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.

Thoughts on Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I finally had an opportunity to see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 last week.  A few people who know that I’m a huge fan of the character of Mantis were curious what I thought of how she was used in the movie.

Mantis poster for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2

I might as well mention that Steve Englehart, who created Mantis in 1973, was “not happy” at how Mantis was depicted in GOTG 2.  I can understand Englehart’s perspective on this.  Mantis is a character that he wrote on various occasions over a 35 year span.  He invested a great deal of time and energy into developing Mantis.  She is obviously very important to him.

Indeed, that is the primary reason why Mantis is one of my all time favorite characters. Englehart clearly put a great deal of thought into her, in the process creating a very interesting character with a wonderfully bizarre origin and an exciting, offbeat story arc.

So I realize that it must have been disappointing for Englehart that GOTG 2 writer / director James Gunn did not adhere closely to the original conception of the character.

Nevertheless, looking at it from my perspective as a reader and a longtime fan of the character, I felt that the translation of Mantis from page to screen was rather successful.  Visually she looked amazing.  The concept design of Mantis that artist Andy Park created for the movie was very faithful to the original character while also working as something that was both visually effective and functional in live action.  Mantis was played by Pom Klementieff, a well-regarded, talented actress who did great work with the material.

Mantis concept design Andy Park

I admit that I was somewhat disappointed that certain aspects of Mantis from the original Marvel Comics stories were neglected or altered.  She was too passive; I would have liked for her to be a more assertive individual.  I also wanted to see her utilizing martial arts.  Klementieff previously displayed a real adeptness at dynamic fight sequences in the 2013 movie Oldboy, so hopefully she will be able to bring that skill to her portrayal of Mantis in future installments.

Nevertheless, in spite of Gunn perhaps not utilizing the character Mantis as well as he might have, she made an interesting addition to GOTG 2.  I definitely enjoyed her interaction with Drax.  Gunn’s dialogue for these scenes was both funny and poignant.  Klementieff and Dave Bautista played very well off one another.

Actually, as someone who has seen many of the entries in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” I think Mantis is much closer to the source material than some other characters.  Looking at the two GOTG movies from Gunn, the characters of Drax, Gamora, Groot and Yondu are all quite different from their comic book versions, but they each worked very well.

On the other hand, if you look at the second and third Iron Man movies, the villains Justin Hammer and the Mandarin were almost nothing like the original comic book characters.  In both cases this was definitely to the detriment of the movies.

Mantis and Drax GOTG2

Sometimes fans do not realize how difficult it can be to adapt comic books into movies.  They are two different mediums, each with their own sensibilities.  What works in one might not in the other.  This requires a delicate balancing act by filmmakers, as they attempt to remain faithful to the source material while simultaneously determining how to make these characters & stories work in a two hour live action movie.  Some filmmakers are more successful at this than others; Gunn is one of the better ones.

Even though the specifics of Mantis in GOTG 2 were altered, personally speaking I did feel that she was quite true to the spirit of the character Steve Englehart created.  I enjoyed seeing her in GOTG 2, and I am look forward to seeing Pom Klementieff reprise the role in Avengers: Infinity War.

Mantis: The Celestial Madonna tattoo

One of my favorite comic book characters is Mantis.  I wrote about her once before.  Created by writer Steve Englehart, she made her debut within the pages of Avengers #112 (June 1973).   Mantis was initially designed by the much underrated Don Heck, who penciled that issue.  Two months later, in Avengers #114, her distinctive costume, designed by John Romita, made its debut.

Mantis was the central focus of the story arc “The Celestial Madonna,” which ran through Avengers #128 to #135 and the quarterly Giant-Size Avengers #2 to #4.  Englehart explored both Mantis’ mysterious past and the cosmic history of the Marvel Comics universe.  Englehart did excellent work developing Mantis during his time on Avengers.  The character experienced a fascinating arc of change and growth.

This past Saturday, I got a tattoo done on my right leg.  I’ve been thinking about getting this piece for several years.  After selling a couple of pages of original comic art from my collection I finally had the funds to have it done.  It is a tattoo of Mantis based on Dave Cockrum’s stunning artwork for Giant-Size Avengers #2 (Nov 1974).

Mantis tattoo
Mantis tattoo

I had originally hoped to have this done by Becca Roach, the artist who did my Beautiful Dreamer and Watchmen tattoos.  Last week I contacted Becca on Facebook… and learned that she’d moved to Hawaii a couple of months ago.  Oops!

I sent Becca another message, asking if there were any other tattoo artists in NYC who she would recommend.  She suggested Daniel Cotte, with whom she had recently worked with at SenaSpace Art + Tattoo, located at at 229 Centre Street in the East Village.

Daniel was a really cool guy.  It turns out that he is also a comic book fan.  He mentioned that he really liked Joe Kubert’s work on Enemy Ace.  Daniel appeared interested in tattooing this particular piece, which was good to know.

Daniel finished the tattoo in a little less than two hours, which was a relief to me because, yipes, was it painful!  This was by far the most detailed piece that I’ve ever gotten.  It was especially uncomfortable when Daniel was tattooing all of the details of Mantis’ feet & ankles, because that was on my ankle, where there’s a lot less muscle under the skin.  But I just gritted my teeth and tolerated it, telling myself to hold still because in the end I would have a really nice piece.  And, yes, it does look fantastic.  Thanks again, Daniel!

Daniel Cotte tattooing Mantis
Daniel Cotte tattooing Ben’s leg

After I got home Saturday night, I e-mailed a photo of the Mantis tattoo to Steve Englehart.  He really liked it, stating that it was “gorgeous!”  I also sent the photo to Dave Cockrum’s widow Paty, who responded with “Wow! Totally awesome tat, kiddo!”

I am a huge fan of artist Dave Cockrum.  He is well regarded for his work on X-Men.  But shortly before he revamped Marvel’s mutants, Cockrum briefly worked on Avengers.  He inked several issues of the monthly title, providing wonderful embellishments for the pencils of Rich Buckler, Don Heck, John Buscema and Bob Brown.  Cockrum did the full artwork for the second issue of Giant-Size Avengers, and then penciled the third one, with Joe Giella inking him there.

In my assessment, Cockrum’s work on Giant-Size Avengers #2 is dynamic, some of the best of his career.  Especially striking is the beautiful, haunting page which contains the figure of Mantis that I had tattooed.  Here is a scan of it from the Celestial Madonna trade paperback.

Mantis by Cockrum
Giant-Size Avengers #2 page 26

I think that this is it for tattoos, both because I can’t think of anything else I’d want done, and I’m running out of areas where I can get them that can be covered up when I go to work.  But you never know what will come to mind in the future.

If you have never read it, I recommend the Steve Englehart era of Avengers, which contains some groundbreaking stories and quality artwork.  Most of the issues which contain the Mantis storyline are reprinted in black & white in Essential Avengers Volume 6.

By the way, rumor has it that Mantis will be appearing in the second Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  So keep an eye out for her.

Thank you to Michele Witchipoo for the photos ❤

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.

Happy birthday to Richard Howell

I want to wish a very happy birthday to comic book creator Richard Howell, who was born on November 16th.  Not only is Richard a fantastic artist and a talented writer, but he is also a genuinely nice guy who I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions.

Looking back, I probably discovered Howell’s work when he was penciling Tony Isabella’s great Hawkman stories.  The two of them collaborated on the four issue Shadow War of Hawkman miniseries in 1985, which was followed the next year by a special and then an ongoing series.

Hawkman Special cover

Isabella had a great conceit for his storyline: Hawkman and Hawkwoman discovered that their fellow Thanagarians were covertly invading Earth. Unfortunately, Carter and Shiera Hall were forced to combat this infiltration completely on their own.  The Thanagarians possessed a device called the Absorbacon which enabled them to read the minds of anyone on Earth (the Hawks were immune because they were also from Thanagar).  So there was no going to Superman or the Justice League or anybody else for help.  Their only ally came in the unlikely form of their old enemy the Gentleman Ghost, who took it as a challenge worthy of his larcenous talents to “steal back” Earth from the Thanagarians (being dead, presumably they were unable to read his mind).  As a ten year old kid, I found this set-up majorly chilling & spooky, the idea that Carter and Shiera were seemingly all on their own, everyone else on Earth was compromised, and their one source of assistance was an untrustworthy villain.

Unfortunately, Isabella departed the ongoing Hawkman title with issue #7 due to disagreements with editorial, and his successor wrapped up the invasion storyline in a rushed, unsatisfactory manner.  Nevertheless, the work that Isabella & Howell did do together was really great.  Howell really showed his versatility, rendering the Kubert-designed Hawks with their combination of high-tech & primitive weaponry, the science fiction designs for the Thanagarian invaders, and the supernatural aspects of the series.

Vision Scarlet Witch 1 cover

Around this time, Howell was also over at Marvel, penciling the twelve issue Vision and the Scarlet Witch series written by Steve Englehart.   This took place in real time, which meant that we saw Wanda get pregnant and, in the last issue, give birth to twin baby boys.  Unlike some, I was never terribly bothered by the notion that Wanda used magic to conceive children with an android.  (I was quite annoyed when a few years later John Byrne did a major retcon, wiping the twins out of existence, but fortunately Allan Heinberg eventually reversed this and brought them back into being as super-powered teenagers in the pages of Young Avengers.)

Howell did some really great work on this series.  The wide range of guest stars that popped up enabled him to render a significant portion of the Marvel universe.  A few years later, Howell again had the opportunity to draw the Scarlet Witch in the four chapter serial “Separate Lives” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents #60-63.  He also wrote, lettered, and colored the entire story, demonstrating he was a man of many talents.  Between that story and his work a few years earlier, I thought that Howell drew one of the most all-time beautiful, sexy depictions of the Scarlet Witch.  Years later, when I told him that, he modestly responded “It’s not difficult drawing a beautiful woman who was visually created by Jack Kirby and then developed into a star by Don Heck.”

Another group of characters who Howell drew really well were the Inhumans.  In addition to drawing their appearance in Vision and the Scarlet Witch, Howell penciled a “Tales of the Inhumans” short story written by Peter Gillis and inked by Sam De La Rosa which saw print in the back of Thor Annual #12, of all places.  I just found a copy of that comic about a year ago.  The splash page by Howell & De La Rosa is gorgeous.  Howell also penciled & colored a double-sized Inhumans Special written by Lou Mougin published in 1990 that delved into the history of the Royal Family immediately prior to their first appearances in the pages of Fantastic Four.  Vince Colletta inked that one and despite his tendency to do rush jobs, especially in his later years, Howell said he was generally satisfied with how the art turned out.  If you want to check it out, that Inhumans Special was just reprinted by Marvel in a trade paperback along with their 1988 graphic novel written by Ann Nocenti.

Inhumans backup Richard Howell

In the 1980s, Howell also drew All-Star Squadron, the Green Lantern feature in Action Comics Weekly, various profile pics for Who’s Who, DNAgents, and his creator-owned Portiz Prinz of the Glamazons.  That last one first originated as a self-published project in the late 1970s.

Howell did some work on Vampirella for Harris Comics in the early 1990s.  He then co-founded Claypool Comics with Ed Via in 1993.  I first found out about Claypool several years later.  As I’ve mentioned before, I used to see artist Dave Cockrum quite often at conventions & store signings.  When I asked him what he was currently working on, he told me he was penciling Soulsearchers and Company for Claypool.  Since I loved Dave’s artwork, I had my comic shop order the current issue, which was #30.  I read it, and thought it was awesome.  The series was a supernatural comedy written by Peter David, with co-plots & edits by Howell.  I was soon following Soulsearchers and Company on a regular basis.

Claypool also published three other series.  There was the twelve issue Phantom of Fear City, written by Howell’s old collaborator Steve Englehart, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, an anthology featuring the campy, vampy horror hostess, and Deadbeats, a dark vampire soap opera written & penciled by Howell, with rich embellishments by Argentine illustrator Ricardo Villagran.  Howell acknowledges that Dark Shadows had an influence on Deadbeats, and series actresses Kathryn Leigh Scott, Nancy Barrett & Lara Parker have each written introductions for the three trade paperbacks.

Deadbeats Learning the Game cover

It took me a while to get into Deadbeats, simply because I’ve never been a huge fan of vampires.  This was around the time that Interview With A Vampire and Vampire: The Masquerade were really popular, and I just thought the whole notion of the undead as these refined, romantic, aristocratic beings was so annoying & pretentious (you can just imagine what I think of all that Twilight nonsense nowadays).  And so I unfortunately assumed that Deadbeats was more of the same.

However, corresponding with Howell via e-mail, he wore down my resistance, and I finally picked up the first two TPB collections, “New In Town” and “Learning The Game.”  And I have to confess I loved them.  Yes, the vampires in Deadbeats were super-sexy (both the women and the men, got to give Howell points for fairness) but most of them were unabashedly evil, committing brutally violent killings in their quest for fresh blood.  There were also a few morally conflicted members of the undead, as well as some who had relatively benevolent agendas, such as the vampire king Hermano (no relation).  There was also a really interesting cast of humans who were batting against the vampires of Mystic Grove, led by teenage couple Kirby Collier and Jo Isles.  Anyway, once I was done with those two TPBs, I started following Deadbeats with issue #50.

One of my favorite covers from Deadbeats is #53, penciled by Howell, with lush inking by Steve Leialoha.  I don’t know who did the coloring, but it looks fantastic.  One of the subplots in Deadbeats concerned Kirby’s long-lost father Adam arriving in Mystic Grove and recruiting vampire hunter Dakota Kane in an attempt to track down the mysterious bat cult that had kidnapped his wife years before.  It turned out that sultry lounge singer Countess DiMiera, currently performing at Mystic Grove’s popular social spot the Bat Club, was a member of that secret society, as well as a conduit for their dark deity, Murcielago the Bat-God.

Deadbeats 53 cover

I really loved Howell & Leialoha’s depiction of the sinister songstress on that cover (in hindsight, she might have reminded me of a more wicked version of Howell’s Scarlet Witch).  I asked Howell to let me know if he ever wanted to sell the original artwork.  He responded that he typically held on to all of his originals.  But a few years later he was kind enough to do a really nice sketch of the Countess and her disciples for me.  You can view that, and a few other beautiful pieces he has drawn for me, on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/gallerydetailsearch.asp?artist=Richard+Howell&GCat=60

Unfortunately, due to low sales, in 2007 Diamond Distributors decided they would no longer carry any of Claypool’s titles (this is the kind of thing that happens when you are stuck doing business with a monopoly).  Deadbeats, Soulsearchers, and Elvira were all canceled.  Since 2007, Howell has continued the Deadbeats story as an online comic at the Claypool website.  I’m glad he’s been able to do that, but I really hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to collect those installments together in print editions.

As you can see, Richard Howell has had a very diverse career, during which he has written and drawn some amazing comic books.  I really enjoy his art, and I hope to see more from him in the future.  Happy birthday, Richard.  Keep up the great work.

Strange Comic Books: Fantastic Four #322-325

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic Four 324 cover
Talk about hanging by a thread.

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

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

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

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

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