Super Blog Team Up: The Death of Galactus

Welcome to the latest (and last?) edition of Super Blog Team Up.  My fellow contributors and I will be looking at various death-themed comic book topics, both literal or figurative.

In late 1999, Marvel Comics published the six issue miniseries Galactus the Devourer, written by Louise Simonson, penciled by Jon J. Muth & John Buscema, and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz.  The miniseries culminated with the stunning demise of Galactus.

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Galactus and his herald the Silver Surfer were introduced in 1966 in Fantastic Four #48-50 by the superstar team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott.  Galactus was akin to a sentient force of nature, a god-like being who consumed the molten cores of planets for sustenance.  Finding these worlds for Galactus was the sleek Silver Surfer.  Whenever he could the Surfer would lead Galactus to lifeless or primitive planets, but from time to time Galactus would end up feeding upon a world occupied by sentient beings, resulting in their deaths.

Eventually the Surfer led Galactus to Earth. The blind sculptress Alicia Masters encountered the Surfer, and sensed nobility within him.  Stirring the Surfer’s long-suppressed emotions, Alicia inspired the Surfer to rebel against his master.  Eventually, with the help of both the Surfer and the cosmic observer known as the Watcher, the Fantastic Four were able to drive off Galactus.  Before departing, though, Galactus imprisoned the Surfer on Earth

After several years the Silver Surfer finally escaped his exile, and was once again free to roam the stars.  Eventually he returned to Earth, where he found Alicia mourning the apparent deaths of the Fantastic Four.  The Surfer and Alicia fell in love.

As the first issue of Galactus the Devourer opens, the Surfer and Alicia are still together.  The Fantastic Four have recently returned.  Ben Grimm, the Thing, is perturbed to see Alicia, his longtime girlfriend, in the Surfer’s arms, but is doing his best to respect her decision.  And then Galactus comes a-calling.

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The devourer of worlds has gone mad.  No longer desiring the energies of planets, he is deliberately seeking out worlds occupied by sentient beings, consuming their very life forces.  In a short time billions have already died, and Galactus’ now-insatiable hunger leaves many fearing that all life in the universe will soon be extinct.

Galactus is a character who was undoubtedly impressive and awe-inspiring when first introduced in 1966.  However, over the next three and a half decades he was brought back repeatedly, and much of his mystique diminished. In her miniseries Simonson restores much of the grandeur and menace to Galactus, once again showing him as an unstoppable, unrelenting force.

Simonson also uses this miniseries to examine the consequences of an earlier storyline from Fantastic Four by John Byrne, where a dying Galactus was saved by Reed Richards.  Subsequently the restored devourer consumed the Skrull home world.  Richards was placed on trial for genocide by a galactic tribunal headed up by Lilandra, former ruler of the Shi’ar Empire.  Reed was eventually found not guilty after Eternity, the personification of the universe himself, demonstrated that Galactus had a vital role to play in the existence of reality itself.

Now in the present, with Galactus out of control, destroying planets by the score, thoughts inevitably turn back to those earlier events, with several people wondering if Reed Richards should have let Galactus die after all.  Richards himself, although seemingly not regretting his earlier actions, nevertheless devotes himself fully to finding a way to stopping Galactus, even if it means the devourer’s demise.

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Unfortunately the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are unable to even hold back the maddened Galactus.  The Silver Surfer is forced to make a truly Faustian bargain: he must once again serve as Galactus’ herald, leading him to other inhabited worlds in order to guarantee Earth’s safety.

Searching for an alternative source of sustenance, the Surfer encounters his one-time love Mantis, who he has not seen in several years.  The pair tries to divert Galactus to a planet rich in primitive animal life, but Galactus angrily rejects this option, instead consuming a world the Surfer attempted to hide, one inhabited by gentle telepathic plant beings.  Mantis sadly announces that as long as the Surfer serves Galactus she must consider him an enemy, and departs to warn the rest of the universe.

The Surfer himself is forced to admit that he has absolutely no hope of reasoning with the insane Galactus, or even of directing him towards less-developed worlds.  Desperate, the Surfer leads his master towards the home world of the Shi’ar, hoping that the most powerful, advanced space civilization in the known universe will find a way to destroy the devourer.  He finds the Shi’ar expecting him, having been forewarned by Mantis, and is forced to fight his way to the capital.  At last he is able to convince Lilandra, who has once again been restored to the Shi’ar throne, to accept his help.

Alicia, who previously acquired a suit of alien armor, has been trailing the Surfer.  Witnessing all of these events, Alicia returns to Earth, informing the FF and Avengers of what has taken place.  The two teams rocket off to the Shi’ar Empire, with Reed Richards continuing work on a plan he has formulated to stop Galactus.  Lilandra is skeptical that Richards, the man who once saved Galactus, will now help to stop him.  Desperation, however, wins out, and Lilandra places her forces at the Earth scientist’s disposal.

Richards directs both the FF and Avengers, not to mention the entirety of the Shi’ar military, to attack the approaching Galactus.  Not even this is enough to defeat the immensely powerful Galactus, with the alliance barely managing to hold him at bay.

In fact, Reed knew that there was little hope of defeating Galactus by force.  The attack is a distraction that enables the Surfer to penetrate Galactus’ immense World-Ship with a device constructed by Richards.  The device reprograms the World-Ship’s systems.  Whereas once the World-Ship systems converted the molten cores of planets into energy that Galactus could feed on, now the Surfer is able to turn those systems onto Galactus himself.

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The dying Galactus is momentarily restored to sanity and sadly addresses his former herald.  Galactus admits that he foresaw that one day he would go mad and lose all control of his hunger. One of the reasons why Galactus created the Silver Surfer was because he recognized that when the time came the Surfer would possess the nobility, the power and the knowledge to find a way to stop the devourer of worlds.  Galactus now warns that something else is coming, “a greater horror” that threatens the universe.  With that last pronouncement Galactus is transformed into pure energy, forming into a new star.

Later, on the Shi’ar home world, amidst the celebrations, both the Silver Surfer and Reed Richards cannot hide their concerns.  If Galactus did indeed have a purpose integral to existence, then what will the universe become without him?

In an interview given at the time the Galactus the Devourer miniseries was released, Louise Simonson revealed that she had definite plans for a follow-up story, one which would explore what exactly was Galactus’ crucial role in the cosmic scheme of things.  It would also reveal the menace that had driven Galactus mad. Regrettably she did not have the opportunity to write this follow-up miniseries.

Eventually, two years later in the pages of the regular Fantastic Four series, another writer explored these questions, and Galactus was restored to life to defeat the “greater horror” that he prophesized.

Even though Galactus’ demise was temporary (and, really, no one ever stays dead forever in the Marvel universe) the miniseries by Simonson remains powerful.  It is a wonderfully epic cosmic saga that also contains many intimate moments of characterization, especially in the exploration of the relationship between the Surfer and Alicia.

Galactus the Devourer is also effective in its compactness.  Simonson’s story is ambitious and sweeping, but it is told in full within the six issue miniseries.  No tie-in books or decompression; just a self-contained, complete story.  Marvel really could use a lot more “events” like this, rather than the bloated company-wide crossovers that have predominated in the two decades.

Galactus the Devourer promotional art

The artwork on the miniseries is outstanding.  The majority of Jon J. Muth’s work in the comic book biz has been on fantasy and horror titles; this is one of his rare forays into superheroes.  His work on the first chapter looks much different from “mainstream” Marvel comics, giving the opening of the storyline a haunting, eerie tone.

The remainder of the miniseries was laid out / penciled by longtime Marvel artist John Buscema, who was a superb storyteller.  Buscema commented on more than one occasion that he disliked drawing superheroes, but he undoubtedly was great at it.  In the late 1960s he did awe-inspiring pencils on the first ongoing Silver Surfer title, rendering wondrous space opera and horror material.  Over the next three decades Buscema would return to character from time to time, always doing great work.

I believe Galactus the Devourer was Buscema’s last time drawing the Silver Surfer before the legendary artist passed away in January 2002.  His work here is wonderful and breathtaking.  The final issue is stunning, with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Silver Surfer, Mantis, Lilandra, Gladiator, the Starjammers, and the entire Shi’ar Starfleet in desperate battle against Galactus.

(At first I was surprised that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard didn’t participate in the battle, but it then occurred to me that Buscema probably, and quite understandably, balked at drawing another two dozen costumed aliens in addition to the army of characters he had already been given!)

Of course I also enjoyed Buscema’s depiction of Mantis, one of my all time favorite characters.  He drew her on a couple of occasions in the past, and always rendered her as an alluring figure.

Galactus the Devourer 4 pg 7

The talented Bill Sienkiewicz provides inks / finishes for the entire miniseries.  His work is wonderfully atmospheric and expressionistic.  I love the collaboration between Buscema and Sienkiewicz.  Buscema embodied the traditional house style of Marvel in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, whereas Sienkiewicz was responsible for some of the most experimental, groundbreaking artwork published by Marvel in the 1980s.  The blending of these two distinct talents resulted in incredibly striking, effective art.

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Galactus the Devourer remains an effective, enjoyable story with stunning artwork.


Death of SBTU

I hope everyone will take the time to read the other contributors to The Death of Super Blog Team Up.  Here is the full roster.  Enjoy!

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Super Blog Team-Up 8: Captain America vs. Wolverine

Welcome to the eighth edition of Super Blog Team-Up! Since the movie Captain America: Civil War is now out, our theme is “versus” as the various SBTU contributors spotlight famous comic book battles and rivalries.

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I’m taking a look at the volatile relationship between two of Marvel Comics’ most iconic characters, Steve Rogers aka Captain America and Logan aka Wolverine.

Although Wolverine made his debut in 1974, he did not meet Captain America until a decade later. In 1980 there were tentative plans by Roger Stern & John Byrne to have Cap and Wolverine meet and for it to be revealed that Steve and Logan actually knew each other from World War II.  Unfortunately Stern & Byrne left the Captain America series before they could tell that story.  Cap and Wolverine did not run into each other until 1984, in the first Secret Wars miniseries, and they did not have their first extended one-on-one meeting for another two years, in the pages of Captain America Annual #8 (1986).

Captain America Annual 8 cover

“Tess-One” was written by Mark Gruenwald, penciled by Mike Zeck, and inked by John Beatty & Josef Rubinstein. The story opens with Logan hanging at a dive bar in northern Westchester County.  Logan’s boozing is interrupted by a huge brawl, as several thugs attack a large figure who they believe to be a mutant.  This turns of to be Bob Frank, aka Nuklo, the intellectually-challenged son of the Golden Age heroes the Whizzer and Miss America.  Nuklo was cured of his out-of-control radioactive powers, but still retains enhanced strength, and he wipes the floor with his bigoted assailants.  Logan is intrigued, and stealthily follows Bob after he leaves the bar.  He is surprised when Bob is suddenly attacked by a giant robot, Tess-One.  Wolverine leaps to his rescue, but the robot flies away, controlled by a costumed figure.

Several states west, Captain America is investigating a mysterious hole that has appeared in the middle of a parking lot. Going underground, Cap navigates a series of death traps, eventually coming to an empty chamber.  Looking at the machinery and the giant footprints in the dust, Cap deduces that the chamber’s previous occupant “must have been some sort of robot.”  And if you can see where this is headed, faithful readers, then feel free to award yourselves a No-Prize!

After rushing the critically injured Bob to the hospital, Wolverine begins tracking down the robot and its human master. The trail leads to Southern New Jersey, specifically Adametco, “the nation’s leading manufacturer of adamantium,” the Marvel universe’s near-unbreakable metal alloy.  Tess-One and its human controller Overrider have forced a truck driver making a delivery to Adamentco to smuggle them in.  After they arrive, Overrider knocks out the driver, but he recovers enough to contact Captain America’s emergency hotline.  Cap arrives at Adametco just as Wolverine is sneaking in.

At last Cap and Wolvie meet, and they are immediately off to a rough start. Cap is upset that Wolverine is trespassing in a high-security area.  He also expresses serious doubts about the X-Men as a whole, given their recent association with Magneto… and, yes, if you were not actually reading Uncanny X-Men over the previous few years to see Magneto’s efforts at redemption, you could be forgiven for thinking the team had thrown in with an unrepentant terrorist.  Y’know, I’ve always said that what the X-Men really needed was a good public relations manager.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 23

Wolverine, who back then was still very much a temperamental loner with little respect for authority figures and a seriously short fuse, quickly has enough of Cap’s attitude. Before you know it, sparks are literally flying, as Wolverine’s claws meet Cap’s impenetrable shield.  The two spar for a couple of panels before they are interrupted by the arrival of Tess-One, now coated in adamantium.  The already-formidable robot is now even more dangerous.  Cap and Wolverine are unable to prevent Overrider from escaping with it.

Realizing they are working on the same case, Cap apologizes for his earlier attitude and asks Wolverine to work with him.  Wolverine isn’t thrilled at the idea, but he wants another shot at Tess-One, so he grudgingly agrees.

Cap heads to Washington DC to search government records on Daniel Schumann, the now-deceased owner of the property underneath which Tess-One had been hidden. Cap discovers that back in 1939 Schumann proposed the creation of an army of robots as a failsafe in case the super-soldiers created by Project: Rebirth ever revolted.  The subsequent murder of Professor Erskine meant that Steve Rogers would be the only successful super-soldier to be created, and so Project Tess (Total Elimination of Super-Soldiers) was shut down.  Tess-One was the only robot ever produced.

Wolverine meanwhile utilizes the mutant-detecting Cerebro device to learn that Overrider is Richard Rennselaer, a former SHIELD with the ability to control machinery. Rennselaer’s son Johnny suffers from “nuclear psychosis,” a fear of the nuclear bomb so overwhelming that he has withdrawn into a catatonic state.  Overrider, desperate to cure his son, wants to destroy America’s entire nuclear arsenal, believing this will end the international arms race.

The next day another member of Cap’s emergency hotline spots Overrider transporting Tess-One to the nuclear command base at Offut Air Base. Tess-One attacks base security, enabling Overrider to sneak in.  Cap and Wolverine arrive via Avengers Quinjet, but are immediately at each other’s throats again, with Logan balking at taking orders from Cap.  Despite this they manage to finally defeat Tess-One, as Cap uses his shield to hammer Wolverine’s claws into the robot’s neck.  Cap, in spite of his dislike for Wolverine, has to admit that the X-Man is one tough cookie to have endured the excruciating pain required by this plan.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 35

The pair head inside the base to confront Overrider. Neither of them is able to talk Overrider down, and finally Cap uses his shield to knock him off his hover platform, hoping he will be too stunned to trigger the nukes.  Cap orders Wolverine to catch the falling Overrider; Logan, however, has other ideas, and pops his claws, ready to skewer the plummeting foe.  At the last second he decides to split the difference; he doesn’t kill Overrider, but neither does he catch him, letting him hit the ground hard.  Overrider is seriously injured but still alive.

Cap, disgusted both by this particular act, and by Wolverine’s general attitude, goes off on him…

“As for you, mister, you’d better hope the X-Men never get tired of putting up with you, because I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you.”

Captain America Annual #8 is interesting if you look at it as part of Mark Gruenwald’s decade-long stint as writer on the series. During his time on the book, Gruenwald would often contrast Cap to the violent anti-heroes who were becoming more and more popular in superhero comic books.  Gruenwald obviously favored the more traditional heroes of the Silver Age, and he sometimes overcompensated by making Cap too much of a humorless, overly-moral boy scout.

Keeping this in mind, it’s surprising that when Cap meets Wolverine, Gruenwald offers a rather nuanced depiction of the later. Yes, he shows that Wolverine is a very different type of person from Cap, someone who is unpleasant and quick to anger and who regards killing as a perfectly reasonable solution.  But Gruenwald also depicts Logan as a very competent individual who will endure hardship & pain to achieve his goal.  He shows Wolverine risking his life to rescue Bob Frank from Tess-One.  On the last page of the story, after gets chewed out by Cap, we see Logan visiting Bob at the hospital to make sure he’s okay, demonstrating that there’s more to the man than just attitude and berserker rages.

Captain America Annual 8 pg 40

I am not a fan of creators who have guest stars show up in books they write just so they can be completely humiliated by the title character.  Garth Ennis writing the Punisher teaming up with pretty much anyone is a perfect example of that sort of thing.  In contrast, you have this annual.  Gruenwald has Cap remaining very much in-character and expressing grave reservations about Wolverine.  But at the same time Gruenwald also writes Logan in a manner that was respectful of the work Chris Claremont had done with the character.  It’s a delicate balancing act, and I appreciate that Gruenwald made the effort.

One of the reasons why this annual is so well remembered, in addition to the Wolverine appearance, is that it is penciled by former Captain America artist Mike Zeck, who does an amazing job. His pencils are ably embellished by John Beatty and Josef Rubinstein, two of the best inkers in the biz.  Certainly the action-packed cover of Cap and Wolverine fighting is one of the most iconic images that Zeck has ever penciled.

This annual was a really expensive back issue for a long time. I missed getting it when it came out, and I had to read someone else’s copy at summer camp.  For years afterward every time I saw copies of this annual for sale at a comic shop or convention it was $20 or more.  In the late 1990s I was at last able to buy it for a mere three bucks.

“Tess-One” would not be the last time we would see Captain America and Wolverine side-by-side. Four years later, in 1990, we would finally see that first time Cap and Logan met during World War II, although it would be recounted by Chris Claremont, Jim Lee & Scott Williams in Uncanny X-Men #268.

Adamantium claws would collide with unbreakable shield several more times throughout the years as Cap and Logan would find themselves at odds with one another. One of the more unusual of these was courtesy of Gruenwald himself in the 1992 storyline “Man and Wolf” with artwork by Rik Levins, Danny Bulanadi & Steve Alexandrov.  This time Cap and Wolverine ended up fighting each other because Logan was hypnotized.  Oh, yes, and Cap got turned into a werewolf.  Yep, that’s right, this was the epic introduction of Capwolf!

Captain America 405 pg 15

Truthfully, Capwolf looked less like a werewolf and more like a Long-Haired Collie. “What’s that, Capwolf? Timmy fell down a well? I tell ya, that’s always happening to that darn kid!”

Despite Cap’s promise on the final page of Annual #8, years later Wolverine did indeed become an Avenger. To be fair, it was Iron Man’s idea to have Logan join the team, and at first Cap was dead-set against it.  Not surprisingly, as teammates Cap and Wolverine would continue to clash over tactics and methodologies.

Eventually, after they had to team up with Deadpool to prevent North Korea from using the technology of Weapon Plus to create an army of super-soldiers, Cap and Wolverine would grow to respect one another. Later, when Wolverine died — he’s not only merely dead, he’s really most sincerely dead… at least for now — Cap was genuinely saddened.

In the special Death of Wolverine: Deadpool & Captain America by writer Gerry Duggan and artist Scott Kollins (December 2014), Steve Rogers and Wade Wilson get together to mourn Logan, as well as prevent AIM from creating a clone of him. Thinking back on their tumultuous relationship, Cap briefly recounts the time he and Wolverine fought Tess-One.  When Cap gets to the “I guarantee you the Avengers would never have you” part, naturally enough Deadpool bursts out in hysterical laughter.

Death of Wolverine Deadpool Cap pg 8

Y’know, I really would like to see a live action face-off between Captain America and Wolverine, with Chris Evans and Hugh Jackman reprising their respective roles. Unfortunately at this point in time it doesn’t seem like Disney and Fox are able to iron out their differences enough to enable that.  Well, in the meantime at least we have the actual comic books where more often than not Cap and Logan will inevitably end up butting heads over one thing or another.

SBTU Continues below

Thanks for reading my entry in Super Blog Team-Up 8.  Be sure to check out the pieces written by the other fine contributors…

Super Blog Team-Up 7: Star Wars sketchbook

Welcome to the seventh edition of Super Blog Team-Up! This time, to celebrate the release of The Force Awakens, all of the participating bloggers will be writing about various aspects of the Star Wars phenomenon.  This ties in very well with what I’ve been doing on my own blog.  For the last few months I’ve been writing reviews of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.

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For my contribution to SBTU 7 I’m glancing through the Star Wars theme sketchbook that I started in 2003. In the last 12 years I’ve obtained incredible sketches & commissions from a number of very talented artists.  There are so many great pieces that I had genuine difficulty deciding which ten I should include here.  I would have featured more, but then this post would have been much too long!

1) Princess Leia by June Brigman

Princess Leia by June Brigman

June Brigman has a charming style to her work that I have always enjoyed. With her husband Roy Richardson she illustrated the Star Wars miniseries River of Chaos which featured Princess Leia.  June also did a cute trading card of Leia with the Ewoks for the first Star Wars Galaxy set from Topps.  She’s also drawn illustrations for a few SW young adult novels.  It was an obvious choice to ask June to draw Princess Leia in my sketchbook.  She did a really wonderful job!  The backgrounds on this commission remind me a bit of the SW work of legendary artist Al Williamson.

2) Boba Fett by Tony Salmons

Boba Fett by Tony Salmons

Tony Salmons penciled “Wookiee World,” issue #91 of the original Marvel SW comic book series. At first I was going to ask Salmons if he’d draw Chewbacca.  But I thought Salmons might prefer to tackle another character.  I asked him who else he’d enjoy drawing.  He suggested Boba Fett.  That was a great idea.  Salmons had a lot of fun drawing the bounty hunter, and it shows.  I love that “ZAT” sound effect.

3) Han Solo by Rich Buckler

Han Solo by Rich Buckler

Rich Buckler has a very bold style, influenced by Kirby. I thought Buckler he’d be perfect to draw either of the action heroes from the first movie, namely Han Solo and Luke Skywalker.  I asked Buckler who he’d prefer, and he immediately chose Han.  Buckler did an amazing job at capturing Harrison Ford’s likeness.  Buckler’s only published Star Wars art was the Lando Calrissian trading card he drew for the Galaxy series two set from Topps. That’s definitely unfortunate.  This sketch shows that he’s perfectly suited to the material.  I would really enjoy seeing him do further SW work.

4) Admiral Ackbar by Michael William Kaluta

Admiral Ackbar by Michael Kaluta

Michael Kaluta previously did an imaginative rendering of Ackbar for the first Star Wars Galaxy trading card set. When I began this sketchbook, I hoped to eventually have Kaluta draw that character.  Kaluta was generous enough to agree to it, with impressive results.  Note that he rendered Ackbar’s pupils in pencil to convey a watery, “fish-eye” look.  It’s that attention to detail that makes Kaluta such an incredible artist.

5) Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark

Tusken Raider and Bantha by Michael Lark

I suppose you can lay the “blame” for this one at the feet of fellow Star Wars sketch collector John Higashi. He obtained a nice sketch of Tarkin from Gotham Central artist Michael Lark.  When I later met Lark at a convention I asked him if he would be willing to draw that character again.  Lark felt it would be more fun to draw one of the Sand People on a Bantha, and asked me if that was okay.  I decided to let him go for it, and Lark produced this very impressive illustration.  It’s interesting to see Lark, who often works on noir-themed stories, illustrate sci-fi material.

6) Yoda by Guy Dorian

Yoda by Guy Dorian

Guy Dorian saw a scan of a Star Wars sketch his brother Ian had done for me, and he e-mailed to say he wanted to contribute one too. Guy told me that he’d worked on a SW coloring book several years earlier, and so had drawn a number of the characters before.  A few months later at the next Big Apple Comic Con, I stopped by Guy’s table with my sketchbook.  Guy told me he was interested in drawing Yoda.  He spent a fair amount of time working on this.  As you can see, there’s some very detailed linework to this piece.

7) Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta

Emperor Palpatine by Paul Azaceta

Paul Azaceta was at the 2007 New York Comic Con to promote the release of the trade paperback collection of the Grounded miniseries he drew for Image Comics. He was also doing a lot of sketching at the show.  An incredible drawing of Johnny Depp from Pirates of the Caribbean that was sitting on his table immediately caught my eye.  Seeing that, I asked Azaceta if he’d be able to draw something in my SW sketchbook.  He agreed, and produce this stunning rendition of the malevolent Emperor.

8) Mace Windu by Jim Webb

Mace Windu by Jim Webb

When getting SW sketches, some artists are understandably uncertain if they’ll be able to do good likenesses. In his Comic Art Fans gallery Jim Webb has posted a scan of advertising art he did for the board game Stratego that had the characters from the sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. I figured if Jim could draw a good likeness of John Lithgow, I might as well ask him if he’d have a go at sketching Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Mace Windu. After Jim agreed to do a commission for me, I said something along the lines of “Maybe you can have him fighting a snake as a nod to Snakes on a Plane.” That’s how we got this epic struggle. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, one very frustrated Jedi Knight is shouting “I have had it with these mother@#&%ing snakes on this mother@#&%ing spaceship!”

9) Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema

Aayla Secura by Jan Duursema

I saw Jan Duursema at the November 2002 Big Apple show where she was drawing some amazing convention sketches of Star Wars characters. That was what inspired me to start this theme sketchbook in the first place.  One of my goals was to get a sketch by Duursema. Well, it took some time, but I finally met her again at the 2009 New York Comic Con.  I asked Duursema to draw Aayla Secura, the very cool character she created with John Ostrander for the Dark Horse comic books.  Fortunately, I just managed to get onto Jan’s sketch list, and she drew this on Sunday afternoon.  It turned out great.  So, yes, it was worth waiting six and a half years for this after all.

10) Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong

Shaak Ti by Jodi Tong

Jodi Tong is a talented artist with a really fun style.  Every time I get a new sketch from Jodi it’s inevitably better than the last one. She did an amazing job on this drawing of Shaak Ti, one of the Jedi from the prequels who was featured prominently in the Dark Horse comics.  There’s so much detail to this piece.  I’m hopeful that I’ll have an opportunity to obtain more sketches from Jodi in the near future.

I hope everyone will check out Comic Art Fans to see the rest of my Star Wars sketch collection. There are some really great pieces.

SBTU Crawler

Here are the links to the other Super Blog Team-Up 7 contributors.  You will not find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…

This concludes Super Blog Team-Up 7.  May the Force be with you!  Well, either that or… Something, something, something, Dark Side; something, something, something, complete 😛

Super Blog Team-Up 6: Top Ten Avengers Sketches

Welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 6!  Has it really been three months since the last SBTU?  I guess time flies while life’s kicking you in the gut!  Seriously, lately things have been insane.  I’m grateful that I have this blog as a creative outlet to help me unwind.

The theme of SBTU 6 is “Top Ten.”  All the contributors have come up with cool comic-related Top Ten lists.  I must thank Karen Williams of Between the Pages for suggesting that I do a list involving my hobby of collecting comic book convention sketches.  Since a number of SBTU 6 bloggers are doing Avengers-related lists to tie in with the release of the Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, I decided to assemble my top ten Avengers sketches.

Avengers Assemble title page by Richard Howell I’m a long-time fan of the Avengers comic book series published by Marvel Comics, and I started an “Avengers Assemble” themed sketchbook in 2007.  Okay, I’m not too enthusiastic about some of the stories from the last ten years or so.  But there are many classic stories that have been published in the decades before, and numerous amazing characters have been members of the various Avengers teams.  The Avengers are the perfect subject for a convention sketchbook.

Narrowing it down to ten picks was difficult.  I’ve gotten over fifty sketches in this book so far.  There are a few that just missed the cut.  If you asked me again next month I might come up with a different list.  I also didn’t include a couple of pieces that were commissions, where the artists has the sketchbook for a few days and created detailed illustrations.  I will probably spotlight those in some other post in the future.  If you are an artist who contributed to this book and did not make the list, please don’t be offended!  I also posted these in chronological order because I couldn’t make up my mind which one was the best. Without further ado, here is my list of top ten Avengers sketches:

1) Scarlet Witch by Richard Howell Scarlet Witch sketch by Richard Howell Once I decided to start an Avengers sketchbook, I knew that I wanted Richard Howell to start it off with a drawing of the Scarlet Witch.  As a teenager who saw Wanda drawn by Howell in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents #60-63, I thought it was the sexiest version of the character I had ever seen. Of course, Howell had also penciled the twelve part Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries a few years before which I later read via back issues. To this day, I still consider Richard’s depiction of Wanda to be one of the most beautiful in the character’s history.

I was thrilled that I was able to kick off the sketchbook with this lovely portrait by Howell.  He also drew / lettered the “Avengers Assemble” title page for the book that appears at the top of this post.

2) Black Widow by Hannibal King Black Widow sketch by Hannibal King Hannibal King is good at illustrating tough, sexy women.  When I asked him if he’d draw the Black Widow, he smiled and said “You just made my day.” Obviously he’s fond of the character, which was good news for me. King proceeded to create this stunning pencil illustration. While King was drawing this, I looked through his portfolio. He had done some incredible pieces featuring Captain America, Nick Fury, Val Fontaine, and Hydra. Someone at Marvel ought to give him a S.H.I.E.L.D. story to illustrate ASAP!

This sketch was later printed in Back Issue #26.  Head over to the TwoMorrows Publishing website for information on that magazine, as well as other quality comic book-related publications.

3) Wasp by Brian Kong Wasp sketch by Brian Kong Brian Kong drew a whole heap of very cool Avengers sketch cards, including several of the Wasp.  When I asked Kong if he’d do a drawing of the Wasp, he asked “Which costume?”  Because, oh lordy, Janet Van Dyne had had soooooo many different costumes over the years!  One of my favorites was the one George Perez drew her in during the early 80s, and again in the late 90s. I asked Kong if he could draw the Wasp in that, and he grinned, responding “I was just about to suggest that one.”

I’ve seen Kong at a number of NY area conventions over the years, and obtained several sketches from him.  This one of the Wasp is probably my favorite.  He did an amazing job on it.

4) Warbird / Ms. Marvel by Taki Soma Ms Marvel Warbird sketch by Taki Soma Back in 2008 Taki Soma was also drawing Avengers sketch cards, and so she had a book full of Marvel reference on hand. I flipped through the Avengers chapter, saw there was a profile on Ms. Marvel, and asked Soma if she would be able to do a sketch using that. I was very happy with her depiction of Carol Danvers. Soma is definitely a talented artist.  In the last few years she’s collaborated with her husband Michael Avon Oeming on several projects.

5) Jocasta by Andy MacDonald Jocasta sketch by Andy MacDonald It was his excellent work on NYC Mech that caused me to ask Andy MacDonald to sketch Jocasta.  He draws incredible robots and sci-fi tech.  I just knew he’d do a great job rendering “the bride of Ultron.”  I always liked the character, and in the past wished she’d been an Avengers member for longer (I was thrilled when Dan Slott featured her in the Mighty Avengers series).  Jocasta has such a distinctive visual, as well as an unusual backstory (inspired by Oedipus Rex, naturally).

MacDonald really captured the character of Jocasta, both in terms of her look and her personality.  It’s a very expressive piece.  This is another sketch that was published in Back Issue, appearing in Jarrod Buttery’s article on Jocasta in the robot-themed issue #72.

6) Black Panther by Sal Abbinanti Black Panther sketch by Sal Abbinanti Atomika creator Sal Abbinanti was drawing some amazing, rather surreal color sketches at the 2008 MoCCA Art Festival. He certainly did a great job on this one. Not even having a fire alarm going off and he building getting evacuated by the FDNY when he was halfway done with it threw him off his game. I suppose you could say Abbinanti was “on fire” with this one!  He really went all out, and it shows.

7) Patriot by Ben Granoff Patriot sketch by Ben Granoff I really did enjoy the various Young Avengers miniseries, even if they did come out infrequently.  The team had some cool characters, including the current Patriot, Eli Bradley.  I saw independent artist Ben Granoff‘s work on the small press series We Were The… Freedom Federation published by Bag & Board Studios, and I was impressed.  Indeed, he drew an amazing illustration of Patriot.  This one totally surpassed my expectations.

8) Hercules by Chris Giarusso Hercules sketch by Chris GiarrussoI’m a fan of Chris Giarrusso, creator of Mini Marvels and G-Man.  He seemed like the perfect choice to draw Hercules, the mythical and mirthful Avenger who is never more happy than when he’s busting heads together, or knocking back a large flagon of mead, often doing both at the same time!  The reference I had for Hercules had the character grimacing, but I asked Chris to draw a smiling Hercules, adding “Pretend he’s just left the bar or something.”  Chris literally ran with my suggestion, and here we see Herc with a frosty mug of beer in hand, having a grand old night on the town!

9) Hawkeye / Kate Bishop by Ed Coutts Hawkeye Kate Bishop sketch by Ed Coutts Here’s a great sketch of Kate Bishop, another member of the Young Avengers, and co-star of the Hawkeye ongoing series featuring her teamed up with the original avenging archer Clint Barton.  This was drawn by Ed Coutts, a very talented artist.  His work has appeared in a number of issues of Femforce from AC Comics.  He renders very beautiful women.  I’ve met Coutts at a number of conventions and acquired several nice sketches from him.

10) Ant-Man / Scott Lang by Jacob Chabot Ant-Man Scott Lang sketch by Jacob Chabot Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man, is drawn by Jacob Chabot. This is the costume & helmet Scott wore when he was a member of Heroes for Hire, and when he first officially joined the Avengers (I wasn’t a fan of his “gas mask” helmet that briefly followed). Chabot he drew a very cool sketch of the character. I love the inking on this piece.

Scott Lang has a new solo comic book currently running, and he’s scheduled to make his cinematic debut in the upcoming Ant-Man movie.  That gave me yet another good reason to include this great sketch in this top ten list.

11) Ultron by Chris Duckett Ultron sketch by Chris Duckett Ultron, that murderous mechanical menace, arch adversary of the Avengers, and current star of the silver screen is superbly rendered in this pencil illustration by the talented Chris Duckett from the Bronx Heroes team of creators.  If you ever meet Duckett at a convention, I recommend getting a sketch from him. He does fantastic work.

What’s that, you say?  This was supposed to be a top ten and not a top eleven?!?  Bah!!!  Ultron laughs at you humans and your silly rules!  And soon Ultron will rule the world, humanity will be destroyed, and every single entry on this list will be a different incarnation of his mechanical brilliance!  Until that day inevitably comes, weak creatures of the flesh, you will have to learn to accept that there is an extra entry to spotlight the supreme genius of Ultron 🙂

Super Blog Team-Up 6 continues below I hope everyone enjoyed this top ten (um, top eleven) countdown of Avengers convention sketches.  You can see scans of the entire sketchbook at Comic Art Fans… http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=43066

Be sure to also visit the other fantastic blogs participating in Super Blog Team-Up 6…

  1. Longbox Graveyard: Top 10 Super-Dogs
  2. The Unspoken Decade: Top 10 Avengers Moments of the 1990s
  3. Legion Of Super-Bloggers: Top 10 Who’s Who Legion Entries
  4. The SuperHero Satellite: Top 10 DC Comics Titles That Ended Before Their Time
  5. Flodo’s Page: Top 10 Green Lantern Ring-Slings …That Don’t Appear In Modern Continuity
  6. Fantastiverse: Top 10 Avengers Greatest Super Battles
  7. Mystery V-Log: Top 10 Avengers Covers
  8. Idol Head Of Diablou: Top 10 Most Important Martian Manhunter Villains
  9. Marvel Superheroes Podcast: Top 10 Avengers Age Of Ultron Tie-In
  10. Chasing Amazing: Top 10 Favorite Moments Of The “Chase”
  11. Between The Pages: Top 10 Wackiest DC Comics Covers
  12. Bronze Age Babies: The Top 10 Bronze Age Characters (x2!)
  13. Too Dangerous For A Girl!: Top Ten Worst Heroic Haircuts
  14. Vic Sage Via The Retroist: Top Ten Comic Character Deaths
  15. I’m The Gun: The 10 Best All-Star Squadron Covers

Two thumbs up to Charlton Hero for organizing this whole shebang.  As always, it’s been a blast!

Super Blog Team-Up 5: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong

Hello, everyone, and welcome to Super Blog Team-Up 5!  The theme this quarter is “Parallel Worlds and Alternate Realities.”  My fellow bloggers and I will be looking at stories that make use of the concept of the “Multiverse.”  You will find links to the other contributors at the end of this piece.

Before proceeding any further, I want to offer a big “thank you” to Karen Williams of Between the Pages.  Karen has been doing all the crucial heavy lifting involved in organizing this installment of Super Blog Team-Up.

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One of my favorite comic book tales of parallel universes is The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, published in 2003 by America’s Best Comics / Wildstorm, and starring characters created by Alan Moore & Chris Sprouse in the Tom Strong ongoing series.  Published between June 1999 and May 2006, Tom Strong featured really great work by Moore, Sprouse and various other talented creators.

I cannot help thinking that the ABC line was crafted by Moore in response to the runaway success of Watchmen, which he co-created with Dave Gibbons.  Yes, Watchmen was brilliant and thought-provoking and groundbreaking.  But it unfortunately inspired an avalanche of imitators, series that embraced the “grim & gritty” trappings and that tried to replicate the “superheroes in the real world” premise.  The majority of these were ultra-violent, humorless retreads which contained little of the genuine creative spark that was abundant in Moore & Gibbons’ work.

Moore’s writing on the ABC titles a decade later seemed to be a concerted effort by him to demonstrate that comic books could be intelligent and sophisticated without sacrificing fun.  Certainly that was the case with Tom Strong.  Moore very deftly blended the archetypes of pulp adventures magazines, Silver Age whimsy, and high concept scientific theories.  The characters of Tom, his wife Dhalua, their daughter Tesla, and their extended supporting cast were expertly crafted, and their adventures were exciting & thought-provoking.

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The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong grew out of the events of Tom Strong #10 (November 2000) by Moore, Sprouse & Al Gordon.  Tom invented the “Searchboard,” a surfboard-like device which would enable its user to travel into parallel worlds.  On his first journey Tom ended up in a “funny animal” alternate Earth.  There he met a counterpart, “the bunny of bravery” known as Warren Strong, who protected the woodland folk from “science predator” Basil Saveen, a fox analogue to Tom’s arch-foe Paul Saveen.

After Tom returned to his home Earth, Tesla snuck into her father’s lab and decided to give the Searchboard a go.  This resulted in numerous other-dimensional versions of herself materializing.  The various Teslas were soon at each other’s throats, until their accompanying alternate reality fathers showed up to haul them home.  Accordingly, “our” Tom grounded his daughter for her role in the cross-continuum shenanigans.

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That brings us to The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong, written by Peter Hogan, with a plot assist by Moore.  Sprouse and inker Karl Story illustrated the prologue and epilogue, with an all-star line-up of artists contributing to the different chapters.

The story opens as Tesla, the talking intelligent ape King Solomon and the steam-powered robot Pneuman are cleaning up the Stronghold.  Solomon impulsively leaps onto the Searchboard and pretends he is surfing.  Unfortunately he accidentally activates the Board and vanishes into another dimension.

A moment later the Board returns without Solomon.  Its destination log has been wiped clean.  Tesla realizes that she must go searching for the super simian, who is like a brother to her.  Activating the board, Tesla glides out into the Multiverse.

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The first alternate Earth that Tesla arrives at is a post-apocalyptic radioactive nightmare where nearly all of humanity has been wiped out in World War III.  She is met by the gun-toting potty-mouthed Tekla Strong, a counterpart she previously encountered in Tom Strong #10.  Fighting off a horde of giant bugs, Tesla and Tekla duck into an immense underground shelter where most of humanity’s survivors have sought refuge.  Tesla tells her other self of her quest, and Tekla informs her that she has also lost her gorilla-friend, Archimedes the Atomic Ape, who likewise vanished into another dimension.  Tesla departs, continuing her search.

This segment is illustrated by Michael Golden, a talented artist who does extremely detailed work.  Golden is not super-fast, and so he mostly works illustrating covers.  But occasionally an anthology book such as this will come along and he will have the opportunity to contribute a few interior pages.  His style is definitely very well-suited to rendering Tekla’s hi-tech, bombed-out world.

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The next alternate Earth that Tesla arrives on is one where global warming occurred decades earlier, the polar ice caps melted, and most of the surface world was submerged.  Tesla encounters a mermaid version of herself named Tori, who explains that her father was able to transform humanity into mer-people via gene splicing, enabling them to survive the catastrophe.  Tesla is introduced to Tori’s father, a merman Tom Strong.  He hasn’t seen Solomon, but his own gorilla, Poseidon the Sea Monkey, vanished an hour earlier.  Tesla begins to see a pattern.  “I wonder if Solomon disappearing set off some kind of quantum monkey wave.”  Tesla hops on the Searchboard again and continues her journey.

Penciling this chapter is Adam Hughes, with inks by Story.  Hughes is another one of those incredibly talented but not especially fast artists who mostly works on covers.  This special gives him a chance to pencil some interior art, and to show off his storytelling abilities.

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As Tesla’s trans-dimensional journey proceeds, the story briefly checks in on Solomon.  He awakens to find himself imprisoned with numerous other-dimensional analogues.  Of the gathering Solomon astutely observes, “There’s more than a barrelful of us.”

Arthur Adams illustrated this two page interlude.  He is definitely the go-to guy in the comic book biz when it comes to illustrating monkey-related mayhem.  Adams’ hyper-detailed rendering of Solomon and his numerous alternate selves is an amazing, imaginative, and humorous grouping.

Tesla continues her tour of the Multiverse, encountering different variations of herself and her family along the way, all of them very odd indeed.  And on each alternate Earth, the story is the same: that world’s version of Solomon has also gone missing.

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I was definitely thrilled that one of the segments was illustrated by legendary DC artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  I’ve mentioned on a few occasions in the past that I am a huge fan of his work.  He depicts Tesla’s reunion with her super-powered counterpart Tesla Terrific.  Garcia-Lopez is definitely the ideal choice to depict such an “old school” vignette.  He possesses a style that is both traditional and extremely dynamic.  His layouts on this seven page chapter are very effective, and he puts a great deal of detail into his finished art.  Really, I am in awe of Garcia-Lopez’s work.  It’s just so fun and brilliant.

The Searchboard eventually brings Tesla to one of the 2,057 alternate Earths that comprise the pan-dimensional “Aztech Empire” introduced in Tom Strong #3.  On this particular Earth, everything is scaled to giant-sized, and Tesla meets towering duplicates of herself and her father.  She is brought before the Empire’s ruler, the computer program / deity Quetzalcoatl-9, a literal deus ex machina.  The serpent god recognizes Tesla to be the daughter of Tom Strong, who previously assisted him.  Tesla explains what has been going on.  Examining the Searchboard, Quetzalcoatl-9 is able to restore its destination log, allowing Tesla to finally learn which reality Solomon ended up in.  Thanking god, so to speak, Tesla heads out to find her gorilla friend.

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In an extended chapter illustrated by Jason Pearson, Tesla arrives on “Earth-B.”  She is immediately knocked out in a gas attack by her malevolent counterpart Twyla Strong, Twyla’s equally diabolical father Tiberius Strong, and their cigarette-smoking gorilla Nero.  Taken prisoner by the sadistic Twyla, Tesla is informed that after learning of his numerous counterparts back in Tom Strong #10, Tiberius plotted to murder them all by sending bombs to their various realities.  Unfortunately the plan has backfired, and instead they ended up capturing Solomon and several dozen of his equivalents.

Incidentally, despite the fact that he is an evil other-dimensional counterpart, Tiberius Strong does not have a beard or an eye patch.  However he does dress in black.

Left chained in Twyla’s dungeon, with the imminent threat of torture hanging over her, Tesla is close to despair.  Then surprisingly, who should sneak in to rescue her but “gentleman adventurer and occasional science hero” Peter Saveen, a heroic counterpart to Tom Strong’s arch-nemesis Paul Saveen.  As if that isn’t weird enough, Peter Saveen takes Tesla to meet his ally Ilsa Weiss, an alternate version of another of Tom’s old foes, the psycho Nazi dominatrix Ingrid Weiss…

Saveen: May I introduce my associate, Fraulein…

Tesla: Ingrid Weis?! But she’s a Nazi.

Ilsa Weiss: Ilsa Weiss, actually. And I do not know how things transpired on your world, but here National Socialism saved the lives of millions. It is a tragedy we were defeated.

Yes, that is how completely upside-down this version of Earth is; the Nazis were actually the good guys!

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Saveen and Weiss reveal that Solomon and the other gorillas have been imprisoned in an abandoned typewriter factory, obviously a nod by Hogan to the idea of an infinite number of monkeys being given an infinite number of typewriters.  And, appropriately enough, the sign of the factory reads “Sprang Typewriters,” an affectionate homage to Golden Age Batman artist Dick Sprang, who often populated his stories with all matter of oversized props, including giant typewriters.

Tesla finds the Searchboards used by Solomon’s counterparts to bring them to Earth-B.  She takes one, and Saveen uses a stolen time machine to transport them back several hours, to before Tiberius dispatched a bomb through the dimensional gate.  Hiding behind a stack of crates, Tesla sees her past unconscious self being hauled off by Tiberius, Twyla and Nero.  This leads to a humorous exchange between her and Saveen…

Tesla: That’s impossible, isn’t it? For two of me to be in the same place at the same time?

Saveen: Well, you’re not, are you? She’s way over there.

Tesla hops on the Searchboard and arrives back home to find Tom and Dhalua constructing a replacement two-seater Board to go in search of their daughter.  Before Tom can give his daughter one of his patented stern lectures, she alerts him to the incoming bomb.  He is able to divert it to the skies above the already-radioactive world of Tekla who witnessing the explosion lets off her usual stream of expletives.

Tesla and her parents quickly return to Earth-B, where Saveen and Weiss have freed all of the imprisoned gorillas.  Tiberius, Twyla and Nero are in a free-for-all with the escaped prisoners, and Tom takes the opportunity to engage his counterpart.  Asking his evil duplicate why he wants him dead, Tiberius snarls “Because I am a genius… I deserve to be unique. And because… because…”  At which point the villain’s rant is abruptly interrupted by a titanic paw slamming down on him.  As Tesla comments, “You know, I was kind of wondering if a giant Aztec gorilla was going to show up.”

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I don’t know how the rest of you feel, but I’ve got to say that any comic book featuring a giant Aztec gorilla is pretty darn cool!

In the epilogue we see Quetzalcoatl-9, at Tesla’s request, has located an empty, radiation-free Earth in his empire to which Tekla and her people can relocate.  In exchange, they are given custody of the defeated Tiberius and Twyla.  Despite the fact that Tiberius is psychotic, Tom promises to see he is treated humanely and to try to rehabilitate him.  Tiberius and Twyla both scoff at this, vowing revenge, to which Tesla resignedly states “I guess some people, you just can’t help.”

Tesla and Tom are due back on their own Earth for a read-through of Solomon’s new play, “The State of Denmark.”  Obviously those gorillas made use of those typewriters, after all!  Tom, however, suggests that he and Tesla “go for a spin around the Multiverse instead,” something to which she readily agrees.

Hogan’s scripting on this epilogue was nice.  One of the ongoing themes of the Tom Strong series was that, due to the cold, analytical manner in which Tom was raised by his father, he occasionally has difficulty expressing emotions or socializing in a normal manner.  However, we see through scenes such as this that underneath it all Tom is a much warmer, caring figure than his father.  He has a genuine relationship with his daughter.  He also wants to try to provide his adversaries with an opportunity to reform.

Tesla herself is a wonderfully fun character.  She was fantastic in the regular Tom Strong series and I very much enjoyed seeing her get the spotlight in this special.

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Some comic book editors and writers have argued that readers cannot relate to characters that are married and have children.  I definitely do not agree with this.  Neither apparently does Alan Moore.  He crafted an interesting, engaging family unit between Tom, Dhalua, Tesla, Solomon and Pheuman, gifting the characters with real chemistry, writing interesting stories about them.  Peter Hogan, both in The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong and in later issues of the regular Tom Strong series, effectively continued with this.

I really wish that there were more comics such as The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.  It is a enjoyable book, full of appealing characters, an exciting plot, and imaginative ideas.

If you have not read any of the Tom Strong stories, I encourage you to pick up the trade paperback collections.  The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong itself is collected in the volume titled Alan Moore’s America’s Best Comics.

Super Blog Team-Up 5 banner

I hope that everyone enjoyed this one.  Here are links to the other great entries in Super Blog Team-Up 5:

  1. Between The Pages:  A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
  2. Bronze Age Babies:  Things Are a Little Different Around Here…
  3. Firestorm Fan:  Firestorm in Countdown Arena
  4. Flodo’s Page:  The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
  5. The Idol-Head of Diabolu Podcast:  Martian Manhunter Multiversity
  6. The Legion of Super-Bloggers:  Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
  7. Longbox Graveyard:  X-Men #141 & 142: Days of Future Past
  8. The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast (part of Rolled Spine Podcast):  Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
  9. Mystery Vlog:  Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover: Avengers #85–86 (1st Squadron Supreme)
  10. Superior Spider-Talk:  Spider-Man: Reign and Chasing Amazing:  The Case Against Spider-Man: Reign
  11. Superhero Satellite:  Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line: “Licensed Reality and Parallel Properties”
  12. Ultraverse Network:  Parallel Worlds: The Ultraverse Before and After Black September
  13. The Unspoken Decade:  5 Batmen, 1 Superman, Zero Hour and The Ghost in the Machine: Robocop Versus Terminator

Super Blog Team-Up 4: Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane

Hello, everyone. For those who are visiting this blog for the first time as part of Super Blog Team-Up 4, welcome.  My name is Ben Herman, and this is In My Not So Humble Opinion.  Here’s where I ramble on about comic books, movies, television and science fiction, while occasionally venturing into the dual minefields of religion and politics.  Yeah, I just cannot leave well enough alone!

The theme of this edition of Super Blog Team-Up is “Team-Up Tear Down.” I decided to take a look at one of my favorite odd-but-cool comic book team-ups.  It’s one of those things that when it was published fans were probably wondering “Wow, why didn’t I think of that?”  Courtesy of writer Roy Thomas, artist Colin MacNeil and editor Richard Ashford, from the pages of Savage Sword of Conan #219-220, is “Death’s Dark Riders” featuring the time-twisting team-up of Robert E. Howard’s two iconic sword & sorcery heroes, Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane.

Robert E. Howard (1906 – 1936), born and raised in Texas, was a prolific writer of pulp fiction who specialized in two-fisted action delivered with a helping of philosophical contemplation.  He is best known as the creator of Conan, the hot-tempered warrior who lived during the Hyborian Age, a fictional era of pre-history.  Although REH only penned twenty Conan stories during his lifetime, in the years after his death the character became wildly popular, with numerous other writers continuing the character’s adventures in prose, comic books, movies, and television.

Less well-known than Conan is REH’s grim Puritan avenger, the man known as Solomon Kane. Unlike Conan, Kane occupied a genuine historical period, the mid to late 16th Century.  A dour, brooding, black-clad figure, Kane was one of the finest swordsmen in the world, possessing nerves of steel.  He was cursed with an insatiable wanderlust, and he crisscrossed the globe encountering numerous foes, both human and otherworldly.  The deeply religious Kane reconciled his craving for adventure by regarding himself as “a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance,” an agent of God against the forces of evil.  “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives,” Kane somberly proclaims in REH’s story “Blades of the Brotherhood.”  One could certainly characterize Kane as single-minded, even monomaniacal, a figure who would hunt an adversary to the ends of the Earth in the pursuit of justice.

“The Moon of Skulls,” published in 1930 in Weird Tales, sees Solomon Kane at the end of a years-long quest to locate Marylin Taferal, a young Englishwoman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Kane finally tracks Marylin to Africa, to the ancient, lost city of Negari.  Founded countless thousands of years before by colonists from Atlantis, Negari became the last outpost of that civilization after the mythical continent sank into the seas.  The people of Negari worshiped dark gods and engaged in human sacrifice.  As the millennia passed, though, their numbers dwindled, until a thousand years before Kane’s arrival they were finally slain by their African slaves, aided by the renegade priest Nakura.

Kane discovers that the inhabitants of Negari have devolved into brutal savages. They are led by the bloodthirsty Queen Nakari, whose ambition is to lead her subjects in the conquest of the African continent.  Practitioners of their former masters’ dark religion, the Negarai plan to sacrifice Marylin to the skull of Nakura, which they worship.  Kane must find a way to rescue her and escape from the city’s insane inhabitants.

Savage Sword of Conan 219 cover

Howard does good work on “The Moon of Skulls.” It is a thrilling adventure with rich descriptions and poetic language.  Although not nearly as refined or sophisticated as the writing he would be doing in a few short years, it is still a solid yarn.  However it does have certain problems.  Howard does rely a bit too much on lengthy exposition.  The resolution is also somewhat dependent upon convenient coincidence.

More of a problem, though, is the blatant racism on display. The Africans in “The Moon of Skulls” are depicted by Howard as savage, grotesque sub-humans.  I am sure that an argument could be made that Howard was a product of his time and upbringing, that institutionalized racism was the norm in early 20th Century America, particularly in the South.  Nevertheless this aspect of the story, as well as other works by REH, has undoubtedly aged poorly and now stands out as offensive.  It mars what is otherwise an entertaining tale.

Having said all that, REH was still a talented writer. If you can get past the unfortunate racism that occasionally appeared in his stories then there is much to admire in his works.  I am certainly a fan of Solomon Kane, who I find to be an intriguing protagonist.

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Okay, end digression! Getting back to our team-up… how would you bring together Conan and Solomon Kane, who lived approximately twelve millennia apart?  Well, if anyone was going to find a way to have the Barbarian and the Puritan in one story, it was going to be Roy Thomas.

Back in 1970, Thomas was instrumental in convincing Marvel Comics to publish the Conan the Barbarian series (for a nice rundown on how that took place, I recommend picking up Alter Ego #70, which features a lengthy interview of Thomas by Jim Amash, and Back Issue #11, which contains Tom Stewart’s in-depth look at Marvel’s Conan comics, both of which are available from TwoMorrows Publishing). In the past four decades Thomas has written several hundred comic book stories featuring the character of Conan, as well as various other REH-inspired tales.  He is definitely an authority on the works of REH, and I think he’s played a significant role in the character of Conan becoming such a cultural icon.

(Richard Howell, who worked with Thomas on All-Star Squadron, recently commented “I think the entire Conan franchise is entirely due to Roy.  Conan, as a property, might have wandered into fringe culture, and not the everybody-knows-it powerhouse that it is, if not for Roy. That’s my take on it, and I’m sticking to it.”)

As explained in a text piece in Savage Sword #219, Thomas was inspired to write a sequel to “The Moon of Skulls” for the Conan / Kane team-up by the fact that Conan’s people, the Cimmerians, were descendants of the ancient Atlanteans, the same civilization that had established the city of Negari. The two adventurers are thus brought together via time travel generated by the mystical powers of the sorcerer Nakura’s skull.

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The prologue of “Death’s Dark Riders” is set at the end of the 16th Century, as the now-elderly, but still very dangerous, Solomon Kane is riding through a mist-shrouded forest near Devon, England. He is set upon by a trio of ghostly horsemen who after a fierce struggle manage to subdue the Puritan.  This sequence is adapted from a story fragment with the similar title of “Death’s Black Riders” that REH penned, the opening of a Solomon Kane tale that he never finished writing.  I e-mailed Thomas and asked him where the idea of utilizing “Death’s Black Riders” had come from.  He responded “It was a way to make the starting point some actual Robert E. Howard prose.”

Elsewhen, twelve thousand years in the past, we see Conan at a point relatively early in his life. He is still mourning the recent death of his first love, the pirate queen Belit (see either the REH story “Queen of the Black Coast” or Conan the Barbarian #100 from Marvel for all the details).  Seeking to evade pursuit by a hostile tribe stalking him through the wilderness of Kush (the ancient Africa of the Hyborean Age), Conan stumbles across Negari.  He is ambushed and taken captive by the city’s inhabitants.  Meanwhile, back in the early 1600s, Kane awakens to find he has been spirited away to the ruins of Negari, where the latest would-be ruler is seeking to restore the fallen empire.  Tendrils of energy snake out from the skull of Nakura towards Kane, enveloping him.  He finds himself transported to a mysterious black chamber, and face to face with a very angry Cimmerian.

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Courtesy of a Mighty Marvel Misunderstanding, Conan and Kane quickly lock swords, each of them assuming that the other is an agent of Negari. Despite the Barbarian being in the prime of his life and the Puritan well past middle age, the later gives a good accounting of himself.  The two men fight to a standstill, all the while trading not just sword-thrusts but verbal barbs.  Gradually the pair comes to realize that they are not enemies.  At last Kane extends the hand of friendship, which Conan accepts.

Exiting the dark chamber, in fact an immense hollow skull, Conan and Kane find themselves facing the soldiers of Negari. Fighting them off and fleeing though the city, they gradually come to realize that somehow they have both been transported back in time, to a point even earlier than the Hyborean Age, when Nakura himself was still alive, and plotting to seize power.

I was curious as to why Thomas decided to move Nakura’s revolt backwards many thousands of years. I asked Thomas, who explained “Since ‘Atlantis’ was in Conan’s past in the stories, I suppose that made more sense to me than writing about Atlantean survivals of ‘only’ 1000 years ago.”

Savage Sword of Conan 220 pg 28

After witnessing the betrayal of the Atlanteans by Nakura and the rise to power by the former African slaves, Conan and Kane fight their way back through the city to the giant skull statue, hoping it will return them to their correct time periods. The two are catapulted forward to Kane’s time, where the spirit of Nakura now inhabits his preserved skull.   Nakura orders his phantom Black Riders and the Negari warriors to slay the pair.  The Cimmerian and the Englishman battle side by side against the forces of darkness, finally overcoming Nakura and his servants.

Their enemies defeated, Conan moves to clasp Kane’s hand, only for it to pass through insubstantial. The two realize that the spell that brought them together is fading, and Conan comments that “soon the ages will gape between us again, like a chasm beyond crossing” to which Kane responds “Except by friendship.”  And thus they are once again separated by the vast millennia, left to journey on their separate paths.

Savage Sword of Conan 220 pg 34

Thomas does excellent work scripting the interactions between Conan and Kane. Even after they realize that they are on the same side, there still a fair amount of verbal sparring.  Much of this banter revolves around Kane’s professions of deep faith in God, in contrast to Conan’s avowed self-reliance on his own abilities rather than upon the assistance of the disinterested deities of his era.  Even in the midst of hacking away at their adversaries, the Puritan and the Pagan cannot resist taking shots at one another for their particular approaches to the spiritual.  There is also the contrast of age, with Conan half-dismissing Kane as an “old man” and Kane regarding Conan as a “callow youth.”  Given that both of these men are strong-willed and stubborn it makes sense that Thomas shows a bit of rivalry between the two.

By the way, I did also ask Thomas a somewhat more general question about his utilization of REH’s characters and stories that relates to this particular tale.  I wondered how, when it came to adapting and expanding upon REH’s writings such as “The Moon of Skulls” or “Queen of the Black Coast” (the later of which Thomas famously expanded into a multi-year arc in Conan the Barbarian) he approached remaining faithful to the tone of the original stories while avoiding the racism that was present in them.  Thomas responded “I mostly tried to walk a tightrope.  The black kingdoms in Conan’s time were primitive in some ways, sophisticated in others… depending on which ones they were.  I simply tried to treat the black warriors as if they were no more savage or uncivilized, really, than Conan himself.”

Savage Sword of Conan 220 cover

“Death’s Dark Riders” is illustrated by British artist Colin MacNeil.  It was editor Richard Ashford who assigned MacNeil to the story, an excellent choice on his part.  Ashford was obviously someone who appreciated MacNeil’s work, as he also had him draw a number of covers for the bi-weekly anthology series Marvel Comics Presents and for the regular Conan the Barbarian comic.  MacNeil is regrettably not too well known here in the States, only having worked on a handful of American books.  But he is certainly well-regarded in his native Britain, where he has frequently contributed to 2000 AD, Judge Dredd Megazine and Warhammer Monthly.

MacNeil’s highly detailed black & white interior work on Savage Sword #s 219-220 is breathtaking and macabre. Likewise, his painted covers for these two issues are striking, atmospheric pieces.  MacNeil does excellent work illustrating Conan and Kane, bringing the two men to life.  He makes them both strong, powerful individuals, but gives each a separate, distinctive personality and physical presence.

“Death’s Dark Riders” is well worth reading, both for Thomas’ excellent writing and MacNeil’s beautiful art. I’m not certain how easy it is to locate copies of these two issues of Savage Sword.  Fortunately “Death’s Dark Riders” was reprinted several years ago.  In 2009 Dark Horse, the current holder of the comic book licenses for both Conan and Solomon Kane, released the trade paperback The Saga of Solomon Kane.  The 400 page volume collects the entirety of black & white stories featuring Kane that was originally published by Marvel between 1973 and 1994.  This includes “Death’s Dark Riders,” as well as an adaptation of “The Moon of Skulls” by Don Glut, David Wenzel & Bill Wray that ran in Savage Sword back in 1979.  If you are a fan of the character, The Saga of Solomon Kane is recommended.

Super Blog Team Up 4 official header

That concludes my portion of Super Blog Team-Up 4. Please check out the other entries from our talented group of contributors.  Here is the complete SBTU4 line-up:

1. Super-Hero Satellite: Superman and The Masters Of the Universe

2. LongBox GraveYard: Thing / Thing

3. Superior Spider-talk: Spider-man and the Coming of RazorBack!??

4. The Daily Rios: New Teen Titans/DNAgents

5. The Middle Spaces: Super Hegemonic Team-up! Spider-Man, Daredevil & ‘The Death of Jean DeWolfe’

6. Chasing Amazing: Spider-man/Spider-man 2099 Across the Spider-Verse: A Once in a Timeline Team-Up

7. Vic Sage/Retroist: Doctor Doom/Doctor Strange: The Doctor Is In

8. Fantastiverse: Superman/Spider-Man

9. Mystery V-Log: The Avengers #1

10. In My Not So Humble Opinion: Conan /Solomon Kane (that’s me!)

11. The Unspoken Decade: Two Wrongs Making a Right: Punisher Meets Archie

12. Flodos Page: Green Lantern and the Little Green Man

13. Between The Pages: World’s Finest Couple: Lois Lane and Bruce Wayne

14. BronzeAge Babies: FF/Doom, Batman/Joker, Warlock/Thanos, and Cap/Red Skull

Lets all give a big thank you to Charlton Hero for organizing Super Blog Team-Up 4, as well as for designing all of the awesome promo artwork! Also, thank you to Roy Thomas for taking the time to share his thoughts on the creation of “Death’s Dark Riders” as well as for writing so many fantastic comic books over the decades.