Greg Theakston: 1953 to 2019

I was saddened to learn that comic book artist, publisher & historian Greg Theakston had passed away on April 22nd.  He was 65 years old.

As a teenager Theakston was involved in the Detroit area comic book fandom in the late 1960s and early 70s.  During this time period he was one of the organizers of the Detroit Triple Fan Fair comic book & sci-fi conventions.

Super Powers vol 2 1 cover smallTheakston, along with such fellow Detroit area fans as Jim Starlin, Rich Buckler, Terry Austin, and Keith Pollard, made the jump from fan to professional during the 1970s.  From 1972 to 1979 Theakston worked at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios, where he gained invaluable experience, learning the tools of the trade alongside his contemporaries.  Theakston was one of the so-called “Crusty Bunkers,” a loose-knit group of Continuity-based artists organized by Adams.  Throughout the 1970s the Crusty Bunkers would pitch in to help one another meet tight comic book deadlines.  Theakston was interviewed about his time at Continuity by Bryan Stroud, revealing it to be a crazy, colorful experience.

Theakston worked for a number of publishers over the years, creating illustrations for National Lampoon, Playboy, Rolling Stone and TV Guide.  His art appeared in a number of issues of MAD Magazine in the late 1980s and throughout the 90s.

Most of Theakston’s comic book work was for DC Comics.  In the 1980s Theakston was often assigned the high-profile job of inking the legendary Jack Kirby’s pencils.

Theakston’s inking of Kirby proved to be divisive.  Personally speaking, as a huge fan of Kirby, I like what Theakston brought to the table.  I do recognize that Theakston was not the ideal fit for Kirby’s pencils in the way that Joe Sinnott and Mike Royer were, but I nevertheless felt he did a good job inking him.

The Hunger Dogs cover

One of the things to recognize about that collaboration is that during this time Kirby’s health unfortunately began to decline.  As a result his penciling started becoming loser.  Theakston was often called upon to do a fair amount of work to tighten up the finished art.  This led to some creative choices on his part that were not appreciated by some.  I think Theakston was in a less-than-ideal situation, having to make those choices over the work of a creator who was already regarded by fans as a legend and a genius.  The result was a scrutiny of his inking / finishing more much more intense than if he had been working with almost any other penciler.

Comic book creator Erik Larsen observed on the website What If Kirby that Theakston possessed a definite fondness for the earlier work Kirby did with Joe Simon in the Golden Age.  This translated into Theakston inking Kirby with a heavier, darker line that evoked the Simon & Kirby stories of the 1940s and 50s, rather than the much more slick, polished embellishment that Sinnott and Royer brought to it in the 1960s and 70s.Whos Who Orion

Theakston inked Kirby on the first two Super Powers miniseries, the Hunger Dogs graphic novel that concluded the saga of Orion and the New Gods, various entries for Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, and the team-up of Superman and the Challengers of the Unknown in DC Comics Presents #84 written by Bob Rozakis.

I enjoyed Theakston’s work on these various titles.  In my mind, the stunning cover painting for The Hunger Dogs featuring Darkseid that he did over Kirby’s pencils is one of the best pieces Theakston ever produced.

(Theakston’s inking on the Alex Toth pages in DC Comics Presents #84 was unfortunately much less impressive.  In his defense I will say that when someone other than Toth himself inked his pencils, the majority of the time the results were underwhelming.)

Theakston also inked fellow Detroit native Arvell Jones’ pencils on Secret Origins #19 (Oct 1987).  Roy Thomas’ story recounted, and expended upon, the origins of the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion, characters who had been created by Simon & Kirby in 1942. Given his fondness for the work of Simon & Kirby in the 1940s, it was entirely appropriate for Theakston to work on this story. His inking for it certainly evoked the feel of Golden Age comic book artwork.Secret Origins 19 pg 19Theakston only worked for Marvel Comics on a couple of occasions.  Early in his career he painted the cover for Planet of the Apes #9 (June 1975) in Marvel’s black & white magazine line.  Almost a quarter century later Theakston painted a Kirby-inspired piece for the cover of the second Golden Age of Marvel Comics trade paperback (1999).

DC Comics Presents 84 cover smallIn 1975 Theakston founded the publishing company Pure Imagination.  Under that imprint he issued collected editions featuring a variety of Golden Age stories & artwork by such creators as Kirby, Alex Toth, Lou Fine, Wallace Wood, and Basil Wolverton.

Theakston developed a process for reprinting comic books that DC editor Dick Giordano later referred to as “Theakstonizing.”  As per What If Kirby, Theakstonizing “bleaches color from old comics pages, used in the restoration for reprinting.” Theakstonizing was used to publish a number of collections of Golden Age comic books in the 1980s and 90s, among these the early volumes of the DC Archives hardcovers.  Unfortunately the Theakstonizing process resulted in the destruction of the original comic book itself.  It’s a shame that so many old comics had to be destroyed to create the early DC Archives and other Golden Age reprints, but in those days before computer scanning that was the best way available to reproduce such old material. Additionally, as explained by Theakston’s ex-wife Nancy Danahy:

“Greg did everything to avoid destroying a valuable comic book for his Theakstonizing process. He would search for the ones with tattered, missing covers, or bent pages that devalued the book. It was only in a few instances that he used one in good condition, and only then if he knew the return on investment was worth it. He felt it would be better for the greater good to be able to share the work with more people than to let one book settle in a plastic bag on someone’s shelf.”

Beginning in 1987, Theakston also published the fan magazine The Betty Pages, dedicated to sexy pin-up model Bettie Page, of whom he was a huge fan.  Theakston is considered to be one of the people who helped bring Page back into the public consciousness, resulting in her once again becoming an iconic figure of American pop culture.  In the early 1990s Theakston conducted an extensive phone interview with Page that was published in The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 in 1993.The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2 coverTheakston created several stunning, sexy paintings featuring Bettie Page.  One of my favorites is a striking piece featuring Page in short leopard-skin dress, silhouetted against a giant blue moon in the sky behind her, with two leopards crouching at her feet.  It saw print as the cover for The Betty Pages Annual Vol 2.Planet of the Apes 9 cover small

I can’t say I knew Greg Theakston very well. We met once in 2012, at the Comic Book Marketplace show in Manhattan, and we also corresponded by e-mail.  When I met him he certainly appeared flattered that I had gotten a tattoo of the Who’s Who pin-up of Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, which he had inked over Kirby’s pencils. He also appeared to appreciate my compliments concerning his work inking Kirby. Greg did a cute drawing of Bettie Page for me at that show in one of my convention sketchbooks.  He subsequently surprised me with a gift of his original inks for the Beautiful Dreamer piece, which I felt was a generous gesture.

I thought Greg was a talented artist who created some very beautiful paintings and illustrations.  All of my interactions with him were pleasant. I understand that over the years several others had much less amicable relations with him. Reportedly he was one of those people who could run very hot & cold, and that he was dealing with some personal issues.

Whatever the case, I do feel it’s unfortunate that Greg passed away. I know 65 is not young, but it’s not super-old either.  Judging by the reactions I have seen over the past week, he will certainly be missed by quite a few people, myself included.

 

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.

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

In my February 23rd blog post, I wrote about how back in May 2000 I came to start my theme sketchbook featuring the character Beautiful Dreamer from the Forever People, who had been created by the legendary Jack “King” Kirby.  At the end of that post, I mentioned that I also happened to have a tattoo of the character.  Here’s how that came about.

Jack Kirby passed away in 1994.  I am a huge fan of his work, and I have always regretted that I would never have the opportunity to meet him, much less get a sketch of Beautiful Dreamer by Kirby himself.  Also, pretty much all of Kirby’s artwork is way beyond my budget.  So I didn’t think I’d ever own an original piece drawn by him.  And then Michele came up with a suggestion, the next best thing, you might say… why not get a tattoo of Beautiful Dreamer?

I had previously gotten a Watchmen smiley face tattoo done by Becca Roach.  I was happy with her work, so I decided to go back to her for this new ink.  I searched through my collections of Kirby’s wonderful “Fourth World” stories.  I finally located the perfect image, a bio picture of Beautiful Dreamer drawn by Jack Kirby & Greg Theakston that appeared in Who’s Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe #2.  It was later reprinted, along with all the other bios of the New Gods from that series, in Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus Volume Four.

I had the tattoo done on my left leg. Becca did impeccable work.  You can see it below, side-by-side with the original Who’s Who profile (click to enlarge):

Beautiful Dreamer tattoo

Becca is currently working at North Star Tattoo, located at 74 East 7th Street in NYC. You can view her tattoo work and her paintings on her website, http://www.beccaroach.com/

A few years later, at the 2012 New York Comic Book Marketplace, I met Greg Theakston.  In addition to his excellent work inking Kirby in the 1980s, Theakston is a talented artist in his own right, as well as a comic book historian, an expert on Bettie Page, and a publisher who has reissued a variety of Golden Age material through his Pure Imagination imprint.  I had corresponded with Greg on Facebook, but this was the first time I had a chance to talk face to face.  He remembered me very well, since I’d previously e-mailed him a photo of my tattoo.  He mentioned in passing that he thought he still had the original ink artwork from the Who’s Who entry.  I just shrugged it off, though, since I figured it was out of my price range.

So today I received a package in the mail from none other than Greg Theakston.  I wasn’t expecting anything from him.  I mean, a few weeks back he had asked me what my mailing address was, but I didn’t think anything of it, just guessing that he might send me a copy of one of his books or something.  But what I got in the mail this morning was much too small to be a book.  I opened it up, and discovered this:

Beautiful Dreamer Theakston inks

Yep, it was the original ink artwork that Greg did on vellum for the main image of Beautiful Dreamer from the Who’s Who bio.  In the 1980s, a great deal of Kirby’s artwork was inked separately on vellum via the use of a lightbox.  That meant that Kirby’s original pencils remained, in addition to the inked work which was then used for publication.

Of course, this means there’s still Kirby’s original pencil drawing somewhere out there.  I don’t know who owns it.  I certainly do know that at this point in time there is no way in hell I could afford to purchase it.  But that’s okay.

I am very grateful to Greg for this kind gesture.  To tell you the truth, my life has been very crazy lately, with a great deal of stress and a lot of emotional ups & downs.  I have had to put up for sale some pieces of comic book artwork from my collection that I really liked because I urgently need to pay bills. So this generous gift from Greg really means a lot to me.  Thanks!