Happy 75th birthday Roy Thomas

Today is the 75th birthday to influential comic book writer, editor and historian Roy Thomas, who was born on November 22, 1940.  Additionally, this year marks 50 years of Thomas’ professional involvement in the comic book field, having started in it in the summer of 1965.

Happy birthday to Roy Thomas from Conan the Barbarian

It has sometimes been opined that while Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created the majority of the building blocks of the modern Marvel universe, it was Thomas, along with Steve Englehart, who structured them into a cohesive whole.  Thomas was often the writer who was chosen by Stan Lee to take over on various Marvel series as the editor-in-chief’s workload increased and the line of titles expanded.

Some of my favorite early work by Thomas was on Avengers.  He chronicled the adventures of Earth’s mightiest heroes from issue #35 (Dec 1966) thru #104 (Oct 1972).  During this six year period Thomas, often working with penciler John Buscema, introduced the Vision, Ultron, the Grim Reaper, the Black Knight, Yellowjacket, Arkon, Red Wolf, the Squadron Supreme and the Zodiac.

From Avengers #89 to #97, Thomas, paired with artists Neal Adams, Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Tom Palmer, crafted a lengthy storyline of intergalactic warfare & intrigue that came be known as “The Kree-Skrull War.” In addition to establishing ties between two extraterrestrial races first devised by Lee & Kirby, this story arc set the groundwork for the lengthy relationship between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch.

Looking back on Thomas’ work on Avengers, one can see that he devised characters and stories that numerous other writers at Marvel would continue to utilize and built upon for decades to come.

Avengers 58 pg 10

Thomas was instrumental in convincing Lee and Marvel publisher Martin Goodman to approve a comic book starring Conan, the barbarian adventurer created by Robert E. Howard.  Conan the Barbarian #1 debuted in 1970, written by Thomas, with pencils by a young Barry Windsor-Smith.  Within a year and a half Thomas’ old collaborator John Buscema took over as penciler.  Thomas also wrote Marvel’s black & white magazine Savage Sword of Conan, which began in 1974, as well as a newspaper strip that ran from 1978 to 1981.

By encouraging Marvel to publish the Conan the Barbarian comic book, and then writing so many epic, memorable stories featuring the character, Thomas played a major role in making Conan a well-known, popular character.

Another landmark in Thomas’ career was the World War II superhero series The Invaders.  Thomas worked with veteran artist Frank Robbins on this book.  The Invaders was Thomas’ love letter to the Golden Age of superhero comics which he had grown up reading and for which he possesses a deep fondness.

Initially a team-up of Timely Comics big three Captain America, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch, Thomas would gradually introduce an entire cast of costumed heroes.  These were both of the genuine Golden Age variety, such as the Whizzer and Miss America, and of brand new characters he created to retcon back into the Marvel universe of the early 1940s, such as Spitfire and Union Jack.

Another aspect of The Invaders was that Thomas, Robbins and their collaborators devised a number of Axis villains.  If you look back at the actual Timely comic books of the early 1940s, aside from the Red Skull there really were no major super-villains who made a lasting impact, just a number of oddball menaces who were all-but-forgotten a couple decades later.  To rectify that, Thomas and Robbins introduced Master Man, Warrior Woman, U-Man, and Baron Blood as arch-foes for their heroes to fight.

Invaders 20 pg 1

Although the original run of The Invaders lasted less than five years, from 1975 to 1979, the various characters have been the subject of numerous revivals in the decades since.  Thomas himself has been involved in a few of these, returning to Marvel at various points to write new adventures of his Nazi-smashing heroes.

The length and breadth of Thomas’ five decade involvement in comic books is something that I cannot even begin to do justice in a short blog post.  For an in-depth look at his career, however, you need look no further than the magazine Alter Ego.  Edited by Thomas, this excellent magazine has been published by TwoMorrows Publishing since 1999.

Thomas was interviewed at length by Jim Amash on several occasions for Alter Ego.  Each of these examined roughly a decade of Thomas’ career, with the 1960s being covered in Alter Ego #50, the 1970s in #70, the 1980s in #100, and the 1990s in the just-released #136, with the late 1990s and beyond scheduled to be covered in the upcoming #139.  I’ve found these interviews to be extremely informative.  Thomas presents an honest and insightful recounting of his career.

Alter Ego 136 cover

Here’s the cover to Alter Ego #136.  In the center is a humorous cartoon of Thomas drawn by veteran artist Marie Severin.  Surrounding it are images taken from the covers of some of the series Thomas worked on at Marvel in the 1990s, specifically the four issue revival of The Invaders with penciler Dave Hoover, Doctor Strange, Secret Defenders, Avengers West Coast, and Thor.

I want to wish both a happy birthday and a happy anniversary to Roy Thomas.  Here’s hoping for many more years to come.

Comic books I’m reading, part two: trade paperbacks

After I wrote my post about what I was reading from Marvel and DC, I realized that I had left out something crucial: trade paperbacks.

Trade paperbacks have the advantage of containing a complete story or, in the case of the black & white Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents volumes, several hundred pages of reprints for twenty dollars or less.  TPBs often give you a lot more value for your money than a single issue “pamphlet” which only contains 22 pages, and they are much more durable.  I find it easier to take a TPB on the train or bus to read, because if it gets knocked around a bit, it won’t end up being destroyed.

I recently picked up a pair of trades published by DC which both featured the artwork of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  The first one, JLA: The Hypothetical Woman, was written by Gail Simone.  It has to be one of the best Justice League stories that I have read in years.  Simone absolutely understands  how to write the JLA’s team dynamics, highlighting the particular strengths of each member while still showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And she gives the team a truly worthy adversary in General Tuzik, a ruthless Machiavellian dictator who seems to spend the majority of the story one step ahead of the League.  You really are left wondering how the JLA is going to get through this one.

JLA: The Hypothetical Woman
JLA: The Hypothetical Woman

The artwork is stunning.  This is some of the finest penciling by Garcia-Lopez in his entire career.  He draws a story on a truly epic scale, with both superhuman spectacles and intimate personal moments.  And his Wonder Woman… she is absolutely breathtaking, especially in the story’s second half, when we see her on the field of battle, a commanding portrait of beauty & strength.  Garcia-Lopez is very ably complemented by inkers Klaus Janson and Sean Phillips on this book.

I believe that JLA: The Hypothetical Woman is out of print, but a number of copies are still available on Amazon.com.  I definitely recommend picking it up.

The other TPB with Garcia-Lopez’s pencils is Batman: King Tut’s Tomb, which reprints “A New Dawn” from Batman Confidential #s 26-28.  Yes, the comic books actually use the television bad guy King Tut, but he is completely revamped into a credible, dangerous criminal by writers Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir.  Batman is forced to team up with his long-time foe the Riddler to track down Tut.  DeFilippis & Weir do a great job with that character, making him a very mischievous, devil-may-care rogue.  In a way, you have to admire their version of the Riddler.  Unlike most of Batman’s foes, he isn’t a homicidal maniac.  Instead, the Riddler’s goal is to commit clever crimes and outwit Batman, proving his the superior intellect.

Again, Garcia-Lopez’s artwork is of a high quality.  He is inked by Kevin Nolan, who has an extremely slick, polished style.  I think Nolan can often overwhelm other artists with his inks, but he works very well with Garcia-Lopez.  The finished artwork is a pleasant blending of their styles.  Additionally, I liked the vibrant coloring by David Baron.

Batman: King Tut’s Tomb also contains a trio of Batman stories Garcia-Lopez drew in the early 1980s.  I don’t have any of those issues, so they were a nice bonus.

I purchased Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier back in December of last year.  I read the book when I had to stay in the hospital for a few days.  I’m re-reading it now, and thoroughly enjoying it once again.  It contains the character’s appearances from Star Spangled War Stories #s 151 to 188, which were originally printed in the 1970s.

Who is the Unknown Soldier?  He is an unnamed American soldier who, in the early days of World War II, was horribly disfigured in combat during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.  Trained as an expert at infiltration and a master of disguise, he is dispatched on missions behind enemy lines to sabotage the Axis war effort.  When not wearing one of his lifelike masks, the Soldier is typically clad in trench coat & fedora, his face completely covered in bandages.

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier
Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

When I first read this collection of Unknown Soldier stories, it occurred to me that the concept was very similar to the Sam Raimi movie Darkman… except that film came out a good twenty years later.  Coincidence or influence?  I don’t know.  I recall that when I saw Darkman in the theater in 1990, I thought to myself that it would make a great ongoing comic book series, and I was right.  What I did not know then was that such a series already existed in the adventures of the Unknown Soldier.

This Showcase Presents volume contains work by a number of talented writers & artists.  The Unknown Soldier was created by the legendary Joe Kubert, and he collaborated with writers Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher on the first several stories.  After the first dozen or so stories, Kubert slips into the role of cover artist, also providing many of the very striking opening splash pages which combine his artwork with photo montages.  Jack Sparling takes over art chores for a time, before Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc becomes the regular artist for the remainder of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  Other writers who worked on the book are Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie.

(It is a bit of a pity that Robbins does not also provide any artwork.  He is one of those artists who when I was much younger I could not stand his work, considering it weird and rubbery.  But over time I’ve grown to greatly appreciate his immense talents.  Nowadays, when I come across a story he has illustrated, it is a real treat.)

I am not generally a fan of war comics, but I instantly became a fan of the Unknown Soldier.  I think a major reason for this is the fact that, at his core, the Unknown Soldier is really an anti-war figure.  His origin is the personification of the horror of war.  There is nothing glamorous about what he does.  Really, the Soldier’s whole reason for being is to bring an end to the conflict that destroyed his life.

I hope that one of these days DC releases a second Showcase Presents collection of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  The final half-dozen tales in the first volume are written by Michelinie, who really ramped up the dark moral ambiguity.  His first story, “8,000 to One,” very much drives home just what a grim, horrific role the Soldier has had to take on to carry out his mission.  And the superb artwork by Talaoc is a perfect fit for the tone of Michelinie’s writing.  I definitely want to read the rest of their work on the character.

Before I close out this blog, I would be remiss if I did not mention a magazine that I regularly follow, Back Issue from TwoMorrows Publishing.  Superbly edited by Michael Eury, Back Issue has featured a diverse selection of articles on the comic books of the 1970s and 80s, and occasionally beyond.  The current issue spotlights the Avengers (just in time for the movie) and has some fascinating, informative interviews & commentary from Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, George Perez, Al Milgrom, Brett Breeding, and Mike Carlin, among many others.

Back Issue #56
Back Issue #56

The reason why I had to bring up Back Issue is that many of the articles that have appeared in it have led me to pick up trade paperbacks or, in the absence of collected editions, actual back issues themselves.  I’ve learned about a number of characters, series, and creators of whom I previously only had a passing knowledge.  The Unknown Soldier is one of those.  There was a pair of articles authored by Michael Aushenker in Back Issue #s 37 and 52, the first on the character of the Soldier, the second on artist Gerry Talaoc.  Thanks to these, I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier collection.  So, the magazine has definitely broadened my interests & horizons as a comic book reader.

BI #52, incidentally, covered DC Comics’ horror titles from the 1970s, and also got me to buy one of the Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery volumes. Going back to BI #25, Aushenker conducted an interview with Deathlok creator Rich Buckler which helped motivate me to purchase the Marvel Masterworks collection of that series.  Really, I think both DC and Marvel ought to be paying Eury and Aushenker a small commission for helping to drum up their sales!

Back Issue is definitely worth picking up.  It’s an entertaining, informative read, and you never know what else it might lead you to discover.

Anyway, next time I do one of these “comic books I’m reading” posts, I will definitely be talking about independent (i.e. non-DC and Marvel) titles.  I just need to really collect my thoughts together on what is going to be a very diverse selection of material.