2020 Visions: Machine Man and Iron Man

Happy New Year!  To celebrate the occasion, today I am taking a quick look at the comic book adventures of Machine Man and Iron Man in the distant, far-off future year of, um, uh, 2020 AD… Okay, yeah, I can’t believe it’s 2020 already, either!

Machine Man mini 2 pg 22

Machine Man was created by none other than the legendary Jack Kirby himself, debuting in, of all places, the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book series, which had been inspired by the film / novel by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.  First known as Mister Machine, aka X-51, he appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey #s 8-10 published in mid 1977.

Mister Machine was a robot who gained sentience, with one of the mysterious alien Monoliths from the movie playing a role in his evolution towards becoming almost human.  Following the cancellation of the 2001: A Space Odyssey comic book, the character, renamed Machine Man, received his own ongoing series in early 1978.  Kirby wrote & penciled Machine Man for nine issues, with Mike Royer providing inks.

Machine Man mini 1 cover smallBy late 1978 Kirby had become disenchanted with mainstream comic books, and he left Marvel Comics to go into the animation field.  The storyline begun by Kirby in Machine Man was concluded by writer Roger Stern and penciler Sal Buscema a few months later in Incredible Hulk #s 234-237.  This was followed by a revival of the Machine Man ongoing series, picking up from the original numbering, with another Silver Age legend, Stave Ditko, as the artist.  Issue #s 10-14 were written by Marv Wolfman, with Tom DeFalco then writing #s 15-19.

In the early 1980s Machine Man made the occasional guest appearance here and there.  He was once again given the spotlight in 1984 with the Machine Man four issue limited series, set three and a half decades in the future, in the year 2020.  Tom DeFalco returned to wrote X-51’s future adventures.  The first three issues had pencils / breakdowns by Herb Trimpe, with finished art & colors by Barry Windsor-Smith, an unusual pairing that nevertheless worked very well.  BWS took over the full art chores for Machine Man #4, also co-plotting that final issue.  Michael, Higgins, Diana Albers, Janice Chiang and Jim Novak lettered an issue apiece, and the whole thing was edited by Larry Hama.

DeFalco’s story is set in a dark industrialized dystopia where corrupt corporations have seized political power (so, yeah, not too different from our actual real-world 2020, amiright?) and bands of anarchist scavengers hope to find a free, independent existence under the radar.  One of these groups of Midnight Wreckers, searching through a dumping ground belonging to Baintronics Inc, discovers a box containing the dismantled Machine Man.  Evading the Baintronics security forces, the Wreckers return to their base and re-assemble Machine Man.

Machine Man mini 1 pg 12

Baintronics is run by Sunset Bain, an industrialist & socialite who moonlighted as the masked arms dealer Madame Menace, clashing with Machine Man on more than one occasion back in the day.  Now in 2020 she is allied with Miles Brinkman, a former US Senator who is another old foe of X-51.  Brinkman had previously waged a McCarthy-esque campaign of fear-mongering against Machine Man, hoping to ride a wave of robotphobia to greater political power.

DeFalco has an interesting approach to the future incarnations of Bain and Brinkman.  At this point they have basically won, having amassed tremendous political & financial power, yet they are seemingly unable to enjoy their spoils, having grown old & tired, reduced to worn-out shadows of their former selves.  And once they learn that Machine Man has been reactivated they are consumed by uncontrollable paranoia that this former adversary will seek to destroy them.  The pair are defeated as much by their own failings as they are by Machine Man and the Midnight Wreckers.

Machine Man mini 3 pg 12

DeFalco shows that Machine Man is actually more human than either Sunset Bain or Miles Brinkman, who in their fear and panic project upon him their own ugly motivations of hatred and vengeance.  Machine Man, as well as his onetime love, the silver robot Jocasta (rebuilt by Bain to be her aide, but ultimately serving as her conscience), are more capable of feeling compassion and expressing forgiveness than their human foes.

The miniseries introduced Arno Stark, descendant of Tony Stark, the Iron Man of the year 2020.  Arno is an amoral mercenary, and he is more than happy to accept an assignment from Sunset Bain to hunt down & destroy Machine Man.  Iron Man clashes twice with Machine Man, and in both encounters he is defeated by his robot opponent.

Machine Man mini 4 pg 11

This leads into the events of the Iron Man 2020 special, which was published a decade later, in 1994.  It was co-plotted, by Bob Wiacek & Walter Simonson, scripted by Simonson, penciled & inked by Wiacek, with Will Rosado penciling the second half of the book over Wiacek’s layouts.  This was one of the all-too-infrequent penciling jobs by Wiacek, who is best known for his work as an inker / embellisher.  Rosado, who was early in his comic book career, also did good work here. The special was lettered by John Costanza and colored by Christie Scheele.Iron Man 2020 cover small

As a tie-in, Marvel re-issued the Machine Man miniseries as a two double-sized issues.  That was certainly helpful to me, as I hadn’t been reading comics regularly in 1984, and so missed the original release.

The Iron Man 2020 special opens very soon after the events of the miniseries.  Much like Bain and Brinkman before him, Arno Stark is a haunted man: haunted by his defeat at Machine Man’s hands, haunted by the burden of keeping the financially weakened Stark Enterprises afloat, and haunted by the seeming impossibility of living up to the legend of his ancestor, Tony Stark, the original Iron Man.  As the old saying goes, heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.

Desperate to save his company, Arno accepts an offer from Marcus Wellington, one of his biggest competitors.  Arno is hired to rescue Wellington’s daughter Melodi, who has been kidnapped by terrorists and is being held for ransom.  Arno dons his Iron Man suit and sets course for the terrorists’ island stronghold.  Of course, as is often the case with corporate machinations, the situation is much more complicated than it initially appears, and Arno soon finds himself in the middle of more than one double cross.

The end result of these events are that they push Arno Stark towards, well, not necessary becoming a hero, by any means, but at least to start walking a slightly less avaricious, brutal path.

Iron Man 2020 pg 35

Hey, everyone loves a good redemption story.  Certainly Wiacek & Simonson make this one more believable than most by showing that it’s only just the beginning of Arno Stark’s path away from villainy.

I’ve met Bob Wiacek on a few occasions at comic book conventions.  A decade ago at a February 2010 show he did a drawing of Iron Man 2020 in my villains sketchbook.  It is a distinctive costume, a sort of retro future look, almost steampunk with those big gears, and he renders it well.

Iron Man 2020 by Bob Wiacek

I didn’t want to get into too many specific details about either the Machine Man miniseries or the Iron Man 2020 special, because I think they are both worth tracking down and reading.  Marvel published an Iron Man 2020 trade paperback in 2013 collecting both, along with several other stories.

Also, for those interested in Machine Man’s various Bronze Age incarnations (the original Kirby stories, the Ditko-drawn revival, and the 1984 miniseries) I recommend checking out Back Issue #25 from TwoMorrows Publishing.  “Call Me Mister… Mister Machine!” written by Allan Harvey is offers a wealth of behind-the-scenes info concerning Machine Man’s adventures in the 1970s and 80s.

And of course, since it’s now 2020 in the real world, Marvel Comics is bringing back Arno Stark.  It seems that Tony Stark is going to die (what, again?!?) and Arno, who in “mainstream” Marvel continuity is Tony’s long lost twin brother (yes really!), will become the new Iron Man… at least until the inevitable resurrection.  Still, with writing by Dan Slott & Christos Gage, it sounds like it could be a fun ride.

Once again, happy new year to all of you.  Let’s hope 2020 is a good one. Or, as the Midnight Wreckers might have put it, “YAH-ZOO!”

Legendary comic book artist Joe Sinnott retires at age 92

This week longtime comic book artist Joe Sinnott announced his retirement, bringing an official end to a career that spanned nearly seven decades, from 1950 to 2019.

With the recent passing of Marvel Comics writer & editor Stan Lee, the decision was made to bring down the curtain on the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper comic strip that he had been scripting since 1977.  The 92 year old Sinnott, who has been inking the Sunday installments of the newspaper strip since 1992, decided this would be an appropriate time to formally retire.

Spider-Man final Sunday strip

Here is the Sunday March 17th installment of the newspaper strip.  As I understand it, this was written by Roy Thomas, penciled by Alex Saviuk, inked by Joe Sinnott, and lettered by Janice Chiang.  It’s a pleasant coda to the comic strip continuity with Peter and Mary-Jane Parker departing for a vacation in Australia.  Since this is the wrap-up of the strip, I think we can safely assume that for once Peter and MJ will actually have a nice, relaxing time, and no super-villains will be following them Down Under.

Y’know, it’s funny… when the news broke that Sinnott was at long last calling it a day, the very first thing that popped into my mind was that he actually began the process of retiring back in 1991.

Sinnott’s last monthly assignment for Marvel Comics was Thor, inking / finishing the pencils of Ron Frenz for two and a half years, from issues #400 to #429.  A few months after Sinnott’s final Thor issue, in the letters page of #433 (cover-dated June 1991), Frenz wrote a heartfelt tribute to his collaborator.  Frenz explained that Sinnott was taking “his first steps towards a well-won and laurelled retirement.”

Thor 433 lettercol

Well, it appears that Sinnott really enjoyed drawing, and possessed a genuine love for comic books, because it took him until now to finally retire.  During the past 27 years, in addition to inking the Sunday installments of the Spider-Man strip, Sinnott contributed to several projects, among them the Marvel: Heroes & Legends special, the Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Comic Magazine miniseries, a pair of Untold Tales of Spider-Man annuals, and Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure.

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure was published in 2008.  It reconstructed & completed the long-lost “final” FF story that Kirby plotted & penciled way back in 1970 right before he departed Marvel for DC Comics.  Nearly four decades later Stan Lee finally wrote the script for this story.  Joe Sinnott’s embellishments had been an absolutely perfect match for the Fantastic Four stories Kirby penciled in the mid-1960s, so of course he was the first and only choice to ink this special.

FF The Lost Adventure pg 1

It was always a pleasure to see Sinnott’s occasional returns to the comic book biz over the past two and a half decades.  I regard him as one of the all-time greatest inkers / finishers in the history of the medium.  His stellar work inking Kirby was just one part of his career.  Over the decades Sinnott did superb work over numerous other pencilers, among them John Buscema, Rich Bucker, George Perez, Ron Wilson, John Byrne, and Ron Frenz.

Over the past decade Sinnott has also been very involved in Bob Almond’s Inkwell Awards.  The “hall of fame” award the Inkwells give out is named, appropriately enough, the Sinnott.

I have been fortunate enough to meet Joe Sinnott at comic book conventions several times over the years.  I can definitely tell you that his talent is matched by his kindness.  Each time I met him he came across as polite, enthusiastic and gracious.

hawthornecon09

Above is a photo I took in 2011 of Joe Sinnott with another great creator, Walter Simonson, at the Hawthorne NJ comic con.  It’s always awesome when you meet creators whose work you enjoy and you discover that they are also genuinely nice people.

Congratulations to Joe Sinnott on bringing to a close a long and distinguished career.  I hope he enjoys his retirement, because he definitely deserves it.

Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

XMen Gold pg 23

There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 30

Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)
X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.

Happy birthday to Louise Simonson

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

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

Power Pack 2 cover

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

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

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

Superman Man of Steel 26 cover

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

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

Warlock 7 cover

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

XFactor Forever 3 cover

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

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

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

Comic book reviews: The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson

The new graphic novel The Judas Coin, written & drawn by Walter Simonson, published by DC Comics, is a collection of six interconnected short stories.  The linking thread is a cursed Roman coin, one of the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus.  Over a two thousand year period, this silver coin traverses the globe, bringing with it murder, treachery, and general ill-fortune to anyone unlucky enough to come into its possession.

Simonson selects an interesting assortment of characters to feature in his stories, many of them rather obscure: The Golden Gladiator (73 AD), The Viking Prince (1000 AD), Captain Fear (1720 AD), Bat Lash (1881 AD), Two-Face & Batman (The Present), and Manhunter 2070 (2087 AD).  I had at least a passing knowledge of most of these.  After all, everyone knows Batman and Two-Face!  I knew of The Viking Prince and Bat Lash as having been illustrated in the past by Joe Kubert and Nick Cardy, respectively.  Captain Fear, coincidentally, is a character I came across a few months ago when buying back issues of The Unknown Soldier, a couple of which featured the swashbuckling pirate as the back-up feature drawn by a young Walter Simonson himself.  The only two I was totally in the dark about were the Golden Gladiator and the future Manhunter.  But Simonson does a good job making each story in The Judas Coin accessible, providing enough information that one could be completely unfamiliar with all of these individuals and still enjoy the book.

The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson
The Judas Coin, by Walter Simonson

With each segment, Simonson chose to experiment with his art style & storytelling.  For example, on the Golden Gladiator tale, he was influenced greatly by both Prince Valiant creator Hal Foster and the Dell Comics adaptation of the film Helen of Troy drawn by John Buscema.  The Two-Face & Batman tale is done in a newspaper comic strip style, black & white, with the page layout turned vertically.  Here, Simonson drew inspiration from the work of Yaroslav Horak, the artist who drew the James Bond newspaper strip in the late 1960s and 70s.  I actually knew of Horak’s work beforehand, as Titan Books collected the entire run of the strip in a series of trade paperbacks several years ago, and I own one of those.  On the Manhunter story, we see Simonson attempting to do a Manga-esque version of his work.  It is a bizarre jumble of styles, I have to say, and I would not want to see him draw like that all the time, but it makes for an interesting experiment.

The stories range from the whimsical to the truly dark.  One quality of Simonson’s writing I have always appreciated is that he can tell very serious stories yet successfully imbue them with a sense of humor.  That’s certainly true of The Judas Coin.  I was especially struck by the tone of the Manhunter 2070 segment, which begins as a rather wacky space opera, full of rocket ships, sexy girls and space pirates, but gradually veers into darker territory, ending on a very somber, introspective note.  It is an effectively moody conclusion for a blood-soaked odyssey spanning two millennia.

I’ve been looking forward to this book for some time now.  Simonson was a guest at the Hawthorne NJ Comic Con in May of last year, and he brought along with him a portfolio containing photocopies of some of the pages from The Judas Coin.  The artwork, which was from the Viking Prince segment, looked absolutely amazing.  Apparently Simonson has been working on The Judas Coin for several years now.  The effort certainly shows in his work on this book, which contains some of the best work of his career.  There is some magnificent storytelling on display in Simonson’s artwork, and the varying of styles allows him to utilize a number of different techniques, demonstrating his versatility.

The Judas Coin, page 24, featuring The Viking Prince
The Judas Coin, page 24, featuring The Viking Prince

The lettering by John Workman is very well done.  I believe Workman is Simonson’s letterer of choice, and they have worked together on a number of projects throughout the years.  He utilizes a series of effective, dramatic fonts.

Additionally, there is some wonderful coloring on The Judas Coin by Lovern Kindzierski.  I remember his work very well from the 1990s.  I am not an expert on coloring, but he does a superb job at varying the palette and tones of his work to suit the atmosphere and style of each segment.

So how good was The Judas Coin?  Well, I read the whole thing in one sitting.  Okay, halfway through, I did take a break to have lunch because I was hungry, but then I picked the book right up.  And then right when I got to the Manhunter chapter, my girlfriend asked me to go down the street and get her an iced coffee at Dunkin Donuts, so I had to put the book down a second time.  Sorry, Mr. Simonson, but in a toss-up between my girlfriend and comic books, I try to pick the former. It’s usually safer that way!  But other than lunch and iced coffee, yep, I read it straight through.

Seriously, though, The Judas Coin a good read with superb artwork, and I highly recommend it.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.