Avengers by Tom Palmer

Comic book artist Tom Palmer passed away at the age of 81 on August 18th.

Palmer started in comic books in 1968 at Marvel Comics, at the tail end of what fans generally refer to as the Silver Age. Although he initially worked as a penciler, Palmer soon transitioned into inking. He quickly established himself as one of the great inkers in the industry. In addition to his work as an inker / embellisher, Palmer was a colorist & painter. Palmer had runs on X-Men inking Neal Adams, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula inking Gene Colan, Star Wars inking Walter Simonson and Ron Frenz, X-Men: The Hidden Years inking John Byrne, and Incredible Hulk inking John Romita Jr and Lee Weeks.

However, the title which I most personally associate Palmer with is Avengers. He initially inked & colored several issues in the early 1970s, first over John Buscema and then Neal Adams. Palmer returned to Avengers with issue #255 in 1985, and he remained on the book thru to issue #402 in 1996, doing inks / finishes for nearly every issue during that 12 year period. Just as Joe Sinnott had previously played a key role in defining the look of Fantastic Four for over a decade and a half via his strong, characteristic inking, so too did Palmer do the same for Avengers.

Here are some highlights from Palmer’s work on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes:

Palmer really hit the ground running on Avengers #255 (May 1985). In addition to once again doing a great job inking John Buscema, who also returned to the series with this issue, Palmer produced a stunning painted cover that spotlighted the then-current Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau.

Another striking Avengers cover by Palmer is issue #273. The comics released by Marvel with a November 1985 cover-date marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of the Fantastic Four, and each cover had a portrait of its main character, or for the team books, one of the prominent members, surrounded by border artwork by John Romita. Avengers #273 had a portrait of the Black Knight by Palmer, who rendered the character in rich textures.

More often than not Buscema was doing loose pencil breakdowns on Avengers during the second half of the 1980s. It was Palmer’s job to produce the finished artwork, a task he did with incredible skill, rendering some very stylish, detailed pages.

This pages is from Avengers #277, the final chapter of the now-classic “Under Siege” storyline written by Roger Stern, which saw Baron Zemo form a new Masters of Evil to try to destroy the Avengers. Buscema & Palmer did great work on the final battle between Captain America and Zemo.

Buscema left Avengers with issue #300. Following a short stint by Rich Buckler, the new penciler on the series was Paul Ryan, with Palmer remaining on inks.

This amazing poster featuring most of the Avengers members up to that point in time was drawn by Ryan & Palmer. It was released in 1989, and was probably done by them around the same time as when they were working on Avengers #305 (July 1989) which contained a very similar scene.

Larry Hama had a short, underrated stint writing Avengers in the early 1990s, during which he shook up the team’s line-up and introduced some offbeat villains. Chief among these was the strange other-dimensional entities the Tetrarchs of Entropy. Ryan & Palmer certainly did an excellent job depicting those bizarre entities, as seen in issue #329 (February 1991).

Bob Harras became writer on Avengers with issue #334, and the next issue he was joined by penciler Steve Epting. Palmer remained on as inker, and for the next several years they were the creative team on the title, bringing some much-welcome stability to the book.

Palmer once again also began coloring Avengers with issue #343. He would hold the dual roles of inker and colorist on the series for the next three years. Here’s the splash page to Avengers #345 (March 1992), part of the “Operation: Galactic Storm” crossover, featuring Palmer’s inks & colors over Epting’s pencils. Left to right we have Quasar, the Eric Masterson version of Thor, the Vision and Sersi of the Eternals.

Palmer’s coloring was also on display on several Avengers covers such as this one, issue #375 (June 1994), the finale to Harras’ long-running Gatherers storyline. This great wrap-around cover, penciled by Epting and inked by Palmer, is definitely enhanced by Palmer’s vibrant coloring. I always felt Epting & Palmer did a fine job rendering the Black Knight and Sersi on Avengers, and that’s certainly on display here.

This is definitely one of my favorite Avengers covers from the 1990s. Click on the image to see the cover in all its full-sized glory!

Mike Deodato began penciling Avengers with issue #380 (November 1994). It’s interesting to see the very slick work of Deodato embellished by palmer’s highly textured inking, but I think it worked, really making the art stand out from the various other jobs the very popular Deodato was doing at that time. Palmer also does the coloring. The two of them definitely did good work on this dynamic double page spread featuring Quicksilver and Crystal.

Avengers #384 (March 1995) is another rare example of Palmer’s full artwork. Harras wrapped up a long-running plotline involving the ruthless machinations of the Greek gods in a genuinely heart-wrenching finale that left Hercules devastated. Palmer’s cover really captured the tragedy of Harras’ story.

All good things must come to an end. So it was with Avengers volume one, which concluded with issue #402 (September 1996) as the “Onslaught” crossover send both the Avengers and Fantastic Four over to an alternate reality for the year-long “Heroes Reborn” event. Palmer departed in style via an incredible painted cover.

I think it really speaks to Palmer’s skill as an illustrator that he does such a good job with this particular odd team line-up which had, among other things, the Wasp transformed into a humanoid insect and Thor wearing an overly-complex costume that just screamed “grim & gritty.”

This marked the end of Palmer’s regular association with the team, although he would return to the team from time to time, such as inking Will Rosado on the eight issue Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes II miniseries in 2007 and inking John Romita on several Avengers issues in 2011.

I was fortunate enough to meet Palmer on a few occasions at comic cons and store signings. He always came across as a good, polite person who made time for the fans.

The news of Tom Palmer’s death is sad. We’ve lost way too many incredible talents in such a very short time.

Captain America #278: you never forget your first

It is July 4th, and I wanted to do a patriotic-themed post.  Now, I could go off on some sort of rant about how our country’s cherished freedoms are being eroded by a dysfunctional, partisan political system into which corporations pump obscene amounts of money to manipulate the legislative process, and so forth.  But where’s the fun in that?  *AHEM!*  Let’s go with a comic book related piece, instead!

Captain America 278 cover signed

I actually do not recall what was the very first comic book was that I read.  It is possible that it was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #32.  But I certainly remember very well indeed my first Captain America comic: it was issue #278.  The cover date on that issue is February 1983, meaning it actually came out in November 1982.  I was born in June 1976, so I was six-and-a-half years old when I read this comic book.  I cannot remember the exact circumstances under which I got this isue, but obviously my parents must have bought it for me.  Captain America #278 ended up playing a significant role in my later becoming a longtime fan of the Sentinel of Liberty.

“Oh, Thus Be It Ever” is written by J.M. DeMatteis, with pencils by Mike Zeck and inks by John Beatty.  The lettering is by John Morelli and the coloring by Bob Sharen. DeMatteis drops the reader right in the middle of the action of the ongoing story arc, but quickly brings us up to speed on the first two pages via a handy recap expertly illustrated by Zeck & Beatty.

Captain America 278 pg 1

Cap’s old foe Baron Zemo has kidnapped Steve Rogers’ childhood pal Arnie Roth and his roommate Michael, as part of a scheme of revenge against the super-soldier.  Michael’s mind was transferred into a mutant creature that was subsequently killed by the man-rat Vermin.  A distraught Arnie lashes out at Cap, and Zemo is thrilled to think he has turned one of his enemy’s oldest friends against him.

A gloating Zemo flees, leaving Cap and Arnie to the mercies of an army of mutates created by the Baron using the twisted science of mad geneticist Arnim Zola.  At first, Cap fights the mutates, but Arnie, coming to his senses, realizes that these creatures are actually innocent human beings who have been transformed by Zemo against their will.  This leads Cap to launch into a stirring speech wherein he appeals to the mutates’ buried humanity, urging them to rebel against Zemo’s oppression.  The creatures rally to Cap and Arnie’s side.  The group confronts the Baron, and a furious Arnie punches him out.

Unfortunately, at this point a group of SHIELD agents who had been tracking Cap arrive at the castle.  Watching the mutates smashing Zemo’s equipment, SHIELD mistakes them for “monstrosities” and attack, killing most of them before a fuming-mad Cap hollers at them to stop.  During the confusion, Zemo slips away to an escape craft.  As he is fleeing, though, Zemo realizes that a savage, vengeful Vermin has snuck aboard the ship, furious at having been abandoned.

Captain America 278 pg 2

The last six pages of Captain America #278 are devoted to “Snapping, Part III” featuring Cap’s long-time ally Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon.  With the help of old friend Reverend Garcia, a distraught Wilson is struggling to hold on to his sanity.  Is he truly Sam Wilson?  Or is he actually “Snap” Wilson, a racketeer who years before was brainwashed by the  Red Skull to become a sleeper agent, a pawn to use against Cap at a later date?  Garcia helps Sam to reconcile the painful memories of his past, reintegrating the strands of his personality for the first time since the death of his parents.

Captain America #278 left a HUGE impression on my young self.  The scene where DeMatteis has Cap rally the mutates to his side stayed with me all these years.  Cap was not just someone who attempted to solve all his problems with his fists, but who, if possible, would try to reason or empathize with his opponents.  And he was someone for whom the terms “liberty” and “justice” were not just buzzwords to throw around in order to sound patriotic; he genuinely believed in the freedom and dignity of ALL human beings.

As noted on the letters page of #278, DeMatteis credited the inspiration for Cap’s stirring speech urging the mutates to throw off the yoke of Zemo’s tyranny to former Captain America writer Roger Stern and Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter… “’Twas them who came up with the idea for Cap to appeal to the mutates’ sense of liberty.”

Captain America 278 pg 8

It would be several more years before I would be able to follow the Captain America series on a monthly basis, but my fondness for the character began here.  This issue also led to my interest in a number of other corners of the Marvel universe.  Baron Zemo would eventually form a deadly incarnation of the Masters of Evil in the epic Avengers story arc “Under Siege” written by Roger Stern.  Later, in Kurt Busiek’s Thunderbolts, Zemo and the Masters of Evil would disguise themselves as superheroes in order to gain the trust of an unsuspecting world.

DeMatteis and Zeck would re-team on the classic Spider-Man storyline “Kraven’s Last Hunt” bringing with them the rat mutate Vermin.  DeMatteis would further explore Vermin’s tragic story with artist Sal Buscema in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, and during that time both the other surviving mutates and Zemo himself would appear.  (I highly recommend tracking down DeMatteis & Buscema’s superb run on Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200).

In hindsight, there are a couple of aspects of Captain America #278 which I understandably did not pick up on way back then.  First off, there is Steve Rogers’ childhood friend Arnie Roth and his “roommate” Michael.  Looking back on the entire story arc, and reading between the lines, it is now obvious that DeMatteis was writing Arnie and Michael as a gay couple, making it subtle enough that it would not be objectionable to the more conservative editorial standards of the early 1980s.  DeMatteis clearly shows two gay men in a committed relationship, and indeed the death of Michael in this story is a blow from which Arnie would take a long time to recover.

The other point is regarding the back-up featuring the Falcon.  I now recognize that DeMatteis wrote “Snapping” to clear up the muddled history of Sam Wilson that was caused by Steve Englehart’s retcon of the Falcon’s origin several years previously.  Now, when I later tracked down the back issues of Englehart’s Captain America run, I became a huge fan of his work on the series.  That said, I have always felt his “Snap” Wilson subplot was a misstep.  I think that DeMatteis does a fine job in this story of reconciling the problems it caused with the Falcon.

Captain America 278 pg 19

Oh, yes, how can I forget Mike Zeck?!?  He has been one of my all time favorite comic book artists ever since I saw his amazing work on Captain America #278 as a kid.  His subsequent work on “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Punisher, Damned, Deathstroke, and Legends of the DC Universe, among others, was stunning.  Years later, I had the opportunity to visit Mike at his then-home in Connecticut.  Of course I had to bring Captain America #278 with me to get autographed.  Well, actually, it was a replacement copy I’d bought a few years earlier, because I had read the original comic so many times that it had literally fallen to pieces.

In the last several years Zeck has worked on licensing art and style guides.  No doubt this pays very well.  But I wish we could once again see his artwork on actual comic books, at least drawing a miniseries or some covers.  Come back, Mike, we miss you!

As for John Beatty, he is certainly a talented inker / embellisher.  In addition to his collaborations with Zeck, he’s also done nice work over Kelley Jones’ pencils.  Like Zeck, I believe nowadays Beatty also has focused on licensing artwork.

So there you have it, a look back at one of the most memorable comic books of my childhood, featuring my introduction to Marvel’s red, white & blue Avenger.  And after all these years it is still an amazing story with superb artwork.

Update: I eventually got to meet both J.M. DeMatteis and John Beatty.  It was definitely a thrill to get my copy of Captain America #278 autographed by both of them.