This is how the world ends: Doomsday + 1

Four and a half decades ago, at the small Derby, Connecticut-based Charlton Comics, the company’s main writer teamed up with a young up-and-coming artist to create a striking post-apocalyptic sci-fi series that, though short-lived, is remembered to the present day.  The writer was Joe Gill, the artist was future superstar creator John Byrne, and the series was Doomsday + 1.

Doomsday+1 1 coverAbout six months ago I located copies of the original six issue run of Doomsday + 1.  They were fun, enjoyable comics.  The first issue was released 45 years ago this month, on April 8, 1975, so I felt now was a good time to write a short retrospective on the series.  That, and for obvious reasons of late I’ve sort of had the apocalypse on my mind.

In the opening issue of Doomsday  + 1 the end of the world is touched off on April 7, 1996 by power-mad Latin American dictator General Rykos.  On the verge of being overthrown, Rykos is determined to take everyone down with him.  He launches a pair of nuclear missiles, one at New York City, the other at Moscow.  The United States and Russia each believe they have been attacked by the other, and before anyone can figure out who is actually to blame, both nations have launched their atomic arsenals at each other, wiping out human civilization.

Hours before Rykos starts World War III, NASA launches a small spacecraft into Earth’s orbit on a scientific mission.  The three –person crew of the capsule is U.S. Air Force Captain Boyd Ellis, his fiancée, radiation specialist Jill Malden, and Japanese physicist Ikei Yahsida.  As a result this trio are saved from the apocalypse, but are nevertheless forced to watch helplessly from Earth’s orbit as the human race is destroyed.

The capsule remains in orbit for over a month, the three astronauts waiting for the radioactivity on Earth to drop.  Finally running out of food, they bring the capsule in for a landing on the uninhabited Greenland, which has been mostly spared from fallout.  However the heat of the nuclear weapons has melted the Greenland ice cap, releasing from suspended animation several prehistoric mammals.  Also freed from an icy slumber is Kuno, a Goth warrior from the Third Century.  Jill, a linguist, is able to communicate with the man out of time, and soon the hulking hairy figure has become a valuable ally.

Doomsday+1 1 pg 20

Over the course of the six issue series, the quartet explores the devastated Earth, hoping to find other survivors.  Along the way they have a series of strange adventures, encountering a mad Russian cyborg & his mechanical army, alien peacekeepers, an underwater civilization, human criminals, and visitors from a parallel universe.

There’s also a bit of what you might call a love triangle, or maybe a love quadrangle.  Boyd and Jill start out as a couple, prompting some jealousy from Ikei, who is also attracted to Boyd.  Kuno, upon meeting the group, is immediately attracted to Jill, and the two of them soon become involved, leaving Boyd and Ikei to then hook up, as well.

Joe Gill was an incredibly prolific writer who produced hundreds of stories for Charlton Comics.  He and John Byrne seemed to have a good creative rapport on this series, with Gill allowing Byrne a free hand to make changes to the scripts.

Looking at the art on Doomsday  + 1, it’s apparent that Byrne, in some of his first professional work, was already showing a great deal of potential.  Obviously he would get much, much better over the next few years, but already you can see his aptitude for dramatic layouts & storytelling, his ability to render both action & characterization.

Doomsday+1 2 pg 1

On the last three issues the artwork is credited to “Byrne Robotics.”  Many years later Byrne would re-use the name for his official website & message board.  I posted there to inquire about the “Byrne Robotics” credits on Doomsday  + 1.  Byrne explained:

“I used Byrne Robotics when a friend helped me ink backgrounds. (She’d lost her job so I gave her a temp job.)”

I also informed Byrne that I would be writing this blog post, and I asked if he had any thoughts about Doomsday + 1 that he would be willing to share.   He kindly responded:

“Thems were some old time comic books! If they’d been published in the Fifties, they’d not have stood out much from the crowd.

“And they were fun. Joe Gill, the writer, gave me permission to change anything I wanted to, if I felt it improved the story. A real learning experience—like pretty much everything I did at Charlton.”

That is a common theme you hear from comic book artists who began their careers at Charlton Comics, that it was a really good training ground where they were given an opportunity to hone their skills, helping them gain the experience that later enabled them to obtain more high-profile, better paying work at other companies such as Marvel and DC Comics.

A few random observations about these six issues:

The scene on the cover to the first issue does not appear in the actual comic book.  No doubt it was Byrne’s homage to both the ending of Planet of the Apes and Jack Kirby’s cover for the first issue of his own post-apocalyptic comic book series, Kamandi.  Of course, there is a looooong tradition of artists utilizing the ruined Statue of Liberty as a landmark on disaster movie posters and on post-apocalyptic book covers.

Doomsday+1 4 pg 15

Issue #4, the one with the underwater civilization, has some lovely artwork by Byrne & his assistants.  The look of the beautiful, graceful Amphibian woman Meri almost seems like a composite of Snowbird and Marrina, two of the characters Byrne would introduce in Alpha Flight a decade later.

There is one aspect of issue #4 which I feel has perhaps not aged well.  We are told that the Amphibians, due to their inability to live in the depths of the oceans, created a second race, the Gill-Men.  Over centuries the Gill-Men became more vicious & belligerent, eventually turning on the Amphibians.  Unlike the Amphibians, the Gill-Men are large, monstrous-looking beings.  If you read between the lines, you might come away thinking the Gill-Men were created to be servants or slaves, and that they rebelled against their masters.  If that is the case, having them as very clear-cut villains, and making them grotesque compared to the elegant, humanoid Amphibians, feels sort of, well, racist.

Then again, it could be I’m just reading too much into this!  After all, in issue #6, our heroes meet the inhabitants of an alternate reality Earth, a civilization of “Beautiful People” who have created a highly advanced utopia.  However we quickly learn that this apparent paradise only exists because these Beautiful People have raided other parallel Earths, abducting their inhabitants to serve as slaves.  So in this case the supposedly more advanced, attractive culture is very much the villain.

Doomsday+1 5 pg 12 JillLooking at issue #5, our heroes are captured by a group of military prisoners who have seized control of an abandoned Air Force base.  Boyd and Kuno are tied up by the criminals, who intend to have their way with Jill and Ikei, the first women they’ve seen since the nuclear war.  Hoping to catch their captors off-guard, Jill and Ikei pretend to be compliant, going so far as to get dolled up in a couple of sexy outfits.  I noticed that the dress Byrne has Jill in resembles a couple of the outfits he would draw Colleen Wing wearing just a few years later in the pages of Iron Fist. (Yes, I do notice things like this!)

Doomsday + 1 was apparently cancelled on very short notice by Charlton, as there was a completed seventh issue ready to go when the ax fell in 1976.  Fortunately the story “There Will Be Time” did see print soon after, in black & white, in the 4th and 5th issues of the semi-professional fanzine The Charlton Bullseye.

At this point it appears Byrne was intended to take over as the full writer of the feature.  In “There Will Be Time” he lays the groundwork for a new direction, as the survivors encounter Stinson Tempest, a time traveler for the 40th Century who becomes stranded in the post-apocalyptic present.  It feels like there was a lot of potential to where Byrne planned to take the series, so it’s a shame it was cut short so abruptly.

Plus, y’know, it had dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs are always fun.

Charlton Bullseye 4 Doomsday+1

There is actually one other Doomsday + 1 story, although for many years it was believed lost.   Charlton Comics revived Doomsday +1 in 1978 as a six issue reprint title, picking up from the original numbering.  At first sales on the revival were good, and Charlton considered running new material.  Regular Charlton contributor Tom Sutton was commissioned to write & draw a story to appear in issue #13.  Unfortunately sales soon dropped, and the decision was made to once again cancel the book, with Sutton’s story never seeing print.

Doomsday+1 13 coverYears later the original unlettered artwork resurfaced, although Sutton’s script for it had gone missing.  Sutton passed away in 2002.  Eventually another Charlton veteran, the great Nicola “Nick” Cuti, working from Sutton’s art, wrote an entirely new script.  It speaks to both the clarity of the storytelling in Sutton’s artwork and to the immense talent of Cuti’s writing that this new script meshes almost seamlessly with pages drawn over three decades earlier.  “The Secret City” was then lettered by Bill Pearson and colored by Donnie Pitchford.  At long last it saw print in 2013 in issue #8 of Michael Ambrose’s excellent magazine Charlton Spotlight, published by Argo Press.

Looking at the artwork for “The Secret City,” it appears that Sutton’s original intention was to pick up after the events of Doomsday + 1 #6.  Cuti managed to work in references to the events of “There Will Be Time” in his script, definitely placing it after the survivors began working with Stinson Tempest.

As I’ve previously observed from my past looks at Cuti’s excellent writing on E-Man, he is really good at developing realistic characters & relationships.  We have no way of knowing how Sutton would have dialogued the series’ quartet, but Cuti takes the opportunity to add some realistic tension to the relationship between Boyd and Ikei.

Reading the original stories, Boyd is definitely a belligerent, trigger-happy individual, ready to start a fight at the drop of a hat (in fact Kuno the supposed “barbarian” often comes across as more careful & strategic-minded than Boyd).  In his script for “The Secret City,” Cuti has Ikei expressing disapproval for Boyd’s aggressive attitude, perceiving it as a perpetuation of the warlike mindset that recently led to humanity all but wiping itself out.  It definitely gives a certain subtlety & nuance to Sutton’s story, a pulpy affair that sees the quartet fighting against an army of Roman Legionnaire lizard men zipping around in flying saucers!

Charlton Spotlight 8 pg 19

So, for those of you who are interested in reading Doomsday + 1, where can you find these comic books?  Since this was some of John Byrne’s earliest work, near-mint copies of the first six issues tend to be expensive.  However, if you don’t mind your comics being a bit dog-eared, you can find less pristine copies for lower prices.  Issues #7-12 are reprints, so they’re probably not as much in demand, meaning that may be another way to get these stories without forking over a lot of money.

There is also the seven issue miniseries The Doomsday Squad, published by Fantagraphics in 1986, which reprints the original six issues, as well as “There Will Be Time” in color for the first time.  Several of the issues feature brand new cover artwork by legendary artist Gil Kane, who provides his own unique interpretation of the characters.Doomsday Squad 6 cover

As for “The Secret City” by Sutton & Cuti, head over to the Argo Press website and order a copy of Charlton Spotlight #8.  The issue also features a 2012 interview with Cuti about his Charlton work.

Also, since Doomsday +1 might be the public domain (no one seems to know for certain who, if anyone, currently owns the rights to it) sometimes you can find full issues of the original series posted on blogs & websites.  The complete first issue can be read on The Bronze Age of Blogs, if you are so inclined.

One last item: Several years ago John Byrne decided to re-conceptualize Doomsday + 1 from the ground up.  The result was the four issue miniseries Doomsday.1 published by IDW in 2013.  As Byrne explained:

“I’ve been thinking for some time that I would like to revisit a post-apocalypse kind of scenario, such as was seen in my very first ‘dramatic’ work in comics, but this time without the more obvious fantasy elements of that original series (mermaids, alien robots, frozen mammoths, etc.),” said Byrne. “When bits and pieces of this new series first started to percolate around in my head, I knew almost at once the shape that ‘revisit’ would take; something in the ‘All-New, All-Different’ vein. And the first time I doodled some images of my ‘crew,’ I knew I was there!”

Doomsday.1 sees the Earth ravaged not by nuclear war but by a devastating solar flare.  The crew of the International Space Station watches helplessly as nearly the entire surface of the planet is devastated, with billions dying.  Following the disaster, the Space Station crew makes their way back to Earth, to the small area within the Western Hemisphere which was spared the worst of the solar storm.  Their search for other survivors soon brings them into conflict with the worst of human predators.

Doomsday Point 1 coverThis miniseries is extremely grim and downbeat.  I also think it’s one of the best things that Byrne has done in a number of years.  The somber subject matter very much suits the direction that Byrne’s artwork has developed in over the last couple of decades.  It also is a good fit for the darker sensibilities that he has shown in his writing since the early 1990s.  I’ve often felt that such material was not a good fit for mainstream super-hero series (I definitely was not fond of what he did to Donna Troy during his run on Wonder Woman) but it feels much more at home in his creator-owned projects such as this and Next Men.

I also appreciated the fact that Byrne writes the characters in Doomsday.1 as fairly intelligent & genre-savvy.  In other words, he doesn’t have them acting like idiots solely in order to advance the plot.

So in spite of the similar premises, Doomsday.1 is a very different book from its predecessor.  Nevertheless, I definitely recommend it.  It’s a genuinely riveting story.  It’s also an excellent way in which to see how Byrne has grown & developed as a creator, to look at how he depicted the apocalypse in 1975, and how he approached a similar scenario 38 years later in 2013.

Frank McLaughlin: 1935 to 2020

I am sorry to report that another comic book creator whose work I enjoyed has passed on.  Frank McLaughlin was a talented artist whose career in comic books and comic strips lasted for nearly five decades, from the 1961 to 2008.   He passed away on March 4th at the age of 84.

McLaughlin, like a number of other comic book creators, got his foot in the door via Charlton Comics.  He was hired on to do a variety of production work for the Derby, Connecticut publisher.  In a 2016 interview McLaughlin recounted how he came to work for Charlton:

“All through my career, I have been blessed with the greatest of friends, beginning with a classmate at art school; Larry Conti. Larry hooked me up with his brother, Dan Conti, who was a department head at Charlton Press. Dan, in turn, introduced me to Charlton’s Pat Masulli, editor in chief of comics. Timing was perfect, because his assistant, Sal Gentile, was about to leave for Florida, in two weeks. I was hired on the spot, and Sal gave me an immediate ‘cook’s tour’ of the plant. It took me a few days for all this to sink in, but Sal was a terrific guy, and this made it easy for me to understand the job.”

Judomaster 93 coverDuring his time at Charlton, McLaughlin worked closely with fellow artist Dick Giordano.  If you look at McLaughlin’s work, especially his inking, you can see that Giordano was a definite influence.  Considering Giordano was an incredibly talented artist himself, one could certainly do worse than to draw inspiration from him.

McLaughlin had studied judo since he was 18 years old, and he drew on his martial arts experience to create the character Judomaster for Charlton.  Judomaster made his debut in Special War Series #4, cover-dated November 1965.  The next year an ongoing Judomaster series was launched, which lasted for ten issues. (Confusingly the issue numbers for Judomaster were #89 to #98, carrying on the numbering from the cancelled series Gunmaster. This was a common practice at Charlton.)  McLaughlin wrote, penciled & inked the entire ten issue run.

Unfortunately I am not especially familiar with McLaughlin’s work on Judomaster or the other Charlton “Action Heroes” titles from the 1960s, but judging by the artwork I’ve seen from it online he clearly did good work on it.  The cover for #93 (“Meet the Tiger!”) is especially striking.  I did recently locate copies of Judomaster #96 and #98 at Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan, and I found them to be enjoyable, well-drawn comic books.

McLaughlin left Charlton in 1969 to freelance, and by the early 1970s he was regularly receiving work from both Marvel and DC Comics.  The majority of his assignments for the Big Two were inking the pencils of other artists.  It was actually via his work as an inker that I first became aware of McLaughlin, and developed a real appreciation for his art.

As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a lot of time attempting to acquire copies of every issue of Captain America published during the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favorite artists on Captain America was Sal Buscema, who penciled the series from 1972 to 1975.  Buscema was paired with several inkers during this four year run.  Reading those back issues during my high school & college years, I very quickly noticed there was something different, something special, about the work of one particular inker, namely Frank McLaughlin.

Captain America 160 pg 1 signed

To my eyes, McLaughlin’s inks over Buscema’s pencils were really striking.  McLaughlin gave Buscema’s pencils kind of a slick polish.  I guess that’s how I would describe it.  As a non-artist, sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate these things clearly.  Whatever the case, it looked great.

McLaughlin only inked Buscema’s pencils on six issues of Captain America, specifically #155-156, 160, 165-166 and 169.  I really wish he’d had a longer run on the title.  McLaughlin’s final issue, #169, was the first chapter of the epic “Secret Empire” storyline written by Steve Englehart.  The remaining chapters of that saga were inked by Vince Colletta.

I realize Colletta is a divisive inker, so I am going to put this in purely personal, subjective terms.  Speaking only for myself, I just do not think Colletta’s inks were a good fit for Buscema’s pencils.  As incredible as the “Secret Empire” saga was, I feel it would have been even better if McLaughlin had been the inker for the entire storyline.

Now that I think about it, when I was reading those Captain America back issues in the mid 1990s, and comparing Buscema inked by McLaughlin to Buscema inked by Colletta, and in turn comparing both to the other inkers who worked on that series the early 1970s, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me realizing just how significant a role the inker has in the finished look of comic book artwork.

McLaughin also inked Buscema on a few of the early issues of The Defenders, specifically #4-6 and 8-9.  Again, I wish it had been a longer run, because they went so well together.  In these issues the Asgardian warrior Valkyrie joined the team, and the combination of Buscema’s pencils and McLaughlin’s inks resulted in a stunningly beautiful depiction of the character.

I definitely regard Frank McLaughlin as one of the best inkers Sal Buscema had during the Bronze Age.

Defenders 4 pg 15

McLaughlin actually did much more work as an inker at DC Comics.  One of his regular assignments at DC was Justice League of America.  He inked issues #117-189, a six and a half year run between 1975 and 1981.

During most of McLaughlin’s time on Justice League of America he was paired with the series’ longtime penciler Dick Dillin.  Although I would not say that I am a huge fan of Dillin, I nevertheless consider him to be sort of DC’s equivalent of Sal Buscema.  In other words, much like Our Pal Sal, Dillin was a good, solid, often-underrated artist with strong storytelling skills who could be counted on to turn in a professional job on time.  I like quality that McLaughlin’s inking brought to Dillin’s pencils.  They made an effective art team.

Tragically, after completing Justice League of America #183, in March 1980 Dillin died unexpectedly at the much too young age of 51 (reportedly he passed away at the drawing board working on the next issue).  McLaughlin remained on for the next several issues, effectively providing finishes for a young George Perez’s pencil breakdowns, as well as inking over Don Heck and Rich Buckler. Nevertheless, as he recounted in a 2008 interview, he made the decision to leave the series:

“I did one or two issues, and then I said to Julie [Schwartz] “you know, I think I’d like to move on.” I was so used to what Dillin and I were doing together. I moved on and did a lot more other stuff.

“It was a good change of speed at the time, inking groups was fast becoming not a favorite–there’s too many people in there!”

Justice League 140 pg 1

Among his other work for DC Comics, McLaughlin inked Irv Novick on both Batman and The Flash, Ernie Chan on Detective Comics, Joe Staton on Green Lantern, and Carmine Infantino on the Red Tornado miniseries and the last two years of The Flash during the “Trial of the Flash” storyline.  He also assisted Giordano on several DC jobs during the mid-to-late 1980s.

McLaughlin’s last regular assignment in comic books was for Broadway Comics in 1996.  There he inked a young J.G. Jones on Fatale.

Between 2001 and 2008 he drew the Gil Thorpe comic strip.  In 2008 McLaughlin collaborated with his daughter Erin Holroyd and his long-time colleague Dick Giordano on The White Viper, a web comic serialized on ComicMix that was subsequently collected in a graphic novel in 2011 by IDW.White Viper cover

McLaughlin taught at both Paier College of Art in Hamden CT and Guy Gilchrist’s Cartoonist’s Academy in Simsbury CT, and he worked with Mike Gold on the instructional books How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics and How to Draw Monsters for Comics.

In his later years McLaughlin did commissions for fans.  One of the characters he was often asked to draw was Judomaster, which all those decades later still had devoted fans.

Writer & editor Robert Greenberger, who worked at DC Comics from 1984 to 2000, wrote a brief tribute to McLaughlin on Facebook:

“I grew up on Frank’s work, first at Charlton then DC and Marvel. When I joined DC, he quickly welcomed me and was a font of stories.

“Frank was a gracious man, friendly, and willing to talk shop with eager newcomers, share tips with rising new talent, and lend a hand wherever needed.

“He was a workhorse of an artist, adaptable and reliable — two of the qualities desperate editors always welcomed. Even after I left staff, we’d run into one another at cons and it was picking up where we left off.

“I will miss him.”

I fortunately had an opportunity to meet McLaughlin once at a convention in the early 2000s.  At the time I was regrettably unaware of his work for Charlton, but I did have him autograph one of the Captain America issues that he had so wonderfully inked.  I only spoke with him briefly, but he came across as a nice, polite person.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

Batman Aliens 1 pg 41

Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Herb Trimpe: 1939 to 2015

Longtime comic book artist Herb Trimpe passed away unexpectedly on April 13th at the age of 75.  I was a big fan of Trimpe’s work and I’ve written about him a few times previously on this blog.

Trimpe may not have been the most flashy, dynamic artist.  But he was definitely a great storyteller, drawing effective interior layouts and striking covers that grabbed your attention.  Like many others of his generation, Trimpe had an amazing work ethic, keeping a monthly schedule on numerous titles during his career.

In his early 20s Trimpe briefly worked as an inker for Dell and Gold Key.  After a four year stint in the Air Force from 1962 to 1966, he began to get work at Marvel Comics.  Among his earliest assignments at Marvel were such Western characters such as Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid.  He also inked Marie Severin’s pencils on the Hulk feature in Tales to Astonish in 1967.

Incredible Hulk 140 cover

In 1968 Tales to Astonish was retitled The Incredible Hulk beginning with issue #102.  Four months later Trimpe became the book’s penciler with issue #106.  This was a start of a mammoth run on the series that would last until issue #193 in late 1975.  During that seven and a half year run, Trimpe missed a mere two issues.  His work on Incredible Hulk resulted in his depiction of the Jade Giant becoming one of the most identifiable, iconic renditions of the character.

While on Incredible Hulk, Trimpe sometimes inked his own pencils, and he was also paired with inkers John Severin, Dan Adkins, Sal Buscema, Sam Grainger, Sal Trapani, Jack Abel and Joe Staton.  He illustrated stories written by some of Marvel’s most talented writers, namely Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart and Len Wein.

One of the most memorable Hulk stories that Trimpe penciled was “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom” from issue #140.  Plotted by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, scripted by Thomas, and inked by Grainger, this was the introduction of Jarella, the green-skinned princess of a sub-atomic world.  Jarella is undoubtedly one of the Hulk’s true loves.  All these decades later this bittersweet tale is fondly remembered.  Trimpe’s layouts on the final few pages are extremely impactful, driving home the tragedy of the ending.

Back Issue 70 cover

Trimpe also became the very first artist to draw the now-popular mutant Wolverine in print.  Wolverine’s look was actually designed by John Romita.  But it was Trimpe who penciled his first three published appearances in Incredible Hulk #s 180-182, which were written by Wein, with inking by Abel.

In later years Trimpe would be commissioned on numerous occasions to draw re-creations and re-interpretations of that first historic battle between the Hulk and Wolverine.  One of those pieces, with a background illustration by Gerhard, was used last year as the cover for Back Issue #70 from TwoMorrows Publishing, the theme of which was “Incredible Hulk in the Bronze Age.”

During his lengthy stint at Marvel Trimpe drew many of the company’s characters.  His credits include Iron Man, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain Britain, Ant-Man in Marvel Feature, Killraven in Amazing Adventures, Captain America, Avengers, Son of Satan in Marvel Spotlight, Defenders, Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, Machine Man, and several stories in What If.

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 cover signed

Trimpe and writer Gary Friedrich created the World War I flying ace Phantom Eagle, who made his debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (Sept 1968).  The character obviously tapped into Trimpe’s longtime love for airplanes, and his artwork for this story was very dynamic.  Although the character of the Phantom Eagle never really took off (so to speak) he did make a few subsequent appearances over the years, including in Incredible Hulk #135 once again drawn by Trimpe.

Beginning in the late 1970s Trimpe drew a number of Marvel titles featuring licensed characters.  He penciled nearly the entire two year run of Godzilla.  This was a wacky and offbeat series written by Doug Moench that integrated Toho’s famous monster into the Marvel universe.  Trimpe illustrated Godzilla’s encounters with Dum Dum Dugan and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Champions, Devil Dinosaur, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  In issue #17 Moench, Trimpe and inker Dan Green even showed Godzilla getting shrunk down in size by Hank Pym, a condition that persisted for the next few issues!

Godzilla 17 pg 15

Trimpe also drew Shogun Warriors, Transformers, and The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones.  He was the first artist on the successful G.I. Joe comic launched in 1982.  He penciled the first several issues, and also plotted a few of them, with G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama scripting.  On issue #8 Trimpe even flew solo, plotting, penciling, inking and scripting “Code Name: Sea-Strike!”

Interviewed in 2001 for issue #53 of the Godzilla magazine G-Fan, Trimpe reflected upon his work on these various licensed titles:

“It’s funny, because you have a point about that. I never realized it before, but I have worked on a lot of licensed projects… I believe that it was probably because all of those titles involved the military, big vehicles and machines. [Marvel] knew I enjoyed drawing that stuff. Even the Hulk fought the army a lot. So, that’s no coincidence. I’m a big airplane freak. That’s really the connection there. I loved airplanes as a kid. I used to build models. I eventually got my pilot’s license, and even owned my own airplane for a number of years.”

Trimpe soon departed from G.I. Joe as he was not fond of drawing its (literal) army of characters.   Five years later he returned to work on the spin-off series G.I. Joe Special Missions which was also written by Hama.  With its smaller casts and self-contained stories, the book was more appealing to Trimpe.  “I actually liked doing the Special Missions better than the regular one,” he stated in Back Issue #16.

Plus, within the pages of Special Missions, Trimpe got to draw airplanes… lots of them!  On his Facebook page Hama fondly reminisced “Fave way to make Herbie happy was to give him a script with lots of airplanes in it.”  Trimpe drew nearly the entirety of the 28 issue run of Special Missions.

GI Joe 8 pg 14

The 1990s was a major decade of transition for Trimpe.  He began drawing in a manner reminiscent of the then super-popular Image Comics founders, particularly Rob Liefeld.  This new style was most notably on display within the pages of the giant-sized quarterly title Fantastic Four Unlimited which was written by longtime Marvel scribe, and Trimpe’s former Incredible Hulk collaborator, Roy Thomas.  Mike DeCarlo and Steve Montano inked the first few issues, with Trimpe himself embellishing his pencils on the later stories.

Many people thought that Trimpe was being pressured into altering his style to conform to the flavor of the month.  However, as he explained to Brian Cronin on Comic Book Resources in 2009, this was not the case:

“Truth was, it was a lark–but a lark with a purpose, all devised by myself. No one at Marvel suggested I change the way I draw or ink. I looked at the new guys’ stuff, and thought, hey, this is great. Very exciting. You can always learn from somebody else, no matter how long you’ve been doing a thing.

“I did, however, think the style might lead to new work at a time when Marvel was already in trouble, and it did. FF Unlimited was my last series at Marvel, and contrary to what a lot of fans think, I think it was the best work I’d done–and, I had a whole lot of fun doing it. Very expressive. I think the newer influences in comic book art brought out a better me. Like I said, most of the fans of the earlier stuff would not agree. On one occasion, I inked a whole story with a brush, which is what I was raised on, and the editor objected asking me not to do that anymore. But in general, no one pressured me into a change.”

Looking over Trimpe’s artwork on FF Unlimited, it is undoubtedly offbeat.  The anatomy of his figures is wonky.  Trimpe may have enjoyed this particular stylistic experiment, but as a reader I do not think it was entirely successful.  Having said that, his layouts and storytelling on those issues are dramatic and imaginative.  Despite the odder aspects of Trimpe’s early 1990s art, I enjoyed the stories he and Thomas told in FF Unlimited.

Fantastic Four Unlimited 2 pg 19

Unfortunately, with the comic book industry experiencing a huge downturn due to the collapse of the speculator market in the mid-1990s and Marvel declaring bankruptcy, Trimpe found himself out of work.  It was an extremely difficult period of time for him.  Trimpe would document his feelings on being unemployed in a journal.  His writings would later be published as “Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World” by the New York Times in 2000.  They can be read on Jim Keefe’s website.

Reading Trimpe’s journal entries, I have some identification.  I was laid off in late 2009, and since then have worked a series of temp positions, with periods of unemployment in-between.  I have yet to find a new permanent job.  If this is stressful for someone in their 30s, I can only imagine how much more so it was for Trimpe, who was two decades older, and who had been at the same job for over a quarter of a century.  Eventually he was able to make the difficult transition into a new career, working as a high school art teacher.

I regard Trimpe’s experiences in the 1990s as yet another reminder that, for all its excitement, a career in the comic book industry is also one that is fraught with uncertainty.  Trimpe’s story is sadly not unique.  Many others older creators have had similar experiences.  I am just glad that eventually, after much hard work, he was able to land on his feet.

In 1992 Trimpe had been ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.  A decade later, in the months following the September 11th terrorist attacks, he performed volunteer work as a chaplain in lower Manhattan.

Within the last several years Trimpe began working in comic books again.  A number of creators who were fans of his work when they were growing up started to hire him to draw various covers, fill-in issues and short stories.   In 2008 Trimpe drew the first issue of the BPRD: War on Frogs miniseries published by Dark Horse and a back-up story in the King-Sized Hulk special.

GI Joe 166 cover

In 2010 IDW began publishing G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero which continued the continuity, as well as the numbering, of the original Marvel series.  Larry Hama was once again writing the series.  A few issues into this revival Trimpe began contributing covers for the series based on layout sketches from Hama.  Trimpe’s covers were featured on the series for nearly two years.  He was also one of the pencilers on the 2012 annual.

Savage Dragon creator and Image Comics co-founder Erik Larsen is a longtime fan of Trimpe’s work.  As he recently explained, “The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was The Incredible Hulk #156.”  In 2010, when Savage Dragon was approaching its own 156th issue, Larsen approached Trimpe to draw a variant cover paying homage to that Incredible Hulk issue.  Working from Larsen’s rough layout, Trimpe illustrated a great cover featuring two versions of the Dragon facing off against one another.

Four years later, for Savage Dragon #200, Larsen asked Trimpe to contribute to two of the back-up stories.  On the first one Larsen inked Trimpe’s pencils; on the second Trimpe inked Larsen.  I really enjoyed how those came out.

Savage Dragon 156 Herp Trimpe variant cover

Within the last decade Trimpe became a regular guest at comic book conventions, especially in the Tri-State area.  This was when he started to realize just how much his work, which he had always been somewhat critical of, meant to people.  In his 2008 foreword to Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk Vol. 5, Trimpe wrote:

“…what finally sunk into my thick skull, was that hundreds, if not thousands, of comic book fans loved the stories I drew. And worse than that, they loved the style I had grown to dislike (I won’t use the word hate). Many a dear comic-book folk described emotionally to me how meaningful those stories had been to them. I’m sure many artists and writers in this crazy business have heard these same sentiments, but when you experience it for yourself, it is mind-blowing. One fellow described to me how a particular issue I had drawn had saved his life! How does a guy who worked to make deadlines and get the paychecks respond to that? I was flabbergasted, and I continue to be flabbergasted by the many thanks I have received for the work that I have done.”

I was fortunate enough to meet Trimpe at several conventions over the years.  He always impressed me as a genuinely nice person.  It was always a pleasure to see him.  I was able to obtain a few pieces of artwork by him over the years, and they are a much-treasured part of my collection.  They can be viewed at Comic Art Fans…

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Herb+Trimpe&GCat=60

Given the tremendous, widespread responses to Herb Trimpe’s passing that have been seen on the Internet within the past week, both from fans and former colleagues, it is readily apparent that he was both a talented creator and a good person.  He will certainly be missed by me and by many others.

Herb Trimpe Sketchbook Odds and Ends Vol 1

Here are some previous pieces where I’ve written about Trimpe:

Thank you for taking a look.  This post is dedicated to the memory of Herb Trimpe.

Comic book reviews: Detectives Inc. “A Terror of Dying Dreams”

Michele and I took the Metro North train up to White Plains on Saturday for the New York Comic Fest at the Westchester County Center.  It was a fun convention with a line-up of talented creators as guests.

Among them was writer Don McGregor, who penned some very influential, groundbreaking stories in the 1970s and 80s.  I’ve met McGregor on a couple of occasions previously, but it was still good to see him again.  I purchased a copy of the Sabre 30th Anniversary Edition from him, which has been on my “want list” for a while now.  I mentioned to McGregor that several years back I had written an online review of another of his works, his Detectives Inc. graphic novel, “A Terror of Dying Dreams.”  McGregor responded that he’d be interested in reading that, and I told him that I’d try to re-post it on my current blog at some point in the near future.

After I got home, I suddenly realized, via Facebook, that the very next day, June 15th, was his birthday.  Well, obviously that called for me to speed things up a bit!  So please consider this review a birthday tribute to the talented Don McGregor.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams cover

McGregor’s first Detectives Inc. book, “A Remembrance of Threatening Green,” was published by Eclipse Comics in 1980.  It was illustrated by Marshall Rogers.  “A Remembrance of Threatening Green” introduced McGregor’s private investigator team of Bob Rainier and Ted Denning.

Several years later Eclipse published McGregor’s second Detectives Inc. saga.  This time McGregor was paired with a past collaborator, the legendary Gene Colan (they had previously worked together on Ragamuffins and Nathaniel Dusk).  “A Terror of Dying Dreams” saw the return of Rainier and Denning, now working side-by-side with social worker Dierdre Sevens.  “A Terror of Dying Dreams” was reprinted as an oversized black & white book by Image Comics in 1999.  I purchased a copy of that from McGregor back in 2001 at one of the Big Apple Comic Cons, where I got it autographed by both him and Colan.  More recently, in 2009 the two Detectives Inc. graphic novels were collected together in a lavish hardcover volume by IDW.

“A Terror of Dying Dreams” opens simultaneously on our three protagonists: Bob Rainier, Ted Denning, and Dierdre Sevens.  Each is poised at a threshold.  For Rainier, it is the gaudy entrance to a Times Square strip club.  For Denning, it is an elevator in a hospital.  For Sevens, it is the front door of an old friend’s house.  By opening the story in this manner, McGregor does a marvelous job of juxtaposing these three people’s individual circumstances, at the same time setting the stage for an examination of each.

Rainier, divorced and gloomy, sulks along the alleyways of adult entertainment, vainly attempting to convince himself that he can easy his loneliness.  Denning rides the elevator to a waiting room, where he meets with his father, and the two discuss old times, all the while waiting for news of Denning’s ailing mother.  And Sevens comes to pay a visit on Leila, a friend who asks for her advice, but who is ultimately unwilling to leave her abusive husband.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams pg 1

The paths of this trio soon intersect.  Rainier and Denning are, of course, partners in a private detective agency.  Sevens hires the pair to follow Leila’s brutal husband Doug, hoping they will uncover evidence of Doug in a compromising situation, something that she might use to finally convince Leila to leave him.  Rainier and Denning go to work, with Dierdre in tow, and they soon find evidence that Doug, in addition to abusing his wife, is also cheating on her.  Of course, as with the best of detective fiction, this apparently simple case ends up leading them into a much larger scandal.  And with that comes plenty of twists and danger.

(And if you expect me to reveal any more about the plot, forget it!  This is one graphic novel you really ought to read for yourself, so I certainly do not want to spoil it any further.)

McGregor is probably best known for his cutting edge work with the characters of Killraven and Black Panther at Marvel in the 1970s.  With the former, he took what started as a rather clichéd, uneven post-apocalyptic sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and transformed it into an epic, soul-searching saga.  His interpretation of the later character had a significant influence on subsequent writers’ depictions of T’Challa, the noble but troubled monarch of Wakanda.  I admit that when I was younger I did find McGregor’s scripting on those stories, as well as his later works, to be somewhat ponderous.  Looking back, I see that he was one of a handful of individuals in the comic book industry during the Bronze Age striving to craft dialogue and narration that possessed genuine sophistication and palpable atmosphere.

Certainly I did not have any problems with McGregor’s scripting on “A Terror of Dying Dreams.”  McGregor’s prose is very well suited to this genre.  Mystery and detective fiction has always relied on strong narration and description to establish a particular mood, as well as to delve into the characters, their backgrounds, and how they relate to each other and the world in which they exist.  As I noted earlier, this is exactly what McGregor does with Rainier, Denning, and Sevens at the story’s opening and again throughout the entirety of the story.  McGregor’s story is as much about these three individuals as it is about the solving of a mystery.  His introspective writing superbly brings these characters to life, and establishes the realities they live in.  While still occasionally heavy, for the most part McGregor’s narration is strikingly appropriate.

I’ve also found that this is one of those great stories with so many layers to it that you can re-read years later when you are at a different point in your own life and get something new out of it.  Looking at “A Terror of Dying Dreams” in 2014 as someone in his late 30s who has gone through a number of changes and life experiences in the past decade, I certainly have a different perspective on McGregor’s story and characters than I did when I first read it in my mid 20s back in 2001.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams pg 21

Gene Colan’s work on “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is superb.  His art style, with its unconventional layouts and extensive use of shadows, is perfectly suited for a story such as this.  On occasion, I have found Colan’s work to be rather jarring, at least as far as some of the superhero stories he drew.  His style is perhaps a bit ill-suited to that genre, and is more appropriate for mystery, suspense, and horror.  The fact that Colan was so successful with Daredevil over the years was no doubt due to that character’s firm grounding in reality, set amidst the grim urban locales of Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.  Likewise, Colan’s work on both Tomb of Dracula and Doctor Strange was memorable, with his haunting, eerie, disturbing depictions of unearthly, supernatural phenomena and macabre menaces.

It has often been noted that Colan, who passed away in 2011, was a somewhat difficult artist to ink, due to his very distinctive style, as well as his aforementioned use of shadows and darkness.  Of the numerous inkers who tackled Colan’s pencils over the years, I think there was only a handful that really did him justice.  Colan himself stated on more than one occasion that that Tom Palmer was the artist who did the best work inking his pencils, an opinion shared by many fans.  I certainly agree with that assessment, and I would also add George Klein, Frank Giacoia, Bill Everett and Al Williamson to my list of favorite Colan inkers.

More significantly, though, I think that the dark, shadowy nature of Colan’s pencils probably made his stories a challenge to color.  I suspect that some colorists unwittingly end up obliterating the fine detail of Colan’s work.  In the past decade, it has been something of a revelation seeing many of his stories reprinted in black & white within various Marvel Essential collections.

The art in “A Terror of Dying Dreams” was reproduced directly from Colan’s uninked pencils, and the book is black & white.  The result is crisp and stunning.  Colan’s work has never looked better.  Visible is the intricate detail of his work, the subtle gradations of shadow and lighting that he utilizes.  The emotions of McGregor’s characters are vividly brought to life by Colan’s illustration of their facial expressions and fluid body language.  The many and varied settings, from the time-faded boardwalks of Brighton Beach to the glitz of midtown Manhattan, the seedy trappings of Times Square, and the suburban gentility of Dobbs Ferry, are all brought to life by Colan’s talent.  The scenes of action and danger are dramatically rendered, all the while retaining a definite realism and believability.

detectives inc a terror of dying dreams pg 27

This was the type of genre that Colan excelled in.  It is a pity that during his career he did not have many opportunities to work on tales of noir-tinged mystery.  His collaboration with Don McGregor on “A Terror of Dying Dreams” and a handful of other projects enabled readers to view Colan’s skill and talent at work on different genres.  And the black and white, uninked format allows for the full impact and detail of his art to be experienced.

Sequential illustration is, ideally, the synthesis of words and images.  Within “A Terror of Dying Dreams” this is nearly flawless.  McGregor’s writing and Colan’s art complement each other.  The majority of McGregor’s script is dialogue.  Those narrative passages that he does write are usually at the beginning of each chapter, set alongside or between captionless establishing shots by Colan.  McGregor clearly had confidence in Colan, trusting that the art and the dialogue will work together to communicate what is taking place.  He does not clutter up the panels with captions that state what the reader can plainly see. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is an outstanding example of what can occur when a talented writer and a skilled artist who are working together recognize each other’s strengths.  The result is a balance between story and art, with neither overwhelming the other.

And, simply put, Detectives Inc. “A Terror of Dying Dreams” is an enjoyable, intelligently written graphic novel with superb artwork.  As I said before, I certainly recommend it.  The book is one of the highlights of both Don McGregor’s and Gene Colan’s careers.

Comic book reviews: Valkyrie “Prisoner of the Past”

“We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.” − Bergen Evans

In my recent blog post about the career of Fred Kida, I mentioned his work for Hillman Periodicals in the 1940s, including how he was the co-creator of the femme fatale aviatrix Valkyrie, who made her debut in the Airboy story in Air Fighters Comics vol 2 #2 (November 1943).  Hillman folded up shop in 1953 and its various characters fell into limbo until 1986 when Eclipse Comics began publishing a new Airboy ongoing series.  Written by Chuck Dixon, it featured Davy Nelson III, the son of the original Airboy who assumed the mantle after his father was murdered.  Eclipse also brought Valkyrie back into print in the book, although in her case she was the original, having spent four decades in a mystic suspended animation.

Valkyrie 1 cover

Val proved popular enough that Eclipse published a three issue Valkyrie miniseries in 1987, written by Dixon, with art by Paul Gulacy & Will Blyberg, and edited by Catherine Yronwode.  It was quickly collected into a trade paperback, “Prisoner of the Past.”

One of the aspects of most Golden Age comic books was that any sort of gradual or sophisticated character development was practically non-existent.  This is particularly true of Valkyrie.  If you read her 1943 debut story “Airboy Meets Valkyrie,” you find that she is not the most subtle of characters, to say the least.  She starts out as an icy, sadistic killer who is unquestionably devoted to the Nazi cause.  Yet within the space of a mere 12 pages Valkyrie falls in love with Airboy, suddenly comes to realize that she is fighting for the wrong side, shoots her commanding officer in the back, and defects to the Allies.  By modern standards it is perhaps not the most convincing of redemptions!  (You can view scans of the entire story on Comic Book Plus.)

Valkyrie 1 pg 21

Dixon must have perceived the problematic nature of Valkyrie’s background, and he tackled it headlong in “Prisoner of the Past.”  In the opening issue, Val is caught on camera by the eleven o’clock new beating the ever living crap out of a gang of muggers.  She becomes a “media superstar” and receives an offer to work for the world’s top modeling agency.  Unfortunately all of this publicity eventually brings her to the attention of the KGB, who recognize her as the same Valkyrie who fought in World War II over four decades before.  The Russian agent Steelfox is dispatched to capture her and bring her back to the Soviet Union to stand trial for war crimes.

The Soviets accuse Valkyrie of leading her squad of Air Maidens in a brutal attack against the village of Lubon in February 1944, murdering two thousand orphaned refugee children.  Val insists over and over that she never flew any missions against civilian targets, only military ones.  Moreover, she tells her captors that she defected to the Allies months earlier, and was in England at the time of her supposed involvement in this atrocity.  But her protests fall on the deaf ears of the Soviets, who are eager to try & execute her as an enemy of the state.

Dixon does excellent work scripting Val in “Prisoner of the Past.”  As the story opens, she is already something of a haunted figure, struggling to adjust to having slept through the past forty years, and keenly feeling the loss of her beloved, the original Airboy, who married, grew old, and died while she was missing.  Captured and brought behind the Iron Curtain, tortured by Steelfox, her past allegiance to the Third Reich thrown into her face, Val’s conscience begins to eat away at her.  “It wasn’t me,” she repeats over and over, and it is obvious that she is trying as desperately to convince the Soviets as she is herself.

In the opening pages of issue three, Val, who is already in anguish from her ordeal, is seemingly visited in her dreams by Misery, a Grim Reaper-esque supernatural entity who collects the souls of aviators.  He was the one who was responsible for Val’s decades-long slumber, and now he seeks to claim her.  Dixon leaves it a bit ambiguous whether it truly is Misery haunting her, or if it is Val’s guilt and torment that is creating this nightmare.  Either way, it is an effectively unsettling sequence.

Valkyrie 3 pg 3

Dixon has always been good at writing female characters that are sexy and strong, yet also well-rounded.  His Valkyrie is a multi-faceted individual who is tough as nails and confident yet at the same time still a very human individual.

Likewise, Dixon does interesting work with Steelfox.  When we first see the Soviet operative, he is gleefully slaughtering resistance fighters in Afghanistan with a poison gas attack; he hardly seems like the sort who has any right to be judging Valkyrie for her actions.  As the story progresses, though, we learn that Steelfox has a very personal stake in matters.  He was one of the few surviving children from the Lubon massacre, although the attack left him crippled.  It is conceivable to see this as the defining moment of his life that set him on the path to becoming a monster.  And once Steelfox learns of Valkyrie’s existence, he is obsessed with exacting vengeance against the woman who he believes destroyed his childhood.  In his own way, Steelfox is as much imprisoned by the past as Val.  If she is haunted by grief & guilt, then he is consumed by hatred.

Although there are several action sequences, Dixon chooses to conclude “Prisoners of the Past” in a more unconventional manner.  The climax of the story is Valkyrie’s trial, via an intense, emotional revelation.  It is a very effective ending.

The artwork by Paul Gulacy and Will Blyberg is definitely top-notch.  I’ve always enjoyed Gulacy’s work.  When he was first starting out, Gulacy worked as an assistant to the late, great Dan Adkins, and he was also influenced by Jim Steranko.  You can definitely see both of their influences in Gulacy’s art, although he is certainly much more than an imitator.

Gulacy is especially well known for his renderings of super-sexy women, but there is much more to his work than that.  There are quite a few artists who can draw a hot girl, but who cannot tell a story to save their life.  Gulacy, in contrast, does amazing layouts.  He has a very cinematic style to his work that is well suited to depicting dynamic action sequences.  At the same time, he is also very good at rendering quieter character moments.

Gulacy’s diverse skills are all at the fore in “Prisoner of the Past.”  His Valkyrie is stunningly beautiful and strong, yet still human and capable of vulnerability.  The action is well choreographed.  And the character moments are moving, full of real emotion.

Valkyrie 1 pg 8

In the first issue there is moment when Valkyrie, laying in her bed, sadly reflects on what she lost over the decades she was in suspended animation.  The collaboration here between Dixon’s scripting and Gulacy’s pencils creates a very melancholy, memorable sequence.

I found an inexpensive used copy of the “Prisoner of the Past” collection on Ebay a week or so ago.  So that’s one way to go if you want to pick up this great story.  However, the miniseries is being reissued by IDW, along with the remainder of the Airboy material from Eclipse.  Airboy Archives Volume One came out in March.  Volume Two, which includes the Valkyrie miniseries, is scheduled for a July release.  I’m planning to pick up both books.  In addition to the writing by Chuck Dixon, there are several talented artists who worked on the Airboy series, among them Tim Truman, Stan Woch, Tom Lyle and Ron Randall.  It’s always nice when quality out-of-print material such as this finally has the opportunity to find a new audience.

Comic book reviews: Wynonna Earp “The Yeti Wars”

So here we are, getting some more snow.  I guess this would be a perfect opportunity to take a look at a Winter-themed story.  Time to dig out my copy of Wynonna Earp: The Yeti Wars, an action / horror  extravaganza written by Beau Smith, with artwork by Enrique Villagran, published by IDW.

Wynonna Earp made her debut at Image Comics back in 1997.  She is the creation of Beau Smith, sometimes known as “the manliest man in comics.” I first discovered Beau’s work during his two year run writing Guy Gardner: Warrior. Before this, I’d never really liked the former Green Lantern.  I think that too many writers, in trying to make him as different as possible from Hal Jordan, made Guy a major jerk who acted like a moron with a short fuse.  Beau transformed Guy into a tough but likable hero, a gruff, no-nonsense figure who backed up his big talk with genuine guts & courage.  And I really enjoyed the supporting cast Beau gave Guy.

Back when the first Wynonna Earp series came out, it unfortunately slipped under my radar.  I was probably buying too much other stuff at the time.  The character finally came to my attention a decade later in late 2010, when IDW released The Yeti Wars as both a graphic novel and a miniseries.

Wynonna Earp Yeti Wars cover

Wynonna Earp is a supernatural action series about the beautiful, tough-as-nails descendent of Wyatt Earp.  As a member of the US Marshals Black Badge Division, Wynonna Earp ropes in all manner of supernatural criminals and horrific monsters, all while keeping a biting wit.

The Yeti Wars sees Earp and her associates in the US Marshalls tracking down Dr. Billy Joe Robidoux, a brilliant but twisted genetic engineer, a Frankenstein from south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  After the Black Badge Division raid Robidoux’s lab in California, the not-so-good doctor flees to the snowy wilderness of Alaska with the help of the supernatural crime cartel known as the Immortalis Consortium.  Bringing in the US Marshalls’ rough & tough ordinance specialist Smitty, the Black Badge Division head north in pursuit of their mad scientist quarry.  They soon discover that the immortal agents of the Consortium have a very special, savage line of defense: a pack of large, ferocious, hungry Yeti.  Wynonna calls in reinforcements, namely North America’s answer to the Abominable Snowmen, a tribe of Sasquatches in the Marshalls’ employ.  Soon it is all out war as Yeti versus Bigfoot, human versus immortal, and Wynonna slices & dices her way through the bad guys with an alien sword.

As you can no doubt discern from the above summary, Beau Smith writes Wynonna Earp: The Yeti Wars with a rather tongue-in-cheek manner.  That is not to say The Yeti Wars is silly; rather, Smith writes a serious story while effectively imbuing it with plenty of humor.  I think that is one of the major problems with both Marvel and DC nowadays, a lack of a real sense of fun.  Most of the editors at the Big Two seem to be under the impression that fun equals stupid, which is totally not the case.  Just look at the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies.  Those are serious stories, but Lucas, Spielberg and their collaborators always infused the dialogue and situations with a fair amount of wit and comedy.  Likewise, Smith recognizes that you can write a serious comic book and still have a lot of fun with it.  That was one of the qualities he brought to Guy Gardner, and it is likewise a significant aspect of Wynonna Earp.

Beau Smith actually includes a very thinly veiled fictional version of himself via Smitty.  Ordinarily that might be a recipe for disaster.  But Smith brings quite a bit of self-deprecating humor to his comic book counterpart, making for a fun, engaging character who, like his creator, does not seem to take himself or anything else too seriously.  The chemistry between the relatively young Wynonna and the middle aged Smitty is fantastic, with a lot of smart-ass banter about sex, booze and guns.  But underneath it all is a clear mutual respect between two professionals who pride themselves on their work while recognizing the weird, ridiculous aspects of the situations in which they often find themselves.

Wynonna Earp Yeti Wars pg 67

Argentine artist Enrique Villagran does superb work on The Yeti Wars.  As I understand it, Villagran has had a lengthy career, although most of his work has been published outside of the United States.  He did some work in the late 1980s for independent publishers Now and Eclipse, as well a few jobs at DC and Marvel in the 1990s.  Villagran has a very European style to his work.  It reminds me a bit of Jordi Bernet.

One of the qualities I liked about Villagran’s art on The Yeti Wars is that he brought a very natural beauty to Wynonna Earp.  In some earlier appearances, I think that the character was perhaps drawn as a bit too much of a pin-up girl or a porn star.  Wynonna, as rendered by Villagran, is certainly a very attractive woman, but at the same time she is also a tough, athletic figure.  You can really see her having the strength & stamina to go toe-to-toe with all manner of supernatural, inhuman lawbreakers.

I’m also glad that Villagran actually drew Wynonna in sensible clothing.  Yeah, alright, if she’s tracking inhuman felons across the Southwestern US, maybe leather pants and a tank top aren’t too impractical.  But is you’re brawling with Yeti in the sub-zero backwoods of Alaska, something a little warmer is probably a good idea.

Wynonna Earp and Nettie

One other reason why I picked this one up: I have a yeti at home.  Well, okay, I actually have a cat named Nettie.  But she is a long-haired Himalayan who at times has a more than passing resemblance to an abominable snowman.  Michele and I are convinced that she must have one or more yeti in her family tree.  We sometimes refer to her as “Nettie the Yeti” or “The Abominable Snowkitten,” and believe me when I say that she often lives up to those nicknames!

IDW still has Wynonna Earp: The Yeti Wars available through their website.  They previously released The Complete Wynonna Earp in 2005, which collected the earlier material.  That one is out of print, but I am sure there are copies floating around somewhere.  It’s a fun series, and I recommend checking it out.  And I hope Beau has the opportunity to return to writing Wynonna and the Black Badge Division’s adventures in the near future.

Doctor Who reviews: Prisoners of Time

Happy birthday to Who!

No, as of this writing, the highly anticipated Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special is still a few days away from being broadcast.  However, another great celebration of a half-century of traveling in the TARDIS came to its conclusion today as the final installment of the twelve-issue Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time comic book series was released.  Published by IDW, written by Scott & David Tipton, and drawn by a line-up of amazing artists, Prisoners of Time features all eleven incarnations of the Doctor, numerous companions, multiple aliens & villains, and plenty of surprises.  It’s been an exciting, enjoyable romp through the rich history of the series.

As I detailed in my post The Big Bad of Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time Revealed, the mastermind behind the scheme to attack the Doctor in all his incarnations was none other than Adam Mitchell, previously seen on the television episodes “Dalek” and “The Long Game.”  After nursing a lifetime of bitterness & hatred towards the Doctor for abandoning him, Adam was finally able to assemble a cache of stolen alien technology and began abducting the Doctor’s companions from the time stream.  Along the way, he allied himself with the Doctor’s diabolical arch-nemesis, the Master, who did everything in his power to further enflame Adam’s long-festering resentment towards the Doctor.

So at last we’ve come to the grand finale in issue #12.  Now, as River Song likes to say, “Spoilers, sweetie!”

The Eleventh Doctor is a prisoner of Adam and the Master in their base in limbo.  Adam is threatening to murder all of the Doctor’s companions, offering him the impossible, torturous choice of saving one, just one of them.  In the grand tradition of Doctor Who cliffhangers, just when it seems that all is lost (and I have to admit, when I reached the end of the previous issue, I was really left wondering how the heck the Tiptons would resolve this) we are greeted to new arrivals, beautifully depicted by artist Kelly Yates (click to enlarge):

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 2 and 3

What follows is a fantastic finale as all of the Doctors and companions fight off Adam, the Master, and a horde of Autons.  As they’ve done with the previous installments of the miniseries, Scott & David did a brilliant job scripting this, getting the dialogue & cadence of each version of the Doctor just right.  Yates was pretty much dead-on with all the likenesses, and also did wonderful work pacing the story, finding room for literally dozens of characters without it ever seeming cluttered.

Along the way, the Tiptons did a great job at bringing Adam’s story arc to a close.  In the previous issue, drawn by Matthew Dow Smith, the Doctor had futilely attempted to convince his one-time companion that, whatever the legitimacy of his feud, it was a terrible mistake to ally himself with the Master, who was “pure unbridled evil.”

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 11 pg 17Now, in #12, the Master seizes the opportunity presented by the Doctor’s combined TARDISes, sending a wave of chronal energy through them in an attempt to not only destroy all the regenerations of his enemy, but to wipe out reality itself, so he may rewrite existence as he wishes.  And, for the first time, Adam is aghast.  As twisted and vengeful as he has become, he simply cannot conceive of committing such a monstrously vast crime.  The Master’s response shows just how utterly consumed by hatred, by the lust for power, he truly is.  Scott & Dave’s dialogue for the renegade Time Lord is doubly emphasized by Yates’ artwork, which demonstrates his sheer, burning insanity.  That bottom panel on page 11 is chilling.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 11In the end, the Doctors finally manage to appeal to Adam, and he turns against the Master, saving reality at the cost of his own life.  When I got to page 19, and saw Adam laying there dying, surrounded by the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh Doctors and Rose Tyler, um, well, I have to admit that for a second I really thought I was going to shed a tear.  Yeah, the story and artwork were just that moving.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 12 pg 19As I said, there were so many brilliant artists who worked on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time.  Some of them have been intimately involved in illustrating the Doctor’s comic book adventures in the past.  For others this was, I believe, their first time.  And I really wish I had the space to post examples of all of their work on this series.  But for the record, this is the list: Simon Fraser, Lee Sullivan, Mike Collins, Gary Erskine, Philip Bond, John Ridgway, Kev Hopgood, Roger Langridge, David Messina & Giorgia Sposito, Elena Casagrande, Matthew Dow Smith, and Kelly Yates. (I encourage everyone to click on the links and go to those artists’ websites to view their wonderful work.)

Literally toping things off were the dozen covers by Francesco Francavilla which assembled to form one amazing image.  Here’s a picture of the complete illustration, courtesy of Scott Tipton, who posted it on Facebook a couple of days ago:

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time complete covers

As the Ninth Doctor was fond of declaring, “Fantastic!”  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, Francavilla is without a doubt one of the most talented artists to come onto the comic book scene within the last decade.

By the way, for those who missed out on picking up Prisoners of Time, IDW is releasing a hardcover collection of the entire series next month.  There you go, you have no excuse now.

In closing, I want to tip my hat to Scott & Dave, and their numerous artistic collaborators.  You all helped to make the series’ fiftieth anniversary that much more special.

Five new comic book artists who I like

Last month I was over at Jim Hanley’s Universe for one of their creator signing events. It just so happens that standing right next to me in line was Fabrizio Fante, author of the excellent WordPress blog Fate’s Inferno.  As we were waiting on line, Fabrizio and I got to talking about a whole bunch of topics.  One of the things that came up was new comic book artists.  Specifically, Fabrizio was curious to know which new artists I was a fan of.  And, y’know, I immediately started drawing a blank.  Every single name I could come up with off the top of my head was someone who had been working professionally for more than a decade now.  It was actually really bothering me.  Surely there had to be at least one artist who had broken into the biz after 2003 whose work I enjoyed?

I guess my subconscious mind was dwelling on the subject, because over the past few weeks several names did gradually come to me.  Yes, there are definitely a number of really good, talented individuals working in the comic book field nowadays.  I am going to spotlight some of those artists here.

Rocket Girl 1 cover signed

AMY REEDER

I first discovered the work of Amy Reeder on the Madame Xanadu series written by Matt Wagner and published by DC Comics / Vertigo.  To be perfectly honest, when I first learned that Reeder had broken into comic books via Tokyopop, I might have sighed in exasperation, figuring that she was yet another of the Manga-derivative individuals to flood comic books in the last two decades.  But actually looking at her art for Madame Xanadu, I was floored.  First of all, Reeder has this amazing storytelling sense, the ability to really lay out pages in a dramatic fashion.  Second, her first story arc “Disenchanted” was set over a millennia-long period, which required that she conduct an extraordinary amount of research to obtain an authentic look for numerous historical eras across the globe.  I was really impressed by the work she put into those ten issues.

Reeder has drawn a couple of really stunning books written by Brandon Montclare, her former assistant editor at Vertigo.  The first was the whimsical fantasy one-shot Halloween Eve, published last October.  The second is the sci-fi Rocket Girl, the first issue of which just came out.  After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the series was picked up by Image Comics.  Rocket Girl #1 looks great, and I’m very much anticipating upcoming installments.

Star Trek Doctor Who 3

J.K. WOODWARD

Working on a number of books at both IDW and BOOM! Studios over the last decade, J.K. Woodward first caught my attention when he produced amazing painted artwork for the Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation 2 miniseries written by Scott & David Tipton.  This eight issue crossover saw Captain Picard’s crew working with the Eleventh Doctor, Amy & Rory to face the combined forces of the Borg and the Cybermen.  On the early issues, Woodward did full artwork, while on the later ones he was paining over Gordon Purcell’s pencils.  In both cases, the results were fantastic.

Especially striking was Woodward’s cover artwork to issue #3, which contained a flashback to the Fourth Doctor meeting the crew of the original Enterprise and fighting some old-school Cybermen.  As someone who grew up watching Tom Baker and William Shatner on re-runs of Doctor Who and Star Trek in the early 1980s, I thought that was a super-cool addition to the story.  Woodward has stated that his childhood was spent watching many of those same reruns.  He did a stunning job on this piece.

Captain America 625 cover

FRANCESCO FRANCAVILLA

Italian artist Francesco Francavilla made his debut in 2006.  His style is quite reminiscent of the legendary Alex Toth.  I first noticed Francavilla’s work when he illustrated several issues of Captain America for Marvel Comics.  He’s also worked on Black Panther and Hawkeye, as well as rendering numerous amazing covers for a variety of publishers.  Most recently he’s been the cover artist on Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time for IDW.

Amongst the current crop of “hot” artists who seem to have defaulted back to early Image Comics-inspired work full of over-rendering and excessive crosshatching, Francavilla’s retro pulp leanings are a breath of fresh air.  It has often been observed that it is the seemingly “simpler” styles of art that are actually much more difficult to pull off.  An artist does not have all the fancy bells & whistles to hide behind, and must rely on genuine talent & storytelling ability. I think that is true of Francavilla’s work.  In any case, his art has a very noir sensibility, with a palpable atmosphere to it.  He also possesses a really amazing design aesthetic, a talent for knowing exactly how to lay out a cover or a page for maximum dramatic impact.

Supreme 64 cover

CORY HAMSCHER

I’m probably bending the rules a little here, since I think Cory Hamscher has been a professional artist for slightly more than a decade.  But he’s really come into prominence in the last several years.  I first noticed his work when he illustrated a back-up story in Savage Dragon #150 that spotlighted Mr. Glum, the diminutive alien dictator from Dimension X.  Shortly after, Hamscher did an absolutely superb job inking Tom Grummett’s pencils on X-Men Forever and Chaos War: Dead Avengers.  Last year, Hamscher provided very detailed finishes to Erik Larsen’s layouts on Supreme.

Hamscher has an inking style that immediately appealed to me.  It reminds me quite a bit of the amazing embellishing of Terry Austin, who is one of my all time favorite inkers.  Hamscher just makes the pencils or layouts he is inking pop off the page.  He’s amazingly talented.  Recently on Facebook, Hamscher has expressed a desire going forward to do full artwork, i.e. both pencils & inks.  I really hope that he has that opportunity, and I’m looking forward to further announcements about his upcoming projects.

Vescell 6 cover

JOHN UPCHURCH

First becoming a professional artist in 2011, John “Roc” Upchurch has been doing stunning work on Vescell, a sci-fi / fantasy / noir series written by Enrique Carrion and published by Image.  I did a full-length review of the latest issue, #8, on my June 13th blog post, so go check it out!

Upchurch has this beautifully polished, slick quality to his work that perfectly matches Carrion’s imaginative, darkly humorous scripts.  What is especially noteworthy about Upchurch’s art is that, yes, he can draw these really stunning covers and dynamic action sequences.  But he has also demonstrated that he is a good storyteller.  Carrion’s stories have frequent “talking heads” segments where important plot points & philosophic issues are discussed.  Upchurch does a masterful job rendering these, drawing multi-panel pages which engage the reader’s attention and keep the flow of the story going.  I definitely hope to see more from Upchurch in the future, as he continues to grow & develop.  He has a hell of a lot of potential.

(By the way, I was actually able to think of at least twice as many new comic book artists as I profiled here.  But I chose to spotlight these five because they are among my favorites.  And, of course, I can always save the others for a future blog post!)

The Big Bad of Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time revealed

Over the last nine months I have really been enjoying IDW’s year-long Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time miniseries written by Scott & David Tipton, and illustrated by a very impressive line-up of artists.  In each issue, a different incarnation of the wandering Time Lord has been spotlighted.  And at the end of every installment, a mysterious cloaked figure bearing an unspecified grudge against the Doctor has appeared out of nowhere, altering the time stream by kidnapping the Doctor’s companions.  For the first several issues, I really had no idea who the heck this enigmatic foe could be.  And then issue #s 7 and 8 came out, featuring artwork by Kev Hopgood and Roger Langridge.  In these two issues, the Tiptons offered up a pair of very important clues.

In #7 the Seventh Doctor and Ace encounter the Master who, as per his usual 1980s shenanigans, was hiding behind a very transparent & pointless disguise.  Once unmasked, the Master tells the Doctor that “I’ve been working with a new partner. He’s an old friend of yours. Or should I say… companion?” The Doctor responds that he has no idea what the Master is talking about, which causes his old foe to tauntingly add “Of course not, because you haven’t met him… yet!”

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 7

Then in #8, after the Eighth Doctor and Grace Holloway have finished an adventure liberating an alien world from its oppressors, our mystery man once again pops up.  In answer to the Doctor demanding to know who he is, the cloaked figure states “I’m your mistakes come to life, Doctor. I’m your past come home to roost.”

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 8

Having read these two sequences, it suddenly occurred to me: what if this mystery villain was Adam Mitchell, the Doctor’s very short-lived companion who was seen in the episodes “Dalek” and “The Long Game,” now much older, and still majorly pissed off that the Ninth Doctor & Rose had left him with all of that alien technology from the far future installed in his head?  It would explain why Adam was among the numerous companions who artist Simon Frasier drew on the display screens back in issue #1, even though the character had barely traveled with the Doctor.  Adam could have been included there as a subtle reminder to readers that the character was still out there.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 1

So this week Prisoners of Time #9 came out, illustrated by David Messina & Giorgia Sposito. The Ninth Doctor and Rose have (as is par per the course) just narrowly escaped an explosive death on an alien world.  However, before they can make their way back to the TARDIS, they find someone waiting for them, someone who is very familiar to the both of them.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time 9

Yes, it is Adam Mitchell, now old and embittered, seeking vengeance against the Doctor in his numerous incarnations.  (As soon as I read this page, I actually said aloud “I knew it. I knew it!” This was on the M Train, during rush hour. I have no shame.)  And, you know, the way Scott & David Tipton have Adam lay out his motivations in this issue, it is very easy to see that, from his viewpoint, his grievances and resentments against the Doctor actually seem very reasonable and legitimate.

The thing to remember about the Doctor is that, yes, he is brave and heroic and brilliant and he travels the universe saving entire worlds from tyranny and injustice.  That said, throughout his numerous regenerations, the Doctor has often demonstrated that he can also be very arrogant, egotistical, headstrong, and rash, with little to no consideration for the long-term consequences of his actions.  There have been a number of television stories that have addressed what happens when he doesn’t think things through.  “The Daleks,” “Planet of the Spiders,” “The Face of Evil,” “Bad Wolf,” “The Sound of Drums” and “The Waters of Mars” all show just how incredibly bad a situation can turn out when the Doctor screws things up.

And, from the moment that the Doctor condescendingly kicked Adam out of the TARDIS at the end of “The Long Game,” I could not help thinking to myself that eventually this could come back to bite the Time Lord in the rear end.  Yes, Adam made a huge mistake, deciding to get alien tech installed in his head & then use it to send information from 198,000 years in the future back in time to the present day in an impulsive scheme to get rich quick.  But the Doctor handled the situation really poorly, leaving all that ultra-advanced technology in Adam’s head, believing this would teach him a lesson and forcing him to lead a low-profile existence.  Even if Adam was selfish and foolish in his actions, the Doctor’s punishment seemed unnecessarily cruel.  I also immediately saw how spectacularly wrong this could turn out.  What if some group of alien invaders or the Torchwood Institute or someone else did stumble across Adam and plundered the futuristic secrets in his skull?

Scott & David Tipton obviously were thinking along similar lines, having Adam Mitchell turn out to be the Big Bad of Prisoners of Time.  And, now that he’s been revealed, I’m certainly looking forward to the concluding three issues of this series.

Doctor Who Prisoners of Time TPB 2

In any case, Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time is a fantastic series which I highly recommend.  If you want to get caught up to speed, the first eight issues have been collected into two trade paperbacks, topped off with really cool covers by Francesco Francavilla, the super-talented illustrator who has been providing the cover artwork for this series.

By the way, a few weeks ago I e-mailed Scott via Facebook with my guess about Adam, which he coyly commented was “a cool theory.”  After I read Prisoners of Time #9 on Wednesday, I contacted him again, and he informed me I was the only person to have guessed successfully.  That’s definitely gratifying.  Hmmm, I can’t manage to balance my checkbook or remember where I put my tax returns from last year, but I can solve the mystery of a Doctor Who villain.  Go figure!