Avengers by Tom Palmer

Comic book artist Tom Palmer passed away at the age of 81 on August 18th.

Palmer started in comic books in 1968 at Marvel Comics, at the tail end of what fans generally refer to as the Silver Age. Although he initially worked as a penciler, Palmer soon transitioned into inking. He quickly established himself as one of the great inkers in the industry. In addition to his work as an inker / embellisher, Palmer was a colorist & painter. Palmer had runs on X-Men inking Neal Adams, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula inking Gene Colan, Star Wars inking Walter Simonson and Ron Frenz, X-Men: The Hidden Years inking John Byrne, and Incredible Hulk inking John Romita Jr and Lee Weeks.

However, the title which I most personally associate Palmer with is Avengers. He initially inked & colored several issues in the early 1970s, first over John Buscema and then Neal Adams. Palmer returned to Avengers with issue #255 in 1985, and he remained on the book thru to issue #402 in 1996, doing inks / finishes for nearly every issue during that 12 year period. Just as Joe Sinnott had previously played a key role in defining the look of Fantastic Four for over a decade and a half via his strong, characteristic inking, so too did Palmer do the same for Avengers.

Here are some highlights from Palmer’s work on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes:

Palmer really hit the ground running on Avengers #255 (May 1985). In addition to once again doing a great job inking John Buscema, who also returned to the series with this issue, Palmer produced a stunning painted cover that spotlighted the then-current Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau.

Another striking Avengers cover by Palmer is issue #273. The comics released by Marvel with a November 1985 cover-date marked the 25th anniversary of the debut of the Fantastic Four, and each cover had a portrait of its main character, or for the team books, one of the prominent members, surrounded by border artwork by John Romita. Avengers #273 had a portrait of the Black Knight by Palmer, who rendered the character in rich textures.

More often than not Buscema was doing loose pencil breakdowns on Avengers during the second half of the 1980s. It was Palmer’s job to produce the finished artwork, a task he did with incredible skill, rendering some very stylish, detailed pages.

This pages is from Avengers #277, the final chapter of the now-classic “Under Siege” storyline written by Roger Stern, which saw Baron Zemo form a new Masters of Evil to try to destroy the Avengers. Buscema & Palmer did great work on the final battle between Captain America and Zemo.

Buscema left Avengers with issue #300. Following a short stint by Rich Buckler, the new penciler on the series was Paul Ryan, with Palmer remaining on inks.

This amazing poster featuring most of the Avengers members up to that point in time was drawn by Ryan & Palmer. It was released in 1989, and was probably done by them around the same time as when they were working on Avengers #305 (July 1989) which contained a very similar scene.

Larry Hama had a short, underrated stint writing Avengers in the early 1990s, during which he shook up the team’s line-up and introduced some offbeat villains. Chief among these was the strange other-dimensional entities the Tetrarchs of Entropy. Ryan & Palmer certainly did an excellent job depicting those bizarre entities, as seen in issue #329 (February 1991).

Bob Harras became writer on Avengers with issue #334, and the next issue he was joined by penciler Steve Epting. Palmer remained on as inker, and for the next several years they were the creative team on the title, bringing some much-welcome stability to the book.

Palmer once again also began coloring Avengers with issue #343. He would hold the dual roles of inker and colorist on the series for the next three years. Here’s the splash page to Avengers #345 (March 1992), part of the “Operation: Galactic Storm” crossover, featuring Palmer’s inks & colors over Epting’s pencils. Left to right we have Quasar, the Eric Masterson version of Thor, the Vision and Sersi of the Eternals.

Palmer’s coloring was also on display on several Avengers covers such as this one, issue #375 (June 1994), the finale to Harras’ long-running Gatherers storyline. This great wrap-around cover, penciled by Epting and inked by Palmer, is definitely enhanced by Palmer’s vibrant coloring. I always felt Epting & Palmer did a fine job rendering the Black Knight and Sersi on Avengers, and that’s certainly on display here.

This is definitely one of my favorite Avengers covers from the 1990s. Click on the image to see the cover in all its full-sized glory!

Mike Deodato began penciling Avengers with issue #380 (November 1994). It’s interesting to see the very slick work of Deodato embellished by palmer’s highly textured inking, but I think it worked, really making the art stand out from the various other jobs the very popular Deodato was doing at that time. Palmer also does the coloring. The two of them definitely did good work on this dynamic double page spread featuring Quicksilver and Crystal.

Avengers #384 (March 1995) is another rare example of Palmer’s full artwork. Harras wrapped up a long-running plotline involving the ruthless machinations of the Greek gods in a genuinely heart-wrenching finale that left Hercules devastated. Palmer’s cover really captured the tragedy of Harras’ story.

All good things must come to an end. So it was with Avengers volume one, which concluded with issue #402 (September 1996) as the “Onslaught” crossover send both the Avengers and Fantastic Four over to an alternate reality for the year-long “Heroes Reborn” event. Palmer departed in style via an incredible painted cover.

I think it really speaks to Palmer’s skill as an illustrator that he does such a good job with this particular odd team line-up which had, among other things, the Wasp transformed into a humanoid insect and Thor wearing an overly-complex costume that just screamed “grim & gritty.”

This marked the end of Palmer’s regular association with the team, although he would return to the team from time to time, such as inking Will Rosado on the eight issue Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes II miniseries in 2007 and inking John Romita on several Avengers issues in 2011.

I was fortunate enough to meet Palmer on a few occasions at comic cons and store signings. He always came across as a good, polite person who made time for the fans.

The news of Tom Palmer’s death is sad. We’ve lost way too many incredible talents in such a very short time.

Remembering Mark Gruenwald

Twenty years ago this week comic book writer & editor Mark Gruenwald passed away.  He was only 43 years old.

A longtime comic book reader, Gruenwald was active in fandom during his teenage years. In 1978 he was hired as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics, where he would remain for his entire career.  He was the editor on Avengers, Iron Man and Thor in the 1980s.

During his tenure at Marvel, Gruenwald worked on a number of projects. A master of comic book continuity, he conceived the popular encyclopedia-like Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, with extensive biographies & descriptions of powers for many of the company’s characters.

Gruenwald had a decade-long run writing Captain America, which began with issue #307 (July 1985) and lasted until issue #443 (September 1995), missing only a single issue during that time.  He also had a five year stint on Quasar, and wrote the well-regarded Squadron Supreme miniseries.

Captain America 322 cover

Gruenwald also occasionally worked as an artist. In 1983 he both wrote and provided pencil breakdowns for a Hawkeye miniseries, with Brett Breeding & Danny Bulanadi doing inks / finishes.  It was in this story that Hawkeye first encountered the lovely ex-SHIELD agent Mockingbird, and the miniseries ended with them tying the knot.

Growing up, Gruenwald was one of the first comic book creators whose work I followed. In 1985 my father got me a subscription to Captain America.  That happened to dovetail with the start of Gruenwald’s stint on the book, working with penciler Paul Neary.  That year’s worth of comics that I received in the mail were read by me over and over again.  They definitely played a major role in my becoming a lifelong fan of the character.  Four years later, when I began going to the comic shop on a regular basis, Captain America was one of the first comic book series that I collected religiously.

There were some great storylines written by Gruenwald during his decade on Captain America. He penned a lengthy arc that lasted from #332 to #350.  Steve Rogers, rather than become an agent of the shadowy government entity known as the Commission of Super-Human Activities, resigned as Cap.  The Commission recruited the glory-seeking, egotistical John Walker, who was already operating under the guise of Super-Patriot, to become the new Captain America.  Now literally walking in Cap’s shoes, manipulated by the Commission, and facing numerous deadly foes, Walker came to realize just how difficult the role was.  Becoming mentally unstable after his parents were murdered, Walker finally decided he wasn’t cut out to be Cap.  He turned the costume back over to Rogers, having developed a grudging admiration for him.  Walker would soon after adopt a new identity, U.S. Agent.  Over the next several years he and Cap would continue to butt heads over tactics & ideology.

Captain America 350 pg 44

In 1989 Gruenwald penned the action-packed, globe-trotting storyline “The Bloodstone Hunt,” working with penciler & co-plotter Kieron Dwyer, who was just beginning his career in the biz.  A year later, now paired with penciler Ron Lim, Gruenwald wrote the seven issue “Streets of Poison,” which had Cap becoming embroiled in a drug war being fought between the Kingpin and the Red Skull.

Gruenwald revamped the Red Skull from a scheme-of-the-month Nazi war criminal. Taking on the trappings of a late 1980s uber-capitalist, operating out of Washington DC itself, the Skull sought to destroy America from within by financing numerous subversive and terrorist organizations.

While he was updating Cap’s arch nemesis, Gruenwald also set out to expand the Sentinel of Liberty’s rogues gallery. His most notable creations were super-villain trade union the Serpent Society, the anti-nationalist Flag-Smasher, the fanatical vigilante the Scourge of the Underworld, the reactionary militia group the Watchdogs, and the brutal mercenary Crossbones.

Gruenwald also introduced Diamondback. A member of the Serpent Society, Rachel Leighton was a magenta-haired bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks who found herself unexpectedly attracted to Cap.  At first merely hanging out with Cap in the hopes of convincing him to have a roll in the sack, Diamondback came to develop feelings for him and she began to ponder going straight.  Likewise Cap, who originally considered Diamondback to be a major nuisance, eventually came to appreciate & care for Rachel.  Gruenwald chronicled their extremely rocky relationship throughout his time on the series.  “Cap’s Night Out” in issue #371, with artwork by Lim & Bulanadi, which has Steve and Rachel going out on a date, is one of the best single issues of Gruenwald’s run.

Captain America 371 pg 1

In hindsight, there are aspects of Gruenwald’s work on Captain America that do not hold up too well. To a degree Gruenwald’s sensibilities were rooted in the early Silver Age, and his conception of Cap was of a “man in a white hat,” extremely ethical and scrupulously honest.  At times I feel Gruenwald overdid this, such as his insistence that, despite having served in the armed forces during World War II, Cap never ever killed a single person.  I realize that Gruenwald very much wanted to draw a line in the sand between Cap and such hyper-violent anti-heroes as Wolverine and the Punisher who were starting to become very popular, and I do appreciate his intentions.  I just feel that at times he wrote Cap as someone given to too much moralizing and hand-wringing.

The last few years Gruenwald was on Captain America were hit & miss. There was “The Superia Stratagem,” which saw the militant feminist Superia organize an army of female villains as well as attempt to transform Cap into a woman.  This was followed a year later by “Man and Wolf,” which saw Cap actually transformed into a werewolf.  Neither story was well-received by readers, although I do have a certain fondness for Capwolf.

Captain America 405 cover

Towards the end, it appears the changes taking place throughout the comic book industry were affecting Gruenwald’s outlook. The whole “grim & gritty” trend became prevalent throughout superhero books.  Hot young artists with flashy styles who were weak in storytelling & anatomy were now superstars.  Marvel itself was much more corporate, making a number of decisions to drive up short-term profits, something that would eventually lead the company into bankruptcy.

All this seemed to be very much reflected in Gruenwald’s final year and a half on Captain America. Paired with penciler Dave Hoover, Gruenwald wrote “Fighting Chance,” which saw Cap succumbing to a complete physical breakdown as the Super Soldier Serum finally wore out.  As the dying Cap sought to take down his cutthroat adversaries, he found himself at odds with brutal vigilantes who mocked him as naïve and ineffectual.  In Gruenwald’s final issue, Cap lay on his deathbed, overcome with despair, believing that he had not fought hard enough to make the world a better place.

Captain America 443 pg 20

A year later, on August 12, 1996, Mark Gruenwald passed away. It was already a dark time for the comic book industry, and his death made it all the darker.  Yes, Gruenwald had made certain missteps, both as a writer and in his role as an editor.  But it was clear that on the whole he was very talented and intelligent.  Gruenwald possessed a genuine love of comic books, and he was committed to ensuring that the work he and his collaborators did was of a high quality.  His loss certainly left the industry much poorer.

Twenty years later, many of the characters & concepts introduced by Gruenwald are still in use in the Marvel universe.  More importantly, as the anniversary of his passing approached, it was readily apparent by the kind words of his friends & colleagues that he was still both highly regarded and much missed.