Avengers by Tom Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Came From the 1990s: Capwolf

This summer is the 30th anniversary of one of the more, um, unusual superhero comic book stories ever told. In the summer of 1992 a seven part bi-weekly serial entitled “Man and Wolf” ran in the pages of Captain America published by Marvel Comics. However this story is much more often referred to by another name: “Capwolf.” Yes, this is the time when Captain America was turned into a werewolf.

“Man and Wolf” ran in Captain America #402 to #408, cover-dated July 1992 to October 1992. The creative team was writer Mark Gruenwald, penciler Rik Levins, inkers Danny Bulanadi, Don Hudson, Ray Kryssing & Steve Alexandrov, letterer Joe Rosen, and colorists Gina Going & George Roussos. Ralf Macchio was the editor for most of the story, with Mike Rockwitz stepping in to begin his editorial tenure with the “Man and Wolf” epilogue in #408.

Let’s set the stage: Mark Gruenwald had been writing the Captain America series since issue #307 in 1985. From my own perspective as a reader, after several years of really good, interesting storylines by Gruenwald, for the last year or so the book had really been floundering. This dip in quality seemed to occur right when Rik Levins came onboard as a penciler. I’ve written before about how disappointing I initially found Levins’ work. So, between the drop in quality in Gruenwald’s writing and my definite lack of enthusiasm in Levins’ art, my interest in the series was really flagging.

And then came “Man and Wolf.” Okay, this is going to perhaps sound weird, but I felt, even though this was a ridiculous storyline, it was actually the beginning of an uptick in quality for the series.

I’m curious what the genesis was of “Man and Wolf.” I half-suspect that it was conceived as an excuse to bring in Wolverine, Wolfsbane and Cable as guest stars. In the early 1990s the X-Men group of comic books was absolutely red-hot, insanely popular, among Marvel’s bestselling titles. In contrast, the character of Captain America was unfortunately regarded as uncool, even lame. I mean, I liked Cap a lot, but I knew I was the very much the exception among teen readers at the time. So I wonder if Gruenwald or Macchio or someone else decided to have several mutants appear to bump up sales.

As Captain America #402 opens, Steve Rogers has decided to take a leave of absence from the Avengers to search for his two missing friends: his pilot John Jameson and his girlfriend Diamondback. Cap hears about a series of “werewolf killings” in northern Massachusetts and recalls that former astronaut John Jameson was once turned into the Man-Wolf by the mystical “Moongem” he discovered on the Moon. Cap heads to Boston to enlist the aid of the mystic Doctor Druid, who himself is planning to investigate the werewolf murders. (And, wow, it’s got to be sort of a bummer for Druid that he’s “the world’s second most celebrated authority on the occult” who everyone consults with only if Doctor Strange is unavailable!)

Cap and Doctor Druid head north to the small town of Starkesboro, where they are attacked by a literal army of werewolves. It soon transpires that these werewolves are the citizens of Starkesboro, transformed by Cap’s old foe Nightshade, the “Queen of the Werewolves” whose dual fields of expertise are biochemistry and mind control. Nightshade, in turn, is working for another of Cap’s enemies, the so-called Druid, now going by the name of Dredmund (no doubt to avoid confusion with Doctor Druid). Nightshade and Dredmund are in possession of the Moongem, whose supernatural emanations are drawing other wolfen beings to Starkesboro, among them Wolverine and Wolfsbane.

Cap and Doctor Druid are both captured. Cap is transformed into a werewolf by Nightshade. Attempting to escape, “Capwolf” gets into a brutal fight with Wolverine, who has been hypnotized by Dredmund. Realizing that Nightshade is the only one who can turn him back to normal, Capwolf returns to town. Nightshade uses her pheromones to entice Capwolf into “the Pit” where all of the “disobedient” werewolves are imprisoned. The mutant lycanthrope Wolfbane from X-Factor is one of the prisoners, and she teaches Capwolf how to speak and to think more clearly in his werewolf form.

Giving one of his characteristic inspirational speeches, albeit with a lot more growling than usual, Capwolf organizes the other werewolves in the Pit and they stage an escape. Capwolf makes his way to the town church, arriving just in time to see Dredmund slit Doctor Druid’s throat. Druid’s lifeblood empowers the Moongem, enabling Dredmund to transform into the Starwolf.

Capwolf takes the fight directly to Dredmund, but he is helpless against the cosmic-powered Starwolf. The other wolves from the Pit, led by Jack Russell, Werewolf by Night, arrive and attack Dredmund’s forces.

And then Cable shows up. The gun-toting cyborg leader of X-Force has been tracking his teammate Feral, who has also been lured to Starkesboro by the Moongem. As is typical for the character from this period, Cable immediately opens fire with one of his ridiculously large automatic weapons, deadpanning “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?” Hoping to prevent a massacre, Capwolf leaps at Cable and the two tangle, only to be imprisoned in a giant carpet by Starwolf, leading Cable to deadpan “Whose mutant power is it to control carpets?”

A mysterious white-furred werewolf from the Pit rescues Doctor Druid, taking him back to Nightshade’s laboratory. The white wolf captures Nightshade and injects her with her own werewolf serum so that she will be forced to create an antidote. Druid manages to heal himself enough that he is able to break Dredmund’s control of Wolverine. Logan heads to the church, where he frees Capwolf and Cable, and the three of them join forces to defeat Starwolf.

In the epilogue Nightshade finally turns everyone back to normal. The white wolf is revealed to be none other than the missing John Jameson. Cap himself is injected with the antidote just in time to be attacked by an evil doppelganger from the then-ongoing Infinity War crossover event. Dispatching his dark duplicate, Cap summons the authorities.

John explains that as much as he liked being Cap’s pilot he needs to find his own path. Cap reluctantly accepts his resignation, letting John know there will always be a place for him with the Avengers. Fortunately Cap quickly gains a new pilot: ace daredevil Zack Moonhunter, who had been hypnotized by Dredmund to be his “werewolf wrangler.” His mind now free, Moonhunter eagerly accepts Cap’s job offer.

Some time later, back in New York City at Avengers Mansion, the Falcon stops by for a team briefing. Brought up to speed by Cap about his recent activities, the Falcon agrees to join his old friend to search for the still-missing Diamondback, who readers know has been kidnapped by the brutal Crossbones and delivered into the clutches of Cap’s arch-enemy the Red Skull. To be continued!

Whew! That was quite a ride. A lot of people thought “Man and Wolf” was ridiculous, but I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. Re-reading it again this week, I still liked it.

I’ve heard it suggested that “Man and Wolf” could have been a much more effective story if it had been drawn by an artist such as Mike Mignola or Kelley Jones who really specialized in the horror genre. I definitely think there’s validity to this. But I do think Rik Levins did some decent work on these issues. His penciling & storytelling began to show some definite improvement over his artwork from the previous year.

(Update: I feel that the point when Levins really began to step up his game was right before this, in issue #401, which Mark D. White just covered on his excellent, insightful blog The Virtues of Captain America.)

The main inker on “Man and Wolf” was Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi. Although his inking is nowhere near as overwhelmingas many of his countrymen, it is still fairly heavy. Bulanadi had already been the regular inker on Captain America when Levins came onboard. Initially I did not think the two of them made a good art team. But on “Man and Wolf” the rich, textured style of Bulanadi’s finishes really enhanced Levins’ pencils, giving the story a certain atmosphere that very much suited the supernatural elements & settings of the story.

It’s interesting to contrast the pages by Bulanadi to those done by the other inkers, which are much more of a traditional Bronze Age superhero style, and therefore not nearly as effective for this particular story. An example of this can be seen up above on the page from issue #405 featuring Capwolf fighting Wolverine, which was inked by Steve Alexandrov.

I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps Levins was hitting his stride. Or perhaps incoming editor Mike Rockwitz prodded Gruenwald to up his game. Whatever the case, the next year or so on Captain America after “Man and Wolf” concluded is one that I found really enjoyable.

I do wonder if Gruenwald might have stuck around on Captain America a bit too long, since I feel he did once again sort of run out of energy a couple of years later. But there is definitely something to be said for writing more than 100 consecutive issues of a series. Likewise, I believe Levins still hold the record for penciling the most issues of Captain America ever, having drawn the book for 36 consecutive issues, from #387 to #422.

All these years later, “Capwolf” is still remembered by readers. I think a lot of the derision has given way to bemused nostalgia. In 2015, when the Falcon had assumed the role of Captain America, he briefly turned into a new Capwolf. Several alternate reality versions of Steve Rogers as Capwolf have appeared, including in the video game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 in 2017. And last year a Funko Pop of Capwolf was released.

So, three decades after Captain America first howled at the Moon, it looks like Capwolf is here to stay. Now if we could just get a team-up of Capwolf and Captain Americat, that would really be something!

Ron Lim vs Rik Levins, or how a teenage Captain America fan experienced his first major disappointment

It’s difficult to believe that it’s been 30 years since this happened. It was the Summer of 1991, and I experienced my first significant disappointment as a comic book fan. But first, a little background is necessary…

I’ve been a fan of Captain America from Marvel Comics ever since I read issue #278 and issue #291 when I was a kid. My father got me a one year subscription to the Captain America series in 1985, and I read those issues until they fell to pieces.

Captain America #378 by Ron Lim & Danny Bulanadi, one of the favorite issues of my teenage years

I was 13 years old in 1989 when I finally started reading the Captain America comic book on a monthly basis. This was when my father began taking me to the comic shop every week, so it became much easier to follow the series.

I really liked Kieron Dwyer’s pencils on Captain America. In 1989 Dwyer was still a young, up-and-coming artist, but even then you could see how much talent & potential he possessed.

A year later Dwyer was replaced as the penciler on Captain America by Ron Lim, whose work at the time I actually liked even better. Lim was the artist on the book from January 1990 to June 1991, drawing issues #366, #368 – 378, and #380 – 386. He was paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi on inks. Lim’s penciling on Captain America was absolutely dynamic, and I immediately became a HUGE fan of his work.

Some of the best work by Lim & Bulanadi was on the seven part storyline “Streets of Poison” that ran bi-weekly in the summer of 1990. Written by Mark Gruenwald, it involved the Red Skull challenging the Kingpin for control of New York City’s illegal drug trade, with Cap getting caught in the crossfire. Lim & Bulanadi drew some amazing action sequences as Cap fought against Bullseye and Crossbones.

Cap versus Bullseye from Captain America #374 by Lim & Bulanadi

So I was incredibly disappointed when Lim left Captain America and was replaced by Rik Levins with issue #387, which was cover-dated July 1991. I felt there was an immediate, steep decline in quality, and I was really upset 😭😭😭

(Keep in mind I was a teenager, and we all know how melodramatic they can be about really trivial things!)

Lim’s departure also coincided with long-time Captain America scribe Mark Gruenwald writing 1991’s six part bi-weekly summer storyline “The Superia Stratagem” which involved the female supremacist Superia gathering together an army of super-powered female villains on an island sanctuary and attempting to sterilize the outside world. A number of Cap fans, myself included, feel this storyline was the moment when Gruenwald jumped the shark.

Making this story even more ridiculous was the fact that at one point Cap and his ally Paladin, to infiltrate the island, disguise themselves as women. Yes, really. Yes, it was as ridiculous as you can possibly imagine.

What a drag! That infamous scene from Captain America #391 by Rik Levins & Danny Bulanadi

Now, I honestly don’t know if “The Superia Stratagem” would have been any more readable if Lim had been penciling it instead of Levins. I just feel that Levins didn’t have the strength as an artist to pull off making it work. It’s also worth pointing out that Lim was still penciling the covers for “The Superia Stratagem” and they were actually quite good.

The differences between Ron Lim and Rik Levins always stood out for me when I compared these very similar sequences from Captain America #266 and #297, as seen below. The first is penciled by Lim, and it’s got so much energy, with Cap having this determined look and gritted teeth as he comes swinging into action. The second one is by Levins, and Cap just has this really bland, bored expression on his face, and from his body language it feels like he’s performing a gymnastics routine rather than fighting for his life.

A comparison of Ron Lim and Rik Levins penciling similar action sequences

I hope none of this comes across as disrespectful to Levins. I did eventually develop a certain appreciation for him. I think his work on Captain America improved, beginning with the very bizarre-yet-entertaining “Man & Wolf” storyline (yes, the one that brought us Capwolf, a subject for another time), and his last year & a half on Captain America was quite good.

I also later discovered Levins’ work on Femforce and Dragonfly and other AC Comics titles, and it was so much better. I think Levins’ contributions to AC Comics were much more personal for him (he created several characters and wrote a number of the stories) so there was probably a greater investment in it, whereas Captain America was just a paying gig. (And, yes, Levins’ work for AC Comics is also a subject for another future blog post.)

A definite improvement: Captain America #410 by Levins & Bulanadi

It’s also definitely worth noting that Levins holds the record for drawing the most consecutive issues of Captain America, having penciled #387 to #422, a total of 36 issues. That even beats out Cap’s co-creator Jack Kirby, who actually only penciled 24 consecutive issues of the series (#193 to #214 plus Annual #3 and #4, for those keeping track).

Levins passed away in June 2010 at the much too young age of 59. In retrospect, I now consider him to be a very underrated talent, as well as a consummate professional, someone who was able to turn in good, solid work month after month. The closest Levins ever came to missing a deadline was when M.C. Wyman had to pencil the second half of Captain America#414. This in comparison to all of the high-profile “hot” artists constantly dropping the ball and turning in late work in the early 1990s.

Having said all of that that, I nevertheless have to confess: All these years later I STILL keep hoping that one day Ron Lim will get asked to draw the monthly Captain America series again. He has occasionally returned to the character. Lim penciled the final issue of the “Heroes Reborn” run in 1997, and I can honestly tell you that I was absolutely thrilled when I picked up that issue and found he was the artist. More recently, in 2019 Lim drew the Avengers: Loki Unleashed special written by Roger Stern and, again, I snatched that baby off the shelves. It was so great to see Cap and the rest of the Avengers drawn by Lim once again.

Avengers: Loki Unleashed demonstrated that Ron Lim still draws an amazing Captain America

So if Marvel ever does give the assignment of drawing Captain America or Avengers to Ron Lim, yeah, I would definitely jump onboard to buy those comic books!

I actually met Ron Lim a couple of years ago at East Coast Comicon , and I had the opportunity to tell him that him leaving Captain America was the first time I ever experienced a crushing loss over a creator leaving a series. He explained that intially the plan was just for him to take a short break from Captain America so that he could finish penciling the Infinity Gauntlet miniseries after George Perez had to drop out halfway through. However, Marvel then asked Lim to pencil the follow-ups Infinity War and Infinity Crusade, so he never did have a chance to return to Captain America.

I made sure to let Lim know that as an adult I understood that from a career perspective it made perfect sense for him to move over to a high-profile project such as Infinity Gauntlet and its sequels. I think Lim found my anecdote amusing, and he seemed to appreciate the fact that I was such a huge fan of his work.

Wild Thing #1 cover by Ron Lim & Al Milgrom, signed by Lim… yes, I actually enjoyed this series!

Oh, yeah, having finally met Ron Lim at East Coast Comicon, what did I get signed by him? Was it an issue of Captain America or one of the Avengers-related books that he drew? Nope! It was Wild Thing #1. Yeah, I completely forgot to bring any of Lim’s work to the show to get signed, so I picked up Wild Thing #1 from one of the comic dealers. (I bought Wild Thing when it first came out in 1999, but those comics were among the ones that I got rid of when I sold off most of my collection several years ago.) At that point in time I just wanted to have Lim autograph something he drew, since I’m still a huge fan, and nowadays I care much more about creators than characters. I guess that just shows how much my priorities have changed since the Summer of 1991.

It now occurs to me that this is the perfect example of how unique our experiences as fans can be. Most other readers probably didn’t do much more than blink when Lim was replaced by Levins. But for me, I was at just the right age to really connect with the combo of Gruenwald & Lim on my absolutely favorite character, and when Lim then left the book it really felt like the apple cart was turned over, so to speak. I can now understand how it was such an unsettling experience for quite a number of fans ten years before when John Byrne left X-Men, or two decades earlier when Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics entirely. So, yeah, it’s definitely a matter of individual perspective.

Joe Giella comic book mail call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Joe Sinnott

Last week I wrote a short tribute to Joe Sinnott, who passed away at 93 years old on June 25th.  Sinnott’s career stretched across seven decades.  He worked on so many different comic books during his lifetime that I wanted to spotlight some more examples of his work, both doing full art, and as an inker / embellisher.  Here are twelve highlights from his career.

1) “Drink Deep, Vampire” is one of Joe Sinnott’s earliest stories.  It appeared in Strange Tales #9, published by Atlas Comics with an August 1952 cover date.  Decades later Sinnott would cite it as a favorite.

2) Sinnott drew many Western stories for Atlas during the 1950s.  Here is a good example of his work in the genre.  “The End of the Dakota Kid” appeared in Gunsmoke Western #46 (May 1958).

3) One of the earliest jobs on which Sinnott inked Jack Kirby was the monster story “I Was Trapped By Titano the Monster That Time Forgot!” in Tales to Astonish #10 (July 1960).  Right from the start they were doing great work together.  They certainly did a superb job depicting Titano, an immense crab.

4) Sinnott did a great deal of work for Treasure Chest of Fun & Fact published by George A. Pflaum.  One of his most noteworthy assignments for that educational comic book was “The Story of Pope John XXIII, Who Won Our Hearts,” a 65 page biography serialized over nine issues.  Here is the beautifully detailed opening page of the first chapter, published in Treasure Chest vol 18 #1 (September 13, 1962).

5) Journey Into Mystery #91 (April 1963) featuring Thor was one of the very few Marvel Comics superhero stories for which Sinnott did the full art.  He did nice work on this one.  I especially like the first panel on this page, with the beautiful Valkyries in flowing gowns descending from Asgard to give an imprisoned Thor his belt of strength.

6) Ask who was Jack Kirby’s best inker, and many fans will respond that it was Joe Sinnott.  Sinnott did superb work over Kirby at Marvel, especially on Fantastic Four.  Issue #72 (March 1968) has one of the most iconic covers from their run, and it doesn’t even feature the FF.  Instead we have the Silver Surfer soaring through outer space, with the Watcher in the background, surrounded by a bundle of “Kirby crackle.”

7) Tender Love Stories was a short-lived romance series from Skywald Publications, who were in operation for the first half of the 1970s.  The cover of the first issue (February 1971) has the interesting pairing of Don Heck and Joe Sinnott.  I’m one of those people who believe Heck was underrated.  His style was well-suited to the romance genre.  Sinnott’s inking complements Heck’s pencils on this piece.

8) Sinnott remained on Fantastic Four for a decade after Kirby departed.  In the early 1970s he was paired with John Buscema.  This splash page from FF #137 (August 1973) beautifully showcases Sinnott’s detailed, polished inking.  The textures on the castle walls, the forest surrounding it, and the Moon in the sky above are incredibly rendered.

9) Although from the early 1960s on nearly all of Sinnott’s work for Marvel was as an inker / finisher, from time to time he did full art for covers and licensing art.  Here is one of his occasional covers, for The Invaders #30 (July 1978) featuring Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch in battle with a Nazi flying saucer.

10) Sinnott stated a number of times that his favorite character to draw was Ben Grimm, the Thing.  In addition to inking the Thing in innumerable issues of the Fantastic Four, Sinnott also did inks / finishes for the character in his solo series published in the 1980s.  Sinnott was paired with penciler Ron Wilson, and they made an effective team.  Here’s a page from The Thing #24 (June 1985) that has Ben tussling with the Rhino.  Just look at the detailed, textured manner in which Sinnott inks the Rhino’s costume.

11) Sinnott did very little work for DC Comics.  One of the few jobs he did appeared in the pin-up book Superman: The Man of Steel Gallery (December 1995).  Sinnott inked longtime Superman artist Curt Swan, and it was a beautiful collaboration.  Looking at this, I really wish Swan & Sinnott could have worked on a few Superman stories together.  I got this autographed by Joe at a comic book convention several years ago.

12) Deadbeats is a vampire soap opera written & penciled by Richard Howell and inked by Ricardo Villagran published by Claypool Comics.  It ran for 82 issues, and has continued as a web comic.  Howell asked a number of different artists to ink the covers throughout the run.  The cover to the penultimate installment, Deadbeats #81 (December 2006), was inked by Sinnott, who had previously inked Howell a few times at Marvel.  The coloring is by John Heebink.

Originally I was going to show 10 examples of Joe Sinnott’s artwork, but I just could not narrow it down, which is why we have 12…. or 13, if you count Joe’s self-portrait at the top.  Even with that I still had to leave out a few examples I really liked!  As I said before, Sinnott did so much great artwork over the decades.  Please feel free to mention your own favorites in the comments below.

Frank McLaughlin: 1935 to 2020

I am sorry to report that another comic book creator whose work I enjoyed has passed on.  Frank McLaughlin was a talented artist whose career in comic books and comic strips lasted for nearly five decades, from the 1961 to 2008.   He passed away on March 4th at the age of 84.

McLaughlin, like a number of other comic book creators, got his foot in the door via Charlton Comics.  He was hired on to do a variety of production work for the Derby, Connecticut publisher.  In a 2016 interview McLaughlin recounted how he came to work for Charlton:

“All through my career, I have been blessed with the greatest of friends, beginning with a classmate at art school; Larry Conti. Larry hooked me up with his brother, Dan Conti, who was a department head at Charlton Press. Dan, in turn, introduced me to Charlton’s Pat Masulli, editor in chief of comics. Timing was perfect, because his assistant, Sal Gentile, was about to leave for Florida, in two weeks. I was hired on the spot, and Sal gave me an immediate ‘cook’s tour’ of the plant. It took me a few days for all this to sink in, but Sal was a terrific guy, and this made it easy for me to understand the job.”

Judomaster 93 coverDuring his time at Charlton, McLaughlin worked closely with fellow artist Dick Giordano.  If you look at McLaughlin’s work, especially his inking, you can see that Giordano was a definite influence.  Considering Giordano was an incredibly talented artist himself, one could certainly do worse than to draw inspiration from him.

McLaughlin had studied judo since he was 18 years old, and he drew on his martial arts experience to create the character Judomaster for Charlton.  Judomaster made his debut in Special War Series #4, cover-dated November 1965.  The next year an ongoing Judomaster series was launched, which lasted for ten issues. (Confusingly the issue numbers for Judomaster were #89 to #98, carrying on the numbering from the cancelled series Gunmaster. This was a common practice at Charlton.)  McLaughlin wrote, penciled & inked the entire ten issue run.

Unfortunately I am not especially familiar with McLaughlin’s work on Judomaster or the other Charlton “Action Heroes” titles from the 1960s, but judging by the artwork I’ve seen from it online he clearly did good work on it.  The cover for #93 (“Meet the Tiger!”) is especially striking.  I did recently locate copies of Judomaster #96 and #98 at Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan, and I found them to be enjoyable, well-drawn comic books.

McLaughlin left Charlton in 1969 to freelance, and by the early 1970s he was regularly receiving work from both Marvel and DC Comics.  The majority of his assignments for the Big Two were inking the pencils of other artists.  It was actually via his work as an inker that I first became aware of McLaughlin, and developed a real appreciation for his art.

As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a lot of time attempting to acquire copies of every issue of Captain America published during the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favorite artists on Captain America was Sal Buscema, who penciled the series from 1972 to 1975.  Buscema was paired with several inkers during this four year run.  Reading those back issues during my high school & college years, I very quickly noticed there was something different, something special, about the work of one particular inker, namely Frank McLaughlin.

Captain America 160 pg 1 signed

To my eyes, McLaughlin’s inks over Buscema’s pencils were really striking.  McLaughlin gave Buscema’s pencils kind of a slick polish.  I guess that’s how I would describe it.  As a non-artist, sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate these things clearly.  Whatever the case, it looked great.

McLaughlin only inked Buscema’s pencils on six issues of Captain America, specifically #155-156, 160, 165-166 and 169.  I really wish he’d had a longer run on the title.  McLaughlin’s final issue, #169, was the first chapter of the epic “Secret Empire” storyline written by Steve Englehart.  The remaining chapters of that saga were inked by Vince Colletta.

I realize Colletta is a divisive inker, so I am going to put this in purely personal, subjective terms.  Speaking only for myself, I just do not think Colletta’s inks were a good fit for Buscema’s pencils.  As incredible as the “Secret Empire” saga was, I feel it would have been even better if McLaughlin had been the inker for the entire storyline.

Now that I think about it, when I was reading those Captain America back issues in the mid 1990s, and comparing Buscema inked by McLaughlin to Buscema inked by Colletta, and in turn comparing both to the other inkers who worked on that series the early 1970s, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me realizing just how significant a role the inker has in the finished look of comic book artwork.

McLaughin also inked Buscema on a few of the early issues of The Defenders, specifically #4-6 and 8-9.  Again, I wish it had been a longer run, because they went so well together.  In these issues the Asgardian warrior Valkyrie joined the team, and the combination of Buscema’s pencils and McLaughlin’s inks resulted in a stunningly beautiful depiction of the character.

I definitely regard Frank McLaughlin as one of the best inkers Sal Buscema had during the Bronze Age.

Defenders 4 pg 15

McLaughlin actually did much more work as an inker at DC Comics.  One of his regular assignments at DC was Justice League of America.  He inked issues #117-189, a six and a half year run between 1975 and 1981.

During most of McLaughlin’s time on Justice League of America he was paired with the series’ longtime penciler Dick Dillin.  Although I would not say that I am a huge fan of Dillin, I nevertheless consider him to be sort of DC’s equivalent of Sal Buscema.  In other words, much like Our Pal Sal, Dillin was a good, solid, often-underrated artist with strong storytelling skills who could be counted on to turn in a professional job on time.  I like quality that McLaughlin’s inking brought to Dillin’s pencils.  They made an effective art team.

Tragically, after completing Justice League of America #183, in March 1980 Dillin died unexpectedly at the much too young age of 51 (reportedly he passed away at the drawing board working on the next issue).  McLaughlin remained on for the next several issues, effectively providing finishes for a young George Perez’s pencil breakdowns, as well as inking over Don Heck and Rich Buckler. Nevertheless, as he recounted in a 2008 interview, he made the decision to leave the series:

“I did one or two issues, and then I said to Julie [Schwartz] “you know, I think I’d like to move on.” I was so used to what Dillin and I were doing together. I moved on and did a lot more other stuff.

“It was a good change of speed at the time, inking groups was fast becoming not a favorite–there’s too many people in there!”

Justice League 140 pg 1

Among his other work for DC Comics, McLaughlin inked Irv Novick on both Batman and The Flash, Ernie Chan on Detective Comics, Joe Staton on Green Lantern, and Carmine Infantino on the Red Tornado miniseries and the last two years of The Flash during the “Trial of the Flash” storyline.  He also assisted Giordano on several DC jobs during the mid-to-late 1980s.

McLaughlin’s last regular assignment in comic books was for Broadway Comics in 1996.  There he inked a young J.G. Jones on Fatale.

Between 2001 and 2008 he drew the Gil Thorpe comic strip.  In 2008 McLaughlin collaborated with his daughter Erin Holroyd and his long-time colleague Dick Giordano on The White Viper, a web comic serialized on ComicMix that was subsequently collected in a graphic novel in 2011 by IDW.White Viper cover

McLaughlin taught at both Paier College of Art in Hamden CT and Guy Gilchrist’s Cartoonist’s Academy in Simsbury CT, and he worked with Mike Gold on the instructional books How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics and How to Draw Monsters for Comics.

In his later years McLaughlin did commissions for fans.  One of the characters he was often asked to draw was Judomaster, which all those decades later still had devoted fans.

Writer & editor Robert Greenberger, who worked at DC Comics from 1984 to 2000, wrote a brief tribute to McLaughlin on Facebook:

“I grew up on Frank’s work, first at Charlton then DC and Marvel. When I joined DC, he quickly welcomed me and was a font of stories.

“Frank was a gracious man, friendly, and willing to talk shop with eager newcomers, share tips with rising new talent, and lend a hand wherever needed.

“He was a workhorse of an artist, adaptable and reliable — two of the qualities desperate editors always welcomed. Even after I left staff, we’d run into one another at cons and it was picking up where we left off.

“I will miss him.”

I fortunately had an opportunity to meet McLaughlin once at a convention in the early 2000s.  At the time I was regrettably unaware of his work for Charlton, but I did have him autograph one of the Captain America issues that he had so wonderfully inked.  I only spoke with him briefly, but he came across as a nice, polite person.

The Legacy of Stan Lee

I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that Stan Lee had passed away.  He was 95 years old, and had been in poor health for some time now.

Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, was an incredibly important figure in American comic books.  Lee was the editor and main writer at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, when what is now known as the Marvel Universe came into being.  Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Steve Ditko.  He co-created the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Inhumans, and X-Men with Jack Kirby.  Other characters he had a hand in conceiving were Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil and Ant-Man.  It was apparently Lee who had the idea of creating superheroes who had flaws and who experienced everyday problems, just like normal people.

Lee also was an amazing publicist with an outsized public persona.  He enthustastically promoted the Marvel brand and characters with the zeal of a master showman.

Stan Lee photo 1968

In subsequent decades there has been a great deal of debate, often contentious, concerning the division of labor, of exactly who did what, in the conception of these various characters and series.  It is often difficult to parse these things in collaborative efforts.  One might as well try to precisely determine who did what in the Beatles.  I’ve heard Lee and Kirby likened to Paul MacCartney and John Lennon, and I think it is a valid comparison.  Both were talented musicians, but each in a very different way, and when they worked together something occurred, some creative magic that you cannot explain or break down in any sort of analytical manner.  So it was with Lee and Kirby, and with Lee and Ditko.

It is also worth mentioning that in the early 1960s no one – not Lee, not Ditko, not Kirby – no one had even the slightest idea that half a century later these characters would still be in print, much less become cultural icons worth millions of dollars.  No one was taking detailed notes regarding the creative process, because they were all too busy attempting to keep the nascent Marvel Comics afloat.

It is obvious, however, to even the most casual reader that Stan Lee had a central role in the creation, and success, of the Marvel comic books of the Silver Age.  Read any story by Ditko & Lee, or Kirby & Lee, and then read any story done by Ditko or Kirby working solo.  They are very different, especially in the dialogue and narration.

Fantastic Four 49 pg 1
Fantastic Four #48 page 1

One can argue that Lee could have made more effort to credit the precise contributions of Ditko, Kirby, and his other creative partners.  That is probably true.  But it is important to keep in mind that Lee made sure to credit to his collaborators, in a time when many comic books were published without any creator credits.  He demonstrated more consideration than most other editors, and his efforts in this area did later lead to more precise attribution in subsequent decades.

Stan Lee also addressed a number of political and social issues in the stories he co-wrote and edited.  I’ve heard Lee described as a “middle of the road” liberal by the standards of the 1960s, and nowadays he would probably be considered a moderate.  It has been said that Lee was too liberal for Ditko, and too conservative for Kirby.

Nevertheless, the fact that Lee was willing to discuss controversial topics, however tentatively, within what in those days was regarded as a children’s medium, is significant in and of itself.  Again, this laid the groundwork for subsequent creators who would more directly, and forcefully, tackle political issues within the comic book medium.

Silver Surfer 4 pg 10
Silver Surfer #4 page 10

In 2018, with Comicsgate trolls expressing hatred for politics in comic books and disparaging social justice warriors, it’s important to recognize that Stan Lee was extremely interested in social justice.  He co-created a number of black characters, and scripted numerous stories decrying humanity’s violent & intolerant nature.  This was most pronounced in the Silver Surfer series he worked on with penciler John Buscema in the late 1960s.  Although at times verging into the anvilicious, Lee’s pleas for peace & brotherhood were clearly genuine and heartfelt.

The above page from Silver Surfer #4, featuring beautiful artwork by John & Sal Buscema, provides an example of Lee’s progressive social commentary from that series.

Lee also promoted this message in Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages.  In one late 1960s edition of Stan’s Soapbox, he wrote:

“Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”

stanleesoapbox

I have written about Captain America #130 before, but I am going to touch upon that issue again here.  Published in 1970, it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan & Dick Ayers.  At one point Cap is asked by a group that claims to stand for “law & order” to make a speech on national television denouncing student protestors for their treasonous and un-American activities.  Cap supposedly agrees, but once he is on the air he makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, exactly how he feels…

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be!”

This scene was written by Lee almost half a century ago, but it still remains incredibly relevant.

Captain America 130 speech

Whatever his flaws & shortcomings, Stan Lee played a crucial role in the shaping of the American comic book industry, in the growth of Marvel Comics into a major publisher, in the careers of the creators who he mentored and who followed him, and in the development of comic book fandom.  He will definitely be missed.  ‘Nuff said!

Norm Breyfogle: 1960 to 2018

It has been observed that someone’s favorite Batman artist is often determined by when they first began reading comic books.  That’s certainly the case for me.  There have been numerous talented artists who have rendered the Dark Knight’s adventures over the past eight decades, but two hold a special fondness for me: Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle.  When I began reading DC Comics regularly in 1989, Aparo was the penciler on Batman, and Breyfogle was the penciler on Detective Comics.

Jim Aparo, who had been working in the biz since the late 1960s, was what I refer to as a good, solid artist.  His penciling on Batman was of a more traditional bent, but his style perfectly suited the character.

And then there was Norm Breyfogle, the new kid on the block.  Breyfogle utilized a very dynamic approach to his storytelling.  His artwork in Detective Comics was filled with dramatic, innovative layouts that were possessed of both explosive energy and brooding atmosphere.

Batman 465 cover crop

Breyfogle had broken into the biz just five years earlier, in 1984, with a pair of contributions to DC’s New Talent Showcase.  Two years later, in 1986, Breyfogle penciled several issues of Steven Grant’s series Whisper for First Comics.  Following that, Breyfogle first entered the dark, moody world of Gotham City, becoming the regular penciler of Detective Comics with issue #582, cover-dated January 1988.

The following month, with issue #583, Breyfogle was joined on Detective Comics by the talented British writing team of Alan Grant & John Wagner.  Issue #584 saw the arrival of the last member of the now-regular creative team, inker Steve Mitchell.

Grant, Wagner & Breyfogle very quickly made their impart on the Bat-mythos, introducing new adversaries the Ratcatcher, the Corrosive Man, and the Ventriloquist & Scarface, the last of whom has become an iconic member of the Dark Knight’s rogues gallery.

Although Wagner soon departed, Grant remained on Detective Comics, penning a series of stories that were expertly illustrated by Breyfogle & Mitchell.  With issue #608, Grant & Breyfogle introduced yet another memorable denizen of Gotham City, the radical anti-hero Anarky.

Anarky profile pic

Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was incredibly dramatic, and is now regarded as one of the iconic interpretations of the character.  His Dark Knight was muscular but also lithe, grim & imposing but also human & vulnerable.  Breyfogle’s fluid layouts depicted a dark yet dynamic Batman acrobatically swinging across the skyline of Gotham City, massive cape billowing about.  It was absolutely incredible.  Breyfogle’s depiction of Batman was *the* definitive one for me during my teenage years in the early 1990s.

The team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell remained on Detective Comics until issue #621 (Sept 1990) and which point they were rotated over to the Batman series with issue #455.  Their first storyline, “Identity Crisis,” ended with the new Robin, Tim Drake, debuting his brand-new costume.  Breyfogle stayed on Batman until #476 (April 1992), at which point he switched over to yet another Bat-title, the new ongoing Batman: Shadow of the Bat.

Although he only drew the first five issues of Shadow of the Bat, this certainly wasn’t the end of Breyfogle’s association with Batman.  He would return for the occasional fill-in issue here and there.  Breyfogle also worked on several Batman-related graphic novels.  Among these was the acclaimed Elseworlds special Batman: Holy Terror written by novelist Alan Brennert.

Detective Comics 616 pg 18

One of my personal favorite issues from the team of Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell was “Stone Killer” in Detective Comics #616 (June 1990).  In this story Batman faces an eerie supernatural adversary.  Breyfogle’s style was perfectly suited for this eerie tale.

Also noteworthy was Detective Comics #627 (March 1991).  This was the 600th appearance of Batman in that series.  To celebrate, this issue reprinted the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger & Bob Kane, and a 1969 update of the story by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.  Additionally, there were two new interpretations of the story by the then-current Batman creative teams, Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo & Mike Decarlo, and Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle & Steve Mitchell.  It was interesting to see the same basic plot executed in four very different ways.

Detective Comics #627 concluded with a stunning double-page spread drawn by Breyfogle & Mitchell featuring Batman, his supporting cast, and many members of his rogues gallery.

Detective Comics 627 double page splash

Beginning in 1993, Breyfogle began working on Prime, which was part of Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse imprint.  He drew the first twelve issues, as well as stories for a few of the other Ultraverse titles.  Regrettably I did not follow any of these series.  At the time the comic book market had a huge glut of product on the shelves, and the Ultraverse unfortunately got lost in the shuffle.

I did finally have an opportunity to see Breyfogle’s work on the character a few years later, when the Prime / Captain America special was published in early 1996.  It was an odd but fun story, with wacky artwork by Breyfogle.  He appeared to be working in a slightly more cartoony, comedic vein.  I definitely enjoyed seeing him draw Captain America, who at the time was my favorite character.

Prime Captain America pg 8

After a short stint on Bloodshot at Valiant, Breyfogle returned to DC.  He penciled an Anarky miniseries, reuniting him with the character’s co-creator Alan Grant.  In the early 2000s he penciled several issues of the Spectre revival written by J.M. DeMatteis, which featured the then-deceased Hal Jordan adopting the supernatural role of the Wrath of God.  For Marvel Comics, Breyfogle drew the 2000 annuals for both Thunderbolts and Avengers, which in turn led to a three issue Hellcat miniseries featuring his artwork.

For a few years after the Spectre ended, Breyfogle unfortunately had some difficulty finding regular assignments in comic books.  Fortunately in late 2009 he began receiving work from Archie Comics.  Breyfogle was one of the regular artists on the wonderful Life With Archie series written by Paul Kupperberg.  Here he was paired up with inker Josef Rubinstein.

Breyfogle’s work for Archie Comics really demonstrated his versatility as an artist.  As I previously observed, Breyfogle’s art on Life With Archie was a very nice, effective blending of the company’s house style and his own unique, signature look.  He certainly was adept at illustrating the melodramatic soap opera storylines in the “Archie Marries Veronica” segments.

Life With Archie 9 pg 3

In 2012 Breyfogle once again had an opportunity to return to the world of Batman, illustrating the “10,000 Clowns” story arc and several covers for Batman Beyond.  It was a wonderful homecoming for the artist, who seamlessly fit back into Bat-verse, this time giving us his depictions of the dystopian future Gotham City and its denizens introduced in the animated series.

Batman Beyond would unfortunately be Breyfogle’s last major work in comic books.  In December 2014 he suffered a stroke, after which he became partially paralyzed.  Tragically, as a result Breyfogle was no longer able to draw.  Nevertheless he remained connected to the comic book community, regularly communicating with fans via Facebook.

Norm Breyfogle passed away on September 24, 2018.  He was only 58 years old.  It was a tremendous shock, both to his colleagues, who always spoke very highly of him, and to the generation of fans such as myself who grew up on his amazing artwork.

For me Breyfogle will always remain one of the all-time greatest Batman artists.  He will definitely be missed.

Remembering Mark Gruenwald

Twenty years ago this week comic book writer & editor Mark Gruenwald passed away.  He was only 43 years old.

A longtime comic book reader, Gruenwald was active in fandom during his teenage years. In 1978 he was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, where he would remain for his entire career.  He was the editor on Avengers, Iron Man and Thor in the 1980s.

During his tenure at Marvel, Gruenwald worked on a number of projects. A master of comic book continuity, he conceived the popular encyclopedia-like Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with extensive biographies & descriptions of powers for many of the company’s characters.

Gruenwald had a decade-long run writing Captain America, which began with issue #307 (July 1985) and lasted until issue #443 (September 1995), missing only a single issue during that time.  He also had a five year stint on Quasar, and wrote the well-regarded Squadron Supreme miniseries.

Captain America 322 cover

Gruenwald also occasionally worked as an artist. In 1983 he both wrote and provided pencil breakdowns for a Hawkeye miniseries, with Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi doing inks / finishes.  It was in this story that Hawkeye first encountered the lovely ex-SHIELD agent Mockingbird, and the miniseries ended with them tying the knot.

Growing up, Gruenwald was one of the first comic book creators whose work I followed. In 1985 my father got me a subscription to Captain America.  That happened to dovetail with the start of Gruenwald’s stint on the book, working with penciler Paul Neary.  That year’s worth of comics that I received in the mail were read by me over and over again.  They definitely played a major role in my becoming a lifelong fan of the character.  Four years later, when I began going to the comic shop on a regular basis, Captain America was one of the first comic book series that I collected religiously.

There were some great storylines written by Gruenwald during his decade on Captain America. He penned a lengthy arc that lasted from #332 to #350.  Steve Rogers, rather than become an agent of the shadowy government entity known as the Commission of Super-Human Activities, resigned as Cap.  The Commission recruited the glory-seeking, egotistical John Walker, who was already operating under the guise of Super-Patriot, to become the new Captain America.  Now literally walking in Cap’s shoes, manipulated by the Commission, and facing numerous deadly foes, Walker came to realize just how difficult the role was.  Becoming mentally unstable after his parents were murdered, Walker finally decided he wasn’t cut out to be Cap.  He turned the costume back over to Rogers, having developed a grudging admiration for him.  Walker would soon after adopt a new identity, U.S. Agent.  Over the next several years he and Cap would continue to butt heads over tactics & ideology.

Captain America 350 pg 44

In 1989 Gruenwald penned the action-packed, globe-trotting storyline “The Bloodstone Hunt,” working with penciler & co-plotter Kieron Dwyer, who was just beginning his career in the biz.  A year later, now paired with penciler Ron Lim, Gruenwald wrote the seven issue “Streets of Poison,” which had Cap becoming embroiled in a drug war being fought between the Kingpin and the Red Skull.

Gruenwald revamped the Red Skull from a scheme-of-the-month Nazi war criminal. Taking on the trappings of a late 1980s uber-capitalist, operating out of Washington DC itself, the Skull sought to destroy America from within by financing numerous subversive and terrorist organizations.

While he was updating Cap’s arch nemesis, Gruenwald also set out to expand the Sentinel of Liberty’s rogues gallery. His most notable creations were super-villain trade union the Serpent Society, the anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, the fanatical vigilante the Scourge of the Underworld, the reactionary militia group the Watchdogs, and the brutal mercenary Crossbones.

Gruenwald also introduced Diamondback. A member of the Serpent Society, Rachel Leighton was a magenta-haired bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found herself unexpectedly attracted to Cap.  At first merely hanging out with Cap in the hopes of convincing him to have a roll in the sack, Diamondback came to develop feelings for him and she began to ponder going straight.  Likewise Cap, who originally considered Diamondback to be a major nuisance, eventually came to appreciate & care for Rachel.  Gruenwald chronicled their extremely rocky relationship throughout his time on the series.  “Cap’s Night Out” in issue #371, with artwork by Lim & Bulanadi, which has Steve and Rachel going out on a date, is one of the best single issues of Gruenwald’s run.

Captain America 371 pg 1

In hindsight, there are aspects of Gruenwald’s work on Captain America that do not hold up too well. To a degree Gruenwald’s sensibilities were rooted in the early Silver Age, and his conception of Cap was of a “man in a white hat,” extremely ethical and scrupulously honest.  At times I feel Gruenwald overdid this, such as his insistence that, despite having served in the armed forces during World War II, Cap never ever killed a single person.  I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions.  I just feel that at times he wrote Cap as someone given to too much moralizing and hand-wringing.

The last few years Gruenwald was on Captain America were hit & miss. There was “The Superia Stratagem,” which saw the militant feminist Superia organize an army of female villains as well as attempt to transform Cap into a woman.  This was followed a year later by “Man and Wolf,” which saw Cap actually transformed into a werewolf.  Neither story was well-received by readers, although I do have a certain fondness for Capwolf.

Captain America 405 cover

Towards the end, it appears the changes taking place throughout the comic book industry were affecting Gruenwald’s outlook. The whole “grim & gritty” trend became prevalent throughout superhero books.  Hot young artists with flashy styles who were weak in storytelling & anatomy were now superstars.  Marvel itself was much more corporate, making a number of decisions to drive up short-term profits, something that would eventually lead the company into bankruptcy.

All this seemed to be very much reflected in Gruenwald’s final year and a half on Captain America. Paired with penciler Dave Hoover, Gruenwald wrote “Fighting Chance,” which saw Cap succumbing to a complete physical breakdown as the Super Soldier Serum finally wore out.  As the dying Cap sought to take down his cutthroat adversaries, he found himself at odds with brutal vigilantes who mocked him as naïve and ineffectual.  In Gruenwald’s final issue, Cap lay on his deathbed, overcome with despair, believing that he had not fought hard enough to make the world a better place.

Captain America 443 pg 20

A year later, on August 12, 1996, Mark Gruenwald passed away. It was already a dark time for the comic book industry, and his death made it all the darker.  Yes, Gruenwald had made certain missteps, both as a writer and in his role as an editor.  But it was clear that on the whole he was very talented and intelligent.  Gruenwald possessed a genuine love of comic books, and he was committed to ensuring that the work he and his collaborators did was of a high quality.  His loss certainly left the industry much poorer.

Twenty years later, many of the characters & concepts introduced by Gruenwald are still in use in the Marvel universe.  More importantly, as the anniversary of his passing approached, it was readily apparent by the kind words of his friends & colleagues that he was still both highly regarded and much missed.

Happy July 4th from the Avengers

Here’s wishing everyone in the United States a very happy July 4th.  For those of you elsewhere in the world, I wish you all the very best, as well.  I hope that one day “liberty and justice for all” truly becomes a reality no matter who you are or where you live.

To celebrate, I am posting a scan of this wonderful Avengers pin-up.  It was published in the Avengers: The Ultron Imperative special that was released in late 2001.  Described on the credits page as an “Unused Avengers promotional drawing,” it depicts Avengers members Hawkeye, Captain America, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch celebrating American Independence Day.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are immigrants from Europe who came to the United States in search of freedom from intolerance and the opportunity for a new beginning.  So they definitely deserve to be here as symbols of the American Dream.

Avengers July 4th Don Heck

The pencils on this piece are by Don Heck.  A good, solid, often-underrated artist, Heck worked on numerous comic book titles in a career that stretched over four decades, from the 1952 to 1993.  Among his credits were stints penciling Avengers for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.  Yes, that includes the time period when “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” were the headlining members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Heck passed away at the age of 66 in 1995, so this drawing was obviously done a number of years before it was published.  Given the subject matter, perhaps it was left over from the Bicentennial in 1976.

Inking / embellishing this pin-up is the ever-amazing Jerry Ordway.  As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Da Ordster.  Ordway has gone on record with his appreciation for Heck, referring to him as “a truly underappreciated artist.”  I expect that he enjoyed having the opportunity to ink this piece in 2001.

The coloring is by Tom Smith, who was the regular colorist on the monthly Avengers series at this time.  He definitely did a very nice, vibrant job on this piece.

Thanks for taking a look!