In his autobiography Chronicles, Bob Dylan discusses how starting in the mid 60s, audacious new artists like the Rolling Stones and the Who "breathed new life and excitement" into the doldrums of what before them had been the bland monotony of early 60s radio pop music in the era of pre-Beatles pap. Except for a few gems like Motown hits and Franki Valli, it was a wasteland back then. Reminds me of what the comics scene was like, post-Code, before the thrilling advent of Kirby, Ditko and writer Lee's then wildly innovative and extra-dimensional concept of fleshing out his characterizations via "heroes with problems." Even today, the excitement and ragged vitality of those 60s Marvels is self-evident and pops and crackles off the pages.
How countercultural mindsets got slipped into the coffee of staid mainstream comics
The new wave of baby boomer comic creators who entered the field in the late 60s and early 70s such as Dennis O'Neil, Jim Starlin, Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart in many cases protested the Vietnam War, toked reefer and such and were as counterculturally liberal as the best of them, but their heart belonged to superheroes and science fiction, not the socio-political and sexual outrageousness of the undergrounds (a middle finger to Dr. Wertham and the Comics Code if ever there was one). Their work on Dr. Strange, Howard the Duck and Warlock was surreptitiously hip and risque, not overtly. The more obviously preachy work of O'Neil and Adams on Green Lantern/Green Arrow has probably aged the worst despite its noble intentions and excellent execution, due to its direct engagement of socially "relevant" themes in the medium of superheroes which perhaps is not the most conducive forum for that effort. A nice compromise between the adult sophistication, cuss words and t & a of the undergrounds and the exciting science fiction and fantasy pulp elements of the mainstream was reached in the pioneering 70s "groundlevel" comic series Star * Reach. This comic-sized anthology was sold at the time only through mail order, head shops and a sprinkling of early comics shops, with zero Comics Code jurisdiction, no ad distractions and creator-owned material. It was a real trailblazer publication which built on the legacy of Witzend and paved the way for the racy and avant garde adult fantasy magazines of the late 70s like Metal Hurlant and Heavy Metal, which prompted Epic.
Captain Marvel #28 (September 1973) - Jim Starlin
Dr. Wertham and the forces of reaction = anal retention. The undergrounds and their aftermath = anal expulsion. Proper regularity not established until more nutritious fusions of adult stories and exotic art came along with Metal Hurlant, Fantagraphics, Spiegleman's RAW et al.
The hysterical and reactionary forces represented by Dr. Wertham, the Kefauver subcommitee, and the Comics Code Authority definitely retarded the development of a medium that creators like the E.C. artists, particularly Bernard Krigstein, were on the verge of transforming into a more mature and sophisticated means of graphic storytelling. To me, a recent work like "The Courtyard"/"Neonomicon" written by Alan Moore picks up where
E.C. left off, absorbing the freedoms afforded by the subversiveness of the undergrounds with a serious literary intent and brilliant execution in concept, dialogue and art. Another point worth noting is that in later decades, the deservedly reviled Dr. Wertham unexpectedly became a more admirable advocate for the healthy virtues of comics fandom, see his book "The World of Fanzines" (1974) and the related revealing essay by comic critic Dwight R. Decker, who met and interviewed him for the piece. See Art-bin.com/art/awertham.html
Huh? The worst comic book of all time...by Neal Adams??
According to the "World's Worst Comics Awards No. 2" (1991, Kitchen Sink), this is the single worst comic produced in the 25 year period prior to its release. This abomination of a book combines a concept which is preposterously juvenile even by comic book standards, overblown bathos in place of characterization, racial pandering, unimaginably godawful prose (or as the Kitchen Sink publication called it, "the most self-indulgent, angst-ridden, second person narration ever to stain paper") and the dopiest dialogue right from jump street on page one: "Hands off, jerkhole! The party's over! We're forming a union! My foot and your face!" It goes without saying that the artwork is excellently executed, but we'd expect a brain surgeon to be steady with his hands, or a top-notch studio musician to play the notes correctly, so no credit there. Plus the stilted hokiness of the Adams style is accentuated by this train wreck of a story, the product of a gifted draftsman totally lacking in a self-aware sense of his own ridiculousness. When paired with a top-notch genre writer like Denny O'Neil or Roy Thomas, Adams produced some of the most thrilling adventure and superhero comics ever done. Left to his own devices, by 1983 he had degenerated to pure dogshit. An absolute must for any collection, to mark its nadir.
Jim Steranko: a legend in more than his own mind? Self-cultivated mysterioso or egomaniacal blowhard??
The good ole Ukrainian Pennsylvanian mysterioso who had multiple brothers die on the railroads and was raised dirt poor by dismissive parents and scrapped metal in the streets to buy magic and art supplies while an uncle brought him boxes of comics and newspaper strips to fire his imagination and steel his resolve for his first love: comics, self-made man of mystery and escape magician, early rock and roller who claims he invented the go go girls in mini-skirts concept, hardened street fighter who warded off much bigger bullies, basis for the Escapist character in author Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of Jewish survival, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," the pop art provocateur and member of the Witchdoctor's Club in NYC with Orson Welles and Isaac Asimov...gentleman Jim Steranko. Rabble rouser, dodger of deadlines and defier of page conventions under Stan Lee. Ace historian who recounted the tales of the early, wing-it-as-they-go days at the dawn of comic book creation in the late 30s and early 40s with the earliest pioneers flourishing then such as Will Eisner, Lou Fine, Siegel and Schuster, Jack Cole, Mac Raboy, Gardner Fox, Charles Biro et al. These tales were related to Steranko by Kirby at the Kirby home in Long Island in which Jack pumped out his greatest works in collaboration in the 60s with Lee who was in NYC in or near the Marvel offices. Down in that basement, Jack was hunched over his drawing board working non-stop for he vowed his kids would never suffer the lack of middle class comforts that he had to endure through the Great Depression in the Jewish tenement districts of New York, so he toiled in his basement non-stop like a whirling dervish of ingenius productivity out of which sprang the Marvel universe, while his doting and practical wife Roz, who was a managerial whiz who juggled all the household responsibilities about which Jack was a space cadet, this doll and firecracker of a lady fed pastrami sandwiches and pickles to Jim and youngsters like Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, who were always welcome as teens to drop by. These lively, perambulating, and exhaustively detailed discussions between Jack and Jim, before which Steranko would perform magic tricks for his and Roz's kids, formed the basis for the monumentally thorough and exhaustively encyclopedic giant-sized stunning two volume set, "The Steranko History of Comics."
Keep in mind that Steranko is of the astrological sign of Scorpio, so there's more than a touch of self-mythologizing mystique-making at play here.
The single finest and most mind-bogglingly imaginative Kirby issue I've ever seen? Eternals #12, "Uni-Mind" (1977)
A shimmering, mindboggling apotheosis of transcendence from a quirky non-psychedelic talent in fullest flower, from that visionary from Brooklyn, as Alan Moore called him.
The Silver Surfer - from stoic skyrider to "galactic crybaby."
Editor and writer Lee wisely made Kirby step aside for the Surfer's solo title, since Jack's vision of the character was a cold, stoic cosmic herald and sentinel, whereas Buscema infused the character with the noble bombast, altruistic soul, and social conscience more suitable for the direction in which Lee wanted to take the character.
The definitive Batman, or damn close...
This two-parter is the smoothest transition I'm aware of from one writer to another on a major mainstream title, as Steve Englehart ended his superlative run on the previous issue and Len Wein took over for both of these issues, each with artist Marshall Rogers. It's also one of the peaks of the entire Batman oeuvre, and was genuinely psychologically chilling in its depiction of Clayface's doomed effort to escape his "hyperpituitarism which hideously distorted (his) body" and the villain's haunting love for his wax figure lover Helena. The creative team also dug deeply into the guilt and rage which drove Batman's monomania, an obsession with thwarted his future with the woman who was perhaps his truest love, Silver St. Cloud. Plus the rich and supple inking jobs by Dick Giordano are among the best I've seen. (Terry Austin inked the cover on the first one).
Saying goodbye too soon to some superlative contributors to comic book history...
Bernie Wrightson (1948 - 2017)
Early fanzine art by Wrightson, who was a prolific contributor to Squa-Tront, Spa Fon and so forth.
Rich Buckler (1949 - 2017)
At his best, Buckler was solid as oak, about at the level of Murphy Anderson or John Buscema on his Avengers run with Roy Thomas in the late 60s. He knew how to put it all together and tell an effective and dynamic story, and also could illustrate with realistic precision and strong prowess. Buckler's good friend and definitive inker Dick Giordano, who he would often visit at his home, brought out his best.
Gene Day (1951 -1982)
Another tragic loss to comicdom was Canada's Gene Day (1951 - 1982), a big inspiration to the budding Dave Sim's efforts in self-publishing and artistic experimentation -- and devotion to improving his craftsmanship. Perhaps his finest work in mainstream comics was this stunningly frenetic and electrifyingly entertaining piece with Doug Moench in Master of Kung Fu (#118, November 1982):
Don Newton (1934 -1984)
One of the classiest stylists of his day, I believe that Newton had it in him to develop into another Wallace Wood. He certainly created some of the most fabulously vibrant fanzine art of all time, to wit:
RBCC (Rocket's Blast Comic Collector) #84, 1971
Thanks for nothin', George Lucas
Star Wars? You mean that entertaining children's film pastiche of Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress and Jack Kirby's New Gods, among other sources? Yeah, it was fun as can be and an unforgettable and indelible cultural touchstone for my Generation X and all that, but it sure was derivative.
Publisher Mike Friedrich reached out to director George Lucas in one of his
Star * Reach editorials and requested some respect from the director who based his monster hit movie on an entertaining albeit derivative pastiche of Cody Starbuck, Kirby's New Gods, Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces and The Hidden Fortress by Kurosawa, among a few other sources. However, Lucas never poneyed up a dime for publisher Friedrich or for creator and owner Chaykin, besides hiring (on a work for hire basis via Marvel) Chaykin along with writer Roy Thomas to do the first part of the Marvel Star Wars adaptation. Kind of underhanded of Lucas, if you ask me, to not more openly acknowledge his obvious comic book influences, not only from Chaykin and Kirby but also from Jim Starlin's mesmerizing mid-70s cosmic odyssies Captain Marvel and Warlock.
I spy an eerie similarity!
What makes Alan Moore so singularly great? Multifarious multitudes of reasons, rookie.
Here's a take on the singular preeminence of Alan Moore as comic book scripter:
When Jimi Hendrix first hit the rock and roll guitar scene in swinging London circa 1966, Eric Clapton convened a clandestine meeting with Pete Townsend in a darkened movie theater and let Townsend know that there was a new kid in town from Washington state who would blow them all away. Similarly, when Moore hit the American comic book scene in 1983 when he and Steve Bissette were recruited by co-creator and editor Len Wein to revamp the dessicated, played-out and failing horror title Swamp Thing, Moore's peers started shitting bricks. Guys like his own editor Wein, Dennis O'Neil, Marv Wolfman, Doug Moench, Roy Thomas, et al. were capable and proven genre craftsmen and among the so-called hacks of comic book writing who paid their dues in the thankless crucible of over a decade of hitting their deadlines to push paper product for their check-signers. (But do these decent and hard-working men really deserve bashing when when they could have been pipe fitters or insurance adjusters or something similarly nondescript but instead they chose to be freelance storybook pamphlet entertainers whose worst sin was to deliver solid, and sometimes not so hot, kids' diversionary fantasies, which in the broader context of the arts were pretty much at the level of a Louis L'Amour western novel or a good Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode?) The old guard knew immediately that despite Moore's often shambolic plotting, they were seriously outclassed by this hairy anarcho-freakazoid dope-smoking Brit from Northhampton. Moore was superior not just as a writer, but also as a thinker and reader. Quite simply, he had a deeper reservoir of vast background knowledge from which to draw. It seems that the more one learns about science, history, psychology, political theory, metaphysics and philosophy, and many other interdisciplinary understandings, the more one realizes the radiant layers of meaning Moore has somehow crammed and compacted into his works with such offhanded yet self-consciously deliberative brilliance.
Superman Annual #11 (1985) - "For The Man Who Has Everything" by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
This story is one of the most cleverly plotted and emotionally riveting Superman tales in the character's history, which cuts to the core of Kal-El's heart's desire to have known his parents and lived a normal life on Krypton, and the unexpected dilemmas that would have brought. Additionally, it was done in 1985 by the fabled writer/artist team of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons a year before their seminal "Watchmen," so this definitely is a comic book which belongs in any comprehensive collection. Collectors can find a well-produced reprint on slick paper included in the trade paperback "Superman - Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" (2010). Also, for insight into the intricate structure and keen intelligence which Moore brought to bear in this story, I'd recommend his booklet "Alan Moore's Writing For Comics" (Vol. 1, Avatar Press, 2007, with superb illustrations by Jacen Burrows). In the extensive essay included in that work, Moore writes: "The idea behind the story was to examine the concept of escapism and fantasy dreamworlds, including happy times in the past that we look back on and idealize, and longed-for points in the imagined future when we will finally achieve whatever our goal happens to be. I wanted to have a look at how useful these ideas are and how wide the gap is between the fantasy and any sort of credible reality. It was a story, if you like, for the people I've encountered who are fixated upon some point in the past where things could have gone differently or who are equally obsessed with some hypothetical point in the future when certain circumstances will have come to pass and they can be 'happy.' " (page 33)
Note to nimrods:
It's not "The Watchmen."
Golden age esoterica at its weirdest: L.B. Cole
L.B.Cole (1918 - 1995, no relation to Jack Cole) was one of the quirkiest and most colorfully evocative artists of the Golden Age of Comics.
Bhob Stewart: clarion call to the emergence of critical intelligence
Atlas/Seaboard comics: a flop commercially and creatively but a step in the right direction at its time for creator's rights
Atlas/Seaboard was an ill-fated publishing enterprise (1974 - 1975) by Marvel Comics founder Martin Goodman, his son Chip and his editor-in-chief Larry Lieber, brother of Stan Lee. They did a few good things like make early progress on creator's rights, and had some stunning covers by Ditko, Adams et al. However, in general their work was pretty derivative and forgettable in my view. Notice from the mid-70s Atlas/Seaboard house ad posted above that Marvel or DC never purchased and re-purposed those characters, as Paul Levitz and Dick Giordano allowed Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons to do with various Archie/MLJ and Charlton characters which they tweaked and transformed, under Dick Giordano's guidance, into the complex and multi-layered Cold War fable Watchmen. Too bad, because I suspect that with more sophisticated treatment, some of these characters could have gone somewhere. Either that or they were dead on arrival and devoid of redeeming features, so it doesn't matter anyway.
Here's a good article about the anemic rise and wimpering fall of Atlas/Seaboard, from the Atlas Archives. I also recall a good piece in Amazing Heroes or Comics Interview about the same topic, remember that one? http://www.atlasarchives.com/articles/
And now, folks, it's time for a public service announcement:
The pursuit of hyper-realism in superhero art
Besides the crackling top-flight entertainment of Roy Thomas' script and the dynamic layouts and pristine hyper-realism of Neal Adams' pencils, that issue (and that general run of the Skrull-Kree War in Avengers #93 - 97) featured some of the tightest and most sumptuously crafted inks I've ever seen in a mainstream comic, courtesy of Tom Palmer.
Superhero art never got better than this, pilgrims.
And long before Adams, the great Lou Fine was setting the standard for anatomical accuracy and virtuosic intensity in depicting superheroic action. See Fantastic Comics #3 (1940).
And now for some suck-ass moments in comic book history:
George Perez: an underappreciated superhero artist treasure
Name me one other comics artist who could have crammed so many characters into one place and still somehow maintained a sensible composition and captured the idiosyncratic essence and inscrutable personality of each character. I never grooved on George Perez as a graphic story artist of the first rank such as Kurtzman, Adams, Steranko or Miller, but I must admit that over the years my respect for his unique achievement and devotion to craftsmanship has only increased. And let's all wish him well as he endures some recent health struggles.
Steven Ringgenberg: a class act as writer, editor, interviewer and comics historian
On Facebook on 05/24/17 I wrote this to Steven Ringgenberg, Phoenix-based comics historian, critic, essayist, interviewer (including numerous definitive discussions with the greatest luminary of comic book illustrators, Frank Frazetta) scriptwriter and former associate editor at The Comics Journal, Byron Preiss Visual Publications and Heavy Metal:
(in response to a poster stating that my posts were often informative and interesting) Thanks, I try to bring to comics criticism and commentary the same sort of informed zeal for my perspective on the canon that Pauline Kael and her protege Roger Ebert brought to film criticism. I don't presume to be at that level of erudition and historical expertise, but some other authors, essayists and editorial figures on FB have gotten there, such as Steven Ringgenberg, Gary Groth and R.C. Harvey who is here as Robert Harvey.
And Ringgenberg replied:
Thanks for the kind words, Steve.
And I came back:
No problem, you deserve it after fighting so hard for the comic book arts as a key interviewer of Frank Frazetta, associate editor at The Comics Journal and Heavy Metal, and your recent essays which are important additions to comic book history, appearing in the backs of those Fantagraphics E.C. reprint books. And I hope that besides just preaching to the choir of us older farts, we can reach a few of the inquisitive youngsters out there who are curious to learn more about the glories of this art form. Comics criticism and history doesn't pay a hill of beans, but I have a passion for conveying this story and hope that I can add to the work of what astute guys like Joe Brancatelli, R.C. Harvey and yourself have already contributed. Certainly author and essayist Douglas Wolk is on the leading edge of this effort to bring a broader cultural context and a higher brow of literacy to such writings, even while he maintains a love for the kitschy and genre-bound tropes that make comics such good dumb fun.
See also http://www.heavymetal.com/tag/steven-ringgenberg/
|One of Ringgenberg's finest moments (Comics Interview #42, 1987), this issue of this at-one-time-vigorous comics industry prozine (run by former Marvel veterans David Anthony Kraft and Jim Salicrup) featured a stunningly well-detailed and wide-ranging interview with Frank Frazetta. The issue also featured an interview with Ringgenberg himself, who at the time was writer/editor of a compelling but short-lived alternative title called The Emissary.|
The doldrum days before the Annus Mirabilis of 1986
This one is a house ad by Joe Staton, a wonderful artist of that era who had so much verve and flair. The ad celebrates the ill-fated "DC Explosion," which would end shortly thereafter in 1978 with the "DC Implosion" in which over two dozen titles got the axe. Ouch. Those old enough to remember will recall that this was a tough time for the comics industry and for fans alike. Besides a few gems like the Englehart/Rogers definitive (or damn near close to definitive) Batman iteration in Detective Comics, Mike Kaluta's covers, some exotic and profane pieces in Heavy Metal and some daring but not always successful science fiction experiments by publishers Byron Preiss and Mike Friedrich of Star * Reach Productions, comics were at their nadir. This was prior to the tsunami-like impact in the early to mid 80s of the new wave of mainstream greats such as Frank Miller and John Byrne on X-Men, some splendid productions by new direct sales/independent publishers like Chaykin's edgy work on American Flagg!, the stunning literacy, deep characterization and avant garde experimentation of the Hernandez brothers on Love and Rockets and Art Spiegleman with his Pulitzer Prize winning Maus graphic novel and RAW magazine, and the emergence of the greatest writer who would ever grace the field, that hairy doper and polymath master storyteller from merry old England, Alan Moore. We somehow came through that late 70s period of wandering in the wilderness and entered at least a temporary promised land of comic book excellence.
Plop: a mildly amusing revisitation of the glories of Mad
When the covers are the only part worth a hill of beans
Often the covers are the only good parts of comics. For instance, here's an incredible Neal Adams cover with formulaic hack-work inside for contents:
Barry Windsor-Smith: deliberative practice makes next to perfect, and on the importance of having the right role models
When Barry Smith, as he was then known, did his first work for Marvel in X-Men #53 (February 1969), he was little more than a derivative Kirby clone. However, the crude imitation of this early phase of his career was indicative of the deep respect he always felt for Kirby as the very foundation stone for comic book action storytelling. As Windsor-Smith aptly stated in the Kirby memorial issue of The Comics Journal (#167, April 1994): "Jack Kirby is to comic book art what Pablo Picasso is to modern painting. One cannot seriously or properly approach the form without first acknowledging its master." In perhaps the most rapid and dramatic artistic improvement in comic book history, within less than a year of starting on Conan the Barbarian with Roy Thomas in 1970, Windsor-Smith had developed into one of the most exquisite stylists in the field. His work was saved from pretension or ostentatiousness by this undergirding in Kirby-esque storytelling. And it's gratifying to witness an artist so committed to continual learning that in his 1996 interview with Comics Journal head honcho Gary Groth, Windsor-Smith emphasized the ongoing rigor and challenges of learning how to properly draw from higher-brow perspectives. He's a guy who refuses to rest on his laurels, and even when he does material to pay the bills, he still puts impeccable craftsmanship into all of his work.
Jack Kirby: pencils with Barry Windsor-Smith: inks
Luscious and delicate linework and rich modeling of forms. And believe it or not, despite the voluminous dull hackwork he often pumped out for rather high rates of pay, Vince Colletta was capable of inking work approaching this level. Go groove on his inks to Kirby's first Inhuman stories in the heyday of the FF, for instance.
Fantastic Four #41 (1965) - Stan Lee (script), Jack Kirby (pencils) & Vince Colletta (inks)
Gil Kane: a master craftsman and impeccable gentleman in action
Remembering the Studio - via YouTube