Denny O’Neil: 1939 to 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman 431 cover signed

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

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

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

Batman 431 pg 7

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

I was hooked.

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

Batman 431 pg 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detective Comics 627 pg 24 signed

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

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

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

Detective Comics 1000 cover small

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

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

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

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

Detective Comics 1000 pg 47

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

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

Comic book reviews: Sensation Comics #3-4

I have definitely been enjoying Sensation Comics starring Wonder Woman.  Like many great fictional creations, Wonder Woman is a character who is open to different interpretations.  Throughout her 73 year history she has played the roles of warrior, hero, feminist, diplomat, peacemaker, and goddess.  Sensation Comics, with its diverse selection of creators presenting stories of Wonder Woman set throughout the different DC Comics continuities, or outside of continuity altogether, are able to examine Diana’s various aspects, and take numerous interesting & different approaches to the character.

The covers for Sensation Comics #3 and #4 really epitomize this.  Ivan Reis & Joe Prado’s intense image for issue #3 depicts a fierce Wonder Woman engaged in close combat with armored mythological beasts.  It very much captures Diana’s role as a warrior.  In contrast, issue #4 features a vibrant, beautifully serene image of Diana gracefully gliding through the clouds.  This one is by Adam Hughes, who was the regular cover artist on the Wonder Woman comic book from 1998 to 2003.  This piece certainly demonstrates that Hughes is much more than merely an artist who draws sexy women, that he is an accomplished illustrator who can create powerful, evocative images.

Sensation Comics 3 and 4 covers

The first story in Sensation Comics #3, “Bullets and Bracelets” written by Sean E. Williams and illustrated by Marguerite Sauvage, postulates a world where Wonder Woman is not just a superhero but also a rock star headlining a band.  There’s an interesting scene after her concert ends where Diana is approached by a man who shouts “Slut! You’re corrupting our children! Go back to where you came from!”  A second man then yells back “Shut up, man! Some of us like the way she dresses! She’s hot!”  Diana, clearly annoyed at both of them, responds “I hate to break it to you both, but I dress this way because I want to, not to provoke or impress you.”  Wonder Woman has a lot on her mind and, instead of accompanying everyone on the tour bus, decides to go for a walk.  She encounters two young girls who are huge fans of the band, and joins them for a bite to eat, learning about who they are.

Williams and Sauvage’s story is a nice one, well written and beautifully illustrated.  Sauvage’s Diana is very beautiful, dignified and human.  Williams’ script examines how Diana is a role model for many young women, a figure of female empowerment.  As I saw it, this story is examining the idea that women should not feel that they need to exist as an adjunct to men, fulfilling the roles expected by them.  And, really, that is true of all people, women and men.  We should primarily be happy with ourselves first, with who we are, before we set out to try to impress or please other people, be they our significant other, relatives, employers & co-workers, or society at large.

Sensation Comics 3 pg 5

The second tale in #3 is “Morning Coffee” by writer Ollie Masters and artist Amy Mebberson.  Early one morning in London, the larcenous Catwoman raids the vaults of the British Museum.  The police call in Wonder Woman, who is currently living in the city.  Diana, who hasn’t yet had a chance to grab her daily cup of joe, is mildly perturbed at having to deal with this.  Easily catching the cat-burglar, Diana is left to watch over Catwoman until the properly equipped authorities arrive to transport her back to the States.  Diana takes custody of Selena and brings her along to a local café, hoping to finally get her caffeine fix.  It is there that the second part of Catwoman’s scheme goes into effect, much to Diana’s consternation.

The story by Masters is charming and fun.  His tale fits perfectly into the 10 page long space allotted to it.  Mebberson’s artwork is very cute.  She gives the characters some really fun, comedic expressions and body language.    One thing I have noticed about the stories from Sensation Comics, as well as the other digital-first titles that DC publishes, is that the art is designed primarily to fit on a computer screen.  10 published pages equals 20 pages on the computer.  This limits the storytelling choices available to the artists.  Sometimes I think there are artists whose strengths are not nearly as well suited to strong layouts, and given the confines of the digital format they do not do work that is as strong.  Mebberson’s work, however, fits perfectly in with this format.  She clearly knows how to lay out a story, and the flow of action & narrative is unhindered by the requirements within which she is working.

Sensation Comics 3 pg 14

Split between Sensation Comics #3 and #4 is a humorously bizarre story written & illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez.  “No Chains Can Hold Her” has Wonder Woman battling the robot armies of the alien Sayyar, who has joined forces with the Justice League’s old foe Kanjar Ro.  The two extraterrestrial tyrants manage to take mental control of Diana and pit her against Supergirl.  Also drawn into the mix is Mary Marvel, who is accidentally yanked through an other-dimensional portal.

I am a huge fan of Gilbert Hernandez’s work with his brother Jaime on Love and Rockets.  It is fantastic that they have been able to sustain a successful three decade long career on a creator-owned title.  Having said that, I do enjoy when Gilbert or Jaime make the occasional foray over to Marvel and DC, because it is so much fun to see those mainstream superheroes filtered through their independent sensibilities.  I fondly recall Gilbert’s offbeat six issue stint writing Birds of Prey in 2003.  So I’m happy to see him on a Wonder Woman story.

Hernandez’s writing on “No Chains Can Hold Her” is rather minimal.  That is very much in line with his work over the last several years, where his main concern has been less with crafting complex plotlines than it has been in creating a particular mood or atmosphere.  Hernandez’s art on this story evokes both the work of Wonder Woman’s original Golden Age artist H.G. Peter and well as the Silver Age house style of DC, with Supergirl and Kanjar Ro drawn in their early 1960s incarnations.  Mary Marvel has a Bronze Age look that evokes a bit of Kurt Schaffenberger.   Much as they did in the 1970s, Mary and rest of the Marvel Family, along with their adversaries, even reside off in their own separate reality, Earth-S presumably.

Hernandez endows Diana with an exaggerated muscular physique reminiscent of his Love and Rockets character Petra.  Certainly it is miles away from some of the contemporary DC artists who unfortunately draw Wonder Woman with the body of a supermodel.  Hernandez’s approach is an interesting interpretation of the character that suits the tone of his story.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 5

Following on in issue #4 is “Attack of the 500-Foot Wonder Woman” by writer Rob Williams and artist Tom Lyle.  Diana is teamed up with the Atom, Hawkman and Hawkwoman against the shape-changing Thanagarian criminal Byth, who is wrecking Gateway City.  So that she can combat Byth, who has transformed into towering lizard creature, Diana temporarily grows giant-sized with the Atom’s assistance.

This story was a bit underwhelming.  It felt very rushed, and Williams would no doubt have benefitted from an additional 10 pages to give it room to unfold more naturally.  I have not seen new work from Lyle in quite some time, so his return to the comic book biz is welcome.  His art on this story did feel a bit cramped, though.  I think that he may have been constrained by the aforementioned digital-first format.  When you have a giant Wonder Woman fighting a Godzilla-like monster, BIG is the way to go.  But between the short length of the story and the half-page format, Lyle isn’t allowed to go too large with his layouts or do any splash pages.  Given the constraints I think he did the best work he could.  This story wasn’t bad.  It certainly had potential.  But it could have been stronger, both in terms of writing and art, if it had been longer.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 21

Rounding out Sensation Comics #4 is “Ghosts and Gods,” written by Neil Kleid and illustrated by Dean Haspiel.  As with the Hernandez story, “Ghosts and Gods” is an insanely entertaining mash-up of a number of different eras and styles.  The Golden Age incarnations of Wonder Woman and Etta Candy team up with Silver Age character Deadman to retrieve the Purple Healing Ray that has been stolen from Paradise Island by Bronze Age villain Ra’s al Ghul.  Yes, really!  All that was missing was Etta enthusiastically shouting “Woo Woo!”

Kleid’s story is a fun, exciting romp.  The art by Haspiel is fantastic.  As I’ve observed in the past, Dino has always been great at evoking different artistic eras in his work, and he successfully renders these various characters interacting with each other.  Haspiel is also a superb storyteller who very much knows how to lay out a page.  He clearly had no problems working within the digital-first format, and the action flows very smoothly.  I guess my only complaint (if you can call it that) is that this story wasn’t longer.  It was so enjoyable I would have been thrilled if had gone on for another 10 pages.

Sensation Comics 4 pg 26Despite a few minor hiccups, Sensation Comics #3 and #4 were very good.  If you are one of those readers who is dissatisfied with the current approach DC has towards the character of Wonder Woman then Sensation Comics is certainly a recommended alternative.  There really is something for everyone is this series.

Happy birthday to Sal Buscema

Today is the 78th birthday of one of my favorite comic book artists, Sal Buscema, who was born on January 26, 1936.  “Our Pal Sal,” as he is often affectionately referred to by comic book fans, is the younger brother of the late, great John Buscema (1927-2002), another of the amazing artists whose work defined the look of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.

For an extremely in-depth look at Sal Buscema’s career, I highly recommend picking up the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, written by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weathington, published by TwoMorrows.  Also now out in comic shops is Back Issue #70, edited by Michael Eury, and also released by TwoMorrows. Examining the Hulk throughout the Bronze Age, one of the subjects naturally touched upon is Buscema’s record ten year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from late 1975 to mid 1986.  That said, I am going to look at a few specific, favorite areas of Buscema’s career.

Sal Buscema Comics Fast & Furious Artist cover

One of Buscema’s first assignments at Marvel was penciling Avengers in 1969.  This was something of a baptism by fire, considering Sal had the render numerous heroes and villains in the storylines being written by Roy Thomas.  Nevertheless, Buscema did great work out of the gate, turning in quality pencils for the Avengers’ now-classic encounters with Ultron, the Zodiac Cartel, the Lethal Legion, and the forces of the extraterrestrial Kree and Skrull, those later issues being part of the epic “Kree-Skrull War,” which also featured the artistry of Sal’s brother John and a young Neal Adams.

Around this same time, John Buscema, who was somewhat picky about who inked his work, asked Sal to embellish his pencils on several issues of Silver Surfer.  Looking at the black & white reprints of those stories in Essential Silver Surfer, I’d say that Sal did a great job, really bringing out the best in his brother’s work.

In late 1971, Sal Buscema became the penciler on Captain America, a book which at the time was floundering somewhat both in terms of sales and creative stability.  In mid-1972, Buscema was joined by incoming writer Steve Englehart.  Together, the two of them took the characters of Cap and the Falcon on a creative renaissance.  Their run is now regarded as one of the high points in the long history of the book.  It is certainly one of my favorites.   Englehart focused squarely on Cap’s uncertain place in the extremely unsettled social & political climate of the early 1970s.  Buscema turned in exemplary pencils, creating one of the definitive renditions of the character.  The high point of their run was undoubtedly “The Secret Empire,” a story arc that ran from #169 to #176.

Captain America 175 pg 1

Buscema departed from Captain America shortly afterwards.  His last regular issue was #181, cover-dated January 1975.  By the time he was already a few years into a run penciling The Defenders.  One of the main characters in that title was the Hulk, a character Buscema drew extremely well, and who he has stated on several occasions was a favorite of his.  He has expressed a fondness for the character, a tortured child-like creature perceived as a dangerous monster and cast out from society.  So it was certainly a judicious choice for Marvel to offer him the assignment to pencil Incredible Hulk later that year.  As I said before, Buscema had a decade-long run on that series, once again creating a definitive interpretation of one of Marvel’s icons.

I’ve written about Sal Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk a couple of times before on this blog, specifically issue #285 and #309.  Both written by Bill Mantlo, each of these issues had extremely different tones and atmospheres to them.  Comparing those two comics, you can really see Buscema’s versatility as an artist.

One of my favorite titles that Buscema worked on was Rom Spaceknight, beginning with the debut issue in late 1979, and remaining on the title until issue #58 in 1984.  Nearly the entirety of the series was written by the aforementioned Bill Mantlo.  He and Buscema worked really well together.  Mantlo’s Rom Spaceknight stories were a deft blending of superheroes, sci-fi, horror, and conspiracy fiction.  Buscema expertly illustrated this cocktail of diverse elements.  He also excelled at drawing Rom himself, a near-featureless metal figure.  Buscema had to rely on his mastery of capturing the nuances of body language to give emotion to the cyborg hero.  Buscema drew on his amateur theater background to make Rom a lifelike individual.

Rom Spaceknight 1 pg 1

Buscema had been the original artist on Spectacular Spider-Man when it debuted in 1976, penciling the first couple of years.  A decade later, in 1988, he returned to the book with a refined style to his art which was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Buscema, first with writer Gerry Conway, and then with J.M. DeMatteis, produced what I regard as some of the finest work of his career.  His storytelling and nuanced emotional depictions of characters were especially stunning on DeMatteis’ moody, psychological run from #178 to #200.

DeMatteis was following up on one of the threads from his time writing Captain America and the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story, specifically the tragic story of the man-rat Vermin.  The author wove this around the conflict between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the latter of whom, haunted by memories of his then still very much dead father Norman, became unhinged and took up the identity of the Green Goblin.  This all culminated in the tragic issue #200, which Buscema magnificently illustrated.

Spectacular SpiderMan 182 cover

Buscema remained on Spectacular Spider-Man until #238.  Towards the end of this run, he was inked by John Stanisci and, appropriately enough, Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist who had inspired him to experiment with his long-established style.  I really liked the pairing of Buscema and Sienkiewicz.

In the mid-1990s, when Marvel was in the uphevals of bankruptcy, Buscema had to look for work elsewhere.  For several years he was employed by Marvel’s distinguished competition themselves, DC Comics.  At DC, Buscema both penciled and inked a number of different titles, including various Batman and Superman books.  It was really interesting to see the long-time Marvel artist on DC’s flagship characters.  Buscema did some great work during this time.  One of my favorite stories he penciled at DC was “The Prison,” written & inked by John Stanisci, which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #8.  It examined the dark, convoluted relationship between Batman and Talia, the daughter of the Dark Knight’s immortal nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.  Buscema did a nice job on this, and it was great to see him paired with Stanisci again.

Batman Chronicles 8 pg 5

Since 2000, Buscema has been semi-retired.  Most of his work in the last decade and a half has been as an inker.  His most frequent artistic partner is penciler Ron Frenz.  The two of them make a great art team.  They had a long run on Spider-Girl.  Subsequently they’ve also worked on ThunderstrikeHulk Smash Avengers, She-Hulk, Black Knight G.I. Joe, and Superman Beyond.

After over four decades in the comic book industry, nowadays Sal Buscema is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Nevertheless, as a huge fan of his work, I am very happy that he does still venture back into the biz from time to time for the occasional job.  It is always a thrill for me to see new artwork from him.  Our Pal Sal is definitely an amazing talent.

I am happy to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talents. There is a Facebook group entitled SAL BUSCEMA POW! which currently has 619 members.  Somehow I ended up being the co-moderator of this one.  So, if you are also a fan of his work, feel free to join.

(One Year Later Update… as of today, January 26, 2015, the SAL BUSCEMA POW! group on Facebook now has 1,466 members.  A big “thank you” to everyone who joined in the last year.  It’s nice to hear from so many fellow fans of Our Pal Sal.)

Once again, happy birthday, Sal!  Thank you for all the wonderful stories and artwork that you’ve given us.

Happy birthday to Trevor Von Eeden

Time for another birthday blog post!  Today is the birthday of artist Trevor Von Eeden, who was born on July 24, 1959.  Trevor is an absolutely amazing artist, as well as a cool guy.  It has been a pleasure to have corresponded with him for a number of years now.

Trevor first came into the comic book biz in 1977 at the young age of 16, when he was assigned to draw Black Lightning, the very first African American superhero series at DC Comics which was created by writer Tony Isabella.  Trevor’s work on Black Lightning definitely showed promise, but unfortunately the series was cancelled a year later during the now-infamous “DC Implosion.”  Nevertheless, Trevor remained at the drawing board, illustrating a variety of stories for DC.

Trevor has gone on record as stating his work as an artist took a quantum leap forward in 1982 when he illustrated Batman Annual #8.  Written by Mike W. Barr, “The Messiah of the Crimson Sun” sees the Dark Knight in an epic confrontation with his immortal foe Ra’s al Ghul.  Trevor’s art is astounding, featuring stunningly dramatic layouts.  Paired up with colorist Lynn Varley, Trevor’s illustrations are simply fantastic, and an indicator that even better work was on the horizon from him.  I am genuinely surprised that this story has never been reprinted.  Fortunately, I was able to find a copy in the back issue bins of Midtown Comics a few years ago.

Batman annual 8 pg 36

More quality work followed from Trevor in a four issue Green Arrow miniseries published by DC in 1983.  In the mid-1980s, he also did some work for Marvel, before returning to DC in the early 1990s.  And it was at this point that I first discovered his art.

As I’ve mentioned before, I did not begin regularly following comic books until around 1989, when I was 13 years old.  So probably the very first comic book series I saw that Trevor drew was Black Canary.  Paired with writer Sarah Byam and legendary inker Dick Giordano, Trevor penciled the four issue Black Canary: New Wings miniseries in 1991.  A year later, he was re-teamed with Byam and inker Bob Smith on an ongoing Black Canary title that regrettably lasted only a year.

I immediately fell in love with Trevor’s work.  I could instantly see that he possessed a distinctive and beautiful style.  That, and he drew incredibly sexy women.  Trevor’s renderings of the female form are among my favorite in the comic book field.  In the early 1990s, when so many “hot, superstar” artists were drawing women who looked like anorexic porn stars, Trevor’s curvy rendition of the character of Black Canary was a breath of fresh air.

Black Canary 7 cover

What’s really interesting about Black Canary is that Trevor himself has admitted he was never especially fond of working on the series.  So the fact that he did such amazing work on it really speaks to his professionalism.

Throughout the 1990s, Trevor returned Batman on several occasions.  He did the pencil layouts for Denny O’Neil’s now-classic “Venom” story arc in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, with Russell Braun contributing the finished pencils and the legendary Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez inking.  Trevor worked with mystery novelist C.J. Henderson on a pair of Batman tales, “Duty” and “Joker’s Apprentice,” with Josef Rubinstein inking both stories.  And he was once again paired with Garcia-Lopez on the excellent five part “Grimm” arc that ran through Legends of the Dark Knight #149-153, which was written by J.M. DeMatteis.  That’s another fine story that has never been collected.  I definitely recommend searching out copies of those issues.  I was fortunate enough to obtain a really nice page of original artwork from that story.

batman lotdk 149

About a decade back, Trevor also worked for independent publisher Moonstone.  He produced some very moody, atmospheric art on Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Mysterious Traveler.  I really enjoyed those comics.

That said, I think that Trevor Von Eeden’s best work has to be his most recent.  He wrote & illustrated The Original Johnson, a graphic novel biography of John Arthur Johnson who, in 1908, became the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.  To be perfectly honest, before Trevor announced this project, I had not even heard of Jack Johnson.  I have no idea if this was due to his race, or simply because I am not a sports buff.  Whatever the case, I was aware of Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the baseball color barrier in 1947, and how significant (and controversial) an accomplishment that was.  So, someone like Jack Johnson, who broke through a similar barrier nearly 40 years earlier, in an even more hostile & intolerant time, was definitely worthy of examination.

Trevor spent several years working on The Original Johnson.  A variety of difficulties cropped up along the way, and it almost seemed that it might not be published.  But Trevor persevered, and it was finally released in a two volume edition by Comicmix / IDW.  It was a true labor of love on his part, and this definitely shows in the finished pages of the graphic novel.

The Original Johnson book one cover

The Comics Journal #298, published in May 2009 by Fantagraphics, contained an extremely in-depth, bluntly honest interview with Trevor Von Eeden.  It was an very revealing, insightful read.  Trevor pulls no punches, sharing his honest thoughts about himself, his growth as an individual & his development as a creator, his colleagues in the comic book industry, and the companies he has worked for.  I really think that it should be required reading for anyone who is looking to become a professional comic book creator.

Currently Trevor is collaborating with writer Don McGregor (Black Panther, Killraven, Detectives Inc) on his new graphic novel, Sabre: The Early Future Years.  There is a Kickstarter fundraiser scheduled to begin on August 3rd to help raise money towards the publication of the book.  So please keep an eye on Don’s Facebook page for details.  I’m really looking forward to this one.  Don is an amazing, revolutionary writer.  As for Trevor, his artwork continually improves, and he is better than he has ever been.  I’m confident his work on Sabre is going to be absolutely amazing.