Earth Shattering Disasters: the perfect comic book for 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.