The wedding of Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters

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

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

fantastic four wedding special cover

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

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

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Storm, the Human Torch, had married Alicia, only for this to later be retconned away when Alicia was revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull imposter named Lyja.

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

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

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

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

fantastic four 8 pg 9

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

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

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

fantastic four wedding special hembeck

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

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

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

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

fantastic four 650 pg 21

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

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

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

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

fantastic four 650 pg 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fantastic four 650 cover

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

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

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I blame Orrgo the Unconquerable for this weather

I’m looking out the window right now and all I see is snow.  Yep, more snow.  I am so sick of snow.

Winter is a funny thing.  When it’s late December you think to yourself “Wouldn’t it be nice to get a little snow, have a White Christmas for once?”  It usually doesn’t happen.  But then January rolls around and you start getting snow… and more snow… and still more snow.  So much snow that by the time you hit March and you’ve spent most of the last month suffering from a bad cold you’re literally shaking your fist and crying out “No! Not more snow! When is this winter going to end?!?”

I’m starting to think that Orrgo the Unconquerable is responsible for all of this snow.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

Orrgo the Unconquerable is one of those numerous oddball monsters who first appeared between the mid 1950s and early 60s in stories published by Marvel Comics before they began their groundbreaking superhero revival in late 1961.  These were pretty formulaic affairs which involved some seemingly-unstoppable menace from beyond threating the whole of humanity, until the day is saved in a convenient last-minute (and often left-field) twist.

What caused many of these monsters to stand out were the bizarre designs they were given by artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, plus the offbeat names that writer / editor Stan Lee gave them.  That’s certainly the case with Orrgo.

Orrgo first appeared in Strange Tales #90, cover-dated November 1961 (the same month as Fantastic Four #1) in a story illustrated by Kirby and inker Dick Ayers.  According to the Grand Comics Database, the story was probably plotted by Lee and scripted by Larry Lieber.

An alien invader of seemingly-unlimited power, Orrgo sets out to conquer the Earth.  All of humanity’s weapons are totally powerless against him.  As seen above, he even freezes the city of Washington DC in a sold block of ice.

Eventually Orrgo decides to hypnotize the entire planet into obeying him.  Having defeated humanity, Orrgo then returns to the circus where he first arrived on Earth and takes a nap under a tree.  Well, even when you are an “unconquerable” menace, I expect that it is still a bit of work to crush whole worlds under your heel, and you eventually need to get some shut-eye.

Pow! Right in the kisser!

Pow! Right in the kisser!

Unfortunately for Orrgo, while he is catching some zzz’s, and the Earth’s population is in a hypnotic trance, the circus gorilla Jo-Jo breaks loose, furious that he hasn’t been fed.  Sensing that Orrgo is somehow responsible for his missing meals, the gorilla smashes the slumbering alien conquerer in the head, killing him.

Yeah, I did mention those last-minute, left-field resolutions, didn’t I?!?

You can read the entire story “Orrgo the Unconquerable” from Strange Tales #90 on The Golden Age blog.

Anyway, this is comic books, and no one ever stays dead forever.  Along with various other “pre-hero” monsters, Orrgo (or at least another member of his race) has been brought back on a few occasions by Marvel.  Most notably, Orrgo resurfaced in the bizarre yet fun Defenders revival by Kurt Busiek & Erik Larsen that ran from 2001 to 2002.  Orrgo was summoned by that supremely weird group of villains known as the Headmen, who used him to temporarily take over the world.

A mesmerizing comic book!

A mesmerizing comic book!

So, yeah, given his penchant for fast-freezing entire metropolitan areas, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Orrgo the Unconquerable is responsible for this awful winter weather.  To which I can only say… knock it off buddy, before I send another gorilla to bop you on the noggin!

Captain America #130: a message for July 4th

A very happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans.  Today I am going to take a look at a comic book story that I feel exemplifies the principles upon which this country was founded.  Yes, too often we have all fallen short of those lofty ideals, but they still remain as goals for us to continually strive towards.  And so, I am going to write about Captain America #130, published by Marvel Comics in 1970.

Captain America 130 cover

Right now those comic book fans out there with a more than passing knowledge of the Captain America series are probably saying to themselves “WTF?!?”  Yeah, it’s not really an obvious choice, but bear with me.

The issue is topped off by a cover which according to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators was drawn by Marie Severin & Joe Sinnott.  I will have to take their word for it.  That drawing of the Hulk’s face does look very much like Severin’s work, so the credits are probably accurate.

Opening up the book, we find ourselves in the midst of a ferocious battle between Cap and the Hulk, on a splash page that offers the following declaration via Artie Simek’s exciting engraving:

“This one has to be seen to be believed! Based on an original theme by Stan the Man, Genial Gene got so wound up in the artwork that he tossed in everything but the kitchen sink! Hence, what follows is like a wild and wacky build-up to the startling surprise that awaits you next ish! It may not make much sense – but we guarantee you won’t be bored! So, settle back, relax, and enjoy it, culture-lover – (and if you can figure it out – explain it to us!)”

Captain America 130 pg 1

After three pages of Cap versus Hulk action, it is revealed that this is actually a movie playing in a theater, with none other than Steve Rogers himself sitting in the audience.  It’s never made clear if this is supposed to be a documentary with actual newsreel footage of the two super-humans slugging it out, or a fictional production (perhaps starring Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo?) but whatever the case Steve isn’t too thrilled when a fellow cinemagoer declares “Who cares about that clown? He’s just not relevant in today’s world!”

This issue falls right in the middle of a period when the Captain America series was struggling somewhat with its identity.  It’s important to keep in mind the context of when this was published.  In 1970 the Vietnam War was raging, and the controversy over it was tearing America apart.  The Civil Rights movement was still being fought.  Distrust of the government was beginning to become widespread.  In this environment, the character of Cap, a super patriot who originated during World War II, must have been an awkward figure to write.  Stan Lee was trying to touch upon this with an Easy Rider-inspired arc, as Steve Rogers travels about the country on a motorcycle, attempting to figure out his place in modern American society.

Departing the movie theater, Steve rides his chopper into a “sleepy little college town” which is anything but.  The students are rioting, attempting to reach the Dean, who has barricaded himself in his office, and the police are attempting to quell the disturbance.  Steve changes into his uniform and, as Cap, swings into action, hoping to bring a halt to the violence before anyone is hurt.  The students, though, think that Cap is “in league with the fuzz” and attack him.  Cap leaps away from the crowd and climbs up the side of the administrative building to the Dean’s office, rescuing him before the students can batter down the door.

Captain America 130 pg 7

I’m curious about the timeline to the production of this issue.  With a cover-date of October 1970, the issue would actually have been on sale sometime around July, which meant that it must have been written & drawn a few months before.  The Kent State Shootings took place on May 4th.  I wonder if “Up Against The Wall” was in production during that time, and if that tragic event might have been on Stan Lee & Gene Colan’s minds.  Even if it wasn’t, there was certainly was a great deal of unrest on college campuses throughout this time period.

A figure observes Cap’s rescue of the Dean and approaches him, stating “It’s a pleasure finding someone who still stands for law and order!”  The man, a television producer, asks Cap to make an appearance.  However, it turns out that this producer is actually in the employ of a mysterious hooded figure known as, um, The Hood.  In any case, the masked mastermind gives his servant explicit instructions:

“Write his speech most carefully! In standing for law and order, he must make Americans distrust their own younger generation! The more we can divide this country, and the more we stifle dissent – the better it will be – for The Hood!”

It’s interesting that Lee scripts the villain in this manner.  It brings to mind Sinclair Lewis’ warning “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  Lee is addressing the idea that agents of oppression and injustice will assume the trappings of patriotism, throw about terms such as “law and order” to disguise their subversive efforts to undermine liberty & freedom.  What Lee was observing in this scene is undoubtedly just as true today as it was four decades ago, if not more so.

Captain America 130 pg 15

Cap later arrives at the television station.  Addressing the camera, he makes the following speech:

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be! I don’t believe in using force – or violence – because they can be the weapons of those who would enslave us – but, nor do I believe in an establishment that remains so aloof – so distant – that the people are driven to desperate measures – as in the case of a college dean who isolates himself from his student body!”

This is obviously not what The Hood had planned, and he orders his lackey to silence Cap.  The producer telephones the mercenary Batroc the Leaper, who declares “Just give us sixty seconds!”  Batroc and his comrades, Whirlwind and The Porcupine, hop into a fancy roadster and literally one minute later arrive at the TV studio to attack Cap.  I guess that Batroc’s Brigade just conveniently happen to have their headquarters right down the block.  They probably could have saved on gas by just walking from there.

Captain America 130 pg 16

Cap fights Batroc, Whirlwind, and The Porcupine to a standstill.  Once the police arrive, the three costumed criminals flee, leaving Cap to wonder who hired them.  But that is a story for another time… okay, okay, I’ll tell you!  Next issue Cap unmasks The Hood, who turns out to be Baron Strucker, who attempts to kill Cap with the long-lost Bucky, who ends up being revealed as a robot duplicate.  And then a decade or so later we would find out that The Hood / Strucker himself was also a robot.  Yeah, it’s really weird, so don’t think too closely about it.  Aren’t you sorry you asked?

The somewhat choppy feel of this and other issues of Captain America from around this time is due to the working relationship between Lee and Colan.  Lee was phoning it in… and I mean that literally!  This is one of the subjects discussed in an excellent interview of Colan conducted by Roy Thomas published in Alter Ego #6:

Colan: Actually, the fun of working on comics with Stan was that, although he put in all the dialogue, he allowed the artists to take a very small plot he’d give them and build it into a 20-page story. There was nothing to the plot — it was maybe just a few sentences — but the beginning was there, and you could do anything you wanted.

Thomas: Did Stan write out plots then, or was it mostly just over the phone?

Colan: I recorded our phone conversations, and then I would go by the recording. Other times, he’d send me a letter of a few paragraphs.

So Colan would pencil an entire 20 page story from that brief description, in effect serving as a co-plotter, and Lee would write his script from the artwork.

Colan admitted that at times this method would have unintended results.  Sometimes his pacing of the story would be off, and he would then realize that he had very little space left to wrap the issue up, leading him to cram as much as possible into the final three or four pages.  On one particular occasion Lee had included a car chase in his plot, expecting that Colan would devote a page to it.  Lee was subsequently surprised to find that in Colan’s penciled art the car chase took up almost half of the issue!

Even under these circumstances we see that Lee, who is undoubtedly a great scripter, crafted some superb dialogue.  True, I’ve never been overly enamored with aspects of Lee’s approach to Cap, as he repeatedly showed him agonizing about Bucky’s death, moping over his relationship with Sharon Carter, and wringing his hands at his role as a man out of time.  But when Lee wasn’t busy having Steve Rogers doing his pity pot routine, he wrote the character very well.  The speech he gives Cap in this issue is, in my opinion, one of the quintessential moments in the character’s existence.  It sums up everything that Steve Rogers is about.  He is not an unquestioning patriot or a militant hawk who seeks out conflict.  Cap believes in the American Dream, the potential for greatness that this country and its people can be capable of if they are willing to embrace equality & diversity and attempt to strive for a better future.

Captain America 130 pg 18

The artwork by Colan on this issue is quite good.  It is a bit odd that many people have cited Colan as one of their favorite Captain America artists.  If you actually look at his run on the title from 1969 to 1971 on issue #s 116 to 137, the stories he drew are a mixed bag, uneven in quality, undoubtedly due to Lee’s minimal role in the plotting stages.  Nevertheless, Colan’s work during that two year run is of a high quality.  That said, I do think that he did rather better work on other titles where the writers gave him slightly more comprehensive plots to work from, which resulted in him doing a better job pacing out his art.  On a few occasions in later years Colan would return to draw stand-alone issues of Captain America.  I feel that those are stronger efforts by Colan, quite simply because he was given better stories to illustrate.

Dick Ayers inked Colan’s pencils on Captain America #s 128 to 134.  I’ve observed in the past that Colan was a difficult artist to ink, and that only a handful of embellishers did extremely well at finishing his art.  Ayers was definitely was a talented artist, but he was probably not the best fit to ink Colan.  But it certainly wasn’t a disaster, either.  Most of the issues that Ayers inked fell during the “Cap on the road” arc.  The combination of Colan and Ayers’ styles was actually appropriate, as the plots were slightly less of the conventional superhero type.  Colan’s pencils helped to put that mood across some, whereas a more Kirby-esque art style could have been too traditional.   Likewise Ayers’ style of inking, which was well suited to the many war and Western stories he illustrated over the years, was also a good match to these stories.

While at first glance Captain America #130 is an offbeat issue, it certainly has its strong points, and an important message.  As we all celebrate July 4th, let’s try to remember Cap’s words to the American people in this story.

Dick Ayers: 1924 to 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

Unknown Soldier 255 pg 1

Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Strange Comic Books: Unknown Soldier #268

Those with good memories may recall that last year I wrote about the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier trade paperback.  I tremendously enjoyed the stories collected in that book, and that in turn led me to purchase a bunch of the later issues of the series on Ebay.  One of those comics was the final issue, Unknown Soldier #268, which was published in 1982.  This is a memorable yet also quite strange issue, one which sees the Soldier embark on his final mission, which brings him face to face with his most hated enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Unknown Soldier 268 cover

Like most issues of Star Spangled War Stories and Unknown Soldier, #268 is topped off by a superb cover drawn by the legendary Joe Kubert.  This macabre image shows the corpses of Hitler and his bride Eva Braun sprawled across the floor of the Fuhrer’s bunker.  Hovering before them is a ghostly image of the Unknown Soldier.

Inside is “A Farewell to War,” written by Bob Haney, with pencil layouts by Dick Ayers and finishes by Gerry Talaoc.  Haney was one of the writers of the character’s early adventures in Star Spangled War Stories, and he returned to chronicle the Soldier’s adventures after the series was re-named after the character.  Ayers, among his numerous credits, worked on Marvel Comics’ war titles in the 1960s.  In the mid-1970s he moved over to DC, and Unknown Soldier became one of his regular assignments.  As I’ve mentioned, I used to live about ten minutes from Dick, and I visited him a couple of times.  Finally, Talaoc is one of the very talented Filipino artists who broke onto the American comic book scene in the 1970s.  As a kid, I first saw his work when he was inking Sal Buscema and Mike Mignola on Incredible Hulk.  It was a pleasure to re-discover his art through his lengthy stint drawing Unknown Soldier, a series where he did amazing work.  Nowadays Talaoc lives in Alaska, but he was kind enough to autograph a few books that I mailed to him.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 1

Unknown Soldier #268 opens with a splash page, a combination of Ayers & Talaoc’s artwork and a photo montage, which harks back to the pieces Kubert would use to open his stories a decade before.  It is May 2, 1945, and the Soviet army has discovered the corpse of Hitler.  The story then flashes back four days, to April 28.  The war in Europe is nearing its end, and Berlin is undergoing intense bombing by the Allied forces.  The Unknown Soldier is parachuting into the besieged city, hoping to make contact with the German Resistance, which is in possession of a dangerous secret.  The Soldier slips into disguise, but is unable to do anything as, one by one, his confidants are killed by a fanatical Nazi officer named Kessler.  All the Soldier is able to learn is one word: Nosferatu.

Finally, the Soldier himself is unmasked by Kessler, who pursues him into the city’s subway system.  Furious at having seen those close to him, his adopted family, brutally murdered, the Soldier attacks Kessler in a darkened tunnel.  After a furious fight, the Soldier knocks Kessler against the third rail, electrocuting him.  The master of disguise assumes the identity of his fallen foe and slips out across the city, heading to the Reich Chancellery, hoping to learn what the dreaded secret is that his friends died trying to uncover.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 15

Still disguised as Kessler, the Soldier is admitted to Hitler’s bunker, coming face-to-face with the infamous ruler of the Third Reich.  There, he learns the horrific, not to mention utterly bizarre, meaning of Nosferatu.  It is Hitler’s doomsday plan.  In the event of Germany’s impending defeat, the Nazis will unleash a swarm of genetically engineered bio-weapons, flying octopi mutated with vampire blood that will swarm all across Europe, decimating the Allies.  Yes, really!

Before Hitler can give the order to release the Nosferatu, the Soldier attacks him.  Grappling with the madman, he calls up the memories of his fallen comrades and summons the strength to shoot the dictator in the face, killing him.  Quickly altering his disguise, the Soldier takes on the identity of Hitler himself.  He issues the order for the Nosferatu to be destroyed.  Then, once again donning his Kessler mask, the Soldier slips out of the bunker, having staged the bodies of Hitler and his wife so that they appear to have committed suicide.

Back in his usual outfit of trench coat and bandaged face, the victorious Unknown Soldier attempts to make his way out of Berlin alive.  However, he spots a child about to be killed by a falling bomb.  Quickly throwing her to safety, the Soldier is caught in the blast, seemingly perishing.  But before Bob Haney closes the story, he includes a hint in the final panel that maybe, just maybe, the Soldier might possibly have survived.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 23

Whew!  What an exciting, jam-packed, strange comic book!  Bob Haney really brings the saga of the Unknown Soldier to a cataclysmic conclusion, doesn’t he?  I classified this as a Strange Comic Book because not only does the Soldier kill Hitler, but because of the whole Nosferatu subplot.  It what is a very gritty, hard-edged story of war and sacrifice, the inclusion of such a far-out science fiction concept is just plain weird.  Perhaps this is a misstep by Haney.  He might have been better off having the Nazis planning to release some sort of super-virus.

Also, from a dramatic standpoint, it would have been more exciting if, during the struggle with Hitler, the Soldier’s mask would have been torn off.  It seemed a bit odd having Hitler think he was fighting a traitor, when instead he really ought to have found out that his opponent was the Allies’ greatest covert operative.

But aside from these two points, “A Farewell to War” is quite well written.  It brings definite closure to the Soldier’s story.  For a figure who had dedicated himself to the destruction of war, it is appropriate that he meet his (seeming) demise at the end of the conflict that spawned him.  Somehow, it just would have not had the same impact if he’d retired or, worse yet, lived to become some sort of post-WWII superhero who fought costumed criminals alongside the Justice Society.  No, Haney made the right decision to close out the final issue the way he did.

The artwork on issue #268 is stunning.  Dick Ayers does solid work with his layouts and storytelling.  There’s a great deal of drama to his work.  And the finishes by Gerry Talaoc are exemplary.  He gives the story a real, tangible sense of atmosphere and gloom.  Talaoc’s inking brings to vivid life the chaos and destruction of a crumbling, ruined city under siege and its tragic, desperate inhabitants.  It really communicates the horrors of war.

Ihe likelihood of DC publishing any additional Showcase Presents volumes of Unknown Soldier seems rather small, unfortunately.  So I do not know if this issue will ever be reprinted.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to find rather inexpensive back issues of this series for sale online.  These comics are definitely worth tracking down.  Joe Kubert’s magnificent covers and Gerry Talaoc’s lushly illustrated interiors are among the best artwork I’ve ever seen.

Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook

I began collecting convention sketches and commissions in the mid-1990s, when I was in college.  At first, I would get them on loose pieces of paper.  But after several years, I had seen a number of other comic book fans who had these really incredible sketchbooks full of artwork that they had obtained over the years.  Many of these had the theme of a particular character or group of characters.  So in May 2000 I decided that it would be nice to start a theme sketchbook of my own.

Before I began it, though, I wanted to come up with a really unique theme, something that I liked and that artists would also enjoy drawing.  While I was a big fan of Captain America, I already had a bunch of loose sketches of the character and his supporting cast.  I wanted to start fresh.  Also, it occurred to me that if I picked a sexy female character, artists would be more interested in drawing her.

Then, in a bolt of inspiration, it occurred to me.  I was a huge fan of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” titles that he had created in the early 1970s for DC Comics.  In one of these, Forever People, there was a curvy gal named Beautiful Dreamer, a sort of hippy chick who could cause psychedelic hallucinations.  Why not start a theme sketchbook around her?  Certainly the odds were exceedingly slim that, unlike a character such as Batman or Wolverine, anyone else would have a book of drawings featuring Beautiful Dreamer.

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

I wanted to get someone really special to draw an outstanding piece to start off the book.  Obviously asking Jack Kirby himself was impossible, as he had sadly passed away in 1994.  Then, once again, inspiration struck.  Over the last several years, at various New York-area conventions, I had met Silver Age comic book artist Dick Ayers and his lovely, charming wife Lindy.  I had struck up an e-mail correspondence with Dick, and obtained a few pieces of artwork by him.  At the time, I lived about ten minutes from their house, and they’d invited me over for a visit.

As part of his long, diverse career, Ayers inked / embellished Jack Kirby’s pencils on numerous stories in the 1950s and 60s.  Among these were a variety of monster, war, and Western titles published by Marvel Comics, plus early issues of Fantastic Four and Avengers.  Ayers had never worked with Kirby at DC.  By the time Ayers had moved over to DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby was back at Marvel, so I guess you could say they passed each other by like two ships in the night.  But one of Ayers’ assignments at DC was penciling post-Kirby issues of Kamandi.

So, in addition to being a very talented artist in his own right, Dick Ayers had that connection to Kirby.  Plus, from his recent work on the Femforce series published by AC Comics, I knew Ayers could definitely draw lovely ladies.  Why not ask him to draw the first Beautiful Dreamer piece in my sketchbook?  He agreed, and the resulting commission can be seen below.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

I must also give credit to Dick & Lindy Ayers for helping me to obtain one of the other early pieces in my sketchbook.  They were friends & neighbors with Dan & Josie DeCarlo.  Dan was, of course, a long-time artist at Archie Comics.  In the early 1960s, he had come up with what is now the “house style” at Archie.  In addition to that, he had created both Josie and the Pussycats (inspired by his wife) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  Before working for Archie, DeCarlo had done a number of playfully risqué Humorama pin-up illustrations.  He definitely knew how to draw cute, sexy gals.  I thought it would be great to have a Beautiful Dreamer illustration drawn by DeCarlo.  But I doubted that he would want to sketch a character he was totally unfamiliar with.

I ended up mentioning this to Dick Ayers shortly before a Big Apple Comic Con that was going to be held in late 2000.  Dick thought my idea was a good one, and he promised me he would put in a good word for me with Dan DeCarlo.  Well, about a week later, I’m at the convention.  Dick & Lindy had a table right next to Dan & Josie.  When I came over to say hello to the Ayers, Dan took me to the DeCarlo’s table, and said something along the lines of “Hi, Dan. This is my friend Ben Herman. He would like to get a sketch done by you.”  Yeah, that was seriously cool!  So I handed my book over to Dan, showing him the piece that Dick had drawn in it half a year earlier, and I gave him an issue of Forever People as reference, and asked him if he would like to draw the character.  DeCarlo seemed a bit bemused by my request, but he agreed.  This is the piece that he drew.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

Sadly, Dan DeCarlo passed away about a year later, on December 18, 2001.  I am really grateful that I had the opportunity to meet him and get a sketch done by him.  I am also thankful to Dick Ayers for making that possible by introducing me, as well as for starting off the whole sketchbook with class & style.

Fast forward a dozen years, and I’ve almost completely filled up the Beautiful Dreamer book with sketches and commissions by a diverse selection of artists.  I think there are less than 20 blank pages left in the back of the book.  You can view scans of them in my gallery on Comic Art Fans.  As you will see, the majority of these turned out very well.  And the two by Dick Ayers and Dan DeCarlo are, for obvious reasons, among my favorites.

My girlfriend grew up reading Archie Comics, and she thinks it’s amazing that I was able to get a sketch by DeCarlo.  She was the one who suggested I do a blog post about it.  Michele is also the one who came up with the cool idea that I get a Beautiful Dreamer tattoo… but that is a subject for a future post!

Comic book reviews: Femforce #160

I have to be honest: about 13 years ago, when I first heard of the comic book series Femforce, published by AC Comics, I initially wrote it off as yet another “bad girl” comic book, sight unseen.  Of course, I soon after learned three significant facts about the series.  One, it had begun publication in 1985, several years before the whole bad girl anti-hero movement had kicked off.  Two, many of the characters in Femforce actually dated back to the 1940s, and had been revived by publisher Bill Black.  Three, in the early 1990s a number of issues of Femforce had been penciled by Silver Age artist Dick Ayers.

That last item that really caught my attention.  I’m very fond of Ayers’ artwork.  In addition, I’ve met him and his wife Lindy at a number of conventions over the years.  I figured that if Ayers was involved with Femforce, it had to be worth checking out.

A local comic shop happened to have a box full of early Femforce issues, along with a few other AC Comics titles, such as Nightveil and Sentinels of Justice, which I was able to buy up pretty inexpensively.  I quickly got caught up on the series, and I found it was a fun title with interesting, well-developed characters.  Yes, the female protagonists were all sexy women, but they were drawn in a retro “good girl” style that wasn’t exploitative.  More importantly, Bill Black and frequent collaborator Mark Heike developed personalities and rich back stories for their cast of lovely ladies.

femforce 160 cover

In the last few years, due to the difficulties in distributing & selling independent titles, Black and Heike have altered the format of Femforce somewhat, .  Femforce is now a quarterly 80-page title priced at $9.95 with shorter stories by an assortment of creators.  I have to admit, I do miss the days when the series had full-length stories featuring the entire team, with Black and Heike themselves as the driving forces behind the series.  But I can understand why changes needed to be made, and I’m glad that the book continues to exist in some format.

The latest issue, Femforce #160, is topped off by a cover by the very talented Eduardo Barreto, whose work I’ve always enjoyed.  Tragically, Barreto passed away at the much too young age of 57 in December of last year.  This must have been one of the last pieces he drew before his untimely death.  It really is a lovely cover, featuring images of team members She-Cat, Stardust, and Ms. Victory.

Inside, what really impressed me, as always, was the artwork.  I’ve gotten so tired of much of the material at the “Big Two,” Marvel and DC.  You either have over-rendered work with ridiculous amounts of crosshatching, or you get Manga-inspired styles with poor storytelling.  These have pervaded through much of Marvel and DC’s products.  What I like about the artwork on Femforce is that it’s clean-cut.  The penciling reminds me of such 1970s & 80s artists as Ron Wilson, Alex Saviuk, and Alan Kupperberg, who have clear, solid storytelling abilities.  The inking is reminiscent of the Filipino school of illustration, with its rich embellishments.  I’m a huge fan of that style, as well, so I like the combination of the two.

My only real criticism of the art is that at times the blacks do print somewhat dark.  It would be lovely to see some gray tones & shading.

femforce 160 pg 34

The stories in Femforce #160 are all on the short side, each a solo tale of one of the team members.  I guess the problem I had with these is that none of them really felt like the events in them had any significance to them.  The two exceptions were the Synn and Nightveil stories, but each of those had this real dream-like quality, and at the end you weren’t entirely certain what did and did not occur.  Having said that, the Nightveil episode appears to be a set-up for future events, and so I have to wait and see what that leads to.

There was also a Stardust solo story in #160 that was good.  The story by Eric Johnson, although a bit on the slight side, was fun.  I was certainly impressed by the dynamic artwork by Chris Allen and Scott Shriver.

As I mentioned earlier, I am more of a fan of the longer tales featuring several of the ladies of Femforce working together on a big case.  I’m thinking specifically of “Full Circle” a 42-page story written by Mark Heike that ran ten issues ago.  That was divided up into shorter chapters, with a different art team illustrating each segment.   I felt that worked extremely well.

femforce 160 pg 11

One definite improvement to Femforce is that the Gargantarama flip book has been dropped.  I never understood the appeal of all those giant women.  Yeah, I don’t mind if Tara the Jungle Girl would sometimes develop the power to grow to be 50 feet tall, or that Femforce would occasionally fight a six story tall female menace.  But devoting almost a third of the book’s page count to a flip book featuring stories of giant women was excessive, in my opinion.  In #160 we do get one giant woman tale, and that’s just enough for me.

Anyway, putting humongous females aside, Femforce is a fun comic with cool characters and fantastic art.  I’m happy that Bill Black and Mark Heike have been able to continue to publish this series.

I definitely recommend taking a look at the AC Comics website, where there is a huge selection of Femforce back issues & trade paperbacks available.  AC has also released a number of old sci-fi and horror movies & serials onto DVD and has them for sale.  There’s some interesting, rare material being offered.  AC has even produced several low-budget direct-to-DVD movies based on the Femforce characters.  You can really see the fondness that Bill Black has for his characters & stories, devoting all that time & creative energy into bringing them to life.