The Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part One

On the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, moderator Jim Thompson issued a “Call to Arms” to occupy and cheer up those of us who are working from home or unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic.  The challenge: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject until May 1st (if not longer).

Jim had already been posting his 1000 Horses series for the past three years, each day showcasing artwork featuring a horse drawn by a different artist.  Group member Mitchell Brown has done several shorter themes, most recently “My Enemy, Myself” featuring “evil twin” stories.

Mitchell sometimes collects together some of these FB posts on his entertaining & informative blog, the appropriately named A Dispensable List of Comic Book Lists.  That inspired me to do the same with my blog.  Here is the first installment in the Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.

cat and coffee

1) Shannon Wheeler

Let’s start off with the obvious choice: Too Much Coffee Man by Shannon WheelerToo Much Coffee Man first appeared as a self-published mini comic in 1991.  In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker, Wheeler explained the origins of the series:

“In 1991, I drew an autobiographical cartoon for The Daily Texan with themes of alienation and loneliness. When I described it, people’s eyes glazed over. As a cheap gag, I started “Too Much Coffee Man.” I still address the same themes, except now there’s coffee. People like coffee.”

That’s certainly true.  I’m drinking coffee at this very moment, right as I’m typing this sentence.

From such humble beginnings, Too Much Coffee Man has been in near-continuous publication for almost three decades.  The series has enabled Wheeler to humorously explore existential angst, the lunacy of American society, and the dangers of overindulging in caffeine.

Here is Too Much Coffee Man living up to his name on page two of the story “TMCM vs. TM©M” which sees a ruthless corporate executive shamelessly steal our protagonist’s name & imagery, and then hit him with a cease & desist order.  In the battle of indy original versus big business rip-off, who will win? (Hey, maybe Mitchell Brown can do a “My Enemy, Myself” entry about this story!)

“TMCM vs. TM©M” first appeared in Too Much Coffee Man #1 published by Adhesive Press in July 1993.  I read the story in the Too Much Coffee Man’s Parade of Tirade trade paperback released by Dark Horse in November 1999, which reprinted the first eight issues of the Adhesive Press run.  The story, and a whole bunch of other caffeinated goodness, can also be found in the Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus published by Dark Horse in 2011, with an expanded edition in 2017.

Too Much Coffee Man

2) Dan Jurgens & Al Vey

This artwork is from Common Grounds #5 from Image Comics, cover-dated June 2004. Script is by Troy Hickman, pencils by Dan Jurgens, inks by Al Vey, letters by the Dreamer’s Design team, and colors by Guy Major.  I’m going to quote from my own previous blog post about Common Grounds

Published by the Top Cow imprint of Image Comics in 2004, Common Grounds was a six issue miniseries written by Troy Hickman, with contributions from a number of extremely talented artists.  It initially began life as a mini comic titled Holey Crullers that Hickman had worked on with Jerry Smith a few years before.  Common Grounds was set around a nationwide chain of coffee shops that were frequented by costumed heroes & villains, a sort of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for super-humans.  The various Common Grounds stores serve as “neutral territory” where both crime-fighters and criminals can gather peaceably to enjoy a cup of joe and some doughnuts.

Hickman and his artistic collaborators introduce a cast who, on the surface, are expies for famous DC and Marvel characters.  Hickman utilizes these to both pay homage to and deconstruct various storytelling structures and devices of the superhero genre.  What I like about how Hickman goes about this is that he does so with a surprising lack of sarcasm or mockery.  All of his jibes are of the good-natured sort, and he takes equal aim at the implausible silliness of the early Silver Age and the grim & gritty trappings of more recent decades.  Common Grounds is simultaneously extremely funny and very poignant & serious.

I’m fairly confident I’ll be featuring work from some of the other Common Grounds art teams in future installments! It’s definitely due for another re-read.

Common Grounds 5 pg 8

3) Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott

If you’re going to talk comic books, sooner or later (probably sooner) you’re going to have to discuss Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Whatever the specific division of labor was (and all these decades it’s almost impossible to determine that precisely) the two of them working together in the 1960s created the majority of the Marvel Universe.

It all started in August 1961 with the Fantastic Four, a group who right from the start were characterized as much by their all-too-human disagreements as their super-powers.  And no one was more dysfunctional than the gruff Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, who had been transformed by cosmic radiation into a monster.

Early on Ben Grimm very much straddled the line between hero and villain, and in those first few issues the rest of the FF found themselves wondering if the Thing, consumed by anger & self-loathing, might violently turn on them.  However, the Thing gradually evolved into a character who was both gruff & comedic.  We see one of the first hints of that here, in this scene from Fantastic Four #5, cover-dated July 1962.  Ben is attempting to enjoy a cup of coffee, only to get razzed by literal hothead the Human Torch.

This is one of those pages that really makes me appreciate Kirby.  I love the panel with the Thing holding the cup of coffee.  This was when he still looked like orange oatmeal, very much a horribly disfigured individual, before he evolved into the almost cartoony orange brick form we are all familiar with. There’s this simultaneous humor and tragedy in that panel, as Ben Grimm, now this huge, grotesque figure, is almost daintily holding that coffee cup & saucer, a very human gesture, and a reminder of what he once was, and longs to be again.

Inks are by Joe Sinnott, his first time working on FF.  Lee wanted Sinnott to become the regular inker, but soon after Sinnott received the assignment of drawing the biography of Pope John XXIII for Treasure Chest.  Sinnott had inked about half a page of Kirby’s pencils for the next issue when he got the Treasure Chest job, and so had to mail the art back to Lee, who then assigned it to Dick Ayers.  Sinnott fortunately got another opportunity work on the series in 1965, commencing with issue #44, and for the rest of the 1960s did a superb job inking Kirby.  Sinnott remained on FF for the 15 years, inking / embellishing over several pencilers.

In a case of Early Installment Weirdness, we see the Torch reading an issue of The Incredible Hulk #1, which in the real world had come out two months earlier.  It seems at this point in time Lee & Kirby had not quite decided if the Hulk occupied the same fictional universe as the FF.

Fantastic Four 5 pg 2

4) Werner Roth & John Tartaglione

X-Men #31, cover-dated April 1967, was penciled by Werner Roth and inked by John Tartaglione. “We Must Destroy… the Cobalt Man!” was written by Roy Thomas.

X-Men in the 1960s was a title of, um, variable quality.  Series creators Lee & Kirby both left fairly early on, and newcomer Roy Thomas sometimes struggled to find a successful direction for the book.  Thomas was paired with penciler Werner Roth, who did good, solid work… but regrettably did not possess a certain dynamic quality necessary for Marvel-style superheroes.  Also, I’m not sure if Tartaglione’s inks were an especially good fit for Roth’s pencils.

Roth was, however very well-suited to drawing romance, war and Westerns comic books.  He certainly was adept at rendering lovely ladies, as seen in his exquisite art on Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 1950s, which he inked himself.  So it’s not surprising that some of Roth’s best work on X-Men was when the main cast was in their civilian identities, and the soap-operatic melodrama was flying fast & furious.  Witness the following…

Here we have two different coffee-drinking scenes on one page.  At the top, Scott Summers, Warren Worthington and Jean Grey are hanging out with Ted Roberts and his older brother Ralph at a greasy spoon known as the Never-Say-Diner… really, Roy?!?  Ted was a short-lived rival to Scott for Jean’s affections, and Ralph was (spoilers!) a short-lived villain named the Cobalt Man.  Elsewhere, Hank McCoy and Bobby Drake have taken their dates Vera and Zelda to their semi-regular Greenwich Village hangout, Coffee A Go-Go, where Bernard the Poet is, ahem, “reciting his latest masterpiece.”  The scene closes with Bobby creating the world’s first iced espresso.

X-Men 31 pg 10

5) Joe Staton

This entry is drawn by one of my all-time favorite artists, the amazing Joe Staton.  “Vamfire” is a short story featuring E-Man and Nova Kane, the awesome characters created by Nicola “Nick” Cuti & Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  This story was originally planned for Charlton Bullseye in 1976.  It did not see print until a decade later, in The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser #7 (April 1986) published by First Comics, who had the E-Man rights in the 1980s.

I’ve blogged at length about E-Man on several occasions.  Suffice it to say, it’s an amazing series, with brilliantly humorous & heartfelt writing by Cuti and wonderfully imaginative artwork by Staton.  This six page story introduces E-Man’s negative energy sister Vamfire, a sort of proto bad girl anti-hero who would reappear in later stories.  “Vamfire” also introduces Nick and Joe’s Café, and Staton draws himself and Cuti as the proprietors.  Nick and Joe’s Café would also return in later stories, with the running gag that their coffee was always terrible.  Nevertheless they somehow managed to stay in business, no doubt due to being strategically located near Xanadu Universe in Manhattan, where innumerable sleep-deprived college & graduate students were desperate for a caffeine fix to keep them awake during the school’s interminable lectures.

“Vamfire” was later reprinted in 2011 in the excellent trade paperback E-Man: The Early Years, which collected the entirety of the E-Man stories from the 1970s under one cover.  It is apparently still available through the publisher. I highly recommend it.

E-Man The Early Years pg 207

Thanks for stopping by to sample our fine four-colored espresso.  I hope you will come back again soon when we will have five more examples of Comic Book Coffee from throughout the decades.

 

Thanksgiving deja vu: comic book homages to Norman Rockwell

One of the most iconic images associated with the American holiday Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell‘s painting Freedom from Want.  I am going to quote from Wikipedia here, and hopefully it’s accurate!

Freedom from Want

 

Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.

The painting was created in November 1942 and published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.

The website Totally History offers the following analysis of the painting’s composition:

The painting depicts three generations of a family around a table at Thanksgiving. The father is standing at the head of the table as the mother is about to place a large turkey in front of him.

The opulence of the turkey is counterbalanced by the relative scarcity of other foods on the table and the presence of water as the only beverage.

Over the past 75 years Freedom From Want has been the subject of numerous homages and parodies, including within the comic book medium.  As my tongue-in-cheek celebration of Thanksgiving this year, here are 10 of those images.

JSA 54 cover

Probably one of the best well-known comic book covers to pay tribute to Freedom From Want is JSA #54 (Jan 2004) from DC Comics.  Drawn by Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino, this cover features Superman and Power Girl serving Thanksgiving dinner to the Justice Society and Justice League. I am going to abstain from making any comments about “breast or leg” here, although the jokes do sort of write themselves. Sorry, Power Girl!

American Flagg 4 Thanksgiving

Nobody does political satire in comic books quite like the legendary Howard Chaykin.  Here is a panel from American Flagg! #4 (Jan 1984) from First Comics, featuring one of the most dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinners you are likely to ever come across.

Evil Clown Comics 4 cover

Hmmm, this turkey tastes a little funny.  Ha ha ha… sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.  Anyway, speaking of dysfunctional, not to mention just plain disturbing, here is the cover to Evil Clown Comics #4 by the late Alan Kupperberg from 1989. I’ve never found any physical copies of this series, but I believe that it collected together the Evil Clown Comics stories by Kupperberg that were published in National Lampoon.

Garfield 7 variant cover

A slightly less unsettling image is offered up on this variant cover to Garfield #7 (Nov 2012) published by Boom! Studios.  I’m certain anyone who has ever had cats can identify with the danger of your feline companions attempting to make off with the Thanksgiving turkey.  It’s certainly happened to us on a couple of occasions!

Flare 31 cover

The talented and much-underrated Gordon Purcell offers up this lovely tribute to Rockwell on his cover for Flare #31 (Feb 2006) from Dennis Mallonee’s Heroic Publishing, which has been releasing fun, entertaining comic books since the mid 1980s.

Barbie Fashion 37 cover

Back in the early 1990s Marvel Comics had not one, but two ongoing Barbie comic book series, both of which lasted for several years.  Both titles had some talented creators working on them.  It was probably one of Marvel’s more successful efforts to reach a young female audience. Here’s the cover to Barbie Fashion #37 (Jan 1994) by Anna-Marie Cool & Jeff Albrecht.

Chase 6 cover

Chase was one of those really good titles from the 1990s that unfortunately never really found an audience and was cancelled too soon.  D. Curtis Johnson did some really great writing on this series.  Cameron Chase had some serious family issues, so of course here we are flashing back to Thanksgiving of days past on the cover to issue #6 (July 1998).  This striking image is by the superb team of J. H. Williams III & Mick Gray.

Mad Magazine 39 pg 43

Good old MAD Magazine, always ready to skewer politics, pop culture and society! This send-up of The Saturday Evening Post is from issue #39, published waaaay back in May 1958.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a credit for the artist.  Can anyone help out?

Update: As per the link helpfully provided by M.S. Wilson in the comments below, this piece was done by regular MAD contributors writer Tom Koch & artist Bob Clarke.

Fantastic Four 564 cover

Marvel’s First Family celebrates Thanksgiving on the cover to Fantastic Four # 564 (April 2009) by Bryan Hitch.  I’m sure that, among the various things for which the Invisible Woman is thankful for this year, it’s that Reed Richards opted to slice up the turkey in the traditional manner, as opposed to inventing an Atomic Powered Turkey Carver which would have undoubtedly blown the roof off of the Baxter Building.

Betty 119 cover

Let’s close things out with the cover to Betty #119 (Jan 2003) by Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith, which has the gang from Riverdale celebrating Thanksgiving, complete with Reggie Mantle’s usual snarky comments.  I’m not completely certain if this cover is a specific homage to Rockwell, but it is certainly close enough.  In any case, Archie Comics too often falls under the radar, which is too bad, since they have some really great art.

(This was by no means a comprehensive list, and a quick search of the internet will reveal many more tributes to Freedom From Want.)

I hope everyone enjoyed this little selection of Thanksgiving-themed comic book artwork.  Have a good holiday, and let’s all try to be thankful for for what we have, because there are a lot of people much less fortunate in the world.

Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! 35 years later

“I wanted to do a book that would annoy, piss off, and educate… and it did.” – Howard Chaykin

To celebrate the Fourth of July holiday week, I am taking a look back at the first 14 issues of Howard Chaykin’s comic book series, the dystopian political satire American Flagg!  Written & drawn by Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Lynn Varley & Leslie Zahler, American Flagg! was published by First Comics.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the debut American Flagg! (according to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics the first issue went on sale June 20, 1983).  This is one of those series that went totally under my radar for many years because, to be completely honest, I just was not mature or sophisticated enough to appreciate it back in my teenage Marvel Zombie days. Having become a fan of Chaykin through his later work, I subsequently discovered American Flagg! via back issues, and immediately fell in love with it.

American Flagg house ad

American Flagg! is both very political and very patriotic, proudly wearing its love for America, albeit in a manner that was very different from most expressions of flag-waving to be found during the Reagan years.  As editor Mike Gold explains in the first issue…

“Chaykin’s probably the most patriotic person I know. Not in the usual ‘Love It or Leave It’ nonsense that serves to divide instead of unite – and is therefore not patriotic. Howard’s patriotism comes from pride – and from great hope for America.”

Of course, as he’s acknowledged over the years, Chaykin was not only interested in politics, and he also utilized American Flagg! to delve deeply into the worlds of violence, guns, fashion, and sex… lots and lots of sex.

The first issue of American Flagg! opens in October 2031 AD.  It has been three and a half decades since 1996, “the Year of the Domino, when everything went to hell.”  The United States and the Soviet Union experienced simultaneous violent collapses, and the planet was stricken by a series of calamitous economic, social and ecological crises.

The American government relocated to the planet Mars (“temporarily of course”) and, merging with private industry, reorganized as Plex USA.  Ostensibly formed to help put the country back on its feet, the so-called Tricentennial Recovery Committee is actually intended to milk the planet dry of its remaining money & resources, so that the Plex can permanently establish an independent nation / corporation on Mars.

Across the globe a number of Malls have been constructed, hives of government & commerce, their twin goals to maintain order and keep the population pacified with entertainment that is suffused with explicit sex and graphic violence.  The population of the former United States has splintered into numerous tribal factions, with different ethnic, religious, and political paramilitary “clubs” fighting it out.  The Plex actively encourages these “clubs,” providing them with weapons, and recording their battles to air on Firefight All Night, “the highest rated vidshow on three planets,” one that makes the Plex “a fortune in ad revenues.”

American Flagg 11 cover

Into this morass of corruption and violence, of omnipresent mass media and runaway capitalism, all feeding an unending cycle of urban warfare, steps Reuben Flagg.  Born on Marsplex to left-leaning bohemian parents, Reuben was raised to have a love for the ideals of the American Dream.  For several of years Reuben starred in the Plex’s top-rated exploitive TV cop show Mark Thrust: Sexus Ranger.  Unfortunately for Reuben, even though the show got renewed, he was fired, replaced by a computer generated image.  The out-of-work Flagg is drafted and shipped to Earth, where he is assigned to be the new deputy ranger at the Chicago Plexmall.

This is the first time Reuben experiences the dire situation of life on Earth.  Chicago and the rest of the New Midwest are plagued by “70% unemployment, constant intergang warfare, and malaise on an epic scale.”  The idealistic Flagg is appalled, even more so when the various jockeying factions of the region each attempt to inveigle him in their corrupt activities.

As Reuben explains to Mandy Kreiger at the end of the third issue…

“I grew up on Mars with a passionate, reckless love for this country… a devotion fed as much by history as by my parents’ homesickness… Wasn’t till I got here that I discovered the spacious skies were soot black, and the fruited plains were rotted through and through.

“But the damage is deeper than physical disrepair – much deeper. The American Spirit – the honest, openhanded driving force of solidarity – has been castrated. Betrayed by the banks… big business… by slimy fat cats who use patriotism like a tart uses cheap perfume… betrayed by the Plex.

“Someone’s got to stop the decline… Or try.”

Of course, reading this scene in 2018, it is also possible to perceive this as an example of a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man riding into town and telling everyone they had better listen to him because only he knows how to save the day.  Your mileage may vary.

American Flagg 3 pg 27

In the past Chaykin has said words to the effect that while he is not a nice person, he is a good person.  That is definitely how one could also describe his creation Reuben Flagg, as well.  Reuben has all manner of glaring flaws.  He is arrogant, impatient, short-tempered, sarcastic, a womanizer, and more than a bit self-righteous.  On the other hand, he is also governed by a clear set of morals, he is honest, he hates injustice, and he has a clear aversion to killing.  Reuben may not be nice, but he is basically good.

Chaykin draws this line between Reuben and many other members of the cast, who are nice, but not necessarily good.  C.K. Blitz, the mayor of Chicago, is certainly a nice guy.  He is very friendly and polite, and knows how to make friends.  He needs to be, to stay in office and do his job effectively.  But, like most politicians, he is motivated primarily by self-interest, wheeling & dealing in order to acquire more power, prestige, and wealth.  Blitz isn’t a bad person per se, but he’s always looking for the next angle that he can play for his personal gain.

John Scheiskopf and Ester de la Castro are even more striking examples.  Both of them can definitely be very nice.  Either of them will be your best friend ever… right up until the point when they no longer have a use for you, at which point they will literally knife you in the back.  Beneath their polite manners and warm smiles, both Scheiskopf and de la Castro are incredibly selfish, power-hungry, immoral individuals who will casually commit mass murder in the furtherance of their goals.

Chaykin is clearly pointing out the danger of superficiality, of falling for outward appearances, both in politics and business.  The slick, charming outward veneer often masks all number of sins and selfishness.  In contrast, an individual like Flagg may be obviously flawed, but in his case what you see is what you get, and he doesn’t hide who he is, good and bad.

Reuben is also Jewish.  Chaykin establishes this in an almost-offhand manner, and it is only referred to in passing from time to time.  It certainly is not a defining characteristic; Flagg is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish. Nevertheless, I believe that this made him one of the first ever Jewish characters to headline his own ongoing comic book series.

American Flagg 3 pg 5

Chaykin quickly sets up a large ensemble of supporting characters and adversaries within the first several issues of the series.  Among these is the lovely Amanda “Mandy” Kreiger, the headstrong daughter of Reuben’s boss, the ever-obnoxious Chief Ranger Hilton Kreiger.  Mandy is a whiz with electronics, as well as Reuben’s main romantic interest… although certainly not his only one.

Among the other ladies in Reuben’s life is Gretchen Holstrum, the middle-aged “hostess” of the local Love Canal franchise.  Gretchen immediately finds herself drawn to the young, handsome Reuben, much to Mandy’s disgust, exacerbating the already-existing tension between the two women.

As the story advances, we learn a great deal about both Mandy and Gretchen’s histories.  It is to Chaykin’s credit that he develops Gretchen into a genuinely tragic, sympathetic character, yet at the same time still gives Mandy legitimate reasons to dislike her.  In other words, you can see both women’s points of view, and recognize that it’s a difficult situation, with complex emotions at play on both sides.

Another wonderful member of the supporting cast is Raul the talking cat.  Yes, that’s right, a talking cat.  Raul is both a source of comic relief and a close confidante to Reuben.  At various times Raul plays the piano, drinks himself silly, and operates heavily-armed attack helicopters.  He’s definitely a favorite of mine.

Raul is such a very cat-like cat that I figured that Chaykin must have had at least one cat in real life.  This was confirmed by Chaykin’s friend and occasional collaborator Don Cameron, who explained:

“Fun fact: Raul was based on a cat Howard had named Cochise who used to “mumble” all the time.”

American Flagg 2 pg 1

It’s interesting to look at the place American Flagg! holds in Chaykin’s career.  In the prior decade Chaykin had produced a body of artwork of variable quality, ranging from good to lackluster.  Chaykin himself is dismissive of much of the material he drew during that decade, regarding it as sub-par.

In early 1980, after a disagreement with Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, Chaykin left the field of comic books entirely, and for the next three years painted cover artwork for paperback novels.  When he returned to comic books in 1983 with American Flagg!, Chaykin’s work had clearly taken a seismic leap forward.  The quality of Chaykin’s art for this series is astonishing. Chaykin himself refers to American Flagg! as “the first thing I did that was any good.”

One of the most frequently-cited examples of Chaykin’s work on American Flagg! is page 17 of the first issue.  Chaykin’s brilliant layouts work with Ken Bruzenak’s superb lettering to create a stunning narrative sequence that lays out the back-story of the series.

American Flagg 1 pg 17

Due to unforgiving deadlines and a crushing workload, Chaykin was unfortunately unable to draw the two epilogues to his first story arc.  Issue #13 is penciled by James Sherman, and #14 by Pat Broderick, with both inked by Rick Burchett.  All three artists do their best to emulate the tone, the storytelling modes utilized by Chaykin, but it isn’t quite the same.  It certainly serves as a very example of just how much of an impact the artist has on the look, the flow, the tone of the finished work in comic books.

American Flagg! was a very prescient work.  Chaykin looked at the United States in the early 1980s and clearly perceived exactly where the country would be going over the next three and a half decades.  The pervasive presence of mass media and its influence on the electoral process, the manipulation of government by private industry, the escalation of ethnic and religious conflicts and the factionalization of American society, the degradation of the environment… all of this is present.

Chaykin also foresaw the dangers posed by a heavily-armed paranoid conspiracy-peddling white supremacist alt-right movement based out of the American heartland, or as they call themselves here, the American Survivalist Labor Committee.  In issue #9, the A.S.L.C. stage a grandiose political rally which they broadcast to the region via the Fasfax Chicago network, and their charismatic leader boldly declares…

“We’re here to stop this country’s slide into oblivion… a crisis precipitated by the most malevolent criminal cartel known to man… the Italo-Brit-Zionist Conspiracy.”

There is even a subplot in the second half of the initial year-long story arc involving plans by the Soviet Union to manipulate the outcome of a Presidential election.  In 1983 that might have left readers going “What a crazy idea!” but in 2018 has most of us responding “Um, yeah, I can totally believe it.”

American Flagg 9 pg 27

Chaykin’s work on this series was also groundbreaking and influential.  It’s probable that a number of up-and-coming creators who read American Flagg! in the early 1980s were influenced by it, and soon after utilized the tropes and techniques in their work for DC and Marvel.  It’s unfortunate that all these years later American Flagg! is still under-recognized, whereas The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, two books that could be regarded as its immediate successors, have both received widespread acclaim and multiple printings.

If you haven’t read American Flagg! before, I certainly recommend it.  In 2009 the first 14 issues were collected into two trade paperbacks by Image Comics which are still readily available.  It is one of the best examples I can think of that demonstrates the vast, often untapped, potential of the comic book medium.

Michael Mauser: Portrait of a P.I.

“My name is Mauser. That’s also the name of my pistol. In my profession, my pistol’s the only reliable friend I have. I take care of it, and it takes care of me. I’m a private eye, and this is my story…”

Over on Facebook someone asked me why, in my recent post E-Man and Nova: The 1990s and Beyond, I had not devoted more space to private eye Michael Mauser.  I responded that I was actually going to do a separate piece focusing on Mauser’s publication history.  And here it is…

Michael Mauser logo

The diminutive detective Michael Mauser, who has always struck me as a cross between iconic private investigator Sam Spade and super-sloppy grouch Oscar Madison, was created by writer Nicola “Nick” Cuti and artist Joe Staton in the pages of their groundbreaking, entertaining comic book series E-Man, published by Charlton Comics.  Mauser made his debut in E-Man #3, cover-dated June 1974.

“The Energy Crisis” is set in New York City during the oil crisis of late 1973.  E-Man’s girlfriend Nova Kane, archeology student & burlesque performer extraordinaire, is walking home from her job, accompanied by fellow dancer Rosie Rhedd.  After the pair narrowly escape a mugging, Rosie is suddenly pulled through a solid brick wall by an unseen assailant.  The shocked Nova goes to E-Man, aka Alec Tronn, for help, but the energy man from the stars is busy rushing back & forth across the city helping with the numerous emergencies caused by the power shortages.

Coming across a flyer advertising Michael Mauser’s services, Nova reluctantly heads to his office.  Although startled by Mauser’s slovenly appearance, she tells him about Rosie’s strange disappearance.  Mauser agrees it’s a fantastic story, but adds “So long as you’re paying me, I’ll believe anything.”

Mauser and Nova return to the scene of the crime, and discover the wall into which Rosie was pulled belongs to an old warehouse.  Although it hasn’t been used in years, Mauser spots fresh tire tracks in the warehouse, as well as a crate labeled “Boarsville,” home of the reclusive, secretive billionaire energy magnate Samuel Boar.

The pair hop into Mauser’s VW Bug and head out to Boarsville, but on the town outskirts they are ambushed by an unseen foe.  Both are captured, but not before Nova is able to make a phone call alerting E-Man.  He quickly zips over to Boarsville via the phone lines.  Tangling with Samuel Boar’s sinister robot henchmen the Battery, Alec learns that Boar is using a new source of energy to power his empire: living people!  Rosie, Nova and Mauser are just three of the hundreds of innocents kidnapped by the Battery and plugged into Boar’s generators. E-Man fortunately breaks free, defeats the Battery, and arrests Boar.  The authorities quickly release all of the Boar’s victims.

Later, back at Mauser’s office, the P.I. offers a E-Man a job, to which Nova responds “Not a chance! He’s a big lovable guy and I want him to stay that way… not become corrupted by a cynical creep like you!”  She then storms out, and Mauser informs E-Man “That’s a tough little broad you’ve got there.”

E-Man 3 pg 5

Interviewed by Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Creator in March 2015, Joe Staton explained the origins of Michael Mauser:

“Nick [Cuti] had the idea for a detective based on Arnold Stang. He was a little guy with a really nasal voice, little glasses… And since Nick was hanging out with Wally Wood and they had guns all over the place, the idea of Mauser… Nick HAD a Mauser. Very cool gun. The ultimate gun, visually, and it came together.

“The visual I wound up with Mauser – this was obviously before the Internet and it was hard to find a lot of things – so I didn’t really have any reference for Arnold Stang. I knew who he was just generally, but that was when the Dustin Hoffman / Steve McQueen movie was out, Papillon. And there were all these pictures of Dustin Hoffman in these really thick glasses in Papillion, so I just thought, well, he’s not Arnold Stang, but he’s close enough. So that was the original visual.”

Michael Mauser’s next appearance was in E-Man #7 (March 1975).  The mysterious “TV Man” has been using alien technology to cause E-Man to lose control of his powers, making him transform into characters from television broadcasts.  Seeking a final showdown, the TV Man ambushes Mauser in his office, instructing him at gunpoint to deliver an ultimatum to E-Man.  The unperturbed Mauser, staring down the barrel of TV Man’s gun, deadpans “You know how to make a point. Do you still need me… or is a truck about to come through that tunnel?”

Passing along TV Man’s message, Mauser brings E-Man over to Rockefeller Plaza the next day for a “high noon” showdown.  Having served as messenger, the P.I. announces “It’s getting close to noon so I’m going to take off. There’s no hero in my blood.”

Despite his protestations, though, it would soon become apparent that Mauser possessed more than his share of bravery & heroism.  He was akin to Rick Blaine from Casablanca, who always insisted “I stick my neck out for nobody,” but who when push came to shove was hard-pressed to ignore injustice or turn his back on someone in need of help.

Mauser embodies the sentiment that inside every cynic is a disappointed idealist.  In spite of his appalling lack of manners, his fondness for cutting corners, and his disdain for authority, underneath it all Mauser has his own set of ethics, a personal code of conduct he rigorously adheres to.

Vengeance Squad 1 pg 24

In addition to further appearances in E-Man, readers soon got to see Mauser in solo action. The character appeared as the regular back-up feature in Charlton’s detective series Vengeance Squad, which ran for six issues between July 1975 and June 1976.  In some of these tales Mauser was hip-deep in the action, mixing it up with all sorts of dangerous criminals; in others he was practically an observer, delivering pointed narration on the activities & schemes of various unsavory characters.

E-Man was cancelled with issue #10 in September 1975.  Mauser would subsequently appear as a supporting character in an E-Man and Nova story by Cuti & Staton which ran in issue #4 of the semi-professional fanzine Charlton Bullseye the next year.  After that Mauser, along with the rest of the E-Man cast, disappeared into limbo.

Seven years later, when E-Man was revived by First Comics, once again Michael Mauser was a regular presence in the pages of the book, simultaneously an ally and a nuisance to Alec Tronn, Nova Kane and Teddy Q.  Additionally, Mauser received a back-up story in issue #4 (July 1983) by writer Mike W. Barr and artist Rick Burchet.  “Mauser, P.I.” was a humorous send-up of the then-popular prime time detective show Magnum, P.I.

Early in 1985 Mauser also co-headlined a three issue miniseries with Ms. Tree, the private detective created by Max Allan Collins & Terry Beatty.  The P.I.’s: Michael Mauser and Ms. Tree was written by Collins and drawn by Staton & Beatty.  It was a very effective meeting of the two headstrong, independent, trigger-happy private eyes, a deft blend of dark tragedy and sardonic humor.

Michael Mauser and Ms Tree 1 cover

Due to his being employed by DC Comics at the time, E-Man co-creator Nicola Cuti was unable to contribute to most of First’s E-Man series.  Cuti was at last reunited with Staton on issue #24 (June 1985), and the pair immediately set out to tell the definitive origin of Michael Mauser.

“Mauser’s Story” is one of the best comic books that Nicola Cuti has ever written.  The artwork by Joe Staton & Rick Burchet is wonderful.  I am hesitant to go into too much detail about it, because I encourage everyone to seek out a copy in the back issue bins.  But here is a brief synopsis…

Michael Mauser was born in the upper middle class neighborhood of Beacon Falls, CT.  The tragic death of Mauser’s father resulted in the family having to move to the slums of Brooklyn, NY.  Being beaten up on a daily basis by the local street gang the Black Lions caused Mauser to have to toughen up very quickly.  Soon he was a member of the Lions in good standing.  When they were arrested for an attempted robbery, Mauser and the rest of the gang were shipped off to fight in Vietnam.  It was there that Mauser acquired his namesake handgun, courtesy of Eddie Phuong, a wheeling-dealing Vietnamese soldier.  His experiences in Vietnam taught Mauser personal responsibility and loyalty, but also left him deeply traumatized.  Wounded in battle, Mauser was shipped back to the States, and he helped smuggle in Eddie’s younger sisters Ruthie and Angela so that they could have a better life.

Back at home, Mauser spent several years drifting from one job to another.  Eventually his old acquaintance Police Captain Bill Doyle informed him that Eddie had arrived in the States and was now a major drug smuggler.  Mauser approached Ruthie to find out if she had any information on her brother, but she was murdered by one of Eddie’s thugs to keep her from talking.  Mauser located Eddie anyway, and barely escaped with his life.  The experience prompted Mauser to go back to school and become a private investigator.

In the present day, Mauser is reunited with Angela, now a grown woman.  He learns from her that Eddie is once again back in New York.  Mauser sets out to finally take down Eddie, and to protect Angela from being killed like her sister.

E-Man v2 24 pg 24

After the First Comics series of E-Man was cancelled, Mauser and the rest of the gang went into limbo for a few years, finally appearing once again in the E-Man special in 1989 and three issue miniseries published by Comico in 1990.  The special had a back-up story starring Mauser.  While investigating a kidnapping, Mauser is reluctantly saddled with his young niece Kitty Katz, who he regards as an “insufferable brat.”  Kitty spills his coffee and almost shoots Mauser with his own gun, but in the end she does help him solve the case.

The next time we saw Mauser in solo action was in 1992.  For the first time the character starred in his own title, the black & white special The New Crime Files of Michael Mauser, published by Apple Comics.

“Snow Angels” is one of the darkest tales produced by the team of Cuti & Staton.  In the midst of a cold, brutal winter in NYC, Mauser, assisted by Angela, is tracking down a serial killer known as the Spray Paint Strangler.  The disturbing case causes Mauser to begin to question both his sanity and his memories.

Staton’s artwork for “Snow Angels” is astonishing.  I think that on occasion people forget just how versatile an artist he really is.  Staton is well-regarded for his cartoony style, but is certainly capable of much more, as he amply demonstrated in the late 1980s and early 90s.  He had always been a fan of mystery, detective and crime stories, and in this time period had several opportunities to work in those genres.  For DC Comics, Staton had penciled the 1989 series Huntress, which introduced the post-Crisis incarnation of the character and her war against organized crime.  Later, in 1995, he illustrated the three volume organized crime graphic novel Family Man.

You can witness a progression of Staton’s artwork on these stories, from Huntress through The New Crime Files of Michael Mauser special, to the Family Man trilogy, an evolution of an effective noir-tinged style.  Certainly the artwork on “Snow Angels” was somber, suffused with a moody tone.  Combined with Cuti’s atmospheric script, it made for a disquieting read.

New Crime Files of Michael Mauser pg 21

A year later Cuti and Staton crafted another solid, enjoyable Mauser story, “The Old Farmhouse.”  It appeared in the anthology special The Detectives, published by Alpha Productions.  Also featured in The Detectives were stories starring private investigators The Maze Agency, Mike Mist, Tony Bravado and Johnny Dynamite.  The striking cover was illustrated by hot artist Adam Hughes, making this this the only occasion he ever drew the Michael Mauser character.

There were two other Mauser stories to be published in the mid-1990s, in issues of the quarterly anthology title Noir from Alpha Productions.  Regrettably I don’t have copies of either of those magazines, but I’m keeping an eye out for them.  Additionally, there was also a Mike Mauser Files one-shot published by ACG in 1999, but that appears to have been a reprint of several older stories.

The next time we would see Mauser in a major way would be in 21st Century, when Digital Webbing published a trio of E-Man specials between 2006 and 2008.  Mauser had a supporting role in both E-Man: Recharged and E-Man: Dolly, and co-starred in E-Man: Curse of the Idol.  In that last tale Mauser and E-Man were searching for a mysterious, powerful extra-dimensional idol that was also being sought by a corrupt South American general.

There was a Michael Mauser back-up, “Fish Story, ” which had originally been intended to run in Vengeance Squad #7 way back in 1976, but it was never published after the series was cancelled.  In 2008 Staton finished the artwork for this unseen tale and it at last saw print in Michael Ambrose’s Charlton Spotlight #6 (Fall 2008) from Argo Press.

Most recently Mauser appeared in the first chapter of “Homecoming,” the three part E-Man and Nova serial that was published in The Charlton Arrow volume 2 #1-3 (Sept 2017 to Jan 2018).  In the opening pages of “Homecoming” we see Mike and Angela at long last get married, in a ceremony attended by all of their friends & family, including Alec, Nova and Teddy Q.  After all these years, Michael Mauser finally has his happy ending.

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 Michael Mauser wedding

Michael Mauser is definitely an interesting, memorable figure.  It certainly demonstrates Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton’s versatility and creativity that they devised a character who is equally at home as a supporting player in the fantastical adventures of E-Man and Nova as he is starring in his own hardboiled crime and mystery tales.  If you haven’t read any of Mauser’s adventures before then I certainly recommend seeking them out.  They are enjoyable reads with great work by Cuti and Staton.

E-Man and Nova: The 1990s and Beyond

In the past I have blogged about E-Man, the wonderful and imaginative comic book series co-created by Nicola “Nick” Cuti and Joe Staton in 1973. E-Man, aka Alec Tronn, is a sentient energy being who wandered the universe for thousands of years.  Finally arriving on Earth, he befriended the beautiful and intelligent Nova Kane, an archeology / geology major at Xanadu University who moonlighted as a burlesque performer to pay her tuition.  Eventually gaining energy powers of her own, Nova joined Alec in defending Earth against an assortment of bizarre villains and menaces.

E-Man ran for 10 issues in the mid-1970s, published by Charlton Comics. It was revived by First Comics in 1983, and that second volume lasted 25 issues.  Staton was the penciler for the entire First Comics run, but unfortunately Cuti was only able to write the final two issues.

After the cancellation of E-Man volume two in 1985, Staton retained the rights to create new stories featuring the characters. On several occasions over the past three decades he and Cuti have reunited to chronicle the further adventures of Alec, Nova, cynical private eye Michael Mauser, adorable koala Teddy Q, and the rest of the colorful gang.

E-Man 20th Anniversary Special

Subsequent to the First Comics run, Cuti and Staton returned to E-Man in a special published by Comico in September 1989, edited by Michael Eury.  In volume two Alec and Nova had relocated to Chicago.  Nova had lost her powers and had been hired as the host for the basic cable TV show Moppet Monster Matinee.  As the new special opens, Alec and Nova are back in New York City.  Nova is once again enrolled at Xanadu University, however she still has not regained her powers (a caption cheekily informs us this is due to her suffering from a bout of “Pasko Syndrome”).

During the course of the story a device known as the Reality Arranger causes a number of bizarre surrealistic transformations to sweep through the Big Apple.  Eventually reality is stretched past the breaking point and snaps, although the universe very quickly recreates itself from scratch, with the side effect of Nova once again possessing her energy powers.

We are never given an explanation for how everyone ended up back Manhattan. If you want, you can just assume that Nova decided to leave Channel 99 and return to school to finish her degree.  Alternately, Staton himself suggests that readers can regard the effects of the Reality Arranger as responsible for the sudden shift back to NYC.  In any case, the Reality Arranger, and the remaking of the entire history of the world, is a convenient “get out of jail free” card to hand-wave away any continuity discrepancies between the non-Cuti material published by First and the stories written by Cuti once he returned to the series.

Co-starring with Alec and Nova in the Comico special is Vamfire, the diva-ish negative energy “sister” of E-Man who was birthed from the same star. Vamfire was created by Cuti & Staton back during the Charlton days, but her debut story remained unpublished until a decade later, when it finally appeared under the First banner.  Initially conceived as a Vampirella-type figure, here in her second appearance she is redesigned by Staton to have a more punk rock look.

E-Man Comico special cover

The special did well enough that Comico published a three issue miniseries in early 1990, edited by Shelly Roeberg. By this point E-Man had definitely become an ensemble title.  E-Man himself barely appeared in the first issue of the miniseries.  The majority of the action is given over to Michael Mauser, Nova Kane and Teddy Q working to save Vamfire after her physical form is accidentally splintered into numerous twisted fragments due to a mishap in a carnival house of mirrors.

The second issue shifts the focus back on Alec as he attempts to find his way back to the star Arcturus, the “mother” that gave birth to him millennia earlier. Having lost his way, Alec stops on the planets Targasso and Landano for directions, on both worlds discovering troubled civilizations.  For me this story really demonstrates that E-Man is not a comedy or a parody series, but rather a fairly serious book that nevertheless possesses a sense of humor and a tone of fun.  I think that was something that was regrettably lost in some of the early issues of the First Comics run.  Cuti is the writer who really does the best job at balancing the drama and humor on E-Man, and as much as I do like some of the First issues, the series wasn’t quite the same without him.

In the third issue of the Comico miniseries Alec at long last finds his way to Arcturus, only to discover that his “mother” really is just “a ball of burning gasses.” I found it to be a bit of a sad moment, that Alec travelled over 215 trillion miles only to learn that he really doesn’t have an actual parent.  However he quickly gets over his disappointment and speeds back to Earth.  It becomes apparent why Alec cares so much for our world: it is the only home he has ever really had, and Nova is more than just a girlfriend; she is his family.  Unfortunately a horde of Lovecraftian entities follow E-Man back to our world, leaving him and Nova with quite the alien infestation to combat.

E-Man Comico 3 pg 1

Three years later Cuti & Staton once again returned to E-Man, this time at Alpha Productions. Published in October 1993, the Twentieth Anniversary Special was inked by Chuck Bordell and edited by Christopher Mills.  This story introduces Eco-Man, who is actually a hippie environmentalist who was murdered decades earlier by motorcycle thugs in the employ of criminal industrialist Samuel Boar.  Resurrected by radiation and lightning, the super-powered Eco-Man sets out with a militant zeal to save the environment from polluters.  He is joined by Vamfire, who is instantly attracted to him.

There was a second E-Man special published by Alpha in March 1994 titled E-Man Returns, but I don’t have it.  I’ve been looking for a copy of it for several years without success.  It never seems to show up in the back issue bins or on Ebay.  I’m guessing it didn’t have a very large print run.  If anyone has an extra copy for sale please let me know!

May 2018 Update: After he read this post Christopher Mills put me in touch with Alpha Productions publisher Leni S. Gronros.  Thanks to Gronros, I was finally able to obtain a copy of E-Man Returns, which featured “Island of the Damned,” a great E-Man and Nova story by Cuti, Staton & Bordell.  Gronros also sent me a copy of the anthology special The Detectives, which contained a Michael Mauser story.  Thank you to both Christopher and Leni for their help.

E-Man Alpha 1 pg 7

The early 1990s was sort of the Wild West for creator-owned comics. Independent companies sprung up and went bust faster than you could say “speculator market.”  Eventually the entire comic book biz experienced a huge implosion.  Given the chaos and unpredictability of this period, it’s not too surprising that Cuti & Staton were unable to get E-Man off the ground again permanently.  Nevertheless, the few stories they did create in that decade were well done, and of course Staton still retained the rights, meaning that they could always hope for another opportunity down the road.

There is actually one other noteworthy E-Man appearance from the 1990s. Image Comics co-founder Erik Larsen is a huge fan of the original Charlton run.  In a way his creator-owned series Savage Dragon has a similar tone to E-Man, containing deadly-serious stories punctuated by bizarre humor, with the focus not so much on fight scenes as it is the relationships between the various oddball characters.

Savage Dragon #41 (September 1997) is the wedding of Barbaric and Ricochet from Larsen’s spin-off series Freak Force. A whole bunch of creator-owned and independent characters were guests, among them Femforce, DNAgents, Vampirella, Hellboy, Destroyer Duck and Flaming Carrot.  Larsen took this opportunity to have his old favorites E-Man, Nova Kane and Teddy Q appear at the wedding.

Savage Dragon 41 pg 12 E-Man

Jon B. Cooke is another fan of E-Man, as well as the various other unusual series Charlton Comics published. Cooke devoted two issues of his magazine Comic Book Artist, published by TwoMorrows, to examining the work of the talented creators who were at Charlton.  The theme of CBA #12 (March 2001) was “Charlton Comics of the 1970s.”  Cooke interviewed both Cuti and Staton for this issue.  Staton illustrated a brand new cover featuring Alec Tronn, Nova Kane, and the various bizarre horror comics hosts from the Charlton titles.  In addition, Cooke was able to have Cuti & Staton contribute a brand new two page E-Man story “Come and Grow Old With Me.”  This short tale focuses on the wonderful romance between Alec and Nova.

The next time E-Man and friends would appear would be five years later. Cuti & Staton yet again reunited for the E-Man: Recharged special, published by Digital Webbing in October 2006.  The vibrant, effective coloring was by Matt Webb.

E-Man: Recharged holds a special place in my heart. In 2006 I was already a huge fan of Staton’s artwork.  I had a passing awareness of the E-Man series, having heard it mentioned from time to time by Larsen and others, and having seen the cameos in Savage Dragon #41.  I was curious about it, but this was the first time I ever saw an issue of E-Man for sale.  In a remarkable coincidence, the very same day E-Man: Recharged came out I also found a copy of issue #7 from the original Charlton series in the comic shop’s back issue bins.  Between those two books I instantly became a fan.

E-Man Recharged pg 17

Recharged was a great introduction to E-Man and friends, with Cuti & Staton having Alec, Nova, Mauser and Teddy Q encounter the nefarious Brain From Sirius for one last epic confrontation. I couldn’t wait to see these characters again.  Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long.  There were two further E-Man specials from Digital Webbing, Dolly in September 2007 and Curse of the Idol in November 2008.

Additionally, another E-Man story surfaced in late 2008. “Future Tense” by Cuti, Staton & Bordell had been written & drawn in the early 1990s for Alpha, but never saw print.  In the years since the script had gone missing.  By studying the artwork Cuti was able to reconstruct the story and write a brand new script a decade and half later.  It was finally lettered by Bill Pearson, another Charlton alumni, and saw print in issue #6 of the magazine Charlton Spotlight edited by Michael Ambrose and published by Argo Press.

“Future Tense’ has E-Man and Nova encountering the Time Traveller from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine. The couple travel forward with him to the far-future year of 802,701 AD and attempt to finally resolve the terrible conflict between the Eloi and the Morlocks, with events taking several surprising turns.

Charlton Spotlight 6 pg 9

As you can no doubt discern from these various E-Man revivals, there are a lot of fans of the old Charlton comic books out there, including a number who have helped Cuti & Staton in their efforts to continue chronicling the adventures of E-Man and Nova. Among those number is Mort Todd, a dyed in the wool Charlton fanatic.  Todd is the editor in chief of Charlton Neo, which over the past few years has been involved in reviving a number of titles and characters that were previously published by Charlton, often working with the original creators.  Of course Todd made sure to approach Cuti and Staton.

Originally announced in 2015, the new E-Man and Nova story at long last saw print as a three part serial in the anthology series The Charlton Arrow volume 2 #1-3 ( Sep 2017 to Jan 2018).  Matt Webb once again provides the coloring.

Cuti and Staton are both now in their 70s, and Staton is very busy drawing the daily Dick Tracy newspaper strip.  Given those facts, Staton explained “I’m approaching this three-parter as the final E-Man story.”  Indeed, Cuti & Staton utilize the occasion to spotlight a large number of E-Man and Nova’s supporting cast, and to bring closure to certain elements.

“Homecoming” sees Nova, accompanied by E-Man and Teddy Q, returning to her hometown of Hawleyville, PA to visit her parents & younger sister Anya. Nova is surprised that a large casino, Peccary’s Pen, has opened in the quiet town.  Suspecting that something odd is going on, she convinces Alec that they should investigate.  Anya, who works as the casino’s bookkeeper, soon learns that her boss is actually Nova and E-Man’s old foe Samuel Boar, allied with another of the Brains from Sirius.

Boar, in an attempt to manipulate Anya, arranges for her to gain “bad luck” super powers. Anya, who was jealous of Nova’s fame & abilities, sides with Boar.  Nova attempts to save her sister’s soul, while Alec brings in old friends the Entropy Twins, Eco-Man and Vamfire to help out against the new Brain.

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 pg 6

This three-parter is a lot of fun. Cuti’s story serves as a nice coda to over four decades of E-Man and Nova adventures.  Staton works in a more simplified, cartoony style akin to the one he has been utilizing for the past seven years on Dick Tracy.  At first it was a bit of a jolt to see these familiar characters drawn this way, but I soon got used to it.  If this is indeed the final outing of E-Man and Nova by Cuti & Staton, then they go out on a high note.

While it’s regrettable that E-Man was never a long-running, super-successful comic book series, we are at least fortunate that Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton had several different opportunities to return to their creation over the decades, each time crafting fun, enjoyable stories.

E-Man: the First Comics years, part two

I finally was able to find copies of the rest of the First Comics run of E-Man.  So at last here is the second part of my retrospective on that cool series.  (And here is a link to Part One for those who missed it.)  When last we saw Alec Tronn, Nova Kane, and Teddy Q, they were driving west to Chicago, where Nova had received a job offer to host the basic cable TV show “Moppet Monster Matinee.”  As before, the creative team for these issues is Joe Staton as writer & penciler, and Rick Burchett as inker.

En route in E-Man #13, their truck suffers a broken axle, and the trio is stuck in a sleepy little Midwestern town waiting for the repairs to be made.  However, the residents are acting quite bizarre, and the next morning Nova arrives at the garage to find her truck has been totally dismantled.  Following after the somnambulistic mechanic who is driving off with most of the parts, Alec discovers the entire town has been not-too-successfully hypnotized by an individual named Chaos.  Via a handy flashback, we learn that Chaos is an antagonist from another First title, Warp (which was penciled by the amazing Frank Brunner, so I should pick up those back issues at some point, as well), and has become stranded on Earth.  Eventually ending up, via teleportation, in the multi-dimensional city of Cynosure (the setting of yet another great First series, Grimjack by John Ostrander & Tim Truman), E-Man and Chaos declare a truce, E-Man returns to Earth, and he & Nova are soon on the road again.

E-Man v2 13 pg 24

After a short tussle with the dangerously incompetent Randarr the Inexplicable (who I keep hearing speak with comedian Rip Taylor’s voice when I read his dialogue), Nova assumes hosting duties on “Moppet Monster Matinee” to great success, vamping it up for the cameras.  Once again, Staton demonstrates his superb skill for drawing lovely ladies.

Back in New York City, private eye Michael Mauser, still smarting over Alec & Nova’s departure, takes on a new case.  Hired to investigate the mysterious death of a businessman named Delzell, Mauser discovers that E-Man’s old enemy Samuel Boar, the ruthless energy magnate, is involved (and every time I read his dialogue, I hear actor John Vernon).  Barely surviving a run-in with Boar’s deadly robot The Battery, Mauser travels out to Chicago to investigate Boar’s latest criminal undertaking.  Once again Mauser finds himself in over his head, and he is forced to enlist E-Man’s aid.  Nova is less than thrilled that the sloppy, rude PI has wormed his way back into her & Alec’s lives, but she cannot dissuade E-Man from offering his assistance in thwarting Boar’s schemes.

One of the stronger stories that Staton writes is “Rosemary and Time” in E-Man #18.  This is a split issue.  Alec ends up bouncing around the past in a broken time machine with Rosemary, a high school student from the 30th Century who is doing research for her term paper while attempting to collect the autographs of Chicago’s most famous historical figures.  Alec and Rosemary’s comic misadventures end up actually causing some of the Windy City’s worst disasters, although Staton writes & pencils these segments in such a way that you cannot help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.

In the second half, Nova and Teddy Q return home from work to find the apartment trashed, with a beat-up Mauser lying amidst the wreckage.  Mauser recounts to Nova how he got tangled up in a dangerous investigation of the Chicago Mob which involved his old girlfriend Angel, who he hasn’t seen since they were both teenagers.  It’s a heartbreaking account that reveals that underneath his gruff, unkempt exterior A) Mauser really is a sharp, clever detective and B) he possesses a sensitive, caring side.  As the issue ends, Alec returns home from his time jaunt to find Nova and Mauser having fallen asleep while hugging, the implication being that they have finally begun to put aside their differences.

E-Man v2 18 pg 13

The next few issues of E-Man offer up some especially wacky shenanigans, namely a zombie jazz musician, loony vigilante Golden Gopher, a trigger-happy group of mercenaries known as the B-Team (yeah, you can probably figure out who they’re based on) and Teddy Q gaining superpowers in order to save Australia’s entire population of koala bears from being turned into fur coats by the nutty Marsupial Mama.  This all culminates in the ultra bizarre but awesomely entertaining E-Man #23, as many of the guest stars and villains from the past two years return for “The See-Thru Wars,” a comedic action extravaganza.

E-Man #24 is an especially great issue, as series co-creator Nicola “Nick” Cuti finally has the opportunity to once again write for the series.  “Mauser’s Story” has an amazing work by Cuti, Staton & Burchett, as readers are given the history of Michael Mauser.  Cuti does a superb job showing us the development of Mauser over the years, revealing the different, hidden sides of the character.  Staton’s penciling is fantastic.  He has often commented that he very much enjoys drawing mystery & detective stories.  This issue definitely provides him with the opportunity to work on that type of material, and he does a wonderful job.

Okay, truth be told, I am not certain you can fit Mauser’s history with his one-time girlfriend Angel that Staton revealed in #18 into the timeline that Cuti gives us in #24.  But as Sarah Jane Smith once chided the Fourth Doctor, “So pedantic at a time like this! Does it matter?”

E-Man v2 24 cover

In the next issue, Cuti, Staton & Burchett show us E-Man at his most anguished.  While using his powers to foil a robbery, Alec accidentally kills one of the hold-up men.  Distraught at taking a life, he rockets off to the South Pacific, hoping to find peace & solitude so he can decide it he truly has a place on Earth, or if he should leave the planet before he causes more harm.  Nova, finally realizing she loves Alec and does not want to be without him, heads after him with Teddy Q, although without the benefit of powers they are stuck island-hopping in a rundown boat right out of The African Queen.  Alec eventually realizes that no matter where he goes, he will always have his amazing powers, and so he might as well learn to deal with the consequences.  After saving the inhabitants of a tropical island from a group of grumpy Polynesian deities, Alec is reunited with Nova, although she is less than thrilled to discover that he’s been hanging out with a sexy island babe all this time.  Well, as the Bard once observed, the course of true love never did run smooth.

And that was it; E-Man #25 was the final issue of the series.  Just when Cuti & Staton had finally gotten back together, everything came to a screeching halt.  I guess #25 is a decent enough wrap-up to the series, although the subplot Staton had left percolating in the background of Nova gradually regaining her superpowers never did end up being resolved.  Fortunately over the subsequent years Cuti & Staton were able to reunite for the further adventures of Alec and Nova at publishers Comico, Alpha Productions, and Digital Webbing.  And there are plans to have an E-Man story by Cuti & Staton appear in a future issue of Mort Todd’s The Charlton Arrow.

Although the First Comics run of E-Man was admittedly somewhat uneven, at least in the writing department, on the whole it was still an entertaining read.  Of course, the always-wonderful penciling of Joe Staton offered consistent quality throughout.  I really enjoyed the amazing, inventive visual gags he threw in as Alec assumed all sorts of strange & funny shapes.  Staton also gave a more prominent role to Teddy Q, who was adorable and silly.

E-Man v2 14 pg 6

And that goes right to the heart of why I enjoy E-Man in its various incarnations.  Staton and Cuti have always done such an effective job of balancing serious and silly, comedy and drama.  They are able to tell interesting, thoughtful stories with believable character development that also possess a real quality of fun & humor to them.  As I’ve observed on this blog before, I really wish that there were more comic books & graphic novels like that.  So hopefully Cuti and Staton really will have the opportunity to collaborate on E-Man again, and soon.  There really is nothing else like it out there.

E-Man: the First Comics years, part one

During another recent stop at Mysterious Island (aka Roger’s Time Machine) I discovered that they had in stock the entire 25 issue run of E-Man published by First Comics between 1983 and 1985. I was already a huge fan of the original E-Man series by Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton that Charlton had published a decade before, as well as the more recent specials released by Digital Webbing. So here was a good opportunity to pick up much of the material that I was missing. This is the first part of my look back at that First Comics run.

E-Man v2 1 cover

Okay, truth be told, I was a bit hesitant to read these issues. Erik Larsen, the super-talented creator of Savage Dragon, is a huge fan of E-Man. And he has commented in the past that he was not fond of the First Comics issues. During this time, Cuti was working on staff at DC Comics, which prevented him from returning to E-Man. Instead, the writing chores initially fell to Martin Pasko, whose work Larsen did not really like.

And, yeah, the first few issues of E-Man written by Pasko are a bit rough. Suddenly Alec Tronn and Nova Kane, who had previously started to become romantically involved, are now back to being platonic roommates, with Nova bringing home a different guy each night to sleep with. She is also suddenly upset about the fact that she has gained super-powers similar to Alec’s. Sloppy hardboiled PI Michael Mauser, instead of just being his usual rude, brusque self, is downright obnoxious, insulting Nova left & right. Oh, yes, and the ghost of Albert Einstein is narrating the book in a very thick accent.

Upon reflection, I did realize that Cuti and Pasko have very different styles of humor. Cuti’s work is undoubtedly on the subtler side. Pasko, on the other hand, is extremely blunt & heavy with his satire. I do think that Cuti’s approach works better for the characters, but Pasko, once you get used to him, does pen entertaining stories.

Pasko’s two-part tale in issue #s 2 & 3 is a heavy-handed parody of a certain popular group of mutants. Deranged scientist Ford Fairmont has been kidnapping teenagers and transforming them into real-life incarnations of his favorite comic book superheroes, the Unhappy F-Men. Mauser & E-Man are drawn into the case when they are hired to find one of those missing kids, Kitty, by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Porn… which makes their daughter Kitty Porn. Groan… insert rimshot! That said, Pasko does do a fair job satirizing Claremont’s purple prose. I’m a fan of those classic X-Men stories, but I still found this rather funny.  Anyway, things come to a head when Nova is also kidnapped and turned into Jean Beige, the Dark Albatross, before becoming completely depowered.

E-Man v2 5 pg 19

Probably the stand-out story of Pasko’s time on E-Man is issue #5, in which he takes his sledgehammer wit to the task of pummeling Scientology, and very effectively at that. “Getting Void” features the menace of the Psychobabbler, aka Elrod Flummox, head of the Church of Technolography.  And if you’re wondering what that “Pauline Blooper” bit on the page above is in reference to, be sure to do a Google search on Paulette Cooper or Operation Freakout.  It’s very disturbing stuff.

Paul Kupperberg scripts over the plots to Pasko’s last couple of issues, bringing with him perhaps a less heavy-handed touch, before Joe Staton himself takes over as writer. Staton’s first issue is #9, wherein E-Man and Mauser encounter the femme fatale Tyger Lili, who is in fact “Commander Zhong of the Grand Army of the Communo-Socialist Worker’s Party of Greater Macao.” Faster that you can say “better dead than red,” E-Man and Mauser are racing the prevent Tyger Lili from getting a hold of a miniaturized neutron bomb that’ll wipe out all life in the good old U.S. of A.

The next two issues are co-plotted by Pasko and Staton, with scripting by Kupperberg. This two part tale is an interesting look into Nova Kane’s previously unexplored origins. We witness the bumpy, unhappy journey she took from her younger years as Katrinka Kolcnzski of Barrentown PA to the geology student / burlesque dancer that we all know & love. It’s a rather poignant story which does good work developing Nova’s character.

Staton becomes the permanent writer on E-Man #12, which sees the return of Tyger Lili. The socialist seductress has joined forces with Big Al, a talking, cigar-smoking albino sewer alligator who dreams of conquering the world in the name of reptile-kind. Lili eventually realizes that Big Al has it in for all of humanity, and she quickly switches sides, freeing an entrapped E-Man so that the hero can stop the gigantic robot Gai-Tor from demolishing the city. It’s a very goofy story, but definitely a lot of fun.

E-Man v2 9 pg 6

Joe Staton’s artwork on these first dozen issues is very good. As I mentioned in my previous blog post about E-Man, the original Charlton issues were among some of his earliest professional work. A decade later, it is obvious that he has grown as an artist & storyteller, producing very strong, exciting, funny work on E-Man volume 2.

Perhaps because he was also busy as the Art Director at First, Staton did not do full artwork on E-Man after the initial five issues. Beginning with #6, Rich Burchett takes over the inking chores. I was already a fan of Burchett’s art from later at DC in the 1990s on various titles. Seeing his earlier work here was a pleasant surprise. He really complements Staton’s pencils, resulting in very nice artwork. Truthfully, even though I think Staton usually looks best when he inks his own pencils, after looking at these issues of E-Man I definitely have to put Burchett on the list of the top inkers to have worked with him.

The first ten issues each have a bonus page in the back, parodies of those old Hostess ads that used to run in comic books back in the 1970s. These spoofs are drawn by a number of talented artists, among them John Byrne, Bruce Patterson, and Fred Hembeck. One of my favorites was in issue #5, written & drawn by Reed Waller, featuring his erotic funny animal character Omaha the Cat Dancer. Michele is a fan of Waller’s work, and had previously seen this piece when it was reprinted in The Complete Omaha Volume 2. So she enjoyed getting to see it in color.

E-Man v2 5 pg 30

As E-Man #12 ends, Nova has received a job offer in Chicago, to work as a hostess on a monster movie television show. Despite Mauser’s protestations, Alec decides to join the woman he loves, and the couple is off to the Midwest, leaving behind a melancholy PI who is surprised to discover he is going to miss them.

In the next installment (hopefully coming soon, time permitting, cross your fingers) we shall see what sort of misadventures await Alec Tronn & Nova Kane in the Windy City. And we’ll also find out just what sort of trouble Michael Mauser gets up to without those two to keep an eye on him.

They blinded me with science fiction: E-Man by Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton

I was really happy to finally pick up a copy of the trade paperback E-Man: The Early Years from Joe Staton at this year’s New York Comic Con.  Crash course for the uninitiated: E-Man is the creation of writer Nicola “Nick” Cuti and artist Joe Staton.  Cuti has described the character of E-Man as a cross between Plastic Man and the theories of Albert Einstein.

The being who would become E-Man began life thousands of years ago when a packet of sentient energy erupted from an alien star.  For millennia this energy wandered the universe, searching for other intelligent life.  Eventually it came across the spaceship of the Brain from Sirius.  Boarding the craft, the unexpected extra weight caused the Brain’s ship to crash on Earth.  Exploring the planet, the sentient energy eventually got caught up in power lines which led him to the dressing room of Nova Kane, who was working as a burlesque performer to pay her grad school bills.  Taking on human form, the energy being adopted the identity of E-Man, and Nova gave him the civilian alias of Alec Tronn.  With Nova as his guide, introducing him to the customs of Earth, E-Man became the planet’s protector against the vengeful Brain and a variety of other bizarre foes.

EMan Early Years cover

The E-Man series first debuted in 1973, published by Charlton Comics.  It lasted ten issues there before being canceled due to low sales, but garnered a cult following.  A decade later, when Charlton went out of business, the rights to the series were purchased by First Comics.  In addition to reprinting the original Charlton stories, First published 25 issues of brand new material between 1983 and 1985, drawn by Staton.  At the time, Cuti was on staff at DC Comics and wasn’t readily available to return to his baby, so other writers such as Martin Pasko and Paul Kupperberg penned the series, as well as Staton himself.  Cuti was finally able to return to E-Man for the last few issues of the First run.

In the years since First ceased regular publication, the situation, as Staton explained it to me once, eventually resolved itself as such: First still retains ownership of all the E-Man stories published under their banner and by Charlton.  Staton has the rights to create brand-new E-Man material, which he has done so with Cuti on several occasions.  Cuti & Staton have created new E-Man stories at Comico, Alpha Productions and, most recently, a trio of one-shots published by Digital Webbing between 2006 and 2008.

EMan Curse of the Idol cover

Since I was born in 1976 and begin reading comics regularly in the mid-1980s, I obviously missed the Charlton and First stories when they originally appeared.  I actually discovered Joe Staton primarily via his work on Green Lantern in the early 1990s (which was actually his third time drawing that series).  His style was really appealing to me.  A lot of people describe it as “cartoony,” which makes sense, yet at the same time oversimplifies things.  Really, what I think that means is that Staton’s work is not-hyper detailed like, say, Perez or Maguire or a lot of the artists who became popular in the 1990s.  Staton’s illustrations have a charming quality, but at the same time he is able to draw extremely serious material.  He can easily transition from the goofy misadventures of Guy Gardner or Scooby Doo to the cosmic space opera of Green Lantern to the noir tales featured in The Huntress and Femme Noir.

E-Man was definitely a really great fit for Staton’s talents.  Cuti wrote stories that were fun and humorous without being silly or excessively mocking the characters.  Alec and Nova often faced life & death situations, but Cuti scripting was never overly grim, and there were plenty of silly jokes to liven things up.  Staton got to draw Alec Tronn transforming into a variety of weird & wonderful forms, as well as throw in lots of great visual gags.

The cast of characters in E-Man is a really nice group.  Alec, as a stranger in a strange land, is at times charming naïve, which leads to a lot of comedy.  At the same time, though, Cuti doesn’t write Alec as an idiot, but rather as a genuinely nice guy who just happens to have a lot to learn about his new home.  His companion / love-interest is Katrinka Kolcnzski, aka Nova Kane.  She is a thoroughly modern woman, independent & smart, as well as drop-dead gorgeous.  I like that Cuti writes her as a confident, self-assured individual without resorting to having her act catty (although she does occasionally get jealous when Alec is seemingly eyeing other ladies). Later on, when Nova gains super powers similar to Alec, they really do have an equal partnership.  Also hanging around is sloppy but clever private investigator Michael Mauser (think Sam Spade meets Oscar Madison) who loves a good game of cards and a liverwurst sandwich with raw onions.  And then there’s the adorable Teddy-Q, a koala bear who comes to live with Alec & Nova.

EMan 7 pg 1 Charlton

Oh, yes, Nova’s career as an exotic dancer provides Staton with the opportunity to draw some incredibly sexy sequences.  I know that Staton’s name typically doesn’t come up when thinking of artists who draw cheesecake and good girl art.  But I have always thought that Staton rendered very beautiful women.  And his depictions of Nova Kane are definitely stunning.

It’s really interesting to look at the original ten issues from the Charlton run, which are reprinted in The Early Years trade paperback.  In 1973, Staton had only been a professional artist for a couple of years.  Yet already he was doing some amazing work.  Staton even illustrated painted covers for the last four issues of the series.  So right from the start, it was clear that he was a talented individual.  Of course, a nice aspect of the TPB is that it also includes his covers from The Original E-Man miniseries published by First in the mid-1980s that reprinted the Charlton stories.  Viewing these, you can clearly see how much Staton had developed as an artist, and how his style was evolving.

EMan 9 cover Charlton signed

I really hope that First is able to publish additional E-Man trade paperbacks.  I only have one issue from the 1980s series, so it would be great if those could be collected.  Even better, I would love to see new stories from Cuti & Staton.  Those three specials released by Digital Webbing a few years back were fantastic.  They had all of the fun and excitement and humor of the original Charlton issues.  It really felt like there hadn’t been a lapse of decades, and that Cuti & Staton had just picked up right where they had left off all those years before.

By the way, for additional information on E-Man, plus an interesting, detailed look at Charlton Comics in the 1970s, it is worth tracking down Comic Book Artist #12, which was released by TwoMorrows Publishing in 2001.  The magazine is topped off by a brand new cover drawn by Staton, featuring E-Man, Nova Kane, Teddy-Q, and the many colorful, macabre hosts of Charlton’s horror anthologies.  TwoMorrows still has copies for sale at their website.