It Came from the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up!  This time our theme is immortality.  I will be taking a brief look at the comic book character Ivar Anni-Padda, aka the Timewalker, the immortal time travel whose adventures are published by Valiant.

Truth to tell, I was already planning to do a piece about Ivar, since this month marks 25 years since the publication of Timewalker #1, which came out in August 1994. (Time really does fly!)  So when this installment of SBTU came along, it felt like synchronicity.

Timewalker 1 cover

Ivar the Timewalker is a free-spirited swashbuckling adventurer who over his thousands of years of life has crisscrossed across the ages.  Both his visual appearance and his immortality evoke Conner MacLeod from the original Highlander movie released several years earlier.  However, in regards to both his more lighthearted personality and his time traveling exploits Ivar seems to anticipate another immortal figure by more than a decade, Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood.

As I have mentioned before, the 1990s often have a bad reputation when it comes to comic books.  Yes, a lot of really bad comics came out in that decade.  However, there were also some really great ones, as well.  Some of the best were published by Valiant Comics, a great company that was founded in 1989 by Jim Shooter, and which in its early days saw significant contributions from talented creators Barry Windsor-Smith and Bob Layton.  I really should have blogged about Valiant before now.  In the first half of the 1990s I avidly followed their comics.  I was especially a fan of Ivar, who eventually starred in his own series.

Initially in the Valiant universe it was established that there were two immortal brothers: Gilad Anni-Padda, aka the Eternal Warrior, and Aram Anni-Padda, aka Armstrong.  The two were polar opposites.  Gilad was a fierce & ruthless warrior who worked in the service of the mystic Geomancers who sought to safeguard the Earth.  Aram, on the other hand, was an alcoholic hedonist, a millennia-old party animal who in the present day had established a friendship with the mortal teenage monk Archer.

In early 1993 we finally met the third brother, Ivar.  Archer & Armstrong / Eternal Warrior #8 was a double-sized issue combining the two ongoing series.  It features Armstrong telling Archer the true story of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, who in the Valiant universe were actually Gilad, Aram and Ivar.

Written & penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith, inked by Bob Wiacek, colored by Maurice Fontenot, and edited by Bob Layton, “The Musketeers” relates how in France in the early 18th Century the Geomancer Angelique D’Terre foresaw the events of the French Revolution and attempted to forestall them.  Working with Gilad, she ruthlessly maneuvered to replace King Louis XIV with his secret twin brother, the so-called Man in the Iron Mask.

However, inverting the events of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, in this reality Louis is merely an incompetent moron, whereas his brother Henri is a brutal monster.  Belatedly realizing that replacing Louis with his brother will make a bad situation infinitely worse, Angelique and Gild are able to undo the switch, but not before Henri has raped & murdered D’Artagnan’s fiancée.  Ivar is completely disgusted at Gilad’s machinations, and at what the failed scheme has cost their friend D’Artagnan.

Archer Armstrong 8 pg 29

Sooon enough we meet Ivar again, this time in then-present day London, England, within the pages of Archer & Armstrong #10-11 by the team of Windsor-Smith, Wiacek & John Floyd, and Fontetot.  Ivar is attempting to access a “time arc” that will at long last take him back to Egypt in 37 BC, back to the side of his beloved Queen Nefertete.

Armstrong arrives to visit his brother, with young Archer in tow.  The trio is soon ambushed by a group of time-displaced civilians from across the centuries who have all ended up in 1992, and who believe Ivar is responsible for abducting them.  Armstrong, however, informs them that he is to blame, that his efforts to find a way to return Ivar to Ancient Egypt inadvertently drew all these people from across the ages.  Fortunately the nuclear-powered Solar arrives to inform Armstrong that an old foe of his is tearing up Los Angeles looking for him.  Solar is able to use his powers to re-energize Armstrong’s time portal, which he uses to send all of the abductees back to their proper time & place.

Solar offers to finally send Ivar back to 37 BC.  Faced with the possibility of finally being reunited with “Neffi,” Ivar is actually nervous.  Letting down his guard, revealing for once the cost he feels immortality has exacted, Ivar explains to his brother:

“It’s been, like… three thousand years since I last saw Nefertete, man — and I’ve lived a zillion lifetimes since… I’m not the same guy she loved back then… I’m afraid that I may have… changed too much for her to accept me again.”

Armstrong tells Ivar that if he has changed in the millennia since he’s seen Neffi then it’s probably for the better.  Encouraged, Ivar enters the time portal.  Unfortunately F7, a robot from the 41st Century who has grown attached to Ivar, leaps in right after him, hoping to join him in Ancient Egypt.

Archer Armstrong 11 pg 19

When we next see Ivar it is in Magnus Robot Fighter #33 (Feb 1994) in a story plotted & penciled by Jim Calafiore, scripted by John Ostrander, inked by Gonzalo Mayo and colored by Mark Csaszar.  Due to F7 jumping into the time arc, he and Ivar instead end up in North Am in the year 4002 AD.  Unfortunately since F7 has been away the Earth has been invaded by the sentient alien robots the Malevs.

F7 quickly comes under the control of the Malevs, who scan his memory and learn about Ivar.  The Malev Emperor realizes that if it can capture Ivar and replicate his powers, the Malevs can travel back in time to prevent the births of Magnus and Rai, thereby ending the resistance against the invasion before it even began.

Ivar, understandably annoyed at once again being in the wrong place at the wrong time, encounters Magnus.  Soon discovering exactly who Ivar is, Magnus realizes he needs to keep the time traveler out of the Malevs’ metal clutches long enough for another time arc to materialize.  At long last one does open.

Hopping on a sky cycle while the Robot Fighter is being overwhelmed by Malev soldiers, Ivar promises that he will send help.  He then flies into the time arc, and for a minute it looks like Magnus is going to be killed, until literally out of nowhere Rai and his allies arrive to save him, with a mystified Rai explaining the nanites in his blood told him to come to here, that somehow the nanites knew Magnus needed help at this exact time & place.

And elsewhere in time, now in a vast barren desert, in an example of what Doctor Who would later describe as “wibbly wobbly timey wimey,” Ivar records a journal entry:

“Time jump report, supplemental. Make note – the next time I see Bloodshot, have him program the information about Magnus into his nanites. Have to be careful so that Bloodshot himself doesn’t learn too much about his own fate. If I understand all this correctly, the nanites will compel the man known as Rai to go to Magnus’ aid.”

Magnus Robot Fighter 33 pg 6

Having completed his report, Ivar wonders where exactly he has gotten to this time.

Both Ivar and the audience would learn the answer in the Timewalker Yearbook #1.  Published in early 1995, this annual was plotted by Jon Hartz, scripted by Kevin VanHook, penciled by Elim Mak, inked by one of my favorite artists, the talented Rudy Nebres, and colored by Eric Hope.

Offhand I didn’t recognize the name Jon Hartz, so I asked VanHook about him on Facebook.  I also told VanHook that Timewalker was one of my favorite Valiant characters. He responded:

“Jon was our head of marketing. He was also very creative and had a hand in building the character of Timewalker.

“I always liked Timewalker. I didn’t get to do a lot with him, but I enjoyed the character.”

Opening in the same place & time that Magnus #33 ended, the Yearbook has Ivar still exploring the vast desert on his sky cycle.  A loud rumbling and dust storm on the horizon comes towards him, and in the next instant Ivar is nearly overrun by thousands of stampeding dinosaurs, followed by an immense tidal wave.  Ivar belatedly realizes the desert he was in was the Mediterranean Basin, and the titanic deluge of water is the Atlantic Ocean flooding over the Gibraltar Straight to create the Mediterranean Sea.

Of course, it is now generally accepted that the cataclysmic flooding of the Mediterranean Basin actually occurred approximately 5.3 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs died out.  But, hey, I’ll let this one slide, because the spectacle of charging dinos makes for a dramatic moment, and Mak, Nebres & Hope certainly do an incredible job of depicting it.

Timewalker Yearbook pgs 2 and 3

Just in the nick of time, another time arc opens as the massive wave reaches Ivar,  bringing him to a New York City rooftop in April 1992.  This very wet & violent arrival brings Ivar to the attention of the ruthless Harbinger Foundation, which dispatches several operatives to investigate.  That, in turn, results in the Foundation’s rivals the H.A.R.D. Corps also wanting to bring in Ivar for questioning.  The Foundation’s team of Eggbreakers captures Ivar, but he is quickly rescued by the Corps.  Ivar finds himself in another one of those lovely time paradoxes when he addresses the Corps’ leader:

Ivar: Listen, Gunsliger… I know we’ve never really gotten along…

Gunslinger: Gotten along? I don’t even know you, buddy.

Ivar: That’s right… not yet.

Gunslinger: What?

Three pages later Ivar learns exactly why Gunslinger later doesn’t like him when the time traveler blows up the wrecked sky cycle in order to escape.  And two months later, waiting to catch another time arc in the Rocky Mountains, Ivar humorously reflects on the paradox…

“Have to remember to look up when I met Gunslinger. I think it was ’94 or ’95… Too bad I can’t warn myself that he’s going to slug me!  Oh, well… I’ll deserve it!”

I like the idea that Ivar kept a journal of his travels. Considering he had lived for thousands of years and he was constantly bouncing back & forth in time, it was a good way for him to keep track of his innumerable experiences.

Going back in time, at least publishing-wise, we finally get to the first issue of Timewalker.  The series spun out of Valiant’s company-wide crossover The Chaos Effect.  A dark necromantic power from the end of time follows Ivar back to 1994, where it consumes the planet’s electrical energy.

I found The Chaos Effect to be sort of an underwhelming storyline.  Whatever the case, at least it led to Ivar finally receiving his own solo book.

Chaos Effect epilogue

Ivar spends most of The Chaos Effect unconscious, but he wakes up in time for an epilogue written by Bob Hall, penciled by Don Perlin, and inked by Gonzalo Mayo.  Once again meeting Magnus, this time in the present day, Ivar shares some slightly tongue-in-cheek insights into his experiences as a time traveler:

“History’s all relative, anyway. If history describes something a certain way, and you go to the time where it happened, then you were always there… so it probably turned out the way history describes just because of you. You may as well just show up and have fun.

“Beyond that, carry condoms, a flashlight and matches, beware of the drinking water, make loud noises to scare off bears and humans, and take chewing gum. Every era likes chewing gum.”

With that Ivar leaps into the next time arc, and into the pages of his own series.

“Ivar the Traveler” is by the team of Hall, Perlin & Mayo, with colors by Stu Suchit, and editing by Layton.  Ivar’s latest journey through time deposits him in Briton during the time of the Roman occupation.  The time traveler ends up trying to fight off a group of drunk, violent Roman soldiers who are doing the whole “rape & pillage” thing, including one who spots Ivar and shouts “You!!! I told you if I ever saw you again I’d kill you!”  Of course, Ivar hasn’t met this fine fellow… yet!

Cursing the perils and paradoxes of time travel, Ivar attempts to fight off the soldiers.  And then another time arc opens, scooping up Ivar.  Looking around, the time traveler spots a Nazi patrol, and realizes he is in Europe during World War II.

Successfully infiltrating the Nazi forces, Ivar eventually ends up encountering the captive Professor Weisenfeld and his young son.  Pretending to interrogate the scientist, Ivar explains how he has come to be there:

“In 1998 you have a grandson named Mack. He’s a friend of mine and he’s fixing my tachyon compass… He told me that when I land here I have to rescue you. Otherwise he doesn’t get born and my compass doesn’t get fixed.”

And as if this story wasn’t already wibbly wobbly timey wimey enough, a minute later the Eternal Warrior bursts into the prison, leading to the following exchange:

Ivar: Gil, what are you doing here?

Gilead: You told me to come! 1934, you told me to show up here, don’t you remember?

Ivar: No! I haven’t done that yet!

Good thing for Ivar that Gil wasn’t still holding a grudge over their argument back in 18th Century France!

The brothers fight their way through the Nazis.  Gil leads the Professor, his son, and the other prisoners to safety while Ivar holds off the goose-steppers.  Ivar is shot, but another time arc materializes, and he leaps into it. His destination: the year 1854, during the Crimean War.

Ah, but that’s a story for another time… so to speak!

Timewalker 1 pg 19

The ongoing Timewalker series lasted for 15 regular issues, plus the aforementioned Yearbook, as well as a Zero issue featuring Ivar’s origin that came out a few months after the series ended.  I definitely enjoyed it.  Ivar’s adventures were an enjoyable mix of comedy and drama.

Perhaps I’ll do a retrospective on the rest of Timewalker at a later date.  But, honestly, it’s such a great series, I recommend seeking out the back issues.  Trust me, you’ll probably have a more enjoyable time reading the actual comic books than you would having me yammer on about them at this blog!

Valiant unfortunately experienced difficulties in the second half of the decade.  In 1994 they were purchased by Acclaim Entertainment, who I feel pushed the company to expand too fast.  Then the market imploded in the mid 1990s, leading to the cancellation of the line.  Acclaim did restart a handful of the series in the late 1990s, as well as creating a few new titles, but those did not last long.  At that time Acclaim appeared to have much more of a focus on developing video games based on the Valiant characters than in actually publishing quality comic books.

The Valiant universe was eventually re-launched in 2012 by a new group of owners under the Valiant Entertainment label.  Over the past several years the company has had a reasonable amount of success.  Among those rebooted characters has been our pal Ivar.  Ivar: Timewalker ran for 12 issues between Jan and Dec 2015.  The entire run has been collected into three trade paperbacks.  I haven’t had an opportunity to read those yet, but they are definitely on my “want” list.  Hopefully I will get to them soon.  After all, unlike Ivar, and the other subjects of this edition of SBTU, there’s only a limited amount of time available to me.

So many great comic books, so little time!

SBTU Immortal

Here are links to all of the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.  I hope you will check them out.  Thanks!

(Some of these links will not be active for another day or two, so if they are’t working right now then check back again soon!)

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

Superhero Satellite: SBTU Presents IMMORTAL: Peter Loves Mary Jane

Comics Comics Comics: The Immortal Dr. Fate

Between The Pages: Big Finish: Doctor Who’s Finest Regeneration

The Unspoken Decade: Archer and Armstrong: Opposites Attract

DC In the 80s: Forager – The Second Life of a Bug

Black, White and Bronze: What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal: The 1992 Miniseries

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Podcast Episode 26 – Resurrection Man 1997 & 2011

Vic Sage of Pop Culture Retrorama Podcast: I am Legend

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Vampirella “Roses For The Dead”

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog: Multi-Man, the Immortal Foe of the Challengers

Magazines and Monsters: Kang/Immortus: Marvel Triple Action #17, 1974: “Once an Avenger…”

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT – Jupiter Ascending commentary

 

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A brief look back at comic book artist Ernie Colon

Comic book artist Ernie Colon passed away on August 8th.  Colon was a versatile artist.  Among the numerous projects he worked on over the decades were Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich for Harvey Comics, the fantasy series Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld with writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn at DC Comics, and in collaboration with Sid Jacobson a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Commission Report titled The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.  I cannot imagine a more diverse range of projects than that!

While I certainly cannot say that I was a huge fan of Colon’s work, I certainly enjoyed it whenever I saw it.  I have fond memories of several projects that he illustrated on, so I felt it would be nice to offer a brief look at his work on those books.

Damage Control 1 cover

Colon and writer Dwayne McDuffie co-created the superhero comedy book Damage Control for Marvel Comics.  Damage Control offered a humorous look at a construction company that specialized in repairing the buildings that have gotten wrecked in superhero battles.  The very odd & colorful staff of the Damage Control organization made their debut in Marvel Comics Presents #19, and soon after were featured in a trio of 4 issue miniseries published between 1989 and 1991.  Colon worked on all but one of the issues.

At a time when superhero comic books were very steadily heading into “grim & gritty” territory, Damage Control was certainly a breath of fresh air.  McDuffie’s scripts were clever & humorous, and the offbeat artwork by Colon was a perfect fit.

For a number of years I owned a page of original artwork from the first miniseries, which had Bob Wiacek’s inking over Colon’s pencils.  Regrettably I had to sell it a while back, but fortunately it went to a good home.

Magnus Robot Fighter 14 pg 18

In the early 1990s Colon worked on several issues of Magnus Robot Fighter for Valiant Comics.  In addition to penciling & inking, Colon also provided the coloring on several issues, resulting in some very striking and unusual artwork.  This definitely gave Jim Shooter’s stories an unsettling feeling, bringing to life a world that was more than slightly askew.

The work by Colon really suited the 41st Century setting of the series, a seeming hi-tech utopia of gleaming steel possessed of a dark underbelly.  The two part “Asylum” story by Shooter & Colon that ran in Magnus Robot Fighter #13-14 certainly contained a very palpable atmosphere.

Dreadstar miniseries 3 pg 4

In 1994 Colon teamed with writer Peter David on a revival of Jim Starlin’s incredible space opera Dreadstar.  Published under the Bravura imprint of Malibu Comics, this six issue miniseries leaped forward a number of years from the end of the previous series.  It featured Vanth Dreadstar’s teenage daughter Kalla, who has been raised from infancy by none other than her father’s arch-enemy, the genocidal Lord Papal.

The Dreadstar miniseries was very dark & serious… except when it was not.  David has always proven adept at deftly blending drama and comedy in his scripts, and his work on Dreadstar was no exception.  Colon adaptability as an artist was very well suited to illustrate such material.  He powerfully rendered scenes of grim violence.  He also ably illustrated some genuinely wacky characters and ridiculous laugh-out-loud moments.

Dreadstar miniseries 5 cover

Looking over the artwork from just these three series amply demonstrates the versatility of which I previously spoke.  Colon was a very talented artist who was at home in a variety of genres.

Colon was 88 years old when he passed away.  I had no idea he was that old, and that he’d actually begun working in comic books back in the late 1950s.  Colon certainly had a long and prolific career.  He leaves behind an impressive body or work featuring some stunningly beautiful art.

 

 

Thor by Joe Sinnott: a birthday present

I never thought I would get a Joe Sinnott sketch. I had met the legendary and talented comic book artist on several occasions, but somehow the opportunity to get artwork from him just never came up. When he announced his retirement earlier this year I figured that was it, whatever chance there might have been had passed.

Earlier this month, on June 8th, my girlfriend Michele Witchipoo had a table at IncrediCon in Middletown NY. I would have gone with her, but our cat Squeaky wasn’t feeling well and we decided I should stay home to keep her company (sadly Squeaky would pass away a week later). Michele took along my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook because a friend of hers who was going wanted to see it, and just in case she met anyone there who might want to do a drawing in it.

Joe Sinnott was going to be a guest at IncrediCon. Michele said she could ask if he was drawing, and if he was she would try to get me a sketch for my birthday. I shrugged and replied “He’s 92 years old and he retired a few months ago. I doubt he’s going to be sketching. But if you want you can ask him.” Michele asked me what character I wanted and I said something like “Thor or anyone from the Fantastic Four.”

A few hours later I get a text from Michele: “You’re getting a Thor sketch.” My jaw hit the floor. I honestly did not expect that Sinnott would be drawing. Then about 15 minutes later she sent me a photo of the sketch. Whoa!!!

Thor sketch by Joe Sinnott

I’m really thrilled to get this. Joe Sinnott inked Jack Kirby’s pencils on the very first Thor story in Journey Into Mystery #83 way back in 1962, and then drew the full art, pencils & inks, for a few more of the early Thor stories in Journey Into Mystery. For most of the 1970s Sinnott was the regular inker on the Thor book, usually over John Buscema’s pencils, but also working with Rich Buckler on several issues, and even on a couple penciled by Neal Adams. Sinnott returned to Thor from 1989 to 1991, this time paired with penciler Ron Frenz.

That was when I first began reading comic books regularly, in 1989. The Tom DeFalco / Ron Frenz run on Thor remains a favorite of mine, especially the issues that were inked / embellished by Sinnott.

The first time I met Sinnott was at a comic book convention at the Westchester County Center in White Plains NY in 1992.  I was in awe at meeting an artist who had worked on so many amazing comic book stories for Marvel Comics over the years.  Sinnott was a very nice, patient, down-to-Earth person who took the time to answer all the questions posed to him by a gushing teenage fan.  I’ve met Sinnott on subsequent occasions and gotten several books autographed by him. Nevertheless, I will always treasure that copy of Thor #414 he signed for me back in 1992.

Thor 414 pg 1

In any case, Sinnott possesses a long, historic association with the character of Thor.  So it’s wonderful to have obtained a sketch of the Norse god of thunder and founding member of the Avengers from him. And, as I said above, when I saw the piece he drew in my sketchbook I was seriously in awe. At 92 years old Sinnott is still an incredible artist. The detailed pencil work on this piece is amazing. Also, I like how Sinnott added birds (seagulls?) in the sky behind Thor in this sketch. Nice subtle bit that adds a little atmosphere to it.

Today is my actual birthday. So, once again, a very big “thank you” to Michele for this birthday present, to Joe Sinnott for the wonderful sketch, and to Joe’s son Mark Sinnott for all his help in making it happen.

Remembering comic book artist George Klein

Recently I was reminded, thanks to the excellent blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books by Alan Stewart, of the very underrated work of comic book artist George Klein.

National Sportsman Dec 1939 cover smallOne of the main reasons why Klein is not much better known among comic book fandom is that he tragically passed away at a young age.  He died 50 years ago this month, on May 10, 1969.

Klein was born in 1915, although there is a bit of uncertainty over the exact date, as well as the location of his birth.  Klein’s earliest published work appears to be a painted cover for the December 1939 edition of National Sportsman.

Between 1941 and 1943 Klein was employed by Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Creator credits in the Golden Age were often missing or inaccurate, but it is generally believed he worked on such titles as All-Winners Comics, Captain America Comics, USA Comics and Young Allies Comics at Timely.

In 1943 Klein was drafted to serve in World War II, and served as a private in the Army Infantry.  Honorably discharged in 1946, Klein returned to his career as an artist, working in both comic books and as a magazine illustrator.Detective illustration George Klein

Several of the periodicals that Klein worked for, both before and after the war, were pulp magazines published by Timely’s owner Martin Goodman, specifically Best Love, Complete Sports, Complete War and Detective Short Stories.  Klein was also a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife, the award-winning magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.  His work in Wyoming Wildlife and other publications apparently gained Klein some renown as a landscape and wildlife artist.

Klein once again did work for Timely, or Atlas Comics as it came to be known in the 1950s.  Among the various titles Klein worked on at Timely / Atlas in the late 40s and early 50s were the romance series Girl Comics and the well-regarded fantasy / romance series Venus, although (again due to the lack of credits) the exact details of his involvement are a matter of deduction and guesswork.

 

Venus 2 pg 1

During this time Klein also branched out to work for other publishers such as ACG, Ace Comics and Prize Publications.  By the early 1950s much of Klein’s work was for National Periodical Publications, aka DC Comics.

Beginning in 1955 Klein, working as an inker, was regularly paired up with penciler Curt Swan on DC’s various Superman titles.  Looking at the Grand Comic Database, the first story drawn by the Swan & Klein team seems to be the Superboy story “The Wizard City” written by the legendary Bill Finger in Adventure Comics #216, cover-dated September 1955.Adventure Comics 332 cover small

Swan and Klein continued to work together for the next 12 years, with their art appearing in various issues of Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Truthfully, Swan is a penciler who at times leaves me a bit cold.  He’s one of those artists who I recognize as technically proficient, someone who is a good, solid storyteller.  However often his work just does not connect with me personally.  That said, there is something about the teaming of Swan and Klein that really appeals to me.

Having been born in 1976, obviously I did not read the stories they drew when they first came out. About 20 years ago I really got into the Legion of Super-Heroes and began picking up the various Legion Archives.  I was immediately taken with the work that Swan & Klein on those Superboy and the Legion stories from Adventure Comics in the 1960s.  I regard Klein as one of the best inkers Swan ever got during his lengthy career.

As per writer & editor Mark Waid’s bio of George Klein written for the Legion Archives:

“Klein set new standards for his craft with his razor-crisp brushline, which brought new dimensions to the art of Curt Swan, the penciler with whom Klein was most frequently paired. Together, Swan and Klein defined for years to come the look of Superman and his cast of characters; to this day , most Legion of Super-Heroes aficionados consider Swan and Klein to be the all-time finest Legion art team.”

Adventure Comics 352 pg 5

Klein’s work over Swan’s pencils is an excellent demonstration of just how significant a role the inker can have on the look of the finished artwork in comic books.

Adventure Comics 352 cover smallProbably the stand-out stories of this era were written by the then-teenage Jim Shooter, who introduced Karate Kid, Princess Projecta and Ferro Lad to the Legion, as well as the villainous Fatal Five.  Swan & Klein did a superb job illustrating these now-classic stories.

One cannot discuss Klein’s work in the Silver Age without mentioning Fantastic Four.  Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, that title was the birth of what came to be known as the Marvel Universe.  For many decades the specific details concerning the creation of the early FF stories have been shrouded in mystery.

One of the most frequently-pondered questions was who exactly inked Kirby’s pencils on the first two issues.  After much debate & analysis, the conclusion reached by Dr. Michael  J. Vassallo, one of the foremost authorities on Timely / Atlas / early Marvel artwork, is that it was George Klein.  It is known that Klein worked on several stories for Atlas in the late 1950s and early 60s, which would put him in exactly the right place when the first two issues of FF were being created in 1961.

As to why Klein in particular was chosen to ink these two issues, longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort offers up this theory:

“I would also conjecture that perhaps the choice of George Klein to ink these early issues–if indeed he was the inker as is generally believed today–was to try to give them more of a super hero feel than Kirby’s monster or romance or western work. Klein at the time was inking Curt Swan on Superman, and you really can’t get a more classic super hero finish than that.”

Fantastic Four 1 pg 14

Absent the original artwork for those first two FF issues resurfacing, or some previous-unknown documentation being discovered, we will probably never be 100% certain; nevertheless, the general consensus is that Klein very likely inked those two issues, placing him right at the birth of the Marvel Age of Comics.

Klein’s work for DC on the Superman family of titles took place during the regime of editor Mort Weisinger.  The late 1960s saw an editorial shake-up at DC. Although Weisinger remained in control of the Superman books until 1970, this behind-the-scenes instability is reportedly what led to Klein departing the company.  He quickly found work at Marvel Comics which, eight years after the introduction of the Fantastic Four, was achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim.Avengers 57 cover small

Klein’s first assignment at Marvel was inking John Buscema’s pencils on Avengers.  After inking a couple of covers, Klein became the regular inker with issue #55, cover-dated August 1968.  Klein remained on Avengers for nearly a year.

The late 1960s is now considered one of the series’ most important and influential periods. Writer Roy Thomas, working with John Buscema, introduced the Avengers’ arch-nemesis Ultron, new member the Vision, and Hank Pym’s new costumed identity Yellowjacket, among other key developments.  Klein did a superb job inking Buscema on many of these key stories.  In 2001 Thomas spoke with Buscema about their work on Avengers, a conversation that saw print in Alter Ego #13.  In it they briefly touched upon Klein:

Roy Thomas: So how did you feel about George Klein’s inking compared to some of the others?

John Buscema: From what I’ve seen, a very credible job, not bad.

Considering that Buscema was notoriously critical of most of the artists who inked his work, I suppose by his exacting standards this was high praise indeed!

Avengers 55 pg 16

Klein also inked Gene Colan on Avengers #63-64, Sub-Mariner #11, and on several issues of Daredevil.  Klein was probably one of the best embellishers to ever work over Colan, who could often be a bit challenging to ink.

Daredevil 53 cover smallAdditionally, in early 1969 Klein inked two very early jobs by a very young Barry Windsor-Smith, in Daredevil #51 and Avengers #67.  Klein’s finishes gave some much-needed support to BWS who, although he was already showing quite a bit of promise, was still honing his craft.

Last, but certainly not least, Klein inked Jack Kirby on Thor #168-169, which were cover-dated Sept and Oct 1969.  It has been opined that Vince Colletta’s inking of Kirby was a good match on Thor, as the feathery line work provided a specific tone that was well-suited to the mythological characters & settings.  It was much less appropriate to Kirby’s sci-fi concepts, which is why Colletta was a poor fit on Fantastic Four.

Similarly, when Kirby took Thor in a more cosmic direction in the late 1960s, Colletta’s inking felt out of place.  So it was definitely nice to have Klein’s more polished inking on these two issues, which saw the god of thunder learning the origin of one of Kirby’s most cosmic creations, Galactus.  These Thor issues were very likely the last work that Klein did before his untimely death.
Thor 169 pg 2

According to the Field Guide To Wild American Pulp Artists, Klein was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver in May 1969, less than a month before he died.

I’m going to add a few words from Alan Stewart here summing up this unfortunate situation:

“It’s tragic that Klein passed away as young as he did — and the fact that he’d gotten married just a few months before makes it even more so. Unfortunately, his work over Curt Swan on the Superman books all those years was uncredited, and his subsequent stint at Marvel was too short for him to have made the impact of a Joe Sinnott or Tom Palmer. I agree he’s underrated.”

Action Comics 300 cover small

I really believe that Klein would probably be much better remembered as an artist if he had not died so young.  He did very well-regarded work on comic books in a career that lasted nearly three decades.

The reissuing of so much of DC and Marvel’s material from the Silver Age does mean that younger fans such as myself have now been able to rediscover Klein’s work.  Additionally, all these decades later Klein, as well as everyone else who worked on those early DC stories, are at long last receiving proper credit for their work in those reprint volumes.

There are so many creators from the Golden Age and early Silver Age who helped to make the comic book industry what it is today, creators who in the past were unfortunately uncredited and overlooked.  I hope this short profile on one of those creators, George Klein, will inspire readers to seek out some of these classic stories, and to develop more of an appreciation for the people who crafted those imaginative tales.

Thank you to all of the websites from which I gleamed information about and artwork by George Klein.  I believe I’ve included links to all of them, but if I did miss anyone please let me know!

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.

 

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.

Happy 80th birthday Batman: How I became a fan of the Dark Knight

This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.

Detective Comics 27 cover smallBatman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.  Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week.  As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others.  Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.

I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman.  Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.Batman and Robin tv show

I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven.  My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY.  For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.

Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch.  Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.

I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989.  That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country.  Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books.  Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”

In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.”  I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating.  So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.

Batman 431 cover signed

Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him.  It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.

This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier.  ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil.  That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.

At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor).  In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts.  Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.

Batman 431 pg 7

The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins.  It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)

I was hooked.

The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432.  “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue.  It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it.  I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo.  They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.

Batman 431 pg 13

By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale.  Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing.  George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.

Batman 436 cover smallAfter that I was a regular reader.  I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo.  They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories.  Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face.  Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.

During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608.  The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell.  Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning.  I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.Detective Comics 608 cover small

As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books.  That is definitely the case with me.  In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists.  I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is.  Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.

Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58.  Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72.  Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s.  He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.

Detective Comics 627 cover smallReleased in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.

As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman.  As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.

I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions.  A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself.  I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team.  It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman.  Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers.  Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak.  I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes.  Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.

From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it.  I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.

Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia.  But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week.  Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that.  Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers.  It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.

The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson.  It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with.  The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school.  Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.

One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley.  Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s.  They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart.  The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character.  And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.

Happy birthday, Batman.  Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond.  Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott retires at age 92

This week longtime comic book artist Joe Sinnott announced his retirement, bringing an official end to a career that spanned nearly seven decades, from 1950 to 2019.

With the recent passing of Marvel Comics writer & editor Stan Lee, the decision was made to bring down the curtain on the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip that he had been scripting since 1977.  The 92 year old Sinnott, who has been inking the Sunday installments of the newspaper strip since 1992, decided this would be an appropriate time to formally retire.

Spider-Man final Sunday strip

Here is the Sunday March 17th installment of the newspaper strip.  As I understand it, this was written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Joe Sinnott, and lettered by Janice Chiang.  It’s a pleasant coda to the comic strip continuity with Peter and Mary-Jane Parker departing for a vacation in Australia.  Since this is the wrap-up of the strip, I think we can safely assume that for once Peter and MJ will actually have a nice, relaxing time, and no super-villains will be following them Down Under.

Y’know, it’s funny… when the news broke that Sinnott was at long last calling it a day, the very first thing that popped into my mind was that he actually began the process of retiring back in 1991.

Sinnott’s last monthly assignment for Marvel Comics was Thor, inking / finishing the pencils of Ron Frenz for two and a half years, from issues #400 to #429.  A few months after Sinnott’s final Thor issue, in the letters page of #433 (cover-dated June 1991), Frenz wrote a heartfelt tribute to his collaborator.  Frenz explained that Sinnott was taking “his first steps towards a well-won and laurelled retirement.”

Thor 433 lettercol

Well, it appears that Sinnott really enjoyed drawing, and possessed a genuine love for comic books, because it took him until now to finally retire.  During the past 27 years, in addition to inking the Sunday installments of the Spider-Man strip, Sinnott contributed to several projects, among them the Marvel: Heroes & Legends special, the Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Comic Magazine miniseries, a pair of Untold Tales of Spider-Man annuals, and Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure.

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure was published in 2008.  It reconstructed & completed the long-lost “final” FF story that Kirby plotted & penciled way back in 1970 right before he departed Marvel for DC Comics.  Nearly four decades later Stan Lee finally wrote the script for this story.  Joe Sinnott’s embellishments had been an absolutely perfect match for the Fantastic Four stories Kirby penciled in the mid-1960s, so of course he was the first and only choice to ink this special.

FF The Lost Adventure pg 1

It was always a pleasure to see Sinnott’s occasional returns to the comic book biz over the past two and a half decades.  I regard him as one of the all-time greatest inkers / finishers in the history of the medium.  His stellar work inking Kirby was just one part of his career.  Over the decades Sinnott did superb work over numerous other pencilers, among them John Buscema, Rich Bucker, George Perez, Ron Wilson, John Byrne, and Ron Frenz.

Over the past decade Sinnott has also been very involved in Bob Almond’s Inkwell Awards.  The “hall of fame” award the Inkwells give out is named, appropriately enough, the Sinnott.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott at comic book conventions several times over the years.  I can definitely tell you that his talent is matched by his kindness.  Each time I met him he came across as polite, enthusiastic and gracious.

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Above is a photo I took in 2011 of Joe Sinnott with another great creator, Walter Simonson, at the Hawthorne NJ comic con.  It’s always awesome when you meet creators whose work you enjoy and you discover that they are also genuinely nice people.

Congratulations to Joe Sinnott on bringing to a close a long and distinguished career.  I hope he enjoys his retirement, because he definitely deserves it.

Cats and comic books: Captain Ginger

Captain Ginger, the four issue comic book from new publisher Ahoy Comics, combines two of my loves, cats and science fiction.  The miniseries is written by Stuart Moore, drawn by June Brigman & Roy Richardson, colored by Veronica Gandini, and lettered by Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt.

Moore and Brigman had been posting preview images for Captain Ginger on Facebook for over a year before the first issue finally came out, so I was definitely looking forward to it.  Certainly it lived up to my expectations.

Captain Ginger 4 cover

Captain Ginger is set in the far distant future.  The human race has apparently been completely wiped out by a mysterious, aggressive alien race known as the Lumen.  One of humanity’s last acts before becoming extinct was to genetically engineer a group of cats to human levels of intelligence.  These cats, only a few decades removed from their abrupt artificial evolution, are now fleeing from the Lumen aboard an old, broken-down spaceship, struggling to understand the failing human technology and to reconcile their natural instincts with their newly-enhanced intellects.

Leading this motley group of cosmo-cats is Captain Ginger.  As many a human has observed over the centuries, it’s impossible to herd cats, and Ginger finds this out first-hand as he endeavors to save this fiercely-individualistic colony of felines from extinction.  Plus, y’know, there’s that whole terrifying “cats now having to scoop out their own litter boxes” thing to deal with! 🙀

Among the crew of the Starship Hiss-Bite-Claw-Sometimes-Fall is the gruff Sergeant Mittens, a one-eyed ship’s gunner, and Ginger’s rival for leadership.  Also present is the engineer Ranscoop and her litter of kittens, the hairless Science Cat, the warrior Deena, and the aloof Ecru, the only cat who seems to understand the ship’s mysterious artificial intelligence.

Moore does a fine job developing the personalities of these various cats, and their relationships with one another.  He also devises an enthralling story.  Captain Ginger was a fun, exciting, humorous miniseries.

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I thought that Captain Ginger was actually going to be five issues, so when I got to the end of #3, and the letter column announced the next issue would be the conclusion of the “first season,” I found myself wondering how the heck Moore was going to wrap up this storyline so quickly.

The conclusion in issue #4 involves something of a deus ex machina, or perhaps more precisely a fēlēs ex machina.  What saves this from being a left-field plot device is that Moore did lay the groundwork for it in the previous three  issues, it only solves some of the cats’ problems (and only in the short term) and they end up feeling ambivalent about the whole thing.

In addition, Moore sets up a plotline that leads into the next Captain Ginger miniseries, which is planned to be six issues long.  Hopefully that longer length will enable him to develop both the characters and the storylines more fully.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I have been a fan of Brigman’s artwork since I was a kid in the mid 1980s, when she was the penciler on Power Pack. Brigman and her husband Richardson make a great art team, and I am happy to see them collaborating again.

Brigman & Richardson’s artwork for Captain Ginger is wonderful.  It’s a very effective balance of serious and cute, of danger and comedy.  Brigman’s storytelling is superb, and Richardson does an excellent job inking her work.  They do a great job of drawing the various characters, of giving them each a distinctive personality.

It’s not at all surprising that Brigman & Richardson create such engaging artwork.  After all, both of them love cats.  As of this writing, they share their house with ten cats.  As the short interview with Brigman in issue #1 reveals, the characters of Ginger and Mittens are actually based on two cats that she and her husband adopted when they first moved to Atlanta.  So, yes, they love cats, and it shows in the artwork.

Captain Ginger has several back-up features, including behind-the-scenes pieces, short text stories, and a very odd “Hashtag: Danger” three part serial by Tom Peyer, Randy Elliot, Andy Troy & Rob Steen.  So you definitely get very good value for your dollar with this series.

Captain Ginger and Nettie and Squeaky

My own two cats Nettie and Squeaky certainly enjoyed Captain Ginger, as you can see from the above photo.  They loved curling up to read it… or maybe just curling up on top of it.

I’m looking forward to the follow-up miniseries by Moore, Brigman & Richardson.  Hopefully it will be out soon.  In the meantime, if you have not yet already gotten this first mini, it’s definitely worth looking for the issues. Alternately, they’re available digitally from Comixology.  A trade paperback is scheduled for release in June. Also keep an eye out for Ahoy Comics’ contribution to Free Comic Book Day 2019, the Dragonfly and Dragonflyman special, which will contain a Captain Ginger back-up story.

You will have to excuse me now.  Nettie and Squeaky want to be fed and, well, you don’t want to keep cats waiting, do you? 😺

The wedding of Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters

For a brief moment it appeared that 2018 was to be the Year of Super-Hero Weddings. Batman and Catwoman were all set to tie the knot, and Colossus and Shadowcat were also ready for wedded bliss.  Unfortunately, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the altar, and Kitty also backed out at the last sec, much to Peter’s consternation. In that case longtime on-again, off-again couple Rogue and Gambit decided to take advantage of the occasion to impulsively leap into holy matrimony, so at least somebody got hitched in the X-Men books.

Third time was the charm, though, and as 2018 came to a close we finally got a scheduled wedding go through as planned: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, aka the Thing,  married his longtime girlfriend, blind sculptress Alicia Reiss Masters.

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The blessed event took place in the pages of Fantastic Four #650, or if you prefer issue #5 of the current volume. Setting up the event is the Fantastic Four Wedding Special. Dan Slott was the main writer, with Gail Simone stopping by to give us Alicia’s bachelorette party.

(What volume of Fantastic Four is Marvel up to, anyway? I honestly don’t know! With all the renumbering and rebooting that Marvel keeps doing, who can keep track?)

Of course, as soon as the news broke about Ben and Alicia’s impending nuptials, alarm bells immediately began blaring in the heads of longtime readers, myself included. After all, back in FF #300, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, had married Alicia, only for this to later be retconned away when Alicia was revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull imposter named Lyja.

Dan Slott swore up & down on social media that there would be no Skrulls involved. The house ad for FF #650 even boldly proclaimed…

“No bait. No switch. Not a dream. Not a hoax. And we swear, not a single Skrull around. This is really happening!”

Of course, that still leaves shape-shifters, and evil other-dimensional duplicates, and Space Phantoms, and LMDs, and clones… hey, Dan Slott spent a decade writing Amazing Spider-Man, so at this point he probably has clones on the brain!

*Ahem!*  Actually, there was a moment towards the end of FF #650 where it briefly appeared the wedding was going to be called off, and I literally considered throwing my copy of the issue across the room in frustration.  Fortunately, though, Ben and Alicia did go through with the ceremony.  So it seems that this is really, truly supposed to be the real, permanent marriage of Ben and Alicia… at least for the present. Keep your fingers crossed!

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Whatever the case, unlike a lot of super-hero weddings, which come across as sales events, this actually does feel like a natural progression. Alicia was first introduced waaaaay back in Fantastic Four #8 (1962) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.  Alicia was manipulated into disguising herself as the Invisible Girl as part of a cockamamie plot by her stepfather, the diabolical Puppet Master, to destroy the FF.  There was an immediate attraction between the Thing and the sensitive young woman, and the very next issue they were already dating.

The Wedding Special contains a humorous back-up by the great Fred Hembeck. Narrated by the Puppet Master, this vignette touches on how her introduction prompted a crucial turning point in the Thing’s early development. If you read the first few FF stories by Lee & Kirby, the Thing was very much depicted as a dangerous character, a being whose rage and self-loathing at his horrific mutation threatened to lead him to villainy.

And then the Thing met Alicia, who sensed the kind, sensitive soul underneath Ben’s anger and depression. From this point forward the Thing was written as alternately tragic and comedic, a heroic and loyal figure who masked his pain at being trapped in a monstrous form with a gruff, irreverent persona.

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It has often been observed that the Fantastic Four is not so much a super-hero team as it is a family, one that is often dysfunctional, but which at the end of the day will stick together through hell & high water. Slott has only been the regular FF writer for a few issues, but he’s scripted the characters several times in the past, including on the Thing’s short-lived solo series in 2006.  So I find that he already has a really good grasp on them. Slott’s stories are the perfect mix of soap opera dramatics and irreverent humor. He was definitely well-suited to write the wedding of Ben and Alicia.

Over the past couple of decades, I have gravitated away from mainstream super-hero books. My interests are much more on books that are character-driven. I am a huge fan of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

I think that’s why I appreciate Slott’s work on FF so much. He isn’t writing a book that centers on super-powered beings slugging it out, but on the family dynamics of Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny, Franklin, Valeria, Alicia and the rest of the extended FF family.

That’s certainly the case with the Wedding Special and issue #650. Slott does a superb job at exploring new sides to characters who have been in print for decades. I appreciated Slott’s look at the friendship between Susan Storm and Ben Grimm, and the examination of how Sue feels about what happened to Ben, the sense of responsibility she feels, as she was the one who pushed him to pilot Reed Richards’ ill-fated spaceship.  Slott reveals that in the early days of the team, in an effort to help the Thing find some happiness, Sue played matchmaker, encouraging him to pursue a relationship with Alicia.

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The interaction between Ben and Johnny during the bachelor party is also well done. It’s one of the best scenes between these friendly rivals that I’ve seen in the series’ entire history.

The actual wedding was beautifully written by Slott. It’s a lovely scene. I was especially moved when Slott revealed Reed’s wedding present to Ben and Alicia. It actually made me a bit misty-eyed.

I was also happy that Ben and Alicia had a Jewish ceremony. After all, the Thing is Jewish. At the same time, I appreciate that Slott didn’t make it a huge deal.  It was just one detail in the story. As I’ve said before, I like that Ben Grimm is Jewish, but I certainly do not think that should be his defining characteristic. In other words, he is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish.

By the way, I am curious if Alicia might also be of Jewish ancestry, as her late biological father was named Jacob Reiss.

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Among the close family members who attend the wedding are Ben’s Uncle Jake and Aunt Petunia. It was nice to see them again after so many years.

A few readers were upset that Aunt Petunia was depicted as being in her 40s or 50s here. After all, when we first met Petunia in FF #238, she was shown to be both young and attractive.  I realize that John Byrne did this to humorously subvert reader expectations, since before that, whenever the Thing mentioned Petunia, the implication that she was a tough, feisty old lady. However, I don’t know if in the long run that was such a good idea. Maybe it wasn’t such an issue back in 1982 when Byrne wrote that story, but nowadays the idea that Uncle Jake, a senior citizen, married a woman who was young enough to be his daughter is sort of weird & uncomfortable. It’s probably a good idea to nowadays depict Petunia as being somewhat closer in age to Jake.

Anyway, I really did enjoy Slott’s work on these stories. I like the idea of Ben and Alicia as a married couple. I just hope that Galactus doesn’t end up eating the Earth before we get to see Ben and Alicia go on their honeymoon!

Gail Simone also does good work with the characters in her segment for the Wedding Special, penning a tale that is both humorous and poignant. I hope she has another opportunity to write the FF again in the future.

The artwork on these two issues was also great.  Laura Braga does sexy, humorous work on the bachelorette party story in the Wedding Special, while Mark Buckingham & Mark Farmer turn in some effective art on the second tale, evoking the style of Kirby as the Thing has a surprising encounter with the Puppet Master.fantastic four 650 pg 61

The framing sequences of FF #650 are illustrated by Aaron Kuder, culminating is his gorgeous depiction of Ben & Alicia’s wedding.  In places Kuder’s art here brings to mind the work of John Romita Jr and Frank Quitely.

Mike Allred & Laura Allred contribute the moving flashbacks to the couple’s early days.  The Allreds possess a style that is distinctively “indy” while nevertheless evoking the wacky, offbeat elements of Silver Age stories.

It was a pleasure to see Adam Hughes illustrating the bachelor party sequence in #650. Hughes is very well known for his cover artwork, and for his depiction of sexy women. As a result, it is often forgotten that he is also a good storyteller who knows how to lay out pages. He certainly does good work here, both on the humorous sequences and in the quieter character driven moments.

The reason why Hughes mainly works on covers is because he is not an especially fast artist who is capable of drawing a monthly series. That’s unfortunate, because as he demonstrates here, he knows how to do solid interior work.

Providing the letters for both issues is VC’s Joe Caramagna.

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Topping off these two comics, quite literally, are covers by Carlos Pacheco & Romulo Fajardo Jr and Esad Ribic.  Pacheco’s cover is my favorite of the pair, but I certainly like both.

Let’s raise a toast to Ben and Alicia.  Long may they be a happy couple.  What God has joined together, let no man (or Skrull) put asunder!