« Gamma rays are the sort of radiation you should avoid. Want proof? Just remember how the comic strip character “The Hulk” became big, green, and ugly. » — Neil deGrasse Tyson
It may seem a counterintuitive notion, but some artistic virtuosi, while draftsmen supreme, may be sorely lacking in pure design chops, while some otherwise unremarkable craftsmen design splendidly. The same general principle applies to a colour sense, or handwriting. As the cliché goes, the most skilled brain surgeon’s penmanship may just yield sloppy gibberish, what’s wittily described as chicken scratch writing.
My point in this case is that, while Herb Trimpe (1939-2015) has never ranked among the comics industry’s glory boys, I consider him one of its finest cover artists. It’s a special skill and quite a scarce one…
And that’s where this streak ends, as far as I see it: the following few issues feature decent covers, but nothing outstanding. But there were scores of excellent Trimpe Hulk covers to come. The blocky dynamism of his visuals, so easy to underrate, made his covers a reliable breath of fresh air in the mire of formulaic and overwritten Marvel 1970s covers (et tu, Gil Kane?)
« I love the scents of winter! For me, it’s all about the feeling you get when you smell pumpkin spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, gingerbread and spruce. » — Taylor Swift
It occurred to me, just the other day that I’d failed to feature, over the course of five and three-quarters countdowns, anything by Gene Colan. And this despite the fact that I’ve always enjoyed his work and his undeniable adroitness within the horror genre.
Still, I decided to sidestep the obvious touchstone, his monumental run on The Tomb of Dracula, and opted instead for another of his big series at Marvel: Howard the Duck.
I was a fervent fan of the series as a kid, but I honestly haven’t returned to it in decades. Which is not to say that I’ve forgotten it. There’s no doubt that I should give it a fresh look — I’d probably get more of Steve Gerber‘s jokes than I did as a twelve-year-old — but in the interim, let’s focus on a couple of pertinent issues.
I won’t leave you in suspense! On to the following issue…
And that’s it! Steve Gerber had a refreshing knack for subverting and upending the Marvel formula: instead of some drawn-out, epic standoff, Howard disposes of the threat — a threat worth two cover features! — in a couple of panels, then the story moves on… to another range of targets.
Has any of the classic monsters undergone more radical changes over the past century than the lowly zombie? I believe my first encounter with the walking dead (in comics, that is) came through a reprint of a relatively obscure Archie Goodwin – Rocco Mastroserio story, the imaginatively titled Zombies!* (read it here!) from Creepy no. 17 (Oct. 1967, Warren); in it, uncle Archie schooled me about zombies’ aversion to salt and, it follows, sea water. Which I presume is what kept them cooped up on tropical islands.
Confirmation of this vulnerability came in what I consider the scariest scene in the uneven Kolchak: The Night Stalker TV series, from its second episode, the imaginatively titled The Zombie, wherein Kolchak does his level best, under trying circumstances, to pour salt down the throat of a massive, dormant-but-not-for-long zombie.
Marvel’s resident Zombie, Simon Garth, had débuted all the way back in 1953 (what is time, after all, to the living dead?) and Menace no. 5‘s imaginatively titled Zombie! (check it out here).
Aside from his Bill Everett-drawn premiere, I frankly have little use for the character, but I have a soft spot for this one story, intended as a time-buying fill-in for the feature’s regular team, writer Steve Gerber and Peruvian artist Pablo Marcos. It’s written by the often-interesting Doug Moench (Master of Kung Fu, Moon Knight) and illustrated by the masterful Alfredo Alcala, a sure consensus favourite around here. The plot itself is rather on the thin side, being one of those Agatha Christie’s Ten Little… er — And Then There Were None scenarios, with Garth mindlessly hovering around and peering in windows, until…
But the artwork is a delight. Like all of Marvel’s supernatural antiheroes (save the Man-Thing), Garth absurdly boasts the physique of a bodybuilder (despite being long dead and not eating anything), but at least Alcala truly knows his anatomy.
The original story is over thirty pages long, so I’m just providing highlights, including the conclusion, which is quite cute. While it must be incredibly hard to write mindless, invulnerable characters, Moench had a good punchline in mind all along.
*set in Brazil for the sake of the twist ending — not a bad one, either. **To be fair, called Zombi 2 in Italy, since “Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) was released in Italy as Zombi.” At least the Italians, as the French once did, understand that Zombi is the male, and Zombie the female of the, er… species. Or is it simply the plural?
« To prevent enabling oppression, we demand that black people be twice as good. To prevent verifying stereotypes, we pledge to never eat a slice a watermelon in front of white people.* » — Ta-Nehisi Coates
On a scorching day last week, we were at home digging into a particularly tasty watermelon.
As neither of us grew up in the U.S. of A., the simple act of eating juicy pastèque has not been tainted, as it has for many, by racism and stereotypes. We’ve been allowed to appreciate the watermelon for itself, as a healthy, refreshing, tasty treat. A lightbulb came on as I recalled a relevant sequence in one of Spain Rodriguez‘s ‘Fred Toote’ stories, set in the 1950’s Buffalo of his youth — and so here it is:
And that’s not all: a few days later, a friend’s news feed presented me with a most insightful, eye-opening *and* heartbreaking tweet:
Pickaninny. A black child. Thus, from a book that was being sold in 1987 in order to raise money for the state of California’s observance of the bicentennial of the United States Constitution. ” If the pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates” (Fred Albert Shannon, essay on slavery, 1934, in The Making of America, W. Clean Skousen, ed., 1985).
Pickaninny arose among slaves in the West Indies, where it was recorded as early as 1653. The original users based the term either on the Portuguese pequenino, little child, or its Spanish equivalent. They employed the term affectionately, of course, and, on the evidence of Captain Frederick Marryat, who was a sensitive recorder of language, applied it to little children generally, regardless of color, e.g. “And den, Mass Easy, you marry wife – hab pickaninny — lib like gentleman” (Mr. Midshipman Easy, 1836).
But no white person can get away with this today. The essential informality of the word makes it seem too condescending, too offensive, to most modern sensibilities. The California Bicentennial Commission, in fact, halted the sale of The Making of America, and issued a formal apology for having authorized it in the first place, after this use of pickaninny was called to their attention (along with other matters, the text also concluding that “slave owners were the worst victims of the system [of slavery].”
« Taking sartorial risks and not following other people is what makes you stand out. » — Zac Posen
I was planning a big commemorative post for today, but I got tangled up in my calendar and realised in time that I was a couple of weeks off. So instead, I’ll just blow off a little steam.
Some cartoonists are born character designers. Others, not so much. The Rhino, a Stan Lee-John Romita Sr. creation, first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man no. 41 (Oct. 1966, Marvel), soon after Steve Ditko‘s abrupt but quite justified resignation. Isn’t that just a dog of a cover? (pencils and inks by Romita, colours by Stan Goldberg).
Somehow, Daredevil seems to wind up with more than his share of poorly-attired villains. It’s as if they know he’s blind and won’t judge them too harshly on sartorial grounds.
The Beetle first scurried into view in Strange Tales no. 123 (Aug. 1964, Marvel), tackling the Human Torch (and The Thing). Too bad it wasn’t Doctor Strange he was sparring with, since his threads would then have been designed by Mr. Ditko instead of by Carl Burgos.
He then went on to bug the aforementioned ‘hornhead’. This is Daredevil no. 34 (Nov. 1967); pencils by Gene Colan, inks by Bill Everett. Why does everyone on stage appear to wear a size 15 shoe? At least!
The costume of the Tarantula (a glorious Gerry Conway-Ross Andru creation!) is such an impractical conceit that they pretty much have to use him in the same position on every cover. The guy can barely walk in such, er — calzado, let alone fly at Spider-Man with such force. Just a lousy idea, on every level — tarantulas bite, they don’t sting, Gerry.
Poor Razor-Fist was created by writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy. How did he get dressed? How did he go to the bathroom? How did he feed himself? How did he get his head to bend that far back? (Perhaps he’s a Pez Dispenser).
« 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.
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.
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.
« There’s no need for some of the language that’s been thrown at some of the artists and writers. These men are highly skilled craftsmen and deserve a lot of respect. » — editorial comment in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 14 (July, 1967, Tower)
This post has been inspired by sundry signs and omens I’ve encountered these past few days: first, a casual mention dropped by Bizarro ink stud Wayno on his blog; then a fond-but-hazy recollection by a graphic designer colleague… and so this week, the agents of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.* make the scene. Well, one of them does.
As with many other choice cultural items of the era, I was first tantalised by a little volume entitled Dynamo, Man of High Camp from the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, devoted to its in-house Captain Company catalogue: Warren magazine back issues, rubber masks and hands, posters, LPs, Super 8 reels, paperbacks, novelties… a veritable trove of wonders. And unlike many a mail-order house, these goodies were the real deal, solid classics avidly sought after and treasured to this day.
Since much has been written about the history of Tower Comics (1965-1969), I’ll skip that part. Here’s the gist of it.
Of course, I adore the Wally Wood material, all the more the unfailingly delicious Steve Ditko-Wood combo. A fine surprise was George Tuska‘s nimble comedic touch on the misadventures of ‘Weed’. But my very favourite flavour in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. cocktail is ‘Raven’ as written and illustrated by Manny Stallman (1927-97), a quintessentially eccentric delight.
Introduced by Steve Skeates and George Tuska in Enter the Raven (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 8, Sept. 1966), the character’s sole point of interest was that he was a mercenary who, originally intending to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R., had a change of heart.
Along came Manny. He took over the character, redesigned him from stem to stern, and gave him a memorable arch-nemesis in Mayven, the Poet. But enough of this prattle, let’s have a look!
After a mere five Raven episodes, Stallman was gone. Judging from the letters columns, reader reaction had overwhelming been of this nature:
“In issue #9 the art on the Raven was awful“
“You’re using a lot of grade D artists… as for whoever draws the Raven, his art is utterly atrocious.”
“How about having Chic Stone draw Raven in addition to Lightning?“
« Unsurprisingly, many of the fans of the era hated Stallman’s work and mocked it openly in their letters and in fanzines. Comic book fans have often had very narrow boundaries for what they consider an appropriate style for a super hero strip. And Stallman was coloring way outside of those lines with his work. »
After an issue’s hiatus, the Raven returned, once more reimagined (minus the imagination) this time by Gil Kane. Just another run-of-the-mill flying dude. I’ve always held that Kane should never be allowed to ink himself, but he also makes an excellent case, in his sole Raven outing (and Raven’s final flight), that he shouldn’t be allowed to write, either. Here’s a sample:
Ahem. All these walking child-shaped time bombs reminded me of a rather fine comic book from a couple of decades later.
It could all be coincidence, but I like to imagine that the exploding kids idea is a sharp hybrid of notions from two Mario Bava flicks from 1966: the murderous little girl from Operazione paura aka Kill, Baby… Kill, and the booby-trap beauties from Le spie vengono dal semifreddo aka Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.
In closing, I’m happy to report that Mr. Stallman landed on his feet after his fall from the Tower. Honestly, the comics industry, and its fans, didn’t deserve the likes of him. He would go on to recount the Adventures of the Big Boy (published by the Bob’s Big Boy chain of restaurants) for a whopping seventeen years, among other fine assignments. And if ever there was a mensch, he surely was the one. Here’s a telling passage from his obituary:
« When a 1991 stroke caused cartoonist Manny Stallman’s right hand to intermittently go numb, he didn’t let it stop him. He simply took it upon himself to learn to draw with his left hand.
After making that switch, he had trouble drawing the tightly controlled figures he had created for years as a leading artist in what has been called the Golden Age of Comics. So he took advantage of the larger figures he could draw, transposing them onto a blackboard to help teach English and citizenship classes to Russian immigrants at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.
Despite additional health problems that included diabetes and congestive heart failure, he also led classes for Chinese immigrants and taught computer-aided drawing to disabled children. “Manny decided to stop focusing on what he had been able to do before his strokes,” says his wife, Jane Stallman.
“He decided to start ‘where I am‘ and do whatever he could with whatever capacity he had. His life goal was to make someone smile each day.” »
« Ward’s beautiful buxotics operate in a strange separate universe, in which all women are gorgeous voluptoids, all men oafish, saucer-eyed drooling dupes. » — Chris ‘Coop‘ Cooper
Well, I certainly wasn’t planning to hog all the blogging this week, but there were birthdays and other hopefully mitigating factors. While today is the great Will Eisner‘s birthday, it’s likely to overshadow that of a fellow Golden Age toiler, one with an equally intriguing career, but with a trajectory quite divergent from Eisner’s own.
Bill Ward (1919 – 1998) was also born on this day, one hundred and three years ago. Ward started out in comics with the Jack Binder shop, turning out material for Fawcett’s line of characters (Captain Marvel and his family, Bulletman…); he soon found himself working for Quality Comics, most notably on Blackhawk (an Eisner co-creation, it should be noted). He inched closer to his true passion when assigned to Quality’s romance line.
In the mid-50’s, when came the brutal, censorship-induced compression of the comic book industry, Ward smoothly shifted to producing girlie cartoons for Abe Goodman’s Humorama line, becoming its star and most prolific performer, thanks to his popularity and prodigious speed. He was aided in this by his choice of tool and technique: the conté crayon on newsprint. While everyone else was working on 8″ x 12″ illustration board, Ward was using a soft, beige paper of a size (18″ x 24′) and texture familiar to any art student who’s taken a life drawing class. With this type of stock, he could produce texture rubbings and achieve smooth, sensual sheens ideal for rendering highlights of hair and stockings. Said Ward: « It didn’t take me long to figure out that the quicker you could do the work… the more money you could make. » Over the course of a quarter-century, he wound up producing around 9,000 drawings for the Humorama line.
As Ward recalled of his early training in Binder’s studio, « [Binder] trained me to do layout, which is the most difficult part of art. » To wit, layout never counted among Ward’s strengths. A lot of his pinup work is undermined by poor staging, often grotesque proportions, and absolutely minimal attention to non-erotic detail.
Now, had I ever wondered what Ward’s pencils would look like, if inked by Bill Everett? I readily confess I hadn’t. But upon learning that such a momentous collision once occurred, my mind was set slightly reeling.
Another weathered fellow combatant in the trenches of the Golden Age, Everett (1917-73), unlike Ward, always gave his best, whatever the conditions. Right to the end, despite his rapidly declining health, Everett was, incredibly, producing top-flight work.
In the 60’s, Ward also provided covers for various soft-core novels, such as this one from Satellite Publications’ ‘After Hours’ imprint. He even wrote some of them, notably under the alias of ‘Bill Marshall’. His fellow Quality Comics alumnus Gil Fox also penned many of these potboilers under a staggering array of aliases.
« From the body of one guilty deed a thousand ghostly fears and haunting thoughts proceed. » — William Wordsworth
Today’s selection is an early, early favourite of mine. I first encountered it in French, in the pages of Capitaine America no. 8 (Aug. 1971, Les Éditions Héritage); back in those days, Québécois printer-packager Payette & Simms would reprint, in black and white, recent Marvel comics in their ‘Format Double’ package, a terrific deal at 25 cents: you got two issues’ worth, no ads, plus a bonus short story. P&S’ paper stock and printing were better than Marvel’s — but their lettering and translation work generally left much to be desired*.
In this case, despite the allure of the slickly sumptuous Gene Colan / Joe Sinnott artwork, the issue’s out-of-nowhere high point was (you guessed it!) a modest little story plucked from the predawn of the so-called ‘Marvel Age’, Mister Gregory and the Ghost!, from a pre-Thor issue of Journey Into Mystery (no. 75, Dec. 1961). Many may disagree with me on this one, but boy, those post-Kirby issues of Cap’n ‘merica just serve to demonstrate what happens without a perpetual motion plot engine like Jack Kirby to propel and guide the series: when you try to introduce new foils for the hero, you get bonehead non-ideas like biker gangs, a jealous scientist in the body of a gorilla, or in issue 123’s Suprema, the Deadliest of the Species!, a brother-and-sister hypnosis act who drive around a gadget-filled tanker truck that magnifies Suprema’s power by way of a *very* 70’s medallion her brother wears around his neck. Then Cap feels its vibrations (“Ping!”) through his shield, and … oh, I won’t spoil the thing’s idiotic charms any further for you: read it here.
Ahem — back to Mister G and his Ghost. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of writing either (Larry Lieber?), but it presents Kirby at his moody, understated best. Upon seeing it in colour, I realised how providential my monochromatic encounter had been. While the story’s been reprinted a few times (in 1966, 1971, and in 2020 in a fancy and pricey hardcover omnibus), the printing’s always been pretty shoddy. As you’ll see.
But… it seems that most, if not all of the original art survives, so we’ll make the most of the situation and mix our sources as needed — hope the effect isn’t too jarring!
*here’s an example of Éditions Héritage’s lovely calligraphy, from this very story:
If you’ll forgive me the venial but gauche sin of quoting myself… three years ago, I posited:
« Luís Ángel Domínguez, reportedly born ninety-five years ago to the day… and still among the living… as far as we know. I like to envision him warmly surrounded by several generations of loved ones and well-wishers, an impish gleam in his eye. »
I found it sadly infuriating that such an important and accomplished artist’s latter-day whereabouts and circumstances were so shrouded in mystery… and largely, it would seem, indifference. The usual story: he didn’t really do superheroes.
Neither Lambiek nor the Grand Comics Database have anything to add on the subject, but a spot of digging turned up that he indeed was still alive until recently, though purportedly afflicted with Alzheimer’s in his waning years. Then I found what may well be his… very basic obituary, placing his date of birth exactly one month off (unsurprisingly, since accounts have long varied) and his date of death as July 1st, 2020, in Miami, FL. Unless something more definitive comes along, it’ll have to do.
I think we can all agree that ninety-six years is a pretty good run, even with the doleful decline near the end. Let’s look back on what’s surely his peak decade in comics, the 1970s. My picks have nothing to do with ‘key’ issues, character débuts or popular crossovers. I’ve judged these on artistic merit, keeping the pernicious influence of nostalgia at arm’s length.
For more Domínguez delights, just click on this link and explore away! I daresay that I only managed to keep it to an even dozen (difficult!) choices because we’ve already spotlighted many of his finest covers.