The Agony and the Ecstasy of Wonder Woman #204

Yesterday I bought a copy of the Wonder Woman #204 Facsimile Edition from DC Comics. “The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman” was written & edited by Robert Kanigher and drawn by Don Heck, with possible inking by Dick Giordano. It was originally released 50 years ago this month, on November 7, 1972.

I had previously seen excerpts of Wonder Woman #204 online and read some commentary about it. I featured a couple of panels from it in my review of the recent Nubia: Queen of the Amazons miniseries. But this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to read this story in it’s entirety. And I have to say, this is one of the most insane comic books I have ever read.

I wish Alan Stewart had bought this issue when it had come out, because it would have made one heck of an installment of his blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books! (Alan did do a write-up on Wonder Woman #202 a few months ago, so you can read that.) Therefore I figured I might as well offer up my own commentary here on this blog.

Wonder Woman #204 sees the title character reacquire her iconic costume & superpowers after the four year “Diana Prince” direction overseen by Denny O’Neil & Mike Sekowsky that had begun back in issue #178, cover-dated Sept-Oct 1968. And, as changes in creative directions can go, “The Second Life of the Original Wonder Woman” is about as sudden & drastic as you can possibly get.

Robert Kanigher is a creator who has simultaneously been praised and reviled. His work on DC’s war titles is frequently lauded as classic, as is his collaboration with the incredible Joe Kubert on the Ragman character. In contrast, Kanigher’s two decade long run writing & editing Wonder Woman from 1947 to 1967 is often regarded as at best mediocre, at worst downright awful. Kanigher himself apparently was not a pleasant individual to know.

The opening sequence to Wonder Woman #204 really demonstrates Kanigher at his most cruel & petty, as he has a very thinly veiled stand-in for fellow DC editor Dorothy Woolfolk murdered as part of a horrific shooting spree by a deranged sniper. This bloodbath also results in the sudden, brutal death Diana’s mentor I Ching and causes her to suffer complete amnesia, resulting in the erstwhile Amazon instinctively returning to Paradise Island, thereby managing to completely sweep aside the status quo from the previous four years in just a few short pages.

Around this time journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem had been advocating DC to restore Wonder Woman’s costume & powers. It’s been suggested that DC editorial & management regarded Steinem as a convenient excuse to hit the reset button as they were apparently becoming apprehensive with the increasingly political direction of the series, with the new writer, acclaimed science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delaney, planning to address the abortion controversy in an upcoming story. Whatever the actual case, Delaney only got to write two issues of Wonder Woman, #202 and #203, before Kanigher returned to the series.

Like, seriously, WTF DC Comics?!?

Mind you, even if Delaney had been able to remain on Wonder Woman and take the book in the direction he wanted, for all we know the actual results might have been cringeworthy. One need only look at #203 with its “Special! Women’s Lib Issue” blurb splashed atop a cover drawn by Dick Giordano of a bound & gagged young woman with her breasts thrust out provocatively to realize that even the more progressive voices at DC in the early 1970s could still be horrifically tone deaf.

That said, bringing Kanigher back to Wonder Woman after a four year absence is a head-scratcher. I really have to puzzle at what resulted in him becoming writer & editor again. The entire reason why the whole non-powered, white jumpsuit Diana Prince direction had come about in the first place was to try to save the series from cancellation after 20 years of increasingly mediocre stories by Kanigher.

I myself read a number of the Silver Age Wonder Woman stories Kanigher did with the art team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito when they were reprinted in the first Showcase Presents: Wonder Woman collection published in 2007, and I found them to be utterly bland & instantly forgettable. (Say what you will about utterly dysfunctional Superman stories edited by Mort Weisinger during the same two-decade period, at least those were memorably bizarre.) So why give the book back to the guy who nearly tanked it in the first place?

Reportedly Dorothy Woolfolk, one of the very few female professionals working in mainstream comic books half a century ago, was supposed to be the new, permanent editor of the Wonder Woman series, a decision that would have undoubtedly pleased Steinem. But whatever happened at DC resulted in Woolfolk only editing issues #197 and #198. Which makes the opening page of #204 even more egregious, as it really comes across like a huge middle finger by Kanigher to Woolfolk at his having snatched away her job.

Okay, Kanigher had been previously been harshly mocked in the pages of Wonder Woman #188 as the cross-dressing pickpocket “Creepy Caniguh” but that was all on Mike Seknowsky, who wrote, penciled & edited that issue. So it feels like Kanigher was taking out his ire on the only woman in the room when he had “Dottie Cottonman” murdered in #204.

Of course, all these decades later, with nearly everyone involved having subsequently passed on, there’s no way to know what actually occurred behind the scenes.

Thankfully Kanigher’s second stint as writer & editor on Wonder Woman was much shorter than his first, coming to an end after a mere eight issues with #211.

Putting all of this aside, the reason for the publication of this Facsimile Edition is that it’s the first appearance of Diana’s long lost sister Nubia. But despite her appearance on the cover she almost feels like an afterthought in Kanigher’s brutal deck-clearing exercise. Nubia did feature more prominently in the next two issues, though, so I guess it was a decent set-up for the character’s story.

On the plus side, artist Don Heck did very solid work on this story. Heck is, without a doubt, an incredibly underrated artist. Superheroes really were not his forte, and so the more that genre dominated the medium the more he unfortunately found himself having to work on material that did not suit his artistic strengths.

Having said that, Wonder Woman was probably a better fit for Heck than almost any other ongoing series published by either DC or Marvel in the 1970s. Heck always did draw very attractive women (he did incredible work on romance comics) so Wonder Woman was definitely a good book to assign to him.

Heck’s cover for issue is #204 is very dramatic. He especially outdid himself in Diana’s underwater battle with the shark, the flashback sequence in this story featuring the origins of the Amazons and Diana, and with the brief duel between Diana and Nubia. All the classical Greek and mythological material was such a great fit for his artwork.

Heck’s art was the main reason why I purchased this Facsimile Edition. His work on this issue almost sort of manages to redeem the story, because no matter how tacky Kanigher’s writing gets, Heck consistently delivers a professional job.

Heck had already drawn Wonder Woman #199 a few months earlier, and he then drew the next two issues after this one. He did the occasional fill-in issue for the series during the late 1970s and early 1980s before becoming the regular Wonder Woman penciler from 1983 to 1985, paired with writer Dan Mishkin. During that three year period Heck produced, if not especially dynamic art, then at least good, solid work that effectively told the story. The work by Mishkin & Heck immediately before the justly acclaimed post-Crisis revamp of Wonder Woman by George Perez is, I think, underrated, and I hope one of these days it gets reprinted.

I find the circumstances in which Wonder Woman #204 was produced to be far more intriguing than the actual issue. It’s certainly a good reminder that the American comic book industry has often been beset by clashing egos, unprofessional behavior and contradictory agendas. I love the medium of comic books, but the business of it can be cutthroat as all hell!

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part four

My reread of The Power of Shazam by Jerry Ordway and friends enters the fourth year. This is, regrettably, the home stretch. This has been such an enjoyable series to revisit, and I really with it had lasted longer.

We begin with a storyline that literally had my jaw hitting the floor the first time I read it.

Ordway did a very good job of balancing the serious and the whimsical on this series, but with issue #38 the $#^+ totally hit the fan. Mister Mind, the sole surviving member of the telepathic caterpillars from Venus that tried to invade Earth, manages to take control of Sarge Steel, director of Metahuman Affairs. Previously the government had taken custody of the nuclear-powered robot Mister Atom, and now Mister Mind dispatches it to destroy Bill Batson & Mary Bromfield by having it home in on Billy’s Justice League. communicator. Landing in the town of Fairfield, right outside the Bromfields’ house, Mister Atom self-destructs, obliterating the entire town, killing thousands of innocent people!

Billy and Mary in their Captain Marvel forms are in Fawcett City when they see the mushroom cloud on the horizon. They are understandably horrified, especially as they believe their adopted parents Nick & Nora Bronfield are among the dead. The sorcerer Ibis manages to neutralize the radioactive fallout, but he can do nothing for all those who have already perished.

The two Captains fail to prove Sarge Steel is being controlled by Mister Mind. Mary heads over to the laboratory of Professor Bibbowski (the genius brother of tough guy tavern owner Bibbo Bibbowski from the Superman books) and asks him to try to find a way of detecting & neutralizing Mister Mind.

Billy and Mary return to Fawcett, where they are relieved to learn that Nick & Nora managed to survive by pure dumb luck; they were heading out of Fairfield by car to try to find Billy and Mary when the bomb went off.

Mary uses the device invented by the Professor to drive Mister Mind out of Sarge Steel’s head, and to prevent the worm from taking over the President. Mind has already dispatched thousands of clones of himself to take over innocent people, sending them to nuclear facilities across the world, planning to destroy the Earth as revenge for his own species’ destruction. Mind also found out from possessing Sarge Steel that the government had custody of a massive alien exoskeleton another of his species used 50 years earlier, which we saw in the flashback during the Starman crossover.

Mind rampages across Washington DC in the exoskeleton. Jim Barr, aka Bulletman, watches this on TV, and it causes him to at long last remember his encounter with the alien armor during World War II, and to recall that the Green Lantern Abin Sur defeated the alien menace all those years before. Bulletman calls former GL Alan Scott, who in turn contacts current GL Kyle Rayner. Kyle flies to Washington accompanied by a time-displaced Hal Jordan (looooong story). Billy, Mary, and the two GLs have to figure out what is real and what is an illusion caused by Mind, but at last they crack open the armor. Sarge Steel then kills the murderous alien worm, which in turn causes Mind’s clones to die, saving the Earth from nuclear destruction. Whew!

“The Monster Society of Evil” (so named by Ordway after the original Mister Mind storyline from the 1940s) was an emotional rollercoaster. The series had only shifted its setting to Fairfield about a dozen issues earlier, so there really wasn’t too much time for the readers to get to know the new supporting cast, but it’s still a gut-punch to see the entire town destroyed, especially when it appears that Nick & Nora are among the dead.

I was genuinely relieved that the Bromfields had survived. Billy & Mary had already lost their real parents, and the idea that they might be made orphans a second time was horrifying. Plus I like how Nick & Nora, even if they were on the staid, conservative side, nevertheless very quickly adjusted to learning Billy & Mary were the Marvels, and tried their best to be there for the siblings.

POS #38-41 were Peter Krause’s final issues, and he really does a great job on this storyline, conveying the intense emotions and choreographing the dramatic, action-filled scenes. Inker Dick Gordano, letterer John Costanza and colorist Glenn Whitmore fill out the creative team. Whitmore’s coloring definitely plays a major role in setting the mood of these issues. Mike Carlin edited the whole shebang.

With issue #42 writer & cover artist Ordway also assumes penciling duties, with Giordano providing inks / finishes. Ordway is such a great artist, and I was glad to see him now both writing & drawing. Whitmore and Costanza continue as colorist and letterer.

Following the destruction of Fairfield, the President dedicates a memorial to all those who have died. Billy, Mary and Freddy are all there in their superhuman forms. This is the first time we see all three of them together since Mary changed to her new costume, and so this was the moment when it finally occurred to me that Ordway had now given them red, white and blue uniforms. What can I say? Sometimes I’m not the quickest on the uptake.

Billy, Mary, Nick & Nora move to Fawcett City, where they are joined by Freddy, who has returned to settle his grandfather’s estate. Freddy shows Billy and Mary the classic car he inherited, and the three go for a spin. Unfortunately the metahuman Chain Lightning who suffers from multiple personality disorder is obsessed with Freddy, and she attacks the three teens while they’re driving, causing the car to go off the cliff. The teens try to summon the magic lightning to transform into the two Captains Marvel and CM3, but Chain Lightning somehow intercepts it. Billy, Mary and Freddy all end up in the hospital in critical condition. The magic somehow gives separate physical forms to each of Chain Lightning’s personalities, who go on a rampage in Fawcett City.

Ordway has said that one of his favorite comic books when he was growing up was Avengers by Roy Thomas & John Buscema. The form that Chain Lightning’s personality Amber takes looks like a cross between Arkon the Magnificent and Thundra the Femizon, both of whom were created by Thomas & Buscema.

With the Marvel Family out of action Deanna Barr dons the costume of her late mother Bulletgirl to protect Fawcett, although she uses her Air Force codename Windshear. Her father Jim comes out of retirement to help her, but the two of them can barely hold their own against Amber. Only the intervention of Amy, the “good” Chain Lightning personality, saves them.

Uncle Dudley and Tawky Tawny travel to the Rock of Eternity, hoping they can find some way to heal Billy, Mary and Freddy. The sorcerer Ibis tells Dudley and Tawny that they need to find the Mother Boxes that enable the teens to summon the magic lightning while the Wizard Shazam is on New Genesis.

Issue #42 and #43 are certainly compelling and suspenseful, although I wonder if Ordway would have embarked on this storyline, putting the main characters in the hospital, if he had known cancellation was just around the corner. Fortunately there are still a few more issues to go. Whatever the case, the artwork by Ordway & Giordano is top-notch.

We are now at the editorially-mandated DC One Million crossover issue. This one is a bit painful to read, not because it’s bad, but because the series would be cancelled in just a few short months, and it’s sad that Ordway was forced to cut away from his ongoing storylines to do a totally-unrelated issue set in the far-off 853rd Century.

Nevertheless, Ordway turns in sold work here. We previously saw an ancient Billy Batson having assumed the Wizard Shazam’s role in The Power of Shazam Annual #1. Now, even farther into the distant future, Billy still keeps vigil at the Rock of Eternity, only to have his home overrun by thrill-seeking rich kids from the planet Mercury.

Man oh man, the people in this story are awful. They’re behaving exactly like modern-day humans. Humanity is never going to survive to the 22nd Century, much less the 853rd, if people keep acting like this!

I think Tanist, the new champion of Shazam introduced in this story, popped up in a couple of other DC One Million stories, but hasn’t been seen since. It’s sort of disappointing that Ordway took the time to create this new character and no one else has bothered to use him, because that might have helped save this story from being completely inconsequential.

Anyway, returning to the year 1998, issue #44 resumes the plot of the teens being hospitalized, their powers having been stolen by the multiple personalities of Chain Lightening. Freddy and Mary are attacked by Lightning’s “inner child” and “id” personas. Nick & Nora risk their lives to save her, and the severely injured Mary shows she’s also willing to sacrifice herself for them, all of which surprises Lightning, a survivor of parental abuse. Inner Child and Id make off with Freddy, but he manages to convince them not to kill him, that he isn’t to blame for Lightning’s problems.

Meanwhile, Dudley and Tawky Tawny travel to the Rock of Eternity again, still looking for a way to help the hospitalized teens. Ibis, still suffering from the immense exertion needed to dissipate the radiation from the destruction of Fairfield, is wrapped up as a mummy by his immortal wife Taia so that he can enter suspended animation.

Oh, yeah, I love Tawny’s line… “Dud! Save me! It’s a talking dog!” Dudley and Tawny really did make a great double act.

Taia, working with Dudley, catapults Tawny into the timestream surrounding the Rock, so that the tiger can search for a future incarnation of Captain Marvel to help the teens. Tawny locates CeCe Beck, aka Thunder, previously seen in Annual #1, and is attempting to bring her back to the present when a force knocks them apart. Thunder disappears into the timestream… but don’t worry, she ends up materializing in the 30th Century in Legion of Super-Heroes #110, where she joins the team.

Tawny gets pulled back to the Rock, but he’s not alone. He’s accompanied by the former champion of Shazam turned villain, the infamous Black Adam. Uh oh!

Issue #45 sees Black Adm back on Earth. Surprisingly, rather than acting in his usual villainous manner, Adam is filling in for the still-hospitalized Billy, Mary & Freddy. Understandably skeptical, the Justice League is keeping a close eye on the so-called “Mighty Adam” as he performs heroic deeds across the globe.

Throughout his run Ordway has been peppering this series with nods to Jack Kirby’s New Gods, with the Marvel Family using Mother Boxes and Boom Tubes, the events of the Genesis crossover being referenced, and the Wizard Shazam relocating to New Genesis. Now we finally get an appearance by one of the New Gods as Orion stops by the hospital to look after Billy and give him advice. And when Black Adam shows up, Orion is more than ready to mix it up with him. Sadly we only get to see them trade blows for a few panels, so who knows how that fight might have gone?

Black Adam insists to the JLA that he is not Theo Adam, the criminal who murdered Billy & Mary’s parents, but an entirely different person, and demands his day in court to argue his case.

If there is a weakness to these last several issues it’s that the story feels somewhat disjointed. First there was DC One Million interrupting things for a month, and now, when #46 opens, events have suddenly leaped forward an unspecified amount of time, with Black Adam having been declared not guilty. The first time I read this I really thought I had missed an issue. Obviously this is Ordway doing the best job he can to fit his storyline into the remaining issues he had left.

For the first time since the accident caused by Chain Lightning, Billy calls on the Wizard’s power, transforming into Captain Marvel, ready to pound Black Adam into the pavement. Superman reluctantly intervenes, as in the eyes of the law Black Adam is not guilty… although it isn’t at all clear as to the specifics of how that works, and how he convinced the courts that he’s not Theo Adam, other than them having different fingerprints. Presumably this is something that Ordway would have explained in more detail if he’d had more issues.

Captain Marvel and Superman trade blows for several pages, until Mary and Freddy also transform, causing Billy’s own powers to weaken enough for Superman to beat him. The Man of Steel departs, and Mary and Freddy finally get Billy to calm down.

Meanwhile, Adam has made his way to the Rock of Eternity where, in an effort to settle accounts, he intends to free his former mistress, the demonic Blaze, from her imprisonment there. Adam recruits the evil Doctor Sivana to help him, and they manage to release Blaze… only to find that they’ve been manipulated into also freeing the Wizard’s ancient adversary the Three Faces of Evil, aka King Ghidorah’s even uglier cousin.

As #47 opens, Mother Box calls up a Boom Tube and transports Billy to the Rock, also bringing the Wizard back from New Genesis. Billy, the Wizard and Adam join forces against the Three Faces of Evil. In a great example of Chekov’s Gun — or more precisely Chekov’s Mystic Raygun — Billy retrieves the mystical Scorpion weapon introduced two years earlier in issue #24 and uses it to seal the Three Faces of Evil back inside the Rock.

The Wizard transports Captain Marvel and Adam to the River of the Dead to settle their differences once and for all. Adan continues to insist that he is a different person than Theo Adam… but if he has to kill Billy to escape the River, he’ll do just that. At the last minute Billy transforms back to his human self, and Adam realizes that he cannot bring himself to kill a child, even if it’s the only way he’ll be free. This convinces both Billy and the Wizard that Adam is sincere, and they let him go on his own way.

The Wizard, having attained godhood on New Genesis, returns to his home on the Rock of Eternity. Billy and Mary’s stepparents Nick and Nora, overjoyed their children are once again healthy & whole, throw a party, inviting over many of the characters we’ve seen over the past four years, and everyone gets a happy ending.

It’s unfortunate the series got cancelled. Ordway revealed in interviews that he had the book plotted out thru to issue #50, and was really looking forward to reaching that milestone, so it’s regrettable that he wasn’t allowed to get there. Still, if you count the graphic novel, the annual, and DC One Million, that is 50 issues. Whatever the official count, POS was a great series.

By the way, looking at these last several issues, it’s now apparent they were a major influence on writers Geoff Johns & David S. Goyer, who just a couple years later made violent antihero Black Adam a central character in their JSA run.

On #45 and #46 Ordway is once again inked by Giordano, resulting in some nice work. Costanza letters #45, with Albert T. Guzman filling in on #46. Whitmore colors both issues.

The finale in #47 has Da Ordster doing full artwork and coloring, with Costanza’s letters. The issue looks great, closing out the series in style.

Ordway’s painted covers for all three issues stand out. Issue #45 has Black Adam fighting the JLA. Captain Marvel and Superman face off on the cover to #46, a homage to Nick Cardy’s cover for Superman #276. And finally #47 has Cap in a fight to the death with the Three Faces of Evil.

If you haven’t read this series then I highly recommend picking up the hardcover collection that reprints the graphic novel & the first 12 issues, and then seek out copies of the other issues. It’s definitely worth the search.

Thank you, Jerry Ordway, for a great read. More than two decades later The Power of Shazam is still incredible.

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part three

I’m continuing my retrospective of The Power of Shazam published by DC Comics from 1995 to 1999.  This time I’m looking at issues #25-37, roughly the third year of the series. (You can find the first part here and the second part here.)

As always, the writer & cover artist on The Power of Shazam is the amazingly talented Jerry Ordway. Peter Krause and Mike Manley return as penciler and inker, respectively. John Costanza and Glenn Whitmore are the letter and colorist. Mike Carlin is the editor, with Chris Duffy providing assistant edits on #25 and #26, and Frank Berrios coming on beginning with #27.

Issues #25-27 are a key turning point in this series, because … History has been changed!

As we witnessed at the end of the previous story, somehow, impossibly, CC & Marilyn Batson are once again alive, and they, rather than their children Billy & Mary, possess the power of the Wizard Shazam, enabling them to become Captains Marvel! And only the Wizard realizes that things are not as they should be, that the timestream has been altered!

The Wizard discovers that the evil Professor Sivana, following the defeat of Mister Mind’s alien invasion, accidentally ended up on the Rock of Eternity, Shazam’s home at the center of all time. Sivana, realizing that all his misfortunes began when Theo Adam murdered CC & Marilyn in Egypt, utilized the Rock to go back in time to warn his past self about what he should and should not do.

So now, in the altered present, things appear idyllic for the Batson family. And having witnessed CC & Marilyn’s deaths in the graphic novel, and the effects of this tragedy on their children, it’s genuinely moving to see them all together in this new timeline.

We also get to see the normal, unpowered Billy & Mary using their courage & intelligence to outwit their father’s arch-enemy Ibic, which really demonstrates why in the “real” timeline they were so worthy to be given the power of Shazam.

Unfortunately, Sivana is still Sivana, and in this altered timeline he still cannot help being evil & self-destructive, with tragic results for the Batsons. Meanwhile the fanatical time-monitoring Linear Men are warning the Wizard that if he doesn’t correct this alteration of time then they will.

CC learns what has happened and reluctantly agrees to go back in time and fix things, even though it will mean he and his wife will no longer exist. However, CC at first tries to go back in time even farther, to before Sivana became a criminal, to try to scare him straight. Waverider of the Linear Men intercedes, showing him that Sivana is a necessary part of the timestream, and without him all sorts of weirdness could occur. Sadly admitting Waverider is correct, CC stops Sivana from changing history, CC and Marilyn fade from existence, and Billy & Mary are once again orphans.

However, in the now-restored timeline, Waverider ensures that CC’s long-lost will, which was hidden by his greedy half-brother Ebenezer, at long last resurfaces. The will grants custody of the children to Nick & Nora Bromfield. Nick & Nora had already adopted Mary years before, and now they are able to take in Billy, officially reuniting the siblings, much to the Wizard’s joy.

Ordway’s story and the art by Krause & Manley really sell the powerful emotions of this storyline.

Plus you have got to love that page where Waverider shows CC some of the possible Captain Marvels that might occur if history is further changed. The scene is a fun nod to the Kree Captain Mar-Vell & Rick Jones, the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel, the Captain Marvel from the Shazam: The New Beginning miniseries by Roy Thomas & Tom Mandrake, the wacky android Captain Marvel created by Carl Burgos whose arms, legs & head would split off, the expy Captain Thunder from Superman #276, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny!

Issue #28 finds Billy feeling ambivalent about this adoption by the Bromfields; he is happy that he and his sister are once again living together, but he’s uncomfortable about once again having parents. Billy literally had to survive on his own since their parents’ deaths, and now he has to once again get used to having structure & parental authority in his life. He also misses his old home in Fawcett City, finding the suburban town of Fairfield very different.

I feel that Ordway shifting the status quo was a great move, because he gets a lot of interesting, poignant drama out of Billy, Mary and the Bronfields all having to adjust to this new situation. One of the things that really appealed to me about this series was that it was as much about Billy & Mary’s personal lives as it was about superheroics, and this continues that direction.

Issue #28 is also a spotlight on Mary as Captain Marvel, debuting a brand-new white costume. We’re never explicitly told why Mary made the change, but the implication is that she has some sort of subconscious memory of the alternate timeline in which her mother wore one like it. Whatever the case, it looks great on her, and it makes her stand out from Billy. This issue also introduces Professor Bibbowski, the intellectual brother of salty tavern owner “Bibbo” Bibbowski from the Superman titles. Guest artwork on this story is by the legendary Dick Giordano.

Next is #29, one of my favorite issues of POS, featuring Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Peter Krause demonstrates his versatility as an artist in this fun story that sees Billy transported to a “funny animal” universe via a magician’s top hat… said magician being the Great Carlini, a nod to editor Mike Carlin.

At the end of the story we’re left wondering whether it was all an hallucination Billy had… but since just a couple issues back Waverider showed CC Batson that Hoppy was a possible incarnation of Captain Marvel, I’m going to say this really did happen. Besides, it’s too much of a great story to write off as a dream.

Giordano becomes the regular inker on with this issue. It’s interesting to compare his work over Krause to Manley’s previous inking. Manley enhanced the cartoony aspects of Krause’s pencils, whereas Giordano brings a slicker ink line. Definitely a good demonstration of how two inkers can have very different effects on the same penciler.

I haven’t previously mentioned Dudley, the middle aged janitor from Billy’s old school in Fawcett. Dudley was one of the few people who knew that Billy was living on his own, and that he was also Captain Marvel, and the kind-hearted maintenance man often covered for him. Dudley is a decent-enough guy, although he is definitely irresponsible and drinks too much. He was previously kept in line first by Billy and then by Tawky Tawny, but now that Billy is in Fairfield and Tawny is off making a movie, Dudley has a serious string of bad luck and gets fired.

Drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Dudley is visited by Mister Finish, a demon who looks like a werewolf. Finish tells Dudley that he’s going to die in three days… unless he comes up with seven other people to take his place! Dudley doesn’t actually accept the deal, but he understandably cannot stop from thinking about it, and Finish plucks the seven names from his mind. The inebriated Dudley rushes off to Fairfield to get Billy and Mary’s help, and they need to prevent Finish from claiming the seven victims. This is another one I liked a lot.

Issue #31 is a crossover with the Genesis event that John Byrne was spearheading. Ordway had a good working relationship with Byrne going back years, so it’s not surprising that POS has a significant tie-in with Genesis. Ordway used the preceding two issues to build up to it, and the actual crossover in #31 is anything by a throw-away story.

Due to the power losses caused by the events in Genesis, and by the Wizard traveling to New Genesis, Billy and Mary have become stuck in their Captain Marvel forms. Nick & Nora are convinced that Billy & Mary have been kidnapped by Dudley, who was the last person they were seen with before they went missing. In order to get Dudley released from jail, and to assuage the Bromfields’ fears, Billy & Mary find that they must reveal their secret identities to their adopted parents. So once again Ordway shifts the status quo, and from here on one of the major themes of this series is Nick & Nora trying their best to be parents to two kids who have superpowers.

After this there were a trio of stand-alone issues that featured some really great writing & character-development by Ordway.

Issue #32 introduces U.S. Air Force text pilot Deanna Barr, daughter of retired World War II costumed hero Jim “Bulletman” Barr. We also see Billy & Mary now using Mother Boxes given them by the New Gods to transform into the Captains Marvel as, following the events of the Genesis crossover, the Wizard has chosen to remain on their world of New Genesis. We also see Nick & Nora still adjusting to finding out their kids are superheroes. All things considered, they handle it pretty well.

Issue #33 is regarded by many as one of the best issues of the series. Billy and Mary are trying to find a way to help their friend & classmate Victor, who several years earlier was left horribly disfigured by their old enemy he superhuman pyromanic the Arson Fiend. This story has been reprinted twice, first in Shazam! The Greatest Stories Ever Told in 2008 and then in Shazam! A Celebration of 75 Years in 2015.

Issue #34 co-stars Jose Delgado, the vigilante Gangbuster, who has been on the run from the law for some time now. For the past few issues Jose has been working as a substitute teacher at Billy & Mary’s school in Fairfield. But when Billy is kidnapped, and unable to change into Captain Marvel, Jose is forced reveal his true identity to save the teen. Ordway utilizes this story to continue the Gangbuster story arc he wrote in a couple of recent issues of the Showcase revival, as well as to set up events for the upcoming crossover between POS and James Robinson’s Starman.

Krause & Giordano do a fine job with some very intelligent, emotional material in these three issues. Krause also once again does great with the comedic material. I love that scene of Deanna Barr giving Captain Marvel a smooch, and the panel of Billy & Mary sampling their stepmother’s attempt at baking cookies speaks for itself. The expressions on their faces!

That brings us to the crossover with Starman written by James Robinson. “Lightning and Stars” runs through Starman #33-40 and POS #35-36.

Jim Barr, has been framed for treason by neo-Nazis! Utilizing decades-old propaganda footage created by the Third Reich, these modern-day fascists have convinced the world that back in 1942 Barr was actually a Nazi double agent responsible for sinking the luxury liner The Normandie in New York Harbor on February 9, 1942.

Barr, in fact, was actually in Alaska on that very day, accompanying Ted Knight, the original Starman, on a top secret mission to prevent the Nazis from acquiring… something. Unfortunately all these decades later the mission is *still* classified, and Jim feels that he cannot reveal the details to the public, even if it’s the only way to clear his name.

Back during that mission Bulletman saved Starman’s life during a fierce battle above the Alaskan tundra, and so Ted now seeks to repay Jim by offering him sanctuary. Government bigwig Sarge Steel is more concerned with making sure the events of February 9th stay a secret than he is in clearing Jim’s name, though. Steel manipulates Captain Marvel into going after the retired Bulletman. This puts Billy Batson into conflict with Ted’s son Jack, the current Starman, in Opal City.

Meanwhile, Mary Bromfield, rather than rushing in blind, actually uses her head. Investigating, she figures out the footage of Bulletman’s treason is a fake. Turning into Captain Marvel, she stops her brother from getting into another fight with Jack Knight. The three of them return to Nick & Nora Bromfield’s home in Fairfield, where Jim and Ted are trying to figure out how to clear Jim’s name, a well-drawn scene I previously spotlighted in one of my Comic Book Coffee entries.

I liked the scene Ordway wrote between Billy and Jack at the end of the crossover. Jack and his father have an often-contentious relationship, But as the orphaned Billy points out to him:

“You — you’re really lucky, y’know — that your dad’s still around for you. And you for him.”

Krause appears to have drawn a great deal of inspiration from primary Starman artist Tony Harris. Krause’s work on these two issues really evokes the layouts & storytelling seen in the other series. As always, Krause does a great job with all of the character-driven sequences.

Ordway’s painted covers for these two issues are very nicely done, forming a single, larger image with scenes both past & present. And, yes, that is Green Lantern Abin Sur on the cover! The revelation of what exactly Bulletmen and Starman found in Alaska in 1942 was definitely an effective surprise. I really did not see it coming.

Finally we get to issue #37, which is a Captain Marvel Junior spotlight. Freddy Freeman hasn’t been seen in this series for quite a while, having joined the Teen Titans in New York City, and thus been busy appearing in that series. Freddy returns to these pages just in time to accidentally be exposed to the psychic mists of the evil Doctor Morpheus… no relation to the brooding goth fellow who hangs out with Neil Gaiman! As far as I can tell this is the Doctor’s only appearance. Freddy fights his way through the nightmares that Morpheus creates out of Freddy’s own fears & insecurities.

At the end of the story Captain Marvel Junior, who’s magic word is not “Shazam” but “Captain Marvel,” renames himself CM3, because he finally figures out that having a superhero name that he can’t even say without turning back to his non-powered self is not such a great thing. I don’t know if CM3 is much of an improvement, but what can you do?

This issue is interesting in that we see former inker Manley returning to pencil the story, with current inker Giordano providing embellishments. They do a nice job with the weird, creepy story by Ordway.

And with that we bring this installment of this retrospective to a close. Next time Ordway will once again be shaking things up in The Power of Shazam in a major way!

Neal Adams: 1941 to 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An interview with comic book artist Mike DeCarlo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 12

Welcome to the 12th edition of Comic Book Coffee. I posted 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.

56) Judit Tondora

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman #2, drawn by Judit Tondora, written by Andy Mangels, lettered by Tom Orzechowski & Lois Buhalis, and colored by Roland Pilcz, published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics in January 2017.

This was a fun miniseries co-starring television’s top two heroines from the late 1970s.  Andy Mangels is probably the foremost expert on Wonder Woman, and he must have had a real blast writing a team-up of Princess Diana and Jamie Sommers.

Hungarian artist Judit Tondora did a great job rendering both the television version of Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman, along with both their supporting casts and their small screen rogues galleries.  Likenesses can be very tricky, but I feel that Tondora really captured most of them pretty accurately.  Her depictions of Diana and Jaime were certainly beautiful.  Tondora’s art for this miniseries was very lively.  I hope we see more of her work appearing in comic books in the near future.

In this scene Diana Price and Steve Trevor of the IADC are meeting with Jaime Sommers and Oscar Goldman of the OSI.  Over coffee the four agents are discussing the ongoing investigation into the terrorist cabal Castra, an alliance of the IADC and OSI’s deadliest adversaries that has hijacked a shipment of experimental nuclear missiles.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman was a really enjoyable read.  I definitely recommend it.

57) Brad Gorby & Mark Heike

Femforce #93, written & penciled by Brad Gorby, inked by Mark Heike, and lettered by Christie Churms, published by AC Comics in May 1996.

While Femforce is basically a serious title, it also has a sense of humor about itself.  The main storyline running though these issues involves Jennifer Burke, the daughter of the original Ms. Victory.  Due to the manipulations of the military and a series of personal tragedies Jen’s life has completely fallen apart.  Going rogue, Jen adopts the identity of Rad which her mother previously assumed.  The government, realizing that Rad possesses a wealth of top secret information from her time leading Femforce, dispatches a group of genetically engineered assassins to eliminate her.

While this very intense plotline is taking place, writer / penciler Brad Gorby takes a brief detour to a more lighthearted setting.  It is morning and the ladies of Femforce are having breakfast.  Ms. Victory is once again drinking coffee, obviously a favorite of hers.  The incredibly-powerful yet often-absentminded Synn is trying to find out who ate all her sprinkle donuts and pop tarts, prompting the sorceress Nightveil to conjure up some for her.

I enjoy these types of “downtime” scenes in Femforce that explore the personal lives of the characters, and which allow for somewhat more goofball sequences. 

Gorby did a good job penciling this scene, giving each of the characters their own personalities, making them stand out from one another.  The inking is by Mark Heike.  Gorby and Heike are both longtime AC Comics contributors, as well as very talented artists.  Grey tones are by Christie Churms, who also lettered this issue.

58) José Beá

“Recurrence” was drawn by José Beá and written by Steve Skeates.  It appeared in Vampirella #34, released by Warren Publishing in June 1974.

The beautiful young protagonist of “Recurrence” thought she had it made.  She had pushed her husband into an elevator shaft, collecting $10,000 from the insurance company for his “accidental” death.  But then came the dreams, night after night, of being pushed off a cliff and falling endlessly.  Was it a guilty conscience… or a premonition?  Now she drinks coffee in the middle of the night desperate not to fall asleep again.

Spanish artist José Beá illustrated a number of stories for Warren between 1971 and 1976.  These were published in Warren’s three main comic book magazine series, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.  Following his time at Warren, Beá did a great deal of work in the European comic book field.  Among these were a number of erotic stories, some of which at the time unfortunately garnered a great deal of controversy.  Beá also wrote several science fiction novels for young adults.

59) Peter Krause & Dick Giordano

The Power of Shazam #36, penciled by Peter Krause, inked by Dick Giordano, written by Jerry Ordway, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Glenn Whitmore, published by DC Comics in March 1998.

During a crossover with the Starman series, Billy and Mary Batson have to work with Jack Knight to help clear the name of World War II hero Jim Barr, aka Bulletman, who has been framed for treason by neo-Nazis.  In his Captain Marvel identity Billy initially clashes with Jack, until the more level-headed Mary Marvel convinces him to calm down.  The trio heads to the home of Nick & Nora Bromfield, who have adopted the orphaned Mary and Billy.  There they find the Bromfields having coffee with Jack’s father Ted, the original Starman, as well as Jim Barr himself, with everyone attempting to figure out what their next step should be.

The Power of Shazam was such an amazing, fun, underrated series.  I came into it a bit late, in the second year, but I immediately became hooked, and I soon got caught up on the Jerry Ordway graphic novel and back issues.  Ordway wrote some great stories.  He successfully achieving the very tricky feat of simultaneously updating Billy, Mary and the rest of the Marvel Family cast for the 1990s while retaining a great deal of the charm from the original Golden Age stories.

Peter Krause did really good work penciling the series.  Due to the prevailing styles in super-hero comic books at the time, I think his work here was unfortunately overlooked by many.  Krause deftly balanced the serious and cartoony elements of the characters.  On the later issues of the series Krause was inked by the legendary Dick Giordano.

60) Amy Reeder

Rocket Girl #2, drawn & colored by Amy Reeder and written by Brandon Montclare, published by Image Comics in November 2013.

DaYoung Johansson, a fifteen year old police officer from the high tech future year of 2013, has traveled back in time to 1986.  DaYoung is convinced that her miraculous world should not exist, that it was created when the monolithic corporate juggernaut Quintum Mechanics sent its own technology back in time 27 years to its founders to give them a vast advantage.  DaYoung, armed with her jetpack and her teenage zeal, is determined to thwart this crime against time, even if it means erasing the very future from which she came.

Montclare & Reeder’s ten issue Rocket Girl series is a wibbly wobbly, timey wimey tale of temporal paradoxes, corporate intrigue and youthful idealism.  I previously reviewed the first five issues. The ending to Montclare’s story ultimately left me feeling ambivalent, for a few different reasons.

What I was not ambivalent about was Reeder’s stunning artwork.  She did a superb job drawing both the sci-fi New York City of 2013 and the historically accurate Big Apple of 1986.  Her layouts for Rocket Girl were incredibly dynamic, and the amount of detail she put into her pages was astonishing.

As Reeder recounts in the text feature from issue #7…

“In Rocket Girl I am responsible for making two worlds; an 80s vision of the future, and actual 1980s New York.  At first I expected the futuristic world would give me the worst trouble — I thought coming up with a city out of thin air would be a bit overwhelming.  But I should have known better: I get carried away with accuracy, and the 1980s New York is heavily documented, often talked about, and well remembered by many.  So bar none — 80’s NYC is the harder of the two worlds to draw.  I just HAVE to get it right.  And, honestly, it’s pretty fun to get it right.  (Or close!)”

On this page from issue #2, the recently arrived DaYoung is bunking with Annie Mendez and Ryder Storm, two graduate students who work for Quintum Mechanics in 1986.  Annie and Ryder awaken to find the hyperactive DaYoung has whipped up a huge stack of pancakes and brewed a pot of coffee, all the while pondering how to change the course of history.

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.

Frank McLaughlin: 1935 to 2020

I am sorry to report that another comic book creator whose work I enjoyed has passed on.  Frank McLaughlin was a talented artist whose career in comic books and comic strips lasted for nearly five decades, from the 1961 to 2008.   He passed away on March 4th at the age of 84.

McLaughlin, like a number of other comic book creators, got his foot in the door via Charlton Comics.  He was hired on to do a variety of production work for the Derby, Connecticut publisher.  In a 2016 interview McLaughlin recounted how he came to work for Charlton:

“All through my career, I have been blessed with the greatest of friends, beginning with a classmate at art school; Larry Conti. Larry hooked me up with his brother, Dan Conti, who was a department head at Charlton Press. Dan, in turn, introduced me to Charlton’s Pat Masulli, editor in chief of comics. Timing was perfect, because his assistant, Sal Gentile, was about to leave for Florida, in two weeks. I was hired on the spot, and Sal gave me an immediate ‘cook’s tour’ of the plant. It took me a few days for all this to sink in, but Sal was a terrific guy, and this made it easy for me to understand the job.”

Judomaster 93 coverDuring his time at Charlton, McLaughlin worked closely with fellow artist Dick Giordano.  If you look at McLaughlin’s work, especially his inking, you can see that Giordano was a definite influence.  Considering Giordano was an incredibly talented artist himself, one could certainly do worse than to draw inspiration from him.

McLaughlin had studied judo since he was 18 years old, and he drew on his martial arts experience to create the character Judomaster for Charlton.  Judomaster made his debut in Special War Series #4, cover-dated November 1965.  The next year an ongoing Judomaster series was launched, which lasted for ten issues. (Confusingly the issue numbers for Judomaster were #89 to #98, carrying on the numbering from the cancelled series Gunmaster. This was a common practice at Charlton.)  McLaughlin wrote, penciled & inked the entire ten issue run.

Unfortunately I am not especially familiar with McLaughlin’s work on Judomaster or the other Charlton “Action Heroes” titles from the 1960s, but judging by the artwork I’ve seen from it online he clearly did good work on it.  The cover for #93 (“Meet the Tiger!”) is especially striking.  I did recently locate copies of Judomaster #96 and #98 at Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan, and I found them to be enjoyable, well-drawn comic books.

McLaughlin left Charlton in 1969 to freelance, and by the early 1970s he was regularly receiving work from both Marvel and DC Comics.  The majority of his assignments for the Big Two were inking the pencils of other artists.  It was actually via his work as an inker that I first became aware of McLaughlin, and developed a real appreciation for his art.

As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a lot of time attempting to acquire copies of every issue of Captain America published during the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favorite artists on Captain America was Sal Buscema, who penciled the series from 1972 to 1975.  Buscema was paired with several inkers during this four year run.  Reading those back issues during my high school & college years, I very quickly noticed there was something different, something special, about the work of one particular inker, namely Frank McLaughlin.

Captain America 160 pg 1 signed

To my eyes, McLaughlin’s inks over Buscema’s pencils were really striking.  McLaughlin gave Buscema’s pencils kind of a slick polish.  I guess that’s how I would describe it.  As a non-artist, sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate these things clearly.  Whatever the case, it looked great.

McLaughlin only inked Buscema’s pencils on six issues of Captain America, specifically #155-156, 160, 165-166 and 169.  I really wish he’d had a longer run on the title.  McLaughlin’s final issue, #169, was the first chapter of the epic “Secret Empire” storyline written by Steve Englehart.  The remaining chapters of that saga were inked by Vince Colletta.

I realize Colletta is a divisive inker, so I am going to put this in purely personal, subjective terms.  Speaking only for myself, I just do not think Colletta’s inks were a good fit for Buscema’s pencils.  As incredible as the “Secret Empire” saga was, I feel it would have been even better if McLaughlin had been the inker for the entire storyline.

Now that I think about it, when I was reading those Captain America back issues in the mid 1990s, and comparing Buscema inked by McLaughlin to Buscema inked by Colletta, and in turn comparing both to the other inkers who worked on that series the early 1970s, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me realizing just how significant a role the inker has in the finished look of comic book artwork.

McLaughin also inked Buscema on a few of the early issues of The Defenders, specifically #4-6 and 8-9.  Again, I wish it had been a longer run, because they went so well together.  In these issues the Asgardian warrior Valkyrie joined the team, and the combination of Buscema’s pencils and McLaughlin’s inks resulted in a stunningly beautiful depiction of the character.

I definitely regard Frank McLaughlin as one of the best inkers Sal Buscema had during the Bronze Age.

Defenders 4 pg 15

McLaughlin actually did much more work as an inker at DC Comics.  One of his regular assignments at DC was Justice League of America.  He inked issues #117-189, a six and a half year run between 1975 and 1981.

During most of McLaughlin’s time on Justice League of America he was paired with the series’ longtime penciler Dick Dillin.  Although I would not say that I am a huge fan of Dillin, I nevertheless consider him to be sort of DC’s equivalent of Sal Buscema.  In other words, much like Our Pal Sal, Dillin was a good, solid, often-underrated artist with strong storytelling skills who could be counted on to turn in a professional job on time.  I like quality that McLaughlin’s inking brought to Dillin’s pencils.  They made an effective art team.

Tragically, after completing Justice League of America #183, in March 1980 Dillin died unexpectedly at the much too young age of 51 (reportedly he passed away at the drawing board working on the next issue).  McLaughlin remained on for the next several issues, effectively providing finishes for a young George Perez’s pencil breakdowns, as well as inking over Don Heck and Rich Buckler. Nevertheless, as he recounted in a 2008 interview, he made the decision to leave the series:

“I did one or two issues, and then I said to Julie [Schwartz] “you know, I think I’d like to move on.” I was so used to what Dillin and I were doing together. I moved on and did a lot more other stuff.

“It was a good change of speed at the time, inking groups was fast becoming not a favorite–there’s too many people in there!”

Justice League 140 pg 1

Among his other work for DC Comics, McLaughlin inked Irv Novick on both Batman and The Flash, Ernie Chan on Detective Comics, Joe Staton on Green Lantern, and Carmine Infantino on the Red Tornado miniseries and the last two years of The Flash during the “Trial of the Flash” storyline.  He also assisted Giordano on several DC jobs during the mid-to-late 1980s.

McLaughlin’s last regular assignment in comic books was for Broadway Comics in 1996.  There he inked a young J.G. Jones on Fatale.

Between 2001 and 2008 he drew the Gil Thorpe comic strip.  In 2008 McLaughlin collaborated with his daughter Erin Holroyd and his long-time colleague Dick Giordano on The White Viper, a web comic serialized on ComicMix that was subsequently collected in a graphic novel in 2011 by IDW.White Viper cover

McLaughlin taught at both Paier College of Art in Hamden CT and Guy Gilchrist’s Cartoonist’s Academy in Simsbury CT, and he worked with Mike Gold on the instructional books How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics and How to Draw Monsters for Comics.

In his later years McLaughlin did commissions for fans.  One of the characters he was often asked to draw was Judomaster, which all those decades later still had devoted fans.

Writer & editor Robert Greenberger, who worked at DC Comics from 1984 to 2000, wrote a brief tribute to McLaughlin on Facebook:

“I grew up on Frank’s work, first at Charlton then DC and Marvel. When I joined DC, he quickly welcomed me and was a font of stories.

“Frank was a gracious man, friendly, and willing to talk shop with eager newcomers, share tips with rising new talent, and lend a hand wherever needed.

“He was a workhorse of an artist, adaptable and reliable — two of the qualities desperate editors always welcomed. Even after I left staff, we’d run into one another at cons and it was picking up where we left off.

“I will miss him.”

I fortunately had an opportunity to meet McLaughlin once at a convention in the early 2000s.  At the time I was regrettably unaware of his work for Charlton, but I did have him autograph one of the Captain America issues that he had so wonderfully inked.  I only spoke with him briefly, but he came across as a nice, polite person.

Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.

 

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

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

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

Black Canary miniseries 1 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 24

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

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

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

Black Canary miniseries 1 pg 18

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

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

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

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

Black Canary miniseries 2 pg 19 and 20

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

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

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

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

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