Friday, January 12, 2007

Prowling for Vipers

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary animator Iwao Takamoto, who passed away this week at age 81.

Like thousands of Americans of Japanese descent, Takamoto spent the World War II years in California's Manzanar internment camp. While at Manzanar, he honed his skills at drawing. After the war, Takamoto landed a job with Disney, where he worked as an animator and design artist on such classic films as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Takamoto joined Hanna-Barbera in the early 1960s, where he designed the characters for numerous cartoon series, including Josie and the Pussycats, Wacky Races, and most memorably, Scooby-Doo. He also directed the 1973 animated feature film version of Charlotte's Web.

Mr. Takamoto will be missed, but his work lives on.

Some weeks back, I spent one Comic Art Friday pondering the whereabouts of former Marvel Comics artist M.C. Wyman. I ponder no more. Not only has the elusive Mr. Wyman resurfaced — he recently posted several new sketches for sale on eBay — but he was gracious enough to place his inimitable stamp on my ever-popular Common Elements gallery with a new commissioned artwork. Here, Wyman brings together two characters from Marvel's past: the Prowler and Viper.

The Prowler began his costumed career as a villain, appearing first in one of the most fondly recalled comics from my youth, Amazing Spider-Man #78 (November 1969). The character made a dramatic impression on me because behind the Prowler's mask lived a young black man named Hobie Brown. At that time, African Americans were almost as scarce in comic books as at, say, a country and western jamboree. A black villain, in particular, was practically unheard of. The Prowler may have been among the first.

Hobie didn't remain a villain for long. With Spider-Man's encouragement, the Prowler quickly reformed, becoming one of the Wall-Crawler's best friends and staunchest allies — even donning the famous Spider-Man costume as a decoy on at least a couple of occasions. He has resurfaced several times over the years, most notably in a solo Prowler miniseries in 1994, and again most recently in Marvel's current megaevent, Civil War.

I've always retained a soft spot for the Prowler — so much so, in fact, that one of the very first purchases I acquired for my comic art collection was a recreation of that classic cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78. This recreation was drawn in 2004 by comics industry legend Jim Mooney, who inked the original ASM #78 art. (John Romita Sr., Silver Age Spidey artist and later Marvel's art director, drew the original pencils.) You'll notice a few subtle differences from the actual cover, but I think Mooney — who's in his mid-80s and still drawing up a storm — did a bang-up job of revisiting this landmark piece of Marvel history.

I was thrilled when MC Wyman agreed to depict the Prowler in my latest Common Elements commission. Paired with Hobie is the mysterious Viper, a longtime Marvel villainess who first surfaced in the same year as the Prowler, albeit a few months earlier (in Captain America #110, February 1969).

Known at first by the code name Madame Hydra, this empress of evil (whose real name, so far as I'm aware, has never been revealed in the comics) later took the nom de guerre Viper, and so she is called to this day. The character appeared — with a different identity and backstory — in the cheesetastic late '90s TV movie Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., starring David "The Hoff" Hasselhoff in the title role.

The astute among you have already figured this out, I'm sure. But for those coming late to the party, who may be wondering what common element the Prowler and Viper share: Think sports cars. Think Chrysler.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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