Neal Adams: 1941 to 2022

Legendary comic book artist and forceful advocate for creators’ rights Neal Adams passed away on April 28th at the age of 80 years old. During a career that spanned six decades, Adams had groundbreaking runs illustrating Batman, Deadman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Superman for DC, and Avengers and X-Men for Marvel, as well as working in the horror, sword & sorcery and humor genres.

Batman #227 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by DC Comics in Dec 1970

I was born in 1976 and didn’t start reading comic books regularly until the late 1980, so I was not around when Adams made an absolutely seismic impact on comic books, both as an industry and as an art form.

For a very insightful look at Adams’ work from the perspective of someone who was reading comic books in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I highly recommend reading my friend Alan Stewart’s blog post on The Brave and the Bold #79, published by DC Comics with an Aug-Sept 1968 cover date, an issue Alan refers to as “one of the most historically significant comics of Neal Adams’ career.”

Even though I wasn’t there when Neal Adams shook American comic books to their core, I nevertheless want to pay tribute to the man and his work. So here is my own personal experience at discovering his incredible artwork.

Ms. Mystic #1 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by Pacific Comics in Oct 1982

By the 1980s Adams had mostly removed himself from mainstream comic books, having found the fields of storyboarding, advertising, and graphic design to be much better paying ones. He was releasing some creator-owned projects, first through Pacific Comics and then through his own Continuity Studios.  Unfortunately for me they got lost in the glut of the early 1990s comic book explosion, because I simply did not know to look for them.

With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that I had picked up those comics, and that Adams had been able to do more with those characters, especially Ms. Mystic, who I’ve always felt has a wonderful design. (I did later pick up a few of these as back issues.)

So… three and a half decades ago there were no trade paperback collections reprinting older comic books or digital editions readily available to read. There was no Wikipedia or social media. All that I had as a 13 year old comic book fan in 1989 was letter columns and editorial pages in current comic books. From time to time Neal Adams’ name would be mentioned… and I really had no way of knowing who he was.

Batman #234, written by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano, lettered by John Costanza and edited by Julius Schwartz, published by DC Comics in August 1971

The first occasion when I ever saw Adams’ work must have been in the collection The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told which DC Comics released in November 1988 ahead of Batman’s 50th anniversary. I bought that book in 1990, and I read it religiously.

Neal Adams penciled two of the stories in that collection, “Ghost of the Killer Skies” from Detective Comics #404 (Oct 1970) and “Half an Evil” from Batman #234 (Aug 1971), both of those in collaboration with writer Denny O’Neil and inker Dick Giordano. The book also had smaller reproductions of a few of Adams’ covers, among them his evocative artwork for Batman #227 (Dec 1970), a stunningly atmospheric piece that when I finally saw it full-sized years later took my breath away.

While I certainly liked Adams artwork in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told well enough, I had no way of putting it within its proper context. His penciling was nice, but it didn’t seem all that different from what I was used to seeing in comic books. I liken it to someone completely ignorant of cinematic history seeing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and having the reaction of “What’s the big deal?” Because just as the innovations Welles has pioneered in his filmmaking eventually became commonplace in filmmaking, the storytelling & stylistic choices pioneered by Adams had become thoroughly suffused in American comic books by the early 1990s.

Batman #244 written by Denny O’Neil, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Dick Giordano and lettered by jean Simek, published by DC Comics in Sept 1972

I think that I FINALLY began to understand just how important Neal Adams was when in the late 1990s and the early 2000s DC at long last began reissuing his work. I was at last able to read Green Lantern / Green Arrow and the Batman: Tales of the Demon collection featuring the Dark Knight’s first encounters with the diabolical Ra’s al Ghul, both of which Adams did with writer Denny O’Neil.

Likewise, the epic Avengers storyline “The Kree / Skrull War” and the late 1960s X-Men run that Adams penciled with writer Roy Thomas and inker Tom Palmer (with Adams serving as an uncredited co-plotter) were both collected together by Marvel Comics in the year 2000.

Adams’ artwork on all of these was absolutely breathtaking. I also discovered that he drew some astonishingly great covers for DC throughout the 1970s. The more I saw of Adams’ work, the more I grew to appreciate it.

X-Men #59, co-plotted & penciled by Roy Thomas, co-plotted, penciled & colored by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics in Aug 1969

On Facebook comic artist Scott Williams shared the below two images, along with the following commentary:

“Someone on Twitter posted these two images side by side. One, a page from X-Men #54 by Don Heck, and the other from X-Men #56 by Neal Adams, both from 1969. Same characters and storyline. My point is not to in any way disparage Don Heck, but to demonstrate what a tectonic impact Neal had in comics. Couldn’t be a more stark and clear example (garish reprint coloring aside here) of how Neal changed the game forever.”

For the record, the full credits for X-Men #54 are apparently breakdowns by Don Heck, finished pencils by Werner Roth, and inks by Vince Colletta. Heck and Roth are both good, solid, underrated artists who seldom receive their due. Pencilers such as Heck and Roth were the vital foundation of the American comic book industry, guys who could tell a clear story and hit deadlines month after month.

But, yeah, when you place Adams side-by-side with them, basically drawing the same scene as Heck & Roth , it totally enables you to see exactly what Adams brought to comic books in the late 1960s, and why it was so Earth-shaking.

Compare & contrast: X-Men #54 (March 1969) drawn by Don Heck, Werner Roth & Vince Colletta, and two issues later X-Men #56 (May 1969) drawn by Neal Adams & Tom Palmer

Just as important, perhaps even more important, as Adams’ artistic legacy was his continual fight for creators’ rights in the comic book industry, which has for all-too-long regarded talent as interchangeable, disposable cogs in the machine. Among the creators Adams helped out where Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers and Russ Heath. Over on 13th Dimension former DC Comics writer /editor / publisher Paul Levitz discussed this aspect of Adams’ career…

“What I didn’t know is that as Neal began shaking up the look of comics, he began devoting much of his energy to shaking up the processes. Creative people were treated very poorly in the field in those years, and most of the leaders in the community were afraid to champion the cause because of the likely consequences. The disparity of power between the owners of the comics companies and the creators was an immeasurable gap, and at its base waited carnivores ready to devour agitators. But a modern Don Quixote had no fear…

“Of the many fights won or ignored, the one that was most visible was being part of the team (with Jerry Robinson and Ed Preiss) that labored to restore Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s credit to Superman, and economic dignity to their lives. Jerry was probably the more suave negotiator, Ed the wise lawyer… but Neal roared the loudest. And they won.”

Adams was also a teacher to young up-and-coming artists who hoped to enter the comic book biz. Among the many creators he mentored over the years were Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Larry Hama, Bob McLeod, Frank Miller, Bill Sienkiewicz, Buzz , Henry Martinez and his own son Josh Adams.

Superman #252 cover drawn by Neal Adams, published by DC Comics in June 1972

Living in the New York City area most of my life, I was very fortunate to have met Neal Adams on several occasions at comic cons and store signing. In spite of the fact that he was a hugely popular creator who was frequently mobbed by fans, Adams always came across as polite and patient to everyone who came up to his table. He always had a smile on his face.

There was one time he was at Big Apple Comic Con about a decade ago when his table wasn’t busy and I had the opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes, and I asked him about something I had been curious about for a while. In the pages of X-Men #62 (Nov 1969) Adams had been the first artist to draw Magneto without his helmet. The features & hair he gave Magneto were very close to those of Quicksilver… so much so that a decade later this became the basis for establishing that Magneto was the father of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.

I asked Adams if in giving Magneto that particular visual he had intended for the character to be Quicksilver’s father. Adams gave me one of his smiles and explained that he liked to plant “seeds” in his storylines that he or other creators could then use to develop future storylines if they so choose.

X-Men #62, co-plotted & scripted by Roy Thomas, co-plotted, penciled & colored by Neal Adams, inked by Tom Palmer and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics in Nov 1969

Adams then smiled again, leaned in conspiratorially, and told me he had something to tell me, but I had to promise not to tell anyone else about it, and I agreed. (Since he’s now passed away I feel comfortable recounting this.) Adams said he had an idea for another X-Men story that he hoped to do one day. Adams observed that the Beast in his furry blue form had the same distinctive hairstyle as Wolverine… so he wanted to reveal that Wolverine was Hank McCoy’s father.

Honestly, it sounded completely bonkers to me! But I am sure that if Adams had ever gotten around to actually doing it then it would certainly have been a memorable story.

Another time I saw Adams at a convention he was penciling a page for the Batman: Odyssey project at his table while talking to fans. Observing him up close laying down this detailed pencil work and these intricate, dramatic layouts while simultaneously carrying on conversations just left me in awe.

Neal Adams always looked a decade or so younger to me than he actually was. For example, when he was in early 70s he didn’t look much older than 60. I guess that’s why I expected him to live, well, not forever, but certainly much, much longer. Still, 80 years is a good, long run, especially as he was still creating quality work right up until almost the end, capping it off with the Fantastic Four: Antithesis miniseries written by Mark Waid that was published in 2020.

Fantastic Four: Antithesis written by Mark Waid, penciled by Neal Adams, inked by Mark Farmer, lettered by Joe Caramagna and colored by Laura Martin, published by Marvel Comics in Nov 2020

So much more could be said about Adams; you could literally write books about him. I’ve blogged about him a few times in the past; the links are below.

My sincere condolences to Neal Adams’ family, friends, and colleagues for their loss.

The Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part 13

Welcome to the 13th edition of Comic Book Coffee. I previously posted these daily in the Comic Book Historians group on Facebook. The challenge was to see how many different pencilers I could find artwork by featuring coffee.

(I has nasal surgery a couple of days ago, so if any typos creep into this I apologize. My head is pretty stuffed up right now!)

61) Gene Colan & Tom Palmer

Daredevil #90, penciled by Gene Colan, inked by Tom Palmer, written by Gerry Conway and lettered by Sam Rosen, published by Marvel Comics with an August 1972 cover date.

It’s not all that surprising that during his career Daredevil has encountered four different criminals who assumed the costumed identity of Mister Fear.  What would be more natural that for the self-proclaimed “Man Without Fear” to cross swords with a villain whose modus operandi was the creation of fear?

Here we see Daredevil, hit by Mister Fear’s powers, has crashed through the window of an office building, and is now cowering in terror at the little old lady who cleans the building.  The next panel finds DD a guest of the local precinct, with the cops offering the still-unsteady crimefighter a cup of coffee.

Gene Colan had a style that was generally not an especially good fit for superheroes, yet he is regarded as one of the all-time great Daredevil artists.  Perhaps that is because DD is a non-powered acrobatic character, as well as the fact that, no matter how weird and jokey the series sometimes got, it usually still had one foot planted in gritty noir.  Both these elements made Daredevil an ideal fit for Colan’s unconventional layouts and shadowy penciling.

Colan was reportedly a somewhat-challenging artist to ink.  Tom Palmer is usually classed as one of the best inkers of Colan’s pencils.  They definitely worked extremely well together on Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula.

62) John Rosenberger

“What’s Ambition, Anyway?” drawn by John Rosenberger, written by Richard Hughes, and lettered by Ed Hamilton, from Confessions of the Lovelorn #81, published by ACG in May 1957.

Beautiful, talented Jill Sanders dreams of becoming an actress.  She auditions with famed producer-director Carl Rogers, who agrees to see how she works out in rehearsals for his upcoming musical.  While having coffee with Rogers and the rest of the cast, Jill thinks to herself “He’s a real professional — and a swell guy!”  Unfortunately for Jill, her high school rival Marion Major has also joined the cast, and pretty soon the ambitious, arrogant blonde is sinking her claws into Rogers himself.  Due to budget cuts Jill is squeezed out of the chorus and finds herself back waiting tables, and the despairing young woman believes she has lost out on both show business and Carl Rogers.  However, when Carl’s investors back out on him, Jill convinces her restaurateur boss to help finance the show.  It’s a success, and Carl has fallen in love with Jill.

Artist John Rosenberger’s career stretched over 30 years, from 1946 to 1975.  He worked for several different companies, drawing stories in various genres.  His style was definitely well-suited for romance, as he had an aptitude for rendering beautiful, fashionable women.  Towards the end of his career he penciled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane for DC Comics, where once again his knack for drawing lovely ladies was a definite asset.  Rosenberger became the regular artist on Wonder Woman in 1975, but sadly only completed two issues before taking ill.  He passed away in January 1977 at the age of 58.

The entire story “What’s Ambition, Anyway?” can be read on the Comic Book Plus website.

63) Ron Lim & Chris Ivy

Sovereign Seven #36, penciled by Ron Lim, inked by Chris Ivy, and written by Chris Claremont, published by DC Comics with a July 1998 cover date.

As the final issue of Chris Claremont’s Sovereign Seven comes to a close, the Sovereigns, after a long, hard-fought conflict, have finally emerged triumphant against the insidious Rapture.

And then we see that, apparently, the entire story of S7 has been nothing more than a comic book series created by Casey and Morgan, two young women who are customers at the Crossroads Coffee Bar that appeared so often throughout the series.

Sovereign Seven was a creator-owned series that nevertheless took place in the DC universe, with appearances by Darkseid, Superman, Power Girl and other mainstays.  Presumably this ending was conceived by Claremont to allow the series to end with a clean break, so that in the future he could have his characters return in an entirely different venue.  It’s certainly a metatextual scene, with Casey and Morgan standing in for Claremont himself to reflect on the series’ cancellation.

Of course, as Alan Moore once famously observed, “This is an Imaginary Story… Aren’t they all?”  And so I like to think that in some corner or another of the multiverse the events of Sovereign Seven “really” did happen.  Ah, well, real or not, it was a fun series.

Ron Lim was the second regular penciler on S7.  I have been a fan of Lim since he drew Captain America way back in the early 1990s.  I definitely regard him as underrated.  On most of his S7 issues Lim was inked by Chris Ivy.  They made a great art team, wonderfully illustrating Claremont’s stories.

So, anyone know where I can snag one of those big S7 coffee cups?

64) Frank Bolle

Golden and Silver Age artist Frank Bolle passed away on May 12th at the age of 95.  “Outlaw Gold” was penciled & inked by Bolle. It appeared in Tim Holt #29, published by Magazine Enterprises with an April-May 1952 cover date.

Tim Holt was a Western movie star during the 1940s and early 50s.  The comic book Tim Holt featured a fictionalized version of the actor who assumes the guise of the costumed vigilante Red Mask in the post-Civil War “Old West.”  Tim Holt ran for 54 issues, being re-titled Red Mask with issue #42.  Frank Bolle’s artwork appeared in every single issue of Tim Holt / Red Mask.  Bolle really excelled at drawing Westerns, and his work on this series was definitely impressive.

“Outlaw Gold” sees beautiful dancehall girl Della Martin enlisting the help of Red Mask to locate a treasure which she says her father hid out in the desert, west of Bald Rock.  Pursuing Della are members of Butch Cassidy’s “Wild Bunch” gang, who are all too ready to murder the lovely singer so that they may claim the buried fortune.

On this page, en route to Bald Rock, Red Mask and Della are pursued by a trio of Wild Bunch thugs.  Red Mask makes short work of them, knocking all three out.  He and Della then bunk down for the night, brewing up some hot coffee to keep warm.

Bolle does nice work on this page.  The action flows well.  I like how Bolle has Red Mask’s fist swinging out of that third panel, really highlighting the punch.   Della is beautifully drawn.  And since this is a Western, of course we have horses.  I guess this is another crossover with Jim Thompson’s 1000 Horses series!

The entire issue can be read on the Comic Book Plus website.

65) Jerry Ordway & George Perez

Here is a double dose of Da Ordster!  First up is Adventures of Superman #428, penciled & inked by Jerry Ordway, written by Marv Wolfman, lettered by John Costanza, and colored by Tom Ziuko, published by DC Comics in May 1987.

Here we see Clark Kent and Cat Grant at the offices of the Daily Planet, discussing Perry White’s ongoing investigation of organized crime in Metropolis.  Clark is having his morning coffee, and as we can see from his choice of mug he’s a fan of The Far Side.

This page is a good example of both Ordway’s storytelling and inking.  He does a good job laying out the conversation between Clark and Cat, presenting it from different angles, making it interesting.  I like how Ordway inks Cat on this page.  Panel four is especially beautiful.

I know that it’s undoubtedly a function of my having gotten into DC Comics in the late 1980s, but I definitely regard Ordway as one of the definitive Superman artists.

Jumping forward a dozen years we have Avengers volume 3 #18, written & penciled by Jerry Ordway, inked by George Perez, lettered by Richard Starkings, and colored by Tom Smith, published by Marvel Comics in July 1999.

Ordway wrote & drew a really fun three issue story arc on Avengers to give Kurt Busiek & George Perez a chance to catch their breaths.  This is the final page of Ordway’s last issue.

Hank Pym is in his lab late at night, studying the technology of the cyborg Doomsday Man, one of the threats the Avengers faced during Ordway’s storyline.  Hank has obviously been working for a while, because he disgustedly thinks to himself “*GAH* Coffee’s bitter! ‘Course that pot’s only been on all night…”

Before Hank has a chance to brew some fresh java he is interrupted by the violent arrival of several leering metal monstrosities, servants of his mechanical “son” Ultron.  And so Ordway segues back into Busiek & Perez’s own ongoing storylines, with Perez himself inking this last page as part of the transition.  Ordway must have been working closely with Busiek, Perez and editor Tom Brevoort to get everything to line up so smoothly.

Jerry Ordway is one of my favorite comic book creators, and I enjoyed his short stint on Avengers.  As much as I liked Busiek & Perez, I really wish Ordway could have done more work on this title.  He latter penciled the Domination Factor: Avengers and Maximum Security miniseries, on both of these once again doing excellent jobs depicting Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

I don’t think Ordway’s had any ongoing assignments in the last two decades, instead bouncing around between various short guest runs, fill-ins, miniseries and specials.  That’s a shame, because he’s a very talented artist.

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: Iron Man #258.1 – 258.4, Armor Wars II Redux

Ask almost any long-time Marvel fan who the all-time greatest Iron Man writers are, and chances are very good that the names David Michelinie and Bob Layton will be mentioned.  The team of Michelinie & Layton had two historic runs on the ongoing Iron Man title (issue #s 116 to 153 and #s 215 to 250) plus a handful of subsequent miniseries and specials.  They co-wrote what are generally considered three of the all time great Iron Man stories, “Demon in a Bottle,” “Armor Wars” and the “Doomquest” trilogy.

While it is true that Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Don Heck created Iron Man, I really think that it was Michelinie & Layton who truly defined the character of Tony Stark, making him a fully developed, three dimensional individual.  Under their pen, Tony could be a flawed, selfish, controlling figure, but underneath all that he had a good heart and the best of intentions.  I think a lot of subsequent writers have taken the negative aspects of Stark and magnified them.  Or, worse yet, had Stark acting like a villain because the plot required him to assume that role in order to get the story from Point A to Point B.  I’m specifically thinking of the entire Civil War crossover.  In contrast, Tony’s self-centered, destructive behavior in the original “Armor Wars” really did feel like a natural progression of the character.

Michelinie & Layton have reunited once more to chronicle the adventures of Tony Stark.  Well, actually, their latest four part story was written & drawn roughly two years ago, and was originally going to be released as the miniseries Iron Man Forever (much in the same vein as the Chris Claremont-helmed X-Men Forever).  However, it ended up sitting unused until now, when Marvel presumably decided it would make a good tie-in for the third Iron Man movie.

These four issues are rather oddly numbered issue #s 258.1 thru 258.4.  For the reasoning behind this, we have to look back to the year 1990.  Michelinie had just departed from Iron Man.  Layton was planning to remain as writer and inker, paired with penciler John Romita Jr.  The two were going to do a sequel to “Armor Wars,” and got so far as producing a prologue which ran in issue #256.  Then Layton was offered the opportunity to work at Valiant Comics, and so also dropped off the book.  At the last minute, John Byrne came on-board to do his own version of “Armor Wars II” with Romita Jr. & Bob Wiacek.  That story commenced publication in Iron Man #258.  Hence the numbering of these issues, which see Layton, once again co-writing with Michelinie, presenting their take on “Armor Wars II,” based on his original plot.  Bizarrely, Marvel did not actually give these four issues an overarching title.  For convenience sake I’m just going to refer to it as “Armor Wars II Redux.”  The trade paperback collection of these issues, due out in October, is reportedly going to be titled “Armored Vengeance.”

By the way, Layton previously had a synopsis of his original plans for “Armor Wars II” posted on his website.  Reading it, you could see there are certain differences, understandably so, since back then Layton would have been writing solo, paired with a different artist.  He also would have had seven issues to tell his story instead of just four.  If it had been published, it probably would have been a great story.

That said, “Armor Wars II Redux” was definitely a good read.  It is co-plotted by Michelinie & Layton, scripted by Michelinie, with pencil layouts by Dave Ross and finished art by Layton.  Ross and inker Tom Palmer provide the cover artwork.

Following on from the events of Iron Man #256, Tony Stark has undergone back surgery to remove a strange growth.  It transpires that the biochip which recently restored Stark’s shattered spine has interacted with the remnants of the nanites injected into his body years earlier by one of his most dangerous enemies, the criminal industrialist Justin Hammer.  The combination of the biochip and the nanites has resulted in the creation of an electronic duplicate of Stark.  This virtual doppelganger, possessing all of Tony’s intelligence but none of his compassion, infects the entire computer network of Stark Enterprises.  It plans to seize control of the global nuclear arsenal and blackmail the nations of the world into accepting its “benevolent” dictatorial rule.  Iron Man, cut off from all his allies and resources, is forced to turn to none other than Justin Hammer himself for assistance in thwarting his evil half.

All in all, I definitely enjoyed “Armor Wars II Redux.”  Michelinie & Layton’s writing was top-notch.  I enjoyed these four issues more than I did the majority of the Iron Man stories that Marvel has published over the last several years.  Once again we have the imperfect but heroic Tony Stark doing his best to overcome extremely difficult circumstances in an exciting, suspenseful adventure.

It was nice to see Michelinie & Layton bring back Justin Hammer.  In his own way, Hammer is as much the anti-Stark as the virtual doppelganger, a man of genius and business acumen unencumbered by conscience, utilizing his wealth & power to create superhuman criminals and amass power & control.  Besides, I always liked the idea of having a comic book villain who was inspired by Peter Cushing.

I also like how Michelinie & Layton wrote James Rhodes, a character they created back during their first run.  Obviously Rhodey would not have become War Machine in Layton’s original storyline, since that identity wasn’t devised until a couple of years later by Len Kaminski & Kev Hopgood.  But here Michelinie & Layton look at the consequences of Rhodey assuming that role by having him vividly recall the last time he donned a suit of armor, an occasion when he nearly died a horrible death.  I don’t  recall if any subsequent writers ever addressed that incident creating long-term trauma for him.  But it makes sense for Michelinie & Layton to bring it up, and show that Rhodey has a great deal of reluctance towards suiting up again.

I would not say that “Armor Wars II Redux” is without it flaws, though.  I really wish Michelinie & Layton had been given an extra issue to tell this story.  The final chapter definitely felt rushed in places.  Also, there was a subplot involving Tony’s girlfriend Rae LaCoste that really looked like it was going to develop into something significant, but ultimately headed nowhere.  Afterwards, searching through the archives of Layton’s website a bit more, I realized that this was a nod to their unfulfilled plans for Rae that they never had a chance to develop.  I wish they’d been given the opportunity here but, again, I guess they just didn’t have the space.

I definitely loved the artwork on these four issues.  Dave Ross is no stranger to drawing Shellhead, having penciled Avengers West Coast many moons ago.  His layouts were really dramatic.  And the inks/finishes by Layton were absolutely outstanding.    It’s a real shame that Layton isn’t currently drawing a regular series.  I hope that one of these days he has the opportunity to return to the characters he briefly worked on at the now sadly defunct Future Comics.

So, despite a few hiccups, “Armor Wars II Redux” was a really enjoyable story with superb artwork.  It certainly demonstrates that, after all these years, Michelinie & Layton are still at the top of their game.

Thinking About Inking: the role of comic book inkers

As a long-time comic book reader, I have come to recognize that one of the most important aspects of the creation of comic artwork is inking.  It is also, unfortunately, one of the least understood.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that all inking is the same, that it is little more than going over the penciler’s work with a pen (I sometimes think that Kevin Smith should be dunked in a giant vat of India Ink for that line he wrote about “tracers” from his movie Chasing Amy).  But the reality is that no two inkers are the same.  The difference between one inker and another is often the difference between a very polished finish and a rough, gritty mood.  Therefore, it is important to recognize the vital role that inkers have in the crafting of the final, finished look of a comic book story.

I think that the major reason why inkers often do not receive their due credit is that is usually difficult for the casual reader to recognize what, precisely, the inker has brought to the finished artwork.  True, there are certain inkers with easily spotted styles, among them Terry Austin, Klaus Janson, and Tom Palmer.  But the majority of inkers have work that is of a more subtle sort.  John Beatty, Scott Hanna, Mark McKenna, Josef Rubinstein, and Bob Wiacek are all excellent inkers.  But when looking at their work, to my unfortunately untrained eye, there isn’t often an occasion where a particular stylistic signature leaps out at me so that I can readily identify them at a casual glance.

Certainly, when a reader only sees the finished, inked work, it can be difficult to discern who did what.  And unfortunately most of the time if the reader sees something he really likes in the artwork he is more than likely to ascribe this to the penciler.  You really need to be able to view a “before and after” piece, with the raw, uninked pencils side by side with the finished, inked work, in order to fully appreciate who did what.

Bob McLeod is an extremely talented artist, both as a penciler and an inker.  He is often at the forefront of the voices rightfully proclaiming that inkers do not receive the credit due them.  To that end, on his Facebook page he has posted scans of a number of before and after examples of his inks over other artists’ pencils.  Below, reproduced with his kind permission, is one of these (click to enlarge).

This is a page from Spider-Man #34, cover dated May 1993.  Lee Weeks provided the pencil layouts on this page, and McLeod the inks / finishes.  As you can clearly see by viewing these two pages side-by-side, while Weeks is responsible for the storytelling & pacing, the majority of the important details found in the finished artwork are courtesy of McLeod’s inking.

It can be even more informative when one is able to see how the same penciled piece is inked by several different individuals.  I remember that in the early 1990s DC Comics on one of their editorial pages had reproduced a panel of pencil art from a then-recent Batman story.  They had three different artists re-ink this panel.  Looking at these next to one another, it was readily apparent how each inker brought a very different mood & sensibility to their work, resulting in several very different pieces of art.  I really wish I could find that so I could post an image here.  It was extremely enlightening, and must have been one of the very first occasions when I realized the importance of the inker.

UPDATE: Here is a scan of that DC Universe piece “What exactly does an inker do?”  Thanks to Steve Bird for locating a pic of this and passing along a link in the comments section below.

Batman inking examples

This clearly demonstrates that Scott Hanna, Gerry Fernandez and Jed Hotchkiss have their own individual styles, and utilized different approaches to when it came to inking Jim Balent’s pencils.  This has resulted in three distinctive finished images.

Another earlier example of this sort is equally useful.  This was posted on Facebook in January 2013.  Originally published in Comics Scene #5 in 1982, a Mike Zeck pencil drawing of the Hulk was inked by four different artists.

As is readily apparent from the images below, Bob Layton, Klaus Janson, Tom Palmer, and Josef Rubinstein each bring something very different to the final look of the artwork.  (My personal favorite is the one by Rubinstein.)  If you were an editor who was going to hire Zeck to pencil a story, and if you had any common sense, you would not just randomly pick a name out of a hat to choose who was going to ink it.  Hopefully, if you were doing your job and knew the styles of the various inkers in your rolodex, you’d give some consideration as to which one would be the best match-up for Zeck’s style, and would bring the desired finished look to the story that you were seeking.

Hulk inking examples

Bob Almond, a very talented inker, is responsible for setting up the Inkwell Awards, which recognize excellence in inking.  One of the great things about the Inkwells is that they have helped to demonstrate the importance of inking by putting out various examples of both “before and after” pieces and penciled artwork that have been inked by different artists to demonstrate what each illustrator brings to the table.  I encourage everyone to look through their website and Facebook page.  There’s a great deal of beautiful artwork on display that really puts the spotlight on the crucial role inking plays.

One last indication of the importance of inking is the rise in prevalence over the last decade of comic books that have been printed from uninked pencil artwork.  I first noticed this in 2001 when Marvel began publishing X-Treme X-Men, featuring the art of Salvador Larroca.  The book was shot directly from Larroca’s extremely tight, finished pencils.  I was never a huge fan of this, because however detailed the penciling may have been it still seemed to be missing something, and the printed comics just looked rather faint and, well, blurry.  It’s a bit difficult to describe.  But I would have much preferred it if there had been an inker on the book.

Art wise, I felt X-Treme X-Men was much improved in its third year, when the art team of penciler Igor Kordey & inker Scott Hanna came on board.  And, again, that also demonstrated the importance of an inker.  Anyone who is familiar with Kordey’s work will probably know that when he inks his own pencils, it has a rough, gritty style a bit reminiscent of Joe Kubert. In contract, when he was inked by Hanna, the result is a more polished, slick look. Kordey is usually his own best inker, but he and Hanna definitely did make a very good art team.

In any case, as far as the practice of printing from uninked pencils goes, one of the main publishers to use this is Dynamite Entertainment.  They have many talented artists working for them, but the uninked art has its drawbacks, the same I cited concerning Larroca’s work.  This especially stood out for me when Mike Lilly was working at Dynamite.  I love Lilly’s art, and he did nice stuff for Dynamite.  But it would have been even stronger if he had been paired up an inker.  Someone like Bob Almond, who had worked very well with Lilly in the past, would have given it a very polished heft, making it more substantive.  The lack of inkers on so many of Dynamite’s titles is the major reason why I do not purchase more of their books.

In conclusion, inkers play an extremely vital part of the creative process in the production of comic books.  I hope that this blog entry has helped to shed a little bit of light on the role that they play, and leads to a greater appreciation for their talents & efforts.

Strange Comic Books: Magik

Chris Claremont is the writer who guided the X-Men for nearly twenty years.  With artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, he crafted what are now regarded as classic storylines, material that decades later continues to influence current writers on the now-sprawling franchise.  After the departure of Cockrum and Byrne, Claremont continued on for over a decade on Uncanny X-Men and its spin-off titles, collaborating with a succession of talented artists, among them Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.  During this time, Claremont penned a number of memorable, intelligent, witty stories.  Oh, yes, and strange, definitely strange.  Claremont certainly knew how to plot & script material that was undoubtedly unusual.  One of these would be the four issue miniseries Magik: Storm & Illyana, originally published in 1983.  It was reprinted in a hardcover collection in 2008, which is when I finally had the opportunity to read it.

Magik cover

The Magik miniseries has its roots in Uncanny X-Men #160, which was by Claremont & Brent Anderson.  In that issue, the demon sorcerer Belasco kidnapped Illyana Rasputin, the young sister of Colossus, and took her to his strange other-dimensional realm of Limbo.  The X-Men followed, and were shocked to encounter a middle aged version of Storm.  In an alternate timeline, another group of X-Men had journeyed to rescue Illyana.  They were able to send her back to Earth, but had themselves been trapped in Limbo, where over the years Belasco killed or corrupted the entire team.  This elder Storm now helped the current X-Men to find their Illyana, and opened a portal back to Earth.  At the last moment, Belasco snatched back the young Russian girl.  On the other side of the portal, returned to Earth, Kitty Pryde reached back in to try and grab Illyana.  She succeeded, but the X-Men were in for a massive shock.  In the few seconds that had passed on Earth, years had flown by in Limbo, and the formerly six year old Illyana was now a teenager.

With the Magik series, Claremont had the opportunity to examine exactly what happened to Illyana between pages 20 and 21 of Uncanny X-Men #160, during those missing seven years of her life.  As the first issue opens, Belasco, having successfully snatched Illyana from the X-Men, attempts to corrupt her soul.  His end goal is to eventually make her a living portal through which his masters, the elder gods known as the Dark Ones, may return to Earth.  Belasco begins his corruption of Illyana’s essence, declaring in a standard Claremont monologue, “She is bound to me, body and soul, and through me, to my dread lords. Forever.”

Illyana is rescued by the middle aged Storm and her former teammate, Cat, an adult incarnation of Kitty Pryde who has been transformed into a half-feline creature by Belasco.  Storm attempts to teach Illyana to learn how to use sorcery, hopeful that the young girl can overcome the darkness that has begun to grow within her.  Cat is extremely skeptical, and prefers to instruct Illyana in physical combat.  At the same time, Cat believes that Illyana may already be beyond help.  The only two alternatives to Illyana’s salvation that Cat can see are to either find a way to return Illyana to Earth, or to kill her before she becomes irredeemably evil.

One of the favorite themes that Claremont often examines in his work is the nature of identity.  Another is the corrupting temptations of power.  Both of these are central to the story in the Magik miniseries.  Illyana frequently finds herself questioning her very existence.  Who is she, the innocent young Russian child, the pawn of Belasco, the student of Storm, or the warrior forged by Cat?  Pulling her back and forth between each of these aspects of her self is the allure of the mystical abilities that Belasco has awoken in her.  Illyana is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lord of Limbo.  On the one hand, she wishes to return home to her family & friends; on the other, she seeks to explore the powers that Belasco promises to enable her to utilize.  She tries to remember Storm’s warnings about using her magic in harmony with nature, but is tempted to shape reality to her whims like a toy, much as Belasco has done to Limbo and its ghoulish inhabitants.  The stakes are nothing less than her immortal soul.  Claremont does excellent work examining how this character, so far from home, attempts to discover who she really is while struggling with dark temptations.

Magik 3 pg 22

The artwork on Magik: Storm & Illyana is by a trio of talented pencilers.  John Buscema does pencils / layouts for the first two issues, Ron Frenz pencils the third issue, and Sal Buscema draws the final installment.  Tying everything together, giving all four issues a uniform look is Tom Palmer on inks / finishes.

Palmer is one of those artists who possess a strong, easily identifiable inking style, and it especially comes across here.  He probably deserves the most credit for establishing the eerie, unearthly, disconcerting atmosphere of Limbo.  I was very disappointed that Palmer did not receive credit on the cover of the collected edition.  Unfortunately at Marvel Comics it seems to be the standard practice to omit inking credits from TPB covers.  That is especially a shame here, given how key Palmer’s work is to the final look of the entire miniseries.

Bret Blevins also contributed, penciling a stunning, creepy cover of issue #4.  (I checked with Blevins on Facebook, and he confirmed he drew it. So the credit for Bill Sienkiewicz in the collected edition is incorrect. Just setting the record straight.)  It is a striking, twisted image of a satanic Illyana, soulsword in hand, levitating above a fiery inverted pentagram.  Palmer inks that piece, as well, which results in a really unusual but effective collaboration.

Magik 2 pg 5

Oh, yes… out of all the strangeness in the Magik miniseries, the figure who especially stands out is Belasco’s minion S’ym.  For years, whenever that odd baddie would pop up in the various X-Men books, I was really puzzled.  I could never figure out why there was this gruff-talking, cigar-smoking purple demon who wore a vest striding around.  Then someone finally pointed out to me that S’ym was Claremont’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Cerebus the Aardvark, who was created by Dave Sim.  Yeah, okay, it all makes sense now.

When it comes to examining Claremont’s numerous X-Men stories, a few leap out of the crowd: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” “Days of Future Past” (and for that last one I plan to do a separate blog post).  Those are understandably among the highlights.  But obviously Claremont wrote a lot of other entertaining, thought-provoking, and, yes, strange issues, both throughout his original 17 year run and during his subsequent turns with the characters (I absolutely loved his X-Men Forever series).  Among the numerous gems, Magik: Storm & Illyana is certainly up there.  Undoubtedly an odd series, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece of character building on Claremont’s part.  And some three decades later, other writers continue to find it influential when penning the character of Illyana Rasputin.