Cats and comic books: Captain Action Cat

Captain Action was a doll-sized action figure who debuted in 1966. The gimmick was that kids could purchase the costumes of various comic book & pulp heroes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, etc) and dress up the Captain Action figure in them, transforming him into different characters.  There was also Action Boy, the teenage sidekick to Captain Action, and Dr. Evil, a blue-skinned alien with an exposed brain.  DC Comics published a short-lived Captain Action series in 1968, with artwork by Wally Wood and Gil Kane.  Four decades later, in 2008, Moonstone Books began publishing a revival of Captain Action.  And in 2010 TwoMorrows Publishing released Captain Action: the Original Super Hero Action Figure, an oversized hardcover volume by Michael Eury.

Action Cat is the creation of Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, the duo who have previously brought us such fun comic books as Tiny Titans and Itty Bitty Hellboy. The super-powered feline Action Cat and his partner Action Bug hail from beautiful downtown Skoakie, Illinois.  They star in the adorable, humorous self-published series Aw Yeah Comics.

Captain Action Cat 1 cover

You may well ask, what does one have to do with the other? Well, put Captain Action and Action Cat together, with Art, Franco and co-writer Chris “Zod” Smits at the helm, and you get Captain Action Cat: The Timestream Catastrophe.  Published by Dynamite Entertainment in collaboration with Aw Yeah Comics and Dark Horse, the four issue Captain Action Cat miniseries is one of the most offbeat, irreverent, undeniably cute team-up comic books of all time.

Action Cat’s arch nemesis, the fiendish Evil Cat, utilizes his “Evil Timestream Device” to search through the myriad parallel universes for a like-minded ally. He discovers Dr. Evil Cat, a villain from the Silver Age who is the enemy of Captain Action Cat, an alternate reality kitty counterpart to the human Captain Action.  Along the way Captain Action Cat encounters the Golden Age Action Cat, who is across between Batman and Captain America (he wears a utility belt and he’s discovered frozen in an iceberg).

Evil Cat tries to snag Dr. Evil Cat with the Device, but the beam goes wild, bringing together the inhabitants of numerous other universes. Soon Captain Action Cat, Golden Age Action Cat and Dr. Evil Cat encounter the human Captain Action and Lady Action, the vigilantes Ghost, X, Skyman and Captain Midnight from the Modern Age (courtesy of Dark Horse) and the supernatural guardian known as the Phantom Lemur.  And back in beautiful downtown Skoakie, Modern Day Action Cat and Action Bug are attempting to stop Evil Cat and his Device before all of reality gets turned into Swiss cheese.  Next thing you know, everyone comes together for a final time-crossed titanic tussle.

Captain Action Cat 2 pg 7

And, um, that’s more or less it for plot. Really, this isn’t exactly War and Peace, y’know?  Captain Action Cat is a fun, charming miniseries that younger readers will no doubt enjoy, and adults will find more than a bit amusing.  The story by Balthazar, Franco and Smits is a chance to humorously throw a whole bunch of disparate concepts together for the sake of having some fun and generating a bunch of laughs.  Balthazar’s artwork is, as always, just too darn cute.  There are also a few fun pin-ups and back-up shorts by Franco, Scoot McMahon and Kurt Wood in the third and fourth issues.

I suppose if you like cats then Captain Action Cat is also a recommended read.  After all, ever since Michele and I adopted Nettie and Squeaky several years ago, I’ve become crazy about all things feline.  (Right now, as I’m typing this blog post, I’m sitting on the edge of my chair, because Nettie is taking up the rest of it, and she won’t move.  Yeah, that’s a cat for you.)

Captain Action Cat 4 pg 6

By the way, a heads up to parents with young kids: Dynamite’s marketing department must have been asleep at the wheel in a major way when Captain Action Cat #1 was put together, because the back cover features an advertisement for the dark fantasy series The Blood Queen, with the title character displaying her cavernous cleavage in all its glory.  As they say, there’s a time & place for everything, but I don’t think this was it.  At least the next three issues of Captain Action Cat contain somewhat more appropriate ads.  Did you know that Dynamite is publishing Doodle Jump and Bob’s Burgers?  Hopefully when those two series come out Dynamite won’t be running ads in them promoting Vampirella or Purgatori!

For those who missed Captain Action Cat when it first came out, all four issues can be purchased on the Aw Yeah Comics website, along with many other fine products by Art, Franco and the rest of the gang. So go check ‘em out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 219 cover

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

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 219 pg 13

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

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

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 219 pg 7

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 219 pg 32

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

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 220 pg 28

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 220 pg 34

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

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

Savage Sword of Conan 220 cover

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

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

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

Super Blog Team Up 4 official header

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

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

2. LongBox GraveYard: Thing / Thing

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

4. The Daily Rios: New Teen Titans/DNAgents

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

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

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

8. Fantastiverse: Superman/Spider-Man

9. Mystery V-Log: The Avengers #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Comic Books: Spider-Ham in Marvel Tails

This installment of Strange Comic Books, my occasional look at the more odd & offbeat comics in my collection, was indirectly inspired by the recent news that the original artwork for two complete Amazing Spider-Man issues drawn by Steve Ditko had resurfaced after nearly half a century.  Specifically, those two stories are “The Coming of the Scorpion” from ASM #20 and “The Final Chapter” from ASM #33.  That later issue features the iconic sequence by Ditko & Stan Lee where Spider-Man struggles to lift up the massive pile of wrecked machinery that he is buried under.  This, in a very roundabout way, brings us to Marvel Tails #1 and only, published by Marvel Comics in 1983.

Marvel Tails cover

Marvel Tails #1 saw the introduction of probably the most famous, as well as clever, Spider-Man pastiche ever, namely Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham.  This porcine parody of Spider-Man was devised by Tom DeFalco and Larry Hama.  DeFalco would, of course, soon after become well-regarded for his work on the actual Amazing Spider-Man title, as well as Thor and the long-running cult classic Spider-Girl.  But Spider-Ham was one of his earliest associations with all things arachnid.  As for Hama, though best known for his writing on G.I. Joe and Wolverine, he is also a huge fan of Carl Barks’ work, so it’s quite natural that he was involved in devising Marvel’s first funny animal character.

The title Marvel Tails is itself a pun on Marvel Tales, a long-running series which reprinted the Silver and Bronze Age Spider-Man stories.  In the days before Marvel had any sort of trade paperback program, Marvel Tales was the best way for younger readers such as myself to get caught up on the Spider-Man comics of the 1960s and 70s.

Marvel Tails pg 1

“If He Should Punch Me” is written by DeFalco and edited by Hama, with artwork courtesy of penciler Mark Armstrong and inker Joe Albelo.  In addition to introducing Peter Porker / Spider-Ham, we meet Steve Mouser, aka Captain Americat, and their boss, curmudgeonly Daily Beagle publisher J. Jonah Jackal.  Porker and Mouser are sent by Jackal to cover the story of the Masked Marauder, a mysterious figure who is sabotaging the massive Video City arcade.  There they meet Bruce Bunny, the arcade’s chief electrical engineer.  While Peter and Steve are busy touring Video City, the Masked Marauder locks Bruce Bunny inside a broken “Gamma Gambit” video game.  The rays from the game transform Bruce into the Incredible Hulk-Bunny, who bursts out and embarks on a rampage.

The exploding video game attracts the attention of Peter and Steve, who slip into their Spider-Ham and Captain Americat costumes.  Cap comes across the Masked Marauder, while Spidey tangles with the Hulk-Bunny.  During the battle, the Hulk-Bunny knocks out a support beam, causing a bunch of video games and soda machines to topple onto him.

Marvel Tails pg 15-16

And, yes, this is where that sequence by Ditko from “The Final Chapter” comes into the picture.  DeFalco, Armstrong & Albelo give us a playfully humorous parody of that classic scene, as Spider-Ham, pinned down by the huge pile of rubble, is inspired by his sense of responsibility and finds the strength to free himself.  Of course, in this version of events, after lifting up all of that wreckage, the weight causes the floor under him to collapse, dropping him on top of Captain Americat.  (Click on the above scans to enlarge for maximum humorous effect.)

The story soon wraps up, as the Hulk-Bunny is defeated and the Masked Marauder is, well, unmasked.  I won’t give you all the details, since it’s worth reading the story for yourself.  Marvel Tails was collected in the Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man digest-sized trade paperback published in 2010.  So go get it.

Marvel Tails pg 20

Rounding out Marvel Tails is a five page back-up starring the supernatural cyclist Goose Rider written & drawn by cover artist Steve Mellor.  It’s a ridiculously bizarre yet humorous set of gags that make absolutely no sense, but in a good way.

A year and a half after Marvel Tails hit the newsstands, Spider-Ham graduated into his own ongoing series.  Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham ran from May 1985 to September 1987, lasting 17 issues.  After that, Spider-Ham became a periodic back-up feature in, appropriately enough, Marvel Tales.  And then there was the story in What The–?! #3 which featured Spider-Ham facing off against Raven the Hunter in a send-up of “Kraven’s Last Hunt.”  More recently Spider-Ham and his daughter Swiney-Girl showed up in Spider-Man Family, and there was a 25th Anniversary Special in 2010.

For an in-depth look at Spider-Ham’s creation and publishing history, I recommend picking up Back Issue #39 published by TwoMorrows and edited by Michael Eury.  Incidentally enough, Eury was one of the writers of Spider-Ham during his time in Marvel TalesBI #39 is topped off by a cool cover penciled by the late, great Mike Wieringo and inked by Karl Kesel.

Back Issue 39 cover

I don’t think the first Spider-Ham TPB sold especially well, since there unfortunately haven’t been any subsequent volumes.  In the absence of further collections, I think that Spider-Ham is definitely worth tracking down in the back issue bins.  It was a funny, clever series that offered some witty, good-natured Marvel self-parody.

By the way, getting back to our starting point, you can view scans of the original Ditko artwork from Amazing Spider-Man #20 and #33 on the website of Mike “Romitaman” Burkey.  It’s really fantastic to see.

Remembering Doom Patrol creator Arnold Drake

Today would have been the 90th birthday of writer Arnold Drake, who was born on March 1, 1924.  Drake,  with co-writer Leslie Waller and artist Matt Baker, created It Rhymes With Lust, a noir “picture novel” released in 1950 by St. John Publications.  Some historians consider it to be the first American graphic novel.  Long out of print, It Rhymes With Lust was finally republished by Dark Horse in 2007.

Drake was a prolific writer in the comic book field, penning numerous scripts at DC Comics from the mid-1950s through the late-1960s.  Probably the most significant of Drake’s contributions to the DC universe was co-creating the bizarre, offbeat cult classic the Doom Patrol with Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani.  The Doom Patrol made their debut in My Greatest Adventure #80 (June 1963), a sci-fi anthology series.  Drake and Haney co-wrote the DP’s first two stories, after which Drake took over as the sole writer, paired with artist Premiani.  The characters became quite popular, and My Greatest Adventure was officially re-titled The Doom Patrol with issue #86.  The series lasted until issue #121, published in 1968.

My Greatest Adventure Doom Patrol 82 pg 1

Drake deliberately set out to make the members of the Doom Patrol the antithesis of the clean-cut, conventional superheroes DC was publishing.  Drake witnessed the early success that Marvel was already experiencing through the formula of “heroes with problems.”  With Haney and Premiani, he conceived a group of characters who were regarded by so-called normal society as “freaks.”

Cliff Steele, aka Robotman, had his human body completely destroyed in a race car accident, and his still living brain was transplanted into a clunky metal form.  Larry Trainor, aka Negative Man, had his form co-habited by a bizarre energy being which he could control, but which also resulted in him becoming highly radioactive, necessitating he be wrapped up in specially-treated bandages, looking much like a mummy.  Rita Farr, aka Elasti-Girl, was exposed to strange volcanic gasses, which enabled her to dramatically grow or shrink in size.  Although Rita remained an attractive woman, her new abilities also attracted considerable attention & publicity, and she was not happy with her notoriety.  Bringing the group together was Niles Calder, aka The Chief, a wheelchair-bound scientific genius.

(Keep in mind that The Doom Patrol predates X-Men by a few months, and to this day a hotly debated question is whether this was an amazing piece of synchronicity, or if Marvel “borrowed” the concept of Drake’s series.)

The Italian-born Premiani had an understandably European style to his artwork, which was definitely of a very high quality.  I think that this helped to further distinguish The Doom Patrol from much of DC’s other output at the time.  As Drake himself would comment to Premiani, “You draw with an Italian pen.”  Certainly Premiani did a wonderful job rendering the beautiful Elasti-Girl, giving her a look Drake described “as quite European-Mediterranean.”

Drake and Premiani also created a bizarre rogues gallery for the DP.  The centuries old General Immortus sought to maintain his longevity, regain his youth, and conquer the world.  The Brotherhood of Evil was made up of the disembodied Brain, the French-speaking machine gun wielding gorilla Monsieur Mallah, and the shape shifting Madame Rouge.  Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, as his name implies, could transform into weird, gigantic combinations of animals, plants, and rocks.

Doom Patrol 99 pg 4

Later on, in The Doom Patrol #99 (November 1965), the hotheaded green shape-changing teenager Beast Boy was introduced by Drake and artist Bob Brown.  Years later Beast Boy (sometimes also known as Changeling) would become a member of Wolfman & Perez’s ultra-popular New Teen Titans.  I actually acquired a rather beat-up copy of DP #99 at a comic show in Westchester back in the mid-1990s for a whopping nine bucks.  That was a cool find.  I still have that one floating around somewhere.

Also at DC, Drake co-created supernatural hero Deadman with artist Carmine Infantino, and the horror comedy feature Stanley and His Monster with Winslow Mortiner.

After a dispute with DC over better pay rates & benefits in 1968, Drake left that company and headed over to Marvel Comics.  During his brief time there, he worked on several series, including (ironically enough) X-Men, where he introduced Cyclops’ brother Alex Summers, who was shortly after turned into the superhero Havok by Roy Thomas & Neal Adams.  Drake, paired with artist Gene Colan, created the original Guardians of the Galaxy, who made their debut in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (January 1969).

Marvel Super-Heroes 18 cover

Drake penned numerous stories while at Gold Key in the 1970s.  He was a regular contributor to mystery / horror titles such as Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery, The Twilight Zone, and Dark Shadows.  Having previously penned numerous humor comic books at DC, the versatile Drake also had a lengthy run writing Little Lulu for Gold Key.

One of Drake’s last comic book stories for many years was “G.I. Samurai,” which was published by DC in G.I. Combat #276 (April 1985).  I actually have vivid memories of reading this story when I was nine years old.  Drake told the story of Mike Mabuchi, a Japanese-American soldier struggling to find acceptance among his comrades while fighting in World War II on the European Front.  It was a very thoughtful piece of writing by Drake about the bigotry which was sometimes present on the American side of the conflict.

GI Samurai pg 1

After an 18 year absence from the biz, Drake collaborated with Argentine artist Luis Dominguez on “Tripping Out,” a 13 page story that appeared in the January 2003 edition of Heavy Metal.  Dominguez had previously created a number of beautiful cover paintings at Gold Key in the 1970s (I’m not sure if Drake and Dominguez worked together during this time, since Gold Key sometimes wasn’t good at supplying detailed credits).  Dominguez also painted a recreation of the cover artwork for My Greatest Adventure #80.  This fantastic piece was featured as the cover of Alter Ego #17, published by TwoMorrows in September 2002, which featured an in-depth interview with Drake conducted by Marc Svensson.

Arnold Drake passed away on March 12, 2007, at the age of 83.  I was very fortunate to have met him on a couple of occasions prior to this, at NYC conventions in the early 2000s.  He autographed my copies of The Doom Patrol Archives Volume 1 and Alter Ego #17.  The second time I met Drake, I was able to have a very pleasant chat with him that must have lasted at least 15 minutes.  He immediately impressed me as a sharp, intelligent, insightful man.

Alter Ego 17 cover signed

Drake really was one of those creators who saw the vast potentials of comic books, who wanted to see stories of a diverse selection of genres published in a variety of formats, such as graphic novels.  I definitely regard him as being ahead of his time.  He was involved in the creation of several wonderful, unusual series & concepts, and he helped to lay the groundwork for succeeding writers who sought to push the boundaries of the medium.

Happy birthday to Rich Buckler

Yep, it’s time to celebrate another comic book birthday.  Today is the 65th birthday of prolific Bronze Age legend Rich Buckler, who was born on February 6, 1949.

Buckler, a native of Detroit, first broke into the biz in the late 1960s.  By 1971, he was already doing work for both DC and Marvel.  One of his earliest assignments at Marvel was a short stint penciling Avengers in 1972.  Paired with writer Roy Thomas, Buckler illustrated a memorable three part tale featuring the mutant-hunting Sentinels.  His cover art for issue #103 is definitely an iconic image.

Avengers 103 cover

In late 1973, Buckler was given the chance to draw Fantastic Four.  A huge fan of Jack Kirby’s work, Buckler jumped at the opportunity.  He became only the third regular penciler on the series, following in the footsteps of Kirby and John Buscema.  I know that subsequently certain readers were critical of Buckler of emulating Kirby too closely.  Yes, there is a tremendous amount of Kirby’s influence on display in Buckler’s work on the title.  However it is important to keep the historical backdrop in mind.  Kirby had been penciling Fantastic Four for a full decade.  He was followed by Buscema, another artist who helped to define the Marvel “house style” of the 1960s and 70s.  At the time, Fantastic Four was one of Marvel’s flagship titles.  So we can regard Buckler as following their lead in maintaining the visual constisency of the series.  In any case, Buckler has stated that his work on Fantastic Four was an affectionate homage to Kirby.

It is also crucial to recognize that Buckler was paired up with longtime series inker Joe Sinnott.  I think that some people underestimate the key role Sinnott had in contributing to the final look of the artwork on many of the classic Kirby-penciled stories.  So it is not all too surprising that when Buckler was subsequently inked by Sinnott on Fantastic Four, there were certain similarities.

Giant-Size Fantastic Four  3 double page spread

One needs only look at Giant-Size Fantastic Four #3, published in November 1973, to see Buckler’s skill as an artist.  “Where Lurks Death, Rides the Four Horsemen” was co-written by Marv Wolfman & Gerry Conway.  Buckler’s pencils for this tale are magnificent and awe-inspiring.  His richly detailed opening double-page spread of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping through outer space is stunning and dynamic.

In 1974, Buckler created the groundbreaking cyborg anti-hero Deathlok in the pages of Astonishing Tales, collaborating with scripter Doug Moench (I did an in-depth blog post about that series last year, so click on this link to check it out).  Buckler’s versatility as an artist was certainly on display in these stories, featuring some of the first examples of surrealism in his work.

After working primarily at Marvel for most of the decade, in late 1976 Buckler shifted over to DC.  He contributed to a diverse selection of titles over the next several years, including Justice League of America and World’s Finest, as well as numerous covers.  In 1981 Buckler penciled the first several issues of Roy Thomas’ World War II superhero saga All-Star Squadron, with then-newcomer Jerry Ordway contributing inks.  A few years ago  Buckler and Ordway re-teamed to render a magnificent cover illustration for the 100th issue of Roy Thomas’ superb magazine Alter Ego published by TwoMorrows.

Alter Ego 100 cover

In 1983, Buckler served as the Managing Editor of Archie Comics’ superhero imprint Red Circle.  He was instrumental in bringing onboard such talented creators as Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Rudy Nebres, Alex Toth and Jim Steranko.  Buckler himself worked on Mighty Crusaders, The Shield, The Fly and various other books.  Although the 1980s Red Circle books only lasted a couple of years, they had some good writing and stories.

Buckler’s time at Archie actually provided him with his one and only opportunity to collaborate with his idol, Jack Kirby.  Buckler has observed that when he was at Marvel in the early 1970s, Kirby was at DC.  Then, when Buckler moved over the DC in the mid-1970s, Kirby returned to Marvel.  Somehow they kept missing each other.  Buckler at last had the chance to ink Kirby’s work when the King penciled the cover for Blue Ribbon Comics #5 featuring the Shield.

During the second half of the 1980s, Buckler was back at Marvel, once again working on a variety of projects.  He penciled Spectacular Spider-Man for a year, during which time one of Peter David’s earliest stories, “The Death of Jean DeWolff,” appeared.  Buckler also worked on Iron Man, a Havok serial in Marvel Comics Presents, and had a brief return to the pages of Fantastic Four.

Saga of the Sub-Mariner 4 cover

Buckler also once again collaborated with Roy Thomas on a pair of miniseries chronicling the histories of Marvel’s two earliest characters.  Roy Thomas and his wife Dann co-wrote the twelve-issue Saga of the Sub-Mariner, a detailed examination of the moody, tempestuous Prince Namor of Atlantis.  A year later, in 1990, Thomas penned the four part Saga of the Original Human Torch, a history of Jim Hammond, the android crimefighter from the 1940s and 50s who had recently been revived in the pages of Avengers West Coast.  These two miniseries provided Buckler with an opportunity to pencil decades of Marvel’s historical events and a variety of heroes & villains.

(Thomas skipped out on recounting the Torch’s battle with the grotesque, multi-headed Un-Human, which originally saw print in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes #16.  Too bad, I would have enjoyed seeing Buckler render that peculiar monstrosity!)

Most of Bucker’s work in the 1990s was on independent and small press titles.  I think that, as with a number of other Bronze Age creators, his art style was unfortunately being regarded by short-sighted editors as “old fashioned.”  Which is a real shame, because if you look at Buckler’s current work, you will see that he is as good an artist as ever.

Rich Buckler self portrait

In the absence of new comic book projects, Buckler focused on his work as a painter.  He has created a number of very beautiful surrealist pieces.  This has brought him acclaim in Europe, where he has exhibited his paintings.

I’ve met Rich Buckler several times at comic conventions over the years.  He is definitely a very nice guy, as well as a talented artist.  I’ve obtained a few really lovely convention sketches from him.  He’s spoken of his continued interest in creating comic books, incorporating his love of surrealism.  I’d certainly like to see that happen, and I hope he has the opportunity to work on that project.

(A big “thank you” to Buckler for his e-mail response to this post, in which he corrected a few factual mistakes and incorrect assumptions on my part. I’ve attempted to revise this piece accordingly for more accuracy.)

Happy birthday to Sal Buscema

Today is the 78th birthday of one of my favorite comic book artists, Sal Buscema, who was born on January 26, 1936.  “Our Pal Sal,” as he is often affectionately referred to by comic book fans, is the younger brother of the late, great John Buscema (1927-2002), another of the amazing artists whose work defined the look of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 70s.

For an extremely in-depth look at Sal Buscema’s career, I highly recommend picking up the excellent book Sal Buscema: Comics’ Fast & Furious Artist, written by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weathington, published by TwoMorrows.  Also now out in comic shops is Back Issue #70, edited by Michael Eury, and also released by TwoMorrows. Examining the Hulk throughout the Bronze Age, one of the subjects naturally touched upon is Buscema’s record ten year run penciling Incredible Hulk, from late 1975 to mid 1986.  That said, I am going to look at a few specific, favorite areas of Buscema’s career.

Sal Buscema Comics Fast & Furious Artist cover

One of Buscema’s first assignments at Marvel was penciling Avengers in 1969.  This was something of a baptism by fire, considering Sal had the render numerous heroes and villains in the storylines being written by Roy Thomas.  Nevertheless, Buscema did great work out of the gate, turning in quality pencils for the Avengers’ now-classic encounters with Ultron, the Zodiac Cartel, the Lethal Legion, and the forces of the extraterrestrial Kree and Skrull, those later issues being part of the epic “Kree-Skrull War,” which also featured the artistry of Sal’s brother John and a young Neal Adams.

Around this same time, John Buscema, who was somewhat picky about who inked his work, asked Sal to embellish his pencils on several issues of Silver Surfer.  Looking at the black & white reprints of those stories in Essential Silver Surfer, I’d say that Sal did a great job, really bringing out the best in his brother’s work.

In late 1971, Sal Buscema became the penciler on Captain America, a book which at the time was floundering somewhat both in terms of sales and creative stability.  In mid-1972, Buscema was joined by incoming writer Steve Englehart.  Together, the two of them took the characters of Cap and the Falcon on a creative renaissance.  Their run is now regarded as one of the high points in the long history of the book.  It is certainly one of my favorites.   Englehart focused squarely on Cap’s uncertain place in the extremely unsettled social & political climate of the early 1970s.  Buscema turned in exemplary pencils, creating one of the definitive renditions of the character.  The high point of their run was undoubtedly “The Secret Empire,” a story arc that ran from #169 to #176.

Captain America 175 pg 1

Buscema departed from Captain America shortly afterwards.  His last regular issue was #181, cover-dated January 1975.  By the time he was already a few years into a run penciling The Defenders.  One of the main characters in that title was the Hulk, a character Buscema drew extremely well, and who he has stated on several occasions was a favorite of his.  He has expressed a fondness for the character, a tortured child-like creature perceived as a dangerous monster and cast out from society.  So it was certainly a judicious choice for Marvel to offer him the assignment to pencil Incredible Hulk later that year.  As I said before, Buscema had a decade-long run on that series, once again creating a definitive interpretation of one of Marvel’s icons.

I’ve written about Sal Buscema’s work on Incredible Hulk a couple of times before on this blog, specifically issue #285 and #309.  Both written by Bill Mantlo, each of these issues had extremely different tones and atmospheres to them.  Comparing those two comics, you can really see Buscema’s versatility as an artist.

One of my favorite titles that Buscema worked on was Rom Spaceknight, beginning with the debut issue in late 1979, and remaining on the title until issue #58 in 1984.  Nearly the entirety of the series was written by the aforementioned Bill Mantlo.  He and Buscema worked really well together.  Mantlo’s Rom Spaceknight stories were a deft blending of superheroes, sci-fi, horror, and conspiracy fiction.  Buscema expertly illustrated this cocktail of diverse elements.  He also excelled at drawing Rom himself, a near-featureless metal figure.  Buscema had to rely on his mastery of capturing the nuances of body language to give emotion to the cyborg hero.  Buscema drew on his amateur theater background to make Rom a lifelike individual.

Rom Spaceknight 1 pg 1

Buscema had been the original artist on Spectacular Spider-Man when it debuted in 1976, penciling the first couple of years.  A decade later, in 1988, he returned to the book with a refined style to his art which was influenced by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Buscema, first with writer Gerry Conway, and then with J.M. DeMatteis, produced what I regard as some of the finest work of his career.  His storytelling and nuanced emotional depictions of characters were especially stunning on DeMatteis’ moody, psychological run from #178 to #200.

DeMatteis was following up on one of the threads from his time writing Captain America and the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” story, specifically the tragic story of the man-rat Vermin.  The author wove this around the conflict between Peter Parker and Harry Osborn, the latter of whom, haunted by memories of his then still very much dead father Norman, became unhinged and took up the identity of the Green Goblin.  This all culminated in the tragic issue #200, which Buscema magnificently illustrated.

Spectacular SpiderMan 182 cover

Buscema remained on Spectacular Spider-Man until #238.  Towards the end of this run, he was inked by John Stanisci and, appropriately enough, Bill Sienkiewicz, the artist who had inspired him to experiment with his long-established style.  I really liked the pairing of Buscema and Sienkiewicz.

In the mid-1990s, when Marvel was in the uphevals of bankruptcy, Buscema had to look for work elsewhere.  For several years he was employed by Marvel’s distinguished competition themselves, DC Comics.  At DC, Buscema both penciled and inked a number of different titles, including various Batman and Superman books.  It was really interesting to see the long-time Marvel artist on DC’s flagship characters.  Buscema did some great work during this time.  One of my favorite stories he penciled at DC was “The Prison,” written & inked by John Stanisci, which appeared in The Batman Chronicles #8.  It examined the dark, convoluted relationship between Batman and Talia, the daughter of the Dark Knight’s immortal nemesis Ra’s al Ghul.  Buscema did a nice job on this, and it was great to see him paired with Stanisci again.

Batman Chronicles 8 pg 5

Since 2000, Buscema has been semi-retired.  Most of his work in the last decade and a half has been as an inker.  His most frequent artistic partner is penciler Ron Frenz.  The two of them make a great art team.  They had a long run on Spider-Girl.  Subsequently they’ve also worked on ThunderstrikeHulk Smash Avengers, She-Hulk, Black Knight G.I. Joe, and Superman Beyond.

After over four decades in the comic book industry, nowadays Sal Buscema is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Nevertheless, as a huge fan of his work, I am very happy that he does still venture back into the biz from time to time for the occasional job.  It is always a thrill for me to see new artwork from him.  Our Pal Sal is definitely an amazing talent.

I am happy to see that I’m not alone in my appreciation of his talents. There is a Facebook group entitled SAL BUSCEMA POW! which currently has 619 members.  Somehow I ended up being the co-moderator of this one.  So, if you are also a fan of his work, feel free to join.

(One Year Later Update… as of today, January 26, 2015, the SAL BUSCEMA POW! group on Facebook now has 1,466 members.  A big “thank you” to everyone who joined in the last year.  It’s nice to hear from so many fellow fans of Our Pal Sal.)

Once again, happy birthday, Sal!  Thank you for all the wonderful stories and artwork that you’ve given us.

How I learned to love the Legion

Back Issue #68, the most recent edition of the excellent magazine edited by Michael Eury and published by TwoMorrows, took an in-depth look at the history of the Legion of Super-Heroes in the 1970s and 80s, topped with vintage 1973 art by the late, great Dave Cockrum.  I really enjoyed it, and was inspired to write about how I myself became a fan of these champions of justice from a thousand years in the future.  In comparison to some readers who have been fans of the Legion for many decades, I’m a relative newcomer.  And it was a rather long, convoluted road that led me to becoming a devotee.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.
The Legion of Super-Heroes, as illustrated by Dave Cockrum in 1973.

When I first began reading comic books in the 1980s, I was almost exclusively into Marvel.  I’d pick up an issue published by DC here or there but, really, Marvel was my thing.  Then, in 1989, the Tim Burton Batman movie came out and, with the massive accompanying hype, I began picking up a few of the actual comics.  I enjoyed those Batman stories, and quickly moved on to the Superman books, buying the then-current issues by such talents as Dan Jurgens and Jerry Ordway, as well as catching up on the recent John Byrne stories via back issues.  Those, in turn, led me to several other DC books including Legion of Super-Heroes.

Let me be honest: 1990 was probably not an ideal time for a virtual newcomer to the DCU to pick up the Legion cold.  The title was still experiencing the aftershocks of Crisis of Infinite Earths (you can see my blog post “Should Superman Kill?” for a rundown on the entire Pocket Universe retcon of Superboy and the Legion’s history).  In addition, a new Legion ongoing had recently started.  Helmed by Tom & Mary Bierbaum, Keith Giffen and Al Gordon, this book had leaped forward half a decade into the future from the end of the previous volume.  During that gap the Legion had disbanded & scattered across the galaxy, the United Planets had been plunged into a massive economic depression, and EarthGov had been covertly taken over by the alien Dominators.  So even though I did rather enjoy the handful of Legion issues that I picked up around that time, I had a lot of difficulty figuring out who was who and what was what.

As I would find out years later, it also did not help that there were behind-the-scenes creative conflicts, with the editors of Superman laying down edicts that Superboy could not be referred to any longer, and neither could Supergirl, and a bunch of other stuff.  Editors Mark Waid & Michael Eury (yep, him again), Giffen, Gordon and the Bierbaums did their best to come up with ways to work around all this, such as substituting Mon-El for Superboy and creating the character of Laurel Gand to take Supergirl’s place in the Legion’s history (for a detailed rundown on all of this, check out the excellent article “Too Much Time On My Hands: The History of the Time Trapper” by Jim Ford in Back Issue #68).

Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!
Legion of Super-Heroes vol 4 #9, featuring Laurel Gand, who bears absolutely no resemblance to Supergirl, we swear to Grodd!

One source of information that assisted me immensely was the latest edition of Who’s Who in the DC Universe which was edited by a certain Mr. Eury.  There were a large number of entries for Legion characters in that 16 issue incarnation of Who’s Who, and it really helped me figure out up from down.

Anyway, all the various tortured retcons eventually caused the entire Legion history to be totally rebooted from scratch.  And then several years later it got rebooted again.  None of this did anything to motivate me to follow the series regularly.

So what finally did make me a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes?  It was two gentlemen by the names of Dave Cockrum and Jack Kirby.

Dave Cockrum is nowadays best known for co-creating the “All-New All-Different X-Men” with Len Wein in 1975, and then going on to pencil two runs on the series, paired with writer Chris Claremont.  Back in the 1990s, Dave and his wife Paty lived in upstate New York, and so I often would see them at local conventions & store signings.  I became a huge fan of Cockrum’s work and, in the process, I learned that right before he came over to Marvel to revamp X-Men, he had had a short but extremely influential stint on Superboy, a title which in the early 1970s was the home of the Legion as a back-up feature.

In 2000, DC published Legion of Super-Heroes Archives Volume 10, which reprinted the majority of Cockrum’s work on the series.  I picked it up, and I instantly fell in love.  It was immediately apparent that Cockrum had really played a crucial role in reviving the Legion.  If you look at the first few stories in that Archives volume, the ones written by E. Nelson Bridwell & Cary Bates and drawn by George Tuska, they’re decent and entertaining, but nothing especially memorable.

Then Cockrum comes along, paired with Bates, and over the next few stories you can see a real shift.  Cockrum started to draw the Legion members as slightly older, so that they were in their late teens, and he designed new uniforms for them, ones that were more fashionable & risqué.  You could almost say he sexed up the Legion, although by today’s standards what he did is quite mild & innocent.  (My favorite was Cockrum’s costume design for Phantom Girl, and I’m happy I had the opportunity to get a nice sketch of Tinya by him.)  Cockrum revamped the technology, the look of the future, drawing a lot of inspiration from Star Trek.  Cockrum’s art also contained this energy and dynamic quality.  He really knew how to tell a compelling story, to draw exciting layouts and detailed sequences featuring multiple characters.

Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum.
Superboy #200, featuring the wedding of Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, beautifully illustrated by Dave Cockrum. (Click to enlarge!)

Cockrum may have got me to pick up that hardcover collection, but it was Bates’ writing that really hooked me.  He did an amazing job scripting the numerous members of the Legion, making them seem like real people who were teammates and friends and occasionally romantic partners.  I really got invested in this group of super-powered pals.

Cockrum’s stay wasn’t very long, lasting from 1972 to 1974, but by the time he left, the team had taken over the covers of Superboy, and the book was unofficially titled “Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes.”  Cockrum’s replacement was newcomer Mike Grell.  I enjoyed Volume 10 of the Archives so much, I picked up the next one, which has the beginning of Grell’s run, paired with both Bates and Jim Shooter on writing duties.  Obviously Grell has grown by immense leaps & bounds since the mid-1970s, but even back then you could see a great deal of talent & potential in his wonderful Legion art.

I also mentioned Jack Kirby.  As far as I know, the King of Comics never drew the Legion.  However, one of his most significant creations would play a major role in the annals of the team’s lore, courtesy of Paul Levitz & Keith Giffen.

“The Great Darkness Saga” originally ran in Legion of Super-Heroes #290-294, published in 1982.  A mysterious, shadowy “Master” and his “Servants” are ravaging the United Planets, stealing various objects & sources of mystical power, in the process even taking down longtime Legion foes Mordru and the Time Trapper.  After four issues in which the Legion has been beaten back by these mysterious beings, the identity of the “Master” is finally revealed: Darkseid, lord of Apokolips.  Using the immense magical energies he has stolen, Darkseid teleports the planet Daxam to a yellow star and seizes mental control of its now-superhuman occupants, giving him an army of a billion beings with the strength & abilities of Superman.  What follows is a titanic battle across the whole of the galaxy, as the Legion calls in practically every single one of their reserve members & allies to try and halt Darkseid & his enslaved pawns.

Darkseid’s identity was well-hidden back when “The Great Darkness Saga” was first published.  In hindsight, you can see that Levitz & Giffen sprinkled in several clues for those who were really paying attention.  Of course nowadays Darkseid’s role is very well known.  So, as a huge fan of Kirby’s New Gods, I was absolutely interested in reading this now-classic story in which Darkseid was the villain.  “The Great Darkness Saga” was definitely an epic adventure.  At the same time, Levitz invested his script with a number of personal, quiet moments and pieces of characterization.  Once again, I really got interested in these people, in finding out more about them.

Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!
Legion of Super-Heroes #294: Darkseid revealed!

“The Great Darkness Saga” had not one, but two, epilogues, which appeared in Legion Annual #3 (1984) and Annual #2 (1986)… the series restarted with a new #1 in-between these two, which explains that odd numbering!  Having failed in his quest for universal domination, Darkseid sought to achieve a more personal, hurtful victory.  And what he did was genuinely horrifying.  But more on that (hopefully) in a future installment!

In any case, between the work of Cockrum, Grell & Bates in the 1970s and “The Great Darkness Saga” by Levitz & Giffen in the early 1980s, I really became interested in Legion.  I picked up several of the previous Archive editions, which contained the work of Edmond Hamilton, John Forte, Curt Swan, and a very young Jim Shooter.  I also searched out many of the Legion issues that Levitz wrote in the 1980s working with artists Steve Lightle and Greg LaRocque.  It was all really good stuff.  And when the pre-Crisis continuity of the Legion was more or less restored several years back, I picked up the new stories by Levitz and Geoff Johns.  But, again, I’ll talk about that another time.

Silver Age artist Nick Cardy, who recently passed away, had a brief connection to the Legion.  In addition to his runs illustrating Aquaman, Bat Lash, and Teen Titans, Cardy created stunning, dramatic covers for numerous DC titles throughout the 1960s and 70s, including Superboy.  This meant that once the Legion took over as the regular cover feature in 1973, Cardy had the opportunity to draw the heroes of the 30th Century.  And he did so beautifully, composing a number of striking images for the title, until Grell took over the cover chores two years later.  Probably my favorite Legion cover by Cardy is Superboy #203.  He does a superb job, depicting the menacing Validus looming over the unsuspecting Legionnaires.

Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.
Superboy #203 cover art by Nick Cardy.

Within that comic, behind Cardy’s fantastic cover, was “Massacre by Remote Control.”  This featured the tragic death of Invisible Kid, who sacrificed himself to save his teammates from the near-mindless monstrosity Validus.  It’s a very moving, emotional story by Bates & Grell.

And that, in turn, goes back to why I’ve come to be such a fan of the Legion.  Writers such as Bates and Shooter and Levitz really had the ability to get readers to care for the characters in the series.  Over the decades, those characters have grown and developed, been in and out of relationships, seen great triumphs and terrible failures.  And sometimes, sadly, members of the Legion would fall in battle, such as what happened to Invisible Kid, or when Shooter & Swan showed us Ferro Lad bravely giving his life to stop the apocalyptic menace of the Sun-Eater.  When incidents like this happened, it really did affect the reader.  It’s no wonder that the Legion has such an amazingly dedicated fanbase.

They blinded me with science fiction: E-Man by Nicola Cuti & Joe Staton

I was really happy to finally pick up a copy of the trade paperback E-Man: The Early Years from Joe Staton at this year’s New York Comic Con.  Crash course for the uninitiated: E-Man is the creation of writer Nicola “Nick” Cuti and artist Joe Staton.  Cuti has described the character of E-Man as a cross between Plastic Man and the theories of Albert Einstein.

The being who would become E-Man began life thousands of years ago when a packet of sentient energy erupted from an alien star.  For millennia this energy wandered the universe, searching for other intelligent life.  Eventually it came across the spaceship of the Brain from Sirius.  Boarding the craft, the unexpected extra weight caused the Brain’s ship to crash on Earth.  Exploring the planet, the sentient energy eventually got caught up in power lines which led him to the dressing room of Nova Kane, who was working as a burlesque performer to pay her grad school bills.  Taking on human form, the energy being adopted the identity of E-Man, and Nova gave him the civilian alias of Alec Tronn.  With Nova as his guide, introducing him to the customs of Earth, E-Man became the planet’s protector against the vengeful Brain and a variety of other bizarre foes.

EMan Early Years cover

The E-Man series first debuted in 1973, published by Charlton Comics.  It lasted ten issues there before being canceled due to low sales, but garnered a cult following.  A decade later, when Charlton went out of business, the rights to the series were purchased by First Comics.  In addition to reprinting the original Charlton stories, First published 25 issues of brand new material between 1983 and 1985, drawn by Staton.  At the time, Cuti was on staff at DC Comics and wasn’t readily available to return to his baby, so other writers such as Martin Pasko and Paul Kupperberg penned the series, as well as Staton himself.  Cuti was finally able to return to E-Man for the last few issues of the First run.

In the years since First ceased regular publication, the situation, as Staton explained it to me once, eventually resolved itself as such: First still retains ownership of all the E-Man stories published under their banner and by Charlton.  Staton has the rights to create brand-new E-Man material, which he has done so with Cuti on several occasions.  Cuti & Staton have created new E-Man stories at Comico, Alpha Productions and, most recently, a trio of one-shots published by Digital Webbing between 2006 and 2008.

EMan Curse of the Idol cover

Since I was born in 1976 and begin reading comics regularly in the mid-1980s, I obviously missed the Charlton and First stories when they originally appeared.  I actually discovered Joe Staton primarily via his work on Green Lantern in the early 1990s (which was actually his third time drawing that series).  His style was really appealing to me.  A lot of people describe it as “cartoony,” which makes sense, yet at the same time oversimplifies things.  Really, what I think that means is that Staton’s work is not-hyper detailed like, say, Perez or Maguire or a lot of the artists who became popular in the 1990s.  Staton’s illustrations have a charming quality, but at the same time he is able to draw extremely serious material.  He can easily transition from the goofy misadventures of Guy Gardner or Scooby Doo to the cosmic space opera of Green Lantern to the noir tales featured in The Huntress and Femme Noir.

E-Man was definitely a really great fit for Staton’s talents.  Cuti wrote stories that were fun and humorous without being silly or excessively mocking the characters.  Alec and Nova often faced life & death situations, but Cuti scripting was never overly grim, and there were plenty of silly jokes to liven things up.  Staton got to draw Alec Tronn transforming into a variety of weird & wonderful forms, as well as throw in lots of great visual gags.

The cast of characters in E-Man is a really nice group.  Alec, as a stranger in a strange land, is at times charming naïve, which leads to a lot of comedy.  At the same time, though, Cuti doesn’t write Alec as an idiot, but rather as a genuinely nice guy who just happens to have a lot to learn about his new home.  His companion / love-interest is Katrinka Kolcnzski, aka Nova Kane.  She is a thoroughly modern woman, independent & smart, as well as drop-dead gorgeous.  I like that Cuti writes her as a confident, self-assured individual without resorting to having her act catty (although she does occasionally get jealous when Alec is seemingly eyeing other ladies). Later on, when Nova gains super powers similar to Alec, they really do have an equal partnership.  Also hanging around is sloppy but clever private investigator Michael Mauser (think Sam Spade meets Oscar Madison) who loves a good game of cards and a liverwurst sandwich with raw onions.  And then there’s the adorable Teddy-Q, a koala bear who comes to live with Alec & Nova.

EMan 7 pg 1 Charlton

Oh, yes, Nova’s career as an exotic dancer provides Staton with the opportunity to draw some incredibly sexy sequences.  I know that Staton’s name typically doesn’t come up when thinking of artists who draw cheesecake and good girl art.  But I have always thought that Staton rendered very beautiful women.  And his depictions of Nova Kane are definitely stunning.

It’s really interesting to look at the original ten issues from the Charlton run, which are reprinted in The Early Years trade paperback.  In 1973, Staton had only been a professional artist for a couple of years.  Yet already he was doing some amazing work.  Staton even illustrated painted covers for the last four issues of the series.  So right from the start, it was clear that he was a talented individual.  Of course, a nice aspect of the TPB is that it also includes his covers from The Original E-Man miniseries published by First in the mid-1980s that reprinted the Charlton stories.  Viewing these, you can clearly see how much Staton had developed as an artist, and how his style was evolving.

EMan 9 cover Charlton signed

I really hope that First is able to publish additional E-Man trade paperbacks.  I only have one issue from the 1980s series, so it would be great if those could be collected.  Even better, I would love to see new stories from Cuti & Staton.  Those three specials released by Digital Webbing a few years back were fantastic.  They had all of the fun and excitement and humor of the original Charlton issues.  It really felt like there hadn’t been a lapse of decades, and that Cuti & Staton had just picked up right where they had left off all those years before.

By the way, for additional information on E-Man, plus an interesting, detailed look at Charlton Comics in the 1970s, it is worth tracking down Comic Book Artist #12, which was released by TwoMorrows Publishing in 2001.  The magazine is topped off by a brand new cover drawn by Staton, featuring E-Man, Nova Kane, Teddy-Q, and the many colorful, macabre hosts of Charlton’s horror anthologies.  TwoMorrows still has copies for sale at their website.

Comic book reviews: Jack Kirby’s Silver Star

Jack Kirby was, without a doubt, one of the most influential comic book creators of the 20th Century.  His dynamic art style and storytelling techniques influenced dozens upon dozens of other artists.  Kirby was also responsible for creating or co-creating literally hundreds of characters for both Marvel and DC Comics.  Among these were Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the original X-Men, the New Gods, Darkseid, the Demon Etrigan, OMAC, and Kamandi, just to name some of the major ones!

Unfortunately, Kirby spent the majority of his career working during a time when the legal rights of comic book creators were few and far between.  Both financial benefits and creative control were almost unheard of.  So, despite creating a major share of the Marvel universe, and contributing key concepts to DC, Kirby was sadly denied both creative and financial recognition by the owners of those two companies.

Nowadays, of course, this situation has improved somewhat.  If a successful creator chooses to, he has the option take his brand new ideas to a publisher such as Image Comics, Dark Horse, or IDW, where he will retain ownership of a series.

Creator-owned titles really did not become prevalent in the marketplace until the early 1990s, though.  By this time, Kirby was already in his seventies, suffering from poor health, and had retired several years before.  He would pass away on February 6, 1994 at the age of 76.  I’ve always thought it was a great tragedy that Kirby did not live longer, and of course retain his health & drawing ability, so that he could have brought some of the many unpublished concepts he had conceived to a company such as Image and produced a long-lasting series on which he held full ownership and creative control.

Fortunately, Kirby did have the opportunity to work on a small number of creator-owned projects a decade before, in the early 1980s.  One of these was Silver Star, which was published for six issues by Pacific Comics in 1983.

Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby
Silver Star Graphite Edition, by Jack Kirby

In 2006, TwoMorrows Publishing released the Silver Star: Graphite Edition, a black & white trade paperback collection.  It was printed from photocopies of Jack Kirby’s penciled pages from before they were inked by Mike Royer, D. Bruce Berry and Mike Thibodeaux.  There are a handful of pages, mostly splashes and double page spreads, that there aren’t any photocopies of.  In those cases, the pages were printed from the inked artwork.

I had seen scans of the some of the original artwork from the Silver Star books posted on Comic Art Fans, and was intrigued, especially because of some striking pages from the sixth issue.  So when I found a copy of the Graphite Edition for sale at the Jack Kirby Museum table during MoCCA Festival 2010, I immediately purchased it.

(There is also a collection of the Silver Star material that was issued by Image Comics in 2007, an oversized hardcover printed in full color on glossy paper, with selected new coloring by Erik Larsen.  I’ve been meaning to pick up this edition for a few years now, but I’ve yet to come across a copy in the comic shops.  Sooner or later, once I have some extra funds, I’ll buy it at Amazon or Ebay.)

Silver Star is the story of “Homo Geneticus,” the next stage in human evolution, artificially jump-started by Doctor Bradford Miller.  Hoping to find a way for humanity to survive a nuclear holocaust, Miller created a “genetic package” that he injected into a number of pregnant women, including his own wife.  All of these women’s offspring were subsequently born with various superpowers, including “atomic manipulation,” the ability to reshape matter itself.

Miller’s son Morgan first manifests his abilities during the Vietnam War, when he unexpectedly uses them to save his comrades from an enemy attack.  However, Morgan’s body immediately begins emitting massive amounts of energy.  The military is forced to encase him in a metal suit.  This silvery outfit, combined with the medal for valor Morgan receives, causes the government to give him the code name “Silver Star.”

Unfortunately, not all of the recipients of the genetic package are as altruistic as Morgan.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Darius Drumm.  Born to a stern, wife-beating evangelical preacher, leader of the “Foundation for Self-Denial,” Drumm grows up in a strict, puritanical environment.  This upbringing, coupled with the discovery of his seemingly unlimited powers, leads Drumm to become a very twisted individual.  Mentally unbalanced, convinced of the inherent corruption of all humanity, Drumm is determined to wipe the world clean of sin.  He is the ultimate nihilist, ready to reduce the entire Earth to a sterile globe.

Before Drumm can proceed, he feels obligated to kill all of the other members of Homo Geneticus he can locate, lest they pose a threat to his scheme.  This he does via some particularly violent and gruesome acts, ones that not only take out his quarry, but also cause an immense loss of innocent life.

One of Drumm’s targets is Norma Richmond, an attractive stuntwoman whose main Homo Geneticus ability is near invulnerability.  At first, as with his other prey, Drumm attempts to kill her.  Morgan thwarts this attempt, and rescues Norma, but Drumm strikes again, this time kidnapping her.  At this point Drumm is unable to decide if he wants to seduce Norma or kill her, violently torn between his lust for the beautiful woman and his father’s strict discipline of self-denial.

In the final issue, Drumm, fully committed to his apocalyptic mission, uses his atomic manipulation on himself.  He transforms into the horrific, towering figure of the Angel of Death.  Spreading vast wings, Drumm sweeps out, scorching the surface of the planet with his flames.  Morgan sets off in pursuit, desperate to halt Drumm before mankind is completely annihilated.

Jack Kiirby's uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10
Jack Kiirby’s uninked pencils for Silver Star #6 page 10

I have to admit, as a great fan of Jack Kirby’s work, I was a bit underwhelmed by Silver Star.  The story is not his best writing.  I think he probably hit his high point, both as a writer and an artist, a decade or so earlier, when he was creating the Fourth World books featuring the New Gods at DC Comics.

By the time Kirby was working on Silver Star in 1983, it’s quite likely that he may have been burned out on comic books, due to his shoddy treatment at the hands of Marvel and DC.  I cannot say I can blame him for that.  His advancing age & declining health may also have been a factor.  That said, Silver Star is not without its merits.

While it appears that while Kirby intended for the conflict with Darius Drum to conclude in Silver Star #6, he may have believed the book would last on past that as an ongoing series.  Kirby spends a significant portion of the first four issues establishing a supporting cast and status quo.  As a result, the pacing on these issues is too leisurely.  Things only kick into high gear with the final two issues, as Drumm becomes the Angel of Death, and the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance.  It’s possible that if Kirby had known he would only have half a dozen issues to work with, he would have structured the story somewhat differently.

At least the conclusion, while somewhat abrupt, is quite inventive.  Realizing that he has little hope of physically besting Drumm in a contest of superpowers, Morgan instead is forced to use psychology to defeat his nigh-unstoppable opponent.

One story point that I felt was much too casually brushed aside was Doctor Miller conducting genetic experimentation on unborn babies.  I do not know if he ever received the parents’ consent, but even if he did, there are still ethical issues.  One can argue that Miller is at least partially responsible for the massive destruction Darius Drumm subsequently wrecks.

Kirby did something similar with “The Project” in Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen.  In that case, the government cloned numerous copies of Jimmy Olsen without his permission.  Jimmy, rather than expressing outrage at this violation of his person, merely seemed in awe by the whole accomplishment.  It’s strange, in that Kirby appeared to view concepts such as cloning and genetic engineering with a black & white morality.  In his stories, he either presented well-intentioned scientists such as The Project or Doctor Miller experimenting with human DNA for the selfless betterment of mankind, or he had insane nut jobs like Simyan & Mokkari or Arnim Zola transforming & twisting organic life out of some sort of sadistic, perverse curiosity.  Kirby didn’t seem to acknowledge that the act of genetic engineering itself, regardless of the intent of the scientists behind it, can have a host of complicated moral issues.

Looking at the Graphite Edition, it’s worth mentioning the penciling appears on the sketchy side.  There could be a few reasons for this.  I don’t know if Kirby’s art looks unpolished because these are reproductions of quarter century old photocopies, because he was getting on in age, or because he simply didn’t finish his pencils as tightly as he could have since he knew they were going to be inked.  As I said, there are several pages where TwoMorrows needed to print from the inked art by Royer, Berry and Thibodeaux.  This finished art looks fantastic.  Obviously, I understand the archival and instructional value of presenting Kirby’s rough, uninked pencil art, as it reveals a lot of the creative process.  And there is always the alternative of the Image hardcover to see the series fully inked.

That said, Kirby’s unlinked, black & white pencils for Silver Star #6, with the titanic Angel of Death unleashed upon the Earth, are amazing.  Perhaps the excitement of illustrating the end of the world inspired Kirby, because his artwork on these pages is dramatic, horrifying, and riveting.

Silver Star originated as a pitch for a film that Kirby and Steve Sherman wrote in 1977.  It was never produced, and Kirby used many of the ideas from the film treatment several years later in the Silver Star comic, albeit with certain alterations.  The entire story treatment by Kirby & Sherman is reprinted in the back of the Graphite Edition.  It’s interesting to compare their initial premise to the finished comic book version.  And, y’know, with today’s special effects technology, Silver Star would make a fantastic movie!

I also thought it noteworthy that Kirby suggested actor Jack Palance to play Darius Drumm.  According to Kirby’s former assistant Mark Evanier, the grand cosmic villain Darkseid from the Fourth World books was also modeled on Palance (an early concept drawing for Drumm printed in this book bears a more than passing resemblance to Darkseid).  Kirby obviously thought very highly of Palance’s acting abilities & screen presence.  Certainly he wasn’t the only comic book artist to feel that way, as Gene Colan acknowledged that his version of Dracula from Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula series was also based on Palance.

Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby
Jayne Davidson concept artwork by Jack Kirby

There are several other concept illustrations and previously unpublished drawings by Kirby contained in the trade paperback.  My favorite would have to be the original design for Norma Richmond, or “Jayne Davidson,” as she was originally called in the Kirby/Sherman film pitch.  Several years ago, someone on a message board once suggested that Kirby was incapable of drawing sexy women.  That, I argued, was pure nonsense, and I listed at least half a dozen examples of curvy Kirby women who were absolutely gorgeous.  I have to add Norma to that list.

I don’t know if I would recommend Silver Star to a Kirby newcomer.  It is something of an acquired taste, and a better intro to Kirby’s tremendous body of work would be the Fourth World Omnibus editions from DC, or the various Essential Fantastic Four volumes published by Marvel.  But if you are already a fan of Kirby, then Silver Star is worth picking up.  It’s an unusual but memorable story, and one of the last complete works in Kirby’s long & varied career.

Comic books I’m reading, part two: trade paperbacks

After I wrote my post about what I was reading from Marvel and DC, I realized that I had left out something crucial: trade paperbacks.

Trade paperbacks have the advantage of containing a complete story or, in the case of the black & white Marvel Essential and DC Showcase Presents volumes, several hundred pages of reprints for twenty dollars or less.  TPBs often give you a lot more value for your money than a single issue “pamphlet” which only contains 22 pages, and they are much more durable.  I find it easier to take a TPB on the train or bus to read, because if it gets knocked around a bit, it won’t end up being destroyed.

I recently picked up a pair of trades published by DC which both featured the artwork of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  The first one, JLA: The Hypothetical Woman, was written by Gail Simone.  It has to be one of the best Justice League stories that I have read in years.  Simone absolutely understands  how to write the JLA’s team dynamics, highlighting the particular strengths of each member while still showing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And she gives the team a truly worthy adversary in General Tuzik, a ruthless Machiavellian dictator who seems to spend the majority of the story one step ahead of the League.  You really are left wondering how the JLA is going to get through this one.

JLA: The Hypothetical Woman
JLA: The Hypothetical Woman

The artwork is stunning.  This is some of the finest penciling by Garcia-Lopez in his entire career.  He draws a story on a truly epic scale, with both superhuman spectacles and intimate personal moments.  And his Wonder Woman… she is absolutely breathtaking, especially in the story’s second half, when we see her on the field of battle, a commanding portrait of beauty & strength.  Garcia-Lopez is very ably complemented by inkers Klaus Janson and Sean Phillips on this book.

I believe that JLA: The Hypothetical Woman is out of print, but a number of copies are still available on Amazon.com.  I definitely recommend picking it up.

The other TPB with Garcia-Lopez’s pencils is Batman: King Tut’s Tomb, which reprints “A New Dawn” from Batman Confidential #s 26-28.  Yes, the comic books actually use the television bad guy King Tut, but he is completely revamped into a credible, dangerous criminal by writers Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir.  Batman is forced to team up with his long-time foe the Riddler to track down Tut.  DeFilippis & Weir do a great job with that character, making him a very mischievous, devil-may-care rogue.  In a way, you have to admire their version of the Riddler.  Unlike most of Batman’s foes, he isn’t a homicidal maniac.  Instead, the Riddler’s goal is to commit clever crimes and outwit Batman, proving his the superior intellect.

Again, Garcia-Lopez’s artwork is of a high quality.  He is inked by Kevin Nolan, who has an extremely slick, polished style.  I think Nolan can often overwhelm other artists with his inks, but he works very well with Garcia-Lopez.  The finished artwork is a pleasant blending of their styles.  Additionally, I liked the vibrant coloring by David Baron.

Batman: King Tut’s Tomb also contains a trio of Batman stories Garcia-Lopez drew in the early 1980s.  I don’t have any of those issues, so they were a nice bonus.

I purchased Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier back in December of last year.  I read the book when I had to stay in the hospital for a few days.  I’m re-reading it now, and thoroughly enjoying it once again.  It contains the character’s appearances from Star Spangled War Stories #s 151 to 188, which were originally printed in the 1970s.

Who is the Unknown Soldier?  He is an unnamed American soldier who, in the early days of World War II, was horribly disfigured in combat during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines.  Trained as an expert at infiltration and a master of disguise, he is dispatched on missions behind enemy lines to sabotage the Axis war effort.  When not wearing one of his lifelike masks, the Soldier is typically clad in trench coat & fedora, his face completely covered in bandages.

Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier
Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier

When I first read this collection of Unknown Soldier stories, it occurred to me that the concept was very similar to the Sam Raimi movie Darkman… except that film came out a good twenty years later.  Coincidence or influence?  I don’t know.  I recall that when I saw Darkman in the theater in 1990, I thought to myself that it would make a great ongoing comic book series, and I was right.  What I did not know then was that such a series already existed in the adventures of the Unknown Soldier.

This Showcase Presents volume contains work by a number of talented writers & artists.  The Unknown Soldier was created by the legendary Joe Kubert, and he collaborated with writers Bob Haney and Robert Kanigher on the first several stories.  After the first dozen or so stories, Kubert slips into the role of cover artist, also providing many of the very striking opening splash pages which combine his artwork with photo montages.  Jack Sparling takes over art chores for a time, before Filipino illustrator Gerry Talaoc becomes the regular artist for the remainder of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  Other writers who worked on the book are Archie Goodwin, Frank Robbins and David Michelinie.

(It is a bit of a pity that Robbins does not also provide any artwork.  He is one of those artists who when I was much younger I could not stand his work, considering it weird and rubbery.  But over time I’ve grown to greatly appreciate his immense talents.  Nowadays, when I come across a story he has illustrated, it is a real treat.)

I am not generally a fan of war comics, but I instantly became a fan of the Unknown Soldier.  I think a major reason for this is the fact that, at his core, the Unknown Soldier is really an anti-war figure.  His origin is the personification of the horror of war.  There is nothing glamorous about what he does.  Really, the Soldier’s whole reason for being is to bring an end to the conflict that destroyed his life.

I hope that one of these days DC releases a second Showcase Presents collection of the Unknown Soldier’s adventures.  The final half-dozen tales in the first volume are written by Michelinie, who really ramped up the dark moral ambiguity.  His first story, “8,000 to One,” very much drives home just what a grim, horrific role the Soldier has had to take on to carry out his mission.  And the superb artwork by Talaoc is a perfect fit for the tone of Michelinie’s writing.  I definitely want to read the rest of their work on the character.

Before I close out this blog, I would be remiss if I did not mention a magazine that I regularly follow, Back Issue from TwoMorrows Publishing.  Superbly edited by Michael Eury, Back Issue has featured a diverse selection of articles on the comic books of the 1970s and 80s, and occasionally beyond.  The current issue spotlights the Avengers (just in time for the movie) and has some fascinating, informative interviews & commentary from Roger Stern, Steve Englehart, George Perez, Al Milgrom, Brett Breeding, and Mike Carlin, among many others.

Back Issue #56
Back Issue #56

The reason why I had to bring up Back Issue is that many of the articles that have appeared in it have led me to pick up trade paperbacks or, in the absence of collected editions, actual back issues themselves.  I’ve learned about a number of characters, series, and creators of whom I previously only had a passing knowledge.  The Unknown Soldier is one of those.  There was a pair of articles authored by Michael Aushenker in Back Issue #s 37 and 52, the first on the character of the Soldier, the second on artist Gerry Talaoc.  Thanks to these, I was sufficiently intrigued to pick up the Showcase Presents: The Unknown Soldier collection.  So, the magazine has definitely broadened my interests & horizons as a comic book reader.

BI #52, incidentally, covered DC Comics’ horror titles from the 1970s, and also got me to buy one of the Showcase Presents: The House of Mystery volumes. Going back to BI #25, Aushenker conducted an interview with Deathlok creator Rich Buckler which helped motivate me to purchase the Marvel Masterworks collection of that series.  Really, I think both DC and Marvel ought to be paying Eury and Aushenker a small commission for helping to drum up their sales!

Back Issue is definitely worth picking up.  It’s an entertaining, informative read, and you never know what else it might lead you to discover.

Anyway, next time I do one of these “comic books I’m reading” posts, I will definitely be talking about independent (i.e. non-DC and Marvel) titles.  I just need to really collect my thoughts together on what is going to be a very diverse selection of material.