It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part four

My reread of The Power of Shazam by Jerry Ordway and friends enters the fourth year. This is, regrettably, the home stretch. This has been such an enjoyable series to revisit, and I really with it had lasted longer.

We begin with a storyline that literally had my jaw hitting the floor the first time I read it.

Ordway did a very good job of balancing the serious and the whimsical on this series, but with issue #38 the $#^+ totally hit the fan. Mister Mind, the sole surviving member of the telepathic caterpillars from Venus that tried to invade Earth, manages to take control of Sarge Steel, director of Metahuman Affairs. Previously the government had taken custody of the nuclear-powered robot Mister Atom, and now Mister Mind dispatches it to destroy Bill Batson & Mary Bromfield by having it home in on Billy’s Justice League. communicator. Landing in the town of Fairfield, right outside the Bromfields’ house, Mister Atom self-destructs, obliterating the entire town, killing thousands of innocent people!

Billy and Mary in their Captain Marvel forms are in Fawcett City when they see the mushroom cloud on the horizon. They are understandably horrified, especially as they believe their adopted parents Nick & Nora Bronfield are among the dead. The sorcerer Ibis manages to neutralize the radioactive fallout, but he can do nothing for all those who have already perished.

The two Captains fail to prove Sarge Steel is being controlled by Mister Mind. Mary heads over to the laboratory of Professor Bibbowski (the genius brother of tough guy tavern owner Bibbo Bibbowski from the Superman books) and asks him to try to find a way of detecting & neutralizing Mister Mind.

Billy and Mary return to Fawcett, where they are relieved to learn that Nick & Nora managed to survive by pure dumb luck; they were heading out of Fairfield by car to try to find Billy and Mary when the bomb went off.

Mary uses the device invented by the Professor to drive Mister Mind out of Sarge Steel’s head, and to prevent the worm from taking over the President. Mind has already dispatched thousands of clones of himself to take over innocent people, sending them to nuclear facilities across the world, planning to destroy the Earth as revenge for his own species’ destruction. Mind also found out from possessing Sarge Steel that the government had custody of a massive alien exoskeleton another of his species used 50 years earlier, which we saw in the flashback during the Starman crossover.

Mind rampages across Washington DC in the exoskeleton. Jim Barr, aka Bulletman, watches this on TV, and it causes him to at long last remember his encounter with the alien armor during World War II, and to recall that the Green Lantern Abin Sur defeated the alien menace all those years before. Bulletman calls former GL Alan Scott, who in turn contacts current GL Kyle Rayner. Kyle flies to Washington accompanied by a time-displaced Hal Jordan (looooong story). Billy, Mary, and the two GLs have to figure out what is real and what is an illusion caused by Mind, but at last they crack open the armor. Sarge Steel then kills the murderous alien worm, which in turn causes Mind’s clones to die, saving the Earth from nuclear destruction. Whew!

“The Monster Society of Evil” (so named by Ordway after the original Mister Mind storyline from the 1940s) was an emotional rollercoaster. The series had only shifted its setting to Fairfield about a dozen issues earlier, so there really wasn’t too much time for the readers to get to know the new supporting cast, but it’s still a gut-punch to see the entire town destroyed, especially when it appears that Nick & Nora are among the dead.

I was genuinely relieved that the Bromfields had survived. Billy & Mary had already lost their real parents, and the idea that they might be made orphans a second time was horrifying. Plus I like how Nick & Nora, even if they were on the staid, conservative side, nevertheless very quickly adjusted to learning Billy & Mary were the Marvels, and tried their best to be there for the siblings.

POS #38-41 were Peter Krause’s final issues, and he really does a great job on this storyline, conveying the intense emotions and choreographing the dramatic, action-filled scenes. Inker Dick Gordano, letterer John Costanza and colorist Glenn Whitmore fill out the creative team. Whitmore’s coloring definitely plays a major role in setting the mood of these issues. Mike Carlin edited the whole shebang.

With issue #42 writer & cover artist Ordway also assumes penciling duties, with Giordano providing inks / finishes. Ordway is such a great artist, and I was glad to see him now both writing & drawing. Whitmore and Costanza continue as colorist and letterer.

Following the destruction of Fairfield, the President dedicates a memorial to all those who have died. Billy, Mary and Freddy are all there in their superhuman forms. This is the first time we see all three of them together since Mary changed to her new costume, and so this was the moment when it finally occurred to me that Ordway had now given them red, white and blue uniforms. What can I say? Sometimes I’m not the quickest on the uptake.

Billy, Mary, Nick & Nora move to Fawcett City, where they are joined by Freddy, who has returned to settle his grandfather’s estate. Freddy shows Billy and Mary the classic car he inherited, and the three go for a spin. Unfortunately the metahuman Chain Lightning who suffers from multiple personality disorder is obsessed with Freddy, and she attacks the three teens while they’re driving, causing the car to go off the cliff. The teens try to summon the magic lightning to transform into the two Captains Marvel and CM3, but Chain Lightning somehow intercepts it. Billy, Mary and Freddy all end up in the hospital in critical condition. The magic somehow gives separate physical forms to each of Chain Lightning’s personalities, who go on a rampage in Fawcett City.

Ordway has said that one of his favorite comic books when he was growing up was Avengers by Roy Thomas & John Buscema. The form that Chain Lightning’s personality Amber takes looks like a cross between Arkon the Magnificent and Thundra the Femizon, both of whom were created by Thomas & Buscema.

With the Marvel Family out of action Deanna Barr dons the costume of her late mother Bulletgirl to protect Fawcett, although she uses her Air Force codename Windshear. Her father Jim comes out of retirement to help her, but the two of them can barely hold their own against Amber. Only the intervention of Amy, the “good” Chain Lightning personality, saves them.

Uncle Dudley and Tawky Tawny travel to the Rock of Eternity, hoping they can find some way to heal Billy, Mary and Freddy. The sorcerer Ibis tells Dudley and Tawny that they need to find the Mother Boxes that enable the teens to summon the magic lightning while the Wizard Shazam is on New Genesis.

Issue #42 and #43 are certainly compelling and suspenseful, although I wonder if Ordway would have embarked on this storyline, putting the main characters in the hospital, if he had known cancellation was just around the corner. Fortunately there are still a few more issues to go. Whatever the case, the artwork by Ordway & Giordano is top-notch.

We are now at the editorially-mandated DC One Million crossover issue. This one is a bit painful to read, not because it’s bad, but because the series would be cancelled in just a few short months, and it’s sad that Ordway was forced to cut away from his ongoing storylines to do a totally-unrelated issue set in the far-off 853rd Century.

Nevertheless, Ordway turns in sold work here. We previously saw an ancient Billy Batson having assumed the Wizard Shazam’s role in The Power of Shazam Annual #1. Now, even farther into the distant future, Billy still keeps vigil at the Rock of Eternity, only to have his home overrun by thrill-seeking rich kids from the planet Mercury.

Man oh man, the people in this story are awful. They’re behaving exactly like modern-day humans. Humanity is never going to survive to the 22nd Century, much less the 853rd, if people keep acting like this!

I think Tanist, the new champion of Shazam introduced in this story, popped up in a couple of other DC One Million stories, but hasn’t been seen since. It’s sort of disappointing that Ordway took the time to create this new character and no one else has bothered to use him, because that might have helped save this story from being completely inconsequential.

Anyway, returning to the year 1998, issue #44 resumes the plot of the teens being hospitalized, their powers having been stolen by the multiple personalities of Chain Lightening. Freddy and Mary are attacked by Lightning’s “inner child” and “id” personas. Nick & Nora risk their lives to save her, and the severely injured Mary shows she’s also willing to sacrifice herself for them, all of which surprises Lightning, a survivor of parental abuse. Inner Child and Id make off with Freddy, but he manages to convince them not to kill him, that he isn’t to blame for Lightning’s problems.

Meanwhile, Dudley and Tawky Tawny travel to the Rock of Eternity again, still looking for a way to help the hospitalized teens. Ibis, still suffering from the immense exertion needed to dissipate the radiation from the destruction of Fairfield, is wrapped up as a mummy by his immortal wife Taia so that he can enter suspended animation.

Oh, yeah, I love Tawny’s line… “Dud! Save me! It’s a talking dog!” Dudley and Tawny really did make a great double act.

Taia, working with Dudley, catapults Tawny into the timestream surrounding the Rock, so that the tiger can search for a future incarnation of Captain Marvel to help the teens. Tawny locates CeCe Beck, aka Thunder, previously seen in Annual #1, and is attempting to bring her back to the present when a force knocks them apart. Thunder disappears into the timestream… but don’t worry, she ends up materializing in the 30th Century in Legion of Super-Heroes #110, where she joins the team.

Tawny gets pulled back to the Rock, but he’s not alone. He’s accompanied by the former champion of Shazam turned villain, the infamous Black Adam. Uh oh!

Issue #45 sees Black Adm back on Earth. Surprisingly, rather than acting in his usual villainous manner, Adam is filling in for the still-hospitalized Billy, Mary & Freddy. Understandably skeptical, the Justice League is keeping a close eye on the so-called “Mighty Adam” as he performs heroic deeds across the globe.

Throughout his run Ordway has been peppering this series with nods to Jack Kirby’s New Gods, with the Marvel Family using Mother Boxes and Boom Tubes, the events of the Genesis crossover being referenced, and the Wizard Shazam relocating to New Genesis. Now we finally get an appearance by one of the New Gods as Orion stops by the hospital to look after Billy and give him advice. And when Black Adam shows up, Orion is more than ready to mix it up with him. Sadly we only get to see them trade blows for a few panels, so who knows how that fight might have gone?

Black Adam insists to the JLA that he is not Theo Adam, the criminal who murdered Billy & Mary’s parents, but an entirely different person, and demands his day in court to argue his case.

If there is a weakness to these last several issues it’s that the story feels somewhat disjointed. First there was DC One Million interrupting things for a month, and now, when #46 opens, events have suddenly leaped forward an unspecified amount of time, with Black Adam having been declared not guilty. The first time I read this I really thought I had missed an issue. Obviously this is Ordway doing the best job he can to fit his storyline into the remaining issues he had left.

For the first time since the accident caused by Chain Lightning, Billy calls on the Wizard’s power, transforming into Captain Marvel, ready to pound Black Adam into the pavement. Superman reluctantly intervenes, as in the eyes of the law Black Adam is not guilty… although it isn’t at all clear as to the specifics of how that works, and how he convinced the courts that he’s not Theo Adam, other than them having different fingerprints. Presumably this is something that Ordway would have explained in more detail if he’d had more issues.

Captain Marvel and Superman trade blows for several pages, until Mary and Freddy also transform, causing Billy’s own powers to weaken enough for Superman to beat him. The Man of Steel departs, and Mary and Freddy finally get Billy to calm down.

Meanwhile, Adam has made his way to the Rock of Eternity where, in an effort to settle accounts, he intends to free his former mistress, the demonic Blaze, from her imprisonment there. Adam recruits the evil Doctor Sivana to help him, and they manage to release Blaze… only to find that they’ve been manipulated into also freeing the Wizard’s ancient adversary the Three Faces of Evil, aka King Ghidorah’s even uglier cousin.

As #47 opens, Mother Box calls up a Boom Tube and transports Billy to the Rock, also bringing the Wizard back from New Genesis. Billy, the Wizard and Adam join forces against the Three Faces of Evil. In a great example of Chekov’s Gun — or more precisely Chekov’s Mystic Raygun — Billy retrieves the mystical Scorpion weapon introduced two years earlier in issue #24 and uses it to seal the Three Faces of Evil back inside the Rock.

The Wizard transports Captain Marvel and Adam to the River of the Dead to settle their differences once and for all. Adan continues to insist that he is a different person than Theo Adam… but if he has to kill Billy to escape the River, he’ll do just that. At the last minute Billy transforms back to his human self, and Adam realizes that he cannot bring himself to kill a child, even if it’s the only way he’ll be free. This convinces both Billy and the Wizard that Adam is sincere, and they let him go on his own way.

The Wizard, having attained godhood on New Genesis, returns to his home on the Rock of Eternity. Billy and Mary’s stepparents Nick and Nora, overjoyed their children are once again healthy & whole, throw a party, inviting over many of the characters we’ve seen over the past four years, and everyone gets a happy ending.

It’s unfortunate the series got cancelled. Ordway revealed in interviews that he had the book plotted out thru to issue #50, and was really looking forward to reaching that milestone, so it’s regrettable that he wasn’t allowed to get there. Still, if you count the graphic novel, the annual, and DC One Million, that is 50 issues. Whatever the official count, POS was a great series.

By the way, looking at these last several issues, it’s now apparent they were a major influence on writers Geoff Johns & David S. Goyer, who just a couple years later made violent antihero Black Adam a central character in their JSA run.

On #45 and #46 Ordway is once again inked by Giordano, resulting in some nice work. Costanza letters #45, with Albert T. Guzman filling in on #46. Whitmore colors both issues.

The finale in #47 has Da Ordster doing full artwork and coloring, with Costanza’s letters. The issue looks great, closing out the series in style.

Ordway’s painted covers for all three issues stand out. Issue #45 has Black Adam fighting the JLA. Captain Marvel and Superman face off on the cover to #46, a homage to Nick Cardy’s cover for Superman #276. And finally #47 has Cap in a fight to the death with the Three Faces of Evil.

If you haven’t read this series then I highly recommend picking up the hardcover collection that reprints the graphic novel & the first 12 issues, and then seek out copies of the other issues. It’s definitely worth the search.

Thank you, Jerry Ordway, for a great read. More than two decades later The Power of Shazam is still incredible.

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part three

I’m continuing my retrospective of The Power of Shazam published by DC Comics from 1995 to 1999.  This time I’m looking at issues #25-37, roughly the third year of the series. (You can find the first part here and the second part here.)

As always, the writer & cover artist on The Power of Shazam is the amazingly talented Jerry Ordway. Peter Krause and Mike Manley return as penciler and inker, respectively. John Costanza and Glenn Whitmore are the letter and colorist. Mike Carlin is the editor, with Chris Duffy providing assistant edits on #25 and #26, and Frank Berrios coming on beginning with #27.

Issues #25-27 are a key turning point in this series, because … History has been changed!

As we witnessed at the end of the previous story, somehow, impossibly, CC & Marilyn Batson are once again alive, and they, rather than their children Billy & Mary, possess the power of the Wizard Shazam, enabling them to become Captains Marvel! And only the Wizard realizes that things are not as they should be, that the timestream has been altered!

The Wizard discovers that the evil Professor Sivana, following the defeat of Mister Mind’s alien invasion, accidentally ended up on the Rock of Eternity, Shazam’s home at the center of all time. Sivana, realizing that all his misfortunes began when Theo Adam murdered CC & Marilyn in Egypt, utilized the Rock to go back in time to warn his past self about what he should and should not do.

So now, in the altered present, things appear idyllic for the Batson family. And having witnessed CC & Marilyn’s deaths in the graphic novel, and the effects of this tragedy on their children, it’s genuinely moving to see them all together in this new timeline.

We also get to see the normal, unpowered Billy & Mary using their courage & intelligence to outwit their father’s arch-enemy Ibic, which really demonstrates why in the “real” timeline they were so worthy to be given the power of Shazam.

Unfortunately, Sivana is still Sivana, and in this altered timeline he still cannot help being evil & self-destructive, with tragic results for the Batsons. Meanwhile the fanatical time-monitoring Linear Men are warning the Wizard that if he doesn’t correct this alteration of time then they will.

CC learns what has happened and reluctantly agrees to go back in time and fix things, even though it will mean he and his wife will no longer exist. However, CC at first tries to go back in time even farther, to before Sivana became a criminal, to try to scare him straight. Waverider of the Linear Men intercedes, showing him that Sivana is a necessary part of the timestream, and without him all sorts of weirdness could occur. Sadly admitting Waverider is correct, CC stops Sivana from changing history, CC and Marilyn fade from existence, and Billy & Mary are once again orphans.

However, in the now-restored timeline, Waverider ensures that CC’s long-lost will, which was hidden by his greedy half-brother Ebenezer, at long last resurfaces. The will grants custody of the children to Nick & Nora Bromfield. Nick & Nora had already adopted Mary years before, and now they are able to take in Billy, officially reuniting the siblings, much to the Wizard’s joy.

Ordway’s story and the art by Krause & Manley really sell the powerful emotions of this storyline.

Plus you have got to love that page where Waverider shows CC some of the possible Captain Marvels that might occur if history is further changed. The scene is a fun nod to the Kree Captain Mar-Vell & Rick Jones, the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel, the Captain Marvel from the Shazam: The New Beginning miniseries by Roy Thomas & Tom Mandrake, the wacky android Captain Marvel created by Carl Burgos whose arms, legs & head would split off, the expy Captain Thunder from Superman #276, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny!

Issue #28 finds Billy feeling ambivalent about this adoption by the Bromfields; he is happy that he and his sister are once again living together, but he’s uncomfortable about once again having parents. Billy literally had to survive on his own since their parents’ deaths, and now he has to once again get used to having structure & parental authority in his life. He also misses his old home in Fawcett City, finding the suburban town of Fairfield very different.

I feel that Ordway shifting the status quo was a great move, because he gets a lot of interesting, poignant drama out of Billy, Mary and the Bronfields all having to adjust to this new situation. One of the things that really appealed to me about this series was that it was as much about Billy & Mary’s personal lives as it was about superheroics, and this continues that direction.

Issue #28 is also a spotlight on Mary as Captain Marvel, debuting a brand-new white costume. We’re never explicitly told why Mary made the change, but the implication is that she has some sort of subconscious memory of the alternate timeline in which her mother wore one like it. Whatever the case, it looks great on her, and it makes her stand out from Billy. This issue also introduces Professor Bibbowski, the intellectual brother of salty tavern owner “Bibbo” Bibbowski from the Superman titles. Guest artwork on this story is by the legendary Dick Giordano.

Next is #29, one of my favorite issues of POS, featuring Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Peter Krause demonstrates his versatility as an artist in this fun story that sees Billy transported to a “funny animal” universe via a magician’s top hat… said magician being the Great Carlini, a nod to editor Mike Carlin.

At the end of the story we’re left wondering whether it was all an hallucination Billy had… but since just a couple issues back Waverider showed CC Batson that Hoppy was a possible incarnation of Captain Marvel, I’m going to say this really did happen. Besides, it’s too much of a great story to write off as a dream.

Giordano becomes the regular inker on with this issue. It’s interesting to compare his work over Krause to Manley’s previous inking. Manley enhanced the cartoony aspects of Krause’s pencils, whereas Giordano brings a slicker ink line. Definitely a good demonstration of how two inkers can have very different effects on the same penciler.

I haven’t previously mentioned Dudley, the middle aged janitor from Billy’s old school in Fawcett. Dudley was one of the few people who knew that Billy was living on his own, and that he was also Captain Marvel, and the kind-hearted maintenance man often covered for him. Dudley is a decent-enough guy, although he is definitely irresponsible and drinks too much. He was previously kept in line first by Billy and then by Tawky Tawny, but now that Billy is in Fairfield and Tawny is off making a movie, Dudley has a serious string of bad luck and gets fired.

Drowning his sorrows in alcohol, Dudley is visited by Mister Finish, a demon who looks like a werewolf. Finish tells Dudley that he’s going to die in three days… unless he comes up with seven other people to take his place! Dudley doesn’t actually accept the deal, but he understandably cannot stop from thinking about it, and Finish plucks the seven names from his mind. The inebriated Dudley rushes off to Fairfield to get Billy and Mary’s help, and they need to prevent Finish from claiming the seven victims. This is another one I liked a lot.

Issue #31 is a crossover with the Genesis event that John Byrne was spearheading. Ordway had a good working relationship with Byrne going back years, so it’s not surprising that POS has a significant tie-in with Genesis. Ordway used the preceding two issues to build up to it, and the actual crossover in #31 is anything by a throw-away story.

Due to the power losses caused by the events in Genesis, and by the Wizard traveling to New Genesis, Billy and Mary have become stuck in their Captain Marvel forms. Nick & Nora are convinced that Billy & Mary have been kidnapped by Dudley, who was the last person they were seen with before they went missing. In order to get Dudley released from jail, and to assuage the Bromfields’ fears, Billy & Mary find that they must reveal their secret identities to their adopted parents. So once again Ordway shifts the status quo, and from here on one of the major themes of this series is Nick & Nora trying their best to be parents to two kids who have superpowers.

After this there were a trio of stand-alone issues that featured some really great writing & character-development by Ordway.

Issue #32 introduces U.S. Air Force text pilot Deanna Barr, daughter of retired World War II costumed hero Jim “Bulletman” Barr. We also see Billy & Mary now using Mother Boxes given them by the New Gods to transform into the Captains Marvel as, following the events of the Genesis crossover, the Wizard has chosen to remain on their world of New Genesis. We also see Nick & Nora still adjusting to finding out their kids are superheroes. All things considered, they handle it pretty well.

Issue #33 is regarded by many as one of the best issues of the series. Billy and Mary are trying to find a way to help their friend & classmate Victor, who several years earlier was left horribly disfigured by their old enemy he superhuman pyromanic the Arson Fiend. This story has been reprinted twice, first in Shazam! The Greatest Stories Ever Told in 2008 and then in Shazam! A Celebration of 75 Years in 2015.

Issue #34 co-stars Jose Delgado, the vigilante Gangbuster, who has been on the run from the law for some time now. For the past few issues Jose has been working as a substitute teacher at Billy & Mary’s school in Fairfield. But when Billy is kidnapped, and unable to change into Captain Marvel, Jose is forced reveal his true identity to save the teen. Ordway utilizes this story to continue the Gangbuster story arc he wrote in a couple of recent issues of the Showcase revival, as well as to set up events for the upcoming crossover between POS and James Robinson’s Starman.

Krause & Giordano do a fine job with some very intelligent, emotional material in these three issues. Krause also once again does great with the comedic material. I love that scene of Deanna Barr giving Captain Marvel a smooch, and the panel of Billy & Mary sampling their stepmother’s attempt at baking cookies speaks for itself. The expressions on their faces!

That brings us to the crossover with Starman written by James Robinson. “Lightning and Stars” runs through Starman #33-40 and POS #35-36.

Jim Barr, has been framed for treason by neo-Nazis! Utilizing decades-old propaganda footage created by the Third Reich, these modern-day fascists have convinced the world that back in 1942 Barr was actually a Nazi double agent responsible for sinking the luxury liner The Normandie in New York Harbor on February 9, 1942.

Barr, in fact, was actually in Alaska on that very day, accompanying Ted Knight, the original Starman, on a top secret mission to prevent the Nazis from acquiring… something. Unfortunately all these decades later the mission is *still* classified, and Jim feels that he cannot reveal the details to the public, even if it’s the only way to clear his name.

Back during that mission Bulletman saved Starman’s life during a fierce battle above the Alaskan tundra, and so Ted now seeks to repay Jim by offering him sanctuary. Government bigwig Sarge Steel is more concerned with making sure the events of February 9th stay a secret than he is in clearing Jim’s name, though. Steel manipulates Captain Marvel into going after the retired Bulletman. This puts Billy Batson into conflict with Ted’s son Jack, the current Starman, in Opal City.

Meanwhile, Mary Bromfield, rather than rushing in blind, actually uses her head. Investigating, she figures out the footage of Bulletman’s treason is a fake. Turning into Captain Marvel, she stops her brother from getting into another fight with Jack Knight. The three of them return to Nick & Nora Bromfield’s home in Fairfield, where Jim and Ted are trying to figure out how to clear Jim’s name, a well-drawn scene I previously spotlighted in one of my Comic Book Coffee entries.

I liked the scene Ordway wrote between Billy and Jack at the end of the crossover. Jack and his father have an often-contentious relationship, But as the orphaned Billy points out to him:

“You — you’re really lucky, y’know — that your dad’s still around for you. And you for him.”

Krause appears to have drawn a great deal of inspiration from primary Starman artist Tony Harris. Krause’s work on these two issues really evokes the layouts & storytelling seen in the other series. As always, Krause does a great job with all of the character-driven sequences.

Ordway’s painted covers for these two issues are very nicely done, forming a single, larger image with scenes both past & present. And, yes, that is Green Lantern Abin Sur on the cover! The revelation of what exactly Bulletmen and Starman found in Alaska in 1942 was definitely an effective surprise. I really did not see it coming.

Finally we get to issue #37, which is a Captain Marvel Junior spotlight. Freddy Freeman hasn’t been seen in this series for quite a while, having joined the Teen Titans in New York City, and thus been busy appearing in that series. Freddy returns to these pages just in time to accidentally be exposed to the psychic mists of the evil Doctor Morpheus… no relation to the brooding goth fellow who hangs out with Neil Gaiman! As far as I can tell this is the Doctor’s only appearance. Freddy fights his way through the nightmares that Morpheus creates out of Freddy’s own fears & insecurities.

At the end of the story Captain Marvel Junior, who’s magic word is not “Shazam” but “Captain Marvel,” renames himself CM3, because he finally figures out that having a superhero name that he can’t even say without turning back to his non-powered self is not such a great thing. I don’t know if CM3 is much of an improvement, but what can you do?

This issue is interesting in that we see former inker Manley returning to pencil the story, with current inker Giordano providing embellishments. They do a nice job with the weird, creepy story by Ordway.

And with that we bring this installment of this retrospective to a close. Next time Ordway will once again be shaking things up in The Power of Shazam in a major way!

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam part two

I’m continuing my retrospective of the fantastic comic book series The Power of Shazam published by DC Comics from 1995 to 1999. You can find the first part here.

Today I’m looking at the second year of the title. The regular creative team is the same as before: writer & cover artist Jerry Ordway, penciler Peter Krause, inker Mike Manley, letterer John Costanza, colorist Glenn Whitmore, assistant editor Chris Duffy, and editor Mike Carlin.

Actually, this is where I first came in.

Yes, it’s true, I did not read the graphic novel when it originally came out in 1994, or the first 13 issues of the ongoing series. But I kept hearing such positive things about the series, so when issue #14 came out with guest pencils by the legendary Gil Kane, I decided to give it a try.

Freddy Freeman, aka Captain Marvel Junior, was a popular guy and a jock before he was crippled by Captain Nazi and then received powers from Billy Batson and Mary Bromfield, the two Captains Marvel. So when Freddy starts showing some interest in Mary in issue #13, Billy becomes extremely overprotective. Billy and Freddy end up coming to blows, and Freddy leaves Fawcett City.

Issue #14 picks up on Freddy, who has arrived in New York City. He encounters Chain Lightning, another teen metahuman, although she suffers from some form of multiple personality disorder, which makes her very dangerous & unpredictable.

Ordway did a great job writing a story that was simultaneously a stand-alone tale, and which also brought new readers such as myself up to speed on what had happened before. That sort of skill has unfortunately become rare in mainstream superhero comics. I found #14 a really engaging issue with great artwork by Kane, so I came back a month later for #15, and I was hooked. I subsequently sought out the graphic novel and the previous issues.

Thinking about it, I was probably also intrigued by the clever “cereal box” house ad that DC ran featuring Ordway’s cover painting for the upcoming issue #16 to promote the Mister Mind storyline. Now that is how you promote a comic book!

Mister Mind was the “big bad” behind the lengthy “Monster Society of Evil” serial that Fawcett Comics published back in the 1940s. Eventually revealed to be a tiny, cartoony-looking worm, Mister Mind’s cute appearance belied the fact that he was a cold-blooded killer. Nevertheless, I really don’t think the character would have worked in that form in the 1990s. Ordway reimagines Mister Mind as the vanguard of a race of millions of telepathic worms from Venus which possess a shared consciousness.

Just like his Golden Age namesake, this modern “Mister Mind” and his race plot to take over the world. The worms have a plan that manages to be simultaneously brilliant and ridiculous, specifically taking over the mind of Billy’s miserly uncle Ebenezer to build a giant casino in Fawcett City, and then have Captain Marvel’s arch-enemy Doctor Sivana teleport the worms from Venus to Earth where they can take over the people who come from across the country to visit the casino. In a tip of the hat to the original Captain Marvel stories, the casino’s mascot is the original cartoony version of Mister Mind.

The worms all speak in an alien language which could be translated via a decoder card that readers got for free by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to DC Comics. Yes, I sent away for one, and yes, I still have it. Maybe it’s no Captain Midnight Decoder Ring, but it’s still pretty cool.

Mike Carlin informed me on Facebook that John Costanza is the one who lettered the Mister Mind Alphabet.

Also in these issues, much to Bill Batson’s chagrin, the Wizard Shazam decides to leave the Rock of Eternity to once more live among humanity… which means posing as Billy’s grandfather and moving in with him.

The Power of Shazam #17 features one last flashback sequence penciled by Silver Age legend Curt Swan, who had previously contributed to issues #8 and #11. This segment reveals exactly how Doctor Sivana and Mister Mind came to be working together. Issue #17 was released in June 1996, the month Swan passed away, making it among the last art he drew. It demonstrates he was doing solid work right up to the end.

I’m glad that Ordway included this sequence, because it helps fill in the gap between the graphic novel and the first issue of the ongoing series. Billy Batson and Sivana barely interact in the graphic novel, but when the monthly series begins four years have passed and Sivana is now Captain Marvel’s arch enemy, as well as one of the few people who know he’s actually Billy. So this segment gives some info on how they became such bitter adversaries, and how Sivana went from being a shady tycoon to a mad scientist on the run from the law.

Another highlight of this four issue story arc is Captain Marvel donning a Wallace Wood-inspired spacesuit for the journey to Venus… where he discovers that Sivana has obviously been raiding Tony Stark’s wardrobe!

Krause & Manley do their usual superb work on issues #15-17, with Manley stepping up to contribute both pencils & inks for the wrap-up in issue #18.

Around this time a couple of other books related to The Power of Shazam came out. The first of these was Showcase ’96 #7 (August 1996), a team-up between Mary Bromfield / Captain Marvel and the vigilante Gangbuster, who Ordway created with writer Marv Wolfman in Adventures of Superman a decade earlier. This enabled Ordway to continue the storyline of Gangbuster being on the run from the law that had been set up in the Superman books and continued through a previous issue of the Showcase anthology. It also allows Mary to again step into the spotlight and demonstrate she is just as much a hero as her brother.

Looking at this story again in 2022, it was a pleasant surprise to see journalist Cat Grant also appeared in it. I miss how Cat was written back in the 1990s as an intelligent, caring person. I really didn’t like how she was depicted when she was brought back in 2008 with a completely different, and very ugly, personality.

Art on the Captain Marvel / Gangbuster story was by penciler John Statema & inker Mike DeCarlo, with letters by Ken Bruzenak and colors by Dave Grafe. Will Rosado & Klaus Janson drew the dynamic cover which shows Mary and Gangbuster facing off against the superhuman pyromaniac the Arson Fiend.

Also released was The Power of Shazam Annual #1 which… hey, wait a minute! I’ve never read this one before! What gives?

Seriously, all these years later I can’t remember why I didn’t get the annual when it came out. It’s possible I never saw it. Or maybe, since it was around the time that I was deciding to start reading the series, I skipped it to focus on the regular issues.

Of course, it’s equally possible that I simply didn’t get it because of the whole “Legends of the Dead Earth” theme of stories set in the far, far distant future that ran through all of DC Comics’ annuals in the Summer of 1996. At the time 17 year old was me was unfortunately hung up on continuity, on whether or not stories were “real” and “actually happened,” and it seemed to me that Legends of the Dead Earth was Elseworlds in all but name, and therefore “didn’t count.” Which was pretty damn silly of me, because years later I read several of those annuals and found them to be entertaining mash-ups of superheroes, pulp sci-fi & fantasy. What can I say? I was a foolish teenager back in 1996.

And, ironically, The Power of Shazam Annual #1 actually “did count” as it introduced teenager CeCe Beck (named after the first Captain Marvel artist C.C. Beck) who transformed into Thunder, an incarnation of Captain Marvel over six thousand years in the future, and who went on to make several more appearances. She even hung out with the Legion of Super-Heroes for a while. Shows what I know!

Since I was doing this reread of the entire series, I finally tracked down this annual and, wow, it’s really good! Writer & cover painter Ordway does a superb job of really subverting a familiar formula. The “plucky rebels fighting an oppressive evil empire” trope gets upended as we see that the resistance has committed some morally questionable acts, with one of their leaders being responsible for the deaths of Beck’s parents. There are people living in the regular society who are perfectly happy with their existence, so simply overthrowing the existing order is only going to make a bad situation worse. Inspector Javert, despite being named after the antagonist from Les Miserables, turns out to be a reasonable authority figure. Beck realizes that both sides need to find a way to co-exist.

Regular inker Mike Manley here turns in some really nice animated-style pencils, neatly balancing the fun and dystopian elements of Ordway’s story. Manley is effectively inked by John Nyberg. John Costanza and Glenn Whitmore once again turn in quality letters and colors.

So, yes, this one was definitely a very unexpected gem!

Returning to the ongoing monthly series, we now get to The Power of Shazam #19. I only have one issue from this series autographed, and it’s this one.

Following up on the Captain Marvel Junior story from a few months earlier, issue #19 sees Freddy Freeman visiting S.T.A.R. Labs to check up on Chain Lighting, and to receive treatment for his own injuries from Dr. Caitlin Rousso.

Caitlin accidentally lets slip that Captain Nazi is being held at S.T.A.R. Labs until he can be transported back to Europe to stand trial for war crimes. Freddy, seeking vengeance, busts out Nazi and takes him to an abandoned industrial area, only to realize that, as much as he wants, he cannot bring himself to kill his enemy in cold blood. Unfortunately Nazi takes the opportunity to escape, and now it’s up to Freddy, working alongside middle aged superhero & World War II veteran Minute Man to recapture the superpowered fascist.

Gil Kane, who penciled issue #14, returns for this story. Regrettably this time Kane was only able to complete the first half of the issue. Joe Staton, another great artist, as well as a personal favorite of me, stepped in to pencil the second half. Around this time Staton was also helping Kane complete the pencils for the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash, which was published in 1997.

I got this one autographed by Kane the one time I was fortunate enough to meet him, and subsequently had Ordway and Staton add their signatures. Hopefully one of these days I will also get the opportunity to also have this issue signed by Manley.

The first year and a half of The Power of Shazam was pretty much self-contained. Ordway understandably wanted to take the time to introduce Billy Batson, Mary Bromfield, Freddy Freeman and the rest of the cast, to tell his own stories. Fortunately DC allowed him the opportunity to do just that. Yes, Captain Marvel popped over to the Underworld Unleashed event in-between issues, but it was done in such a way that if you didn’t read that crossover you really wouldn’t have missed anything.

Starting with issue #20, though, Ordway starts linking The Power of Shazam with the rest of DC Universe. A tie-in with The Final Night crossover brings in guest star Superman, a character Ordway is, of course, very familiar with. But even here Ordway uses the crisis of the Sun Eater as the impetus to have Captain Marvel Junior return to Fawcett City and bury the hatchet with the rest of the Marvel Family, and to engage in some nice character development.

Issue #21 features a wacky guest appearance by Plastic Man. The artwork by Krause & Manley is really well-suited to the oddball humor of Pas and his sidekick Woozy Winks. There were some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in this one.

Then in issue #22 Batman stops by Fawcett City to investigate organized crime. Billy’s already got gym class and homework and a school bully on his plate, but when the Dark Knight tells you he expects you to meet up with him, well, what can you do?

Issue #23 sees Ordway introduce another post-Crisis revamp of an old Captain Marvel enemy, the radioactive robot Mister Atom. The story also once again showcases how the series has become an ensemble piece. Billy and Mary are pretty much equal co-stars, and both of them are referred to as Captain Marvel. “Mary Marvel” is only a nickname that Billy calls Mary; everyone else refers to her as “Captain Marvel Lady” or “the Lady Marvel” or variations thereof. Even the opening narration refers to Mary as Captain Marvel.

Speaking of the opening, the double page spread on this issue by Krause & Manley is gorgeous.

I do have to admit, on first reading issue #23 did feel like somewhat of a throwaway story… but about 15 months down the line it turned out to be very significant to the series. Ordway did a good job of setting up plotlines & character arcs on this series that would pay off later.

Oh, yeah, among the various mindless missives printed in this issue’s lettercol is some inane drivel by a Ben Herman of Harrison, New York. I think I heard that guy later moved to Queens, NYC and started writing long, rambling blog posts 😼

The second year of The Power of Shazam came to a close with issue #24. It has a gorgeous pulp-style painted cover from Ordway. Krause & Manley do a fine job illustrating the flashback adventure within.

The now-retired costumed hero Spy Smasher is recounting to Billy & Mary an incident from back during the Cold War when he worked with their late father, archaeologist Clarence Charles Batson, to retrieve an ancient artifact known as the Scorpion from East Germany. Once the property of the Wizard, the Scorpion has the potential to be an incredibly powerful weapon, so naturally both the Communists and a group of Nazi war criminals also want to get their grubby mitts on it.

After several very close calls, including a fight with the armored Baron Blitzkrieg, CC and Spy Smasher at last escape from behind the Iron Curtain with the Scorpion. Spy Smasher wraps up his tale… just in time for Billy & Mary’s father to arrive and tell them it’s time to come home, because their mother is making dinner.

Holy moley! What in the name of Shazam is going on? Aren’t Clarence & Marilyn Batson dead? How can any of this be happening? What a cliffhanger!

I’ll be looking at what happens next in an upcoming post when I cover the third year of The Power of Shazam. I hope you’ll come back for it!

It Came from the 1990s: The Power of Shazam

Last month I started doing a re-read of The Power of Shazam comic book series that was published by DC Comics for four years between 1995 and 1999. One of the reasons why I like to do this “It Came from the 1990s” feature here on this blog is because the decade as a whole tends to get a bad rap among comic book fans. There were some great comic books published during the 1990s, and The Power of Shazam, which was written by Jerry Ordway for its entire run, is among the very best.

The Power of Shazam features Billy Batson, the original Golden Age version of Captain Marvel originally published by Fawcett Comics from 1939 to 1953 before DC Comics ultimately litigated them out of existence, with the character subsequently being acquired by DC itself two decades later. Ordway’s run is often regarded as the best incarnation of the character since the original Golden Age version.

The Power of Shazam actually started out as a standalone graphic novel written, drawn & painted by Jerry Ordway, with lettering by John Costanza, that DC published in early 1994. Coming off the Superman family of titles, on which he regularly worked in the late 1980s and early 90s, Ordway set out to tell the definitive post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin of Billy Batson / Captain Marvel.

The graphic novel initially opens in the Egyptian desert several years in the past. Husband and wife archaeologists Charles Clarence Batson & Marilyn Batson are excavating a previously-undiscovered tomb. With them is Theo Adam, an agent of the expedition’s financier Thaddeus Sivana. In a hidden chamber the trio discovers a sarcophagus with a beautiful scarab necklace. The thuggish Adam becomes strangely fixated on the scarab. He brutally murders C.C. and Marilyn, but not before Marilyn hides the scarab inside her daughter Mary’s stuffed Tawky Tawny doll. Adam kidnaps Mary and flees back to America.

Some months later the Batsons’ other child, ten year old Billy, is living on the streets of Fawcett City, his inheritance having been stolen by his miserly Uncle Ebenezer. A ghostly figure beckons to Billy one rainy night, leading him into a subway tunnel which is connected to the other-dimensional Rock of Eternity, the home of the ancient Wizard Shazam. The Wizard bids Billy to say his name. Calling out “Shazam!” Billy is transformed into the super-powered adult form of Captain Marvel.

The understandably confused & angry Billy takes some time to adjust to this new body and its amazing powers, but he soon finds himself on a collision course with Theo Adam, who is revealed to be reincarnation of Black Adam, the Wizard’s original champion from ancient times who was corrupted by his awesome powers. Finally locating the mystic scarab, Theo transforms into Black Adam for the first time in the modern age.

Billy defeats Adam and resists the temptation to exact vengeance against the man who murdered his parents. The Wizard robs Adam of his powers & ability to speak. The figure who led Billy to the Rock of Eternity is none other than the ghost of Billy’s father, who drops enough clues to cause Billy to realize his sister Mary is still alive somewhere.

Ordway did a superb job updating the concept of Captain Marvel for the 1990s while still retaining much of the charm & whimsy of the original stories. Ordway’s painted artwork on the graphic novel was stunning.

The graphic novel was a huge success and DC greenlit an ongoing monthly series which made its debut in early 1995. Leaping forward four years to the “present day” the series features the now 14 year old Billy still attempting to juggle the life of a teen with the powers of Captain Marvel. Complicating matters, Billy continues to hide the fact that his uncle threw him out on the streets, because he doesn’t want to end up in foster care or an orphanage.

In addition to writing The Power of Shazam series, Ordway created gorgeous painted covers for each issue. The new art team was Peter Krause on pencils / layouts and Mike Manley on inks / finishes. John Costanza returns as letterer, with coloring by Glen Whitmore. Rounding things out were assistant editor Chris Duffy and editor Mike Carlin.

The first 12 issues of the monthly title formed a complete story arc. Billy at last discovers his long-missing sister Mary, who has been adopted by her mother’s cousin Nora and her husband Nick Bromfield. Mary is prompted by the magically animated Tawky Tawny stuffed animal to call out the magic work “Shazam” also gaining the Wizard’s powers.

Billy and Mary are reunited and befriend fellow teen Freddy Freeman. When Freddy is crippled by the superpowered fascist Captain Nazi, the Batson siblings share the powers given to them by the Wizard with their friend, enabling him to become Captain Marvel Jr. With the intro of first Mary as a second Captain Marvel, and then Freddy Freeman as Captain Marvel Jr, The Power of Shazam quickly became an ensemble title.

Just as he did with Bill Batson, Ordway does fantastic work with the character of Mary Bromfield. In certain respects Mary actually makes a better Captain Marvel than Billy, with the Wizard telling her:

“You have shown an intuitive grasp of my powers, Mary… in many ways, using them better than your brother had, when he first received them.”

It actually makes sense that Mary has that ability, as she was adopted by the Bromfields and given a loving, stable upbringing, whereas poor Billy was thrown out by his greedy uncle, forcing the young boy to survive by his wits on the streets of Fawcett City. I like that Ordway shows the siblings having very different approaches to crimefighting. Ordway also did a superb job rendering Mary on the book’s painted covers.

I definitely want to acknowledge the work of Peter Krause. I’d classify Krause as one of those good, solid artists who can turn in clear, dynamic pages on a deadline. I think if Krause had been around 20 years earlier he probably would have been one of the top artists of the Bronze Age. Regrettably by the mid 1990s his sort of art style had mostly fallen out of fashion. Fortunately this series was the perfect venue for Krause’s work.

Krause perfectly balanced the action & drama with the comedy & whimsy. He was equally adept at drawing dynamic action sequences as he was at bringing to life the humorous characters & moments in Ordway’s stories such as all of the really fun Tawky Tawny scenes. Manley’s finishes superbly complemented Krause’s pencils. They made a top-notch art team.

Silver and Bronze Age legend Curt Swan penciled a flashback sequence in The Power of Shazam #8 featuring Bulletman, Minute Man and Spy Smasher mixing it up with the diabolical Captain Nazi and his goosestepping lackeys during World War II. Swan’s lovely traditional style is a good fit for this segment, and Mike Manley’s inking complements his work really well.

Ordway himself pencils a pair of flashbacks in issue #10 and #12, which reveal the origin of the Wizard Shazam and his role in the history of Fawcett City and the Batson Family. We discover the Wizard had an origin very much like Billy, when as a young boy his family was murdered by bandits thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Entreating to the gods for the power to fight against injustice, the future Shazam became a champion in the region, protecting the innocent, allowing civilization to flourish.

Unfortunately, much as would one day happen to his successor Black Adam, the Wizard became overconfident, and his arrogance led to him being seduced by a beautiful demonic temptress. The inhuman seductress then gives birth to twins, the diabolical siblings Blaze and Satanus, who had previously been introduced in the Superman books during Ordway’s time on them.

Much of the events in the first year of The Power of Shazam revolves around Blaze’s efforts to undo the good works of her father the Wizard Shazam, and her brother Satanus’ own machinations to prevent his sister from becoming the ruling monarch of Hell.

The graphic novel and first 12 issues of The Power of Shazam were collected together by DC Comics in 2020 in the hardcover In the Beginning. There are tentative plans for a second collection, which I really hope will materialize, because it would be great if eventually the entire series got reprinted.

In any case, I’ll be looking at the second year of The Power of Shazam in a future blog post. Maybe I’ll do one post for each year of the series? I guess I’ll see how it goes. Anyway, I’m really enjoying this reread, and I hope those of you who follow this blog will enjoy my retrospectives of this great series.

George Perez: 1954 to 2022

I was very sorry to hear about the passing of legendary comic book creator George Perez on May 6th. Perez had announced back in December that he was suffering from with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and that he had approximately six months to a year left to live. We all knew this day was coming soon, but it doesn’t make it any less sad.

Perez had an incredibly lengthy, diverse career. As I did a week ago to mark the passing of fellow legend Neal Adams, I am going to refrain from even trying to put together any sort of comprehensive retrospective of Perez’s career, and instead just focus on my own impressions of his work as a fan.

Batman #439 cover drawn by George Perez and collored by Anthony Tollin, published by DC Comics in Sept 1989

I first started following comic books regularly in 1989 when I was 13 years old, so I missed Perez’s early work on Fantastic Four and Avengers for Marvel Comics in the late 1970s, as well as his wildly popular collaboration with writer Marv Wolfman on The New Teen Titans at DC Comics beginning in the early 1980s.

While I can’t be 100% certain, I think the first work by Perez that I ever saw were his covers for the “Batman: Year Three” and “A Lonely Place of Dying” story arcs that ran through Batman #436-442 in the summer and fall of 1989. I was immediately struck by Perez’s intricately detailed work and his complex compositions. His cover to #439 featuring Nightwing hanging on for dear life from the bell tower of a church in the midst of a fierce rainstorm, highlighted by the Bat-signal, especially stood out in my mind. Perez and colorist Anthony Tollin did absolutely stunning work in rendering that atmospheric image.

Within a couple of years I was following quite a few DC titles. War of the Gods was a major crossover that DC published in the summer & fall of 1991, and it tied in with Perez’s run on Wonder Woman. So I picked up Wonder Woman #58 which was written & cover-illustrated by Perez and the four issue War of the Gods miniseries for which Perez was writing, doing interior pencil layouts and drawing full covers. As I’ve mentioned before, this was an absolutely insane time for me to try to dive into Wonder Woman, because this was the culmination of a number of plotlines & character arcs that Perez had been developing over the past five years.

War of the Gods #4 cover drawn by George Perez, published by DC Comics in Dec 1991

Three decades later I only remember three things about War of the Gods: 1) the evil sorceress Circe was the main villain, 2) I didn’t understand even half of what was going on, and 3) DC promoted the fact that for the cover of the final issue of the miniseries Perez set out to draw a cover featuring ONE HUNDRED different characters. That must have been my first exposure to Perez’s fondness for drawing literal armies.

At the exact same time Perez was also penciling another crossover, this time at Marvel. The Infinity Gauntlet was another “cast of thousands” cosmic extravaganza that ran for six double-sized issues. Truthfully, I wasn’t especially into writer Jim Starlin’s story for The Infinity Gauntlet, either, since it very predictably followed the arc of Thanos becoming a god and wiping the floor with everyone else in the Marvel Universe for half a dozen issues before finally losing the titular Infinity Gauntlet.

Nevertheless, Perez, paired with inker Josef Rubinstein, did a fantastic job drawing the cosmic spectacle… at least until working on two mega-crossovers simultaneously became too much for even someone of Perez’s talent & speed, and he had to bow out partway through issue #4, with Ron Lim taking up penciling duties for the remainder of the miniseries. To show support for Lim stepping into this high-profile assignment and having the unenviable job of following in his footsteps, Perez inked Lim’s pencils on the covers for the final two issues of The Infinity Gauntlet.

The Infinity Gauntlet #1 cover drawn by George Perez and colored by John Stracuzzi, published by Marvel Comics in July 1991

So, while I haven’t revisited The Infinity Gauntlet in the last 30 years, either, I definitely was impressed by the work Perez did on the first half of the miniseries. Certainly his intricate cover for the first issue, colored by John Stracuzzi, is one of the all-time greatest depictions of Thanos in the character’s half-century history. Heck, even Jim Starlin, the writer / artist who created Thanos, has used Perez’s cover artwork for The Infinity Gauntlet #1 for his own convention banner. Now that is respect.

Anyway, throughout the 1990s, when I was in high school & college, I went to a lot of comic book conventions, and bought a lot of back issues from the 1970s and 80s. Amongst these were several books that Perez worked on: Avengers, Justice League of America, The New Teen Titans, Marvel Fanfare, Crisis on Infinite Earths and Action Comics. I also had the opportunity to pick up a lot more issues of Perez’s epic, groundbreaking five year run on Wonder Woman, at last getting in on the earlier parts of his incredible, highly influential revamp of Princess Diana of Themyscira.

Straight from the back issue bin… Crisis on Infinite Earths #10, written by Marv Wolfman, penciled by George Perez, inked by Jerry Ordway, lettered by John Costanze and colored by Anthony Tollin, published by DC Comcis in january 1986

In the mid 1990s Perez penciled the first six issues of Isaac Asimov’s I-BOTS, written by Steven Grant, published by Tekno Comics / Big Entertainment.  I took a look at Perez’s work on that series a few months ago as part of the most recent round of Super Blog Team-Up, in which the various contributors examined different parts of Perez’s amazing career.

In 1998 Perez had another opportunity to pencil Avengers, this time paired with writer Kurt Busiek. Perez remained on the series for three years. After the meandering, confusing events of “The Crossing” and the controversial Heroes Reborn that saw Rob Liefeld take over the book, Busiek & Perez’s run was warmly received by long-time Avengers readers.

Now here’s another one of those occasions when I am going to go against conventional fan wisdom. The truth is I wasn’t especially enthusiastic about Busiek’s writing on Avengers; I feel Busiek is an amazing writer on smaller, intimate, character-driven stories set against the epic backdrops of superhero universes, something he’s demonstrated again and again with his incredible work on Astro City. Same thing for Thunderbolts from Marvel, which was a very character-centric series. In contract, Avengers was the epic superhero event book, and I just didn’t feel that Busiek quite had the faculty to pull off those sorts of stories. (Just my personal opinion, so feel free to disagree.)

The Scarlet Witch tears up the dance floor! Avengers vol 3 #19 written by Kurt Busiek, penciled by George Perez, inked by Al Very, colored by Tom Smith and lettered by Richard Starkings, published by Marvel Comics in August 1999

That said, Busiek did really solid work on the character-driven subplots in Avengers involving the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Wonder Man, and Carol Danvers / Warbird, as well as his own creations Silverclaw and Triathalon. And of course Perez did an incredible job illustrating Busiek’s stories, both the action scenes and the quieter character moments. I certainly appreciated the stunning costume Perez designed for the Scarlet Witch. And that bellydance sequence featuring Wanda from Avengers vol 3 #19 (Aug 1999) seen above was absolutely gorgeous, a superb example of Perez’s storytelling abilities.

In the early 2000s Perez signed an exclusive contract with startup publisher CrossGen Comics. Perez penciled the quarterly double-sized CrossGen Chronicles, followed by the monthly series Solus. I only read a handful of the CrossGen titles, but I picked up a couple of issues of CrossGen Chronicles specifically for Perez’s artwork.

One of the things I appreciated about the CrossGen books was that it was not a superhero-centric universe. CrossGen enabled Perez to stretch his boundaries and work in the genres of fantasy and sci-fi / space opera. He did some incredible work for them. Regrettably CrossGen only lasted a few years, going bankrupt in 2003.

CrossGen Chronicles #4, written by Mark Waid, penciled by George Perez, inked by Mike Perkins & Rick Magyar, colored by Laura DePuy, Chris Garcia & Mike Garcia, and lettered by Dave Lanphear & Troy Peteri, published by CrossGen Comics in Sept 2001

Back in 1981 Perez had begun penciling a Justice League / Avengers crossover, but the project was left uncompleted due to editorial conflicts between DC and Marvel Comics. Two decades later, in 2002, the Big Two at last came to an agreement to work together and publish a crossover between their two superstar teams. Even though Perez was signed to CrossGen, he’d included a clause in his contract with them that if Justice League / Avengers ever happened he would be allowed to draw it. And so he was reunited with Kurt Busiek and colorist Tom Smith to produce the long-awaited meeting of the Justice League and Avengers in four double-sized bookshelf issues.

JLA / Avengers once again gave Perez the opportunity to draw his casts of thousands. The absolute highlight of the event was the wraparound cover to the third issue, on which Perez depicted every single member of both teams up to that point in time. Tom Smith recently recounted that it took him two whole weeks just to color that cover.

Where’s Waldo?!? JLA/Avengers #3 cover drawn by George Perez and colored by Tom Smith, published by DC and Marvel Comics in December 2003

It seems like everyone has a George Perez story, so here’s mine: I met writer Marv Wolfman at a comic con in White Plains NY in June 2000 and had him autograph my copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, the historic (and at the time absolutely permanent) death of Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash. A few months later, at a store signing in Connecticut, I met artist Jerry Ordway, who had inked that issue,and I had him autograph it, too. He smiled and said “I’d better leave room for George Perez to sign it.” I responded that he didn’t have to do that, since I didn’t expect to ever meet Perez (and, really, I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity, because he was such an incredibly popular artist).  Ordway just smiled again and autographed the book, leaving several inches space between his and Wolfman’s signatures.

Fast forward a few years, and low & behold none other than George Perez was a guest at a comic con in Manhattan. Of course I brought along my copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #8, and Perez autographed it in between Wolfman & Ordway’s signatures. So, a big “thank you” to Jerry Ordway for his foresight.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #8 signed by Marv Wolfman, George Perez and Jerry Ordway!

I wish I could regale you with some fascinating anecdotes about my meeting George Perez. The simple fact is, in the couple of minutes I spoke with him he came across as a good person, and that’s it. From everything I’ve heard Perez was always like that; he always made an effort to be friendly to all of his fans, to greet them with a warm smile.

About a decade later Michele and I were at New York Comic Con. We ran into Perez when he was between panel discussions or something; I don’t recall the specifics. I just remember that Michele had had a copy of Wonder Woman vol 2 #19 with her, and she went up to Perez and asked him to sign it. I think he was talking with someone, or maybe he was on his way out of the room, but whatever it was he was doing he paused, turned to Michele, smiled, pulled out a sharpie, and autographed her comic. That’s the type of person Perez was, always making time for his fans.

George Perez was an incredible artist and a genuinely decent person. He will definitely be missed. I wish to offer my condolences to his family, friends and colleagues for their loss.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 13

Welcome to the 13th edition of Comic Book Coffee. I previously posted these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

(I has nasal surgery a couple of days ago, so if any typos creep into this I apologize. My head is pretty stuffed up right now!)

61) Gene Colan & Tom Palmer

Daredevil #90, penciled by Gene Colan, inked by Tom Palmer, written by Gerry Conway and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1972 cover date.

It’s not all that surprising that during his career Daredevil has encountered four different criminals who assumed the costumed identity of Mister Fear.  What would be more natural that for the self-proclaimed “Man Without Fear” to cross swords with a villain whose modus operandi was the creation of fear?

Here we see Daredevil, hit by Mister Fear’s powers, has crashed through the window of an office building, and is now cowering in terror at the little old lady who cleans the building.  The next panel finds DD a guest of the local precinct, with the cops offering the still-unsteady crimefighter a cup of coffee.

Gene Colan had a style that was generally not an especially good fit for superheroes, yet he is regarded as one of the all-time great Daredevil artists.  Perhaps that is because DD is a non-powered acrobatic character, as well as the fact that, no matter how weird and jokey the series sometimes got, it usually still had one foot planted in gritty noir.  Both these elements made Daredevil an ideal fit for Colan’s unconventional layouts and shadowy penciling.

Colan was reportedly a somewhat-challenging artist to ink.  Tom Palmer is usually classed as one of the best inkers of Colan’s pencils.  They definitely worked extremely well together on Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula.

62) John Rosenberger

“What’s Ambition, Anyway?” drawn by John Rosenberger, written by Richard Hughes, and lettered by Ed Hamilton, from Confessions of the Lovelorn #81, published by ACG in May 1957.

Beautiful, talented Jill Sanders dreams of becoming an actress.  She auditions with famed producer-director Carl Rogers, who agrees to see how she works out in rehearsals for his upcoming musical.  While having coffee with Rogers and the rest of the cast, Jill thinks to herself “He’s a real professional — and a swell guy!”  Unfortunately for Jill, her high school rival Marion Major has also joined the cast, and pretty soon the ambitious, arrogant blonde is sinking her claws into Rogers himself.  Due to budget cuts Jill is squeezed out of the chorus and finds herself back waiting tables, and the despairing young woman believes she has lost out on both show business and Carl Rogers.  However, when Carl’s investors back out on him, Jill convinces her restaurateur boss to help finance the show.  It’s a success, and Carl has fallen in love with Jill.

Artist John Rosenberger’s career stretched over 30 years, from 1946 to 1975.  He worked for several different companies, drawing stories in various genres.  His style was definitely well-suited for romance, as he had an aptitude for rendering beautiful, fashionable women.  Towards the end of his career he penciled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane for DC Comics, where once again his knack for drawing lovely ladies was a definite asset.  Rosenberger became the regular artist on Wonder Woman in 1975, but sadly only completed two issues before taking ill.  He passed away in January 1977 at the age of 58.

The entire story “What’s Ambition, Anyway?” can be read on the Comic Book Plus website.

63) Ron Lim & Chris Ivy

Sovereign Seven #36, penciled by Ron Lim, inked by Chris Ivy, and written by Chris Claremont, published by DC Comics with a July 1998 cover date.

As the final issue of Chris Claremont’s Sovereign Seven comes to a close, the Sovereigns, after a long, hard-fought conflict, have finally emerged triumphant against the insidious Rapture.

And then we see that, apparently, the entire story of S7 has been nothing more than a comic book series created by Casey and Morgan, two young women who are customers at the Crossroads Coffee Bar that appeared so often throughout the series.

Sovereign Seven was a creator-owned series that nevertheless took place in the DC universe, with appearances by Darkseid, Superman, Power Girl and other mainstays.  Presumably this ending was conceived by Claremont to allow the series to end with a clean break, so that in the future he could have his characters return in an entirely different venue.  It’s certainly a metatextual scene, with Casey and Morgan standing in for Claremont himself to reflect on the series’ cancellation.

Of course, as Alan Moore once famously observed, “This is an Imaginary Story… Aren’t they all?”  And so I like to think that in some corner or another of the multiverse the events of Sovereign Seven “really” did happen.  Ah, well, real or not, it was a fun series.

Ron Lim was the second regular penciler on S7.  I have been a fan of Lim since he drew Captain America way back in the early 1990s.  I definitely regard him as underrated.  On most of his S7 issues Lim was inked by Chris Ivy.  They made a great art team, wonderfully illustrating Claremont’s stories.

So, anyone know where I can snag one of those big S7 coffee cups?

64) Frank Bolle

Golden and Silver Age artist Frank Bolle passed away on May 12th at the age of 95.  “Outlaw Gold” was penciled & inked by Bolle. It appeared in Tim Holt #29, published by Magazine Enterprises with an April-May 1952 cover date.

Tim Holt was a Western movie star during the 1940s and early 50s.  The comic book Tim Holt featured a fictionalized version of the actor who assumes the guise of the costumed vigilante Red Mask in the post-Civil War “Old West.”  Tim Holt ran for 54 issues, being re-titled Red Mask with issue #42.  Frank Bolle’s artwork appeared in every single issue of Tim Holt / Red Mask.  Bolle really excelled at drawing Westerns, and his work on this series was definitely impressive.

“Outlaw Gold” sees beautiful dancehall girl Della Martin enlisting the help of Red Mask to locate a treasure which she says her father hid out in the desert, west of Bald Rock.  Pursuing Della are members of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch” gang, who are all too ready to murder the lovely singer so that they may claim the buried fortune.

On this page, en route to Bald Rock, Red Mask and Della are pursued by a trio of Wild Bunch thugs.  Red Mask makes short work of them, knocking all three out.  He and Della then bunk down for the night, brewing up some hot coffee to keep warm.

Bolle does nice work on this page.  The action flows well.  I like how Bolle has Red Mask’s fist swinging out of that third panel, really highlighting the punch.   Della is beautifully drawn.  And since this is a Western, of course we have horses.  I guess this is another crossover with Jim Thompson’s 1000 Horses series!

The entire issue can be read on the Comic Book Plus website.

65) Jerry Ordway & George Perez

Here is a double dose of Da Ordster!  First up is Adventures of Superman #428, penciled & inked by Jerry Ordway, written by Marv Wolfman, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Tom Ziuko, published by DC Comics in May 1987.

Here we see Clark Kent and Cat Grant at the offices of the Daily Planet, discussing Perry White’s ongoing investigation of organized crime in Metropolis.  Clark is having his morning coffee, and as we can see from his choice of mug he’s a fan of The Far Side.

This page is a good example of both Ordway’s storytelling and inking.  He does a good job laying out the conversation between Clark and Cat, presenting it from different angles, making it interesting.  I like how Ordway inks Cat on this page.  Panel four is especially beautiful.

I know that it’s undoubtedly a function of my having gotten into DC Comics in the late 1980s, but I definitely regard Ordway as one of the definitive Superman artists.

Jumping forward a dozen years we have Avengers volume 3 #18, written & penciled by Jerry Ordway, inked by George Perez, lettered by Richard Starkings, and colored by Tom Smith, published by Marvel Comics in July 1999.

Ordway wrote & drew a really fun three issue story arc on Avengers to give Kurt Busiek & George Perez a chance to catch their breaths.  This is the final page of Ordway’s last issue.

Hank Pym is in his lab late at night, studying the technology of the cyborg Doomsday Man, one of the threats the Avengers faced during Ordway’s storyline.  Hank has obviously been working for a while, because he disgustedly thinks to himself “*GAH* Coffee’s bitter! ‘Course that pot’s only been on all night…”

Before Hank has a chance to brew some fresh java he is interrupted by the violent arrival of several leering metal monstrosities, servants of his mechanical “son” Ultron.  And so Ordway segues back into Busiek & Perez’s own ongoing storylines, with Perez himself inking this last page as part of the transition.  Ordway must have been working closely with Busiek, Perez and editor Tom Brevoort to get everything to line up so smoothly.

Jerry Ordway is one of my favorite comic book creators, and I enjoyed his short stint on Avengers.  As much as I liked Busiek & Perez, I really wish Ordway could have done more work on this title.  He latter penciled the Domination Factor: Avengers and Maximum Security miniseries, on both of these once again doing excellent jobs depicting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

I don’t think Ordway’s had any ongoing assignments in the last two decades, instead bouncing around between various short guest runs, fill-ins, miniseries and specials.  That’s a shame, because he’s a very talented artist.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 12

Welcome to the 12th edition of Comic Book Coffee. I posted these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

56) Judit Tondora

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman #2, drawn by Judit Tondora, written by Andy Mangels, lettered by Tom Orzechowski & Lois Buhalis, and colored by Roland Pilcz, published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics in January 2017.

This was a fun miniseries co-starring television’s top two heroines from the late 1970s.  Andy Mangels is probably the foremost expert on Wonder Woman, and he must have had a real blast writing a team-up of Princess Diana and Jamie Sommers.

Hungarian artist Judit Tondora did a great job rendering both the television version of Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman, along with both their supporting casts and their small screen rogues galleries.  Likenesses can be very tricky, but I feel that Tondora really captured most of them pretty accurately.  Her depictions of Diana and Jaime were certainly beautiful.  Tondora’s art for this miniseries was very lively.  I hope we see more of her work appearing in comic books in the near future.

In this scene Diana Price and Steve Trevor of the IADC are meeting with Jaime Sommers and Oscar Goldman of the OSI.  Over coffee the four agents are discussing the ongoing investigation into the terrorist cabal Castra, an alliance of the IADC and OSI’s deadliest adversaries that has hijacked a shipment of experimental nuclear missiles.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman was a really enjoyable read.  I definitely recommend it.

57) Brad Gorby & Mark Heike

Femforce #93, written & penciled by Brad Gorby, inked by Mark Heike, and lettered by Christie Churms, published by AC Comics in May 1996.

While Femforce is basically a serious title, it also has a sense of humor about itself.  The main storyline running though these issues involves Jennifer Burke, the daughter of the original Ms. Victory.  Due to the manipulations of the military and a series of personal tragedies Jen’s life has completely fallen apart.  Going rogue, Jen adopts the identity of Rad which her mother previously assumed.  The government, realizing that Rad possesses a wealth of top secret information from her time leading Femforce, dispatches a group of genetically engineered assassins to eliminate her.

While this very intense plotline is taking place, writer / penciler Brad Gorby takes a brief detour to a more lighthearted setting.  It is morning and the ladies of Femforce are having breakfast.  Ms. Victory is once again drinking coffee, obviously a favorite of hers.  The incredibly-powerful yet often-absentminded Synn is trying to find out who ate all her sprinkle donuts and pop tarts, prompting the sorceress Nightveil to conjure up some for her.

I enjoy these types of “downtime” scenes in Femforce that explore the personal lives of the characters, and which allow for somewhat more goofball sequences. 

Gorby did a good job penciling this scene, giving each of the characters their own personalities, making them stand out from one another.  The inking is by Mark Heike.  Gorby and Heike are both longtime AC Comics contributors, as well as very talented artists.  Grey tones are by Christie Churms, who also lettered this issue.

58) José Beá

“Recurrence” was drawn by José Beá and written by Steve Skeates.  It appeared in Vampirella #34, released by Warren Publishing in June 1974.

The beautiful young protagonist of “Recurrence” thought she had it made.  She had pushed her husband into an elevator shaft, collecting $10,000 from the insurance company for his “accidental” death.  But then came the dreams, night after night, of being pushed off a cliff and falling endlessly.  Was it a guilty conscience… or a premonition?  Now she drinks coffee in the middle of the night desperate not to fall asleep again.

Spanish artist José Beá illustrated a number of stories for Warren between 1971 and 1976.  These were published in Warren’s three main comic book magazine series, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella.  Following his time at Warren, Beá did a great deal of work in the European comic book field.  Among these were a number of erotic stories, some of which at the time unfortunately garnered a great deal of controversy.  Beá also wrote several science fiction novels for young adults.

59) Peter Krause & Dick Giordano

The Power of Shazam #36, penciled by Peter Krause, inked by Dick Giordano, written by Jerry Ordway, lettered by John Costanza and colored by Glenn Whitmore, published by DC Comics in March 1998.

During a crossover with the Starman series, Billy and Mary Batson have to work with Jack Knight to help clear the name of World War II hero Jim Barr, aka Bulletman, who has been framed for treason by neo-Nazis.  In his Captain Marvel identity Billy initially clashes with Jack, until the more level-headed Mary Marvel convinces him to calm down.  The trio heads to the home of Nick & Nora Bromfield, who have adopted the orphaned Mary and Billy.  There they find the Bromfields having coffee with Jack’s father Ted, the original Starman, as well as Jim Barr himself, with everyone attempting to figure out what their next step should be.

The Power of Shazam was such an amazing, fun, underrated series.  I came into it a bit late, in the second year, but I immediately became hooked, and I soon got caught up on the Jerry Ordway graphic novel and back issues.  Ordway wrote some great stories.  He successfully achieving the very tricky feat of simultaneously updating Billy, Mary and the rest of the Marvel Family cast for the 1990s while retaining a great deal of the charm from the original Golden Age stories.

Peter Krause did really good work penciling the series.  Due to the prevailing styles in super-hero comic books at the time, I think his work here was unfortunately overlooked by many.  Krause deftly balanced the serious and cartoony elements of the characters.  On the later issues of the series Krause was inked by the legendary Dick Giordano.

60) Amy Reeder

Rocket Girl #2, drawn & colored by Amy Reeder and written by Brandon Montclare, published by Image Comics in November 2013.

DaYoung Johansson, a fifteen year old police officer from the high tech future year of 2013, has traveled back in time to 1986.  DaYoung is convinced that her miraculous world should not exist, that it was created when the monolithic corporate juggernaut Quintum Mechanics sent its own technology back in time 27 years to its founders to give them a vast advantage.  DaYoung, armed with her jetpack and her teenage zeal, is determined to thwart this crime against time, even if it means erasing the very future from which she came.

Montclare & Reeder’s ten issue Rocket Girl series is a wibbly wobbly, timey wimey tale of temporal paradoxes, corporate intrigue and youthful idealism.  I previously reviewed the first five issues. The ending to Montclare’s story ultimately left me feeling ambivalent, for a few different reasons.

What I was not ambivalent about was Reeder’s stunning artwork.  She did a superb job drawing both the sci-fi New York City of 2013 and the historically accurate Big Apple of 1986.  Her layouts for Rocket Girl were incredibly dynamic, and the amount of detail she put into her pages was astonishing.

As Reeder recounts in the text feature from issue #7…

“In Rocket Girl I am responsible for making two worlds; an 80s vision of the future, and actual 1980s New York.  At first I expected the futuristic world would give me the worst trouble — I thought coming up with a city out of thin air would be a bit overwhelming.  But I should have known better: I get carried away with accuracy, and the 1980s New York is heavily documented, often talked about, and well remembered by many.  So bar none — 80’s NYC is the harder of the two worlds to draw.  I just HAVE to get it right.  And, honestly, it’s pretty fun to get it right.  (Or close!)”

On this page from issue #2, the recently arrived DaYoung is bunking with Annie Mendez and Ryder Storm, two graduate students who work for Quintum Mechanics in 1986.  Annie and Ryder awaken to find the hyperactive DaYoung has whipped up a huge stack of pancakes and brewed a pot of coffee, all the while pondering how to change the course of history.

Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice

This morning, over on the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, I posted images from a couple of issues of Azrael: Agent of the Bat for today’s Comic Book Coffee entry. Denny O’Neil, who passed away last week, wrote the entire 100 issue run of Azrael.

Thinking it over, I feel that O’Neil’s work on the Azrael series was underrated.  He co-created the character and played a major role in Jean-Paul Valley’s development.

Azrael was initially conceived solely to serve the role of an insane, violent substitute to Batman during the “Knightfall” storyline, to demonstrate why it was important that the real Batman not become a ruthless killer.  But following the conclusion of “Knightfall” O’Neil appears to have put a great deal of effort into developing Jean-Paul Valley into a three-dimensional character, to remake him as an actual hero.

Another character that O’Neil created, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, became an important presence in the Azrael series, beginning during the “No Man’s Land” crossover in Azrael: Agent of the Bat #55 (August 1999), penciled by Roger Robinson and inked by James Pascoe.

In a 2014 interview with 13th Dimension, O’Neil explained that Leslie was inspired by social activist Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that Leslie was a character who embodied much of O’Neil’s own beliefs.  Leslie dedicated her life to fighting against injustice & inequality, to helping the poor & downtrodden, and she sought to find constructive ways in which to make real, lasting changes to society.

This two page scene below is from Azrael: Agent of the Bat #92 (September 2002), written by O’Neil, penciled & inked by Sergio Cariello, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, with a cover by Mike Zeck & Jerry Ordway.  It encapsulates Leslie’s beliefs, and in turn offers an insight into O’Neil’s own worldview.

Azrael is missing and presumed dead (that happens a lot in superhero comic books).  Leslie, who has been attempting to help the psychologically damaged Jean-Paul Valley for some time, is angry, and she call Batman out on the role he played in this tragedy.  She accurately points out to the Dark Knight all of the other ways in which Jean-Paul could have fought against injustice, and she castigates Batman for instead influencing the young man to follow in his vigilante footsteps.

In a 2017 interview with Pop Mythology writer / artist Howard Chaykin had this to say about Batman:

“Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works.”

O’Neil was obviously a very intelligent & insightful person.  He wrote and edited the Batman titles for many years, so I am certain he perceived this juvenile fantasy element of the character.  As one of the primary caretakers of the Dark Knight’s world he probably felt he could not critique this too directly.  However, right from the early days of his career O’Neil actively sought to address social & political issues in his stories.  Leslie was one way in which he did so throughout the years, presenting her as a counterpoint to Batman’s ideology & methods.

O’Neil often had Leslie voicing a great deal of criticism towards Batman.  Leslie believes that Batman, in his identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, has the resources & influence to help peacefully shape the world into a better place, and that it is there where he ought to be focusing his time & energies.

Leslie Thompkins is one of those characters that I never quite understood when I was younger.  However, as I have gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I have come to appreciate the character, and to recognize that O’Neil utilized her to attempt to get readers to think.  It makes sense that O’Neil would use Leslie as a central figure in the Azrael series.  Just as within the stories Leslie worked to help Jean-Paul become a better person, in his writing O’Neil attempted to make Azrael a better character.

Several years ago O’Neil was a guest at a small comic book convention in Brooklyn.  One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of Azrael.  I do not recall his exact words, but after looking that book over he said something along the lines of “We really tried to make the character work.”

O’Neil could be critical of his own writing, and he reflected that perhaps he could have done a better job on the Azrael series.  Nevertheless, in spite of the flaws, I appreciate the work he did with Jean-Paul Valley and Leslie Thompkins, to have the Azrael series be something more than just another Batman spin-off or superhero slugfest.  As he did on a number of other occasions, O’Neil sought to stretch the boundaries of the genre in an intelligent, mature manner.

Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

This year Marvel Comics is celebrating their 80th anniversary with the release of Marvel Comics #1000 and a number of specials reuniting older creative teams.  The occasion prompted me to take a look back at 1986 in general, and at Fantastic Four #296 in particular, when Marvel celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Fantastic Four 296 cover

I’m sure at least a few people are wondering “How in the name of Irving Forbush could Marvel have celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1986 and then only 33 years later be celebrating their 80th?!?”

The fact is Marvel Comics actually has two anniversaries.  The first is for late August 1939 when Timely Comics, the company that would one day be known as Marvel, released their very first comic book, Marvel Comics #1 (with an October cover date).  The second is for early August 1961 when the first issue of Fantastic Four was published (with a November cover date) ushering in what is now known as the “Marvel era” or the “modern Marvel universe” that has been in continuous publication to the present day.

Marvel Comics 1 cover 1939 smallThis, of course, is very convenient for Marvel Comics, as it gives them not one but two historic anniversaries to celebrate every few years with high-profile specials and reprints, as well as the accompanying publicity.

In any case, back in 1986 it was the 25th anniversary of the debut of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Marvel made a fairly big deal of it, with Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition offering in-depth explorations of the characters’ histories (in the days before trade paperbacks and the internet both of these titles were invaluable resources to young fans such as myself).  Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter also launched the New Universe with much fanfare, but due to various behind-the-scenes events that line ultimately did not last long.

Another part of the celebration was that all of Marvel’s comics released in August 1986 featured cover portraits of their lead characters, surrounded by a border of character illustrations, the latter of which were drawn by longtime Marvel artist John Romita.  A gallery of these covers can be viewed on Sean Kleefeld’s blog.

This finally brings us to the main subject of this post, namely Fantastic Four #296, the big 25th anniversary issue commemorating the birth of the Marvel era. This 64 page story was plotted by Jim Shooter, scripted by Stan Lee, lettered by John Workman, colored by Glynis Oliver, and edited by Mike Carlin.  It was drawn by a very impressive roster of artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta, Ron Frenz, Bob Wiacek, Al Milgrom, Klaus Janson, John Buscema, Steve Leialoha, Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott.Fantastic Four 1 cover small

The set-up for “Homecoming” is a bit on the convoluted side.  A couple of years earlier, during the lengthy run by John Byrne that immediately preceded it, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been written out of the book, and She-Hulk had come onboard the fill his spot.  In recent issues the Thing had been lurking at the periphery, as Byrne was setting the stage for him to finally return to the team in their 25th anniversary story.  But then Byrne abruptly departed Marvel, going over to DC Comics to do a high-profile reboot of Superman.  This left Shooter and Lee sort of scrambling to pick up the pieces, to tell a story that makes sense with what Byrne had recently been doing.

As FF #296 opens, the Thing is despondent.  His ex-girlfriend Alicia Masters is now dating Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  The Thing, who resembles a large pile of orange rocks, feels more disconnected from humanity than ever.  After brooding in the rain at the site where Reed Richards’ rocket ship crashed years before, and the team all first gained their powers, Ben decides to exile himself to Monster Isle, home to the FF’s very first foe, the Mole Man, who himself has been ostracized by humanity.

Days later the rest of the team learn from pilot Hopper Hertnecky where their friend & teammate has gotten off to.  Hopper reiterates to them the Thing’s longtime frustration that while Reed, Sue and Johnny all gained amazing powers from the cosmic rays that bombarded their spaceflight, Ben was horrifically mutated.  Reed once again begins to beat himself up over his role in his best friend Ben becoming a monster.  However this time Sue bluntly states that this time Ben is unfairly taking out his frustrations on Reed, that whatever Reed did or did not do, he has attempted on numerous occasions over the years to help Ben, to find a permanent cure for him.

Motivated by Sue’s words, Reed decides he needs to see Ben one last time, to settle their argument once and for all.  Sue and Johnny insist on accompanying him.  She-Hulk and Wyatt Wingfoot, however, choose to remain behind, realizing that this is a family matter, and as close to the team as both of them are, they haven’t been there since the very beginning.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9
Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch journey to Monster Isle.  They are quickly attacked by the Mole Man’s army of strange monsters.  They are brought before the Thing, who has taken to dressing like the Mole Man.  Ben tells the others they shouldn’t have come, this is his home now.  He tells them that he is going to help the Mole Man create a safe haven for outcasts of society.

Ben is convinced of the Mole Man’s altruism, but he begins to experience doubts when Alicia unexpectedly arrives.  The blind woman coerced Hopper into flying her to Monster Isle, so that she can make her peace with Ben.  Learning that Alicia has broken up with Ben, and that Ben has been showing the rest of the team around the subterranean domain, the Mole Man’s bitterness & paranoia inflame.  He has his servants kidnap & disfigure the Human Torch as punishment for Johnny “stealing” Alicia from Ben.

As upset as Ben is about Alicia being with Johnny, this nevertheless shocks & disturbs the Thing’s confidence in the Mole Man.  Ben’s faith is further shaken when Reed explains that the earth-moving device the Mole Man intends to use to create an island refuge for humanity’s freaks & outsiders will cause devastation to the mainland.

At long last Ben realizes that no matter how noble Mole Man’s motives might be, he is nevertheless a disturbed, dangerous fanatic.  The Thing joins with the others to wreck the Mole Man’s machines, and to restore Johnny to normal.  As the subterranean headquarters beneath Monster Isle crumble, they make a break for it.  The issue ends as they are rescued by Hopper in a rubber raft.  A grumbling Ben reluctantly admits that his place is with the team, and at long last the Fantastic Four are reunited.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 19
Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

The plot by Jim Shooter is a solid one, in that it achieves two primary goals: It commemorates the anniversary & history of the Fantastic Four, and it gets the original line-up back together for the first time in two and a half years.  Perhaps it’s not the best FF issue I’ve ever read, or the most imaginative, but it’s entertaining.

The script by Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee is also good.  In later decades Lee sometimes became almost a parody of himself, with his whole “Face front, true believers!” bombastic, tongue-in-cheek style of prose and promotion.  Some of that is certainly on display here.  However, as the editor and the main writer / scripter at Marvel throughout the 1960s, Lee was largely responsible for giving most of the company’s characters their distinctive voices & personalities. Looking at this story it is apparent that he had remained capable of poignant, dramatic writing, especially if paired up with a talented artist / collaborator.  Lee’s opening narration and dialogue for FF #296 is very effective and combined with the art by Barry Windsor-Smith results in a genuinely moody, atmospheric scene.

Speaking of the artists, there are some distinctive choices on display in FF #296.  The aforementioned work by Windsor-Smith immediately set the tone.  On several pages the story cuts back & forth between his art and a flashback of the FF’s origin drawn by Kerry Gammill & Vince Colletta.  It definitely offers an interesting contrast.

In general I am not overly fond of Colletta’s inking.  Nevertheless, back in the mid 1960s he did ink several of the Lee & Kirby FF issues, and his work on this story in conjunction with Gammill’s pencils evokes a Silver Age feel that is very well suited to a retelling of the events of the team’s first story.

There are several pages by the team of Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek.  Frenz is a very solid, effective storyteller, so he is certainly well-suited to dramatically render scenes that feature a significant amount of exposition and character moments.  Wiacek is one of the best inkers in the biz, and his finishes complement Frenz’s pencils.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 26
Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

I also enjoyed the pages by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson.  They are two artists with very different styles, yet the combination works very well.  Milgrom’s super-hero oriented penciling is very effective for rendering the team fighting the Mole Man’s weird, wacky monsters, and Janson’s inking gives it a darker, gritty feel.

The next pairing, John Buscema inked by Steve Leialoha, is a bit odd.  Both are incredibly talented artists, to be certain.  In addition, Buscema was the first regular penciler on FF after Kirby left the title, doing really good work during the early 1970s, so he’s an appropriate choice to contribute to this issue.  Nevertheless, I do feel Leialoha’s inks sort of subsume Buscema’s characteristic style.  Of course, it is possible that Big John was only contributing layouts, something that became more prevalent for him in the 1980s, leaving it up to Leialoha to do the lion’s share, and resulting in more of his style coming through.

I think that under any other circumstances the team of Buscema & Leialoha would have been very effective.  It’s just that here, on this particular story, a somewhat more traditional inker might have been a better fit for Big John.  But that’s purely an emotional, sentimental judgment on my part.  At the very least, this does demonstrate once again just how significant an impact the inker can have on the finished artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 36
Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

The next segment is by then up-and-coming penciler Marc Silvestri and established inker Josef Rubinstein.  This was a year before Silvestri would begin his well-received run on Uncanny X-Men, but there’s definitely a lot of potential on display, with solid action & effective storytelling, and it’s apparent why he soon became a hot artist.  Rubinstein’s inking ably supports the young penciler.

Rounding out the issue is Jerry Ordway on pencils and Bob Wiacek & Joe Sinnott on inks.  It was certainly very appropriate to have Sinnott involved in this issue.  He had a long, acclaimed association with the Fantastic Four series.  Sinnott inked the second half of Lee & Kirby’s long FF run, and is generally regarded as one of the best inkers ever paired with Kirby.  After Kirby left Marvel, Sinnott continued as the book’s inker for over a decade, working over John Buscema and several other pencilers, right up until the beginning of Byrne’s run.

That said, in my mind Ordway inked by Sinnott was another unusual choice.  Sinnott is an inker whose work is almost always recognizable, no matter who he inks.  Ordway, however, is one of those pencilers whose style is so strong & distinctive that, no matter who inks his pencils, the finished artwork basically looks the same.  To my untrained eyes Ordway inked by Sinnott does not look much different that Ordway inking himself, or Ordway inked by Wiacek or Al Gordon or Dennis Janke or anyone else.

Of course, this may also be down to Ordway and Sinnott having similar styles.  Ordway has cited Sinnott as one of his major influences.

Oh, well… I’m probably quibbling.  The pages by Ordway, Wiacek & Sinnott look great, and that’s the important thing.  Ordway has stated that growing up in the 1960s he was a huge Marvel fan, so it must have been a thrill for him to work on several issues of Fantastic Four around this time, especially this anniversary story.

In any case, the back cover artwork is by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.  It’s a really nice image that showcases both artists’ styles, and really evokes the early Bronze Age era of the title.  So that gives us a really good example of “traditional” FF artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43
Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

However, there are two individuals who were not involved with Fantastic Four #296.  The first is Jack Kirby.  The second is John Byrne.

Kirby is, of course, the co-creator of Fantastic Four.  He co-plotted & penciled the first 102 regular issues of the series, as well as the first six annuals.  Kirby’s role in the creation & development of the Marvel universe cannot possible be overstated.

Unfortunately in 1986 Kirby was involved in a protracted battle with Marvel’s owners over both the rights to the characters he helped create and the thousands of pages of original artwork he had drawn for the comics.  This made his participation in this anniversary issue impossible.  Even if Marvel had asked him to contribute, given how angry he felt at his mistreatment by the company I am sure he would have refused, and I certainly would not have blamed him.

As for Byrne, he is often credited with the revitalization of the Fantastic Four title.  The writing on FF throughout the 1970s is generally regarded as uneven.  Byrne came onboard as writer & artist with issue #232 in 1981, and very quickly made the FF into an exciting, popular series.  His time on the book is frequently compared to the original Lee & Kirby run.

However, once again real-world events intruded.  By 1986 Byrne and Shooter were not on good terms and, as previously mentioned, this led to Byrne abruptly leaving Fantastic Four.  His last full issue was #293, released just three months earlier.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64
Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

I doubt that back in late 1986 any of this impacted on my reading of Fantastic Four #296 in the slightest way.  As I said before, this was pre-internet, so I had no way of easily finding out about all of these events.

Nowadays, though, I have a much greater knowledge of the history of the Fantastic Four series, and an awareness of what was going on at Marvel in the mid 1980s.  So when I re-read this issue a couple of weeks ago, the absences of Jack Kirby, who co-created the first decade of the book, and John Byrne, who had just come off a five year run that saw a creative renaissance, felt especially conspicuous, as well as exceedingly unfortunate.

Not to jump on an anti-Marvel bandwagon, but I certainly understand why over the past three decades so many artists & writers have chosen to go the creator-owned route.  After all, if Marvel can screw over Kirby, the guy who created many of their characters, well, they’re certainly not going to hesitate to kick anyone else to the curb, either.  Far better to retain ownership of your characters and benefit fully from their success, no matter how modest, than to create a runaway hit for Marvel (or DC Comics, for that matter) and see other people make millions of dollars off your creativity.

Having said all that, I do still enjoy a few Marvel and DC books, such as Fantastic Four (the current run written by Dan Slott is the best the book has been in a long time).  I just believe that it’s absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work for the Big Two to go in with their eyes open, to know exactly what their rights are, and to be fully aware of the history of the industry, so that they do not find themselves in the same position that Kirby and so many others unfortunately did.

Fantastic Four 296 back cover
Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

One other note:  Back in 1986, I was 10 years old, and the idea that Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary was a little difficult to comprehend.  To me 1961 seemed so incredibly far in the past.

Contrast this to a couple of years ago, when Image Comics celebrated their 25th anniversary.  My first reaction was that there was absolutely no way Image could be 25 years old, and it was impossible for 1992 to have been a quarter of a century ago.

I guess it’s just one of those matters of personal perspective.  Anything that happened before you were born is automatically ancient history, and anything that happened during your lifetime, even if it was decades ago, still feels like the recent past because you were there and experienced it firsthand.

Abdanm and Keerma’s adventures at TerrifiCon

Last weekend Michele and I went to the TerrifiCon comic book convention held at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.  TerrifiCon is a really great show, in that it is good-sized, has lots of guests, and its primary focus is actually on comic books.  I had fun at the show last year, and so Michele came with me this time.

Accompanying us was our family of Friendly Demon Dolls.  Two of them were given to me as presents.  Their names are Abdanm and Keerma.  They both had a lot of fun at the show.

Abdanm and Keerma Action Comics 1

Abdanm is the blue, black & grey fellow, and Keerma is the tiny green guy.  Here they are at TerrifiCon in front of a giant reproduction of the iconic cover of Action Comics #1.

Even though the bus ride from the Port Authority to the Mohegan Sun was long, and the ride back to NYC was worse, we still had a lot of fun that day.  I met several comic book creators, got some books signed, picked up a few books, and got to spend some time with Michele.  The boys also had fun.  Here are some more photos of them at the show…

Abdanm and Keerma Thanos

Here we are meeting Thanos.  Abdanm and Keerma were impressed by him, but they said he shouldn’t be so mean.  They told Thanos that he should try being more friendly like they are, and then maybe he’d have more friends.

Abdanm and Keerma Artist Alley

Abdanm and Keerma had a good time exploring Artist Alley, seeing the work of all of the talented creators who were at the convention.  Among the many talented comic book pros we saw were Bob Almond, Buzz, Ron Frenz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Paul Kupperberg, Bob McLeod, Kevin Nolan, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern and Roy Thomas.  We also saw actress Pom Klementieff, who portrayed Mantis in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

Abdanm and Keerma John Trumbull

It was great to finally meet my online pal John Trumbull, who was also at the show.  John has written a number of excellent articles for Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows.  He compiled the incredibly informative oral history of Batman: The Animated Series that was featured in Back Issue #99.  Abdanm and Keerma were thrilled to meet John, and hung out with him for a bit in Artist Alley.

Abdanm and Keerma TerrifiCon buys

Back at home Abdanm and Keerma looked over my acquisitions from the show.  I picked up the very enlightening book Inking Before and After by the talented Bob McLeod, Blue Baron #1 from penciler Ron Frenz, the Proton comic & sketchbook from Jerry Ordway, Super Gorillas Vs. The All-American Victory League by the late Alan Kupperberg, assembled & published by his brother Paul, and Superman Annual #7 from 1995, which I got autographed by its writer, the incredible Roger Stern.

TerrifiCon is an amazing show.  Hopefully we can go again next year.  We just need to find a better way to get there than the Greyhound bus!

For info on Friendly Demon Dolls please check out their website. Thank you 🙂