Happy birthday to June Brigman

Here’s wishing a happy (belated) birthday to the super-talented artist June Brigman, who was born on October 25, 1960 in Atlanta, GA.  Early in her career, Brigman worked as a portrait artist at Six Flags Over Georgia.  Her talent at illustrating children would prove to be a valuable asset when in 1984, with husband Roy Richardson, she relocated to NYC and came to the offices of Marvel Comics seeking out work.  There she met editor Louise Simonson, who was in the process of pitching her first series, which was about a group of pre-teen superheroes.  Simonson was introduced to Brigman and, learning that she could draw children, the two soon began working together, developing Power Pack.

Last month, when I blogged about Louise Simonson’s work, I talked about how much I enjoyed Power Pack when I was young.  I really believe that June Brigman, working with veteran inker Bob Wiacek, was crucial to the appeal of the series.  Brigman designed the four Power siblings, the visual manifestations of their abilities, as well as the looks of the kindly alien Kymellians, the Smartship Friday, and the malevolent invading Snarks.  What she came up with was such a departure from the traditional Marvel sensibilities that it really stood out.  Paired with Simonson’s imaginative plots and wonderful talent for scripting young characters, this ensured that Power Pack was a unique title.

Power Pack Classic vol 1

Brigman worked on Power Pack for a year and a half, departing the series with #17.  Subsequently, her art appeared in a number of series at Marvel such as Alpha Flight, Barbie, She-Hulk, New Mutants, and Strange Tales.  In that last title, she penciled an unusual two-part team-up between Cloak & Dagger, the Punisher, and the Power Pack kids!

Power Pack was cancelled in late 1990.  The last several issues had, unfortunately, seen the title go in an unpleasant, dysfunctional direction.  As a reader, I wasn’t too happy with that.  “Dark Power Pack” just seemed wrong.  Now obviously, as I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Faust.  But I also enjoy “lighter” fare, to be sure.  Diversity is great; not everything needs to be grim & gritty.  And, honestly, Power Pack had been a rather serious title under both Simonson’s helm.  I mean, at one point it even crossed over with the “Mutant Massacre” storyline, which was a bloodbath!  But throughout her run, despite the upheavals in Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie’s lives, Simonson had always maintained a real sense of fun and wonder.

Fortunately, Simonson and Brigman were able to reunite for the Power Pack Holiday Special, released in December 1991.  They more or less hit the big old reset button, and restored the Power family to (relative) normality, in the process telling a really awesome adventure.  Brigman, paired with her husband Roy Richardson on inks, turned in superb artwork.

In the 1990s June and Roy lived in White Plains NY, pretty close to where I grew up.  So I used to see the two of them regularly at local comic conventions.  They were always both very friendly.  When I began collecting original comic book artwork in high school, one of first pieces I ever bought was one of their pages from the Holiday Special.  Two decades later I still have it, framed.  I really ought to take a photo and post it on Comic Art Fans.

Supergilr 4 pg 13

In 1993 Brigman did some work for DC Comics, penciling the Supergirl/Team Luthor special, which was followed shortly thereafter by a four issue Supergirl miniseries.  I really enjoyed these stories by Roger Stern, which spun out of his ongoing plotlines from Action Comics involving the Supergirl (aka Matrix) from the Pocket Universe and her relationship with Lex Luthor who, at the time, was masquerading as his own son via a brain transplant into a cloned body… long story!!!  Brigman was inked on these issues by Jackson “Butch” Guice.  It was an interesting collaboration, since the two artists have very different styles.  But I felt that it worked well and suited the mood of the stories.

Shortly thereafter, Brigman re-teamed with Simonson and Richardson over at Dark Horse for the Star Wars: River of Chaos miniseries.  Other than Princess Leia, all of the characters featured were brand new, which allowed Simonson & Brigman the opportunity to design & develop some interesting additions to the Star Wars mythos.  I think this is one of the few Star Wars titles that Dark Horse did not subsequently collect into a trade paperback, or if they did it’s now out of print.  Whatever the case, River of Chaos was a great read with wonderful art, and I recommend searching out the back issues.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Brigman took over the Brenda Starr newspaper strip in 1995, and stayed on it until its cancellation in 2011.  During this time, she also penciled several issues of Meridian and Sojourn for CrossGen.  These comic featured some really beautiful artwork.  Brigman’s style is very well suited to the fantasy genre, and I wish she had the opportunity to work in it more often.

More recently, Brigman has been working with Teshkeel, a comic book company based in Kuwait that publishes The 99.  In addition to her work on the comics, Brigman’s art has appeared prominently in a theme park based on the series.  Some of her art from The 99 can be viewed on Teshkeel’s website.

Brigman once again briefly returned to Power Pack in 2010, penciling a seven page story in Girl Comics #3 written by Simonson, with inking by Rebecca Buchman.  In 2011, Brigman and Richardson drew two issues of Herc that tied in with Marvel’s big “Spider-Island” crossover, and also contributed the variant cover for FF #15.  I was happy to see her work in these books, and I really hope that at some point she has the opportunity to illustrate some other projects.  As I’ve said before, it would be great if she and Simonson could do a new Power Pack miniseries or special.  Even better, I would love to see them collaborate on a creator-owned project.  They are each immensely talented, and I imagine they would conceive something really spectacular.

Girl Comics 3 pg 14

June and Roy moved back to Atlanta a number of years ago.  Fortunately there is the Internet, and I get to chat with them regularly on Facebook.  As I said, in addition to being accomplished artists, they are both really nice people.

I hope you had a very happy birthday, June.  Thanks for all they wonderful artwork over the years.

Happy birthday to Louise Simonson

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to one of my favorite comic book writers, Louise Simonson, who was born on September 26, 1946.  When I was a young reader who was just getting into comic books in the mid-1980s, Simonson’s writing played a key role in capturing my interest.  With super-talented penciler June Brigman, she created Power Pack, a series about four young siblings who gained superpowers from a dying alien.  Alex, Julie, Jack and Katie Power used their fantastic new abilities to defend Earth against the belligerent alien Snarks, as well as a succession of other strange menaces.

I had a lot of identification with the four main characters in Power Pack.  They were all around my age.  In addition to fighting aliens & supervillains, they faced much more mundane problems such as disagreements among themselves, arguments with parents who they felt just did not understand them, making friends with other kids their age, and having trouble with homework.  Simonson did an amazing job scripting stories that young readers could relate to without ever talking down to them.

Power Pack 2 cover

Simonson had previously edited writer Chris Claremont on both Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants.  The two of them seem to possess a really good rapport and (in my humble opinion) under Simonson’s editorship Claremont wrote some of his best stories.  Later on, when Simonson was writing Power Pack, her close creative relationship with Claremont resulted in her series occasionally featuring guest appearances by the X-Men, and the Power kids showing up now & again in the X-titles.  Those crossovers were a major part of my introduction to the wider X-Men universe and Claremont’s work.  For instance, Uncanny X-Men #205, written by Claremont with superb artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith, is an amazing story where we see Wolverine through young Katie Power’s eyes.  It was a really great introduction to the character of Logan.

(This is the point where I risk embarrassing myself.  When I was a kid, I used to make up stories where I gained superpowers and had adventures alongside Power Pack.  Years later at a convention I admitted this to Louise Simonson.  She smiled and told me that a lot of other readers had told her they did the exact same thing growing up.)

In 1986, Simonson took over as writer of X-Factor with issue #6.  With penciler Jackson “Butch” Guice, she quickly introduced a mysterious, powerful new villain named Apocalypse.  Her husband Walter Simonson came on-board as regular penciler four issues later, and together the two of them majorly revamped the original five members of the X-Men, as well as building up Apocalypse into a significant figure in the Marvel universe.  Louise Simonson stayed on X-Factor until issue #64, in her later stories working with such artists as Art Adams, Paul Smith, and Terry Shoemaker.  She also had a lengthy run on New Mutants that lasted from issue #55 to #97.

Superman Man of Steel 26 cover

After departing from X-Factor and New Mutants in 1991, Simonson moved over to DC Comics.  There she paired up with Jon Bogdanove, who she had previously worked with on her later Power Pack issues, and the two of them launched Superman: The Man of Steel.  Both Simonson and Bogdanove would stay on the title for a lengthy eight year run.  During that time, amidst the “Death of Superman” story arc, they co-created John Henry Irons, aka Steel, who first took up his armored identity in memory of the (temporarily) deceased Kal-El.  Throughout her issues, while juggling the requirements of tying in with the storylines of the other three monthly books, Simonson managed to give Superman: The Man of Steel its own individual feel, introducing an interesting supporting cast and ongoing subplots.

When her run on Man of Steel ended, Simonson returned to Marvel for several projects.  Among these was Warlock, a really fun but all too short-lived series drawn by Pascual Ferry featuring the wacky techno-organic alien member of the New Mutants, and Chaos War: X-Men, a miniseries co-written with Chris Claremont.  She also penned the excellent X-Factor Forever, which was set in a timeline that picked up right after her point of departure from X-Factor in 1991.  On that five issue miniseries, she worked with Dan Panosian, who showed off his amazingly improved artwork.  He had really grown by leaps & bounds since his debut in the early 1990s.

Warlock 7 cover

There is a major theme running through much of Simonson’s writing.  She often takes a look at the importance of family, of establishing emotional ties to other people.  Power Pack was very much the story of the four Power children, their relationships with one another and their parents.  In her X-Factor issues, Simonson tackled the complicated state of Cyclops’ personal life, at how he had basically wrecked his marriage to Madelyne Prior, and now had to deal with the consequences of that, his confused feelings for the newly resurrected Jean Grey, and having to raise his infant son Nathan who he’d previously had with Madelyne.  (I think Simonson did an excellent job handling the extremely awkward editorial directive handed down to her and Claremont that had forced Scott Summers to leave Madelyne for Jean.)  In Man of Steel, Simonson introduced a young African American boy named Keith.  After his mother died, the orphaned Keith was adopted by Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White and his wife Alice, who had lost their own son some years before.  In Warlock, Simonson had her oddball alien hero forming a sort of family unit with Hope, Psimon, and Chi-Chee the monkey, each of whom had also become outcasts.

XFactor Forever 3 cover

The entire X-Factor Forever miniseries was all about family and relationships.  Cyclops and Marvel Girl are still attempting to reconcile their feelings for one another, and to take care of baby Nathan.  Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, is continuing his romance with Opal Tanaka, with the pair visiting her parents and discussing the possibility of marriage.  Warren Worthington is in a growing friendship with policewoman Charlotte Jones and her son Timmy, all the while struggling to come to terms with his transformation from Angel to the dark Archangel by Apocalypse.  And Hank McCoy, the bouncing blue Beast, is working on his on-again, off-again relationship with reporter Trish Tilby, who is thinking of adopting an orphan child.

Even Apocalypse is, in his own way, searching for a family.  Born 20,000 years ago to a tribe of primitive humans, the man who would become Apocalypse was a freak anomaly, the world’s first mutant, gifted with shape-shifting abilities.  As the X-Men would discover in the present day, so too did Apocalypse learn in prehistoric times: his powers were a double-edged sword.  When he used them to serve as his tribe’s protector, they reacted with fear & hatred, driving him out.  We can interpret Apocalypse’s subsequent millennia-long mission to insure the future supremacy of mutant-kind as motivated by a wish to no longer be alone, to one day have another family.  In the 19th Century, he thought he had found a kindred spirit in young Nathaniel Essex, and transformed him into his apprentice Mr. Sinister.  One could say that Apocalypse regarded Sinister almost like a son.  And when Sinister rebelled, conducting his own dangerous experiments which threatened to destabilize all of his former mentor’s carefully-laid plans, on some level it must have hurt Apocalypse.  It really shows Simonson’s talent & skill as a writer, that she brought a degree of empathy and pathos to a ruthless schemer such as Apocalypse.

I definitely think Louise Simonson is an amazing writer.  I really enjoy her work, and I hope that we see more from her pen again in the near future.  It would be especially great if she had the opportunity to work with her husband Walter again, or with June Brigman.

Comic book reviews: Captain America vol 6 #15-19

I’ve been following the ongoing Captain America title pretty religiously since 1989.  That’s, what, 23 years?  The series has seen a lot of ups and downs in that time.  On the whole, I think that Ed Brubaker’s eight year run on the book has been more positive than negative, although I never did prefer his tendency for decompressed storytelling.  I also have to admit, as I’ve said in a previous blog, I never warmed up to the current volume of Captain America.  But, a few months ago I learned Brubaker would be concluding his mammoth stint with issue #19, and I decided to stick around for the finale.

The current series of Captain America (volume six, for those keeping count… I really wish Marvel would stop renumbering all their series) has seen Steve Rogers cross swords with one-time ally Codename Bravo, who had now allied himself with a faction of the subversive terrorist organization Hydra.  Bravo looked upon the political corruption & social decay of contemporary America, and believed that Cap had failed to lead the nation to a better place.  Bravo also held a long-standing grudge against Steve for, in his mind, stealing away Peggy Carter from him back in World War II.  Bravo joined forces with the Hydra Queen and Baron Zemo to create, as he saw it, a better world.  Unfortunately, like most terrorists, Bravo and his allies felt that if they had to shed innocent blood and tear the country apart to start afresh, then so be it, because the ends justified the means.

Captain America #s 15-18, “New World Orders,” is co-written by Brubaker and Cullen Bunn.  Hydra has successfully taken control of a popular Fox News-type network, and is broadcasting a 24 hour cycle of character assassination against Cap, the Avengers, and the U.S. government.  To bolster the effectiveness of their mass media manipulation, they are utilizing hypnotic Madbomb technology.  Hydra has also dispatched robot shock troops, the Discordians, across the globe to cause chaos & destruction, in order to make it appear that the Avengers are ineffective and unable to preserve peace & order.  Through their propaganda, mind control, and inducing of fear & panic, Bravo and his confederates hope to turn the general public totally against the government and the American political process, presumably to pave the way for a coup.

I think Brubaker & Bunn do a pretty good job of wrapping up the overall Codename Bravo storyline.  To be honest, though, I think “New World Orders” could have used another issue, because it felt rushed in places, especially the final chapter.  That probably seems a strange critique, considering I was previously complaining about Brubaker’s decompression.  However, I think his earlier arcs on this volume were all a bit too long.  It’s a shame that one of the issues from those earlier installments of the ongoing major story was not allocated to “New World Orders” instead.  Still, it’s a decent enough wrap-up.

I was surprised that Brubaker did not do anything to address the apocalyptic future vision that Steve Rogers glimpsed at the end of Captain America: Reborn, the one with the War of the Worlds type alien tripods devastating the Earth.  For a few years now, I had assumed that Brubaker was going to build up to some sort of major storyline involving that.  It looks, instead, that Bunn will be utilizing Steve’s look at the future in the current Captain America & Black Widow comics, although I’m not one hundred percent certain, since I just glanced through those issues in the comic shop.

Captain America vol 6 #16
Captain America vol 6 #16

The artwork on “New World Orders” is of a very high quality.  Scott Eaton & Rick Magyar do great work.  Likewise, the covers by Steve Epting are magnificent.  I was especially impressed with the cover to issue #16.

For his finale on Captain America #19, Brubaker once again assumes to solo writing duties, and Epting, who was there at the beginning of his run, returns to draw the entire issue.  This untitled tale is an insightful and introspective conclusion to Brubaker’s time writing the character.  The writer once again brings back the insane 1950s Cap, the twisted mirror image of Steve Rogers.  Brubaker also addresses something that, truthfully, had never occurred to me until he touched upon it earlier in his run: Steve never set out to be Cap, to become a symbol of heroism & patriotism, to represent an entire nation.  The truth is young Steve only wanted to serve his country by enrolling in the military.  When finally offered the opportunity to do so by participating in Operation Rebirth, he believed he would become the first of an army of super-soldiers.  It was only after Professor Erskine was assassinated that Steve was thrust into the role of Cap, that he was asked by his government to adopt the identity of a red, white & blue super hero, a living propaganda symbol.

What I think Brubaker is getting at is that part of the reason why the 1950s Cap (and by extension some of the other men to briefly adopt the role) failed is because he deliberately set out to assume this enormous responsibility.  He looked upon it as a blessing, and was unable to live up to the tremendous burden that it truly was.  Steve Rogers, in comparison, never wanted to be Captain America.  He took it on only because he felt it was the right thing to do, the best way he could serve his country.  It was his humility, and recognition of the tremendous responsibilities that being Cap would bring, which enabled him to succeed where others failed.  It is an interesting line of though on Brubaker’s part.

Issue #19 has, once again, some superb artwork from Epting.  He is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see how much he has grown as an illustrator, not just over the course of the eight years from when he first worked on Cap, but throughout his entire career.  If you look at his work back in the mid-1990s on Avengers and X-Factor, it was decent, and had potential.  Over the two decades since then, he has continually grown & developed, becoming an amazing illustrator.  I really became a fan when he was over at CrossGen, and my admiration for his work absolutely went through the roof due to his run on Captain America.  I’m glad he was able to come back for Brubaker’s finale.

Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover
Captain America vol 6 #19 variant cover

Epting contributed a great cover for issue #19, as did Butch Guice on the variant edition.  I really had a hard time choosing which one to get (wish I had the funds to pick up both) but I finally went with the one by Guice.  He’s another excellent artist who has consistently developed through the years.

Anyway, that’s that for Ed Brubaker on Captain America.  I think that, despite some rough, uneven patches, on the whole he did a very good job on this series.  He certainly leaves the book in much, much better shape than it was when he first came onboard it.

So, what’s next?  Rick Remender is taking over as writer on Captain America, with art by John Romita Jr.  I’m certainly tempted to continue reading the series, since I’m a fan of Remender’s work.  At the same time, the $3.99 price tag and the promise of a lengthy opening story arc leave me unsure.  Especially the price.  Why oh why does Marvel need to charge four bucks for a 22 page comic book?!?  I’m rather more inclined to try Uncanny Avengers by Remender.  Yeah, it’s also four dollars, but I enjoyed the first issue of that, and I like the idea of Cap leading a mutant team of Avengers against the Red Skull and other major threats.  I’ve wanted to see something like that for years.  Well, maybe I’ll just wait for the trade paperback collections of the Remender’s new Captain America series.