Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s 25th Anniversary

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

Fantastic Four 296 cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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: Spider-Man “Life in the Mad Dog Ward”

I’ve written before about the classic Spider-Man story “Kraven’s Last Hunt” which originally came out back in 1987.  I think that many people have forgotten that immediately after J.M. DeMatteis’ six part arc concluded, the very next month another storyline ran across all three of the Spider-Man titles.  Appearing in Web of Spider-Man #33, Amazing Spider-Man #295, and Spectacular Spider-Man #133, it was written by Ann Nocenti, penciled by Cynthia Martin, and inked by Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker & Josef Rubinstein, with covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  There wasn’t an overarching title to the story, but I refer to it by the cover copy on Amazing #295, “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Whereas the previous six issues had seen Spider-Man buried alive, Ann Nocenti’s arc featured him getting locked up in an insane asylum!

amazing spiderman 295 cover

Housewife Vicky Gibbs is alone with her thoughts & inner demons.  The already emotionally troubled mother of two has finally decided to leave her husband Frank.  She can no longer stand the fact that he has become involved in the mob, specifically the organization controlled by Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime.  Before Vicky and her children Jacob and Tanya can leave, though, Frank arrives home.  And soon after, he receives orders from the Kingpin’s right-hand man the Arranger, orders that involve having his wife committed to the Pleasant Valley mental hospital.

Pleasant Valley, which is owned by the Kingpin, is a front.  In cases where there are former associates of Fisk’s or witnesses to his crimes who, for one reason or another, cannot simply be killed, he pulls strings to have them declared mentally unfit and sent to Pleasant Valley.  There they are detained indefinitely and drugged to keep them silent & pacified.  Running the hospital is the Doctor, who in exchange for collaborating with the Kingpin is allowed to engage in unethical medical experiments.  This Doctor also occasionally reprograms certain patients to serve as assassins for the Kingpin.

Elsewhere, Peter Parker is walking about in a daze.  He is recovering from his traumatic encounters with Kraven & Vermin, as well as worrying about more mundane matters such as bills and his relationship with his wife.  After having dinner at his Aunt May’s house, Peter is wandering the streets of Forest Hills.  Suddenly his spider sense goes off as an ambulance rushes by, with Jacob and Tanya futilely chasing after it on foot.  Bumping into Peter, the two children explain that their mother is being sent to Pleasant Valley.  Returning to his apartment, a restless Peter is unable to sleep.  He keeps wondering if there is more to the children’s story than he initially thought.  Slipping into his Spider-Man costume, he heads back to Queens to investigate.

Jacob and Tanya have also gone to Pleasant Valley, having stolen their father’s gun, believing they can rescue their mother.  Frank arrives to stop his children, but all three are soon detained by the hospital’s armed security force.  When the guards move to grab the trio, Spider-Man swings in and knocks out the majority of them.  One, however, sadistically tosses Tanya off the roof of the asylum, and when Spider-Man leaps to catch her, he is shot.  Lying wounded in an alley, the bleeding web-slinger urges Tanya to flee.

amazing spiderman 295 pg 14

Peter regains consciousness in Pleasant Valley, having been patched up by the physicians there.  The cynical staff, who refer to the hospital as “the Mad Dog Ward,” think that Peter is just some nut who only believes he is a superhero.  When the weakened Peter resists, he is quickly drugged & restrained.  Only the Doctor realizes that this new patient is exactly who he claims to be.  He is looking forward to experimenting on Spider-Man’s mind, but first he must complete his conditioning of the Kingpin’s latest assassin, Mad Dog 2020 aka Brainstorm.

Drugged and disoriented, Peter struggles to string his thoughts together coherently.  He befriends Mary, a nurse new to the facility who is already unsettled by what she sees.  Peter gets Mary to let him talk to Vicky, but she is in even more of an anesthetized stupor than he is.  Peter also meets Zero, a very dim but strong & well-intentioned man-child whose greatest wish is to be a genuine superhero.

Peter attempts to rally his fellow patients to revolt.  Unfortunately, everyone is too zonked out on drugs, and the uprising is soon quashed by the staff.  The Doctor realizes that Zero, who he had hoped to program into a future Mad Dog assassin for the Kingpin, has proven non-aggressive, yet at the same time continues to rile up the other patients.  And so the Doctor decides to have Zero lobotomized.  Once Peter begins to become coherent again, he learns of this impending procedure.  Undeterred by his previous failure, Peter attempts to convince Mary to switch the patients’ daily drugs for a placebo.  The nurse is reluctant, fearing that suddenly coming off their medication will make them violent or suicidal, but eventually she decides to go along with the plan.

The next day, the patients begin to come out of their stupor.  We start seeing some rather odd, aggressive behavior from the various inmates, but seemingly nothing too outrageous.  And then THIS happens:

spectacular spiderman 133 pg 11

Yipes!  Whenever I turn the page and see this, I start laughing uncontrollably.  Is that Cynthia Martin channeling Edvard Munch?  In any case, Peter takes advantage of this ruckus to break out of his bonds.  He and Mary free Vicky and Zero from their cells.  However, the Doctor, in addition to being backed up by his security guards, sets loose Brainstorm.  The programmed killer attacks, but fortunately Peter has regained his superhuman strength & reflexes, and he manages to defeat the Mad Dog.

Before the Doctor can make another move, he finds himself with a gun pointed at his head by Frank Gibbs.  After much soul-searching, and having been shamed into action by his children, the mobster has finally decided to leave his life of crime behind and spring his wife.  Using the Doctor as a hostage, Frank, Vicky and Peter are able to make their way out of the Mad Dog Ward.

A day later, Peter returns to Pleasant Valley with Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich, hoping to expose the facility’s abusive practices.  Unfortunately, the Kingpin has beaten both them and the authorities to the punch.  The Arranger has called a press conference to announce that an “appalled” Fisk has only just uncovered the unethical behavior at Pleasant Valley, and that the Doctor is now in police custody.  Peter is disgusted that the Kingpin has managed to weasel his way out of trouble yet again, maintaining his façade of a respectable businessman.  On his way out, he passes by Mary, who is leaving to find a better job.  As the story closes, we see Vicky, Frank, Jacob and Tanya driving west, preparing to start a brand new life.

“Life in the Mad Dog Ward” is certainly a strange, unsettling story.  Ann Nocenti has always been a very unconventional writer.  When I first discovered her work, via this story and her run on Daredevil in the late 1980s, I initially found her work off-putting.  At the time I guess I was expecting more conventional superhero stories.  What I got from Nocenti were examinations of the roles women play in society, environmental degradation, corporate corruption, faith & religion, animal rights, crime & punishment, and the psychological motivations that make people into who they are.  This was really heavy, deep material for a teenager, especially as Nocenti certainly did not err on the side of subtlety.  She pulled no punches, espousing her views with bluntness and conviction.

Yet at the same time, when she presented her various antagonists, Nocenti took the time to render them three-dimensional, to delve into what made them tick.  The Kingpin, Typhoid Mary, Bushwacker, and Bullet committed monstrous acts, but Nocenti gave us a look into their heads, to show how from their points of view they each felt they were behaving in a justifiable, rational manner.  She even wrote what was probably one of the most nuanced portrayals of Marvel’s own Devil figure, Mephisto.

In the mid-1990s, I began to have a greater appreciation for Nocenti’s writing, and I really enjoyed the series of stories she did in Marvel Comics Presents with artist Steve Lightle where she delved further into the twisted psyche of her creation Typhoid Mary.  Nowadays, looking back on her work at Marvel, I really am able to grasp just how sophisticated and ahead of her time Nocenti really was, bringing a very unique sensibility to mainstream comic books.  It’s definitely a pleasure to re-read stories such as “Life in the Mad Dog Ward” and look at them from a different, adult perspective, to catch the aspects of them I didn’t pick up on when I was younger.

We see in Vicky Gibbs a woman who feels constrained by the role of wife and mother.  Her husband Frank expects her to placidly accept what he does for a living, even if it is illegal, because it puts food on the table.  Frank believes that as long as he is in the role of breadwinner, Vicky should simply accept her own responsibilities as a traditional housewife.  Obviously Frank is very much in the wrong, dismissing Vicky’s concerns about where the money comes from, and how the anxiety over it has exacerbated her mental illness.  He is equally at fault when he allows the Kingpin’s goons to pack Vicky off to a mental hospital in order to save his own skin.  Yet, as written by Nocenti, we can see how Frank has rationalized all of his decisions.  However, once Vicky is out of the picture, locked away in Pleasant Valley, Frank is forced into the role his wife previously held, caring for their children.  And seeing up close just how miserable Jacob and Tanya are, how much they have come to hate their father, he is finally forced to own up to his mistakes and take action to clean up the terrible mess he has created.

web of spiderman 33 pg 1

Cynthia Martin’s penciling is well suited to this story arc.  She has a very clean line and straightforward style to her storytelling.  It is definitely effective at conveying the stark, dramatic tone of the story.  A more traditional, dynamic Marvel-style type of artwork might not have worked as well.  Martin effectively renders the moody, oppressive sequences in the Mad Dog Ward as well as the more straightforward scenes featuring normal, everyday people.

A while back, in my Thinking About Inking blog post, I wrote about how significant a role the inker / finisher has upon the final look of artwork.  I believe this is demonstrated very well in the three part “Life in the Mad Dog Ward.”  Cynthia Martin’s pencils are inked by a different artist in each issue.  Steve Leialoha, Kyle Baker and Josef Rubinstein each bring their unique styles and sensibilities to the finished work.  All three do an excellent job at inking Martin.

Topping it all off, literally, are a trio of surreal, atmospheric covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  They really encapsulate the madness and sense of disconnect from reality that the characters experience throughout Nocenti’s story.

Five years later Ann Nocenti, paired with the art team of Chris Marrinan and Sam DeLaRosa, brought back Zero, Brainstorm, and the not-so-good Doctor.  The interesting, insightful “Return to the Mad Dog Ward” saw print in the adjective-less Spider-Man title issue #s 29-31.  I did a Google search and, according to a couple of web sites, there may be a collected edition of all six issues coming out in a couple of months.  Keep your fingers crossed!

spiderman 29 cover

After an absence of several years, Nocenti recently returned to the comic book biz, writing several titles for DC Comics.  I hope at some point she is also able to do some new work for Marvel.  I can’t help wondering if she has any more stories to tell about her various creations there such as Brainstorm and Zero.  And, yeah, no one quite writes Typhoid Mary as well as Nocenti does.