The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 11

Welcome to the 11th edition of Comic Book Coffee. 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.

51) Wilson Tortosa

Exposure: Second Coming #2, penciled by Wilson Tortosa, written by David Campiti, lettered by Matt Thompson, and colored by Mickey Clausen, published by Avatar Press in October 2000.

I know some of you are probably saying “Coffee? What coffee?!?”  Look, it’s right there.  Those two lingerie-clad ladies are having their morning coffee.  See, I told you so.

Exposure, created by David Campiti and Al Rio, featured the adventures of Lisa Shannon and Shawna Diaz, who investigate cases involving demons, vampires, aliens and other weird phenomena.  Of course Lisa and Shawna deal with all of these unusual menaces while wearing skimpy outfits and stiletto heels.  And in their free time they occasionally work as pin-up models.  I guess you can consider it “The XXX-Files” or something like that.

Exposure was originally published by Image Comics in 1999 as a four issue series.  It returned a year later with the two issue Exposure: Second Coming released through Bad Girl comic book publisher Avatar Press.

This back-up story in Exposure: Second Coming #2 was the first published work of Filipino artist Wilson Tortosa.  He went on to draw Battle of the Planets, City of Heroes and Tomb Raider for Top Cow / Image Comics.

52) Casey Jones & Tom Simmons

Excalibur #99, penciled by Casey Jones, inked by Tom Simmons, written by Warren Ellis, lettered by Richard Starkings, and colored by Ariane Lenshoek, published by Marvel Comics with a July 1996 cover date.

Okay, since the last entry was heavy on the T&A, here’s one for the ladies.  We have the very buff Brian Braddock clad in his boxers drinking his morning coffee.  He’s deep in contemplation, preparing himself for an upcoming encounter with the London Branch of the Hellfire Club.  Brian has redesigned his Captain Britain armor in anticipation of the conflict, and has mixed feelings about assuming his costumed alter ego again.

I definitely felt the best issues of Excalibur were the ones by Chris Claremont & Alan Davis, and the ones where Davis both wrote & penciled the series.  Following Davis’ departure the book took a definite dip in quality.  Warren Ellis’ run was a post-Davis highpoint, and he wrote some stories that I enjoyed.

Casey Jones was brought in to alternate with Carlos Pacheco on penciling duties.  Pachecho was ostensibly the series’ main artist, but in practice Jones ended up penciling twice as many issues.  I really liked Jones’ work.  He’s a talented artist.  This page definitely demonstrates his storytelling abilities.  Jones has also worked on Outsiders, Birds of Prey, Fantastic Four and New Warriors.

53) Jack Kamen & Johnny Craig

“Hear No Evil” is penciled by Jack Kamen, inked by Johnny Craig, written by Al Feldstein, and colored by Marie Severin, from Crime SuspenStories #13, published by EC Comics with an Oct-Nov 1952 cover date.

Beautiful, ambitious Rita has married Frank Reardon for one reason: he’s incredibly wealthy.  Frank is also completely deaf, having lost his hearing in the military.  While Rita acts the role of dutiful, loving wife she mockingly tells him things like “From here on in, your my meal ticket” and “If it wasn’t for your dough I’d walk out on you tonight” knowing he can’t hear a single word she says.

Rita begins an affair with Vance Tobin, a business associate of Frank.  The lovers try to figure out a way be together without Rita losing Frank’s money.  Then one day Frank stumbles into the house, dazed & disheveled, having nearly died in a car accident outside.  Inspiration strikes Rita, and in front of the deaf Frank she suggests to Vance a plan to poison her husband and forge a suicide note.

Rita retrieves some potassium cyanide from the garden shed.  Serving coffee to the two men, Rita tells Vance not to drink the cup on the right s it contains the poison.  A few minutes later, though, it is not Frank but Vance who abruptly drops dead on the spot, much to Rita’s horror.  Wrong coffee cup, Vance!  You can probably guess the twist ending, but I won’t spoil it.

“Hear No Evil” is a EC rarity, one of the few stories not drawn solely by a single artist.  Instead, we have two EC mainstays collaborating, Jack Kamen on pencils and Johnny Craig on inks.  They work well together, effectively illustrating Feldstein’s tale of infidelity and homicide.

Following the demise of EC Comics in 1955, Kamen went into the advertising field, where he had a successful career.  He briefly returned to comic books in the early 1980s to draw the cover of the graphic novel adaptation of Stephen King’s EC Comics-inspired Creepshow, as well as the artwork featured in the actual movie.  Kamen passed away in 2008.

Johnny Craig remained in comic books, but he found only limited success at both Marvel and DC, due to his style not aligning with the dynamics needed for superhero stories, as well as to his meticulous approach to drawing leading to difficulty in meeting deadlines.  By the 1980s he had moved into a creative field where he was much more comfortable, drawing private commissions for fans of his now-classic EC Comics work.  Craig passed away in 2001.

54) Sal Buscema & Jim Mooney

Defenders #62, penciled by Sal Buscema, inked by Jim Mooney, written by David Anthony Kraft, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Bob Sharen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1978 cover date.

Today’s entry is from the famous (infamous?) “Defenders for a Day” storyline.  Would-be documentarian Aaron “Dollar Bill” English has put together a television special about the Defenders.  In it, touting the Defenders’ “non-team” status, Dollar Bill enthusiastically states “Anyone with super-powers who wants to declare himself a Defender is automatically a member!  It’s a snap… Don’t delay, join today!”

To the Defenders consternation, several dozen superheroes arrive on their doorstep ready to join the team.  Valkyrie, attempting to be courteous, suggests they make coffee for all the guests, and attempts to enlist Hellcat’s aid, but Patsy Walker refuses, stating “No way, Val — this tabby’s through messing around with that cockamamie coffee pot!”  Valkyrie is left with no one to assist her in making coffee but the Hulk… oh, gee, what could possibly go wrong?!?

Soon enough Val and the Hulk are serving up cups of what is apparently the strongest, most pungent black coffee ever brewed in the entire history of existence, leading Captain Marv-Vell to disgustedly exclaim “Not even Thanos could down this bitter beverage!”

Sal Buscema is one of my all-time favorite comic book artists.  He is an accomplished storyteller, and as we see here he does an absolutely superb job illustrating David Kraft’s comedic story.  Buscema’s pencils combined with Kraft’s script results in a laugh-out-loud issue.

Jim Mooney, another very talented artist, effective embellishes Buscema here.  I love their scowling Hulk who orders the Paladin to “Drink it black!” The disgusted expression on Hercules’ face is also priceless.

55) John Byrne

John Byrne’s Next Men #30, written & drawn by John Byrne and colored by Matt Webb, published by Dark Horse with a December 1994 cover date.

Next Men was John Byrne’s first creator-owned series.  A bleak sci-fi political suspense thriller, Next Men dealt with the survivors of a top secret genetic engineering project masterminded by Senator Aldus Hilltop.

By this point in the series the corrupt, ruthless Hilltop has ascended to the Presidency itself.  Bethany, Nathan and Danny, three of the surviving Next Men, have learned that Hilltop is Danny’s biological father, and have traveled to Washington DC hoping to confront him.  They are intercepted by Thomas Kirkland, a time traveler from the 22nd Century.

Over coffee at an all-night diner, Kirkland reveals to the Next Men that Hilltop is destined to become the vampiric cyborg despot Sathanas, who nearly conquered the world in the year 2112.  Defeated, Sathanas traveled back in time to 1955 and met up with the young, ambitious Hilltop, advising him, giving him knowledge of the future, directing him to establish the Next Men project, all of this to ultimately insure his own creation.  Kirkland has traveled back to the end of the 20th Century in an attempt to break this predestination paradox by assassinating Hilltop before he transforms into Sathanas.

Next Men was an intriguing and ambitious series.  I consider it to be one of John Byrne’s best works from his lengthy career.  The series went on hiatus with issue #30, ending on an explosive cliffhanger.  Byrne initially planned to return to Next Men just a few months later, but the implosion of the comic book biz in 1995 delayed this indefinitely.

Byrne at long last concluded the Next Men saga in 2011 with a 14 issue series published by IDW. Hopefully I will have a chance to take a look at those issues in an upcoming blog post.

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.

Frank McLaughlin: 1935 to 2020

I am sorry to report that another comic book creator whose work I enjoyed has passed on.  Frank McLaughlin was a talented artist whose career in comic books and comic strips lasted for nearly five decades, from the 1961 to 2008.   He passed away on March 4th at the age of 84.

McLaughlin, like a number of other comic book creators, got his foot in the door via Charlton Comics.  He was hired on to do a variety of production work for the Derby, Connecticut publisher.  In a 2016 interview McLaughlin recounted how he came to work for Charlton:

“All through my career, I have been blessed with the greatest of friends, beginning with a classmate at art school; Larry Conti. Larry hooked me up with his brother, Dan Conti, who was a department head at Charlton Press. Dan, in turn, introduced me to Charlton’s Pat Masulli, editor in chief of comics. Timing was perfect, because his assistant, Sal Gentile, was about to leave for Florida, in two weeks. I was hired on the spot, and Sal gave me an immediate ‘cook’s tour’ of the plant. It took me a few days for all this to sink in, but Sal was a terrific guy, and this made it easy for me to understand the job.”

Judomaster 93 coverDuring his time at Charlton, McLaughlin worked closely with fellow artist Dick Giordano.  If you look at McLaughlin’s work, especially his inking, you can see that Giordano was a definite influence.  Considering Giordano was an incredibly talented artist himself, one could certainly do worse than to draw inspiration from him.

McLaughlin had studied judo since he was 18 years old, and he drew on his martial arts experience to create the character Judomaster for Charlton.  Judomaster made his debut in Special War Series #4, cover-dated November 1965.  The next year an ongoing Judomaster series was launched, which lasted for ten issues. (Confusingly the issue numbers for Judomaster were #89 to #98, carrying on the numbering from the cancelled series Gunmaster. This was a common practice at Charlton.)  McLaughlin wrote, penciled & inked the entire ten issue run.

Unfortunately I am not especially familiar with McLaughlin’s work on Judomaster or the other Charlton “Action Heroes” titles from the 1960s, but judging by the artwork I’ve seen from it online he clearly did good work on it.  The cover for #93 (“Meet the Tiger!”) is especially striking.  I did recently locate copies of Judomaster #96 and #98 at Mysterious Time Machine in Manhattan, and I found them to be enjoyable, well-drawn comic books.

McLaughlin left Charlton in 1969 to freelance, and by the early 1970s he was regularly receiving work from both Marvel and DC Comics.  The majority of his assignments for the Big Two were inking the pencils of other artists.  It was actually via his work as an inker that I first became aware of McLaughlin, and developed a real appreciation for his art.

As a teenager in the 1990s I spent a lot of time attempting to acquire copies of every issue of Captain America published during the 1970s and 80s.  One of my favorite artists on Captain America was Sal Buscema, who penciled the series from 1972 to 1975.  Buscema was paired with several inkers during this four year run.  Reading those back issues during my high school & college years, I very quickly noticed there was something different, something special, about the work of one particular inker, namely Frank McLaughlin.

Captain America 160 pg 1 signed

To my eyes, McLaughlin’s inks over Buscema’s pencils were really striking.  McLaughlin gave Buscema’s pencils kind of a slick polish.  I guess that’s how I would describe it.  As a non-artist, sometimes it’s difficult for me to articulate these things clearly.  Whatever the case, it looked great.

McLaughlin only inked Buscema’s pencils on six issues of Captain America, specifically #155-156, 160, 165-166 and 169.  I really wish he’d had a longer run on the title.  McLaughlin’s final issue, #169, was the first chapter of the epic “Secret Empire” storyline written by Steve Englehart.  The remaining chapters of that saga were inked by Vince Colletta.

I realize Colletta is a divisive inker, so I am going to put this in purely personal, subjective terms.  Speaking only for myself, I just do not think Colletta’s inks were a good fit for Buscema’s pencils.  As incredible as the “Secret Empire” saga was, I feel it would have been even better if McLaughlin had been the inker for the entire storyline.

Now that I think about it, when I was reading those Captain America back issues in the mid 1990s, and comparing Buscema inked by McLaughlin to Buscema inked by Colletta, and in turn comparing both to the other inkers who worked on that series the early 1970s, it was probably one of the earliest instances of me realizing just how significant a role the inker has in the finished look of comic book artwork.

McLaughin also inked Buscema on a few of the early issues of The Defenders, specifically #4-6 and 8-9.  Again, I wish it had been a longer run, because they went so well together.  In these issues the Asgardian warrior Valkyrie joined the team, and the combination of Buscema’s pencils and McLaughlin’s inks resulted in a stunningly beautiful depiction of the character.

I definitely regard Frank McLaughlin as one of the best inkers Sal Buscema had during the Bronze Age.

Defenders 4 pg 15

McLaughlin actually did much more work as an inker at DC Comics.  One of his regular assignments at DC was Justice League of America.  He inked issues #117-189, a six and a half year run between 1975 and 1981.

During most of McLaughlin’s time on Justice League of America he was paired with the series’ longtime penciler Dick Dillin.  Although I would not say that I am a huge fan of Dillin, I nevertheless consider him to be sort of DC’s equivalent of Sal Buscema.  In other words, much like Our Pal Sal, Dillin was a good, solid, often-underrated artist with strong storytelling skills who could be counted on to turn in a professional job on time.  I like quality that McLaughlin’s inking brought to Dillin’s pencils.  They made an effective art team.

Tragically, after completing Justice League of America #183, in March 1980 Dillin died unexpectedly at the much too young age of 51 (reportedly he passed away at the drawing board working on the next issue).  McLaughlin remained on for the next several issues, effectively providing finishes for a young George Perez’s pencil breakdowns, as well as inking over Don Heck and Rich Buckler. Nevertheless, as he recounted in a 2008 interview, he made the decision to leave the series:

“I did one or two issues, and then I said to Julie [Schwartz] “you know, I think I’d like to move on.” I was so used to what Dillin and I were doing together. I moved on and did a lot more other stuff.

“It was a good change of speed at the time, inking groups was fast becoming not a favorite–there’s too many people in there!”

Justice League 140 pg 1

Among his other work for DC Comics, McLaughlin inked Irv Novick on both Batman and The Flash, Ernie Chan on Detective Comics, Joe Staton on Green Lantern, and Carmine Infantino on the Red Tornado miniseries and the last two years of The Flash during the “Trial of the Flash” storyline.  He also assisted Giordano on several DC jobs during the mid-to-late 1980s.

McLaughlin’s last regular assignment in comic books was for Broadway Comics in 1996.  There he inked a young J.G. Jones on Fatale.

Between 2001 and 2008 he drew the Gil Thorpe comic strip.  In 2008 McLaughlin collaborated with his daughter Erin Holroyd and his long-time colleague Dick Giordano on The White Viper, a web comic serialized on ComicMix that was subsequently collected in a graphic novel in 2011 by IDW.White Viper cover

McLaughlin taught at both Paier College of Art in Hamden CT and Guy Gilchrist’s Cartoonist’s Academy in Simsbury CT, and he worked with Mike Gold on the instructional books How to Draw Those Bodacious Bad Babes of Comics and How to Draw Monsters for Comics.

In his later years McLaughlin did commissions for fans.  One of the characters he was often asked to draw was Judomaster, which all those decades later still had devoted fans.

Writer & editor Robert Greenberger, who worked at DC Comics from 1984 to 2000, wrote a brief tribute to McLaughlin on Facebook:

“I grew up on Frank’s work, first at Charlton then DC and Marvel. When I joined DC, he quickly welcomed me and was a font of stories.

“Frank was a gracious man, friendly, and willing to talk shop with eager newcomers, share tips with rising new talent, and lend a hand wherever needed.

“He was a workhorse of an artist, adaptable and reliable — two of the qualities desperate editors always welcomed. Even after I left staff, we’d run into one another at cons and it was picking up where we left off.

“I will miss him.”

I fortunately had an opportunity to meet McLaughlin once at a convention in the early 2000s.  At the time I was regrettably unaware of his work for Charlton, but I did have him autograph one of the Captain America issues that he had so wonderfully inked.  I only spoke with him briefly, but he came across as a nice, polite person.

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!

The Legacy of Stan Lee

I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that Stan Lee had passed away.  He was 95 years old, and had been in poor health for some time now.

Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, was an incredibly important figure in American comic books.  Lee was the editor and main writer at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, when what is now known as the Marvel Universe came into being.  Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Steve Ditko.  He co-created the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Inhumans, and X-Men with Jack Kirby.  Other characters he had a hand in conceiving were Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil and Ant-Man.  It was apparently Lee who had the idea of creating superheroes who had flaws and who experienced everyday problems, just like normal people.

Lee also was an amazing publicist with an outsized public persona.  He enthustastically promoted the Marvel brand and characters with the zeal of a master showman.

Stan Lee photo 1968

In subsequent decades there has been a great deal of debate, often contentious, concerning the division of labor, of exactly who did what, in the conception of these various characters and series.  It is often difficult to parse these things in collaborative efforts.  One might as well try to precisely determine who did what in the Beatles.  I’ve heard Lee and Kirby likened to Paul MacCartney and John Lennon, and I think it is a valid comparison.  Both were talented musicians, but each in a very different way, and when they worked together something occurred, some creative magic that you cannot explain or break down in any sort of analytical manner.  So it was with Lee and Kirby, and with Lee and Ditko.

It is also worth mentioning that in the early 1960s no one – not Lee, not Ditko, not Kirby – no one had even the slightest idea that half a century later these characters would still be in print, much less become cultural icons worth millions of dollars.  No one was taking detailed notes regarding the creative process, because they were all too busy attempting to keep the nascent Marvel Comics afloat.

It is obvious, however, to even the most casual reader that Stan Lee had a central role in the creation, and success, of the Marvel comic books of the Silver Age.  Read any story by Ditko & Lee, or Kirby & Lee, and then read any story done by Ditko or Kirby working solo.  They are very different, especially in the dialogue and narration.

Fantastic Four 49 pg 1
Fantastic Four #48 page 1

One can argue that Lee could have made more effort to credit the precise contributions of Ditko, Kirby, and his other creative partners.  That is probably true.  But it is important to keep in mind that Lee made sure to credit to his collaborators, in a time when many comic books were published without any creator credits.  He demonstrated more consideration than most other editors, and his efforts in this area did later lead to more precise attribution in subsequent decades.

Stan Lee also addressed a number of political and social issues in the stories he co-wrote and edited.  I’ve heard Lee described as a “middle of the road” liberal by the standards of the 1960s, and nowadays he would probably be considered a moderate.  It has been said that Lee was too liberal for Ditko, and too conservative for Kirby.

Nevertheless, the fact that Lee was willing to discuss controversial topics, however tentatively, within what in those days was regarded as a children’s medium, is significant in and of itself.  Again, this laid the groundwork for subsequent creators who would more directly, and forcefully, tackle political issues within the comic book medium.

Silver Surfer 4 pg 10
Silver Surfer #4 page 10

In 2018, with Comicsgate trolls expressing hatred for politics in comic books and disparaging social justice warriors, it’s important to recognize that Stan Lee was extremely interested in social justice.  He co-created a number of black characters, and scripted numerous stories decrying humanity’s violent & intolerant nature.  This was most pronounced in the Silver Surfer series he worked on with penciler John Buscema in the late 1960s.  Although at times verging into the anvilicious, Lee’s pleas for peace & brotherhood were clearly genuine and heartfelt.

The above page from Silver Surfer #4, featuring beautiful artwork by John & Sal Buscema, provides an example of Lee’s progressive social commentary from that series.

Lee also promoted this message in Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages.  In one late 1960s edition of Stan’s Soapbox, he wrote:

“Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”

stanleesoapbox

I have written about Captain America #130 before, but I am going to touch upon that issue again here.  Published in 1970, it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan & Dick Ayers.  At one point Cap is asked by a group that claims to stand for “law & order” to make a speech on national television denouncing student protestors for their treasonous and un-American activities.  Cap supposedly agrees, but once he is on the air he makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, exactly how he feels…

“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be!”

This scene was written by Lee almost half a century ago, but it still remains incredibly relevant.

Captain America 130 speech

Whatever his flaws & shortcomings, Stan Lee played a crucial role in the shaping of the American comic book industry, in the growth of Marvel Comics into a major publisher, in the careers of the creators who he mentored and who followed him, and in the development of comic book fandom.  He will definitely be missed.  ‘Nuff said!

Howard the Duck for President

There has been certain skepticism regarding my cat Squeaky’s presidential campaign, with some wondering if a feline can actually even run for President. Well, let me assure you, Squeaky is hardly the first non-human to seek election to the highest office in the land.  Let us cast our gaze back four decades to the year 1976, when that foul-mouthed fowl Howard the Duck ran for President.

Howard the Duck 8 cover

Marvel Comics in the mid-1970s was a madhouse, and the lunatics were running the asylum. The company was in chaos, with little editorial oversight, deadlines being missed left & right, and sales on numerous books hovering at precipitously low levels.  On the one hand, this meant that for a time Marvel was teetering on the brink of collapse; on the other, this chaos enabled creators to experiment, to try all sorts of crazy ideas.  Howard the Duck was definitely one of those far-out concepts.  For a time the character was a tremendous success.

Howard the Duck was created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. In many ways Howard was Gerber’s baby (no pun intended).  Gerber possessed an extremely offbeat and farcical sense of humor.  He utilized the character of Howard, an anthropomorphic duck from another dimension stranded on Earth, to brutally skewer a variety of topics, among them politics, religion and popular culture.  So it was natural enough that Gerber would utilize Howard to mock the 1976 presidential race.  It’s the sort of storyline that even a few years later he simply could not have gotten away with at Marvel.

The main narrative of Howard’s quest for the Oval Office took place in issue #s 7-9 of his monthly title and in the oversized Marvel Treasury Edition #12. Artwork on the Howard the Duck series was by the team of Gene Colan & Steve Leialoha, while the Treasury was illustrated by Sal Buscema & Klaus Janson.

In issue #7, Howard and his human companion, the lovely redheaded Beverly Switzler, are hitchhiking through rural Pennsylvania. After their run-ins with the loony Reverend Joon Moon Yuc and the Incredible Cookie Creature, the pair catch a ride with country singer Dreyfus Gulch.  The rhinestone cowboy is scheduled to sing the Star Spangled Banner at the national convention for the All-Night Party at Madison Square Garden.  Arriving in NYC, Gulch arranges jobs for Howard and Beverly at the convention.  Howard work security, which mostly entails breaking up fights between delegates, while Beverly is a Hospitality Girl, which mostly entails her getting pinched in the ass by those same delegates.  (As far as I know, Bill Clinton was not on the premises.)

Howard ends up foiling a plot to blow up the convention. The delegates, impressed by both his bravery and his extremely blunt honesty, decide to make him the All-Night Party’s presidential candidate.  This immediately puts a target on Howard’s feathered backside.

Howard the Duck 7 pg 17

In the pages of Marvel Treasury Edition #7, the first assassination attempt on Howard is made by a quintet of lame wannabe super-villains led by Dr. Angst, Master of Mundane Mysticism, who convinces his fellow losers that fame & fortune awaits them once they kill Howard.

Meanwhile, the still-broke Howard and Beverly are in Greenwich Village searching for a place to crash. Mistaking Doctor Strange’s sanctum sanctorum for the home of Beverly’s old high school friends, the pair instead comes face-to-face with the Defenders.  At this point the legion of losers attacks.  Strange is knocked out by a mystic barrage of baseballs and the unconscious mage temporarily transfers his powers to Howard.

Yes, that’s right. Only one day after receiving the All-Night Party’s nomination, our plumed politician assumes the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme.  If that’s not Commander in Chief material, I don’t know what is.  True, Howard’s turn as a veritable Ducktor Strange, Mallard of the Mystic Arts is short-lived, but he acquits himself well, playing a key role in helping the Defenders to defeat the despicable dimwits who have attacked them.

Howard the Duck as Doctor Strange

Also in the pages of the Treasury is an interview with Howard conducted by Steve Gerber himself. Queried about his qualifications and political experience, Howard articulates his reasons for running…

“I never kept one job more than three an’ a half weeks. Which is another advantage of the presidency. They can only fire ya for high crimes an’ misdemeanors. That stuff, I don’t pull. I just mouth off a lot.”

Perhaps you may be thinking to yourself that this is a terrible attitude for a Presidential candidate to have. But just look at it this way… ask any old human why they want to be elected to the White House, and they’ll give you some song & dance about “serving the public” and “patriotic duty” and “making America great again.”  But, truthfully, that’s all a load of horse pucky.  What they are really after is power and adoration and wealth.

In contrast, Howard comes right out and admits he wants to be President because he’s looking to (appropriately enough) feather his nest. How often do you come across a politician with that kind of honesty?

Moving on to Howard the Duck #8, having defeated their attackers, Howard and Beverly depart from Doctor Strange’s house. Within mere seconds they are attacked by a succession of would-be assassins hoping to earn the $10 million bounty that’s been placed on the duck’s head.  Fortunately Dreyfus Gulch zooms to the rescue in his armored limo.

Howard and Beverly are ferried to the offices of G.Q. Studley Associates, whose image consultants want to make Howard into the perfect pre-packaged candidate. Howard, of course, violently rebels at this.  Hiring Mad Genius Associates to manage his campaign, Howard embarks on a series of nation-wide appearances where he bluntly dishes out the unvarnished truth.  The misanthropic duck feels perfectly free to do so because he really doesn’t care if he wins or not, and he’s totally thrilled to finally have a soapbox from which to mouth off and tell everyone how stupid they are.

Howard the Duck 8 pg 10

You might say that Howard the Duck as a presidential candidate possesses the ideology of Bernie Sanders and the personality of Donald Trump. As one person in this issue comments, “My god, he’s telling the truth!  He’ll be dead in a week!”

Much to his surprise, Howard makes significant gains in the polls, and as Election Day approaches it actually appears that he might have a shot at winning. This all comes crashing down when a doctored photo that appears to show Howard and Beverly having a bath together is published by the Daily Bugle.  Yep, there’s nothing like the whiff of extramarital hanky-panky to send a promising political career into a tailspin.

As issue #9 opens the election is over and Howard has lost.  Truthfully he really doesn’t care, but Beverly is horrified at having been humiliated, “branded nation-wide as a shameless hussy.”  Dreyfus Gulch taps his CIA contacts, and they discover the forged photo originated in Canada.  Beverly insists to Howard that they head north to clear their names, explaining “My meticulously fabricated rep is at stake!”

Howard and Beverly journey to Canada, joining forces with Sgt. Preston Dudley of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Dudley leads them to the most likely suspect, “the infamous Pierre Dentifris, Canada’s only super-patriot!”  Dentifris has a burning hatred of America, regarding it as an arrogant bully that is constantly encroaching on Canada.  The attempts on Howard’s life and the forged photo were parts of an insanely convoluted (and just plain insane) plot to destroy America.  Further casting doubt on his sanity, Dentifris dons a suit of armor shaped like a giant beaver and challenges Howard to a fight to the death on a tightrope strung across Niagara Falls.  Howard, of course, perseveres, although the entire experience leaves him completely opposed to ever again entering the political arena.

Howard the Duck, as well as Steve Gerber’s other works, are something of an acquired taste for me. When I was younger I didn’t really appreciate his writing.  Quite a bit of his material went over my head.  As I got older, and my horizons broadened, Gerber was one of those creators who I grew to appreciate.  Looking at his work now, it’s apparent that Gerber was not the type to write down to his audience.  He certainly enjoyed pushing the boundaries.  Gerber was also very on-the-nose with his withering satire.

In regards to the blurb on the cover to issue #9, “When Bites the Beaver,” I’m curious if Gerber was sneaking in a crude sexual innuendo. Then again, sometimes a beaver is just a beaver.  After all, a few months after this storyline Gerber introduced the villainous Dr. Bong, whose head was a giant bell.  Despite much speculation over the years, Gerber always insisted that, no, the name Dr. Bong was not a drug reference.

Howard the Duck 9 cover

These issues have some really nice artwork. Gene Colan’s unconventional pencils are a nice fit for this series.  Colan specialized in rendering the genres of horror and mystery.  As can be seen by his work on Howard the Duck, he was a versatile artist who was also adept at humor.

Steve Leialoha is a great artist in his own right. He had only been working professionally for about a year when he inked these issues.  As has often been observed, it could be a difficult task to ink Colan’s pencils as he utilized very subtle shading.  Leialoha certainly acquits himself very well.  He possesses a rather abstract, flowing quality to his work, and his inking gives Colan’s pencils a slightly more cartoony quality that suits the tone of these stories.

I asked Leialoha on his Facebook page if he had any thoughts to share concerning his collaboration with Colan, and he was kind enough to respond…

“I like to think I took to inking Gene’s pencils like a duck to water! But, seriously, out of all the pencilers I’ve had the pleasure to work with he was my favorite.  Beautiful stuff!  Doing a little math: I figure I’d inked about 250 pages up at Marvel before Howard the Duck # 7 rolled around with about 70 of them over Gene’s pencils, so I was ready for it!  I look back at it now and see things I would do differently but I’m grateful for the opportunity, all those years ago.”

I’ve previously written about my great fondness for Sal Buscema’s art. He does a very nice job penciling the oversized Treasury.  It’s interesting to see him render the more oddball, cartoony elements of the story, such as Howard himself.

Klaus Janson, even this early in his career, was doing great work. As he has a distinctively gritty style, it’s noteworthy that he’s working on a humorous story like this one.  He and Buscema do make a good art team.

These issues are among the material contained within the Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection Volume 1 trade paperback. I highly recommend picking it up.  Trust me: in this insane election year, we can use all the humor that we can find!

Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

Nowadays there are literally hundreds of volumes reprinting much of the extensive library of Marvel Comics material from the past seven decades.  However, even with the proliferation of trade paperbacks within the last 15 years, there are still several titles that remain elusively out of print.  That is because during the 1970s and early 80s Marvel published a number of series featuring characters licensed from other companies.  These titles were set firmly in Marvel continuity, and introduced numerous characters that are still being used.  But due to the presence of those licensed properties, reprinting the original stories from the Bronze Age remains an elusive goal.

Master of Kung Fu 33 pg 1

The Bronze Age title that readers would probably most like to see collected is Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  The series featured the philosophical martial artist hero Shang Chi, who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Shang Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, and proved popular enough that the book was re-titled Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

Shang Chi is the son of the centuries-old criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, the pulp novel arch-villain created by author Sax Rohmer.  Shang was raised in isolation, educated & indoctrinated to become the perfect assassin, a living weapon to be aimed at those who sought to thwart Fu Manchu’s goal of “purifying” the so-called “corruptions” of human civilization and rebuilding the world in his own image.  Soon after completing his first assignment, Shang encountered his father’s longtime adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of British Intelligence, who managed to convince the martial artist of his father’s evil intentions.  Shang subsequently turned against Fu Manchu, and his father vowed to eliminate him.

Although Shang Chi was initially devised by Englehart & Starlin, both of them departed from Master of Kung Fu rather early on.  Succeeding them were writer Doug Moench and penciler Paul Gulacy, who collaborated very closely.  Their acclaimed run features a very successful blending of martial arts and espionage, equal parts Bruce Lee and Ian Fleming.  Shang Chi became a reluctant agent of British Intelligence, combating both his father’s schemes and other terrorist plots, working alongside allies Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr.  After Gulacy’s eventual departure, Moench continued on scripting the book until almost the end, working with several artists including Mike Zeck and Gene Day.

Master of Kung Fu developed quite a cult following.  The characters of Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr, as well as several villains who made their debut in the series, continue to appear regularly throughout the Marvel universe.  Unfortunately, though, the original decade-long run of Master of Kung Fu remains uncollected.  Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith and a handful of other characters who showed up periodically in the series are still owned by the estate of Sax Rohmer, which makes publishing trade paperbacks problematic.

Rom Spaceknight 65 pg 17

Running a very close second for most demanded reprint still caught up in contractual complications is Rom Spaceknight, which Marvel published from 1979 to 1985.  Rom actually began life as a rather clunky toy produced by Parker Brothers.  In order to generate interest in their odd action figure, Parker Brothers approached Marvel to publish a comic book featuring him.  Practically a blank slate, the character’s entire back-story was devised from the ground up by Marvel writer Bill Mantlo.  Rom was a reluctant cyborg warrior who had sacrificed his humanity as one of hundreds of volunteers from the planet Galador, which was under siege by the malevolent, shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  After driving off the Wraiths, the Spaceknights pursued their foes across outer space for the next two centuries, with Rom eventually finding his way to Earth.

Arriving in West Virginia, Rom discovered that the Dire Wraiths, utilizing their sophisticated science and dark sorcery, had begun a covert invasion of the planet.  He launched a one-man war against the Wraiths, a task made all the more imposing by his difficulty in convincing humanity that they had been infiltrated.  To most humans, Rom appeared a hostile monster who was attacking innocent people.  But gradually, as time progressed, the Spaceknight was able to prove his good intentions to various members of humanity, including a number of Earth’s superheroes and the forces of SHIELD.

Working with Mantlo on Rom Spaceknight for four and a half years was his frequent artistic collaborator Sal Buscema, who turned in some very solid, impressive, atmospheric work.  Beginning with issue #59 and continuing thru to the series finale in #75, Silver Age legend Steve Ditko assumed penciling duties, paired up with an all-star line-up of inkers / finishers that included P. Craig Russell, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Tom Palmer and Butch Guice.

The Rom toy was not a success, and it would probably not even be remembered today were it not for the work Mantlo, Buscema and Ditko did on the Marvel book.  Nevertheless, Rom is still a licensed character, now owned by Mattel.  So even though Marvel can use the Dire Wraiths and the Spaceknights, as well as the half-Wraith, half-human mutant monstrosity Hybrid, who were all devised by Mantlo, Rom himself is off-limits.  And that includes reprinting the entirety of the Rom Spaceknight series, as well as any appearances the character made in other Marvel titles.

Micronauts 8 cover

Bill Mantlo was also the writer of another series based around a toy, namely Micronauts, which ran from 1979 to 1986.  Once again, Mantlo conceived a rich back-story for the characters, giving them histories & personalities, creating several brand new characters, and tying their origins in with Marvel’s own previously established sub-atomic dimension the Microverse.  He set up a massive conflict between the Micronauts and the tyrannical Baron Karza, a cybernetic dictator who repeatedly returned from the dead to beguile them via his macabre body-snatching science.  Along the way, Mantlo introduced the Enigma Force, a non-corporeal sentience that merged with various people to become Captain Universe.

The early issues of Micronauts were penciled by a young Michael Golden, who did some stunning work.  Later issues featured art by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, and Butch Guice.

And, yet again, Micronauts is another series with Marvel does not have the rights to reprint.  There was even a four issue X-Men and the Micronauts miniseries in 1984 which remains off-limits.  However, three members of the team that Mantlo devised independent of the toy line, namely Arcturus Rann, Mari, and Bug, continue to pop up in Marvel books from time to time.  The Captain Universe entity is also a Marvel mainstay.

Essential Godzilla cover

There is, however, one significant exception to this Bronze Age licensing limbo.  Between 1977 and 1979, Marvel published a Godzilla series set firmly within Marvel continuity.  Written by Doug Moench, with the majority of the 24 issue run penciled by Herb Trimpe, the book saw Japan’s most famous radioactive reptile pursued across North America by Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and their fellow Agents of SHIELD.  Along the way the Big G encountered the Champions, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy even popped up in their very first post-Kirby appearances.

The Godzilla comic book introduced a handful of characters who went on to show up now and again in subsequent Marvel stories.  The titanic robot Red Ronin and Yetrigar the giant yeti both made their debuts facing off against Godzilla.  And in issue #s 4-5, Moench and guest penciler Tom Sutton introduced the demented geneticist Doctor Demonicus, who later became an occasional foe of Iron Man and the Avengers.

While it may lack the sophistication of his work on Master of Kung Fu, Moench’s writing for Godzilla was obviously targeted towards a younger audience.  His stories on this book are odd, if not downright silly (at one point Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a mouse by Hank Pym, and spends the next few issues gradually growing back to normal size, in the process getting into all sorts of bizarre situations) but they definitely have a fun charm.  The artwork by Trimpe, Sutton, and their various inkers is also very good and dynamic.

Keeping all of this in mind, I was certainly glad that Marvel did have an opportunity to reprint the Godzilla comic book.  Somehow or another, they came to some sort of arrangement with Toho Studios which enabled them to publish a single printing of the black & white Essential Godzilla volume in 2006.  Of course I bought a copy!  Obviously that collection is now out-of-print, but it’s still easy enough to find, with a number of used copies of the book for sale at close to cover price on Amazon.

Shogun Warriors 5 cover

However, Moench & Trimpe’s unofficial follow-up to Godzilla, the 20 issue Shogun Warriors series that ran between 1979 and 1980, is another one of those uncollected toy tie-ins.  I’ve never read it, but it sounds like fun, with its trio of giant robots tussling with an assortment of rampaging monsters.  So, yeah, that’s one more you’re going to have to dive into the back issue bins to find.

On the one hand, it is frustrating that Marvel and the owners of these various properties cannot come to a financial arrangement that enables these series to be reprinted.  On the other, I can certainly understand that there is logic to those owners holding out for more money.  Marvel is, after all, a corporation with tremendous financial assets, especially now that they are owned by Disney.  Despite this, from various accounts I’ve heard, Marvel’s management has apparently often been on the penny-pinching side, unwilling to offer other, smaller companies or creators a reasonable amount of compensation for the publishing rights to their properties.

While I only have a handful of issues from both Master of Kung Fu and Micronauts in my collection, I do possess an entire run of Rom Spaceknight.  I bought most of the later issues as a kid when they came out in the mid-1980s.  A decade or so later, when I was in college, I finally decided to track down the rest of the series.  It took some time and patience, but I was able to find most of them for pretty reasonable prices.

I expect that the other out of print material Marvel published in the 1970s and 80s can also be found by the same means.  If you take the time to search for affordable copies on eBay and at comic conventions, eventually you’ll be able to pick up the majority of those comic books without breaking the bank.  Yeah, it’s not as convenient as just grabbing a trade paperback off the shelf at the comic shop.  But these are some quality, entertaining books with good writing & artwork, and I do think it’s worth a little extra effort to find them.

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.

New York Comic Book Marketplace 2013: a convention report

I made a last-minute decision to attend this year’s New York Comic Book Marketplace show organized by Mike Carbonaro & Allen Rosenberg.  I wish I had decided a few days earlier when I could have bought an advance ticket cheaper, but what are you going to do?  I also wish I’d been able to take photos while I was there, but my camera went kaput a few months ago.

In any case, my main reason for going was that George Perez was the guest of honor.  I have an Avengers theme sketchbook that I’ve had going since 2007, and I’ve always hoped I’d be able to get a piece by Perez in it.  Well, I got to the show at a little after 10:00 AM, and already the line was really long.  It was also moving very slowly, because everyone else was also getting sketches from Perez.  I decided I’d try and get something from him some other time, because I really did not want to spend a couple of hours waiting.

Uncanny X-Men 204 signed

The other guest I really wanted to see was Chris Claremont, one of my all time favorite writers.  I’ve met Claremont a few times before, but it’s always nice to see him again, because he has written so many great stories over the years.  In addition to having him autograph a few X-Men trade paperbacks, I asked him to sign a pair of issues of Uncanny X-Men, specifically #s 204 & 205, which are favorites of mine.  They came out in early 1986, when I was nine years old, and were some of the first issues of that series I ever read.  Uncanny X-Men #204 features Nightcrawler, one of my favorite X-Men, and it was penciled by Power Pack co-creator June Brigman, whose artwork I love.  Issue #205 is a spotlight on Wolverine in a dark story illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith.  What I really like about this one is that Claremont tells this very gritty, violent story from the point of view of five year old Katie Power, aka Energizer from Power Pack (yep, them again) and he really makes it work.  It enables Claremont to so effectively explore the very disparate aspects of Wolverine, how he is this extremely nasty berserker warrior, yet also have the capacity to be a kind, paternal figure to Katie.

It is a real shame that Marvel does not want to give Claremont any work nowadays.  I mean, he wrote Uncanny X-Men and most of its spin-off titles for a period of 17 years, playing a significant role in building a gigantic franchise (and I certainly don’t mean to overlook the parts that Len Wein, Dave Cockrum or John Byrne also played).  When Claremont returned to Marvel a decade ago, he did very solid, entertaining work on X-Treme X-Men and X-Men Forever (the later was my favorite Marvel title during the time it was being published).  Marvel is very happy to endlessly reprint Claremont’s old stories and to have their newer writers base their stories on the classic arcs he co-created.  But the company seems uninterested in giving him any new writing gigs.

Anyway, Claremont is currently working on prose fiction, and I definitely wish him the very best of luck with his new efforts.  I’m looking forward to picking up his novels.

Spider-Man Death of Jean DeWolff

Getting back to the show, I did not buy too many comic books, because I already have so much stuff.  In fact, I’m looking to get rid of a lot of comic books in the near future.  One of the few books I did pick up was the hardcover collection of Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff.  That’s one of Peter David’s early works.  I’ve wanted to read that one for a while now.  Also, Rich Buckler, who penciled that storyline, was a guest at the show.  I went over to his table, and he remembered me from our e-mail correspondence.  When I gave Buckler the book to autograph, he was genuinely surprised to see it, because he had no idea it had been published.  Which means that, yep, Marvel did not bother to send him a copy.  Again with the lack of respect by Marvel!  In any case, it was a good read, with nice artwork by both Bucker and another favorite of mine, Sal Buscema.

One artist I was very surprised to see at the show was Paris Cullins.  I’ve wanted to meet him for years.  I like his work a lot.  Back in 1988, Cullins penciled a six issue Forever People miniseries written by J.M. DeMatteis and inked by Karl Kesel.  He did really nice art for it, and so for some time I had been hoping to get a drawing by him in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook.  I even corresponded with him about it on Facebook in the recent past.  So there he was, and this was his first appearance at a NYC show in quite a number of years.  Only one problem: his coming was a last minute decision, so I had no idea he was going to be there, and I hadn’t brought along the Beautiful Dreamer book.  I was mentally kicking myself.  Cullins really wanted to do a piece for me, and suggested that he could draw it on a loose piece of paper to paste into my book.  But I felt it just would not have been the same.  So I left the show feeling pretty disappointed.  No Avengers sketch by Perez, and no Beautiful Dreamer drawing by Cullins.

Forever People by Paris Cullins

About an hour later I got back it Queens, and I told Michele what happened.  Her suggestion was that I should take my sketchbook and go back to the convention.  At first I thought that was a crazy idea, but then I realized I had nothing to do all day, so I shrugged and rushed back into Manhattan.  As soon as I got there, I went directly to Cullins’ table and half out of breath said something like “Good, you’re still here. If you had left, I’d be feeling very silly right about now.”  Cullins ended up working on my sketch right away, which was good for me but probably didn’t especially thrill everyone else waiting for a sketch!  I think he could tell from my Beautiful Dreamer tattoo that I was a huge fan of the character, and that I’d really appreciate what he was drawing.

In addition to the piece by Paris Cullins, I also got some very nice sketches from Dave Fox, Jim Salicrup, and Billy Tucci in my Avengers book.  I’ve posted scans on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryDetail.asp?GCat=60

It was a pretty good show but, between this and Mocca Fest, I’m pretty worn out when it comes to comic book conventions.  Think I’ll wait until the New York Comic Con rolls around in October before I go to another one.

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.