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 devastating damage 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 🙂

Happy July 4th from the Avengers

Here’s wishing everyone in the United States a very happy July 4th.  For those of you elsewhere in the world, I wish you all the very best, as well.  I hope that one day “liberty and justice for all” truly becomes a reality no matter who you are or where you live.

To celebrate, I am posting a scan of this wonderful Avengers pin-up.  It was published in the Avengers: The Ultron Imperative special that was released in late 2001.  Described on the credits page as an “Unused Avengers promotional drawing,” it depicts Avengers members Hawkeye, Captain America, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch celebrating American Independence Day.

I think it’s worth pointing out that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are immigrants from Europe who came to the United States in search of freedom from intolerance and the opportunity for a new beginning.  So they definitely deserve to be here as symbols of the American Dream.

Avengers July 4th Don Heck

The pencils on this piece are by Don Heck.  A good, solid, often-underrated artist, Heck worked on numerous comic book titles in a career that stretched over four decades, from the 1952 to 1993.  Among his credits were stints penciling Avengers for Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.  Yes, that includes the time period when “Cap’s Kooky Quartet” were the headlining members of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

Heck passed away at the age of 66 in 1995, so this drawing was obviously done a number of years before it was published.  Given the subject matter, perhaps it was left over from the Bicentennial in 1976.

Inking / embellishing this pin-up is the ever-amazing Jerry Ordway.  As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Da Ordster.  Ordway has gone on record with his appreciation for Heck referring to him as “a truly underappreciated artist.”  I expect that he enjoyed having the opportunity to ink this piece in 2001.

The coloring is by Tom Smith, who was the regular colorist on the monthly Avengers series at this time.  He definitely did a very nice, vibrant job on this piece.

Thanks for taking a look!

Happy birthday to Rich Buckler

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

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

Avengers 103 cover

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

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

Giant-Size Fantastic Four  3 double page spread

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

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

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

Alter Ego 100 cover

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

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

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

Saga of the Sub-Mariner 4 cover

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

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

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

Rich Buckler self portrait

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

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

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

Should Superman kill?

I have not seen the new Superman movie Man of Steel.  But from what I have heard online, it has generated a fair amount of controversy.  Specifically, as I understand it, at the end of the film there is a tremendous battle that nearly decimates the city of Metropolis.  Superman, in order to prevent the Kryptonian arch-criminal General Zod from murdering even more people, kills him.

I can understand how this would cause some fans to be up in arms.  After all, Superman is supposed to be one of the most noble and ethical heroes in popular fiction.  As a firm believer in the sanctity of life, he is typically written as always looking to find non-lethal methods to defeat whatever menaces he is facing.

So, the question is, should Superman kill?  I think that every comic book reader will have differing views on the matter.  All I can do is offer my own individual opinion.  Feel free to agree or disagree:

I honestly feel that, yes, Superman should do everything in his power to preserve life.  And that means that, whenever possible, he ought to avoid the use of lethal force… but please note that I did say “whenever possible.”  Given his amazing powers & abilities, 99.999% of the time Superman will somehow find a way to stop his enemies without killing.  But, I think that inevitably there is going to be that 0.001%, a no win situation, so to speak, when Superman may be forced by circumstances to kill.

Let’s look at such a situation, one that occurred back in 1988.  The three part “Supergirl Saga” ran through Superman vol 2 #21, Adventures of Superman #444, and Superman #22.  The main creative force behind this story was writer-artist John Byrne.  Also on hand was Jerry Ordway, who co-plotted & penciled Adventures #444.  The final chapter in Superman #22 is titled, appropriately enough, “The Price.”

Adventures of Superman 444 cover

I need to set the stage for this one.  It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me.  In the aftermath of Crisis of Infinite Earths, the new continuity established by DC was that Clark Kent had never been Superboy, and he did not become a costumed superhero until he was an adult, when he took on the guise of Superman.  This created a huge problem for the Legion of Super-Heroes, who had Superboy as both their inspiration for forming and an actual long-time member.  So the creative types at DC came up with a solution of sorts:

Post-Crisis, it was retconned that the Legion’s arch-nemesis the Time Trapper had (for reasons best left unexplained here) created a “Pocket Universe” which was a duplicate of our own, but with all the life-bearing planets other than Earth or Krypton removed from it.  In this artificial reality, once again Krypton exploded, and baby Kal-El was rocketed to Earth, where the Kents adopted him.  Here he did become the teenage Superboy.  Every time Superboy traveled in time to meet up with the Legion, he would be travelling back & forth between the real universe’s 30th Century and the Pocket Universe’s 20th Century without even knowing it.  Oh, yes, the Time Trapper also ensured that no other superheroes came to exist in the Pocket Universe, i.e. no Wonder Woman, Batman, Justice League, Teen Titans, etc.

(Yeah, this was a really unwieldy explanation, and it certainly didn’t work perfectly, but I guess it was the best they could come up with at the time.)

Eventually Superboy dies in the future on a mission with the Legion.  Back in the Pocket Universe, no one knows what has happened to him, though.  That Earth’s version of Lex Luthor, although arrogant & egotistical, is nevertheless not a criminal, and he examines Superboy’s cache of inventions, hoping to contact the Legion.  Instead, he accidentally communicates with three Kryptonians imprisoned in the Phantom Zone: General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora.  The criminals trick Luthor into releasing them, and immediately embark upon the conquest of the Earth.

Despite this Earth’s absence of superheroes, humanity manages to fight Zod’s forces to a draw for a decade, aided by the fantastic weapons built by Luthor.  He even creates Supergirl, a “protomatter” life form based on Lana Lang, to help in the battle.  Eventually, though, the triad of criminals tire of the conflict and decide to wipe out humanity completely.  They use their powers to drill down to the Earth’s core, and the heat transforms the oceans into super-heated steam, which completely destroys the atmosphere.  Everyone on Earth is killed, save those in Smallville, who are living behind a force field erected by Luthor.

Realizing that the war is all but lost, a desperate Luthor transports Supergirl across to the “regular” universe to recruit Superman, hoping a genuine Kryptonian will be able to finally stop the Phantom Zone criminals.  Even with Superman’s presence, though, in the final battle the remainder of humanity is wiped out.  But a dying Luthor reveals to Superman the location of a piece of Gold Kryptonite, which the hero uses to strip Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora of their powers.  An understandably confused Superman asks Luthor why he didn’t use the Gold Kryptonite years before, thereby preventing all the bloodshed.  With his last breath, Luthor confesses that, driven by wounded pride, he wanted revenge on the Kryptonians for tricking him into setting them free.  “I wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated.”  Remember what I said before about arrogance and ego?

Time for a slight digression… some readers have regarded this disclosure as a flaw in Byrne’s writing, stating Luthor’s actions make absolutely no sense, that it it an awkward mechanism to force Superman to deal with a trio of super-criminals who have committed genocide.  But if you look at Byrne’s entire run on the Superman titles, and his depiction of Lex Luthor throughout, this revelation actually makes a great deal of sense.

Superman 1 pg 19 panel Lex Luthor

The confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor very much mirrors a scene featuring the “real” Lex Luthor shown by Byrne less than two years earlier in Superman vol 2 #1.  Luthor learns that the Kryptonite-powered villain Metallo is on the verge of killing Superman.  Infuriated, Luthor had his forces snatch away Metallo.  Yes, Luthor certainly wants Superman dead.  But as Luthor himself explains, “No! No, that won’t do at all. I have promised Superman that when he dies it will be by my hand! And Lex Luthor always keeps his promises!”  The subsequent confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor in #22, using nearly identical wording, is undoubtedly a deliberate parallel by Byrne to demonstrate that even though this version was a more heroic individual he still shared many of the selfish, narcissistic flaws of his other self.

In any case, back to our story… so now Superman is confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem: what to do with General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora?  Yes, they have been de-powered, but they have the blood of billions of innocents on their hands, and they are defiantly unrepentant, gloating to Superman that they will somehow find a way to regain their powers and escape to his universe to wreck havoc there.  And so Superman is forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his entire life.  Using Green Kryptonite, Superman executes the Phantom Zone criminals. (Click on the image below to read the entire scene.)

Superman 22 pg 16-17

Did Superman make the right decision?  It is very difficult to say for certain, but, yes, I think that he probably did.  Yes, it was extremely drastic.  But keep in mind that the Phantom Zone criminals had murdered the entire population of the Pocket Universe Earth, five billion people.  I am typically against capital punishment, but that is an absolutely monstrous crime.

Also, there is the question of exactly what else Superman could have done with Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  He had no way of exiling them back to the Phantom Zone.  And, as I explained before, the Pocket Universe had no other inhabited planets, so he could not hand them over to that dimension’s equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps for trial.  I suppose he could have brought Zod & Co back to his own reality and asked the Guardians of Oa to take charge of them, but who knows if those little blue bureaucrats would have even accepted that it fell under their jurisdiction.  And why even take the chance of removing them from the Pocket Universe?

Really, the only other choice Superman had was to maroon Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora on the dead Earth.  And if he did that he certainly couldn’t just leave them there unsupervised in case they somehow did regain their powers.  This would of course mean spending the rest of his own life in the Pocket Universe as their jailer.

So between the very real worry that somehow they would escape, and the sheer scope of their horrific crimes, it is understandable that Superman felt he had no choice but to execute Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  And it’s made very clear that this is not a decision that Superman makes lightly. He is troubled by it right from the start.  Returning to his dimension, Superman leaves the gravely injured Supergirl in the care of his parents, the Kents.  And, as can be seen from the final page of the issue (see below) they can immediately sense that something is very wrong with their adopted son.  So “The Price” ends on a very melancholy, introspective note.

Superman 22 pg 22

Regarding this three part story, some readers have subsequently criticized John Byrne for A) writing the character into an impossible corner where he would have no choice to kill and B) immediately departing from the Superman titles, leaving it up to others to pick up the pieces.  On the first point, in Byrne’s defense, I would argue that sometimes, in the real world, you do have literal no-win situations such as the one in issue #22.  Yes, writers of fiction can, and typically do, include convenient escape clauses that allow their protagonists to find a way out of a seemingly irrevocable moral dilemma.  But, y’know, once it a while it is interesting and refreshing to see a writer push the boundaries, not give the hero a convenient “out” and watch what happens when the $#!+ really hits the fan.

And that brings me to the second point.  I really do not know how abrupt Byrne’s departure was from Superman.  But as Jerry Ordway relates in the Modern Masters volume covering his career, he and Byrne had been working pretty closely together for some time to plot out the direction of the Superman books.  They had concrete plans to show the serious, long-lasting effects of Superman’s actions in the Pocket Universe.  The whole subplot of Clark Kent having a nervous breakdown and taking on the Gangbuster identity originated with Byrne and Ordway.  After Byrne departed, Ordway carried it forward with new writer Roger Stern.  And that, in turn, led to Superman’s decision to temporarily exile himself from Earth.

The point is, yes, I do think that a character like Superman should willing to use lethal force, but only where there is absolutely no other option available.  I certainly do not want to see him making a habit of killing bad guys!  Written properly, Superman will attempt all other possible alternatives to resolving a conflict before resorting to killing a foe.  If he does have to take a life, it should be seen to weigh heavily on him.  And when a writer has him make that decision, it should be in the service of the telling of a really interesting, thought-provoking story, rather than just for the purpose of generating gratuitous bloodshed!

Of course, your mileage may vary.  No doubt there are some who will completely disagree with me on this.  Indeed, a quarter century later, Superman #22 still remains a very controversial issue.  Looking at this, one can certainly infer that the character of Superman is such an icon, and has come to mean so much to so many, that a story such as “The Price” continues to inspire such passionate debate.

Comic book reviews: Human Bomb

Human Bomb is the latest four issue miniseries written by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti to reboot the characters from DC Comics’ old Freedom Fighters series for the post-Flashpoint / New 52 continuity.  The new Human Bomb is Michael Taylor, a former member of the United States Marine Corps who served with distinction in Afghanistan.  Michael is due to receive the Medal of Honor from the President, but in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, he is having nightmares that he is somehow going to explode, destroying the White House.

Reporting to work at the construction site for the new World Trade Center in Manhattan, Michael and his co-workers are horrified when a series of explosions begin going off, first throughout the City, and then the rest of the country.  Encountering another member of his unit, Michael suddenly remember how, during their deployment, they were captured & experimented upon by an organization called C.R.O.W.N. and turned into sleeper agents, literal human bombs who can explode when ordered to.  For some reason, Michael is able to disobey the command to detonate, and discovers he can fire off energy blasts.

After a battle with members of C.R.O.W.N., Michael is brought in by agents of the covert government agency S.H.A.D.E. (presumably the same group Frankenstein & the Creature Commandos work for).  Two of S.H.A.D.E.’s operatives, Uncle Sam and the telepathic Joan, fill in Michael on C.R.O.W.N.’s background.  They inform Michael that the reason why he is able to control his ability to explode, and not be killed, is that unlike the hundreds of others abducted by C.R.O.W.N., he was a latent meta-human, and the experiments gave him permanent super powers.  Michael decides to join S.H.A.D.E. and take the fight to the terrorists who turned his compatriots and many other innocents into unwitting suicide bombers.

Human Bomb 1 cover

Human Bomb has some quite good writing by Gray & Palmiotti.  The first issue effectively sets up an intriguing mystery, the second is an extended piece of exposition that details the background of these events, and the third & fourth issues contain some really exciting action sequences.  Gray & Palmiotti also do a nice job with the character of Michael Taylor, a patriotic everyman who is thrust into extremely bizarre circumstances.

I appreciate how C.R.O.W.N. was developed by Gray & Palmiotti.  After the first issue, I thought that it would be explained to be the usual nefarious shadow conspiracy you see lurking about comic books.  Instead, the forces behind C.R.O.W.N. are alien.  Yep, as in invaders from outer space, which takes the story to an entirely different level.

As much as I enjoyed the writing on Human Bomb, the major reason why I picked up this miniseries was the artwork by Jerry Ordway.  I’ve been a fan of Da Ordster for some time now.  He’s done amazing work over the years.  Among his diverse credits, he worked on the Superman books from the mid-1980s to the early 90s, co-created WildStar with Al Gordon at Image Comics, wrote, illustrated & painted the Power of Shazam graphic novel (featuring the original C.C. Beck version of Captain Marvel), both wrote and created beautiful painted covers for the follow-up monthly Power of Shazam title, and drew several issues of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong.  It was Ordway’s Captain Marvel stories that really caused me to become a huge fan of his, both as a writer and an artist.

Human Bomb 3 pg 12

The unfortunate thing about Ordway is that, even though he does amazing work, he is often quite underrated.  I do not think he has had a regular assignment drawing a monthly title for a number of years now.  He’s drawn plenty of fill-in issues and miniseries such as Human Bomb, but not a single ongoing book.  I try to keep an eye out for Da Ordster, so that when he does have new work published, I can pick it up.  But sometimes that’s difficult.  I did not even know Human Bomb was coming out, or that he was drawing it, until I saw a review of the first issue on one of my favorite blogs, Too Dangerous For A Girl.  Yeah, as far as I can tell, DC did little to promote this miniseries.  And that is a total shame, because the artwork by Ordway is up to par with his usual extraordinary efforts.

Coincidentally or not, a few days before Human Bomb #4 came out, Ordway wrote a post on his blog Random Thoughts entitled “Life Over Fifty.”  He addresses how, despite the many years of dedication he has given to DC Comics, currently it is difficult for him to locate steady work.  It is an excellent piece, and I highly recommend reading it.

Really, it is such a shame that this is the current state of affairs because, as I said before, Ordway is an incredible artist.  I sent my girlfriend a link to his blog post, and she agreed with me, that it’s a very unfortunately situation that Ordway has found himself in.  And when I showed her a few pages of his artwork from Human Bomb, she flat out declared “That’s so much better than half the shit being published nowadays!”

Human Bomb 4 pg 6

Okay, I didn’t mean for a blog about the Human Bomb miniseries to turn into a rant about ageism in comic books, or a rambling piece about how much Jerry Ordway is underrated.  But he did an amazing job on this book, so I really encourage people to track down the issues.  Combine that with an exciting story by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, and this really is a miniseries that is well worth reading.

You might want to drop an e-mail to the folks at both DC and Marvel encouraging them to hire Jerry Ordway for an upcoming project.  He says he’s years away from wanting to retire, and judging by his recent work, he’s still very capable of producing top-notch work.

And considering that Gray & Palmiotti have done a lot of good, solid work rebooting various members of the Freedom Fighters — The Ray, Phantom Lady, Doll Man, and now Human Bomb — hopefully DC will let them at least write a miniseries featuring the characters working as a team.  That would be a great book for Ordway to draw.

Oh, yes, one last thing.  I’m usually not a huge fan of computer coloring.  But I thought the colors by Hi-Fi were excellent, and complemented Ordway’s artwork perfectly.