Ron Lim vs Rik Levins, or how a teenage Captain America fan experienced his first major disappointment

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 30 years since this happened. It was the Summer of 1991, and I experienced my first significant disappointment as a comic book fan. But first, a little background is necessary…

I’ve been a fan of Captain America from Marvel Comics ever since I read issue #278 and issue #291 when I was a kid. My father got me a one year subscription to the Captain America series in 1985, and I read those issues until they fell to pieces.

Captain America #378 by Ron Lim & Danny Bulanadi, one of the favorite issues of my teenage years

I was 13 years old in 1989 when I finally started reading the Captain America comic book on a monthly basis. This was when my father began taking me to the comic shop every week, so it became much easier to follow the series.

I really liked Kieron Dwyer’s pencils on Captain America. In 1989 Dwyer was still a young, up-and-coming artist, but even then you could see how much talent & potential he possessed.

A year later Dwyer was replaced as the penciler on Captain America by Ron Lim, whose work at the time I actually liked even better. Lim was the artist on the book from January 1990 to June 1991, drawing issues #366, #368 – 378, and #380 – 386. He was paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi on inks. Lim’s penciling on Captain America was absolutely dynamic, and I immediately became a HUGE fan of his work.

Some of the best work by Lim & Bulanadi was on the seven part storyline “Streets of Poison” that ran bi-weekly in the summer of 1990. Written by Mark Gruenwald, it involved the Red Skull challenging the Kingpin for control of New York City’s illegal drug trade, with Cap getting caught in the crossfire. Lim & Bulanadi drew some amazing action sequences as Cap fought against Bullseye and Crossbones.

Cap versus Bullseye from Captain America #374 by Lim & Bulanadi

So I was incredibly disappointed when Lim left Captain America and was replaced by Rik Levins with issue #387, which was cover-dated July 1991. I felt there was an immediate, steep decline in quality, and I was really upset 😭😭😭

(Keep in mind I was a teenager, and we all know how melodramatic they can be about really trivial things!)

Lim’s departure also coincided with long-time Captain America scribe Mark Gruenwald writing 1991’s six part bi-weekly summer storyline “The Superia Stratagem” which involved the female supremacist Superia gathering together an army of super-powered female villains on an island sanctuary and attempting to sterilize the outside world. A number of Cap fans, myself included, feel this storyline was the moment when Gruenwald jumped the shark.

Making this story even more ridiculous was the fact that at one point Cap and his ally Paladin, to infiltrate the island, disguise themselves as women. Yes, really. Yes, it was as ridiculous as you can possibly imagine.

What a drag! That infamous scene from Captain America #391 by Rik Levins & Danny Bulanadi

Now, I honestly don’t know if “The Superia Stratagem” would have been any more readable if Lim had been penciling it instead of Levins. I just feel that Levins didn’t have the strength as an artist to pull off making it work. It’s also worth pointing out that Lim was still penciling the covers for “The Superia Stratagem” and they were actually quite good.

The differences between Ron Lim and Rik Levins always stood out for me when I compared these very similar sequences from Captain America #266 and #297, as seen below. The first is penciled by Lim, and it’s got so much energy, with Cap having this determined look and gritted teeth as he comes swinging into action. The second one is by Levins, and Cap just has this really bland, bored expression on his face, and from his body language it feels like he’s performing a gymnastics routine rather than fighting for his life.

A comparison of Ron Lim and Rik Levins penciling similar action sequences

I hope none of this comes across as disrespectful to Levins. I did eventually develop a certain appreciation for him. I think his work on Captain America improved, beginning with the very bizarre-yet-entertaining “Man & Wolf” storyline (yes, the one that brought us Capwolf, a subject for another time), and his last year & a half on Captain America was quite good.

I also later discovered Levins’ work on Femforce and Dragonfly and other AC Comics titles, and it was so much better. I think Levins’ contributions to AC Comics were much more personal for him (he created several characters and wrote a number of the stories) so there was probably a greater investment in it, whereas Captain America was just a paying gig. (And, yes, Levins’ work for AC Comics is also a subject for another future blog post.)

A definite improvement: Captain America #410 by Levins & Bulanadi

It’s also definitely worth noting that Levins holds the record for drawing the most consecutive issues of Captain America, having penciled #387 to #422, a total of 36 issues. That even beats out Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby, who actually only penciled 24 consecutive issues of the series (#193 to #214 plus Annual #3 and #4, for those keeping track).

Levins passed away in June 2010 at the much too young age of 59. In retrospect, I now consider him to be a very underrated talent, as well as a consummate professional, someone who was able to turn in good, solid work month after month. The closest Levins ever came to missing a deadline was when M.C. Wyman had to pencil the second half of Captain America#414. This in comparison to all of the high-profile “hot” artists were constantly dropping the ball and turning in late work in the early 1990s.

Having said all of that that, I nevertheless have to confess: All these years later I STILL keep hoping that one day Ron Lim will get asked to draw the monthly Captain America series again. He has occasionally returned to the character. Lim penciled the final issue of the “Heroes Reborn” run in 1997, and I can honestly tell you that I was absolutely thrilled when I picked up that issue and found he was the artist. More recently, in 2019 Lim drew the Avengers: Loki Unleashed special written by Roger Stern and, again, I snatched that baby off the shelves. It was so great to see Cap and the rest of the Avengers drawn by Lim once again.

Avengers: Loki Unleashed demonstrated that Ron Lim still draws an amazing Captain America

So if Marvel ever does give the assignment of drawing Captain America or Avengers to Ron Lim, yeah, I would definitely jump onboard to buy those comic books!

I actually met Ron Lim a couple of years ago at East Coast Comicon , and I had the opportunity to tell him that him leaving Captain America was the first time I ever experienced a crushing loss over a creator leaving a series. He explained that intially the plan was just for him to take a short break from Captain America so that he could finish penciling the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries after George Perez had to drop out halfway through. However, Marvel then asked Lim to pencil the follow-ups Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, so he never did have a chance to return to Captain America.

I made sure to let Lim know that as an adult I understood that from a career perspective it made perfect sense for him to move over to a high-profile project such as Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels. I think Lim found my anecdote amusing, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I was such a huge fan of his work.

Wild Thing #1 cover by Ron Lim & Al Milgrom, signed by Lim… yes, I actually enjoyed this series!

Oh, yeah, having finally met Ron Lim at East Coast Comicon, what did I get signed by him? Was it an issue of Captain America or one of the Avengers-related books that he drew? Nope! It was Wild Thing #1. Yeah, I completely forgot to bring any of Lim’s work to the show to get signed, so I picked up Wild Thing #1 from one of the comic dealers. (I bought Wild Thing when it first came out in 1999, but those comics were among the ones that I got rid of when I sold off most of my collection several years ago.) At that point in time I just wanted to have Lim autograph something he drew, since I’m still a huge fan, and nowadays I care much more about creators than characters. I guess that just shows how much my priorities have changed since the Summer of 1991.

It now occurs to me that this is the perfect example of how unique our experiences as fans can be. Most other readers probably didn’t do much more than blink when Lim was replaced by Levins. But for me, I was at just the right age to really connect with the combo of Gruenwald & Lim on my absolutely favorite character, and when Lim then left the book it really felt like the apple cart was turned over, so to speak. I can now understand how it was such an unsettling experience for quite a number of fans ten years before when John Byrne left X-Men, or two decades earlier when Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics entirely. So, yeah, it’s definitely a matter of individual perspective.

Memories of The Incredible Hulk by Sal Buscema

Sal Buscema, one of my favorite comic book artists, celebrates his 85th birthday on January 26th. I’m going to take a look back at how I discovered Buscema’s work as a young comic book fan. (Part of this retrospective is based on a couple of posts I did several years ago. I guess you can consider this a “director’s cut” or something like that.)

Appropriately enough, I first saw Sal Buscema’s artwork in two issues of The Incredible Hulk, one of the series with which he is most closely associated.

On several occasions Sal Buscema has stated that the Hulk was his favorite character to draw. As he related to Jim Amash in the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows in 2010:

“I identified with [the Hulk]. Do you know what I liked about the Hulk? … He’s totally unique. He’s monstrous, lumbering, huge, unbelievably strong, and he gets even stronger when he gets angry. He has the mentality of a child. It’s so completely different from anything that you’ve drawn before. Is there another character as unique? … He’s an anti-hero, and yet because of his unbelievable power… look at all the fantastic things he’s capable of doing and usually does. That’s the fun and the constant stimulation that I had with this character.”

Buscema was the penciler on The Incredible Hulk from issue #194 (Dec 1975) to #309 (July 1985), an astonishing nine and a half year run. During that time Buscema missed only seven issues. I believe his 109 issue run on the series has never been surpassed by any other artist.

The very first issue of The Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983.  It would have been on sale in early April 1983. I was six and a half years old and my parents bought it for me.

Prior to this, I had watched reruns of The Incredible Hulk cartoon that had originally been broadcast in 1966, as well as the new Saturday morning cartoon that debuted in September 1982.  Of course I had also seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno.  So I was already familiar with Bruce Banner and his gamma-spawned alter ego. But The Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read one of the character’s actual comic book adventures.

The Incredible Hulk #285 was topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott.  As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image.  The Hulk was fighting this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames.  I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And, oddly, instead of striding around in his usual torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a shirt, tie, jacket and shoes. That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!

Flipping open the comic, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life.”  The creative team was writer Bill Mantlo, penciler Sal Buscema, inker Chic Stone, lettered Jim Novak, colorist Bob Sharen and editor Al Milgrom.  This splash page once had the Hulk wearing a jacket & tie, his hair neatly combed.  Rather than running around on a destructive rampage, he is seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.

Over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounts how Dr. Bruce Banner created the Gamma Bomb. While attempting to save the life of teenager Rock Jones, who had wandered onto the test site, Banner was caught in the explosion of the weapon he created. The radiation now caused Banner to transform into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger. I distinctly recall that my seven year old self was surprised that in this flashback Banner’s assistant Igor, who set off the Gamma Bomb in an attempt to kill the scientist, was a Soviet spy, rather than an alien robotic infiltrator as he had been depicted in the animated episode “Origin of the Hulk” the year before.

Buscema drew an absolutely savage depiction of the Hulk in this flashback, as Banner transformed into the jade giant for the very first time, on the striking splash page seen at the top of this blog post.

Following this was an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrated the chaotic life of the Hulk over the next several years, the long and winding road taken by a green goliath who was more often than not hunted by humanity.  Among the numerous characters glimpsed in this flashback montage, my seven year old self recognized from the animated series the villainous Leader and his pink artificial servants, Betty Ross, her father the militant General Ross, and the equally belligerent Major Talbot. Of course I also knew who Captain America was.

I was surprised to find out that Bruce Banner’s identity as the Hulk was public knowledge, since in the cartoons it had only been known to Rick Jones. Years later I learned that the Hulk was probably the earliest major super-powered protagonist to have his secret identity revealed, way back in Tales to Astonish #77, which was cover-dated May 1966.

At the end of this montage, we come to the Hulk’s current status: At long last, after all this time, Bruce Banner has managed to gain control, to retain his human intelligence when transforming into the Hulk.

While the Hulk has been busy recounting his life, a crew of workers from Stark Industries headed up by Scott Lang, the new Ant-Man, has been constructing Northwind Observatory, a laboratory where Banner can resume his scientific studies.  Turning back into his human form, Banner joins Lang to supervise the installation of the laboratory’s power core.  At the last minute, Banner discovers that the power core was not designed by Stark Industries, but acquired from a company called Soulstar.  Banner immediately recognizes the name, but before he can prevent it, the power core is hooked up, there is “a massive electromagnetic discharge,” and a strange being emerges.

This creature, we are informed, is Zzzax the Living Dynamo (aka the guy guaranteed to always get the very last entry in the Handbook of the Marvel Universe).  Looking something like a humanoid lightning bolt, Zzzax is a creature that feeds on the human life force.  Before the monster can consume the stunned construction crew, Banner transforms back into the Hulk and tackles this old enemy.

Unfortunately the Hulk comes to a realization: In his old savage, child-like persona, the angrier he got, the stronger he became, but now, guided by Banner’s rational intellect, the Hulk cannot easily become angry, meaning his strength is limited.  And so the gamma-spawned giant realizes that, instead of relying on brute force to defeat Zzzax, he must now find a way to out-think his fiery foe.

As a kid, I thought The Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy.  Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was unexpected, but I just shrugged and read on.  Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly surmised through the plot device of Bruce Banner penning his autobiography.  The second half, with the Hulk fighting Zzzax, was really exciting.

On the art side of things, the work by Sal Buscema was high quality.  To the best of my knowledge, this was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him.  As I mentioned above, Buscema would eventually become one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  A number of years ago when Our Pal Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show I had him autograph this issue.  It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that the cover eventually fell off.

In regards to Stone’s inking, it is pretty good.  Having subsequently seen a great deal more of Buscema’s work, I have to admit that there were others who did a better job finishing his pencils, among them Joe Sinnott, Gerry Talaoc, and Buscema himself.  In the aforementioned Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking.  Looking back at it as an adult fan, yes, I tend to agree with him.  That said, back when I was a little kid completely lacking in any knowledge of the subtleties of inking, I thought the artwork by Sal & Chic looked just fine.  I guess that’s probably the more important thing.

Even though I really did enjoy The Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old I very seldom had a chance to go buy comic books on my own, so I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years.  When I finally did, it was issue #309.  And if I thought #285 was a bit odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre!

The Incredible Hulk #309 was cover-dated July 1985, exactly two years since the last issue I had read.  And it was quickly obvious that a heck of a lot had changed in those two years!

The cover to issue #309 was by Mike Mignola.  It’s a pretty early piece of work by the future creator of Hellboy.  But you can certainly see his potential as an artist in this unusual cover image.  This had to be the first time that I saw Mignola’s art.  It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.

“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by Sal Buscema, inked by Gerry Talaoc, lettered by John Workman, colored by Bob Sharon and edited by Carl Potts.  The last time I had seen Bruce Banner he was in full control of his bestial alter-ego and had been accepted as a hero by the people of Earth.  Now, though, the Hulk appears to be somewhere far, far from home, struggling to string together a simple coherent thought.

Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brought readers up to speed.  Buscema renders another of his dramatic flashback montages.  I learned that the now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s arch enemy Nightmare, who twisted Banner’s dreams to re-awaken the green goliath’s bestial alter ego.  Nightmare hoped to use the Hulk as weapon against the Sorcerer Supreme.  However, Strange was able to help the remaining spark of Banner’s consciousness strike back at the demon.  Unfortunately the Hulk was left with no mitigating human influence, and became an uncontrollable monster.  Rather than have to destroy his old friend, Strange exiled the Hulk to the extra-dimensional Crossroads, which linked up to a myriad of other realities.

And, wow, poor John Workman, a highly skilled letterer, had to try to squeeze all of this information onto a single page! I recall my eight year old self squinting as I read this recap, trying to make out all that tiny lettering.

Now, in the present, after some time wandering the Crossroads, traveling from one strange world to another, the Hulk’s sentience is very gradually awakening.  And with this renewed awareness, the Hulk discovers he is now accompanied by a trio of unusual figures.  The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl Guardian, and a shining magenta star Glow.  These mysterious figures were somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help restore the Hulk’s psyche.

Walking through one of the Crossroads portals, the Hulk and the Triad are transported into the middle of a vast alien desert.  Although the desolate sands stretch as far as the eye can see, and the harsh sun beats endlessly down, the Hulk refuses to activate the “fail-safe spell” cast by Doctor Strange that would return him to the Crossroads when he feels discontented.  As a massive sandstorm sweeps in, the Triad attempt in vain to convince the Hulk to wish himself off this planet before they all perish.

Finally, having survived the brutal elements, the Hulk at last finds that which his inhuman senses had detected from far off: a lush oasis.  The Triad realizes that the Hulk was not on a mission of suicide, but was driven by the will to find this oasis, meaning his mind is continuing to heal and come back together.

This was a really odd story to read as a kid.  The Hulk was stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome.  Mantlo really crafted an unusual story, having the Hulk’s struggle against nature juxtaposed against the Triad’s examination of and insights into his mental state.  It is a very introspective tale.

At the time, I had no clue who the Triad was supposed to be.  Within the next few issues, Mantlo would reveal that they were the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought.  Certainly this was a clever, innovative idea.  Reading issue #309 with the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that Mantlo sprinkled the dialogue with a number of hints as to the true identity of the Triad.

Mantlo really broke a lot of ground with his run on Incredible Hulk.  Having already given us an intelligent Hulk, he has now exiled the jade giant from Earth and begun to embark on an examination of Bruce Banner’s psychological background.  A cursory glance at the Hulk stories that have been written in the decades since readily demonstrates just how much this influenced subsequent writers.

This issue’s artwork was absolutely incredible.  The thing that really struck me was the depiction of the Hulk by Buscema & Talaoc.  Obviously in other comic books and in cartoons the Hulk had always been a big, strong creature.  But this was the first time I had ever seen him drawn as such a huge, bestial, imposing figure.

The depictions of the Crossroads and the desert planet that the Hulk and his strange companions visited were very vivid and detailed.  Buscema did a great job on the pencils, crafting these alien environments.  And the inking by Talaoc was absolutely superb.  He created a tangible atmosphere of oddness for the Crossroads.  On the desolate world, his embellishments bring to life a harsh landscape that alternates between cutting winds and a brutal sun.

Buscema stated in the Fast & Furious book that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with…

“Gerry Talaoc was a terrific draughtsman and… he drew better than I did. He probably still does. [laughs] And the look of the book was great. I loved what he did. To me the final product was what counted.”

I agree that Buscema and Talaoc went together exceptionally well.  Talaoc really enhanced Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.

Eight years ago I found out that Gerry Talaoc was retired and living in Alaska. I was able to mail a few comic books to him to get signed, and I made certain that The Incredible Hulk #309 was one of them.

On the letters page of The Incredible Hulk #309 editor Carl Potts revealed that this was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending his nearly decade-long run.  I don’t recall if this meant anything to me back then, since I was just a kid and really wasn’t paying attention to the credits.

Years later, though, I would learn about the behind the scenes circumstances that led to Sal Buscema’s departure from The Incredible Hulk.  Buscema and Bill Mantlo, who came on as writer with issue #245, had initially gotten along very well. Regrettably though, as Buscema recounted in Fast & Furious, after several years Mantlo started becoming much more hands-on and demanding in regards to the artwork & storytelling, requesting that Buscema draw pages in certain ways…

“What [Mantlo] was asking for was not good. I didn’t care for it at all, and I have to trust my judgment, because I’m the artist and he’s not. I hate to be this blunt about it, but the fact of the matter is that in many cases where Bill described what he wanted he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was not an artist, because he had no concept – and I do not mean that derogatorily, but simply as a statement of fact – of the relationship of one object to another in a given space. He would ask me to draw things that were impossible to draw.”

Buscema reluctantly asked Marvel Comics to take him off The Incredible Hulk. It’s an unfortunate end to his historic run. Nevertheless, looking at his penciling for issue #309, it is apparent, to me at least, that Buscema was doing high-quality work on the series right up until his departure.

By 1985 it had become a bit easier for me to buy comic books.  So fortunately I was able to pick up most the next several issues of the series.

Mike Mignola came onboard as the new penciler.  A few issues later the entire team of Mantlo, Mignola & Talaoc relocated to the pages of Alpha Flight.  After brief stints by John Byrne and Al Milgrom, The Incredible Hulk gained a new writer, Peter David, who had a lengthy, brilliant run that has some of its roots in Mantlo’s work.

Looking back on Mantlo’s run on The Incredible Hulk, it was innovative and exciting.  Despite the difficulties he had working with Mantlo towards the end, the artwork by Buscema was superb. In 2012 a good portion of the Mantlo & Buscema run, issues #269 to #313, was collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks: Pardoned, Regression and Crossroads.

From my recollection, the point at which Sal Buscema’s artwork really began to stand out in my mind was when he became the regular artist on Spectacular Spider-Man in 1988. His work on that series was outstanding. And so, when I later ended up looking back at those two issues of The Incredible Hulk that I had picked up as a kid, I now realized they had been penciled by Our Pal Sal, which only increased my appreciation for them. It’s great to re-examine them and really absorb the incredible skill Buscema displays with his dynamic layouts & storytelling. Just check out the action, energy and drama on display above, on page 20 of The Incredible Hulk #285.

I definitely recommend purchasing Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist. It is still available from TwoMorrows Publishing.

Credit where credit is due: The format of this piece was partly inspired by Alan Stewart’s entertaining and informative blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books. Hey, as the saying goes, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best! You can read Alan’s entries on Sal Buscema, which so far look back at some of his work from the late 1960s and early 70s. And if Alan keeps blogging (and I certainly hope he does) perhaps in another six or so years he’ll be discussing Our Pal Sal’s work on The Incredible Hulk.

In conclusion, I want to wish a very happy 85th birthday to Sal Buscema, and thank him for the many great, enjoyable comic books he’s worked on over the decades.

Earth Shattering Disasters: the perfect comic book for 2020

I went over to JHU Comic Books in Manhattan on Tuesday to buy the latest issue of Alter Ego magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing, and to look for a few other things. Due to Covid-19, this was only the fourth time since March that I’ve set foot in a comic book store, so I decided to spend some time browsing. Skimming though the back issue bins, I came across this:

Yes, I could not think of a more appropriate comic book to read in the year 2020 than one entitled Earth Shattering Disasters! Sadly there were no pandemics, economic meltdowns or murder hornets within these pages, but still plenty of interest to the comic book aficionado.

DC Special was an anthology series published by DC Comics from 1968 to 1971 and then from 1975 to 1977, running for 29 issues. Most issues of DC Special were reprints that centered around themes such as Wanted! The World’s Most Dangerous Villains, Strangest Sports Stories Ever Told or Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas, or that spotlighted the work of specific creators, namely Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert.

The final three issues of DC Special contained brand-new material. DC Special #28 (cover dated June-July 1977) seems to be a thematic sequel to the all-reprint issue #18, which was sub-titled Earth Shaking Stories. This time, though, Earth Shattering Disasters contained three brand new stories.

The dynamic cover to DC Special #18 is drawn by Al Milgrom, then only 27 years old, who at the time was working as an editor and artist for DC Comics. Having grown up seeing Milgrom’s work for Marvel in the 1980s, it’s interesting to now see an earlier example of his work featuring DC mainstays Batman and Aquaman. If you squint, you can also make out a trio of Legion of Super-Heroes members in the background.

Opening this issue, we come to a table of contents page drawn by the great Jim Aparo. It took me a bit of time when I was younger to develop an appreciation for Aparo, but since then I’ve come to regard him as one of the very best artists DC had in their employ during the Bronze Age.

By 1977 Aparo was already well-regarded for his depictions of both Batman and Aquaman, having drawn numerous stories featuring those two characters over the previous decade. This is, however, one of the very few times Aparo drew anything involving the Legion of Super-Heroes. It’s nice to see his depictions of Timber Wolf, Phantom Girl and Brainiac-5, even if it’s only a single image.

The first story, “And the Town Came Tumbling Down,” has Batman facing Quakemaster, a disgruntled architect who threatens to destroy Gotham City with man-made earthquakes. This tale is interesting in hindsight since a little over two decades later in 1998 DC Comics would do a massive year-long storyline involving Gotham City being devastated by an earthquake. Of course, back in 1977 comic book stories were much more self-contained, and this is very much a one-off tale. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Batman face off against a brand new villain rather than encountering one of his regular foes like the Joker or Penguin for the umpteenth time.

“And the Town Came Tumbling Down” is written by Bob Rozakis, who did a fair amount of writing for DC between 1975 and 1989, although nowadays he better known for his nearly two decade stint running DC’s production department.

Pencils are by John Calnan, an artist who is probably not too well known nowadays. Most of his work for DC was on their anthology titles, but he also drew a number of Batman issues in the late 1970s.

Calnan is inked by Tex Blaisdell, an artist who spent most of his career working on syndicated comic strips. Blaisdell was often paired with penciler Curt Swan on the Superman titles during the Bronze Age, which was unfortunate, as I really don’t think their styles meshed well. Blaisdell’s inking definitely feels like a much better fit over Calnan’s pencils. The two of them turn in a good, solid job on this story.

“A Creature of Death and Darkness” opens with Aquaman facing off against modern day pirates, but the action soon shifts to a battle with a humongous blob-like creature that threatens to consume the Hawaiian Islands.  The story is written by Gerry Conway, a prolific creator at both Marvel and DC during the 1970s and 80s.

This story is notable for being the very first DC Comics work by Don Newton. As with a number of his Bronze Age contemporaries, Newton got his start at Charlton Comics.  Having honed his craft on Charlton’s horror anthologies and The Phantom, Newton then moved into the “big leagues,” so to speak, becoming a regular artistic presence at DC Comics until his untimely death at the age of 49 in August 1984.

Newton is inked here by his friend and neighbor Dan Adkins. Starting out as an assistant to Wallace Wood in the mid 1960s, Adkins went on to do some superb inking over a variety of pencilers such as Gil Kane, Paul Gulacy, P. Craig Russell, Curt Swan and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Adkins also occasional did full artwork, both in comic books and on magazine covers & illustrations. The collaboration of Newton and Adkins certainly works well on this story.

The final entry in this issue, “The City That Stopped Dead,” is the primary reason I picked this up. I’m a huge fan of the pre-Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes.

I’d never read this story before. The only time it’s been reprinted was in Legion Archives Volume 13, which had a low print run and currently goes for between $300 and $600 from various online retailers! Um, no thank you! It’s much cheaper to just search out the original issues, which is exactly what I did.

This is an early Legion story by Paul Levitz, who would later go on to write some of the team’s all-time greatest adventures in the 1980s. Levitz is often upfront about the fact that his later Legion of Super-Heroes work was better. Nevertheless, considering he was only 21 years old when he wrote “The City That Stopped Dead,” it’s a pretty good effort.  The Legion’s five on-call members leap into action to save 30th Century Metropolis when the city’s Fusion Powersphere is sabotaged, causing a catastrophic blackout.

Penciling this one is Arvell Jones, one of the members of Detroit comic book fandom who entered the comic book biz in the 1970s. Jones drew a number of series for DC and Marvel, most notably a two and a half year run penciling All-Star Squadron in the mid 1980s and the first six issues of Kobalt from Milestone / DC in 1994.  He did a nice job on this, so it’s a shame that he only drew a couple of other Legion issues after this.

Inks are by future Iron Man and Valiant Comics superstar Bob Layton. At the time Layton was only 24 and, as with several of the other creators on DC Special #28, early in his career. Nevertheless, Layton’s inking here is already polished, displaying the artistic flair that he has consistently demonstrated in the decades since.

DC Special #28: Earth Shattering Disasters is the sort of comic book that if I had been old enough to buy it when it had come out I would have enjoyed it. It has some of DC’s best characters in a trio of exciting stories written & drawn by a line-up of talented creators. Plus you got 34 pages for 60 cents! Adjusted for inflation, that’s $2.58 in 2020 money. That’s a great value, considering nowadays you can’t find a 20 page comic book for less than four bucks!

So, yeah, if I had been ten years old when this was released in the Spring of 1977 (as opposed to ten months old, which is how old I actually was back then) I’m sure I would have eagerly snatched this off the newsstand. As a 44 year old reading it in 20202, I can still enjoy it. It’s a product of a slightly less complicated era, a time when comic books already featured a high degree of craft, yet were still more accessible.

I realize the industry has changed a great deal in the last 40 plus years and that the market now usually requires stories that are decompressed and “written for the trade,” as the saying goes. Nevertheless, I miss these types of “one and done” tales.

Of course, that’s the great thing about back issues (and, consequently, collected editions of vintage comic books): there are literally decades of older material out there for us to enjoy.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Ten

Welcome to the tenth Comic Book Coffee collection. I’ve been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee. I’m hoping to do 100 of these entries on FB, which means we’re halfway there.

46) Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

Here’s a coffee-drinking cover, courtesy of penciler Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson.  This is for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, written by Denny O’Neil, lettered by Jim Novak, and colored by Bob Sharon, published by Marvel Comics in September 1981.

I know sometimes covers are designed by people other than the credited penciler, although I cannot find any info to that effect for this one.  Regardless, whether it was Frank Miller himself or someone else, this is an incredibly striking image.  The reader is seeing through the eyes of Doctor Octopus as he drinks his morning coffee and reads the Daily Bugle’s account of the latest battle between Spider-Man and the Punisher.

In the last couple of decades, what with the proliferation of ninjas, prostitutes, racism and Goddamn Batmen in his stories, it is easy to forget what made Miller such a well-regarded creator in the first place.  Looking through this Annual recently, I was reminded what an absolutely incredible storyteller he can be.  Miller’s layouts for this story are astonishing.  He does a hell of a job showing Doctor Octopus making full, creative, deadly use of his mechanical tentacles.

The inks / finishes by Klaus Janson in this Annual are very effective.  Janson’s inking has always been wonderfully well-suited to creating moody atmospheres.  His artistic collaborations with Miller, here and on the ongoing Daredevil series, are certainly well-regarded.

47) Michele Witchipoo

Here’s a page from the Psycho Bunny story “Summer of COVID19” written & drawn by Michele Witchipoo, which is currently on Webtoon.

Psycho Bunny is a misanthropic, foul-mouthed, alcoholic rabbit who lives in Queens, NYC.  He been featured in a series of self-published comic books created by Witchipoo over the past 15 years.  This latest story sees Psycho Bunny dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, and the accompanying insanity, in his own rage-filled way.

On this page Psycho Bunny is at his job at Any Company Inc, stuck listening to his annoying co-worker Bill the Badger, who thinks COVID-19 is a hoax.  Glancing around to make sure the coast is clear, Psycho Bunny slips out an airplane bottle…

“The manager isn’t around. Gonna sneak some booze into this shitty coffee.”

Yes, Michele is my girlfriend.  I may be biased, but I think she is a very talented artist.  She has self-published a number of comic books, and her work has been included in several small press anthologies.  Michele’s illustrations were first published in 2010 by MTV Press.

“Psycho Bunny: Summer of COVID19” can be viewed at the link below.  Stay tuned for future installments.

https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/psycho-bunny-summer-of-covid19-/list?title_no=446519

48) Al Milgrom & Joe Sinnott

Avengers #246, penciled by Al Milgrom, inked by Joe Sinnott, written by Roger Stern, lettered by Jim Novak, and colored by Christie Scheele, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1984 cover date.

Al Milgrom shows off his strong storytelling chops on this page featuring the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.  Inking is by Joe Sinnott, his third appearance in this Comic Book Coffee series.  For many years Sinnott was a much in-demand embellisher at Marvel.  I enjoyed the work Milgrom and Sinnott did together.  They were a solid art team.

During a meeting at the White House, the Vision attempts to convince the President that the Avengers should report directly to the Oval Office.  This is all part of the Vision’s plan for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to gain more power & responsibility, with the final secret goal of the Vision himself assuming control of the world.

The Vision now seeks to establish himself as a “man of the people” with whom the public is comfortable.  In order to make his profile more public, he and the Scarlet Witch are returning to New York not by Avengers Quinjet but by commercial airliner.

To the Scarlet Witch’s surprise, the Vision orders drinks from the stewardess.  “My wife will have tea with lemon, and I’ll take coffee… cream, no sugar!”  This prompts another passenger to remark, “’Ey, how about that? The Vizh takes his coffee the same way I do!”  A satisfied Vision thinks to himself “Perfect! Just the reaction I wanted!”  Yep, the Vision certainly understands him human psychology!

All of this leaves the Scarlet Witch bewildered. “He never drinks coffee! What is going on?”  I don’t know if Roger Stern intended this to be a deliberate reference, but this scene always reminds me of the 1980 disaster parody movie Airplane!

49) Frank Turner & Bill Black

Femforce #44, penciled & inked by Frank Turner, written by Bill Black, and lettered by Tim Twonky, published by AC Comics in December 1991.

Let’s take another look at Femforce.  Having been exposed to a flawed version of the chemical compound that originally gave Ms. Victory her powers, the Femforce team leader was transformed into the anti-social bad girl Rad.  Breaking away from Femforce, Rad led a wild, hedonistic lifestyle.

Rad recently lost a bundle in Atlantic City, and so reluctantly agrees to create a youth formula for a wealthy woman who promises to pay her a fortune.  What Rad does not realize is that the elderly lady and her assistant are actually Lady Luger and Fritz Von Voltzman, who she fought as Ms. Victory back during World War II.  The Nazi war criminals are plotting to duplicate the chemical, and they slip Rad a drugged cup of coffee to incapacitate her.

Frank Turner got his start in the mid 1980s working for black & white independent companies Graphik Publikations, Eternity and Malibu.  In the early 1990s he drew a number of stories for AC Comics, as well as a few jobs for Millenium Publications, doing some very nice work at both companies.  I certainly liked the art he did for Femforce.  Turner then worked for Marvel between 1992 and 1994 as an inker on several different titles.

Following the mid-1990s implosion in comic books Turner reportedly worked for Sony Animation in California for a period of times, after which he moved back to his native Birmingham, AL.  Unfortunately he passed away in 2008 at the much too young age of 47.

50) Khary Randolph & Rich Perotta

New Mutants volume 2 #13 penciled by Khary Randolph, inked by Rich Perotta, written by Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir, lettered by Dave Sharpe, and colored by Ian Hannin & Rob Ro, published by Marvel Comics with a June 2004 cover date.

The second New Mutants series saw the original team becoming teachers and Xavier’s School, instructing a new generation of young mutants in the use of their powers & abilities.  This final issue of volume two served as a bookend to the debut of the New Mutants in Marvel Graphic Novel #4 two decades earlier.

Donald Pierce, the cyborg terrorist who was the original team’s very first adversary way back when, has returned.  Pierce and his new team of mutant-hating Reavers arrive in Salem Center NY planning to eliminate Josh Foley, a teenager who worked with them before he learned he was a mutant, along with any other students at Xavier’s School that they can set their sights on.

Encountering Cannonball, Mirage, Karma, Wolfbane and Sunspot, the original line-up, a bloodthirsty Pierce gloats that the last time they met he nearly killed them.  However, this time the former students handily defeat Pierce and the Reavers, showing just how much they’ve grown in the years since.

DeFilippis & Weir do a good job with the downtime scenes that were a hallmark of the original series.  Prior to Pierce’s attack, the reunited original class head to The Grind Stone coffee shop to touch base and catch up.  Sunspot, the incurable ladies man Roberto DaCosta, just cannot help flirting with Luna, an attractive barista at The Grind Stone, leading Karma to playfully slap him upside the head.  Randolph & Perotta do a wonderful job illustrating the fun, comedic moments of this scene.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Four

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and now I’m collecting them together here.  (Please click on the “coffee” tag to read the previous parts of the series.)

16) Kerry Gammill, Ricardo Villamonte & Vince Colletta

April 26th was the birthday of artist Kerry Gammill.  On that day I showcased two pages Gammill penciled from his well-regarded run on Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel Comics in the early 1980s, where he was paired with writer Jo Duffy.

The first page is from Power Man and Iron Fist #63, cover-dated June 1980.  Gammill is inked here by Ricardo Villamonte.  Gammill and Villamonte made a great art team, and did an excellent job rendering Duffy’s stories.  Here we see Luke Cage, woken up by renovations at the Gem Theater, a second-run movie house in pre-gentrification Times Square, gratefully accepting a cup of coffee from the Gem’s manager, film student D.W. Griffith.

Power Man and Iron Fist 63 pg 16

The second page is from Power Man and Iron Fist #71, cover-dated July 1981.  The inking credits for this issue are “D.Hands” which is short for Diverse Hands.  Presumably this issue fell victim to the Dreaded Deadline Doom, and several different people inked it.  The Grand Comics Database credits Vince Colletta for several pages, including this one.  It certainly looks like his work.

Following a disastrous date with Harmony Young, a brooding Luke Cage finds himself having an early morning cup of joe at Eddy’s, “an all-night diner, where the service is poor and the coffee more bitter than his own angry thoughts.”  A scowling Cage considers his coffee and thinks “Man, no one should have to pay for anything this bad.”  Reminds me of all the times I got coffee at some local bodega where the pot must have been sitting on the burner for at least a couple of hours!

Gammill does excellent work on both these pages.  He effectively renders Cage going through very mundane tasks: drinking coffee, shaving, getting dressed, paying a bill.  Gammill’s layouts, as well as the body language he gives to Cage, provide valuable elements of characterization that work effectively in conjunction with Duffy’s script.

Seeing these two pages side-by-side is an excellent illustration of the important role the inker plays in the look of the finished artwork.  Villamonte gives Gammill’s pencils a rich, illustrative look that is very different from what Colletta’s feathery ink-line brings to it.

I was too young to read these issues when they first came out.  I sort of regret that, because it must have been a real pleasure to get these comic books in real time, and each month read the latest adventure of Luke Cage, Danny Rand, Misty Knight & Colleen Wing, which Duffy, Gammill, Villamonte and friends chronicled with a wonderful mixture of action and humor.  Having said that, I do appreciate that I’ve been able to pick up some of these as back issues, and that most of the run has been collected into trade paperbacks.

Power Man and Iron Fist 71 pg 5

17) Erik Larsen

Today’s tale of crossed continuums and caffeine is from Savage Dragon #101, written & drawn by Erik Larsen, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos, and colored by Reuben Rude, published by Image Comics, cover-dated July 2002.

Savage Dragon is a labor of love on the part of Erik Larsen.  The Dragon was originally created by Larsen in his teenage years, and was the star of his earliest self-published comic books in 1982.  A decade later when Larsen co-founded Image Comics the Dragon was his flagship character.  Savage Dragon made its debut as a three issue miniseries, followed by an ongoing title in 1993.

Larsen has Savage Dragon take place in real time, meaning all the characters age.  He has also regularly changed the status quo.  Dragon started out as a Chicago police officer.  He then became a government agent, and following that was a bounty hunter.  A huge change took place in #75.  Dragon attempted to alter history by killing his time traveling adversary Darklord.  As a result Dragon was shunted onto a parallel world, one where his enemies had taken over the world.  Twenty-five issues later Dragon finally defeated them, and located this reality’s version of his wife Jennifer Murphy and her young daughter Angel.

“Shattered Planets, Shattered Lives” sees Dragon, Jennifer and Angel at the diner, with attempting to explain exactly what has transpired:

“I’m the real guy! I’m really Dragon — I’m just not the SAME Dragon. YOUR Dragon was killed by a villain named Darklord and our minds were swapped. I’m from a different dimension.”

Not surprisingly, both Jennifer and Angel have no idea what to make of this crazy story.  Given how headache-inducing this whole conversation must be, it’s no wonder Dragon is having coffee which, as we see here, he takes with cream “and enough sugar to fill a bathtub.”

I’ve been a HUGE fan of Savage Dragon since the first issue of the miniseries came out in 1992, and I’ve been following in regularly for 28 years.  Larsen has written & drawn some really exciting, weird, and funny stories in his series.

In 1996 Dragon’s son Malcolm was born.  Over the next 24 years Malcolm grew into a child, a teenager, and finally an adult.  Three years ago the original Dragon was killed off permanently by Larsen, and Malcolm Dragon became the new series’ star going forward.

Savage Dragon 101 pg 14

18) Morris (Maurice de Bevere)

Two thumbs up to Jim “1000 Horses” Thompson for suggesting this one.  “Des barbelés sur la prairie” drawn by Morris, real name Maurice de Bevere, and written by René Goscinny, originally saw print in Spirou, a weekly comic book anthology published in Belgium.  This is from the first chapter of the serial, which ran in Spirou #1411, cover-dated 29 April 1965.

The serial was collected in Lucky Luke #29: Des barbelés sur la prairie, published in 1967 by Dupuis.  It finally appeared in English in 2007, released by British publisher Cinebook as A Lucky Luke Adventure #7: Barbed Wire on the Prairie.

This is where I acknowledge my appalling lack of knowledge about non-English language comic books.  I had not previously heard of Lucky Luke.  After it was pointed out to me by Jim, an online search revealed it to be a long-running comedic Western starring gunslinger Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper, the smartest horse in the world.  Barbed Wire on the Prairie sees Lucky Luke aiding a group of farmers against ruthless rancher Cass Casey, who tries to steal their land for his cattle herds.

On this opening page Goscinny and Morris discuss the lifestyle of the cowboys, including their dining habits:

Narrator: The cowboys fed themselves along the trail thanks to mobile kitchens called “chuck wagons” whose chefs had a strange understanding of gastronomy…

Chef: To make good coffee, you put a pound of wet coffee in the coffeepot and boil it for half an hour. Then you throw in a horseshoe. If the horseshoe doesn’t float, you add some more coffee.

I enjoy the Comic Book Historians group because it can be incredibly informative. I’ve definitely learned about quite a few creators and series here, such as Morris and his creation Lucky Luke.

That and I also learned a new way to prepare coffee! Anyone here got a horseshoe I can borrow?

Lucky Luke 7 coffee

19) Dave Gibbons

Watchmen #6 illustrated & lettered by Dave Gibbons, written by Alan Moore, and colored by John Higgins, published by DC Comics, cover-dated February 1987.

A great many words have been written over the past three decades concerning Watchmen, the 12 issue deconstruction of the superhero genre by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  It is indeed an incredibly rich text.  Watchmen is, for better or worse, one of the most influential comic books ever created.

So instead of reiterating what has been said before, I’m going to focus solely on this page, which features Dr. Malcolm Long, the psychiatrist who has been assigned to the incarcerated Rorschach.  At first Long is enthusiastic about the case, believing that he has an opportunity to make his name by successfully treating the notorious vigilante.  Long soon comes to realize just how disturbed and intractable Rorschach genuinely is, and the psychiatrist finds himself being pulled into the abyss of insanity and darkness that has transformed Walter Kovaks into a faceless fanatic.

Here we see an already-consumed Long burning the midnight oil, fueled by caffeine, futilely attempting to solve the mad, jumbled puzzle that is Rorschach’s psyche.  This is nine panels of a man sitting at a desk drinking coffee, writing in his journal and arguing with his wife, and Dave Gibbons draws the heck out of it.  Via his layouts, the angles and positioning of the compositions within the nine panel grid, Gibbons renders what could be an otherwise-mundane scene with genuine mood and drama.

I have found in re-reading Watchmen I have discovered not just previously-unnoticed layers to Moore’s writing, but a much greater appreciation for Gibbons’ superb artwork & storytelling.

Watchmen 6 pg 13

20) Jim Aparo

The work of Bronze Age legend Jim Aparo is showcased in today’s entry.  “Scars” is drawn by Aparo, written by Gerry Conway, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Al Milgrom, from The Batman Family #17, published by DC Comics with an April-May 1978 cover date.

Jim Aparo is considered by many to be one of the all-time great Batman artists.  So it was entirely appropriate for Aparo to draw this first meeting between the Batman of Earth-One and the Huntress, who is the daughter of the Batman and Catwoman of Earth-Two.

Helena Wayne has crossed the dimensional barrier to meet this counterpart Dark Knight.  Over coffee with Batman and Robin she explains that she is seeking advice on pursuing a career as a costumed crimefighter.  She does not feel she can confide in her father, so she has come to the Bruce Wayne of Earth-One, who is literally the next best thing.

This story and the second one in this issue, a team-up of Batgirl and the Huntress against Poison Ivy and Catwoman written by Bob Rozakis and drawn by Don Heck, make use of the idea that it really would be weird and unnerving to find out there was a parallel world that was almost the same as yours.  Imagine meeting the counterparts of your loved ones, identical in some respects, yet very different in others.  Conway and Rozakis both do a good job with the concept.  That’s especially the case when Helena, the memories of her mother’s recent tragic death still fresh, encounters the Catwoman of Earth-One.

Batman Family 17 pg 9

Aparo was a very talented artist, and this page showcases his diversity of skill.  The top third is a dramatic image of the Huntress with the rest of the Justice Society charging into action.  The rest of the page has Helena conversing with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, a good demonstration of Aparo’s sequential storytelling, as well as his ability to depict the human, vulnerable sides of these colorful costumed figures.

Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

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

Fantastic Four 296 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9
Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 pg 19
Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 pg 26
Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 pg 36
Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43
Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64
Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 296 back cover
Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

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

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

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