This is how the world ends: Doomsday + 1

Four and a half decades ago, at the small Derby, Connecticut-based Charlton Comics, the company’s main writer teamed up with a young up-and-coming artist to create a striking post-apocalyptic sci-fi series that, though short-lived, is remembered to the present day.  The writer was Joe Gill, the artist was future superstar creator John Byrne, and the series was Doomsday + 1.

Doomsday+1 1 coverAbout six months ago I located copies of the original six issue run of Doomsday + 1.  They were fun, enjoyable comics.  The first issue was released 45 years ago this month, on April 8, 1975, so I felt now was a good time to write a short retrospective on the series.  That, and for obvious reasons of late I’ve sort of had the apocalypse on my mind.

In the opening issue of Doomsday  + 1 the end of the world is touched off on April 7, 1996 by power-mad Latin American dictator General Rykos.  On the verge of being overthrown, Rykos is determined to take everyone down with him.  He launches a pair of nuclear missiles, one at New York City, the other at Moscow.  The United States and Russia each believe they have been attacked by the other, and before anyone can figure out who is actually to blame, both nations have launched their atomic arsenals at each other, wiping out human civilization.

Hours before Rykos starts World War III, NASA launches a small spacecraft into Earth’s orbit on a scientific mission.  The three –person crew of the capsule is U.S. Air Force Captain Boyd Ellis, his fiancée, radiation specialist Jill Malden, and Japanese physicist Ikei Yahsida.  As a result this trio are saved from the apocalypse, but are nevertheless forced to watch helplessly from Earth’s orbit as the human race is destroyed.

The capsule remains in orbit for over a month, the three astronauts waiting for the radioactivity on Earth to drop.  Finally running out of food, they bring the capsule in for a landing on the uninhabited Greenland, which has been mostly spared from fallout.  However the heat of the nuclear weapons has melted the Greenland ice cap, releasing from suspended animation several prehistoric mammals.  Also freed from an icy slumber is Kuno, a Goth warrior from the Third Century.  Jill, a linguist, is able to communicate with the man out of time, and soon the hulking hairy figure has become a valuable ally.

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Over the course of the six issue series, the quartet explores the devastated Earth, hoping to find other survivors.  Along the way they have a series of strange adventures, encountering a mad Russian cyborg & his mechanical army, alien peacekeepers, an underwater civilization, human criminals, and visitors from a parallel universe.

There’s also a bit of what you might call a love triangle, or maybe a love quadrangle.  Boyd and Jill start out as a couple, prompting some jealousy from Ikei, who is also attracted to Boyd.  Kuno, upon meeting the group, is immediately attracted to Jill, and the two of them soon become involved, leaving Boyd and Ikei to then hook up, as well.

Joe Gill was an incredibly prolific writer who produced hundreds of stories for Charlton Comics.  He and John Byrne seemed to have a good creative rapport on this series, with Gill allowing Byrne a free hand to make changes to the scripts.

Looking at the art on Doomsday  + 1, it’s apparent that Byrne, in some of his first professional work, was already showing a great deal of potential.  Obviously he would get much, much better over the next few years, but already you can see his aptitude for dramatic layouts & storytelling, his ability to render both action & characterization.

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On the last three issues the artwork is credited to “Byrne Robotics.”  Many years later Byrne would re-use the name for his official website & message board.  I posted there to inquire about the “Byrne Robotics” credits on Doomsday  + 1.  Byrne explained:

“I used Byrne Robotics when a friend helped me ink backgrounds. (She’d lost her job so I gave her a temp job.)”

I also informed Byrne that I would be writing this blog post, and I asked if he had any thoughts about Doomsday + 1 that he would be willing to share.   He kindly responded:

“Thems were some old time comic books! If they’d been published in the Fifties, they’d not have stood out much from the crowd.

“And they were fun. Joe Gill, the writer, gave me permission to change anything I wanted to, if I felt it improved the story. A real learning experience—like pretty much everything I did at Charlton.”

That is a common theme you hear from comic book artists who began their careers at Charlton Comics, that it was a really good training ground where they were given an opportunity to hone their skills, helping them gain the experience that later enabled them to obtain more high-profile, better paying work at other companies such as Marvel and DC Comics.

A few random observations about these six issues:

The scene on the cover to the first issue does not appear in the actual comic book.  No doubt it was Byrne’s homage to both the ending of Planet of the Apes and Jack Kirby’s cover for the first issue of his own post-apocalyptic comic book series, Kamandi.  Of course, there is a looooong tradition of artists utilizing the ruined Statue of Liberty as a landmark on disaster movie posters and on post-apocalyptic book covers.

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Issue #4, the one with the underwater civilization, has some lovely artwork by Byrne & his assistants.  The look of the beautiful, graceful Amphibian woman Meri almost seems like a composite of Snowbird and Marrina, two of the characters Byrne would introduce in Alpha Flight a decade later.

There is one aspect of issue #4 which I feel has perhaps not aged well.  We are told that the Amphibians, due to their inability to live in the depths of the oceans, created a second race, the Gill-Men.  Over centuries the Gill-Men became more vicious & belligerent, eventually turning on the Amphibians.  Unlike the Amphibians, the Gill-Men are large, monstrous-looking beings.  If you read between the lines, you might come away thinking the Gill-Men were created to be servants or slaves, and that they rebelled against their masters.  If that is the case, having them as very clear-cut villains, and making them grotesque compared to the elegant, humanoid Amphibians, feels sort of, well, racist.

Then again, it could be I’m just reading too much into this!  After all, in issue #6, our heroes meet the inhabitants of an alternate reality Earth, a civilization of “Beautiful People” who have created a highly advanced utopia.  However we quickly learn that this apparent paradise only exists because these Beautiful People have raided other parallel Earths, abducting their inhabitants to serve as slaves.  So in this case the supposedly more advanced, attractive culture is very much the villain.

Doomsday+1 5 pg 12 JillLooking at issue #5, our heroes are captured by a group of military prisoners who have seized control of an abandoned Air Force base.  Boyd and Kuno are tied up by the criminals, who intend to have their way with Jill and Ikei, the first women they’ve seen since the nuclear war.  Hoping to catch their captors off-guard, Jill and Ikei pretend to be compliant, going so far as to get dolled up in a couple of sexy outfits.  I noticed that the dress Byrne has Jill in resembles a couple of the outfits he would draw Colleen Wing wearing just a few years later in the pages of Iron Fist. (Yes, I do notice things like this!)

Doomsday + 1 was apparently cancelled on very short notice by Charlton, as there was a completed seventh issue ready to go when the ax fell in 1976.  Fortunately the story “There Will Be Time” did see print soon after, in black & white, in the 4th and 5th issues of the semi-professional fanzine The Charlton Bullseye.

At this point it appears Byrne was intended to take over as the full writer of the feature.  In “There Will Be Time” he lays the groundwork for a new direction, as the survivors encounter Stinson Tempest, a time traveler for the 40th Century who becomes stranded in the post-apocalyptic present.  It feels like there was a lot of potential to where Byrne planned to take the series, so it’s a shame it was cut short so abruptly.

Plus, y’know, it had dinosaurs.  Dinosaurs are always fun.

Charlton Bullseye 4 Doomsday+1

There is actually one other Doomsday + 1 story, although for many years it was believed lost.   Charlton Comics revived Doomsday +1 in 1978 as a six issue reprint title, picking up from the original numbering.  At first sales on the revival were good, and Charlton considered running new material.  Regular Charlton contributor Tom Sutton was commissioned to write & draw a story to appear in issue #13.  Unfortunately sales soon dropped, and the decision was made to once again cancel the book, with Sutton’s story never seeing print.

Doomsday+1 13 coverYears later the original unlettered artwork resurfaced, although Sutton’s script for it had gone missing.  Sutton passed away in 2002.  Eventually another Charlton veteran, the great Nicola “Nick” Cuti, working from Sutton’s art, wrote an entirely new script.  It speaks to both the clarity of the storytelling in Sutton’s artwork and to the immense talent of Cuti’s writing that this new script meshes almost seamlessly with pages drawn over three decades earlier.  “The Secret City” was then lettered by Bill Pearson and colored by Donnie Pitchford.  At long last it saw print in 2013 in issue #8 of Michael Ambrose’s excellent magazine Charlton Spotlight, published by Argo Press.

Looking at the artwork for “The Secret City,” it appears that Sutton’s original intention was to pick up after the events of Doomsday + 1 #6.  Cuti managed to work in references to the events of “There Will Be Time” in his script, definitely placing it after the survivors began working with Stinson Tempest.

As I’ve previously observed from my past looks at Cuti’s excellent writing on E-Man, he is really good at developing realistic characters & relationships.  We have no way of knowing how Sutton would have dialogued the series’ quartet, but Cuti takes the opportunity to add some realistic tension to the relationship between Boyd and Ikei.

Reading the original stories, Boyd is definitely a belligerent, trigger-happy individual, ready to start a fight at the drop of a hat (in fact Kuno the supposed “barbarian” often comes across as more careful & strategic-minded than Boyd).  In his script for “The Secret City,” Cuti has Ikei expressing disapproval for Boyd’s aggressive attitude, perceiving it as a perpetuation of the warlike mindset that recently led to humanity all but wiping itself out.  It definitely gives a certain subtlety & nuance to Sutton’s story, a pulpy affair that sees the quartet fighting against an army of Roman Legionnaire lizard men zipping around in flying saucers!

Charlton Spotlight 8 pg 19

So, for those of you who are interested in reading Doomsday + 1, where can you find these comic books?  Since this was some of John Byrne’s earliest work, near-mint copies of the first six issues tend to be expensive.  However, if you don’t mind your comics being a bit dog-eared, you can find less pristine copies for lower prices.  Issues #7-12 are reprints, so they’re probably not as much in demand, meaning that may be another way to get these stories without forking over a lot of money.

There is also the seven issue miniseries The Doomsday Squad, published by Fantagraphics in 1986, which reprints the original six issues, as well as “There Will Be Time” in color for the first time.  Several of the issues feature brand new cover artwork by legendary artist Gil Kane, who provides his own unique interpretation of the characters.Doomsday Squad 6 cover

As for “The Secret City” by Sutton & Cuti, head over to the Argo Press website and order a copy of Charlton Spotlight #8.  The issue also features a 2012 interview with Cuti about his Charlton work.

Also, since Doomsday +1 might be the public domain (no one seems to know for certain who, if anyone, currently owns the rights to it) sometimes you can find full issues of the original series posted on blogs & websites.  The complete first issue can be read on The Bronze Age of Blogs, if you are so inclined.

One last item: Several years ago John Byrne decided to re-conceptualize Doomsday + 1 from the ground up.  The result was the four issue miniseries Doomsday.1 published by IDW in 2013.  As Byrne explained:

“I’ve been thinking for some time that I would like to revisit a post-apocalypse kind of scenario, such as was seen in my very first ‘dramatic’ work in comics, but this time without the more obvious fantasy elements of that original series (mermaids, alien robots, frozen mammoths, etc.),” said Byrne. “When bits and pieces of this new series first started to percolate around in my head, I knew almost at once the shape that ‘revisit’ would take; something in the ‘All-New, All-Different’ vein. And the first time I doodled some images of my ‘crew,’ I knew I was there!”

Doomsday.1 sees the Earth ravaged not by nuclear war but by a devastating solar flare.  The crew of the International Space Station watches helplessly as nearly the entire surface of the planet is devastated, with billions dying.  Following the disaster, the Space Station crew makes their way back to Earth, to the small area within the Western Hemisphere which was spared the worst of the solar storm.  Their search for other survivors soon brings them into conflict with the worst of human predators.

Doomsday Point 1 coverThis miniseries is extremely grim and downbeat.  I also think it’s one of the best things that Byrne has done in a number of years.  The somber subject matter very much suits the direction that Byrne’s artwork has developed in over the last couple of decades.  It also is a good fit for the darker sensibilities that he has shown in his writing since the early 1990s.  I’ve often felt that such material was not a good fit for mainstream super-hero series (I definitely was not fond of what he did to Donna Troy during his run on Wonder Woman) but it feels much more at home in his creator-owned projects such as this and Next Men.

I also appreciated the fact that Byrne writes the characters in Doomsday.1 as fairly intelligent & genre-savvy.  In other words, he doesn’t have them acting like idiots solely in order to advance the plot.

So in spite of the similar premises, Doomsday.1 is a very different book from its predecessor.  Nevertheless, I definitely recommend it.  It’s a genuinely riveting story.  It’s also an excellent way in which to see how Byrne has grown & developed as a creator, to look at how he depicted the apocalypse in 1975, and how he approached a similar scenario 38 years later in 2013.

Nicola “Nick” Cuti: 1944 to 2020

Longtime comic book writer, editor & artist Nicola Cuti passed away on February 21st.  He was 75 years old.

E-Man 1 cover smallCuti, who was known to his friends as “Nick,” is best known for co-creating the superhero / sci-fi comic book series E-Man with artist Joe Staton at Charlton Comics in 1973.  I’ve blogged about E-Man on several occasions.  Although I did not discover the series until 2006, I immediately became a HUGE fan.  The combination of Cuti’s brilliant, clever, imaginative writing and Staton’s animated, cartoony artwork resulted in a series that was exciting, humorous, poignant and genuinely enjoyable.

However, there was much more to Cuti’s lengthy career than just E-Man.  He was a versatile creator.

A longtime science fiction and comic book fan, Cuti began self-publishing his own black & white comic book series Moonchild Comics in the late 1960s.  The three issue series featured the outer space adventures of the voluptuous wide-eyed Moonchild the Starbabe.

Cuti was a huge fan of the legendary Wallace Wood, and on a chance telephoned the artist.  Woody agreed to look over Cuti’s portfolio, and he asked the young creator to work as one of his assistants.

Moonchild Comics
Moonchild Comics #2 by Nicola Cuti, published by San Francisco Comic Book Company in 1969

While he was at Woody’s studio Cuti learned there was an opening for an assistant editor at Derby, Connecticut-based publisher Charlton Comics.  Tony Tallarico, an artist who was doing work for Charlton at the time, urged Cuti to apply.  Cuti interviewed with editor George Wildman, who offered him the job.

In an interview conducted in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing, Cuti described his role at Charlton:

“Basically, I was the production department, myself and another guy by the name of Frank Bravo… The two of us handled the entire production department which meant that when artists would send in completed stories, we would look over the artwork, proofread it, and if there were any spelling mistakes, we corrected them. And if there were any pieces of artwork that had to be corrected for one reason or another, we would do that.”

Cuti also worked as a freelancer for Charlton, writing numerous short stories for their various horror anthologies throughout the 1970s. In addition to Staton, Cuti collaborated with a diverse line-up of artists that included Steve Ditko, Tom Sutton, Wayne Howard, Sanho Kim, Don Newton and Mike Zeck.  Cuti was a regular writer on the licensed Popeye comic book that Charlton published, as well as penning several stories for their Space 1999 comic book adaptation.  He also worked on Charlton’s romance titles.  As he would later explain in the interview with Comic Book Artist, one of the highlights of working for Charlton had been the opportunity to write for diverse genres, to tell various different types of stories.

Haunted 36 pg 11
“The Night of the Demon” by Nicola Cuti and Tom Sutton from Haunted #36, May 1978

In addition to his work at Charlton, Cuti was also a regular contributor to the black & white horror magazines from Warren Publishing.  Regrettably I am not all that familiar with Cuti’s writing for Warren, although I am sure that he did quality work there, just as he did for Charlton.  I encourage everyone to head over to fellow WordPress blog Who’s Out There?  Last year Gasp65 spotlighted the crime noir story “I Wonder Who’s Squeezing Her Now?”  Co-plotted by Cuti & Wallace Wood, scripted by Cuti, penciled by Ernie Colan, and inked by Woody, the story was originally written & drawn in 1971, finally seeing print in the fifth issue of the Warren anthology title 1984 in February 1979.  Cuti’s scripting on this tale, especially the ending, demonstrates what a thoughtful and intelligent writer he was.

In the early 1980s, following the demise of both Charlton and Warren, Cuti worked as an assistant editor for DC Comics.  In 1986 he moved to California and began working in television animation, a field he remained in for almost two decades.  Beginning in 2003 he worked on a number of independent films featuring characters he created such as Captain Cosmos and Moonie.

It is regrettable that Cuti was never able to establish himself as an especially successful comic book writer outside of Charlton and Warren, because he was, as I said before, an incredible writer.  Fortunately he established both a creative rapport and a friendship with Joe Staton early on, and over the succeeding decades the two men periodically reunited at several different publishers to chronicle the further adventures of E-Man, his girlfriend & crime-fighting partner Nova Kane, and scruffy hardboiled private detective Michael Mauser.  Cuti and Staton really did have a wonderful creative collaboration, and I definitely enjoy their work together.

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The origins of E-Man and Nova Kane, as retold by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1, 2017

Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to meet Cuti, although I was able to correspond with him on Facebook.  From everything I have heard from those who did know him, he was a genuinely good person.  After his passing numerous heartfelt tributes were penned by his friends and colleagues.

I am going to quote in full longtime DC Comics editor Paul Levitz’s lovely tribute to Cuti on Facebook:

“You can learn something about a creator’s personality from their work, but it isn’t always a completely reliable guide. If you read Nick Cuti’s work you’d get the feeling that this was a man with a generally positive outlook on life. His characters were playful, joyful even. But you’d still be underestimating the cheerful glow that Nick broadcast.

“As an editor, he ignored the moribund state of Charlton Comics and recruited talent who would go on to be industry leaders—John Byrne, Joe Staton, even my buddy and prolific DC scribe Paul Kupperberg broke into pro ranks at Nick’s hand and encouragement. And he created—with Joe Staton —Charlton’s last great series, E-Man, a hero who charm reflected Nick’s own.

“At DC for a number of years he was a relentlessly cheerful presence, and a guardian of the old humor treasures from our vault, making them available to a new audience.

“As a cartoonist he could blend smiles with sexy, and give us his Moonchild.

“The announcement of his death today after a battle with cancer leaves the world with less smiles…and hopefully his spirit in the world of his starry children.”

Charlton Arrow vol 2 1 cover smallOn his own blog my friend Nick Caputo wrote a detailed retrospective of Cuti’s career which I hope everyone will check out.

If you are unfamiliar with Nicola Cuti’s work, I hope this will prompt you to check it out.  A lot of the Charlton comics can be found relatively inexpensively in the back issue bins at comic conventions and shops that carry older back issues.  Most of the E-Man comic books are also relatively affordable.  The original Charlton series, which ran for 10 issues, was reprinted by First Comics in the miniseries The Original E-Man and Michael Mauser.  Cuti wrote the final two issues of the E-Man run published by First in the mid 1980s.  Between 1989 and 2008 various E-Man and Michael Mauser comics by Cuti & Staton were released through Comico, Apple Press, Alpha Productions, Digital Webbing, and Argo Press.

Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton’s final E-Man and Nova story was serialized in The Charlton Arrow vol 2 #1-3, which can be purchased through Mort Todd’s Charlton Neo website, along with a number of other cool titles. As I’ve said before, I am glad Nick and Joe had one last opportunity to reunite and bring the curtain down on these wonderful characters.

Thank you for all of the wonderful stories throughout the decades, Mr. Cuti.  You will definitely be missed by all of your fans, friends and colleagues.

Halloween spotlight on Tom Sutton at Charlton Comics

Today, to celebrate Halloween, I am spotlighting the work of an artist with one of the most distinctively eerie styles I have ever come across, Tom Sutton.  Born in 1937, Sutton had a very prolific career.  Unfortunately he is probably not nearly as well known as some of his contemporaries due to the fact that he rarely worked on super-hero titles.  His style was not particularly well-suited to the spandex set, and he himself was not especially fond of the cape & cowl crowd.  However, when it came to horror, mystery, science fiction, romance and even humor, Sutton was a perfect fit.

Sutton worked for several companies, among them Marvel, DC, Warren, Skywald, First, Eclipse and Fantagraphics. He did an especially large body of work for Charlton Comics, that third-rate outfit run out of Derby CT that specialized in low page rates, cheap printing, poor paper quality… and almost unlimited creative freedom.  As I’ve written before, for up-and-coming writers and artists who were looking to break into the biz & find their feet, or for more seasoned creators who were seeking a publisher with little editorial or corporate oversight, Charlton was the place to go in the 1970s.

Haunted 23 cover

I am going to focus on Sutton’s output at Charlton, because he did really great work there… and because I really don’t have too much of his other material readily at hand. Especially his Warren Publishing work, or his art for Marvel’s black & white magazines.  But I have at least a couple of dozen issues from among Charlton’s various horror anthology titles, many of them containing superb work by Sutton.

Interviewed in 2000 by Jon B. Cooke for  Comic Book Artist #12 from TwoMorrows Publishing, Sutton explained the appeal of working at Charlton:

“They published weird stuff, and I have always been fascinated by weird stuff, and the weirder the better….  I do owe a certain amount to Charlton, because they allowed me to write a lot of ditties of my own, to paint a lot of horrible covers, and they never, ever, ever remarked on my technique.”

Sutton’s artwork was undeniably distinctive, leaving an impression upon readers throughout the years.  The juxtaposition of a quirky, cartoony style with the use of an absolutely insane amount of detail played a significant part in generating the disquieting impact of Sutton’s illustrations. There is what I would describe as a psychologically unsettling quality to his work.  I definitely see that epitomized in his ghoulishly insane cover for Haunted #23 (September 1975) pictured above.

Haunted 17 pg 20

Sutton was an expert storyteller. He knew how to pace his layouts and position the figures in his panels for maximum dramatic impact.  In much of his work there is a palpable sense of anxiety and dread.

One of the best examples of this was the story “A Budding Evil” which he wrote and drew.  It appeared in the pages of Haunted #17 (July 1974) for which he also illustrated the cover.  I featured that piece in last year’s Halloween spotlight on Charlton Comics horror anthologies blog post.  This time, above, is a page from that story.  That wide-eyed gaze of the female protagonist in the last panel is a trademark of Sutton’s.  He very much specialized in rendering people wrought with fear & dread, capturing the quality of souls in anguished terror.

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On the other hand, “The Night of the Demon” from Haunted #36 (May 1978) very much demonstrates Sutton’s versatility.  Charlton mainstay Nicola “Nick” Cuti wrote the tale of Sonya & Tanya Marcus, mother & daughter witches living in medieval times.  Sonya utilizes magic for good, and she seeks to instruct her daughter to follow in that path.  Sutton’s work on this story has a great deal of atmosphere, but in this case it is of a fairy tale nature.  Yes, there is a bit of a dark undercurrent to some of it, as Sonya lectures her daughter on the powerful, dangerous demon Ailurikos, who must be invoked very carefully, and only on occasions when he can be directed towards benevolent goals.  Sutton renders Ailurikos as a sleek, sinister amalgam of a panther and a bat.  But for the most part Cuti’s tale is one of whimsy, and Sutton’s art reflects that.  He certainly draws the young Tanya as a sweet, adorable figure.  (And quite coincidentally Diversions of the Groovy Kind is spotlighting “The Night of the Demon” as part of Halloween Week.)

Ghostly Haunts 163 pg 1

Another interesting story illustrated by Sutton was “Baku the Dream Eater.”  This story neatly straddled the genres of horror, fantasy and romance. Sutton’s beautifully rendered title splash, posted above, is absolutely amazing.  It’s another fantastic piece by Sutton, as once again it demonstrates his flexibility as an artist.  Certainly it is a very nice example of how adept he was at illustrating beautiful, sensual women, as well as his usual bizarre monsters.  I scanned this from Ghostly Tales #163 (October 1983) which was an all-reprint issue (by the early 1980s Charlton was on its last legs and recycling a great deal of older material).  According to the Grand Comic Database, “Baku the Dream Eater” originally saw print in Ghostly Haunts #55 (October 1977).

Haunted Love 11 pg 9

Speaking of romance, one of the odder Charlton titles (and that is definitely saying something) was the very short-lived Haunted Love, which lasted a mere eleven issues. As Cuti explained to Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Artist #12, the Haunted Love series was an attempt to combine their readers for ghost comics, who were mostly young boys, and their readers for romance comics, who were young girls.  Supposedly this would result in twice as many sales.  But, as Cuti humorously observed, “As it turned out, instead of combining our two audiences, we would up alienating both audiences.”

Nevertheless, during its short run Haunted Love featured some decidedly oddball & offbeat, but still interesting, stories.  One of these was “Beware: Do Not Love Him!” in issue #10 (July 1975).  Written by prolific Charlton scribe Joe Gill, it featured gorgeous artwork by Sutton in the gothic romance tradition.

Ghostly Haunts 40 cover

Some people find spiders scary. Speaking for myself I have always thought they were pretty cool.  Plus they are cheaper than hiring an exterminator!  (I must have read Charlotte’s Web one too many times as a child.)  Having said that, I can certainly understand why a giant spider would be a source of anxiety.  Obviously so too did Sutton, who illustrated an awful arachnid in its wicked web on the cover of Ghostly Haunts #40 (September 1974) seen above.  Appropriately enough he signed this piece as “Grisly.”  That lurid green coloring maximizes the impact of this one.  Within the pages of this issue is the bizarre accompanying tale “The Game Keeper,” which is both written and illustrated by Sutton.

Charlton horror hosts by Tom Sutton

The aforementioned Tom Sutton interview in Comic Book Artist #12 contained several examples of Sutton’s Charlton work.  Among these was the above piece, a striking black & white illustration featuring several of the Charlton horror hosts which originally saw print in Charlton Bullseye #1 (1975).  Front-and-center is my favorite of them all, the lovely Winnie the Witch.  Looking over the cool double page spread drawn by Mort Todd for The Charlton Arrow #1 (order your copy now if you haven’t already) I can identify the other spooky subjects of Sutton’s illustration.  Floating above the group is Impy, standing behind Winnie is Mr. I.M. Dedd, on the left with a noose is Mr. Bones, and at the right with a book of occult lore in hand is Dr. M.T. Graves (you have got to love those names).

Tom Sutton passed away on May 1, 2002 at the age of 65. He left behind him a rich legacy of distinctively macabre art.  I think that there have only been a handful of comic book artists over the decades capable of conjuring up a genuinely frightful mood though their work.  Sutton was undoubtedly one of them.  If you are not already familiar with his art, I highly recommend seeking out some of the many comic books that he illustrated throughout his career.

By the way, I bought about half of the Charlton horror issues at various comic book conventions over the years.  The others were found in the back issue bins of Roger’s Time Machine aka Mysterious Island, a comic shop that for a long time was on West 14th Street.  Now known as Mysterious Time Machine, it’s located at 418 6th Avenue, between 8th and 9th Street.  It’s a great place with a huge selection of comics, including those old Charlton books.

I hope everyone enjoyed this brief look at the work of Tom Sutton.  If you would like to see more of his awesome art, please check out Tom Sutton, Comic Book Artist Extraordinaire on Facebook.  Have a happy Halloween!

Copyright Calamity: Marvel’s Bronze Age Licensed Titles

Nowadays there are literally hundreds of volumes reprinting much of the extensive library of Marvel Comics material from the past seven decades.  However, even with the proliferation of trade paperbacks within the last 15 years, there are still several titles that remain elusively out of print.  That is because during the 1970s and early 80s Marvel published a number of series featuring characters licensed from other companies.  These titles were set firmly in Marvel continuity, and introduced numerous characters that are still being used.  But due to the presence of those licensed properties, reprinting the original stories from the Bronze Age remains an elusive goal.

Master of Kung Fu 33 pg 1

The Bronze Age title that readers would probably most like to see collected is Master of Kung Fu, which ran from 1973 to 1983.  The series featured the philosophical martial artist hero Shang Chi, who was created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin.  Shang Chi made his debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, and proved popular enough that the book was re-titled Master of Kung Fu with issue #17.

Shang Chi is the son of the centuries-old criminal mastermind Fu Manchu, the pulp novel arch-villain created by author Sax Rohmer.  Shang was raised in isolation, educated & indoctrinated to become the perfect assassin, a living weapon to be aimed at those who sought to thwart Fu Manchu’s goal of “purifying” the so-called “corruptions” of human civilization and rebuilding the world in his own image.  Soon after completing his first assignment, Shang encountered his father’s longtime adversary, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of British Intelligence, who managed to convince the martial artist of his father’s evil intentions.  Shang subsequently turned against Fu Manchu, and his father vowed to eliminate him.

Although Shang Chi was initially devised by Englehart & Starlin, both of them departed from Master of Kung Fu rather early on.  Succeeding them were writer Doug Moench and penciler Paul Gulacy, who collaborated very closely.  Their acclaimed run features a very successful blending of martial arts and espionage, equal parts Bruce Lee and Ian Fleming.  Shang Chi became a reluctant agent of British Intelligence, combating both his father’s schemes and other terrorist plots, working alongside allies Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr.  After Gulacy’s eventual departure, Moench continued on scripting the book until almost the end, working with several artists including Mike Zeck and Gene Day.

Master of Kung Fu developed quite a cult following.  The characters of Shang Chi, Clive Reston, Leiko Wu, and Black Jack Tarr, as well as several villains who made their debut in the series, continue to appear regularly throughout the Marvel universe.  Unfortunately, though, the original decade-long run of Master of Kung Fu remains uncollected.  Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland Smith and a handful of other characters who showed up periodically in the series are still owned by the estate of Sax Rohmer, which makes publishing trade paperbacks problematic.

Rom Spaceknight 65 pg 17

Running a very close second for most demanded reprint still caught up in contractual complications is Rom Spaceknight, which Marvel published from 1979 to 1985.  Rom actually began life as a rather clunky toy produced by Parker Brothers.  In order to generate interest in their odd action figure, Parker Brothers approached Marvel to publish a comic book featuring him.  Practically a blank slate, the character’s entire back-story was devised from the ground up by Marvel writer Bill Mantlo.  Rom was a reluctant cyborg warrior who had sacrificed his humanity as one of hundreds of volunteers from the planet Galador, which was under siege by the malevolent, shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  After driving off the Wraiths, the Spaceknights pursued their foes across outer space for the next two centuries, with Rom eventually finding his way to Earth.

Arriving in West Virginia, Rom discovered that the Dire Wraiths, utilizing their sophisticated science and dark sorcery, had begun a covert invasion of the planet.  He launched a one-man war against the Wraiths, a task made all the more imposing by his difficulty in convincing humanity that they had been infiltrated.  To most humans, Rom appeared a hostile monster who was attacking innocent people.  But gradually, as time progressed, the Spaceknight was able to prove his good intentions to various members of humanity, including a number of Earth’s superheroes and the forces of SHIELD.

Working with Mantlo on Rom Spaceknight for four and a half years was his frequent artistic collaborator Sal Buscema, who turned in some very solid, impressive, atmospheric work.  Beginning with issue #59 and continuing thru to the series finale in #75, Silver Age legend Steve Ditko assumed penciling duties, paired up with an all-star line-up of inkers / finishers that included P. Craig Russell, Bob Layton, John Byrne, Tom Palmer and Butch Guice.

The Rom toy was not a success, and it would probably not even be remembered today were it not for the work Mantlo, Buscema and Ditko did on the Marvel book.  Nevertheless, Rom is still a licensed character, now owned by Mattel.  So even though Marvel can use the Dire Wraiths and the Spaceknights, as well as the half-Wraith, half-human mutant monstrosity Hybrid, who were all devised by Mantlo, Rom himself is off-limits.  And that includes reprinting the entirety of the Rom Spaceknight series, as well as any appearances the character made in other Marvel titles.

Micronauts 8 cover

Bill Mantlo was also the writer of another series based around a toy, namely Micronauts, which ran from 1979 to 1986.  Once again, Mantlo conceived a rich back-story for the characters, giving them histories & personalities, creating several brand new characters, and tying their origins in with Marvel’s own previously established sub-atomic dimension the Microverse.  He set up a massive conflict between the Micronauts and the tyrannical Baron Karza, a cybernetic dictator who repeatedly returned from the dead to beguile them via his macabre body-snatching science.  Along the way, Mantlo introduced the Enigma Force, a non-corporeal sentience that merged with various people to become Captain Universe.

The early issues of Micronauts were penciled by a young Michael Golden, who did some stunning work.  Later issues featured art by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, and Butch Guice.

And, yet again, Micronauts is another series with Marvel does not have the rights to reprint.  There was even a four issue X-Men and the Micronauts miniseries in 1984 which remains off-limits.  However, three members of the team that Mantlo devised independent of the toy line, namely Arcturus Rann, Mari, and Bug, continue to pop up in Marvel books from time to time.  The Captain Universe entity is also a Marvel mainstay.

Essential Godzilla cover

There is, however, one significant exception to this Bronze Age licensing limbo.  Between 1977 and 1979, Marvel published a Godzilla series set firmly within Marvel continuity.  Written by Doug Moench, with the majority of the 24 issue run penciled by Herb Trimpe, the book saw Japan’s most famous radioactive reptile pursued across North America by Dum Dum Dugan, Gabe Jones and their fellow Agents of SHIELD.  Along the way the Big G encountered the Champions, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.  Devil Dinosaur and Moon-Boy even popped up in their very first post-Kirby appearances.

The Godzilla comic book introduced a handful of characters who went on to show up now and again in subsequent Marvel stories.  The titanic robot Red Ronin and Yetrigar the giant yeti both made their debuts facing off against Godzilla.  And in issue #s 4-5, Moench and guest penciler Tom Sutton introduced the demented geneticist Doctor Demonicus, who later became an occasional foe of Iron Man and the Avengers.

While it may lack the sophistication of his work on Master of Kung Fu, Moench’s writing for Godzilla was obviously targeted towards a younger audience.  His stories on this book are odd, if not downright silly (at one point Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a mouse by Hank Pym, and spends the next few issues gradually growing back to normal size, in the process getting into all sorts of bizarre situations) but they definitely have a fun charm.  The artwork by Trimpe, Sutton, and their various inkers is also very good and dynamic.

Keeping all of this in mind, I was certainly glad that Marvel did have an opportunity to reprint the Godzilla comic book.  Somehow or another, they came to some sort of arrangement with Toho Studios which enabled them to publish a single printing of the black & white Essential Godzilla volume in 2006.  Of course I bought a copy!  Obviously that collection is now out-of-print, but it’s still easy enough to find, with a number of used copies of the book for sale at close to cover price on Amazon.

Shogun Warriors 5 cover

However, Moench & Trimpe’s unofficial follow-up to Godzilla, the 20 issue Shogun Warriors series that ran between 1979 and 1980, is another one of those uncollected toy tie-ins.  I’ve never read it, but it sounds like fun, with its trio of giant robots tussling with an assortment of rampaging monsters.  So, yeah, that’s one more you’re going to have to dive into the back issue bins to find.

On the one hand, it is frustrating that Marvel and the owners of these various properties cannot come to a financial arrangement that enables these series to be reprinted.  On the other, I can certainly understand that there is logic to those owners holding out for more money.  Marvel is, after all, a corporation with tremendous financial assets, especially now that they are owned by Disney.  Despite this, from various accounts I’ve heard, Marvel’s management has apparently often been on the penny-pinching side, unwilling to offer other, smaller companies or creators a reasonable amount of compensation for the publishing rights to their properties.

While I only have a handful of issues from both Master of Kung Fu and Micronauts in my collection, I do possess an entire run of Rom Spaceknight.  I bought most of the later issues as a kid when they came out in the mid-1980s.  A decade or so later, when I was in college, I finally decided to track down the rest of the series.  It took some time and patience, but I was able to find most of them for pretty reasonable prices.

I expect that the other out of print material Marvel published in the 1970s and 80s can also be found by the same means.  If you take the time to search for affordable copies on eBay and at comic conventions, eventually you’ll be able to pick up the majority of those comic books without breaking the bank.  Yeah, it’s not as convenient as just grabbing a trade paperback off the shelf at the comic shop.  But these are some quality, entertaining books with good writing & artwork, and I do think it’s worth a little extra effort to find them.

Halloween spotlight on Charlton Comics horror anthologies

In the last ten years or so, I have really gotten into the old Charlton Comics of the 1970s.  Although these books were printed very cheaply, and the creators on these titles received very low page rates, it was a rather popular company to work at.  Aspiring professionals such as John Byrne, Joe Staton, Mike Zeck, Bob Layton, Don Newton and Dan Reed found Charlton an ideal place to hone their talents.  Charlton also attracted more established creators, particularly Steve Ditko, who was drawn there by the prospect of very little corporate oversight, allowing him much greater creative freedom.

I recently wrote about E-Man by Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton, which originated at Charlton in 1973.  Today, to celebrate Halloween, I’m going to take a brief look at some of Charlton’s other books, namely their horror anthology titles.

The horror comics that Charlton published in the 1970s featured some extraordinary creepy, chilling, atmospheric artwork.  They also possessed clever & intelligent writing.  Nicola Cuti contributed a number of great stories.  One of the other prolific writers at Charlton was Joe Gill, who Ditko especially enjoyed collaborating with.  Steve Ditko’s 160-Page Package is a collection of many of the artist’s great Charlton horror tales collected together by Robin Snyder in 1999.  In his introduction, Ditko writes “The comic book story/script writer? It doesn’t matter who follows the first. That first choice is Joe Gill.”

I’ve really enjoyed searching out copies of those classic Charlton books.  Here are a handful of my favorite horror covers from that period: Ghostly Haunts 23

One of the first Charlton back issues I ever read was Ghostly Haunts #23.  The cover art is by Ditko.  That is series hostess Winnie the Witch on the right side of the cover.  Within this issue was some absolutely amazing artwork by Ditko wherein he utilized some extremely dramatic, effective layouts & storytelling to create a genuinely eerie mood.  This was the point at which I began to reappraise my opinion of Ditko and became a fan of his work.

Haunted 17

Here is the really intense, horrifying painted cover to Haunted #17 by Tom Sutton.  He was an artist who had a real ability to draw tortured, anguished souls, which served him extremely well over the years working as one of the top horror artists in the comic book biz at several different companies. Haunted 18

The cover to Haunted #18 is a dramatic sci-fi/horror mash-up by Joe Staton, with a gruesome, unearthly monstrosity on the attack. Staton’s layout of this image is just so incredibly dramatic and effective.

Scary Tales 12

This extremely striking cover to Scary Tales #12 prominently features series host Countess Von Blood.  I believe that Staton designed that character, but I’m not sure if this particular cover is his work.  Can anyone out there ID the artist for certain?

The next time you’re at a comic con, it is well worth taking a dive into the back issue bins to search out treasures such as these.  You can find quite a number of the Charlton issues from the 1970s for pretty reasonable prices, especially if you don’t mind picking up slightly dog-eared copies.  They’re a real bargain, with superb artwork and imaginative writing.

A big thank you to the Grand Comics Database, which is where I obtained these cover scans from.  That website contains a huge wealth of information.

Hope that everyone enjoyed viewing these covers. Have a happy Halloween!