Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.

 

Advertisements

James D. Hudnall’s Alpha Flight: A Brief Retrospective

Writer James D. Hudnall passed away on April 9th.  His earliest professional work was Espers for Eclipse Comics in 1986.  Hudnall had numerous comic book credits, but I was most familiar with his nearly two year run on Alpha Flight from early 1989 to late 1990. He wrote issues #63 and #67-86.

Alpha Flight 67 cover smallAlpha Flight is a series that even its creator John Byrne admitted he didn’t really know quite what to do with it.  He has been quite vocal about the fact that he only created the Canadian super-hero team to be able to survive a fight with the X-Men.  Byrne was genuinely surprised when Alpha Flight became popular enough to receive their own series, and he took on the assignment with a certain reluctance.

Byrne wrote & penciled the first 28 issues of Alpha Flight.  He did good work, but by the end he felt he had literally run out on things to do with the characters.  After he left, the series somehow managed to last nearly another decade, experiencing a lot of ups & downs.

Byrne’s successor on Alpha Flight was writer Bill Mantlo, who worked with several artists during his three year stint on the series.  Mantlo’s run started off showing potential, and a number of the issues from his first couple years were enjoyable.  However towards the end things had definitely petered out.  At the time, when Hudnall came on in early 1989, it really was a breath of fresh air.  Although somewhat uneven, I regard Hudnall’s stint on Alpha Flight as one of the better post-Byrne periods. (Of course, as I always like to say, your mileage may vary.)

Hudnall’s first few issues of Alpha Flight had him wrapping up a some dangling subplots from Bill Mantlo’s run, including bringing to a close the team’s conflict with the Dreamqueen.  With that out of the way, with issue #71 Hudnall embarked on a lengthy story arc involving an incredibly powerful, seemingly-unstoppable mystical villain, Llan the Sorcerer.

Alpha Flight 72 pg 4

Alpha Flight 72 cover small

According to Hudnall the Sorcerer storyline was initially planned to run all the way to issue #100, with Llan as an overarching behind-the-scenes adversary dispatching such villains as the Master of the World and Zeitgeist against the team to distract them while his ambitious master plan came together.  However, a lukewarm reception and conflicts with editorial resulted in Hudnall being replaced as writer on the book.  This necessitated him giving his story a somewhat quick wrap-up in issue #86, with Doctor Strange being brought in to aid Talisman in defeating Llan.

Hudnall was probably overly ambitious with his plans for Alpha Flight.  I don’t know if the Sorcerer storyline really would have had enough substance to it to continue running for another year in order to make it to issue #100.  However, I cannot fault Hudnall for attempting to at least try to do something spectacular and long-ranging in a book that had recently been lacking in a solid, interesting direction.

Alpha Flight 73 pg 7

Hudnall explained his plans an interview conducted in the early 2000s by the website AlphaFlight.net:

“I wanted to make the book more in line with Byrne’s vision, which I felt was generally a good one. I liked Byrne’s run except he was kind of unfocused direction-wise. Probably because he was bored. So one of the things I did was try to give Alpha Flight more of a purpose. And try to make them unique in the Marvel Universe, not just by virtue of their nationality. I also wanted to show off Canada, so I did tons of research.”

It had been a number of years since I have read those issues, but from glancing over them again this week I did like how Hudnall worked to develop the character of Talisman.  It had been one of Talisman’s predecessors who had fought Llan the Sorcerer when he had last attacked Earth’s dimension 10,000 years earlier.  It now fell to the current Talisman, who was fairly young & inexperienced, to lead the battle against this incredibly formidable, cunning foe.

I am not certain exactly how successful Hudnall was in his execution of Talisman’s character development.  At times she came across less as focused & determined, and more as bossy & arrogant.  But I do appreciate that Hudnall at least attempted to make her the focus of his overall storyline.  I think Byrne came up with a fantastic design for the character, and it was nice to see her in the spotlight here.

Alpha Flight 78 pg 12

Another highlight of Hudnall’s run was having former Alpha Flight foe Diamond Lil join the team.  Lil had been involved in the events that had led to the death of Alpha’s original leader James Hudson, aka Guardian, which put her at odds with the team’s current leader, the widowed Heather Hudson, aka Vindicator. Complicating matters even further, Lil was the ex-girlfriend of Madison Jeffries, aka Box, who was now engaged to Heather.  It was apparent that there was still an attraction between Lil and Madison, and the resulting love triangle was present throughout the background of the Sorcerer storyline.

I also think having Lil join the cast offered an outsider’s perspective on some of the events.  It was interesting to see her gradual development from a one-time enemy who was regarded with suspicion to a trusted member of the team. Plus, during the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover we got to see go toe-to-toe with longtime Spider-Man villain the Scorpion, which was cool.Alpha Flight 80 pg 14

With the benefit of hindsight, Hudnall was doing on Alpha Flight what is now referred to as “writing for the trades,” i.e. writing a lengthy, complex storyline serialized in a monthly series that would later work as a complete novel when collected together in trade paperbacks.  I think that if I was to go back and read Hudnall’s entire Alpha Flight run in one go, rather than broken up into monthly installments, it would work much better now.

Alpha Flight 78 cover smallFor the majority of Hudnall’s time on Alpha Flight he was paired with penciler John Calimee.  I personally think Calimee was a fairly good, solid artist, albeit one who was not particularly flashy or dynamic. In other words, he got the job done, but perhaps that was not seen as sufficient enough at that point in time, when several red-hot artists were exploding in other Marvel titles.  Most of the issues Calimee penciled were inked by Mike Manley, a very talented artist whose work I have always enjoyed.

Other artists who worked on Alpha Flight during this time were Hugh Haynes, the great Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc and a fairly young up-and-coming Mark Bagley.  The incredibly talented James Sherman turned in one of his all-too-rare rare comic book jobs, providing full artwork for Alpha Flight #73.  That issue flashed back to the conflict between the original Talisman and the Sorcerer in prehistoric times.

Alpha Flight 83 pg 17

John Byrne himself unexpectedly returned to the series to draw a couple of covers.  Jim Lee, who did some of his earliest work on Alpha Flight, also contributed to a few covers during Hudnall’s run.

Regrettably, except for Haynes, there did not exist a good rapport between the writer and the various artists.  Subsequently Hudnall would express his opinion that Calimee in particular had been unable to effectively execute the visuals contained in the plots.  Hudnall also experienced a number of disagreements with his editors.  Whether all of this was due to Hudnall wanting to remain faithful to his ambitious vision, or an indication that he was a difficult person to collaborate with, is up to the individual to decide.Alpha Flight 81 cover small

Whatever the difficulties between Hudnall and his colleagues, as I said before, at the end of the day I personally do think that his run on Alpha Flight was pretty good.  Possibly it is my teenage nostalgia talking, but all these years later it remains memorable for me.

As for the artwork by Calimee & Manley, looking at it in 2019 with a fresh perspective, I find that I still like it. Calimee is, as I said, a solid artist who knows how to lay out a page and tell a story. Manley’s inking here provided a polished finish to the pencils. One of his artistic influences was the legendary Al Williamson, and that shows in the inking on these issues.

The lettering on all of these issues was by Janice Chiang. I’ve always liked her work. Looking at these issues for the first time in years, I can immediately identify that it’s her lettering. She’s one of the best letterers in the biz.

Alpha Flight 86 pg 21

In addition to Alpha Flight, Hudnall worked on Strikeforce: Morituri and the graphic novel The Agent for Marvel.  Over at DC Comics he wrote the very dark graphic novel Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography.  In the 1990s Hudnall worked on Malibu Comics’ well-regarded Ultraverse imprint, writing the series Hardcase and The Solution.  With artist Andrew Paquette he created Harsh Realm, a six issue miniseries published by Harris Comics that was later loosely adapted into a short-lived TV series.

About a decade ago Hudnall began writing for the ultra-conservative website Breitbart, and espousing views I found very disagreeable.  Nevertheless, despite how I felt about his politics, I was sorry to hear that in the last few years he was experiencing serious health problems.  It’s unfortunate that he died at a relatively young age, a day before his 62nd birthday.  He leaves behind a small but interesting and imaginative body of work.

The Legacy of Stan Lee

I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that Stan Lee had passed away.  He was 95 years old, and had been in poor health for some time now.

Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, was an incredibly important figure in American comic books.  Lee was the editor and main writer at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, when what is now known as the Marvel Universe came into being.  Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Steve Ditko.  He co-created the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Inhumans, and X-Men with Jack Kirby.  Other characters he had a hand in conceiving were Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil and Ant-Man.  It was apparently Lee who had the idea of creating superheroes who had flaws and who experienced everyday problems, just like normal people.

Lee also was an amazing publicist with an outsized public persona.  He enthustastically promoted the Marvel brand and characters with the zeal of a master showman.

Stan Lee photo 1968

In subsequent decades there has been a great deal of debate, often contentious, concerning the division of labor, of exactly who did what, in the conception of these various characters and series.  It is often difficult to parse these things in collaborative efforts.  One might as well try to precisely determine who did what in the Beatles.  I’ve heard Lee and Kirby likened to Paul MacCartney and John Lennon, and I think it is a valid comparison.  Both were talented musicians, but each in a very different way, and when they worked together something occurred, some creative magic that you cannot explain or break down in any sort of analytical manner.  So it was with Lee and Kirby, and with Lee and Ditko.

It is also worth mentioning that in the early 1960s no one – not Lee, not Ditko, not Kirby – no one had even the slightest idea that half a century later these characters would still be in print, much less become cultural icons worth millions of dollars.  No one was taking detailed notes regarding the creative process, because they were all too busy attempting to keep the nascent Marvel Comics afloat.

It is obvious, however, to even the most casual reader that Stan Lee had a central role in the creation, and success, of the Marvel comic books of the Silver Age.  Read any story by Ditko & Lee, or Kirby & Lee, and then read any story done by Ditko or Kirby working solo.  They are very different, especially in the dialogue and narration.

Fantastic Four 49 pg 1

Fantastic Four #48 page 1

One can argue that Lee could have made more effort to credit the precise contributions of Ditko, Kirby, and his other creative partners.  That is probably true.  But it is important to keep in mind that Lee made sure to credit to his collaborators, in a time when many comic books were published without any creator credits.  He demonstrated more consideration than most other editors, and his efforts in this area did later lead to more precise attribution in subsequent decades.

Stan Lee also addressed a number of political and social issues in the stories he co-wrote and edited.  I’ve heard Lee described as a “middle of the road” liberal by the standards of the 1960s, and nowadays he would probably be considered a moderate.  It has been said that Lee was too liberal for Ditko, and too conservative for Kirby.

Nevertheless, the fact that Lee was willing to discuss controversial topics, however tentatively, within what in those days was regarded as a children’s medium, is significant in and of itself.  Again, this laid the groundwork for subsequent creators who would more directly, and forcefully, tackle political issues within the comic book medium.

Silver Surfer 4 pg 10

Silver Surfer #4 page 10

In 2018, with Comicsgate trolls expressing hatred for politics in comic books and disparaging social justice warriors, it’s important to recognize that Stan Lee was extremely interested in social justice.  He co-created a number of black characters, and scripted numerous stories decrying humanity’s violent & intolerant nature.  This was most pronounced in the Silver Surfer series he worked on with penciler John Buscema in the late 1960s.  Although at times verging into the anvilicious, Lee’s pleas for peace & brotherhood were clearly genuine and heartfelt.

The above page from Silver Surfer #4, featuring beautiful artwork by John & Sal Buscema, provides an example of Lee’s progressive social commentary from that series.

Lee also promoted this message in Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages.  In one late 1960s edition of Stan’s Soapbox, he wrote:

“Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”

stanleesoapbox

I have written about Captain America #130 before, but I am going to touch upon that issue again here.  Published in 1970, it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan & Dick Ayers.  At one point Cap is asked by a group that claims to stand for “law & order” to make a speech on national television denouncing student protestors for their treasonous and un-American activities.  Cap supposedly agrees, but once he is on the air he makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, exactly how he feels…

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be!”

This scene was written by Lee almost half a century ago, but it still remains incredibly relevant.

Captain America 130 speech

Whatever his flaws & shortcomings, Stan Lee played a crucial role in the shaping of the American comic book industry, in the growth of Marvel Comics into a major publisher, in the careers of the creators who he mentored and who followed him, and in the development of comic book fandom.  He will definitely be missed.  ‘Nuff said!

Norm Breyfogle: 1960 to 2018

It has been observed that someone’s favorite Batman artist is often determined by when they first began reading comic books.  That’s certainly the case for me.  There have been numerous talented artists who have rendered the Dark Knight’s adventures over the past eight decades, but two hold a special fondness for me: Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle.  When I began reading DC Comics regularly in 1989, Aparo was the penciler on Batman, and Breyfogle was the penciler on Detective Comics.

Jim Aparo, who had been working in the biz since the late 1960s, was what I refer to as a good, solid artist.  His penciling on Batman was of a more traditional bent, but his style perfectly suited the character.

And then there was Norm Breyfogle, the new kid on the block.  Breyfogle utilized a very dynamic approach to his storytelling.  His artwork in Detective Comics was filled with dramatic, innovative layouts that were possessed of both explosive energy and brooding atmosphere.

Batman 465 cover crop

Breyfogle had broken into the biz just five years earlier, in 1984, with a pair of contributions to DC’s New Talent Showcase.  Two years later, in 1986, Breyfogle penciled several issues of Steven Grant’s series Whisper for First Comics.  Following that, Breyfogle first entered the dark, moody world of Gotham City, becoming the regular penciler of Detective Comics with issue #582, cover-dated January 1988.

The following month, with issue #583, Breyfogle was joined on Detective Comics by the talented British writing team of Alan Grant & John Wagner.  Issue #584 saw the arrival of the last member of the now-regular creative team, inker Steve Mitchell.

Grant, Wagner & Breyfogle very quickly made their impart on the Bat-mythos, introducing new adversaries the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, and the Ventriloquist & Scarface, the last of whom has become an iconic member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

Although Wagner soon departed, Grant remained on Detective Comics, penning a series of stories that were expertly illustrated by Breyfogle & Mitchell.  With issue #608, Grant & Breyfogle introduced yet another memorable denizen of Gotham City, the radical anti-hero Anarky.

Anarky profile pic

Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was incredibly dramatic, and is now regarded as one of the iconic interpretations of the character.  His Dark Knight was muscular but also lithe, grim & imposing but also human & vulnerable.  Breyfogle’s fluid layouts depicted a dark yet dynamic Batman acrobatically swinging across the skyline of Gotham City, massive cape billowing about.  It was absolutely incredible.  Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was *the* definitive one for me during my teenage years in the early 1990s.

The team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell remained on Detective Comics until issue #621 (Sept 1990) and which point they were rotated over to the Batman series with issue #455.  Their first storyline, “Identity Crisis,” ended with the new Robin, Tim Drake, debuting his brand-new costume.  Breyfogle stayed on Batman until #476 (April 1992), at which point he switched over to yet another Bat-title, the new ongoing Batman: Shadow of the Bat.

Although he only drew the first five issues of Shadow of the Bat, this certainly wasn’t the end of Breyfogle’s association with Batman.  He would return for the occasional fill-in issue here and there.  Breyfogle also worked on several Batman-related graphic novels.  Among these was the acclaimed Elseworlds special Batman: Holy Terror written by novelist Alan Brennert.

Detective Comics 616 pg 18

One of my personal favorite issues from the team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell was “Stone Killer” in Detective Comics #616 (June 1990).  In this story Batman faces an eerie supernatural adversary.  Breyfogle’s style was perfectly suited for this eerie tale.

Also noteworthy was Detective Comics #627 (March 1991).  This was the 600th appearance of Batman in that series.  To celebrate, this issue reprinted the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, and a 1969 update of the story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.  Additionally, there were two new interpretations of the story by the then-current Batman creative teams, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo & Mike Decarlo, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell.  It was interesting to see the same basic plot executed in four very different ways.

Detective Comics #627 concluded with a stunning double-page spread drawn by Breyfogle & Mitchell featuring Batman, his supporting cast, and many members of his rogues gallery.

Detective Comics 627 double page splash

Beginning in 1993, Breyfogle began working on Prime, which was part of Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse imprint.  He drew the first twelve issues, as well as stories for a few of the other Ultraverse titles.  Regrettably I did not follow any of these series.  At the time the comic book market had a huge glut of product on the shelves, and the Ultraverse unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.

I did finally have an opportunity to see Breyfogle’s work on the character a few years later, when the Prime / Captain America special was published in early 1996.  It was an odd but fun story, with wacky artwork by Breyfogle.  He appeared to be working in a slightly more cartoony, comedic vein.  I definitely enjoyed seeing him draw Captain America, who at the time was my favorite character.

Prime Captain America pg 8

After a short stint on Bloodshot at Valiant, Breyfogle returned to DC.  He penciled an Anarky miniseries, reuniting him with the character’s co-creator Alan Grant.  In the early 2000s he penciled several issues of the Spectre revival written by J.M. DeMatteis, which featured the then-deceased Hal Jordan adopting the supernatural role of the Wrath of God.  For Marvel Comics, Breyfogle drew the 2000 annuals for both Thunderbolts and Avengers, which in turn led to a three issue Hellcat miniseries featuring his artwork.

For a few years after the Spectre ended, Breyfogle unfortunately had some difficulty finding regular assignments in comic books.  Fortunately in late 2009 he began receiving work from Archie Comics.  Breyfogle was one of the regular artists on the wonderful Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg.  Here he was paired up with inker Josef Rubinstein.

Breyfogle’s work for Archie Comics really demonstrated his versatility as an artist.  As I previously observed, Breyfogle’s art on Life With Archie was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.  He certainly was adept at illustrating the melodramatic soap opera storylines in the “Archie Marries Veronica” segments.

Life With Archie 9 pg 3

In 2012 Breyfogle once again had an opportunity to return to the world of Batman, illustrating the “10,000 Clowns” story arc and several covers for Batman Beyond.  It was a wonderful homecoming for the artist, who seamlessly fit back into Bat-verse, this time giving us his depictions of the dystopian future Gotham City and its denizens introduced in the animated series.

Batman Beyond would unfortunately be Breyfogle’s last major work in comic books.  In December 2014 he suffered a stroke, after which he became partially paralyzed.  Tragically, as a result Breyfogle was no longer able to draw.  Nevertheless he remained connected to the comic book community, regularly communicating with fans via Facebook.

Norm Breyfogle passed away on September 24, 2018.  He was only 58 years old.  It was a tremendous shock, both to his colleagues, who always spoke very highly of him, and to the generation of fans such as myself who grew up on his amazing artwork.

For me Breyfogle will always remain one of the all-time greatest Batman artists.  He will definitely be missed.

Marie Severin: 1929 to 2018

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

Marie Severin and friends

Marie Severin and some of her friends from work

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

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

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

Kull the Conqueror 3 pg 3

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

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

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

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

Not Brand Echh 11 pg 34

How to Be a Comic Book Artist page one

Not Brand Echh 11 pg 35

How to Be a Comic Book Artist page two

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight Sons Unlimited 6 pg 7

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

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

Steve Ditko’s ghost stories

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 23

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 3

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 10

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

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

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

Ghostly Haunts 31 pg 3

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Tales 106 pg 7

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

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

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

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

Ghostly Tales 122 pg 20

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

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

Peter Wyngarde: 1927 to 2018

Well-regarded British actor Peter Wyngarde, whose career spanned half a century, passed away on January 15th. He was 90 years old.

Peter Wyngarde 1993

There is some dispute regarding early details of Wyngarde’s life. It is known that his father was a British diplomat stationed in Asia before World War II.  When Shanghai was invaded by the Japanese in 1941, the fourteen year old Wyngarde was sent to an internment camp along with hundreds of other British citizens.  The next four years were brutal ones.  Wyngarde suffered from malnutrition, and at one point his feet were broken by his Japanese captors.  One of the few concessions the Japanese accorded their prisoners was allowing them to stage plays in the canteen.  This was the beginning of Wyngarde’s lifelong love of acting.

When the war ended Wyngarde was able to return to Britain. It took him some time to recuperate from his harsh ordeal, but afterwards he was determined to make a living as an actor.  He began appearing in theatrical roles in 1946, starting with bit parts and as an understudy, gradually working his way up to more significant roles over the next decade.  Beginning in the mid-1950s he also worked in television.  His breakthrough role was playing Sidney Carton in the BBC’s 1957 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Continuing his theater work, and occasionally acting in movies, Wyngarde also made several noteworthy guest appearances on British television. He twice played villains on The Avengers starring Patrick Macnee & Diana Rigg.  In the memorable 1966 episode entitled “A Touch of Brimstone,” Wyngarde portrayed the sadistic Sir John Cartney, the head of the kinky, hedonistic Hellfire Club, who were plotting an overthrow of the British government.  A year later he returned to the series in the episode “Epic.” This time he played Stewart Kirby, a washed-up Hollywood star involved in an audacious plot to film the murder of Emma Peel.  The role involved numerous costume & make-up changes for Wyngarde, and he approached it with over-the-top gusto.

In 1967 Wyngarde guest starred on The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic psychological spy drama. He assumed the role of the Village’s sinister Number Two in the episode “Checkmate.”

Peter Wyngarde The Prisoner

Wyngarde best-known role was the suave, womanizing Interpol investigator turned novelist Jason King. He originated the part in the ITV series Department S, which ran for 28 episodes between 1969 and 1970.  The character of Jason King proved very popular with viewers, and was spun off into his own series, which aired from 1971 to 1972.

Wyngarde was gifted with a deep, smooth voice and a striking presence. Portraying the sophisticated, charismatic Jason King, he was often clad in fashionable, impeccably-tailored suits.  All together this resulted in Wyngarde becoming both a sex symbol and a style icon in the early 1970s.

In a 1993 interview Wyngarde explained that he put a great deal of himself into the character…

“I decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me. I was not going to have a superimposed personality. I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy, used to go to the tailor with my designs. And my hair was long because I had been in this Chekhov play, The Duel, at the Duke of York’s.

“Jason King had champagne and strawberries for breakfast, just as I did myself. I drank myself to a standstill. When I think about it now, I am amazed I’m still here.”

Although Department S and Jason King had made Wyngarde famous, he subsequently chose to return to his first love, the theater. In 1973 he co-starred with Sally Ann Howes in a production of The King and I that ran for 260 performances.  This was followed by a number of other stage roles.

In 1980, in the campy Dino De Laurentiis-produced Flash Gordon movie, Wyngarde played Klytus, the gold-masked henchman to Ming the Merciless. Wyngarde also appeared in the Doctor Who serial “Planet of Fire” in 1984, turning in a subtle, memorable performance.  The late 1980s and the 90s saw further work on the stage, as well as occasional television guest roles.

Peter Wyngarde Flash Gordon

It is a testament to how iconic a figure Wyngarde was that his likeness was immortalized in print in the early 1980s in the pages of the X-Men comic book series by the creative team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Terry Austin.  The Avengers television episode “A Touch of Brimstone” inspired Claremont & Byrne to introduce their own version of the Hellfire Club, a cabal of ruthless mutant industrialists manipulating politics and the economy to their benefit, in the now-classic X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”  One of the members of this Hellfire Club was the X-Men’s old adversary Mastermind, now in the guise of the evil, seductive “Jason Wyngarde,” modeled, off course, on Peter Wyngarde’s performance as Jason King.

As a younger viewer I was passing familiar with Wyngarde from Flash Gordon and Doctor Who. However, it was in the 1990s via the internet that I first learned of how Claremont & Byrne had paid homage to the actor in their X-Men run.  The full Jason King series was finally released on DVD in 2007 here in the States, and I enjoyed it tremendously.  I subsequently viewed episodes of Department S, which was also an enjoyable show.

I was definitely a fan of Wyngarde’s work; he had such a wonderful presence on screen, and a rich, memorable voice.

Peter Wyngarde Mastermind

Peter Wyngarde as the suave sleuth Jason King, side-by-side with X-Men villain Mastermind in his guise as “Jason Wyngarde” as rendered by John Byrne & Terry Austin in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

Following Wyngarde’s passing last week his agent and manager Thomas Bowington declared:

“He was one of the most unique, original and creative actors that I have ever seen. As a man, there were few things in life he didn’t know.”

Wyngarde was a private man, and wary of the press. He seldom gave interviews.  Last year he spoke at length to Tina Hopkins for The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society blog.  It is an informative and insightful piece that goes into the details of Wyngarde’s life & career.