The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Five

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject.

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and now I’m collecting them together here.  (Please click on the “coffee” tag to read the previous parts of the series.)

coffee pot

21) John Buscema & John Romita

The art team of penciler John Buscema and inker John Romita join with scripter Stan Lee to tug on those heartstrings in “I Love Him – But He’s Hers!”  This tale of torrid passions appeared in Our Love Story #2, published by Marvel Comics with a December 1969 cover date.

With her father having died unexpectedly and her brother serving in Vietnam, young Anne must work as a waitress to pay for college.  Anne’s difficult circumstances are constantly rubbed in her face by her rich snob doom roommate Cynthia.  Soon cruel Cynthia ups her taunts by showing off her handsome boyfriend at every opportunity.  “This is Art Nelson, little woman – and he’s all mine! So you may look — but don’t touch!”  Anne is, of course, instantly attracted to Art, but she dares not make a move, fearful of Cynthia’s temper.  Cynthia’s taunts eventually back fire on her as Art, realizing what a horrid person she actually is, dumps her for the sweet, down-to-Earth Anne.

John Buscema has been referred to as “the Michelangelo of comics.”  He was incredibly talented, one of the top artists at Marvel Comics for three decades, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.  Buscema was, however, not actually fond of drawing super-heroes, something he admitted to on several occasions throughout the years.  He much preferred drawing Conan the Barbarian to any of Marvel’s spandex-clad crimefighters.

Given his dislike for super-heroes, perhaps he saw romance stories as  a refreshing change of pace.  It definitely drew on one of Buscema’s strengths, namely his ability to render beautiful women.  He certainly does a damn fine job on this splash page, drawing Anne waitressing in a coffeehouse populated by a colorful crowd of hip java-drinkers.

Of course, Buscema was also vocal about his dislike for most of the inkers / finishers he was paired with, as he felt most of them overwhelmed his work with their own styles.  So we can only guess how he felt about being inked by John Romita on Marvel’s romance stories, especially as the later’s style is very much in evidence.

Having acknowledged all that, from my perspective as a reader, this really looks stunning.  I feel the combination of the two Johns results in a deft, effective blending of their signature styles.

A big “thank you” to colorist supreme José Villarrubia, who spotlighted this page on his FB feed.

Our Love Story 2 pg 1

22) Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema

Amazing Spider-Girl #15, penciled by Ron Frenz, inked by Sal Buscema, written by Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz, lettered by Dave Sharpe, and colored by Bruno Hang, published by Marvel Comics, cover-dated February 2008.

Her name is May “Mayday” Parker, and she is the daughter of Spider-Man.

Yes, it’s a “Mayday” post, which would have been absolutely perfect for May 1st.  Instead I posted this on FB on May 2nd.  Oops.  As the man used to say, “Missed it by THAT much!”

AHEM!  Spider-Girl is the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, from a reality where their newborn baby was rescued from the clutches of the diabolical Norman Osborn.  Now a teenager, Mayday has inherited both her father’s powers and sense of responsibility.  Assuming the identity of Spider-Girl, Mayday attempts to fight crime and save innocent lives while juggling high school classes, an active social life, and a pair of parents who are understandably very concerned that their daughter is following in her father’s web-swinging footsteps.

Spider-Girl is the little comic book that could.  Originally making her debut in a one-off story by DeFalco & Frenz in What If #105 (Feb 1998), Mayday graduated to her own ongoing series just a few months later.  DeFalco, first paired with penciler Pat Olliffe, and later reunited with Frenz, did a great job developing Mayday and her supporting cast.  Spider-Girl gained a relative small but very enthusiastic fanbase and ran for 100 issues, followed by Amazing Spider-Girl, which lasted another 30 issues.  Mayday then migrated to several issues of Spider-Man Family and Web of Spider-Man, and then a Spectacular Spider-Girl miniseries, with DeFalco & Frenz bringing her story to a close with the Spider-Girl: The End special in October 2010.  Of course, that was still not the curtain for Mayday, who has continued to pop up here and there.  You can’t keep a good Spider-Girl down!

Mayday and her friends often hung out at Café Indigo, a coffee shop in Forest Hills, Queens.  As per Ron Frenz:

“Café Indigo was introduced by Pat Olliffe, as a tribute to his wife’s architectural design business at the time.”

In Amazing Spider-Girl #15 the gang gathers at Café Indigo to welcome back their pal Moose, who had to move away for several months due to his father’s illness.  Frenz does a great job with this sequence, giving it moments of both characterization and comedy.  I love the facial expressions.  Frenz is such a strong storyteller, as this page demonstrates.

Inking is provided by the legendary Sal Buscema, who has been working with Frenz regularly since 2003.  They make a great art team.

Amazing Spider-Girl 15 pg 7

23) Bill Sienkiewicz & Klaus Janson

May 3rd was artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s birthday.  To celebrate the occasion, I took a look at two coffee-themed pages of artwork by Sienkiewicz featuring Moon Knight.

The first page is from the Moon Knight back-up story in the The Hulk magazine #17, penciled by Sienkiewicz, inked by Klaus Janson, written by Doug Moench, and colored by Olyoptics, published by Marvel Comics with an October 1979 cover date.  The second page is from Moon Knight #23, drawn by Sienkiewicz, written by Moench, lettered by Joe Rosen, and colored by Christie Scheele, with a September 1982 cover date.

On the first page we have Moon Knight stopping in at Gena’s Diner, the Manhattan coffee shop he frequents while sniffing out info on illegal activities in his guise of cabbie Jake Lockley.  Sienkiewicz was only 21 years old when he drew this story.  His work here definitely brings to mind Neal Adams, who Sienkiewicz has cited as a major influence.

Even with the obvious stylistic similarities, we can see that Sienkiewicz was already starting to utilize some interesting layouts in his storytelling.  Janson’s inking goes well with Sienkiewicz’s style here, giving it a grittier edge that suits Moench’s writing.

Moon Knight Hulk Magazine 17 pg 50

On the second page we have Moon Knight, Frenchie, Marlene and her brother Peter having fled to Maine in the dead of winter, hiding out in an isolated house in the woods Moon Knight owns in his Steven Grant persona.  They are fleeing from Moon Knight’s old foe Morpheus, the so-called “Dream Demon” who has the ability to possess people in their sleep, and to create horrifying nightmares.  In order to stay awake and prevent Mopheus from controlling them Moon Knight and the others are gulping down copious amounts of black coffee.

Morpheus utilizes his psychic connection to Peter to learn their location.  He invades the house and seizes control of both Marlene and Peter.  Moon Knight and Frenchie are unaware of any of this, as they are busy trying to rig up a generator in the basement as a defense against Morpheus.  Marlene comes down to join them, ostensibly to bring them some much-needed coffee.  Too late they realize that Marlene is now in Morpheus’ thrall.  Eyes ablaze with madness, Marlene strikes a match and tosses it onto the generator, with explosive results.

This issue of Moon Knight was drawn by Sienkiewicz only three years after that story in The Hulk magazine and, WHOA, what a difference!  Sienkiewicz’s work grew by absolute leaps and bounds in that short period of time.  This page is a really good illustration of how much he developed.  His work has become very stylized and atmospheric.  His layouts are striking, and he utilizes inking and zip-a-tone to superb effect.  You can see here that Sienkiewicz has begun his evolution to the stunning abstract artwork that he would soon be creating in the mid 1980s.

Credit must also go to the coloring by Christie Scheele on this story.  Her work complements Sienkiewicz’s art so very well.

Moon Knight 23 pg 10

24) Wallace Wood

This artwork is from the story “The Probers” in Weird Science #8, drawn by Wallace Wood, written by Al Feldstein & Bill Gaines, lettered by Jim Wroten, and colored by Marie Severin, published by EC Comics with a July-August 1951 cover date.  I scanned this from the hardcover The EC Archives: Weird Science Volume Two, issued in 2007 by Russ Cochran and Gemstone Publishing.

Growing up in the early 1980s, I discovered the classic EC Comics via reprints.  I was never overly fond of EC’s horror titles, since I found the pun-slinging hosts sort of cheesy.  But I was absolutely enthralled by the sci-fi stories in Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, with their insightful examinations of the human condition, their grimly ironic twist endings, and their realistic, detailed artwork.  Looking back on these, I realize that many of the EC stories that made the biggest impression on my young self were those drawn by Wallace Wood.

Wood, known to his friends as “Woody” (reportedly he disliked being called “Wally”), was an absolutely incredible artist, with his intricately detailed spaceships & technology, bizarre aliens, and stunningly beautiful women.  Wood is rightfully remembered for his brilliant work, and the word “classic” is deservedly used to describe the stories he drew for EC.

“The Probers” is a typical EC tale of cosmic karma. Interestingly the story takes nearly a page detour to showcase young Lawrence Cavips’s futile attempt to drink coffee in outer space.  Captain Scott provides us with a demonstration of the correct way do things, using a straw to sip up the free-floating bubbles of coffee.  Scott guesses this must be Cavip’s first mission, which the young man confirms, telling him “Right! I just graduated two months ago!”

What?  Just graduated?  Cavip went to Astronaut Academy (or whatever they call it) and no one there bothered to explain to him the behavior of liquids in zero gravity?  What are they teaching kids these days?  Ehh, the young punk was probably slacking off, too busy hanging out with girls and listening to that newfangled rock & roll.  Why in my day…

Weird Science 8 coffee

25) Gilbert Shelton

“I Led Nine Lives!” written & drawn by Gilbert Shelton, appeared in the underground comic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #3 published by Rip Off Press in 1973.  It was reprinted in Fat Freddy’s Cat #1, released by Rip Off Press in 1988.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are a trio of San Francisco potheads: Freewheelin’ Franklin Freek, Phineas T. Phreak and Fat Freddy Freekowtski.  Fat Freddy has an orange tabby cat, the so-called “Fat Freddy’s Cat,” although the cat is (unsurprisingly) much smarter than his human, and often poops on Freddy’s possessions, especially if he’s late getting fed.

Fat Freddy’s Cat occasionally recounts his supposed adventures to his three nephews, and “I Led Nine Lives!” he regales them with his time as F. Frederick Skitty, federal agent.  Skitty is assigned by “the Chief” to stop a nefarious plot to poison the nation’s water supply with a drug nicknamed “Hee Hee Hee.” When asked what exactly “Hee Hee Hee” does, the Chief gravely replies “It turns you queer!”

Skitty parachutes into to the mountain headquarters of the “Hee Hee Hee” manufacturers.  After accidentally shooting up the nudist colony next door, Skitty confronts the flamboyant terrorists, who inform them that he is too late, because “We already mixed the drug in the nation’s coffee supply!”  Skitty guns down the terrorists and races back to Washington DC to warn everyone, only to find the Chief already drinking his morning coffee and softly giggling “Hee Hee Hee” to himself.  Skitty shoots the Chief, reasoning “It was my patriotic duty.”  He then realizes that by now everyone else in the country has probably also had coffee.  “So I shot myself, too” he tells his nephews.  However he quickly assures them that everything turned out fine because “I still had eight more lives.”

Fat Freddys Cat 1 pg 7

Of course that extra-long nose we see Fat Freddy’s Cat sporting in the last panel hints that perhaps his thrilling account might not have been entirely accurate, to say the least!

I scanned this from my girlfriend Michele Witchipoo’s copy of Fat Freddy’s Cat #1. She was probably my intro to Gilbert Shelton. Michele is very much into independent and underground comics, and she’s broadened my knowledge & interests considerably.

It Came From the 1990s: NFL SuperPro #6

Tonight is Super Bowl LIV (that’s 54 for you non-Roman types) between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs… and I’m not watching.  Sorry, but football is not my thing. I’ve never been able to figure out the rules of the game, no matter how often I try to watch it.  Besides, I have always found the Super Bowl a real test of endurance, given that it’s a 60 minute game stretched out to four hours by innumerable commercial breaks and a typically-vapid halftime shop.

NFL Superpro JuskoAlso, I am soooo not a fan of the NFL, who have continually tried their hardest to push aside Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice & police brutality, but who are more than happy to make Michael Vick a Pro Bowl caption, in spite of his conviction for running a dog-fighting ring.  Add to that the whole dealing with pot-smokers more harshly than wife-beaters, and the attempts to sweep traumatic brain injuries under the rug, and I have little use for the NFL.  No wonder the rest of the world plays soccer instead!

And now that I have probably managed to get the entirety of football-loving America violently angry at me, let me welcome everyone to another installment of my occasional feature It Came From the 1990s.  This is where I take a look back at various odd, unusual or noteworthy comic books that were published during that decade.  Since today is Super Bowl Sunday, hey, I might as well cast my glance at NFL SuperPro #6.  Published by Marvel Comics, it inadvertently became one of the most controversial comic books of the 1990s.

What was NFL SuperPro about?  I’m a bit lazy, so I’m just going to quote Wikipedia here:

“NFL SuperPro was a short-lived comic book series published by Marvel Comics, centered on Phil Grayfield, an ex National Football League (NFL) player who survives a freak accident and wears a near-indestructible football uniform. Produced in collaboration with the NFL and written by Fabian Nicieza and artist Jose Delbo, the series started publication in 1991 and ended after 12 issues.”

The character made his debut in the NFL SuperPro Super Bowl Edition special released by Marvel in January 1991.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this book is the painted cover by the incredible Joe Jusko.  I supposed it’s a toss-up over which was a career highlight for Jusko, painting this cover or the one he did for the Nightcat special.

(Okay, in all seriousness, this is a good reminder that when you are a freelance artist, even one as acclaimed as Jusko, you sometimes need to take on assignment that are a bit, um, unusual, because at the end of the day it’s money in the bank.  Ditto for everyone else who worked on NFL SuperPro, and who were just trying to pay their bills.)NFL SuperPro 6 cover

Several months after the Super Bowl Edition an ongoing NFL SuperPro series was launched which, as indicated above, lasted for a year.  And that brings us to issue #6, cover-dated March 1992.

“The Kachinas Sing of Doom” was written by Buzz Dixon, penciled by Jose Delbo, inked by Mike DeCarlo, lettered by Janice Chiang and colored by Evelyn Stein.  The cover was penciled by Rob Tokar & Ron Frenz, with inks by the legendary Joe Sinnott.

Phil Grayfield, in his role as a sports journalist, is doing a story about ice skating champion Laura Eagle when she is attacked by a trio costumed as Hopi kachina figures.  The kachninas, who are armed with such ridiculous weapons as nunchucks and a chainsaw, are ostensibly after Laura because she has turned her back on the Hopi to become an athlete in the “white man’s world.”  However, in a twist straight out of Scooby Doo, the kachinas are actually a group of non-Indians in the employ of corrupt businessman Tyler Gaunt.  Gaunt has his thugs dress up as kachinas in an attempt to discredit a group of Hopi political activists led by Laura’s sister who are opposed to Gaunt opening a casino on their tribal lands.

When this issue was published the real-world Hopi tribe was reportedly very unhappy, and found it offensive.  This almost certainly had to do with the villains dressing as kachinas, which are important figures in the Hopi’s faith.  Even though in this story the kachinas were unmasked as Caucasian villains, it seems likely that, given how frequently Native Americans have been poorly depicted in American popular culture over the decades, the Hopi were just annoyed at elements of their culture & faith being appropriated.  Or perhaps they didn’t like the idea of Laura having traumatic childhood memories of the kachina ceremonies.

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 2

As per both the Recalled Comics website and Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed on Comic Book Resources, Marvel responded to the Hopi’s complaints by pulling the comic from sale.  However, by the time they made the decision the next issue had already shipped to stores, rendering the whole thing a bit meaningless.

The thing I find most surprising about all this was that, if the numbers in the news item seen on Recalled Comics are accurate, NLF SuperPro #6 had a print run of over 70,000 copies.  That’s just insane!  Last year there were issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Batman that sold less copies than that.  Really goes to show just how insanely inflated comic book sales had become in the early 1990s.

By the way, one of the aspects of NFL SuperPro that was often derided by readers was that Phil Grayfield was, to quote Buzz Dixon, “certainly not the sharpest crayon in the box.”  That can certainly be witnessed in this scene from issue #6…

NFL SuperPro 6 pg 13

*Shakes head sadly* Oh, Phil, what are we going to do with you… well, other than bring your comic book to a merciful end in another six issues?

At one point The Chicago Sports Review described NFL SuperPro as “perhaps the worst comic book ever created,” although I don’t think it’s nearly as deserving of such hyperbolic vitriol as some other comics which were more risible or embarrassing.  All these years later I think most comic book fans look back upon it with a shrug of bemusement.

Still, if you were to choose one image to perfectly sum up NFL SuperPro, well, this panel from issue #10 certainly does the trick…

NFL SuperPro head thump

Believe me, Phil, we’re all asking exactly the same thing!

Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

This year Marvel Comics is celebrating their 80th anniversary with the release of Marvel Comics #1000 and a number of specials reuniting older creative teams.  The occasion prompted me to take a look back at 1986 in general, and at Fantastic Four #296 in particular, when Marvel celebrated their 25th anniversary.

Fantastic Four 296 cover

I’m sure at least a few people are wondering “How in the name of Irving Forbush could Marvel have celebrated their 25th anniversary in 1986 and then only 33 years later be celebrating their 80th?!?”

The fact is Marvel Comics actually has two anniversaries.  The first is for late August 1939 when Timely Comics, the company that would one day be known as Marvel, released their very first comic book, Marvel Comics #1 (with an October cover date).  The second is for early August 1961 when the first issue of Fantastic Four was published (with a November cover date) ushering in what is now known as the “Marvel era” or the “modern Marvel universe” that has been in continuous publication to the present day.

Marvel Comics 1 cover 1939 smallThis, of course, is very convenient for Marvel Comics, as it gives them not one but two historic anniversaries to celebrate every few years with high-profile specials and reprints, as well as the accompanying publicity.

In any case, back in 1986 it was the 25th anniversary of the debut of Fantastic Four #1 by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.  Marvel made a fairly big deal of it, with Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition offering in-depth explorations of the characters’ histories (in the days before trade paperbacks and the internet both of these titles were invaluable resources to young fans such as myself).  Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter also launched the New Universe with much fanfare, but due to various behind-the-scenes events that line ultimately did not last long.

Another part of the celebration was that all of Marvel’s comics released in August 1986 featured cover portraits of their lead characters, surrounded by a border of character illustrations, the latter of which were drawn by longtime Marvel artist John Romita.  A gallery of these covers can be viewed on Sean Kleefeld’s blog.

This finally brings us to the main subject of this post, namely Fantastic Four #296, the big 25th anniversary issue commemorating the birth of the Marvel era. This 64 page story was plotted by Jim Shooter, scripted by Stan Lee, lettered by John Workman, colored by Glynis Oliver, and edited by Mike Carlin.  It was drawn by a very impressive roster of artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta, Ron Frenz, Bob Wiacek, Al Milgrom, Klaus Janson, John Buscema, Steve Leialoha, Marc Silvestri, Josef Rubinstein, Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott.Fantastic Four 1 cover small

The set-up for “Homecoming” is a bit on the convoluted side.  A couple of years earlier, during the lengthy run by John Byrne that immediately preceded it, Ben Grimm aka the Thing had been written out of the book, and She-Hulk had come onboard the fill his spot.  In recent issues the Thing had been lurking at the periphery, as Byrne was setting the stage for him to finally return to the team in their 25th anniversary story.  But then Byrne abruptly departed Marvel, going over to DC Comics to do a high-profile reboot of Superman.  This left Shooter and Lee sort of scrambling to pick up the pieces, to tell a story that makes sense with what Byrne had recently been doing.

As FF #296 opens, the Thing is despondent.  His ex-girlfriend Alicia Masters is now dating Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.  The Thing, who resembles a large pile of orange rocks, feels more disconnected from humanity than ever.  After brooding in the rain at the site where Reed Richards’ rocket ship crashed years before, and the team all first gained their powers, Ben decides to exile himself to Monster Isle, home to the FF’s very first foe, the Mole Man, who himself has been ostracized by humanity.

Days later the rest of the team learn from pilot Hopper Hertnecky where their friend & teammate has gotten off to.  Hopper reiterates to them the Thing’s longtime frustration that while Reed, Sue and Johnny all gained amazing powers from the cosmic rays that bombarded their spaceflight, Ben was horrifically mutated.  Reed once again begins to beat himself up over his role in his best friend Ben becoming a monster.  However this time Sue bluntly states that this time Ben is unfairly taking out his frustrations on Reed, that whatever Reed did or did not do, he has attempted on numerous occasions over the years to help Ben, to find a permanent cure for him.

Motivated by Sue’s words, Reed decides he needs to see Ben one last time, to settle their argument once and for all.  Sue and Johnny insist on accompanying him.  She-Hulk and Wyatt Wingfoot, however, choose to remain behind, realizing that this is a family matter, and as close to the team as both of them are, they haven’t been there since the very beginning.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 9
Artwork by Kerry Gammill, Vince Colletta & Barry Windsor-Smith

Mister Fantastic, the Invisible Woman and the Human Torch journey to Monster Isle.  They are quickly attacked by the Mole Man’s army of strange monsters.  They are brought before the Thing, who has taken to dressing like the Mole Man.  Ben tells the others they shouldn’t have come, this is his home now.  He tells them that he is going to help the Mole Man create a safe haven for outcasts of society.

Ben is convinced of the Mole Man’s altruism, but he begins to experience doubts when Alicia unexpectedly arrives.  The blind woman coerced Hopper into flying her to Monster Isle, so that she can make her peace with Ben.  Learning that Alicia has broken up with Ben, and that Ben has been showing the rest of the team around the subterranean domain, the Mole Man’s bitterness & paranoia inflame.  He has his servants kidnap & disfigure the Human Torch as punishment for Johnny “stealing” Alicia from Ben.

As upset as Ben is about Alicia being with Johnny, this nevertheless shocks & disturbs the Thing’s confidence in the Mole Man.  Ben’s faith is further shaken when Reed explains that the earth-moving device the Mole Man intends to use to create an island refuge for humanity’s freaks & outsiders will cause devastating damage to the mainland.

At long last Ben realizes that no matter how noble Mole Man’s motives might be, he is nevertheless a disturbed, dangerous fanatic.  The Thing joins with the others to wreck the Mole Man’s machines, and to restore Johnny to normal.  As the subterranean headquarters beneath Monster Isle crumble, they make a break for it.  The issue ends as they are rescued by Hopper in a rubber raft.  A grumbling Ben reluctantly admits that his place is with the team, and at long last the Fantastic Four are reunited.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 19
Artwork by Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek

The plot by Jim Shooter is a solid one, in that it achieves two primary goals: It commemorates the anniversary & history of the Fantastic Four, and it gets the original line-up back together for the first time in two and a half years.  Perhaps it’s not the best FF issue I’ve ever read, or the most imaginative, but it’s entertaining.

The script by Fantastic Four co-creator Stan Lee is also good.  In later decades Lee sometimes became almost a parody of himself, with his whole “Face front, true believers!” bombastic, tongue-in-cheek style of prose and promotion.  Some of that is certainly on display here.  However, as the editor and the main writer / scripter at Marvel throughout the 1960s, Lee was largely responsible for giving most of the company’s characters their distinctive voices & personalities. Looking at this story it is apparent that he had remained capable of poignant, dramatic writing, especially if paired up with a talented artist / collaborator.  Lee’s opening narration and dialogue for FF #296 is very effective and combined with the art by Barry Windsor-Smith results in a genuinely moody, atmospheric scene.

Speaking of the artists, there are some distinctive choices on display in FF #296.  The aforementioned work by Windsor-Smith immediately set the tone.  On several pages the story cuts back & forth between his art and a flashback of the FF’s origin drawn by Kerry Gammill & Vince Colletta.  It definitely offers an interesting contrast.

In general I am not overly fond of Colletta’s inking.  Nevertheless, back in the mid 1960s he did ink several of the Lee & Kirby FF issues, and his work on this story in conjunction with Gammill’s pencils evokes a Silver Age feel that is very well suited to a retelling of the events of the team’s first story.

There are several pages by the team of Ron Frenz & Bob Wiacek.  Frenz is a very solid, effective storyteller, so he is certainly well-suited to dramatically render scenes that feature a significant amount of exposition and character moments.  Wiacek is one of the best inkers in the biz, and his finishes complement Frenz’s pencils.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 26
Artwork by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson

I also enjoyed the pages by Al Milgrom & Klaus Janson.  They are two artists with very different styles, yet the combination works very well.  Milgrom’s super-hero oriented penciling is very effective for rendering the team fighting the Mole Man’s weird, wacky monsters, and Janson’s inking gives it a darker, gritty feel.

The next pairing, John Buscema inked by Steve Leialoha, is a bit odd.  Both are incredibly talented artists, to be certain.  In addition, Buscema was the first regular penciler on FF after Kirby left the title, doing really good work during the early 1970s, so he’s an appropriate choice to contribute to this issue.  Nevertheless, I do feel Leialoha’s inks sort of subsume Buscema’s characteristic style.  Of course, it is possible that Big John was only contributing layouts, something that became more prevalent for him in the 1980s, leaving it up to Leialoha to do the lion’s share, and resulting in more of his style coming through.

I think that under any other circumstances the team of Buscema & Leialoha would have been very effective.  It’s just that here, on this particular story, a somewhat more traditional inker might have been a better fit for Big John.  But that’s purely an emotional, sentimental judgment on my part.  At the very least, this does demonstrate once again just how significant an impact the inker can have on the finished artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 36
Artwork by John Buscema & Steve Leialoha

The next segment is by then up-and-coming penciler Marc Silvestri and established inker Josef Rubinstein.  This was a year before Silvestri would begin his well-received run on Uncanny X-Men, but there’s definitely a lot of potential on display, with solid action & effective storytelling, and it’s apparent why he soon became a hot artist.  Rubinstein’s inking ably supports the young penciler.

Rounding out the issue is Jerry Ordway on pencils and Bob Wiacek & Joe Sinnott on inks.  It was certainly very appropriate to have Sinnott involved in this issue.  He had a long, acclaimed association with the Fantastic Four series.  Sinnott inked the second half of Lee & Kirby’s long FF run, and is generally regarded as one of the best inkers ever paired with Kirby.  After Kirby left Marvel, Sinnott continued as the book’s inker for over a decade, working over John Buscema and several other pencilers, right up until the beginning of Byrne’s run.

That said, in my mind Ordway inked by Sinnott was another unusual choice.  Sinnott is an inker whose work is almost always recognizable, no matter who he inks.  Ordway, however, is one of those pencilers whose style is so strong & distinctive that, no matter who inks his pencils, the finished artwork basically looks the same.  To my untrained eyes Ordway inked by Sinnott does not look much different that Ordway inking himself, or Ordway inked by Wiacek or Al Gordon or Dennis Janke or anyone else.

Of course, this may also be down to Ordway and Sinnott having similar styles.  Ordway has cited Sinnott as one of his major influences.

Oh, well… I’m probably quibbling.  The pages by Ordway, Wiacek & Sinnott look great, and that’s the important thing.  Ordway has stated that growing up in the 1960s he was a huge Marvel fan, so it must have been a thrill for him to work on several issues of Fantastic Four around this time, especially this anniversary story.

In any case, the back cover artwork is by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott.  It’s a really nice image that showcases both artists’ styles, and really evokes the early Bronze Age era of the title.  So that gives us a really good example of “traditional” FF artwork.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 43
Artwork by Marc Silvestri & Josef Rubinstein

However, there are two individuals who were not involved with Fantastic Four #296.  The first is Jack Kirby.  The second is John Byrne.

Kirby is, of course, the co-creator of Fantastic Four.  He co-plotted & penciled the first 102 regular issues of the series, as well as the first six annuals.  Kirby’s role in the creation & development of the Marvel universe cannot possible be overstated.

Unfortunately in 1986 Kirby was involved in a protracted battle with Marvel’s owners over both the rights to the characters he helped create and the thousands of pages of original artwork he had drawn for the comics.  This made his participation in this anniversary issue impossible.  Even if Marvel had asked him to contribute, given how angry he felt at his mistreatment by the company I am sure he would have refused, and I certainly would not have blamed him.

As for Byrne, he is often credited with the revitalization of the Fantastic Four title.  The writing on FF throughout the 1970s is generally regarded as uneven.  Byrne came onboard as writer & artist with issue #232 in 1981, and very quickly made the FF into an exciting, popular series.  His time on the book is frequently compared to the original Lee & Kirby run.

However, once again real-world events intruded.  By 1986 Byrne and Shooter were not on good terms and, as previously mentioned, this led to Byrne abruptly leaving Fantastic Four.  His last full issue was #293, released just three months earlier.

Fantastic Four 296 pg 64
Artwork by Jerry Ordway & Joe Sinnott

I doubt that back in late 1986 any of this impacted on my reading of Fantastic Four #296 in the slightest way.  As I said before, this was pre-internet, so I had no way of easily finding out about all of these events.

Nowadays, though, I have a much greater knowledge of the history of the Fantastic Four series, and an awareness of what was going on at Marvel in the mid 1980s.  So when I re-read this issue a couple of weeks ago, the absences of Jack Kirby, who co-created the first decade of the book, and John Byrne, who had just come off a five year run that saw a creative renaissance, felt especially conspicuous, as well as exceedingly unfortunate.

Not to jump on an anti-Marvel bandwagon, but I certainly understand why over the past three decades so many artists & writers have chosen to go the creator-owned route.  After all, if Marvel can screw over Kirby, the guy who created many of their characters, well, they’re certainly not going to hesitate to kick anyone else to the curb, either.  Far better to retain ownership of your characters and benefit fully from their success, no matter how modest, than to create a runaway hit for Marvel (or DC Comics, for that matter) and see other people make millions of dollars off your creativity.

Having said all that, I do still enjoy a few Marvel and DC books, such as Fantastic Four (the current run written by Dan Slott is the best the book has been in a long time).  I just believe that it’s absolutely crucial for anyone who wants to work for the Big Two to go in with their eyes open, to know exactly what their rights are, and to be fully aware of the history of the industry, so that they do not find themselves in the same position that Kirby and so many others unfortunately did.

Fantastic Four 296 back cover
Artwork by John Buscema & Joe Sinnott

One other note:  Back in 1986, I was 10 years old, and the idea that Marvel was celebrating its 25th anniversary was a little difficult to comprehend.  To me 1961 seemed so incredibly far in the past.

Contrast this to a couple of years ago, when Image Comics celebrated their 25th anniversary.  My first reaction was that there was absolutely no way Image could be 25 years old, and it was impossible for 1992 to have been a quarter of a century ago.

I guess it’s just one of those matters of personal perspective.  Anything that happened before you were born is automatically ancient history, and anything that happened during your lifetime, even if it was decades ago, still feels like the recent past because you were there and experienced it firsthand.

Thor by Joe Sinnott: a birthday present

I never thought I would get a Joe Sinnott sketch. I had met the legendary and talented comic book artist on several occasions, but somehow the opportunity to get artwork from him just never came up. When he announced his retirement earlier this year I figured that was it, whatever chance there might have been had passed.

Earlier this month, on June 8th, my girlfriend Michele Witchipoo had a table at IncrediCon in Middletown NY. I would have gone with her, but our cat Squeaky wasn’t feeling well and we decided I should stay home to keep her company (sadly Squeaky would pass away a week later). Michele took along my Avengers Assemble theme sketchbook because a friend of hers who was going wanted to see it, and just in case she met anyone there who might want to do a drawing in it.

Joe Sinnott was going to be a guest at IncrediCon. Michele said she could ask if he was drawing, and if he was she would try to get me a sketch for my birthday. I shrugged and replied “He’s 92 years old and he retired a few months ago. I doubt he’s going to be sketching. But if you want you can ask him.” Michele asked me what character I wanted and I said something like “Thor or anyone from the Fantastic Four.”

A few hours later I get a text from Michele: “You’re getting a Thor sketch.” My jaw hit the floor. I honestly did not expect that Sinnott would be drawing. Then about 15 minutes later she sent me a photo of the sketch. Whoa!!!

Thor sketch by Joe Sinnott

I’m really thrilled to get this. Joe Sinnott inked Jack Kirby’s pencils on the very first Thor story in Journey Into Mystery #83 way back in 1962, and then drew the full art, pencils & inks, for a few more of the early Thor stories in Journey Into Mystery. For most of the 1970s Sinnott was the regular inker on the Thor book, usually over John Buscema’s pencils, but also working with Rich Buckler on several issues, and even on a couple penciled by Neal Adams. Sinnott returned to Thor from 1989 to 1991, this time paired with penciler Ron Frenz.

That was when I first began reading comic books regularly, in 1989. The Tom DeFalco / Ron Frenz run on Thor remains a favorite of mine, especially the issues that were inked / embellished by Sinnott.

The first time I met Sinnott was at a comic book convention at the Westchester County Center in White Plains NY in 1992.  I was in awe at meeting an artist who had worked on so many amazing comic book stories for Marvel Comics over the years.  Sinnott was a very nice, patient, down-to-Earth person who took the time to answer all the questions posed to him by a gushing teenage fan.  I’ve met Sinnott on subsequent occasions and gotten several books autographed by him. Nevertheless, I will always treasure that copy of Thor #414 he signed for me back in 1992.

Thor 414 pg 1

In any case, Sinnott possesses a long, historic association with the character of Thor.  So it’s wonderful to have obtained a sketch of the Norse god of thunder and founding member of the Avengers from him. And, as I said above, when I saw the piece he drew in my sketchbook I was seriously in awe. At 92 years old Sinnott is still an incredible artist. The detailed pencil work on this piece is amazing. Also, I like how Sinnott added birds (seagulls?) in the sky behind Thor in this sketch. Nice subtle bit that adds a little atmosphere to it.

Today is my actual birthday. So, once again, a very big “thank you” to Michele for this birthday present, to Joe Sinnott for the wonderful sketch, and to Joe’s son Mark Sinnott for all his help in making it happen.

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott retires at age 92

This week longtime comic book artist Joe Sinnott announced his retirement, bringing an official end to a career that spanned nearly seven decades, from 1950 to 2019.

With the recent passing of Marvel Comics writer & editor Stan Lee, the decision was made to bring down the curtain on the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip that he had been scripting since 1977.  The 92 year old Sinnott, who has been inking the Sunday installments of the newspaper strip since 1992, decided this would be an appropriate time to formally retire.

Spider-Man final Sunday strip

Here is the Sunday March 17th installment of the newspaper strip.  As I understand it, this was written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Joe Sinnott, and lettered by Janice Chiang.  It’s a pleasant coda to the comic strip continuity with Peter and Mary-Jane Parker departing for a vacation in Australia.  Since this is the wrap-up of the strip, I think we can safely assume that for once Peter and MJ will actually have a nice, relaxing time, and no super-villains will be following them Down Under.

Y’know, it’s funny… when the news broke that Sinnott was at long last calling it a day, the very first thing that popped into my mind was that he actually began the process of retiring back in 1991.

Sinnott’s last monthly assignment for Marvel Comics was Thor, inking / finishing the pencils of Ron Frenz for two and a half years, from issues #400 to #429.  A few months after Sinnott’s final Thor issue, in the letters page of #433 (cover-dated June 1991), Frenz wrote a heartfelt tribute to his collaborator.  Frenz explained that Sinnott was taking “his first steps towards a well-won and laurelled retirement.”

Thor 433 lettercol

Well, it appears that Sinnott really enjoyed drawing, and possessed a genuine love for comic books, because it took him until now to finally retire.  During the past 27 years, in addition to inking the Sunday installments of the Spider-Man strip, Sinnott contributed to several projects, among them the Marvel: Heroes & Legends special, the Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Comic Magazine miniseries, a pair of Untold Tales of Spider-Man annuals, and Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure.

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure was published in 2008.  It reconstructed & completed the long-lost “final” FF story that Kirby plotted & penciled way back in 1970 right before he departed Marvel for DC Comics.  Nearly four decades later Stan Lee finally wrote the script for this story.  Joe Sinnott’s embellishments had been an absolutely perfect match for the Fantastic Four stories Kirby penciled in the mid-1960s, so of course he was the first and only choice to ink this special.

FF The Lost Adventure pg 1

It was always a pleasure to see Sinnott’s occasional returns to the comic book biz over the past two and a half decades.  I regard him as one of the all-time greatest inkers / finishers in the history of the medium.  His stellar work inking Kirby was just one part of his career.  Over the decades Sinnott did superb work over numerous other pencilers, among them John Buscema, Rich Bucker, George Perez, Ron Wilson, John Byrne, and Ron Frenz.

Over the past decade Sinnott has also been very involved in Bob Almond’s Inkwell Awards.  The “hall of fame” award the Inkwells give out is named, appropriately enough, the Sinnott.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott at comic book conventions several times over the years.  I can definitely tell you that his talent is matched by his kindness.  Each time I met him he came across as polite, enthusiastic and gracious.

hawthornecon09

Above is a photo I took in 2011 of Joe Sinnott with another great creator, Walter Simonson, at the Hawthorne NJ comic con.  It’s always awesome when you meet creators whose work you enjoy and you discover that they are also genuinely nice people.

Congratulations to Joe Sinnott on bringing to a close a long and distinguished career.  I hope he enjoys his retirement, because he definitely deserves it.

Sal Buscema: fifty years of comic books

Sal Buscema is one of my favorite comic book artists.  This month, November 2018, is the 50th anniversary his professional debut.

Sal is the younger brother of artist John Buscema.  While he was still working on honing his craft, Sal would occasionally do uncredited background inking on John’s artwork.  In 1968 Sal finally felt he was ready to enter the comic book industry on his own, and brought sample pages to Marvel Comics.  He was quickly hired by editor Stan Lee.

Sal’s very first credited work for Marvel Comics was on Rawhide Kid #68, inking Larry Lieber’s pencils. According to Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, this issue went on sale on November 5, 1968.

Rawhide Kid 68 pg 1

Sal’s second job also came out that month, on November 19th.  Silver Surfer #4 was penciled by his brother John.  It is now well-known that John was often critical of inkers, believing that only a few really knew how to do his pencils justice.  He would have preferred to do full artwork, pencils and inks, but time and financial constraints often prevented this.  John, from having had Sal assist him in the past, knew that his brother would do a faithful job inking his pencils on this issue.

“The Good, The Bad, and the Uncanny” features an epic confrontation between the Surfer and Thor, who have been manipulated into combat by Loki.  It is often regarded as one of the high points of John’s artistic career, and from all indications he was satisfied with Sal’s inks on it, as well as on the next three issues.

(For an in-depth look at Silver Surfer #4 please head over to Alan Stewart’s blog Attack of the 50 Year Old Comic Books.)

Silver Surfer 4 pg 34

Sal had initially intended to focus on inking, but he was very quickly recruited by Marvel to pencil.  He was immediately thrown into the deep end, assigned the team book Avengers.  His first work was penciling the cover to issue #67, and a month later did the full interior pencils for #68, paired with writer Roy Thomas and inker Sam Grainger.  The issue featured the Avengers in a titanic tussle with the diabolical robot Ultron.

Sal went on to have a very successful career in comics.  He worked on nearly every Marvel title published in the 1970s and 80s.  Beginning in the mid 1990s he also began working for several other publishers.  Sal was blessed with speed, an incredible work ethic, and a strong sense of storytelling.  This meant that he could always be relied upon to turn in a quality job on time.

Avengers 68 pg 1

Although officially retired, Sal continues to work in comic books, primarily as an inker, most often paired with penciler Ron Frenz, who he has inked on numerous occasions over the past two decades, on a long run on Spider-Girl, as well as several other series.  Sal is also currently working with Guy Dorian Sr. on several projects.  Among these was the Rom storyline “Battle Scars” which saw Sal’s return to the cult classic Space Knight.

For a really good, informative look at Sal’s career and artwork, I highly recommend the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist by Jim Amash with Eric Nolen-Weathington, from TwoMorrows Publishing.  The cover artwork is a wonderful showcase of Sal’s dynamic artwork, an explosive illustration by Sal of the Incredible Hulk and his longtime adversary the Abomination slugging it out.

Sal Buscema Fast Furious cover

I want to offer my congratulations to Sal Buscema on creating a half century of amazing comic book artwork. He has brought enjoyment to so many readers over the past five decades, myself included.  Thanks, Sal!

Abdanm and Keerma’s adventures at TerrifiCon

Last weekend Michele and I went to the TerrifiCon comic book convention held at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.  TerrifiCon is a really great show, in that it is good-sized, has lots of guests, and its primary focus is actually on comic books.  I had fun at the show last year, and so Michele came with me this time.

Accompanying us was our family of Friendly Demon Dolls.  Two of them were given to me as presents.  Their names are Abdanm and Keerma.  They both had a lot of fun at the show.

Abdanm and Keerma Action Comics 1

Abdanm is the blue, black & grey fellow, and Keerma is the tiny green guy.  Here they are at TerrifiCon in front of a giant reproduction of the iconic cover of Action Comics #1.

Even though the bus ride from the Port Authority to the Mohegan Sun was long, and the ride back to NYC was worse, we still had a lot of fun that day.  I met several comic book creators, got some books signed, picked up a few books, and got to spend some time with Michele.  The boys also had fun.  Here are some more photos of them at the show…

Abdanm and Keerma Thanos

Here we are meeting Thanos.  Abdanm and Keerma were impressed by him, but they said he shouldn’t be so mean.  They told Thanos that he should try being more friendly like they are, and then maybe he’d have more friends.

Abdanm and Keerma Artist Alley

Abdanm and Keerma had a good time exploring Artist Alley, seeing the work of all of the talented creators who were at the convention.  Among the many talented comic book pros we saw were Bob Almond, Buzz, Ron Frenz, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Paul Kupperberg, Bob McLeod, Kevin Nolan, Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern and Roy Thomas.  We also saw actress Pom Klementieff, who portrayed Mantis in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

Abdanm and Keerma John Trumbull

It was great to finally meet my online pal John Trumbull, who was also at the show.  John has written a number of excellent articles for Back Issue, published by TwoMorrows.  He compiled the incredibly informative oral history of Batman: The Animated Series that was featured in Back Issue #99.  Abdanm and Keerma were thrilled to meet John, and hung out with him for a bit in Artist Alley.

Abdanm and Keerma TerrifiCon buys

Back at home Abdanm and Keerma looked over my acquisitions from the show.  I picked up the very enlightening book Inking Before and After by the talented Bob McLeod, Blue Baron #1 from penciler Ron Frenz, the Proton comic & sketchbook from Jerry Ordway, Super Gorillas Vs. The All-American Victory League by the late Alan Kupperberg, assembled & published by his brother Paul, and Superman Annual #7 from 1995, which I got autographed by its writer, the incredible Roger Stern.

TerrifiCon is an amazing show.  Hopefully we can go again next year.  We just need to find a better way to get there than the Greyhound bus!

For info on Friendly Demon Dolls please check out their website. Thank you 🙂

Shannon Carter is living the American Dream

The last couple of years for the Fourth of July I’ve blogged about the most prominent patriotic comic book superhero, Captain America.  This time I wanted to do something a little different.  I’m taking a look at a character who was inspired by Cap: Shannon Carter aka American Dream, who was created by Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz.

A-Next 4 cover

American Dream was introduced in A-Next, one of the titles that comprised the short-lived “MC2” line at Marvel Comics.  These all spun out of What If #105 (Feb 1998), the debut of May “Mayday” Parker, the teenage daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in a reality where she was rescued after being abducted by Norman Osborn.  What If #105, which was set approximately 15 years in the future, had Mayday becoming Spider-Girl.

What If #105 was a big hit, and in late 1998 the MC2 books started.  Most of them unfortunately did not last long, although the Spider-Girl series written by DeFalco had a very lengthy run.

A-Next introduced “the next generation of Avengers.”  In this timeline, after a catastrophic battle in a parallel reality (yeah, another one) the Avengers disbanded.  A decade later, due to the scheming of the Asgardian god of evil Loki, a new team of Avengers assembles.  Yipes, that is always happening to Loki!

Shannon Carter is first briefly seen in A-Next #1 by DeFalco, Frenz & Brett Breeding as an unnamed tour guide at Avengers Mansion.  Two issues later we learn her first name and see her assisting Edwin Jarvis in setting up the support network for the new Avengers.  At the end of that issue Shannon returns to her apartment where three figures wait in the shadows.  She tells them “I have good news, my friends! Our long wait is over! We’ll make our move tomorrow – and these new Avengers will never know what hit them!”

Well that sounds ominous!  However, in A-Next #4 by DeFalco, Frenz, Breeding & Paul Ryan, we find out that these four actually intend to join the Avengers.  For the first time we see Shannon in costume as American Dream and properly meet her comrades Freebooter, Bluestreak and Crimson Curse.  This is also where we find out Shannon’s last name, and it is immediately apparent that she is intended to be a relative of S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter.

A-Next 4 pg 5

DeFalco & Frenz intended the “Dream Team” to be a tribute to the “Kooky Quartet” introduced way back in Avengers #16 in 1965.  The cover to A-Next #4 is even a nice homage by Frenz & Breeding to the Jack Kirby cover of that classic issue.

By the way… Bluestreak really needs watch those wandering hands!  Maybe the Avengers should be required to attend a seminar on sexual harassment in the workplace?

I immediately took a liking to American Dream.  Frenz did a superb job designing her, effectively modifying the classic style of Captain America’s uniform into an eye-catching, dramatic costume for a female character.

So who exactly is Shannon Carter?  A few issues later DeFalco confirms that she is a relative of Sharon, who at this point is deceased.  DeFalco would briefly touch upon her origin in Spider-Girl #32 (May 2001) before elaborating upon it in detailed flashbacks within a five issue American Dream miniseries (2008) illustrated by Todd Nauck & Scott Koblish.

Shannon’s father was a cousin of Sharon Carter.  When she was only a child Shannon’s parents were killed in a horrible car accident, and Shannon herself was seriously injured.  The orphaned Shannon was adopted by her aunt, Sharon’s older sister Peggy.  Peggy, hoping to motivate the mourning, depressed Shannon, gave her Sharon’s diaries to read.  Shannon, inspired by reading the experiences of Sharon and her boyfriend Captain America, finally entered physical rehabilitation and began the long, arduous road to recovery.

American Dream 2 pg 6

When she could once again walk, the diaries also motivated Shannon to train relentlessly, and she eventually became a skilled athlete.  Shannon wanted to follow in the footsteps of both her Aunt Sharon and Captain America.  Seeing her niece’s determination, Peggy introduced her to Clint Barton, formerly Hawkeye, who began instructing her.  It was at Clint’s dojo that Shannon would meet the other future members of the Dream Team.

Clint originally envisioned Shannon taking on the identity of Nomad, but she informed him that she wished “to evoke the image of Captain America.”  Clint warned her that “Wearing the flag is like painting a bullseye on your chest” but Shannon was undeterred.  She assumed the role of American Dream, which would soon lead to her joining the new Avengers.

Back in the present (well, the MC2 present, which is a decade and a half ahead of the regular Marvel Earth, but whatever) in the pages of A-Next #4, on their first mission as Avengers, the Dream Team encounters the Soldiers of the Serpent.  A new incarnation of the white supremacists the Sons of the Serpent, the terrorist Soldiers are as fanatical as their predecessors in their racist mission to “cleanse” the country.  American Dream proves herself a worthy successor to Captain America, defeating the Serpents’ leader while delivering a passionate rebuke:

“It’s over, Serpent! You’ve lost! Your cause is a sham, and you’re a disgrace to this country! You preach hatred, claiming to represent true Americans, but nothing could be further from the truth! America has always embraced its diversity! Our very differences help make us all stronger! I, for one, am proud to help defend this country from monsters like you!”

It is definitely a stirring speech worthy of Steve Rogers himself.  DeFalco’s scripting for Shannon in this scene is of course still extremely relevant to our country, especially in light of the events of the past month.

A-Next 4 pg 22

American Dream quickly becomes a mainstay of these new Avengers.  Several issues later, in A-Next #10-11 by DeFalco, Frenz & Al Milgrom, the team journeys to the dystopian nightmare world where the original Avengers fought their final battle.  In this reality the Red Skull assassinated Hitler and led the Nazis to victory in World War II.  In the present day the Skull’s successor Doctor Doom seeks to expand this fascist empire to all other alternate realities.

After helping to thwart Doom’s plans a decade before, Captain America stayed behind to organize a resistance movement against the totalitarian regime.  At first Cap is unhappy to meet these new Avengers and orders them to return home, fearing they will be killed.  American Dream and the rest of the team refuse and they join Cap in his assault on Doom and his super-human Thunder Guard.

Doom is narrowly defeated, with Crimson Curse apparently sacrificing her life.  Before returning home, these new Avengers are finally given a nod of approval by Cap.  America Dream gains the shield of that Earth’s Cap, who was killed decades before by the Skull.

A-Next ended with issue #12, but American Dream has continued to pop up since then.  Like many other denizens of Earth-982, she and her teammates would show up from time to time in Spider-Girl.  One noteworthy story was the six part “Season of the Serpent” by DeFalco, Frenz, Pat Olliffe, Al Williamson & Sal Buscema that ran in issue #s 54-59 (Jan to June 2003).  During that arc Spider-Girl, who has been fighting against the Soldiers of the Serpent and their leader the death-god Seth, joins American Dream on a brief trip back to the alternate Earth to enlist the aid of Thunderstrike and the original Captain America.

Spider-Girl 57 pg 12

American Dream is among the numerous characters to appear in the miniseries Last Hero Standing (2005) by DeFalco, Olliffe & Koblish, and its follow-up Last Planet Standing (2006).  She is one of the heroes who plays a vital role in preventing Galactus from destroying the entire universe.  This led into the Avengers Next miniseries (2007) by DeFalco, Ron Lim & Koblish.  Months before, during Last Hero Standing, Captain America had been killed by Loki, and Shannon finally realized the enormity of following in his footsteps.  A major theme of Avengers Next is her uncertainty if she and the rest of the team are capable of living up to the original Avengers.

A year later Shannon received a solo outing in the aforementioned American Dream miniseries, which I enjoyed.  DeFalco did a good job delving into Shannon’s past.  He also showed her present-day attempts to establish a private civilian life while also serving as an iconic member of the Avengers, something that Cap himself also struggled with often.

I know that among certain readers DeFalco’s writing is an acquired taste.  He has a very Silver Age style to his work.  At times he tries a bit too hard to make his dialogue humorous or dramatic, resulting in rather corny or stilted scripting.  Nevertheless, considering how many writers want to do superhero comic books that are “realistic” or “dark,” often with variable results, there is definitely a refreshing, fun quality to DeFalco’s more traditional approach.

The art by Nauck & Koblish on American Dream was fantastic.  I was already a fan of both artists before this miniseries came out, so it was great to see them work together.

American Dream 1 pg 3

American Dream has also popped up in stories by other writers.  She was one of the literally hundreds of alternate reality Avengers to make cameos in the sprawling, epic twelve chapter Avengers Forever series (Dec 1998 to Feb 2000) by Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino.

A decade later Stern had the opportunity to write a story that properly co-starred American Dream when Captain America Corps was published in 2011.  It was illustrated by Phillippe Briones with covers by Phil Jimenez.  This five issue miniseries featured several incarnations of Cap from various time periods, namely Steve Rogers from 1941, U.S. Agent and Bucky Barnes / the Winter Soldier from the present day era, American Dream from Earth-982 and Commander A from the 25th Century.  The Elder of the Universe known as the Contemplator gathered them together in order to thwart Cap’s old foe Superia, whose reckless attempts to alter history threatened to unravel all of reality.

I have always enjoyed Stern’s work on Captain America.  Stern’s short run with John Byrne & Josef Rubinstein on Cap’s solo series is justifiably referred to as classic, and his longer run writing Avengers in the mid-1980s is also extremely well-regarded.  Since then Stern has occasionally had the opportunity to return to the character, such as in this Captain America Corps miniseries.  It was a really exciting read.  It was great to see Stern team up American Dream with Steve and Bucky.

Captain America Corps 4 cover

Offhand I don’t recall if American Dream has appeared in the last several years.  Hopefully at some point she will show up again.  I would certainly be happy if DeFalco had another opportunity to write her and the other Avengers of Earth-982.  Of course, sooner or later Marvel ends up reviving any & every character that they have ever published (just look at all of the parallel universes and old crossovers that are being revisited within the current Secret Wars mega-event).  So cross your fingers that one day we will see Shannon Carter return.

Savage Dragon hits the big 200

The much-anticipated 200th issue of Savage Dragon came out this past Wednesday, published by Image Comics.  Written & drawn by Erik Larsen, along with regular collaborators Gary Carlson & Frank Fosco, plus a number of talented guest creators, this 100 page extravaganza features several tales of Malcolm Dragon, his step-sister Angel, their father the original Dragon, and their wacky & weird supporting cast.

Savage Dragon 200 front cover

The main story opens with Malcolm’s girlfriend Maxine moving in with him.  Several issues back it appeared that Malcolm and Maxine were going to break up, as her parents wanted her to settle down with a nice Chinese-American boy.  After being set up on innumerable blind dates, Maxine finally reached the breaking point and left home to be with Malcolm.

I’m happy that Maxine remains a part of the regular cast.  She is an interesting, fun, assertive character.  On his Facebook page, Larsen has commented that he really enjoys writing Maxine.  It certainly shows in his stories, as he chronicles the offbeat relationship between Maxine and Malcolm.  Larsen gives the two characters good chemistry.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 1

After the two of them hop into bed for some fun between the sheets, things took a turn for the bizarre.  Angel shows up to announce that the original Dragon has been kidnapped from jail by the Vicious Circle crime cartel in order to ransom him for their imprisoned leader Dart, who Malcolm captured a few issues ago.  Despite the fact that she is the one who originally set them up, Angel is surprised to find her step-brother and her best friend getting it on.  And then Maxine tosses a curveball and suggests that they try a threesome.

Um, okay… I did not see that coming.  It is more than a bit unusual.  Yes, I do realize that Malcolm and Angel are not actually related, and it’s been very strongly implied in the past that there was some attraction between the two.  But to actually see Larsen go there and throw Maxine into the mix is, um, sort of strange.  Okay, yeah, all three of them are in their late teens, so it makes sense they’d be horny and willing to experiment.  At least Larsen does it semi-tastefully, and we do not actually see anything taking place, just an exterior shot of the building with some suggestive word balloons placed in the picture.

Okay, boys and girls, just use your imaginations here!
Okay, boys and girls, just use your imaginations here!

After their romp in the sack, Malcolm and Angel head out to rescue Dragon.  They pretty much deliver a major beat-down to the Vicious Circle.  No wonder the Circle wants Dart back so badly; without her leadership they’re pretty damn useless nowadays.  In fact, even though Dragon was recently de-powered, he manages to defeat the goons who were holding him hostage, since he still retains all of his fighting skills from his years as a police officer, bounty hunter, and government agent.  Malcolm and Angel catch up with him at a local watering hole, where he’s having a cold one before turning himself back in to the authorities.  When the police get there, though, they have some bad news: somehow Dart has managed to stage a jail-break all on her own, and is once again on the loose.

This was pretty good, although I do wonder if the whole threesome thing is going to cause some problems between the characters in the future.  After all, Angel is currently involved with the Golden Age Daredevil, her teammate on the Special Operations Strikeforce.

The coloring by Nikos Koutsis was nicely done.  My only complaint is that Malcolm’s coloring was off in several places.  Instead of his usual dark green, he was colored as grey on several pages.  I hate to nit-pick.  Other than that, good work.

Savage Dragon 200 back cover Vanguard

Gary Carlson & Frank Fosco contribute the latest chapter of their ongoing Vanguard serial.  Van, Wally, Roxanne and friends explore the now-desolate Kalyptan home world.  A couple of years ago it was revealed that the decades-long war between the Kalyptans and the Tyranneans had finally ended.  The Kalyptans’ robot servants betrayed them to the Tyrrus Combine, resulting in the almost total decimation of Vanguard’s people.  Now we finally find out exactly why the Servitors switched sides: they were convinced to do so by an old enemy of Vanguard’s first seen quite a number of years ago in another story by Carlson & Fosco.  Truthfully, I barely remembered who this guy was… it’s been years since I’ve looked at those issues.  At least Carlson includes enough expository dialogue, plus a footnote referencing those comics, to enable someone like myself with foggy recollection to fill in the blanks.  Whatever the case, the Vanguard back-ups continue to entertain, and I hope that they will remain a feature in Savage Dragon for a while longer.

Among the guest creators who contributed to Savage Dragon #200, the most notable is industry legend Herb Trimpe.  On more than one occasion Larsen has stated that he is a fan of Trimpe’s work.  Trimpe drew the very first comic book that Larsen ever bought as a kid, Incredible Hulk #156.  As Larsen himself stated on Twitter, it was “a dream come true” to collaborate with Trimpe.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 25 Trimpe pencils

Larsen and Trimpe actually work together on two stories in issue #200.  The first one, “Out of Time,” has Trimpe penciling a plot by Larsen, who then inked & dialogued the story.  This flashback tale has cyborg scientist Rex Dexter sending the still-powered Dragon and the then-young Malcolm back in time to World War II in order to retrieve future technology which has been stolen by the Nazis.

It seems like Larsen plotted this out at least partially as an homage to Trimpe’s work on Incredible Hulk.  Aside from the fact that they are both big and green, the Dragon and the Hulk are actually very different characters.  That said, Larsen obviously could not resist plotting out a tale for Trimpe to draw that has Dragon tossing around tanks and smashing up an army, much as Marvel’s jade giant used to do when Trimpe was illustrating his adventures back in the Bronze Age.  It’s definitely a fun story, and I enjoyed seeing Trimpe inked by Larsen.

The second collaboration between Larsen and Trimpe, “The Contest,” has them swap roles.  Larsen’s pencils are inked by Trimpe.  This story, set in the present day, sees Mister Glum, the diminutive dictator from Dimension X, attacking Dragon in prison.  Glum believes he finally has an opportunity to crush Dragon now that his old foe is de-powered.  Of course things certainly do not go well for Glum, who is basically the size of a stuffed animal.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 62 Trimpe inks

This is a pretty wacky story, truthfully.  But it does provide a nice example of how important an inker is to the final look of the artwork.  Larsen’s work inked by Trimpe is rather different than when Larsen inks himself.  Larsen did something similar exactly one hundred issues ago, when he had several different inkers such as Terry Austin, Tim Townsend, Mike Royer and John Beatty contribute the embellishments to each chapter of #100.  The results were certainly interesting and fun.

It is odd to see that Glum and the alternate reality version of Angel are still together during the events of this issue.  It’s weird that Angel is still completely devoted to Glum, who despite his comedic appearance and bumbling nature is quite insane.  I wonder if there’s some form of Stockholm syndrome at work here.  It’s no wonder that Dragon wants to get this other incarnation of his step-daughter away from the tiny tyrant and try to restore her to her right mind.  I hope that’s something Larsen will follow up on in the future.

Among the other back-ups, “Taken” featuring the Special Operations Strikeforce was another favorite.  Ever since all of these heroes moved from Chicago to Washington DC to work for the government I’ve missed seeing them show up.  It was cool when Larsen utilized them as the cavalry in Savage Dragon #199.  So I’m happy that they got a story of their own in #200.  This one is written by Larsen, with series colorists Nikos Koutsis and Mike Toris contributing the pencils and inks.  Their style is an interesting mix of cartoony and detailed.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 49

I really wish this one had been longer than eight pages!  I wanted to see more of SuperPatriot, who is one of my favorite supporting characters.  He has such an awesome design, although I bet those highly detailed shape-shifting giant gun arms of his can be a real chore to illustrate!  Likewise, after several years of will-they-or-won’t-they, we finally have Angel and Daredevil becoming a couple, which I wish could have been given more space.

I realize that Savage Dragon already has that great Vanguard back-up feature.  But it would be nice if that slot could occasionally rotate, and we could have stories featuring SuperPatriot, Angel, Daredevil, and some of the other members of the SOS.  Larsen has a veritable army of cool characters.  He’s admitted on a few occasions that it can be difficult to find the space to fit them all in.  I really wish that Savage Dragon was a gigantic best-seller, so that it would be economically feasible for Larsen to once again publish a few spin-off miniseries, as he was able to back in the mid-1990s.

Savage Dragon 200 pg 69

Speaking of those innumerable characters, a pretty obscure one, Lightning Bug, also has a back-up tale in #200.  Written by Savage Dragon editor Gavin Higginbotham, with layouts by Ron Frenz and finished art by Scott James, “Bad Hair Day” sees one-time criminal Lighting Bug re-considering her ways as she tangles with the magenta-tressed Wildhair.  Higginbotham has previously written a few humorous, fun back-up stories, so it was nice to see another one by him.  James’ artwork is very nice, another example of a style that is sort of oddball but meticulous.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Frenz’s name in these pages.  I’m a long-time fan of his work, and I’d certainly enjoy having him contribute to this series again.

Congratulations to Erik Larsen on reaching this milestone issue.  I look forward to many more from him.

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.