Thanksgiving deja vu: comic book homages to Norman Rockwell

One of the most iconic images associated with the American holiday Thanksgiving is Norman Rockwell’s painting Freedom from Want.  Painted by Rockwell in November 1942, it was published in the March 6, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. I am going to quote from Wikipedia here, and hopefully it’s accurate!

“Freedom from Want” by Norman Rockwell

Freedom from Want, also known as The Thanksgiving Picture or I’ll Be Home for Christmas, is the third of the Four Freedoms series of four oil paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. The works were inspired by United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address, known as Four Freedoms.

The website Totally History offers the following analysis of the painting’s composition:

The painting depicts three generations of a family around a table at Thanksgiving. The father is standing at the head of the table as the mother is about to place a large turkey in front of him.

The opulence of the turkey is counterbalanced by the relative scarcity of other foods on the table and the presence of water as the only beverage.

Over the past 75 years Freedom From Want has been the subject of numerous homages and parodies, including within the comic book medium.  For my tongue-in-cheek celebration of Thanksgiving this year, here are 10 of those images.

JSA 54 cover

Probably one of the best well-known comic book covers to pay tribute to Freedom From Want is JSA #54 (Jan 2004) from DC Comics.  Drawn by Carlos Pacheco & Jesus Merino, this cover features Superman and Power Girl serving Thanksgiving dinner to the Justice Society and Justice League. I am going to abstain from making any comments about “breast or leg” here, although the jokes do sort of write themselves. Sorry, Power Girl!

American Flagg 4 Thanksgiving

Nobody does political satire in comic books quite like the legendary Howard Chaykin.  Here is a panel from American Flagg! #4 (Jan 1984) from First Comics, featuring one of the most dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinners you are likely to ever come across.

Evil Clown Comics 4 cover

Hmmm, this turkey tastes a little funny.  Ha ha ha… sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.  Anyway, speaking of dysfunctional, not to mention just plain disturbing, here is the cover to Evil Clown Comics #4 by the late Alan Kupperberg from 1989. I’ve never found any physical copies of this series, but I believe that it collected together the Evil Clown Comics stories by Kupperberg that were published in National Lampoon.

Garfield 7 variant cover

A slightly less unsettling image is offered up on this variant cover to Garfield #7 (Nov 2012) published by Boom! Studios.  I’m certain anyone who has ever had cats can identify with the danger of your feline companions attempting to make off with the Thanksgiving turkey.  It’s certainly happened to us on a couple of occasions!

Flare 31 cover

The talented and much-underrated Gordon Purcell offers up this lovely tribute to Rockwell on his cover for Flare #31 (Feb 2006) from Dennis Mallonee’s Heroic Publishing, which has been releasing fun, entertaining comic books since the mid 1980s.

Barbie Fashion 37 cover

Back in the early 1990s Marvel Comics had not one, but two ongoing Barbie comic book series, both of which lasted for several years.  Both titles had some talented creators working on them.  It was probably one of Marvel’s more successful efforts to reach a young female audience. Here’s the cover to Barbie Fashion #37 (Jan 1994) by Anna-Marie Cool & Jeff Albrecht.

Chase 6 cover

Chase was one of those really good titles from the 1990s that unfortunately never really found an audience and was cancelled too soon.  D. Curtis Johnson did some really great writing on this series.  Cameron Chase had some serious family issues, so of course here we are flashing back to Thanksgiving of days past on the cover to issue #6 (July 1998).  This striking image is by the superb team of J. H. Williams III & Mick Gray.

Mad Magazine 39 pg 43

Good old MAD Magazine, always ready to skewer politics, pop culture and society! This send-up of The Saturday Evening Post is from issue #39, published waaaay back in May 1958.  Unfortunately I have not been able to find a credit for the artist.  Can anyone help out?

Update: As per the link helpfully provided by M.S. Wilson in the comments below, this piece was done by regular MAD contributors writer Tom Koch & artist Bob Clarke.

Fantastic Four 564 cover

Marvel’s First Family celebrates Thanksgiving on the cover to Fantastic Four # 564 (April 2009) by Bryan Hitch.  I’m sure that, among the various things for which the Invisible Woman is thankful for this year, it’s that Reed Richards opted to slice up the turkey in the traditional manner, as opposed to inventing an Atomic Powered Turkey Carver which would have undoubtedly blown the roof off of the Baxter Building.

Betty 119 cover

Let’s close things out with the cover to Betty #119 (Jan 2003) by Stan Goldberg & Bob Smith, which has the gang from Riverdale celebrating Thanksgiving, complete with Reggie Mantle’s usual snarky comments.  I’m not completely certain if this cover is a specific homage to Rockwell, but it is certainly close enough.  In any case, Archie Comics too often falls under the radar, which is too bad, since they have some really great art.

(This was by no means a comprehensive list, and a quick search of the internet will reveal many more tributes to Freedom From Want.)

I hope everyone enjoyed this little selection of Thanksgiving-themed comic book artwork.  Have a good holiday, and let’s all try to be thankful for for what we have, because there are a lot of people much less fortunate in the world.

Happy 75th birthday Neal Adams

I wanted to write a quick blog post wishing Neal Adams a happy birthday.  The legendary comic book artist was born 75 years ago today on June 15, 1941.

In a lengthy career that stretched from 1960 to the present, Adams has worked on numerous series, drawing some of the all-time greatest depictions of many different comic book characters.  At DC Comics he worked on Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Deadman.  Over at Marvel Comics he had short but extremely well-regarded runs on both Avengers and X-Men.  At his company Continuity Studios he worked on several creator-owned characters, most notably Ms. Mystic and Samuree.

Adams has also long been a vocal champion of creators’ rights in the comic book industry.  In the late 1970s he played a major role in DC finally awarding long-overdue public recognition & financial compensation to Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster.  Among the other creators who Adams aided over the years were Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Dave Cockrum.  Adams was one of the first creators to strongly lobby publishers to return original artwork to artists.

nealadams01

Adams remains active in the biz.  Recent projects include the bizarre Batman: Odyssey for DC and First X-Men for Marvel.  Early this year he penciled a series of variant covers for DC Comics that paid homage to many of his now-classic Bronze Age covers.  On these variants Adams was paired up with a number of talented artists inking him.  Adams is currently working on the six issue miniseries Superman: The Coming of the Supermen, which features some really dynamic artwork.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of Adams’ prolific presence in the comic book biz.  Perhaps in the future I will have a chance to take a closer look at some of his works.

If you’ve met Neal Adams any time in the last few years, you will probably find yourself saying that he doesn’t look like he’s in his 70s.  Hopefully he will be with us for many more years to come, creating still more amazing artwork.

Darwyn Cooke: 1962 to 2016

Comic book creator Darwyn Cooke passed away this morning from cancer. He was only 53 years old.  Cooke was an amazing artist, and his death at such a young age is a tragedy.

The first time I ever noticed Cooke’s name was in 1999 for the credits of the animated series Batman Beyond. He designed the stunning title sequence for the show.

Cooke’s work with writer Ed Brubaker on the first four issues of the revamped Catwoman series for DC Comics in 2001 was amazing. Cooke both wrote and illustrated the epic, beautiful DC: The New Frontier miniseries published in 2004.

Wonder Woman and friends Darwyn Cooke

There was a quality to Cooke’s work that stood out for me. He successfully took the colorful, upbeat qualities of DC Comics in the Silver Age and blended them with a hardboiled, noir sensibility, resulting in a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.  Cooke’s art was both atmospheric and fun.

Cooke also rendered incredibly beautiful women. I love how he depicted both Catwoman and Wonder Woman.  His drawings of Selina and Diana were sexy, confident, strong and graceful.

For all of their titles cover-dated February 2015, DC Comics published variant covers illustrated by Cooke. He created some incredible images for these.

To me, the timing of these covers was so weird. DC’s New 52 reboot was entering its third year.  Most of their titles were grim and downbeat, bereft of joy, featuring busy, hyper-detailed artwork.  The variant covers by Cooke for these issues were a complete 180 degrees apart.  They were colorful and exciting and fun… yes, I used the “fun” word again.  I remember looking at these covers by Cooke, then looking at the interiors, which paled by comparison.  I found myself wishing that DC would ask Cooke to work on an ongoing series for them.

Supergirl 37 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

One of my favorite of these Cooke variants was Supergirl #37. It was such a cute depiction of the Maid of Steel and the Super-Pets.  I especially loved Cooke’s adorable Streaky the Supercat.

Another one of these variants that stood out for me was Batman / Superman #17. For the past three decades, ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the relationship between Batman and Superman has been characterized as adversarial and tense.  Numerous stories have seen the two of them butting heads over ideologies and methodologies.  It would be fair to say that they fought each other more often than they actually worked together to save the world.

In contrast, on his cover for this issue Cooke shows the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel as close friends, allies in the war on crime who, in spite of their differences, like and respect one another. In that one image Cooke perfectly encapsulates how the relationship between Batman and Superman should be.  I’m not saying they should agree with each other all the time, but neither should they be at each other’s throats the instant they both enter the same room.

Batman Superman 17 Darwyn Cooke cover signed

Last year Cooke illustrated The Twilight Children, a four issue miniseries from DC / Vertigo. It was written by Gilbert Hernandez, with coloring by Dave Stewart.  As he had done in the past on Love and Rockets, Hernandez blended elements of sci-fi and magical realism for this story.  Cooke’s artwork was excellent, very much suiting Hernandez’s sensibilities.

Recently talking to Comic Book Resources about their collaboration, Hernandez had this to say…

Working on “The Twilight Children” with Darwyn Cooke was perfect timing because they asked me to do it and I took a look at Darwyn’s work — I know his work, but I looked at it closer and I go, “This guy knows how to make a comic.” He doesn’t need me, but let’s do this. Let me write this story, but I was gonna write it as simple as possible, As directly as possible, mostly dialogue, not a lot of description of what’s going on, just letting him know it’s a little fishing village, it’ll move along at a certain pace and this and that. And he just ran with it, beautifully, he just knew what to do. So the synergy was there, and he hooked up with his friend and colorist, Dave Stewart, who just made the beautiful colors. It was just an ideal situation because we let it happen. A lot of times when people collaborate who have their own careers separately collaborate there’s a lot of head butting. We were head-less. [Laughs] We basically just let it happen. Let it happen the script, let the art happen, he just let himself do it. That worked really well. We’d like to do another project together later on where he writes and I draw, so we’ll see about that.

The Twlight Children 1 pg 13

Cooke’s artwork on The Twilight Children featured very powerful layouts and storytelling.  He invested the characters with real, palpable emotions.

I was fortunate enough to meet Cooke last October. He was in town for New York Comic Con to promote the upcoming release of The Twilight Children.  Cooke and Hernandez did a signing at St. Mark’s Comics.  Cooke was definitely very friendly, laid-back, and possessed a really good sense of humor.  He made us fans feel welcome.

I had brought along my convention sketchbook with me, just in case Cooke was willing to do sketches. I asked him and he said okay.  I handed my sketchbook to him and asked him to draw whoever he wanted.  He did a nice head sketch of Catwoman in my book.  I really appreciated his generosity.

Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke

From what I have heard, this was typical of Cooke. Everyone regarded him as a genuinely nice guy.  Reading the online reactions to his untimely death, it is apparent that his passing at such a young age is all the more tragic because not only was he an immensely talented artist but also a good friend to many people.  He will definitely be missed.

Black Lightning strikes twice!

For a number of years I’ve very much wanted to be able to read the original Black Lightning series created and written by Tony Isabella and penciled by Trevor Von Eeden published by DC Comics in the late 1970s. Due to disagreements between Isabella and DC management, for a time the possibility of a trade paperback seemed extremely unlikely.  Fortunately last year Isabella and DC were able to begin working out these differences, which paved the way for the release of a collection.

Black Lightning trade paperback

The trade paperback contains the eleven issue run of Black Lightning that was published between April 1977 and September 1978, as well as the material that was originally intended for issue #12 before the series was abruptly cancelled as part of the infamous DC Implosion (it eventually saw print in World’s Finest Comics #260 in December 1979). Isabella wrote the first ten issues, and the final two are by Denny O’Neil.  Von Eeden was the penciler on all of the issues except the last one, which was by Mike Netzer.  The series was edited by Jack C. Harris.

Isabella wrote a brand-new introduction for this volume that details the conception of the series, and the idealism which guided him as a writer:

“I kept thinking about creating a new African-American hero. I wanted a character to whom our young readers could relate, a character who would inspire them as Superman and Captain America had inspired me.”

Jefferson Pierce grew up in the “Suicide Slum” of Metropolis. He possessed both a strong affinity for academics and tremendous athletic abilities.  After winning gold medals at two Olympics, Jefferson went into teaching.  As the first issue opens, Jefferson has returned to Suicide Slum for the first time in years to work at his alma mater Garfield High.  He hopes that just as he was able to escape the crime & poverty of the ghetto, he can help to inspire the next generation to do the same.

Jefferson is alarmed to discover that the organized crime entity known as “The 100” has established a stranglehold on Suicide Slum, and that its drug dealers are a regular presence in the hallways of Garfield High. Jefferson attempts to drive them off, only to see The 100 strike back at him through his students.  This prompts Jefferson, with the aid of his mentor, tailor Peter Gambi, to create the costumed identity of Black Lightning.  Thus disguised, Jefferson launches a one-man war against The 100.

Black Lightning 1 pg 14

It’s interesting that Isabella decided to set this series in Superman’s hometown. At first it might seem odd that The 100 have taken root in the same city inhabited by the Man of Steel.  But of course Superman has usually specialized in tackling menaces that threaten the entire world.  More importantly, Superman really is not able to do a great deal about the social & economic ills that create fertile ground in which the weed of The 100 flourishes.  So it makes more sense that a “street-level” hero such as Black Lightning, who grew up in Suicide Slum and who knows its people intimately, is more suited to combating The 100.

Nevertheless, Isabella does establish that although The 100 and their Metropolis chief Tobias Whale (imagine Al Capone meets Moby Dick) are primarily concerned with eliminating Black Lightning, they also regard Superman as a potential threat, and so have plans to eventually deal with him. This leads to the two crime-fighters meeting, and Isabella does a fine job highlighting both their differences and their similarities.

It is readily apparent that Black Lightning was a labor of love on Isabella’s part. He put a great deal of thought into who Jefferson Pierce is, what motivates him, how he feels about his students, and his ambivalent feelings regarding his violent alter ego.  In the first ten issues Isabella did excellent work developing the character and establishing his supporting cast.

I wish we could have seen more of Jefferson in his role as a teacher at Garfield High, which was often barely touched upon in these stories. Unfortunately at this time American comic books had been reduced to 17 pages, rather than the usual 22, which severely curtailed the ability of many writers to develop subplots.  Given the abbreviated page count, Isabella no doubt did the best he could in the space provided.  As I recall, years later when Isabella returned to Black Lightning for an acclaimed eight issue run in 1995, he focused as much on Jefferson’s work as a teacher as he did his vigilante activities.

The two stories written by O’Neil are somewhat more underwhelming, at least in my estimation. O’Neil is definitely a very good writer when he is passionate about a character or a story.  His work on Batman is justifiably regarded as legendary.  This, however, just seems more by-the-numbers, at least compared to the energy that Isabella obviously brought to the series.

Black Lightning 7 pg 15

The penciling by Von Eeden on Black Lightning is very good, all the more so when you consider that this was his first professional assignment. He was only 17 years old when he began on the series.  Although much of his wonderful signature style and the dynamic, unconventional layouts he would later utilize are not yet on display, you can still see from these issues the great potential and that Von Eeden was just beginning to develop.

On the first two issues Von Eeden is inked by Frank Springer, a talented artist who had been working in comic books since the early 1960s. The collaboration between newcomer Von Eeden and veteran Springer is very effective, resulting in some great artwork.

Beginning on issue #3, though, Vince Colletta assumes the inking chores, and the difference is immediately noticeable. His characteristic feathery line is on display, and in places it threatens to overwhelm Von Eeden’s nascent style.  I certainly would not say that Colletta’s inking on Black Lightning is among the worse work that he’s done.  Some of his work on these issues is actually rather effective.  It is just that, speaking from personal taste, I’d have preferred if Springer could have remained on the series longer.

Much like Von Eeden, Netzer was relatively new to comic books when he penciled the final story in this collection. He was already doing good work around this time, although his style was still developing.  Colletta’s inking unfortunately does Netzer few favors on this story, although there are some nice layouts on display.

Black Lightning 9 cover

Topping it all off, so to speak, is Rich Buckler. The Bronze Age legend penciled all but two of the covers for Black Lightning, creating some very dynamic pieces.

Definitely pick up a copy of the first Black Lightning collection. It’s a really good read.  And hopefully it does well enough that it prompts DC to release further trade paperbacks.  The excellent 1995 series that Isabella did with artist Eddy Newell is also long overdue for reprinting.

Remembering comic book artist Paul Ryan

Comic book artist Paul Ryan passed away on March 6, 2016 at the much too young age of 66. Ryan was a prolific artist whose career spanned from 1984 until the time of his death.

Fantastic Four 358 cover

A lifelong comic book fan, Ryan did not made his professional debut until the age of 35. He submitted a story to Charlton Comics which was originally scheduled to see print in the anthology title Charlton Bullseye, but the company folded before it could be published.  Much of Charlton’s unused inventory was acquired by AC Comics head honcho Bill Black, and Ryan’s debut finally saw print in the AC title Starmasters #1.

Shortly after Ryan met professional artist Bob Layton at a comic book convention. Layton had recently moved to the Boston area and was looking for an assistant.  Layton recounted on his Facebook page

“I trained him as my apprentice, inking backgrounds for my various Marvel projects. All that time working together, Paul worked on his penciling samples for Marvel.”

Eventually accompanying Layton on a trip to the Marvel Comics offices in Manhattan, Ryan was introduced to the editorial staff. This led to Ryan receiving assignments from the company.  His first job was inking Ron Wilson’s pencils on The Thing #27 (Sept 1985).

Shortly afterwards Ryan was tapped to take over as penciler on the 12 issue Squadron Supreme miniseries written by Mark Gruenwald.  Ryan penciled issue #6 (Feb 1986) and then issues #9-12.  Ryan was paired with inker Sam De La Rosa, and also had the opportunity to work with his mentor Layton, who inked four of his five covers.

After completing Squadron Supreme, Ryan again worked with Gruenwald, co-creating D.P. 7 which debuted in November 1986. D.P.7 was considered one of the high points in Marvel’s very uneven New Universe imprint.  Ryan was the penciler for the entire 32 issue run of D.P.7.  It was on D.P.7 that Ryan was first paired with Filipino artist Danny Bulanadi as his inker. I really appreciated the rich, illustrative quality that Bulanadi’s inking gave Ryan’s pencils.  They made a great team.

During this time, in 1987, Ryan penciled Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, the historic marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson.

Avengers 330 cover signed

After D.P.7 came to an end, Ryan became the penciler of Avengers with issue #305 (July 1989). He was teamed with writer John Byrne and longtime Avengers inker / embellisher Tom Palmer.  After Byrne departed, Ryan worked with succeeding writers Fabian Nicieza and Larry Hama.  Ryan and Hama introduced the African American teenage hero Rage who, after a short stint as an Avenger, joined the New Warriors.

In late 1989 Ryan also penciled the first six issues of the ongoing Quasar series written by Gruenwald. Ryan was inked by Bulanadi on these.

Ryan was an incredibly fast artist, and in 1990 at the same time he was penciling Avengers he was also working on the Avengers West Coast spin-off series. Ryan inked Byrne’s pencils on issues #54 -57.  He then penciled issues #60 – 69, working with writers Roy & Dann Thomas, with Bulanadi once again inking him.

After departing AWC in early 1991, Ryan was once more paired with Byrne, this time on Iron Man. Bob Wiacek inked Ryan on these issues.

Later that year Ryan & Bulanadi joined writer Tom DeFalco to become the new creative team on Fantastic Four. Their first issue was #356 (Sept 1991).  Two months later, in the giant-sized FF #358, the series celebrated its 30th anniversary.  Among the numerous features contained in that issue, Ryan & Bulanadi illustrated an amazing double-page pin-up featuring many of the heroes and villains of the Marvel universe.

In an 1997 interview Ryan stated that FF was his favorite Marvel title.  He had bought the very first issue when it came out back in 1961 when he was 11 years old, and was “very excited ”to be working on the series 30 years later.

Fantastic Four 358 Marvel characters

Ryan began co-plotting Fantastic Four with DeFalco beginning with issue #260. He remained on the series until issue #414 (July 1996). He penciled 59 consecutive issues, one month short of a full five years.  Ryan would undoubtedly have stayed on FF even longer if he and DeFalco had not been given the boot to make way for “Heroes Reborn.”

Reader reaction to DeFalco & Ryan’s time on Fantastic Four was decidedly mixed. I personally enjoyed it, but I understand why others were less enthusiastic.  Looking back, it is obvious that DeFalco & Ryan wanted to emulate the classic Lee & Kirby era, but they were also attempting to make the book competitive at a time when X-Men was Marvel’s hottest property, and everything else was falling by the wayside.  They wanted to give FF a retro Silver Age feel and make it appealing to teenage readers, i.e. sexing up the Invisible Woman and making her more ruthless, giving the rest of the team a more gritty look, generating numerous long-running subplots & mysteries, introducing a younger “next generation” of FF-related heroes, and tossing in lots of stuff involving time travel & alternate realities.  At times perhaps those styles did not mesh well, but DeFalco & Ryan were clearly giving it their all.

Understandably annoyed at being tossed off Fantastic Four, Ryan left Marvel and went to DC Comics. He worked there from 1996 to 2000.  His main assignments at DC were the quarterly Superman: Man of Tomorrow and the monthly Flash series.  He also penciled issues of Superboy, Aquaman and Batman: Gotham Knights, as well as a four issue Legion: Science Police miniseries.

Superman Man of Tomorrow 9 pg 6

One of my favorite DC issues that Ryan penciled was Superman: Man of Tomorrow #9 (Fall 1997), written by Roger Stern and inked by Brett Breeding. As Superman is busy adjusting to his new energy powers, Jonathan & Martha Kent recollect on their son’s life.  This provided Ryan & Breeding with the opportunity to illustrate many of the key moments in Superman’s post-Crisis history up to that point in time.

Notably, Ryan was one of a number of artists to work on the Superman: The Wedding Album in 1997, penciling 11 pages of this giant-sized special. By his involvement in this, he had worked on both the wedding of Clark Kent & Lois Lane and the wedding of Peter & Mary Jane.

I was glad to see Ryan receive work at DC.  I was a regular letterhack back then, and I wrote in to the Superman editors with the following…

“Paul Ryan is a superb penciler, and I’m glad you guys got him to work on this book. It’s nice to see that you guys can appreciate true talent.”

Yes, that was something of a swipe by me at Marvel for their treatment of Ryan the year before.

After his time at DC concluded, Ryan penciled a handful of fill-ins for CrossGen.  He worked on several issues of Crux and Ruse.

Phantom newspaper strip 04 13 2007

In 2001 Ryan began working on The Phantom comic books published by the Swedish company Egmont. This was the start of an association with Lee Falk’s legendary comic strip hero that would last for the next decade and a half.  Ryan was tapped to take over The Phantom weekly comic strip in 2005, working with writer Tony De Paul.  Two years later Ryan also assumed the art duties on the Sunday comic strip.

Ryan was a longtime fan of The Phantom.  He produced quality artwork on both the comic books and the newspaper strip.  He was still working as the artist on the daily strip at the time of his passing.

(For fans of The Phantom, the comic strip is archived online going back to 1996 on The Phantom Comics website.)

I really feel that Ryan was an underrated talent who was too often eclipsed by the “hot” artists of the 1990s.  Unlike many of those guys, Ryan was a very good penciler with strong sequential illustration skills, an artist who turned in quality work while consistently meeting deadlines; in other words, a true professional.

Paul Ryan 2000 photo

I was a fan of Ryan’s work ever since I first saw it in the late 1980s. Over the years I corresponded with him by e-mail on Facebook.  I was fortunate enough to meet Ryan once, back in 2000.  He was a guest at a major comic convention held at Madison Square Garden that was organized by Spencer Beck.  Ryan drew an amazing color sketch of Beautiful Dreamer for me at that show.  I had always hoped to one day meet Ryan again so that I could obtain another sketch from him.  Sadly that is no longer possible.  But I am grateful that I had that one opportunity to meet him all those years ago.

Comic book reviews: Justice League “Gods and Monsters” prequels

As a lead-up to the direct-to-DVD animated feature Justice League: Gods and Monsters, DC Comics released a trio of prequels that delved into the origins of the alternate-reality versions of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman who make up the team.  Released as digital-first comics, print editions have subsequently come out over the past three weeks.  These were co-plotted by Gods and Monsters producer Bruce Timm, co-plotted & scripted by longtime comic book writer J.M. DeMatteis, and illustrated by several talented artists.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman cover

I haven’t yet had an opportunity to pick up the DVD but I enjoyed these three prequels so I expect that I’ll be getting it in the near future.  Here’s a quick look at them.

The Batman prequel reveals that in this reality the dark knight of Gotham is scientist Kurt Langstrom (who in the mainstream DCU is the shape-shifting Man-Bat).  Langstrom was suffering from cancer and attempted to devise a cure.  In a way he succeeded, although it resulted in him becoming a vampiric creature that needs to feed on blood to survive.  In an attempt to alleviate his conscience Langstrom becomes a vigilante, draining the blood of criminals.

For a couple of reasons I was a bit underwhelmed with the Batman book.  There were a lot of similarities between Langstrom and the Marvel character Morbius the Living Vampire.  In addition, the concept of a vampire Batman was already done very successfully in the Elseworlds trilogy Red Rain.  This feels a bit like a needless retread.

Nevertheless, despite the somewhat less-than-groundbreaking nature of this alternate Batman, DeMatteis does a good job examining Langstrom’s tortured psyche.  The artwork by Matthew Dow Smith is effectively moody, although some of his storytelling is a little unclear, his characters a bit stiff.  The cover by the super-talented Francesco Francavilla is very good.

Gods and Monsters Batman pg 9

I was definitely much more impressed with the Superman prequel.  One of the qualities of Superman in his various incarnations is that although he was born on Krypton he was raised on Earth by the Kents, who instilled in him morality, responsibility and empathy.  Whatever the circumstances of his birth, he became a hero because his human parents raised him to be a good person.  Various alternate-reality versions of Superman have examined how, if the infant Superman had instead arrived somewhere else (such as the Soviet Union or Apokolips) he would end up a very different person.

The Superman in Gods and Monsters is not Kal-El, but rather the son of General Zod.  Nevertheless, he is still a product of his upbringing.  Found as a baby by a family of Mexican migrant workers, he is named Hernan Guerra.  Young Hernan is raised by a loving family that tries to teach him to be responsible with his powers.  Unfortunately he grows up seeing his family being exploited by farm owners who force their employees to work long, grueling hours for slave wages.  He is also regularly subjected to racism and xenophobia, harassed by people who accuse him of taking jobs from “real” Americans. DeMatteis has the story narrated by Hernan’s sister Valentina, who explains the conflict that the young outsider must endure…

“All he knew was that he had the powers of Heaven – and yet his entire existence was of the Earth: The son of migrant workers whose lives were defined by unending work. Constant fear and suspicion.”

Despite his parents’ best efforts, Hernan grows up full of resentment.  He wants to use his powers to make the world a better place, but his anger pushes him to extreme actions.  He is a Superman who is balanced precipitously on a moral tightrope, a well-intentioned hero who is in danger of becoming a tyrant.

The art & coloring by Moritat effectively depict both the innocence of young Hernan and the bitter disenchantment he continually experiences as he grows older.  Moritat superbly brings to live the complex characterization that DeMatteis & Timm have invested in their protagonist.  The cover by Gabriel Hardman demonstrates the majestic yet stern & brooding nature of this Superman.

Gods and Monsters Superman pg 5

The last of the prequels, Wonder Woman, features Becca, a New God who flees to Earth in a Boom Tube in 1962.  Living in exile among humanity, Becca is struck by the extreme dichotomy of humanity…

“And yet the very duality of this world calls to me… and I have no choice but to answer. So I travel from overcrowded cities to isolated mountains. From places of breathtaking natural beauty to war-ravaged wastelands. I observe the flow of life – with both wonder and horror —  never interfering in the events unfolding around me.”

Becca eventually finds herself in New York in 1967.  She is drawn to the hippie counter-cultural movement.  Joining a group of teenagers known as the “Hairies” at an upstate commune, Becca admires their willingness to attempt to expand their consciousness, to discover the larger universe, but despairs at them relying on harmful drugs to do so.  She attempts to help these young people achieve their enlightenment through more benign means, sharing with them the telepathic technology of her Mother Box.

It can be a difficult task to follow in the footsteps of Jack Kirby when revisiting his New Gods.  The characters and stories were such a personal expression on his part, and very much rooted in the social & political climate of early 1970s America.  Many a subsequent writer who has attempted to utilize the New Gods has either fallen into slavish imitation of Kirby, or has instead written material that feels very disconnected from the original stories.

DeMatteis has on occasion explored the New Gods.  He wrote a Forever People miniseries and several issues of Mister Miracle in the late 1980s.  Looking at those, as well as his work on this Wonder Woman special, I really feel that he is one of the more successful writers in revisiting Kirby’s concepts.  Yes, DeMatteis takes a very different approach to the execution of the characters, but thematically his utilization of them is akin to Kirby himself.

Much of Kirby’s work on the Fourth World books was rooted in his dissatisfaction at the American landscape of the late 1960s and the early 70s.  He was very troubled by the Vietnam War, by the Nixon presidency, and by the rise of the religious right.  Kirby saw in the hippies and flower children of the time a possible hope for tomorrow: a group of young people who rejected violence and discrimination and who wanted to create a better, inclusive society.

DeMatteis very much taps into this in “The Dream.”  Becca simultaneously regards the Hairies as both naïve and admirable.  She very much agrees with their goals, but recognizes that it takes not just ideals but hard work to make dreams a reality.  Nevertheless, she cannot help but think…

“Perhaps, I mused, naïveté is our best weapon against cynicism. Perhaps innocence is the only antidote to the soul-crushing disease of experience.”

Becca stays among the Hairies, hoping to assist them in working towards their goals.  For all their flaws and moral blind spots, she recognizes that their ideals are noble and worth striving to achieve.

Gods and Monsters Wonder Woman pg 15

The special is very effectively illustrated by longtime artists Rick Leonardi & Dan Green.  I have always found Leonardi’s style to be a bit sketchy & surreal, with a quality that can be either dreamlike or nightmarish.  That very much suits the tone of DeMatteis & Timm’s plot.  Green’s inking complements Leonardi’s pencils perfectly.  They have previously worked together on several occasions, always to excellent results.

The cover for the Wonder Woman prequel is by Jae Lee, with coloring from June Chung.  It is certainly a beautiful piece.  Much like Leonardi, Lee possesses a quality to his work that is simultaneously hyper-detailed and illusory.  His depiction of Becca is beautiful and striking.

Overall I was satisfied with the Gods and Monsters prequels.  Timm & DeMatteis did a good job developing the back-stories of the characters.  The scripting by DeMatteis is top-notch.  He has always been really good at getting into the heads of his characters.  The end result is that I am certainly interested in seeing them again in the animated movie.

Glen Orbik: 1963 to 2015

Last week on his Facebook page, artist Joe Jusko announced the sad news that painter Glen Orbik had passed away at the much too young age of 51 years.  Orbik had been suffering from cancer, and on May 11th he succumbed to his illness.

While I was not especially familiar with Glen Orbik’s work, I immediately recognized his name.  For about a decade, beginning in the mid 1990s, Orbik painted a number of beautiful comic book covers.  Many of these were done for DC Comics.

Orbik’s first comic book cover was for Aquaman #25.  He painted a striking portrait of the king of the seas, giving him a noble, contemplative look.  Orbik’s style was very well suited to capturing the roughly-hewn majesty of Peter David’s revamp of Aquaman, with his long hair, beard, bare chest and harpoon in place of his lost left hand.

Legends of the DC Universe 1 cover

Also for DC Comics, Orbik illustrated the cover to the graphic novel The Life Story of the Flash.  He contributed covers to the Batman story arcs “Cataclysm,” “Aftershock,” and “No Man’s Land.”  Orbik also painted covers for the anthology title Legends of the DC Universe, including the three issue debut arc starring Superman.  For these Orbik rendered a vision of the Man of Steel that was both bursting with power and endowed with humanity.

During his career Orbik illustrated numerous book covers.  His work was well suited to science fiction, fantasy and especially mystery & noir.  Orbik’s moody, atmospheric work in that genre made him an absolutely ideal choice to contribute several covers to DC Comics’ 1997 annuals, which had the loose overarching theme of “Pulp Heroes.”

Among Orbik’s covers for the “Pulp Heroes” annuals was the incredibly striking painted artwork for Aquaman Annual #3.  His depiction of Aquaman was once again both savage and noble, gracefully gliding through the ocean to discover a beautiful murder victim, an image that was a superb amalgamation of fantasy and hard-boiled crime imagery.

Aquaman Annual 3 cover

Orbik also did work for other comic book companies.  He painted several covers and trading cards for Marvel Comics.  Most notably, Orbik’s dynamic cover for Thor #41 (November 2001) was later re-used in the character’s profile for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Avengers 2004.  He painted several covers for The Victorian and Anne Steelyard: The Garden of Emptiness, both from Penny-Farthing Productions. He also contributed a variant cover to The Oz / Wonderland Chronicles #3 in 2008 (the main cover for which, incidentally, was illustrated by Jusko).

Orbik’s wife Laurel Blechman was an artist, as well.  She collaborated with him on various covers, including his DC Comics work.

A large selection of Glen Orbik’s paintings, including those he did with Blechman, is on display at his official website.  I definitely recommend visiting it.  There is some incredibly beautiful art to be seen.

It is unfortunate that Orbik passed away at such a young age.  He was a very talented artist.

Spotlight on Streaky the Supercat

It’s a bird!  No, it’s a plane!  No, it’s… Supercat?!?

Sometimes the Silver Age of superhero comic books, specifically the various series published by DC Comics, is considered by contemporary readers to be too silly.  Of course, in the last quarter century the pendulum has swung much too far in the opposite direction, with both DC and Marvel taking everything way too seriously.  They’re often afraid to have any sense of fun about their stories.  I really think you need to have a balance between those two extremes.  Anyone who follows my blog has no doubt noticed that I have very diverse interests, and my tastes run, as the saying goes, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

And so, even though there was a great deal of nonsense to DC’s books in the 1950s and 60s, I think there is quite a bit that’s fun & charming about those comics.  That includes Streaky the Supercat.

Making his debut in Action Comics #261 (Feb 1960), Streaky was designed by artist Jim Mooney, who in later years would say the character was one of his favorites.  Streaky was one of the only non-Kryptonian members of the “Superman Family” (there was also Comet the Super-Horse, but he’s much too weird to get into right now).  An ordinary Earth cat, Streaky was the pet of Supergirl in her civilian guise as Linda Lee.  In a failed attempt to find a cure for Kyrptonite, Supergirl accidentally created “X-Kryptonite.”  She carelessly tossed it away, but when Streaky later came across it, the substance imbued him with Superman-like powers.

Action Comics 373 pg 7

Here’s a page from “The Battle of the Super-Pets,” which originally appeared in Action Comics #277 (June 1961).  Streaky, jealous of the attention that Supergirl is giving to Krypto the Superdog, begins a rivalry with the Kryptonian canine.  To avoid the inevitable property damage, Supergirl takes them off-world to resume their contest on a small planetoid.  You can see from the artwork that Mooney really invested Streaky with a great deal of personality.  As someone who loved cats, he must have known all about feline “cattitude.”

(I scanned this from a reprint of the story that ran in the somewhat more affordable and easy to locate Action Comics #373, a giant-sized special which collected together several earlier Supergirl tales).

Although Streaky was never a major fixture of the “mainstream” DC titles, he eventually went on to make appearances in stories that were, appropriately enough, geared towards a younger audience.  Streaky was one of the main characters in the Krypto the Superdog animated series which ran from March 2005 to December 2006.  Streaky has also popped up in the Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures comics by Art Baltazar & Franco Aureliani.

It was probably inevitable after Michele and I adopted our two cats Nettie and Squeaky that I would become a fan of fictional felines.  And that includes Streaky the Supercat.  Although not a major theme for me like Beautiful Dreamer, I have obtained a few sketches of the heroic housecat.

streakycohn

Scott Cohn is a versatile artist who has worked on such comic books as Army of Darkness, Ben 10, Justice League Unlimited and Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  He has also done licensing artwork for various properties, including the Krypto the Superdog series.  So I asked him to do a sketch of the animated version of Streaky.  Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to get some other sketches by Cohn. He does nice work.

streakyharris

Independent creator Alisa Harris has self-published several comic books.  One of these, Counter Attack, is a whimsical look at the antics of her cats Fidget and Moe.  Harris recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the hardcover publication of The Collected Counter Attack!  I’m looking forward to receiving a copy in the mail later this year.  Harris has drawn a couple of cat sketches for me, including this cute Streaky.

darkseid vs streaky franco

When I met Franco Aureliani at the 2013 New York Comic Con, of course I had to ask for a drawing of Streaky.  I requested that he draw “Streaky vs. Darkseid,” because the lord of Apokolips is a frequent fixture of Tiny Titans as the evil lunch lady.  Franco knows his cats very well, because faced by Darkseid’s menace Streaky simply can’t be bothered and decides to take a nap.

Last but certainly not least is my girlfriend, the beautiful and talented Michele Witchipoo.  I was friends with Michele for several years before we started dating.  During that time, she began self-publishing two comic book series: Psycho Bunny features the misadventures of an antisocial alcoholic rabbit living in Astoria, Queens, and Babalon Babes is a collection of sexy pin-up girl illustrations.  Over the past decade Michele has really developed as an artist.  She is constantly creating better and better work.

Streaky Silver Age Witchipoo

Michele has loved cats since she was a little girl, and grew up with them.  When I first told her about Streaky the Supercat in 2009, she did this charming drawing of the Silver Age version of the character for herself.

streaky animated witchipoo

A couple of days ago, I mentioned to Michele that I was going to do a blog post about Streaky.  She insisted that she wanted to do a brand new illustration of him in my convention sketchbook.  Michele decided to draw the animated version of Streaky this time.  And here he is, attempting very much to look like the Cat of Steel.  Michele definitely captured Streaky’s personality in this piece.  The “super tuna” was certainly a cute touch.

Perhaps I’ll get other Supercat sketches in the future.  I have to see which artists I run into at conventions.  I just hope that Nettie and Squeaky don’t mind.  They tend to get jealous, but that’s cats for you!

Happy birthday to Louise Simonson

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to one of my favorite comic book writers, Louise Simonson, who was born on September 26, 1946.  When I was a young reader who was just getting into comic books in the mid-1980s, Simonson’s writing played a key role in capturing my interest.  With super-talented penciler June Brigman, she created Power Pack, a series about four young siblings who gained superpowers from a dying alien.  Alex, Julie, Jack and Katie Power used their fantastic new abilities to defend Earth against the belligerent alien Snarks, as well as a succession of other strange menaces.

I had a lot of identification with the four main characters in Power Pack.  They were all around my age.  In addition to fighting aliens & supervillains, they faced much more mundane problems such as disagreements among themselves, arguments with parents who they felt just did not understand them, making friends with other kids their age, and having trouble with homework.  Simonson did an amazing job scripting stories that young readers could relate to without ever talking down to them.

Power Pack 2 cover

Simonson had previously edited writer Chris Claremont on both Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants.  The two of them seem to possess a really good rapport and (in my humble opinion) under Simonson’s editorship Claremont wrote some of his best stories.  Later on, when Simonson was writing Power Pack, her close creative relationship with Claremont resulted in her series occasionally featuring guest appearances by the X-Men, and the Power kids showing up now & again in the X-titles.  Those crossovers were a major part of my introduction to the wider X-Men universe and Claremont’s work.  For instance, Uncanny X-Men #205, written by Claremont with superb artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith, is an amazing story where we see Wolverine through young Katie Power’s eyes.  It was a really great introduction to the character of Logan.

(This is the point where I risk embarrassing myself.  When I was a kid, I used to make up stories where I gained superpowers and had adventures alongside Power Pack.  Years later at a convention I admitted this to Louise Simonson.  She smiled and told me that a lot of other readers had told her they did the exact same thing growing up.)

In 1986, Simonson took over as writer of X-Factor with issue #6.  With penciler Jackson “Butch” Guice, she quickly introduced a mysterious, powerful new villain named Apocalypse.  Her husband Walter Simonson came on-board as regular penciler four issues later, and together the two of them majorly revamped the original five members of the X-Men, as well as building up Apocalypse into a significant figure in the Marvel universe.  Louise Simonson stayed on X-Factor until issue #64, in her later stories working with such artists as Art Adams, Paul Smith, and Terry Shoemaker.  She also had a lengthy run on New Mutants that lasted from issue #55 to #97.

Superman Man of Steel 26 cover

After departing from X-Factor and New Mutants in 1991, Simonson moved over to DC Comics.  There she paired up with Jon Bogdanove, who she had previously worked with on her later Power Pack issues, and the two of them launched Superman: The Man of Steel.  Both Simonson and Bogdanove would stay on the title for a lengthy eight year run.  During that time, amidst the “Death of Superman” story arc, they co-created John Henry Irons, aka Steel, who first took up his armored identity in memory of the (temporarily) deceased Kal-El.  Throughout her issues, while juggling the requirements of tying in with the storylines of the other three monthly books, Simonson managed to give Superman: The Man of Steel its own individual feel, introducing an interesting supporting cast and ongoing subplots.

When her run on Man of Steel ended, Simonson returned to Marvel for several projects.  Among these was Warlock, a really fun but all too short-lived series drawn by Pascual Ferry featuring the wacky techno-organic alien member of the New Mutants, and Chaos War: X-Men, a miniseries co-written with Chris Claremont.  She also penned the excellent X-Factor Forever, which was set in a timeline that picked up right after her point of departure from X-Factor in 1991.  On that five issue miniseries, she worked with Dan Panosian, who showed off his amazingly improved artwork.  He had really grown by leaps & bounds since his debut in the early 1990s.

Warlock 7 cover

There is a major theme running through much of Simonson’s writing.  She often takes a look at the importance of family, of establishing emotional ties to other people.  Power Pack was very much the story of the four Power children, their relationships with one another and their parents.  In her X-Factor issues, Simonson tackled the complicated state of Cyclops’ personal life, at how he had basically wrecked his marriage to Madelyne Prior, and now had to deal with the consequences of that, his confused feelings for the newly resurrected Jean Grey, and having to raise his infant son Nathan who he’d previously had with Madelyne.  (I think Simonson did an excellent job handling the extremely awkward editorial directive handed down to her and Claremont that had forced Scott Summers to leave Madelyne for Jean.)  In Man of Steel, Simonson introduced a young African American boy named Keith.  After his mother died, the orphaned Keith was adopted by Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White and his wife Alice, who had lost their own son some years before.  In Warlock, Simonson had her oddball alien hero forming a sort of family unit with Hope, Psimon, and Chi-Chee the monkey, each of whom had also become outcasts.

XFactor Forever 3 cover

The entire X-Factor Forever miniseries was all about family and relationships.  Cyclops and Marvel Girl are still attempting to reconcile their feelings for one another, and to take care of baby Nathan.  Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, is continuing his romance with Opal Tanaka, with the pair visiting her parents and discussing the possibility of marriage.  Warren Worthington is in a growing friendship with policewoman Charlotte Jones and her son Timmy, all the while struggling to come to terms with his transformation from Angel to the dark Archangel by Apocalypse.  And Hank McCoy, the bouncing blue Beast, is working on his on-again, off-again relationship with reporter Trish Tilby, who is thinking of adopting an orphan child.

Even Apocalypse is, in his own way, searching for a family.  Born 20,000 years ago to a tribe of primitive humans, the man who would become Apocalypse was a freak anomaly, the world’s first mutant, gifted with shape-shifting abilities.  As the X-Men would discover in the present day, so too did Apocalypse learn in prehistoric times: his powers were a double-edged sword.  When he used them to serve as his tribe’s protector, they reacted with fear & hatred, driving him out.  We can interpret Apocalypse’s subsequent millennia-long mission to insure the future supremacy of mutant-kind as motivated by a wish to no longer be alone, to one day have another family.  In the 19th Century, he thought he had found a kindred spirit in young Nathaniel Essex, and transformed him into his apprentice Mr. Sinister.  One could say that Apocalypse regarded Sinister almost like a son.  And when Sinister rebelled, conducting his own dangerous experiments which threatened to destabilize all of his former mentor’s carefully-laid plans, on some level it must have hurt Apocalypse.  It really shows Simonson’s talent & skill as a writer, that she brought a degree of empathy and pathos to a ruthless schemer such as Apocalypse.

I definitely think Louise Simonson is an amazing writer.  I really enjoy her work, and I hope that we see more from her pen again in the near future.  It would be especially great if she had the opportunity to work with her husband Walter again, or with June Brigman.

Should Superman kill?

I have not seen the new Superman movie Man of Steel.  But from what I have heard online, it has generated a fair amount of controversy.  Specifically, as I understand it, at the end of the film there is a tremendous battle that nearly decimates the city of Metropolis.  Superman, in order to prevent the Kryptonian arch-criminal General Zod from murdering even more people, kills him.

I can understand how this would cause some fans to be up in arms.  After all, Superman is supposed to be one of the most noble and ethical heroes in popular fiction.  As a firm believer in the sanctity of life, he is typically written as always looking to find non-lethal methods to defeat whatever menaces he is facing.

So, the question is, should Superman kill?  I think that every comic book reader will have differing views on the matter.  All I can do is offer my own individual opinion.  Feel free to agree or disagree:

I honestly feel that, yes, Superman should do everything in his power to preserve life.  And that means that, whenever possible, he ought to avoid the use of lethal force… but please note that I did say “whenever possible.”  Given his amazing powers & abilities, 99.999% of the time Superman will somehow find a way to stop his enemies without killing.  But, I think that inevitably there is going to be that 0.001%, a no win situation, so to speak, when Superman may be forced by circumstances to kill.

Let’s look at such a situation, one that occurred back in 1988.  The three part “Supergirl Saga” ran through Superman vol 2 #21, Adventures of Superman #444, and Superman #22.  The main creative force behind this story was writer-artist John Byrne.  Also on hand was Jerry Ordway, who co-plotted & penciled Adventures #444.  The final chapter in Superman #22 is titled, appropriately enough, “The Price.”

Adventures of Superman 444 cover

I need to set the stage for this one.  It’s a bit complicated, so bear with me.  In the aftermath of Crisis of Infinite Earths, the new continuity established by DC was that Clark Kent had never been Superboy, and he did not become a costumed superhero until he was an adult, when he took on the guise of Superman.  This created a huge problem for the Legion of Super-Heroes, who had Superboy as both their inspiration for forming and an actual long-time member.  So the creative types at DC came up with a solution of sorts:

Post-Crisis, it was retconned that the Legion’s arch-nemesis the Time Trapper had (for reasons best left unexplained here) created a “Pocket Universe” which was a duplicate of our own, but with all the life-bearing planets other than Earth or Krypton removed from it.  In this artificial reality, once again Krypton exploded, and baby Kal-El was rocketed to Earth, where the Kents adopted him.  Here he did become the teenage Superboy.  Every time Superboy traveled in time to meet up with the Legion, he would be travelling back & forth between the real universe’s 30th Century and the Pocket Universe’s 20th Century without even knowing it.  Oh, yes, the Time Trapper also ensured that no other superheroes came to exist in the Pocket Universe, i.e. no Wonder Woman, Batman, Justice League, Teen Titans, etc.

(Yeah, this was a really unwieldy explanation, and it certainly didn’t work perfectly, but I guess it was the best they could come up with at the time.)

Eventually Superboy dies in the future on a mission with the Legion.  Back in the Pocket Universe, no one knows what has happened to him, though.  That Earth’s version of Lex Luthor, although arrogant & egotistical, is nevertheless not a criminal, and he examines Superboy’s cache of inventions, hoping to contact the Legion.  Instead, he accidentally communicates with three Kryptonians imprisoned in the Phantom Zone: General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora.  The criminals trick Luthor into releasing them, and immediately embark upon the conquest of the Earth.

Despite this Earth’s absence of superheroes, humanity manages to fight Zod’s forces to a draw for a decade, aided by the fantastic weapons built by Luthor.  He even creates Supergirl, a “protomatter” life form based on Lana Lang, to help in the battle.  Eventually, though, the triad of criminals tire of the conflict and decide to wipe out humanity completely.  They use their powers to drill down to the Earth’s core, and the heat transforms the oceans into super-heated steam, which completely destroys the atmosphere.  Everyone on Earth is killed, save those in Smallville, who are living behind a force field erected by Luthor.

Realizing that the war is all but lost, a desperate Luthor transports Supergirl across to the “regular” universe to recruit Superman, hoping a genuine Kryptonian will be able to finally stop the Phantom Zone criminals.  Even with Superman’s presence, though, in the final battle the remainder of humanity is wiped out.  But a dying Luthor reveals to Superman the location of a piece of Gold Kryptonite, which the hero uses to strip Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora of their powers.  An understandably confused Superman asks Luthor why he didn’t use the Gold Kryptonite years before, thereby preventing all the bloodshed.  With his last breath, Luthor confesses that, driven by wounded pride, he wanted revenge on the Kryptonians for tricking him into setting them free.  “I wanted it to be by my hand that they were defeated.”  Remember what I said before about arrogance and ego?

Time for a slight digression… some readers have regarded this disclosure as a flaw in Byrne’s writing, stating Luthor’s actions make absolutely no sense, that it it an awkward mechanism to force Superman to deal with a trio of super-criminals who have committed genocide.  But if you look at Byrne’s entire run on the Superman titles, and his depiction of Lex Luthor throughout, this revelation actually makes a great deal of sense.

Superman 1 pg 19 panel Lex Luthor

The confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor very much mirrors a scene featuring the “real” Lex Luthor shown by Byrne less than two years earlier in Superman vol 2 #1.  Luthor learns that the Kryptonite-powered villain Metallo is on the verge of killing Superman.  Infuriated, Luthor had his forces snatch away Metallo.  Yes, Luthor certainly wants Superman dead.  But as Luthor himself explains, “No! No, that won’t do at all. I have promised Superman that when he dies it will be by my hand! And Lex Luthor always keeps his promises!”  The subsequent confession by the Pocket Universe Luthor in #22, using nearly identical wording, is undoubtedly a deliberate parallel by Byrne to demonstrate that even though this version was a more heroic individual he still shared many of the selfish, narcissistic flaws of his other self.

In any case, back to our story… so now Superman is confronted with a seemingly insoluble problem: what to do with General Zod, Quex-Ul, and Zaora?  Yes, they have been de-powered, but they have the blood of billions of innocents on their hands, and they are defiantly unrepentant, gloating to Superman that they will somehow find a way to regain their powers and escape to his universe to wreck havoc there.  And so Superman is forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his entire life.  Using Green Kryptonite, Superman executes the Phantom Zone criminals. (Click on the image below to read the entire scene.)

Superman 22 pg 16-17

Did Superman make the right decision?  It is very difficult to say for certain, but, yes, I think that he probably did.  Yes, it was extremely drastic.  But keep in mind that the Phantom Zone criminals had murdered the entire population of the Pocket Universe Earth, five billion people.  I am typically against capital punishment, but that is an absolutely monstrous crime.

Also, there is the question of exactly what else Superman could have done with Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  He had no way of exiling them back to the Phantom Zone.  And, as I explained before, the Pocket Universe had no other inhabited planets, so he could not hand them over to that dimension’s equivalent of the Green Lantern Corps for trial.  I suppose he could have brought Zod & Co back to his own reality and asked the Guardians of Oa to take charge of them, but who knows if those little blue bureaucrats would have even accepted that it fell under their jurisdiction.  And why even take the chance of removing them from the Pocket Universe?

Really, the only other choice Superman had was to maroon Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora on the dead Earth.  And if he did that he certainly couldn’t just leave them there unsupervised in case they somehow did regain their powers.  This would of course mean spending the rest of his own life in the Pocket Universe as their jailer.

So between the very real worry that somehow they would escape, and the sheer scope of their horrific crimes, it is understandable that Superman felt he had no choice but to execute Zod, Quex-Ul and Zaora.  And it’s made very clear that this is not a decision that Superman makes lightly. He is troubled by it right from the start.  Returning to his dimension, Superman leaves the gravely injured Supergirl in the care of his parents, the Kents.  And, as can be seen from the final page of the issue (see below) they can immediately sense that something is very wrong with their adopted son.  So “The Price” ends on a very melancholy, introspective note.

Superman 22 pg 22

Regarding this three part story, some readers have subsequently criticized John Byrne for A) writing the character into an impossible corner where he would have no choice to kill and B) immediately departing from the Superman titles, leaving it up to others to pick up the pieces.  On the first point, in Byrne’s defense, I would argue that sometimes, in the real world, you do have literal no-win situations such as the one in issue #22.  Yes, writers of fiction can, and typically do, include convenient escape clauses that allow their protagonists to find a way out of a seemingly irrevocable moral dilemma.  But, y’know, once it a while it is interesting and refreshing to see a writer push the boundaries, not give the hero a convenient “out” and watch what happens when the $#!+ really hits the fan.

And that brings me to the second point.  I really do not know how abrupt Byrne’s departure was from Superman.  But as Jerry Ordway relates in the Modern Masters volume covering his career, he and Byrne had been working pretty closely together for some time to plot out the direction of the Superman books.  They had concrete plans to show the serious, long-lasting effects of Superman’s actions in the Pocket Universe.  The whole subplot of Clark Kent having a nervous breakdown and taking on the Gangbuster identity originated with Byrne and Ordway.  After Byrne departed, Ordway carried it forward with new writer Roger Stern.  And that, in turn, led to Superman’s decision to temporarily exile himself from Earth.

The point is, yes, I do think that a character like Superman should willing to use lethal force, but only where there is absolutely no other option available.  I certainly do not want to see him making a habit of killing bad guys!  Written properly, Superman will attempt all other possible alternatives to resolving a conflict before resorting to killing a foe.  If he does have to take a life, it should be seen to weigh heavily on him.  And when a writer has him make that decision, it should be in the service of the telling of a really interesting, thought-provoking story, rather than just for the purpose of generating gratuitous bloodshed!

Of course, your mileage may vary.  No doubt there are some who will completely disagree with me on this.  Indeed, a quarter century later, Superman #22 still remains a very controversial issue.  Looking at this, one can certainly infer that the character of Superman is such an icon, and has come to mean so much to so many, that a story such as “The Price” continues to inspire such passionate debate.