Martin Pasko: 1954 to 2020

Longtime comic book & animation writer Martin Pasko passed away on May 10th.  He was 65 years old.

DC Comics Presents 1 coverBetween 1973 and 1982 Pasko wrote a great many stories for the various Superman titles at DC Comics.  On quite a few of these he was paired with longtime Superman penciler Curt Swan.  In 1978 Pasko, working with artists Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez & Dan Adkins, launched the Superman team-up series DC Comics Presents with a well-regarded two-part story costarring the Flash.

In the mid 1970s Pasko also wrote Wonder Woman.  The first part of Pasko’s run had him wrapping up “The Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman” storyline.  Several issues later the series shifted focus to the Earth-Two’s Wonder Woman during World War II.  This was an effort to align the book with the first season of the live-action television show starring Lynda Carter.  Pasko’s final two issues, #231-232, were plotted by his friend Alan Brennert, his first work in comic books.  Brennert & Pasko’s story, which was drawn by Bob Brown, Michael Netzer & Vince Colletta, had Wonder Woman teaming up with the Justice Society.

All of this was slightly before my time as a reader, as I was born in 1976.  I have read some of those Superman and Wonder Woman stories in back issues or trade paperbacks.  However, the first work by Pasko that I vividly recall from my childhood was his early 1980s revival of the Swamp Thing with artist Tom Yeates.Swamp Thing 6 cover

Pasko wrote the first 19 issues of The Saga of the Swamp Thing.  He and Yeates created some genuinely weird, spooky, unnerving stories during this year and a half period.  I vividly recall the two-part story from issues #6-7, which had Swamp Thing encountering a bizarre aquatic creature with eyeball-tipped tentacles that could transform people into one-eyed monsters.  The shocking cliffhanger in issue #6 definitely seared itself onto my young mind and left me wondering “What happens next?”

I think Pasko’s work on Swamp Thing is often underrated, overshadowed by the groundbreaking Alan Moore run that immediately followed it.  I know that I’m not alone in this estimation.  A number of other fans also believe Pasko’s Swamp Thing stories are due for a reevaluation.

Swamp Thing 6 pg 17

During this time Pasko was also working in animation.  Among his numerous animation credits, he wrote several episodes of Thundaar the Barbarian, which had been created by fellow comic book writer Steve Gerber.  It was Pasko who devised the name Ookla for Thundaar’s massive leonine sidekick.  As he recounted years later, he and Gerber had been attempting to come up with a name for the character when…

“We passed one of the entrances to the UCLA campus and when I saw the acronym on signage, the phonetic pronunciation leapt to mind.”

I was a huge fan of Thundaar the Barbarian when I was a kid.  I doubt I paid any attention to the credits back in the early 1980s, but years later, after I got into comic books, when I watched reruns of the show, the names of the various comic book creators involved in it, including Pasko, leaped right out at me.

E-Man v2 5 coverPasko was the writer on the first several issues of the revival of E-Man from First Comics in 1983, working with artist Joe Staton, the character’s co-creator.  As I’ve previously written, I just don’t feel that Pasko was a good fit for E-Man.  It really is one of those series that was never quite the same unless Nicola Cuti was writing it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure Pasko gave it his best.  There is at least one issue of E-Man where I think Pasko did good work, though.  I enjoyed his script for “Going Void” in issue #5, which featured a brutally satirical send-up of Scientology.

Pasko got back into writing for DC Comics in late 1987, writing a “Secret Six” serial drawn by Dan Spiegel in Action Comics Weekly.  He soon picked up another ACW assignment, featuring the revamped version of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.

This past January on his Facebook page Pasko recounted how he came to write Blackhawk in ACW.  When asked to take over the feature from departing writer Mike Grell by editor Mike Gold, Pasko initially accepted it only because of the lengthy, ongoing strike by the Writers Guild…

“I took the assignment because I had no choice–I needed the money–but it turned out, in the end, to be the most fun I ever had writing comics. I haunted the UCLA Research Library, immersing myself in everything I could learn about the post-WWII era in which the series was set, making Xeroxes of visual reference for the artist and having the time of my life.

“But my greatest thanks are reserved for that artist, my fantastic collaborator, the impeccable storyteller, Rick Burchett. Which is why this stuff is tops among the work of which I’m most proud. That stuff was all YOURS, Rick.”

Pasko & Burchett returned to the characters with an ongoing Blackhawk comic book that launched in March 1989.  It was a really enjoyable series, and it’s definitely unfortunate that it only lasted a mere 16 issues, plus an Annual.

Blackhawk 2 pg 19

In 1992 Pasko became a story editor on Batman: The Animated Series, working on 17 episodes of the acclaimed series.  He wrote the episode “See No Evil” and co-wrote the teleplay for the episode “Paging the Crime Doctor.”  Additionally, Pasko co-wrote the screenplay for the 1993 animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which was released theatrically.

DC Retroactive Superman 1970sIn the later part of his career Pasko contributed to several nonfiction books.  He also wrote the occasional comic book story for DC.  Among these was the special DC Retroactive: Superman – The 1970s penciled by Eduardo Barretto, which gave Pasko the opportunity to write the Man of Steel and his Bronze Age supporting cast one last time.

I never had an opportunity to meet Martin Pasko.  I narrowly missed him at Terrificon a few years ago.  Fortunately, Pasko was very active on Facebook, and I was one of the many fans who he enthusiastically interacted with there.  He wrote some really great stories in his time, and will definitely be missed.

Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

Lobo Christmas Special pg 43

An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy of your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

Irwin Hasen: 1918 to 2015

Irwin Hasen, one of the last of the artists of the Golden Age of comic books, passed away on March 13th.  He was 96 years old.

Hasen was born on July 8, 1918 into an upper middle class family in New York City.  In 1930, when he was 12 years old, his family lost their money in the Great Depression, and they had to move into a cramped two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.  This unfortunate turn of events would actually lead to Hasen’s career as an artist.  The apartment was right around the corner from the National Academy of Design.  When Hasen was 16 years old his mother enrolled him there, where he studied for the next three years.

All Star Comics 33 cover

Hasen got his first job as a cartoonist at the boxing magazine Bang in 1938.  As he recounted decades later:

“I drew sports cartoons, and I had to compile out of town weekly boxing results, type them up, and draw each week’s top fighters for the covers.”

Shortly after, Hasen began working in the brand-new comic book industry.  One of his earliest assignments was the superhero The Fox, which he co-created with writer Joe Blair for MLJ / Archie Comics.  Although a rather obscure character for many years, recently The Fox has been the subject of a successful, offbeat revival by Dean Haspiel.

Most of Hasen’s work in comic books was at National Comics and All-American Publications, two of the entities that soon merged to form DC Comics.  At National, Hasen drew on his background as a sports artist to collaborate with writer Bill Finger in creating Wildcat, a prize fighter turned costumed crimefighter.  Wildcat’s first appearance was in Sensation Comics #1, cover-dated January 1942.  Hasen was also one of the earliest regular artists to draw the original Green Lantern, who Finger had co-created with Martin Nodell in 1940.

Wildcat from Sensation Comics 1

After World War II broke out, Hasen was drafted.  Due to his 5 foot 2 inch height, he was stationed State-side, and his work was featured in the Army newspaper Fort Dix Post.  Hasen also found the time to keep working within the comic book biz:

“During my furloughs into New York City, I would sit in full uniform at a drawing board in M.C. Gaines’ Lafayette St. offices of AA Comics, creating Wonder Woman covers, those Valkyrian images possibly nurturing my fancy for the women to come.”

After the war ended Hasen returned to comic books full-time.  In the late 1940s he was one of the regular artists drawing the Justice Society of America feature in All Star Comics.  As future comic book writer, editor & historian Roy Thomas commented in his 2001 introduction to All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 “the next year and a half of JSA stories would be some of their best ever.”  According to Thomas, one crucial part of that was “the solid storytelling of Irwin Hasen.”  As would be seen in Thomas’ writing on All-Star Squadron in the 1980s, these stories would be a major influence upon him.

All Star Comics 35 cover

Certainly during this time period Hasen illustrated some of the most iconic cover images to ever feature the JSA.  His striking cover art for All Star Comics #33 (Feb/March 1947) had the ominous form of the undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy looming over the imprisoned JSA.  All Star Comics #35 (June/July 1947) saw the debut of the time traveling fascist Per Degaton, who was devised by writer John Broome.  Hasen’s dramatic cover for that issue featured that villain warping the flow of history within an immense hourglass.  Hasen’s cover for #37 (Oct/Nov 1937) was also memorable, depicting the JSA’s greatest foes, joined together as the Injustice Society of the World, literally carving up a map of the United States.

Like most artists in the 1940s, Hasen regarded comic books as a job to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Certainly that is understandable, as the first few decades of the industry were far from glamorous, with most creators toiling anonymously in conditions that were almost akin to a sweatshop.  Hasen’s dream was to illustrate a newspaper comic strip, which in those days was regarded as a much more fashionable & lucrative position.

Dondi April 7 1957

Hasen finally achieved this goal in 1955 when he co-created Dondi with writer Gus Edson.  A five year old war orphan from Europe, the wide-eyed Dondi was adopted by an American soldier who brought him back to the United States.  The newspaper strip lasted until 1986.  It appears that Dondi was the project that Hasen was most proud of out of his entire career.

Later in life Hasen write & illustrated Loverboy, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about his lifelong bachelorhood, and his romantic relationship with a woman named Eevie in the 1970s.  It was both a humorous and poignant story.  Loverboy was published by Vanguard Productions in 2009.  The final four chapters of the book were a brief text autobiography of Hasen’s life complemented with various photographs & illustrations.  I recommend picking up a copy.

Loverboy pg 26

I was fortunate enough to have met Hasen several times throughout the years.  He was a regular at NYC-area comic book conventions.  It was always a pleasure to see Hasen at a show.  He was a real gentleman, full of life and energy, with a genuine sense of humor.

I acquired a couple a sketches from Hasen.  The first was a color illustration of his creation Wildcat.  The other was a black & white drawing of the Golden Age Flash, another of the characters he drew regularly throughout the 1940s, both in solo stories and in the adventures of the Justice Society.  You can view scans of them at Comic Art Fans.

Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con
Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con

Okay, this is a bit embarrassing… back in late 2010 I was unemployed.  I was having trouble finding work and had a lot of free time on my hands.  On a whim I looked up Hasen’s address & phone number and gave him a call.  I told him I was a fan and I asked if it would be okay to stop by for a visit.  He was surprised, but he graciously agreed.

I visited Hasen at his apartment on the Upper East Side, stopping by for about half an hour in the early afternoon.  He autographed my copies of All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 and 8, showed me some of the various interesting items he had acquired over the decades, and regaled me with a few stories.  I asked Hasen a couple of general questions about his career, and he humorously replied that I probably knew more about his work in comic books than he did!  Well, it had been a long time before for him.  Then I said goodbye and headed home, while Hasen went off to meet one of his friends at a local bar for a martini.  I gather that was a daily ritual for him.

That was the thing about Hasen: right up until the end he was full of life and energy.  I always thought that if anyone would live past 100 years old it would be him.  Well, he didn’t quite make it, but 96 years is a really good long run, especially as he appeared to have led a very rich, full life for most of that time.

Hasen certainly has left behind a memorable legacy, having worked on numerous classic comic book stories in the 1940s, and co-creating Dondi, a beloved comic strip that ran for three decades.