Santa Gone Bad: Saint Nick the supervillain

Having written a serious political piece just last week, I am now veering 180 degrees in the opposite direction, and barreling straight into the ridiculous. Nothing like a complete lack of consistency to really confuse anyone following this blog!

Today is Christmas Eve.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish, but I find aspects of the Christmas holiday to be baffling.  It is intended to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who preached the virtues of humility, kindness, and a humble existence.  Somehow two thousand years later this is commemorated by, um, a fat guy in a red suit giving expensive gifts to all the good children of the world.  Wait, I thought good works were their own reward?  And didn’t Jesus warn about the dangers of wealth & materialism?  Hmmph, no wonder I am so skeptical of organized religions!

Obviously I am not the only one to find Santa Claus a ridiculous figure, since there are innumerable examples of people parodying Old Saint Nick.  One especially prevalent trend is to have Santa as the bad guy, the jolly old fellow turned villainous.  That’s especially the case in comic books.  The image of Santa as a supervillain, or at least as a violent anti-hero, seems irresistible to comic book creators.

Here are ten comic book covers featuring Santa Claus gone bad.  Forget jingle bells… this is more like hell’s bells.

Iron Man 254 cover

Iron Man #254 (March 1990) from Marvel Comics features Shellhead under attack from a pistol-packing Santa, courtesy of one of the Armored Avenger’s all time greatest artists, the legendary Bob Layton.  Of course, considering all of the naughty behavior that Tony Stark has gotten up to over the years, it’s quite possible that Kris Kringle actually has very good reason to be gunning for him.

Creepy 68 cover

As oversized black & white magazines, the horror comic books of Warren Publishing were free from the stifling standards of the Comics Code Authority, which frequently meant that they piled on the blood & guts with enthusiastic gusto.  Witness this cover to Creepy #68 (Jan 1975), featuring early work from now-renowned fantasy artist Ken Kelly.  Obviously this is one of those occasions when Saint Nick felt that a simple lump of coal wasn’t nearly punishment enough.

Santa Claws 1 cover

Speaking of early work, the very first job future superstar artist Mike Deodato Jr. had in American comic books was the one-shot Santa Claws published by Malibu / Eternity in December 1991. Well, everyone has to start somewhere!  Only three years later Deodato was red-hot, in demand across the entire industry, so it’s not surprising that this debut effort eventually got the reprint treatment, seeing a re-release in 1998.

The Last Christmas 2 cover

I tell you, nobody is safe from those seemingly-ubiquitous zombie apocalypses, not even Santa Claus!  The five issue miniseries The Last Christmas, published by Image Comics in 2006, sees the once-jolly one pitted against an army of the undead amidst the ruins of civilization.  It was written by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn, penciled by Rick Remender, and inked by Hilary Barta.  The cover to issue #2, penciled by Remender’s good pal Kieron Dwyer and inked by Barta, features zombie fighting, drunk driving Santa.

Witching Hour 28 cover

The Bronze Age horror anthologies published by DC Comics often featured incredibly striking, macabre covers.  One of the most prolific artists to contribute to those titles was the late, great Nick Cardy.  Here’s his ho-ho-horrifying cover to The Witching Hour #28 (February 1973).  I think the main reason why Santa is in such a bad mood here is because even as a skeleton he’s still fat!

Heavy Metal Dec 1977 cover

The December 1977 edition of sci-fi comic book anthology Heavy Metal must be one of the very few in the magazine’s entire history not to feature a sexy half-naked babe on the cover. But, um, I’ll give them a pass on this one.  It’s probably safer to do that than to argue with the very angry Santa Claus who’s glaring right at me.  French artist Jean Solé is the one who has brought us this heavily-armed Pere Noel.

Daredevil 229 cover

Has Daredevil ever had a Christmas that didn’t suck?  It seems like every time December 25th approaches Matt Murdock’s life goes right into the crapper.  That was never more the case than in the now-classic “Born Again” storyline by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli.  His life destroyed by the ruthless Kingpin, the disgraced and destitute Matt finds himself wandering the streets of Manhattan.  To add insult to industry, Matt is mugged by Hell’s Kitchen lowlife thug Turk in a Santa Claus suit.  Mazzucchelli’s vivid cover for Daredevil #229 (April 1986) is just one of the many iconic images he crafted for the “Born Again” arc.

Sleigher 1 cover

Action Lab Entertainment has published some really fun comic books, as well as some really weird ones.  I will let you make up your own minds which category Sleigher: The Heavy Metal Santa Claus falls under.  The cover to issue #1 (July 2016) is credited to artist Axur Eneas, who has also contributed to Action Lab’s The Adventures of Aero-Girl.

Flash 87 cover

Can even the Fastest Man Alive defeat Evil Santa times three?  That’s the question you’ll be asking yourself when you see the cover to Flash #87 (Feb 1994) by the team of Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  Well, either that, or you’ll be wondering why exactly this trio of Kris Kringles are clan in tee-shirts, shorts, and sneakers.  Hmmmm… maybe they’re from Australia?  After all, Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere takes place at the beginning of Summer.  I’m sure even Santa wants to dress appropriately for warm weather.

Incredible Hulk 378 cover

Peter David’s lengthy run on Incredible Hulk was characterized by equal parts heartbreaking drama and irreverent humor.  That was certainly the case with issue #378 (Feb 1991) which sees the Grey Hulk, aka Joe Fixit, slugging it out with none other than Father Christmas… okay, 28 year old spoilers, that’s actually the Rhino in the Santa outfit.  This cover is penciled by Bill Jaaska, a talented artist who passed away at the much too young age of 48 in 2009.  Inks are courtesy of Bob McLeod, one of the best embellishers in the biz.

Lobo Christmas Special pg 43

An honorable mention goes to the infamous Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special released by DC Comics in late 1990.  Keith Giffen, Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, Lovern Kindzierski & Gaspar Saladino reveal what happens when the Easter Bunny hires the Main Man to kill Santa Claus.  The brutal mercenary succeeds in offing Saint Nick… don’t worry, he had it coming.  This exceedingly violent story  comes to a close when Lobo decides to use the late Kris Kringle’s flying reindeer & sleigh to nuke the hell out of the entire planet.

Credit where credit is due department: This was inspired by Steve Bunche, who shared a few of these on Facebook.  Steve has probably the most absolutely NSFW Facebook feed you could possible imagine, so if you want to say “hello” to him wait until you’re in the privacy of your own home.  You’ve been warned.

Happy holidays to one and all.  Remember to be good for goodness sake… because, as these covers demonstrate, you really do not want to piss off that Santa guy!

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.

Happy birthday to Sal Buscema

Today is the 78th birthday of one of my favorite comic book artists, Sal Buscema, who was born on January 26, 1936.  “Our Pal Sal,” as he is often affectionately referred to by comic book fans, is the younger brother of the late, great John Buscema (1927-2002), another of the amazing artists whose work defined the look of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.

For an extremely in-depth look at Sal Buscema’s career, I highly recommend picking up the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, written by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weathington, published by TwoMorrows.  Also now out in comic shops is Back Issue #70, edited by Michael Eury, and also released by TwoMorrows. Examining the Hulk throughout the Bronze Age, one of the subjects naturally touched upon is Buscema’s record ten year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from late 1975 to mid 1986.  That said, I am going to look at a few specific, favorite areas of Buscema’s career.

Sal Buscema Comics Fast & Furious Artist cover

One of Buscema’s first assignments at Marvel was penciling Avengers in 1969.  This was something of a baptism by fire, considering Sal had the render numerous heroes and villains in the storylines being written by Roy Thomas.  Nevertheless, Buscema did great work out of the gate, turning in quality pencils for the Avengers’ now-classic encounters with Ultron, the Zodiac Cartel, the Lethal Legion, and the forces of the extraterrestrial Kree and Skrull, those later issues being part of the epic “Kree-Skrull War,” which also featured the artistry of Sal’s brother John and a young Neal Adams.

Around this same time, John Buscema, who was somewhat picky about who inked his work, asked Sal to embellish his pencils on several issues of Silver Surfer.  Looking at the black & white reprints of those stories in Essential Silver Surfer, I’d say that Sal did a great job, really bringing out the best in his brother’s work.

In late 1971, Sal Buscema became the penciler on Captain America, a book which at the time was floundering somewhat both in terms of sales and creative stability.  In mid-1972, Buscema was joined by incoming writer Steve Englehart.  Together, the two of them took the characters of Cap and the Falcon on a creative renaissance.  Their run is now regarded as one of the high points in the long history of the book.  It is certainly one of my favorites.   Englehart focused squarely on Cap’s uncertain place in the extremely unsettled social & political climate of the early 1970s.  Buscema turned in exemplary pencils, creating one of the definitive renditions of the character.  The high point of their run was undoubtedly “The Secret Empire,” a story arc that ran from #169 to #176.

Captain America 175 pg 1

Buscema departed from Captain America shortly afterwards.  His last regular issue was #181, cover-dated January 1975.  By the time he was already a few years into a run penciling The Defenders.  One of the main characters in that title was the Hulk, a character Buscema drew extremely well, and who he has stated on several occasions was a favorite of his.  He has expressed a fondness for the character, a tortured child-like creature perceived as a dangerous monster and cast out from society.  So it was certainly a judicious choice for Marvel to offer him the assignment to pencil Incredible Hulk later that year.  As I said before, Buscema had a decade-long run on that series, once again creating a definitive interpretation of one of Marvel’s icons.

I’ve written about Sal Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk a couple of times before on this blog, specifically issue #285 and #309.  Both written by Bill Mantlo, each of these issues had extremely different tones and atmospheres to them.  Comparing those two comics, you can really see Buscema’s versatility as an artist.

One of my favorite titles that Buscema worked on was Rom Spaceknight, beginning with the debut issue in late 1979, and remaining on the title until issue #58 in 1984.  Nearly the entirety of the series was written by the aforementioned Bill Mantlo.  He and Buscema worked really well together.  Mantlo’s Rom Spaceknight stories were a deft blending of superheroes, sci-fi, horror, and conspiracy fiction.  Buscema expertly illustrated this cocktail of diverse elements.  He also excelled at drawing Rom himself, a near-featureless metal figure.  Buscema had to rely on his mastery of capturing the nuances of body language to give emotion to the cyborg hero.  Buscema drew on his amateur theater background to make Rom a lifelike individual.

Rom Spaceknight 1 pg 1

Buscema had been the original artist on Spectacular Spider-Man when it debuted in 1976, penciling the first couple of years.  A decade later, in 1988, he returned to the book with a refined style to his art which was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Buscema, first with writer Gerry Conway, and then with J.M. DeMatteis, produced what I regard as some of the finest work of his career.  His storytelling and nuanced emotional depictions of characters were especially stunning on DeMatteis’ moody, psychological run from #178 to #200.

DeMatteis was following up on one of the threads from his time writing Captain America and the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story, specifically the tragic story of the man-rat Vermin.  The author wove this around the conflict between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the latter of whom, haunted by memories of his then still very much dead father Norman, became unhinged and took up the identity of the Green Goblin.  This all culminated in the tragic issue #200, which Buscema magnificently illustrated.

Spectacular SpiderMan 182 cover

Buscema remained on Spectacular Spider-Man until #238.  Towards the end of this run, he was inked by John Stanisci and, appropriately enough, Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist who had inspired him to experiment with his long-established style.  I really liked the pairing of Buscema and Sienkiewicz.

In the mid-1990s, when Marvel was in the uphevals of bankruptcy, Buscema had to look for work elsewhere.  For several years he was employed by Marvel’s distinguished competition themselves, DC Comics.  At DC, Buscema both penciled and inked a number of different titles, including various Batman and Superman books.  It was really interesting to see the long-time Marvel artist on DC’s flagship characters.  Buscema did some great work during this time.  One of my favorite stories he penciled at DC was “The Prison,” written & inked by John Stanisci, which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #8.  It examined the dark, convoluted relationship between Batman and Talia, the daughter of the Dark Knight’s immortal nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.  Buscema did a nice job on this, and it was great to see him paired with Stanisci again.

Batman Chronicles 8 pg 5

Since 2000, Buscema has been semi-retired.  Most of his work in the last decade and a half has been as an inker.  His most frequent artistic partner is penciler Ron Frenz.  The two of them make a great art team.  They had a long run on Spider-Girl.  Subsequently they’ve also worked on ThunderstrikeHulk Smash Avengers, She-Hulk, Black Knight G.I. Joe, and Superman Beyond.

After over four decades in the comic book industry, nowadays Sal Buscema is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Nevertheless, as a huge fan of his work, I am very happy that he does still venture back into the biz from time to time for the occasional job.  It is always a thrill for me to see new artwork from him.  Our Pal Sal is definitely an amazing talent.

I am happy to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talents. There is a Facebook group entitled SAL BUSCEMA POW! which currently has 619 members.  Somehow I ended up being the co-moderator of this one.  So, if you are also a fan of his work, feel free to join.

(One Year Later Update… as of today, January 26, 2015, the SAL BUSCEMA POW! group on Facebook now has 1,466 members.  A big “thank you” to everyone who joined in the last year.  It’s nice to hear from so many fellow fans of Our Pal Sal.)

Once again, happy birthday, Sal!  Thank you for all the wonderful stories and artwork that you’ve given us.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Incredible Hulk Vol 5

I have to admit to being an old-school Marvel Zombie, and that often extends to my opinions of which artists drew the definitive versions of certain characters.  When it comes to the Hulk, the two names that immediately come to mind are Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema.  If I had to pick a third artist, I’d go with Dale Keown, who penciled some astonishing issues of Incredible Hulk in the early 1990s.  But “Happy Herby” and “Our Pal Sal,” as they were referred to back in the day, are tied for first place, at least in my mind.  I’ve written about Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk before.  So here are a few thoughts on Trimpe, who I have always felt is a very talented, underrated artist.

Herb Trimpe had a seven year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from #106 in 1968 to #193 in 1975.  During that period, he missed a mere two issues.  Strange as it is to say, though, I haven’t actually read a large number of the issues that Trimpe worked on.  But there have been certain covers and pin-ups of the character drawn by him that have been repeatedly reprinted over the years.  And, of course, Incredible Hulk #s 180-181, the first Wolverine story, periodically gets the reprint treatment.  So it really seems like I’ve seen a whole lot more of Herb’s Hulk than I actually have.

I set out to rectify that.  I think most of his issues have been collected in black & white Essential volumes.  But I found a copy of Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, which reprints #s 111-121, for sale at half price.  I’d much rather read some of his stories in color.  After all, the Hulk just isn’t the same if he is not colored green.

Incredible Hulk 111 pg 13

The majority of the writing on this volume is by Stan Lee, with Roy Thomas coming in to script #120 before taking over fully with #121.  My favorite story had to be the two-part tale that opens this volume, which sees the Hulk snatched off into outer space, pitted against the menace of the cosmic-powered Galaxy Master and his army of alien pawns.  And once those servants see the Hulk resisting their tyrannical master, they decide to throw of the shackles of slavery, resulting in a huge battle between the Galaxy Master and a fleet of space rockets.  Trimpe must have been really inspired by Lee’s plots, because the artist does phenomenal work.  Trimpe’s layouts & storytelling are absolutely dynamic in these two issues.  This really shows that, even this early in his career, he knew how to draw a riveting story.

Once the Hulk returns to Earth, I think the stories become rather more mundane, with the Hulk settling into a pattern of fighting the military over some misunderstanding, or being tricked into a partnership with various supervillains.  Perhaps Trimpe was somewhat less inspired by the plots on these issues, because his work, while solid and professional, doesn’t really display the dynamic energy of the Galaxy Master story.

In the midst of this is a three-part story featuring the Hulk’s arch-foe, the Leader, who pretends to want to turn over a new leaf and seemingly proves himself by helping General Thunderbolt Ross imprison the Hulk.  Of course the Leader is really just doing this to get his adversary out of the way while simultaneously gaining the trust of the military, enabling him to enact a plan for global domination right out of a James Bond movie.  He’s going to seize control of General Ross’ base and launch a nuclear missile at the Soviet Union, starting World War III, with the intent of ruling over all the survivors.  Of course the Hulk, with an assist from Betty Ross, breaks free and smashes the Leader’s plans.

Incredible Hulk 115 pg 4

I think that before these issues, the Leader had been drawn as having a large but round skull to correspond to his gamma radiation-enlarged brain.  Trimpe seems to be the artist who tweaked the design, giving us the Leader with the now-famous head that shoots straight up, a version that would endure for the next two decades.  While I do wonder how this guy walks around without bumping his head in doorways or on the ceiling, it is an instantly recognizable look.

After splashing down into an aquatic scuffle with Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Hulk encounters Maximus the Mad and his renegade faction of Inhumans.  Maximus manages to manipulate the Hulk into fighting the U.S. armed forces, and we get some more excellent action sequences from Trimpe.  Certainly the stand-out piece is the cover to issue #120, a truly iconic image of the Hulk fighting the military.

Incredible Hulk 120 cover

With the shift to Roy Thomas as writer in #121, we get an interesting, unusual tale, “Within the Swamp, There Stirs… a Glob!”  Amidst the Florida wilderness, the Hulk encounters an eerie muck monster, a dead man resurrected as a shambling monstrosity by radioactive material and, it is implied, some mystical element of the swamp itself.  The Glob, prodded on by the memory of a long-lost love, kidnaps Betty Ross.  Of course the Hulk pursues the creature, intent on rescuing the one human being who has expressed sympathy & understanding for him.

Years later, in the pages of his magazine Alter Ego, Thomas freely admitted that he conceived the Glob in homage to the Golden Age character the Heap.  A self-proclaimed fan of the Heap, Thomas also later was involved in creating the similar Man-Thing.  Thomas even worked in a one-panel cameo by the Heap into an issue of Avengers during the famous “Kree-Skrull War” storyline.  And a few months ago a hardcover volume reprinting some of that character’s earliest appearances, Roy Thomas Presents The Heap, was released.  I wish I’d had a chance to pick that up when it came out.

In any case, Trimpe’s art on #121 is very good.  He does some rather moody, atmospheric work.  The Glob is quite effectively rendered by the artist.  I enjoyed this one so much that I wish it could have been a two part story.

Incredible Hulk 121 pg 17

If you pick up Marvel Masterworks: Incredible Hulk Volume 5, you’ll certainly find some nice art by Herb Trimpe.  In his introduction to this volume, Trimpe is somewhat dismissive of his work on these issues.  They do say artists are their own harshest critics.  Admittedly this was early in his career.  Throughout the 1970s and 80s he would certainly grow & develop as an artist, seeing much improvement.  But there is definite potential in this early work.  Undoubtedly the strongest aspect of his work here is his superb storytelling.  Trimpe really knows how to lay out a page and tell a story.

So, yeah, I’d recommend checking out Trimpe’s amazing run on Incredible Hulk.  If you don’t want to pick up the expensive Marvel Masterworks volumes, the Essential collections are perfect for the reader on a budget.

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #309

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

Incredible Hulk 309 cover

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

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

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

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

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incredible Hulk 309 pg 10

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

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

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

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

Strange Comic Books: Incredible Hulk #285

The very first issue of Incredible Hulk that I ever read was #285, cover-dated July 1983.  Prior to this, I had avidly watched the Hulk cartoon that ran on Saturday mornings in the early 1980s, and of course I had seen at least a few episodes of the television series starring Bill Bixby & Lou Ferrigno.  But Incredible Hulk #285 was the first time I had the opportunity to read any of the character’s actual comic book adventures.  And, I have to say, even at six-and-a-half years old, I knew that it was a bit of a strange issue.

Incredible Hulk 285 cover

Incredible Hulk #285 is topped off by a fantastic cover drawn by artists Ron Wilson & Joe Sinnott.  As a kid, I thought it was an amazing image.  But, even so, it wasn’t your typical Hulk scene, to be sure.  First off, rather than fighting the military or a supervillain or even some sort of monster, the Hulk’s enemy was this giant orange figure seemingly made out of flames.  I hadn’t seen anything like that before.  And, even odder, instead of striding around in his usual pair of torn-up pants, on this cover the Hulk was wearing a suit & tie.  Very strange.  That said, his pants were still purple, so not everything about him had changed!

Flipping open the book, I came to the first page of “Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life,” written by Bill Mantlo, with artwork by Sal Buscema & Chic Stone.  Once again, the Hulk was wearing a well-pressed suit, his hair neatly combed.  On top of that, rather than running around on a destructive rampage, there he was seated at a desk, narrating his memoirs into a Dictaphone.

Incredible Hulk 285 pg 1

As I read onward, over the course of the next several pages the Hulk recounted to the readers how Dr. Bruce Banner, creator of the Gamma Bomb, had been caught in the explosion of the weapon he created, mutating him into a being who transformed into a savage monster whenever overwhelmed by stress or anger.  Following this is an amazing two page spread by Buscema & Stone that illustrates the chaotic life of the Hulk over the next several years, the long and winding road taken by a green goliath who was more often than not hunted by humanity.  And, at the end of it, we find the cause of the Hulk’s current status: at long last, after all this time, Bruce Banner has managed to gain control, to retain his human intelligence when transforming into the Hulk.

While the Hulk has been busy recounting his life, a crew of workers from Stark Industries headed up by Scott Lang (Ant-Man) has been constructing Northwind Observatory, a laboratory where Banner can resume his scientific studies.  Turning back into his human form, Banner joins Lang to supervise the installation of the laboratory’s power core.  At the last minute, Banner discovers that the power core was not designed by Stark Industries, but acquired from a company called Soulstar.  Banner immediately recognizes the name, but before he can prevent it, the power core is hooked up, there is “a massive electromagnetic discharge,” and a strange being emerges.

This creature, we are informed, is Zzzax, the Living Dynamo.  Looking something like a humanoid lightning bolt, Zzzax is a creature that feeds on the human life force.  Before the monster can consume the stunned construction crew, Banner transforms back into the Hulk and tackles this old enemy of his.  Unfortunately, the Hulk quickly remembers that, in his old child-like persona, the angrier he got, the stronger he became.  But now, guided by Banner’s rational intellect, the Hulk cannot easily become angry, meaning his strength is limited.  And so the gamma-spawned giant realizes that, instead of relying on brute force to defeat Zzzax, he must now find a way to out-think his fiery foe.

Incredible Hulk 285 pg 17

As a kid, I thought Incredible Hulk #285 was a fantastic issue with an amazing bad guy.  Yep, the idea of an intelligent Hulk was a very unexpected change for me, but I just shrugged and read on.  Bill Mantlo’s script was a really good introduction to the character of the Hulk, neatly presented through the plot device of Bruce Banner penning his autobiography.  The second half, with the Hulk fighting Zzzax, was really exciting.

On the art side of things, the work by Sal Buscema was high quality.  This was the very first comic book I ever read that was penciled by him.  Buscema would become one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Several years ago, when “Our Pal” Sal appeared at a NYC comic book show, I had him autograph a copy of this issue.  It was actually my second copy, since I read the original one so many times as a kid that eventually the cover fell off!

(While I’m on the subject of Sal Buscema and Incredible Hulk, it’s definitely worth mentioning that he pencilled practically every issue of the series from issue #194 in 1975 thru to #309 in 1985.  Yep, he had a ten year run drawing the Hulk, and during that time I believe he missed only seven issues.  They definitely do not make artists like him anymore!)

In regards to Stone’s inking on #285, it is pretty good.  In the last three decades, having subsequently seen a great deal more of Buscema’s work, I have to admit that there were others who did a better job finishing his pencils, among them Joe Sinnott, Gerry Talaoc, and Buscema himself.  In the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, published by TwoMorrows, he admits that he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Stone’s inking.  Looking at it as an adult fan, yes, I tend to agree with him.  That said, back when I was a little kid completely lacking in any knowledge concerning the subtleties of inking, I thought the artwork by Sal & Chic looked just fine.  I guess that’s probably the more important thing.

Even though I really did enjoy Incredible Hulk #285, because I was just a few months shy of seven years old and I very seldom had a chance to buy comic books on my own, I ended up not reading another issue of the series for a couple of years.  When I finally did, it was Incredible Hulk #309.  And if I thought #285 was odd, well, that next one was downright bizarre!  But I’ll be covering that story in a future edition of Strange Comic Books.