The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Nine

Welcome to the ninth Comic Book Coffee collection. I’ve been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

41) Ramona Fradon & Mike Royer

We have selected panels from Plastic Man #14, penciled by Ramona Fradon, inked by Mike Royer, and written by Elliot S! Maggin, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1976 cover date.

It’s a late night at the headquarters of the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Chief tells his secretary Sundae to put on some coffee while he briefs his agents about a dangerous new threat to national security.  The Chief details to Plastic Man, Woozy Winks and Gully Foyle the gruesome origins of the oozing menace known as “Meat By-Product… The Dump That Walks!”  By the time the Chief is finished describing this monstrosity in excruciating detail, Plas and Co are so completely grossed out that when Sundae attempts to serve them coffee, donuts and cream-filled Danishes, they’re ready to toss their cookies.

I love Ramona Fradon’s artwork.  She has such a distinctive, unconventional, cartoony style.  She brought a very offbeat, fun, comedic sensibility to Metamorpho the Element Man, the character she co-created with writer Bob Haney and editor George Kashdan in 1965.  That definitely made her very well-suited to draw Plastic Man a decade later.  Fradon stated in interviews that he was one of her favorite characters to have worked on.

Fradon is inked here by Mike Royer.  Fradon loved Royer’s inking of her pencils on this story, and has said she wishes they’d had other opportunities to work together.  It’s certainly a great collaboration.

42) June Brigman & Roy Richardson

Here is a trio of coffee-related installments of the Mary Worth newspaper comic strip, penciled by June Brigman, inked by Roy Richardson, and written by Karen Moy.

In the November 10, 2017 strip, Iris is having late night coffee with her boyfriend Zak.  Iris and Zak had previously dated, but she wasn’t certain if they should be together, since she was several years older than Zak.  However, following her break-up with Wilbur she decided to give her relationship with Zak another shot.

Paralleling this, in the December 5, 2017 strip, Wilbur has returned home from his travels abroad. Over morning coffee (complete with a Hello Kitty coffee mug) he is catching up with his daughter Dawn.  Wilbur had a disastrous time in Bogota, where a woman attempted to scam him out of his money.  This has left him wondering if he should try to get back together with Iris, not knowing she is now involved with Zak.

Jumping forward a year to the November 26, 2018 strip, Mary agrees to foster Libby, a one-eyed tabby cat.  Libby is definitely a mischievous kitty, and when Mary tries to have her morning coffee the tabby knocks over her milk.  Mary ultimately cannot keep Libby, because her boyfriend Jeff is allergic to cats.  Fortunately Mary’s neighbor Estelle agrees to adopt Libby.

I liked the Libby storyline.  Libby reminds me of Champ, one of my girlfriend Michele’s old cats.  Champ was a one-eyed cat as well, the runt of the litter.  She was a sweet & affectionate kitty, and we were sad when she passed away from old age.

I’ve been a fan of June Brigman’s work ever since she co-created Power Pack with Louise Simonson at Marvel Comics in 1984.  Brigman has often worked with her husband Roy Richardson, an accomplished inker.  June and Roy have been drawing Mary Worth since 2016.  They both love cats, so I’m sure they enjoyed introducing Libby to the strip.  Please check out their awesome cat-centric sci-fi series Captain Ginger written by Stuart Moore from Ahoy Comics.

43) Mark Bright & Bob Layton

Iron Man #228, layouts by Mark Bright, finishes & co-plot by Bob Layton, script & co-plot by David Michelinie, letters by Janice Chiang, and colors by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics in March 1988.

One of the qualities of David Michelinie & Bob Layton’s runs on Iron Man that I have always appreciated has been their ability to write Tony Stark as a flawed, sometimes unsympathetic person while keeping his actions completely in character and believable.  Unlike some of the writers who followed them, they never had Stark acting in a wildly implausible manner simply to advance the plot.

Witness the now-classic storyline “Armor Wars” which saw Stark desperately attempting to destroy the technology he developed that was now in the hands of others.  As the story progressed, Stark became more and more obsessed, manipulative and ruthless, but the execution of this made it feel this progression was genuine.

Iron Man #228 sees Stark planning to attack the Vault, the federal penitentiary for incarcerating super-powered criminals, in order to destroy the Guardsmen armor that was developed from his technology.  While planning their assault, Stark and his close friend Jim Rhodes stop at a nearby greasy spoon for some coffee.  This scene by Layton, Michelinie and Mark Bright allows for a momentary pause in the action, enabling us to see the friendship and rapport that exists between Stark and Rhodes.

There’s very nice lettering by Janice Chiang on display here.  I love her work, and can usually spot it in an instant.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Stark’s anecdote, though…

“Took me three weeks to get rid of the blueberry stain. Had to tell the guys at the gym it was a tattoo.”

Sounds like it could be the punchline to a dirty story.  Whatever the set-up might have been, I doubt the Comics Code Authority would have approved!

44) Bob Oksner & Vince Colletta

This page is from the Lois Lane story “A Deadly Day in the Life” penciled by Bob Oksner, inked by Vince Colletta, written by Paul Levitz, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Jerry Serpe.  It appeared in Superman Family #212, published by DC Comics with a November 1981 cover date.

The relationship between Lois Lane and Superman in the Bronze Age was certainly somewhat of an improvement from how it was handled in the 1950s and 60s.  Lois was at least somewhat less catty and scheming and manipulative than she had been previously depicted, and Superman appeared to genuinely care for her.

At the same time, looking at in from a 21st Century perspective, it becomes much more obvious that Lois is in a relationship with a man who is actively hiding a major part of his personal life from her, and who regularly gaslights her whenever she comes close to uncovering the truth.

Nevertheless, given that the Bronze Age writers were required to maintain the Lois Lane-Clark Kent-Superman love triangle, they did fairly good work.  Paul Levitz writes Lois and Superman as two people who are comfortable with each other.  Bob Oksner’s background drawing romance and humor stories made him well-suited to penciling scenes like this.  Likewise, Vince Colletta’s own work in the romance genre results in an effective inking job.

Plus, I love the novelty of Superman using his heat vision to brew a cup of coffee for Lois.  Jim Thompson sent this page my way.  Yes, this IS from the same story he spotlighted where someone hurls a grenade into Lois’ bathroom while she’s taking a shower, and she tosses it back out the window before it explodes.  Good thing she had that cup of coffee beforehand!

45) Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr

As a follow-up to our last entry, these pages are from Adventures of Superman #525, penciled by Stuart Immonen, inked by Jose Marzan Jr, written by Karl Kesel, lettered by Albert DeGuzman, and colored by Glenn Whitmore, published by DC Comics in July 1995.

Prior issues of the Superman titles had introduced to Clark Kent’s old high school rival Kenny Braverman, who gained superpowers and joined a covert government agency… you know, like pretty much everyone else in comic books eventually does.  Braverman, who adopted the identity Conduit, learned that Clark was Superman and attempted to murder all of Clark’s friends and family.  In a final battle with Superman, the hate-filled Conduit’s powers consumed his body, killing him.

In this issue Clark is reunited with Lois Lane, who he believed had been killed by Conduit.  Clark explains to Lois that he is seriously considering giving up his secret identity to be Superman full-time, to prevent anyone else from being in danger due to their association with him.

Lois tells Clark she wants to go get a cup of coffee in the nearby town, but with one proviso: Clark needs to do it a Superman.  Changing into the Man of Steel, he goes to a nearby diner to order a cup of coffee, only to discover that everyone is ill-at-ease around him.  Some people are expecting a super-villain to attack any minute; others simply don’t know how to act around him.

Meeting up with Superman outside of town, Lois explains to him:

“You NEED a secret identity. It’s what protects you from people… and it’s what connects you to people. Under that costume you’re Clark Kent — you’ll always be Clark Kent. You can’t live without him… and neither can I!”

I feel that the post-Crisis continuity improved Lois Lane’s character a great deal. As I explained before, I was never overly fond of Lois.  I couldn’t understand why Clark / Superman wanted to be with her.  Even the efforts to make her less of a caricature in the 1970s were hampered by the need to maintain the Lois Lane-Superman-Clark Kent love triangle.  I think a clean break was needed for Lois, and Crisis provided John Byrne with that opportunity.

Of course, having subsequently read some of the original Siegel & Shuster stories, I now realize Byrne was actually returning Lois to her original conception, the intelligent, assertive, tough-as-nails investigative reporter of the early Golden Age, and away from the catty, scheming version that existed in the 1950s.

I also like that Byrne had Clark wanting to win Lois as himself, not as Superman, because Clark Kent was his real self, and “Superman” was the secret identity.

Byrne’s work with Lois and Clark definitely set the stage for Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens and others to write the characters in an interesting, adult relationship, and for Lois to finally learn that Clark was Superman.

In this issue Karl Kesel does really good work with the couple.  The artwork by Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr expertly tells the story.  And, wow, that coloring by Glenn Whitmore on page 19, with the sun setting in a dusky star-filled sky, is beautiful.

I know there are fans that are older than me who grew up on the Silver Age or Bronze Age comic books and did not like the changes made to these characters.  I can understand that.  I can only say that I read these stories when I was a teenager.  So for me this will always be MY version of Lois and Clark.

Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

It Came From the 1990s: Force Works #1-3

Welcome to another edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time I and my fellow SBTU participants will be looking at comic book “gimmick covers” from the 1990s.

The first gimmick cover was the silver foil cover featured on Silver Surfer #50, released by Marvel Comics with a June 1991 cover date.  It instantly sold out (14 year old me drove my parents nuts trying to find a copy) and was very quickly followed just a month later by Ghost Rider #15 with its glow-in-the-dark cover.  That issue also sold like hotcakes, and the age of the gimmick cover was upon us.  In the longstanding spirit of American capitalism jumping on a trend and riding it right into the ground, comic book publishers were very soon churning out gimmick covers an insane rate, until we were all very sick of them.

That brings us to the comic I’m spotlighting: Force Works, which debuted in mid-1994.  The first three issues were written by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, penciled by Tom Tenney, inked by Rey Garcia, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Joe Rosas.

Force Works 1 cover

I really think this was moment when gimmick covers demonstrably jumped the shark, when the gimmick became so utterly ridiculous & impractical that you were just left shaking you head in bemusement.

What was the particular gimmick cover that Force Works #1 featured?  Why, it was none other than a pop-up cover!  That’s right, when you pulled the flap on the front cover up and back, it unfolded into a three dimensional display of the Force Works team fighting an army of alien Kree soldiers.

Here are some photos I took of my own copy, which demonstrates the cover in action…

FW1coverA

FW1coverB

FW1coverC

The major problem with the Force Works pop-up cover was that it could be really difficult to get the darn thing to fold back closed.  When you lowered the flap back down, that central pop-up of Wonder Man, fist raised in the air, struggling against the Kree, had a tendency to get tangled up in the other pop-up pieces, resulting in the thing being stuck halfway open as seen in the photo below.  Any efforts to straighten it out would have to be done very carefully, otherwise the whole thing might just get torn in half.

FW1coverD
HELP!!! HOW DO YOU GET THIS DAMN THING CLOSED?!?

So, ludicrous cover gimmick aside, what the heck was Force Works about anyway?  Spun out from the recently-cancelled Avengers West Coast series, Force Works was an effort by Marvel Comics to replicate the edgy popularity of the bestselling X-Men spin-off X-Force devised by Rob Liefeld in 1991 and apply it to some of the Avengers characters.  It’s fairly obvious that Force Works was also an attempt to capture the tone (and readers) of the various other red-hot paramilitary superhero series that Liefeld and the other Image Comics founders subsequently created in the early 1990s such as Youngblood and Brigade.

This scene from the first issue of Force Works sums up the series’ mission statement, with Iron Man pitching the concept to his fellow ex-Avengers:

“The universe has become profoundly more dangerous since the Avengers were first assembled. These days the Earth plays a far more active role in matters of galactic importance.

“The stakes are far higher, far more often.

“I believe that it is the duty of Earth’s Mightiest to use their powers proactively, to protect this planet’s interests… and, if necessary, pursue an aggressive policy of defense and security.”

Force Works 1 pg 6

Ah, yes, the “proactive” super hero team… It’s an idea that sounds good in concept, but seldom works well in execution, at least not at either Marvel or DC Comics, with their shared universes and their ongoing serialized narratives that rely on the illusion of change to maintain a basic status quo.

For example, you cannot have the Avengers becoming proactive, invading Latveria, overthrowing Doctor Doom, and locking him up in a maximum security cell for life, because he’s just too darn popular a villain, and in six months another writer or editor is going to want to use him in their book.

Additionally, the more “proactive” or “aggressive” superheroes become, the closer they end up veering into fascist territory.  I’ve touched upon this before, but this is an unfortunate result of Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen being hugely successful, and comic books publisher then trying to apply the whole “grim & gritty” ethos to mainstream superheroes throughout the 1990s.  Yeah, Rorschach was a proactive, take-no-prisoners vigilante, but if you actually read the damn book it’s clear that Moore & Gibbons were showing us that he’s also a horrifying, insane monster.  But too many readers missed (or flat-out ignored) the subtext and just thought Rorschach was cool.  The publishers noticed that reaction and quickly jumped on that train.  Remember what I said before about taking a popular trend and running it completely into the ground?

Whatever the case, even though Iron Man intends for Force Works to be a “proactive, aggressive” team, it speaks volumes that their very first adventure is totally reactive, with first the Kree, and then the insect-like Scatter, attacking the Earth, instantly forcing the heroes into a defensive position.

Force Works 2 pg 22

Another reason why Force Works #1 was derided by many readers, besides that gimmick cover, was that it pointlessly killed off longtime Avengers member Wonder Man.  And this was just a few months after Mockingbird, another well-liked Avenger, had been pointlessly killed off in West Coast Avengers #100, once again for no other reason than to have a shocking, dramatic event.  Those two deaths back-to-back really felt like a slap in the face to Avengers fans.

Wonder Man and Mockingbird did both eventually return from the dead.  So, yeah, by the 1990s we were already at the point where death in superhero comics had become a predictable revolving door, and no one honestly expected anybody to stay deceased permanently.

The first issue of Force Works also introduced the brand new character of Century.  In a lot of respects Century just totally screams Nineties.  He has a cool-sounding name that doesn’t actually tell you anything about who he is or what he does, he has a ridiculously over-detailed costume design, he uses a freaking axe called Parallax that allows him to teleport by cutting through the fabric of space, and he has an ultra-mysterious past that even he isn’t sure about because he’s suffering from amnesia.  Oh, yes, he also had an odd speech pattern.  Century is a walking, talking thesaurus, as seen in these various examples from just the first three issues…

Force Works Century

Honestly, Century should be incredibly annoying, because on the surface he seems to epitomize everything that was awful about comic book characters introduced in the 1990s.  But the thing is, I think he’s actually really cool and interesting, both visually and character-wise.  It’s probably because DnA don’t write Century as some sort of kewl badass, but rather as a stranger in a strange land, a lost alien who exudes a genuine vulnerability.

It also helps considerably that DnA had apparently decided right from the get-go exactly what Century’s past was supposed to be, and they wrapped up the mystery of his origins only a year and a half later, rather than frustrating readers by  leaving it as a long-dangling subplot.

Looking over the run of Force Works again last week, with the storylines involving Century, the Kree, the Scatter and other characters, I can actually perceive hints of the sort of really good “cosmic” and space opera storytelling that DnA would be doing only a dozen years later with the epic Annihilation event and the super-successful revival of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Force Works 2 pg 10

It’s definitely worth noting that unlike a lot of up-and-coming young artists who were thrown onto comic books in the early 1990s with a remit to capture the tone of the Image Comics founders, Tom Tenney does a credible job penciling these issues.  His work here is solid, showing quite a bit of potential.

Tenney’s career in comics was relatively brief.  Subsequently he worked for a number of years in the music industry, which was another of his passions. In the last few years he’s returned to comics, once again creating interesting work, which can be seen on Facebook.  He’s listed as contributing a variant cover to the second issue of the upcoming Force Works 2020 miniseries.  That’s right, Marvel is bringing Force Works back.

Another point in favor of Force Works is inker Rey Garcia.  I really enjoyed the work done on the series by the Filipino-born artist.  Like many of his fellow countrymen who previously worked in comic books, Garcia had a very lush, illustrative style.

When considering Garcia’s work on Force Works, it must be pointed out that the series had an insanely high turnover rate for pencilers.  Tom Tenney regrettably only drew the first four issues, and after that it was a revolving door.  During Force Works’ 22 issue run there were literally a dozen pencilers who worked on it… at least, I think the total was 12, but I might have missed one or two.  Whatever the case, Garcia inked nearly every issue of Force Works, which helped keep the look of the series somewhat consistent through all of those changes.

Force Works 3 cover

So there you have it, Force Works #1, one of the more ridiculous mainstream comic books to come out during the 1990s.  Nevertheless, when all is said & done, I remain fond of some aspects of the series.  All these years later I still like the character Century.  Also, I appreciate how Abnett & Lanning worked to make the Scarlet Witch into a stronger, more assertive character by having her lead the team, and show her standing up to Tony Stark who, let’s face it, can definitely be a control freak.  I still regard both Tom Tenney and Rey Garcia as talented, underrated artists.  I also think this series was a bit of a harbinger to DnA’s later, better work.

Still, though, I certainly don’t lament the lack of subsequent fold-out comic book covers.  That was just too much!

SBTU Chromium

Here are the rest of the Super Blog Team-Up: Chromium participants.  Please check them out. Thanks! (I will be adding links as they become active.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths: Adventures of Superman #500 (White Bag/Lenticular Cover/etc.)

 

Chris is on Infinite Earths (Podcast): Episode 33: Team Titans #1 (1992) Five Variant Covers… and five variant stories!

 

Comic Reviews by Walt:  The ’90s Revisited: Shiny Covers

 

Source Material: Spider-Man Torment (issues 1-5) by Todd McFarlane

 

Super-Hero Satellite: 70s-80s Photo Covers: A snapshot of pre 90s era of gimmicks, the evolution of a trend through the years

 

ComicsComicsComics: Daredevil 319-325 Fall from Grace Gimmick covers and a new costume

 

The Telltale Mind: Worlds Collide – The Intercompany Crossover

 

Between The Pages: Guerilla Marketing

 

DC In The 80s – Justin and Mark’s 5 Most Memorable DC “Gimmick” Covers

 

Comics In The Golden Age (Mike) – Fawcett’s Mighty Midget comics

 

Unspoken Issues – Darkhawk #25

 

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog Connected Covers gimmicks – New Teen Titans 37/Batman and the Outsiders 5

 

When It Was Cool: The Blight of the Pollybagged Comic Book

 

Pop Culture Retrorama: Glow In The Dark Covers

 

Black & White and Bronze Comics Blog – Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine 1968: Stan Lee’s foray into the magazine format

2020 Visions: Machine Man and Iron Man

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion, today I am taking a quick look at the comic book adventures of Machine Man and Iron Man in the distant, far-off future year of, um, uh, 2020 AD… Okay, yeah, I can’t believe it’s 2020 already, either!

Machine Man mini 2 pg 22

Machine Man was created by none other than the legendary Jack Kirby himself, debuting in, of all places, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series, which had been inspired by the film / novel by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  First known as Mister Machine, aka X-51, he appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey #s 8-10 published in mid 1977.

Mister Machine was a robot who gained sentience, with one of the mysterious alien Monoliths from the movie playing a role in his evolution towards becoming almost human.  Following the cancellation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book, the character, renamed Machine Man, received his own ongoing series in early 1978.  Kirby wrote & penciled Machine Man for nine issues, with Mike Royer providing inks.

Machine Man mini 1 cover smallBy late 1978 Kirby had become disenchanted with mainstream comic books, and he left Marvel Comics to go into the animation field.  The storyline begun by Kirby in Machine Man was concluded by writer Roger Stern and penciler Sal Buscema a few months later in Incredible Hulk #s 234-237.  This was followed by a revival of the Machine Man ongoing series, picking up from the original numbering, with another Silver Age legend, Stave Ditko, as the artist.  Issue #s 10-14 were written by Marv Wolfman, with Tom DeFalco then writing #s 15-19.

In the early 1980s Machine Man made the occasional guest appearance here and there.  He was once again given the spotlight in 1984 with the Machine Man four issue limited series, set three and a half decades in the future, in the year 2020.  Tom DeFalco returned to wrote X-51’s future adventures.  The first three issues had pencils / breakdowns by Herb Trimpe, with finished art & colors by Barry Windsor-Smith, an unusual pairing that nevertheless worked very well.  BWS took over the full art chores for Machine Man #4, also co-plotting that final issue.  Michael, Higgins, Diana Albers, Janice Chiang and Jim Novak lettered an issue apiece, and the whole thing was edited by Larry Hama.

DeFalco’s story is set in a dark industrialized dystopia where corrupt corporations have seized political power (so, yeah, not too different from our actual real-world 2020, amiright?) and bands of anarchist scavengers hope to find a free, independent existence under the radar.  One of these groups of Midnight Wreckers, searching through a dumping ground belonging to Baintronics Inc, discovers a box containing the dismantled Machine Man.  Evading the Baintronics security forces, the Wreckers return to their base and re-assemble Machine Man.

Machine Man mini 1 pg 12

Baintronics is run by Sunset Bain, an industrialist & socialite who moonlighted as the masked arms dealer Madame Menace, clashing with Machine Man on more than one occasion back in the day.  Now in 2020 she is allied with Miles Brinkman, a former US Senator who is another old foe of X-51.  Brinkman had previously waged a McCarthy-esque campaign of fear-mongering against Machine Man, hoping to ride a wave of robotphobia to greater political power.

DeFalco has an interesting approach to the future incarnations of Bain and Brinkman.  At this point they have basically won, having amassed tremendous political & financial power, yet they are seemingly unable to enjoy their spoils, having grown old & tired, reduced to worn-out shadows of their former selves.  And once they learn that Machine Man has been reactivated they are consumed by uncontrollable paranoia that this former adversary will seek to destroy them.  The pair are defeated as much by their own failings as they are by Machine Man and the Midnight Wreckers.

Machine Man mini 3 pg 12

DeFalco shows that Machine Man is actually more human than either Sunset Bain or Miles Brinkman, who in their fear and panic project upon him their own ugly motivations of hatred and vengeance.  Machine Man, as well as his onetime love, the silver robot Jocasta (rebuilt by Bain to be her aide, but ultimately serving as her conscience), are more capable of feeling compassion and expressing forgiveness than their human foes.

The miniseries introduced Arno Stark, descendant of Tony Stark, the Iron Man of the year 2020.  Arno is an amoral mercenary, and he is more than happy to accept an assignment from Sunset Bain to hunt down & destroy Machine Man.  Iron Man clashes twice with Machine Man, and in both encounters he is defeated by his robot opponent.

Machine Man mini 4 pg 11

This leads into the events of the Iron Man 2020 special, which was published a decade later, in 1994.  It was co-plotted, by Bob Wiacek & Walter Simonson, scripted by Simonson, penciled & inked by Wiacek, with Will Rosado penciling the second half of the book over Wiacek’s layouts.  This was one of the all-too-infrequent penciling jobs by Wiacek, who is best known for his work as an inker / embellisher.  Rosado, who was early in his comic book career, also did good work here. The special was lettered by John Costanza and colored by Christie Scheele.Iron Man 2020 cover small

As a tie-in, Marvel re-issued the Machine Man miniseries as a two double-sized issues.  That was certainly helpful to me, as I hadn’t been reading comics regularly in 1984, and so missed the original release.

The Iron Man 2020 special opens very soon after the events of the miniseries.  Much like Bain and Brinkman before him, Arno Stark is a haunted man: haunted by his defeat at Machine Man’s hands, haunted by the burden of keeping the financially weakened Stark Enterprises afloat, and haunted by the seeming impossibility of living up to the legend of his ancestor, Tony Stark, the original Iron Man.  As the old saying goes, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.

Desperate to save his company, Arno accepts an offer from Marcus Wellington, one of his biggest competitors.  Arno is hired to rescue Wellington’s daughter Melodi, who has been kidnapped by terrorists and is being held for ransom.  Arno dons his Iron Man suit and sets course for the terrorists’ island stronghold.  Of course, as is often the case with corporate machinations, the situation is much more complicated than it initially appears, and Arno soon finds himself in the middle of more than one double cross.

The end result of these events are that they push Arno Stark towards, well, not necessary becoming a hero, by any means, but at least to start walking a slightly less avaricious, brutal path.

Iron Man 2020 pg 35

Hey, everyone loves a good redemption story.  Certainly Wiacek & Simonson make this one more believable than most by showing that it’s only just the beginning of Arno Stark’s path away from villainy.

I’ve met Bob Wiacek on a few occasions at comic book conventions.  A decade ago at a February 2010 show he did a drawing of Iron Man 2020 in my villains sketchbook.  It is a distinctive costume, a sort of retro future look, almost steampunk with those big gears, and he renders it well.

Iron Man 2020 by Bob Wiacek

I didn’t want to get into too many specific details about either the Machine Man miniseries or the Iron Man 2020 special, because I think they are both worth tracking down and reading.  Marvel published an Iron Man 2020 trade paperback in 2013 collecting both, along with several other stories.

Also, for those interested in Machine Man’s various Bronze Age incarnations (the original Kirby stories, the Ditko-drawn revival, and the 1984 miniseries) I recommend checking out Back Issue #25 from TwoMorrows Publishing.  “Call Me Mister… Mister Machine!” written by Allan Harvey is offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info concerning Machine Man’s adventures in the 1970s and 80s.

And of course, since it’s now 2020 in the real world, Marvel Comics is bringing back Arno Stark.  It seems that Tony Stark is going to die (what, again?!?) and Arno, who in “mainstream” Marvel continuity is Tony’s long lost twin brother (yes really!), will become the new Iron Man… at least until the inevitable resurrection.  Still, with writing by Dan Slott & Christos Gage, it sounds like it could be a fun ride.

Once again, happy new year to all of you.  Let’s hope 2020 is a good one. Or, as the Midnight Wreckers might have put it, “YAH-ZOO!”

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!

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round three: Axis

“Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.” – John Steinbeck

At long last here is the third and final part of my examination of the conflict between Magneto and the Red Skull, between the Holocaust survivor turned mutant revolutionary and the Nazi terrorist.  For those who have not already read them, here are links to Part One and Part Two.

Magneto 12 cover

Previously the Red Skull, who’d had the brain of the deceased telepath Charles Xavier grafted into his own, was brutally killed by Magneto.  Unfortunately, rather than ending the Skull’s threat, this caused him to transform into a new incarnation of Onslaught, the being originally created years before from the combined subconscious darkness of Xavier and Magneto’s minds.

(Or perhaps Onslaught was actually Rob Liefeld… I forget exactly.)

The Avengers and X-Men’s battle against the “Red Onslaught” and the terrible aftermath is seen in the Axis miniseries by writer Rick Remender and various artists.  Magneto’s perspective of these events is depicted in issue #s 11 and 12 of his solo series, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Roland Boschi, with covers by David Yardin.

In Axis #1, illustrated by Adam Kubert, the reborn Red Skull / Onslaught is spreading a psychic hate plague across the globe.  Havok, Rogue, the Scarlet Witch and Magneto attempt to stop the Skull.  It seems a hopeless task, especially as the three members of the Avengers Unity Squad want nothing to do with Magneto.  Havok, perhaps under the Skull’s psychic influence, attacks the master of magnetism, shouting at him “You damn murdering hypocrite! You’re just like him, Magneto!”

Axis 1 pg 13

The Avengers and X-Men, alerted to the Red Skull’s threat, arrive in Genosha.  After long months of tense relations between the two teams, they finally realize that they need to join forces against this common foe.  The towering Red Onslaught, however, is unimpressed, and he summons a pair of immense Sentinels constructed out of near-unbreakable adamantium.  The Skull reveals that he previously used his mental powers to manipulate Tony Stark into constructing these robot monstrosities, programming them with the data needed to defeat Earth’s heroes.

(Side note number one: Was any of this previously seen or even hinted at before the events of Axis #1, maybe in an issue of Iron Man?  Because the reveal by Remender seems to come completely out of left field, with no build-up or foreshadowing.)

Between the Red Skull and the Sentinels, the heroes have little chance, the blame for which Magneto is more than happy to lay at Iron Man’s feet.  In the midst of battle, Magneto flees.  The Avengers and X-Men are defeated and imprisoned by the Sentinels.

Back in his sanctuary, away from everyone else, Magneto finally engages in self-reflection, and acknowledges his own role in causing this crisis.  “All that I have done… it was for nothing. I have committed unspeakable acts. I have hurt people. I have taken lives as easily as I might draw breath. All so my people, so mutants, might thrive.”

Magneto 11 pg 7

Briar Raleigh, Magneto’s human ally who sympathizes with his goals, argues that he could not have foreseen the results of killing the Skull.  Magneto disagrees, informing her “After all this time, after so many atrocities committed in the name of mutants, after so many bitter failures, I was blind not to anticipate something like this.”

Attempting to spur Magneto out of his despondency, Briar plays old video footage of his brutal attacks against anti-mutant forces.  She then shows him an interview with a young girl he once saved, who says “People say he’s some sort of monster, or maybe a terrorist, or that he’s insane. But I’m just glad mutants have someone like him, someone who can be angry, who can do bad things, so that we might survive.”

Grimly resolved that he is the one who has been forced into the role of making the difficult but necessary choices, Magneto sets out to recruit allies against the Skull.  If the Skull’s Sentinels are programmed to defeat heroes, then he will ally himself with criminals and villains.  Among those he approaches are Doctor Doom, Loki, Carnage, Sabretooth and Mystique.

Deadpool, who is not, strictly speaking, a villain, but who is certainly nuts, gets wind of all this and decides to find out what is going on.  The merc with a mouth tells him “I kinda want to know what the hell you’re trying to pull. I mean, I thought you were supposed to be a good guy.”  Magneto somberly responds “Not even you are foolish enough to think me a hero. Such distinctions are for those who can look at their own reflections and not despair.”

Magneto 11 pg 18

Magneto and his group of ne’er-do-wells engage the Red Skull and his Sentinels in Genosha.  During the battle, they manage to free the Scarlet Witch and Doctor Strange, and Magneto tells them to attempt an “inversion spell” to revive the suppressed remnants of Xavier’s consciousness in the Skull’s mind.  Before it can be completed, Strange is knocked out.  Doctor Doom steps in and forces Wanda to complete the spell with him.

The inversion is seemingly successful.  Onslaught is banished, and the Red Skull is returned to human form, unconscious.  Immediately, though, there are problems.  The Avengers want to imprison the Skull ASAP before he re-awakens.  The X-Men, however, want custody of him, to see if now they can fully restore Xavier to life.  The disagreement causes the two teams to once again find themselves at odds with one another, neither side willing to budge.  Their fragile alliance is shattered.  Even in defeat, the Skull achieves a dark victory, once again driving apart humans and mutants.

And what has happened to Magneto?  Wounded, watching all of this from afar, he hears the Scarlet Witch ask “Where are the villains?”  Magneto bitterly thinks to himself, “After everything we did… everything I did… these Avengers… even my own daughter… would still see me as another threat to be eliminated or contained.”

Magneto 12 pg 15

As we soon find out in Axis #4, however, the inversion spell by Wanda and Doom worked much too well.  It caused everyone who was in Genosha to turn 180 degrees on the moral compass.  All of the heroes who were present are now ruthless, violent and selfish.  All of the villains are now moral and altruistic.  Sam Wilson, formerly the Falcon and now the new Captain America, wants to lead all of the inverted Avengers in taking over the world, creating an ordered society that they control.  The mutant Genesis is transformed into a reborn Apocalypse who leads the X-Men into war against humanity.  They construct a bomb that will wipe out all non-mutants on Earth.  Oh, yeah, and Tony Stark becomes an arrogant, greedy, hedonistic asshole.  If you thought regular Iron Man could be a jerk, well, inverted Stark is about a hundred times worse.

The now-elderly Steve Rogers and the few non-inverted heroes who managed to escape being captured by the corrupted Avengers are forced to ally themselves with Magneto and the other inverted villains to stop the X-Men and Apocalypse.  These events play out over the remainder of the Axis miniseries.

(Side note number two: Did Remender really need nine extra-sized issues to tell this whole story?  The whole thing would very comfortably have fit into a mere six issues.  I liked Axis, but it definitely suffered from being padded out with tons of fight scenes that played out over a bunch of splash pages and double-page spreads.)

Finally coming to Axis #9, with Jim Cheung artwork, Rogers and the inverted villains attempt to recreate the inversion spell.  Doctor Doom manages to summon Doctor Voodoo and his ghostly brother, and they take possession of the inverted Scarlet Witch.  Doom and the possessed Witch catch up with Rogers, who has located the Red Skull.  The man who was once the personification of human evil has been inverted into the remorseful White Skull… seriously, even his mask turned white.  How did that happen?

The White Skull begs Magneto not to once again resort to murder, to not kill Iron Man, and allow the new inversion spell to undo the damage.  Magneto reluctantly agrees.  Doom, the Skull, and the possessed Witch re-enact the inversion, turning everyone back to normal.  Well, almost everyone.  Iron Man, who refuses to go back to how he once was, is able to shield himself, and both Havok and Sabretooth are caught in his energy field.  That means Havok is still a violent fanatic who hates humans, Sabretooth still has a conscience, and Stark is still a douchebag.  Oh, well, can’t win ‘em all!

Axis 9 pg 24

In the closing pages of Axis #9, Rogue and the Scarlet Witch form a new Avengers Unity Squad, hoping to bridge the gap between humans and mutants so that a disaster such as this never occurs again.  Magneto, however, is in no mood to celebrate, realizing that Doctor Doom, the Red Skull and Iron Man have all escaped.  We see that the Skull is now the prisoner of Doom, a potential weapon to be used by the Latverian tyrant in the future.

Hopefully Magneto and the Red Skull will meet again.  Theirs is a dramatic, powerful enmity driven by mutual contempt & hatred.  They are simultaneously alike and as different as night & day.  Much can be revealed about Magneto through the comparing & contrasting of him to the Skull.

Magneto, as re-envisioned by Chris Claremont to be a survivor of the Holocaust, is undoubtedly a complex, complicated and morally ambiguous individual.  One can certainly see Magneto as the personification of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous warning “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” Likewise the character appears to embody the old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

I have often regarded Magneto as a tragic but dangerous figure.  He is a man who experienced horrific losses in his childhood & early adulthood, and who is unable or unwilling to let go of the past.  All of this has led him to fanatical extremes.

The Red Skull commits evil acts because he is a psychopath.  Magneto, on the other hand, is driven by fear and guilt, by a burning obsession to never again become a victim.  Unlike the Skull, it is certainly possible to understand, even sympathize with Magneto.  But if in the end by his actions Magneto arrives at exactly the same place as the Skull, as an unrepentant monster, than all the rationalizations in the world are meaningless.

Happy birthday to Luke McDonnell

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to comic book artist Luke McDonnell, who was born on July 19, 1959.  McDonnell did a fair amount of work for both Marvel and DC in the 1980s and 90s.  He has this rather gritty, atmospheric style that I have always enjoyed.  I guess if I had to make a comparison, it is a bit like Gene Colan.  I have always appreciated McDonnell’s work for possessing a distinctive appearance that set it apart from many of his contemporaries.

Some of McDonnell’s most well-known work was as the penciler on Iron Man in the early 1980s, during a lengthy story arc written by Denny O’Neil.  It had previously been established by David Michelinie & Bob Layton in their excellent “Demon in a Bottle” storyline that Tony Stark was an alcoholic.  At the conclusion of it, with the help of Bethany Cabe & Edwin Jarvis, Stark had put down the drink.

Of course, the thing about addiction is that there is no cure.  Recovery is an ongoing process, and you need to actively work one day at a time to maintain your sobriety.  When O’Neil came on as the writer of the series, he had one of Stark’s business rivals, Obadiah Stane, manipulate events from behind the scenes so that Stark suffered a number of personal & professional setbacks.  The result was that Stark fell off the wagon in a major way, going into a serious downward spiral that eventually resulted in him losing his entire fortune to Stane.  For a while there, Stark hit rock bottom, roaming the streets of Manhattan, homeless & drunk, before beginning the long, difficult climb back to recovery.  In the meantime, Stark’s best friend James Rhodes had to take on the identity of Iron Man, joining the Avengers and opposing Stane’s schemes.

Iron Man 182 cover

Luke McDonnell penciled the majority of this three year long arc.  His unflinchingly moody artwork was the perfect fit for this dark tale of Tony Stark’s fall & redemption.  One of those issues, #182, was recently voted the number seven position in The 25 Greatest Iron Man Stories Ever Told at Comic Book Resources.  Looking at the cover to that issue, you can see the stunningly dramatic power of McDonnell’s artwork.

I actually bought most of these Iron Man comics from out of the back issue bin.  The very first Iron Man issue that I ever read as a kid was #194 (May 1985), which featured dual tales of Stark and Rhodes.  By this point in time, Stark had regained his sobriety and constructed a makeshift set of armor.  Following a battle with a Godzilla-like creature, he plunges into the ocean, and we see him desperately trying to avoid drowning.  Meanwhile, Jim Rhodes, still in the regular Iron Man armor, while helping out Hank Pym with some experiments, is trapped in a bizarre alien dimension.  McDonnell did an excellent job at illustrating the parallel predicaments of the two Armored Avengers.

Iron Man 194 cover

After departing from Iron Man, McDonnell became the regular artist on Justice League of America.  I think that his work on JLA was definitely underrated, probably because he was chronicling the adventures of the rather unfairly maligned “Justice League Detroit” team.  In any case, JLA was soon cancelled to make way for the new Giffen & DeMatteis “bwah-ha-ha” version.  Luckily, McDonnell quickly moved over to a brand new title that was seemingly made to order for him.

Debuting in 1987, Suicide Squad was penned by the super-talented John Ostrander.  Once again, McDonnell’s artwork was an absolutely perfect fit.  With its premise of convicted supervillains drafted by the government to perform covert black ops missions, featuring amoral characters and political intrigue, McDonnell’s moody style was just right in establishing a dark, noir, suspenseful atmosphere.  McDonnell also penciled & inked the 1988 Deadshot miniseries written by Ostrander & his wife Kim Yale which spotlighted the Squad’s resident sharpshooter with a death wish.

(The first eight issues of Suicide Squad, along with Secret Origins #14, were collected in the 2011 trade paperback Trial By Fire.  Definitely pick up a copy.)

Suicide Squad TPB

In the 1990s, McDonnell continued to do work for DC, penciling issues of Armageddon: Inferno, Eclipso and Green Lantern: Mosaic.  He also drew a trio of stories for Marvel’s alternate reality series What If…?   Unfortunately, as with a number of other good, solid artists, by this time I think McDonnell’s  particular style was sort of falling out of favor, with editors preferring either “flashy” work along the lines of Liefeld and McFarlane, or Manga-inspired work.  He seemed to be getting fewer and fewer gigs.  The last couple of stories I recall seeing him do were Atom Special #2 in 1995 and Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #115 in 1999.  As always, McDonnell did his usual excellent work on both assignments.

I have been fortunate enough to meet McDonnell on a couple of occasions in the past.  I think the last time was about 14 years ago.  Back then, my primary original art focus was in obtaining sketches of Captain America.  I asked McDonnell for a sketch of Cap and, wow, did he do an absolutely amazing one.  I would love to get another sketch from him.  I’d probably ask him to do a drawing of Deadshot in my supervillains-themed sketchbook.

Captain America Luke McDonnell

Nowadays, I believe that Luke McDonnell is doing coloring work for IDW’s Popeye comic books.  I’m glad to see he is still employed, but I definitely hope that one of these days he has an opportunity to return to the drawing board.

In any case, happy birthday, Luke!  Hope there’s many more to come.

Comic book reviews: Iron Man #258.1 – 258.4, Armor Wars II Redux

Ask almost any long-time Marvel fan who the all-time greatest Iron Man writers are, and chances are very good that the names David Michelinie and Bob Layton will be mentioned.  The team of Michelinie & Layton had two historic runs on the ongoing Iron Man title (issue #s 116 to 153 and #s 215 to 250) plus a handful of subsequent miniseries and specials.  They co-wrote what are generally considered three of the all time great Iron Man stories, “Demon in a Bottle,” “Armor Wars” and the “Doomquest” trilogy.

While it is true that Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck created Iron Man, I really think that it was Michelinie & Layton who truly defined the character of Tony Stark, making him a fully developed, three dimensional individual.  Under their pen, Tony could be a flawed, selfish, controlling figure, but underneath all that he had a good heart and the best of intentions.  I think a lot of subsequent writers have taken the negative aspects of Stark and magnified them.  Or, worse yet, had Stark acting like a villain because the plot required him to assume that role in order to get the story from Point A to Point B.  I’m specifically thinking of the entire Civil War crossover.  In contrast, Tony’s self-centered, destructive behavior in the original “Armor Wars” really did feel like a natural progression of the character.

Michelinie & Layton have reunited once more to chronicle the adventures of Tony Stark.  Well, actually, their latest four part story was written & drawn roughly two years ago, and was originally going to be released as the miniseries Iron Man Forever (much in the same vein as the Chris Claremont-helmed X-Men Forever).  However, it ended up sitting unused until now, when Marvel presumably decided it would make a good tie-in for the third Iron Man movie.

These four issues are rather oddly numbered issue #s 258.1 thru 258.4.  For the reasoning behind this, we have to look back to the year 1990.  Michelinie had just departed from Iron Man.  Layton was planning to remain as writer and inker, paired with penciler John Romita Jr.  The two were going to do a sequel to “Armor Wars,” and got so far as producing a prologue which ran in issue #256.  Then Layton was offered the opportunity to work at Valiant Comics, and so also dropped off the book.  At the last minute, John Byrne came on-board to do his own version of “Armor Wars II” with Romita Jr. & Bob Wiacek.  That story commenced publication in Iron Man #258.  Hence the numbering of these issues, which see Layton, once again co-writing with Michelinie, presenting their take on “Armor Wars II,” based on his original plot.  Bizarrely, Marvel did not actually give these four issues an overarching title.  For convenience sake I’m just going to refer to it as “Armor Wars II Redux.”  The trade paperback collection of these issues, due out in October, is reportedly going to be titled “Armored Vengeance.”

By the way, Layton previously had a synopsis of his original plans for “Armor Wars II” posted on his website.  Reading it, you could see there are certain differences, understandably so, since back then Layton would have been writing solo, paired with a different artist.  He also would have had seven issues to tell his story instead of just four.  If it had been published, it probably would have been a great story.

That said, “Armor Wars II Redux” was definitely a good read.  It is co-plotted by Michelinie & Layton, scripted by Michelinie, with pencil layouts by Dave Ross and finished art by Layton.  Ross and inker Tom Palmer provide the cover artwork.

Following on from the events of Iron Man #256, Tony Stark has undergone back surgery to remove a strange growth.  It transpires that the biochip which recently restored Stark’s shattered spine has interacted with the remnants of the nanites injected into his body years earlier by one of his most dangerous enemies, the criminal industrialist Justin Hammer.  The combination of the biochip and the nanites has resulted in the creation of an electronic duplicate of Stark.  This virtual doppelganger, possessing all of Tony’s intelligence but none of his compassion, infects the entire computer network of Stark Enterprises.  It plans to seize control of the global nuclear arsenal and blackmail the nations of the world into accepting its “benevolent” dictatorial rule.  Iron Man, cut off from all his allies and resources, is forced to turn to none other than Justin Hammer himself for assistance in thwarting his evil half.

All in all, I definitely enjoyed “Armor Wars II Redux.”  Michelinie & Layton’s writing was top-notch.  I enjoyed these four issues more than I did the majority of the Iron Man stories that Marvel has published over the last several years.  Once again we have the imperfect but heroic Tony Stark doing his best to overcome extremely difficult circumstances in an exciting, suspenseful adventure.

It was nice to see Michelinie & Layton bring back Justin Hammer.  In his own way, Hammer is as much the anti-Stark as the virtual doppelganger, a man of genius and business acumen unencumbered by conscience, utilizing his wealth & power to create superhuman criminals and amass power & control.  Besides, I always liked the idea of having a comic book villain who was inspired by Peter Cushing.

I also like how Michelinie & Layton wrote James Rhodes, a character they created back during their first run.  Obviously Rhodey would not have become War Machine in Layton’s original storyline, since that identity wasn’t devised until a couple of years later by Len Kaminski & Kev Hopgood.  But here Michelinie & Layton look at the consequences of Rhodey assuming that role by having him vividly recall the last time he donned a suit of armor, an occasion when he nearly died a horrible death.  I don’t  recall if any subsequent writers ever addressed that incident creating long-term trauma for him.  But it makes sense for Michelinie & Layton to bring it up, and show that Rhodey has a great deal of reluctance towards suiting up again.

I would not say that “Armor Wars II Redux” is without it flaws, though.  I really wish Michelinie & Layton had been given an extra issue to tell this story.  The final chapter definitely felt rushed in places.  Also, there was a subplot involving Tony’s girlfriend Rae LaCoste that really looked like it was going to develop into something significant, but ultimately headed nowhere.  Afterwards, searching through the archives of Layton’s website a bit more, I realized that this was a nod to their unfulfilled plans for Rae that they never had a chance to develop.  I wish they’d been given the opportunity here but, again, I guess they just didn’t have the space.

I definitely loved the artwork on these four issues.  Dave Ross is no stranger to drawing Shellhead, having penciled Avengers West Coast many moons ago.  His layouts were really dramatic.  And the inks/finishes by Layton were absolutely outstanding.    It’s a real shame that Layton isn’t currently drawing a regular series.  I hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to return to the characters he briefly worked on at the now sadly defunct Future Comics.

So, despite a few hiccups, “Armor Wars II Redux” was a really enjoyable story with superb artwork.  It certainly demonstrates that, after all these years, Michelinie & Layton are still at the top of their game.