Comic Book Cats highlights

I did 100 entries of The Daily Comic Book Coffee on the Comic Book Historians group at Facebook. I decided to switch things up after that, and began posting Comic Book Cats. Each day I post cat-centric comic book artwork by a different artist.

Comic Book Cats is being archived on First Comics News. But here are 10 highlights from the first 50 entries.

Steve Ditko

Ghostly Tales #85, drawn by Steve Ditko and written by Joe Gill, published by Charlton Comics in April 1971, and Speedball #10, plotted & penciled by Steve Ditko, inked by Dan Day, scripted by Jo Duffy, lettered by Jack Morelli and colored by Tom Vincent, published by Marvel Comics in June 1989.

Steve Ditko drew a number of stories with cats throughout his lengthy career.  Here is artwork from couple of them.

The first page is from “The 9th Life,” one of the best stories that Joe Gill wrote for Charlton’s horror anthologies.  Ditko did really good work illustrating Gill’s story.

Michael Holt rescues a stray black cat and takes it back to his apartment in the slums.  Michael is depressed about the state of the modern-day world.  The black cat is apparently a shape-shifting witch named Felicia, and she offers to transport Michael back to the past.  Michael agrees, but soon discovers the “good old days” were not so good, with tyranny and disease.  Returning to the present day, Michael realizes that he needs to actively work to make the world he lives in a better place.  He is reunited with Felicia, who joins him on his path of fighting for a better world.

The second page is from the last issue of the short-lived Speedball series.  The laboratory accident that endowed Robbie Baldwin with his kinetic energy powers also gave those same powers to Niels, a cat who belonged to one of the scientists at the lab. 

A subplot running through the Speedball series was Robbie’s repeatedly-unsuccessful efforts to capture Niels.  Getting a hold of a normal feline who doesn’t want to be caught is difficult enough as it is; give a cat bouncing superpowers and the task becomes nigh-impossible!

Dwayne Turner & Chris Ivy

Sovereign Seven #7, penciled by Dwayne Turner, inked by Chris Ivy, written by Chris Claremont, letter by Tom Orzechowski and colored by Gloria Vasquez & Rob Schwager published by DC Comics in January 1996.

I spotlighted Chris Claremont’s Sovereign Seven in a couple of Comic Book Coffee entries.  It was a fun series, so I’m happy to take another look at it.

In this issue Finale of the Sovereigns is caught in the middle of a struggle between international mercenary Marcello Veronese and his fugitive quarry.  Pursuing the sword-wielding fugitive, Finale enters a doorway, only to find herself in the Crossroads Coffee Bar & Inn on the opposite side of town.  Crossroads once again lives up to its name, serving as a portal to different places, dimensions & times.  Greeting the stunned Finale is Lucy the cat, who is apparently dressing as Supercat for Halloween.

I purchased the original artwork for this page from Chris Ivy at New York Comic Con in 2015.  The close-up panel of Lucy on the original really demonstrates Ivy’s very detailed and delicate inking.

David Mazzucchelli & Richmond Lewis

Batman #406, drawn by David Mazzucchelli, written by Frank Miller, lettered by Todd Klein and colored by Richmond Lewis, published by DC Comics in April 1987.

I must have read the Batman: Year One trade paperback a dozen times in high school.  To this day, it remains one of my all-time favorite Batman stories.  Many of the images from this story have burned themselves into my consciousness.  So as soon as I decided to do Comic Book Cats, I just knew I was going to spotlight this page. 

A pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, her roommate Holly, and their menagerie of cats being awoken at 5 AM by the GCPD’s corrupt, trigger-happy swat team attempting to kill Batman by dropping bombs on him.  Of course the cats now want to be fed, even though it’s much too early!  I’ve always thought David Mazzucchelli did an especially good job on this page.

This is actually scanned from the trade paperback, which was re-colored by Richmond Lewis.  As has been astutely observed by colorist Jose Villarubia, newsprint has a different texture from the paper used in TPBs, and the result is that coloring done for the former will not reproduce accurately in the later.

Batman: Year One is apparently one of the very few times when the original colorist was asked to do new coloring for a collected edition.  Lewis’ work for the Year One collection is outstanding, and I’m grateful that for once DC Comics actually went the extra mile.

Rachel Dukes

Frankie Comics #3, written & drawn by Rachel Dukes, published by Mix Tape Comics in November 2014

Rachel Dukes’ mini comic Frankie Comics is absolutely adorable, a really cute look at quirky cat behavior.  I met Dukes a couple of times at Mocca Fest, where I picked up copies of the first and third issues.  I still need the second one.

In this two page sequence Dukes demonstrates that Frankie has a very cat-like approach to “helping” out his humans.

Dukes showed me a photo of the real-life Frankie, who looks very much like one of my two cats, Nettie Netzach.  Judging by the antics Dukes portrays in her comic, they also act alike.  Michele suggested they could be long lost sisters. You never know.

Bob Brown & Don Heck

Daredevil #109, penciled by Bob Brown, inked by Don Heck, written by Steve Gerber, lettered by Artie Simek and colored by Petra Goldberg, published by Marvel Comics in May 1974.

This is not technically a cat page as it does not feature any examples of Felis catus, aka the domestic cat, but I am showcasing it anyway.  Because, honestly, the dramatic arrival of the stunning Shannah the She-Devil accompanied by her pet leopard and panther is a pretty damn impressive cat-related image.

Bob Brown is one of those good, solid artists from the Silver and Bronze Ages whose work often flew under the radar, but who you could always count on to turn in a professional job.  Over the years I’ve developed more of an appreciation for Brown’s work.  He is effectively inked here by Don Heck, another talented, underrated artist.

Rachel Smith

Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor #13, written & drawn by Rachael Smith, published by Titan Comics in August 2015.

I’ve been a fan of Doctor Who since I was eight years old.  Over the decades a few different cat-like aliens have shown up on the British sci-fi series, as well as in the various comic book spin-offs.

Several issues of The Tenth Doctor comic book series contained a humorous back-up strip featuring the Doctor and his cat Rose by Rachael Smith.  Yes, the Doctor named his cat Rose; he really was hung up on Billie Piper, wasn’t he?  In this installment Rose convinces the Doctor to try speed dating.  Of course, this being Doctor Who, things go horribly, hysterically wrong.

British artist Rachael Smith has also written & drawn several creator-owned graphic novels.

Joe Staton & Freddy Lopez Jr.

Back Issue #40 cover drawn by Joe Staton and colored by Freddy Lopez Jr, published by TwoMorrows Publishing in April 2010.

Back Issue is a magazine edited by Michael Eury that takes an in-depth look back comic book from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.  Each issue has a theme, and BI #40 spotlighted “Cat People,” i.e. cat-themed characters of the Bronze Age.  One of the characters examined in this issue was, of course, Catwoman.

The cover illustration of Catwoman and her black cat prowling the alleys of Gotham City is by one of my favorite artists, the incredible Joe Staton, who had previously penciled two key Catwoman stories, DC Super Stars #17, the origin of the Huntress, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman on Earth 2, and The Brave and the Bold #197, which revealed how Bruce Wayne and Seline Kyle fell in love and married.

Staton has drawn a few cats in various stories throughout the years.  I’ve always liked how he rendered them, with his cartoony style always giving them genuine personality.  That’s certainly the case here with Selina’s feline companion.  Freddy Lopez Jr’s coloring is very effective, as well.

Back Issue, along with many other great magazine & books, can be purchased through the TwoMorrows Publishing website.

Dan DeCarlo

Josie and the Pussycats #54, drawn by Dan DeCarlo and written by Frank Doyle, published by Archie Comics in April 1971.

“The Cat Woman” is drawn by Josie and the Pussycats co-creator and longtime Archie Comics artist Dan DeCarlo.  This story sees the scheming Alexandra becoming convinced that her cat Sebastian is being taken by Josie as “bait” to lure in handsome Alan M.  After all, Alexandra deduces, that is exactly what she would do if the tables were turned.  Tsk tsk, jealous people are always projecting like that!

It turns out that the real reason why Sebastian keeps wandering over to Josie’s house is because she has a wall calendar with a photograph of a beautiful female cat!

DeCarlo always drew cute gals, and as seen here he also did a good job with cats (the actual four-legged furry kind, as opposed to the kind who play musical instruments) investing Sebastian with a lot of personality.

John Gallagher

Max Meow: Cat Crusader, written & drawn by John Gallagher, published by Penguin Random House in 2020.

In the great city of Kittyopolis, aspiring feline journalist Max Meow takes a bite out of a giant meatball from outer space and gains super powers.  Donning a costume, Max becomes the heroic Cat Crusader, who protects Kittyopolis from menaces such as giant killer cheeseburgers.  However, being a hero is not as easy as it might appear, something that Max must learn the hard way.  Will Max save the day, or will the Cat Crusader be defeated by that rotten rodent, the despicable Agent M?

Max Meow: Cat Crusader is a funny, adorable graphic novel for younger readers by John Gallagher, who previously worked on Buzzboy and Roboy Red.  He is also he is art director for Ranger Rick magazine, published by the National Wildlife Federation.  As explained on the Max Meow website:

“John learned to read with comics, so he is more than excited to share the magic of reading, fun, and imagination with the young readers of the world.”

Curt Swan & Stan Kaye

Action Comics #266 cover penciled by Curt Swan and inked by Stan Kaye, published by DC Comics in July 1960.

Curt Swan was the primary artist on the various Superman titles from the mid 1950s to the mid 1980s.  It’s inevitable that at some point or another during that lengthy period Swan would be called upon to draw Streaky the Supercat.  Here is Swan’s cute rendition of Streaky zipping through the sky, along with Superman, Supergirl and Krypto the Superdog.

The inks are by Stan Kaye, who had previously been the regular inker over Wayne Boring’s pencils on Superman for a decade and a half.  Swan and Kaye were often paired up in the late 1950s and early 60s, drawing numerous covers for Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman and World’s Finest.

The identity of the colorist for this cover is probably lost to time, which is too bad, because whoever it was did a really nice job.

I hope you found these interesting and informative. Please remember to check out First Comics News for the rest of the Comic Book Cats entries, as well as for the Daily Comic Book Coffee archives.

Joe Giella comic book mail call

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic all of the major comic book conventions are cancelled.  It’s unfortunate, but certainly understandable.  “Con crud” is a real thing at the best of times, and any huge comic con would be a major health hazard.

I enjoy going to comic cons for the opportunity to meet creators and get their autographs on books that they worked on.  Obviously that is NOT happening this year.  So this summer I contacted a few creators via social media and asked if I could mail them books to get signed.

One of these creators was longtime artist Joe Giella.  I reached out to him via his son Frank Giella, who I’ve known for a couple of decades.  I’ve gotten a couple of things signed by Joe in the past, but I had a few others I was hoping to have him autograph, so I asked Frank if I could mail them to him to pass along to his father, and he very kindly agreed.

I sent Joe Giella a few Bronze Age comic books.  I don’t have any of the really classic issues he worked on for DC Comics in the 1950s and 60s since the majority of those are out of my budget.  Whatever the case, I’m happy I had the opportunity to get these books signed.

All-Star Comics #73 (July 1978) has Giella inking the pencils of Joe Staton, another artist whose work I love.  The writing is by Paul Levitz.  I only got into the 1970s revival of the Justice Society of America in recent years when I picked up the trade paperbacks, but I immediately became a fan.  I guess I’ve always liked the JSA a bit more than the Justice League because the JSA members don’t have their own solo titles, which enables more character development to take place in their series.  Also, the Earth-2 setting allowed the original JSA members to age, and to mentor a new generation of heroes, which I enjoyed.

Joe Giella began working for DC Comics in 1949, and some of the earliest characters he ever drew for them were the members of the JSA.  Then in the early 1960s Giella was one of the artists on the stories that introduced the Earth-2 concept and which brought the JSA back into print for the first time in a decade.  Given his historic connection to these characters, I was glad to have him autograph All-Star Comics #73.

Captain America #182 (Feb 1975) was a rare Marvel Comics job by Giella.  He inked a few odd issues for Marvel during the 1970s, as well as doing full artwork on various one-off projects such as a few t-shirts and The Mighty Marvel Superheroes’ Cookbook, which was an actual thing.  Here Giella is inking Frank Robbins.  This was during the period following the classic “Secret Empire” storyline by Steve Englehart when a disillusioned Steve Rogers abandoned the Cap identity and became Nomad.

I know that my experience with Robbins’ work parallels a number of other readers, in that initially I disliked it, over time I gradually learned to appreciate it, and now I now really enjoy his art.  I feel Robbins’ work was more suited to war and mystery and horror stories than superheroes, but even on the later genre I find there’s quite a bit to appreciate.  I think Giella did a very nice job inking Robbins on this issue, and I wish they had worked together more often.

Superman Family #200 (March 1980) was a really fun “imaginary story” written by Gerry Conway.  Set 20 years in the future (late 1999 to be specific) it featured Clark Kent and Lois Lane married with a teenage daughter named Laura.

There were several art teams on Superman Family #200.  The portions of this issue that Giella inked were penciled by Bob Oksner, another great artist whose work I have grown to appreciate in recent years.  Oksner & Giella made an effective art team.  That’s another collaboration I wish we had seen occur more frequently.

Finally, here is the variant cover that Giella drew for the sixth issue of the Archie Meets Batman ‘66 miniseries published by DC and Archie Comics (March 2019).  Giella is apparently the oldest living Batman artist, so I really wanted to have him sign something featuring the Dark Knight of Gotham City.  This cover is a nice piece which demonstrates that Giella, now in his early 90s, is still going strong as an artist.

Thanks again to Joe Giella for autographing these books, and to his son Frank for arranging everything.

Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice

This morning, over on the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, I posted images from a couple of issues of Azrael: Agent of the Bat for today’s Comic Book Coffee entry. Denny O’Neil, who passed away last week, wrote the entire 100 issue run of Azrael.

Thinking it over, I feel that O’Neil’s work on the Azrael series was underrated.  He co-created the character and played a major role in Jean-Paul Valley’s development.

Azrael was initially conceived solely to serve the role of an insane, violent substitute to Batman during the “Knightfall” storyline, to demonstrate why it was important that the real Batman not become a ruthless killer.  But following the conclusion of “Knightfall” O’Neil appears to have put a great deal of effort into developing Jean-Paul Valley into a three-dimensional character, to remake him as an actual hero.

Another character that O’Neil created, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, became an important presence in the Azrael series, beginning during the “No Man’s Land” crossover in Azrael: Agent of the Bat #55 (August 1999), penciled by Roger Robinson and inked by James Pascoe.

In a 2014 interview with 13th Dimension, O’Neil explained that Leslie was inspired by social activist Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that Leslie was a character who embodied much of O’Neil’s own beliefs.  Leslie dedicated her life to fighting against injustice & inequality, to helping the poor & downtrodden, and she sought to find constructive ways in which to make real, lasting changes to society.

This two page scene below is from Azrael: Agent of the Bat #92 (September 2002), written by O’Neil, penciled & inked by Sergio Cariello, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, with a cover by Mike Zeck & Jerry Ordway.  It encapsulates Leslie’s beliefs, and in turn offers an insight into O’Neil’s own worldview.

Azrael is missing and presumed dead (that happens a lot in superhero comic books).  Leslie, who has been attempting to help the psychologically damaged Jean-Paul Valley for some time, is angry, and she call Batman out on the role he played in this tragedy.  She accurately points out to the Dark Knight all of the other ways in which Jean-Paul could have fought against injustice, and she castigates Batman for instead influencing the young man to follow in his vigilante footsteps.

In a 2017 interview with Pop Mythology writer / artist Howard Chaykin had this to say about Batman:

“Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works.”

O’Neil was obviously a very intelligent & insightful person.  He wrote and edited the Batman titles for many years, so I am certain he perceived this juvenile fantasy element of the character.  As one of the primary caretakers of the Dark Knight’s world he probably felt he could not critique this too directly.  However, right from the early days of his career O’Neil actively sought to address social & political issues in his stories.  Leslie was one way in which he did so throughout the years, presenting her as a counterpoint to Batman’s ideology & methods.

O’Neil often had Leslie voicing a great deal of criticism towards Batman.  Leslie believes that Batman, in his identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, has the resources & influence to help peacefully shape the world into a better place, and that it is there where he ought to be focusing his time & energies.

Leslie Thompkins is one of those characters that I never quite understood when I was younger.  However, as I have gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I have come to appreciate the character, and to recognize that O’Neil utilized her to attempt to get readers to think.  It makes sense that O’Neil would use Leslie as a central figure in the Azrael series.  Just as within the stories Leslie worked to help Jean-Paul become a better person, in his writing O’Neil attempted to make Azrael a better character.

Several years ago O’Neil was a guest at a small comic book convention in Brooklyn.  One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of Azrael.  I do not recall his exact words, but after looking that book over he said something along the lines of “We really tried to make the character work.”

O’Neil could be critical of his own writing, and he reflected that perhaps he could have done a better job on the Azrael series.  Nevertheless, in spite of the flaws, I appreciate the work he did with Jean-Paul Valley and Leslie Thompkins, to have the Azrael series be something more than just another Batman spin-off or superhero slugfest.  As he did on a number of other occasions, O’Neil sought to stretch the boundaries of the genre in an intelligent, mature manner.

Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

Martin Pasko: 1954 to 2020

Longtime comic book & animation writer Martin Pasko passed away on May 10th.  He was 65 years old.

DC Comics Presents 1 coverBetween 1973 and 1982 Pasko wrote a great many stories for the various Superman titles at DC Comics.  On quite a few of these he was paired with longtime Superman penciler Curt Swan.  In 1978 Pasko, working with artists Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez & Dan Adkins, launched the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents with a well-regarded two-part story costarring the Flash.

In the mid 1970s Pasko also wrote Wonder Woman.  The first part of Pasko’s run had him wrapping up “The Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman” storyline.  Several issues later the series shifted focus to the Earth-Two’s Wonder Woman during World War II.  This was an effort to align the book with the first season of the live-action television show starring Lynda Carter.  Pasko’s final two issues, #231-232, were plotted by his friend Alan Brennert, his first work in comic books.  Brennert & Pasko’s story, which was drawn by Bob Brown, Michael Netzer & Vince Colletta, had Wonder Woman teaming up with the Justice Society.

All of this was slightly before my time as a reader, as I was born in 1976.  I have read some of those Superman and Wonder Woman stories in back issues or trade paperbacks.  However, the first work by Pasko that I vividly recall from my childhood was his early 1980s revival of the Swamp Thing with artist Tom Yeates.Swamp Thing 6 cover

Pasko wrote the first 19 issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing.  He and Yeates created some genuinely weird, spooky, unnerving stories during this year and a half period.  I vividly recall the two-part story from issues #6-7, which had Swamp Thing encountering a bizarre aquatic creature with eyeball-tipped tentacles that could transform people into one-eyed monsters.  The shocking cliffhanger in issue #6 definitely seared itself onto my young mind and left me wondering “What happens next?”

I think Pasko’s work on Swamp Thing is often underrated, overshadowed by the groundbreaking Alan Moore run that immediately followed it.  I know that I’m not alone in this estimation.  A number of other fans also believe Pasko’s Swamp Thing stories are due for a reevaluation.

Swamp Thing 6 pg 17

During this time Pasko was also working in animation.  Among his numerous animation credits, he wrote several episodes of Thundaar the Barbarian, which had been created by fellow comic book writer Steve Gerber.  It was Pasko who devised the name Ookla for Thundaar’s massive leonine sidekick.  As he recounted years later, he and Gerber had been attempting to come up with a name for the character when…

“We passed one of the entrances to the UCLA campus and when I saw the acronym on signage, the phonetic pronunciation leapt to mind.”

I was a huge fan of Thundaar the Barbarian when I was a kid.  I doubt I paid any attention to the credits back in the early 1980s, but years later, after I got into comic books, when I watched reruns of the show, the names of the various comic book creators involved in it, including Pasko, leaped right out at me.

E-Man v2 5 coverPasko was the writer on the first several issues of the revival of E-Man from First Comics in 1983, working with artist Joe Staton, the character’s co-creator.  As I’ve previously written, I just don’t feel that Pasko was a good fit for E-Man.  It really is one of those series that was never quite the same unless Nicola Cuti was writing it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure Pasko gave it his best.  There is at least one issue of E-Man where I think Pasko did good work, though.  I enjoyed his script for “Going Void” in issue #5, which featured a brutally satirical send-up of Scientology.

Pasko got back into writing for DC Comics in late 1987, writing a “Secret Six” serial drawn by Dan Spiegel in Action Comics Weekly.  He soon picked up another ACW assignment, featuring the revamped version of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.

This past January on his Facebook page Pasko recounted how he came to write Blackhawk in ACW.  When asked to take over the feature from departing writer Mike Grell by editor Mike Gold, Pasko initially accepted it only because of the lengthy, ongoing strike by the Writers Guild…

“I took the assignment because I had no choice–I needed the money–but it turned out, in the end, to be the most fun I ever had writing comics. I haunted the UCLA Research Library, immersing myself in everything I could learn about the post-WWII era in which the series was set, making Xeroxes of visual reference for the artist and having the time of my life.

“But my greatest thanks are reserved for that artist, my fantastic collaborator, the impeccable storyteller, Rick Burchett. Which is why this stuff is tops among the work of which I’m most proud. That stuff was all YOURS, Rick.”

Pasko & Burchett returned to the characters with an ongoing Blackhawk comic book that launched in March 1989.  It was a really enjoyable series, and it’s definitely unfortunate that it only lasted a mere 16 issues, plus an Annual.

Blackhawk 2 pg 19

In 1992 Pasko became a story editor on Batman: The Animated Series, working on 17 episodes of the acclaimed series.  He wrote the episode “See No Evil” and co-wrote the teleplay for the episode “Paging the Crime Doctor.”  Additionally, Pasko co-wrote the screenplay for the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which was released theatrically.

DC Retroactive Superman 1970sIn the later part of his career Pasko contributed to several nonfiction books.  He also wrote the occasional comic book story for DC.  Among these was the special DC Retroactive: Superman – The 1970s penciled by Eduardo Barretto, which gave Pasko the opportunity to write the Man of Steel and his Bronze Age supporting cast one last time.

I never had an opportunity to meet Martin Pasko.  I narrowly missed him at Terrificon a few years ago.  Fortunately, Pasko was very active on Facebook, and I was one of the many fans who he enthusiastically interacted with there.  He wrote some really great stories in his time, and will definitely be missed.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Four

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and now I’m collecting them together here.  (Please click on the “coffee” tag to read the previous parts of the series.)

16) Kerry Gammill, Ricardo Villamonte & Vince Colletta

April 26th was the birthday of artist Kerry Gammill.  On that day I showcased two pages Gammill penciled from his well-regarded run on Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel Comics in the early 1980s, where he was paired with writer Jo Duffy.

The first page is from Power Man and Iron Fist #63, cover-dated June 1980.  Gammill is inked here by Ricardo Villamonte.  Gammill and Villamonte made a great art team, and did an excellent job rendering Duffy’s stories.  Here we see Luke Cage, woken up by renovations at the Gem Theater, a second-run movie house in pre-gentrification Times Square, gratefully accepting a cup of coffee from the Gem’s manager, film student D.W. Griffith.

Power Man and Iron Fist 63 pg 16

The second page is from Power Man and Iron Fist #71, cover-dated July 1981.  The inking credits for this issue are “D.Hands” which is short for Diverse Hands.  Presumably this issue fell victim to the Dreaded Deadline Doom, and several different people inked it.  The Grand Comics Database credits Vince Colletta for several pages, including this one.  It certainly looks like his work.

Following a disastrous date with Harmony Young, a brooding Luke Cage finds himself having an early morning cup of joe at Eddy’s, “an all-night diner, where the service is poor and the coffee more bitter than his own angry thoughts.”  A scowling Cage considers his coffee and thinks “Man, no one should have to pay for anything this bad.”  Reminds me of all the times I got coffee at some local bodega where the pot must have been sitting on the burner for at least a couple of hours!

Gammill does excellent work on both these pages.  He effectively renders Cage going through very mundane tasks: drinking coffee, shaving, getting dressed, paying a bill.  Gammill’s layouts, as well as the body language he gives to Cage, provide valuable elements of characterization that work effectively in conjunction with Duffy’s script.

Seeing these two pages side-by-side is an excellent illustration of the important role the inker plays in the look of the finished artwork.  Villamonte gives Gammill’s pencils a rich, illustrative look that is very different from what Colletta’s feathery ink-line brings to it.

I was too young to read these issues when they first came out.  I sort of regret that, because it must have been a real pleasure to get these comic books in real time, and each month read the latest adventure of Luke Cage, Danny Rand, Misty Knight & Colleen Wing, which Duffy, Gammill, Villamonte and friends chronicled with a wonderful mixture of action and humor.  Having said that, I do appreciate that I’ve been able to pick up some of these as back issues, and that most of the run has been collected into trade paperbacks.

Power Man and Iron Fist 71 pg 5

17) Erik Larsen

Today’s tale of crossed continuums and caffeine is from Savage Dragon #101, written & drawn by Erik Larsen, lettered by Chris Eliopoulos, and colored by Reuben Rude, published by Image Comics, cover-dated July 2002.

Savage Dragon is a labor of love on the part of Erik Larsen.  The Dragon was originally created by Larsen in his teenage years, and was the star of his earliest self-published comic books in 1982.  A decade later when Larsen co-founded Image Comics the Dragon was his flagship character.  Savage Dragon made its debut as a three issue miniseries, followed by an ongoing title in 1993.

Larsen has Savage Dragon take place in real time, meaning all the characters age.  He has also regularly changed the status quo.  Dragon started out as a Chicago police officer.  He then became a government agent, and following that was a bounty hunter.  A huge change took place in #75.  Dragon attempted to alter history by killing his time traveling adversary Darklord.  As a result Dragon was shunted onto a parallel world, one where his enemies had taken over the world.  Twenty-five issues later Dragon finally defeated them, and located this reality’s version of his wife Jennifer Murphy and her young daughter Angel.

“Shattered Planets, Shattered Lives” sees Dragon, Jennifer and Angel at the diner, with attempting to explain exactly what has transpired:

“I’m the real guy! I’m really Dragon — I’m just not the SAME Dragon. YOUR Dragon was killed by a villain named Darklord and our minds were swapped. I’m from a different dimension.”

Not surprisingly, both Jennifer and Angel have no idea what to make of this crazy story.  Given how headache-inducing this whole conversation must be, it’s no wonder Dragon is having coffee which, as we see here, he takes with cream “and enough sugar to fill a bathtub.”

I’ve been a HUGE fan of Savage Dragon since the first issue of the miniseries came out in 1992, and I’ve been following in regularly for 28 years.  Larsen has written & drawn some really exciting, weird, and funny stories in his series.

In 1996 Dragon’s son Malcolm was born.  Over the next 24 years Malcolm grew into a child, a teenager, and finally an adult.  Three years ago the original Dragon was killed off permanently by Larsen, and Malcolm Dragon became the new series’ star going forward.

Savage Dragon 101 pg 14

18) Morris (Maurice de Bevere)

Two thumbs up to Jim “1000 Horses” Thompson for suggesting this one.  “Des barbelés sur la prairie” drawn by Morris, real name Maurice de Bevere, and written by René Goscinny, originally saw print in Spirou, a weekly comic book anthology published in Belgium.  This is from the first chapter of the serial, which ran in Spirou #1411, cover-dated 29 April 1965.

The serial was collected in Lucky Luke #29: Des barbelés sur la prairie, published in 1967 by Dupuis.  It finally appeared in English in 2007, released by British publisher Cinebook as A Lucky Luke Adventure #7: Barbed Wire on the Prairie.

This is where I acknowledge my appalling lack of knowledge about non-English language comic books.  I had not previously heard of Lucky Luke.  After it was pointed out to me by Jim, an online search revealed it to be a long-running comedic Western starring gunslinger Lucky Luke and his horse Jolly Jumper, the smartest horse in the world.  Barbed Wire on the Prairie sees Lucky Luke aiding a group of farmers against ruthless rancher Cass Casey, who tries to steal their land for his cattle herds.

On this opening page Goscinny and Morris discuss the lifestyle of the cowboys, including their dining habits:

Narrator: The cowboys fed themselves along the trail thanks to mobile kitchens called “chuck wagons” whose chefs had a strange understanding of gastronomy…

Chef: To make good coffee, you put a pound of wet coffee in the coffeepot and boil it for half an hour. Then you throw in a horseshoe. If the horseshoe doesn’t float, you add some more coffee.

I enjoy the Comic Book Historians group because it can be incredibly informative. I’ve definitely learned about quite a few creators and series here, such as Morris and his creation Lucky Luke.

That and I also learned a new way to prepare coffee! Anyone here got a horseshoe I can borrow?

Lucky Luke 7 coffee

19) Dave Gibbons

Watchmen #6 illustrated & lettered by Dave Gibbons, written by Alan Moore, and colored by John Higgins, published by DC Comics, cover-dated February 1987.

A great many words have been written over the past three decades concerning Watchmen, the 12 issue deconstruction of the superhero genre by Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons.  It is indeed an incredibly rich text.  Watchmen is, for better or worse, one of the most influential comic books ever created.

So instead of reiterating what has been said before, I’m going to focus solely on this page, which features Dr. Malcolm Long, the psychiatrist who has been assigned to the incarcerated Rorschach.  At first Long is enthusiastic about the case, believing that he has an opportunity to make his name by successfully treating the notorious vigilante.  Long soon comes to realize just how disturbed and intractable Rorschach genuinely is, and the psychiatrist finds himself being pulled into the abyss of insanity and darkness that has transformed Walter Kovaks into a faceless fanatic.

Here we see an already-consumed Long burning the midnight oil, fueled by caffeine, futilely attempting to solve the mad, jumbled puzzle that is Rorschach’s psyche.  This is nine panels of a man sitting at a desk drinking coffee, writing in his journal and arguing with his wife, and Dave Gibbons draws the heck out of it.  Via his layouts, the angles and positioning of the compositions within the nine panel grid, Gibbons renders what could be an otherwise-mundane scene with genuine mood and drama.

I have found in re-reading Watchmen I have discovered not just previously-unnoticed layers to Moore’s writing, but a much greater appreciation for Gibbons’ superb artwork & storytelling.

Watchmen 6 pg 13

20) Jim Aparo

The work of Bronze Age legend Jim Aparo is showcased in today’s entry.  “Scars” is drawn by Aparo, written by Gerry Conway, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Al Milgrom, from The Batman Family #17, published by DC Comics with an April-May 1978 cover date.

Jim Aparo is considered by many to be one of the all-time great Batman artists.  So it was entirely appropriate for Aparo to draw this first meeting between the Batman of Earth-One and the Huntress, who is the daughter of the Batman and Catwoman of Earth-Two.

Helena Wayne has crossed the dimensional barrier to meet this counterpart Dark Knight.  Over coffee with Batman and Robin she explains that she is seeking advice on pursuing a career as a costumed crimefighter.  She does not feel she can confide in her father, so she has come to the Bruce Wayne of Earth-One, who is literally the next best thing.

This story and the second one in this issue, a team-up of Batgirl and the Huntress against Poison Ivy and Catwoman written by Bob Rozakis and drawn by Don Heck, make use of the idea that it really would be weird and unnerving to find out there was a parallel world that was almost the same as yours.  Imagine meeting the counterparts of your loved ones, identical in some respects, yet very different in others.  Conway and Rozakis both do a good job with the concept.  That’s especially the case when Helena, the memories of her mother’s recent tragic death still fresh, encounters the Catwoman of Earth-One.

Batman Family 17 pg 9

Aparo was a very talented artist, and this page showcases his diversity of skill.  The top third is a dramatic image of the Huntress with the rest of the Justice Society charging into action.  The rest of the page has Helena conversing with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, a good demonstration of Aparo’s sequential storytelling, as well as his ability to depict the human, vulnerable sides of these colorful costumed figures.

The Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Three

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject until May 1st (if not longer).

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and I’m now collecting them together here on my blog.  Click here to read Part One and Part Two.

Java 1 pg 10 top panel

11) Kensuke Okabayashi & Peter Palmiotti

Java! is a post-apocalyptic satire written & penciled by Kensuke Okabayashi, inked by Peter Palmiotti and colored by Lee Stacy.  The three issue miniseries was published by Committed Comics in 2004.

The year is 2073, and humanity has found itself faced with a devastating new emergency: a worldwide coffee shortage!  As the first issue explains:

“A mysterious plague has contaminated the caffeine structure of found in coffee by increasing its strength to lethal levels. Infected victims must now be consumed by their fatal addiction or face a painful death. The Supreme Justice has ordered the destruction of the contaminated resources, which has left the citizens with less than four percent of ‘pure’ beans.

“With limited resources, citizens are now restricted to a meager two cups per day.”

The price of uncontaminated coffee skyrockets.  Coffee-producing nations have now become global super-powers.  Convoys delivering precious coffee beans become prime targets for caffeine-addicted raiders looking to horde this now-precious commodity.

To combat the Bean Bandits and make sure the coffee supply is not cut off, the city of Neo Seattle assembles B.E.A.N. Force, “a new coffee law enforcement division.” The five-member B.E.A.N. Force’s top operative is the hyperactive, trigger-happy Java who takes her coffee intravenously.  Team strategist and close friend La-Te often finds herself having to reign in the unpredictable blonde firecracker.  The remaining three members of B.E.A.N. Force are “coffee expert” Doctor D, team mechanic Modean, and team leader Kinkaid.

Kensuke Okabayashi’s writing on Java! was ridiculously fun and off-the-wall, an entertaining blend of sci-fi, action and comedy.  Okabayashi, paired with inker Peter Palmiotti, created some dynamic artwork for the miniseries.

In 2010 Okabayashi followed up the miniseries with the one-shot special Java! Recaffinated released through Piggyback Studios.  In the last several years he has been working on the fantasy graphic novel The Foreigner, the first volume of which was published in 2018.

Java 1 pg 14

12) Curt Swan & George Klein

Thank you to Michael Powell for suggesting this one on the Why I Love Comics group.  “The Jekyll-Hyde Heroes!” from World’s Finest #173 was penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein.  The writer was a young Jim Shooter.  This issue was released by DC Comics with a February 1968 cover date.

This one is a real doozy… but you could say that about many of the stories published under the auspices of editor Mort Weisinger during the Silver Age.  Mad scientist Dr. Aaron seeks revenge on Superman and Batman, who recently put a stop to his illegal experiments.  Aaron manages to secretly drug both of them, via bottles of soda pop no less, with “Psyche-Distorter chemicals” that he has developed.  This chemical causes both heroes to take on the evil identities & personalities of the enemies they fear the most.

In the case of Batman that is Two-Face, aka former District Attorney Harvey Dent, who the Dark Knight fears because “I can never predict whether he’ll act good or evil… because he always lets a flip of a coin decide!”  For Superman, the enemy he fears more than any other is Kralik the Conqueror, a powerful, ruthless alien criminal who nearly defeated the Man of Steel in hand to hand combat.

Wait a second… Kralik the Conqueror?  Who the hell is that?!?  According to the Grand Comics Database and other sources, it turns out that Superman’s “most dangerous foe” never appeared before this issue, and hasn’t been seen since.  Yeah, they just pulled this Kralik the Conqueror guy out of thin air… or maybe somewhere else I won’t mention!

To ensure maximum mayhem, Dr. Aaron drugs the heroes a second time.  This he accomplishes by… discovering the location of the Batcave and spiking its water supply.  Yes, really.  This time Batman and Superman unwittingly ingest the drug via the coffee that Alfred brewed for them in the Batcave.

This story somehow even manages to get even more ridiculous after this, ending in a genuine WTF moment that left me totally boggled.  I recommend reading World’s Finest #173 simply for the sheer nuttiness of this story.

So, what about the art?  Curt Swan worked regularly on various Superman-related titles for three and a half decades, from the early 1950s to the mid 1980s.  I’ve always found Swan to be a solid, reliable penciler.  My appreciation for his work has often varied greatly depending on who happened to be inking him, though.  At certain points in his career I feel Swan was paired with inkers who were not a good fit for him, and I disliked the finished artwork.

On the other hand, I have stated before that I regard George Klein as one of the absolute best inkers to have ever worked with Swan.  Klein inked Swan’s pencils regularly in the 1950s and 60s, always to wonderful effect.  The art by the Swan & Klein team in World’s Finest #173 is definitely high quality, and that plays a major part in this crazy story working as well as it does.

Worlds Finest 173 pg 13

13) David Mazzucchelli

This entry is from the graphic novel Asterios Polyp, written & drawn by David Mazzucchelli, published in 2009 by Pantheon Books.

Asterios Polyp is a brilliant yet arrogant and flawed architect.  When his Manhattan apartment building is struck by lightning and burns to the ground in the middle of the night, Asterios sets out on a journey of discovery, both physical and emotional.  Hopping a bus to the middle of nowhere, the architect begins a new career as an auto mechanic in a small Southwestern town, a life very different from the one he has left behind.  Intercutting through Asterios’ present-day experiences are flashbacks to his troubled past.

Having collaborated with Frank Miller on two of the most iconic super-hero stories of the 1980s, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, David Mazzucchelli subsequently made the decision to focus on more personal and experimental works.  In stories for the Drawn & Quarterly anthology, his own self-published magazine-sized anthology Rubber Blanket, and his adaptation of the Paul Auster novel City of Glass, Mazzucchelli sought to grow as both a writer and artist.

Clocking in at 344 pages, Asterios Polyp appears to see Mazzucchelli pulling together all of his narrative & artistic techniques to craft a very philosophical & introspective work.

The diversity of style & storytelling can be witnessed on this page from early on in the graphic novel.  The top third is drawn in a straightforward fashion, flashing back to the various young female students who Asterios slept with during his time as a college professor bringing him his morning cup of coffee.  In the middle are Asterios and his wife Hanna in their apartment.  On the left Hannah, an emotional and passionate individual, is rendered in rich detail with thin, naturalistic red lines.  On the right, the logical, cerebral Asterios is drawn with sparse blue lines, a precise, minimalist geometric figure.  The bottom third of the page is an otherwise blank white space with just one short sentence, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” a response to the question that had been posed at the very beginning of this sequence several pages earlier: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?”

Asterios Polyp is a very complex & dense story.  I read it soon after it came out, and I could immediately tell it would benefit from re-readings.  Having skimmed through it again earlier this week, a number of things stood out for me that I had not previously noticed, things that became clearer now that I knew where Mazzucchelli’s narrative was heading.  I look forward to sitting down with the book again and taking my time to explore it.

Asterios Polyp coffee

 

14) Howard Chaykin

Midnight of the Soul #3 written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov, published by Image Comics, cover-dated August 2016.

Howard Chaykin possesses a great love for mid-20th century American music, fashion & culture, and has set a number of his stories in the post-World War II era.  At the same time, Chaykin will be the first to acknowledge that this was a period plagued by racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Communist paranoia, a time when clean-cut white conservative middle class values & prosperity often served to hide dark secrets.  The five issue noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul is set in this post-War society, one seemingly on top of the world, yet containing numerous tensions and corruptions simmering just below the surface.

Five years after the War, army veteran Joel Breakstone suffers from both post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.  Shutting himself up in his Long Island home, Joel unsuccessfully attempts to launch a career as a fiction writer.  Things have reached the breaking point between Joel and his wife Patricia, who is disgusted at both his inebriation and his failure to make a single sale.

One night, alone while Patricia is at work, Joel is rummaging through the house, desperately hoping to find a bottle he might have stashed away.  Instead he discovers evidence that Patricia, rather than working as a night court stenographer, is actually a prostitute.  An apoplectic Joel grabs his pistol and hops on his motorcycle, riding into New York City, determined to locate and confront his wife.  Patricia is already on the run, though, having fled from her Greenwich Village apartment after her client for the night was murdered in front of her.  Joel makes his way up and down Manhattan Island, searching for his wife, running into various unsavory figures who are also seeking her out.  Throughout the night Joel finds himself repeatedly crossing paths with the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessy, a stripper who is acquainted with Patricia.

In this scene Joel’s search has taken him to Times Square, where he encounters Dierdre on her way to work stopping for a cup of coffee at the Chock full’o Nuts.  The strung-out Joel joins her for a badly needed caffeine fix, although Deirdre is quick to warn him “that doughnut’ll punch through you like all-bran never could.”

For additional thoughts on Midnight of the Soul, I blogged about it in early 2017.

Midnight of the Soul 3 pg 2

15) Rik Levins & Kevin Dzuban

Americomics #4 written & penciled by Rik Levins, inked by Kevin Dzuban, lettered by Bob Pinaha, colored by Rebekah Black, and edited by Bill Black, published by AC Comics, cover-dated October 1983.

Ken Burton was obsessed with the dead super-hero Dragonfly, an obsession that led him to neglect both his engineering company and his fiancée Nancy Arazello.  Ken was convinced he could summon supernatural forces to gain the Dragonfly’s powers, and his quest left Nancy running Burton Engineering on her own.  Inevitably this led to a huge fight between the couple.  That night Ken was conducting the mystic ritual to become the new Dragonfly when Nancy, hoping to work out their problems, walked into the room.  The inadvertent result was that Nancy became Dragonfly instead.

Rebuffed by a bitter Ken (who, truthfully, came across as a selfish jerk even before this), a broken-hearted Nancy is left wondering what she should do with these powers she never even wanted.  When a ruthless drug dealer uses an experimental drug to create a giant warrior and unleashes it on the city as a test run, Nancy transforms into Dragonfly to save innocent bystanders.  At first seemingly outmatched, Nancy soon defeats the goliath, angrily pounding him to a pulp.  Police Detective Richard Trent pulls Nancy aside, taking her to a nearby diner for a cup of coffee to discuss what just happened.  Trent appears to be reassured by Nancy’s earnest manner, but she is secretly frightened that she was taking out her frustrations at Ken on her immense opponent.

Dragonfly was created by Rik Levins.  Following this debut story, Levins went out to write & pencil an ongoing Dragonfly series that lasted eight issues.  Dragonfly also became an occasional member of Femforce, the female superhero team created by AC publisher Bill Black.

I got into Femforce about 20 years ago.  Fortunately a local comic book store had a number of back issues from the 1980s and 90s available, as well as several other AC books, among them the first five issues of the Americomics anthology series.

Americomics #3 was one of the issues from that haul that really stood out.  A young, up-and-coming Jerry Ordway drew a stunning cover featuring Dragonfly.  The interior work by Levins & Kevin Dzuban was also impressive.  Levins’ design for the character was certainly distinctive.

I had known of Levins’ work from his early 1990s stint drawing Captain America, and I believe he actually holds the record for penciling the most consecutive issues of that title, 36 to be exact.  I actually enjoyed Levins’ art for the various AC titles more than I did his run on Captain America.  Levins wrote many of the stories he drew AC, so perhaps he felt more personally invested in the material?

Americomics 4 pg 14

Rik Levins regrettably passed away on June 12, 2010 at the age of 59.  Due to the fact that he was working in comic books during a time when flashy, dynamic artists were very much in the spotlight, Levins’ work is often overlooked.  While I would not say that I was a huge fan I did find him to be a solid, consistent artist.  Thinking about it now, I find Levins’ style somewhat reminiscent of Curt Swan, another penciler who could be counted on to turn in professional work on schedule.  That’s a frequently underappreciated ability.

Tom Lyle: 1953 to 2019

I was very sorry to hear that longtime comic book artist Tom Lyle passed away earlier this month.

As with a number of other comic book artists who got their start in the 1980s, Lyle’s earliest work was published by Bill Black at AC Comics.  In late 1986, following a meeting with Chuck Dixon at a Philadelphia convention, Lyle began working for Eclipse Comics.  He penciled back-up stories in Airboy featuring the Skywolf character, followed by a three issue Skywolf miniseries, and a few other related books for Eclipse.Airboy 13 Skywolf pg 6

I personally didn’t have an opportunity to see this work until 2014, when IDW began releasing the Airboy Archives trade paperbacks.  Looking at those Skywolf stories, I was impressed by how solid & accomplished Lyle’s work was that early in his career, both in terms of his storytelling and his attention to detail.  In regards to the later, a good example of this is seen in the above page from Airboy #13 (Jan 1987).  Lyle and inker Romeo Tanghal do great work rendering both the airplane and the Himalayan Mountains.

The Skywolf back-ups and miniseries were all written by regular Airboy writer Chuck Dixon, who Lyle would collaborate with again in the future.Starman 1 cover 1988 small

In late 1988 Lyle, working with writer Roger Stern and inker Bob Smith, introduced a new Starman, Will Payton, to the DC Comics universe.  Although not a huge hit, Starman was nevertheless well-received by readers, and the title ran for 45 issues, with Lyle penciling the first two years of the run.  Starting with issue #15 Lyle was paired up with inker Scott Hanna.  The two of them made a very effective art team, and they would work together on several more occasions over the years.

Lyle then worked on a couple of jobs for Marvel.  He penciled an eight page Captain America story in Marvel Comics Presents #60 written by John Figueroa and inked by Roy Richardson.  This was followed by a three part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Present #77-79 featuring the usual teaming up of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos with Dracula.  Written by Doug Murray and inked by Josef Rubinstein, the serial saw the Howlers having to work with the lord of the vampires against the Nazis.

In 1990 Lyle worked on the five issue Robin miniseries for DC Comics, featuring Tim Drake’s first solo story.  The miniseries reunited Lyle with Chuck Dixon and Bob Smith.  It was a huge hit, gaining Lyle a great deal of attention & acclaim.  Within the story Dixon & Lyle introduced the villains King Snake and Lynx, both of whom would become recurring foes in the Batman rogues gallery.  Also around this time Lyle drew the covers for an eight issue Justice Society of America miniseries.Comet 3 pg 2Lyle’s next project was for Impact Comics (or, if you prefer, !mpact Comics) a DC Comics imprint featuring revamped versions of Archie Comics’ oddball line of superheroes.  Lyle was the artist & plotter of The Comet, an interesting reimagining of the character.  Scripting The Comet was Mark Waid.  Beginning with the second issue Scott Hanna came on as the inker / finisher.JSA 6 cover 1991 small

I was 15 years old when the Impact line started, and I really enjoyed most of the books.  The Comet was definitely a really good, intriguing series.  Lyle & Hanna once again made a great art team.  Regrettably, despite apparently having some long-term plans for the series, Lyle left The Comet after issue #8.  It fell to Waid, now the full writer, to bring the series to a close when the Impact books were unfortunately cancelled a year later.

Lyle’s departure from The Comet was probably due to his increasing workload on the Batman group of titles.  During this time he penciled “Shadow Box,” a three part follow-up to the Robin miniseries that ran in Batman #467-469.  After that he was busy on the high-profile four issue miniseries Robin II: The Joker’s Wild.  As the title implies, this miniseries saw Tim Drake’s long-awaited first encounter with Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime, the villain who had murdered the previous Boy Wonder.

Following on from this, the team of Dixon, Lyle & Hanna worked on Detective Comics #645-649.  One of the highlights of this short run was the introduction of Stephanie Brown aka The Spoiler.  Stephanie would go on to become a long-running, popular supporting character in the Bat-books, eventually becoming a new Batgirl.Robin 1 pg 1After completing a third Robin miniseries, Lyle moved over to Marvel Comics, where he immediately established himself on the Spider-Man titles.  He penciled the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #27, once again working with Scott Hanna.  Written by Jack C. Harris, another former DC mainstay, the annual introduced the new hero Annex.

Batman 468 cover smallThis was followed by Lyle & Hanna drawing Spider-Man #35-37, which were part of the mega-crossover “Maximum Carnage.”  Lyle also penciled the Venom: Funeral Pyre miniseries, and drew a few covers for the Spider-Man Classic series that was reprinting the original Lee & Ditko stories.

The adjective-less Spider-Man series had initially been conceived as a vehicle for which the super-popular Todd McFarlane could both write and draw his own Spider-Man stories.  However he had then left the series with issue #16 to co-found Image Comics, and for the next two years the title served as something of anthology, with various guest creative teams.  Finally, beginning with issue #44, Lyle & Hanna became the regular art team on Spider-Man, with writer Howard Mackie joining them.

Truth to tell, this was actually the point at which I basically lost interest in the Spider-Man books.  The padded-out “Maximum Carnage” event, followed soon after by the meandering “Clone Saga,” caused me to drop all of the Spider-Man series from my comic shop pull list.  Nevertheless, I would on occasion pick up the odd issue here & there, and I did enjoy Lyle’s work on the character. He also did a good job depicting the villainous Hobgoblin and his supernatural counterpart the Demogoblin.

Spider-Man 48 pg 11Despite my own feelings about “The Clone Saga,” I know it has its fans.  Lyle definitely played a key part in that storyline.  When Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly returned he assumed the identity of the Scarlet Spider.  It was Lyle who designed the Scarlet Spider’s costume.  I know some people thought a Spider-Man type character wearing a hoodie was ridiculous but, as I said before, the Scarlet Spider has his fans, and the costume designed by Lyle was certainly a part of that.Spider-Man 53 cover small

Lyle remained on Spider-Man through issue #61.  He then jumped over to the new Punisher series that was written by John Ostrander.  Unfortunately by this point the character had become majorly overexposed, and there was a definite “Punisher fatigue” in fandom.  Ostrander attempted to take the character in new, different directions, first having him try to destroy organized crime from within, and then having him work with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight terrorists, but the series was cancelled with issue #18.  Nevertheless I enjoyed it, and I think Lyle, paired with inker Robert Jones, did some really good work drawing it.

Lyle next wrote & penciled a four issue Warlock miniseries for Marvel in 1998, which was again inked by Jones.  After that Lyle & Jones worked on several issues of the ongoing Star Wars comic book for Dark Horse.  He also worked on several issues of Mutant X for Marvel.

Unfortunately in the early 2000s Lyle began having trouble finding work in comics. Honestly, this is one of the most exasperating things about the industry.  Here was an artist who for over a decade did good work on some of the most popular characters at both DC and Marvel, and then suddenly he finds himself not receiving any assignments.  It’s a story we’ve regrettably heard variations of over and over again.  It’s a genuine shame that freelancers who time and again were there for publishers do not find that loyalty rewarded.

Punisher 15 cover 1997 smallFortunately for Lyle he was able to successfully transition into another career.  He began teaching sequential illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005, a position he remained at for the next decade and a half.

Tragically in September of this year Lyle suffered a brain aneurysm.  After undergoing surgery he was placed in a medically induced coma.  Unfortunately he never recovered, and he passed away on November 19th.  He was 66 years old.

The sad fact is that health care in this country has become more and more unaffordable for most people.  After her husband passed away Sue Lyle was left with astronomical medical bills.  Tom’s brother-in-law set up a Go Fund Me to help Sue.  I hope that anyone who reads this who is in a position to help out will contribute.

Lyle was a longtime friend of June Brigman & Roy Richardson, who also got into the comic book biz around the same time. After Lyle passed away, Brigman shared a few memories of him on Facebook:

“Roy and I were friends with Tom and his wife Sue for, oh…about thirty years. Tom and I followed a similar path, working for Marvel and DC, then SCAD, Tom in Savannah, me in Atlanta. It was Tom who encouraged me to go for a teaching position at SCAD, an experience that I’m very grateful for. And it was Tom’s example that made me, at the ripe ol’ age of 59, finally finish my MFA in illustration. I like to think that we helped give Tom a start in comics. But really, all we did was give him a place to stay when he first visited Marvel and DC. He went on to become a rock star of the comics industry. And while yes, he definitely left his mark on the world of comics, I think his real legacy is his students. They were all so fortunate to have Professor Lyle. Not everyone who can do, can teach. Everything Tom taught came from his experience. He was a master of perspective, he had impeccable draftsmanship, and boy, could he tell a story. And, most importantly, he loved teaching, and truly cared about his students.”

I only met Tom Lyle once, briefly, and a comic book convention in the early 1990s.  Several years later I corresponded with him via e-mail.  At the time I purchased several pages of original comic book artwork from him.  Tom was easy to deal with, and his prices were very reasonable.  Regrettably over the years I’ve had to sell off all of those pages to pay bills, but it was nice having them in my collection for a while.

Tom Lyle was definitely a very talented artist.  Everyone who knew him spoke very highly of him as a person.  He will certainly be missed.

Happy 80th birthday Batman: How I became a fan of the Dark Knight

This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.

Detective Comics 27 cover smallBatman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.  Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week.  As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others.  Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.

I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman.  Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.Batman and Robin tv show

I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven.  My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY.  For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.

Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch.  Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.

I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989.  That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country.  Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books.  Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”

In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.”  I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating.  So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.

Batman 431 cover signed

Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him.  It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.

This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier.  ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil.  That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.

At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor).  In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts.  Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.

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The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins.  It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)

I was hooked.

The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432.  “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue.  It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it.  I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo.  They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.

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By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale.  Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing.  George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.

Batman 436 cover smallAfter that I was a regular reader.  I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo.  They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories.  Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face.  Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.

During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608.  The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell.  Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning.  I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.Detective Comics 608 cover small

As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books.  That is definitely the case with me.  In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists.  I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is.  Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.

Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58.  Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72.  Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s.  He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.

Detective Comics 627 cover smallReleased in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.

As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman.  As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.

I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions.  A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself.  I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team.  It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman.  Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers.  Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak.  I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes.  Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.

From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it.  I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.

Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia.  But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week.  Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that.  Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers.  It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.

The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson.  It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with.  The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school.  Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.

One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley.  Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s.  They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart.  The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character.  And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.

Happy birthday, Batman.  Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond.  Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.

Comic book reviews: Gotham City Garage

It’s been a few years since I’ve regularly followed any DC Comics titles.  However, over the past several months I have bought a number of DC trade paperbacks.

I eventually noticed a general theme to these TPBs: They had stories that were set on Earth 2, or in the future, or in alternate realities. I’ve come to realize that while I like a lot of DC characters, I long ago got tired of monthly titles where there is a never-ending illusion of change. On the other hand, stories set on other Earths, or eras, or that fall under the “Elseworlds” umbrella provide creators with opportunities to present different takes on familiar characters, and tell stories that are more self-contained, with somewhat greater consequences.

(It’s funny… When I was a teenage comic book fan I was hung up on continuity, on whether or not stories were “real” and actually “counted.” Nowadays I just want to read an enjoyable, intelligent story, and it doesn’t matter to me if it takes place on Earth 67 or Earth B or whatever.)

Gotham City Garage Vol 1 cover

Gotham City Garage falls into that “alternate reality” category.  No, it is NOT a book about the guy who repairs the Batmobile (although that was actually a pretty good episode of Batman: The Animated Series).  Inspired by a line of collectible statues that re-imagined several of DC’s female character as tattooed chopper chicksGotham City Garage was a digital first series that was then published as a twelve issue miniseries that was later collected into two trade paperbacks.

This past June artist Lynne Yoshii was a guest at the Women in Comics convention at the Brooklyn Public Library.  I was not previously familiar with Yoshii, but the art she had on display looked incredible, so I purchased one of the issues of Gotham City Garage which contained her work.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and subsequently got the first TPB.  The second one finally came out last month.

Gotham City Garage is written by Collin Kelly & Jackson Lanzing.  After the majority of the Earth was devastated by an environmental catastrophe, Lex Luthor seized control of Gotham City, which he has rebuilt as a domed city called the Garden.  Aided by a fascist Batman and an army of robots known as “Gardeners,” Luthor implanted “Ridealongs” within the brains of the population.  These  implants pacify negative emotions and instill loyalty to Luthor.

Only a handful of individuals escaped becoming brainwashed zombies in Luthor’s dystopia.  They are now based out of the Gotham City Garage, a safe haven in the wastelands built by Natasha Irons.

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Kelly and Lanzing utilize the teenage Kara Gordon as the audience identification figure.  Seemingly a loyal member of Luthor’s staff, Kara has to hide the fact that her Ridealong does not work.  Outwardly she smiles brightly and chants “Lex loves you” but inwardly she is miserable, the only person with free will in a city of lobotomized slaves.

The first issue opens with the Gardeners finally rumbling to Kara’s secret.  She is only saved by the intervention of Jim Gordon, who tells her to flee the Garden.  He also informs the shocked teenager that she is not actually his daughter, that he adopted her when she was an infant to protect her from Luthor.  Escaping the city, exposed to yellow sunlight for the first time, Kara quickly realizes that she has superpowers, and is in fact an alien.

Fleeing the Gardeners, Kara encounters chopper-riding rebels from the Garage: Big Barda, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Silver Banshee.  Initially suspicious of her, the women nevertheless help Kara defeat the Gardeners and bring her to their headquarters.  Although naïve and inexperienced, Kara / Supergirl joins the rebels, quickly becoming an important ally in their struggle to stay free from Luthor’s control.

Gotham City Garage is a female-driven book.  The majority of the protagonists are women.  Kelly and Lanzing do excellent work writing Supergirl, Batgirl, Big Barda, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and the other heroines.

I enjoyed the student & mentor relationship they set up between the young, idealistic Kara and the embittered Barda, who all these years later still suffers PTSD from her horrific upbringing on Apokolips.  The voices that Kelly & Lanzing give to both Kara and Barda feel authentic.

Gotham City Garage 1 double page spread

The series offers up interesting and visually striking re-imaginations of a number of DC’s iconic characters.  One of the most effective of these is Harley Quinn, not just visually, but also conceptually.  Although incredibly popular, Harley Quinn can nevertheless be a problematic figure.  She is a woman who was manipulated by, and is in an abusive relationship with, the psychotic Joker.  After she migrated from DC’s animated universe into its mainstream continuity and spun off into a solo title, Harley Quinn’s ties to the Joker were often downplayed.  Obviously the writers & editors at DC realized that it would be awkward to have a series starring a character who was a disciple to a mass murderer.  Nevertheless, you still had a character whose origins were rooted in emotional abuse and Stockholm Syndrome.

The way that Gotham City Garage improves upon Harley Quinn is by providing her with an agency lacking in her mainstream counterpart.  In this reality Dr. Harleen Quinzel was recruited by Luthor to develop the Ridealongs.  Agreeing to work with Luthor as much for self-preservation as to satisfy her scientific curiosity, Quinzel perfects the system that gives Luthor control of the city’s populace.  Too late realizing that she has enabled Luthor to turn the people into mindless drones, Quinzel rebels.  Attempting to both sabotage the Ridealongs and free herself from Luthor’s control, Quinzel deliberately scrambles her own brain patterns.  This results in a new, humorously irreverent, sarcastic personality with a penchant for extreme violence.

In what is an effective turn-around, it is Harley who creates the Joker.  She inspires Lloyd, one of her former patients who she liberated, to adopt her outrageous sense of fashion and her dedication to cartoonish acts of anarchy.

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The twelve issue series is a more or less complete arc that reaches a definite conclusion that nevertheless leaves open the possibility of future stories.  There was at least one dangling subplot, namely what happens to Zatanna and Silver Banshee, but perhaps Kelly & Lanzing were leaving that for another day.

The artistic line-up for Gotham City Garage is impressive.  Certainly I have to give much praise to Lynne Yoshii, who got me interested in this series in the first place.  Yoshii has a really fun, dynamic style.  She also does really good work with her storytelling, her layouts delivering both action and emotional character moments.  Yoshii’s pencils for issue #2, which are inked by Jose Marzan Jr, were both exciting and humorous.  I hope that we see more from her in the near future.

I also like the artwork by Brian Ching.  He has a style somewhat reminiscent of Kieron Dwyer and Dan Panosian.  Ching’s work has a gritty tone that is also slightly cartoony & exaggerated, which is perfect for the post-apocalyptic setting.

Another effective contributor to Gotham City Garage is Aneke, who illustrates “Bad Seeds” in issue #3, which spotlights Harley Quinn, and flashes back to reveal her origin.  Plus I love how Aneke draws Harley’s wacky pet hyenas.

As I observed in the past, it appears to take a particular skill set to work on these “digital first” titles.  A penciler needs to be able to lay out the pages so that the top and bottom halves work as separate pieces on the computer screen, but also work together as a single, uniform page in the print edition.  I feel that most of the pencilers who contributed to Gotham City Garage did a fairly good job at accomplishing this.

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The covers are mostly of the pin-up type.  I usually am not fond of these types of covers, since they reveal little about the actual contents inside the books.  Unfortunately that seems to be the default style for DC (and Marvel) cover art in the 21st Century.  At least most of them are well drawn.  Dan Panosian’s variant cover for issue #1 featuring Wonder Woman is certainly striking, and it was a good choice to re-use to for the first collected edition.

Also along for the motorcycle ride are colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick and letterer Wes Abbott, both of whom do good work.

Gotham City Garage is a fun series with good artwork, an enjoyable and thoughtful alternate take on the DC universe.