An interview with comic book artist Keith Williams

When I first got into comic books in the second half of the 1980s, and continued reading them as a teenager in the 1990s, one of the names I would frequently see in the credits was Keith Williams. He worked on numerous series: Alpha Flight, Transformers, Action Comics, Web of Spider-Man, Quasar, Robocop, Sensational She-Hulk, U.S.Agent, Ravage 2099, The Mask, Star Wars, and so on.

Keith is one of the various comic book creators who I have been fortunate enough to get to know on social media. He has always come across as a genuinely good person. Given Keith’s lengthy career, I felt it would be interesting to speak with him about his work in the medium.

This interview was conducted by e-mail between April and May 2021.

A recent photo of Kieth Williams at a comic book convention

BH: Hello, Mr. Williams. Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Let’s start with the basics. When and where were you born? When you were growing up did you read comic books? What other interests did you have when you were young?

Keith Williams: Thank you for asking, Ben. I was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 16, 1957. My grandma gave me my first comic. It was Batman issue 184. I must have been 9 years old at the time. I always loved comics after that. I enjoyed watching astronauts fly into space, and for a while I wanted to be one.

BH: You attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan from 1976 to 1980. How did you find that educational experience?

Keith Williams: It was wonderful! The main reason I went SVA was because Will Eisner, the creator of The Spirit, was teaching there. My major was in Cartooning and Will brought fun and a lot of knowledge about the art and business sides of comic books. The other classes were fine and rounded out my art experience. I still have great friends that I talk to from my time there.

Sectaurs #6 (May 1986) written by Bill Mantlo, penciled by Steve Geiger, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Janet Jackson

BH: I understand you entered the comic book field as a background inker in the early 1980s. How did that come about, and which artists did you assist?

Keith Williams: I knew Howard Perlin from high school, working on school shows together. He introduced me to his father Don Perlin. At the time he was the artist on Ghost Rider. I had shown him my inking samples. He saw that I had potential and took me under his wing. He mentioned my name up at Marvel when they were looking for a background inker for Mike Esposito. I was hired and have been working in comics ever since. Besides Mike Esposito there was Joe Sinnott, Bob Wiacek, Andy Mushinsky, Al Milgrom, Terry Austin, Vince Colletta, John Byrne, Bob Hall and a few more.

BH: Why did you decide to focus on inking?

Keith Williams: I focused on inking because I learned that I was better at it. I had great people to learn the skills of inking from. Inking became my foot in the door.

Alpha Flight #19 (Feb 1985) written, penciled & figures inked by John Byrne, backgrounds inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Andy Yanchus

BH: At Marvel Comics, you were also the first person to join Romita’s Raiders, the art apprentice program initiated by editor-in-chief Jim Shooter and run by art director John Romita. What specific sort of work did you find yourself doing as one of the Raiders? How do you feel it helped you in terms of honing your skills and preparing you for a career as an artist in the comic book industry?

Keith Williams: As a Romita Raider, I, and the other Raiders were art correctors. We would fix storytelling if the panels didn’t flow correctly. If a character was wearing the wrong costume we would correct it. Assist John sometimes in cover design. John Romita was the Art Director at Marvel [and] everything would go through him meaning pages of art and he would assign us to fix things that needed fixing. While we were there as Raiders, we received a master class on how to create a comic.

BH: What was your first credited work in comic books, and how did you get assigned that job?

Keith Williams: My first credited work [was] Sectaurs for Marvel, 1985. I inked over Steve Geiger, another Raider. I think I started on issue 4. Mark Texeira moved on and they needed a new art team. It was a mini-series which ended on issue 7. I got the job because I was lucky enough to be in the office at the time.

Avengers West Coast #53 (Dec 1989) written & penciled by John Byrne, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Bill Oakley and colored by Bob Sharen

BH: In late 1984 you became John Byrne’s background inker beginning with Alpha Flight #19. You provided background inks on several issues of Alpha Flight, and when Byrne moved to Incredible Hulk for his all-too-short run you accompanied him. After Byrne left Marvel for DC Comics where he oversaw the successful post-Crisis revamp of Superman, you were his background inker on Action Comics in 1987. How did you come to do background inking for Byrne? What was the experience like?

Keith Williams: Mark Gruenwald, one of the editors at Marvel, came up to me and asked if I was interested in working with John Byrne on Alpha Flight as a background artist. Of course, I said yes. It was a great experience.

BH:  It’s noteworthy that Byrne saw that you were credited on all of those stories as the background inker, something that at the time was not expected, much less required. Do you find that this helped your career? Certainly as a young reader it was probably the first time I noticed your name.

Keith Williams: John put my name on the cover of the books and my name was right beside his in the credits. I would also get pages from the books we did. No other inker had ever done that for a background artist or would expect that to be done for them. I will always be grateful to him for doing it. He helped my career because of it.

Sensational She-Hulk #33 (Nov 1991) written & penciled by John Byrne, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Jim Novak and colored by Glynis Oliver

BH: Later on you had the opportunity to do full inking over Byrne’s pencils on Avengers West Coast #53 in late 1989 and on several issues of Sensational She-Hulk in 1991. How did you like that experience? As a reader, I felt you did a good job. Looking at that Avengers West Coast, in particular I was very impressed by the detailed, intricate inking you did on the sequence with Immortus in an alternate timeline where Queen Elizabeth I was executed instead of Mary, Queen of Scots. The storyline in She-Hulk where she ends up in the Mole Man’s subterranean kingdom and fights Spragg the Living Hill also had a lot of interesting, detailed work by Byrne. You did a fine job embellishing all those caves and rocky textures.

Keith Williams: Actually, working fully on John’s pencils, scared the daylights out of me. As an artist, you always feel there is still so much to learn. Am I ready? I guess I was. All of the background inking got me ready to do full inks with John and I loved making his lines come to life.

BH: Jumping back a bit, you and penciler Alex Saviuk became the regular art team on Web of Spider-Man with issue #35, cover-dated March 1988. How did you get that assignment, and how did you find it working with Saviuk? You stayed on Web of Spider-Man through issue #85 in early 1992, so I’m guessing it was a good experience. Of course, as you were a freelancer, I’m sure you were also grateful to have a regular monthly assignment.

Keith Williams: Jim Salicrup was the editor on the Spider-Man books at the time. He must have seen my work here and there in the office and tried me out. I worked over Steve Gieger on an issue of Web of Spider-Man and then worked with Alex. I guess he saw something in us working together and we stay together for almost five years.

Web of Spider-Man #35 (Feb 1988) written by Gerry Conway, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Rick Parker and colored by Bob Sharen

BH: Speaking for myself, I find Saviuk very underrated. I feel he was overshadowed by Todd McFarlane on Amazing Spider-Man, which at the time was in the spotlight. I think that was a shame, because you and Saviuk were doing good, solid work month after month on Web.

Keith Williams: Alex is a great artist. I feel he’s up there with Romita in style. It was very enjoyable working with him.

BH: You worked on a wide variety of titles throughout the 1990s, inking a diverse selection of pencilers. I wanted to briefly touch upon the work you did for Dark Horse. You inked Doug Mahnke on The Mask Strikes Back and Bill Hughes on Star Wars: Droids, both of those coming out in 1995. Any particular thoughts on those two jobs? Mannke and Hughes both seem to have detailed penciling styles, so I wondered how you approached inking them.

Keith Williams: Doug Mahnke’s style on The Mask was different than any I‘ve encountered. It was zaniness stuffed into reality. Bill Hughes had more of a cartoon style which fit into the loony situation the Droids were put in. I try to go with the flow of the penciller. With Doug it would be more of a hard edge, using crow quill Hunt 102 pen point nibs. With Bill it more of a softer look. I used a Winsor Newton Series 7 No. 3 brush and a Gillotte 290 flexible pen nib.

The Mask Strikes Back #1 (Feb 1995) written by John Arcudi, penciled by Doug Mahnke, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Lois Buhalis and colored by Gregory Wright

BH: In 1994 you became the regular inker of The Phantom newspaper strip written by Lee Falk, inking George Olesen’s pencils. You were on the strip until 2005, when Olesen retired. Had you previously been a fan of The Phantom? Although it isn’t especially popular here in the States, it has an absolutely huge following in other parts of the world such as Sweden and Australia.

Keith Williams: I wasn’t really a fan of The Phantom. That was because it wasn’t in any of the newspapers in New York. I did learn to like it. The Phantom has a great cast of characters.

BH: I’ve heard working on a daily newspaper strip described as a grueling, endless treadmill run. What did you think of the work? How was it different from monthly comic books?

Keith Williams: I really had no idea what it was like to put out a six day strip every week. There was no time for a real vacation. So, even when I would go away on a trip, the Phantom would be with me. I’m not really complaining, because it was always better to have work than not. It was different than a comic book because, working on dailies, you only had as much as three panels to work on for a strip.

Star Wars: Droids #6 (Oct 1995) written by Jan Strnad, penciled by Bill Hughes, inked by Keith Williams, lettered by Steve Dutro and colored by Perry McNamee

BH: Finally, what have you been working on in the last decade and a half? Do you have any new projects coming out soon?

Keith Williams: Actually, I got to work for Marvel again with the help of Ron Frenz in 2019. It was a 10 page story in Thor the Worthy. Other than that, it’s been conventions and commissions for me.

BH: If people are interested in hiring you for commissions, what is the best way to get in touch with you?

Keith Williams: You can DM me on Instagram or Facebook: keithwilliamscomicbookart. You can also email me at keithwilliamscomicbookart@gmail.com.

The Phantom pin-up penciled, inked & colored by Keith Williams

BH: Thank you very much for your time!

Keith Williams: Glad to do it.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Seven

The challenge: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.  I chose “coffee.” From the work of how many comic book artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I post these daily on Facebook, and collect them together here.

31) Rich Buckler & Joe Sinnott

“The Mind of the Monster” from Giant-Size Super-Stars #1, penciled by Rich Buckler, inked by Joe Sinnott, written by Gerry Conway, lettered by Artie Simek, and colored by Petra Goldberg, published by Marvel Comics with a May 1974 cover date.

The Incredible Hulk leaps into Manhattan and passes out in a deserted alley.  Transforming back into Bruce Banner, the cursed scientist heads over to the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters, hoping Reed Richards can find a cure for his condition.  Only Ben Grimm, the Thing, is home, but he welcomes Bruce, telling him “Guy’s like us’ve gotta stick together.”

The Thing asks the frazzled Banner “Ya want some java?”  A grateful Banner accepts, and the Thing brews him a cup of coffee using some weird-looking Kirby-tech.  “Don’t look at me, Banner — it’s one’a Stretcho’s dohickeys.”  Yeah, leave it to Reed Richards to take something as simple as a coffee maker and transform it into a ridiculously complicated device!

The Think lets slip that Reed was recently working on a “psi-amplifier” to restore his lost humanity.  An eager Banner decides that with a few modifications the device can cure both of them in one shot.  Unfortunately they don’t wait for Reed to return before proceeding with the experiment, and of course something goes wrong.  Next thing you know, we have another epic battle between the Hulk and the Thing, but with a twist: the Thing’s mind is in the body of the Hulk, and vise versa.  Hilarity ensues… hilarity and several million dollars worth of property damage.

As explained by editor Roy Thomas in a text piece, Giant-Size Super-Stars was a monthly oversized title that would rotate through three features: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Conan the Barbarian.  After this issue was released Marvel changed their plans.  Spider-Man and Conan both received their own quarterly Giant-Size series, and Giant-Size Super-Stars also became quarterly, renamed Giant-Size Fantastic Four with issue #2.

The creators behind “The Mind of the Monster” were the regular Fantastic Four team: writer Gerry Conway, penciler Rich Buckler, and inker Joe Sinnott.  They all do good work on this entertaining tale of swapped identities and smashed buildings.  Buckler does a fine job showing via facial expressions and body language that the Thing and the Hulk have switched bodies.  Longtime FF inker Sinnott does his usual great work finishing the art.

32) Rick Burchett 

Presenting a double dose of caffeinated cliffhangers starring those two-fisted aviators the Blackhawks!  Action Comics Weekly #632 is cover-dated December 1987, and Blackhawk #2 is cover-dated April 1989.  Both stories are by the creative team of artist Rick Burchett, writer Martin Pasko, letterer Steve Haynie, and colorist Tom Ziuko, published by DC Comics.

I was sad to hear that longtime comic book writer Martin Pasko had passed away on May 10th at the age of 65.  Among the numerous characters Pasko worked on was the revamp of the Blackhawks conceived by Howard Chaykin.  Pasko chronicled the aviation adventures of Janos Prohaska and Co in serials published in Action Comics Weekly, and then in an all-too-short lived Blackhawk ongoing series.

Pasko was paired with the great, underrated artist Rick Burchett.  I’ve always enjoyed Burchett’s art.  His style is simultaneously cartoony yet possessed of a sort of gritty verisimilitude (I hope I’m articulating that in an accurate manner).  Pasko & Burchett chronicled the Blackhawk’s post World War II adventures which saw the ace pilots becoming embroiled in the Cold War anti-Communist activities of the newly-formed CIA.

Within the pages of the Action Comics Weekly #632, the Blackhawks have been tasked with transporting chemist Constance Darabont to West Berlin to pick up an experimental batch of LSD.  Unfortunately for Prosahka and his team Constance is murdered in Berlin and replaced by Nazi war criminal Gretchen Koblenz.  On the flight back the diabolical Gretchen spikes the Blackhawks’ coffee with the LSD, pulling a gun on Olaf Friedriksen when her deadly ruse is discovered!

Blackhawk #2 ends on a much less life-threatening note, but certainly one that is just as dramatic.  Over morning coffee Janos and the Blackhawks’ assistant director Mairzey ponder the current whereabouts of the missing Natalie Reed, as well as wondering what will become of Natalie’s infant son.  Mairzey tells Janos that she has been considering adopting the baby.  Suddenly an unidentified figure enters the room and announces “I was always afraid to tell you this before… but I’m the father of Natalie’s baby…”

(Cue melodramatic music!!!)

The Blackhawk serials written by Grell & Pasko and drawn by Burchett were among the best material to run in Action Comics Weekly.  I’m happy they’ve finally been collected together with the excellent Blackhawk miniseries by Chaykin.  Hopefully a second collected edition will reprint the ongoing series by Pasko & Burchett.

33) Jack Davis

Today’s art comes from “Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” in The Haunt of Fear #21, drawn by Jack Davis, written by Al Feldstein & Bill Gaines, lettered by Jim Wroten, and colored by Marie Severin, published by EC Comics with a Sept-Oct 1953 cover date.

When I was a kid I preferred the sci-fi stories from Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, but as I got older I developed a taste for EC’s horror titles.  I guess my dry, offbeat sense of humor came to align more closely with EC’s macabre pun-cracking horror hosts.

“Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is the story of Ulric the Undying, who makes his fortune staging very public, very violent deaths from which he miraculously recovers each time.  In a flashback, we see that Ulric was previously a nameless bum on skid row who was approached by Dr. Emil Manfred.  Over a cup of coffee, Manfred claimed that he had discovered the secret of a cat’s nine lives, and offered to surgically transplant that ability into the bum, with the end goal of gaining wealth & fame.  Manfred is successful and “Ulric the Undying” is created, but this being an EC horror story, of course things eventually take a very nasty turn for all involved.

Jack Davis was a frequent contributor to EC’s horror anthologies, illustrating many of their most famous, or perhaps infamous, stories.  Davis was certainly adept at creating moody atmospheres perfectly suited to Al Feldstein’s scripts.  His artwork was also appeared regularly in EC’s satirical comic books Mad and Panic.  Following the demise of EC’s comic book line he drew trading cards for Topps.  From the 1960s onward David, who was renowned for his caricatures, did a great deal of advertising work, movie posters and magazine covers.  He passed away in 2016 at the age of 91.

34) Ross Andru & Frank Giacoia

Amazing Spider-Man #184, penciled by Ross Andru, inked by Frank Giacoia, written & edited by Marv Wolfman, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Glynis Wein, published by Marvel Comics with a September 1978 cover date.

I recently learned of this storyline thanks to Brian Cronin of Comic Book Resources.  In the previous issue Peter Parker had asked Mary Jane Watson to marry him, but she turned him down.  A despondent Peter returned home, only to discover someone was waiting for him in his apartment!  On the splash page of this issue, we discover who: Betty Brant, secretary to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson, and Peter’s girlfriend from way back when.  Betty, who is all glammed up, has let herself into Peter’s apartment and made herself a cup of coffee to await his return.  Now that he’s home, Betty greets him with a very warm welcome.

There’s just one itsy-bitsy problem here: Betty married Ned Leeds a few weeks earlier, and she is supposed to be in Europe with him on their honeymoon.

Yeah, that’s the old Parker luck at work, all right.  You propose to the woman you love but she turns you down, and when you return home you find your recently-married ex-girlfriend has broken into your place, raided your supply of coffee, and is looking to have a fling with you.  Oy vey!

The subplot of Betty attempting to hook up with Peter, and Peter being very tempted in spite of that whole “just married” thing, went on for nearly a year.  I’m sure it comes as no surprise that it all ends badly for poor Peter.

Penciling this tale of torrid emotions and pilfered caffeine is veteran comic book artist Ross Andru.  After two decades of working for DC Comics on such titles as Wonder Woman, G.I. Combat, The Flash and Metal Men (the last which he co-created with writer Robert Kanigher), Andru came to Marvel in 1971.  He penciled Amazing Spider-Man for five years, from 1973 to 1978; this was one of his last issues.  Andru is paired here with well-regarded inker Frank Giacoia, who had previously embellished ASM during the early part of Andru’s half-decade run.

35) Alex Saviuk & Al Wlliamson

Web of Spider-Man #91, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Al Williamson, written by Howard Mackie, lettered by Rick Parker, and colored by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1992 cover date.

Following up on our last entry, it’s another Spider-Man page featuring Peter Parker, Betty Brant, coffee and… oh no, Betty’s throwing herself at Peter again, isn’t she?

Okay, what’s actually going on here is that Betty has been working undercover on a story for the Daily Bugle.  She’s investigating the organization belonging to the international assassin the Foreigner, the man behind the murder of her husband Ned Leeds.  When Betty happens to run into Peter in the street she locks lips with him and drags him into a nearby diner so that she can give him the information she’s been collecting to pass on to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson.  Unfortunately the people who are following Betty see through her ruse and attack the coffee shop.  What follows is Spider-Man spending the rest of the issue trading blows with a pair of the Foreigner’s armored goons in the java joint, which of course gets demolished.  I hope the owners had their insurance premiums paid up!

Betty had spent a long time after her husband’s death traumatized & vulnerable.  This was the beginning of a new direction for her, as she quit being Jonah’s secretary, became more assertive, and began a career as an investigative journalist for the Bugle.

The pencils are by Alex Saviuk, a really good artist who had a long run on Web of Spider-Man, from 1988 to 1994.  I think Saviuk’s seven year stint on often gets overlooked because this was at the same time McFarlane, Larsen and Bagley were also drawing the character, and with their more dynamic, flashy styles they consequently receiving more attention.  That is a shame, because Saviuk turned in solid, quality work on Web of Spider-Man.  I enjoyed his depiction of the character.

As we can see from this page, Saviuk was also really good at rendering the soap opera and non-costumed sequences that are part-and-parcel of Peter Parker’s tumultuous personal life.

Saturday at the East Coast Comicon

For the last few months I was trying to decide if I should attend the East Coast Comicon that was going to be held on April 11th and 12th in the Meadowlands Exposition Center.  It sounded like it would be a cool show with a lot of great guests.  Unfortunately my finances were shaky, so I reluctantly came to the conclusion that I should skip it.

Then a few weeks ago 13th Dimension, who were organizing the show, announced a contest for free tickets plus Planet of the Apes action figures.  I entered the contest and then promptly forgot about it, since I was busy stressing about work and personal stuff.  That is until April 2nd when Dan Greenfield from 13th Dimension e-mailed me to let me know that I was one of the winners.  Okay, so I guess that meant I was going to the show after all!

East Coast Comicon banner by Cliff Galbraith

Michele and I went to the convention on Saturday.  Due to that aforementioned “personal stuff” both of us were exhausted and got a late start.  And once we got to the Port Authority the bus to the Meadowlands was running a half hour behind schedule.  So we didn’t get to the show until 3:30 PM, which gave us two and a half hours to try to take in as much as possible.

One of the first people we saw was cartoonist Rick Parker.  He is a really cool guy with an insane sense of humor.  I’ve met him at a few shows in the past, and we’re also friends on Facebook.  The last time I actually saw him in person was May 2011, when he was generous enough to give me a ride from the train station to the Hawthorne High School Comic Con.  I’m happy that I got to see him again after all this time.

Rick Parker East Coast Comicon

Rudy Nebres was another guest.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am a big fan of his work.  He was at the show with his family.  He and his wife are always friendly.  This time I also met his son Mel, who I’m friends with on Facebook.  It’s always nice when you get to actually meet FB friends in person.

One of the guests I was really looking forward to meeting was Arthur Adams.  I’ve been a fan of his work for years but I’d never met him before.  Adams’ work is amazing.  He puts an absolutely insane amount of detail into his art.  Michele wasn’t familiar with Adams, but once she some of his work she was instantly impressed.

I brought along a few comics for Adams to sign, along with The Official Godzilla Compendium, for which he contributed a number of illustrations.  Adams is a lifelong fan of Godzilla.  He also really enjoys drawing gorillas.  Given those two passions, I mentioned to him that it was too bad Toho Studios does not like to have their Godzilla character appear in crossovers, because he would be the perfect guy to illustrate a graphic novel version of King Kong vs. Godzilla.  Adams actually responded that in the mid-1990s when he was involved with the Godzilla comic published by Dark Horse he pitched a “Superman vs. Godzilla” crossover.  DC Comics was all for it, but Toho had zero interest, and so it went nowhere.  Too bad, that could have been amazing.

Arthur Adams East Coast Comicon

Another creator I was happy to see at the convention was Ann Nocenti.  I’ve reviewed some of her work on this blog before.  Nocenti is one of the most distinctive writers in the comic book biz.  She brought with her unique sensibilities and an unconventional outlook when she began writing for Marvel Comics in the 1980s, which led to a number of memorable stories.  I look back very fondly on her run writing Daredevil in the late 1980s.

I’ve actually met Nocenti before, a couple of years ago when she was doing a signing at Jim Hanley’s Universe.  But that was pretty crowded, and I didn’t have much of a chance to talk to her.  At the East Coast Comicon there was much more of an opportunity to share my thoughts about her work and ask her some questions.  Nocenti was definitely very generous with her time.

Ann Nocenti East Coast Comicon

Also among the guests who Michele and I got to meet  were underground cartoonist John Holstrom, current Heathcliff comic strip creator Peter Gallagher, the amazingly funny Fred Hembeck, longtime Marvel writer & artist Bob Budiansky, and Ren & Stimpy co-creator Bob Camp.  There were a bunch of other guests there, as well, but we just didn’t have enough time to catch everyone.

I was glad that at towards the end of the show I did have a few moments to stop by Eric Talbot‘s table.  Talbot has a long association with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book.  I was a huge fan of the series back in high school, and I fondly remember his work on it.  Most of my collection is packed away in storage but I was able to bring along a few issues of the more recent Tales of the TMNT anthology series that he contributed to and have those autographed.  I wish I could have afforded to get a sketch from Talbot because he was drawing some amazing pieces at the show.

Eric Talbot East Coast Comicon

Fortunately I was able to obtain one sketch at the convention.  Rudy Nebres drew a beautiful pencil head sketch of Vampirella for me.  I’ve really enjoyed his work on the character in the past so I was happy to be able to get this.

Actually It’s been a while since I’ve been to a convention and gotten more than one or two pieces of artwork, anyway.  I guess nowadays, with my finances being more limited, I’m concentrating on quality over quantity.

Vampirella Rudy Nebres

There were a lot of cosplayers at the convention.  Some of the costumes were fantastic.  Since we were rushing around Michele unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to take too many pictures.  As we were on our way out, though, she was able to take a great photo of this “Spider-Family.”  From left to right that’s Venom, Scarlet Spider, Spider-Woman aka Spider-Gwen and the original Spider-Man.

Spider-Man cosplayers East Coast Comicon

Oh, yes, one last thing… Michele is a huge fan of Planet of the Apes.  Last year she rented all the movies from the original series and we watched them over a five day stretch.

In addition to winning two tickets to the convention, I also won two Planet of the Apes action figures.  One was Charlton Heston himself, Colonel Taylor, who wishes those damn dirty apes would keep their paws to themselves.  The other was a gorilla soldier who looks ready to hunt down some of those pesky humans.  Sadly neither figure came with a half-buried Statue of Liberty, but despite that deficiency they are still very cool.  Of course I gave them to Michele, who I knew would appreciate them.

Planet of the Apes action figures East Coast Comicon

Despite only getting to the convention for less than half a day, and being on a really tight budget, Michele and I both had  a lot of fun.  Hopefully we will be able to make it again next year.

A big “thank you” to 13th Dimension publisher Cliff Galbraith for organizing the East Coast Comicon.  By the way, that’s his artwork on the cool banner up top of Darth Vader cosplaying as Doctor Doom.

(All photos are courtesy of Michele Witchipoo and her wonderful smartphone.)

Comic book reviews: Spider-Man “Kraven’s Last Hunt”

Each month Midtown Comics has their Book of the Month meeting, where one or more people involved in the creation of a graphic novel or trade paperback discuss the background of that volume.  This month, the featured book was “Fearful Symmetry: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which many consider to be one of the all time great Spider-Man stories.

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” was originally serialized across six issues during a two month period in 1987, appearing in the three ongoing titles: Web of Spider-Man #31-32, Amazing Spider-Man #293-294, and Spectacular Spider-Man #131-132.   It was written by J.M. DeMatteis, with artwork by Mike Zeck and Bob McLeod.  Coming in to Midtown Comics to discuss it was editor Jim Salicrup (currently doing excellent work as editor-in-chief of Papercutz).

Kraven1

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” deals with the relationship between Spider-Man and one of his old foes, Sergei Kravinoff, aka Kraven the Hunter.  It also examines the (at the time brand new) marriage between Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane.

As the story opens, Kraven, who was born in the early 20th Century, is feeling the weight of age.  Although kept young and vigorous for decades by herbs and potions he discovered in Africa, Kraven now begins to suspect time is starting to catch up with him.  He is also dwelling on his long-dead parents, Russian aristocrats who fled to America in 1917.  And he has begun to obsess over his long string of defeats at the hands of Spider-Man.  Kraven comes to believe that no mere man could have bested him, that Spider-Man must be a dark spirit, the same spirit he now perceives as having toppled Czarist rule in his homeland.  Convinced that he will soon die, the Hunter is determined to best Spider-Man once and for all.

Ingesting strange drugs, Kraven goes on the prowl.  In the midst of a rainstorm, he ambushes Spider-Man, shooting him, seemingly killing him.  Burying his long-time foe, Kraven then takes on his costumed identity, to prove he is the better man, and begins a brutal crackdown on crime in New York.  When Kraven learns that the half-man, half-rat mutant named Vermin is on the loose in the city sewers, abducting & eating innocent people, he sees this as a further test.  Here is a foe that the real Spider-Man was never able to defeat on his own, one who he needed the assistance of Captain America to stop.  If Kraven alone can beat Vermin, he will then truly prove himself to be superior.

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Spider-Man is, of course, not dead.  Kraven has actually drugged him, and buried him alive.  Under the earth in a coffin for two weeks, Peter Parker experiences horrific hallucinations.  Finally, he is able to claw his way out of the coffin and up through the ground, driven by love, by the desire to be reunited with his wife, Mary Jane.

J.M. DeMatteis crafted a truly disturbing, dark tale with “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  In his introduction to the TPB, he explains the genesis of the story.  It’s interesting that this originally began life as a pitch for a miniseries exploring the relationship between Wonder Man and his brother the Grim Reaper, turning into an examination of the dynamic between Batman and the Joker, before eventually (after a few more evolutions) becoming the climax to Spider-Man and Kraven’s long-running rivalry.

“Fearful Symmetry” was originally commissioned by editor Jim Owsley, and then fell under the auspices of his successor on the Spider-Man titles, Salicrup.  Although he wanted to take the three books in a less dark, more “fun” direction than Owsley had, Salicrup says he saw the potential in the story.  Like DeMatteis, he recognized that it was a brilliant way to explore the romance of Peter and Mary Jane.

As Salicrup explains it, although “Kraven’s Last Hunt” superficially resembles the “grim and gritty” comic books coming to the forefront in the mid-1980s, it really did not fall into that category.  It was actually the act of dropping the character of Spider-Man into a story along the lines of Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and seeing what happens.  And what occurred was Spider-Man stayed true to himself.  Peter wasn’t driven by revenge to dig his way out of his grave, but by love for his wife.  As Salicrup observes, it is a scene that very much parallels the classic Amazing Spider-Man #33 by Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, when Spider-Man, trapped under a mountain of wrecked machinery, struggles to lift it up, knowing that he is the only one who can bring a life-saving serum to Aunt May, who lies dying.

Despite his traumatic experiences and the temptation to kill Kraven, Spider-Man does not emerge swearing to wreck brutal vengeance, but wishing to bring his foe to justice.  Finally, when Spider-Man himself must stop Vermin, an opponent Kraven defeated by brute force, the web-slinger does not descend to the level of the Hunter.  Instead, he tries to reach out to Vermin with empathy & understanding, and to use intelligence to outwit him.

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DeMatteis does a superb job scripting Kraven.  As someone who did not start reading comic books until the 1980s, I am not especially familiar with most of the character’s earlier stories.  As I understand it, even though he was created by Ditko and Lee, he was never considered a major Spider-Man villain, and as time went on, with subsequent appearances over the next two decades, he became something of B-list character.

DeMatteis himself admits that he was never a fan of Kraven, and that it was in his unexplored Russian heritage that the writer saw potential.  The Kraven in “Fearful Symmetry” is a troubled, dangerous individual, teetering between nobility and insanity.  In this six part tale, DeMatteis takes what was formerly a one-note character and remakes him into an intriguing, tragic, formidable opponent.

The artwork by Mike Zeck & Bob McLeod is absolutely magnificent.  I have been a huge fan of Zeck since he penciled Captain America in the early 1980s, paired up with, of course, DeMatteis as writer.  “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is a stunning reunion for the two of them, and Zeck does some of the best work of his career.  His layouts & storytelling are extremely dramatic.  The inking by McLeod really provides the artwork with a palpable atmosphere of shadows and looming darkness.

I also want to point out the contributions of letter Rick Parker.  Comic book lettering is an extremely underrated art, even more so than inking.  I’m a fan of such professionals as Janice Chiang, John Workman, and Tom Orzechowski, all of whom do wonderful work putting down dialogue and narration.  Parker is also an excellent letterer, and on “Kraven’s Last Hunt” he really emphasizes the dramatic beats and emphasis of DeMatteis’ scripting.

Credit also has to go to Salicrup for the idea to run “Kraven’s Last Hunt” during a two month period through all three titles, rather than having it serialized as a six-part story in Spectacular Spider-Man, as was the original plan.  Nowadays this is an extremely common practice, but back in 1987 it was exceedingly rare.  Salicrup’s canny rationale was that if Spider-Man is buried alive in Spectacular while he’s off fighting someone like Doctor Octopus in the pages of Amazing, it would significantly cut down on the dramatic tension.  Also, the two month schedule really helped maintain momentum that might have been lost over a half year.

(Incidentally, flipping back through many of the Marvel comic books that I read and enjoyed in the 1980s, I see a significant number of them were edited by Salicrup.  He seems to have had a real talent for getting the best work out of the creators working under him.)

My one disappointment was that this TPB did not also include the 1992 sequel “Soul of the Hunter,” also by the team of DeMatteis, Zeck & McLeod.  That special examined the consequences of Kraven choosing to take his own life at the end of “Fearful Symmetry,” as well as the lingering feelings Spider-Man has for what he went through.  It was an extremely good story.  Next time I’m over at my parents’ house, I want to dig it out of the box it’s buried in and read it once again.

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Oh, yes, for the completists out there, you will also want to track down a copy of issue #3 of Marvel’s humor title What The–?!  Featuring a tale of Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham titled “Raven’s Last Hunt,” this oddball comic is topped off with a cover by Zeck & McLeod spoofing their original image for Amazing Spider-Man #294.

Arachnid pigs aside, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is certainly a classic story, featuring brilliant work by an extremely talented creative team.  If you have not already read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collected edition.  It is well worth a look.