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Supplementing its informative articles, Back Issue also features a wonderful selection of rare and previously-unpublished artwork by numerous talented creators.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

This King… This Kirby!

One hundred years ago today, on August 28, 1917, Jacob Kurtzberg was born in the Lower East Side slums of New York City.  Kurtzberg would grow up to become Jack Kirby, one of the most innovative, creative, prolific individuals to ever work within the comic book industry.

Jack King Kirby

There is absolutely no way that I can do justice to the memory of Jack “King” Kirby, to the literal legion of amazing characters he created over the decades, in a single blog post.  Entire books can, and have, been written about the man and his works.  The Jack Kirby Collector, published by TwoMorrows, is a magazine devoted entirely to the life, work & legacy of Kirby, and it has been in continuous publication since 1994.  If you do a Google search, you will find numerous other tributes to Kirby that have been prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

If I had to pick one piece to which I would want to direct your attention, it would be “Kirby at 100” by Mark Evanier.  A comic book writer & historian, Evanier worked as Kirby’s assistant in the early 1970s, and is one of the definitive authorities on the man.

I would also like to direct your attention to “The Top 10 Reasons Jack Kirby is the King of Comics” at Between the Pages.  In addition to spotlighting some really great examples of Kirby’s work, Between the Pages also offers up an amazing Kirby-themed cake!

Kirby’s work often had very political overtones.  Captain America’s Creator Spent a Lifetime Punching Nazis examines Kirby’s service in the armed forces on the battlefields of World War II, and his continuing struggle against fascism & injustice in his stories throughout the decades.

New Gods 7 double page splash

It is very difficult to imagine what comic books would be like without Kirby, or even IF there would have been a comic book industry today without him.  That is how incredibly important and influential he was.

Or, to put it another way, recently commenting on Facebook about Jack Kirby’s importance to the comic book biz, writer / artist Howard Chaykin bluntly stated “He’s why all of us have jobs, for fuck’s sake.”

To celebrate Kirby’s 100th birthday, I’ve begun re-reading (for the upteenth time) his astonishing “Fourth World” saga, beginning with New Gods.  These stories were originally published by DC Comics in the early 1970s, and they are among my all-time favorite works by Kirby.  Issue #7 of New Gods, “The Pact,” was once cited by Kirby himself as his favorite single issue that he ever created.  It is indeed a magnum opus, at once both epic in scope and intimate in it’s tragedy, an examination of the terrible losses war inflicts, the corrupting influence of conflict upon even the best among us.  The artwork by Kirby and inker Mike Royer is both breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Tonight I expect that I’ll dig out my copy of Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 3 and re-read the classic tale “This Man… This Monster!” Kirby, working with co-writer / editor Stan Lee and inker Joe Sinnott, produced Fantastic Four #51, one of the finest single issues of that series.  One can endlessly debate “who did what” in the Lee/Kirby collaborations at Marvel Comics, but whatever the division of labor, there is no doubt that together the two men crafted some wonderful stories, including this one.  That first page splash from FF #51 by Kirby & Sinnott of Ben Grimm, the Thing, standing forlornly in the pouring rain, is one of the most iconic images in the history of comic books.

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

Jack Kirby was a genius.  As longtime comic book writer Roy Tomas observed today, “We’ll never see his like again. But then again why should we think we would? After all, we never saw his like BEFORE, either!”

Celebrating Chanukah with The Thing

The Jewish holiday of Chanukah is coming up, which makes this a good time to look at one of the most famous Jewish heroes in comic books: Benjamin Jacob Grimm, the orange super-strong rock-like Thing from the Fantastic Four.

The Fantastic Four, who made their debut in August 1961, were created by two Jews, writer/editor Stan Lee (born Stanley Lieber) and co-plotter/penciler Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg). The Thing was never identified as any particular religion by Lee & Kirby.  However, the personality & background of Ben Grimm, a gruff-taking, street-smart, working-class Joe who grew up on the rough & tumble streets of the Lower East Side during the Great Depression, was similar to Kirby.  It was often suggested that Ben Grimm was a semi-autobiographical creation.  Interviewed in 1987, Kirby acknowledged the similarities…

“Yes, everybody I’ve talked to has compared me to Ben Grimm and perhaps I’ve got his temperament, I’ve got his stubbornness, probably, and I suppose if I had his strength, I’d be conservative with it. Ben Grimm is that way… If he uses his strength, he’ll use it in a justifiable manner– to save somebody, or to help somebody, or to see that fairness grows and evolves and helps people.”

In a 1976 Chanukah card Kirby drew the Thing as Jewish. It’s unknown if this meant that Kirby actually saw Ben Grimm as Jewish, or if it was just a humorous bit he did for a card he was sending to his family & friends.  Nonetheless, for years this fueled speculation among both comic book fans and creators that the Thing could be Jewish.

ben-grimm-the-thing-chanukah-by-jack-kirby

The Thing’s faith was finally identified in Fantastic Four volume 3 #56 (August 2002). “Remembrance of Things Past” was written by Karl Kesel and drawn by Stuart Immonen & Scott Koblish.  A brooding Thing finds himself back on Yancy Street, where he grew up decades earlier.  He runs into Hiram Sheckerberg, a curmudgeonly pawn shop owner who knows Ben Grimm from way back when.  The still-cranky Sheckerberg at first mistakenly believes the Thing is part of an extortion racket that is threatening him.  However the true culprit soon turns up at the pawn shop: Powderkeg, aka “the man with the explosive aura,” a super-powered thug whose shtick is that he literally sweats nitroglycerine.

The Thing defeats Powderkeg, but during the fight Sheckerberg is knocked out. Believing the old man is dead or dying, the Thing begins say the Mourner’s Kaddish.  It turns out Sheckerberg was only stunned.  After getting to his feet, the crabby pawn shop owner addresses the Thing…

Sheckerberg: It’s good, too, to see you haven’t forgotten what you learned at Temple, Benjamin. All these years in the news, they never mentioned you’re Jewish. I thought maybe you were ashamed of it a little?

The Thing: Nah, that ain’t it. Anyone on the internet can find out, if they want. It’s just… I don’t talk it up, is all. Figure there’s enough trouble in this world without people thinkin’ Jews are all monsters like me.

Sheckerberg disagrees with the Thing’s assessment that he is a monster, reminding him of the legend of the Golem…

“He was a being made of clay — but he wasn’t a monster. He was a protector.”

fantastic-four-vol-3-56-pg-19

The police and paramedics soon arrive. The Thing, having wrapped up Powderkeg in a lamppost, is ready to hand over the thug to the authorities.  But first we get this little exchange…

Powderkeg: And you’re really Jewish?

The Thing: There a problem with that?

Powderkeg: No! No, it’s just… you don’t look Jewish.

In the decade and a half since that story, the Thing’s faith has been addressed by subsequent writers, usually in passing. I feel this is the best way to handle it, showing him as a super-hero who happens to be Jewish, rather than making his faith the central, defining aspect of his character.

Nevertheless, on occasion Ben Grimm’s religion has been addressed head-on, such as in the story “Last Hand” written by Dan Slott and drawn by Kieron Dwyer, in The Thing #8 (August 2006).

Sheckerberg and Rabbi Lowenthal approach Grimm about having a Bar Mitzvah. The Thing is confused, pointing out that he is much older than 13.  Sheckerberg observes that it has been 13 years since Grimm was reborn as the Thing.  A reluctant Grimm agrees, spending the next month studying with Sheckerberg and Lowenthal.  Finally the big day comes.

It’s worth nothing that Ben’s Haftorah is from the Book of Job, which is not part of the Jewish Old Testament. However this nevertheless in an appropriate choice on Slott’s part, given the struggles that Ben has been forced to endure since his transformation.

the-thing-8-pg-18-bar-mitzvah

The Thing’s faith has also been mentioned in a few Holiday Specials, with Ben being shown observing Chanukah instead of Christmas.

Truthfully, Chanukah is not a major Jewish holiday, not like Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, Chanukah typically falls in the month of December, around the time of Christmas.  The exact dates vary from year to year, since the Jewish faith is based around a lunar calendar rather than a solar one.  (Yeah, that’s Jews for you; we just have to be different!)  Because of its close proximity to Christmas, often Jews will exchange gifts.

“Chinese Food for Christmas” written by Jamie S. Rich and drawn by Paco Diaz appeared in the Marvel Holiday Special 2011. Playing on the idea that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas, the Thing is planning to attend a big Chinese buffet organized by Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat of the X-Men, Marvel’s other significant Jewish hero.

En route to dinner, the Thing encounters an odd creature that has been stealing Christmas decorations.  It turns out the creature was trying to put together a Christmas party for the orphans at the Yancy Street Children’s Home, which ran out of money.  Ben Grimm invites the kids and their odd benefactor to the buffet dinner, where we see Shadowcat, as well as several other Jewish heroes, namely Moon Knight, Songbird, Sasquatch and Wiccan.

marvel-holiday-special-2011-pg-40

Casting my mind back to 2002, I recall that I was genuinely thrilled to find out that the Thing was Jewish. When I was a kid, I was definitely shy & insecure.  In general I didn’t feel like I fit in.  The fact that I was Jewish added to that, giving me one more thing about which to feel different.  This was especially true in December, when everywhere you turned it was Christmas all the time.

It’s worth noting that I felt this way even though I lived in New York, which has a significant Jewish population.  I can only imagine how much more of an outsider I would have felt if I had grown up in a different part of the country.

My experiences when I was younger definitely led me to appreciate the importance of representation in pop culture. When I was a kid there were very few Jewish characters in movies, television or comic books.  This left me with almost no one to identify with, which exacerbated my feelings of being different.  I was already in my mid-twenties when the Thing was revealed to be Jewish, but it nevertheless felt really significant to me that one of the most iconic Marvel Comics characters was revealed to be Jewish.

There was an excellent piece written last year by Mordechai Luchins, “That Time My Four Year-Old Schooled Me on Representation.” I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed by the author.  It is crucial to have diversity in pop culture.  Just as I really wanted, and needed, for there to be Jewish heroes in the stories I read and watched, so too do women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, the LGBT community and other groups want and need the same thing.

fantastic-four-vol-3-56-pg-22

I think it is very easy for some white Christian males to take for granted that the majority of the characters in movies and television and comic books and other media look & sound like them. I really hope that these people will eventually come to understand the importance of diversity, and to realize that pop culture is big enough for all of us.

Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, I hope that you all have a very happy holiday season.

Alan Kupperberg: 1953 to 2015

Comic book creator Alan Kupperberg passed away on July 16th at the age of 62.  I was fan of Kupperberg’s work, had met him at a few conventions, and was friends with him on Facebook.  I knew from his recent status updates on FB that he had been diagnosed with cancer several months ago.  Kupperberg had really been fighting his illness, and for a time it was hoped he would recover.  So it was unexpected and sad when his passing was announced by his brother, writer & editor Paul Kupperberg.

Like so many people who came to work in the comic book biz in the 1970s, Alan Kupperberg was very much a fan of the medium.  As he related in The Jack Kirby Collector #29 from TwoMorrows Publishing, in 1970 while still a teenager Kupperberg “was a regular pest – er – visitor to Marvel’s small, six room, dozen-person office” doing various odd jobs in the Bullpen.  A year later he was working in the production department of DC Comics, learning the intricacies of the business.  Kupperberg also worked at Atlas Comics during their very brief but still-memorable revival in the mid-1970s.

In the late 1970s Kupperberg was once again at Marvel.  Over the next decade he worked on numerous different series in a variety of capacities: writer, penciler, inker, letterer and colorist.  Kupperberg could do it all.

Invaders 37 cover

Kupperberg’s first ongoing assignment was the World War II superhero series The Invaders.  He came onboard as the new penciler with issue #29, cover-dated June 1978, replacing the outgoing Frank Robbins.  Kupperberg remained on The Invaders until the final issue, the double-sized #41 (Sept 1979) and he penciled the majority of those issues, working with both writer & editor Roy Thomas and writer Don Glut.

I imagine that The Invaders was not the easiest of series to pencil.  It was a team book set in the early 1940s.  This required Kupperberg to present clear storytelling so that the action was balanced between the numerous characters in action sequences.  He also had to render historically-accurate depictions of the people and the settings of the Second World War.  I think that he did very good work on the series, penciling some memorable, exciting stories written by Thomas and Glut.

Looking at Kupperberg’s time on The Invaders, one of the highlights is definitely issue #s 32-33, which had Hitler summoning Thor from Asgard and manipulating him into attacking the Soviet Union, bringing the thunder god into conflict with the Invaders.  Another noteworthy issue was the finale of the series, as The Invaders faced off against the so-called Super-Axis, a team of fascist supervillains.  Kupperberg, paired with inker Chic Stone, did very nice work on that climactic battle, helping Glut and Thomas to finish the series in style.  The issue concluded with a wonderful double page pin-up drawn by Kupperberg featuring every hero who had ever appeared in The Invaders.

Invaders 32 cover layouts and published

It was while penciling The Invaders that Kupperberg had an opportunity to collaborate with Jack Kirby.  He drew a rough layout for the cover to The Invaders #32.  The published cover artwork, based out his layout, was by the superstar team of Kirby & Joe Sinnott.

As Kupperberg recounted in The Jack Kirby Collector…

“I’d never been fond of drawing covers, but when I was asked to provide a cover layout or rough sketch for Invaders #32, I didn’t hesitate a tick – because it was for Jack.  I’d be interpreting Thor, Captain America, Namor and the Human Torch – for their artistic father!

“The Jack’s pencils arrived.  They blew my tender little mind – Kirby interpreting my interpretation of Kirby.”

Aside from The Invaders, Kupperberg never had a particularly long runs on any Marvel titles.  He was briefly the penciler of Thor and worked on several issues of What If.  Aside from that, Kupperberg was one of Marvel’s go-to guys for fill-in stories in the late 1970s to mid 80s.  He drew issues of Avengers, Captain America, Dazzler, Defenders, Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Marvel Two-In-One, Moon Knight, Star Wars and Transformers.  In 1984 Kupperberg penciled a four issue Iceman miniseries written by J.M. DeMatteis.

Captain America 240 pg 11

As a fan of Captain America, I liked Kupperberg’s depiction of the character in The Invaders, Avengers, and Cap’s own book.  Kupperberg penciled a trio of fill-in stories for Captain America, which were in issue #s 240, 260 and 271.  The first of these, “Gang Wars,” is noteworthy for the collaboration between the two Kupperberg brothers.  Paul plotted the issue, Alan penciled & scripted it, and it was inked by the talented Don Perlin.  I think this was the only time that Alan and Paul worked together.

Another of my favorite Marvel stories that Kupperberg worked on was Avengers #205 (March 1981).  Kupperberg and inker Dan Green did excellent work on this issue.  The second chapter of a two-part story plotted by Bob Budiansky & scripted by David Michelinie, this issue saw the Avengers attempting to thwart a plot to conquer the world by the diabolical Yellow Claw.  The cover to this issue by Kupperberg & Green, featuring the Vision in fierce combat with the Claw, is really dynamic.  As the saying goes, they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore!

Avengers 205 cover

In the mid-1980s Kupperberg began doing work for DC Comics, as well.  He became the penciler of the offbeat Blue Devil series written by Dan Mishkin & Gary Cohen.  Kupperberg started on issue #12 (May 1985) and remained on the book until its conclusion with issue #30.  He also worked on Justice League of America and Firestorm.  Kupperberg’s guest pencils on All-Star Squadron #66 in Feb 1987 (the penultimate issue of the series) saw him briefly reunited with writer Roy Thomas, who had spent the last several years chronicling the adventures of DC’s superheroes during World War II.

Anyone who has ever met Alan Kupperberg or read an interview with him will definitely realize that he had an amazing and unconventional sense of humor.  That was certainly reflected in his comic book work.  He worked on a number of humorous, not to mention unusual, projects throughout his career.

Somehow or another Kupperberg became associated with not one but two evil clowns during his career.  The first of these was Obnoxio the Clown, created by Larry Hama in the pages of Crazy Magazine.  In early 1983 Obnoxio landed his very own one-shot.  Written, drawn, lettered and colored by Kupperberg with edits by Hama, this bizarre special had the cigar-chomping Obnoxio running rings around the X-Men, getting summoned for jury duty, answering fan mail and just acting as rude as possible.  All these years later I am still amazed that this issue got published!

Obnoxio the Clown pg 6

Kupperberg also illustrated the misadventures of Frenchy the Clown, the star of the “Evil Clown Comics” feature in National Lampoon.  Devised by writer / actor / comedian Nick Bakay, Frenchy was a violent foul-mouthed alcoholic womanizer in greasepaint.  Several years ago Kupperberg was working on reprinting the “Evil Clown Comics” stories in a collected edition, but unfortunately this didn’t come to fruition.

Doing much more family-friendly humor work, between 1988 and 1990 Kupperberg drew a number of all-new five-page Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham stories that editor Jim Salicrup ran in the back of the Spider-Man reprint series Marvel Tales.  These were written by Michael Eury, Danny Fingeroth and Kupperberg himself, with Joe Albelo inking many of the installments.

One of my favorites of these Spider-Ham stories from Marvel Tales was his encounter with Frank Carple aka the Punfisher (obviously a fishy funny animal version of the Punisher).  Eury, Kupperberg & Albelo pitted the uneasy alliance of Spider-Ham and the Punfisher against the tentacle menace of Doctor Octopussycat!

Marvel Tales 215 pg 30

I highly recommend visiting the official Alan Kupperberg website which was set up by Daniel Best.  This fantastic site has numerous examples of Kupperberg’s art.  There are several articles wherein Best speaks with Kupperberg at length about his work.  It is an amazing resource.  Additionally, on his blog 20th Century Danny Boy, Best interviewed Kupperberg regarding the “Evil Clown Comics” stories.

As I mentioned before, I was fortunate enough to meet Kupperberg on a few occasions when he was a guest at comic book conventions.  He struck me as a genuinely nice guy.  I’m glad I was able to talk with him and obtain a couple of sketches by him.  I will certainly miss him, as will many other comic book fans who grew up reading his work.

I blame Orrgo the Unconquerable for this weather

I’m looking out the window right now and all I see is snow.  Yep, more snow.  I am so sick of snow.

Winter is a funny thing.  When it’s late December you think to yourself “Wouldn’t it be nice to get a little snow, have a White Christmas for once?”  It usually doesn’t happen.  But then January rolls around and you start getting snow… and more snow… and still more snow.  So much snow that by the time you hit March and you’ve spent most of the last month suffering from a bad cold you’re literally shaking your fist and crying out “No! Not more snow! When is this winter going to end?!?”

I’m starting to think that Orrgo the Unconquerable is responsible for all of this snow.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...
Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

Orrgo the Unconquerable is one of those numerous oddball monsters who first appeared between the mid 1950s and early 60s in stories published by Marvel Comics before they began their groundbreaking superhero revival in late 1961.  These were pretty formulaic affairs which involved some seemingly-unstoppable menace from beyond threating the whole of humanity, until the day is saved in a convenient last-minute (and often left-field) twist.

What caused many of these monsters to stand out were the bizarre designs they were given by artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, plus the offbeat names that writer / editor Stan Lee gave them.  That’s certainly the case with Orrgo.

Orrgo first appeared in Strange Tales #90, cover-dated November 1961 (the same month as Fantastic Four #1) in a story illustrated by Kirby and inker Dick Ayers.  According to the Grand Comics Database, the story was probably plotted by Lee and scripted by Larry Lieber.

An alien invader of seemingly-unlimited power, Orrgo sets out to conquer the Earth.  All of humanity’s weapons are totally powerless against him.  As seen above, he even freezes the city of Washington DC in a sold block of ice.

Eventually Orrgo decides to hypnotize the entire planet into obeying him.  Having defeated humanity, Orrgo then returns to the circus where he first arrived on Earth and takes a nap under a tree.  Well, even when you are an “unconquerable” menace, I expect that it is still a bit of work to crush whole worlds under your heel, and you eventually need to get some shut-eye.

Pow! Right in the kisser!
Pow! Right in the kisser!

Unfortunately for Orrgo, while he is catching some zzz’s, and the Earth’s population is in a hypnotic trance, the circus gorilla Jo-Jo breaks loose, furious that he hasn’t been fed.  Sensing that Orrgo is somehow responsible for his missing meals, the gorilla smashes the slumbering alien conquerer in the head, killing him.

Yeah, I did mention those last-minute, left-field resolutions, didn’t I?!?

You can read the entire story “Orrgo the Unconquerable” from Strange Tales #90 on The Golden Age blog.

Anyway, this is comic books, and no one ever stays dead forever.  Along with various other “pre-hero” monsters, Orrgo (or at least another member of his race) has been brought back on a few occasions by Marvel.  Most notably, Orrgo resurfaced in the bizarre yet fun Defenders revival by Kurt Busiek & Erik Larsen that ran from 2001 to 2002.  Orrgo was summoned by that supremely weird group of villains known as the Headmen, who used him to temporarily take over the world.

A mesmerizing comic book!
A mesmerizing comic book!

So, yeah, given his penchant for fast-freezing entire metropolitan areas, I would not be at all surprised to learn that Orrgo the Unconquerable is responsible for this awful winter weather.  To which I can only say… knock it off buddy, before I send another gorilla to bop you on the noggin!

The return of the Forever People

I was a bit surprised when DC Comics announced that one of their latest New 52 titles would be Infinity Man and the Forever People, a revival / revamp of the characters created by Jack Kirby.  Although I think the Forever People are cool, I will be the first to admit that they are probably among the lesser-known “Fourth World” characters devised by Kirby.  After their initial eleven issue run in the early 1970s, they were not seen again until a six issue miniseries published in 1988.  Subsequently they have not been featured in any other starring roles, only making guest appearances here and there.

However it is not entirely unexpected for the Forever People to receive a revival.  It is true that DC has actually attempted to launch a number of offbeat and experimental titles in the last three years.  The problem faced by many of those fringe books has been that DC put them out there with little in the way of promotion.  Most of them ended up falling below the radar, drowning in a sea of Batman related titles.  Based on that pattern, I honestly did not know how long Infinity Man and the Forever People would last.  But I figured I had might as well give the book a try while it was here.  After all, I am a fan of the characters, as witnessed by the Beautiful Dreamer tattoo on my left leg.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 cover

Co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People are Dan DiDio & Keith Giffen.  They’ve made revisions to the original set-up by Kirby, altering some of the characters.  I generally am not too keen on that, and was underwhelmed by the New 52 re-conception of both Darkseid and Highfather’s origins in Justice League #23.1 last year.  That said, I have to acknowledge that the Forever People were never developed in too much detail by Kirby during their all-too-short original series, and their sporadic appearances since then has left them somewhat blank slates.  So it is not as if DiDio & Giffen are upending decades of storylines & characterizations.

Mark Moonrider and Beautiful Dreamer so far appear to be pretty close to their original incarnations.  Vykin the Black has been renamed Vykin Baldaur and made into a more cynical figure (as much as I love Kirby, I really thought it was unfortunate that the only two non-Caucasian members of the Fourth World mythos were named Vykin the Black and the Black Racer).  Serifan has been given a change in gender & ethnicity, becoming Serafina, the younger sister of Vykin.  Big Bear is now the oldest member of the Forever People, as well as secretly from Apokolips, apparently having been given elements of Orion’s backstory.

Mark, Dreamer and Serafina are shown to be students on New Genesis who are about to embark on a study abroad type of assignment on the planet Earth, but they are unable to activate their Mother Box.  Vykin, who dislikes Mark and doesn’t want his sister going off-world with him, arrives to object, only to find that he is the only one Mother Box will respond to.  Reluctantly he accompanies the other three to Earth.  They are greeted by Big Bear, who has been on Earth for some time, working with human scientists in an attempt to advance the planet’s technology and bring about greater prosperity.

DiDio & Giffen appear to be focusing on the “rebellious youth” aspect of the Forever People.  Back in 1970, when he devised the characters, Kirby was inspired by the hippy / flower children counterculture.  Truthfully I do not know how much of that came through in his stories, though.  After their devastating cosmic war with Apokolips, the people of New Genesis mostly turned their backs on conflict, and the planet became close to a spiritual paradise.  Because of this, I never really understood precisely what the Forever People were rebelling against.  They merely seemed to be more impulsive and hotheaded, rushing off to Earth to fight the forces of Darkseid.

In contrast, in the New 52 (both in this title and in the pages of Wonder Woman by Azzarello & Chiang) it is shown that New Genesis is a highly organized, regimented society.  Highfather is now a more militant figure, closer to his Izaya the Inheritor days from the Kirby continuity.  The Forever People generally, and Mark Moonrider in particular, are rebelling against their world’s “control.”

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 4

When the Infinity Man finally makes himself known to the Forever People, he positions himself as an agent of chaos.  “The universe relies on chaos. It needs to expand, to grow, to learn. There is a corruption, a corruption brought on by a need for order that prevents the natural course of non-prescribed evolution. Both New Genesis and Apokolips are guilty of imposing their forms of order on the universe. This must stop. That is why I chose you.”

One can discern a state of affairs set up by DiDio & Giffen inspired by Cold War geopolitics.  Apokolips, with Darkseid at its helm, is a force of totalitarian order akin to the Soviet Union.  It brutally oppresses its citizens, forcing blind obedience & uniformity from them, and it seeks to expand its empire via conquest.  New Genesis is cast in the role of the United States, ostensibly working to preserve freedom & democracy.  But in the name of preserving its security and opposing Darkseid’s machinations, New Genesis interferes in the affairs of lesser worlds, resulting in unfortunate side effects for those planets and their inhabitants.  And while not an identity-crushing police state like Apokolips, the government of New Genesis encourages conformity and obedience lest individuality and the questioning of authority weaken the planet’s strength & resolve.

While I am a bit hesitant to embrace a version of New Genesis that appears to have such common ground with Apokolips, I have to acknowledge that this actually provides the Forever People a very clear-cut political system to rebel against, an ideology to oppose.  They are rejecting both Highfather and Darkseid’s paths.  They are seeking the freedom to guide their own destinies, and to enable other beings to do the same thing.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 1 pg 15

In addition to co-writing Infinity Man and the Forever People, Giffen is also penciling the series, paired with the talented Scott Koblish on inking.  I very much enjoyed their work on the first issue.  Giffen has often had a rather Kirby-esque element to his art, and that very much suits this series.  This especially comes into play in a scene where Big Bear reveals his technology and explains “Kirby is my communal reconstruction bio engine. He’s responsible for building and maintaining this environment. Without him, none of this would be possible.”  That was a nice tip of the hat to the King of Comics.

Regrettably Giffen involvement in DC’s big Futures End crossover prevented him from penciling the next two issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  So, yep, we already have fill-in art teams on this book.  I hope that does not kill any sales momentum or reader interest.  At least the guest artists were mostly good.

On issue #2, the art is courtesy of penciler Tom Grummett and inker Scott Hanna.  I’m certainly a fan of both gentlemen.  Grummett has always been good at rendering Kirby’s characters, including the New Gods.  For instance, Grummett penciled an appearance by the Forever People in the pages of Adventures of Superman about twenty or so years ago.  I enjoyed seeing him now having an opportunity to depict the New 52 versions of the characters.  Offhand I don’t recall if Hanna has ever inked Grummett before.  They definitely go together very well here, creating some lovely art.  I was especially taken by their rendition of Beautiful Dreamer.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 2 pg 5

Everyone’s favorite cosmic comic book creator Jim Starlin is the guest penciler on Infinity Man and the Forever People #3.  He is paired with inker Rob Hunter.  Truthfully, I was not especially fond of their collaboration.  Hunter’s inking is in the vein of the house style of Top Cow, with flourishes reminiscent of Silvestri and Turner.  I did not feel this fit Starlin’s penciling.   I would rather have seen him inking himself, or by longtime inking partner Al Milgrom, who always does a good job finishing Starlin’s pencils.

That said, the sequence towards the end of the issue, when Dreamer is inside her subconscious, conversing with Anti-Life, is very well done.  Perhaps for this surreal tableau Hunter’s inks were somewhat better suited, as they give Starlin’s nightmarish imagery an extra punch.  (It appears that DiDio & Giffen are drawing inspiration from the long-ago declaration by Kirby in the pages of Forever People #1 that Dreamer “is one of the few whose mind can fathom the Anti-Life Equation.”)

Nice coloring work on these issues by the gang at Hi-Fi.  I’ve always found it to be a good sign when that name pops up in the credits.  They are definitely one of the better groups of computer colorists in the biz.

Infinity Man and the Forever People 3 pg 12

On the whole I did enjoy the first three issues of Infinity Man and the Forever People.  DiDio & Giffen did a good job introducing the characters and establishing the premise.  I just wish that the comics were a little bit longer.  Twenty pages just did not seem like sufficient space.  The book really needs an extra two or three pages to enable the story to breath a bit.

I am very interested in seeing what happens with the Forever People next.  I know that this month’s installment is a special crossover with the aforementioned Futures End storyline.  And then there are going to be a couple of issues tying in with the “Godhead” storyline running through the various Green Lantern titles.  Perhaps that will inspire some GL fans to check out this series.  Oh, yes, from the pages of Batman Incorporated, there’s going to be an appearance by Bat-Cow!  That sounds like just the sort of delightfully offbeat, bizarre humor the Giffen specializes in, and I’m looking forward to it.

Dick Ayers: 1924 to 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

Unknown Soldier 255 pg 1

Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000
Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Happy birthday to Rich Buckler

Yep, it’s time to celebrate another comic book birthday.  Today is the 65th birthday of prolific Bronze Age legend Rich Buckler, who was born on February 6, 1949.

Buckler, a native of Detroit, first broke into the biz in the late 1960s.  By 1971, he was already doing work for both DC and Marvel.  One of his earliest assignments at Marvel was a short stint penciling Avengers in 1972.  Paired with writer Roy Thomas, Buckler illustrated a memorable three part tale featuring the mutant-hunting Sentinels.  His cover art for issue #103 is definitely an iconic image.

Avengers 103 cover

In late 1973, Buckler was given the chance to draw Fantastic Four.  A huge fan of Jack Kirby’s work, Buckler jumped at the opportunity.  He became only the third regular penciler on the series, following in the footsteps of Kirby and John Buscema.  I know that subsequently certain readers were critical of Buckler of emulating Kirby too closely.  Yes, there is a tremendous amount of Kirby’s influence on display in Buckler’s work on the title.  However it is important to keep the historical backdrop in mind.  Kirby had been penciling Fantastic Four for a full decade.  He was followed by Buscema, another artist who helped to define the Marvel “house style” of the 1960s and 70s.  At the time, Fantastic Four was one of Marvel’s flagship titles.  So we can regard Buckler as following their lead in maintaining the visual constisency of the series.  In any case, Buckler has stated that his work on Fantastic Four was an affectionate homage to Kirby.

It is also crucial to recognize that Buckler was paired up with longtime series inker Joe Sinnott.  I think that some people underestimate the key role Sinnott had in contributing to the final look of the artwork on many of the classic Kirby-penciled stories.  So it is not all too surprising that when Buckler was subsequently inked by Sinnott on Fantastic Four, there were certain similarities.

Giant-Size Fantastic Four  3 double page spread

One needs only look at Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3, published in November 1973, to see Buckler’s skill as an artist.  “Where Lurks Death, Rides the Four Horsemen” was co-written by Marv Wolfman & Gerry Conway.  Buckler’s pencils for this tale are magnificent and awe-inspiring.  His richly detailed opening double-page spread of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping through outer space is stunning and dynamic.

In 1974, Buckler created the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok in the pages of Astonishing Tales, collaborating with scripter Doug Moench (I did an in-depth blog post about that series last year, so click on this link to check it out).  Buckler’s versatility as an artist was certainly on display in these stories, featuring some of the first examples of surrealism in his work.

After working primarily at Marvel for most of the decade, in late 1976 Buckler shifted over to DC.  He contributed to a diverse selection of titles over the next several years, including Justice League of America and World’s Finest, as well as numerous covers.  In 1981 Buckler penciled the first several issues of Roy Thomas’ World War II superhero saga All-Star Squadron, with then-newcomer Jerry Ordway contributing inks.  A few years ago  Buckler and Ordway re-teamed to render a magnificent cover illustration for the 100th issue of Roy Thomas’ superb magazine Alter Ego published by TwoMorrows.

Alter Ego 100 cover

In 1983, Buckler served as the Managing Editor of Archie Comics’ superhero imprint Red Circle.  He was instrumental in bringing onboard such talented creators as Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Rudy Nebres, Alex Toth and Jim Steranko.  Buckler himself worked on Mighty Crusaders, The Shield, The Fly and various other books.  Although the 1980s Red Circle books only lasted a couple of years, they had some good writing and stories.

Buckler’s time at Archie actually provided him with his one and only opportunity to collaborate with his idol, Jack Kirby.  Buckler has observed that when he was at Marvel in the early 1970s, Kirby was at DC.  Then, when Buckler moved over the DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby returned to Marvel.  Somehow they kept missing each other.  Buckler at last had the chance to ink Kirby’s work when the King penciled the cover for Blue Ribbon Comics #5 featuring the Shield.

During the second half of the 1980s, Buckler was back at Marvel, once again working on a variety of projects.  He penciled Spectacular Spider-Man for a year, during which time one of Peter David’s earliest stories, “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” appeared.  Buckler also worked on Iron Man, a Havok serial in Marvel Comics Presents, and had a brief return to the pages of Fantastic Four.

Saga of the Sub-Mariner 4 cover

Buckler also once again collaborated with Roy Thomas on a pair of miniseries chronicling the histories of Marvel’s two earliest characters.  Roy Thomas and his wife Dann co-wrote the twelve-issue Saga of the Sub-Mariner, a detailed examination of the moody, tempestuous Prince Namor of Atlantis.  A year later, in 1990, Thomas penned the four part Saga of the Original Human Torch, a history of Jim Hammond, the android crimefighter from the 1940s and 50s who had recently been revived in the pages of Avengers West Coast.  These two miniseries provided Buckler with an opportunity to pencil decades of Marvel’s historical events and a variety of heroes & villains.

(Thomas skipped out on recounting the Torch’s battle with the grotesque, multi-headed Un-Human, which originally saw print in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16.  Too bad, I would have enjoyed seeing Buckler render that peculiar monstrosity!)

Most of Bucker’s work in the 1990s was on independent and small press titles.  I think that, as with a number of other Bronze Age creators, his art style was unfortunately being regarded by short-sighted editors as “old fashioned.”  Which is a real shame, because if you look at Buckler’s current work, you will see that he is as good an artist as ever.

Rich Buckler self portrait

In the absence of new comic book projects, Buckler focused on his work as a painter.  He has created a number of very beautiful surrealist pieces.  This has brought him acclaim in Europe, where he has exhibited his paintings.

I’ve met Rich Buckler several times at comic conventions over the years.  He is definitely a very nice guy, as well as a talented artist.  I’ve obtained a few really lovely convention sketches from him.  He’s spoken of his continued interest in creating comic books, incorporating his love of surrealism.  I’d certainly like to see that happen, and I hope he has the opportunity to work on that project.

(A big “thank you” to Buckler for his e-mail response to this post, in which he corrected a few factual mistakes and incorrect assumptions on my part. I’ve attempted to revise this piece accordingly for more accuracy.)

Khan Noonien Singh: Star Trek’s “benevolent dictator”

I thought it might be nice to sit down and re-watch my DVD of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan today.  As I’ve written before, it is a really great movie.  The script by Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Jack B. Sowards has so many fascinating aspects to it.  And then it occurred to me that it had been literally years since I’d actually viewed “Space Seed,” the Star Trek episode written by Gene L. Coon & Carey Wilber to which The Wrath of Khan is a sequel.  I did a Google search, and found that you can view it for free online at Hulu.  Yeah, okay, you have to sit though several commercials, but it’s still better than watching a grainy bootlegged version.

Viewing “Space Seed” and Star Trek II back-to-back, I realized what an amazingly fascinating character Khan Noonien Singh was.  Obviously a major aspect of this is that the part of Khan was portrayed by the amazing Ricardo Montalban, who turns in a forceful, charismatic performance.  But I think that aspects of Khan’s character also speak to a quality present in society, the notion of the appeal of the so-called “benevolent dictator.”

The idea of one unifying individual bringing order to a state or nation, or perhaps even the entire world, is certainly not a new one.  In certain respects, it is understandable.  The alternative, democracy, is an extremely flawed, messy process.  Dozens upon dozens of dissenting voices have to be heard and appeased, compromises need to be achieved that often end up pleasing no one, politicians who are supposed to be the representatives of the people are swayed or outright bought by private interests, and the entire day-to-day functioning of government can be ground to a halt by a small group of elected officials who are unwilling to participate in the process.  One needs only look at the current deplorable state of affairs here in the United States to see this taking place.

But, really, just how much better is the alternative?  Lord Acton stated that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Or, as Spock (Leonard Nimoy) observes in “Space Seed,” when commenting on the genetically engineered supermen who once nearly seized control of Earth, “Superior ability breeds superior ambition.”

Khan Space Seed

The crew of the Enterprise, having discovered the cryogenically frozen Khan and his band of followers in outer space, is of two minds about the man.  While Kirk (William Shatner) dislikes what Khan represents, at the same time, looking at the historical record, the Captain of the Enterprise sees that, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, Khan’s dominion over a major portion of the globe was relatively benign & peaceful.  Indeed, over dinner with the ship’s crew, Khan passionately argues that the Earth made a terrible mistake in driving him into exile.  He states that his rule was not tyrannical, but “an attempt to unite humanity.”  He goes on to forcefully declare “We offered the world order!”

Khan is certainly an extremely charismatic individual with a magnetic personality.  However, the man’s true side begins to come out in his interactions with Lieutenant Marla McGivers (Madlyn Rhue). The Enterprise’s historian is immediately attracted to Khan and what he represents.  In an early establishing shot, we see McGivers’ quarters are decorated with paintings & sculptures of men of power such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Richard the Lionheart.  She possesses a much romanticized view of these individuals, who she considers superior to the males of her time.  And Khan immediately seizes on to that.

In his actions, Khan shows some of the signs of being a sociopath.  He is driven by ego, by the belief in his superiority over others.  He values other people primarily for what they can give him.  He knows how to talk a good game.  And he is superb at reading other people.  Khan immediately identifies that McGivers has this idealized view of individuals such as himself, and that she is attracted to him, both on a physical level and because of what he represents.  No doubt he also notes that she has a rather submissive side to her personality.  He takes advantage of all this, forcefully seducing her, and then ordering her to assist him in taking over the Enterprise.  When McGivers is at first unwilling to do so, Khan then appears to dismiss her, denying her the attention & affection she craves.  It is definitely an extremely unhealthy and twisted relationship built on abuse.

Once Khan and his followers, with McGivers’ aid, take over the Enterprise, his charming, civilized veneer continues to slip.  Khan realizes that Kirk and his crew are not going to easily capitulate.  He threatens Kirk with an extremely slow, painful death by suffocation, and promises to repeat this to the rest of the bridge crew, one by one.  However, if any of them swear to serve him, he will spare their lives.  In this way, at least in his mind, he appears benevolent.  As Khan no doubt sees it, he is basically saying “Look, I can be reasonable and merciful. Just do what I tell you to do and I promise no harm will come to you.”  Of course, the crew refuse Khan’s offer, and remain loyal to Kirk.  This just serves to further enrage Khan.  The more his enemies resist him, the more violent he becomes.  It is this that shocks McGivers into betraying Khan.  Witnessing first-hand the cold, hard reality of the types of men she had admired, she is repulsed, and she rescues Kirk, who organizes his crew to take back the ship.

However, Khan’s ego will not allow him to give up.  He attempts to blow up the Enterprise, wanting to take down everyone with him.  Kirk of course manages to thwart this.  Later, with the super-humans in custody, Kirk offers Khan and his followers the choice of settling on the untamed planet Ceti Alpha V instead of imprisonment by Starfleet.  He also gives McGivers the opportunity to join Khan rather than face court martial.  She agrees, and Khan declares “I will take her. And I’ve gotten something else I wanted: a world to win, an empire to build.”  There is Khan’s ego once more at work.  He forgives McGivers for her betrayal.  And he twists things around so that he can rationalize that despite being defeated he has achieved what he wanted in the first place.

Khan Star Trek II

Unfortunately, as we find out fifteen years later in Star Trek II, things turn out really badly for Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V.  Six months after settling there, the neighboring planet in the system exploded.  Ceti Alpha V’s orbit shifted, turning it into an inhospitable desert, and for the next decade and a half Khan and his followers barely clung to existence.

When the Reliant arrives at Ceti Alpha V, mistaking it for the exploded planet, Khan instantly recognizes its First Officer, Pavel Chekov, formerly of the Enterprise (Yes, I know, Walter Koenig didn’t join the cast of Star Trek until the second season, and so wasn’t in “Space Seed.” Koenig likes to joke that his character was serving on a different part of the Enterprise at that time, and that Chekov accidentally kept Khan waiting an uncomfortably long time to use the bathroom, hence the animosity.)  Here again Khan’s ego immediately comes into play.  Instead of recognizing an opportunity for rescue, he becomes full of resentment.  Looking around at the sorry state he is now in, Khan declares “On Earth, two hundred years ago, I was a prince, with power over millions.”  He is disgusted at the notion that in the intervening years Kirk has been promoted to Admiral, no doubt seeing it as a further insult that his rival has had a successful career while Khan was off rotting in exile.  In fact, Khan places the blame for his circumstances squarely on Kirk for never returning to check up on him (which, admittedly, is a fair enough criticism).  Now Khan sees the opportunity for revenge.  He takes control of the Reliant and sets out to kill his hated foe.

It’s interesting that Khan refers to the death of his “beloved wife,” undoubtedly a reference to Marla McGivers.  I really do wonder if Khan loved her.  It seems somewhat difficult to believe so, based on their relationship in “Space Seed,” where he was manipulating her.  Maybe he genuinely did.  Then again, perhaps Khan merely convinced himself that he loved her, because it fulfilled his self-image as a good man.  Whatever the case, I think that when the opportunity arose to attack Kirk, he uses McGivers’ death as one more self-justification in pursuing his vendetta.

In watching Star Trek II, you do realize that Khan has ample opportunities to take a different course of action.  Instead, he is absolutely hell-bent on gaining revenge.  Even Khan’s utterly loyal right-hand man Joachim (Judson Scott) attempts on more than one occasion to argue that they have their freedom and a spaceship, they can go anywhere in the universe, lead their own destiny once again.  But Khan’s monumental pride simply will not allow it.  He will not let go of the idea of avenging himself on Kirk.

After the Enterprise barely survives an encounter with the Khan-controlled Reliant, Kirk bitterly notes “He wants to kill me for passing sentence on him fifteen years ago. And he doesn’t care who stands between him and his vengeance.”  It eventually transpires that this includes Khan’s own devoted followers.  He is more concerned with revenge than he is for their welfare.

It’s interesting to note that early in the film we see a copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on Khan’s bookshelf.  No doubt he has had ample time to familiarize himself with the novel during his long exile.  Yet Khan ends up playing the role of Captain Ahab, the monomaniacal captain who leads himself and his entire crew to their deaths in his pursuit of the white whale.  Khan himself obviously recognizes the parallels, but he simply does not care.  As he activates the stolen Genesis Device in an attempt to destroy the Enterprise along with his own ship, he quotes the novel: “From hell’s heart I stab at thee. For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”Doctor Doom Jack Kirby

I had never noticed it before, but Khan actually bears some interesting similarities to the comic book character Doctor Doom, who was created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Like Khan, Victor Von Doom is often described as a “benevolent dictator.”  He is the absolute monarch of the country of Latveria.  In certain respects, Doom has transformed his homeland into a paradise.  There is no crime or poverty in Latveria; of course, neither is there any free will.  Some might argue that the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay.  The problem is that this seeming golden age is dependant solely upon the whims of Doctor Doom.  Like Khan, he is a creature of immense ego, convinced of his innate superiority.  He claims to love the people of Latveria, and by granting them peace & prosperity it allows him to demonstrate to himself and everyone else that he is right, that he knows what is best for the world.

However, just like Khan, when things don’t go exactly according to plan, off come the kid gloves, and suddenly Doom is an extremely dangerous, petty, vengeful individual.  Certainly his decades-long vendetta against Reed Richards for what is, in truth, a mistake Doom made due to his own arrogance, proves that.  In Doom’s mind, he cannot be wrong; it must be somebody else’s fault.  And he’s pursued his quest for vengeance against Richards, his desire to show everyone that he is the smarter, better man, with a fanatical single-mindedness.

As for the people of Latveria, as much as Doom claims to adore and cherish them, the second they become a liability, the second they stand in his way or cease to be of use to him as a propaganda symbol or a method of stroking his ego, he will casually cast them aside or destroy them.  In the end, Doom comes first, and everything else is secondary.

And that is why, as alluring as the concept of the “benevolent dictator” appears, it is really a terrible idea.  Yes, in the short term a supposedly well-intentioned absolute ruler may be able to create order & stability.  But it is the type of progress that cannot last in the long run, and which is ever subject to the frailties of the all too human egos of those in control.

Happy birthday to Tony Isabella

I wanted to wish an early birthday to the super-talented comic book writer, critic & columnist Tony Isabella, who was born on December 22, 1951.  I’ve enjoyed Isabella’s comic books since I was a kid.  His straightforward, no-nonsense, yet slyly humorous observations on society & popular culture in his online blog and in the pages of the late, lamented Comic Buyer’s Guide are always informative & insightful.

Ghost Rider 7 cover

Isabella started in the comic book biz in 1972 as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics.  He also wrote a diverse assortment of Marvel titles in 1970s, among them Daredevil, Captain America, the “It, the Living Colossus” feature in Astonishing Tales, Monsters Unleashed, and Power Man.  He co-created The Champions, and revamped the short-lived heroine The Cat aka Greer Grant Nelson into the popular Tigra in Giant-Sized Creatures #1.  For a time Isabella was the regular writer on Ghost Rider.  He intended to stay on that particular series longer than he did.  Unfortunately, one of his issues was rewritten at literally the last minute by Jim Shooter, in the process derailing a significant ongoing storyline, and Isabella walked off the title in protest.

In 1977, Isabella created Black Lightning, the very first African American character to have a solo title at DC Comics.  Paired with then-newcomer Trevor Von Eeden, Isabella wrote the first ten issues of the Black Lightning series.  Also at DC, in the mid-1980s, working with artist Richard Howell, Isabella began a major Hawkman storyline.  That’s when my young ten year old self first discovered Isabella’s writing.  I discussed the interesting premise of that series in my recent blog post about Richard Howell.  I think that Isabella was doing some good, suspenseful writing on Hawkman, and it is unfortunate that he departed the series due to a disagreement with editorial.

Captain Universe TPB pg 135

In the early 1990s, Marvel editor Jim Salicrup gave a number of interesting assignments to Isabella.  These included a handful of issues of Web of Spider-Man, a trio of Rocket Racer short stories, and back-up stories for the 1990 Spider-Man annuals featuring Ant-Man and Captain Universe.  Both of those tales were illustrated by the legendary Steve Ditko.  In the Captain Universe story, the latest recipient of the Uni-Power was a two year old child named Eddie, named after Isabella’s own son.  This delightful story also featured a cute nod to Ditko’s classic Gorgo and Konga comic books published by Charlton in the 1960s.  (Isabella’s story is collected in the Captain Universe: Power Unimaginable trade paperback.  Go get it!)

Salicrup became editor-in-chief of Topps Comics in 1992.  Several of the titles published by Topps were based on some of the many previously undeveloped series concepts devised by Jack Kirby, and were referred to as the “Kirbyverse.”  Among these was Satan’s Six, an entertaining four issue horror comedy miniseries which Isabella wrote.

Satan's Six 1 cover

In 1995, Isabella had the opportunity to return to Black Lightning, a character who he has said on numerous occasions has great personal significance to him.  Working with the immensely talented artist Eddie Newell, Isabella wrote some amazing, emotional, moving stories.  However, apparently due to some behind-the-scenes editorial shenanigans, Isabella was removed from the book after issue #8, and the series then sputtered to cancellation just five issues later.  Despite this unfortunate turn of events, I definitely look back on those first eight issues by Isabella & Newell, as well as their ten page Black Lightning story in the DCU Holiday Bash II, as among the best mainstream material published by DC in the 1990s.

Isabella has also collaborated with fellow Comic Buyer’s Guide columnist Bob Ingersoll on several occasions.  They co-wrote the Star Trek: All of Me special published by DC in 2000, a Star Trek novel, a prose short story in the anthology The Ultimate Super-Villains, and the novel Captain America: Liberty’s Torch.  I enjoyed that last one.  The book featured illustrations by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod.  In it, Cap is captured and placed on trial by a fanatical, ultra right wing militia that has accused him of betraying the country to minorities and foreigners.  What was interesting about how Isabella & Ingersoll wrote the novel is that they never really reveal to us Cap’s own opinions are on all of these controversial issues.  Instead of having Steve Rogers get on a soap box to offer a civics lecture, the authors pretty much leave it up to the reader to decide for himself or herself Cap’s views on globalization, immigration, taxes, and big government.

I was thrilled when Isabella recently had the opportunity to return to comic books and write the six issue miniseries The Grim Ghost, published by Atlas Comics in 2011.  Isabella did really great work on the series, which also featured amazingly atmospheric artwork by Kelley Jones & Eric Layton.  Regrettably, Atlas ended up having some distribution problems, and it took me quite a while to snag a copy of the final issue.  That also seems to have prevented a trade paperback collection from being published.  All that aside, it was a really good series, and it is well worth tracking down.

Grim Ghost 6 cover

Looking back over Isabella’s body of fiction, as well as his work as a columnist, a great deal of his own viewpoints and opinions come out through his writings.  Isabella definitely has an ultra liberal perspective.  Nope, I am not jumping to conclusions, is says so right on his Facebook page, under Political Views: “Very Liberal.”  I’m a bit more middle-of-the-road myself, and occasionally I’ll read something of his and think to myself “Whoa there, Tony, might want to rein it in just a little!”  But I certainly respect the deep sincerity of his views.

He is also a very spiritual person.  And not, I certainly must add, in a “If you don’t believe in God, you are going to Hell” sort of way.  Isabella sees God as a loving entity, not a punishing one.  His protagonists often find redemption and the strength to go on via their faith in a higher power, by resolving to do good and set aside their own inner flaws & defects of character. That is what Isabella was trying to do with the character of John Blaze, who had sold his soul to the Devil, within the pages of Ghost Rider, and why he was so angry when Shooter threw a monkey wrench into those plans.  This is a theme that he returned to so effectively with the characters of Matthew Dunsinane and Michael Colavito in The Grim Ghost. The importance of casting off pride & resentment, and need to let go of the past, in order for each of these men to finally be free to escape from the purgatory known as the Fringe and find salvation, is one of the central messages of the series.

Something you may have noted in this blog post: Isabella seems to have had his share of clashes with editors at both Marvel and DC.  I think that this is indicative of a man who is very principled, ethical and passionate about his work, and who is unwilling to let editorial, or the corporate types overseeing them, impose what he sees as unreasonable demands upon him.  The comic book industry has innumerable examples of creators who have been exploited & abandoned by greedy, short-sighted corporate interests.  So I certainly admire Isabella for standing up for himself and not allowing others to steamroll him.

Black Lightning 5 cover

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet Tony Isabella on a couple of occasions, first at one of the Big Apple conventions over a decade ago, and then at New York Comic Con in 2011.  I later found out that those were the only two NYC conventions that he’s done in the last two decades!  Talk about good timing.  Both times I found him to be a very pleasant fellow.  Having followed his comic books and columns for so long, it was a pleasure to meet him on those two occasions, and to have him autograph some of the books that he has worked upon.

Have a very happy birthday, Tony.  I sincerely hope that there are many more years, as well as many more stories, to come for you.  Keep up the great work.