The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Eight

Welcome to another collection of the Daily Comic Book Coffee. I have been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge by group moderator Jim Thompson was to see how many different pencilers you can find artwork by featuring a specific subject. I chose coffee.

36) Murphy Anderson

Today’s artwork is from the Atomic Knights story “Danger in Detroit” drawn by Murphy Anderson and written by John Broome, from Strange Adventures #153, published by DC Comics with a June 1963 cover date.

The Atomic Knights was a wonderfully weird post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature created by Broome & Anderson.  It appeared in every third issue of Strange Adventures from #117 to #156, with a final chapter appearing in issue #160.  DC issued a hardcover collection in 2010. 

Set in the far-off future year of, um, 1986, the Atomic Knights were a team of adventurers who sought to restore civilization to North America after World War III left the planet devastated.  The six Atomic Knights all wore suits of medieval armor that, through some fluke, had become resistant to radioactivity.  From their base in the town of Durvale, the Knights fought a variety of offbeat monsters and menaces that plagued the devastated world.

In the previous installment in Strange Adventures #150, “The Plant That Hated Humans,” the Knights encountered an army of giant ambulatory plants created by the botanist Henderson.  The Trefoils turned against humanity, but the Knights defeated them by cutting them off from their water source.

As this story opens, we see two of the Knights, Douglas and Marene, having some after-dinner coffee in the Durvale Community Hall.  They are being served by “an unusual-looking waiter,” namely a Trefoil.  Henderson managed to create a new strain of Trefoils, “one without a trace of the vicious hatred of humanity that the old crop seemed to grow with.”  Nevertheless, Marene bluntly states “That creature Mr. Henderson sent us gives me the jim-jams!”

Looking at this from a 21st Century perspective, you have to wonder at Henderson’s decision to resume his experiments after they almost ended in disaster the first time around, as well as the ethical issues of creating a new life form designed to be servants.

Marene’s thought balloon in the final panel, complete with “and yet I’m just a woman,” hasn’t aged well, either.

All that aside, I still enjoyed the Atomic Knights.  Broom’s stories are imaginative, quirky and fun.  The artwork by Anderson is absolutely gorgeous.  Broom and Anderson both considered the Atomic Knights to be among their favorite work from their lengthy careers.

37) Dave Cockrum & Gonzalo Mayo

Harbinger Files #1, penciled by Dave Cockrum, inked by Gonzalo Mayo, written by Fred Pierce & Bob Layton, lettered by Rob Johnson & Santiago Vázquez, and colored by Mike McGuire, published by Valiant with an August 1994 cover date.

Toyo Harada is one of the major antagonists in the Valiant universe.  An incredibly powerful telepath & telekinetic, Harada established the Harbinger Foundation to recruit & train those with similar psionic abilities.  Harbinger Files #1 reveals his previously-untold origin, as well as explaining how he survived his encounter with Solar, Man of the Atom.

After his private jet crashes on a desolate mountain, the badly-injured Harada is rescued by hermit Dusty Berman.  Recuperating in Berman’s cabin, Harada details his history & motivations.  Seeking to convince the skeptical recluse, Harada uses his powers to levitate Dusty’s cup of coffee.

Harada is an interesting figure.  A charitable view of him would be that he is a well-intentioned extremist, someone who feels compelled to make difficult choices to save the world from itself.  He could be viewed as an embodiment of the expression “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”  A much more skeptical analysis of Harada would be that he is engaged in a massive self-deception, that he is in fact an incredibly selfish, avaricious, tyrannical individual who has managed to convince himself that he is working towards noble goals.

Dave Cockrum was one of the preeminent artists of the Bronze Age.  He played a major role in the successful revamps of both the Legion of Super-Heroes and the X-Men.  Unfortunately by the early 1990s Cockrum, like a number of his contemporaries, was having difficulty finding work, his style regarded by certain editors as “old-fashioned.”  I am a huge fan of Cockrum’s art, so I was glad when he got a couple of jobs penciling for Valiant in 1994.

“Redemption and Reward” is a story that mostly consists of Harada and Dusty conversing, with flashbacks to Harada’s early years.  You need a penciler who is really strong at storytelling & characterization, which is just what Cockrum was.  He does an excellent job with what is mostly a “talking heads” story.

Inking is by Gonzalo Mayo, who worked regularly at Valiant.  The Peruvian-born artist has a very lush style to his inks.  He worked really well over a number of different pencilers at Valiant, giving the art a very nice illustrative look.  I got my copy of this comic autographed by Cockrum a couple of years after it came out, and he told me he liked Mayo’s inking over his pencils.

38) Steve Ditko

I’m glad I located a coffee-drinking page drawn by the legendary Steve Ditko.  This is from the story “Partners” written by the prolific Joe Gill from Ghostly Haunts #29, published by Charlton Comics with a January 1973 cover date.

“Partners” is the tale of prospectors Max Aarens and Henry Farr.  As the story opens Max and Henry are in the Northern Canadian wilderness, sitting by the camp fire drinking coffee as they celebrate having struck gold.  Unfortunately greed & paranoia soon descend, and each man makes plans to betray the other.

Ditko utilizes some extremely effective layouts on this story, superbly illustrating both the brutal blizzard and the psychological trauma that strikes the characters.  The facial expressions & body language of his characters is incredibly evocative.  Even here, on the relatively quiet first page, Ditko deftly establishes the mood of harshly cold isolation, and foreshadows the treacherous nature of the protagonists.

By the way, the lady in green & red on the left side of the opening splash panel is Winnie the Witch, the lovely host of Ghostly Haunts.  As he often did on the Ghostly Haunts stories he drew, Ditko has Winnie lurking in-between panels and on the borders of pages of “Partners,” knowingly observing the unfolding events.

I originally read this in black & white in Steve Ditko’s 160-Page Package published by Robin Synder in 1999, which collected 20 of the Ditko-illustrated stories from the various Charlton horror anthologies.  It looks really crisp & effective in black & white.  There are scans of the full story in color from Ghostly Haunts #29 on the blog Destination Nightmare.

39) Dwayne Turner & Jerome K. Moore

Sovereign Seven, created by writer Chris Claremont and penciler Dwayne Turner, was the result of an interesting arrangement: It was published by DC Comics, and set within the DC Universe, but all of the original characters introduced in it were owned by Claremont. These two pages are from S7 #1, cover-dated July 1995, and issue #6, cover-dated December 1995. Turner inked issue #1, and Jerome K. Moore inked #6. Letters are by Tom Orzechowski & Clem Robbins, and colors are by Gloria Vasquez.

The Sovereigns were a group of aristocratic refugees from different parallel Earths whose worlds had all been conquered by the mysterious Rapture. They were gathered together by Rhian Douglas, aka Cascade, who was fleeing from her seemingly-tyrannical mother Maitresse, although eventually we discover there is much more going on there than either we the readers or Rhian herself suspect.

The main setting of S7 is the Crossroads Coffee Bar, situated at the intersection of three state borders (implied to be Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts) and which contains portals to other dimensions. Crossroads is run by sisters Violet Smith and Pansy Jones, who were based on folk musicians Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland. It is here that the fleeing Sovereigns find sanctuary. As a result, there were a lot of characters drinking a lot of coffee in a lot of issues.

To earn their keep the Sovereigns end up working at the Crossroads. It’s somewhat odd to see a group of what are basically One Percenters sliding into the thankless service industry with a bare minimum of complaints, although it is implied that the societies they came from all possessed systems of noblesse oblige, and that the conquest of those worlds by the Rapture brought these seven down to Earth, both symbolically and literally.

Darkseid shows up at Crossroads in the first issue, and it is suggested that he has frequented the establishment in the past. Sipping an espresso, he satisfactorily comments…

“An excellent brew, Violet, as always. I can’t get anything quite like it at home.”

Perhaps someone ought to explain to Darkseid that if he hadn’t transformed Apokolips into an industrialized fascist hellhole it might be much easier to come by quality caffeinated beverages?

Jumping forward to issue #6, it’s Halloween at Crossroads. Italian mercenary Marcello Veronese has come to town, and he is instantly taken with the fully-armored Fatale, who he spots serving coffee.

Marcello: That waitress in black, she is one striking woman!

Pansy: Say that to her face, you’ll see just how striking.

Marcello: The reward, I’ll wager, would be well worth the risk.

Pansy: You want risk, chum, I’ll introduce you to my sister.

I found S7 an interesting & enjoyable series. That said it probably was overly ambitious. Launching a book with seven lead characters, an expanded supporting cast, and a complex backstory right when the comic book market was experiencing a glut might have been a mistake. I think S7 ended up getting lost in the crowd. It did ultimately last for 36 issues, plus two annuals and one special, which is a fairly respectable run.

We will return to S7 and the coffee-drinking crowd of Crossroads in a future entry, when we look at the work of the series’ second regular penciler.

40) Terry Moore

My girlfriend Michele is a huge fan of Strangers in Paradise, which was written & drawn by Terry Moore.  SiP is a semi-comedic soap opera that eventually ventured into mystery and crime noir.  I figured there would probably be at least a few coffee-drinking scenes in SiP.  Flipping through the first “pocket book” trade paperback from Abstract Studio, I found one from the very first issue of volume one, which was originally published by Antarctic Press in November 1993.

I asked Michele if she could briefly explain what SiP was about.  She started telling me how it was about two women, Katrina, aka Katchoo, and Francine, who are best friends.  Katchoo is bisexual and is attracted to Francine, but Francine is straight and wants to one day have children.  Making things even more complicated is David, an artist who falls in love with Katchoo.  After attempting to summarize the various plotlines that Moore had running through SiP over the years, Michele finally shrugged and said “It’s complicated.”  She then suggested I look it up on Wikipedia.

Michele also had this to say about Strangers in Paradise

“My issue with SiP is that it borrowed from Love and Rockets in regards to the (that word again) “complicated” relationship between Maggie and Hopey. SiP does manage to steer into its own plots. Just that similarity. Terry Moore is a great artist.”

In this scene from the very first issue, Katchoo and David have met for the first time at an art gallery, and David has convinced the very reluctant Katchoo to have a cup of coffee with him.  They walk over to the coffee shop in a rainstorm, and when David suggests to the sneezing Katchoo that she take off her wet clothes, she goes ballistic.

It’s a funny scene that establishes right off the bat that Katchoo is assertive, but also very melodramatic.  The page ends perfectly with a waitress who deadpans “How about that de-caff now, honey?”

Remembering Murphy Anderson: a look back at The Atomic Knights

Silver Age comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on October 23rd at the age of 89. Anderson was an incredibly prolific inker who worked on numerous series for DC Comics from the 1950s thru to the 1980s. His embellishments wonderfully complemented the pencils of Curt Swan on Superman, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, and Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom.

Less often Anderson also did both pencils & inks, turning in excellent work on Hawkman and The Spectre. He was the co-creator of the sci-fi hero Adam Strange and of the sexy magician Zatanna.

Anderson’s friend and colleague Todd Klein recently observed on his blog “I loved his precise style and crisp inking.” Reflecting on Anderson’s art in a tribute at 13th Dimension, Dave Gibbons commented “His inks brought a crispness and finesse to the work of so many great Silver Age artists. Stories always seemed to gain an extra magical dimension under his painstaking hand.”

Strange Adventures 144 cover

Among Anderson’s vast body of work, one of my personal favorites was the wonderfully weird Atomic Knights feature which he created with writer John Broome and editor Julius Schwartz in the Strange Adventures science fiction anthology series. The Atomic Knights made their debut in Strange Adventures #117 (June 1960) and appeared in every third issue of the series thru #156 (Sept 1963) with a final installment running in #160 (Jan 1964).

Set in the then-future year of 1986, the Atomic Knights stories by Broome & Anderson depicted the adventures of a group of heroes seeking to restore civilization to a post-apocalyptic world devastated by World War III. Oh, yes, and they happened to wear Medieval suits of armor and ride around on giant Dalmatians!

The first time I ever heard of the Atomic Knights was back in the early 1990s. My high school library had a copy of The Encyclopedia of Monsters by Jeff Rovin.  One of the entries was on the Mole-Creatures.  It included a black & white image of the cover to Strange Adventures #144, which featured two of the armored Knights atop their giant Dalmatian steeds about to be ambushed by the Mole-Creatures.  The concept was just so far out and crazy that it immediately stuck in my mind.

DC reprinted the entire Atomic Knights run from Strange Adventures in a hardcover collection in 2010. Since acquiring all of those old issues would have been a difficult and expensive task, I picked up the book so that I could finally read this oddball series.

Atomic Knights collection cover

The story begins in late 1986, some weeks after the Great Atomic War has decimated nearly the entire globe. Wandering through the ruins of the town of Durvale, ex-soldier Gardner Grayle learns that the area is under the oppressive thumb of the self-proclaimed “Black Baron.”  Gardner befriends teacher Douglas Herald, and the pair discover six suits of armor in the remains of the Durvale Museum.  Somehow the energies of the nuclear war have transformed the metal, giving it radiation-resistant qualities.

Gardner and Douglas, along with Douglas’ sister Marene, the scientist Bryndon, and twins Wayne & Hollis Hobard, don the armor and attack the Black Baron’s fortress.  They capture the tyrant, liberating Durvale.  The armor-clad sextet decides to remain together as a group, “to represent law and order and the forces of justice in these terrible times.”

Throughout the course of the series, the Knights have a variety of unusual adventures. They explore the post-apocalyptic Earth, encountering a succession of bizarre monsters created by nuclear radiation, as well as human adversaries attempting to seize power.

Atomic Knights collection pg 35

It’s important to remember that these stories were published in the early 1960s. There are aspects that by today’s standards are dated.  The most obvious is how Marene, the only female Knight, is more often than not sidelined.  She is usually left in Durvale to care for another member of the Knights who has been wounded in battle, or to guard the town while the rest of the group goes out on a mission.  The apparent rational behind this is that Marene is “just a woman.”  At least she does finally have the opportunity to play a crucial role in the last story.

The character development of the heroes is minimal. We know that Gardner and Marene have a mutual attraction that they never seem to get around to taking to the next level, and that the Hobard brothers are huge fans of Jazz music, among other nuggets of information.  But mostly Broome is interested in just getting the characters from point A to point B, introducing the story’s menace and coming up with a resolution.

The science is also wonky. Radiation-resistant armor and dogs the size of horses is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to scientific implausibility.  Then there’s Bryndon, one of those typical 1960s comic book scientists who apparently knows everything.  There doesn’t seem to be any area of science or technology of which he doesn’t possess at least some knowledge.  We eventually learn that he is literally a rocket scientist, but even so the guy is almost an encyclopedia on legs.

Perhaps the most blatant scientific unlikelihood is that all of the plant life on Earth was destroyed during World War III.  If that was the case, there wouldn’t be any plants to convert carbon dioxide back to oxygen, and humanity would have died out.  Fortunately our heroes soon find samples of fruits & vegetables on the lost island of Atlantis (yes, really) and are able to revive farming & agriculture in Durvale.

All kidding aside, writer John Broome was scripting these comic books to entertain young readers, not to meet a standard of inquiry from Scientific American. Given that fact, the dodgy science can more or less be excused, as these pulp sci-fi adventures are fun and delightfully offbeat.

It’s noteworthy that the Atomic Knights stories take place over a period of several years, with the final installments set in 1992. This enables Broome to show the gradual rebuilding of civilization.  That’s one of the more interesting aspects of the series, and it gives the stories a nice feeling of continuity.

Atomic Knights collection pg 45

The art by Murphy Anderson on the Atomic Knights stories is absolutely beautiful. I observed a quality to his work here that is reminiscent of some of the great newspaper comic strips of the 1930s and 40s.  Gardner is heroically handsome & strong, Marene is beautiful & sweet, the villains are sneering fiends, and the monsters are bizarre, menacing beings.

Anderson admirably succeeds in illustrating the fantastic elements of these stories in such a way that they seem grounded in real life.   No matter how weird or impossible the monsters of the stories, Anderson gives them a weight and gravity, be they walking trees, electrical beings, or a giant crystal monster with a head that resembles a disco ball.

Anderson renders the spectacle of an armored knight riding a giant Dalmatian and makes it look perfectly plausible.  For example, on page 85 of the collection, we see the Knights astride the Dalmatians charging into battle.  The immense dogs kick up clouds of dust in their wake, their ears are flopping, and their tongues hang out of their mouths.  Anderson’s depiction of this scene makes it very easy to imagine the sounds of giant paws thundering across the ground, of the heavy pounding from the canines drawing in gasps of breath.

Atomic Knights collection pg 85

Between the offbeat writing of John Broome and the superb artwork of Murphy Anderson, the Atomic Knights was an engaging feature. It’s no wonder that it became something of a cult classic.  Although the series was written out of continuity for a time, later on the characters were brought back into the DC universe in various different forms.  Most recently the Atomic Knights were featured prominently in Convergence: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes written by Stuart Moore.

That the Atomic Knights have fondly endured for all these decades in readers’ minds is undoubtedly at least partially due to Murphy Anderson’s stunning art. His work on the feature is, in my estimation, among the best he did in his lengthy and impressive career.  The Atomic Knights is but one of the many wonderful legacies that Murphy Anderson has left us.

Irwin Hasen: 1918 to 2015

Irwin Hasen, one of the last of the artists of the Golden Age of comic books, passed away on March 13th.  He was 96 years old.

Hasen was born on July 8, 1918 into an upper middle class family in New York City.  In 1930, when he was 12 years old, his family lost their money in the Great Depression, and they had to move into a cramped two bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side.  This unfortunate turn of events would actually lead to Hasen’s career as an artist.  The apartment was right around the corner from the National Academy of Design.  When Hasen was 16 years old his mother enrolled him there, where he studied for the next three years.

All Star Comics 33 cover

Hasen got his first job as a cartoonist at the boxing magazine Bang in 1938.  As he recounted decades later:

“I drew sports cartoons, and I had to compile out of town weekly boxing results, type them up, and draw each week’s top fighters for the covers.”

Shortly after, Hasen began working in the brand-new comic book industry.  One of his earliest assignments was the superhero The Fox, which he co-created with writer Joe Blair for MLJ / Archie Comics.  Although a rather obscure character for many years, recently The Fox has been the subject of a successful, offbeat revival by Dean Haspiel.

Most of Hasen’s work in comic books was at National Comics and All-American Publications, two of the entities that soon merged to form DC Comics.  At National, Hasen drew on his background as a sports artist to collaborate with writer Bill Finger in creating Wildcat, a prize fighter turned costumed crimefighter.  Wildcat’s first appearance was in Sensation Comics #1, cover-dated January 1942.  Hasen was also one of the earliest regular artists to draw the original Green Lantern, who Finger had co-created with Martin Nodell in 1940.

Wildcat from Sensation Comics 1

After World War II broke out, Hasen was drafted.  Due to his 5 foot 2 inch height, he was stationed State-side, and his work was featured in the Army newspaper Fort Dix Post.  Hasen also found the time to keep working within the comic book biz:

“During my furloughs into New York City, I would sit in full uniform at a drawing board in M.C. Gaines’ Lafayette St. offices of AA Comics, creating Wonder Woman covers, those Valkyrian images possibly nurturing my fancy for the women to come.”

After the war ended Hasen returned to comic books full-time.  In the late 1940s he was one of the regular artists drawing the Justice Society of America feature in All Star Comics.  As future comic book writer, editor & historian Roy Thomas commented in his 2001 introduction to All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 “the next year and a half of JSA stories would be some of their best ever.”  According to Thomas, one crucial part of that was “the solid storytelling of Irwin Hasen.”  As would be seen in Thomas’ writing on All-Star Squadron in the 1980s, these stories would be a major influence upon him.

All Star Comics 35 cover

Certainly during this time period Hasen illustrated some of the most iconic cover images to ever feature the JSA.  His striking cover art for All Star Comics #33 (Feb/March 1947) had the ominous form of the undead swamp monster Solomon Grundy looming over the imprisoned JSA.  All Star Comics #35 (June/July 1947) saw the debut of the time traveling fascist Per Degaton, who was devised by writer John Broome.  Hasen’s dramatic cover for that issue featured that villain warping the flow of history within an immense hourglass.  Hasen’s cover for #37 (Oct/Nov 1937) was also memorable, depicting the JSA’s greatest foes, joined together as the Injustice Society of the World, literally carving up a map of the United States.

Like most artists in the 1940s, Hasen regarded comic books as a job to pay the bills and put food on the table.  Certainly that is understandable, as the first few decades of the industry were far from glamorous, with most creators toiling anonymously in conditions that were almost akin to a sweatshop.  Hasen’s dream was to illustrate a newspaper comic strip, which in those days was regarded as a much more fashionable & lucrative position.

Dondi April 7 1957

Hasen finally achieved this goal in 1955 when he co-created Dondi with writer Gus Edson.  A five year old war orphan from Europe, the wide-eyed Dondi was adopted by an American soldier who brought him back to the United States.  The newspaper strip lasted until 1986.  It appears that Dondi was the project that Hasen was most proud of out of his entire career.

Later in life Hasen write & illustrated Loverboy, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about his lifelong bachelorhood, and his romantic relationship with a woman named Eevie in the 1970s.  It was both a humorous and poignant story.  Loverboy was published by Vanguard Productions in 2009.  The final four chapters of the book were a brief text autobiography of Hasen’s life complemented with various photographs & illustrations.  I recommend picking up a copy.

Loverboy pg 26

I was fortunate enough to have met Hasen several times throughout the years.  He was a regular at NYC-area comic book conventions.  It was always a pleasure to see Hasen at a show.  He was a real gentleman, full of life and energy, with a genuine sense of humor.

I acquired a couple a sketches from Hasen.  The first was a color illustration of his creation Wildcat.  The other was a black & white drawing of the Golden Age Flash, another of the characters he drew regularly throughout the 1940s, both in solo stories and in the adventures of the Justice Society.  You can view scans of them at Comic Art Fans.

Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con
Irwin Hasen sketching at the May 2010 Bronx Heroes Comic Con

Okay, this is a bit embarrassing… back in late 2010 I was unemployed.  I was having trouble finding work and had a lot of free time on my hands.  On a whim I looked up Hasen’s address & phone number and gave him a call.  I told him I was a fan and I asked if it would be okay to stop by for a visit.  He was surprised, but he graciously agreed.

I visited Hasen at his apartment on the Upper East Side, stopping by for about half an hour in the early afternoon.  He autographed my copies of All Star Comics Archives Volume 7 and 8, showed me some of the various interesting items he had acquired over the decades, and regaled me with a few stories.  I asked Hasen a couple of general questions about his career, and he humorously replied that I probably knew more about his work in comic books than he did!  Well, it had been a long time before for him.  Then I said goodbye and headed home, while Hasen went off to meet one of his friends at a local bar for a martini.  I gather that was a daily ritual for him.

That was the thing about Hasen: right up until the end he was full of life and energy.  I always thought that if anyone would live past 100 years old it would be him.  Well, he didn’t quite make it, but 96 years is a really good long run, especially as he appeared to have led a very rich, full life for most of that time.

Hasen certainly has left behind a memorable legacy, having worked on numerous classic comic book stories in the 1940s, and co-creating Dondi, a beloved comic strip that ran for three decades.