Monday, April 20, 2015

Hidden Gems: Marvel Super Action #4

Here's a bit of an oddball comic from Marvel in the late 70s. Right in the middle of a run of Captain America and Avengers reprints, Marvel decided to reach into the Timely/Atlas archives and pull out a couple of old Marvel Boy stories. The character had made a couple of appearances in Fantastic Four and also in What If...? but I don't believe there was any indication that he was being groomed for a series, or else they likely would have featured him in a try-out book such as Marvel Spotlight. Marvel Boy is an interesting character because, much like DC's Captain Comet, he was introduced during that awkward stage between the heyday of the Golden Age superhero and the Silver Age revitalization. The stories themselves are a bit hokey and the dialogue strains the limits of the word balloons, but it is very interesting as a historical artifact, especially the blend of sci-fi, super-heroics and espionage. As a bonus, the book features art by Bill Everett and Russ Heath, so that's not a bad problem to have. If you see this in a bargain bin, snag it as it will give you a taste of that era for a very small investment.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

R.I.P. Herb Trimpe

I learned this afternoon that Mr. Trimpe has passed away. From all accounts, he was a great human being. I was an admirer of his artwork and I've reworked a piece I wrote on him 7 or 8 years ago.

Herb Trimpe was a real Marvel mainstay for those of us who devoured comics in the Bronze Age. Although mostly associated with the Incredible Hulk, he could draw everything from westerns to monster books.  I’ve always admire his clean look which almost seemed to be the Marvel ‘house’ look because he worked on so many titles.

The strange thing is; I still think his best work was his first full length story – the “Phantom Eagle” from Marvel Super-Heroes #16. How many artists hit the ball completely out of the park on their first at-bat in the big leagues? Here are a couple of pages from that issue.

Trimpe also has a real knack for cover design – so many of his Hulk covers played with perspective to make them even more dynamic. Sometimes even just a slight tilting could bring a static image to life. Here’s my favorite of his Hulk covers (also used for a Power Records cover, IIRC) and one of his best western covers. It’s just dazzling – it’s really too bad that westerns went out of fashion because I truly believe that many artists excelled in that genre.

Trimpe definitely became the go-to guy at Marvel when they began licensing everything under the sun (see. Shogun Warriors, Godzilla and G.I. Joe to name but a few). Obviously Jim Shooter had faith in Trimpe, and put him on one high profile assignment after another. His versatility is indeed one of his real strengths as he really could do nice job on just about anything. You want a re-cap of Star Wars in a single page? Herb’s your man.

Like so many skilled Bronze Age artists, Trimpe seemed to fall off the radar screen at Marvel. Tastes change and it’s too bad that so many artists seem to be put out to pasture long before their time. He’s still doing work from time to time (I believe his did a recent BPRD issue for Dark Horse) For those looking to get a taste of Herb Trimpe at this best – I highly recommend tracking down that Phantom Eagle story, his work of the latter issues of Nick Fury and his take on Ant-Man in Marvel Feature. Frugal Hulk fans know that there’s a goldmine of fun Trimpe art in the Essentials volumes.

Rest in Peace, Herb. You will be missed. Thanks for the countless hours of entertainment.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Kids' Corner: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

Squirrel Girl. Who doesn't love her? With her powerful tail, 'can-do' spirit and overcaffeinated Steve Ditko eyes, she was a breath of fresh air when she first showed up in an Iron Man story. My kids both loved that book, especially the visual of Victor Von Doom being felled by an army of squirrels. Can a character with the potential to be a comical comic book footnote carry a series? Well, from the evidence that I have gathered from the first two issues, the answer is a resounding 'yes'. There is a lot of room in the field for a book that favours charm over grim and gritty, and this one got off to a solid start with some strong characterization, humour and some fun guest appearances (I'm looking at you Mr. The Hunter). The down side, however, is that the artwork is serviceable at best. The facial expresses are uniform throughout and the storytelling in the action sequences muddled (Exhibit A - the Iron Man armour bit). There's good potential here, though but I am not sure that my children are as keen on it as I am. The jokes seemed to be geared towards long-time funnybook fans and no young readers. A good comic can strike the right balance (see. Powerpuff Girls) and this one is not there (yet).

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Highlighting House Ads: Atom 2

I've said it before and I'll said it again: I love the Atom! He's one of my all-time favourite heroes but he has never had what could be described as a top tier Rogues Gallery. To be honest, it's not even second tier. Chronos is his Joker. That's a bit sad. Chronos actually isn't a terrible villain, but his costume has always left a lot to be desired. Those pants!!! This is a fun ad, though as it introduces Chronos and his time-based powers. As much as I love the cover to Atom #2, it actually does not let the reader know anything about the villain. I'm always happy whenever I see bags with dollar signs on them! This is classic early 60s DC house advertising: super busy, a variety of fonts and tons of charm.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Crystal Ball Covers

If you read enough comics, you'll realize that crystal balls were used as a cover gimmick in many genres, over many decades. Let's take a look at a handful of them.

Let's start with Warlord #20 (April, 1979). Of all of the long-running DC series of the 70s and 80s, Warlord may be the one with which I am the least familiar. I have read a bunch, but it never really clicked with me. I should probably give it another chance. I like this Mike Grell cover a lot. He's crammed a lot onto the page, but it doesn't seem too busy. Great design. This was a favourite gimmick for the series as crystal balls were also featured on the covers of issue 16 and 63.

I am sure that somewhere along the way, I have declared myself to be a fan of John Force, Magic Agent. If I haven't, let me do it. now. The cover to Magic Agent #2 (March-April, 1962) is a great example of ACG charm. It's so clean, simple and innocent that it's hard to imagine that they were trying to compete with Marvel and DC. I love Kurt Schaffenberger, and he was a great fit on this type of series. It's too bad he didn't do the interior artwork but Paul Reinman is also underrated.

I cannot discuss crystal ball covers without including Mike Kaluta's awesome cover to House of Secrets #99 (August, 1972). It's obviously an homage to M.C. Escher's Hand With Reflective Sphere, a lithograph first printed in 1935. My guess is that this was on dorm rooms across America back in '72 and that Kaluta's cover resulted in a collective "Whoa - far out, man!". Great stuff and one of the most iconic covers from that series.

Let's visit the superhero genre, as countless heroes have appeared in crystal balls over the years, including the JLA (Justice League of America #21 and #29) and the Legion (LOSH #303). I'll go with Invaders #30 (March, 1979), though, as I actually had it as a kid. I'm not a huge fan of Alan Kupperberg but this cover is decent. I'm not sure that I'd want to be stuck in a confined space with someone called The Whizzer.

For my final selection, I am returning to the horror genre with the cover to The Witching Hour #77 (July, 1977). I am sure that we can all agree that the story title "Coffee, Tea... or Kill!" is awesome, but so is Luis Dominguez' cover. I've seen skeleton Doctors, Santas, Cabbies and Pilots but this is the first Skeleton Stewardess (sorry, Flight Attendant) that I've ever seen. Very patriotic witch, too.

That is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons of great Crystal Ball Covers out there, so keep your eyes peeled.


Exit Stage Left: Creatures on the Loose #37

Who doesn't love Man-Wolf? Well, apparently not enough people back in 1975 as this series was put out to pasture. Over a 4 year period, COTL had played host not only to John Jameson but also to Gullivar Jones, Thongor and an assortment of Atlas-era reprints. Like many series, this one died mid-storyline. Can I be honest? In my opinion, the move towards inter-dimensional adventures and assorted gemstones didn't mesh too well with the Man-Wolf character and I think David Kraft was heading in the wrong direction. What we do get in this issue, which was relatively rare, is a one page editorial by Kraft explaining the reasons for the cancellation and a summary of where the story was heading. That's pretty cool. Ultimately, it was picked up 4 years later in the pages of Marvel Premiere. George Perez fans may want to check this one out, but I will say that the prior issues inked by Frank McLaughlin looked better than this one, which was by Fred Kida.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Single Issue Hall of Fame: Detective Comics #485

Let me change gears in terms of Batman books. I think we can all agree that Dollar Comics are awesome. There is usually a lot of great material to be found between the covers. This one, however, sits at the upper echelon, mainly due to the amazing list of creators involved. For Don Newton fans, there are no fewer than 31 pages of his artwork. The first 20 are in a great Batman tale which sets up Bronze Tiger as a very intriguing characters. He also pencils the Man-Bat story, a character he was born to draw. I have never been a huge Demon fan, but I love it when Steve Ditko is on board and Len Wein's story is entertaining. The final two stories are worth mentioning because I think they would be unfairly dismissed by many readers and critics. The Robin story is a fairly quaint tale written by Paul Kupperberg infused with a ton of charm by Kurt Schaffenberger in his quasi-retro style. As you may know, I am a huge fan of Don Heck - an artist I think is criminally underrated. He draws women so that they have a very feminine strength and is, therefore, a wonderful fit for Batgirl. This is a solid story. Finally, we get a terrific Dick Giordano pin-up you've probably seen before with Batgirl and Robin. It is just a slice of perfection circa 1979.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

You've Been Warned: Shadow of the Bat #19 and #20

I have been making my way through some of the Knightfall trades in recent weeks and this little arc is the absolute bottom of the barrel. A villain named the Tally Man is introduced - he's part Joker, part accountant. He's got a pretty strange modus operandi, and it never really made sense to me in terms of how it is executed (pun intended). His background is actually fairly intriguing but Vince Giarrano sloppy storytelling makes it very difficult to follow. Let's not even get into the action sequences. The scratchy, pseudo-abstract artwork gets in the way of the flow of things. All in all, it seems as though Alan Grant was trying to create a new villain by simply putting some grim and gritty ingredients in a blender. It did not work. The Jean-Paul Valley era Batman stories are an acquired taste at the best of times, but this one leaves a bitter aftertaste.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Happy Birthday José Luis García-López!

Mr. José Luis García-López celebrates his 67th Birthday today. If you're a comic book fan of my generation, it is impossible to not have been wowed by his artwork at some point. He is one of the top artists of his generation, with an incredible sense of design. He infused every assignment with a great deal of style. It is sometimes easy to take a creator like García-López for granted, as he was so prolific for such a long period of time. He played an important role during a tumultuous time at DC, helping maintain the overall 'look' of the DC universe and breathing some fresh air into some stale books. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Charlton Notebook: Ghostly Tales #94

This is a pretty typical Charlton horror book from the early 70s - nothing groundbreaking but pretty solid. We start off with an actual Ditko cover. I say this as the was not simply a paste job from internal art, but an original piece. The story itself it drawn by Pete Morisi (P.A.M.). That story is about Russian werewolves and Morisi gives it a chilly atmosphere. The lead story is pretty silly, as a gang of hippies (or are they bikers?) squat in a haunted house. The ornery ghost forces them to get to work tidying up. Was this an anti-littering message? Who knows? My favourite story here is the middle chapter, involving a swamp creature chasing a cowardly soldier during the Vietnam war. It is drawn with gusto by Joe Staton. That makes this a 'must-have' for Muck Monster completists. The was reprint nearly a decade later with the cover image flipped, perhaps to make people think that it was brand new. I love that Charlton ingenuity!

Add It To My Want List: Disney's The Three Musketeers (1993)

I saw this silly Disney version of the Three Musketeers while backpacking through Turkey in 1994. It was sufficiently entertaining, but immediately forgettable. Back then, had I seen the two-issue series in a comic book shop, I would have turned up my nose at it. I have since learned that Dan Spiegle provided the art on both issues. He is a perfect fit for this type of genre and I am guessing (and hopeful) that this has an old-timey Dell/Gold Key feel to it. As I have gotten older, I have really grown to love the adventure genre so this is right up my alley. As an added bonus, Gray Morrow provides covers for both issues. The hunt begins.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Hidden Gems: Wonder Woman 80 Page Giant Annual (2003)

Just over a decade ago, DC published a bunch of this sweet retro-comics filled with Golden and Silver Age goodness. I will admit that I was put off by the price tag at the time and admired them from a distance. The beauty of the back issue market is that, for most recent books, the prices will eventually come down. I picked this up for $1.99 and was delighted with it. It gives the reader a great sampling of two eras in Wonder Woman history: the lunacy of the Golden Age stuff from the minds of Martson and Peter and the charm of the Silver Age, featuring the inventive storytelling of Robert Kanigher and beautiful artwork from the Andru/Esposito team. This is a great way to get a sense of early Wonder Woman stories without having to spend a ton of money on Archive collections. I am now wondering if the all-star team of villains in the Villainy Incorporated story from 1948 represents one of the first super-villain team ups in DC history. If you ever stumble upon this while flipping through back issue bins, I recommend picking it up.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Happy Birthday Karen Berger!

Happy Birthday to the woman who saved comics! Ok, ok, that may be Stan Lee-level hyperbole, but there's certainly a kernel of truth to it. Think for a moment how much Karen Berger did to steer comics through the 1980s and into the 1990s. The bar was raised substantially during her tenure at DC, to the point where she was given the keys to the Vertigo kingdom. It's impossible to overstate the role she played in shaping comics into the sophisticated medium they have become. How many titles that are now regarded as classics may have never existed had she not been in the editor's chair? It's impossible to say, but I would not want to live in a world without Sandman Mystery Theatre.

Single Issue Hall of Fame: World's Finest #113

Back when I was actively collecting Golden and Silver Age books, this one became somewhat of a holy grail. For a long time, I had owned a beautiful copy of World's Finest #123, featuring the second team-up of Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk and I became obsessed with getting my hands on this particular issue. This was long before everything was available via reprint and it actually took me quite a while to find a nice, yet affordable copy. Was it worth the effort? I certainly think so. To see the two imps interact for the first time is a real treat. The come across as a bickering old couple, nad it's a hoot. That said, if you don't think the Silver Age can be charming, it may not be for you. The Swan penciled cover is pretty great, and Dick Sprang penciled the story itself. The real bonus here are the two back-up stories. The Green Arrow tale features the introduction of Miss Arrowette. She was always just an interesting footnote in Silver Age history but has become more important in recent years. I'm not much of a Tommy Tomorrow fan, but this particular tale is fun as he encounters his younger self. I think that all of these stories have been reprinted elsewhere, but it is still nice to have them all in one spot.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Exit Stage Left: Sea Devils #35

As a concept, the Sea Devils made a lot of sense circa 1960. Other scuba-related books were on spinner racks such as Dell's The Frogmen and the tie-in to the Sea Hunt series. As the decade progressed, the comic book landscape shifted. Superheroes were back in a big way and universe-building was underway at both DC and Marvel. Dane Dorrance and his team never really fit into the DCU all that well. They still managed to chug along, with Bob Haney telling self-contained underwater (pun intended) tales in typical loopy yet entertaining Bob Haney fashion. This issue was par for the course, with alien creatures arriving via an inter-dimensional portal in the ocean. In this case, however, after winning the battle, the good guys simply swam off into the sunset, not to be seen again until Showcase #100.