Avengers by Tom Palmer

Comic book artist Tom Palmer passed away at the age of 81 on August 18th.

Palmer started in comic books in 1968 at Marvel Comics, at the tail end of what fans generally refer to as the Silver Age. Although he initially worked as a penciler, Palmer soon transitioned into inking. He quickly established himself as one of the great inkers in the industry. In addition to his work as an inker / embellisher, Palmer was a colorist & painter. Palmer had runs on X-Men inking Neal Adams, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula inking Gene Colan, Star Wars inking Walter Simonson and Ron Frenz, X-Men: The Hidden Years inking John Byrne, and Incredible Hulk inking John Romita Jr and Lee Weeks.

However, the title which I most personally associate Palmer with is Avengers. He initially inked & colored several issues in the early 1970s, first over John Buscema and then Neal Adams. Palmer returned to Avengers with issue #255 in 1985, and he remained on the book thru to issue #402 in 1996, doing inks / finishes for nearly every issue during that 12 year period. Just as Joe Sinnott had previously played a key role in defining the look of Fantastic Four for over a decade and a half via his strong, characteristic inking, so too did Palmer do the same for Avengers.

Here are some highlights from Palmer’s work on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes:

Palmer really hit the ground running on Avengers #255 (May 1985). In addition to once again doing a great job inking John Buscema, who also returned to the series with this issue, Palmer produced a stunning painted cover that spotlighted the then-current Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau.

Another striking Avengers cover by Palmer is issue #273. The comics released by Marvel with a November 1985 cover-date marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of the Fantastic Four, and each cover had a portrait of its main character, or for the team books, one of the prominent members, surrounded by border artwork by John Romita. Avengers #273 had a portrait of the Black Knight by Palmer, who rendered the character in rich textures.

More often than not Buscema was doing loose pencil breakdowns on Avengers during the second half of the 1980s. It was Palmer’s job to produce the finished artwork, a task he did with incredible skill, rendering some very stylish, detailed pages.

This pages is from Avengers #277, the final chapter of the now-classic “Under Siege” storyline written by Roger Stern, which saw Baron Zemo form a new Masters of Evil to try to destroy the Avengers. Buscema & Palmer did great work on the final battle between Captain America and Zemo.

Buscema left Avengers with issue #300. Following a short stint by Rich Buckler, the new penciler on the series was Paul Ryan, with Palmer remaining on inks.

This amazing poster featuring most of the Avengers members up to that point in time was drawn by Ryan & Palmer. It was released in 1989, and was probably done by them around the same time as when they were working on Avengers #305 (July 1989) which contained a very similar scene.

Larry Hama had a short, underrated stint writing Avengers in the early 1990s, during which he shook up the team’s line-up and introduced some offbeat villains. Chief among these was the strange other-dimensional entities the Tetrarchs of Entropy. Ryan & Palmer certainly did an excellent job depicting those bizarre entities, as seen in issue #329 (February 1991).

Bob Harras became writer on Avengers with issue #334, and the next issue he was joined by penciler Steve Epting. Palmer remained on as inker, and for the next several years they were the creative team on the title, bringing some much-welcome stability to the book.

Palmer once again also began coloring Avengers with issue #343. He would hold the dual roles of inker and colorist on the series for the next three years. Here’s the splash page to Avengers #345 (March 1992), part of the “Operation: Galactic Storm” crossover, featuring Palmer’s inks & colors over Epting’s pencils. Left to right we have Quasar, the Eric Masterson version of Thor, the Vision and Sersi of the Eternals.

Palmer’s coloring was also on display on several Avengers covers such as this one, issue #375 (June 1994), the finale to Harras’ long-running Gatherers storyline. This great wrap-around cover, penciled by Epting and inked by Palmer, is definitely enhanced by Palmer’s vibrant coloring. I always felt Epting & Palmer did a fine job rendering the Black Knight and Sersi on Avengers, and that’s certainly on display here.

This is definitely one of my favorite Avengers covers from the 1990s. Click on the image to see the cover in all its full-sized glory!

Mike Deodato began penciling Avengers with issue #380 (November 1994). It’s interesting to see the very slick work of Deodato embellished by palmer’s highly textured inking, but I think it worked, really making the art stand out from the various other jobs the very popular Deodato was doing at that time. Palmer also does the coloring. The two of them definitely did good work on this dynamic double page spread featuring Quicksilver and Crystal.

Avengers #384 (March 1995) is another rare example of Palmer’s full artwork. Harras wrapped up a long-running plotline involving the ruthless machinations of the Greek gods in a genuinely heart-wrenching finale that left Hercules devastated. Palmer’s cover really captured the tragedy of Harras’ story.

All good things must come to an end. So it was with Avengers volume one, which concluded with issue #402 (September 1996) as the “Onslaught” crossover send both the Avengers and Fantastic Four over to an alternate reality for the year-long “Heroes Reborn” event. Palmer departed in style via an incredible painted cover.

I think it really speaks to Palmer’s skill as an illustrator that he does such a good job with this particular odd team line-up which had, among other things, the Wasp transformed into a humanoid insect and Thor wearing an overly-complex costume that just screamed “grim & gritty.”

This marked the end of Palmer’s regular association with the team, although he would return to the team from time to time, such as inking Will Rosado on the eight issue Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes II miniseries in 2007 and inking John Romita on several Avengers issues in 2011.

I was fortunate enough to meet Palmer on a few occasions at comic cons and store signings. He always came across as a good, polite person who made time for the fans.

The news of Tom Palmer’s death is sad. We’ve lost way too many incredible talents in such a very short time.

It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

Earlier this month was the birthday of the late, great Dave Cockrum, one of my favorite comic book artists. Cockrum was one of the greatest character designers of the Bronze Age, successfully creating or revamping dozens of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics during the 1970s and early 80s.

Over on the Dave Cockrum Art Appreciation Group, in a discussion about Cockrum’s greatest character designs, I mentioned that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard had some awesome designs, and I wished that more was done with them.

Who are the Imperial Guard? Simply put, they are thinly-veiled expies of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 1970s had been a dream assignment for Cockrum, and he had only reluctantly left DC Comics after they reneged on a promise to return original artwork to him. Going over to Marvel Comics, he co-created the all-new, all-different X-Men with Len Wein. After Wein departed X-Men, Cockrum was paired up with writer Chris Claremont, and in X-Men #107 (Oct 1977) they introduced the Imperial Guard, the elite super-powered soldiers of the alien Shi’ar Empire.

Insert obligatory smartass comment about the X-Men not wanting to fight all these guys because there’s practically a Legion of them.

Now I’m not sure why Cockrum decided to toss in a veritable army modeled on the Legion into an already-crowded storyline, other than the fact that he really loved the Legion and he missed drawing them. But whatever the case, even if most of them were thinly-drawn on the characterization side of things, almost all of them had interesting visuals.

For most of their history the Imperial Guard were basically just blindly following the orders of whoever happened to be running the Shi’ar Empire, which typically put them into conflict with the X-Men or the Avengers or whoever. Other than their leader Gladiator the characters have only ever gotten the spotlight on a few rare occasions. The first of these was the three issue Imperial Guard miniseries which Marvel published in late 1996. It was written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Chuck Wojtkiewicz, inked by Ray Snyder, colored by Brad Vancata, and lettered by Jon Babcock, Phil Hugh Felix & Janice Chiang.

And, yeah, I cannot believe that it’s been 25 years since this came out!

Thinking back, I don’t know if at the time I was aware that the Imperial Guard characters were a homage to the members of the Legion. I didn’t actually become a huge Legion fan until about four years later, when I started picking up the hardcover Archives collections and various back issues. But re-reading the Imperial Guard miniseries a quarter century later, the nods to the Legion now leap right out at me.

The creative team on the Imperial Guard miniseries is also noteworthy. Augustyn is a longtime writer & editor at DC Comics, and Wojtkiewicz had just come off of a year and a half stint penciling Justice League America. This miniseries makes up pretty much the entirety of either of their work for Marvel. So this was pretty much a case of Marvel bringing aboard a creative team from DC to work on a team of characters modeled after a DC property.

Imperial Guard came out at an odd time in Marvel’s publishing history. This was immediately after the “Onslaught” crossover in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly died so that they could be exported to an alternate reality for the “Heroes Reborn” event overseen by Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. For the next year this led to some rather offbeat projects coming out from Marvel that perhaps might not otherwise have gotten published. The most notable of these was Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. We also got the much-underrated Heroes for Hire by John Ostrander & Pascual Ferry, as well as this odd little miniseries.

I’m FB friends with Wojtkiewicz, so I asked him how Imperial Guard came about. Here’s what he had to say:

“Once DC flipped the crew on Justice League, I floated around doing fill-ins and such for a while. Brian Augustyn decided to leave DC and asked me if I’d like to do the IG mini. We met in NYC and had lunch with Mark Gruenwald for lunch and launch. It seemed to be going so smoothly, but it turned out to Mark’s very last lunch, as he died the following morning. Somehow it kept going, and his assistant stepped in as editor.  I forget his name – I’m terrible that way. I decided to do the series in with a cartoony vibe, and nobody stopped me. Also: sideburns. 😊

“I really enjoyed this assignment- doing the costume, environment and prop concepts was a blast.”

The miniseries was ultimately edited by Terry Kavanaugh, and was dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald.

Following the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four, Lilandra the Majestrix of the Shi’ar feels partially responsible, as she was the one who way back when inadvertently awakened the dark side of Charles Xavier’s psyche (as seen in X-Men #106 or, if you were a teenager in the 1990s like me, “The Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Dark Shroud” on X-Men: The Animated Series) which ultimately led to the creation of Onslaught. Lilandra has covertly dispatched several members of the Imperial Guard to Earth see if they can provide assistance to our beleaguered world.

The members of the Guard featured in this miniseries are Gladiator (standing in for Superboy), Electron (Cosmic Boy), Sibyl (Saturn Girl), Flashfire (Lightning Lad), Nightside (Shadow Lass), Mentor (Brainiac 5), Earthquake (Blok) and the latest addition to the team, the Kree conscript Commando (Mon-El).

The introduction of Commando aka M-Nell (see what they did there?) ties in with another recent Marvel event, the Avengers storyline “Operation: Galactic Storm” which saw the Shi’ar apparently destroy the Kree Empire with the apocalyptic Nega Bomb. In fact the entire war between the Shi’ar and the Kree had been engineered by the Kree’s Machiavellian leader, the entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who sought to jump-start his people’s stalled evolution with the Nega Bomb’s energies. At this point in time the Supreme Intelligence is quietly biding its time, waiting for its deadly experiment to begin showing results, and Commando, ignorant of all this, finds himself having to serve alongside the Shi’ar forces who he regards as his conquerors.

Augustyn is a great writer who did high-quality work over at DC, and on his sole foray into the Marvel Universe he also crafts a compelling story. He does a good job of creating M-Nell, and of developing the other Imperial Guard members, the majority of whom, up until this point in their nearly 20 year existence, were basically one-dimensional ciphers.

Wojtkiewicz’s pencils are fun. He was a very underrated artist over at DC Comics, working in an “animated” style alongside the late, great Mike Parobeck on the Impact Comics line in the early 1990s. I always thought Wojtkiewicz should have had a bigger career, so I enjoyed seeing his art on Imperial Guard. His wrap-around covers for this miniseries were also great.

Besides, I really love that Wojtkiewicz drew Imperial Guard with “a cartoony vibe” during the exact same time that Marvel farmed out their main characters to Extreme Studios and Wildstorm with their hyper-detailed art styles. Honestly, the comic book industry could have used more artists like Wojtkiewicz in the 1990s who had their own fun styles.

It was enjoyable revisiting this three issue miniseries, and it makes me regret that the Imperial Guard have subsequently very seldom been in the spotlight since. They did have a five issue miniseries during the Realm of Kings crossover about a decade ago. I never did get around to checking that out, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.

Anyway, if you haven’t read this miniseries, it’s worth tracking down.