Happy birthday to Trevor Von Eeden

Time for another birthday blog post!  Today is the birthday of artist Trevor Von Eeden, who was born on July 24, 1959.  Trevor is an absolutely amazing artist, as well as a cool guy.  It has been a pleasure to have corresponded with him for a number of years now.

Trevor first came into the comic book biz in 1977 at the young age of 16, when he was assigned to draw Black Lightning, the very first African American superhero series at DC Comics which was created by writer Tony Isabella.  Trevor’s work on Black Lightning definitely showed promise, but unfortunately the series was cancelled a year later during the now-infamous “DC Implosion.”  Nevertheless, Trevor remained at the drawing board, illustrating a variety of stories for DC.

Trevor has gone on record as stating his work as an artist took a quantum leap forward in 1982 when he illustrated Batman Annual #8.  Written by Mike W. Barr, “The Messiah of the Crimson Sun” sees the Dark Knight in an epic confrontation with his immortal foe Ra’s al Ghul.  Trevor’s art is astounding, featuring stunningly dramatic layouts.  Paired up with colorist Lynn Varley, Trevor’s illustrations are simply fantastic, and an indicator that even better work was on the horizon from him.  I am genuinely surprised that this story has never been reprinted.  Fortunately, I was able to find a copy in the back issue bins of Midtown Comics a few years ago.

Batman annual 8 pg 36

More quality work followed from Trevor in a four issue Green Arrow miniseries published by DC in 1983.  In the mid-1980s, he also did some work for Marvel, before returning to DC in the early 1990s.  And it was at this point that I first discovered his art.

As I’ve mentioned before, I did not begin regularly following comic books until around 1989, when I was 13 years old.  So probably the very first comic book series I saw that Trevor drew was Black Canary.  Paired with writer Sarah Byam and legendary inker Dick Giordano, Trevor penciled the four issue Black Canary: New Wings miniseries in 1991.  A year later, he was re-teamed with Byam and inker Bob Smith on an ongoing Black Canary title that regrettably lasted only a year.

I immediately fell in love with Trevor’s work.  I could instantly see that he possessed a distinctive and beautiful style.  That, and he drew incredibly sexy women.  Trevor’s renderings of the female form are among my favorite in the comic book field.  In the early 1990s, when so many “hot, superstar” artists were drawing women who looked like anorexic porn stars, Trevor’s curvy rendition of the character of Black Canary was a breath of fresh air.

Black Canary 7 cover

What’s really interesting about Black Canary is that Trevor himself has admitted he was never especially fond of working on the series.  So the fact that he did such amazing work on it really speaks to his professionalism.

Throughout the 1990s, Trevor returned Batman on several occasions.  He did the pencil layouts for Denny O’Neil’s now-classic “Venom” story arc in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, with Russell Braun contributing the finished pencils and the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez inking.  Trevor worked with mystery novelist C.J. Henderson on a pair of Batman tales, “Duty” and “Joker’s Apprentice,” with Josef Rubinstein inking both stories.  And he was once again paired with Garcia-Lopez on the excellent five part “Grimm” arc that ran through Legends of the Dark Knight #149-153, which was written by J.M. DeMatteis.  That’s another fine story that has never been collected.  I definitely recommend searching out copies of those issues.  I was fortunate enough to obtain a really nice page of original artwork from that story.

batman lotdk 149

About a decade back, Trevor also worked for independent publisher Moonstone.  He produced some very moody, atmospheric art on Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Mysterious Traveler.  I really enjoyed those comics.

That said, I think that Trevor Von Eeden’s best work has to be his most recent.  He wrote & illustrated The Original Johnson, a graphic novel biography of John Arthur Johnson who, in 1908, became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  To be perfectly honest, before Trevor announced this project, I had not even heard of Jack Johnson.  I have no idea if this was due to his race, or simply because I am not a sports buff.  Whatever the case, I was aware of Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, and how significant (and controversial) an accomplishment that was.  So, someone like Jack Johnson, who broke through a similar barrier nearly 40 years earlier, in an even more hostile & intolerant time, was definitely worthy of examination.

Trevor spent several years working on The Original Johnson.  A variety of difficulties cropped up along the way, and it almost seemed that it might not be published.  But Trevor persevered, and it was finally released in a two volume edition by Comicmix / IDW.  It was a true labor of love on his part, and this definitely shows in the finished pages of the graphic novel.

The Original Johnson book one cover

The Comics Journal #298, published in May 2009 by Fantagraphics, contained an extremely in-depth, bluntly honest interview with Trevor Von Eeden.  It was an very revealing, insightful read.  Trevor pulls no punches, sharing his honest thoughts about himself, his growth as an individual & his development as a creator, his colleagues in the comic book industry, and the companies he has worked for.  I really think that it should be required reading for anyone who is looking to become a professional comic book creator.

Currently Trevor is collaborating with writer Don McGregor (Black Panther, Killraven, Detectives Inc) on his new graphic novel, Sabre: The Early Future Years.  There is a Kickstarter fundraiser scheduled to begin on August 3rd to help raise money towards the publication of the book.  So please keep an eye on Don’s Facebook page for details.  I’m really looking forward to this one.  Don is an amazing, revolutionary writer.  As for Trevor, his artwork continually improves, and he is better than he has ever been.  I’m confident his work on Sabre is going to be absolutely amazing.

Richard Matheson: 1926 – 2013

Horror author Richard Matheson passed away on June 23th at the age of 87.  I was a pretty big fan of his work.  He wrote some incredibly imaginative, genuinely scary stories.

My first exposure to Matheson’s work had to be this anthology of short stories that someone gave me as a gift in the mid-1980s.  The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories collected together all of the previously published short stories that were subsequently adapted into episodes of Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone television series.  Matheson was the co-editor of the book, and it also contained several of his stories.

The most famous of those was “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” the one featuring the monster on the airplane wing.  Originally written in 1961, it was filmed two years later starring a young William Shatner.  Of course I had heard all about this one previously, but I’d never actually had the opportunity to view it on television.  Reading the original Matheson story was quite a harrowing experience, so much so that a couple of years later when I finally did catch the Twilight Zone episode, I was pretty much biting my nails, dreading the upcoming moment when Shatner was going to whip open the curtain over the airplane window to find the monster’s face glaring right at him.  Inevitably the monster that my mind conjured up when reading Matheson’s actual story was infinitely more terrifying than the man in a panda bear suit that made it to television screens in 1963.  (Matheson reportedly critiqued the on-screen realization of his gremlin as “a surly teddy bear.”)  Nevertheless, the flawless direction by a young Richard Donner, combined with Matheson’s adaptation of his own material, made “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a truly scary episode.

Twilight Zone Nightmare At 20000 FeetAnother of Matheson’s great works was his 1954 novel I Am Legend.  In the book, Robert Neville is the last man on Earth… but he is not alone.  Every other human being across the globe has been infected by a plague which has transformed them into vampires.  Neville spends the novel struggling to survive an unending onslaught of the undead, as well as the threat of madness & despair that threatens to engulf him in his solitude.  I Am Legend is an extremely bleak, downbeat, apocalyptic novel.  It is regarded as having been a major influence on the horror field, particularly the zombie sub-genre.  The book has been adapted into three different movies: The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price (1964), The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston (1971) and I Am Legend starring Will Smith (2007).  I haven’t seen that most recent one, but the Price version is quite atmospheric and remains pretty faithful to the original novel.  The Heston version plays much more fast & loose with the material, and at times is sort of cheesy, but still entertains.

(As a side note, The Omega Man, with its scenes of Charlton Heston running around toting a machine gun, shooting at anything that moves, does almost come across as his audition tape for President of the NRA.)

Matheson also penned the chilling, atmospheric novel Hell House, which was published in 1971.  Hell House details an attempt by a group of parapsychologists and psychics to investigate the infamous Belasco House, which is described as “the Mount Everest of Haunted Houses.”  All of the previous individuals who have sought to explore the mysteries of Belasco House have met with either death or insanity.  Matheson wrote the screenplay for the 1973 film version The Legend of Hell House, another one which I have not had the opportunity to see.

Hell House graphic novel adaptation by Ian Edginton & Simon Fraser
Hell House graphic novel adaptation by Ian Edginton & Simon Fraser

Hell House was adapted into a graphic novel by writer Ian Edginton & artist Simon Fraser, which IDW published in 2005.  I have to admit, I hadn’t actually read Hell House before that point in time.  But I was a fan of Fraser’s art, and intended to get the IDW book, so I picked up the original Matheson novel in order to read it first.  Edginton & Fraser did a very good job on their version.

In addition to adapting his own writings for film & television, Matheson wrote screenplays based on others’ works, such as Edgar Allen Poe and Fritz Leiber.  Among these was the script for The Devil Rides Out, based on Dennis Wheatley’s 1934 novel.  Released in 1968, and starring Christopher Lee, it is definitely one of my favorite Hammer films.

 All this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Richard Matheson’s prolific pen.  If you are not familiar with his work, I encourage you to seek out some of his writings.  Hell House and I Am Legend are both extremely haunting, unsettling reads.

Happy birthday to Elaine Lee

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to writer Elaine Lee, who was born on April 22, 19XX (I’m not going to guess the year, because it is impolite to speculate about a woman’s age).  I first discovered Lee’s work back during the summer of 1994.  Lee had collaborated with artist William Simpson and cover artist Brian Bolland to create Vamps, a miniseries about a quintet of sexy vampire bikers crisscrossing the highways of America.  The book was published by DC Comics under their Vertigo banner.  Lee was doing a signing at the Heroes World comic shop in White Plains NY, and I picked up the first issue there.  Lee had come to the signing with her friend Rachel Pollack, whose bizarre writing I had been enjoying on Doom Patrol.  It was there that I learned that Pollack was also a prose author, and soon after I picked up a copy of her excellent novel Unquenchable Fire.

Vamps #1
Vamps #1

Vamps was a pretty good read, and I was interested in finding some more work by Lee.  I soon discovered that she had written the sci-fi series Starstruck, which ran for six issues under Marvel Comics’ Epic imprint in 1985, as well as a graphic novel.  I found a copy of the first issue, and was totally blown away by the amazing artwork by Michael Kaluta.  Truth to tell, I was a bit confused by the events in Lee’s story, but Kaluta’s art was simply amazing.  This was the beginning of my love affair with his work, and I soon became a huge fan.

This was also the first time I learned that Starstruck had originally begun life as an off-Broadway play, via the cute editorial cartoon on the inside cover, wherein a robotic Archie Goodwin presented the readers with a striking portrait of Elaine Lee herself in the role of freedom fighter Galatia 9, as seen below:

Archie Goodwin presents Elaine Lee as Galatia 9
Archie Goodwin presents
Elaine Lee as Galatia 9

A few years later, I started running into Kaluta himself at several NYC comic conventions.  He must have mentioned that the original Starstruck script could be found on Amazon.  I ordered a copy and when I read it, I was laughing out loud almost non-stop.  The script was written by Elaine Lee, Susan Norfleet Lee and Dale Place.  Michael Kaluta did the imaginative & intricate costume and set designs.  A funny & clever homage to and parody of space opera, it had two month-long runs, first in 1980 and then in 1983.

Early on, Lee and Kaluta decided they wanted to expand the Starstruck universe and characters beyond what was seen on stage, and planned out a whole series of comic books & graphic novels.  Starstruck, in addition to the Epic issues, appeared in the pages of Heavy Metal, through Dark Horse, and then finally a 13 issue miniseries published by IDW starting in 2009.  That was a combination of “remastered” older material and brand new work by Lee & Kaluta.  Having met both Lee and Kaluta at different comic book conventions throughout the years, I knew that they had a wealth of unpublished stories that they’d one day hoped to bring to print.  So I was thrilled when the IDW series was released, although I did end up waiting for the trade paperback edition so I’d have everything in one handy volume.

Starstruck script book
Starstruck script book

Currently Lee and Kaluta are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds in order to publish a new graphic novel, Harry Palmer: Starstruck.  I definitely wish them the best of luck.  After so many years of dormancy, it’s great that they have these opportunities to return to the Starstruck universe.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. The second time I met Elaine Lee was, I believe, a year later.  She was at a comic con in upstate NY, somewhere in the Hudson Valley.  One of the books she had for sale was her graphic novel anthology of erotic sci-fi stories, Skin Tight Orbit.  I really wanted to get a copy, but back then I was only 19 years old, plus my father was with me at the show, so I was much too embarassed to buy it!  Hmmm, all these years later, and I still don’t have that book.  Time to look for it on Amazon, I guess.

But, anyway, each of the times I’ve met Elaine Lee, she’s always come across as a very friendly person.  It’s always a pleasure to see her at a convention or on Facebook.  So, once again, let us wish a very happy something-something birthday to the talented, lovely, and very pleasant Elaine Lee.  Here’s hoping for many more years of amazing stories from your pen.

Doctor Who reviews: Timelash

Recently, Michele was working on a paper for school that examined how H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine influenced Doctor Who.  It was an excellent piece of writing.  I cannot believe that I’d never before noticed how significantly Terry Nation had borrowed from Wells when writing the first Dalek storyline, i.e. the Daleks equal the Morlocks, the Thals equal the Eloi, etc.

So, as she’s working on this paper, I happen to casually mention to Michele that on one occasion the Doctor actually met H.G. Wells.  Oops!!!  Suddenly she wants to see this story.  I tried to explain to her that “Timelash” is not a well regarded Doctor Who serial.  In fact, one commentator went so far as to point out that the title is an anagram for “lame shit.”  Michele was amused by this, but undeterred.  So I popped “Timelash” into the DVD player, and we watched it.  She ended up laughing at most of what came up on the television screen.

As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, and on the whole I find his brief tenure on the series to be very enjoyable.  Even so, I will readily admit that “Timelash” is not an especially good story.  That said, I will argue that it is rather underrated… which basically translates to my saying that is nowhere near as awful as most other people claim!  Certainly Baker himself is in fine form, bringing his brash, argumentative, authoritative Doctor right to the forefront.  It definitely suits this story, given that he is handed a pair of larger than life adversaries to verbally fence with in the forms of the Borad and Maylin Tekker.

Doctor Who: Timelash DVD
Doctor Who: Timelash DVD

The plot by Glen McCoy definitely has potential, exploring what happens when the Doctor returns to a planet several decades after he had a prior (untelevised) adventure.  We very rarely see the lasting consequences of the Doctor’s actions anywhere, so this trip to Karfel offers us a chance to examine how a previous encounter with the Time Lord can affect a civilization for good or bad.

The main villain, the mutant Borad, is actually a novel, intriguing foe, one who is well played by actor Robert Ashby, with an excellent make-up job realizing the character.  Considering the Borad survives the events of “Timelash,” albeit as a deposed despot left to spend the next several centuries swimming about Loch Ness, I’ve always hoped that one day he would turn up again in another story.  Given the generally poor perception of “Timelash,” I doubt that Steven Moffat will be dusting off this vintage baddie any time soon, but there are still the Doctor Who audio plays and novels.

I think the main area where “Timelash” fails is in the budget.  It definitely had a very cheap, shoddy look about it, with plain sets and very drab costumes.  One of the worst offenses has to be the inside of the Timelash tunnel itself, which looks horribly tacky and is so obviously a glittery Styrofoam wall.

I really cannot fault McCoy for any of this, though.  He was a relatively new writer who had never worked on Doctor Who before.  In this case, I think the lion’s share of the blame should be laid at the feet of script editor Eric Saward.  It is all well and good for Saward to bemoan the fact that producer John Nathan-Turner forced him to work with a succession of inexperienced writers.  But it was Saward’s job to look at McCoy’s script, point out to him what was not achievable on the limited money allocated to the show, and suggest other alternatives.  Saward seems to have abdicated his responsibilities, though, content to let McCoy’s ambitious vision be poorly realized on a shoestring budget, all the while blaming JNT for the substandard end result.

Paul Darrow Timelash
Paul Darrow takes it to eleven as Maylin Tekker

I was also extremely underwhelmed by how the Doctor’s companion Peri was portrayed.  Nicola Bryant, as I’ve observed in past blog posts, was often handed subpar material to work with.  But this has to be one of the character’s all time worst stories.  Except for a few scenes where she’s squabbling with the Doctor, poor Peri spends nearly the entire serial running from trouble, getting captured, being left tied up, and screaming for her life.  Makes me appreciate how the character has been handled on the Big Finish audio plays all the more.

As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor meets H.G. Wells in  “Timelash,” although for almost the entire story he is just a young man named Herbert.  It’s only in the very last scene that the Doctor discovers his full name, and realizes that he’s probably had a huge impact on the future author.  There was definitely — and again I use the word — potential to a fictional encounter between the Doctor and Wells, the real-life writer whose influence on the series cannot be denied.

Regrettably, the meeting between the two does not come off especially well.  For most of the story, Herbert is written as a naïve bumbler who is in way over his head, as well as a bit of a wet blanket.  I think David Chandler gives it his all, though.  I had always hoped, as with the Borad, that we would see another meeting between the Doctor and Wells, hopefully when the later was an older, more seasoned individual.  I think Chandler expressed interest in reprising the role.  Even though that never did occur on television, Wells does meet both the Tenth Doctor and the Victorian incarnation of Torchwood in the comic book special The Time Machination by Tony Lee and Paul Grist which was published by IDW in 2009.

H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination
H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination

Before closing out any look at “Timelash,” I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention Paul Darrow in the role of Maylin Tekker.  To say that it is a broad performance would be a vast understatement.  Reputedly this was inspired by Colin Baker’s appearance as a larger-than-life space pirate, Bayban the Butcher, on Darrow’s series Blake’s 7 a few years previously.  When Darrow was then cast in “Timelash,” he apparently wanted to see if he could out-ham Baker’s earlier performance.

I honestly do not know if Darrow’s over-the-top villainy should be considered one of the most risible aspects of the serial or if it takes a mediocre production and rockets it into high melodrama.  I will tell you this, though: I half-suspect the reason that that there’s so little scenery in “Timelash” is not the result of budget problems but due to Paul Darrow chewing it up.

New York Comic Con 2012: a convention report

Last Sunday I went to the New York Comic Con held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center.  Even though the Comic Con was a four day-long event, I decided to just attend it the final day.  Every year I do very much look forward to going to the show.  Conversely, every year it gets bigger and bigger, and so the prospect of having to compete with a gigantic crowd of people is somewhat daunting.  Because of that, and since I’m on a pretty slim budget, for the second year in a row I made the decision to just go on Sunday.

My main objective this time around was that I wanted to obtain a commission from artist Joe Staton.  You see, one of my all time favorite Batman stories is “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne,” written by Alan Brennert and illustrated by Joe Staton & George Freeman. It featured the wedding of Batman and Catwoman on Earth Two, and appeared in The Brave and the Bold #197, published in 1983.  I first had the opportunity to read the story in the early 1990s when it was collected in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told trade paperback. I must have read it at least a dozen times, probably more. Years later, I found a copy of the original issue, and got it autographed by Joe Staton. I think it has some of the finest artwork of his career.

In any case, for a long time now, because The Brave and the Bold #197 is such a favorite of mine, I’ve hoped to get an illustration of the Golden Age Catwoman from Staton. As I mentioned before, I was really on a limited budget this year, so this was going to be my one big purchase of the entire convention.  So as soon as I got to the show on Sunday morning, I made my way right to Artist Alley and headed to Staton’s table.  Turns out I was in the nick of time; his sketch list was almost completely filled up, and he had just one single spot left on it.  I dropped off my sketchbook at Joe table, paid him for the sketch, and then headed out to explore the rest of the convention, since I knew it would be a few hours before he’d get up to my piece.

I mostly stuck to Artist Alley this year, since that was a relatively less crowded area than the main convention floor.  I decided that since I wasn’t going to be able to buy too much, I’d bring along books that I already have to get autographed.  Luckily, most of the creators I hoped to see were there, although a few had unfortunately decided to skip Sunday.  I was bummed out to miss Erik Larsen, since I am a huge fan of Savage Dragon.

One of the few books I picked up was the Starstruck trade paperback by Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta.  Starstruck began life as an Off-Off-Broadway play in 1980, a comedic space opera written by Lee, with costume & set designs by Kaluta.  A few years later, Lee and Kaluta adapted Starstruck into a series of comic book stories which appeared through a number of publishers.  The pair had the ambition to eventually compile the entirety of the comic book material into one massive volume, and after a couple of false starts, they were finally able to achieve that recently at IDW.  Elaine Lee was at the NYCC this year, and so I purchased the collected edition from her.  She also autographed my copy of the Starstruck stage play which I acquired via Amazon.Com many moons ago.  I’m looking forward to reading this one.

An acquaintance of mine, artist Steve Ellis, had at table at NYCC.  Steve’s a cool guy, so it was nice to see him again.  We caught up on old times.  He was generous enough to do a quick drawing for me in one of my sketchbooks.  I asked him to sketch Stiletto, one of the characters from the superhero crime noir series The Silencers that he co-created with Fred Van Lente several years back.  I always enjoyed that book, and I hope one day Steve & Fred have the opportunity to bring it back.

Shaking hands with Peter Davison

There were a number of actors at NYCC doing signings & panel discussions.  I was very interested in meeting two of them.  The first was Peter Davison, who portrayed the Fifth Doctor on Doctor Who in the early 1980s.  As anyone who reads this blog will know, I am a huge Doctor Who fan.  That and it is very rare that you get to meet someone who you literally grew up watching on television.  So I was a bit tongue-tied when I got his autograph.  I think Davison was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned that I had been in London back in 1999 and seen him perform in the musical Chicago.  Currently he is appearing in Law & Order UK as Henry Sharpe, Director of the London Crown Prosecution Service (the equivalent of the District Attorney).  The show is scheduled to begin filming a new season shortly.

The other actor I really wanted to meet was Ian McDiarmid, who so memorably played the diabolical Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films.  It may sound strange, considering the Emperor is a figure of pure evil, but he is one of my favorite character from the series.  He got so many great lines of dialogue, and McDiarmid brought him to vile life so wonderfully.  Unfortunately, it turned out that McDiarmid was asking a whopping $125 for an autograph!  Obviously I had to pass on that.  But there apparently are a lot of people who are willing to fork over that kind of money, because I saw there was a very long line at his table (I wonder if some comic book and sci-fi fans eat Ramen noodles 365 days a year so they can save up their money for events like Comic Con).  Fortunately, McDiarmid was doing an hour-long panel discussion that afternoon.  It was quite entertaining, as McDiarmid really knows how to work a room & spin a yarn, so I’m glad I was at least able to attend that.

I only went up to the main floor of the show once.  I was going to the Doctor Who Store table, because I wanted to purchase one of the Big Finish audio plays for Peter Davison to autograph.  It was a total madhouse, wall-to-wall people, and it took me fifteen minutes just to get to where I wanted to go.  When I finally arrived at the Doctor Who Store, it was packed.  As someone who grew up watching the series in the 1980s, when it was very much a cult phenomenon here in the States, it still amazes me that now, with the revival of the show, it is now this huge hit, and millions of people watch it on BBC America.  So seeing this gigantic crowd around the booth was unexpected, because I still half-expect people to give me a blank look when I tell them I watch Doctor Who.  But, as one of the people working at the Who Store table responded when I told him that, “Those days are long gone.”

Joe and Hilarie Staton

After the Ian McDiarmid panel, I headed back to Artist Alley.  Walking up and down the aisles, I was somewhat disappointed that I was on such a tiny budget, because there were so many artists doing such amazing sketches, and selling some really nice published comic book pages.  But once I got to Joe Staton’s table, my regrets vanished.  Staton did an absolutely stunning drawing of Catwoman in my sketchbook.  It has to be one of the best pieces I’ve gotten in the book.  I decided it was better to have gotten one really outstanding sketch than a handful of average pieces.  So I know I made the right choice.

As always, there were some fans wearing amazing costumes at the Comic Con.  I took photographs of several of them.  You can view them on Flickr:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bh123/sets/72157631780614797/detail/

All in all, it was a pretty fun convention.  I enjoyed myself.  Hopefully next year, though, I’ll have a bigger budget and be able to attend more than one day, because I’d like to be able to see more of the show, and also pace myself instead of rushing all over the place!

Comic book reviews: Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis

Okay, so I was originally going to do a write-up on Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis in an upcoming post on graphic novels that I’ve been reading.  But then I realized it didn’t quite fit into that category.  Written & drawn by Simon Fraser, The Mines of Charybdis originally appeared as a weekly web comic on ACT-I-VATE in 2009, and subsequently appeared in print as an eight part serial in the Judge Dredd Megazine.  In 2011, Fraser released a limited edition trade paperback collection of the story, and I was fortunate enough to score a copy of that.

The Scottish-born Fraser is probably best known for co-creating with Robbie Morrison the swashbuckling Russian rogue Nikolai Dante in the pages of 2000 AD.  Fraser has worked on a number of other features for that famed British anthology, including flagship character Judge Dredd.  Among his other works was an excellent comic book adaptation of the Richard Matheson novel Hell House done with Ian Edginton at IDW.

Lilly Mackenzie is Fraser’s creator owned series.  Lilly is a sexy space adventurer, seemingly bubbly and carefree, but with a dark family past.  Her best friend is Cosmo Judd, a brilliant scientist who happens to be a midget, and so is consequently underestimated by many people.  Cosmo carries an unrequited attraction to Lilly.

Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis

The Mines of Charybdis sees Lilly attempting to track down her long lost, ne’er do well brother.  The trail has led to the brutal mining world of Charybdis.  The planet is surrounded by an EMP field, meaning that all electronic equipment does not work.  Settlers and prisoners are sent down in unpowered space capsules, where they are expected to spend the rest of their lives.  The only way of launching the mined ore & minerals back into space is via a mass accelerator.  Due to the enormous acceleration needed to escape the planet’s surface, this would kill any human beings attempting to travel on it.

In other words, Lilly and Cosmo need to find a way to sneak onto a planet with no advanced technology, find Lilly’s brother in a desolate wilderness, and then come up with some sort of method of escaping the planet that won’t leave them pulverized.  The problem is pretty well summed up in an exchange between the two, when Lilly asks “Can’t we just, I dunno, improvise something,” and a disbelieving Cosmo shoots back “Improvise? Improvise what? Physics? Maybe Newton, Einstein and Sinclair got it wrong?”

Of course, Cosmo eventually does come up with a plan to get down to Charybdis safely and, in turn, theorizes a brilliant, yet incredibly dangerous, method of possibly getting the pair of them off the planet.  Possibly, because even if he can get it to work, there’s still no guarantee it won’t end up killing the pair of them.  And before they can even attempt this, they have to locate Lilly’s brother while dealing with any number of desperate thugs and crooks who are imprisoned on Charybdis.

Fraser does a superb job of blending two often disparate aspects of science fiction, namely space opera and “hard science” speculative fiction.  He appears to have conducted a thorough amount of research into physics to have devised Cosmo’s ingenious scheme.  Fraser also adds in what you might consider to be high-octane, adrenaline-packed action sequences, with Lilly doing some major ass-kicking.  And at the same time, he makes sure to really develop his characters, to show the depths of their personalities.

It’s unfortunate that economics only allowed Fraser to release the collected edition of Lilly Mackenzie & The Mines of Charybdis in a limited print run, because it is an excellent story, one I highly recommend.  But you can read it in the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine #298 to #305.  Those may be difficult to locate here in the States (you can always try to find them on Ebay or something) so if not, then definitely go to the ACT-I-VATE website and read it there.  Fraser’s sequel, The Treasure of Paros, is also online, along with various other excellent series by a number of talented creators.

The ACT-I-VATE Primer

In 2009, IDW published The ACT-I-VATE Primer, a hardcover anthology featuring 16 new stories.  Among the creators whose work is featured in The ACT-I-VATE Primer are Dean Haspiel, Roger Langridge, Pedro Camargo, Molly Crabapple, Tim Hamilton, and Mike Cavallaro.  Fraser’s contribution was “When Lilly Met Cosmo,” a prequel tale that reveals how Lilly Mackenzie and Cosmo Judd first met.  It’s a good story in an excellent collection of material, and I highly recommend purchasing a copy.

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.

Free Comic Book Day 2012 at Jim Hanley’s Universe

As you may have noticed, I go back & forth in terms of topics.  Most of the time I write about comic books & sci-fi, but occasionally I will share my thoughts on political or societal issues.  I hope the shifting of gears isn’t too disconcerting!  In any case, today I’ll be going back to the lighter side of things, and talking about Free Comic Book Day 2012, which this year was on May 5th.

I went to the big event that was held at Jim Hanley’s Universe, a comic shop on 33rd Street in Manhattan by the Empire State Building.  The store was giving away the Free Comic Book Day special issues released by Marvel, DC, and a variety of independent publishers.  I decided to go with the “indies” this year, and got the spotlight books from Image, IDW, and Valiant, plus The Censored Howard Cruise published by Boom! Town.  The books were understandably of a promotional nature, with mostly excerpts from upcoming comics and interviews with creators.  I was disappointed that the IDW volume was nothing but a big catalog, but looking through it, they do publish a diverse range of titles and graphic novels.

In addition to the give-away books, Jim Hanley’s Universe had several comic book creators as guests: Robert Venditti, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Dan Slott, and ChrisCross.

Venditti is the writer helming the re-launch of X-O Manowar from Valiant Comics.  I read a lot of the original Valiant titles back when I was in high school and college.  For a while, they had some good books.  Hopefully the company’s revival will bring about some quality titles.  Venditti was signing copies of the first issue of X-O Manowar.  I bought a copy, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  But skimming through it, the artwork by Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano looks amazing.

What can I say about Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez?  He is just an amazing artist who has worked at DC Comics for several decades.  The thing is, he is not what you would regard as a “household name,” because he’s never had a lengthy stint drawing any particular series.  But the odds are very, very good that you have seen his work without realizing it.  In the 1980s and 90s, he was the main licensing & style guide artist for DC, producing hundreds of pieces of artwork that were used on all manner of products: t-shirts, cups & mugs, posters, toy packaging, etc, etc.  Of the work he has done which is credited, Garcia-Lopez illustrated some amazing stories, working on characters such as Superman, Batman, Jonah Hex, and Deadman.  I am especially fond of his depictions of Wonder Woman.  He draws the Amazon princess as a stunningly beautiful yet strong and confident figure.  In addition to getting several books signed by him, I was fortunate enough to get a quick sketch of Wonder Woman from Garcia-Lopez.

It was cool meeting Dan Slott again.  He is probably one of the nicest guys in the comic book biz.  Slott’s been writing Amazing Spider-Man for the last few years.  I brought along my copy of Justice League Adventures #11, which was a very moving, emotional issue, to get autographed.  It turns out that was one of Slott’s favorite comics that he’s worked on, and he explained the background behind how he came to write that particular story.

Finally, I ended up waiting on line a while to get ChrisCross’s signature on a few books.  He was generously doing free, detailed sketches for everyone who wanted one, and there were a bunch of teenagers in front of me getting drawings by him.  Considering that the last time ChrisCross was at JHU he took the time to do a nice Batman sketch from him, I figured that I ought to be patient and let some other people have their turns.  Besides, ChrisCross is an amazing artist, so I definitely wanted to get a few things autographed.  I asked him if he was working on any new projects, and he said he is, but the details are top-secret.  I’ll just have to keep my eye out for his work in the future.

So that was Free Comic Book Day at JHU.  As you can imagine, it was really crowded & hectic, but a lot of fun.  It looked like the staff was ready to drop from exhaustion, though, and I don’t blame them!

I took a few photos at JHU which I posted on Flickr.  Here’s a link:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bh123/sets/72157629626265134/

Anyway, if you happen to be in the New York City area, Jim Hanley’s Universe is a cool comic shop that’s well worth checking out.

A marvelous G.I. Joe reunion at IDW

I’ve been enjoying the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series that IDW has been publishing for the past couple of years.  The main drawing point has, of course, been the return of writer Larry Hama to the characters he made such a phenomenon in the 1980s.

(I previously did a review of the first two IDW trade paperback collections on Yahoo Contributor Network, but that’s no longer online.  One of these days I should re-post it on this blog.)

GI Joe Annual 2012 cover

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero has continued to be enjoyable.  The recently-released 2012 annual was definitely a highlight.  Hama took a break from the monthly storylines to present a stand-alone tale focusing on a rogue Cobra Crimson Guard unit attempting to carry out a terrorist plot, with both the Joe team and Zartan’s outlaw Dreadnoks racing to thwart them.  The writing may not have been nearly as strong as Hama’s work on the monthly book, but it contained an abundance of his trademark dry wit & deadpan humor.

(I don’t think Hama likes the term “deadpan humor” but I’m not quite sure how else to describe it.  Well, whatever you want to call it, it works very well.)

The main selling point for me was the line-up of artists.  Ron Frenz, Ron Wagner, and Herb Trimpe shared penciling duties, with Sal Buscema inking the entire story.  In service of the multiple artists, Hama cleverly structured his storytelling to shift focus between the three groups.  The Guardsmen pages were penciled by Frenz, the Cobra and Dreadnoks pages by Wagner, and the G.I. Joe pages by Trimpe.  Buscema’s inking gave the overall book a certain uniform feel, so that the transitions back and forth between the trio of pencilers were not jarring.

GI Joe Annual 2012 pg 18

The annual was something of a mini-Marvel Comics reunion, both in terms of the G.I. Joe title and in a broader sense.  Each of the four artists produced a large body of work at Marvel in the past.  In regards to G.I. Joe, Trimpe was the book’s original artist in the early 1980s.  Even though he has drawn numerous covers for the IDW series, this annual features his first interior work for the revival.  Wagner also worked on G.I. Joe, penciling the book in the late 1980s.

Additionally, both Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema had momentous, nearly-uninterrupted runs penciling Marvel’s Incredible Hulk series.   Trimpe was the artist on the Hulk from 1968 to 1975, while Buscema drew the Hulk between 1976 and 1985.  So you have two men who are almost universally regarded as the definitive illustrators of one of Marvel’s most recognizable characters.  And, as far as I am aware, they have only worked together on a handful of occasions in the past (I believe Trimpe was inked by Buscema on a few issues of Incredible Hulk way back in 1971).  So, for a long-time Marvel fan such as myself, it was a thrill to see the two collaborating on this annual.

GI Joe Annual 2012 pg 19

Of course, I would be even happier to see Trimpe & Buscema together again on a Hulk story.  I don’t know if Marvel would even be interested in such a project.  But occasionally they do publish a “retro” special or flashback sequence, so it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.   Until that happens, this G.I. Joe annual serves as a nice reunion between the two comic book legends.

In any case, considering the very unfortunate tendency of Marvel (as well as DC) to offer less and less work to older artists such as Trimpe and Buscema, or even to such talents as Frenz or Wagner, who both had regular monthly gigs as recently as the 1990s, I certainly appreciate them being given the opportunity to produce new work.  For that reason alone, the 2012 G.I. Joe annual is well worth picking up.