The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 14

Welcome to the 14th edition of Comic Book Coffee. I previously posted these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge posed by group moderator Jim Thompson was to pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.  The subject I chose was Coffee.

66) Ramón Torrents

“Good to the Last Drop” was drawn by Ramón Torrents and written by Martin Pasko.  It appeared in Vampirella #36, released by Warren Publishing in September 1974.

Christina Kavanaugh, heiress to the Miller Foods fortune, has been having an affair with Bill Wright, VP of Product Improvement.  Unfortunately her husband Jim, current President of Miller Foods, has just found out.  As we see, Jim reacts badly to the news, brutally slapping Christina while she is having her morning coffee.  Jim slaps his wife so hard that she hits her head against the grandfather clock, causing her death.  This leads the grieving, still-jealous Jim to embark on a very twisted plot to gain revenge on Bill Wright, a scheme that centers on Miller Foods’ production of freeze dried coffee.  Fortunately by the end of this grim little tale karma has boomeranged back on Jim, leading him to a fitting end.

“Good to the Last Drop” appears to have afforded Martin Pasko an opportunity to let his very skewed, offbeat sense of humor go extremely wild.  The story is effectively illustrated by Ramón Torrents, a Spanish artist who had previously worked for British publishers Fleetway and D.C. Thompson on several romance titles in the 1960s, followed by short horror stories for American publisher Skywald in the early 1970s.  Torrents drew a number of stories for Warren that saw print in Vampirella, Creepy and Eerie and between 1973 and 1979.  Reportedly he left the comic book field at the end of that decade.

67) Dan DeCarlo & Rudy Lapick

“Power Shortage” from Sabrina the Teenage Witch #60, penciled by Dan DeCarlo, inked by Rudy Lapick, written by Frank Doyle, lettered by Bill Yashida, and colored by Barry Grossman, published by Archie Comics in June 1980.

Sabrina and her boyfriend Harvey are walking home from school when they see a flying carpet whiz by carrying groceries.  Sabrina rushes home and demands to know why her Aunt Hilda is using a flying carpet during the middle of the day.  Hilda explains that she forgot her weekly magical recharge again.  She doesn’t have the power to just “zap” some groceries home like she usually does, and needs to rely on the carpet.  To demonstrate her weakened power, Hilda attempts to levitate her coffee cup over, and it crashes to the floor.  Sabrina tells her Aunt she had better get a recharge soon.  Hilda then realizes that she forgot to pick up lemons at the market, and she sends the flying carpet out again.  Naturally enough, hilarity ensues.

Dan DeCarlo was definitely adept at drawing comedy.  His style was very well suited to Archie Comics, where he did great work for nearly half a century, from the early 1950s to the late 1990s.  For many years DeCarlo’s art served as the basis for the company’s house style.  Sabrina the Teenage Witch was one of the characters he had a hand in creating.

68) Mike Zeck & Denis Rodier

Damned #3, penciled by Mike Zeck, inked by Denis Rodier, written by Steven Grant, and colored by Kurt Goldzung, published by Image Comics in August 1997.

Damned features the recently-paroled Mick Thorne, who is attempting to deliver a message to the sister of his deceased cellmate Doug Orton.  Unfortunately, New Covenant crime boss Silver believes that Mick knows the location of the fortune that Doug stole from the mob before going to prison.  Mick has to avoid Silver’s thugs while trying to locate Doug’s elusive sister.

In this scene Charlotte Dahl of the State Parole Office is working late, attempting to track down Mick, as well as figure out who murdered Mick’s parole officer.  Drinking coffee to keep awake, Charlotte and her assistant begin looking through the files of other ex-cons who are now in New Covenant, searching for any kind of link to Mick.

Damned was a four issue crime noir miniseries that reunited Steven Grant and Mike Zeck, the creative team that had successfully launched the Punisher into super-stardom a decade earlier.  Damned was collected together by Cybrosia Publishing in 2003 with a new epilogue by Grant & Zeck and behind-the-scenes material.  The collected edition was reissued in 2013 by BOOM! Studios.

I’m a huge fan of Zeck, and I really enjoyed his work on this miniseries.  Rodier’s inking was a good fit for the tone of the story.  I definitely recommend picking up the trade paperback.

69) Art Saaf & Vince Colletta

“Never a Bride to Be” from Falling In Love #117, penciled by Art Saaf and inked by Vince Colletta, published by DC Comics in August 1970.

Another coffee page from a romance story?  What is it with people drinking coffee in romance comics?  Maybe that’s why everyone is so emotional and melodramatic; too much caffeine!

Lisa, the boss’ daughter, has invited young, handsome British engineer Derek over to dinner with her family.  It’s all part of a plan to try to get Derek interested in Lisa’s shy sister Dottie.  Derek and Dottie are soon dating, but Dottie is worried that Lisa is going to try to steal him away.  Indeed, Lisa soon realizes that she is attracted to Derek after all.  What’s a girl to do?

Art Saaf’s career stretched back to the Golden Age.  He did a great deal of work for Fiction House throughout the 1940s, and then for Standard Comics in the late 1940s and early 50s.  In the mid 1950s Saaf began working in television; among his jobs was creating storyboards for The Jackie Gleason Show.  He did feelance advertising work throughout the 1960s, and returned to comic books at the end of the decade.  Between 1969 and 1974 he drew a number of romance stories for DC Comics, several issues of Supergirl, and a handful of war and horror tales.

Saaf is paired here with Vince Colletta, one of his regular inkers at DC.  Colletta’s inking is fairly heavy, but you can still perceive Saaf’s expert storytelling and use of facial expressions & body language to establish the personalities of the characters.  He certainly does an excellent job differentiating between the outgoing Lisa and introverted Dottie here.  I like the awkward humor of those bottom two panels and Lisa and her parents none-too-subtly leave Dottie and Derek to have coffee alone together.

Saaf and Colletta both excelled at drawing beautiful women, so pairing them up was perhaps an inspired choice, after all.  Romance comics historian Jacque Nodell expressed a fondness for their collaborations on her blog Sequential Crush.

70) Sergio Cariello & James Pascoe

Here are two coffee-drinking pages from Azrael: Agent of the Bat penciled by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Sergio Cariello, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, from DC Comics.  Issue #83 was inked by James Pascoe and lettered by Ken Bruzenak, published December 2001.  Issue #99 was inked by Cariello and lettered by Jack Morelli, published April 2003.

On the first page Lilhy, a member of the sinister Order of St. Dumas, seeks to understand the nature of evil.  She visits the Joker, currently incarcerated at the maximum security prison the Slab, to see if the insane super-villain can offer any insights.  Unfortunately she arrives just as the Joker releases a modified form of his “Joker venom” that transforms everyone in the Slab into doppelgangers of the Clown Prince of Crime.

The now-Jokerized Lilhy returns to Gotham City, where she meets with the psychiatrist Bryan.  Over coffee Bryan attempts to explain to Lilhy that humanity has struggled to understand the nature of evil throughout its entire existence.

On the second page Azrael, aka Jean-Paul Valley, is meeting with Dr. Leslie Thompkins, who has recently been treating him.  Due to the genetic manipulation and brainwashing inflicted upon Jean-Paul in his childhood by the Order, he has been experiencing serious health issues, as well as another bout of mental instability.  It appears that at long last Jean-Paul has finally stabilized, both physically and psychologically.  Over coffee with Leslie, the directionless Jean-Paul wonders what to do next.  She urges him to try to live his own life, and find happiness.

“The Evil Men Do” and “Last Respects” are written by the legendary Denny O’Neil, who passed away in June at the age of 81.  O’Neil co-created Azrael and wrote the entirety of the character’s solo series, which ran for 100 issues.  He appeared to have a fondness for the character.  Interviewed about Azrael in 2009, O’Neil had this to say…

“I wish I’d done one or two things differently, and I think the series kind of lost its way for a while in the middle of the run.  But all that aside…I don’t think there’s ever been a character exactly like Az before or since and I generally enjoyed working on him.  I wish the 100th issue could have been stronger, but it was wonderful of Mike [Carlin] to let me write it; I was only weeks past major surgery at the time and maybe a ways from my best.”

O’Neil was an intelligent and contemplative individual, qualities that were frequently present in his writing.  Although the “Joker: Last Laugh” crossover was a ridiculous event, O’Neil appears to have used this tie-in issue to briefly touch upon the subjective nature of human morality, and our struggles to understand if our actions are ethical.

Likewise, as I recently discussed on this blog, O’Neil utilized Leslie Thompins, another character he created, as a counterpoint to Batman and Azrael.  Leslie is passionately dedicated to fighting for social justice, but she is an avowed pacifist.  In the last storyline of this series O’Neil had Leslie calling out Batman for dragging the emotionally damaged Azrael further into a life of endless violence, and she works closely with Jean-Paul hoping that she will get him to see that he can walk his own path.

Brazilian-born Sergio Cariello penciled Azrael from issue #69 to the finale in issue #100.  He was initially paired with James Pasco, who inked the series for seven years.  On the last nine issues Cariello inked his own work.

Cariello was a student at the Joe Kubert School, and he later taught there.  Thinking about it, I suppose you could describe Cariello’s work as a cartoony version of Kubert’s style.  The Kubert influence certainly became more apparent in the issues where Cariello did full artwork.  It’s another good demonstration of how different inkers affect the look of the finished art.

I actually did another 30 of these Daily Comic Book Coffee entries on the Comic Book Historians group for a grand total of 100. At some point I may re-post the rest of them here on my blog. However, all of the entries have already been archived by Rik Offenberger at First Comics News. Rik is also responsible for the nifty Daily Comic Book Coffee banner seen at the top of this blog post. Thanks again, Rik.

First Comics News is currently presenting my Comic Book Cats posts, as well. I hope you will check them out.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Ten

Welcome to the tenth 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. I’m hoping to do 100 of these entries on FB, which means we’re halfway there.

46) Frank Miller & Klaus Janson

Here’s a coffee-drinking cover, courtesy of penciler Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson.  This is for Amazing Spider-Man Annual #15, written by Denny O’Neil, lettered by Jim Novak, and colored by Bob Sharon, published by Marvel Comics in September 1981.

I know sometimes covers are designed by people other than the credited penciler, although I cannot find any info to that effect for this one.  Regardless, whether it was Frank Miller himself or someone else, this is an incredibly striking image.  The reader is seeing through the eyes of Doctor Octopus as he drinks his morning coffee and reads the Daily Bugle’s account of the latest battle between Spider-Man and the Punisher.

In the last couple of decades, what with the proliferation of ninjas, prostitutes, racism and Goddamn Batmen in his stories, it is easy to forget what made Miller such a well-regarded creator in the first place.  Looking through this Annual recently, I was reminded what an absolutely incredible storyteller he can be.  Miller’s layouts for this story are astonishing.  He does a hell of a job showing Doctor Octopus making full, creative, deadly use of his mechanical tentacles.

The inks / finishes by Klaus Janson in this Annual are very effective.  Janson’s inking has always been wonderfully well-suited to creating moody atmospheres.  His artistic collaborations with Miller, here and on the ongoing Daredevil series, are certainly well-regarded.

47) Michele Witchipoo

Here’s a page from the Psycho Bunny story “Summer of COVID19” written & drawn by Michele Witchipoo, which is currently on Webtoon.

Psycho Bunny is a misanthropic, foul-mouthed, alcoholic rabbit who lives in Queens, NYC.  He been featured in a series of self-published comic books created by Witchipoo over the past 15 years.  This latest story sees Psycho Bunny dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic, and the accompanying insanity, in his own rage-filled way.

On this page Psycho Bunny is at his job at Any Company Inc, stuck listening to his annoying co-worker Bill the Badger, who thinks COVID-19 is a hoax.  Glancing around to make sure the coast is clear, Psycho Bunny slips out an airplane bottle…

“The manager isn’t around. Gonna sneak some booze into this shitty coffee.”

Yes, Michele is my girlfriend.  I may be biased, but I think she is a very talented artist.  She has self-published a number of comic books, and her work has been included in several small press anthologies.  Michele’s illustrations were first published in 2010 by MTV Press.

“Psycho Bunny: Summer of COVID19” can be viewed at the link below.  Stay tuned for future installments.

https://www.webtoons.com/en/challenge/psycho-bunny-summer-of-covid19-/list?title_no=446519

48) Al Milgrom & Joe Sinnott

Avengers #246, penciled by Al Milgrom, inked by Joe Sinnott, written by Roger Stern, lettered by Jim Novak, and colored by Christie Scheele, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1984 cover date.

Al Milgrom shows off his strong storytelling chops on this page featuring the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.  Inking is by Joe Sinnott, his third appearance in this Comic Book Coffee series.  For many years Sinnott was a much in-demand embellisher at Marvel.  I enjoyed the work Milgrom and Sinnott did together.  They were a solid art team.

During a meeting at the White House, the Vision attempts to convince the President that the Avengers should report directly to the Oval Office.  This is all part of the Vision’s plan for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes to gain more power & responsibility, with the final secret goal of the Vision himself assuming control of the world.

The Vision now seeks to establish himself as a “man of the people” with whom the public is comfortable.  In order to make his profile more public, he and the Scarlet Witch are returning to New York not by Avengers Quinjet but by commercial airliner.

To the Scarlet Witch’s surprise, the Vision orders drinks from the stewardess.  “My wife will have tea with lemon, and I’ll take coffee… cream, no sugar!”  This prompts another passenger to remark, “’Ey, how about that? The Vizh takes his coffee the same way I do!”  A satisfied Vision thinks to himself “Perfect! Just the reaction I wanted!”  Yep, the Vision certainly understands him human psychology!

All of this leaves the Scarlet Witch bewildered. “He never drinks coffee! What is going on?”  I don’t know if Roger Stern intended this to be a deliberate reference, but this scene always reminds me of the 1980 disaster parody movie Airplane!

49) Frank Turner & Bill Black

Femforce #44, penciled & inked by Frank Turner, written by Bill Black, and lettered by Tim Twonky, published by AC Comics in December 1991.

Let’s take another look at Femforce.  Having been exposed to a flawed version of the chemical compound that originally gave Ms. Victory her powers, the Femforce team leader was transformed into the anti-social bad girl Rad.  Breaking away from Femforce, Rad led a wild, hedonistic lifestyle.

Rad recently lost a bundle in Atlantic City, and so reluctantly agrees to create a youth formula for a wealthy woman who promises to pay her a fortune.  What Rad does not realize is that the elderly lady and her assistant are actually Lady Luger and Fritz Von Voltzman, who she fought as Ms. Victory back during World War II.  The Nazi war criminals are plotting to duplicate the chemical, and they slip Rad a drugged cup of coffee to incapacitate her.

Frank Turner got his start in the mid 1980s working for black & white independent companies Graphik Publikations, Eternity and Malibu.  In the early 1990s he drew a number of stories for AC Comics, as well as a few jobs for Millenium Publications, doing some very nice work at both companies.  I certainly liked the art he did for Femforce.  Turner then worked for Marvel between 1992 and 1994 as an inker on several different titles.

Following the mid-1990s implosion in comic books Turner reportedly worked for Sony Animation in California for a period of times, after which he moved back to his native Birmingham, AL.  Unfortunately he passed away in 2008 at the much too young age of 47.

50) Khary Randolph & Rich Perotta

New Mutants volume 2 #13 penciled by Khary Randolph, inked by Rich Perotta, written by Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir, lettered by Dave Sharpe, and colored by Ian Hannin & Rob Ro, published by Marvel Comics with a June 2004 cover date.

The second New Mutants series saw the original team becoming teachers and Xavier’s School, instructing a new generation of young mutants in the use of their powers & abilities.  This final issue of volume two served as a bookend to the debut of the New Mutants in Marvel Graphic Novel #4 two decades earlier.

Donald Pierce, the cyborg terrorist who was the original team’s very first adversary way back when, has returned.  Pierce and his new team of mutant-hating Reavers arrive in Salem Center NY planning to eliminate Josh Foley, a teenager who worked with them before he learned he was a mutant, along with any other students at Xavier’s School that they can set their sights on.

Encountering Cannonball, Mirage, Karma, Wolfbane and Sunspot, the original line-up, a bloodthirsty Pierce gloats that the last time they met he nearly killed them.  However, this time the former students handily defeat Pierce and the Reavers, showing just how much they’ve grown in the years since.

DeFilippis & Weir do a good job with the downtime scenes that were a hallmark of the original series.  Prior to Pierce’s attack, the reunited original class head to The Grind Stone coffee shop to touch base and catch up.  Sunspot, the incurable ladies man Roberto DaCosta, just cannot help flirting with Luna, an attractive barista at The Grind Stone, leading Karma to playfully slap him upside the head.  Randolph & Perotta do a wonderful job illustrating the fun, comedic moments of this scene.

Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice

This morning, over on the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, I posted images from a couple of issues of Azrael: Agent of the Bat for today’s Comic Book Coffee entry. Denny O’Neil, who passed away last week, wrote the entire 100 issue run of Azrael.

Thinking it over, I feel that O’Neil’s work on the Azrael series was underrated.  He co-created the character and played a major role in Jean-Paul Valley’s development.

Azrael was initially conceived solely to serve the role of an insane, violent substitute to Batman during the “Knightfall” storyline, to demonstrate why it was important that the real Batman not become a ruthless killer.  But following the conclusion of “Knightfall” O’Neil appears to have put a great deal of effort into developing Jean-Paul Valley into a three-dimensional character, to remake him as an actual hero.

Another character that O’Neil created, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, became an important presence in the Azrael series, beginning during the “No Man’s Land” crossover in Azrael: Agent of the Bat #55 (August 1999), penciled by Roger Robinson and inked by James Pascoe.

In a 2014 interview with 13th Dimension, O’Neil explained that Leslie was inspired by social activist Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that Leslie was a character who embodied much of O’Neil’s own beliefs.  Leslie dedicated her life to fighting against injustice & inequality, to helping the poor & downtrodden, and she sought to find constructive ways in which to make real, lasting changes to society.

This two page scene below is from Azrael: Agent of the Bat #92 (September 2002), written by O’Neil, penciled & inked by Sergio Cariello, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, with a cover by Mike Zeck & Jerry Ordway.  It encapsulates Leslie’s beliefs, and in turn offers an insight into O’Neil’s own worldview.

Azrael is missing and presumed dead (that happens a lot in superhero comic books).  Leslie, who has been attempting to help the psychologically damaged Jean-Paul Valley for some time, is angry, and she call Batman out on the role he played in this tragedy.  She accurately points out to the Dark Knight all of the other ways in which Jean-Paul could have fought against injustice, and she castigates Batman for instead influencing the young man to follow in his vigilante footsteps.

In a 2017 interview with Pop Mythology writer / artist Howard Chaykin had this to say about Batman:

“Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works.”

O’Neil was obviously a very intelligent & insightful person.  He wrote and edited the Batman titles for many years, so I am certain he perceived this juvenile fantasy element of the character.  As one of the primary caretakers of the Dark Knight’s world he probably felt he could not critique this too directly.  However, right from the early days of his career O’Neil actively sought to address social & political issues in his stories.  Leslie was one way in which he did so throughout the years, presenting her as a counterpoint to Batman’s ideology & methods.

O’Neil often had Leslie voicing a great deal of criticism towards Batman.  Leslie believes that Batman, in his identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, has the resources & influence to help peacefully shape the world into a better place, and that it is there where he ought to be focusing his time & energies.

Leslie Thompkins is one of those characters that I never quite understood when I was younger.  However, as I have gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I have come to appreciate the character, and to recognize that O’Neil utilized her to attempt to get readers to think.  It makes sense that O’Neil would use Leslie as a central figure in the Azrael series.  Just as within the stories Leslie worked to help Jean-Paul become a better person, in his writing O’Neil attempted to make Azrael a better character.

Several years ago O’Neil was a guest at a small comic book convention in Brooklyn.  One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of Azrael.  I do not recall his exact words, but after looking that book over he said something along the lines of “We really tried to make the character work.”

O’Neil could be critical of his own writing, and he reflected that perhaps he could have done a better job on the Azrael series.  Nevertheless, in spite of the flaws, I appreciate the work he did with Jean-Paul Valley and Leslie Thompkins, to have the Azrael series be something more than just another Batman spin-off or superhero slugfest.  As he did on a number of other occasions, O’Neil sought to stretch the boundaries of the genre in an intelligent, mature manner.

Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

Happy 80th birthday Batman: How I became a fan of the Dark Knight

This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.

Detective Comics 27 cover smallBatman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.  Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week.  As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others.  Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.

I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman.  Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.Batman and Robin tv show

I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven.  My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY.  For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.

Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch.  Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.

I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989.  That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country.  Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books.  Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”

In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.”  I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating.  So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.

Batman 431 cover signed

Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him.  It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.

This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier.  ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil.  That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.

At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor).  In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts.  Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.

Batman 431 pg 7

The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins.  It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)

I was hooked.

The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432.  “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue.  It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it.  I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo.  They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.

Batman 431 pg 13

By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale.  Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing.  George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.

Batman 436 cover smallAfter that I was a regular reader.  I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo.  They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories.  Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face.  Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.

During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608.  The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell.  Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning.  I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.Detective Comics 608 cover small

As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books.  That is definitely the case with me.  In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists.  I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is.  Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.

Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58.  Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72.  Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s.  He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.

Detective Comics 627 cover smallReleased in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.

As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman.  As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.

I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions.  A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself.  I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team.  It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman.  Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers.  Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak.  I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes.  Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.

From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it.  I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.

Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia.  But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week.  Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that.  Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers.  It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.

The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson.  It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with.  The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school.  Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.

One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley.  Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s.  They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart.  The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character.  And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.

Happy birthday, Batman.  Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond.  Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.

Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

Today is Batman Day, celebrating all things relating to the Dark Knight of Gotham City, one of DC Comics’ most iconic comic book characters.  Today is also Saturday, or rather Caturday, the weekly celebration of all things cat-related.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.  Catwoman, real name Selina Kyle, made her debut just a year later in the pages of Batman #1.  Both characters were created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.

For nearly eight decades the grim vigilante Batman and the sexy thief Catwoman have had an adversarial relationship with heavy romantic undertones.  There was a mutual attraction from the start, one often undermined by the fact that Bruce and Selina have typically been on opposite side of the law.

Since this year Batman Day falls on Caturday, I am taking a quick look at the history between Batman and his longtime frenemy Catwoman.

Batman 65 cover

Creator credits in the Golden Age of comic books were unfortunately often sparse, but the GCD credits the cover artwork to Batman #65 (June-July 1951) to Win Mortimer, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charles Paris.  Whoever drew it, it’s a nice cover.  Both it, and the story inside by Finger, Kane, Schwartz & Paris, demonstrate that right from the start Batman never knew if each time he met Catwoman she would turn out to be an enemy, an ally, or something in-between.

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

“The Jungle Cat-Queen!” is an exciting tale written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris, and appeared in Detective Comics #211 (Sept 1954).  Catwoman plays a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Batman and Robin on a jungle island.  Sprang is considered the quintessential Batman artist of the 1950s.  I first read this one in the excellent collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

(Pay no attention to the contratually obligated Bob Kane byline.  Kane had nothing to do with this comic, or any other Batman story published after the early 1950s.  Unfortunately he loved to take credit for other people’s work.  At least nowadays we have a much better idea of who did what.)

Batman 197 pg 18

Batman #197 (Dec 1967) written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Frank Springer & Sid Greene sees Catwoman determined to marry Batman… whether he wants to or not!  Yeah, this one certainly won’t win any awards for progressive depictions of woman!  This was pretty typical of DC’s Silver Age superhero comics, the target audience for which was pre-teen boys. Oh, well… nice artwork by the underrated Springer & Greene, at least.

For an entertaining, in-depth look at Batman #197 by someone who read it when it first came out I highly recommend heading over to Alan Stewart’s excellent Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.

Batman 256 pg 14

Okay, this is certainly better!  Batman #256 (May-June 1974) by writer Denny O’Neil & artists Irv Novick & Dick Giordano, has Batman and Robin investigating whether or  not Catwoman has committed a murder at the circus.  Selina is innocent, of course, since she’s no killer, but she is planning to “liberate” the tigers from the circus, so she can return the large cats to the natrual world.  While Batman disapproves of Catwoman’s larcenous activities, he nevertheless admires her strong love for animals.

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

DC Super Stars #17 (Nov-Dec 1977) featured the origin of the Huntress, heroine of Earth 2 and the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman.  This story, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton & Bob Layton, opens with the wedding of Bruce & Selina, who at least in this dimension found love & happiness together for two decades, until tragedy eventually struck.  It’s a great story, so go find a copy and read it!

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

Meanwhile, back on Earth 1, Batman and Catwoman were still doing their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.   Mike W. Barr was one of the writers to delve into their rocky relationship, as witnessed in this scene from Detective Comics #569 (Dec 1986) expertly illustrated by Alan Davis & Paul Neary.

Batman 611 pg 21

In the post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever other reality-altering mega crossovers DC has thrown our way in the past 30 years, Batman and Catwoman still had that mutual attraction going.  After numerous encounters that saw them working in various permutations of friends and foes, they finally officially became a couple in Batman #611 (Feb 2003) written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams.

I am generally not a huge fan of Lee’s work.  I find his style too busy and hyper-detailed.  Having said that, this is a beautiful splash page which has become an iconic image.

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, or words to that effect.  Batman and Catwoman’s ongoing relationship has hit quite a few speedbumps.  One of the reasons for this is that the two come from very different backgrounds: Bruce is a millionaire, and Selina grew up on the streets of Gotham City’s poorest neighborhoods.  As a result the two have often disagreed over matters of crime, punishment and justice.  This was expertly illustrated in Batman / Catwoman: Follow the Money (Jan 2011) written & illustrated by Howard Chaykin.  It’s an enjoyable story, and I recommend searching out a copy.

I know a lot of people were upset that Bruce & Selina did not actually tie the knot during writer Tom King’s current run on Batman.  But, honestly, as you can see from the above, they already bicker like an old married couple, so at this point it’s really just a formality!

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

I am going to close out with the cover artwork for Batman: Gotham Adventures #50 (July 2002) which features the animated incarnations of Bruce & Selina.  Illustrated by the late, great, much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this image is a beautiful snapshot of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman.

Black Lightning strikes twice!

For a number of years I’ve very much wanted to be able to read the original Black Lightning series created and written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden published by DC Comics in the late 1970s. Due to disagreements between Isabella and DC management, for a time the possibility of a trade paperback seemed extremely unlikely.  Fortunately last year Isabella and DC were able to begin working out these differences, which paved the way for the release of a collection.

Black Lightning trade paperback

The trade paperback contains the eleven issue run of Black Lightning that was published between April 1977 and September 1978, as well as the material that was originally intended for issue #12 before the series was abruptly cancelled as part of the infamous DC Implosion (it eventually saw print in World’s Finest Comics #260 in December 1979). Isabella wrote the first ten issues, and the final two are by Denny O’Neil.  Von Eeden was the penciler on all of the issues except the last one, which was by Mike Netzer.  The series was edited by Jack C. Harris.

Isabella wrote a brand-new introduction for this volume that details the conception of the series, and the idealism which guided him as a writer:

“I kept thinking about creating a new African-American hero. I wanted a character to whom our young readers could relate, a character who would inspire them as Superman and Captain America had inspired me.”

Jefferson Pierce grew up in the “Suicide Slum” of Metropolis. He possessed both a strong affinity for academics and tremendous athletic abilities.  After winning gold medals at two Olympics, Jefferson went into teaching.  As the first issue opens, Jefferson has returned to Suicide Slum for the first time in years to work at his alma mater Garfield High.  He hopes that just as he was able to escape the crime & poverty of the ghetto, he can help to inspire the next generation to do the same.

Jefferson is alarmed to discover that the organized crime entity known as “The 100” has established a stranglehold on Suicide Slum, and that its drug dealers are a regular presence in the hallways of Garfield High. Jefferson attempts to drive them off, only to see The 100 strike back at him through his students.  This prompts Jefferson, with the aid of his mentor, tailor Peter Gambi, to create the costumed identity of Black Lightning.  Thus disguised, Jefferson launches a one-man war against The 100.

Black Lightning 1 pg 14

It’s interesting that Isabella decided to set this series in Superman’s hometown. At first it might seem odd that The 100 have taken root in the same city inhabited by the Man of Steel.  But of course Superman has usually specialized in tackling menaces that threaten the entire world.  More importantly, Superman really is not able to do a great deal about the social & economic ills that create fertile ground in which the weed of The 100 flourishes.  So it makes more sense that a “street-level” hero such as Black Lightning, who grew up in Suicide Slum and who knows its people intimately, is more suited to combating The 100.

Nevertheless, Isabella does establish that although The 100 and their Metropolis chief Tobias Whale (imagine Al Capone meets Moby Dick) are primarily concerned with eliminating Black Lightning, they also regard Superman as a potential threat, and so have plans to eventually deal with him. This leads to the two crime-fighters meeting, and Isabella does a fine job highlighting both their differences and their similarities.

It is readily apparent that Black Lightning was a labor of love on Isabella’s part. He put a great deal of thought into who Jefferson Pierce is, what motivates him, how he feels about his students, and his ambivalent feelings regarding his violent alter ego.  In the first ten issues Isabella did excellent work developing the character and establishing his supporting cast.

I wish we could have seen more of Jefferson in his role as a teacher at Garfield High, which was often barely touched upon in these stories. Unfortunately at this time American comic books had been reduced to 17 pages, rather than the usual 22, which severely curtailed the ability of many writers to develop subplots.  Given the abbreviated page count, Isabella no doubt did the best he could in the space provided.  As I recall, years later when Isabella returned to Black Lightning for an acclaimed eight issue run in 1995, he focused as much on Jefferson’s work as a teacher as he did his vigilante activities.

The two stories written by O’Neil are somewhat more underwhelming, at least in my estimation. O’Neil is definitely a very good writer when he is passionate about a character or a story.  His work on Batman is justifiably regarded as legendary.  This, however, just seems more by-the-numbers, at least compared to the energy that Isabella obviously brought to the series.

Black Lightning 7 pg 15

The penciling by Von Eeden on Black Lightning is very good, all the more so when you consider that this was his first professional assignment. He was only 17 years old when he began on the series.  Although much of his wonderful signature style and the dynamic, unconventional layouts he would later utilize are not yet on display, you can still see from these issues the great potential and that Von Eeden was just beginning to develop.

On the first two issues Von Eeden is inked by Frank Springer, a talented artist who had been working in comic books since the early 1960s. The collaboration between newcomer Von Eeden and veteran Springer is very effective, resulting in some great artwork.

Beginning on issue #3, though, Vince Colletta assumes the inking chores, and the difference is immediately noticeable. His characteristic feathery line is on display, and in places it threatens to overwhelm Von Eeden’s nascent style.  I certainly would not say that Colletta’s inking on Black Lightning is among the worse work that he’s done.  Some of his work on these issues is actually rather effective.  It is just that, speaking from personal taste, I’d have preferred if Springer could have remained on the series longer.

Much like Von Eeden, Netzer was relatively new to comic books when he penciled the final story in this collection. He was already doing good work around this time, although his style was still developing.  Colletta’s inking unfortunately does Netzer few favors on this story, although there are some nice layouts on display.

Black Lightning 9 cover

Topping it all off, so to speak, is Rich Buckler. The Bronze Age legend penciled all but two of the covers for Black Lightning, creating some very dynamic pieces.

Definitely pick up a copy of the first Black Lightning collection. It’s a really good read.  And hopefully it does well enough that it prompts DC to release further trade paperbacks.  The excellent 1995 series that Isabella did with artist Eddy Newell is also long overdue for reprinting.

Batman co-creator Bill Finger finally receives official recognition

If you have ever read any Batman comic books published by DC Comics, you will probably have noticed this credit: “Batman created by Bob Kane”

For 75 years the official position held by DC Comics and its predecessor National Comics was that Bob Kane was the sole creator of Batman.  This was a result of a contract signed between National and Kane after the Batman character made his debut.  The notion that Kane devised Batman on his own was one that Kane himself spent many years propagating.

What many Batman fans did not realize until the character had been in existence for well over half a century was that the Dark Knight was actually the co-creation of Kane and writer Bill Finger.  Finger suggested various key elements of Batman’s costume.  He created Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne and devised the origin of a young boy who witnessed his parents’ murders and swore to avenge their deaths by waging war on crime.  Finger co-created the Batmobile and the Bat-Cave, and is believed to have chosen the name “Gotham City” for Batman’s hometown.

Finger was also involved in creating many members of Batman’s supporting cast and rogue’s gallery, notably Commissioner Gordon, Robin, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Scarecrow, and the Riddler.  Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker was created by the three-way collaboration of Finger, Kane and artist Jerry Robinson.

Unfortunately, for decades Finger’s contributions were ignored or downplayed by DC Comics.  There were certain individuals, such as Paul Levitz and Denny O’Neil, who did wish to give Finger greater credit.  But they were hampered by DC’s contracts with Kane and, following his death in 1998, his estate.

That is, until this week, when the following appeared in the credits of the Batman books for the very first time…

Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger

“Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger”

For many years, every time I read an issue of Batman or Detective Comics or any other Bat-related book and I saw the old credit “Batman created by Bob Kane” I would mentally add “and Bill Finger” after it.  As with many other fans that over time learned about Finger’s key role in the creation of Batman, I hoped that one day he would receive official recognition for his contributions.  So I am definitely happy to see this come to pass.

It is true that I think that the new credit line really ought to read “Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.”  But considering that for decades it seemed an absolute impossibility that Finger would ever receive any credit, we have to be satisfied with this.

The story of Bill Finger is just one of many that should serve as a warning to all people working in creative fields.  It not only demonstrates the dangers of being shortchanged by Corporate America, but also the unfortunate possibility of being taken advantage of by a fellow creator who sees an opportunity to grab the lion’s share of credit and financial rewards at your expense.

Bill the Boy Wonder cover

Obviously there is a great deal more to what occurred between Bob Kane, Bill Finger and National / DC Comics.  I strongly recommend that those who are interested in the full story pick up a copy of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ty Templeton, which was published in 2012.  Nobleman is one of the people who in recent years has actively championed the cause of Finger finally receiving recognition for his contributions.

Templeton, who himself has worked on various Batman stories over the years, effectively (and humorously) demonstrated the importance of Bill Finger’s contributions to Batman via a comic strip he featured on his blog.  Appropriately enough, this is entitled “What if Bob Kane had created Bat-Man without Bill Finger?”

What if Batman by Ty Templeton

Yes, if it had not been for Bob Kane, there wouldn’t have been a superhero called “the Bat-Man.”  But without Bill Finger’s important contributions, that “Bat-Man” would have been very different, and it is doubtful that he would have become an incredibly popular, iconic figure who has endured for over three quarters of a century.

Finger was an incredibly inventive writer.  He also co-created the original Green Lantern with artist Mart Nodell and Wildcat with artist Irwin Hasen.  During his decades-long career Finger wrote many imaginative, memorable comic book stories.

Finger’s official recognition as Batman’s co-creator is long overdue.  He unfortunately passed away in 1974, before his role in Batman’s creation became widely known.  But I am happy that his granddaughter Athena Finger was able to see this achieved.

New York Comic Fest 2014 Convention Report

As I mentioned in my previous post, Michele and I went to the New York Comic Fest last Saturday, which was held at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.  It’s interesting that there was a three-way duel of sorts between comic cons in the NY metro area that weekend.  In addition to the Comic Fest, there was also a mini-version of the NY Comic Con at the Javits Center, as well as a decent-sized show out on Long Island.

Michele and I hadn’t been out of the City since last year, so we chose to go to the White Plains show.  I actually grew up in different parts of Westchester, and it was nice to be back for a day.  Michele and I took the Metro North train up.  The County Center was about a 15 minute walk from the train station.  It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot, the perfect weather to walk around.

Fred and Lynn Hembeck New York Comic Fest

The first guest whose table I went up to at the show was Fred Hembeck.  I’ve been a fan of Hembeck’s work for many years.  I’ve corresponded with him by e-mail and Facebook, and I got a cool re-interpretation of the cover to Captain America #291 done by him a few years ago.  But except for one time years back when I ran into him for about 30 seconds walking around a comic show in Upstate New York, I’ve never really met him.  It was great talking with Fred and his wife Lynn, who are both nice people.  Fred autographed my Spectacular Spider-Ham trade paperback, and he drew a cool piece in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

While I was at Fred’s table, Michele was nearby chatting with underground artist John Holmstrom.  The founding editor of Punk Magazine in 1975, Holmstrom’s has also worked on The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, High Times and a number of album covers.  Michele is a big fan of Holmstrom’s art, so she was thrilled to meet him.  He was nice enough to do a sketch for her.  Michele surprised me by buying me a vintage issue of Punk Magazine as a present.  It was issue #17, which featured the Singing Pimple comic strip.

Rudy Nebres New York Comic Fest

Also at the show was Filipino-born artist Rudy Nebres.  I am a huge fan of his amazingly detailed, superbly rendered art, especially his work on Vampirella over the years.  I brought along several books to get signed, including the two issue horror miniseries Maura that was published by Berserker Comics in 2009.  Nebres’ pencils for it were exquisite, some of the best work of his entire career.  I was really happy to get those autographed.  I wish I’d had the funds to get one of his amazing sketches.  Fortunately I’ve obtained a couple of pieces by him in the past.

I was thrilled to see Steve Mannion and Una McGurk again at the convention.  The two of them recently tied the knot.  It was nice to be able to congratulate them in person.  I finally picked up a copy of Steve’s Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights special, which I missed finding in the stores when it came out last December.  I just wished I’d remembered to bring him a bag of Pirate’s Booty Popcorn as a present!

Steve Mannion and Una McGurk New York Comic Fest

Another creator at the show who I’d never met before was Paul Kupperberg.  Michele has really been enjoying the Life With Archie series that Kupperberg has been writing for the last three years.  That’s the great magazine-sized publication from Archie Comics that has the two possible futures where Archie marries Veronica and Betty, and we see what happens to the inhabitants of Riverdale as a result of each of those choices.  I’ve also read Life With Archie from time to time, and it is really well written.  Michele had Kupperberg autograph some of those for her.   He also signed my copy of the first issue of The Charlton Arrow, as well as Action Comics #598, the first appearance of Checkmate, the covert ops organization he co-created at DC Comics in the late 1980s.

Paul Kupperberg New York Comic Fest

I also had the opportunity to meet Peter Gillis, who wrote some great stories in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s.  I’m a fan of his work and so, once again, it was cool to get a few things autographed.  I also saw Don McGregor and, as I mentioned before, bought a copy of the Sable 30th Anniversary Edition from him.  Other creators at the show were Josh Neufeld, David Gallaher, Steve Ellis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Basil Gogos and Joe Martino.  I got to see Bronze Age legend Herb Trimpe once again.  It’s odd, in that I’ve met him at a number of conventions in the past, but I didn’t have a single issue of Incredible Hulk signed by him, even though that’s the character he is most identified with.  So this time I remembered to bring my copy of Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which Trimpe autographed for me.

Longtime Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil was at Comic Fest.  For most of the day he was on different panel discussion.  I did manage to catch him after the “Batman at 75: Then and Now” panel, when he was signing at his table for a little while.  There was a looooong line, and the person waiting in front of me looked and acted almost exactly like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  Yeah, just the sort who gives comic book fans a bad name!  But I finally got to the front of the line and had a couple of Batman trade paperbacks signed by O’Neil.  I really wanted to ask him some questions, but I didn’t want to hold up the line.  At least I got a photo with him.

Ben and Denny O'Neil New York Comic Fest

All in all, New York Comic Fest was a nice convention.  Michele and I both had fun there.  It was very casual and laid-back, with some great guests and panel discussions.  It did appear that attendance was a bit low, probably due to those other competing two shows in the tri-state area.  I hope that the organizers had a successful convention, because I would certainly like to see New York Comic Fest return in 2015.

My only original art acquisition that day was the cool Beautiful Dreamer sketch by Fred Hembeck.  Well, I was on a budget, and also shooting for quality over quantity.  I was certainly happy to have obtained it and, as I said, to have finally met Fred.

Beautiful Dreamer Fred Hembeck

Mid-afternoon Michele and I left the County Center.  We took a walk down Central Avenue, and went to visit my grandparents, who live in White Plains.  Again, the weather was pleasant, so even though it was a bit of a long walk, it was good to get some fresh air.  I’m happy that I was able to see my grandparents, since they’re up there in years nowadays.

And then it was back to the train station to catch the train home.  We didn’t want to stay too late in White Plains.  After all, we had to get home to feed the cats.  Nettie and Squeaky can be quite demanding when it comes to food, you know.  Never keep a cat waiting if you can avoid it!

All photos courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  Thanks, hon.

Happy birthday to Trevor Von Eeden

Time for another birthday blog post!  Today is the birthday of artist Trevor Von Eeden, who was born on July 24, 1959.  Trevor is an absolutely amazing artist, as well as a cool guy.  It has been a pleasure to have corresponded with him for a number of years now.

Trevor first came into the comic book biz in 1977 at the young age of 16, when he was assigned to draw Black Lightning, the very first African American superhero series at DC Comics which was created by writer Tony Isabella.  Trevor’s work on Black Lightning definitely showed promise, but unfortunately the series was cancelled a year later during the now-infamous “DC Implosion.”  Nevertheless, Trevor remained at the drawing board, illustrating a variety of stories for DC.

Trevor has gone on record as stating his work as an artist took a quantum leap forward in 1982 when he illustrated Batman Annual #8.  Written by Mike W. Barr, “The Messiah of the Crimson Sun” sees the Dark Knight in an epic confrontation with his immortal foe Ra’s al Ghul.  Trevor’s art is astounding, featuring stunningly dramatic layouts.  Paired up with colorist Lynn Varley, Trevor’s illustrations are simply fantastic, and an indicator that even better work was on the horizon from him.  I am genuinely surprised that this story has never been reprinted.  Fortunately, I was able to find a copy in the back issue bins of Midtown Comics a few years ago.

Batman annual 8 pg 36

More quality work followed from Trevor in a four issue Green Arrow miniseries published by DC in 1983.  In the mid-1980s, he also did some work for Marvel, before returning to DC in the early 1990s.  And it was at this point that I first discovered his art.

As I’ve mentioned before, I did not begin regularly following comic books until around 1989, when I was 13 years old.  So probably the very first comic book series I saw that Trevor drew was Black Canary.  Paired with writer Sarah Byam and legendary inker Dick Giordano, Trevor penciled the four issue Black Canary: New Wings miniseries in 1991.  A year later, he was re-teamed with Byam and inker Bob Smith on an ongoing Black Canary title that regrettably lasted only a year.

I immediately fell in love with Trevor’s work.  I could instantly see that he possessed a distinctive and beautiful style.  That, and he drew incredibly sexy women.  Trevor’s renderings of the female form are among my favorite in the comic book field.  In the early 1990s, when so many “hot, superstar” artists were drawing women who looked like anorexic porn stars, Trevor’s curvy rendition of the character of Black Canary was a breath of fresh air.

Black Canary 7 cover

What’s really interesting about Black Canary is that Trevor himself has admitted he was never especially fond of working on the series.  So the fact that he did such amazing work on it really speaks to his professionalism.

Throughout the 1990s, Trevor returned Batman on several occasions.  He did the pencil layouts for Denny O’Neil’s now-classic “Venom” story arc in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, with Russell Braun contributing the finished pencils and the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez inking.  Trevor worked with mystery novelist C.J. Henderson on a pair of Batman tales, “Duty” and “Joker’s Apprentice,” with Josef Rubinstein inking both stories.  And he was once again paired with Garcia-Lopez on the excellent five part “Grimm” arc that ran through Legends of the Dark Knight #149-153, which was written by J.M. DeMatteis.  That’s another fine story that has never been collected.  I definitely recommend searching out copies of those issues.  I was fortunate enough to obtain a really nice page of original artwork from that story.

batman lotdk 149

About a decade back, Trevor also worked for independent publisher Moonstone.  He produced some very moody, atmospheric art on Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Mysterious Traveler.  I really enjoyed those comics.

That said, I think that Trevor Von Eeden’s best work has to be his most recent.  He wrote & illustrated The Original Johnson, a graphic novel biography of John Arthur Johnson who, in 1908, became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  To be perfectly honest, before Trevor announced this project, I had not even heard of Jack Johnson.  I have no idea if this was due to his race, or simply because I am not a sports buff.  Whatever the case, I was aware of Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, and how significant (and controversial) an accomplishment that was.  So, someone like Jack Johnson, who broke through a similar barrier nearly 40 years earlier, in an even more hostile & intolerant time, was definitely worthy of examination.

Trevor spent several years working on The Original Johnson.  A variety of difficulties cropped up along the way, and it almost seemed that it might not be published.  But Trevor persevered, and it was finally released in a two volume edition by Comicmix / IDW.  It was a true labor of love on his part, and this definitely shows in the finished pages of the graphic novel.

The Original Johnson book one cover

The Comics Journal #298, published in May 2009 by Fantagraphics, contained an extremely in-depth, bluntly honest interview with Trevor Von Eeden.  It was an very revealing, insightful read.  Trevor pulls no punches, sharing his honest thoughts about himself, his growth as an individual & his development as a creator, his colleagues in the comic book industry, and the companies he has worked for.  I really think that it should be required reading for anyone who is looking to become a professional comic book creator.

Currently Trevor is collaborating with writer Don McGregor (Black Panther, Killraven, Detectives Inc) on his new graphic novel, Sabre: The Early Future Years.  There is a Kickstarter fundraiser scheduled to begin on August 3rd to help raise money towards the publication of the book.  So please keep an eye on Don’s Facebook page for details.  I’m really looking forward to this one.  Don is an amazing, revolutionary writer.  As for Trevor, his artwork continually improves, and he is better than he has ever been.  I’m confident his work on Sabre is going to be absolutely amazing.