Sunday, August 16, 2015

Elektra Assassin by Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz

This "graphic novel" was originally an eight issue mini-series published by Epic (Marvel's mature reader imprint) back in 1986. At the time I thought it was merely "good" but on later re-readings I think it is revolutionary in terms of the artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz. Sienkiewicz started his career as one of many artists imitating Neal Adams art style and evolved into a truly unique artist doing comics in an impressionistic style. This series was his breakout for that style.


Elecktra was introduced in Frank Miller's Daredevil run. When this series was announced, we were all excited to see what would happen to her after Miller left the series - she was in particularly strange state. As the series got closer to release, we discovered this story would take place in the past, before Elektra re-entered Daredevil's life. How strange! But it was actually much more interesting without being tied down to Matt Murdock. 

Elektra and John Garrett

The first issue is very hallucinogenic, where Elektra is trapped inside a mental hospital. I found this very confusing the first time, on subsequent re-reads it was more clear how she came to be there. It is unique in that the entire narration in this issue is from Elektra herself. In issue 2, this continues until the best supporting character ever comes, along, S.H.I.E.L.D. agent John Garrett, who is the Six Million Dollar Man times 100 with an addiction to alcohol. Then after issue 2, the point of view is entirely Garrett. As if to say that Elektra is such a superhuman force of nature, she's best seen through the eyes of someone else.

You get a lot more insight into Elektra in this series. I do think it pays off better if you re-read Miller's Daredevil run beforehand. We figure out more of the timeline in her early training, how that happened before college, and how she got to the Hand after her father's death. She has many more ninja powers than she ever displayed in Daredevil: killing with her voice, catching bullets, and mind control. You have to wonder how Bullseye ever got the better of her in Daredevil #181, or how Daredevil himself lasted more than a minute. Despite those powers, Elektra isn't invincible, the Beast is able to exploit her weaknesses several times in this story.

Sienkiewicz Elektra splash

The first half of the story takes place in a fictional South American country where Elektra has been dispatched to kill a politician. In doing so she runs across the Beast, yep, a biblical reference there, but someone from the Hand as well. The Beast can jump between bodies so he's hard to kill, and he wants nothing less than to trigger a nuclear apocalypse. Garrett becomes Elektra's pawn in helping to stop him. One of my favorite action sequences involves an underwater fight between Elektra/Garrett and a squad of ninjas and S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. The second half of the story shifts to the United States where we get some cameo appearances from Nick Fury.

Having re-read this again I know why no one has been able to write a good Elektra series since 1986. Nobody can write like Frank Miller, period, but also no one can do a Tour de Force art job like Sienkiewicz. Nuff Said!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Steve Rude commissions: Iron Fist, Gwen Stacy, Ronan the Accuser!

Some recent commissions from Steve Rude (the Dude) Facebook page!

Iron Fist, dodging some arrows.

Gwen Stacy shaking it in a go-go discotheque, similar pose / clothes to Mary Jane from a 60s Spider-Man comic.

Ronan the Accuser, looking menacing. Nuff Said!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Farewell, Herb Trimpe!

I was sad to read that Herb Trimpe passed away this week at the age of 75. He will be missed and remembered by most fans as the long time artist of The Incredible Hulk.

I definitely got hooked on the Hulk with Herb Trimpe's run on the series. He drew the monster turned hero in a way that not only conveyed his strength but also his vulnerability. Unlike the modern comics where the Hulk is portrayed as 10 feet tall, the Silver / Bronze Age Hulk was more human-sized (maybe 6-7 feet tall) and definitely more relatable. I think I collected nearly Trimpe's entire run when I was a kid.

Of course one of the best stories featured Jarella, the girl who fell in love with the Hulk in a microscopic sub-universe.

In 2001 I went to Wondercon, when it was still held in Oakland, and Herb was there to show a documentary film made about him and his early career.  There was actual footage of Herb taking the train into New York City to work in the 1960s Marvel Bullpen - I believe we also saw Marie Severin in that, too. It was very thrilling for a long time Marvel fan, yet quite sad, because Trimpe was forced to give up drawing comics in his later years to teach art in high school. I remember him saying that teaching in high school was the hardest thing he had ever done! I sat just behind Erik Larsen, the Savage Dragon creator, who was obviously a big fan of Trimpe - his jaw almost dropped to the floor. It seemed shocking that such a legend in the comics business couldn't make a living drawing anymore.

Trimpe had more versatility in him that just super-hero comics, he was quite good at drawing planes, tanks, and war stories. I bought many issues of War is Hell for his artwork, which later had a continuing series by him. And of course, he did great work on The Phantom Eagle, where he showcased his love of planes.

Herb Trimpe will definitely be missed.  Nuff Said!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Monster Monday: Morbius and Spider-Man by Mark Laming

Mark Laming illustrated Morbius in his classic costume meeting Spidey on a roof the rain!

Whoa! Nuff Said. :-)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Strange Saturday: A Very Groovy Doctor Strange and Clea by Mark Laming

Happy Pi Day, 3/14/15! Since this only comes around every 100 years, what better way to celebrate than with Doc Strange?

This groovy illustration features Doc and Clea by Mark Laming. Somehow you just picture them walking around 1960s-1970s era Greenwich Village in these outfits.  Nuff Said!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Astonishing Tales 25 and the Birth of Deathlok, with insights from Rich Buckler!

UPDATE: I originally wrote this article on Deathlok back in February 2011.  At the time I wrote it I was using information in FOOM Magazine #5 and the back pages of Astonishing Tales #25.  I made some unintentional errors which were cleared by Rich Buckler, after I met him on Facebook.  I am republishing this article along with comments made by Rich in our email correspondence in November 2014.  

Astonishing Tales 25 1974 Deathlok 1st appearance cover by Rich Buckler

The cover blurb at the bottom of Astonishing Tales #25 called Deathlok: Perhaps the greatest creation yet in the Marvel Age of Comics, Phase Two!  You could call Phase Two the entire era under the editorship of Roy Thomas, the 70s period that saw the rise of creators like Steve Englehart, Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Steve Gerber, etc.  A period of wild creativity and doing new things with the toys that Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko had left behind.  But there were also brand new characters during this period, and one of the most different and daring creations came from Rich Buckler.

UPDATE 2014: Originally I gave more credit to Doug Moench for Deathlok's conception, but this is incorrect.  According to Rich:
"Doug Moench is not the co-creator of Deathlok.  If he were then he would have been listed on the credits as such of the very first story page of Deathlok's debut in Astonishing Tales #25.  That is because when Roy Thomas introduced me to Doug, I came to Doug with the concept--not the other way around.  Also, importantly, my work for Marvel on Deathlok was contractual."
When I think of pop culture in the 1970s, the term anti-hero comes to mind.  In comics, movies, and novels.  Marvel was more prone to anti-heroes, since the writers and artists were more in tune with the counter culture.  Deathlok was a prime example of an anti-hero: in the first few pages he kills a few guys quite brutally.  At the same time he’s fighting against The Man, General Ryker and his military industrial complex—from a future set in the 1990s (that seemed so far off then).  You didn’t have to explain back then why anything connected to the military was bad, it just was evil by inherent nature, you dig it?

For the guys who read this first issue of the newsstand like I did, you will remember that The Six Million Dollar Man was on TV.  But this wasn’t a cheap rip off of ABC’s Cyborg.  Rich's original name for the character was DEADLOCK (as in a man locked in death), which was at a later stage refined to DEATHLOK as suggested by Doug Moench.  In the first issue we discover that Colonel Luther Manning, described by Ryker as one of the most brilliant battlefield strategists alive, was killed on the battlefield.  Half of Manning’s face and his entire right arm were blown off by a concussion bomb.  Ryker’s scientists have kept Manning’s brain alive, and they rebuild his body with cybernetic parts, making him better, stronger, faster, and more lethal than anyone in the future!

Deathlok 1st issue hunting down man by Buckler

Deathlok was Rich Buckler’s idea—he created the visual of the character and initially envisioned it as a novel.  My favorite thing about this character is that he shares his brain with a computer, who constantly challenges his decisions.  This sequence from page 2 of Astonishing Tales #25 is truly remarkable.  It is very cinematic, drawn by Buckler as if he is a movie director, with the sequence of the victim running away—every movement tracked by Deathlok’s computer.  The second is that there are three levels of narration in the captions: Deathlok’s computer voice, Manning’s voice, and an omniscient narrator that was written in a sort of stream of consciousness style.  The "omniscient narrator" was dropped in later issues to clarify the storytelling.

UPDATE 2014: Rich filled me in with more details on the conception of Deathlok and the particular sequence above:
"That story page with the victim/target running away from Deathlok--that was one of the first fully drawn pages submitted to Roy Thomas as samples. It was written and drawn by me (with Doug contributing embellishments in the final script), and the actual page was included and printed as part of the finished product. Doug followed my story notes which were penciled in on the borders of the art pages."

I think Deathlok is truly remarkable as a unique character, both visually and narratively.  Marvel has tried to reboot the character many times, but to me each attempt has always failed, because they lost the internal conflict of Manning versus Computer.  Who wants to have their decisions ruled by a computer telling them what to at every step of the way? Deathlok’s computer threatens to override his functionality and shut him down entirely.  Manning is constantly fighting against it. I ain’t nobody’s bloody machine! Manning screams in the second issue. --and ain’t no more orders gonna be plugged into my arm—or my brain!

Buckler and Me and Deathlok makes three from FOOM 5 1974

The other remarkable thing about Deathlok’s first appearance was the promotional push that it received.  Back then we didn’t have Previews or web sites or any type of magazine telling us what was coming.  F.O.O.M. (Friends of Old Marvel) subscribers who received FOOM #5 in 1974 read this short article by Doug Moench: Buckler & Me & Deathlok Makes Three.  His first meeting with Buckler and discussing the artist’s ideas for the character over deli sandwiches in New York City.  How many kids dreamed of working for Marvel after reading that, hanging out with Moench, Gerber, Thomas, and throwing around ideas for Marvel Comics?  I know I did.

Deathlok schematic from FOOM 5 1974

To whet the appetite for this character, FOOM #5 also had this diagram schematic of Deathlok’s costume and gear.  All of which looked ultra cool to me.  Hmm, I wonder if Eliot R. Brown saw this diagram and that was the birth of his interest in doing this kind of stuff for Marvel Universe Handbooks?

UPDATE 2014: Not only is it clear that Deathlok was Rich Buckler's creation, he had a very unique deal at Marvel in 1974.
"All of the designs,  character names, story titles and original concepts in the original Deathlok series were mine.  I even designed the book's logo. I did originally own a 'piece' of the intellectual property.  Fifty percent, actually, of all merchandizing, licensing and novelization rights.  I lost out on that subsequently in an out of court battle."

Bullpen Bulletins announces Deathlok

Maybe you were not an exclusive FOOM club member.  Well, you couldn’t have missed this promo column announcing Deathlok in the Bullpen Bulletins page for August 1974.  I just love everything about this column, how Marvel trumpeted their comics and creators to the world. We’re shifting into high gear, troops—but we’re not going anyplace without you!

Deathlok Mindlock article from Astonishing Tales 25

Back to Astonishing Tales #25.  The first story ended a bit abruptly, but there were some extra pages of content.  There was a two page discussion between Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler, and Doug Moench over the creation of Deathlok.  Buckler mentions again how he would like to eventually write a novel about Deathlok.

Astonishing Tales 26 1974 Deathlok cover by Rich Buckler

Looking back at the whole launch of Deathlok, Marvel gave it a really good promotional push.  He had a two year run in Astonishing Tales, which ended with issue #36, with Buckler staying on until the end.  Moench left after the second issue, Astonshing Tales #26, and Buckler took on writing duties as well as the artistic ones.

UPDATE 2014: As we discussed his work on later issues, Rich said it was challenging at times:
"After the first two or three issues I did not let up on the experimental storytelling and bold treatment of unexplored conceptual territory.  There were many conceptual and graphic firsts throughout that run in Astonishing Tales. And back then I was editing, writing and drawing all of that while struggling to keep up with penciling a monthly title and a handful of covers for Marvel at the same time.  So, of course, there were deadline problems now and then--and sometimes creative control was wrested from me (particularly during one short period where I moved back to Detroit and in New York Marvel was switching Editor-In-Chiefs).  Sometimes the writers I worked with would veer off or not understand and communicate the story material clearly.  I took over the writing reigns completely whenever I could.  It was a crazy time, and nobody at Marvel had a creator deal like mine (and I think, no one ever will after that!)."

Indeed there are many strong visual storytelling elements in later issues of Astonishing Tales!  Here are a few of them.

A nice fight sequence from Astonishing Tales #27:

Splash page from AT #28 with Luther Manning in turmoil:

AT #34 splash page with a dynamic angle:

I think Deathlok (along with Killraven) is one of the most unique characters created during the 70s.  I wish Buckler still owned a piece of it.  He doesn’t even get a “created by” credit on any new appearances in Marvel Comics, which seems quite disgusting.  There is something at the core of the character, a potential for untapped stories that Marvel has failed to realize despite many reboots.  I suspect Deathlok has influences beyond comics; when I saw the 1987 film Robocop, it seemed to me that character was similar to Deathlok in many ways.  Nuff Said! 

Update 2009: Giant-Size fan Toby sent me this scan, for Rich Buckler's variant cover to the 2009 Deathlok #1 mini-series!  Hated this series entirely, but it is good to see that Marvel commissioned Buckler for this gem, a re-take on the classic Astonishing Tales #25 cover.

Deathlok 1 2009 Rich Buckler Variant Cover

Update 2014: Rich Buckler did a variant cover for the new Deathlok series coming out from Marvel.  How many Deathlok reboots have there been now?

Please follow Rich Buckler on Facebook! You can see lots of original artwork there and find lots of information about his work.  Thanks for writing, Rich!  Nuff Said.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Captain America and The Falcon by Carlos Pacheco

Carlos Pacheco posted this classic illustration of Cap and the Falcon on his Facebook page the other day.

Remember when the Falcon was created, he had no wings, no means of flight?  Until the Black Panther gave him wings during the Steve Englehart run, the Falcon was grounded.  Seems hard to believe now.  Nuff Said!