Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

Nowadays there are literally hundreds of volumes reprinting much of the extensive library of Marvel Comics material from the past seven decades.  However, even with the proliferation of trade paperbacks within the last 15 years, there are still several titles that remain elusively out of print.  That is because during the 1970s and early 80s Marvel published a number of series featuring characters licensed from other companies.  These titles were set firmly in Marvel continuity, and introduced numerous characters that are still being used.  But due to the presence of those licensed properties, reprinting the original stories from the Bronze Age remains an elusive goal.

Master of Kung Fu 33 pg 1

The Bronze Age title that readers would probably most like to see collected is Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  The series featured the philosophical martial artist hero Shang Chi, who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Shang Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, and proved popular enough that the book was re-titled Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

Shang Chi is the son of the centuries-old criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, the pulp novel arch-villain created by author Sax Rohmer.  Shang was raised in isolation, educated & indoctrinated to become the perfect assassin, a living weapon to be aimed at those who sought to thwart Fu Manchu’s goal of “purifying” the so-called “corruptions” of human civilization and rebuilding the world in his own image.  Soon after completing his first assignment, Shang encountered his father’s longtime adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of British Intelligence, who managed to convince the martial artist of his father’s evil intentions.  Shang subsequently turned against Fu Manchu, and his father vowed to eliminate him.

Although Shang Chi was initially devised by Englehart & Starlin, both of them departed from Master of Kung Fu rather early on.  Succeeding them were writer Doug Moench and penciler Paul Gulacy, who collaborated very closely.  Their acclaimed run features a very successful blending of martial arts and espionage, equal parts Bruce Lee and Ian Fleming.  Shang Chi became a reluctant agent of British Intelligence, combating both his father’s schemes and other terrorist plots, working alongside allies Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr.  After Gulacy’s eventual departure, Moench continued on scripting the book until almost the end, working with several artists including Mike Zeck and Gene Day.

Master of Kung Fu developed quite a cult following.  The characters of Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr, as well as several villains who made their debut in the series, continue to appear regularly throughout the Marvel universe.  Unfortunately, though, the original decade-long run of Master of Kung Fu remains uncollected.  Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith and a handful of other characters who showed up periodically in the series are still owned by the estate of Sax Rohmer, which makes publishing trade paperbacks problematic.

Rom Spaceknight 65 pg 17

Running a very close second for most demanded reprint still caught up in contractual complications is Rom Spaceknight, which Marvel published from 1979 to 1985.  Rom actually began life as a rather clunky toy produced by Parker Brothers.  In order to generate interest in their odd action figure, Parker Brothers approached Marvel to publish a comic book featuring him.  Practically a blank slate, the character’s entire back-story was devised from the ground up by Marvel writer Bill Mantlo.  Rom was a reluctant cyborg warrior who had sacrificed his humanity as one of hundreds of volunteers from the planet Galador, which was under siege by the malevolent, shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  After driving off the Wraiths, the Spaceknights pursued their foes across outer space for the next two centuries, with Rom eventually finding his way to Earth.

Arriving in West Virginia, Rom discovered that the Dire Wraiths, utilizing their sophisticated science and dark sorcery, had begun a covert invasion of the planet.  He launched a one-man war against the Wraiths, a task made all the more imposing by his difficulty in convincing humanity that they had been infiltrated.  To most humans, Rom appeared a hostile monster who was attacking innocent people.  But gradually, as time progressed, the Spaceknight was able to prove his good intentions to various members of humanity, including a number of Earth’s superheroes and the forces of SHIELD.

Working with Mantlo on Rom Spaceknight for four and a half years was his frequent artistic collaborator Sal Buscema, who turned in some very solid, impressive, atmospheric work.  Beginning with issue #59 and continuing thru to the series finale in #75, Silver Age legend Steve Ditko assumed penciling duties, paired up with an all-star line-up of inkers / finishers that included P. Craig Russell, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Tom Palmer and Butch Guice.

The Rom toy was not a success, and it would probably not even be remembered today were it not for the work Mantlo, Buscema and Ditko did on the Marvel book.  Nevertheless, Rom is still a licensed character, now owned by Mattel.  So even though Marvel can use the Dire Wraiths and the Spaceknights, as well as the half-Wraith, half-human mutant monstrosity Hybrid, who were all devised by Mantlo, Rom himself is off-limits.  And that includes reprinting the entirety of the Rom Spaceknight series, as well as any appearances the character made in other Marvel titles.

Micronauts 8 cover

Bill Mantlo was also the writer of another series based around a toy, namely Micronauts, which ran from 1979 to 1986.  Once again, Mantlo conceived a rich back-story for the characters, giving them histories & personalities, creating several brand new characters, and tying their origins in with Marvel’s own previously established sub-atomic dimension the Microverse.  He set up a massive conflict between the Micronauts and the tyrannical Baron Karza, a cybernetic dictator who repeatedly returned from the dead to beguile them via his macabre body-snatching science.  Along the way, Mantlo introduced the Enigma Force, a non-corporeal sentience that merged with various people to become Captain Universe.

The early issues of Micronauts were penciled by a young Michael Golden, who did some stunning work.  Later issues featured art by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, and Butch Guice.

And, yet again, Micronauts is another series with Marvel does not have the rights to reprint.  There was even a four issue X-Men and the Micronauts miniseries in 1984 which remains off-limits.  However, three members of the team that Mantlo devised independent of the toy line, namely Arcturus Rann, Mari, and Bug, continue to pop up in Marvel books from time to time.  The Captain Universe entity is also a Marvel mainstay.

Essential Godzilla cover

There is, however, one significant exception to this Bronze Age licensing limbo.  Between 1977 and 1979, Marvel published a Godzilla series set firmly within Marvel continuity.  Written by Doug Moench, with the majority of the 24 issue run penciled by Herb Trimpe, the book saw Japan’s most famous radioactive reptile pursued across North America by Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and their fellow Agents of SHIELD.  Along the way the Big G encountered the Champions, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy even popped up in their very first post-Kirby appearances.

The Godzilla comic book introduced a handful of characters who went on to show up now and again in subsequent Marvel stories.  The titanic robot Red Ronin and Yetrigar the giant yeti both made their debuts facing off against Godzilla.  And in issue #s 4-5, Moench and guest penciler Tom Sutton introduced the demented geneticist Doctor Demonicus, who later became an occasional foe of Iron Man and the Avengers.

While it may lack the sophistication of his work on Master of Kung Fu, Moench’s writing for Godzilla was obviously targeted towards a younger audience.  His stories on this book are odd, if not downright silly (at one point Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a mouse by Hank Pym, and spends the next few issues gradually growing back to normal size, in the process getting into all sorts of bizarre situations) but they definitely have a fun charm.  The artwork by Trimpe, Sutton, and their various inkers is also very good and dynamic.

Keeping all of this in mind, I was certainly glad that Marvel did have an opportunity to reprint the Godzilla comic book.  Somehow or another, they came to some sort of arrangement with Toho Studios which enabled them to publish a single printing of the black & white Essential Godzilla volume in 2006.  Of course I bought a copy!  Obviously that collection is now out-of-print, but it’s still easy enough to find, with a number of used copies of the book for sale at close to cover price on Amazon.

Shogun Warriors 5 cover

However, Moench & Trimpe’s unofficial follow-up to Godzilla, the 20 issue Shogun Warriors series that ran between 1979 and 1980, is another one of those uncollected toy tie-ins.  I’ve never read it, but it sounds like fun, with its trio of giant robots tussling with an assortment of rampaging monsters.  So, yeah, that’s one more you’re going to have to dive into the back issue bins to find.

On the one hand, it is frustrating that Marvel and the owners of these various properties cannot come to a financial arrangement that enables these series to be reprinted.  On the other, I can certainly understand that there is logic to those owners holding out for more money.  Marvel is, after all, a corporation with tremendous financial assets, especially now that they are owned by Disney.  Despite this, from various accounts I’ve heard, Marvel’s management has apparently often been on the penny-pinching side, unwilling to offer other, smaller companies or creators a reasonable amount of compensation for the publishing rights to their properties.

While I only have a handful of issues from both Master of Kung Fu and Micronauts in my collection, I do possess an entire run of Rom Spaceknight.  I bought most of the later issues as a kid when they came out in the mid-1980s.  A decade or so later, when I was in college, I finally decided to track down the rest of the series.  It took some time and patience, but I was able to find most of them for pretty reasonable prices.

I expect that the other out of print material Marvel published in the 1970s and 80s can also be found by the same means.  If you take the time to search for affordable copies on eBay and at comic conventions, eventually you’ll be able to pick up the majority of those comic books without breaking the bank.  Yeah, it’s not as convenient as just grabbing a trade paperback off the shelf at the comic shop.  But these are some quality, entertaining books with good writing & artwork, and I do think it’s worth a little extra effort to find them.

Happy birthday to Sal Buscema

Today is the 78th birthday of one of my favorite comic book artists, Sal Buscema, who was born on January 26, 1936.  “Our Pal Sal,” as he is often affectionately referred to by comic book fans, is the younger brother of the late, great John Buscema (1927-2002), another of the amazing artists whose work defined the look of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.

For an extremely in-depth look at Sal Buscema’s career, I highly recommend picking up the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, written by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weathington, published by TwoMorrows.  Also now out in comic shops is Back Issue #70, edited by Michael Eury, and also released by TwoMorrows. Examining the Hulk throughout the Bronze Age, one of the subjects naturally touched upon is Buscema’s record ten year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from late 1975 to mid 1986.  That said, I am going to look at a few specific, favorite areas of Buscema’s career.

Sal Buscema Comics Fast & Furious Artist cover

One of Buscema’s first assignments at Marvel was penciling Avengers in 1969.  This was something of a baptism by fire, considering Sal had the render numerous heroes and villains in the storylines being written by Roy Thomas.  Nevertheless, Buscema did great work out of the gate, turning in quality pencils for the Avengers’ now-classic encounters with Ultron, the Zodiac Cartel, the Lethal Legion, and the forces of the extraterrestrial Kree and Skrull, those later issues being part of the epic “Kree-Skrull War,” which also featured the artistry of Sal’s brother John and a young Neal Adams.

Around this same time, John Buscema, who was somewhat picky about who inked his work, asked Sal to embellish his pencils on several issues of Silver Surfer.  Looking at the black & white reprints of those stories in Essential Silver Surfer, I’d say that Sal did a great job, really bringing out the best in his brother’s work.

In late 1971, Sal Buscema became the penciler on Captain America, a book which at the time was floundering somewhat both in terms of sales and creative stability.  In mid-1972, Buscema was joined by incoming writer Steve Englehart.  Together, the two of them took the characters of Cap and the Falcon on a creative renaissance.  Their run is now regarded as one of the high points in the long history of the book.  It is certainly one of my favorites.   Englehart focused squarely on Cap’s uncertain place in the extremely unsettled social & political climate of the early 1970s.  Buscema turned in exemplary pencils, creating one of the definitive renditions of the character.  The high point of their run was undoubtedly “The Secret Empire,” a story arc that ran from #169 to #176.

Captain America 175 pg 1

Buscema departed from Captain America shortly afterwards.  His last regular issue was #181, cover-dated January 1975.  By the time he was already a few years into a run penciling The Defenders.  One of the main characters in that title was the Hulk, a character Buscema drew extremely well, and who he has stated on several occasions was a favorite of his.  He has expressed a fondness for the character, a tortured child-like creature perceived as a dangerous monster and cast out from society.  So it was certainly a judicious choice for Marvel to offer him the assignment to pencil Incredible Hulk later that year.  As I said before, Buscema had a decade-long run on that series, once again creating a definitive interpretation of one of Marvel’s icons.

I’ve written about Sal Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk a couple of times before on this blog, specifically issue #285 and #309.  Both written by Bill Mantlo, each of these issues had extremely different tones and atmospheres to them.  Comparing those two comics, you can really see Buscema’s versatility as an artist.

One of my favorite titles that Buscema worked on was Rom Spaceknight, beginning with the debut issue in late 1979, and remaining on the title until issue #58 in 1984.  Nearly the entirety of the series was written by the aforementioned Bill Mantlo.  He and Buscema worked really well together.  Mantlo’s Rom Spaceknight stories were a deft blending of superheroes, sci-fi, horror, and conspiracy fiction.  Buscema expertly illustrated this cocktail of diverse elements.  He also excelled at drawing Rom himself, a near-featureless metal figure.  Buscema had to rely on his mastery of capturing the nuances of body language to give emotion to the cyborg hero.  Buscema drew on his amateur theater background to make Rom a lifelike individual.

Rom Spaceknight 1 pg 1

Buscema had been the original artist on Spectacular Spider-Man when it debuted in 1976, penciling the first couple of years.  A decade later, in 1988, he returned to the book with a refined style to his art which was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Buscema, first with writer Gerry Conway, and then with J.M. DeMatteis, produced what I regard as some of the finest work of his career.  His storytelling and nuanced emotional depictions of characters were especially stunning on DeMatteis’ moody, psychological run from #178 to #200.

DeMatteis was following up on one of the threads from his time writing Captain America and the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story, specifically the tragic story of the man-rat Vermin.  The author wove this around the conflict between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the latter of whom, haunted by memories of his then still very much dead father Norman, became unhinged and took up the identity of the Green Goblin.  This all culminated in the tragic issue #200, which Buscema magnificently illustrated.

Spectacular SpiderMan 182 cover

Buscema remained on Spectacular Spider-Man until #238.  Towards the end of this run, he was inked by John Stanisci and, appropriately enough, Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist who had inspired him to experiment with his long-established style.  I really liked the pairing of Buscema and Sienkiewicz.

In the mid-1990s, when Marvel was in the uphevals of bankruptcy, Buscema had to look for work elsewhere.  For several years he was employed by Marvel’s distinguished competition themselves, DC Comics.  At DC, Buscema both penciled and inked a number of different titles, including various Batman and Superman books.  It was really interesting to see the long-time Marvel artist on DC’s flagship characters.  Buscema did some great work during this time.  One of my favorite stories he penciled at DC was “The Prison,” written & inked by John Stanisci, which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #8.  It examined the dark, convoluted relationship between Batman and Talia, the daughter of the Dark Knight’s immortal nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.  Buscema did a nice job on this, and it was great to see him paired with Stanisci again.

Batman Chronicles 8 pg 5

Since 2000, Buscema has been semi-retired.  Most of his work in the last decade and a half has been as an inker.  His most frequent artistic partner is penciler Ron Frenz.  The two of them make a great art team.  They had a long run on Spider-Girl.  Subsequently they’ve also worked on ThunderstrikeHulk Smash Avengers, She-Hulk, Black Knight G.I. Joe, and Superman Beyond.

After over four decades in the comic book industry, nowadays Sal Buscema is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Nevertheless, as a huge fan of his work, I am very happy that he does still venture back into the biz from time to time for the occasional job.  It is always a thrill for me to see new artwork from him.  Our Pal Sal is definitely an amazing talent.

I am happy to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talents. There is a Facebook group entitled SAL BUSCEMA POW! which currently has 619 members.  Somehow I ended up being the co-moderator of this one.  So, if you are also a fan of his work, feel free to join.

(One Year Later Update… as of today, January 26, 2015, the SAL BUSCEMA POW! group on Facebook now has 1,466 members.  A big “thank you” to everyone who joined in the last year.  It’s nice to hear from so many fellow fans of Our Pal Sal.)

Once again, happy birthday, Sal!  Thank you for all the wonderful stories and artwork that you’ve given us.

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #309

As I mentioned on my February 14th blog post, when I was seven years old the very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I read was #285.  While I really liked that comic book, I did not have an opportunity to pick up another issue of that series until exactly two years later.  That was #309, which was published in 1985.  And, as I commented before, if I thought #285 was odd, well, this new issue was simply bizarre!

Incredible Hulk 309 cover

The cover to Incredible Hulk #309 is by Mike Mignola.  It is a pretty early piece of work by the future creator of Hellboy.  But you can certainly see his potential as an artist in this unusual cover image.  This has to have been the very first time that I ever saw Mignola’s art.  It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.

Inside the comic, it quickly becomes apparent that things had changed dramatically in the two years that I was away from the title.  Formerly, Bruce Banner gained full control of his bestial alter-ego, and been accepted as a hero by the people of Earth.  Now, though, the Hulk appears to be somewhere far, far from home, struggling to string together a simple coherent thought.

“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema and Gerry Talaoc.  Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brings the reader up to speed, in a dramatic splash page montage drawn by Buscema & Talaoc.  The now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s old foe Nightmare, his dreams twisted to re-awaken the green goliath’s bestial alter ego.  Nightmare hoped to use the Hulk as weapon against the Sorcerer Supreme.  However, Strange was able to help the remaining spark of Banner’s consciousness strike back at the demon.  Unfortunately the Hulk was left with no mitigating human influence, and became an uncontrollable monster.  Rather than have to destroy his old friend, Strange exiled the Hulk to the extra-dimensional Crossroads, which links up to a myriad of other realities.

Now, after some time in the Crossroads, traveling from one strange world to another, the Hulk’s sentience is very gradually awakening.  And with this renewed awareness, the Hulk discovers that he is accompanied by a trio of unusual figures.  The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon named Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl called Guardian, and a shining magenta star known as Glow.  These mysterious figures are somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help fully restore his psyche.

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 1

Walking through one of the Crossroads portals, the Hulk and the Triad are transported into the middle of a vast alien desert.  Although the desolate sands stretch as far as the eye can see, and the harsh sun beats endlessly down, the Hulk refuses to activate the “fail-safe spell” cast by Doctor Strange that would return him to the Crossroads when he feels discontented.  As a massive sandstorm sweeps in, the Triad attempt in vain to convince the Hulk to wish himself off this planet before they all perish.

Finally, having survived the brutal elements, the Hulk at last finds that which his inhuman senses had detected from far off: a lush oasis.  The Triad realizes that the Hulk was not on a mission of suicide, but was driven by the will to find this oasis, meaning his mind is continuing to heal and come back together.

This was a really odd story to read as a kid.  The Hulk stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome.  Bill Mantlo really crafted an unusual story, having the Hulk’s struggle against nature juxtaposed against the Triad’s examination of and insights into his mental state.  It is a very introspective tale.

At the time, I had no clue who the Triad was supposed to be.  Within the next few issues, Mantlo would reveal that they are the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought.  Certainly this was a very clever, innovative idea.  Looking back on #309, I can see that Mantlo sprinkled the dialogue with a number of hints as to the true identity of the Triad.

Mantlo really broke a lot of ground with his run on Incredible Hulk.  Having already given us an intelligent Hulk, he has now exiled the jade giant from Earth and begun to embark on an examination of Bruce Banner’s psychological background.  A cursory glance at the Hulk stories that have been written in the decades since readily demonstrates just how much all of this influenced subsequent writers.

This issue’s artwork was absolutely incredible.  The thing that really struck me was the depiction of the Hulk by Buscema & Talaoc.  Obviously in other comic books and in television cartoons, the Hulk had always been a big, strong creature.  But this was the first time I had ever seen him drawn as such a huge, bestial, imposing figure.

The illustrations of the Crossroads and the desert planet that the Hulk and his strange companions visited were very vivid and detailed.  Buscema did a great job on the pencils, crafting these alien environments.  And the inking by Talaoc was absolutely superb.  He created a tangible atmosphere of oddness for the Crossroads.  On the desolate world, his embellishments bring to life a harsh landscape that alternates between cutting winds and a brutal sun.

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 10

In the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, “Our Pal” Sal states that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with.  I can certainly see why.  They went together exceptionally well.  Talaoc really enhances Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.

Incredible Hulk #309 was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending a decade-long run.  Mike Mignola came onboard as the new penciler.  A few issues later, the entire team of Mantlo, Mignola & Talaoc relocated to the pages of Alpha Flight.  Mignola departed that book after only a handful of issues, but both Mantlo and Talaoc stuck around longer, at one point even reuniting with Sal Buscema on pencils for a couple of issues.  Meanwhile, the Incredible Hulk book, after brief stints by first John Byrne and then Al Milgrom, had Peter David come onboard for a lengthy, brilliant run that, as I said before, has some of its roots in Mantlo previous work.

By the time Incredible Hulk #309 came along, it had become a bit easier for me to follow comic book titles.  So I was fortunately able to pick up most of the next several issues of the series, plus follow Mantlo and friends onto Alpha Flight.  And those issues I did miss I eventually bought as back issues.

Looking back on Bill Mantlo’s run writing Incredible Hulk, yep, it was really strange, but also innovate and exciting.  The artwork by Sal Buscema was superb, and for the later part he was paired up with the excellent inking of Gerry Talaoc.  Fortunately, after all these years, a good portion of the Mantlo issues, #s 269 to 313, is finally being collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks.  The first two, Pardoned and Regression, are already out, with the third, Crossroads, due in May.  I highly recommend picking them up.  They remain some of the best Hulk stories ever written.

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #285

The very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983.  Prior to this, I had avidly watched the Hulk cartoon that ran on Saturday mornings in the early 1980s, and of course I had seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby & Lou Ferrigno.  But Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read any of the character’s actual comic book adventures.  And, I have to say, even at six-and-a-half years old, I knew that it was a bit of a strange issue.

Incredible Hulk 285 cover

Incredible Hulk #285 is topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott.  As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image.  But, even so, it wasn’t your typical Hulk scene, to be sure.  First off, rather than fighting the military or a supervillain or even some sort of monster, the Hulk’s enemy was this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames.  I hadn’t seen anything like that before.  And, even odder, instead of striding around in his usual pair of torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a suit & tie.  Very strange.  That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!

Flipping open the book, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life,” written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema & Chic Stone.  Once again, the Hulk was wearing a well-pressed suit, his hair neatly combed.  On top of that, rather than running around on a destructive rampage, there he was seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.

Incredible Hulk 285 pg 1

As I read onward, over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounted to the readers how Dr. Bruce Banner, creator of the Gamma Bomb, had been caught in the explosion of the weapon he created, mutating him into a being who transformed into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger.  Following this is an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrates the chaotic life of the Hulk over the next several years, the long and winding road taken by a green goliath who was more often than not hunted by humanity.  And, at the end of it, we find the cause of the Hulk’s current status: at long last, after all this time, Bruce Banner has managed to gain control, to retain his human intelligence when transforming into the Hulk.

While the Hulk has been busy recounting his life, a crew of workers from Stark Industries headed up by Scott Lang (Ant-Man) has been constructing Northwind Observatory, a laboratory where Banner can resume his scientific studies.  Turning back into his human form, Banner joins Lang to supervise the installation of the laboratory’s power core.  At the last minute, Banner discovers that the power core was not designed by Stark Industries, but acquired from a company called Soulstar.  Banner immediately recognizes the name, but before he can prevent it, the power core is hooked up, there is “a massive electromagnetic discharge,” and a strange being emerges.

This creature, we are informed, is Zzzax, the Living Dynamo.  Looking something like a humanoid lightning bolt, Zzzax is a creature that feeds on the human life force.  Before the monster can consume the stunned construction crew, Banner transforms back into the Hulk and tackles this old enemy of his.  Unfortunately, the Hulk quickly remembers that, in his old child-like persona, the angrier he got, the stronger he became.  But now, guided by Banner’s rational intellect, the Hulk cannot easily become angry, meaning his strength is limited.  And so the gamma-spawned giant realizes that, instead of relying on brute force to defeat Zzzax, he must now find a way to out-think his fiery foe.

Incredible Hulk 285 pg 17

As a kid, I thought Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy.  Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was a very unexpected change for me, but I just shrugged and read on.  Bill Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly presented through the plot device of Bruce Banner penning his autobiography.  The second half, with the Hulk fighting Zzzax, was really exciting.

On the art side of things, the work by Sal Buscema was high quality.  This was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him.  Buscema would become one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Several years ago, when “Our Pal” Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show, I had him autograph a copy of this issue.  It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that eventually the cover fell off!

(While I’m on the subject of Sal Buscema and Incredible Hulk, it’s definitely worth mentioning that he pencilled practically every issue of the series from issue #194 in 1975 thru to #309 in 1985.  Yep, he had a ten year run drawing the Hulk, and during that time I believe he missed only seven issues.  They definitely do not make artists like him anymore!)

In regards to Stone’s inking on #285, it is pretty good.  In the last three decades, having subsequently seen a great deal more of Buscema’s work, I have to admit that there were others who did a better job finishing his pencils, among them Joe Sinnott, Gerry Talaoc, and Buscema himself.  In the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows, he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking.  Looking at it as an adult fan, yes, I tend to agree with him.  That said, back when I was a little kid completely lacking in any knowledge concerning the subtleties of inking, I thought the artwork by Sal & Chic looked just fine.  I guess that’s probably the more important thing.

Even though I really did enjoy Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old and I very seldom had a chance to buy comic books on my own, I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years.  When I finally did, it was Incredible Hulk #309.  And if I thought #285 was odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre!  But I’ll be covering that story in a future edition of Strange Comic Books.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Deathlok

On more than one occasion I have discussed Rich Buckler on this blog.  Each time, I made passing mention of Deathlok, the character he created at Marvel Comics, who debuted as an ongoing feature in Astonishing Tales #25, cover dated August 1974.

There is a reason why I keep citing Deathlok.  He was the first major cyborg character in comic books.  Buckler devised what is undoubtedly one of the most inventive, cutting-edge, influential series to have come out of Marvel in the 1970s.  It has continued to influence numerous other creators, both in and out of the comic book field, to the present day.  You can readily see the inspiration of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok stories in such films as Robocop, Escape from New York, and The Matrix.

Since I was born after Deathlok first made his debut, and I did not begin regularly following comic books until the late 1980s, my first exposure to the character of Deathlok was actually via a later incarnation.  Dwayne McDuffie & Greg Wright introduced a new Deathlok, Michael Collins, in a four issue miniseries published in 1990.  The Collins version of the character then went on to appear in an ongoing book that lasted 34 issues, which I followed on and off.

Unfortunately, at this time Marvel didn’t have any sort of major trade paperback program going, and so they passed up the opportunity to reprint the original Deathlok material.  The only glimpse I got of these stories was in 1993, when Marvel published Deathlok Lives, which reprinted the three issue Captain America story arc that wrapped up the original Deathlok’s storyline a decade before.

Of course, if I could have, I would have purchased the back issues of Astonishing Tales and read those.  But they were both difficult to locate and very expensive.  So eventually I just put it on the back burner.

Fast forward to 2007.  Issue #25 of Michael Eury’s superb magazine Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows, came out.  It contained a fascinating in-depth interview with Rich Buckler about the origins of Deathlok, conducted by regular BI contributor Michael Aushenker.  Reading that, I once again thought to myself that it really was long past time that Marvel reprinted those stories, because I really was interested in reading them.  So, a mere two years later, when Marvel finally published their Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok hardcover, I grabbed it up.  This collection contains the Astonishing Tales issues and a variety of other material, including the Captain America arc.

Rich Buckler's dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36
Rich Buckler’s dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36

A variety of creators worked on the Deathlok stories.  Rich Buckler is the main creator on the original Astonishing Tales material, turning in the majority of the plotting and pencil artwork.  Doug Moench co-plots and scripts the early chapters, before Buckler takes over penning the dialogue in the middle segments.  The latter issues are then scripted by Bill Mantlo.  A number of talented artists contributed to the finished pencils & inking, among them Klaus Janson, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones, and Pablo Marcos.  The Captain America issues are by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck and John Beatty.

Set in the dystopian future year of 1990 (I’m sure that seemed far-off back in 1974) amidst the devastated ruins of Manhattan, the Deathlok series features the anti-hero Luther Manning.  A soldier who violently died five years previously, Manning’s brain and remaining flesh have been bonded to a cyborg body code-named Deathlok.  The undead cyborg Deathlok is a tormented, horrific figure.  Snatched back from the abyss, his body a mix of cold metal and semi-decayed flesh, his consciousness cohabited by a logical computer, Luther Manning’s new existence is a living hell.  Deathlok desperately seeks to break free of the military’s control, and gain revenge on the man who resurrected him as a cyborg, Major Simon Ryker.

The ruthless Ryker is obsessed with control.  In Astonishing Tales #35, when Deathlok and Ryker finally come face to face, the later explains himself.  Seeing the country falling into chaos after the destruction of Manhattan, Ryker now seeks to impose a new order.  In an exchange scripted by Bill Mantlo, Ryker justifies his actions to Deathlok, saying “It was for their own good! People need someone to watch over them!” To which Deathlok shouts back “So you elected yourself! Dictator and God all rolled into one! You’re mad, Riker! You’re insane!”  The Major’s response to this is to say “I merely brought our society to a logical conclusion, along a path it had long ago chosen for itself: benevolent control by an impassionate military-industrial complex.”

It is explicitly stated that no one knows who actually bombed Manhattan.  It could have been foreign terrorists, or a Communist power, or perhaps just some madman.  Deathlok even alludes to the possibility that Ryker himself may have caused the disaster, to give him the opportunity to initiate his fascist policies.

Buckler’s plots are rather prescient, as they mirror real world events of the last twelve years.  One could easily draw parallels to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Certain politicians used the tragedies as an occasion to pass controversial, perhaps even unconstitutional, laws such as The Patriot Act that greatly increased government power while curtailing civil liberties.  And many in the populace were all too ready to embrace these measures, trading in their freedoms for the promise of order & security.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the Astonishing Tales issues do bounce around, with Deathlok wandering up & down devastated Manhattan, running into numerous enemies.  Reading these issues, I get the feeling that Buckler was making it up as he went along.  It doesn’t seem he had a detailed story arc planned out, just a loose idea of where he’d be heading.  While this does lead to something of an unfocused overall story, I suspect that this did allow Buckler to be innovative and go off in new directions as the series progressed.  It probably resulted in more spontaneity than if he had adhered to an iron-clad plot.

The strongest issues are undoubtedly the first few and the last few, namely the chapters that were scripted by Moench and Mantlo.  The middle segments, where Buckler was fully in charge of both the artwork and the writing, do ramble somewhat.  I think Buckler many have been over-extending himself.  I believe that at this point it time he was also the regular penciler on Fantastic Four, so he was probably very busy.  Once Mantlo comes aboard to take over the scripting, things really gain focus, and we get the riveting confrontation between Deathlok and Ryker.

The artwork by Buckler on these stories is incredible.  He is an underrated artist, I think in part due to his drawing Fantastic Four in a very Jack Kirby-influenced style.  This led some to incorrectly conclude that Buckler was incapable of drawing anything other than a Kirby pastiche.  But if you look at Buckler’s art on Deathlok, you see some amazing, dynamic, innovative work.  His layouts and storytelling are dramatic and unusual.  Buckler’s character design for Deathlok was innovative.  Likewise, his conception of Hellinger, the even more insane cyborg brother of Major Ryker, is horrific, with a metallic skull face and exposed brain.

Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace
Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace

In recent years, Buckler has found acclaim as a surrealist painter.  Looking at the art in this volume, I can definitely see the roots of that.  Especially notable is a surreal battle between Deathlok and Ryker within a computer network.  Keep in mind this was written & drawn more than two decades before The Matrix came out, before the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality became popular.  In other words, this is experimental work by Buckler.

As I mentioned before, a number of different inkers worked on the Astonishing Tales issues over Buckler’s pencils.  Klaus Janson’s inking probably works best, giving the art a gritty, atmospheric feel entirely appropriate for the grim settings.  It especially suits the bizarre imagery of the cyberspace confrontation seen in issue #s 34 & 35.

The war between Deathlok and Ryker comes to a conclusion towards the end of the Astonishing Tales run.  It is apparent that Buckler was setting up a new direction for the series, with Deathlok on course to come into conflict with Hellinger, and the introduction of Godwulf, a figure that Buckler seems to have intended to be across between Tarzan and Jesus.

Unfortunately, Astonishing Tales was cancelled with issue #36 in July 1976, and the contents of what would have been #37 didn’t see print until nearly a year later in Marvel Spotlight #33.  After that, Deathlok fell into limbo, making only sporadic appearances in Marvel Two-In-One, in stories that did little to advance the character.

In wasn’t until 1983 that Deathlok was finally given proper closure.  DeMatteis penned the arc in Captain America, which has Cap travel with Deathlok to his future.  Along with Godwulf and a motley resistance group, they set out to thwart Hellinger’s plan to wipe out humanity and replace it with a race of logical cyborg beings.  The story is illustrated with incredible flair and drama by Zeck & Beatty, one of my all-time favorite art teams on the Captain America title.

Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity
Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity

Yes, it would have been great to see how Buckler would have ended the saga of Deathlok.  But at least DeMatteis does a bang-up job at this task.  Aside from him apparently confusing Hellinger with his brother Major Ryker and some fiddling with Godwolf’s characterization, there is little to find fault with.

As Buckler himself charitably writes in his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks collection, “J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck did a fine job wrapping things up.”  (And I’m happy that Buckler was given the opportunity to pen a brand-new introduction for this edition.  It’s a very informative text piece.)

Reading the original stories by Bucker & friends, it seems pretty clear that initially Deathlok was not intended to be part of the regular Marvel universe.  The Buckler-plotted issues are bereft of any references to Marvel continuity.  Marvel Spotlight #33 does feature Devil-Slayer, a character who later joined the Defenders, but this was his first appearance, so that doesn’t prove anything.  (Indeed, Devil-Slayer is actually a reboot of another character Buckler created, Demon Hunter, who had a very short lived existence at Atlas Comics the year before.)

Deathlok’s first proper meeting with “mainstream” Marvel is in Marvel Team-Up #46, written solely by Bill Mantlo, although Buckler did draw the cover.  A time-traveling Spider-Man lands in the apocalyptic 1990.  After the usual misunderstanding and fight, Spidey and Deathlok team up against a horde of eerie mutant children.  That does give Deathlok’s world more of a horrific overtone, adding to the already established bands of roving cannibals populating devastated Manhattan.  Besides, the art is by another underrated artist, the great Sal Buscema, another favorite of mine.

Whatever the case, by the 1980s, Deathlok was firmly entrenched in Marvel continuity.  Various other creators took a crack at the character, with varying degrees of success.  Buckler himself has expressed a desire to return to the original Luther Manning version.  I’d love to see that, as Buckler is an even better artist now than he was in the 1970s.  Regrettably, Marvel does not appear interested in taking Buckler up on his offer.  This is a shame.  Marvel did, however, ask him and Klaus Janson to draw a variant cover for the Deathlok the Demolisher miniseries published in 2010:

Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover
Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover

As you can see from viewing this piece, Buckler still does an incredible work.  It is a real loss that Marvel seems unwilling to hire him to illustrate a full story for them.

At least we do finally have Buckler’s classic Deathlok stories collected together.  The price tag on this volume, $64.99, is a bit steep, but it is definitely worth picking up for some truly distinctive, groundbreaking, and entertaining material.  And hopefully at some point Marvel will print a soft cover black & white Essential Deathlok book.  The material is likely to find a much bigger audience that way.  That and I would like to have a cheaper volume to carry around.  Re-reading the Marvel Masterworks edition at least once a year, it does get kind of beat up!

Strange Comic Books: Captain America #291

As I mentioned in the past, I really do not buy too many new comic books nowadays.  It’s a combination of lack of disposable income and less interest in most of the material currently being published.  So, I thought to myself, what other comic book subjects could I write about on this blog?  Then I came up with an idea for an occasional feature: Strange Comic Books.  Over the years, there have been all number of comic book issues & stories that have seen print which are, for one reason or another, odd or unusual.  Why not have some fun and spotlight some of my favorites?

Captain America #291 autographed by Herb Trimpe
Captain America #291 autographed by Herb Trimpe

The first entry in Strange Comic Books is Captain America #291, published by Marvel Comics with a cover date of March 1984.  It’s a fill-in issue, perhaps to give regular writer J.M. DeMatteis some breathing room before he plowed ahead full steam on his epic Red Skull arc.  The story in #291, “To Tame a Tumbler,” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by long-time Incredible Hulk artist Herb Trimpe, and inked by Jack Abel.  Topping off the issue is a dramatic cover by John Byrne.

A little background info: the original Tumbler was a very minor foe of Cap’s who appeared in Tales of Suspense #83 and Captain America #169.  At the end of his second story, he was murdered by another super-villain, Moonstone, and Cap was framed for the crime.  (This, incidentally, kicked off the classic “Secret Empire” storyline by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema).

Well, it turns out that before his death the Tumbler took out a one million dollar life insurance policy through the Guardian Life Insurance Company.  After the Tumbler was murdered, his brother, decorated army veteran Michael Keane, attempted to collect on the policy so that he could pay his mother’s enormous medical bills.  However, Guardian Life, represented by a smarmy, balding, gold-toothed sleaze named Matthews, refused to pay out, stating that the claim was invalid because the Tumbler had died in the commission of a felony.  Michael’s mother soon passed away due to inadequate medical care.  Furious at having been robbed by Guardian Life, he decided to assume his brother’s costumed identity, becoming the second Tumbler.

Cap "tumbles" on a crime in progress
Cap “tumbles” on a crime in progress

The new Tumbler’s first act is to break into Guardian Life’s offices and steal his brother’s file so that he can expose the insurance company.  However, the robbery is interrupted by Captain America.  The two spar, and the Tumbler flees.  Cap tracks him back to his apartment where, after another brief fight, the Tumbler is subdued.  Defeated, Michael explains what happened with his brother’s insurance policy.  Cap agrees to help Michael investigate Guardian Life, and the two return to the insurance company’s offices.  There, searching through the file room, the pair discover that Guardian Life has in fact issued policies to a large number of costumed criminals, with the intention of not paying out on any of them.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, Captain America #291 does not sound all that strange.  A bit unconventional, perhaps, having the villain turn out to be a life insurance company, but not especially odd.  And I would agree, except for one fact: Guardian Life Insurance is a real life company.

Yes, writer Bill Mantlo decided not to create a fictional corporate entity, but to utilize a real world organization.  And, it turns out, my father worked at Guardian for a couple of decades as an actuary.  He was hired by them about a year before Captain America #291 came out.  Guardian Life, that is to say, the real Guardian, not their evil fictitious counterpart, somehow quickly learned about the contents of “To Tame a Tumbler.”  I believe that words were exchanged between Guardian and Marvel’s lawyers, with the later promising that they would never use Guardian’s name ever again.

A Mighty Marvel Insurance Scam, courtesy of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel
A Mighty Marvel Insurance Scam, courtesy of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel

Now, even back then, at the young age of seven, I was already getting into comic books.  So of course my father had to explain this whole story to me, and he even let me read a copy of the issue that he had bought for his amusement.  This actually became only the second issue of Captain America I ever read (the first was #278) and, who knows, credit for my becoming a huge fan of the character may be at least partially due to this whole affair.

Many years later, I ended up working for a time at another health insurance company that was closely affiliated with Guardian.  I was in fairly regular correspondence with a number of people who worked over at Guardian.  And between my experiences and what my father tells me, I can assure you that in real life Guardian does not and has never insured any super-villains with the intent of defrauding their beneficiaries.  Swear to God!

But returning to the fictional Marvel Universe, this story has subsequently caused me to wonder exactly how life insurance would work in a world where people routinely come back from the dead.  For instance, Doctor Octopus is one of those criminals named as having an insurance policy, and the character has died & returned to life at least once (resurrected by the mystical ninja cult The Hand, of all things).  If you were a beneficiary on old Otto’s policy, once he came back from the grave, would you then have to give back the money?

Anyway, in addition to becoming a huge comic book fan, and reading the Captain America series for over two decades, I also began collecting original artwork.  I obtained a number of pages of published art, including several from issues of Captain America.  So of course I had to see if I could find any of the art by Herb Trimpe & Jack Abel from issue #291.  I actually did locate a couple, and had them in my collection for a number of years before I had to eventually sell them to pay the bills.

I knew that the possibility of ever finding the original artwork to the cover of #291 was extremely remote.  Even if I did come across it, I’m sure it would be very expensive, seeing as it is a vintage cover drawn by the super-popular John Byrne.  I decided to commission Fred Hembeck, who does incredibly funny work, to draw one of his famous cover re-interpretations of the piece.

Captain America #291 cover reinterpreted by Fred Hembeck
Captain America #291 cover reinterpreted by Fred Hembeck

Hembeck is a fantastic artist, and a really nice guy.  I recommend checking out his website (he’s also on Facebook) and contacting him about getting a commission.

But let’s get back to Captain America #291.  Yeah, this is one of my favorite issues.  It has an interesting story by Mantlo.  Trimpe turns in some nice penciling, so much so that I really wish he had drawn Cap more often over the years.  And, yeah, it has that unusual personal connection to my father and me.

Even though it was a fill-in issue, #291 was included in the Death of the Red Skull trade paperback, which collects Captain America #s 290 to 301.  Yep, a benefit of it seeing print in-between chapters of that lengthy arc means that all these years later “To Tame a Tumbler” is back in print.  So, if you want to read this rather unique issue from the pens of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel, and you’re also in the mood to check out one of the all time classic Red Skull storylines, courtesy of J.M. DeMatteis, I suggest picking up a copy of the book.

By the way, I believe that this was the sole published appearance by the second Tumbler.  Having brought to justice the people who swindled his family, Michael Keane quickly retired his costumed identity.  Rumor has it he later found much greater success when he founded a popular social networking website 🙂

Comic book reviews: Captain America & Hawkeye #629-632

I never thought I’d see the day when I would decide to drop Captain America from my monthly comic book reading list.  As I’ve said before, I am a huge fan of the character, and I have not missed an issue of the series since 1989.  But I have just gotten weary of Ed Brubaker’s decompressed writing on the main series.

The second Captain America ongoing book has the original numbering but now features a rotating co-star each story arc.  I believe that, to tie in with the Avengers movie, Marvel is going through the team membership.  Hawkeye was featured in issue #s 629-632, and Iron Man comes on-board next month.  Unfortunately, I’ve likewise been underwhelmed by the last few issues of this title.

There are also financial considerations at play here.  Right now I can’t really afford to purchase too many comic books.  I would much rather save my funds for Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon and Supreme, and a few other independent titles that I’m enjoying more than the majority of the material from Marvel or DC.

Anyway, what exactly did I think of Captain America & Hawkeye #s 629-632?  Well, to be fair, this four issue arc written by Cullen Bunn did have a lot of potential.  Cap and Hawkeye are in the San Andreas Mountains, searching for a missing group of environmental activists.  The two Avengers come across a government research facility named Damocles which is acting in an extremely secretive manner.  Despite a hostile reception from Damocles, Cap and Hawkeye continue their search in the caves underneath the base.  There they encounter an army of reanimated dinosaur skeletons, brought back to life by an insidious parasitic life form, one that is seeking to expand its control to living human beings.

Captain America & Hawkeye #632
Captain America & Hawkeye #632

Bunn is drawing on some near-forgotten subplots here, specifically material written by Chris Claremont and Bill Mantlo in the early 1980s.  Bunn does put it to good use, though, giving those decades-old storylines from Ms. Marvel and ROM Spaceknight an interesting twist.  As a fan of the books those plot strands were originally featured in, I enjoyed seeing something unique being done with them.  If you’re going to recycle the past, you ought to put a unique spin on things.

The problem with Captain America & Hawkeye is in the execution.  We basically get four issues of Cap and Hawkeye fighting Dire Wraith-dinosaur hybrids.  The story feels extremely decompressed.  It could easily have been told in the space of three issues, rather than four.  Conversely, at the exact same time, the readers are given no answers as to the mysteries of what Damocles is really up to, and the identity of their mysterious benefactor.  Some of the space that Bunn devoted to the Avengers / dinosaurs slugfests could instead have been utilized to explain what was going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps Bunn is intending to develop this further in upcoming issues of this title.  I would not have minded that as much if, again, this opening arc of his had been more tightly plotted.  This is the major problem a lot of writers have when it comes to writing for the trade paperback, in that they just do not have enough material to their stories to fill up the space.

I don’t mean to say that this story arc was bad.  There was a lot to it that was fun & entertaining.  It just needed some serious tightening up in the plotting department.

I did enjoy the artwork by Alessandro Vitti.  Admittedly it was at times somewhat unclear as to what was taking place in some of the action sequences.  But Vitti’s style was extremely well suited to the horror content of the story.  In an arc like this, it makes sense to not have Cap or Hawkeye look too clean-cut, to make them slightly more shadowy & gritty.  And I was especially struck by Vitti’s renditions of the dinosaur parasites spawned from the shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  It really captured the gruesome, alien quality of the original Wraiths seen in the pages of ROM Spaceknight.

Captain America & Hawkeye #629 features a beautifully painted cover by Gabriele Del’Otto, while for the next three issues the cover art is from the talented, underrated Patrick Zircher.  I’ve enjoyed his work since his days penciling New Warriors.

Right now, I still haven’t decided if I am going to pick up Captain America & Iron Man.  It really depends on what else happens to be on sale a month from now and, more importantly, how much money I have in my wallet at that time.

It’s strange, because for a long time I thought Captain America would be the very last comic book series I would ever stop reading.  But times change, and so do people, and I guess I’m just more interested in other material right now at this point in my life.