James D. Hudnall’s Alpha Flight: A Brief Retrospective

Writer James D. Hudnall passed away on April 9th.  His earliest professional work was Espers for Eclipse Comics in 1986.  Hudnall had numerous comic book credits, but I was most familiar with his nearly two year run on Alpha Flight from early 1989 to late 1990. He wrote issues #63 and #67-86.

Alpha Flight 67 cover smallAlpha Flight is a series that even its creator John Byrne admitted he didn’t really know quite what to do with it.  He has been quite vocal about the fact that he only created the Canadian super-hero team to be able to survive a fight with the X-Men.  Byrne was genuinely surprised when Alpha Flight became popular enough to receive their own series, and he took on the assignment with a certain reluctance.

Byrne wrote & penciled the first 28 issues of Alpha Flight.  He did good work, but by the end he felt he had literally run out on things to do with the characters.  After he left, the series somehow managed to last nearly another decade, experiencing a lot of ups & downs.

Byrne’s successor on Alpha Flight was writer Bill Mantlo, who worked with several artists during his three year stint on the series.  Mantlo’s run started off showing potential, and a number of the issues from his first couple years were enjoyable.  However towards the end things had definitely petered out.  At the time, when Hudnall came on in early 1989, it really was a breath of fresh air.  Although somewhat uneven, I regard Hudnall’s stint on Alpha Flight as one of the better post-Byrne periods. (Of course, as I always like to say, your mileage may vary.)

Hudnall’s first few issues of Alpha Flight had him wrapping up a some dangling subplots from Bill Mantlo’s run, including bringing to a close the team’s conflict with the Dreamqueen.  With that out of the way, with issue #71 Hudnall embarked on a lengthy story arc involving an incredibly powerful, seemingly-unstoppable mystical villain, Llan the Sorcerer.

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Alpha Flight 72 cover small

According to Hudnall the Sorcerer storyline was initially planned to run all the way to issue #100, with Llan as an overarching behind-the-scenes adversary dispatching such villains as the Master of the World and Zeitgeist against the team to distract them while his ambitious master plan came together.  However, a lukewarm reception and conflicts with editorial resulted in Hudnall being replaced as writer on the book.  This necessitated him giving his story a somewhat quick wrap-up in issue #86, with Doctor Strange being brought in to aid Talisman in defeating Llan.

Hudnall was probably overly ambitious with his plans for Alpha Flight.  I don’t know if the Sorcerer storyline really would have had enough substance to it to continue running for another year in order to make it to issue #100.  However, I cannot fault Hudnall for attempting to at least try to do something spectacular and long-ranging in a book that had recently been lacking in a solid, interesting direction.

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Hudnall explained his plans an interview conducted in the early 2000s by the website AlphaFlight.net:

“I wanted to make the book more in line with Byrne’s vision, which I felt was generally a good one. I liked Byrne’s run except he was kind of unfocused direction-wise. Probably because he was bored. So one of the things I did was try to give Alpha Flight more of a purpose. And try to make them unique in the Marvel Universe, not just by virtue of their nationality. I also wanted to show off Canada, so I did tons of research.”

It had been a number of years since I have read those issues, but from glancing over them again this week I did like how Hudnall worked to develop the character of Talisman.  It had been one of Talisman’s predecessors who had fought Llan the Sorcerer when he had last attacked Earth’s dimension 10,000 years earlier.  It now fell to the current Talisman, who was fairly young & inexperienced, to lead the battle against this incredibly formidable, cunning foe.

I am not certain exactly how successful Hudnall was in his execution of Talisman’s character development.  At times she came across less as focused & determined, and more as bossy & arrogant.  But I do appreciate that Hudnall at least attempted to make her the focus of his overall storyline.  I think Byrne came up with a fantastic design for the character, and it was nice to see her in the spotlight here.

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Another highlight of Hudnall’s run was having former Alpha Flight foe Diamond Lil join the team.  Lil had been involved in the events that had led to the death of Alpha’s original leader James Hudson, aka Guardian, which put her at odds with the team’s current leader, the widowed Heather Hudson, aka Vindicator. Complicating matters even further, Lil was the ex-girlfriend of Madison Jeffries, aka Box, who was now engaged to Heather.  It was apparent that there was still an attraction between Lil and Madison, and the resulting love triangle was present throughout the background of the Sorcerer storyline.

I also think having Lil join the cast offered an outsider’s perspective on some of the events.  It was interesting to see her gradual development from a one-time enemy who was regarded with suspicion to a trusted member of the team. Plus, during the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover we got to see go toe-to-toe with longtime Spider-Man villain the Scorpion, which was cool.Alpha Flight 80 pg 14

With the benefit of hindsight, Hudnall was doing on Alpha Flight what is now referred to as “writing for the trades,” i.e. writing a lengthy, complex storyline serialized in a monthly series that would later work as a complete novel when collected together in trade paperbacks.  I think that if I was to go back and read Hudnall’s entire Alpha Flight run in one go, rather than broken up into monthly installments, it would work much better now.

Alpha Flight 78 cover smallFor the majority of Hudnall’s time on Alpha Flight he was paired with penciler John Calimee.  I personally think Calimee was a fairly good, solid artist, albeit one who was not particularly flashy or dynamic. In other words, he got the job done, but perhaps that was not seen as sufficient enough at that point in time, when several red-hot artists were exploding in other Marvel titles.  Most of the issues Calimee penciled were inked by Mike Manley, a very talented artist whose work I have always enjoyed.

Other artists who worked on Alpha Flight during this time were Hugh Haynes, the great Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc and a fairly young up-and-coming Mark Bagley.  The incredibly talented James Sherman turned in one of his all-too-rare rare comic book jobs, providing full artwork for Alpha Flight #73.  That issue flashed back to the conflict between the original Talisman and the Sorcerer in prehistoric times.

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John Byrne himself unexpectedly returned to the series to draw a couple of covers.  Jim Lee, who did some of his earliest work on Alpha Flight, also contributed to a few covers during Hudnall’s run.

Regrettably, except for Haynes, there did not exist a good rapport between the writer and the various artists.  Subsequently Hudnall would express his opinion that Calimee in particular had been unable to effectively execute the visuals contained in the plots.  Hudnall also experienced a number of disagreements with his editors.  Whether all of this was due to Hudnall wanting to remain faithful to his ambitious vision, or an indication that he was a difficult person to collaborate with, is up to the individual to decide.Alpha Flight 81 cover small

Whatever the difficulties between Hudnall and his colleagues, as I said before, at the end of the day I personally do think that his run on Alpha Flight was pretty good.  Possibly it is my teenage nostalgia talking, but all these years later it remains memorable for me.

As for the artwork by Calimee & Manley, looking at it in 2019 with a fresh perspective, I find that I still like it. Calimee is, as I said, a solid artist who knows how to lay out a page and tell a story. Manley’s inking here provided a polished finish to the pencils. One of his artistic influences was the legendary Al Williamson, and that shows in the inking on these issues.

The lettering on all of these issues was by Janice Chiang. I’ve always liked her work. Looking at these issues for the first time in years, I can immediately identify that it’s her lettering. She’s one of the best letterers in the biz.

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In addition to Alpha Flight, Hudnall worked on Strikeforce: Morituri and the graphic novel The Agent for Marvel.  Over at DC Comics he wrote the very dark graphic novel Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography.  In the 1990s Hudnall worked on Malibu Comics’ well-regarded Ultraverse imprint, writing the series Hardcase and The Solution.  With artist Andrew Paquette he created Harsh Realm, a six issue miniseries published by Harris Comics that was later loosely adapted into a short-lived TV series.

About a decade ago Hudnall began writing for the ultra-conservative website Breitbart, and espousing views I found very disagreeable.  Nevertheless, despite how I felt about his politics, I was sorry to hear that in the last few years he was experiencing serious health problems.  It’s unfortunate that he died at a relatively young age, a day before his 62nd birthday.  He leaves behind a small but interesting and imaginative body of work.

Miguel Ferrer: 1955 to 2017

I was sorry to hear that actor Miguel Ferrer passed away on January 19th at the much too young age of 61.

Born on February 7, 1955, Miguel Ferrer was the son of actor / director Jose Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney.  Ferrer’s original aspiration was to work as a musician, but in 1975 his friend Bill Mumy offered him a part in an episode of the TV series Sunshine.  Ferrer caught the acting bug, and remained in the profession for the rest of his life.

One of Ferrer’s early roles was a 1981 episode of Magnum P.I.  Ferrer played, in a flashback, a young Navy ensign stationed in Hawaii shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with his father Jose Ferrer then playing the same character in the present day. I always thought that was such a wonderful casting decision.

The role that really put Ferrer on the map was playing sleazy corporate executive Bob Morton in the dystopian sci-fi movie Robocop (1987).  In interviews, Ferrer always acknowledged that he was grateful to that movie for really getting him noticed, enabling him to subsequently have a successful career as an actor.

miguel-ferrer

Ferrer was often cast as villainous or quirky characters.  He was seldom seen in starring roles, but he worked regularly, a ubiquitous presence in both movies and television for three decades.  Notably, in the early 1990s Ferrer portrayed cynical FBI agent Albert Rosenfeld in David Lynch’s cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, and he also appeared in the 1994 TV miniseries adapting the Stephen King novel The Stand.

From 2001 to 2007 Ferrer appeared on Crossing Jordan, playing Dr. Garret Macy, the mentor and boss to loose cannon Medical Examiner Jordan Cavanaugh, portrayed by Jill Hennessey.  Crossing Jordan was a series that I watched regularly, and I loved the chemistry between Ferrer and Hennessy.  Macy was something of a brooding, low-key figure who had the unenviable task of reigning in and covering for the headstrong, anti-authoritarian Jordan.   Macy, a divorcee and recovering alcoholic with a teenage daughter, had a lot of baggage, and Ferrer brought the character to life in a very affecting performance.

Interviewed in 2009 by the A.V. Club, Ferrer had positive memories of working on Crossing Jordan:

“It was great. I loved that. Six years on the same show, working on the same lot. Got to go home and see my kids every night. They weren’t always awake, but I saw them. I loved that there were no out-of-control egos on the set. I loved working with the same people for six years. You develop a sure hand, and you learn how one works and likes to work. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had a ball.”

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Ferrer, along with longtime friend Bill Mumy, was a science fiction and superhero fan.  The two of them collaborated on a few comic book projects in the late 1980s.  They co-wrote the six issue miniseries Comet Man, published by Marvel Comics in 1987.  A dark, bizarre blending of superheroes, sci-fi, and horror, Comet Man was eerily illustrated by future superstar Batman artist Kelley Jones, inked by Gerry Talaoc, and featured striking covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Ferrer, Mumy and Jones re-teamed in 1990 to wrap up the Comet Man storyline in a four part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Presents.  A decade later writer Peter David, who was friends with Ferrer and Mumy, used Comet Man during his acclaimed run on Captain Marvel.

Paired with talented artist Steve Leialoha, Ferrer and Mumy created the very odd superhero parody Trypto the Acid Dog, which debuted in a 1988 comic published by Renegade Press.  Additional Trypto stories by Ferrer, Mumy & Leialoha came out in the 1990s via Atomeka Press and Dark Horse.  Recently commenting on their collaboration, Leialoha revealed that the visual for Trypto was based on Ferrer’s own dog Davey.

Given how wonderfully bizarre Ferrer’s comic book work was, I’ve always thought it was a bit of a shame that he didn’t write more.  Of course, this was around the time  his acting career was really taking off, so I certainly understand why he chose to focus on that.

trypto-the-acid-dog

Some of Ferrer’s roles were actually comic book related.  He played Vice President Rodriguez in Iron Man 3 (2013).  Miguel did a great deal of voiceover work, much of it for animated series based on comic books.  Among the shows he voice-acted on were Superman: The Animated Series, The Batman, The Spectacular Spider-Man, and Young Justice, the latter of which had him in the recurring role of immortal conqueror Vandal Savage.  One of Ferrer’s last roles was voicing Deathstroke in the direct-to-DVD animated adaptation of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.

In addition to being a talented actor and writer, Ferrer had a reputation for being a genuinely nice guy.  In interviews he always came across as down-to-earth and laid back.  In recent days Bill Mumy, Kelly Jones, Steve Leialoha and Peter David have all reflected on his passing; each of them described him as a good friend possessed of a wonderful sense of humor.  It sounds like Ferrer will be very much missed by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Dick Ayers: 1924 to 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

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Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000
Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #309

As I mentioned on my February 14th blog post, when I was seven years old the very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I read was #285.  While I really liked that comic book, I did not have an opportunity to pick up another issue of that series until exactly two years later.  That was #309, which was published in 1985.  And, as I commented before, if I thought #285 was odd, well, this new issue was simply bizarre!

Incredible Hulk 309 cover

The cover to Incredible Hulk #309 is by Mike Mignola.  It is a pretty early piece of work by the future creator of Hellboy.  But you can certainly see his potential as an artist in this unusual cover image.  This has to have been the very first time that I ever saw Mignola’s art.  It certainly leaped out at me as a distinctive piece.

Inside the comic, it quickly becomes apparent that things had changed dramatically in the two years that I was away from the title.  Formerly, Bruce Banner gained full control of his bestial alter-ego, and been accepted as a hero by the people of Earth.  Now, though, the Hulk appears to be somewhere far, far from home, struggling to string together a simple coherent thought.

“The Triad” is written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema and Gerry Talaoc.  Within a few pages, Mantlo quickly brings the reader up to speed, in a dramatic splash page montage drawn by Buscema & Talaoc.  The now-intelligent Hulk was haunted by Doctor Strange’s old foe Nightmare, his dreams twisted to re-awaken the green goliath’s bestial alter ego.  Nightmare hoped to use the Hulk as weapon against the Sorcerer Supreme.  However, Strange was able to help the remaining spark of Banner’s consciousness strike back at the demon.  Unfortunately the Hulk was left with no mitigating human influence, and became an uncontrollable monster.  Rather than have to destroy his old friend, Strange exiled the Hulk to the extra-dimensional Crossroads, which links up to a myriad of other realities.

Now, after some time in the Crossroads, traveling from one strange world to another, the Hulk’s sentience is very gradually awakening.  And with this renewed awareness, the Hulk discovers that he is accompanied by a trio of unusual figures.  The Triad is made up of a blue-skinned demon named Goblin, a young orange-skinned girl called Guardian, and a shining magenta star known as Glow.  These mysterious figures are somehow linked to the Hulk, their purpose to help fully restore his psyche.

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 1

Walking through one of the Crossroads portals, the Hulk and the Triad are transported into the middle of a vast alien desert.  Although the desolate sands stretch as far as the eye can see, and the harsh sun beats endlessly down, the Hulk refuses to activate the “fail-safe spell” cast by Doctor Strange that would return him to the Crossroads when he feels discontented.  As a massive sandstorm sweeps in, the Triad attempt in vain to convince the Hulk to wish himself off this planet before they all perish.

Finally, having survived the brutal elements, the Hulk at last finds that which his inhuman senses had detected from far off: a lush oasis.  The Triad realizes that the Hulk was not on a mission of suicide, but was driven by the will to find this oasis, meaning his mind is continuing to heal and come back together.

This was a really odd story to read as a kid.  The Hulk stranded on the other side of reality, fighting not some supervillain or the military, but the very elements, accompanied by an incredibly odd threesome.  Bill Mantlo really crafted an unusual story, having the Hulk’s struggle against nature juxtaposed against the Triad’s examination of and insights into his mental state.  It is a very introspective tale.

At the time, I had no clue who the Triad was supposed to be.  Within the next few issues, Mantlo would reveal that they are the splintered aspects of Bruce Banner’s subconscious mind given form and independent thought.  Certainly this was a very clever, innovative idea.  Looking back on #309, I can see that Mantlo sprinkled the dialogue with a number of hints as to the true identity of the Triad.

Mantlo really broke a lot of ground with his run on Incredible Hulk.  Having already given us an intelligent Hulk, he has now exiled the jade giant from Earth and begun to embark on an examination of Bruce Banner’s psychological background.  A cursory glance at the Hulk stories that have been written in the decades since readily demonstrates just how much all of this influenced subsequent writers.

This issue’s artwork was absolutely incredible.  The thing that really struck me was the depiction of the Hulk by Buscema & Talaoc.  Obviously in other comic books and in television cartoons, the Hulk had always been a big, strong creature.  But this was the first time I had ever seen him drawn as such a huge, bestial, imposing figure.

The illustrations of the Crossroads and the desert planet that the Hulk and his strange companions visited were very vivid and detailed.  Buscema did a great job on the pencils, crafting these alien environments.  And the inking by Talaoc was absolutely superb.  He created a tangible atmosphere of oddness for the Crossroads.  On the desolate world, his embellishments bring to life a harsh landscape that alternates between cutting winds and a brutal sun.

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In the book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, “Our Pal” Sal states that Gerry Talaoc was one of his favorite inkers to work with.  I can certainly see why.  They went together exceptionally well.  Talaoc really enhances Buscema’s penciling without overpowering it.

Incredible Hulk #309 was Sal Buscema’s final regular issue penciling the series, ending a decade-long run.  Mike Mignola came onboard as the new penciler.  A few issues later, the entire team of Mantlo, Mignola & Talaoc relocated to the pages of Alpha Flight.  Mignola departed that book after only a handful of issues, but both Mantlo and Talaoc stuck around longer, at one point even reuniting with Sal Buscema on pencils for a couple of issues.  Meanwhile, the Incredible Hulk book, after brief stints by first John Byrne and then Al Milgrom, had Peter David come onboard for a lengthy, brilliant run that, as I said before, has some of its roots in Mantlo previous work.

By the time Incredible Hulk #309 came along, it had become a bit easier for me to follow comic book titles.  So I was fortunately able to pick up most of the next several issues of the series, plus follow Mantlo and friends onto Alpha Flight.  And those issues I did miss I eventually bought as back issues.

Looking back on Bill Mantlo’s run writing Incredible Hulk, yep, it was really strange, but also innovate and exciting.  The artwork by Sal Buscema was superb, and for the later part he was paired up with the excellent inking of Gerry Talaoc.  Fortunately, after all these years, a good portion of the Mantlo issues, #s 269 to 313, is finally being collected in, appropriately enough, a triad of trade paperbacks.  The first two, Pardoned and Regression, are already out, with the third, Crossroads, due in May.  I highly recommend picking them up.  They remain some of the best Hulk stories ever written.

Strange Comic Books: Unknown Soldier #268

Those with good memories may recall that last year I wrote about the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier trade paperback.  I tremendously enjoyed the stories collected in that book, and that in turn led me to purchase a bunch of the later issues of the series on Ebay.  One of those comics was the final issue, Unknown Soldier #268, which was published in 1982.  This is a memorable yet also quite strange issue, one which sees the Soldier embark on his final mission, which brings him face to face with his most hated enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Unknown Soldier 268 cover

Like most issues of Star Spangled War Stories and Unknown Soldier, #268 is topped off by a superb cover drawn by the legendary Joe Kubert.  This macabre image shows the corpses of Hitler and his bride Eva Braun sprawled across the floor of the Fuhrer’s bunker.  Hovering before them is a ghostly image of the Unknown Soldier.

Inside is “A Farewell to War,” written by Bob Haney, with pencil layouts by Dick Ayers and finishes by Gerry Talaoc.  Haney was one of the writers of the character’s early adventures in Star Spangled War Stories, and he returned to chronicle the Soldier’s adventures after the series was re-named after the character.  Ayers, among his numerous credits, worked on Marvel Comics’ war titles in the 1960s.  In the mid-1970s he moved over to DC, and Unknown Soldier became one of his regular assignments.  As I’ve mentioned, I used to live about ten minutes from Dick, and I visited him a couple of times.  Finally, Talaoc is one of the very talented Filipino artists who broke onto the American comic book scene in the 1970s.  As a kid, I first saw his work when he was inking Sal Buscema and Mike Mignola on Incredible Hulk.  It was a pleasure to re-discover his art through his lengthy stint drawing Unknown Soldier, a series where he did amazing work.  Nowadays Talaoc lives in Alaska, but he was kind enough to autograph a few books that I mailed to him.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 1

Unknown Soldier #268 opens with a splash page, a combination of Ayers & Talaoc’s artwork and a photo montage, which harks back to the pieces Kubert would use to open his stories a decade before.  It is May 2, 1945, and the Soviet army has discovered the corpse of Hitler.  The story then flashes back four days, to April 28.  The war in Europe is nearing its end, and Berlin is undergoing intense bombing by the Allied forces.  The Unknown Soldier is parachuting into the besieged city, hoping to make contact with the German Resistance, which is in possession of a dangerous secret.  The Soldier slips into disguise, but is unable to do anything as, one by one, his confidants are killed by a fanatical Nazi officer named Kessler.  All the Soldier is able to learn is one word: Nosferatu.

Finally, the Soldier himself is unmasked by Kessler, who pursues him into the city’s subway system.  Furious at having seen those close to him, his adopted family, brutally murdered, the Soldier attacks Kessler in a darkened tunnel.  After a furious fight, the Soldier knocks Kessler against the third rail, electrocuting him.  The master of disguise assumes the identity of his fallen foe and slips out across the city, heading to the Reich Chancellery, hoping to learn what the dreaded secret is that his friends died trying to uncover.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 15

Still disguised as Kessler, the Soldier is admitted to Hitler’s bunker, coming face-to-face with the infamous ruler of the Third Reich.  There, he learns the horrific, not to mention utterly bizarre, meaning of Nosferatu.  It is Hitler’s doomsday plan.  In the event of Germany’s impending defeat, the Nazis will unleash a swarm of genetically engineered bio-weapons, flying octopi mutated with vampire blood that will swarm all across Europe, decimating the Allies.  Yes, really!

Before Hitler can give the order to release the Nosferatu, the Soldier attacks him.  Grappling with the madman, he calls up the memories of his fallen comrades and summons the strength to shoot the dictator in the face, killing him.  Quickly altering his disguise, the Soldier takes on the identity of Hitler himself.  He issues the order for the Nosferatu to be destroyed.  Then, once again donning his Kessler mask, the Soldier slips out of the bunker, having staged the bodies of Hitler and his wife so that they appear to have committed suicide.

Back in his usual outfit of trench coat and bandaged face, the victorious Unknown Soldier attempts to make his way out of Berlin alive.  However, he spots a child about to be killed by a falling bomb.  Quickly throwing her to safety, the Soldier is caught in the blast, seemingly perishing.  But before Bob Haney closes the story, he includes a hint in the final panel that maybe, just maybe, the Soldier might possibly have survived.

Unknown Soldier 268 pg 23

Whew!  What an exciting, jam-packed, strange comic book!  Bob Haney really brings the saga of the Unknown Soldier to a cataclysmic conclusion, doesn’t he?  I classified this as a Strange Comic Book because not only does the Soldier kill Hitler, but because of the whole Nosferatu subplot.  It what is a very gritty, hard-edged story of war and sacrifice, the inclusion of such a far-out science fiction concept is just plain weird.  Perhaps this is a misstep by Haney.  He might have been better off having the Nazis planning to release some sort of super-virus.

Also, from a dramatic standpoint, it would have been more exciting if, during the struggle with Hitler, the Soldier’s mask would have been torn off.  It seemed a bit odd having Hitler think he was fighting a traitor, when instead he really ought to have found out that his opponent was the Allies’ greatest covert operative.

But aside from these two points, “A Farewell to War” is quite well written.  It brings definite closure to the Soldier’s story.  For a figure who had dedicated himself to the destruction of war, it is appropriate that he meet his (seeming) demise at the end of the conflict that spawned him.  Somehow, it just would have not had the same impact if he’d retired or, worse yet, lived to become some sort of post-WWII superhero who fought costumed criminals alongside the Justice Society.  No, Haney made the right decision to close out the final issue the way he did.

The artwork on issue #268 is stunning.  Dick Ayers does solid work with his layouts and storytelling.  There’s a great deal of drama to his work.  And the finishes by Gerry Talaoc are exemplary.  He gives the story a real, tangible sense of atmosphere and gloom.  Talaoc’s inking brings to vivid life the chaos and destruction of a crumbling, ruined city under siege and its tragic, desperate inhabitants.  It really communicates the horrors of war.

Ihe likelihood of DC publishing any additional Showcase Presents volumes of Unknown Soldier seems rather small, unfortunately.  So I do not know if this issue will ever be reprinted.  Fortunately, it is quite easy to find rather inexpensive back issues of this series for sale online.  These comics are definitely worth tracking down.  Joe Kubert’s magnificent covers and Gerry Talaoc’s lushly illustrated interiors are among the best artwork I’ve ever seen.

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.