This morning, over on the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, I posted images from a couple of issues of Azrael: Agent of the Bat for today’s Comic Book Coffee entry. Denny O’Neil, who passed away last week, wrote the entire 100 issue run of Azrael.
Thinking it over, I feel that O’Neil’s work on the Azrael series was underrated. He co-created the character and played a major role in Jean-Paul Valley’s development.
Azrael was initially conceived solely to serve the role of an insane, violent substitute to Batman during the “Knightfall” storyline, to demonstrate why it was important that the real Batman not become a ruthless killer. But following the conclusion of “Knightfall” O’Neil appears to have put a great deal of effort into developing Jean-Paul Valley into a three-dimensional character, to remake him as an actual hero.
Another character that O’Neil created, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, became an important presence in the Azrael series, beginning during the “No Man’s Land” crossover in Azrael: Agent of the Bat #55 (August 1999), penciled by Roger Robinson and inked by James Pascoe.
Over the years I’ve come to realize that Leslie was a character who embodied much of O’Neil’s own beliefs. Leslie dedicated her life to fighting against injustice & inequality, to helping the poor & downtrodden, and she sought to find constructive ways in which to make real, lasting changes to society.
This two page scene below is from Azrael: Agent of the Bat #92 (September 2002), written by O’Neil, penciled & inked by Sergio Cariello, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, with a cover by Mike Zeck & Jerry Ordway. It encapsulates Leslie’s beliefs, and in turn offers an insight into O’Neil’s own worldview.
Azrael is missing and presumed dead (that happens a lot in superhero comic books). Leslie, who has been attempting to help the psychologically damaged Jean-Paul Valley for some time, is angry, and she call Batman out on the role he played in this tragedy. She accurately points out to the Dark Knight all of the other ways in which Jean-Paul could have fought against injustice, and she castigates Batman for instead influencing the young man to follow in his vigilante footsteps.
“Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works.”
O’Neil was obviously a very intelligent & insightful person. He wrote and edited the Batman titles for many years, so I am certain he perceived this juvenile fantasy element of the character. As one of the primary caretakers of the Dark Knight’s world he probably felt he could not critique this too directly. However, right from the early days of his career O’Neil actively sought to address social & political issues in his stories. Leslie was one way in which he did so throughout the years, presenting her as a counterpoint to Batman’s ideology & methods.
O’Neil often had Leslie voicing a great deal of criticism towards Batman. Leslie believes that Batman, in his identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, has the resources & influence to help peacefully shape the world into a better place, and that it is there where he ought to be focusing his time & energies.
Leslie Thompkins is one of those characters that I never quite understood when I was younger. However, as I have gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I have come to appreciate the character, and to recognize that O’Neil utilized her to attempt to get readers to think. It makes sense that O’Neil would use Leslie as a central figure in the Azrael series. Just as within the stories Leslie worked to help Jean-Paul become a better person, in his writing O’Neil attempted to make Azrael a better character.
Several years ago O’Neil was a guest at a small comic book convention in Brooklyn. One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of Azrael. I do not recall his exact words, but after looking that book over he said something along the lines of “We really tried to make the character work.”
O’Neil could be critical of his own writing, and he reflected that perhaps he could have done a better job on the Azrael series. Nevertheless, in spite of the flaws, I appreciate the work he did with Jean-Paul Valley and Leslie Thompkins, to have the Azrael series be something more than just another Batman spin-off or superhero slugfest. As he did on a number of other occasions, O’Neil sought to stretch the boundaries of the genre in an intelligent, mature manner.
Welcome to the eighth edition of Super Blog Team-Up! Since the movie Captain America: Civil War is now out, our theme is “versus” as the various SBTU contributors spotlight famous comic book battles and rivalries.
I’m taking a look at the volatile relationship between two of Marvel Comics’ most iconic characters, Steve Rogers aka Captain America and Logan aka Wolverine.
Although Wolverine made his debut in 1974, he did not meet Captain America until a decade later. In 1980 there were tentative plans by Roger Stern & John Byrne to have Cap and Wolverine meet and for it to be revealed that Steve and Logan actually knew each other from World War II. Unfortunately Stern & Byrne left the Captain America series before they could tell that story. Cap and Wolverine did not run into each other until 1984, in the first Secret Wars miniseries, and they did not have their first extended one-on-one meeting for another two years, in the pages of Captain America Annual #8 (1986).
“Tess-One” was written by Mark Gruenwald, penciled by Mike Zeck, and inked by John Beatty & Josef Rubinstein. The story opens with Logan hanging at a dive bar in northern Westchester County. Logan’s boozing is interrupted by a huge brawl, as several thugs attack a large figure who they believe to be a mutant. This turns of to be Bob Frank, aka Nuklo, the intellectually-challenged son of the Golden Age heroes the Whizzer and Miss America. Nuklo was cured of his out-of-control radioactive powers, but still retains enhanced strength, and he wipes the floor with his bigoted assailants. Logan is intrigued, and stealthily follows Bob after he leaves the bar. He is surprised when Bob is suddenly attacked by a giant robot, Tess-One. Wolverine leaps to his rescue, but the robot flies away, controlled by a costumed figure.
Several states west, Captain America is investigating a mysterious hole that has appeared in the middle of a parking lot. Going underground, Cap navigates a series of death traps, eventually coming to an empty chamber. Looking at the machinery and the giant footprints in the dust, Cap deduces that the chamber’s previous occupant “must have been some sort of robot.” And if you can see where this is headed, faithful readers, then feel free to award yourselves a No-Prize!
After rushing the critically injured Bob to the hospital, Wolverine begins tracking down the robot and its human master. The trail leads to Southern New Jersey, specifically Adametco, “the nation’s leading manufacturer of adamantium,” the Marvel universe’s near-unbreakable metal alloy. Tess-One and its human controller Overrider have forced a truck driver making a delivery to Adamentco to smuggle them in. After they arrive, Overrider knocks out the driver, but he recovers enough to contact Captain America’s emergency hotline. Cap arrives at Adametco just as Wolverine is sneaking in.
At last Cap and Wolvie meet, and they are immediately off to a rough start. Cap is upset that Wolverine is trespassing in a high-security area. He also expresses serious doubts about the X-Men as a whole, given their recent association with Magneto… and, yes, if you were not actually reading Uncanny X-Men over the previous few years to see Magneto’s efforts at redemption, you could be forgiven for thinking the team had thrown in with an unrepentant terrorist. Y’know, I’ve always said that what the X-Men really needed was a good public relations manager.
Wolverine, who back then was still very much a temperamental loner with little respect for authority figures and a seriously short fuse, quickly has enough of Cap’s attitude. Before you know it, sparks are literally flying, as Wolverine’s claws meet Cap’s impenetrable shield. The two spar for a couple of panels before they are interrupted by the arrival of Tess-One, now coated in adamantium. The already-formidable robot is now even more dangerous. Cap and Wolverine are unable to prevent Overrider from escaping with it.
Realizing they are working on the same case, Cap apologizes for his earlier attitude and asks Wolverine to work with him. Wolverine isn’t thrilled at the idea, but he wants another shot at Tess-One, so he grudgingly agrees.
Cap heads to Washington DC to search government records on Daniel Schumann, the now-deceased owner of the property underneath which Tess-One had been hidden. Cap discovers that back in 1939 Schumann proposed the creation of an army of robots as a failsafe in case the super-soldiers created by Project: Rebirth ever revolted. The subsequent murder of Professor Erskine meant that Steve Rogers would be the only successful super-soldier to be created, and so Project Tess (Total Elimination of Super-Soldiers) was shut down. Tess-One was the only robot ever produced.
Wolverine meanwhile utilizes the mutant-detecting Cerebro device to learn that Overrider is Richard Rennselaer, a former SHIELD with the ability to control machinery. Rennselaer’s son Johnny suffers from “nuclear psychosis,” a fear of the nuclear bomb so overwhelming that he has withdrawn into a catatonic state. Overrider, desperate to cure his son, wants to destroy America’s entire nuclear arsenal, believing this will end the international arms race.
The next day another member of Cap’s emergency hotline spots Overrider transporting Tess-One to the nuclear command base at Offut Air Base. Tess-One attacks base security, enabling Overrider to sneak in. Cap and Wolverine arrive via Avengers Quinjet, but are immediately at each other’s throats again, with Logan balking at taking orders from Cap. Despite this they manage to finally defeat Tess-One, as Cap uses his shield to hammer Wolverine’s claws into the robot’s neck. Cap, in spite of his dislike for Wolverine, has to admit that the X-Man is one tough cookie to have endured the excruciating pain required by this plan.
The pair head inside the base to confront Overrider. Neither of them is able to talk Overrider down, and finally Cap uses his shield to knock him off his hover platform, hoping he will be too stunned to trigger the nukes. Cap orders Wolverine to catch the falling Overrider; Logan, however, has other ideas, and pops his claws, ready to skewer the plummeting foe. At the last second he decides to split the difference; he doesn’t kill Overrider, but neither does he catch him, letting him hit the ground hard. Overrider is seriously injured but still alive.
Cap, disgusted both by this particular act, and by Wolverine’s general attitude, goes off on him…
“As for you, mister, you’d better hope the X-Men never get tired of putting up with you, because I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you.”
Captain America Annual #8 is interesting if you look at it as part of Mark Gruenwald’s decade-long stint as writer on the series. During his time on the book, Gruenwald would often contrast Cap to the violent anti-heroes who were becoming more and more popular in superhero comic books. Gruenwald obviously favored the more traditional heroes of the Silver Age, and he sometimes overcompensated by making Cap too much of a humorless, overly-moral boy scout.
Keeping this in mind, it’s surprising that when Cap meets Wolverine, Gruenwald offers a rather nuanced depiction of the later. Yes, he shows that Wolverine is a very different type of person from Cap, someone who is unpleasant and quick to anger and who regards killing as a perfectly reasonable solution. But Gruenwald also depicts Logan as a very competent individual who will endure hardship & pain to achieve his goal. He shows Wolverine risking his life to rescue Bob Frank from Tess-One. On the last page of the story, after gets chewed out by Cap, we see Logan visiting Bob at the hospital to make sure he’s okay, demonstrating that there’s more to the man than just attitude and berserker rages.
I am not a fan of creators who have guest stars show up in books they write just so they can be completely humiliated by the title character. Garth Ennis writing the Punisher teaming up with pretty much anyone is a perfect example of that sort of thing. In contrast, you have this annual. Gruenwald has Cap remaining very much in-character and expressing grave reservations about Wolverine. But at the same time Gruenwald also writes Logan in a manner that was respectful of the work Chris Claremont had done with the character. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I appreciate that Gruenwald made the effort.
One of the reasons why this annual is so well remembered, in addition to the Wolverine appearance, is that it is penciled by former Captain America artist Mike Zeck, who does an amazing job. His pencils are ably embellished by John Beatty and Josef Rubinstein, two of the best inkers in the biz. Certainly the action-packed cover of Cap and Wolverine fighting is one of the most iconic images that Zeck has ever penciled.
This annual was a really expensive back issue for a long time. I missed getting it when it came out, and I had to read someone else’s copy at summer camp. For years afterward every time I saw copies of this annual for sale at a comic shop or convention it was $20 or more. In the late 1990s I was at last able to buy it for a mere three bucks.
“Tess-One” would not be the last time we would see Captain America and Wolverine side-by-side. Four years later, in 1990, we would finally see that first time Cap and Logan met during World War II, although it would be recounted by Chris Claremont, Jim Lee & Scott Williams in Uncanny X-Men #268.
Adamantium claws would collide with unbreakable shield several more times throughout the years as Cap and Logan would find themselves at odds with one another. One of the more unusual of these was courtesy of Gruenwald himself in the 1992 storyline “Man and Wolf” with artwork by Rik Levins, Danny Bulanadi & Steve Alexandrov. This time Cap and Wolverine ended up fighting each other because Logan was hypnotized. Oh, yes, and Cap got turned into a werewolf. Yep, that’s right, this was the epic introduction of Capwolf!
Truthfully, Capwolf looked less like a werewolf and more like a Long-Haired Collie. “What’s that, Capwolf? Timmy fell down a well? I tell ya, that’s always happening to that darn kid!”
Despite Cap’s promise on the final page of Annual #8, years later Wolverine did indeed become an Avenger. To be fair, it was Iron Man’s idea to have Logan join the team, and at first Cap was dead-set against it. Not surprisingly, as teammates Cap and Wolverine would continue to clash over tactics and methodologies.
Eventually, after they had to team up with Deadpool to prevent North Korea from using the technology of Weapon Plus to create an army of super-soldiers, Cap and Wolverine would grow to respect one another. Later, when Wolverine died — he’s not only merely dead, he’s really most sincerely dead… at least for now — Cap was genuinely saddened.
In the special Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America by writer Gerry Duggan and artist Scott Kollins (December 2014), Steve Rogers and Wade Wilson get together to mourn Logan, as well as prevent AIM from creating a clone of him. Thinking back on their tumultuous relationship, Cap briefly recounts the time he and Wolverine fought Tess-One. When Cap gets to the “I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you” part, naturally enough Deadpool bursts out in hysterical laughter.
Y’know, I really would like to see a live action face-off between Captain America and Wolverine, with Chris Evans and Hugh Jackman reprising their respective roles. Unfortunately at this point in time it doesn’t seem like Disney and Fox are able to iron out their differences enough to enable that. Well, in the meantime at least we have the actual comic books where more often than not Cap and Logan will inevitably end up butting heads over one thing or another.
Thanks for reading my entry in Super Blog Team-Up 8. Be sure to check out the pieces written by the other fine contributors…
It is July 4th, and I wanted to do a patriotic-themed post. Now, I could go off on some sort of rant about how our country’s cherished freedoms are being eroded by a dysfunctional, partisan political system into which corporations pump obscene amounts of money to manipulate the legislative process, and so forth. But where’s the fun in that? Let’s go with a comic book related piece, instead!
*Ahem!* I actually do not recall what was the very first comic book was that I read. It is possible that it was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #32. But I certainly remember very well indeed my first Captain America comic: it was issue #278. The cover date on that issue is February 1983, meaning it actually came out in November 1982. I was six-and-a-half years old when I read it. That issue played a significant role in my becoming a huge fan of the Sentinel of Liberty.
“Oh, Thus Be It Ever” is written by J.M. DeMatteis, with pencils by Mike Zeck and inks by John Beatty. DeMatteis drops the reader right in the middle of the action of the ongoing story arc, but quickly brings us up to speed on page two via a handy recap expertly illustrated by Zeck & Beatty.
Cap’s old foe Baron Zemo has kidnapped Steve Rogers’ childhood pal Arnie Roth and his roommate Michael, as part of a scheme of revenge against the super-soldier. Michael’s mind was transferred into a mutant creature that was subsequently killed by the man-rat Vermin. A distraught Arnie lashes out at Cap, and Zemo is thrilled to think he has turned one of his enemy’s oldest friends against him.
A gloating Zemo flees, leaving Cap and Arnie to the mercies of an army of mutates created by the Baron using the twisted science of mad geneticist Arnim Zola. At first, Cap fights the mutates, but Arnie, coming to his senses, realizes that these creatures are actually innocent human beings who have been transformed against their will. This leads Cap to launch into a stirring speech wherein he appeals to the mutates’ buried humanity, urging them to throw off Zemo’s yoke. The creatures rally to Cap and Arnie’s side. The group confronts the Baron, and a furious Arnie punches him out.
Unfortunately, at this point a group of SHIELD agents who had been tracking Cap arrive at the castle. Watching the mutates smashing Zemo’s equipment, SHIELD mistakes them for “monstrosities” and attack, killing most of them before a fuming-mad Cap hollers at them to stop. During the confusion, Zemo slips away to an escape craft. As he is fleeing, though, Zemo realizes that a savage, vengeful Vermin has snuck aboard the ship, furious at having been abandoned.
The last six pages of Captain America #278 are devoted to “Snapping, Part III” featuring Cap’s long-time ally Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon. With the help of old friend Reverend Garcia, a distraught Wilson is struggling to hold on to his sanity. Is he truly Sam Wilson? Or is he actually “Snap” Wilson, a racketeer who years before was brainwashed by the Red Skull to become a sleeper agent, a pawn to use against Cap at a later date? Garcia helps Sam to reconcile the painful memories of his past, reintegrating the strands of his personality for the first time since the death of his parents.
Captain America #278 left a huge impression on my young self. The scene where DeMatteis has Cap rally the mutates to his side stayed with me all these years. Cap was not just someone who attempted to solve all his problems with his fists, but who, if possible, would try to reason or empathize with his opponents. And he was someone for whom the terms “liberty” and “justice” were not just buzzwords to throw around in order to sound patriotic; he genuinely believed in the freedom and dignity of all human beings.
(By the way, as noted on the letters page of #278, and DeMatteis himself pointed out on his blog when I e-mailed him a link to this post, the initial idea for Cap’s speech to the mutates was conceived by Jim Shooter and Roger Stern. To quote DeMatteis, “So credit to ALL involved.”)
It would be several more years before I would be able to follow the Captain America series on a monthly basis, but my fondness for the character began here. This issue also led to my interest in a number of other corners of the Marvel universe. Baron Zemo would eventually form a deadly incarnation of the Masters of Evil in the epic Avengers story arc “Under Siege” written by Roger Stern. Later, in Kurt Busiek’s Thunderbolts, Zemo and the Masters of Evil would disguise themselves as superheroes in order to gain the trust of an unsuspecting world. DeMatteis and Zeck would re-team on the classic Spider-Man storyline “Kraven’s Last Hunt” bringing with them the rat mutate Vermin. DeMatteis would further explore Vermin’s tragic story with artist Sal Buscema in the pages of Spectacular Spider-Man, and during that time both the other surviving mutates and Zemo himself would appear. (I highly recommend tracking down DeMatteis & Buscema’s superb run on Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200).
In hindsight, there are a couple of aspects of Captain America #278 which I understandably did not pick up on way back then. First off, there is Steve Rogers’ childhood friend Arnie Roth and his “roommate” Michael. Looking back on the entire story arc, and reading between the lines, it is now obvious that DeMatteis was writing Arnie and Michael as a gay couple, making it subtle enough that it would not be objectionable to the more conservative editorial standards of the early 1980s. DeMatteis clearly shows two gay men in a committed relationship, and indeed the death of Michael in this story is a blow from which Arnie would take a long time to recover.
The other point is regarding the back-up featuring the Falcon. I now recognize that DeMatteis wrote “Snapping” to clear up the muddled history of Sam Wilson that was caused by Steve Englehart’s retcon of the Falcon’s origin several years previously. Now, when I later tracked down the back issues of Englehart’s Captain America run, I became a huge fan of his work on the series. That said, I have always felt his “Snap” Wilson subplot was a misstep. I think that DeMatteis does a fine job in this story of reconciling the problems it caused with the Falcon.
Oh, yes, how can I forget Mike Zeck?!? He has been one of my all time favorite comic book artists ever since I saw his amazing work on Captain America #278 as a kid. His subsequent work on “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Punisher, Damned, Deathstroke, and Legends of the DC Universe, among others, was stunning. Years later, I had the opportunity to visit Mike at his then-home in Connecticut. Of course I had to bring Captain America #278 with me to get autographed. Well, actually, it was a replacement copy I’d bought a few years earlier, because I had read the original comic so many times that it had literally fallen to pieces.
In the last several years most of what Zeck has done is licensing art and style guides. No doubt this pays very well. But I really do wish we could once again see his artwork on actual comic books, at least drawing a miniseries or some covers. Come back, Mike, we miss you!
As for John Beatty, he is certainly a talented inker / embellisher. In addition to his collaborations with Zeck, he’s also done nice work over Kelley Jones’ pencils. Like Zeck, I believe nowadays Beatty also has focused on licensing artwork.
So there you have it, a look back at one of the most memorable comic books of my childhood, featuring my introduction to Marvel’s red, white & blue Avenger. And after all these years it is still an amazing story with superb artwork.
Updated June 19, 2015: After all these years I finally had the opportunity to meet J.M. DeMatteis. He was doing a signing earlier this week at JHU Comic Books in Manhattan to promote the release of his Mercy: Shake the World graphic novel. I brought along my copy of Captain America #278 to get autographed. It was an honor to meet him.
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.
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.
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.
Each month Midtown Comics has their Book of the Month meeting, where one or more people involved in the creation of a graphic novel or trade paperback discuss the background of that volume. This month, the featured book was “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which many consider to be one of the all time great Spider-Man stories.
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” was originally serialized across six issues during a two month period in 1987, appearing in the three ongoing titles: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132. It was written by J.M. DeMatteis, with artwork by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod. Coming in to Midtown Comics to discuss it was editor Jim Salicrup (currently doing excellent work as editor-in-chief of Papercutz).
“Kraven’s Last Hunt” deals with the relationship between Spider-Man and one of his old foes, Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter. It also examines the (at the time brand new) marriage between Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane.
As the story opens, Kraven, who was born in the early 20th Century, is feeling the weight of age. Although kept young and vigorous for decades by herbs and potions he discovered in Africa, Kraven now begins to suspect time is starting to catch up with him. He is also dwelling on his long-dead parents, Russian aristocrats who fled to America in 1917. And he has begun to obsess over his long string of defeats at the hands of Spider-Man. Kraven comes to believe that no mere man could have bested him, that Spider-Man must be a dark spirit, the same spirit he now perceives as having toppled Czarist rule in his homeland. Convinced that he will soon die, the Hunter is determined to best Spider-Man once and for all.
Ingesting strange drugs, Kraven goes on the prowl. In the midst of a rainstorm, he ambushes Spider-Man, shooting him, seemingly killing him. Burying his long-time foe, Kraven then takes on his costumed identity, to prove he is the better man, and begins a brutal crackdown on crime in New York. When Kraven learns that the half-man, half-rat mutant named Vermin is on the loose in the city sewers, abducting & eating innocent people, he sees this as a further test. Here is a foe that the real Spider-Man was never able to defeat on his own, one who he needed the assistance of Captain America to stop. If Kraven alone can beat Vermin, he will then truly prove himself to be superior.
Spider-Man is, of course, not dead. Kraven has actually drugged him, and buried him alive. Under the earth in a coffin for two weeks, Peter Parker experiences horrific hallucinations. Finally, he is able to claw his way out of the coffin and up through the ground, driven by love, by the desire to be reunited with his wife, Mary Jane.
J.M. DeMatteis crafted a truly disturbing, dark tale with “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” In his introduction to the TPB, he explains the genesis of the story. It’s interesting that this originally began life as a pitch for a miniseries exploring the relationship between Wonder Man and his brother the Grim Reaper, turning into an examination of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, before eventually (after a few more evolutions) becoming the climax to Spider-Man and Kraven’s long-running rivalry.
“Fearful Symmetry” was originally commissioned by editor Jim Owsley, and then fell under the auspices of his successor on the Spider-Man titles, Salicrup. Although he wanted to take the three books in a less dark, more “fun” direction than Owsley had, Salicrup says he saw the potential in the story. Like DeMatteis, he recognized that it was a brilliant way to explore the romance of Peter and Mary Jane.
As Salicrup explains it, although “Kraven’s Last Hunt” superficially resembles the “grim and gritty” comic books coming to the forefront in the mid-1980s, it really did not fall into that category. It was actually the act of dropping the character of Spider-Man into a story along the lines of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and seeing what happens. And what occurred was Spider-Man stayed true to himself. Peter wasn’t driven by revenge to dig his way out of his grave, but by love for his wife. As Salicrup observes, it is a scene that very much parallels the classic Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, when Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of wrecked machinery, struggles to lift it up, knowing that he is the only one who can bring a life-saving serum to Aunt May, who lies dying.
Despite his traumatic experiences and the temptation to kill Kraven, Spider-Man does not emerge swearing to wreck brutal vengeance, but wishing to bring his foe to justice. Finally, when Spider-Man himself must stop Vermin, an opponent Kraven defeated by brute force, the web-slinger does not descend to the level of the Hunter. Instead, he tries to reach out to Vermin with empathy & understanding, and to use intelligence to outwit him.
DeMatteis does a superb job scripting Kraven. As someone who did not start reading comic books until the 1980s, I am not especially familiar with most of the character’s earlier stories. As I understand it, even though he was created by Ditko and Lee, he was never considered a major Spider-Man villain, and as time went on, with subsequent appearances over the next two decades, he became something of B-list character.
DeMatteis himself admits that he was never a fan of Kraven, and that it was in his unexplored Russian heritage that the writer saw potential. The Kraven in “Fearful Symmetry” is a troubled, dangerous individual, teetering between nobility and insanity. In this six part tale, DeMatteis takes what was formerly a one-note character and remakes him into an intriguing, tragic, formidable opponent.
The artwork by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod is absolutely magnificent. I have been a huge fan of Zeck since he penciled Captain America in the early 1980s, paired up with, of course, DeMatteis as writer. “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a stunning reunion for the two of them, and Zeck does some of the best work of his career. His layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic. The inking by McLeod really provides the artwork with a palpable atmosphere of shadows and looming darkness.
I also want to point out the contributions of letter Rick Parker. Comic book lettering is an extremely underrated art, even more so than inking. I’m a fan of such professionals as Janice Chiang, John Workman, and Tom Orzechowski, all of whom do wonderful work putting down dialogue and narration. Parker is also an excellent letterer, and on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” he really emphasizes the dramatic beats and emphasis of DeMatteis’ scripting.
Credit also has to go to Salicrup for the idea to run “Kraven’s Last Hunt” during a two month period through all three titles, rather than having it serialized as a six-part story in Spectacular Spider-Man, as was the original plan. Nowadays this is an extremely common practice, but back in 1987 it was exceedingly rare. Salicrup’s canny rationale was that if Spider-Man is buried alive in Spectacular while he’s off fighting someone like Doctor Octopus in the pages of Amazing, it would significantly cut down on the dramatic tension. Also, the two month schedule really helped maintain momentum that might have been lost over a half year.
(Incidentally, flipping back through many of the Marvel comic books that I read and enjoyed in the 1980s, I see a significant number of them were edited by Salicrup. He seems to have had a real talent for getting the best work out of the creators working under him.)
My one disappointment was that this TPB did not also include the 1992 sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” also by the team of DeMatteis, Zeck & McLeod. That special examined the consequences of Kraven choosing to take his own life at the end of “Fearful Symmetry,” as well as the lingering feelings Spider-Man has for what he went through. It was an extremely good story. Next time I’m over at my parents’ house, I want to dig it out of the box it’s buried in and read it once again.
Oh, yes, for the completists out there, you will also want to track down a copy of issue #3 of Marvel’s humor title What The–?! Featuring a tale of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham titled “Raven’s Last Hunt,” this oddball comic is topped off with a cover by Zeck & McLeod spoofing their original image for Amazing Spider-Man #294.
Arachnid pigs aside, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is certainly a classic story, featuring brilliant work by an extremely talented creative team. If you have not already read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collected edition. It is well worth a look.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!