Friday, June 25, 2010

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962)

“Prisoners of Doctor Doom!”  
Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Joe Sinnot
Letters by Art Simek

One thing missing from The Fantastic Four until this issue was a good, original and unapologetic villain. And while today’s readers know for sure that Doctor Doom would go on to be the defining antagonist of the series, this first appearance only hints at what is to come from this character.

This issue is a very small step down from the previous issue. A lot of what happens in this issue falls back on some of the Atlas-style conventions that Lee and Kirby seem to be so intent on trying to escape.

We get our first look at Doctor Doom on the cover of this issue, which is nicely designed to convey Sue’s separation from the group but lacks the dynamism of the previous issue’s cover. The coloring also is weak — too much of that unusual gray shade that was common on Marvels of this era, plus the unusual choice of green for Doom’s mask and armor. I do, however, like the different colors for the word balloons.

Inside, Doom is introduced on the splash page playing chess with figures of the FF, with a couple of ominous-looking tomes titled “Science and Sorcery” and “Demons” perched nearby, along with a vulture of all things! Since it never came into play in the story, I always assumed it was a statue of a vulture. But Doom does have a pet tiger later in this issue, so maybe keeping exotic animals was part of the original idea for the character.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Al Williamson, 1931-2010

Word has been spreading  today that one of the all-time great comics artists, Al Williamson, has died at the age of 79.

I never met him, so I’ll let others fill in the details of his life and career, but I love his art and he remains one of my favorite artists of all time.

Like most fans of my generation, I first saw his work on Marvel’s adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and was completely and totally blown away. I loved Marvel’s Star Wars series, which was the first series I really collected as both a young reader and later as a collector. And even though I loved the series when it was drawn with incredible energy and dynamism by Carmine Infantino, I always wished deep down that there was an artist out there who could also make the comic look more like the movie.

And that artist was Al Williamson, who was working with co-penciler Carlos Garzon and writer Archie Goodwin on adapting Empire. It was gorgeous stuff, conveying the romance, the humor and the adventure while still capturing the special appeal and look of an actor like Harrison Ford. I loved it and was more than a bit disappointed when Williamson didn’t stick around as artist after Empire.

But he wasn’t gone completely. I didn’t have access at the time to the Star Wars comic strips that Williamson was doing with Goodwin because my newspaper didn’t carry it. But I definitely looked forward to Williamson’s return with Star Wars #50, which came out about a year after the Empire movie and was another landmark for the series.

I soon drifted away from comics and came back about four years later, thrilled to find one of the first issues of Star Wars I picked up when I started reading comics again was a “lost” Goodwin-Williamson job in issue #98. Jumping back in, I found that he, Garzon and Goodwin also had adapted Return of the Jedi in a four-issue series, as well as another classic Harrison Ford role in Blade Runner.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Williamson was a prominent inker at Marvel in particular, giving a lot of my favorite comics from Wolverine to Daredevil a distinctive, professional polish.

His Star Wars work was rediscovered along with the entire Star Wars phenomenon in the early 1990s. Dark Horse republished not just his Empire and Jedi work, but also turned the newspaper strips into color comics for which Williamson contributed the occasional new page and covers.

I also finally got a chance to see Williamson draw one of his favorite characters when Marvel published in 1995 a two-issue Flash Gordon series drawn by Williamson and written by Mark Schultz.

The 1990s also finally gave me a chance to read some of the work Williamson had done early in his career thanks to Gemstone Publishing’s reprinting of the EC Comics line in a new line of color comics and annuals. There I got to see at last the stuff Williamson had done early on, and it was as classically beautiful as I could have hoped. I particularly liked his adaptation of the classic Ray Bradbury short story “The Sound of Thunder,” in Weird Science-Fantasy.

I never got to meet or speak with Williamson, so I have no idea beyond others’ recollections what he was like as a person. There’s still lots of Williamson art to enjoy, with IDW adding this summer Secret Agent Corrigan to its Library of American Comics series of reprints.

Looking through samples of his work today, I can’t help but be struck by the detail and care that he obviously put into creating both fantastic worlds and also believable characters. I wish more of today’s comics artists could capture even a fraction of Williamson’s ability to make his characters look like they’re real flesh-and-blood humans, or convey a character’s attitude so clearly with a natural pose.

I’m sorry to hear he’s gone. But I know that even if I should someday stop reading comics completely, I will always never forget the beauty of his artwork and the impact it had on me as a both a young comics reader and as an adult admirer of art.

I’ll finish with a small sampling of Al Williamson images I pulled from my collection and scanned today. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you and encourage you to seek out his work. It’s worth it.

 Splash page for “Upheaval” from Weird Science-Fantasy #24 (EC Comics, 1954), as reprinted in Weird Science-Fantasy #2, (Gemstone Publishing, Feb. 1993)

 Splash page to Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder,” from Weird Science-Fantasy #25 (EC Comics, Sept. 1954), reprinted in Weird Science-Fantasy #3 (Gemstone Publishing, May 1993)

Splash page for “Food for Thought,” from Incredible Science Fiction #32 (EC Comics, Dec. 1955) reprinted in Incredible Science-Fiction #10 (Gemstone Publishing, Feb. 1995) 

A 1970 strip from Secret Agent Corrigan taken from Library of American Comics #1, IDW’s Free Comic Book Day release in 2010.

 Interior Empire page showing a bit more of this scene than the final movie did, also from Marvel Super Special #16 (Marvel, 1980).

Interior page from Star Wars #50 (Marvel, Aug. 1981).

Page from the adaptation of Blade Runner appearing in Marvel Super Special #22 (Marvel, Sept. 1982).

 Key scene from Return of the Jedi, as seen in Marvel Super Special #27 (Marvel, 1983).

Splash page from Classic Star Wars: The Vandelhelm Mission (Dark Horse, March 1995). This one-shot featured a re-colored reprint of Star Wars #98 (Marvel, Aug. 1985).

 Page from Flash Gordon #2 (Marvel, July 1995).

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Off the shelf: Wilson, Other Lives and Blazing Combat

Wilson (Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95, 80 pages) is the most-recent release from Daniel Clowes of Ghost World fame, telling the life story of a guy who is most accurately described as a misanthropic jerk in a series of one-page stories. At first, the format is a bit choppy and repetitive, but these little vignettes — each playing out like a little remembered incident you might tell at a party — start to add up and have a surprisingly emotional effect. Wilson’s story is a sad one and he’s not the first character of this type that Clowes has tackled, but the relentlessness with which Wilson is shown to constantly choose to be a jerk is compelling as it goes from annoying to self-destructive to sadly sympathetic. It’s not the easiest thing to get into, but it’s well worth it.

I’ve long been a fan of Peter Bagge’s talent for creating completely believable and weird characters, and his most-recent outing — the Vertigo original graphic novel Other Lives (DC/Vertigo, $24.99, 136 pages) — is no exceptions. Here, Bagge delves into a world where everyone is pretending at least part of the time to be something they’re not. What I like the most about Bagge’s characters is the realism that results from having them think they’re a lot smarter than they are. They never see past their own fantasies to the obvious real-life conclusion that’s bearing down on them, which makes the way Bagge resolves his plots all the more fun and weird. My biggest complaint with this book is that this is a $25 hardcover graphic novel from one of the industry’s giants and it’s in black and white. This isn’t new — Vertigo’s been doing this since the likes of The Quitter, The Alcoholic and Incognegro. Honestly, I’m already paying $25 — I would pay an extra $5 if that’s what it took to get this in color.

Saving the best for last, there’s Blazing Combat (Fantagraphics, $19.99, 208 pages), an amazing collection of the stories from the short-lived cutting-edge mid-1960s Warren Publications series. These are all short stories in the mode of Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat, but with a 1960s edge to them. They’re all written by the outstanding Archie Goodwin, with a few assists, which for most fans would be reason enough to buy this comic all by itself. But then you throw in some of the most amazing art, all of it sharply and expertly reproduced, and you’ve got some real dynamite here. This book includes prime artwork from Joe Orlando, Gene Colan, Reed Crandall, John Severin, Alex Toth, Al McWilliams, Wally Wood and Russ Heath. And there’s fantastic bonus features, including interviews with original publisher James Warren and Goodwin on the book and the troubles it faced getting distribution after being labeled an “anti-war” book in the early days of the Vietnam War, and the original color covers by none other than the late Frank Frazetta. If all that doesn’t sell you on this as a must-buy, then you may need professional help.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

FF re-read: The Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962)

"The Coming of Sub-Mariner!"
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Sol Brodsky
Letters by Art Simek

A lot is happening in this issue, which improves significantly over the previous one in pretty much every respect.

Despite the cover, which is easily the best so far, the Sub-Mariner doesn’t show up until about halfway into this issue. I’d like to know if there were many fans who picked this up because they like Namor. At this point, he hadn’t been gone from comic book stands very long, having last appeared in a short revival attempt in the mid-1950s.

This issue starts off with Reed, Sue and Ben dealing with the departure of Johnny at the end of the previous issue, leading to a pretty effective page 2 recap of The Fantastic Four #3 that quickly brings readers up to date. I don’t know if Stan and Jack consciously decided to establish this kind of issue-to-issue continuity or if it just came about organically, but this kind of attention to details must have thrilled fans who took their comics seriously back in 1962.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Off the Shelf: Jonah Hex: No Way Back

Jonah Hex: No Way Back (DC Comics, $19.99, 136 pages) is better than it needs to be, which I mean anyone who buys this book because they like the upcoming movie version will no doubt feel they got their money’s worth.

As a graphic novel, it’s a solid Western tale that is not without some pretty obvious rough edges.

The gist of the story by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray is that Jonah Hex discovers from his dying mother that he has a half-brother. With her death, Hex heads to meet the brother he never knew he had and lay their mother to rest. This is far and away the best part of the story, as it highlights the tragedies of Hex’s life and provides a convincing contrast to his violent nature.

Less convincing is the nominal villain of the story, a bandit named El Papagayo who wants revenge on Hex’s family. While El Papagayo provides an excuse for some good action sequences in the book, this element feels very tacked on — as if it was added solely because the book needed an action element.

Tony Dezuniga, who was known for his work on the original 1970s Jonah Hex series, does an outstanding job on the art for this series. His storytelling and compositions are relaxed, confident and clear, while the scratchy finish — assisted by John Stanisci — is a perfect fit for the genre.

Dezuniga also deserves credit for bringing some taste and class to the art. The script calls for a number of rather gruesome scenes that Dezuniga draws with just the right mix of restraint and clarity so that it’s always clear what’s happening without being gratuitous or ostentatious.

Which brings me to the one part of this book that really annoyed me, which is the use of eye dialect in writing Hex’s dialog in particular. (Eye dialog is the practice of writing a character’s dialog phonetically to convey a heavy accent. Chris Claremont used this a lot in his Uncanny X-Men run on characters like Rogue, whose lines were written like “Ah shore do, shugah!” rather than “I sure do, sugar!”) I think this is a technique where a little goes a long way — a few lines early on to establish the accent can let readers assume it continues through the book and let the writer put the emphasis more back on what’s said than how it’s said.

And in Jonah Hex: No Way Back, I found it very distracting. Other characters had distinctive speaking patterns or used terms common to dialog in the genre without going to the extent of Hex near the end saying, “Guilt ain’t sumpthin’ Ah live with. Ah figger guilt is a disease that eats yer soul.”

Maybe it’s just me, and it won’t bother anyone else. Which is fine because despite its rough edges the positives of this book clearly outshine the negatives.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Off the Shelf: Wednesday Comics

Wednesday Comics (DC Comics, $49.99, 200 pages) is even more impressive to look at in the spiffy new oversize hardcover edition. The strips read much better (and more quickly) grouped by feature than they did one page a week.

The quality of the strips is overall pretty good, but they obviously are not equal, so here’s a strip-by-strip rundown of this very cool comic.

Batman, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso, kicks things off with a slight disappointment and is not as good as I was expecting given the creators. A basic detective story whodunit in which a banking magnate dies and the suspects include his son and his trophy wife, is simply serviceable. Risso doesn’t seem to have time to find his legs in the new format and doesn’t have the freedom to cut loose with the sex and violence he draws so well.

Kamandi, by Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook, is a flat-out tribute to Prince Valiant and its peers in the classic adventure strips genre. Gibbons eschews balloons and scripts the story Prince Valiant style, with blocks of text that combine both narration and dialog. And it works extremely well with the classic look of Sook’s artwork. The lush, illustrative art deviates radically from the iconic Jack Kirby version, but Sook sells it with detail and elegance.

Superman, by John Arcudi and Lee Bermejo, is a gorgeous looking comic that combines old-school illustration with terrific modern coloring. I saw some of these original art pages at San Diego last year, and Bermejo and colorist Barbara Ciardo deserve credit for the best-looking Superman comic in years. The story mixes the action with the human side of Clark Kent to mixed results, though I can’t say the fault lies with Arcudi entirely as DC has for years focused on the man at the expense of the super when it comes to the Man of Steel. Fans of today’s Superman comics will dig it; the rest of us can just look at it and drool.