My upcoming article in Back Issue #104

I am excited to announce that I have written an article that is being published in issue #104 of Back Issue magazine, which ships on May 9, 2018.

Edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows Publishing, Back Issue has been running since 2003. As per the TwoMorrows website, “Back Issue celebrates comic books of the 1970s, 1980s, and today through a variety of recurring (and rotating) departments.”

I have been reading Back Issue since it first debuted.  Over the past 15 years Eury has assembled a talented line-up of writers to examine numerous interesting and diverse topics concerning the comic book medium.  It is a genuine honor to now be counted among their number.

Supplementing its informative articles, Back Issue also features a wonderful selection of rare and previously-unpublished artwork by numerous talented creators.

Back Issue 104 cover

Here are the specifics regarding this upcoming issue…

BACK ISSUE #104 (84 FULL-COLOR pages, $8.95) is the FOURTH WORLD AFTER KIRBY issue, exploring the enduring legacy of JACK KIRBY’s DC characters! The Return(s) of the New Gods, Why Can’t Mister Miracle Escape Cancellation?, the Forever People, MIKE MIGNOLA’s unrealized New Gods animated movie, the Fourth World in Hollywood, and more. With an all-star lineup, including the work of JOHN BYRNE, PARIS CULLINS, J. M. DeMATTEIS, MARK EVANIER, MICHAEL GOLDEN, RICK HOBERG, WALTER SIMONSON, and more! Cover by STEVE RUDE, re-presenting his variant cover for 2015’s Convergence #6. Edited by MICHAEL EURY.

The article I have written for Back Issue #104 is “Return To Forever: The Forever People Miniseries” which examines the six issue Forever People revival that DC Comics published in 1987. For this piece I have interviewed writer J.M. DeMatteis, penciler Paris Cullins, inker Karl Kesel, and editor Karen Berger.

I am a long-time fan of Jack Kirby groundbreaking work on the “Fourth World” titles in the early 1970s, as well as the various revivals that have been attempted over the subsequent decades. The return of the Forever People to print in the late 1980s is one that has not, as far as I am aware, been previously examined to any significant degree.  I found it an enjoyable assignment to delve into the origins of this miniseries, and to offer an examination of the ways in which the changes in American society since the early 1970s were explored by DeMatteis through his writing in this series.

Back Issue 104 pg 53

In addition to my article, within the pages of Back Issue #104 you will find “Forever Your Girl: A Beautiful Dreamer Art Gallery.” This will feature several of the wonderful pieces that I have obtained in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook from some of the top artists in the comic book biz.

Back Issue #104 can be previewed and ordered on the TwoMorrows website.  The magazine is available in both print and digital editions.

http://twomorrows.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=133&products_id=1354&zenid=ca3f3bca4d34017b5c057b4d36a5195e

The Diamond Comic Distributors Order Code for Back Issue #104 is FEB181869.

I hope everyone will show their support.  Thank you.

Comic book reviews: Justice League “Gods and Monsters” prequels

As a lead-up to the direct-to-DVD animated feature Justice League: Gods and Monsters, DC Comics released a trio of prequels that delved into the origins of the alternate-reality versions of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman who make up the team.  Released as digital-first comics, print editions have subsequently come out over the past three weeks.  These were co-plotted by Gods and Monsters producer Bruce Timm, co-plotted & scripted by longtime comic book writer J.M. DeMatteis, and illustrated by several talented artists.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman cover

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to pick up the DVD but I enjoyed these three prequels so I expect that I’ll be getting it in the near future.  Here’s a quick look at them.

The Batman prequel reveals that in this reality the dark knight of Gotham is scientist Kurt Langstrom (who in the mainstream DCU is the shape-shifting Man-Bat).  Langstrom was suffering from cancer and attempted to devise a cure.  In a way he succeeded, although it resulted in him becoming a vampiric creature that needs to feed on blood to survive.  In an attempt to alleviate his conscience Langstrom becomes a vigilante, draining the blood of criminals.

For a couple of reasons I was a bit underwhelmed with the Batman book.  There were a lot of similarities between Langstrom and the Marvel character Morbius the Living Vampire.  In addition, the concept of a vampire Batman was already done very successfully in the Elseworlds trilogy Red Rain.  This feels a bit like a needless retread.

Nevertheless, despite the somewhat less-than-groundbreaking nature of this alternate Batman, DeMatteis does a good job examining Langstrom’s tortured psyche.  The artwork by Matthew Dow Smith is effectively moody, although some of his storytelling is a little unclear, his characters a bit stiff.  The cover by the super-talented Francesco Francavilla is very good.

Gods and Monsters Batman pg 9

I was definitely much more impressed with the Superman prequel.  One of the qualities of Superman in his various incarnations is that although he was born on Krypton he was raised on Earth by the Kents, who instilled in him morality, responsibility and empathy.  Whatever the circumstances of his birth, he became a hero because his human parents raised him to be a good person.  Various alternate-reality versions of Superman have examined how, if the infant Superman had instead arrived somewhere else (such as the Soviet Union or Apokolips) he would end up a very different person.

The Superman in Gods and Monsters is not Kal-El, but rather the son of General Zod.  Nevertheless, he is still a product of his upbringing.  Found as a baby by a family of Mexican migrant workers, he is named Hernan Guerra.  Young Hernan is raised by a loving family that tries to teach him to be responsible with his powers.  Unfortunately he grows up seeing his family being exploited by farm owners who force their employees to work long, grueling hours for slave wages.  He is also regularly subjected to racism and xenophobia, harassed by people who accuse him of taking jobs from “real” Americans. DeMatteis has the story narrated by Hernan’s sister Valentina, who explains the conflict that the young outsider must endure…

“All he knew was that he had the powers of Heaven – and yet his entire existence was of the Earth: The son of migrant workers whose lives were defined by unending work. Constant fear and suspicion.”

Despite his parents’ best efforts, Hernan grows up full of resentment.  He wants to use his powers to make the world a better place, but his anger pushes him to extreme actions.  He is a Superman who is balanced precipitously on a moral tightrope, a well-intentioned hero who is in danger of becoming a tyrant.

The art & coloring by Moritat effectively depict both the innocence of young Hernan and the bitter disenchantment he continually experiences as he grows older.  Moritat superbly brings to live the complex characterization that DeMatteis & Timm have invested in their protagonist.  The cover by Gabriel Hardman demonstrates the majestic yet stern & brooding nature of this Superman.

Gods and Monsters Superman pg 5

The last of the prequels, Wonder Woman, features Becca, a New God who flees to Earth in a Boom Tube in 1962.  Living in exile among humanity, Becca is struck by the extreme dichotomy of humanity…

“And yet the very duality of this world calls to me… and I have no choice but to answer. So I travel from overcrowded cities to isolated mountains. From places of breathtaking natural beauty to war-ravaged wastelands. I observe the flow of life – with both wonder and horror —  never interfering in the events unfolding around me.”

Becca eventually finds herself in New York in 1967.  She is drawn to the hippie counter-cultural movement.  Joining a group of teenagers known as the “Hairies” at an upstate commune, Becca admires their willingness to attempt to expand their consciousness, to discover the larger universe, but despairs at them relying on harmful drugs to do so.  She attempts to help these young people achieve their enlightenment through more benign means, sharing with them the telepathic technology of her Mother Box.

It can be a difficult task to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kirby when revisiting his New Gods.  The characters and stories were such a personal expression on his part, and very much rooted in the social & political climate of early 1970s America.  Many a subsequent writer who has attempted to utilize the New Gods has either fallen into slavish imitation of Kirby, or has instead written material that feels very disconnected from the original stories.

DeMatteis has on occasion explored the New Gods.  He wrote a Forever People miniseries and several issues of Mister Miracle in the late 1980s.  Looking at those, as well as his work on this Wonder Woman special, I really feel that he is one of the more successful writers in revisiting Kirby’s concepts.  Yes, DeMatteis takes a very different approach to the execution of the characters, but thematically his utilization of them is akin to Kirby himself.

Much of Kirby’s work on the Fourth World books was rooted in his dissatisfaction at the American landscape of the late 1960s and the early 70s.  He was very troubled by the Vietnam War, by the Nixon presidency, and by the rise of the religious right.  Kirby saw in the hippies and flower children of the time a possible hope for tomorrow: a group of young people who rejected violence and discrimination and who wanted to create a better, inclusive society.

DeMatteis very much taps into this in “The Dream.”  Becca simultaneously regards the Hairies as both naïve and admirable.  She very much agrees with their goals, but recognizes that it takes not just ideals but hard work to make dreams a reality.  Nevertheless, she cannot help but think…

“Perhaps, I mused, naïveté is our best weapon against cynicism. Perhaps innocence is the only antidote to the soul-crushing disease of experience.”

Becca stays among the Hairies, hoping to assist them in working towards their goals.  For all their flaws and moral blind spots, she recognizes that their ideals are noble and worth striving to achieve.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman pg 15

The special is very effectively illustrated by longtime artists Rick Leonardi & Dan Green.  I have always found Leonardi’s style to be a bit sketchy & surreal, with a quality that can be either dreamlike or nightmarish.  That very much suits the tone of DeMatteis & Timm’s plot.  Green’s inking complements Leonardi’s pencils perfectly.  They have previously worked together on several occasions, always to excellent results.

The cover for the Wonder Woman prequel is by Jae Lee, with coloring from June Chung.  It is certainly a beautiful piece.  Much like Leonardi, Lee possesses a quality to his work that is simultaneously hyper-detailed and illusory.  His depiction of Becca is beautiful and striking.

Overall I was satisfied with the Gods and Monsters prequels.  Timm & DeMatteis did a good job developing the back-stories of the characters.  The scripting by DeMatteis is top-notch.  He has always been really good at getting into the heads of his characters.  The end result is that I am certainly interested in seeing them again in the animated movie.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round one

The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism.  But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another.  For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Captain America 367 cover

It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.

Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.

Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.

Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob.  Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.

The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide.  Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity.  In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.

Classic X-Men 12 pg 10

The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village.  When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son.  He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician.  The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan.  Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.

Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness.  Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole.  The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”

Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there.  By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape.  The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision.  Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!”  Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see the look in Schmidt’s eyes.  Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence.  The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich.  Thus was born the Red Skull.

Captain America 298 pg 14

It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure.  In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual.  He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!

These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America.  Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind.  In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth.  The Skull admits he is the original.  He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard.  This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee.  (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith.  So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.

Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water.  Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated.  I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer.  I want you to wish I had killed you.”  With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness.  Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page.  That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving.  And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.

Captain America 367 pg 22

The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate.  In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide.  We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him.  The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.

Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover.  Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice.  As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.

Captain America 369 pg 29

Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times.  Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime.  As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier.  He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.

In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.

Uncanny Avengers 23 pg 21

Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull.  I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future.  Stay tuned.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.

Comic book reviews: The Fox by Dean Haspiel and friends

Given that I enjoyed the New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes miniseries Archie Comics / Red Circle published a year ago, I was probably going to get their next offering, the five issue miniseries The Fox.  Of course, as soon as I found out that Dean Haspiel would be plotting and illustrating the book, well, I was sold.

I’ve been a fan of Haspiel’s work since he collaborated with Josh Neufeld on the Keyhole anthology series in the late 1990s, and subsequently worked solo on his Billy Dogma stories.  Haspiel is one of those rare creators who successfully straddle the worlds of independent and mainstream comics. He is equally at home crafting bizarre, experimental projects and chronicling the adventures of popular Marvel & DC superheroes.  In fact, The Fox is very much a meeting ground between those two worlds, as Haspiel brings his innovative small press sensibilities with him in a clever revamping of a long-time Red Circle costumed crime-fighter.

The Fox 2 pg 1

Paul Patton Jr. is the son of the original Fox.  Unlike his father, Paul never set out to be a hero.  Rather, as a photojournalist, Paul felt that by becoming a masked vigilante he could attract news stories, create material to help his career.  Unfortunately Paul eventually realized that he had become, in Haspiel’s words, a “freak magnet,” attracting all sorts of bizarre individuals & strange events without meaning to.  Now all Paul desperately wants is a normal life with his wife and kids.  But fate just keeps conspiring against him, throwing a succession of oddities and curveballs his way with alarming regularity.

Scripting “Freak Magnet” is veteran writer Mark Waid.  I really enjoyed his work in the past on such series as The Flash, Captain America, The Brave and the Bold, and Kingdom Come.  Although the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Waid is old-school, traditional superhero tales (and I mean that as a compliment) he really is a diverse scribe, having also penned the extremely dark titles Empire and Irredeemable.  With The Fox, Waid shows yet another side of his talent, scripting some hysterically insane dialogue to accompany Haspiel’s bizarre, surreal plotting.  The two make a hell of a team.  And, yeah, you could say that Waid makes the Fox much more witty and eloquent than the original Golden Age version, who was introduced in 1940 by writer Joe Blair & artist Irwin Hasen:

The Fox Irwin Hasen

“Yah yah yah yah yaaahh!”  Indeed.

Beginning in issue #2 is a back-up story featuring the Shield.  Writer J.M. DeMatteis reunites with penciler Mike Cavallaro, who he previously collaborated with on The Life and Times of Savior 28.  Joining them is the insanely talented Terry Austin who, as I’ve mentioned on at least one occasion, is one of the best inkers / embellishers in the comic book biz. He does superb work over Cavallaro’s pencils here.

DeMatteis’ story is a flashback to World War II, as Joe Higgins, aka the Shield, heads to Antarctica to investigate a mysterious power source that the military suspect is being caused by an unknown Axis super-weapon.  At first tangling a horde of monsters, the Shield then encounters the German and Japanese agents Master Race and Hachiman.  Not stopping to ask questions, the Shield leaps at them, engaging the two Axis super-soldiers in battle.  But these three men soon discover that things are not as simple as they seem.

The Fox 2 pg 25

One of the aspects of DeMatteis’ writing that I have appreciated since I first encountered it way back in the pages of Captain America #278 was that he would demonstrate that not every problem can be solved with violence.  In a genre such as superhero comic books, which (truth be told) often involves costumed superhumans beating each other senseless, this is a somewhat unusual approach, one that has often set DeMatteis apart from his contemporaries.  But I appreciate that he scripts protagonists who utilize their intelligence & reasoning to arrive at a more constructive solution than punching the other guy in the face.

Not to get too political, but there is such a significant problem in the real world where non-violent strategies are frowned upon.  One need only look at reactions to the current crisis in the Ukraine.  Various politicians are decrying the tactics of negotiations with and economic sanctions against Russia because they make the United States look “weak.”  Of course, the people usually calling for military action either cannot or will not recognize that conflicts such as this one are not black & white affairs with “good guys” and “bad guys” that can be quickly & neatly solved by blowing up some “evil” enemy.  And you can be guaranteed that those saber-rattling politicos and armchair generals are not the types to lay their own lives on the line in the service of their country, instead leaving it to others to fight & die on the battlefield.

Very unexpectedly, the extremely different adventures of Paul Patton and Joe Higgins come crashing together at the end of issue #4, as the Fox, having helped rescue the other-dimensional Diamond Realm from the diabolical Druid, is transported back to Earth.  But instead of returning to the United States in 2014, an alarmed Fox materializes in Antarctica seven decades earlier, ending up smack dab in the middle of a four-way fight between the Shield, Master Race, Hachiman and an equally time-displaced Druid.

The Fox 5 pg 9

With DeMatteis taking over both the plotting & scripting for the final issue, I really wondered how this would work out.  DeMatteis has very different sensibilities from Waid.  Much of his work features psychoanalytical or spiritual tones.  That’s not to say that DeMatteis cannot do comedy, because he has written some very funny stories in the past.  But, yes, there is a somewhat abrupt shift in mood between #4 and #5.  Perhaps DeMatteis might have endeavored to maintain some of the Fox’s irreverent commentary in the concluding issue.  But, on the whole, it is a pretty effective conclusion.  The fact that the Fox is not your typical superhero, that he really just wants to have a nice, quiet life, makes him just the sort of individual to think outside the box.  He’s the one who is able to realize that the Shield, Master Race, and Hachiman have to stop thinking with their fists, set aside their distrust, and come up with a more intelligent strategy to stop the Druid.

Haspiel does a fine job illustrating the concluding issue.  After the wacky shenanigans of the preceding four chapters, he ably shifts gears, ably depicting both the gritty horrors of war and the mystic, esoteric final confrontation with the Druid.

I also have to give a tip of the hat to John Workman.  As always, his lettering is dynamic.  It’s an oft-overlooked art.

One other nice touch to The Fox was that there were a number of tie-ins with New Crusaders.  In addition to the Shield, there are also appearances by Dusty the Space Chimp and Bob Phantom.  And we learn that Paul Patton’s daughter is Fly-Girl.  For those who have also read New Crusaders, these are nice touches that will make you go “A-ha!”  But they are done in such a way that if you’ve never laid eyes on that other miniseries, you will still be able to appreciate The Fox as a stand-alone piece.  That is how continuity should work.

The Fox 1 Freak Magnet cover signed

I did think that having 17 covers for 5 issues was a bit much, though.  Yeah, there was some nice artwork on those variants.  I guess they’ll make for a really lovely gallery in the back of the upcoming trade paperback.  Okay, I did splurge a bit and pick up a couple of the alternate covers, namely Haspiel’s “Freak Magnet” issue #1 variant, and the cover for #5 showcasing a vintage rendering of the Fox by the late, great Alex Toth.

All in all, despite a couple of hiccups, The Fox was very well done.  I’m glad that Haspiel & Waid are already working on a second miniseries.  I’m definitely looking forward to the further misadventures of everyone’s favorite freak magnet.

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.

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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.

Happy birthday to Trevor Von Eeden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Original Johnson book one cover

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

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

Captain America #278: you never forget your first

It is July 4th, and I wanted to do a patriotic-themed post.  Now, I could go off on some sort of rant about how our country’s cherished freedoms are being eroded by a dysfunctional, partisan political system into which corporations pump obscene amounts of money to manipulate the legislative process, and so forth.  But where’s the fun in that?  Let’s go with a comic book related piece, instead!

Captain America 278 cover signed

*Ahem!*  I actually do not recall what was the very first comic book was that I read.  It is possible that it was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #32.  But I certainly remember very well indeed my first Captain America comic: it was issue #278.  The cover date on that issue is February 1983, meaning it actually came out in November 1982.  I was six-and-a-half years old when I read it.  That issue played a significant role in my becoming a huge fan of the Sentinel of Liberty.

“Oh, Thus Be It Ever” is written by J.M. DeMatteis, with pencils by Mike Zeck and inks by John Beatty.  DeMatteis drops the reader right in the middle of the action of the ongoing story arc, but quickly brings us up to speed on page two via a handy recap expertly illustrated by Zeck & Beatty.

Cap’s old foe Baron Zemo has kidnapped Steve Rogers’ childhood pal Arnie Roth and his roommate Michael, as part of a scheme of revenge against the super-soldier.  Michael’s mind was transferred into a mutant creature that was subsequently killed by the man-rat Vermin.  A distraught Arnie lashes out at Cap, and Zemo is thrilled to think he has turned one of his enemy’s oldest friends against him.

Captain America 278 pg 2

A gloating Zemo flees, leaving Cap and Arnie to the mercies of an army of mutates created by the Baron using the twisted science of mad geneticist Arnim Zola.  At first, Cap fights the mutates, but Arnie, coming to his senses, realizes that these creatures are actually innocent human beings who have been transformed against their will.  This leads Cap to launch into a stirring speech wherein he appeals to the mutates’ buried humanity, urging them to throw off Zemo’s yoke.  The creatures rally to Cap and Arnie’s side.  The group confronts the Baron, and a furious Arnie punches him out.

Unfortunately, at this point a group of SHIELD agents who had been tracking Cap arrive at the castle.  Watching the mutates smashing Zemo’s equipment, SHIELD mistakes them for “monstrosities” and attack, killing most of them before a fuming-mad Cap hollers at them to stop.  During the confusion, Zemo slips away to an escape craft.  As he is fleeing, though, Zemo realizes that a savage, vengeful Vermin has snuck aboard the ship, furious at having been abandoned.

The last six pages of Captain America #278 are devoted to “Snapping, Part III” featuring Cap’s long-time ally Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon.  With the help of old friend Reverend Garcia, a distraught Wilson is struggling to hold on to his sanity.  Is he truly Sam Wilson?  Or is he actually “Snap” Wilson, a racketeer who years before was brainwashed by the  Red Skull to become a sleeper agent, a pawn to use against Cap at a later date?  Garcia helps Sam to reconcile the painful memories of his past, reintegrating the strands of his personality for the first time since the death of his parents.

Captain America #278 left a huge impression on my young self.  The scene where DeMatteis has Cap rally the mutates to his side stayed with me all these years.  Cap was not just someone who attempted to solve all his problems with his fists, but who, if possible, would try to reason or empathize with his opponents.  And he was someone for whom the terms “liberty” and “justice” were not just buzzwords to throw around in order to sound patriotic; he genuinely believed in the freedom and dignity of all human beings.

Captain America 278 pg 8

(By the way, as noted on the letters page of #278, and DeMatteis himself pointed out on his blog when I e-mailed him a link to this post, the initial idea for Cap’s speech to the mutates was conceived by Jim Shooter and Roger Stern. To quote DeMatteis, “So credit to ALL involved.”)

It would be several more years before I would be able to follow the Captain America series on a monthly basis, but my fondness for the character began here.  This issue also led to my interest in a number of other corners of the Marvel universe.  Baron Zemo would eventually form a deadly incarnation of the Masters of Evil in the epic Avengers story arc “Under Siege” written by Roger Stern.  Later, in Kurt Busiek’s Thunderbolts, Zemo and the Masters of Evil would disguise themselves as superheroes in order to gain the trust of an unsuspecting world.  DeMatteis and Zeck would re-team on the classic Spider-Man storyline “Kraven’s Last Hunt” bringing with them the rat mutate Vermin.  DeMatteis would further explore Vermin’s tragic story with artist Sal Buscema in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, and during that time both the other surviving mutates and Zemo himself would appear.  (I highly recommend tracking down DeMatteis & Buscema’s superb run on Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200).

In hindsight, there are a couple of aspects of Captain America #278 which I understandably did not pick up on way back then.  First off, there is Steve Rogers’ childhood friend Arnie Roth and his “roommate” Michael.  Looking back on the entire story arc, and reading between the lines, it is now obvious that DeMatteis was writing Arnie and Michael as a gay couple, making it subtle enough that it would not be objectionable to the more conservative editorial standards of the early 1980s.  DeMatteis clearly shows two gay men in a committed relationship, and indeed the death of Michael in this story is a blow from which Arnie would take a long time to recover.

The other point is regarding the back-up featuring the Falcon.  I now recognize that DeMatteis wrote “Snapping” to clear up the muddled history of Sam Wilson that was caused by Steve Englehart’s retcon of the Falcon’s origin several years previously.  Now, when I later tracked down the back issues of Englehart’s Captain America run, I became a huge fan of his work on the series.  That said, I have always felt his “Snap” Wilson subplot was a misstep.  I think that DeMatteis does a fine job in this story of reconciling the problems it caused with the Falcon.

Captain America 278 pg 19

Oh, yes, how can I forget Mike Zeck?!?  He has been one of my all time favorite comic book artists ever since I saw his amazing work on Captain America #278 as a kid.  His subsequent work on “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Punisher, Damned, Deathstroke, and Legends of the DC Universe, among others, was stunning.  Years later, I had the opportunity to visit Mike at his then-home in Connecticut.  Of course I had to bring Captain America #278 with me to get autographed.  Well, actually, it was a replacement copy I’d bought a few years earlier, because I had read the original comic so many times that it had literally fallen to pieces.

In the last several years most of what Zeck has done is licensing art and style guides.  No doubt this pays very well.  But I really do wish we could once again see his artwork on actual comic books, at least drawing a miniseries or some covers.  Come back, Mike, we miss you!

As for John Beatty, he is certainly a talented inker / embellisher.  In addition to his collaborations with Zeck, he’s also done nice work over Kelley Jones’ pencils.  Like Zeck, I believe nowadays Beatty also has focused on licensing artwork.

So there you have it, a look back at one of the most memorable comic books of my childhood, featuring my introduction to Marvel’s red, white & blue Avenger.  And after all these years it is still an amazing story with superb artwork.

Updated June 19, 2015: After all these years I finally had the opportunity to meet J.M. DeMatteis.  He was doing a signing earlier this week at JHU Comic Books in Manhattan to promote the release of his Mercy: Shake the World graphic novel.  I brought along my copy of Captain America #278 to get autographed.  It was an honor to meet him.

Comic book reviews: Spider-Man “Kraven’s Last Hunt”

Each month Midtown Comics has their Book of the Month meeting, where one or more people involved in the creation of a graphic novel or trade paperback discuss the background of that volume.  This month, the featured book was “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which many consider to be one of the all time great Spider-Man stories.

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” was originally serialized across six issues during a two month period in 1987, appearing in the three ongoing titles: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.   It was written by J.M. DeMatteis, with artwork by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod.  Coming in to Midtown Comics to discuss it was editor Jim Salicrup (currently doing excellent work as editor-in-chief of Papercutz).

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“Kraven’s Last Hunt” deals with the relationship between Spider-Man and one of his old foes, Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter.  It also examines the (at the time brand new) marriage between Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane.

As the story opens, Kraven, who was born in the early 20th Century, is feeling the weight of age.  Although kept young and vigorous for decades by herbs and potions he discovered in Africa, Kraven now begins to suspect time is starting to catch up with him.  He is also dwelling on his long-dead parents, Russian aristocrats who fled to America in 1917.  And he has begun to obsess over his long string of defeats at the hands of Spider-Man.  Kraven comes to believe that no mere man could have bested him, that Spider-Man must be a dark spirit, the same spirit he now perceives as having toppled Czarist rule in his homeland.  Convinced that he will soon die, the Hunter is determined to best Spider-Man once and for all.

Ingesting strange drugs, Kraven goes on the prowl.  In the midst of a rainstorm, he ambushes Spider-Man, shooting him, seemingly killing him.  Burying his long-time foe, Kraven then takes on his costumed identity, to prove he is the better man, and begins a brutal crackdown on crime in New York.  When Kraven learns that the half-man, half-rat mutant named Vermin is on the loose in the city sewers, abducting & eating innocent people, he sees this as a further test.  Here is a foe that the real Spider-Man was never able to defeat on his own, one who he needed the assistance of Captain America to stop.  If Kraven alone can beat Vermin, he will then truly prove himself to be superior.

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Spider-Man is, of course, not dead.  Kraven has actually drugged him, and buried him alive.  Under the earth in a coffin for two weeks, Peter Parker experiences horrific hallucinations.  Finally, he is able to claw his way out of the coffin and up through the ground, driven by love, by the desire to be reunited with his wife, Mary Jane.

J.M. DeMatteis crafted a truly disturbing, dark tale with “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  In his introduction to the TPB, he explains the genesis of the story.  It’s interesting that this originally began life as a pitch for a miniseries exploring the relationship between Wonder Man and his brother the Grim Reaper, turning into an examination of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, before eventually (after a few more evolutions) becoming the climax to Spider-Man and Kraven’s long-running rivalry.

“Fearful Symmetry” was originally commissioned by editor Jim Owsley, and then fell under the auspices of his successor on the Spider-Man titles, Salicrup.  Although he wanted to take the three books in a less dark, more “fun” direction than Owsley had, Salicrup says he saw the potential in the story.  Like DeMatteis, he recognized that it was a brilliant way to explore the romance of Peter and Mary Jane.

As Salicrup explains it, although “Kraven’s Last Hunt” superficially resembles the “grim and gritty” comic books coming to the forefront in the mid-1980s, it really did not fall into that category.  It was actually the act of dropping the character of Spider-Man into a story along the lines of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and seeing what happens.  And what occurred was Spider-Man stayed true to himself.  Peter wasn’t driven by revenge to dig his way out of his grave, but by love for his wife.  As Salicrup observes, it is a scene that very much parallels the classic Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, when Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of wrecked machinery, struggles to lift it up, knowing that he is the only one who can bring a life-saving serum to Aunt May, who lies dying.

Despite his traumatic experiences and the temptation to kill Kraven, Spider-Man does not emerge swearing to wreck brutal vengeance, but wishing to bring his foe to justice.  Finally, when Spider-Man himself must stop Vermin, an opponent Kraven defeated by brute force, the web-slinger does not descend to the level of the Hunter.  Instead, he tries to reach out to Vermin with empathy & understanding, and to use intelligence to outwit him.

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DeMatteis does a superb job scripting Kraven.  As someone who did not start reading comic books until the 1980s, I am not especially familiar with most of the character’s earlier stories.  As I understand it, even though he was created by Ditko and Lee, he was never considered a major Spider-Man villain, and as time went on, with subsequent appearances over the next two decades, he became something of B-list character.

DeMatteis himself admits that he was never a fan of Kraven, and that it was in his unexplored Russian heritage that the writer saw potential.  The Kraven in “Fearful Symmetry” is a troubled, dangerous individual, teetering between nobility and insanity.  In this six part tale, DeMatteis takes what was formerly a one-note character and remakes him into an intriguing, tragic, formidable opponent.

The artwork by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod is absolutely magnificent.  I have been a huge fan of Zeck since he penciled Captain America in the early 1980s, paired up with, of course, DeMatteis as writer.  “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a stunning reunion for the two of them, and Zeck does some of the best work of his career.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic.  The inking by McLeod really provides the artwork with a palpable atmosphere of shadows and looming darkness.

I also want to point out the contributions of letter Rick Parker.  Comic book lettering is an extremely underrated art, even more so than inking.  I’m a fan of such professionals as Janice Chiang, John Workman, and Tom Orzechowski, all of whom do wonderful work putting down dialogue and narration.  Parker is also an excellent letterer, and on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” he really emphasizes the dramatic beats and emphasis of DeMatteis’ scripting.

Credit also has to go to Salicrup for the idea to run “Kraven’s Last Hunt” during a two month period through all three titles, rather than having it serialized as a six-part story in Spectacular Spider-Man, as was the original plan.  Nowadays this is an extremely common practice, but back in 1987 it was exceedingly rare.  Salicrup’s canny rationale was that if Spider-Man is buried alive in Spectacular while he’s off fighting someone like Doctor Octopus in the pages of Amazing, it would significantly cut down on the dramatic tension.  Also, the two month schedule really helped maintain momentum that might have been lost over a half year.

(Incidentally, flipping back through many of the Marvel comic books that I read and enjoyed in the 1980s, I see a significant number of them were edited by Salicrup.  He seems to have had a real talent for getting the best work out of the creators working under him.)

My one disappointment was that this TPB did not also include the 1992 sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” also by the team of DeMatteis, Zeck & McLeod.  That special examined the consequences of Kraven choosing to take his own life at the end of “Fearful Symmetry,” as well as the lingering feelings Spider-Man has for what he went through.  It was an extremely good story.  Next time I’m over at my parents’ house, I want to dig it out of the box it’s buried in and read it once again.

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Oh, yes, for the completists out there, you will also want to track down a copy of issue #3 of Marvel’s humor title What The–?!  Featuring a tale of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham titled “Raven’s Last Hunt,” this oddball comic is topped off with a cover by Zeck & McLeod spoofing their original image for Amazing Spider-Man #294.

Arachnid pigs aside, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is certainly a classic story, featuring brilliant work by an extremely talented creative team.  If you have not already read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collected edition.  It is well worth a look.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Deathlok

On more than one occasion I have discussed Rich Buckler on this blog.  Each time, I made passing mention of Deathlok, the character he created at Marvel Comics, who debuted as an ongoing feature in Astonishing Tales #25, cover dated August 1974.

There is a reason why I keep citing Deathlok.  He was the first major cyborg character in comic books.  Buckler devised what is undoubtedly one of the most inventive, cutting-edge, influential series to have come out of Marvel in the 1970s.  It has continued to influence numerous other creators, both in and out of the comic book field, to the present day.  You can readily see the inspiration of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok stories in such films as Robocop, Escape from New York, and The Matrix.

Since I was born after Deathlok first made his debut, and I did not begin regularly following comic books until the late 1980s, my first exposure to the character of Deathlok was actually via a later incarnation.  Dwayne McDuffie & Greg Wright introduced a new Deathlok, Michael Collins, in a four issue miniseries published in 1990.  The Collins version of the character then went on to appear in an ongoing book that lasted 34 issues, which I followed on and off.

Unfortunately, at this time Marvel didn’t have any sort of major trade paperback program going, and so they passed up the opportunity to reprint the original Deathlok material.  The only glimpse I got of these stories was in 1993, when Marvel published Deathlok Lives, which reprinted the three issue Captain America story arc that wrapped up the original Deathlok’s storyline a decade before.

Of course, if I could have, I would have purchased the back issues of Astonishing Tales and read those.  But they were both difficult to locate and very expensive.  So eventually I just put it on the back burner.

Fast forward to 2007.  Issue #25 of Michael Eury’s superb magazine Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows, came out.  It contained a fascinating in-depth interview with Rich Buckler about the origins of Deathlok, conducted by regular BI contributor Michael Aushenker.  Reading that, I once again thought to myself that it really was long past time that Marvel reprinted those stories, because I really was interested in reading them.  So, a mere two years later, when Marvel finally published their Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok hardcover, I grabbed it up.  This collection contains the Astonishing Tales issues and a variety of other material, including the Captain America arc.

Rich Buckler's dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36
Rich Buckler’s dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36

A variety of creators worked on the Deathlok stories.  Rich Buckler is the main creator on the original Astonishing Tales material, turning in the majority of the plotting and pencil artwork.  Doug Moench co-plots and scripts the early chapters, before Buckler takes over penning the dialogue in the middle segments.  The latter issues are then scripted by Bill Mantlo.  A number of talented artists contributed to the finished pencils & inking, among them Klaus Janson, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones, and Pablo Marcos.  The Captain America issues are by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck and John Beatty.

Set in the dystopian future year of 1990 (I’m sure that seemed far-off back in 1974) amidst the devastated ruins of Manhattan, the Deathlok series features the anti-hero Luther Manning.  A soldier who violently died five years previously, Manning’s brain and remaining flesh have been bonded to a cyborg body code-named Deathlok.  The undead cyborg Deathlok is a tormented, horrific figure.  Snatched back from the abyss, his body a mix of cold metal and semi-decayed flesh, his consciousness cohabited by a logical computer, Luther Manning’s new existence is a living hell.  Deathlok desperately seeks to break free of the military’s control, and gain revenge on the man who resurrected him as a cyborg, Major Simon Ryker.

The ruthless Ryker is obsessed with control.  In Astonishing Tales #35, when Deathlok and Ryker finally come face to face, the later explains himself.  Seeing the country falling into chaos after the destruction of Manhattan, Ryker now seeks to impose a new order.  In an exchange scripted by Bill Mantlo, Ryker justifies his actions to Deathlok, saying “It was for their own good! People need someone to watch over them!” To which Deathlok shouts back “So you elected yourself! Dictator and God all rolled into one! You’re mad, Riker! You’re insane!”  The Major’s response to this is to say “I merely brought our society to a logical conclusion, along a path it had long ago chosen for itself: benevolent control by an impassionate military-industrial complex.”

It is explicitly stated that no one knows who actually bombed Manhattan.  It could have been foreign terrorists, or a Communist power, or perhaps just some madman.  Deathlok even alludes to the possibility that Ryker himself may have caused the disaster, to give him the opportunity to initiate his fascist policies.

Buckler’s plots are rather prescient, as they mirror real world events of the last twelve years.  One could easily draw parallels to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Certain politicians used the tragedies as an occasion to pass controversial, perhaps even unconstitutional, laws such as The Patriot Act that greatly increased government power while curtailing civil liberties.  And many in the populace were all too ready to embrace these measures, trading in their freedoms for the promise of order & security.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the Astonishing Tales issues do bounce around, with Deathlok wandering up & down devastated Manhattan, running into numerous enemies.  Reading these issues, I get the feeling that Buckler was making it up as he went along.  It doesn’t seem he had a detailed story arc planned out, just a loose idea of where he’d be heading.  While this does lead to something of an unfocused overall story, I suspect that this did allow Buckler to be innovative and go off in new directions as the series progressed.  It probably resulted in more spontaneity than if he had adhered to an iron-clad plot.

The strongest issues are undoubtedly the first few and the last few, namely the chapters that were scripted by Moench and Mantlo.  The middle segments, where Buckler was fully in charge of both the artwork and the writing, do ramble somewhat.  I think Buckler many have been over-extending himself.  I believe that at this point it time he was also the regular penciler on Fantastic Four, so he was probably very busy.  Once Mantlo comes aboard to take over the scripting, things really gain focus, and we get the riveting confrontation between Deathlok and Ryker.

The artwork by Buckler on these stories is incredible.  He is an underrated artist, I think in part due to his drawing Fantastic Four in a very Jack Kirby-influenced style.  This led some to incorrectly conclude that Buckler was incapable of drawing anything other than a Kirby pastiche.  But if you look at Buckler’s art on Deathlok, you see some amazing, dynamic, innovative work.  His layouts and storytelling are dramatic and unusual.  Buckler’s character design for Deathlok was innovative.  Likewise, his conception of Hellinger, the even more insane cyborg brother of Major Ryker, is horrific, with a metallic skull face and exposed brain.

Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace
Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace

In recent years, Buckler has found acclaim as a surrealist painter.  Looking at the art in this volume, I can definitely see the roots of that.  Especially notable is a surreal battle between Deathlok and Ryker within a computer network.  Keep in mind this was written & drawn more than two decades before The Matrix came out, before the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality became popular.  In other words, this is experimental work by Buckler.

As I mentioned before, a number of different inkers worked on the Astonishing Tales issues over Buckler’s pencils.  Klaus Janson’s inking probably works best, giving the art a gritty, atmospheric feel entirely appropriate for the grim settings.  It especially suits the bizarre imagery of the cyberspace confrontation seen in issue #s 34 & 35.

The war between Deathlok and Ryker comes to a conclusion towards the end of the Astonishing Tales run.  It is apparent that Buckler was setting up a new direction for the series, with Deathlok on course to come into conflict with Hellinger, and the introduction of Godwulf, a figure that Buckler seems to have intended to be across between Tarzan and Jesus.

Unfortunately, Astonishing Tales was cancelled with issue #36 in July 1976, and the contents of what would have been #37 didn’t see print until nearly a year later in Marvel Spotlight #33.  After that, Deathlok fell into limbo, making only sporadic appearances in Marvel Two-In-One, in stories that did little to advance the character.

In wasn’t until 1983 that Deathlok was finally given proper closure.  DeMatteis penned the arc in Captain America, which has Cap travel with Deathlok to his future.  Along with Godwulf and a motley resistance group, they set out to thwart Hellinger’s plan to wipe out humanity and replace it with a race of logical cyborg beings.  The story is illustrated with incredible flair and drama by Zeck & Beatty, one of my all-time favorite art teams on the Captain America title.

Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity
Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity

Yes, it would have been great to see how Buckler would have ended the saga of Deathlok.  But at least DeMatteis does a bang-up job at this task.  Aside from him apparently confusing Hellinger with his brother Major Ryker and some fiddling with Godwolf’s characterization, there is little to find fault with.

As Buckler himself charitably writes in his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks collection, “J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck did a fine job wrapping things up.”  (And I’m happy that Buckler was given the opportunity to pen a brand-new introduction for this edition.  It’s a very informative text piece.)

Reading the original stories by Bucker & friends, it seems pretty clear that initially Deathlok was not intended to be part of the regular Marvel universe.  The Buckler-plotted issues are bereft of any references to Marvel continuity.  Marvel Spotlight #33 does feature Devil-Slayer, a character who later joined the Defenders, but this was his first appearance, so that doesn’t prove anything.  (Indeed, Devil-Slayer is actually a reboot of another character Buckler created, Demon Hunter, who had a very short lived existence at Atlas Comics the year before.)

Deathlok’s first proper meeting with “mainstream” Marvel is in Marvel Team-Up #46, written solely by Bill Mantlo, although Buckler did draw the cover.  A time-traveling Spider-Man lands in the apocalyptic 1990.  After the usual misunderstanding and fight, Spidey and Deathlok team up against a horde of eerie mutant children.  That does give Deathlok’s world more of a horrific overtone, adding to the already established bands of roving cannibals populating devastated Manhattan.  Besides, the art is by another underrated artist, the great Sal Buscema, another favorite of mine.

Whatever the case, by the 1980s, Deathlok was firmly entrenched in Marvel continuity.  Various other creators took a crack at the character, with varying degrees of success.  Buckler himself has expressed a desire to return to the original Luther Manning version.  I’d love to see that, as Buckler is an even better artist now than he was in the 1970s.  Regrettably, Marvel does not appear interested in taking Buckler up on his offer.  This is a shame.  Marvel did, however, ask him and Klaus Janson to draw a variant cover for the Deathlok the Demolisher miniseries published in 2010:

Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover
Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover

As you can see from viewing this piece, Buckler still does an incredible work.  It is a real loss that Marvel seems unwilling to hire him to illustrate a full story for them.

At least we do finally have Buckler’s classic Deathlok stories collected together.  The price tag on this volume, $64.99, is a bit steep, but it is definitely worth picking up for some truly distinctive, groundbreaking, and entertaining material.  And hopefully at some point Marvel will print a soft cover black & white Essential Deathlok book.  The material is likely to find a much bigger audience that way.  That and I would like to have a cheaper volume to carry around.  Re-reading the Marvel Masterworks edition at least once a year, it does get kind of beat up!