Friday, April 24, 2009

April showers (part four of four)

As the month of April begins its gradual fade into May, we conclude our month of Comic Art Fridays dedicated to our — and, let's be honest, everyone's — favorite weather-marshaling X-Man, Ororo Munroe: Storm, as she's known to friend and foe alike.

Last week, we showcased a Storm image penciled by Mark Beachum and inked by my good friend and comics industry stalwart, Bob Almond.

Here's another one.

When I purchased the original pencils of last week's featured piece from Mark Beachum, Mark included in the package an additional sketch with a brief note of thanks. This sketch, presenting a strikingly different version of Ororo than the drawing I bought, was simply but deftly drawn, and quite beautiful.

It was also a nude. Not surprising, given that much of Mark's artistic output these days falls under the banner of erotica.

Those of you who've visited here on Comic Art Fridays for any length of time, or have browsed my online gallery at Comic Art Fans, have probably sussed out that I don't collect nude art. I wouldn't consider myself a prude, nor am I in any manner opposed to the creation, ownership, or display of nude art in general. It's merely an area of artistic expression that my collection isn't intended to represent.

It seemed a pity, though, to completely hide Mark's lovely sketch from the world, just because I wouldn't have a place for it in my gallery in its original form. So, Bob Almond and I put our heads together, and decided that Bob would create an inked version of Mark's sketch that incorporated some minimal costuming. Bob drew his inspiration from a design that Geof Isherwood developed for this Common Elements commission entitled "Stormbringers," featuring Ororo alongside Michael Moorcock's epic fantasy antihero, Elric of Melniboné.

Geof's original model for his Storm was Adastra, a character created by the legendary Barry Windsor-Smith. At one time, BWS (as his fans call him) had been assigned by Marvel Comics to write and draw a miniseries featuring a youthful Storm in her native African environs. Due to the time-honored "creative differences," Marvel decided not to publish the story Windsor-Smith came up with, so the artist changed the character's name to Adastra and published the book (retitled Adastra in Africa) himself.

Isherwood, who counts BWS as one of his key influences, retconned Windsor-Smith's Adastra back to her Ororo origins for the drawing above. Bob Almond incorporated the basic elements of Geof's design into his embellished version of Mark Beachum's sketch.

Ideas... the gifts that keep on giving.

And that's your Comic Art Friday "Storm front" for April.


Friday, April 17, 2009

April showers (part three of four)

We're having a month of Storms this April on Comic Art Friday. Ironic, this, because it's supposed to be sunny and in the mid-80s here this weekend.

Still, we press on.

The third manifestation in our Storm front is this striking take on Ororo, penciled by Mark Beachum and inked by Bob Almond.

Mark Beachum began his career in mainstream comics in the early 1980s, when he drew several issues of Wonder Woman for DC, then moved over to Marvel to draw mostly covers on the various Spider-Man titles. My interest, however, in Beachum's work stems from a single cover he penciled for one of my all-time favorite non-superhero comic books: Thriller.

Beachum landed the cover assignment for Thriller #7, I suspect because he was a hungry young artist who just happened to be available, and DC editorial needed a cover in a hurry. Thriller #7 was the final issue of the short-lived series to be produced by the original creative team, scripter Robert Loren Fleming and illustrator Trevor Von Eeden.

For a variety of reasons, many of which remain shrouded in mystery nearly a quarter-century later, Fleming and Von Eeden both quit (or were dumped from, depending on who's telling the story) Thriller abruptly. Fleming was supplanted as writer by former Vampirella scribe Bill DuBay, beginning with issue #8. The incomparable stylist Alex Niño took over the art chores from Von Eeden in issue #9.

Thriller, an idiosyncratic tale under the best of circumstances — that is to say, in the hands of the only two people on the planet who truly understood what it was supposed to be about, and where the narrative was intended to go — limped along under the new creative team until issue #12, by which time anyone still reading the book gave up trying to follow the increasingly bizarre storyline. DC, long since ready to cut its losses, canceled the troublesome title.

None of which has anything at all to do with Storm, aside from the fact that the artist who drew the Storm seen above is the same guy who drew the only Thriller cover not drawn by either Von Eeden or Niño.

That, and the fact that I'm one of the infinitesimally puny number of comics fans who not only still remember Thriller fondly — or indeed remember it at all — but actually own all twelve issues.

Of course, that doesn't have anything to do with Storm, either.

I was going somewhere with this, but I'm not certain exactly where. Kind of like Thriller.

One more Storm next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Super freak

I'm not sure why I'd be surprised by this revelation, but...

According to a recently published book by comics historian Craig Yoe, Joe Shuster — the artist half of the creative team who dreamed up Superman — spent a portion of his career in the 1950s drawing sadomasochistic fetish comics featuring characters who look suspiciously like Clark Kent and Lois Lane.

Apparently, it wasn't only kryptonite that made the Man of Steel weak in the knees. Whips and chains did the trick as well.

Yoe's book Secret Identity uncovers (no pun intended) the lurid art Shuster drew for an underground magazine entitled Nights of Horror. An article in USA Today quotes Yoe's observation:
Joe obviously had some very dark fantasies. There's a panel in an early Superman comic book where he has Lois over his knee and is spanking her. But certainly nothing of this depth or extremeness.
As I said, this really doesn't shock me. Plenty of artists from mainstream comics sidelined in erotica, especially back in the days when mainstream comics habitually paid their creators in chicken feed and shoeshines.

To cite a few examples:
  • Wally Wood — one of comics' most talented artists ever, in my (and many other knowledgeable people's) opinion — was a one-man cottage porn industry in his later years.
  • Will Elder, one of the artists who helped make MAD Magazine a household name, drew Little Annie Fanny for Playboy for more than a quarter-century.
  • Bill Ward, who started his career drawing Captain Marvel and Blackhawk before creating the classic "good girl" character Torchy, cranked out hundreds of sexy strips for men's magazines.
  • Adam Hughes, perhaps comics' preeminent present-day "good girl" artist, used to freelance for Penthouse.
I'm sure, though, that more than a few folks will find the blood draining from their faces when they see Superman (or a guy who could be his identical twin brother) letting his freak flag fly.

Great Caesar's ghost, indeed.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

April showers (part two of four)

As noted last week, April is Storm Month here on Comic Art Friday.

Apparently, it's working, because it's been rainy here for the past several days.

Today's paean to the mighty Ororo — Queen of Wakanda and most powerful of the legendary X-Men — leaps from the pencil of Edgar Tadeo, a talented artist from the Philippines. Ed is perfectly suited to render our weather-warping heroine, given that his most recent comics assignment was inking Marvel's X-Men: Worlds Apart (over the pencil art of Diogenes Neves), a miniseries starring the scintillating Storm herself.

Ed's take on Ororo synthesizes the work of the two artists most closely associated with Storm: the late, great Dave Cockrum, who co-created the character (as well as several other 1970s-vintage X-Men) with writer Len Wein; and John Byrne, the Canadian superstar who first came to prominence when he followed Cockrum as the regular artist on X-Men.

Tadeo blends these influences through the filter of the storied Filipino comics (or komiks, as they spell it in the P.I.) tradition, and comes up with a beautiful style uniquely his own. Although Ed is best known on these shores as an inker, I admire his pencil work very much. You'll be seeing his addition to my Common Elements gallery one of these Fridays soon.

Speaking of Storm's co-creator Len Wein: Len and his wife, photographer Chris Valada, lost their home, their beloved dog Sheba, and many of their possessions in a house fire earlier this week. Our thoughts are with Len and Chris for a speedy return to normality.

More Storm in seven.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, April 03, 2009

April showers (part one of four)

I'm declaring April a Comic Art Friday theme month. Why? Because I can!


We're going to spend today and each of the next three Comic Art Fridays looking at four strikingly different representations of one of my favorite heroines: Ororo Munroe, the weather-manipulating X-Man code-named Storm, now also the queen consort of King T'Challa of Wakanda, better known as the Black Panther.

The first in our quartet of Storms comes from the pen of a living legend in the comics industry: Ernie Chan. The amazing Chan burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, following his arrival from the Philippines, one of a host of talented artists from that island nation who made their collective mark in American comics during that period.

Chan is best remembered for his powerful work on Marvel's myriad Conan the Barbarian titles, first as an inker over the great John Buscema, then later as a penciler and cover artist as well. Prolific throughout his long career, Chan's distinctive and detailed art graced literally hundreds of comics, from horror stories (DC's Ghosts and House of Secrets) and superhero fare (Wonder Woman, Justice League of America, and the Batman feature in Detective Comics for DC; The Incredible Hulk and Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel) to martial arts action (Master of Kung Fu) and his beloved barbarians (in addition to a plethora of Conan books, Chan also illustrated the adventures of Kull the Destroyer).

The Storm solo pinup above marks the second time that Mr. Chan has drawn Ororo for my gallery. Previously, he paired the Wizardress of Weather with Beta Ray Bill in this Common Elements tableau entitled "Stormbreakers."

In addition to being a superlative artist, Ernie's also one heck of a nice guy. I always look forward to reconnecting with him at our local comics conventions.

Another Storm's a-brewing in seven days. Be here.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Ye gods!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comics artist José Gonzalez — known to his legions of fans as "Pepe" — who passed away on March 17 at the age of 70.

Acclaimed as a legend in his native Spain, Gonzalez was best known on these shores for his early 1970s work on the Warren Publishing title Vampirella. Such preeminent talents as Frank Frazetta (who painted the very first Vampirella cover) and Joe Jusko have hailed Gonzalez as one of comics' greatest illustrators.

You will be sadly and deeply missed, Pepe.

As demonstrated by Pepe Gonzalez, the highest honor that any artist can achieve is the admiration of his or her fellow artists. In any field, the talents most revered are those whose greatest fans are their peers. I'm fortunate to have in my comic art collection a handful of pieces by artists who've reached that level of accolade — such legends as Tony DeZuniga, Alex Niño, Adam Hughes, and the late Mike Wieringo, to mention just a few.

To mention just one more...

Steve "The Dude" Rude.

Perhaps most famed as the co-creator (with writer Mike Baron) of Nexus, one of the seminal superhero comics of the 1980s, Rude has the well-earned reputation of "artists' artist." His style reflects the vision of two of the medium's most influential geniuses, Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, but merges those precedents with original flair and modern sensibility. In today's comics world, no one's art looks quite like Steve Rude's.

I dreamed up the Common Elements pairing shown above — the mighty Thor and the mighty Isis — specifically with Rude in mind to draw it. To be honest, I never thought that would happen. Rude accepts commissions infrequently, and is known to be selective about the subject matter in those he does take on. (He doesn't like to draw Batman or Green Lantern, for example, even though I can think of few superheroes better suited to his approach than those two.) When opportunity presented itself to add a Rude to my Common Elements gallery, I suggested this, and hoped for the best.

And the best is precisely what The Dude delivered.

My fascination with Isis, star of that pinnacle of '70s Saturday mornings, The Secrets of Isis, has been extensively documented in this space. Although I own an attractive gallery of Isis commissions, this is the Mighty One's Common Elements debut.

Thor makes his second Common Elements appearance here. Previously, the God of Thunder squared off with John Henry Irons — better known as Steel — in one of the earliest entries in the series: "Showdown," penciled by the inimitable Trevor Von Eeden and inked by the dependable Joe Rubinstein.

Although this Isis-meets-Thor spectacular is Steve Rude's first shot at Common Elements (one would hope that it won't be his last), it marks the second occasion on which he's drawn a commission for me. Several years back, Rude created one of the highlights of my Mary Marvel gallery — this bombastic pinup in which the World's Mightiest Maiden artfully dodges a plethora of ominous-looking projectiles.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Daughters and dragons

My daughter KM celebrates her 20th birthday next Wednesday.

How appropriate, then, that we foreshadow her double-decade observance with a double-daughter Common Elements artwork?

I refer, of course, to the pair of heavily-armed young ladies dominating the uppermost corners here.

At left, rocking the katana, that's Colleen Wing. At right, packing a pistol and a bionic arm, that's Misty Knight. Together, they're variously known as the proprietors of Knightwing Restorations, one-third of the most recent incarnation of Heroes for Hire, and — most importantly for the present moment — the Daughters of the Dragon.

The Daughters' imposing, fin-domed companion? He's the Savage Dragon, eponymous star of the long-running Image Comics series. (Just to be clear: Misty and Colleen, although called the Daughters of the Dragon, are not the daughters of the Savage Dragon. As cool as that would be.)

And who better to illustrate this propulsive threesome of urban crimebusters than Ben Dunn, creator of the popular manga series, Ninja High School? Well, nobody better, actually, which is why I handed Ben this choice assignment. As you can see, Ben flat crushed it, in his unique, energetic style.

As both individuals and as a team, the Daughters of the Dragon enjoy a lengthy and storied history in the annals of Marvel Comics, going all the way back to the swinging 1970s.

Misty and Colleen appeared frequently in the early adventures of hero-for-hire Luke Cage (then known as Power Man) and his partner Danny Rand, a.k.a. the martial artist Iron Fist. Misty was involved in a long-term relationship with Danny, and later had a brief dalliance with Luke. At various times over the decades, the Daughters of the Dragon have joined Cage, Iron Fist, and others in the superhero private investigation firm (you guessed it) Heroes for Hire.

The Savage Dragon owns the distinction of being one of the longest-running characters in modern comics to have the majority of his adventures scripted and drawn by his creator — in the Dragon's case, Image Comics co-founder (and formerly publisher) Erik Larsen.

A humanoid being of indeterminate origin, the Dragon (so named because of his green skin and prominent cranial fin) found purpose in life as a Chicago police officer, while at the same time trying to discover his true identity. Nearly 20 years after his debut, the Dragon learned that he was really an alien from outer space. (Well, duh.)

Speaking of 20 years...

Did I mention that my daughter — who is not a dragon, an alien, or even a ninja — turns 20 next Wednesday?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, March 13, 2009

The wonders of WonderCon, part two

When last we gathered for Comic Art Friday, we looked at four of the commissions I garnered at WonderCon 2009. Today, we'll check out the rest of the art that followed me home from the West Coast's second-largest annual comics and sci-fi/fantasy convention.

One of this year's special guests at WonderCon was the ever-popular Aaron Lopresti, currently the artist on Wonder Woman. In addition to being a dynamite artist, Aaron is also a terrific guy, and I always look forward to seeing and chatting with him at conventions. This year, I offered Aaron the opportunity to draw anything he wanted. After some thought and discussion, we agreed that he'd take his hand to the late, great Dave Stevens's Rocketeer.

David "BroHawk" Williams is another artist whose presence is always a welcome sight. In my opinion — and in this space, mine's the only one that matters — David is one of the truly special talents in working in comics today. Because much of his work appears in Marvel Comics' all-ages line, Marvel Adventures, David often doesn't get the recognition I believe he deserves. This exquisitely designed Supergirl, rendered in tonal ink wash, gives testimony to his unique abilities.

My signature commission gallery, Common Elements, increased by two at this year's WonderCon. Tony DeZuniga created this lovely drawing featuring two characters with plant-based themes — Poison Ivy and Black Orchid, the latter of whom Tony co-created while working for DC Comics in the 1970s. His wry comment: "For some reason, that character never seemed to catch on."

Although Common Elements was a well-developed theme by the time Ron Lim drew his first entry in the series, I've always considered him its conceptual godfather. It was Ron's casual suggestion at WonderCon several years ago that first started me thinking about a series of two-character commissions. For that reason, I'm always pleased when Ron can work a new Common Elements piece into his always-busy con commission list. Here, Ron teams a character he knows well — American Dream, the alternate-universe protégé of Captain America, from the Lim-penciled series Avengers Next — with another he had never drawn before: American Eagle. Veteran inker Danny Bulanadi added the finishing touches.

And finally, proving that WonderCon is truly the gift that keeps on giving: Jason Metcalf ran out of time at the con before he could get to my Valkyrie commission, so he finished the piece at home and shipped it to me this week.

Thanks to all of the artists, writers, organizers, and other folks who made WonderCon 2009 another successful and enjoyable experience.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, March 06, 2009

The wonders of WonderCon, part one

WonderCon 2009 has come and gone, and a fine time was had by all. (Not that I interviewed every one of the 30,000 or so people in attendance. But I didn't hear anyone complaining.)

I'll be sharing in this space today and next Friday several new commissions created last weekend. But first, a few of the other highlights of the con from my perspective.
  • Kudos to the Comic-Con folks, who run WonderCon, on a smoothly managed convention. Many of the glitches I've observed in past years, especially related to the registration and admission process, disappeared this year. Nice to see that the con staff learns from its mistakes.

  • Despite the economy, visitor attendance seemed as brisk as ever. Quite a number of artists who were announced, however, didn't show up. This accounted for a lighter-than-anticipated art haul on my part.

  • I enjoyed renewing acquaintances with several of my favorite artists and fellow fans. It's always a treat to touch bases with the great Tony DeZuniga and his charming wife Tina (two lovelier people, you will not meet in this lifetime), Wonder Woman artist Aaron Lopresti, industry legends Ernie Chan, Ron Lim, and Alex Niño, award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight (with his new baby son, taking in his first con), and caricaturist Walt Davis.

  • I'm not a big autograph hound, but I was tickled to get my Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser trade paperback signed by both writer Howard Chaykin and artist Mike Mignola. When I handed the book to Howard, he noticed Mignola's signature and gave me a quizzical look. "Is Mike here?" he asked. I pointed to Mignola's table two aisles away. I hope the two creators managed to connect during the weekend.

  • The most interesting panel of the several I attended focused on my favorite superhero, the Black Panther. Reginald Hudlin, writer of the current Black Panther comic as well as the upcoming animated series on BET, was joined on the dais by series producer and comics legend Denys Cowan (co-creator of the Milestone Media comics universe) and Marvel Comics editor Axel Alonso. After the panel, I got the chance to thank both Denys and Reggie for their efforts to keep superheroes of color in the public spotlight. It was an emotional moment that I won't soon forget.

  • Other memorable meet-and-greets: Former Buck Rogers star Erin Gray, whom I first met 30 years ago during a Battle of the Network Stars taping at Pepperdine University; one of my voiceover idols, audiobook narrator Scott Brick (more on this over at my voiceover blog); science fiction author David Gerrold, whose book The Trouble With Tribbles (about his experiences penning that infamous Star Trek episode) helped encourage my writing ambitions.
All right already, enough folderol. Let's scope some art.

With his affinity for alien tech, I knew that Star Wars artist Tom Hodges would be a perfect choice to draw the current version of Blue Beetle. This awesome artwork proves my point.

The ever-jovial Ernie Chan, one of my favorite people in the comic art world, added this dynamic pinup to my gallery featuring Taarna from the film Heavy Metal. (Incidentally, have you ever visited the Heavy Metal reference page I published at Squidoo? Well, darn it, you should.)

Speaking of the Black Panther, as I was just a few paragraphs ago, Alex Niño marshaled his inimitable style to deliver this unique take on the King of Wakanda.

Arak, Son of Thunder stands among the countless "forgotten treasures" of comic book history. A DC Comics sword-and-sorcery series starring a Native American hero (fans often jokingly referred to the book as "Conan the Indian"), Arak enjoyed a four-year run in the early 1980s. Tony DeZuniga worked on roughly half the issues in the series, either inking another artist's pencils or contributing both pencils and inks. Here, Tony revisits Arak and his frequent comrade-in-arms, Valda the Iron Maiden, to stunning effect.

Drop back around seven days hence, when we'll review the second stack of WonderCon acquisitions. Until then...

...that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Blackhawk down!

Twelve hours until WonderCon... oh, frabjous day!

(That peculiar noise you hear is me, chortling in my joy.)

While I'm away immersing myself in the West Coast's second-largest annual comics-related event, please enjoy this second of two entries in my Bombshells! theme gallery by longtime Flash and Legion of Super-Heroes artist Greg LaRocque. (You can see Greg's first Bombshell! in last week's Comic Art Friday entry, assuming you didn't already.)

Say hello to Zinda Blake, better known to the world as Lady Blackhawk.

Before I can explain much about Zinda, I have to mention something about Blackhawk, probably the most successful example of the venerable genre of aviator heroes. Blackhawk and his squadron of internationally diverse pilots — American, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, and Chinese — burst onto the scene to dogfight against the Axis Powers in Military Comics #1 (August 1941). They continued the battle long after World War II ended, headlining their own comic until the 1980s.

The lone female Blackhawk (the name applied equally to the squadron's leader, originally a Polish aviator who later was identified as an American of Polish heritage, and its members collectively) first appeared in Military Comics #20 (July 1943). She didn't show up again, much less join the Blackhawk boys permanently — or, for that matter, reveal her name — until 1959's Blackhawk #133. At that point, Zinda adopts the moniker Lady Blackhawk, and so she is primarily known to this day.

As a result of some wacky time-warping folderol that occurred during DC Comics' Zero Hour storyline in 1994, Zinda remains today as fresh, youthful, and pulchritudinous as she did in her original appearances. Nice trick, if you can swing it.

These days, Lady Blackhawk fights crime as a key member of the all-female superhero team Birds of Prey. Zinda, in fact, is the member who gives the group its nom de guerre, doubtless as a nod to her former compatriots in Blackhawk Squadron, whose uniform she still wears.

If you ever need to fly someplace in a jiffy, and you don't feel like hanging around the airport for a commercial connection, Zinda's your gal.

Me, I'm off to WonderCon.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Patriot games

Seven days...

Until WonderCon, that is.

While we're waiting for the Bay Area's biggest annual comics and fantasy genre event to begin, let's check out an entry in my Bombshells! commission series. (For any new arrivals, Bombshells! showcases superheroines from the Golden Age of comics — the late 1930s through the early 1950s — in pinups designed after vintage bomber nose art.)

Meet Pat Patriot. "America's Joan of Arc" — as her hyperbolic tagline read — is drawn here by artist Greg LaRocque, noted for his work on such series as The Flash, Legion of Super-Heroes, and Web of Spider-Man.

Pat Patriot ran for a year or two as a backup feature in Lev Gleason's Daredevil Comics. (That's the original Daredevil, the guy in the half-red, half-blue body suit, not the blind lawyer with the horned cowl and billy club.)

Making her debut in Daredevil #2, aircraft factory worker Pat Patrios (perhaps a Greek-American, judging by the last name) joined the war effort by donning a red-white-and-blue costume, changing the last letter of her surname (clever coincidences like this being the stock in trade of Golden Age comics), and aiming her fists at the jaws of criminals and Nazis.

Although she was never a major star, Pat Patriot was a shining example of one of the era's signature themes: nationalistic superheroes. Everyone knows Captain America even today (although Cap wasn't the first such character — that honor goes to the Shield, who preceded the wing-headed warrior by more than a year), but most of the star-spangled crowd faded permanently from the scene at the end of World War II. So far as I know, Pat Patriot has never undergone a revival since her heyday.

Greg LaRocque's stunning Bombshell! art makes a good argument in Pat's favor, though. That comports with Pat's brief history in the comics. Back-pager though she was, Pat attracted some of the finest artists of the time, including Charles Biro (who's generally credited for creating her), Reed Crandall, and Lin Streeter.

Reed Crandall, incidentally, is most often remembered as the longtime illustrator of the aviator series Blackhawk. We'll take a look at a familiar character from that series next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, February 13, 2009

The devil you say!

Triskaidekaphobes beware...

Today is Friday the 13th.

How better to celebrate this fearsome caprice of the calendar than with a couple of real devils?

The fetching lass wielding the sharp objects is Lady Shanna O'Hara Plunder, known more familiarly as Shanna the She-Devil. The horn-headed gent with the glowing trident is Dan Cassidy, also known by his fighting moniker, Blue Devil. The pencils, inks, and potent imagination on display here are supplied by talented veteran John Lucas.

Since comic books first exploded into American popular culture in the late 1930s, almost every publisher who's had a hand in the business has taken a shot at jungle-based heroes and heroines. The prototype for the men has always been Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs's English lord raised by apes in the African rain forests. For the women, the model is Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, co-created by legendary writer-artist Will (The Spirit) Eisner.

Shanna the She-Devil, Marvel Comics' spin on the Sheena archetype, swung onto the scene in 1972, part of a trio of "feminist" heroines (Night Nurse and The Cat — today known as Tigra — were the other two) designed to appeal to a female audience that typically shunned action comics.

African-born Shanna O'Hara grew up to become a veterinarian and Olympic athlete (she medaled in both aquatics and track and field) in America, but her heart remained in the jungle. As an adult, Shanna returned to her native continent, where she battled poachers and other miscreants.

Eventually, the She-Devil moved to the Savage Land, a mysterious hidden world (in Antarctica, of all places) where dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers, and other prehistoric creatures dwell. There, Shanna married Lord Kevin Plunder, a Tarzanesque hero called Ka-Zar. The leather loincloth-clad duo continue to live and adventure in their secluded tropical wonderland.

A few years ago, writer-artist Frank Cho created an alternate version of Shanna the She-Devil. The new Shanna, a genetically engineered human abandoned by her creators, is unrelated to the original. However, when she is discovered in a Savage Land-like locale by a scientific exploration team, the jungle maiden is dubbed with Lady Plunder's given and code names by one of her rescuers.

Like Shanna, Dan Cassidy never planned to become a superhero. He was perfectly happy with his life as a motion picture stuntman and special effects technician, until a bolt of eldritch energy permanently bonded a high-tech horror movie costume (Dan was portraying a character called — not surprisingly — Blue Devil) to Dan's body.

Unable to return to his natural appearance, Dan decides to employ his outré exterior and his SFX genius in a crusade for justice. As time passes, Dan gains actual demonic powers, which he uses — of course — for good. (It's a paradox, I know, but in the comic book universe, we learn to roll with this sort of thing.)

John Lucas, the artist who created today's devilish scenario, has been contributing steadily to comics since the 1990s. John penciled several series for DC and its affiliated imprints, including Detective Comics, Codename: Knockout, and Howard Chaykin's Forever Maelstrom. Switching his focus to inking, John worked on Marvel's Generation M and Civil War: Front Line, in both instances inking over the pencils of Ramon Bachs. His most recent long-term gig was inking (and occasionally penciling) The Exterminators for DC/Vertigo.

He's also drawn Scooby-Doo. I admire versatility.

"Joltin' Johnny," as Lucas calls himself, admits to being a big fan of both Blue Devil and the Savage Land. Lucky for us that Common Elements gave him the chance to blend his two interests into pulse-pounding art.

Who said that Friday the 13th was unlucky?

Speaking of Common Elements, Shanna "the She-Devil" O'Hara and Dan "Blue Devil" Cassidy share another feature besides the obvious quirk of nomenclature: Both are Americans of Irish descent. I just couldn't wait until St. Patrick's Day to mention that.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, February 06, 2009

Valhalla or bust!

I know, I know... many of our Comic Art Friday regulars on the East Coast are having the time of their lives at New York Comic Con, which begins today and continues through Sunday.

Ah, well... just three weeks until WonderCon.

When last we convened for our weekly peek into my comic art vault, we checked out a delightful entry to my Bombshells! theme gallery by the redoubtable Michael Dooney, of Mirage Studios and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame. Here's the companion to that piece.

Today's Bombshell! is Valkyrie (not to be confused with the Viking-themed Marvel Comics heroine of the same name), the German-born nemesis-turned-ally of the World War II aviator hero Airboy.

Although her buxom image was emblazoned into the fevered brains of modern-day fanboys everywhere via the '80s Airboy covers drawn by the late, great Dave Stevens (best known as the creator of The Rocketeer), Valkyrie began her career in Hillman Comics' Air Fighters in 1943. Originally a Nazi agent, in later adventures Valkyrie switches sides and fights alongside Airboy for the Allied cause.

It was artist Michael Dooney's inspiration to place in Valkyrie's hand the Spear of Destiny, according to legend the implement used by a Roman soldier to pierce the side of Christ during the Crucifixion. Anyone who's seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or its sequels is familiar with the Nazi obsession with mystical artifacts. Dooney's idea to depict Valkyrie with one such object that perfectly suits her character was pure genius.

Mike also scripted the ideal tagline for his creation — Valhalla or Bust! It's at once both a classic nose art caption and a sly nod to Valkyrie's trademark décolletage. When I commission a new Bombshell!, I provide the artist with one or two taglines to select from. I give him liberty, however, to use a caption of his own choosing if he gets a better idea. Mike's tagline blew my suggestions out of the water in genuine Bombshell! style.

On another commission project a few years back, Dooney drew comicdom's other Valkyrie for me. Here's a second look at that fine effort, with finishing flourishes by the King of Ink, Bob Almond:

I'm always intrigued to learn about the techniques of the comic artist's craft. When I asked Mike Dooney about the materials he used in drawing his two Bombshells! commissions, he replied:
I've been using slightly harder lead pencils lately to avoid the constant smudging. I lay things out with colorerase brand blue pencil... erase most of that when everything is working, then do the tight pencils.

In this case, I tried a 2.5 lead (regular pencil is #2, a bit softer). The 2.5 definitely holds the details nicely, it's just not as dark or smudgy.

[For paper, I] used Strathmore bristol, kid (smooth but not slick) finish, I think.
If you're attending New York Comic Con this weekend, you'll find Mike Dooney at the Mirage Studios table in Artists' Alley. He'll have some nifty sketches for sale, so be sure to stop by and check out his work in person. You can tell him I said "hey."

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, January 30, 2009

To the moon, Alice!

Is it Comic Art Friday already? Holy cats, where did the week go?

For that matter, where did January go?

Michael Dooney
has been one of my favorite artists to commission over the past several years. If Mike isn't the penciler whose work is most abundantly represented in my collection, he's got to be in the top three.

I don't know why it took so long for me to commission Mike for one of my trademark Bombshells! pinups, especially given that he's one of the few present-day comic artists who has created real, honest-to-Vargas nose art. Mike's exquisitely crafted vintage-style emblems adorn the aircraft of the 104th Fighter Wing, a.k.a. "The Barnestormers," based in Mike's home town of Westfield, Massachusetts.

So it shouldn't surprise me that when asked to dream up a Bombshell! featuring Moon Girl, one of my favorite forgotten heroines of comics' Golden Age, Mike flat-out rocked it.

Moon Girl holds a unique distinction as the star of the only superhero comic published by EC Comics, a firm infinitely more notorious for its seminal horror, crime, and sci-fi books (plus a little novelty called MAD) than for fantasy action-adventure.

Moon Girl's short-lived series is also unique in comics history for its near-constant title changes. The masthead morphed from Moon Girl and the Prince to just plain Moon Girl (the Prince having been kicked to the curb after a single appearance) to the sensationalistic Moon Girl Fights Crime and finally to A Moon, A Girl... Romance (at which point Moon Girl herself was dumped in favor of soap-operatic melodrama) in the span of just nine issues.

Like most artists, Michael Dooney relishes the opportunity to draw characters beyond the familiar favorites he's most often called upon to depict. When I tossed Moon Girl his way, Mike was ecstatic — not only had he never drawn the mysterious lunar lass (she never did have an identity other than Moon Girl) before, he'd never heard of her until I commissioned this drawing.

Within mere hours of receiving the assignment, Mike had dashed off a couple of rough sketches to show me what he had in mind.

From these spartan beginnings evolved the magnificently realized artwork seen above.

Although Dooney's creation marks Moon Girl's Bombshells! debut, it's her second appearance in my theme galleries. The sublimely talented James E. Lyle teamed the Selenian siren with Marvel's Moon Knight in this Common Elements tableau.

If you like today's feature debut — and how could you not? — you're in luck. I'll have another Dooney Bombshell! to show you next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Did you ever know that you're my Hero?

The artwork featured in today's Comic Art Friday is, at 2.5 by 3.5 inches, far and away the smallest piece in my collection. It's special, however, for reasons that go beyond its size... or even its content.

It's a drawing of Medusa, the prehensile-haired member of that mysterious family of superpowered beings known as the Inhumans. Medusa has also, at various times in her career, fought alongside the Fantastic Four, even joining as a temporary member when Susan Richards, the Invisible Woman, took a leave of absence.

Medusa appears here courtesy of industry veteran Bob Wiacek, who has done the majority of his considerable comics work as an inker. Bob's inks have graced dozens of titles since the mid-1970s, most recently DC's The Brave and the Bold over the pencils of the legendary George Pérez.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. What's so special about a head sketch of Medusa by Bob Wiacek?

The logo at bottom right answers this question.

I received this sketch card when I became a member of The Hero Initiative, to which I'll refer henceforth as Hero, for the sake of brevity. Hero is a federally chartered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation established by several comics publishers to aid comic book creators who find themselves in financial hardship. Hero provides veteran comics writers and artists — who generally worked freelance for microscopic wages during much of the industry's history — with funds for emergency medical care and basic necessities to get them through difficult times.

Hero began in 2001 as ACTOR (A Commitment to Our Roots). A couple of years ago, the organization adopted its current name, to avoid confusion with charities benefiting members of the acting profession. Hero's leadership includes a panel of prominent industry insiders, including such noted artists and writers as Dick Giordano, Roy Thomas, Dennis O'Neil, John Romita Sr., and the aforementioned George Pérez.

As part of its fundraising efforts, Hero recently began offering annual memberships. One randomly selected sketch card, each created especially for Hero by an assortment of talented artists, is included in the membership packet. My Bob Wiacek Medusa card arrived in the mail just a few days after I signed up.

In a magnificent gesture of partnership, Comic Art Fans — the site where I maintain my online art gallery — is offering its subscribers a $10 discount on their annual fee if they purchase a Hero membership. You'll notice a Hero Initiative logo marking the galleries of those Comic Art Fans denizens who also are Hero members. Including yours truly.

Like many longtime comics fans, I harbor a deep appreciation for the gifted folks whose creative talents have been an essential element of my life for more than 40 years. I've supported Hero for the past few years by dropping a few dollars in the collection can at the Hero Initiative booth at WonderCon every February. I'm pleased and honored to have yet another way to give something back to the artists and writers who've provided me with so much entertainment.

I know times are tough for everyone at the moment. They're especially tough for some of the older comics creators whose careers provided little opportunity for significant savings, or such essentials as health insurance. If you're a fan of comics, and you can spare as little as $29, you too can become a member of Hero, and do your part to help. If you can't afford a membership, you can donate any amount that fits your wallet at the Hero Initiative site.

Like the Hero tagline says, everyone deserves a Golden Age.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

She ran calling Wildfire

I enjoy many things about my Bombshells! commissions, not the least of which is the kick that the artists seem to get from drawing bomber nose art homages featuring Golden Age superheroines. At the top of the list for me, though, is the chance to celebrate these classic, often forgotten characters from comics' formative years.

Take, for example, Wildfire, drawn here in all her Bombshellosity (it's a word; look it up) by Scott Rosema (Space Ghost; Solar, Man of the Atom). You can click the image to get a better view.

Something of a female Human Torch, Wildfire made her first appearance in 1941, in Quality Comics' Smash Comics #25. She was created by writer Robert Turner and artist Jim Mooney, the latter of whom reportedly modeled her appearance after his first wife. Wildfire enjoyed a twelve-issue run in Smash before fading from the scene.

Many of Quality Comics' superheroes have resurfaced in recent decades in the pages of various DC Comics titles, inasmuch as DC purchased the publishing rights to Quality's oeuvre when Quality closed up shop in the 1950s. At least one member of the old Quality gang — namely, Plastic Man — evolved into a mid-level star at DC. The others, for the most part, have been used to crew DC's retro-themed super-teams, the Freedom Fighters and All-Star Squadron.

Except for Wildfire.

You see, at the time when writer Roy Thomas first resurrected the Quality heroes in the 1970s, DC already had a character called Wildfire — a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes whose original code name was ERG-1. So instead, Thomas created a female version of the Golden Age hero Firebrand (who had little in common with Wildfire, beyond their somewhat similar noms de guerre) and gave her Wildfire's powers. So far as I'm aware, the first Wildfire remains banished to comics oblivion.

Until today, that is.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, January 09, 2009

The Bair Witch project

Every now and again, I'm approached by another comic art collector who wants to trade for an artwork that I own. I decline most of these offers for two reasons.

First, I treasure the art in my collection — after all, that's why I've collected it — and am not especially interested in parting with most of it.

Second, most of the trades I'm offered amount to what I like to call "sports talk trades" — that is, trades like those often proposed by callers to sports talk radio: "I think the Giants should trade two broken-down minor leaguers and a fungo bat to the Yankees for Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter."

This is the story of a good trade.

Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a fellow collector whom I'm call Robert. (Mostly because that's his name.) Robert had been browsing my online gallery, checking out a handful of pieces I had listed for sale. Robert also attached a scan of the piece you see above, a striking drawing of one of my favorite heroines — Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch — drawn in ink by the talented Michael Bair.

Robert asked whether I might be interested in acquiring his Bair Witch. Being, as are many of us these days, short on funds, I asked Robert whether he might entertain a trade. He was amenable, so I gave him a list of "untouchable" items in my gallery and asked him to select fair value from the rest. After a series of cordial exchanges about various combinations of artworks, I accepted Robert's final offer, and we made our deal.

We each shipped our portion of the bargain the following day. Both packages arrived safely ("there's no reason to be nervous; you can trust the Postal Service"), and we were each pleased with the art we received. Robert got three small pieces by a favorite artist who is well represented in my collection, plus another, larger item by an up-and-coming artist.

I got the Bair Witch.

Why was this a good trade? For several reasons:
  1. Both parties understood the value of the items involved. I've bought a couple of pieces of Michael Bair's work, and have bid unsuccessfully on several others, so I know what price his work commands on the open market. I appreciated the fact that I was going to have to put together a package of items to equal the value of Robert's Scarlet Witch. At the same time, all of Robert's proposals met the standard of fair value — he didn't attempt to hold me up just because I expressed interest.

  2. Both parties were flexible. In the end, I gave up one piece that had originally been on my "untouchable" list, and another piece that I was willing to include, but would gladly have kept. For his part, Robert respected my limits, and never pushed to get something that I said that I definitely didn't want to trade. We both sacrificed a little, but at a level that allowed us both to be happy with the end result.

  3. The conversation remained cordial and professional at every juncture. More than once, I've ended a negotiation when the other party became (in my opinion, which in this circumstance is the only one that matters) unpleasant to deal with. Hey, it's my art — I've worked hard for the money that paid for it. I'm not going to watch it go to someone who's nasty to me.
Thanks to Robert for an excellent trade. Thanks also to the great Bair for lending his creative genius to the piece that started the ball rolling.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Jewels are a girl's best friend

It's the first Comic Art Friday of 2009, and this one's for the ladies.

This eye-catching installment in my Common Elements commission series features a pair of largely unsung heroines. In the foreground is Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld, who starred in her own eponymous series from DC Comics in the 1980s. In the background is Jessica Jones, protagonist of two recent Marvel Comics series, Alias and The Pulse, in her guise as the superheroine Jewel. The artist is Mitch Foust, whose work has appeared numerous times on Comic Art Friday over the years, but who makes his Common Elements debut with this lovely drawing.

As comics historian Don Markstein observes, Amethyst was a terrific character who suffered from a criminal lack of editorial confidence. In her original series, published in 1983, Amethyst offered a near-perfect appeal to an audience of preteen and teenage girls. She lived in a magical fantasy world; she transformed from a plucky if nondescript preadolescent named Amy into a beautiful and powerful young adult princess; she earned the love of a handsome prince without being subservient to him; she traveled about on a flying unicorn.

As written by Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn and drawn by Ernie Colón, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld was a fun, exciting story that, while intended for girls, made great entertainment for readers of both genders and all ages. It marked one of the horrifyingly few attempts by the major, mainstream American comics publishers to provide well-crafted heroic fantasy for the young female market. (Archie Comics' current Sabrina the Teenage Witch series, written and drawn by the brilliant Tania del Rio, is another fine example.)

And then, DC editorial decided that Amethyst needed to be a superhero. Or maybe a supervillain.

Things got ugly and depressing after that.

I continue to hope against realistic hope that DC will someday reprint the original Amethyst series in trade paperback, in a format that would appeal to the girls who today read shojo manga, or shojo-influenced American fare like Sabrina. They'd have a hit on their hands.

Like Amethyst, Jessica Jones isn't really a superhero in the conventional sense, despite the fact that she appears here in her short-lived Jewel super-identity. In most of her adventures, Jessica leads the life of a relatively normal human — she's a private detective in Alias, and a journalist in The Pulse — who maintains an intimate connection to the superheroic world through her relationships with her lover, and later husband, Luke Cage (the Avenger formerly known as Power Man) and other superheroes and villains.

Jessica still possesses her Jewel superpowers — notably super-strength, limited invulnerability, and flight — but she no longer uses a dual identity or wears a costume. Although her marriage and friendships keep her involved in the major events of the Marvel Universe, including the recent Civil War and Secret Invasion, Jessica's first concern these days is being a mother to Danielle, her and Luke's baby daughter.

The two series in which Jessica played the lead role are well worth searching out. As with Amethyst, Alias and The Pulse represent rare opportunities to see a positive woman character as the focus of a mainstream, female-targeted American comic.

I wish those opportunities were not so rare. But I'm only one guy.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, December 26, 2008

The Best of Comic Art Friday 2008, Volume 2

Last week on Comic Art Friday, we took a fond look back at my favorite commissions from the year now concluding.

For me, the highlight of 2008's art collecting season came in the form of my newest theme gallery. Bombshells!, a loving tribute to my Air Force childhood (during which my affection for comics flowered), features superheroines from the Golden Age of comics (the late 1930s through the early 1950s) posing in pinups styled after World War II-era bomber nose art.

From the day of its debut in late May, Bombshells! proved itself one of the most popular sections in my online gallery, with the posted items garnering more than 9,600 individual page views.

Bombshells! affords me a unique opportunity to salute some of my favorite classic heroines, such as Mary Marvel (pencil art by Jeffrey Moy)...

...enduring second-tier characters, such as Liberty Belle (pencils by Daniel B. Veesenmeyer, inks by Bob Almond)...

...nearly forgotten former stars, such as Miss Masque (pencil art by Anthony Carpenter)...

...and utter obscurities that only the most fanatical comics history buffs have heard of, such as the Purple Tigress (pencils and inks by Terry Beatty).

Look for more new Bombshells! coming in 2009.

And now — drumroll, please, Maestro — my Comic Art Friday Artist of the Year for 2008.

[wrestling with recalcitrant seal on envelope]

And the winner is...

Gene Gonzales, the Florida-based pro whose clean lines and fresh, vibrant characters added boundless excitement and beauty to my collection this year.

Gene contributed three magnificent pinups to my Bombshells! theme:

Kitten, Cat-Man's youthful assistant...

Yankee Girl, a one-shot patriotic powerhouse...

...and this absolutely splendid rendition of Sun Girl.

Not content with these fine creations, Gene also swung for the fences with this addition to my Common Elements theme, starring Shadowcat and Phantom Girl.

And in case you thought he'd exhausted his wellspring of artistic genius, Gene also drew this sweet rendition of Supergirl, wearing her classic costume from the swinging '70s.

Thanks, Gene! And thanks to every one of the artists whose work entered my collection this year. You all honor me with your amazing talents.

And that's your Comic Art Friday for 2008.


Friday, December 19, 2008

Comic Art Friday: The Best of 2008

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the grande dame of the Star Trek universe, who passed away yesterday at the age of 76.

The widow of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Majel had a recurring role in the original 1960s series as Nurse Christine Chapel, whose most distinctive characteristic was her unrequited love for Mr. Spock. Majel also appeared as Lwaxana Troi, Deanna Troi's meddlesome mother, in Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Off camera, the actress provided the voice of the Enterprise's computer system in both the original series and ST:TNG, as well as that of the feline Lt. M'Ress in Star Trek: The Animated Series.

A beloved fixture for years on the convention circuit, Majel will be missed by Trek's legions of fans.

In addition to it being Comic Art Friday, today is my 47th birthday. So I'm going to do whatever I darn well please. (I know, I know... I do that every Friday. Old habits die hard.)

What pleases me is getting an early start on our traditional look back at the year's best acquisitions. This way, we can spread the retrospective goodness over two consecutive Comic Art Fridays, and bask in the reflected glow of my favorite new pieces of 2008 for a week longer.

In the words of the late Heath Ledger: And here... we... go!

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroes Division:
"Force of Gravity" — pencils by Sal Velluto, inks by Bob Almond
Captain Gravity and Gravity

Sal and Bob, the longtime artistic team on Marvel's Black Panther, created two incredible additions to my Common Elements theme gallery in 2008. I loved the whimsy of Sal's design in this one, which featured another character from the Sal and Bob catalog — Penny-Farthing's Captain Gravity.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroines Division:
"Val to the Third Power" — pencils by Val Semeiks
Valkyrie (from Airboy) and Valkyrie (from The Defenders)

Val Semeiks's impeccable storytelling slams a home run with this concept, which was tailor-made (well, it would be, if I were a tailor) for him. Beautifully designed, and deftly drawn.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Celestial Domes" — pencils by Steve Carr, inks by Joe Rubinstein
Moondragon and the Martian Manhunter

As was the case last year, I had a tough time deciding this category. Thus, for the second year in a row, I split the difference to honor two outstanding artworks. The early leader here was this dazzling scenario imagined by Steve Carr, then splendidly finished by Joe Rubinstein.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Identity Theft" — pencils and inks by Mike Vosburg
Starfire and Steel

And then came this stellar entry from Bronze Age veteran Mike Vosburg. Mike pairs his creation Starfire with her fellow overlooked DC non-star, Steel. Mike still draws with the same muscular energy that made those '70s comics so much fun.

Favorite Storm:
Aaron Lopresti (pencils and inks)

Wonder Woman artist Lopresti rocked this image of the lightning-commanding X-Man at WonderCon back in February. Aaron really hustled to complete this one before the end of the day on Saturday.

Favorite Supergirl:
Matthew Clark (pencils)

Matthew is one of the most underappreciated talents in the comics industry. His name doesn't often surface when fans call out their current favorites. But man, oh man, can this guy sling a pencil.

Favorite Mary Marvel:
David Williams (mixed media)

David is perhaps best known for drawing "kids' comics" for the all-ages Marvel Adventures line. His work brims with boundless joy, clever design, and a sly sense of humor. All three qualities sparkle in this WonderCon commission.

Favorite Wonder Woman:
Daniel B. Veesenmeyer (pencils)

"DVeese" helped inaugurate my new Bombshells! theme gallery (about which, more next Friday) this year with several nicely rendered pieces. Here, he recalls the original appearance of the Amazing Amazon in classic nose art style.

Favorite Beauties With Blades:
Phil Noto (pencils and inks)

Alex Niño (pencils and inks)

Two more stunning components of a truly memorable WonderCon haul.

Next Friday, we'll review the best of Bombshells!, and announce our 2008 Artist of the Year.

If you want to send me a piece or two of original comic art for my birthday, I'll gladly accept it, even if it arrives later. Or you could drive over, hand me the art in person, and then take me out to birthday lunch. I promise not to order the lobster.

(No, I don't.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Now get off my lawn.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Just another brick in the wall

I can't recall whether I've mentioned this previously, so... stop me if you've heard this before.

A while back, artist Bob Almond asked me to serve as one of the moderators at the Inkwell Awards forum. The Inkwell Awards, as faithful Comic Art Friday perusers know, were instituted earlier this year as an annual acknowledgment of inkers, those often unsung heroes of the comics industry.

An e-mail from Bob the other day reminded me that it's been a while since we did one of our before-and-after reviews of one of Bob's inking commissions. So, let's get to it.

Here's a pencil drawing we've seen before. It's Spider-Woman — to be precise, it's Jessica Drew, the first and most familiar of Marvel's trio of heroines known by that appellation — as rendered by pinup specialist Mitch Foust.

Lovely work, as Mitch's art always is. Lovely enough, in fact, that I knew that my friend Bob Almond could transform it into something truly spectacular.

And indeed, Bob did.

When I sent Mitch's pencil art to Bob, I asked him to simulate a brick wall within the blank geometric space Mitch included in the background. I had in mind the iconic cover of Spider-Woman #1, in which our heroine is caught in the beam of a searchlight against a building wall. (It's a concrete block wall in the original cover, not brick, but I thought the bricks would look hip, slick, and cool.) I had envisioned Bob either drawing in a brick pattern freehand, or replicating such a pattern from an existing drawing.

I was surprised when Bob returned the art that he had done neither of these. Indeed, I couldn't figure out exactly how he had created the brick effect. I could see that the brickwork wasn't hand-drawn — it's too smooth and regular for that to be true. Beyond that, though, I was clueless about the technique.

Thus, I did the logical thing, and asked Bob, "How'd you do that?" His reply:
I took a zip screen [Zip-a-tone is a printed film comic artists use for special effects work; it was much more commonly used in the age before Photoshop] that had that pattern, but smaller. I then scanned it and enlarged it and lightened it. I printed it up on a clear adhesive sheet and applied it, cutting out the excess parts. There was some minor lifting of the art in places from the adhesive, but I made sure to go back and redo sections.
They're clever people, those inkers. Someone should give them awards.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Monday, December 08, 2008

I'm a Funny Book Fanatic!

But then, you knew that. Especially if you drop around here on the sixth day of every week, when we celebrate Comic Art Fridays.

Today, however, we here at SSTOL are honored — and more than a mite humbled — to be recognized as Funny Book Fanatic's Blog of the Week.

Surprised, too, given that we deal with a diversity of pop culture whiz-bang here, and focus on comics and our lifelong affection for them only on Fridays. We're tickled by the notoriety, nonetheless.

Funny Book Fanatic was launched recently by comics industry veteran Dave Olbrich, who was founder and publisher of the late, much-lamented Malibu Comics for nearly a decade in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Dave was also one of the leading lights behind the development of the Eisner Awards, the comic book industry's annual equivalent to the Oscars. Therefore, the fact that our little effort here even landed on Dave's radar is wicked cool.

Then again, I love comics, and I attended college in Malibu. So I guess all of this serendipity makes some kind of cosmic sense.

In his blog post, Dave makes particular mention of our "Common Elements" commission series, with which Comic Art Friday regulars are familiar. It's only fitting that we flash back to this Common Elements creation by Darick Robertson, which features one of Malibu Comics' biggest stars, The Night Man, in pitched battle with Marvel's Night Thrasher. (Darick co-created The Night Man, and drew an extended run of New Warriors, starring Night Thrasher, back in the early '90s.)

Thanks to Dave Olbrich for the publicity and the ego-boo. Please be so kind as to check out Dave's Funny Book Fanatic, and dig the wealth of comics insider lore that's to be enjoyed there.

If you, too, are a funny book fanatic, it's a must-read.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Precept upon precept, line upon line

Comic art is a marvelously collaborative creative endeavor. In a published comic book, every page reflects the work of as many as four artists: the penciler, the inker, the letterer, and (assuming the book is published in color) the colorist.

Occasionally, one individual handles more than one of these tasks — this is more common in independent comics than in books published by one of the larger concerns — but whether by one hand or many, each job contributes to the finished art.

Let's use a piece from my Common Elements gallery to illustrate how the pencil, ink, and color artists all add their unique talents to a single artwork.

Comic Art Friday regulars have seen these pencils before. This is Dave Hoover, known for his work on such series as DC's Starman and Marvel's Captain America, with a beautiful rendering of a pair of psi-powered heroines: the X-Men's Phoenix, and Looker from Batman's Outsiders.

After Dave created the original pencils, the page traveled to the drawing table of Bob Almond, one of my favorite inkers to commission. (Bob's published work has appeared most recently in Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm Street series and Marvel's Annihilation: Conquest - Quasar.) The completed page art looks like this, after the Almond touch.

Ah, but we're not done yet. Colorist Blake Wilkie, who like both Dave Hoover and Bob Almond is represented by Bob Shaw's Serendipity Art Sales, applies the magic of digital color to produce an image that would look spectacular on the cover of Common Elements Comics. (Hey, now...!)

Here at last, we can see another common element that our fetching heroines share — they're both redheads.

About 27 centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.
As appropriate as his words are, I doubt that Isaiah knew anything about the process of creating comic art. But you never know. Inspiration is a marvelous, mysterious thing.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, November 28, 2008

Same girl, different universe

Parallel universes are among fantasy fiction's oldest tropes. From Murray Leinster's classic 1933 story "Sidewise in Time" to the original series Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror," from David Gerrold's time-warping novel The Man Who Folded Himself to such films as Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run, popular culture is fascinated by the concept of alternative realities existing side by side with each other, or spinning out of random circumstances that evolve in slightly different ways.

Comics have proven fertile ground for parallel universe stories. Indeed, one could categorize almost every comic book tale as an exercise in alternative reality, in the sense that the comic book world is often like our own, but different in a few key elements (i.e., the existence of superpowered humanoids who wear colorful costumes).

Both of the major comics publishers have made parallel universes central to their stock in trade. Marvel has supplemented its mainstream Marvel Universe (sometimes referred to as the Earth-616 Universe) with several alternate realities, most notably the parallel worlds in which the company's Ultimate, Marvel Adventures, and A-Next (including The Amazing Spider-Girl) series take place. DC went hog-wild with its Multiverse concept during the 1960s and '70s, "buried" the theme with the landmark 1980s series Crisis on Infinite Earths, and resurrected it anew a couple of years ago in the weekly comic 52.

Today, the Comic Art Friday spotlight shines on an artwork that beautifully illustrates the parallel universe concept. Michael Dooney, best known for his work on various Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles projects, lends his pencil to this whimsical pairing of Supergirl and her opposite number, Power Girl.

The casual comics reader might not, at first glance, recognize any connection between these two heroines. Aside from the fact that both are attractive blondes, they appear markedly different. Supergirl is most often depicted as youthful — her current incarnation is a high school-age teen — of average height and build (slightly on the diminutive side, even); with long hair and a sunny, coltish personality. Power Girl is generally older — late twenties at least, or thirtyish — is tall and muscular, sports shorter hair, and presents a brusque, militaristic demeanor.

And, of course, there's the infamous Power Girl bustline, which began as artist Wallace Wood's personal in-joke: "I'll keep drawing them bigger until someone tells me to stop." Supergirl, depending on the creative team of the moment, usually possesses more modest endowments.

All of these differences aside, the truth is that Supergirl and Power Girl are alternate versions of one another. Prior to DC's destruction of its Multiverse, Power Girl represented to Earth-Two (the home of the World War II-era heroes known as the Justice Society of America) what Supergirl is to Earth-One (the "mainstream" DC universe, in which the modern-day incarnations of its archetypal heroes reside). Each was the female Kryptonian-born cousin of her respective universe's Superman, with the repertoire of super-abilities pertaining thereto.

It's never been clear to me exactly why the Earth-One Kara Zor-El (Supergirl's Kryptonian name) is an average-sized adolescent, while her alternate self (whose real name is Kara Zor-L — note the slight adjustment in spelling) is an Amazon-like woman a decade or so older. I'm sure it's been explained somewhere along the line, but I must have missed that issue. I don't feel badly about that, though. Over the decades, even the DC editorial staff hasn't always seemed certain of exactly who or what either Supergirl or Power Girl is supposed to be, in terms of history and heritage.

One thing, however, is certain...

...Michael Dooney draws them both very nicely.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Elementary, my dear

As great as my love for comics is, my fondness for mystery fiction — more specifically, detective novels — is a close runner-up.

My boyhood reading experiences encompassed the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew (that's right — I read Nancy Drew books, and I'm man enough to admit it), Encyclopedia Brown, and Robert Arthur's Three Investigators. I soon graduated to more mature works: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Donald E. Westlake (and his various pseudonyms), Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, and my youthful writing guru, Isaac Asimov. (Most people remember Asimov as a science fiction giant, but I admired his mystery stories even more, especially his series about the men's dining club known as the Black Widowers.)

Today, I eagerly devour every new work by my contemporary faves in the mystery field: Robert B. Parker, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Karen Kijewski, and Steve Hamilton.

Mysteries, for whatever reason, have rarely caught on in a big way with comic book readers — ironic, really, given that one of the world's largest comics publishers derives its name from the title Detective Comics. There have been some excellent mystery comics over the years, from Will Eisner's genre-spanning The Spirit (currently being revived by writers Sergio Aragonés and Mark Evanier) to Mike W. Barr's clever, Ellery Queen-esque Maze Agency. Most pure mystery titles, however, have remained cult hits at best... if they could be called "hits" at all.

Today's featured artwork from my Common Elements gallery salutes two of comics' finest detectives. Sporting the trenchcoat and pistol is hard-boiled private eye Ms. Tree; her malleable companion is Ralph Dibny, better known as the Elongated Man. Terry Beatty, who co-created Ms. Tree with popular mystery scribe Max Allan Collins of Road to Perdition fame, does the artistic honors.

Aside from her status as perhaps comics' grittiest P.I., Ms. Tree (you get that joke, yes?) holds the distinction of being one of the medium's most complex female leads. Widowed in her debut tale, Ms. Tree spends many of her subsequent adventures ferreting out — and gunning down — members of the mob that executed her husband. During the course of her career, Ms. Tree (whose first name, interestingly enough, is the same as my own) juggles a pregnancy, incarceration, a stay in a mental hospital, and a slew of weighty sociopolitical issues. Her history in print is equally convoluted, with four different companies having published her stories throughout the 1980s and '90s.

The Elongated Man appeared during the 1960s and '70s in the back pages of the aforementioned Detective Comics. (The main stories featured some guy who dressed like a bat.) Whimsical Ralph and his more level-headed wife Sue — who didn't have superpowers — solved mysteries together, like Nick and Nora Charles in the classic Thin Man films. (Ralph's code name is a play on "Thin Man" — another commonality he shares with Ms. Tree.) The Elongated Man mysteries were often "fair play," meaning that the reader could solve them from the clues in the story. Stretchable Ralph (his abilities derived from a soft drink called Gingold) was also a longtime member of the Justice League of America. DC Comics, in one of its typically boneheaded moves of late, recently killed off both Ralph and Sue. Now they occasionally appear together as "ghost detectives."

Terry Beatty's Common Elements entry has a backstory as colorful as that of its two protagonists. Terry created a previous version of this artwork that he subsequently posted on his blog. After looking at the image, however, he decided that he wasn't satisfied with how it had turned out — specifically, he saw some issues with the Ms. Tree figure he had drawn. So, rather than shipping the art to me, he started over from scratch and completely redrew the piece.

I've seen a scan of Terry's original work, and I would have been just as pleased with that iteration as I am with the final version. But I thought it commendable that he refused to release the commission until it met his professional standards. While I'm sure that Terry would defer the acknowledgment, that kind of dedication deserves notice.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Mary makes me Marvel

Given that Veterans Day was earlier this week, this might be an appropriate Comic Art Friday on which to check out one of my popular Bombshells! pinup commissions.

Then again, is there really an inappropriate time to check out some Bombshells! art?

I think not.

That, of course, is Mary Marvel, the World's Mightiest Maiden, who's riding that surprise package for the Axis. (Clicking on the image will take you to my Comic Art Fans gallery for a closer look.) Artist Jeffrey Moy, who illustrated an acclaimed five-year run on DC Comics' Legion of Super-Heroes, designed and drew Mary's show-stopping Bombshells! entry.

I've written at length about my Mary Marvel fixation on previous Comic Art Fridays, but there's an aspect of Mary's supremacy that I don't believe I've touched on before. Mary Marvel represents, from my perspective, the perfect realization of the Captain Marvel archetype — in a nutshell, a kid who turns into a superhero by uttering a magic word.

Captain Marvel never really worked for me, as he did for the millions of comic book readers in the 1940s who made the Big Red Cheese the most popular costumed hero of the day, outselling even Superman. While the concept of Captain Marvel is brilliant — doesn't every kid want to be a superhero? — the actualization leaves something to be desired.

When Billy Batson says "SHAZAM!" he doesn't become a superhero — he gets replaced by one. Billy vanishes and Captain Marvel, the immortal champion, appears where Billy had been. Yes, I'm aware that in current DC continuity, Billy and Marvel are the same person. But that wasn't how it played when I was reading DC's Shazam! in the early '70s. In those stories, Billy and the Captain were clearly two discrete beings. (When Marvel Comics developed their own character named Captain Marvel during this same timeframe, the same paradigm existed — when Mar-Vell was in the "real" universe, his teenage counterpart Rick Jones was banished to the Negative Zone, and vice versa.)

What fun is that for a kid? Some chubby middle-aged guy in long underwear gets the superpowers and all the adventures, while you're off cooling your heels God only knows where? That's a nightmare, not a fantasy.

Captain Marvel Jr. was equally inexplicable. Physically handicapped newsboy Freddy Freeman (he was "crippled" back before we got all politically correct up in here) speaks the name "Captain Marvel," and he becomes a superhuman version of himself. Riddle me this, Shazam: Why on earth would Freddy ever change back into his crutch-dependent everyday self? And yet he did, at the end of every Captain Marvel Jr. story. Methinks poor Freddy might have been handicapped in more ways than one.

Mary Marvel got it right — she was a smart, resourceful teenager who could power up into a smart, resourceful young woman who was actually herself, not a completely different adult. Now that's how you roll, Mary. You go, girl!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, November 07, 2008


Back in the 1980s, when the San Francisco 49ers were the baddest football team on the planet, the team's offense was led by a former third-round draft pick from Notre Dame named Joe Montana.

Every team in the NFL passed on Montana at least once — some, two or three times — because he didn't look like much. He was short (the 49ers' roster always listed him as six feet even, but I can call dozens of eyewitnesses to the stand who've seen Montana up close and personal, and who would testify that he's a couple of inches shy of that mark), boyish-looking, scrawny as a meth addict (spare me the e-mails, people; that's a simile, not an accusation), and didn't possess the kind of catapult arm that football scouts salivate over.

In 1979 the 49ers, a team that had just finished a 2-14 season and was about to start another, selected Montana. The rest, if you know your football, is the stuff of legend.

What made the unlikely-appearing Montana so awesome?

The late Bill Walsh, who coached those Niners of the '80s to multiple Super Bowl victories, might use the word "intangibles."

Today's Comic Art Friday featured artwork, drawn by the talented Gene Gonzales, has absolutely nothing to do with football. It is, however, all about intangibles.

The smiling young superheroine at upper left bears the code name Shadowcat, though she is more familiarly known to comics aficionados by her given name, Katherine "Kitty" Pryde. Her ponytailed companion at bottom right is Tinya Wazzo, whose comrades in the Legion of Super-Heroes call her Phantom Girl. Given that this is another of my Common Elements commissions, I'll wager that you've already figured out the commonality between Kitty and Tinya — they share the power of intangibility.

If you've seen any of the X-Men movie trilogy, you know Kitty as "the girl who can walk through walls" who appears in each of the three films. She's played by a different actress each time — Sumela Kay in X-Men; Katie Stuart in X2; and 2008 Academy Award nominee Ellen Page (Juno) in X-Men: The Last Stand. Although she's a perpetual adolescent in both comics and films (she actually begins the movie franchise as a preteen), Kitty has been a key component of Marvel's X-Men books for nearly three decades, having debuted in Uncanny X-Men #129 in 1980.

Phantom Girl's history extends back even farther. Although she wasn't one of the three charter members of the Legion (for the record: Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Lad), Tinya joined the far-future super-teen supergroup early on. She made her premiere appearance in Action Comics #276 (May 1961), soon becoming the Legion's fifth inductee — Triplicate Girl managed to sneak in just ahead of her. Like most of her fellow Legionnaires, Phantom Girl changed her costume on several occasions during her long career. The one shown here — my favorite of Tinya's styles — originated during artist Dave Cockrum's sartorial makeover of the entire team in the early '70s.

At the end of a week when we all watched the intangible become concrete, this joyful match-up of two ephemeral yet genuine heroines seemed like the perfect coda.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, October 31, 2008

Chasing shadows

It's All Hallows' Eve here at SSTOL, and what could be more fitting for a Hallowe'en Comic Art Friday than a Common Elements creation spotlighting the answer to the question...

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?"

That's The Shadow, of course — radio drama legend, pulp fiction kingpin, cinematic star, and yes, comic book hero. The mystery man's fetching accomplice is Tasmia Mallor, better known as Shadow Lass of the Legion of Super-Heroes. This umbral duo is brought together in the tableau above by artist Kim DeMulder. Although he's a gifted penciler, Kim is most familiar to longtime comics aficionados as an inker, on such series as Marvel's The Defenders (over Don Perlin) and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (over Paul Neary), and a five-year run on DC's Swamp Thing (over Phil Hester).

The Shadow first appeared in 1930, as the host of a radio program called Detective Story Hour. The character became such a hit that Street & Smith, the media conglomerate that produced the show, spun The Shadow off into a pulp adventure magazine the following year. Writer Walter B. Gibson, toiling under the house pseudonym Maxwell Grant, developed The Shadow into an intriguing blend of masquerading magician and gunslinging vigilante.

Despite the fact that the same company produced both the radio series and the pulp magazine, the print and broadcast versions of The Shadow diverged from one another in numerous respects.

In the pulps, The Shadow was an Allied spy and flying ace named Kent Allard who, after the First World War, staged his demise in order to battle crime as the faceless Shadow. The pulp Shadow had no superhuman powers, but carried out his crusade using practical skills gleaned from his former career as an espionage agent — in particular, mastery of disguise — plus a network of operatives who did his legwork and gathered intelligence.

On radio, however, where The Shadow gained a promotion from host/narrator to solo star in 1937, the hero manifested a variety of bizarre talents gained while traveling in the Far East — most notably the ability to "cloud men's minds so they cannot see him." Also, the radio Shadow's true identity was wealthy socialite Lamont Cranston (first voiced by a youthful Orson Welles), who in the pulps was an altogether discrete individual who merely allowed The Shadow to impersonate him when the situation called for it. (The pulp Shadow assumed dozens of false identities, of whom Cranston was but one.) The producers thought that the Kent Allard back-story, with its multiple personae and legion of covert assistants, would be too complex to translate to radio. Thus, the more straightforward "rich playboy / secret crimefighter" trope was used instead.

In the comics, The Shadow has enjoyed an interesting history. He starred in his own Street & Smith-published comic throughout the 1940s. DC later revived the character several times: in the 1970s, with scripts by Dennis O'Neil and art by the phenomenal Mike Kaluta; in the '80s, with an eclectic band of creators that included Howard Chaykin, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Kyle Baker; and in the '90s, in a series written by Gerard Jones and drawn by such artists as Eduardo Barreto and Rod Whigham.

As for Shadow Lass — no relation, so far as I'm aware — blue-skinned Tasmia (or "Shady" as she's often called by her fellow Legionnaires) arrived on the scene in Adventure Comics #365 (February 1968). (She informally debuted several issues earlier in a "flash-forward" sequence, in which she was depicted in an alternate future as the already-deceased "Shadow Woman." In that story, Tasmia was shown as having a typical Caucasian skin tone.) Her powers enable her to create and control darkness... a nifty talent to have on Hallowe'en, I would think.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Try not to engorge yourself on too many sugary treats, or play too many devious tricks. Because, if you do...

The Shadow knows!


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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Happy Wonder Woman Day!

What? You didn't know that today was Wonder Woman Day?

Then permit me to enlighten you, friend reader.

Three years ago, writer and pop culture maven Andy Mangels hit upon the brilliant idea of using Wonder Woman — one of American womanhood's recognizable icons — as the avatar for a campaign to raise public awareness about domestic violence. As a result of Andy's inspiration, the last Sunday in October became Wonder Woman Day.

In partnership with Raphael House, a women's shelter in Portland, Oregon, Andy took the message of Wonder Woman Day to the Internet in general, and to the comic art community in particular. Each October, dozens of talented artists donate original artworks featuring Wonder Woman, which Andy auctions off to help support Raphael House, an associated shelter called Bradley-Angle House, and the Portland Women's Crisis Line.

Noted artist Adam Hughes, who drew several years' worth of Wonder Woman covers for DC Comics, and Gail Simone and Aaron Lopresti, the current writer and penciler, respectively, of the Wonder Woman monthly series, will be appearing in person at today's Wonder Woman Day festivities in Portland. An additional event and auction will take place across the continent in Flemington, New Jersey, to benefit Safe in Hunterdon.

In last year's auction, I placed the winning bid on the beautiful pen and ink drawing shown above. It's the work of artist Michael Bair, most recently the inker on DC's Nightwing.

Even if you're not interested in owning any of the awe-inspiring Wonder Woman art that's up for auction today, you might consider making a cash donation to one of Wonder Woman Day's associated charities, or to a women's shelter or help line in your local area.

Wonder Woman said to tell you that she approves this message.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

If called by this Panther, don't anther

I've become convinced that at some point in my past, I have unknowingly offended Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada to the point that he has made it his life's work to ruin everything I have ever loved about Marvel Comics.

Under Joe Q.'s watch — and therefore, presumably, at his direction — Marvel has:
  • Retconned the 20-year marriage of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker and his precious Mary Jane out of existence, by having Spidey make a deal with the devil (or at least Marvel's version of the devil, namely Mephisto) to save the life of Peter's doddering, older-than-McCain Aunt May, who's already died a couple of times previously.

  • Murdered Captain America, the symbol of all that's good in these here United States.

  • Transformed Iron Man, formerly one of my favorite superheroes, into the world's most colossal jerk.

  • Killed off Dr. Bill Foster, a.k.a. Goliath, and dumped his body in a hole without even the dignity of a coffin.

  • Turned the mighty Thor into a murderous clone.

  • Devolved my beloved Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, the conscience of the Avengers, into a universe-altering whack job.
And that's just in the last couple of years.

The latest evidence that Joe Q. hates me? He and writer Reginald Hudlin are dumping T'Challa, the Black Panther — the first, greatest, and most prominent superhero of African heritage in mainstream comics — so they can replace him with a female Panther.

Now, I loves me some superheroines, as anyone who drops around these environs every Friday can attest. Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Storm, the Scarlet Witch, Mary Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Vixen, the Valkyrie, Isis... I'm all about the superheroines.

That said... the Black Panther does not need to be recast as a superheroine.

Why must you keep urinating on my boyhood companions, Joe Quesada? What atrocity did I ever commit to warrant such malice?

This is the Black Panther.

So is this.

And this.

Certainly this, too.

I don't know what this is...

...but it's not the Black Panther. Quesada and Hudlin are crazier than I already think they are if they believe that I'm paying a dime to read about it.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Comic Art Friday? I can't help myself

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, the Four Tops.

Stubbs, whose inimitable baritone propelled such tracks as "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out, I'll Be There", "It's the Same Old Song," and my all-time favorite Tops classic, "Standing in the Shadows of Love," died earlier today after nearly a decade of failing health. He was 72.

In addition to his contributions to American popular music, Stubbs will be remembered by film fanatics as the voice of Audrey II, the anthropomorphic man-eating plant in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. If you were going to hire someone to belt out a tune entitled "I'm a Mean Green Mother From Outer Space," I can't think of anyone better than the bombastic Stubbs. Neither, apparently, could the producers of the movie.

Speaking of bombastic, here's a recent entry in my "Bombshells!" commission series. The beauty playing "Peek-A-Boo!" with danger is Miss Masque. The talent behind the pencil is pinup artist Anthony Carpenter.

Miss Masque debuted in Exciting Comics #51, published in September 1946 by Nedor Comics (later known as Standard Comics). Nedor, which started out in the pulp magazine field before branching into comics, was the brainchild of entrepreneur Ned Pines, who also founded the paperback original book imprint Popular Library. If you read genre fiction extensively anytime between the 1940s and the early 1980s, you probably perused some Popular Library titles.

Back to Miss Masque: Vivacious socialite Diana Adams donned a short, bright red dress, a rakish fedora, and a black domino mask (hence her code name — I guess 1946 was a mite early to call herself "Miss Miniskirt") to battle evildoers. With no superpowers to call upon, Miss Masque relied upon good old-fashioned firepower in the form of twin .45s to dispatch the bad guys.

During her three-year run, Miss Masque proved to be one of Nedor's more popular characters, making frequent cover appearances in artworks by such luminaries as Frank Frazetta and Alex Schomburg. Her enduring popularity has resulted in several revivals in recent years, most notably in AC Comics' Femforce, America's Best Comics' Tom Strong and Terra Obscura, and the current Project Superpowers series, created by writer Jim Kreuger and artist Alex Ross for Dynamite Entertainment. (She's known as "Masquerade" in the latter book.)

Artist Anthony Carpenter is one of the most unique stylists represented in my collection. Anthony's deft tonal pencil technique creates a spectacular sense of warmth and depth, and his whimsical, nostalgic sensibility made him an ideal choice to add to my "Bombshells!" series.

In addition to retro-flavored pinup art, often with a kitschy-cool "tiki" or "jungle girl" theme, Anthony specializes in pastiches of 1960s genre film posters. His creations in each of these areas embodies a singular, charming imagination unlike any other artist working today. If you like Anthony's stuff, I recommend a tour of his Comic Art Fans gallery or his Sketchville! blog.

I think even Levi Stubbs would have enjoyed Anthony's first contribution to my Common Elements commission series, in which Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, and Saturn Girl from the Legion of Super-Heroes find themselves facing a "mean, green mother from outer space." Could this be a cousin of Audrey II?

Time to reminisce with a few Four Tops sides. You might consider doing likewise, if you have any soul.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Hot pants!

Today's Comic Art Friday is going to be performed James Brown style. That means I only have time to hit it and quit.

So let's hit it.

One of my favorite comic book reads last week was Supergirl #34. It's the book's first issue with its new creative team, writer Sterling Gates and artist Jamal Igle. Tough to be certain after just one issue, but so far, I like the direction that Gates and Igle have mapped out, both narratively and visually. Anything that takes Supergirl back to the fun and fascinating character she was in her 1970s heyday works for me.

Speaking of the '70s, artist Gene Gonzales shares my affection for Kara Zor-El, and for the costume she wore back in the Disco Age.

I love Jamal Igle's work, but if he ever gets tired of drawing Supergirl's adventures, Gene would be a fine next choice.

It was the late, great Godfather of Soul who once said, "Hot Pants — she got to use what she got to get what she wants." Perhaps the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business was a Supergirl fan, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


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Friday, October 03, 2008

Flying tigresses

Today's Comic Art Friday is being composed under the influence of Starbucks Burundi Kayanza. Most East African coffees tend toward the bright and tart, but this varietal boasts a dark, complex, almost wine-like flavor palette. Nice.

At the conclusion of last Friday's post, I promised you additional "Bombshells!" entries from artists Terry Beatty and Dan Veesenmeyer. As Jim Lange used to say on The Dating Game, "And heeeeeeere they are!"

Because my "Bombshells!" commission series focuses on superheroines from the Golden Age of comics (basically, the 1930s, '40s, and '50s), I'm constantly searching for characters from that period to feature. Neither Terry Beatty nor I had heard of the Purple Tigress before I assigned Terry this commission, but she sure makes a terrific Bombshell!

Although she's all but forgotten today, the Purple Tigress starred in her own six-issue backup strip in Jo-Jo Comics, published in the mid-1940s by Fox Feature Syndicate. Fox offered a diverse variety of comic books, including what came to be known in the industry as "headlights comics" — series showcasing skimpily clad heroines with prominent... umm... "headlights." Fox's best-known creation in this latter genre was Phantom Lady, made famous by the art of "good girl" specialist Matt Baker. The most enduring hero in the Fox stable, however, was male — the Blue Beetle, a pastiche of the Green Hornet. A modernized Blue Beetle appears in DC Comics to this day.

Wonder Woman may be as renowned as the Purple Tigress is obscure. My affection for Princess Diana of the Amazons being what it is — and Comic Art Friday fans know that Wonder Woman is my all-time favorite comic book heroine, bar none — I took great care in selecting the artist who would draw her "Bombshells!" entry. Dan Veesenmeyer's previous contributions to the series sold me on the notion that he was the perfect choice.

Wonder Woman's costume has undergone a few tweaks over the decades — hey, you can't expect a gal to wear the exact same outfit for nearly 70 years, can you? For several years in the late 1960s and early '70s, she even dispensed with the bustier and star-spangled bottoms entirely, in favor of an ever-changing wardrobe of all-white mod fashions.

I've always remained partial, though, to Diana's original togs, which Dan depicts here. The lower portion of the costume, which looks like a skirt (and is often drawn that way in contemporary renderings), was actually a set of pleated culottes. Over time, these morphed into snug-fitting bicycle shorts, before becoming the increasingly brief, often thong-like panties Wonder Woman wears today. (To their credit, the artists who've illustrated the current WW monthly series — most notably Terry Dodson and Aaron Lopresti — have taken care not to overexpose Diana's hindquarters.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

As nervous as a canary in a cathouse

Last week, we kicked off our Talk Like a Pirate Day edition of Comic Art Friday with artist Jeffrey Moy's Common Elements pairing of two classic heroines from comics' Golden Age: the Black Cat and the Black Canary.

Proving that buccaneer boots remain fashionable crime-fighting footwear even when it isn't pirate season, the Cat and the Canary return today, starring in my "Bombshells!" pinup theme. For the benefit of any newcomers, "Bombshells!" features Golden Age heroines (for our purposes, that era encompasses the late 1930s through the 1950s) in original artworks modeled after vintage bomber nose art.

One of comics' most popular heroines during the Golden Age, the Black Cat debuted in 1941. She continued to appear in her own feature, and eventually, her own self-titled comic, until 1951. Her "Bombshells!" appearance — no "Cat-Tastrophe," despite its tagline — is drawn by pinup specialist Dan Veesenmeyer.

Dan, who has created several other Bombshells! previously, offers a delightful rendition of Linda (Black Cat) Turner here. Dan often adds clever details to his drawings — note the cat ears on the "C" of "Cat-Tastrophe."

During her decade-long run, the Black Cat spawned numerous imitators. One of these eventually became even better known than the original.

The Black Canary arrived on the comics scene in 1947, and soon established herself as a regular. An modernized Canary continues to star at DC Comics today, both in her own series (Green Arrow and Black Canary) and as a member of the Justice League of America. Our Black Canary "Bombshell!" is rendered in splendidly retro style by Terry Beatty, co-creator of the noiresque detective comic Ms. Tree.

Many artists shy away from drawing Black Canary because of her trademark fishnet stockings. When we discussed this commission, Terry professed his undying love for the fishnets. As you can see, especially in the link to the larger image, he rendered them with painstaking perfection.

Looking at these two gorgeous drawings, I'm grinning like the cat who swallowed the proverbial canary. Messrs. Veesenmeyer and Beatty will return with new Bombshells! next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, September 19, 2008

There be pirates here!

Ahoy, me hearties! Sauntering by the old schooner SwanShadow for Comic Art Friday, are ye? Well, matey, this be not just any Comic Art Friday...

...this here be Comic Art Pirates Day!

Your crusty old seadog, Cap'n Swan, will be introducin' ye to some swashbucklin' lads and lasses from the comics pages, what got a little pirate in 'em! How can ye tell? Some ye can see by their buccaneer boots — the favored footwear of well-dressed pirates everywhere. Some show their pirate nature by their flashin' steel or their blazin' pistols. Some ye can tell just by the cut o' their jib that they got pirate blood coursin' through their veins. Savvy?

Enough jaw-flappin' now... let's talk pirates!

Buccaneer boots 'n' fishnets... the Black Cat and the Black Canary definitely got pirate in 'em.

With stars tattooed on their brawny chests and buccaneer boots on their stalwart feet, Captain America and the U.S. Agent got pirate in 'em.

Misty Knight and the Black Knight — they could be black knights of the seven seas for sure.

Elektra and Black Lightning, they got pirate in 'em.

Green Arrow couldn't have more pirate in him if he tried.

Hawkeye and Lady Rawhide? Aye, pirates they be!

Lara Croft, she be a modern-day tomb-raidin' pirate.

Power Girl and Luke Cage (they call him Power Man, y'know) got pirate written all over 'em.

The Phantom and the Blonde Phantom be flyin' the Jolly Roger right enough.

Dynamo's got the boots, Nick Fury the eyepatch and pistol — ahoy, there be pirates here!

Red Sonja was a pirate before we was callin' ourselves pirates!

Now how about yerself, ye scandalous son of a biscuit?

Got a little pirate in ye?

And that there be yer Comic Art Friday. ARRRRRRR!

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Friday, September 12, 2008

The last daughter of Krypton

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to my Supergirls:
  • My daughter KM, who brings her mother and me joy every day...
  • My adopted niece Alicia, who is recovering from a serious accident...
  • Alicia's little sister, my goddaughter Shelby, who, if she turns out anything like her mother, will be quite the Superwoman someday.
For me as a comics reader, Supergirl has always represented the triumph of hope and innocence. The artists and writers who chronicled her early adventures — especially the late, great Jim Mooney, who drew Kara Zor-El's stories for a decade — seemed to understand that.

As the 1980s rolled around, the editorial team at DC Comics believed that Supergirl needed to either grow up or die. So they forced her to do both: They aged her into her mid-twenties (for two decades, Supergirl held chronological stasis at a perpetual 16 or 17), then famously killed her off during 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths. The DC Universe remained without its Maid of Steel for most of the next 15 years.

Supergirl is back now, in her own monthly series. After a sketchy beginning, it appears that her creative team is slowly getting a handle on how Kara ought to be portrayed.

Like many female superheroines, Supergirl has undergone frequent costume changes over the years. My favorite of her many ensembles has always been the one she wore in the mid-1970s, which saw Kara in a V-necked blouse and shorts (the latter far more practical for flying around than her traditional skirt). That's the outfit seen here, in this jaw-dropping pencil commission by Matthew Clark, the longtime artist of DC's Outsiders and Adventures of Superman.

Jeremy Colwell — a talented artist in his own right — enjoyed Matthew's rendition of Supergirl so much that he painted this color version, displayed on his blog. Jeremy's hyper-realistic take on Matthew's pencil art is worth checking out.

Paul Abrams, whose comics credits include DC's Viper and Marvel's Avengers, Excalibur, and Savage Sword of Conan, drew this Supergirl pinup in a style that combines classic and modern approaches: The crop-top costume and sleek figure are of recent vintage, while the wide eyes recall the signature technique of Jim Mooney. Inker Bob Almond added superb finishing touches.

When Paul saw Bob's completed inks, he asked Scott Kress of Catskill Comics to color the piece digitally. Here's the sweet result of Scott's efforts.

I like Scott's approach to this piece very much. The simple, bright hues really say "comics" to me, in contrast to the darker, more densely layered computer coloring that's most often seen in today's comics. But then, I'm old-school like that.

Today would be an excellent day to give the Supergirl(s) in your life a big hug, and a "You go, Supergirl!" I'm just saying.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Brown paper packages tied up with strings

It's always nice to be noticed.

This week, the fine folks at Comic Art Fans — which hosts the online galleries of hundreds of comic art collectors, including yours truly — graciously showcased your Uncle Swan as their Premium Member of the Week. (Anyone can post a gallery at CAF without cost; Premium Members are the folks who help support the site via a nominal annual contribution.) Yesterday's CAF newsletter featured a brief interview, conducted via e-mail, about me and my comic art hobby.

The toughest question I'm ever asked about my collection — and of course, the CAF interviewer asked it — is, "Which is your favorite piece?" I'm always tempted to answer, "The one I received most recently." I always fall a little bit in love with the newest addition to my gallery — I think most collectors (regardless of what they collect) do. Beyond that, it's a difficult call. Every picture tells a story, as Rod Stewart once observed, and it's no easy task to select the story that moves me the most. Every artwork I own, and in particular, every piece that has been created for me personally, occupies its own little realm of favoritism in my heart.

Complicating the matter is the fact that my collection is really several distinct collections united only by my ownership. There are my two theme galleries, Common Elements and Bombshells!; my character galleries, highlighted by my Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Black Panther and Storm collections; and the abundance of art that doesn't fall into one of these categories. I have favorites in each of these. Attempting to compare them is like deciding whether I prefer pizza or sushi.

So, here are a few of my favorites. They aren't my only favorites. Ask me tomorrow, and I might compose an entirely different list.

"Maces High" (Thunderstrike and Hawkman)
Pencils by Keith Pollard
Inks by Joe Rubinstein

Why it's a favorite: Keith Pollard has been one of my favorite comic artists since I first discovered his work in the late '70s. This assignment was one of the first commissions Keith accepted when he returned to drawing after a decade-long layoff. He totally rocked the execution of the scenario, packing in an incredible level of detail. Joe Rubinstein, one of modern comics' greatest inkers and another personal favorite, finished Keith's creation in exceptional style.

Wonder Woman

Pencils and inks by Geof Isherwood

Why it's a favorite: As Comic Art Friday regulars know, I loves me some Wonder Woman, and I also love the work of artist Geof Isherwood. Thus, we have two great tastes that taste great together. Geof has created a number of spectacular pieces for me (his Suicide Squad commission was featured in Back Issue magazine), inked several others that he didn't pencil (including a jaw-dropping Wonder Woman scene penciled by Michael Jason Paz), and is a terrific person in addition to his monumental talent. His Diana is so breathtakingly lifelike that she leaps off the page. Plus, Geof gave her peculiar shoes.

Spider-Man and Mary Jane
Pencils and inks by Bob McLeod

Why it's a favorite: Comics veteran Bob McLeod infused this pairing of my boyhood hero and his lady love with such joie de vivre that it makes me grin like a fat man at a buffet every time I look at it. Joe Quesada can go take a long swing off a short web.

"Jetpack Jockeys" (Adam Strange and the Rocketeer)
Pencils and inks by Michael Peters

Why it's a favorite: Heavy Metal artist Michael Peters draws the finest Rocketeer this side of the late, great Dave Stevens, the megatalent who created the character. I adore this piece so much that it's on permanent display in my living room. It's so cool that my wife doesn't even mind having it there. (At least, I don't think she does.)

Pencils by Mel Rubi
Inks by Bob Almond

Why it's a favorite: Speaking of Heavy Metal — the film this time — I believe that I'm the only comic art collector in the universe with a gallery of original Taarna commissions. This character speaks to me in ways that I can't fully explain, even though she never utters a word throughout her segment of the legendary animated classic. Mel Rubi's dramatic pose makes this, without question, the most visually arresting Taarna image that I've ever seen. And she's all mine. Bwah-ha-ha!

Superman and Wonder Woman
Pencils by Mike Wieringo
Inks by Richard Case

Why it's a favorite: Because I sorely miss Ringo, a phenomenal artist taken from us far too soon. It's charming and winsome and all kinds of beautiful... just like everything Mike ever drew.

"Blind Man's Bluff" (Daredevil and Doctor Mid-Nite)
Pencils by Ron Wilson
Inks by Bob Almond

Why it's a favorite: Bronze Age star Ron Wilson — one of Marvel Comics' busiest cover artists in the 1970s and '80s, and the regular penciler on the fondly remembered series Marvel Two-in-One — created this powerful, hyperkinetic matchup of comics' two sightless adventurers. Bob Almond, founder of the Inkwell Awards, polished Ron's pencils to a superheroic sheen.

Mary Marvel
Pencils by Steve Mannion

Why it's a favorite: Because she's just so darned cute.

Every time I page through my comic art collection, I hear Julie Andrews singing. Some days, these exquisite images form the thinly drawn boundary between sanity and madness...

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I'm feeling sad...
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Val to the third power

I'm SwanShadow, and I approve today's Comic Art Friday.

When it comes to a new Common Elements commission, the concept usually precedes the artist. In most cases, I have the character match-up in mind long before I've given any thought to the artist or artists who will create each piece. Truth to tell, I have a Common Elements concept list with more than 100 possible future entries on it, and I add new ideas as they occur to me. Most of these will never see the light of day unless I win the lottery — which is unlikely in the extreme, since I never buy lottery tickets.

Once in a great while, though, an artist actually inspires a Common Elements concept. This is one of those rare instances.

Some time ago, Val Semeiks — a comics veteran best known for well-received runs on Marvel Comics' Conan the Barbarian and DC's Lobo and The Demon, and most recently back at Marvel on She-Hulk — drew a stupendous Common Elements commission featuring Elasti-Girl and the Dr. Bill Foster version of Goliath. When Val alerted me that he was available to do another piece, I wanted to come up with a concept unique to him.

After some thought, I hit on the triple-Val idea (taking off from a previous CE drawn by Kyle Hotz, featuring the Kyle Rayner Green Lantern and Kyle "Nighthawk" Richmond of the Defenders). Mr. Semeiks jumped all over this one like a hungry Rottweiler on a T-bone. The scenario -- Valkyrie, the antiheroine of the long-running series Airboy (originally published by Hillman Periodicals in 1942, and more recently by Eclipse Comics), and comics' other Valkyrie, the sword-and-spear-wielding woman warrior most familiar to comics fans as a member of the Defenders -- dueling on the wing of a plummeting, flame-spewing Heinkel He-162 Salamander (also known as the Volksjäger) -- sprang like Athena from the brain of the artist.

Val meticulously adjusted the complex perspective until he got it dead solid perfect. The scene's evolution can be viewed by comparing Val's initial thumbnail sketch... this more developed layout drawing...

...and ultimately to the finished artwork.

As we used to say in Hawai'i, "Mo' Val, mo' bettah."

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, August 22, 2008

Identity theft, superhero style

We interrupt this post for an urgent news bulletin.

Senator Barack Obama wanted to name me as his vice presidential running mate this afternoon. I have declined, however, as the resulting firestorm of media attention would have prevented me from completing today's Comic Art Friday.

So he's going with the other guy.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled post.

My friend and fellow comic art collector Damon Owens has a particular fondness for the "forgotten heroes" of comics history, especially those whose adventures were published by little-known or short-lived companies. In fact, Damon has an entire gallery of commissioned artworks devoted to what he calls "The Dead Universes Project," a showcase for characters whose fortunes evaporated when the publishing entities who created them did likewise.

Although the DC Comics universe remains alive and well, I have a feeling that Damon will enjoy today's Comic Art Friday spotlight.

I've entitled this incredible drawing by Mike Vosburg "Identity Theft," because it illustrates the level of indignity often perpetrated by comic book publishers on their less popular characters. The dynamic duo depicted here are Starfire (left) and Steel (right), both of whom headlined their own DC series in the 1970s. Starfire ran for a mere eight issues, beginning in August 1976. Steel, the Indestructible Man lasted for even less time, bowing out after only five issues in 1978.

Now, if you're a relatively recent reader of DC's oeuvre, you may be thinking, "That doesn't look like either the Starfire or Steel I'm familiar with." And you'd be right. Since 1980, the name Starfire has been associated with a completely different DC superheroine, an orange-skinned alien who's probably best known as a member of the Teen Titans. As for Steel, that code name has been worn for the last 15 years by the hammer-swinging, armor-clad scientist-hero whose real name is John Henry Irons, as portrayed (and I use the term loosely) in an ill-conceived 1997 live-action motion picture starring basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal.

Your confusion, therefore, is understandable.

Though she's all but forgotten today, the "original" Starfire (I use the quotes because DC actually had another, even more obscure — and male — superhero who briefly used the name for a single issue of Teen Titans in 1968) was a nifty character in her own right. Created by artist Vosburg and writer David Michelinie, Starfire lived on a distant planet torn by civil war. The daughter of slaves, young Starfire trained in various martial arts — most noticeably, swordsmanship — awaiting the day when she could lead her people in revolt against their oppressors.

Starfire's adventures offered an intriguing amalgam of the science fiction and sword-and-sorcery genres that were popular in the '70s. One might think of her, in fact, as sort of an interstellar Red Sonja. For whatever reason — most likely, the lack of evident connection to the mainstream DC universe — Starfire didn't catch fire with readers. In the 30 years since her book's cancellation, she's made only a couple of token reappearances.

Today's more famous Starfire — whose real name is Koriand'r — teams up in this Common Elements commission with the mysterious Question. Behind the latter's featureless face mask lurks crusading journalist Charles Victor Szasz, whose nom de plume is Vic Sage. If you spend any time puttering in the kitchen, you'll quickly figure out what Koriand'r and Sage share in common. The artist here is rising indie comics star Shawn Surface.

Steel, of Indestructible Man fame, has fared slightly better than has Starfire. Even though his eponymous series was pretty much dead on arrival — again, partly due to the fact that it lacked continuity with other DC books, as the stories were set in the 1930s — Steel (or Commander Steel, as he was also known) has inspired at least two generations of descendants endowed with his cybernetically induced powers (for the most part, super-strength and the aforementioned invulnerability). The original Steel's grandson served during the 1980s as a member of the Justice League of America using the Steel code name. Another modern-day relation — a cousin of the second Steel — battles evil with the recently revitalized Justice Society, under the moniker Citizen Steel.

The current Steel — a.k.a. John Henry Irons — fights a losing battle with the mighty Thor in this Common Elements smackdown designed and penciled by the great Trevor Von Eeden, and inked by the equally great Joe Rubinstein.

Let this be a lesson to you, friend reader: Guard your superhero identity carefully. There's always an interloper waiting in the wings to swipe your code name.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Get a piece of LaRocque

All right, I'll admit it...

I pretty much blew off July here at SSTOL. Ironic, since we celebrated our fourth blogiversary back on the eleventh of the month. (Belated gifts — especially of cash — will still be cheerfully accepted.)

Sorry about that.

Let's crank up August with a solid Comic Art Friday, featuring a pair of recent additions to my Common Elements theme. Both of today's artworks were created by longtime comics artist Greg LaRocque, who's best known for his runs on Legion of Super-Heroes and The Flash for DC Comics, along with Power Man and Iron Fist and various Spider-Man titles (Web of Spider-Man, Marvel Team-Up) at Marvel.

As I was channel-surfing one night a few months back, I stumbled across a rerun of Stephen King's It, that craptastic made-for-TV adaptation starring a horde of washed-up TV actors (including Richard "John-Boy" Thomas, Harry "Night Court" Anderson, Tim "Venus Flytrap" Reid, and the late John Ritter) and occasionally enlivened by gratuitous Annette O'Toole sightings, plus Tim Curry's genuinely frightening appearances as the demonic clown Pennywise.

If you've seen the movie (or, I presume, read the book), you'll recall that Thomas's character (a horror novelist who serves as author King's avatar) overcame a childhood stuttering problem by repeatedly reciting the mantra, "He thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts." When I heard that line afresh, I thought, "Now there's a Common Elements artwork waiting to happen." So I commissioned Greg LaRocque to draw it. I figured that was appropriate, since one of Greg's earliest published assignments was a story in DC's horror anthology, Ghosts.

On the left, that's Ghost, a tentpole character for Dark Horse Comics in the mid-1990s. On the right is the Spectre, a stalwart of the DC Comics universe since the early 1940s, when he was a charter member of the original super-team, the Justice Society of America.

Although she hasn't been seen much in the last decade or so, Ghost's place in comics history was secured by the popularity of fan favorite artist Adam Hughes, who drew interior art for the series' first few issues, as well as several of its covers. A number of prominent creators — including Matt Haley, Terry Dodson, Doug Braithwaite, Ivan Reis, and John Cassaday — contributed art after Hughes moved on.

The Spectre may well be the most powerful superhero ever created for comics. When a police detective named Jim Corrigan is murdered, he becomes a spirit avenger in the employ of the Almighty Himself. The Spectre's abilities are practically without limit — when you work directly for God, you get all the cool tools — to the degree that the character has always seemed... well... somewhat pointless. (Why doesn't he just rid the universe of evildoers, and be done with it?) In recent years, other characters have replaced Corrigan as the Spectre — Hal Jordan, the second Green Lantern, had the job for a while, and another detective, Crispus Allen, served as the Spectre's human host the last time I checked.

Even as he was rendering our ghostly duo, LaRocque found time to craft a second Common Elements creation. You'll want to click the image to get a super-sized look at this one.

Tiger Girl, the masked feline on your left, is comics' version of such TV series as South of Sunset and Co-Ed Fever: Canceled after a single episode. Tiger Girl's sole appearance came in the lone issue of her eponymous comic, published by Gold Key in 1968. Too bad, really — feline-themed characters have enjoyed a storied history in comics (in fact, there was an earlier Tiger Girl in the 1940s — she, however, was more in the Sheena, Queen of the Jungle mode), so Tiger Girl might have caught on if given the chance. By the way, that's her sidekick Kitten, a trained circus cat, lounging in the center.

Our furry feline to the right is Tigra, a Marvel Comics heroine with an interesting backstory. When she first arrived on the scene in 1972, Greer Nelson assumed a rather traditional superheroic role as a yellow-and-blue-costumed crimefighter called the Cat. Her solo series, The Claws of the Cat, ran for a mere four issues before cancellation. A couple of years later, Greer was transformed into "Tigra the Were-Woman," a humanoid with tiger-like orange fur, black stripes, and the requisite claws, fangs, and tail. In her new persona, Tigra developed into a popular second-string Marvel character, most notably as a member of the Avengers (and later, of the spinoff West Coast Avengers).

Just curious...

If a werewolf is a human who transforms into a wolf, shouldn't a "were-woman" be a man who transforms into a woman? That would be a whole other comic book, I guess.

Incidentally, there's an additional connection between today's showcased artworks, aside from the artistic talents of Greg LaRocque. Both the Spectre and Tiger Girl were dreamed up by the same writer: Jerry Siegel, who also co-created a certain blue-clad, red-caped Man of Steel.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, June 27, 2008

It takes two, baby

One of the factors that makes comic book art unique among the traditional graphic arts is its collaborative nature.

When you view a painting, you are in most cases seeing the artistic vision and technical skills of a single creator. (That is, unless you're looking at a Thomas Kinkade, in which case you're probably seeing the uncredited work of some anonymous schlub toiling away for a pittance in some Third World backwater while the talentless hack who signed his name to the piece makes serious bank off the poor sucker's labor. But I digress.)

When you open a comic book, however — especially any comic book published by either of the two giants in the field, Marvel or DC — you're rarely viewing the work of a single artist. In most instances, there are four artists involved:
  • The penciler (sometimes spelled penciller by the illiterates in the production department), who draws the basic designs for each page in (you're way ahead of me) pencil.

  • The inker, who embellishes the pencil drawings in India ink — often adding detail and clarity not present in the penciler's original work.

  • The colorist, who adds all of the color (and, increasingly these days, computer-generated effects). This used to be done on paper with colored dyes; today, it's done almost exclusively in a virtual environment, using Photoshop or some similar program. In either case, the coloring is never done on the actual inked art. In the days when coloring was accomplished by hand with dyes, the work was done on photocopies called color guides.

  • The letterer, who inserts all of the dialogue and caption text, as well as the "visual sound effects." This, too, is now done mostly on computer, with specially created fonts.
On rare occasion, a single artist may handle two or more of these functions — some pencilers prefer to ink their own work, for example, and a few inkers also are adept at lettering. Still, in 90% of the mainstream comics you'd see on the rack at your local comics shop, each of these four jobs is done by a different artist. In many cases, the artists are working in studios in various locations around the globe, and don't even know each other personally.

Which is all the more reason to marvel (no pun intended) at the beauty and power of the art combining the efforts of these disparate creators.

In commissioned comic art, the process is much the same. Frequently, I will commission a pencil drawing from one artist, and later hire another artist to ink the piece. (I've yet to commission either color work or lettering, but many collectors do.) Often, there's no connection between the penciler and the inker. In fact, the penciler may never see how his or her original art was finished, unless he or she stumbles upon it here, or in my online gallery at Comic Art Fans.

Here's an instance, however, in which the penciler, although working independently of the inker who would finish the art, created the original with the talents of a specific inker in mind. The pencil drawing seen above emerged from the imagination of artist Steve Carr. At the time that I commissioned this piece, Steve knew that I intended to commission comics veteran Joe Rubinstein to ink over his pencils. The completed artwork at the beginning of this post shows a remarkable synergy between these two masterful talents.

As SSTOL regulars can attest, the redoubtable Mr. Rubinstein has inked quite a number of pieces for me over the past several years. Joe, in fact, did the very first inking job I ever commissioned — this sketch of DC's roguish hero from the 25th century, Booster Gold, drawn for me by Booster's creator, Dan Jurgens.

When I commissioned this drawing from Dan Jurgens, he had no idea that Joe would ink it. And yet, the attributes of the two artists meld together seamlessly, as if the entire piece had leapt from the same deft hand.

Pretty nifty, I'd say.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, June 20, 2008

Cat on a hot tin motorbike

It's officially summer — at least, it will be at 4:59 Pacific Daylight Time today — and we're already experiencing the effects here in Wine Country.

Yesterday, we topped the thermometer at 96 degrees. It's expected to be at least that hot again today.

This is why God created Otter Pops and cream soda.

If we're going to be sweltering, we may as well enjoy some white-hot comic art while we count the beads of perspiration dripping from our noses.

Debuting in 1941, The Black Cat was one of the more popular superheroines during comics' Golden Age. She was also one of the few female characters to headline her own book during that period. In civilian life, Linda Turner starred in Hollywood as a film actress and stuntwoman. She used the skills she gained in the latter field to battle crime as the Black Cat. Linda's costumed derring-do — which frequently involved her performing dangerous tricks on her trusty motorcycle — attracted favorable notice from entertainment reporter Rick Horne, who in true Lois Lane fashion never seemed to tumble to his dream girl's secret identity.

Numerous artists illustrated the Black Cat's adventures during her career, but she is most closely associated with Lee Elias, a talented draftsman whose work bore the unmistakable influence of Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates fame. Elias's original Black Cat pages remain popular with collectors today. In the 1960s and '70s, Elias returned to comics and drew a number of superhero, science fiction, and horror series, mostly for DC.

Our featured image of the Black Cat above springs from the pencil of James E. Lyle, whose work will be familiar to Comic Art Friday regulars. Although Lyle usually inks his own pinups, this particular piece was embellished by Bob Almond over a blueline scan of Lyle's pencil drawing.

Comics being the incestuous business that it is, a hit concept is always ripe for replication. The Black Cat was no exception. Her popularity spawned several imitators, most notably DC Comics' Black Canary. Indeed, the original Canary couldn't have been more of a Black Cat clone if she'd tried — both characters were motorcycle-riding martial artists who wore cuffed buccaneer boots. Not coincidentally, both were also drawn at various times by Lee Elias.

James E. Lyle captures the Black Canary in pensive repose, above. Lyle's drew inspiration for this piece from the Police song "Canary in a Coal Mine." I believe that Sting would approve.

The striking similarity between these two heroines inspired an entry in my Common Elements commission series. Video game designer Jeffrey Moy, best known in comics for his lengthy run on Legion of Super-Heroes, brings his trademark flourish to Linda Turner and her newfound friend Dinah Drake Lance below.

On your way now, cats and canaries. Stay cool if you can: Summer's here.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Dance like an Egyptian

As the late, great Jim McKay might have said...

"What in The Wide World of Sports happened to my week?"

All of a sudden, it's another Comic Art Friday, and I haven't posted one doggoned thing since last Friday.

I'm falling down on my blogging responsibilities. It's a crying shame.

Oh, well. I'll do better next week.

Moving on...

Without question, nostalgia plays an essential role in comic art collecting. I know every few, if indeed any, collectors in the hobby who weren't avid comic book readers in their youth. (I know plenty of comic art collectors who are not comic readers today, which says more about the present state of the mainstream comics industry than almost anything else I can name.)

As we've seen on the two most recent Comic Art Fridays, my nostalgia for my comic-geek childhood and my fond recollections of other aspects of popular culture that I experienced during my formative years frequently intersect in my art collection.

Take, for example, my Isis gallery.

I love the classic Saturday morning TV show The Secrets of Isis — produced by Filmation, and starring the ineffably sublime JoAnna Cameron in the title role. The Secrets of Isis is the only television series for which I own all of the episodes on DVD. (And yes, I actually break down and watch a couple of eps whenever the Isis jones overtakes me.)

Isis's September 1975 premiere made her the first superheroine in TV history to headline her own weekly series — Wonder Woman debuted two months later; The Bionic Woman, the following January. You know I'm all about the superheroines. One might even say that I have a superheroine addiction.

Which creates the perfect segue into today's featured artwork.

The pencil art of Mike Vosburg graced seven of the eight issues of the Isis comic book, which DC Comics published during the TV show's tenure (1976-77). Mike has also drawn dozens of other properties during his 35-year career in comics, most notably DC's Starfire (which Mike co-created) and Marvel's She-Hulk and G.I. Joe. These days, in addition to his various illustrating projects, Mike is much sought after as a storyboard artist for motion pictures and television. He storyboarded the first film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and is currently at work on the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I had the opportunity to meet Mike at WonderCon back in February, and found him a most congenial gentleman. We even talked a bit about Isis — how could we not? Some months later, I received an e-mail from a fellow comic art collector who's helping Mike promote his new limited-edition sketchbook — cleverly titled Heroine Addiction (now you get the connection) — and sell the original artwork featured in the book. Mike's friend, knowing my passion for all things Isis, thought I might like to own the Isis drawing Mike created for Heroine Addiction. Again, how could I not?

Mike even personalized the art for me, and included a gratis copy of his sketchbook. Isis and her dancing partners (Mike's a cat fancier, hence Isis's feline companion) are now proudly hanging on my office wall, even as I type.

If you'd like to view more of Mike Vosburg's work, and perhaps score a little Heroine Addiction for yourself, check out his Web site. You can tell Mike your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

More blogging next week. Scout's honor.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Bombshells! part B

When last we assembled for Comic Art Friday, we introduced our new comic art commission theme, Bombshells! In case you were unlawfully imprisoned at a Uwe Boll film retrospective seven days ago, whip back in time and see what all the fuss was about.

I'll wait.


Up to speed now?


Anyway, you now grok the basic Bombshells! concept: Superheroines from the 1940s, featured in pinups modeled after World War II-era bomber nose art. Mighty doggoned inventive, yes?

So let's check out a couple more. Like the first two Bombshells!, today's drawings showcase the sleek stylings of penciler Dan Veesenmeyer and the solid embellishments of inker Bob Almond.

First, allow me to introduce you to Bulletgirl.

Although Susan Kent (hmm... where have I heard that surname before?) was featured in the stories about her paramour, Jim Barr — a.k.a. Bulletman — from the beginning (Nickel Comics #1, May 1940), it wasn't until almost a year after their debut that Susan became Bulletgirl (Master Comics #13, April 1941). The projectile pair continued their war against evil throughout the 1940s, eventually fading from the scene — along with most other costumed comic book characters — at the end of that decade.

Bulletgirl, while not widely remembered today except by comics historians and hardcore aficionados, proved in many respects a pioneer of things to come. She was the first superheroine to fight alongside her similarly uniformed husband (Susan and Jim having tied the proverbial knot along the way), foreshadowing such familiar characters as the Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four. Bulletgirl also blazed the nomenclatural trail for the myriad Batgirls, Supergirls, She-Hulks, and Spider-Women who followed.

In addition, Bulletgirl was one of the few superpowered heroines to appear regularly — as something other than a damsel in distress — on comic book covers during her Golden Age heyday. Many of the early costumed females in comics who became popular enough to make cover appearances (i.e., the original Black Cat and the Blonde Phantom) lacked any superhuman abilities.

Speaking of the Blonde Phantom, she's now a Bombshell! too.

Unlike Bulletgirl and her ilk, the Blonde Phantom needed no namesake masculine counterpart on whose coattails she could travel. She was not only skilled enough to operate solo, but also fetching enough to sell comics with her own code name in the title. Following her premiere in All-Select Comics #11 (Fall 1946), the Blonde Phantom took over the masthead with the very next issue, titled Blonde Phantom Comics #12. She headlined the book until its cancellation in 1949.

Also unlike Bulletgirl, the Blonde Phantom — one of the few characters in comics history to make her hair color a selling point (Red Sonja is the only other I can think of, off the top of my head) — had no superscientific helmet to endow her with paranormal might. She had to make do with dispatching foes the old-fashioned way — with fashion, finesse, and a .45.

Like Ginger Rogers opposite Fred Astaire, the Blonde Phantom did everything that Batman or the Spirit could do — only she did it all in a floor-length evening gown (albeit with a thigh-high slit for... ah... freedom of movement) and stiletto pumps.

Did I mention that the Blonde Phantom was the first significant superheroine created by the legendary Stan Lee, a good 15 years before the dawn of Marvel Age of Comics?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, May 30, 2008


If you hang out here at SSTOL very often, you've probably heard me mention that I grew up in a military family. My father served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, of which I was around for the last 15. Although my dad's work had nothing to do with aviation — he was a carpenter by trade, and later, a building inspector — in that environment, I couldn't help but become interested in military aircraft, and the lore and memorabilia surrounding them.

That little history lesson helps explain my boyhood fascination with nose art.

For those of you unfamiliar with this phenomenon, please be assured that nose art has nothing to do with human noses, nor any art created using or appliedthereto. Nose art refers to decorative, often fanciful designs — squadron insignia, logos, cartoon characters, pinup girls, sometimes combinations of two or more of these elements — painted on the fuselages of military aircraft. The term "nose art" derives from the fact that these designs were usually affixed to the forward part (that is, the nose) of the plane.

Although the earliest examples are as old as military planes themselves, nose art became ubiquitous in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, and the U.S. Air Force (the separate service created from the USAAF in 1947) during the Korean conflict. In reality, the origins of nose art can be traced to the elaborate figureheads that adorned sailing ships in ancient times.

A couple of years ago, while browsing a few Web sites displaying photos of nose art, I had a brainstorm: Wouldn't it be cool if someone created a gallery of nose art-style pinups featuring comic book superheroines from the 1940s? Given my twin affections for nose art and characters from the Golden Age of comics, it seemed as though I might be just the man to spearhead such a project. I patted myself on my metaphorical back for dreaming up this brilliant concept.

Then I more or less forgot about it.

Until a few months ago, when the subject arose during an e-mail exchange with my good friend and fellow comic art collector, Damon Owens. Damon, who shares my enthusiasm for the neglected heroes and heroines of comics' past — his incredible collection of commissioned art contains countless homages to the Golden Age — thought the nose art theme had genuine merit. Our discussion reminded me of how excited I had been about the concept when first I thought of it.

So, I began considering artists I might enlist (no pun intended) for the project, which I nicknamed "Bombshells!" As fate would have it, as I was pondering, I received an e-mail from Dan Veesenmeyer, a talented "good girl" artist with a retro feel. I pitched the concept to Dan, we kicked around a few ideas, and Dan chose four Golden Age heroines for his initial creations. Bob Almond — known in Comic Art Friday circles as the man who puts the "King" in "inking" — readily agreed to embellish Dan's pencil drawings.

Thus, the first Bombshells! were born.

And what better way to kick off the Bombshells! theme than with that symbol of all that's good and female about these United States, Miss America?

Miss America — not to be confused with the beauty pageant of the same name, although Miss A. could certainly have competed — arrived on the scene in Marvel Mystery Comics #49, in late 1943.

Madeline Joyce acquired the powers of flight and superhuman strength through one of those bizarre pseudo-scientific mishaps favored by Golden Age comics writers — she was struck by lightning. What with a war on and all, Madeline donned a red costume with a star-spangled shield on the chest to become Miss America. She appeared steadily in both Marvel Mystery and her own eponymous series until 1948, by which time the initial excitement over superheroes had run its course.

Miss A. also served time as a founding member of the All-Winners Squad, Timely Comics' (which morphed into Marvel Comics by the early 1960s) first attempt at a superhero team.

Our second Bombshell! features one of the more cleverly named heroines of the Golden Age, Liberty Belle.

Liberty Belle — in civilian life, Elizabeth "Libby" Chambers — debuted in Boy Commandos #1 (cover date, Winter 1943). Her powers, which included great strength, speed, and stamina, derived — in true Golden Age fashion — from a mystical connection with the actual Liberty Bell. Whenever that venerable American icon is struck, Libby receives a rush of adrenaline that fuels her powers. (As you might suppose, this necessitated Libby hiring an operative in Philadelphia who could tap the bell whenever she needed to leap into action — presumably, without said operative being arrested for mishandling a historical landmark.)

In the modern era, Libby's daughter Jesse wears her mother's former costume and code name (after a few years of operating under the handle Jesse Quick), and has inherited her mom's powers — which she can exercise without needing a recharge from the grand old gong.

We'll look at a couple more Bombshells! next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Never too late to Pollardize

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to a genuine legend of the comic book medium, artist Gene Colan. The man whom Stan Lee dubbed "Gene the Dean" is one of comics' most distinctive stylists, due to his instantly recognizable sweeping, swirling linework and shadowy textures.

Colan worked on numerous titles during his 60 years in the industry, including memorable stints on Dr. Strange and Iron Man for Marvel Comics, and Wonder Woman (a seemingly unlikely choice, but it worked) for DC. Colan's legacy, however, was secured by his artistic contributions to three vastly different Marvel books: the superhero series Daredevil, the updated horror saga Tomb of Dracula, and Steve Gerber's wildly satiric Howard the Duck.

Recently, Colan's wife Adrienne announced that the great artist is suffering serious health complications related to liver failure. Like many old-time comics veterans, Colan didn't make a fortune at his craft. In the absence of health insurance, Gene and his family are struggling to pay his rapidly mounting medical bills.

Comics historian Clifford Meth is coordinating a benefit auction to which dozens of comics professionals and fans have contributed. If you have a few extra simoleons in your pocket, the Colans would, I'm certain, appreciate anything you might care to bid. (I don't know why Clifford didn't call the project "Simoleons for Colan." I would have.)

Occasionally someone asks me, "What's your favorite piece in your entire comic art collection?" My usual answer is, "The piece I commissioned most recently." Truth to tell, there are some perennials that would top the list, even though I've owned them for years. But here's a recent addition that will likely find its place among my all-time greatest loves.

Keith Pollard was one of the pencilers in comics whose work I most enjoyed, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing for the next two decades. Of the many artists who took stylistic cues from the late, great John Buscema — in my opinion, among the three or four finest comics artists ever — Pollard comes the closest to channeling Big John's unique amalgam of heroic power, majestic scope, and superlative anatomy in the classical model.

During his years at Marvel, Pollard worked on every major character from Spider-Man to the Fantastic Four, the latter of which he drew for two classic runs a decade apart. His most memorable run may have been on Thor, on which Keith was the regular penciler from 1979 to 1982.

When I heard recently that Keith Pollard was accepting commissions after a lengthy stretch away from comics, I could scarcely restrain my giddy glee. (If you've ever seen my giddy glee, you know it isn't pretty.) You can see in the drawing above that Keith's creative chops remain as sharp as ever, as evidenced by his stunning rendering of mace-swinging superheroes Thunderstrike (a Thor spinoff whose adventures Pollard drew in a pair of 1994 issues) and Hawkman (whom I'm not sure Keith had ever drawn before).

But wait! There's more!

Among Keith Pollard's most triumphant additions to comics lore were the 300 or so character model sheets he created for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Master Edition, from 1991 to 1993. (EDIT: As noted in the comments, I originally misstated the date of this edition. Thanks to Bob Almond for keeping me on my toes.) The assignment reflected Pollard's talent for drawing practically every significant (and many not all that significant) Marvel hero and villain with equal aplomb. Joe Rubinstein, an inker likewise skilled at handling a broad diversity of characters, garnered the job of finishing Pollard's hundreds of pages.

When I saw Keith's dazzling addition to my Common Elements theme, I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to reunite this incredible artistic team. Joe, who's done several commissions for me previously, readily agreed to the proposal. The results, I believe, speak for themselves.

Yep... giddy.

Did I mention that I actually own a couple of those original Pollard and Rubinstein Official Handbook pages? Indeed I do. This one features bionic private detective Misty Knight...

...while this one depicts Battlestar, one of Captain America's many sidekicks.

My third OHOTMU page retains the raw Keith Pollard pencils (Joe Rubinstein inked a blueline copy of this page for publication) of Drax the Destroyer.

Pollard and Rubinstein: No wonder they called it a Master Edition.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. (Do a good deed for a worthy recipient this weekend — check out the Gene Colan benefit auction.)

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Crazy from the heat

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Will Elder, one of the founding artists of MAD Magazine, who passed away this week at the age of 86.

Elder's manic cartooning and incredibly detailed panels helped set the tone for generations of MAD artists to follow. After departing MAD, Elder and writer-artist Harvey Kurtzman created the popular Little Annie Fanny comic strip for Playboy. (Not that I would know anything about that...)

Our sincere condolences to Mr. Elder's family and fans.

Looking at SSTOL this morning, I realize that I have been — as my daughter KM would put it — a total slack-job about posting this week. It's not that I haven't had anything to write about. For one thing, the television upfronts took place this week, when the various broadcast networks unveil their schedules for the fall season. I'll get to our customary overviews next week.

This week, it's just been too dad-blamed hot.

When the mercury tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has here in Wine Country each of the past two days, my creative focus melts.

If only I had the power to alter the weather... my favorite Marvel mutant Ororo Munroe, code name Storm.

Storm could lower the temperature to a balmy and tolerable 78 degrees with a simple wave of her hand.

With a thought, Storm could summon a gentle, cooling breeze to waft away the oppressive heat.

Man, I wish Storm was here.

Because it sure is hot.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Grand salami time!

On this date in 1961 — a year with special significance for me, given that I spent the majority of it bouncing about in a pool of amniotic fluid — San Francisco native "Diamond Jim" Gentile of the Baltimore Orioles became the first player in major league baseball to hit grand slams in consecutive innings. Gentile smacked a total of five bases-loaded round-trippers in that storied season — during which Roger Maris also broke Babe Ruth's previously unassailable single-season home run mark — setting an American League record that held up for 26 years.

Speaking of grand slams, feast your baby [insert appropriate eye color here]s on this, the latest addition to my Common Elements comic art commission series.

Common Elements commissions are like Forrest Gump's mom's box of chocolates: You never know what you're gonna get. Often, the artist simply draws his or her best representation of the two characters I've assigned. That's an excellent outcome in itself. On other occasions, the artist will go beyond the characters themselves, and create a unique milieu in which to set the figures. That, of course, is even better.

Every now and then, an artist will push the concept's envelope and come up with a scenario that I never would have anticipated, much less thought of myself. Steve Carr (best known for his early '90s run on Marvel's Savage Sword of Conan) does that here.

In the immortal words of Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, "Get out the mustard and rye bread, Grandma... it's grand salami time!"

Steve's cleverly conceived, magnificently rendered tableux features sometime-Avenger, sometime-Defender Moondragon gazing into a reflecting pool that reveals J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter of Justice League fame. Or is it J'onn gazing, and Moondragon the reflection?

Every picture tells a story, but this one suggests an entire miniseries.

If you look closely, you'll see that Steve notated the black areas (with tiny x's) for the piece's eventual embellisher — legendary inker Joe Rubinstein, who generously made the connection between Mr. Carr and me. Joe is currently working on another of my Common Elements commissions — just wait until you see that beauty — and will (I hope) tackle Steve's astonishing creation sometime later this year.

About the two "smooth operators" in Steve's drawing...

Moondragon — in civilian life Heather Douglas, daughter of the man who was later transmogrified into Drax the Destroyer — first appeared in the Marvel Universe during my favorite period of superhero history, the so-called Bronze Age of Comics. (You know it better as the 1970s.) The Bronze Age was a freewheeling, "throw it against the wall and see whether it sticks" period, and Moondragon combined many of the motifs popular at the time: She had connections to alien civilizations, possessed powerful psionic powers, was a skilled martial artist, displayed an antiheroic moral ambiguity, and wore a scanty costume. (Steve Carr drew her here in an outfit from a later period in her career, when she covered up a little more.) Her bald pate helped her stand out among the other, usually abundantly tressed, superheroines of the day.

The Martian Manhunter's origins reach back much further, to the earliest days of DC Comics' superhero revival of the 1950s. (We call it the Silver Age, in comics history parlance.) J'onn J'onzz was basically a bald, green-skinned Superman, the last survivor of an alien race. He wielded most of the Man of Steel's superhuman powers, plus more besides — he was a shape-shifter and a telepath, too. Instead of kryptonite, J'onn's Achilles heel was fire. A founding member of the Justice League of America, the Manhunter from Mars has been closely connected with the JLA throughout its existence.

My thanks to Steve Carr for knocking this commission out of the park, with all the bags juiced.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Amazin' armor

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 3, in case you're stumbling into the room a trifle late — is Free Comic Book Day.

Your participating local comics retailer will have on hand a selection of comic books from which you're welcome to choose, absolutely free of obligation. (If your retailer is really cool, he or she may even allow to pick up more than one.) The choices run the gamut from superheroes — the kind you've actually heard of, most likely — to kids' comics featuring Gumby or Disney characters, to Japanese manga. Such popular franchises as Superman, Archie, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and X-Men are represented in this year's offerings. You'll even find some stuff that's next to impossible to categorize. Whatever your taste in fantasy fiction or humor, you'll find something to like.

Do yourself a favor. Whether you're a long-time comics reader, or you haven't read a comic in a long time, or you've been on Earth for a long time and have never read a comic, swing by your participating local comics retailer tomorrow and snag a free comic or (if your retailer is really cool, like my local comic shop is) two. When you find one that interests you, take one more step: Ask your retailer, "If I like this, what else do you have that I might enjoy?" Then let her or him show you some options.

If you have a kid or two to accompany you, take 'em. What could it hurt? Worst case scenario: The kid gets a free book that ends up in the recycling bin. (You recycle, right?) Best case scenario: You've opened a door for a young person to experience the joys of reading, and visual storytelling, and sequential art appreciation.

Your Uncle Swan thinks that's not such a bad outcome.

Speaking of this weekend...

Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
As Iron Man, all jets ablaze
He fights and smites with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, he's Iron Man!
Ablaze in power, he's Iron Man!

Yes, the cinematic version of Iron Man premieres today, as you certainly know unless you've been living among the Amish for the past several months.

How excited am I about this? Excited enough to do something I never do — go to a theater on a film's opening day. Everything I've seen and heard about the film suggests that Iron Man will rank among the better cinematic representations of superheroes in recent years. The trailers have looked incredible, and Robert Downey Jr. couldn't be more perfectly cast as industrialist-slash-playboy Tony Stark, the man inside the famous red-and-gold supersuit.

As I related on a previous Comic Art Friday, Iron Man was one of my favorite Marvel heroes in my earliest days of comics reading. I still own the little hand-carved Pinewood Derby slot car, hand-painted gold with red accents, that I made nearly 40 years ago when I was a Cub Scout, that I nicknamed Iron Man.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for old Shellhead has dimmed considerably. Marvel's editorial department has seemed bent of late on destroying everything that made the character interesting and likable, in favor of portraying him as a ego-consumed, monomaniacal chump. I liked Tony a whole lot better when he lived in acute awareness of his own humanity, and didn't think he ruled the world.

Still looking forward to the movie, though!

An Iron Man film and a Free Comic Book Day... could a weekend get any better than this? Actually, it can.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony (currently ranked third internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society) begins its annual weekend retreat — we call it an Advance, because we never "retreat" — this evening, in preparation for this year's competition cycle. Three days of grueling work, but great fun nevertheless. (Have I mentioned yet that our first concert of 2008 is only a month away, on Saturday, June 7? Great seats still available!)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

On my office walls

A frequent visitor to our Comic Art Friday feature inquires...
You own a ton of art! Do you have it all hanging on your walls? Or do you keep it in storage someplace?
I'm glad you asked, friend reader.

At any given moment, the overwhelming majority of my comic art collection resides in archival-safe portfolios for convenient storage. I use Itoya Art Profolios, which I purchase from Corrick's, an excellent art and office supply shop in downtown Santa Rosa. I maintain separate portfolios for Common Elements and my various character-specific themes — my Wonder Woman collection fills one entire 48-sleeve book, and Common Elements now requires two — plus additional books for my non-theme pieces. (Most of my Itoyas are the 14" x 17" size. I have one 13" x 19" book that accommodates a handful of pieces taller than 17".)

I keep my portfolios in a moisture-proof sliding bin next to my workstation, where I can easily access them for a quick flip-through whenever I get the urge. Art is, after all, for viewing.

Speaking of viewing...

My office wall houses five poster-size frames, into which I rotate various pieces from my collection as whim strikes me. Actually, that's only four-fifths true. One of the five frames is home to the sole artwork that I keep on permanent display — Cully Hamner's dramatic and beautiful Mary Marvel:

I keep this drawing on the wall all the time for two reasons: (1) It's one of my favorite character-themed pieces; and (2) it's huge (16" x 20"), and won't fit into any of my portfolios. (Thanks, Cully!)

Next to Mary is the one frame that's oriented lengthwise, to accommodate art drawn in landscape profile. Currently in that space is "Titans," Steve Mannion's Common Elements creation featuring Thanos and Saturn Girl:

The corner immediately behind my left shoulder, as I'm seated at my workstation, holds two frames that face each other across a 90-degree angle. Today, those frames display Michael Bair's stunning representation of the Valkyrie...

...and "Fox Hunt," Tony DeZuniga's wonderfully composed Common Elements pairing of Zorro and Vixen, commissioned at WonderCon 2008.

The remaining frame is my "showcase" spot — on a narrow wall by itself, it's a high-visibility location that I reserve for some of my most special pieces. It's often the place where I memorialize artists who have recently passed away — works by the late Mike Weiringo and Jim Mooney have been displayed here during the past several months.

Today, it's home to a gorgeous collaboration by two artists who are very much alive and active, penciler Frank Brunner and embellisher Geof Isherwood. Geof took Frank's rough pencil sketch of one of comics' classic couples, the Scarlet Witch and the Vision, and expanded upon it to create this amazing piece of finished art.

Thanks for stopping by my office. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Free your mind, and your spirit will follow

It's Common Elements time again, here on Comic Art Friday.

For the benefit of any newbies in the audience, Common Elements is my series of commissioned drawings spotlighting unrelated comic book characters who are connected by some — you're way ahead of me — common element.

Today's featured item brings together a couple of comics' favorite redheads: Jean Grey (originally codenamed Marvel Girl, later called Phoenix) of the X-Men, and Emily "Lia" Briggs, better known by the superhero handle Looker. The artist charged with depicting this tempting twosome is Dave Hoover, one of the industry's most adept practitioners of "good girl" art.

Beyond their striking red tresses, Jean and Lia share a pair of more significant commonalities:
  • Both Phoenix and Looker possess psionic powers — comic-book-speak for a skill-set that includes telepathy (the ability to read others' thoughts) and psychokinesis (the ability to affect matter using the power of the mind).

  • Each also underwent a dramatic metaphysical transformation. In a now-legendary 1980 X-Men storyline, Jean morphed into the psychotic, supremely powerful Dark Phoenix (as anyone who saw the film X-Men: The Last Stand knows, although the events surrounding the Dark Phoenix were altered significantly for the movie). Emily, in a 1993 Outsiders tale, was bitten by a vampire and ultimately became one herself.
As for our artist, Dave Hoover has penciled dozens of comics since the mid-1980s. He's most closely identified with runs on DC's Wanderers and Starman, and Marvel's Excalibur, Night Thrasher, and Captain America. He's also worked extensively in the animation field.

During his two-year hitch on Captain America, Dave cocreated Cathy Webster, also known as Free Spirit, Cap's female protégé. I always enjoyed the character, and I keep hoping that someday someone at Marvel will revive her and give her a major plotline in which to develop.

While I'm waiting, I can admire this terrific Dave Hoover-drawn page from Captain America #438, which features Free Spirit and her partner, Jack Flag, in action. Check out Dave's splendid figure work in the top panel, and that gorgeous close-up of Cathy at bottom right.

As it happens, Free Spirit also makes an appearance in one of my Common Elements commissions, alongside Mister Miracle (whose real name is Scott Free — see the connection?).

This dynamic duo is magnificently rendered in tonal pencil by the incredible Geof Isherwood.

Here's a smidgen of historical trivia: Free Spirit was not Captain America's first woman partner.

Everyone remembers Cap's skein of male backups, including James Buchanan "Bucky" Barnes (who in current Marvel continuity has become the new Captain America); Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon; Lemar Hoskins, a.k.a. Battlestar; and the aforementioned Jack Flag. In the late 1940s, however, Bucky was replaced at Cap's side by a young woman called Golden Girl (whose real name was Betty Ross, not to be confused with the Hulk's longtime paramour). One of these days, I'll work her into a Common Elements scenario, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, April 11, 2008

To know her is to fear her!

When last we convened for Comic Art Friday, we memorialized the passing of veteran comic book artist Jim Mooney, who left us on March 30.

I noted in that post Mooney's close association with one of my all-time favorite superheroines, Ms. Marvel. Thanks to one of those mental blocks that occur with alarming frequency in those of a certain age (ahem...), however, I neglected to mention that "Gentleman Jim" was one of the artistic cocreators of another of those great '70s heroines that I love so much: Jessica Drew, the original Spider-Woman.

Like many female characters of the Silver and Bronze Ages of comics, Spider-Woman existed primarily to establish a trademark on a distaff version of a popular male hero (i.e., Supergirl, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk). Of course, once you've created such a knock-off character, you actually have to publish her in order for the trademark protection to take effect.

Thus, Marvel Comics cranked out 50 issues of Spider-Woman's adventures, to resounding ennui from the comics-reading public. The company even produced a short-lived (16 episodes, aired in the fall of 1979) animated TV series recounting the exploits of the Arachnid Adventuress. Again, the mass audience remained unmoved. (Trivia: In the cartoon, Spider-Woman's voice was supplied by the legendary Joan Van Ark of Knots Landing fame, who today sports one of the most horrific plastic surgery visages known to humankind.)

All of which is too bad, really. Not only did Spider-Woman evolve into an intriguing character — despite the superficial thematic similarity, she really isn't very much like Spider-Man at all — but Jessica's eventual fading from the Marvel Universe in the early '80s spawned an opportunity for a new and improved Spider-Woman, Julia Carpenter, to appear.

The rationale for Julia's creation was even more shallow than Jessica's — Marvel wanted to trademark, in feminine form, the black-and-white costume Spider-Man acquired during the 1984 mega-event Secret Wars. Her single-mother-as-superhero backstory, however, was novel for its time, and added a welcome layer of emotional realism to the character.

Here's Julia in action, alongside the Justice Society's Mr. Terrific, in a Common Elements commission by Fables artist Lan Medina.

These days, the original Spider-Woman is back with a vengeance. Jessica's a prominent character in the current New Avengers title written by Brian Michael Bendis, and figures to play a major role in Marvel's latest crossover epic, Secret Invasion.

It's good to have her hanging around the Marvel Universe again.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Gentleman Jim

Comics fans have experienced far too many sad times of late, what with such beloved and respected creators as Mike Wieringo, Steve Gerber, and Dave Stevens having passed away in recent months.

Unfortunately, the news isn't getting better.

Last weekend, veteran comic artist Jim Mooney left us. Mooney — known throughout fandom by the sobriquet given him by Stan Lee, "Gentleman Jim" — will be most remembered for his nearly decade-long run on Supergirl. By the time Mooney started his Supergirl stint, however, he had already been an industry fixture for almost two decades, and he was active in the field for more than 30 years after leaving the heroine with whom he was most closely identified.

Mooney's career in comics began in 1940 with Fox Publications, one of the myriad publishers in the then-burgeoning comic book business. He freelanced for several companies before landing at National Periodicals — more famous these days as DC Comics — in 1946, as one of the many uncredited artists who ghost-drew Batman under creator Bob Kane's byline.

(Historical side note: It's an ongoing source of humor among comics fans that while Batman appeared under Bob Kane's solo credit for decades, it's likely that Kane himself never drew so much as a single panel after the book's first several months. Instead, the art in Batman from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s was the work of such talented, albeit anonymous, artists as Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Win Mortimer, Shelly Moldoff, and Jim Mooney. Stories about Kane's duplicity in assuming acclaim for other people's creative efforts run rampant. I once heard the late comics author Arnold Drake tell one about Kane's hiring a ghost artist to paint clown portraits, which Kane later signed and sold as his own work.)

In 1959, Mooney began illustrating the adventures of Supergirl, which appeared as the secondary feature in Action Comics. Mooney continued as Supergirl's primary artist until 1968. During this period, he also worked on such DC properties as Superboy and another personal favorite, Dial H for Hero, about a boy named Robby Reed whose magical dial transformed him into an incredible variety of superheroes — but rarely the same one twice. Mooney's charming, slightly cartoony style worked perfectly with these lighter-in-tone characters aimed at younger readers.

In the late '60s, Mooney moved to DC's rival, Marvel Comics, initially as the inker on Amazing Spider-Man. Several classic Spidey stories appeared during Mooney's run, as he was inking over the pencils of stalwarts John Romita, Sr. and John Buscema. I'm especially fond of the story arc that begins in Amazing Spider-Man #78, which introduces one of my all-time favorite Marvel characters: Hobie Brown, aka The Prowler. A few years ago, I was fortunate to purchase from Mooney this recreation of the cover of ASM #78, originally penciled by John Romita, Sr. with inks by Jim. This recreation is all Mooney, drawn in late 2004 when the artist was well into his 80s.

In addition to his Spider-Man work — including penciling the Web-Slinger's adventures in Spectacular Spider-Man and Marvel Team-Up — Mooney enjoyed memorable runs on several other books: Sub-Mariner, Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Omega the Unknown, and most notably (to me, anyway) Ms. Marvel. The combination of the longtime Supergirl artist and Marvel's blonde-tressed Woman Warrior (whose surname, Danvers, was borrowed from an alias once adopted by Supergirl) was sheer perfection.

In April 2005, Mooney was kind enough to allow me to purchase this clever creation, depicting a surprise meeting between the two heroines for whose adventures he was most renowned. It's a recreation of an earlier commission Jim drew for collector Michael Dunne.

Well into his golden age, Mooney continued to draw, both for publication and for private commissions. He was working on new series for the now-defunct Claypool Comics (Soulsearchers and Elvira) as recently as a few years ago.

Although I never had opportunity to meet Jim Mooney, I did correspond with him a few times and, as seen above, I bought a couple of his original artworks. He was unfailingly polite and kind — with each of the drawings I bought, he sent me an autographed print and a brief handwritten note of thanks. I had hoped to commission a piece from him, but after his beloved wife passed away a couple of years back, Mooney fell into ill health and cut back on commission projects. I wish now that I had moved ahead with my request, if only to let Jim know how much I appreciated his talents.

In a tribute to Mooney on his blog, News From ME, comics scribe and historian Mark Evanier speculates that Mooney may have been one of the most prolific artists ever to work in comic books — if not, in fact, the most prolific. That would not surprise me. For at least three-fourths of my 40 years of reading comics, there was scarcely a month when one could not pick up a new comic book that contained the work of Jim Mooney. Although perhaps not gifted with the creative genius of a Jack Kirby or the sheer brilliance of some of today's superstar artists, Mooney leaves behind a legacy of work that is staggering in both quality and variety.

Beside which, I've never heard or read a single negative word about the man. Given a career that spanned seven decades, that's a worthy testimony.

Rest in peace, Gentleman Jim.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, March 28, 2008

Ghosts who walk

Previously on Comic Art Friday...

I promised you a Sal Velluto and Bob Almond "Common Elements" commission two-fer. Doesn't your Uncle Swan always deliver?

Recently, the redoubtable Mr. Velluto has been creating cover art for Egmont, a Swedish company that publishes new comic book adventures of Lee Falk's ageless jungle hero, the Phantom. (Sal may be doing some of the interior art also, but it's difficult to tell from Egmont's Web site — given that I don't read Swedish.)

Hearing that news, I decided to invite Sal & Bob (best known for their three-year collaboration on another African-based series, Black Panther) to pair the Ghost Who Walks — as the Phantom is frequently called — with another classic hero, the beautiful but deadly Blonde Phantom. Below is Sal's finished pencil art...

...complemented by the inks of Bob Almond.

The Phantom holds a historic distinction as perhaps the first fictional character who combined all of the elements we associate today with the term "superhero."

The Phantom wasn't the first hero to wear tights (Robin Hood may have that honor), or have a masked secret identity (that's probably Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel), or operate from a secret base (Doc Savage's 86th Floor, Hidalgo Trading Company, and Fortress of Solitude predate the Phantom by a couple of years), or demonstrate superhuman abilities (we can go back at least as far as the Biblical Samson for that). Falk's lavender-clad jungle warrior was, however, probably the first to bring all of those characteristics together, and certainly the first in the comics medium. The Phantom made his debut in 1936, beating Superman — who's usually thought of as the "original" comic superhero — to the newsstands by a good two years.

In reality, the Phantom is Christopher "Kit" Walker, the 20th successive descendant of the original Phantom to wear his trademark costume. (The fact that a score of different men over a period of several hundred years have donned the Phantom's mask makes the hero appear immortal — hence, "The Ghost Who Walks.") From the Skull Cave, his hidden lair deep in the African jungle (it was on the Indian subcontinent in Falk's earliest stories, but later retconned), the Phantom battles evil in all its forms, blazing away with his twin .45 pistols and leaving the brand of his famed skull ring on the foreheads of his vanquished foes.

Although the Phantom has existed in newspapers since the '30s — his strip continues to be published by King Features Syndicate, with Tony DePaul writing the stories and the great Paul Ryan drawing the pictures — he has frequently ventured into comic books as well. The Phantom's earliest stapled incarnations consisted of reprinted strips, but almost all of the major comics publishers (and several not-so-major ones) have held the franchise to publish new Phantom stories at one time or another. In the U.S., the Phantom's monthly comic stories are currently published by Moonstone; Egmont publishes the completely distinct Scandinavian version, and Frew the Australian counterpart.

Correcting a common Phantom misconception: Although Lee Falk created the Phantom and his name is the one most associated with the hero, Falk only wrote the Phantom's adventures, giving up the art chores after the first few strips. More than a dozen artists have worked on the series over the decades, including Ray Moore, Wilson McCoy, Carmine Infantino, George Olesen, and the legendary Sy Barry, who retired in 1994 after 33 years.

As for the Blonde Phantom, she's something of a pioneer herself.

The Blonde Phantom — in everyday life, secretary Louise Grant — was one of the "second wave" of superheroines introduced in the post-World War II era, as the mostly male heroes of the war years began to decline in popularity. Based on the physical attributes of such wartime pinup queens as Betty Grable (whom the Blonde Phantom resembles), these heroines — including Phantom Lady, the Black Canary, Venus, and Sun Girl, — were designed to appeal both to the returning servicemen and to female readers.

Most of these characters, sadly, were short-lived, though interest in many of them (especially Black Canary and Phantom Lady) has picked up in recent years. The Blonde Phantom remains largely forgotten. But you have to love a woman who could fight crime wearing a floor-length, slit-skirted red dress and high heels.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, March 21, 2008

There is no Gravity... the Earth sucks

Over at Comics Should Be Good — perhaps the most consistently interesting and engaging comics-focused blog on these here Internets — contributor Brian Cronin is currently taking a fan poll of favorite comic series runs.

For the benefit of the non-geeks in our audience, the term "run" describes a period of consecutive — or nearly consecutive — issues by a comics creator (writer or artist) on a specific continuing series. In the case of series with many years (or even several decades) of history, fans often speak of the evolution of a series in terms of the runs by various creators — when discussing the Amazing Spider-Man of the 1960s, for example, the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run precedes the Lee/John Romita Sr. run.

I'm still puzzling over my top ten runs of all time, but I can guarantee that this one will make the list: the three-year run of Black Panther (December 1999 through November 2002) that featured writer Christopher J. Priest and the artistic tandem of penciler Sal Velluto and inker Bob Almond.

Priest had been writing the Panther's adventures for a year before Sal & Bob came on board (Mark Texiera, Joe Jusko, and Mark D. "Doc" Bright each drew a few issues during that period), and he continued on the book for another year after Sal & Bob departed (with art by Jorge Lucas, Jim Calafiore, and Patrick Zircher, among others). But the unique synergy occasioned by the combination of Priest's thought-provoking scripts and Sal & Bob's propulsive art lifted Black Panther to heights it had rarely achieved before (mostly during the run of writer Don McGregor in the 1970s), and never since. (I'm on the record as ambivalent about the current Black Panther series, written for the past three years by Reginald Hudlin. I appreciate Hudlin's passion for the title character and his milieu, but Reggie's characterizations — and especially his dialogue — drive me to distraction more often than not.)

Sal Velluto and Bob Almond compliment one another like smoked salmon and cream cheese. It's a sad commentary on the state of the industry when an artistic team with their ability and professionalism can't find an ongoing series on which to share their talents with the comics-buying public. Sal & Bob did, however, reunite a couple of years ago (in partnership with writer Joshua Dysart) for a delightful six-issue miniseries for Penny-Farthing Press, entitled Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril. A fun, action-packed, nostalgic tale in the spirit of the late, great Dave Stevens's Rocketeer, it's worth seeking out.

Recently, I got Sal & Bob back together for a pair of Common Elements commissions. The first of these artworks — we'll look at the second one next Friday — teams Captain Gravity with Marvel Comics' youthful hero with similar powers, who's known simply as Gravity.

Let's look first at the raw pencil art, cleverly designed and impeccably rendered by Sal Velluto:

And now the finished version, inked by Bob Almond:

I enjoyed reading the adventures of both of these characters, short-lived though they were. They're excellent examples of the kind of stories I wish more comics companies took to the time to tell.

Captain Gravity (who has appeared in two limited-run series, the first of which was written and illustrated by a different creative team) offers an interesting spin on social issues, in that the public in Captain Gravity's pre-WWII Hollywood does not know that the man behind the hero's mask is African-American. Although it's ostensibly a superhero yarn, Captain Gravity's period setting gives it a pulp magazine appeal that I, at least, found irresistible. Both Captain Gravity miniseries are worth searching out in trade paperback format.

Gravity, who starred in an eponymous five-issue mini from Marvel Comics, reminds me of the charm and energy of early-period Spider-Man, as well the modern-age superhero Invincible (whom Gravity resembles in both costume and character). Gravity was killed off by writer Dwayne McDuffie during the subsequent miniseries Beyond!, then resurrected by McDuffie during his brief tenure on Fantastic Four. When last seen, Gravity and a coterie of his fellow C-level heroes — dubbing themselves "The League of Losers" — had embarked on a new life in a far-distant alternate future timeline.

Back with another Sal & Bob Common Elements creation next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Comic Art Friday exclusive: Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond (part two of two)

Previously on Comic Art Friday...

We presented the first half of our exclusive interview with comic book artist Bob Almond, one of the industry's foremost inkers. Bob stopped by SSTOL to chat with us about the Inkwell Awards, which will honor artists who practice this misunderstood, often unheralded specialty. As founder of the Inkwell Awards, Bob is the perfect man to give us the straight skinny on this unique new recognition program.

As in last week's session, we'll intersperse Bob's comments with "before and after" examples of commission projects "The King of Ink" has done for me over the past several years.

We now rejoin our interview with Mr. Almond, already in progress.

SSTOL: In addition to yourself, Bob, who are the fine folks who make up the Inkwell Awards committee?

Bob Almond: The committee consists of several talents as passionate as I am for getting our message out. I'll start off with Bill Nichols, my editor at Sketch Magazine, where the awards were born in my "Inkblots" column. Bill and the magazine were the instruments that allowed me to take my idea and let it germinate. And, besides being another inker, Bill brings an editor's perspective to the game. His goal has been to educate and help other creators in our community.

Then there's Tim Townsend, our unofficial ambassador. He's about as close to "superstar" status as inkers get these days. Tim was my first choice for a team player due to his ability to bridge and connect to professionals from the legendary veterans up to the young hotshots of the medium.

We have Jimmy Tournas, fellow inker and moderator of the Inkwell mailing list on Yahoo Groups. Jimmy is one of the most giving and nicest guys around. He is the reason we have accomplished so much at our site, since he designed and created the bulk of it. He's the tech guy I go to when I'm typically ignorant of some matter. Definitely the "glue" of the group.

Daniel Best
is our resident writer Down Under. His blog, 20th Century Danny Boy, has always impressed me for showing his efforts to help out the little guy, or yesterday's legends who have fallen off the radar. For that reason, he's like the soul of our team mission.

And lastly, we have our non-inker celebrities, Mike Marts and Adam Hughes. Mike is presently a DC Comics senior editor, and has spent editorial stints at both Acclaim Comics and twice at Marvel. In fact, he even edited my run on Black Panther. Mike knows how to motivate the best out of people, he knows and loves the business, and he adds to our credibility by adding a mainstream editor to the fold in support of our cause of respecting and giving back to those ink artists deserving of attention.

And what can I say about Adam that his work doesn't? He's a multi-talented and respected artist with whom we are sincerely honored to be sharing the floor. The man knows how to ink, but he transcends that. And yet, he still feels it important enough to help recognize that what we do is important. Besides overseeing the awards proceedings, Mike and Adam bring a cross-professional, non-partisan atmosphere to the group which amplifies the solidarity involved. In other words, they really make us look good!

SSTOL: You've named your Lifetime Achievement Award after Joe Sinnott. Why did you choose Mr. Sinnott, who's probably best known for his work over Jack Kirby's pencils during Marvel's Silver Age?

Bob Almond: The committee discussed several candidates for the title, in terms of having an ink artist whose name recognition brings distinction and respect to the craft due to his or her quality of work, character, and accomplishments through the years. Ultimately, we all agreed on Joltin' Joe.

SSTOL: I definitely concur with that choice — Sinnott was my favorite inker of that historic period. Who are some of the other inkers who most influenced your own work?

Bob Almond: As a young 'un Marvel fan in the mid-to-late '70s, I always adored and studied the work of Joe Rubinstein, Bob Layton, Terry Austin, Tom Palmer, and Klaus Janson.

I'd collected back issues and was familiar with the great Golden and Silver Age inkers, but I felt that these upstarts were pushing the medium even further along and made the work more exciting overall, almost regardless of who penciled the work. So, while I studied and was inspired by others along the way, I have to say that those five guys were my earliest influences.

SSTOL: One final question, Bob. If you could put to rest one misconception about inking, what would it be?

Bob Almond: I may need to stretch that beyond one misconception when it comes to our work. Not to sound bitter, but there's a belief by some that inkers are talentless hacks. Many ink artists are fine, accomplished pencilers and painters who have cut across to other areas like commercial art, animation, and storyboarding. Inkers know how to draw, but tend to be quicker or better at the inking path of creation, thus making it a more practical career choice.

Some feel that inkers just trace the work. But they don't know what the work looked like when we got it. The reader is actually seeing our interpretation of the work in ink. Often we add, edit, and redraw much of what was there originally, for whatever reason.

Also, some feel that we're interchangeable. I'm sure many could also challenge that line of thinking by recalling some art matches [of penciler and inker] that were ill-conceived by editors over the years. With the right style combination, the inker will certainly bring the best out of the pencil art, and achieve transcendent work that will be cherished for years to come.

Voting for the Inkwell Awards begins April 1. If you're a fan of comic art, please take a moment to drop by the site, and put in a mention for your favorite inkers. The competition covers both classic and modern artists, so there's ample opportunity to acknowledge all of your favorites past and present.

Thanks to my friend Bob Almond for his generous participation!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Comic Art Friday exclusive: Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond (part one of two)

You've arrived at a good time, friend reader. Your Uncle Swan has a special treat in store for today's Comic Art Friday... and for next week's, as well.

If you drop by this august establishment frequently, you'll recognize the name of comic book artist Bob Almond, whose titanic talent has graced many a Comic Art Friday. One of the most gifted inking specialists in the industry, Bob is a master at transforming pencil drawings into beautifully finished art.

Over the past few years, Bob has accepted about 30 commissions from me. It's fair to say that my art galleries would be drastically different were it not for the brush strokes and pen lines of the man other collectors and I affectionately call "The King of Ink."

Recently, Bob teamed with a stellar assemblage of comic industry insiders to create the Inkwell Awards, a soon-to-be-annual celebration of inking artists and their craft. Through his "Inkblots" column in Sketch Magazine, Bob developed the concept of acknowledging the often overlooked (and in my opinion, tragically undervalued) artists who, as Bob defines it, specialize in:
"the craft of enhancing an illustration through the means of redrawing pencil lines with ink and its related tools... in areas of — but not limited to — weight, space, depth, definition, contrast, texture, composition and design."
Online balloting for the inaugural Inkwell Awards begins on April 1. In anticipation of the launch, Bob graciously consented to an interview with SSTOL. You're about to read the first half of this interview; we'll publish Part Two next Friday. To illustrate (no pun intended) the importance of "ink editing," I've chosen some of Bob's finest "before and after" projects from my collection to accompany this conversation.

SSTOL: Bob, what inspired you to create the Inkwell Awards? And why do you think that inkers don't get more recognition in the comics community?

Bob Almond: Actually, to combine these related questions into one answer, the fact that ink artists don't [get their just recognition] is what inspired me to create the awards. One reason for the latter is the fact that "inker" is almost exclusively a comic book industry product. As such, the name doesn't have a precedent for people comprehending what exactly s/he does.

In general, everyone knows what a penciler does, and they can easily determine that they draw. Same with the letterer, colorist, and even the editor. Not the inker. The common understanding from the public is that we fill in the blacks, or that we color, and, of course, that we "trace," which is the simplest and most ignorant of definition of our craft. If that was all we did, then anyone off the street could do it.

The other reason is that, for whatever reason, the status of inkers [within the comics industry] has been diminished of late. Their credits have been absent from some solicitations, reprint collection covers, and reprint sample art. Some major conventions haven't listed inkers in their guest lists, and some industry awards don't give them their own category. Inkers used to be one of the top three creator categories, but they've lost some leverage in that arena due to — in our opinion — less recognition for their work and lack of information.

We inkers certainly don't follow this line of work for the money. We do it for the love of the medium and craft, and for the credit. This is what motivated me to initiate an effort to give back to the invisible inker — often unsung, like the bassist of a band, who's not a rock star like the lead singer or guitarist.

We want to show appreciation to the ink artists, as well as have our site consisting of information and resources to help educate and inform the fans on what we do. Not to elevate our work to that of brain surgery or anything pretentious — we just feel it is an essential part of sequential art production in the area of quality control and storytelling enhancement.

SSTOL: In this age of computer graphics, is inking a dying art?

Bob Almond: Dying, no. Diminished, yes. But not necessarily due to computer tech. The comic book implosion of the '90s caused much of that, as in the other areas of production, simply from a reduction of publishers and titles.

The introduction of actual digital inking added but a new component to the equation of creating comics. It consists of using a "wand" tool on a tablet or the screen to simulate the inking gestures without ink. But this skill has been extremely limited in usage, because of the cost and the difficulty of getting that natural look and versatility of line except over the most simplest of drawings. I only know of Alex Maleev and Brian Bolland who use it on their own art in the mainstream.

The misnomer "digital inking," the process of darkening and cleaning scanned pencil art lines in Photoshop, is not inking at all. [The term is] actually insulting to the traditional inkers. It's a cost-cutting measure and another exclusively comic book industry product, one that some pencil artists have requested in the goal of achieving more art sincerity.

But I feel what they've lost is the distinctive power of the ink through the missing weights, depth, textures, and other enhancing traits. Comic art commission clients know this, as do some editors. So I don't believe that the craft of inking will "die." But our present status could surely use a boost.

SSTOL: From a historical perspective, why is inking as a specialty such an important part of comic art?

Bob Almond: Deadlines. Inking was used on comic strips, and a form of it was created in the production of animation cells. But it was the comic book publishers who realized early on, when the medium was still young, that they could get more work out of their most popular and skilled artists by having their work inked by other artists. This way, a prolific superstar like Jack Kirby, for example, could draw and create most of the Silver Age Marvel Universe on his own. So it's a quantity tool.

Inking in general was also an essential part of the process, because the art wouldn't print properly, if at all, just in pencil. Successive decades later, technology allowed for such a possibility, but uninked art was used sparingly until recently. But as I discussed, it's also a quality tool, as the missing ink is very much missed.

In next Friday's second half of our interview, Bob Almond introduces us to the array of creators behind the Inkwell Awards, and also to some of the inkers who helped shape his own personal perspective on this unique artistic craft.

So, join us here in seven, won't you?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

WonderCon: Where comics rule, and cash disappears

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to my loyal assistant Abby, who celebrated her seventh birthday yesterday.

Abby does not like it when the boss closes the office for two days to run off to some silly comic book convention thing, as he did last Friday and Saturday. So she's happy that he's back in his chair where he belongs, so that she can lie at his feet and snooze.

Speaking of that silly comic book convention thing...

WonderCon 2008 rocked.

San Francisco's Moscone Center overflowed with pop culture insanity last weekend, and your Uncle Swan splashed along with the colorful tide.

It was, I must say, quite an action-packed weekend:

I convinced a pair of Stormtroopers that I was not the droid they were looking for...

I persuaded Wonder Woman and Supergirl to pose for a photo by name-dropping my close personal friendship with Bob Almond, the King of Inking...

I avoided making the Incredible Hulk angry, because I wouldn't like him when he's angry...

I made a donation to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, battling evil censorship wherever it raises its ugly head...

...and I strolled past more fancy merchandising displays than one could shake an uru hammer at.

I attended several terrific panels. The highlight was Mark Evanier's panel debuting his new book about the life and art of Jack Kirby, Kirby: King of Comics. Mark, who broke into the comics business as Kirby's assistant in the late 1960s...

...led a discussion on the works of Jolly Jack, aided and abetted by such creative talents as Mike Royer, who was Kirby's primary inking collaborator for two decades, beginning in the early 1970s, and Darwyn Cooke, the writer/artist responsible for Justice League: The New Frontier, the film version of which debuted at WonderCon on Saturday night. (It's available now on DVD. You should run out to your local retailer as soon as you finish reading this, and buy a copy.)

Comic Relief, the big comics shop in Berkeley, managed to acquire the first 80 copies of Mark's hot-off-the-press book to sell at the convention. Both Mark and Mike Royer were kind enough to autograph my copy. (According to Mark's blog this morning, Amazon now has Kirby: King of Comics in stock. You should click over there as soon as you finish reading this, and order a copy.)

Mark also hosted an enjoyable one-on-one interview with longtime Marvel Comics artist Herb Trimpe, known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe, Godzilla, and Shogun Warriors, among numerous other titles. Herb was also the first artist to draw Wolverine, later of the X-Men, in a published comic. If you had a mint-condition copy of Incredible Hulk #181 lying around, you could put your kids through college.

A few years back, I commissioned Herb to draw an entry in my Common Elements theme — a tussle between Doc Samson, a Hulk supporting character Herb co-created, and Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. I took the piece to WonderCon with me, and Herb kindly posed for a photo with it. It was a treat to meet him and to thank him for it in person, after all this time.

Another entertaining panel featured a group of animation writers — Justice League story editor Dwayne McDuffie prominent among them — developing an outline for a hypothetical animation project using random suggestions from the audience. If you ever see an announcement about Howard the Duck vs. The Green Lantern Corps, you'll know that this panel is where the concept first germinated.

Of course you know that I didn't spend the entire weekend listening to industry stalwarts yakking. Artists' Alley beckoned, and its denizens busied themselves adding a slate of gorgeous new artworks to my collection. Let's check out the haul.

For the second consecutive WonderCon, I commissioned a new Common Elements artwork. This year, the challenge went to the legendary Tony DeZuniga, who agreed to bring together the swashbuckling Zorro and the Justice League's Vixen. I had neglected to bring a picture of Zorro — I mistakenly believed that Tony had drawn the character before — so Tony's charming wife Tina prowled the comics vendors until she found a old Gold Key Zorro comic for Tony to reference.

Here, Tony displays his completed creation.

Alex Niño, one of comics' most distinctive stylists, held court at the table next to Tony's. I took advantage of the opportunity to tell Alex that I'm probably one of maybe five people in the world who owns all twelve issues of Thriller, the fabled series from the '70s on which Alex followed Trevor Von Eeden as artist.

Alex responded with this striking drawing of Taarna, from the film Heavy Metal.

Although we always renew our acquaintance whenever we see each other at a con, it had been a while since I had commissioned a new work from the great Ernie Chan. I rectified this oversight, and Ernie delivered this terrific portrait of Doc Savage and his cousin and fellow adventurer, Pat Savage.

I never pass up a chance to have Ron Lim draw something for me. Ron seemed to enjoy creating this pinup of longtime Fantastic Four comrade-in-arms Thundra.

Last year at WonderCon, I struck gold by stumbling upon Phil Noto, who although not listed as a convention guest was setting up at a table. Could lightning strike twice in the same convention hall? Yes, indeed — once again, I lucked into a commission from the again-unannounced Mr. Noto. Here's Phil's Valkyrie as a work in progress...

...and as a finished product in the hands of the artist.

David Williams, who has contributed delightful art to Marvel's all-ages line in recent years, was the perfect choice to draw Mary Marvel. His Marilynesque take on Mary couldn't be more adorable.

I was elated last year when Aaron Lopresti took over the art chores on one of my favorite series, Ms. Marvel. Thus, when comics news sites reported recently that Aaron was leaving Marvel for DC, I was disappointed... until I learned that his first DC assignment will be as the regular penciler on Wonder Woman. This awesome Storm drawing will satisfy my Lopresti jones until Aaron's first issue of Wonder Woman hits the stands.

I had intended to commission a piece from Sidekick artist Chris Moreno. When I saw this amazing drawing of Ms. Marvel in Chris's portfolio, however, I couldn't imagine him drawing anything that I would enjoy more than this. So I bought it from him. Chris's use of negative space in this piece is stunning.

So that, friend reader, was WonderCon '08. Now you know where the money went.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm wandering to WonderCon

It's WonderCon time, boys and girls.

Thus, your ever-lovin' Uncle Swan is off for two fun-filled, action-packed days at San Francisco's Moscone Center, rubbing elbows with sweaty comics geeks from all over the West. We'll check out the scene, slap palms with a few old comrades, and with any luck, pick up a new artwork or two along the way.

And of course, we'll report back here next Comic Art Friday, to tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, to whet our comic art appetite, let's flash back to a few of the artistic highlights we've commissioned at WonderCons past.

From WonderCon 2005: Ron Lim rocks Captain America — may he rest in peace — and throws in the U.S. Agent for good measure. Comic Art Friday perennial Bob Almond later put the finishing touches on this one, in ink.

From WonderCon 2006: Alé Garza delivers a lovely yet powerful rendition of my favorite mutant, the weather wizardress known as Storm.

From WonderCon 2007: The delightful Paul Ryan creates an exciting splash page — literally and figuratively — featuring his heroine and mine, Wonder Woman.

What joys will WonderCon 2008 bring to our little collection of funnybook drawings? Drop around in seven days, and find out!

And that, fellow Con artists, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

R.I.P., Steve Gerber

Today's a sad Comic Art Friday...

Comic book creator Steve Gerber passed away earlier this week.

Gerber was one of the leading lights in Marvel Comics' "second generation" of writers, those who came along in the early '70s after Stan Lee had reduced his prodigious output. Gerber, in particular, quickly gained a reputation for an off-kilter, freewheeling style — punctuated by weird humor and oblique satire — that seemed especially well suited to some of Marvel's fringe characters.

It was while writing one of those fringe characters — the swamp monster called Man-Thing — that Gerber's unique voice found its ultimate avatar in an angry feathered creature named Howard the Duck.

Howard became Gerber's signature character, as well as the focal point of a long-running legal battle between the writer and the publishing company. While at Marvel, Gerber also co-created such memorable characters as Shanna the She-Devil, a jungle heroine, and Omega the Unknown, a mysterious superpowered alien who forms an unusual connection with a gifted Earth boy.

My favorite of Gerber's works was his two-year run on The Defenders, which I've mentioned previously in this space as one of my favorite comics of the '70s. Although several other talented writers preceded (Steve Englehart, Chris Claremont, Len Wein) and followed (David Anthony Kraft, Ed Hannigan, J.M. DeMatteis) Gerber on Defenders, the series really came into its own under his authorship in 1975-76.

In memory of Steve Gerber, let's look at a few artworks from my collection that feature members of the Defenders.

As "Marvel's greatest non-team," the Defenders usually brought together characters who weren't generally known as team players. Their founder and leader was sorcerer supreme Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts. The good Doctor appears here by way of the potent pencil of artist Geof Isherwood.

The original triumvirate of Defenders partnered Dr. Strange with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and the gamma-irradiated green Goliath known as the Hulk. Bruce Banner's hulking alter ego locks horns with the mighty Thor in this artwork, penciled by Dan Jurgens and inked by Bob Almond.

One of the first expansions of the Defenders' non-roster added the sword-slinging superheroine Valkyrie, depicted here by penciler Michael Dooney and inker Bob Almond. As other early Defenders additions came and went (i.e., the Silver Surfer, the Black Knight, Hawkeye), the Valkyrie remained, becoming one of the team's most prominent members.

The group's next significant addition was Nighthawk, a sort of airborne Batman type. An established villain, Nighthawk switched sides from evil to good in order to help the Defenders defeat his former cronies, the Squadron Sinister. Nighthawk quickly became a popular Defender, ultimately becoming the team's de facto field general. Here, Nighthawk poses down with Kyle Rayner of the Green Lantern Corps, in a "Common Elements" spectacular by Kyle Hotz.

Steve Gerber continued to work periodically in comics after his '70s heyday. He also branched out into television animation, creating the popular series Thundarr the Barbarian and writing and story-editing such shows as Dungeons and Dragons, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. He remained a prominent advocate for creators' rights throughout his career.

If you're interested in learning far more about Gerber's life and impact on the comics industry than I could ever hope to share, you'll find an extensive list of links over at The Comics Reporter. Please take a moment and browse a few of the tributes — you'll be both astounded and moved.

At the time of his death from pulmonary fibrosis, Steve Gerber was 60. He was awaiting a lung transplant when he died.

He will, without question, be sincerely missed.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

In simplicity, beauty

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to longtime comic book artist Creig Flessel, who celebrated his 96th birthday last Saturday. Flessel's career in comics began way back in 1936, two years before Superman made his debut. He is best known for his work on such characters as Superboy, the Shining Knight (whom Flessel created), and especially the original Sandman.

Mr. Flessel lives here in the North Bay — in Marin County's Mill Valley, to be precise. He still makes occasional appearances at our biggest local comics convention, WonderCon, where later this month he will be one of the guests of honor.

I'm looking forward to seeing him there.

In the modern era, when so many comics artists hold the view that if one scratch, scribble, or hash mark is good, twelve will be even better (thanks, Image Comics founders, for your contribution to the medium...), it's always refreshing to see an artist capable of accomplishing great things with a deft economy of line.

That's why I'm a fan of the work of Brian Stelfreeze.

Brian is most familiar to comics fans as a cover artist. His work has adorned the faceplates of such series as Batman: Shadow of the Bat (for which Stelfreeze painted 50 consecutive covers), and recently, the futuristic action serial The Highwaymen. He has also drawn interior pages on occasion.

This evocative Wonder Woman pinup demonstrates how beautifully Stelfreeze can communicate physical power, grace, and subtle emotion without scattering random crosshatching all over the page.

Here's another striking example of the Stelfreeze style, this time featuring Marvel's female assassin, Elektra.

I first discovered Brian Stelfreeze's art when he did the covers for a Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze miniseries published by Millennium Comics in 1991 — the same book that introduced me to the work of another favorite artist, Darryl Banks.

A couple of years ago, Darryl was generous enough to allow me to purchase several original pages from the first issue of that miniseries (subtitled The Monarch of Armageddon). I now own roughly two-thirds of the art from that issue, including this spectacular opening splash page, penciled by Banks and inked by Robert Lewis.

Memo to comics artists everywhere: Less is more. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and their ilk notwithstanding.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

No time for losers, 'cause we are the Champions

Marvel Comics hates me.

First, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tried to ruin Spider-Man. Now, he's canceled Marvel's best new mainstream comic book in years, The Order.

It's as though Doctor Doom has seized control of the House of Ideas.

The Order, which debuted last summer, was probably the only positive development to come out of Marvel's Civil War mega-event — you know, that silly business in which Spider-Man unmasked on national television, Iron Man turned into George W. Bush, and Captain America got back-shot like Tupac?

Written by the supremely talented Matt Fraction (co-author of another of my current-favorite Marvel reads, The Immortal Iron Fist, which will probably be canceled now that I've owned up to buying it) and engagingly drawn by Barry Kitson (with whose work I fell in love during his recent stint on DC's Legion of Super-Heroes), The Order chronicles the adventures on a group of rookie superheroes, charged by the United States government as the official protectors of California. With a couple of minor exceptions, all of the heroes in the series were created especially for The Order, and Fraction and Kitson have done masterful work in making each member of the team interesting, individual, and compelling.

Heaven forfend that anything both fresh and unique should be given time to build an audience.

In truth, The Order began life with a strike against it (aside from its focus on unfamiliar characters, that is). When first announced, the series and its eponymous supergroup were supposed to be known as The Champions, a shout-out to a short-lived but fondly remembered Marvel series of the 1970s.

Beginning with The Defenders in 1971, Marvel went through a phase of cobbling together superhero teams from the most unlikely assemblages of candidates. The original Defenders lineup, for example, included Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk — the Silver Surfer joined them in the second issue — bringing together Marvel's least cooperation-friendly characters into a single unit.

The Champions' roster was even more bizarre — the Greek demigod Hercules; the Black Widow, a former Soviet spy turned superheroine; the demonic Ghost Rider; and a couple of original X-Men, Angel and Iceman. (I always wondered whether writer Tony Isabella and editor Len Wein simply stuck pictures of every Marvel character on Len's office wall, donned blindfolds, and threw darts at random to make up the Champions.)

What made the Champions unique to Marvel, aside from their patchwork lineup, was the fact that they were based in Los Angeles — a break from the New York centrality of the rest of the company's series. (The Black Widow and Daredevil had moved to San Francisco together in the early '70s, forming Marvel's first West Coast superteam.) The 21st-century Champions, also L.A.-based, were initially named as an homage to the originals.

Unfortunately for Marvel, a company called Heroic Publishing (home of Flare and Liberty Girl) had snapped up the trademark on the comic book title Champions, Marvel having abandoned it when The Champions was canceled in 1978. When Heroic refused to relinquish the trademark in exchange for monetary considerations, Marvel retitled its new Fraction-Kitson series The Order.

Now, you can just call it defunct.

Thinking back on those disco-era Champions, though...

I always liked the Black Widow as a character. She and Daredevil, with their similar fighting styles and abilities, made a solid partnership, and the Widow's strategic leadership was one of the best features of The Champions. Plus, her simple, elegant costume design — essentially just a black bodysuit, accessorized with a gold-ring belt with a black widow's red "hourglass" on the buckle, and wrist-mounted "stingers" — is a dynamite look.

As you can judge for yourself, from this slick, retro-cool pinup by the inimitable Phil Noto.

Having dropped away from regular comics reading in the late '80s, I was until recently unaware that Marvel's modern-day Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Natalia Romanova (there was a previous, unrelated character codenamed Black Widow in the 1940s), had been temporarily supplanted for a few years by a newer, younger model named Yelena Belova. The second Widow was blonde, of all things. After four decades of the Black Widow as a redhead, that strikes me as just plain wrong... then again, Marvel doesn't care what I like anyway.

Just to show that I can be open to new ideas, however, this attractive drawing by Matt Haley shows Natasha and her youthful counterpart together.

Okay, yeah. That works for me. (Is it now a rule that young superheroines have to wear bare-midriff costumes? And if so, can we reevaluate that rule?)

Natasha has also graced our Common Elements series with her always-welcome appearance. Artist Ty Romsa pairs the Widow with mercenary-at-large Silver Sable in this commissioned drawing.

Today, the Black Widow is a mainstay of the Avengers. That's the "Mighty" Avengers, as opposed to the "New" Avengers, for those of you who have difficulty keeping the teams straight... as do I.

I'm still ticked about The Order, though.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Bombs away, dream babies

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of John Stewart, the singer-songwriter who passed away last Saturday at the age of 68.

Stewart was most familiar to music aficionados as a member of the seminal folk group, the Kingston Trio, with whom he performed in the early to middle 1960s, and as the composer of the pop standard "Daydream Believer," a hit for both The Monkees and Canadian songstress Anne Murray.

For me, though, the quintessential John Stewart recording was his 1979 solo album, Bombs Away Dream Babies, with its Top Ten single, "Gold." ("Midnight Wind," from the same album, was a pretty decent tune, also.) The album features stellar backing vocals by Stevie Nicks, and guitars by her Fleetwood Mac (and one-time real-life) mate, Lindsey Buckingham.

As a college radio DJ in the early '80s, I gave that platter frequent enough airplay that Stewart's label should have slipped me payola. (First Dan Fogelberg, now John Stewart — I am burning through my street cred at a horrifying rate.) I was mildly surprised to learn from his obits that Stewart lived just down the freeway from me, in Marin County, for the last several years of his life.

Bombs Away Dream Babies may very well be one of the five or six coolest album titles ever. So cool, in fact, I swiped it for this next installment in my Common Elements comic art series.

Artist Andy Smith, who contributed some sensational pencils to a Red Sonja/Claw the Unconquered crossover miniseries a while back, brings together two of comics' greatest "dream babies." That's the improbably monikered Horatio Hellpop — better known as the cosmic superhero Nexus — at left. His fetching companion is Nura Nal, the precognitive heroine whose Legion of Super-Heroes code name is Dream Girl.

Like the rest of her Legion teammates, Dream Girl has been a fixture in comics since the early 1960s. Although she's one of the least imposing Legionnaires — to be honest, the ability to see the future in dreams isn't exactly the most scintillating superpower — she's retained her position as a mainstay of the popular squad for more than four decades. And finally, after years of snore-inducing, solid white costumes, she's finally obtained a visually interesting uniform — the cloud-themed ensemble Andy Smith depicts in his drawing above.

The creation of writer Mike Baron and artist Steve "The Dude" Rude, Nexus is a young man living in the far-flung future who receives amazing superpowers in exchange for bringing the galaxy's mass murderers to justice. Horatio experiences painful nightmares about his intended targets' crimes that only subside when the evildoers are executed by the powers of Nexus. It sounds a lot darker than it actually plays — Baron and Rude infuse the material with a propulsive sense of fun and wonder, and never take themselves (or their hero) too seriously.

One of comics' most recognizable stylists, Steve Rude has become something of a legend in the industry with his dramatic line and clutter-free design sense. That combination is evident in this commission Rude created for me a couple of years ago, pitting Mary Marvel against an onslaught of guided missiles. Bombs away, Mary!

Rude's work is heavily influenced by such artists as Jack Kirby, and especially by Alex Toth, to whose Space Ghost character Nexus bears some (not entirely unintentional) resemblance — as you can see in this Common Elements drawing by Scott Rosema, in which Space Ghost appears alongside the Western hero Ghost Rider.

Nexus, incidentally, is that extreme rarity in comics — an independently distributed, creator-owned superhero comic that's both well-reviewed and reasonably successful. Nexus's adventures first began appearing in the early 1980s, ran more or less regularly for a decade (with an occasional shift in publishers), then resurfaced periodically throughout the '90s. Baron and Rude relaunched the series last year after a lengthy hiatus. They also just reissued Nexus's origin story — a great way to introduce new readers to this terrific character.

And that, dream babies, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Happy anniversary, baby

As Pogo might have put it: "Comic Art Friday done come on Saturday this week!"

Sorry about that. As those of you who follow my Twitter log may have noticed, KJ went back into the hospital on Thursday. Don't panic: She'll be fine. She had a buildup of infection following her recent gall bladder removal, so they're draining the gunk (I love using that medical terminology) and pumping her with antibiotics to kill the nasty microbes. She'll probably come home on Tuesday if all goes well.

Unfortunately for her, this little setback means she's spending our 23rd wedding anniversary — which happens to be today — slurping clear liquids in a hospital bed, rather than dining sumptuously on haute cuisine at one of our outstanding local restaurants.

Still, we can celebrate the occasion, with some couples-focused comic art.

Batman and Catwoman — pencils by Al Rio, inks by Geof Isherwood:

Dynamo and Iron Maiden — pencils by Geof Isherwood:

Green Lantern John Stewart and Hawkgirl — pencils and inks by Wilson "Wunan" Tortosa:

Superman and Wonder Woman — pencils by the late, great Mike Wieringo, inks by Richard Case:

Spider-Man and Mary Jane — pencils by Al Rio, inks by Bob Almond:

Happy anniversary, KJ, and thanks for putting up with me for all these years. Get well soon, please.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Amazing Spider-Man: No more!

One of the most heart-rending events in my 40-plus years as a comic book reader occurred this week...

I dropped my once-favorite comic, The Amazing Spider-Man, from my standing order at my local comic book shop.

If you're at all interested in comics, you've probably heard about One More Day, the just-concluded storyline in which Peter Parker, your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, makes a deal with the demonic Mephisto to save the life of Peter's elderly Aunt May. The price of Aunt May's survival: The erasure from existence of Peter's marriage to his beloved Mary Jane.

What galled me about this development was not so much the idea that Peter and Mary Jane would no longer be married. I was reading Spider-Man comics for 20 years before Pete and MJ tied the knot in a 1987 special issue. Although their marriage has influenced Marvel Comics' mainstream continuity for two decades, Pete and MJ have never been married in every Spider-Man series that Marvel publishes. Spidey is young and single in the alternate-universe Ultimate Spider-Man, in the kid-friendly Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man, and in the romance comic Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. And of course, Pete and MJ aren't married in the blockbuster Spider-Man motion picture series.

So it's not as though being a married twenty-something is necessarily essential to the character.

What is essential, however, is Spider-Man's credo: "With great power comes great responsibility." Peter Parker became Spider-Man because his failure to stop a robbery cost his Uncle Ben his life. The core of the character has always been about making tough choices, and accepting the consequences.

In short: Spider-Man does not solve his problems by making deals with the devil. At least, the Spider-Man whose adventures I've followed since 1966 does not.

So I'm no longer buying The Amazing Spider-Man. I'll get my Spidey fix in other ways. I own the DVD archive of the series from its inception through mid-2006, so I have hundreds of ASM issues to read and reread. And I'll continue to enjoy The Amazing Spider-Girl, a wonderfully old-school series — written by Tom DeFalco and illustrated by Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema — in which Peter and MJ's teenage daughter May has taken up the superhero mantle of her now-retired father.

But I won't give Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada another dime for the series he destroyed.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Funky phantoms

Before we delve into this week's Comic Art Friday, I have to get one thing off my chest...

Take this, Joe Quesada.

I don't feel entirely better now, but that helped.

Moving on...

Although he's probably more familiar to comics readers from his work on The Flash and Legion of Super-Heroes, Greg LaRocque is one of the many artists who've been called upon to illustrate the adventures of Spider-Man during the Wall-Crawler's 45-year career. Greg was the inaugural penciler of the '80s-'90s series Web of Spider-Man, and also drew a year's worth of Marvel Team-Up, in which Spidey partnered with a different Marvel superhero each month.

When I heard that Greg was actively seeking commission projects, I knew I had to have him add a new page to my Common Elements gallery. (For the benefit of any first-timers present: Common Elements is my ongoing series of commissioned artworks, in which each drawing features two or more otherwise unrelated superheroes who share some characteristic in common.) Here's Greg's take on two classic characters: Phantom Lady and the Phantom Stranger.

Interestingly enough, when I approached him, Greg came up with several Common Elements-style pairings of his own, one of which included Phantom Lady. That makes perfect sense — as you can see, his style fits her like a glove. (I know, I know: She doesn't wear gloves. Don't interrupt me when I'm on a roll.) And I like Greg's visual device of making the mysterious Phantom Stranger appear out of Phantom Lady's "black light" beam.

As for Phantom Lady herself, she holds an intriguing place in comics history. She was one of the earliest female superheroes, making her debut in the August 1941 issue of Police Comics. Her adventures were published by Everett "Busy" Arnold's Quality Comics, which outsourced most of its early content from the art studio of Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) and S.M. "Jerry" Iger. The Eisner & Iger studio produced numerous successful series for Quality, including Blackhawk, The Ray, and most memorably, Plastic Man.

By the late '40s, the vast majority of superhero comics had gone the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon. This included most of the Quality lineup. The Iger studio (Eisner and The Spirit had departed by then) shifted Phantom Lady over to another publisher, Fox Features. The Fox version of the character was drawn by the supremely talented Matt Baker, a leading pioneer of what came to be known as "good girl" art (or "headlights comics").

Baker's cover drawing from Phantom Lady #17, depicting the impressively endowed heroine bound to a pole with rope, became the star exhibit in Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent, a scathing indictment of comics' supposed deleterious effects on the psychological health of American youth. Wertham's book triggered Senator Estes Kefauver's infamous inquiry into the comics industry, which in turn led to widespread (albeit industry-sanctioned) censorship in the form of the Comics Code Authority.

As for the Phantom Stranger, he was the focal point of one of mainstream comics' first furtive forays into the realm of the supernatural under the Comics Code. Introduced in 1952 but essentially abandoned after a brief six-issue run, DC Comics resurrected the Stranger (no pun intended) in 1969, just as DC and Marvel were beginning to flirt with the reintroduction of the horror themes that had twisted Wertham's and Kefauver's underpants more than a decade earlier. The Stranger's second series, which ran until 1976, helped pave the way for the onrush of supernatural titles in the '70s, everything from Marvel's Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night to DC's Weird War Tales and Weird Western Tales.

The Phantom Stranger remains unique among comics heroes in that his true identity has never been revealed, and his origin and powers (which are rivaled in the DC Universe only by those of the Spectre, who is supposed to be an agent of the Almighty Himself) have never been clearly defined. It's been speculated that the Stranger might be a fallen angel, the last survivor of a prior universe... even the legendary Wandering Jew.

Or, like the Sphinx in the film Mystery Men, he might just be very, very mysterious.

Not so mysterious, however, is the appeal of Greg LaRocque's art. That's evident from his lovely portrait of the Scarlet Witch, as embellished by inker Bob Almond.

As mentioned earlier, Mr. LaRocque is available (and highly recommended) for commissions. You can tell him your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Comic Art Friday: The best of 2007

It's the final Comic Art Friday of 2007, and you know what that means: Time for our annual retrospective of our favorite comic art acquisitions of the past year.

But before we get into our "Best Of" mode, let's give a Comic Art Friday "Happy Birthday" shout-out to Stan "The Man" Lee. The longtime Marvel Comics writer-editor-publisher celebrates his 85th today.

It's safe to say that much of my love for comics began with Stan, who, in partnership with such nonpareil artistic talents as Jack "King" Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema, and John Romita Sr., transformed a moribund funnybook operation into the senses-shattering House of Ideas, thereby changing American popular culture forever. I still get a charge out of reading Stan's bombastic scripts in the Marvel masterworks of the 1960s.

Excelsior, Mr. Lee, and many happy returns.

And now, a look back at my favorite additions to my ever-burgeoning comic art collection from these most recent twelve months. It was a Katharine Hepburn kind of year: We didn't add an abundance of new meat to the gallery's bones, but what we did add was choice. (Or "cherce," if you can do a good Spencer Tracy imitation. Which I can't.)

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroes Division:
"Out of Time" — pencils and inks by Bob Layton
Booster Gold and Captain America

The artist best known for his work on Iron Man shows that he can draw other heroes with equal facility. This was this first of two Common Elements commissions Bob Layton did for me this year, both of which turned out beautifully.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroines Division:
"Footloose" — pencils by Robb Phipps
Mantis and Gypsy

"Good girl" specialist Robb Phipps contributed this lovely pairing of barefoot heroines Mantis and Gypsy.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"In a Handbasket" — pencils and inks by Thomas Hodges
Hellboy and Hellcat

Star Wars artist Thomas Hodges delivered this preordered commission at WonderCon 2007. Hodges's angular, ink-heavy style owes a debt to Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, so I thought he'd be perfect for this assignment. As usual, I was correct.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Take a Giant Step" — pencils by Val Semeiks
Elasti-Girl and Goliath

In addition to his phenomenal drawing skills, Val Semeiks was a dream to work with. He brainstormed the idea of using my beloved Sonoma County wine country as the backdrop for his creation. Val is right at the top of my list of artists to commission in 2008.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Special Achievement Award:
"Marvels" — pencils by Luke McDonnell
The Marvel Families

Luke McDonnell earns his own category for taking on this daunting six-character project, pitting the Marvel Family of "Shazam!" fame against the Captain Marvels who have appeared in Marvel Comics. A real challenge to design, but Luke came though like a champion. (You can click the image above to view a larger version.)

Favorite Wonder Woman:
Michael Dooney (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

Michael Dooney has contributed to every one of my theme galleries. This may just be his very best ever. Bob Almond added his inking magic to make this a Wonder Woman for the ages.

Favorite Black Panther:
Ron Adrian (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

T'Challa never looked more powerful than he does in this stunning rendition by Brazilian artist Ron Adrian. Bob Almond, who's probably best known in the industry for his three-year run on Black Panther, was the obvious choice to ink it.

Favorite Mary Marvel:
Al Rio (pencils) and Bob McLeod (inks)

Actually, only the inking was new this year, but I so love the job Bob McLeod did finishing Al Rio's rough pencil sketch that I thought it deserved another look.

Favorite Ms. Marvel:
Aaron Lopresti (pencils and inks)

Aaron Lopresti, who recently completed an outstanding run on the Ms. Marvel series, revisited Carol's original costume for this commission, which he completed at Super-Con in June.

Favorite Supergirl:
Steve Mannion (pencils)

Steve Mannion's gently detailed penciling style shines in this super-cute portrait of the Maid of Steel, clad in her '70s costume. Steve drew this beauty at home, and delivered her (appropriate) at Super-Con.

Favorite Storm:
Phil Noto (pencils and inks)

Just catching up with the always-in-demand Mr. Noto at WonderCon was a genuine coup. That he delivered this spectacular artwork was icing on the cake.

Favorite Taarna:
Mel Rubi (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

My Taarna gallery was a primary commission focus this year. Every new piece in this theme turned out great, but none greater than this one, penciled by Red Sonja artist Mel Rubi and inked by the dependable Bob Almond.

Favorite Isis:
Mitch Foust (pencils)

Pinup artist Mitch Foust contributed this lovely take on the '70s TV heroine, another favorite theme this year.

Favorite Non-Theme Acquisition:
Spider-Man and the Black Cat
Pencils by Jeffrey Moy, inks by W.C. Carani

With limited funds available, my collecting this year focused almost entirely on new theme commissions. I did, however, pick up a couple of nice preexisting artworks that didn't fit into any of my signature galleries. Leading the field was this terrific pinup, a 1999 collaboration by former Legion of Super-Heroes artists Jeff Moy and Cory Carani.

Favorite Inking Makeover (tie):
Spider-Man and Mary Jane
Pencils by Al Rio, finished inks by Bob Almond

Favorite Inking Makeover (tie):
Pencils by Al Rio, finished inks by Joe Rubinstein

A pair of rough sketches by the ultra-talented Al Rio, transformed into finished art by two of the best in the business, Bob Almond and Joe Rubinstein.

Which brings us to...

Comic Art Friday's 2007 Artist of the Year:
Bob Almond

"King of Ink" Bob Almond scores his second consecutive nod as our Artist of the Year. Bob is both a tremendous talent and a truly fine working partner, who bends over backward to deliver incredible results on my inking commissions. Plus, superheroines dig him.

Thanks to each of the comic artists who expanded my collection (and depleted my funds) in 2007. You all rock!

I especially want to extend my appreciation to all the artists who took time to draw for me in person, or to present a prearranged commission, at a comics convention this year: Thomas Hodges, Ron Lim, Buzz, Paul Ryan, Danny Bulanadi, Tony DeZuniga, Ernie Chan, Brent Anderson, David Williams, Phil Noto, Michael Ryan, Aaron Lopresti, Steve Mannion, Chris Giarrusso, and Alé Garza. Thank you all for being so nice to me!

And that, true believers, is another year of Comic Art Friday. As Stan Lee would say: Face front!

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Just your average pre-Christmas Comic Art Friday

Today's Comic Art Friday is powered by Roy Yamaguchi's Pacific Roast coffee, one of the fine products in the Hawai'i Chef Series from Royal Kona Coffee.

According to the Royal Kona Web site, this is the same coffee served in Chef Roy's world-famous restaurants. It's a nice medium-dark Vienna-style roast, rich and full-flavored but not overpowering, with just a hint of citrus finish on the back end. It's made with "not less than 10% Kona coffee" — at least, that's what the label says.

As they say in Hawai'i: Mo' Kona, mo' bettah.

Speaking of which, what could be mo' bettah than a pair of dynamic drawings of our favorite Marvel Comics superheroines? Not much, really — unless Chef Roy Yamaguchi dropped around and cooked dinner at my place. And brought a pot of his Pacific Roast for dessert.

Both of today's featured items flow from the pen of artist Gene Gonzales. Gene has worked on a number of indie comics over the past decade or so, but I'm mostly familiar with him as the artist on a late-'90s iteration of Mike W. Barr's Maze Agency. (Maze Agency, a mystery comic featuring stories in the "fair play" style made famous by Ellery Queen, is a terrific concept that Barr resurrects every few years, most recently in 2005. Its chief claim to fame is as one of the earliest projects to showcase the art of now-superstar cover artist Adam Hughes.)

In this first drawing, Gene presents a powerfully dramatic scenario starring Ms. Marvel.

I love the subtle way that Gene sketches into the background the victims of the subway disaster. The woman holding the infant is precious.

Here, Gene gives us a more traditional pinup-style look at our favorite climate-manipulating X-mutant, Storm.

Gene's clean, simple approach makes excellent use of light/dark contrast. He's able to suggest a lot of detail without a superfluity of fussy rendering. It's a technique that many of the great comic artists of yesteryear mastered to beautiful effect... and one that far too many of today's bravura artists disdain.

Since we already have Storm on the brain, let's take a peek at this jaw-dropping piece by Ron Adrian, which juxtaposes the Black Panther against a background image of his weather-witching bride. We've displayed the raw pencil art on a previous Comic Art Friday — now we reveal the finished version, with inks by Bob Almond.

As an art collector, I'm fortunate to have access to the services of several talented inkers. The inkers whom I commission frequently — Joe Rubinstein, Geof Isherwood, and Bob McLeod, in addition to the ever-reliable Mr. Almond — share in common an openness to my suggestions. In the case of the piece above, Bob made a slight alteration to Adrian's original design that, in both my opinion and Bob's, improves the drawing immeasurably. This one currently occupies a prominent spot on my office wall.

Next week: Our annual Best of Comic Art Friday, the 2007 edition. You'll want to be here — and that's the truth, Ruth.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

I Wanda, Wanda who wrote the Book of Love

Before we dive into this week's Comic Art Friday, I'd just like to note that KJ's gall bladder removal (or laparoscopic cholecystectomy, for those of you playing Grey's Anatomy at home) went swimmingly yesterday. As of about an hour ago, she's now resting comfortably at home. Thanks for all of the kind thoughts.

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comic book artist and writer Wayne Howard, who died of cardiac arrest on Sunday at age 59. Like many top talents of the 1960s and '70s, Howard began his career in comics as an assistant to the legendary Wallace Wood. He also worked with the equally legendary Will Eisner for a time. Howard's visual style hewed more closely to Wood's than any of the other artists who apprenticed under him, which is probably one reason I enjoyed his work so much.

For most of his tenure in funnybooks, Howard worked on mystery and horror titles for Charlton Comics, a budget-minded publisher that often presented more off-the-wall fare than either Marvel or DC did in those days. He was best known for Midnight Tales, a horror anthology series whose stories Howard drew and frequently wrote. The book is noteworthy as one of the first mainstream comics — if not indeed the very first — to acknowledge its creator with a cover byline, a practice that's standard in the industry today.

From my hormonal preadolescence, I mostly remember Midnight Tales because it featured (thanks to Wally Wood's unmistakable influence) some of the most fetchingly drawn female characters to be found anywhere. What I didn't know until word of his passing came across the Internet earlier this week was that Wayne Howard was African-American — one of the very few black artists in mainstream comics at that time.

We extend heartfelt condolences to Mr. Howard's family, and to his legion of fans.

Wayne Howard only worked on a handful of issues for Marvel Comics, none of which featured my favorite Marvel heroine of the '60s, Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. But I'm positive that, given the opportunity, Howard would have drawn a sensational Wanda. Since he didn't get that chance, let's look at three depictions of Wanda by artists who did, at least once.

First up, a stylish pencil drawing by one of Marvel's stalwarts of the '90s, MC Wyman.

That dotted effect that Wyman uses to illustrate Wanda's hex bolt power is known in comics lore as "Kirby crackle." Jack Kirby, probably the most influential and prolific artist in American comic books, created that signature visual texture, and employed it frequently to depict everything from cosmic radiation to the Silver Surfer's energy blasts.

Our second look at our vermilion-clad heroine comes from the pencil of the talented Jamal Igle.

Igle has been an active contributor at DC Comics since the early '90s. He's worked periodically for Marvel also, most notably on the miniseries Iron Fist/Wolverine. Currently, Igle is the regular penciler on DC's Nightwing, having completed a recent run on Firestorm: The Nuclear Man.

Our third and final Wanda displays the craft of an artist who signs his (or possibly her) work with the nom de plume Zeneilton.

Pretty much the only thing I can report about Zeneilton is that he (or possibly she) draws a mighty fine-looking Scarlet Witch.

And that, friend reader, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, December 07, 2007


Before we delve into today's Comic Art Friday, please indulge a brief rant I've entitled "Why Uncle Swan Hates Comics This Week."

The following three items have me feeling uncharacteristically grumpy about my beloved long-underwear fantasies lately:
  • One More Day, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada's misbegotten attempt to rewrite the past 20 years of Spider-Man's history by retconning Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane Watson out of existence.

    Memo to Joe Q: If you have unresolved commitment issues, or problems on the home front, get counseling. Don't indulge your personal emotional baggage in the comic books I purchase. Even the writer you dragooned into scripting this travesty thinks you're an idiot. (Though I'd have respected JMS more if he'd told you to take this assignment and shove it.)

  • Hypersexualizing of female characters in general, and teenage female characters in particular. DC Comics has been especially guilty of late. Whoever decided to dress 16-year-old Supergirl in a stripper's belly shirt and micro-miniskirt, or to subject Mary Marvel to the "Seduction of the Innocent" storyline that's currently playing out in Countdown to Final Crisis, ought to be slapped around by the Hulk.

    Kudos to current Wonder Woman artists Terry and Rachel Dodson for their insistence on drawing Diana with dignity (i.e., with minimal exposed cleavage, and with briefs that actually cover her glutes). I wish that more artists would be allowed/encouraged by their editors to follow the Dodsons' lead.

  • Marvel's allowing popular Ms. Marvel artist Aaron Lopresti to escape to an exclusive contract with DC. Lopresti's stellar penciling has been the best thing to happen to Ms. Marvel in years, aside from getting her own monthly title back after a decades-long absence.

    Aaron was the first regular artist who really seemed to "get" Carol since Jim Mooney was drawing her early adventures back in the '70s. I hope that whatever project DC has in mind for Mr. Lopresti is worthy of his talents. (Could we get him on Supergirl, pretty please?)
Okay, rant over. On with the art.

Speaking of artists who "get" a particular character, pinup specialist Michael McDaniel clearly "gets" Taarna, the heroine of the pivotal sequence in the claasic animated film Heavy Metal.

Michael, who shares my affection for the film and its star attraction, perfectly captures Taarna both in image and in attitude. The idea of theming this drawing after the Tarakian defender's code as cited in the film was entirely Michael's, and he executed the concept with aplomb.

Most of my theme galleries feature characters who either debuted or enjoyed their greatest popularity in the 1970s, the decade at the heart of my comics-reading experience. Here Mitch Foust, a stylish penciler with a deft eye for heroines, presents the Valkyrie, the mysterious Viking warrior at the core of the '70s superteam known as the Defenders.

I love the expression Mitch gives Val here — simultaneously cold and battle-weary, with her hair slightly shadowing one eye in characteristic fashion. (I've often referred to the Valkyrie as the Veronica Lake of comic book heroines.) Mitch also does a fine job drawing Val's costume and her prized sword, Dragonfang — his detail work here is exquisite.

There's nothing like beautifully executed art to remind me of what I love about comics. I feel much better now.

And that's your Comic Art (and Comic Rant) Friday.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Black Friday, part two

Previously on Comic Art Friday, we played the game of "before and after" with a pair of pencil drawings recently inked by one of the best embellishers in the business, par excellence Bob Almond. By way of an e-mail interview, Bob kindly provided his thoughts about his work on these two commissions.

If you haven't yet read last Friday's post, go check it out. We'll wait for you.

Back already? Did your lips get tired?

Now let's dive into the second half of our Almond Joy. (Because with Almond Joy, you can have half, and still have a whole. I love that.)

The first drawing we're going to examine posed an interesting challenge for Bob, but one that I knew he could ably handle. Brazilian artist Jorge Correa Jr. — best known for his work on the Stargate SG-1 comic books for Avatar Press — created for my Common Elements series this pairing of a fetching Donna Troy, the original Wonder Girl, with longtime Avengers stalwart Simon Williams, code name Wonder Man.

I love Jorge's composition and execution of this scenario, and the spot-on personalities with which he invests the characters. As you can see, however, he made the artistic decision to ink the piece in an open fashion, primarily in outline.

While this technique works perfectly well for a comic page that will be enhanced by the talents of a digital color artist (who will add shadow and dimension to the published art using computer-based effects), it's less than optimal for a drawing intended for display in its raw, black-and-white state. To my eye, Jorge's sparing use of defining shadow (known as "spotting blacks" in comic art parlance) gave the piece a cold, off-putting feel.

To the rescue rode the cavalry, in the person of Bob Almond.

Bob had previously completed the inking on my Brandon Peterson Supergirl pinup, which the original artist had inadvertently left unfinished. Knowing Bob's uncanny ability to mesh his inking style with practically any pencil artist's technique, I felt confident that he could tackle the even greater challenge of blending his own ink line with Jorge Correa's to add depth and dimension to this already finished drawing. And, of course, I was right.

I asked Bob:
What's your philosophy about spotting blacks? Obviously, your approach will vary somewhat from one penciler to another. But in general, when you look at a new piece of pencil art, how do you start thinking about where the blacks will go, and exactly how much you're going to add?
Here's the reply from our master inker:
This piece needed some contrasts, IMHO, to bring out the elegant line work already established. But I try not to be random about it. I follow general light source and shadow rules, and try not to be "spotty" with the blacks.

Applying blacks can help add to the composition and design of the image, as any followers of Mike Mignola (the creator of
Hellboy) can attest.
In last Friday's post, we saw Mr. Almond's work on a classically styled Wonder Woman pinup by one of my favorite pencilers, Al Rio. Our fourth and final project in this group would once again bring together the talents of these two great artists, but in a much more complex fashion.

As a preliminary rendering for a commission project, Al Rio drew this rough sketch of that legendary couple, Spider-Man and his bride, Mary Jane.

Bob Almond's completion of this artwork would require substantial penciling, adding a detailed urban background that Rio merely suggested with a few well-placed lines.

The transformation in the finished piece is awe-inspiring. Anyone viewing these two images together can plainly see that the inker's job — contrary to persistent misbelief — consists of far more than simply tracing the penciler's lines.

Take note here of the variety of techniques Bob uses to create texture, especially the rooftops of the buildings and Mary Jane's flowing hair. I pointed this out to Bob:
You excel in the use of texturing effects. How did that area of your artistry evolve?
Mr. Almond's answer:
Around the mid- to late '90s, I was inking mostly in brush, and getting much better at it. But I felt that over time I was being pigeon-holed as that "clean, slick inker" guy, and it was limiting the kinds of work I could be hired for.

So, after a couple of years of working with Sal Velluto (the penciler with whom Bob teamed for a highly regarded run on
Black Panther), we had discussions about using various markers and different approaches to the work. Along the way, I started to increase the use of textural effects to make my work less "clean and slick": spattering and smudging ink with a toothbrush, my finger, found objects, etc.; dry brush; scraping razor blades through the work; erasing over ink; and grainy crayon textures.

There are also the various Zip-a-Tones and rub-on Instantex texture sheets that I've used fairly regularly all along. I stocked up a considerable inventory in the early '90s, and it's good that I did, since they don't make that stuff any more, except from manga-based art suppliers. Not that one needs to use screens much any more, due to the advanced digital coloring done today, but it sure pays off with black-and-white commissions.
As Bob observes in his online gallery, he has completed nearly two dozen commissions for me over the past few years, and hundreds more for other collectors. He remains in demand for published projects also, having recently completed runs on Marvel's Annihilation: Conquest—Quasar and Wildstorm's A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Given the broad range of his work, I asked Bob:
In your career, you've inked hundreds of characters. Do you have favorites? Are there characters you've longed to work on, but never had the opportunity (or perhaps fewer opportunities than you'd like)?
Upon reflection, the Squiddy Award-winning inker opined thus:
I guess working on the classic DC, and especially Marvel, characters excites me the most, since I grew up with them in the Bronze Age, and I have a considerable amount of Silver Age titles as well. I don't recall any favorites that I have yet to ink, but as a fan, I never tire of Avengers commissions. (The "good girl" commissions are a thrill, too!)

I have more of a chance to ink a diversity of characters through commissions, thankfully, since my work on classic characters in the comics is more limited and luck of the draw. I was ecstatic to be hired for
Warlock, JSA, and Black Panther, but for every high-profile project, there's also the lower-profile material which very few may see. They are always fun to do, since you often get a little bit more freedom with the work. Sometimes you get to establish with the penciler a particular look for the characters that other artists will use down the road — something you don't usually get to do with the classic "big guns."

I've been very lucky for all the work I've had over the last 15 years, and I can't complain. Nostalgia motivates me the most, but I find that good comic art of various styles will inspire me in general. Just to be doing comics in some capacity is a lifelong dream. Ink runs in my veins, dude!
We here at SSTOL thank Bob Almond, both for his cogent comments and for his always amazing art.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, November 23, 2007

Black Friday, part one

In the world of retail sales, the day after Thanksgiving is commonly referred to as "Black Friday." It's the day on which many retailers get into the positive, or "black ink," side of the accounting ledger, due to the post-Turkey Day shopping boom.

Here at SSTOL, we're dubbing today (and one week from today, also) "Black Friday" for a different reason. For the next two Comic Art Fridays, we're going to focus on the importance of black ink in the world of comic art.

Specifically, we're showcasing four recently commissioned works by one of our favorite inking specialists, artist par excellence Bob Almond. Bob was also gracious enough to consent to an e-mail interview about these projects, excerpts from which we'll include as we go along.

So, in the words of the Black-Eyed Peas (keeping the "black" theme going), "Let's get it started."

DC Comics artist Matthew Clark — he's drawn such acclaimed series as Batman and the Outsiders, Wonder Woman, and The Adventures of Superman — drew this lush, graceful pinup of Ms. Marvel on a commission earlier this year.

Here's the same drawing, after embellishment in ink by Bob Almond.

Comic Art Friday asked Bob:
What challenges do you face in inking an artist with a fine line like Matthew Clark's? Are there artists whose line is less or more difficult for you to interpret, and if so, why?
Mr. Almond replied:
Some pencilers are very careful to include all line weights in their drawing; some others, not so much. Matthew fits into the former category. It was very clear that he was implying that many of the lines would be super-thin; in fact, I could barely make out some of those lines (they didn't show up in my photocopy of the pencils). But I love the extreme range and delicate approach to the work.

Some artists fit in the latter category, so you don't always know what they're looking for. It means that, as the inker, I need to structure the line weights as I see fit.

I enjoy both approaches. The first is a challenge to try to simulate the graphite lines in ink, to capture what the artist intends, while the second group allows me freedom to try different things.
The other single-character pinup in this quartet of commissions was this Wonder Woman sketch by Brazilian artist Al Rio. As mentioned previously on Comic Art Friday, this was Al's preliminary drawing for his contribution to Wonder Woman Day 2007, a benefit for women's shelters and domestic violence awareness.

Bob Almond finished Rio's sketch in ink, resulting in the pinup you see below.

Bob and I have done nearly two dozen commission projects together. At various times, we've had occasion to discuss the raw materials involved — in particular, the widely varying grades of art paper used by different pencilers. I asked Bob:
Talk a little about the challenge of inking on different types of art board — a moving target that an inker constantly faces.
Here's Mr. Almond's take:
I rarely have a problem with lesser-quality boards since I don't use quills much at all, and bleeding is a factor mostly with pen usage.

Sometimes, the pencils won't erase well off the finished work (but the ink, sadly, will). And if I need to use a frisket sheet to cover up areas while I spatter ink over other selected areas, sometimes when I lift the 'low-tack' sheet, it will lift some of the artwork with it.

All you can do is be prepared, and roll with the punches.
We'll feature two more projects from the Almond inkwell, along with more commentary from Bob, next week.

That's your Comic Art "Black Friday." If you're headed to your nearby mall or Mart (either Wal- or K-) today, be careful out there. Those bargain hunters can be bull-goose loco.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

By any other name

What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet...

Juliet's oft-quoted (and, to be brutally frank, oft-misquoted) line in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet affirms the fact that a thing is what it is, regardless of what title one attaches to it. While sparking a similar thought, Abraham Lincoln purportedly asked the riddle, "How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg?" To which Honest Abe supplied the answer: "Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."

As is true in literature and in pithy folk wisdom, so it is in comic books, too.

A few months back on Comic Art Friday, we featured this Common Elements artwork by longtime Iron Man writer/artist Bob Layton. That's Booster Gold on the left, and of course, Captain America on the right. (Click the image for an enlarged view.)

As noted previously, the "common element" between these two heroes is the fact that they are displaced in time. Captain America began his career in the 1940s before an extended period in suspended animation (he was frozen in a block of ice), while Booster Gold is a refugee from the far-flung future (the 25th century, to be precise).

The pair, however, share another distinction: Cap and Booster each temporarily battled evil under a different costumed identity. During the post-Watergate period, a disheartened Steve Rogers — the man behind Captain America's mask — spent several issues of Captain America and the Falcon calling himself "Nomad, the Man Without a Country." (Richard Nixon had that effect on a lot of people.) Most recently, during the DC Comics maxiseries 52, Michael Jon Carter — better known to the world as Booster Gold — took on the guise of Supernova, in order to perpetuate the false understanding that Booster himself had been killed.

I thought it would be fun to team Cap and Booster again, this time using their erstwhile alter egos. To maintain the thread of continuity, I once again commissioned Bob Layton to handle the artistic honors. You can see the result below. That's Supernova in the foreground, with Nomad in hot pursuit.

Speaking of the redoubtable Mr. Layton, Iron Man fans are excited about Marvel Comics' upcoming Iron Man/Dr. Doom miniseries, which Bob is co-plotting with his former collaborator, writer David Michelinie. Bob is also inking the book, over the pencils of longtime Silver Surfer artist Ron Lim. Iron Man/Dr. Doom debuts early next year.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, November 09, 2007

Ink 'em up, Joe

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of legendary comic artist Paul Norris, who died on Monday at age 93.

Norris will be most widely recalled as the co-creator of Aquaman. Apart from his Sea King, however, Norris enjoyed a lengthy and varied career drawing numerous comic books and newspaper comics. Most notably, he drew the daily strip Brick Bradford for 35 years, beginning in 1952.

Norris was one of the last survivors among the great Golden Age comic creators. His work will live on long after him.

Speaking of comic artists with lengthy and varied careers, I recently received a package of completed commissions from Joe Rubinstein, who's been inking comics for almost as long as I've been reading them. As you Comic Art Friday regulars know, that's pretty darned long.

Joe started inking jobs for the major comics publishers while still in his teens, as an assistant to influential giants Wally Wood, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano. Unlike many of his contemporaries who entered the field in the early 1970s, Joe has continued working regularly in comics to this very day. His list of inking credits covers pretty much every familiar superhero published in the last 35 years, plus hundreds more that even Joe has probably forgotten. His line work — smooth, crisp, graceful, eminently adaptable yet distinctive — continues to flourish. (He's also one heck of a painter, specializing in fine portraiture.)

So let's take a before-and-after look at what just rolled off Joe's drawing board.

The very first two-character piece I ever commissioned was this Michael Dooney stunner featuring the first two Marvel Comics heroines to bear the code name Spider-Woman. That's the original Spider-Woman, Jessica Drew, on the left; her successor, Julia Carpenter, on the right.

This was the commission that inspired and laid the foundation for my Common Elements theme series. For that reason, it carries a mountain of sentimental value for me. Joe and I first discussed him inking it shortly after Dooney drew it, nearly three years ago. It took me a long time to pull the trigger, but I'm glad that I finally did.

Speaking of Common Elements, one of the pieces in that series that consistently draws raves from artists and other collectors is this pairing of the Valkyrie (late of the seminal '70s superteam, the Defenders) and Nightcrawler (longtime stalwart of the X-Men and Excalibur), drawn by the incredible Dave Ross.

Like the Dooney Spider-Women artwork, I had Joe in mind to ink this one almost from the day I first saw it. And of course, when I finally let him have it, Joe did a spectacular job. He even went to the surprising (to me, anyway) length of contacting Dave Ross to get his input on how the inking ought to be approached. A true professional, that Rubinstein.

I love the work of Brazilian artist Al Rio. I'd own several dozen of Al's fully penciled pieces if I had the means to afford them. Alas, I'm a mere working stiff, and Al's commissions cost serious bank. I've had, however, remarkable success picking up Al's less costly rough sketches and having them embellished in ink by other artists.

This Supergirl sketch was a preliminary drawing for a commission Al did recently. (His finished piece features the Maid of Steel flying in from another angle, with a completely different aerial perspective of the building behind her.)

The moment I saw this sketch available for sale, I wanted Joe to ink it. Originally, I had planned to send Joe a different Rio drawing in this batch of commission projects. Once I scored this little number, that piece ended up in the hands of another extremely talented inker instead. Both decisions turned out perfectly.

I never cease to marvel (no pun intended) at how two comic artists — one working in pencil, the other in ink — can seamlessly meld their imaginations and skills to create artworks that reflect the talents of each. I consider myself tremendously fortunate to have so many beautiful examples of that phenomenon in my collection.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Go Bair, if you dare

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to Steve Ditko, the artist creator of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who is celebrating his 80th birthday today. I spent the first 90 minutes of Mr. Ditko's birthday watching Spider-Man 3 on DVD. Unfortunately, it didn't get any better since I saw it in the theater a few months back. Pity.

Although I haven't seen the official numbers yet, I'm hearing through the comic art collectors' grapevine that last Sunday's Wonder Woman Day was a smashing success.

I'm told that the art auctions raked in somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 to support shelters for women fleeing domestic violence. I call that a good thing.

Due to limited resources, I was only able to make small bids on a couple of the offered items. To be honest, I looked over the selections, then bid on a few that I liked, but which I didn't think would draw a lot of attention. I also put in a modest bid on one artwork I was confident would sell for a much higher price.

Now here's the irony: I didn't win any of the auctions in which I thought my bid might actually be competitive. I did, however, score the one item I didn't think I stood any realistic chance of winning — this incredible pinup by Michael Bair.

Bair is best known in comic book circles as an inker, especially in partnership with penciler Rags Morales on such high-profile projects as DC's Identity Crisis. Like most of the best inkers, however, Mike's a talented artist in general, as his work here demonstrates. His depiction of Diana captures the sense of quiet power — that "still waters run deep" quality — that too many artists miss while trying to make her look like a Penthouse centerfold. Bair's Wonder Woman is unquestionably beautiful, but also strong, resolute, and ever so slightly perturbed — exactly the way I envision the character.

I first met Mike a few years ago at one of the local comics conventions (I can't recall whether it was a WonderCon or a Super-Con). We were introduced by his good friend and frequent collaborator, the artist known as Buzz. I saw Bair and Buzz most recently at Super-Con in June, when they both participated in a panel featuring several of the greatest inkers in comics history.

That's Bair in the white shirt at far left, and Buzz standing in the green shirt. Also pictured, to Bair's left: Bill Morrison, Tony DeZuniga, Danny Bulanadi, Frank Cho, and Ernie Chan. (Alex Niño was seated on Cho's left, but you can't see him in this shot.)

Since that first encounter, I've drooled over Mike's pages at every opportunity. One of these days, I'd love to have him ink my Rags Morales Common Elements commission, featuring Lady Blackhawk and the Falcon.

Wouldn't that look awesome finished in Michael Bair inks? You know it would. A couple of other inkers have requested this assignment, but in recognition of his unparalleled synergy with Rags, I'm holding out for Bair. Mike rarely takes on commission projects... but I can dream, can't I?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Wonder Woman Day, redux!

Two days from today — Sunday, October 28 — is the second annual Wonder Woman Day.

In case you missed jotting this auspicious occasion on your calendar, the last Sunday in October each year has been officially declared Wonder Woman Day by the cities of Portland, Oregon and Flemington, New Jersey. This event uses the celebration of everyone's favorite Amazon to focus awareness on, and to raise money for, domestic violence shelters in the two sponsor cities.

Artists from throughout the comics industry donate original Wonder Woman art, which is auctioned off to support these worthwhile community organizations. You can view this year's incredible array of offerings at the official Wonder Woman Day site.

One of the items up for bid is a terrific pinup featuring Wonder Woman alongside Superman, drawn by the phenomenal Al Rio. I was fortunate enough some time back to be able to purchase Al's preliminary drawing of the Princess of Themyscira for my own collection. Al's sketch is so tightly rendered that it's almost indistinguishable from his final version (sans the superfluous Man of Steel, and who cares about him anyway?).

This piece is currently awaiting embellishment by one of the comic industry's great inking talents, Bob Almond. When Bob's done doing that voodoo that he do so well, I'll display the finished version on a future Comic Art Friday.

Another one of my favorite artists, Michael Dooney, created this spectacular Wonder Woman pinup you see below. I was being completely sincere when I told Mike this might be one of the best Wonder Woman drawings, not just in my not-inconsiderable collection, but in all of existence. (Mike thinks it's not quite up to the level of Adam Hughes, who more or less set the standard for Wonder Woman art during his three-year run creating the covers of her comic book, but I still dig it anyway. I dig Adam's stuff, too.)

Dooney's style incorporates influences from several of the classic pinup artists, including Alberto Vargas, Gil Elvgren, and George Petty. Mike was very receptive to my costume suggestions on this particular commission assignment, all of which he executed beautifully. I've always been partial to Diana's original costume with its golden eagle bustier, and I love the star-spangled skirt and Grecian sandals Dooney added here, at my request.

So, remember: October is both National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and Sunday, October 28 is Wonder Woman Day. If you're so inclined, pop over to the official site and check out all of the Wonder-ful art that's up for auction. You might even see something you'll want to bid on yourself. It's in service of a cause that Wonder Woman herself would most certainly approve.

After all, shouldn't every day be Wonder Woman Day?

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

The pact is: To avenge!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to comic art legend Marie Severin, one of the few women to make a lasting mark in the industry during comics' Silver Age. An acclaimed colorist for EC Comics in the 1950s, and later an illustrator, art director, and character designer for Marvel Comics, Marie was inducted into the Will Eisner Comics Hall of Fame in 2001.

Unfortunately, Marie suffered a stroke recently, and is now recovering in a rehabilitative facility. I wish her a swift and successful return to health. She's one of the great ones.

I'm sure that, given the nature of obsessive fandom, there must be people (read: adult males in an arrested state of emotional adolescence) who are even bigger fans of the film Heavy Metal than I am. (I'll identify one for you at the conclusion of this post.)

However, so far as I'm aware, I'm the only comic art collector with an entire gallery of commissioned art featuring the movie's most memorable character — the mysterious, silent swordswoman known as Taarna the Tarakian.

Why Taarna? I can't answer that question definitively, any more than I can explain why I prefer vanilla to chocolate. Part of the reason is my admiration for Heavy Metal itself, which I believe is one of the great neglected classics of animated cinema, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the film was made on a modest budget under an unrealistically tight schedule. The list of talents whose work is represented in the movie reads like an international Who's Who of fantasy art legends: Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Richard Corben, Berni Wrightson, Neal Adams, Howard Chaykin, Juan Gimenez, Angus McKie, Chris Achilleos, and Mike Ploog, just to name a few.

Another reason is Taarna herself. I'm a sucker for strong female characters (as regular Comic Art Friday readers will affirm), and Taarna is as strong — and as female — as they come. Plus, she's a terrific visual. Designed by Howard Chaykin, a comic book creator renowned for his striking depictions of women, Taarna has influenced the look of dozens of female characters in the quarter-century since she first appeared.

The Taarna artworks we're featuring today were both created by artists associated with other noteworthy female characters. Earlier this year, I was offered the opportunity to commission Mel Rubi, a veteran comic artist most familiar for his work on Dynamite Entertainment's Red Sonja series. Given Mel's intimate familiarity with sword-wielding woman warriors, I knew he'd deliver a fantastic Taarna... and he did.

Aside from the beauty and clarity of his linework here, I was especially delighted that Mel chose a unique pose for his drawing. It's eye-catching, it's dramatic, and most importantly, it's completely in character. According to Mel's art representative, Ruben Azcona at Comic Book Art Gallery, this was one of the first commission projects that Mel accepted. I hope he enjoyed it, because I have a feeling that he'll be asked to do many more.

Our second Taarna artwork roars forth from the pen of Matt Martin, who has drawn numerous covers for the Lady Death series published by Avatar Press. Like Mel Rubi, Matt has built his considerable reputation on his facility with dramatic female figures. He puts that skill to excellent use in this cover-quality illustration.

My favorite feature of Matt's Taarna is the powerful emotion with which he interprets the character. In her segment of Heavy Metal, Taarna remains stoic, never speaking and rarely revealing any inner feelings. Here, Matt strips away her implacable veneer and shows us Taarna's wrath-filled heart of vengeance. That curled lip, those flashing eyes... priceless.

If you're interested in a more detailed presentation of this quintessential heroine, check out superfan Adam W. Smith's incredible tribute site, Celebrating Taarna. Adam provides extensive background details about Taarna and her development, as well as his personal musings about what the character means to him.

Remember: October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To find a cure: This is the pact.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Shoeless Jills

We're in the midst of the second torrential downpour of our surprisingly early rainy season on this Comic Art Friday. (The first, wouldn't you know, arrived on Tuesday night — just in time for the 95-mile drive home from chorus rehearsal. It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature... or Al Gore.)

It's not the sort of day on which you'd want to go running around outdoors in your bare feet. If you did, however, it would probably mean that you were one of the two superheroines featured in this Common Elements pinup by comic book artist Robb Phipps, best known for his work on the series Mantra and Maze Agency.

On the left, that's Mantis, a staple of Marvel Comics' Avengers during the 1970s. On the right, that's Gypsy (real name: Cindy Reynolds), who began her crimefighting career with the Justice League of America, and more recently served with the all-female superteam Birds of Prey. As your discerning eye has no doubt already perceived, the Common Element between these two heroines is their utter disdain of footwear.

From my armchair perspective, it would appear that dashing into the heat of superheroic battle with unshod tootsies would be the height of folly. All an enemy would need to disable a barefoot opponent would be a few shards of broken glass (think Bruce Willis in the first Die Hard movie), a fistful of thumbtacks (available for a less than a buck at any convenient discount retailer), or just a well-aimed boot heel. But for Mantis and Gypsy, the feeling of hot asphalt beneath their soles must be worth the tactical disadvantage.

Mantis was one of the features that made reading Avengers so much fun back in that halcyon Disco Age. For one thing, she possessed one of comicdom's most unique speech patterns, always referring to herself in the third person as "This One." She also had a complex and intriguing backstory — the half-German, half-Vietnamese daughter of a supervillain named Libra, Mantis (who never, so far as I can recall, had a real name) was raised by aliens from outer space, rigorously trained to excel in every form of martial arts, spent most of her pre-superheroine adulthood selling sexual favors on the streets of Hanoi (silly rabbit — comic books are for kids!), and had been designated as the Celestial Madonna, destined to give birth to the savior of the universe.

Besides all that, Mantis was cute, provocatively dressed, and kicked evildoer butt in her bare feet. How could you not love her?

Mantis's creator, writer Steve Englehart, was so enamored of her that he reinvented new versions of her at practically every comics company for whom he later worked. At DC Comics, Englehart's Mantis avatar went by the name Willow; at Eclipse and Image, she was known as Lorelei. This is probably just an urban legend, but I've heard tell that Englehart keeps a RealDoll dressed like Mantis in his bedroom closet. (Okay, I just made that up. But it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. The man's obsessed, I tell you.)

For her part, Gypsy — whom I liked mainly because she was a frequent comrade-in-arms to one of my favorite heroines, Vixen — later sold out on the barefoot ideal, exchanging her ragtag fortune-teller costume for an armored outfit complete with boots. (Say it ain't so, Cindy!) I believe she's since gone back to the sans-shoesy style. You can take the girl out of the barefoot, but you can't take the barefoot out of the girl.

Being proactive and thoughtful superheroines, both Mantis and Gypsy asked me to remind you once again that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Early detection is your best friend.

I'm going to go dabble my pedal digits in a rain puddle. And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, October 05, 2007


This first Comic Art Friday of October is dedicated to everyone, everywhere, whose life has been touched by the scourge we call cancer. Although October is specifically National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, let's take a moment to reflect upon the fact that "cancer" in fact describes a plethora of diseases, all of which deserve the intensive focus of medical science until we beat them into submission for good.

Some time back, I decided to create a Common Elements concept that acknowledged the universality of cancer. So far as I know, none of the major comics publishers has yet done a story about a superheroine afflicted with breast cancer. (Note to self: There's a pitch to be written.) There have been, however, at least a couple of male heroes who've battled the Big C. Veteran comics artist Christopher Ivy — best known as an inker on such titles as The Flash, Ghost Rider, and Moon Knight — brings together two of these stalwarts: Captain Marvel (who figured prominently in last week's Comic Art Friday presentation also) and Amazing Man.

Will Everett, better known as Amazing Man, is a relatively obscure yet fascinating superhero who first appeared in the delightfully nostalgic series All-Star Squadron, published by DC Comics in the early 1980s. Writer Roy Thomas borrowed the code name of an otherwise unrelated Golden Age hero for this character, who was based in part on 1930s Olympic track star Jesse Owens. Introduced as a villain, the new Amazing Man quickly saw the error of his ways and became a force for truth and justice as a member of the All-Star Squadron, fighting alongside such classic heroes as the original Hawkman and Atom during the World War II era.

In the 1990s, the now-aged Will Everett died of cancer. His grandson Will III picked up the Amazing Man mantle — along with his grandfather's power to transform his molecular structure into any kind of matter — and joined the Justice League. Although the latest Amazing Man hasn't been seen in some time, rumor has it that he may resurface soon in the current Justice Society of America series.

Even superheroes are not immune to the ravages of cancer. Those who battle this deadly disease every day, however — whether in their own bodies or on the battlefield of medical science — are real-life heroes in my book. May all their efforts succeed.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Marvels vs. Marvels

I hear you out there thinking: How can Uncle Swan top his wicked cool Common Elements theme? You know, the one where he takes two unrelated comic book heroes who share some fact or feature in common, and asks a comic artist to match them up in a visually interesting way. What could possibly be more awesome than that?

Because I refuse, friend reader, to allow you to be disappointed when you wander by this humble blog on Comic Art Friday, I have summoned the definitive answer to your plaintive query.

Meet Common Elements to the Third Power.

Comic fanboys and fangirls have long debated what would happen if certain superheroes, usually those from opposing publishing companies, duked it out. In fact, I've heard these conversations raging at my local comic shop: "If Wolverine and Lobo got into a fight, who would win?"

Of course, my fevered imagination being what it is, I dream bigger than these mundane concerns. I wonder: "Suppose the Marvel Family in DC Comics found out that there was another group of Marvels in a parallel universe. What would happen?"

Fortunately for all of us, artist Luke McDonnell — he of the popular runs on Iron Man, Green Lantern, and my favorite, Suicide Squad — knows exactly how this rumble would throw down. (Click the image below to view a larger version.)

Entering the battle from the left:
  • The original Captain Marvel. When plucky newspaper delivery boy Billy Batson utters the magic word "Shazam!" he transforms into — or switches places with, depending on which writer is telling the story — the World's Mightiest Mortal. (Or, if you prefer, the Big Red Cheese.) The good Captain is endowed with the abilities of six mighty figures of legend: the wisdom of Solomon; the strength of Hercules; the stamina of Atlas; the power of Zeus; the courage of Achilles; and the speed of Mercury. Plus, he looks rather dashing in his red union suit.

  • Mary Marvel. Billy's long-lost sister Mary, who has been known by both the Batson surname and that of her adopted family, the Bromfields, also gains superhuman powers when she says the magic word. Unlike her brother's, Mary's abilities derive from (mostly) female legends: the grace of Selena; the strength of Hippolyta; the skill of Ariadne; the fleetness of Zephyrus (the one male ringer); the beauty of Aurora; and the wisdom of Minerva. (Actually, in current continuity, Mary's powers come from a passel of Egyptian deities. But I say, why mess with success?)

  • Captain Marvel, Jr. Although not a biological relation, Billy's handicapped friend Freddie Freeman inherits a junior-sized portion of the "Shazam!" action when he utters the name "Captain Marvel." (It's like the Happy Meal of superpowers.) Due to the unique method by which he powers up, Freddie is perhaps the only superhero in all of comicdom who can't say his own code name without losing his mojo. He's also the subject of one of comics' all-time conundrums: If you were crippled, and you could heal yourself by speaking a magic phrase, why in the name of Mac Raboy would you ever want to change back? Despite these oddities, Freddie is so cool that he was the favorite superhero of The King: Elvis Presley styled his hair and modeled several of his familiar onstage ensembles after Captain Marvel, Jr.'s 'do and duds.
Charging into the fray from the right:
  • The Marvel Comics hero known as Captain Marvel. Unlike his predecessor, this Captain Marvel is an actual captain, in the Imperial Militia of the spacefaring race called the Kree. Mar-Vell (as his mom and dad named him) found himself stranded on Earth after a falling-out with his superiors — the Kree wanted to conquer our planet, while Mar-Vell wanted to save it. For several years in the '70s, Mar-Vell shared a similar spatial relationship with Marvel Comics' perennial sidekick Rick Jones as that between the other Captain and Billy Batson. When Rick clanged together the high-tech bracelets (called nega-bands) on his wrists, he freed Mar-Vell from the Negative Zone, effectively changing places in the space-time continuum with him.

  • Ms. Marvel. U.S. Air Force pilot Carol Danvers had been an established supporting character in the Marvel Universe for nearly a decade before she got zapped by a piece of Kree tech known as the psyche-magnitron, gaining superpowers and a nifty costume inspired by Mar-Vell's. Over the years, Carol's powers have gone through more revisions than Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, so I'm fairly certain that the Kree connection disappeared long ago. She even changed her code name to Binary, then to Warbird, for a while, and her Kree-inspired outfit is ancient history. But she's always Ms. Marvel to me.

  • The second Marvel Comics Captain Marvel. Monica Rambeau, a lieutenant with the New Orleans Harbor Patrol in those pre-Katrina days of yesteryear, was dubbed "Captain Marvel" after she acquired superpowers from an extradimensional energy device. Only later did Monica learn that another hero (in her universe, anyway) already called first dibs on that name. Fortunately for Monica, Mar-Vell had died of cancer by this time, so the title was up for grabs. As it turned out, she later ditched the Captain Marvel nomenclature in favor of a series of other code designations, and eventually reverted to simply calling herself by her real name. A good thing, since Mar-Vell was recently resurrected and reclaimed his former title.
Those of you unfamiliar with comics history may well be wondering how we came to this multiple Captain Marvel situation in the first place. Interesting story, that. In brief, DC Comics (known then as National Publications) sued Fawcett, the original publishers of Captain Marvel, back in the 1940s, for violating their trademark on the character Superman, whom Captain Marvel closely resembled. After many years of legal shenanigans, DC won the argument, and Fawcett agreed to discontinue publishing Captain Marvel comics. (The company got out of the comics business altogether before long, as the market for superheroes had pretty much petered out.) DC later purchased the copyright to the good Captain and his associates, and began publishing their new adventures in the early 1970s.

By that time, however, Marvel Comics had already pounced upon the vacated "Captain Marvel" trademark (as opposed to copyright, which is a completely different legal issue) and was already publishing the adventures of their mostly different, but identically named, character. If you snooze, you lose, as the kids say.

And so the situation continues to this day. Because Marvel claimed the "Captain Marvel" trademark and kept it active through the years, only they can publish comics including the phrase Captain Marvel in the title. DC's comics featuring the original Captain and his kinfolk use Shazam as the identifying trademark in their titles. This results in much confusion for newer readers, who don't understand why the smiling superhero in the red long johns goes by the handle Captain Marvel when the cover of the comic says Shazam.

That's corporate America for you, kiddies.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Marvel Comics: My Top Ten

Previously on Comic Art Friday, I presented my ten all-time favorite DC Comics characters, in response to a poll conducted by Brian Cronin at Comics Should Be Good! This week, I'm back with the other half of my ballot, this time featuring characters from the Marvel Comics pantheon.

Of the two lists, my Marvel Top Ten was easier to compile. When I started this project, I quickly jotted down my ten Marvel characters, right off the top of my head. This list, however, proved harder to rank in order of preference. As a young comics reader, I was a much more fervent fan of Marvel than I was of DC, so I've had a closer emotional relationship with most of my Marvel favorites. (Ironically, my current reading list contains almost equal quantities of comics from both major publishers.)

Even though I cogitated over the Marvel list for a couple of weeks, not a single new name worked its way in, although characters moved up and down quite a bit during the placement process. The choice between the first and second slots, in particular, required some serious internal argument. I'm still wrestling with myself over those two.

But here's the ballot I submitted: Uncle Swan's Ten Favorite Marvel Comics Characters.

10. The Prowler. Easily the most obscure selection on either list, but I absolutely love Hobie Brown. The Prowler could be Marvel's Batman, if someone would just give him a chance. And, although he quickly evolved into a heroic figure, the Prowler was the first African-American villain I recall seeing in a comic book. My fondness for the character is borne out by the fact that the only cover recreation in my collection is a redo of the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #78, the issue in which the Prowler first appeared. It's drawn by Jim Mooney, who inked the original cover art over John Romita Sr.'s pencils.

9. Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. Wanda would have placed higher, were it not for this lingering nasty taste in my mouth from Marvel's House of M crossover event of two years ago, in which she was portrayed as an insane villain. Wanda's another character with tremendous untapped potential — as House of M demonstrated, she's one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. Besides which (besides witch?), she was my first Marvel superheroine crush, in those thrilling days of puberty. (Sigh.)

8. Iron Fist. Being the avid martial arts film fanatic I was back in the day, I always thought Danny Rand was a terrific character concept. During his years as half the Power Man/Iron Fist team, he balanced the more stereotypical aspects of Luke Cage, making Cage a richer, more rounded character by association. The Immortal Iron Fist, the current series written by Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker and drawn by David Aja, is astonishingly good.

7. The Thing. Aunt Petunia's favorite nephew, Benjamin J. Grimm was Marvel's first great personality. He's really the character who made the Fantastic Four a hit, because — to be brutally frank — the other three members of Marvel's "first family" are each annoying in his or her own way. Benjy's ongoing struggle to retain the humanity within his hideous exterior — with great power comes great personal tragedy — may be the most human story comics have ever told.

6. The Valkyrie. What can I say? I dig strong women and sharp objects. Val gets this high on the list in part because she's also representing for my favorite super-team of the '70s, the Defenders (since, according to the rules of the poll, I can't put teams on the list), of which she was a key member. She's also standing in for that other she-devil with a sword, Red Sonja, who's no longer a Marvel property (her current adventures are published by Dynamite Entertainment).

5. Captain America. When I was a kid, Cap was second only to Spider-Man in my admiration. I'm sorry for the publicity stunt his recent "death" engendered. In today's dark, conflicted world, we need Captain America more than ever. I know that Marvel will resurrect him eventually. I just hope Cap returns with his dignity and decency intact.

4. Storm. When she debuted as part of the "all-new, all-different" X-Men in the early '70s, Ororo Munroe converted me from a casual X-fan (I always found the original quintet dull and tediously ordinary) to an avid reader of the new team's early adventures. Although she's had two very good -- and very different -- miniseries in recent years, and made headlines for her marriage to the Black Panther last summer, I don't believe Storm's full potential as a character has yet been mined.

3. Ms. Marvel. Marvel's first stand-alone superheroine. Marvelites didn't have a Wonder Woman until Carol Danvers, previously a non-super supporting character, got powered up. Now, can we please get her original costume back? The black (or is it blue?) swimsuit with the lightning slash (I think that's what it's supposed to be) is lame, lame, lame.

2. The Black Panther. This was a tough call. Over the years, T'Challa has essentially moved into #1A status for me. I treasure this character immensely for everything he represents: the first black superhero; one of comics' first non-stereotypical persons of color; one of the most brilliant (maybe third, after Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom) and talented men in the Marvel Universe. Not to mention the fact that he's just plain wicked awesome.

1. Spider-Man. You've gotta dance with the one who brought you to the party, and it was Spider-Man who made me a fan of comics. He was the first costumed do-gooder I fell in love with — in a platonic, hero-worshiping sort of way. Even now, if I could only read one comic book per month, it would still be The Amazing Spider-Man. (Which is why Marvel's publishing it three times a month now.) I don't always like The Powers That Be at Marvel have dragged Spidey through over the years — the Clone Saga, anyone? — but after 40 years together, he's still The Hero Who Could Be Me.

As for the near misses, Number 11 would have been Thundra. The Falcon, Kitty Pryde, and Luke Cage were the other close calls.

There was a time when Iron Man would have been near the top of this list. I so despise everything that's been done to demonize Tony Stark in the past couple of years, however, that I've lost all good feeling (including nostalgia) toward the character. (That trailer for the upcoming Iron Man movie starring Robert Downey Jr. looks awfully sweet, though.)

The same is true of Daredevil. Frank Miller ruined him for me forever by ripping him from his roots as a more mature Spider-Man and making him nasty, ugly, and mean-spirited. Sort of like what Miller did to Batman in the '80s, and will probably do to The Spirit in the film version he's helming.

Anyway, those are my picks, and I'm sticking to 'em.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

DC Comics: My Top Ten

As mentioned in this space three weeks ago, Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good! (and yes, they should be, doggonit!) conducted a reader poll to find out who are fans' all-time favorite DC and Marvel Comics characters (not superheroes, necessarily — supporting cast count also). Participants submitted lists of their top 10 faves from each publisher's roster, ranked in order of preference. Beginning on Wednesday, Brian began counting down the top 50 characters in each poll.

Thinking — perhaps foolishly — that regular perusers of Comic Art Friday would be interested in knowing how I voted, I'll give you a sneak peek at my ballot. We'll start with my DC Top Ten this week, and come back with my Marvel list next Friday. Where I can, I'll include representations from my art collection.

So, in reverse order, here are Uncle Swan's Ten Favorite DC Comics Characters:

10. The Metal Men. The rules for Brian's poll specifically excluded groups as a single entry, with only a few exceptions permitted. The Metal Men were one of those exceptions, and thus landed a spot on my list. I can still remember the first Metal Men comic I ever purchased, at Snider's IGA Grocery in Poplar Bluff, Missouri way back when. Since I don't have any Metal Men commissions in my collection, here's the cover that first made me a fan of Dr. Will Magnus's motley crew of squabbling robots.

9. Mister Terrific II (Michael Holt). Mr. T. is a relatively new character that I've really grown to enjoy. He's Batman, only without all the dark psychosis and sexual innuendo. If I were the third-smartest man on Earth and as buff as all get-out, Mister Terrific is the hero I'd be.

8. Saturn Girl. Since I couldn't vote for the Silver Age Legion of Super-Heroes collectively, I chose my favorite original Legionnaire to stand in for the whole group. With their silly names and often sillier superpowers (Bouncing Boy? Matter-Eater Lad?), the 1960s Adventure Comics Legion represented all that was charming and fun about comics. Even when Lightning Lad died. (Or so we thought.)

7. Booster Gold. Self-possessed, semi-serious, and slyly antiheroic, Booster was my favorite "new" (as in, created since I was a kid) DC superhero, until he was bumped from that position quite recently. (See Number Five, below.) I'm glad Booster's back in his own monthly series now, with his creator Dan Jurgens writing his adventures.

6. Vixen. I *heart* Mari McCabe, and have since her Suicide Squad days. DC's first black superheroine, her true potential as a character remains untapped, although I'm thrilled to see her given newfound prominence on the current Justice League of America roster. DC needs to hire me to write a Vixen miniseries. And yes, I do have an awesome pitch for one.

5. Blue Beetle III (Jaime Reyes). The most intriguing new character to debut in mainstream comics so far this millennium is a Latino teen from El Paso who inherits incredible powers granted by a mysterious alien scarab. Blue Beetle, written by John Rogers and illustrated at the present moment by newcomer Rafael Albuquerque (after enjoyable stints by co-creator Cully Hamner and new Metal Men writer-artist Duncan Rouleau), is one of the best comic books almost no one is reading. (I don't have a Blue Beetle commission yet, so here's some concept art by Cully.)

4. Mary Marvel. Allow me to specify the pre-Countdown Mary Marvel, as opposed to the travesty now appearing in that DC series. Man, I hate what head writer Paul Dini and company are doing to my girl Mary. She's supposed to be the paragon of innocence and virtue, not a borderline wacko sexpot. But how I loved the way Jeff Smith handled her in his recent miniseries, Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil.

3. Green Arrow. This was the character who at last convinced this diehard Marvelite that DC could actually tell real, substantive stories, back in the Denny O'Neil-Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow days, through the era in which his adventures were chronicled by writer-artist Mike Grell. The recent Green Arrow: Year One miniseries by writer Andy Diggle and the artist known as Jock was awfully tasty, too.

2. Supergirl. I was never a Superman fan, but I always grokked Kara Zor-El. Yes, she had all of the Kryptonian powers that made Superman seem impossibly boring to me, but her stories back in the day were more about her as a character, and less about the fact that she could do practically anything.

1. Wonder Woman. Big surprise, right? If you've learned nothing else by reading Comic Art Friday every week — you have, haven't you? — you've learned that your Uncle Swan loves him some Princess Diana. The first great superheroine in comics, and still the greatest.

Who narrowly missed my DC Top Ten? Number 11 on my list would have been Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle. Other near misses: The Silver/Bronze Age Flash (Barry Allen); Adam Strange; Black Lightning.

Drop around next week, you'll discover who made the cut on my Marvel hot-list.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

"O zephyr winds which blow on high..."

For the past week, I've been as giddy as a puppy turned loose in the Milk-Bone factory.

Why? Friend reader, I'm telling you why: The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series landed on my doorstep via eBay, by way of UPS. I've enjoyed a fun-fulled half-hour respite each day, screening an episode of this fondly recalled Saturday morning series from those wild and crazy 1970s.

And you know what? It's all been a stone gas, honey.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how well the show holds up. I had feared that after three decades, Isis would be unwatchable. It's terribly dated, sure, both in its production values (which, let's face it, were bargain-basement cheesy even in the mid-'70s) and in its cultural approach (there's a lot of "battle of the sexes" material in the scripts that can only be described as embarrassing today), but the stories are engaging and fun, and what the performers lack in acting ability, they make up threefold in enthusiasm.

Plus, the folks at BCI did a bang-up job of restoring the prints, so that these 30-year-old episodes look as crisp and clean as they did when first aired. The cast and crew interviews are also nicely done. It's unfortunate that JoAnna Cameron declined to participate (as she also declined an interview for the excellent Isis retrospective that appeared in the most recent Back Issue magazine), but there are some nice reminiscences from the other key performers, producers, and writers. BCI also included several other enjoyable extras, including a commentary track, photo galleries, and scripts for all 22 Isis episodes.

Knowing that this DVD package was nearing release, I commissioned a couple of new additions to my Isis art gallery. First up is this lovely panel featuring Isis in flight, drawn by animator and illustrator Dan Veesenmeyer.

I love the lightness and movement in Dan's figure drawing here. I also like the fact that he dispensed with the clunky boots Isis wore in both the TV series and its DC Comics counterpart, and provided her with more character-appropriate footwear. (I'm relatively certain that high heels had not yet reached the height of fashion in ancient Egypt.)

Next comes this traditionally styled portrait by one of my favorite pinup artists, Mitch Foust.

I own several of Mitch's artworks, but this was the first I commissioned from him directly. Mitch's eye for costuming detail is impeccable, and I always admire the gentle grace of his linework.

Our third peek at our elemental heroine comes to us courtesy of artist Jay Fife. Jay created this piece for his own amusement, and I have long admired it in his online art gallery at Comic Art Fans. When I discovered that it was for sale by his art representative, I couldn't resist bringing it home.

Jay's tonal pencils derive much more from portraiture than from comic book art, so this piece adds a distinctive fine art quality to my Isis tribute.

I'm told that JoAnna Cameron, who retired from acting not long after her Isis adventures, is now a successful executive in the hospitality industry in Hawaii. I wonder whether she ever catches a strong trade wind and utters her trademark command: "O zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!"

I'd pay good money to see that.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Candle in the wind

Ten years ago today, the world lost one of its real-life heroines: Diana, Princess of Wales.

I remember vividly the moment I heard the news. The girls and I had gone to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. We were playing a tape in the car as we drove home, so we didn't have the radio on. Just as we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, the tape ended, and I switched on KCBS, the local news radio station. For the first few moments, we didn't know whose death was being reported. Then, Diana's name was mentioned, and reality sank in.

Princess Diana and I were the same age — she was a only few months (July to December) older than I. In a way, I think, her mortality serves as a continual reminder of my own. To a very real degree, we are all "candles in the wind."

In tribute to "The People's Princess," I offer a few thoughtfully chosen selections from my gallery featuring the comics' Princess Diana of Themyscira, better known to the world as Wonder Woman. Comic Art Friday regulars will have seen most of these artworks before, but all deserve another look.

A pencil and ink sketch by Amazing Spider-Man artist Ron Garney:

Diana in a pensive pinup, by Silver Age veteran Dan Adkins:

Diana in patriotic mode, rendered by longtime Green Lantern artist Darryl Banks:

Diana in battle against a fearsome foe — a scenario conceived and penciled by Brazilian legend Al Rio, and embellished in ink by Suicide Squad artist Geof Isherwood:

Diana leading an airborne assault — pencils by rising star Michael Jason Paz, with inks again contributed by the great Geof Isherwood:

Diana standing strong in a classic pose, as portrayed by Wellington "The Well" Diaz:

Diana aloft, wielding her golden lasso — Geof Isherwood pencils and inks:

Diana and her invisible airplane, rendered in Golden Age style by one of the true masters of the art form, Ernie Chan:

Diana in moonlit wonder — a unique presentation by James E. Lyle:

In the words of songsmith Bernie Taupin:
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind...
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in.
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills;
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will.
We still remember, Diana.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Always bet on Black... Panther

Over at Comics Should Be Good! — a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree — columnist Brian Cronin is challenging readers to list their 10 favorite characters from both Marvel and DC Comics.

I've been tinkering with my lists for a couple of days now, and I'm finding the task infinitely more difficult than I had thought it would be. Not, ironically, because I'm having trouble paring the lists to 10 characters each, but because I'm struggling with the concept of "favorite." What do I mean when I use that word? The characters whose adventures I read most frequently? Those whose appearance in a story will cause me to pick up a book I might not otherwise buy? The precious few with some special meaning to me personally? The ones whose images I collect? Yes, in some respect, to all of the above.

Which isn't helping my list-making any.

When I finalize my lists, you can be certain that I'll share them in an upcoming Comic Art Friday.

Certain to make my Marvel list — whatever that list ultimately looks like — is T'Challa, the Black Panther. I've been an avid Panther fan since he first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), one of the earliest comic books I can recall reading.

The Black Panther was the superhero universe's Jackie Robinson — there had been a handful of non-offensive black characters in mainstream comics previously, mostly at Marvel (Gabe Jones of Sgt. Nick Fury's Howling Commandos, for example, preceded T'Challa by three years), but the Panther was the first costumed superhero of African heritage to appear in a mass-market comic.

A common error made by ill-informed writers is citing the Black Panther as comics' first African-American superhero. A native, and ultimately the king, of the African nation of Wakanda — and proudly not American — T'Challa doesn't qualify on that score. That honor is owned by the Panther's fellow Marvel hero, the Falcon, who arrived in the pages of Captain America in 1969 (and co-headlined the title for a while in the '70s).

Nor was T'Challa the first black superhero to star in his own comic book. Luke Cage (later called Power Man, he now battles evil simply under his own name) holds that distinction with his debut series, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, which landed on newsstands in 1972. (In fact, an obscure character named Lobo was the first African-American headliner in mainstream comics, with a two-issue series launched by Dell Comics in 1965. Lobo, however, was an Old West gunslinger, not a superhero.)

Although I've become a devoted follower of the current Black Panther series written by movie director and Black Entertainment Television executive Reginald Hudlin, I still believe that T'Challa's best interpreters were Don McGregor, who chronicled the Panther's exploits (illustrated by artists including Billy Graham, one of the few black artists working in comics at the time) in the early '70s series Jungle Action, and Christopher Priest, who partnered with artist Mark Texeira (and later, the penciler/inker team of Sal Velluto and Bob Almond) for a memorable five-year run beginning in the late 1990s.

Today, the Black Panther is an acknowledged star in the Marvel Universe. He's married to one of its most powerful and beautiful heroines, the mutant Ororo Munroe, better known as Storm. The Royal Couple of Wakanda are currently guest-starring in the book where T'Challa's adventures began — Fantastic Four — in a highly entertaining story arc penned by Dwayne McDuffie of Justice League TV fame.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

The one-L lama, he's a priest

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of comic book artist Mike Wieringo, who, as noted in this space on Monday, passed suddenly and unexpectedly from this life earlier this week. The comics industry desperately needs a few dozen more talents like him.

From my earliest days as a comics reader, I have been fascinated with the so-called Golden Age of comics — that period beginning in the late 1930s and continuing into the early 1950s when superhero comics as we know them today first evolved. When I was a kid, there weren't as many avenues for obtaining old comics as there are now — not that I could have afforded them anyway — but I devoured reprint stories from the classic period whenever I could find them. Through reprints, I first discovered the glorious artwork of Lou Fine on The Ray and The Black Condor, Mac Raboy on Captain Marvel Jr. and The Green Lama, Lee Elias on the original Black Cat, and of course, Will Eisner on The Spirit. I also read voraciously any books I could find on comics history, especially Dick Lupoff's All in Color for a Dime and Jules Feiffer's The Great Comic Book Heroes.

My obsession with all things Golden Age is reflected in this Common Elements scenario, which brings together the aforementioned Green Lama and Marvel's master of the mystic arts, Dr. Strange. The artist here is James Ritchey III, whose 32-page unpublished story, The Green Lama: Man of Strength, can be viewed on his ComicSpace page.

The Green Lama was an intriguing character, not only because he gained his superheroic powers in a Tibetan lamasery — as did Dr. Strange; thus, the "common element" between the two — but also because he was one of the earliest positive, reasonably accurate portrayals of a practicing Buddhist in American popular culture. Created by author Kendell Crossen in 1940, the Lama first appeared in a pulp magazine, Double Detective, as a takeoff on the then-popular hero The Shadow. The Lama soon made his way into comics, where he starred in his own series in Prize Comics throughout the early '40s. Crossen, who wrote the character's comic book adventures in addition to the pulp novellas, scrupulously researched the Buddhist faith and wove its precepts and vernacular into his stories.

Recently, comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment announced an upcoming series entitled Superpowers, which will resurrect a slew of Golden Age heroes, including the Green Lama. Superstar artist Alex Ross and writer Jim Krueger will helm the series. I'm eager to see how this project will develop. I'll bet Dr. Strange is, too.

As Ogden Nash once wrote:
The one-L lama, he's a priest.
The two-L llama, he's a beast.
But I will bet a silk pajama
There isn't any three-L lllama.
And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

From two hands, one

If you're a reader of comics — or just a regular visitor here on Comic Art Fridays — you know that comic book art, as we see it in published form, is usually the work of three artists:
  • The penciler, who designs the layout for each page and creates the initial drawings.
  • The inker, who redraws the entire page in india ink, refining and finishing the drawing and making it suitable for printing.
  • The colorist, who adds color to the black and white art — using a computer, more often than not these days.
Most of the comic art I commission is the work of a single artist, who may — depending upon our negotiated agreement — either simply draw the piece in pencil, or both pencil and ink the art. Many times, however, I will commission a pencil drawing, or acquire one from another collector, and later decide that I'd like to have the piece finished in ink. When that happens, I'll send the art off to one of several excellent inking specialists for embellishment.

Here's a rough pencil sketch of Mary Marvel, drawn by one of my favorite current artists, Al Rio.

If I'm not mistaken, Al sketched this as a preliminary to a commission project for another collector. As you can see, the pencil art is loose and undefined — the artist is "thinking out loud" (on paper, of course) about what he's going to draw.

I asked Bob McLeod — in my opinion, one of the most skillful artists in the comics field, both as an inker (for which he's best known) and as a penciler — to complete Al's artwork. The result arrived on my doorstep this very afternoon, just in time for Comic Art Friday.

What began as a rough outline has become an exquisitely detailed, complete work of art. Rio's design is clearly still there on the page, but much of the drawing's personality has been interpreted by McLeod. Not only has Bob added definition and shadow to the picture, he's also given Mary Marvel light and life. You can see how much actual drawing Bob did to finish the piece — as opposed to merely tracing Al's outline — and how the finished art reflects McLeod's sensibility as much as Rio's.

As this comparison shows, comic art is a uniquely, almost mystically collaborative effort. Two creators — often, as in this case, working independently of one another (given that Al lives in Brazil and Bob lives in Pennsylvania, I doubt that they've ever met) — meld their talents to produce a drawing that embodies the artistic perspective and philosophy of each. The final work is different from what either would have created by himself, and yet is beautifully representative of each artist's style.

I think "magic" just might be the perfect word to describe that.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, August 03, 2007

America's Junior Ms.

Among the many distinctions that apply to this happy little corner of the universe that I call "home," Rohnert Park is home to the annual California's Junior Miss pageant. In fact, the venue where the event takes place is a mere stone's throw — assuming you possess a howitzer-like throwing arm — from my humble abode. And, it just so happens that all of California's Junior Misses will be gathering here in but a week's time, to crown one of their own to represent the Golden State at the America's Junior Miss 2007 national finals in Mobile, Alabama.

Personally, I think winning a contest that's going to send you to Mobile, Alabama isn't much of a victory. But then, I'm not a pageant parent.

I am, however, desperate for a clever lead-in to today's Comic Art Friday, which features Ms. Marvel, often erroneously referred to as "Miss Marvel."

This is what happens when I get desperate.

Maybe it's simply because I'm resistant to change, but I've always remained partial to Ms. Marvel's original costume, in which she made her debut in those long-ago, fashion-eccentric 1970s. Sure, it was merely a feminized retooling of the already familiar uniform of Captain Marvel — Marvel Comics' space-spanning stalwart, not the "Shazam!" guy. Sure, it was impractical as superheroing wardrobe — who'd wear a billowing scarf into a fistfight? Sure, it was clearly designed for sex appeal — what's up with the navel-baring midriff cutout? But doggone it, it was cool.

So, thank you, Matthew Clark, for presenting Carol at her sartorial finest. Exquisite linework, by the way.

These days, of course, the divine Ms. M. sports a drab, monochromatic outfit that looks like a high-necked tankini with a stylized lightning bolt (or is that a letter "S"?) down the front. The scarf migrated from her throat down to her waist, where it functions as a belt... on a costume that really doesn't appear to require a belt. Insanely long gloves and thigh-high boots complete the ensemble.

It doesn't really work for me visually, but doggone it, Jeffrey Moy sure makes her look cute in it. But then, Jeff can make a superheroine look cute in anything.

Now that I think about it, Ms. Marvel's current uniform, accented with its sash and opera gloves, makes her look for all the world like a pageant contestant during the swimsuit competition.

If Carol were in the running for America's Junior Miss, she'd get my vote. (I don't think they have a swimsuit competition in America's Junior Miss, but I told you I was desperate.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Here, there be giants

It's Comic Art Friday, and everyone who's anyone is in San Diego, except for me. (Last time I checked, I was still someone.)

That's because this weekend is Comic-Con International (also known as San Diego Comic-Con, or SDCC), the planet's largest annual gathering of comic book fans and industry professionals. They're expecting capacity crowds in excess of 125,000 every day of the convention — all the more reason for me not to be there, as much as I loves me some comics. One of these summers, though, I'll buckle down and hie myself to Sandy Eggo to take in the sights, sounds, and smells. (If you think I'm joking about the latter, you've never been in an enclosed convention center packed with countless thousands of hygienically challenged comic book geeks. Trust me on this.)

For those of us not venturing to the sunny Southland, there's still comic art to be slavered over. So let's get jiggy with it.

My good friend and fellow comic art collector Damon Owens has long been dropping my jaw with his stunning collection of commissions featuring "The Brotherhood," a mythical supergroup comprised of comicdom's greatest black heroes and heroines. Several of Damon's finest Brotherhood artworks spring like Athena from the pencil of industry veteran Val Semeiks, best known for his work on the DC Comics series The Demon and Lobo, and Marvel's Conan the Barbarian.

With one of baseball's Giants fast approaching the national pastime's most storied individual record, I decided it was time for a Common Elements artwork featuring two of comicdom's giants — the Doom Patrol's Elasti-Girl (no relation to the similarly named materfamilias in Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles) and the late, great Dr. Bill Foster -- aka Black Goliath, Giant-Man, and just plain Goliath. Val Semeiks's potent style seemed to fit the project perfectly, so I commissioned him to create it.

Val's first rough sketch immediately captured my imagination. The majestic scale of his figures and the broad, sweeping scope of his design couldn't have been more ideal for the characters. Then, Val added a stroke of brilliance — using my Sonoma County environs as the backdrop for the drawing. What could be more apropos than two colossal heroes striding across a vineyard in my own backyard?

Val's tightened layout revealed still more of his magic touch. Now, I could see the personalities of the characters shining through — Elasti-Girl's lighthearted charm, and Goliath's intelligence and determination. The landscape seemed so familiar that I'm certain I've driven past this very spot a thousand times... minus the humongous superheroes, of course.

Which takes us to the finished pencil art:

The detail in Val's completed drawing is nothing short of superb. Both of our heroes sparkle with life and character, and the Wine Country setting is picture-perfect — right down to the splendidly rendered vineyard and winery, and the hot air balloon hovering low over the landscape near Goliath's thundering foot. (If you've never been here, you haven't lived until you've taken a drive through Sonoma County on a foggy autumn morning, and seen the sky dotted with colorful balloons.)

Like the aforementioned Giant, Val Semeiks smacked a towering home run with this commission. Thanks, Val!

About the featured heroes:

Elasti-Girl (real name: Rita Farr) starred in one of the most unusual superhero series of the 1960s, Doom Patrol. Created by the legendary writer Arnold Drake (who passed away earlier this year) in partnership with cowriter Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani, the Doom Patrol was DC Comics' first attempt to imitate the angst and conflict of Marvel's popular super-teams, the Fantastic Four and X-Men. Drake, who wrote even the most serious of stories with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, went Marvel one better by actually killing off the entire Doom Patrol in one momentous 1968 issue. DC has revived the characters repeatedly in the years since, most recently in the aftermath of the Infinite Crisis mega-event. But the Doom Patrol just isn't the same without Drake at the helm.

The multiple-codenamed Bill Foster's history in comics lore precedes his career as a superhero by several years, making him one of a relative handful of characters (Patsy Walker/Hellcat, Jim Rhodes/War Machine, and Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel are three others who leap to mind) to be firmly established as non-super supporting characters before embarking on careers as costumed crimefighters. Dr. Foster debuted in a 1966 Avengers story as a colleague of scientist Henry Pym (the superhero variously known as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, and just plain Doctor Pym), and appeared numerous times over the succeeding decade before replacing Pym as Marvel's resident super-sized hero in 1975. Foster was murdered — to considerable fan outcry — during the events of Marvel's Civil War mega-event last summer.

Perhaps Bill Foster — like Rita Farr before him — will at some future point reemerge from the oblivion of comic book death to fight evil again. Until then, we can admire this artistic tribute to his memory, and wonder what might have been.

And that, fellow homebodies, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Worlds of wonder

Here at SSTOL, we travel the globe to bring you an ever-changing variety of treasures to ogle every Comic Art Friday.

All right, we don't exactly travel. That's what the Postal Service is for.

Our first offering today comes to us all the way from Brazil — the land of Carnival, bikini wax, and Pelé. It's the latest entry in my Common Elements commission series, in which we challenge comic book artists to team up (or oppose, as they sometimes choose) unrelated superheroes who share some quality or characteristic in common.

This time, Brazilian artist Jorge Correa Jr. juxtaposes the vivacious youth of the original Wonder Girl, Donna Troy, against the hard-bitten cynicism of Simon Williams, better known as Wonder Man.

Wonder Man has always been one of my favorites among the plethora of second-tier characters who've populated Marvel Comics' all-star superteam, the Avengers, over the years. His superpowers are rather prosaic — he's incredibly strong and more or less invulnerable, and that's about it (although at various points in continuity, he has temporarily acquired other abilities as well, including the power to fly). Still, Wonder Man has a certain cool factor about him. Part of that comes from the fact that, in everyday life, he's a working actor and stuntman in Hollywood — a handy sideline for a guy who can't easily be harmed. Simon has also developed an amazing knack for being killed off and later resurrected, a feat he's accomplished on several occasions over the years. (During one of his "deaths," Simon's brainwave patterns were used to create the personality of the android Avenger known as the Vision.)

The coolest thing about Wonder Man, however, is his astonishing proclivity for wardrobe changes — not surprising, I guess, given Simon's acting background. Wonder Man has probably worn more different uniforms — at least eight or nine different variations — than any other male superhero in comicdom. (Simon's sometime-teammate, the Wasp, is even more notorious for her continual costuming makeovers.)

Like Simon, Donna Troy has undergone several changes in fighting garb since she debuted in the mid-1960s with the Teen Titans. (The T-shaped structure at bottom right in Jorge Correa's drawing is Titans Tower, the home of the modern-day version of that venerable superteam.) Today, Donna not only wears a dramatically different costume from her original one seen above, but she's also long since abandoned the Wonder Girl moniker in favor of her own real name. (In current continuity, Wonder Girl is a blonde teenager named Cassandra "Cassie" Sandsmark.) And, like Simon Williams, Donna Troy has been killed off a time or two, to later emerge stronger and more capable than ever.

While we're on the subject of Wonder heroes and heroines, let's take another trip abroad — this time to the Philippines, where we'll meet penciler Noah Salonga (known here as the artist on the Xena: Warrior Princess series published by Dynamite Entertainment) and inker Ernest Jocson (best known as the inking half of the artistic team on IDW's recent revival of Mike W. Barr's Maze Agency). Noah and Ernest pair up for this exciting battle scenario pitting my favorite Amazon against a nasty-looking robot assassin.

As I discovered when my family spent two years there in the mid-1970s, the Philippines enjoy a rich comic book history. The country's homegrown comics industry — called komiks in Filipino culture — has produced an incredible wealth of talent, a tradition that continues to this day. Salonga and Jocson are but two members of a new generation of Filipino comic artists emerging from the legacy of such legendary creators as Francisco Coching, Alfredo Alcala, Tony DeZuniga, Ernie Chan, Nestor Redondo, and a host of others.

Ah, the wonders of comic art: one of the simple pleasures that make the world a happier, more beautiful place.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Everything new is old again

This week, Comic Art Friday celebrates the return of Nexus, the nuclear-powered dispenser of cosmic justice cocreated by writer Mike Baron and artist Steve Rude. After a decade of dormancy, Nexus reappeared in comic shops everywhere this past Wednesday, with the first issue of a brand-new, four-part adventure entitled "Space Opera."

If you like your superhero comics old school, they don't come much better than Nexus. I highly recommend that you check it out.

Steve Rude has long been an advocate for superheroes in the classic style, a return to Silver Age basics from the dark, hyperviolent, angst-ridden fare that has pervaded the genre since the late 1980s. While certainly modern in sensibility — Nexus is no exercise in nostalgia, as even the most cursory reading would reveal — Rude and Baron's creation delivers the kind of energetic fun I came to expect from comics when I first began reading them in the 1960s. Rude's clean, muscular art, heavily influenced by such industry giants as Jack Kirby and Alex Toth, is always a joy to behold, and Baron's quirky scripts remain among the most entertaining in the business.

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to find my way onto Steve Rude's commission list. My efforts were rewarded with this action-packed pinup featuring one of my favorite heroines, Mary Marvel.

Notice that Rude's rendition of Mary shows her exactly as she ought to be depicted — as a strong, vivacious teenager, not as a glorified Hooters girl in a superhero costume. The insistence of the current DC Comics editorial department (I'm looking at you, Dan DiDio) upon portraying Mary in an increasingly grim and hypersexualized fashion, especially in the new Countdown series, burns my biscuits to no end. There are plenty of overdeveloped hotties in the DC Universe. Mary Marvel doesn't need to be one of them.

I know that some may suppose that I'm an immovable old curmudgeon who doesn't think comics ever ought to "grow up." Nothing could be further from the truth. My only contention with the "grim 'n' gritty" direction of the superhero genre over the past two decades is that grimness and grit has marginalized every other stylistic approach to superhero fantasy. I'm all for people who enjoy darker fare having books that suit their tastes.

But not every superhero book ought to be "dark." Spider-Man and Superman shouldn't be dark. The Fantastic Four, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the Teen Titans shouldn't be dark. Nor should Supergirl, or Wonder Woman, or any member of the Marvel Family, Mary Marvel included. These characters weren't conceived with a grim, gritty sensibility, and imposing such on them ruins the appeal of the characters, transmogrifying them into something they were never intended to be.

I've never forgiven Frank Miller for destroying one of my childhood heroes, Daredevil, back in the early 1980s. Miller took a character who had always been something of a more adult Spider-Man and turned him mean-spirited and ugly. More than 20 years later, DD is still being written that way by Miller's successors. It makes me sad to pass up the monthly Daredevil comic every time I visit my local comics retailer. But the character Marvel Comics calls "Daredevil" now is not the noble hero I once knew.

For creators who want to explore the dark side, there's ample room to manufacture new creations that suit their vision. Alan Moore did it with Watchmen. Keith Giffen did it with Lobo. Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson are doing it today with The Boys. Even the dreaded Miller did it with his popular Sin City. None of these works appeal to me, but I appreciate their service to their particular target market. I'm glad they exist for the people who enjoy them.

But I'd sure like to have my old Daredevil back.

Fortunately, there are the Steve Rudes of the world, artists who are determined to see to it that comic book superheroes I can love and admire do not vanish from the earth. Even among the new school of talents are those who still appreciate and value the classic characters as they ought to be, as in this charming pinup of Mary Marvel by Sean Chen.

Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I like what I like.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

We Kara lot for Supergirl

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to future Baseball Hall of Fame inductees Frank "The Big Hurt" Thomas and Craig "The Big Gio" Biggio, each of whom reached a significant career milestone yesterday. Thomas smacked his 500th home run, becoming the 21st major leaguer to achieve that feat, while Biggio notched his 3000th base hit, one of only 27 players to do so.

We at "The Big Swan" salute both of these fine athletes and gentlemen.

Speaking of big, over at DC Comics, Supergirl has arisen from the relative obscurity in which she foundered in recent decades to become one of the company's biggest headliners, with two monthly books (Supergirl and Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes) bearing her name in the title. I'm not always enamored with the approach the creators of these two series — the Supergirl solo title in particular — impose upon our Kryptonian heroine, but I'm pleased to see Kara Zor-El at least holding her own in print again after so many years.

Those of you who aren't comics aficionados may not realize that DC killed off Supergirl (along with Barry Allen, aka The Flash) way back in 1985, during a major year-long event entitled Crisis on Infinite Earths. (Ironically, Supergirl's death in the comics occurred only a year after her less-than-successful cinematic debut. Coincidence? I think not.) For nearly 20 years, fans of the Maid of Steel were deprived of her sunny presence, and worse, subjected to a host of pretenders to her storied code name. Since 2004, however, the original Supergirl (more or less) is back, and DC's got her.

So let's go see what's new and awesome in my Kara gallery.

No one in the business today draws lovelier female characters than Al Rio. When I saw this unfinished Supergirl sketch posted on Al's Web site, I was charmed instantly.

Al's gorgeous sketch is currently in the capable hands of veteran inker Joe Rubinstein, who will complete the background while he's embellishing the figure. As soon as Joe has finished working his magic on it, you'll see the final results here.

Another depiction of Kara that captured my eye at first glance was this subtle yet fetching ink drawing by Hannibal King. With a deft economy of line, Hannibal lends lightness and motion to this classically styled pinup.

I was unfamiliar with Oliver Nome's work before I stumbled upon this wonderful drawing. I've since learned that Oliver is a protégé of comics superstar Jim Lee, having won a seat at Lee's WildStorm Studios through a Wizard Magazine contest. I'm no prophet, but I'd say the kid has a future in this business.

What I like most about this piece is the fact that Oliver's Supergirl, though certainly stylized, actually looks like a teenage girl, rather than a centerfold from Juggs. The artist also added a wealth of fine detail to the finished art that, unfortunately, doesn't show in this scan. I'd show it to you in person... but my office is a mess just now.

Back to Al Rio for a Comic Art Friday flashback. This piece began life as a preliminary sketch for a drawing Al and his representative Terry Maltos auctioned off for charity following the southeast Asian tsunami three years ago. (Al's completed drawing is markedly different from this one, and features Batman instead of Superman and Supergirl.) My good friend Bob Almond — currently hard at work on an upcoming Annihilation: Quasar miniseries for Marvel Comics — transformed Al's rough pencil layout into a work of emotional power and haunting beauty.

As I've mentioned in this space previously, "Supergirl" is one of my pet nicknames for my teenage daughter KM, who often wears a hoodie with the familiar "S" shield emblazoned on the chest. My ever-growing collection of Supergirl art honors KM's spunky spirit as much as it reflects my affection for the character herself.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Don't take any wooden Kryptonite.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Birds, bees, and arrows

Today's Comic Art Friday is brought to you by Folgers Vanilla Biscotti coffee, a tasty morsel of caffeinated goodness from the company's Gourmet Selections product line. It's subtle, slightly sassy, and smoooooth. I don't know how they get the cookie flavor in there, but it works. If you favor a hint of vanilla with your Columbian brew, I highly recommend that you pick up a bag.

"Sassy" would be an accurate description of this latest addition to my Common Elements theme gallery. Artist Dan Veesenmeyer, who boasts an extensive list of credits in the animation field, told me when he accepted this commission that he wanted to do something different with his Common Elements contribution. I'd say that he succeeded in that mission. Dan's cheeky "birds of a tail feather" are Black Canary and Mockingbird.

Black Canary (real name: Dinah Lance) can currently be seen starring in DC Comics' popular Justice League of America monthly, as well as in an upcoming miniseries of her own. Although current DC continuity is as convoluted as quantum theory, I believe that I'm still correct in stating that the present-day Black Canary (Dinah L. Lance) is the daughter of the original Canary (Dinah D. Lance), whose adventures date back to the 1940s. Given that understanding, the Canary ranks alongside Wonder Woman as one of the longest-serving heroines — at least, in one form or another — in all of comics.

Artist James E. Lyle catches Dinah in reflective repose in this striking portrait. I love Lyle's potent spotting of blacks here.

Mockingbird (real name: Barbara "Bobbi" Morse) was a staple of Marvel's West Coast Avengers series in the 1980s. Like Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel), Patsy Walker (Hellcat), and a few other Marvel heroines, Bobbi was introduced as a supporting character years before she donned a costume and secret identity and began a superheroic career. (Make that two careers — becoming Mockingbird, Bobbi made several appearances as the Huntress, no relation to the DC heroine of the same name.)

Sadly, Mockingbird was killed off in the 100th issue of Avengers West Coast (note the ridiculous title switcheroo), back in 1993. She's somewhat unique in that, unlike the plethora of comic book characters who have died at various times only to be miraculously resurrected later, she's actually managed to stay dead for more than a decade now. (She still looks pretty good in Veesenmeyer's drawing, though.)

Black Canary and Mockingbird share several "common elements," including their avian code names and hand-to-hand fighting expertise. (Canary is an expert martial artist; Mockingbird used a two-piece dueling staff, which you see her holding here. You did notice that she was holding something, didn't you?) But the shared factoid I had in mind when I thought of bringing these heroines together is the fact that they each served as the romantic interest of their respective universes' archer superhero.

Bobbi was married to Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, the former bow-slinging stalwart of the Avengers. He's seen here in a Common Elements teamup with Western heroine Lady Rawhide, drawn by industry legend Ernie Chan.

Dinah, for her part, is the longtime lover of Oliver Queen, aka Green Arrow. Ollie — seen below in a familiar pose captured by penciler Mike Grell and inker Joe Rubinstein — finally proposed marriage in the 75th and final issue of his current series, published just a couple of weeks ago. The events leading up to the wedding of Green Arrow and Black Canary will be featured in various DC titles over the next few months.

"The birds and their bee-hinds." That Veesenmeyer cracks me up.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Out of time!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the late Don Herbert, better known to generations of teleholics as "Mr. Wizard." Herbert's 1950s show, Watch Mr. Wizard, pioneered the concept that television for kids could be educational without being either condescending or boring. In the '80s, Herbert returned to the tube on Nickelodeon, with Mr. Wizard's World, bringing his genial blend of professorial wisdom and whiz-bang science to a whole new audience.

Had there been no Mr. Wizard, we would never have known Beakman's World or Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Don Herbert made being a science nerd cool — which, for those of us who are nerds, is no small accomplishment. We'll miss you, Mr. Wizard.

The funny thing about my Common Elements art gallery — the one in which comic artists pair up unrelated superheroes who have some characteristic in common — is that on occasion, the characters involved share more than one "common element." Sometimes, in fact, there are several common elements in the piece that I didn't even consider when I developed the concept.

Take, for example, this newly arrived gem from the pen of longtime comics stalwart Bob Layton. It features Booster Gold, one of the central figures in DC Comics' recently concluded maxiseries 52, alongside the legendary Captain America. (You can click the pic to see it in greater detail.)

When this concept came to me, I had one — and really, only one — Common Element in mind between Booster and Cap. Both heroes, although their adventures are set in the present day, began their careers in other time periods: Captain America in the 1940s during World War II, Booster Gold in the 25th century. Hence the title I assigned to the concept: "Out of Time."

From the beginning, I wanted Bob Layton to draw this Common Element. Layton is best known in comic circles as "the Iron Man guy," thanks to his lengthy association with the Golden Avenger as both artist and writer, often in partnership with scripter David Michelinie. Bob's also recognized as one of the most gifted inkers in the industry. From my perspective, it's his overall artistic talent — penciling, inking, and conceptual design — that makes him great.

When the opportunity arose to commission Bob, I jumped at the chance to turn him loose on my "out of time" idea. As I was rounding up pictures of Cap and Booster to send to Bob as reference, I noted (to my surprise, given that I hadn't seen it before) that the two heroes shared an even more obvious commonality than the one I'd envisioned: the five-pointed star motif emblazoned on their rippling pectorals. How could I have missed that? I don't know, but I did, until I had the pictures of each character on the screen in front of me.

Since I added the scan of this artwork to my permanent gallery at Comic Art Fans, other collectors have pointed out additional connections between Booster and Cap. For one, both are blond. For another, both were recently killed off in their respective storylines — Booster, though, has already been "resurrected," and I don't know a single comics fan who doesn't believe that Captain America will make a triumphant return as well.

I also thought of one more similarity. Both Cap and Booster, at one point in their careers, abandoned their more familiar code names and costumes in favor of a temporary superhero identity. Captain America, disillusioned by the Watergate scandal, shrugged off his iconic red-white-and-blue for several months in the mid-1970s, in the guise of the more iconoclastic Nomad. During the year-long events of 52, Booster Gold — who at the time was believed to be dead — became the mysterious Supernova, whose real identity wasn't revealed (to the characters or the audience) until late in the series' run. (Astute readers, however, had solved the puzzle long before Supernova unmasked.) Someday, I'd like to team Nomad and Supernova in another Common Elements commission that ties these threads together.

Speaking of Booster Gold, the current issue of Back Issue magazine (#22) features an excellent article about Booster and his erstwhile partner, the Blue Beetle. If you look closely, you'll see my Booster pinup — penciled by Booster's creator Dan Jurgens, and inked by veteran Joe Rubinstein — smiling back at you on page 78.

Thanks to Back Issue editor Michael Eury for using my contribution!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

We'll remember always, Graduation Day... and Super-Con '07

This week's Comic Art Friday is proudly dedicated to my daughter KM, who graduates from my high school alma mater today.

The second half of KM's senior year has been an emotional challenge, what with her mother's rediagnosis with cancer and repeated hospital stays compounding all of the "What do I want to be when I grow up?" turmoil that always accompanies this time in a young person's life. KM has managed to keep her spirits — and her grades — up, for the most part, through all of the adverse circumstances. She's a good kid, and I'm a lucky dad.

You go, Supergirl!

Speaking of Supergirl, this charming rendition of the Maid of Steel sprang from the pencil of Steve Mannion, whom I met at long last at Super-Con in San Jose last weekend. Steve, who lives in New Jersey, has done a couple of other commission projects for me, including the Mary Marvel pinup seen in this space a week ago today. Distance being what it is, I'd never had the opportunity to meet him and personally thank him for the wonderful art he's added to my collection. As befits a man who creates such exquisite pictures, Steve turns out to be a delightful fellow who recalled in fond detail the other commissions he's drawn for me. He was even kind enough to pose with his latest masterwork.

Super-Con was, as always, an enjoyable, well-run event — more intimate and friendly than the Bay Area's other major comics event, the massive WonderCon. I wasn't impressed with the new venue at the San Jose Convention Center, where amenities were sorely lacking. The guest list, however, was stellar, and con directors Steve Morger and Steve Wyatt bustled about making certain that a great time was had by all.

For me, the highlight of the event was a panel on the art of inking. Before the con, superstar artist Frank Cho surrendered the pencil rough of his upcoming Jungle Girl #1 cover to a host of talented inking specialists, each of whom brought a unique perspective to the finished work. (You can see some of the iterations, as well as Cho's original pencil art, in Steve Morger's gallery at Comic Art Fans.) On Saturday, several of the inkers gathered to talk about their specialty.

Seen in the photo above, from left to right:
  • The artist known as Buzz, best known for his work on such series as JSA and Vampirella.

  • Michael Bair, noted for his collaboration with penciler Rags Morales on DC's Identity Crisis.

  • Tony DeZuniga, cocreator of the Western hero Jonah Hex; an industry legend who shepherded the comic art careers of many of his fellow Filipino immigrants in the 1970s.

  • Frank Cho, creator of the Liberty Meadows newspaper strip, and currently the penciler of Marvel's Mighty Avengers.

  • Bill Morrison, cofounder of Matt Groening's Bongo Comics and illustrator of the comic book adventures of The Simpsons.

  • Danny Bulanadi, a prolific inker for Marvel Comics who drew everything from Captain America to the Micronauts.

  • (obscured) Alex Niño, an innovative stylist who was the second and final artist on one of my all-time favorite comic series, Thriller.

  • Ernie Chan, revered for his work on Marvel's Conan series of the '70s and '80s, both as inker over the great John Buscema, and later as primary penciler.

Just seeing this assemblage of talent — perhaps 300 years of professional comic art experience between these gentlemen — was an indescribable treat. Even better? Coming home with some of their art.

Tony DeZuniga, to whom Michael Bair referred as "the master draftsman," created this evocative addition to my Black Panther gallery. Tony's technique rivals that of any artist whose work I've seen up close. He uses light, shadow, and line the way Mozart used notes. Tony and his wife Tina are also two of the sweetest people I've ever met at a convention.

Acquiring another commission from the amazing Buzz is always a thrill, and the one-named wonder came through yet again for me. Here's Buzz, diligently working away at my Storm pinup...

...and proudly displaying his finished creation.

Let's see... what else did I get? Ah, yes — Alé Garza, currently the regular penciler on the Supergirl monthly series, delivered this dynamic rendition of Taarna, my Heavy Metal heroine.

And last, but by no means least, Ms. Marvel penciler Aaron Lopresti drew his current assignee in her original — and still best — costume from the '70s. Aaron added a splash of colored marker to really make Carol's classic uniform stand out.

As previously noted, Super-Con offered a great time to everyone who attended. I certainly had a blast, and am looking forward to next year's event.

I'm off to graduation. That's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

A day in the life

It was 40 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

I refer, of course, to the fact that on June 1, 1967, the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United Kingdom (the record hit American shelves the following day). Popular music would never be the same again. In fact, it's impossible to imagine what the last 40 years of popular music would have sounded like, without the sonic and thematic innovations introduced via Sgt. Pepper.

Not that this has anything at all to do with Comic Art Friday.

Except that when I think of the Beatles, I think of Ringo. Comic artist Mike "Ringo!" Wieringo, that is, who drew this charming portrait of Superman and Wonder Woman sharing a tender moment.

They don't call me the Sultan of Segue for nothing.

This weekend, comic fans from throughout northern California will descend on the San Jose Convention Center for Super-Con, the third of the Bay Area's major annual comic fandom events. (WonderCon and APE — the Alternative Press Expo, which focuses mostly on independent, small press comics — were held in late winter and early spring, respectively.) In the past couple of years, Super-Con has grown from a relatively small gathering to a mega-event, prompting a move from the con's former home in the East Bay to the hub of Silicon Valley. The lineup of industry guests has expanded also, with this year's headliners including comic legends Jim Lee, Frank Cho, and Terry Dodson.

I've connected in advance with a couple of my favorite artists, who will be bringing newly completed commission pieces to the con for me. Steve Mannion, whose vintage-style pinup (seen below) is the pinnacle of my Mary Marvel gallery, is working on a new addition to my Supergirl theme...

...and the artist known as Buzz, of whose exquisitely brush-inked work I can never get enough, is creating a Storm piece to accompany this Black Panther drawing he did for me in advance of last year's Super-Con.

Speaking of Storm, here's a lovely rendition of the Wizardress of Weather, recently fashioned by another favorite artist, "good girl" specialist Michael McDaniel.

Check back here in seven days, to see the new art I pick up at Super-Con this weekend.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Remember: I get by with a little help from my friends. (That means you.)

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Walk like an Egyptian

I know, I know... quite a few of you are all jazzed up today because it's the 30th anniversary of the original Star Wars film, which premiered in theaters on this date in 1977.

SSTOL regulars know that I'm not much of a Star Wars fan. I've mentioned before that when the original film opened, I saw it twice — not because I was enthralled by it, but because everyone else I knew babbled so enthusiastically about the picture that I was certain they couldn't be talking about the same cheesy, derivative, abysmally acted movie I saw the first time. So this 30-year celebration holds no joy for me.

On the other hand, here's a news flash that gets my motor running.

This week, the media distribution company BCI announced the upcoming DVD release of The Secrets of Isis, the classic '70s TV series starring JoAnna Cameron as the lovely and stalwart Egyptian-flavored superheroine. The complete three-disc box set will be available on July 24.

Now that's what I'm talking about.

It's about time the mighty Isis received her just due. I speak here of the original, accept-no-substitutes model, not the almost unrecognizable "reimagined" version of Isis that DC Comics trotted out in the weekly comic series 52 recently — the one whose death triggered the worldwide slaughter perpetrated by Captain Marvel's nemesis, Black Adam. And certainly not the Isis-in-name-only who appears from time to time in The Legend of Isis, a comic book created by Bluewater Productions. (In fairness, I do enjoy the latter series for what it is, even though I wish they'd called the lead character by a different name. It's a fun, entertaining comic. I highly recommend the trade paperback that incorporates the first several issues.)

So, in celebration of the announced DVD release, here's my little tribute to the Saturday morning superstar. Leading off, Isis takes to the skies, in this recently commissioned artwork by Michael McDaniel.

Next, we get Isis up close and personal, in a nicely rendered portrait by Scott Jones, the artist better known as Shade.

Finally, the great Michael Dooney takes Isis back to her Egyptian roots, in this stylish, beautifully delineated piece.

I can hardly wait for July 24. "O mighty Isis!"

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

I am Wonder Woman: Hear me roar

As Comic Art Friday regulars have surely figured out by now, my collection boasts more images of Wonder Woman than of any other single superhero. (The Scarlet Witch is a distant second. Mary Marvel will in all likelihood leap up from third within the foreseeable future.)

Why Wonder Woman, you ask?

Diana the Amazon Princess captured my attention early in my comic-reading years, back when I was a hardcore Marvelite and pretended not to read anything with the DC Comics bullet on the cover. I always admired the image of a powerful woman; one who could outfight and outwit even the deadliest of supervillains. Marvel didn't have a heroine of Wonder Woman's strength potential until Ms. Marvel debuted in 1977. Thus, in my formative years, the mighty Diana stood head and shoulders above all others.

Let's face it: Wonder Woman is a female power fantasy. (A fantasy, incidentally, shared by many men — including Diana's creator, psychiatrist and sexual theorist William Moulton Marston.) In her best comic book adventures, Wonder Woman has always been presented as a role model for young women, a testament to the fact that sisters can do it for themselves. In a universe that is home to such alpha males as Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman takes second place to none. And, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, she does it all in a bustier and high heels.

Today's an exciting time for Wonder Woman fans. For only the second time in her seven-decade career, Diana's ongoing adventures are being scripted by a female writer — best-selling author Jodi Picoult, who's doing a nice job with the character in a six-issue arc of Wonder Woman. Better still, when Jodi leaves the book, she'll be handing the reins to one of the finest writers now working in comics — Gail Simone, currently the scripter of Birds of Prey and Gen13. Also, waiting in the wings for next year is the much-anticipated companion series All-Star Wonder Woman, to be written and illustrated by legendary Wonder Woman cover artist Adam Hughes.

Even though my teenaged daughter is not much of a comic book reader, I'm glad there's a Wonder Woman out there to remind her that she can be whatever her talents, interests, and abilities enable her to be. All she needs is confidence, determination, and inner strength.

Bulletproof bracelets and a golden lasso help, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Listen, bud — he's got radioactive blood!

A few gazillion dollars later, I believe it's now safe to report that Spider-Man 3 is the monumental motion picture hit of 2007.

How apropos, then, that Comic Art Friday seizes this opportunity to share the Spidey love that currently bathes the universe.

Fans of the movie series know by now that Spider-Man's lady love is one Mary Jane Watson. It wasn't always so in the comic books. At the beginning of the Wall-Crawler's existence, back in the early 1960s, Peter Parker had a crush on Betty Brant, the secretary (that's what we used to call administrative assistants in those politically incorrect times) of Peter's boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson. Later, Peter fell headlong into love with picture-perfect blonde Gwen Stacy. He ping-ponged back and forth between MJ and Gwen for years, until Gwen's untimely death at the hands of Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. (Both Betty and Gwen turn up in the Spider-Man movies, but Betty is merely a background presence — never a romantic interest — in the series, while Gwen, who debuts in the latest film, resembles her comic book incarnation only in name and physical type.)

In this rough pencil sketch by Comic Art Friday regular Al Rio, Spidey and MJ take a swing through the streets of New York City.

One of these days, one of my favorite inkers is going to take this piece in hand and transform it into finished art. (He just doesn't know it yet.)

Next, our friendly neighborhood arachnid goes solo in this dynamic drawing by Space Ghost artist Scott Rosema.

In recent years, Marvel has published a number of series set in what is popularly referred to as the "MC2 Universe," a possible alternate future (about 20 years from the Marvel Universe "now") in which Spider-Man is retired from superheroics. In the MC2 version of what's to come, Peter and Mary Jane Parker have a teenaged daughter, May (nicknamed "Mayday"), who has inherited her father's arachnid powers. Mayday Parker fights evil — much to the chagrin of her parents, who fear for her safety and wish she'd content herself with normal adolescent activities — as The Amazing Spider-Girl in a thoroughly enjoyable book by that title. Spider-Girl, written in rambunctious Silver Age style by former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, and capably rendered by the veteran team of Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema.

In the drawing below, another artist named Ron — Ron Adrian, best known for his work on such DC Comics titles as Supergirl, Flash: Fastest Man Alive, and Birds of Prey — presents the female offspring of Spider-Man in all her web-slinging wonder.

Meanwhile, back in the "real" Marvel Universe, there's another former paramour of our favorite Wall-Crawler prowling about. Felicia Hardy — better known to the world at large as the Black Cat — enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship with Spidey for decades, usually coinciding with those dramatic moments when Peter and MJ were on the outs for one reason or another. A former cat burglar (like you would never have guessed that) and career criminal, Felicia reformed through her association with Peter, and became (more or less) a force for good. These days, she's a member of the super-team Heroes for Hire, in the current Marvel series of the same name.

Here, pencil artist Jeffrey Moy (best known for his run on Legion of Super-Heroes) and Jeff's longtime inking partner W.C. (Cory) Carani give us an eye-popping look at this tempestuous twosome.

And that, Spider-Fans, is your Comic Art Friday. Consider yourselves webbed.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

The invincible George Tuska

Today, Comic Art Friday salutes veteran comic book artist George Tuska, who celebrated his 91st birthday yesterday.

One of the genuine legends in the comic art field, Tuska's career stretched from 1939 through the 1990s. He was still drawing commissioned projects as recently as a couple of years ago. Tuska's drawing style is energetic and powerful — as I'm certain I've mentioned before, he was one of the first artists whose work I learned to recognize instantly when I was a mere comics-reading stripling.

For 10 years or so, Tuska was the primary penciler on Marvel Comics' Invincible Iron Man. The Golden Avenger remains the character with whom most readers will associate him even today. Tuska also demonstrated a then-uncommon affinity for African American characters, as one of the main artists on such series as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (later Luke Cage, Power Man) and Black Goliath. After shifting his focus to DC Comics in the late 1970s, Tuska worked extensively on Superman, both in comic books and in the daily newspaper strip.

I currently own only one Tuska original (I've had a couple of others that have since moved on to others' collections), but it's a dandy: Tuska's signature Shell-Head engaged in pitched battle with ol' Greenskin, the Hulk.

One of the features I always loved about Tuska's Iron Man is the way he gives the character expression, even though he's wearing an inflexible metal mask. It doesn't make logical sense, but within the context of Tuska's style, the effect works perfectly.

Speaking of Iron Man, USA Today published an article this week previewing the upcoming Iron Man feature film, directed by Jon Favreau (who played Foggy Nelson in Daredevil) and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. The article premiered the first publicly released photo of Downey in character:

Happy birthday, Gentleman George! And that's your Comic Art Friday.