Strange Comic Books: Captain America “The Drug Wars”

In previous editions of Strange Comic Books, I’ve looked at certain comics that had varying degrees of oddness.  However, this latest entry really is an especially bizarre item.  Published by Marvel Comics, the Captain America: The Drug Wars special is mind-bogglingly weird.

Captain America Drug Wars cover

A little background first: if you went to school in the 1980s and early 90s, you might remember that Marvel and DC used to work with various government agencies and private companies to publish what were the comic book equivalent of Public Service Announcements or After School Specials.  These were distributed to schools around the country, and featured popular superheroes in stories educating students about drug addiction, teen pregnancy, child abuse, asthma and, um,  tooth decay… yeah, what can I say, not all childhood dangers are created equal.  As you can imagine, none of these comic book PSAs offered what could be regarded as particularly subtle or nuanced examinations of complex societal problems.

Captain America was one of the characters to appear in these.  There were not one but two specials entitled Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs that were created by Marvel in the early 1990s.  I was reminded of these recently when someone mentioned them as part of a discussion on Comic Book Resources about the “Streets of Poison” story arc.  Cap is perhaps not the most judicious of choices to use as a spokesperson to convince kids not to use drugs, considering he gained all his physical abilities via the Super Soldier Serum.  Though, to be fair, Steve Rogers volunteered for Operation Rebirth because he selflessly wanted to help protect the world from Fascism rather than, say, break the record for most home runs in a season of baseball.  I’m sure you can see the difference between Cap and Barry Bonds.

Oddly enough, the first of these specials was sponsored by Guardian Life Insurance, who less than a decade before had been depicted in Captain America #291 as an evil corporation scheming to rip off supervillains in a massive life insurance scam.  I guess Guardian wasn’t one to hold a grudge.

Captain America Goes To War On Drugs 1 cover

According to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators, the cover for the first special, seen above, was penciled by industry legend John Romita and inked by Jose Marzan Jr.  Yep, that certainly looks like Romita’s work.

These two specials were, unsurprisingly, about as heavy-handed as you can get in terms of depicting drug use in a negative light, and in hammering home, over and over, the “just say no” message.  But obviously that was their point.  In the end they were well-intentioned propaganda devices that clumsily but earnestly were hoping to protect teenagers from turning into dope fiends, or something like that.

No, where things get odd is when Marvel decided to reprint the  two Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs stories as Captain America: The Drug Wars in 1994 and sell it in comic book shops.  They even had a brand-new cover for it, courtesy of S. Clarke Hawbaker.  (Whatever happened to S. Clarke Hawbaker, anyway?  I always enjoyed his work.)

And then we get to the actual material within Captain America: The Drug Wars.  The first story is more or less straightforward, with Cap trying to help out a teenage athlete named Mitch who has become addicted to drugs.  Yes, straightforward, except for the fact that Mitch gets his supply from an alien drug dealer.  Really!  But the extraterrestrial narcotics smugglers are more or less a side issue.  As Cap wisely points out, it doesn’t really matter who Mitch got the drugs from, but rather what the drugs are doing to him, like, say, causing him to accidentally knock out people with his fastball during high school baseball games.  Oops.

Captain America Drug Wars pg 9

To be fair, veteran comic book writer Peter David does a good job scripting a story that has a Very Important Message without it becoming too cringe-worthy.  And there’s some pretty good artwork courtesy of Sal Velluto & Keith Williams.

It’s only in the second installment that the proceedings become insanely anvilicious.  Cap, still working on tracking down the drug ring seen in the prior chapter, has joined forces with the teenage superhero group the New Warriors.  Following the criminals to their lair, Cap and the New Warriors find it defended by a quartet of super-powered teenage criminals with the names Weed, Crack, Ice and Ms. Fix, collectively known as the Drug Lords… no, I am not making this up!  And then Silhouette of the New Warriors unmasks the hooded mastermind lurking in the shadows.  Yep, it’s those pesky alien drug pushers, the Tzin, once again.

The Tzin leader and the Drug Lords escape by teleporting to an orbiting spaceship.  We soon see that the Drug Lords may have gained their powers through the use of narcotic substances, but (of course) this has also turned them into addicts.

Captain America Drug Wars pg 18-19

Back on Earth, Silhouette pays a visit on her friend Dorreen, only to discover the teen dance prodigy is using drugs to relieve the pressure she’s under.  This is all observed by Ms. Fix, who has been trailing Silhouette.  Ms. Fix realizes that Silhouette, who uses crutches, wants to regain full mobility, and tries to tempt her into joining the Drug Lords.  Silhouette surreptitiously summons Cap and tricks Ms. Fix into teleporting them all to the Tzin spaceship.  During the fight the ship gets trashed, and the Drug Lords’ supply goes up in flames, causing them to turn on their alien masters.  Cap, Silhouette, and Dorreen (who somehow also managed to end up on the ship) teleport back to Earth before everything goes boom.  Wrapping things up, Silhouette offers to help Dorreen overcome her addiction.

The writer on this half of the book is George Caragonne, who penned a handful of stories for Marvel in the early 1990s.  What makes Caragonne’s association with this anti-drug comic especially odd is that soon after he became the editor of Penthouse Comix.  And then a year after that he committed suicide.  Yeah, all joking aside, that was a really awful end for him.

Having the story focus on Silhouette was a good decision on Caragonne’s part.  As so effectively established by writer Fabian Nicieza in the ongoing New Warriors series, Silhouette was a former athlete who became partially paralyzed, but who continued to actively fight crime, not letting her disability hold her back.  So she was an ideal character to utilize in attempting to show that you do not need to fall back on mind-altering substances when adversity strikes.

Captain America Drug Wars pg 34

This second part is penciled by A Distant Soil creator Colleen Doran, with inking by Greg Adams.  I have to say it looks very beautiful.  Doran and Adams probably could have phoned it in if they wanted to, given the somewhat hokey, throw-away nature of the story.  Instead they turned in some real quality artwork.

It’s worth nothing that, by collecting those two PSAs as Captain America: The Drug Wars, those stories became an official part of Marvel canon.  I kid you not.  The Tzin even received a profile page in the Captain America: America’s Avenger handbook-style special in 2011.  I’m still waiting for someone to bring them back.  Because when you think about it, the Tzin actually had a somewhat more plausible scheme for conquering the Earth than most other alien invaders.  If you really are that hell-bent on attempting to take over the Earth, which has several thousand superheroes living on it and has successful driven off the Skrulls, Kree and Galactus on multiple occasions, then there are certainly worse schemes to hatch than getting the teenage population of the planet addicted to drugs.  Sounds like Marvel’s next big crossover if you ask me!

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Strange Comic Books: Spider-Ham in Marvel Tails

This installment of Strange Comic Books, my occasional look at the more odd & offbeat comics in my collection, was indirectly inspired by the recent news that the original artwork for two complete Amazing Spider-Man issues drawn by Steve Ditko had resurfaced after nearly half a century.  Specifically, those two stories are “The Coming of the Scorpion” from ASM #20 and “The Final Chapter” from ASM #33.  That later issue features the iconic sequence by Ditko & Stan Lee where Spider-Man struggles to lift up the massive pile of wrecked machinery that he is buried under.  This, in a very roundabout way, brings us to Marvel Tails #1 and only, published by Marvel Comics in 1983.

Marvel Tails cover

Marvel Tails #1 saw the introduction of probably the most famous, as well as clever, Spider-Man pastiche ever, namely Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.  This porcine parody of Spider-Man was devised by Tom DeFalco and Larry Hama.  DeFalco would, of course, soon after become well-regarded for his work on the actual Amazing Spider-Man title, as well as Thor and the long-running cult classic Spider-Girl.  But Spider-Ham was one of his earliest associations with all things arachnid.  As for Hama, though best known for his writing on G.I. Joe and Wolverine, he is also a huge fan of Carl Barks’ work, so it’s quite natural that he was involved in devising Marvel’s first funny animal character.

The title Marvel Tails is itself a pun on Marvel Tales, a long-running series which reprinted the Silver and Bronze Age Spider-Man stories.  In the days before Marvel had any sort of trade paperback program, Marvel Tales was the best way for younger readers such as myself to get caught up on the Spider-Man comics of the 1960s and 70s.

Marvel Tails pg 1

“If He Should Punch Me” is written by DeFalco and edited by Hama, with artwork courtesy of penciler Mark Armstrong and inker Joe Albelo.  In addition to introducing Peter Porker / Spider-Ham, we meet Steve Mouser, aka Captain Americat, and their boss, curmudgeonly Daily Beagle publisher J. Jonah Jackal.  Porker and Mouser are sent by Jackal to cover the story of the Masked Marauder, a mysterious figure who is sabotaging the massive Video City arcade.  There they meet Bruce Bunny, the arcade’s chief electrical engineer.  While Peter and Steve are busy touring Video City, the Masked Marauder locks Bruce Bunny inside a broken “Gamma Gambit” video game.  The rays from the game transform Bruce into the Incredible Hulk-Bunny, who bursts out and embarks on a rampage.

The exploding video game attracts the attention of Peter and Steve, who slip into their Spider-Ham and Captain Americat costumes.  Cap comes across the Masked Marauder, while Spidey tangles with the Hulk-Bunny.  During the battle, the Hulk-Bunny knocks out a support beam, causing a bunch of video games and soda machines to topple onto him.

Marvel Tails pg 15-16

And, yes, this is where that sequence by Ditko from “The Final Chapter” comes into the picture.  DeFalco, Armstrong & Albelo give us a playfully humorous parody of that classic scene, as Spider-Ham, pinned down by the huge pile of rubble, is inspired by his sense of responsibility and finds the strength to free himself.  Of course, in this version of events, after lifting up all of that wreckage, the weight causes the floor under him to collapse, dropping him on top of Captain Americat.  (Click on the above scans to enlarge for maximum humorous effect.)

The story soon wraps up, as the Hulk-Bunny is defeated and the Masked Marauder is, well, unmasked.  I won’t give you all the details, since it’s worth reading the story for yourself.  Marvel Tails was collected in the Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man digest-sized trade paperback published in 2010.  So go get it.

Marvel Tails pg 20

Rounding out Marvel Tails is a five page back-up starring the supernatural cyclist Goose Rider written & drawn by cover artist Steve Mellor.  It’s a ridiculously bizarre yet humorous set of gags that make absolutely no sense, but in a good way.

A year and a half after Marvel Tails hit the newsstands, Spider-Ham graduated into his own ongoing series.  Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham ran from May 1985 to September 1987, lasting 17 issues.  After that, Spider-Ham became a periodic back-up feature in, appropriately enough, Marvel Tales.  And then there was the story in What The–?! #3 which featured Spider-Ham facing off against Raven the Hunter in a send-up of “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  More recently Spider-Ham and his daughter Swiney-Girl showed up in Spider-Man Family, and there was a 25th Anniversary Special in 2010.

For an in-depth look at Spider-Ham’s creation and publishing history, I recommend picking up Back Issue #39 published by TwoMorrows and edited by Michael Eury.  Incidentally enough, Eury was one of the writers of Spider-Ham during his time in Marvel TalesBI #39 is topped off by a cool cover penciled by the late, great Mike Wieringo and inked by Karl Kesel.

Back Issue 39 cover

I don’t think the first Spider-Ham TPB sold especially well, since there unfortunately haven’t been any subsequent volumes.  In the absence of further collections, I think that Spider-Ham is definitely worth tracking down in the back issue bins.  It was a funny, clever series that offered some witty, good-natured Marvel self-parody.

By the way, getting back to our starting point, you can view scans of the original Ditko artwork from Amazing Spider-Man #20 and #33 on the website of Mike “Romitaman” Burkey.  It’s really fantastic to see.

Strange Comic Books: Doctor Who “Junkyard Demon”

As a comic book fan who also loves Doctor Who, in the last few years I’ve been spoilt for choices.   Here in the States, IDW has published a slew of Doctor Who comics featuring both new material and reprinting the British comic strips from the 1980s and 90s (I’m quite sad that their license expired at the end of 2013).  In addition, trade paperbacks from the UK have regularly made their way to comic shops here in North America.

Back in the mid-1980s, circumstances weren’t quite so positive.  If you were lucky, you might find the occasional issue of Doctor Who Magazine, which featured an eight page comic strip, at a comic shop.  I managed to snag three random issues during my youth.  By the time 1990 rolled around, I was finally frequenting a store that was willing to order the Magazine for me each month.  But until that point, the majority of the Doctor Who strips I read were those that Marvel Comics reprinted.

Doctor Who 13 cover

Marvel first began running the strips from Doctor Who Weekly (later Doctor Who Monthly, and then Magazine) in their anthology title Marvel Premiere in four issues that came out in late 1980.  Then, from 1984 to 1986, Marvel had an ongoing Doctor Who comic that lasted 23 issues, continuing the reprints of the British strips.  Dave Gibbons, the artist on many of the comic serials featuring the Fourth and Fifth Doctors, contributed some really great brand-new covers for those US issues.  Long before I picked up a copy of Watchmen, that’s how I discovered his work.

To tell the truth, the Doctor Who comic strips were often very strange.  Unencumbered by the shoestring budget of the television show, the writers & artists created an assortment of strange monsters and bizarre alien worlds.  Beep the Meep, the adorably cute but ruthlessly homicidal extraterrestrial tyrant, certainly epitomizes the weirdness that readers would find in those stories.  Many of the creators who worked on the Doctor Who strip were also regular contributors to the sci-fi anthology title 2000 AD, and they brought along their accompanying satirical, darkly humorous sensibilities.

All that said, one of the most unusual Doctor Who comic book stories is probably “Junkyard Demon,” which originally ran in Doctor Who Monthly #58-59 in 1981, and was reprinted in Doctor Who #13 in 1985.  It was written by Steve Parkhouse, who had become the strip’s writer a few stories earlier, imbuing it with a grim, sardonic atmosphere.  The artwork was by Mike McMahon & Adolfo Buylla, and it was an absolute 180 degrees away from the clean, realistic style of Gibbons.

Doctor Who 13 pg 5

The TARDIS is snatched up mid-flight by the immense salvage ship Drifter, which is manned by the eccentric, oddball trio of Flotsam, Jetsam, and Dutch (keep in mind this was three decades before the television episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS”).  The robot Dutch tries to open the TARDIS doors with a drill, in the process awakening the Fourth Doctor from his meditation.  Although initially annoyed at having been mistaken for scrap by the strange group, the Doctor quickly remembers that he needs a non-variable oscillator to repair the hot chocolate machine in the TARDIS.  Flotsam starts searching through her scrap for the part, in the process unearthing a Cyberman.  The Doctor understandably reacts in alarm and hurls a wrench at it, before realizing the cyborg is deactivated.  At this point Jetsam informs the Doctor that he’s planning to reprogram it as a mechanical butler!  A relieved Doctor brews up some hot chocolate for himself, Flotsam, and Jetsam.  However, they are then attacked by the Cyberman, which has now awakened.

“Junkyard Demon” is enjoyably offbeat, and I’d rather not give away the rest of Steve Parkhouse’s insanely clever story.  You can read the entire 16 page tale on Mike McMahon’s blog, where it is presented in the original black & white.  My thanks to the talented Simon Frasier (who himself worked on Doctor Who, illustrating the first issue of the Prisoners of Time) for posting a link to this on Facebook last month.

McMahon & Buylla’s artwork on this story is definitely striking.  I’m trying to remember exactly what my nine year old self made of it when I read this back in 1985.  Obviously I immediately noticed how completely different it was from Gibbons’ regular work.  As I recall, even though I thought it was strange, I did like it.  McMahon’s depiction of Tom Baker is, in one respect, a caricature.  Yet at one glance it is immediately identifiable as the Fourth Doctor.  It’s certainly not photo-realistic, but it is a fantastic encapsulation of Baker’s eccentric, bohemian persona.  That’s especially apparent in the intense, wide-eyed gaze McMahon gives the Doctor.

Doctor Who 13 pg 9

I also loved the fact that the Cybermen in “Junkyard Demon” are similar to the original version seen in “The Tenth Planet.”  If you look closely, these Cybermen have physical characteristics from both their debut story and their second appearance in “The Moonbase.”  The Cybermen in “The Moonbase” were part of a group who had departed from Mondas a number of years before its destruction.  The ones we see in “Junkyard Demon” can be considered the transitional stage between their “patchwork creature” beginnings (to quote fellow blogger Paul Bowler), and the more functional, streamlined figures in subsequent television stories.  I don’t know if it was Parkhouse or McMahon’s decision to use early-model Cybermen, but it certainly made this story even more distinctive.

McMahon was definitely a good choice to pencil this story.  The US cover drawn in 1985 by Gibbons is perfectly fine, and I certainly do not want to disparage his immense talent.  But looking at McMahon’s depiction of the Cybermen within, they seem much more textured and organic, with a creepy, unsettling quality not present in Gibbons’ somewhat sleeker, robotic rendition.  McMahon brings across the notion of something once human, the product of spare-part surgery.

Actually, given that this whole story is about junk and refuse, a future of used, second-hand technology, McMahon’s style is perfect.  Years later, when I had the opportunity to see his work on various Judge Dredd stories for 2000 AD, I had that same feeling.  In those tales, McMahon definitely succeeded in creating a tangible atmosphere, bringing to life the post-apocalyptic dystopian metropolis of Mega City One.

Junkyard Demon II page 1

“Junkyard Demon” is apparently something of a fan favorite among both readers and creators who later went on to work on the comic strip.  Fifteen years later, writer Alan Barnes and artist Adrian Salmon created a sequel, which appeared in the 1996 Doctor Who YearbookYou can read the eight-page “Junkyard Demon II” on the Cybermantra blog.  I think Barnes and Salmon did a good job capturing the spirit of the original story, while also crafting a tale that also works well on its own.

Strange Comic Books: Batman Legends of the Dark Knight #38

Having sorted through many of the comic books I wanted to get rid of, and those I wanted to hold on to, I decided that Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was definitely a keeper.  Legends of the Dark Knight was anthology series that DC Comics published from 1989 to 2007.  Numerous creative teams took turns crafting tales that were often only kind-of, sort-of in continuity, which led to all manner of interesting depictions of Batman’s early years as a crime fighter.   One of the most memorable of these was “Legend of the Dark Mite,” written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.  It was undoubtedly a wonderfully weird and strange issue.

Batman LOTDK 38 cover

“Legend of the Dark Mite” sees the reintroduction of the oddball Bat-Mite to the post-Crisis DCU.  Bat-Mite was one of those offbeat characters who debuted during that odd period in the 1950s and early 60s when the Batman stories had drifted quite afar from their noir roots.  During this time, the Caped Crusader would end up fighting alien invaders and monsters, as well as getting transformed into “The Zebra Batman,” or wearing an assortment of unusual one-off costumes.  Bat-Mite was an Imp originating from the Fifth Dimension, much like pesky Superman foe Mister Mxyzptlk.  Bat-Mite considered himself Batman’s biggest fan and, dressed in a knock-off of the Dark Knight’s costume, attempted to assist his idol in fighting crime.  Unfortunately, Bat-Mite was a klutz who was unable to use his powers very effectively, and so he was usually much more of a nuisance than an ally to Batman.  He was definitely written for comedic effect, and so by the time Batman returned to his darker pulp roots in the 1970s Bat-Mite had pretty much faded from the picture.

Alan Grant and Kevin O’Neill decided to bring back Bat-Mite in 1992, albeit with the proviso of “maybe he’s real, and maybe he’s not.”  They deftly, and humorously, accomplish this by having the events of “Legend of the Dark Mite” told almost entirely from the point of view of Overdog, a petty criminal & drug addict who has more or less fried his brain through the abuse of controlled substances.

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 7

Overdog and a couple of his burn-out pals come up with the none-too-brilliant idea of robbing & killing one of Gotham’s big-time drug dealers.  After brutally slaying him and consuming vast quantities of pills, they are discovered by Batman.  While the Dark Knight is busy tangling with the other two addicts, Overdog flees.  Before he can make it very far, though, he comes across, in his words, “an elf dressed in a crazy-looking Batman costume.”  (I love that look on Batman’s face in the second panel on page seven!)

Bat-Mite insists that Overdog go back and surrender to Batman.  The addict doesn’t take kindly to this suggestion and empties his machine gun at the Imp point-blank.  This, of course, has absolutely no effect on Bat-Mite, who uses his powers to repeatedly bludgeon Overdog’s head with his own firearm.  And then some of Overdog’s associates arrive, looking for the money he owes them.  Spotting Bat-Mite, Johnny Caruso & his gang all open fire but, once again, they’re completely ineffectual.  All this serves to do is make Bat-Mite angry.  And you won’t like Bat-Mite when he’s angry.  Oh, wait, is that a different character?  Well, in any case, this happens:

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 10

Bat-Mite on steroids proceeds to violently demolish Caruso’s crew.  He then seizes Overdog and “pops” him back into his home dimension.  As Bat-Mite explains it, he and the rest of the magical inhabitants of his universe have been observing Earth through their “windows of the world.”  To entertain themselves, they dress up as their favorite heroes & villains and re-enact their adventures.

Bat-Mite returns Overdog to Earth, where the junkie has a sudden spiritual experience… or something.  Realizing he has wasted his life with drugs and violence, Overdog vows to go straight.  Of course, Batman understandably believes that Overdog is crazy, and hauls him off to Arkham Asylum, where he’s declared insane.  And, despite the fact that there are aspects to the case that Batman cannot explain, such as “a grand piano chasing two men uphill” and Overdog knowing about events that he shouldn’t have, Batman just cannot bring himself to believe in a magical elf wearing a Bat-suit.  The Dark Knight departs Arkham, leaving a straight-jacketed Overdog to shriek & scream to a Bat-Mite that only he can see “I’m not mad!”

Wow, that was absolutely crazy! “Legend of the Dark Mite” is really great, twisted stuff by Alan Grant & Kevin O’Neill.  I’m a big fan of both their works.

Grant has been a regular contributor to the weekly British sci-fi comic anthology 2000 AD for many years, scripting numerous installments of Judge Dredd and Anderson: Psi Division.  In the later, he did wonderful work developing the character of Cassandra Anderson, offering an alternate, more cerebral & spiritual perspective on the dystopian Mega City One to the stark, hard-boiled view often seen in the Dredd stories.  Here in the States, Grant wrote many issues of Batman and Detective Comics in the late 1980s and early 90s, often collaborating with the talented, underrated Norm Breyfogle.  Grant also penned Lobo for quite a number of years, using the series as an ultra-violent send-up of grim & gritty comics.

Oh, yes, Grant has also written The Terminator for comics several times, but if you ask him about it, he’s liable to mutter “Bloody Terminator” under his breath. (When tasked with writing Superman vs. The Terminator, he sardonically commented “What am I supposed to do, give them Kryptonite batteries?”)  I met him at a convention in Bristol, England back in 1999, and since my comic collection was back in the States, all I had for him to autograph were a couple of issues of The Terminator.  I made sure to apologize profusely!

Batman LOTDK 38 pg 17

As for O’Neill, he really has an absolutely unique, bizarre style.  He also started out working on 2000 AD, where he co-created the Nemesis the Warlock feature with Pat Mills.  O’Neill began working on American comics in the mid-1980s, and infamously ran afoul of the Comics Code Authority, which back then wielded much more influence.  As O’Neill himself explained in 2001 to the Barbelith Webzine, “I was working on an Alan Moore story. The CCA objected – not to the actual story but to the style that it was drawn in. I had aliens being crucified and stuff like that. My editor asked if we could run it with a code sticker if we toned down the crucifixion. They said there was NOTHING they could do to the artwork that would help. I loved that! I loved the idea that these old grannies were sitting in an office in New York poring over every comic page. It was 1950s.”

Nowadays O’Neill is well known for his collaborations with Alan Moore on the various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen miniseries and graphic novels.  O’Neill’s strange, hyper-detailed work is absolutely perfect for establishing the various pseudo-historical periods that series is set in, as well as fitting in all of Moore’s obscure literary & cultural references.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #38 was likely the first time I saw O’Neill’s work.  It totally blew my mind.  The scenes set in Bat-Mite’s home dimension, with his fellow Imps recreating the adventures of their costumed counterparts in the “regular” universe, were strange & hysterical.  A few years later, in 1999, when I was in Britain and had the opportunity to pick up quite a few of the 2000 AD back issues and trade paperbacks, I really became a fan of O’Neill’s style.  I was subsequently very happy that he really came into the spotlight here in the States via his work with Moore on League.

Letterer extraordinaire John Workman also did superbly on “Legend of the Dark Mite.”  His fonts & calligraphy were really great at helping to establish & drive home the ridiculous, insane, and humorously twisted material.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: lettering is such a key, overlooked aspect of the overall storytelling process in comic books.  Workman is among the best, and his lettering really complements O’Neill’s artwork.

Legends of the Dark Knight #38 is definitely worth tracking down.  You can find it on Ebay very easily (I just took a look, and found over a dozen people selling copies).  The issue was also collected in the Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight trade paperback published in 1994.  That’s now out of print, but it is available at rather reasonable prices on Amazon.  And the rest of the material collected within it is also very good.

Strange Comic Books: Spider-Man “Life in the Mad Dog Ward”

I’ve written before about the classic Spider-Man story “Kraven’s Last Hunt” which originally came out back in 1987.  I think that many people have forgotten that immediately after J.M. DeMatteis’ six part arc concluded, the very next month another storyline ran across all three of the Spider-Man titles.  Appearing in Web of Spider-Man #33, Amazing Spider-Man #295, and Spectacular Spider-Man #133, it was written by Ann Nocenti, penciled by Cynthia Martin, and inked by Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker & Josef Rubinstein, with covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  There wasn’t an overarching title to the story, but I refer to it by the cover copy on Amazing #295, “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Whereas the previous six issues had seen Spider-Man buried alive, Ann Nocenti’s arc featured him getting locked up in an insane asylum!

amazing spiderman 295 cover

Housewife Vicky Gibbs is alone with her thoughts & inner demons.  The already emotionally troubled mother of two has finally decided to leave her husband Frank.  She can no longer stand the fact that he has become involved in the mob, specifically the organization controlled by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.  Before Vicky and her children Jacob and Tanya can leave, though, Frank arrives home.  And soon after, he receives orders from the Kingpin’s right-hand man the Arranger, orders that involve having his wife committed to the Pleasant Valley mental hospital.

Pleasant Valley, which is owned by the Kingpin, is a front.  In cases where there are former associates of Fisk’s or witnesses to his crimes who, for one reason or another, cannot simply be killed, he pulls strings to have them declared mentally unfit and sent to Pleasant Valley.  There they are detained indefinitely and drugged to keep them silent & pacified.  Running the hospital is the Doctor, who in exchange for collaborating with the Kingpin is allowed to engage in unethical medical experiments.  This Doctor also occasionally reprograms certain patients to serve as assassins for the Kingpin.

Elsewhere, Peter Parker is walking about in a daze.  He is recovering from his traumatic encounters with Kraven & Vermin, as well as worrying about more mundane matters such as bills and his relationship with his wife.  After having dinner at his Aunt May’s house, Peter is wandering the streets of Forest Hills.  Suddenly his spider sense goes off as an ambulance rushes by, with Jacob and Tanya futilely chasing after it on foot.  Bumping into Peter, the two children explain that their mother is being sent to Pleasant Valley.  Returning to his apartment, a restless Peter is unable to sleep.  He keeps wondering if there is more to the children’s story than he initially thought.  Slipping into his Spider-Man costume, he heads back to Queens to investigate.

Jacob and Tanya have also gone to Pleasant Valley, having stolen their father’s gun, believing they can rescue their mother.  Frank arrives to stop his children, but all three are soon detained by the hospital’s armed security force.  When the guards move to grab the trio, Spider-Man swings in and knocks out the majority of them.  One, however, sadistically tosses Tanya off the roof of the asylum, and when Spider-Man leaps to catch her, he is shot.  Lying wounded in an alley, the bleeding web-slinger urges Tanya to flee.

amazing spiderman 295 pg 14

Peter regains consciousness in Pleasant Valley, having been patched up by the physicians there.  The cynical staff, who refer to the hospital as “the Mad Dog Ward,” think that Peter is just some nut who only believes he is a superhero.  When the weakened Peter resists, he is quickly drugged & restrained.  Only the Doctor realizes that this new patient is exactly who he claims to be.  He is looking forward to experimenting on Spider-Man’s mind, but first he must complete his conditioning of the Kingpin’s latest assassin, Mad Dog 2020 aka Brainstorm.

Drugged and disoriented, Peter struggles to string his thoughts together coherently.  He befriends Mary, a nurse new to the facility who is already unsettled by what she sees.  Peter gets Mary to let him talk to Vicky, but she is in even more of an anesthetized stupor than he is.  Peter also meets Zero, a very dim but strong & well-intentioned man-child whose greatest wish is to be a genuine superhero.

Peter attempts to rally his fellow patients to revolt.  Unfortunately, everyone is too zonked out on drugs, and the uprising is soon quashed by the staff.  The Doctor realizes that Zero, who he had hoped to program into a future Mad Dog assassin for the Kingpin, has proven non-aggressive, yet at the same time continues to rile up the other patients.  And so the Doctor decides to have Zero lobotomized.  Once Peter begins to become coherent again, he learns of this impending procedure.  Undeterred by his previous failure, Peter attempts to convince Mary to switch the patients’ daily drugs for a placebo.  The nurse is reluctant, fearing that suddenly coming off their medication will make them violent or suicidal, but eventually she decides to go along with the plan.

The next day, the patients begin to come out of their stupor.  We start seeing some rather odd, aggressive behavior from the various inmates, but seemingly nothing too outrageous.  And then THIS happens:

spectacular spiderman 133 pg 11

Yipes!  Whenever I turn the page and see this, I start laughing uncontrollably.  Is that Cynthia Martin channeling Edvard Munch?  In any case, Peter takes advantage of this ruckus to break out of his bonds.  He and Mary free Vicky and Zero from their cells.  However, the Doctor, in addition to being backed up by his security guards, sets loose Brainstorm.  The programmed killer attacks, but fortunately Peter has regained his superhuman strength & reflexes, and he manages to defeat the Mad Dog.

Before the Doctor can make another move, he finds himself with a gun pointed at his head by Frank Gibbs.  After much soul-searching, and having been shamed into action by his children, the mobster has finally decided to leave his life of crime behind and spring his wife.  Using the Doctor as a hostage, Frank, Vicky and Peter are able to make their way out of the Mad Dog Ward.

A day later, Peter returns to Pleasant Valley with Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich, hoping to expose the facility’s abusive practices.  Unfortunately, the Kingpin has beaten both them and the authorities to the punch.  The Arranger has called a press conference to announce that an “appalled” Fisk has only just uncovered the unethical behavior at Pleasant Valley, and that the Doctor is now in police custody.  Peter is disgusted that the Kingpin has managed to weasel his way out of trouble yet again, maintaining his façade of a respectable businessman.  On his way out, he passes by Mary, who is leaving to find a better job.  As the story closes, we see Vicky, Frank, Jacob and Tanya driving west, preparing to start a brand new life.

“Life in the Mad Dog Ward” is certainly a strange, unsettling story.  Ann Nocenti has always been a very unconventional writer.  When I first discovered her work, via this story and her run on Daredevil in the late 1980s, I initially found her work off-putting.  At the time I guess I was expecting more conventional superhero stories.  What I got from Nocenti were examinations of the roles women play in society, environmental degradation, corporate corruption, faith & religion, animal rights, crime & punishment, and the psychological motivations that make people into who they are.  This was really heavy, deep material for a teenager, especially as Nocenti certainly did not err on the side of subtlety.  She pulled no punches, espousing her views with bluntness and conviction.

Yet at the same time, when she presented her various antagonists, Nocenti took the time to render them three-dimensional, to delve into what made them tick.  The Kingpin, Typhoid Mary, Bushwacker, and Bullet committed monstrous acts, but Nocenti gave us a look into their heads, to show how from their points of view they each felt they were behaving in a justifiable, rational manner.  She even wrote what was probably one of the most nuanced portrayals of Marvel’s own Devil figure, Mephisto.

In the mid-1990s, I began to have a greater appreciation for Nocenti’s writing, and I really enjoyed the series of stories she did in Marvel Comics Presents with artist Steve Lightle where she delved further into the twisted psyche of her creation Typhoid Mary.  Nowadays, looking back on her work at Marvel, I really am able to grasp just how sophisticated and ahead of her time Nocenti really was, bringing a very unique sensibility to mainstream comic books.  It’s definitely a pleasure to re-read stories such as “Life in the Mad Dog Ward” and look at them from a different, adult perspective, to catch the aspects of them I didn’t pick up on when I was younger.

We see in Vicky Gibbs a woman who feels constrained by the role of wife and mother.  Her husband Frank expects her to placidly accept what he does for a living, even if it is illegal, because it puts food on the table.  Frank believes that as long as he is in the role of breadwinner, Vicky should simply accept her own responsibilities as a traditional housewife.  Obviously Frank is very much in the wrong, dismissing Vicky’s concerns about where the money comes from, and how the anxiety over it has exacerbated her mental illness.  He is equally at fault when he allows the Kingpin’s goons to pack Vicky off to a mental hospital in order to save his own skin.  Yet, as written by Nocenti, we can see how Frank has rationalized all of his decisions.  However, once Vicky is out of the picture, locked away in Pleasant Valley, Frank is forced into the role his wife previously held, caring for their children.  And seeing up close just how miserable Jacob and Tanya are, how much they have come to hate their father, he is finally forced to own up to his mistakes and take action to clean up the terrible mess he has created.

web of spiderman 33 pg 1

Cynthia Martin’s penciling is well suited to this story arc.  She has a very clean line and straightforward style to her storytelling.  It is definitely effective at conveying the stark, dramatic tone of the story.  A more traditional, dynamic Marvel-style type of artwork might not have worked as well.  Martin effectively renders the moody, oppressive sequences in the Mad Dog Ward as well as the more straightforward scenes featuring normal, everyday people.

A while back, in my Thinking About Inking blog post, I wrote about how significant a role the inker / finisher has upon the final look of artwork.  I believe this is demonstrated very well in the three part “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Cynthia Martin’s pencils are inked by a different artist in each issue.  Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker and Josef Rubinstein each bring their unique styles and sensibilities to the finished work.  All three do an excellent job at inking Martin.

Topping it all off, literally, are a trio of surreal, atmospheric covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  They really encapsulate the madness and sense of disconnect from reality that the characters experience throughout Nocenti’s story.

Five years later Ann Nocenti, paired with the art team of Chris Marrinan and Sam DeLaRosa, brought back Zero, Brainstorm, and the not-so-good Doctor.  The interesting, insightful “Return to the Mad Dog Ward” saw print in the adjective-less Spider-Man title issue #s 29-31.  I did a Google search and, according to a couple of web sites, there may be a collected edition of all six issues coming out in a couple of months.  Keep your fingers crossed!

spiderman 29 cover

After an absence of several years, Nocenti recently returned to the comic book biz, writing several titles for DC Comics.  I hope at some point she is also able to do some new work for Marvel.  I can’t help wondering if she has any more stories to tell about her various creations there such as Brainstorm and Zero.  And, yeah, no one quite writes Typhoid Mary as well as Nocenti does.

Strange Comic Books: Fantastic Four #322-325

In this installment of Strange Comic Books is a look at a set of issues that, in retrospect, would turn out to be very significant for my future interests.  Fantastic Four #s 322 to 325 came out in late 1988, although as I recall I found them in the back issue bins maybe two or three years later.

I bought these because they were tie-ins with the “Inferno” crossover that had run through the X-Men titles, as well as appearances by two villains from the pages of Avengers, the time traveling despot Kang the Conqueror and the egotistical Graviton.  But this quartet of Fantastic Four issues would turn out to be some of my earliest exposure to the writing of Steve Englehart, and my introduction to one of his signature creations, Mantis.

At this point in time, Reed & Sue Richards had taken an extended leave of absence, and the FF membership was the Thing, the Human Torch, Ms. Marvel II aka She-Thing and Crystal, the last of whom had also parted ways with the team a few issues before.  This leaves us with a “Fantastic Three” made up of Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sharon Ventura.

Kneel before Zod... oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

Kneel before Zod… oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

The whole “Inferno” storyline was, yep, a real strange sequence of events.  An army of demons from Limbo led by N’astirh laid siege to Manhattan, along the way mystically animating all number of everyday objects which ran amok attacking innocent people.

As Fantastic Four #322 opens, Graviton is making his way back to Earth after a recent defeat at the hands of the Avengers.  Upon arriving, he discovers the demonic assault on New York City, and decides that he can halt it with his gravity-based powers, on the condition that the citizens of the Big Apple worship him as their god.  Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four is patrolling the city streets, rescuing their fellow New Yorkers from run-away bicycles, fire hydrants, and mailboxes.  They come across the newly arrived Graviton and attack, hoping to quickly subdue him.  Graviton has them majorly outclassed, but through teamwork and strategy the FF is able to defeat him.

Things get even odder in FF #s 323-324.  Still patrolling the city, the threesome encounters Mantis, who is in the midst of a brawl with a horde of demonically possessed parking meters!

Fantastic Four 323 pg 2 Mantis

Mantis wasn’t at all happy after she got another parking ticket.

Yep, this was my very first glimpse of the Celestial Madonna.  Right from the start, I could tell that Mantis was an unusual character.  First of all, she kept referring to herself as “This one.”  Second, even more significantly, she explained to the FF that she had married an alien plant and had a child with it, um, him.  Yipes!  Now her son has been spirited away into outer space by those same plant beings, and Mantis has come seeking the FF in the hopes that they can help her locate her offspring.

Before the FF can take any steps towards assisting Mantis, Kang pops up, snatching her away.  The temporal tyrant wants to use her powers to awaken the mysterious Dreaming Celestial.  The FF attack Kang’s ship and, while he is busy fighting them, the sorcerer Necrodamus kidnaps the helpless Mantis.  Necrodamus is working in N’astirh’s service, and believes that by sacrificing Mantis during an alignment of the planets he will gain extraordinary powers.  However, Kang and the Human Torch fly off into space and manage to delay the orbit of Mercury around the Sun by a fraction, throwing off the alignment, and returning Necrodamus to his exile in Limbo.  At this point Kang abandons the Torch in outer space and heads back to Earth to try and grab Mantis again.

As issue #325 opens, the Silver Surfer, having sensed the disruption of Mercury’s orbit, arrives and rescues the Torch, spiriting him back to NYC, where the events of the Inferno have finally come to a close.  The Surfer is surprised to learn that Mantis, who he has fallen in love with, is still alive.  Their happy reunion is cut short by the arrival of the Cotati, the race of plants whose representative Mantis mated with.  The Cotati have formed an alliance of convenience with Kang to prevent Mantis from regaining her son.

Fantastic Four 325 pg 15

A potted view of plant politics.

The FF, Mantis, and the Surfer fight Kang, the Cotati, and their servants the Priests of Pama to a draw, at which point the plant beings flee into “the realm of pure thought.”  Vowing to follow them and rescue her son, Mantis’ consciousness departs from her body.  A distraught Surfer flies off into space, leaving the FF to ponder these tragic events.

As I said, strange!  But, of course, at the same time, these four issues of Fantastic Four were undoubtedly intriguing.  Steve Englehart certainly imbued his storyline with a number of unusual concepts.  Within a few years, I would discover Englehart’s earlier work on Captain America via back issues, and I became a tremendous fan of his.

In the late 1980s, right around the time these issues of FF were published, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel editorial.  He did not have the opportunity to return to the cosmic saga of Mantis until 2001, when he penned the eight issue Avengers: Celestial Quest.  I realize that miniseries met with a mixed reaction among readers.  Personally, though, I enjoyed it.

Between Celestial Quest and the original Celestial Madonna story arc from the 1970s receiving the trade paperback treatment in 2002, I finally understood most of the rich, complex back-story of Mantis, Kang, the Cotati, and the Priests of Pama that Englehart was alluding to in those “Inferno” issues of Fantastic Four.  At that point Mantis became one of my all time favorite comic book characters.

Fantastic Four 324 cover

Talk about hanging by a thread.

The artwork on these issues is also very good.  Issue #322 is penciled by the talented and often underrated Keith Pollard, with inking by veteran Fantastic Four embellisher Joe SinnottFF #s 323-324 are drawn by Pollard and Romeo Tanghal, the latter of whom is also on-board to ink Rich Buckler’s pencils for #325.  All four issues are topped by cover art by Ron Frenz & Sinnott.

I also have to point out the lettering.  John Workman, one of the greatest letterers in the comic book biz, provides his amazing, distinctive fonts on the first couple of issues.  Long-time Marvel Bullpen member Joe Rosen letters #324 and then-newcomer Michael Heisler steps up to the plate in #325.

The reason why I mention the lettering is the second panel on Fantastic Four #324 page 17. When Kang’s time-ship fires on Necrodamus’ force shield, the noise the weapon makes is “TARDIS!” Yep, it’s a Doctor Who reference. I have no idea if Joe Rosen was a fan of the series, or if Englehart put that special effect in his script. Whatever the case, it’s a cute in-joke.

Fantastic Four 324 pg 17 Kang

Kang’s weaponry courtesy of the BBC prop department.

Until I dug these issues out of storage in my parents’ basement a couple of months ago, I don’t think I had actually seen them in over a decade.  So this was the first time I ever had the opportunity to look at them since I finally read the entirety of Englehart’s original Mantis stories via the Essential Avengers collections and the aforementioned Celestial Madonna TPB.  Those certainly gave me a whole new perspective on Fantastic Four #s 322-325.  That said, they are still very strange comic books.  But, of course, strange in a good way.

Strange Comic Books: Aquaman #42

In the latest edition of Strange Comic Books, I’m taking a look at the very eerie Aquaman #42, published by DC Comics in March 1998.  This issue came out towards the end of writer Peter David’s superb four year stint penning the adventures of the King of the Seven Seas.

Prior to David’s work on Aquaman, I really had very little interest in the character.  I was a fan of David’s work, though, having very much enjoyed his writing on Incredible Hulk and X-Factor at Marvel, as well as his Star Trek novels.  Even so, when he began writing Aquaman for DC, I was only mildly interested.  True, having Arthur Curry, aka Orin, grow a beard & adopt a cool new costume made a nice change of pace.  An even more dramatic change was having his left hand eaten by a swarm of piranha and replaced by a honking big harpoon!

But despite all that, it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I started picking up Aquaman on a monthly basis.  That’s when Jim Calafiore became the regular penciler.  I had loved Calafiore’s artwork on Magnus Robot Fighter for Valiant Comics.  So the combination of David’s writing and Calafiore’s art was irresistible.

Aquaman 42 cover

Aquaman #42, “Necessary Poisons,” is co-plotted by Peter David & Jim Calafiore, with a script by David.  Calafiore’s interior pencils are inked by Peter Palmiotti, with Mark McKenna doing the brushwork for the cover.  David spends a good portion of this issue advancing his major subplots.  Triton, son of the Greek sea god Poseidon, is still dealing with a humiliating defeat handed him by Orin, one made even more bitter by his divine father’s criticism.  Over in the undersea city of Poseidonis, Aquaman’s chief advisor Vulko, after years of urging Orin to be a more assertive ruler, is now upset that the King of the Seas has done just that,  regarding his actions as heavy-handed & imperious (i.e. Orin is no longer consulting with Vulko when making decisions).  Tempest is wondering what role he ought to play in guiding the city’s political future.

While all this is going on, a brutal assassin for hire named Lawrence Huff, aka the Sea Wolf, has just committed his latest contract killing at sea, slaying a man named Albert Munson.  One of Aquaman’s dolphin friends comes across the corpse in the water and summons him.  Arriving at the murderer’s boat, Orin pulls the killer overboard.  Upon contact with the water, the Sea Wolf violently transforms into a ferocious aquatic werewolf.  During their struggle, Aquaman gazes into the gaping hole where the Sea Wolf’s left eye ought to be, and is horrified to behold the faces of hundreds of trapped souls, screaming out in agony.  (Click to enlarge.)

Aquaman 42 pg 15 & 16

Realizing that the Sea Wolf isn’t anything even close to a living being, Orin impales the monster with his harpoon, destroying him, and setting free all of the souls who were trapped.  Orin departs, leaving the Sea Wolf’s corpse to be recovered by the authorities.  However, a short time later, unseen by anyone, the Sea Wolf revives.  In a chilling final twist, the Sea Wolf is now guided by the soul of its last victim, Albert Munson, who, like Lawrence Huff before him, is cursed to hunger for the souls of other human beings.

Brrrr!  That was seriously creepy.  David and Calafiore came up with a very strange, original variation on the werewolf concept.  As I understand it, the Sea Wolf had previously appeared in the series Young All-Stars, working for the Axis Powers during World War II.  I haven’t seen any of those issues, but from what I gather, he was simply an amphibious lycanthrope.  It was David and Calafiore, in the pages of Aquaman #42, who revamped him as a soul-devouring supernatural entity.

The artwork in this issue by Calafiore & Palmiotti is just amazing.  They really make the Sea Wolf a horrific, scary figure.  And that scene when we view all the souls of his victims is just so eerily rendered, a very striking, dramatic moment.

Interestingly enough, that last aspect of “Necessary Poisons” very much reminded me of a completely different story.  “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” written by David Morrell, originally saw print in the 1988 horror anthology Prime Evil edited by Douglas E. Winter.  It was later collected in Morrell’s short story collection Black Evening.  “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” is definitely one of the scariest, most unnerving stories I’ve ever read, and it has stuck with me all these years.  So it is no surprise that Aquaman #42, which (no doubt coincidentally) contains a very visually similar sequence, also looms large in my memory.

Unfortunately, with the exception of the four issue Time and Tide miniseries, none of Peter David’s Aquaman issues have yet to receive the trade paperback treatment.  So if you want to read this issue, you’ll have to search out a copy in the back issue bins.  Keeping that in mind, David’s entire 46 issue run of the series is well worth seeing out.