Happy birthday to Sal Buscema

Today is the 78th birthday of one of my favorite comic book artists, Sal Buscema, who was born on January 26, 1936.  “Our Pal Sal,” as he is often affectionately referred to by comic book fans, is the younger brother of the late, great John Buscema (1927-2002), another of the amazing artists whose work defined the look of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.

For an extremely in-depth look at Sal Buscema’s career, I highly recommend picking up the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, written by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weathington, published by TwoMorrows.  Also now out in comic shops is Back Issue #70, edited by Michael Eury, and also released by TwoMorrows. Examining the Hulk throughout the Bronze Age, one of the subjects naturally touched upon is Buscema’s record ten year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from late 1975 to mid 1986.  That said, I am going to look at a few specific, favorite areas of Buscema’s career.

Sal Buscema Comics Fast & Furious Artist cover

One of Buscema’s first assignments at Marvel was penciling Avengers in 1969.  This was something of a baptism by fire, considering Sal had the render numerous heroes and villains in the storylines being written by Roy Thomas.  Nevertheless, Buscema did great work out of the gate, turning in quality pencils for the Avengers’ now-classic encounters with Ultron, the Zodiac Cartel, the Lethal Legion, and the forces of the extraterrestrial Kree and Skrull, those later issues being part of the epic “Kree-Skrull War,” which also featured the artistry of Sal’s brother John and a young Neal Adams.

Around this same time, John Buscema, who was somewhat picky about who inked his work, asked Sal to embellish his pencils on several issues of Silver Surfer.  Looking at the black & white reprints of those stories in Essential Silver Surfer, I’d say that Sal did a great job, really bringing out the best in his brother’s work.

In late 1971, Sal Buscema became the penciler on Captain America, a book which at the time was floundering somewhat both in terms of sales and creative stability.  In mid-1972, Buscema was joined by incoming writer Steve Englehart.  Together, the two of them took the characters of Cap and the Falcon on a creative renaissance.  Their run is now regarded as one of the high points in the long history of the book.  It is certainly one of my favorites.   Englehart focused squarely on Cap’s uncertain place in the extremely unsettled social & political climate of the early 1970s.  Buscema turned in exemplary pencils, creating one of the definitive renditions of the character.  The high point of their run was undoubtedly “The Secret Empire,” a story arc that ran from #169 to #176.

Captain America 175 pg 1

Buscema departed from Captain America shortly afterwards.  His last regular issue was #181, cover-dated January 1975.  By the time he was already a few years into a run penciling The Defenders.  One of the main characters in that title was the Hulk, a character Buscema drew extremely well, and who he has stated on several occasions was a favorite of his.  He has expressed a fondness for the character, a tortured child-like creature perceived as a dangerous monster and cast out from society.  So it was certainly a judicious choice for Marvel to offer him the assignment to pencil Incredible Hulk later that year.  As I said before, Buscema had a decade-long run on that series, once again creating a definitive interpretation of one of Marvel’s icons.

I’ve written about Sal Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk a couple of times before on this blog, specifically issue #285 and #309.  Both written by Bill Mantlo, each of these issues had extremely different tones and atmospheres to them.  Comparing those two comics, you can really see Buscema’s versatility as an artist.

One of my favorite titles that Buscema worked on was Rom Spaceknight, beginning with the debut issue in late 1979, and remaining on the title until issue #58 in 1984.  Nearly the entirety of the series was written by the aforementioned Bill Mantlo.  He and Buscema worked really well together.  Mantlo’s Rom Spaceknight stories were a deft blending of superheroes, sci-fi, horror, and conspiracy fiction.  Buscema expertly illustrated this cocktail of diverse elements.  He also excelled at drawing Rom himself, a near-featureless metal figure.  Buscema had to rely on his mastery of capturing the nuances of body language to give emotion to the cyborg hero.  Buscema drew on his amateur theater background to make Rom a lifelike individual.

Rom Spaceknight 1 pg 1

Buscema had been the original artist on Spectacular Spider-Man when it debuted in 1976, penciling the first couple of years.  A decade later, in 1988, he returned to the book with a refined style to his art which was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Buscema, first with writer Gerry Conway, and then with J.M. DeMatteis, produced what I regard as some of the finest work of his career.  His storytelling and nuanced emotional depictions of characters were especially stunning on DeMatteis’ moody, psychological run from #178 to #200.

DeMatteis was following up on one of the threads from his time writing Captain America and the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story, specifically the tragic story of the man-rat Vermin.  The author wove this around the conflict between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the latter of whom, haunted by memories of his then still very much dead father Norman, became unhinged and took up the identity of the Green Goblin.  This all culminated in the tragic issue #200, which Buscema magnificently illustrated.

Spectacular SpiderMan 182 cover

Buscema remained on Spectacular Spider-Man until #238.  Towards the end of this run, he was inked by John Stanisci and, appropriately enough, Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist who had inspired him to experiment with his long-established style.  I really liked the pairing of Buscema and Sienkiewicz.

In the mid-1990s, when Marvel was in the uphevals of bankruptcy, Buscema had to look for work elsewhere.  For several years he was employed by Marvel’s distinguished competition themselves, DC Comics.  At DC, Buscema both penciled and inked a number of different titles, including various Batman and Superman books.  It was really interesting to see the long-time Marvel artist on DC’s flagship characters.  Buscema did some great work during this time.  One of my favorite stories he penciled at DC was “The Prison,” written & inked by John Stanisci, which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #8.  It examined the dark, convoluted relationship between Batman and Talia, the daughter of the Dark Knight’s immortal nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.  Buscema did a nice job on this, and it was great to see him paired with Stanisci again.

Batman Chronicles 8 pg 5

Since 2000, Buscema has been semi-retired.  Most of his work in the last decade and a half has been as an inker.  His most frequent artistic partner is penciler Ron Frenz.  The two of them make a great art team.  They had a long run on Spider-Girl.  Subsequently they’ve also worked on ThunderstrikeHulk Smash Avengers, She-Hulk, Black Knight G.I. Joe, and Superman Beyond.

After over four decades in the comic book industry, nowadays Sal Buscema is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Nevertheless, as a huge fan of his work, I am very happy that he does still venture back into the biz from time to time for the occasional job.  It is always a thrill for me to see new artwork from him.  Our Pal Sal is definitely an amazing talent.

I am happy to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talents. There is a Facebook group entitled SAL BUSCEMA POW! which currently has 619 members.  Somehow I ended up being the co-moderator of this one.  So, if you are also a fan of his work, feel free to join.

(One Year Later Update… as of today, January 26, 2015, the SAL BUSCEMA POW! group on Facebook now has 1,466 members.  A big “thank you” to everyone who joined in the last year.  It’s nice to hear from so many fellow fans of Our Pal Sal.)

Once again, happy birthday, Sal!  Thank you for all the wonderful stories and artwork that you’ve given us.

How I discovered Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby is rightfully considered one of the all-time greatest creators to have ever worked in the comic book industry.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, the man who came to be known as Jack Kirby was responsible for creating or co-creating a huge percentage of what we now know as the Marvel Comics universe, as well as a number of key characters over at DC Comics.  He also conceived a number of concepts for series that either came out through smaller companies which allowed him to retain ownership or that unfortunately never saw print in his lifetime.  I’ve blogged about Kirby before.  So today, on what would have been his 96th birthday, I am going to look back on how I personally came to be a fan of his work.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, from time to time I would see Jack Kirby’s name mentioned in various lettercols or editorial pages, usually referring to him in glowing terms as an exceptional artist and a brilliant designer of characters.  However, back in those days, trade paperback collections were few & far between, and back issues from the 1960s that he had worked on were typically well out of the budget of a ten year old.  It would be a few years before I would actually have the opportunity to see Kirby’s artwork with own eyes.

In hindsight, I now realize that selected panels from some of his early 1960s work appeared in the Marvel Saga series that was published in the mid-1980s.  But the first entire issue illustrated by him that I ever owned was Fantastic Four #74, which I picked out of the back issue bins of some comic shop or another around 1986, probably because it had a cool cover.

Fantastic Four 74 cover

I managed to buy that copy of FF #74 pretty cheap, for maybe $5.00 or so.  That’s because it was certainly not in mint condition, to say the least.  It must have changed hands at least a few times before I acquired it.  And at least one of the previous owners had decided to use a magic marker to trace the outlines of the figures in a few of the panels.  Eeeek!  Even at ten years old, I knew that was a no-no!  Nevertheless, most of the pages were left untouched, and I was able to appreciate the artwork of Kirby inked by Joe Sinnott.

FF #74 was a pretty cool comic book.  I haven’t looked at in a while, but as I recall the Silver Surfer, imprisoned on Earth by Galactus, is moping about the apartment of blind sculptress Alicia Masters.  Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, is none too thrilled that the Surfer is hanging out with his best gal, and doesn’t exactly offer a sympathetic ear to the former sentinel of the spaceways.  Next thing you know, the Surfer decides to lay a cosmic powered smack-down on the gruff Thing.  Before their grudge can proceed further, Galactus returns to Earth, hoping to re-enlist his former herald.  The devourer of worlds dispatches his servant the Punisher to retrieve the Surfer… no no no, not the guy with the skull on his chest who goes around shooting criminals full of holes.  This Punisher is a funny-looking robot dude who predates Frank Castle by almost a decade.  A big fight ensues between the FF and the Punisher.  Then, next thing you know, the story ends on a cliffhanger, and a ten year old Ben Herman threw up his hands in despair, wondering how he was ever going to find a copy of issue #75, and even if he did, would he even be able to afford it!?!

I believe that my next major look at Jack Kirby’s work was maybe three years later, in early 1989.  In the latest issues of Captain America, writer Mark Gruenwald had resurrected the diabolical Red Skull, in the process taking the opportunity to bring readers up to speed on the history of the crimson-masked fiend.  I was really curious to check out some of those past storylines Gruenwald had flashed back to in issue #350.  So once again, I dove into the back issue bins, pulling out a copy of Captain America #210, with its strikingly odd cover of the Red Skull’s metaphorical tentacles entrapping the book’s cast.

Captain America 210 cover

“Showdown Day” was written & penciled by Kirby, with inking by Mike Royer.  If I thought the cover was unusual, well, that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Picking up mid-story, this issue sees Cap and the lovely Donna Maria Puentes tussling with the ultra-bizarre, supremely twisted Nazi genetic engineer known as Arnim Zola, as well as his grotesque army of mutant creations.  Meanwhile, SHIELD agent Sharon Carter is investigating an eccentric millionaire recluse named Cyrus Fenton, who is actually none other than the Red Skull in disguise, funding Zola’s experiments from behind the scenes.  Oh, yeah, and the Falcon gets attacked by a giant bird.

Truthfully, my first impression of Kirby’s artwork on this issue was that I thought it was really bizarre.  Even so, I had to admit that he drew an evil-looking Red Skull.  As for Donna Maria and Sharon, wow, both of them were really sexy babes who left a memorable impression on my 13 year old mind.  And, as for Kirby’s writing, setting aside the fact that Captain America is actually absent from the second half of the story, it was interesting.  Kirby deftly scripted the Red Skull as this icy schemer, really imbuing him with a palpable air of menace.

As with that Fantastic Four issue, Captain America #210 also ends with a “to be continued.”  Fortunately, most of Kirby’s mid-1970s Marvel work was both easier to find and cheaper to purchase than his comics from the previous decade, and within a few years I managed to track down the entire story arc.

And this brings me to my discovery of Kirby’s celebrated work at DC in the early 1970s, when he created the Fourth World.  By the time I was in high school, I had known about the tyrannical Darkseid and his evil followers from Apokolips for several years, first due to their inclusion in the Super Friends cartoons, and then their appearances in John Byrne’s run on the Superman books, plus the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries by Jim Starlin & Mike Mignola.  I really wanted to read the original Kirby issues but, again, they were both expensive and difficult to find.  Finally, in the early 1990s, at a comic con in Westchester, I was able to purchase Forever People #4 and #9 for relatively reasonable prices.

Forever People 4 cover

Eagerly pulling those two comics out of their bags, I read them and…. okay, once again, I’ll be honest.  The artwork was great, the writing not so much.  At least, that’s how I felt at the time.  From those two issues, I was left with the impression that Kirby may have been a brilliant artist, but he sure was a lousy writer.

So a couple of more years passed, and I managed to find a few more of the Fourth World books at inexpensive prices.  Specifically, I picked up New Gods #7 as well as Mister Miracle #9 and #18.  I don’t know, maybe I was slightly more mature, or maybe those were better stories, or maybe it was just a matter of having more realistic expectations.  Whatever the case, I liked those three issues a lot more.  And, of course, a few years later I learned that New Gods #7, “The Pact,” is considered by many to be one of the greatest single issues that Kirby ever created.

Finally in 1998 DC released an inexpensive black & white three volume set of trade paperbacks that reprinted the majority of his New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle issues.  I picked them up and fell in love with the material.  Able to read almost the entire run of stories from beginning to end, suddenly everything fell into place.  Also, by this point I had come to recognize that Kirby’s stylized scripting, the cadence of his dialogue, while it undoubtedly had its peculiarities, also possessed an appealing quality to it that suited the material.  Kirby had crafted an incredibly epic, poignant odyssey in his trilogy of titles which, sadly, was brought to much too premature an end.

New Gods trade paperback

And that is how I became a fan of Jack Kirby.  Nowadays, practically everything he worked on during his lifetime has been brought back into print.  Kirby envisioned the day when comic books would be read like full length novels.  That has come to pass, with trade paperbacks and graphic novels now an industry standard.

I’ve said this before, but I cannot help thinking Kirby died too young.  He passed away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76, and for the last dozen or so years of his life ill health had resulted in a decline in the quality of his artwork.  I wish that Kirby could have lived longer, retaining his vitality & drawing ability.  He dabbled in creator-owned work in the early 1980s, but between his health problems and the then relatively new, uncertain status of the direct market those series did not last long.

Imagine if Kirby had still been at the peak of his talents in the 1990s when Image Comics had exploded.  He could have taken some of his myriad unpublished, unrealized ideas for characters over to that company and created long-running titles that he held full creative control and ownership.

I know, I know… asking what if and if only and all that other hypothesizing is pointless.  What’s done is done.  I’m just sorry that Kirby isn’t here to see how much of an influence, an inspiration he has become to so many, how much enjoyment his work has brought to a legion of fans.

As I was writing this up, I recalled an anecdote that concerns James M. Cain.  Reputedly the authors was once asked by a reporter if, in the course of his works being made into less-than-faithful movie adaptations by Hollywood, he felt that his books had been ruined.  And in response Cain apparently led the questioner to a bookshelf in his study, pointed to it, and replied “They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.”  In a way, that applies here.  Jack Kirby, sadly, is no longer with us.  But his innumerable amazing works remain behind for us to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

Captain America #278: you never forget your first

It is July 4th, and I wanted to do a patriotic-themed post.  Now, I could go off on some sort of rant about how our country’s cherished freedoms are being eroded by a dysfunctional, partisan political system into which corporations pump obscene amounts of money to manipulate the legislative process, and so forth.  But where’s the fun in that?  Let’s go with a comic book related piece, instead!

Captain America 278 cover signed

*Ahem!*  I actually do not recall what was the very first comic book was that I read.  It is possible that it was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #32.  But I certainly remember very well indeed my first Captain America comic: it was issue #278.  The cover date on that issue is February 1983, meaning it actually came out in November 1982.  I was six-and-a-half years old when I read it.  That issue played a significant role in my becoming a huge fan of the Sentinel of Liberty.

“Oh, Thus Be It Ever” is written by J.M. DeMatteis, with pencils by Mike Zeck and inks by John Beatty.  DeMatteis drops the reader right in the middle of the action of the ongoing story arc, but quickly brings us up to speed on page two via a handy recap expertly illustrated by Zeck & Beatty.

Cap’s old foe Baron Zemo has kidnapped Steve Rogers’ childhood pal Arnie Roth and his roommate Michael, as part of a scheme of revenge against the super-soldier.  Michael’s mind was transferred into a mutant creature that was subsequently killed by the man-rat Vermin.  A distraught Arnie lashes out at Cap, and Zemo is thrilled to think he has turned one of his enemy’s oldest friends against him.

Captain America 278 pg 2

A gloating Zemo flees, leaving Cap and Arnie to the mercies of an army of mutates created by the Baron using the twisted science of mad geneticist Arnim Zola.  At first, Cap fights the mutates, but Arnie, coming to his senses, realizes that these creatures are actually innocent human beings who have been transformed against their will.  This leads Cap to launch into a stirring speech wherein he appeals to the mutates’ buried humanity, urging them to throw off Zemo’s yoke.  The creatures rally to Cap and Arnie’s side.  The group confronts the Baron, and a furious Arnie punches him out.

Unfortunately, at this point a group of SHIELD agents who had been tracking Cap arrive at the castle.  Watching the mutates smashing Zemo’s equipment, SHIELD mistakes them for “monstrosities” and attack, killing most of them before a fuming-mad Cap hollers at them to stop.  During the confusion, Zemo slips away to an escape craft.  As he is fleeing, though, Zemo realizes that a savage, vengeful Vermin has snuck aboard the ship, furious at having been abandoned.

The last six pages of Captain America #278 are devoted to “Snapping, Part III” featuring Cap’s long-time ally Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon.  With the help of old friend Reverend Garcia, a distraught Wilson is struggling to hold on to his sanity.  Is he truly Sam Wilson?  Or is he actually “Snap” Wilson, a racketeer who years before was brainwashed by the  Red Skull to become a sleeper agent, a pawn to use against Cap at a later date?  Garcia helps Sam to reconcile the painful memories of his past, reintegrating the strands of his personality for the first time since the death of his parents.

Captain America #278 left a huge impression on my young self.  The scene where DeMatteis has Cap rally the mutates to his side stayed with me all these years.  Cap was not just someone who attempted to solve all his problems with his fists, but who, if possible, would try to reason or empathize with his opponents.  And he was someone for whom the terms “liberty” and “justice” were not just buzzwords to throw around in order to sound patriotic; he genuinely believed in the freedom and dignity of all human beings.

Captain America 278 pg 8

(By the way, as noted on the letters page of #278, and DeMatteis himself pointed out on his blog when I e-mailed him a link to this post, the initial idea for Cap’s speech to the mutates was conceived by Jim Shooter and Roger Stern. To quote DeMatteis, “So credit to ALL involved.”)

It would be several more years before I would be able to follow the Captain America series on a monthly basis, but my fondness for the character began here.  This issue also led to my interest in a number of other corners of the Marvel universe.  Baron Zemo would eventually form a deadly incarnation of the Masters of Evil in the epic Avengers story arc “Under Siege” written by Roger Stern.  Later, in Kurt Busiek’s Thunderbolts, Zemo and the Masters of Evil would disguise themselves as superheroes in order to gain the trust of an unsuspecting world.  DeMatteis and Zeck would re-team on the classic Spider-Man storyline “Kraven’s Last Hunt” bringing with them the rat mutate Vermin.  DeMatteis would further explore Vermin’s tragic story with artist Sal Buscema in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, and during that time both the other surviving mutates and Zemo himself would appear.  (I highly recommend tracking down DeMatteis & Buscema’s superb run on Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200).

In hindsight, there are a couple of aspects of Captain America #278 which I understandably did not pick up on way back then.  First off, there is Steve Rogers’ childhood friend Arnie Roth and his “roommate” Michael.  Looking back on the entire story arc, and reading between the lines, it is now obvious that DeMatteis was writing Arnie and Michael as a gay couple, making it subtle enough that it would not be objectionable to the more conservative editorial standards of the early 1980s.  DeMatteis clearly shows two gay men in a committed relationship, and indeed the death of Michael in this story is a blow from which Arnie would take a long time to recover.

The other point is regarding the back-up featuring the Falcon.  I now recognize that DeMatteis wrote “Snapping” to clear up the muddled history of Sam Wilson that was caused by Steve Englehart’s retcon of the Falcon’s origin several years previously.  Now, when I later tracked down the back issues of Englehart’s Captain America run, I became a huge fan of his work on the series.  That said, I have always felt his “Snap” Wilson subplot was a misstep.  I think that DeMatteis does a fine job in this story of reconciling the problems it caused with the Falcon.

Captain America 278 pg 19

Oh, yes, how can I forget Mike Zeck?!?  He has been one of my all time favorite comic book artists ever since I saw his amazing work on Captain America #278 as a kid.  His subsequent work on “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Punisher, Damned, Deathstroke, and Legends of the DC Universe, among others, was stunning.  Years later, I had the opportunity to visit Mike at his then-home in Connecticut.  Of course I had to bring Captain America #278 with me to get autographed.  Well, actually, it was a replacement copy I’d bought a few years earlier, because I had read the original comic so many times that it had literally fallen to pieces.

In the last several years most of what Zeck has done is licensing art and style guides.  No doubt this pays very well.  But I really do wish we could once again see his artwork on actual comic books, at least drawing a miniseries or some covers.  Come back, Mike, we miss you!

As for John Beatty, he is certainly a talented inker / embellisher.  In addition to his collaborations with Zeck, he’s also done nice work over Kelley Jones’ pencils.  Like Zeck, I believe nowadays Beatty also has focused on licensing artwork.

So there you have it, a look back at one of the most memorable comic books of my childhood, featuring my introduction to Marvel’s red, white & blue Avenger.  And after all these years it is still an amazing story with superb artwork.

Updated June 19, 2015: After all these years I finally had the opportunity to meet J.M. DeMatteis.  He was doing a signing earlier this week at JHU Comic Books in Manhattan to promote the release of his Mercy: Shake the World graphic novel.  I brought along my copy of Captain America #278 to get autographed.  It was an honor to meet him.