Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

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

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

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

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

Batman 65 cover

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

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

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

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

Batman 197 pg 18

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

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

Batman 256 pg 14

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

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

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

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

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

Batman 611 pg 21

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

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

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

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

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

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 237 cover

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 237 pg 4

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 237 pg 17

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

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

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

Savage Dragon 237 pg 23

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

Marie Severin: 1929 to 2018

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

Marie Severin and friends

Marie Severin and some of her friends from work

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

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

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

Kull the Conqueror 3 pg 3

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

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

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

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

Not Brand Echh 11 pg 34

How to Be a Comic Book Artist page one

Not Brand Echh 11 pg 35

How to Be a Comic Book Artist page two

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight Sons Unlimited 6 pg 7

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

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

Abdanm and Keerma’s adventures at TerrifiCon

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

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

Abdanm and Keerma Action Comics 1

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

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

Abdanm and Keerma Thanos

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

Abdanm and Keerma Artist Alley

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

Abdanm and Keerma John Trumbull

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

Abdanm and Keerma TerrifiCon buys

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

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

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

Comic book reviews: Bloodstrike “Brutalists”

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

Bloodstrike 0 cover

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

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

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

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

Bloodstrike 0 pg 5

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

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

Bloodstrike 5 pg 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloodstrike 23 pg 14

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

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

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

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

Bloodstrike 24 pg 4

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

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

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

Bloodstrike 23 The Pouch variant cover

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

Steve Ditko’s ghost stories

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 23

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 3

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 10

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 31 pg 3

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Tales 106 pg 7

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Tales 122 pg 20

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

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

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

“I wanted to do a book that would annoy, piss off, and educate… and it did.” – Howard Chaykin

To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday week, I am taking a look back at the first 14 issues of Howard Chaykin’s comic book series, the dystopian political satire American Flagg!  Written & drawn by Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Lynn Varley & Leslie Zahler, American Flagg! was published by First Comics.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the debut American Flagg! (according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics the first issue went on sale June 20, 1983).  This is one of those series that went totally under my radar for many years because, to be completely honest, I just was not mature or sophisticated enough to appreciate it back in my teenage Marvel Zombie days. Having become a fan of Chaykin through his later work, I subsequently discovered American Flagg! via back issues, and immediately fell in love with it.

American Flagg house ad

American Flagg! is both very political and very patriotic, proudly wearing its love for America, albeit in a manner that was very different from most expressions of flag-waving to be found during the Reagan years.  As editor Mike Gold explains in the first issue…

“Chaykin’s probably the most patriotic person I know. Not in the usual ‘Love It or Leave It’ nonsense that serves to divide instead of unite – and is therefore not patriotic. Howard’s patriotism comes from pride – and from great hope for America.”

Of course, as he’s acknowledged over the years, Chaykin was not only interested in politics, and he also utilized American Flagg! to delve deeply into the worlds of violence, guns, fashion, and sex… lots and lots of sex.

The first issue of American Flagg! opens in October 2031 AD.  It has been three and a half decades since 1996, “the Year of the Domino, when everything went to hell.”  The United States and the Soviet Union experienced simultaneous violent collapses, and the planet was stricken by a series of calamitous economic, social and ecological crises.

The American government relocated to the planet Mars (“temporarily of course”) and, merging with private industry, reorganized as Plex USA.  Ostensibly formed to help put the country back on its feet, the so-called Tricentennial Recovery Committee is actually intended to milk the planet dry of its remaining money & resources, so that the Plex can permanently establish an independent nation / corporation on Mars.

Across the globe a number of Malls have been constructed, hives of government & commerce, their twin goals to maintain order and keep the population pacified with entertainment that is suffused with explicit sex and graphic violence.  The population of the former United States has splintered into numerous tribal factions, with different ethnic, religious, and political paramilitary “clubs” fighting it out.  The Plex actively encourages these “clubs,” providing them with weapons, and recording their battles to air on Firefight All Night, “the highest rated vidshow on three planets,” one that makes the Plex “a fortune in ad revenues.”

American Flagg 11 cover

Into this morass of corruption and violence, of omnipresent mass media and runaway capitalism, all feeding an unending cycle of urban warfare, steps Reuben Flagg.  Born on Marsplex to left-leaning bohemian parents, Reuben was raised to have a love for the ideals of the American Dream.  For several of years Reuben starred in the Plex’s top-rated exploitive TV cop show Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger.  Unfortunately for Reuben, even though the show got renewed, he was fired, replaced by a computer generated image.  The out-of-work Flagg is drafted and shipped to Earth, where he is assigned to be the new deputy ranger at the Chicago Plexmall.

This is the first time Reuben experiences the dire situation of life on Earth.  Chicago and the rest of the New Midwest are plagued by “70% unemployment, constant intergang warfare, and malaise on an epic scale.”  The idealistic Flagg is appalled, even more so when the various jockeying factions of the region each attempt to inveigle him in their corrupt activities.

As Reuben explains to Mandy Kreiger at the end of the third issue…

“I grew up on Mars with a passionate, reckless love for this country… a devotion fed as much by history as by my parents’ homesickness… Wasn’t till I got here that I discovered the spacious skies were soot black, and the fruited plains were rotted through and through.

“But the damage is deeper than physical disrepair – much deeper. The American Spirit – the honest, openhanded driving force of solidarity – has been castrated. Betrayed by the banks… big business… by slimy fat cats who use patriotism like a tart uses cheap perfume… betrayed by the Plex.

“Someone’s got to stop the decline… Or try.”

Of course, reading this scene in 2018, it is also possible to perceive this as an example of a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man riding into town and telling everyone they had better listen to him because only he knows how to save the day.  Your mileage may vary.

American Flagg 3 pg 27

In the past Chaykin has said words to the effect that while he is not a nice person, he is a good person.  That is definitely how one could also describe his creation Reuben Flagg, as well.  Reuben has all manner of glaring flaws.  He is arrogant, impatient, short-tempered, sarcastic, a womanizer, and more than a bit self-righteous.  On the other hand, he is also governed by a clear set of morals, he is honest, he hates injustice, and he has a clear aversion to killing.  Reuben may not be nice, but he is basically good.

Chaykin draws this line between Reuben and many other members of the cast, who are nice, but not necessarily good.  C.K. Blitz, the mayor of Chicago, is certainly a nice guy.  He is very friendly and polite, and knows how to make friends.  He needs to be, to stay in office and do his job effectively.  But, like most politicians, he is motivated primarily by self-interest, wheeling & dealing in order to acquire more power, prestige, and wealth.  Blitz isn’t a bad person per se, but he’s always looking for the next angle that he can play for his personal gain.

John Scheiskopf and Ester de la Castro are even more striking examples.  Both of them can definitely be very nice.  Either of them will be your best friend ever… right up until the point when they no longer have a use for you, at which point they will literally knife you in the back.  Beneath their polite manners and warm smiles, both Scheiskopf and de la Castro are incredibly selfish, power-hungry, immoral individuals who will casually commit mass murder in the furtherance of their goals.

Chaykin is clearly pointing out the danger of superficiality, of falling for outward appearances, both in politics and business.  The slick, charming outward veneer often masks all number of sins and selfishness.  In contrast, an individual like Flagg may be obviously flawed, but in his case what you see is what you get, and he doesn’t hide who he is, good and bad.

Reuben is also Jewish.  Chaykin establishes this in an almost-offhand manner, and it is only referred to in passing from time to time.  It certainly is not a defining characteristic; Flagg is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish. Nevertheless, I believe that this made him one of the first ever Jewish characters to headline his own ongoing comic book series.

American Flagg 3 pg 5

Chaykin quickly sets up a large ensemble of supporting characters and adversaries within the first several issues of the series.  Among these is the lovely Amanda “Mandy” Kreiger, the headstrong daughter of Reuben’s boss, the ever-obnoxious Chief Ranger Hilton Kreiger.  Mandy is a whiz with electronics, as well as Reuben’s main romantic interest… although certainly not his only one.

Among the other ladies in Reuben’s life is Gretchen Holstrum, the middle-aged “hostess” of the local Love Canal franchise.  Gretchen immediately finds herself drawn to the young, handsome Reuben, much to Mandy’s disgust, exacerbating the already-existing tension between the two women.

As the story advances, we learn a great deal about both Mandy and Gretchen’s histories.  It is to Chaykin’s credit that he develops Gretchen into a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character, yet at the same time still gives Mandy legitimate reasons to dislike her.  In other words, you can see both women’s points of view, and recognize that it’s a difficult situation, with complex emotions at play on both sides.

Another wonderful member of the supporting cast is Raul the talking cat.  Yes, that’s right, a talking cat.  Raul is both a source of comic relief and a close confidante to Reuben.  At various times Raul plays the piano, drinks himself silly, and operates heavily-armed attack helicopters.  He’s definitely a favorite of mine.

Raul is such a very cat-like cat that I figured that Chaykin must have had at least one cat in real life.  This was confirmed by Chaykin’s friend and occasional collaborator Don Cameron, who explained:

“Fun fact: Raul was based on a cat Howard had named Cochise who used to “mumble” all the time.”

American Flagg 2 pg 1

It’s interesting to look at the place American Flagg! holds in Chaykin’s career.  In the prior decade Chaykin had produced a body of artwork of variable quality, ranging from good to lackluster.  Chaykin himself is dismissive of much of the material he drew during that decade, regarding it as sub-par.

In early 1980, after a disagreement with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Chaykin left the field of comic books entirely, and for the next three years painted cover artwork for paperback novels.  When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg!, Chaykin’s work had clearly taken a seismic leap forward.  The quality of Chaykin’s art for this series is astonishing. Chaykin himself refers to American Flagg! as “the first thing I did that was any good.”

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Chaykin’s work on American Flagg! is page 17 of the first issue.  Chaykin’s brilliant layouts work with Ken Bruzenak’s superb lettering to create a stunning narrative sequence that lays out the back-story of the series.

American Flagg 1 pg 17

Due to unforgiving deadlines and a crushing workload, Chaykin was unfortunately unable to draw the two epilogues to his first story arc.  Issue #13 is penciled by James Sherman, and #14 by Pat Broderick, with both inked by Rick Burchett.  All three artists do their best to emulate the tone, the storytelling modes utilized by Chaykin, but it isn’t quite the same.  It certainly serves as a very example of just how much of an impact the artist has on the look, the flow, the tone of the finished work in comic books.

American Flagg! was a very prescient work.  Chaykin looked at the United States in the early 1980s and clearly perceived exactly where the country would be going over the next three and a half decades.  The pervasive presence of mass media and its influence on the electoral process, the manipulation of government by private industry, the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and the factionalization of American society, the degradation of the environment… all of this is present.

Chaykin also foresaw the dangers posed by a heavily-armed paranoid conspiracy-peddling white supremacist alt-right movement based out of the American heartland, or as they call themselves here, the American Survivalist Labor Committee.  In issue #9, the A.S.L.C. stage a grandiose political rally which they broadcast to the region via the Fasfax Chicago network, and their charismatic leader boldly declares…

“We’re here to stop this country’s slide into oblivion… a crisis precipitated by the most malevolent criminal cartel known to man… the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy.”

There is even a subplot in the second half of the initial year-long story arc involving plans by the Soviet Union to manipulate the outcome of a Presidential election.  In 1983 that might have left readers going “What a crazy idea!” but in 2018 has most of us responding “Um, yeah, I can totally believe it.”

American Flagg 9 pg 27

Chaykin’s work on this series was also groundbreaking and influential.  It’s probable that a number of up-and-coming creators who read American Flagg! in the early 1980s were influenced by it, and soon after utilized the tropes and techniques in their work for DC and Marvel.  It’s unfortunate that all these years later American Flagg! is still under-recognized, whereas The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two books that could be regarded as its immediate successors, have both received widespread acclaim and multiple printings.

If you haven’t read American Flagg! before, I certainly recommend it.  In 2009 the first 14 issues were collected into two trade paperbacks by Image Comics which are still readily available.  It is one of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates the vast, often untapped, potential of the comic book medium.