Earth Shattering Disasters: the perfect comic book for 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.