Rich Buckler sketchbook drawings

Comic book artist Rich Buckler passed away on May 19th at the age of 68. I knew that Buckler had not been well for a while now, but I was still very sad to hear the news. Buckler was an incredibly prolific artist. He is probably best known for creating the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok, but at one time or another he drew pretty much nearly every major Marvel and DC character, as well as doing work for a number of other publishers. Buckler lived in the NYC area and was a frequent guest at conventions. I had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions. He always seemed like a nice guy.

I’ve already blogged about Rich Buckler’s great work on several occasions in the past (please check out my write-up on his Deathlok stories) so I wasn’t certain exactly how I could pay tribute to him now without repeating myself. It then occurred to me that I could feature the various convention sketches that I obtained from Buckler at comic conventions. Each of these was done in one of my theme sketchbooks.

1) DOCTOR DOOM

Doctor Doom by Rich Buckler

This great drawing of Doctor Doom from June 2009 is the first piece in my “villains and bad guys” theme sketchbook. When it came to deciding who to have kick off the book, Buckler quickly came to mind. Buckler penciled Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s, paired with inker Joe Sinnott and writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. Doctor Doom is one of Marvel’s all-time classic super-villains, and Buckler did a great rendition of the character during his run on FF.

I’m extremely happy with this piece. Buckler did an amazing job sketching the iron-fisted monarch of Latveria, starting off this sketchbook with genuine class & style.  This sketch was subsequently published in Back Issue #74, edited by Michael Eury, from TwoMorrows Publishing. The theme of that issue was the Fantastic Four in the Bronze Age.

2) The Vision

Vision by Rich Buckler

Bucker only worked on a handful of issues of Avengers over the years, but he did very nice work on the series. One of the stories that Buckler penciled, in issue #106, contained an incredibly dramatic depiction of the Vision on the splash page, inked by the amazing Dave Cockrum… what a wonderful collaboration! Buckler & Cockrum really brought to life the synthezoid’s somber brooding and contemplation of life.

After I started my Avengers Assemble theme  sketchbook, the question of who to have draw the Vision inevitably came up. Well, that splash page from #106 almost immediately leaped to mind, and I knew I had to ask Buckler to sketch the character. It definitely came out very well. I wish Buckler could have worked on more Avengers stories; he had a real affinity for the characters.

3) HAN SOLO

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

You might have previously seen this great sketch of Han Solo from the Star Wars movies on my entry for Super Blog Team-Up 7. I still think it’s an astonishing oversight that, outside of a single trading card for Topps, Buckler was never given the opportunity to contribute artwork to any Star Wars related projects. His work would have been such a wonderful fit for the series. He certainly did an amazing job on this sketch, capturing both the likeness and the personality of the character.

Years later, when Buckler was on Facebook, he shared numerous images of a great deal of his work, both published and unpublished. One of the pieces he posted was this sketch. Unfortunately he only had a small, blurry pic of it. When Buckler found out I was on FB, he asked me to send him a larger scan, a request I was more than happy happy to fulfill.

4) MANTIS

Mantis by Rich Buckler

Yes, I do have a Mantis sketchbook. She is, quite obviously, one of my favorite characters. I thought it would be nice to have the first piece in the book drawn by an artist who had worked on some of the character’s published appearances. Rich Buckler previous drew Mantis in Giant-Size Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four #325. He used that FF issue for reference, creating a beautiful portrait of the character.

This sketch, which was drawn in December 2015 at Winter Con in Queens NY, nearly didn’t happen. I approached Buckler early on Saturday morning about doing a sketch. Less then half an hour later, though, Buckler was feeling ill, and he had to be rushed to the hospital. Amazingly, though, in the afternoon he was back at the show. I thought he was crazy, and that he ought to be resting at home. However, since he was there, I asked him if he felt well enough to draw a sketch. Buckler said he was, and her did this great piece. That was the last time I got to see him before he passed away, so I’m grateful I had that opportunity.

I highly recommend reading the eight part essay series “From the Desk of Rich Buckler” that Daniel Best presented in 2010 on his blog 20th Century Danny Boy. These essays by Buckler offer an in-depth look at his career, his creative process, and his thoughts on the comic book industry.

Black Lightning in the 1990s

Black Lightning, the DC Comics superhero created by Tony Isabella and first published in 1977, will be appearing in an upcoming television series to air on The CW.  I looked at the first Black Lightning series in a previous blog.  Today I’m examining the character’s return to headlining status in 1995.  Once again written by Tony Isabella, this new Black Lightning series features artwork by Eddy Newell.  Inking the first two issues is Ron McCain.

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Black Lightning, aka Jefferson Pierce, teacher and Olympic gold medalist, has relocated to “The Brick City,” an impoverished area within an unnamed city in the Great Lakes region.  Once again Pierce is hoping that he will be able to make a difference in the lives of inner city teens.  By day he seeks to educate them at Carver High School; by night in his costumed alter ego he attempts to defeat the drug-dealing gangs that have infested the Brick City.

Jeff’s twin tasks are literally herculean in nature.  With the gang culture having permeated the Brick City, its youths are in constant danger.  For many the gangs and the drugs they peddle are all too tempting, a seemingly easy escape from the overwhelming poverty & despair of the Brick City.  Even those who manage to avoid drug use or a life of crime are unsafe, constantly in danger of getting caught in the crossfire of the Brick City’s rampant gang warfare.

Isabella demonstrates the harsh realities of the Brick City through the character of Lamar.  An intelligent young man from a good family, Lamar has genuine potential, and Jeff seeks to guide him towards a better future.  Unfortunately Lamar had accidentally offended the Royal Family, the largest street gang in the Brick City.  Twice threatened with death for his supposed “disrespect,” Lamar is approached by Strapper, a member of the Home Crew, rivals of the Royals.  Lamar really doesn’t want to join the Home Crew, but he does so anyway, because he believes that without their protection the Royals will succeed in killing him next time.

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In my look at the original Black Lightning series, I lamented that the then-common 17 page length of comic books in the late 1970s meant that Isabella had little room to explore Jeff’s personal life.  With an expanded length of 24 pages afforded him in volume two, Isabella has ample room to delve into Jeff’s relationships with his students, his co-workers, his neighbors in the Brick City, and his ex-wife Lynn.  Isabella does excellent work developing Jeff, his supporting cast, and his adversaries in these stories, as well as setting up several interesting subplots.

Probably the strongest story of this run is “Blowed Away” in issue #5.  Jeff is in the hospital, in intensive care, having been seriously injured in an attack by the Royals.  His ailment is as much spiritual as physical, as he despairs over the lives he has failed to save, and his inability to ever make a lasting impact against the crime and poverty he has been fighting for so long.

Isabella’s writing for “Blowed Away” is very introspective and moving.  The insights into Jeff’s personality and emotions are deep and genuine.  It is clear that Isabella has given a great deal of thought to the development of the character.

The art by Eddy Newell on Black Lightning deserves special praise.  Newell is an amazing artist whose work I had enjoyed since I first saw it a few years earlier on issues of The Twilight Zone published by Now Comics.  He does stunning work on Black Lightning.  The first four issues are genuinely gritty and atmospheric, yet also full of subtle characterization.  However with issue #5, “Blowed Away,” Newell excels even further, creating incredible storytelling and illustration to complement Isabella’s script.  Newell vividly illuminated the hospitalized Jeff Pierce’s mourning and existential despair.

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Following on from “Blowed Away” is a three issue arc that sees Black Lightning forced to reluctantly work alongside the vigilante Gangbuster.  Lightning’s old enemy Tobias Whale has allied himself with the Royal Family, and they seek to ignite a brutal gang war in the Brick City, with the intention of swooping in afterwards to seize complete control of the drug market.  Lightning and Gangbuster narrowly manage to prevent the conflict, but Jeff’s relief is mitigated by the fact that the Brick City remains a powder keg, and by the knowledge that the Whale, his most implacable foe, remains waiting in the wings, the gangster’s voracious ambition and cruelty unchecked.

It is unfortunate that Isabella’s run on Black Lightning volume two was abruptly cut short.  Due to problems with an editor at DC, his last issue was #8.  Recently re-reading these issues, and reaching the end of his last one, was genuinely disappointing.  Isabella did incredible work on his eight issues, and I would have loved to have seen what happened next, with Jeff, with the war against Tobias Whale and the Royals, and with the great members of the supporting cast that had been introduced, especially Lamar, who after issue #8 finds himself on the outs with the Home Crew and facing a very uncertain future.

Black Lightning volume two lasted five more issues with another writer at the helm.  It’s difficult to say if Isabella’s departure played a part in the cancellation.  In 1996 the comic book industry was having  a lot of problems overall, and a large number of other titles were also getting axed.  Nevertheless, even if Black Lightning would have been cancelled no matter what, I still would have liked to have seen Isabella on board until the end.

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Fortunately Isabella did have another opportunity to write Black Lightning in late 1997.  He was reunited with Newell on “Twas the Night Before Kwanzaa” which appeared in the anthology special DC Universe Holiday Bash II.  Once again Isabella crafted a great story, and the black & white artwork by Newell was beautiful.

Black Lightning volume two has not been reprinted in a trade paperback collection yet.  Hopefully the upcoming television series will motivate DC to rectify this oversight.  If not, then I encourage everyone to seek out these books in the back issue bins or online.  The stories by Tony Isabella and the artwork by Eddy Newell are spectacular.

Mighty Man flies again!

On more than one occasion I’ve commented that it’s really unfortunate that Savage Dragon by Erik Larsen isn’t a much better seller. There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first is that Larsen’s creator-owned series, which has been published for 25 years now by Image Comics, is a damn fine read. The second is that Larsen, within the pages of Savage Dragon, has created an enormous supporting cast made up of dozens and dozens of really interesting characters. Due to Savage Dragon not ever really being a massive hit, Larsen has only had a few opportunities to feature any of those great characters in spin-off titles.

It’s been quite a few years, but at long last we’ve finally gotten a new Savage Dragon spin-off: the Mighty Man special which came out earlier this month. It’s written by Larsen, drawn & colored by Nikos Koutsis, and lettered by Ferran Delgado.

Mighty Man special cover

Mighty Man is Larsen’s homage to the original Captain Marvel created by Bill Parker & C.C. Beck in 1939.  An artificial entity created by the mysterious mystic Fon-Ti, the Mighty Man form has passed from one human host to another for centuries.  Throughout much of the 20th Century it was possessed by Bobby Berman.  Eventually the now-elderly Berman was attacked by muggers while in his regular human form.  Dying, he transferred the Might Man entity to Ann Stevens, a nurse in Chicago.  For several years she fought alongside Dragon and the other super-powered defenders of the Windy City.  Then, in a twist no one saw coming, when Ann became pregnant the Mighty Man entity was somehow passed onto her unborn child Elizabeth.

This current Mighty Man made her debut in Savage Dragon #170 (March 2011). You can just imagine the chaos and confusion that occurred when a one year old baby suddenly found herself transformed into an invulnerable super-powered adult.

In the Mighty Man special, Betty is now seven years old. Realizing that her daughter is going to possess these powers for life, Ann has agreed to let her be trained by veteran crime-fighter SuperPatriot, who previously worked with the last two incarnations of Mighty Man.  Also pitching in to help are several of SuperPatriot’s teammates from the government team Special Operations Strikeforce.

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Larsen’s story and dialogue for the Mighty Man special are definitely comedic. He wrote a very fun, lighthearted story, which is appropriate, since I don’t think it’d be too enjoyable to see a pre-teen hero go all grim & gritty.  That’s one of the things I really appreciate about Larsen, he is a versatile creator.

This special is actually something of an informal Freak Force reunion. In addition to SuperPatriot, there are appearances by Ricochet, Barbaric and Horridus.  Freak Force was a fun Savage Dragon spin-off series which ran for 18 issues in the mid-1990s, and it’s always a joy to see those characters get back together.  Also appearing in this special are Malcolm Dragon, as well as Marsha Bradley, a teenager with electrical powers who is Malcolm’s kinda sorta half-sister (long story, don’t ask) who Larsen introduced just a few weeks earlier in Savage Dragon #222.

I’ve been curious what Larsen was going to do with all of his character who joined the SOS now that Trump has gotten into the Oval Office. I really couldn’t see SuperPatriot, who fought the Nazis during World War II, being all that thrilled with having to work for a guy who’s chummy with later-day National Socialists.  Indeed, when we see SuperPatriot on a mission with the SOS in this story, he’s exasperatedly venting to them “Christ, it makes me sick! Taking order from President Trump — How did it ever come to this?”

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This is a cool tie-in story that fans of Savage Dragon will enjoy, as is provides Larsen with the space to do some more character development for his supporting cast than he is usually able, to explore some story threads from that series, and set up a subplot or two for the future. At the same time, the Mighty Man special also works very well as a stand-alone story, and casual readers will enjoy it.

My only complaint is that the ending of the special is very abrupt. It really needed at least another page to properly wrap things up.

Nikos Koutsis is the regular colorist for Savage Dragon, and he’s also drawn a few back-up stories for the series. I enjoyed seeing him have an opportunity to draw a full-length issue.  Koutsis’ artwork is both cartoony and highly-detailed, which works very well for these characters.  His layouts are very dynamic.

I definitely enjoyed this Mighty Man special. It was a lot of fun.  I really hope that Erik Larsen has further opportunities to publish more Savage Dragon spin-offs in the near future.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

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Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Comic book reviews: Midnight of the Soul

One of my favorite comic book creators is Howard Chaykin.  I was actually a little surprised to realize that I hadn’t written about him before on this blog, not even in passing.  So today I am looking at his most recent project, the noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul.  Published last year by Image Comics, the five issue Midnight of the Soul was collected into a trade paperback in December.

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Midnight of the Soul is set in 1950.  The protagonist is Joel Breakstone, a World War II veteran.  Injured during the war, Joel has spent the last five years as an alcoholic shut-in with severe PTSD.  During this time he was been attempting to start a career as a sci fi writer, but not a single one of his stories has sold.  All the while Joel blots out flashbacks of the war by staying inebriated around the clock.  His wife Patricia, now the sole source of income, has lost all respect for him.  Joel has even had to sign the deed of his house in Long Island to his smug brother-in-law Steve.  In short, Joel is stuck in a self-destructive rut, and he knows it.

Then one evening, while both Patricia and Steve are out, Joel is searching the house, trying to find where he stashed his bottles.  Instead what he discovers are photographs that reveal Patricia is working as a prostitute, along with a spare key to her apartment in Manhattan.  Still half-drunk, consumed by resentment, Joel digs out a gun and hops on his motorcycle, heading into the city in search of his wife.

Meanwhile, Patricia is meeting with her main client, a jazz musician named Cooley.  Before their session can get too far along, Cooley is murdered by an intruder, with Patricia barely escaping.  She is soon being pursued, not only by the killer, but by thugs working for the gangster who owned Cooley’s contract, since they mistakenly believe that she is the murderer.  Joel finds himself attempting to locate his wife before they do.

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Chaykin does an excellent job at developing Joel Breakstone.  The alcoholic veteran is very much a flawed, damaged, selfish asshole.  And yet Chaykin succeeds in rendering him as somewhat sympathetic, his actions and motivations understandable.  Even towards the end, when Joel does something pretty awful, offering up a rather self-serving justification, he remains a character who, even if you don’t like him, neither do you really hate him.

On the opening page Joel is reflecting on his lifelong obsession with parallels.  Midnight of the Soul is very much a story of parallels.  Joel and Patricia, once a couple, are now living separate, parallel lives.  Joel’s search through Manhattan for Patricia is paralleled by the mobsters’ pursuit of her.  Joel and the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessey also are traveling in parallel, with the two of them continually crossing paths across the length and width of Manhattan.

As he gradually begins to sober up and the fog in his head slowly starts to dissipate, Joel’s very memories begin to work in parallel.  Different versions of his near-death experience during the war begin to emerge, each one slightly different from the other, leaving Joel finally questioning what really did happen half a decade before.  Even the fiction that Joel is attempting to write is concerned with parallels, set in an alternate world where the Axis won the war.

Chaykin is more concerned here with character introspection, with the creation of a mood and the establishment of an atmosphere, than he is with the mechanics of a sophisticated plot.  Joel’s discovery of Patricia’s secret life is primarily intended by Chaykin to force his protagonist out of his alcoholic self-pity, to nudge him back into reality, and to confront not his wife but the mental baggage he carries.

Likewise the murder of Cooley is almost incidental, the identity of the killer revealed soon after, the motivation for the crime mentioned almost in passing.  Cooley’s death serves primarily to send Patricia running for her life, extending Joel’s search for her, resulting in him spending the night bouncing from one odd situation after another.

Chaykin also offers up his characteristic black humor.  At one point I literally burst out laughing, which given that I was reading the book on the M Train earned me a few odd looks.

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Chaykin has a genuine fondness for mid Twentieth Century American society.  He has set many of his stories during this time, or transposed the trappings and elements of the period to other eras.  Midnight of the Soul sees him returning to explore the post war period, with its good and its bad and its numerous contradictions.

Chaykin does an amazing job at rendering Manhattan of 1950 via his highly detailed artwork.  The fashions, the architecture, the music; all are vividly brought to life.  That tangible mood and atmosphere I cited before is as much the product of Chaykin’s art as they are his plotting, dialogue and narration.

Also impressive is Chaykin’s storytelling.  He expertly lays out his artwork, creating an effective, dramatic flow to the narrative.  As I have observed before, storytelling in comic books is a somewhat underrated skill.  Most really good pencilers are so effectively subtle with their layouts that you don’t really appreciate the talent and thought that is on display in causing the story to flow from one panel to another, one page to the next.  There is a really cinematic quality to Chaykin’s artwork.  He is equally adept at action sequences and quieter passages of dialogue.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chaykin’s talent for rendering beautiful, sexy women.  Midnight of the Soul is nowhere near as erotic as some of his past works such as American Flagg!Black Kiss and Satellite Sam.  Nevertheless, both Patricia and Dierdre are very attractive, stunning to look at yet also tangible as flash and blood human beings.

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The coloring on Midnight of the Soul is by Jesus Aburtov.  He does an excellent job here, his coloring complementing Chaykin’s art, a key element in the evocation of the story’s tone.  Chaykin and Aburtov have worked together on several projects, and they make an effective team.

Chaykin has been working in the comic book biz for over four decades now.  Over time he’s consistently grown as both a writer and artist.  I’m glad that he’s still active as a creator, crafting striking, unusual, provocative stories such as Midnight of the Soul.  His next project, The Divided States of Hysteria, is also coming out this year through Image.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Miguel Ferrer: 1955 to 2017

I was sorry to hear that actor Miguel Ferrer and passed away on January 19th at the much too young age of 61.

Born on February 7, 1955, Miguel Ferrer was the son of actor / director Jose Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney.  Ferrer’s original aspiration was to work as a musician, but in 1975 his friend Bill Mumy offered him a part in an episode of the TV series Sunshine.  Ferrer caught the acting bug, and remained in the profession for the rest of his life.

One of Ferrer’s early roles was a 1981 episode of Magnum P.I.  Ferrer played, in a flashback, a young Navy ensign stationed in Hawaii shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with his father Jose Ferrer then playing the same character in the present day. I always thought that was such a wonderful casting decision.

The role that really put Ferrer on the map was playing sleazy corporate executive Bob Morton in the dystopian sci-fi movie Robocop (1987).  In interviews, Ferrer always acknowledged that he was grateful to that movie for really getting him noticed, enabling him to subsequently have a successful career as an actor.

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Ferrer was often cast as villainous or quirky characters.  He was seldom seen in starring roles, but he worked regularly, a ubiquitous presence in both movies and television for three decades.  Notably, in the early 1990s Ferrer portrayed cynical FBI agent Albert Rosenfeld in David Lynch’s cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, and he also appeared in the 1994 TV miniseries adapting the Stephen King novel The Stand.

From 2001 to 2007 Ferrer appeared on Crossing Jordan, playing Dr. Garret Macy, the mentor and boss to loose cannon Medical Examiner Jordan Cavanaugh, portrayed by Jill Hennessey.  Crossing Jordan was a series that I watched regularly, and I loved the chemistry between Ferrer and Hennessy.  Macy was something of a brooding, low-key figure who had the unenviable task of reigning in and covering for the headstrong, anti-authoritarian Jordan.   Macy, a divorcee and recovering alcoholic with a teenage daughter, had a lot of baggage, and Ferrer brought the character to life in a very affecting performance.

Interviewed in 2009 by the A.V. Club, Ferrer had positive memories of working on Crossing Jordan:

“It was great. I loved that. Six years on the same show, working on the same lot. Got to go home and see my kids every night. They weren’t always awake, but I saw them. I loved that there were no out-of-control egos on the set. I loved working with the same people for six years. You develop a sure hand, and you learn how one works and likes to work. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had a ball.”

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Ferrer, along with longtime friend Bill Mumy, was a science fiction and superhero fan.  The two of them collaborated on a few comic book projects in the late 1980s.  They co-wrote the six issue miniseries Comet Man, published by Marvel Comics in 1987.  A dark, bizarre blending of superheroes, sci-fi, and horror, Comet Man was eerily illustrated by future superstar Batman artist Kelley Jones, inked by Gerry Talaoc, and featured striking covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Ferrer, Mumy and Jones re-teamed in 1990 to wrap up the Comet Man storyline in a four part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Presents.  A decade later writer Peter David, who was friends with Ferrer and Mumy, used Comet Man during his acclaimed run on Captain Marvel.

Paired with talented artist Steve Leialoha, Ferrer and Mumy created the very odd superhero parody Trypto the Acid Dog, which debuted in a 1988 comic published by Renegade Press.  Additional Trypto stories by Ferrer, Mumy & Leialoha came out in the 1990s via Atomeka Press and Dark Horse.  Recently commenting on their collaboration, Leialoha revealed that the visual for Trypto was based on Ferrer’s own dog Davey.

Given how wonderfully bizarre Ferrer’s comic book work was, I’ve always thought it was a bit of a shame that he didn’t write more.  Of course, this was around the time when his acting career was really taking off, so I certainly understand why he chose to focus on that.

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Some of Ferrer’s roles were actually comic book related.  He played Vice President Rodriguez in Iron Man 3 (2013).  Miguel also did a great deal of voiceover work, much of it for animated series based on comic books.  Among the shows he voice-acted on were Superman: The Animated Series, The Batman, The Spectacular Spider-Man, and Young Justice, the latter of which had him in the recurring role of immortal conqueror Vandal Savage.  One of Ferrer’s last roles was voicing Deathstroke in the direct-to-DVD animated adaptation of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.

In addition to being a talented actor and writer, Ferrer had a reputation for being a genuinely nice guy.  In interviews he always came across as down-to-earth and laid back.  In recent days Bill Mumy, Kelly Jones, Steve Leialoha and Peter David have all reflected on his passing; each of them described him as a good friend possessed of a wonderful sense of humor.  It sounds like Ferrer will be very much missed by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby.  However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby.  It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation.  Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…

“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”

In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends.  Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.

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The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish.  A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier.  He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when.  The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him.  However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.

The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned.  After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…

Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…

“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”

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The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities.  But first we get this little exchange…

Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?

The Thing: There a problem with that?

Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.

In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who just happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith a central aspect of his character.

Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).

Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13.  Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing.  A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal.  Finally the big day comes.

It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.

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The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.

Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas.  The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one.  (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!)  Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.

“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.

En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations.  It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money.  Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.

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Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure.  In general I didn’t feel like I fit in.  The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different.  This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.

It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population.  I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.

My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books.  This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different.  I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.

There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author.  It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture.  Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.

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I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.

Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.