Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

Longtime, influential comic book writer and editor Denny O’Neil passed away on June 11th at the age of 81.

A journalism major, O’Neil got started in the comic book filed in the mid 1960s.  After brief stints at Marvel and Charlton, O’Neil came to DC Comics, where he made a significant impact.

O’Neil was a very socially conscious individual, and he brought his concerns about inequality and injustice to his work.  He was assigned the Green Lantern series, which at the time was struggling in sales.  Working with artist Neal Adams, another young talented newcomer interested in shaking thing up, O’Neil had GL Hal Jordan team up with the archer Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen, in a series of stories that addressed head-on issues of racism, pollution, overpopulation, drug abuse, and political corruption.

The above page from Green Lantern / Green Arrow #76 (April 1970), the first issue by O’Neil & Adams, is probably one of the most famous scenes in comic book history.

I read these stories in the 1990s, a quarter century after they were published.  At the time I found them underwhelming.  I felt O’Neil’s writing was unsubtle, that he threw Hal Jordan under the bus to make a point, and that Oliver Queen was just the sort of smug, condescending left-winger who gives the rest of us liberals a really bad name.  As with a number of other people, I always though Hal Jordan’s response to the old black man should have been “Hey, I saved the entire planet Earth, and everyone on it, on multiple occasions!”

When I voiced these criticisms, older readers typically responded “You really needed to read these stories when they were first published to understand their impact and significance.”  I never really understood this until I started reading Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.  Alan writes about the comic books that he read as a kid half a century ago.  When I came to Alan’s posts about O’Neil’s early work on Justice League of America for DC Comics in the late 1960s, I finally began to understand exactly what sort of an impression O’Neil’s stories, with their commentary on critical real-world issues, made upon so many young readers of that era.

So, upon further consideration, while I still find O’Neil’s writing on Green Lantern / Green Arrow to be anvilicious, I recognize that he was attempting to address serious social & political crises for which he felt genuine concern, and in a medium that for a long time was regarded solely as the purview of children.  However imperfect the execution may have been, I admire O’Neil’s passion and convictions.

In any case, O’Neil & Adams’ work on Green Lantern / Green Arrow is yet more evidence that comic books have addressed political issues in the past, and anyone attempting to argue otherwise is flat-out ignoring reality.

UPDATE: For an insightful alternate perspective on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow stories I recommend reading J.R. LeMar’s blog post on Denny O’Neil.

O’Neil & Adams were also among the creators in the late 1960s and early 1970s who helped to bring the character of Batman back to his darker Golden Age roots as a grim costumed vigilante operating in the darkness of Gotham City.  O’Neil & Adams collaborated on a number of Batman stories that are now rightfully regarded as classics.

I really enjoy O’Neil’s approach to Batman.  His version of the Dark Knight was serious and somber, but still very human, and often fallible.  I wish that more recent writers would follow O’Neil’s example on how to write Batman, rather than depicting him as some brooding, manipulative monomaniac.  O’Neil really knew how to balance out the different aspects of Batman’s personality so that he was intense but still likable.

O’Neil & Adams, following the directive of editor Julius Schwartz, created the immortal ecoterrorist Ra’s al Ghul and his beautiful daughter Talia.  Ra’s al Ghul debuted in Batman #232 (June 1971) by O’Neil, Adams and inker Dick Giordano.

Ra’s al Ghul was certainly an interesting villain in that he possessed shades of grey.  He admired Batman, and easily deduced that the Dark Knight was actually Bruce Wayne.  Ra’s wanted Batman to become his successor and marry Talia.  Ra’s was genuinely passionate about saving the environment; unfortunately his solution was to wipe out 90% of the Earth’s population and rule over the survivors.  While Batman had feelings for Talia and sympathized with Ra’s end goals, he was understandably repulsed by the ruthless, brutal means Ra’s pursued, and so the two men repeatedly came into conflict.

Throughout the 1970s O’Neil, working with artists Adams & Giordano, as well as Bob Brown, Irv Novick, Michael Golden, Don Newton & Dan Adkins developed the globe-spanning conflict between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul, with Talia often caught in the middle of their immense struggle of wills.  These epic stories were later reprinted in the trade paperback Batman: Tales of the Demon.  It is some of O’Neil’s best writing, and I definitely recommend it.

O’Neil of course wrote a number of other great Batman stories during the 1970s outside of those involving Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Among those stories by O’Neil that are now considered classics is “There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” illustrated by Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics #457 (March 1976).

“There Is No Hope In Crime Alley” expanded upon Batman’s origin and introduced Leslie Thompkins, the doctor and social worker who cared for young Bruce Wayne after his parents were murdered in Crime Alley. The story was later included in the 1988 collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, which is where I first read it. It was actually one of four stories from the 1970s written by O’Neil to be included in that volume, a fact that speaks to how well-regarded his work on the character was.

In the early 1980s O’Neil went to work at Marvel Comics.  In addition to editing several titles, he wrote Iron Man and Daredevil.  On Iron Man he decided to follow up on Tony Stark’s alcoholism, which had been established a few years earlier by Bob Layton & David Michelinie. O’Neil had struggled with alcoholism in real life, and he wanted to address that in the comic book Stark was apparently white-knuckling it, trying to stay sober without a support system or a program of recovery.

O’Neil, working with penciler Luke McDonnell & inker Steve Mitchell, wrote a three year long story arc around Stark’s alcoholism.  Corporate raider Obidiah Stane, a literal chess master, ruthlessly manipulated events so that Tony fell off the wagon hard, then swooped in and bought out Stark International from under him.  Stark became destitute and homeless, and was forced to make a long, difficult climb back to sobriety, rebuilding both his life and his company from the ground up.

It’s worth noting another development in O’Neil’s Iron Man run.  Previously in Green Lantern / Green Arrow, O’Neil & Adams had introduced African American architect John Stewart, who they had become a new Green Lantern.  Twelve years later on Iron Man O’Neil had African-American pilot & ex-soldier James Rhodes, a longtime supporting character, become the new Iron Man after Stark succumbed to alcoholism.  Rhodey would remain in the Iron Man role for over two years, until Tony was finally well enough to resume it.

So, once again, the next time you hear some troll grousing about SJWs replacing long-running white superheroes with minorities, or some such nonsense, remember that O’Neil did this twice, telling some really interesting, insightful stories in the process.

This is another instance where the argument comes up that you had to be reading these comic books when they were coming out to understand that impact.  In this case I can vouch for it personally.  It was early 1985, I was eight years old, and the very first issue of Iron Man I ever read was in the middle of this storyline. So right from the start I just accepted that there could be different people in the Iron Man armor, and one of them just happened to be black.

In the late 1980s O’Neil returned to DC Comics, where he became the editor of the various Batman titles.  He also continued to write.  Among the noteworthy stories he penned was “Venom” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20 (March to July 1991), with layouts by Trevor Von Eeden, pencils by Russ Braun, and inks & covers by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.

“Venom” is set early in Batman’s career.  After the Dark Knight fails to save a young girl from drowning, he begins to take an experimental drug to heighten his strength.  Unfortunately he very quickly becomes addicted to the Venom, and is almost manipulated into becoming a murderer by the military conspiracy that developed the drug.  Locking himself in the Batcave for a month, Batman suffers a horrific withdrawal.  Finally clean, he emerges to pursue the creators of the Venom drug.

It is likely that “Venom” was another story informed by O’Neil’s own struggles with addiction.  It is certainly a riveting, intense story.  Venom was reintroduced a few years later in the sprawling Batman crossover “Knightfall” that O’Neil edited, which saw the criminal mastermind Bane using the drug as the source of his superhuman strength.

In 1992 O’Neil, working with up-and-coming penciler Joe Quesada and inker Kevin Nolan, introduced a new character to the Bat-verse.  Azrael was the latest in a line of warriors tasked with serving the secretive religious sect The Order of St. Dumas.  Programmed subliminally from birth, Jean-Paul Valley assumed the Azrael identity after his father’s murder.

Azrael soon after became a significant figure in the “Knightfall” crossover.  After Batman is defeated by Bane, his back broken, Azrael becomes the new Dark Knight.  Unfortunately the brainwashing by the Order led Azrael / Batman to become increasingly violent and unstable.  After a long, difficult recovery Bruce Wayne resumed the identity of Batman and defeated Azrael.  O’Neil appears to have had a fondness for the character, as he then went on the write the Azrael ongoing series that lasted for 100 issues.

Another of O’Neil’s projects from the 1990s that I enjoyed was the bookshelf special Batman / Green Arrow: The Poison Tomorrow, released in 1992.  Written by O’Neil, penciled by Michael Netzer, and inked by Josef Rubinstein, The Poison Tomorrow had the Dark Knight and the Emerald Archer working together to prevent a ruthless corporation from using the femme fatale Poison Ivy to create a virulent plague.

O’Neil’s liberalism definitely shines through with his clear distrust of Corporate America.  In one scene that evokes “the banality of evil” multi-millionaire CEO Fenn casually discusses with Poison Ivy his plan to poison jars of baby food, killing hundreds of infants, and then to sell the antidote to millions of terrified parents across the nation.  Reading this story again in 2020, it is not at all far-fetched, as in recent months we have repeatedly seen various corporations publically musing on the various ways in which they can turn a profit on the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also like how O’Neil wrote the team-up of Batman and Green Arrow.  Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen can both be very stubborn, inflexible individuals.  Each of them has a tendency to browbeat others into submission, so having them forced to work together is basically a case of unstoppable force meets unmovable object.  O’Neil got a lot of mileage out of the tense, almost adversarial chemistry that existed between these two reluctant allies.

The Poison Tomorrow is a grim, unsettling tale.  The moody artwork by Netzer & Rubinstein and the coloring by Lovern Kindzierski effectively compliment O’Neil’s story.  There were such a deluge of Batman-related projects published by DC Comics in the early 1990s that I think The Poison Tomorrow sort of flew under a lot of people’s radar.  I definitely recommend seeking out a copy.

O’Neil had such a long, diverse career that I have really only touched on a few highlights in this piece.  I am certain other fans, as well as the colleagues who actually worked with & knew him, will be penning their own tributes in which O’Neil’s many other important contributions will be discussed.

For example, I’m sure some of you are asking “How can you not discuss O’Neil’s fantastic run on The Question with artist Denys Cowan?!?”  Regretfully I have to admit that I have never read it.  However, if you are a fan of The Question then I recommend that you read Brian Cronin’s excellent tribute to O’Neil’s work on that series.

I was very fortunate to meet O’Neil at a few comic book conventions over the years.  Briefly talking with him while he was autographing some comic books for me, and hearing him speak on panel discussions, it was immediately obvious that he was an intelligent and passionate individual.  Those qualities definitely came through in his work.

Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.

 

Happy 80th birthday Batman: How I became a fan of the Dark Knight

This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.

Detective Comics 27 cover smallBatman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane.  Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week.  As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others.  Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.

I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman.  Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.Batman and Robin tv show

I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven.  My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY.  For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.

Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch.  Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.

I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989.  That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country.  Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books.  Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”

In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.”  I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating.  So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.

Batman 431 cover signed

Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him.  It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.

This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier.  ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil.  That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.

At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor).  In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts.  Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.

Batman 431 pg 7

The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins.  It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)

I was hooked.

The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432.  “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue.  It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it.  I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo.  They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.

Batman 431 pg 13

By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale.  Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing.  George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.

Batman 436 cover smallAfter that I was a regular reader.  I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo.  They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories.  Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face.  Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.

During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608.  The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell.  Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning.  I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.Detective Comics 608 cover small

As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books.  That is definitely the case with me.  In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists.  I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is.  Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.

Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58.  Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72.  Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s.  He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.

Detective Comics 627 cover smallReleased in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.

As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman.  As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.

I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions.  A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself.  I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team.  It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman.  Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers.  Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak.  I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes.  Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.

From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it.  I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.

Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia.  But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week.  Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that.  Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers.  It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.

The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson.  It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with.  The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school.  Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.

One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley.  Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s.  They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart.  The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character.  And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.

Happy birthday, Batman.  Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond.  Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.

Happy 75th birthday Neal Adams

I wanted to write a quick blog post wishing Neal Adams a happy birthday.  The legendary comic book artist was born 75 years ago today on June 15, 1941.

In a lengthy career that stretched from 1960 to the present, Adams has worked on numerous series, drawing some of the all-time greatest depictions of many different comic book characters.  At DC Comics he worked on Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Deadman.  Over at Marvel Comics he had short but extremely well-regarded runs on both Avengers and X-Men.  At his company Continuity Studios he worked on several creator-owned characters, most notably Ms. Mystic and Samuree.

Adams has also long been a vocal champion of creators’ rights in the comic book industry.  In the late 1970s he played a major role in DC finally awarding long-overdue public recognition & financial compensation to Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.  Among the other creators who Adams aided over the years were Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Dave Cockrum.  Adams was one of the first creators to strongly lobby publishers to return original artwork to artists.

nealadams01

Adams remains active in the biz.  Recent projects include the bizarre Batman: Odyssey for DC and First X-Men for Marvel.  Early this year he penciled a series of variant covers for DC Comics that paid homage to many of his now-classic Bronze Age covers.  On these variants Adams was paired up with a number of talented artists inking him.  Adams is currently working on the six issue miniseries Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, which features some really dynamic artwork.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Adams’ prolific presence in the comic book biz.  Perhaps in the future I will have a chance to take a closer look at some of his works.

If you’ve met Neal Adams any time in the last few years, you will probably find yourself saying that he doesn’t look like he’s in his 70s.  Hopefully he will be with us for many more years to come, creating still more amazing artwork.

Dick Ayers: 1924 to 2014

This is one blog post that I really wish I did not have to write.  I just found out that longtime comic book artist Dick Ayers passed away on May 4th at the age of 90.

Ayers was born on April 28, 1924 in Ossining, NY.  He spent the first twelve years of his childhood in White Plains.  At age 13, his family moved to a farming community in Upstate New York.  He returned to Westchester in his late teens, just in time to graduate from high school.  Years later, Ayers would say that his teenage years spent living in that rural area, with its lack of electricity & plumbing and multitude of horses, was the perfect training to become an artist who specialized in drawing Westerns.

Serving in World War II, Ayers was stationed in England & France.  Shortly after returning home, he attempted to pitch a comic book series he had devised, Chic ‘N’ Chu.  Although unsuccessful, in the process Ayers met Tarzan newspaper strip artist Burne Hogarth and studied under him.  In the late 1940s, Ayers began drawing comic books for Vin Sullivan’s Magazine Enterprises, and in 1950 created the Western masked vigilante known as the Ghost Rider for them.  Around this time he also began dating Lindy Walter.  They soon fell in love, and married in 1951.

In the 1950s, Ayers began working for writer / editor Stan Lee at Atlas Comics, the 1950s incarnation of Marvel.  He illustrated a significant number of Western, war, and horror stories, as well as drawing several stories for the short-lived revival of the original Human Torch and Toro in 1954.  One of his Human Torch stories was left unseen for 14 years, until editor Roy Thomas had “The Un-Human!” published in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16 (September 1968).  I’ve always enjoyed the crazy splash page for that tale, with its titanic eight-headed, six-limbed monster parachuting down from the sky!

Marvel Super-Heroes 16 Human Torch splash

In the late 1950s Ayers first began inking Jack Kirby, an association that continued into the 1960s, as Atlas officially became Marvel Comics.  I have always felt that Ayers was a really good match to ink Kirby on Western, war, and monster stories.  Among those was Strange Tales #89 (cover dated October 1961) which featured the debut of the now-iconic Chinese dragon Fin Fang Foom.  Ayers was also a good choice to ink Kirby on the early Fantastic Four issues, which still had one foot firmly in the territory of the recent Atlas monster & sci-fi tales.

Ayers had this sort of “earthy” quality that really suited the war and Western genres both as a penciler, and as an inker to Kirby.  In contrast, you had the slick, polished embellishments of Joe Sinnott, which were a much better fit for the high-tech science fiction adventures that Kirby was penciling in his later Fantastic Four stories.  That just goes to show the importance not just of finding the right pairing of penciler & inker, but also making sure that their finished work fits the atmosphere of the stories they are illustrating.

One of the best fits at Marvel for Ayers, first as an inker and then a penciler, was the retro World War II series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, which began publication in 1963.  After inking Kirby on the first few issues (plus the Captain America team-up in #13) Ayers took over as the regular penciler with #8, staying on the series for the next decade.  Ayers collaborated with writers Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich on Sgt. Fury.  He was paired with such embellishers as John Severin, John Tartaglione, and Frank Giacoia, the latter of whom Ayers stated was his favorite inker to work with.

Sgt Fury 23 pg 4

Ayers was the un-credited co-plotter on a number of these stories.  In his Introduction to the Sgt. Fury Marvel Masterworks Volume 2, Ayers detailed the genesis of one of his favorites, issue #23, “The Man Who Failed,” which was based on a suggestion from his wife Lindy: “Have the Howlers assigned to rescue a nun who was trying to save children from behind Japanese lines.”  The adventures of Nick Fury during World War II were always more slapstick than Saving Private Ryan, and there is a great deal of tongue-in-cheek humor to the scripting of the series.  Ayers explained that he regarded the Howlers’ exploits as “Baron Munchausen” stories, the types of colorful exaggerations that he and his fellow soldiers might indulge in after returning from the battlefield.

That said, Sgt. Fury could occasionally be gritty or poignant.  “The Man Who Failed” had Stan Lee showing British Howler Percy Pinkerton making peace with his youthful indiscretions & mend fences with his older brother.  “Killed In Action” in issue #18 ended with the tragic death of Pamela Hawley, Nick Fury’s first true love.  And issue #s 28-29 had Stan Lee & Roy Thomas scripting an apocalyptic confrontation between Fury and his arch-foe Baron Strucker.  Ayers did superb work penciling all of these dramatic stories.

Capt Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders 2 cover

With writer Gary Friedrich, Ayers also worked on the Sgt. Fury spin-off title Capt. Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders.  That short-lived series’ most memorable story arc is probably the one that ran in issue #s 2-4, wherein Friedrich & Ayers revealed the super-secret origin of Baron Strucker and the terrorist organization Hydra.

In the early 1970s, Ayers was receiving less work from Marvel.  They also began reprinting his earlier stories without paying him.  For a time Ayers had to work as a security guard to make ends meet.  Eventually Ayers had the opportunity to explain his situation to Neal Adams.  An early, forceful advocate of creators’ rights, Adams got in touch with DC Comics editor Joe Orlando on Ayers’ behalf.  Orlando assigned Ayers to a number of titles including Kamandi, Jonah Hex, Freedom Fighters, Scalphunter in Weird Western Tales, G.I. Combat, and The Unknown Soldier.  On that last title Ayers’ pencils were embellished by talented Filipino artist Gerry Talaoc.  As I’ve written before, I very much enjoyed their collaboration.

Unknown Soldier 255 pg 1

Ayers worked at DC through the mid-1980s.  He also did work for the Archie Comics / Red Circle line of books, drawing a revival of The Original Shield.  Starting in 1991, Ayers began working on Femforce, the fun superhero title published by Bill Black’s AC Comics.  Ayers demonstrated a real mastery of the female form in those comics, illustrating some playfully sexy good girl art.

AC has also brought back into print a variety of public domain Golden Age comic book stories.  Ayers’ classic Ghost Rider stories were among the material reprinted in AC’s Best of the West, with the character re-named the Haunted Horseman.  Ayers would occasionally contribute new artwork to the book, such as Best of the West #43, which had Ayers collaborating with artist Ed Coutts on a beautiful cover spotlighting the Haunted Horseman and the time-traveling Femforce gunslinger Buckaroo Betty.

Best of the West 43 cover

In 2005 Mecca Comics Group published Ayers’ three volume graphic novel autobiography The Dick Ayers Story, which was in-depth look at both his personal life and long career as an artist.  This was a project that Ayers had spent several years working on, a labor of love on his part.

Dick and Lindy Ayers lived in White Plains for several decades, and so would often make appearances at NY-area comic book conventions.  The first time I met them was at a show held at the Westchester County Center in the mid-1990s.  I remember asking Dick what he thought about current comic book artists.  He told me that he felt many of the more recent artists in the biz were not good storytellers.  He explained that a good comic book artist is someone who, if you removed all of the dialogue and narration, a reader would still be able to tell what the story was about just by looking at the artwork, how the action moves from one panel to the next.  That was probably the first time I ever heard comic book artwork explained to me in that way, and it helped me to develop an appreciation for the importance of layouts & storytelling.

Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000
Dick and Lindy Ayers at the All Time Classic New York Comic Book Convention in June 2000

I would often see Dick and Lindy at comic shows.  They were always such friendly people.  When I still lived near White Plains, they invited me over to their house on a few occasions.  It was a really enjoyable to see Dick’s studio, and to take a look at his original artwork that he had framed.  Another time, on a pleasant spring afternoon, we were in their back yard having lemonade & cookies.  I also saw them when Dick gave a lecture at the White Plains Public Library.

The last time I saw Dick and Lindy was at a small NYC comic show around 2011.  I recall that Dick was walking with a cane, and looking a bit unwell.  It seemed like age was finally starting to catch up to him.  However, I was recently happy to learn that he was scheduled to be a guest at the New York Comic Fest which is going to be held on June 14th at the Westchester County Center.  I was really looking forward to seeing Dick and Lindy again.  Unfortunately, that is now not to be.

I’m sad that Dick Ayers is no longer with us.  However, I am happy he lived a good, long life.  He leaves behind both a large family and an impressive body of work.

Comic book reviews: Neal Adams Monsters

With the hurricane having shut down a lot of NYC, and the subways out of service for the next few days, it looks like my Halloween is pretty much going to be confined to watching horror movies and reading graphic novels at home.  So here’s another good spooky read:

Neal Adams Monsters is, of course, the work of legendary comic book artist Neal Adams.  Here he also takes on the role of writer.  Originally serialized in the Echo of Future Past anthology published in the mid-1980s by Continuity, the material in Neal Adams Monsters was collected together in English for the first time in 1993 by Vanguard Productions.

In his introduction to the volume, Adams writes of his childhood fondness for monsters, stemming back to the old Universal Studios films.  One of the things Adams speaks of is his disappointment that there never was a genuine all-out battle between Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Werewolf in any of these movies.  He cites Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a half-hearted attempt that ultimately failed to deliver.  I have to admit I agree with him on that point.  I watched that movie on television years ago.  I don’t remember very much about it, but I do recall the promised grudge match between the two creatures did not materialize until the very end of the movie, when the pair sort of grappled around for about two minutes, only to be interrupted when the villagers blew up the local dam, flooding them away.  It was quite disappointing.  So I can certainly understand how a young Neal Adams, watching this, thought to himself that he could do better.

What Adams has set out to do in Monsters is to deliver a story in the tradition of the Universal and Hammer Studios films, yet one that is unencumbered by budgetary and special effects limitations.  One of the extraordinary strengths of the medium of sequential illustration is its potential to depict literally anything, no matter how fantastical or ambitious.  The only limits are the imagination & the abilities of the artist.  Adams clearly recognized that when he originally wrote & illustrated the Monsters story.

Neal Adams Monsters
Neal Adams Monsters

The writing on Monsters is, admittedly, not nearly up to par with the art.  I have always felt that Adams was a much stronger artist than writer.  That is not to say his writing on Monsters was bad, though.  It was just that I felt certain elements did not come together nearly as well as they might have.  Nevertheless, Adams’ plotting on Monsters achieves the requisite task of putting all of the characters & elements into place for a huge, cataclysmic confrontation.

Whatever any weaknesses of his writing might be, Adams artwork is absolutely magnificent.  He is such an amazing storyteller, utilizing dramatic layouts & panel designs.  His eye for detail is superb.  There are a number of intricately illustrated sequences that are simply breathtaking.

The aforementioned climax is spectacular.  There is perhaps the problem of the Werewolf being sidelined for most of this sequence, but I can forgive Adams this oversight, as the struggle between Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Creature is incredibly dramatic, a brutally stunning action sequence.  As Adams no doubt intended, he very much achieved his childhood goal of having the classic monsters of gothic literature and horror movies meet up in an unforgettable battle to end all battles.

I would be remiss if I did not cite the vivid coloring by Louis Douzepis, Cory Adams & Zeea Adams.  The colorists’ work is extremely effective & vibrant.  It really helps to bring Neal Adams’ line work to full, dynamic life.

There are several extra pages to the Monsters collection, featuring concept designs that Adams produced for several movies, as well as his work as a cover illustrator on Marvel Comics’ horror magazines in the 1970s.  I would have liked to have seen more of this bonus material.  What I found most fascinating were Adams’ designs for an unrealized film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End.  Viewing these, this is one project that I’m sorry never materialized.

Neal Adams is almost exclusively thought of for his work on such superhero titles as Batman, Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Avengers, and X-Men.  What is often forgotten is just what a great horror artist he is.  He did a superb job in the early 1990s for an issue of Now Comics’ Twilight Zone series, illustrating the Harlan Ellison story “Crazy as a Soup Sandwich.”  That was a great issue.  And, of course, with Monsters now collected and available from Vanguard, one can see another fantastic example of Adams’ work in this genre.  It’s a fun, brilliantly illustrated read, and I highly recommend it.