Thanksgiving deja vu: comic book homages to Norman Rockwell

One of the most iconic images associated with the American holiday Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell‘s painting Freedom from Want.  I am going to quote from Wikipedia here, and hopefully it’s accurate!

Freedom from Want

 

Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.

The painting was created in November 1942 and published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

The website Totally History offers the following analysis of the painting’s composition:

The painting depicts three generations of a family around a table at Thanksgiving. The father is standing at the head of the table as the mother is about to place a large turkey in front of him.

The opulence of the turkey is counterbalanced by the relative scarcity of other foods on the table and the presence of water as the only beverage.

Over the past 75 years Freedom From Want has been the subject of numerous homages and parodies, including within the comic book medium.  As my tongue-in-cheek celebration of Thanksgiving this year, here are 10 of those images.

JSA 54 cover

Probably one of the best well-known comic book covers to pay tribute to Freedom From Want is JSA #54 (Jan 2004) from DC Comics.  Drawn by Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino, this cover features Superman and Power Girl serving Thanksgiving dinner to the Justice Society and Justice League. I am going to abstain from making any comments about “breast or leg” here, although the jokes do sort of write themselves. Sorry, Power Girl!

American Flagg 4 Thanksgiving

Nobody does political satire in comic books quite like the legendary Howard Chaykin.  Here is a panel from American Flagg! #4 (Jan 1984) from First Comics, featuring one of the most dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinners you are likely to ever come across.

Evil Clown Comics 4 cover

Hmmm, this turkey tastes a little funny.  Ha ha ha… sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.  Anyway, speaking of dysfunctional, not to mention just plain disturbing, here is the cover to Evil Clown Comics #4 by the late Alan Kupperberg from 1989. I’ve never found any physical copies of this series, but I believe that it collected together the Evil Clown Comics stories by Kupperberg that were published in National Lampoon.

Garfield 7 variant cover

A slightly less unsettling image is offered up on this variant cover to Garfield #7 (Nov 2012) published by Boom! Studios.  I’m certain anyone who has ever had cats can identify with the danger of your feline companions attempting to make off with the Thanksgiving turkey.  It’s certainly happened to us on a couple of occasions!

Flare 31 cover

The talented and much-underrated Gordon Purcell offers up this lovely tribute to Rockwell on his cover for Flare #31 (Feb 2006) from Dennis Mallonee’s Heroic Publishing, which has been releasing fun, entertaining comic books since the mid 1980s.

Barbie Fashion 37 cover

Back in the early 1990s Marvel Comics had not one, but two ongoing Barbie comic book series, both of which lasted for several years.  Both titles had some talented creators working on them.  It was probably one of Marvel’s more successful efforts to reach a young female audience. Here’s the cover to Barbie Fashion #37 (Jan 1994) by Anna-Marie Cool & Jeff Albrecht.

Chase 6 cover

Chase was one of those really good titles from the 1990s that unfortunately never really found an audience and was cancelled too soon.  D. Curtis Johnson did some really great writing on this series.  Cameron Chase had some serious family issues, so of course here we are flashing back to Thanksgiving of days past on the cover to issue #6 (July 1998).  This striking image is by the superb team of J. H. Williams III & Mick Gray.

Mad Magazine 39 pg 43

Good old MAD Magazine, always ready to skewer politics, pop culture and society! This send-up of The Saturday Evening Post is from issue #39, published waaaay back in May 1958.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a credit for the artist.  Can anyone help out?

Update: As per the link helpfully provided by M.S. Wilson in the comments below, this piece was done by regular MAD contributors writer Tom Koch & artist Bob Clarke.

Fantastic Four 564 cover

Marvel’s First Family celebrates Thanksgiving on the cover to Fantastic Four # 564 (April 2009) by Bryan Hitch.  I’m sure that, among the various things for which the Invisible Woman is thankful for this year, it’s that Reed Richards opted to slice up the turkey in the traditional manner, as opposed to inventing an Atomic Powered Turkey Carver which would have undoubtedly blown the roof off of the Baxter Building.

Betty 119 cover

Let’s close things out with the cover to Betty #119 (Jan 2003) by Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith, which has the gang from Riverdale celebrating Thanksgiving, complete with Reggie Mantle’s usual snarky comments.  I’m not completely certain if this cover is a specific homage to Rockwell, but it is certainly close enough.  In any case, Archie Comics too often falls under the radar, which is too bad, since they have some really great art.

(This was by no means a comprehensive list, and a quick search of the internet will reveal many more tributes to Freedom From Want.)

I hope everyone enjoyed this little selection of Thanksgiving-themed comic book artwork.  Have a good holiday, and let’s all try to be thankful for for what we have, because there are a lot of people much less fortunate in the world.

Norm Breyfogle: 1960 to 2018

It has been observed that someone’s favorite Batman artist is often determined by when they first began reading comic books.  That’s certainly the case for me.  There have been numerous talented artists who have rendered the Dark Knight’s adventures over the past eight decades, but two hold a special fondness for me: Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle.  When I began reading DC Comics regularly in 1989, Aparo was the penciler on Batman, and Breyfogle was the penciler on Detective Comics.

Jim Aparo, who had been working in the biz since the late 1960s, was what I refer to as a good, solid artist.  His penciling on Batman was of a more traditional bent, but his style perfectly suited the character.

And then there was Norm Breyfogle, the new kid on the block.  Breyfogle utilized a very dynamic approach to his storytelling.  His artwork in Detective Comics was filled with dramatic, innovative layouts that were possessed of both explosive energy and brooding atmosphere.

Batman 465 cover crop

Breyfogle had broken into the biz just five years earlier, in 1984, with a pair of contributions to DC’s New Talent Showcase.  Two years later, in 1986, Breyfogle penciled several issues of Steven Grant’s series Whisper for First Comics.  Following that, Breyfogle first entered the dark, moody world of Gotham City, becoming the regular penciler of Detective Comics with issue #582, cover-dated January 1988.

The following month, with issue #583, Breyfogle was joined on Detective Comics by the talented British writing team of Alan Grant & John Wagner.  Issue #584 saw the arrival of the last member of the now-regular creative team, inker Steve Mitchell.

Grant, Wagner & Breyfogle very quickly made their impart on the Bat-mythos, introducing new adversaries the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, and the Ventriloquist & Scarface, the last of whom has become an iconic member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

Although Wagner soon departed, Grant remained on Detective Comics, penning a series of stories that were expertly illustrated by Breyfogle & Mitchell.  With issue #608, Grant & Breyfogle introduced yet another memorable denizen of Gotham City, the radical anti-hero Anarky.

Anarky profile pic

Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was incredibly dramatic, and is now regarded as one of the iconic interpretations of the character.  His Dark Knight was muscular but also lithe, grim & imposing but also human & vulnerable.  Breyfogle’s fluid layouts depicted a dark yet dynamic Batman acrobatically swinging across the skyline of Gotham City, massive cape billowing about.  It was absolutely incredible.  Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was *the* definitive one for me during my teenage years in the early 1990s.

The team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell remained on Detective Comics until issue #621 (Sept 1990) and which point they were rotated over to the Batman series with issue #455.  Their first storyline, “Identity Crisis,” ended with the new Robin, Tim Drake, debuting his brand-new costume.  Breyfogle stayed on Batman until #476 (April 1992), at which point he switched over to yet another Bat-title, the new ongoing Batman: Shadow of the Bat.

Although he only drew the first five issues of Shadow of the Bat, this certainly wasn’t the end of Breyfogle’s association with Batman.  He would return for the occasional fill-in issue here and there.  Breyfogle also worked on several Batman-related graphic novels.  Among these was the acclaimed Elseworlds special Batman: Holy Terror written by novelist Alan Brennert.

Detective Comics 616 pg 18

One of my personal favorite issues from the team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell was “Stone Killer” in Detective Comics #616 (June 1990).  In this story Batman faces an eerie supernatural adversary.  Breyfogle’s style was perfectly suited for this eerie tale.

Also noteworthy was Detective Comics #627 (March 1991).  This was the 600th appearance of Batman in that series.  To celebrate, this issue reprinted the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, and a 1969 update of the story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.  Additionally, there were two new interpretations of the story by the then-current Batman creative teams, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo & Mike Decarlo, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell.  It was interesting to see the same basic plot executed in four very different ways.

Detective Comics #627 concluded with a stunning double-page spread drawn by Breyfogle & Mitchell featuring Batman, his supporting cast, and many members of his rogues gallery.

Detective Comics 627 double page splash

Beginning in 1993, Breyfogle began working on Prime, which was part of Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse imprint.  He drew the first twelve issues, as well as stories for a few of the other Ultraverse titles.  Regrettably I did not follow any of these series.  At the time the comic book market had a huge glut of product on the shelves, and the Ultraverse unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.

I did finally have an opportunity to see Breyfogle’s work on the character a few years later, when the Prime / Captain America special was published in early 1996.  It was an odd but fun story, with wacky artwork by Breyfogle.  He appeared to be working in a slightly more cartoony, comedic vein.  I definitely enjoyed seeing him draw Captain America, who at the time was my favorite character.

Prime Captain America pg 8

After a short stint on Bloodshot at Valiant, Breyfogle returned to DC.  He penciled an Anarky miniseries, reuniting him with the character’s co-creator Alan Grant.  In the early 2000s he penciled several issues of the Spectre revival written by J.M. DeMatteis, which featured the then-deceased Hal Jordan adopting the supernatural role of the Wrath of God.  For Marvel Comics, Breyfogle drew the 2000 annuals for both Thunderbolts and Avengers, which in turn led to a three issue Hellcat miniseries featuring his artwork.

For a few years after the Spectre ended, Breyfogle unfortunately had some difficulty finding regular assignments in comic books.  Fortunately in late 2009 he began receiving work from Archie Comics.  Breyfogle was one of the regular artists on the wonderful Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg.  Here he was paired up with inker Josef Rubinstein.

Breyfogle’s work for Archie Comics really demonstrated his versatility as an artist.  As I previously observed, Breyfogle’s art on Life With Archie was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.  He certainly was adept at illustrating the melodramatic soap opera storylines in the “Archie Marries Veronica” segments.

Life With Archie 9 pg 3

In 2012 Breyfogle once again had an opportunity to return to the world of Batman, illustrating the “10,000 Clowns” story arc and several covers for Batman Beyond.  It was a wonderful homecoming for the artist, who seamlessly fit back into Bat-verse, this time giving us his depictions of the dystopian future Gotham City and its denizens introduced in the animated series.

Batman Beyond would unfortunately be Breyfogle’s last major work in comic books.  In December 2014 he suffered a stroke, after which he became partially paralyzed.  Tragically, as a result Breyfogle was no longer able to draw.  Nevertheless he remained connected to the comic book community, regularly communicating with fans via Facebook.

Norm Breyfogle passed away on September 24, 2018.  He was only 58 years old.  It was a tremendous shock, both to his colleagues, who always spoke very highly of him, and to the generation of fans such as myself who grew up on his amazing artwork.

For me Breyfogle will always remain one of the all-time greatest Batman artists.  He will definitely be missed.

Irwin Hasen: 1918 to 2015

Irwin Hasen, one of the last of the artists of the Golden Age of comic books, passed away on March 13th.  He was 96 years old.

Hasen was born on July 8, 1918 into an upper middle class family in New York City.  In 1930, when he was 12 years old, his family lost their money in the Great Depression, and they had to move into a cramped two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.  This unfortunate turn of events would actually lead to Hasen’s career as an artist.  The apartment was right around the corner from the National Academy of Design.  When Hasen was 16 years old his mother enrolled him there, where he studied for the next three years.

All Star Comics 33 cover

Hasen got his first job as a cartoonist at the boxing magazine Bang in 1938.  As he recounted decades later:

“I drew sports cartoons, and I had to compile out of town weekly boxing results, type them up, and draw each week’s top fighters for the covers.”

Shortly after, Hasen began working in the brand-new comic book industry.  One of his earliest assignments was the superhero The Fox, which he co-created with writer Joe Blair for MLJ / Archie Comics.  Although a rather obscure character for many years, recently The Fox has been the subject of a successful, offbeat revival by Dean Haspiel.

Most of Hasen’s work in comic books was at National Comics and All-American Publications, two of the entities that soon merged to form DC Comics.  At National, Hasen drew on his background as a sports artist to collaborate with writer Bill Finger in creating Wildcat, a prize fighter turned costumed crimefighter.  Wildcat’s first appearance was in Sensation Comics #1, cover-dated January 1942.  Hasen was also one of the earliest regular artists to draw the original Green Lantern, who Finger had co-created with Martin Nodell in 1940.

Wildcat from Sensation Comics 1

After World War II broke out, Hasen was drafted.  Due to his 5 foot 2 inch height, he was stationed State-side, and his work was featured in the Army newspaper Fort Dix Post.  Hasen also found the time to keep working within the comic book biz:

“During my furloughs into New York City, I would sit in full uniform at a drawing board in M.C. Gaines’ Lafayette St. offices of AA Comics, creating Wonder Woman covers, those Valkyrian images possibly nurturing my fancy for the women to come.”

After the war ended Hasen returned to comic books full-time.  In the late 1940s he was one of the regular artists drawing the Justice Society of America feature in All Star Comics.  As future comic book writer, editor & historian Roy Thomas commented in his 2001 introduction to All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 “the next year and a half of JSA stories would be some of their best ever.”  According to Thomas, one crucial part of that was “the solid storytelling of Irwin Hasen.”  As would be seen in Thomas’ writing on All-Star Squadron in the 1980s, these stories would be a major influence upon him.

All Star Comics 35 cover

Certainly during this time period Hasen illustrated some of the most iconic cover images to ever feature the JSA.  His striking cover art for All Star Comics #33 (Feb/March 1947) had the ominous form of the undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy looming over the imprisoned JSA.  All Star Comics #35 (June/July 1947) saw the debut of the time traveling fascist Per Degaton, who was devised by writer John Broome.  Hasen’s dramatic cover for that issue featured that villain warping the flow of history within an immense hourglass.  Hasen’s cover for #37 (Oct/Nov 1937) was also memorable, depicting the JSA’s greatest foes, joined together as the Injustice Society of the World, literally carving up a map of the United States.

Like most artists in the 1940s, Hasen regarded comic books as a job to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Certainly that is understandable, as the first few decades of the industry were far from glamorous, with most creators toiling anonymously in conditions that were almost akin to a sweatshop.  Hasen’s dream was to illustrate a newspaper comic strip, which in those days was regarded as a much more fashionable & lucrative position.

Dondi April 7 1957

Hasen finally achieved this goal in 1955 when he co-created Dondi with writer Gus Edson.  A five year old war orphan from Europe, the wide-eyed Dondi was adopted by an American soldier who brought him back to the United States.  The newspaper strip lasted until 1986.  It appears that Dondi was the project that Hasen was most proud of out of his entire career.

Later in life Hasen write & illustrated Loverboy, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about his lifelong bachelorhood, and his romantic relationship with a woman named Eevie in the 1970s.  It was both a humorous and poignant story.  Loverboy was published by Vanguard Productions in 2009.  The final four chapters of the book were a brief text autobiography of Hasen’s life complemented with various photographs & illustrations.  I recommend picking up a copy.

Loverboy pg 26

I was fortunate enough to have met Hasen several times throughout the years.  He was a regular at NYC-area comic book conventions.  It was always a pleasure to see Hasen at a show.  He was a real gentleman, full of life and energy, with a genuine sense of humor.

I acquired a couple a sketches from Hasen.  The first was a color illustration of his creation Wildcat.  The other was a black & white drawing of the Golden Age Flash, another of the characters he drew regularly throughout the 1940s, both in solo stories and in the adventures of the Justice Society.  You can view scans of them at Comic Art Fans.

Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con
Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con

Okay, this is a bit embarrassing… back in late 2010 I was unemployed.  I was having trouble finding work and had a lot of free time on my hands.  On a whim I looked up Hasen’s address & phone number and gave him a call.  I told him I was a fan and I asked if it would be okay to stop by for a visit.  He was surprised, but he graciously agreed.

I visited Hasen at his apartment on the Upper East Side, stopping by for about half an hour in the early afternoon.  He autographed my copies of All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 and 8, showed me some of the various interesting items he had acquired over the decades, and regaled me with a few stories.  I asked Hasen a couple of general questions about his career, and he humorously replied that I probably knew more about his work in comic books than he did!  Well, it had been a long time before for him.  Then I said goodbye and headed home, while Hasen went off to meet one of his friends at a local bar for a martini.  I gather that was a daily ritual for him.

That was the thing about Hasen: right up until the end he was full of life and energy.  I always thought that if anyone would live past 100 years old it would be him.  Well, he didn’t quite make it, but 96 years is a really good long run, especially as he appeared to have led a very rich, full life for most of that time.

Hasen certainly has left behind a memorable legacy, having worked on numerous classic comic book stories in the 1940s, and co-creating Dondi, a beloved comic strip that ran for three decades.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 2

Here is part two of my look at the excellent Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg and published by Archie Comics.  Click here to read part one.

Before continuing on to the final two issues, I first wanted to point out something that I forgot to discuss last time.  One aspect of Kupperberg’s writing that I appreciated was that in neither reality was there any sort of fairy tale ending.  Both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” worlds showed that once Archie and his true love were wed they was still plenty of drama and tension and relationship problems.  One marriage was not any better than the other.  Rather, both realities were far from perfect, each with good and bad, with hurdles to overcome.

Kupperberg did an excellent job at developing the characters through various dramatic plot twists, very much making them come alive.  I became quite attached to the cast in both realities, and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.  I would definitely say that Life With Archie was on a par with the superb work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Life With Archie 36 Francesco Francavilla variant cover

And so we now come to the final two issues of Life With Archie, featuring the death of Archie Andrews.  That’s not much of a spoiler, given the huge media coverage, plus the somber, atmospheric variant cover to issue #36 by Francesco Francavilla.  Wow, I tell you, that guy is prolific!  He seems to be doing work for nearly every comic book company in existence.

Previously in Life With Archie, Kevin Keller’s husband Clay Walker was shot during an attempted robbery.  Fortunately he survived, but Kevin learned that the weapon used by the holdup man had been purchased at a gun show, circumventing background checks.  Kevin decides to run for the United States Senate on a gun control platform.  He is elected, but his controversial stance, plus the fact that he is gay, leads a deranged gunman to begin targeting gay victims.

As issue #36 opens, Kevin is preparing for a fundraiser at the Chocklit Shoppe, despite the urgings of the FBI to postpone the event until the shooter is caught.  Meanwhile, Archie is taking a jog through Riverdale, his thoughts also running through memories of his childhood & teenage years, as well as pondering the possible future he might have if he and his wife might one day have children.

Life With Archie 36 pg 3

Looking back on his past, Archie reflects on how he was always trying to decide between Betty and Veronica.  And, yes, they were the two girls who always meant the most to him.  There was the other occasional relationship, such as Cheryl Blossom or Valerie from The Pussycats.  But in the end, for Archie, it always came back to Betty and Veronica.  Those two were central to his life.  Kupperberg, via a flashback to a young Archie and school principal Mr. Wetherbee, implies that it was finally making a choice between the two that was necessary for him to grow up and become an adult.

That night, at the Chocklit Shoppe, waiting for the fundraiser to being, Archie and his old pals Jughead and Reggie are pondering how much things have changed, and the possibilities of the future.  It’s an interesting look at how, on one hand, these three have grown & matured over the course of the series and, on the other, how in certain respects they are still the same three goofballs that they’ve always been.

And then Kevin arrives, only for the gunman to reveal himself as the dishwasher at the Chocklit Shoppe.  The FBI agents attempt to grab him, but are hindered by the large crowd.  At which point Archie selflessly throws himself in front of Kevn, taking a bullet for him.  Lying on the floor, bleeding, surrounded by Betty and Veronica, Archie gasps out “I’ve always loved you” before succumbing to his injuries.

Life With Archie 36 pg 39

Issue #36 is supposed to be set in both the “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty” realities, and Kupperberg does a good job at writing it in such a way that the events fit into each seamlessly.  Archie’s demise, even though we know it is coming, is nevertheless still very effectively scripted, a very tragic moment.  The artwork by pencilers Pat & Tim Kennedy and inker Jim Amash is very well done, giving Archie’s contemplations on life, and then the scene of his death, genuine drama and emotion.

Life With Archie #37, the final issue, is set one year later.  Kevin Keller is preparing for a ceremony memorializing Archie.  Since Kevin didn’t move to Riverdale until he was a teenager, he is speaking with those who knew him all his life, asking them to relate what sort of person he was.  Principal Wetherbee, Hiram Lodge, Reggie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica reminisce on various times in the past Archie was someone who helped out people and was there as a friend when you needed him.  We see that going all the way back to his childhood Archie, despite his moments of silliness and mischief, underneath it all was a stand-up guy.

Life With Archie 37 pg 15

Kupperberg’s script is simultaneously wistful and optimistic.  Despite the sadness, his story is at heart a celebration of the joy of life, the importance of friendship, and the possibilities of the future.  As Wetherbee himself comments at the memorial, “The order of the day is not to dwell on tragedy, but to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit.”

Once again, the team of Pat & Tim Kennedy and Jim Amash, this time working alongside penciler Fernando Ruiz and inker Gary Martin, do great work.  They all superbly bring the characters to life, expertly telling the story and imbuing it with emotion and poignancy, as well as moments of real fun and hilarity.

Life With Archie 37 pg 35

Some might wonder why Archie Comics decided to bring Life With Archie to an end at the height of its success.  But I think it was a good choice.  There is something to be said with going out on a high note.  After all, there are numerous long-running comic book characters who’ve had decades of continuous, unending stories without any resolution or closure that eventually end up retreading old ground.  Additionally, in the “mainstream” Archie Comics titles, the Riverdale gang will always be teenagers.  So it is nice to be able to find out what could happen to Archie, Betty, Veronica, Reggie, Jughead, and the rest of the cast as they grew up, a storyline that has a definitive ending.

As with the previous issue, Life With Archie #37 had several variant covers, all of which I liked.  Of course I couldn’t pick up every single one.  I decided to go with the cover by Jill Thompson .  The creator of Scary Godmother drew a beautifully nostalgic piece that recreates some of the classic, iconic images of Archie Andrews’ life.

Life With Archie 37 Jill Thompson variant cover

For those who missed out on Life With Archie during its original monthly run, the entire series is being collected in the Archie: The Married Life trade paperbacks. Archie Comics has four volumes out so far, which collects the series up to issue #24.  According to Amazon, book five will be coming out at the end of August.  I definitely recommend picking these up.  The stories by Paul Kupperberg and his various artistic collaborators are well worth experiencing.

Life (And Death) With Archie, Part 1

I’m sure that most everyone has heard the news that Archie Andrews, the popular redheaded star of the line of Archie Comics, has died… sort of.  That is to say, one version of Archie (okay, technically speaking two versions) is killed in the conclusion to the three year epic Life With Archie.  Running monthly since 2010, Life With Archie, written by Paul Kupperberg, chronicled two possible near future realities, one where Archie married Veronica and another where he married Betty.

The series actually spun out of a six issue run by writer Michael Uslan and artists Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith in Archie #s 600 to 605.  Uslan postulated two possible scenarios where Archie finally chose between his rival teenage sweethearts.  In the first one, which ran through #600 to 602, Archie proposed to and married sophisticated raven-haired socialite Veronica Lodge.  In the second one, in #603 to 605, Archie pledged his heart to sweet blonde girl-next-door Betty Cooper.  The entire storyline was collected in the trade paperback The Archie Wedding.

The Archie Wedding cover

Following the success of this storyline, Archie Comics decided to publish an ongoing title set in these two alternate worlds.  In the pages of Life With Archie, Kupperberg and a line-up of talented artists chronicled the dual paths that Archie took in “Archie Marries Veronica” and “Archie Marries Betty.”  Kupperburg’s two tales were sprawling and ambitious.  He revealed how that one simple decision impacted the entire town of Riverdale and its much-loved inhabitants as they grew older, setting everyone on very different paths in these two realities.  It brings to mind the old saying about how a small pebble dropped in a lake will cause ripples that will emanate outwards and bounce off the shores in various directions.  By choosing Veronica in one world and Betty in another, Archie creates two very different sets of ripples that affect the rest of the cast in dramatic & unexpected ways.

My girlfriend Michele has been a fan of Archie Comics since she was a little girl.  She picked up the collection The Archie Wedding and enjoyed it.  When Life With Archie began shortly afterwards, she became a regular reader, only missing a handful of the issues over the next three years.  I read a number of these and I also enjoyed them.  Truthfully, I sometimes had some trouble following the story and character arcs in the two parallel worlds, and more than once I wondered aloud at how Kupperberg kept everything straight in his head.  Maybe he had some flowcharts or diagrams that he drew up?

A good example of how events could be both similar and different in these two worlds is with the character of Jughead Jones.  In each of them, not surprisingly, he ended up becoming the proprietor of his favorite hangout, the Chocklit Shoppe.  However, in one reality circumstances eventually lead Jughead to wed Ethel, and in the other he and Midge are married.

Life With Archie 16 coverOne event that took place in both realities was Kevin Keller, now a military veteran, married his boyfriend Clay Walker in Life With Archie #16.  The two had met after Kevin had been wounded on the battlefield and Clay was his physical therapist.  There was, unfortunately, somewhat of an uproar in the real world among certain “conservative” segments when the news of this was announced.  However, to their credit, Archie Comics still went through with it.  I certainly do not agree with every business decision that the company has made over the years.  But at least they seemingly do have an approach that can be considered “progressive,” and they recognize they possess a diverse readership.  In any case, it was a very nicely done issue, topped off with a lovely cover by Fernando Ruiz & Bob Smith.

An aspect of the series that I found intriguing was the role of Archie’s former rival Reggie Mantle.  In the “Archie marries Veronica” reality Reggie begins dating Betty.  In the “Archie marries Betty” world Reggie becomes involved with Veronica.  It is a bit sad to think that Reggie, who in both storylines is seen growing & maturing beyond his former snooty, sarcastic self, is left with the girl who Archie let get away.  The four of them really do have something of a bizarre love quadrangle going on.

There were also some odd shenanigans going on with scientific genius Dilton Doiley traveling back and forth between the two realities.  I really didn’t follow the series close enough month-to-month to fully understand precisely what was going on.  However, aside from that one subplot, Kupperberg eschewed from fantastical elements and stuck to events that were grounded in reality.

Life With Archie 12 cover

Art-wise, it was interesting and cool to see Norm Breyfogle’s work on a number of issues of Life With Archie.  Breyfogle is generally considered to be the best Batman artist of the late 1980s through the mid 1990s.  He did really amazing work on the various ongoing titles and specials of that time.  Unfortunately since then Breyfogle’s work has been somewhat sporadic, as he has not really had too many ongoing books to work on.  More recently he’s once again been doing great work for DC Comics on Batman Beyond.  Before that gig finally came his way, Breyfogle was working at Archie Comics.  I really enjoyed his art on Life With Archie.  It was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.

The last several issues of Life With Archie have boasted some really great variant covers by several great artists, including Stephanie Buscema, Dean Haspiel and Robert Hack.  One of my favorites was Chad Thomas’ “sci fi variant” for #35, which depicts Jughead as “The Beast That Won’t Stop Eating!”

Life With Archie 35 variant cover

Having taken a cursory overview of the entire Life With Archie series, in my next installment I will be looking at Paul Kupperberg’s two part conclusion to his dual sagas, and the tragic demise of Archie Andrews, as featured in issue #s 36 and 37.  Stay tuned!

Click here to read Part Two!

New York Comic Fest 2014 Convention Report

As I mentioned in my previous post, Michele and I went to the New York Comic Fest last Saturday, which was held at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.  It’s interesting that there was a three-way duel of sorts between comic cons in the NY metro area that weekend.  In addition to the Comic Fest, there was also a mini-version of the NY Comic Con at the Javits Center, as well as a decent-sized show out on Long Island.

Michele and I hadn’t been out of the City since last year, so we chose to go to the White Plains show.  I actually grew up in different parts of Westchester, and it was nice to be back for a day.  Michele and I took the Metro North train up.  The County Center was about a 15 minute walk from the train station.  It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot, the perfect weather to walk around.

Fred and Lynn Hembeck New York Comic Fest

The first guest whose table I went up to at the show was Fred Hembeck.  I’ve been a fan of Hembeck’s work for many years.  I’ve corresponded with him by e-mail and Facebook, and I got a cool re-interpretation of the cover to Captain America #291 done by him a few years ago.  But except for one time years back when I ran into him for about 30 seconds walking around a comic show in Upstate New York, I’ve never really met him.  It was great talking with Fred and his wife Lynn, who are both nice people.  Fred autographed my Spectacular Spider-Ham trade paperback, and he drew a cool piece in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

While I was at Fred’s table, Michele was nearby chatting with underground artist John Holmstrom.  The founding editor of Punk Magazine in 1975, Holmstrom’s has also worked on The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, High Times and a number of album covers.  Michele is a big fan of Holmstrom’s art, so she was thrilled to meet him.  He was nice enough to do a sketch for her.  Michele surprised me by buying me a vintage issue of Punk Magazine as a present.  It was issue #17, which featured the Singing Pimple comic strip.

Rudy Nebres New York Comic Fest

Also at the show was Filipino-born artist Rudy Nebres.  I am a huge fan of his amazingly detailed, superbly rendered art, especially his work on Vampirella over the years.  I brought along several books to get signed, including the two issue horror miniseries Maura that was published by Berserker Comics in 2009.  Nebres’ pencils for it were exquisite, some of the best work of his entire career.  I was really happy to get those autographed.  I wish I’d had the funds to get one of his amazing sketches.  Fortunately I’ve obtained a couple of pieces by him in the past.

I was thrilled to see Steve Mannion and Una McGurk again at the convention.  The two of them recently tied the knot.  It was nice to be able to congratulate them in person.  I finally picked up a copy of Steve’s Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights special, which I missed finding in the stores when it came out last December.  I just wished I’d remembered to bring him a bag of Pirate’s Booty Popcorn as a present!

Steve Mannion and Una McGurk New York Comic Fest

Another creator at the show who I’d never met before was Paul Kupperberg.  Michele has really been enjoying the Life With Archie series that Kupperberg has been writing for the last three years.  That’s the great magazine-sized publication from Archie Comics that has the two possible futures where Archie marries Veronica and Betty, and we see what happens to the inhabitants of Riverdale as a result of each of those choices.  I’ve also read Life With Archie from time to time, and it is really well written.  Michele had Kupperberg autograph some of those for her.   He also signed my copy of the first issue of The Charlton Arrow, as well as Action Comics #598, the first appearance of Checkmate, the covert ops organization he co-created at DC Comics in the late 1980s.

Paul Kupperberg New York Comic Fest

I also had the opportunity to meet Peter Gillis, who wrote some great stories in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s.  I’m a fan of his work and so, once again, it was cool to get a few things autographed.  I also saw Don McGregor and, as I mentioned before, bought a copy of the Sable 30th Anniversary Edition from him.  Other creators at the show were Josh Neufeld, David Gallaher, Steve Ellis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Basil Gogos and Joe Martino.  I got to see Bronze Age legend Herb Trimpe once again.  It’s odd, in that I’ve met him at a number of conventions in the past, but I didn’t have a single issue of Incredible Hulk signed by him, even though that’s the character he is most identified with.  So this time I remembered to bring my copy of Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which Trimpe autographed for me.

Longtime Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil was at Comic Fest.  For most of the day he was on different panel discussion.  I did manage to catch him after the “Batman at 75: Then and Now” panel, when he was signing at his table for a little while.  There was a looooong line, and the person waiting in front of me looked and acted almost exactly like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  Yeah, just the sort who gives comic book fans a bad name!  But I finally got to the front of the line and had a couple of Batman trade paperbacks signed by O’Neil.  I really wanted to ask him some questions, but I didn’t want to hold up the line.  At least I got a photo with him.

Ben and Denny O'Neil New York Comic Fest

All in all, New York Comic Fest was a nice convention.  Michele and I both had fun there.  It was very casual and laid-back, with some great guests and panel discussions.  It did appear that attendance was a bit low, probably due to those other competing two shows in the tri-state area.  I hope that the organizers had a successful convention, because I would certainly like to see New York Comic Fest return in 2015.

My only original art acquisition that day was the cool Beautiful Dreamer sketch by Fred Hembeck.  Well, I was on a budget, and also shooting for quality over quantity.  I was certainly happy to have obtained it and, as I said, to have finally met Fred.

Beautiful Dreamer Fred Hembeck

Mid-afternoon Michele and I left the County Center.  We took a walk down Central Avenue, and went to visit my grandparents, who live in White Plains.  Again, the weather was pleasant, so even though it was a bit of a long walk, it was good to get some fresh air.  I’m happy that I was able to see my grandparents, since they’re up there in years nowadays.

And then it was back to the train station to catch the train home.  We didn’t want to stay too late in White Plains.  After all, we had to get home to feed the cats.  Nettie and Squeaky can be quite demanding when it comes to food, you know.  Never keep a cat waiting if you can avoid it!

All photos courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  Thanks, hon.

Dick Ayers: 1924 to 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

Unknown Soldier 255 pg 1

Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000
Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Comic book reviews: The Fox by Dean Haspiel and friends

Given that I enjoyed the New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes miniseries Archie Comics / Red Circle published a year ago, I was probably going to get their next offering, the five issue miniseries The Fox.  Of course, as soon as I found out that Dean Haspiel would be plotting and illustrating the book, well, I was sold.

I’ve been a fan of Haspiel’s work since he collaborated with Josh Neufeld on the Keyhole anthology series in the late 1990s, and subsequently worked solo on his Billy Dogma stories.  Haspiel is one of those rare creators who successfully straddle the worlds of independent and mainstream comics. He is equally at home crafting bizarre, experimental projects and chronicling the adventures of popular Marvel & DC superheroes.  In fact, The Fox is very much a meeting ground between those two worlds, as Haspiel brings his innovative small press sensibilities with him in a clever revamping of a long-time Red Circle costumed crime-fighter.

The Fox 2 pg 1

Paul Patton Jr. is the son of the original Fox.  Unlike his father, Paul never set out to be a hero.  Rather, as a photojournalist, Paul felt that by becoming a masked vigilante he could attract news stories, create material to help his career.  Unfortunately Paul eventually realized that he had become, in Haspiel’s words, a “freak magnet,” attracting all sorts of bizarre individuals & strange events without meaning to.  Now all Paul desperately wants is a normal life with his wife and kids.  But fate just keeps conspiring against him, throwing a succession of oddities and curveballs his way with alarming regularity.

Scripting “Freak Magnet” is veteran writer Mark Waid.  I really enjoyed his work in the past on such series as The Flash, Captain America, The Brave and the Bold, and Kingdom Come.  Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Waid is old-school, traditional superhero tales (and I mean that as a compliment) he really is a diverse scribe, having also penned the extremely dark titles Empire and Irredeemable.  With The Fox, Waid shows yet another side of his talent, scripting some hysterically insane dialogue to accompany Haspiel’s bizarre, surreal plotting.  The two make a hell of a team.  And, yeah, you could say that Waid makes the Fox much more witty and eloquent than the original Golden Age version, who was introduced in 1940 by writer Joe Blair & artist Irwin Hasen:

The Fox Irwin Hasen

“Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!”  Indeed.

Beginning in issue #2 is a back-up story featuring the Shield.  Writer J.M. DeMatteis reunites with penciler Mike Cavallaro, who he previously collaborated with on The Life and Times of Savior 28.  Joining them is the insanely talented Terry Austin who, as I’ve mentioned on at least one occasion, is one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz. He does superb work over Cavallaro’s pencils here.

DeMatteis’ story is a flashback to World War II, as Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, heads to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious power source that the military suspect is being caused by an unknown Axis super-weapon.  At first tangling a horde of monsters, the Shield then encounters the German and Japanese agents Master Race and Hachiman.  Not stopping to ask questions, the Shield leaps at them, engaging the two Axis super-soldiers in battle.  But these three men soon discover that things are not as simple as they seem.

The Fox 2 pg 25

One of the aspects of DeMatteis’ writing that I have appreciated since I first encountered it way back in the pages of Captain America #278 was that he would demonstrate that not every problem can be solved with violence.  In a genre such as superhero comic books, which (truth be told) often involves costumed superhumans beating each other senseless, this is a somewhat unusual approach, one that has often set DeMatteis apart from his contemporaries.  But I appreciate that he scripts protagonists who utilize their intelligence & reasoning to arrive at a more constructive solution than punching the other guy in the face.

Not to get too political, but there is such a significant problem in the real world where non-violent strategies are frowned upon.  One need only look at reactions to the current crisis in the Ukraine.  Various politicians are decrying the tactics of negotiations with and economic sanctions against Russia because they make the United States look “weak.”  Of course, the people usually calling for military action either cannot or will not recognize that conflicts such as this one are not black & white affairs with “good guys” and “bad guys” that can be quickly & neatly solved by blowing up some “evil” enemy.  And you can be guaranteed that those saber-rattling politicos and armchair generals are not the types to lay their own lives on the line in the service of their country, instead leaving it to others to fight & die on the battlefield.

Very unexpectedly, the extremely different adventures of Paul Patton and Joe Higgins come crashing together at the end of issue #4, as the Fox, having helped rescue the other-dimensional Diamond Realm from the diabolical Druid, is transported back to Earth.  But instead of returning to the United States in 2014, an alarmed Fox materializes in Antarctica seven decades earlier, ending up smack dab in the middle of a four-way fight between the Shield, Master Race, Hachiman and an equally time-displaced Druid.

The Fox 5 pg 9

With DeMatteis taking over both the plotting & scripting for the final issue, I really wondered how this would work out.  DeMatteis has very different sensibilities from Waid.  Much of his work features psychoanalytical or spiritual tones.  That’s not to say that DeMatteis cannot do comedy, because he has written some very funny stories in the past.  But, yes, there is a somewhat abrupt shift in mood between #4 and #5.  Perhaps DeMatteis might have endeavored to maintain some of the Fox’s irreverent commentary in the concluding issue.  But, on the whole, it is a pretty effective conclusion.  The fact that the Fox is not your typical superhero, that he really just wants to have a nice, quiet life, makes him just the sort of individual to think outside the box.  He’s the one who is able to realize that the Shield, Master Race, and Hachiman have to stop thinking with their fists, set aside their distrust, and come up with a more intelligent strategy to stop the Druid.

Haspiel does a fine job illustrating the concluding issue.  After the wacky shenanigans of the preceding four chapters, he ably shifts gears, ably depicting both the gritty horrors of war and the mystic, esoteric final confrontation with the Druid.

I also have to give a tip of the hat to John Workman.  As always, his lettering is dynamic.  It’s an oft-overlooked art.

One other nice touch to The Fox was that there were a number of tie-ins with New Crusaders.  In addition to the Shield, there are also appearances by Dusty the Space Chimp and Bob Phantom.  And we learn that Paul Patton’s daughter is Fly-Girl.  For those who have also read New Crusaders, these are nice touches that will make you go “A-ha!”  But they are done in such a way that if you’ve never laid eyes on that other miniseries, you will still be able to appreciate The Fox as a stand-alone piece.  That is how continuity should work.

The Fox 1 Freak Magnet cover signed

I did think that having 17 covers for 5 issues was a bit much, though.  Yeah, there was some nice artwork on those variants.  I guess they’ll make for a really lovely gallery in the back of the upcoming trade paperback.  Okay, I did splurge a bit and pick up a couple of the alternate covers, namely Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” issue #1 variant, and the cover for #5 showcasing a vintage rendering of the Fox by the late, great Alex Toth.

All in all, despite a couple of hiccups, The Fox was very well done.  I’m glad that Haspiel & Waid are already working on a second miniseries.  I’m definitely looking forward to the further misadventures of everyone’s favorite freak magnet.

Happy birthday to Rich Buckler

Yep, it’s time to celebrate another comic book birthday.  Today is the 65th birthday of prolific Bronze Age legend Rich Buckler, who was born on February 6, 1949.

Buckler, a native of Detroit, first broke into the biz in the late 1960s.  By 1971, he was already doing work for both DC and Marvel.  One of his earliest assignments at Marvel was a short stint penciling Avengers in 1972.  Paired with writer Roy Thomas, Buckler illustrated a memorable three part tale featuring the mutant-hunting Sentinels.  His cover art for issue #103 is definitely an iconic image.

Avengers 103 cover

In late 1973, Buckler was given the chance to draw Fantastic Four.  A huge fan of Jack Kirby’s work, Buckler jumped at the opportunity.  He became only the third regular penciler on the series, following in the footsteps of Kirby and John Buscema.  I know that subsequently certain readers were critical of Buckler of emulating Kirby too closely.  Yes, there is a tremendous amount of Kirby’s influence on display in Buckler’s work on the title.  However it is important to keep the historical backdrop in mind.  Kirby had been penciling Fantastic Four for a full decade.  He was followed by Buscema, another artist who helped to define the Marvel “house style” of the 1960s and 70s.  At the time, Fantastic Four was one of Marvel’s flagship titles.  So we can regard Buckler as following their lead in maintaining the visual constisency of the series.  In any case, Buckler has stated that his work on Fantastic Four was an affectionate homage to Kirby.

It is also crucial to recognize that Buckler was paired up with longtime series inker Joe Sinnott.  I think that some people underestimate the key role Sinnott had in contributing to the final look of the artwork on many of the classic Kirby-penciled stories.  So it is not all too surprising that when Buckler was subsequently inked by Sinnott on Fantastic Four, there were certain similarities.

Giant-Size Fantastic Four  3 double page spread

One needs only look at Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3, published in November 1973, to see Buckler’s skill as an artist.  “Where Lurks Death, Rides the Four Horsemen” was co-written by Marv Wolfman & Gerry Conway.  Buckler’s pencils for this tale are magnificent and awe-inspiring.  His richly detailed opening double-page spread of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping through outer space is stunning and dynamic.

In 1974, Buckler created the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok in the pages of Astonishing Tales, collaborating with scripter Doug Moench (I did an in-depth blog post about that series last year, so click on this link to check it out).  Buckler’s versatility as an artist was certainly on display in these stories, featuring some of the first examples of surrealism in his work.

After working primarily at Marvel for most of the decade, in late 1976 Buckler shifted over to DC.  He contributed to a diverse selection of titles over the next several years, including Justice League of America and World’s Finest, as well as numerous covers.  In 1981 Buckler penciled the first several issues of Roy Thomas’ World War II superhero saga All-Star Squadron, with then-newcomer Jerry Ordway contributing inks.  A few years ago  Buckler and Ordway re-teamed to render a magnificent cover illustration for the 100th issue of Roy Thomas’ superb magazine Alter Ego published by TwoMorrows.

Alter Ego 100 cover

In 1983, Buckler served as the Managing Editor of Archie Comics’ superhero imprint Red Circle.  He was instrumental in bringing onboard such talented creators as Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Rudy Nebres, Alex Toth and Jim Steranko.  Buckler himself worked on Mighty Crusaders, The Shield, The Fly and various other books.  Although the 1980s Red Circle books only lasted a couple of years, they had some good writing and stories.

Buckler’s time at Archie actually provided him with his one and only opportunity to collaborate with his idol, Jack Kirby.  Buckler has observed that when he was at Marvel in the early 1970s, Kirby was at DC.  Then, when Buckler moved over the DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby returned to Marvel.  Somehow they kept missing each other.  Buckler at last had the chance to ink Kirby’s work when the King penciled the cover for Blue Ribbon Comics #5 featuring the Shield.

During the second half of the 1980s, Buckler was back at Marvel, once again working on a variety of projects.  He penciled Spectacular Spider-Man for a year, during which time one of Peter David’s earliest stories, “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” appeared.  Buckler also worked on Iron Man, a Havok serial in Marvel Comics Presents, and had a brief return to the pages of Fantastic Four.

Saga of the Sub-Mariner 4 cover

Buckler also once again collaborated with Roy Thomas on a pair of miniseries chronicling the histories of Marvel’s two earliest characters.  Roy Thomas and his wife Dann co-wrote the twelve-issue Saga of the Sub-Mariner, a detailed examination of the moody, tempestuous Prince Namor of Atlantis.  A year later, in 1990, Thomas penned the four part Saga of the Original Human Torch, a history of Jim Hammond, the android crimefighter from the 1940s and 50s who had recently been revived in the pages of Avengers West Coast.  These two miniseries provided Buckler with an opportunity to pencil decades of Marvel’s historical events and a variety of heroes & villains.

(Thomas skipped out on recounting the Torch’s battle with the grotesque, multi-headed Un-Human, which originally saw print in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16.  Too bad, I would have enjoyed seeing Buckler render that peculiar monstrosity!)

Most of Bucker’s work in the 1990s was on independent and small press titles.  I think that, as with a number of other Bronze Age creators, his art style was unfortunately being regarded by short-sighted editors as “old fashioned.”  Which is a real shame, because if you look at Buckler’s current work, you will see that he is as good an artist as ever.

Rich Buckler self portrait

In the absence of new comic book projects, Buckler focused on his work as a painter.  He has created a number of very beautiful surrealist pieces.  This has brought him acclaim in Europe, where he has exhibited his paintings.

I’ve met Rich Buckler several times at comic conventions over the years.  He is definitely a very nice guy, as well as a talented artist.  I’ve obtained a few really lovely convention sketches from him.  He’s spoken of his continued interest in creating comic books, incorporating his love of surrealism.  I’d certainly like to see that happen, and I hope he has the opportunity to work on that project.

(A big “thank you” to Buckler for his e-mail response to this post, in which he corrected a few factual mistakes and incorrect assumptions on my part. I’ve attempted to revise this piece accordingly for more accuracy.)

Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook

I began collecting convention sketches and commissions in the mid-1990s, when I was in college.  At first, I would get them on loose pieces of paper.  But after several years, I had seen a number of other comic book fans who had these really incredible sketchbooks full of artwork that they had obtained over the years.  Many of these had the theme of a particular character or group of characters.  So in May 2000 I decided that it would be nice to start a theme sketchbook of my own.

Before I began it, though, I wanted to come up with a really unique theme, something that I liked and that artists would also enjoy drawing.  While I was a big fan of Captain America, I already had a bunch of loose sketches of the character and his supporting cast.  I wanted to start fresh.  Also, it occurred to me that if I picked a sexy female character, artists would be more interested in drawing her.

Then, in a bolt of inspiration, it occurred to me.  I was a huge fan of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” titles that he had created in the early 1970s for DC Comics.  In one of these, Forever People, there was a curvy gal named Beautiful Dreamer, a sort of hippy chick who could cause psychedelic hallucinations.  Why not start a theme sketchbook around her?  Certainly the odds were exceedingly slim that, unlike a character such as Batman or Wolverine, anyone else would have a book of drawings featuring Beautiful Dreamer.

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby
Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

I wanted to get someone really special to draw an outstanding piece to start off the book.  Obviously asking Jack Kirby himself was impossible, as he had sadly passed away in 1994.  Then, once again, inspiration struck.  Over the last several years, at various New York-area conventions, I had met Silver Age comic book artist Dick Ayers and his lovely, charming wife Lindy.  I had struck up an e-mail correspondence with Dick, and obtained a few pieces of artwork by him.  At the time, I lived about ten minutes from their house, and they’d invited me over for a visit.

As part of his long, diverse career, Ayers inked / embellished Jack Kirby’s pencils on numerous stories in the 1950s and 60s.  Among these were a variety of monster, war, and Western titles published by Marvel Comics, plus early issues of Fantastic Four and Avengers.  Ayers had never worked with Kirby at DC.  By the time Ayers had moved over to DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby was back at Marvel, so I guess you could say they passed each other by like two ships in the night.  But one of Ayers’ assignments at DC was penciling post-Kirby issues of Kamandi.

So, in addition to being a very talented artist in his own right, Dick Ayers had that connection to Kirby.  Plus, from his recent work on the Femforce series published by AC Comics, I knew Ayers could definitely draw lovely ladies.  Why not ask him to draw the first Beautiful Dreamer piece in my sketchbook?  He agreed, and the resulting commission can be seen below.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers
Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

I must also give credit to Dick & Lindy Ayers for helping me to obtain one of the other early pieces in my sketchbook.  They were friends & neighbors with Dan & Josie DeCarlo.  Dan was, of course, a long-time artist at Archie Comics.  In the early 1960s, he had come up with what is now the “house style” at Archie.  In addition to that, he had created both Josie and the Pussycats (inspired by his wife) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  Before working for Archie, DeCarlo had done a number of playfully risqué Humorama pin-up illustrations.  He definitely knew how to draw cute, sexy gals.  I thought it would be great to have a Beautiful Dreamer illustration drawn by DeCarlo.  But I doubted that he would want to sketch a character he was totally unfamiliar with.

I ended up mentioning this to Dick Ayers shortly before a Big Apple Comic Con that was going to be held in late 2000.  Dick thought my idea was a good one, and he promised me he would put in a good word for me with Dan DeCarlo.  Well, about a week later, I’m at the convention.  Dick & Lindy had a table right next to Dan & Josie.  When I came over to say hello to the Ayers, Dan took me to the DeCarlo’s table, and said something along the lines of “Hi, Dan. This is my friend Ben Herman. He would like to get a sketch done by you.”  Yeah, that was seriously cool!  So I handed my book over to Dan, showing him the piece that Dick had drawn in it half a year earlier, and I gave him an issue of Forever People as reference, and asked him if he would like to draw the character.  DeCarlo seemed a bit bemused by my request, but he agreed.  This is the piece that he drew.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo
Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

Sadly, Dan DeCarlo passed away about a year later, on December 18, 2001.  I am really grateful that I had the opportunity to meet him and get a sketch done by him.  I am also thankful to Dick Ayers for making that possible by introducing me, as well as for starting off the whole sketchbook with class & style.

Fast forward a dozen years, and I’ve almost completely filled up the Beautiful Dreamer book with sketches and commissions by a diverse selection of artists.  I think there are less than 20 blank pages left in the back of the book.  You can view scans of them in my gallery on Comic Art Fans.  As you will see, the majority of these turned out very well.  And the two by Dick Ayers and Dan DeCarlo are, for obvious reasons, among my favorites.

My girlfriend grew up reading Archie Comics, and she thinks it’s amazing that I was able to get a sketch by DeCarlo.  She was the one who suggested I do a blog post about it.  Michele is also the one who came up with the cool idea that I get a Beautiful Dreamer tattoo… but that is a subject for a future post!