It Came from the 1990s: Black Canary “New Wings”

A couple of years ago I sent a friend request to writer Sarah Byam on Facebook.  I had enjoyed Byam’s work in comic books in the early 1990s.  Having seen this blog, Byam asked me if I was interested in discussing her work on it.  I agreed, and she mailed me several books she had worked on.  Among these was the four issue Black Canary miniseries she wrote that DC Comics published in late 1991.  I read these back when they came out, but since then I sold off a lot of my collection.  So it was nice to once again have them.

Soon after Byam sent me those books life sort of got in the way.  I had to move into a new apartment, and find a new job, and so on.  Byam’s package ended up at the bottom of one of the countless boxes of stuff that I threw together during the move, and only recently did I finally dig it out.  So here, at last, is my retrospective on that Black Canary miniseries.

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

Written by Byam, the Black Canary miniseries has Trevor Von Eeden contributing pencil layouts, with the finished artwork by Dick Giordano.  Lettering is by Steve Haynie, and coloring by Julia Lacquement.

“New Wings” was, according to the text piece by editor Mike Gold in issue #1, the very first solo series to star Black Canary.  This was in spite of the fact that the character had been around, in one form or another, since 1947.  Serving as a longtime member of both the Justice Society and Justice League, the Black Canary also had a lengthy association with Green Arrow, cast variously as his girlfriend, partner and sidekick.  Nevertheless, it took 44 years for Dinah Laurel Lance to finally receive how own book.

Decades are an artificial construct, and truthfully there is very rarely a sharp delineation to separate them.  That’s certainly true of the 1980s and 1990s, with the end of the former and the beginning of the later serving as a period of gradual transition.

This miniseries certainly straddles the two periods.  In one respect it is very much rooted in the mid to late 1980s of DC Comics, which saw both the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with its revisions to long-term continuity, and the one-two punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which motivated a shift towards “grim & gritty” street-level characters.

It’s also very much of the early 1990s, when the comic book market was experiencing a huge boom, resulting in both DC and Marvel flooding the market with new books.  As a result of those market conditions, the Black Canary miniseries got the green light, something that might not have occurred a few years earlier.

The 1987 miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell had revamped Oliver Queen as a traditional archer, an urban vigilante based in Seattle, WA.  That story had also seen Dinah Lance brutally tortured, causing her to lose her “Canary Cry” sonic scream.

Although taking away Dinah’s superpower was undoubtedly an attempt to more realistically ground her alongside Green Arrow, in retrospect it is also an example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon, in female characters being reduced to helpless victims.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

The “New Wings” miniseries has Byam picking up those threads.  Dinah is still recovering from the trauma of being victimized, and of losing her powers.  She has also growing tired of constantly being in the shadow of the headstrong, arrogant Green Arrow, of playing the role of responsible adult to Ollie’s hotheaded thrill-seeker.  Angrily tossing the accounting ledger at Ollie’s head, Dinah at last asserts herself.  She informs him that it’s his turn to figure out how to pay the rent & bills, while she goes off to the mountains of Washington State in an attempt to find herself and regain her inner peace.

Visiting her “Auntie Wren” at the Quinault Indian Reservation, Dinah is introduced to Gan Nguyen, a reporter, radio talk show host, and social activist.  Gan’s activities fighting against Seattle’s drug dealers have made him very unpopular with certain powerful people.  On the trip back to the city Dinah is forced to change into her Black Canary identity to save him from a pair of racist assassins.

“New Wings” is, in certain ways, a very prescient piece of writing.  The drug operation that Dinah and Gan are pitted against is run by rich, powerful men with connections to both politics and private industry who utilize the people from poor rural communities to do the dirty, dangerous work.  The center of the cocaine distribution network is the town of Sandbar, which Byam describes thus…

“Sandbar is one of those quaint little seaside towns, too sleepy even for tourists to bother with. A little too ‘Mayberry’ for some, it’s a good place to raise your kids. A safe place.

“In Sandbar, people love the Fourth of July, and the old men press up their uniforms every Veterans Day.

“How does a town like that go bad? Stagnate? Lose its sense of purpose?

“Traditions of protecting freedom, of sacrificing, son after son, becomes traditions of protecting property, sacrificing truth after truth…

“Because the only thing more terrifying than the enemy… is change.”

Sandbar sounds very much like one of those Red State communities that in the last few years have wholeheartedly embraced Donald Trump.  Their economy is in ruins, devastated by trickle-down economics and corporations shipping jobs overseas.  Yet instead of recognizing who is actually exploiting them, they are all too easily distracted by the racist dog-whistles that scapegoat minorities, immigrants and non-Christians as the causes of all their problems.

Byam was clearly observant enough to perceive this burgeoning phenomenon way back in 1991, in the years immediately before the GOP, the Koch Brothers and Fox News would commence to enthusiastically fuel the fires of racism, xenophobia and paranoia among white rural communities over the next two decades, eventually bringing about the rise of the Tea Party and Trump.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

There are a couple of reasons why I have now finally got around to spotlighting this Black Canary miniseries.  One is the emergence of the hatemongering “Comicsgate” trolls in the last couple of years, angry white male fanboys who claim that diversity is destroying comic books, who want to return to the time when the industry was supposedly apolitical.  There is innumerable evidence to disprove their lies.  This miniseries, published in 1991, is certainly one example of how very wrong they are.

“New Wings” features a female character, Black Canary.  It introduces a Vietnamese American supporting character, Gan Nguyen.  It is written by a woman, Sarah Byam.  It is penciled by a black man, the Guyanese-born Trevor Von Eeden.  It is an extremely political story, tackling complex issues of racism, economic injustice, drug dealing, gun control and political corruption.  It raises some difficult, uncomfortable questions.

The other reason is the 2018 midterm elections.  This week over one hundred female candidates were elected to Congress.  This is important. It has been less than one hundred years since women finally gained the right to vote nationwide, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. And, as the last few years have vividly demonstrated, there is still so much work to be done in safeguarding equal rights, in making sure that they aren’t stripped away, in protecting women from once again being reduced to second-class citizens. We need to recognize that the struggle against sexism & misogyny, as well as all other forms of injustice, is ongoing.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

In additionally to being very well written and thought-provoking, the artwork on “New Wings” is exceptional.  The collaboration between Trevor Von Eeden and Dick Giordano is extremely effective.

Von Eeden’s layouts are dynamic, superbly telling the story, both in the action sequences and the quieter conversational scenes.  The finished artwork by veteran artist Dick Giordano is beautiful, with his characteristic slick, polished work on display.

“New Wings” did well enough that an ongoing Black Canary series was commissioned.  Byam and Von Eeden returned, with Bob Smith coming onboard as inker.  Byam continued to write stories that addressed political & social issues.  She was one of those writers in the medium who very much helped my teenage self begin to broaden his perspective, to consider the intricacies of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Regrettably the ongoing Black Canary title only lasted 12 issues, but the majority of them were very well-done.

It would be another few years before Black Canary would once again gain the spotlight.  In late 1995 she was paired up with Barbara Gordon / Oracle in the Birds of Prey special, which soon led to the long-running, very well-regarded series co-starring the two characters.

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

Both the Black Canary miniseries and ongoing were my introduction to the work of Trevor Von Eeden.  I instantly became a fan of his art.  I was immediately struck by both his stunningly beautiful depictions of the title character, as well as his amazing layouts & storytelling.

It’s very much worth noting that Von Eeden has been vocal about the fact that he never felt any real affinity for the character of Black Canary.  I say this because it definitely speaks to both his talent and his professionalism that he nevertheless did superb work on the series.

One other note: Whoever designed the series logo did a great job.  It looks amazing.

It’s unfortunate that “New Wings” and the subsequent twelve issue series have never been collected in a trade paperback.  However, it should be easy enough to find these in the back issue bins, or for sale online.  They are well worth tracking down.

Hopefully in the future I can offer a detailed look at the 1993 series, as well as some of Sarah Byam’s other works.  Cross your fingers!

Advertisements

Comic book reviews: X-Men Black – Magneto

What if Magneto was right all along?

Magneto, mutant master of magnetism, has been a central figure of the X-Men mythos since the very beginning. Frequently an adversary, but sometimes an ally, Magneto is a figure who has often found himself in the grey area between villain and hero, terrorist and freedom-fighter.

Initially conceived in the early 1960s as a one-dimensional megalomaniac determined to conquer the world in the name of mutant-kind, Magneto was later re-conceptualized by writer Chris Claremont.

It was revealed by Claremont that Magneto was a Jew from Eastern Europe who spent his childhood imprisoned in the hell of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Having seen his family murdered by the Nazis, and subsequently experiencing further discrimination after World War II ended, Magneto became convinced that humanity would never be able to accept the emerging mutant race.  Magneto was certain that another Holocaust was inevitable, this time with mutants facing extermination.  Resolving to never again be a victim, Magneto believed that the only way to prevent a mutant genocide was to preemptively conquer the world, to crush humanity before they could attempt to wipe out mutants.

X-Men Black Magneto cover

Claremont, the co-architect of many classic X-Men storylines, returns to Magneto in the new special X-Men: Black – Magneto.  “The Stars, Our Destination?” is penciled by Dalibor Talajic, inked by Roberto Poggi & Belardino Brabo, lettered by VC’s Joe Caramagna, and colored by Dono Sanchez-Almara.  The cover artwork is by J. Scott Campbell & Sabine Rich.

As the story opens, Magneto is in his civilian guise of “Erik,” sitting in a café near San Fernando TX, drawing in his sketchbook.  The waitress, a teenage African American named Kate, comes over to talk to him.  The two converse, and Kate explains that her family has owned the café for generations.  Her family also has a long tradition of military service; Kate’s mother tragically was killed while deployed overseas.

Their conversation is interrupted by a television news report that the government’s Office of National Emergency has opened a “detention center” outside of San Fernando to house mutant children who “are being detained for their own safety, as well as the security of the general public.”

Magneto is, of course, aghast, immediately seeing parallels to his own childhood imprisonment in Auschwitz.  He is further disturbed by the reactions of the café’s other patrons, who vocally approve of the government’s actions.

Kate is the only one present who perceives the terrible injustice in imprisoning children who have committed no crimes, arguing “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right!”  Unfortunately her protests fall upon deaf ears, with one customer angrily snarling “How can liberals be so stupid?” and another arguing “They’re talking civil rights, we’re talking the survival of the human race!”

Magneto, seeing how ugly the mood in the café has become, excuses himself.  Kate follows him outside to apologize for how the customers treated him, and she accidentally observes him beginning to use his mutant powers.  She isn’t afraid, though, and Magneto tells her “Today, child, I’ll wager you’ve made your mother proud. Never lose those ideals, Kate.”

X-Men Black Magneto pg 6

After a brief stop at his orbiting asteroid base, Magneto returns to Earth, where he approaches the Detention Center.  He is quickly attacked by ONE forces, including a woman in Sentinel armor.  Although his is briefly caught off-guard, Magneto soon gains the upper hand.  Using his powers, he destroys all of their weapons.  However, in an act of mercy, as well as so they will pass along his message, Magneto does not kill any of the government agents.

Magneto frees the children in the Detention Center, offering them sanctuary on Asteroid M.  The children ask if their parents and families will also be coming, and Magneto has no answer.  One of the children then tells him that they cannot run away, that they need to stay, to fight for the principles the country was founded upon.

Sad, but understanding, Magneto uses his powers to destroy the Detention Center and spirit the children away from the authorities.  Before he leaves, he addresses the prison officials:

“Your actions betray the bedrock ideals of your nation. You should be ashamed. Mutants are not your enemies. They are your friends, your neighbors, your family… Act as oppressors, you’ll be treated like them.”

Regrettably his words fall on deaf ears.  The ONE agents, completely disregarding Magneto’s act of mercy in sparing their lives, instead resolve to fight that much harder to kill him next time, genuinely believing that they are humanity’s first line of defense against extinction.

X-Men Black Magneto pg 7

In the past I have written about Magneto on this blog.  I have expressed the opinion that he is a man who let his childhood traumas and fears completely warp his thinking.  He is so terrified of another Holocaust occurring that he has become the very thing he despises.  As I saw it, Magneto’s good intentions had paved the road into his own personal hell.

But was I wrong?  Was Magneto right?  The events of the last several years have led me to question my certainty.  Chris Claremont’s story has given focus to my doubts.

Reading the X-Men comic books in the 1980s and 90s, I recall thinking that the anti-mutant racism and hysteria shown in the Marvel universe was depicted in a very overblown manner.  It seemed exaggerated and unrealistic, in comparison to our own real world.

Growing up in the 1980s, I believed that racism was mostly a thing of the past.  Yes, I acknowledged that there were still bigots out there, but I thought that they were now the exception rather than the rule.  I believed that so many advances towards equality were being made, that most people in this country had moved beyond racism… or maybe I should say that is what I wanted to believe.

As a middle class white male in suburban New York it was all too easy for me to ignore the widespread, institutionalized racism that still existed in the United States.  It was foolish and naive of me to believe that a nation that was founded upon the genocide of Native Americans and the brutal enslavement of blacks, a country that after the Civil War saw African Americans subjected to nearly a century of segregation and violent oppression, could completely turn away from racism & intolerance in just a few short decades.

X-Men Black Magneto pg 9

It took the events of the last ten years to finally open my eyes.  The election of Barack Obama to President brought to the surface all of the bigotry that had gone underground over the previous 40 years, but which had been quietly, persistently simmering just out of sight.  The idea that a black man was now occupying the Oval Office resulted in an eruption of vile, paranoid hatred, in the peddling of insane conspiracy theories and cries that the “white race” was in danger of extinction.  The Republicans were more than happy to cynically exploit the racism of their base, utilizing that blind hatred to obstruct Obama and the Democrats at each & every turn.

And then came Donald Trump, who wholeheartedly embraced the racist fear & anger of America, riding it straight into the White House.  Trump, a racist and misogynist who praises neo-Nazis and white supremacists.  Trump, whose administration is engaged in ongoing attacks on the rights of blacks and women and Muslims and the LGBT community and civil liberties and science and rational thinking.  Trump, who has separated thousands of children from their parents, and who has put those innocent children in cages, to the enthusiastic approval & applause of his many followers, who hate anyone who is different from them.

The idea that Magneto was wrong is predicated on the idea that another Holocaust would not, could not occur here in the United States.  However, the last several years have demonstrated that the institutions of democracy & liberty in our country are alarmingly fragile, and that we could very easily follow the evil path that Nazi Germany took 80 years ago.  Some would say that is exactly what we are doing right now, and perhaps they are correct.

And if that is the case, perhaps Magneto was right, and Professor Xavier was wrong.  Perhaps peaceful coexistence is not possible, simply because there are too many willfully ignorant, hateful bigots in this world, people who will not be swayed by appeals to reason or pleas for empathy, people who will happily see their neighbors sent to the death camps.  If that is so, then a man such as Magneto, for all his flaws and zealotry, might actually be a necessity.

X-Men Black Magneto pg 20

In any case, X-Men: Black – Magneto is an effective utilization by Chris Claremont of real-world contemporary issues to tell a compelling comic book story.  To anyone who wants to argue that in the past comic books were not political, Exhibit A for the defense could be Claremont’s original 17 year run on X-Men, which was frequently political, with mutant-kind serving as an allegory for any number of persecuted minorities.

Marvel Comics has been very reluctant to openly address Trump and his followers in their stories.  I am not surprised, given that Marvel is now owned by Disney, which has always endeavored to avoid controversy.  Certainly the recent firings of James Gunn and Chuck Wendig, both of whom have been extremely vocal in their criticisms of Trump on social media, demonstrates that Disney has no desire to overtly wade into politics.

Under those circumstances, the allegorical approach favored by Claremont is probably the best, at least if one is writing at Marvel, or DC Comics for that matter.  I have often commented that science fiction is an effective vehicle for addressing contemporary political & social issues, because the genre enables writers to utilize analogues for real-world controversies.  Claremont is certainly adept at this.  If he submitted a plot concerning the government putting young Hispanic children in cages it would undoubtedly be rejected flat by Marvel.  Instead he writes about a fictional government agency imprisoning mutant children, but it is very obvious what he is really talking about.

If there is one message that we can take from X-Men: Black – Magneto, it is that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  Democracy is not easy.  It requires active participation from its citizens.  We must vote in every election.  We must contact our government representatives to let them know how we want them to act.  Like both Magneto and Kate, we must loudly, angrily protest whenever injustice occurs.  If we do not, our freedoms will certainly be taken from us.

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

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

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

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

American Flagg house ad

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Flagg 11 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Flagg 3 pg 27

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

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

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

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

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

American Flagg 3 pg 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Flagg 2 pg 1

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

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

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

American Flagg 1 pg 17

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

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

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

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

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

American Flagg 9 pg 27

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

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

Tony Isabella returns to Black Lightning with “Cold Dead Hands”

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn.” – Rod Serling

I am very pleased to see writer Tony Isabella back on his signature creation, Black Lightning.  Jefferson Pierce, schoolteacher by day, superhero by night, was the first African American character to headline a solo book published by DC Comics.  Isabella previously chronicled Black Lightning’s adventures in the late 1970s, and again in the mid 1990s.  This new six issue miniseries Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is the first opportunity Isabella has had to return to Jefferson Pierce’s world in 20 years.  It was well worth the wait.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is actually something of a reboot to the character’s mythos.  All of the reality-altering events to have taken place in the DCU over the past two decades have provided Isabella with a chance to give Black Lightning a bit of a fresh start, keeping some elements of Jeff’s back story intact, revising and/or jettisoning others.

Jeff, as seen in Cold Dead Hands, has been a costumed hero for only a few years.  He is relatively young, and still single. Jeff is teaching at John Malvin High School, located in a predominantly black area of his hometown Cleveland.  An idealist who wants to make a genuine difference in his community, Jeff has made it his mission to help his teenage students achieve not just an education, but to also set aside hate & violence.

Jeff also works closely with Detective Tommi Colvalito, who he has known since they were children, and who he fondly refers to as “my sister from another mister.”  I was appreciative of the fact that Isabella established right off the bat that Tommi knows that Jeff is Black Lightning, avoiding the clichéd scenario of a hero’s close friend unknowingly pursuing them in their costumed identity.

The story opens shortly after the death of Jeff’s father, a veteran journalist.  Jeff has scarcely had an opportunity to mourn his father’s passing when a violent crime spree begins to engulf Cleveland.  Gangs armed with high-tech weapons are carrying out hold-ups across the city.

Jeff in his guise of Black Lightning attempts to stop this rash of robberies, a task made more difficult by the racial tensions inflaming the city, and by the fact that certain members of the police department resent that a black vigilante is, in their minds, upstaging them.  Matters are made even worse when Black Lightning is framed for murder by Tobias Whale, the mysterious crime lord responsible for arming the gangs.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 1 pg 14

In Black Lightning volume two, Isabella had Jeff describe Tobias Whale as “the single most evil human being I’ve ever know… an insidious and ruthless predator.”  Those remain the defining characteristics of the Whale in this new continuity.  Having scoured the country for technology left over in the wake of various failed alien invasions, the Whale has had his technicians reverse engineer the recovered artifacts, producing a lethal arsenal of “sci-fi guns.”

Tobias Whale is a monster obsessed solely with the acquisition of wealth and power.  He is willing to sacrifice anyone, even the members of his own family, to achieve his dreams of avarice.  Tobias explains to Black Lighting his vicious plan to flood first the city, and then the entire country, with the alien weapons…

“The frightened citizens will want to arm themselves against these guns, legally or otherwise. The NRA will demand the guns be available to all, and their toadies in Congress will agree. The gun manufacturers will spend millions, maybe billions, to make that happen. Eventually a great many of those millions will make their way to me. Once I lease my designs to those gun manufacturers, I will become richer and more powerful than entire nations.”

In addition to utilizing this miniseries to touch upon the epidemic of gun violence in America, Isabella also casts his gaze at the tragic rash of police shootings of unarmed black men, something that I do not believe has been examined anywhere near as closely as it ought to be.

As a white male, I cannot imagine what it is to be black in this country.  I simply cannot know what it must be like as a black man to walk down the street, knowing that any minute you might get shot and killed by a cop because you happened to be holding a wallet, or a cell phone, or a metal pipe, in your hands that was somehow mistaken for a gun, or because you were wearing a hoodie, or because you were moving in a “furtive” manner, and so on.  And I cannot conceive of the outrage and disgust that a black person must feel, witnessing again and again and again cops who have shot and killed unarmed black men getting off with, at most, a slap on the wrist.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 3 pg 17

Isabella is very concerned with the toxic effects of fear and bigotry on people, and upon society as a whole.  Us versus them, white versus black, cop versus civilian… fear plays a significant role in all of these exchanges.  And of course there will always be individuals such as Tobias Whale who will take every opportunity to fuel and exploit those fears for their own personal benefit.

The classic The Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is alluded to throughout this miniseries, with Jeff’s class staging a school play which is a thinly-veiled version of Rod Serling’s story.  At one point Assistant Principal Lynn Stewart tells Jeff that that another teacher has disparagingly referred to the school play as “SJW Theater,” and I chuckled.

Despite the manner in which some comic book fans have recently utilized the term Social Justice Warrior as a pejorative, the fact remains that for much of the history of comic books numerous creators have utilized the medium to advocate for progressive causes, and to rail against injustice.  Isabella has certainly been doing that for his entire career, and via his invocation of The Twilight Zone reminds us that Rod Serling was also doing so in one of the most popular television series of the 1960s.

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very political work, blunt and honest in its addressing of the issues and crises of racism, gun violence, and the unchecked excesses of the police.  I am appreciative of the fact that DC Comics gave Isabella carte blanche to write about these controversial issues.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 4 pg 6

The main artist on Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is Clayton Henry.  He does good, solid work.  It is flashy, but at the same time solidly rendered.  I previously enjoyed Henry’s work on various titles for Marvel over the past decade and a half, so it’s nice to see him teamed with Isabella on this miniseries.

Also contributing to Cold Dead Hands is the underrated Yvel Guichet, who is the co-artist on issue #s 4-6.  Guichet is an underrated artist who has been in the biz since the early 1990s.  I fondly recall his early work for Valiant, and I’ve also enjoyed his more recent assignments at DC.

Additionally, the talented Ken Lashley drew the cover for issue #5, as well as a variant cover for the first issue.  Mark Morales inks Henry’s covers for #1, #2 and #4.

I think it’s worth noting that Isabella, the creator of the Black Lightning character, is white, but he has often worked with black artists.  That is especially the case on Black Lightning.  Trevor Von Eeden (the penciler on the original series), Eddy Newell (the artist on volume two), Clayton Henry, Yvel Guichet and Ken Lashley are all black.  Isabella has always strived to make Jefferson Pierce an authentically African-American character, and I think it’s wonderful that a significant part of that has involved collaborating with artists of color.

Black Lightning Cold Dead Hands 5 cover

Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands is a very effective miniseries, with passionate and insightful writing from Tony Isabella.  He does a fine job both in developing his characters and in broaching important issues facing American society.  His writing is complemented by dynamic work from talented artists.

I hope that Isabella will once again have an opportunity to return to Jefferson Piece in the near future, either to recount his continuing adventures, or to explore his origins in this new continuity.

April 30th Update: It was great meeting Tony Isabella yesterday at the East Coast Comicon at the Meadowlands Exhibition Center.  Of course I asked him to autograph my copy of Cold Dead Hands #1. I recommend checking out Isabella’s most recent Bloggy Thing installment for some behind-the-scenes info on the miniseries.

Baby Boomers and the Bomb

In the last several years there has been much examination of the role that Baby Boomers played in shaping the dysfunctional America of the 21st Century.  I think at long last I have finally wrapped my head around an aspect of the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation that led to the creation of the screwed-up world we are living in today.  I actually owe this to comic book  writer Alan Moore.  The blog Dork Forty is examining Moore’s proposal to DC Comics in 1987 for a dystopian saga, Twilight of the Superheroes.

In his proposal, Moore wrote…

“What I want to show is a world which, having lived through the terrors of the Fifties through the early Nineties with overhanging terror of a nuclear Armageddon that seemed inevitable at the time, has found itself faced with the equally inconceivable and terrifying notion that there might not be an apocalypse. That mankind might actually have a future, and might thus be faced with the terrifying prospect of having to deal with it rather than allowing himself the indulgence of getting rid of that responsibility with a convenient mushroom cloud or nine hundred.”

Previously I have had a great deal of trouble understanding how the Baby Boomers could go so wrong.  How could a generation that grew up in one of the most economically prosperous, technologically advanced eras to ever exist go on to tank the economy, become violently anti-science, ignore inconvenient facts like climate change and elect politicians who severely destabilized the institutions of this country, threatening the prospects of numerous future generations, all for short-term economic gains?

I have heard it suggested that because Baby Boomers grew up in a time of prosperity and growth, with no financial hardship, no Great Depression or mass-unemployment, they developed the assumption that things would always be that way.  I think that definitely played a role.

However, the Cold War also undoubtedly also played a major part in shaping the self-centered, sort-sighted psyche of the Baby Boomers.  As Moore observes, for a period of several decades, between the 1950 and the 1980s, the possibility of nuclear war was very real.

mushroom cloud

So on one hand you have a generation that were basically handed everything on a silver platter, benefitting from previously-unseen levels of economic growth and technological advancement, living lives of comfort and affluence previously unknown to most of people in the world.  On the other hand, that same generation grew up being reminded on a daily basis that any minute those dirty Commies might drop the Bomb on us, kicking off a nuclear war and wiping out all life on Earth.

In a way, it is not too surprising that so many Baby Boomers went on to live selfish, self-centered, me-first existences, making no allowances for others, or for the long-term future of the country and the planet, because on some level they probably did not expect there to be a future.  This is a generation that lived each day as if it was their last because they genuinely believed it could be the last, that any minute civilization could end.  Now all these years later they are unable to escape that fatalistic mindset, to wrap their collective heads around the possibility that humanity could conceivably have a future.

I wonder if that is why so many older voters who voted for Donald Trump are perfectly fine with him playing chicken with North Korea.  Maybe the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse is something they lived with for so long during their formative years that it actually now seems much more palatable than facing the difficult work of actually having to deal with complex, long-term crises such as climate change, rapidly-changing job markets, and wealth inequality.

I do realize that there is more to this issue than just Cold War psychology.  I am also leaving out the existence of racism in America, which has warped the thinking of a great deal of the populace for many decades.  As well, there are the issues of an increasingly multicultural society and the fight for women and the LGBT community to gain equal rights.  Certainly, we cannot overlook the tendency of many people to want to find simple answers to complex solutions, and to look for scapegoats for society’s problems.

For all I know I could be completely wrong on this issue.  I just thought it was worth pondering.  Feel free to let me know what you think.

Comic book reviews: The Divided States of Hysteria

As we enter 2018, let’s take a look back on one of the best comic book series to be published last year.

The Divided States of Hysteria is written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana. The six issue series was published by Image Comics.

DSOH 1 cover

Chaykin is a creator who is no stranger to controversy, but The Divided States of Hysteria definitely generated more than its fair share. In addition to excessive levels of violence & sex, the series broaches upon a number of divisive political, economic and societal issues currently facing the United States.  It also contains graphic depictions of hate crimes.

Set in a reality all-too-similar to our own, the first issue of The Divided States of Hysteria opens one month after the President of the United States and most of the Cabinet have been assassinated in a failed coup d’état. CIA field officer Frank Villa is convinced that a massive terrorist attack is imminent, one that could push the already-destabilized nation into total chaos.  Frank is correct about the timing, but not the location, and to everyone’s horror a major American city is totally obliterated by militant Islamic suicide bombers armed with nuclear devices.

The vulnerable American government makes Frank the scapegoat for the failure to prevent the attack. His family dead, his career ruined, and his reputation in tatters, Frank receives an offer from Chandler Vandergyle, the CEO of River Run Inc, an amoral corporation that runs much of the nation’s prisons and security services.  Vandergyle wants Frank to organize & lead a covert unit to hunt down the heads of the subversive factions who conspired to carry out the terrorist attack.

Vandergyle knows the government is on the verge of collapsing, and the country is literally pulling itself apart, with numerous different ethnic, religious & economic groups engaging in violent acts against one another.  He hopes that a high-profile elimination of the terrorist leaders will shore up the Presidency and restore a degree of national stability, thereby enabling River Run to continue making obscene amounts of money.

Not having any other options, Frank reluctantly accepts the deal. He recruits a quartet of convicted murderers who are serving time in a maximum-security prison owned & managed by River Run.  Each of these four convicts has a tangential link to one of the terrorist organizations, and Frank hopes to utilize those connections, as well as the convicted killers’ aptitude for killing, to locate & eliminate the “bad actors” behind the bombing.

DSOH 1 pg 1

Frank is a very flawed, damaged character. Even before the terrorist attack he was an arrogant, overconfident, womanizing asshole.  Shattered by his failure to prevent the bombing, Frank takes the assignment because he literally has no other choices.  He is flailing about in the dark, motivated by little more than a half-baked desire to make up for his immense error in judgment that resulted in millions of people getting killed.

The closest thing to a moral center in The Divided States of Hysteria is Christopher “Chrissie” Silver, a transgender prostitute who identifies as a woman. Unlike the other convicts, who are all mass murderers & serial killers, Chrissie has been railroaded into a life sentence for killing three homophobic men in self-defense.

Chrissie is a smartass and a flirt. She is very much motivated by self-preservation, but she also possesses a certain degree of empathy & morality.  She soon perceives that Frank is stumbling around in a fog of uncertainty, and quickly takes the initiative to save both their lives.

There had been criticisms of the early issues that Chrissie was a stereotype, that she was poorly depicted, that the transphobic attack against her was clichéd and exploitative. I can understand the reasoning behind these criticisms, and early on perhaps Chrissie is somewhat thinly written, Nevertheless, as the story progresses I think she becomes its strongest protagonist.

The mastermind who organized the various disparate terrorist groups to work together is Leo Nichols aka Leonid Nikolyukov, a Russian oil oligarch turned American venture capitalist and movie producer. Chaykin initially conceived The Divided States of Hysteria in early 2016, when it appeared that Hillary Clinton would likely be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea how far along Chaykin was in his work on the series when Donald Trump won the election under a cloud of foreign interference & voter suppression, but the character of Leo Nicols nevertheless feels like a response to that.

Nicols is a wealthy Russian autocrat who successfully manipulates both financial institutions & mass media to severely undermine the stability of the United States; he is very much akin to the real-life individuals who were behind the dissemination of divisive propaganda during the 2016 campaign and who are now undoubtedly pulling Trump’s strings.

Of course Chaykin has often been a very insightful & prescient author, going back to his work in the early 1980s on the groundbreaking American Flagg! at First Comics. So it is quite possible that all of the details of The Divided States of Hysteria were already worked out prior to November 2016.

DSOH 2 pg 16

In an era when many single issues of comic books cost four bucks and take less than ten minutes to read, I found The Divided States of Hysteria refreshing. Chaykin’s plotting is dense, his scripting diffuse.  It took me quite a bit of time to read each of the six issues making up this arc.  I also found the series to be richer upon re-reading the earlier issues.  It is a fairly complex story.

One might regard The Divided States of Hysteria as very cynical. Chaykin himself has commented that what many have taken to be cynicism he regards as skepticism.  The Divided States of Hysteria does articulate his skepticism for institutions, ideologies, organized religions and economic systems.

Chaykin demonstrates there really is no difference between a “terrorist” like Nichols and a “patriot” like Vandergyle.  Both are aspects of the so-called military industrial complex.  The only thing that separates them is that one profits from destabilizing the United States, and the other profits from controlling it from behind the scenes.  The rest of us are just poor schmucks like Frank and Chrissie who are subject to events beyond our control.

Chaykin’s skepticism is reserved not just for those on the right, but also on the left.  As he writes in his editorial in issue #6…

“The right isn’t going to get a white-European America back. The left will never get a table where everybody sits at the head. The damage that has been done by our rulers and their masters to our country, and thus by extension to the world, will not be repaired in the time I have left on this planet.”

In spite of the series’ earnest, angry tone of outrage, the first arc ends on what is, all things considered, a fairly upbeat note. Certainly the conclusion was much more optimistic than I had been expecting.

This is only my impression, but having read a fair amount of his work I get the feeling that Chaykin is one of those people who, even though he knows how utterly unlikely it is, nevertheless sincerely hopes that one day things might finally work out for the best.

DSOH 2 pg 22

Chaykin does excellent work illustrating The Divided States of Hysteria. He expertly renders a large cast of characters in a multitude of settings.  At times I did find some of his layouts a bit confusing, the flow of action and the jumps from one scene to the next rather disjointed.  From time to time it can be a bit difficult to tell certain characters apart.  For the most part, though, Chaykin’s work as an artist here is effective.

Each of Chaykin’s covers for these issues are all very striking, a series of symbolic images that encapsulate the discord that has swept through the country, the clash of cultures and the atmosphere of fear. The color work by both Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana on these is striking.

Chaykin has worked regularly with letterer Ken Bruzenak since American Flagg! Bruzenak does a fine job on The Divided States of Hysteria.  In addition to his lettering of the dialogue & narration, Bruzenak also gives us a background “buzz” of electronic chatter and social media nattering.  This drives home the chaos & confusion brought about by the information, and disinformation, of the electronic age, driving home the omnipresent “noise” of the internet that often serves to distract or misinform the populace.  This “swarm” of data is juxtaposed with the ever-present drones populating the sky, signifiers of the twin intrusions of propaganda and a police state into our society.

The Divided States of Hysteria is a rich, complex, thought-provoking, deeply personal story from Howard Chaykin. The trade paperback collection is due out on January 10th.  I highly recommend it.

Howard the Duck for President

There has been certain skepticism regarding my cat Squeaky’s presidential campaign, with some wondering if a feline can actually even run for President. Well, let me assure you, Squeaky is hardly the first non-human to seek election to the highest office in the land.  Let us cast our gaze back four decades to the year 1976, when that foul-mouthed fowl Howard the Duck ran for President.

Howard the Duck 8 cover

Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s was a madhouse, and the lunatics were running the asylum. The company was in chaos, with little editorial oversight, deadlines being missed left & right, and sales on numerous books hovering at precipitously low levels.  On the one hand, this meant that for a time Marvel was teetering on the brink of collapse; on the other, this chaos enabled creators to experiment, to try all sorts of crazy ideas.  Howard the Duck was definitely one of those far-out concepts.  For a time the character was a tremendous success.

Howard the Duck was created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. In many ways Howard was Gerber’s baby (no pun intended).  Gerber possessed an extremely offbeat and farcical sense of humor.  He utilized the character of Howard, an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension stranded on Earth, to brutally skewer a variety of topics, among them politics, religion and popular culture.  So it was natural enough that Gerber would utilize Howard to mock the 1976 presidential race.  It’s the sort of storyline that even a few years later he simply could not have gotten away with at Marvel.

The main narrative of Howard’s quest for the Oval Office took place in issue #s 7-9 of his monthly title and in the oversized Marvel Treasury Edition #12. Artwork on the Howard the Duck series was by the team of Gene Colan & Steve Leialoha, while the Treasury was illustrated by Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson.

In issue #7, Howard and his human companion, the lovely redheaded Beverly Switzler, are hitchhiking through rural Pennsylvania. After their run-ins with the loony Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and the Incredible Cookie Creature, the pair catch a ride with country singer Dreyfus Gulch.  The rhinestone cowboy is scheduled to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the national convention for the All-Night Party at Madison Square Garden.  Arriving in NYC, Gulch arranges jobs for Howard and Beverly at the convention.  Howard work security, which mostly entails breaking up fights between delegates, while Beverly is a Hospitality Girl, which mostly entails her getting pinched in the ass by those same delegates.  (As far as I know, Bill Clinton was not on the premises.)

Howard ends up foiling a plot to blow up the convention. The delegates, impressed by both his bravery and his extremely blunt honesty, decide to make him the All-Night Party’s presidential candidate.  This immediately puts a target on Howard’s feathered backside.

Howard the Duck 7 pg 17

In the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition #7, the first assassination attempt on Howard is made by a quintet of lame wannabe super-villains led by Dr. Angst, Master of Mundane Mysticism, who convinces his fellow losers that fame & fortune awaits them once they kill Howard.

Meanwhile, the still-broke Howard and Beverly are in Greenwich Village searching for a place to crash. Mistaking Doctor Strange’s sanctum sanctorum for the home of Beverly’s old high school friends, the pair instead comes face-to-face with the Defenders.  At this point the legion of losers attacks.  Strange is knocked out by a mystic barrage of baseballs and the unconscious mage temporarily transfers his powers to Howard.

Yes, that’s right. Only one day after receiving the All-Night Party’s nomination, our plumed politician assumes the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.  If that’s not Commander in Chief material, I don’t know what is.  True, Howard’s turn as a veritable Ducktor Strange, Mallard of the Mystic Arts is short-lived, but he acquits himself well, playing a key role in helping the Defenders to defeat the despicable dimwits who have attacked them.

Howard the Duck as Doctor Strange

Also in the pages of the Treasury is an interview with Howard conducted by Steve Gerber himself. Queried about his qualifications and political experience, Howard articulates his reasons for running…

“I never kept one job more than three an’ a half weeks. Which is another advantage of the presidency. They can only fire ya for high crimes an’ misdemeanors. That stuff, I don’t pull. I just mouth off a lot.”

Perhaps you may be thinking to yourself that this is a terrible attitude for a Presidential candidate to have. But just look at it this way… ask any old human why they want to be elected to the White House, and they’ll give you some song & dance about “serving the public” and “patriotic duty” and “making America great again.”  But, truthfully, that’s all a load of horse pucky.  What they are really after is power and adoration and wealth.

In contrast, Howard comes right out and admits he wants to be President because he’s looking to (appropriately enough) feather his nest. How often do you come across a politician with that kind of honesty?

Moving on to Howard the Duck #8, having defeated their attackers, Howard and Beverly depart from Doctor Strange’s house. Within mere seconds they are attacked by a succession of would-be assassins hoping to earn the $10 million bounty that’s been placed on the duck’s head.  Fortunately Dreyfus Gulch zooms to the rescue in his armored limo.

Howard and Beverly are ferried to the offices of G.Q. Studley Associates, whose image consultants want to make Howard into the perfect pre-packaged candidate. Howard, of course, violently rebels at this.  Hiring Mad Genius Associates to manage his campaign, Howard embarks on a series of nation-wide appearances where he bluntly dishes out the unvarnished truth.  The misanthropic duck feels perfectly free to do so because he really doesn’t care if he wins or not, and he’s totally thrilled to finally have a soapbox from which to mouth off and tell everyone how stupid they are.

Howard the Duck 8 pg 10

You might say that Howard the Duck as a presidential candidate possesses the ideology of Bernie Sanders and the personality of Donald Trump. As one person in this issue comments, “My god, he’s telling the truth!  He’ll be dead in a week!”

Much to his surprise, Howard makes significant gains in the polls, and as Election Day approaches it actually appears that he might have a shot at winning. This all comes crashing down when a doctored photo that appears to show Howard and Beverly having a bath together is published by the Daily Bugle.  Yep, there’s nothing like the whiff of extramarital hanky-panky to send a promising political career into a tailspin.

As issue #9 opens the election is over and Howard has lost.  Truthfully he really doesn’t care, but Beverly is horrified at having been humiliated, “branded nation-wide as a shameless hussy.”  Dreyfus Gulch taps his CIA contacts, and they discover the forged photo originated in Canada.  Beverly insists to Howard that they head north to clear their names, explaining “My meticulously fabricated rep is at stake!”

Howard and Beverly journey to Canada, joining forces with Sgt. Preston Dudley of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Dudley leads them to the most likely suspect, “the infamous Pierre Dentifris, Canada’s only super-patriot!”  Dentifris has a burning hatred of America, regarding it as an arrogant bully that is constantly encroaching on Canada.  The attempts on Howard’s life and the forged photo were parts of an insanely convoluted (and just plain insane) plot to destroy America.  Further casting doubt on his sanity, Dentifris dons a suit of armor shaped like a giant beaver and challenges Howard to a fight to the death on a tightrope strung across Niagara Falls.  Howard, of course, perseveres, although the entire experience leaves him completely opposed to ever again entering the political arena.

Howard the Duck, as well as Steve Gerber’s other works, are something of an acquired taste for me. When I was younger I didn’t really appreciate his writing.  Quite a bit of his material went over my head.  As I got older, and my horizons broadened, Gerber was one of those creators who I grew to appreciate.  Looking at his work now, it’s apparent that Gerber was not the type to write down to his audience.  He certainly enjoyed pushing the boundaries.  Gerber was also very on-the-nose with his withering satire.

In regards to the blurb on the cover to issue #9, “When Bites the Beaver,” I’m curious if Gerber was sneaking in a crude sexual innuendo. Then again, sometimes a beaver is just a beaver.  After all, a few months after this storyline Gerber introduced the villainous Dr. Bong, whose head was a giant bell.  Despite much speculation over the years, Gerber always insisted that, no, the name Dr. Bong was not a drug reference.

Howard the Duck 9 cover

These issues have some really nice artwork. Gene Colan’s unconventional pencils are a nice fit for this series.  Colan specialized in rendering the genres of horror and mystery.  As can be seen by his work on Howard the Duck, he was a versatile artist who was also adept at humor.

Steve Leialoha is a great artist in his own right. He had only been working professionally for about a year when he inked these issues.  As has often been observed, it could be a difficult task to ink Colan’s pencils as he utilized very subtle shading.  Leialoha certainly acquits himself very well.  He possesses a rather abstract, flowing quality to his work, and his inking gives Colan’s pencils a slightly more cartoony quality that suits the tone of these stories.

I asked Leialoha on his Facebook page if he had any thoughts to share concerning his collaboration with Colan, and he was kind enough to respond…

“I like to think I took to inking Gene’s pencils like a duck to water! But, seriously, out of all the pencilers I’ve had the pleasure to work with he was my favorite.  Beautiful stuff!  Doing a little math: I figure I’d inked about 250 pages up at Marvel before Howard the Duck # 7 rolled around with about 70 of them over Gene’s pencils, so I was ready for it!  I look back at it now and see things I would do differently but I’m grateful for the opportunity, all those years ago.”

I’ve previously written about my great fondness for Sal Buscema’s art. He does a very nice job penciling the oversized Treasury.  It’s interesting to see him render the more oddball, cartoony elements of the story, such as Howard himself.

Klaus Janson, even this early in his career, was doing great work. As he has a distinctively gritty style, it’s noteworthy that he’s working on a humorous story like this one.  He and Buscema do make a good art team.

These issues are among the material contained within the Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 trade paperback. I highly recommend picking it up.  Trust me: in this insane election year, we can use all the humor that we can find!