Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hunger Dogs cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My upcoming article in Back Issue #104

I am excited to announce that I have written an article that is being published in issue #104 of Back Issue magazine, which ships on May 9, 2018.

Edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows Publishing, Back Issue has been running since 2003. As per the TwoMorrows website, “Back Issue celebrates comic books of the 1970s, 1980s, and today through a variety of recurring (and rotating) departments.”

I have been reading Back Issue since it first debuted.  Over the past 15 years Eury has assembled a talented line-up of writers to examine numerous interesting and diverse topics concerning the comic book medium.  It is a genuine honor to now be counted among their number.

Supplementing its informative articles, Back Issue also features a wonderful selection of rare and previously-unpublished artwork by numerous talented creators.

Back Issue 104 cover

Here are the specifics regarding this upcoming issue…

BACK ISSUE #104 (84 FULL-COLOR pages, $8.95) is the FOURTH WORLD AFTER KIRBY issue, exploring the enduring legacy of JACK KIRBY’s DC characters! The Return(s) of the New Gods, Why Can’t Mister Miracle Escape Cancellation?, the Forever People, MIKE MIGNOLA’s unrealized New Gods animated movie, the Fourth World in Hollywood, and more. With an all-star lineup, including the work of JOHN BYRNE, PARIS CULLINS, J. M. DeMATTEIS, MARK EVANIER, MICHAEL GOLDEN, RICK HOBERG, WALTER SIMONSON, and more! Cover by STEVE RUDE, re-presenting his variant cover for 2015’s Convergence #6. Edited by MICHAEL EURY.

The article I have written for Back Issue #104 is “Return To Forever: The Forever People Miniseries” which examines the six issue Forever People revival that DC Comics published in 1987. For this piece I have interviewed writer J.M. DeMatteis, penciler Paris Cullins, inker Karl Kesel, and editor Karen Berger.

I am a long-time fan of Jack Kirby groundbreaking work on the “Fourth World” titles in the early 1970s, as well as the various revivals that have been attempted over the subsequent decades. The return of the Forever People to print in the late 1980s is one that has not, as far as I am aware, been previously examined to any significant degree.  I found it an enjoyable assignment to delve into the origins of this miniseries, and to offer an examination of the ways in which the changes in American society since the early 1970s were explored by DeMatteis through his writing in this series.

Back Issue 104 pg 53

In addition to my article, within the pages of Back Issue #104 you will find “Forever Your Girl: A Beautiful Dreamer Art Gallery.” This will feature several of the wonderful pieces that I have obtained in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook from some of the top artists in the comic book biz.

Back Issue #104 can be previewed and ordered on the TwoMorrows website.  The magazine is available in both print and digital editions.

http://twomorrows.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=133&products_id=1354&zenid=ca3f3bca4d34017b5c057b4d36a5195e

The Diamond Comic Distributors Order Code for Back Issue #104 is FEB181869.

I hope everyone will show their support.  Thank you.

The Forever People meet Bat-Cow

Nah-nah nah-nah nah-nah nah-nah… Bat-Cow!  Bif!  Bam!  Pow!  Moo?!?

Infinity Man and the Forever People 4 cover

Infinity Man and the Forever People #4 sees the team of Keith Giffen & Scott Koblish once again on art duties. No offense to all of the fill-in artists, but a little stability is certainly appreciated.  Giffen, with co-writer Dan DiDio, picks up right where the previous issue ended (not counting last month’s Futures End detour) with the Forever People’s Boom Tube going, um, boom.  The quintet from New Genesis fall just a bit short of their home base of Venice Beach, crashing into a Wayne Enterprises dairy & agriculture center in Ventura CA.  It is there that they encounter this issue’s extra special guest star, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, the one and only Bat-Cow.

I like how Giffen & DiDio script the Forever People. On the one hand, they are New Gods, deities from an ultra-advanced alien civilization.  On the other, they are newcomers to Earth with little knowledge of the planet’s cultures.  Thus they are depicted as possessing a distinctive blend of sophistication and naiveté.  That certainly lends itself to comedy, such as Big Bear & Serafina asking Bat-Cow for advice.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 4 pg 5

There is a quality to Keith Giffen’s writing that I have often observed. His stories either are bizarrely farcical and ultra-comedic, or they are extremely dark and intensely somber.  Well, there is also the third option, where Giffen chooses to work with both extremes simultaneously.  That is clearly the case with Infinity Man and the Forever People.

So throughout issue #4 there are several allusions to the war Highfather and New Genesis have launched against the Lantern Corps in the current “Godhead” crossover, the quarrel between Infinity Man and Himon, and a dark winged woman stalking Mark Moonrider. Yet you also have Bat-Cow, and the Forever People being forced to take public transportation home, and Serafina’s encounter with the off-kilter Doctor Skuba, who proudly declares “While I am a pool cleaner by profession, I earned my doctorate in the hydrological sciences.”

It appears Giffen & DiDio have a definite destination in mind for this series, as hinted at in the Futures End special, with artwork by Philip Tan & Jason Paz. Half a decade in the future Beautiful Dreamer references such occurrences as “Lord Aagog’s assault on Earth, and Himon’s planetary quarantine.”  We also get a glimpse of Infinity Man in battle with OMAC.  I was wondering if these were events that Giffen & DiDio would actually be building up to once the series returned to the present.  Considering the “Femme Fatale” who was spying on Mark Moonrider is apparently an agent of the aforementioned Lord Aagog, yes, it appears so.

Infinity Man and the Forever People Futures End pg 11

I appreciate the fact that Giffen & DiDio have long-term plans, but that they are also leaving room for some humorous asides and oddball tangents. I wonder if they could manage to fit in an appearance by Giffen’s irreverent creation Ambush Bug.

The covers for both issue #4 and Futures End are illustrated by Howard Porter. His style has changed since his days on JLA.  Porter unfortunately suffered a severe hand injury several years ago and had to re-train himself to draw.  While I do find his current work a bit sketchy compared to his older art, he is still very good.  And I am certainly happy that he was eventually able to resume his career as a professional artist.  His two contributions to this series are well done.  The Futures End piece is moody and ominous, while the cover for #4 is quite humorous.  It appears that Porter is going to be the regular cover artist for this book going forward. I’ve seen images of a couple of his upcoming covers posted online, and they look good.

Anyway, it’s nice to find a New 52 series from DC Comics that doesn’t take itself so damn seriously. After all, it’s certainly possible to tell dramatic, emotionally riveting stories that are also fun.  Hopefully Infinity Man and the Forever People is finding an audience, because I’d like to see this series continue on.  It has quite a bit of potential.

The return of the Forever People

I was a bit surprised when DC Comics announced that one of their latest New 52 titles would be Infinity Man and the Forever People, a revival / revamp of the characters created by Jack Kirby.  Although I think the Forever People are cool, I will be the first to admit that they are probably among the lesser-known “Fourth World” characters devised by Kirby.  After their initial eleven issue run in the early 1970s, they were not seen again until a six issue miniseries published in 1988.  Subsequently they have not been featured in any other starring roles, only making guest appearances here and there.

However it is not entirely unexpected for the Forever People to receive a revival.  It is true that DC has actually attempted to launch a number of offbeat and experimental titles in the last three years.  The problem faced by many of those fringe books has been that DC put them out there with little in the way of promotion.  Most of them ended up falling below the radar, drowning in a sea of Batman related titles.  Based on that pattern, I honestly did not know how long Infinity Man and the Forever People would last.  But I figured I had might as well give the book a try while it was here.  After all, I am a fan of the characters, as witnessed by the Beautiful Dreamer tattoo on my left leg.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 cover

Co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People are Dan DiDio & Keith Giffen.  They’ve made revisions to the original set-up by Kirby, altering some of the characters.  I generally am not too keen on that, and was underwhelmed by the New 52 re-conception of both Darkseid and Highfather’s origins in Justice League #23.1 last year.  That said, I have to acknowledge that the Forever People were never developed in too much detail by Kirby during their all-too-short original series, and their sporadic appearances since then has left them somewhat blank slates.  So it is not as if DiDio & Giffen are upending decades of storylines & characterizations.

Mark Moonrider and Beautiful Dreamer so far appear to be pretty close to their original incarnations.  Vykin the Black has been renamed Vykin Baldaur and made into a more cynical figure (as much as I love Kirby, I really thought it was unfortunate that the only two non-Caucasian members of the Fourth World mythos were named Vykin the Black and the Black Racer).  Serifan has been given a change in gender & ethnicity, becoming Serafina, the younger sister of Vykin.  Big Bear is now the oldest member of the Forever People, as well as secretly from Apokolips, apparently having been given elements of Orion’s backstory.

Mark, Dreamer and Serafina are shown to be students on New Genesis who are about to embark on a study abroad type of assignment on the planet Earth, but they are unable to activate their Mother Box.  Vykin, who dislikes Mark and doesn’t want his sister going off-world with him, arrives to object, only to find that he is the only one Mother Box will respond to.  Reluctantly he accompanies the other three to Earth.  They are greeted by Big Bear, who has been on Earth for some time, working with human scientists in an attempt to advance the planet’s technology and bring about greater prosperity.

DiDio & Giffen appear to be focusing on the “rebellious youth” aspect of the Forever People.  Back in 1970, when he devised the characters, Kirby was inspired by the hippy / flower children counterculture.  Truthfully I do not know how much of that came through in his stories, though.  After their devastating cosmic war with Apokolips, the people of New Genesis mostly turned their backs on conflict, and the planet became close to a spiritual paradise.  Because of this, I never really understood precisely what the Forever People were rebelling against.  They merely seemed to be more impulsive and hotheaded, rushing off to Earth to fight the forces of Darkseid.

In contrast, in the New 52 (both in this title and in the pages of Wonder Woman by Azzarello & Chiang) it is shown that New Genesis is a highly organized, regimented society.  Highfather is now a more militant figure, closer to his Izaya the Inheritor days from the Kirby continuity.  The Forever People generally, and Mark Moonrider in particular, are rebelling against their world’s “control.”

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 4

When the Infinity Man finally makes himself known to the Forever People, he positions himself as an agent of chaos.  “The universe relies on chaos. It needs to expand, to grow, to learn. There is a corruption, a corruption brought on by a need for order that prevents the natural course of non-prescribed evolution. Both New Genesis and Apokolips are guilty of imposing their forms of order on the universe. This must stop. That is why I chose you.”

One can discern a state of affairs set up by DiDio & Giffen inspired by Cold War geopolitics.  Apokolips, with Darkseid at its helm, is a force of totalitarian order akin to the Soviet Union.  It brutally oppresses its citizens, forcing blind obedience & uniformity from them, and it seeks to expand its empire via conquest.  New Genesis is cast in the role of the United States, ostensibly working to preserve freedom & democracy.  But in the name of preserving its security and opposing Darkseid’s machinations, New Genesis interferes in the affairs of lesser worlds, resulting in unfortunate side effects for those planets and their inhabitants.  And while not an identity-crushing police state like Apokolips, the government of New Genesis encourages conformity and obedience lest individuality and the questioning of authority weaken the planet’s strength & resolve.

While I am a bit hesitant to embrace a version of New Genesis that appears to have such common ground with Apokolips, I have to acknowledge that this actually provides the Forever People a very clear-cut political system to rebel against, an ideology to oppose.  They are rejecting both Highfather and Darkseid’s paths.  They are seeking the freedom to guide their own destinies, and to enable other beings to do the same thing.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 pg 15

In addition to co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People, Giffen is also penciling the series, paired with the talented Scott Koblish on inking.  I very much enjoyed their work on the first issue.  Giffen has often had a rather Kirby-esque element to his art, and that very much suits this series.  This especially comes into play in a scene where Big Bear reveals his technology and explains “Kirby is my communal reconstruction bio engine. He’s responsible for building and maintaining this environment. Without him, none of this would be possible.”  That was a nice tip of the hat to the King of Comics.

Regrettably Giffen involvement in DC’s big Futures End crossover prevented him from penciling the next two issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  So, yep, we already have fill-in art teams on this book.  I hope that does not kill any sales momentum or reader interest.  At least the guest artists were mostly good.

On issue #2, the art is courtesy of penciler Tom Grummett and inker Scott Hanna.  I’m certainly a fan of both gentlemen.  Grummett has always been good at rendering Kirby’s characters, including the New Gods.  For instance, Grummett penciled an appearance by the Forever People in the pages of Adventures of Superman about twenty or so years ago.  I enjoyed seeing him now having an opportunity to depict the New 52 versions of the characters.  Offhand I don’t recall if Hanna has ever inked Grummett before.  They definitely go together very well here, creating some lovely art.  I was especially taken by their rendition of Beautiful Dreamer.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 2 pg 5

Everyone’s favorite cosmic comic book creator Jim Starlin is the guest penciler on Infinity Man and the Forever People #3.  He is paired with inker Rob Hunter.  Truthfully, I was not especially fond of their collaboration.  Hunter’s inking is in the vein of the house style of Top Cow, with flourishes reminiscent of Silvestri and Turner.  I did not feel this fit Starlin’s penciling.   I would rather have seen him inking himself, or by longtime inking partner Al Milgrom, who always does a good job finishing Starlin’s pencils.

That said, the sequence towards the end of the issue, when Dreamer is inside her subconscious, conversing with Anti-Life, is very well done.  Perhaps for this surreal tableau Hunter’s inks were somewhat better suited, as they give Starlin’s nightmarish imagery an extra punch.  (It appears that DiDio & Giffen are drawing inspiration from the long-ago declaration by Kirby in the pages of Forever People #1 that Dreamer “is one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation.”)

Nice coloring work on these issues by the gang at Hi-Fi.  I’ve always found it to be a good sign when that name pops up in the credits.  They are definitely one of the better groups of computer colorists in the biz.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 12

On the whole I did enjoy the first three issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  DiDio & Giffen did a good job introducing the characters and establishing the premise.  I just wish that the comics were a little bit longer.  Twenty pages just did not seem like sufficient space.  The book really needs an extra two or three pages to enable the story to breath a bit.

I am very interested in seeing what happens with the Forever People next.  I know that this month’s installment is a special crossover with the aforementioned Futures End storyline.  And then there are going to be a couple of issues tying in with the “Godhead” storyline running through the various Green Lantern titles.  Perhaps that will inspire some GL fans to check out this series.  Oh, yes, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, there’s going to be an appearance by Bat-Cow!  That sounds like just the sort of delightfully offbeat, bizarre humor the Giffen specializes in, and I’m looking forward to it.

How I discovered Jack Kirby

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 74 cover

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

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

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

Captain America 210 cover

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

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

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

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

Forever People 4 cover

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

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

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

New Gods trade paperback

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

In my February 23rd blog post, I wrote about how back in May 2000 I came to start my theme sketchbook featuring the character Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, who had been created by the legendary Jack “King” Kirby.  At the end of that post, I mentioned that I also happened to have a tattoo of the character.  Here’s how that came about.

Jack Kirby passed away in 1994.  I am a huge fan of his work, and I have always regretted that I would never have the opportunity to meet him, much less get a sketch of Beautiful Dreamer by Kirby himself.  Also, pretty much all of Kirby’s artwork is way beyond my budget.  So I didn’t think I’d ever own an original piece drawn by him.  And then Michele came up with a suggestion, the next best thing, you might say… why not get a tattoo of Beautiful Dreamer?

I had previously gotten a Watchmen smiley face tattoo done by Becca Roach.  I was happy with her work, so I decided to go back to her for this new ink.  I searched through my collections of Kirby’s wonderful “Fourth World” stories.  I finally located the perfect image, a bio picture of Beautiful Dreamer drawn by Jack Kirby & Greg Theakston that appeared in Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #2.  It was later reprinted, along with all the other bios of the New Gods from that series, in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume Four.

I had the tattoo done on my left leg. Becca did impeccable work.  You can see it below, side-by-side with the original Who’s Who profile (click to enlarge):

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

Becca is currently working at North Star Tattoo, located at 74 East 7th Street in NYC. You can view her tattoo work and her paintings on her website, http://www.beccaroach.com/

A few years later, at the 2012 New York Comic Book Marketplace, I met Greg Theakston.  In addition to his excellent work inking Kirby in the 1980s, Theakston is a talented artist in his own right, as well as a comic book historian, an expert on Bettie Page, and a publisher who has reissued a variety of Golden Age material through his Pure Imagination imprint.  I had corresponded with Greg on Facebook, but this was the first time I had a chance to talk face to face.  He remembered me very well, since I’d previously e-mailed him a photo of my tattoo.  He mentioned in passing that he thought he still had the original ink artwork from the Who’s Who entry.  I just shrugged it off, though, since I figured it was out of my price range.

So today I received a package in the mail from none other than Greg Theakston.  I wasn’t expecting anything from him.  I mean, a few weeks back he had asked me what my mailing address was, but I didn’t think anything of it, just guessing that he might send me a copy of one of his books or something.  But what I got in the mail this morning was much too small to be a book.  I opened it up, and discovered this:

Beautiful Dreamer Theakston inks

Yep, it was the original ink artwork that Greg did on vellum for the main image of Beautiful Dreamer from the Who’s Who bio.  In the 1980s, a great deal of Kirby’s artwork was inked separately on vellum via the use of a lightbox.  That meant that Kirby’s original pencils remained, in addition to the inked work which was then used for publication.

Of course, this means there’s still Kirby’s original pencil drawing somewhere out there.  I don’t know who owns it.  I certainly do know that at this point in time there is no way in hell I could afford to purchase it.  But that’s okay.

I am very grateful to Greg for this kind gesture.  To tell you the truth, my life has been very crazy lately, with a great deal of stress and a lot of emotional ups & downs.  I have had to put up for sale some pieces of comic book artwork from my collection that I really liked because I urgently need to pay bills. So this generous gift from Greg really means a lot to me.  Thanks!

New York Comic Book Marketplace 2013: a convention report

I made a last-minute decision to attend this year’s New York Comic Book Marketplace show organized by Mike Carbonaro & Allen Rosenberg.  I wish I had decided a few days earlier when I could have bought an advance ticket cheaper, but what are you going to do?  I also wish I’d been able to take photos while I was there, but my camera went kaput a few months ago.

In any case, my main reason for going was that George Perez was the guest of honor.  I have an Avengers theme sketchbook that I’ve had going since 2007, and I’ve always hoped I’d be able to get a piece by Perez in it.  Well, I got to the show at a little after 10:00 AM, and already the line was really long.  It was also moving very slowly, because everyone else was also getting sketches from Perez.  I decided I’d try and get something from him some other time, because I really did not want to spend a couple of hours waiting.

Uncanny X-Men 204 signed

The other guest I really wanted to see was Chris Claremont, one of my all time favorite writers.  I’ve met Claremont a few times before, but it’s always nice to see him again, because he has written so many great stories over the years.  In addition to having him autograph a few X-Men trade paperbacks, I asked him to sign a pair of issues of Uncanny X-Men, specifically #s 204 & 205, which are favorites of mine.  They came out in early 1986, when I was nine years old, and were some of the first issues of that series I ever read.  Uncanny X-Men #204 features Nightcrawler, one of my favorite X-Men, and it was penciled by Power Pack co-creator June Brigman, whose artwork I love.  Issue #205 is a spotlight on Wolverine in a dark story illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith.  What I really like about this one is that Claremont tells this very gritty, violent story from the point of view of five year old Katie Power, aka Energizer from Power Pack (yep, them again) and he really makes it work.  It enables Claremont to so effectively explore the very disparate aspects of Wolverine, how he is this extremely nasty berserker warrior, yet also have the capacity to be a kind, paternal figure to Katie.

It is a real shame that Marvel does not want to give Claremont any work nowadays.  I mean, he wrote Uncanny X-Men and most of its spin-off titles for a period of 17 years, playing a significant role in building a gigantic franchise (and I certainly don’t mean to overlook the parts that Len Wein, Dave Cockrum or John Byrne also played).  When Claremont returned to Marvel a decade ago, he did very solid, entertaining work on X-Treme X-Men and X-Men Forever (the later was my favorite Marvel title during the time it was being published).  Marvel is very happy to endlessly reprint Claremont’s old stories and to have their newer writers base their stories on the classic arcs he co-created.  But the company seems uninterested in giving him any new writing gigs.

Anyway, Claremont is currently working on prose fiction, and I definitely wish him the very best of luck with his new efforts.  I’m looking forward to picking up his novels.

Spider-Man Death of Jean DeWolff

Getting back to the show, I did not buy too many comic books, because I already have so much stuff.  In fact, I’m looking to get rid of a lot of comic books in the near future.  One of the few books I did pick up was the hardcover collection of Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff.  That’s one of Peter David’s early works.  I’ve wanted to read that one for a while now.  Also, Rich Buckler, who penciled that storyline, was a guest at the show.  I went over to his table, and he remembered me from our e-mail correspondence.  When I gave Buckler the book to autograph, he was genuinely surprised to see it, because he had no idea it had been published.  Which means that, yep, Marvel did not bother to send him a copy.  Again with the lack of respect by Marvel!  In any case, it was a good read, with nice artwork by both Bucker and another favorite of mine, Sal Buscema.

One artist I was very surprised to see at the show was Paris Cullins.  I’ve wanted to meet him for years.  I like his work a lot.  Back in 1988, Cullins penciled a six issue Forever People miniseries written by J.M. DeMatteis and inked by Karl Kesel.  He did really nice art for it, and so for some time I had been hoping to get a drawing by him in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook.  I even corresponded with him about it on Facebook in the recent past.  So there he was, and this was his first appearance at a NYC show in quite a number of years.  Only one problem: his coming was a last minute decision, so I had no idea he was going to be there, and I hadn’t brought along the Beautiful Dreamer book.  I was mentally kicking myself.  Cullins really wanted to do a piece for me, and suggested that he could draw it on a loose piece of paper to paste into my book.  But I felt it just would not have been the same.  So I left the show feeling pretty disappointed.  No Avengers sketch by Perez, and no Beautiful Dreamer drawing by Cullins.

Forever People by Paris Cullins

About an hour later I got back it Queens, and I told Michele what happened.  Her suggestion was that I should take my sketchbook and go back to the convention.  At first I thought that was a crazy idea, but then I realized I had nothing to do all day, so I shrugged and rushed back into Manhattan.  As soon as I got there, I went directly to Cullins’ table and half out of breath said something like “Good, you’re still here. If you had left, I’d be feeling very silly right about now.”  Cullins ended up working on my sketch right away, which was good for me but probably didn’t especially thrill everyone else waiting for a sketch!  I think he could tell from my Beautiful Dreamer tattoo that I was a huge fan of the character, and that I’d really appreciate what he was drawing.

In addition to the piece by Paris Cullins, I also got some very nice sketches from Dave Fox, Jim Salicrup, and Billy Tucci in my Avengers book.  I’ve posted scans on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryDetail.asp?GCat=60

It was a pretty good show but, between this and Mocca Fest, I’m pretty worn out when it comes to comic book conventions.  Think I’ll wait until the New York Comic Con rolls around in October before I go to another one.

Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook

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

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

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

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby
Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

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

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

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

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers
Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

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

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

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo
Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

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

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

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