George Freeman: Red ‘n’ White and All Colours of the Chameleon

« To many people in the mid-19th century, Canuck was merely a casual synonym for French-Canadian — and like the nicknames for people of various other ethnicities or nationalities, it came with unpleasant overtones. The word is used vulgarly and rather contemptuously” »

A friendly birthday how-do-you-do to mighty Manitoban George Freeman (born May 27, 1951 — that’s seventy-one years ago — in Selkirk, MB). Some of you will remember him for his Jack of Hearts mini-series at Marvel or his collaboration with Michael T. Gilbert on Elric for First; the more adventurous will recall his fine and, ahem, too-brief work on DC’s Wasteland.

By the 1990s, he was also affiliated with Winnipeg’s celebrated Digital Chameleon studio… but to me, he’s the guy who made Richard Comely and Ron Leishman’s Captain Canuck into a contender, as far as I’m concerned.

This is Captain Canuck no.7 (Dec. 1979-Jan. 1980, CKR Productions), featuring Ruse, story by Richard Comely, art by George Freeman. Cover by Freeman, with colours by Freeman or Jean-Claude St. Aubin.
This was the Captain’s first (and sadly, only) Summer Special (July – Sept. 1980, CKR Productions); a winningly mixed bag, it *was* a lot of fun. Cover by Freeman.
Among the goodies included in the Summer Special was a preview of the short-lived CK newspaper strip, which ran in three daily newspapers in Western Canada. It looked quite promising! Written and lettered by Comely, illustrated by Freeman and St. Aubin.

This is Captain Canuck no.14 (Mar.-Apr. 1981, CKR Productions), the final issue — just when the series was going from strength to strength. Sigh.

To demonstrate, here’s the opening sequence from that issue. Freeman and St. Aubin were evidently pushing hard against the conventions and constraints of the era’s crappy printing standards.

In 1995, the Captain even got his own stamp. Quoting the press release: « What do Superman, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Johnny Canuck, Captain Canuck and Fleur de Lys have in common? For one thing, they’re all super heroes sprung from the wondrous pages of comic books; and for another, they’re all the marvelous creations of Canadian talent. On October 2, these five super heroes will find new adventure in a booklet of 10 stamps from Canada Post Corporation, to be issued in conjunction with Stamp Month 1995. A universal hero in concept, Captain Canuck is undeniably Canadian in nationality, costume and mannerisms. The concept can be traced to Ron Leishman and Richard Comely. Comely changed Leishman’s Captain Canada to Captain Canuck, and in 1974 established the only independent full-colour comic book in Canada. The cover price was 35¢ – 10¢ higher than other comic books at the time – but that didn’t stop Captain Canuck from outselling all American titles. Unfortunately, the series folded with issue No. 14, in March 1981. »
Part one of The Jack of Hearts’ limited series (Jan. 84, Marvel). The character was introduced in, of all places, an issue of The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu (no. 23, Apr. 1976, Marvel); The Jack shuffled around various Marvel titles for a time, culminating in this solo four-parter scripted by his co-creator, Bill Mantlo, and illustrated by Freeman. That costume must have been a bitch to draw.

Oddly enough, while Freeman was my favourite among the stable of artists chosen to illustrate John Ostrander and Del Close‘s scripts on Wasteland (Don Simpson and David Lloyd got the best), I feel he was assigned the least interesting ones to work on, with the exception of the excellent Del Close autobiographical two-parter, On the Road (issues 6 and 7). Beyond that, he drew one cover and split, unwittingly triggering the debacle that was the second half of the series’ run.

This is Wasteland no. 1 (Dec. 1987, DC). Pencils and inks by Freeman, colouring by his Digital Chameleon accomplice, Lovern Kindzierski.
This is Wasteland no. 5 (Apr. 1988, DC). Pencils and inks by Freeman, colouring by Lovern Kindzierski. As denizens of Winnipeg, a notoriously cold city, the guys would know how to colour ice, all right. To quote another famous native son, Randy Bachman : “Portage and Main, Fifty below“.

On the subject of chameleons, it appears that the traditionally held ‘camouflage’ theory of their colour changes is simplistic and generally incorrect.

-RG

Treasured Stories: “American Squalor” (1988)

« People think the show gave Letterman an opportunity, but they don’t see the table with 10 guys in shorts wearing baseball caps pitching jokes for things for him to say. They don’t see the index cards that say: ‘Ask this first.’ It’s all spelled out for him, and everything is pre-interviews. He’s basically had to be this hand puppet, with everybody’s hands up his butt to tell him what to say and do. » — Joyce Brabner on David Letterman

We already snuck a peek at the darker side of DC Comics’ short-lived ’80 mirage Wasteland (18 issues, 1987-89), but the title’s modus operandi was variety… within a set format. Here’s another highlight from one of the earliest and strongest issues, before its co-authors The Second City comedy legend Del Close and Grimjack co-creator John Ostrander lost the plot, interest, or both. This is American Squalor (Wasteland no. 3, Feb. 1988, DC Comics). The underrated Don Simpson, the Wasteland bullpen’s utility player, its most versatile and loyal member, gets to strut his stuff, albeit in a lovely Crumb ersatz, down to the lettering.

« Our next guest works as a file clerk at a Cleveland hospital… »

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What I find so impressive about this story is the scope of its ambition, fulfilled on several unlikely levels: it achieves success as a parody, a pastiche, a tribute, and as its own, standalone bit of workaday folk philosophy. Clearly, calling upon the trappings and rhythms of Crumb and Pekar’s American Splendor was just the starting point.

I’d love to track down (Close’s old Second City colleague) the Severn Darden monologue Close claims to have used as a springboard, but not everything was dutifully recorded for “posterity” in those days…

« I loved Harvey. He was a wonderful guest. The kind you don’t see anymore. The only real problem with Harvey was my immaturity. » — David Letterman

-RG

Treasured Stories: “Foo Goo” (1987)

« But observers say it is unlikely to slow down the consumption of fugu* »

DC’s Wasteland** (1987-89) was, to my mind, the publisher’s finest-ever horror anthology… for a handful of issues. While the experiment lasted but a couple of years, and it was mercifully, if a little late, put out to pasture.

To compensate for the usually uneven, often random nature of anthologies, the book was to be scripted by just two writers (John Ostrander and the fascinating Del Close) and illustrated by a carefully-picked skeleton crew of artists, namely George Freeman, David Lloyd, William Messner-Loebs and Don Simpson. Perhaps the vetting process wasn’t sufficiently thorough, though, because Freeman dropped out after a mere seven issues and one more cover, and Lloyd followed suit before the year was through. With proper bullpen substitutions, things might have run smoothly, but of all the ringers brought in, only Ty Templeton rose to the challenge, his sneakily clean-cut style providing ideal contrast and tension to issue 11’s nasty tale of Dissecting Mister Fleming, sadly the series’ final flash of brilliance… with seven dead horse issues left to flog.

But those early issues were, for the most part, quite glorious. Simpson and Lloyd landed the lion’s share of the very best tales, Simpson because he was most versatile, and Lloyd since he excelled at instilling the bleakest, most unsettling ambiances.

Today, we present Wasteland’s opening salvo, Foo Goo (Wasteland no.1, Dec. 1987, DC), by Ostrander, Close and Lloyd. Bon appétit!

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The title, despite denoting a fictive species of fungus, is clearly a reference to the virulently-toxic liver of the globefish, pufferfish, or fugu… which is also, of course, a costly delicacy. It merely needs to be expertly prepared.

I first came upon this intriguing factoid in 1975, when a famous Kabuki performer, Bandō Mitsugorō VIII, presumed he could beat the odds. « In January 1975, Bandō visited a Kyoto restaurant with friends and ordered four portions of fugu kimo, the liver of the fugu fish, a dish whose sale was prohibited by local ordinances at the time. Claiming that he could survive the fish’s poison, he ate the livers and died after returning to his hotel room, after seven hours of paralysis and convulsions. »

-RG

*”Japanese Actor Poisoned“, The Leader-Post (Regina, SK), Jan. 20, 1975
**Not to be confused with the national capital of the United States of America