The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Five

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and now I’m collecting them together here.  (Please click on the “coffee” tag to read the previous parts of the series.)

coffee pot

21) John Buscema & John Romita

The art team of penciler John Buscema and inker John Romita join with scripter Stan Lee to tug on those heartstrings in “I Love Him – But He’s Hers!”  This tale of torrid passions appeared in Our Love Story #2, published by Marvel Comics with a December 1969 cover date.

With her father having died unexpectedly and her brother serving in Vietnam, young Anne must work as a waitress to pay for college.  Anne’s difficult circumstances are constantly rubbed in her face by her rich snob doom roommate Cynthia.  Soon cruel Cynthia ups her taunts by showing off her handsome boyfriend at every opportunity.  “This is Art Nelson, little woman – and he’s all mine! So you may look — but don’t touch!”  Anne is, of course, instantly attracted to Art, but she dares not make a move, fearful of Cynthia’s temper.  Cynthia’s taunts eventually back fire on her as Art, realizing what a horrid person she actually is, dumps her for the sweet, down-to-Earth Anne.

John Buscema has been referred to as “the Michelangelo of comics.”  He was incredibly talented, one of the top artists at Marvel Comics for three decades, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.  Buscema was, however, not actually fond of drawing super-heroes, something he admitted to on several occasions throughout the years.  He much preferred drawing Conan the Barbarian to any of Marvel’s spandex-clad crimefighters.

Given his dislike for super-heroes, perhaps he saw romance stories as  a refreshing change of pace.  It definitely drew on one of Buscema’s strengths, namely his ability to render beautiful women.  He certainly does a damn fine job on this splash page, drawing Anne waitressing in a coffeehouse populated by a colorful crowd of hip java-drinkers.

Of course, Buscema was also vocal about his dislike for most of the inkers / finishers he was paired with, as he felt most of them overwhelmed his work with their own styles.  So we can only guess how he felt about being inked by John Romita on Marvel’s romance stories, especially as the later’s style is very much in evidence.

Having acknowledged all that, from my perspective as a reader, this really looks stunning.  I feel the combination of the two Johns results in a deft, effective blending of their signature styles.

A big “thank you” to colorist supreme José Villarrubia, who spotlighted this page on his FB feed.

Our Love Story 2 pg 1

22) Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema

Amazing Spider-Girl #15, penciled by Ron Frenz, inked by Sal Buscema, written by Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz, lettered by Dave Sharpe, and colored by Bruno Hang, published by Marvel Comics, cover-dated February 2008.

Her name is May “Mayday” Parker, and she is the daughter of Spider-Man.

Yes, it’s a “Mayday” post, which would have been absolutely perfect for May 1st.  Instead I posted this on FB on May 2nd.  Oops.  As the man used to say, “Missed it by THAT much!”

AHEM!  Spider-Girl is the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, from a reality where their newborn baby was rescued from the clutches of the diabolical Norman Osborn.  Now a teenager, Mayday has inherited both her father’s powers and sense of responsibility.  Assuming the identity of Spider-Girl, Mayday attempts to fight crime and save innocent lives while juggling high school classes, an active social life, and a pair of parents who are understandably very concerned that their daughter is following in her father’s web-swinging footsteps.

Spider-Girl is the little comic book that could.  Originally making her debut in a one-off story by DeFalco & Frenz in What If #105 (Feb 1998), Mayday graduated to her own ongoing series just a few months later.  DeFalco, first paired with penciler Pat Olliffe, and later reunited with Frenz, did a great job developing Mayday and her supporting cast.  Spider-Girl gained a relative small but very enthusiastic fanbase and ran for 100 issues, followed by Amazing Spider-Girl, which lasted another 30 issues.  Mayday then migrated to several issues of Spider-Man Family and Web of Spider-Man, and then a Spectacular Spider-Girl miniseries, with DeFalco & Frenz bringing her story to a close with the Spider-Girl: The End special in October 2010.  Of course, that was still not the curtain for Mayday, who has continued to pop up here and there.  You can’t keep a good Spider-Girl down!

Mayday and her friends often hung out at Café Indigo, a coffee shop in Forest Hills, Queens.  As per Ron Frenz:

“Café Indigo was introduced by Pat Olliffe, as a tribute to his wife’s architectural design business at the time.”

In Amazing Spider-Girl #15 the gang gathers at Café Indigo to welcome back their pal Moose, who had to move away for several months due to his father’s illness.  Frenz does a great job with this sequence, giving it moments of both characterization and comedy.  I love the facial expressions.  Frenz is such a strong storyteller, as this page demonstrates.

Inking is provided by the legendary Sal Buscema, who has been working with Frenz regularly since 2003.  They make a great art team.

Amazing Spider-Girl 15 pg 7

23) Bill Sienkiewicz & Klaus Janson

May 3rd was artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s birthday.  To celebrate the occasion, I took a look at two coffee-themed pages of artwork by Sienkiewicz featuring Moon Knight.

The first page is from the Moon Knight back-up story in the The Hulk magazine #17, penciled by Sienkiewicz, inked by Klaus Janson, written by Doug Moench, and colored by Olyoptics, published by Marvel Comics with an October 1979 cover date.  The second page is from Moon Knight #23, drawn by Sienkiewicz, written by Moench, lettered by Joe Rosen, and colored by Christie Scheele, with a September 1982 cover date.

On the first page we have Moon Knight stopping in at Gena’s Diner, the Manhattan coffee shop he frequents while sniffing out info on illegal activities in his guise of cabbie Jake Lockley.  Sienkiewicz was only 21 years old when he drew this story.  His work here definitely brings to mind Neal Adams, who Sienkiewicz has cited as a major influence.

Even with the obvious stylistic similarities, we can see that Sienkiewicz was already starting to utilize some interesting layouts in his storytelling.  Janson’s inking goes well with Sienkiewicz’s style here, giving it a grittier edge that suits Moench’s writing.

Moon Knight Hulk Magazine 17 pg 50

On the second page we have Moon Knight, Frenchie, Marlene and her brother Peter having fled to Maine in the dead of winter, hiding out in an isolated house in the woods Moon Knight owns in his Steven Grant persona.  They are fleeing from Moon Knight’s old foe Morpheus, the so-called “Dream Demon” who has the ability to possess people in their sleep, and to create horrifying nightmares.  In order to stay awake and prevent Mopheus from controlling them Moon Knight and the others are gulping down copious amounts of black coffee.

Morpheus utilizes his psychic connection to Peter to learn their location.  He invades the house and seizes control of both Marlene and Peter.  Moon Knight and Frenchie are unaware of any of this, as they are busy trying to rig up a generator in the basement as a defense against Morpheus.  Marlene comes down to join them, ostensibly to bring them some much-needed coffee.  Too late they realize that Marlene is now in Morpheus’ thrall.  Eyes ablaze with madness, Marlene strikes a match and tosses it onto the generator, with explosive results.

This issue of Moon Knight was drawn by Sienkiewicz only three years after that story in The Hulk magazine and, WHOA, what a difference!  Sienkiewicz’s work grew by absolute leaps and bounds in that short period of time.  This page is a really good illustration of how much he developed.  His work has become very stylized and atmospheric.  His layouts are striking, and he utilizes inking and zip-a-tone to superb effect.  You can see here that Sienkiewicz has begun his evolution to the stunning abstract artwork that he would soon be creating in the mid 1980s.

Credit must also go to the coloring by Christie Scheele on this story.  Her work complements Sienkiewicz’s art so very well.

Moon Knight 23 pg 10

24) Wallace Wood

This artwork is from the story “The Probers” in Weird Science #8, drawn by Wallace Wood, written by Al Feldstein & Bill Gaines, lettered by Jim Wroten, and colored by Marie Severin, published by EC Comics with a July-August 1951 cover date.  I scanned this from the hardcover The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume Two, issued in 2007 by Russ Cochran and Gemstone Publishing.

Growing up in the early 1980s, I discovered the classic EC Comics via reprints.  I was never overly fond of EC’s horror titles, since I found the pun-slinging hosts sort of cheesy.  But I was absolutely enthralled by the sci-fi stories in Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, with their insightful examinations of the human condition, their grimly ironic twist endings, and their realistic, detailed artwork.  Looking back on these, I realize that many of the EC stories that made the biggest impression on my young self were those drawn by Wallace Wood.

Wood, known to his friends as “Woody” (reportedly he disliked being called “Wally”), was an absolutely incredible artist, with his intricately detailed spaceships & technology, bizarre aliens, and stunningly beautiful women.  Wood is rightfully remembered for his brilliant work, and the word “classic” is deservedly used to describe the stories he drew for EC.

“The Probers” is a typical EC tale of cosmic karma. Interestingly the story takes nearly a page detour to showcase young Lawrence Cavips’s futile attempt to drink coffee in outer space.  Captain Scott provides us with a demonstration of the correct way do things, using a straw to sip up the free-floating bubbles of coffee.  Scott guesses this must be Cavip’s first mission, which the young man confirms, telling him “Right! I just graduated two months ago!”

What?  Just graduated?  Cavip went to Astronaut Academy (or whatever they call it) and no one there bothered to explain to him the behavior of liquids in zero gravity?  What are they teaching kids these days?  Ehh, the young punk was probably slacking off, too busy hanging out with girls and listening to that newfangled rock & roll.  Why in my day…

Weird Science 8 coffee

25) Gilbert Shelton

“I Led Nine Lives!” written & drawn by Gilbert Shelton, appeared in the underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #3 published by Rip Off Press in 1973.  It was reprinted in Fat Freddy’s Cat #1, released by Rip Off Press in 1988.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are a trio of San Francisco potheads: Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, Phineas T. Phreak and Fat Freddy Freekowtski.  Fat Freddy has an orange tabby cat, the so-called “Fat Freddy’s Cat,” although the cat is (unsurprisingly) much smarter than his human, and often poops on Freddy’s possessions, especially if he’s late getting fed.

Fat Freddy’s Cat occasionally recounts his supposed adventures to his three nephews, and “I Led Nine Lives!” he regales them with his time as F. Frederick Skitty, federal agent.  Skitty is assigned by “the Chief” to stop a nefarious plot to poison the nation’s water supply with a drug nicknamed “Hee Hee Hee.” When asked what exactly “Hee Hee Hee” does, the Chief gravely replies “It turns you queer!”

Skitty parachutes into to the mountain headquarters of the “Hee Hee Hee” manufacturers.  After accidentally shooting up the nudist colony next door, Skitty confronts the flamboyant terrorists, who inform them that he is too late, because “We already mixed the drug in the nation’s coffee supply!”  Skitty guns down the terrorists and races back to Washington DC to warn everyone, only to find the Chief already drinking his morning coffee and softly giggling “Hee Hee Hee” to himself.  Skitty shoots the Chief, reasoning “It was my patriotic duty.”  He then realizes that by now everyone else in the country has probably also had coffee.  “So I shot myself, too” he tells his nephews.  However he quickly assures them that everything turned out fine because “I still had eight more lives.”

Fat Freddys Cat 1 pg 7

Of course that extra-long nose we see Fat Freddy’s Cat sporting in the last panel hints that perhaps his thrilling account might not have been entirely accurate, to say the least!

I scanned this from my girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s copy of Fat Freddy’s Cat #1. She was probably my intro to Gilbert Shelton. Michele is very much into independent and underground comics, and she’s broadened my knowledge & interests considerably.

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.

Howard the Duck for President

There has been certain skepticism regarding my cat Squeaky’s presidential campaign, with some wondering if a feline can actually even run for President. Well, let me assure you, Squeaky is hardly the first non-human to seek election to the highest office in the land.  Let us cast our gaze back four decades to the year 1976, when that foul-mouthed fowl Howard the Duck ran for President.

Howard the Duck 8 cover

Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s was a madhouse, and the lunatics were running the asylum. The company was in chaos, with little editorial oversight, deadlines being missed left & right, and sales on numerous books hovering at precipitously low levels.  On the one hand, this meant that for a time Marvel was teetering on the brink of collapse; on the other, this chaos enabled creators to experiment, to try all sorts of crazy ideas.  Howard the Duck was definitely one of those far-out concepts.  For a time the character was a tremendous success.

Howard the Duck was created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. In many ways Howard was Gerber’s baby (no pun intended).  Gerber possessed an extremely offbeat and farcical sense of humor.  He utilized the character of Howard, an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension stranded on Earth, to brutally skewer a variety of topics, among them politics, religion and popular culture.  So it was natural enough that Gerber would utilize Howard to mock the 1976 presidential race.  It’s the sort of storyline that even a few years later he simply could not have gotten away with at Marvel.

The main narrative of Howard’s quest for the Oval Office took place in issue #s 7-9 of his monthly title and in the oversized Marvel Treasury Edition #12. Artwork on the Howard the Duck series was by the team of Gene Colan & Steve Leialoha, while the Treasury was illustrated by Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson.

In issue #7, Howard and his human companion, the lovely redheaded Beverly Switzler, are hitchhiking through rural Pennsylvania. After their run-ins with the loony Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and the Incredible Cookie Creature, the pair catch a ride with country singer Dreyfus Gulch.  The rhinestone cowboy is scheduled to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the national convention for the All-Night Party at Madison Square Garden.  Arriving in NYC, Gulch arranges jobs for Howard and Beverly at the convention.  Howard work security, which mostly entails breaking up fights between delegates, while Beverly is a Hospitality Girl, which mostly entails her getting pinched in the ass by those same delegates.  (As far as I know, Bill Clinton was not on the premises.)

Howard ends up foiling a plot to blow up the convention. The delegates, impressed by both his bravery and his extremely blunt honesty, decide to make him the All-Night Party’s presidential candidate.  This immediately puts a target on Howard’s feathered backside.

Howard the Duck 7 pg 17

In the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition #7, the first assassination attempt on Howard is made by a quintet of lame wannabe super-villains led by Dr. Angst, Master of Mundane Mysticism, who convinces his fellow losers that fame & fortune awaits them once they kill Howard.

Meanwhile, the still-broke Howard and Beverly are in Greenwich Village searching for a place to crash. Mistaking Doctor Strange’s sanctum sanctorum for the home of Beverly’s old high school friends, the pair instead comes face-to-face with the Defenders.  At this point the legion of losers attacks.  Strange is knocked out by a mystic barrage of baseballs and the unconscious mage temporarily transfers his powers to Howard.

Yes, that’s right. Only one day after receiving the All-Night Party’s nomination, our plumed politician assumes the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.  If that’s not Commander in Chief material, I don’t know what is.  True, Howard’s turn as a veritable Ducktor Strange, Mallard of the Mystic Arts is short-lived, but he acquits himself well, playing a key role in helping the Defenders to defeat the despicable dimwits who have attacked them.

Howard the Duck as Doctor Strange

Also in the pages of the Treasury is an interview with Howard conducted by Steve Gerber himself. Queried about his qualifications and political experience, Howard articulates his reasons for running…

“I never kept one job more than three an’ a half weeks. Which is another advantage of the presidency. They can only fire ya for high crimes an’ misdemeanors. That stuff, I don’t pull. I just mouth off a lot.”

Perhaps you may be thinking to yourself that this is a terrible attitude for a Presidential candidate to have. But just look at it this way… ask any old human why they want to be elected to the White House, and they’ll give you some song & dance about “serving the public” and “patriotic duty” and “making America great again.”  But, truthfully, that’s all a load of horse pucky.  What they are really after is power and adoration and wealth.

In contrast, Howard comes right out and admits he wants to be President because he’s looking to (appropriately enough) feather his nest. How often do you come across a politician with that kind of honesty?

Moving on to Howard the Duck #8, having defeated their attackers, Howard and Beverly depart from Doctor Strange’s house. Within mere seconds they are attacked by a succession of would-be assassins hoping to earn the $10 million bounty that’s been placed on the duck’s head.  Fortunately Dreyfus Gulch zooms to the rescue in his armored limo.

Howard and Beverly are ferried to the offices of G.Q. Studley Associates, whose image consultants want to make Howard into the perfect pre-packaged candidate. Howard, of course, violently rebels at this.  Hiring Mad Genius Associates to manage his campaign, Howard embarks on a series of nation-wide appearances where he bluntly dishes out the unvarnished truth.  The misanthropic duck feels perfectly free to do so because he really doesn’t care if he wins or not, and he’s totally thrilled to finally have a soapbox from which to mouth off and tell everyone how stupid they are.

Howard the Duck 8 pg 10

You might say that Howard the Duck as a presidential candidate possesses the ideology of Bernie Sanders and the personality of Donald Trump. As one person in this issue comments, “My god, he’s telling the truth!  He’ll be dead in a week!”

Much to his surprise, Howard makes significant gains in the polls, and as Election Day approaches it actually appears that he might have a shot at winning. This all comes crashing down when a doctored photo that appears to show Howard and Beverly having a bath together is published by the Daily Bugle.  Yep, there’s nothing like the whiff of extramarital hanky-panky to send a promising political career into a tailspin.

As issue #9 opens the election is over and Howard has lost.  Truthfully he really doesn’t care, but Beverly is horrified at having been humiliated, “branded nation-wide as a shameless hussy.”  Dreyfus Gulch taps his CIA contacts, and they discover the forged photo originated in Canada.  Beverly insists to Howard that they head north to clear their names, explaining “My meticulously fabricated rep is at stake!”

Howard and Beverly journey to Canada, joining forces with Sgt. Preston Dudley of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Dudley leads them to the most likely suspect, “the infamous Pierre Dentifris, Canada’s only super-patriot!”  Dentifris has a burning hatred of America, regarding it as an arrogant bully that is constantly encroaching on Canada.  The attempts on Howard’s life and the forged photo were parts of an insanely convoluted (and just plain insane) plot to destroy America.  Further casting doubt on his sanity, Dentifris dons a suit of armor shaped like a giant beaver and challenges Howard to a fight to the death on a tightrope strung across Niagara Falls.  Howard, of course, perseveres, although the entire experience leaves him completely opposed to ever again entering the political arena.

Howard the Duck, as well as Steve Gerber’s other works, are something of an acquired taste for me. When I was younger I didn’t really appreciate his writing.  Quite a bit of his material went over my head.  As I got older, and my horizons broadened, Gerber was one of those creators who I grew to appreciate.  Looking at his work now, it’s apparent that Gerber was not the type to write down to his audience.  He certainly enjoyed pushing the boundaries.  Gerber was also very on-the-nose with his withering satire.

In regards to the blurb on the cover to issue #9, “When Bites the Beaver,” I’m curious if Gerber was sneaking in a crude sexual innuendo. Then again, sometimes a beaver is just a beaver.  After all, a few months after this storyline Gerber introduced the villainous Dr. Bong, whose head was a giant bell.  Despite much speculation over the years, Gerber always insisted that, no, the name Dr. Bong was not a drug reference.

Howard the Duck 9 cover

These issues have some really nice artwork. Gene Colan’s unconventional pencils are a nice fit for this series.  Colan specialized in rendering the genres of horror and mystery.  As can be seen by his work on Howard the Duck, he was a versatile artist who was also adept at humor.

Steve Leialoha is a great artist in his own right. He had only been working professionally for about a year when he inked these issues.  As has often been observed, it could be a difficult task to ink Colan’s pencils as he utilized very subtle shading.  Leialoha certainly acquits himself very well.  He possesses a rather abstract, flowing quality to his work, and his inking gives Colan’s pencils a slightly more cartoony quality that suits the tone of these stories.

I asked Leialoha on his Facebook page if he had any thoughts to share concerning his collaboration with Colan, and he was kind enough to respond…

“I like to think I took to inking Gene’s pencils like a duck to water! But, seriously, out of all the pencilers I’ve had the pleasure to work with he was my favorite.  Beautiful stuff!  Doing a little math: I figure I’d inked about 250 pages up at Marvel before Howard the Duck # 7 rolled around with about 70 of them over Gene’s pencils, so I was ready for it!  I look back at it now and see things I would do differently but I’m grateful for the opportunity, all those years ago.”

I’ve previously written about my great fondness for Sal Buscema’s art. He does a very nice job penciling the oversized Treasury.  It’s interesting to see him render the more oddball, cartoony elements of the story, such as Howard himself.

Klaus Janson, even this early in his career, was doing great work. As he has a distinctively gritty style, it’s noteworthy that he’s working on a humorous story like this one.  He and Buscema do make a good art team.

These issues are among the material contained within the Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 trade paperback. I highly recommend picking it up.  Trust me: in this insane election year, we can use all the humor that we can find!

Star Wars reviews: The Apprentice and The Dream

Continuing the countdown to The Force Awakens, I am looking at past Star Wars comic books.  Today I’m spotlighting two more issues from the original Marvel Comics series.

“The Apprentice” appeared in Star Wars Annual #3 (Summer 1983).  Its sequel, “The Dream,” was in Star Wars #92 (Feb 1985).  Both stories were written by Jo Duffy.  “The Apprentice” was illustrated by Klaus Janson.  “The Dream” was penciled by Jan Duursema and inked by Tom Mandrake.

Star Wars Annual 3 cover

Set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, “The Apprentice” sees members of the Rebel Alliance on the planet Belderone investigating rumors of an Imperial project that threatens their base on the nearby world of Kulthis.  Most of the locals are secretive except for two curious teenagers, Flint and Barney.  Flint in particular is intrigued.  Noticing the lightsaber Luke Skywalker carries, an excited Flint mentions that his late father was a Jedi Knight.  The teens take the Rebels to the local tavern, which is run by Flint’s mother Zana.  Princess Leia realizes that the two teenagers are star-struck by Luke, but he brushes this off, insisting that they have an important mission.

The Rebels’ arrival does not go unnoticed, and one of Zana’s neighbors notifies General Andrid.  The Imperial officer dispatches assassins to eliminate them.  But Luke’s connection to the Force alerts him to the impending ambush, and the Rebels are able to thwart the attack.

Off in space, Darth Vader’s ship is en route to Belderone.  He has sensed that something important will take place there, and he is expecting Luke’s involvement.  Vader learns of Andrid’s failed attempt to kill the Rebels, and the enraged Sith strangles the General.  Vader decides to take personal charge of operations planet-side.

Luke, realizing Vader is near, leaves for Kulthis to summon reinforcements.  Leia and the other Rebels are led by Flint and Barney to the mysterious installation where most of the population is employed by the Empire.  Suddenly the ground splits open and a group of Imperial Walkers emerge.  They begin marching to the nearby airfield, where they will be transported to Kulthis to attack the Rebels.

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 25

Flint and Barney, seeing the enormous AT-ATs heading towards town, rush off to warn everyone, including Flint’s mother.  They are secretly observed by Vader and one of his men.  The aid asks if they should have stopped the two teenagers, but the Sith is dismissive of the pair.

Before the Walkers can reach their ships, a group of Rebel X-Wings led by Luke arrives, catching them off guard.  With the aid of Leia and Lando Calrissian, who have seized control of one of the AT-ATs, the Rebels defeat the unprepared Imperials.

Unfortunately, before the battle is over, one of the Walkers wrecks a path of destruction through the nearby town.  Among those killed are Zana.  Flint, crouching by his mother’s body, is distraught…

“It was all just a game… we were useless… we couldn’t do a thing… And they let us go on… pretending we could help… But we couldn’t… we were useless… I was useless… and now you’re dead…

“I swear… I swear to you… I’m going to learn… I’m going to get the training… the same training my father had… I’m going to become someone who matters… And then I’ll show them all!”

The grieving Flint does not realize that he is being watched.  The observer steps forward and addresses him…

“I know how you feel… I had almost forgotten what it was like to feel that way… It has been some time since I heard anyone speak the way you do now… I did not take you seriously before, and I should have… forgive me. Let me make it up to you now…

“I could not single you out for special training right away… you would be just one of our men at first… but I have sensed the power in you… in time, I promise you, you will be tutored specially… and if you really wish it… you will become someone who matters very much!”

The way this scene is written by Duffy and illustrated by Janson, the reader is led to believe that it is Luke speaking to Flint, recruiting him into the Rebellion.  However, a few pages later we learn from Barney, who witnessed this exchange, that the individual who has approached Flint is none other than Vader.

As the Annual closes, Barney leaves Belderone with the Rebels.  Elsewhere, watched over by Vader, the grim Flint dons the armor of a Stormtrooper, joining the ranks of the Empire.

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 36

“The Dream” takes place several months after Return of the Jedi.  The former Rebel Alliance is attempting to organize the newly-freed planets and to deal with the Imperial remnants still active across the galaxy.  Luke is having a series of troubling dreams in which his now-dead father, Darth Vader, appears to him in an eerie mist-filled void.

A ship piloted by Prince Denin of Naldar arrives on Endor.  The desperate Denin informs the Alliance that Imperial forces are laying siege to his world.  The Prince demands assistance.  He also wants to be trained as a Jedi by Luke.  Reluctantly Luke declines, remembering how his own father Anakin Skywalker was not adequately trained, allowing him to be turned to the Dark Side of the Force.

Despite Denin’s brusque manner, Leia convinces the Alliance to investigate the Prince’s claims.  Luke accompanies Leia and the others.  Aboard the Millennium Falcon, Luke falls asleep.  He is once again in the void, but this time he is greeted by the spirits of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and even his father Anakin.  Luke realizes the image of Vader represents a new Dark Lord.  Anakin explains to Luke…

“Do you not recognize him? We share the blame for his creation, my son.

“He is not beyond redemption, my son… but I am unable to return and undo the evil I did. Only you can save him, Luke.”

The Falcon arrives to find Naldar completely decimated by the Empire.  The ship is hit by a powerful energy cannon and crashes.  While repairs are being made, Luke heads out with Lando and Denin to investigate.  They are attacked by Imperial forces and soon surrounded.  A black-armored figure approaches.  Luke faces down the dark figure and challenges him…

“Why don’t you show us what’s under that armor? It’s not as though you need it to survive. Or are you afraid to face me without it?”

Grimly the armored figure removes his helmet… and, yep, it’s Flint!

Star Wars 92 pg 30

Luke and Flint engage in a lightsaber duel.  Flint reveals that Vader began training him in the use of the Force, and accuses Luke of killing him.  Luke tries to explain that Vader was his father, and that in the end he turned away from the Dark Side, but Flint is too enraged to listen.

The crew from the Falcon then arrives, and Barney is among them.  Flint is shocked to see his old friend.  Barney approaches him, accusing Flint of fighting the people he once admired.  When Flint argues that the Rebels couldn’t save him mother, Barney counters this…

“Was it an Alliance bomb that killed her? No, it was the Empire. And you couldn’t save her and be a hero… so now you’re gonna punish the whole universe, and kill a whole lot of mothers and sons and innocent people? That makes a lot of sense!

“Frankly, I don’t think you can. But I’ve been wrong before. So, prove it to me, for old times’ sake. See the face of one of your victims. Kill me first, Flint.”

And, despite all the crimes he has committed, Flint realizes that he is unable to murder his friend.

One of the Stormtroopers, watching this unfold, prepares to shoot Flint in the back for his “betrayal.”  But Denin (who we now know to actually be Princess Vila, taking on her fallen brother’s identity) sees this and grabs Luke’s fallen lightsaber.  Throwing herself in front of the Stormtrooper, Vila intercepts the blast meant for Flint, and kills the Imperial.

Witnessing Vila’s sacrifice, a disgusted Flint turns his back on the Imperial cause.  He uses the controls on his armor to destroy the energy cannon.

Star Wars 92 cover

Jo Duffy became the regular writer of the Star Wars comic book with issue #70 (April 1983) and, except for a few fill-in issues, wrote the series until its cancelation with issue #107 (September 1986).  Her stories were a wonderful mix of drama and comedy.  Duffy’s run is rather underrated, especially the later issues, where she was working to devise a new direction for the series after Return of the Jedi.  Duffy showed the characters attempting to transition from freedom fighters to diplomats, politicians and teachers.  She also introduced new adversaries to threaten galactic freedom.

“The Apprentice” and “The Dream” are two of my favorite stories that Duffy wrote for Star Wars.  She examined Luke’s burden to continue the legacy of the Jedi.  Luke was understandably reluctant to train a new generation of Jedi, concerned that if he did not do so properly that they could be corrupted by their powers.  But with the events of these two stories Luke learns that if he neglects to take up that responsibility then those with the potential to utilize the Force, such as Flint, might fight other teachers who would not hesitate the steer them towards the Dark Side.

This is another one of those instances where I’m really left wondering if George Lucas was influenced by these stories!  Flint is similar to how Anakin Skywalker was depicted in the prequels.  Flint’s mother dying, resulting in him accepting Vader’s offer to train him, is remarkably similar to what would happen in Attack of the Clones, when Anakin’s mother was killed by the Sand People, beginning his descent towards the Dark Side.  Vader’s own dialogue here implies that he was once in a situation that was similar to this.  Flint even looks somewhat like Hayden Christensen!

Speaking of the artists, these two issues were both well done.  Janson had a very moody, noir-ish style to his work on “The Apprentice.”  That’s not unexpected, given that this was drawn around the time he was wrapping up his six year long association on Daredevil.

The battle between the X-Wings and the AT-ATs is unfortunately a bit on the sketchy side.  Janson does much better work on people than machinery, although that splash page reveal of the Walkers is really stunning.  Most of the scenes are well-rendered, especially the shootout in the tavern.  Vader’s recruitment of Flint is effectively told, and Janson’s depiction of the Sith is menacing & sinister.  On the lighter side of things, I always laugh at the expression Janson gives Chewbacca on finding the tavern food disagreeable!

Star Wars Annual 3 pg 16 Chewbacca

Jan Duursema and Tom Mandrake happen to be married.  I believe “The Dream” is one of the few occasions they’ve worked together.  This was fairly early in their careers.  Nevertheless, the artwork is extremely good.

Duursema and Mandrake have very different styles to their work.  Duursema’s art is well suited to sci-fi and fantasy, while Mandrake’s is very much in the horror and supernatural vein.  This makes their collaboration on Star Wars #92 especially effective.  Duursema’s effectively pencils the characters and technology of the Star Wars universe, and Mandrake’s inking gives the story a genuinely eerie, atmospheric feel.

Although this was Duursema’s only work for the Marvel series, years later she would become a regular contributor to the Star Wars comics when Dark Horse held the license.  From 2000 to 2010 she did great work on several of their of Star Wars titles.  But hopefully more on that in a future post!

Star Wars 92 pg 19

The cover to #92 is an interesting collaboration by Cynthia Martin and Bill Sienkiewicz.  Martin was the regular artist on the Marvel series for its final two years.  She had a rather cartoony look to her work.  Having her finished by Sienkiewicz, with his bizarre, abstract style, results in a cover that very much suits the story within.

I recommend reading these two issues.  I’m confident Marvel with be reprinting them in the near future.

Thinking About Inking: the role of comic book inkers

As a long-time comic book reader, I have come to recognize that one of the most important aspects of the creation of comic artwork is inking.  It is also, unfortunately, one of the least understood.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that all inking is the same, that it is little more than going over the penciler’s work with a pen (I sometimes think that Kevin Smith should be dunked in a giant vat of India Ink for that line he wrote about “tracers” from his movie Chasing Amy).  But the reality is that no two inkers are the same.  The difference between one inker and another is often the difference between a very polished finish and a rough, gritty mood.  Therefore, it is important to recognize the vital role that inkers have in the crafting of the final, finished look of a comic book story.

I think that the major reason why inkers often do not receive their due credit is that is usually difficult for the casual reader to recognize what, precisely, the inker has brought to the finished artwork.  True, there are certain inkers with easily spotted styles, among them Terry Austin, Klaus Janson, and Tom Palmer.  But the majority of inkers have work that is of a more subtle sort.  John Beatty, Scott Hanna, Mark McKenna, Josef Rubinstein, and Bob Wiacek are all excellent inkers.  But when looking at their work, to my unfortunately untrained eye, there isn’t often an occasion where a particular stylistic signature leaps out at me so that I can readily identify them at a casual glance.

Certainly, when a reader only sees the finished, inked work, it can be difficult to discern who did what.  And unfortunately most of the time if the reader sees something he really likes in the artwork he is more than likely to ascribe this to the penciler.  You really need to be able to view a “before and after” piece, with the raw, uninked pencils side by side with the finished, inked work, in order to fully appreciate who did what.

Bob McLeod is an extremely talented artist, both as a penciler and an inker.  He is often at the forefront of the voices rightfully proclaiming that inkers do not receive the credit due them.  To that end, on his Facebook page he has posted scans of a number of before and after examples of his inks over other artists’ pencils.  Below, reproduced with his kind permission, is one of these (click to enlarge).

This is a page from Spider-Man #34, cover dated May 1993.  Lee Weeks provided the pencil layouts on this page, and McLeod the inks / finishes.  As you can clearly see by viewing these two pages side-by-side, while Weeks is responsible for the storytelling & pacing, the majority of the important details found in the finished artwork are courtesy of McLeod’s inking.

It can be even more informative when one is able to see how the same penciled piece is inked by several different individuals.  I remember that in the early 1990s DC Comics on one of their editorial pages had reproduced a panel of pencil art from a then-recent Batman story.  They had three different artists re-ink this panel.  Looking at these next to one another, it was readily apparent how each inker brought a very different mood & sensibility to their work, resulting in several very different pieces of art.  I really wish I could find that so I could post an image here.  It was extremely enlightening, and must have been one of the very first occasions when I realized the importance of the inker.

UPDATE: Here is a scan of that DC Universe piece “What exactly does an inker do?”  Thanks to Steve Bird for locating a pic of this and passing along a link in the comments section below.

Batman inking examples

This clearly demonstrates that Scott Hanna, Gerry Fernandez and Jed Hotchkiss have their own individual styles, and utilized different approaches to when it came to inking Jim Balent’s pencils.  This has resulted in three distinctive finished images.

Another earlier example of this sort is equally useful.  This was posted on Facebook in January 2013.  Originally published in Comics Scene #5 in 1982, a Mike Zeck pencil drawing of the Hulk was inked by four different artists.

As is readily apparent from the images below, Bob Layton, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, and Josef Rubinstein each bring something very different to the final look of the artwork.  (My personal favorite is the one by Rubinstein.)  If you were an editor who was going to hire Zeck to pencil a story, and if you had any common sense, you would not just randomly pick a name out of a hat to choose who was going to ink it.  Hopefully, if you were doing your job and knew the styles of the various inkers in your rolodex, you’d give some consideration as to which one would be the best match-up for Zeck’s style, and would bring the desired finished look to the story that you were seeking.

Hulk inking examples

Bob Almond, a very talented inker, is responsible for setting up the Inkwell Awards, which recognize excellence in inking.  One of the great things about the Inkwells is that they have helped to demonstrate the importance of inking by putting out various examples of both “before and after” pieces and penciled artwork that have been inked by different artists to demonstrate what each illustrator brings to the table.  I encourage everyone to look through their website and Facebook page.  There’s a great deal of beautiful artwork on display that really puts the spotlight on the crucial role inking plays.

One last indication of the importance of inking is the rise in prevalence over the last decade of comic books that have been printed from uninked pencil artwork.  I first noticed this in 2001 when Marvel began publishing X-Treme X-Men, featuring the art of Salvador Larroca.  The book was shot directly from Larroca’s extremely tight, finished pencils.  I was never a huge fan of this, because however detailed the penciling may have been it still seemed to be missing something, and the printed comics just looked rather faint and, well, blurry.  It’s a bit difficult to describe.  But I would have much preferred it if there had been an inker on the book.

Art wise, I felt X-Treme X-Men was much improved in its third year, when the art team of penciler Igor Kordey & inker Scott Hanna came on board.  And, again, that also demonstrated the importance of an inker.  Anyone who is familiar with Kordey’s work will probably know that when he inks his own pencils, it has a rough, gritty style a bit reminiscent of Joe Kubert. In contract, when he was inked by Hanna, the result is a more polished, slick look. Kordey is usually his own best inker, but he and Hanna definitely did make a very good art team.

In any case, as far as the practice of printing from uninked pencils goes, one of the main publishers to use this is Dynamite Entertainment.  They have many talented artists working for them, but the uninked art has its drawbacks, the same I cited concerning Larroca’s work.  This especially stood out for me when Mike Lilly was working at Dynamite.  I love Lilly’s art, and he did nice stuff for Dynamite.  But it would have been even stronger if he had been paired up an inker.  Someone like Bob Almond, who had worked very well with Lilly in the past, would have given it a very polished heft, making it more substantive.  The lack of inkers on so many of Dynamite’s titles is the major reason why I do not purchase more of their books.

In conclusion, inkers play an extremely vital part of the creative process in the production of comic books.  I hope that this blog entry has helped to shed a little bit of light on the role that they play, and leads to a greater appreciation for their talents & efforts.

Comic book reviews: Marvel Masterworks Deathlok

On more than one occasion I have discussed Rich Buckler on this blog.  Each time, I made passing mention of Deathlok, the character he created at Marvel Comics, who debuted as an ongoing feature in Astonishing Tales #25, cover dated August 1974.

There is a reason why I keep citing Deathlok.  He was the first major cyborg character in comic books.  Buckler devised what is undoubtedly one of the most inventive, cutting-edge, influential series to have come out of Marvel in the 1970s.  It has continued to influence numerous other creators, both in and out of the comic book field, to the present day.  You can readily see the inspiration of Rich Buckler’s Deathlok stories in such films as Robocop, Escape from New York, and The Matrix.

Since I was born after Deathlok first made his debut, and I did not begin regularly following comic books until the late 1980s, my first exposure to the character of Deathlok was actually via a later incarnation.  Dwayne McDuffie & Greg Wright introduced a new Deathlok, Michael Collins, in a four issue miniseries published in 1990.  The Collins version of the character then went on to appear in an ongoing book that lasted 34 issues, which I followed on and off.

Unfortunately, at this time Marvel didn’t have any sort of major trade paperback program going, and so they passed up the opportunity to reprint the original Deathlok material.  The only glimpse I got of these stories was in 1993, when Marvel published Deathlok Lives, which reprinted the three issue Captain America story arc that wrapped up the original Deathlok’s storyline a decade before.

Of course, if I could have, I would have purchased the back issues of Astonishing Tales and read those.  But they were both difficult to locate and very expensive.  So eventually I just put it on the back burner.

Fast forward to 2007.  Issue #25 of Michael Eury’s superb magazine Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows, came out.  It contained a fascinating in-depth interview with Rich Buckler about the origins of Deathlok, conducted by regular BI contributor Michael Aushenker.  Reading that, I once again thought to myself that it really was long past time that Marvel reprinted those stories, because I really was interested in reading them.  So, a mere two years later, when Marvel finally published their Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok hardcover, I grabbed it up.  This collection contains the Astonishing Tales issues and a variety of other material, including the Captain America arc.

Rich Buckler's dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36
Rich Buckler’s dynamic cover for Astonishing Tales #36

A variety of creators worked on the Deathlok stories.  Rich Buckler is the main creator on the original Astonishing Tales material, turning in the majority of the plotting and pencil artwork.  Doug Moench co-plots and scripts the early chapters, before Buckler takes over penning the dialogue in the middle segments.  The latter issues are then scripted by Bill Mantlo.  A number of talented artists contributed to the finished pencils & inking, among them Klaus Janson, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones, and Pablo Marcos.  The Captain America issues are by J.M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck and John Beatty.

Set in the dystopian future year of 1990 (I’m sure that seemed far-off back in 1974) amidst the devastated ruins of Manhattan, the Deathlok series features the anti-hero Luther Manning.  A soldier who violently died five years previously, Manning’s brain and remaining flesh have been bonded to a cyborg body code-named Deathlok.  The undead cyborg Deathlok is a tormented, horrific figure.  Snatched back from the abyss, his body a mix of cold metal and semi-decayed flesh, his consciousness cohabited by a logical computer, Luther Manning’s new existence is a living hell.  Deathlok desperately seeks to break free of the military’s control, and gain revenge on the man who resurrected him as a cyborg, Major Simon Ryker.

The ruthless Ryker is obsessed with control.  In Astonishing Tales #35, when Deathlok and Ryker finally come face to face, the later explains himself.  Seeing the country falling into chaos after the destruction of Manhattan, Ryker now seeks to impose a new order.  In an exchange scripted by Bill Mantlo, Ryker justifies his actions to Deathlok, saying “It was for their own good! People need someone to watch over them!” To which Deathlok shouts back “So you elected yourself! Dictator and God all rolled into one! You’re mad, Riker! You’re insane!”  The Major’s response to this is to say “I merely brought our society to a logical conclusion, along a path it had long ago chosen for itself: benevolent control by an impassionate military-industrial complex.”

It is explicitly stated that no one knows who actually bombed Manhattan.  It could have been foreign terrorists, or a Communist power, or perhaps just some madman.  Deathlok even alludes to the possibility that Ryker himself may have caused the disaster, to give him the opportunity to initiate his fascist policies.

Buckler’s plots are rather prescient, as they mirror real world events of the last twelve years.  One could easily draw parallels to what happened after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.  Certain politicians used the tragedies as an occasion to pass controversial, perhaps even unconstitutional, laws such as The Patriot Act that greatly increased government power while curtailing civil liberties.  And many in the populace were all too ready to embrace these measures, trading in their freedoms for the promise of order & security.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the Astonishing Tales issues do bounce around, with Deathlok wandering up & down devastated Manhattan, running into numerous enemies.  Reading these issues, I get the feeling that Buckler was making it up as he went along.  It doesn’t seem he had a detailed story arc planned out, just a loose idea of where he’d be heading.  While this does lead to something of an unfocused overall story, I suspect that this did allow Buckler to be innovative and go off in new directions as the series progressed.  It probably resulted in more spontaneity than if he had adhered to an iron-clad plot.

The strongest issues are undoubtedly the first few and the last few, namely the chapters that were scripted by Moench and Mantlo.  The middle segments, where Buckler was fully in charge of both the artwork and the writing, do ramble somewhat.  I think Buckler many have been over-extending himself.  I believe that at this point it time he was also the regular penciler on Fantastic Four, so he was probably very busy.  Once Mantlo comes aboard to take over the scripting, things really gain focus, and we get the riveting confrontation between Deathlok and Ryker.

The artwork by Buckler on these stories is incredible.  He is an underrated artist, I think in part due to his drawing Fantastic Four in a very Jack Kirby-influenced style.  This led some to incorrectly conclude that Buckler was incapable of drawing anything other than a Kirby pastiche.  But if you look at Buckler’s art on Deathlok, you see some amazing, dynamic, innovative work.  His layouts and storytelling are dramatic and unusual.  Buckler’s character design for Deathlok was innovative.  Likewise, his conception of Hellinger, the even more insane cyborg brother of Major Ryker, is horrific, with a metallic skull face and exposed brain.

Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace
Astonishing Tales #34 page 17: Deathlok battles Ryker in cyberspace

In recent years, Buckler has found acclaim as a surrealist painter.  Looking at the art in this volume, I can definitely see the roots of that.  Especially notable is a surreal battle between Deathlok and Ryker within a computer network.  Keep in mind this was written & drawn more than two decades before The Matrix came out, before the concepts of cyberspace and virtual reality became popular.  In other words, this is experimental work by Buckler.

As I mentioned before, a number of different inkers worked on the Astonishing Tales issues over Buckler’s pencils.  Klaus Janson’s inking probably works best, giving the art a gritty, atmospheric feel entirely appropriate for the grim settings.  It especially suits the bizarre imagery of the cyberspace confrontation seen in issue #s 34 & 35.

The war between Deathlok and Ryker comes to a conclusion towards the end of the Astonishing Tales run.  It is apparent that Buckler was setting up a new direction for the series, with Deathlok on course to come into conflict with Hellinger, and the introduction of Godwulf, a figure that Buckler seems to have intended to be across between Tarzan and Jesus.

Unfortunately, Astonishing Tales was cancelled with issue #36 in July 1976, and the contents of what would have been #37 didn’t see print until nearly a year later in Marvel Spotlight #33.  After that, Deathlok fell into limbo, making only sporadic appearances in Marvel Two-In-One, in stories that did little to advance the character.

In wasn’t until 1983 that Deathlok was finally given proper closure.  DeMatteis penned the arc in Captain America, which has Cap travel with Deathlok to his future.  Along with Godwulf and a motley resistance group, they set out to thwart Hellinger’s plan to wipe out humanity and replace it with a race of logical cyborg beings.  The story is illustrated with incredible flair and drama by Zeck & Beatty, one of my all-time favorite art teams on the Captain America title.

Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity
Captain America #288 page 7: Cap helps Deathlok re-discover his humanity

Yes, it would have been great to see how Buckler would have ended the saga of Deathlok.  But at least DeMatteis does a bang-up job at this task.  Aside from him apparently confusing Hellinger with his brother Major Ryker and some fiddling with Godwolf’s characterization, there is little to find fault with.

As Buckler himself charitably writes in his introduction to the Marvel Masterworks collection, “J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck did a fine job wrapping things up.”  (And I’m happy that Buckler was given the opportunity to pen a brand-new introduction for this edition.  It’s a very informative text piece.)

Reading the original stories by Bucker & friends, it seems pretty clear that initially Deathlok was not intended to be part of the regular Marvel universe.  The Buckler-plotted issues are bereft of any references to Marvel continuity.  Marvel Spotlight #33 does feature Devil-Slayer, a character who later joined the Defenders, but this was his first appearance, so that doesn’t prove anything.  (Indeed, Devil-Slayer is actually a reboot of another character Buckler created, Demon Hunter, who had a very short lived existence at Atlas Comics the year before.)

Deathlok’s first proper meeting with “mainstream” Marvel is in Marvel Team-Up #46, written solely by Bill Mantlo, although Buckler did draw the cover.  A time-traveling Spider-Man lands in the apocalyptic 1990.  After the usual misunderstanding and fight, Spidey and Deathlok team up against a horde of eerie mutant children.  That does give Deathlok’s world more of a horrific overtone, adding to the already established bands of roving cannibals populating devastated Manhattan.  Besides, the art is by another underrated artist, the great Sal Buscema, another favorite of mine.

Whatever the case, by the 1980s, Deathlok was firmly entrenched in Marvel continuity.  Various other creators took a crack at the character, with varying degrees of success.  Buckler himself has expressed a desire to return to the original Luther Manning version.  I’d love to see that, as Buckler is an even better artist now than he was in the 1970s.  Regrettably, Marvel does not appear interested in taking Buckler up on his offer.  This is a shame.  Marvel did, however, ask him and Klaus Janson to draw a variant cover for the Deathlok the Demolisher miniseries published in 2010:

Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover
Deathlok the Demolisher #1 variant cover

As you can see from viewing this piece, Buckler still does an incredible work.  It is a real loss that Marvel seems unwilling to hire him to illustrate a full story for them.

At least we do finally have Buckler’s classic Deathlok stories collected together.  The price tag on this volume, $64.99, is a bit steep, but it is definitely worth picking up for some truly distinctive, groundbreaking, and entertaining material.  And hopefully at some point Marvel will print a soft cover black & white Essential Deathlok book.  The material is likely to find a much bigger audience that way.  That and I would like to have a cheaper volume to carry around.  Re-reading the Marvel Masterworks edition at least once a year, it does get kind of beat up!