It Came From the 1990s: Imperial Guard

Earlier this month was the birthday of the late, great Dave Cockrum, one of my favorite comic book artists. Cockrum was one of the greatest character designers of the Bronze Age, successfully creating or revamping dozens of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics during the 1970s and early 80s.

Over on the Dave Cockrum Art Appreciation Group, in a discussion about Cockrum’s greatest character designs, I mentioned that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard had some awesome designs, and I wished that more was done with them.

Who are the Imperial Guard? Simply put, they are thinly-veiled expies of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Drawing Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes in the early 1970s had been a dream assignment for Cockrum, and he had only reluctantly left DC Comics after they reneged on a promise to return original artwork to him. Going over to Marvel Comics, he co-created the all-new, all-different X-Men with Len Wein. After Wein departed X-Men, Cockrum was paired up with writer Chris Claremont, and in X-Men #107 (Oct 1977) they introduced the Imperial Guard, the elite super-powered soldiers of the alien Shi’ar Empire.

Insert obligatory smartass comment about the X-Men not wanting to fight all these guys because there’s a veritable Legion of them.

Now I’m not sure why Cockrum decided to toss in a veritable army modeled on the Legion into an already-crowded storyline, other than the fact that he really loved the Legion and he missed drawing them. But whatever the case, even if most of them were thinly-drawn on the characterization side of things, almost all of them had interesting visuals.

For most of their history the Imperial Guard were basically just blindly following the orders of whoever happened to be running the Shi’ar Empire, which typically put them into conflict with the X-Men or the Avengers or whoever. Other than their leader Gladiator the characters have only ever gotten the spotlight on a few rare occasions. The first of these was the three issue Imperial Guard miniseries which Marvel published in late 1996. It was written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Chuck Wojtkiewicz, inked by Ray Snyder, colored by Brad Vancata, and lettered by Jon Babcock, Phil Hugh Felix & Janice Chiang.

And, yeah, I cannot believe that it’s been 25 years since this came out!

Thinking back, I don’t know if at the time I was aware that the Imperial Guard characters were a homage to the members of the Legion. I didn’t actually become a huge Legion fan until about four years later, when I started picking up the hardcover Archives collections and various back issues. But re-reading the Imperial Guard miniseries a quarter century later, the nods to the Legion now leap right out at me.

The creative team on the Imperial Guard miniseries is also noteworthy. Augustyn is a longtime writer & editor at DC Comics, and Wojtkiewicz had just come off of a year and a half stint penciling Justice League America. This miniseries makes up pretty much the entirety of either of their work for Marvel. So this was pretty much a case of Marvel bringing aboard a creative team from DC to work on a team of characters modeled after a DC property.

Imperial Guard came out at an odd time in Marvel’s publishing history. This was immediately after the “Onslaught” crossover in which the Avengers and Fantastic Four seemingly died so that they could be exported to an alternate reality for the “Heroes Reborn” event overseen by Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. For the next year this led to some rather offbeat projects coming out from Marvel that perhaps might not otherwise have gotten published. The most notable of these was Thunderbolts by Kurt Busiek & Mark Bagley. We also got the much-underrated Heroes for Hire by John Ostrander & Pascual Ferry, as well as this odd little miniseries.

I’m FB friends with Wojtkiewicz, so I asked him how Imperial Guard came about. Here’s what he had to say:

“Once DC flipped the crew on Justice League, I floated around doing fill-ins and such for a while. Brian Augustyn decided to leave DC and asked me if I’d like to do the IG mini. We met in NYC and had lunch with Mark Gruenwald for lunch and launch. It seemed to be going so smoothly, but it turned out to Mark’s very last lunch, as he died the following morning. Somehow it kept going, and his assistant stepped in as editor.  I forget his name – I’m terrible that way. I decided to do the series in with a cartoony vibe, and nobody stopped me. Also: sideburns. 😊

“I really enjoyed this assignment- doing the costume, environment and prop concepts was a blast.”

The miniseries was ultimately edited by Terry Kavanaugh, and was dedicated to the memory of Mark Gruenwald.

Following the apparent deaths of the Avengers and Fantastic Four, Lilandra the Majestrix of the Shi’ar feels partially responsible, as she was the one who way back when inadvertently awakened the dark side of Charles Xavier’s psyche (as seen in X-Men #106 or, if you were a teenager in the 1990s like me, “The Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Dark Shroud” on X-Men: The Animated Series) which ultimately led to the creation of Onslaught. Lilandra has covertly dispatched several members of the Imperial Guard to Earth see if they can provide assistance to our beleaguered world.

The members of the Guard featured in this miniseries are Gladiator (standing in for Superboy), Electron (Cosmic Boy), Sibyl (Saturn Girl), Flashfire (Lightning Lad), Nightside (Shadow Lass), Mentor (Brainiac 5), Earthquake (Blok) and the latest addition to the team, the Kree conscript Commando (Mon-El).

The introduction of Commando aka M-Nell ties in with another recent Marvel event, the Avengers storyline “Operation: Galactic Storm” which saw the Shi’ar apparently destroy the Kree Empire with the apocalyptic Nega Bomb. In fact the entire was between the Shi’ar and the Kree had been engineered by the Kree’s Machiavellian leader, the entity known as the Supreme Intelligence, who sought to jump-start his people’s stalled evolution with the Nega Bomb’s energies. At this point in time the Supreme Intelligence is quietly biding its time, waiting for its deadly experiment to begin showing results, and Commando, ignorant of all this, finds himself having to serve alongside the Shi’ar forces who he regards as his conquerors.

Augustyn is a great writer who did high-quality work over at DC, and on his sole foray into the Marvel Universe he also crafts a compelling story. He does a good job of creating M-Nell, and of developing the other Imperial Guard members, the majority of whom, up until this point in their nearly 20 year existence, were basically one-dimensional ciphers.

Wojtkiewicz’s pencils are fun. He was a very underrated artist over at DC Comics, working in an “animated” style alongside the late, great Mike Parobeck on the Impact Comics line in the early 1990s. I always thought Wojtkiewicz should have had a bigger career, so I enjoyed seeing his art on Imperial Guard. His wrap-around covers for this miniseries were also great.

Besides, I really love that Wojtkiewicz drew Imperial Guard with “a cartoony vibe” during the exact same time that Marvel farmed out their main characters to Extreme Studios and Wildstorm with their hyper-detailed art styles. Honestly, the comic book industry could have used more artists like Wojtkiewicz in the 1990s who had their own fun styles.

It was enjoyable revisiting this three issue miniseries, and it makes me regret that the Imperial Guard have subsequently very seldom been in the spotlight since. They did have a five issue miniseries during the Realm of Kings crossover about a decade ago. I never did get around to checking that out, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.

Anyway, if you haven’t read this miniseries, it’s worth tracking down.

Bernie Wrightson: 1948 to 2017

Comic book, horror and fantasy artist Bernie Wrightson passed away on March 18th at the age of 68. Wrightson received well-deserved acclaim for his atmospheric artwork in a career that spanned four and a half decades.

Swamp Thing 9 cover

Wrightson is probably best-known as the co-creator of the Swamp Thing character with writer Len Wein. The initial incarnation of the character debuted in a stand-alone story in the DC Comics horror anthology House of Secrets #92 (June/July 1971).  The “Swamp Thing” story was an unexpected hit, and it led to Wein & Wrightson introducing a revamped incarnation of the character a year later.  This ongoing Swamp Thing series was set in the DC universe.  Wrightson drew the first ten issues.  Issue #7 featured a guest appearance by Batman, and Wrightson rendered a stunning, moody depiction of the Caped Crusader.  He would have several more opportunities to draw Batman over the course of his career.

Wrightson was friends with fellow artist Michael Kaluta. In 1974 the two of them had an opportunity to work together on the third and fourth issues of The Shadow, which adapted the pulp vigilante created by Walter Gibson.  A year later Wrightson and Kaluta, along with Jeffrey Jones and Barry Windsor-Smith, began sharing studio space in Lower Manhattan loft, an arrangement that lasted until 1979.  Known as “The Studio,” the four artists influenced one another, each of them creating some of the best works of their careers.

Bernie Wrightson Frankenstein

One of Wrightson most stunning efforts was his illustrated edition of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Wrightson worked on this project for seven years years, and it was finally published in 1983.  The breathtaking, intricately detailed artwork Wrightson created for Frankenstein is considered to be one of the greatest achievements of his career.

(Honestly, I don’t think you can overdo the superlatives when it comes to describing Wrightson’s Frankenstein illustrations.)

Wrightson collaborated with horror novelist Stephen King on several occasions. In 1983 Wrightson drew the graphic novel adaptation of the movie Creepshow and provided illustrations for King’s novella Cycle of the Werewolf. The extended edition of King’s mammoth novel The Stand released in 1990 featured illustrations by Wrightson.  He also provided illustrations for Wolves of the Calla, the fifth book in King’s Dark Tower series, published in 2003.

Wrightson remained involved in the comic book biz over the years, drawing numerous covers, pin-ups, miniseries, graphic novels and short stories in anthologies. In the second half of the 1970s he illustrated a number of stories for Warren Publishing’s line of black & white horror magazines.  Wrightson also worked on a handful of projects for Marvel Comics, among them the graphic novels Spider-Man: Hooky (1986) and The Hulk and The Thing: The Big Change (1987), and the four issue miniseries Punisher P.O.V. (1991).  The Big Change and P.O.V. were both written by Jim Starlin.  The two of them also collaborated on the DC Comics miniseries Batman: The Cult (1988).

Batman Aliens 1 pg 41

Among the later comic book work that Wrightson did, I especially enjoyed the two issue Batman/Aliens miniseries published in 1997. Written by Ron Marz, this was one of the more effective of the crossovers released by DC and Dark Horse in the 1990s.  Batman is a superhero who is grounded enough in reality that the Xenomorphs posed a legitimate threat to him without having to ridiculously amp up their powers.  Wrightson’s artwork provided the story with a genuinely moody, intense tone.  As always he drew a striking Batman, and his Xenomorphs were effectively menacing.

I also enjoyed the beautifully grotesque painted covers that Wrightson created for the four issue horror anthology Nightmare Theater published by Chaos! Comics in 1997. They were an excellent showcase for his talents and sensibilities.  Wrightson also penciled a werewolf story for the first issue, which was inked by Jimmy Palmiotti.

Wrightson’s last major project was Frankenstein Alive, Alive! published by IDW between 2012 and 2014.  Written by Steve Niles, the three issue series served as a sequel to Wrightson’s illustrated edition of the Mary Shelley novel.

Nightmare Theater 1 cover signed

I was fortunate enough to meet Wrightson on a few occasions, at a couple of comic book conventions and at a store signing in White Plains NY. He struck me as a very friendly individual.  Others had similar experiences meeting him.  When the news broke that he has died, it was clear that not only had we lost an immensely talented artist but also a genuinely nice person.  Wrightson will definitely be missed by friends, colleagues, and fans.

Herb Trimpe: 1939 to 2015

Longtime comic book artist Herb Trimpe passed away unexpectedly on April 13th at the age of 75.  I was a big fan of Trimpe’s work and I’ve written about him a few times previously on this blog.

Trimpe may not have been the most flashy, dynamic artist.  But he was definitely a great storyteller, drawing effective interior layouts and striking covers that grabbed your attention.  Like many others of his generation, Trimpe had an amazing work ethic, keeping a monthly schedule on numerous titles during his career.

In his early 20s Trimpe briefly worked as an inker for Dell and Gold Key.  After a four year stint in the Air Force from 1962 to 1966, he began to get work at Marvel Comics.  Among his earliest assignments at Marvel were such Western characters such as Kid Colt and Rawhide Kid.  He also inked Marie Severin’s pencils on the Hulk feature in Tales to Astonish in 1967.

Incredible Hulk 140 cover

In 1968 Tales to Astonish was retitled The Incredible Hulk beginning with issue #102.  Four months later Trimpe became the book’s penciler with issue #106.  This was a start of a mammoth run on the series that would last until issue #193 in late 1975.  During that seven and a half year run, Trimpe missed a mere two issues.  His work on Incredible Hulk resulted in his depiction of the Jade Giant becoming one of the most identifiable, iconic renditions of the character.

While on Incredible Hulk, Trimpe sometimes inked his own pencils, and he was also paired with inkers John Severin, Dan Adkins, Sal Buscema, Sam Grainger, Sal Trapani, Jack Abel and Joe Staton.  He illustrated stories written by some of Marvel’s most talented writers, namely Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart and Len Wein.

One of the most memorable Hulk stories that Trimpe penciled was “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom” from issue #140.  Plotted by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, scripted by Thomas, and inked by Grainger, this was the introduction of Jarella, the green-skinned princess of a sub-atomic world.  Jarella is undoubtedly one of the Hulk’s true loves.  All these decades later this bittersweet tale is fondly remembered.  Trimpe’s layouts on the final few pages are extremely impactful, driving home the tragedy of the ending.

Back Issue 70 cover

Trimpe also became the very first artist to draw the now-popular mutant Wolverine in print.  Wolverine’s look was actually designed by John Romita.  But it was Trimpe who penciled his first three published appearances in Incredible Hulk #s 180-182, which were written by Wein, with inking by Abel.

In later years Trimpe would be commissioned on numerous occasions to draw re-creations and re-interpretations of that first historic battle between the Hulk and Wolverine.  One of those pieces, with a background illustration by Gerhard, was used last year as the cover for Back Issue #70 from TwoMorrows Publishing, the theme of which was “Incredible Hulk in the Bronze Age.”

During his lengthy stint at Marvel Trimpe drew many of the company’s characters.  His credits include Iron Man, Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain Britain, Ant-Man in Marvel Feature, Killraven in Amazing Adventures, Captain America, Avengers, Son of Satan in Marvel Spotlight, Defenders, Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, Machine Man, and several stories in What If.

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 cover signed

Trimpe and writer Gary Friedrich created the World War I flying ace Phantom Eagle, who made his debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (Sept 1968).  The character obviously tapped into Trimpe’s longtime love for airplanes, and his artwork for this story was very dynamic.  Although the character of the Phantom Eagle never really took off (so to speak) he did make a few subsequent appearances over the years, including in Incredible Hulk #135 once again drawn by Trimpe.

Beginning in the late 1970s Trimpe drew a number of Marvel titles featuring licensed characters.  He penciled nearly the entire two year run of Godzilla.  This was a wacky and offbeat series written by Doug Moench that integrated Toho’s famous monster into the Marvel universe.  Trimpe illustrated Godzilla’s encounters with Dum Dum Dugan and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the Champions, Devil Dinosaur, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  In issue #17 Moench, Trimpe and inker Dan Green even showed Godzilla getting shrunk down in size by Hank Pym, a condition that persisted for the next few issues!

Godzilla 17 pg 15

Trimpe also drew Shogun Warriors, Transformers, and The Further Adventures of Indiana Jones.  He was the first artist on the successful G.I. Joe comic launched in 1982.  He penciled the first several issues, and also plotted a few of them, with G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama scripting.  On issue #8 Trimpe even flew solo, plotting, penciling, inking and scripting “Code Name: Sea-Strike!”

Interviewed in 2001 for issue #53 of the Godzilla magazine G-Fan, Trimpe reflected upon his work on these various licensed titles:

“It’s funny, because you have a point about that. I never realized it before, but I have worked on a lot of licensed projects… I believe that it was probably because all of those titles involved the military, big vehicles and machines. [Marvel] knew I enjoyed drawing that stuff. Even the Hulk fought the army a lot. So, that’s no coincidence. I’m a big airplane freak. That’s really the connection there. I loved airplanes as a kid. I used to build models. I eventually got my pilot’s license, and even owned my own airplane for a number of years.”

Trimpe soon departed from G.I. Joe as he was not fond of drawing its (literal) army of characters.   Five years later he returned to work on the spin-off series G.I. Joe Special Missions which was also written by Hama.  With its smaller casts and self-contained stories, the book was more appealing to Trimpe.  “I actually liked doing the Special Missions better than the regular one,” he stated in Back Issue #16.

Plus, within the pages of Special Missions, Trimpe got to draw airplanes… lots of them!  On his Facebook page Hama fondly reminisced “Fave way to make Herbie happy was to give him a script with lots of airplanes in it.”  Trimpe drew nearly the entirety of the 28 issue run of Special Missions.

GI Joe 8 pg 14

The 1990s was a major decade of transition for Trimpe.  He began drawing in a manner reminiscent of the then super-popular Image Comics founders, particularly Rob Liefeld.  This new style was most notably on display within the pages of the giant-sized quarterly title Fantastic Four Unlimited which was written by longtime Marvel scribe, and Trimpe’s former Incredible Hulk collaborator, Roy Thomas.  Mike DeCarlo and Steve Montano inked the first few issues, with Trimpe himself embellishing his pencils on the later stories.

Many people thought that Trimpe was being pressured into altering his style to conform to the flavor of the month.  However, as he explained to Brian Cronin on Comic Book Resources in 2009, this was not the case:

“Truth was, it was a lark–but a lark with a purpose, all devised by myself. No one at Marvel suggested I change the way I draw or ink. I looked at the new guys’ stuff, and thought, hey, this is great. Very exciting. You can always learn from somebody else, no matter how long you’ve been doing a thing.

“I did, however, think the style might lead to new work at a time when Marvel was already in trouble, and it did. FF Unlimited was my last series at Marvel, and contrary to what a lot of fans think, I think it was the best work I’d done–and, I had a whole lot of fun doing it. Very expressive. I think the newer influences in comic book art brought out a better me. Like I said, most of the fans of the earlier stuff would not agree. On one occasion, I inked a whole story with a brush, which is what I was raised on, and the editor objected asking me not to do that anymore. But in general, no one pressured me into a change.”

Looking over Trimpe’s artwork on FF Unlimited, it is undoubtedly offbeat.  The anatomy of his figures is wonky.  Trimpe may have enjoyed this particular stylistic experiment, but as a reader I do not think it was entirely successful.  Having said that, his layouts and storytelling on those issues are dramatic and imaginative.  Despite the odder aspects of Trimpe’s early 1990s art, I enjoyed the stories he and Thomas told in FF Unlimited.

Fantastic Four Unlimited 2 pg 19

Unfortunately, with the comic book industry experiencing a huge downturn due to the collapse of the speculator market in the mid-1990s and Marvel declaring bankruptcy, Trimpe found himself out of work.  It was an extremely difficult period of time for him.  Trimpe would document his feelings on being unemployed in a journal.  His writings would later be published as “Old Superheroes Never Die, They Join the Real World” by the New York Times in 2000.  They can be read on Jim Keefe’s website.

Reading Trimpe’s journal entries, I have some identification.  I was laid off in late 2009, and since then have worked a series of temp positions, with periods of unemployment in-between.  I have yet to find a new permanent job.  If this is stressful for someone in their 30s, I can only imagine how much more so it was for Trimpe, who was two decades older, and who had been at the same job for over a quarter of a century.  Eventually he was able to make the difficult transition into a new career, working as a high school art teacher.

I regard Trimpe’s experiences in the 1990s as yet another reminder that, for all its excitement, a career in the comic book industry is also one that is fraught with uncertainty.  Trimpe’s story is sadly not unique.  Many others older creators have had similar experiences.  I am just glad that eventually, after much hard work, he was able to land on his feet.

In 1992 Trimpe had been ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.  A decade later, in the months following the September 11th terrorist attacks, he performed volunteer work as a chaplain in lower Manhattan.

Within the last several years Trimpe began working in comic books again.  A number of creators who were fans of his work when they were growing up started to hire him to draw various covers, fill-in issues and short stories.   In 2008 Trimpe drew the first issue of the BPRD: War on Frogs miniseries published by Dark Horse and a back-up story in the King-Sized Hulk special.

GI Joe 166 cover

In 2010 IDW began publishing G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero which continued the continuity, as well as the numbering, of the original Marvel series.  Larry Hama was once again writing the series.  A few issues into this revival Trimpe began contributing covers for the series based on layout sketches from Hama.  Trimpe’s covers were featured on the series for nearly two years.  He was also one of the pencilers on the 2012 annual.

Savage Dragon creator and Image Comics co-founder Erik Larsen is a longtime fan of Trimpe’s work.  As he recently explained, “The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was The Incredible Hulk #156.”  In 2010, when Savage Dragon was approaching its own 156th issue, Larsen approached Trimpe to draw a variant cover paying homage to that Incredible Hulk issue.  Working from Larsen’s rough layout, Trimpe illustrated a great cover featuring two versions of the Dragon facing off against one another.

Four years later, for Savage Dragon #200, Larsen asked Trimpe to contribute to two of the back-up stories.  On the first one Larsen inked Trimpe’s pencils; on the second Trimpe inked Larsen.  I really enjoyed how those came out.

Savage Dragon 156 Herp Trimpe variant cover

Within the last decade Trimpe became a regular guest at comic book conventions, especially in the Tri-State area.  This was when he started to realize just how much his work, which he had always been somewhat critical of, meant to people.  In his 2008 foreword to Marvel Masterworks: The Incredible Hulk Vol. 5, Trimpe wrote:

“…what finally sunk into my thick skull, was that hundreds, if not thousands, of comic book fans loved the stories I drew. And worse than that, they loved the style I had grown to dislike (I won’t use the word hate). Many a dear comic-book folk described emotionally to me how meaningful those stories had been to them. I’m sure many artists and writers in this crazy business have heard these same sentiments, but when you experience it for yourself, it is mind-blowing. One fellow described to me how a particular issue I had drawn had saved his life! How does a guy who worked to make deadlines and get the paychecks respond to that? I was flabbergasted, and I continue to be flabbergasted by the many thanks I have received for the work that I have done.”

I was fortunate enough to meet Trimpe at several conventions over the years.  He always impressed me as a genuinely nice person.  It was always a pleasure to see him.  I was able to obtain a few pieces of artwork by him over the years, and they are a much-treasured part of my collection.  They can be viewed at Comic Art Fans…

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Herb+Trimpe&GCat=60

Given the tremendous, widespread responses to Herb Trimpe’s passing that have been seen on the Internet within the past week, both from fans and former colleagues, it is readily apparent that he was both a talented creator and a good person.  He will certainly be missed by me and by many others.

Herb Trimpe Sketchbook Odds and Ends Vol 1

Here are some previous pieces where I’ve written about Trimpe:

Thank you for taking a look.  This post is dedicated to the memory of Herb Trimpe.

Harlan Ellison gets his kicks on Batman ’66

I sometimes feel rather ambivalent about the Batman television series that ran from 1966 to 1968.  Along with the Super Friends cartoons, when I was a kid it provided my first exposure to many of the characters in the DC Comics universe.  I enjoyed watching reruns of the show when I was growing up in the early 1980s.

A decade later, when I was a teenager, I had a rather different view of show.  By that time, I was reading the actual Batman comic books, along with many other titles.  And it drove me nuts that people would often assume that I was immature for reading comics, that they were nothing but silly, campy stories meant for kids… i.e. exactly like the old TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward.

Along with many other comic book readers, I would protest that comic books could be serious and adult.  I’d wave around my copies of Batman: Year One and Watchmen to demonstrate that comics were intelligent and deep, not at all like that old TV show.  This persisted for years.

And then one day I looked around and realized that everything had turned 180 degrees on me: comic books were too damn serious!  Everyone was trying to mimic Frank Miller and Alan Moore, churning out grim & gritty nonsense, reiterating for the zillionth time the now utterly trite question “What if super-heroes existed in the real world?”  At that point I threw up my hands in frustration and actually started asking “Why can’t comic books be fun again?!?”

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 8

It seems that I’m not the only one to have realized that the pendulum had swung much too far in the opposite direction, taking us from campy to clinically depressing.  I think this is a significant factor in explaining the huge success of the Batman ’66 comic book.  Written by Jeff Parker, with interiors by a number of artists and covers by Mike Allred, Batman ’66 is set in the television series continuity.  This brings us to Batman ’66: The Lost Episode, plotted by Harlan Ellison, scripted by Len Wein, penciled by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, and inked by Joe Prado, with a cover by Alex Ross.

Back in the mid-1960s when the first season of the Batman television show was in pre-production, prolific science fiction author Harlan Ellison was invited to write an episode.  He submitted a synopsis entitled “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” which would have brought the duality-obsessed Harvey Dent into the TV show.  For one reason or another, the episode was never made.  The synopsis then spent the next several decades in Ellison’s files.  Finally Ellison dug it out, dusted it off, and included it in Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison Volume 5, published in 2013.  Then, as recounted by Len Wein, Ellison got in touch with DC Comics to suggest the use of his synopsis for the Batman ’66 book.  That got the ball rolling, eventually leading to The Lost Episode special.

Len Wein is probably best known for co-creating Wolverine and Swamp Thing, but he has many credits to his name, including a number of Batman stories that were published in the 1970s and 80s.  He’s also a longtime friend of Ellison, which made him the ideal choice to adapt the synopsis into a full-length comic book script.

It is interesting to compare Wein’s script to the original treatment by Ellison, which is included in The Lost Episode.  Ellison obviously conceived the major points of the plot, which Wein fleshed out.  Wein also added certain details.  Ellison’s synopsis has Two-Face working alone.  In keeping with the character’s double motif, Wein gave Two-Face a pair of henchmen named Deuce and Twain.  Not only does it suit the character, but it also fits with the TV series.  As I recall, every single bad guy on the show had at least a few henchmen on hand to do the heavy lifting and run interference when Batman and Robin inevitably crashed their criminal capers.

I do think there was at least one point that worked better in Ellison’s original outline.  But on the whole Wein does a very good job translating Ellison’s synopsis into a 30 page comic book script.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 15

Wein did a superb job of capturing the tone of the television show’s scripts.  Reading “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face,” I really could “hear” in my head Adam West and Burt Ward speaking Batman and Robin’s dialogue.  Wein also utilized television producer William Dozier’s omniscient voiceover narration, including the obligatory mention of “stately Wayne Manor.”  And there was a healthy heaping of animated alliteration from our compelling cast of characters.

The only thing that was missing was the cliffhanger!  As I was reading, I kept expecting that any minute Two-Face and his goons would gain the upper hand on the Dynamic Duo, and that the next instant Batman and Robin would then find themselves about to meet a gristly end in the jaws of some overly-complicated deathtrap.  That was always how the first episode ended!  I’m guessing that Ellison must have composed his story synopsis before the two-episode structure with its requisite cliffhanger was established.

Penciling “The Two-Way Crimes of Two-Face” is the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  Now this was when my interest in this project was really piqued.  As I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of Garcia-Lopez.  He is an absolutely amazing artist.  Regrettably it has been quite some time since he has worked on any significant projects for DC, focusing instead on licensing art and style guides.  Most of the published work he’s done recently has been variant covers, and those editions were inevitably rare & expensive.  I recently found out he contributed on a couple of issues of All-Star Western which flew under my radar, so I have to search them out.  So the promise of a brand-new, full-length story penciled by Garcia-Lopez was definitely enticing.

I am not especially familiar with Joe Prado, although I know he’s done quite a bit of work for DC over the last several years.  He has a very modern, slick inking style.  Prado utilizes quite a bit of hatching in his embellishment.  This makes for a distinctive collaboration with Garcia-Lopez, whose style is definitely more traditional.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode pg 37

Perhaps it was done to pad out the size of the book, but The Lost Episode also contains all 30 pages of Garcia-Lopez’s uninked pencils.  While perhaps not an essential element, I certainly regard this as a unique opportunity.  In my blog post Thinking About Inking: The Role of Comic Book Inkers, one of my major points was that it is often difficult for the casual reader to look at a published comic book and discern what the work of the penciler is and what that of the inker is.  The Lost Episode provides us with the chance to view the pencils side-by-side with the inked artwork, enabling us to understand what Garcia-Lopez and Prado each contributed.  It also allows us to see how much of a role the excellent coloring by Alex Sinclair played in establishing the tone and atmosphere of the story.

Garcia-Lopez did illustrate a variant cover for The Lost Episode, although that edition was, inevitably, rarer and more expensive.  At least his uninked pencils for that alternate cover are published inside.

The standard cover is painted by Alex Ross.  I’ve observed in the past that, while Ross is an amazing artist, when it comes to rendering costumed characters sometimes his paintings are a bit too realistic.  If the Batman television series demonstrated one thing, it is that in real life people can end up looking rather preposterous when dressed up in spandex outfits (the exception, of course, being Julie Newmar, who always looked purrfect as Catwoman).  There are times when Ross has created paintings of superheroes that are so photorealistic that it just takes me out of my suspension of disbelief because I feel like I am looking at an actual person wearing a silly costume.  I guess this relates to the whole idea of how a lot of the elements that look fantastic on the pages of comic books end up appearing silly when translated too literally into three-dimensional reality.

Batman '66 The Lost Episode cover

Having said all that, Ross is the ideal artist to be creating covers for Batman ’66.  In this case, since this is a comic book based on a television series (which, yes, in turn was based on a comic book) photorealism is the name of the game.  He definitely captures the likenesses and body language of Adam West and Burt Ward, something he has also done successfully on his recent covers for the Batman ’66 Meets the Green Hornet miniseries.  Ross’ conception of Two-Face is both horrific and tragic, a portrait of brooding, melancholy madness that is obsessively fixated on the duality in life.  He even frames the composition in an off-kilter angle, evoking the tilted “Dutch angle” camera shots the television show utilized for scenes set in the villains’ lairs.  All told, his cover is extremely striking and dramatic.

I do think the ten dollar cover price for Batman ’66: The Lost Episode was a little too high.  Still, all in all, it was a very good book and I am glad I purchased it.

In hindsight, yeah, the Batman television series was pretty cool.  I’m glad that all of the rights issues were finally worked out, enabling it to at last be released on DVD.  And I’m also happy that we have the Batman ’66 comic book series.  It definitely makes for a nice change of pace from the oppressively grim pall of the New 52 Bat-books.

Now if only DC Comics would give Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez an ongoing book to illustrate.  How about a miniseries at the very least?  Come on, DC, just think about it!

Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

XMen Gold pg 23

There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 30

Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)
X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.

Remembering Dave Cockrum

I wanted to take a moment to remember one of my all time favorite comic book artists, Dave Cockrum, who was born on November 11, 1943 and passed away on November 26, 2006 at the too young age of 63.  Today would have been his 70th birthday.

A few days ago I wrote about how I became a huge fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and how Dave Cockrum’s significant contributions to that series played a major role in that.  In addition to successfully redesigning the majority of the team’s costumes, Dave created new team member Wildfire, villain Tyr, and occasional allies Infectious Lass and Devil-Fish.  Dave had ideas for quite a number of other new Legion members, including a certain blue-skinned, pointy-tailed fellow named Nightcrawler, but his editor Murray Boltinoff feared that the character was too strange-looking.

A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum.
A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum

After Dave left Legion over a dispute concerning the return of his original artwork, he took the unused Nightcrawler with him to Marvel in 1975.  There, the character became one of the members of the mega-successful revamp of X-Men by himself and writer Len Wein.  Dave co-created Storm, Colossus, and Thunderbird with Wein.  Although he was not involved in the initial development of Wolverine, Dave was the first artist to draw him unmasked, giving Logan his now-iconic hair & facial features.

The overworked Wein departed from X-Men after only three issues, and Chris Claremont became the series’ new writer.  Chris and Dave collaborated very well together, and they were responsible for revamping Jean Grey into Phoenix, as well as introducing Black Tom Cassidy, Lilandra, the Shi’ar Empire, the Imperial Guard (who were sort of a parody of the Legion), and the Starjammers.  Dave also helped Chris out on his other ongoing assignment, Ms. Marvel, penciling two issues wherein he designed a fantastic new costume for Carol Danvers.  Although he did not draw their first appearances in the pages of Ms. Marvel, Dave was the designer of both Deathbird and Mystique.  In the case of the later, Dave explained in 2003:

“This drawing was done for fun and hung in my office until my partner Chris Claremont wandered in one day, saw her, and started to drool. ‘I want her!’ he said. He named her Mystique, gave her powers and added her to the Uncanny X-Men rogues gallery.”

Dave Cockrum's stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique.
Dave Cockrum’s stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique

Due to X-Men going to a monthly status, Dave left the series in 1977, and John Byrne became the new penciler & co-plotter.  Byrne & Claremont had a great, memorable run, producing many classic stories, but the two eventually parted ways in 1981.  Dave came back for a second run penciling Uncanny X-Men, paired with inkers Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek.  During this time, Chris and Dave collaborated on several great stories, including “I, Magneto” in Uncanny X-Men #150, which first revealed Magneto’s history as a survivor of the Holocaust, “Kitty’s Fairy Tale” in #153, and a flashback to Xavier and Magneto’s first encounter in #161.  Chris and Dave also introduced the insidiously evil alien monstrosities known as the Brood.

Dave once again departed Uncanny X-Men in 1983 to create his Futurians graphic novel.  He also wrote & drew an enjoyable four issue Nightcrawler miniseries that saw the swashbuckling Kurt Wagner bouncing from one strange dimension to another.  On more than one occasion, Dave had said that Nightcrawler was a sort of romanticized version of himself, so he must have enjoyed working on these issues.

Futurians #0
Futurians #0

Around this time, Dave took the creator-owned Futurians over to a small company called Lodestone Comics.  Unfortunately, they folded after publishing only three issues, leaving Dave’s fourth issue unreleased.  However, on a couple of subsequent occasions it was finally published, first in a trade paperback by Eternity in 1987 and then as a black & white issue by Clifford Meth’s Aardwolf Publishing in 1995.  That later edition also included a brand new five page story by written by Meth & drawn by Dave.

Dave remained a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and over the years he would return to the series to draw the occasional cover or short sequence, plus some profile images for Who’s Who in the Legion.  It was always a delight to see his work on the characters.

In the 1990s, Dave unfortunately had some trouble finding regular work.  He did get the occasional job from Marvel, DC, Valiant and Defiant.  One of my favorite stories that he drew was “Depth Charges” in Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #3, written by Michael Jan Friedman, which features an aquatic alien member of the GL Corps.  Dave did fantastic work on that.  He was briefly reunited with Chris Claremont when he penciled a series of back-up stories for Sovereign Seven.  Dave also became the penciler of the really fun supernatural comedy Soulsearchers and Company which was co-written by Peter David & Richard Howell, and published by Claypool Comics.  Again, he did really great work on those issues.

Dave Cockrum's super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath, from Soulsearchers and Company #37
Dave Cockrum’s super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath,
from Soulsearchers and Company #37

For a number of years Dave and his wife, artist & colorist Paty, lived in upstate New York.  I would often see them at local comic book conventions & store signings.  They were both really nice, fun, intelligent people, and I’m glad I had so many opportunities to meet them.  During this time, I was fortunate enough to acquire a few pages of artwork that Dave had worked on, as well as a few sketches.  I’ve posted scans of those on the Comic Art Fans website.  Here’s a link:

http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=2441

During the last few years of his life, Dave was sadly plagued by ill health.  Clifford Meth helped raise money to assist in paying his medical bills, publishing The Uncanny Dave Cockrum…A Tribute through Aardwolf.  Numerous artists contributed drawings of Dave’s numerous creations, with the originals subsequently being auctioned off to raise further funds.

Recently on his Facebook page, Meth announced the following: “In 2014, Aardwolf Publishing will release the final, never-before-published Dave Cockrum FUTURIANS comic, pencilled and written by Dave himself. We have a terrific assembly of comics’ stars participating, but we want EVERYONE to help us make this a HUGE success. Want to help? Artists are invited to contribute pin-ups of Dave’s Futurians’ characters, which we’ll include in the printed and/or digital book, and also use as Kickstarter perks. You’ll be in star-studded company–we promise. Please join us!”  I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I wish Meth great success in bringing this to print.  I’ll keep everyone updated once I learn more information about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

Dave Cockrum was undoubtedly a superbly talented artist, as well as an incredible designer, who left an indelible mark on the comic book biz.  He left behind a rich legacy of wonderful artwork and colorful creations for us to enjoy.