Friday, April 24, 2015

Judging Herb Trimpe by His Covers

Jim's single lapse in judgment on this blog
has been excluding this cover from his
top ten list.
In remembering Herb Trimpe earlier this week, I neglected to sing the praises of his flawless sense of design.

Browse Jim's gallery of classic Incredible Hulk covers (if you haven't already), and you'll notice right away how dynamic and engaging they are.  Every one has an entry point for your eye and uses lines and composition to guide you through the image.  In the Bronze Age, in particular, Trimpe's covers are fantastic road trips, with little stops along the way at clever new super-villain costumes, exciting blurbs hinting at the story, and intriguing facial expressions on background characters.

If you're not impressed, consider how well these covers work even if you don't care for Trimpe's style.  That's an impressive feat: composition so bulletproof it can catch your eye without the benefit of noodly styling.  If you're still unconvinced, try this mental exercise:  Picture any Trimpe Hulk cover drawn by your least favorite comics artist.  It still works, doesn't it?  Even if you imagine it drawn by that clown you hate!

Heck, even the Hurricane captures my
imagination!  What's with all those cables?
Why does he need headgear under his mask?
Then there's the matter of his costume designs.  One of these days, we'll sit down and have a long talk about what makes a super-suit good.  Then you can all decide I'm a crackpot not worth listening to, since you'll have your own religious convictions on the matter.  In the meantime, I'll note that Trimpe's designs are unfailingly engaging, especially his work on the original Captain Britain costume, which reverse-engineers the mandate of Captain America's look (a man wearing a flag) to great effect.

Trimpe's costumes are largely symmetrical and two-tone, but from that simple palate, he constructs some memorable patterns.  More importantly, Trimpe costumes are easily identifiable at a distance, making his villains easy to pick out from the backgrounds and allowing his heroes to dominate even the most crowded covers.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I'm confident Trimpe's covers and costumes will be homaged, revisited, reimagined, and repurposed for a long time to come.

What are some of your favorites?

— Scott

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Remembering Herb Trimpe, Underappreciated Icon

Herb Trimpe at East Coast Comicon,
just last weekend.
© Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons
Barely two weeks after Roger Slifer's passing, I find myself reading, "Herb Trimpe, Co-Creator of Wolverine, Dies at 75."

As Patrick Reed on ComicsAlliance points out, Trimpe "was quick to correct anyone who credited him and Len Wein as creators of Wolverine, explaining that while they developed the character, the actual creation was handled by Roy Thomas and John Romita."  Besides:  As significant as Wolverine is, Trimpe's role in the character's history is minor and makes woefully inadequate boilerplate for a man whose career is nearly synonymous with the Marvel Age of Comics.

Herb Trimpe was a fixture in Marvel Comics when I was growing up — penciling nearly a hundred issues of The Incredible Hulk from 1968 until 1975 before moving on to every other super-hero in the Marvel stable and cornering the market on tie-ins to licensed properties.  Trimpe brought the Shōgun Warriors to Marvel and gave the company's version of Godzilla a distinctive look that lies somewhere between Toho and a pot-bellied chameleon.  In the 1980s, he worked on everything from The Transformers and G.I. Joe to Indiana Jones.

During the 1990s, Trimpe infamously reinvented his style.  Gone were were the dynamic compositions with distinctively dull (to my kid eyes, at least), smooth, shadowless figures, replaced with grimacing, stippled musclemen — Trimpe's imitation of the Image-influenced style of the decade.  The change was poorly received, and Trimpe, admittedly a bit naïve about the business end of comics at times, found himself in the crosshairs of ageism and bankruptcy cuts at Marvel Comics.  After decades of being that rarest of creatures in the comics business, a salaried staff artist working at one of the Big Two, Trimpe found himself unceremoniously downsized in 1996, scrambling for freelance work that never amounted to a living in an industry imploding even faster than it had exploded at the beginning of the decade.

Jim rounded up his 10 favorite Trimpe
Hulk covers back in 2013.  Click here.
Those of us who'd grown up with Trimpe shuffled our feet and didn't look each other in the eye when we talked about what had happened.  It was ageism, right?  But maybe that's just part of a business where you're perpetually selling to adolescents and post-adolescents?  Trimpe's shift in style hadn't been well-received, but surely he'd return to his classic lines and land on his feet at some independent publisher.  After all, the late '90s were awash in soon-to-be-classic "retro" books from Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, and their contemporaries.

Trimpe, however, couldn't wait around for the page to turn.  He was a grown man with grown-man responsibilities, including children in college, and couldn't eke out a living on freelance projects.  So he went back to school, got a teaching certificate, and shook the dust of the comics industry off his boots for a few years as he began mentoring a new generation of illustrators.

In 2000, he wrote a seminal piece for The New York Times on ageism in comics — one that's woefully underlinked when we talk about the issue today.  In it, he shares selections from his unemployment journal detailing the trepidation and promise of embarking on a new career late in life.  (Trimpe was 56 when Marvel terminated his contract.)

Articles would occasionally show up in the mainstream about Trimpe's teaching career, sometimes in relation to economic woes like the bursting of the dot-com bubble, sometimes as feel-good stories about getting a second act in life.  Within a couple of years, he started showing up on the trade-show circuit, sketching in artists' alleys and gabbing about his incomparable history with Marvel.  By all accounts, he had stories about nearly every title he'd worked on or creator he'd collaborated with — all of them unfailingly professional and courteous.  He was a time capsule of information on the most contentious periods of Marvel history, from Stan Lee handing over the reigns in the '70s to the musical chairs of editorship-in-chief to the reign of Emperor Shooter to the boom and bust and bankruptcy.

My first thought on reading the news of Herb Trimpe's passing was, "Thank God he lived long enough to enjoy a bit of reevaluation and appreciation."  The internet was only now beginning to appreciate how prolific and professional Trimpe had been during his heyday, and his second career as an educator and elder statesman on the con circuit lent even more weight to the growing admiration of readers who entered the hallowed halls of Marvel fandom only after Trimpe had cleaned out his desk.

If you'd like to remember Trimpe's influence with a gift, his family has recommended contributing to the Kerhonkson Accord First Aid Squad, whose good work in the community you can imagine, or Hero Initiative, which helps many aging comics creators in times of need.

Trimpe's clean composition, Barry Windsor Smith's lush inks.
Neither artist ever looked better than in the Machine Man mini-series.
@ Amazon
— Scott

Monday, April 20, 2015

Remembering Roger Slifer, Comics Pioneer

Roger Slifer, discussing his work
on the Jem and the Holograms DVD.
@ Amazon
Around the Web, commentators are remembering comics and animation writer Roger Slifer as the co-creator of intergalactic bad-ass Lobo and the victim of an unsolved 2012 crime.  That's a bit of a shame, since Slifer was more than either of those things — except in the just-the-facts manner of obituaries.  You might even say he's the thin end of the wedge of much of what we consider the modern comics industry.

Born in 1954 in Indiana, Slifer came up through the Midwest's thriving comics fandom, contributing to fanzines such as Contemporary Pictorial Literature.  Like regional contemporary Tony Isabella, he made the leap from engaged fan to pro during the 1970s, working in the Marvel Comics offices.  There, he racked up writing credits on Marvel Team-Up and The Defenders before defining a niche for himself as an editor on Marvel's newsstand magazines.

Modern audiences may not appreciate how diversified Marvel's publishing strategy was in the late '70s.  Beyond their super-heroic icons lay a variety of titles and formats geared toward cultivating new audiences.  Black-and-white newsstand magazines, in particular, catered to post-adolescent readers by providing self-contained stories that didn't shy away from material too bleak, coarse, or sexual for the mainstay world of the four-color super-hero comics.  Content aimed at these older readers and an emerging network of comics specialty shops to sell it to them meant — heavy sigh here, but we're talking about the period during which the cliché came into being — "Pow! Zap! Comics Weren't Just for Kids Anymore!"

Marvel's starting line-up for direct sales.
As the direct market coalesced into a real distribution channel, Slifer left Marvel, taking his experience crafting comics for grown-ups across town, to the competition at DC Comics.  In 1981, he became that company's liaison with comics shops.  Around that time, Marvel began offering a selection of titles geared toward the new audience exclusively to that audience through the direct market, skipping newsstands entirely.  For this grand experiment, Marvel chose low-selling, critically acclaimed titles Moon Knight, Ka-Zar the Savage, and Micronauts.  (An odd assortment to modern ears, perhaps, but dip into vintage 1980 back issues of those titles, and you'll see how much they differ from what was being published around them.)

When DC followed suit, they learned from Marvel's lead (and perhaps from Slifer's experience there), launching new #1s for two best-sellers with known older audiences (The New Teen Titans and Legion of Super-Heroes) and a third, brand-new title crafted with the direct market in mind.  Enter The Omega Men, featuring characters created by Titans writer Marv Wolfman, drawn by Legion artist Keith Giffen, and written by comics-shop liaison Roger Slifer.

DC also chose to publish their direct sales titles on heavier paper using new printing methods.
Wolfman had created the Omega Men in Green Lantern and used them in subsequent stories in New Teen Titans and Action Comics.  Refugees from the Vegan star system, they were a ragtag band of political prisoners intent on returning to their home and liberating it from the rule of the villainous Citadel.  As leaders among the genetically varied peoples of the Vegan system, the Omega Men possessed a dizzying array of super powers and distinctive designs.  In short, they were the rebels from Star Wars as super-heroes, staring down the barrel of a war with their own Galactic Empire — much like Marvel's soon-to-be-canceled Micronauts.

In Slifer's hands, the Omegans became more than Star Wars stand-ins.

Not approved by the Comics Code Authority.
@ Amazon
The splash page of Omega Men #1 opens with the titular heroes witnessing the on-panel cannibalism of their long-time foes in the Citadel — before fan-favorite Omegan Tigorr engages in a bit of his own!  The topic of extreme violence dominated the title's letters column from the beginning, with Slifer presiding over the discussion himself rather than handing it off to Wolfman, who served as the series editor.

Despite a dozen appearances around the DC Universe over the previous two years that had teased an epic confrontation with the Citadel, Slifer uses the first seven issues of the Omega Men's own title to bring the Citadel War to a hasty conclusion.  Primus, the Omegans' leader, finds himself ousted by the impetuous Tigorr, who rallies the piecemeal army of Omega Men for a brute-force attack on the Citadel that leaves the enemy defeated and Wolfman's status quo for the team a casualty of war.

At first blush, Citadel War is simplistic.  Slifer as writer espouses distrust of governments and belief in the power of the individual.  Primus is a bureaucratic nightmare of a leader; Tigorr, by contrast, is all charisma and effectiveness.  Despite what was happening in Central America or Afghanistan during these years, Omega Men's political landscape is at least as broad and cartoonish as that of Star Wars, its heroes clear-cut and easy to root for, despite their bloody hands.

On closer inspection, though, you find Slifer subverting his simple set-ups at almost every turn.  The longer you read, the more you remember Americans didn't used to be so binary and simplistic.  Libertarians could appreciate a good government program when one was necessary.  Diplomats could conceive of a time when the usefulness of diplomacy had passed and the only remaining option was force.  Primus turns out to be made of sterner stuff than empty promises and pretty rhetoric.  Tigorr, for all his bravado, threatens the very peace his heroics won in Citadel War with rash judgment.

Lobo helping.

Pick your jaw up off the floor.
That's what he looked like
back then.
In spite of their seeming naïveté, the various Omega Men find themselves falling back on their individual options of last resort with unsettling frequency.  Peace-loving Broot kills — and discovers to his unending heartbreak that each act of violence he commits makes the war more brutal and unforgiving for the innocents he seeks to protect.  Noble Primus plays Hamlet with every decision, missing opportunities to take the battle to the Citadel, driving his wife into the arms of another suitor, and extending the endless war he claims to want to end.  Only when he strikes a diabolical deal with the Citadel in the wake of their defeat (with the help of, yes, Lobo) does Primus become an effective political leader in the Vegan system.  Fallen angel Nimbus brings death with his touch, his immortality a prison of living death.  Slifer even reveals X'hal, the nigh-omnipotent warrior goddess of these various alien races, to be less a warrior than a victim driven to madness by abuse in the name of science.

What begins as space opera quickly evolves into political melodrama.  As soon as the Citadel War is won, its victors find themselves torn between the isolationism of Omegan leaders Primus and Kalista's homeworld and fears of a new Citadel coalition arising to fill the power vacuum.  Alliance-building and distrust replace revolution and tyranny at the heart of the series in the post-war issues.  Slifer methodically dismantles a comic book space war and replaces it with a cold war, making Omega Men a compelling series for '80s readers.

As Star Wars-influenced comics go, Omega Men is shockingly prophetic.  Beyond reflecting its inspirational roots, Slifer's run actually prefigures the second Star Wars trilogy, with its focus on political and economic alliances, ideological concessions, and the foundations of war.

Nute Gunray with his college haircut.
Concepts that seemed broad and jingoistic at first get revisited with new layers of complication.  When we first meet Broot's people, the Changralynians, in the first two issues, their philosophy of extreme non-violence is a bit of a straw man.  A modern reader might take Slifer for a libertarian atheist picking a bone with religion as a means to disenfranchise and control.  By the time they return in Slifer's final two issues, however, we've spent several issues watching Broot's decision to rebel pile up disastrous consequences.  While the Changralynians aren't role models, their pacifism no longer seems as hollow and tedious as when we first met them.  One hopes subsequent encounters with X'hal and her son Auron would've painted in the gray area between X'hal's lurid victimization and her triumphant godhood with more nuance than we got during Slifer's brief run.  (Todd Klein, who takes over after an even more brief run by Doug Moench, does expand on those characters more.)

Not that unreasonable, in the end — even for a socially
conscious '80s funnybook.
Alas, Slifer's run ends suddenly with #13, explained only by a brief note on the letters page about "irreconcilable differences between myself and DC."  He lingers for a couple of issues in the letters column, addressing still-ongoing concerns about graphic violence, then is gone.

His next gig would be writing and producing animation for Sunbow Entertainment, the studio that partnered with Marvel Comics to produce cartoons based on Hasbro licenses throughout the 1980s.  For the next two decades, Slifer worked mainly in animation and video games as his former comics employers expanded their readership into adult markets and their content and themes into more adult arenas.

While they were doing so, the Big Two were following other trails blazed by Slifer, as well.

According to Mark Evanier, Roger Slifer was a tireless champion of creator's rights.  Those "irreconcilable differences" with DC?  Apparently over that very issue.  Peek at the credits on Omega Men when Keith Giffen was the artist, and you'll notice he and Slifer are co-credited as "storytellers," a convention I dearly wish had caught on.

@ Amazon
He also edited DC's first archival reprint of classic material for the direct market — a project that eventually landed in comics stores as 1984's Manhunter one-shot, collecting Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson's back-up stories from Detective Comics.  Publishers had reprinted stories before, of course, but not with the express purpose of making them available as historical artifacts on a higher quality of paper for a more discerning readership.  According to Paul Levitz, Slifer had modeled the Manhunter reprint after French albums, and it eventually became the template for a line of high-quality reprint mini-series including one reprinting O'Neil and Adams's Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories that Slifer oversaw while at DC.

Looked at from a certain angle, that Manhunter one-shot is the ancestor of Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives and certainly an early entry into the modern reading approach we call "reading in trade."

So, yeah — a lot more to Roger Slifer than co-creating Lobo and having his creative years tragically cut short.  In my heart of hearts, I've waited almost 30 years to see him credited as storyteller in a comic again.  It's disappointing knowing that hope, however remote, is now gone.

Maybe someone should collect Slifer's Omega Men run as a trade.  There's a new series coming up, which is always a good excuse, and it might be a fitting a way to remember a man who made trade paperbacks and comics shops everyday concepts.

In the meantime, you can remember Slifer with a contribution to the Hero Initiative in his name.  HI raised money and helped out during his hospitalization, and there may be bills they can help the family take care of.  If not, your donation will still go toward helping creators in need, and that's something a man who walked away from DC Comics on principle would surely appreciate.

— Scott

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Gilligan's Island Dream Sequence Episodes

Gilligan's Island, one of my favorite television shows growing up, while not a comic book series,  had many aspects that would make it appealing to comic readers (much in the same way Scooby Doo did, but that will be another post.)

For one thing, the characters were identifiable as archetypes because of their rarely changing clothes. (I think only the Howells, Ginger and Mary Ann got to change clothes. Gilligan, Skipper and The Professor were almost always in the same clothes. Also, each character had some sort of unique skill or gimmick that helped them function as a team. And like many comics at the time, there was a one and done feel to each episode, but the bigger question of will they they escape the island? always lingered in the background -  like a good comic book subplot.

There was also the element of the fantastic in the series, whether it was robots, giant spiders, mysterious spies or strange meteors. Where the series really stepped out of the box of normal comedy shows was in its use of Dream episodes. Yeah, the Brady Bunch or Dick Van Dyke may have had one or two dream episodes, but they were usually subdued versions of the regular show with one minor plot twist (like Dick Van Dyke's It May Look Like A Walnut episode.)

So today, allow me to refresh your memory with a rundown of all the Gilligan Island Dream episodes:

S1E07 -  The Sound of Quacking (7 Nov. 1964)
Dream: Gunsmoke

The plot center's around Gilligan's desire to protect a pet duck. This leads to Gilligan imagining himself in a high noonish Western setting. This is the only alternate set dream episode of the first season which may be due to budget constraints or writers unsure how dream episodes would be received by the producers. (Going with a western themed one was a safe bet as Westerns still had a good bit of popularity on television at this time.)

Note: There is some dreaming in episode 20, St. Gilligan and the Dragon , but it doesn't involve an alternate set or new costumes for any of the characters, so it just gets a honorable mention here.

S2E03 The Little Dictator (30 Sep. 1965)
Dream: Puppet Government
Tempted by a foreign dictator's offer to become a puppet leader, Gilligan dreams about being the ruler of a small country.  This is interesting as it says something about what American's readily accepted as life in small, foreign countries at the time. (Mission Impossible had similar themes .)

S2E05-  The Sweepstakes (14 Oct. 1965)
Dream: Prospector's Gold Strike

This dream comes from Mr. Howell who adopts Gilligan when he finds himself the owner of a winning lottery ticket. In the dream Mr. Howell has struck it rich with a gold strike and gets treated like a king until he can't find paper certifying his claim on the gold mine.

S2E18 -  The Postman Cometh (20 Jan. 1966)
Dream: Hospital

An attempt by Gilligan, Skipper and the Professor to give Mary Ann more attention leads to her having a dream where they are all doctors treating her for a fatal disease. I suspect this episode was inspired by Dr. Kildare which was popular at the time. The title, I believe, is a play on the James M. Cain book The Postman Always Rings Twice

S2E30 -  V for Vitamins (14 Apr. 1966)
Dream: Jack & the Beanstalk
A shortage in vitamins leads Gilligan to become the sole protector of the last orange on the island (and the precious seeds within.) This causes him to have a Jack and the Beanstalk dream with Bob Denver's 6 year old son Patrick playing Jack in the scenes with the Giant Alan Hale Jr..

S2E32 -  Meet the Meteor (28 Apr. 1966)
Dream: Old Castaways
When a meteor crashes on the island, the professor scares the bejeezus out of everyone with radiation warnings. Gilligan then proceeds to have a dream where everyone has aged.

S3E01 -  Up at Bat (12 Sep. 1966)
Dream: The Vampire

Having been bit by what he thinks is a vampire bat, Gilligan  dreams he's become a Vampire.There is also a nice bit with the Professor and the Skipper as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This is seems to be one of the first episodes where the dream sequence seems to have been the whole point of the episode based on the length of the sequence and the various set changes involved. As a result, it's one of the more memorable episodes.

S3E11 -  The Invasion (21 Nov. 1966)
Dream: Secret Agent

Gilligan finds himself handcuffed to a top secret military briefcase. This leads him to dream about life as a spy in a James Bondian setup with Mr. Howell showing up as a bald headed Ernst Blofeld homage.

This dream, like The Vampire dream sequence is one of the best because of the time spent on it. It's obvious it was the focus of the episode.

S3E13  - And Then There Were None (5 Dec. 1966)
Dream: Jeckyll & Hyde

This episode combines not one, but several literally references. The first is the classic Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. In this case, one by one, the castaways are disappearing from the island and Gilligan seems to be the only connecting link. Because of this, he starts to wonder if he's becoming some sort of maniac. This leads him to have a dream in which he becomes a Jeckyll & Hyde like character in a Victorian court room drama.

 A couple of other Victorian homages in this episode are Mary Ann as  Eliza Doolittle and Mrs. Howell as Mary Poppins.

S3E17 -  Court-Martial (9 Jan. 1967)
Dream: Pirates
This is one of the more dramatic episodes of the series as it presents the idea that the shipwreck may have been the Skipper's fault. As it turns out, Gilligan appears to really be at fault for not properly tying the anchor to the ship. Guilt causes Gilligan to have a fitful dream about pirates. When he wakes up, it's revealed that neither the Skipper or Gilligan were responsible for the shipwreck because they were given the wrong weather forecast for that day.

S3E19 -  Lovey's Secret Admirer (23 Jan. 1967)
Dream: Cinderella

 In this episode, an attempt by Mr. Howell to boost the spirits of his wife with secret admirer letters backfires. The result is Ms. Howell has a dream in which she is Cinderella and Mary Ann and Ginger are the evil stepsisters.

S3E25 -  The Secret of Gilligan's Island (13 Mar. 1967)
Dream: Stone Age Cavemen

Finding a Stone Age tablet with a map on it, the castaways believe they have found a way off the island. The ancient map inspires Gilligan to dream of everyone as they might have been if they had been born in prehistoric times.

Synopsis: Many fans of the series do not like the dream episodes and see them as a gimmicky filler that takes away from the main theme of the series. I can empathize with them, but wholeheartedly disagree. To me, the dream sequences allowed the actors to often stretch their thespian legs. As mentioned above, several episodes had the actors playing different character types altogether which is something you rarely saw on comedy shows. I would actually like to see the gimmick employed more often on comedy shows.

Now, I have to ask commenters: Did you have a favorite Gilligan's Island episode?

- Jim

Monday, March 30, 2015

Flashback Universe and Its Amazing Friends

Face front, true believers!  Kick back like Dennis Marks in the screencap below and enjoy a fantastic foray into the Flashback Universe!

In case you don't recognize the name, Marks was the producer on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and its lesser-remembered sister show Friendless Spider-Man.  (O.K., that show was called just Spider-Man.)  As such, he's featured alongside writer Christy Marx, animator Larry Houston, and Stan Lee in this rarely seen 1981 documentary about the making of Amazing Friends, called Spider-Man on the Move.  According to Dan "Peter Parker" Gilvezan's Facebook fans, this was a joint production of KDKA in Pittsburgh and KPIX in San Francisco — which may be why I'd never seen it until recently.  (Did it air only in those markets?)

Sadly, it's not included on the series DVD* nor available to stream, but we can enjoy it online via the magic of YouTube.  Watch for Frank Welker discussing the process of working out what Ms. Lion should sound like.  That alone is worth your time.

Intermission! Grab some popcorn and a Coke.

Did you catch Marks explaining the creation of Firestar for the series at 5:25 in the first part?  The story he tells, about the show originally being planned around a trio of Spider-Man, Iceman, and the Human Torch, has been repeated often through the years.  It's perfectly plausible, and the version I had heard was that the Torch was absent from 1978's The New Fantastic Four cartoon* (you know, with H.E.R.B.I.E.) because his licensing was tied up in the even-then-in-development Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  That story was usually told to debunk the notion the Human Torch had been removed from the FF cartoon out of fear of kids settling themselves on fire — the same story Marks tells here about Amazing Friends!

Which got me wondering:  Did Marks's story from this very documentary special, rarely seen as it is, create the perennial kids-setting-themselves-on-fire myth?  Did it backwash from here to the earlier FF cartoon?

Apparently not.

Let's loop back and close off some rumor threads.

As it turns out, the Human Torch character was not tied up in the development of the Spider-Man/Torch/Iceman show that would later become Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.  According to Mark Evanier, whose business cards may as well read "who would know," the Torch was licensed out to Universal for a live-action TV movie that never came to fruition.  (If it had, it would have been a sibling to the Doctor Strange and Captain America telefilms starring Peter Hooten and Reb Brown, which also came out of the deal.)

Brian Cronin, of CBR's Comic Book Legends Revealed, speculates that the Torch license still lay with Universal when Amazing Friends was in development.  Given that the Strange and Cap films aired in 1978 and '79, Amazing Friends started airing in '81, and animation takes a fair while to develop for television, this seems reasonable.  (Then again, the first bit of poppycock I shared with you "seems reasonable," so take that with a grain of salt.)

He makes being on fire look so cool!
In that case, the Human Torch was likely never a serious contender for the third slot in the Spider-Friends — except perhaps during the very early concept stage, before anyone checked the availability of the characters against existing licensing agreements.  It's not impossible that Marvel, working almost in-house with a studio they had bought and turned into Marvel Productions, could have made the novice mistake of incubating a series without checking the licenses.  But even that seems unlikely — grain of salt in the "seems," remember — because the earliest concept art for the show, by John Romita for the pitch to NBC, shows Firestar (then "Heatwave") in the line-up, with no mention of the Torch.

It's also worth noting that Marvel Productions, before being bought by Marvel and given that name, had been DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the studio that produced The New Fantastic Four back in '78.

So where did that story about kids setting themselves on fire to emulate the Human Torch come from?  Dunno.  I was excited to watch Spider-Man on the Move and hear it from Dennis Marks himself.  I thought I'd found the point where it entered the culture, but, by all accounts, Marks was repeating a story he'd heard somewhere, one that had already made the rounds about The New Fantastic Four.

Wherever it comes from, it's a proper urban legend, complete with gruesome imagery of child immolation.  It's liable to survive in some form or other.

Decades before we'd heard of creepypasta, John Byrne mined the legend's seediness and silliness in Fantastic Four #285, which reads like a cross between an ABC after-school special, Amazing Spider-Man #50, and a Jim Wynorski melodrama.  More recently, The Super Hero Squad Show enjoyed one of its high points lampooning both the rumor and its status as inside-baseball trivia in a H.E.R.B.I.E.-centric episode.

Any day now, I expect to hear Marvel let Fox hang onto the Fantastic Four movie license in order to keep their distance from any Human Torch-related incidents.

* Getcher Region 2 DVD players here, America!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Irwin Hasen and Wildcat

A few weeks ago (March 13th) the comic industry lost one of the last great Golden Age creators: Irwin Hasen. At the time I wanted to do a post honoring Mr. Hasen, but illness has kept me from posting on the FBU of late. And while my random thoughts here won't be as good as the Irwin Hasen tribute on A Shroud of Thoughts blog, I thought I would still share some of my thoughts on meeting Mr. Hasen and his most famous comic book character Wildcat.

Gina (my wife) and I were fortunate enough to meet Mr. Hasen at HeroesCon 2006 where I purchased this sketch from him.
During my conversation with him, we talked about a number of topics ranging from what it was like to work during the Golden Age of comics, working with Bill Finger (co-creator of Wildcat) and Dondi.

I told Mr. Hasen how much I loved reading Dondi when I was growing up. At the time, our local newspaper didn't have a lot of serial comic strips, sticking mostly with the day to day humor strips (Beetle Bailey, Hagar, BC, Peanuts, ect...) Still, there were a few serial strips (Steve Roper/Mike Nomad, Dick Tracey, Mary Worth) but none of them really appealed to young Jim Shelley the way Dondi did (which makes sense considering the lead character was a young boy.)

Gina and I found talking with Mr. Hasen very enjoyable and he seemed to enjoy talking with us as well. He had a very graceful, easy way of talking about his life that encouraged us to ask him more questions, which he seemed more than happy to answer. (I suspect his booth didn't get much traffic.)  It was one of the magical comic connections you can sometimes make at cons that make the expense and trip worth it.

FBU Co-Editor Scott Simmons also had a memory of meeting Irwin Hasen:

 I met him at Heroes Con, too.  The year I was there, he was milling around his booth by himself, so I went up to chat before getting back to work at the Heroes booth.  He was sketching Jay Garrick, so I asked him about the Golden Age Flash, and he talked about how some guy had been going on and on about the "right" belt on him and now he was second-guessing whether he was drawing his belt correctly.  We chatted for a bit, and before I left, he said — completely without ego — "If you like the Flash, you really need to go see Carmine [Infantino].  He's here, you know, and you'll never forgive yourself if you don't go meet him." I really dug how he recommended I go see Infantino (who was much busier and whom I didn't get to spend nearly as much time chatting up).

On the subject of Wildcat, I believe he was the first Golden Age character I encountered in comics (discounting Golden Age reprints of Batman and Superman). This was the issue where I first discovered the character:

Also in this issue was a Golden Age story with Wonder Woman and Doll Man, but for some reason the Wildcat story is the one that sort of opened my eyes to the idea that there was an age of comics that preceded the one I was currently living in. I was aware of Silver Age stories (of which there was an Atom SA story in this issue as well) but somehow those didn't seem as special to me as this Golden Age story.  I also think the whimsical nature of the story (which introduced his sidekick Stretch Skinner) also helped earn Wildcat a special place in my heart.

Sometime after this issue, DC would publish more 100 Page Super Spectaculars and I would be introduced to many more Golden Age characters (and the JSA itself) but Wildcat didn't make many more appearances in the 100 page giants for some reason. (You tended to see Doll Man, Robotman and Starman the most.)

Where Wildcat DID show up (much to my delight) was in the pages of the Brave and the Bold. Here his pugilistic detective style made him a well matched companion for Batman stories, whether he was helping Batman...

  ...or fighting him. (Which was a popular theme.)

The appearance of Wildcat (who was resident of Earth-2) in the Brave and the Bold is sometimes derided by people who feel the Bob Haney Batman was a bit off the rails, but I totally disagree. (Hopefully, we'll someday have an article on the FBU that goes into more detail on the merits of Bob Haney's writing style.)

Regarding those Bob Haney Brave & the Bold stories: Scott told me there's a memo from Roy Thomas in the Crisis Compendium (that came with Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths) where Roy offers to insert a plot thread into All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc. showing that the Crisis caused random characters from Earth-2 to temporarily intersect with Earth-1 at various points in history, just to explain the "Earth-Haney" team-ups.  :D  Sadly, I don't think that ever happened.

After the Bronze Age I sort of lost track of Wildcat (and comics in general to a degree.) For instance, I never read either of these mini-series:

And I've never been curious enough to track them down and read them since discovering them. (Something about Chuck Dixon's writing style has never grabbed me.)

As I got back into comics, I was happy to see Geoff Johns make Wildcat a prominent member of his JSA series. Even if it meant having to put up with some tweaks and additions I wasn't always fond of. (Like the idea that he had 9 lives because Zatara altered a curse put upon Wildcat. Does anyone know if that was ever shown in an earlier story or was that just a retcon?)

I also wasn't a big fan of Ted Grant's son (Thomas Bronson) being a sort of werecat:

Though I did like the Yolanda Montez version of Wildcat who appeared in Infinity Inc. (One of those titles I missed when it was coming out but rediscovered later in life.)

I think I was actually reading Infinity Inc while reading JSA so it may have been a case of I was introduced to the Montez Wildcat first, so she felt like the rightful heir to the name whereas the Bronson Wildcat struck me as being a bit too Wolveriney or something.

Currently, I've been digging Ted Grant's appearances on Arrow:

It's not Wildcat in costume, but it's still a nice tip of the hat to the character.

Not sure what the future holds for the character (or any DC character, honestly, given the sort of editorial upheavals the company has been prone to the past several years) but I would love to see someone like James Robinson or Ed Brubaker give their take on the character in a mini-series. (Brubaker might sound like a weird choice but his Fade Out series from Image shows he has an appreciation for 40's era stories.)

It'd be nice to see a collection of he Golden Age Wildcat stories as well, but that may be a bit much to ask.  :)

- Jim and Scott

Monday, March 16, 2015

Valiant News and Ninjak 1 Review

Editor's Note: With the recent news that  Valiant has secured funding for a 9 figure movie development deal, I thought now might be a good time for a review one of their most recent comic offering: Ninjak. StevieB also read the comic and agreed to help me with this review. Here's what we thought.

JIM: First, I want to say how amazed I am that Valiant has managed to get such a major development deal. In some ways, it makes perfect sense. Superhero movies are big now and Valiant is most likely the third biggest franchise available right now. (What else would even come close?) As it stands, they have a lot of cool characters that I would like to see make it to the big screen.

STEVIEB: Yessir! XO-Manowar should be the first!

JIM: I sort of agree with you there Steve, but I don't think we'll see him right off. I think the plan is go with Archer and Armstrong and Shadowman first. Both aren't really the trump cards I would play right off, but I suspect they may be cheaper to produce.  Ninjak sort of falls in the easy/cheap to make so I'm puzzled he wasn't listed over Shadowman as he seems a bit more popular. Speaking of which, what did you think of the first issue of Ninjak?

STEVIEB: Ninjak #1 brings to life the child hood fantasy of being a Ninja. The internet refers to him as a little bit James Bond and a little bit Batman. I disagree; replacing Batman with Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe fame seems a bit more in the right direction.

JIM: I can definitely see the James Bond comparison. I think gives that is where the series will thrive for me. Stories of International Intrigue and fast Action Adventure are always good comics fodder. Whether it's Layton/Micheline Iron Man or Ed Brubaker's Sleeper. I would say this book is on the right foot to begin a run that stands with both of those aforementioned series. Though I might be jumping the gun as this is just the first issue.

STEVIEB: Yeah, I’ve only read Ninjak in the Armor Hunters series. I’m currently in the first arc of XO-Manowar and I believe Ninjak’s first appearance in the rebooted Valiant Line is within the pages of the second arc. Thankfully, for a Valiant newcomer like myself, you don’t need any back story of the character to enjoy or understand this. You get introduced to his skill set by a comparison of a “Mark” that’s part of a mission that MI6 has tasked him with.

JIM: True. This issue was very nicely self contained. I suspect if I was a wider read Valiant fan, I'd see more easter eggs, but there was nothing that made me feel like I was missing anything. What did you think of the art?

STEVIEB: Clay Mann’s art is incredible.

JIM: Agreed. I especially liked the work he put into what I would consider non-essential details (like the monkeys on this page)

It's that sort of extra effort that makes a great artist. If I had any complaints about the issue, it's that the main story is too short.

STEVIEB: Yeah, there’s three different stories that take place in this issue: All written by Matt Kindt. Two in the main run that include a current story, a child Colin King (Ninjak when he’s not … Ninja- ing), that acts as flash backs that refer back to what’s going on in the main story; and

STEVIEB: The main story...

JIM: Which I liked better...

STEVIEB: ...takes us through a day in the Life of MI6’s most popular freelance Ninja and starts a fun action packed story that involves Ninjak’s infiltration of an Arms Making organization called “The Weaponer”. The second story - a backup of Colin when he first joined MI6 and had no training: beautifully drawn by Butch Guice.

JIM: I think Butch Guice was a good choice for the second story, though it didn't grab me right off. I liked the main story better. After his excellent run on Captain America, you sort of expect these type of Super Spy Espionage stories from him. His eye for city scenes and expressions gives such stories the realism needed to carry off the plots.

JIM: Overall, I give this first issue a thumbs up. Like all the Valiant books, there is a sense that they are keeping a very tight rein on their titles and not letting events lead their storylines. (So far. Hopefully that will continue after the movies start coming out.)

STEVIEB: I agree and highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a well written, action filled story that starts off very strong and starts the development of one of Valliant’s most intriguing characters. Ninjak brings the fun and thrills that seem to be missing from the Big Two lately.

- Jim and StevieB


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