Astro City returns to Image Comics with That Was Then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To clarify matters, I hear back from Kurt Busiek himself: “DC never owned ASTRO CITY, nor did Wildstorm. It’s always been owned by Brent, Alex and me.” Thanks, Mr. Busiek.)

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

That Was Then… is set during the summer of 1969. The teen superhero group the Jayhawks have shockingly died, having lost their lives fighting the eldritch abomination The Master who was powered by the racism & hatred of the white supremacist group the White Knights. In the aftermath of this tragedy, several other teenage heroes have gone “on the road” to figure out what to do next. Adulthood is right around the corner for these five troubled youths, and they need to decide: should they keep fighting crime, or move on with their lives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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George Perez: 1954 to 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neal Adams: 1941 to 2022

Legendary comic book artist and forceful advocate for creators’ rights Neal Adams passed away on April 28th at the age of 80 years old. During a career that spanned six decades, Adams had groundbreaking runs illustrating Batman, Deadman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Superman for DC, and Avengers and X-Men for Marvel, as well as working in the horror, sword & sorcery and humor genres.

Batman #227 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by DC Comics in Dec 1970

I was born in 1976 and didn’t start reading comic books regularly until the late 1980, so I was not around when Adams made an absolutely seismic impact on comic books, both as an industry and as an art form.

For a very insightful look at Adams’ work from the perspective of someone who was reading comic books in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I highly recommend reading my friend Alan Stewart’s blog post on The Brave and the Bold #79, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1968 cover date, an issue Alan refers to as “one of the most historically significant comics of Neal Adams’ career.”

Even though I wasn’t there when Neal Adams shook American comic books to their core, I nevertheless want to pay tribute to the man and his work. So here is my own personal experience at discovering his incredible artwork.

Ms. Mystic #1 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by Pacific Comics in Oct 1982

By the 1980s Adams had mostly removed himself from mainstream comic books, having found the fields of storyboarding, advertising, and graphic design to be much better paying ones. He was releasing some creator-owned projects, first through Pacific Comics and then through his own Continuity Studios.  Unfortunately for me they got lost in the glut of the early 1990s comic book explosion, because I simply did not know to look for them.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I had picked up those comics, and that Adams had been able to do more with those characters, especially Ms. Mystic, who I’ve always felt has a wonderful design. (I did later pick up a few of these as back issues.)

So… three and a half decades ago there were no trade paperback collections reprinting older comic books or digital editions readily available to read. There was no Wikipedia or social media. All that I had as a 13 year old comic book fan in 1989 was letter columns and editorial pages in current comic books. From time to time Neal Adams’ name would be mentioned… and I really had no way of knowing who he was.

Batman #234, written by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by John Costanza and edited by Julius Schwartz, published by DC Comics in August 1971

The first occasion when I ever saw Adams’ work must have been in the collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told which DC Comics released in November 1988 ahead of Batman’s 50th anniversary. I bought that book in 1990, and I read it religiously.

Neal Adams penciled two of the stories in that collection, “Ghost of the Killer Skies” from Detective Comics #404 (Oct 1970) and “Half an Evil” from Batman #234 (Aug 1971), both of those in collaboration with writer Denny O’Neil and inker Dick Giordano. The book also had smaller reproductions of a few of Adams’ covers, among them his evocative artwork for Batman #227 (Dec 1970), a stunningly atmospheric piece that when I finally saw it full-sized years later took my breath away.

While I certainly liked Adams artwork in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told well enough, I had no way of putting it within its proper context. His penciling was nice, but it didn’t seem all that different from what I was used to seeing in comic books. I liken it to someone completely ignorant of cinematic history seeing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and having the reaction of “What’s the big deal?” Because just as the innovations Welles has pioneered in his filmmaking eventually became commonplace in filmmaking, the storytelling & stylistic choices pioneered by Adams had become thoroughly suffused in American comic books by the early 1990s.

Batman #244 written by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano and lettered by jean Simek, published by DC Comics in Sept 1972

I think that I FINALLY began to understand just how important Neal Adams was when in the late 1990s and the early 2000s DC at long last began reissuing his work. I was finally able to read Green Lantern / Green Arrow and the Batman: Tales of the Demon featuring the Dark Knights first encounters with the diabolical Ra’s al Ghul, both of which Adams did with writer Denny O’Neil.

Likewise, the epic Avengers storyline “The Kree / Skrull War” and the late 1960s X-Men run that Adams penciled with writer Roy Thomas and inker Tom Palmer (with Adams serving as an uncredited co-plotter) were both collected together by Marvel Comics in the year 2000.

Adams’ artwork on all of these was absolutely breathtaking. I also discovered that he drew some astonishingly great covers for DC throughout the 1970s. The more I saw of Adams’ work, the more I grew to appreciate it.

X-Men #59, co-plotted & penciled by Roy Thomas, co-plotted, penciled & colored by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics in Aug 1969

On Facebook comic artist Scott Williams shared the below two images, along with the following commentary:

“Someone on Twitter posted these two images side by side. One, a page from X-Men #54 by Don Heck, and the other from X-Men #56 by Neal Adams, both from 1969. Same characters and storyline. My point is not to in any way disparage Don Heck, but to demonstrate what a tectonic impact Neal had in comics. Couldn’t be a more stark and clear example (garish reprint coloring aside here) of how Neal changed the game forever.”

For the record, the full credits for X-Men #54 are apparently breakdowns by Don Heck, finished pencils by Werner Roth, and inks by Vince Colletta. Heck and Roth are both good, solid, underrated artists who seldom receive their due. Pencilers such as Heck and Roth were the vital foundation of the American comic book industry, guys who could tell a clear story and hit deadlines month after month.

But, yeah, when you place Adams side-by-side with them, basically drawing the same scene as Heck & Roth , it totally enables you to see exactly what Adams brought to comic books in the late 1960s, and why it was so Earth-shaking.

Compare & contrast: X-Men #54 (March 1969) drawn by Don Heck, Werner Roth & Vince Colletta, and two issues later X-Men #56 (May 1969) drawn by Neal Adams & Tom Palmer

Just as important, perhaps even more important, as Adams’ artistic legacy was his continual fight for creators’ rights in the comic book industry, which has for all-too-long regarded talent as interchangeable, disposable cogs in the machine. Among the creators Adams helped out where Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Russ Heath. Over on 13th Dimension former DC Comics writer /editor / publisher Paul Levitz discussed this aspect of Adams’ career…

“What I didn’t know is that as Neal began shaking up the look of comics, he began devoting much of his energy to shaking up the processes. Creative people were treated very poorly in the field in those years, and most of the leaders in the community were afraid to champion the cause because of the likely consequences. The disparity of power between the owners of the comics companies and the creators was an immeasurable gap, and at its base waited carnivores ready to devour agitators. But a modern Don Quixote had no fear…

“Of the many fights won or ignored, the one that was most visible was being part of the team (with Jerry Robinson and Ed Preiss) that labored to restore Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s credit to Superman, and economic dignity to their lives. Jerry was probably the more suave negotiator, Ed the wise lawyer… but Neal roared the loudest. And they won.”

Adams was also a teacher to young up-and-coming artists who hoped to enter the comic book biz. Among the many creators he mentored over the years were Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Larry Hama, Bob McLeod, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Buzz , Henry Martinez and his own son Josh Adams.

Superman #252 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by DC Comics in June 1972

Living in the New York City area most of my life, I was very fortunate to have met Neal Adams on several occasions at comic cons and store signing. In spite of the fact that he was a hugely popular creator who was frequently mobbed by fans, Adams always came across as polite and patient to everyone who came up to his table. He always had a smile on his face.

There was one time he was at Big Apple Comic Con about a decade ago when his table wasn’t busy and I had the opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes, and I asked him about something I had been curious about for a while. In the pages of X-Men #62 (Nov 1969) Adams had been the first artist to draw Magneto without his helmet. The features & hair he gave Magneto were very close to those of Quicksilver… so much so that a decade later this became the basis for establishing that Magneto was the father of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

I asked Adams if in giving Magneto that particular visual he had intended for the character to be Quicksilver’s father. Adams gave me one of his smiles and explained that he liked to plant “seeds” in his storylines that he or other creators could then use to develop future storylines if they so choose.

X-Men #62, co-plotted & scripted by Roy Thomas, co-plotted, penciled & colored by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics in Nov 1969

Adams then smiled again, leaned in conspiratorially, and told me he had something to tell me, but I had to promise not to tell anyone else about it, and I agreed. (Since he’s now passed away I feel comfortable recounting this.) Adams said he had an idea for another X-Men story that he hoped to do one day. Adams observed that the Beast in his furry blue form had the same distinctive hairstyle as Wolverine… so he wanted to reveal that Wolverine was Hank McCoy’s father.

Honestly, it sounded completely bonkers to me! But I am sure that if Adams had ever gotten around to actually doing it then it would certainly have been a memorable story.

Another time I saw Adams at a convention he was penciling a page for the Batman: Odyssey project at his table while talking to fans. Observing him up close laying down this detailed pencil work and these intricate, dramatic layouts while simultaneously carrying on conversations just left me in awe.

Neal Adams always looked a decade or so younger to me than he actually was. For example, when he was in early 70s he didn’t look much older than 60. I guess that’s why I expected him to live, well, not forever, but certainly much, much longer. Still, 80 years is a good, long run, especially as he was still creating quality work right up until almost the end, capping it off with the Fantastic Four: Antithesis miniseries written by Mark Waid that was published in 2020.

Fantastic Four: Antithesis written by Mark Waid, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Mark Farmer, lettered by Joe Caramagna and colored by Laura Martin, published by Marvel Comics in Nov 2020

So much more could be said about Adams; you could literally write books about him. I’ve blogged about him a few times in the past; the links are below.

My sincere condolences to Neal Adams’ family, friends, and colleagues for their loss.

Swamp Thing: 40 years later

Swamp Thing, the movie adaptation of the DC Comics character created by writer Len Wein & artist Bernie Wrightson, was released 40 years ago, on February 19, 1982. The movie was written & directed by Wes Craven.

Back in the early 1980s Swamp Thing seemed to be shown endlessly on HBO, and six year old me saw it multiple times during its run on cable TV. Truthfully, though, I hadn’t thought about the Swamp Thing movie in years… at least not until this week.

I started following the blog Superheroes Every Day which is taking an multi-part examination of every modern superhero movie ever made, beginning with Superman in 1978. Superheroes Every Day is extremely detailed, insightful, and more than a bit tongue-in-check. So, having spent a couple of months worth of daily posts looking at the first two Superman movies, Danny Horn is now up to Swamp Thing.

Reading Danny’s initial entries on Swamp Thing, I was surprised to learn that it is generally regarded as a not-very-good movie, that the production was extremely troubled, and that Wes Craven had an unhappy experience making it. As I said, I loved Swamp Thing when I was a kid, but the last time I had seen it was nearly four decades ago, and could I really trust my childhood memories? I mean, there’s plenty of stuff that I liked as a kid that I have no interest in as a middle aged adult.

I searched about a bit online late last night and found Swamp Thing on YouTube. Yes, it had commercials, and the closed-captioning was laugh-out-loud awful, but it was the complete movie, the picture was crystal clear, and the sound was perfect. Three out of five ain’t bad. So I watched it… and, y’know, all these years later I still enjoyed it. It’s not necessarily a great movie, but it’s a good, fun, entertaining one.

Before I go any further, I need to mention who produced Swamp Thing: Benjamin Melniker and Michael Uslan. If you are a fan of superhero movies that second name should be a very familiar one. Michael Uslan has produced every single Batman-related movie since the 1989 one directed by Tim Burton. Uslan had actually purchased the movie rights to Batman in 1979, but it took him a decade to finally get a movie made. It’s probably difficult to understand if you were born within the last quarter century, but in the early 1980s NO ONE wanted to make a Batman movie. The campy mid 1960s television series was the general public’s predominant view of the character, and movie studios, including DC Comics’ very own owners Warner Brothers, were convinced a Batman movie, especially an attempt at a dark, serious adaptation of the character that Uslan envisioned, would be a huge, expensive flop.

Now this is the reason I love Uslan. He is a lifelong comic book fan, he taught the first accredited college course on comic book folklore, he wrote several stories for DC Comics during the 1970s, and he spent a decade in an uphill battle to get an authentic, true-to-the-comic-books Batman movie made because he loved the character that much. And while he was busy with that Sisyphean task, Uslan also acquired the movie rights to Swamp Thing, a comic book series that had debuted in 1971 to great critical acclaim & popularity, but which a decade later had fallen into obscurity, basically only remembered by fans such as Uslan himself.

Looking at the Swamp Thing movie in 2022, I consider it to be a relatively faithful adaptation of the series as it existed in the early 1980s prior to Alan Moore’s radical revamp of the character in 1984. In Wes Craven’s screenplay the Swamp Thing is still Alec Holland (Ray Wise), a brilliant scientist working on a bio-restorative formula who is transformed into a super-strong humanoid vegetable creature (Dick Durock) after his laboratory in the swamp is attacked by saboteurs led by a thug named Ferret (Don Knight). In the movie Linda Holland (Nannette Brown) is Alec’s sister rather than his wife, government security agent Matthew Cable becomes Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau), and rather than being an elderly sorcerer / mad scientist Anton Arcane (Louis Jourdan) is the corrupt industrialist behind the saboteurs. But all of the basic, essential pieces are there.

Just as importantly, Craven plays it completely straight. As I said, at this time the Batman television show still loomed large in the public consciousness, and the average moviegoer saw superheroes as silly, with the accompanying “Biff! Bam! Pow!” nonsense. Craven, however, wrote & directed a serious, gritty, intense, intelligent sci-fi / horror movie, and he got solid, quality performances out of all the actors.

There is also a certain poignant, contemplative quality to Craven’s script, seen through Alec Holland / Swamp Thing’s love of the natural world and his relationship with Alice Cable. It’s actually quite surprising. Before this, Craven had helmed the brutal horror exploitation movies The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and subsequently he created the supernatural slasher movie A Nightmare on Elm Street and the horror movie satire Scream. So it’s really interesting to look at Swamp Thing and see Craven really stretching himself creatively, producing a genre film that manages to be both philosophical and soulful.

And, hey, all that aside, there’s tons of action in Swamp Thing. I doubt six year old me really picked up on the subtler aspects of Craven’s script, but I definitely enjoyed watching the transformed Alec wade through Arcane’s seemingly never-ending army of mercenary thugs. Even better, at the end of the movie Arcane ingests the formula that created the Swamp Thing, transforming into a ferocious monster who engages Alec in a brutal battle-to-the-death in the swamp.

The suit for the Swamp Thing incarnation of Alec Holland looks great. It must have been absolute torture for Dick Durock to be wearing that heavy rubber costume in the middle of a hot, muggy swamp. But the end result is that the character looks almost exactly like he was envisioned by Bernie Wrightson, as seen by the side-by-side images above.

I appreciate that Craven wrote Alice Cable as an intelligent, competent, assertive woman who repeatedly attempts to hold her own in the face of overwhelming odds. The only reason why Swamp Thing needs to keep rescuing her is because she unarmed, exhausted, and outmatched 20 to 1 by the sadistic Ferret and his mercenary thugs. Adrienne Barbeau did a great job playing the character.

Another aspect of Swamp Thing that I feel has aged well is the reimagining of Arcane as a handsome, sophisticated, cultured man of wealth, a dangerously charismatic sociopath with delusions of grandeur.

It occurs to me that the movie version of Arcane actually presages the post-Crisis version of Lex Luthor by several years, foreseeing Superman’s own arch enemy being reimagined into a respected captain of industry who secretly controls the criminal underworld. And much like the revamp of Luthor into a corporate raider by John Byrne & Marv Wolfman, the movie version of Arcane has a staff of stunningly beautiful women slavishly devoted to him, following him with literally a cult-like fervor.

I certainly appreciated how the script establishes that Holland’s formula doesn’t actually create anything, in merely enhances the qualities that already exist in a subject. So, yes, it turned Holland into a walking plant, but it enhanced his strength, his intelligence, his nobility, all the positive attributes he already possessed. The egomaniacal Arcane with his aspirations to divinity is convinced that the formula will transform him into a literal god; instead in an extended, graphic sequence Arcane’s appearance is reshaped to match his true inner self, and he becomes a hideous monster.

Quite a few viewers, as well as Craven himself, were disappointed by how the transformed Arcane ended up looking. Honestly, though, when I was a kid I thought it looked awesome, and forty years later I still think it holds up. The best description I can come up with for Arcane’s monster form is an amphibious werewolf.

I know some people have suggested that the movie should have tried to have Arcane transform into something like the grotesque, twisted, elongated form that Len Wein & Bernie Wrightson gave the mad scientist when he returned in Swamp Thing #10 (May-June 1974) as seen below on the cover for that issue.

Yes, that worked brilliantly in a comic book, especially with Wrightson’s macabre, hyper-detailed art style. But there’s absolutely no way I can see Wes Craven and his crew pulling that off in live action, not in a movie made in the days before CGI was a thing and whose entire budget was a mere $2.5 million… that’s only about $8 million in 2022 dollars! We’re talking super-low budget here! Sorry, but what the costume & special effects folks came up with for Arcane while filming in 1981 was probably the best that could be achieved under the circumstances.

And, really, that’s how I would sum up the entire movie. Given the circumstances — a miniscule budget, an extremely difficult location shoot, behind-the-scenes creative struggles, all within an era in which movie adaptations of comic books were barely taken seriously — it’s practically a miracle that Swamp Thing turned out as good as it did. Wes Craven, the actors, and the crew all did a fantastic job of taking what could very easily have become a huge disaster and creating an enjoyable, quality movie.

So, yeah, after all these years later I still like Swamp Thing.

Tom Veitch: 1941 to 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interview with comic book artist Mike DeCarlo

Mike DeCarlo has been drawing comic books for 40 years, both as an inker / finisher over a diverse selection of pencilers and doing full artwork. He has worked for a number of publishers, among them DC, Marvel, Valiant, Archie, Bongo, Boom! Studios and IDW. Mike graciously agreed to be interviewed about his lengthy career.

This interview was conducted by e-mail in December 2021.

BH: Hello, Mr. DeCarlo. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start out with your background. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have?

Mike DeCarlo: Born in New Haven, Connecticut, March 1957. Loved cartoons, Newspaper Strips and Comics since I was 4 or 5. Sports of any kind also.

BH: What was your educational background? Did you major in an art-related field?  Was the comic book industry something that you actively hoped to enter?

Mike DeCarlo: Went Southern Connecticut State University in CT in 1975 and 1976 for Art. Found it boring. Began work as a Sports Cartoonist and Political cartoonist in 1977 to 1979. Took the Dick Giordano Art School Course in May, 1979 and after 2 months he hired me as his assistant.

The Brave and the Bold #179 (Oct 1981) written by Martin Pasko, penciled by Ernie Colon, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Ben Oda and colored by Carl Gafford

BH: How did you first find work in comic books? According to the Grand Comics Database, your first published work was inking Ernie Colon’s pencils on a team-up of Batman and the Legion of Super-Heroes in The Brave and the Bold #179 from DC Comics in 1981. How did you receive that assignment?

Mike DeCarlo: By the end of 1980, Giordano told me to go to DC and show my portfolio to Joe Orlando, the Art Director, and he hired me as an inker on the spot. Yes, the Colon job was my first along with “Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk” [DC Special Series #27, Sept. 1981] which I inked with Giordano around the same time.

Green Lantern #150 (March 1982) written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by Joe Staton, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Ben Oda and colored by Anthony Tollin

BH: One of your earliest regular art assignments was inking Joe Staton pencils on Green Lantern, beginning with issue #147 in late 1981. How did that come about? Did you enjoy working with Joe Staton? He’s one of my all-time favorite comic book artists, and I feel the two of you went well together.

Mike DeCarlo: Joe was always a great guy to talk to and incredibly easy to ink. I only remembered it being offered to me at this point.

BH: In recent years you’ve expressed that you wish that you’d been able to focus on penciling and on doing full artwork rather than working almost exclusively as an inker. As a matter of fact, you did have  a few penciling jobs at DC early in your career, namely the Green Lantern Corps back-up story in Green Lantern #155 (Aug 1982) and three installments of the Huntress back-up feature that ran in Wonder Woman #302-304 (April to June 1983). What did you think of your work on these stories? How come you did not do more penciling during this period?

Mike DeCarlo: My penciling was very mediocre then. I had much to still learn. I was not shocked that more penciling was not offered to me.

The Huntress back-up in Wonder Woman #303 (May 1983) written by Joey Cavalieri, penciled by Mike DeCarlo, inked by Tony DeZuñiga, lettered by Duncan Andres and colored by Anthony Tollin

BH: Among the numerous pencilers you’ve worked with over the years has been George Perez, who is known for his hyper-detailed art style and his fondness for drawing huge crowds of characters. You first inked Perez first on Tales of the Teen Titans in 1984 beginning with the now-famous storyline “The Judas Contract” and were on the series for a year. How did you find working with Perez?

Mike DeCarlo: George was exacting and very complex. It was tedious but rewarding when finished.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #4 (July 1985) written by Marv Wolfman, layouts by George Perez, finishes by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Anthony Tollin

BH: You then inked Perez in 1985 on issues #3 and #4 of the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries, which literally had a cast of thousands of characters. What were your thoughts on that assignment? In particular, I was struck by the fact that #4 was the only issue of Crisis on which Perez was credited with only providing layouts, meaning you provided the finished artwork. That must have been a great deal of work. That opening splash page alone, with Supergirl flying above Gotham City, is insanely detailed. [Note to readers: Check out the image above to see exactly what I’m talking about!]

Mike DeCarlo: Giordano told me about Crisis well before it started and that DC would use me and a few others to ink George. It was a landmark series for them. I did what they asked of me but it was very draining to do. I was not totally disappointed when [Jerry] Ordway took over.

Batman #428 (Dec 1988) written by Jim Starlin, penciled by Jim Aparo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Adrienne Roy

BH: You were first paired up with longtime Batman artist Jim Aparo in late 1987, becoming his regular inker for the next four years. During that period you worked with Aparo on several high-profile Batman storylines such as as “Ten Nights of the Beast” and “A Death in the Family.” How did you receive that assignment? What were Aparo’s thoughts on your work? I felt you made an effective art team.

Mike DeCarlo: Again, it was just offered to me and I happily accepted. Jim was pretty easy to ink and he and I got along well. Jim said I did a wonderful job with his pencils. Quite a compliment.

Thor #475 (June 1994) written by Roy Thomas, penciled by M.C. Wyman, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Phil Felix and colored by Ovi Hondru

BH: In the early 1990s you began doing work for Marvel Comics. How did that come about? Eventually in 1993 you became the regular inker on Thor, paired up first with Bruce Zick and then M.C. Wyman. The two of them had very different art styles. How did you approach working over each of their pencils?

Mike DeCarlo: I went to see [Jim] Shooter and a few editors and lined up some work. Marvel was a fairly unfriendly place for me–maybe because I was known as a DC guy? I had issues with both Thor pencilers. I was happy to be on Thor, but those two were not pleasant to work with for me.

Fantastic Four Annual #22 (Summer 1989) written by Mark Gruenwald, penciled by Tom Morgan, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by George Roussos

BH: You’ve said on Facebook that Fantastic Four by Jack Kirby was one of your favorite comic books when you were a kid. You did have a chance to work on a few issues of Fantastic Four in the early 1990s. How did you find the experience? Would you have liked to have done more work with the characters?

Mike DeCarlo: I wish I could have done the FF every month!

BH: What was it like working with Mike Zeck on Bloodshot: Last Stand for Valiant Comics? That was another great collaboration, in my opinion.

Mike DeCarlo: We were the best of friends anyway and I found it a pleasure.

Bloodshot: Last Stand (March 1996) written by Mark Moretti, penciled by Mike Zeck, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Joe Albelo and colored by Frank Lopez

BH: For more than a decade, beginning in 1996, you worked on a variety of series featuring animated characters such as Looney Tunes, Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, and Cartoon Network Block Party for DC Comics. How did you approach working in a style that is very different from so-called traditional superheroes? Some of those animated stories also gave you the opportunity to do full artwork, which I image you enjoyed.

Mike DeCarlo: Animation came easy to me because I was skillful with a brush and enjoyed a highly graphic approach to Art.

Johnny Bravo in Cartoon Network Block Party #21 (July 2006) written by Jim Alexander, drawn by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Travis Lanham and colored by Heroic Age

BH: You’ve inked a diverse selection of pencilers during your career. Do you have any favorites?

Mike DeCarlo: Gil Kane, Michael Golden, Mike Zeck, Joe Staton and Jim Aparo and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez.

BH: What was your general approach to inking?  One thing I’ve noticed about books that you’ve worked on is that your inking style is fairly apparent at a casual glance, yet you also are successful at not subsuming the style of the pencilers you worked with. It seems like it must be a delicate balancing act, one that you accomplish very well.

Mike DeCarlo: I tried to “get into the head” of the penciler and use my art training judiciously.

“The 60’s” montage commission illustrated by Mike DeCarlo

BH: Please let us know what you have been working on in recent years.

Mike DeCarlo: I do tons of commissions, The Black Swan Man as an ongoing Internet Financial Strip and am working on Trinity, a Graphic Novel for European Investors. I don’t ink anymore, unless it’s my own work. I happily take on any commission a client has in mind. I’m also mostly done with a Patreon site for my work patreon.com/MikeDeCarloArt or website mikedecarloart.com

BH: Thank you very much for your time, Mike!

George Perez’s Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Art Sale and Exhibit at the Society of Illustrators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 80th birthday Wonder Woman

Today is the 80th birthday of Wonder Woman, who was created by writer William Moulton Marston & artist H.G. Peter . The character made her debut on October 21, 1941 in the pages of All-Star Comics #8, published by DC Comics with a Dec 1941 / Jan 1942 cover date. The next month Sensation Comics #1 was published with Wonder Woman as the starring cover feature. Six months later, in the summer of 1942, Wonder Woman gained her own solo comic book series.

I imagine that, as with many who were born in the mid 1970s, my first exposure to the character of Wonder Woman was the Super Friends animated series and the live action Wonder Woman television series starring Lynda Carter that originally aired from 1975 to 1979.

To this day I agree with the sentiment that Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman / Diana Prince remains one of the most brilliant casting decisions in any live action adaptation of a comic book property. About a decade ago I bought the entire series on DVD, and it definitely still holds up, in large part due to Carter’s warm, empathetic, strong performance.

The first time I ever read the actual Wonder Woman comic book series was in 1991, towards the tail end of George Perez’s groundbreaking run. In retrospect this was probably not an ideal time to get into the series, as this was right at the start of the convoluted War of the Gods crossover. However, several months later, in early 1992, there came a perfect jumping-on point, when William Messner-Loebs took over as writer on Wonder Woman. I know some fans feel there was a decline in quality under Loebs. Nevertheless, it was the ideal entry for a brand-new reader such as myself who was unfamiliar with the character. Plus the stunningly beautiful cover artwork by Brian Bolland made Wonder Woman a must-buy each month.

In the early 1990s I did pick up a number of the earlier Perez issues at comic conventions, and I agree that they were extremely good. To this day Perez’s work on the character remains among the strongest in her 80 year history.

I followed the Wonder Woman series for the next seven years, for the entirety of Loebs’ run, and then for writer-artist John Byrne’s stint on the series. Although I stopped picking up the book regularly in late 1998, in the years since I’ve periodically returned to Wonder Woman on several different occasions.

I especially enjoyed the short six issue run by Walter Simonson & Jerry Ordway in 2003, the New 52 Wonder Woman by writer Brian Azzarello & artist Cliff Chiang that began in 2011, and the 17 issue revival of Sensation Comics featuring a variety of creative teams bringing their different approaches to the character that ran from 2014 to 2016. Most recently I’ve been enjoying the Sensational Wonder Woman series, which also features different creative line-ups each issue.

Without a doubt I can say that Princess Diana of Themyscira remains one of my favorite comic book characters.

William Moulton Marston was an outspoken feminist, and he created Wonder Woman to be a symbol of female strength & empowerment. Over the last eight decades the character has certainly served as a source of inspiration to many female readers, and to female audiences who have seen her adapted to television, animation and motion pictures.