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.
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.
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.