The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 11

Welcome to the 11th edition of Comic Book Coffee. 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.

51) Wilson Tortosa

Exposure: Second Coming #2, penciled by Wilson Tortosa, written by David Campiti, lettered by Matt Thompson, and colored by Mickey Clausen, published by Avatar Press in October 2000.

I know some of you are probably saying “Coffee? What coffee?!?”  Look, it’s right there.  Those two lingerie-clad ladies are having their morning coffee.  See, I told you so.

Exposure, created by David Campiti and Al Rio, featured the adventures of Lisa Shannon and Shawna Diaz, who investigate cases involving demons, vampires, aliens and other weird phenomena.  Of course Lisa and Shawna deal with all of these unusual menaces while wearing skimpy outfits and stiletto heels.  And in their free time they occasionally work as pin-up models.  I guess you can consider it “The XXX-Files” or something like that.

Exposure was originally published by Image Comics in 1999 as a four issue series.  It returned a year later with the two issue Exposure: Second Coming released through Bad Girl comic book publisher Avatar Press.

This back-up story in Exposure: Second Coming #2 was the first published work of Filipino artist Wilson Tortosa.  He went on to draw Battle of the Planets, City of Heroes and Tomb Raider for Top Cow / Image Comics.

52) Casey Jones & Tom Simmons

Excalibur #99, penciled by Casey Jones, inked by Tom Simmons, written by Warren Ellis, lettered by Richard Starkings, and colored by Ariane Lenshoek, published by Marvel Comics with a July 1996 cover date.

Okay, since the last entry was heavy on the T&A, here’s one for the ladies.  We have the very buff Brian Braddock clad in his boxers drinking his morning coffee.  He’s deep in contemplation, preparing himself for an upcoming encounter with the London Branch of the Hellfire Club.  Brian has redesigned his Captain Britain armor in anticipation of the conflict, and has mixed feelings about assuming his costumed alter ego again.

I definitely felt the best issues of Excalibur were the ones by Chris Claremont & Alan Davis, and the ones where Davis both wrote & penciled the series.  Following Davis’ departure the book took a definite dip in quality.  Warren Ellis’ run was a post-Davis highpoint, and he wrote some stories that I enjoyed.

Casey Jones was brought in to alternate with Carlos Pacheco on penciling duties.  Pachecho was ostensibly the series’ main artist, but in practice Jones ended up penciling twice as many issues.  I really liked Jones’ work.  He’s a talented artist.  This page definitely demonstrates his storytelling abilities.  Jones has also worked on Outsiders, Birds of Prey, Fantastic Four and New Warriors.

53) Jack Kamen & Johnny Craig

“Hear No Evil” is penciled by Jack Kamen, inked by Johnny Craig, written by Al Feldstein, and colored by Marie Severin, from Crime SuspenStories #13, published by EC Comics with an Oct-Nov 1952 cover date.

Beautiful, ambitious Rita has married Frank Reardon for one reason: he’s incredibly wealthy.  Frank is also completely deaf, having lost his hearing in the military.  While Rita acts the role of dutiful, loving wife she mockingly tells him things like “From here on in, your my meal ticket” and “If it wasn’t for your dough I’d walk out on you tonight” knowing he can’t hear a single word she says.

Rita begins an affair with Vance Tobin, a business associate of Frank.  The lovers try to figure out a way be together without Rita losing Frank’s money.  Then one day Frank stumbles into the house, dazed & disheveled, having nearly died in a car accident outside.  Inspiration strikes Rita, and in front of the deaf Frank she suggests to Vance a plan to poison her husband and forge a suicide note.

Rita retrieves some potassium cyanide from the garden shed.  Serving coffee to the two men, Rita tells Vance not to drink the cup on the right s it contains the poison.  A few minutes later, though, it is not Frank but Vance who abruptly drops dead on the spot, much to Rita’s horror.  Wrong coffee cup, Vance!  You can probably guess the twist ending, but I won’t spoil it.

“Hear No Evil” is a EC rarity, one of the few stories not drawn solely by a single artist.  Instead, we have two EC mainstays collaborating, Jack Kamen on pencils and Johnny Craig on inks.  They work well together, effectively illustrating Feldstein’s tale of infidelity and homicide.

Following the demise of EC Comics in 1955, Kamen went into the advertising field, where he had a successful career.  He briefly returned to comic books in the early 1980s to draw the cover of the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen King’s EC Comics-inspired Creepshow, as well as the artwork featured in the actual movie.  Kamen passed away in 2008.

Johnny Craig remained in comic books, but he found only limited success at both Marvel and DC, due to his style not aligning with the dynamics needed for superhero stories, as well as to his meticulous approach to drawing leading to difficulty in meeting deadlines.  By the 1980s he had moved into a creative field where he was much more comfortable, drawing private commissions for fans of his now-classic EC Comics work.  Craig passed away in 2001.

54) Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney

Defenders #62, penciled by Sal Buscema, inked by Jim Mooney, written by David Anthony Kraft, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1978 cover date.

Today’s entry is from the famous (infamous?) “Defenders for a Day” storyline.  Would-be documentarian Aaron “Dollar Bill” English has put together a television special about the Defenders.  In it, touting the Defenders’ “non-team” status, Dollar Bill enthusiastically states “Anyone with super-powers who wants to declare himself a Defender is automatically a member!  It’s a snap… Don’t delay, join today!”

To the Defenders consternation, several dozen superheroes arrive on their doorstep ready to join the team.  Valkyrie, attempting to be courteous, suggests they make coffee for all the guests, and attempts to enlist Hellcat’s aid, but Patsy Walker refuses, stating “No way, Val — this tabby’s through messing around with that cockamamie coffee pot!”  Valkyrie is left with no one to assist her in making coffee but the Hulk… oh, gee, what could possibly go wrong?!?

Soon enough Val and the Hulk are serving up cups of what is apparently the strongest, most pungent black coffee ever brewed in the entire history of existence, leading Captain Marv-Vell to disgustedly exclaim “Not even Thanos could down this bitter beverage!”

Sal Buscema is one of my all-time favorite comic book artists.  He is an accomplished storyteller, and as we see here he does an absolutely superb job illustrating David Kraft’s comedic story.  Buscema’s pencils combined with Kraft’s script results in a laugh-out-loud issue.

Jim Mooney, another very talented artist, effective embellishes Buscema here.  I love their scowling Hulk who orders the Paladin to “Drink it black!” The disgusted expression on Hercules’ face is also priceless.

55) John Byrne

John Byrne’s Next Men #30, written & drawn by John Byrne and colored by Matt Webb, published by Dark Horse with a December 1994 cover date.

Next Men was John Byrne’s first creator-owned series.  A bleak sci-fi political suspense thriller, Next Men dealt with the survivors of a top secret genetic engineering project masterminded by Senator Aldus Hilltop.

By this point in the series the corrupt, ruthless Hilltop has ascended to the Presidency itself.  Bethany, Nathan and Danny, three of the surviving Next Men, have learned that Hilltop is Danny’s biological father, and have traveled to Washington DC hoping to confront him.  They are intercepted by Thomas Kirkland, a time traveler from the 22nd Century.

Over coffee at an all-night diner, Kirkland reveals to the Next Men that Hilltop is destined to become the vampiric cyborg despot Sathanas, who nearly conquered the world in the year 2112.  Defeated, Sathanas traveled back in time to 1955 and met up with the young, ambitious Hilltop, advising him, giving him knowledge of the future, directing him to establish the Next Men project, all of this to ultimately insure his own creation.  Kirkland has traveled back to the end of the 20th Century in an attempt to break this predestination paradox by assassinating Hilltop before he transforms into Sathanas.

Next Men was an intriguing and ambitious series.  I consider it to be one of John Byrne’s best works from his lengthy career.  The series went on hiatus with issue #30, ending on an explosive cliffhanger.  Byrne initially planned to return to Next Men just a few months later, but the implosion of the comic book biz in 1995 delayed this indefinitely.

Byrne at long last concluded the Next Men saga in 2011 with a 14 issue series published by IDW. Hopefully I will have a chance to take a look at those issues in an upcoming blog post.

Comic book reviews: Absolution, by Christos Gage

“When I say of the righteous that he will surely live, and he relied on his righteousness and committed injustice, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered, and for the injustices which he committed he shall die.” – Ezekiel 33:13

I’ve been a fan of Christos Gage’s work since I saw The Breed, the noir vampire detective film he wrote with his wife Ruth Fletcher Gage.  The two also penned episodes for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.  When Gage began working in the comic book field, I picked up some of his books, starting with his 2005 Deadshot miniseries.  Since then, he has worked on a diverse selection of titles for a number of publishers.

One of my favorite books that Gage wrote was Stormwatch: Post Human Division, a title set in the Wildstorm universe that was really a police procedural with superhero trappings.  Regrettably, his run on the series only lasted a year, but during that brief time Gage wrote some interesting stories with colorful characters.

Back in October 2009, I met Gage at the Wizard World Big Apple Comic Con.  He suggested that since I had been a fan of Stormwatch, I should take a look at Absolution, a new miniseries he had written that was being published by Avatar Press.  I picked up the prequel zero issue, read it, and was instantly hooked.  And so I proceeded to follow the main six issue series.

Absolution 0 cover

I’ve been hoping that Gage would have the opportunity to write a sequel.  Finally, it was announced that Absolution: Rubicon would be coming out later this year.  I thought this would be a good time to look back on the original miniseries.

Absolution is the story of John Dusk, a costumed crimefighter in a world where superhumans are relatively rare, and those who fight crime are members of organized law enforcement.  The majority of the criminals who Dusk and his super-powered colleagues deal with are “normal” humans.  But that is not as easy a task as you would think.  Dusk encounters, on a daily basis, the scum of humanity: serial killers, rapists, pedophiles and wife beaters.  Even worse, when he does fight “supervillains,” most of them are violent sociopaths.  (Imagine some of the ultra-twisted Unsubs from Criminal Minds, but with super powers.)

And, unlike Batman or Spider-Man, who can just beat the crap out of bad guys and leave them tied to the nearest lamppost, Dusk, being a member of the police, is required to do things by the book.  He has to arrest lawbreakers and bring them in to face trial in an imperfect criminal justice system almost exactly like our own in the real world.

The strain of eight long years on the job, seeing innocents mutilated and murdered, watching criminals get paroled or acquitted only to commit crimes anew, has finally gotten to Dusk.  When he sleeps, he has nightmares about crime scenes.  When he has sex with his girlfriend, all he can see are the faces of female homicide victims.

In the afterword to the zero issue, Gage notes “I knew from writing for the TV show Law & Order: SVU that real life sex crimes officers are forced to transfer to a different department after a certain amount of time, because no sane human being can see what they do and keep it together for long.”  Such is the case with John Dusk.  He is completely burnt out, and the healthiest thing in the world for him to do would be to simply quit.  Unfortunately, he isn’t able to.  As one of only a handful of superhumans on the police force, he is desperately needed.  After killing a suspect Dusk is flat-out told by his supervisor “If you were a cop, you’d be on administrative leave while this is investigated. But it’s not like we can replace you.”

Dusk believes there is no way out.  He is haunted by the victims he couldn’t save, and feels helpless to protect the innocent.  So finally, in secret, he begins using his superpowers to kill criminals in cold blood.  For the first time in months, he can sleep peacefully.  He once again feels like he is making a difference.  And even though Dusk knows what he is doing is against the laws he has sworn to uphold, he finds he cannot stop.  In fact, he starts to gain satisfaction from the killings.  In effect, Dusk becomes a serial killer whose victims are criminals.

Absolution 1 wrap cover

Gage writes Absolution in what I found to be a deeply ambivalent tone.  It really offers a challenge to the reader.  On the one hand, we are unsettled that Dusk is taking the law into his hands and committing murder.  On the other hand, his victims are scum, the worst of criminals, and we feel a definite satisfaction at seeing Dusk dispense his own brutal form of justice.

In other words, we don’t know whether we should be disgusted by John Dusk’s actions, or if we ought to be cheering him on.  Gage leaves us wondering if we were in Dusk’s position would we be doing the exact same thing.

Unfortunately, all actions have consequences, and Dusk’s vigilante killings eventually have the indirect result of causing innocent people to suffer.  Dusk did not intend for this to happen, but if not for the choices he made, it would not have occurred.

This brings me to the reason why, despite my sympathy for Dusk, and the revulsion I have for the scum he kills, I find him very disturbing.  Dusk may have the best intentions in the world, but he is only human.  Can he truly say with one hundred percent certainty that each and every criminal he killed deserved to die?  One of Dusk’s victims runs a dog fighting ring.  Yes, that’s a pretty lowlife activity, certainly deserving of punishment.  Even so, killing that guy did seem a bit extreme.

I also keep thinking about hypotheticals.  How soon before Dusk gets sloppy and bystanders get caught in the crossfire?  Or, worse yet, he makes the ultimate mistake, and kills someone who is actually innocent?

That is one of the main reasons why we have regulations governing the police, why there is a system of trial by jury, why suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty and have the right to legal representation: because human beings make mistakes.  Sometimes the police do arrest innocent people by accident.  Even the most scrupulously honest police officer who does everything by the book is not immune to error.  And power can make cops and prosecutors arrogant, overconfident, and even corrupt them.  It’s human nature.

Would we really want a draconian criminal justice system made up entirely of John Dusks?  In the pages of Absolution, the majority of the public supports Dusk’s actions.  But if each and every police officer had the freedom to execute whoever they felt deserved to die, I doubt we would feel very safe.  In fact, I expect we’d be living in fear of those who were supposed to be protecting us.

Yes, we have a deeply flawed criminal justice system badly in need of fixing.  But I would still rather live here in the United States than, say, Communist China or the old Soviet Union, where authority figures such as John Dusk were the rule rather than the exception.

Gage also implies that Dusk’s motives are not as pure as the driven snow.  Once his actions come to light, Dusk is approached by Happy Kitty, an adrenaline-junkie hitwoman.  When asked what she wants, Happy Kitty simply states “Let’s go play.”  An angry Dusk answers “When hell freezes over. I don’t kill for fun.”  Happy Kitty merely laughs at this and bounces off, leaving Dusk to mutter to himself “Not like her. Never like her.”  You have to wonder who he’s trying to convince.

Absolution 4 pg 4

The conclusion of Absolution was left open-ended by Gage.  That was initially disappointing, as I’d been hoping for a story with more closure.  But it did leave things open for the upcoming sequel.  John Dusk is a complex, disturbed individual who bears further examination.  I look forward to seeing what occurs in the new miniseries as he continues in his self-appointed role of judge, jury, and executioner.  What happens if he crosses paths with his former law enforcement colleagues?  Will he fight, perhaps even harm, his old friends to prevent them from halting his crusade?  And, if Dusk does make a tragic mistake, and someone innocent dies, what then?  There is plenty of territory for Gage to explore.

In the end, Gage accomplishes on Absolution what would probably be difficult for a mainstream superhero series from DC or Marvel.  He makes the reader think, and poses questions that truly do relate to the real world, questions with no easy answers.

The art on Absolution is courtesy of Roberto Viacava.  He did some fine work on this miniseries.  This is undoubtedly an odd comparison, but Viacava’s style reminded me of Mike McKone crossed with Steve Dillon.

As with a lot of Avatar titles, Absolution was released with a number of variant covers.  My favorites were the impressive, hyper-detailed wrap-around pieces by Juan Jose Ryp.  He has a style somewhat reminiscent of Geoff Darrow.  The regular covers by Jacen Burroughs were also quite good.

Avatar collected Absolution into a trade paperback back in mid-2010.  I took a look on Amazon, and it’s still available for purchase.  It’s a good way to get caught up on the story so far before the new miniseries comes out in a few months.

Comic book reviews: Faust / 777 The Wrath

With Halloween right around the corner, I wanted to do a horror-themed post. And, as I’m stuck at home this morning with a hurricane bearing down on the area, now is the perfect time to sit down and write.  I am going to be discussing Faust/777 The Wrath: Darkness in Collision, a graphic novel written by David Quinn and illustrated by Tim Vigil.

Faust/777 The Wrath is a side project to the main series that Quinn & Vigil have been producing on and off since 1989, Faust: Love of the Damned, published by Rebel Studios.  A modern-day reinterpretation of Christopher Marlow’s play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Quinn & Vigil’s series can be described as a cocktail of ultra-violence and explicit sex laced with extreme profanity.  It concerns how John Jaspers sells his soul to a diabolical figure known as M (as in Mephistopheles), in the process becoming a brutal, bloodthirsty vigilante.

Faust/777 The Wrath, which was released through Avatar Press, was actually my first exposure to the entire Faust “universe.”  I purchased a copy of the trade paperback from Quinn and Vigil at one of the old Big Apple Comic Cons (ironically this was in the basement of a church) back around 2001.  The first time I read it, I was in the dark about the back story of Jaspers and M, so I struggled to comprehend exactly what was taking place.  Even though it was a difficult read because of this, I nevertheless enjoyed it, and found the characters & situations intriguing enough that I subsequently read a handful of issues of Love of the Damned, as well as another tie-in miniseries, Singha’s Talons.  I also have on DVD the movie adaptation directed by Bryan Yuzna.  That said, it has been a number of years since I’ve read those comics, and my memory of them has sort of faded.  So it was interesting to re-read Faust/777 The Wrath last night for the first time in a decade.  Knowing the basic background of Quinn & Vigil’s story arc made for a much more informed experience.

I am not certain if Faust/777 The Wrath takes place contemporary to the events of Love of the Damned, or subsequent.  But as it opens, M has been reduced to an un-substantive spirit, and John Jaspers is “lost in a purgatory of [his] own rage and pain.”  In order to regain corporeal form M needs the blood of the undead vigilante known as the Wrath, as well as the sexual energies of the Wrath’s lover/mistress, the twisted fallen angel Kia.  M dispatches his sadistic wife, the satanic seductress Claire, to capture the pair and bring them to his mansion.  The abduction is observed by Joanna Tan, a woman who, much like Jaspers, sold her soul to M in exchange for a pair of lethal blades (the eponymous Singha’s Talons) and a set of superhuman abilities.  Joanna is out to revenge herself on M, and follows Claire back to his domicile.  She sets about freeing the Wrath.  Meanwhile, Claire has used that undying vigilante’s blood to begin to restore M to physicality, and to complete the process she seduces Kia.  While Joanna and the Wrath are busy cutting a bloody swath through M’s followers, the revived tempter takes his turn having sex with Kia, giving him access to the energies he needs to return Jaspers to this plane of existence.

Faust / 777 The Wrath: Darkness in Collision

As you can undoubtedly tell from my summation of events, Faust/777 The Wrath is an extremely brutal tale rife with hard-core sex.  It could be easy to dismiss it as exploitive crap, except for the fact is that it is so very well written and illustrated.  David Quinn’s scripting is magnificent.  He gives all the best lines to M, a twisted philosopher who remarks that “the desires we deny find us as fate.”  M is the quintessential figure of the tempter, deftly mixing truth and lies to confuse & ensnare his victims.  His relationship with those whose souls he has bought, such as Joanna Tan and John Jaspers, is complex.  In one respect he uses them as pawns, manipulating them; in another he regards them as his children, taking perverse pride & joy in their bloody actions.

Joana Tan is an intriguing figure, and much about her past is tantalizingly alluded to throughout Faust/777 The Wrath.  She is extremely conflicted, unsure if her deal with M was a gift or a curse.  I believe that her origins are delved into in the aforementioned Singha’s Talons miniseries.  I really wish I could recall what took place in that story arc.  If I could, I’d re-read it now, but I believe those issues are buried (along with most of my collection) amongst a huge pile of boxes in my parents’ basement in their house up in Connecticut.  So those books are unfortunately out of reach for the time being.  In any case, in many ways Joanna is the protagonist of Faust/777 The Wrath, and after reading this arc, she is a character I would be happy to see again.

Kia and the Wrath are also intriguing.  They are an extremely dysfunctional couple, engaged in the ultimate love/hate relationship, their drugs of choice sex and violence.  As I later found out, they originated in a separate series by Quinn & Vigil, published by Avatar in 1998.  So that makes Faust/777 The Wrath something of a crossover.  The book ends with Kia observing to the Wrath “I don’t know whether you’re sliding towards life, or death. We’re changing.”  It left me interested to see where the characters went after this.

The artwork on Faust/777 The Wrath is absolutely gorgeous.  Tim Vigil, aided & abetted by inkers Tim Tyler & Johnny B, delivers exquisitely detailed work.  Vigil is an artist whose style can be simultaneously beautiful and grotesque.  His women are sexy, his violence visceral.  Claire, the “artist of sexual violence,” is rendered in a stunning coalescence of eroticism and savagery.  I’d like to describe Vigil’s artwork as a fusion of gothic horror and black metal, if that makes any sort of sense.  The soundtrack to his illustrations, and to Quinn’s writing, that I’d chose would have to be the album Sinthetic by Shade Empire.

I think it was timely to take a look back at this as, after a nearly quarter century stretch, the flagship title in Quinn & Vigil’s dark universe, Faust: Love of the Damned, is finally coming to completion.  The penultimate installment, Act 14, was released this month, with the final chapter, Act 15, due out before the end of the year.  With the conclusion of Love of the Damned, I hope that Rebel Studios will now be able to publish a compilation volume of the entire series.  After that, ideally it would be fantastic for them to collect all of the now out-of-print tie-in series published by Avatar, among them Faust/777 The Wrath and Singha’s Talons.

And looking to the future?  I would enjoy seeing Quinn & Vigil continue their long-time partnership, and have them return to the stories of Joanna Tan and Kia & the Wrath.  As I observed in looking at Faust/777 The Wrath, there is a great deal of potential to these characters, and I would be very much enthused if Quinn & Vigil were to continue chronicling their bizarre, twisted adventures.