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.

Strange Comic Books: Fantastic Four #322-325

In this installment of Strange Comic Books is a look at a set of issues that, in retrospect, would turn out to be very significant for my future interests.  Fantastic Four #s 322 to 325 came out in late 1988, although as I recall I found them in the back issue bins maybe two or three years later.

I bought these because they were tie-ins with the “Inferno” crossover that had run through the X-Men titles, as well as appearances by two villains from the pages of Avengers, the time traveling despot Kang the Conqueror and the egotistical Graviton.  But this quartet of Fantastic Four issues would turn out to be some of my earliest exposure to the writing of Steve Englehart, and my introduction to one of his signature creations, Mantis.

At this point in time, Reed & Sue Richards had taken an extended leave of absence, and the FF membership was the Thing, the Human Torch, Ms. Marvel II aka She-Thing and Crystal, the last of whom had also parted ways with the team a few issues before.  This leaves us with a “Fantastic Three” made up of Ben Grimm, Johnny Storm, and Sharon Ventura.

Kneel before Zod... oh, wait, wrong comic book company!
Kneel before Zod… oh, wait, wrong comic book company!

The whole “Inferno” storyline was, yep, a real strange sequence of events.  An army of demons from Limbo led by N’astirh laid siege to Manhattan, along the way mystically animating all number of everyday objects which ran amok attacking innocent people.

As Fantastic Four #322 opens, Graviton is making his way back to Earth after a recent defeat at the hands of the Avengers.  Upon arriving, he discovers the demonic assault on New York City, and decides that he can halt it with his gravity-based powers, on the condition that the citizens of the Big Apple worship him as their god.  Meanwhile, the Fantastic Four is patrolling the city streets, rescuing their fellow New Yorkers from run-away bicycles, fire hydrants, and mailboxes.  They come across the newly arrived Graviton and attack, hoping to quickly subdue him.  Graviton has them majorly outclassed, but through teamwork and strategy the FF is able to defeat him.

Things get even odder in FF #s 323-324.  Still patrolling the city, the threesome encounters Mantis, who is in the midst of a brawl with a horde of demonically possessed parking meters!

Fantastic Four 323 pg 2 Mantis
Mantis wasn’t at all happy after she got another parking ticket.

Yep, this was my very first glimpse of the Celestial Madonna.  Right from the start, I could tell that Mantis was an unusual character.  First of all, she kept referring to herself as “This one.”  Second, even more significantly, she explained to the FF that she had married an alien plant and had a child with it, um, him.  Yipes!  Now her son has been spirited away into outer space by those same plant beings, and Mantis has come seeking the FF in the hopes that they can help her locate her offspring.

Before the FF can take any steps towards assisting Mantis, Kang pops up, snatching her away.  The temporal tyrant wants to use her powers to awaken the mysterious Dreaming Celestial.  The FF attack Kang’s ship and, while he is busy fighting them, the sorcerer Necrodamus kidnaps the helpless Mantis.  Necrodamus is working in N’astirh’s service, and believes that by sacrificing Mantis during an alignment of the planets he will gain extraordinary powers.  However, Kang and the Human Torch fly off into space and manage to delay the orbit of Mercury around the Sun by a fraction, throwing off the alignment, and returning Necrodamus to his exile in Limbo.  At this point Kang abandons the Torch in outer space and heads back to Earth to try and grab Mantis again.

As issue #325 opens, the Silver Surfer, having sensed the disruption of Mercury’s orbit, arrives and rescues the Torch, spiriting him back to NYC, where the events of the Inferno have finally come to a close.  The Surfer is surprised to learn that Mantis, who he has fallen in love with, is still alive.  Their happy reunion is cut short by the arrival of the Cotati, the race of plants whose representative Mantis mated with.  The Cotati have formed an alliance of convenience with Kang to prevent Mantis from regaining her son.

Fantastic Four 325 pg 15
A potted view of plant politics.

The FF, Mantis, and the Surfer fight Kang, the Cotati, and their servants the Priests of Pama to a draw, at which point the plant beings flee into “the realm of pure thought.”  Vowing to follow them and rescue her son, Mantis’ consciousness departs from her body.  A distraught Surfer flies off into space, leaving the FF to ponder these tragic events.

As I said, strange!  But, of course, at the same time, these four issues of Fantastic Four were undoubtedly intriguing.  Steve Englehart certainly imbued his storyline with a number of unusual concepts.  Within a few years, I would discover Englehart’s earlier work on Captain America via back issues, and I became a tremendous fan of his.

In the late 1980s, right around the time these issues of FF were published, Englehart had a falling out with Marvel editorial.  He did not have the opportunity to return to the cosmic saga of Mantis until 2001, when he penned the eight issue Avengers: Celestial Quest.  I realize that miniseries met with a mixed reaction among readers.  Personally, though, I enjoyed it.

Between Celestial Quest and the original Celestial Madonna story arc from the 1970s receiving the trade paperback treatment in 2002, I finally understood most of the rich, complex back-story of Mantis, Kang, the Cotati, and the Priests of Pama that Englehart was alluding to in those “Inferno” issues of Fantastic Four.  At that point Mantis became one of my all time favorite comic book characters.

Fantastic Four 324 cover
Talk about hanging by a thread.

The artwork on these issues is also very good.  Issue #322 is penciled by the talented and often underrated Keith Pollard, with inking by veteran Fantastic Four embellisher Joe SinnottFF #s 323-324 are drawn by Pollard and Romeo Tanghal, the latter of whom is also on-board to ink Rich Buckler’s pencils for #325.  All four issues are topped by cover art by Ron Frenz & Sinnott.

I also have to point out the lettering.  John Workman, one of the greatest letterers in the comic book biz, provides his amazing, distinctive fonts on the first couple of issues.  Long-time Marvel Bullpen member Joe Rosen letters #324 and then-newcomer Michael Heisler steps up to the plate in #325.

The reason why I mention the lettering is the second panel on Fantastic Four #324 page 17. When Kang’s time-ship fires on Necrodamus’ force shield, the noise the weapon makes is “TARDIS!” Yep, it’s a Doctor Who reference. I have no idea if Joe Rosen was a fan of the series, or if Englehart put that special effect in his script. Whatever the case, it’s a cute in-joke.

Fantastic Four 324 pg 17 Kang
Kang’s weaponry courtesy of the BBC prop department.

Until I dug these issues out of storage in my parents’ basement a couple of months ago, I don’t think I had actually looked at them in over a decade.  In the intervening time I finally had the opportunity to read the entirety of Englehart’s original epic Mantis storyline via the Essential Avengers collections and the aforementioned Celestial Madonna TPB.  Those certainly gave me a whole new perspective on Fantastic Four #s 322-325.  That said, they are still very strange comic books.  But, of course, strange in a good way.

Strange Comic Books: Magik

Chris Claremont is the writer who guided the X-Men for nearly twenty years.  With artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, he crafted what are now regarded as classic storylines, material that decades later continues to influence current writers on the now-sprawling franchise.  After the departure of Cockrum and Byrne, Claremont continued on for over a decade on Uncanny X-Men and its spin-off titles, collaborating with a succession of talented artists, among them Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.  During this time, Claremont penned a number of memorable, intelligent, witty stories.  Oh, yes, and strange, definitely strange.  Claremont certainly knew how to plot & script material that was undoubtedly unusual.  One of these would be the four issue miniseries Magik: Storm & Illyana, originally published in 1983.  It was reprinted in a hardcover collection in 2008, which is when I finally had the opportunity to read it.

Magik cover

The Magik miniseries has its roots in Uncanny X-Men #160, which was by Claremont & Brent Anderson.  In that issue, the demon sorcerer Belasco kidnapped Illyana Rasputin, the young sister of Colossus, and took her to his strange other-dimensional realm of Limbo.  The X-Men followed, and were shocked to encounter a middle aged version of Storm.  In an alternate timeline, another group of X-Men had journeyed to rescue Illyana.  They were able to send her back to Earth, but had themselves been trapped in Limbo, where over the years Belasco killed or corrupted the entire team.  This elder Storm now helped the current X-Men to find their Illyana, and opened a portal back to Earth.  At the last moment, Belasco snatched back the young Russian girl.  On the other side of the portal, returned to Earth, Kitty Pryde reached back in to try and grab Illyana.  She succeeded, but the X-Men were in for a massive shock.  In the few seconds that had passed on Earth, years had flown by in Limbo, and the formerly six year old Illyana was now a teenager.

With the Magik series, Claremont had the opportunity to examine exactly what happened to Illyana between pages 20 and 21 of Uncanny X-Men #160, during those missing seven years of her life.  As the first issue opens, Belasco, having successfully snatched Illyana from the X-Men, attempts to corrupt her soul.  His end goal is to eventually make her a living portal through which his masters, the elder gods known as the Dark Ones, may return to Earth.  Belasco begins his corruption of Illyana’s essence, declaring in a standard Claremont monologue, “She is bound to me, body and soul, and through me, to my dread lords. Forever.”

Illyana is rescued by the middle aged Storm and her former teammate, Cat, an adult incarnation of Kitty Pryde who has been transformed into a half-feline creature by Belasco.  Storm attempts to teach Illyana to learn how to use sorcery, hopeful that the young girl can overcome the darkness that has begun to grow within her.  Cat is extremely skeptical, and prefers to instruct Illyana in physical combat.  At the same time, Cat believes that Illyana may already be beyond help.  The only two alternatives to Illyana’s salvation that Cat can see are to either find a way to return Illyana to Earth, or to kill her before she becomes irredeemably evil.

One of the favorite themes that Claremont often examines in his work is the nature of identity.  Another is the corrupting temptations of power.  Both of these are central to the story in the Magik miniseries.  Illyana frequently finds herself questioning her very existence.  Who is she, the innocent young Russian child, the pawn of Belasco, the student of Storm, or the warrior forged by Cat?  Pulling her back and forth between each of these aspects of her self is the allure of the mystical abilities that Belasco has awoken in her.  Illyana is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lord of Limbo.  On the one hand, she wishes to return home to her family & friends; on the other, she seeks to explore the powers that Belasco promises to enable her to utilize.  She tries to remember Storm’s warnings about using her magic in harmony with nature, but is tempted to shape reality to her whims like a toy, much as Belasco has done to Limbo and its ghoulish inhabitants.  The stakes are nothing less than her immortal soul.  Claremont does excellent work examining how this character, so far from home, attempts to discover who she really is while struggling with dark temptations.

Magik 3 pg 22

The artwork on Magik: Storm & Illyana is by a trio of talented pencilers.  John Buscema does pencils / layouts for the first two issues, Ron Frenz pencils the third issue, and Sal Buscema draws the final installment.  Tying everything together, giving all four issues a uniform look is Tom Palmer on inks / finishes.

Palmer is one of those artists who possess a strong, easily identifiable inking style, and it especially comes across here.  He probably deserves the most credit for establishing the eerie, unearthly, disconcerting atmosphere of Limbo.  I was very disappointed that Palmer did not receive credit on the cover of the collected edition.  Unfortunately at Marvel Comics it seems to be the standard practice to omit inking credits from TPB covers.  That is especially a shame here, given how key Palmer’s work is to the final look of the entire miniseries.

Bret Blevins also contributed, penciling a stunning, creepy cover of issue #4.  (I checked with Blevins on Facebook, and he confirmed he drew it. So the credit for Bill Sienkiewicz in the collected edition is incorrect. Just setting the record straight.)  It is a striking, twisted image of a satanic Illyana, soulsword in hand, levitating above a fiery inverted pentagram.  Palmer inks that piece, as well, which results in a really unusual but effective collaboration.

Magik 2 pg 5

Oh, yes… out of all the strangeness in the Magik miniseries, the figure who especially stands out is Belasco’s minion S’ym.  For years, whenever that odd baddie would pop up in the various X-Men books, I was really puzzled.  I could never figure out why there was this gruff-talking, cigar-smoking purple demon who wore a vest striding around.  Then someone finally pointed out to me that S’ym was Claremont’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Cerebus the Aardvark, who was created by Dave Sim.  Yeah, okay, it all makes sense now.

When it comes to examining Claremont’s numerous X-Men stories, a few leap out of the crowd: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” “Days of Future Past” (and for that last one I plan to do a separate blog post).  Those are understandably among the highlights.  But obviously Claremont wrote a lot of other entertaining, thought-provoking, and, yes, strange issues, both throughout his original 17 year run and during his subsequent turns with the characters (I absolutely loved his X-Men Forever series).  Among the numerous gems, Magik: Storm & Illyana is certainly up there.  Undoubtedly an odd series, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece of character building on Claremont’s part.  And some three decades later, other writers continue to find it influential when penning the character of Illyana Rasputin.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.

A marvelous G.I. Joe reunion at IDW

I’ve been enjoying the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero series that IDW has been publishing for the past couple of years.  The main drawing point has, of course, been the return of writer Larry Hama to the characters he made such a phenomenon in the 1980s.

(I previously did a review of the first two IDW trade paperback collections on Yahoo Contributor Network, but that’s no longer online.  One of these days I should re-post it on this blog.)

GI Joe Annual 2012 cover

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero has continued to be enjoyable.  The recently-released 2012 annual was definitely a highlight.  Hama took a break from the monthly storylines to present a stand-alone tale focusing on a rogue Cobra Crimson Guard unit attempting to carry out a terrorist plot, with both the Joe team and Zartan’s outlaw Dreadnoks racing to thwart them.  The writing may not have been nearly as strong as Hama’s work on the monthly book, but it contained an abundance of his trademark dry wit & deadpan humor.

(I don’t think Hama likes the term “deadpan humor” but I’m not quite sure how else to describe it.  Well, whatever you want to call it, it works very well.)

The main selling point for me was the line-up of artists.  Ron Frenz, Ron Wagner, and Herb Trimpe shared penciling duties, with Sal Buscema inking the entire story.  In service of the multiple artists, Hama cleverly structured his storytelling to shift focus between the three groups.  The Guardsmen pages were penciled by Frenz, the Cobra and Dreadnoks pages by Wagner, and the G.I. Joe pages by Trimpe.  Buscema’s inking gave the overall book a certain uniform feel, so that the transitions back and forth between the trio of pencilers were not jarring.

GI Joe Annual 2012 pg 18

The annual was something of a mini-Marvel Comics reunion, both in terms of the G.I. Joe title and in a broader sense.  Each of the four artists produced a large body of work at Marvel in the past.  In regards to G.I. Joe, Trimpe was the book’s original artist in the early 1980s.  Even though he has drawn numerous covers for the IDW series, this annual features his first interior work for the revival.  Wagner also worked on G.I. Joe, penciling the book in the late 1980s.

Additionally, both Herb Trimpe and Sal Buscema had momentous, nearly-uninterrupted runs penciling Marvel’s Incredible Hulk series.   Trimpe was the artist on the Hulk from 1968 to 1975, while Buscema drew the Hulk between 1976 and 1985.  So you have two men who are almost universally regarded as the definitive illustrators of one of Marvel’s most recognizable characters.  And, as far as I am aware, they have only worked together on a handful of occasions in the past (I believe Trimpe was inked by Buscema on a few issues of Incredible Hulk way back in 1971).  So, for a long-time Marvel fan such as myself, it was a thrill to see the two collaborating on this annual.

GI Joe Annual 2012 pg 19

Of course, I would be even happier to see Trimpe & Buscema together again on a Hulk story.  I don’t know if Marvel would even be interested in such a project.  But occasionally they do publish a “retro” special or flashback sequence, so it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility.   Until that happens, this G.I. Joe annual serves as a nice reunion between the two comic book legends.

In any case, considering the very unfortunate tendency of Marvel (as well as DC) to offer less and less work to older artists such as Trimpe and Buscema, or even to such talents as Frenz or Wagner, who both had regular monthly gigs as recently as the 1990s, I certainly appreciate them being given the opportunity to produce new work.  For that reason alone, the 2012 G.I. Joe annual is well worth picking up.