Comic book reviews: Femforce #188 and Superbabes #2

I’ve written about Femforce, the comic book series published by AC Comics, a couple of times in the past. It’s a fun, entertaining series that doesn’t often get the attention it deserves, so I’m happy to put in a good word for Bill Black, Mark Heike and their various collaborators.  Now that AC is once again publishing Femforce in color for the first time since 1995, as well as having launched the spin-off title Superbabes, well, I couldn’t think of a better time to revisit the series.

Superbabes 2 coverFemforce features a team of female superheroes.  The series has been in continuous publication since 1985, a good 35 years.  The Femforce line-up is made up of a combination of heroines who were originally published in the Golden Age of Comics and newer characters developed by Bill Black.  Leading the team is the now-immortal Ms. Victory, aka Joan Wayne, a scientist who developed a serum for super-powers during World War II.  At her side is former socialite Laura Wright, who initially fought crime as the masked vigilante Blue Bulleteer, and who later was recruited by the extra-dimensional sorcerer Azagoth to be his disciple, becoming the sorceress Nightveil.

Among the other longtime Femforce members are the hot-headed She-Cat, who gained her powers from the malevolent cat deity Sekhmet, the alien scientist Stardust from the planet Rur, the ditsy Synn, a former hippy and go-go dancer who possesses incredible mental powers but whose intellect was damaged due to long-term drug use, and Tara, an ardent environmentalist who has the power to grow giant-sized.

The most recent releases from AC Comics featuring the characters are Superbabes #2 and Femforce #188.  I enjoyed both issues.  They have a tone to them that is very reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s superhero comic books from Marvel.

Superbabes #2 is written & drawn by Mark & Stephanie Heike, with letters by Alex De Luca, and a cover by Johannes Vick & the Heikes.  “Heads I Win, Tails You Ooze” sees Gorgana and Wampyr, two old foes of Femforce, escaping from the government-run Colorado Complex.  Femforce is called in to try to recapture their adversaries, who have fled to a nearby ski resort.  It’s a bit of a goofy story, but nevertheless fun.

Superbabes 2 pg 8

The main story in Femforce #188 is “Crimson Prologue.”  It is written by Bill Black, penciled by Eric Coile, and inked /colored / lettered by Black.  The focus falls on one of the team’s deadliest enemies, the evil sorceress Alizarin Crimson, who is planning out yet another attempt to destroy Femforce and conquer the Earth.  We learn that it was Alizarin who was responsible for the disappearance of Nightveil’s incredibly powerful Cloak of Darkness several years earlier.  Alazarin launches her first strike against Femforce and their allies, leading to a cliffhanger ending.

Femforce 188 coverThe back-up feature in #188 is the final chapter of a flashback story set during the 1980s featuring a team-up of Nightveil and the Sentinels of Justice.  It is written & drawn by Black.

There’s always been a lot of overlap between these two teams.  A few Femforce members also having been on the Sentinels roster, and several of the Sentinels are long-time supporting characters.  Although the Sentinels of Justice only had their own title for a short time in the mid 1980s, Black is obviously very fond of the characters.  It’s nice that he’s able to work on back-up stories featuring the team, keeping them in the spotlight.

One quality I really enjoy about the Femforce and Superbabes titles is that here is a whole lot of continuity and ongoing subplots.  Both the Heikes and Black frequently tie in current events to a lot of the older storylines from the past 35 years.  However, they always do this in such a way that there is ample exposition with which to bring readers up to speed.  Even though I don’t own copies of every single AC comic book ever published, I’ve never felt lost, because there is always enough information given when older events are alluded to.  Plus these books have footnotes!  I really miss having those in Marvel and DC’s comics.  They’re really helpful if you want to seek out the issues where those old stories took place because they tell you exactly which ones to seek out.

Considering that nearly all of the characters in Femforce and Superbabes are women, many of them revealing skimpy, skintight costumes, inevitably there is a fair amount of T&A.  For the most part I find this is tastefully done, at least compared to quite a few other comic books out there.  The characters are also drawn with somewhat more realistic anatomy and physiques than you often find in female-centric superhero comic books.Femforce 188 pg 1

I guess my only major quibble with Femforce is that the team line-up is very WASPy.  Nearly all of the characters are white.  I think a major factor in this is due to the fact that, as previously mentioned, these characters either originated back in the 1940s, or were developed by Bill Black beginning in the late 1970s.  Unfortunately back then there was much less of an interest in diversifying the casts of comic books.

That’s not to say that there have never been any non-white characters in Femforce.  One of the team’s members in stories set during World War II was Rita Farrar, aka Rio Rita, a Latina adventurer & secret agent.  In present day stories Rita’s granddaughter has worked with Femforce on a number of occasions.  The team’s longtime government liaison was General Roberta Strock, an African American woman.  And I’m sure there are a few other characters who I can’t recall offhand.

That said, in the future it would be nice to see a bit more diversity within the regular Femforce line-up.

Femforce 188 pg 19

One last note: I’m glad that Femforce is back in color for the first time in a quarter century.  I understand that the economics of a small company publishing in a difficult market necessitated this.  However, I often thought the blacks printed much too dark in the B & W artwork, and that there weren’t enough grey tones, at times making it a bit difficult to make out some of the details or the flow of action.  I hope that going forward the book sells well enough that it car remain in full color.

I encourage anyone who is a fan of Bronze Age comic books to give Femforce a try.  I think issue #188 is a really good jumping-on point.  If you can’t locate it at your local comic shop then check out the AC Comics website, where current issues, as well as a lot of older ones, are available for purchase.

It Came From the 1990s: NFL SuperPro #6

Tonight is Super Bowl LIV (that’s 54 for you non-Roman types) between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs… and I’m not watching.  Sorry, but football is not my thing. I’ve never been able to figure out the rules of the game, no matter how often I try to watch it.  Besides, I have always found the Super Bowl a real test of endurance, given that it’s a 60 minute game stretched out to four hours by innumerable commercial breaks and a typically-vapid halftime shop.

NFL Superpro JuskoAlso, I am soooo not a fan of the NFL, who have continually tried their hardest to push aside Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice & police brutality, but who are more than happy to make Michael Vick a Pro Bowl caption, in spite of his conviction for running a dog-fighting ring.  Add to that the whole dealing with pot-smokers more harshly than wife-beaters, and the attempts to sweep traumatic brain injuries under the rug, and I have little use for the NFL.  No wonder the rest of the world plays soccer instead!

And now that I have probably managed to get the entirety of football-loving America violently angry at me, let me welcome everyone to another installment of my occasional feature It Came From the 1990s.  This is where I take a look back at various odd, unusual or noteworthy comic books that were published during that decade.  Since today is Super Bowl Sunday, hey, I might as well cast my glance at NFL SuperPro #6.  Published by Marvel Comics, it inadvertently became one of the most controversial comic books of the 1990s.

What was NFL SuperPro about?  I’m a bit lazy, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

“NFL SuperPro was a short-lived comic book series published by Marvel Comics, centered on Phil Grayfield, an ex National Football League (NFL) player who survives a freak accident and wears a near-indestructible football uniform. Produced in collaboration with the NFL and written by Fabian Nicieza and artist Jose Delbo, the series started publication in 1991 and ended after 12 issues.”

The character made his debut in the NFL SuperPro Super Bowl Edition special released by Marvel in January 1991.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this book is the painted cover by the incredible Joe Jusko.  I supposed it’s a toss-up over which was a career highlight for Jusko, painting this cover or the one he did for the Nightcat special.

(Okay, in all seriousness, this is a good reminder that when you are a freelance artist, even one as acclaimed as Jusko, you sometimes need to take on assignment that are a bit, um, unusual, because at the end of the day it’s money in the bank.  Ditto for everyone else who worked on NFL SuperPro, and who were just trying to pay their bills.)NFL SuperPro 6 cover

Several months after the Super Bowl Edition an ongoing NFL SuperPro series was launched which, as indicated above, lasted for a year.  And that brings us to issue #6, cover-dated March 1992.

“The Kachinas Sing of Doom” was written by Buzz Dixon, penciled by Jose Delbo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Evelyn Stein.  The cover was penciled by Rob Tokar & Ron Frenz, with inks by the legendary Joe Sinnott.

Phil Grayfield, in his role as a sports journalist, is doing a story about ice skating champion Laura Eagle when she is attacked by a trio costumed as Hopi kachina figures.  The kachninas, who are armed with such ridiculous weapons as nunchucks and a chainsaw, are ostensibly after Laura because she has turned her back on the Hopi to become an athlete in the “white man’s world.”  However, in a twist straight out of Scooby Doo, the kachinas are actually a group of non-Indians in the employ of corrupt businessman Tyler Gaunt.  Gaunt has his thugs dress up as kachinas in an attempt to discredit a group of Hopi political activists led by Laura’s sister who are opposed to Gaunt opening a casino on their tribal lands.

When this issue was published the real-world Hopi tribe was reportedly very unhappy, and found it offensive.  This almost certainly had to do with the villains dressing as kachinas, which are important figures in the Hopi’s faith.  Even though in this story the kachinas were unmasked as Caucasian villains, it seems likely that, given how frequently Native Americans have been poorly depicted in American popular culture over the decades, the Hopi were just annoyed at elements of their culture & faith being appropriated.  Or perhaps they didn’t like the idea of Laura having traumatic childhood memories of the kachina ceremonies.

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 2

As per both the Recalled Comics website and Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed on Comic Book Resources, Marvel responded to the Hopi’s complaints by pulling the comic from sale.  However, by the time they made the decision the next issue had already shipped to stores, rendering the whole thing a bit meaningless.

The thing I find most surprising about all this was that, if the numbers in the news item seen on Recalled Comics are accurate, NLF SuperPro #6 had a print run of over 70,000 copies.  That’s just insane!  Last year there were issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Batman that sold less copies than that.  Really goes to show just how insanely inflated comic book sales had become in the early 1990s.

By the way, one of the aspects of NFL SuperPro that was often derided by readers was that Phil Grayfield was, to quote Buzz Dixon, “certainly not the sharpest crayon in the box.”  That can certainly be witnessed in this scene from issue #6…

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 13

*Shakes head sadly* Oh, Phil, what are we going to do with you… well, other than bring your comic book to a merciful end in another six issues?

At one point The Chicago Sports Review described NFL SuperPro as “perhaps the worst comic book ever created,” although I don’t think it’s nearly as deserving of such hyperbolic vitriol as some other comics which were more risible or embarrassing.  All these years later I think most comic book fans look back upon it with a shrug of bemusement.

Still, if you were to choose one image to perfectly sum up NFL SuperPro, well, this panel from issue #10 certainly does the trick…

NFL SuperPro head thump

Believe me, Phil, we’re all asking exactly the same thing!

It Came From the 1990s: Force Works #1-3

Welcome to another edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time I and my fellow SBTU participants will be looking at comic book “gimmick covers” from the 1990s.

The first gimmick cover was the silver foil cover featured on Silver Surfer #50, released by Marvel Comics with a June 1991 cover date.  It instantly sold out (14 year old me drove my parents nuts trying to find a copy) and was very quickly followed just a month later by Ghost Rider #15 with its glow-in-the-dark cover.  That issue also sold like hotcakes, and the age of the gimmick cover was upon us.  In the longstanding spirit of American capitalism jumping on a trend and riding it right into the ground, comic book publishers were very soon churning out gimmick covers an insane rate, until we were all very sick of them.

That brings us to the comic I’m spotlighting: Force Works, which debuted in mid-1994.  The first three issues were written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, penciled by Tom Tenney, inked by Rey Garcia, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Joe Rosas.

Force Works 1 cover

I really think this was moment when gimmick covers demonstrably jumped the shark, when the gimmick became so utterly ridiculous & impractical that you were just left shaking you head in bemusement.

What was the particular gimmick cover that Force Works #1 featured?  Why, it was none other than a pop-up cover!  That’s right, when you pulled the flap on the front cover up and back, it unfolded into a three dimensional display of the Force Works team fighting an army of alien Kree soldiers.

Here are some photos I took of my own copy, which demonstrates the cover in action…

FW1coverA

FW1coverB

FW1coverC

The major problem with the Force Works pop-up cover was that it could be really difficult to get the darn thing to fold back closed.  When you lowered the flap back down, that central pop-up of Wonder Man, fist raised in the air, struggling against the Kree, had a tendency to get tangled up in the other pop-up pieces, resulting in the thing being stuck halfway open as seen in the photo below.  Any efforts to straighten it out would have to be done very carefully, otherwise the whole thing might just get torn in half.

FW1coverD

HELP!!! HOW DO YOU GET THIS DAMN THING CLOSED?!?

So, ludicrous cover gimmick aside, what the heck was Force Works about anyway?  Spun out from the recently-cancelled Avengers West Coast series, Force Works was an effort by Marvel Comics to replicate the edgy popularity of the bestselling X-Men spin-off X-Force devised by Rob Liefeld in 1991 and apply it to some of the Avengers characters.  It’s fairly obvious that Force Works was also an attempt to capture the tone (and readers) of the various other red-hot paramilitary superhero series that Liefeld and the other Image Comics founders subsequently created in the early 1990s such as Youngblood and Brigade.

This scene from the first issue of Force Works sums up the series’ mission statement, with Iron Man pitching the concept to his fellow ex-Avengers:

“The universe has become profoundly more dangerous since the Avengers were first assembled. These days the Earth plays a far more active role in matters of galactic importance.

“The stakes are far higher, far more often.

“I believe that it is the duty of Earth’s Mightiest to use their powers proactively, to protect this planet’s interests… and, if necessary, pursue an aggressive policy of defense and security.”

Force Works 1 pg 6

Ah, yes, the “proactive” super hero team… It’s an idea that sounds good in concept, but seldom works well in execution, at least not at either Marvel or DC Comics, with their shared universes and their ongoing serialized narratives that rely on the illusion of change to maintain a basic status quo.

For example, you cannot have the Avengers becoming proactive, invading Latveria, overthrowing Doctor Doom, and locking him up in a maximum security cell for life, because he’s just too darn popular a villain, and in six months another writer or editor is going to want to use him in their book.

Additionally, the more “proactive” or “aggressive” superheroes become, the closer they end up veering into fascist territory.  I’ve touched upon this before, but this is an unfortunate result of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen being hugely successful, and comic books publisher then trying to apply the whole “grim & gritty” ethos to mainstream superheroes throughout the 1990s.  Yeah, Rorschach was a proactive, take-no-prisoners vigilante, but if you actually read the damn book it’s clear that Moore & Gibbons were showing us that he’s also a horrifying, insane monster.  But too many readers missed (or flat-out ignored) the subtext and just thought Rorschach was cool.  The publishers noticed that reaction and quickly jumped on that train.  Remember what I said before about taking a popular trend and running it completely into the ground?

Whatever the case, even though Iron Man intends for Force Works to be a “proactive, aggressive” team, it speaks volumes that their very first adventure is totally reactive, with first the Kree, and then the insect-like Scatter, attacking the Earth, instantly forcing the heroes into a defensive position.

Force Works 2 pg 22

Another reason why Force Works #1 was derided by many readers, besides that gimmick cover, was that it pointlessly killed off longtime Avengers member Wonder Man.  And this was just a few months after Mockingbird, another well-liked Avenger, had been pointlessly killed off in West Coast Avengers #100, once again for no other reason than to have a shocking, dramatic event.  Those two deaths back-to-back really felt like a slap in the face to Avengers fans.

Wonder Man and Mockingbird did both eventually return from the dead.  So, yeah, by the 1990s we were already at the point where death in superhero comics had become a predictable revolving door, and no one honestly expected anybody to stay deceased permanently.

The first issue of Force Works also introduced the brand new character of Century.  In a lot of respects Century just totally screams Nineties.  He has a cool-sounding name that doesn’t actually tell you anything about who he is or what he does, he has a ridiculously over-detailed costume design, he uses a freaking axe called Parallax that allows him to teleport by cutting through the fabric of space, and he has an ultra-mysterious past that even he isn’t sure about because he’s suffering from amnesia.  Oh, yes, he also had an odd speech pattern.  Century is a walking, talking thesaurus, as seen in these various examples from just the first three issues…

Force Works Century

Honestly, Century should be incredibly annoying, because on the surface he seems to epitomize everything that was awful about comic book characters introduced in the 1990s.  But the thing is, I think he’s actually really cool and interesting, both visually and character-wise.  It’s probably because DnA don’t write Century as some sort of kewl badass, but rather as a stranger in a strange land, a lost alien who exudes a genuine vulnerability.

It also helps considerably that DnA had apparently decided right from the get-go exactly what Century’s past was supposed to be, and they wrapped up the mystery of his origins only a year and a half later, rather than frustrating readers by  leaving it as a long-dangling subplot.

Looking over the run of Force Works again last week, with the storylines involving Century, the Kree, the Scatter and other characters, I can actually perceive hints of the sort of really good “cosmic” and space opera storytelling that DnA would be doing only a dozen years later with the epic Annihilation event and the super-successful revival of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Force Works 2 pg 10

It’s definitely worth noting that unlike a lot of up-and-coming young artists who were thrown onto comic books in the early 1990s with a remit to capture the tone of the Image Comics founders, Tom Tenney does a credible job penciling these issues.  His work here is solid, showing quite a bit of potential.

Tenney’s career in comics was relatively brief.  Subsequently he worked for a number of years in the music industry, which was another of his passions. In the last few years he’s returned to comics, once again creating interesting work, which can be seen on Facebook.  He’s listed as contributing a variant cover to the second issue of the upcoming Force Works 2020 miniseries.  That’s right, Marvel is bringing Force Works back.

Another point in favor of Force Works is inker Rey Garcia.  I really enjoyed the work done on the series by the Filipino-born artist.  Like many of his fellow countrymen who previously worked in comic books, Garcia had a very lush, illustrative style.

When considering Garcia’s work on Force Works, it must be pointed out that the series had an insanely high turnover rate for pencilers.  Tom Tenney regrettably only drew the first four issues, and after that it was a revolving door.  During Force Works’ 22 issue run there were literally a dozen pencilers who worked on it… at least, I think the total was 12, but I might have missed one or two.  Whatever the case, Garcia inked nearly every issue of Force Works, which helped keep the look of the series somewhat consistent through all of those changes.

Force Works 3 cover

So there you have it, Force Works #1, one of the more ridiculous mainstream comic books to come out during the 1990s.  Nevertheless, when all is said & done, I remain fond of some aspects of the series.  All these years later I still like the character Century.  Also, I appreciate how Abnett & Lanning worked to make the Scarlet Witch into a stronger, more assertive character by having her lead the team, and show her standing up to Tony Stark who, let’s face it, can definitely be a control freak.  I still regard both Tom Tenney and Rey Garcia as talented, underrated artists.  I also think this series was a bit of a harbinger to DnA’s later, better work.

Still, though, I certainly don’t lament the lack of subsequent fold-out comic book covers.  That was just too much!

SBTU Chromium

Here are the rest of the Super Blog Team-Up: Chromium participants.  Please check them out. Thanks! (I will be adding links as they become active.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths: Adventures of Superman #500 (White Bag/Lenticular Cover/etc.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths (Podcast): Episode 33: Team Titans #1 (1992) Five Variant Covers… and five variant stories!

 

Comic Reviews by Walt:  The ’90s Revisited: Shiny Covers

 

Source Material: Spider-Man Torment (issues 1-5) by Todd McFarlane

 

Super-Hero Satellite: 70s-80s Photo Covers: A snapshot of pre 90s era of gimmicks, the evolution of a trend through the years

 

ComicsComicsComics: Daredevil 319-325 Fall from Grace Gimmick covers and a new costume

 

The Telltale Mind: Worlds Collide – The Intercompany Crossover

 

Between The Pages: Guerilla Marketing

 

DC In The 80s – Justin and Mark’s 5 Most Memorable DC “Gimmick” Covers

 

Comics In The Golden Age (Mike) – Fawcett’s Mighty Midget comics

 

Unspoken Issues – Darkhawk #25

 

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog Connected Covers gimmicks – New Teen Titans 37/Batman and the Outsiders 5

 

When It Was Cool: The Blight of the Pollybagged Comic Book

 

Pop Culture Retrorama: Glow In The Dark Covers

 

Black & White and Bronze Comics Blog – Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1968: Stan Lee’s foray into the magazine format

2020 Visions: Machine Man and Iron Man

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion, today I am taking a quick look at the comic book adventures of Machine Man and Iron Man in the distant, far-off future year of, um, uh, 2020 AD… Okay, yeah, I can’t believe it’s 2020 already, either!

Machine Man mini 2 pg 22

Machine Man was created by none other than the legendary Jack Kirby himself, debuting in, of all places, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series, which had been inspired by the film / novel by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  First known as Mister Machine, aka X-51, he appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey #s 8-10 published in mid 1977.

Mister Machine was a robot who gained sentience, with one of the mysterious alien Monoliths from the movie playing a role in his evolution towards becoming almost human.  Following the cancellation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book, the character, renamed Machine Man, received his own ongoing series in early 1978.  Kirby wrote & penciled Machine Man for nine issues, with Mike Royer providing inks.

Machine Man mini 1 cover smallBy late 1978 Kirby had become disenchanted with mainstream comic books, and he left Marvel Comics to go into the animation field.  The storyline begun by Kirby in Machine Man was concluded by writer Roger Stern and penciler Sal Buscema a few months later in Incredible Hulk #s 234-237.  This was followed by a revival of the Machine Man ongoing series, picking up from the original numbering, with another Silver Age legend, Stave Ditko, as the artist.  Issue #s 10-14 were written by Marv Wolfman, with Tom DeFalco then writing #s 15-19.

In the early 1980s Machine Man made the occasional guest appearance here and there.  He was once again given the spotlight in 1984 with the Machine Man four issue limited series, set three and a half decades in the future, in the year 2020.  Tom DeFalco returned to wrote X-51’s future adventures.  The first three issues had pencils / breakdowns by Herb Trimpe, with finished art & colors by Barry Windsor-Smith, an unusual pairing that nevertheless worked very well.  BWS took over the full art chores for Machine Man #4, also co-plotting that final issue.  Michael, Higgins, Diana Albers, Janice Chiang and Jim Novak lettered an issue apiece, and the whole thing was edited by Larry Hama.

DeFalco’s story is set in a dark industrialized dystopia where corrupt corporations have seized political power (so, yeah, not too different from our actual real-world 2020, amiright?) and bands of anarchist scavengers hope to find a free, independent existence under the radar.  One of these groups of Midnight Wreckers, searching through a dumping ground belonging to Baintronics Inc, discovers a box containing the dismantled Machine Man.  Evading the Baintronics security forces, the Wreckers return to their base and re-assemble Machine Man.

Machine Man mini 1 pg 12

Baintronics is run by Sunset Bain, an industrialist & socialite who moonlighted as the masked arms dealer Madame Menace, clashing with Machine Man on more than one occasion back in the day.  Now in 2020 she is allied with Miles Brinkman, a former US Senator who is another old foe of X-51.  Brinkman had previously waged a McCarthy-esque campaign of fear-mongering against Machine Man, hoping to ride a wave of robotphobia to greater political power.

DeFalco has an interesting approach to the future incarnations of Bain and Brinkman.  At this point they have basically won, having amassed tremendous political & financial power, yet they are seemingly unable to enjoy their spoils, having grown old & tired, reduced to worn-out shadows of their former selves.  And once they learn that Machine Man has been reactivated they are consumed by uncontrollable paranoia that this former adversary will seek to destroy them.  The pair are defeated as much by their own failings as they are by Machine Man and the Midnight Wreckers.

Machine Man mini 3 pg 12

DeFalco shows that Machine Man is actually more human than either Sunset Bain or Miles Brinkman, who in their fear and panic project upon him their own ugly motivations of hatred and vengeance.  Machine Man, as well as his onetime love, the silver robot Jocasta (rebuilt by Bain to be her aide, but ultimately serving as her conscience), are more capable of feeling compassion and expressing forgiveness than their human foes.

The miniseries introduced Arno Stark, descendant of Tony Stark, the Iron Man of the year 2020.  Arno is an amoral mercenary, and he is more than happy to accept an assignment from Sunset Bain to hunt down & destroy Machine Man.  Iron Man clashes twice with Machine Man, and in both encounters he is defeated by his robot opponent.

Machine Man mini 4 pg 11

This leads into the events of the Iron Man 2020 special, which was published a decade later, in 1994.  It was co-plotted, by Bob Wiacek & Walter Simonson, scripted by Simonson, penciled & inked by Wiacek, with Will Rosado penciling the second half of the book over Wiacek’s layouts.  This was one of the all-too-infrequent penciling jobs by Wiacek, who is best known for his work as an inker / embellisher.  Rosado, who was early in his comic book career, also did good work here. The special was lettered by John Costanza and colored by Christie Scheele.Iron Man 2020 cover small

As a tie-in, Marvel re-issued the Machine Man miniseries as a two double-sized issues.  That was certainly helpful to me, as I hadn’t been reading comics regularly in 1984, and so missed the original release.

The Iron Man 2020 special opens very soon after the events of the miniseries.  Much like Bain and Brinkman before him, Arno Stark is a haunted man: haunted by his defeat at Machine Man’s hands, haunted by the burden of keeping the financially weakened Stark Enterprises afloat, and haunted by the seeming impossibility of living up to the legend of his ancestor, Tony Stark, the original Iron Man.  As the old saying goes, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.

Desperate to save his company, Arno accepts an offer from Marcus Wellington, one of his biggest competitors.  Arno is hired to rescue Wellington’s daughter Melodi, who has been kidnapped by terrorists and is being held for ransom.  Arno dons his Iron Man suit and sets course for the terrorists’ island stronghold.  Of course, as is often the case with corporate machinations, the situation is much more complicated than it initially appears, and Arno soon finds himself in the middle of more than one double cross.

The end result of these events are that they push Arno Stark towards, well, not necessary becoming a hero, by any means, but at least to start walking a slightly less avaricious, brutal path.

Iron Man 2020 pg 35

Hey, everyone loves a good redemption story.  Certainly Wiacek & Simonson make this one more believable than most by showing that it’s only just the beginning of Arno Stark’s path away from villainy.

I’ve met Bob Wiacek on a few occasions at comic book conventions.  A decade ago at a February 2010 show he did a drawing of Iron Man 2020 in my villains sketchbook.  It is a distinctive costume, a sort of retro future look, almost steampunk with those big gears, and he renders it well.

Iron Man 2020 by Bob Wiacek

I didn’t want to get into too many specific details about either the Machine Man miniseries or the Iron Man 2020 special, because I think they are both worth tracking down and reading.  Marvel published an Iron Man 2020 trade paperback in 2013 collecting both, along with several other stories.

Also, for those interested in Machine Man’s various Bronze Age incarnations (the original Kirby stories, the Ditko-drawn revival, and the 1984 miniseries) I recommend checking out Back Issue #25 from TwoMorrows Publishing.  “Call Me Mister… Mister Machine!” written by Allan Harvey is offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info concerning Machine Man’s adventures in the 1970s and 80s.

And of course, since it’s now 2020 in the real world, Marvel Comics is bringing back Arno Stark.  It seems that Tony Stark is going to die (what, again?!?) and Arno, who in “mainstream” Marvel continuity is Tony’s long lost twin brother (yes really!), will become the new Iron Man… at least until the inevitable resurrection.  Still, with writing by Dan Slott & Christos Gage, it sounds like it could be a fun ride.

Once again, happy new year to all of you.  Let’s hope 2020 is a good one. Or, as the Midnight Wreckers might have put it, “YAH-ZOO!”

Tom Lyle: 1953 to 2019

I was very sorry to hear that longtime comic book artist Tom Lyle passed away earlier this month.

As with a number of other comic book artists who got their start in the 1980s, Lyle’s earliest work was published by Bill Black at AC Comics.  In late 1986, following a meeting with Chuck Dixon at a Philadelphia convention, Lyle began working for Eclipse Comics.  He penciled back-up stories in Airboy featuring the Skywolf character, followed by a three issue Skywolf miniseries, and a few other related books for Eclipse.Airboy 13 Skywolf pg 6

I personally didn’t have an opportunity to see this work until 2014, when IDW began releasing the Airboy Archives trade paperbacks.  Looking at those Skywolf stories, I was impressed by how solid & accomplished Lyle’s work was that early in his career, both in terms of his storytelling and his attention to detail.  In regards to the later, a good example of this is seen in the above page from Airboy #13 (Jan 1987).  Lyle and inker Romeo Tanghal do great work rendering both the airplane and the Himalayan Mountains.

The Skywolf back-ups and miniseries were all written by regular Airboy writer Chuck Dixon, who Lyle would collaborate with again in the future.Starman 1 cover 1988 small

In late 1988 Lyle, working with writer Roger Stern and inker Bob Smith, introduced a new Starman, Will Payton, to the DC Comics universe.  Although not a huge hit, Starman was nevertheless well-received by readers, and the title ran for 45 issues, with Lyle penciling the first two years of the run.  Starting with issue #15 Lyle was paired up with inker Scott Hanna.  The two of them made a very effective art team, and they would work together on several more occasions over the years.

Lyle then worked on a couple of jobs for Marvel.  He penciled an eight page Captain America story in Marvel Comics Presents #60 written by John Figueroa and inked by Roy Richardson.  This was followed by a three part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Present #77-79 featuring the usual teaming up of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos with Dracula.  Written by Doug Murray and inked by Josef Rubinstein, the serial saw the Howlers having to work with the lord of the vampires against the Nazis.

In 1990 Lyle worked on the five issue Robin miniseries for DC Comics, featuring Tim Drake’s first solo story.  The miniseries reunited Lyle with Chuck Dixon and Bob Smith.  It was a huge hit, gaining Lyle a great deal of attention & acclaim.  Within the story Dixon & Lyle introduced the villains King Snake and Lynx, both of whom would become recurring foes in the Batman rogues gallery.  Also around this time Lyle drew the covers for an eight issue Justice Society of America miniseries.Comet 3 pg 2Lyle’s next project was for Impact Comics (or, if you prefer, !mpact Comics) a DC Comics imprint featuring revamped versions of Archie Comics’ oddball line of superheroes.  Lyle was the artist & plotter of The Comet, an interesting reimagining of the character.  Scripting The Comet was Mark Waid.  Beginning with the second issue Scott Hanna came on as the inker / finisher.JSA 6 cover 1991 small

I was 15 years old when the Impact line started, and I really enjoyed most of the books.  The Comet was definitely a really good, intriguing series.  Lyle & Hanna once again made a great art team.  Regrettably, despite apparently having some long-term plans for the series, Lyle left The Comet after issue #8.  It fell to Waid, now the full writer, to bring the series to a close when the Impact books were unfortunately cancelled a year later.

Lyle’s departure from The Comet was probably due to his increasing workload on the Batman group of titles.  During this time he penciled “Shadow Box,” a three part follow-up to the Robin miniseries that ran in Batman #467-469.  After that he was busy on the high-profile four issue miniseries Robin II: The Joker’s Wild.  As the title implies, this miniseries saw Tim Drake’s long-awaited first encounter with Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime, the villain who had murdered the previous Boy Wonder.

Following on from this, the team of Dixon, Lyle & Hanna worked on Detective Comics #645-649.  One of the highlights of this short run was the introduction of Stephanie Brown aka The Spoiler.  Stephanie would go on to become a long-running, popular supporting character in the Bat-books, eventually becoming a new Batgirl.Robin 1 pg 1After completing a third Robin miniseries, Lyle moved over to Marvel Comics, where he immediately established himself on the Spider-Man titles.  He penciled the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #27, once again working with Scott Hanna.  Written by Jack C. Harris, another former DC mainstay, the annual introduced the new hero Annex.

Batman 468 cover smallThis was followed by Lyle & Hanna drawing Spider-Man #35-37, which were part of the mega-crossover “Maximum Carnage.”  Lyle also penciled the Venom: Funeral Pyre miniseries, and drew a few covers for the Spider-Man Classic series that was reprinting the original Lee & Ditko stories.

The adjective-less Spider-Man series had initially been conceived as a vehicle for which the super-popular Todd McFarlane could both write and draw his own Spider-Man stories.  However he had then left the series with issue #16 to co-found Image Comics, and for the next two years the title served as something of anthology, with various guest creative teams.  Finally, beginning with issue #44, Lyle & Hanna became the regular art team on Spider-Man, with writer Howard Mackie joining them.

Truth to tell, this was actually the point at which I basically lost interest in the Spider-Man books.  The padded-out “Maximum Carnage” event, followed soon after by the meandering “Clone Saga,” caused me to drop all of the Spider-Man series from my comic shop pull list.  Nevertheless, I would on occasion pick up the odd issue here & there, and I did enjoy Lyle’s work on the character. He also did a good job depicting the villainous Hobgoblin and his supernatural counterpart the Demogoblin.

Spider-Man 48 pg 11Despite my own feelings about “The Clone Saga,” I know it has its fans.  Lyle definitely played a key part in that storyline.  When Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly returned he assumed the identity of the Scarlet Spider.  It was Lyle who designed the Scarlet Spider’s costume.  I know some people thought a Spider-Man type character wearing a hoodie was ridiculous but, as I said before, the Scarlet Spider has his fans, and the costume designed by Lyle was certainly a part of that.Spider-Man 53 cover small

Lyle remained on Spider-Man through issue #61.  He then jumped over to the new Punisher series that was written by John Ostrander.  Unfortunately by this point the character had become majorly overexposed, and there was a definite “Punisher fatigue” in fandom.  Ostrander attempted to take the character in new, different directions, first having him try to destroy organized crime from within, and then having him work with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight terrorists, but the series was cancelled with issue #18.  Nevertheless I enjoyed it, and I think Lyle, paired with inker Robert Jones, did some really good work drawing it.

Lyle next wrote & penciled a four issue Warlock miniseries for Marvel in 1998, which was again inked by Jones.  After that Lyle & Jones worked on several issues of the ongoing Star Wars comic book for Dark Horse.  He also worked on several issues of Mutant X for Marvel.

Unfortunately in the early 2000s Lyle began having trouble finding work in comics. Honestly, this is one of the most exasperating things about the industry.  Here was an artist who for over a decade did good work on some of the most popular characters at both DC and Marvel, and then suddenly he finds himself not receiving any assignments.  It’s a story we’ve regrettably heard variations of over and over again.  It’s a genuine shame that freelancers who time and again were there for publishers do not find that loyalty rewarded.

Punisher 15 cover 1997 smallFortunately for Lyle he was able to successfully transition into another career.  He began teaching sequential illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005, a position he remained at for the next decade and a half.

Tragically in September of this year Lyle suffered a brain aneurysm.  After undergoing surgery he was placed in a medically induced coma.  Unfortunately he never recovered, and he passed away on November 19th.  He was 66 years old.

The sad fact is that health care in this country has become more and more unaffordable for most people.  After her husband passed away Sue Lyle was left with astronomical medical bills.  Tom’s brother-in-law set up a Go Fund Me to help Sue.  I hope that anyone who reads this who is in a position to help out will contribute.

Lyle was a longtime friend of June Brigman & Roy Richardson, who also got into the comic book biz around the same time. After Lyle passed away, Brigman shared a few memories of him on Facebook:

“Roy and I were friends with Tom and his wife Sue for, oh…about thirty years. Tom and I followed a similar path, working for Marvel and DC, then SCAD, Tom in Savannah, me in Atlanta. It was Tom who encouraged me to go for a teaching position at SCAD, an experience that I’m very grateful for. And it was Tom’s example that made me, at the ripe ol’ age of 59, finally finish my MFA in illustration. I like to think that we helped give Tom a start in comics. But really, all we did was give him a place to stay when he first visited Marvel and DC. He went on to become a rock star of the comics industry. And while yes, he definitely left his mark on the world of comics, I think his real legacy is his students. They were all so fortunate to have Professor Lyle. Not everyone who can do, can teach. Everything Tom taught came from his experience. He was a master of perspective, he had impeccable draftsmanship, and boy, could he tell a story. And, most importantly, he loved teaching, and truly cared about his students.”

I only met Tom Lyle once, briefly, and a comic book convention in the early 1990s.  Several years later I corresponded with him via e-mail.  At the time I purchased several pages of original comic book artwork from him.  Tom was easy to deal with, and his prices were very reasonable.  Regrettably over the years I’ve had to sell off all of those pages to pay bills, but it was nice having them in my collection for a while.

Tom Lyle was definitely a very talented artist.  Everyone who knew him spoke very highly of him as a person.  He will certainly be missed.

Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

This year Marvel Comics is celebrating their 80th anniversary with the release of Marvel Comics #1000 and a number of specials reuniting older creative teams.  The occasion prompted me to take a look back at 1986 in general, and at Fantastic Four #296 in particular, when Marvel celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Fantastic Four 296 cover

I’m sure at least a few people are wondering “How in the name of Irving Forbush could Marvel have celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1986 and then only 33 years later be celebrating their 80th?!?”

The fact is Marvel Comics actually has two anniversaries.  The first is for late August 1939 when Timely Comics, the company that would one day be known as Marvel, released their very first comic book, Marvel Comics #1 (with an October cover date).  The second is for early August 1961 when the first issue of Fantastic Four was published (with a November cover date) ushering in what is now known as the “Marvel era” or the “modern Marvel universe” that has been in continuous publication to the present day.

Marvel Comics 1 cover 1939 smallThis, of course, is very convenient for Marvel Comics, as it gives them not one but two historic anniversaries to celebrate every few years with high-profile specials and reprints, as well as the accompanying publicity.

In any case, back in 1986 it was the 25th anniversary of the debut of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Marvel made a fairly big deal of it, with Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition offering in-depth explorations of the characters’ histories (in the days before trade paperbacks and the internet both of these titles were invaluable resources to young fans such as myself).  Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter also launched the New Universe with much fanfare, but due to various behind-the-scenes events that line ultimately did not last long.

Another part of the celebration was that all of Marvel’s comics released in August 1986 featured cover portraits of their lead characters, surrounded by a border of character illustrations, the latter of which were drawn by longtime Marvel artist John Romita.  A gallery of these covers can be viewed on Sean Kleefeld’s blog.

This finally brings us to the main subject of this post, namely Fantastic Four #296, the big 25th anniversary issue commemorating the birth of the Marvel era. This 64 page story was plotted by Jim Shooter, scripted by Stan Lee, lettered by John Workman, colored by Glynis Oliver, and edited by Mike Carlin.  It was drawn by a very impressive roster of artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta, Ron Frenz, Bob Wiacek, Al Milgrom, Klaus Janson, John Buscema, Steve Leialoha, Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott.Fantastic Four 1 cover small

The set-up for “Homecoming” is a bit on the convoluted side.  A couple of years earlier, during the lengthy run by John Byrne that immediately preceded it, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been written out of the book, and She-Hulk had come onboard the fill his spot.  In recent issues the Thing had been lurking at the periphery, as Byrne was setting the stage for him to finally return to the team in their 25th anniversary story.  But then Byrne abruptly departed Marvel, going over to DC Comics to do a high-profile reboot of Superman.  This left Shooter and Lee sort of scrambling to pick up the pieces, to tell a story that makes sense with what Byrne had recently been doing.

As FF #296 opens, the Thing is despondent.  His ex-girlfriend Alicia Masters is now dating Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  The Thing, who resembles a large pile of orange rocks, feels more disconnected from humanity than ever.  After brooding in the rain at the site where Reed Richards’ rocket ship crashed years before, and the team all first gained their powers, Ben decides to exile himself to Monster Isle, home to the FF’s very first foe, the Mole Man, who himself has been ostracized by humanity.

Days later the rest of the team learn from pilot Hopper Hertnecky where their friend & teammate has gotten off to.  Hopper reiterates to them the Thing’s longtime frustration that while Reed, Sue and Johnny all gained amazing powers from the cosmic rays that bombarded their spaceflight, Ben was horrifically mutated.  Reed once again begins to beat himself up over his role in his best friend Ben becoming a monster.  However this time Sue bluntly states that this time Ben is unfairly taking out his frustrations on Reed, that whatever Reed did or did not do, he has attempted on numerous occasions over the years to help Ben, to find a permanent cure for him.

Motivated by Sue’s words, Reed decides he needs to see Ben one last time, to settle their argument once and for all.  Sue and Johnny insist on accompanying him.  She-Hulk and Wyatt Wingfoot, however, choose to remain behind, realizing that this is a family matter, and as close to the team as both of them are, they haven’t been there since the very beginning.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9

Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch journey to Monster Isle.  They are quickly attacked by the Mole Man’s army of strange monsters.  They are brought before the Thing, who has taken to dressing like the Mole Man.  Ben tells the others they shouldn’t have come, this is his home now.  He tells them that he is going to help the Mole Man create a safe haven for outcasts of society.

Ben is convinced of the Mole Man’s altruism, but he begins to experience doubts when Alicia unexpectedly arrives.  The blind woman coerced Hopper into flying her to Monster Isle, so that she can make her peace with Ben.  Learning that Alicia has broken up with Ben, and that Ben has been showing the rest of the team around the subterranean domain, the Mole Man’s bitterness & paranoia inflame.  He has his servants kidnap & disfigure the Human Torch as punishment for Johnny “stealing” Alicia from Ben.

As upset as Ben is about Alicia being with Johnny, this nevertheless shocks & disturbs the Thing’s confidence in the Mole Man.  Ben’s faith is further shaken when Reed explains that the earth-moving device the Mole Man intends to use to create an island refuge for humanity’s freaks & outsiders will cause devastating damage to the mainland.

At long last Ben realizes that no matter how noble Mole Man’s motives might be, he is nevertheless a disturbed, dangerous fanatic.  The Thing joins with the others to wreck the Mole Man’s machines, and to restore Johnny to normal.  As the subterranean headquarters beneath Monster Isle crumble, they make a break for it.  The issue ends as they are rescued by Hopper in a rubber raft.  A grumbling Ben reluctantly admits that his place is with the team, and at long last the Fantastic Four are reunited.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 19

Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

The plot by Jim Shooter is a solid one, in that it achieves two primary goals: It commemorates the anniversary & history of the Fantastic Four, and it gets the original line-up back together for the first time in two and a half years.  Perhaps it’s not the best FF issue I’ve ever read, or the most imaginative, but it’s entertaining.

The script by Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee is also good.  In later decades Lee sometimes became almost a parody of himself, with his whole “Face front, true believers!” bombastic, tongue-in-cheek style of prose and promotion.  Some of that is certainly on display here.  However, as the editor and the main writer / scripter at Marvel throughout the 1960s, Lee was largely responsible for giving most of the company’s characters their distinctive voices & personalities. Looking at this story it is apparent that he had remained capable of poignant, dramatic writing, especially if paired up with a talented artist / collaborator.  Lee’s opening narration and dialogue for FF #296 is very effective and combined with the art by Barry Windsor-Smith results in a genuinely moody, atmospheric scene.

Speaking of the artists, there are some distinctive choices on display in FF #296.  The aforementioned work by Windsor-Smith immediately set the tone.  On several pages the story cuts back & forth between his art and a flashback of the FF’s origin drawn by Kerry Gammill & Vince Colletta.  It definitely offers an interesting contrast.

In general I am not overly fond of Colletta’s inking.  Nevertheless, back in the mid 1960s he did ink several of the Lee & Kirby FF issues, and his work on this story in conjunction with Gammill’s pencils evokes a Silver Age feel that is very well suited to a retelling of the events of the team’s first story.

There are several pages by the team of Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek.  Frenz is a very solid, effective storyteller, so he is certainly well-suited to dramatically render scenes that feature a significant amount of exposition and character moments.  Wiacek is one of the best inkers in the biz, and his finishes complement Frenz’s pencils.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 26

Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

I also enjoyed the pages by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson.  They are two artists with very different styles, yet the combination works very well.  Milgrom’s super-hero oriented penciling is very effective for rendering the team fighting the Mole Man’s weird, wacky monsters, and Janson’s inking gives it a darker, gritty feel.

The next pairing, John Buscema inked by Steve Leialoha, is a bit odd.  Both are incredibly talented artists, to be certain.  In addition, Buscema was the first regular penciler on FF after Kirby left the title, doing really good work during the early 1970s, so he’s an appropriate choice to contribute to this issue.  Nevertheless, I do feel Leialoha’s inks sort of subsume Buscema’s characteristic style.  Of course, it is possible that Big John was only contributing layouts, something that became more prevalent for him in the 1980s, leaving it up to Leialoha to do the lion’s share, and resulting in more of his style coming through.

I think that under any other circumstances the team of Buscema & Leialoha would have been very effective.  It’s just that here, on this particular story, a somewhat more traditional inker might have been a better fit for Big John.  But that’s purely an emotional, sentimental judgment on my part.  At the very least, this does demonstrate once again just how significant an impact the inker can have on the finished artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 36

Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

The next segment is by then up-and-coming penciler Marc Silvestri and established inker Josef Rubinstein.  This was a year before Silvestri would begin his well-received run on Uncanny X-Men, but there’s definitely a lot of potential on display, with solid action & effective storytelling, and it’s apparent why he soon became a hot artist.  Rubinstein’s inking ably supports the young penciler.

Rounding out the issue is Jerry Ordway on pencils and Bob Wiacek & Joe Sinnott on inks.  It was certainly very appropriate to have Sinnott involved in this issue.  He had a long, acclaimed association with the Fantastic Four series.  Sinnott inked the second half of Lee & Kirby’s long FF run, and is generally regarded as one of the best inkers ever paired with Kirby.  After Kirby left Marvel, Sinnott continued as the book’s inker for over a decade, working over John Buscema and several other pencilers, right up until the beginning of Byrne’s run.

That said, in my mind Ordway inked by Sinnott was another unusual choice.  Sinnott is an inker whose work is almost always recognizable, no matter who he inks.  Ordway, however, is one of those pencilers whose style is so strong & distinctive that, no matter who inks his pencils, the finished artwork basically looks the same.  To my untrained eyes Ordway inked by Sinnott does not look much different that Ordway inking himself, or Ordway inked by Wiacek or Al Gordon or Dennis Janke or anyone else.

Of course, this may also be down to Ordway and Sinnott having similar styles.  Ordway has cited Sinnott as one of his major influences.

Oh, well… I’m probably quibbling.  The pages by Ordway, Wiacek & Sinnott look great, and that’s the important thing.  Ordway has stated that growing up in the 1960s he was a huge Marvel fan, so it must have been a thrill for him to work on several issues of Fantastic Four around this time, especially this anniversary story.

In any case, the back cover artwork is by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.  It’s a really nice image that showcases both artists’ styles, and really evokes the early Bronze Age era of the title.  So that gives us a really good example of “traditional” FF artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43

Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

However, there are two individuals who were not involved with Fantastic Four #296.  The first is Jack Kirby.  The second is John Byrne.

Kirby is, of course, the co-creator of Fantastic Four.  He co-plotted & penciled the first 102 regular issues of the series, as well as the first six annuals.  Kirby’s role in the creation & development of the Marvel universe cannot possible be overstated.

Unfortunately in 1986 Kirby was involved in a protracted battle with Marvel’s owners over both the rights to the characters he helped create and the thousands of pages of original artwork he had drawn for the comics.  This made his participation in this anniversary issue impossible.  Even if Marvel had asked him to contribute, given how angry he felt at his mistreatment by the company I am sure he would have refused, and I certainly would not have blamed him.

As for Byrne, he is often credited with the revitalization of the Fantastic Four title.  The writing on FF throughout the 1970s is generally regarded as uneven.  Byrne came onboard as writer & artist with issue #232 in 1981, and very quickly made the FF into an exciting, popular series.  His time on the book is frequently compared to the original Lee & Kirby run.

However, once again real-world events intruded.  By 1986 Byrne and Shooter were not on good terms and, as previously mentioned, this led to Byrne abruptly leaving Fantastic Four.  His last full issue was #293, released just three months earlier.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64

Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

I doubt that back in late 1986 any of this impacted on my reading of Fantastic Four #296 in the slightest way.  As I said before, this was pre-internet, so I had no way of easily finding out about all of these events.

Nowadays, though, I have a much greater knowledge of the history of the Fantastic Four series, and an awareness of what was going on at Marvel in the mid 1980s.  So when I re-read this issue a couple of weeks ago, the absences of Jack Kirby, who co-created the first decade of the book, and John Byrne, who had just come off a five year run that saw a creative renaissance, felt especially conspicuous, as well as exceedingly unfortunate.

Not to jump on an anti-Marvel bandwagon, but I certainly understand why over the past three decades so many artists & writers have chosen to go the creator-owned route.  After all, if Marvel can screw over Kirby, the guy who created many of their characters, well, they’re certainly not going to hesitate to kick anyone else to the curb, either.  Far better to retain ownership of your characters and benefit fully from their success, no matter how modest, than to create a runaway hit for Marvel (or DC Comics, for that matter) and see other people make millions of dollars off your creativity.

Having said all that, I do still enjoy a few Marvel and DC books, such as Fantastic Four (the current run written by Dan Slott is the best the book has been in a long time).  I just believe that it’s absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work for the Big Two to go in with their eyes open, to know exactly what their rights are, and to be fully aware of the history of the industry, so that they do not find themselves in the same position that Kirby and so many others unfortunately did.

Fantastic Four 296 back cover

Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

One other note:  Back in 1986, I was 10 years old, and the idea that Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary was a little difficult to comprehend.  To me 1961 seemed so incredibly far in the past.

Contrast this to a couple of years ago, when Image Comics celebrated their 25th anniversary.  My first reaction was that there was absolutely no way Image could be 25 years old, and it was impossible for 1992 to have been a quarter of a century ago.

I guess it’s just one of those matters of personal perspective.  Anything that happened before you were born is automatically ancient history, and anything that happened during your lifetime, even if it was decades ago, still feels like the recent past because you were there and experienced it firsthand.

It Came from the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

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

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

Timewalker 1 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archer Armstrong 8 pg 29

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

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

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

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

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

Archer Armstrong 11 pg 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnus Robot Fighter 33 pg 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timewalker Yearbook pgs 2 and 3

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

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

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

Ivar: That’s right… not yet.

Gunslinger: What?

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

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

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

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

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

Chaos Effect epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivar: Gil, what are you doing here?

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

Ivar: No! I haven’t done that yet!

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

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

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

Timewalker 1 pg 19

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

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

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

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

So many great comic books, so little time!

SBTU Immortal

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

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

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

Superhero Satellite: SBTU Presents IMMORTAL: Peter Loves Mary Jane

Comics Comics Comics: The Immortal Dr. Fate

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

The Unspoken Decade: Archer and Armstrong: Opposites Attract

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

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

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal: The 1992 Miniseries

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

Vic Sage of Pop Culture Retrorama Podcast: I am Legend

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

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

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

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT – Jupiter Ascending commentary

 

A brief look back at comic book artist Ernie Colon

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

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

Damage Control 1 cover

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

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

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

Magnus Robot Fighter 14 pg 18

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

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

Dreadstar miniseries 3 pg 4

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

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

Dreadstar miniseries 5 cover

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

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

 

 

Thor by Joe Sinnott: a birthday present

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

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

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

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

Thor sketch by Joe Sinnott

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

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

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

Thor 414 pg 1

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

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

Remembering comic book artist George Klein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Venus 2 pg 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventure Comics 352 pg 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 1 pg 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avengers 55 pg 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action Comics 300 cover small

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

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

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

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