Ken Kelly: 1946 to 2022

Longtime fantasy artist Ken Kelly passed away on June 3rd. He was 76 years old. During a career that lasted half a century, Kelly became renowned for his incredible paintings of fiercely heroic warriors, stunningly sexy women and hideously awful monsters. Kelly was also acclaimed for his work illustrating album covers for rock bands.

Kelly was born in New London, Connecticut on May 19, 1946. He had always liked to draw & paint and so, after four years overseas serving in the Marines, in 1968 Kelly returned to the States and decided to pursue a career as an illustrator. Kelly’s uncle by marriage was Frank Frazetta, and he studied under the acclaimed illustrator for the next few years.

Kelly’s first professional sale was the cover painting for Vampirella #6 from Warren Publishing, which was released in July 1970. Kelly would regularly contribute covers to Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s, when Warren finally shut down. The work was low-paying, but as Kelly would explain in a 2018 interview, the experience got him used to producing quality work while hitting deadlines:

“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast. You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one.”

After several years of toiling at Warren, Kelly’s life & career was literally changed almost overnight when he was hired to paint the cover artwork for “Destroyer,” the fourth studio album from hard rock band Kiss. “Destroyer” was released on March 15, 1976 and over the next several months became a hit record. Kelly’s cover painting for the album put him on the map, making him a very much in-demand artist from that point onward.

I certainly cannot say that I’m a huge Kiss fan, but even so I’ll readily acknowledge that Kelly’s dynamic cover painting for “Destroyer” is one of the most iconic images featuring the band.

Kelly was subsequently hired to paint the cover for Kiss’s six studio album “Love Gun” (1977), as well as the Rainbow album “Rising” (1976) and half a dozen album covers for Manowar between 1987 and 2007, among others.

The cover to “Destroyer” also brought Kelly’s work to the attention of paperback publishers, and from the mid 1970s onwards he was regularly hired to paint heroic fantasy covers. Among the authors whose work Kelly was most associated with was the late Robert E. Howard, creator of the barbarian anti-hero Conan.

It was through Howard’s writings that I first became acquainted with Kelly’s artwork. In the mid 1990s Baen Books published seven paperback volumes of The Robert E. Howard Library. Up until that point in time Howard’s Conan stories had been widely released, but much of his other fiction had never been properly collected together. One of the Baen volumes was the first complete collection of Howard’s stories featuring the grim swashbuckling Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. I’d heard of Kane in the past, and been intrigued by him, so when Baen released that collection in late 1995 I eagerly snatched it up.

That book had a gorgeous painted cover featuring the climax of REH’s story “The Moon of Skulls.” Looking at the copyright page, there was a credit that read “Cover art by C.W. Kelly.” Well, I had no idea who this C.W Kelly was, but he certainly seemed like a talented artist.

“C.W. Kelly”would provide the other lushly illustrated painted covers for The Robert E. Howard Library. I bought several of those volumes, although in the intervening years, having moved half a dozen times, I misplaced a couple. I still have the Solomon Kane collection as well as a couple others from the series.

In the late 1990s Kelly produced a number stunning covers for Dark Horse Comics for their Star Wars line of comic books. He painted several covers for the ongoing Star Wars series set during the Prequel era, as well as covers for the four issue miniseries Star Wars: Boba Fett – Enemy of the Empire and its collected edition. Kelly created some really great art for George Lucas’ epic space fantasy, and I wish he’d had more opportunities to work on the series.

I was fortunate enough to meet Kelly on a few occasions, at the Chiller Theatre conventions held in New Jersey in 2007 and 2008, and at one of the I-CON sci-fi conventions held at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

Kelly came across as a genuinely decent guy. The first time I met him I purchased a copy of his oversized art book Ken Kelly: Escape. It was a gorgeous collection of his paintings & illustrations. Looking through it I saw several familiar pieces, and I finally realized that the “C.W. Kelly” who had painted those covers for Baen Books was Ken Kelly.

Even though he was best known for his paintings, Kelly also worked in pencil and pen & ink, and when he was at conventions he would sell these types of illustrations, as well as do fairly basic convention sketches, for quite reasonable prices. I thought that was a nice gesture, as he obviously understood that a lot of his fans who would like to own a piece of his art would not be able to afford his paintings.

I got a couple of sketches from Kelly. Due to his aptitude for depicting heroic fantasy, I asked him to do a Thor drawing in my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook. The next time I saw him I had him draw Boba Fett in my Star Wars theme book. He did nice work on both.

Kelly painted literally hundreds of beautiful, striking pieces during his five decade career. There’s no way for me to adequately present an overview of his work within the confines of this blog. So, instead, I’ll merely present a few of my favorite pieces by him.

First we have the dark fantasy armored figure of “Death’s End” which Kelly described as “one of my most popular paintings.”  Kelly utilized the central armored figure for the cover to his Escape collection. A limited edition 20” tall resin statue sculpted by Tony Cipriano was later issued.

The beautiful, sensuous “Anastacia’s Lair” appears to have been one of Kelly’s personal favorites. In the Escape collection he described it thus:

“This is a personal concept I wanted to pursue, focusing on an interior setting. It’s always interesting to paint cats to I included one as her protector and pet. I am at any given time working on five or more of these types of paintings, it’s very relaxing for me.”

Stepping outside of the sword & sorcery genre, Kelly produced “Snowtrap” in 1997. As he explained it:

“Scenes like this are most liberating for me. There’s no alternative universe to create, no debating whether the weaponry matches the era or architecture, or whether the plausibility of the creatures detracts from the scene. This is simply a female mammoth desperately struggling to keep her calf from the jaws of death.”

That’s the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Kelly’s artwork. I highly recommend visiting his official website to see a wide selection of his paintings.

Kelly was apparently active as an artist up until almost the end of his life. One of his most recent pieces was sci-fi swordmaiden Taarna for the cover of Heavy Metal #308, which was released last year.

Ken Kelly was a very talented artist who had an incredible career, impacting comic books, fantasy and American hard rock. He will definitely be missed by his many fans.

Astro City returns to Image Comics with That Was Then…

Super Blog Team-Up celebrates the 30th anniversary of Image Comics. In 1992 a group of red-hot artists decided to quit their extremely lucrative gigs drawing for Marvel Comics and found a brand-new company dedicated to publishing creator-owned series.

Image Comics may have gotten off to a rough start, but no major comic book company ever emerged fully formed, and within just a few years Image had already become an important force for creators’ rights in an industry that had a long history of exploiting talent.

Over the past three decades Image has published hundreds of great creator-owned projects. Among these is Astro City by the team of writer Kurt Busiek, interior artist Brent Anderson, and cover artist & character designer Alex Ross.

Astro City was first published by Image as a six issue miniseries in 1995. It was followed a year later by an ongoing series published under the Homage Comics imprint of Image co-founder Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Productions.  In 1998 Lee sold Wildstorm to DC Comics, and with that sale Astro City moved over to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

I have absolutely no idea what the specifics were of the arrangement between Busiek and Wildstorm. But apparently Busiek retained ownership of Astro City even after Wildstorm was bought by DC. After 20 years of Astro City being published by DC under various imprints, Busiek finally made the decision to bring the series back to its original home, Image Comics.

Astro City: That Was Then… by Busiek, Anderson, Ross, colorist Alex Sinclair, letterers Tyler Smith & Jimmy Betancourt of Comicraft, and editor Kel Symons is the first new Astro City book released since the series’ return to Image.

Form his afterword in this issue, it sounds like for the most part Busiek had a good working relationship with DC Comics. Nevertheless, I am genuinely glad that Astro City has returned to Image. DC and Marvel, the so-called “Big Two,” have ownership of more than enough characters. Certainly both DC and Marvel have bought up more than their share of properties over the decades, so it would have been a pity to see the denizens of Astro City permanently absorbed by one of the Big Two.

UPDATE: To clarify matters, I did hear back from Kurt Busiek himself on this subject…

“DC never owned ASTRO CITY, nor did Wildstorm. It’s always been owned by Brent, Alex and me.”

Thank you, Mr. Busiek.

To date there have been over 100 issues of Astro City published. I have probably only read around 15 to 20 of those comics. Nevertheless Busiek makes the That Was Then… special very accessible to new & casual readers such as myself.

That Was Then… is set during the summer of 1969. The teen superhero group the Jayhawks have shockingly died, having lost their lives fighting the eldritch abomination The Master who was powered by the racism & hatred of the white supremacist group the White Knights.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, several other teenage heroes have gone “on the road” to figure out what to do next. Adulthood is right around the corner for these five troubled youths, and they need to decide: should they keep fighting crime, or move on with their lives?

Bugleboy, Majorette, Sunshrike, Rivets the Robot Kid and Rally can feel that change is coming, an end to the initial bright optimism of the 1960s. Both the script by Busiek and the art & coloring by Anderson & Sinclair are suffused with a contemplative, tangible mood. There is a very tangible feeling of loss and uncertainty.

Honestly, it amazes me that Anderson is not a much more popular artist. Way back in 1982 he did a superb job on the critically acclaimed X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills graphic novel for Marvel, and for a quarter century he’s been doing incredible work on Astro City. Anderson is, in my mind, a very underrated artist & storyteller.

Busiek has always been incredibly adept at writing character-driven stories. Astro City is a series that definitely plays to that strength, enabling him to tell very personal, intimate stories set against a tapestry of vast, epic events, at examining the human aspects of superhumans. That is yet again on display in the That Was Then… special.

The present-day epilogue to That Was Then… featuring Astro City’s flagship hero Samaritan effectively parallels the main story. Just like the five teens from 1969, the Samaritan feels worn down & purposeless, haunted by the ominous feeling that “something’s coming, something dark.”

This reminds me of something that Alan Moore wrote in Watchmen. “Nothing ends… nothing ever ends.” Just as the progressive idealism of the 1960s was wiped away by assassinations, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon and finally Ronald Reagan, so to were the hopes & dreams of Barack Obama’s election eclipsed by the resurgence of American racism, the rise of Donald Trump, and the radicalization of the Republican Party. Unfortunately so long as there are human beings there will very likely always be these struggles between the light and the darkness… and the good men & women the Samaritan represents will understandably feel beaten down by the unending fight to preserve liberty & justice.

I am looking forward to seeing what Busiek, Anderson & Ross have planned for Astro City in the future at image Comics. And I’ll also be taking the opportunity to check out their earlier stories, which Image is re-issuing as oversized MetroBook collections.

By the way, I very rarely ever purchase more than one copy of any comic books to get different variant covers. But I made an exception with Astro City: That Was Then… picking up both the main beautiful painted cover by Alex Ross and the variant cover drawn by Image co-founder & Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen featuring Malcolm Dragon alongside the Samaritan.

Larsen is one of my all-time favorite comic book creators. He and Busiek had a good working relationship in the past, having collaborated on Defenders and Fantastic Four: The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine at Marvel in the early 2000s. I’d love to see them work together again, this time on something at Image.

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George Perez: 1954 to 2022

I was very sorry to hear about the passing of legendary comic book creator George Perez on May 6th. Perez had announced back in December that he was suffering from with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and that he had approximately six months to a year left to live. We all knew this day was coming soon, but it doesn’t make it any less sad.

Perez had an incredibly lengthy, diverse career. As I did a week ago to mark the passing of fellow legend Neal Adams, I am going to refrain from even trying to put together any sort of comprehensive retrospective of Perez’s career, and instead just focus on my own impressions of his work as a fan.

Batman #439 cover drawn by George Perez and collored by Anthony Tollin, published by DC Comics in Sept 1989

I first started following comic books regularly in 1989 when I was 13 years old, so I missed Perez’s early work on Fantastic Four and Avengers for Marvel Comics in the late 1970s, as well as his wildly popular collaboration with writer Marv Wolfman on The New Teen Titans at DC Comics beginning in the early 1980s.

While I can’t be 100% certain, I think the first work by Perez that I ever saw were his covers for the “Batman: Year Three” and “A Lonely Place of Dying” story arcs that ran through Batman #436-442 in the summer and fall of 1989. I was immediately struck by Perez’s intricately detailed work and his complex compositions. His cover to #439 featuring Nightwing hanging on for dear life from the bell tower of a church in the midst of a fierce rainstorm, highlighted by the Bat-signal, especially stood out in my mind. Perez and colorist Anthony Tollin did absolutely stunning work in rendering that atmospheric image.

Within a couple of years I was following quite a few DC titles. War of the Gods was a major crossover that DC published in the summer & fall of 1991, and it tied in with Perez’s run on Wonder Woman. So I picked up Wonder Woman #58 which was written & cover-illustrated by Perez and the four issue War of the Gods miniseries for which Perez was writing, doing interior pencil layouts and drawing full covers. As I’ve mentioned before, this was an absolutely insane time for me to try to dive into Wonder Woman, because this was the culmination of a number of plotlines & character arcs that Perez had been developing over the past five years.

War of the Gods #4 cover drawn by George Perez, published by DC Comics in Dec 1991

Three decades later I only remember three things about War of the Gods: 1) the evil sorceress Circe was the main villain, 2) I didn’t understand even half of what was going on, and 3) DC promoted the fact that for the cover of the final issue of the miniseries Perez set out to draw a cover featuring ONE HUNDRED different characters. That must have been my first exposure to Perez’s fondness for drawing literal armies.

At the exact same time Perez was also penciling another crossover, this time at Marvel. The Infinity Gauntlet was another “cast of thousands” cosmic extravaganza that ran for six double-sized issues. Truthfully, I wasn’t especially into writer Jim Starlin’s story for The Infinity Gauntlet, either, since it very predictably followed the arc of Thanos becoming a god and wiping the floor with everyone else in the Marvel Universe for half a dozen issues before finally losing the titular Infinity Gauntlet.

Nevertheless, Perez, paired with inker Josef Rubinstein, did a fantastic job drawing the cosmic spectacle… at least until working on two mega-crossovers simultaneously became too much for even someone of Perez’s talent & speed, and he had to bow out partway through issue #4, with Ron Lim taking up penciling duties for the remainder of the miniseries. To show support for Lim stepping into this high-profile assignment and having the unenviable job of following in his footsteps, Perez inked Lim’s pencils on the covers for the final two issues of The Infinity Gauntlet.

The Infinity Gauntlet #1 cover drawn by George Perez and colored by John Stracuzzi, published by Marvel Comics in July 1991

So, while I haven’t revisited The Infinity Gauntlet in the last 30 years, either, I definitely was impressed by the work Perez did on the first half of the miniseries. Certainly his intricate cover for the first issue, colored by John Stracuzzi, is one of the all-time greatest depictions of Thanos in the character’s half-century history. Heck, even Jim Starlin, the writer / artist who created Thanos, has used Perez’s cover artwork for The Infinity Gauntlet #1 for his own convention banner. Now that is respect.

Anyway, throughout the 1990s, when I was in high school & college, I went to a lot of comic book conventions, and bought a lot of back issues from the 1970s and 80s. Amongst these were several books that Perez worked on: Avengers, Justice League of America, The New Teen Titans, Marvel Fanfare, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Action Comics. I also had the opportunity to pick up a lot more issues of Perez’s epic, groundbreaking five year run on Wonder Woman, at last getting in on the earlier parts of his incredible, highly influential revamp of Princess Diana of Themyscira.

Straight from the back issue bin… Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Perez, inked by Jerry Ordway, lettered by John Costanze and colored by Anthony Tollin, published by DC Comcis in january 1986

In the mid 1990s Perez penciled the first six issues of Isaac Asimov’s I-BOTS, written by Steven Grant, published by Tekno Comics / Big Entertainment.  I took a look at Perez’s work on that series a few months ago as part of the most recent round of Super Blog Team-Up, in which the various contributors examined different parts of Perez’s amazing career.

In 1998 Perez had another opportunity to pencil Avengers, this time paired with writer Kurt Busiek. Perez remained on the series for three years. After the meandering, confusing events of “The Crossing” and the controversial Heroes Reborn that saw Rob Liefeld take over the book, Busiek & Perez’s run was warmly received by long-time Avengers readers.

Now here’s another one of those occasions when I am going to go against conventional fan wisdom. The truth is I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about Busiek’s writing on Avengers; I feel Busiek is an amazing writer on smaller, intimate, character-driven stories set against the epic backdrops of superhero universes, something he’s demonstrated again and again with his incredible work on Astro City. Same thing for Thunderbolts from Marvel, which was a very character-centric series. In contract, Avengers was the epic superhero event book, and I just didn’t feel that Busiek quite had the faculty to pull off those sorts of stories. (Just my personal opinion, so feel free to disagree.)

The Scarlet Witch tears up the dance floor! Avengers vol 3 #19 written by Kurt Busiek, penciled by George Perez, inked by Al Very, colored by Tom Smith and lettered by Richard Starkings, published by Marvel Comics in August 1999

That said, Busiek did really solid work on the character-driven subplots in Avengers involving the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Wonder Man, and Carol Danvers / Warbird, as well as his own creations Silverclaw and Triathalon. And of course Perez did an incredible job illustrating Busiek’s stories, both the action scenes and the quieter character moments. I certainly appreciated the stunning costume Perez designed for the Scarlet Witch. And that bellydance sequence featuring Wanda from Avengers vol 3 #19 (Aug 1999) seen above was absolutely gorgeous, a superb example of Perez’s storytelling abilities.

In the early 2000s Perez signed an exclusive contract with startup publisher CrossGen Comics. Perez penciled the quarterly double-sized CrossGen Chronicles, followed by the monthly series Solus. I only read a handful of the CrossGen titles, but I picked up a couple of issues of CrossGen Chronicles specifically for Perez’s artwork.

One of the things I appreciated about the CrossGen books was that it was not a superhero-centric universe. CrossGen enabled Perez to stretch his boundaries and work in the genres of fantasy and sci-fi / space opera. He did some incredible work for them. Regrettably CrossGen only lasted a few years, going bankrupt in 2003.

CrossGen Chronicles #4, written by Mark Waid, penciled by George Perez, inked by Mike Perkins & Rick Magyar, colored by Laura DePuy, Chris Garcia & Mike Garcia, and lettered by Dave Lanphear & Troy Peteri, published by CrossGen Comics in Sept 2001

Back in 1981 Perez had begun penciling a Justice League / Avengers crossover, but the project was left uncompleted due to editorial conflicts between DC and Marvel Comics. Two decades later, in 2002, the Big Two at last came to an agreement to work together and publish a crossover between their two superstar teams. Even though Perez was signed to CrossGen, he’d included a clause in his contract with them that if Justice League / Avengers ever happened he would be allowed to draw it. And so he was reunited with Kurt Busiek and colorist Tom Smith to produce the long-awaited meeting of the Justice League and Avengers in four double-sized bookshelf issues.

JLA / Avengers once again gave Perez the opportunity to draw his casts of thousands. The absolute highlight of the event was the wraparound cover to the third issue, on which Perez depicted every single member of both teams up to that point in time. Tom Smith recently recounted that it took him two whole weeks just to color that cover.

Where’s Waldo?!? JLA/Avengers #3 cover drawn by George Perez and colored by Tom Smith, published by DC and Marvel Comics in December 2003

It seems like everyone has a George Perez story, so here’s mine: I met writer Marv Wolfman at a comic con in White Plains NY in June 2000 and had him autograph my copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, the historic (and at the time absolutely permanent) death of Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash. A few months later, at a store signing in Connecticut, I met artist Jerry Ordway, who had inked that issue,and I had him autograph it, too. He smiled and said “I’d better leave room for George Perez to sign it.” I responded that he didn’t have to do that, since I didn’t expect to ever meet Perez (and, really, I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity, because he was such an incredibly popular artist).  Ordway just smiled again and autographed the book, leaving several inches space between his and Wolfman’s signatures.

Fast forward a few years, and low & behold none other than George Perez was a guest at a comic con in Manhattan. Of course I brought along my copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, and Perez autographed it in between Wolfman & Ordway’s signatures. So, a big “thank you” to Jerry Ordway for his foresight.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 signed by Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Jerry Ordway!

I wish I could regale you with some fascinating anecdotes about my meeting George Perez. The simple fact is, in the couple of minutes I spoke with him he came across as a good person, and that’s it. From everything I’ve heard Perez was always like that; he always made an effort to be friendly to all of his fans, to greet them with a warm smile.

About a decade later Michele and I were at New York Comic Con. We ran into Perez when he was between panel discussions or something; I don’t recall the specifics. I just remember that Michele had had a copy of Wonder Woman vol 2 #19 with her, and she went up to Perez and asked him to sign it. I think he was talking with someone, or maybe he was on his way out of the room, but whatever it was he was doing he paused, turned to Michele, smiled, pulled out a sharpie, and autographed her comic. That’s the type of person Perez was, always making time for his fans.

George Perez was an incredible artist and a genuinely decent person. He will definitely be missed. I wish to offer my condolences to his family, friends and colleagues for their loss.

Comic book reviews: Elektra #100

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on this blog before, in the last decade or so I really haven’t read much from either Marvel or DC Comics. When I do pick up something from the Big Two, it’s almost always because of who is writing or drawing it. I am much more interested in creators than characters, and have been for some time.

That’s how I came to purchase Elektra #100. Truthfully, I’ve never been all that interested in Elektra. I think the character worked well enough in her original appearances in Daredevil by her creator Frank Miller, and then he killed her off because he was finished telling her story… although he did later return to her to fill in the details of her history to good effect in the Elektra: Assassin miniseries. Of course, no one stays dead at Marvel Comics, and eventually she was resurrected and utilized in various different ways, some better than others, the majority of which I just didn’t even bother to read.

So why pick up Elektra #100? It’s written by Ann Nocenti, that’s why. I’ve blogged about Nocenti’s work on several occasions. I always find her writing to be thought-provoking and unconventional. So when I saw the previews of Elektra #100 and found out that Nocenti would be pitting Elektra against her own creation Typhoid Mary, the telekinetic pyrokinetic femme fatale who suffers from multiple personality disorder, I was definitely in. And it is an intriguing hook, having Daredevil’s two toxic ex-girlfriends facing off against one another.

There are definitely parallels between Elektra and Typhoid Mary. They are both seriously damaged women who were previously involved with Matt Murdock and who have worked as assassins for his arch-adversary Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. Nocenti compares and contrasts the two, putting Elektra, who has worked hard to distance herself from her violent past and turn over a new leaf, opposite Typhoid Mary, who time and again inevitably ends up getting drawn back into the Kingpin’s corrupt orbit.

“Twisters” is set “Weeks ago…” i.e. shortly before the recently-concluded Devil’s Reign crossover. Fisk is still the Major of New York City, ostensibly reformed while continuing to expand his criminal empire behind the scenes.  He dispatches Typhoid to look after Lady Midas, from whom he wants to acquire property in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. Elektra, having assumed Daredevil’s role of the protector of Hell’s Kitchen, wants to “persuade” Midas not to sell out to the Kingpin. And so these two women inevitably come to blows.

Reading “Twisters” it occurred to me that there is, ultimately, only so much Nocenti is allowed to do with these two characters. Elektra will always be the woman with a tragic, violent past struggling to achieve redemption. Typhoid Mary will always be the mentally ill woman struggling to find balance between her violently different personalities, ever unable to lead a “normal” life.  That said, Nocenti still manages to produce an interesting, entertaining story featuring this pair while working in a fictional universe where Status Quo is God.

I’m not completely sold on Sid Kotian’s artwork. He seems to be working in the vein of Humberto Ramos, utilizing a style that is half cartoonish exaggeration and half Manga-inspired. It’s a bit chaotic and wonky, but I suppose that it fits a story focusing on Typhoid Mary’s continuing efforts to juggle her various personalities.

There’s definitely some interesting layouts & storytelling being utilized by Kotian in this story. Also, he does capture the athleticism of the two characters especially well.

I did like the coloring by Edgar Delgado, which suits Kotian’s work, creating some effectively atmospheric scenes. VC’s Clayton Cowles utilizes some interesting lettering for the captions featuring Typhoid Mary’s chaotic stream of consciousness.

There’s a short back-up by writer Declan Shalvey, artist Stefano Raffaele and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg that is more an exercise in establishing a mood, in visualizing the dysfunctional relationship between Elektra and Daredevil and in telling a coherent story. It does provide Raffaele with the opportunity to show off his storytelling skill and illustrate some dynamic, fluid pages.

Unfortunately, Marvel made a big booboo and printed the two halves of a great double page spread by Raffaele on opposite sides of the same page. Oops! But from the digital edition here’s the full image, in all its dynamic glory. Click on it to embiggen…

Additionally, there are a couple of short, humorous pieces by Chris Giarusso and Ty Templeton at the back of the issue.

The cover to Elektra #100 is by Dan Panosian. I am constantly amazed at just how much Panosian has grown & developed as an artist since he first entered the comic book biz over 30 years ago. His recent artwork looks nothing like what he was doing in the early 1990s. His cover for this issue is a basic pin-up type image, but it is still executed well. It’s a reminder to me that I really need to check out Panosian’s recent independent and creator-owned projects.

By the way, if you’re like me, and you’re wondering just how the heck Marvel arrived at there being 100 issues of Elektra, there’s a four page cover gallery inside. In addition to her various ongoing series, they’re counting Elektra: Assassin, and the Elektra Lives Again graphic novel, and the Root of Evil miniseries, and various other odds & ends. So now you know.

It was nice to see Nocenti playing in the Marvel sandbox again. I wish they would give her more work. Oh, well… as with Panosian, I really need to seek out her recent creator-owned projects. I just need more money and a much bigger apartment in which to keep all of these comic books!

Tom Veitch: 1941 to 2022

I was sorry to hear that writer Tom Veitch had passed away on February 18th at the age of 80 from COVID-19. Tom Veitch had a career that spanned over four decades. He was a contributor to the underground comix movement of the early 1970s, as well as a novelist & a poet. Veitch was the older brother of acclaimed comic book creator Rick Veitch.

I am most familiar with the work Tom Veitch did in mainstream comic books from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. During this time he did work published by Marvel, DC and Dark Horse.

Animal Man #41 cover art by Brian Bolland, published by DC Comics in Dec 1991

Veitch became the writer on Animal Man from DC Comics with issue #33, cover-dated March 1991. He had the unenviable task of following after the acclaimed work of Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan on that series. Veitch’s run lasted through issue #50, August 1992.

I was in high school when Veitch was writing Animal Man and, truth be told, my tastes were, well, less than refined, so to speak.  To be brutally honest, I was a Marvel Zombie, a superhero junkie. I bought several issues of Animal Man for the stunning covers by Brian Bolland. I was definitely caught off-guard by the decidedly unconventional work inside by Veitch, who for most of his run was paired up with interior artist Steve Dillon. David Klein & Mark Badger, Brett Ewins & Jim McCarthy and Steve Pugh also contributed artwork during Veitch’s year and a half run.

Looking back on those issues of Animal Man, and my reactions to them, at the time I was probably lacking in the maturity & knowledge of political & social topics such as environmentalism, animal rights and faith & spirituality, to truly appreciate the work of Veitch and his artistic collaborators.  Nevertheless, I did have a certain appreciation for the stories they were telling. Veitch did a superb job of writing Animal Man / Buddy Baker’s relationship with his wife Ellen and daughter Maxine. I have no doubt that if I were to revisit those comics in the present day that I would enjoy them a great deal, as well as have a much greater appreciation for the themes & subjects which Veitch was addressing in his stories.

Animal Man #41 written by Tom Veitch, drawn by Steve Dillon, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Tatjana Wood, published by DC Comics in Dec 1991

In 1988 Veitch and artist Cam Kennedy had collaborated on the six issue creator-owned war / fantasy series The Light and Darkness War published by the Epic imprint of Marvel Comics. As he later recounted in Back Issue #55 from TwoMorrows Publishing, Veitch subsequently sent copies of The Light and Darkness War to George Lucas with a proposal for a new Star Wars comic book series. It’s perhaps difficult to understand now, but in 1989 Star Wars was considered a moribund property, and Veitch & Kennedy were among the few people genuinely interested in taking it forward. Lucas was impressed by their work and gave them the green light.

Star Wars: Dark Empire #1 cover art by Dave Dorman, published by Dark Horse Comics in Dec 1991

Veitch & Kennedy initially pitched this new Star Wars project to Marvel, who had published the ongoing SW comic book from 1977 to 1986. Marvel, however, got cold feet, believing SW was no longer commercially viable.  Veitch convinced Lucasfilm to speak with independent publisher Dark Horse Comics, who had recently done a successful comic book continuation of the Aliens franchise. The project was moved over to Dark Horse, and the six issue Star Wars: Dark Empire by Veitch & Kennedy, with painted covers by Dave Dorman, was published bimonthly from December 1991 to October 1992. The epic, ambitious, galaxy-spanning Dark Empire was a huge success, and Dark Horse retained the Star Wars license until 2014, when Disney bought the entire property up and returned it to Marvel.

Dark Empire was followed in 1994 by a six issue sequel, Dark Empire II, also by Veitch & Kennedy. Veitch’s storyline concluded in the two issue Empire’s End in 1995, this time with artwork by Jim Baike. I’ve always gotten the impression that Empire’s End was originally planned as another six issue miniseries and was chopped town to a third that length. Nevertheless, despite its seemingly rushed nature, it did provide a decent ending to the Dark Empire trilogy.

Veitch also wrote several Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi miniseries . Set thousands of years before the movie trilogy, Tales of the Jedi chronicled the early years of the Jedi and their battles with the ancient Sith.

Veitch is generally considered to be one of the key figures in revitalizing interest in the Star Wars franchise during the 1990s, helping to lay the groundwork for Lucas himself to eventually return to the a galaxy far, far away with the prequel trilogy and The Clone Wars animated series.

Star Wars: Dark Empire #4 written by Tom Veitch, drawn & colored by Cam Kennedy and lettered by Todd Klein, published by Dark Horse Comics in June 1992

Some of the ideas & concepts in Veitch’s Star Wars stories have inspired more recent material. Most notably, it was Veitch & Kennedy who first resurrected Emperor Palpatine in a cloned body in their Dark Empire trilogy, a development that was made canonical in the 2019 movie The Rise of Skywalker. Dark Empire also saw Boba Fett return from his seeming demise in the maw of the Saarlac to become a prominent figure, again something that has been adopted by the live action SW universe in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett.

Animal Man and Star Wars were but two facets of Veitch’s rich, lengthy writing career. He was an unconventional, imaginative creator who will definitely be missed.

It Came From The 1990s: I-BOTS from Tekno Comix

Welcome to another edition of Super-Blog Team-Up! This time myself and my fellow bloggers are going to be taking a look at the works of legendary comic book creator George Perez. As you are probably aware, Perez has unfortunately been suffering from medical issues over the last several years, and was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Perez’s many, many fans have been reaching out with tributes, to let him know while he is still with us just how much we appreciate him and his amazing work.

I-BOTS #1 cover pencils & inks by George Perez, colors by John Higgins and logo by Todd Klein

Last month I did spotlight some of Perez’s great art from his historic Wonder Woman run. This time, I wanted to take a look at a much less-known series Perez worked on: I-BOTS, published by Tekno Comix, aka Big Entertainment.

I’ve commented before that the early to mid 1990s was a bit like the Wild West of comic books, with numerous new publishers popping up to try to ride the wave of comic book popularity (which was unfortunately at least in part inflated by speculators). Tekno Comix / Big Entertainment was one of these publishers, and they were in existence from 1995 to 1997. During their short existence they published some interesting series helmed by an impressive line-up of writers & artists.

I-Bots #1 written by Steven Grant, pencils by George Perez, inks by Josef Rubinstein & Mike Witherby, letters by Richard Starkings and colors by Demetrius Bassoukos

Tekno’s shtick was that they got a number of big-name creators to pitch some basic, bare-bones concepts which were then fleshed out by other writers & editors into ongoing series. Among the names that Tekno went to for ideas were Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, Mickey Spillane and Neil Gaiman. I don’t know if the exact level of involvement in these creators in the monthly titles has ever been documented, but in most cases I expect that it was minimal.

That certainly has to be the case with science fiction grandmaster Isaac Asimov, who was credited with creating I-BOTS. Asimov passed away in 1992, three years before Tekno began publishing. Legend has it that the totality of Asimov’s contributions was scribbling “Robots as superheroes” on a cocktail napkin, or something to that effect.  The actual credits on I-BOTS read “Based on concepts created by Isaac Asimov and developed by Howard Chaykin” and I certainly believe that Chaykin, a brilliant creative force himself, did all of the heavy lifting in devising I-BOTS. The actual stories were plotted & scripted by Chaykin’s friend Steven Grant, another talented creator with a penchant for thinking outside the box. I-BOTS was edited by horror novelist James Chambers.

So what did I-BOTS have going for it? Well, in addition to Chaykin and Grant (nothing to sneeze at, to be sure) it has the incomparable George Perez. I-BOTS ran for 16 issues over two volumes, and the first six issues featured artwork by Perez.

I-BOTS #3 written by Steven Grant, layouts by George Perez, finished pencils by Jose Delbo, inks by Josef Rubinstein & Tom Christopher, letters by Richard Starkings and colors by Demetrius Bassoukos

Chambers was kind enough to share with me his thoughts about working with Perez on this series:

“Working with George was a bit surreal. I’d grown up reading so many comics he drew, it was an amazing opportunity to actually work with him. He was incredibly nice to work with and brought boundless inspiration to the project. I believe the first piece he delivered was the cover to issue one of I-BOTS, and the entire editorial department gathered to see it. It was full of George’s energy, a super-hero team in dynamic poses surrounded by an army of shattered robots, classic Perez debris.”

Most of the Tekno series could be classified as pulp sci-fi, dark fantasy or noir. I-BOTS was the one book that was closest to a traditional superhero series, although even then it had one foot firmly in science fiction. Set in what appears to be the not-too-distant future (Grant wisely avoids telling us the exact year) I-BOTS features a quintet of artificial humans with extraordinary abilities: Psy-4, Stonewall, Killaine, Radiant and Itazura. They are “robots” along the lines of the replicants from Blade Runner, the Cylons from the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, and the original fictional robots from the 1920 stage play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. In other words, the I-BOTS are organic beings who are manufactured rather than born.

I-BOTS #5 written by Steven Grant, layouts by George Perez, finished pencils by Brian Kong, inks by Josef Rubinstein, letters by Richard Starkings and colors by Prismacolor

The “I” in I-BOTS stands for “Independent” as they are sentient beings with free will. However, echoing the “Three Laws of Robotics” that Asimov introduced in his fiction, the I-BOTS are also designed by their creator Zac Robillard to serve & protect humans, and to never harm them. This is one part of the impetus for them becoming costumed crimefighters. The other part is that the I-BOTS are on the run from the multinational technology conglomerate WorldTech and its ruthless CEO Annabelle Brennan. By establishing themselves as heroes, the I-BOTS attempt to find protection in the public eye.

Perez reportedly was not enthusiastic about I-BOTS, which is why he left after the first six issues (this is according to Wikipedia, not quite an unimpeachable source, so take it with a grain of salt). Nevertheless, Perez has always been a consummate professional, and his work on those half dozen comic books is of a very high caliber.

I-BOTS #6 written by Steven Grant, layouts by George Perez, finished pencils by Art Nichols, inks by Josef Rubinstein, letters by Richard Starkings and colors by Prismacolor

Perez penciled & inked all six covers, imbuing them with his characteristic hyper-detail & dynamic energy. He provided full pencils on the interiors for the first two issues, complemented by inking from Josef Rubinstein & Mike Witherby. Issue three had the first half penciled by Perez, with the second half penciled by Jose Delbo over Perez’s layouts. I found that to be an interesting collaboration, as Perez was the creative figure who defined Wonder Woman after Crisis On Infinite Earths, and Delbo had previously been the artist on the Wonder Woman series from 1976 to 1981.

Perez again penciled the first half of issue #4, with another comic book legend, the great Gil Kane, coming on to pencil a solo adventure of Radiant in the back half. Perez penciled most of issue #5, although several pages had Brian Kong providing finished pencils over Perez’s layouts. At the time Kong had only been a professional artist for two years, but he nevertheless did a very solid job here, matching the quality of Perez’s work. Kong also penciled a pin-up for issue #6, and he would later contribute a pair of really nice covers for I-BOTS after Perez’s departure.

Issue #6, Perez’s swan song, saw him only contributing layouts, although the finished pencils by Art Nichols and inking by Rubinstein were quite effective, and the whole artistic package worked well to close out the I-BOTS first story arc.

I-BOTS #6 pin-up pencils by Brian Kong and inks by Aaron McClellan

Kong generously shared his thoughts about working with George Perez on I-BOTS:

“Let me start off first by saying that George Perez was my favorite comic book artist growing up and I was heavily influenced by his Teen Titans work, it’s what made me want to become a comic book artist. By the time Tekno comics had launched ( 95-96? ) I had roughly a year of professional comic book work under my belt. I remember talking to editor Jim Chambers at conventions and showing pencilled samples of my work to him. He had mentioned they were interested in my work, but a few months had gone by and nothing transpired,until… I remember sitting in my dentist office waiting for my appointment, I heard laughter, then out walks George Perez. Having been a huge fan of his work growing up, I shouted out “You’re George Perez!” (Total fanboy moment). He seemed surprised at first, but I quickly introduced myself & we chatted for a few minutes and he was on his way.

“A few days later I got a call from Jim Chambers who said they wanted me to finish penciling I-BOTS over George Perez’s breakdowns for 10 pages and that George highly recommended me. I believe I was 21 years old at the time so getting to work with my childhood idol was a definite highlight. I remember getting the pages and being impressed with how much details were still in the breakdowns. For those that don’t know “breakdowns” are usually very rough indications of figures ( more for placement and layout). Just staring at George’s work, I had learned a lot. I must admit I was a little nervous at first but I had a job to do and I did not want to disappoint. I remember trying to do my best George Perez impersonation and putting tons of detail into the penciled pages. I was also inked by another comic legend Joe Rubenstein. The fact that George had recommended me, a still relative “newbie” in the industry to finish up his work was a huge honor for me and I will be forever grateful. Thank you George, for all your years of hard work and inspiration.”

I-BOTS #4 written by Steven Grant, penciled by George Perez, inked by Josef Rubinstein, lettered by Richard Starkings and colored by Prismacolor

I feel the above splash page from issue #4 featuring Killaine hurtling though the Pacific Ocean really demonstrates the level of craft Perez brought to I-BOTS. Perez’s penciling, Rubinstein’s inking and the coloring by Prismacolor all worked together to create a really beautiful, dynamic image here.

In any case, even on the segments where Perez provided “only” layouts, the finished art still looks very much like his work, because he has a distinctive style of storytelling, of laying out pages. Perez has always excelled at rendering scenes with multiple characters and at depicting complex action sequences. His layouts on I-BOTS definitely contain those qualities.

I haven’t gone into too many specifics about I-BOTS because I feel it is a series that is worth seeking out. I believe copies of most of the issues can be found for sale relatively inexpensively on eBay and from online retailers.  I definitely recommend getting them. Steven Grant wrote some solid stories. The artwork was of a high caliber, with Perez followed by the great, underrated Pat Broderick.

I will probably do a follow-up piece in the near future looking at the post-Perez issues of I-BOTS. Stay tuned.

Please check out the other Super Blog Team-Up entries for further spotlights on the amazing work of George Perez:

*51 – JLA/Avengers: It Had to be George

Between the Pages – George Perez’s Uncanny X-Men

Comics Comics Comics – Justice League of America 200 and discovering George Perez

The Daily Rios – A George Perez Celebration #2

Dave’s Comics Blog – George Perez’s Titanic Firsts

RAdulich in Broadcasting Network – Comic Stripped: Logan’s Run

Source Material – The Brave and the Bold #1-6

The Superhero Satellite – Perez

The Telltale Mind – Hulk: Future Imperfect

George Perez’s Wonder Woman

As with many, many other comic book fans, I was deeply saddened by the announcement this week that longtime artist & writer George Perez has been diagnosed with cancer, and has been given an estimated life expectancy of six months to one year. Perez is one of the all-time great creators to have worked in American comic books over the last four and a half decades.

While I have mentioned Perez on this blog in passing, regrettably I’ve never taken any sort of in-depth look at his art or writing before. I really want to rectify that now, while Perez is still among the living. And so I am going to showcase several examples of his work on one of the characters with whom he is most identified: Wonder Woman.

People like to throw around the word “definitive” but that is exactly the term I would use to describe George Perez’s iconic run on the Wonder Woman series from 1987 to 1992. In my mind, he wrote and drew one of the definitive versions of the character.

I had one heck of a time narrowing it down to just 10 examples!

Let’s start at the beginning. Here is George Perez’s beautiful cover for the first issue of Wonder Woman volume two (Feb 1987). Perez’s intricately detailed work superbly depicts Princess Diana, Queen Hippolyta, the Amazons, the Greek gods, and the island of Themyscira.

I really believe that Perez’s post-Crisis On Infinite Earths reboot / revamp of the Wonder Woman mythos is one of the primary reasons why the character of Princess Diana has subsequently become such a major character. Or, as acclaimed comic book writer Gail Simone put it:

“The hottest artist of the day, with a string of hits behind him, decided to cast his ridiculous talents on Wonder Woman. And it changed EVERYTHING.”

I don’t know if Perez deliberately set out to top the first issue’s cover when he illustrated the fold-out cover to Wonder Woman #10 (Nov 1987), the first chapter of “Challenge of the Gods,” but he definitely succeeded.

The introduction of the post-Crisis version of the villainous Silver Swan was heralded by Perez’s incredibly striking cover for Wonder Woman #15 (April 1988). Perez’s utilization of highly detailed work, an unsettling layout and negative space all combine to really make this one stand out. I wish I knew who did the coloring on this, because it certainly complements Perez’s work.

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not showcase an example of Perez’s interior work. “Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” in issue #20 (Sept 1988) finds Diana investigating the brutal murder of Myndi Mayer, her vivacious yet troubled publicist. On the final page of this story Diana at long last learns the tragic truth behind Myndi’s passing. Perez’s storytelling & dialogue combine to deliver a shocking, somber emotional moment.

“Who Killed Myndi Mayer?” was written & laid out by Perez, from an idea by Carol Flynn (Perez’s wife), with finishes by Bob McLeod, letters by John Costanza and colors by Carl Gafford. It was justifiably chosen for inclusion in the collection Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told published in 2007.

Another hyper-detailed Perez cover graces Wonder Woman Annual #1 (Nov 1988), in which Diana takes her good friend Julia Kapatelis and her teenage daughter Vanessa to visit the Amazons on Themyscira. John Stracuzzi’s vibrant colors enhance Perez’s work. Lettering is by Todd Klein.

A talented line-up of artists drew the different chapters of Perez’s story for Wonder Woman Annual #1. One of the more interesting artistic teams on the Annual was Silver Age Wonder Woman penciler Ross Andru inked by Perez himself. Andru is an underrated artist, and his storytelling on this chapter is solid, beautifully enhanced by both Perez’s inking and Carl Gafford’s coloring.

Kudos to Todd Klein for effectively lettering Perez’s script for this Annual. That was one of the great aspects about Perez’s Wonder Woman stories; they were very dense & intelligently written, the exact opposite of decompressed storytelling.

When I started reading DC Comics in the early 1990s, the 16 issue loose-leaf edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe edited by Michael Eury was an absolutely invaluable resource. Eury recruited an all-star line-up of artists to create the profile images for the DC heroes and villains. Of course he asked George Perez to draw Wonder Woman, who was cover-featured in Who’s Who #4 (Nov 1990). Coloring is by Tom McCraw.

As I previously touched upon in my post on the 80th birthday of Wonder Woman, my first exposure to the series was during the “War of the Gods” crossover… which was probably the absolute worst time to start reading it! I was completely lost as to who these characters were and what was going on with these various different plotlines.

Nevertheless, Perez’s stunning covers, as well as the beautiful interior art by penciler Jill Thompson & inker Romeo Tanghal, caught my attention enough that when several months later DC Comics presented a jumping-on point for new readers with incoming writer William Messner-Loebs, I dove in. Soon after I started to read the earlier Perez stories via back issues and collected editions.

In any case, here’s Perez’s atmospheric cover for Wonder Woman #59 (Oct 1991) featuring guest appearances by Batman and Robin.

George Perez’s epic run on Wonder Woman came to an end with issue #61 (Feb 1992). Nevertheless, he has subsequently drawn Princess Diana on several occasions since then, and his return to the character has always been welcome. Here is one of those, the gorgeous pin-up Perez drew for the Wonder Woman Gallery special (Sept 1996). Coloring is by Tatjana Wood. I scanned this from my copy of the book, which I got autographed by Perez at a comic con in the early 2000s. I’m glad I got to meet him.

A few years ago on Twitter writer Gail Simone shared the first page of Wonder Woman #600 (Aug 2010) with the following explanation:

“When George Perez specifically requests you to write his farewell story to Wonder Woman and this is just the first page.”

Perez has an absolute penchant for drawing literal armies of characters, and that is definitely on display here! Diana leads some of DC Comics’ greatest female heroes into battle on this dynamic opening page. “Valedictorian” was written by Gail Simone, penciled by George Perez, inked by Scott Koblish, colored by Hi-Fi and lettered by Travis Lanham.

During an astonishing career that stretched from 1974 to 2019, Perez drew literally thousands of comic book characters. Nevertheless, his work on Wonder Woman will always be one of the absolute highlights.

It Came From the 1990s: Masada of Youngblood

Masada is one of the dozens of characters created by Rob Liefeld who populated the various comic books put out by his Extreme Studios imprint of Image Comics in the 1990s. If you were not someone who followed Youngblood and the other Extreme titles regularly, you can be forgiven for not knowing offhand who Masada was. However, the character always stood out for me because she was Jewish.

Masada’s first published appearance was a pin-up drawn by penciler Chap Yaep and inker Norm Rapmund in Supreme #4 (July 1993). Her first actual in-story appearance came just a few months later in Team Youngblood #1 (Sept 1993) which was plotted by Liefeld, penciled by Yaep, inked by Rapmund, scripted by Eric Stephenson, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Bryan Talman. The terrorist Geiger and his cyborg army invade the space station Liberty II, giving them control over the Earth’s satellite network. Israeli crimefighter Masada is recruited to join the government-run super-team Youngblood to help them liberate the orbiting facility.

In his text piece for Team Youngblood #1 Liefeld explained how the latest addition to Youngblood came about:

“Masada was a character that had been collecting dust in my files for years until she was pulled out for new assignment alongside the Away Team. For the record, Masada means ‘fortress’ and is the name of the historic site in Israel where the Israelites found refuge from the Roman empire before electing to commit suicide rather than die at the hands of the Romans, an event which plays a large part in Masada’s origin.”

Historians are divided over whether or not the Siege of Masada in 74 AD, and the mass suicide of the 960 Jewish Zealots who fought the Roman army at Masada, actually occurred. Nevertheless, the story of a band of freedom fighters who chose death over slavery is often revered by modern Israelis as “a symbol of Jewish heroism.”

Deborah Konigsberg’s power is to grow to giant size. The source of her fantastic abilities is elaborated upon in Team Youngblood #2 (Oct 1993):

“Masada — Israeli super-woman empowered by the souls of her countrymen who died in the battle from which she took her name!”

Masada and her new Youngblood teammates eventually succeed in defeating Geiger’s forces. Returning to Earth and a heroes’ welcome, issue #4 (Dec 1993) is a “day in the life” issue following the various team members in the aftermath of the battle. Masada is moving into her new apartment in the Washington DC area when we first learn that her powers are as much a curse as they are a blessing. Overwhelmed by countless disembodied voices calling her name, Masada reflects on her difficult charge:

“Oy gevalt! All those voices… all that pain. I can never forget the burden I carry… the souls of all those who gave their lives in the name of Judaism…

“…but sometimes I wish… just for the slightest moment… I wish I could be alone.”

I found Yaep & Rapmund to be an effective art team, and this sequence demonstrates the more subtle side of their work. Their art, as well as the coloring by Byron Talman & Karen Jaikowski, in that bottom panel really brings across Deborah’s anguish.

All things considered, I think Liefeld & Stephenson did a fairly decent job developing Masada within the crowded confines of the Team Youngblood series. One of the subplots they set up was the friendship that developed between Deborah and the Away Team’s other female member, the water-manipulating Riptide, real name Leanna Creel. It was an interesting idea to pair up the reserved, conservative Masada with the wild, outgoing Riptide.

Riptide is fired from Youngblood after she poses for a nude pictorial in Pussycat Magazine. Despite disagreeing with Riptide’s decision, Masada nevertheless remains her close friend. Later on, when Riptode is framed for murder, Masada is one of the people to stand by her, ultimately helping her friend to clear her name.

As with many of the characters that Liefeld created for his Extreme titles, Masada unfortunately often ends up getting lost in the crowd. However, she did finally get the spotlight in Youngblood Strikefile #6 (Aug 1994). That series was conceived to spotlight the solo adventures of the numerous members of Youngblood, and it often featured writers & artists of a high caliber. That was certainly the case with “From the Same Cloth” which was written by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by John Beatty, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Linda Medley.

Deborah is approached by Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency. She is informed that her old colleague Rimon Sibechai has set out to assassinate the African American militant Hassim, who in his fiery sermons denounces Jews as the enemy of the black community. Sibechai believes Hassan is dangerous, telling Deborah “We will not be led meekly to the slaughter by racist demagogues. And if you’re still a Jew, you won’t try to stop me.”  Masada finds herself reluctantly having to stop her old friend, for as much as she dislikes Hassan and what he stands for, she cannot allow a cold-blooded murder to take place.  Masada’s dilemma is made all the more torturous by the voices of the spirits who empower her, as they are violently split between letting Hassan die and saving him.

Tom & Mary Bierbaum’s story was undoubtedly inspired by the rhetoric of controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has frequently made anti-Semitic comments throughout the years. Farrakhan and his anti-Jewish sentiments were very much in the spotlight in the early to mid 1990s.

The artwork on “From the Same Cloth” is definitely well-rendered by the team of Chris Sprouse & John Beatty. Sprouse had previously worked on Legion of Super-Heroes with the Bierbaums, and a few years later would do stunning work on Alan Moore’s Tom Strong series. Beatty previously provided effective inking for Mike Zeck and Kelley Jones.

I thought Youngblood Strikefile was a good idea, as it presented some good, interesting stories such as this one. It’s unfortunate that it only ran for 11 issues.

“Slow Emotion Replay” in Team Youngblood #16 (Dec 1994) is written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by John Stinsman, inked by Jaime Mendoza, lettered by Kurt Hathaway and colored by Laura Rhoade.  The story is told from the perspective of Youngblood Away Team field leader Sentinel, aka Marcus Langston, after he is “kicked upstairs” to an administrative position. Sentinel reflects on the recent events that led to his unwanted promotion, as well as on his colleagues & teammates, among them Masada, who he regards in a very positive light.

Masada also plasd a role in the bizarre gender-bending crossover “Babewatch” that ran through the Extreme titles in late 1995. Masada joins up with Riptide, Vogue and Glory to fight against the members of Youngblood who had been transformed into women by the evil sorceress Diabolique.

One other occasion when Masada had some time in the spotlight was in the Youngblood Super Special (Winter 1997) published by Maximum Press. “Good Enough” was written by Eric Stephenson, penciled by Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon & Danny Miki, lettered by Kurt Hathaway & Steve Dutro and colored by Laura Penton & Christian Lichtmer.

Borrowing from one of Star Trek’s favorite tropes, “Good Enough” sees a group of godlike alien beings putting humanity on trial by testing the members of Youngblood’s worthiness to possess their powers & abilities. In Masada’s case she is subjected to a vision of the souls of Judaism accusing her of squandering her power to “play superhero” rather than defending her religion. Masada overcomes her doubts, arguing that she is indeed worthy of the gifts the spirits have endowed her with:

“You gave me this power to further the cause of good over evil! How can I restrict my deeds to simply upholding the Jewish faith?”

One highlight of the Super Special was seeing Masada penciled again by Chris Sprouse. He definitely did a good rendition of the character. Sprouse also penciled Masada’s profile pic in Youngblood Battlezone #2 (July 1994) making him, along with Yaep, the definitive artist of the character.

Since the late 1990s Youngblood has only been published sporadically. As a result the majority of the characters, Masada among them, have been limited to a handful of cameos & crowd scenes over the past two decades. Still, despite Masada’s absence from the spotlight, I look back fondly on the character’s appearances.

So why exactly did Masada become significant to me as a reader? Back in the early 1990s there were relatively few Jewish characters in mainstream comic books. Offhand I think the only noteworthy ones were Shadowcat, Doc Samson, Sabra and Vance Astrovik. At that point in time Magneto had been retconned to be a gypsy (a change not explicitly undone until 2009), Moon Knight’s Jewish heritage was something that no one talked about, The Thing / Ben Grimm,  Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Harley Quinn had all yet to be revealed to be Jewish, Wiccan and the Kate Kane version of Batwoman were both over a decade away from being introduced, and I hadn’t yet discovered American Flagg! by Howard Chaykin.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: representation matters. It was important for me as a teenage Jewish reader to see characters who had similar backgrounds to me, to whom I could identify. Masada helped fulfill that crucial role.

And that is why I will always argue in favor of representation, because I know full well how much it meant to me as a young fan when there where characters with whom I could identify.

It’s the Jewish holiday of Chanukah this week, so I felt this was a good time to look back on Masada, and to explain her personal significance.

It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

Earlier this month was the birthday of the late, great Dave Cockrum, one of my favorite comic book artists. Cockrum was one of the greatest character designers of the Bronze Age, successfully creating or revamping dozens of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics during the 1970s and early 80s.

Over on the Dave Cockrum Art Appreciation Group, in a discussion about Cockrum’s greatest character designs, I mentioned that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard had some awesome designs, and I wished that more was done with them.

Who are the Imperial Guard? Simply put, they are thinly-veiled expies of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 1970s had been a dream assignment for Cockrum, and he had only reluctantly left DC Comics after they reneged on a promise to return original artwork to him. Going over to Marvel Comics, he co-created the all-new, all-different X-Men with Len Wein. After Wein departed X-Men, Cockrum was paired up with writer Chris Claremont, and in X-Men #107 (Oct 1977) they introduced the Imperial Guard, the elite super-powered soldiers of the alien Shi’ar Empire.

Insert obligatory smartass comment about the X-Men not wanting to fight all these guys because there’s practically a Legion of them.

Now I’m not sure why Cockrum decided to toss in a veritable army modeled on the Legion into an already-crowded storyline, other than the fact that he really loved the Legion and he missed drawing them. But whatever the case, even if most of them were thinly-drawn on the characterization side of things, almost all of them had interesting visuals.

For most of their history the Imperial Guard were basically just blindly following the orders of whoever happened to be running the Shi’ar Empire, which typically put them into conflict with the X-Men or the Avengers or whoever. Other than their leader Gladiator the characters have only ever gotten the spotlight on a few rare occasions. The first of these was the three issue Imperial Guard miniseries which Marvel published in late 1996. It was written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Chuck Wojtkiewicz, inked by Ray Snyder, colored by Brad Vancata, and lettered by Jon Babcock, Phil Hugh Felix & Janice Chiang.

And, yeah, I cannot believe that it’s been 25 years since this came out!

Thinking back, I don’t know if at the time I was aware that the Imperial Guard characters were a homage to the members of the Legion. I didn’t actually become a huge Legion fan until about four years later, when I started picking up the hardcover Archives collections and various back issues. But re-reading the Imperial Guard miniseries a quarter century later, the nods to the Legion now leap right out at me.

The creative team on the Imperial Guard miniseries is also noteworthy. Augustyn is a longtime writer & editor at DC Comics, and Wojtkiewicz had just come off of a year and a half stint penciling Justice League America. This miniseries makes up pretty much the entirety of either of their work for Marvel. So this was pretty much a case of Marvel bringing aboard a creative team from DC to work on a team of characters modeled after a DC property.

Imperial Guard came out at an odd time in Marvel’s publishing history. This was immediately after the “Onslaught” crossover in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly died so that they could be exported to an alternate reality for the “Heroes Reborn” event overseen by Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. For the next year this led to some rather offbeat projects coming out from Marvel that perhaps might not otherwise have gotten published. The most notable of these was Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. We also got the much-underrated Heroes for Hire by John Ostrander & Pascual Ferry, as well as this odd little miniseries.

I’m FB friends with Wojtkiewicz, so I asked him how Imperial Guard came about. Here’s what he had to say:

“Once DC flipped the crew on Justice League, I floated around doing fill-ins and such for a while. Brian Augustyn decided to leave DC and asked me if I’d like to do the IG mini. We met in NYC and had lunch with Mark Gruenwald for lunch and launch. It seemed to be going so smoothly, but it turned out to Mark’s very last lunch, as he died the following morning. Somehow it kept going, and his assistant stepped in as editor.  I forget his name – I’m terrible that way. I decided to do the series in with a cartoony vibe, and nobody stopped me. Also: sideburns. 😊

“I really enjoyed this assignment- doing the costume, environment and prop concepts was a blast.”

The miniseries was ultimately edited by Terry Kavanaugh, and was dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald.

Following the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four, Lilandra the Majestrix of the Shi’ar feels partially responsible, as she was the one who way back when inadvertently awakened the dark side of Charles Xavier’s psyche (as seen in X-Men #106 or, if you were a teenager in the 1990s like me, “The Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Dark Shroud” on X-Men: The Animated Series) which ultimately led to the creation of Onslaught. Lilandra has covertly dispatched several members of the Imperial Guard to Earth see if they can provide assistance to our beleaguered world.

The members of the Guard featured in this miniseries are Gladiator (standing in for Superboy), Electron (Cosmic Boy), Sibyl (Saturn Girl), Flashfire (Lightning Lad), Nightside (Shadow Lass), Mentor (Brainiac 5), Earthquake (Blok) and the latest addition to the team, the Kree conscript Commando (Mon-El).

The introduction of Commando aka M-Nell (see what they did there?) ties in with another recent Marvel event, the Avengers storyline “Operation: Galactic Storm” which saw the Shi’ar apparently destroy the Kree Empire with the apocalyptic Nega Bomb. In fact the entire war between the Shi’ar and the Kree had been engineered by the Kree’s Machiavellian leader, the entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who sought to jump-start his people’s stalled evolution with the Nega Bomb’s energies. At this point in time the Supreme Intelligence is quietly biding its time, waiting for its deadly experiment to begin showing results, and Commando, ignorant of all this, finds himself having to serve alongside the Shi’ar forces who he regards as his conquerors.

Augustyn is a great writer who did high-quality work over at DC, and on his sole foray into the Marvel Universe he also crafts a compelling story. He does a good job of creating M-Nell, and of developing the other Imperial Guard members, the majority of whom, up until this point in their nearly 20 year existence, were basically one-dimensional ciphers.

Wojtkiewicz’s pencils are fun. He was a very underrated artist over at DC Comics, working in an “animated” style alongside the late, great Mike Parobeck on the Impact Comics line in the early 1990s. I always thought Wojtkiewicz should have had a bigger career, so I enjoyed seeing his art on Imperial Guard. His wrap-around covers for this miniseries were also great.

Besides, I really love that Wojtkiewicz drew Imperial Guard with “a cartoony vibe” during the exact same time that Marvel farmed out their main characters to Extreme Studios and Wildstorm with their hyper-detailed art styles. Honestly, the comic book industry could have used more artists like Wojtkiewicz in the 1990s who had their own fun styles.

It was enjoyable revisiting this three issue miniseries, and it makes me regret that the Imperial Guard have subsequently very seldom been in the spotlight since. They did have a five issue miniseries during the Realm of Kings crossover about a decade ago. I never did get around to checking that out, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.

Anyway, if you haven’t read this miniseries, it’s worth tracking down.

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators

Last month Michele and I went to the Society of Illustrators to see the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit. It was a great opportunity to see a very impressive & diverse selection of original artwork from comic books was on display, both from mainstream and alternative creators.

Here are just a few highlights from the Comic Art Sale and Exhibit, which ran from July 15th to October 23rd…

The unpublished cover artwork originally intended for Avengers #37 (Feb 1967) drawn by Don Heck for Marvel Comics that was eventually used as a cover by editor Roy Thomas for his comic book history magazine Alter Ego #118 (July 2013) from TwoMorrows Publishing.

A page from the Doctor Strange story “The Many Traps of Baron Mordo” drawn by Steve Ditko from Strange Tales #117 (Feb 1964) published by Marvel Comics.

The cover artwork for Green Lantern #56 (Oct 1967) penciled by Gil Kane and inked by Murphy Anderson, published by DC Comics.

The cover artwork for Hawkman #8 (June-July 1965) drawn by Murphy Anderson, published by DC Comics.

Two pages from Fantastic Four #116 (Nov 1971) penciled by John Busema and inked by Joe Sinnott, published by Marvel Comics.

A page from Incredible Hulk #196 (Feb 1976) pencil breakdowns by Sal Buscema and finishes by Joe Staton, published by Marvel Comics.

Two pages from the underground comix series The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers created by Gilbert Shelton.

The cover artwork for Laugh Comics #182 (May 1966) drawn by Dan DeCarlo, published by Archie Comics.

A daily installment of the newspaper comic strip Sky Masters penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by Wallace Wood that ran from September 1958 to December 1961.

“Aqua Nut” illustration drawn by Rat Fink creator Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in 1963.

The cover artwork for Not Brand Echh #9 (Aug 1968) drawn by Marie Severin, published by Marvel Comics.

A page from Red Sonja #6 (Nov 1977) drawn by Frank Thorne, published by Marvel Comics.

While I definitely enjoyed this exhibit, it was slightly sobering to realize that in many cases the artists sold their original artwork many years ago for a fraction of the current asking prices. In some cases some of this artwork was given away by the publishers as gifts to fans, or flat-out stolen. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances. So I can certainly understand why in recent decades comic book artists have chosen to sell their original work at much higher prices.