The wedding of Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters

For a brief moment it appeared that 2018 was to be the Year of Super-Hero Weddings. Batman and Catwoman were all set to tie the knot, and Colossus and Shadowcat were also ready for wedded bliss.  Unfortunately, Selina Kyle left Bruce Wayne at the altar, and Kitty also backed out at the last sec, much to Peter’s consternation. In that case longtime on-again, off-again couple Rogue and Gambit decided to take advantage of the occasion to impulsively leap into holy matrimony, so at least somebody got hitched in the X-Men books.

Third time was the charm, though, and as 2018 came to a close we finally got a scheduled wedding go through as planned: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, aka the Thing,  married his longtime girlfriend, blind sculptress Alicia Reiss Masters.

fantastic four wedding special cover

The blessed event took place in the pages of Fantastic Four #650, or if you prefer issue #5 of the current volume. Setting up the event is the Fantastic Four Wedding Special. Dan Slott was the main writer, with Gail Simone stopping by to give us Alicia’s bachelorette party.

(What volume of Fantastic Four is Marvel up to, anyway? I honestly don’t know! With all the renumbering and rebooting that Marvel keeps doing, who can keep track?)

Of course, as soon as the news broke about Ben and Alicia’s impending nuptials, alarm bells immediately began blaring in the heads of longtime readers, myself included. After all, back in FF #300, Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, had married Alicia, only for this to later be retconned away when Alicia was revealed to have been replaced by a Skrull imposter named Lyja.

Dan Slott swore up & down on social media that there would be no Skrulls involved. The house ad for FF #650 even boldly proclaimed…

“No bait. No switch. Not a dream. Not a hoax. And we swear, not a single Skrull around. This is really happening!”

Of course, that still leaves shape-shifters, and evil other-dimensional duplicates, and Space Phantoms, and LMDs, and clones… hey, Dan Slott spent a decade writing Amazing Spider-Man, so at this point he probably has clones on the brain!

*Ahem!*  Actually, there was a moment towards the end of FF #650 where it briefly appeared the wedding was going to be called off, and I literally considered throwing my copy of the issue across the room in frustration.  Fortunately, though, Ben and Alicia did go through with the ceremony.  So it seems that this is really, truly supposed to be the real, permanent marriage of Ben and Alicia… at least for the present. Keep your fingers crossed!

fantastic four 8 pg 9

Whatever the case, unlike a lot of super-hero weddings, which come across as sales events, this actually does feel like a natural progression. Alicia was first introduced waaaaay back in Fantastic Four #8 (1962) by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.  Alicia was manipulated into disguising herself as the Invisible Girl as part of a cockamamie plot by her stepfather, the diabolical Puppet Master, to destroy the FF.  There was an immediate attraction between the Thing and the sensitive young woman, and the very next issue they were already dating.

The Wedding Special contains a humorous back-up by the great Fred Hembeck. Narrated by the Puppet Master, this vignette touches on how her introduction prompted a crucial turning point in the Thing’s early development. If you read the first few FF stories by Lee & Kirby, the Thing was very much depicted as a dangerous character, a being whose rage and self-loathing at his horrific mutation threatened to lead him to villainy.

And then the Thing met Alicia, who sensed the kind, sensitive soul underneath Ben’s anger and depression. From this point forward the Thing was written as alternately tragic and comedic, a heroic and loyal figure who masked his pain at being trapped in a monstrous form with a gruff, irreverent persona.

fantastic four wedding special hembeck

It has often been observed that the Fantastic Four is not so much a super-hero team as it is a family, one that is often dysfunctional, but which at the end of the day will stick together through hell & high water. Slott has only been the regular FF writer for a few issues, but he’s scripted the characters several times in the past, including on the Thing’s short-lived solo series in 2006.  So I find that he already has a really good grasp on them. Slott’s stories are the perfect mix of soap opera dramatics and irreverent humor. He was definitely well-suited to write the wedding of Ben and Alicia.

Over the past couple of decades, I have gravitated away from mainstream super-hero books. My interests are much more on books that are character-driven. I am a huge fan of Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez.

I think that’s why I appreciate Slott’s work on FF so much. He isn’t writing a book that centers on super-powered beings slugging it out, but on the family dynamics of Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny, Franklin, Valeria, Alicia and the rest of the extended FF family.

That’s certainly the case with the Wedding Special and issue #650. Slott does a superb job at exploring new sides to characters who have been in print for decades. I appreciated Slott’s look at the friendship between Susan Storm and Ben Grimm, and the examination of how Sue feels about what happened to Ben, the sense of responsibility she feels, as she was the one who pushed him to pilot Reed Richards’ ill-fated spaceship.  Slott reveals that in the early days of the team, in an effort to help the Thing find some happiness, Sue played matchmaker, encouraging him to pursue a relationship with Alicia.

fantastic four 650 pg 21

The interaction between Ben and Johnny during the bachelor party is also well done. It’s one of the best scenes between these friendly rivals that I’ve seen in the series’ entire history.

The actual wedding was beautifully written by Slott. It’s a lovely scene. I was especially moved when Slott revealed Reed’s wedding present to Ben and Alicia. It actually made me a bit misty-eyed.

I was also happy that Ben and Alicia had a Jewish ceremony. After all, the Thing is Jewish. At the same time, I appreciate that Slott didn’t make it a huge deal.  It was just one detail in the story. As I’ve said before, I like that Ben Grimm is Jewish, but I certainly do not think that should be his defining characteristic. In other words, he is a character who, among other things, happens to be Jewish.

By the way, I am curious if Alicia might also be of Jewish ancestry, as her late biological father was named Jacob Reiss.

fantastic four 650 pg 42

Among the close family members who attend the wedding are Ben’s Uncle Jake and Aunt Petunia. It was nice to see them again after so many years.

A few readers were upset that Aunt Petunia was depicted as being in her 40s or 50s here. After all, when we first met Petunia in FF #238, she was shown to be both young and attractive.  I realize that John Byrne did this to humorously subvert reader expectations, since before that, whenever the Thing mentioned Petunia, the implication that she was a tough, feisty old lady. However, I don’t know if in the long run that was such a good idea. Maybe it wasn’t such an issue back in 1982 when Byrne wrote that story, but nowadays the idea that Uncle Jake, a senior citizen, married a woman who was young enough to be his daughter is sort of weird & uncomfortable. It’s probably a good idea to nowadays depict Petunia as being somewhat closer in age to Jake.

Anyway, I really did enjoy Slott’s work on these stories. I like the idea of Ben and Alicia as a married couple. I just hope that Galactus doesn’t end up eating the Earth before we get to see Ben and Alicia go on their honeymoon!

Gail Simone also does good work with the characters in her segment for the Wedding Special, penning a tale that is both humorous and poignant. I hope she has another opportunity to write the FF again in the future.

The artwork on these two issues was also great.  Laura Braga does sexy, humorous work on the bachelorette party story in the Wedding Special, while Mark Buckingham & Mark Farmer turn in some effective art on the second tale, evoking the style of Kirby as the Thing has a surprising encounter with the Puppet Master.fantastic four 650 pg 61

The framing sequences of FF #650 are illustrated by Aaron Kuder, culminating is his gorgeous depiction of Ben & Alicia’s wedding.  In places Kuder’s art here brings to mind the work of John Romita Jr and Frank Quitely.

Mike Allred & Laura Allred contribute the moving flashbacks to the couple’s early days.  The Allreds possess a style that is distinctively “indy” while nevertheless evoking the wacky, offbeat elements of Silver Age stories.

It was a pleasure to see Adam Hughes illustrating the bachelor party sequence in #650. Hughes is very well known for his cover artwork, and for his depiction of sexy women. As a result, it is often forgotten that he is also a good storyteller who knows how to lay out pages. He certainly does good work here, both on the humorous sequences and in the quieter character driven moments.

The reason why Hughes mainly works on covers is because he is not an especially fast artist who is capable of drawing a monthly series. That’s unfortunate, because as he demonstrates here, he knows how to do solid interior work.

Providing the letters for both issues is VC’s Joe Caramagna.

fantastic four 650 cover

Topping off these two comics, quite literally, are covers by Carlos Pacheco & Romulo Fajardo Jr and Esad Ribic.  Pacheco’s cover is my favorite of the pair, but I certainly like both.

Let’s raise a toast to Ben and Alicia.  Long may they be a happy couple.  What God has joined together, let no man (or Skrull) put asunder!

Summertime with the Amazing Heroes swimsuit special

It’s the end of August and summer is winding down.  Yes, technically it doesn’t actually end until September 23rd.  However, the unofficial end of the summer season here in the States is Labor Day, which is only a week away.  Most people regard these as the closing days of summer.

So before all the kiddies return to school I wanted to end the summer with an appropriate post.  Let’s cast our eyes back to 1988 and the pages of Amazing Heroes #138, their second annual swimsuit issue.

For younger readers, Amazing Heroes was published by Fantagraphics between 1981 and 1992.  It featured in-depth articles and interviews on both mainstream comic books and the ever-growing independent scene.  For most of its existence Amazing Heroes was edited by Kim Thompson.

Amazing Heroes had a few swimsuit editions in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Unlike many of the comic book swimsuit specials that would follow from other publishers that were tacky T&A fests, Amazing Heroes approached theirs with tongue planted firmly in cheek.  A diverse selection of artists contributed to their specials.

Amazing Heroes 138 cover signed

The cover to Amazing Heroes #138 is penciled by the legendary Neal Adams and inked by Art Nichols.  It features four lovely ladies from Adams’ creator-owned Continuity Studios books.  I’m not familiar with the gals in the middle.  But on the left is Ms. Mystic and on the right is Samuree.  I always chuckle at this one.  In the Ms. Mystic series the title character’s costume is always rendered by Adams with zip-a-tone.  So the joke here is that, in lieu of a swimsuit, Ms. Mystic is wearing an actual sheet of zip-a-tone to the beach.

I got this autographed by Adams recently.  It’s a lovely piece by him, a playfully sexy pin-up illustration.  I hope one of these days Adams collects his creator-owned material into trade paperbacks.  I feel that is an often-overlooked aspect of his career.

Here’s a look at just a few of my favorites from the many great pin-ups featured in Amazing Heroes #138…

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 31 John Workman Big Barda

John Workman renders Big Barda of Jack Kirby’s New Gods in a bikini.  Workman is best known for his extensive work as a letterer, frequently working with Walter Simonson.  But Workman is also a talented artist.  As can be seen from this, he also possesses a great sense of humor.  This is a cute send-up of good girl art, simultaneously sexy and self-deprecating.  That “tapioca pudding” line totally cracks me up.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 38 Hernandez Bros

If you are Fantagraphics and you’re going to do a swimsuit special, certainly you’re going to ask two of your best artists, Love and Rockets co-creators Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez, to contribute a piece.  After all, both brothers are well-regarded for their depictions of the female form.  Of course, Beto and Jaime draw some good looking guys, too.  Here’s a jam piece by Los Bros Hernandez.  On the left is Israel by Gilbert.  On the right is Danita by Jaime.

This pin-up and a great deal of other material that had originally appeared in a variety of places was reprinted in the Hernandez Satyricon trade paperback.  As much as I love Gilbert & Jaime for their very compelling characters & intricate plotting it was also nice to have many of their beautiful pin-ups gathered together in one volume.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 39 Fred Hembeck Ditko Zone

I really enjoy Fred Hembeck’s fun, cartoony artwork.  He is a huge fan of Silver Age comic books, especially the Marvel Comics work of Steve Ditko.  Hembeck has done quite a few loving Ditko homages over the years, including this one, “Surfing in The Ditko Zone.”  It brings a smile to my face seeing Doctor Strange, Clea and the dread Dormammu in swimsuits riding the waves in one of Ditko’s psychedelic alternate dimensions.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 45 Reed Waller Omaha

As I’ve mentioned before, my girlfriend Michele is a fan of Omaha the Cat Dancer by writer Kate Worley and artist Reed Waller.  I’ve never read the series, but Michele has all of the collected editions, so one of these days I’ll sit down and immerse myself in it.  Omaha is an exotic dancer / stripper, and the book is definitely for mature readers.  The series was partly created as a protest against censorship.  It perfect makes sense that Waller would draw Omaha as “Ms. First Amendment” here.  It’s a beautiful illustration.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 72 Bo Hampton

In the late 1980s Eclipse Comics was publishing their revival of the Golden Age aviator hero Airboy written by Chuck Dixon.  The talented Bo Hampton was one of the artists who worked on it.  For this swimsuit issue Hampton renders Airboy / Davy Nelson III, the near-mindless swamp monster known as the Heap, and the femme fatale Valkyrie at the beach.  I always chuckle at the sight of the Heap in a pair of swim trunks!

IDW is currently reprinting Eclipse’s Airboy in a series of trade paperbacks.  I recommend getting them.  They contain excellent writing and artwork.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 84 Evan Dorkin

Here’s a great pin-up of the whole crew from Evan Dorkin’s irreverent creator-owned series Pirate Corp$ / Hectic Planet jamming at the beach.  It always amazes me at the insane amount of detail, as well as the just plain insanity, Dorkin always manages to pack into his artwork.  He draws a huge crowd of characters and successfully invests each one with an individual personality.  Dorkin is definitely one of the most talented and underrated comic book creators around.

In the late 1990s Slave Labor Graphics released three trade paperback collections of Hectic Planet.  You can find them on Amazon at affordable prices.  Again, I recommend them.  Dorkin did good work in those stories.

Amazing Heroes 138 pg 81 Bruce Patterson original

Bringing things to a close, here is a scan of the original art for a pin-up of Purity Brown and Nemesis the Warlock from the pages of 2000 AD drawn by Bruce Patterson.  As an inker, Patterson has worked with a diverse number of pencilers.  This piece demonstrates Patterson is also able to do extremely good work on his own.  Purity Brown of course looks damn sexy in her black bikini.  As for Nemesis, there’s comedy gold in seeing the alien chaos lord clad in a black Speedo holding a beach ball.

I won this on Ebay in the late 1990s.  Only a couple other people bid on it, so I got it for an amazingly low price.  I owned it for almost 20 years before eventually selling it to another collector when I had some bills I had to pay.  The art board Patterson drew on had warped a bit by the time it made its way into my hands, but it still looked great.  This is a piece that I feel, due to the subtle shading Patterson utilized, did not reproduce especially well on black & white newsprint.

Older fans often look back at the demise Amazing Heroes in 1992 as an unfortunate setback to serious journalism on the industry.  I think that’s a valid argument.  Even more so when you consider that following in Amazing Heroes’ footsteps was Wizard Magazine.  If Amazing Heroes was the New York Times of comic book reporting then Wizard was definitely the NY Post!

Many of the old Amazing Heroes issues can be found on Ebay for low prices.  They’re well worth picking up for the interviews and the in-the-moment examination of the dramatic changes the comic book industry underwent throughout the 1980s.  And, of course, you also had fun features like their swimsuit specials.

The Omega Men by Roger Slifer, part one

Roger Slifer, a writer and editor at Marvel and DC Comics in the 1970s and 80s, passed away on March 30th at the age of 60 due to complications from injuries sustained in a hit & run accident in 2012.  Slifer contributed to a number of titles during his time in the biz.  His longest run was the first 13 issues of The Omega Men, a science fiction / space opera series published by DC in the early 80s.

The Omega Men made their first appearances in Green Lantern #141-144 (1983) created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist Joe Staton.  They were known as “Omega Men” because they were among the last free inhabitants of the 22 planet Vegan solar system (which is not, as far as I know, the home of the veggie burger).  Vega was ruled with an iron hand by the brutal Citadel, and the Omega Men were a desperate group of freedom fighters struggling to overthrow them.  Wolfman connected the Omega Men to some of the backstory elements of his super-successful New Teen Titans series.  Starfire’s home planet of Tamaran was in Vega, and her origin involved the Citadel’s occupation of her world.

Omega Men 1 cover

When The Omega Men series made its debut in April 1983 Wolfman served as the book’s editor.  Slifer was paired with co-plotter & penciler Keith Giffen and inker Mike DeCarlo.

I must have picked up most of the back issues of The Omega Men in the 1990s, and probably haven’t given them much of a look since then.  Re-reading Slifer’s run over the past week I was struck by just how sophisticated his writing was, how he tackled genuinely difficult questions.  I guess that the same story can appear quite different to someone in their late 30s than when they initially read it in their early 20s.

The series was published without Comics Code Authority approval.  Slifer ramped up the violence, depicting the brutal costs involved in fighting a war against an intractable, savage enemy.  The Omega Men was “grim & gritty” before that term was coined, but Slifer definitely did not glamorize violence.  He utilized the conflict to explore philosophical & political issues.

Working off the dynamics set up by Wolfman in the Green Lantern issues, Slifer quickly establishes the Omega Men as a group very much at odds with itself.  Comprised of refugees from numerous different worlds, the Omegans have different viewpoints and are frequently seen clashing over how to conduct the war against the Citadel.  The only thing uniting them is a common enemy.  They are in as much danger of collapsing from within as being defeated from without.

The internal conflicts of the group are epitomized by Primus and Tigorr.  Primus is the leader of the Omega Men, and he approaches the war with the Citadel with caution, carefully mapping out the group’s strategies, hoping to slowly erode the enemy’s strength with a series of small but crucial victories.  The feline Tigorr, on the other hand, is hotheaded, a born fighter.  He wants to throw caution to the wind and mount a bold surprise offensive against the heart of the Citadel.  Primus and Tigorr are constantly arguing over strategy.

Omega Men 1 pg 8

The thing is, both of them are correct, and both are also wrong.  Sometimes their struggle with the Citadel requires methodically-planned maneuvers, and at other times a bold charge against the enemy is what’s called for.  On occasion Primus is shown to be indecisive and hesitant, while Tigorr is capable of being dangerously rash and impulsive.  What these two men need to do is sit down and develop a plan of battle that encompasses the strengths of both their approaches.  Instead, Slifer demonstrates that both Primus and Tigorr are too stubborn to do that.  Each is convinced that he should be leading the Omega Men, that the other is foolhardy.  As a result, the Omegans are almost fatally undermined when their teammate Demonia betrays them to the Citadel and manipulates Primus and Tigorr into fighting one another.

Slifer also addresses the question of whether or not violence is a productive solution by exploring the history of Broot, the Omegans’ massive grey-skinned strongman.  Primus decides to travel to Broot’s home planet Changralyn in an attempt to ally with the populace, despite Broot’s efforts to try to explain that he will be unsuccessful.  Primus and the other Omegans are shocked to discover that the entire culture of Changralyn revolves around pacifism.  They are fanatical in their adherence to non-violence, convinced that any act of aggression will inevitably bring about a horrible cosmic retribution.

Years before when the Citadel’s forces first landed on Changralyn the populace agreed to regularly give over a number of their children to the Gordanian slave traders in exchange for peace.  Broot, the only one to question his people’s religion in centuries, resisted and tried to prevent his son from being taken.  The Citadel responded with force, Broot’s son was killed, and he & his wife were taken along with the children by the Gordanians.  Since that day, Broot’s people have regarded him as a monstrous heretic.

Now back on Changralyn for the first time since then, Broot once again witnesses the Gordanians taking a selection of children to be used as slaves.  Reminded of his son, Broot snaps and slaughters them all.  In response, the Citadel’s orbiting forces drop a neutron bomb on the nearest city, murdering thousands.

Omega Men 2 pg 8

Slifer demonstrates that sometimes the choice between pacifism and violence is not a clear-cut one, that there can be negative consequences to both paths.  The non-violence by the people of Changralyn led them into slavery.  When Broot resisted, the result was that his people, instead of being subjugated, were slaughtered.  It is a no-win situation which leaves Broot devastated, gripped by paralyzing uncertainty.

Following on from the tragic journey to Changralyn and Demonia’s betrayal, Tigorr takes control of the Omega Men while a severely wounded Primus is recuperating.  Tigorr and his followers launch a frontal assault against the Citadel.  As word spreads of Tigorr’s battle through the solar system, revolts break out across Vega.  Most are brutally crushed, but enough resistance fighters make it to spacecraft and rendezvous with Tigorr to aid him in his assault on the Citadel’s home base.

Issue #6 sees the final assault against the Citadel.  Tigorr comes face-to-face with the true ruler of the empire, a once-living being now merged with a massive computer complex.  Tigorr then learns that the First Citadelian’s ultimate goal was not the conquest of Vega, but its corruption…

“I am the personification of aggression. Until I existed, the Vegan star system was pure, without aggression.  But I corrupted it – I corrupted it all!  Even you, who claim to want peace, have been driven to fight – to kill – for what you seek.”

The First Citadelian created a regime so unrelentingly brutal & savage that the only recourse for the inhabitants of Vega was to also embrace violence in order to defeat it.  The Citadel’s atrocities have been so horrific and widespread that the inhabitants of Vega are now consumed by hatred for their rulers, willing to go to any lengths to not just overthrow them but to achieve retribution.  The First Citadelian regards his destruction as a victory, for in order to attain it the peoples of Vega were forced to descend to his level.

Omega Men 6 pg 20

Issue #7 is by Slifer, DeCarlo and incoming penciler Tod Smith.  The First Citadelian, his computer intelligence quickly fading, reveals to the Omega Men the origins of the Vegan system, its goddess X’Hal, and the Citadel itself.  These revelations are horrific.

The First Citadelian explains that eons before the Psions, a group of scientists completely without morality, discovered there were two species within the Vegan system.  One was the Okaarans, a race to whom the concept of violence was totally foreign; the other was the Branx, who were “the embodiment of unbridled aggression.”

Fascinated by these diametric opposites, the Psions become obsessed with determining the true dominant trait in the universe, peace or violence.  They enact a grotesque plan: they kidnap the innocent X’Hal from Okaara and numerous warriors from Branx.  One by one, they set the Branx warriors loose on X’Hal, clinically observing her being raped repeatedly until she is finally pregnant, all so that they can learn whether the offspring of these two disparate species will epitomize love or war.

(I was definitely disturbed by this aspect of Slifer’s story.  It’s odd that I did not remember it from reading this issue years ago, and that it did not spur any unsettled reactions on my part.  It’s similar to what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, how as a teenager I wasn’t especially bothered by what the Joker did to Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke, other than the fact that she was paralyzed and could no longer be Batgirl, but nowadays I am uncomfortable with that part.  I really do wonder if Slifer should have approached this part of his story differently.)

To the Psions’ surprise X’Hal gives birth to two children, one that appears Okaaran, the other that looks even more grotesque than the Branx.  The once-peaceful X’Hal, traumatized by months of abuse, finally snaps and stabs the Branx warrior that impregnated her.  Before it dies, the creature breaks her neck.  The Psions are alarmed that this will mean the end of their experiment since they do not know how to care for the two infants, and they frantically attempt to revive X’Hal.

Converting X’Hal to pure energy in the hopes of preserving her mind, the Psions unwittingly cause her ascension to godhood.  The empowered X’Hal grabs hold her two children and vengefully destroys her tormentors.  She returns to Okarra to raise them, but her innocence has been lost, and she is subject to violent mood swings.  One of her sons grows to become the Omegan named Auron.  The other, a victim of his Branx nature, feels completely alienated from the Okaaran people.  This son begins to fan the flames of aggression within the Okaarans, introducing conflict the formerly peaceful world, conflict that inevitably escalates.

Omega Men 7 pg 18

Eventually the Okaarans nearly destroy themselves in a nuclear holocaust.  They blame X’Hal’s son, who they perceive as a corruptor.  Banished from Okaara, the son becomes the First Citadelian.  He makes it his life’s mission to prove that he was not unique, to demonstrate to all the races that had now grown throughout Vega that within each and every one of them was the potential to become a violent monster.  The First Citadelian is convinced that he has accomplished that.  He tells the Omega Men…

“The Okaarans sought to exile me, thinking I was the cancer that rotted their souls.  I was not a cancer but a harsh light, illuminating the lie within themselves.  And you, by killing me, showed only that you, like all the rest, want the power to decide for others.  Just like me.”

With that the First Citadelian dies.  Tigorr is convinced that the founder of the Citadel is full of it.  As far as Tigorr is concerned, he did what was necessary to finally free the Vegan system from tyranny.

Of course that was not Slifer’s last word on the subject.  In the next few issues he would examine in-depth the fall-out from the overthrow of the Citadel.

A look at the first seven issues of The Omega Men would not be complete, though, without mentioning Lobo.   The ultra-violent alien bounty hunter makes his debut in the pages of issue #3.  Devised by Slifer & Giffen, Lobo and his partner, the equally depraved Bedlam, are hired by the brutish figurehead ruler of the Citadel and his human advisor, the mysterious Harry Hokum.  Lobo and Bedlam kidnap the Omegans’ co-leader Kalista so that the Citadel can suck from her mind the knowledge needed to penetrate the energy shield protecting her home planet of Euphorix.  In the process the mercenary pair cut a bloody swathe through several of Kalista’s compatriots.

Despite the serious subject matter of these issues, with Lobo and Bedlam we see that Slifer & Giffen do have a more lighthearted side to their work, although that sense of humor is certainly very dark & sardonic.

Omega Men 3 pg 13 Humbek

Issue #3 sees the all-too-brief career of the Omegan known as Humbek, a political cartoonist exiled by the Citadel for his “subversive” work.  If Humbek’s name & appearance seem a bit familiar that is because he is a caricature of comic book humorist Fred Hembeck.  Even Humbek’s cursing is no doubt a nod to the Dateline:@#$% strips by Hembeck that ran in the Comics Buyers Guide.

Two pages after Humbeck’s debut, we are introduced to Lobo and Bedlam, as seen below.  Yes, that is Lobo in the orange & purple spandex.  What do you want?  It was the early 1980s after all!  I’m sure we all have occasions in our past when we embraced unfortunate fashion trends.  It seems even the Main Man isn’t immune to that sort of lapse in judgment.

Right from the start, though, Lobo definitely possessed his sick sense of humor and fondness for extreme violence.  Slifer & Giffen bestow upon Fred Hembeck, via his alien stand-in Humbek, the honor of being the very first character to ever be killed by Lobo in print.  Of course it is a spectacularly gruesome demines.  Yipes, that’s gotta hurt!

Omega Men 3 pg 15 Lobo intro

The artwork on these issues is certainly good.  I liked the team of Giffen & DeCarlo, who did good work depicting the warfare as well as the quieter character moments.  Giffen’s storytelling on these issues is very dynamic.  On his last two issues Giffen was only doing rough layouts.  DeCarlo’s finishes over these are very good.  His embellishment suits the high-stakes battle sequences.  Coming onboard with issue #7, Smith does good work rendering of the secret history of the Vega system.  His penciling has a rich amount of detail in these flashback sequences.  Once again, DeCarlo’s inking is strong.

Time permitting I will hopefully be taking a look at the second half of Roger Slifer’s run on The Omega Men in the near future.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to part two.

New York Comic Fest 2014 Convention Report

As I mentioned in my previous post, Michele and I went to the New York Comic Fest last Saturday, which was held at the Westchester County Center in White Plains.  It’s interesting that there was a three-way duel of sorts between comic cons in the NY metro area that weekend.  In addition to the Comic Fest, there was also a mini-version of the NY Comic Con at the Javits Center, as well as a decent-sized show out on Long Island.

Michele and I hadn’t been out of the City since last year, so we chose to go to the White Plains show.  I actually grew up in different parts of Westchester, and it was nice to be back for a day.  Michele and I took the Metro North train up.  The County Center was about a 15 minute walk from the train station.  It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot, the perfect weather to walk around.

Fred and Lynn Hembeck New York Comic Fest

The first guest whose table I went up to at the show was Fred Hembeck.  I’ve been a fan of Hembeck’s work for many years.  I’ve corresponded with him by e-mail and Facebook, and I got a cool re-interpretation of the cover to Captain America #291 done by him a few years ago.  But except for one time years back when I ran into him for about 30 seconds walking around a comic show in Upstate New York, I’ve never really met him.  It was great talking with Fred and his wife Lynn, who are both nice people.  Fred autographed my Spectacular Spider-Ham trade paperback, and he drew a cool piece in my Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook.

While I was at Fred’s table, Michele was nearby chatting with underground artist John Holmstrom.  The founding editor of Punk Magazine in 1975, Holmstrom’s has also worked on The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, High Times and a number of album covers.  Michele is a big fan of Holmstrom’s art, so she was thrilled to meet him.  He was nice enough to do a sketch for her.  Michele surprised me by buying me a vintage issue of Punk Magazine as a present.  It was issue #17, which featured the Singing Pimple comic strip.

Rudy Nebres New York Comic Fest

Also at the show was Filipino-born artist Rudy Nebres.  I am a huge fan of his amazingly detailed, superbly rendered art, especially his work on Vampirella over the years.  I brought along several books to get signed, including the two issue horror miniseries Maura that was published by Berserker Comics in 2009.  Nebres’ pencils for it were exquisite, some of the best work of his entire career.  I was really happy to get those autographed.  I wish I’d had the funds to get one of his amazing sketches.  Fortunately I’ve obtained a couple of pieces by him in the past.

I was thrilled to see Steve Mannion and Una McGurk again at the convention.  The two of them recently tied the knot.  It was nice to be able to congratulate them in person.  I finally picked up a copy of Steve’s Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights special, which I missed finding in the stores when it came out last December.  I just wished I’d remembered to bring him a bag of Pirate’s Booty Popcorn as a present!

Steve Mannion and Una McGurk New York Comic Fest

Another creator at the show who I’d never met before was Paul Kupperberg.  Michele has really been enjoying the Life With Archie series that Kupperberg has been writing for the last three years.  That’s the great magazine-sized publication from Archie Comics that has the two possible futures where Archie marries Veronica and Betty, and we see what happens to the inhabitants of Riverdale as a result of each of those choices.  I’ve also read Life With Archie from time to time, and it is really well written.  Michele had Kupperberg autograph some of those for her.   He also signed my copy of the first issue of The Charlton Arrow, as well as Action Comics #598, the first appearance of Checkmate, the covert ops organization he co-created at DC Comics in the late 1980s.

Paul Kupperberg New York Comic Fest

I also had the opportunity to meet Peter Gillis, who wrote some great stories in the late 1970s and throughout the 80s.  I’m a fan of his work and so, once again, it was cool to get a few things autographed.  I also saw Don McGregor and, as I mentioned before, bought a copy of the Sable 30th Anniversary Edition from him.  Other creators at the show were Josh Neufeld, David Gallaher, Steve Ellis, Bill Sienkiewicz, Basil Gogos and Joe Martino.  I got to see Bronze Age legend Herb Trimpe once again.  It’s odd, in that I’ve met him at a number of conventions in the past, but I didn’t have a single issue of Incredible Hulk signed by him, even though that’s the character he is most identified with.  So this time I remembered to bring my copy of Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which Trimpe autographed for me.

Longtime Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil was at Comic Fest.  For most of the day he was on different panel discussion.  I did manage to catch him after the “Batman at 75: Then and Now” panel, when he was signing at his table for a little while.  There was a looooong line, and the person waiting in front of me looked and acted almost exactly like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons.  Yeah, just the sort who gives comic book fans a bad name!  But I finally got to the front of the line and had a couple of Batman trade paperbacks signed by O’Neil.  I really wanted to ask him some questions, but I didn’t want to hold up the line.  At least I got a photo with him.

Ben and Denny O'Neil New York Comic Fest

All in all, New York Comic Fest was a nice convention.  Michele and I both had fun there.  It was very casual and laid-back, with some great guests and panel discussions.  It did appear that attendance was a bit low, probably due to those other competing two shows in the tri-state area.  I hope that the organizers had a successful convention, because I would certainly like to see New York Comic Fest return in 2015.

My only original art acquisition that day was the cool Beautiful Dreamer sketch by Fred Hembeck.  Well, I was on a budget, and also shooting for quality over quantity.  I was certainly happy to have obtained it and, as I said, to have finally met Fred.

Beautiful Dreamer Fred Hembeck

Mid-afternoon Michele and I left the County Center.  We took a walk down Central Avenue, and went to visit my grandparents, who live in White Plains.  Again, the weather was pleasant, so even though it was a bit of a long walk, it was good to get some fresh air.  I’m happy that I was able to see my grandparents, since they’re up there in years nowadays.

And then it was back to the train station to catch the train home.  We didn’t want to stay too late in White Plains.  After all, we had to get home to feed the cats.  Nettie and Squeaky can be quite demanding when it comes to food, you know.  Never keep a cat waiting if you can avoid it!

All photos courtesy of Michele Witchipoo.  Thanks, hon.

Strange Comic Books: Captain America #291

As I mentioned in the past, I really do not buy too many new comic books nowadays.  It’s a combination of lack of disposable income and less interest in most of the material currently being published.  So, I thought to myself, what other comic book subjects could I write about on this blog?  Then I came up with an idea for an occasional feature: Strange Comic Books.  Over the years, there have been all number of comic book issues & stories that have seen print which are, for one reason or another, odd or unusual.  Why not have some fun and spotlight some of my favorites?

Captain America #291 autographed by Herb Trimpe
Captain America #291 autographed by Herb Trimpe

The first entry in Strange Comic Books is Captain America #291, published by Marvel Comics with a cover date of March 1984.  It’s a fill-in issue, perhaps to give regular writer J.M. DeMatteis some breathing room before he plowed ahead full steam on his epic Red Skull arc.  The story in #291, “To Tame a Tumbler,” is written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by long-time Incredible Hulk artist Herb Trimpe, and inked by Jack Abel.  Topping off the issue is a dramatic cover by John Byrne.

A little background info: the original Tumbler was a very minor foe of Cap’s who appeared in Tales of Suspense #83 and Captain America #169.  At the end of his second story, he was murdered by another super-villain, Moonstone, and Cap was framed for the crime.  (This, incidentally, kicked off the classic “Secret Empire” storyline by Steve Englehart & Sal Buscema).

Well, it turns out that before his death the Tumbler took out a one million dollar life insurance policy through the Guardian Life Insurance Company.  After the Tumbler was murdered, his brother, decorated army veteran Michael Keane, attempted to collect on the policy so that he could pay his mother’s enormous medical bills.  However, Guardian Life, represented by a smarmy, balding, gold-toothed sleaze named Matthews, refused to pay out, stating that the claim was invalid because the Tumbler had died in the commission of a felony.  Michael’s mother soon passed away due to inadequate medical care.  Furious at having been robbed by Guardian Life, he decided to assume his brother’s costumed identity, becoming the second Tumbler.

Cap "tumbles" on a crime in progress
Cap “tumbles” on a crime in progress

The new Tumbler’s first act is to break into Guardian Life’s offices and steal his brother’s file so that he can expose the insurance company.  However, the robbery is interrupted by Captain America.  The two spar, and the Tumbler flees.  Cap tracks him back to his apartment where, after another brief fight, the Tumbler is subdued.  Defeated, Michael explains what happened with his brother’s insurance policy.  Cap agrees to help Michael investigate Guardian Life, and the two return to the insurance company’s offices.  There, searching through the file room, the pair discover that Guardian Life has in fact issued policies to a large number of costumed criminals, with the intention of not paying out on any of them.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, Captain America #291 does not sound all that strange.  A bit unconventional, perhaps, having the villain turn out to be a life insurance company, but not especially odd.  And I would agree, except for one fact: Guardian Life Insurance is a real life company.

Yes, writer Bill Mantlo decided not to create a fictional corporate entity, but to utilize a real world organization.  And, it turns out, my father worked at Guardian for a couple of decades as an actuary.  He was hired by them about a year before Captain America #291 came out.  Guardian Life, that is to say, the real Guardian, not their evil fictitious counterpart, somehow quickly learned about the contents of “To Tame a Tumbler.”  I believe that words were exchanged between Guardian and Marvel’s lawyers, with the later promising that they would never use Guardian’s name ever again.

A Mighty Marvel Insurance Scam, courtesy of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel
A Mighty Marvel Insurance Scam, courtesy of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel

Now, even back then, at the young age of seven, I was already getting into comic books.  So of course my father had to explain this whole story to me, and he even let me read a copy of the issue that he had bought for his amusement.  This actually became only the second issue of Captain America I ever read (the first was #278) and, who knows, credit for my becoming a huge fan of the character may be at least partially due to this whole affair.

Many years later, I ended up working for a time at another health insurance company that was closely affiliated with Guardian.  I was in fairly regular correspondence with a number of people who worked over at Guardian.  And between my experiences and what my father tells me, I can assure you that in real life Guardian does not and has never insured any super-villains with the intent of defrauding their beneficiaries.  Swear to God!

But returning to the fictional Marvel Universe, this story has subsequently caused me to wonder exactly how life insurance would work in a world where people routinely come back from the dead.  For instance, Doctor Octopus is one of those criminals named as having an insurance policy, and the character has died & returned to life at least once (resurrected by the mystical ninja cult The Hand, of all things).  If you were a beneficiary on old Otto’s policy, once he came back from the grave, would you then have to give back the money?

Anyway, in addition to becoming a huge comic book fan, and reading the Captain America series for over two decades, I also began collecting original artwork.  I obtained a number of pages of published art, including several from issues of Captain America.  So of course I had to see if I could find any of the art by Herb Trimpe & Jack Abel from issue #291.  I actually did locate a couple, and had them in my collection for a number of years before I had to eventually sell them to pay the bills.

I knew that the possibility of ever finding the original artwork to the cover of #291 was extremely remote.  Even if I did come across it, I’m sure it would be very expensive, seeing as it is a vintage cover drawn by the super-popular John Byrne.  I decided to commission Fred Hembeck, who does incredibly funny work, to draw one of his famous cover re-interpretations of the piece.

Captain America #291 cover reinterpreted by Fred Hembeck
Captain America #291 cover reinterpreted by Fred Hembeck

Hembeck is a fantastic artist, and a really nice guy.  I recommend checking out his website (he’s also on Facebook) and contacting him about getting a commission.

But let’s get back to Captain America #291.  Yeah, this is one of my favorite issues.  It has an interesting story by Mantlo.  Trimpe turns in some nice penciling, so much so that I really wish he had drawn Cap more often over the years.  And, yeah, it has that unusual personal connection to my father and me.

Even though it was a fill-in issue, #291 was included in the Death of the Red Skull trade paperback, which collects Captain America #s 290 to 301.  Yep, a benefit of it seeing print in-between chapters of that lengthy arc means that all these years later “To Tame a Tumbler” is back in print.  So, if you want to read this rather unique issue from the pens of Mantlo, Trimpe & Abel, and you’re also in the mood to check out one of the all time classic Red Skull storylines, courtesy of J.M. DeMatteis, I suggest picking up a copy of the book.

By the way, I believe that this was the sole published appearance by the second Tumbler.  Having brought to justice the people who swindled his family, Michael Keane quickly retired his costumed identity.  Rumor has it he later found much greater success when he founded a popular social networking website 🙂