Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Story Thus Far...

Captain Thunder and Blue Bolt Vol. 2 #2 (Hero Graphics, November 1992, $3.50)
"Hard Targets" Writers/Creators: Roy and Dann Thomas, Artist: E.R. Cruz, Letterer: Jean Simek, and Editor: Dennis Mallonee.

This is an impressive comic book published by a Long Beach, California-based imprint that also published Windraven Adventures, Tigress, Murcielaga She Bat, and Flare. The "Back Issue Department" on the inside back cover suggests that there were 10 issues in the first volume of this series, and the inside front cover is dedicated to a full page of text, "The Story Thus Far..." so a lot has come before this issue.



Story aside -- and I'll return to that below -- this comic book is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Cruz's black-and-white artwork is crisp and stunning, a real find in a little-known (to me) comic like this. His extremely finely inked illustrative style would be at home almost anywhere: commercial and book illustration, pulp fiction magazines, sf digests, even the horror magazines of the '70s. What a wonderful surprise. Cruz is a Filipino artist who did a lot of mystery and war comics for DC in the '70s and '80s. Most of his work seems to be centered on G.I. Combat, House of Mystery, and The Unexpected. He is a wonderful artist, and this book is worth checking out just for that -- astonishingly detailed black-and-white comics. Pages 13, 19-20, and 26 are particularly impressive.

The story by Roy and Dann Thomas, a husband and wife team, then, is worthy of Cruz's artwork. Captain Thunder and his son are after the Merchants of Menace, causing the villains' plane to crash and catching its leader as he parachutes to safety. He leads the two heroes to a secret compound, where he bargains away the other Merchants before unleashing some sort of monstrosity, a "living vacuum cleaner," an energy-siphoning Mantis-Tank dubbed the Critical Mass.



Blue Bolt's energy is drained and Captain Thunder trapped in the construct. The issue ends with Blue Bolt revitalized and about to attempt a rescue. Even newcomers to the series and involved plot line will be impressed by Cruz's artwork, the highlight of the issue. Apparently, there was no #3.

Availability: This issue has not been collected. We recommend Alter Ego: The Best Of The Legendary Comics Fanzine and The Best of Alter Ego Vol. 2.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Science Fiction and the Supernatural

Forbidden Worlds #65 (American Comics Group, April 1958, 10 cents)
"There's a New Moon Tonight" Pencils and inks: Ogden Whitney, and Script: Richard Hughes.

While the main story in this issue is squarely science fiction, the other short pieces are more supernatural in scope. The 15-page lead piece tells the tale of aerospace scientist and MIT alumnus Ben Widdemer, who leaves behind the mechanical toys of Precision Plastics Inc. to respond to the Soviet launch of Sputnik and "reach for the moon." He falls for liaison agent Mary Simmons, in reality a Russian operative named Olga Kurilenko.



Widdemer's satellite New Moon can accommodate him as a passenger, and Simmons declares her love for him while holding a bomb in her hand. The satellite goes out of control and lands on a strange, bleak planet, where Widdemer meets the survivors of an alien race who plan a mass invasion of Earth. Their invasion is not successful.



The one-page "Wartime Episode" (Pencils and inks: John Forte) reunites a 2-year-old boy with his parents many years later. In the uncredited four-page "No Place to Hide," perhaps the best story in the issue, an erstwhile embezzler is kept from committing his crime. The uncredited one-page "What's the Answer?" is a time-traveling tale of ghostly medical attention. And the five-page "Return of a Hero" (Pencils and inks: John Forte) brings a Hungarian hero back from the dead to lend a hand in the rebellion against Communism.

The issue also includes a two-page letter column.

Availability: Dark Horse offers several collections (Forbidden Worlds Archives Vol. 1, Vol. 3), as does PS Publishing (Forbidden Worlds Collected Works Vol. 4Vol. 5, Vol. 6) and Gwandanaland (Forbidden Worlds Readers Giant #2 and Forbidden Worlds Readers Giant #3).

Shaolin, Kung Fu, and Samurai

The Beast Warriors of Shaolin #3 (Pied Piper, September 1987, $1.95)
"Come Lady Death" Scripter/Creator: Peter Quinones, Penciller/Creator: Glen Johnson, Inker: Marty Lasick, Letterer: JoAnn Nielsen, Editor-in-Chief: Roger McKenzie.

Published by Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Pied Piper Comics, this title joined other comics such as Ex-Mutants, Power Factor, and The New Breed. With occasionally manga-inspired artwork, the comic focuses on martial arts Beast Warriors named Phan-Ku, or Dragon; as well as Tiger, Snake, Crane, Bear, and Mongoose.

The issue opens with Dragon engulfed in flame. Crane rescues him. To the south, Bear and Mongoose stop at an inn to quench their thirsts. There, Mongoose is drugged and Bear must face Dim-Mak, "iron palm master of the delayed death touch" alone. He succumbs in combat but regains consciousness with Mongoose.

A dragon comes to Phan-Ku, and Mongoose falls into the clutches of Na-Ling, advisor to Princess Kuan-Yin and employer of Dim-Mak, assigning him to procure the Beast Warriors's bones, which are said to contain magic and be quite valuable.

I was initially confused reading this issue because Princess Kuan-Yin looks a lot like Snake, and it seemed that the friends and enemies in the title are awfully closely aligned already. Regardless, I'm sure the previous issues set up this edition well and that things were much more clear for longer-term readers.

This issue also includes an eight-page preview of the then-forthcoming first issue of The New Breed, the "world's greatest mutant mag." Written by Publisher Mark L. Hamlin and Editor-in-Chief Roger McKenzie, and drawn by Jeremie Johnson, the preview takes place in the year 2990 and establishes the threat of the ratbeasts, which are attacking a wooden fort that protects the holy seed. The New Breed is introduced as characters in five profile pages draw by Johnson and Scott Rosema.

Other than its Midwestern origin and relationship to Ex-Mutants, there's not a lot to keep this reader, with either the Beast Warriors or the New Breed. A fourth issue was never printed, so perhaps The New Breed never hit the stands, either. A one-page directory of authorized direct distributors lists 16 distributors, including Capital City, Heroes' World, Friendly Frank's, and Styx.

Availability: This title has not been collected.

Deathlok and the Cosmic Cube

Captain America #288 (Marvel, December 1983, 60 cents)
"Mazes" Scripter: J.M. DeMatteis, Penciler: Mike Zeck, Inker: John Beatty, Colorist: Bob Sharen, Letterer: Diana Albers, Editor: Mark Gruenwald, and Editor in Chief: Jim Shooter.

Captain America is a decade in the future, following his guide Godwulf with the cyborg Deathlok through the streets of New York City circa 1993. They witness the aftermath of a corporate takeover of the United States by Roxxon Oil and the Brand Corporation, its clandestine group the Nth Command sending the country's superheroes into "hostile realities" to kill them, ridding the world of heroes.

Some pockets of humanity found safety from the warring factions and the madman Hellinger. Godwulf leads the two to a group of his friends, including Sage, Swashbuckler, Gentle Sam, Big Man, and Iron Butterfly, who carries a guitar strapped to her back.



Hellinger is in fact Harlan Ryker, a Brand researcher who focused on bionics and cybernetics, creating Deathlok out of Luther Manning. Godwulf's friends and other survivors rally around Deathlok and Captain America to take the fight to Hellinger, now a cyborg himself.

They arrive at his headquarters in upstate New York and gain entrance to his fortress, where they encounter an automated, ever-changing maze. Only Captain America and Deathlok make it through the labyrinth to face Hellinger.

DeMatteis's script is exposition heavy, which is necessary to situate the issue. While I haven't read the other comics in this storyline, there's a lot of potential here, and the idea reminds me of the "Days of Future Past" storyline in The Uncanny X-Men. Zeck's artwork is strong, and the large panel featuring Hellinger on page 19 is excellent. It'd be worth seeing where this storyline started -- and what repercussions it'll have on life back in 1983, especially given Scarlet's hypnotic kiss with Nomad.



The issue also includes ads for ABC and NBC's Saturday morning cartoon lineups, Victory Games's James Bond role-playing game, TSR's Star Frontiers, and a letter column featuring four letters of comment.

Read Also: Marvel Spotlight #33 and Marvel Two-in-One #27.

Availability: This issue is collected in Marvel Masterworks: Deathlok Vol. 1 and Deathlok the Demolisher: The Complete Collection.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Mystery Men and Comics History

All-Star Squadron #3 (DC, November 1981, 60 cents)
"The Dooms of Dark December" Writer/Co-Creators/Penciller: Roy Thomas and Rich Buckler, Embellisher: Jerry Ordway, Letterer: John Costanza, Colorist: Carl Gafford, Editor: Len Wein.

The conclusion of the All-Stars's first mission finds the team—comprising Johnny Quick, Robotman, Libery Belle, and others—on the parallel world Earth-Two in late 1941. Per Degaton has traveled back in time with a group of cronies to engineer a pre-emptive Japanese attack on northern and southern California. Safe in his sub-oceanic carrier, he revels in the defeat of the Justice Society of America on an active volcanic island in the Pacific.

The Shining Knight and geologist Danette Reilly have infiltrated Degaton's submarine and face Wotan, Professor Zodiak, and Solomon Grundy. They escape and return with the All-Stars just as hypnotized pilots approach Monterey, California. Hawkman, Robotman, and Johnny Quick fend them off, and the JSA is revived by the Spectre to square off against Grundy and the others, who are soon returned to their own times as Degaton flees.



Even isolated from the first two issues, Thomas's story holds up reasonably well as a standalone, and Buckler and Ordway's artwork is solid, if not surprising. Page layouts often incorporate smaller panels—seven or eight per page—and the image of the Spectre looking above the active volcano on page 21 is wonderful. Thomas's retelling of Degaton's gathering of the other villains from across time—Wotan from the late '40s, Zodiak from 1948, Grundy from 1947, so so on—establishes some sympathy for the lesser criminals, mere pawns out of time, "expendable," even, in Degaton's plans.

The issue also includes a Red Tornado Hostess Cup Cake ad ("My computer brain informs me we must bait the Vacuum Vulture with something dark and delicious.") and a "Super-Villain Fact File" profiling Grundy, Zodiak, Wotan, and Sky Pirate. Page five includes an off-hand mention of King Canute, king of Denmark, England, and Norway, referring to the legend of King Canute and the tide, which in later tellings portrays him as a deluded monarch who believes he has supernatural powers.

Availability: This issue is included in Showcase Presents: All-Star Squadron Vol. 1.


Thursday, January 03, 2019

Resonant of Poe

The House of Secrets #149 (DC, December/January 1977/1978, 35 cents)
"The Rain Dance" Editing/Plot: Paul Levitz, Story: J. Cheever Loophole, Art: Bill Draut, Color: Liz Berube.

This eight-page story, following a one-page bookend drawn by Michael Golden, was written by Michael Uslan using a pseudonym. Racist residents of a small town in the supposed midwest go into the mountains to invade an Indian village and persuade the medicine man to help their struggling crops.

The shaman reluctantly dances, bringing on a rain of blood, as well as a large vampire bat—captured well on the cover by Mike Kaluta. The "blood-sucking spirit of death" targets the old and young, as well, prompting the townies to try to destroy the bat with fire. Instead, they destroy their town.



"The Evil One" Story: Jack Oleck, Art: Ricardo Villamonte, Color: Liz Berube, Editing: Paul Levitz.

Another eight pager, this story tells the tale of Paul Craven. After his uncle kills his father and gets away with the crime, the young man is raised by the "old miser." Seeking the assistance of Old Peg, a local witch, Craven eventually summons Satan and acquires his assistance killing his uncle in such a way that "no one will ever find his corpse."

The ending is a little resonant of Poe. When authorities find a body, Craven thinks it's his uncle and confesses. But, the body isn't his uncle's—it's someone else entirely, and Craven is institutionalized.

Publisher Jenette Kahn's publishorial "It's a Mystery..." discusses the late-'70s resurgence of horror and suspense titles. Bob Layton is featured in a DC Profile. A one-page "The House of Secrets Speaks" lettercol features four letters of comment.

Availability: Chances are good that this issue's material is included in House of Secrets: The Bronze Age Omnibus Vol. 1.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Impeccable Logic

Blackhawk #235 (DC, August 1967, 12 cents)
"A Coffin for a Blackhawk" Script: Bob Haney, Pencils: Dick Dillin, Inks: Charles Cuidera.

Pretty much halfway through the New Blackhawk Era of the '60s, this issue of the redesigned series is a little repetitive in its self-promotion. The cover mentions the New Blackhawk Era, and the refresh is explicitly mentioned in at least six more captions inside. Adopting new identities and costumes for 14 issues starting with #228, the heroes returned to their classic garb in just a few issues after this edition.

Rufo and Romulus, the Titanic Twins, team up with the Blackhawks after Rufo initially keeps the Leopard from obtaining a mysterious coffin—only to accidentally lose control of the object, which falls into the villain's hands. Meanwhile, Romulus joins the Blackhawks in search for Rufo, who is captured by the security police.



The Magnificent Seven disguise themselves and engineer their own arrests, which allows them to escape "a solid steel cell in the middle of a hostile nation." The reunited brothers help the Blackhawks evade the police before the group joins a traveling circus: "If the Leopard finds the coffin, he'll want to make the trade for the force field gizmo—and as circus performers, it'll make it easier for him to find us!"

Impeccable logic, for that is exactly what happens. Only the force field device is booby trapped, and the coffin ends up with the circus proprietor, an American secret agent. The book's a little goofy, as is the self-promotion, and that attitude is served well by Dillin's relatively loose pencils.



The issue includes a one-page letter column, "Blackhawk By-Lines," featuring six letters of comment; a "Direct Currents" column promoting other recent comics; and a one-page "Blackhawk Trade Corner." I don't think I'd seen this feature before; readers submit listings offering to trade or sell copies of Blackhawk, Modern, and Military Comics. A wonderful resource for active readers, this installment included almost 20 fan ads across the country.

Availability: This issue has not been reprinted, but I recommend The Blackhawk Archives, Volume 1 and Showcase Presents: Blackhawk.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Even Monsters Need Lawyers

Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre #3, 5, 8-10, 12-13, 16-17 (Exhibit A; September 1994, February, September, and November 1995, February, August, and October 1996, July and October 1997; $2.50)
Batton Lash is a self-publishing self-made man. Drawing Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre since 1979—first for The Brooklyn Paper and then The National Law Journal, Lash has produced a weekly comic strip, comic book, or webcomic (as Supernatural Law) for about four decades. A former student of Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman, Lash worked as an assistant to Howard Chaykin, and worked in a studio housed in the former offices of EC Comics. The man is steeped in comics history, and his style shows it.

To whit: "Even monsters need lawyers. And the law firm that specializes in this unique clientele consists of Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre." Lash's black and white comics are cleanly drawn, humorously written stories about the cases taken by Wolff & Byrd.



The issues in this writeup address topics such as Sodd, the Thing Called It, a Swamp Thing- (or Man-Thing-, or Heap-) like creature—a recurring figure over this run of issues—zombies and unfair labor practices, levitation, body image and fat shaming, leprechauns, lawyer conferences and conventions, Cthulhu, lawyers in love, The X-Files (in a loving sendup titled The * Files), UFO abductions, repressed memories, lawyers in love, romance comics, Rosemary's Baby and selling your soul to the devil, guardian angels, vampires, triskaidekaphobia, TV news, environmentalism, sovereignty and land law, and Dr. Frankenstein's assistant Igor.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Not Fallen Far from the Fan

Big Bang Comics Vol. 2 #30 (Image, February/March 2000, $3.99)
"Knight Watchman Meets the Verdict" Writer: Mike W. Barr, Artist and Letters: David C. Zimmerman, Inks: Jeff Austin.

Gary Carlson and Chris Ecker have been hawking their Big Bang wares since the early '80s. This issue comes from their self-titled series for Image, which ran from 1996 to 2001. Rather than rehash public domain heroes or applying a postmodern take on modern-day heroes, they and their friends—and fellow fans—have created a shared universe of sorts drawing on the best of each comics era. The result are new comics that feel like old comics but remain as fresh and energetic as anything currently in print.

I can't quite peg this issue. The main story is a 21-page black-and-white Knight Watchman (created by Tom King, of all people!) piece featuring the Verdict, a team made up of Hot Wire, Kuttar, Psi-Mage, and Quintessence. It feels like it could sit in the '70s or '80s, and I quite like that it's not entirely obvious. Knight Watchman tracks a woman embodied by Psi-Mage to a penthouse foyer hosting a gathering of the brethren. He and the Verdict team up to rescue Quintessence, held prisoner by Dr. Smight.



"Spa Fun!" Writer/Creator: Mike W. Barr, Penciler/Letterer: John Watkins-Chow, Inker: Tim Stiles, Editor: Gary Carlson.

This solo backup story, an eight-page story done in the manner of the '70s or '80s (again, hard to peg!) that highlights Psi-Mage. The title is a pun on the EC Comics-style phrase "spa fon"—which was also invoked in F. Paul Wilson's novel The Tomb, which I recently finished. After the happenings in the lead story, Psi-Mage needs to take a break, so she goes to a day spa. Her time there is far from restful, yet she emerges a new woman.

The issue also includes a back issue listing and a Barr-penned column, "Rendering the Verdict," which details how his involvement in Big Bang came to be. Reportedly, he met with Carlson and Ecker while they were in LA for an event at Golden Apple Comics. He describes the trio as "three comics pros who hadn't fallen far from the fan" and calls mainstream comics a "no fan's land."

Availability: Big Bang's golden age Knight Watchman stories have been collected in Knight Watchman: The Golden Age.

Monday, November 12, 2018

An Audition Tape for Image

Pyrite (Samson, 1996)
"Blood on Water" Pencils: Philip Xavier, Inks: Kaleb AKA "Cabin Boy," Writer and Letters: Chad Michael Ward, Cover Artist: Brandon Peterson, Colors: J.D. Smith, Gaunt Sneak Preview: Mark Kidwell, Editor: Peter Caravette.

Featuring a cover by the artist and creator of the 1997 Image comic Arcanum, this comic has "audition tape" written all over it. In the editor's note, Caravette mentions that Xavier and the "mysterious inker" Kaleb have joined Wildstorm, Jim Lee's studio for Image and, later, DC. So this unnumbered, unpriced one shot might be of interest to mid-'90s Image fans.

The main 20-page Pyrite story, while not my cup of tea entirely, is very well done—in the Image style. A tactical team of three blow up a skyscraper before being shot by gunmen in a helicopter. One might have survived. Readers are then introduced to the main character, Major Dawson, who seems to have lost his memory. He finds himself at a nightclub, where he ogles a dancer.

Professor Doyle expounds some on Dawson's background: "severe neuro damage caused by the reanimation process... our walking corpse is losing his mind." Dawson is brought back in a healing tank, teamed up again with Angel, or Major Atkins, and given a mission.

The artwork reminds me of Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee, so there's a lot of muscular men and buxom women. But Xavier can draw. For every fight scene or dramatic pose, there's a lovely surprise: p. 8's cityscape and street signage; p. 12's wordless, five-panel city- and nature-scapes that serve as pacing and punctuation while Dawson's unconscious; p. 13 and 15's moon through the window imagery; p. 20's final panel featuring the moon again. He can do much more than he does in this comic—beautiful art.

The flip side of the book, "Raisin' Holy Hell," is an 11-page preview of The Gaunt, by Mark Kidwell, who is more in the Todd McFarlane and early Sam Keith wheelhouse. His pages and panels are much more dense and angular than Xavier's, which makes the book fun to look at, if not read. The hero is another back-from-the-dead type, a compatriot of Major Velocity, Lycanthra, and the Wunderkind—all murdered by a fellow superhero who betrayed them, Mantas. The demon Samhain brings him back 10 years later to hunt Mantas down.

Had the title character continued past this preview, I would have liked the backstory of the group of superheroes to have been explored. Seems like rich fodder in the vein of Alan Moore's America's Best Comics and Gary Carlson's Big Bang Comics.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The True Story of the Nez Perce War

Relentless Pursuit #2 (Slave Labor, May 1989, $1.75)
"The Battle of White Bird Canyon" Writer and Artist: Jeff Kear, Letters: Kevin Cunningham, Publisher and Editor in Chief: Dan Vado, Art Director: Scott Saavedra.

What a strange little comic! It's especially strange that this was published by Slave Labor, which usually trafficked in cartoony humor books a la It's Science with Dr. Radium and Samurai Penguin. But it's an excellent experiment, and a stretch for Vado—"different from anything else I had ever published." It'd make a good companion read to William Messner-Loebs's Journey and Chester Brown's Louis Riel.



The miniseries told the "true story of the Nez Perce War of 1877," and this 24-page issue focuses on the battle of White Bird Canyon in Idaho Territory, which catalyzed the war on June 17, 1877. The comic vacillates between prose and illustration, and cartooning, and Kear's artwork is aptly realistic, wonderful for black and white.

The Nez Perce initially held the line, causing Captain Perry and his men to suffer losses—and to fall back to Mount Idaho. The Native Americans then moved to the far shore of the Salmon River, and one-armed General Howard returned with 400 soldiers and 100 volunteers. The soldiers took an entire day to cross the river, and Captain Whipple led a force to Looking Glass Village, which they destroyed.



The war is not a bright spot in American history. The Native Americans were fighting a forced removal that violated the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla. Kear's comic treats the subject with respect and seriousness, and it's wonderful that this was published in serial form; today it'd be a graphic novel.



Letterer Cunningham is not actually credited in the comic. But the copy I have was signed by Cunningham, who also penned in a lettering credit on the inside front cover. The illustrated prose portions are typeset, and the cartoon sections are lettered well. Kudos, Cunningham.

Availability: This series has not been collected. That should be remedied. We recommend William Messner-Loeb's Journey, available in two volumes, and Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

An Extremely Silly Comic

Samurai Penguin #1 (Slave Labor, 1986, $1.50)
Writer and creator: Dan Vado, Artist and creator: Mark Buck.

I'm not sure if this is a parody of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or of the already cartoony and masterful Usagi Yojimbo, both of which were contemporaries, but thanks to the editorial, readers know there's no relation to the Samurai Penguin characters in Antarctic Press's Extremely Silly Comics.



Regardless, this comic book is extremely silly. Because the penguins in it are silly, except for the samurai. The penguins tumble into each other like dominoes, dive into cold water, provoke a shark, pester the seals, duel with the predatory skua, and otherwise attract the ire of Artimus Walrus—who plans to "eliminate the Samurai Penguin... and to enslave the entire penguin colony."

Heavy drama, indeed. Vado's writing goes for quick gags, visual and verbal, and Buck's artwork is cleanly cartoony, featuring some excellent use of Zip-A-Tone. The samurai is necessarily larger and more human-like than the standard penguins, and he looks like a bird in some panels.



The issue includes a couple house ads and "True Penguin Facts," which educates readers a little about the penguin and includes a caveat from Vado: "I will pull out my creative license. Settings will differ from what they are in nature; predators will do some unnatural things." A fun, throwaway read. The series lasted eight issues and was reportedly an early success for Slave Labor.

Availability: Samurai Penguin has not been collected. Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo and Eastman and Laird's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have.