my favorite comic book artists. Cockrum was one of the greatest character designers of the Bronze Age, successfully creating or revamping dozens of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics during the 1970s and early 80s.

Over on the Dave Cockrum Art Appreciation Group, in a discussion about Cockrum’s greatest character designs, I mentioned that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard had some awesome designs, and I wished that more was done with them.

Who are the Imperial Guard? Simply put, they are thinly-veiled expies of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 1970s had been a dream assignment for Cockrum, and he had only reluctantly left DC Comics after they reneged on a promise to return original artwork to him. Going over to Marvel Comics, he co-created the all-new, all-different X-Men with Len Wein. After Wein departed X-Men, Cockrum was paired up with writer Chris Claremont, and in X-Men #107 (Oct 1977) they introduced the Imperial Guard, the elite super-powered soldiers of the alien Shi’ar Empire.

Insert obligatory smartass comment about the X-Men not wanting to fight all these guys because there’s practically a Legion of them.

Now I’m not sure why Cockrum decided to toss in a veritable army modeled on the Legion into an already-crowded storyline, other than the fact that he really loved the Legion and he missed drawing them. But whatever the case, even if most of them were thinly-drawn on the characterization side of things, almost all of them had interesting visuals.

For most of their history the Imperial Guard were basically just blindly following the orders of whoever happened to be running the Shi’ar Empire, which typically put them into conflict with the X-Men or the Avengers or whoever. Other than their leader Gladiator the characters have only ever gotten the spotlight on a few rare occasions. The first of these was the three issue Imperial Guard miniseries which Marvel published in late 1996. It was written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Chuck Wojtkiewicz, inked by Ray Snyder, colored by Brad Vancata, and lettered by Jon Babcock, Phil Hugh Felix & Janice Chiang.

And, yeah, I cannot believe that it’s been 25 years since this came out!

Thinking back, I don’t know if at the time I was aware that the Imperial Guard characters were a homage to the members of the Legion. I didn’t actually become a huge Legion fan until about four years later, when I started picking up the hardcover Archives collections and various back issues. But re-reading the Imperial Guard miniseries a quarter century later, the nods to the Legion now leap right out at me.

The creative team on the Imperial Guard miniseries is also noteworthy. Augustyn is a longtime writer & editor at DC Comics, and Wojtkiewicz had just come off of a year and a half stint penciling Justice League America. This miniseries makes up pretty much the entirety of either of their work for Marvel. So this was pretty much a case of Marvel bringing aboard a creative team from DC to work on a team of characters modeled after a DC property.

Imperial Guard came out at an odd time in Marvel’s publishing history. This was immediately after the “Onslaught” crossover in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly died so that they could be exported to an alternate reality for the “Heroes Reborn” event overseen by Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. For the next year this led to some rather offbeat projects coming out from Marvel that perhaps might not otherwise have gotten published. The most notable of these was Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. We also got the much-underrated Heroes for Hire by John Ostrander & Pascual Ferry, as well as this odd little miniseries.

I’m FB friends with Wojtkiewicz, so I asked him how Imperial Guard came about. Here’s what he had to say:

“Once DC flipped the crew on Justice League, I floated around doing fill-ins and such for a while. Brian Augustyn decided to leave DC and asked me if I’d like to do the IG mini. We met in NYC and had lunch with Mark Gruenwald for lunch and launch. It seemed to be going so smoothly, but it turned out to Mark’s very last lunch, as he died the following morning. Somehow it kept going, and his assistant stepped in as editor.  I forget his name – I’m terrible that way. I decided to do the series in with a cartoony vibe, and nobody stopped me. Also: sideburns. 😊

“I really enjoyed this assignment- doing the costume, environment and prop concepts was a blast.”

The miniseries was ultimately edited by Terry Kavanaugh, and was dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald.

Following the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four, Lilandra the Majestrix of the Shi’ar feels partially responsible, as she was the one who way back when inadvertently awakened the dark side of Charles Xavier’s psyche (as seen in X-Men #106 or, if you were a teenager in the 1990s like me, “The Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Dark Shroud” on X-Men: The Animated Series) which ultimately led to the creation of Onslaught. Lilandra has covertly dispatched several members of the Imperial Guard to Earth see if they can provide assistance to our beleaguered world.

The members of the Guard featured in this miniseries are Gladiator (standing in for Superboy), Electron (Cosmic Boy), Sibyl (Saturn Girl), Flashfire (Lightning Lad), Nightside (Shadow Lass), Mentor (Brainiac 5), Earthquake (Blok) and the latest addition to the team, the Kree conscript Commando (Mon-El).

The introduction of Commando aka M-Nell (see what they did there?) ties in with another recent Marvel event, the Avengers storyline “Operation: Galactic Storm” which saw the Shi’ar apparently destroy the Kree Empire with the apocalyptic Nega Bomb. In fact the entire war between the Shi’ar and the Kree had been engineered by the Kree’s Machiavellian leader, the entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who sought to jump-start his people’s stalled evolution with the Nega Bomb’s energies. At this point in time the Supreme Intelligence is quietly biding its time, waiting for its deadly experiment to begin showing results, and Commando, ignorant of all this, finds himself having to serve alongside the Shi’ar forces who he regards as his conquerors.

Augustyn is a great writer who did high-quality work over at DC, and on his sole foray into the Marvel Universe he also crafts a compelling story. He does a good job of creating M-Nell, and of developing the other Imperial Guard members, the majority of whom, up until this point in their nearly 20 year existence, were basically one-dimensional ciphers.

Wojtkiewicz’s pencils are fun. He was a very underrated artist over at DC Comics, working in an “animated” style alongside the late, great Mike Parobeck on the Impact Comics line in the early 1990s. I always thought Wojtkiewicz should have had a bigger career, so I enjoyed seeing his art on Imperial Guard. His wrap-around covers for this miniseries were also great.

Besides, I really love that Wojtkiewicz drew Imperial Guard with “a cartoony vibe” during the exact same time that Marvel farmed out their main characters to Extreme Studios and Wildstorm with their hyper-detailed art styles. Honestly, the comic book industry could have used more artists like Wojtkiewicz in the 1990s who had their own fun styles.

It was enjoyable revisiting this three issue miniseries, and it makes me regret that the Imperial Guard have subsequently very seldom been in the spotlight since. They did have a five issue miniseries during the Realm of Kings crossover about a decade ago. I never did get around to checking that out, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.

Anyway, if you haven’t read this miniseries, it’s worth tracking down.

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit: Tales to Astonish #61

Here is an interesting addendum to my post from a couple of days ago about the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit which was held at the Society of Illustrators from July 15th to October 23rd.

Well, okay, I found it interesting; your mileage may vary.

One of the pieces of original comic book artwork in the exhibit was the splash page for the Giant-Man and Wasp story “Now Walks the Android” from Tales to Astonish#61, published by Marvel Comics with a November 1964 cover date.

The credited artists on this story were penciler Steve Ditko and inker George Roussos, the later working under the pseudonym “George Bell” so as not to raise the ire of his primary employer DC Comics.

However, there was a third artist involved in the creation of this story: Joe Orlando.

Joe Orlando had been one of the primary artists at EC Comics in the 1950s, working on both their iconic science fiction, horror & crime anthologies and the wildly successful Mad magazine. In the later half of the 1950s he drew several Classic Illustrated adaptations. Beginning in 1966 Orlando was an important artistic & editorial presence at DC Comics, where he remained until he passed away in December 1998 at the age of 71.

In 1964, shortly before he landed at DC Comics, Orlando did some work for writer / editor Stan Lee at the burgeoning Marvel Comics. It was, unfortunately, not an ideal match.

Longtime Marvel Comics editor and comic book historian Tom Brevoort details the behind-the-scenes problems that plagued Orlando’s short stint at Marvel in general, and the production difficulties of Tales to Astonish #61 in particular, on his excellent blog. I recommend reading Brevoort’s thorough examination of the subject…

In short, while Stan Lee’s “Marvel Method” of giving the penciler a brief plot of a few short paragraphs and then having him go off to draw a full 20 page story based on that, or even having the penciler do the plotting all on his own, led to some great, now-classic stories, it was not without its hiccups. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby both excelled at working in the “Marvel Method” but eventually both of them chaffed at the system and left Marvel to look for opportunities to write, draw & edit stories solo. John Romita, Herb Trimpe and Gene Colan all enjoyed the “Marvel Method” of creating comic books, and went on to be major artistic presences at Marvel after Ditko and Kirby departed.

But other artists found the “Marvel Method” difficult to work in, or were unhappy at having to do uncredited (and unpaid) writing, especially as Stan Lee would then appear to readers to be the sole writer on the comic books. That was definitely the case with Joe Orlando, who was an extremely talented artist. His experience at Marvel in 1964 demonstrated that he was much more comfortable working from full scripts.

So what does this tell us?  Well, it is a good demonstration that there is no “one size fits all” approach to creating comic books. An approach that works well for some writers and artists may be a complete failure for others.

It also demonstrates that, behind the scenes, the creation of comic books was often times a difficult, unglamorous, poorly-paying profession.  And I say this not to demonize anyone in particular, but to raise an awareness of the realities the industry in general, and to help bring about a more accurate understanding of the medium’s history.

Whatever the case, Tales to Astonish #61 offers an interesting example of the sometimes tortured, laborious realities of comic book production.

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators

Last month Michele and I went to the Society of Illustrators to see the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit. It was a great opportunity to see a very impressive & diverse selection of original artwork from comic books was on display, both from mainstream and alternative creators.

Here are just a few highlights from the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit, which ran from July 15th to October 23rd…

The unpublished cover artwork originally intended for Avengers #37 (Feb 1967) drawn by Don Heck for Marvel Comics that was eventually used as a cover by editor Roy Thomas for his comic book history magazine Alter Ego #118 (July 2013) from TwoMorrows Publishing.

A page from the Doctor Strange story “The Many Traps of Baron Mordo” drawn by Steve Ditko from Strange Tales #117 (Feb 1964) published by Marvel Comics.

The cover artwork for Green Lantern #56 (Oct 1967) penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Murphy Anderson, published by DC Comics.

The cover artwork for Hawkman #8 (June-July 1965) drawn by Murphy Anderson, published by DC Comics.

Two pages from Fantastic Four #116 (Nov 1971) penciled by John Busema and inked by Joe Sinnott, published by Marvel Comics.

A page from Incredible Hulk #196 (Feb 1976) pencil breakdowns by Sal Buscema and finishes by Joe Staton, published by Marvel Comics.

Two pages from the underground comix series The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers created by Gilbert Shelton.

The cover artwork for Laugh Comics #182 (May 1966) drawn by Dan DeCarlo, published by Archie Comics.

A daily installment of the newspaper comic strip Sky Masters penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Wallace Wood that ran from September 1958 to December 1961.

“Aqua Nut” illustration drawn by Rat Fink creator Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in 1963.

The cover artwork for Not Brand Echh #9 (Aug 1968) drawn by Marie Severin, published by Marvel Comics.

A page from Red Sonja #6 (Nov 1977) drawn by Frank Thorne, published by Marvel Comics.

While I definitely enjoyed this exhibit, it was slightly sobering to realize that in many cases the artists sold their original artwork many years ago for a fraction of the current asking prices. In some cases some of this artwork was given away by the publishers as gifts to fans, or flat-out stolen. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances. So I can certainly understand why in recent decades comic book artists have chosen to sell their original work at much higher prices.

Doctor Who writer Bob Baker: 1939 to 2021

Longtime British television & film scriptwriter Bob Baker passed away on November 3rd. He was 82 years old.

Baker, often paired up with creative partner Dave Martin, wrote for a number British television series throughout the 1970s, including the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who.

Baker & Martin’s first contribution to Doctor Who was the four-part serial “The Claws of Axos,” broadcast in 1971. A memorable story featuring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, it saw the shape-shifting vampiric entity Axos attempt to drain the Earth dry of its life energy. Their second contribution to the series was the six-part “The Mutants” broadcast in 1972. Containing strong anti-imperialist and anti-apartheid sentiments, it is one of the Doctor Who’s most overtly political stories.

Baker & Martin co-wrote a total of eight serials for Doctor Who between 1971 and 1979, with Baker working solo on a ninth story, “Nightmare of Eden,” which was broadcast in late 1979.

Among Baker & Martin’s contributions to the Doctor Who universe, they created the beloved robot dog K-9, who was introduced in their 1977 serial “The Invisible Enemy” during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. At the end of the story K-9 joined the Doctor on his travels, and the mechanical dog was a regular presence in the TARDIS for the next several seasons.

Although K-9 was written out of Doctor Who in 1981, the mechanical mutt has periodically returned over the years, and was paired up with fan-favorite companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by actress Elisabeth Sladen. Baker himself contributed to the K-9 spin-off series that ran for 26 episodes between October 2009 and November 2010 on Network Ten in Australia and on Channel 5 in the UK.

Among the other television series Baker contributed to was the police procedural Z-Cars (1974), the police action series Target (1977-8), the crime drama Bergerac (1981, 1983), and the children’s dark fantasy series King of the Castle (1977) and Into the Labyrinth (1981-2).

Beginning in 1993 Baker became associated with another iconic British dog. Created by Nick Park, the stop motion animation series Wallace & Gromit features the absent-minded inventor Wallace and his silent yet intelligent anthropomorphic beagle Gromit. Baker began co-writing the Wallace & Gromit series with the second animated short The Wrong Trousers in 1993. This was followed by A Close Shave in 1995, the feature-length animated film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, and the short A Matter of Loaf and Death in 2008. Baker also worked on the six episode television series Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention broadcast on BBC One in November 2010.

Notably, A Matter of Loaf and Death saw Baker, in a bit of dark humor, write in his own death via the demise of “Baker Bob,” one of the victims of a serial killer who is murdering British bakers.

Baker wrote an autobiography entitled K-9 Stole My Trousers! which was published in 2013. He co-wrote with Paul M. Tam the 2015 anthology The Essential Book of K-9. Another short story collection, K-9: Megabytes, was released in 2020.

Baker’s contributions to Doctor Who and Wallace & Gromit made him a beloved figure of genre fandom. He will certainly be missed.

Sal Buscema: An Inker For All Seasons

Sal Buscema and some of his friends from work

Sal Buscema is one of the four recipients of the 2021 Joe Sinnott Hall of Fame Award. I was honored to be asked by The Inkwell Awards to write a profile of Sal examining his work as an inker, and providing examples from across his impressive, lengthy career.

Sal Buscema issued a brief statement concerning his induction into the Hall of Fame:

“I want to thank everyone responsible for this award which I revere and cherish. I consider this to be truly a great honor. Once again, thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

Joe Sinnott, the award’s namesake and first winner, passed away in June 2020. His son, inker and Inkwell Awards Special Ambassador Mark Sinnott, has graciously assumed his legendary father’s position. He issued the following statement regarding Sal Buscema’s work:

“My dad always enjoyed working with Sal. He could do it all. He is as gifted a penciler as he is an inker. Joe was fortunate to ink Sal on The Hulk, ROM Spaceknight, The Fantastic Four, and the Sunday Spidey strip, as well as several others. Sal’s inks over his brother John on The Silver Surfer and his work on The Avengers is outstanding.”

Please follow the link below to read the The Inkwell Awards profile piece on Sal Buscema:

My sincere thanks to talented artist and good friend Guy Dorian Sr, who has collaborated with Sal Buscema on several recent projects, for his invaluable assistance in preparing this article.