Earth Shattering Disasters: the perfect comic book for 2020

I went over to JHU Comic Books in Manhattan on Tuesday to buy the latest issue of Alter Ego magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing, and to look for a few other things. Due to Covid-19, this was only the fourth time since March that I’ve set foot in a comic book store, so I decided to spend some time browsing. Skimming though the back issue bins, I came across this:

Yes, I could not think of a more appropriate comic book to read in the year 2020 than one entitled Earth Shattering Disasters! Sadly there were no pandemics, economic meltdowns or murder hornets within these pages, but still plenty of interest to the comic book aficionado.

DC Special was an anthology series published by DC Comics from 1968 to 1971 and then from 1975 to 1977, running for 29 issues. Most issues of DC Special were reprints that centered around themes such as Wanted! The World’s Most Dangerous Villains, Strangest Sports Stories Ever Told or Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas, or that spotlighted the work of specific creators, namely Carmine Infantino and Joe Kubert.

The final three issues of DC Special contained brand-new material. DC Special #28 (cover dated June-July 1977) seems to be a thematic sequel to the all-reprint issue #18, which was sub-titled Earth Shaking Stories. This time, though, Earth Shattering Disasters contained three brand new stories.

The dynamic cover to DC Special #18 is drawn by Al Milgrom, then only 27 years old, who at the time was working as an editor and artist for DC Comics. Having grown up seeing Milgrom’s work for Marvel in the 1980s, it’s interesting to now see an earlier example of his work featuring DC mainstays Batman and Aquaman. If you squint, you can also make out a trio of Legion of Super-Heroes members in the background.

Opening this issue, we come to a table of contents page drawn by the great Jim Aparo. It took me a bit of time when I was younger to develop an appreciation for Aparo, but since then I’ve come to regard him as one of the very best artists DC had in their employ during the Bronze Age.

By 1977 Aparo was already well-regarded for his depictions of both Batman and Aquaman, having drawn numerous stories featuring those two characters over the previous decade. This is, however, one of the very few times Aparo drew anything involving the Legion of Super-Heroes. It’s nice to see his depictions of Timber Wolf, Phantom Girl and Brainiac-5, even if it’s only a single image.

The first story, “And the Town Came Tumbling Down,” has Batman facing Quakemaster, a disgruntled architect who threatens to destroy Gotham City with man-made earthquakes. This tale is interesting in hindsight since a little over two decades later in 1998 DC Comics would do a massive year-long storyline involving Gotham City being devastated by an earthquake. Of course, back in 1977 comic book stories were much more self-contained, and this is very much a one-off tale. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see Batman face off against a brand new villain rather than encountering one of his regular foes like the Joker or Penguin for the umpteenth time.

“And the Town Came Tumbling Down” is written by Bob Rozakis, who did a fair amount of writing for DC between 1975 and 1989, although nowadays he better known for his nearly two decade stint running DC’s production department.

Pencils are by John Calnan, an artist who is probably not too well known nowadays. Most of his work for DC was on their anthology titles, but he also drew a number of Batman issues in the late 1970s.

Calnan is inked by Tex Blaisdell, an artist who spent most of his career working on syndicated comic strips. Blaisdell was often paired with penciler Curt Swan on the Superman titles during the Bronze Age, which was unfortunate, as I really don’t think their styles meshed well. Blaisdell’s inking definitely feels like a much better fit over Calnan’s pencils. The two of them turn in a good, solid job on this story.

“A Creature of Death and Darkness” opens with Aquaman facing off against modern day pirates, but the action soon shifts to a battle with a humongous blob-like creature that threatens to consume the Hawaiian Islands.  The story is written by Gerry Conway, a prolific creator at both Marvel and DC during the 1970s and 80s.

This story is notable for being the very first DC Comics work by Don Newton. As with a number of his Bronze Age contemporaries, Newton got his start at Charlton Comics.  Having honed his craft on Charlton’s horror anthologies and The Phantom, Newton then moved into the “big leagues,” so to speak, becoming a regular artistic presence at DC Comics until his untimely death at the age of 49 in August 1984.

Newton is inked here by his friend and neighbor Dan Adkins. Starting out as an assistant to Wallace Wood in the mid 1960s, Adkins went on to do some superb inking over a variety of pencilers such as Gil Kane, Paul Gulacy, P. Craig Russell, Curt Swan and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. Adkins also occasional did full artwork, both in comic books and on magazine covers & illustrations. The collaboration of Newton and Adkins certainly works well on this story.

The final entry in this issue, “The City That Stopped Dead,” is the primary reason I picked this up. I’m a huge fan of the pre-Crisis Legion of Super-Heroes.

I’d never read this story before. The only time it’s been reprinted was in Legion Archives Volume 13, which had a low print run and currently goes for between $300 and $600 from various online retailers! Um, no thank you! It’s much cheaper to just search out the original issues, which is exactly what I did.

This is an early Legion story by Paul Levitz, who would later go on to write some of the team’s all-time greatest adventures in the 1980s. Levitz is often upfront about the fact that his later Legion of Super-Heroes work was better. Nevertheless, considering he was only 21 years old when he wrote “The City That Stopped Dead,” it’s a pretty good effort.  The Legion’s five on-call members leap into action to save 30th Century Metropolis when the city’s Fusion Powersphere is sabotaged, causing a catastrophic blackout.

Penciling this one is Arvell Jones, one of the members of Detroit comic book fandom who entered the comic book biz in the 1970s. Jones drew a number of series for DC and Marvel, most notably a two and a half year run penciling All-Star Squadron in the mid 1980s and the first six issues of Kobalt from Milestone / DC in 1994.  He did a nice job on this, so it’s a shame that he only drew a couple of other Legion issues after this.

Inks are by future Iron Man and Valiant Comics superstar Bob Layton. At the time Layton was only 24 and, as with several of the other creators on DC Special #28, early in his career. Nevertheless, Layton’s inking here is already polished, displaying the artistic flair that he has consistently demonstrated in the decades since.

DC Special #28: Earth Shattering Disasters is the sort of comic book that if I had been old enough to buy it when it had come out I would have enjoyed it. It has some of DC’s best characters in a trio of exciting stories written & drawn by a line-up of talented creators. Plus you got 34 pages for 60 cents! Adjusted for inflation, that’s $2.58 in 2020 money. That’s a great value, considering nowadays you can’t find a 20 page comic book for less than four bucks!

So, yeah, if I had been ten years old when this was released in the Spring of 1977 (as opposed to ten months old, which is how old I actually was back then) I’m sure I would have eagerly snatched this off the newsstand. As a 44 year old reading it in 20202, I can still enjoy it. It’s a product of a slightly less complicated era, a time when comic books already featured a high degree of craft, yet were still more accessible.

I realize the industry has changed a great deal in the last 40 plus years and that the market now usually requires stories that are decompressed and “written for the trade,” as the saying goes. Nevertheless, I miss these types of “one and done” tales.

Of course, that’s the great thing about back issues (and, consequently, collected editions of vintage comic books): there are literally decades of older material out there for us to enjoy.

Joe Giella comic book mail call

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic all of the major comic book conventions are cancelled.  It’s unfortunate, but certainly understandable.  “Con crud” is a real thing at the best of times, and any huge comic con would be a major health hazard.

I enjoy going to comic cons for the opportunity to meet creators and get their autographs on books that they worked on.  Obviously that is NOT happening this year.  So this summer I contacted a few creators via social media and asked if I could mail them books to get signed.

One of these creators was longtime artist Joe Giella.  I reached out to him via his son Frank Giella, who I’ve known for a couple of decades.  I’ve gotten a couple of things signed by Joe in the past, but I had a few others I was hoping to have him autograph, so I asked Frank if I could mail them to him to pass along to his father, and he very kindly agreed.

I sent Joe Giella a few Bronze Age comic books.  I don’t have any of the really classic issues he worked on for DC Comics in the 1950s and 60s since the majority of those are out of my budget.  Whatever the case, I’m happy I had the opportunity to get these books signed.

All-Star Comics #73 (July 1978) has Giella inking the pencils of Joe Staton, another artist whose work I love.  The writing is by Paul Levitz.  I only got into the 1970s revival of the Justice Society of America in recent years when I picked up the trade paperbacks, but I immediately became a fan.  I guess I’ve always liked the JSA a bit more than the Justice League because the JSA members don’t have their own solo titles, which enables more character development to take place in their series.  Also, the Earth-2 setting allowed the original JSA members to age, and to mentor a new generation of heroes, which I enjoyed.

Joe Giella began working for DC Comics in 1949, and some of the earliest characters he ever drew for them were the members of the JSA.  Then in the early 1960s Giella was one of the artists on the stories that introduced the Earth-2 concept and which brought the JSA back into print for the first time in a decade.  Given his historic connection to these characters, I was glad to have him autograph All-Star Comics #73.

Captain America #182 (Feb 1975) was a rare Marvel Comics job by Giella.  He inked a few odd issues for Marvel during the 1970s, as well as doing full artwork on various one-off projects such as a few t-shirts and The Mighty Marvel Superheroes’ Cookbook, which was an actual thing.  Here Giella is inking Frank Robbins.  This was during the period following the classic “Secret Empire” storyline by Steve Englehart when a disillusioned Steve Rogers abandoned the Cap identity and became Nomad.

I know that my experience with Robbins’ work parallels a number of other readers, in that initially I disliked it, over time I gradually learned to appreciate it, and now I now really enjoy his art.  I feel Robbins’ work was more suited to war and mystery and horror stories than superheroes, but even on the later genre I find there’s quite a bit to appreciate.  I think Giella did a very nice job inking Robbins on this issue, and I wish they had worked together more often.

Superman Family #200 (March 1980) was a really fun “imaginary story” written by Gerry Conway.  Set 20 years in the future (late 1999 to be specific) it featured Clark Kent and Lois Lane married with a teenage daughter named Laura.

There were several art teams on Superman Family #200.  The portions of this issue that Giella inked were penciled by Bob Oksner, another great artist whose work I have grown to appreciate in recent years.  Oksner & Giella made an effective art team.  That’s another collaboration I wish we had seen occur more frequently.

Finally, here is the variant cover that Giella drew for the sixth issue of the Archie Meets Batman ‘66 miniseries published by DC and Archie Comics (March 2019).  Giella is apparently the oldest living Batman artist, so I really wanted to have him sign something featuring the Dark Knight of Gotham City.  This cover is a nice piece which demonstrates that Giella, now in his early 90s, is still going strong as an artist.

Thanks again to Joe Giella for autographing these books, and to his son Frank for arranging everything.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Nine

Welcome to the ninth Comic Book Coffee collection. I’ve been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

41) Ramona Fradon & Mike Royer

We have selected panels from Plastic Man #14, penciled by Ramona Fradon, inked by Mike Royer, and written by Elliot S! Maggin, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1976 cover date.

It’s a late night at the headquarters of the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Chief tells his secretary Sundae to put on some coffee while he briefs his agents about a dangerous new threat to national security.  The Chief details to Plastic Man, Woozy Winks and Gully Foyle the gruesome origins of the oozing menace known as “Meat By-Product… The Dump That Walks!”  By the time the Chief is finished describing this monstrosity in excruciating detail, Plas and Co are so completely grossed out that when Sundae attempts to serve them coffee, donuts and cream-filled Danishes, they’re ready to toss their cookies.

I love Ramona Fradon’s artwork.  She has such a distinctive, unconventional, cartoony style.  She brought a very offbeat, fun, comedic sensibility to Metamorpho the Element Man, the character she co-created with writer Bob Haney and editor George Kashdan in 1965.  That definitely made her very well-suited to draw Plastic Man a decade later.  Fradon stated in interviews that he was one of her favorite characters to have worked on.

Fradon is inked here by Mike Royer.  Fradon loved Royer’s inking of her pencils on this story, and has said she wishes they’d had other opportunities to work together.  It’s certainly a great collaboration.

42) June Brigman & Roy Richardson

Here is a trio of coffee-related installments of the Mary Worth newspaper comic strip, penciled by June Brigman, inked by Roy Richardson, and written by Karen Moy.

In the November 10, 2017 strip, Iris is having late night coffee with her boyfriend Zak.  Iris and Zak had previously dated, but she wasn’t certain if they should be together, since she was several years older than Zak.  However, following her break-up with Wilbur she decided to give her relationship with Zak another shot.

Paralleling this, in the December 5, 2017 strip, Wilbur has returned home from his travels abroad. Over morning coffee (complete with a Hello Kitty coffee mug) he is catching up with his daughter Dawn.  Wilbur had a disastrous time in Bogota, where a woman attempted to scam him out of his money.  This has left him wondering if he should try to get back together with Iris, not knowing she is now involved with Zak.

Jumping forward a year to the November 26, 2018 strip, Mary agrees to foster Libby, a one-eyed tabby cat.  Libby is definitely a mischievous kitty, and when Mary tries to have her morning coffee the tabby knocks over her milk.  Mary ultimately cannot keep Libby, because her boyfriend Jeff is allergic to cats.  Fortunately Mary’s neighbor Estelle agrees to adopt Libby.

I liked the Libby storyline.  Libby reminds me of Champ, one of my girlfriend Michele’s old cats.  Champ was a one-eyed cat as well, the runt of the litter.  She was a sweet & affectionate kitty, and we were sad when she passed away from old age.

I’ve been a fan of June Brigman’s work ever since she co-created Power Pack with Louise Simonson at Marvel Comics in 1984.  Brigman has often worked with her husband Roy Richardson, an accomplished inker.  June and Roy have been drawing Mary Worth since 2016.  They both love cats, so I’m sure they enjoyed introducing Libby to the strip.  Please check out their awesome cat-centric sci-fi series Captain Ginger written by Stuart Moore from Ahoy Comics.

43) Mark Bright & Bob Layton

Iron Man #228, layouts by Mark Bright, finishes & co-plot by Bob Layton, script & co-plot by David Michelinie, letters by Janice Chiang, and colors by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics in March 1988.

One of the qualities of David Michelinie & Bob Layton’s runs on Iron Man that I have always appreciated has been their ability to write Tony Stark as a flawed, sometimes unsympathetic person while keeping his actions completely in character and believable.  Unlike some of the writers who followed them, they never had Stark acting in a wildly implausible manner simply to advance the plot.

Witness the now-classic storyline “Armor Wars” which saw Stark desperately attempting to destroy the technology he developed that was now in the hands of others.  As the story progressed, Stark became more and more obsessed, manipulative and ruthless, but the execution of this made it feel this progression was genuine.

Iron Man #228 sees Stark planning to attack the Vault, the federal penitentiary for incarcerating super-powered criminals, in order to destroy the Guardsmen armor that was developed from his technology.  While planning their assault, Stark and his close friend Jim Rhodes stop at a nearby greasy spoon for some coffee.  This scene by Layton, Michelinie and Mark Bright allows for a momentary pause in the action, enabling us to see the friendship and rapport that exists between Stark and Rhodes.

There’s very nice lettering by Janice Chiang on display here.  I love her work, and can usually spot it in an instant.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Stark’s anecdote, though…

“Took me three weeks to get rid of the blueberry stain. Had to tell the guys at the gym it was a tattoo.”

Sounds like it could be the punchline to a dirty story.  Whatever the set-up might have been, I doubt the Comics Code Authority would have approved!

44) Bob Oksner & Vince Colletta

This page is from the Lois Lane story “A Deadly Day in the Life” penciled by Bob Oksner, inked by Vince Colletta, written by Paul Levitz, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Jerry Serpe.  It appeared in Superman Family #212, published by DC Comics with a November 1981 cover date.

The relationship between Lois Lane and Superman in the Bronze Age was certainly somewhat of an improvement from how it was handled in the 1950s and 60s.  Lois was at least somewhat less catty and scheming and manipulative than she had been previously depicted, and Superman appeared to genuinely care for her.

At the same time, looking at in from a 21st Century perspective, it becomes much more obvious that Lois is in a relationship with a man who is actively hiding a major part of his personal life from her, and who regularly gaslights her whenever she comes close to uncovering the truth.

Nevertheless, given that the Bronze Age writers were required to maintain the Lois Lane-Clark Kent-Superman love triangle, they did fairly good work.  Paul Levitz writes Lois and Superman as two people who are comfortable with each other.  Bob Oksner’s background drawing romance and humor stories made him well-suited to penciling scenes like this.  Likewise, Vince Colletta’s own work in the romance genre results in an effective inking job.

Plus, I love the novelty of Superman using his heat vision to brew a cup of coffee for Lois.  Jim Thompson sent this page my way.  Yes, this IS from the same story he spotlighted where someone hurls a grenade into Lois’ bathroom while she’s taking a shower, and she tosses it back out the window before it explodes.  Good thing she had that cup of coffee beforehand!

45) Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr

As a follow-up to our last entry, these pages are from Adventures of Superman #525, penciled by Stuart Immonen, inked by Jose Marzan Jr, written by Karl Kesel, lettered by Albert DeGuzman, and colored by Glenn Whitmore, published by DC Comics in July 1995.

Prior issues of the Superman titles had introduced to Clark Kent’s old high school rival Kenny Braverman, who gained superpowers and joined a covert government agency… you know, like pretty much everyone else in comic books eventually does.  Braverman, who adopted the identity Conduit, learned that Clark was Superman and attempted to murder all of Clark’s friends and family.  In a final battle with Superman, the hate-filled Conduit’s powers consumed his body, killing him.

In this issue Clark is reunited with Lois Lane, who he believed had been killed by Conduit.  Clark explains to Lois that he is seriously considering giving up his secret identity to be Superman full-time, to prevent anyone else from being in danger due to their association with him.

Lois tells Clark she wants to go get a cup of coffee in the nearby town, but with one proviso: Clark needs to do it a Superman.  Changing into the Man of Steel, he goes to a nearby diner to order a cup of coffee, only to discover that everyone is ill-at-ease around him.  Some people are expecting a super-villain to attack any minute; others simply don’t know how to act around him.

Meeting up with Superman outside of town, Lois explains to him:

“You NEED a secret identity. It’s what protects you from people… and it’s what connects you to people. Under that costume you’re Clark Kent — you’ll always be Clark Kent. You can’t live without him… and neither can I!”

I feel that the post-Crisis continuity improved Lois Lane’s character a great deal. As I explained before, I was never overly fond of Lois.  I couldn’t understand why Clark / Superman wanted to be with her.  Even the efforts to make her less of a caricature in the 1970s were hampered by the need to maintain the Lois Lane-Superman-Clark Kent love triangle.  I think a clean break was needed for Lois, and Crisis provided John Byrne with that opportunity.

Of course, having subsequently read some of the original Siegel & Shuster stories, I now realize Byrne was actually returning Lois to her original conception, the intelligent, assertive, tough-as-nails investigative reporter of the early Golden Age, and away from the catty, scheming version that existed in the 1950s.

I also like that Byrne had Clark wanting to win Lois as himself, not as Superman, because Clark Kent was his real self, and “Superman” was the secret identity.

Byrne’s work with Lois and Clark definitely set the stage for Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens and others to write the characters in an interesting, adult relationship, and for Lois to finally learn that Clark was Superman.

In this issue Karl Kesel does really good work with the couple.  The artwork by Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr expertly tells the story.  And, wow, that coloring by Glenn Whitmore on page 19, with the sun setting in a dusky star-filled sky, is beautiful.

I know there are fans that are older than me who grew up on the Silver Age or Bronze Age comic books and did not like the changes made to these characters.  I can understand that.  I can only say that I read these stories when I was a teenager.  So for me this will always be MY version of Lois and Clark.

Nicola “Nick” Cuti: 1944 to 2020

Longtime comic book writer, editor & artist Nicola Cuti passed away on February 21st.  He was 75 years old.

E-Man 1 cover smallCuti, who was known to his friends as “Nick,” is best known for co-creating the superhero / sci-fi comic book series E-Man with artist Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  I’ve blogged about E-Man on several occasions.  Although I did not discover the series until 2006, I immediately became a HUGE fan.  The combination of Cuti’s brilliant, clever, imaginative writing and Staton’s animated, cartoony artwork resulted in a series that was exciting, humorous, poignant and genuinely enjoyable.

However, there was much more to Cuti’s lengthy career than just E-Man.  He was a versatile creator.

A longtime science fiction and comic book fan, Cuti began self-publishing his own black & white comic book series Moonchild Comics in the late 1960s.  The three issue series featured the outer space adventures of the voluptuous wide-eyed Moonchild the Starbabe.

Cuti was a huge fan of the legendary Wallace Wood, and on a chance telephoned the artist.  Woody agreed to look over Cuti’s portfolio, and he asked the young creator to work as one of his assistants.

Moonchild Comics
Moonchild Comics #2 by Nicola Cuti, published by San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1969

While he was at Woody’s studio Cuti learned there was an opening for an assistant editor at Derby, Connecticut-based publisher Charlton Comics.  Tony Tallarico, an artist who was doing work for Charlton at the time, urged Cuti to apply.  Cuti interviewed with editor George Wildman, who offered him the job.

In an interview conducted in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing, Cuti described his role at Charlton:

“Basically, I was the production department, myself and another guy by the name of Frank Bravo… The two of us handled the entire production department which meant that when artists would send in completed stories, we would look over the artwork, proofread it, and if there were any spelling mistakes, we corrected them. And if there were any pieces of artwork that had to be corrected for one reason or another, we would do that.”

Cuti also worked as a freelancer for Charlton, writing numerous short stories for their various horror anthologies throughout the 1970s. In addition to Staton, Cuti collaborated with a diverse line-up of artists that included Steve Ditko, Tom Sutton, Wayne Howard, Sanho Kim, Don Newton and Mike Zeck.  Cuti was a regular writer on the licensed Popeye comic book that Charlton published, as well as penning several stories for their Space 1999 comic book adaptation.  He also worked on Charlton’s romance titles.  As he would later explain in the interview with Comic Book Artist, one of the highlights of working for Charlton had been the opportunity to write for diverse genres, to tell various different types of stories.

Haunted 36 pg 11
“The Night of the Demon” by Nicola Cuti and Tom Sutton from Haunted #36, May 1978

In addition to his work at Charlton, Cuti was also a regular contributor to the black & white horror magazines from Warren Publishing.  Regrettably I am not all that familiar with Cuti’s writing for Warren, although I am sure that he did quality work there, just as he did for Charlton.  I encourage everyone to head over to fellow WordPress blog Who’s Out There?  Last year Gasp65 spotlighted the crime noir story “I Wonder Who’s Squeezing Her Now?”  Co-plotted by Cuti & Wallace Wood, scripted by Cuti, penciled by Ernie Colan, and inked by Woody, the story was originally written & drawn in 1971, finally seeing print in the fifth issue of the Warren anthology title 1984 in February 1979.  Cuti’s scripting on this tale, especially the ending, demonstrates what a thoughtful and intelligent writer he was.

In the early 1980s, following the demise of both Charlton and Warren, Cuti worked as an assistant editor for DC Comics.  In 1986 he moved to California and began working in television animation, a field he remained in for almost two decades.  Beginning in 2003 he worked on a number of independent films featuring characters he created such as Captain Cosmos and Moonie.

It is regrettable that Cuti was never able to establish himself as an especially successful comic book writer outside of Charlton and Warren, because he was, as I said before, an incredible writer.  Fortunately he established both a creative rapport and a friendship with Joe Staton early on, and over the succeeding decades the two men periodically reunited at several different publishers to chronicle the further adventures of E-Man, his girlfriend & crime-fighting partner Nova Kane, and scruffy hardboiled private detective Michael Mauser.  Cuti and Staton really did have a wonderful creative collaboration, and I definitely enjoy their work together.

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 pg 2
The origins of E-Man and Nova Kane, as retold by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1, 2017

Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet Cuti, although I was able to correspond with him on Facebook.  From everything I have heard from those who did know him, he was a genuinely good person.  After his passing numerous heartfelt tributes were penned by his friends and colleagues.

I am going to quote in full longtime DC Comics editor Paul Levitz’s lovely tribute to Cuti on Facebook:

“You can learn something about a creator’s personality from their work, but it isn’t always a completely reliable guide. If you read Nick Cuti’s work you’d get the feeling that this was a man with a generally positive outlook on life. His characters were playful, joyful even. But you’d still be underestimating the cheerful glow that Nick broadcast.

“As an editor, he ignored the moribund state of Charlton Comics and recruited talent who would go on to be industry leaders—John Byrne, Joe Staton, even my buddy and prolific DC scribe Paul Kupperberg broke into pro ranks at Nick’s hand and encouragement. And he created—with Joe Staton —Charlton’s last great series, E-Man, a hero who charm reflected Nick’s own.

“At DC for a number of years he was a relentlessly cheerful presence, and a guardian of the old humor treasures from our vault, making them available to a new audience.

“As a cartoonist he could blend smiles with sexy, and give us his Moonchild.

“The announcement of his death today after a battle with cancer leaves the world with less smiles…and hopefully his spirit in the world of his starry children.”

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 cover smallOn his own blog my friend Nick Caputo wrote a detailed retrospective of Cuti’s career which I hope everyone will check out.

If you are unfamiliar with Nicola Cuti’s work, I hope this will prompt you to check it out.  A lot of the Charlton comics can be found relatively inexpensively in the back issue bins at comic conventions and shops that carry older back issues.  Most of the E-Man comic books are also relatively affordable.  The original Charlton series, which ran for 10 issues, was reprinted by First Comics in the miniseries The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser.  Cuti wrote the final two issues of the E-Man run published by First in the mid 1980s.  Between 1989 and 2008 various E-Man and Michael Mauser comics by Cuti & Staton were released through Comico, Apple Press, Alpha Productions, Digital Webbing, and Argo Press.

Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton’s final E-Man and Nova story was serialized in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1-3, which can be purchased through Mort Todd’s Charlton Neo website, along with a number of other cool titles. As I’ve said before, I am glad Nick and Joe had one last opportunity to reunite and bring the curtain down on these wonderful characters.

Thank you for all of the wonderful stories throughout the decades, Mr. Cuti.  You will definitely be missed by all of your fans, friends and colleagues.

Happy Batman Day and Caturday!

Today is Batman Day, celebrating all things relating to the Dark Knight of Gotham City, one of DC Comics’ most iconic comic book characters.  Today is also Saturday, or rather Caturday, the weekly celebration of all things cat-related.

Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, first appeared in Detective Comics #27, published in 1939.  Catwoman, real name Selina Kyle, made her debut just a year later in the pages of Batman #1.  Both characters were created by writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane.

For nearly eight decades the grim vigilante Batman and the sexy thief Catwoman have had an adversarial relationship with heavy romantic undertones.  There was a mutual attraction from the start, one often undermined by the fact that Bruce and Selina have typically been on opposite side of the law.

Since this year Batman Day falls on Caturday, I am taking a quick look at the history between Batman and his longtime frenemy Catwoman.

Batman 65 cover

Creator credits in the Golden Age of comic books were unfortunately often sparse, but the GCD credits the cover artwork to Batman #65 (June-July 1951) to Win Mortimer, Lew Sayre Schwartz & Charles Paris.  Whoever drew it, it’s a nice cover.  Both it, and the story inside by Finger, Kane, Schwartz & Paris, demonstrate that right from the start Batman never knew if each time he met Catwoman she would turn out to be an enemy, an ally, or something in-between.

Detective Comics 211 pg 1

“The Jungle Cat-Queen!” is an exciting tale written by Edmund Hamilton and drawn by Dick Sprang & Charles Paris, and appeared in Detective Comics #211 (Sept 1954).  Catwoman plays a variation of “The Most Dangerous Game” with Batman and Robin on a jungle island.  Sprang is considered the quintessential Batman artist of the 1950s.  I first read this one in the excellent collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

(Pay no attention to the contratually obligated Bob Kane byline.  Kane had nothing to do with this comic, or any other Batman story published after the early 1950s.  Unfortunately he loved to take credit for other people’s work.  At least nowadays we have a much better idea of who did what.)

Batman 197 pg 18

Batman #197 (Dec 1967) written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Frank Springer & Sid Greene sees Catwoman determined to marry Batman… whether he wants to or not!  Yeah, this one certainly won’t win any awards for progressive depictions of woman!  This was pretty typical of DC’s Silver Age superhero comics, the target audience for which was pre-teen boys. Oh, well… nice artwork by the underrated Springer & Greene, at least.

For an entertaining, in-depth look at Batman #197 by someone who read it when it first came out I highly recommend heading over to Alan Stewart’s excellent Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.

Batman 256 pg 14

Okay, this is certainly better!  Batman #256 (May-June 1974) by writer Denny O’Neil & artists Irv Novick & Dick Giordano, has Batman and Robin investigating whether or  not Catwoman has committed a murder at the circus.  Selina is innocent, of course, since she’s no killer, but she is planning to “liberate” the tigers from the circus, so she can return the large cats to the natrual world.  While Batman disapproves of Catwoman’s larcenous activities, he nevertheless admires her strong love for animals.

DC Super Stars 17 pg 30

DC Super Stars #17 (Nov-Dec 1977) featured the origin of the Huntress, heroine of Earth 2 and the daughter of the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman.  This story, written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Joe Staton & Bob Layton, opens with the wedding of Bruce & Selina, who at least in this dimension found love & happiness together for two decades, until tragedy eventually struck.  It’s a great story, so go find a copy and read it!

Detective Comics 569 pg 6

Meanwhile, back on Earth 1, Batman and Catwoman were still doing their will-they-or-won’t-they dance.   Mike W. Barr was one of the writers to delve into their rocky relationship, as witnessed in this scene from Detective Comics #569 (Dec 1986) expertly illustrated by Alan Davis & Paul Neary.

Batman 611 pg 21

In the post-Crisis, post-Zero Hour, post-whatever other reality-altering mega crossovers DC has thrown our way in the past 30 years, Batman and Catwoman still had that mutual attraction going.  After numerous encounters that saw them working in various permutations of friends and foes, they finally officially became a couple in Batman #611 (Feb 2003) written by Jeph Loeb, with art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams.

I am generally not a huge fan of Lee’s work.  I find his style too busy and hyper-detailed.  Having said that, this is a beautiful splash page which has become an iconic image.

Batman Catwoman Follow the Money pg 44

Of course, the course of true love never runs smooth, or words to that effect.  Batman and Catwoman’s ongoing relationship has hit quite a few speedbumps.  One of the reasons for this is that the two come from very different backgrounds: Bruce is a millionaire, and Selina grew up on the streets of Gotham City’s poorest neighborhoods.  As a result the two have often disagreed over matters of crime, punishment and justice.  This was expertly illustrated in Batman / Catwoman: Follow the Money (Jan 2011) written & illustrated by Howard Chaykin.  It’s an enjoyable story, and I recommend searching out a copy.

I know a lot of people were upset that Bruce & Selina did not actually tie the knot during writer Tom King’s current run on Batman.  But, honestly, as you can see from the above, they already bicker like an old married couple, so at this point it’s really just a formality!

Batman Gotham Adventues 50 cover

I am going to close out with the cover artwork for Batman: Gotham Adventures #50 (July 2002) which features the animated incarnations of Bruce & Selina.  Illustrated by the late, great, much-missed Darwyn Cooke, this image is a beautiful snapshot of the relationship between Batman and Catwoman.

Batman co-creator Bill Finger finally receives official recognition

If you have ever read any Batman comic books published by DC Comics, you will probably have noticed this credit: “Batman created by Bob Kane”

For 75 years the official position held by DC Comics and its predecessor National Comics was that Bob Kane was the sole creator of Batman.  This was a result of a contract signed between National and Kane after the Batman character made his debut.  The notion that Kane devised Batman on his own was one that Kane himself spent many years propagating.

What many Batman fans did not realize until the character had been in existence for well over half a century was that the Dark Knight was actually the co-creation of Kane and writer Bill Finger.  Finger suggested various key elements of Batman’s costume.  He created Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne and devised the origin of a young boy who witnessed his parents’ murders and swore to avenge their deaths by waging war on crime.  Finger co-created the Batmobile and the Bat-Cave, and is believed to have chosen the name “Gotham City” for Batman’s hometown.

Finger was also involved in creating many members of Batman’s supporting cast and rogue’s gallery, notably Commissioner Gordon, Robin, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Scarecrow, and the Riddler.  Batman’s arch nemesis the Joker was created by the three-way collaboration of Finger, Kane and artist Jerry Robinson.

Unfortunately, for decades Finger’s contributions were ignored or downplayed by DC Comics.  There were certain individuals, such as Paul Levitz and Denny O’Neil, who did wish to give Finger greater credit.  But they were hampered by DC’s contracts with Kane and, following his death in 1998, his estate.

That is, until this week, when the following appeared in the credits of the Batman books for the very first time…

Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger

“Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger”

For many years, every time I read an issue of Batman or Detective Comics or any other Bat-related book and I saw the old credit “Batman created by Bob Kane” I would mentally add “and Bill Finger” after it.  As with many other fans that over time learned about Finger’s key role in the creation of Batman, I hoped that one day he would receive official recognition for his contributions.  So I am definitely happy to see this come to pass.

It is true that I think that the new credit line really ought to read “Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.”  But considering that for decades it seemed an absolute impossibility that Finger would ever receive any credit, we have to be satisfied with this.

The story of Bill Finger is just one of many that should serve as a warning to all people working in creative fields.  It not only demonstrates the dangers of being shortchanged by Corporate America, but also the unfortunate possibility of being taken advantage of by a fellow creator who sees an opportunity to grab the lion’s share of credit and financial rewards at your expense.

Bill the Boy Wonder cover

Obviously there is a great deal more to what occurred between Bob Kane, Bill Finger and National / DC Comics.  I strongly recommend that those who are interested in the full story pick up a copy of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ty Templeton, which was published in 2012.  Nobleman is one of the people who in recent years has actively championed the cause of Finger finally receiving recognition for his contributions.

Templeton, who himself has worked on various Batman stories over the years, effectively (and humorously) demonstrated the importance of Bill Finger’s contributions to Batman via a comic strip he featured on his blog.  Appropriately enough, this is entitled “What if Bob Kane had created Bat-Man without Bill Finger?”

What if Batman by Ty Templeton

Yes, if it had not been for Bob Kane, there wouldn’t have been a superhero called “the Bat-Man.”  But without Bill Finger’s important contributions, that “Bat-Man” would have been very different, and it is doubtful that he would have become an incredibly popular, iconic figure who has endured for over three quarters of a century.

Finger was an incredibly inventive writer.  He also co-created the original Green Lantern with artist Mart Nodell and Wildcat with artist Irwin Hasen.  During his decades-long career Finger wrote many imaginative, memorable comic book stories.

Finger’s official recognition as Batman’s co-creator is long overdue.  He unfortunately passed away in 1974, before his role in Batman’s creation became widely known.  But I am happy that his granddaughter Athena Finger was able to see this achieved.

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Doomed Legionnaires

Among the myriad characters to have appeared in the adventures of the Legion of Super-Heroes over the decades, there exists a quartet that seem tied together by tragedy, almost as if fate itself meant for them to meet with terrible destinies.  I speak of Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid, who were conceived by Jim Shooter, making their first appearances in Adventure Comics #346 (July 1966), published by DC Comics.

Adventure Comics 346 cover

Jim Shooter was all of 13 years old when he became the Legion’s new writer.  He came from an impoverished background, and entered the field to help supplement his family’s meager income.  One of the strengths that Shooter brought with him, in addition to his fertile imagination, was that he knew how real teenagers think and act.  He helped bring a certain authenticity to the super-powered teens of the 30th Century.  His first published story, for which he also supplied the rough pencil layouts, was in fact the two-part tale that ran in Adventure Comics #s 346-347, which saw the four young heroes he created inducted into the Legion.  The finished artwork was courtesy of Sheldon Moldoff, Curt Swan & George Klein.

Karate Kid, although he had no actual superhuman abilities, was a highly trained martial artist who had mastered a form of “super karate” which enabled him to go toe-to-toe with much more powerful opponents.  Princess Projecta had the ability to create incredibly realistic illusions.  Ferro Lad was a mutant who could turn his body into a form of living steel, gaining super strength & invulnerability.  Nemesis Kid possessed the talent to instantly develop the ability to combat any foe or danger.

Just as Karate Kid, Princess Projecta, Ferro Lad, and Nemesis Kid had finished being admitted into the Legion, the militaristic alien Khunds (also a Shooter creation) made clear their intention to invade Earth.  The team, including the four newcomers, was dispatched across the globe to guard the planet’s defenses.  However, one by one the “electro-towers” protecting Earth were destroyed by sabotage.  It quickly became apparent that one of the new Legionnaires was in fact a traitor working with the Khunds… but which one?  At first the evidence seemed to point to Karate Kid.  But as Superboy stepped forward to accurse Karate Kid, the true double agent was revealed to be Nemesis Kid.

Adventure Comics 347 pg 13

The Khund invasion was thwarted, but Nemesis Kid used his adaptability power to teleport away, evading capture.  He would go on to become a long-time foe of the team, both as a solo menace and a member of the Legion of Super-Villains.  And out of that first encounter would grow a long-running enmity between Karate Kid and Nemesis Kid.

Soon after, tragedy once again struck the Legion.  Editor Mort Weisinger had directed Shooter to more or less rip off the then-current movie The Dirty Dozen.  To his credit, Shooter conceived a two part story that was quite original & dramatic.  In the pages of Adventure #s 352-353, the cosmic entity known as the Sun Eater was detected approaching the United Planets.  Capable of consuming entire galaxies, the Sun Eater was too formidable a menace for even the Legion to defeat.  They were forced to enlist the aid of five of the galaxy’s most dangerous criminals, offering them amnesty in exchange for their services.

Superboy, Cosmic Boy, Princess Projecta, Sun Boy and Ferro Lad set out to confront the Sun Eater, accompanied by the newly-formed Fatal Five.  One member of that quintet of criminals, the cyborg Tharok, conceived a strategy to combat the inhuman menace.  Although this battle plan failed, the attack by the Legion and the Fatal Five managed to weaken the Sun Eater, as well as provide Tharok with the data needed to construct an Absorbatron Bomb.  If detonated at the core of the Sun Eater it would destroy the entity.  Unfortunately whoever delivered the bomb would almost certainly die in the act.  Superboy was ready to sacrifice himself, but Ferro Lad punched the Boy of Steel, grabbed the bomb, and flew into the heart of the Sun Eater.  The bomb did indeed succeed in destroying it, but at the cost of Ferro Lad’s life.

Advenure Comics 353 pg 20

In real life, Shooter hadn’t initially planned to kill off his creation.  In fact, he wanted to reveal Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire.  However the conservative Weisinger forbid him doing this, supposedly fearing it would affect their sales in the South.  As a result, when conceiving the Sun-Eater two-parter, Shooter realized the ending necessitated someone dying, and so he chose Ferro Lad.  In any case, despite a very brief tenure on the team, Ferro Lad became something of a fan favorite due to his brave, heroic sacrifice.

Time passed, and Shooter left the Legion.  During the intervening years, under other writers, Karate Kid and Princess Projecta went on to become well-established members of the team.  The two characters also fell in love.  Then, nearly a decade later, in 1975, Shooter made a brief return to the series.  It was at this point that he was able to delve into the background of his futuristic master of the martial arts.

In the pages of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, Shooter, paired with artist Mike Grell, revealed the origin of Karate Kid, aka Val Armorr.  In “The Lair of the Black Dragon” Karate Kid learned he was the son of the infamous Japanese criminal Kiraku Nezumi, aka the Black Dragon, and an American woman named Valenina Armorr, who died shortly after giving birth to him.  Karate Kid’s mentor, known only as the Sensei, had in his youth himself been a super-hero.  He and the Black Dragon were arch-enemies.  After many years, the Sensei finally killed the Black Dragon in combat, only to learn of the existence of his foe’s infant child.  The Sensei raised Karate Kid as his own son.  Now a teenager, Karate Kid was approached by the Black Dragon’s followers, hoping the truth of his parentage would turn him against the Sensei.  Instead, Val fought to protect the Sensei.  He explained “The Black Dragon gave me life… but you gave me more: ideals and moral values!”  As far as Val was concerned, the Sensei was his true father.

Superboy Legion 210 pg 18

More time passed.  Paul Levitz became the writer on Legion of Super-Heroes, embarking on a multi-year run during which he penned a number of now-classic stories.  One of his long-running subplots was the complicated relationship between Karate Kid and Princess Projecta.  After a tumultuous courtship, Val and Jeckie at last married.  Unfortunately, their happiness would be short-lived.

During Levitz’s partnership with penciler & co-plotter Keith Giffen, Legion became an especially popular title.  It received a brand new series in 1984.  To start it off, in the first five issues Levitz and Giffen brought back the Legion of Super-Villains, expanded in ranks and headed by Nemesis Kid.  The one-time traitorous LSH member embarked on a dual quest to lead his fellow criminals in the invasion of Princess Projecta’s home planet of Orando and to kill as many Legionnaires as possible.

The Super-Villains attacked Orando, shunting the entire planet into another dimension, in the process capturing several members of the LSH.  This included the newly-married Karate Kid and Princess Projecta.  In Legion #4, Val managed to free himself and his teammates, but then told them “Hold it – you guys go on ahead – I have a personal score to settle.”  With that he headed off to face his long-time rival Nemesis Kid.

In a brutal fight, Nemesis Kid used his adaptability to match Val’s martial arts, delivering a bloody beating.  But the hero refused to give up, continually getting up again and again to face his foe.  Despite his willpower, Val ended up sustaining severe injuries.  Realizing he was mortally wounded, Karate Kid grabbed his flight ring, bid farewell to Jeckie, and flew up into the sky, using the last minutes of his life to damage the orbiting technology that had snatched Orando into limbo.

Legion v3 4 pg 22

Giffen, who was absolutely not a fan of Karate Kid, was the one who had originally suggested killing Val.  Levitz, in contrast, really liked Karate Kid, but he decided that dramatically it was a good idea because the character was popular and so his death would be unexpected as well as possess an emotional punch.

In the letters page of issue #4, Levitz addressed Val’s death: “A long-time favorite character of this writer (who even scripted Karate Kid #1 as his first LSH-related assignment over eight years ago), we’d like to think his death in battle against Nemesis Kid was foreshadowed from the day they both joined the Legion in Adventure Comics #346.”

By this time Giffen had actually gotten burned out drawing Legion.  Up-and-coming artist Steve Lightle took over as penciler with issue #3, working from Giffen’s thumbnail pencil breakdowns on his first couple of issues before taking full creative control of the storytelling.  Unlike Giffen, Lightle was a big fan of Karate Kid, and he was hardly thrilled that in only his second issue on the book he would have to draw the character’s demise.  Nevertheless, given how much he cared for Val, Lightle set out to make his death as dramatic as possible.  He certainly did amazing work penciling Karate Kid’s last stand.

The final confrontation between the Legion and their evil counterparts took place in issue #5, as Princess Projecta sought to avenge Karate Kid’s death.  At first Jeckie hurled all manner of horrific hallucinations at her husband’s killer, but Nemesis Kid immediately adapted immunity to her illusions.  Unfortunately for him, while he was busy doing that, he could not adapt to fight a normal human woman physically.  A vengeful, driven Projecta reached out and in a moment of cold fury broke Nemesis Kid’s neck, slaying him.

Once again, Lightle does amazing work penciling this sequence.  The panels where he zooms in on Projecta’s icy eye, and then cuts to Nemesis Kid’s horrified expression, really drive home that this is a woman who will not be stopped.  On the next page, as Projecta grabs Nemesis Kid by the neck, the “camera” pans down to Karate Kid’s fallen form, leaving the execution to occur off-panel.  Sometimes what takes place out of sight has much more of an impact.  (Click on the scan below for a close-up look at these two pages.)

Legion v3 5 pg 14 & 15

With her husband avenged and the LSV defeated, the widowed, mournful Projecta resigns from the Legion, and assumes her place as Orando’s ruler.  In a later interview, Levitz stated that he eventually would have brought her back somewhere down the road.  But it was clear that, at the time, this would have been the last we saw of Jeckie, at least for the immediate future.

Of course, to quote poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.”  A year later, in Legion #14 (September 1985), Levitz & Lightle introduced the mysterious Sensor Girl.  Levitz originally intended Sensor Girl to be a post-Crisis incarnation of Supergirl, placing her incognito to work around the editorial mandate that she was dead / retconned out of existence.  However, the powers-that-be at DC soon told Levitz that his idea was a no-go.  Forced to change course mid-stream, Levitz eventually revealed Sensor Girl to be Princess Projecta.  But that’s a story for another time.

Getting back to where we started, the four “doomed” Legionnaires introduced way back in Adventure Comics #346 exemplify what makes the Legion so great.  From that one story, Shooter, Levitz and other writers took those characters on engaging, moving, epic story arcs that resonated with readers.  As I’ve written before, the amazing thing about the Legion is that you become so invested in these characters, their lives, their loves, and their tragedies.

(I have to offer an acknowledgement to the excellent book The Legion Companion, written by Glen Cadigan and published by TwoMorrows in 2003, as the source for much of the background info contained in this blog post.  It is currently out of print, but if you can find a copy it is well worth picking up.)

Happy birthday to Joe Staton

I want to wish a very happy birthday to the super-talented comic book artist Joe Staton, who was born on January 19, 1948, and who turns 66 years old today.  Staton has had a long, productive career, working on dozens of titles from numerous publishers.

Staton, as with a number of other artists who broke into the comic book biz in the 1970s, got his start at Charlton Comics.  Beginning in 1971, Staton drew a number of stories for their various horror anthologies, plus licensed titles Space 1999 and The Six Million Dollar ManWith writer Nicola Cuti, he created the cult classic sci-fi super hero E-Man, which I covered in a previous blog.

In the mid-1970s, Staton also worked for Marvel.  He inked Sal Buscema’s pencil breakdowns on Avengers and The Incredible Hulk.  Staton, however, enjoyed both penciling and inking, and so starting in 1977 he began working at DC, where he would illustrate a wide variety of titles over the next two decades.

Brave and the Bold 197 pg 19

Early on, Staton made a lasting contribution to the DC universe when, working with Paul Levitz and Bob Layton, he created the Huntress, aka Helena Wayne, the daughter of Batman and Catwoman on Earth Two.  Six years later, in 1983, Staton collaborated with writer Alan Brennert and inker George Freeman on “The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne,” which revealed how Batman and Catwoman fell in love and married.  This now-classic story originally appeared in The Brave and the Bold #197 and several years later was deservedly included in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told collection.  It is one of my all-time favorite Batman stories, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it.  Brennert’s script was very moving & memorable.  Staton & Freeman did tremendous work on this.  Staton’s layouts & storytelling are incredibly dramatic. He also succeeds in capturing some of the atmosphere of Golden Age artist Dick Sprang.

In late 1979, Staton became the penciler on Green Lantern, beginning a long, well-regarded association with the characters of the GL Corps.  Staton actually had three separate runs on the series, first from 1979 to 1982, then from 1985 to 1988, and finally from 1990 to 1992, that last time alternating with artists Pat Broderick and M.D. Bright.  During this decade-plus time, Staton co-created several characters in the GL mythos, namely Kilowog, Arisia and Salaak.  Although he didn’t create Guy Gardner, Staton is the artist who designed his now-iconic look.  Also making their debut in the pages of Green Lantern during this time were the alien freedom fighters the Omega Men, who Staton co-created with Marv Wolfman.

Green Lantern Corps 201 cover

In 1992, Staton was the artist on the Guy Gardner: Reborn miniseries, and then on the first year of Guy’s ongoing series.  Throughout the 1990s, Staton continued to work for DC, drawing a number of titles, including several Batman-related projects, in addition to the noir crime miniseries Family Man.  He also had work published by Caliber, Topps and Archie.  Beginning in 1999, Staton became one of the regular artists on the Scooby Doo comic book.

Staton has often commented that he enjoys working on mystery and detective stories.  He definitely has a real flair for that type of material, and in recent years he has fortunately had the opportunity to work in the genre.  With writer Christopher Mills, he worked on the four issue miniseries Femme Noir: The Dark City Diaries, published by Ape Entertainment in 2008, and collected as a trade paperback a year later.  Set in the fictitious metropolis of Port Nocturne during the rough & tumble days of Prohibition, Femme Noir chronicles the adventures of the enigmatic vigilante known only as “The Blonde.”  I really enjoyed this series.  Beginning in 2011, Staton has also been the artist on Dick Tracy.  His style fits the newspaper strip perfectly.

Femme Noir TPB cover

Joe Staton and his charming wife Hilarie live in Upstate New York, and so I’ve had the opportunity to meet them at a number of comic conventions in the tri-state area over the years.  I can honestly say that Staton is one of the nicest comic book creators I’ve ever met.  It is always a pleasure to see him at a show and chat with him for a few minutes.  I’ve been lucky enough to obtain a few sketches by him, as well as a page of original art from one of his Green Lantern issues.

Once again, have a very happy birthday, Joe.  Thank you for all the wonderful, enjoyable stories that you’ve worked on over the years.  And here’s hoping for further editions of E-Man and Femme Noir in the near future.  I really do miss Alec Tronn, Nova Kane, The Blonde, and all the other colorful characters from those series.

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Curse of Validus

Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

Having read many of Levitz’s amazing Legion of Super-Heroes stories, this appears to be an inescapable conclusion.  He is a genius because he comes up with these absolutely amazing stories, and he also invests the members of the team with real personalities, making them three-dimensional individuals that you genuinely care about.  And he is evil because, having done such amazing work developing his cast, he then proceeds to put them through the wringer, physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Legion annual 2 1986 signed

Of course, it is through this that Levitz has so successfully made the members of the team so beloved.  As I wrote in yesterday’s post, we readers, having seen our heroes struggle through myriad trials & tribulations, very often emerging not-quite-unscathed, occasionally much for the worse, grew even more attached to them.  Levitz, as with other, earlier writers, showed that the teenagers of the Legion may have had fantastic powers, but they still had to struggle with hardships & setbacks, and that made them relatable & realistic.  That’s the winning formula that Stan Lee utilized at Marvel in the 1960s, and the various Legion scribes often managed to channel that same appeal.

(It’s probably no accident that some of my favorite DC Comics characters from the Silver and Bronze Ages are the more offbeat, flawed ones, such as the Legion, the Doom Patrol, Metamorpho, and the Unknown Soldier.)

One of my favorite of Levitz’s storylines from Legion of Super-Heroes is one that had a rather slow burn.  It involved the mysterious being known as Validus.  Introduced in Adventure Comics #352 (January 1967) by Jim Shooter & Curt Swan, Validus was a towering monster, a semi-intelligent child-like menace who projected mental lightning from his exposed brain.  He was one of the five villains the Legion reluctantly recruited to help them battle the Sun-Eater, a cosmic entity that threatened to destroy the entire galaxy.  In the end, they were successful, although Ferro Lad sacrificed his life, and the quintet of criminals banded together as the Fatal Five, becoming deadly enemies of the Legion.

Adventure Comics 252 pg 6

Fast-forward fifteen years.  Levitz and Keith Giffen have just finished their five-part epic “The Great Darkness Saga” which pitted the Legion against Darkseid.  After finally being defeated in Legion of Super-Heroes #294 (December 1982), the lord of Apokolips offered a parting taunt:

“I leave you my curse, Legionnaires… the curse of darkness growing within you, destroying you from within… and that which is purest of you shall be the first to go!”

About a decade and a half ago, when I picked up the back issues comprising “The Great Darkness Saga,” I had no idea what Darkseid’s curse as supposed to be or if Levitz (or any other writer) had ever followed up on it.  But then a few years later DC reissued the trade paperback collection, which also included Legion of Super-Heroes Annual #3 (1984), which was titled “The Curse.”

Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl are preparing for the birth of their child.  Meanwhile, on Sorcerers World, a group of Legionnaires are attempting to prevent followers of the evil sorcerer Mordru from reviving their master.  During the ritual, a shroud of darkness spreads all across the United Planets, including Medicus One, where Saturn Girl is going into labor.  Back on Sorcerers World, the Legion defeats Mordru’s servants, and the darkness dissipates.

Saturn Girl gives birth to a healthy baby boy.  However, she is a bit puzzled.  She was expecting two children, because on Lightning Lad’s home world of Winath, something like 99.999% of pregnancies result in twins.  And although Saturn Girl comments that twins are very rare on Titan, where she comes from, she then adds:

“It’s funny, though, when he was still inside me, I felt sure my telepathy was picking up baby thoughts sometimes, and I could have sworn I felt two separate babies’ thought patterns.”

And then we get to the final two pages of the Annual.  We discover that Saturn Girl did give birth to twins but, during the fall of darkness, Darkseid secretly transported away one of the newborns.

“They’ll never know that I have taken you… and if they had, they could not dream of what I shall do to you. You shall change, oh, change so much that they shall never recognize you. You will be mighty… but always in the cause of the darkness in which you were born. I consign you to the past, back through the years so that you shall meet them full grown before you have even been born. They shall never know you, child, or you them. And who knows, my little Validus, perhaps some day your own parents may even kill you? Thus is my curse fulfilled!”

Legion annual 2 pg 3

Yes, that’s right: Darkseid stole away one of the twin sons of Lightning Lad & Saturn Girl at the moment of his birth, so that they had no idea he existed.  The dark god then transported him back in time, in the process also mutating him into the tortured monstrosity Validus, who would become one of the Legion’s greatest enemies.  And he did so hoping that one day Validus would be slain in battle by his own parents, without their ever knowing who they had actually killed.

As I said, Paul Levitz is an evil genius.

I later found out that, in the years before all of this had been written, amongst early Legion fandom, there had been some speculation about just who or what Validus really was.  His unusual power of mental lightning had given at least one reader the idea that somehow perhaps it could be the son of Lightning Lad and Saturn Girl, who had been a couple in the series for a long time, and who a lot of readers hoped would eventually marry & have children.  Levitz decided to run with this theory, giving it the horrifying twist of all being caused by Darkseid.

After I read “The Curse” I was in shock.  Once again, I had no damn clue if this was ever resolved anywhere.  It wasn’t until a few years ago that I came across a copy of Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 3 Annual #2 (1986).  The dynamic cover by Steve Lightle featured Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Validus, with the dramatic blurb “Darkseid’s Curse Fulfilled?”  This had to be it!

legion-annual-2-pg-4

“Child of Darkness, Child of Light” is written by Levitz, with artwork by veteran Legion artist Curt Swan (who drew Validus’ debut two decades earlier), as well as a prologue & epilogue penciled by Keith Giffen.  The issue opens with a flashback to Validus’ shocking origin, his transformation at the hands of Darkseid.  It then leaps forward two years.  Validus has inexplicably reappeared.  He is seemingly attacking planets at random, moving freely through space via Boom Tubes generated by the mad Daxamite teenager Ol-Vir, who worships Darkseid.

It turns out that Validus is following the telepathic trail of his twin brother Graym, without consciously realizing who he is searching for.  This eventually leads Validus and Ol-Vir to Winath, where Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad are vacationing with Graym.  The titanic Validus seizes the tiny infant.  Lightning Lad believes his son is about to be killed by this terrifying being, and is ready to use lethal force to prevent this.  For a moment, it really does look like Darkseid’s hope of manipulating Lightning Lad into unwitting infanticide is really going to succeed.  However, Saturn Girl, who had tried to use her telepathy to make contact with Validus and calm him down, finally realizes that he is her lost son.

With the shadow of Darkseid towering over the landscape, Saturn Girl demands, and then pleads, with the lord of Apokolips to restore her son to normal.  And Darkseid, who is a god and wishes to be worshiped, actually agrees, and shows mercy.  Validus is transformed back into a healthy, human baby boy.  As Levitz’s narration explains:

“One jest has failed, yet another may serve. Let the children live, if the mother is wise enough to acknowledge the power of the darkness.”

Legion annual 2 pg 37

I have to admit, Swan draws the hell out of this sequence.  I’ve never been a huge fan of his style, although I definitely recognize that he was a very solid artist who did good, dependable work  at DC for decades.  But his storytelling here is just amazing.  The sight of Saturn Girl, at first defiantly standing up to Darkseid, and then giving in to her grief and falling to her knees, with his shadow looming over her, is extremely well “directed,” driving home the dramatic impact of Levitz’s scripting.

Legion Annual #2 is, I think, among the high points of Levitz’s mammoth eight year run on the series in the 1980s.  As with so much of his other great writing, it contains both awesome spectacles and moments of genuine, moving characterization & emotion.  It also demonstrates what sets Levitz apart from many of his peers.  After running Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and their children through an emotional gauntlet, he shows that there can be a happy ending.  Yes, there is great darkness (no pun intended) but there is also light and life.  It is a quality to his writing on Legion of Super-Heroes that has been consistent throughout the many incarnations of the team he has chronicled, that has made his work so poignant and enjoyable.

How I learned to love the Legion

Back Issue #68, the most recent edition of the excellent magazine edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows, took an in-depth look at the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 80s, topped with vintage 1973 art by the late, great Dave Cockrum.  I really enjoyed it, and was inspired to write about how I myself became a fan of these champions of justice from a thousand years in the future.  In comparison to some readers who have been fans of the Legion for many decades, I’m a relative newcomer.  And it was a rather long, convoluted road that led me to becoming a devotee.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.
The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, I was almost exclusively into Marvel.  I’d pick up an issue published by DC here or there but, really, Marvel was my thing.  Then, in 1989, the Tim Burton Batman movie came out and, with the massive accompanying hype, I began picking up a few of the actual comics.  I enjoyed those Batman stories, and quickly moved on to the Superman books, buying the then-current issues by such talents as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, as well as catching up on the recent John Byrne stories via back issues.  Those, in turn, led me to several other DC books including Legion of Super-Heroes.

Let me be honest: 1990 was probably not an ideal time for a virtual newcomer to the DCU to pick up the Legion cold.  The title was still experiencing the aftershocks of Crisis of Infinite Earths (you can see my blog post “Should Superman Kill?” for a rundown on the entire Pocket Universe retcon of Superboy and the Legion’s history).  In addition, a new Legion ongoing had recently started.  Helmed by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Keith Giffen and Al Gordon, this book had leaped forward half a decade into the future from the end of the previous volume.  During that gap the Legion had disbanded & scattered across the galaxy, the United Planets had been plunged into a massive economic depression, and EarthGov had been covertly taken over by the alien Dominators.  So even though I did rather enjoy the handful of Legion issues that I picked up around that time, I had a lot of difficulty figuring out who was who and what was what.

As I would find out years later, it also did not help that there were behind-the-scenes creative conflicts, with the editors of Superman laying down edicts that Superboy could not be referred to any longer, and neither could Supergirl, and a bunch of other stuff.  Editors Mark Waid & Michael Eury (yep, him again), Giffen, Gordon and the Bierbaums did their best to come up with ways to work around all this, such as substituting Mon-El for Superboy and creating the character of Laurel Gand to take Supergirl’s place in the Legion’s history (for a detailed rundown on all of this, check out the excellent article “Too Much Time On My Hands: The History of the Time Trapper” by Jim Ford in Back Issue #68).

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!
Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

One source of information that assisted me immensely was the latest edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe which was edited by a certain Mr. Eury.  There were a large number of entries for Legion characters in that 16 issue incarnation of Who’s Who, and it really helped me figure out up from down.

Anyway, all the various tortured retcons eventually caused the entire Legion history to be totally rebooted from scratch.  And then several years later it got rebooted again.  None of this did anything to motivate me to follow the series regularly.

So what finally did make me a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes?  It was two gentlemen by the names of Dave Cockrum and Jack Kirby.

Dave Cockrum is nowadays best known for co-creating the “All-New All-Different X-Men” with Len Wein in 1975, and then going on to pencil two runs on the series, paired with writer Chris Claremont.  Back in the 1990s, Dave and his wife Paty lived in upstate New York, and so I often would see them at local conventions & store signings.  I became a huge fan of Cockrum’s work and, in the process, I learned that right before he came over to Marvel to revamp X-Men, he had had a short but extremely influential stint on Superboy, a title which in the early 1970s was the home of the Legion as a back-up feature.

In 2000, DC published Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume 10, which reprinted the majority of Cockrum’s work on the series.  I picked it up, and I instantly fell in love.  It was immediately apparent that Cockrum had really played a crucial role in reviving the Legion.  If you look at the first few stories in that Archives volume, the ones written by E. Nelson Bridwell & Cary Bates and drawn by George Tuska, they’re decent and entertaining, but nothing especially memorable.

Then Cockrum comes along, paired with Bates, and over the next few stories you can see a real shift.  Cockrum started to draw the Legion members as slightly older, so that they were in their late teens, and he designed new uniforms for them, ones that were more fashionable & risqué.  You could almost say he sexed up the Legion, although by today’s standards what he did is quite mild & innocent.  (My favorite was Cockrum’s costume design for Phantom Girl, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to get a nice sketch of Tinya by him.)  Cockrum revamped the technology, the look of the future, drawing a lot of inspiration from Star Trek.  Cockrum’s art also contained this energy and dynamic quality.  He really knew how to tell a compelling story, to draw exciting layouts and detailed sequences featuring multiple characters.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum.
Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum. (Click to enlarge!)

Cockrum may have got me to pick up that hardcover collection, but it was Bates’ writing that really hooked me.  He did an amazing job scripting the numerous members of the Legion, making them seem like real people who were teammates and friends and occasionally romantic partners.  I really got invested in this group of super-powered pals.

Cockrum’s stay wasn’t very long, lasting from 1972 to 1974, but by the time he left, the team had taken over the covers of Superboy, and the book was unofficially titled “Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes.”  Cockrum’s replacement was newcomer Mike Grell.  I enjoyed Volume 10 of the Archives so much, I picked up the next one, which has the beginning of Grell’s run, paired with both Bates and Jim Shooter on writing duties.  Obviously Grell has grown by immense leaps & bounds since the mid-1970s, but even back then you could see a great deal of talent & potential in his wonderful Legion art.

I also mentioned Jack Kirby.  As far as I know, the King of Comics never drew the Legion.  However, one of his most significant creations would play a major role in the annals of the team’s lore, courtesy of Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen.

“The Great Darkness Saga” originally ran in Legion of Super-Heroes #290-294, published in 1982.  A mysterious, shadowy “Master” and his “Servants” are ravaging the United Planets, stealing various objects & sources of mystical power, in the process even taking down longtime Legion foes Mordru and the Time Trapper.  After four issues in which the Legion has been beaten back by these mysterious beings, the identity of the “Master” is finally revealed: Darkseid, lord of Apokolips.  Using the immense magical energies he has stolen, Darkseid teleports the planet Daxam to a yellow star and seizes mental control of its now-superhuman occupants, giving him an army of a billion beings with the strength & abilities of Superman.  What follows is a titanic battle across the whole of the galaxy, as the Legion calls in practically every single one of their reserve members & allies to try and halt Darkseid & his enslaved pawns.

Darkseid’s identity was well-hidden back when “The Great Darkness Saga” was first published.  In hindsight, you can see that Levitz & Giffen sprinkled in several clues for those who were really paying attention.  Of course nowadays Darkseid’s role is very well known.  So, as a huge fan of Kirby’s New Gods, I was absolutely interested in reading this now-classic story in which Darkseid was the villain.  “The Great Darkness Saga” was definitely an epic adventure.  At the same time, Levitz invested his script with a number of personal, quiet moments and pieces of characterization.  Once again, I really got interested in these people, in finding out more about them.

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!
Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

“The Great Darkness Saga” had not one, but two, epilogues, which appeared in Legion Annual #3 (1984) and Annual #2 (1986)… the series restarted with a new #1 in-between these two, which explains that odd numbering!  Having failed in his quest for universal domination, Darkseid sought to achieve a more personal, hurtful victory.  And what he did was genuinely horrifying.  But more on that (hopefully) in a future installment!

In any case, between the work of Cockrum, Grell & Bates in the 1970s and “The Great Darkness Saga” by Levitz & Giffen in the early 1980s, I really became interested in Legion.  I picked up several of the previous Archive editions, which contained the work of Edmond Hamilton, John Forte, Curt Swan, and a very young Jim Shooter.  I also searched out many of the Legion issues that Levitz wrote in the 1980s working with artists Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque.  It was all really good stuff.  And when the pre-Crisis continuity of the Legion was more or less restored several years back, I picked up the new stories by Levitz and Geoff Johns.  But, again, I’ll talk about that another time.

Silver Age artist Nick Cardy, who recently passed away, had a brief connection to the Legion.  In addition to his runs illustrating Aquaman, Bat Lash, and Teen Titans, Cardy created stunning, dramatic covers for numerous DC titles throughout the 1960s and 70s, including Superboy.  This meant that once the Legion took over as the regular cover feature in 1973, Cardy had the opportunity to draw the heroes of the 30th Century.  And he did so beautifully, composing a number of striking images for the title, until Grell took over the cover chores two years later.  Probably my favorite Legion cover by Cardy is Superboy #203.  He does a superb job, depicting the menacing Validus looming over the unsuspecting Legionnaires.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.
Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Within that comic, behind Cardy’s fantastic cover, was “Massacre by Remote Control.”  This featured the tragic death of Invisible Kid, who sacrificed himself to save his teammates from the near-mindless monstrosity Validus.  It’s a very moving, emotional story by Bates & Grell.

And that, in turn, goes back to why I’ve come to be such a fan of the Legion.  Writers such as Bates and Shooter and Levitz really had the ability to get readers to care for the characters in the series.  Over the decades, those characters have grown and developed, been in and out of relationships, seen great triumphs and terrible failures.  And sometimes, sadly, members of the Legion would fall in battle, such as what happened to Invisible Kid, or when Shooter & Swan showed us Ferro Lad bravely giving his life to stop the apocalyptic menace of the Sun-Eater.  When incidents like this happened, it really did affect the reader.  It’s no wonder that the Legion has such an amazingly dedicated fanbase.