I’ve never been a huge Spider-Man fan, but I have followed the character’s various series from time to time, especially when he’s been written and/or drawn by creators whose work I enjoy. And I’ve ended up with a few Spider-Man convention sketches over the years.
So, to celebrate Peter Parker’s 60th birthday, here are six sketches featuring the web-slinger…
First up we have Spider-Man by John Romita Jr. Romita has been associated with the character for over 40 years, having had several lengthy runs penciling Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. This was drawn as part of a charity event in May 2002. To raise funds to help pay for his niece’s medical bills, Romita sat down for a marathon sketch session in Manhattan, drawing Spider-Man sketches for $25 donations. As you can see, this is sketch #115. There was a really large turn-out for this event, so I believe Romita was able to raise a good amount to help out his niece.
Next we have Alex Saviuk. He’s drawn a great may characters over a 45 year long career, but the one he undoubtedly most associated with is Spider-Man. I fondly recall Saviuk’s work on Web of Spider-Man back when I was a teenager. He penciled nearly every issue of that series from 1988 thru to 1994. I’m glad I had the opportunity to get a sketch of the web-slinger from him in 2008.
My girlfriend Michele Witchipoo shared a table with Matthew Southworth in Artists Alley at the 2010 New York Comic Con. At the time Matthew was relatively new to comics, having made his debut a few years earlier drawing back-up stories for Savage Dragon and Infinity Inc. He had recently come off of the critically acclaimed noir miniseries Stumptown written by Greg Rucka.
I had the chance to chat with Matthew throughout the weekend, and he definitely came across as a good guy. He had also just worked on an issue of Amazing Spider-Man, so I asked him if he could do a quick sketch of Spidey for me. Instead, Matthew went all out, drawing a nice color piece for me. In the decade plus since then he’s continued to do superb work.
Former long-time Marvel and Topps Comics editor, and current editor-in-chief of Papercutz, Jim Salicrup draws what he refers to as “lousy full color sketches.” More often than not, though, they turn out to be of the non-lousy variety. I asked Jim if he’d sketch Spider-Man, since he edited the web-slinger’s books for several years, specifically from 1987 to 1991, which is the period when I really got into comic books. Consequently he edited some of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read. Instead of just doing a quick doodle, Salicrup proceeded to produce this magic marker masterpiece featuring Spidey in combat with Doctor Octopus.
Michele and I had a great time at the Forest Hills Comic Con held at Forest Hills High School in Queens, NYC last month. It was a fun little show. As any long-time Marvel Comics fan can tell you, Peter Parker is from Forest Hills, so I asked artist Keith Williams, who’s worked on a lot of Spider-Man comic books, including a four year run inking Web of Spider-Man, for a sketch of the character. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate piece to get done at that show.
Hey, what’s the Green Goblin doing here?!? Okay, seriously, I only have five Spider-Man sketches in my collection, and I needed one more for the “Spider-Man six sketches at sixty” alliteration thing. This one seemed like a natural fit since the Green Goblin is Spider-Man’s arch-enemy.
Veteran artist Sal Buscema was the initial penciler on the Spectacular Spider-Man series in the mid 1970s. He returned to the title in 1988 and remained on it for eight years, drawing over 100 issues. My favorite period from this lengthy run was issues #178 to #200 where he was paired with writer J.M. DeMatteis, which is when the Green Goblin showed up. “Our Pal Sal” did a spectacular job on the macabre Spider-Man villain. And that’s the reason why I asked him to sketch the Green Goblin for me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little artistic spotlight. Truthfully, part of the reason why I put it together is that I’m sort of depressed from doing so many obituaries on this blog. This was an opportunity to showcase the work of half a dozen talented creators who are still with us, and who hopefully will continue to be for a long time to come.
Henry Martinez is a penciler whose work for Marvel Comics in the early to mid 1990s really stood out for me at the time as a teenager reader. Considering how many new artists there were bursting onto the scenes during that period, that really says something about Martinez’s art that it lodged itself in my mind so indelibly.
Earlier this year I learned that Martinez was once again working in comic books, and still producing great art. We became Facebook friends, and he kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog. I am very grateful to him for providing such interesting, detailed answers to my questions.
This interview was conducted by e-mail between September and October 2021.
Henry Martinez will be at Table O-5 in Artist Alley at New York Comic Con from October 7 to 10. If you’re going, please stop by and say “Hello!”
BH: Hello, Mr. Martinez. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start out with your background. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?
Henry Martinez: Hello Ben, and thanks for having me on. My parents fled Cuba in 1966 and I was lucky enough to be born here within a month of them arriving in New Jersey. We lived there for a few months then moved to Queens, NY where I spent most of my childhood. They were always very supportive of me, buying me comics and cheap art supplies at the local Woolworth’s (who have been out of business for years now). So I was always sketching, coloring and building things with Play-Doh. I remember the books I bought then were Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, I loved the rivalry between Spider-Man and the Human Torch as I recall.
The only other interests then were reading and all things Star Trek and Space: 1999. I loved Trek so much I actually wrote the paperback publisher a letter which they replied to! It was an embarrassing letter from a kid who asked about the phasers on the show. What the hell did a book publisher know about how phasers work? I don’t remember their response, but I was so excited to get that letter.
BH: What was your educational background? Did you major in an art-related field? Was the comic book industry something that you actively hoped to find work in?
Henry Martinez: I went to public school where I got to draw during art class. Like most pros will tell you, I was that one kid that could draw, and everyone would go to get drawings done. Later on in life as you move on to other schools you learn that you are not the only one! I learned that when I was lucky enough to get into the High School of Art & Design, whose alumni include Tony Bennet, Neal Adams, Larry Hama (who I later wind up working with) and others.
I’ve always wanted to be a comic book artist, and going back to my supportive parents, they bought me a cheap drafting table and the book How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which I still use today. It’s the comic book bible that I refer to as I always seem to learn something new every time I open it. I set up my room then as I imagined my art hero John Buscema had his.
BH: According to the Grand Comics Database, your earliest professional work was drawing the “Spider-Femme” parody in Spoof Comics Presents #1 published by Personality Comics in 1992. Is that correct? (Just double checking, since the GCD is sometimes inaccurate.) How did that job come about?
Henry Martinez: Yep, that’s right. That was a fun time. I was submitting to everyone while working a fulltime job at an ad agency and they responded first. They wanted to meet me in person and asked if I’d work in their studio for a day, which I thought was unusual, but what the hell it was a new experience. So I asked for the day off from work, went out to Long Island and worked in the studio with Kirk Lindo who would later become my boss when he formed Brainstorm, featuring his book Vamperotica. It was a fun series to work on and they gave me three books all with Adam Hughes covers. I also did a few covers for them. I didn’t realize those books still have a following until I found a group on Facebook. One of the publishers is trying to gather the art to do a Kick Starter of the covers, I think.
BH: A year later you were drawing Sparkplug and League of Champions for editor Dennis Mallonee at Heroic Publishing. How did you come to work for Heroic? Did you enjoy penciling those comics? Were they what you might call a good “foot in the door” for your career?
Henry Martinez: One of the publishers that got back to me was Heroic Publishing. To this day I am still very proud of the work I did for them. I saw the work as gateway books, a chance to prove my chops to the Big Two, as they involved long stories and in the case of League of Champions, a team book. I loved the story, written by Lou Mougin, who really should be getting more work, as he is a great writer who is well informed and researches everything. We’re trying to work together, but it’s been difficult. I still work for Heroic, but finances make it difficult. Otherwise I would work for them regularly, as I really like the characters; I’ve even designed a few.
BH: Later on in 1993 you did fill-in pencils on Morbius the Living Vampire #13 for Marvel Comics. How did you get that job? What was it like getting work from Marvel only a year into your professional career?
Henry Martinez: At that time, I was still working fulltime at an ad agency. The hours are insane, lots of late nights and weekends, and I was still sending out packages to the Big Two. One day I get a letter and a script from Bobbie Chase telling me I am being given the opportunity to do a fill-in on Morbius.
I flipped out! My dream of working for Marvel is coming true. I couldn’t leave my job on a fill in with no promise of future work, so I would work full days and OT, then go home and pencil until 3 AM, sleep 3 hours then go to work and do it all over again for a month. When I turned in the last pages, my pals took me to the Blarney Stone to celebrate. I had to pull an all-nighter to make the deadline though, so I was half-asleep during dinner, then slept for 2 days. Sacrifice kids!
At that point I was offered Ghost Rider/Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance with the promise of getting Blaze since SoV was being cancelled, along with a few other books. I then had a decision to make…do I try to keep this impossible schedule and turn in subpar work or take a chance on a dream that may only last a few months? Advertising offers security and good money, but Marvel! I took the plunge and have no regrets. I would’ve been very happy staying there on any book but that was when the industry bubble burst. So many books were cancelled, and so many people lost their jobs. For some this was all they knew and they spent alot of money thinking it would last forever, but all things come to an end. I was lucky, I had storyboards to fall back on, others weren’t so lucky.
BH: Towards the end of 1993 you became the regular penciler on Ghost Rider / Blaze: Spirits of Vengeance beginning with issue #16. The previous penciler on SoV had been Adam Kubert, with his father, the legendary Joe Kubert, even contributing to a couple of issues. Was it intimidating following in their footsteps?
Henry Martinez: Oh yes. Those were beautiful books that I appreciate even more now that I have been revisiting them. There is so much action, energy and the story is even better than I remember. I could only do my best and hope that the reader liked it. I’ve been fortunate in that the work was received well and I still get comments on how much readers enjoyed my run.
BH: On your first two issues of Spirits of Vengeance you were inked by Keith Williams, but for the remainder of your run, through the book’s end with issue #23, you were paired with inker Bud LaRosa. How did you find their inking? Any particular preference between the two of them?
Henry Martinez: Everyone contributes in a different way. So, when I say I liked them both I’m not trying to be polite, but I really do like them both. Keith’s inking is more organic than Bud’s if I were to differentiate between the two. At the risk of offending a friend, I prefer organic inking.
BH: Following on from Spirits of Vengeance, you penciled the first 8 issues of the Blaze solo title. How did working with writer Larry Hama on that compare to working with Howard Mackie and David Quinn on SoV? I do remember I was a bit disappointed that you didn’t stay on Blaze for the entire 12 issue run. Was there a specific reason why you left the series?
Henry Martinez: I loved penciling Blaze. Larry wrote in characters that hadn’t been seen in a very long time that I loved and I will always be grateful to him for that. Just working for Marvel was amazing, but to start a new book?
Howard, David and Larry are incredible writers, and have different styles as a writer should. I loved working with all of them. They are all great world builders who can tell large stories involving many characters while still getting very personal with individual characters. That’s a very specific toolset. I don’t have a preference since they all have a unique voice that I like. And since you mention David Quinn, I really enjoyed that issue, it was a break from the SoV storyline, a quiet break. Although this break involved vampires!
I reluctantly left Blaze frankly because I was burning out. My father was a hardworking man who put in long hours, rarely slept and never complained. I thought the same way and just kept working, barely sleeping and my work suffered as did my personal life. Comics are out there forever, so there is so much pressure to do the best you can, within reason. You still have to make that deadline after all.
What a lot of people may not understand is how much work is involved in creating a comic book. There are so many people involved who depend on each other to deliver on time. You are only as good as your last book, so if you miss a deadline or two, you may not get another issue from that editor and even develop a bad reputation. So when I read reviews or comments like “he/she sucks!” It hurts, knowing now hard so many creators work, how much they sacrifice to do the best they can under the restrictions of a deadline. So I decided to stop, take a break and go back to advertising, especially considering he industry was suffering. I do wish I could have finished the title, though.
Fortunately, right after Blaze, Malibu Comics offered me a fill-in issue of All New Exiles, where I got to draw the Juggernaut. That was followed by 3 issues of Mantra which I loved working on. It was looking like I was going to be the regular penciler on that book when Marvel (who had bought Malibu) shut them down, and those characters never saw the light of day again. In the meantime, I had 3 issues and a half-finished 4th when I was told the news. I had also designed some characters for a storyline they were developing. Thanks to Facebook, I’m still in touch with the Malibu folks today. I just finished a story with my editor then, Roland Mann. I also did a 6 page proposal with him to bring back his characters, Cat & Mouse.
BH: In 1996 you drew a few stories for Vamperotica for Brainstorm Comics. Any particular thoughts on those? I know in the years since a lot of 1990s “bad girl” comic books have been the subject of much ridicule. For myself, as a fan of sci-fi and horror B-movies, I find that sub-genre to be similar, entertainingly cheesy. I thought you did solid work on Vamperotica. Your aptitude for rendering beautiful women that you previously demonstrated at Heroic and Marvel certainly served you well here.
Henry Martinez: Thanks for the kind words. That’s another book I was very proud of, I did my best work (at that time) then, I always try to give you my best. As I mentioned earlier, I would be hired by Kirk Lindo the publisher of Brainstorm who was the studio artist at Personality Comics. That’s why it’s always good to maintain good relationships with people, you never know. I have never been opposed to doing any genre as long as I enjoy the work, and I had a good script to work from. I was looking forward to doing more wok for them, but I think they were struggling at the time and went under. It was a storyline that had great potential and could’ve gone on for a while.
BH: You left the comic book field in 1996. This was around the time when the industry unfortunately imploded, so I am going to guess that was the reason for your departure. What types of work did you do over the next decade?
Henry Martinez: As I mentioned I went back to adverting for security, but as a freelancer, so I had more control over my schedule and was able to tackle other things. I’ve been working for Heroic Publishing just to keep doing comics, I can never stop doing comics. I’ve also done some character design for them that never saw the light of day, and some editorial work for Muscle and Fitness magazines. There is also some commission here and there, you never know what people will ask for.
BH: In 2004 you returned to comic books, once again doing work for Heroic Publishing. What brought you back to the industry?
Henry Martinez: I wouldn’t say it “brought me back” as much as I pop in when I can. I approached Heroic because I always liked their characters and Dennis is easy to work with. I still get to draw superheroes, and as sophistified as I pretend to be, I really enjoy drawing superheroes, despite doing some serious stuff, here and there.
BH: Those covers and stories for Heroic gave you your first opportunities to ink your own work. What prompted you to switch from penciling to doing full artwork?
Henry Martinez: To be honest, it was finances. I always say I would never begrudge someone from earning a living, but I came to a realization that there are a handful of people whose inks I like over my work. And outside of those creators, I do like my inks, so I made the offer to Dennis which agreed. I can ink my own work and get extra income, so why not? There are still times that I want a certain someone to ink my pencils, so I always ask first. There are two people I would love to have ink my work, one is my friend from high school, Jose Marzan Jr., (for those that don’t know, Jose is known for inking a popular Flash run and Y The Last Man) and I am lucky that Dennis agreed to his rate, so Jose and I will be working together on League of Champions which I am currently penciling.
BH: As a fan of your work at Marvel in the mid 1990s it’s been good to see you back in the biz. I certainly enjoyed your variant cover for Tragedy #1, where you were once again inked by Keith Williams. What other projects have you been working on over the last few years?
Henry Martinez: I really loved Keith’s inks on that cover, and I hope we can collaborate again soon. I requested him and writer/publisher Phillip Russert made it happen. He’s a good guy, always looking out for the artists.
As for my most recent projects, I did the first two issues of Cult of Dracula which was well received, and as I mentioned before I am penciling a League of Champions story, wrapping up a storyline that will lead to a full-sized issue right after. The cover is already done. I am also working on a Kickstarter of my own and a book to submit to Ben Dunn @Antarctic Press.
BH: Finally, I know you’re available for commissions. How should people who want to get work done by you contact you?
Henry Martinez: Thanks, I’m always open to commissions. My social media links are:
When I first got into comic books in the second half of the 1980s, and continued reading them as a teenager in the 1990s, one of the names I would frequently see in the credits was Keith Williams. He worked on numerous series: Alpha Flight, Transformers, Action Comics, Web of Spider-Man, Quasar, Robocop, Sensational She-Hulk, U.S.Agent, Ravage 2099, The Mask, Star Wars, and so on.
Keith is one of the various comic book creators who I have been fortunate enough to get to know on social media. He has always come across as a genuinely good person. Given Keith’s lengthy career, I felt it would be interesting to speak with him about his work in the medium.
This interview was conducted by e-mail between April and May 2021.
BH: Hello, Mr. Williams. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with the basics. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?
Keith Williams: Thank you for asking, Ben. I was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 16, 1957. My grandma gave me my first comic. It was Batman issue 184. I must have been 9 years old at the time. I always loved comics after that. I enjoyed watching astronauts fly into space, and for a while I wanted to be one.
BH: You attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan from 1976 to 1980. How did you find that educational experience?
Keith Williams: It was wonderful! The main reason I went SVA was because Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit, was teaching there. My major was in Cartooning and Will brought fun and a lot of knowledge about the art and business sides of comic books. The other classes were fine and rounded out my art experience. I still have great friends that I talk to from my time there.
BH: I understand you entered the comic book field as a background inker in the early 1980s. How did that come about, and which artists did you assist?
Keith Williams: I knew Howard Perlin from high school, working on school shows together. He introduced me to his father Don Perlin. At the time he was the artist on Ghost Rider. I had shown him my inking samples. He saw that I had potential and took me under his wing. He mentioned my name up at Marvel when they were looking for a background inker for Mike Esposito. I was hired and have been working in comics ever since. Besides Mike Esposito there was Joe Sinnott, Bob Wiacek, Andy Mushinsky, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Vince Colletta, John Byrne, Bob Hall and a few more.
BH: Why did you decide to focus on inking?
Keith Williams: I focused on inking because I learned that I was better at it. I had great people to learn the skills of inking from. Inking became my foot in the door.
BH: At Marvel Comics, you were also the first person to join Romita’s Raiders, the art apprentice program initiated by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and run by art director John Romita. What specific sort of work did you find yourself doing as one of the Raiders? How do you feel it helped you in terms of honing your skills and preparing you for a career as an artist in the comic book industry?
Keith Williams: As a Romita Raider, I, and the other Raiders were art correctors. We would fix storytelling if the panels didn’t flow correctly. If a character was wearing the wrong costume we would correct it. Assist John sometimes in cover design. John Romita was the Art Director at Marvel [and] everything would go through him meaning pages of art and he would assign us to fix things that needed fixing. While we were there as Raiders, we received a master class on how to create a comic.
BH: What was your first credited work in comic books, and how did you get assigned that job?
Keith Williams: My first credited work [was] Sectaurs for Marvel, 1985. I inked over Steve Geiger, another Raider. I think I started on issue 4. Mark Texeira moved on and they needed a new art team. It was a mini-series which ended on issue 7. I got the job because I was lucky enough to be in the office at the time.
BH: In late 1984 you became John Byrne’s background inker beginning with Alpha Flight #19. You provided background inks on several issues of Alpha Flight, and when Byrne moved to Incredible Hulk for his all-too-short run you accompanied him. After Byrne left Marvel for DC Comics where he oversaw the successful post-Crisis revamp of Superman, you were his background inker on Action Comics in 1987. How did you come to do background inking for Byrne? What was the experience like?
Keith Williams: Mark Gruenwald, one of the editors at Marvel, came up to me and asked if I was interested in working with John Byrne on Alpha Flight as a background artist. Of course, I said yes. It was a great experience.
BH: It’s noteworthy that Byrne saw that you were credited on all of those stories as the background inker, something that at the time was not expected, much less required. Do you find that this helped your career? Certainly as a young reader it was probably the first time I noticed your name.
Keith Williams: John put my name on the cover of the books and my name was right beside his in the credits. I would also get pages from the books we did. No other inker had ever done that for a background artist or would expect that to be done for them. I will always be grateful to him for doing it. He helped my career because of it.
BH: Later on you had the opportunity to do full inking over Byrne’s pencils on Avengers West Coast #53 in late 1989 and on several issues of Sensational She-Hulk in 1991. How did you like that experience? As a reader, I felt you did a good job. Looking at that Avengers West Coast, in particular I was very impressed by the detailed, intricate inking you did on the sequence with Immortus in an alternate timeline where Queen Elizabeth I was executed instead of Mary, Queen of Scots. The storyline in She-Hulk where she ends up in the Mole Man’s subterranean kingdom and fights Spragg the Living Hill also had a lot of interesting, detailed work by Byrne. You did a fine job embellishing all those caves and rocky textures.
Keith Williams: Actually, working fully on John’s pencils, scared the daylights out of me. As an artist, you always feel there is still so much to learn. Am I ready? I guess I was. All of the background inking got me ready to do full inks with John and I loved making his lines come to life.
BH: Jumping back a bit, you and penciler Alex Saviuk became the regular art team on Web of Spider-Man with issue #35, cover-dated March 1988. How did you get that assignment, and how did you find it working with Saviuk? You stayed on Web of Spider-Man through issue #85 in early 1992, so I’m guessing it was a good experience. Of course, as you were a freelancer, I’m sure you were also grateful to have a regular monthly assignment.
Keith Williams: Jim Salicrup was the editor on the Spider-Man books at the time. He must have seen my work here and there in the office and tried me out. I worked over Steve Gieger on an issue of Web of Spider-Man and then worked with Alex. I guess he saw something in us working together and we stay together for almost five years.
BH: Speaking for myself, I find Saviuk very underrated. I feel he was overshadowed by Todd McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man, which at the time was in the spotlight. I think that was a shame, because you and Saviuk were doing good, solid work month after month on Web.
Keith Williams: Alex is a great artist. I feel he’s up there with Romita in style. It was very enjoyable working with him.
BH: You worked on a wide variety of titles throughout the 1990s, inking a diverse selection of pencilers. I wanted to briefly touch upon the work you did for Dark Horse. You inked Doug Mahnke on The Mask Strikes Back and Bill Hughes on Star Wars: Droids, both of those coming out in 1995. Any particular thoughts on those two jobs? Mannke and Hughes both seem to have detailed penciling styles, so I wondered how you approached inking them.
Keith Williams: Doug Mahnke’s style on The Mask was different than any I‘ve encountered. It was zaniness stuffed into reality. Bill Hughes had more of a cartoon style which fit into the loony situation the Droids were put in. I try to go with the flow of the penciller. With Doug it would be more of a hard edge, using crow quill Hunt 102 pen point nibs. With Bill it more of a softer look. I used a Winsor Newton Series 7 No. 3 brush and a Gillotte 290 flexible pen nib.
BH: In 1994 you became the regular inker of The Phantom newspaper strip written by Lee Falk, inking George Olesen’s pencils. You were on the strip until 2005, when Olesen retired. Had you previously been a fan of The Phantom? Although it isn’t especially popular here in the States, it has an absolutely huge following in other parts of the world such as Sweden and Australia.
Keith Williams: I wasn’t really a fan of The Phantom. That was because it wasn’t in any of the newspapers in New York. I did learn to like it. The Phantom has a great cast of characters.
BH: I’ve heard working on a daily newspaper strip described as a grueling, endless treadmill run. What did you think of the work? How was it different from monthly comic books?
Keith Williams: I really had no idea what it was like to put out a six day strip every week. There was no time for a real vacation. So, even when I would go away on a trip, the Phantom would be with me. I’m not really complaining, because it was always better to have work than not. It was different than a comic book because, working on dailies, you only had as much as three panels to work on for a strip.
BH: Finally, what have you been working on in the last decade and a half? Do you have any new projects coming out soon?
Keith Williams: Actually, I got to work for Marvel again with the help of Ron Frenz in 2019. It was a 10 page story in Thor the Worthy. Other than that, it’s been conventions and commissions for me.
BH: If people are interested in hiring you for commissions, what is the best way to get in touch with you?
Keith Williams: You can DM me on Instagram or Facebook: keithwilliamscomicbookart. You can also email me at email@example.com.
In previous editions of Strange Comic Books, I’ve looked at certain comics that had varying degrees of oddness. However, this latest entry really is an especially bizarre item. Published by Marvel Comics, the Captain America: The Drug Wars special is mind-bogglingly weird.
A little background first: if you went to school in the 1980s and early 90s, you might remember that Marvel and DC used to work with various government agencies and private companies to publish what were the comic book equivalent of Public Service Announcements or After School Specials. These were distributed to schools around the country, and featured popular superheroes in stories educating students about drug addiction, teen pregnancy, child abuse, asthma and, um, tooth decay… yeah, what can I say, not all childhood dangers are created equal. As you can imagine, none of these comic book PSAs offered what could be regarded as particularly subtle or nuanced examinations of complex societal problems.
Captain America was one of the characters to appear in these. There were not one but two specials entitled Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs that were created by Marvel in the early 1990s. I was reminded of these recently when someone mentioned them as part of a discussion on Comic Book Resources about the “Streets of Poison” story arc. Cap is perhaps not the most judicious of choices to use as a spokesperson to convince kids not to use drugs, considering he gained all his physical abilities via the Super Soldier Serum. Though, to be fair, Steve Rogers volunteered for Operation Rebirth because he selflessly wanted to help protect the world from Fascism rather than, say, break the record for most home runs in a season of baseball. I’m sure you can see the difference between Cap and Barry Bonds.
Oddly enough, the first of these specials was sponsored by Guardian Life Insurance, who less than a decade before had been depicted in Captain America #291 as an evil corporation scheming to rip off supervillains in a massive life insurance scam. I guess Guardian wasn’t one to hold a grudge.
These two specials were, unsurprisingly, about as heavy-handed as you can get in terms of depicting drug use in a negative light, and in hammering home, over and over, the “just say no” message. But obviously that was their point. In the end they were well-intentioned propaganda devices that clumsily but earnestly were hoping to protect teenagers from turning into dope fiends, or something like that.
No, where things get odd is when Marvel decided to reprint the two Captain America Goes To War Against Drugs stories as Captain America: The Drug Wars in 1994 and sell it in comic book shops. They even had a brand-new cover for it, courtesy of S. Clarke Hawbaker. (Whatever happened to S. Clarke Hawbaker, anyway? I always enjoyed his work.)
And then we get to the actual material within Captain America: The Drug Wars. The first story is more or less straightforward, with Cap trying to help out a teenage athlete named Mitch who has become addicted to drugs. Yes, straightforward, except for the fact that Mitch gets his supply from an alien drug dealer. Really!
However, these extraterrestrial narcotics smugglers are more or less a side issue in this tale. As Cap astutely points out to Mitch, it doesn’t really matter who he got the drugs from, but rather what the drugs are doing to him, like, say, causing him to accidentally knock out people with his fastball during high school baseball games. Oops!
To be fair, veteran comic book writer Peter David does a good job scripting a story that has a Very Important Message without it becoming too cringe-worthy. And there’s some pretty good artwork courtesy of Sal Velluto & Keith Williams.
It’s only in the second installment that the proceedings become insanely anvilicious. Cap, still working on tracking down the drug ring seen in the prior chapter, has joined forces with the teenage superhero group the New Warriors. Following the criminals to their lair, Cap and the New Warriors find it defended by a quartet of super-powered teenage criminals with the names Weed, Crack, Ice and Ms. Fix, collectively known as the Drug Lords… no, I am not making this up! And then Silhouette of the New Warriors unmasks the hooded mastermind lurking in the shadows. Yep, it’s those pesky alien drug pushers, the Tzin, once again.
The Tzin leader and the Drug Lords escape by teleporting to an orbiting spaceship. We soon see that the Drug Lords may have gained their powers through the use of narcotic substances, but (of course) this has also turned them into addicts.
Back on Earth, Silhouette pays a visit on her friend Dorreen, only to discover the teen dance prodigy is using drugs to relieve the pressure she’s under. This is all observed by Ms. Fix, who has been trailing Silhouette. Ms. Fix realizes that Silhouette, who uses crutches, wants to regain full mobility, and tries to tempt her into joining the Drug Lords. Silhouette surreptitiously summons Cap and tricks Ms. Fix into teleporting them all to the Tzin spaceship. During the fight the ship gets trashed, and the Drug Lords’ supply goes up in flames, causing them to turn on their alien masters. Cap, Silhouette, and Dorreen (who somehow also managed to end up on the ship) teleport back to Earth before everything goes boom. Wrapping things up, Silhouette offers to help Dorreen overcome her addiction.
The writer on this half of the book is George Caragonne, who penned a handful of stories for Marvel in the early 1990s. What makes Caragonne’s association with this anti-drug comic especially odd is that soon after he became the editor of Penthouse Comix. And then a year after that he committed suicide. Yeah, all joking aside, that was a really awful end for him.
Having the story focus on Silhouette was a good decision on Caragonne’s part. As so effectively established by writer Fabian Nicieza in the ongoing New Warriors series, Silhouette was a former athlete who became partially paralyzed, but who continued to actively fight crime, not letting her disability hold her back. So she was an ideal character to utilize in attempting to show that you do not need to fall back on mind-altering substances when adversity strikes.
This second part is penciled by A Distant Soil creator Colleen Doran, with inking by Greg Adams. I have to say it looks very beautiful. Doran and Adams probably could have phoned it in if they wanted to, given the somewhat hokey, throw-away nature of the story. Instead they turned in some real quality artwork.
It’s worth nothing that, by collecting those two PSAs as Captain America: The Drug Wars, those stories became an official part of Marvel canon. I kid you not. The Tzin even received a profile page in the Captain America: America’s Avenger handbook-style special in 2011, with a profile image illustrated by Gus Vasquez.
I’m still waiting for someone to bring the Tzin back. Because when you think about it, they actually had a somewhat more plausible scheme for conquering the Earth than most other alien invaders. If you really are that hell-bent on attempting to take over the Earth, which has several thousand superheroes living on it and has successful driven off the Skrulls, Kree and Galactus on multiple occasions, then there are certainly worse schemes to hatch than getting the teenage population of the planet addicted to drugs. Sounds like Marvel’s next big crossover if you ask me!