The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Nine

Welcome to the ninth Comic Book Coffee collection. I’ve been posting these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

41) Ramona Fradon & Mike Royer

We have selected panels from Plastic Man #14, penciled by Ramona Fradon, inked by Mike Royer, and written by Elliot S! Maggin, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1976 cover date.

It’s a late night at the headquarters of the National Bureau of Investigation, and the Chief tells his secretary Sundae to put on some coffee while he briefs his agents about a dangerous new threat to national security.  The Chief details to Plastic Man, Woozy Winks and Gully Foyle the gruesome origins of the oozing menace known as “Meat By-Product… The Dump That Walks!”  By the time the Chief is finished describing this monstrosity in excruciating detail, Plas and Co are so completely grossed out that when Sundae attempts to serve them coffee, donuts and cream-filled Danishes, they’re ready to toss their cookies.

I love Ramona Fradon’s artwork.  She has such a distinctive, unconventional, cartoony style.  She brought a very offbeat, fun, comedic sensibility to Metamorpho the Element Man, the character she co-created with writer Bob Haney and editor George Kashdan in 1965.  That definitely made her very well-suited to draw Plastic Man a decade later.  Fradon stated in interviews that he was one of her favorite characters to have worked on.

Fradon is inked here by Mike Royer.  Fradon loved Royer’s inking of her pencils on this story, and has said she wishes they’d had other opportunities to work together.  It’s certainly a great collaboration.

42) June Brigman & Roy Richardson

Here is a trio of coffee-related installments of the Mary Worth newspaper comic strip, penciled by June Brigman, inked by Roy Richardson, and written by Karen Moy.

In the November 10, 2017 strip, Iris is having late night coffee with her boyfriend Zak.  Iris and Zak had previously dated, but she wasn’t certain if they should be together, since she was several years older than Zak.  However, following her break-up with Wilbur she decided to give her relationship with Zak another shot.

Paralleling this, in the December 5, 2017 strip, Wilbur has returned home from his travels abroad. Over morning coffee (complete with a Hello Kitty coffee mug) he is catching up with his daughter Dawn.  Wilbur had a disastrous time in Bogota, where a woman attempted to scam him out of his money.  This has left him wondering if he should try to get back together with Iris, not knowing she is now involved with Zak.

Jumping forward a year to the November 26, 2018 strip, Mary agrees to foster Libby, a one-eyed tabby cat.  Libby is definitely a mischievous kitty, and when Mary tries to have her morning coffee the tabby knocks over her milk.  Mary ultimately cannot keep Libby, because her boyfriend Jeff is allergic to cats.  Fortunately Mary’s neighbor Estelle agrees to adopt Libby.

I liked the Libby storyline.  Libby reminds me of Champ, one of my girlfriend Michele’s old cats.  Champ was a one-eyed cat as well, the runt of the litter.  She was a sweet & affectionate kitty, and we were sad when she passed away from old age.

I’ve been a fan of June Brigman’s work ever since she co-created Power Pack with Louise Simonson at Marvel Comics in 1984.  Brigman has often worked with her husband Roy Richardson, an accomplished inker.  June and Roy have been drawing Mary Worth since 2016.  They both love cats, so I’m sure they enjoyed introducing Libby to the strip.  Please check out their awesome cat-centric sci-fi series Captain Ginger written by Stuart Moore from Ahoy Comics.

43) Mark Bright & Bob Layton

Iron Man #228, layouts by Mark Bright, finishes & co-plot by Bob Layton, script & co-plot by David Michelinie, letters by Janice Chiang, and colors by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics in March 1988.

One of the qualities of David Michelinie & Bob Layton’s runs on Iron Man that I have always appreciated has been their ability to write Tony Stark as a flawed, sometimes unsympathetic person while keeping his actions completely in character and believable.  Unlike some of the writers who followed them, they never had Stark acting in a wildly implausible manner simply to advance the plot.

Witness the now-classic storyline “Armor Wars” which saw Stark desperately attempting to destroy the technology he developed that was now in the hands of others.  As the story progressed, Stark became more and more obsessed, manipulative and ruthless, but the execution of this made it feel this progression was genuine.

Iron Man #228 sees Stark planning to attack the Vault, the federal penitentiary for incarcerating super-powered criminals, in order to destroy the Guardsmen armor that was developed from his technology.  While planning their assault, Stark and his close friend Jim Rhodes stop at a nearby greasy spoon for some coffee.  This scene by Layton, Michelinie and Mark Bright allows for a momentary pause in the action, enabling us to see the friendship and rapport that exists between Stark and Rhodes.

There’s very nice lettering by Janice Chiang on display here.  I love her work, and can usually spot it in an instant.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Stark’s anecdote, though…

“Took me three weeks to get rid of the blueberry stain. Had to tell the guys at the gym it was a tattoo.”

Sounds like it could be the punchline to a dirty story.  Whatever the set-up might have been, I doubt the Comics Code Authority would have approved!

44) Bob Oksner & Vince Colletta

This page is from the Lois Lane story “A Deadly Day in the Life” penciled by Bob Oksner, inked by Vince Colletta, written by Paul Levitz, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Jerry Serpe.  It appeared in Superman Family #212, published by DC Comics with a November 1981 cover date.

The relationship between Lois Lane and Superman in the Bronze Age was certainly somewhat of an improvement from how it was handled in the 1950s and 60s.  Lois was at least somewhat less catty and scheming and manipulative than she had been previously depicted, and Superman appeared to genuinely care for her.

At the same time, looking at in from a 21st Century perspective, it becomes much more obvious that Lois is in a relationship with a man who is actively hiding a major part of his personal life from her, and who regularly gaslights her whenever she comes close to uncovering the truth.

Nevertheless, given that the Bronze Age writers were required to maintain the Lois Lane-Clark Kent-Superman love triangle, they did fairly good work.  Paul Levitz writes Lois and Superman as two people who are comfortable with each other.  Bob Oksner’s background drawing romance and humor stories made him well-suited to penciling scenes like this.  Likewise, Vince Colletta’s own work in the romance genre results in an effective inking job.

Plus, I love the novelty of Superman using his heat vision to brew a cup of coffee for Lois.  Jim Thompson sent this page my way.  Yes, this IS from the same story he spotlighted where someone hurls a grenade into Lois’ bathroom while she’s taking a shower, and she tosses it back out the window before it explodes.  Good thing she had that cup of coffee beforehand!

45) Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr

As a follow-up to our last entry, these pages are from Adventures of Superman #525, penciled by Stuart Immonen, inked by Jose Marzan Jr, written by Karl Kesel, lettered by Albert DeGuzman, and colored by Glenn Whitmore, published by DC Comics in July 1995.

Prior issues of the Superman titles had introduced to Clark Kent’s old high school rival Kenny Braverman, who gained superpowers and joined a covert government agency… you know, like pretty much everyone else in comic books eventually does.  Braverman, who adopted the identity Conduit, learned that Clark was Superman and attempted to murder all of Clark’s friends and family.  In a final battle with Superman, the hate-filled Conduit’s powers consumed his body, killing him.

In this issue Clark is reunited with Lois Lane, who he believed had been killed by Conduit.  Clark explains to Lois that he is seriously considering giving up his secret identity to be Superman full-time, to prevent anyone else from being in danger due to their association with him.

Lois tells Clark she wants to go get a cup of coffee in the nearby town, but with one proviso: Clark needs to do it a Superman.  Changing into the Man of Steel, he goes to a nearby diner to order a cup of coffee, only to discover that everyone is ill-at-ease around him.  Some people are expecting a super-villain to attack any minute; others simply don’t know how to act around him.

Meeting up with Superman outside of town, Lois explains to him:

“You NEED a secret identity. It’s what protects you from people… and it’s what connects you to people. Under that costume you’re Clark Kent — you’ll always be Clark Kent. You can’t live without him… and neither can I!”

I feel that the post-Crisis continuity improved Lois Lane’s character a great deal. As I explained before, I was never overly fond of Lois.  I couldn’t understand why Clark / Superman wanted to be with her.  Even the efforts to make her less of a caricature in the 1970s were hampered by the need to maintain the Lois Lane-Superman-Clark Kent love triangle.  I think a clean break was needed for Lois, and Crisis provided John Byrne with that opportunity.

Of course, having subsequently read some of the original Siegel & Shuster stories, I now realize Byrne was actually returning Lois to her original conception, the intelligent, assertive, tough-as-nails investigative reporter of the early Golden Age, and away from the catty, scheming version that existed in the 1950s.

I also like that Byrne had Clark wanting to win Lois as himself, not as Superman, because Clark Kent was his real self, and “Superman” was the secret identity.

Byrne’s work with Lois and Clark definitely set the stage for Jerry Ordway, Roger Stern, Dan Jurgens and others to write the characters in an interesting, adult relationship, and for Lois to finally learn that Clark was Superman.

In this issue Karl Kesel does really good work with the couple.  The artwork by Stuart Immonen & Jose Marzan Jr expertly tells the story.  And, wow, that coloring by Glenn Whitmore on page 19, with the sun setting in a dusky star-filled sky, is beautiful.

I know there are fans that are older than me who grew up on the Silver Age or Bronze Age comic books and did not like the changes made to these characters.  I can understand that.  I can only say that I read these stories when I was a teenager.  So for me this will always be MY version of Lois and Clark.

Tom Lyle: 1953 to 2019

I was very sorry to hear that longtime comic book artist Tom Lyle passed away earlier this month.

As with a number of other comic book artists who got their start in the 1980s, Lyle’s earliest work was published by Bill Black at AC Comics.  In late 1986, following a meeting with Chuck Dixon at a Philadelphia convention, Lyle began working for Eclipse Comics.  He penciled back-up stories in Airboy featuring the Skywolf character, followed by a three issue Skywolf miniseries, and a few other related books for Eclipse.Airboy 13 Skywolf pg 6

I personally didn’t have an opportunity to see this work until 2014, when IDW began releasing the Airboy Archives trade paperbacks.  Looking at those Skywolf stories, I was impressed by how solid & accomplished Lyle’s work was that early in his career, both in terms of his storytelling and his attention to detail.  In regards to the later, a good example of this is seen in the above page from Airboy #13 (Jan 1987).  Lyle and inker Romeo Tanghal do great work rendering both the airplane and the Himalayan Mountains.

The Skywolf back-ups and miniseries were all written by regular Airboy writer Chuck Dixon, who Lyle would collaborate with again in the future.Starman 1 cover 1988 small

In late 1988 Lyle, working with writer Roger Stern and inker Bob Smith, introduced a new Starman, Will Payton, to the DC Comics universe.  Although not a huge hit, Starman was nevertheless well-received by readers, and the title ran for 45 issues, with Lyle penciling the first two years of the run.  Starting with issue #15 Lyle was paired up with inker Scott Hanna.  The two of them made a very effective art team, and they would work together on several more occasions over the years.

Lyle then worked on a couple of jobs for Marvel.  He penciled an eight page Captain America story in Marvel Comics Presents #60 written by John Figueroa and inked by Roy Richardson.  This was followed by a three part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Present #77-79 featuring the usual teaming up of Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos with Dracula.  Written by Doug Murray and inked by Josef Rubinstein, the serial saw the Howlers having to work with the lord of the vampires against the Nazis.

In 1990 Lyle worked on the five issue Robin miniseries for DC Comics, featuring Tim Drake’s first solo story.  The miniseries reunited Lyle with Chuck Dixon and Bob Smith.  It was a huge hit, gaining Lyle a great deal of attention & acclaim.  Within the story Dixon & Lyle introduced the villains King Snake and Lynx, both of whom would become recurring foes in the Batman rogues gallery.  Also around this time Lyle drew the covers for an eight issue Justice Society of America miniseries.Comet 3 pg 2Lyle’s next project was for Impact Comics (or, if you prefer, !mpact Comics) a DC Comics imprint featuring revamped versions of Archie Comics’ oddball line of superheroes.  Lyle was the artist & plotter of The Comet, an interesting reimagining of the character.  Scripting The Comet was Mark Waid.  Beginning with the second issue Scott Hanna came on as the inker / finisher.JSA 6 cover 1991 small

I was 15 years old when the Impact line started, and I really enjoyed most of the books.  The Comet was definitely a really good, intriguing series.  Lyle & Hanna once again made a great art team.  Regrettably, despite apparently having some long-term plans for the series, Lyle left The Comet after issue #8.  It fell to Waid, now the full writer, to bring the series to a close when the Impact books were unfortunately cancelled a year later.

Lyle’s departure from The Comet was probably due to his increasing workload on the Batman group of titles.  During this time he penciled “Shadow Box,” a three part follow-up to the Robin miniseries that ran in Batman #467-469.  After that he was busy on the high-profile four issue miniseries Robin II: The Joker’s Wild.  As the title implies, this miniseries saw Tim Drake’s long-awaited first encounter with Gotham City’s Clown Prince of Crime, the villain who had murdered the previous Boy Wonder.

Following on from this, the team of Dixon, Lyle & Hanna worked on Detective Comics #645-649.  One of the highlights of this short run was the introduction of Stephanie Brown aka The Spoiler.  Stephanie would go on to become a long-running, popular supporting character in the Bat-books, eventually becoming a new Batgirl.Robin 1 pg 1After completing a third Robin miniseries, Lyle moved over to Marvel Comics, where he immediately established himself on the Spider-Man titles.  He penciled the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #27, once again working with Scott Hanna.  Written by Jack C. Harris, another former DC mainstay, the annual introduced the new hero Annex.

Batman 468 cover smallThis was followed by Lyle & Hanna drawing Spider-Man #35-37, which were part of the mega-crossover “Maximum Carnage.”  Lyle also penciled the Venom: Funeral Pyre miniseries, and drew a few covers for the Spider-Man Classic series that was reprinting the original Lee & Ditko stories.

The adjective-less Spider-Man series had initially been conceived as a vehicle for which the super-popular Todd McFarlane could both write and draw his own Spider-Man stories.  However he had then left the series with issue #16 to co-found Image Comics, and for the next two years the title served as something of anthology, with various guest creative teams.  Finally, beginning with issue #44, Lyle & Hanna became the regular art team on Spider-Man, with writer Howard Mackie joining them.

Truth to tell, this was actually the point at which I basically lost interest in the Spider-Man books.  The padded-out “Maximum Carnage” event, followed soon after by the meandering “Clone Saga,” caused me to drop all of the Spider-Man series from my comic shop pull list.  Nevertheless, I would on occasion pick up the odd issue here & there, and I did enjoy Lyle’s work on the character. He also did a good job depicting the villainous Hobgoblin and his supernatural counterpart the Demogoblin.

Spider-Man 48 pg 11Despite my own feelings about “The Clone Saga,” I know it has its fans.  Lyle definitely played a key part in that storyline.  When Peter Parker’s clone Ben Reilly returned he assumed the identity of the Scarlet Spider.  It was Lyle who designed the Scarlet Spider’s costume.  I know some people thought a Spider-Man type character wearing a hoodie was ridiculous but, as I said before, the Scarlet Spider has his fans, and the costume designed by Lyle was certainly a part of that.Spider-Man 53 cover small

Lyle remained on Spider-Man through issue #61.  He then jumped over to the new Punisher series that was written by John Ostrander.  Unfortunately by this point the character had become majorly overexposed, and there was a definite “Punisher fatigue” in fandom.  Ostrander attempted to take the character in new, different directions, first having him try to destroy organized crime from within, and then having him work with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight terrorists, but the series was cancelled with issue #18.  Nevertheless I enjoyed it, and I think Lyle, paired with inker Robert Jones, did some really good work drawing it.

Lyle next wrote & penciled a four issue Warlock miniseries for Marvel in 1998, which was again inked by Jones.  After that Lyle & Jones worked on several issues of the ongoing Star Wars comic book for Dark Horse.  He also worked on several issues of Mutant X for Marvel.

Unfortunately in the early 2000s Lyle began having trouble finding work in comics. Honestly, this is one of the most exasperating things about the industry.  Here was an artist who for over a decade did good work on some of the most popular characters at both DC and Marvel, and then suddenly he finds himself not receiving any assignments.  It’s a story we’ve regrettably heard variations of over and over again.  It’s a genuine shame that freelancers who time and again were there for publishers do not find that loyalty rewarded.

Punisher 15 cover 1997 smallFortunately for Lyle he was able to successfully transition into another career.  He began teaching sequential illustration at the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2005, a position he remained at for the next decade and a half.

Tragically in September of this year Lyle suffered a brain aneurysm.  After undergoing surgery he was placed in a medically induced coma.  Unfortunately he never recovered, and he passed away on November 19th.  He was 66 years old.

The sad fact is that health care in this country has become more and more unaffordable for most people.  After her husband passed away Sue Lyle was left with astronomical medical bills.  Tom’s brother-in-law set up a Go Fund Me to help Sue.  I hope that anyone who reads this who is in a position to help out will contribute.

Lyle was a longtime friend of June Brigman & Roy Richardson, who also got into the comic book biz around the same time. After Lyle passed away, Brigman shared a few memories of him on Facebook:

“Roy and I were friends with Tom and his wife Sue for, oh…about thirty years. Tom and I followed a similar path, working for Marvel and DC, then SCAD, Tom in Savannah, me in Atlanta. It was Tom who encouraged me to go for a teaching position at SCAD, an experience that I’m very grateful for. And it was Tom’s example that made me, at the ripe ol’ age of 59, finally finish my MFA in illustration. I like to think that we helped give Tom a start in comics. But really, all we did was give him a place to stay when he first visited Marvel and DC. He went on to become a rock star of the comics industry. And while yes, he definitely left his mark on the world of comics, I think his real legacy is his students. They were all so fortunate to have Professor Lyle. Not everyone who can do, can teach. Everything Tom taught came from his experience. He was a master of perspective, he had impeccable draftsmanship, and boy, could he tell a story. And, most importantly, he loved teaching, and truly cared about his students.”

I only met Tom Lyle once, briefly, and a comic book convention in the early 1990s.  Several years later I corresponded with him via e-mail.  At the time I purchased several pages of original comic book artwork from him.  Tom was easy to deal with, and his prices were very reasonable.  Regrettably over the years I’ve had to sell off all of those pages to pay bills, but it was nice having them in my collection for a while.

Tom Lyle was definitely a very talented artist.  Everyone who knew him spoke very highly of him as a person.  He will certainly be missed.

Cats and comic books: Captain Ginger

Captain Ginger, the four issue comic book from new publisher Ahoy Comics, combines two of my loves, cats and science fiction.  The miniseries is written by Stuart Moore, drawn by June Brigman & Roy Richardson, colored by Veronica Gandini, and lettered by Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt.

Moore and Brigman had been posting preview images for Captain Ginger on Facebook for over a year before the first issue finally came out, so I was definitely looking forward to it.  Certainly it lived up to my expectations.

Captain Ginger 4 cover

Captain Ginger is set in the far distant future.  The human race has apparently been completely wiped out by a mysterious, aggressive alien race known as the Lumen.  One of humanity’s last acts before becoming extinct was to genetically engineer a group of cats to human levels of intelligence.  These cats, only a few decades removed from their abrupt artificial evolution, are now fleeing from the Lumen aboard an old, broken-down spaceship, struggling to understand the failing human technology and to reconcile their natural instincts with their newly-enhanced intellects.

Leading this motley group of cosmo-cats is Captain Ginger.  As many a human has observed over the centuries, it’s impossible to herd cats, and Ginger finds this out first-hand as he endeavors to save this fiercely-individualistic colony of felines from extinction.  Plus, y’know, there’s that whole terrifying “cats now having to scoop out their own litter boxes” thing to deal with! 🙀

Among the crew of the Starship Hiss-Bite-Claw-Sometimes-Fall is the gruff Sergeant Mittens, a one-eyed ship’s gunner, and Ginger’s rival for leadership.  Also present is the engineer Ranscoop and her litter of kittens, the hairless Science Cat, the warrior Deena, and the aloof Ecru, the only cat who seems to understand the ship’s mysterious artificial intelligence.

Moore does a fine job developing the personalities of these various cats, and their relationships with one another.  He also devises an enthralling story.  Captain Ginger was a fun, exciting, humorous miniseries.

Captain Ginger 1 pg 12

I thought that Captain Ginger was actually going to be five issues, so when I got to the end of #3, and the letter column announced the next issue would be the conclusion of the “first season,” I found myself wondering how the heck Moore was going to wrap up this storyline so quickly.

The conclusion in issue #4 involves something of a deus ex machina, or perhaps more precisely a fēlēs ex machina.  What saves this from being a left-field plot device is that Moore did lay the groundwork for it in the previous three  issues, it only solves some of the cats’ problems (and only in the short term) and they end up feeling ambivalent about the whole thing.

In addition, Moore sets up a plotline that leads into the next Captain Ginger miniseries, which is planned to be six issues long.  Hopefully that longer length will enable him to develop both the characters and the storylines more fully.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Captain Ginger 2 pg 1

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I have been a fan of Brigman’s artwork since I was a kid in the mid 1980s, when she was the penciler on Power Pack. Brigman and her husband Richardson make a great art team, and I am happy to see them collaborating again.

Brigman & Richardson’s artwork for Captain Ginger is wonderful.  It’s a very effective balance of serious and cute, of danger and comedy.  Brigman’s storytelling is superb, and Richardson does an excellent job inking her work.  They do a great job of drawing the various characters, of giving them each a distinctive personality.

It’s not at all surprising that Brigman & Richardson create such engaging artwork.  After all, both of them love cats.  As of this writing, they share their house with ten cats.  As the short interview with Brigman in issue #1 reveals, the characters of Ginger and Mittens are actually based on two cats that she and her husband adopted when they first moved to Atlanta.  So, yes, they love cats, and it shows in the artwork.

Captain Ginger has several back-up features, including behind-the-scenes pieces, short text stories, and a very odd “Hashtag: Danger” three part serial by Tom Peyer, Randy Elliot, Andy Troy & Rob Steen.  So you definitely get very good value for your dollar with this series.

Captain Ginger and Nettie and Squeaky

My own two cats Nettie and Squeaky certainly enjoyed Captain Ginger, as you can see from the above photo.  They loved curling up to read it… or maybe just curling up on top of it.

I’m looking forward to the follow-up miniseries by Moore, Brigman & Richardson.  Hopefully it will be out soon.  In the meantime, if you have not yet already gotten this first mini, it’s definitely worth looking for the issues. Alternately, they’re available digitally from Comixology.  A trade paperback is scheduled for release in June. Also keep an eye out for Ahoy Comics’ contribution to Free Comic Book Day 2019, the Dragonfly and Dragonflyman special, which will contain a Captain Ginger back-up story.

You will have to excuse me now.  Nettie and Squeaky want to be fed and, well, you don’t want to keep cats waiting, do you? 😺

Star Wars reviews: River of Chaos

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing a few of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.  Today I’m looking at River of Chaos, a four issue miniseries published by Dark Horse in 1995.  It was written by Louise Simonson and illustrated by June Brigman & Roy Richardson.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Six months after the destruction of the first Death Star, ace Imperial pilot Ranulf Trommer is summoned before the high-ranking Grand Moff Lynch.  There are rumors that Grigor, the Imperial governor of M’Haeli, is engaged in illegal activity.  Lynch assigns Ranulf to be the Governor’s new aide, with orders to report anything suspicious.  Before Ranulf can arrive on M’Haeli, one of Grigor’s informants alerts him to the pilot’s secret mission.  Seeking to dispose of him, Grigor sends Ranulf to infiltrate the Rebel cell on M’Haeli.  The Governor subsequently dispatches Stormtroopers to attack the Rebels, intending for Ranulf to be killed in the crossfire.

Posing as a merchant, Ranulf brings a damaged protocol droid to Mora, an 18 year old human mechanic suspected of Rebel activity.  When she was only an infant, Mora was orphaned, and she was adopted by Ch’no, one of the H’Drachi, the native inhabitants of M’Haeli.  Ch’no has subsequently been ostracized by the rest of his people.  Likewise, because she was raised by a H’Drachi, Mora does not feel any real kinship with the human settlers.  She is not comfortable in either society.

Soon after Ranulf arrives at Mora’s shop, the two are attacked by the Governor’s troops.  Ranulf is wounded, and Mora helps him to escape.  She brings him to several of her Rebel friends, including the visiting Princess Leia, although they are immediately suspicious of Ranulf.  The Rebels discover that Governor Grigor is working with space pirates to run an illegal mining operation on M’Haeli.  Ranulf is convinced that once the Governor is arrested, he will be replaced by someone fair & honest, and that the planet will no longer want to join the Rebellion.

When it becomes apparent that Ranulf is working for the Empire, the Rebel cell understandably panics, fearing that an attack is imminent.  Mora once again feels like an outsider and an outcast as the other Rebels look upon her as a gullible fool who brought a spy into their midst.  She also wonders how she could have so misread Ranulf, who she sensed to be a good person. Ranulf, in turn, also begins to experience doubts.

SW River of Chaos 1 pg 9

Louise Simonson does good work developing the characters in River of Chaos.  I really like how she wrote Ranulf and Mora, as well as the supporting cast.

One of the things she touches upon is something you occasionally see pondered in fandom, namely just what sort of person would actually work for an organization like the Empire?  Obviously, as in real-world totalitarian regimes, you have those with a superiority complex who enjoy wielding authority and who wish to exercise power over others.  You also have those who see the excesses of the Empire as an unfortunate  necessity in maintaining an ordered society.  You then have those who see in a cold, impersonal bureaucracy the opportunity to exploit the system and become wealthy.  Finally, there are those who are unable or unwilling to think outside the box, content to blindly follow orders and unquestioningly listen to Imperial propaganda.

After he is assigned to his mission of espionage, Ranulf expresses uncertainty to his father, an Imperial Admiral…

Ranulf: We used to serve the Old Republic. And now we serve Grand Moff Lynch’s New Order. Doesn’t it matter who we serve and why?

Admiral Trommer: You were too young to realize the sewer the Old Republic had become. Grand Moff Lynch took control and changed all that.  He is strong, and we will help him keep the peace in any way possible.

Later on M’Haeli, away from his fellow Imperial troops and officers, among Mora and the Rebels, Ranulf gradually begins to see the universe through their eyes.  He starts to perceive that they have legitimate grievances.  Ranulf’s slowly begins to understand that there is little difference between Governor Grigor and Grand Moff Lynch.  He start to realize that Grigor subjugated M’Haeli in order to line his own pockets, but that Lynch is also willing to do exactly the same in order to further the cause of the Empire.

SW River of Chaos 2 pg 20

One of the themes that run through Simonson’s work is family.  She explores that here through Mora and Ch’no.  In many ways this human teenager and H’Drachi elder are much closer than most daughters and fathers who are united by blood.  At the same time, Mora realizes that she needs to have more than just Ch’no.  The Rebels become the friends and family Mora never had.  You also get the impression that Ranulf is the first person for whom she has ever developed romantic feelings.

I like that Simonson has Princess Leia appear as a supporting character.  One of my favorite aspects of the EU is that it has enable writers to develop various minor characters from the movies, as well as brand new ones.  By having Leia appear in a minor capacity, it connects River of Chaos to the larger narrative of the movies without overshadowing Mora, Ranulf, Ch’no and the rest of Simonson’s characters.

The artwork by June Brigman & Roy Richardson is really lovely.  I have been a fan of both Simonson and Brigman since the early days of their careers when they co-created Power Pack.  It is always nice to when they have the opportunity to reunite on projects such as this one.

Brigman and Richardson’s work is very clean, with a cute and charming quality to it.  There is a genuine tone of fantasy and wonder to their style and the designs of their characters.  At the same time, they do a very good job rendering the established Star Wars elements such as Speeder Bikes and Stormtroopers.  Brigman & Richardson are definitely underrated, and I wish that we had the opportunity to see their work in comic books much more often.

I think River of Chaos fell somewhat under the radar amidst the rest of the Star Wars releases from Dark Horse, which often featured hyper-detailed and embellished artwork.  That’s a shame, because this was a nicely written miniseries with wonderful artwork.  The creators did a fine job of exploring and developing the Star Wars universe.  It’s well worth searching out.

Magneto vs. the Red Skull round one

The current Marvel Comics crossover Avengers/X-Men: Axis sees the Fascist mastermind the Red Skull gaining the devastating powers of Onslaught, threatening the entire world. A key aspect of this storyline has been the conflict between the Skull and Magneto, the mutant Master of Magnetism.  But this is certainly not the first time those two have encountered one another.  For that we must look back to late 1989 and the “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Captain America 367 cover

It is actually a bit surprising that it took Magneto and the Red Skull so long to meet. In certain respects they have much in common; in others they are complete opposites.

Magneto, the long-time ideological opponent of the X-Men and one of their greatest foes, spent his early years as a one-note mutant supremacist. He was almost a Hitler-like figure, a ranting, sadistic conqueror who wanted to crush humanity and rule the world in the name of mutant-kind, who he saw as their superiors.

Then throughout the 1980s, in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, writer Chris Claremont developed a back-story for Magneto. He was a Jew from Eastern Europe who had spent much of his childhood imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust.  At the end of World War II the barely alive Magneto fled to Russia with the gypsy Magda, who he married.

Eventually, as seen in Classic X-Men#12 by Claremont and artist John Bolton, when Magneto’s mutant powers began to manifest, a fearful mob attacked him, preventing him from rescuing his daughter Anya who was trapped in a burning house. Magneto lashed out in anger, slaying the mob.  Magda fled from him in fear, and he never saw her again.

The death of his daughter, the loss of his wife, and the actions of the mob brought him right back the horrors of the Holocaust. Magneto became convinced that it was inevitable that humanity would attempt to destroy mutants in a new genocide.  Between his overwhelming fear of a mutant Holocaust, and an unfortunate side effect of his powers creating severe emotional instability, Magneto became a violent revolutionary determined to protect mutant-kind by conquering humanity.  In effect, he became very much like the Nazis who he hated.

Classic X-Men 12 pg 10

The Red Skull’s real name is Johann Schmidt. In the back-story originally set down by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, and developed in detail years later by J.M. DeMatteis, Paul Neary & Roy Richardson in Captain America #298, we learn that Schmidt was born to an alcoholic father and his abused wife in a small German village.  When the mother died giving birth the drunk, angry father attempted to murder his newborn son.  He was prevented from doing so by the delivering physician.  The distraught father committed suicide soon after, leaving the infant Johann Schmidt an orphan.  Although only a newborn when all this occurred, the Red Skull claims to remember these events with crystal clarity.

Schmidt spent his childhood and teenage years as an outcast and a vagrant, ostracized by his peers. One time the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper showed the coarse man kindness.  Schmidt responded by clumsily attempting to woo her, and when she spurned his violent advances, he responded by beating her to death, taking out on her all the rage he felt at humanity as a whole.  The experience filled him with “a dizzying joy such as I never suspected existed!”

Years past, and eventually Schmidt was working as a bellboy at a German hotel. One day Hitler and his advisors were staying there.  By chance, Schmidt was bringing refreshments into Hitler’s chambers right when the Fuhrer was berating the head of the Gestapo for letting a spy escape.  The fuming Hitler was despairing at ever having anyone competent enough to carry out his vision.  Motioning towards Schmidt, Hitler declared “I could teach that bellboy to do a better job than you!”  Glancing at the young man, Hitler was startled to see the look in Schmidt’s eyes.  Within them Hitler recognized a bottomless capacity for hatred and violence.  The Fuhrer realizes this was someone who he could transform into the ultimate Nazi, a being who would mercilessly advance the cause of the Third Reich.  Thus was born the Red Skull.

Captain America 298 pg 14

It is interesting that circumstances both led Magneto and the Red Skull onto a path of violence and conquest, each driven by the belief in their own superiority, by the desire to punish the world for the harms inflicted upon them. The difference, I think, is that if young Magneto had grown up in a different place & time, and never lived through the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust, he might very well have grown up to be a normal, happy, well-adjusted figure.  In contrast, one gets the feeling that Johann Schmidt, even if he had been raised by loving parents, was of possessed some form of anti-social personality disorder and would have inevitable become a cruel, unpleasant individual.  He simply might have become something slightly more socially acceptable, such as a corporate executive or a politician!

These two men finally come face-to-face during “Acts of Vengeance,” when the Norse god of evil Loki brought together several of Earth’s greatest villains and criminals to organize a series of attacks directed at destroying the Avengers. At first Magneto thinks that this is a different Red Skull, believing the original died some time before, not realizing the Skull’s consciousness was transferred into a new body cloned from none other than Captain America.  Nevertheless Magneto cannot put the matter out of his mind.  In Captain America #367 written by Mark Gruenwald, with excellent artwork Kieron Dwyer and Danny Bulanadi, Magneto breaks into the Skull’s office in Washington DC, demanding to know the truth.  The Skull admits he is the original.  He attempts to convince Magneto that the two of them are in fact very much alike, hoping to trick the Master of Magnetism into lowering his guard.  This fails, and the Skull is forced to flee.  (Click on the below image to enlarge it for the full details of their exchange.)

Captain America 367 pg 8 & 9

Despite the fact that the Skull now resides in a body that possesses the Super Soldier Serum, he has never bothered to undergo the extensive regular training that Captain America himself engages in which has made the Sentinel of Liberty one of the world’s greatest fighters. Instead the Skull still relies on lackeys such as Crossbones and Mother Night, and on the advanced technology & robots developed by the Machinesmith.  So rather than possibly having a chance of at least holding his own against Magneto, as Cap probably would, the Skull quickly finds himself outmatched.

Soon enough Magneto captures the Red Skull. He spirits him away to a subterranean bomb shelter, leaving him with nothing more than several containers of water.  Magneto tells the Skull “I want you to sit down here and think of the horrors you have perpetrated.  I want you to suffer as you’ve made others suffer.  I want you to wish I had killed you.”  With that Magneto leaves, entombing the Skull in darkness.  Dwyer & Bulanadi definitely draw the hell out of this page.  That look on the Skull’s face in the final panels, as he silently fumes in a mixture of defiance and horror, is genuinely unnerving.  And you are really not sure if justice has been served, or if you actually feel perhaps the slightest bit of pity for the Skull for not having been given a quick, clean death.

Captain America 367 pg 22

The Skull spends a lengthy period of time imprisoned in the bomb shelter. Eventually he begins to hallucinate.  In Captain America #369, in an eerie sequence written by Gruenwald and drawn by Mark Bagley & Don Hudson, the Skull sees his father, Hitler, and his daughter Sinthea berating and belittling him, urging him to commit suicide.  We see that beneath the Skull’s belief that he is better than everyone else is a horrible fear that he is an insignificant nothing, and that everyone is looking down at him.  The only way he can prove that wrong is to trample the whole of humanity beneath his heel, demonstrating his superiority.

Eventually of course the Skull is located by his underlings. Weakened and dying, his burning hatred of Captain America gives him the strength to keep living and recover.  Even when Cap attempts to offer him the slightest bit of concern and sympathy, all the Skull can react with is venomous contempt and malice.  As far as the Skull is concerned, kindness equals weakness, and only hatred will keep him strong.

Captain America 369 pg 29

Much time passes by. The Red Skull dies and is resurrected at least a couple of more times.  Presently he has been revived within a copy of his own original body in its prime.  As seen in the events of Uncanny Avengers and X-Men: Legacy, the Skull has stolen the body of the recently deceased Charles Xavier.  He has ghoulishly had Xavier’s brain grafted onto his own, gaining the immense telepathic powers of the X-Men’s founder.

In the aftermath of the “Avenge the Earth” storyline written by Rick Remender, Kang the Conqueror’s sprawling Xanatos Gambit to wipe out all future timelines save for the one where he rules and to seize the power of a Celestial, becoming a literal god, was thwarted by the narrowest of margins. It was also a most pyrrhic of victories: Havok was horribly scarred in his final battle with Kang, the young daughter who Havok and the Wasp had in a now-erased timeline is a prisoner of Kang’s in the distant future, Sunfire’s body was transformed into an energy form, Wonder Man’s consciousness is trapped in Rogue’s mind and, as usual, people still hate & fear mutant-kind.

Uncanny Avengers 23 pg 21

Uncanny Avengers #23 by Remender and artist Sanford Greene shows that the vengeful Kang, seeking to rub salt into these wounds, has dispatched Ahab, the cyborg slave-master from the “Days of Futures Past” reality, to assist the Red Skull in his plans for mutant genocide. Thus is set the stage for the Axis crossover, and for Magneto to once again confront the Red Skull.  I will be taking a look at that encounter in the near future.  Stay tuned.

Click here to proceed to round two in the war between Magneto and the Red Skull.

Happy birthday to June Brigman

Here’s wishing a happy (belated) birthday to the super-talented artist June Brigman, who was born on October 25, 1960 in Atlanta, GA.  Early in her career, Brigman worked as a portrait artist at Six Flags Over Georgia.  Her talent at illustrating children would prove to be a valuable asset when in 1984, with husband Roy Richardson, she relocated to NYC and came to the offices of Marvel Comics seeking out work.  There she met editor Louise Simonson, who was in the process of pitching her first series, which was about a group of pre-teen superheroes.  Simonson was introduced to Brigman and, learning that she could draw children, the two soon began working together, developing Power Pack.

Last month, when I blogged about Louise Simonson’s work, I talked about how much I enjoyed Power Pack when I was young.  I really believe that June Brigman, working with veteran inker Bob Wiacek, was crucial to the appeal of the series.  Brigman designed the four Power siblings, the visual manifestations of their abilities, as well as the looks of the kindly alien Kymellians, the Smartship Friday, and the malevolent invading Snarks.  What she came up with was such a departure from the traditional Marvel sensibilities that it really stood out.  Paired with Simonson’s imaginative plots and wonderful talent for scripting young characters, this ensured that Power Pack was a unique title.

Power Pack Classic vol 1

Brigman worked on Power Pack for a year and a half, departing the series with #17.  Subsequently, her art appeared in a number of series at Marvel such as Alpha Flight, Barbie, She-Hulk, New Mutants, and Strange Tales.  In that last title, she penciled an unusual two-part team-up between Cloak & Dagger, the Punisher, and the Power Pack kids!

Power Pack was cancelled in late 1990.  The last several issues had, unfortunately, seen the title go in an unpleasant, dysfunctional direction.  As a reader, I wasn’t too happy with that.  “Dark Power Pack” just seemed wrong.  Now obviously, as I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Faust.  But I also enjoy “lighter” fare, to be sure.  Diversity is great; not everything needs to be grim & gritty.  And, honestly, Power Pack had been a rather serious title under both Simonson’s helm.  I mean, at one point it even crossed over with the “Mutant Massacre” storyline, which was a bloodbath!  But throughout her run, despite the upheavals in Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie’s lives, Simonson had always maintained a real sense of fun and wonder.

Fortunately, Simonson and Brigman were able to reunite for the Power Pack Holiday Special, released in December 1991.  They more or less hit the big old reset button, and restored the Power family to (relative) normality, in the process telling a really awesome adventure.  Brigman, paired with her husband Roy Richardson on inks, turned in superb artwork.

In the 1990s June and Roy lived in White Plains NY, pretty close to where I grew up.  So I used to see the two of them regularly at local comic conventions.  They were always both very friendly.  When I began collecting original comic book artwork in high school, one of first pieces I ever bought was one of their pages from the Holiday Special.  Two decades later I still have it, framed.  I really ought to take a photo and post it on Comic Art Fans.

Supergilr 4 pg 13

In 1993 Brigman did some work for DC Comics, penciling the Supergirl/Team Luthor special, which was followed shortly thereafter by a four issue Supergirl miniseries.  I really enjoyed these stories by Roger Stern, which spun out of his ongoing plotlines from Action Comics involving the Supergirl (aka Matrix) from the Pocket Universe and her relationship with Lex Luthor who, at the time, was masquerading as his own son via a brain transplant into a cloned body… long story!!!  Brigman was inked on these issues by Jackson “Butch” Guice.  It was an interesting collaboration, since the two artists have very different styles.  But I felt that it worked well and suited the mood of the stories.

Shortly thereafter, Brigman re-teamed with Simonson and Richardson over at Dark Horse for the Star Wars: River of Chaos miniseries.  Other than Princess Leia, all of the characters featured were brand new, which allowed Simonson & Brigman the opportunity to design & develop some interesting additions to the Star Wars mythos.  I think this is one of the few Star Wars titles that Dark Horse did not subsequently collect into a trade paperback, or if they did it’s now out of print.  Whatever the case, River of Chaos was a great read with wonderful art, and I recommend searching out the back issues.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Brigman took over the Brenda Starr newspaper strip in 1995, and stayed on it until its cancellation in 2011.  During this time, she also penciled several issues of Meridian and Sojourn for CrossGen.  These comic featured some really beautiful artwork.  Brigman’s style is very well suited to the fantasy genre, and I wish she had the opportunity to work in it more often.

More recently, Brigman has been working with Teshkeel, a comic book company based in Kuwait that publishes The 99.  In addition to her work on the comics, Brigman’s art has appeared prominently in a theme park based on the series.  Some of her art from The 99 can be viewed on Teshkeel’s website.

Brigman once again briefly returned to Power Pack in 2010, penciling a seven page story in Girl Comics #3 written by Simonson, with inking by Rebecca Buchman.  In 2011, Brigman and Richardson drew two issues of Herc that tied in with Marvel’s big “Spider-Island” crossover, and also contributed the variant cover for FF #15.  I was happy to see her work in these books, and I really hope that at some point she has the opportunity to illustrate some other projects.  As I’ve said before, it would be great if she and Simonson could do a new Power Pack miniseries or special.  Even better, I would love to see them collaborate on a creator-owned project.  They are each immensely talented, and I imagine they would conceive something really spectacular.

Girl Comics 3 pg 14

June and Roy moved back to Atlanta a number of years ago.  Fortunately there is the Internet, and I get to chat with them regularly on Facebook.  As I said, in addition to being accomplished artists, they are both really nice people.

I hope you had a very happy birthday, June.  Thanks for all they wonderful artwork over the years.