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Saturday, June 17, 2017

James Vance, R.I.P.

Sorry to hear about the passing of comic book writer James Vance. Neil Gaiman has a few recollections, including a link to a fund-raiser for his family.

Vance is best known for his Great Depression set comic with Dan Burr from the 1980s, KINGS IN DISGUISE, and the sequel ON THE ROPES published in 2013 (I wrote about it here), both based on a supporting character from a play he'd written in 1979. Some excellent comics. The illustrations above are Harvey Kurtzman's cover to #2 of the original serialization and a short KINGS story from Vance and Burr from the benefit comic IMAGES OF OMAHA #1 [1992]. Shortly after KINGS he wrote OWLHOOTS with artist John Garcia, a western  set in the early 20th century (with flashbacks to the 19th century) about an aging marshal looking to make a movie about his life. Unfortunately it was unfinished due to low sales, with only two of six issues published.

Before ON THE ROPES, Vance and Burr reunited for a short story in THE SPIRIT - THE NEW ADVENTURES #2 [1998], which is a nice little romp for Will Eisner's character. Vance's most "mainstream" work was probably the Batman story he wrote (as he said, for a chance to work with editor Archie Goodwin) in BATMAN - LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #80 - #82 [1996], with artists Doug Braithwaite and Sean Hardy. Set early in the career of the vigilante created by Bill Finger (with Bob Kane), it has several nice scenes of Bruce Wayne interacting with Alfred and Captain Gordon. Vance also worked on James O'Barr's creation the Crow with artist Alexander Maleev in THE CROW - FLESH AND BLOOD #1 - #3 [1996], featuring the first female Crow, a murdered government agent Iris Shaw seeking revenge against right-wing militia types.

One of Vance's longer works in comics was on NEIL GAIMAN'S MR. HERO THE NEWMATIC MAN #1 [1995-1996] for Tekno-Comix, with artist Ted Slampyak and others developing some concepts Gaiman came up with. The company seems to have been a bit chaotic, but some of the comics I've read were pretty decent. Read some of the messiness on the company end on Vance's blog, starting here. Vance also wrote some interesting stuff in ALIENS - SURVIVAL [1998] with artist Guy Davis and he and Kate Worley co-wrote PREDATOR - HOMEWORLD [1999] for artists Toby Cypress and Mark Lipka, both pretty decent genre tales based on the concepts from the movies.

Vance also finished up writing OMAHA THE CAT DANCER after Kate Worley passed away, based on her notes for creator/artist Reed Waller, doing good work that seamlessly fit in with Worley's earlier stories and wrapping up the long-running saga.

And I'll just finish with a few words from Alan Moore's introduction to KINGS IN DISGUISE:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Good Miracle Monday

A quick reminder to remember to set a place at the table for Superman tonight, the classic Miracle Monday tradition, as seen in this story from SUPERMAN #400 [1984] by Elliot S! Maggin and Klaus Janson.

Next year in Metropolis!

And if for some reason you've never read them, pick up Maggin's two Superman novels, LAST SON OF KRYPTON and MIRACLE MONDAY.  Hm, looks like there may be a new edition of MIRACLE MONDAY...

(Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster)

Recently Read 2017.05.14 (Mooncop, Roughneck, Astro City, Fray, Ex Machina)

This is a recent book by Tom Gauld, best known for his single page comics as collected in YOU'RE ALL JUST JEALOUS OF MY JETPACK.  This time around he takes on a longer narrative, with the story of an unnamed police officer who has a quiet beat on a lunar colony that's long past its prime and slowly winding down.

This was an engaging little story, very quiet in tone, using the science fiction elements to address personal issues of loss and loneliness and changing times. At the same time, it was also very funny, with a lot of unexpected little jokes which take advantage of the lunar setting, and couldn't work if the same story was told about a slowly disappearing small rural town.

Very highly recommended, one of the best new comics I've read recently.

This is Jeff LeMire's newest comic, and the first book from Simon&Schuster's new comic book imprint Gallery 13. It's a return in subject matter to one of LeMire's earlier works, the 2007/2008 ESSEX COUNTY trilogy of short works. In the interim LeMire has amassed quite a varied resume in comics, with a lot of writing on work-for-hire super-hero books for various publishers and writing or writing/drawing various original genre works.  I've tried some of his super-hero and other genre work, but didn't really find most of it that engaging, other than DESCENDER with artist Dustin Nguyen which has a promising start and I need to catch up on.  I do recall liking ESSEX COUNTY as a promising but somewhat rough-hewn work, but it's been almost a decade since I've read it and my memory is dim.

Like ESSEX COUNTY, this is a story set in small town Ontario, this time up north rather than the south-west, featuring a former professional hockey player, having been thrown out of the league years ago for excessive violence, now back in his home town, living in the local arena and barely managing his drinking and anger control issues. His life gets complicated by the return of his younger sister who ran away several years earlier, with circumstances leading to the two of them hiding out in an even more remote cabin.

I generally liked this, and overall it felt much more confidently drawn and skillfully told than I recall ESSEX COUNTY being. The characters felt real and complex in their reactions to the various forces that compel their actions, and LeMire made good use of a limited colour palette for most of the story with vivid colours for (mostly) the flashbacks. I did think the looming specter of the sister's abusive boyfriend approaching the town felt a bit forced in a "Lifetime movie" way, but I guess it paid off in the end. Definitely worth a read.

EX MACHINA Volumes 1-5
This set of books collects the 50 issue series (plus four specials) published between 2004 and 2010, created by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, with a few other artists like John Paul Leon and Chris Sprouse on the specials and Tom Feister, Jim Clark and Karl Story on inks.

The story is about an engineer named Mitchell Hundred who gets the powers to talk to machines from a mysterious device, briefly operates as the super-hero The Great Machine (in a world without other super-heroes) and then gets elected the Mayor of New York City in 2001. The story flips back and forth between his single term as Mayor and flashbacks to the past, mostly his time as The Great Machine.

This was a pretty uneven run of comics. The premise is pretty strong, mixing sci-fi/super-hero concepts with a sort of WEST WING political drama, and is occasionally realized, but just as often one of the elements derails the other.  I also thought the number of interesting stories that Vaughan had to tell in the flashbacks was a lot more limited than the amount of space he gave to them, and he could have dropped the whole flashback gimmick after a dozen or so issues, or used it much more sparingly throughout (oddly also a complaint I had about the TV show LOST, which Vaughan wrote on for a while). Anyway, the series has mix of successful stories, ambitious but flawed stories and complete misfires for the first four books, and then pretty much collapses in the final book, which mostly revolves around the source of Hundred's powers and all that follows from that. I'm not a big fan of Harris's art, but it is pretty well suited to the subject matter and occasionally quite striking (I like Sprouse and Leon more, but they were pretty odd choices for the specials). There were a few rough bits late in the run, I think the first few that Harris inked himself, but he seemed to have settled down there quickly enough.

Worth checking out the first book at least, maybe the second.

This is the fourteenth and most recent collection of the the long running series by writer Kurt Busiek and artist Brent Anderson (and more recently other artists, but all these issues are drawn by Anderson, with Alex Ross doing the covers). This collects #26, #29-30 and #32-34 of the currently running series.

I was a big fan of the series when it launched back in 1995, for a short while it was probably my favourite on-going comic (back when I read a lot of on-going comics in their original serialized form), but fell off quite a while ago for various reasons, mostly the launch of what ended up being a 16-issue story when my preference for the series was always the single issue stories.

This particular collection features three stories. The first is a 20th anniversary sequel to the very first issue of ASTRO CITY from 1995, with the character Samaritan starting to have some issues with his dreams of flying which were the focal point of his debut story and getting some help from some of the other heroes in dealing with them. This was a pretty enjoyable re-introduction to the series, with a lot of familiar faces and a few intriguing strangers, and also seemed to be setting up some future stories which I don't think have been published yet.

The second story is a two-parter featuring the First Family, a Kirbyesque family of adventurer/super-heroes. Or rather it features a child on an alien planet which has had its various attempts to conquer Earth over the years foiled by the First Family, and who thus has a rather skewed version of them from the propaganda of his leaders. His beliefs are challenged when he meets one of the Family injured on a rescue mission. This was my favourite story in the collection, and reminded me of most of what I liked about the series back in the day.

The final story is a three-parter featuring the return of Steeljack, the lead of the early AC story "The Tarnished Angel". A former super-villain gone straight after serving his time, he gets dragged into a slightly convoluted story involving old acquaintances and super-villain memorabilia. While this story had a few good bits, I thought it went on a bit too long and was definitely my least favourite in the collection.

Overall a pretty decent book, I'll definitely try a few more of the books I missed or some future collections.

This is a collection of the 8 issue series published from 2001 to 2003 written by Joss Whedon and drawn by Karl Moline and Andy Owens. It's a spin-off of Whedon's BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER TV series, set several hundred years in the future with the emergence of the first Slayer in a while, a girl named Melaka Fray. I recall it was pretty well spoken of back when it was published, but at the time I hadn't really watched any episodes of the show. I finally did watch them a few years ago, and have been thinking of trying the comic book "seasons" that have been coming out over the last few years, so I figured I'd start with this.

A bit of an odd book, as for the first half I thought the plotting was very strong, with some really good ideas and world-building for this future world and the characters, but I thought a lot of the execution was kind of clumsy (I think this was the first comic book of any major length that Whedon wrote). As we go along the scripting gets steadily stronger, but that's when the cracks begin to appear in the structure, and things don't seem to be quite so interesting and logical. A lot of things don't work in the big final battle and the overall resolution, although they read much better than the early issues. Moline and Owens provide some balance to the whole thing, remaining steadily solid but unspectacular throughout.

At this point I'm not sure if I'll read any of the other BUFFY comics (a few of which I know feature Fray returning to meet Buffy in some sort of time-travel adventure) based on this. Maybe, but not for a while I think.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Recently read 2017.04.30 (Flintstones, Autumnlands, Muhammad Ali)

So, where was I...

Time for the occasional attempt to restart regular service on this weblog for anything but "R.I.P." posts.

THE FLINTSTONES VOLUME 1 (DEC160395; 978-1401268374)
This is a collection of the first six issues of the current (running up to #12) series published by DC, written by Mark Russell and drawn by Steve Pugh, presenting a modern take on the 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. I wasn't that interested in this when it was announced, but heard some good things about it, and liked a few of the covers (including those by Walter Simonson and Bill Sienkiewicz)*.

Overall I thought it was pretty good, mixing a few of the charms of the original like the overly laboured puns (Fred's "shell phone" was a particularly good groaner) and adding in some well thought out modern touches. The bit with monogamous marriage being a controversial new development, being protested by fundamentalists, was well done.

I'm not sure the book ever rose above the level of "pretty good" in these six issues, but it reached it pretty consistently. I'll definitely take a look at the second collection.

*[someday someone has to explain to me how these variant covers don't make buying single issues a mug's game. Buying one cover version of each of this six issues would have cost $24. The collection retails for $17, and is readily available much cheaper, and includes each of the covers you'd have gotten on the singles, plus all the variants, without having to hunt for them, and without the trade dress obscuring part of the art]

This is the second collection of the on-going series by Benjamin Dewey and Kurt Busiek published by Image, including #7-14.

Quite a departure in tone from the first book, as after a short bit at the beginning we leave behind most of the supporting cast that we had in the first six issues and follow the adventures of our main characters Dusty the talking dog and the human "great champion" Learoyd pulled from the past. This is in keeping with the Kamandi roots of the series, as Kam would also frequently leave behind companions for extended periods to explore whatever strange aspects of Earth A.D. that Jack Kirby would come up with. In this case, we get an adventure that explores the roots of the Autumnlands world, in the form of living statues, vengeful "gods", wild magic and talking sheep.

I didn't enjoy this quite as much as I did the first book, as I thought some of the world building around the politics of the various animal societies and the magical basis of the world were pretty interesting, and hoped they would be explored more (of course they still might be in future books, just as Kamandi always ended up encountering Ben Boxer or Doctor Canus or Prince Tuftan again).  I did still enjoy it, and will still be around for a third book if there is one (no issues beyond #14 are scheduled as of this writing). Dewey in particular seems to be growing on the job, and manages some very clever visual bits in the last half of the book.

MUHAMMAD ALI (AUG160036; 978-1506703183)
This is an English translation of the French comic book by writer Sybille Titeux and artist Amazing Ameziane, published by Dark Horse, telling the life story of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016). Oddly leaving out his fight with Superman, but never mind that.

This was a pretty decent light biography, hitting most of the highlights you'd expect. I thought the art was the strongest part of the book, very heavily photo referenced (as you'd expect for a story about someone who lived as much in the public eye as Ali did for most of his life), but well selected and expressive, with some nice layouts for depicting some of the fights.

The writing I had a few problems with, starting with the choice to make the narration second person, addressed to Ali ("You came into this world..."). I kept waiting for some sort of compelling reason in the story to use that unusual format, but it never came, just remaining an annoying affectation. There were also a few odd bits in the chronology, where events seem to be mentioned out of order, and a few attempts to tie in Ali's life to some political events both during his early life and up to the present day which never quite gel and seem superficial and forced in the telling (to be clear, I think the connections are very real and worth examining in depth, I just don't think that this book manages to do it effectively).

Quibbles aside, I thought it was an entertaining enough book, well worth reading for a quick look at a remarkable life.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Happy 100th Birthday - The Sheldon Mayer Centennial

Happy 100th Birthday to Sheldon Mayer (1917-1991), one of the greatest comic book creators of all time.  Here's just a quick sample of some of his varied creative work.

Mayer's most famous creation was Sugar & Spike, which ran for 98 issues from 1956 to 1971, plus hundreds of pages of additional stories in the 1980s, primarily for foreign publication, some seen in English in digests.  The on-going adventures of two neighbour babies who can talk to each other, but not to their parents, it's a constant delight of visual and verbal humour.

In the 1970s, Mayer wrote (and occasionally drew) three dozen stories for DC's various anthology books.  "Is a Snerl Human?", drawn by Alex Toth, is one of the best of them.

 In the 1970s Mayer wrote and drew a number of DC's tabloid format specials featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
 Also for DC's tabloid line, Mayer wrote a book of stories from the Bible.  Only the first one, featuring Old Testament stories, was published, with artwork by Nester Redondo and Joe Kubert, although a significant amount of work for a second book of New Testament stories was done.

Mayer produced several hundred short funny animal stories, mostly in the 1950s.  My favourites are the Three Mouseketeers stories, a kid-gang of field mice navigating the world of the big-feets.

Dizzy Dog stories are also always fun.  Dizzy usually has to defend himself against various attempts of others to take advantage of his innate stupidity, with varying degrees of success.

 Bo Bunny is the comedy duo of Mayer's funny animal work, as Bo and his "friend" Skinny Fox hobo around, trying to avoid work.
 Doodle's Duck is the family comedy of Mayer's funny animal work, at least after the introduction of nephew Lemuel.
Black Orchid was a super-hero created by Mayer in 1973 with artist Tony DeZuniga, only appearing in a handful of stories back in the 1970s but re-appearing in various forms quite often since.

 "Up In McWhistle's House" was a proposal for a depression-era story that Mayer worked on circa-1974, apparently never going beyond a dozen pages of an introductory story partly pencilled and some notes on further plans.

 And of course Scribbly is probably Mayer's second most famous creation, beginning as original content for early Dell comics composed of mostly strip reprints in 1936, continuing as a regular feature in All-American Comics (which Mayer also edited) from 1939 to 1944, where supporting character Ma Hunkel took the identity of the Red Tornado and also took over the feature, and then 15 issues of his own book from 1948-1951. Plus a handful of later returns to the character.

For some earlier posts by me about Mayer, see here.  And if you're on Facebook, check out this group for more on Mayer, including foreign covers, unpublished artwork, Sugar & Spike comic strip proposals, fan art and more.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Bernie Wrightson, R.I.P.

A belated farewell to Bernie Wrightson, who passed away at age 68 last week. I think Wrightson was mostly out of mainstream DC/Marvel comics when I started to read comics, working on stuff like HEAVY METAL, so I probably first encountered his 1970s work in reprints in the early 1980s. Of course one that especially stands out is the reprint of the original Swamp Thing short story, and later some of the full issues. Swamp Thing casts a long shadow on Wrightson's career, with the influence of not only the original stories, but subsequent takes on the character.  But if there were never any Swamp Thing stories beyond those original ones, they'd still be classics.  Later I'd encounter a lot more of his work, and much of it was spectacular.

Here's a random hodge-podge of images from his career that I've pulled out in the last few days, with an emphasis on stuff I haven't seen on-line since his passing.

From EPIC ILLUSTRATED #34 [1986], "They Just Fade Away" was a story done a decade earlier for an unpublished anthology, written and drawn by Wrightson.

SHADOWS & LIGHT #1 [1998] was a black&white anthology from Marvel, and Wrightson wrote and drew a Hulk story for it, which is basically the Hulk fighting a few different monsters, with a pretty decent twist at the end.

DOCTOR STRANGE/SILVER DAGGER #1 [1983] was a reprint of a 1974 Brunner/Englehart story. Wrightson did the wraparound cover which is pretty good. Don't think we got any other Doctor Strange work from him.

ROOTS OF THE SWAMP THING #5 [1986] reprints the tenth and final issue of Wrightson's run on the series from 1974, and this might be my favourite page from that run. Arcane and the Unmen are just wonderfully realized horror creations.

MORLOCK 2001 #3 [1975] is the final issue of the short-lived series from the short-lived publisher Seaboard. This is notable for teaming up Bernie Wrightson as inker over Steve Ditko, which was an interesting look.  Wrightson did a handful of inking over other artists in the 1970s, including a Shadow story over Michael W. Kaluta, a GL/GA story over Neal Adams and a few short stories at Warren over Carmine Infantino.

Wrightson did a pin-up for SUPERMAN #400 [1984], an all around great issue.

A rare later example of Wrightson doing some inking, this one over Sergio Aragones on FANBOY #1 [1999] written by Mark Evanier.

Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson re-team in TREEHOUSE OF HORROR #11 [2005] for a Simpsons story based on one of their early stories.

FRANKENSTEIN ALIVE, ALIVE #3 [2014] is the last issue of the unfinished series, one of the last things Wrightson worked on, with writer Steve Niles.

Wrightson always did a great job doing strong single images for covers, this one for SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT 3-D #2 [1986] from Eclipse.

Here's one from THE SPECTRE #58 [1997]. One of Wrightson's earliest jobs at DC was a Spectre story, thirty years before this.

He did a lot of covers and intro pages to DC's horror books of the 1970s, and came back for a reprint special in WELCOME BACK TO THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY #1 [1998].

DARK HORSE PRESENTS #100-2 [1995] has a really strong image of Mike Mignola's Hellboy.

And here's a very atypical version of Kitty Pryde from HEROES FOR HOPE STARRING THE X-MEN #1 [1985], a scene written by Stephen King and inked by Jeffrey Catherine Jones. Wrightson also initiated and co-plotted the comic, which raised money for famine relief.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

A Dan Spiegle sampler

Here's a selection of some comics pages by Dan Spiegle. In random order.

First up is a page from SPACE FAMILY ROBINSON, one of Spiegle's longest running gigs, drawing over 50 issues from 1962 to 1978.  This is an original comics creation, predating the LOST IN SPACE TV show with a similar premise, which led to the comic picking up the LOST IN SPACE subtitle starting in 1966, although keeping its own characters and designs.

Spiegle did quite a bit of Tarzan related work (mostly on Korak, Tarzan's son) for Western starting in 1968, and later for foreign publishers.  This specific page was done for a 1983 adaptation of the original novel written by Mark Evanier and Sharman DiVono.

"Nemesis" was a serialized spy-thriller that ran in THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD from 1980 to 1982, with Dan Spiegle drawing Cary Burkett's back-up stories for 25 issues and Jim Aparo handling the art in two full-issue Batman team-ups (including the finale). This was my first regular exposure to Spiegle's work, and combined with the great Aparo art on the lead stories to make B&B among my favourite books when I was 10 years old. Burkett & Spiegle did a great job working with the 8-page chunks they were given to build the story.

Spiegle did the art on three issues of the JONNY QUEST series written by William Messner-Loebs in the mid-1980s.  The first, featuring a mistaken identity story around the social services worker sent in to check on Jonny and Hadji's care, is probably my favourite of that run.

Oddly Spiegle was never called in to draw STAR TREK while Western held the licence, which is probably why those comics have such a reputation for being off-model.  It was only when DC got the rights that Trek got the Spiegle treatment, with an issue written by Walter Koenig which, surprisingly, features Chekov.

While he didn't draw a lot of super-hero stuff, it was kind of interesting when he did, like this 1988 story of the original Teen Titans, written by Evanier and DiVono, which has a strong feeling of the classic 1960s Titans stories by Nick Cardy.

Spiegle drew three issues of SGT. ROCK with Robert Kanigher in the early 1980s, including two long annuals, and they're among my favourite issues from that era,

HOLLYWOOD SUPERSTARS was a five issue series by Spiegle and Evanier for Marvel's Epic imprint in 1991, which apparently Marvel had little interest in publishing by the time it was ready, and that showed in the production and promotion end, but was still entertaining reading. There's a pretty decent and inexpensive black&white reprint of the five issues available.

Around 1990 Spiegle drew an adaptation of Dumas' "The Count of Monte Cristo" for a short-lived revival of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED. I think he was announced as doing another one before the line folded, but don't think it ever came out.

Another place where I saw Spiegle early on was a short run Zatanna series that ran in WORLD'S FINEST in 1982.

SCOOBY-DOO was a book that Spiegle would return to a few times, usually with Mark Evanier along writing, first for Western in the early 1970s, Marvel in the late 1970s and this example from Archie in the mid 1990s. I've found those I've read a lot more entertaining than I do any version of the cartoon I've watched in years.

So, a werewolf, a vampire and Frankenstein get together in WWII to fight Nazis. Wait, I'm not done yet, later they're joined by a gorgon and a robot.  Yeah, the Creature Commandos was an odd concept, but sometimes pretty entertaining, including the four issue fun Spiegle drew in 1982.

CROSSFIRE is one of Spiegle's best known works. A spin-off of Mark Evanier and Will Meugniot's DNAGENTS, it ran from 1984 to 1988, plus a few later short stories, telling stories about an LA bail bondsman named Jay Endicott who inherited the costume and gadgets of an industrial spy named Crossfire. The series started strong and got better as it went along, as the superhero trappings became less central to the stories (by the end he's pretty much just wearing the mask a few pages in each issue) and becomes a straight action-adventure in and around Hollywood series and played to all of Spiegle's strengths as an artist.

Spiegle did the first dozen chapters of the "Secret Six" story in a weekly run of ACTION COMICS in 1988. While not quite as memorable as "Nemesis", it did have some entertaining espionage adventures.

A page from the weird DC CHALLENGE series in 1986 has the pretty unusual sight of Spiegle drawing Superman.  Also Batman, but he got a more substantial chance to draw Batman in a nice chapter of a 1991 story.

The Shadow is another character that fits Spiegle's style, as he got to show off a few times like this 1992 story for DC which features the shadow fighting Nazis on an exploding dirigible with a bi-plane.

More Nazi fighting in every issue of BLACKHAWK, which Spiegle and Evanier did for a 23 issue run from 1982 to 1984. I think I read a few of these early on, and later picked up the full run in back issue bins a few years later. Highly entertaining run, with a lot of different styles of war stories, some interesting continuing plotlines and of course great art throughout.

A page from one of the "Tales of Gotham" stories of Batman's city without Batman that Spiegle drew in the early 1980s, this one written by Jack C. Harris is one of my favourites (and even made DC's "Year's Best" compilation digest).

And finally, a nice little oddity from late in Spiegle's career, in 1999 (at almost 80 years old) he did a few pages in the FANBOY series with Sergio Aragones working together on the art for Evanier's story.

And of course there was a lot more, especially for Dell/Western from the 1950s to the 1970s and some comic strip work.  Pick up a copy of this biography for an overview.

Mark Evanier has information on where you can donate in his memory.
Weblog by BobH [bobh1970 at gmail dot com]