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.

 

Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #30-35

This past week Wonder Woman #35 came out, bringing to a close the three year long story arc by Brain Azzarello, Cliff Chiang & friends. For those keeping track, that’s actually 38 installments: 35 regular issues, the flashback #0, the origin of the First Born in #23.2 during Forever Evil month, and a story in Secret Origins #6. It’s been quite a ride, and on the whole a successful one, at least in my estimation as a reader.

Wonder Woman 30 cover
Speaking of Secret Origins #6, the twelve page tale contained within makes a nice prequel to this whole run. Written by Azzarello & Chiang, with artwork by Goran Sudzuka, it fills in a few blanks in the New 52 back story of Princess Diana. As in past continuities, Queen Hippolyta attempted to fashion a baby daughter out of clay; this time, however, the gods did not gift the clay with life. Instead the philandering Zeus made his presence known, and he seduced the Amazon matriarch, giving her the gift of a daughter. Hippolyta chose to perpetrate the lie about Diana being born of clay to protect her from Hera’s jealousy.

More significantly, we find out that Diana and Aleka, bitter rivals in the present, were once the closest of friends. There may even have been an unrequited love on Aleka’s part for the Princess. But Diana was restless, and wanted to explore the world beyond Paradise Island. Aleka felt betrayed & abandoned by Diana, which led to their current animosity.

Truthfully, the Wonder Woman tale in Secret Origins #6 could have used a few more pages. I think it’s a mistake to try to cram three different character origins into each issue. The histories of not just Wonder Woman, but also Deadman and Sinestro all needed more room to breathe. I think it would be better if Secret Origins became a double feature.

Secret Origins 6 pg 6
Moving along to Wonder Woman #30-35, the final six issues penned by Azzarello, the epic he has been weaving comes to an interesting, thoughtful, exciting conclusion. Truthfully, when I first read these issues, they did feel decompressed. However, sitting down and going through them again today in one sitting, I see that Azzarello took the time to bring closure to many of the subplots and themes that he had been developing over the previous two and a half years.

As Wonder Woman #30 opens, the First Born has seized control of Olympus, transforming it into a bloody charnel house that mirrors his twisted psyche. Consumed by millennia of rage at having been left to die by Zeus in ages past, he is ready to wipe out every single member of his family so that he will be the last god in existence. The surviving members of the Greek pantheon and their offspring, including Diana, have gathered on Paradise Island to mobilize the Amazon army to oppose the First Born’s nihilistic designs.

Before any move can be made against the mad god, though, certain affairs of state must be addressed. Hippolyta is still a lifeless statue, Hera inexplicably unable to restore her humanity. Instead Hera announces that Diana is the new Queen of the Amazons, a proclamation met with some disapproval, especially by Aleka. Thus Diana finds herself in the difficult position of having to assume yet another new identity. Already struggling to fill the role of the deity of War, now she must become a monarch. That involves not just leading her people into battle, but also into the future.

And a significant part of that future is the question of the role of men. A number of readers, perhaps understandably so, took issue with Azzarello writing the Amazons as man-haters who seduced males in order to breed before slaying them, and who exiled all of their male children to the realm of Hephaestus. Diana herself was unhappy when she learned of this. Now that she is Queen, she sets out to try and change the Amazons. She assigns to them the collective symbolic role of motherhood to Zeke, the infant boy who her friend Zola gave birth to after a one night stand with a disguised Zeus. Diana also has Hephaestus transport all of the sons of the Amazons back to Paradise Island, to fight alongside their mothers & sisters against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 30 pg 17
As Diana explains…

“We need to evolve. We’ve isolated ourselves to the detriment of our society… and some of our children. The old ways… do they actually work anymore? Do we just cling to them because that’s the way our forebears intended? We need to look at ourselves and open the doors we’ve closed. And now is a good place to start.”

Azzarello also continues to examine how immortality is perhaps more of a curse than a blessing. If one is unable to die, at least from old age, then does one eventually begin taking life for granted? Without the ever-present certainty of death in the future, does one become aloof and disconnected from the rest of the world?

Previously the once-imperious Hera was turned mortal, requiring her to learn to deal with fear and loneliness and vulnerability. Azzarello showed the former queen of the gods gaining humility and an entirely different perspective on existence. She became friends with Zola, the woman who she once wished dead. But now restored to divinity, Hera once more begins to feel disconnected from humanity. When Zola tries to ask her what is going on, Hera coldly replies “I’m no longer mortal. I’m a god. Life, death… for me, it’s once again like one of those shows we would watch and laugh at together. It’s beneath my concern.” Listening to all of this, Zola angrily responds “You once said you were afraid of dying alone. Well, hope you like living alone… goddess.”

Wonder Woman 34 pg 6
Strife also seems to epitomize the dangers of everlasting life. The goddess of discord seems utterly bored by existence, and the only way in which she can tolerate it is to create trouble. Strife is the ultimate shit-stirrer. She is like someone who hands a long, pointy stick to a group of children, encourages them to use it to poke at a hornet’s nest, and then sits back sipping a glass of wine, smiling in amusement as chaos & suffering unfolds before her. The carnage & devastation being wrought by the First Born is but one more diversion to entertain her.

Indeed, when the First Born and his army some come calling, Paradise Island is transformed into a war zone. The casualties on both sides are horrific, something that does not bother the First Born in the slightest. “There is no sentimentality in life” he harshly states to Diana. Having never felt love, having been rejected from the moment of his birth, the First Born wants nothing more than to share his pain with the whole of existence.

Diana, on the other hand, refuses to set aside her empathy and mercy. It is an integral part of who she is. As seen back in issue #0, years before when Diana was a teenager, the old god War, then her mentor, severely scolded her for her unwillingness to slay a fallen foe, and rejected her as his pupil. Now in the present, Diana is saved by that act of kindness. The Minotaur serving the First Born is revealed to be the very same one who Diana showed mercy to all those years ago, and it refuses to kill her. This act is enough to restore Diana’s faith in her abilities & beliefs, and to once again stand against the First Born.

Wonder Woman 35 pg 11
Orion from the New Gods also pops up once more, playing a small but crucial role in the conflict. When last seen he is charging off into battle alongside the goddess Moon. That’s an appropriate pairing, since Moon is also known as Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Orion is named after the mythical hunter. I think they would make a lovely couple, assuming they don’t kill each other first!

In my previous Wonder Woman review I wondered where, exactly, Zeus had gotten off to. The former ruler of Olympus was conspicuous in his absence throughout the entirety of Azzarello’s storyline. Well, as I predicted, we do indeed find out exactly where Zeus has been… although it was actually the last place I expected. Of course, the revelation makes perfect sense once you think about it. And, looking at some other blogs online, such as Martin Gray’s Too Dangerous For A Girl, it appears that a few people did actually see this coming. Well, I was surprised, okay?

In terms of artwork, these issues are all very strong. Sudzuka illustrates Wonder Woman #30 & #31 in full, and does the finishes for #32 over Chiang’s layouts.  Issue #s 33 to #35 are illustrated by Chiang going solo for the big wrap-up. The coloring is, as always, courtesy of Matthew Wilson, who does superb work. Chiang’s covers for all six issues are fantastic, with very striking layouts & designs.

Both Chiang and Sudzuka do a fine job at demonstrating their versatility on the interior art. There are many great, dramatic pages, as well as some nice, effective character-driven sequences. It’s difficult to pick out a favorite. But one of the stand-out images is by Chiang in issue #34, as Hephaestus leads his troops into battle, headed up by a trio of giant mechanical war elephants. Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

Wonder Woman 34 pg 13
As I mentioned before, the reactions to Azzarello & Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman have been mixed. I will admit that there were a few rough patches, especially early on. But I’m glad that I stuck with the book, because this was a really great run with a satisfying conclusion that tied everything together. At some point in the near future I look forward to sitting down and re-reading this storyline in its entirety, and finding out what I get out of it the second time around.

Comic book reviews: Wonder Woman #24-29

I’ve been meaning to do a post about Brian Azzarello & Cliff Chiang’s run on Wonder Woman for a while now.  I really enjoy it; currently it is the only DC Comics New 52 title I follow regularly.  I recently learned that Azzarello & Chiang will be departing from the series sometime in the near future.  So, no time like the present!

Azzarello has a really good handle on Wonder Woman.  He understands the contradictions in the character: she is a highly trained, skilled, dangerous warrior, yet she is also an envoy of peace.  Azzarello scripts Princess Diana as someone who recognizes that force must sometimes be utilized in the cause of protecting the innocent, but she tries to avoid doing so out of anger or malice.  She hopes to provide everyone with an opportunity to prove themselves before having to resorting to violence.

It’s interesting that Azzarello utilizes an aspect of the character from the original Golden Age stories by William Moulton Marston & H.G. Peter, that Diana wears her bracelets not just for defense, but to restrain her boundless strength & anger, lest she loses control.  In this way, Azzarello has Diana acknowledge her own incongruities: she must accept her own capacity for violence, and control it, before she can ask others to do the same.

This has become even more of a challenge for Diana in recent issues.  The long-exiled first son of Zeus, known only as the First Born, has escaped from his thousands of years exile at the Earth’s center, ready to kill everything in his path and seize control of Mount Olympus.  The First Born was prepared to slay Diana’s mentor the god War, which would have given him all of War’s powers.  This forced Diana to kill her former teacher first, a very painful choice.  It was one made even worse by the fact that it meant that now she is War, a role that she does not want to play, as it goes against all her beliefs.

Wonder Woman 29 cover

Another aspect of the Azzarello & Chiang run that I’ve enjoyed is their re-interpretation of the Greek deities.  Instead of a group of dignified-looking humanoids clad in white togas, these gods of Olympus are an assortment of bizarre, dysfunctional freaks.  Which, when you take even a moment to think about it, makes perfect sense.  If you ever read the original Greek myths, the gods are typically depicted as selfish, petty, vain, capricious, vengeful entities that squabble amongst themselves, abuse their powers, and typically create more harm than good.  Azzarello’s writing captures those qualities spot-on, scripting a group of scheming, preening politicos who switch allegiances at a mercurial speed.  The physical conception of these entities by Chiang perfectly encapsulates their twisted priorities & agendas.

The events of Azzarello & Chiang’s overall story arc are, naturally enough, caused by the machinations of the gods.  Zeus, the millennia-long monarch of Olympus, has vanished, leaving a power vacuum that his fellow deities wish to fill.  His long-ago actions to the First Born have also come to rear their ugly head.  When it was prophesized that his first child would kill him, Zeus attempted to kill the then-infant First Born, setting the later on a millennia-long path of resentment-filled carnage & violence.

At the same time, Zeus’ infamous serial philandering has had consequences. The disguised deity seduced & impregnated an ordinary mortal woman named Zola.  Zeus’ jealous wife Hera, once again unable to take out her anger on her all-powerful husband, set out to kill Zola.  This is where Diana came in, protecting & befriending the pregnant woman.  Along the way, Diana herself learned that she was the result of a tryst between her mother & Zeus.  Hera also found out, and transformed all of the Amazons on Paradise Island into snakes.

Eventually Zeus’ son Apollo rose to the throne of Olympus and stripped his mother Hera of her divinity, making her a mortal.  This presented Diana with a serious dilemma.  As much as she disliked Hera, she now had to protect the former Queen of Olympus, since she was probably the only being who might one day restore the Amazons to normal.

This led to a really interesting situation: Zola and Hera, who hated each other’s guts, found themselves looking after each other, often having to aid one another in their mutual quest to survive the many dangers they faced.  Out of that was eventually formed a grudging friendship.  Even more interesting, the now-mortal Hera painfully began to gain a measure of humility and humanity.  Along the way Hera made some hysterically inappropriate social faux pas as she learned about acting in a tactful, polite manner, as opposed to an imperious deity.  So her development has been an interesting mix of drama and comedy.

Wonder Woman 27 pg 7

In the last several issues, we have seen Apollo attempting to bend the First Born to his will.  Instead, Apollo learns that hatred nurtured over millennia does indeed burn hotter than the Sun.  The First Born violently seizes Olympus, and is prepared to brutally obliterate all who oppose his will.  Diana, with a re-powered Hera and the once-more human army of Amazons at her side, must embrace the mantle of War in order to defeat the First Born.

By the way, Zeus has been conspicuous by his total absence from Wonder Woman so far.  Having caused this whole entire mess to begin with, no doubt he’s laying low for now, waiting for everyone else to do his dirty work.  I would not be at all surprised if Azzarello has Zeus finally show up just as the dust is clearing, ready to once again assume rule of the gods and carry on with business as usual.  I guess we shall see.

Cliff Chiang superbly illustrates Azzarello’s stories.  The art on these issues is simply amazing.  Chiang’s Diana is beautiful & strong.  The action sequences are dynamic & gritty.  The quiet character moments are full of personality & emotion.  This really is top-notch stuff.  I recently heard someone compare Chiang’s work to Jaime Hernandez.  I had not thought about that before, but yes, now I can see there are certain qualities to their art that are similar.  Certainly each of them are amazing at drawing interesting, expressive characters, utilizing strong storytelling, and imbuing their work with drama.

In addition to totally redesigning the Olympians, Chiang also did a make-over for Orion of the New Gods, who has been popping in and out the pages of Wonder Woman for the last year and a half.  Although I prefer the original Kirby design, I have to admit that Chiang’s interpretation of Orion is undoubtedly one of the better revamps that I’ve seen throughout the New 52 line.

Wonder Woman 26 pg 2

I guess that Chiang is not nearly fast enough to pencil & ink an ongoing monthly series, and so he has occasionally had other artists spot him.  Most recently Goran Sudzuka pitched in to help, drawing Wonder Woman #s 24-26, and contributing some layouts for Chiang on #28.  Jose Marzan Jr. came onboard with some nice inking over Sudzuka on #s 25-26.  They did very nice work, and it complements Chaing’s art quite well, not clashing at all.  The rich, lovely coloring by Matthew Wilson no doubt helps to maintain an overall tone to the series.

I haven’t yet seen a definitive final issue for Azzarello & Chiang’s Wonder Woman run announced yet.  It’ll probably be within the next six months.  I’ll certainly be sorry to see them leave.  But if they manage to maintain the quality that they’ve shown over the past two and a half years, then they will certainly be going out on a high point, in style.