Norm Breyfogle: 1960 to 2018

It has been observed that someone’s favorite Batman artist is often determined by when they first began reading comic books.  That’s certainly the case for me.  There have been numerous talented artists who have rendered the Dark Knight’s adventures over the past eight decades, but two hold a special fondness for me: Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle.  When I began reading DC Comics regularly in 1989, Aparo was the regular penciler on Batman, and Breyfogle was the penciler on Detective Comics.

Jim Aparo, who had been working in the biz since the late 1960s, was what I refer to as a good, solid artist.  His penciling on Batman was of a more traditional bent, but his style perfectly suited the character.

And then there was Norm Breyfogle, the new kid on the block.  Breyfogle utilized a very dynamic approach to his storytelling.  His artwork in Detective Comics was filled with dramatic, innovative layouts that were possessed of both explosive energy and brooding atmosphere.

Batman 465 cover crop

Breyfogle had broken into the biz just five years earlier, in 1984, with a pair of contributions to DC’s New Talent Showcase.  Two years later, in 1986, Breyfogle penciled several issues of Steven Grant’s series Whisper for First Comics.  Following that, Breyfogle first entered the dark, moody world of Gotham City, becoming the regular penciler of Detective Comics with issue #582, cover-dated January 1988.

The following month, with issue #583, Breyfogle was joined on Detective Comics by the talented British writing team of Alan Grant & John Wagner.  Issue #584 saw the arrival of the last member of the now-regular creative team, inker Steve Mitchell.

Grant, Wagner & Breyfogle very quickly made their impart on the Bat-mythos, introducing new adversaries the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, and the Ventriloquist & Scarface, the last of whom has become an iconic member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

Although Wagner soon departed, Grant remained on Detective Comics, penning a series of stories that were expertly illustrated by Breyfogle & Mitchell.  With issue #608, Grant & Breyfogle introduced yet another memorable denizen of Gotham City, the radical anti-hero Anarky.

Anarky profile pic

Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was incredibly dramatic, and is now regarded as one of the iconic interpretations of the character.  His Dark Knight was muscular but also lithe, grim & imposing but also human & vulnerable.  Breyfogle’s fluid layouts depicted a dark yet dynamic Batman acrobatically swinging across the skyline of Gotham City, massive cape billowing about.  It was absolutely incredible.  Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was *the* definitive one for me during my teenage years in the early 1990s.

The team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell remained on Detective Comics until issue #621 (Sept 1990) and which point they were rotated over to the Batman series with issue #455.  Their first storyline, “Identity Crisis,” ended with the new Robin, Tim Drake, debuting his brand-new costume.  Breyfogle stayed on Batman until #476 (April 1992), at which point he switched over to yet another Bat-title, the new ongoing Batman: Shadow of the Bat.

Although he only drew the first five issues of Shadow of the Bat, this certainly wasn’t the end of Breyfogle’s association with Batman.  He would return for the occasional fill-in issue here and there.  Breyfogle also worked on several Batman-related graphic novels.  Among these was the acclaimed Elseworlds special Batman: Holy Terror written by novelist Alan Brennert.

Detective Comics 616 pg 18

One of my personal favorite issues from the team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell was “Stone Killer” in Detective Comics #616 (June 1990).  In this story Batman faces an eerie supernatural adversary.  Breyfogle’s style was perfectly suited for this eerie tale.

Also noteworthy was Detective Comics #627 (March 1991).  This was the 600th appearance of Batman in that series.  To celebrate, this issue reprinted the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, and a 1969 update of the story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.  Additionally, there were two new interpretations of the story by the then-current Batman creative teams, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo & Mike Decarlo, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell.  It was interesting to see the same basic plot executed in four very different ways.

Detective Comics #627 concluded with a stunning double-page spread drawn by Breyfogle & Mitchell featuring Batman, his supporting cast, and many members of his rogues gallery.

Detective Comics 627 double page splash

Beginning in 1993, Breyfogle began working on Prime, which was part of Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse imprint.  He drew the first twelve issues, as well as stories for a few of the other Ultraverse titles.  Regrettably I did not follow any of these series.  At the time the comic book market had a huge glut of product on the shelves, and the Ultraverse unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.

I did finally have an opportunity to see Breyfogle’s work on the character a few years later, when the Prime / Captain America special was published in early 1996.  It was an odd but fun story, with wacky artwork by Breyfogle.  He appeared to be working in a slightly more cartoony, comedic vein.  I definitely enjoyed seeing him draw Captain America, who at the time was my favorite character.

Prime Captain America pg 8

After a short stint on Bloodshot at Valiant, Breyfogle returned to DC.  He penciled an Anarky miniseries, reuniting him with the character’s co-creator Alan Grant.  In the early 2000s he penciled several issues of the Spectre revival written by J.M. DeMatteis, which featured the then-deceased Hal Jordan adopting the supernatural role of the Wrath of God.  For Marvel Comics, Breyfogle drew the 2000 annuals for both Thunderbolts and Avengers, which in turn led to a three issue Hellcat miniseries featuring his artwork.

For a few years after the Spectre ended, Breyfogle unfortunately had some difficulty finding regular assignments in comic books.  Fortunately in late 2009 he began receiving work from Archie Comics.  Breyfogle was one of the regular artists on the wonderful Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg.  Here he was paired up with inker Josef Rubinstein.

Breyfogle’s work for Archie Comics really demonstrated his versatility as an artist.  As I previously observed, Breyfogle’s art on Life With Archie was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.  He certainly was adept at illustrating the melodramatic soap opera storylines in the “Archie Marries Veronica” segments.

Life With Archie 9 pg 3

In 2012 Breyfogle once again had an opportunity to return to the world of Batman, illustrating the “10,000 Clowns” story arc and several covers for Batman Beyond.  It was a wonderful homecoming for the artist, who seamlessly fit back into Bat-verse, this time giving us his depictions of the dystopian future Gotham City and its denizens introduced in the animated series.

Batman Beyond would unfortunately be Breyfogle’s last major work in comic books.  In December 2014 he suffered a stroke, after which he became partially paralyzed.  Tragically, as a result Breyfogle was no longer able to draw.  Nevertheless he remained connected to the comic book community, regularly communicating with fans via Facebook.

Norm Breyfogle passed away on September 24, 2018.  He was only 58 years old.  It was a tremendous shock, both to his colleagues, who always spoke very highly of him, and to the generation of fans such as myself who grew up on his amazing artwork.

For me Breyfogle will always remain one of the all-time greatest Batman artists.  He will definitely be missed.

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Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

Today is Batman Day, celebrating all things relating to the Dark Knight of Gotham City, one of DC Comics’ most iconic comic book characters.  Today is also Saturday, or rather Caturday, the weekly celebration of all things cat-related.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.  Catwoman, real name Selina Kyle, made her debut just a year later in the pages of Batman #1.  Both characters were created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.

For nearly eight decades the grim vigilante Batman and the sexy thief Catwoman have had an adversarial relationship with heavy romantic undertones.  There was a mutual attraction from the start, one often undermined by the fact that Bruce and Selina have typically been on opposite side of the law.

Since this year Batman Day falls on Caturday, I am taking a quick look at the history between Batman and his longtime frenemy Catwoman.

Batman 65 cover

Creator credits in the Golden Age of comic books were unfortunately often sparse, but the GCD credits the cover artwork to Batman #65 (June-July 1951) to Win Mortimer, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charles Paris.  Whoever drew it, it’s a nice cover.  Both it, and the story inside by Finger, Kane, Schwartz & Paris, demonstrate that right from the start Batman never knew if each time he met Catwoman she would turn out to be an enemy, an ally, or something in-between.

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

“The Jungle Cat-Queen!” is an exciting tale written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris, and appeared in Detective Comics #211 (Sept 1954).  Catwoman plays a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Batman and Robin on a jungle island.  Sprang is considered the quintessential Batman artist of the 1950s.  I first read this one in the excellent collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

(Pay no attention to the contratually obligated Bob Kane byline.  Kane had nothing to do with this comic, or any other Batman story published after the early 1950s.  Unfortunately he loved to take credit for other people’s work.  At least nowadays we have a much better idea of who did what.)

Batman 197 pg 18

Batman #197 (Dec 1967) written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Frank Springer & Sid Greene sees Catwoman determined to marry Batman… whether he wants to or not!  Yeah, this one certainly won’t win any awards for progressive depictions of woman!  This was pretty typical of DC’s Silver Age superhero comics, the target audience for which was pre-teen boys. Oh, well… nice artwork by the underrated Springer & Greene, at least.

For an entertaining, in-depth look at Batman #197 by someone who read it when it first came out I highly recommend heading over to Alan Stewart’s excellent Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.

Batman 256 pg 14

Okay, this is certainly better!  Batman #256 (May-June 1974) by writer Denny O’Neil & artists Irv Novick & Dick Giordano, has Batman and Robin investigating whether or  not Catwoman has committed a murder at the circus.  Selina is innocent, of course, since she’s no killer, but she is planning to “liberate” the tigers from the circus, so she can return the large cats to the natrual world.  While Batman disapproves of Catwoman’s larcenous activities, he nevertheless admires her strong love for animals.

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

DC Super Stars #17 (Nov-Dec 1977) featured the origin of the Huntress, heroine of Earth 2 and the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman.  This story, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton & Bob Layton, opens with the wedding of Bruce & Selina, who at least in this dimension found love & happiness together for two decades, until tragedy eventually struck.  It’s a great story, so go find a copy and read it!

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

Meanwhile, back on Earth 1, Batman and Catwoman were still doing their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.   Mike W. Barr was one of the writers to delve into their rocky relationship, as witnessed in this scene from Detective Comics #569 (Dec 1986) expertly illustrated by Alan Davis & Paul Neary.

Batman 611 pg 21

In the post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever other reality-altering mega crossovers DC has thrown our way in the past 30 years, Batman and Catwoman still had that mutual attraction going.  After numerous encounters that saw them working in various permutations of friends and foes, they finally officially became a couple of sorts in Batman #611 (Feb 2003) written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams.

I am generally not a huge fan of Lee’s work.  I find his style too busy and hyper-detailed.  Having said that, this is a beautiful splash page which has become an iconic image.

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, or words to that effect.  Batman and Catwoman’s ongoing relationship has hit quite a few speedbumps.  One of the reasons for this is that the two come from very different backgrounds: Bruce is a millionaire, and Selina grew up on the streets of Gotham City’s poorest neighborhoods.  As a result the two have often disagreed over matters of crime, punishment and justice.  This was expertly illustrated in Batman / Catwoman: Follow the Money (Jan 2011) written & illustrated by Howard Chaykin.  It’s an enjoyable story, and I recommend searching out a copy.

I know a lot of people were upset that Bruce & Selina did not actually tie the knot during writer Tom King’s current run on Batman.  But, honestly, as you can see from the above, they already bicker like an old married couple, so at this point it’s really just a formality!

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

I am going to close out with the cover artwork for Batman: Gotham Adventures #50 (July 2002) which features the animated incarnations of Bruce & Selina.  Illustrated by the late, great, much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this image is a beautiful snapshot of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman.

Savage Dragon #237: lots of sex, plus some violence

The last time I discussed Savage Dragon here, it was regarding issue #s 228 and 229, a pair of stories that had Erik Larsen presenting Malcolm and Maxine doing the hot & heavy horizontal hustle like it was going out of style.

Since then, Maxine seemingly died, only to quickly be revived.  According to Maxine, her brief death apparently sent her into the afterlife, and her own personal heaven was a non-stop orgy.  As a result, now that she’s back among the living she’s hornier than ever, and even Malcolm, super-powered stud that he is, finds he’s having trouble keeping up with her.

In case you couldn’t guess, this review is NOT SAFE FOR WORK!!!  So proceed with caution…

Savage Dragon 237 cover

I don’t know what’s up with Erik Larsen.  In the last couple of years he has taken Savage Dragon full speed ahead into X-rated territory.  Maybe he’s having a midlife crisis?  Whatever the case, my local comic shop has started polybagging every single copy of Savage Dragon that they sell, lest some underage customers get a peek at the ribald interiors.  Good thing, too, since issue #237 once again wholeheartedly features ample examples of copulation and nudity.

Y’know, my last post about Savage Dragon has had an absolutely insane number of views.  Nearly all of those were from people looking for some of Larsen’s naughty artwork.  I’ve lost track of how many people found my blog via the search terms “Savage Dragon porn” and “Savage Dragon sex scene.” And, yeah, by quoting those here I’m probably going to get another big set of views from the prurient-minded.

So, to all you Peeping Toms, welcome back to In My Not So Humble Opinion!  Last time around most of you were probably disappointed that I didn’t actually have any scans of Malcolm & Maxine’s bedroom Olympics, bar a single panel that I thought was the least-offensive one in those two issues.  Well this time you’re in luck.  Feast your optic nerves on this spectacle…

Savage Dragon 237 pg 4

Soooo, is everyone happy now?  Are you not entertained?!?

*Ahem!* The thing is, the rest of Savage Dragon #237 is really well done.  Larsen utilizes some very well thought out layouts & storytelling throughout the first half of this issue.  There’s a two page, multi-panel discussion between Malcolm and Angel, and then there are several pages that gradually build up to the debut of Malcolm’s newest adversary.  Of course, alternating with those sequences are Malcolm, Maxine and Angel having their three-ways.

So basically part of this issue is a series expertly constructed, suspenseful moments leading to the Scourge’s fiery, violent entrance… and the other part is plenty of sex and nudity.

I literally got to the point where I was rolling my eyes and shaking my head sadly.  What exactly was my breaking point?  Halfway through the issue Angel’s clothes get totally shredded in a fight with some monsters.  The only thing she can find to change into is one of Maxine’s old school uniforms, which is a couple of sizes too small for her.  Oy gevalt!

However, before you can say “slutty schoolgirl” three times fast, Angel is blasted and apparently killed by the Scourge.  I say “apparently” because Larsen already fooled me with Maxine’s seeming “death” a few issues ago.  So I am not ready to count Angel out yet, not until there’s confirmation that she’s genuinely deceased.  I hope she’s still alive, because she’s a fun character.  Well, that and it would be ignominious for her to get bumped off while looking like something out of a really dirty hentai.

Savage Dragon 237 pg 17

Rounding out this issue is a six page back-up written by Larsen, with artwork by Billy Penn.  I think that “Save the Future” was originally supposed to be printed back in 2016, because the plot is that SuperPatriot and Daredevil have to prevent two time travelers from the future from killing, respectively, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before either of them can get elected and destroy the world.

Maybe this one, with DD and Patriot concluding “No matter who wins, we lose” would have been funny two years ago.  However, here in 2018, witnessing the non-stop shit-show of racism, misogyny, corruption, would-be authoritarianism, treason and gross incompetence that the Trump Administration has subjected this country to, you would have to be completely deluded to still believe that Hillary would have been just as bad or worse.

Oh, well… nice artwork by Billy Penn, at least.  I’d be happy to see him draw another, hopefully better written, back-up story for this book.

Savage Dragon 237 pg 23

I wonder if I should continue following Savage Dragon.  I used to say that if I ever got down to following just one ongoing comic book series it would be this one.  But now I have my doubts.  I guess I have to play it by ear, see what happens next.  I really hope that Larsen will start to curb the excessive levels of hardcore sex, but that’s entirely up to him.  Image Comics is, after all, a company founded on creator rights & control.  It’s Larsen’s book, and he can do whatever he wants with it.  I just need to figure out if I want to continue along for the ride.

Marie Severin: 1929 to 2018

Longtime comic book artist Marie Severin passed away on August 30 at the age of 89.  Severin, a very talented artist who was possessed of a wonderful sense of humor, was one of the few women to work in the comic book industry in the 1950s and 60s.

Marie Severin and friends

Marie Severin and some of her friends from work

Severin got her start in the 1950s as a colorist at EC Comics, where her brother, John Severin, was working as an artist. Following that, Severin began working at Marvel in the late 1950s.  Initially working as a colorist and in the production department, in the mid 1960s she also began drawing for the House of Ideas.

Severin had a decidedly unconventional, often wacky style to her artwork.  She also acknowledged that she really did not care all that much for super-heroes.  That made her the perfect fit for Marvel’s outlier characters.  She became only the third artist on the Doctor Strange feature in Strange Tales beginning with issue #153, cover-dated Feb 1967.  Soon afterwards, Severin began drawing the adventures of Marvel’s two moody, violent anti-heroes, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Hulk.

In the early 1970s Severin penciled several stories written by Roy Thomas featuring Robert E. Howard’s introspective warrior king Kull the Conqueror.  On the Kull stories Severin was inked by her brother John, and it was a beautiful collaboration.

Kull the Conqueror 3 pg 3

However, it was in the humor field that Severin really found her calling.  Her style was perfectly suited for comedy, and for sending up the characters at Marvel and their competitors.  Severin’s work appeared in all but one issue of Not Brand Echh, which ran for 13 issues in the late 1960s.  All these years later the wacky, satirical stories from Not Brand Echh are well-remembered, in major part because of Severin’s distinctively crazy artwork.

I was born in 1976, so I only discovered Not Brand Echh years later via reprints.  I think once I reached my 30s and started taking super-heroes a lot less seriously was when I finally began to really appreciate the parodies of the genre that Severin & her colleagues had done.

However, for the thoughts of someone who did read Not Brand Echh when it was being published, I recommend reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Earlier this year Alan did a blog post looking back at Not Brand Echh #9.  Severin’s drew the cover artwork for on Not Brand Echh #9 and penciled “Bet They’ll Be Battle!” featuring the Inedible Bulk and Prince No-More the Skunk-Mariner, a parody of the Hulk vs. Sub-Mariner story published in Tales to Astonish #100 a year and a half earlier, which Severin had also penciled.

Nevertheless, of the Not Brand Echh material I have seen via reprints, one of my favorite pieces is the satirical two page “How to Be a Comic Book Artist” vignette which Severin drew, and which she apparently also wrote and colored.  It was originally published in Not Brand Echh #11 (Dec 1968).  Here it is…

Not Brand Echh 11 pg 34

How to Be a Comic Book Artist page one

Not Brand Echh 11 pg 35

How to Be a Comic Book Artist page two

“How to Be a Comic Book Artist” always leaves me chuckling, especially the second panel on the first page.  “Work in pleasant, inspiring surroundings – to keep your thoughts alive and creative!”  Yes, yes… of course! 😛

I showed this two-pager to my girlfriend Michele, who is an artist.  She shook her head and muttered, “Yeah, that sounds like everybody I know.”

Severin continued her humor work at Marvel in the 1970s, contributing to the short-lived color comics Spoof and Arrgh! and the long-running black & white Crazy Magazine.  In the early 1990s she also drew a few stories for Marvel’s later-day humor comic What The–?!

Much of Severin’s work for Marvel in the 1980s and early 90s was on titles geared towards younger readers.  Her artwork appeared in the Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock and Alf comic books.  Once again, her style was very well-suited to that material.

On occasion Severin did return to straightforward super-heroes.  In the mid 1990s she worked on a few stories during David Quinn’s memorable run writing Doctor Strange, doing nice work.  I especially enjoyed her artwork on the Doctor Strange & Clea story that appeared in Midnight Sons Unlimited #6 (July 1994) which, although it was a mostly-serious tale, was drawn in a semi-cartoony style, and which had a fair amount of comedic background details, such as the depictions of late 1960s counter-culture elements.

Midnight Sons Unlimited 6 pg 7

I only met Severin once, briefly, at a comic book convention in June 2000.  At the time the only book I had on hand which contained her work was the graphic novel Dignifying Science.  Written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by a talented line-up of female artists, Dignifying Science spotlighted several important female scientists.  Severin drew the book’s prologue & epilogue, which touched upon the life of Marie Curie.  I got my copy autographed by Severin.  I wish I’d had some of the other books she worked on to also get signed, but at least I did get to meet her that one time.

Marie Severin had a very lengthy career in comic books as an artist and colorist, and I’ve only briefly touched upon a few highlights in this blog.  For an in-depth examination of her career, I highly recommend the book Marie Severin: The Mirthful Mistress of Comics written by Dewey Cassell with Aaron Sultan from TwoMorrows Publishing.  In addition, Severin was recently interviewed by Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Creator #16 (Winter 2018) also from TwoMorrows.  Please check them out.

Abdanm and Keerma’s adventures at TerrifiCon

Last weekend Michele and I went to the TerrifiCon comic book convention held at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.  TerrifiCon is a really great show, in that it is good-sized, has lots of guests, and its primary focus is actually on comic books.  I had fun at the show last year, and so Michele came with me this time.

Accompanying us was our family of Friendly Demon Dolls.  Two of them were given to me as presents.  Their names are Abdanm and Keerma.  They both had a lot of fun at the show.

Abdanm and Keerma Action Comics 1

Abdanm is the blue, black & grey fellow, and Keerma is the tiny green guy.  Here they are at TerrifiCon in front of a giant reproduction of the iconic cover of Action Comics #1.

Even though the bus ride from the Port Authority to the Mohegan Sun was long, and the ride back to NYC was worse, we still had a lot of fun that day.  I met several comic book creators, got some books signed, picked up a few books, and got to spend some time with Michele.  The boys also had fun.  Here are some more photos of them at the show…

Abdanm and Keerma Thanos

Here we are meeting Thanos.  Abdanm and Keerma were impressed by him, but they said he shouldn’t be so mean.  They told Thanos that he should try being more friendly like they are, and then maybe he’d have more friends.

Abdanm and Keerma Artist Alley

Abdanm and Keerma had a good time exploring Artist Alley, seeing the work of all of the talented creators who were at the convention.  Among the many talented comic book pros we saw were Bob Almond, Buzz, Ron Frenz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Paul Kupperberg, Bob McLeod, Kevin Nolan, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern and Roy Thomas.  We also saw actress Pom Klementieff, who portrayed Mantis in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

Abdanm and Keerma John Trumbull

It was great to finally meet my online pal John Trumbull, who was also at the show.  John has written a number of excellent articles for Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows.  He compiled the incredibly informative oral history of Batman: The Animated Series that was featured in Back Issue #99.  Abdanm and Keerma were thrilled to meet John, and hung out with him for a bit in Artist Alley.

Abdanm and Keerma TerrifiCon buys

Back at home Abdanm and Keerma looked over my acquisitions from the show.  I picked up the very enlightening book Inking Before and After by the talented Bob McLeod, Blue Baron #1 from penciler Ron Frenz, the Proton comic & sketchbook from Jerry Ordway, Super Gorillas Vs. The All-American Victory League by the late Alan Kupperberg, assembled & published by his brother Paul, and Superman Annual #7 from 1995, which I got autographed by its writer, the incredible Roger Stern.

TerrifiCon is an amazing show.  Hopefully we can go again next year.  We just need to find a better way to get there than the Greyhound bus!

For info on Friendly Demon Dolls please check out their website. Thank you 🙂

Comic book reviews: Bloodstrike “Brutalists”

Michel Fiffe, the talented writer and artist on the creator-owned series Copra, recently made a brief visit to the Extreme Studios corner of Image Comics via a three issue revival of Bloodstrike.  “Brutalists” is simultaneously a love letter to the wild, high-octane superhero comic books that Rob Liefeld and his collaborators produced in the 1990s and an effort at straightening out some continuity & tying up a few loose ends.

Bloodstrike 0 cover

Comic books from the early 1990s often get something of a bad rap.  It was a period when a lot of young, up & coming creators who grew up on the works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore took the trappings of their grim & gritty stories and attempted, probably unwisely, to apply them to the superhero genre as a whole.  Liefeld was one of the foremost among these young turks.  As I noted in my review of his Youngblood crossover “Babewatch” the books that came out under the Extreme Studios umbrella were characterized by copious amounts of violence, gigantic guns & swords, scantily-clad sexy babes, and more gritted teeth then you would likely see in an entire career as a dental hygienist.

Having said all that, the Extreme books were probably the perfect reading material for teenage boys of the time, including Fiffe himself, who fondly recalls the original run of Bloodstrike from his high school years.  Just as Miller and Moore had influenced the Image founders, so too did Liefeld and his colleagues then go on to influence the next generation of creators, among them Fiffe, who learned the importance of owning your own characters and going completely wild with them.  So I guess that the three part “Brutalists” story is something of a tip of the hat by Fiffe to Liefeld for helping to inspire him.

Bloodstrike was a series about a covert government entity known as Project: Born Again that utilized a strike force of undead super-powered agents to carry out all sorts of secret and illegal missions.  They were the flip side of the coin to Youngblood, the handsome, sexy, media-friendly super-heroes who the government thrust into the limelight.  While Youngblood was grabbing the headlines and fame, the top secret Bloodstrike team was off skulking in the shadows, taking care of the really unsavory work that enabled the people in power to remain in power.

The Bloodstrike team was the ultimate in superhuman cannon fodder.  They died on numerous occasions, always violently, only to be brought back to quasi-life each and every time by Project: Born Again.

Bloodstrike 0 pg 5

I did pick up a few issues of Bloodstrike back in the day, mostly due to Keith Giffen being the plotter & layout artist for issue #s 4-6.  Giffen tied the book in with events taking place in Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon series and its spin-offs SuperPatriot and Freak Force.  Specifically, Giffen set up a subplot involving the high-tech subversive organization the Covenant of the Sword infiltrating Project: Born Again.  After his departure this plot was continued for several more issues by scripter Eric Stephenson, and then finally resolved by Robert Napton in issue #11, with Dragon and his adversary Cyberface also showing up.

Giffen’s brief run was genuinely bat-shit crazy, with insane amounts of over-the-top violence.  That was especially the case with issue #5 (Nov 1993).  Bloodstrike is dispatched to take down the arrogant and brutal super-human vigilante Supreme.  They fail… badly.  Supreme literally demolishes the team.  For those who have never seen that story, here’s the page from it which has Supreme violently dispatching Bloodstrike’s leader Cabbot.

Bloodstrike 5 pg 19

Oy vey!  Kids, do not try this at home!

Re-reading those three issues recently, I’ve become convinced that Giffen was writing Bloodstrike as an incredibly dark comedy.  I would not be surprised if he saw how popular violent anti-heroes had become and decided to just go ahead and produce the most exaggerated send-up of grim & gritty that he could possibly conceive.

At the same time, Giffen also really brought across the horrifying circumstances of Project: Born Again, as readers witnessed the five despairing members of the team were trapped in a revolving door of life & death, brought back to a semblance of life over and over again, each time violently dying anew.

These two aspects very much appealed to Fiffe, the comedic ultra-violence and the ultimate in existential crises, as he delves into both within “Brutalists.”  Fiffe succeeds in giving these twisted characters a certain humanity and pathos while telling some comically dark stories.

Fiffe also uses this opportunity to resolve a couple of subplots that were left dangling do to the various creative team changeovers on the original series.  One was Max, the guy who had a one night stand with Bloodstrike member Tag, and consequently became infected with some sort of disease that literally left him rotting alive.  The other was Heaton, a private eye investigating the gruesome murders of several young women in rural Virginia.  Fiffe brings them back in the second chapter of “Brutalists,” with the Covenant of the Sword also popping up.

Even the numbering of these issues is a testament to filling in the gaps.  The first part of “Brutalists” is Bloodstrike #0, giving the series the prequel “year one” type tale it never got back in the day.  The second and third parts are in Bloodstrike #23 and #24.  For the completist-minded or just anal-retentive (and I guess I fit both categories) that fills in the two issue gap created when Bloodstrike jumped forward to issue #25 for Extreme’s “Images of Tomorrow” month, then jumped back to issue #11, only to then get cancelled with issue #22.  So there you go; all these years later we finally have an uninterrupted run of Bloodstrike volume one.

Bloodstrike 23 pg 14

The original Bloodstrike definitely didn’t flinch from depicting blood & gore, and Fiffe certainly continues in that vein.  It’s an interesting contrast, though, because the artists on those books such as Dan Fraga, Chris Alexander and Richard Horie were going for the ultra-detailed look that was red-hot back in the early 1990s.

Fiffe, on the other hand, has a much more abstract, surreal quality to his art and coloring.  His layouts & storytelling are also possessed of an unconventional nature.  As a result, the violent sequences in “Brutalists” have the quality of a hazy yet still disturbing feverish nightmare.  It’s very unsettling, even more so than the exhaustively busy house style of Extreme Studios back in the day ever was.

“Brutalists” works well both as a stand-alone piece for fans of Fiffe’s work on Copra and other projects, as well as a continuation of the original storylines & characters for fans of the original Bloodstrike.  I happen to sort of fall in between those two categories, having certainly enjoyed Copra, yet also possessing a casual knowledge of the old Bloodstrike stories.

By the way, for those who are not familiar with them, Fiffe provides an extended recap of the series’ history on his website.

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Bloodstrike “Brutalists” is an unusual project to be sure.  Coming off of a second reading of the three issues, I felt the main strength was in seeing Fiffe being able to energetically tackle these characters he was fans of from his teenage days.  The result is some incredibly bizarre and stunning artwork, as well as stories that are simultaneously warped and humorous.  Hopefully this will also lead those unfamiliar with Fiffe to read his excellent series Copra.

Thinking it over, there are probably a few other series from Liefeld’s stable that Fiffe could also work his magic on, long-forgotten characters with convoluted histories and dangling subplots who are just waiting for someone to come along, dust them off, and give them a fresh coat of paint.  Hey, maybe Fiffe could be Roy Thomas of Extreme Studios!  He’ll come in, straighten out the back stories, tie up the loose ends, and get them up & running for the 21st Century.

Okay, all kidding aside, Liefeld did create a lot of characters with really dynamic, imaginative designs, so there’s a lot of potential there for Fiffe, or others, to explore.  And I know that several other creators have been doing just that over the past few years, producing some entertaining stories.

Bloodstrike 23 The Pouch variant cover

Oh, yes… I would be remiss if I did not mention Rob Liefeld’s own contribution to “Brutalists.” One of the things that Liefeld has often been criticized for over the years is his predilection for designing characters and costumes with pouches… lots and lots of pouches!  Who needs all those pouches?  I don’t know.  Anyway, Liefeld demonstrates that he has a sense of humor about the whole thing via a short back-up piece, as well as a couple of variant covers, which introduce a new character known as… The Pouch!  Well, I’ll admit it, I laughed.

Steve Ditko’s ghost stories

Last week it was announced that legendary comic book creator Steve Ditko had passed away in late June.  He was 90 years old.

Ditko is best known for having co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s.  However, he was actually a prolific creator who worked on innumerable titles for dozens of publishers, as well as a number of creator-owned self-published projects, during a career that lasted 65 years, from 1953 until the time of his death.

I wanted to pay tribute to Ditko, but I never worked with him or met him, and so outside of a brief correspondence with him several years ago I cannot say I knew him.  Certainly I am ill-equipped to assemble a comprehensive overview & analysis of his career such as the one that appeared in The Comics Journal.

It then occurred to me to look at one period, one facet of Ditko’s career that especially appealed to me, and explain why I held it in such high personal regard.  I am going to take a brief look at Ditko’s work on the Charlton Comics horror anthologies of the 1970s.

Ghostly Haunts 23

About a week ago I happened to be chatting with comic book creator Dean Haspiel.  During our talk, we briefly touched on the subject of horror comics.  I broached the opinion that horror is a genre that is often difficult to utilize effectively in the medium of comic books.  Haspiel appeared to concur, and suggested it can be difficult for many artists to effectively utilize the pacing and storytelling and layouts necessary to convey true horror & suspense, with many instead relying on gore & violence.

(I’m paraphrasing what Dean said, so don’t take any of the above for a direct quote!)

Just a few hours later the news broke of Steve Ditko’s passing.  It immediately hit me square in the face that one of the few comic book artists who did genuinely excel at illustrating horror material was none other than Ditko himself.  Certainly that talent was frequently on display in his work for Charlton.

Located in Derby CT, Charlton was infamous for its low rates paid to creators and the cheap quality of its printing.  However the company also had very little in the way of corporate or editorial oversight.  This was something that appealed to Ditko, who very much valued his creative independence.

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“Treasure of the Tomb” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts 23 (March 1972)

In my teens and 20s I had seen reprints of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories, as well as his more recent work for Marvel from the 1980s.  Though I liked it, there wasn’t anything that especially appealed to me.  At times I even found his art to be weird and off-putting.

About a decade and a half ago I was at a local comic book convention where I happened to buy a few back issues of some of the Charlton horror anthologies.  One of these issues was Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972) which featured a striking cover by Ditko.  Inside this issue were two stories illustrated by Ditko, “Treasure of the Tomb” and “Return Visit,” both of which I later learned had been written by Joe Gill.

Let me tell you, Ghostly Haunts #23 was a genuine revelation.  I don’t think I truly “got” Ditko’s work until that point.  His art on those two stories hit me like a thunderbolt.

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“Return Visit” page 2 from Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972)

Ditko’s layouts, the pacing of his stories, his heavy inking, the contorted body language & wide-eyed, twisted facial expressions of his figures, all combined to create a palpable mood of fear and anxiety and tangible horror.  Ditko genuinely excelled at generating an atmosphere of dread and suspense, of unsettling people and places that were more than slightly askew.

I also loved Ditko’s beautiful, sexy depiction of Ghostly Haunts hostess Winnie the Witch.  Ditko’s women often exuded a dangerous sensuality, and that was certainly present in his depictions of Winnie, who was cute but also possessed of a coy edginess.  Additionally, I enjoyed the effective way in which Ditko had Winnie lurking on the borders of the pages, or in-between panels, an omnipresent spectator who was almost but not quite involved in the proceedings of the narratives.

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“Web of Evil” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts #31 (April 1973)

Subsequently I began searching out other back issues of the various Charlton horror anthologies.  The prolific Ditko illustrated dozens of stories for the company in the 1970s, appearing in numerous issues of Ghost Manor, Ghostly Haunts, Ghostly Tales, Haunted, Scary Tales, and others, making his work fairly easy to locate.

Additionally, 20 of the horror stories that Ditko did for the Charlton were subsequently collected together in black & white volume Steve Ditko’s 160 Page Package.  This was released in 1999 by Robin Snyder, who printed & distributed many of Ditko’s later works.

At times the stories in the Charlton anthologies were clichéd or repetitive or predictable.  Since the pay rates were so low, Gill and his colleagues often had to literally crank these things out one after another in order to be able to make a decent living.  Nevertheless, in spite of the variable quality of the writing, as well as his own low page rates, Ditko invariably gave it his best, always producing eerie, unsettling, effective work of a high caliber.

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“The Moon Beast” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #106 (August 1973)

Being exposed Ditko’s work on these books rapidly caused me to re-appraise his other material.  Soon after I re-read the Essential Doctor Strange Volume One, and enjoyed it tremendously.  It’s since become one of my favorite trade paperbacks, either to read yet again, or just to flip through to marvel (no pun intended) at the exquisite artwork.

I’ve also began to look more favorably on Ditko’s work for DC Comics in the late 1960s, where he created such unusual characters as Hawk & Dove, the Creeper, and Shade the Changing Man.  Fortunately much of this material has now been collected, making it much easier to obtain.

I serious doubt I will ever find myself in agreement with the Objectivist philosophies that became prevalent in Ditko’s later creations and stories, but I certainly appreciate the craft and talent that was on display in his artwork.

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“The Crew that was Hanged” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #122 (August 1976)

Steve Ditko was a unique creator possessed of one of the most distinctive, individual voices to have ever worked within the medium of comic books.  His work for Charlton in the 1970s represents but a fraction of his output.  Nevertheless it remains among my favorite material by Ditko, for the quality present within it, the visceral impact it delivered, and the fact that it led me to a deeper appreciation for his entire body of work.