The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Eight

Welcome to another collection of the Daily Comic Book Coffee. I have been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge by group moderator Jim Thompson was to see how many different pencilers you can find artwork by featuring a specific subject. I chose coffee.

36) Murphy Anderson

Today’s artwork is from the Atomic Knights story “Danger in Detroit” drawn by Murphy Anderson and written by John Broome, from Strange Adventures #153, published by DC Comics with a June 1963 cover date.

The Atomic Knights was a wonderfully weird post-apocalyptic sci-fi feature created by Broome & Anderson.  It appeared in every third issue of Strange Adventures from #117 to #156, with a final chapter appearing in issue #160.  DC issued a hardcover collection in 2010. 

Set in the far-off future year of, um, 1986, the Atomic Knights were a team of adventurers who sought to restore civilization to North America after World War III left the planet devastated.  The six Atomic Knights all wore suits of medieval armor that, through some fluke, had become resistant to radioactivity.  From their base in the town of Durvale, the Knights fought a variety of offbeat monsters and menaces that plagued the devastated world.

In the previous installment in Strange Adventures #150, “The Plant That Hated Humans,” the Knights encountered an army of giant ambulatory plants created by the botanist Henderson.  The Trefoils turned against humanity, but the Knights defeated them by cutting them off from their water source.

As this story opens, we see two of the Knights, Douglas and Marene, having some after-dinner coffee in the Durvale Community Hall.  They are being served by “an unusual-looking waiter,” namely a Trefoil.  Henderson managed to create a new strain of Trefoils, “one without a trace of the vicious hatred of humanity that the old crop seemed to grow with.”  Nevertheless, Marene bluntly states “That creature Mr. Henderson sent us gives me the jim-jams!”

Looking at this from a 21st Century perspective, you have to wonder at Henderson’s decision to resume his experiments after they almost ended in disaster the first time around, as well as the ethical issues of creating a new life form designed to be servants.

Marene’s thought balloon in the final panel, complete with “and yet I’m just a woman,” hasn’t aged well, either.

All that aside, I still enjoyed the Atomic Knights.  Broom’s stories are imaginative, quirky and fun.  The artwork by Anderson is absolutely gorgeous.  Broom and Anderson both considered the Atomic Knights to be among their favorite work from their lengthy careers.

37) Dave Cockrum & Gonzalo Mayo

Harbinger Files #1, penciled by Dave Cockrum, inked by Gonzalo Mayo, written by Fred Pierce & Bob Layton, lettered by Rob Johnson & Santiago Vázquez, and colored by Mike McGuire, published by Valiant with an August 1994 cover date.

Toyo Harada is one of the major antagonists in the Valiant universe.  An incredibly powerful telepath & telekinetic, Harada established the Harbinger Foundation to recruit & train those with similar psionic abilities.  Harbinger Files #1 reveals his previously-untold origin, as well as explaining how he survived his encounter with Solar, Man of the Atom.

After his private jet crashes on a desolate mountain, the badly-injured Harada is rescued by hermit Dusty Berman.  Recuperating in Berman’s cabin, Harada details his history & motivations.  Seeking to convince the skeptical recluse, Harada uses his powers to levitate Dusty’s cup of coffee.

Harada is an interesting figure.  A charitable view of him would be that he is a well-intentioned extremist, someone who feels compelled to make difficult choices to save the world from itself.  He could be viewed as an embodiment of the expression “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”  A much more skeptical analysis of Harada would be that he is engaged in a massive self-deception, that he is in fact an incredibly selfish, avaricious, tyrannical individual who has managed to convince himself that he is working towards noble goals.

Dave Cockrum was one of the preeminent artists of the Bronze Age.  He played a major role in the successful revamps of both the Legion of Super-Heroes and the X-Men.  Unfortunately by the early 1990s Cockrum, like a number of his contemporaries, was having difficulty finding work, his style regarded by certain editors as “old-fashioned.”  I am a huge fan of Cockrum’s art, so I was glad when he got a couple of jobs penciling for Valiant in 1994.

“Redemption and Reward” is a story that mostly consists of Harada and Dusty conversing, with flashbacks to Harada’s early years.  You need a penciler who is really strong at storytelling & characterization, which is just what Cockrum was.  He does an excellent job with what is mostly a “talking heads” story.

Inking is by Gonzalo Mayo, who worked regularly at Valiant.  The Peruvian-born artist has a very lush style to his inks.  He worked really well over a number of different pencilers at Valiant, giving the art a very nice illustrative look.  I got my copy of this comic autographed by Cockrum a couple of years after it came out, and he told me he liked Mayo’s inking over his pencils.

38) Steve Ditko

I’m glad I located a coffee-drinking page drawn by the legendary Steve Ditko.  This is from the story “Partners” written by the prolific Joe Gill from Ghostly Haunts #29, published by Charlton Comics with a January 1973 cover date.

“Partners” is the tale of prospectors Max Aarens and Henry Farr.  As the story opens Max and Henry are in the Northern Canadian wilderness, sitting by the camp fire drinking coffee as they celebrate having struck gold.  Unfortunately greed & paranoia soon descend, and each man makes plans to betray the other.

Ditko utilizes some extremely effective layouts on this story, superbly illustrating both the brutal blizzard and the psychological trauma that strikes the characters.  The facial expressions & body language of his characters is incredibly evocative.  Even here, on the relatively quiet first page, Ditko deftly establishes the mood of harshly cold isolation, and foreshadows the treacherous nature of the protagonists.

By the way, the lady in green & red on the left side of the opening splash panel is Winnie the Witch, the lovely host of Ghostly Haunts.  As he often did on the Ghostly Haunts stories he drew, Ditko has Winnie lurking in-between panels and on the borders of pages of “Partners,” knowingly observing the unfolding events.

I originally read this in black & white in Steve Ditko’s 160-Page Package published by Robin Synder in 1999, which collected 20 of the Ditko-illustrated stories from the various Charlton horror anthologies.  It looks really crisp & effective in black & white.  There are scans of the full story in color from Ghostly Haunts #29 on the blog Destination Nightmare.

39) Dwayne Turner & Jerome K. Moore

Sovereign Seven, created by writer Chris Claremont and penciler Dwayne Turner, was the result of an interesting arrangement: It was published by DC Comics, and set within the DC Universe, but all of the original characters introduced in it were owned by Claremont. These two pages are from S7 #1, cover-dated July 1995, and issue #6, cover-dated December 1995. Turner inked issue #1, and Jerome K. Moore inked #6. Letters are by Tom Orzechowski & Clem Robbins, and colors are by Gloria Vasquez.

The Sovereigns were a group of aristocratic refugees from different parallel Earths whose worlds had all been conquered by the mysterious Rapture. They were gathered together by Rhian Douglas, aka Cascade, who was fleeing from her seemingly-tyrannical mother Maitresse, although eventually we discover there is much more going on there than either we the readers or Rhian herself suspect.

The main setting of S7 is the Crossroads Coffee Bar, situated at the intersection of three state borders (implied to be Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts) and which contains portals to other dimensions. Crossroads is run by sisters Violet Smith and Pansy Jones, who were based on folk musicians Emma Bull and Lorraine Garland. It is here that the fleeing Sovereigns find sanctuary. As a result, there were a lot of characters drinking a lot of coffee in a lot of issues.

To earn their keep the Sovereigns end up working at the Crossroads. It’s somewhat odd to see a group of what are basically One Percenters sliding into the thankless service industry with a bare minimum of complaints, although it is implied that the societies they came from all possessed systems of noblesse oblige, and that the conquest of those worlds by the Rapture brought these seven down to Earth, both symbolically and literally.

Darkseid shows up at Crossroads in the first issue, and it is suggested that he has frequented the establishment in the past. Sipping an espresso, he satisfactorily comments…

“An excellent brew, Violet, as always. I can’t get anything quite like it at home.”

Perhaps someone ought to explain to Darkseid that if he hadn’t transformed Apokolips into an industrialized fascist hellhole it might be much easier to come by quality caffeinated beverages?

Jumping forward to issue #6, it’s Halloween at Crossroads. Italian mercenary Marcello Veronese has come to town, and he is instantly taken with the fully-armored Fatale, who he spots serving coffee.

Marcello: That waitress in black, she is one striking woman!

Pansy: Say that to her face, you’ll see just how striking.

Marcello: The reward, I’ll wager, would be well worth the risk.

Pansy: You want risk, chum, I’ll introduce you to my sister.

I found S7 an interesting & enjoyable series. That said it probably was overly ambitious. Launching a book with seven lead characters, an expanded supporting cast, and a complex backstory right when the comic book market was experiencing a glut might have been a mistake. I think S7 ended up getting lost in the crowd. It did ultimately last for 36 issues, plus two annuals and one special, which is a fairly respectable run.

We will return to S7 and the coffee-drinking crowd of Crossroads in a future entry, when we look at the work of the series’ second regular penciler.

40) Terry Moore

My girlfriend Michele is a huge fan of Strangers in Paradise, which was written & drawn by Terry Moore.  SiP is a semi-comedic soap opera that eventually ventured into mystery and crime noir.  I figured there would probably be at least a few coffee-drinking scenes in SiP.  Flipping through the first “pocket book” trade paperback from Abstract Studio, I found one from the very first issue of volume one, which was originally published by Antarctic Press in November 1993.

I asked Michele if she could briefly explain what SiP was about.  She started telling me how it was about two women, Katrina, aka Katchoo, and Francine, who are best friends.  Katchoo is bisexual and is attracted to Francine, but Francine is straight and wants to one day have children.  Making things even more complicated is David, an artist who falls in love with Katchoo.  After attempting to summarize the various plotlines that Moore had running through SiP over the years, Michele finally shrugged and said “It’s complicated.”  She then suggested I look it up on Wikipedia.

Michele also had this to say about Strangers in Paradise

“My issue with SiP is that it borrowed from Love and Rockets in regards to the (that word again) “complicated” relationship between Maggie and Hopey. SiP does manage to steer into its own plots. Just that similarity. Terry Moore is a great artist.”

In this scene from the very first issue, Katchoo and David have met for the first time at an art gallery, and David has convinced the very reluctant Katchoo to have a cup of coffee with him.  They walk over to the coffee shop in a rainstorm, and when David suggests to the sneezing Katchoo that she take off her wet clothes, she goes ballistic.

It’s a funny scene that establishes right off the bat that Katchoo is assertive, but also very melodramatic.  The page ends perfectly with a waitress who deadpans “How about that de-caff now, honey?”

Steve Ditko’s ghost stories

Last week it was announced that legendary comic book creator Steve Ditko had passed away in late June.  He was 90 years old.

Ditko is best known for having co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s.  However, he was actually a prolific creator who worked on innumerable titles for a variety of publishers, as well as a number of creator-owned self-published projects, during a career that lasted 65 years, from 1953 until the time of his death.

I wanted to pay tribute to Ditko, but I never worked with him or met him, and so outside of a brief correspondence with him several years ago I cannot say I knew him.  Certainly I am ill-equipped to assemble a comprehensive overview & analysis of his career such as the one that appeared in The Comics Journal.

It then occurred to me to look at one period, one facet of Ditko’s career that especially appealed to me, and explain why I held it in such high personal regard.  I am going to take a brief look at Ditko’s work on the Charlton Comics horror anthologies of the 1970s.

Ghostly Haunts 23

About a week ago I happened to be chatting with comic book creator Dean Haspiel.  During our talk, we briefly touched on the subject of horror comics.  I broached the opinion that horror is a genre that is often difficult to utilize effectively in the medium of comic books.  Haspiel appeared to concur, and suggested it can be difficult for many artists to effectively utilize the pacing and storytelling and layouts necessary to convey true horror & suspense, with many instead relying on gore & violence.

(I’m paraphrasing what Dean said, so DO NOT take any of the above for a direct quote!)

Just a few hours later the news broke of Steve Ditko’s passing.  It immediately hit me square in the face that one of the few comic book artists who DID genuinely excel at illustrating horror material was none other than Ditko himself.  Certainly that talent was frequently on display in his work for Charlton.

Located in Derby CT, Charlton was infamous for its low rates paid to creators and the cheap quality of its printing.  However the company also had very little in the way of corporate or editorial oversight.  This was something that appealed to Ditko, who very much valued his creative independence.

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 3
“Treasure of the Tomb” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts 23 (March 1972)

In my teens and 20s I had seen reprints of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stories, as well as his more recent work for Marvel from the 1980s.  Though I liked it, there wasn’t anything that especially appealed to me.  At times I even found his art to be weird and off-putting.

About a decade and a half ago I was at a local comic book convention where I happened to buy a few back issues of some of the Charlton horror anthologies.  One of these issues was Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972) which featured a striking cover by Ditko.  Inside this issue were two stories illustrated by Ditko, “Treasure of the Tomb” and “Return Visit,” both of which I later learned had been written by Joe Gill.

Let me tell you, Ghostly Haunts #23 was a genuine revelation.  I don’t think I truly “got” Ditko’s work until that point.  His art on those two stories struck me like a thunderbolt.

Ghostly Haunts 23 pg 10
“Return Visit” page 2 from Ghostly Haunts #23 (March 1972)

Ditko’s layouts, the pacing of his stories, his heavy inking, the contorted body language & wide-eyed, twisted facial expressions of his figures, all combined to create a palpable mood of fear and anxiety and tangible horror.  Ditko genuinely excelled at generating an atmosphere of dread and suspense, of unsettling people and places that were more than slightly askew.

I also loved Ditko’s beautiful, sexy depiction of Ghostly Haunts hostess Winnie the Witch.  Ditko’s women often exuded a dangerous sensuality, and that was certainly present in his depictions of Winnie, who was cute but also possessed of a coy edginess.  Additionally, I enjoyed the effective way in which Ditko had Winnie lurking on the borders of the pages, or in-between panels, an omnipresent spectator who was almost but not quite involved in the proceedings of the narratives.

Ghostly Haunts 31 pg 3
“Web of Evil” page 3 from Ghostly Haunts #31 (April 1973)

Subsequently I began searching out other back issues of the various Charlton horror anthologies.  The prolific Ditko illustrated dozens of stories for the company in the 1970s, appearing in numerous issues of Ghost Manor, Ghostly Haunts, Ghostly Tales, Haunted, Scary Tales, and others, making his work fairly easy to locate.

Additionally, 20 of the horror stories that Ditko did for Charlton were subsequently collected together in black & white volume Steve Ditko’s 160 Page Package.  This was released in 1999 by Robin Snyder, who printed & distributed many of Ditko’s later works.

At times the stories in the Charlton anthologies were clichéd or repetitive or predictable.  Since the pay rates were so low, Gill and his colleagues often had to literally crank these things out one after another in order to be able to make a decent living.  Nevertheless, in spite of the variable quality of the writing, as well as his own low page rates, Ditko invariably gave it his best, always producing eerie, unsettling, effective work of a high caliber.

Ghostly Tales 106 pg 7
“The Moon Beast” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #106 (August 1973)

Being exposed to Ditko’s work on these books rapidly caused me to reappraise his other material.  Soon after I re-read Essential Doctor Strange Volume One, and enjoyed it tremendously.  It’s since become one of my favorite trade paperbacks, either to read yet again, or just to flip through to marvel (no pun intended) at the exquisite artwork.

I also began to look more favorably on Ditko’s work for DC Comics in the late 1960s, where he created such unusual characters as Hawk & Dove, the Creeper, and Shade the Changing Man.  Fortunately much of this material has now been collected, making it much easier to obtain.

I serious doubt I will ever find myself in agreement with the Objectivist philosophies that became prevalent in Ditko’s later creations and stories, but I certainly appreciate the craft and talent that was on display in his artwork.

Ghostly Tales 122 pg 20
“The Crew that was Hanged” page 7 from Ghostly Tales #122 (August 1976)

Steve Ditko was a unique creator possessed of one of the most distinctive, individual voices to have ever worked within the medium of comic books.  His work for Charlton in the 1970s represents but a fraction of his output.  Nevertheless it remains among my favorite material by Ditko, for the quality present within it, the visceral impact it delivered, and the fact that it led me to a deeper appreciation for his entire body of work.