Comic book reviews: Darkseid #1 (Justice League #23.1)

As I may have mentioned before, I really have not been much of a fan of DC Comics’ much hyped New 52.  There were a few series that I liked, but all of them ended up getting canceled.  The only exception is Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang, which continues to be an excellent read (I really should do a full length post on that soon).  Other than that, though, nothing else has really caught my attention.  But I may pick up Ann Nocenti’s work on Catwoman and Katana when it receives the trade paperback treatment.

So when DC’s whole month-long line-wide Forever Evil crossover rolled around, I had no interest in it.  I did end up picking up four or five of the tie-in issues due to the specific characters or creators involved, and even then nothing especially stood out.  And among those few there was one major disappointment: Justice League #23.1, aka Darkseid #1.

Those who follow this blog will remember that I am a huge fan of Jack Kirby, especially his amazing work on the “Fourth World” titles.  While I do not think any subsequent creators have been nearly as successful in their handling of the New Gods as the man who created them, there have nevertheless been some very good stories featuring them written by such individuals as Walter Simonson, John Ostrander, John Byrne, Paul Levitz and Jim Starlin.  And in the New 52, Azzarello & Chiang have come up with interesting takes on Orion and Highfather in the pages of Wonder Woman.  So I was curious to read Darkseid #1, which presents the New 52 origin of the lord of Apokolips.

Justice League 23 point 1 cover

There was actually some potential to “Apotheosis,” which is written by Grek Pak.  It starts off quite well.  We see that ages ago in another dimension, Darkseid was once a humble farmer named Uxas.  He lived on a world where a pantheon of titanic deities regularly wrecked havoc, brawling across the landscape with seemingly no regard for the tiny mortals at their feet.  Unlike his sister Avia and brother-in-law Izaya, Uxas recognized that these gods were oblivious to the plight of their subjects, and they cared not who was killed during their battles.  Uxas is clearly a man who feels wronged, who resents these gods, and who wishes to gain the power to control his destiny.  It’s an intriguing stepping-on point to understanding what drives Darkseid.

Unfortunately things then get confusing.  We see Uxas climbing the mountain of the gods and, while they are asleep, whispering in their ears that they should go to war.  Then he sits back and watches them nearly destroy one another and, once they are helpless, Uxas comes up to them and slays them all, stealing their power, in the process transforming into Darkseid.

At this point it really felt like this issue had skipped by a whole bunch of stuff.  Everything flies by so quickly.  Uxas’ manipulation and slaying of the gods seems to take place much too easily.  I know I often criticize modern comic books for their decompressed nature.  But this issue is the opposite problem: it felt like a three or four issue story crammed into 20 pages.

In any case, Izaya and Avia approach the last of the gods, praying for his help.  And even though these cosmic beings previously seemed to be completely unaware of their worshipers, suddenly the fallen “lord of the sky” rewards the dying Avia for still having faith by transforming her husband into Highfather.  The empowered Izaya futilely tries to reason with Darkseid.  They fight, and their world is destroyed.

Justice League 23 point 1 pg 11

The story abruptly fast forwards to Darkseid in place as the iron-fisted ruler of Apokolips, planning his conquest of other dimensions.  And some other stuff happens that I think ties in with past issues of Justice League and Earth 2, but I’m not completely certain.  Again, this sudden lurch in time really feels jarring.

I’ve read other comic books written by Pak, and he is usually much better than this.  I cannot help wondering if the bare bones of Darkseid’s story were handed to him by someone like Dan DiDio or Geoff Johns and he was given this single issue to try and flesh them out.  Whatever the case, the results are frustrating and disappointing, as we get snapshots, glimpses of what could have been a memorable story.

I’m sorry, but I just cannot help comparing this to Jack Kirby’s own work.  Maybe I am being unfair.  But just take a look at New Gods #7, “The Pact,” which he wrote & penciled back in 1971.  In the space of a mere 24 pages, Kirby recounted the origins of the longstanding war between Apokolips and New Genesis, in a tale that contained both epic cosmic conflicts and deeply personal moments.

New Gods 7 cover

In contrast, we have the just published Justice League #23.1, which, despite being given nearly the same page count as New Gods #7, just barely manages to begin exploring the origins and motivations of Darkseid and Highfather.  I really do not want to sound like a grumpy old man (I’m only 37 years old) but they really do not make comic books like they used to.

Oh, well, at least the artwork on Justice League #23.1 is quite good.  I am completely unfamiliar with Paulo Siqueira and Netho Diaz.  But they do a very nice job capturing the awesome, cosmic nature of events.  The coloring by Hi-Fi is vibrant.  As for the cover, the super-talented Ivan Reis draws an extremely striking portrait of Darkseid.

As I said before, I actually feel like “Apotheosis” could have been much better.  But it feels like someone dropped the ball along the way.  I don’t know, maybe most of the criticisms I’ve leveled at this issue are indicative of the larger problems plaguing DC as a whole over the last few years.  This is probably why I read so little that is published by them nowadays (or by Marvel, either, for that matter).

Yes, there are many very good comic books being published nowadays.  You just have to look beyond DC and Marvel to find the majority of them.  Yeah, it’s definitely disappointing to see Kirby’s characters & concepts handled in such a sloppy manner by DC.  But, whatever, rather than dwell on that, I’m just going to look for the interesting, original work being done by other creators elsewhere.

How I discovered Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby is rightfully considered one of the all-time greatest creators to have ever worked in the comic book industry.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg on August 28, 1917, the man who came to be known as Jack Kirby was responsible for creating or co-creating a huge percentage of what we now know as the Marvel Comics universe, as well as a number of key characters over at DC Comics.  He also conceived a number of concepts for series that either came out through smaller companies which allowed him to retain ownership or that unfortunately never saw print in his lifetime.  I’ve blogged about Kirby before.  So today, on what would have been his 96th birthday, I am going to look back on how I personally came to be a fan of his work.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, from time to time I would see Jack Kirby’s name mentioned in various lettercols or editorial pages, usually referring to him in glowing terms as an exceptional artist and a brilliant designer of characters.  However, back in those days, trade paperback collections were few & far between, and back issues from the 1960s that he had worked on were typically well out of the budget of a ten year old.  It would be a few years before I would actually have the opportunity to see Kirby’s artwork with own eyes.

In hindsight, I now realize that selected panels from some of his early 1960s work appeared in the Marvel Saga series that was published in the mid-1980s.  But the first entire issue illustrated by him that I ever owned was Fantastic Four #74, which I picked out of the back issue bins of some comic shop or another around 1986, probably because it had a cool cover.

Fantastic Four 74 cover

I managed to buy that copy of FF #74 pretty cheap, for maybe $5.00 or so.  That’s because it was certainly not in mint condition, to say the least.  It must have changed hands at least a few times before I acquired it.  And at least one of the previous owners had decided to use a magic marker to trace the outlines of the figures in a few of the panels.  Eeeek!  Even at ten years old, I knew that was a no-no!  Nevertheless, most of the pages were left untouched, and I was able to appreciate the artwork of Kirby inked by Joe Sinnott.

FF #74 was a pretty cool comic book.  I haven’t looked at in a while, but as I recall the Silver Surfer, imprisoned on Earth by Galactus, is moping about the apartment of blind sculptress Alicia Masters.  Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, is none too thrilled that the Surfer is hanging out with his best gal, and doesn’t exactly offer a sympathetic ear to the former sentinel of the spaceways.  Next thing you know, the Surfer decides to lay a cosmic powered smack-down on the gruff Thing.  Before their grudge can proceed further, Galactus returns to Earth, hoping to re-enlist his former herald.  The devourer of worlds dispatches his servant the Punisher to retrieve the Surfer… no no no, not the guy with the skull on his chest who goes around shooting criminals full of holes.  This Punisher is a funny-looking robot dude who predates Frank Castle by almost a decade.  A big fight ensues between the FF and the Punisher.  Then, next thing you know, the story ends on a cliffhanger, and a ten year old Ben Herman threw up his hands in despair, wondering how he was ever going to find a copy of issue #75, and even if he did, would he even be able to afford it!?!

I believe that my next major look at Jack Kirby’s work was maybe three years later, in early 1989.  In the latest issues of Captain America, writer Mark Gruenwald had resurrected the diabolical Red Skull, in the process taking the opportunity to bring readers up to speed on the history of the crimson-masked fiend.  I was really curious to check out some of those past storylines Gruenwald had flashed back to in issue #350.  So once again, I dove into the back issue bins, pulling out a copy of Captain America #210, with its strikingly odd cover of the Red Skull’s metaphorical tentacles entrapping the book’s cast.

Captain America 210 cover

“Showdown Day” was written & penciled by Kirby, with inking by Mike Royer.  If I thought the cover was unusual, well, that was just the tip of the iceberg.  Picking up mid-story, this issue sees Cap and the lovely Donna Maria Puentes tussling with the ultra-bizarre, supremely twisted Nazi genetic engineer known as Arnim Zola, as well as his grotesque army of mutant creations.  Meanwhile, SHIELD agent Sharon Carter is investigating an eccentric millionaire recluse named Cyrus Fenton, who is actually none other than the Red Skull in disguise, funding Zola’s experiments from behind the scenes.  Oh, yeah, and the Falcon gets attacked by a giant bird.

Truthfully, my first impression of Kirby’s artwork on this issue was that I thought it was really bizarre.  Even so, I had to admit that he drew an evil-looking Red Skull.  As for Donna Maria and Sharon, wow, both of them were really sexy babes who left a memorable impression on my 13 year old mind.  And, as for Kirby’s writing, setting aside the fact that Captain America is actually absent from the second half of the story, it was interesting.  Kirby deftly scripted the Red Skull as this icy schemer, really imbuing him with a palpable air of menace.

As with that Fantastic Four issue, Captain America #210 also ends with a “to be continued.”  Fortunately, most of Kirby’s mid-1970s Marvel work was both easier to find and cheaper to purchase than his comics from the previous decade, and within a few years I managed to track down the entire story arc.

And this brings me to my discovery of Kirby’s celebrated work at DC in the early 1970s, when he created the Fourth World.  By the time I was in high school, I had known about the tyrannical Darkseid and his evil followers from Apokolips for several years, first due to their inclusion in the Super Friends cartoons, and then their appearances in John Byrne’s run on the Superman books, plus the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries by Jim Starlin & Mike Mignola.  I really wanted to read the original Kirby issues but, again, they were both expensive and difficult to find.  Finally, in the early 1990s, at a comic con in Westchester, I was able to purchase Forever People #4 and #9 for relatively reasonable prices.

Forever People 4 cover

Eagerly pulling those two comics out of their bags, I read them and…. okay, once again, I’ll be honest.  The artwork was great, the writing not so much.  At least, that’s how I felt at the time.  From those two issues, I was left with the impression that Kirby may have been a brilliant artist, but he sure was a lousy writer.

So a couple of more years passed, and I managed to find a few more of the Fourth World books at inexpensive prices.  Specifically, I picked up New Gods #7 as well as Mister Miracle #9 and #18.  I don’t know, maybe I was slightly more mature, or maybe those were better stories, or maybe it was just a matter of having more realistic expectations.  Whatever the case, I liked those three issues a lot more.  And, of course, a few years later I learned that New Gods #7, “The Pact,” is considered by many to be one of the greatest single issues that Kirby ever created.

Finally in 1998 DC released an inexpensive black & white three volume set of trade paperbacks that reprinted the majority of his New Gods, Forever People, and Mister Miracle issues.  I picked them up and fell in love with the material.  Able to read almost the entire run of stories from beginning to end, suddenly everything fell into place.  Also, by this point I had come to recognize that Kirby’s stylized scripting, the cadence of his dialogue, while it undoubtedly had its peculiarities, also possessed an appealing quality to it that suited the material.  Kirby had crafted an incredibly epic, poignant odyssey in his trilogy of titles which, sadly, was brought to much too premature an end.

New Gods trade paperback

And that is how I became a fan of Jack Kirby.  Nowadays, practically everything he worked on during his lifetime has been brought back into print.  Kirby envisioned the day when comic books would be read like full length novels.  That has come to pass, with trade paperbacks and graphic novels now an industry standard.

I’ve said this before, but I cannot help thinking Kirby died too young.  He passed away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76, and for the last dozen or so years of his life ill health had resulted in a decline in the quality of his artwork.  I wish that Kirby could have lived longer, retaining his vitality & drawing ability.  He dabbled in creator-owned work in the early 1980s, but between his health problems and the then relatively new, uncertain status of the direct market those series did not last long.

Imagine if Kirby had still been at the peak of his talents in the 1990s when Image Comics had exploded.  He could have taken some of his myriad unpublished, unrealized ideas for characters over to that company and created long-running titles that he held full creative control and ownership.

I know, I know… asking what if and if only and all that other hypothesizing is pointless.  What’s done is done.  I’m just sorry that Kirby isn’t here to see how much of an influence, an inspiration he has become to so many, how much enjoyment his work has brought to a legion of fans.

As I was writing this up, I recalled an anecdote that concerns James M. Cain.  Reputedly the authors was once asked by a reporter if, in the course of his works being made into less-than-faithful movie adaptations by Hollywood, he felt that his books had been ruined.  And in response Cain apparently led the questioner to a bookshelf in his study, pointed to it, and replied “They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.”  In a way, that applies here.  Jack Kirby, sadly, is no longer with us.  But his innumerable amazing works remain behind for us to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

In my February 23rd blog post, I wrote about how back in May 2000 I came to start my theme sketchbook featuring the character Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, who had been created by the legendary Jack “King” Kirby.  At the end of that post, I mentioned that I also happened to have a tattoo of the character.  Here’s how that came about.

Jack Kirby passed away in 1994.  I am a huge fan of his work, and I have always regretted that I would never have the opportunity to meet him, much less get a sketch of Beautiful Dreamer by Kirby himself.  Also, pretty much all of Kirby’s artwork is way beyond my budget.  So I didn’t think I’d ever own an original piece drawn by him.  And then Michele came up with a suggestion, the next best thing, you might say… why not get a tattoo of Beautiful Dreamer?

I had previously gotten a Watchmen smiley face tattoo done by Becca Roach.  I was happy with her work, so I decided to go back to her for this new ink.  I searched through my collections of Kirby’s wonderful “Fourth World” stories.  I finally located the perfect image, a bio picture of Beautiful Dreamer drawn by Jack Kirby & Greg Theakston that appeared in Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #2.  It was later reprinted, along with all the other bios of the New Gods from that series, in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume Four.

I had the tattoo done on my left leg. Becca did impeccable work.  You can see it below, side-by-side with the original Who’s Who profile (click to enlarge):

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

Becca is currently working at North Star Tattoo, located at 74 East 7th Street in NYC. You can view her tattoo work and her paintings on her website, http://www.beccaroach.com/

A few years later, at the 2012 New York Comic Book Marketplace, I met Greg Theakston.  In addition to his excellent work inking Kirby in the 1980s, Theakston is a talented artist in his own right, as well as a comic book historian, an expert on Bettie Page, and a publisher who has reissued a variety of Golden Age material through his Pure Imagination imprint.  I had corresponded with Greg on Facebook, but this was the first time I had a chance to talk face to face.  He remembered me very well, since I’d previously e-mailed him a photo of my tattoo.  He mentioned in passing that he thought he still had the original ink artwork from the Who’s Who entry.  I just shrugged it off, though, since I figured it was out of my price range.

So today I received a package in the mail from none other than Greg Theakston.  I wasn’t expecting anything from him.  I mean, a few weeks back he had asked me what my mailing address was, but I didn’t think anything of it, just guessing that he might send me a copy of one of his books or something.  But what I got in the mail this morning was much too small to be a book.  I opened it up, and discovered this:

Beautiful Dreamer Theakston inks

Yep, it was the original ink artwork that Greg did on vellum for the main image of Beautiful Dreamer from the Who’s Who bio.  In the 1980s, a great deal of Kirby’s artwork was inked separately on vellum via the use of a lightbox.  That meant that Kirby’s original pencils remained, in addition to the inked work which was then used for publication.

Of course, this means there’s still Kirby’s original pencil drawing somewhere out there.  I don’t know who owns it.  I certainly do know that at this point in time there is no way in hell I could afford to purchase it.  But that’s okay.

I am very grateful to Greg for this kind gesture.  To tell you the truth, my life has been very crazy lately, with a great deal of stress and a lot of emotional ups & downs.  I have had to put up for sale some pieces of comic book artwork from my collection that I really liked because I urgently need to pay bills. So this generous gift from Greg really means a lot to me.  Thanks!

Beautiful Dreamer sketchbook

I began collecting convention sketches and commissions in the mid-1990s, when I was in college.  At first, I would get them on loose pieces of paper.  But after several years, I had seen a number of other comic book fans who had these really incredible sketchbooks full of artwork that they had obtained over the years.  Many of these had the theme of a particular character or group of characters.  So in May 2000 I decided that it would be nice to start a theme sketchbook of my own.

Before I began it, though, I wanted to come up with a really unique theme, something that I liked and that artists would also enjoy drawing.  While I was a big fan of Captain America, I already had a bunch of loose sketches of the character and his supporting cast.  I wanted to start fresh.  Also, it occurred to me that if I picked a sexy female character, artists would be more interested in drawing her.

Then, in a bolt of inspiration, it occurred to me.  I was a huge fan of Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” titles that he had created in the early 1970s for DC Comics.  In one of these, Forever People, there was a curvy gal named Beautiful Dreamer, a sort of hippy chick who could cause psychedelic hallucinations.  Why not start a theme sketchbook around her?  Certainly the odds were exceedingly slim that, unlike a character such as Batman or Wolverine, anyone else would have a book of drawings featuring Beautiful Dreamer.

Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby
Beautiful Dreamer and Darkseid by Jack Kirby

I wanted to get someone really special to draw an outstanding piece to start off the book.  Obviously asking Jack Kirby himself was impossible, as he had sadly passed away in 1994.  Then, once again, inspiration struck.  Over the last several years, at various New York-area conventions, I had met Silver Age comic book artist Dick Ayers and his lovely, charming wife Lindy.  I had struck up an e-mail correspondence with Dick, and obtained a few pieces of artwork by him.  At the time, I lived about ten minutes from their house, and they’d invited me over for a visit.

As part of his long, diverse career, Ayers inked / embellished Jack Kirby’s pencils on numerous stories in the 1950s and 60s.  Among these were a variety of monster, war, and Western titles published by Marvel Comics, plus early issues of Fantastic Four and Avengers.  Ayers had never worked with Kirby at DC.  By the time Ayers had moved over to DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby was back at Marvel, so I guess you could say they passed each other by like two ships in the night.  But one of Ayers’ assignments at DC was penciling post-Kirby issues of Kamandi.

So, in addition to being a very talented artist in his own right, Dick Ayers had that connection to Kirby.  Plus, from his recent work on the Femforce series published by AC Comics, I knew Ayers could definitely draw lovely ladies.  Why not ask him to draw the first Beautiful Dreamer piece in my sketchbook?  He agreed, and the resulting commission can be seen below.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers
Beautiful Dreamer by Dick Ayers

I must also give credit to Dick & Lindy Ayers for helping me to obtain one of the other early pieces in my sketchbook.  They were friends & neighbors with Dan & Josie DeCarlo.  Dan was, of course, a long-time artist at Archie Comics.  In the early 1960s, he had come up with what is now the “house style” at Archie.  In addition to that, he had created both Josie and the Pussycats (inspired by his wife) and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.  Before working for Archie, DeCarlo had done a number of playfully risqué Humorama pin-up illustrations.  He definitely knew how to draw cute, sexy gals.  I thought it would be great to have a Beautiful Dreamer illustration drawn by DeCarlo.  But I doubted that he would want to sketch a character he was totally unfamiliar with.

I ended up mentioning this to Dick Ayers shortly before a Big Apple Comic Con that was going to be held in late 2000.  Dick thought my idea was a good one, and he promised me he would put in a good word for me with Dan DeCarlo.  Well, about a week later, I’m at the convention.  Dick & Lindy had a table right next to Dan & Josie.  When I came over to say hello to the Ayers, Dan took me to the DeCarlo’s table, and said something along the lines of “Hi, Dan. This is my friend Ben Herman. He would like to get a sketch done by you.”  Yeah, that was seriously cool!  So I handed my book over to Dan, showing him the piece that Dick had drawn in it half a year earlier, and I gave him an issue of Forever People as reference, and asked him if he would like to draw the character.  DeCarlo seemed a bit bemused by my request, but he agreed.  This is the piece that he drew.

Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo
Beautiful Dreamer by Dan DeCarlo

Sadly, Dan DeCarlo passed away about a year later, on December 18, 2001.  I am really grateful that I had the opportunity to meet him and get a sketch done by him.  I am also thankful to Dick Ayers for making that possible by introducing me, as well as for starting off the whole sketchbook with class & style.

Fast forward a dozen years, and I’ve almost completely filled up the Beautiful Dreamer book with sketches and commissions by a diverse selection of artists.  I think there are less than 20 blank pages left in the back of the book.  You can view scans of them in my gallery on Comic Art Fans.  As you will see, the majority of these turned out very well.  And the two by Dick Ayers and Dan DeCarlo are, for obvious reasons, among my favorites.

My girlfriend grew up reading Archie Comics, and she thinks it’s amazing that I was able to get a sketch by DeCarlo.  She was the one who suggested I do a blog post about it.  Michele is also the one who came up with the cool idea that I get a Beautiful Dreamer tattoo… but that is a subject for a future post!

Happy birthday to Mark Bode

I found out, courtesy of the Grand Comics Database (special thanks to my Facebook pal Steve Chung for pointing it out), that today is the birthday of artist Mark Bode.  I thought it might be nice to briefly spotlight some of his work. Mark is the son of legendary underground cartoonist Vaughn Bode, who passed away at the much too young age of 33 back in 1975.  Mark followed on in his father’s footsteps, working in a wacky, sexy, cartoony style that I’ve always found appealing.  In the 1980s, Mark collaborated with Larry Todd to revive and complete Cobalt 60, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series conceived by his father.

Cobalt 60

Among his numerous other credits, Mark Bode has worked on The Lizard of Oz and Miami Mice, as well as issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It was via Eastman & Laird’s quartet of martial arts reptiles that I first discovered Bode’s work.  In the 1990s, back during my high school & college days, I was almost exclusively into mainstream superhero stuff, i.e. Marvel, DC, Image.  TMNT was one of my few forays into “alternative” material (I preferred the Mirage issues to the all-ages Archie Comics title, but I did follow both).  And it was through those comics that I was first exposed to the work of a number of independent creators, among them Michael Zulli, Rick Veitch, Mark Martin, Rich Hedden, Tom McWeeney and, of course, Mark Bode.  I really enjoyed Bode’s TMNT issues.  He had a very distinctive sense of humor to his work.  And I was especially impressed by how he drew these cute, curvy women.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 32

I remember that I met Bode in the late 1990s at one of the Big Apple comic cons, and I asked him if he’d do a sketch for me.  I was secretly hoping for one of his sexy gals.  Well, I should have been more specific, because what I got was a picture of a funny hat with a pair of legs sticking out from it.  I had no idea what it was supposed to be.  Now, obviously, a few years later, once I became more familiar with Bode’s work, I realized that he had drawn Cheech Wizard, one of his father’s signature characters.  Well, it was a free sketch, so I had no reason to complain.  Hey, at least I got one of his TMNT issues signed by him.

Fast forward to 2009.  My girlfriend Michele and I were at another NYC convention.  Mark Bode was one of the guests.  Michele is a big fan of Vaughn & Mark Bode’s work.  She was thrilled to meet Mark, and got several books autographed.  Anyway, I had my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook with me, but I wasn’t sure who I was going to try to ask to draw something in it.  Michele absolutely insisted that I ask Bode if he would do a Beautiful Dreamer piece for me. As I said before, I love Mark’s sexy, big-eyed, voluptuous women.  So I thought this was a great idea, but I honestly didn’t know if he’d want to draw a Jack Kirby character he was unfamiliar with.  The whole Cheech Wizard incident must have been doing a re-run in the back of my mind!  But Michele persisted, and I finally asked Bode.  Fortunately he kindly agreed and, well, the results were absolutely amazing.  I should point out that Bode’s sketch rates were very reasonable, and I also think he drew me an illustration that was worth much more than what I paid him.  It’s definitely one of the best pieces in my Beautiful Dreamer book.

Mark Bode shows off his Beautiful Dreamer drawing

In addition to drawing comic books and graphic novels, Bode has also been working as a tattoo artist for nearly twenty years.  I’ve seen photos of his work on his Facebook page, and it looks great.  As you can imagine, he tattoos really fantastic  pin-up girls.  Oh, yeah, when it comes to painting murals, he slings a mean can of spray paint.

So, a very happy birthday to Mark Bode, who turns 50 years old today.  Hope there’s many more to come.

Comic book reviews: Jack Kirby’s Silver Star

Jack Kirby was, without a doubt, one of the most influential comic book creators of the 20th Century.  His dynamic art style and storytelling techniques influenced dozens upon dozens of other artists.  Kirby was also responsible for creating or co-creating literally hundreds of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics.  Among these were Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the original X-Men, the New Gods, Darkseid, the Demon Etrigan, OMAC, and Kamandi, just to name some of the major ones!

Unfortunately, Kirby spent the majority of his career working during a time when the legal rights of comic book creators were few and far between.  Both financial benefits and creative control were almost unheard of.  So, despite creating a major share of the Marvel universe, and contributing key concepts to DC, Kirby was sadly denied both creative and financial recognition by the owners of those two companies.

Nowadays, of course, this situation has improved somewhat.  If a successful creator chooses to, he has the option take his brand new ideas to a publisher such as Image Comics, Dark Horse, or IDW, where he will retain ownership of a series.

Creator-owned titles really did not become prevalent in the marketplace until the early 1990s, though.  By this time, Kirby was already in his seventies, suffering from poor health, and had retired several years before.  He would pass away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76.  I’ve always thought it was a great tragedy that Kirby did not live longer, and of course retain his health & drawing ability, so that he could have brought some of the many unpublished concepts he had conceived to a company such as Image and produced a long-lasting series on which he held full ownership and creative control.

Fortunately, Kirby did have the opportunity to work on a small number of creator-owned projects a decade before, in the early 1980s.  One of these was Silver Star, which was published for six issues by Pacific Comics in 1983.

Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby
Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby

In 2006, TwoMorrows Publishing released the Silver Star: Graphite Edition, a black & white trade paperback collection.  It was printed from photocopies of Jack Kirby’s penciled pages from before they were inked by Mike Royer, D. Bruce Berry and Mike Thibodeaux.  There are a handful of pages, mostly splashes and double page spreads, that there aren’t any photocopies of.  In those cases, the pages were printed from the inked artwork.

I had seen scans of the some of the original artwork from the Silver Star books posted on Comic Art Fans, and was intrigued, especially because of some striking pages from the sixth issue.  So when I found a copy of the Graphite Edition for sale at the Jack Kirby Museum table during MoCCA Festival 2010, I immediately purchased it.

(There is also a collection of the Silver Star material that was issued by Image Comics in 2007, an oversized hardcover printed in full color on glossy paper, with selected new coloring by Erik Larsen.  I’ve been meaning to pick up this edition for a few years now, but I’ve yet to come across a copy in the comic shops.  Sooner or later, once I have some extra funds, I’ll buy it at Amazon or Ebay.)

Silver Star is the story of “Homo Geneticus,” the next stage in human evolution, artificially jump-started by Doctor Bradford Miller.  Hoping to find a way for humanity to survive a nuclear holocaust, Miller created a “genetic package” that he injected into a number of pregnant women, including his own wife.  All of these women’s offspring were subsequently born with various superpowers, including “atomic manipulation,” the ability to reshape matter itself.

Miller’s son Morgan first manifests his abilities during the Vietnam War, when he unexpectedly uses them to save his comrades from an enemy attack.  However, Morgan’s body immediately begins emitting massive amounts of energy.  The military is forced to encase him in a metal suit.  This silvery outfit, combined with the medal for valor Morgan receives, causes the government to give him the code name “Silver Star.”

Unfortunately, not all of the recipients of the genetic package are as altruistic as Morgan.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Darius Drumm.  Born to a stern, wife-beating evangelical preacher, leader of the “Foundation for Self-Denial,” Drumm grows up in a strict, puritanical environment.  This upbringing, coupled with the discovery of his seemingly unlimited powers, leads Drumm to become a very twisted individual.  Mentally unbalanced, convinced of the inherent corruption of all humanity, Drumm is determined to wipe the world clean of sin.  He is the ultimate nihilist, ready to reduce the entire Earth to a sterile globe.

Before Drumm can proceed, he feels obligated to kill all of the other members of Homo Geneticus he can locate, lest they pose a threat to his scheme.  This he does via some particularly violent and gruesome acts, ones that not only take out his quarry, but also cause an immense loss of innocent life.

One of Drumm’s targets is Norma Richmond, an attractive stuntwoman whose main Homo Geneticus ability is near invulnerability.  At first, as with his other prey, Drumm attempts to kill her.  Morgan thwarts this attempt, and rescues Norma, but Drumm strikes again, this time kidnapping her.  At this point Drumm is unable to decide if he wants to seduce Norma or kill her, violently torn between his lust for the beautiful woman and his father’s strict discipline of self-denial.

In the final issue, Drumm, fully committed to his apocalyptic mission, uses his atomic manipulation on himself.  He transforms into the horrific, towering figure of the Angel of Death.  Spreading vast wings, Drumm sweeps out, scorching the surface of the planet with his flames.  Morgan sets off in pursuit, desperate to halt Drumm before mankind is completely annihilated.

Jack Kiirby's uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10
Jack Kiirby’s uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10

I have to admit, as a great fan of Jack Kirby’s work, I was a bit underwhelmed by Silver Star.  The story is not his best writing.  I think he probably hit his high point, both as a writer and an artist, a decade or so earlier, when he was creating the Fourth World books featuring the New Gods at DC Comics.

By the time Kirby was working on Silver Star in 1983, it’s quite likely that he may have been burned out on comic books, due to his shoddy treatment at the hands of Marvel and DC.  I cannot say I can blame him for that.  His advancing age & declining health may also have been a factor.  That said, Silver Star is not without its merits.

While it appears that while Kirby intended for the conflict with Darius Drum to conclude in Silver Star #6, he may have believed the book would last on past that as an ongoing series.  Kirby spends a significant portion of the first four issues establishing a supporting cast and status quo.  As a result, the pacing on these issues is too leisurely.  Things only kick into high gear with the final two issues, as Drumm becomes the Angel of Death, and the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.  It’s possible that if Kirby had known he would only have half a dozen issues to work with, he would have structured the story somewhat differently.

At least the conclusion, while somewhat abrupt, is quite inventive.  Realizing that he has little hope of physically besting Drumm in a contest of superpowers, Morgan instead is forced to use psychology to defeat his nigh-unstoppable opponent.

One story point that I felt was much too casually brushed aside was Doctor Miller conducting genetic experimentation on unborn babies.  I do not know if he ever received the parents’ consent, but even if he did, there are still ethical issues.  One can argue that Miller is at least partially responsible for the massive destruction Darius Drumm subsequently wrecks.

Kirby did something similar with “The Project” in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.  In that case, the government cloned numerous copies of Jimmy Olsen without his permission.  Jimmy, rather than expressing outrage at this violation of his person, merely seemed in awe by the whole accomplishment.  It’s strange, in that Kirby appeared to view concepts such as cloning and genetic engineering with a black & white morality.  In his stories, he either presented well-intentioned scientists such as The Project or Doctor Miller experimenting with human DNA for the selfless betterment of mankind, or he had insane nut jobs like Simyan & Mokkari or Arnim Zola transforming & twisting organic life out of some sort of sadistic, perverse curiosity.  Kirby didn’t seem to acknowledge that the act of genetic engineering itself, regardless of the intent of the scientists behind it, can have a host of complicated moral issues.

Looking at the Graphite Edition, it’s worth mentioning the penciling appears on the sketchy side.  There could be a few reasons for this.  I don’t know if Kirby’s art looks unpolished because these are reproductions of quarter century old photocopies, because he was getting on in age, or because he simply didn’t finish his pencils as tightly as he could have since he knew they were going to be inked.  As I said, there are several pages where TwoMorrows needed to print from the inked art by Royer, Berry and Thibodeaux.  This finished art looks fantastic.  Obviously, I understand the archival and instructional value of presenting Kirby’s rough, uninked pencil art, as it reveals a lot of the creative process.  And there is always the alternative of the Image hardcover to see the series fully inked.

That said, Kirby’s unlinked, black & white pencils for Silver Star #6, with the titanic Angel of Death unleashed upon the Earth, are amazing.  Perhaps the excitement of illustrating the end of the world inspired Kirby, because his artwork on these pages is dramatic, horrifying, and riveting.

Silver Star originated as a pitch for a film that Kirby and Steve Sherman wrote in 1977.  It was never produced, and Kirby used many of the ideas from the film treatment several years later in the Silver Star comic, albeit with certain alterations.  The entire story treatment by Kirby & Sherman is reprinted in the back of the Graphite Edition.  It’s interesting to compare their initial premise to the finished comic book version.  And, y’know, with today’s special effects technology, Silver Star would make a fantastic movie!

I also thought it noteworthy that Kirby suggested actor Jack Palance to play Darius Drumm.  According to Kirby’s former assistant Mark Evanier, the grand cosmic villain Darkseid from the Fourth World books was also modeled on Palance (an early concept drawing for Drumm printed in this book bears a more than passing resemblance to Darkseid).  Kirby obviously thought very highly of Palance’s acting abilities & screen presence.  Certainly he wasn’t the only comic book artist to feel that way, as Gene Colan acknowledged that his version of Dracula from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula series was also based on Palance.

Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby
Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby

There are several other concept illustrations and previously unpublished drawings by Kirby contained in the trade paperback.  My favorite would have to be the original design for Norma Richmond, or “Jayne Davidson,” as she was originally called in the Kirby/Sherman film pitch.  Several years ago, someone on a message board once suggested that Kirby was incapable of drawing sexy women.  That, I argued, was pure nonsense, and I listed at least half a dozen examples of curvy Kirby women who were absolutely gorgeous.  I have to add Norma to that list.

I don’t know if I would recommend Silver Star to a Kirby newcomer.  It is something of an acquired taste, and a better intro to Kirby’s tremendous body of work would be the Fourth World Omnibus editions from DC, or the various Essential Fantastic Four volumes published by Marvel.  But if you are already a fan of Kirby, then Silver Star is worth picking up.  It’s an unusual but memorable story, and one of the last complete works in Kirby’s long & varied career.

New York Comic Book Marketplace: a convention report

Last Saturday I went to the New York Comic Book Marketplace comic convention at the Penn Pavilion near Madison Square Garden.  For those unfamiliar with the NYCBM, it is run by Mike Carbonaro, who back in the 1990s set up the Big Apple Comic Con shows.  One way to describe Carbonaro would be “David Johansen overdosed on Red Bull.”  He’s this high-energy character who seems to just bounce all over the place, a manic grin on his face.  Carbonaro also has the habit of attempting to fit as many comic book creators and retailers into as small a space as possible.  I would not recommend attending the NYCBM if you suffer from severe claustrophobia.  That said, Carbonaro and his associate, the very pleasant Allen Rosenberg, often do a great job of lining up some fantastic comic book professionals.  So I find it can be worth putting up with the cramped, crowded conditions to obtain autographs and sketches.

Of late I haven’t had much in the way of disposable income, so my main intention in going to the latest NYCBM was to meet creators and get some books signed.  The show had a number of Golden and Silver Age veterans as guests.  Some I had met before, others I had not.  In either case, it was an opportunity to talk with them, and let them know how much I enjoyed their work over the years.

The one creator who I really wanted to meet was the legendary Stan Lee who, in the 1960s, co-created pretty much the entire Marvel Universe with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Unfortunately, there were separate tickets to get Lee’s signature, and it was a whopping $50 an item.  So I had to pass.  (To this day, I mentally kick myself in the rear end that I did not get Lee’s autograph back in 1994, when he did a signing at a comic shop in White Plains along with Larry Hama, Ron Garney, and Richard Ashford.  The line for Lee was long, and I was an impatient teenager, so I didn’t get on it.  But in comparison to trying to meet Lee nowadays, I realize it was a much shorter wait.  And it was free!)

Luckily, I was able to meet several other great creators.  One was legendary Marvel artist Joe Sinnott.  This isn’t the first time I’ve met Sinnott, but it’s always a pleasure, since he is such a nice guy, as well as a fantastic artist.  Sinnott did some fabulous inks/finishes over numerous artists on various Marvel titles.  He was, in my opinion, the best inker Jack Kirby ever had on Fantastic Four.  Sinnott’s style perfectly suited the far-out science fiction elements of that series.  I love how he inked all the “Kirby-tech” machinery.  I didn’t have any copies of the Kirby FF issues to get signed.  Instead I brought along my copy of Giant Size Fantastic Four #3, which had Sinnott inking Rich Buckler’s magnificent pencils on the cosmic opus “Where Lurks Death… Ride the Four Horsemen!”  I’d already gotten Buckler’s signature on the book at last year’s NYCBM, and so I was happy to have the other half of the art team autograph it.

Giant Size Fantastic Four #3 autographed by Rich Buckler and Joe Sinnott

I also met Allen Bellman, an artist who worked at Marvel in the 1940s and 50s.  I obtained a commission drawing of Captain America from Bellman through the mail in November 2010.  Bellman lives in Florida, but he makes appearances at conventions, and I did not want to miss finally meeting face to face with him when he visited New York.  He remembered me from our correspondence due to the fact that nowadays I’m in an area of Queens where his sister lived back when he was a kid.  Bellman used to take the trolley to visit her, and he was interested to learn that in certain areas of the neighborhood you can still see the old tracks after all this time.

Another individual who I had been looking forward to meeting was Greg Theakston.  Artist, historian, and publisher, Theakston inked much of Kirby’s DC Comics work in the 1980s.  His company Pure Imagination has released numerous volumes collecting formerly out-of-print early work by such legends as Kirby, Ditko, Will Eisner, and Alex Toth.  Theakston also published The Betty Pages, a magazine dedicated to legendary pin up girl Bettie Page, and he helped bring the “queen of curves” out of seclusion, interviewing her extensively before she passed away in 2008.  I purchased a copy of The Betty Pages Annual Volume 2, an interesting read with a large selection of sexy photographs.  He also autographed my copy of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume 4.  (I am a tremendous fan of Kirby’s New Gods titles, and I even have a tattoo of the Beautiful Dreamer character, based on artwork by Kirby & Theakston, on my left leg.)  I had a nice time chatting with Theakston, and he was kind enough to draw a lovely sketch of Bettie Page for me.

Greg Theakston sketching Bettie Page

One thing I noticed at the NYCBM was that a number of the comic book artists were charging for autographs.  I think this is a relatively new phenomenon, because I’ve been going to comic shows since I was in high school, and in the past creators never asked for money, unless you brought along a ridiculously large pile of books to get signed.  And I’ve always felt that if someone did that, then the creator probably should make a few dollars autographing literally dozens of comics.

However, this time around, even if you only had a few items, some artists wanted payment.  The most blatant example of this was Marvel Zombies artist Arthur Suydam.  Maybe I misunderstood him, but he seemed to be saying that he would not autograph anything unless you purchased one of his prints.  I only had a single book with me to get signed so I passed.  Maybe next time.

Also asking for payment was the aforementioned Rich Buckler, who wanted three dollars per autograph, not an unreasonable request.  Buckler, the creator of the groundbreaking Deathlok series, was a prolific artist at both Marvel and DC in the 1970s and 80s.  Unfortunately, I think since then that his art style is considered too “traditional” or “old school” or whatever by today’s editors.  Which is a shame, because Buckler is super-talented, and I would really enjoy seeing him draw a regular book again.  It would be great to see him do a Deathlok revival.  It’s regrettable that he’s forced to be charging for autographs.  I only had two books with me, so I happily gave him the money.  The person in front of me had a stack of probably fifteen to twenty comics, though, and they were being very, very picky, indicating precisely which spot on each cover Buckler should sign.  Given that sort of situation, I think Buckler was quite justified to be charging a small fee.

I paid ten dollars to get a signature from legendary artist Carmine Infantino.  Yes, I have a couple of other things signed by him, but given that he is getting up there in years and is not in the best of health, I did not want to pass up the opportunity to meet Infantino again.  It’s too bad I didn’t have one of those collections of his great Silver Age DC stories to get autographed, such as the Flash of Two Worlds hardcover.  So instead I had him sign one of the trade paperbacks collecting the Star Wars comics he drew for Marvel.  The guy in line before me had a stack of ten different DC Archives editions of Flash, Justice League, etc and I watched as he casually forked over one hundred bucks to Infantino to get them all signed.  Wish I had that kind of spare change!

I did have enough money in my budget for a few sketches.  In addition to the Bettie Page by Greg Theakston, I also got nice pieces done by Billy Tucci and Ian Dorian.  I posted scans on the Comic Art Fans website… http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryDetail.asp?GCat=60

As I mentioned, the NYCBM was very chaotic, and I had to duck out for a while, get some fresh air, and sit down for a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  I don’t even like Starbucks, but I don’t know of any other coffee shops near Penn Station.  Still, despite the insanity, it was a fun show, and I enjoyed going.

Afterwards, I met up with my girlfriend, and had a nice, quiet, romantic dinner with her.  It was a lovely way to end the day.