The Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Three

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject until May 1st (if not longer).

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and I’m now collecting them together here on my blog.  Click here to read Part One and Part Two.

Java 1 pg 10 top panel

11) Kensuke Okabayashi & Peter Palmiotti

Java! is a post-apocalyptic satire written & penciled by Kensuke Okabayashi, inked by Peter Palmiotti and colored by Lee Stacy.  The three issue miniseries was published by Committed Comics in 2004.

The year is 2073, and humanity has found itself faced with a devastating new emergency: a worldwide coffee shortage!  As the first issue explains:

“A mysterious plague has contaminated the caffeine structure of found in coffee by increasing its strength to lethal levels. Infected victims must now be consumed by their fatal addiction or face a painful death. The Supreme Justice has ordered the destruction of the contaminated resources, which has left the citizens with less than four percent of ‘pure’ beans.

“With limited resources, citizens are now restricted to a meager two cups per day.”

The price of uncontaminated coffee skyrockets.  Coffee-producing nations have now become global super-powers.  Convoys delivering precious coffee beans become prime targets for caffeine-addicted raiders looking to horde this now-precious commodity.

To combat the Bean Bandits and make sure the coffee supply is not cut off, the city of Neo Seattle assembles B.E.A.N. Force, “a new coffee law enforcement division.” The five-member B.E.A.N. Force’s top operative is the hyperactive, trigger-happy Java who takes her coffee intravenously.  Team strategist and close friend La-Te often finds herself having to reign in the unpredictable blonde firecracker.  The remaining three members of B.E.A.N. Force are “coffee expert” Doctor D, team mechanic Modean, and team leader Kinkaid.

Kensuke Okabayashi’s writing on Java! was ridiculously fun and off-the-wall, an entertaining blend of sci-fi, action and comedy.  Okabayashi, paired with inker Peter Palmiotti, created some dynamic artwork for the miniseries.

In 2010 Okabayashi followed up the miniseries with the one-shot special Java! Recaffinated released through Piggyback Studios.  In the last several years he has been working on the fantasy graphic novel The Foreigner, the first volume of which was published in 2018.

Java 1 pg 14

12) Curt Swan & George Klein

Thank you to Michael Powell for suggesting this one on the Why I Love Comics group.  “The Jekyll-Hyde Heroes!” from World’s Finest #173 was penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein.  The writer was a young Jim Shooter.  This issue was released by DC Comics with a February 1968 cover date.

This one is a real doozy… but you could say that about many of the stories published under the auspices of editor Mort Weisinger during the Silver Age.  Mad scientist Dr. Aaron seeks revenge on Superman and Batman, who recently put a stop to his illegal experiments.  Aaron manages to secretly drug both of them, via bottles of soda pop no less, with “Psyche-Distorter chemicals” that he has developed.  This chemical causes both heroes to take on the evil identities & personalities of the enemies they fear the most.

In the case of Batman that is Two-Face, aka former District Attorney Harvey Dent, who the Dark Knight fears because “I can never predict whether he’ll act good or evil… because he always lets a flip of a coin decide!”  For Superman, the enemy he fears more than any other is Kralik the Conqueror, a powerful, ruthless alien criminal who nearly defeated the Man of Steel in hand to hand combat.

Wait a second… Kralik the Conqueror?  Who the hell is that?!?  According to the Grand Comics Database and other sources, it turns out that Superman’s “most dangerous foe” never appeared before this issue, and hasn’t been seen since.  Yeah, they just pulled this Kralik the Conqueror guy out of thin air… or maybe somewhere else I won’t mention!

To ensure maximum mayhem, Dr. Aaron drugs the heroes a second time.  This he accomplishes by… discovering the location of the Batcave and spiking its water supply.  Yes, really.  This time Batman and Superman unwittingly ingest the drug via the coffee that Alfred brewed for them in the Batcave.

This story somehow even manages to get even more ridiculous after this, ending in a genuine WTF moment that left me totally boggled.  I recommend reading World’s Finest #173 simply for the sheer nuttiness of this story.

So, what about the art?  Curt Swan worked regularly on various Superman-related titles for three and a half decades, from the early 1950s to the mid 1980s.  I’ve always found Swan to be a solid, reliable penciler.  My appreciation for his work has often varied greatly depending on who happened to be inking him, though.  At certain points in his career I feel Swan was paired with inkers who were not a good fit for him, and I disliked the finished artwork.

On the other hand, I have stated before that I regard George Klein as one of the absolute best inkers to have ever worked with Swan.  Klein inked Swan’s pencils regularly in the 1950s and 60s, always to wonderful effect.  The art by the Swan & Klein team in World’s Finest #173 is definitely high quality, and that plays a major part in this crazy story working as well as it does.

Worlds Finest 173 pg 13

13) David Mazzucchelli

This entry is from the graphic novel Asterios Polyp, written & drawn by David Mazzucchelli, published in 2009 by Pantheon Books.

Asterios Polyp is a brilliant yet arrogant and flawed architect.  When his Manhattan apartment building is struck by lightning and burns to the ground in the middle of the night, Asterios sets out on a journey of discovery, both physical and emotional.  Hopping a bus to the middle of nowhere, the architect begins a new career as an auto mechanic in a small Southwestern town, a life very different from the one he has left behind.  Intercutting through Asterios’ present-day experiences are flashbacks to his troubled past.

Having collaborated with Frank Miller on two of the most iconic super-hero stories of the 1980s, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, David Mazzucchelli subsequently made the decision to focus on more personal and experimental works.  In stories for the Drawn & Quarterly anthology, his own self-published magazine-sized anthology Rubber Blanket, and his adaptation of the Paul Auster novel City of Glass, Mazzucchelli sought to grow as both a writer and artist.

Clocking in at 344 pages, Asterios Polyp appears to see Mazzucchelli pulling together all of his narrative & artistic techniques to craft a very philosophical & introspective work.

The diversity of style & storytelling can be witnessed on this page from early on in the graphic novel.  The top third is drawn in a straightforward fashion, flashing back to the various young female students who Asterios slept with during his time as a college professor bringing him his morning cup of coffee.  In the middle are Asterios and his wife Hanna in their apartment.  On the left Hannah, an emotional and passionate individual, is rendered in rich detail with thin, naturalistic red lines.  On the right, the logical, cerebral Asterios is drawn with sparse blue lines, a precise, minimalist geometric figure.  The bottom third of the page is an otherwise blank white space with just one short sentence, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” a response to the question that had been posed at the very beginning of this sequence several pages earlier: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?”

Asterios Polyp is a very complex & dense story.  I read it soon after it came out, and I could immediately tell it would benefit from re-readings.  Having skimmed through it again earlier this week, a number of things stood out for me that I had not previously noticed, things that became clearer now that I knew where Mazzucchelli’s narrative was heading.  I look forward to sitting down with the book again and taking my time to explore it.

Asterios Polyp coffee

 

14) Howard Chaykin

Midnight of the Soul #3 written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov, published by Image Comics, cover-dated August 2016.

Howard Chaykin possesses a great love for mid-20th century American music, fashion & culture, and has set a number of his stories in the post-World War II era.  At the same time, Chaykin will be the first to acknowledge that this was a period plagued by racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Communist paranoia, a time when clean-cut white conservative middle class values & prosperity often served to hide dark secrets.  The five issue noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul is set in this post-War society, one seemingly on top of the world, yet containing numerous tensions and corruptions simmering just below the surface.

Five years after the War, army veteran Joel Breakstone suffers from both post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.  Shutting himself up in his Long Island home, Joel unsuccessfully attempts to launch a career as a fiction writer.  Things have reached the breaking point between Joel and his wife Patricia, who is disgusted at both his inebriation and his failure to make a single sale.

One night, alone while Patricia is at work, Joel is rummaging through the house, desperately hoping to find a bottle he might have stashed away.  Instead he discovers evidence that Patricia, rather than working as a night court stenographer, is actually a prostitute.  An apoplectic Joel grabs his pistol and hops on his motorcycle, riding into New York City, determined to locate and confront his wife.  Patricia is already on the run, though, having fled from her Greenwich Village apartment after her client for the night was murdered in front of her.  Joel makes his way up and down Manhattan Island, searching for his wife, running into various unsavory figures who are also seeking her out.  Throughout the night Joel finds himself repeatedly crossing paths with the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessy, a stripper who is acquainted with Patricia.

In this scene Joel’s search has taken him to Times Square, where he encounters Dierdre on her way to work stopping for a cup of coffee at the Chock full’o Nuts.  The strung-out Joel joins her for a badly needed caffeine fix, although Deirdre is quick to warn him “that doughnut’ll punch through you like all-bran never could.”

For additional thoughts on Midnight of the Soul, I blogged about it in early 2017.

Midnight of the Soul 3 pg 2

15) Rik Levins & Kevin Dzuban

Americomics #4 written & penciled by Rik Levins, inked by Kevin Dzuban, lettered by Bob Pinaha, colored by Rebekah Black, and edited by Bill Black, published by AC Comics, cover-dated October 1983.

Ken Burton was obsessed with the dead super-hero Dragonfly, an obsession that led him to neglect both his engineering company and his fiancée Nancy Arazello.  Ken was convinced he could summon supernatural forces to gain the Dragonfly’s powers, and his quest left Nancy running Burton Engineering on her own.  Inevitably this led to a huge fight between the couple.  That night Ken was conducting the mystic ritual to become the new Dragonfly when Nancy, hoping to work out their problems, walked into the room.  The inadvertent result was that Nancy became Dragonfly instead.

Rebuffed by a bitter Ken (who, truthfully, came across as a selfish jerk even before this), a broken-hearted Nancy is left wondering what she should do with these powers she never even wanted.  When a ruthless drug dealer uses an experimental drug to create a giant warrior and unleashes it on the city as a test run, Nancy transforms into Dragonfly to save innocent bystanders.  At first seemingly outmatched, Nancy soon defeats the goliath, angrily pounding him to a pulp.  Police Detective Richard Trent pulls Nancy aside, taking her to a nearby diner for a cup of coffee to discuss what just happened.  Trent appears to be reassured by Nancy’s earnest manner, but she is secretly frightened that she was taking out her frustrations at Ken on her immense opponent.

Dragonfly was created by Rik Levins.  Following this debut story, Levins went out to write & pencil an ongoing Dragonfly series that lasted eight issues.  Dragonfly also became an occasional member of Femforce, the female superhero team created by AC publisher Bill Black.

I got into Femforce about 20 years ago.  Fortunately a local comic book store had a number of back issues from the 1980s and 90s available, as well as several other AC books, among them the first five issues of the Americomics anthology series.

Americomics #3 was one of the issues from that haul that really stood out.  A young, up-and-coming Jerry Ordway drew a stunning cover featuring Dragonfly.  The interior work by Levins & Kevin Dzuban was also impressive.  Levins’ design for the character was certainly distinctive.

I had known of Levins’ work from his early 1990s stint drawing Captain America, and I believe he actually holds the record for penciling the most consecutive issues of that title, 36 to be exact.  I actually enjoyed Levins’ art for the various AC titles more than I did his run on Captain America.  Levins wrote many of the stories he drew AC, so perhaps he felt more personally invested in the material?

Americomics 4 pg 14

Rik Levins regrettably passed away on June 12, 2010 at the age of 59.  Due to the fact that he was working in comic books during a time when flashy, dynamic artists were very much in the spotlight, Levins’ work is often overlooked.  While I would not say that I was a huge fan I did find him to be a solid, consistent artist.  Thinking about it now, I find Levins’ style somewhat reminiscent of Curt Swan, another penciler who could be counted on to turn in professional work on schedule.  That’s a frequently underappreciated ability.

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.

It Came from the 1990s: Ivar the Timewalker

Welcome to the latest edition of Super Blog Team-Up!  This time our theme is immortality.  I will be taking a brief look at the comic book character Ivar Anni-Padda, aka the Timewalker, the immortal time travel whose adventures are published by Valiant.

Truth to tell, I was already planning to do a piece about Ivar, since this month marks 25 years since the publication of Timewalker #1, which came out in August 1994. (Time really does fly!)  So when this installment of SBTU came along, it felt like synchronicity.

Timewalker 1 cover

Ivar the Timewalker is a free-spirited swashbuckling adventurer who over his thousands of years of life has crisscrossed across the ages.  Both his visual appearance and his immortality evoke Conner MacLeod from the original Highlander movie released several years earlier.  However, in regards to both his more lighthearted personality and his time traveling exploits Ivar seems to anticipate another immortal figure by more than a decade, Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who and Torchwood.

As I have mentioned before, the 1990s often have a bad reputation when it comes to comic books.  Yes, a lot of really bad comics came out in that decade.  However, there were also some really great ones, as well.  Some of the best were published by Valiant Comics, a great company that was founded in 1989 by Jim Shooter, and which in its early days saw significant contributions from talented creators Barry Windsor-Smith and Bob Layton.  I really should have blogged about Valiant before now.  In the first half of the 1990s I avidly followed their comics.  I was especially a fan of Ivar, who eventually starred in his own series.

Initially in the Valiant universe it was established that there were two immortal brothers: Gilad Anni-Padda, aka the Eternal Warrior, and Aram Anni-Padda, aka Armstrong.  The two were polar opposites.  Gilad was a fierce & ruthless warrior who worked in the service of the mystic Geomancers who sought to safeguard the Earth.  Aram, on the other hand, was an alcoholic hedonist, a millennia-old party animal who in the present day had established a friendship with the mortal teenage monk Archer.

In early 1993 we finally met the third brother, Ivar.  Archer & Armstrong / Eternal Warrior #8 was a double-sized issue combining the two ongoing series.  It features Armstrong telling Archer the true story of D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, who in the Valiant universe were actually Gilad, Aram and Ivar.

Written & penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith, inked by Bob Wiacek, colored by Maurice Fontenot, and edited by Bob Layton, “The Musketeers” relates how in France in the early 18th Century the Geomancer Angelique D’Terre foresaw the events of the French Revolution and attempted to forestall them.  Working with Gilad, she ruthlessly maneuvered to replace King Louis XIV with his secret twin brother, the so-called Man in the Iron Mask.

However, inverting the events of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, in this reality Louis is merely an incompetent moron, whereas his brother Henri is a brutal monster.  Belatedly realizing that replacing Louis with his brother will make a bad situation infinitely worse, Angelique and Gild are able to undo the switch, but not before Henri has raped & murdered D’Artagnan’s fiancée.  Ivar is completely disgusted at Gilad’s machinations, and at what the failed scheme has cost their friend D’Artagnan.

Archer Armstrong 8 pg 29

Sooon enough we meet Ivar again, this time in then-present day London, England, within the pages of Archer & Armstrong #10-11 by the team of Windsor-Smith, Wiacek & John Floyd, and Fontetot.  Ivar is attempting to access a “time arc” that will at long last take him back to Egypt in 37 BC, back to the side of his beloved Queen Nefertete.

Armstrong arrives to visit his brother, with young Archer in tow.  The trio is soon ambushed by a group of time-displaced civilians from across the centuries who have all ended up in 1992, and who believe Ivar is responsible for abducting them.  Armstrong, however, informs them that he is to blame, that his efforts to find a way to return Ivar to Ancient Egypt inadvertently drew all these people from across the ages.  Fortunately the nuclear-powered Solar arrives to inform Armstrong that an old foe of his is tearing up Los Angeles looking for him.  Solar is able to use his powers to re-energize Armstrong’s time portal, which he uses to send all of the abductees back to their proper time & place.

Solar offers to finally send Ivar back to 37 BC.  Faced with the possibility of finally being reunited with “Neffi,” Ivar is actually nervous.  Letting down his guard, revealing for once the cost he feels immortality has exacted, Ivar explains to his brother:

“It’s been, like… three thousand years since I last saw Nefertete, man — and I’ve lived a zillion lifetimes since… I’m not the same guy she loved back then… I’m afraid that I may have… changed too much for her to accept me again.”

Armstrong tells Ivar that if he has changed in the millennia since he’s seen Neffi then it’s probably for the better.  Encouraged, Ivar enters the time portal.  Unfortunately F7, a robot from the 41st Century who has grown attached to Ivar, leaps in right after him, hoping to join him in Ancient Egypt.

Archer Armstrong 11 pg 19

When we next see Ivar it is in Magnus Robot Fighter #33 (Feb 1994) in a story plotted & penciled by Jim Calafiore, scripted by John Ostrander, inked by Gonzalo Mayo and colored by Mark Csaszar.  Due to F7 jumping into the time arc, he and Ivar instead end up in North Am in the year 4002 AD.  Unfortunately since F7 has been away the Earth has been invaded by the sentient alien robots the Malevs.

F7 quickly comes under the control of the Malevs, who scan his memory and learn about Ivar.  The Malev Emperor realizes that if it can capture Ivar and replicate his powers, the Malevs can travel back in time to prevent the births of Magnus and Rai, thereby ending the resistance against the invasion before it even began.

Ivar, understandably annoyed at once again being in the wrong place at the wrong time, encounters Magnus.  Soon discovering exactly who Ivar is, Magnus realizes he needs to keep the time traveler out of the Malevs’ metal clutches long enough for another time arc to materialize.  At long last one does open.

Hopping on a sky cycle while the Robot Fighter is being overwhelmed by Malev soldiers, Ivar promises that he will send help.  He then flies into the time arc, and for a minute it looks like Magnus is going to be killed, until literally out of nowhere Rai and his allies arrive to save him, with a mystified Rai explaining the nanites in his blood told him to come to here, that somehow the nanites knew Magnus needed help at this exact time & place.

And elsewhere in time, now in a vast barren desert, in an example of what Doctor Who would later describe as “wibbly wobbly timey wimey,” Ivar records a journal entry:

“Time jump report, supplemental. Make note – the next time I see Bloodshot, have him program the information about Magnus into his nanites. Have to be careful so that Bloodshot himself doesn’t learn too much about his own fate. If I understand all this correctly, the nanites will compel the man known as Rai to go to Magnus’ aid.”

Magnus Robot Fighter 33 pg 6

Having completed his report, Ivar wonders where exactly he has gotten to this time.

Both Ivar and the audience would learn the answer in the Timewalker Yearbook #1.  Published in early 1995, this annual was plotted by Jon Hartz, scripted by Kevin VanHook, penciled by Elim Mak, inked by one of my favorite artists, the talented Rudy Nebres, and colored by Eric Hope.

Offhand I didn’t recognize the name Jon Hartz, so I asked VanHook about him on Facebook.  I also told VanHook that Timewalker was one of my favorite Valiant characters. He responded:

“Jon was our head of marketing. He was also very creative and had a hand in building the character of Timewalker.

“I always liked Timewalker. I didn’t get to do a lot with him, but I enjoyed the character.”

Opening in the same place & time that Magnus #33 ended, the Yearbook has Ivar still exploring the vast desert on his sky cycle.  A loud rumbling and dust storm on the horizon comes towards him, and in the next instant Ivar is nearly overrun by thousands of stampeding dinosaurs, followed by an immense tidal wave.  Ivar belatedly realizes the desert he was in was the Mediterranean Basin, and the titanic deluge of water is the Atlantic Ocean flooding over the Gibraltar Straight to create the Mediterranean Sea.

Of course, it is now generally accepted that the cataclysmic flooding of the Mediterranean Basin actually occurred approximately 5.3 million years ago, long after the dinosaurs died out.  But, hey, I’ll let this one slide, because the spectacle of charging dinos makes for a dramatic moment, and Mak, Nebres & Hope certainly do an incredible job of depicting it.

Timewalker Yearbook pgs 2 and 3

Just in the nick of time, another time arc opens as the massive wave reaches Ivar,  bringing him to a New York City rooftop in April 1992.  This very wet & violent arrival brings Ivar to the attention of the ruthless Harbinger Foundation, which dispatches several operatives to investigate.  That, in turn, results in the Foundation’s rivals the H.A.R.D. Corps also wanting to bring in Ivar for questioning.  The Foundation’s team of Eggbreakers captures Ivar, but he is quickly rescued by the Corps.  Ivar finds himself in another one of those lovely time paradoxes when he addresses the Corps’ leader:

Ivar: Listen, Gunsliger… I know we’ve never really gotten along…

Gunslinger: Gotten along? I don’t even know you, buddy.

Ivar: That’s right… not yet.

Gunslinger: What?

Three pages later Ivar learns exactly why Gunslinger later doesn’t like him when the time traveler blows up the wrecked sky cycle in order to escape.  And two months later, waiting to catch another time arc in the Rocky Mountains, Ivar humorously reflects on the paradox…

“Have to remember to look up when I met Gunslinger. I think it was ’94 or ’95… Too bad I can’t warn myself that he’s going to slug me!  Oh, well… I’ll deserve it!”

I like the idea that Ivar kept a journal of his travels. Considering he had lived for thousands of years and he was constantly bouncing back & forth in time, it was a good way for him to keep track of his innumerable experiences.

Going back in time, at least publishing-wise, we finally get to the first issue of Timewalker.  The series spun out of Valiant’s company-wide crossover The Chaos Effect.  A dark necromantic power from the end of time follows Ivar back to 1994, where it consumes the planet’s electrical energy.

I found The Chaos Effect to be sort of an underwhelming storyline.  Whatever the case, at least it led to Ivar finally receiving his own solo book.

Chaos Effect epilogue

Ivar spends most of The Chaos Effect unconscious, but he wakes up in time for an epilogue written by Bob Hall, penciled by Don Perlin, and inked by Gonzalo Mayo.  Once again meeting Magnus, this time in the present day, Ivar shares some slightly tongue-in-cheek insights into his experiences as a time traveler:

“History’s all relative, anyway. If history describes something a certain way, and you go to the time where it happened, then you were always there… so it probably turned out the way history describes just because of you. You may as well just show up and have fun.

“Beyond that, carry condoms, a flashlight and matches, beware of the drinking water, make loud noises to scare off bears and humans, and take chewing gum. Every era likes chewing gum.”

With that Ivar leaps into the next time arc, and into the pages of his own series.

“Ivar the Traveler” is by the team of Hall, Perlin & Mayo, with colors by Stu Suchit, and editing by Layton.  Ivar’s latest journey through time deposits him in Briton during the time of the Roman occupation.  The time traveler ends up trying to fight off a group of drunk, violent Roman soldiers who are doing the whole “rape & pillage” thing, including one who spots Ivar and shouts “You!!! I told you if I ever saw you again I’d kill you!”  Of course, Ivar hasn’t met this fine fellow… yet!

Cursing the perils and paradoxes of time travel, Ivar attempts to fight off the soldiers.  And then another time arc opens, scooping up Ivar.  Looking around, the time traveler spots a Nazi patrol, and realizes he is in Europe during World War II.

Successfully infiltrating the Nazi forces, Ivar eventually ends up encountering the captive Professor Weisenfeld and his young son.  Pretending to interrogate the scientist, Ivar explains how he has come to be there:

“In 1998 you have a grandson named Mack. He’s a friend of mine and he’s fixing my tachyon compass… He told me that when I land here I have to rescue you. Otherwise he doesn’t get born and my compass doesn’t get fixed.”

And as if this story wasn’t already wibbly wobbly timey wimey enough, a minute later the Eternal Warrior bursts into the prison, leading to the following exchange:

Ivar: Gil, what are you doing here?

Gilead: You told me to come! 1934, you told me to show up here, don’t you remember?

Ivar: No! I haven’t done that yet!

Good thing for Ivar that Gil wasn’t still holding a grudge over their argument back in 18th Century France!

The brothers fight their way through the Nazis.  Gil leads the Professor, his son, and the other prisoners to safety while Ivar holds off the goose-steppers.  Ivar is shot, but another time arc materializes, and he leaps into it. His destination: the year 1854, during the Crimean War.

Ah, but that’s a story for another time… so to speak!

Timewalker 1 pg 19

The ongoing Timewalker series lasted for 15 regular issues, plus the aforementioned Yearbook, as well as a Zero issue featuring Ivar’s origin that came out a few months after the series ended.  I definitely enjoyed it.  Ivar’s adventures were an enjoyable mix of comedy and drama.

Perhaps I’ll do a retrospective on the rest of Timewalker at a later date.  But, honestly, it’s such a great series, I recommend seeking out the back issues.  Trust me, you’ll probably have a more enjoyable time reading the actual comic books than you would having me yammer on about them at this blog!

Valiant unfortunately experienced difficulties in the second half of the decade.  In 1994 they were purchased by Acclaim Entertainment, who I feel pushed the company to expand too fast.  Then the market imploded in the mid 1990s, leading to the cancellation of the line.  Acclaim did restart a handful of the series in the late 1990s, as well as creating a few new titles, but those did not last long.  At that time Acclaim appeared to have much more of a focus on developing video games based on the Valiant characters than in actually publishing quality comic books.

The Valiant universe was eventually re-launched in 2012 by a new group of owners under the Valiant Entertainment label.  Over the past several years the company has had a reasonable amount of success.  Among those rebooted characters has been our pal Ivar.  Ivar: Timewalker ran for 12 issues between Jan and Dec 2015.  The entire run has been collected into three trade paperbacks.  I haven’t had an opportunity to read those yet, but they are definitely on my “want” list.  Hopefully I will get to them soon.  After all, unlike Ivar, and the other subjects of this edition of SBTU, there’s only a limited amount of time available to me.

So many great comic books, so little time!

SBTU Immortal

Here are links to all of the other Super Blog Team-Up participants.  I hope you will check them out.  Thanks!

(Some of these links will not be active for another day or two, so if they are’t working right now then check back again soon!)

Comic Reviews By Walt: TMNT and Highlander

Superhero Satellite: SBTU Presents IMMORTAL: Peter Loves Mary Jane

Comics Comics Comics: The Immortal Dr. Fate

Between The Pages: Big Finish: Doctor Who’s Finest Regeneration

The Unspoken Decade: Archer and Armstrong: Opposites Attract

DC In the 80s: Forager – The Second Life of a Bug

Black, White and Bronze: What Price Immortality? A Review of Red Nails

The Daily Rios: Arion The Immortal: The 1992 Miniseries

Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Podcast Episode 26 – Resurrection Man 1997 & 2011

Vic Sage of Pop Culture Retrorama Podcast: I am Legend

The Source Material Comics Podcast: Vampirella “Roses For The Dead”

Dave’s Comic Heroes Blog: Multi-Man, the Immortal Foe of the Challengers

Magazines and Monsters: Kang/Immortus: Marvel Triple Action #17, 1974: “Once an Avenger…”

Radulich Broadcasting Network: TV PARTY TONIGHT – Jupiter Ascending commentary

 

A brief look back at comic book artist Ernie Colon

Comic book artist Ernie Colon passed away on August 8th.  Colon was a versatile artist.  Among the numerous projects he worked on over the decades were Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich for Harvey Comics, the fantasy series Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld with writers Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn at DC Comics, and in collaboration with Sid Jacobson a graphic novel version of the 9/11 Commission Report titled The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.  I cannot imagine a more diverse range of projects than that!

While I certainly cannot say that I was a huge fan of Colon’s work, I certainly enjoyed it whenever I saw it.  I have fond memories of several projects that he illustrated on, so I felt it would be nice to offer a brief look at his work on those books.

Damage Control 1 cover

Colon and writer Dwayne McDuffie co-created the superhero comedy book Damage Control for Marvel Comics.  Damage Control offered a humorous look at a construction company that specialized in repairing the buildings that have gotten wrecked in superhero battles.  The very odd & colorful staff of the Damage Control organization made their debut in Marvel Comics Presents #19, and soon after were featured in a trio of 4 issue miniseries published between 1989 and 1991.  Colon worked on all but one of the issues.

At a time when superhero comic books were very steadily heading into “grim & gritty” territory, Damage Control was certainly a breath of fresh air.  McDuffie’s scripts were clever & humorous, and the offbeat artwork by Colon was a perfect fit.

For a number of years I owned a page of original artwork from the first miniseries, which had Bob Wiacek’s inking over Colon’s pencils.  Regrettably I had to sell it a while back, but fortunately it went to a good home.

Magnus Robot Fighter 14 pg 18

In the early 1990s Colon worked on several issues of Magnus Robot Fighter for Valiant Comics.  In addition to penciling & inking, Colon also provided the coloring on several issues, resulting in some very striking and unusual artwork.  This definitely gave Jim Shooter’s stories an unsettling feeling, bringing to life a world that was more than slightly askew.

The work by Colon really suited the 41st Century setting of the series, a seeming hi-tech utopia of gleaming steel possessed of a dark underbelly.  The two part “Asylum” story by Shooter & Colon that ran in Magnus Robot Fighter #13-14 certainly contained a very palpable atmosphere.

Dreadstar miniseries 3 pg 4

In 1994 Colon teamed with writer Peter David on a revival of Jim Starlin’s incredible space opera Dreadstar.  Published under the Bravura imprint of Malibu Comics, this six issue miniseries leaped forward a number of years from the end of the previous series.  It featured Vanth Dreadstar’s teenage daughter Kalla, who has been raised from infancy by none other than her father’s arch-enemy, the genocidal Lord Papal.

The Dreadstar miniseries was very dark & serious… except when it was not.  David has always proven adept at deftly blending drama and comedy in his scripts, and his work on Dreadstar was no exception.  Colon adaptability as an artist was very well suited to illustrate such material.  He powerfully rendered scenes of grim violence.  He also ably illustrated some genuinely wacky characters and ridiculous laugh-out-loud moments.

Dreadstar miniseries 5 cover

Looking over the artwork from just these three series amply demonstrates the versatility of which I previously spoke.  Colon was a very talented artist who was at home in a variety of genres.

Colon was 88 years old when he passed away.  I had no idea he was that old, and that he’d actually begun working in comic books back in the late 1950s.  Colon certainly had a long and prolific career.  He leaves behind an impressive body or work featuring some stunningly beautiful art.

 

 

Remembering comic book artist George Klein

Recently I was reminded, thanks to the excellent blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books by Alan Stewart, of the very underrated work of comic book artist George Klein.

National Sportsman Dec 1939 cover smallOne of the main reasons why Klein is not much better known among comic book fandom is that he tragically passed away at a young age.  He died 50 years ago this month, on May 10, 1969.

Klein was born in 1915, although there is a bit of uncertainty over the exact date, as well as the location of his birth.  Klein’s earliest published work appears to be a painted cover for the December 1939 edition of National Sportsman.

Between 1941 and 1943 Klein was employed by Timely Comics, the precursor to Marvel.  Creator credits in the Golden Age were often missing or inaccurate, but it is generally believed he worked on such titles as All-Winners Comics, Captain America Comics, USA Comics and Young Allies Comics at Timely.

In 1943 Klein was drafted to serve in World War II, and served as a private in the Army Infantry.  Honorably discharged in 1946, Klein returned to his career as an artist, working in both comic books and as a magazine illustrator.Detective illustration George Klein

Several of the periodicals that Klein worked for, both before and after the war, were pulp magazines published by Timely’s owner Martin Goodman, specifically Best Love, Complete Sports, Complete War and Detective Short Stories.  Klein was also a regular contributor to Wyoming Wildlife, the award-winning magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.  His work in Wyoming Wildlife and other publications apparently gained Klein some renown as a landscape and wildlife artist.

Klein once again did work for Timely, or Atlas Comics as it came to be known in the 1950s.  Among the various titles Klein worked on at Timely / Atlas in the late 40s and early 50s were the romance series Girl Comics and the well-regarded fantasy / romance series Venus, although (again due to the lack of credits) the exact details of his involvement are a matter of deduction and guesswork.

 

Venus 2 pg 1

During this time Klein also branched out to work for other publishers such as ACG, Ace Comics and Prize Publications.  By the early 1950s much of Klein’s work was for National Periodical Publications, aka DC Comics.

Beginning in 1955 Klein, working as an inker, was regularly paired up with penciler Curt Swan on DC’s various Superman titles.  Looking at the Grand Comic Database, the first story drawn by the Swan & Klein team seems to be the Superboy story “The Wizard City” written by the legendary Bill Finger in Adventure Comics #216, cover-dated September 1955.Adventure Comics 332 cover small

Swan and Klein continued to work together for the next 12 years, with their art appearing in various issues of Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane, and Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.

Truthfully, Swan is a penciler who at times leaves me a bit cold.  He’s one of those artists who I recognize as technically proficient, someone who is a good, solid storyteller.  However often his work just does not connect with me personally.  That said, there is something about the teaming of Swan and Klein that really appeals to me.

Having been born in 1976, obviously I did not read the stories they drew when they first came out. About 20 years ago I really got into the Legion of Super-Heroes and began picking up the various Legion Archives.  I was immediately taken with the work that Swan & Klein on those Superboy and the Legion stories from Adventure Comics in the 1960s.  I regard Klein as one of the best inkers Swan ever got during his lengthy career.

As per writer & editor Mark Waid’s bio of George Klein written for the Legion Archives:

“Klein set new standards for his craft with his razor-crisp brushline, which brought new dimensions to the art of Curt Swan, the penciler with whom Klein was most frequently paired. Together, Swan and Klein defined for years to come the look of Superman and his cast of characters; to this day , most Legion of Super-Heroes aficionados consider Swan and Klein to be the all-time finest Legion art team.”

Adventure Comics 352 pg 5

Klein’s work over Swan’s pencils is an excellent demonstration of just how significant a role the inker can have on the look of the finished artwork in comic books.

Adventure Comics 352 cover smallProbably the stand-out stories of this era were written by the then-teenage Jim Shooter, who introduced Karate Kid, Princess Projecta and Ferro Lad to the Legion, as well as the villainous Fatal Five.  Swan & Klein did a superb job illustrating these now-classic stories.

One cannot discuss Klein’s work in the Silver Age without mentioning Fantastic Four.  Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961, that title was the birth of what came to be known as the Marvel Universe.  For many decades the specific details concerning the creation of the early FF stories have been shrouded in mystery.

One of the most frequently-pondered questions was who exactly inked Kirby’s pencils on the first two issues.  After much debate & analysis, the conclusion reached by Dr. Michael  J. Vassallo, one of the foremost authorities on Timely / Atlas / early Marvel artwork, is that it was George Klein.  It is known that Klein worked on several stories for Atlas in the late 1950s and early 60s, which would put him in exactly the right place when the first two issues of FF were being created in 1961.

As to why Klein in particular was chosen to ink these two issues, longtime Marvel editor Tom Brevoort offers up this theory:

“I would also conjecture that perhaps the choice of George Klein to ink these early issues–if indeed he was the inker as is generally believed today–was to try to give them more of a super hero feel than Kirby’s monster or romance or western work. Klein at the time was inking Curt Swan on Superman, and you really can’t get a more classic super hero finish than that.”

Fantastic Four 1 pg 14

Absent the original artwork for those first two FF issues resurfacing, or some previous-unknown documentation being discovered, we will probably never be 100% certain; nevertheless, the general consensus is that Klein very likely inked those two issues, placing him right at the birth of the Marvel Age of Comics.

Klein’s work for DC on the Superman family of titles took place during the regime of editor Mort Weisinger.  The late 1960s saw an editorial shake-up at DC. Although Weisinger remained in control of the Superman books until 1970, this behind-the-scenes instability is reportedly what led to Klein departing the company.  He quickly found work at Marvel Comics which, eight years after the introduction of the Fantastic Four, was achieving both commercial success and critical acclaim.Avengers 57 cover small

Klein’s first assignment at Marvel was inking John Buscema’s pencils on Avengers.  After inking a couple of covers, Klein became the regular inker with issue #55, cover-dated August 1968.  Klein remained on Avengers for nearly a year.

The late 1960s is now considered one of the series’ most important and influential periods. Writer Roy Thomas, working with John Buscema, introduced the Avengers’ arch-nemesis Ultron, new member the Vision, and Hank Pym’s new costumed identity Yellowjacket, among other key developments.  Klein did a superb job inking Buscema on many of these key stories.  In 2001 Thomas spoke with Buscema about their work on Avengers, a conversation that saw print in Alter Ego #13.  In it they briefly touched upon Klein:

Roy Thomas: So how did you feel about George Klein’s inking compared to some of the others?

John Buscema: From what I’ve seen, a very credible job, not bad.

Considering that Buscema was notoriously critical of most of the artists who inked his work, I suppose by his exacting standards this was high praise indeed!

Avengers 55 pg 16

Klein also inked Gene Colan on Avengers #63-64, Sub-Mariner #11, and on several issues of Daredevil.  Klein was probably one of the best embellishers to ever work over Colan, who could often be a bit challenging to ink.

Daredevil 53 cover smallAdditionally, in early 1969 Klein inked two very early jobs by a very young Barry Windsor-Smith, in Daredevil #51 and Avengers #67.  Klein’s finishes gave some much-needed support to BWS who, although he was already showing quite a bit of promise, was still honing his craft.

Last, but certainly not least, Klein inked Jack Kirby on Thor #168-169, which were cover-dated Sept and Oct 1969.  It has been opined that Vince Colletta’s inking of Kirby was a good match on Thor, as the feathery line work provided a specific tone that was well-suited to the mythological characters & settings.  It was much less appropriate to Kirby’s sci-fi concepts, which is why Colletta was a poor fit on Fantastic Four.

Similarly, when Kirby took Thor in a more cosmic direction in the late 1960s, Colletta’s inking felt out of place.  So it was definitely nice to have Klein’s more polished inking on these two issues, which saw the god of thunder learning the origin of one of Kirby’s most cosmic creations, Galactus.  These Thor issues were very likely the last work that Klein did before his untimely death.
Thor 169 pg 2

According to the Field Guide To Wild American Pulp Artists, Klein was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver in May 1969, less than a month before he died.

I’m going to add a few words from Alan Stewart here summing up this unfortunate situation:

“It’s tragic that Klein passed away as young as he did — and the fact that he’d gotten married just a few months before makes it even more so. Unfortunately, his work over Curt Swan on the Superman books all those years was uncredited, and his subsequent stint at Marvel was too short for him to have made the impact of a Joe Sinnott or Tom Palmer. I agree he’s underrated.”

Action Comics 300 cover small

I really believe that Klein would probably be much better remembered as an artist if he had not died so young.  He did very well-regarded work on comic books in a career that lasted nearly three decades.

The reissuing of so much of DC and Marvel’s material from the Silver Age does mean that younger fans such as myself have now been able to rediscover Klein’s work.  Additionally, all these decades later Klein, as well as everyone else who worked on those early DC stories, are at long last receiving proper credit for their work in those reprint volumes.

There are so many creators from the Golden Age and early Silver Age who helped to make the comic book industry what it is today, creators who in the past were unfortunately uncredited and overlooked.  I hope this short profile on one of those creators, George Klein, will inspire readers to seek out some of these classic stories, and to develop more of an appreciation for the people who crafted those imaginative tales.

Thank you to all of the websites from which I gleamed information about and artwork by George Klein.  I believe I’ve included links to all of them, but if I did miss anyone please let me know!

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Doomed Legionnaires

Among the myriad characters to have appeared in the adventures of the Legion of Super-Heroes over the decades, there exists a quartet that seem tied together by tragedy, almost as if fate itself meant for them to meet with terrible destinies.  I speak of Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid, who were conceived by Jim Shooter, making their first appearances in Adventure Comics #346 (July 1966), published by DC Comics.

Adventure Comics 346 cover

Jim Shooter was all of 13 years old when he became the Legion’s new writer.  He came from an impoverished background, and entered the field to help supplement his family’s meager income.  One of the strengths that Shooter brought with him, in addition to his fertile imagination, was that he knew how real teenagers think and act.  He helped bring a certain authenticity to the super-powered teens of the 30th Century.  His first published story, for which he also supplied the rough pencil layouts, was in fact the two-part tale that ran in Adventure Comics #s 346-347, which saw the four young heroes he created inducted into the Legion.  The finished artwork was courtesy of Sheldon Moldoff, Curt Swan & George Klein.

Karate Kid, although he had no actual superhuman abilities, was a highly trained martial artist who had mastered a form of “super karate” which enabled him to go toe-to-toe with much more powerful opponents.  Princess Projecta had the ability to create incredibly realistic illusions.  Ferro Lad was a mutant who could turn his body into a form of living steel, gaining super strength & invulnerability.  Nemesis Kid possessed the talent to instantly develop the ability to combat any foe or danger.

Just as Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid had finished being admitted into the Legion, the militaristic alien Khunds (also a Shooter creation) made clear their intention to invade Earth.  The team, including the four newcomers, was dispatched across the globe to guard the planet’s defenses.  However, one by one the “electro-towers” protecting Earth were destroyed by sabotage.  It quickly became apparent that one of the new Legionnaires was in fact a traitor working with the Khunds… but which one?  At first the evidence seemed to point to Karate Kid.  But as Superboy stepped forward to accurse Karate Kid, the true double agent was revealed to be Nemesis Kid.

Adventure Comics 347 pg 13

The Khund invasion was thwarted, but Nemesis Kid used his adaptability power to teleport away, evading capture.  He would go on to become a long-time foe of the team, both as a solo menace and a member of the Legion of Super-Villains.  And out of that first encounter would grow a long-running enmity between Karate Kid and Nemesis Kid.

Soon after, tragedy once again struck the Legion.  Editor Mort Weisinger had directed Shooter to more or less rip off the then-current movie The Dirty Dozen.  To his credit, Shooter conceived a two part story that was quite original & dramatic.  In the pages of Adventure #s 352-353, the cosmic entity known as the Sun Eater was detected approaching the United Planets.  Capable of consuming entire galaxies, the Sun Eater was too formidable a menace for even the Legion to defeat.  They were forced to enlist the aid of five of the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals, offering them amnesty in exchange for their services.

Superboy, Cosmic Boy, Princess Projecta, Sun Boy and Ferro Lad set out to confront the Sun Eater, accompanied by the newly-formed Fatal Five.  One member of that quintet of criminals, the cyborg Tharok, conceived a strategy to combat the inhuman menace.  Although this battle plan failed, the attack by the Legion and the Fatal Five managed to weaken the Sun Eater, as well as provide Tharok with the data needed to construct an Absorbatron Bomb.  If detonated at the core of the Sun Eater it would destroy the entity.  Unfortunately whoever delivered the bomb would almost certainly die in the act.  Superboy was ready to sacrifice himself, but Ferro Lad punched the Boy of Steel, grabbed the bomb, and flew into the heart of the Sun Eater.  The bomb did indeed succeed in destroying it, but at the cost of Ferro Lad’s life.

Advenure Comics 353 pg 20

In real life, Shooter hadn’t initially planned to kill off his creation.  In fact, he wanted to reveal Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire.  However the conservative Weisinger forbid him doing this, supposedly fearing it would affect their sales in the South.  As a result, when conceiving the Sun-Eater two-parter, Shooter realized the ending necessitated someone dying, and so he chose Ferro Lad.  In any case, despite a very brief tenure on the team, Ferro Lad became something of a fan favorite due to his brave, heroic sacrifice.

Time passed, and Shooter left the Legion.  During the intervening years, under other writers, Karate Kid and Princess Projecta went on to become well-established members of the team.  The two characters also fell in love.  Then, nearly a decade later, in 1975, Shooter made a brief return to the series.  It was at this point that he was able to delve into the background of his futuristic master of the martial arts.

In the pages of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, Shooter, paired with artist Mike Grell, revealed the origin of Karate Kid, aka Val Armorr.  In “The Lair of the Black Dragon” Karate Kid learned he was the son of the infamous Japanese criminal Kiraku Nezumi, aka the Black Dragon, and an American woman named Valenina Armorr, who died shortly after giving birth to him.  Karate Kid’s mentor, known only as the Sensei, had in his youth himself been a super-hero.  He and the Black Dragon were arch-enemies.  After many years, the Sensei finally killed the Black Dragon in combat, only to learn of the existence of his foe’s infant child.  The Sensei raised Karate Kid as his own son.  Now a teenager, Karate Kid was approached by the Black Dragon’s followers, hoping the truth of his parentage would turn him against the Sensei.  Instead, Val fought to protect the Sensei.  He explained “The Black Dragon gave me life… but you gave me more: ideals and moral values!”  As far as Val was concerned, the Sensei was his true father.

Superboy Legion 210 pg 18

More time passed.  Paul Levitz became the writer on Legion of Super-Heroes, embarking on a multi-year run during which he penned a number of now-classic stories.  One of his long-running subplots was the complicated relationship between Karate Kid and Princess Projecta.  After a tumultuous courtship, Val and Jeckie at last married.  Unfortunately, their happiness would be short-lived.

During Levitz’s partnership with penciler & co-plotter Keith Giffen, Legion became an especially popular title.  It received a brand new series in 1984.  To start it off, in the first five issues Levitz and Giffen brought back the Legion of Super-Villains, expanded in ranks and headed by Nemesis Kid.  The one-time traitorous LSH member embarked on a dual quest to lead his fellow criminals in the invasion of Princess Projecta’s home planet of Orando and to kill as many Legionnaires as possible.

The Super-Villains attacked Orando, shunting the entire planet into another dimension, in the process capturing several members of the LSH.  This included the newly-married Karate Kid and Princess Projecta.  In Legion #4, Val managed to free himself and his teammates, but then told them “Hold it – you guys go on ahead – I have a personal score to settle.”  With that he headed off to face his long-time rival Nemesis Kid.

In a brutal fight, Nemesis Kid used his adaptability to match Val’s martial arts, delivering a bloody beating.  But the hero refused to give up, continually getting up again and again to face his foe.  Despite his willpower, Val ended up sustaining severe injuries.  Realizing he was mortally wounded, Karate Kid grabbed his flight ring, bid farewell to Jeckie, and flew up into the sky, using the last minutes of his life to damage the orbiting technology that had snatched Orando into limbo.

Legion v3 4 pg 22

Giffen, who was absolutely not a fan of Karate Kid, was the one who had originally suggested killing Val.  Levitz, in contrast, really liked Karate Kid, but he decided that dramatically it was a good idea because the character was popular and so his death would be unexpected as well as possess an emotional punch.

In the letters page of issue #4, Levitz addressed Val’s death: “A long-time favorite character of this writer (who even scripted Karate Kid #1 as his first LSH-related assignment over eight years ago), we’d like to think his death in battle against Nemesis Kid was foreshadowed from the day they both joined the Legion in Adventure Comics #346.”

By this time Giffen had actually gotten burned out drawing Legion.  Up-and-coming artist Steve Lightle took over as penciler with issue #3, working from Giffen’s thumbnail pencil breakdowns on his first couple of issues before taking full creative control of the storytelling.  Unlike Giffen, Lightle was a big fan of Karate Kid, and he was hardly thrilled that in only his second issue on the book he would have to draw the character’s demise.  Nevertheless, given how much he cared for Val, Lightle set out to make his death as dramatic as possible.  He certainly did amazing work penciling Karate Kid’s last stand.

The final confrontation between the Legion and their evil counterparts took place in issue #5, as Princess Projecta sought to avenge Karate Kid’s death.  At first Jeckie hurled all manner of horrific hallucinations at her husband’s killer, but Nemesis Kid immediately adapted immunity to her illusions.  Unfortunately for him, while he was busy doing that, he could not adapt to fight a normal human woman physically.  A vengeful, driven Projecta reached out and in a moment of cold fury broke Nemesis Kid’s neck, slaying him.

Once again, Lightle does amazing work penciling this sequence.  The panels where he zooms in on Projecta’s icy eye, and then cuts to Nemesis Kid’s horrified expression, really drive home that this is a woman who will not be stopped.  On the next page, as Projecta grabs Nemesis Kid by the neck, the “camera” pans down to Karate Kid’s fallen form, leaving the execution to occur off-panel.  Sometimes what takes place out of sight has much more of an impact.  (Click on the scan below for a close-up look at these two pages.)

Legion v3 5 pg 14 & 15

With her husband avenged and the LSV defeated, the widowed, mournful Projecta resigns from the Legion, and assumes her place as Orando’s ruler.  In a later interview, Levitz stated that he eventually would have brought her back somewhere down the road.  But it was clear that, at the time, this would have been the last we saw of Jeckie, at least for the immediate future.

Of course, to quote poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”  A year later, in Legion #14 (September 1985), Levitz & Lightle introduced the mysterious Sensor Girl.  Levitz originally intended Sensor Girl to be a post-Crisis incarnation of Supergirl, placing her incognito to work around the editorial mandate that she was dead / retconned out of existence.  However, the powers-that-be at DC soon told Levitz that his idea was a no-go.  Forced to change course mid-stream, Levitz eventually revealed Sensor Girl to be Princess Projecta.  But that’s a story for another time.

Getting back to where we started, the four “doomed” Legionnaires introduced way back in Adventure Comics #346 exemplify what makes the Legion so great.  From that one story, Shooter, Levitz and other writers took those characters on engaging, moving, epic story arcs that resonated with readers.  As I’ve written before, the amazing thing about the Legion is that you become so invested in these characters, their lives, their loves, and their tragedies.

(I have to offer an acknowledgement to the excellent book The Legion Companion, written by Glen Cadigan and published by TwoMorrows in 2003, as the source for much of the background info contained in this blog post.  It is currently out of print, but if you can find a copy it is well worth picking up.)

Happy birthday to Tony Isabella

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

Ghost Rider 7 cover

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

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

Captain Universe TPB pg 135

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

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

Satan's Six 1 cover

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

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

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

Grim Ghost 6 cover

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

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

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

Black Lightning 5 cover

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

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

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Curse of Validus

Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

Having read many of Levitz’s amazing Legion of Super-Heroes stories, this appears to be an inescapable conclusion.  He is a genius because he comes up with these absolutely amazing stories, and he also invests the members of the team with real personalities, making them three-dimensional individuals that you genuinely care about.  And he is evil because, having done such amazing work developing his cast, he then proceeds to put them through the wringer, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Legion annual 2 1986 signed

Of course, it is through this that Levitz has so successfully made the members of the team so beloved.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, we readers, having seen our heroes struggle through myriad trials & tribulations, very often emerging not-quite-unscathed, occasionally much for the worse, grew even more attached to them.  Levitz, as with other, earlier writers, showed that the teenagers of the Legion may have had fantastic powers, but they still had to struggle with hardships & setbacks, and that made them relatable & realistic.  That’s the winning formula that Stan Lee utilized at Marvel in the 1960s, and the various Legion scribes often managed to channel that same appeal.

(It’s probably no accident that some of my favorite DC Comics characters from the Silver and Bronze Ages are the more offbeat, flawed ones, such as the Legion, the Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, and the Unknown Soldier.)

One of my favorite of Levitz’s storylines from Legion of Super-Heroes is one that had a rather slow burn.  It involved the mysterious being known as Validus.  Introduced in Adventure Comics #352 (January 1967) by Jim Shooter & Curt Swan, Validus was a towering monster, a semi-intelligent child-like menace who projected mental lightning from his exposed brain.  He was one of the five villains the Legion reluctantly recruited to help them battle the Sun-Eater, a cosmic entity that threatened to destroy the entire galaxy.  In the end, they were successful, although Ferro Lad sacrificed his life, and the quintet of criminals banded together as the Fatal Five, becoming deadly enemies of the Legion.

Adventure Comics 252 pg 6

Fast-forward fifteen years.  Levitz and Keith Giffen have just finished their five-part epic “The Great Darkness Saga” which pitted the Legion against Darkseid.  After finally being defeated in Legion of Super-Heroes #294 (December 1982), the lord of Apokolips offered a parting taunt:

“I leave you my curse, Legionnaires… the curse of darkness growing within you, destroying you from within… and that which is purest of you shall be the first to go!”

About a decade and a half ago, when I picked up the back issues comprising “The Great Darkness Saga,” I had no idea what Darkseid’s curse as supposed to be or if Levitz (or any other writer) had ever followed up on it.  But then a few years later DC reissued the trade paperback collection, which also included Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3 (1984), which was titled “The Curse.”

Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl are preparing for the birth of their child.  Meanwhile, on Sorcerers World, a group of Legionnaires are attempting to prevent followers of the evil sorcerer Mordru from reviving their master.  During the ritual, a shroud of darkness spreads all across the United Planets, including Medicus One, where Saturn Girl is going into labor.  Back on Sorcerers World, the Legion defeats Mordru’s servants, and the darkness dissipates.

Saturn Girl gives birth to a healthy baby boy.  However, she is a bit puzzled.  She was expecting two children, because on Lightning Lad’s home world of Winath, something like 99.999% of pregnancies result in twins.  And although Saturn Girl comments that twins are very rare on Titan, where she comes from, she then adds:

“It’s funny, though, when he was still inside me, I felt sure my telepathy was picking up baby thoughts sometimes, and I could have sworn I felt two separate babies’ thought patterns.”

And then we get to the final two pages of the Annual.  We discover that Saturn Girl did give birth to twins but, during the fall of darkness, Darkseid secretly transported away one of the newborns.

“They’ll never know that I have taken you… and if they had, they could not dream of what I shall do to you. You shall change, oh, change so much that they shall never recognize you. You will be mighty… but always in the cause of the darkness in which you were born. I consign you to the past, back through the years so that you shall meet them full grown before you have even been born. They shall never know you, child, or you them. And who knows, my little Validus, perhaps some day your own parents may even kill you? Thus is my curse fulfilled!”

Legion annual 2 pg 3

Yes, that’s right: Darkseid stole away one of the twin sons of Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl at the moment of his birth, so that they had no idea he existed.  The dark god then transported him back in time, in the process also mutating him into the tortured monstrosity Validus, who would become one of the Legion’s greatest enemies.  And he did so hoping that one day Validus would be slain in battle by his own parents, without their ever knowing who they had actually killed.

As I said, Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

I later found out that, in the years before all of this had been written, amongst early Legion fandom, there had been some speculation about just who or what Validus really was.  His unusual power of mental lightning had given at least one reader the idea that somehow perhaps it could be the son of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, who had been a couple in the series for a long time, and who a lot of readers hoped would eventually marry & have children.  Levitz decided to run with this theory, giving it the horrifying twist of all being caused by Darkseid.

After I read “The Curse” I was in shock.  Once again, I had no damn clue if this was ever resolved anywhere.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I came across a copy of Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 3 Annual #2 (1986).  The dynamic cover by Steve Lightle featured Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Validus, with the dramatic blurb “Darkseid’s Curse Fulfilled?”  This had to be it!

legion-annual-2-pg-4

“Child of Darkness, Child of Light” is written by Levitz, with artwork by veteran Legion artist Curt Swan (who drew Validus’ debut two decades earlier), as well as a prologue & epilogue penciled by Keith Giffen.  The issue opens with a flashback to Validus’ shocking origin, his transformation at the hands of Darkseid.  It then leaps forward two years.  Validus has inexplicably reappeared.  He is seemingly attacking planets at random, moving freely through space via Boom Tubes generated by the mad Daxamite teenager Ol-Vir, who worships Darkseid.

It turns out that Validus is following the telepathic trail of his twin brother Graym, without consciously realizing who he is searching for.  This eventually leads Validus and Ol-Vir to Winath, where Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad are vacationing with Graym.  The titanic Validus seizes the tiny infant.  Lightning Lad believes his son is about to be killed by this terrifying being, and is ready to use lethal force to prevent this.  For a moment, it really does look like Darkseid’s hope of manipulating Lightning Lad into unwitting infanticide is really going to succeed.  However, Saturn Girl, who had tried to use her telepathy to make contact with Validus and calm him down, finally realizes that he is her lost son.

With the shadow of Darkseid towering over the landscape, Saturn Girl demands, and then pleads, with the lord of Apokolips to restore her son to normal.  And Darkseid, who is a god and wishes to be worshiped, actually agrees, and shows mercy.  Validus is transformed back into a healthy, human baby boy.  As Levitz’s narration explains:

“One jest has failed, yet another may serve. Let the children live, if the mother is wise enough to acknowledge the power of the darkness.”

Legion annual 2 pg 37

I have to admit, Swan draws the hell out of this sequence.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his style, although I definitely recognize that he was a very solid artist who did good, dependable work  at DC for decades.  But his storytelling here is just amazing.  The sight of Saturn Girl, at first defiantly standing up to Darkseid, and then giving in to her grief and falling to her knees, with his shadow looming over her, is extremely well “directed,” driving home the dramatic impact of Levitz’s scripting.

Legion Annual #2 is, I think, among the high points of Levitz’s mammoth eight year run on the series in the 1980s.  As with so much of his other great writing, it contains both awesome spectacles and moments of genuine, moving characterization & emotion.  It also demonstrates what sets Levitz apart from many of his peers.  After running Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and their children through an emotional gauntlet, he shows that there can be a happy ending.  Yes, there is great darkness (no pun intended) but there is also light and life.  It is a quality to his writing on Legion of Super-Heroes that has been consistent throughout the many incarnations of the team he has chronicled, that has made his work so poignant and enjoyable.

How I learned to love the Legion

Back Issue #68, the most recent edition of the excellent magazine edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows, took an in-depth look at the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 80s, topped with vintage 1973 art by the late, great Dave Cockrum.  I really enjoyed it, and was inspired to write about how I myself became a fan of these champions of justice from a thousand years in the future.  In comparison to some readers who have been fans of the Legion for many decades, I’m a relative newcomer.  And it was a rather long, convoluted road that led me to becoming a devotee.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.
The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, I was almost exclusively into Marvel.  I’d pick up an issue published by DC here or there but, really, Marvel was my thing.  Then, in 1989, the Tim Burton Batman movie came out and, with the massive accompanying hype, I began picking up a few of the actual comics.  I enjoyed those Batman stories, and quickly moved on to the Superman books, buying the then-current issues by such talents as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, as well as catching up on the recent John Byrne stories via back issues.  Those, in turn, led me to several other DC books including Legion of Super-Heroes.

Let me be honest: 1990 was probably not an ideal time for a virtual newcomer to the DCU to pick up the Legion cold.  The title was still experiencing the aftershocks of Crisis of Infinite Earths (you can see my blog post “Should Superman Kill?” for a rundown on the entire Pocket Universe retcon of Superboy and the Legion’s history).  In addition, a new Legion ongoing had recently started.  Helmed by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Keith Giffen and Al Gordon, this book had leaped forward half a decade into the future from the end of the previous volume.  During that gap the Legion had disbanded & scattered across the galaxy, the United Planets had been plunged into a massive economic depression, and EarthGov had been covertly taken over by the alien Dominators.  So even though I did rather enjoy the handful of Legion issues that I picked up around that time, I had a lot of difficulty figuring out who was who and what was what.

As I would find out years later, it also did not help that there were behind-the-scenes creative conflicts, with the editors of Superman laying down edicts that Superboy could not be referred to any longer, and neither could Supergirl, and a bunch of other stuff.  Editors Mark Waid & Michael Eury (yep, him again), Giffen, Gordon and the Bierbaums did their best to come up with ways to work around all this, such as substituting Mon-El for Superboy and creating the character of Laurel Gand to take Supergirl’s place in the Legion’s history (for a detailed rundown on all of this, check out the excellent article “Too Much Time On My Hands: The History of the Time Trapper” by Jim Ford in Back Issue #68).

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!
Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

One source of information that assisted me immensely was the latest edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe which was edited by a certain Mr. Eury.  There were a large number of entries for Legion characters in that 16 issue incarnation of Who’s Who, and it really helped me figure out up from down.

Anyway, all the various tortured retcons eventually caused the entire Legion history to be totally rebooted from scratch.  And then several years later it got rebooted again.  None of this did anything to motivate me to follow the series regularly.

So what finally did make me a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes?  It was two gentlemen by the names of Dave Cockrum and Jack Kirby.

Dave Cockrum is nowadays best known for co-creating the “All-New All-Different X-Men” with Len Wein in 1975, and then going on to pencil two runs on the series, paired with writer Chris Claremont.  Back in the 1990s, Dave and his wife Paty lived in upstate New York, and so I often would see them at local conventions & store signings.  I became a huge fan of Cockrum’s work and, in the process, I learned that right before he came over to Marvel to revamp X-Men, he had had a short but extremely influential stint on Superboy, a title which in the early 1970s was the home of the Legion as a back-up feature.

In 2000, DC published Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume 10, which reprinted the majority of Cockrum’s work on the series.  I picked it up, and I instantly fell in love.  It was immediately apparent that Cockrum had really played a crucial role in reviving the Legion.  If you look at the first few stories in that Archives volume, the ones written by E. Nelson Bridwell & Cary Bates and drawn by George Tuska, they’re decent and entertaining, but nothing especially memorable.

Then Cockrum comes along, paired with Bates, and over the next few stories you can see a real shift.  Cockrum started to draw the Legion members as slightly older, so that they were in their late teens, and he designed new uniforms for them, ones that were more fashionable & risqué.  You could almost say he sexed up the Legion, although by today’s standards what he did is quite mild & innocent.  (My favorite was Cockrum’s costume design for Phantom Girl, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to get a nice sketch of Tinya by him.)  Cockrum revamped the technology, the look of the future, drawing a lot of inspiration from Star Trek.  Cockrum’s art also contained this energy and dynamic quality.  He really knew how to tell a compelling story, to draw exciting layouts and detailed sequences featuring multiple characters.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum.
Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum. (Click to enlarge!)

Cockrum may have got me to pick up that hardcover collection, but it was Bates’ writing that really hooked me.  He did an amazing job scripting the numerous members of the Legion, making them seem like real people who were teammates and friends and occasionally romantic partners.  I really got invested in this group of super-powered pals.

Cockrum’s stay wasn’t very long, lasting from 1972 to 1974, but by the time he left, the team had taken over the covers of Superboy, and the book was unofficially titled “Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes.”  Cockrum’s replacement was newcomer Mike Grell.  I enjoyed Volume 10 of the Archives so much, I picked up the next one, which has the beginning of Grell’s run, paired with both Bates and Jim Shooter on writing duties.  Obviously Grell has grown by immense leaps & bounds since the mid-1970s, but even back then you could see a great deal of talent & potential in his wonderful Legion art.

I also mentioned Jack Kirby.  As far as I know, the King of Comics never drew the Legion.  However, one of his most significant creations would play a major role in the annals of the team’s lore, courtesy of Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen.

“The Great Darkness Saga” originally ran in Legion of Super-Heroes #290-294, published in 1982.  A mysterious, shadowy “Master” and his “Servants” are ravaging the United Planets, stealing various objects & sources of mystical power, in the process even taking down longtime Legion foes Mordru and the Time Trapper.  After four issues in which the Legion has been beaten back by these mysterious beings, the identity of the “Master” is finally revealed: Darkseid, lord of Apokolips.  Using the immense magical energies he has stolen, Darkseid teleports the planet Daxam to a yellow star and seizes mental control of its now-superhuman occupants, giving him an army of a billion beings with the strength & abilities of Superman.  What follows is a titanic battle across the whole of the galaxy, as the Legion calls in practically every single one of their reserve members & allies to try and halt Darkseid & his enslaved pawns.

Darkseid’s identity was well-hidden back when “The Great Darkness Saga” was first published.  In hindsight, you can see that Levitz & Giffen sprinkled in several clues for those who were really paying attention.  Of course nowadays Darkseid’s role is very well known.  So, as a huge fan of Kirby’s New Gods, I was absolutely interested in reading this now-classic story in which Darkseid was the villain.  “The Great Darkness Saga” was definitely an epic adventure.  At the same time, Levitz invested his script with a number of personal, quiet moments and pieces of characterization.  Once again, I really got interested in these people, in finding out more about them.

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!
Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

“The Great Darkness Saga” had not one, but two, epilogues, which appeared in Legion Annual #3 (1984) and Annual #2 (1986)… the series restarted with a new #1 in-between these two, which explains that odd numbering!  Having failed in his quest for universal domination, Darkseid sought to achieve a more personal, hurtful victory.  And what he did was genuinely horrifying.  But more on that (hopefully) in a future installment!

In any case, between the work of Cockrum, Grell & Bates in the 1970s and “The Great Darkness Saga” by Levitz & Giffen in the early 1980s, I really became interested in Legion.  I picked up several of the previous Archive editions, which contained the work of Edmond Hamilton, John Forte, Curt Swan, and a very young Jim Shooter.  I also searched out many of the Legion issues that Levitz wrote in the 1980s working with artists Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque.  It was all really good stuff.  And when the pre-Crisis continuity of the Legion was more or less restored several years back, I picked up the new stories by Levitz and Geoff Johns.  But, again, I’ll talk about that another time.

Silver Age artist Nick Cardy, who recently passed away, had a brief connection to the Legion.  In addition to his runs illustrating Aquaman, Bat Lash, and Teen Titans, Cardy created stunning, dramatic covers for numerous DC titles throughout the 1960s and 70s, including Superboy.  This meant that once the Legion took over as the regular cover feature in 1973, Cardy had the opportunity to draw the heroes of the 30th Century.  And he did so beautifully, composing a number of striking images for the title, until Grell took over the cover chores two years later.  Probably my favorite Legion cover by Cardy is Superboy #203.  He does a superb job, depicting the menacing Validus looming over the unsuspecting Legionnaires.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.
Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Within that comic, behind Cardy’s fantastic cover, was “Massacre by Remote Control.”  This featured the tragic death of Invisible Kid, who sacrificed himself to save his teammates from the near-mindless monstrosity Validus.  It’s a very moving, emotional story by Bates & Grell.

And that, in turn, goes back to why I’ve come to be such a fan of the Legion.  Writers such as Bates and Shooter and Levitz really had the ability to get readers to care for the characters in the series.  Over the decades, those characters have grown and developed, been in and out of relationships, seen great triumphs and terrible failures.  And sometimes, sadly, members of the Legion would fall in battle, such as what happened to Invisible Kid, or when Shooter & Swan showed us Ferro Lad bravely giving his life to stop the apocalyptic menace of the Sun-Eater.  When incidents like this happened, it really did affect the reader.  It’s no wonder that the Legion has such an amazingly dedicated fanbase.

Fury of Firestorm #9 and the problem of making comic books accessible to new readers

There are two things that I really do not like about current mainstream superhero comic books, both of which I’ve mentioned in the past.  The first is decompressed plotting.  The second, which I am going to go into more detail today, is that the scripting on many series is simply not “new reader friendly.”

On more than one occasion, former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter has commented that every issue of a comic book series is someone’s first.  Therefore each issue should contain enough information so that a new reader can quickly get up to speed.  Whatever you may think of Shooter, his is a valid point, one I firmly agree with.  I do not necessarily think you need two or three pages recapping previous issues, as typically was done in the past.  But a few narrative captions or lines of dialogue certainly would not hurt matters.  Regrettably, very few writers currently utilize this technique, and most editors do little to encourage them.

In other words, if someone were to randomly pick up an issue of any title currently published by DC or Marvel that they had never read before, there is a good chance that it would be difficult for that person to figure out what exactly is going on.  This problem really presented itself in The Fury of Firestorm: The Nuclear Men #9, which came out last week.

I picked up Fury of Firestorm #9 due to it crossing over with Justice League International #9, a title I have been reading regularly.  Firestorm, in contrast, is a character I’ve never been especially interested in.  The only time I ever followed the series was when Jamal Igle was penciling it several years ago.  So I was coming to this new Fury of Firestorm series without any knowledge about the characters’ current status quo post-Flashpoint.  In other words, FOF #9 really needed to be one of those “new reader friendly” books that I’m talking about.  Unfortunately, it was not.

Fury of Firestorm #9: at least it has a nice cover

FOF #9 is co-plotted by Ethan Van Sciver & Joe Harris, with the script by Harris.  Considering that the story was continued from the pages of JLI #9, I feel that Van Sciver & Harris, in writing this issue, should have kept in mind that some brand-new readers, such as myself, would be picking up FOF for the first time.  The script by Harris could have  informed readers who these characters are, given some background information, perhaps briefly recapped their origins.  This would not have been unduly awkward exposition, because the members of the Justice League have never met the Firestorms before.  So it would make perfect sense for Booster Gold and Batman to be asking these guys to explain who they were.

Harris, however, passed up this chance to introduce the book’s cast via the device of explaining it to the League.  So we have a group of atomic-powered superhumans fighting it out in Paris, and I am not really sure who any of them are.  In addition, there were a couple of brief scenes that took place somewhere in the Middle East involving two characters.  One was apparently Ronnie Raymond, who I remember as the original Firestorm from way back when.  The other…. well, he is not named.  I was totally in the dark about what was going on with them.

I feel Van Sciver & Harris missed a perfect opportunity to make Fury of Firestorm #9 a jumping-on point for the series.  Instead, I found much of the story to be confusing.  That’s too bad, because I was open to trying the series.  After all, I recall that when I picked up Blackhawks mid-run, I was in the dark about what was going on, but the writing by Mike Costa was both interesting and comprehensible enough to hook me, which led to me picking up the entire eight issue run.  Paul Levitz always does an excellent job at introducing the large cast and multiple subplots of Legion of Super-Heroes each issue.  In contrast, at least as far as the writing goes, there wasn’t anything in FOF #9 that made me especially intrigued to continue following the book.

Trust me, I don’t enjoy writing negative reviews like this.  Ethan Van Sciver is an incredible artist (also, I’ve also met him at conventions on a few occasions, and he seems like a nice guy).  Indeed, his cover artwork for FOF #9 is stunning.  Likewise, the interior artwork from Yildiray Cinar, Marlo Alquiza, and Norm Rapmund is equally good.  So it’s a real shame that the writing by Van Sciver & Harris did not match that high standard.

Not to single out Fury of Firestorm #9.  This particular comic book just seems to epitomize for me a problem emblematic of much of the industry.  I really feel it is one of the major reasons why comic book sales have continued to decline year after year.