The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Seven

The challenge: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.  I chose “coffee.” From the work of how many comic book artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I post these daily on Facebook, and collect them together here.

31) Rich Buckler & Joe Sinnott

“The Mind of the Monster” from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, penciled by Rich Buckler, inked by Joe Sinnott, written by Gerry Conway, lettered by Artie Simek, and colored by Petra Goldberg, published by Marvel Comics with a May 1974 cover date.

The Incredible Hulk leaps into Manhattan and passes out in a deserted alley.  Transforming back into Bruce Banner, the cursed scientist heads over to the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters, hoping Reed Richards can find a cure for his condition.  Only Ben Grimm, the Thing, is home, but he welcomes Bruce, telling him “Guy’s like us’ve gotta stick together.”

The Thing asks the frazzled Banner “Ya want some java?”  A grateful Banner accepts, and the Thing brews him a cup of coffee using some weird-looking Kirby-tech.  “Don’t look at me, Banner — it’s one’a Stretcho’s dohickeys.”  Yeah, leave it to Reed Richards to take something as simple as a coffee maker and transform it into a ridiculously complicated device!

The Think lets slip that Reed was recently working on a “psi-amplifier” to restore his lost humanity.  An eager Banner decides that with a few modifications the device can cure both of them in one shot.  Unfortunately they don’t wait for Reed to return before proceeding with the experiment, and of course something goes wrong.  Next thing you know, we have another epic battle between the Hulk and the Thing, but with a twist: the Thing’s mind is in the body of the Hulk, and vise versa.  Hilarity ensues… hilarity and several million dollars worth of property damage.

As explained by editor Roy Thomas in a text piece, Giant-Size Super-Stars was a monthly oversized title that would rotate through three features: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Conan the Barbarian.  After this issue was released Marvel changed their plans.  Spider-Man and Conan both received their own quarterly Giant-Size series, and Giant-Size Super-Stars also became quarterly, renamed Giant-Size Fantastic Four with issue #2.

The creators behind “The Mind of the Monster” were the regular Fantastic Four team: writer Gerry Conway, penciler Rich Buckler, and inker Joe Sinnott.  They all do good work on this entertaining tale of swapped identities and smashed buildings.  Buckler does a fine job showing via facial expressions and body language that the Thing and the Hulk have switched bodies.  Longtime FF inker Sinnott does his usual great work finishing the art.

32) Rick Burchett 

Presenting a double dose of caffeinated cliffhangers starring those two-fisted aviators the Blackhawks!  Action Comics Weekly #632 is cover-dated December 1987, and Blackhawk #2 is cover-dated April 1989.  Both stories are by the creative team of artist Rick Burchett, writer Martin Pasko, letterer Steve Haynie, and colorist Tom Ziuko, published by DC Comics.

I was sad to hear that longtime comic book writer Martin Pasko had passed away on May 10th at the age of 65.  Among the numerous characters Pasko worked on was the revamp of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.  Pasko chronicled the aviation adventures of Janos Prohaska and Co in serials published in Action Comics Weekly, and then in an all-too-short lived Blackhawk ongoing series.

Pasko was paired with the great, underrated artist Rick Burchett.  I’ve always enjoyed Burchett’s art.  His style is simultaneously cartoony yet possessed of a sort of gritty verisimilitude (I hope I’m articulating that in an accurate manner).  Pasko & Burchett chronicled the Blackhawk’s post World War II adventures which saw the ace pilots becoming embroiled in the Cold War anti-Communist activities of the newly-formed CIA.

Within the pages of the Action Comics Weekly #632, the Blackhawks have been tasked with transporting chemist Constance Darabont to West Berlin to pick up an experimental batch of LSD.  Unfortunately for Prosahka and his team Constance is murdered in Berlin and replaced by Nazi war criminal Gretchen Koblenz.  On the flight back the diabolical Gretchen spikes the Blackhawks’ coffee with the LSD, pulling a gun on Olaf Friedriksen when her deadly ruse is discovered!

Blackhawk #2 ends on a much less life-threatening note, but certainly one that is just as dramatic.  Over morning coffee Janos and the Blackhawks’ assistant director Mairzey ponder the current whereabouts of the missing Natalie Reed, as well as wondering what will become of Natalie’s infant son.  Mairzey tells Janos that she has been considering adopting the baby.  Suddenly an unidentified figure enters the room and announces “I was always afraid to tell you this before… but I’m the father of Natalie’s baby…”

(Cue melodramatic music!!!)

The Blackhawk serials written by Grell & Pasko and drawn by Burchett were among the best material to run in Action Comics Weekly.  I’m happy they’ve finally been collected together with the excellent Blackhawk miniseries by Chaykin.  Hopefully a second collected edition will reprint the ongoing series by Pasko & Burchett.

33) Jack Davis

Today’s art comes from “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” in The Haunt of Fear #21, drawn by Jack Davis, written by Al Feldstein & Bill Gaines, lettered by Jim Wroten, and colored by Marie Severin, published by EC Comics with a Sept-Oct 1953 cover date.

When I was a kid I preferred the sci-fi stories from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, but as I got older I developed a taste for EC’s horror titles.  I guess my dry, offbeat sense of humor came to align more closely with EC’s macabre pun-cracking horror hosts.

“Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is the story of Ulric the Undying, who makes his fortune staging very public, very violent deaths from which he miraculously recovers each time.  In a flashback, we see that Ulric was previously a nameless bum on skid row who was approached by Dr. Emil Manfred.  Over a cup of coffee, Manfred claimed that he had discovered the secret of a cat’s nine lives, and offered to surgically transplant that ability into the bum, with the end goal of gaining wealth & fame.  Manfred is successful and “Ulric the Undying” is created, but this being an EC horror story, of course things eventually take a very nasty turn for all involved.

Jack Davis was a frequent contributor to EC’s horror anthologies, illustrating many of their most famous, or perhaps infamous, stories.  Davis was certainly adept at creating moody atmospheres perfectly suited to Al Feldstein’s scripts.  His artwork was also appeared regularly in EC’s satirical comic books Mad and Panic.  Following the demise of EC’s comic book line he drew trading cards for Topps.  From the 1960s onward David, who was renowned for his caricatures, did a great deal of advertising work, movie posters and magazine covers.  He passed away in 2016 at the age of 91.

34) Ross Andru & Frank Giacoia

Amazing Spider-Man #184, penciled by Ross Andru, inked by Frank Giacoia, written & edited by Marv Wolfman, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Glynis Wein, published by Marvel Comics with a September 1978 cover date.

I recently learned of this storyline thanks to Brian Cronin of Comic Book Resources.  In the previous issue Peter Parker had asked Mary Jane Watson to marry him, but she turned him down.  A despondent Peter returned home, only to discover someone was waiting for him in his apartment!  On the splash page of this issue, we discover who: Betty Brant, secretary to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and Peter’s girlfriend from way back when.  Betty, who is all glammed up, has let herself into Peter’s apartment and made herself a cup of coffee to await his return.  Now that he’s home, Betty greets him with a very warm welcome.

There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem here: Betty married Ned Leeds a few weeks earlier, and she is supposed to be in Europe with him on their honeymoon.

Yeah, that’s the old Parker luck at work, all right.  You propose to the woman you love but she turns you down, and when you return home you find your recently-married ex-girlfriend has broken into your place, raided your supply of coffee, and is looking to have a fling with you.  Oy vey!

The subplot of Betty attempting to hook up with Peter, and Peter being very tempted in spite of that whole “just married” thing, went on for nearly a year.  I’m sure it comes as no surprise that it all ends badly for poor Peter.

Penciling this tale of torrid emotions and pilfered caffeine is veteran comic book artist Ross Andru.  After two decades of working for DC Comics on such titles as Wonder Woman, G.I. Combat, The Flash and Metal Men (the last which he co-created with writer Robert Kanigher), Andru came to Marvel in 1971.  He penciled Amazing Spider-Man for five years, from 1973 to 1978; this was one of his last issues.  Andru is paired here with well-regarded inker Frank Giacoia, who had previously embellished ASM during the early part of Andru’s half-decade run.

35) Alex Saviuk & Al Wlliamson

Web of Spider-Man #91, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Al Williamson, written by Howard Mackie, lettered by Rick Parker, and colored by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1992 cover date.

Following up on our last entry, it’s another Spider-Man page featuring Peter Parker, Betty Brant, coffee and… oh no, Betty’s throwing herself at Peter again, isn’t she?

Okay, what’s actually going on here is that Betty has been working undercover on a story for the Daily Bugle.  She’s investigating the organization belonging to the international assassin the Foreigner, the man behind the murder of her husband Ned Leeds.  When Betty happens to run into Peter in the street she locks lips with him and drags him into a nearby diner so that she can give him the information she’s been collecting to pass on to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson.  Unfortunately the people who are following Betty see through her ruse and attack the coffee shop.  What follows is Spider-Man spending the rest of the issue trading blows with a pair of the Foreigner’s armored goons in the java joint, which of course gets demolished.  I hope the owners had their insurance premiums paid up!

Betty had spent a long time after her husband’s death traumatized & vulnerable.  This was the beginning of a new direction for her, as she quit being Jonah’s secretary, became more assertive, and began a career as an investigative journalist for the Bugle.

The pencils are by Alex Saviuk, a really good artist who had a long run on Web of Spider-Man, from 1988 to 1994.  I think Saviuk’s seven year stint on often gets overlooked because this was at the same time McFarlane, Larsen and Bagley were also drawing the character, and with their more dynamic, flashy styles they consequently receiving more attention.  That is a shame, because Saviuk turned in solid, quality work on Web of Spider-Man.  I enjoyed his depiction of the character.

As we can see from this page, Saviuk was also really good at rendering the soap opera and non-costumed sequences that are part-and-parcel of Peter Parker’s tumultuous personal life.

The Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part One

On the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, moderator Jim Thompson issued a “Call to Arms” to occupy and cheer up those of us who are working from home or unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic.  The challenge: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject until May 1st (if not longer).

Jim had already been posting his 1000 Horses series for the past three years, each day showcasing artwork featuring a horse drawn by a different artist.  Group member Mitchell Brown has done several shorter themes, most recently “My Enemy, Myself” featuring “evil twin” stories.

Mitchell sometimes collects together some of these FB posts on his entertaining & informative blog, the appropriately named A Dispensable List of Comic Book Lists.  That inspired me to do the same with my blog.  Here is the first installment in the Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.

cat and coffee

1) Shannon Wheeler

Let’s start off with the obvious choice: Too Much Coffee Man by Shannon WheelerToo Much Coffee Man first appeared as a self-published mini comic in 1991.  In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker, Wheeler explained the origins of the series:

“In 1991, I drew an autobiographical cartoon for The Daily Texan with themes of alienation and loneliness. When I described it, people’s eyes glazed over. As a cheap gag, I started “Too Much Coffee Man.” I still address the same themes, except now there’s coffee. People like coffee.”

That’s certainly true.  I’m drinking coffee at this very moment, right as I’m typing this sentence.

From such humble beginnings, Too Much Coffee Man has been in near-continuous publication for almost three decades.  The series has enabled Wheeler to humorously explore existential angst, the lunacy of American society, and the dangers of overindulging in caffeine.

Here is Too Much Coffee Man living up to his name on page two of the story “TMCM vs. TM©M” which sees a ruthless corporate executive shamelessly steal our protagonist’s name & imagery, and then hit him with a cease & desist order.  In the battle of indy original versus big business rip-off, who will win? (Hey, maybe Mitchell Brown can do a “My Enemy, Myself” entry about this story!)

“TMCM vs. TM©M” first appeared in Too Much Coffee Man #1 published by Adhesive Press in July 1993.  I read the story in the Too Much Coffee Man’s Parade of Tirade trade paperback released by Dark Horse in November 1999, which reprinted the first eight issues of the Adhesive Press run.  The story, and a whole bunch of other caffeinated goodness, can also be found in the Too Much Coffee Man Omnibus published by Dark Horse in 2011, with an expanded edition in 2017.

Too Much Coffee Man

2) Dan Jurgens & Al Vey

This artwork is from Common Grounds #5 from Image Comics, cover-dated June 2004. Script is by Troy Hickman, pencils by Dan Jurgens, inks by Al Vey, letters by the Dreamer’s Design team, and colors by Guy Major.  I’m going to quote from my own previous blog post about Common Grounds

Published by the Top Cow imprint of Image Comics in 2004, Common Grounds was a six issue miniseries written by Troy Hickman, with contributions from a number of extremely talented artists.  It initially began life as a mini comic titled Holey Crullers that Hickman had worked on with Jerry Smith a few years before.  Common Grounds was set around a nationwide chain of coffee shops that were frequented by costumed heroes & villains, a sort of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts for super-humans.  The various Common Grounds stores serve as “neutral territory” where both crime-fighters and criminals can gather peaceably to enjoy a cup of joe and some doughnuts.

Hickman and his artistic collaborators introduce a cast who, on the surface, are expies for famous DC and Marvel characters.  Hickman utilizes these to both pay homage to and deconstruct various storytelling structures and devices of the superhero genre.  What I like about how Hickman goes about this is that he does so with a surprising lack of sarcasm or mockery.  All of his jibes are of the good-natured sort, and he takes equal aim at the implausible silliness of the early Silver Age and the grim & gritty trappings of more recent decades.  Common Grounds is simultaneously extremely funny and very poignant & serious.

I’m fairly confident I’ll be featuring work from some of the other Common Grounds art teams in future installments! It’s definitely due for another re-read.

Common Grounds 5 pg 8

3) Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott

If you’re going to talk comic books, sooner or later (probably sooner) you’re going to have to discuss Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  Whatever the specific division of labor was (and all these decades it’s almost impossible to determine that precisely) the two of them working together in the 1960s created the majority of the Marvel Universe.

It all started in August 1961 with the Fantastic Four, a group who right from the start were characterized as much by their all-too-human disagreements as their super-powers.  And no one was more dysfunctional than the gruff Ben Grimm, aka the Thing, who had been transformed by cosmic radiation into a monster.

Early on Ben Grimm very much straddled the line between hero and villain, and in those first few issues the rest of the FF found themselves wondering if the Thing, consumed by anger & self-loathing, might violently turn on them.  However, the Thing gradually evolved into a character who was both gruff & comedic.  We see one of the first hints of that here, in this scene from Fantastic Four #5, cover-dated July 1962.  Ben is attempting to enjoy a cup of coffee, only to get razzed by literal hothead the Human Torch.

This is one of those pages that really makes me appreciate Kirby.  I love the panel with the Thing holding the cup of coffee.  This was when he still looked like orange oatmeal, very much a horribly disfigured individual, before he evolved into the almost cartoony orange brick form we are all familiar with. There’s this simultaneous humor and tragedy in that panel, as Ben Grimm, now this huge, grotesque figure, is almost daintily holding that coffee cup & saucer, a very human gesture, and a reminder of what he once was, and longs to be again.

Inks are by Joe Sinnott, his first time working on FF.  Lee wanted Sinnott to become the regular inker, but soon after Sinnott received the assignment of drawing the biography of Pope John XXIII for Treasure Chest.  Sinnott had inked about half a page of Kirby’s pencils for the next issue when he got the Treasure Chest job, and so had to mail the art back to Lee, who then assigned it to Dick Ayers.  Sinnott fortunately got another opportunity work on the series in 1965, commencing with issue #44, and for the rest of the 1960s did a superb job inking Kirby.  Sinnott remained on FF for the 15 years, inking / embellishing over several pencilers.

In a case of Early Installment Weirdness, we see the Torch reading an issue of The Incredible Hulk #1, which in the real world had come out two months earlier.  It seems at this point in time Lee & Kirby had not quite decided if the Hulk occupied the same fictional universe as the FF.

Fantastic Four 5 pg 2

4) Werner Roth & John Tartaglione

X-Men #31, cover-dated April 1967, was penciled by Werner Roth and inked by John Tartaglione. “We Must Destroy… the Cobalt Man!” was written by Roy Thomas.

X-Men in the 1960s was a title of, um, variable quality.  Series creators Lee & Kirby both left fairly early on, and newcomer Roy Thomas sometimes struggled to find a successful direction for the book.  Thomas was paired with penciler Werner Roth, who did good, solid work… but regrettably did not possess a certain dynamic quality necessary for Marvel-style superheroes.  Also, I’m not sure if Tartaglione’s inks were an especially good fit for Roth’s pencils.

Roth was, however very well-suited to drawing romance, war and Westerns comic books.  He certainly was adept at rendering lovely ladies, as seen in his exquisite art on Lorna the Jungle Queen in the 1950s, which he inked himself.  So it’s not surprising that some of Roth’s best work on X-Men was when the main cast was in their civilian identities, and the soap-operatic melodrama was flying fast & furious.  Witness the following…

Here we have two different coffee-drinking scenes on one page.  At the top, Scott Summers, Warren Worthington and Jean Grey are hanging out with Ted Roberts and his older brother Ralph at a greasy spoon known as the Never-Say-Diner… really, Roy?!?  Ted was a short-lived rival to Scott for Jean’s affections, and Ralph was (spoilers!) a short-lived villain named the Cobalt Man.  Elsewhere, Hank McCoy and Bobby Drake have taken their dates Vera and Zelda to their semi-regular Greenwich Village hangout, Coffee A Go-Go, where Bernard the Poet is, ahem, “reciting his latest masterpiece.”  The scene closes with Bobby creating the world’s first iced espresso.

X-Men 31 pg 10

5) Joe Staton

This entry is drawn by one of my all-time favorite artists, the amazing Joe Staton.  “Vamfire” is a short story featuring E-Man and Nova Kane, the awesome characters created by Nicola “Nick” Cuti & Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  This story was originally planned for Charlton Bullseye in 1976.  It did not see print until a decade later, in The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser #7 (April 1986) published by First Comics, who had the E-Man rights in the 1980s.

I’ve blogged at length about E-Man on several occasions.  Suffice it to say, it’s an amazing series, with brilliantly humorous & heartfelt writing by Cuti and wonderfully imaginative artwork by Staton.  This six page story introduces E-Man’s negative energy sister Vamfire, a sort of proto bad girl anti-hero who would reappear in later stories.  “Vamfire” also introduces Nick and Joe’s Café, and Staton draws himself and Cuti as the proprietors.  Nick and Joe’s Café would also return in later stories, with the running gag that their coffee was always terrible.  Nevertheless they somehow managed to stay in business, no doubt due to being strategically located near Xanadu Universe in Manhattan, where innumerable sleep-deprived college & graduate students were desperate for a caffeine fix to keep them awake during the school’s interminable lectures.

“Vamfire” was later reprinted in 2011 in the excellent trade paperback E-Man: The Early Years, which collected the entirety of the E-Man stories from the 1970s under one cover.  It is apparently still available through the publisher. I highly recommend it.

E-Man The Early Years pg 207

Thanks for stopping by to sample our fine four-colored espresso.  I hope you will come back again soon when we will have five more examples of Comic Book Coffee from throughout the decades.

 

It Came From the 1990s: NFL SuperPro #6

Tonight is Super Bowl LIV (that’s 54 for you non-Roman types) between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs… and I’m not watching.  Sorry, but football is not my thing. I’ve never been able to figure out the rules of the game, no matter how often I try to watch it.  Besides, I have always found the Super Bowl a real test of endurance, given that it’s a 60 minute game stretched out to four hours by innumerable commercial breaks and a typically-vapid halftime shop.

NFL Superpro JuskoAlso, I am soooo not a fan of the NFL, who have continually tried their hardest to push aside Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice & police brutality, but who are more than happy to make Michael Vick a Pro Bowl caption, in spite of his conviction for running a dog-fighting ring.  Add to that the whole dealing with pot-smokers more harshly than wife-beaters, and the attempts to sweep traumatic brain injuries under the rug, and I have little use for the NFL.  No wonder the rest of the world plays soccer instead!

And now that I have probably managed to get the entirety of football-loving America violently angry at me, let me welcome everyone to another installment of my occasional feature It Came From the 1990s.  This is where I take a look back at various odd, unusual or noteworthy comic books that were published during that decade.  Since today is Super Bowl Sunday, hey, I might as well cast my glance at NFL SuperPro #6.  Published by Marvel Comics, it inadvertently became one of the most controversial comic books of the 1990s.

What was NFL SuperPro about?  I’m a bit lazy, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

“NFL SuperPro was a short-lived comic book series published by Marvel Comics, centered on Phil Grayfield, an ex National Football League (NFL) player who survives a freak accident and wears a near-indestructible football uniform. Produced in collaboration with the NFL and written by Fabian Nicieza and artist Jose Delbo, the series started publication in 1991 and ended after 12 issues.”

The character made his debut in the NFL SuperPro Super Bowl Edition special released by Marvel in January 1991.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this book is the painted cover by the incredible Joe Jusko.  I supposed it’s a toss-up over which was a career highlight for Jusko, painting this cover or the one he did for the Nightcat special.

(Okay, in all seriousness, this is a good reminder that when you are a freelance artist, even one as acclaimed as Jusko, you sometimes need to take on assignment that are a bit, um, unusual, because at the end of the day it’s money in the bank.  Ditto for everyone else who worked on NFL SuperPro, and who were just trying to pay their bills.)NFL SuperPro 6 cover

Several months after the Super Bowl Edition an ongoing NFL SuperPro series was launched which, as indicated above, lasted for a year.  And that brings us to issue #6, cover-dated March 1992.

“The Kachinas Sing of Doom” was written by Buzz Dixon, penciled by Jose Delbo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Evelyn Stein.  The cover was penciled by Rob Tokar & Ron Frenz, with inks by the legendary Joe Sinnott.

Phil Grayfield, in his role as a sports journalist, is doing a story about ice skating champion Laura Eagle when she is attacked by a trio costumed as Hopi kachina figures.  The kachninas, who are armed with such ridiculous weapons as nunchucks and a chainsaw, are ostensibly after Laura because she has turned her back on the Hopi to become an athlete in the “white man’s world.”  However, in a twist straight out of Scooby Doo, the kachinas are actually a group of non-Indians in the employ of corrupt businessman Tyler Gaunt.  Gaunt has his thugs dress up as kachinas in an attempt to discredit a group of Hopi political activists led by Laura’s sister who are opposed to Gaunt opening a casino on their tribal lands.

When this issue was published the real-world Hopi tribe was reportedly very unhappy, and found it offensive.  This almost certainly had to do with the villains dressing as kachinas, which are important figures in the Hopi’s faith.  Even though in this story the kachinas were unmasked as Caucasian villains, it seems likely that, given how frequently Native Americans have been poorly depicted in American popular culture over the decades, the Hopi were just annoyed at elements of their culture & faith being appropriated.  Or perhaps they didn’t like the idea of Laura having traumatic childhood memories of the kachina ceremonies.

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 2

As per both the Recalled Comics website and Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed on Comic Book Resources, Marvel responded to the Hopi’s complaints by pulling the comic from sale.  However, by the time they made the decision the next issue had already shipped to stores, rendering the whole thing a bit meaningless.

The thing I find most surprising about all this was that, if the numbers in the news item seen on Recalled Comics are accurate, NLF SuperPro #6 had a print run of over 70,000 copies.  That’s just insane!  Last year there were issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Batman that sold less copies than that.  Really goes to show just how insanely inflated comic book sales had become in the early 1990s.

By the way, one of the aspects of NFL SuperPro that was often derided by readers was that Phil Grayfield was, to quote Buzz Dixon, “certainly not the sharpest crayon in the box.”  That can certainly be witnessed in this scene from issue #6…

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 13

*Shakes head sadly* Oh, Phil, what are we going to do with you… well, other than bring your comic book to a merciful end in another six issues?

At one point The Chicago Sports Review described NFL SuperPro as “perhaps the worst comic book ever created,” although I don’t think it’s nearly as deserving of such hyperbolic vitriol as some other comics which were more risible or embarrassing.  All these years later I think most comic book fans look back upon it with a shrug of bemusement.

Still, if you were to choose one image to perfectly sum up NFL SuperPro, well, this panel from issue #10 certainly does the trick…

NFL SuperPro head thump

Believe me, Phil, we’re all asking exactly the same thing!

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.

Thor by Joe Sinnott: a birthday present

I never thought I would get a Joe Sinnott sketch. I had met the legendary and talented comic book artist on several occasions, but somehow the opportunity to get artwork from him just never came up. When he announced his retirement earlier this year I figured that was it, whatever chance there might have been had passed.

Earlier this month, on June 8th, my girlfriend Michele Witchipoo had a table at IncrediCon in Middletown NY. I would have gone with her, but our cat Squeaky wasn’t feeling well and we decided I should stay home to keep her company (sadly Squeaky would pass away a week later). Michele took along my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook because a friend of hers who was going wanted to see it, and just in case she met anyone there who might want to do a drawing in it.

Joe Sinnott was going to be a guest at IncrediCon. Michele said she could ask if he was drawing, and if he was she would try to get me a sketch for my birthday. I shrugged and replied “He’s 92 years old and he retired a few months ago. I doubt he’s going to be sketching. But if you want you can ask him.” Michele asked me what character I wanted and I said something like “Thor or anyone from the Fantastic Four.”

A few hours later I get a text from Michele: “You’re getting a Thor sketch.” My jaw hit the floor. I honestly did not expect that Sinnott would be drawing. Then about 15 minutes later she sent me a photo of the sketch. Whoa!!!

Thor sketch by Joe Sinnott

I’m really thrilled to get this. Joe Sinnott inked Jack Kirby’s pencils on the very first Thor story in Journey Into Mystery #83 way back in 1962, and then drew the full art, pencils & inks, for a few more of the early Thor stories in Journey Into Mystery. For most of the 1970s Sinnott was the regular inker on the Thor book, usually over John Buscema’s pencils, but also working with Rich Buckler on several issues, and even on a couple penciled by Neal Adams. Sinnott returned to Thor from 1989 to 1991, this time paired with penciler Ron Frenz.

That was when I first began reading comic books regularly, in 1989. The Tom DeFalco / Ron Frenz run on Thor remains a favorite of mine, especially the issues that were inked / embellished by Sinnott.

The first time I met Sinnott was at a comic book convention at the Westchester County Center in White Plains NY in 1992.  I was in awe at meeting an artist who had worked on so many amazing comic book stories for Marvel Comics over the years.  Sinnott was a very nice, patient, down-to-Earth person who took the time to answer all the questions posed to him by a gushing teenage fan.  I’ve met Sinnott on subsequent occasions and gotten several books autographed by him. Nevertheless, I will always treasure that copy of Thor #414 he signed for me back in 1992.

Thor 414 pg 1

In any case, Sinnott possesses a long, historic association with the character of Thor.  So it’s wonderful to have obtained a sketch of the Norse god of thunder and founding member of the Avengers from him. And, as I said above, when I saw the piece he drew in my sketchbook I was seriously in awe. At 92 years old Sinnott is still an incredible artist. The detailed pencil work on this piece is amazing. Also, I like how Sinnott added birds (seagulls?) in the sky behind Thor in this sketch. Nice subtle bit that adds a little atmosphere to it.

Today is my actual birthday. So, once again, a very big “thank you” to Michele for this birthday present, to Joe Sinnott for the wonderful sketch, and to Joe’s son Mark Sinnott for all his help in making it happen.

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott retires at age 92

This week longtime comic book artist Joe Sinnott announced his retirement, bringing an official end to a career that spanned nearly seven decades, from 1950 to 2019.

With the recent passing of Marvel Comics writer & editor Stan Lee, the decision was made to bring down the curtain on the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip that he had been scripting since 1977.  The 92 year old Sinnott, who has been inking the Sunday installments of the newspaper strip since 1992, decided this would be an appropriate time to formally retire.

Spider-Man final Sunday strip

Here is the Sunday March 17th installment of the newspaper strip.  As I understand it, this was written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Joe Sinnott, and lettered by Janice Chiang.  It’s a pleasant coda to the comic strip continuity with Peter and Mary-Jane Parker departing for a vacation in Australia.  Since this is the wrap-up of the strip, I think we can safely assume that for once Peter and MJ will actually have a nice, relaxing time, and no super-villains will be following them Down Under.

Y’know, it’s funny… when the news broke that Sinnott was at long last calling it a day, the very first thing that popped into my mind was that he actually began the process of retiring back in 1991.

Sinnott’s last monthly assignment for Marvel Comics was Thor, inking / finishing the pencils of Ron Frenz for two and a half years, from issues #400 to #429.  A few months after Sinnott’s final Thor issue, in the letters page of #433 (cover-dated June 1991), Frenz wrote a heartfelt tribute to his collaborator.  Frenz explained that Sinnott was taking “his first steps towards a well-won and laurelled retirement.”

Thor 433 lettercol

Well, it appears that Sinnott really enjoyed drawing, and possessed a genuine love for comic books, because it took him until now to finally retire.  During the past 27 years, in addition to inking the Sunday installments of the Spider-Man strip, Sinnott contributed to several projects, among them the Marvel: Heroes & Legends special, the Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Comic Magazine miniseries, a pair of Untold Tales of Spider-Man annuals, and Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure.

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure was published in 2008.  It reconstructed & completed the long-lost “final” FF story that Kirby plotted & penciled way back in 1970 right before he departed Marvel for DC Comics.  Nearly four decades later Stan Lee finally wrote the script for this story.  Joe Sinnott’s embellishments had been an absolutely perfect match for the Fantastic Four stories Kirby penciled in the mid-1960s, so of course he was the first and only choice to ink this special.

FF The Lost Adventure pg 1

It was always a pleasure to see Sinnott’s occasional returns to the comic book biz over the past two and a half decades.  I regard him as one of the all-time greatest inkers / finishers in the history of the medium.  His stellar work inking Kirby was just one part of his career.  Over the decades Sinnott did superb work over numerous other pencilers, among them John Buscema, Rich Bucker, George Perez, Ron Wilson, John Byrne, and Ron Frenz.

Over the past decade Sinnott has also been very involved in Bob Almond’s Inkwell Awards.  The “hall of fame” award the Inkwells give out is named, appropriately enough, the Sinnott.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott at comic book conventions several times over the years.  I can definitely tell you that his talent is matched by his kindness.  Each time I met him he came across as polite, enthusiastic and gracious.

hawthornecon09

Above is a photo I took in 2011 of Joe Sinnott with another great creator, Walter Simonson, at the Hawthorne NJ comic con.  It’s always awesome when you meet creators whose work you enjoy and you discover that they are also genuinely nice people.

Congratulations to Joe Sinnott on bringing to a close a long and distinguished career.  I hope he enjoys his retirement, because he definitely deserves it.

This King… This Kirby!

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

Jack King Kirby

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

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

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

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

New Gods 7 double page splash

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 51 pg 1

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

Rich Buckler sketchbook drawings

Comic book artist Rich Buckler passed away on May 19th at the age of 68. I knew that Buckler had not been well for a while now, but I was still very sad to hear the news. Buckler was an incredibly prolific artist. He is probably best known for creating the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok, but at one time or another he drew pretty much nearly every major Marvel and DC character, as well as doing work for a number of other publishers. Buckler lived in the NYC area and was a frequent guest at conventions. I had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions. He always seemed like a nice guy.

I’ve already blogged about Rich Buckler’s great work on several occasions in the past (please check out my write-up on his Deathlok stories) so I wasn’t certain exactly how I could pay tribute to him now without repeating myself. It then occurred to me that I could feature the various convention sketches that I obtained from Buckler at comic cons. Each of these was done in one of my theme sketchbooks.

1) DOCTOR DOOM

Doctor Doom by Rich Buckler

This great drawing of Doctor Doom from June 2009 is the first piece in my “villains and bad guys” theme sketchbook. When it came to deciding who to have kick off the book, Buckler quickly came to mind. Buckler penciled Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s, paired with inker Joe Sinnott and writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. Doctor Doom is one of Marvel’s all-time classic super-villains, and Buckler did a great rendition of the character during his run on FF.

I’m extremely happy with this piece. Buckler did an amazing job sketching the iron-fisted monarch of Latveria, starting off this sketchbook with genuine class & style.  This sketch was subsequently published in Back Issue #74, edited by Michael Eury, from TwoMorrows Publishing. The theme of that issue was the Fantastic Four in the Bronze Age.

2) The Vision

Vision by Rich Buckler

Bucker only worked on a handful of issues of Avengers over the years, but he did very nice work on the series. One of the stories that Buckler penciled, in issue #106, contained an incredibly dramatic depiction of the Vision on the splash page, inked by the amazing Dave Cockrum… what a wonderful collaboration! Buckler & Cockrum really brought to life the synthezoid’s somber brooding and contemplation of life.

After I started my Avengers Assemble theme  sketchbook, the question of who to have draw the Vision inevitably came up. Well, that splash page from #106 almost immediately leaped to mind, and I knew I had to ask Buckler to sketch the character. It definitely came out very well. I wish Buckler could have worked on more Avengers stories; he had a real affinity for the characters.

3) HAN SOLO

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

You might have previously seen this great sketch of Han Solo from the Star Wars movies on my entry for Super Blog Team-Up 7. I still think it’s an astonishing oversight that, outside of a single trading card for Topps, Buckler was never given the opportunity to contribute artwork to any Star Wars related projects. His work would have been such a wonderful fit for the series. He certainly did an amazing job on this sketch, capturing both the likeness and the personality of the character.

Years later, when Buckler was on Facebook, he shared numerous images of a great deal of his work, both published and unpublished. One of the pieces he posted was this sketch. Unfortunately he only had a small, blurry pic of it. When Buckler found out I was on FB, he asked me to send him a larger scan, a request I was more than happy to fulfill.

4) MANTIS

Mantis by Rich Buckler

Yes, I do have a Mantis sketchbook. She is, quite obviously, one of my favorite characters. I thought it would be nice to have the first piece in the book drawn by an artist who had worked on some of the character’s published appearances. Rich Buckler previous drew Mantis in Giant-Size Avengers #1 and Fantastic Four #325. He used that FF issue for reference, creating a beautiful portrait of the character.

This sketch, which was drawn in December 2015 at Winter Con in Queens NY, nearly didn’t happen. I approached Buckler early on Saturday morning about doing a sketch. Less then half an hour later, though, Buckler was feeling ill, and he had to be rushed to the hospital. Amazingly, though, in the afternoon he was back at the show. I thought he was crazy, and that he ought to be resting at home. However, since he was there, I asked him if he felt well enough to draw a sketch. Buckler said he was, and he did this great piece. That was the last time I got to see him before he passed away, so I’m grateful I had that opportunity.

I highly recommend reading the eight part essay series “From the Desk of Rich Buckler” that Daniel Best presented in 2010 on his blog 20th Century Danny Boy. These essays by Buckler offer an in-depth look at his career, his creative process, and his thoughts on the comic book industry.

Alan Kupperberg: 1953 to 2015

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

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

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

Invaders 37 cover

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

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

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

Invaders 32 cover layouts and published

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

As Kupperberg recounted in The Jack Kirby Collector…

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

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

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

Captain America 240 pg 11

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

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

Avengers 205 cover

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

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

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

Obnoxio the Clown pg 6

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

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

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

Marvel Tales 215 pg 30

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

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

Captain America #130: a message for July 4th

A very happy Fourth of July to all of my fellow Americans.  Today I am going to take a look at a comic book story that I feel exemplifies the principles upon which this country was founded.  Yes, too often we have all fallen short of those lofty ideals, but they still remain as goals for us to continually strive towards.  And so, I am going to write about Captain America #130, published by Marvel Comics in 1970.

Captain America 130 cover

Right now those comic book fans out there with a more than passing knowledge of the Captain America series are probably saying to themselves “WTF?!?”  Yeah, it’s not really an obvious choice, but bear with me.

The issue is topped off by a cover which according to both the Grand Comics Database and the Unofficial Handbook of Marvel Comics Creators was drawn by Marie Severin & Joe Sinnott.  I will have to take their word for it.  That drawing of the Hulk’s face does look very much like Severin’s work, so the credits are probably accurate.

Opening up the book, we find ourselves in the midst of a ferocious battle between Cap and the Hulk, on a splash page that offers the following declaration via Artie Simek’s exciting engraving:

“This one has to be seen to be believed! Based on an original theme by Stan the Man, Genial Gene got so wound up in the artwork that he tossed in everything but the kitchen sink! Hence, what follows is like a wild and wacky build-up to the startling surprise that awaits you next ish! It may not make much sense – but we guarantee you won’t be bored! So, settle back, relax, and enjoy it, culture-lover – (and if you can figure it out – explain it to us!)”

Captain America 130 pg 1

After three pages of Cap versus Hulk action, it is revealed that this is actually a movie playing in a theater, with none other than Steve Rogers himself sitting in the audience.  It’s never made clear if this is supposed to be a documentary with actual newsreel footage of the two super-humans slugging it out, or a fictional production (perhaps starring Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo?) but whatever the case Steve isn’t too thrilled when a fellow cinemagoer declares “Who cares about that clown? He’s just not relevant in today’s world!”

This issue falls right in the middle of a period when the Captain America series was struggling somewhat with its identity.  It’s important to keep in mind the context of when this was published.  In 1970 the Vietnam War was raging, and the controversy over it was tearing America apart.  The Civil Rights movement was still being fought.  Distrust of the government was beginning to become widespread.  In this environment, the character of Cap, a super patriot who originated during World War II, must have been an awkward figure to write.  Stan Lee was trying to touch upon this with an Easy Rider-inspired arc, as Steve Rogers travels about the country on a motorcycle, attempting to figure out his place in modern American society.

Departing the movie theater, Steve rides his chopper into a “sleepy little college town” which is anything but.  The students are rioting, attempting to reach the Dean, who has barricaded himself in his office, and the police are attempting to quell the disturbance.  Steve changes into his uniform and, as Cap, swings into action, hoping to bring a halt to the violence before anyone is hurt.  The students, though, think that Cap is “in league with the fuzz” and attack him.  Cap leaps away from the crowd and climbs up the side of the administrative building to the Dean’s office, rescuing him before the students can batter down the door.

Captain America 130 pg 7

I’m curious about the timeline to the production of this issue.  With a cover-date of October 1970, the issue would actually have been on sale sometime around July, which meant that it must have been written & drawn a few months before.  The Kent State Shootings took place on May 4th.  I wonder if “Up Against The Wall” was in production during that time, and if that tragic event might have been on Stan Lee & Gene Colan’s minds.  Even if it wasn’t, there was certainly was a great deal of unrest on college campuses throughout this time period.

A figure observes Cap’s rescue of the Dean and approaches him, stating “It’s a pleasure finding someone who still stands for law and order!”  The man, a television producer, asks Cap to make an appearance.  However, it turns out that this producer is actually in the employ of a mysterious hooded figure known as, um, The Hood.  In any case, the masked mastermind gives his servant explicit instructions:

“Write his speech most carefully! In standing for law and order, he must make Americans distrust their own younger generation! The more we can divide this country, and the more we stifle dissent – the better it will be – for The Hood!”

It’s interesting that Lee scripts the villain in this manner.  It brings to mind Sinclair Lewis’ warning “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”  Lee is addressing the idea that agents of oppression and injustice will assume the trappings of patriotism, throw about terms such as “law and order” to disguise their subversive efforts to undermine liberty & freedom.  What Lee was observing in this scene is undoubtedly just as true today as it was four decades ago, if not more so.

Captain America 130 pg 15

Cap later arrives at the television station.  Addressing the camera, he makes the following speech:

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be! I don’t believe in using force – or violence – because they can be the weapons of those who would enslave us – but, nor do I believe in an establishment that remains so aloof – so distant – that the people are driven to desperate measures – as in the case of a college dean who isolates himself from his student body!”

This is obviously not what The Hood had planned, and he orders his lackey to silence Cap.  The producer telephones the mercenary Batroc the Leaper, who declares “Just give us sixty seconds!”  Batroc and his comrades, Whirlwind and The Porcupine, hop into a fancy roadster and literally one minute later arrive at the TV studio to attack Cap.  I guess that Batroc’s Brigade just conveniently happen to have their headquarters right down the block.  They probably could have saved on gas by just walking from there.

Captain America 130 pg 16

Cap fights Batroc, Whirlwind, and The Porcupine to a standstill.  Once the police arrive, the three costumed criminals flee, leaving Cap to wonder who hired them.  But that is a story for another time… okay, okay, I’ll tell you!  Next issue Cap unmasks The Hood, who turns out to be Baron Strucker, who attempts to kill Cap with the long-lost Bucky, who ends up being revealed as a robot duplicate.  And then a decade or so later we would find out that The Hood / Strucker himself was also a robot.  Yeah, it’s really weird, so don’t think too closely about it.  Aren’t you sorry you asked?

The somewhat choppy feel of this and other issues of Captain America from around this time is due to the working relationship between Lee and Colan.  Lee was phoning it in… and I mean that literally!  This is one of the subjects discussed in an excellent interview of Colan conducted by Roy Thomas published in Alter Ego #6:

Colan: Actually, the fun of working on comics with Stan was that, although he put in all the dialogue, he allowed the artists to take a very small plot he’d give them and build it into a 20-page story. There was nothing to the plot — it was maybe just a few sentences — but the beginning was there, and you could do anything you wanted.

Thomas: Did Stan write out plots then, or was it mostly just over the phone?

Colan: I recorded our phone conversations, and then I would go by the recording. Other times, he’d send me a letter of a few paragraphs.

So Colan would pencil an entire 20 page story from that brief description, in effect serving as a co-plotter, and Lee would write his script from the artwork.

Colan admitted that at times this method would have unintended results.  Sometimes his pacing of the story would be off, and he would then realize that he had very little space left to wrap the issue up, leading him to cram as much as possible into the final three or four pages.  On one particular occasion Lee had included a car chase in his plot, expecting that Colan would devote a page to it.  Lee was subsequently surprised to find that in Colan’s penciled art the car chase took up almost half of the issue!

Even under these circumstances we see that Lee, who is undoubtedly a great scripter, crafted some superb dialogue.  True, I’ve never been overly enamored with aspects of Lee’s approach to Cap, as he repeatedly showed him agonizing about Bucky’s death, moping over his relationship with Sharon Carter, and wringing his hands at his role as a man out of time.  But when Lee wasn’t busy having Steve Rogers doing his pity pot routine, he wrote the character very well.  The speech he gives Cap in this issue is, in my opinion, one of the quintessential moments in the character’s existence.  It sums up everything that Steve Rogers is about.  He is not an unquestioning patriot or a militant hawk who seeks out conflict.  Cap believes in the American Dream, the potential for greatness that this country and its people can be capable of if they are willing to embrace equality & diversity and attempt to strive for a better future.

Captain America 130 pg 18

The artwork by Colan on this issue is quite good.  It is a bit odd that many people have cited Colan as one of their favorite Captain America artists.  If you actually look at his run on the title from 1969 to 1971 on issue #s 116 to 137, the stories he drew are a mixed bag, uneven in quality, undoubtedly due to Lee’s minimal role in the plotting stages.  Nevertheless, Colan’s work during that two year run is of a high quality.  That said, I do think that he did rather better work on other titles where the writers gave him slightly more comprehensive plots to work from, which resulted in him doing a better job pacing out his art.  On a few occasions in later years Colan would return to draw stand-alone issues of Captain America.  I feel that those are stronger efforts by Colan, quite simply because he was given better stories to illustrate.

Dick Ayers inked Colan’s pencils on Captain America #s 128 to 134.  I’ve observed in the past that Colan was a difficult artist to ink, and that only a handful of embellishers did extremely well at finishing his art.  Ayers was definitely was a talented artist, but he was probably not the best fit to ink Colan.  But it certainly wasn’t a disaster, either.  Most of the issues that Ayers inked fell during the “Cap on the road” arc.  The combination of Colan and Ayers’ styles was actually appropriate, as the plots were slightly less of the conventional superhero type.  Colan’s pencils helped to put that mood across some, whereas a more Kirby-esque art style could have been too traditional.   Likewise Ayers’ style of inking, which was well suited to the many war and Western stories he illustrated over the years, was also a good match to these stories.

While at first glance Captain America #130 is an offbeat issue, it certainly has its strong points, and an important message.  As we all celebrate July 4th, let’s try to remember Cap’s words to the American people in this story.