The wedding of Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters

For a brief moment it appeared that 2018 was to be the Year of Super-Hero Weddings. Batman and Catwoman were all set to tie the knot, and Colossus and Shadowcat were also ready for wedded bliss.  Unfortunately, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the altar, and Kitty also backed out at the last sec, much to Peter’s consternation. In that case longtime on-again, off-again couple Rogue and Gambit decided to take advantage of the occasion to impulsively leap into holy matrimony, so at least somebody got hitched in the X-Men books.

Third time was the charm, though, and as 2018 came to a close we finally got a scheduled wedding go through as planned: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, aka the Thing,  married his longtime girlfriend, blind sculptress Alicia Reiss Masters.

fantastic four wedding special cover

The blessed event took place in the pages of Fantastic Four #650, or if you prefer issue #5 of the current volume. Setting up the event is the Fantastic Four Wedding Special. Dan Slott was the main writer, with Gail Simone stopping by to give us Alicia’s bachelorette party.

(What volume of Fantastic Four is Marvel up to, anyway? I honestly don’t know! With all the renumbering and rebooting that Marvel keeps doing, who can keep track?)

Of course, as soon as the news broke about Ben and Alicia’s impending nuptials, alarm bells immediately began blaring in the heads of longtime readers, myself included. After all, back in FF #300, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, had married Alicia, only for this to later be retconned away when Alicia was revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull imposter named Lyja.

Dan Slott swore up & down on social media that there would be no Skrulls involved. The house ad for FF #650 even boldly proclaimed…

“No bait. No switch. Not a dream. Not a hoax. And we swear, not a single Skrull around. This is really happening!”

Of course, that still leaves shape-shifters, and evil other-dimensional duplicates, and Space Phantoms, and LMDs, and clones… hey, Dan Slott spent a decade writing Amazing Spider-Man, so at this point he probably has clones on the brain!

*Ahem!*  Actually, there was a moment towards the end of FF #650 where it briefly appeared the wedding was going to be called off, and I literally considered tossing my copy of the issue across the room in frustration.  Fortunately, though, Ben and Alicia did go through with the ceremony.  So it seems that this is really, truly supposed to be the real, permanent marriage of Ben and Alicia… at least for the present. Keep your fingers crossed!

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Whatever the case, unlike a lot of super-hero weddings, which come across as sales events, this actually does feel like a natural progression. Alicia was first introduced waaaaay back in Fantastic Four #8 (1962) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.  Alicia was manipulated into disguising herself as the Invisible Girl as part of a cockamamie plot by her step-father, the diabolical Puppet Master, to destroy the FF.  There was an immediate attraction between the Thing and the sensitive young woman, and the very next issue they were already dating.

The Wedding Special contains a humorous back-up by the great Fred Hembeck. Narrated by Alicia’s stepfather, the diabolical Puppet Master, this vignette touches on how her introduction prompted a crucial turning point in the Thing’s early development. If you read the first few FF stories by Lee & Kirby, the Thing was very much depicted as a dangerous character, a being whose rage and self-loathing at his horrific mutation threatened to lead him to villainy.

And then he met Alicia, who sensed the kind, sensitive soul underneath Ben’s anger and depression. From this point forward the Thing was written as alternately tragic and comedic, a heroic and loyal figure who masked his pain at being trapped in a monstrous form with a gruff, irreverent persona.

fantastic four wedding special hembeck

It has often been observed that the Fantastic Four is not so much a super-hero team as it is a family, one that is often dysfunctional, but which at the end of the day will stick together through hell & high water. Slott has only been the regular FF writer for a few issues, but he’s scripted the characters several times in the past, including on the Thing’s short-lived solo series in 2006.  So I find that he already has a really good grasp on them. Slott’s stories are the perfect mix of soap opera dramatics and irreverent humor. He was definitely well-suited to write the wedding of Ben and Alicia.

Over the past couple of decades, I have gravitated away from mainstream super-hero books. My interests are much more on books that are character-driven. I am a huge fan of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

I think that’s why I appreciate Slott’s work on FF so much. He isn’t writing a book that centers on super-powered beings slugging it out, but on the family dynamics of Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny, Franklin, Valeria, Alicia and the rest of the extended FF family.

That’s certainly the case with the Wedding Special and issue #650. Slott does a superb job at exploring new sides to characters who have been in print for decades. I appreciated Slott’s look at the friendship between Susan Storm and Ben Grimm, and the examination of how Sue feels about what happened to Ben, the sense of responsibility she feels, as she was the one who pushed him to pilot Reed Richards’ ill-fated spaceship.  Slott reveals that in the early days of the team, in an effort to help the Thing find some happiness, Sue played matchmaker, encouraging him to pursue a relationship with Alicia.

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The interaction between Ben and Johnny during the bachelor party is also well done. It’s one of the best scenes between these friendly rivals that I’ve seen in the series’ entire history.

The actual wedding was beautifully written by Slott. It’s a lovely scene. I was especially moved when Slott revealed Reed’s wedding present to Ben and Alicia. It actually made me a bit misty-eyed.

I was also happy that Ben and Alicia had a Jewish ceremony. After all, the Thing is Jewish. At the same time, I appreciate that Slott didn’t make it a huge deal.  It was just one detail in the story. As I’ve said before, I like that Ben Grimm is Jewish, but I certainly do not think that should be his defining characteristic. In other words, he is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish.

By the way, I am curious if Alicia might also be of Jewish ancestry, as her late biological father was named Jacob Reiss.

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Among the close family members who attend the wedding are Ben’s Uncle Jake and Aunt Petunia. It was nice to see them again after so many years.

A few readers were upset that Aunt Petunia was depicted as being in her 40s or 50s here. After all, when we first met Petunia in FF #238, she was shown to be both young and attractive.  I realize that John Byrne did this to humorously subvert reader expectations, since before that, whenever the Thing mentioned Petunia, the implication that she was a tough, feisty old lady. However, I don’t know if in the long run that was such a good idea. Maybe it wasn’t such an issue back in 1982 when Byrne wrote that story, but nowadays the idea that Uncle Jake, a senior citizen, married a woman who was young enough to be his daughter is sort of weird & uncomfortable. It’s probably a good idea to nowadays depict Petunia as being somewhat closer in age to Jake.

Anyway, I really did enjoy Slott’s work on these stories. I like the idea of Ben and Alicia as a married couple. I just hope that Galactus doesn’t end up eating the Earth before we get to see Ben and Alicia go on their honeymoon!

Gail Simone also does good work with the characters in her segment for the Wedding Special, penning a tale that is both humorous and poignant. I hope she has another opportunity to write the FF again in the future.

The artwork on these two issues was also great.  Laura Braga does sexy, humorous work on the bachelorette party story in the Wedding Special, while Mark Buckingham & Mark Farmer turn in some effective art on the second tale, evoking the style of Kirby as the Thing has a surprising encounter with the Puppet Master.fantastic four 650 pg 61

The framing sequences of FF #650 are illustrated by Aaron Kuder, culminating is his gorgeous depiction of Ben & Alicia’s wedding.  In places Kuder’s art here brings to mind the work of John Romita Jr and Frank Quitely.

Mike Allred & Laura Allred contribute the moving flashbacks to the couple’s early days.  The Allreds possess a style that is distinctively “indy” while nevertheless evoking the wacky, offbeat elements of Silver Age stories.

It was a pleasure to see Adam Hughes illustrating the bachelor party sequence in #650. Hughes is very well known for his cover artwork, and for his depiction of sexy women. As a result, it is often forgotten that he is also a good storyteller who knows how to lay out pages. He certainly does good work here, both on the humorous sequences and in the quieter character driven moments.

The reason why Hughes mainly works on covers is because he is not an especially fast artist who is capable of drawing a monthly series. That’s unfortunate, because as he demonstrates here, he knows how to do solid interior work.

Providing the letters for both issues is VC’s Joe Caramagna.

fantastic four 650 cover

Topping off these two comics, quite literally, are covers by Carlos Pacheco & Romulo Fajardo Jr and Esad Ribic.  Pacheco’s cover is my favorite of the pair, but I certainly like both.

Let’s raise a toast to Ben and Alicia.  Long may they be a happy couple.  What God has joined together, let no man (or Skrull) put asunder!

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Comic book reviews: Gotham City Garage

It’s been a few years since I’ve regularly followed any DC Comics titles.  However, over the past several months I have bought a number of DC trade paperbacks.

I eventually noticed a general theme to these TPBs: They had stories that were set on Earth 2, or in the future, or in alternate realities. I’ve come to realize that while I like a lot of DC characters, I long ago got tired of monthly titles where there is a never-ending illusion of change. On the other hand, stories set on other Earths, or eras, or that fall under the “Elseworlds” umbrella provide creators with opportunities to present different takes on familiar characters, and tell stories that are more self-contained, with somewhat greater consequences.

(It’s funny… When I was a teenage comic book fan I was hung up on continuity, on whether or not stories were “real” and actually “counted.” Nowadays I just want to read an enjoyable, intelligent story, and it doesn’t matter to me if it takes place on Earth 67 or Earth B or whatever.)

Gotham City Garage Vol 1 cover

Gotham City Garage falls into that “alternate reality” category.  No, it is NOT a book about the guy who repairs the Batmobile (although that was actually a pretty good episode of Batman: The Animated Series).  Inspired by a line of collectible statues that re-imagined several of DC’s female character as tattooed chopper chicksGotham City Garage was a digital first series that was then published as a twelve issue miniseries that was later collected into two trade paperbacks.

This past June artist Lynne Yoshii was a guest at the Women in Comics convention at the Brooklyn Public Library.  I was not previously familiar with Yoshii, but the art she had on display looked incredible, so I purchased one of the issues of Gotham City Garage which contained her work.  I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it, and subsequently got the first TPB.  The second one finally came out last month.

Gotham City Garage is written by Collin Kelly & Jackson Lanzing.  After the majority of the Earth was devastated by an environmental catastrophe, Lex Luthor seized control of Gotham City, which he has rebuilt as a domed city called the Garden.  Aided by a fascist Batman and an army of robots known as “Gardeners,” Luthor implanted “Ridealongs” within the brains of the population.  These  implants pacify negative emotions and instill loyalty to Luthor.

Only a handful of individuals escaped becoming brainwashed zombies in Luthor’s dystopia.  They are now based out of the Gotham City Garage, a safe haven in the wastelands built by Natasha Irons.

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Kelly and Lanzing utilize the teenage Kara Gordon as the audience identification figure.  Seemingly a loyal member of Luthor’s staff, Kara has to hide the fact that her Ridealong does not work.  Outwardly she smiles brightly and chants “Lex loves you” but inwardly she is miserable, the only person with free will in a city of lobotomized slaves.

The first issue opens with the Gardeners finally rumbling to Kara’s secret.  She is only saved by the intervention of Jim Gordon, who tells her to flee the Garden.  He also informs the shocked teenager that she is not actually his daughter, that he adopted her when she was an infant to protect her from Luthor.  Escaping the city, exposed to yellow sunlight for the first time, Kara quickly realizes that she has superpowers, and is in fact an alien.

Fleeing the Gardeners, Kara encounters chopper-riding rebels from the Garage: Big Barda, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Silver Banshee.  Initially suspicious of her, the women nevertheless help Kara defeat the Gardeners and bring her to their headquarters.  Although naïve and inexperienced, Kara / Supergirl joins the rebels, quickly becoming an important ally in their struggle to stay free from Luthor’s control.

Gotham City Garage is a female-driven book.  The majority of the protagonists are women.  Kelly and Lanzing do excellent work writing Supergirl, Batgirl, Big Barda, Wonder Woman, Catwoman, and the other heroines.

I enjoyed the student & mentor relationship they set up between the young, idealistic Kara and the embittered Barda, who all these years later still suffers PTSD from her horrific upbringing on Apokolips.  The voices that Kelly & Lanzing give to both Kara and Barda feel authentic.

Gotham City Garage 1 double page spread

The series offers up interesting and visually striking re-imaginations of a number of DC’s iconic characters.  One of the most effective of these is Harley Quinn, not just visually, but also conceptually.  Although incredibly popular, Harley Quinn can nevertheless be a problematic figure.  She is a woman who was manipulated by, and is in an abusive relationship with, the psychotic Joker.  After she migrated from DC’s animated universe into its mainstream continuity and spun off into a solo title, Harley Quinn’s ties to the Joker were often downplayed.  Obviously the writers & editors at DC realized that it would be awkward to have a series starring a character who was a disciple to a mass murderer.  Nevertheless, you still had a character whose origins were rooted in emotional abuse and Stockholm Syndrome.

The way that Gotham City Garage improves upon Harley Quinn is by providing her with an agency lacking in her mainstream counterpart.  In this reality Dr. Harleen Quinzel was recruited by Luthor to develop the Ridealongs.  Agreeing to work with Luthor as much for self-preservation as to satisfy her scientific curiosity, Quinzel perfects the system that gives Luthor control of the city’s populace.  Too late realizing that she has enabled Luthor to turn the people into mindless drones, Quinzel rebels.  Attempting to both sabotage the Ridealongs and free herself from Luthor’s control, Quinzel deliberately scrambles her own brain patterns.  This results in a new, humorously irreverent, sarcastic personality with a penchant for extreme violence.

In what is an effective turn-around, it is Harley who creates the Joker.  She inspires Lloyd, one of her former patients who she liberated, to adopt her outrageous sense of fashion and her dedication to cartoonish acts of anarchy.

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The twelve issue series is a more or less complete arc that reaches a definite conclusion that nevertheless leaves open the possibility of future stories.  There was at least one dangling subplot, namely what happens to Zatanna and Silver Banshee, but perhaps Kelly & Lanzing were leaving that for another day.

The artistic line-up for Gotham City Garage is impressive.  Certainly I have to give much praise to Lynne Yoshii, who got me interested in this series in the first place.  Yoshii has a really fun, dynamic style.  She also does really good work with her storytelling, her layouts delivering both action and emotional character moments.  Yoshii’s pencils for issue #2, which are inked by Jose Marzan Jr, were both exciting and humorous.  I hope that we see more from her in the near future.

I also like the artwork by Brian Ching.  He has a style somewhat reminiscent of Kieron Dwyer and Dan Panosian.  Ching’s work has a gritty tone that is also slightly cartoony & exaggerated, which is perfect for the post-apocalyptic setting.

Another effective contributor to Gotham City Garage is Aneke, who illustrates “Bad Seeds” in issue #3, which spotlights Harley Quinn, and flashes back to reveal her origin.  Plus I love how Aneke draws Harley’s wacky pet hyenas.

As I observed in the past, it appears to take a particular skill set to work on these “digital first” titles.  A penciler needs to be able to lay out the pages so that the top and bottom halves work as separate pieces on the computer screen, but also work together as a single, uniform page in the print edition.  I feel that most of the pencilers who contributed to Gotham City Garage did a fairly good job at accomplishing this.

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The covers are mostly of the pin-up type.  I usually am not fond of these types of covers, since they reveal little about the actual contents inside the books.  Unfortunately that seems to be the default style for DC (and Marvel) cover art in the 21st Century.  At least most of them are well drawn.  Dan Panosian’s variant cover for issue #1 featuring Wonder Woman is certainly striking, and it was a good choice to re-use to for the first collected edition.

Also along for the motorcycle ride are colorist Kelly Fitzpatrick and letterer Wes Abbott, both of whom do good work.

Gotham City Garage is a fun series with good artwork, an enjoyable and thoughtful alternate take on the DC universe.

Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

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An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy o your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

Sal Buscema: fifty years of comic books

Sal Buscema is one of my favorite comic book artists.  This month, November 2018, is the 50th anniversary his professional debut.

Sal is the younger brother of artist John Buscema.  While he was still working on honing his craft, Sal would occasionally do uncredited background inking on John’s artwork.  In 1968 Sal finally felt he was ready to enter the comic book industry on his own, and brought sample pages to Marvel Comics.  He was quickly hired by editor Stan Lee.

Sal’s very first credited work for Marvel Comics was on Rawhide Kid #68, inking Larry Lieber’s pencils. According to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, this issue went on sale on November 5, 1968.

Rawhide Kid 68 pg 1

Sal’s second job also came out that month, on November 19th.  Silver Surfer #4 was penciled by his brother John.  It is now well-known that John was often critical of inkers, believing that only a few really knew how to do his pencils justice.  He would have preferred to do full artwork, pencils and inks, but time and financial constraints often prevented this.  John, from having had Sal assist him in the past, knew that his brother would do a faithful job inking his pencils on this issue.

“The Good, The Bad, and the Uncanny” features an epic confrontation between the Surfer and Thor, who have been manipulated into combat by Loki.  It is often regarded as one of the high points of John’s artistic career, and from all indications he was satisfied with Sal’s inks on it, as well as on the next three issues.

(For an in-depth look at Silver Surfer #4 please head over to Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.)

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Sal had initially intended to focus on inking, but he was very quickly recruited by Marvel to pencil.  He was immediately thrown into the deep end, assigned the team book Avengers.  His first work was penciling the cover to issue #67, and a month later did the full interior pencils for #68, paired with writer Roy Thomas and inker Sam Grainger.  The issue featured the Avengers in a titanic tussle with the diabolical robot Ultron.

Sal went on to have a very successful career in comics.  He worked on nearly every Marvel title published in the 1970s and 80s.  Beginning in the mid 1990s he also began working for several other publishers.  Sal was blessed with speed, an incredible work ethic, and a strong sense of storytelling.  This meant that he could always be relied upon to turn in a quality job on time.

Avengers 68 pg 1

Although officially retired, Sal continues to work in comic books, primarily as an inker, most often paired with penciler Ron Frenz, who he has inked on numerous occasions over the past two decades, on a long run on Spider-Girl, as well as several other series.  Sal is also currently working with Guy Dorian Sr. on several projects.  Among these was the Rom storyline “Battle Scars” which saw Sal’s return to the cult classic Space Knight.

For a really good, informative look at Sal’s career and artwork, I highly recommend the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist by Jim Amash with Eric Nolen-Weathington, from TwoMorrows Publishing.  The cover artwork is a wonderful showcase of Sal’s dynamic artwork, an explosive illustration by Sal of the Incredible Hulk and his longtime adversary the Abomination slugging it out.

Sal Buscema Fast Furious cover

I want to offer my congratulations to Sal Buscema on creating a half century of amazing comic book artwork. He has brought enjoyment to so many readers over the past five decades, myself included.  Thanks, Sal!

Thanksgiving deja vu

One of the most iconic images associated with the American holiday Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom from Want.  I am going to quote from Wikipedia here, and hopefully it’s accurate!

Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.

The painting was created in November 1942 and published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

Over the past 75 years Freedom From Want has been the subject of numerous homages and parodies, including within the comic book medium.  As my tongue-in-cheek celebration of Thanksgiving this year, here are 10 of those images.

JSA 54 cover

Probably one of the best well-known comic book covers to pay tribute to Freedom From Want is JSA #54 (Jan 2004) from DC Comics.  Drawn by Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino, it features Superman and Power Girl serving Thanksgiving dinner to the Justice Society and Justice League.

American Flagg 4 Thanksgiving

Nobody does political satire in comic books quite like the legendary Howard Chaykin.  Here is a panel from American Flagg! #4 (Jan 1984) from First Comics, featuring one of the most dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinners you are likely to ever come across.

Evil Clown Comics 4 cover

Hmmm, this turkey tastes a little funny.  Ha ha… sorry, couldn’t help myself.  Anyway, speaking of dysfunctional, not to mention just plain disturbing, here is the cover to Evil Clown Comics #4 by the late Alan Kupperberg from 1989. I’ve never found any physical copies of this series, but I believe that it collected together the Evil Clown Comics stories by Kupperberg that were published in National Lampoon.

Garfield 7 variant cover

A slightly less unsettling image is offered up on this variant cover to Garfield #7 (Nov 2012) published by Boom! Studios.  I’m certain anyone who has ever had cats can identify with the danger of your feline companions attempting to make off with the Thanksgiving turkey.  It’s certainly happened to us on a couple of occasions!

Flare 31 cover

The talented and much-underrated Gordon Purcell offers up this lovely tribute to Rockwell on his cover for Flare #31 (Feb 2006) from Dennis Mallonee’s Heroic Publishing, which has been releasing fun, entertaining comic books since the mid 1980s.

Barbie Fashion 37 cover

Back in the early 1990s Marvel Comics had not one, but two ongoing Barbie comic book series, both of which lasted for several years.  Both titles had some talented creators working on them.  It was probably one of Marvel’s more successful efforts to reach a young female audience. Here’s the cover to Barbie Fashion #37 (Jan 1994) by Anna-Marie Cool & Jeff Albrecht.

Chase 6 cover

Chase was one of those really good titles from the 1990s that unfortunately never really found an audience and was cancelled too soon.  Cameron Chase had some serious family issues, so of course here we are flashing back to Thanksgiving of days past on the cover to issue #6 (July 1998).  This striking image is by the superb team of J. H. Williams III & Mick Gray.

Mad Magazine 39 pg 43

Good old MAD Magazine, always ready to skewer politics, pop culture and society! This send-up of The Saturday Evening Post is from issue #39, published waaaay back in May 1958.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a credit for the artist.  Can anyone help out?

Fantastic Four 564 cover

Marvel’s First Family celebrates Thanksgiving on the cover to Fantastic Four # 564 (April 2009) by Bryan Hitch.  I’m sure that, among the various things for which the Invisible Woman is thankful for this year, it’s that Reed Richards opted to slice up the turkey in the traditional manner, as opposed to inventing an Atomic Powered Turkey Carver which would have undoubtedly blown the roof off of the Baxter Building.

Betty 119 cover

Let’s close things out with the cover to Betty #119 (Jan 2003) by Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith, which has the gang from Riverdale celebrating Thanksgiving.  I’m not completely certain if this cover is a specific homage to Rockwell, but it is certainly close enough.  In any case, Archie Comics too often falls under the radar, which is too bad, since they have some really great art.

(This was by no means a comprehensive list, and a quick search of the internet will reveal many more tributes to Freedom From Want.)

I hope everyone enjoyed this little selection  of Thanksgiving-themed comic book artwork.  Have a good holiday, and let’s all try to be thankful for for what we have, because there are a lot of people much less fortunate in the world.

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!

It Came from the 1990s: Black Canary “New Wings”

A couple of years ago I sent a friend request to writer Sarah Byam on Facebook.  I had enjoyed Byam’s work in comic books in the early 1990s.  Having seen this blog, Byam asked me if I was interested in discussing her work on it.  I agreed, and she mailed me several books she had worked on.  Among these was the four issue Black Canary miniseries she wrote that DC Comics published in late 1991.  I read these back when they came out, but since then I sold off a lot of my collection.  So it was nice to once again have them.

Soon after Byam sent me those books life sort of got in the way.  I had to move into a new apartment, and find a new job, and so on.  Byam’s package ended up at the bottom of one of the countless boxes of stuff that I threw together during the move, and only recently did I finally dig it out.  So here, at last, is my retrospective on that Black Canary miniseries.

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

Written by Byam, the Black Canary miniseries has Trevor Von Eeden contributing pencil layouts, with the finished artwork by Dick Giordano.  Lettering is by Steve Haynie, and coloring by Julia Lacquement.

“New Wings” was, according to the text piece by editor Mike Gold in issue #1, the very first solo series to star Black Canary.  This was in spite of the fact that the character had been around, in one form or another, since 1947.  Serving as a longtime member of both the Justice Society and Justice League, the Black Canary also had a lengthy association with Green Arrow, cast variously as his girlfriend, partner and sidekick.  Nevertheless, it took 44 years for Dinah Laurel Lance to finally receive how own book.

Decades are an artificial construct, and truthfully there is very rarely a sharp delineation to separate them.  That’s certainly true of the 1980s and 1990s, with the end of the former and the beginning of the later serving as a period of gradual transition.

This miniseries certainly straddles the two periods.  In one respect it is very much rooted in the mid to late 1980s of DC Comics, which saw both the aftermath of Crisis on Infinite Earths, with its revisions to long-term continuity, and the one-two punch of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, which motivated a shift towards “grim & gritty” street-level characters.

It’s also very much of the early 1990s, when the comic book market was experiencing a huge boom, resulting in both DC and Marvel flooding the market with new books.  As a result of those market conditions, the Black Canary miniseries got the green light, something that might not have occurred a few years earlier.

The 1987 miniseries Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell had revamped Oliver Queen as a traditional archer, an urban vigilante based in Seattle, WA.  That story had also seen Dinah Lance brutally tortured, causing her to lose her “Canary Cry” sonic scream.

Although taking away Dinah’s superpower was undoubtedly an attempt to more realistically ground her alongside Green Arrow, in retrospect it is also an example of the “Women in Refrigerators” phenomenon, in female characters being reduced to helpless victims.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

The “New Wings” miniseries has Byam picking up those threads.  Dinah is still recovering from the trauma of being victimized, and of losing her powers.  She has also growing tired of constantly being in the shadow of the headstrong, arrogant Green Arrow, of playing the role of responsible adult to Ollie’s hotheaded thrill-seeker.  Angrily tossing the accounting ledger at Ollie’s head, Dinah at last asserts herself.  She informs him that it’s his turn to figure out how to pay the rent & bills, while she goes off to the mountains of Washington State in an attempt to find herself and regain her inner peace.

Visiting her “Auntie Wren” at the Quinault Indian Reservation, Dinah is introduced to Gan Nguyen, a reporter, radio talk show host, and social activist.  Gan’s activities fighting against Seattle’s drug dealers have made him very unpopular with certain powerful people.  On the trip back to the city Dinah is forced to change into her Black Canary identity to save him from a pair of racist assassins.

“New Wings” is, in certain ways, a very prescient piece of writing.  The drug operation that Dinah and Gan are pitted against is run by rich, powerful men with connections to both politics and private industry who utilize the people from poor rural communities to do the dirty, dangerous work.  The center of the cocaine distribution network is the town of Sandbar, which Byam describes thus…

“Sandbar is one of those quaint little seaside towns, too sleepy even for tourists to bother with. A little too ‘Mayberry’ for some, it’s a good place to raise your kids. A safe place.

“In Sandbar, people love the Fourth of July, and the old men press up their uniforms every Veterans Day.

“How does a town like that go bad? Stagnate? Lose its sense of purpose?

“Traditions of protecting freedom, of sacrificing, son after son, becomes traditions of protecting property, sacrificing truth after truth…

“Because the only thing more terrifying than the enemy… is change.”

Sandbar sounds very much like one of those Red State communities that in the last few years have wholeheartedly embraced Donald Trump.  Their economy is in ruins, devastated by trickle-down economics and corporations shipping jobs overseas.  Yet instead of recognizing who is actually exploiting them, they are all too easily distracted by the racist dog-whistles that scapegoat minorities, immigrants and non-Christians as the causes of all their problems.

Byam was clearly observant enough to perceive this burgeoning phenomenon way back in 1991, in the years immediately before the GOP, the Koch Brothers and Fox News would commence to enthusiastically fuel the fires of racism, xenophobia and paranoia among white rural communities over the next two decades, eventually bringing about the rise of the Tea Party and Trump.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

There are a couple of reasons why I have now finally got around to spotlighting this Black Canary miniseries.  One is the emergence of the hatemongering “Comicsgate” trolls in the last couple of years, angry white male fanboys who claim that diversity is destroying comic books, who want to return to the time when the industry was supposedly apolitical.  There is innumerable evidence to disprove their lies.  This miniseries, published in 1991, is certainly one example of how very wrong they are.

“New Wings” features a female character, Black Canary.  It introduces a Vietnamese American supporting character, Gan Nguyen.  It is written by a woman, Sarah Byam.  It is penciled by a black man, the Guyanese-born Trevor Von Eeden.  It is an extremely political story, tackling complex issues of racism, economic injustice, drug dealing, gun control and political corruption.  It raises some difficult, uncomfortable questions.

The other reason is the 2018 midterm elections.  This week over one hundred female candidates were elected to Congress.  This is important. It has been less than one hundred years since women finally gained the right to vote nationwide, when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. And, as the last few years have vividly demonstrated, there is still so much work to be done in safeguarding equal rights, in making sure that they aren’t stripped away, in protecting women from once again being reduced to second-class citizens. We need to recognize that the struggle against sexism & misogyny, as well as all other forms of injustice, is ongoing.

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

In additionally to being very well written and thought-provoking, the artwork on “New Wings” is exceptional.  The collaboration between Trevor Von Eeden and Dick Giordano is extremely effective.

Von Eeden’s layouts are dynamic, superbly telling the story, both in the action sequences and the quieter conversational scenes.  The finished artwork by veteran artist Dick Giordano is beautiful, with his characteristic slick, polished work on display.

“New Wings” did well enough that an ongoing Black Canary series was commissioned.  Byam and Von Eeden returned, with Bob Smith coming onboard as inker.  Byam continued to write stories that addressed political & social issues.  She was one of those writers in the medium who very much helped my teenage self begin to broaden his perspective, to consider the intricacies of the world and the people who inhabit it.  Regrettably the ongoing Black Canary title only lasted 12 issues, but the majority of them were very well-done.

It would be another few years before Black Canary would once again gain the spotlight.  In late 1995 she was paired up with Barbara Gordon / Oracle in the Birds of Prey special, which soon led to the long-running, very well-regarded series co-starring the two characters.

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

Both the Black Canary miniseries and ongoing were my introduction to the work of Trevor Von Eeden.  I instantly became a fan of his art.  I was immediately struck by both his stunningly beautiful depictions of the title character, as well as his amazing layouts & storytelling.

It’s very much worth noting that Von Eeden has been vocal about the fact that he never felt any real affinity for the character of Black Canary.  I say this because it definitely speaks to both his talent and his professionalism that he nevertheless did superb work on the series.

One other note: Whoever designed the series logo did a great job.  It looks amazing.

It’s unfortunate that “New Wings” and the subsequent twelve issue series have never been collected in a trade paperback.  However, it should be easy enough to find these in the back issue bins, or for sale online.  They are well worth tracking down.

Hopefully in the future I can offer a detailed look at the 1993 series, as well as some of Sarah Byam’s other works.  Cross your fingers!