The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Nine

Welcome to the ninth Comic Book Coffee collection. I’ve been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

41) Ramona Fradon & Mike Royer

We have selected panels from Plastic Man #14, penciled by Ramona Fradon, inked by Mike Royer, and written by Elliot S! Maggin, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1976 cover date.

It’s a late night at the headquarters of the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Chief tells his secretary Sundae to put on some coffee while he briefs his agents about a dangerous new threat to national security.  The Chief details to Plastic Man, Woozy Winks and Gully Foyle the gruesome origins of the oozing menace known as “Meat By-Product… The Dump That Walks!”  By the time the Chief is finished describing this monstrosity in excruciating detail, Plas and Co are so completely grossed out that when Sundae attempts to serve them coffee, donuts and cream-filled Danishes, they’re ready to toss their cookies.

I love Ramona Fradon’s artwork.  She has such a distinctive, unconventional, cartoony style.  She brought a very offbeat, fun, comedic sensibility to Metamorpho the Element Man, the character she co-created with writer Bob Haney and editor George Kashdan in 1965.  That definitely made her very well-suited to draw Plastic Man a decade later.  Fradon stated in interviews that he was one of her favorite characters to have worked on.

Fradon is inked here by Mike Royer.  Fradon loved Royer’s inking of her pencils on this story, and has said she wishes they’d had other opportunities to work together.  It’s certainly a great collaboration.

42) June Brigman & Roy Richardson

Here is a trio of coffee-related installments of the Mary Worth newspaper comic strip, penciled by June Brigman, inked by Roy Richardson, and written by Karen Moy.

In the November 10, 2017 strip, Iris is having late night coffee with her boyfriend Zak.  Iris and Zak had previously dated, but she wasn’t certain if they should be together, since she was several years older than Zak.  However, following her break-up with Wilbur she decided to give her relationship with Zak another shot.

Paralleling this, in the December 5, 2017 strip, Wilbur has returned home from his travels abroad. Over morning coffee (complete with a Hello Kitty coffee mug) he is catching up with his daughter Dawn.  Wilbur had a disastrous time in Bogota, where a woman attempted to scam him out of his money.  This has left him wondering if he should try to get back together with Iris, not knowing she is now involved with Zak.

Jumping forward a year to the November 26, 2018 strip, Mary agrees to foster Libby, a one-eyed tabby cat.  Libby is definitely a mischievous kitty, and when Mary tries to have her morning coffee the tabby knocks over her milk.  Mary ultimately cannot keep Libby, because her boyfriend Jeff is allergic to cats.  Fortunately Mary’s neighbor Estelle agrees to adopt Libby.

I liked the Libby storyline.  Libby reminds me of Champ, one of my girlfriend Michele’s old cats.  Champ was a one-eyed cat as well, the runt of the litter.  She was a sweet & affectionate kitty, and we were sad when she passed away from old age.

I’ve been a fan of June Brigman’s work ever since she co-created Power Pack with Louise Simonson at Marvel Comics in 1984.  Brigman has often worked with her husband Roy Richardson, an accomplished inker.  June and Roy have been drawing Mary Worth since 2016.  They both love cats, so I’m sure they enjoyed introducing Libby to the strip.  Please check out their awesome cat-centric sci-fi series Captain Ginger written by Stuart Moore from Ahoy Comics.

43) Mark Bright & Bob Layton

Iron Man #228, layouts by Mark Bright, finishes & co-plot by Bob Layton, script & co-plot by David Michelinie, letters by Janice Chiang, and colors by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics in March 1988.

One of the qualities of David Michelinie & Bob Layton’s runs on Iron Man that I have always appreciated has been their ability to write Tony Stark as a flawed, sometimes unsympathetic person while keeping his actions completely in character and believable.  Unlike some of the writers who followed them, they never had Stark acting in a wildly implausible manner simply to advance the plot.

Witness the now-classic storyline “Armor Wars” which saw Stark desperately attempting to destroy the technology he developed that was now in the hands of others.  As the story progressed, Stark became more and more obsessed, manipulative and ruthless, but the execution of this made it feel this progression was genuine.

Iron Man #228 sees Stark planning to attack the Vault, the federal penitentiary for incarcerating super-powered criminals, in order to destroy the Guardsmen armor that was developed from his technology.  While planning their assault, Stark and his close friend Jim Rhodes stop at a nearby greasy spoon for some coffee.  This scene by Layton, Michelinie and Mark Bright allows for a momentary pause in the action, enabling us to see the friendship and rapport that exists between Stark and Rhodes.

There’s very nice lettering by Janice Chiang on display here.  I love her work, and can usually spot it in an instant.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Stark’s anecdote, though…

“Took me three weeks to get rid of the blueberry stain. Had to tell the guys at the gym it was a tattoo.”

Sounds like it could be the punchline to a dirty story.  Whatever the set-up might have been, I doubt the Comics Code Authority would have approved!

44) Bob Oksner & Vince Colletta

This page is from the Lois Lane story “A Deadly Day in the Life” penciled by Bob Oksner, inked by Vince Colletta, written by Paul Levitz, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Jerry Serpe.  It appeared in Superman Family #212, published by DC Comics with a November 1981 cover date.

The relationship between Lois Lane and Superman in the Bronze Age was certainly somewhat of an improvement from how it was handled in the 1950s and 60s.  Lois was at least somewhat less catty and scheming and manipulative than she had been previously depicted, and Superman appeared to genuinely care for her.

At the same time, looking at in from a 21st Century perspective, it becomes much more obvious that Lois is in a relationship with a man who is actively hiding a major part of his personal life from her, and who regularly gaslights her whenever she comes close to uncovering the truth.

Nevertheless, given that the Bronze Age writers were required to maintain the Lois Lane-Clark Kent-Superman love triangle, they did fairly good work.  Paul Levitz writes Lois and Superman as two people who are comfortable with each other.  Bob Oksner’s background drawing romance and humor stories made him well-suited to penciling scenes like this.  Likewise, Vince Colletta’s own work in the romance genre results in an effective inking job.

Plus, I love the novelty of Superman using his heat vision to brew a cup of coffee for Lois.  Jim Thompson sent this page my way.  Yes, this IS from the same story he spotlighted where someone hurls a grenade into Lois’ bathroom while she’s taking a shower, and she tosses it back out the window before it explodes.  Good thing she had that cup of coffee beforehand!

45) Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr

As a follow-up to our last entry, these pages are from Adventures of Superman #525, penciled by Stuart Immonen, inked by Jose Marzan Jr, written by Karl Kesel, lettered by Albert DeGuzman, and colored by Glenn Whitmore, published by DC Comics in July 1995.

Prior issues of the Superman titles had introduced to Clark Kent’s old high school rival Kenny Braverman, who gained superpowers and joined a covert government agency… you know, like pretty much everyone else in comic books eventually does.  Braverman, who adopted the identity Conduit, learned that Clark was Superman and attempted to murder all of Clark’s friends and family.  In a final battle with Superman, the hate-filled Conduit’s powers consumed his body, killing him.

In this issue Clark is reunited with Lois Lane, who he believed had been killed by Conduit.  Clark explains to Lois that he is seriously considering giving up his secret identity to be Superman full-time, to prevent anyone else from being in danger due to their association with him.

Lois tells Clark she wants to go get a cup of coffee in the nearby town, but with one proviso: Clark needs to do it a Superman.  Changing into the Man of Steel, he goes to a nearby diner to order a cup of coffee, only to discover that everyone is ill-at-ease around him.  Some people are expecting a super-villain to attack any minute; others simply don’t know how to act around him.

Meeting up with Superman outside of town, Lois explains to him:

“You NEED a secret identity. It’s what protects you from people… and it’s what connects you to people. Under that costume you’re Clark Kent — you’ll always be Clark Kent. You can’t live without him… and neither can I!”

I feel that the post-Crisis continuity improved Lois Lane’s character a great deal. As I explained before, I was never overly fond of Lois.  I couldn’t understand why Clark / Superman wanted to be with her.  Even the efforts to make her less of a caricature in the 1970s were hampered by the need to maintain the Lois Lane-Superman-Clark Kent love triangle.  I think a clean break was needed for Lois, and Crisis provided John Byrne with that opportunity.

Of course, having subsequently read some of the original Siegel & Shuster stories, I now realize Byrne was actually returning Lois to her original conception, the intelligent, assertive, tough-as-nails investigative reporter of the early Golden Age, and away from the catty, scheming version that existed in the 1950s.

I also like that Byrne had Clark wanting to win Lois as himself, not as Superman, because Clark Kent was his real self, and “Superman” was the secret identity.

Byrne’s work with Lois and Clark definitely set the stage for Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens and others to write the characters in an interesting, adult relationship, and for Lois to finally learn that Clark was Superman.

In this issue Karl Kesel does really good work with the couple.  The artwork by Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr expertly tells the story.  And, wow, that coloring by Glenn Whitmore on page 19, with the sun setting in a dusky star-filled sky, is beautiful.

I know there are fans that are older than me who grew up on the Silver Age or Bronze Age comic books and did not like the changes made to these characters.  I can understand that.  I can only say that I read these stories when I was a teenager.  So for me this will always be MY version of Lois and Clark.

Steampunk E.T. : The Bozz Chronicles

The Bozz Chronicles was a six issue comic book series by writer David Michelinie and artist Bret Blevins.  It was originally published bi-monthly by Marvel Comics under their Epic imprint from December 1985 to November 1986.  I recall seeing house ads for the series back when I was nine years old, but I never had an opportunity to read it.  Now, thirty years later, The Bozz Chronicles has finally been collected into a trade paperback by Dover Publications.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB cover

Michelinie was inspired to create The Bozz Chronicles after seeing the Steven Spielberg movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.  An idea struck Michelinie: What if an alien landed on Earth in an earlier era, before human technology was advanced enough to cobble together a device with which to phone home?  Michelinie decided to have his alien protagonist become stranded in England in the late Victorian Era, a period that he knew would be familiar to readers through literature, television and films.

Epic Comics editor Archie Goodwin suggested that Michelinie collaborate with up-and-coming artist Bret Blevins.  It was Blevins who designed the looks of the characters, including the unique appearance of Bozz (so called because his unpronounceable alien name begins with a buzzing sound).

Having become marooned on Earth in the late 19th Century, Bozz is overcome by despair.  He is a gentle, soulful being, a total outsider in the chaotic world of humanity.  Despondent over the thought of never returning home, Bozz is ready to kill himself.  His suicide attempt is interrupted by Mandy Flynn, a London prostitute.

Mandy immediately takes a liking to Bozz.  Inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, she decides to set herself and Bozz up as private investigators, hoping that the intellectual stimulation of solving mysteries will distract the alien from his severe ennui.  On a more pragmatic level, Mandy also recognized that the brilliant Bozz has the potential to bring in a large number of well-paying clients, thus providing her with a way out of the dangerous, degrading profession of a hooker.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 137

On one of their early cases, Bozz and Mandy encounter “Madman” Salem Hankshaw, a two-fisted Texan expatriate.  The rough & tumble American joins their detective firm, providing both muscle and snarky wit.  Bozz and Mandy’s investigations also results in them crossing paths with the aristocratic Colin Fitzroy who, dissatisfied with the life of the idle rich, joined Scotland Yard.  Salem and Fitzroy are polar opposites, so naturally enough a rivalry develops between them, especially after the police detective takes an interest in Mandy.

I’ve been a fan of Michelinie’s writing for many years, especially his two now-classic runs on Iron Man with Bob Layton.  Even so, I was especially impressed by Michelinie’s writing on The Bozz Chronicles.  It is very witty and intelligent, a deft blending of Grand Guignol and farcical slapstick with a helping of genuine sentiment.  Michelinie does good work in developing his cast of characters, and in constructing the bizarre mysteries that drive the plots.

Blevins is another creator whose work I enjoy, and I was very impressed by his art on The Bozz Chronicles.  He demonstrates a genuine versatility in these issues.  Bozz is a cartoony, abstract figure, and Mandy is drawn as a sexy “good girl” pin-up type.  In contrast, many of their adversaries are grotesque monstrosities.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 65

The Bozz Chronicles is an early example of what is now known as steampunk.  I think it is noteworthy that most steampunk involves taking the aesthetics of the late 19th Century and transplanting them into a different era or dimension.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that for most of the population of the Victorian Era life was extremely difficult and grueling.  It was characterized by a cavernous divide between an impoverished majority and a wealthy aristocracy, by the exploitation of labor, and by the beginnings of global pollution as private industry ran completely unregulated.

(The novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854, offers a particularly brutal portrait of this time period.)

Michelinie and Blevins do not shy away from the unpleasant realities of the Victorian Era.  The character of Mandy is a definite example of this.  Orphaned after her father abandoned her and her mother died, the uneducated young woman was forced to become a prostitute to make ends meet.  In one story Michelinie introduces a group of wealthy men seeking to use super-science to manipulate the political landscape, to ensure that the dire economic status quo remains in place.  As rendered by Blevins, London during the Industrial Revolution is a grimy & dangerous city.

Veteran artist Al Williamson assisted with inking The Bozz Chronicles.  His detailed embellishments suited Blevins’ penciling perfectly.

Also contributing to the series is John Ridgeway.  Due to deadline problems, he drew issue #4.  This made for an unusual experience.  On a creator-owned title you very seldom see outside artists coming in to do a fill-in story.  Cerebus the Aardvark was only ever drawn by Dave Sim, every issue of Strangers in Paradise was by Terry Moore, and no one is going to be pinch-hitting for Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez on Love and Rockets.

Yet for one issue The Bozz Chronicles was drawn not by Blevins but by Ridgeway.  It was interesting to see Blevins’ designs interpreted by Ridgeway.  His style is so quintessentially British.  It was so very well suited to drawing this story, a horror mystery set in an English country village in the middle of the winter.

The Bozz Chronicles TPB pg 112

The only weak point I found in The Bozz Chronicles is in the depiction of native Africans.  In the last two issues of the series we meet a tribe who, having encountered other members of Bozz’s people centuries before, believe he is a god.  Now admittedly Bozz is a very unusual looking figure, and he possesses some amazing abilities that seem very much like magic.  Nevertheless, the Africans do come across as rather superstitious and a bit gullible.

Okay, aside from that, I really enjoyed The Bozz Chronicles.  I read the entire book in less than a day.  I did not want to put it down.  And when I got to the end I was disappointed, because I knew that was it, there were no other stories by Michelinie & Blevins featuring Bozz and Mandy and Salem.  I wanted more!

Fortunately, because The Bozz Chronicles was published through Epic, Michelinie & Blevins retained ownership of the series.  Hopefully, with the original material now back in print, it will generate enough interest for them to reunite to create new stories.  Blevins drew a new illustration for the TPB cover, which I take as a good sign.  Cross your fingers.

Alan Kupperberg: 1953 to 2015

Comic book creator Alan Kupperberg passed away on July 16th at the age of 62.  I was fan of Kupperberg’s work, had met him at a few conventions, and was friends with him on Facebook.  I knew from his recent status updates on FB that he had been diagnosed with cancer several months ago.  Kupperberg had really been fighting his illness, and for a time it was hoped he would recover.  So it was unexpected and sad when his passing was announced by his brother, writer & editor Paul Kupperberg.

Like so many people who came to work in the comic book biz in the 1970s, Alan Kupperberg was very much a fan of the medium.  As he related in The Jack Kirby Collector #29 from TwoMorrows Publishing, in 1970 while still a teenager Kupperberg “was a regular pest – er – visitor to Marvel’s small, six room, dozen-person office” doing various odd jobs in the Bullpen.  A year later he was working in the production department of DC Comics, learning the intricacies of the business.  Kupperberg also worked at Atlas Comics during their very brief but still-memorable revival in the mid-1970s.

In the late 1970s Kupperberg was once again at Marvel.  Over the next decade he worked on numerous different series in a variety of capacities: writer, penciler, inker, letterer and colorist.  Kupperberg could do it all.

Invaders 37 cover

Kupperberg’s first ongoing assignment was the World War II superhero series The Invaders.  He came onboard as the new penciler with issue #29, cover-dated June 1978, replacing the outgoing Frank Robbins.  Kupperberg remained on The Invaders until the final issue, the double-sized #41 (Sept 1979) and he penciled the majority of those issues, working with both writer & editor Roy Thomas and writer Don Glut.

I imagine that The Invaders was not the easiest of series to pencil.  It was a team book set in the early 1940s.  This required Kupperberg to present clear storytelling so that the action was balanced between the numerous characters in action sequences.  He also had to render historically-accurate depictions of the people and the settings of the Second World War.  I think that he did very good work on the series, penciling some memorable, exciting stories written by Thomas and Glut.

Looking at Kupperberg’s time on The Invaders, one of the highlights is definitely issue #s 32-33, which had Hitler summoning Thor from Asgard and manipulating him into attacking the Soviet Union, bringing the thunder god into conflict with the Invaders.  Another noteworthy issue was the finale of the series, as The Invaders faced off against the so-called Super-Axis, a team of fascist supervillains.  Kupperberg, paired with inker Chic Stone, did very nice work on that climactic battle, helping Glut and Thomas to finish the series in style.  The issue concluded with a wonderful double page pin-up drawn by Kupperberg featuring every hero who had ever appeared in The Invaders.

Invaders 32 cover layouts and published

It was while penciling The Invaders that Kupperberg had an opportunity to collaborate with Jack Kirby.  He drew a rough layout for the cover to The Invaders #32.  The published cover artwork, based out his layout, was by the superstar team of Kirby & Joe Sinnott.

As Kupperberg recounted in The Jack Kirby Collector…

“I’d never been fond of drawing covers, but when I was asked to provide a cover layout or rough sketch for Invaders #32, I didn’t hesitate a tick – because it was for Jack.  I’d be interpreting Thor, Captain America, Namor and the Human Torch – for their artistic father!

“The Jack’s pencils arrived.  They blew my tender little mind – Kirby interpreting my interpretation of Kirby.”

Aside from The Invaders, Kupperberg never had a particularly long runs on any Marvel titles.  He was briefly the penciler of Thor and worked on several issues of What If.  Aside from that, Kupperberg was one of Marvel’s go-to guys for fill-in stories in the late 1970s to mid 80s.  He drew issues of Avengers, Captain America, Dazzler, Defenders, Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Two-In-One, Moon Knight, Star Wars and Transformers.  In 1984 Kupperberg penciled a four issue Iceman miniseries written by J.M. DeMatteis.

Captain America 240 pg 11

As a fan of Captain America, I liked Kupperberg’s depiction of the character in The Invaders, Avengers, and Cap’s own book.  Kupperberg penciled a trio of fill-in stories for Captain America, which were in issue #s 240, 260 and 271.  The first of these, “Gang Wars,” is noteworthy for the collaboration between the two Kupperberg brothers.  Paul plotted the issue, Alan penciled & scripted it, and it was inked by the talented Don Perlin.  I think this was the only time that Alan and Paul worked together.

Another of my favorite Marvel stories that Kupperberg worked on was Avengers #205 (March 1981).  Kupperberg and inker Dan Green did excellent work on this issue.  The second chapter of a two-part story plotted by Bob Budiansky & scripted by David Michelinie, this issue saw the Avengers attempting to thwart a plot to conquer the world by the diabolical Yellow Claw.  The cover to this issue by Kupperberg & Green, featuring the Vision in fierce combat with the Claw, is really dynamic.  As the saying goes, they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore!

Avengers 205 cover

In the mid-1980s Kupperberg began doing work for DC Comics, as well.  He became the penciler of the offbeat Blue Devil series written by Dan Mishkin & Gary Cohen.  Kupperberg started on issue #12 (May 1985) and remained on the book until its conclusion with issue #30.  He also worked on Justice League of America and Firestorm.  Kupperberg’s guest pencils on All-Star Squadron #66 in Feb 1987 (the penultimate issue of the series) saw him briefly reunited with writer Roy Thomas, who had spent the last several years chronicling the adventures of DC’s superheroes during World War II.

Anyone who has ever met Alan Kupperberg or read an interview with him will definitely realize that he had an amazing and unconventional sense of humor.  That was certainly reflected in his comic book work.  He worked on a number of humorous, not to mention unusual, projects throughout his career.

Somehow or another Kupperberg became associated with not one but two evil clowns during his career.  The first of these was Obnoxio the Clown, created by Larry Hama in the pages of Crazy Magazine.  In early 1983 Obnoxio landed his very own one-shot.  Written, drawn, lettered and colored by Kupperberg with edits by Hama, this bizarre special had the cigar-chomping Obnoxio running rings around the X-Men, getting summoned for jury duty, answering fan mail and just acting as rude as possible.  All these years later I am still amazed that this issue got published!

Obnoxio the Clown pg 6

Kupperberg also illustrated the misadventures of Frenchy the Clown, the star of the “Evil Clown Comics” feature in National Lampoon.  Devised by writer / actor / comedian Nick Bakay, Frenchy was a violent foul-mouthed alcoholic womanizer in greasepaint.  Several years ago Kupperberg was working on reprinting the “Evil Clown Comics” stories in a collected edition, but unfortunately this didn’t come to fruition.

Doing much more family-friendly humor work, between 1988 and 1990 Kupperberg drew a number of all-new five-page Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham stories that editor Jim Salicrup ran in the back of the Spider-Man reprint series Marvel Tales.  These were written by Michael Eury, Danny Fingeroth and Kupperberg himself, with Joe Albelo inking many of the installments.

One of my favorites of these Spider-Ham stories from Marvel Tales was his encounter with Frank Carple aka the Punfisher (obviously a fishy funny animal version of the Punisher).  Eury, Kupperberg & Albelo pitted the uneasy alliance of Spider-Ham and the Punfisher against the tentacle menace of Doctor Octopussycat!

Marvel Tales 215 pg 30

I highly recommend visiting the official Alan Kupperberg website which was set up by Daniel Best.  This fantastic site has numerous examples of Kupperberg’s art.  There are several articles wherein Best speaks with Kupperberg at length about his work.  It is an amazing resource.  Additionally, on his blog 20th Century Danny Boy, Best interviewed Kupperberg regarding the “Evil Clown Comics” stories.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate enough to meet Kupperberg on a few occasions when he was a guest at comic book conventions.  He struck me as a genuinely nice guy.  I’m glad I was able to talk with him and obtain a couple of sketches by him.  I will certainly miss him, as will many other comic book fans who grew up reading his work.

Comic book reviews: Iron Man #258.1 – 258.4, Armor Wars II Redux

Ask almost any long-time Marvel fan who the all-time greatest Iron Man writers are, and chances are very good that the names David Michelinie and Bob Layton will be mentioned.  The team of Michelinie & Layton had two historic runs on the ongoing Iron Man title (issue #s 116 to 153 and #s 215 to 250) plus a handful of subsequent miniseries and specials.  They co-wrote what are generally considered three of the all time great Iron Man stories, “Demon in a Bottle,” “Armor Wars” and the “Doomquest” trilogy.

While it is true that Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck created Iron Man, I really think that it was Michelinie & Layton who truly defined the character of Tony Stark, making him a fully developed, three dimensional individual.  Under their pen, Tony could be a flawed, selfish, controlling figure, but underneath all that he had a good heart and the best of intentions.  I think a lot of subsequent writers have taken the negative aspects of Stark and magnified them.  Or, worse yet, had Stark acting like a villain because the plot required him to assume that role in order to get the story from Point A to Point B.  I’m specifically thinking of the entire Civil War crossover.  In contrast, Tony’s self-centered, destructive behavior in the original “Armor Wars” really did feel like a natural progression of the character.

Michelinie & Layton have reunited once more to chronicle the adventures of Tony Stark.  Well, actually, their latest four part story was written & drawn roughly two years ago, and was originally going to be released as the miniseries Iron Man Forever (much in the same vein as the Chris Claremont-helmed X-Men Forever).  However, it ended up sitting unused until now, when Marvel presumably decided it would make a good tie-in for the third Iron Man movie.

These four issues are rather oddly numbered issue #s 258.1 thru 258.4.  For the reasoning behind this, we have to look back to the year 1990.  Michelinie had just departed from Iron Man.  Layton was planning to remain as writer and inker, paired with penciler John Romita Jr.  The two were going to do a sequel to “Armor Wars,” and got so far as producing a prologue which ran in issue #256.  Then Layton was offered the opportunity to work at Valiant Comics, and so also dropped off the book.  At the last minute, John Byrne came on-board to do his own version of “Armor Wars II” with Romita Jr. & Bob Wiacek.  That story commenced publication in Iron Man #258.  Hence the numbering of these issues, which see Layton, once again co-writing with Michelinie, presenting their take on “Armor Wars II,” based on his original plot.  Bizarrely, Marvel did not actually give these four issues an overarching title.  For convenience sake I’m just going to refer to it as “Armor Wars II Redux.”  The trade paperback collection of these issues, due out in October, is reportedly going to be titled “Armored Vengeance.”

By the way, Layton previously had a synopsis of his original plans for “Armor Wars II” posted on his website.  Reading it, you could see there are certain differences, understandably so, since back then Layton would have been writing solo, paired with a different artist.  He also would have had seven issues to tell his story instead of just four.  If it had been published, it probably would have been a great story.

That said, “Armor Wars II Redux” was definitely a good read.  It is co-plotted by Michelinie & Layton, scripted by Michelinie, with pencil layouts by Dave Ross and finished art by Layton.  Ross and inker Tom Palmer provide the cover artwork.

Following on from the events of Iron Man #256, Tony Stark has undergone back surgery to remove a strange growth.  It transpires that the biochip which recently restored Stark’s shattered spine has interacted with the remnants of the nanites injected into his body years earlier by one of his most dangerous enemies, the criminal industrialist Justin Hammer.  The combination of the biochip and the nanites has resulted in the creation of an electronic duplicate of Stark.  This virtual doppelganger, possessing all of Tony’s intelligence but none of his compassion, infects the entire computer network of Stark Enterprises.  It plans to seize control of the global nuclear arsenal and blackmail the nations of the world into accepting its “benevolent” dictatorial rule.  Iron Man, cut off from all his allies and resources, is forced to turn to none other than Justin Hammer himself for assistance in thwarting his evil half.

All in all, I definitely enjoyed “Armor Wars II Redux.”  Michelinie & Layton’s writing was top-notch.  I enjoyed these four issues more than I did the majority of the Iron Man stories that Marvel has published over the last several years.  Once again we have the imperfect but heroic Tony Stark doing his best to overcome extremely difficult circumstances in an exciting, suspenseful adventure.

It was nice to see Michelinie & Layton bring back Justin Hammer.  In his own way, Hammer is as much the anti-Stark as the virtual doppelganger, a man of genius and business acumen unencumbered by conscience, utilizing his wealth & power to create superhuman criminals and amass power & control.  Besides, I always liked the idea of having a comic book villain who was inspired by Peter Cushing.

I also like how Michelinie & Layton wrote James Rhodes, a character they created back during their first run.  Obviously Rhodey would not have become War Machine in Layton’s original storyline, since that identity wasn’t devised until a couple of years later by Len Kaminski & Kev Hopgood.  But here Michelinie & Layton look at the consequences of Rhodey assuming that role by having him vividly recall the last time he donned a suit of armor, an occasion when he nearly died a horrible death.  I don’t  recall if any subsequent writers ever addressed that incident creating long-term trauma for him.  But it makes sense for Michelinie & Layton to bring it up, and show that Rhodey has a great deal of reluctance towards suiting up again.

I would not say that “Armor Wars II Redux” is without it flaws, though.  I really wish Michelinie & Layton had been given an extra issue to tell this story.  The final chapter definitely felt rushed in places.  Also, there was a subplot involving Tony’s girlfriend Rae LaCoste that really looked like it was going to develop into something significant, but ultimately headed nowhere.  Afterwards, searching through the archives of Layton’s website a bit more, I realized that this was a nod to their unfulfilled plans for Rae that they never had a chance to develop.  I wish they’d been given the opportunity here but, again, I guess they just didn’t have the space.

I definitely loved the artwork on these four issues.  Dave Ross is no stranger to drawing Shellhead, having penciled Avengers West Coast many moons ago.  His layouts were really dramatic.  And the inks/finishes by Layton were absolutely outstanding.    It’s a real shame that Layton isn’t currently drawing a regular series.  I hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to return to the characters he briefly worked on at the now sadly defunct Future Comics.

So, despite a few hiccups, “Armor Wars II Redux” was a really enjoyable story with superb artwork.  It certainly demonstrates that, after all these years, Michelinie & Layton are still at the top of their game.

Comic books I’m reading, part two: trade paperbacks

After I wrote my post about what I was reading from Marvel and DC, I realized that I had left out something crucial: trade paperbacks.

Trade paperbacks have the advantage of containing a complete story or, in the case of the black & white Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents volumes, several hundred pages of reprints for twenty dollars or less.  TPBs often give you a lot more value for your money than a single issue “pamphlet” which only contains 22 pages, and they are much more durable.  I find it easier to take a TPB on the train or bus to read, because if it gets knocked around a bit, it won’t end up being destroyed.

I recently picked up a pair of trades published by DC which both featured the artwork of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  The first one, JLA: The Hypothetical Woman, was written by Gail Simone.  It has to be one of the best Justice League stories that I have read in years.  Simone absolutely understands  how to write the JLA’s team dynamics, highlighting the particular strengths of each member while still showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And she gives the team a truly worthy adversary in General Tuzik, a ruthless Machiavellian dictator who seems to spend the majority of the story one step ahead of the League.  You really are left wondering how the JLA is going to get through this one.

JLA: The Hypothetical Woman
JLA: The Hypothetical Woman

The artwork is stunning.  This is some of the finest penciling by Garcia-Lopez in his entire career.  He draws a story on a truly epic scale, with both superhuman spectacles and intimate personal moments.  And his Wonder Woman… she is absolutely breathtaking, especially in the story’s second half, when we see her on the field of battle, a commanding portrait of beauty & strength.  Garcia-Lopez is very ably complemented by inkers Klaus Janson and Sean Phillips on this book.

I believe that JLA: The Hypothetical Woman is out of print, but a number of copies are still available on Amazon.com.  I definitely recommend picking it up.

The other TPB with Garcia-Lopez’s pencils is Batman: King Tut’s Tomb, which reprints “A New Dawn” from Batman Confidential #s 26-28.  Yes, the comic books actually use the television bad guy King Tut, but he is completely revamped into a credible, dangerous criminal by writers Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir.  Batman is forced to team up with his long-time foe the Riddler to track down Tut.  DeFilippis & Weir do a great job with that character, making him a very mischievous, devil-may-care rogue.  In a way, you have to admire their version of the Riddler.  Unlike most of Batman’s foes, he isn’t a homicidal maniac.  Instead, the Riddler’s goal is to commit clever crimes and outwit Batman, proving his the superior intellect.

Again, Garcia-Lopez’s artwork is of a high quality.  He is inked by Kevin Nolan, who has an extremely slick, polished style.  I think Nolan can often overwhelm other artists with his inks, but he works very well with Garcia-Lopez.  The finished artwork is a pleasant blending of their styles.  Additionally, I liked the vibrant coloring by David Baron.

Batman: King Tut’s Tomb also contains a trio of Batman stories Garcia-Lopez drew in the early 1980s.  I don’t have any of those issues, so they were a nice bonus.

I purchased Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier back in December of last year.  I read the book when I had to stay in the hospital for a few days.  I’m re-reading it now, and thoroughly enjoying it once again.  It contains the character’s appearances from Star Spangled War Stories #s 151 to 188, which were originally printed in the 1970s.

Who is the Unknown Soldier?  He is an unnamed American soldier who, in the early days of World War II, was horribly disfigured in combat during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.  Trained as an expert at infiltration and a master of disguise, he is dispatched on missions behind enemy lines to sabotage the Axis war effort.  When not wearing one of his lifelike masks, the Soldier is typically clad in trench coat & fedora, his face completely covered in bandages.

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier
Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

When I first read this collection of Unknown Soldier stories, it occurred to me that the concept was very similar to the Sam Raimi movie Darkman… except that film came out a good twenty years later.  Coincidence or influence?  I don’t know.  I recall that when I saw Darkman in the theater in 1990, I thought to myself that it would make a great ongoing comic book series, and I was right.  What I did not know then was that such a series already existed in the adventures of the Unknown Soldier.

This Showcase Presents volume contains work by a number of talented writers & artists.  The Unknown Soldier was created by the legendary Joe Kubert, and he collaborated with writers Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher on the first several stories.  After the first dozen or so stories, Kubert slips into the role of cover artist, also providing many of the very striking opening splash pages which combine his artwork with photo montages.  Jack Sparling takes over art chores for a time, before Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc becomes the regular artist for the remainder of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  Other writers who worked on the book are Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie.

(It is a bit of a pity that Robbins does not also provide any artwork.  He is one of those artists who when I was much younger I could not stand his work, considering it weird and rubbery.  But over time I’ve grown to greatly appreciate his immense talents.  Nowadays, when I come across a story he has illustrated, it is a real treat.)

I am not generally a fan of war comics, but I instantly became a fan of the Unknown Soldier.  I think a major reason for this is the fact that, at his core, the Unknown Soldier is really an anti-war figure.  His origin is the personification of the horror of war.  There is nothing glamorous about what he does.  Really, the Soldier’s whole reason for being is to bring an end to the conflict that destroyed his life.

I hope that one of these days DC releases a second Showcase Presents collection of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  The final half-dozen tales in the first volume are written by Michelinie, who really ramped up the dark moral ambiguity.  His first story, “8,000 to One,” very much drives home just what a grim, horrific role the Soldier has had to take on to carry out his mission.  And the superb artwork by Talaoc is a perfect fit for the tone of Michelinie’s writing.  I definitely want to read the rest of their work on the character.

Before I close out this blog, I would be remiss if I did not mention a magazine that I regularly follow, Back Issue from TwoMorrows Publishing.  Superbly edited by Michael Eury, Back Issue has featured a diverse selection of articles on the comic books of the 1970s and 80s, and occasionally beyond.  The current issue spotlights the Avengers (just in time for the movie) and has some fascinating, informative interviews & commentary from Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, George Perez, Al Milgrom, Brett Breeding, and Mike Carlin, among many others.

Back Issue #56
Back Issue #56

The reason why I had to bring up Back Issue is that many of the articles that have appeared in it have led me to pick up trade paperbacks or, in the absence of collected editions, actual back issues themselves.  I’ve learned about a number of characters, series, and creators of whom I previously only had a passing knowledge.  The Unknown Soldier is one of those.  There was a pair of articles authored by Michael Aushenker in Back Issue #s 37 and 52, the first on the character of the Soldier, the second on artist Gerry Talaoc.  Thanks to these, I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier collection.  So, the magazine has definitely broadened my interests & horizons as a comic book reader.

BI #52, incidentally, covered DC Comics’ horror titles from the 1970s, and also got me to buy one of the Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery volumes. Going back to BI #25, Aushenker conducted an interview with Deathlok creator Rich Buckler which helped motivate me to purchase the Marvel Masterworks collection of that series.  Really, I think both DC and Marvel ought to be paying Eury and Aushenker a small commission for helping to drum up their sales!

Back Issue is definitely worth picking up.  It’s an entertaining, informative read, and you never know what else it might lead you to discover.

Anyway, next time I do one of these “comic books I’m reading” posts, I will definitely be talking about independent (i.e. non-DC and Marvel) titles.  I just need to really collect my thoughts together on what is going to be a very diverse selection of material.