It Came From the 1990s: Masada of Youngblood

Masada is one of the dozens of characters created by Rob Liefeld who populated the various comic books put out by his Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in the 1990s. If you were not someone who followed Youngblood and the other Extreme titles regularly, you can be forgiven for not knowing offhand who Masada was. However, the character always stood out for me because she was Jewish.

Masada’s first published appearance was a pin-up drawn by penciler Chap Yaep and inker Norm Rapmund in Supreme #4 (July 1993). Her first actual in-story appearance came just a few months later in Team Youngblood #1 (Sept 1993) which was plotted by Liefeld, penciled by Yaep, inked by Rapmund, scripted by Eric Stephenson, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Bryan Talman. The terrorist Geiger and his cyborg army invade the space station Liberty II, giving them control over the Earth’s satellite network. Israeli crimefighter Masada is recruited to join the government-run super-team Youngblood to help them liberate the orbiting facility.

In his text piece for Team Youngblood #1 Liefeld explained how the latest addition to Youngblood came about:

“Masada was a character that had been collecting dust in my files for years until she was pulled out for new assignment alongside the Away Team. For the record, Masada means ‘fortress’ and is the name of the historic site in Israel where the Israelites found refuge from the Roman empire before electing to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans, an event which plays a large part in Masada’s origin.”

Historians are divided over whether or not the Siege of Masada in 74 AD, and the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada, actually occurred. Nevertheless, the story of a band of freedom fighters who chose death over slavery is often revered by modern Israelis as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.”

Deborah Konigsberg’s power is to grow to giant size. The source of her fantastic abilities is elaborated upon in Team Youngblood #2 (Oct 1993):

“Masada — Israeli super-woman empowered by the souls of her countrymen who died in the battle from which she took her name!”

Masada and her new Youngblood teammates eventually succeed in defeating Geiger’s forces. Returning to Earth and a heroes’ welcome, issue #4 (Dec 1993) is a “day in the life” issue following the various team members in the aftermath of the battle. Masada is moving into her new apartment in the Washington DC area when we first learn that her powers are as much a curse as they are a blessing. Overwhelmed by countless disembodied voices calling her name, Masada reflects on her difficult charge:

“Oy gevalt! All those voices… all that pain. I can never forget the burden I carry… the souls of all those who gave their lives in the name of Judaism…

“…but sometimes I wish… just for the slightest moment… I wish I could be alone.”

I found Yaep & Rapmund to be an effective art team, and this sequence demonstrates the more subtle side of their work. Their art, as well as the coloring by Byron Talman & Karen Jaikowski, in that bottom panel really brings across Deborah’s anguish.

All things considered, I think Liefeld & Stephenson did a fairly decent job developing Masada within the crowded confines of the Team Youngblood series. One of the subplots they set up was the friendship that developed between Deborah and the Away Team’s other female member, the water-manipulating Riptide, real name Leanna Creel. It was an interesting idea to pair up the reserved, conservative Masada with the wild, outgoing Riptide.

Riptide is fired from Youngblood after she poses for a nude pictorial in Pussycat Magazine. Despite disagreeing with Riptide’s decision, Masada nevertheless remains her close friend. Later on, when Riptode is framed for murder, Masada is one of the people to stand by her, ultimately helping her friend to clear her name.

As with many of the characters that Liefeld created for his Extreme titles, Masada unfortunately often ends up getting lost in the crowd. However, she did finally get the spotlight in Youngblood Strikefile #6 (Aug 1994). That series was conceived to spotlight the solo adventures of the numerous members of Youngblood, and it often featured writers & artists of a high caliber. That was certainly the case with “From the Same Cloth” which was written by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by John Beatty, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Linda Medley.

Deborah is approached by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. She is informed that her old colleague Rimon Sibechai has set out to assassinate the African American militant Hassim, who in his fiery sermons denounces Jews as the enemy of the black community. Sibechai believes Hassan is dangerous, telling Deborah “We will not be led meekly to the slaughter by racist demagogues. And if you’re still a Jew, you won’t try to stop me.”  Masada finds herself reluctantly having to stop her old friend, for as much as she dislikes Hassan and what he stands for, she cannot allow a cold-blooded murder to take place.  Masada’s dilemma is made all the more torturous by the voices of the spirits who empower her, as they are violently split between letting Hassan die and saving him.

Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s story was undoubtedly inspired by the rhetoric of controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has frequently made anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Farrakhan and his anti-Jewish sentiments were very much in the spotlight in the early to mid 1990s.

The artwork on “From the Same Cloth” is definitely well-rendered by the team of Chris Sprouse & John Beatty. Sprouse had previously worked on Legion of Super-Heroes with the Bierbaums, and a few years later would do stunning work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series. Beatty previously provided effective inking for Mike Zeck and Kelley Jones.

I thought Youngblood Strikefile was a good idea, as it presented some good, interesting stories such as this one. It’s unfortunate that it only ran for 11 issues.

“Slow Emotion Replay” in Team Youngblood #16 (Dec 1994) is written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by John Stinsman, inked by Jaime Mendoza, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Laura Rhoade.  The story is told from the perspective of Youngblood Away Team field leader Sentinel, aka Marcus Langston, after he is “kicked upstairs” to an administrative position. Sentinel reflects on the recent events that led to his unwanted promotion, as well as on his colleagues & teammates, among them Masada, who he regards in a very positive light.

Masada also plasd a role in the bizarre gender-bending crossover “Babewatch” that ran through the Extreme titles in late 1995. Masada joins up with Riptide, Vogue and Glory to fight against the members of Youngblood who had been transformed into women by the evil sorceress Diabolique.

One other occasion when Masada had some time in the spotlight was in the Youngblood Super Special (Winter 1997) published by Maximum Press. “Good Enough” was written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon & Danny Miki, lettered by Kurt Hathaway & Steve Dutro and colored by Laura Penton & Christian Lichtmer.

Borrowing from one of Star Trek’s favorite tropes, “Good Enough” sees a group of godlike alien beings putting humanity on trial by testing the members of Youngblood’s worthiness to possess their powers & abilities. In Masada’s case she is subjected to a vision of the souls of Judaism accusing her of squandering her power to “play superhero” rather than defending her religion. Masada overcomes her doubts, arguing that she is indeed worthy of the gifts the spirits have endowed her with:

“You gave me this power to further the cause of good over evil! How can I restrict my deeds to simply upholding the Jewish faith?”

One highlight of the Super Special was seeing Masada penciled again by Chris Sprouse. He definitely did a good rendition of the character. Sprouse also penciled Masada’s profile pic in Youngblood Battlezone #2 (July 1994) making him, along with Yaep, the definitive artist of the character.

Since the late 1990s Youngblood has only been published sporadically. As a result the majority of the characters, Masada among them, have been limited to a handful of cameos & crowd scenes over the past two decades. Still, despite Masada’s absence from the spotlight, I look back fondly on the character’s appearances.

So why exactly did Masada become significant to me as a reader? Back in the early 1990s there were relatively few Jewish characters in mainstream comic books. Offhand I think the only noteworthy ones were Shadowcat, Doc Samson, Sabra and Vance Astrovik. At that point in time Magneto had been retconned to be a gypsy (a change not explicitly undone until 2009), Moon Knight’s Jewish heritage was something that no one talked about, The Thing / Ben Grimm,  Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Harley Quinn had all yet to be revealed to be Jewish, Wiccan and the Kate Kane version of Batwoman were both over a decade away from being introduced, and I hadn’t yet discovered American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: representation matters. It was important for me as a teenage Jewish reader to see characters who had similar backgrounds to me, to whom I could identify. Masada helped fulfill that crucial role.

And that is why I will always argue in favor of representation, because I know full well how much it meant to me as a young fan when there where characters with whom I could identify.

It’s the Jewish holiday of Chanukah this week, so I felt this was a good time to look back on Masada, and to explain her personal significance.

It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit: Tales to Astonish #61

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sal Buscema: An Inker For All Seasons

Sal Buscema and some of his friends from work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 80th birthday Wonder Woman

Today is the 80th birthday of Wonder Woman, who was created by writer William Moulton Marston & artist H.G. Peter . The character made her debut on October 21, 1941 in the pages of All-Star Comics #8, published by DC Comics with a Dec 1941 / Jan 1942 cover date. The next month Sensation Comics #1 was published with Wonder Woman as the starring cover feature. Six months later, in the summer of 1942, Wonder Woman gained hew own solo comic book series.

I imagine that, as with many who were born in the mid 1970s, my first exposure to the character of Wonder Woman was the Super Friends animated series and the live action Wonder Woman television series starring Lynda Carter that originally aired from 1975 to 1979.

To this day I agree with the sentiment that Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman / Diana Prince remains one of the most brilliant casting decisions in any live action adaptation of a comic book property. About a decade ago I bought the entire series on DVD, and it definitely still holds up, in large part due to Carter’s warm, empathetic, strong performance.

The first time I ever read the actual Wonder Woman comic book series was in 1991, towards the tail end of George Perez’s groundbreaking run. In retrospect this was probably not an ideal time to get into the series, as this was right at the start of the convoluted War of the Gods crossover. However, several months later, in early 1992, there came a perfect jumping-on point, when William Messner-Loebs took over as writer on Wonder Woman. I know some fans feel there was a decline in quality under Loebs. Nevertheless, it was the ideal entry for a brand-new reader such as myself who was unfamiliar with the character. Plus the stunningly beautiful cover artwork by Brian Bolland made Wonder Woman a must-buy each month.

In the early 1990s I did pick up a number of the earlier Perez issues at comic conventions, and I agree that they were extremely good. To this day Perez’s work on the character remains among the strongest in her 80 year history.

I followed the Wonder Woman series for the next seven years, for the entirety of Loebs’ run, and then for writer-artist John Byrne’s stint on the series. Although I stopped picking up the book regularly in late 1998, in the years since I’ve periodically returned to Wonder Woman on several different occasions.

I especially enjoyed the short six issue run by Walter Simonson & Jerry Ordway in 2003, the New 52 Wonder Woman by writer Brian Azzarello & artist Cliff Chiang that began in 2011, and the 17 issue revival of Sensation Comics featuring a variety of creative teams bringing their different approaches to the character that ran from 2014 to 2016. Most recently I’ve been enjoying the Sensational Wonder Woman series, which also features different creative line-ups each issue.

Without a doubt I can say that Princess Diana of Themyscira remains one of my favorite comic book characters.

William Moulton Marston was an outspoken feminist, and he created Wonder Woman to be a symbol of female strength & empowerment. Over the last eight decades the character has certainly served as a source of inspiration to many female readers, and to female audiences who have seen her adapted to television, animation and motion pictures.

An interview with comic book artist Henry Martinez

Henry Martinez is a penciler whose work for Marvel Comics in the early to mid 1990s really stood out for me at the time as a teenager reader. Considering how many new artists there were bursting onto the scenes during that period, that really says something about Martinez’s art that it lodged itself in my mind so indelibly.

Earlier this year I learned that Martinez was once again working in comic books, and still producing great art. We became Facebook friends, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I am very grateful to him for providing such interesting, detailed answers to my questions.

This interview was conducted by e-mail between September and October 2021.

Henry Martinez will be at Table O-5 in Artist Alley at New York Comic Con from October 7 to 10. If you’re going, please stop by and say “Hello!”

BH: Hello, Mr. Martinez. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start out with your background. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?

Henry Martinez: Hello Ben, and thanks for having me on. My parents fled Cuba in 1966 and I was lucky enough to be born here within a month of them arriving in New Jersey. We lived there for a few months then moved to Queens, NY where I spent most of my childhood. They were always very supportive of me, buying me comics and cheap art supplies at the local Woolworth’s (who have been out of business for years now). So I was always sketching, coloring and building things with Play-Doh. I remember the books I bought then were Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, I loved the rivalry between Spider-Man and the Human Torch as I recall.

The only other interests then were reading and all things Star Trek and Space: 1999. I loved Trek so much I actually wrote the paperback publisher a letter which they replied to! It was an embarrassing letter from a kid who asked about the phasers on the show. What the hell did a book publisher know about how phasers work? I don’t remember their response, but I was so excited to get that letter.

Flare First Edition #9 (June 1993) cover penciled by Henry Martinez and inked by John Flaherty (2017 reissue)

BH: What was your educational background? Did you major in an art-related field?  Was the comic book industry something that you actively hoped to find work in?

Henry Martinez: I went to public school where I got to draw during art class. Like most pros will tell you, I was that one kid that could draw, and everyone would go to get drawings done. Later on in life as you move on to other schools you learn that you are not the only one! I learned that when I was lucky enough to get into the High School of Art & Design, whose alumni include Tony Bennet, Neal Adams, Larry Hama (who I later wind up working with) and others.

I’ve always wanted to be a comic book artist, and going back to my supportive parents, they bought me a cheap drafting table and the book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which I still use today. It’s the comic book bible that I refer to as I always seem to learn something new every time I open it. I set up my room then as I imagined my art hero John Buscema had his.

BH: According to the Grand Comics Database, your earliest professional work was drawing the “Spider-Femme” parody in Spoof Comics Presents #1 published by Personality Comics in 1992. Is that correct? (Just double checking, since the GCD is sometimes inaccurate.) How did that job come about?

Henry Martinez: Yep, that’s right. That was a fun time. I was submitting to everyone while working a fulltime job at an ad agency and they responded first. They wanted to meet me in person and asked if I’d work in their studio for a day, which I thought was unusual, but what the hell it was a new experience. So I asked for the day off from work, went out to Long Island and worked in the studio with Kirk Lindo who would later become my boss when he formed Brainstorm, featuring his book Vamperotica. It was a fun series to work on and they gave me three books all with Adam Hughes covers. I also did a few covers for them. I didn’t realize those books still have a following until I found a group on Facebook. One of the publishers is trying to gather the art to do a Kick Starter of the covers, I think.

League of Champions #12 (July 1993) written by Lou Mougin, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Rob Lansey,lettered by Jean Simek and colored by Frank Martin Jr.

BH: A year later you were drawing Sparkplug and League of Champions for editor Dennis Mallonee at Heroic Publishing. How did you come to work for Heroic? Did you enjoy penciling those comics? Were they what you might call a good “foot in the door” for your career?

Henry Martinez: One of the publishers that got back to me was Heroic Publishing. To this day I am still very proud of the work I did for them. I saw the work as gateway books, a chance to prove my chops to the Big Two, as they involved long stories and in the case of League of Champions, a team book. I loved the story, written by Lou Mougin, who really should be getting more work, as he is a great writer who is well informed and researches everything. We’re trying to work together, but it’s been difficult. I still work for Heroic, but finances make it difficult. Otherwise I would work for them regularly, as I really like the characters; I’ve even designed a few.

BH: Later on in 1993 you did fill-in pencils on Morbius the Living Vampire #13 for Marvel Comics. How did you get that job? What was it like getting work from Marvel only a year into your professional career?

Henry Martinez: At that time, I was still working fulltime at an ad agency. The hours are insane, lots of late nights and weekends, and I was still sending out packages to the Big Two. One day I get a letter and a script from Bobbie Chase telling me I am being given the opportunity to do a fill-in on Morbius.

Morbius the Living Vampire #13 (Sept 1993) written by Gregory Wright, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Bud LaRosa, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Renee Wittersaetter

I flipped out! My dream of working for Marvel is coming true. I couldn’t leave my job on a fill in with no promise of future work, so I would work full days and OT, then go home and pencil until 3 AM, sleep 3 hours then go to work and do it all over again for a month. When I turned in the last pages, my pals took me to the Blarney Stone to celebrate. I had to pull an all-nighter to make the deadline though, so I was half-asleep during dinner, then slept for 2 days. Sacrifice kids!

At that point I was offered Ghost Rider/Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance with the promise of getting Blaze since SoV was being cancelled, along with a few other books. I then had a decision to make…do I try to keep this impossible schedule and turn in subpar work or take a chance on a dream that may only last a few months? Advertising offers security and good money, but Marvel! I took the plunge and have no regrets. I would’ve been very happy staying there on any book but that was when the industry bubble burst. So many books were cancelled, and so many people lost their jobs. For some this was all they knew and they spent alot of money thinking it would last forever, but all things come to an end. I was lucky, I had storyboards to fall back on, others weren’t so lucky.

Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance #17 (Dec 1993) written by Howard Mackie, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by John Kalisz

BH: Towards the end of 1993 you became the regular penciler on Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance beginning with issue #16. The previous penciler on SoV had been Adam Kubert, with his father, the legendary Joe Kubert, even contributing to a couple of issues. Was it intimidating following in their footsteps?

Henry Martinez: Oh yes. Those were beautiful books that I appreciate even more now that I have been revisiting them. There is so much action, energy and the story is even better than I remember. I could only do my best and hope that the reader liked it. I’ve been fortunate in that the work was received well and I still get comments on how much readers enjoyed my run.

BH: On your first two issues of Spirits of Vengeance you were inked by Keith Williams, but for the remainder of your run, through the book’s end with issue #23, you were paired with inker Bud LaRosa. How did you find their inking? Any particular preference between the two of them?

Henry Martinez: Everyone contributes in a different way. So, when I say I liked them both I’m not trying to be polite, but I really do like them both. Keith’s inking is more organic than Bud’s if I were to differentiate between the two. At the risk of offending a friend, I prefer organic inking.

Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance #19 (Feb 1994) written by David Quinn, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Bud LaRosa, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by John Kalisz

BH: Following on from Spirits of Vengeance, you penciled the first 8 issues of the Blaze solo title. How did working with writer Larry Hama on that compare to working with Howard Mackie and David Quinn on SoV? I do remember I was a bit disappointed that you didn’t stay on Blaze for the entire 12 issue run. Was there a specific reason why you left the series?

Henry Martinez: I loved penciling Blaze. Larry wrote in characters that hadn’t been seen in a very long time that I loved and I will always be grateful to him for that. Just working for Marvel was amazing, but to start a new book?

Howard, David and Larry are incredible writers, and have different styles as a writer should. I loved working with all of them. They are all great world builders who can tell large stories involving many characters while still getting very personal with individual characters. That’s a very specific toolset. I don’t have a preference since they all have a unique voice that I like. And since you mention David Quinn, I really enjoyed that issue, it was a break from the SoV storyline, a quiet break. Although this break involved vampires!

Blaze #4 (Nov 1994) written by Larry Hama, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by John Kalisz

I reluctantly left Blaze frankly because I was burning out. My father was a hardworking man who put in long hours, rarely slept and never complained. I thought the same way and just kept working, barely sleeping and my work suffered as did my personal life. Comics are out there forever, so there is so much pressure to do the best you can, within reason. You still have to make that deadline after all.

What a lot of people may not understand is how much work is involved in creating a comic book. There are so many people involved who depend on each other to deliver on time. You are only as good as your last book, so if you miss a deadline or two, you may not get another issue from that editor and even develop a bad reputation. So when I read reviews or comments like “he/she sucks!” It hurts, knowing now hard so many creators work, how much they sacrifice to do the best they can under the restrictions of a deadline. So I decided to stop, take a break and go back to advertising, especially considering he industry was suffering. I do wish I could have finished the title, though.

Fortunately, right after Blaze, Malibu Comics offered me a fill-in issue of All New Exiles, where I got to draw the Juggernaut. That was followed by 3 issues of Mantra which I loved working on. It was looking like I was going to be the regular penciler on that book when Marvel (who had bought Malibu) shut them down, and those characters never saw the light of day again. In the meantime, I had 3 issues and a half-finished 4th when I was told the news. I had also designed some characters for a storyline they were developing. Thanks to Facebook, I’m still in touch with the Malibu folks today. I just finished a story with my editor then, Roland Mann. I also did a 6 page proposal with him to bring back his characters, Cat & Mouse.

Vamperotica #19 (Sept 1996) written by Kirk Lindo & Dan Membiela, penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Eman Torre, lettered by Studio-B and colored by Scott Harrison

BH: In 1996 you drew a few stories for Vamperotica for Brainstorm Comics. Any particular thoughts on those? I know in the years since a lot of 1990s “bad girl” comic books have been the subject of much ridicule. For myself, as a fan of sci-fi and horror B-movies, I find that sub-genre to be similar, entertainingly cheesy. I thought you did solid work on Vamperotica. Your aptitude for rendering beautiful women that you previously demonstrated at Heroic and Marvel certainly served you well here.

Henry Martinez: Thanks for the kind words. That’s another book I was very proud of, I did my best work (at that time) then, I always try to give you my best. As I mentioned earlier, I would be hired by Kirk Lindo the publisher of Brainstorm who was the studio artist at Personality Comics. That’s why it’s always good to maintain good relationships with people, you never know. I have never been opposed to doing any genre as long as I enjoy the work, and I had a good script to work from. I was looking forward to doing more wok for them, but I think they were struggling at the time and went under. It was a storyline that had great potential and could’ve gone on for a while.

BH: You left the comic book filed in 1996. This was around the time when the industry unfortunately imploded, so I am going to guess that was the reason for your departure. What types of work did you do over the next decade?

Henry Martinez: As I mentioned I went back to adverting for security, but as a freelancer, so I had more control over my schedule and was able to tackle other things. I’ve been working for Heroic Publishing just to keep doing comics, I can never stop doing comics. I’ve also done some character design for them that never saw the light of day, and some editorial work for Muscle and Fitness magazines. There is also some commission here and there, you never know what people will ask for.

League of Champions #17 (April 2017) cover penciled & inked by Henry Martinez

BH: In 2004 you returned to comic books, once again doing work for Heroic Publishing. What brought you back to the industry?

Henry Martinez: I wouldn’t say it “brought me back” as much as I pop in when I can. I approached Heroic because I always liked their characters and Dennis is easy to work with. I still get to draw superheroes, and as sophistified as I pretend to be, I really enjoy drawing superheroes, despite doing some serious stuff, here and there.

BH: Those covers and stories for Heroic gave you your first opportunities to ink your own work. What prompted you to switch from penciling to doing full artwork?

Henry Martinez: To be honest, it was finances. I always say I would never begrudge someone from earning a living, but I came to a realization that there are a handful of people whose inks I like over my work. And outside if those creators, I do like my inks, so I made the offer to Dennis which agreed. I can ink my own work and get extra income, so why not? There are still times that I want a certain someone to ink my pencils, so I always ask first. There are two people I would love to have ink my work, one is my friend from high school, Jose Marzan Jr., (for those that don’t know, Jose is known for inking a popular Flash run and Y The Last Man) and I am lucky that Dennis agreed to his rate, so Jose and I will be working together on League of Champions which I am currently penciling.

Tragedy #1 (2021) cover penciled by Henry Martinez, inked by Keith Williams and colored by M. Zapata

BH: As a fan of your work at Marvel in the mid 1990s it’s been good to see you back in the biz. I certainly enjoyed your variant cover for Tragedy #1, where you were once again inked by Keith Williams. What other projects have you been working on over the last few years?

Henry Martinez: I really loved Keith’s inks on that cover, and I hope we can collaborate again soon. I requested him and writer/publisher Phillip Russert made it happen. He’s a good guy, always looking out for the artists.

As for my most recent projects, I did the first two issues of Cult of Dracula which was well received, and as I mentioned before I am penciling a League of Champions story, wrapping up a storyline that will lead to a full-sized issue right after. The cover is already done. I am also working on a Kickstarter of my own and a book to submit to Ben Dunn @Antarctic Press.

A recent commission of Nightveil from Femforce that Henry Martinez drew for me. He’s really good, and I highly recommend getting artwork from him.

BH: Finally, I know you’re available for commissions. How should people who want to get work done by you contact you?

Henry Martinez: Thanks, I’m always open to commissions. My social media links are:

www.dragonbrushstudio.com

twitter.com/Dragonbrush_Inc

www.instagram.com/dragonbrush_studio/

Thanks again!

Female Furies: feminism vs fascism

I recently had the opportunity to pick up the trade paperback collection of the six issue Female Furies miniseries DC Comics published in 2019. Cecil Castellucci’s story re-imagines Jack Kirby’s New Gods characters from a feminist perspective, and reads very much as a response to the Trump administration. Sadly the main aspects of Castellucci’s story are still all-too-relevant, as the blatant sexism & misogyny that Trump helped to once again make socially acceptable still linger on strongly in conservative circles, and the GOP continues its war on women’s rights.

I had never considered Darkseid and his dystopian hellhole of a planet Apokolips to be suffused with toxic masculinity. Nevertheless, the “Fourth World” stories written & drawn by Kirby were highly political, with Richard Nixon serving as one of the main inspirations for the arch-villain Darkseid, a character who was the literal embodiment of fascism, and one of his lieutenants, the propagandist Glorious Godfrey, being directly based on evangelist Billy Graham.

And, whether he specifically intended it or not, when Kirby introduced Big Barda in Mister Miracle #4 (cover date Sept 1971) he was making an advancement in the depiction of women in American superhero comic books. There had certainly been strong, powerful women in comics before, most notably Wonder Woman. Big Barda, however, was among the first occasions when a male superhero’s love interest was shown to be an equal partner, as well as his physical superior. There really had not been a relationship like Scott Free & Big Barda in superhero comics up to that point. And to then reveal there were numerous other powerful women on Apokolips who were Barda’s peers… that was certainly highly unconventional for the early 1970s.

Whatever the case, I think it speaks to the strength & flexibility of the characters & stories that Kirby created fifty years ago that Castellucci can so effectively utilize them to craft a feminist parable that is relevant to 21st century American society.

I would prefer not to describe the plot of Female Furies in detail, as I highly recommend picking up the collected edition, and I do not want to spoil the specifics. In short, the miniseries depicts how Barda and the other Female Furies struggle to gain acceptance by Darkseid and his male lieutenants, all of whom believe women to be naturally inferior to man. The Furies are subjected to discrimination & sexual harassment by the patriarchy of Apokolips in their struggle for equality.

An interesting aspect of the story is how Castellucci demonstrates that a patriarchy often turns women against one another, making them their own worst enemies. When their teammate Aurelie is selected for “special training” with Darkseid’s lieutenant Willik, the other Furies assume that Auralie is sleeping her way to the top. In actuality Willik wants to “train” Auralie so that he can get her alone with him to force her to have sex with him. When Auralie attempts to explain to her sisters what is happening, they accuse her of lying.

The brutal drill sergeant Granny Goodness, the Furies matron, is shown to be politically ambitious, craving to hold the same high rank as Darkseid’s other, male lieutenants. She will do anything to achieve this, including throw her charges to the wolves. When the Furies protest against their treatment by the men of Apokolips, Goodness basically tells them to grin & bear it. She pushes them to succeed in the field so that their successes will reflect well on her, enabling her to amass personal power.

In the end, Barda realizes that the women of Apokolips must work together if they are ever to overcome their oppression:

“Apart? We are held back from our true potential. United? We’re unstoppable.”

I do think the one area where Castellucci’s message falls short is with Heggra, the former Queen of Apokolips, and Darkseid’s mother. Heggra is one of those people who, regardless of gender, comes across at thoroughly rotten & irredeemable. Heggra was the one who ordered the murder of her son’s first wife, the sorceress Suli, solely because Heggra disapproved of their marriage and believed that Suli would make Darkseid too weak and empathetic. If Darkseid is a monster, then it is at least partially due to the machinations of his mother. When the emotionally hardened Darkseid later orders his own mother’s murder, it is difficult not to feel that Heggra has reaped what she has sewn.

I did appreciate that Castellucci gave Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People a central role in the story. Beautiful Dreamer is a character who seldom receives any sort of spotlight or development. I liked how Castellucci showed Dreamer’s telepathic, hallucinogenic powers as playing a part in opening the Furies’ minds, and her faith & kindness demonstrates to them that there is another path for them to walk aside from the cold, totalitarian one of Apokolips.

Castellucci also presents an interesting characterization of Darkseid. Eschewing the terrifying cosmic menace that too many later writers have advanced, Castellucci returns to Kirby’s original conception of the lord of Apokolips. At heart, for all his incredible power, Darkseid is a coward, a miserable & unhappy being, and it is his own fears & insecurities that drive him to try to control & manipulate others.

At times Castellucci’s writing is bluntly unsubtle and her dialogue idiosyncratic. Perhaps on another project this might have been a defect. But the original Kirby stories were frequently operatic and allegorical, his scripting containing a particularly offbeat cadence. So Castellucci’s work here feels rather akin to Kirby’s own.  Perhaps the plot of Female Furies does not hold together as strongly as it could, at time meandering, but it is nevertheless a very passionate story in delivering its message.

The artwork on Female Furies is by Adriana Melo. She is a very talented illustrator & storyteller. Her previous work includes Star Wars, Birds of Prey, Ms. Marvel and Doctor Who. I’ve always appreciated how Melo has rendered female characters. She draws them as beautiful & sexy without ever making them exploitative. As I have observed before, I feel that women often excel at drawing female characters, because they understand the anatomy from firsthand experience, and know how women should stand and move. Melo’s work on this miniseries is very expressive, emotional and dynamic.

I also imagine it is no accident that Willik, a character originally introduced by Kirby, is redesigned in this minsieries by Melo to have a more-than-passing resemblance to the Disgraced Former Occupant.

The lettering is by Sal Cipriano & Carlos M. Manhual, and the coloring by Hi-Fi. The extremely striking cover artwork to the collected edition, originally used for issue #6 of the miniseries, is by line artist Joelle Jones & colorist Laura Allred.

The trade paperback also reprints Mister Miracle #9 (August 1972) by Jack Kirby & Mike Royer. It’s one of Kirby’s strongest Mister Miracle stories, as well as one of the main inspiration for the Female Furies miniseries by Castellucci & Melo. Half a century later Kirby’s work still holds up absolutely, demonstrating what a brilliant & groundbreaking creator he truly was.

Ron Lim vs Rik Levins, or how a teenage Captain America fan experienced his first major disappointment

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 30 years since this happened. It was the Summer of 1991, and I experienced my first significant disappointment as a comic book fan. But first, a little background is necessary…

I’ve been a fan of Captain America from Marvel Comics ever since I read issue #278 and issue #291 when I was a kid. My father got me a one year subscription to the Captain America series in 1985, and I read those issues until they fell to pieces.

Captain America #378 by Ron Lim & Danny Bulanadi, one of the favorite issues of my teenage years

I was 13 years old in 1989 when I finally started reading the Captain America comic book on a monthly basis. This was when my father began taking me to the comic shop every week, so it became much easier to follow the series.

I really liked Kieron Dwyer’s pencils on Captain America. In 1989 Dwyer was still a young, up-and-coming artist, but even then you could see how much talent & potential he possessed.

A year later Dwyer was replaced as the penciler on Captain America by Ron Lim, whose work at the time I actually liked even better. Lim was the artist on the book from January 1990 to June 1991, drawing issues #366, #368 – 378, and #380 – 386. He was paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi on inks. Lim’s penciling on Captain America was absolutely dynamic, and I immediately became a HUGE fan of his work.

Some of the best work by Lim & Bulanadi was on the seven part storyline “Streets of Poison” that ran bi-weekly in the summer of 1990. Written by Mark Gruenwald, it involved the Red Skull challenging the Kingpin for control of New York City’s illegal drug trade, with Cap getting caught in the crossfire. Lim & Bulanadi drew some amazing action sequences as Cap fought against Bullseye and Crossbones.

Cap versus Bullseye from Captain America #374 by Lim & Bulanadi

So I was incredibly disappointed when Lim left Captain America and was replaced by Rik Levins with issue #387, which was cover-dated July 1991. I felt there was an immediate, steep decline in quality, and I was really upset 😭😭😭

(Keep in mind I was a teenager, and we all know how melodramatic they can be about really trivial things!)

Lim’s departure also coincided with long-time Captain America scribe Mark Gruenwald writing 1991’s six part bi-weekly summer storyline “The Superia Stratagem” which involved the female supremacist Superia gathering together an army of super-powered female villains on an island sanctuary and attempting to sterilize the outside world. A number of Cap fans, myself included, feel this storyline was the moment when Gruenwald jumped the shark.

Making this story even more ridiculous was the fact that at one point Cap and his ally Paladin, to infiltrate the island, disguise themselves as women. Yes, really. Yes, it was as ridiculous as you can possibly imagine.

What a drag! That infamous scene from Captain America #391 by Rik Levins & Danny Bulanadi

Now, I honestly don’t know if “The Superia Stratagem” would have been any more readable if Lim had been penciling it instead of Levins. I just feel that Levins didn’t have the strength as an artist to pull off making it work. It’s also worth pointing out that Lim was still penciling the covers for “The Superia Stratagem” and they were actually quite good.

The differences between Ron Lim and Rik Levins always stood out for me when I compared these very similar sequences from Captain America #266 and #297, as seen below. The first is penciled by Lim, and it’s got so much energy, with Cap having this determined look and gritted teeth as he comes swinging into action. The second one is by Levins, and Cap just has this really bland, bored expression on his face, and from his body language it feels like he’s performing a gymnastics routine rather than fighting for his life.

A comparison of Ron Lim and Rik Levins penciling similar action sequences

I hope none of this comes across as disrespectful to Levins. I did eventually develop a certain appreciation for him. I think his work on Captain America improved, beginning with the very bizarre-yet-entertaining “Man & Wolf” storyline (yes, the one that brought us Capwolf, a subject for another time), and his last year & a half on Captain America was quite good.

I also later discovered Levins’ work on Femforce and Dragonfly and other AC Comics titles, and it was so much better. I think Levins’ contributions to AC Comics were much more personal for him (he created several characters and wrote a number of the stories) so there was probably a greater investment in it, whereas Captain America was just a paying gig. (And, yes, Levins’ work for AC Comics is also a subject for another future blog post.)

A definite improvement: Captain America #410 by Levins & Bulanadi

It’s also definitely worth noting that Levins holds the record for drawing the most consecutive issues of Captain America, having penciled #387 to #422, a total of 36 issues. That even beats out Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby, who actually only penciled 24 consecutive issues of the series (#193 to #214 plus Annual #3 and #4, for those keeping track).

Levins passed away in June 2010 at the much too young age of 59. In retrospect, I now consider him to be a very underrated talent, as well as a consummate professional, someone who was able to turn in good, solid work month after month. The closest Levins ever came to missing a deadline was when M.C. Wyman had to pencil the second half of Captain America#414. This in comparison to all of the high-profile “hot” artists were constantly dropping the ball and turning in late work in the early 1990s.

Having said all of that that, I nevertheless have to confess: All these years later I STILL keep hoping that one day Ron Lim will get asked to draw the monthly Captain America series again. He has occasionally returned to the character. Lim penciled the final issue of the “Heroes Reborn” run in 1997, and I can honestly tell you that I was absolutely thrilled when I picked up that issue and found he was the artist. More recently, in 2019 Lim drew the Avengers: Loki Unleashed special written by Roger Stern and, again, I snatched that baby off the shelves. It was so great to see Cap and the rest of the Avengers drawn by Lim once again.

Avengers: Loki Unleashed demonstrated that Ron Lim still draws an amazing Captain America

So if Marvel ever does give the assignment of drawing Captain America or Avengers to Ron Lim, yeah, I would definitely jump onboard to buy those comic books!

I actually met Ron Lim a couple of years ago at East Coast Comicon , and I had the opportunity to tell him that him leaving Captain America was the first time I ever experienced a crushing loss over a creator leaving a series. He explained that intially the plan was just for him to take a short break from Captain America so that he could finish penciling the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries after George Perez had to drop out halfway through. However, Marvel then asked Lim to pencil the follow-ups Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, so he never did have a chance to return to Captain America.

I made sure to let Lim know that as an adult I understood that from a career perspective it made perfect sense for him to move over to a high-profile project such as Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels. I think Lim found my anecdote amusing, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I was such a huge fan of his work.

Wild Thing #1 cover by Ron Lim & Al Milgrom, signed by Lim… yes, I actually enjoyed this series!

Oh, yeah, having finally met Ron Lim at East Coast Comicon, what did I get signed by him? Was it an issue of Captain America or one of the Avengers-related books that he drew? Nope! It was Wild Thing #1. Yeah, I completely forgot to bring any of Lim’s work to the show to get signed, so I picked up Wild Thing #1 from one of the comic dealers. (I bought Wild Thing when it first came out in 1999, but those comics were among the ones that I got rid of when I sold off most of my collection several years ago.) At that point in time I just wanted to have Lim autograph something he drew, since I’m still a huge fan, and nowadays I care much more about creators than characters. I guess that just shows how much my priorities have changed since the Summer of 1991.

It now occurs to me that this is the perfect example of how unique our experiences as fans can be. Most other readers probably didn’t do much more than blink when Lim was replaced by Levins. But for me, I was at just the right age to really connect with the combo of Gruenwald & Lim on my absolutely favorite character, and when Lim then left the book it really felt like the apple cart was turned over, so to speak. I can now understand how it was such an unsettling experience for quite a number of fans ten years before when John Byrne left X-Men, or two decades earlier when Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics entirely. So, yeah, it’s definitely a matter of individual perspective.

Happy 100th birthday to Lily Renée

Today is the 100th birthday of Golden Age comic book artist Lily Renée, who was born on May 12, 1921.

Lily Renée Wilheim was born in Vienna, Austria to an upper middle class Jewish family. Renée had an interest in art & illustration from an early age, drawing as a hobby and visiting art museums. As she recounted in an interview conducted by Jim Amash in 2008 for Alter Ego from TwoMorrows Publishing:

“I drew clowns, ballerinas, tigers, and scenes that depicted what you would see in theatres. My parents took me to the theatre, where I saw some ballets, and I also went to dance classes. When I was older, I went to the opera twice a year with my school.”

In 1939 the 14 year old Renée was forced to flee Austria a year after the Nazis occupied the country in the Anschluss. Renée was placed by her parents on a Kindertransport (Childern’s Transport) ship which was part of the movement that helped thousands of children escape from Nazi-controlled Europe ahead of World War II. She arrived in Leeds, England, and went to stay with a family in nearby Horseforth whose daughter she had previously been corresponding with.  Unfortunately the family that took her in believed they were getting an unpaid servant. The next year and a half was a difficult period for Renée as she struggled to survive in a foreign country, not knowing if her parents were alive or dead.

Jane Martin in Wings Comics #35 (July 1943)

Finally in 1941 Renée received a letter from her parents explaining that they had escaped to the United States. She hoped to join them, but her efforts were hindered by the British authorities. By now World War II had broken out, and Renée was suspected of being an “enemy alien” due to her possessing an expensive camera that had belonged to her family. She attempted to sneak out of the country, but was caught; however an anonymous stranger intervened and negotiated her release, and she was able to travel to New York City by ship.

Life in New York City in the early 1940s was a struggle for the Wilheim family, who had been left completely bereft. Crammed into a small apartment alongside other refugees, they attempted to make ends meet. Renée took on various artistic odd jobs to help out, such as painting wooden boxes, illustrating catalogs for the Woolworth’s department store, and modeling:

“There was somebody named Jane Turner, a very well-known fashion illustrator, who liked the way I moved, so she asked me to model for her at home in a lovely townhouse. The clothes were sent from the department store, and I was dressed in all these elegant dresses while she would draw me. Then I would go home in my old, outmoded clothes, and that was weird.”

Jane Martin in Wings Comics #35 (November 1943)

Renée’s mother saw an advertisement in the newspaper from comic book publisher Fiction House looking for artists. Renée had no knowledge of or interest in comic books, but she applied for the position in order to help her family. It was low-paying, unglamorous work, and Renée was uncomfortable working alongside the mostly male staff of Fiction House, many of whom would make crude comments to her, but she stuck with it out of necessity.

Despite the fact that Renée understandably saw comic book illustration as a means to an end, a way to pay the bills and put food on the table, she nevertheless produced exceptional, beautiful work during her short career in the field. Her pages were also distinctive for the highly unusual layouts and panel shapes she utilized.

After starting out erasing pencil lines on inked artwork and drawing backgrounds, she began regularly illustrating the adventures of aviatrix Jane Martin beginning with Wings Comics #31 (cover-dated March 1943) from Fiction House. Another of the features Renée worked on was The Werewolf Hunter beginning in Rangers Comics #16 (April 1944):

“Eventually, they tried me out on a feature, which was one that nobody wanted to do: “Werewolf Hunter.” I made it into something else because I didn’t want to draw wolves. I talked to the writer and convinced him it should be about magic, where people change into other creatures, not werewolves. So we did that, and it became quite popular.”

The Werewolf Hunter in Rangers Comics #24 (August 1945)

Starting with Planet Comics #32 (Sept 1944) Renée also began drawing the post-apocalyptic sci-fi / fantasy feature The Lost World.

The character Renée would become most associated with was Senorita Rio, a glamorous Hollywood actress & stuntwoman who, after her fiancé was killed during Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, faked her own death so that she could become a secret agent for the Allied Forces, fighting against the Axis Powers behind enemy lines.

Introduced in Fight Comics #19 (June 1942), Senorita Rio was created by artist Nick Cardy. Renée began drawing the feature with Fight Comics #35 (Dec 1944) and she quickly established herself as the definitive artist at depicting Senorita Rio’s thrilling, exotic adventures combating Nazi spies and fascist agents throughout South America. Renée was the regular artist on the Senorita Rio feature for the next three years.

Senorita Rio in Fight Comics #41 (December 1945)

As she would explain in 2006 when interviewed by Trina Robbins for The Comics Journal, the Senorita Rio feature became a source of escapism for Renée from her difficult existence:

“And I just wanted to say with all these comic strips and also this name Senorita Rio, it’s sort of like a fantasy. Senorita Rio got clothes that I couldn’t have, you know, she had a leopard coat and she wore these high-end shoes and all of this and had adventures and was very daring and beautiful and sexy and glamorous and all of that.”

It was also cathartic for Renée, a beautiful young woman whose existence had been upended by Nazi oppression, to draw the adventures of a character who looked much like herself fighting against the scourge of fascism:

“I could live out a fantasy, if only on paper. It was a form of revenge.”

Due to her signing her work for Fiction House as “L. Renée” or “L.R.” for a number of years it was not known that she was one of the early female artists in the comic book field.

Senorita Rio in Fight Comics #50 (June 1947)

In 1947 Renée married artist Eric Peters, another refugee from Vienna who had fled the country after his political cartoons earned the ire of the Nazis. In 1948 Fiction House relocated outside of New York.  Finding work at St. John Publications, Renée and Peters worked together illustrating several issues of Abbott and Costello Comics. Renée and Peters proved very adept at drawing the comedic misadventures of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Regarding the division of labor between them, Renée explained:

“[Eric] drew the Abbott and Costello characters, and I drew the girls, and did all the inking.”

Renée also drew stories for the various romance titles published by St. John. It was at St. John that Renée began signing her work with her full name.

Renée left comic books in the early 1950s, moving into freelance illustration, textile design and jewelry design, all of which at the time were regarded as much more respectable fields. She wrote two children’s books. After her husband passed away in 1990, Renée began taking classes at Hunter College, which inspired her to write several plays.

Abbott and Costello Comics #6 (February 1949)

Renée’s work in comic books was rediscovered in the early 2000s when one of her granddaughters contacted comic book creator & historian Trina Robbins. In 2007 Renée was a guest at the San Diego Comic Con and was nominated to the Friends of Lulu Hall of Fame. An illustrated biography, Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer, written by Robbins and drawn by Anne Timmons & Mo Oh, was published by Graphic Universe in November 2011.

Renée’s signature character Senorita Rio lives on, having been revived in 1985 by Bill Black of AC Comics to be one of the founding members of the all-female superhero team Femforce. AC has also reprinted a number of the Senorita Rio stories drawn by Renée. Fantagraphics reprinted several stories drawn by Renée in The Comics Journal #279 (Nov 2006).

The comic books published by Fiction House and St. John have entered the public domain and can be read on the Comic Book Plus website. The Grand Comics Database appears to have a fairly comprehensive listing of the stories Lily Renée drew. If you have not seen her beautiful, detailed artwork before then I definitely encourage you to view it online.

Lily Renée is a remarkable woman who showed great fortitude in surviving tremendous hardship during her teenage years. I am glad that she eventually was able to make a new life for herself here in the United States, and that she has lived long enough to see her beautiful comic book artwork be rediscovered to be appreciated by new generations of fans.