John Saxon: 1935 to 2020

Longtime, prolific actor John Saxon passed away on July 25th at the age of 83.

Born as Carmine Orrico in Brooklyn NY on August 5, 1936, Saxon was one of those actors who, if you watched enough movies or television, sooner or later you would almost inevitably see him in something, if not multiple somethings.  Saxon worked on nearly 200 projects in a career that spanned 60 years, from 1954 to 2015.

Due to his Italian American heritage and his rugged good looks, Saxon was often called upon to play characters of various different ethnicities early in his career.  From the 1970s onwards he slipped into the niche of character actor, portraying a variety of cops and criminals.

One of Saxon’s most high-profile roles was in Enter the Dragon (1973).  Saxon played Roper, a seemingly-untrustworthy gambler who surprisingly ends up fighting alongside Bruce Lee’s heroic martial artist against the forces of brutal Hong Kong crime lord Han.

Two years later Saxon played corrupt trade union lawyer Walter Deaney in the action movie Mitchell starring Joe Don Baker.  The critically panned movie was rescued from obscurity two decades later when it was brutally eviscerated by Joel, Tom Servo and Crow on a 1993 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Another noteworthy role in Saxon’s career was playing the evil mutant warlord Sador in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).  Written by John Sayles, produced by Roger Corman and directed by Jimmy T. Murakami, Battle Beyond the Stars was a space opera re-imagining of The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven.  Although a low-budget movie with an initially modest box office, Battle Beyond the Stars has gone on to become a well-regarded cult classic.

Saxon portrayed police lieutenant Donald Thompson in Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and reprised the role in the sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987).  Saxon’s character was killed off in that later entry, although he was able to return to the horror franchise with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) playing himself in a story that saw the fictional Freddy Kreuger invading the “real” world.

One of Saxon’s later roles was Walter Gideon on the two-part CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode “Grave Danger.”  Directed by Quentin Tanantino, “Grave Danger” was one of the most disturbing, horrific installments of CSI ever made.  Saxon’s brief but memorably sinister appearance in the story was the icing on the nightmare fuel cake.

I was fortunate enough to meet Saxon when he was a guest at a horror convention in New Jersey about a dozen years ago.  It’s definitely not an ideal situation to meet anyone when they’re answering questions about movies they made decades ago and signing photos for a succession of enthusiastic fans, but nevertheless you can often get a general impression of what sort of a person someone is at these types of events.  Saxon certainly came across as a polite and professional individual at that show.

I imagine that was one of the reasons why Saxon had such a lengthy career: he was a reliable and easy to work with professional who could always be counted on to turn in a good, solid performance.  That seems borne out by director Joe Dante, who yesterday tweeted:

 “RIP John Saxon. I had the privilege of working with him once in 2006. Very good actor, very nice guy.”

That feels like an appropriate epitaph for John Saxon: concise and effective.

Joe Sinnott: 1926 to 2020

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott passed away on June 25th at the age of 93.  Sinnott had such a long and distinguished career as an artist that I really could not do him justice in a short blog post.  I will touch upon a few highlights, but for a much more detailed examination of his career I strongly urge everyone to get a copy of Brush Strokes With Greatness: The Life & Art of Joe Sinnott written by Tim Lasiuta from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Fantastic Four #57 (Dec 1966) cover artwork by Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott

Joe Sinnott was born in Saugerties, NY on October 16, 1926, and he lived in that area for almost his entire life.  Following service in the U.S Navy during World War II, Sinnott attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (now known as the School of Visual Arts). 

One of his instructors was artist Tom Gill, who asked Sinnott to work as his assistant. Sinnott assisted Gil for nine months in 1949.

In 1950 Sinnott decided to find work on his own, and he was soon receiving regular assignments from Atlas Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Atlas editor Stan Lee assigned numerous stories for Sinnott to illustrate which saw print in the company’s war, horror, science fiction and Western anthologies.

“Invasion From Outer Space!” from Journey Into Mystery #52 (May 1959) penciled & inked by Joe Sinnott

In 1957 Atlas experienced a severe contraction due to its distributor American News Company being shut down by the federal government in an anti-trust case.  Sinnott was one of the many freelancers let go by Atlas, and so he had to find work elsewhere.  He worked for a number of clients, including Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact, an educational, Catholic-oriented comic book published by George A. Pflaum that was distributed to parochial schools in North America.

Stan Lee asked Sinnott to return to Atlas in 1959.  Within two years the company had transformed into Marvel and begun its successful superhero revival.  During this period Lee first had Sinnott work as an inker over Jack Kirby, initially on stories for Atlas war and monster anthologies, and then on some of the early Marvel superhero books, such as Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962) the first appearance of Doctor Doom, and Journey Into Mystery #83 (Aug 1962) the first appearance of Thor.  Sinnott also contributed the full artwork for some of the early Thor stories that appeared in Journey Into Mystery in 1963.

Artwork from The Beatles published by Dell Comics (Sept 1964) penciled & inked by Joe Sinnott

Lee had actually wanted Sinnott to become the regular inker over Kirby on Fantastic Four following issue #5.  However at this time Treasure Chest assigned Sinnott to draw the 65 page biography “The Story Of Pope John XXIII, Who Won Our Hearts,” which was serialized in nine issues between September 1962 and January 1963. 

Treasure Chest vol 25 #16 (May 14, 1970) cover artwork by Joe Sinnott

Soon another ambitious project was assigned to Sinnott, a biography of the British rock band the Beatles published by Dell Comics in 1964.  Sinnott was given a mere month within which to illustrate the entire 64 page book.  It speaks highly of both his talent and professionalism that he turned in the job on time while doing quality work. And, as I’ve observed before, drawing likenesses can be very tricky. All things considered, I think Sinnott did a fair job capturing the appearances of the Fab Four.

Following the completion of these two biographies, Sinnott began to work for Marvel almost exclusively.  He also continued to illustrate stories and covers for Treasure Chest up until the title came to an end in 1972.

Sinnott did finally became the regular inker over Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four beginning with issue #44 (Nov 1965).  The art team of Kirby & Sinnott on FF in the second half of the 1960s is highly acclaimed.  As historian Mark Alexander stated in his book Lee & Kirby: The Wonder Years (TwoMorrows, 2011)…

“In an uncanny stroke of luck and perfect timing, just when Kirby gained the time to improve his artwork, Joe Sinnott became the FF’s regular inker. Sinnott was a master craftsman, fiercely proud of the effort and meticulous detail he put into his work. … That slick, stylized layer of India ink that Sinnott painted over Kirby’s pencils finished Jack’s work in a way that no other inker ever would. Comic fans had never witnessed art this strange and powerful in its scope and strength.”

A scan of the original artwork for Fantastic Four #81 page 1 (Dec 1968) penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott. I think this is a really good example of Sinnott’s polished inking over Kirby. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Following a falling-out with Marvel, Kirby departed Fantastic Four with issue #102 (Sept 1970).  Sinnott, however, remained on as the FF inker / finisher for 15 years, until issue #231 (June 1981).  In the post-Kirby decade Sinnott inked pencilers John Buscema, Rich Buckler, George Perez, Keith Pollard, Bill Sienkiewicz and John Byrne on Fantastic Four.  It’s generally regarded that Sinnott helped maintain artistic consistency on the title during the Bronze Age.

Sinnott became a much in-demand inker / finisher at Marvel from the mid 1960s thru the early 1990s.  He was paired with numerous pencilers during this 27 year period.  As longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort explained on his blog:

“Joe Sinnott defined the look of the Marvel art style as much as anybody this side of John Romita, and more than any other inker in the business. His smooth linework and clean finish gave a pristine, sleek, modernistic flavor to any assignment he worked his brush over, regardless of the penciler. He’s absolutely my favorite inker of all time, a guy who improved the quality of any series he was working on. Additionally, Joe is an absolute professional, and a hell of a nice guy.”

Thor #407 (Sept 1989) penciled by Ron Frenz & inked by Joe Sinnott

Sinnott’s last regular assignment for Marvel was Thor, paired with penciler Ron Frenz from 1989 to 1991, another wonderful collaboration.  In 1991 Sinnott made the decision to retire from monthly comic books, although over the next 28 years he continued to contribute to various miniseries, special editions, pin-ups and other projects, and to ink the Sunday installment of the Spider-Man newspaper strip.  In March 2019, at the age of 92, he FINALLY made the decision to completely retire as a professional artist, although he continued to draw for pleasure until nearly the end of his life.

The news of Sinnott’s passing this week was met with sadness.  This was not only because he was an incredibly talented artist who worked on hundreds of great comic book stories, but because he was also a genuinely good person, beloved by friends, colleagues and fans alike.  As comic book writer & historian Mark Evanier opined on his blog this week:

“If you were in a crowd of folks who worked in the comic book industry and announced, “Joe Sinnott was the best inker who ever worked in comics,” you wouldn’t get a lot of argument. If you said, “Joe Sinnott was the nicest guy who ever worked in comics,” you’d get even less.”

Fantastic Four #181 (April 1977) autographed by Joe Sinnott

I was one of the many fans who was fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott when he was a guest at comic book conventions.  He always came across to me as friendly, warm and down to Earth.

Sinnott was one of those people whose work I enjoyed before I met him, but afterwards I became even more of a fan by virtue of the fact that he was such a good guy.

Joe Sinnott leaves behind a rich, creative legacy, and he will definitely be missed.  I wish to offer my condolences to his family and friends for their loss.

Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

Martin Pasko: 1954 to 2020

Longtime comic book & animation writer Martin Pasko passed away on May 10th.  He was 65 years old.

DC Comics Presents 1 coverBetween 1973 and 1982 Pasko wrote a great many stories for the various Superman titles at DC Comics.  On quite a few of these he was paired with longtime Superman penciler Curt Swan.  In 1978 Pasko, working with artists Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez & Dan Adkins, launched the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents with a well-regarded two-part story costarring the Flash.

In the mid 1970s Pasko also wrote Wonder Woman.  The first part of Pasko’s run had him wrapping up “The Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman” storyline.  Several issues later the series shifted focus to the Earth-Two’s Wonder Woman during World War II.  This was an effort to align the book with the first season of the live-action television show starring Lynda Carter.  Pasko’s final two issues, #231-232, were plotted by his friend Alan Brennert, his first work in comic books.  Brennert & Pasko’s story, which was drawn by Bob Brown, Michael Netzer & Vince Colletta, had Wonder Woman teaming up with the Justice Society.

All of this was slightly before my time as a reader, as I was born in 1976.  I have read some of those Superman and Wonder Woman stories in back issues or trade paperbacks.  However, the first work by Pasko that I vividly recall from my childhood was his early 1980s revival of the Swamp Thing with artist Tom Yeates.Swamp Thing 6 cover

Pasko wrote the first 19 issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing.  He and Yeates created some genuinely weird, spooky, unnerving stories during this year and a half period.  I vividly recall the two-part story from issues #6-7, which had Swamp Thing encountering a bizarre aquatic creature with eyeball-tipped tentacles that could transform people into one-eyed monsters.  The shocking cliffhanger in issue #6 definitely seared itself onto my young mind and left me wondering “What happens next?”

I think Pasko’s work on Swamp Thing is often underrated, overshadowed by the groundbreaking Alan Moore run that immediately followed it.  I know that I’m not alone in this estimation.  A number of other fans also believe Pasko’s Swamp Thing stories are due for a reevaluation.

Swamp Thing 6 pg 17

During this time Pasko was also working in animation.  Among his numerous animation credits, he wrote several episodes of Thundaar the Barbarian, which had been created by fellow comic book writer Steve Gerber.  It was Pasko who devised the name Ookla for Thundaar’s massive leonine sidekick.  As he recounted years later, he and Gerber had been attempting to come up with a name for the character when…

“We passed one of the entrances to the UCLA campus and when I saw the acronym on signage, the phonetic pronunciation leapt to mind.”

I was a huge fan of Thundaar the Barbarian when I was a kid.  I doubt I paid any attention to the credits back in the early 1980s, but years later, after I got into comic books, when I watched reruns of the show, the names of the various comic book creators involved in it, including Pasko, leaped right out at me.

E-Man v2 5 coverPasko was the writer on the first several issues of the revival of E-Man from First Comics in 1983, working with artist Joe Staton, the character’s co-creator.  As I’ve previously written, I just don’t feel that Pasko was a good fit for E-Man.  It really is one of those series that was never quite the same unless Nicola Cuti was writing it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure Pasko gave it his best.  There is at least one issue of E-Man where I think Pasko did good work, though.  I enjoyed his script for “Going Void” in issue #5, which featured a brutally satirical send-up of Scientology.

Pasko got back into writing for DC Comics in late 1987, writing a “Secret Six” serial drawn by Dan Spiegel in Action Comics Weekly.  He soon picked up another ACW assignment, featuring the revamped version of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.

This past January on his Facebook page Pasko recounted how he came to write Blackhawk in ACW.  When asked to take over the feature from departing writer Mike Grell by editor Mike Gold, Pasko initially accepted it only because of the lengthy, ongoing strike by the Writers Guild…

“I took the assignment because I had no choice–I needed the money–but it turned out, in the end, to be the most fun I ever had writing comics. I haunted the UCLA Research Library, immersing myself in everything I could learn about the post-WWII era in which the series was set, making Xeroxes of visual reference for the artist and having the time of my life.

“But my greatest thanks are reserved for that artist, my fantastic collaborator, the impeccable storyteller, Rick Burchett. Which is why this stuff is tops among the work of which I’m most proud. That stuff was all YOURS, Rick.”

Pasko & Burchett returned to the characters with an ongoing Blackhawk comic book that launched in March 1989.  It was a really enjoyable series, and it’s definitely unfortunate that it only lasted a mere 16 issues, plus an Annual.

Blackhawk 2 pg 19

In 1992 Pasko became a story editor on Batman: The Animated Series, working on 17 episodes of the acclaimed series.  He wrote the episode “See No Evil” and co-wrote the teleplay for the episode “Paging the Crime Doctor.”  Additionally, Pasko co-wrote the screenplay for the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which was released theatrically.

DC Retroactive Superman 1970sIn the later part of his career Pasko contributed to several nonfiction books.  He also wrote the occasional comic book story for DC.  Among these was the special DC Retroactive: Superman – The 1970s penciled by Eduardo Barretto, which gave Pasko the opportunity to write the Man of Steel and his Bronze Age supporting cast one last time.

I never had an opportunity to meet Martin Pasko.  I narrowly missed him at Terrificon a few years ago.  Fortunately, Pasko was very active on Facebook, and I was one of the many fans who he enthusiastically interacted with there.  He wrote some really great stories in his time, and will definitely be missed.

Frank McLaughlin: 1935 to 2020

I am sorry to report that another comic book creator whose work I enjoyed has passed on.  Frank McLaughlin was a talented artist whose career in comic books and comic strips lasted for nearly five decades, from the 1961 to 2008.   He passed away on March 4th at the age of 84.

McLaughlin, like a number of other comic book creators, got his foot in the door via Charlton Comics.  He was hired on to do a variety of production work for the Derby, Connecticut publisher.  In a 2016 interview McLaughlin recounted how he came to work for Charlton:

“All through my career, I have been blessed with the greatest of friends, beginning with a classmate at art school; Larry Conti. Larry hooked me up with his brother, Dan Conti, who was a department head at Charlton Press. Dan, in turn, introduced me to Charlton’s Pat Masulli, editor in chief of comics. Timing was perfect, because his assistant, Sal Gentile, was about to leave for Florida, in two weeks. I was hired on the spot, and Sal gave me an immediate ‘cook’s tour’ of the plant. It took me a few days for all this to sink in, but Sal was a terrific guy, and this made it easy for me to understand the job.”

Judomaster 93 coverDuring his time at Charlton, McLaughlin worked closely with fellow artist Dick Giordano.  If you look at McLaughlin’s work, especially his inking, you can see that Giordano was a definite influence.  Considering Giordano was an incredibly talented artist himself, one could certainly do worse than to draw inspiration from him.

McLaughlin had studied judo since he was 18 years old, and he drew on his martial arts experience to create the character Judomaster for Charlton.  Judomaster made his debut in Special War Series #4, cover-dated November 1965.  The next year an ongoing Judomaster series was launched, which lasted for ten issues. (Confusingly the issue numbers for Judomaster were #89 to #98, carrying on the numbering from the cancelled series Gunmaster. This was a common practice at Charlton.)  McLaughlin wrote, penciled & inked the entire ten issue run.

Unfortunately I am not especially familiar with McLaughlin’s work on Judomaster or the other Charlton “Action Heroes” titles from the 1960s, but judging by the artwork I’ve seen from it online he clearly did good work on it.  The cover for #93 (“Meet the Tiger!”) is especially striking.  I did recently locate copies of Judomaster #96 and #98 at Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan, and I found them to be enjoyable, well-drawn comic books.

McLaughlin left Charlton in 1969 to freelance, and by the early 1970s he was regularly receiving work from both Marvel and DC Comics.  The majority of his assignments for the Big Two were inking the pencils of other artists.  It was actually via his work as an inker that I first became aware of McLaughlin, and developed a real appreciation for his art.

As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a lot of time attempting to acquire copies of every issue of Captain America published during the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favorite artists on Captain America was Sal Buscema, who penciled the series from 1972 to 1975.  Buscema was paired with several inkers during this four year run.  Reading those back issues during my high school & college years, I very quickly noticed there was something different, something special, about the work of one particular inker, namely Frank McLaughlin.

Captain America 160 pg 1 signed

To my eyes, McLaughlin’s inks over Buscema’s pencils were really striking.  McLaughlin gave Buscema’s pencils kind of a slick polish.  I guess that’s how I would describe it.  As a non-artist, sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate these things clearly.  Whatever the case, it looked great.

McLaughlin only inked Buscema’s pencils on six issues of Captain America, specifically #155-156, 160, 165-166 and 169.  I really wish he’d had a longer run on the title.  McLaughlin’s final issue, #169, was the first chapter of the epic “Secret Empire” storyline written by Steve Englehart.  The remaining chapters of that saga were inked by Vince Colletta.

I realize Colletta is a divisive inker, so I am going to put this in purely personal, subjective terms.  Speaking only for myself, I just do not think Colletta’s inks were a good fit for Buscema’s pencils.  As incredible as the “Secret Empire” saga was, I feel it would have been even better if McLaughlin had been the inker for the entire storyline.

Now that I think about it, when I was reading those Captain America back issues in the mid 1990s, and comparing Buscema inked by McLaughlin to Buscema inked by Colletta, and in turn comparing both to the other inkers who worked on that series the early 1970s, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me realizing just how significant a role the inker has in the finished look of comic book artwork.

McLaughin also inked Buscema on a few of the early issues of The Defenders, specifically #4-6 and 8-9.  Again, I wish it had been a longer run, because they went so well together.  In these issues the Asgardian warrior Valkyrie joined the team, and the combination of Buscema’s pencils and McLaughlin’s inks resulted in a stunningly beautiful depiction of the character.

I definitely regard Frank McLaughlin as one of the best inkers Sal Buscema had during the Bronze Age.

Defenders 4 pg 15

McLaughlin actually did much more work as an inker at DC Comics.  One of his regular assignments at DC was Justice League of America.  He inked issues #117-189, a six and a half year run between 1975 and 1981.

During most of McLaughlin’s time on Justice League of America he was paired with the series’ longtime penciler Dick Dillin.  Although I would not say that I am a huge fan of Dillin, I nevertheless consider him to be sort of DC’s equivalent of Sal Buscema.  In other words, much like Our Pal Sal, Dillin was a good, solid, often-underrated artist with strong storytelling skills who could be counted on to turn in a professional job on time.  I like quality that McLaughlin’s inking brought to Dillin’s pencils.  They made an effective art team.

Tragically, after completing Justice League of America #183, in March 1980 Dillin died unexpectedly at the much too young age of 51 (reportedly he passed away at the drawing board working on the next issue).  McLaughlin remained on for the next several issues, effectively providing finishes for a young George Perez’s pencil breakdowns, as well as inking over Don Heck and Rich Buckler. Nevertheless, as he recounted in a 2008 interview, he made the decision to leave the series:

“I did one or two issues, and then I said to Julie [Schwartz] “you know, I think I’d like to move on.” I was so used to what Dillin and I were doing together. I moved on and did a lot more other stuff.

“It was a good change of speed at the time, inking groups was fast becoming not a favorite–there’s too many people in there!”

Justice League 140 pg 1

Among his other work for DC Comics, McLaughlin inked Irv Novick on both Batman and The Flash, Ernie Chan on Detective Comics, Joe Staton on Green Lantern, and Carmine Infantino on the Red Tornado miniseries and the last two years of The Flash during the “Trial of the Flash” storyline.  He also assisted Giordano on several DC jobs during the mid-to-late 1980s.

McLaughlin’s last regular assignment in comic books was for Broadway Comics in 1996.  There he inked a young J.G. Jones on Fatale.

Between 2001 and 2008 he drew the Gil Thorpe comic strip.  In 2008 McLaughlin collaborated with his daughter Erin Holroyd and his long-time colleague Dick Giordano on The White Viper, a web comic serialized on ComicMix that was subsequently collected in a graphic novel in 2011 by IDW.White Viper cover

McLaughlin taught at both Paier College of Art in Hamden CT and Guy Gilchrist’s Cartoonist’s Academy in Simsbury CT, and he worked with Mike Gold on the instructional books How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics and How to Draw Monsters for Comics.

In his later years McLaughlin did commissions for fans.  One of the characters he was often asked to draw was Judomaster, which all those decades later still had devoted fans.

Writer & editor Robert Greenberger, who worked at DC Comics from 1984 to 2000, wrote a brief tribute to McLaughlin on Facebook:

“I grew up on Frank’s work, first at Charlton then DC and Marvel. When I joined DC, he quickly welcomed me and was a font of stories.

“Frank was a gracious man, friendly, and willing to talk shop with eager newcomers, share tips with rising new talent, and lend a hand wherever needed.

“He was a workhorse of an artist, adaptable and reliable — two of the qualities desperate editors always welcomed. Even after I left staff, we’d run into one another at cons and it was picking up where we left off.

“I will miss him.”

I fortunately had an opportunity to meet McLaughlin once at a convention in the early 2000s.  At the time I was regrettably unaware of his work for Charlton, but I did have him autograph one of the Captain America issues that he had so wonderfully inked.  I only spoke with him briefly, but he came across as a nice, polite person.

Nicola “Nick” Cuti: 1944 to 2020

Longtime comic book writer, editor & artist Nicola Cuti passed away on February 21st.  He was 75 years old.

E-Man 1 cover smallCuti, who was known to his friends as “Nick,” is best known for co-creating the superhero / sci-fi comic book series E-Man with artist Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  I’ve blogged about E-Man on several occasions.  Although I did not discover the series until 2006, I immediately became a HUGE fan.  The combination of Cuti’s brilliant, clever, imaginative writing and Staton’s animated, cartoony artwork resulted in a series that was exciting, humorous, poignant and genuinely enjoyable.

However, there was much more to Cuti’s lengthy career than just E-Man.  He was a versatile creator.

A longtime science fiction and comic book fan, Cuti began self-publishing his own black & white comic book series Moonchild Comics in the late 1960s.  The three issue series featured the outer space adventures of the voluptuous wide-eyed Moonchild the Starbabe.

Cuti was a huge fan of the legendary Wallace Wood, and on a chance telephoned the artist.  Woody agreed to look over Cuti’s portfolio, and he asked the young creator to work as one of his assistants.

Moonchild Comics
Moonchild Comics #2 by Nicola Cuti, published by San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1969

While he was at Woody’s studio Cuti learned there was an opening for an assistant editor at Derby, Connecticut-based publisher Charlton Comics.  Tony Tallarico, an artist who was doing work for Charlton at the time, urged Cuti to apply.  Cuti interviewed with editor George Wildman, who offered him the job.

In an interview conducted in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing, Cuti described his role at Charlton:

“Basically, I was the production department, myself and another guy by the name of Frank Bravo… The two of us handled the entire production department which meant that when artists would send in completed stories, we would look over the artwork, proofread it, and if there were any spelling mistakes, we corrected them. And if there were any pieces of artwork that had to be corrected for one reason or another, we would do that.”

Cuti also worked as a freelancer for Charlton, writing numerous short stories for their various horror anthologies throughout the 1970s. In addition to Staton, Cuti collaborated with a diverse line-up of artists that included Steve Ditko, Tom Sutton, Wayne Howard, Sanho Kim, Don Newton and Mike Zeck.  Cuti was a regular writer on the licensed Popeye comic book that Charlton published, as well as penning several stories for their Space 1999 comic book adaptation.  He also worked on Charlton’s romance titles.  As he would later explain in the interview with Comic Book Artist, one of the highlights of working for Charlton had been the opportunity to write for diverse genres, to tell various different types of stories.

Haunted 36 pg 11
“The Night of the Demon” by Nicola Cuti and Tom Sutton from Haunted #36, May 1978

In addition to his work at Charlton, Cuti was also a regular contributor to the black & white horror magazines from Warren Publishing.  Regrettably I am not all that familiar with Cuti’s writing for Warren, although I am sure that he did quality work there, just as he did for Charlton.  I encourage everyone to head over to fellow WordPress blog Who’s Out There?  Last year Gasp65 spotlighted the crime noir story “I Wonder Who’s Squeezing Her Now?”  Co-plotted by Cuti & Wallace Wood, scripted by Cuti, penciled by Ernie Colan, and inked by Woody, the story was originally written & drawn in 1971, finally seeing print in the fifth issue of the Warren anthology title 1984 in February 1979.  Cuti’s scripting on this tale, especially the ending, demonstrates what a thoughtful and intelligent writer he was.

In the early 1980s, following the demise of both Charlton and Warren, Cuti worked as an assistant editor for DC Comics.  In 1986 he moved to California and began working in television animation, a field he remained in for almost two decades.  Beginning in 2003 he worked on a number of independent films featuring characters he created such as Captain Cosmos and Moonie.

It is regrettable that Cuti was never able to establish himself as an especially successful comic book writer outside of Charlton and Warren, because he was, as I said before, an incredible writer.  Fortunately he established both a creative rapport and a friendship with Joe Staton early on, and over the succeeding decades the two men periodically reunited at several different publishers to chronicle the further adventures of E-Man, his girlfriend & crime-fighting partner Nova Kane, and scruffy hardboiled private detective Michael Mauser.  Cuti and Staton really did have a wonderful creative collaboration, and I definitely enjoy their work together.

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 pg 2
The origins of E-Man and Nova Kane, as retold by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1, 2017

Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet Cuti, although I was able to correspond with him on Facebook.  From everything I have heard from those who did know him, he was a genuinely good person.  After his passing numerous heartfelt tributes were penned by his friends and colleagues.

I am going to quote in full longtime DC Comics editor Paul Levitz’s lovely tribute to Cuti on Facebook:

“You can learn something about a creator’s personality from their work, but it isn’t always a completely reliable guide. If you read Nick Cuti’s work you’d get the feeling that this was a man with a generally positive outlook on life. His characters were playful, joyful even. But you’d still be underestimating the cheerful glow that Nick broadcast.

“As an editor, he ignored the moribund state of Charlton Comics and recruited talent who would go on to be industry leaders—John Byrne, Joe Staton, even my buddy and prolific DC scribe Paul Kupperberg broke into pro ranks at Nick’s hand and encouragement. And he created—with Joe Staton —Charlton’s last great series, E-Man, a hero who charm reflected Nick’s own.

“At DC for a number of years he was a relentlessly cheerful presence, and a guardian of the old humor treasures from our vault, making them available to a new audience.

“As a cartoonist he could blend smiles with sexy, and give us his Moonchild.

“The announcement of his death today after a battle with cancer leaves the world with less smiles…and hopefully his spirit in the world of his starry children.”

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 cover smallOn his own blog my friend Nick Caputo wrote a detailed retrospective of Cuti’s career which I hope everyone will check out.

If you are unfamiliar with Nicola Cuti’s work, I hope this will prompt you to check it out.  A lot of the Charlton comics can be found relatively inexpensively in the back issue bins at comic conventions and shops that carry older back issues.  Most of the E-Man comic books are also relatively affordable.  The original Charlton series, which ran for 10 issues, was reprinted by First Comics in the miniseries The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser.  Cuti wrote the final two issues of the E-Man run published by First in the mid 1980s.  Between 1989 and 2008 various E-Man and Michael Mauser comics by Cuti & Staton were released through Comico, Apple Press, Alpha Productions, Digital Webbing, and Argo Press.

Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton’s final E-Man and Nova story was serialized in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1-3, which can be purchased through Mort Todd’s Charlton Neo website, along with a number of other cool titles. As I’ve said before, I am glad Nick and Joe had one last opportunity to reunite and bring the curtain down on these wonderful characters.

Thank you for all of the wonderful stories throughout the decades, Mr. Cuti.  You will definitely be missed by all of your fans, friends and colleagues.

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.

David Hedison: 1927 to 2019

Prolific actor David Hedison passed away on July 18th at the age of 92. I always enjoyed seeing him appear on numerous television shows and movies throughout the years. He acted in several memorable productions.

David Hedison

Albert David Hedison Jr. was born on May 20, 1927 in Providence, RI.  Hedison first became involved in acting when he appeared in a school play in Junior High School.  He attended Brown University in Providence, where he majored in English.  Hedison subsequently studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York City.

Under the name “Al Hedison” he appeared in various stage productions throughout the 1950s, including the 1956 Broadway production of A Month in the Country directed by Michael Redgrave.  This brought him to the attention of 20th Century Fox, who signed him to a contract.  His first job for the studio was a supporting role in the 1957 movie The War Below starring Robert Mitchum.

Hedison’s next role was in The Fly (1958).  Directed by Kurt Neumann, The Fly was adapted from the short story by George Langelaan.  Several actors passed on the role of scientist André Delambre, since the character would spend much of the movie with his face hidden beneath a mask.  Hendison, however, was very taken with the screenplay by James Clavell and enthusiastically signed up.  The Fly was an incredibly well produced movie, one of the classic sci-fi / horror films, and it featured a very moving & tragic performance by Hedison.  It would become one of the most memorable entries in his lengthy career.

In 1960 Hedison was cast in the Cold War adventure series Five Fingers on NBC.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this short-lived show was that NBC insisted Hedison change his name, as they apparently felt “Al” was not distinctive enough.  Hedison decided to go with his middle name, and for the rest of his career he was billed as “David Hedison.”

From 1964 to 1968 Hedison starred as Captain Lee Crane in the sci-fi / adventure TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Despite repeated entreaties by series creator Irwin Allen, Hedison was initially uninterested, but he was finally won over when he learned Richard Basehart would be his co-star, portraying Admiral Harriman Nelson.  As Hedison recounted in a 2013 interview with Classic Film & TV Café:

“I had never met him, but I admired Richard’s work very much. I got his number from the studio. I called him up, and we agreed to meet at his house. He liked my enthusiasm, we hit it off and we worked really well together. We made the show work. Richard and I had real chemistry. He taught me so much about being camera ready when I needed to be. Television filming is so very fast, we always had to keep moving on. Voyage shot in six days–we filmed at a very fast pace.”

David Hedison and Richard Basehart

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was very much a product of its time, and of Allen’s production style.  It was totally story-driven, with stand-alone episodes and no real character development.  The first season, shot in black & white, was fairly serious, with a lot of gritty Cold War-type plotlines and a fair amount of location work. Once the show transitioned to color with season two, it started to become over-the-top and silly, with most of the episodes featuring a monster of the week, and pretty much everything being shot in the studio. The show also started reusing a lot of props from Lost in Space and other Allen productions.

Despite these drawbacks, Voyage is a fondly remembered series.  Hedison and Basehart’s performances definitely played a large part in that, and they often helped to carry some of the more far-out episodes.

Among Hedison’s other memorable roles were his two appearances in the James Bond movie franchise.  He played CIA agent Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die (1973) with Roger Moore as Bond.  Hedison becoming the first actor to play Leiter twice when he reprised the role 16 years later in License to Kill (1989), this time with Timothy Dalton as Bond.

I’ve always felt that having Hedison return as Leiter in License to Kill was a smart move.  In the original Ian Fleming novels Leiter was a close ally of Bond, but this never really carried across to the movies, because each time Leiter showed up he was played by a different actor.  The plot of License to Kill involves Bond going rogue and seeking vengeance against the South American drug lord who nearly kills Leiter.  This becomes much more believable if you have Leiter played by someone who has previously appeared in the role, someone who the audience has an existing connection to.  Even though Bond was now played by Dalton, having Hedison return as Leiter really helped sell the idea that these two men were longtime friends, and that Bond would go to hell & back to avenge him.

Hedison also found work in television soap operas.  Throughout the 1990s he was a regular on Another World, and in 2004 had a recurring role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

Although Hedison seldom received starring roles later in his career, he nevertheless worked regularly through the decades.  According to the New York Times, Hedison appeared in more than 100 movie and television roles during his lengthy career.

David Hedison Suzanne Lloyd and Roger Moore

Among Hedison’s noteworthy television guest roles, he appeared in a January 1964 episode of The Saint.  Also guest starring the lovely Suzanne Lloyd, “Luella” has Hedison playing a newly-married friend of Simon Templar’s whose wandering eye & overactive libido gets him ensnared in a blackmail scheme.  This was definitely one of the most humorous episodes of The Saint, and Hedison really threw himself into it with an energetic performance.  This was Hedison’s first time working with Roger Moore, and the two became good friends.

Another memorable turn for Hedison was “The Queen and the Thief,” an October 1977 episode of the Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter.  Hedison portrayed suave international jewel thief Evan Robley.  The episode guest starred Juliet Mills and John Colicos.  It’s certainly one of the more low-key episodes of Wonder Woman, but Hedison definitely sells it with his portrayal of the smooth, charismatic master criminal.

Interviewed in 1992, Hedison stated:

“I think I do comedy best. I think I’m very good at comedy. I’ve done a few comedy things in stock and whatever, and I’m very good at that. You wouldn’t know that from Another World because I’m so grim and serious, as I was as well in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but I do like comedy. I would love to do a comedy, and I’m sure I will someday.”

David Hedison WW

Given his fondness for comedy, I’m sure Hedison appreciated his guest roles on The Saint and Wonder Woman, as they enabled him show a much more humorous side than usual.

Hedison also possessed a great love for theater.  He appeared in numerous stage productions throughout his career.  In the 1990s and early 2000s he was a regular presence in regional theater throughout the New England area.

Hedison was married Bridget Mori.  They met in Positano, Italy in 1967, and were married in London a year later.  They had two daughters, Alexandra and Serena Hedison.  David and Bridget were together until her death from breast cancer in 2016.  I’ve always thought that was very romantic & sweet, that they were married for nearly five decades.

I was fortunate enough to meet David Hedison once, at a comic book convention in New York City in September 2009.  I got an autographed photo of him as Felix Leiter from License to Kill.  He appeared to me to be a very warm, friendly individual.  At the time I also thought he looked much younger than 82 years old.

David Hedison LTK signed

Due to his appearances in so many popular movies & series, Hedison was a frequent interview subject.  In October 2007 he penned a humorous foreword to the informative non-fiction book The Fly at Fifty: The Creation and Legacy of a Classic Science Fiction Film by Diane Kachmar & David Goudsward.  Hedison always came across as lively and enthusiastic, possessing a wry sense of humor.  Even when he was in his 80s he still brought a lot of energy to his interviews & appearances.

David Hedison will certainly be missed by his many fans.  He had a good, long life, working in a career he loved.  We should all be so fortunate.

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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.