Hot Streak: Bob Oksner’s Leave It to Binky

« Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves. » — J. B. Priestley

Here at WOT central, we’re both massive Bob Oksner (1916-2007) fans, and it’s not generally for the writing. For a long time, his multi-faceted talent was used to great effect all over the DC Comics line, but he rarely received the acclaim he so richly deserved.

Take for instance, a peek at this jaw-droppingly generous, downright encyclopedic overview of his lengthy career, and then just try to tell me Mr. Oksner wasn’t even more accomplished than you’d reckoned.

After DC sent up a trial balloon with Showcase no. 70 a year prior, Binky returns after a decade’s sabbatical (an eternity in the teen world!). This is Leave It to Binky no. 61 (June-July 1968, DC). The product was slightly updated (fashions and hairdos) dusty reprints with fabulous new covers.
This is Leave It to Binky no. 62 (Aug.-Sept. 1968, DC). For the record, Peggy is Binky’s blonde girlfriend. Let’s face it, she’s the true star of this book.
This is Leave It to Binky no. 63 (Oct.-Nov. 1968, DC). Lovely inks provided by fellow Golden Age veteran Tex Blaisdell (1920-1999).
This is Leave It to Binky no. 64 (Dec. 1968-Jan. 1969, DC).
This is Leave It to Binky no. 65 (Feb.-Mar. 1969, DC).
This is Leave It to Binky no. 66 (Apr.-May 1969, DC).
During last year’s Hallowe’en Countdown, I spotlighted Mr. Oksner’s fine work on DC’s long-running licenced Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis titles, but also featured his holiday-appropriate Binky cover. For thoroughness’ sake, here it is again: this is Leave It to Binky no. 67 (June-July 1969, DC).
And one more: this is DC Special no. 2 (Jan.-Mar. 1969, DC). Hard to fathom why this one came out at all, its great cover aside.

And then it was over, in this visual idiom anyway: with the following issue (LITB68), DC brought in well-traveled Henry Scarpelli to handle the covers and create the impression that Binky was just one more Archie clone. Over the subsequent four issues, a handful of (pretty good) new stories were mixed in with the reprints. Then came a change of title and a new logo. The book, now simply called Binky, was a full-on Archie ersatz, and lasted another ten issues into 1971… with one final special popping out of nowhere in the summer of ’77. For ol’ Binky, par for the course!

-RG

Hot Streak: Nick Cardy’s Aquaman, Previously

« Suffering sea snakes! Can this really be happening, Aquaman? » — Aqualad has a query.

I just realised, a few days ago, that I’d left something hanging for too long: nearly two years ago, I turned the spotlight on a series of Aquaman covers, casually (in my debonair way) letting it be known that there existed another, earlier, and even longer (well, by one) run of exemplary Aquaman covers. The time has come to see whether I was talking through my hat… or not.

Now, at the risk of repeating myself, it must be stated that, since we’re dealing with DC’s late Silver Age, there’s more to any given cover than a signature. DC’s recently-ascended art director, Carmine Infantino, had a hand in designing virtually every DC cover between late 1966 and early 1976. How strong a hand varied from cover to cover, of course. A good designer sometimes knows when to hold back and be invisible, or just about.

Infantino always strove to improve himself and update and hone his skills. Well into his career (he’d started in 1940 at Timely), he pulled an unexpected (and very smart) move. As he recalled it in The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (2000, Vanguard Productions):

« Around 1960, I went back to school again, this time to study under a gentleman named Jack Potter at the School of Visual Arts. What Jack taught me about design was monumental, and I went through a metamorphosis working with him. I’d sit there confused and he’d tear the work apart. But then it was a light bulb going off – bam! – and I’d understand everything he was getting at.

After studying with Potter at the SVA, my work started to grow by leaps and bounds. I was achieving individuality in my work that wasn’t there before.

I threw all the basics of cartooning out the window and focused on pure design. Everything I did was design-oriented. That was quite the challenging task. But that’s where Potter’s teaching took me.

… I started putting hands in captions, that was decorative. He taught us to do everything decoratively. I’d always found captions very dull. So I thought I’d break the captions into smaller paragraphs and use hands to get people to read them. I regularly pushed design and perspective to the extreme. »

And speaking of reinvention, I must also salute Nick Cardy’s own mid-career creative burst. Prior to the mid-60s, Cardy had always been one of those genteel, tasteful but entirely unexciting journeymen, the way most DC editors liked ’em. I can think of precious few long-timers that managed to convincingly reinvent themselves and greatly raise their game, well into their career, without utterly misplacing their original identity (that disqualifies you, Keith Giffen) in the process. Alex Toth, Jerry Grandenetti and perhaps Sheldon Mayer come to mind…

At any rate, when Infantino got together with Cardy on those covers, all hell broke loose, in the best possible way.

This is Aquaman no. 37 (Jan.-Feb. 1968, DC). The despondent walrus, bottom left, is family pet ‘Tusky’. Oh, and my apologies for ever-so-slightly poaching some potential Tentacle Tuesday material.
This is Aquaman no. 38 (Mar.-Apr. 1968, DC). I wonder what’s up with the redundant vertical logo, top left.
In case you’re wondering about Aquaman’s expanded regal duties (“and TV!“), they were showing repackaged reruns of his half of the previous year’s Superman / Aquaman Hour of Adventure. A Filmation production, so don’t expect too much if you haven’t seen it.
But back to the comic book: this dazzling scene announces the saga of “How to Kill a Sea King!”, as our amphibious hero seeks to thwart a hostile Venusian takeover of Earth and sea. Script by Bob Haney, art by Cardy. This is Aquaman no. 39 (May-June 1968, DC). Oh, and the hottie? That’s “Aliena”. A real bolt of ‘inspiration’ there, Mister Haney.
This is Aquaman 41, (July.-Aug. 1968, DC). Such dynamically-designed fun! This is where the new creative team of Stephen Skeates and Jim Aparo joins new editor Dick Giordano (his second issue), but Cardy remains on covers… because Aparo, who resided a couple of states over, couldn’t attend the cover conferences.
This is Aquaman 41, (Sept.-Oct. 1968, DC), a highlight among highlights from the redoubtable team of Infantino (publisher-designer), Cardy (penciller-inker), Giordano (editor), Jack Adler (production manager and colourist), and, inside, Skeates (writer) and Aparo (penciller-inker-letterer). There’s a texture to the colour work (most evident on the foreground piraña… a freshwater fish, incidentally) that’s unusual for comics of that period. I wonder how it was achieved…
This is Aquaman no. 42 (Nov.-Dec. 1968, DC).
This is Aquaman no. 43 (Jan.-Feb. 1969, DC). Face-first in a bed of mussels, with several tons of pressure? Yikes.
This is Aquaman no. 44 (March-April 1969, DC). I love how, despite the gravity of the situation, the mobsters are kind of cartoony. Cardy would most fruitfully mine this tragicomic vein in the brilliant but short-lived western Bat Lash (1968-69).
This is Aquaman no. 45 (May-June 1969, DC), concluding Skeates and Aparo’s two-parter, the self-explanatory “Underworld Reward”. An undeniably epochal cover by Mr. Cardy. To wit, so compelling and mysterious is this scene that it’s merited an astute blogger’s impressively in-depth analysis… well worth a peek.

-RG

Hot Streak: Gil Kane’s Green Lantern

« It was exactly an assembly line. You could look into infinity down these rows of drawing tables. » — Gil Kane

Some of our more sensitive readers may have noticed that we’ve been none too gentle with Gil Kane (1926-2000) in the past, dealing him some rather rough lumps at times. But that’s not the whole story: in taking stock of such a protracted and prolific (dare I say profligate?) career as his, much of it inevitably spent on autopilot, one must be discerning. In other words, I like some of Kane’s work, but there’s plenty of it I don’t care for. Still, WOT’s rule of thumb is that if we altogether loathe an artist and/or his work, we’ll just turn a blind eye.

And speaking of the sense of sight, what makes a great comic book cover? Must be my art school training and subsequent work in advertising tipping the scales, but to me, design and layout reign primordial as ingredients… as values. I’m often dismayed at many a would-be critic’s apparent method of assessing an image’s artistic worth, namely: how many popular characters does it feature? Is it action-packed? Is the issue sought-after and expensive? Does it feature a famous character’s début? Is it drawn by a fan-favourite artist who unquestionably do no wrong… because he’s a fan-favourite artist who unquestionably do no wrong? (and how dare you claim otherwise!)

Gil Kane reportedly generated around eight hundred covers for Marvel in the 1970s… of all levels of craft and quality. With that kind of frenzied output, it’s impressive that most were perfectly serviceable, given that there certainly was no time for meticulous, sober planning. They were generally over-captioned (not Kane’s fault!) and crassly sensationalistic, but that’s what Marvel sought and settled for.

It’s a shame that Kane and his former classmate at the School of Industrial Art (back in the early 40s!), DC lynchpin Carmine Infantino didn’t get on too well, because their Silver Age collaborations had a special spark… must have been the animosity. It had been noted by the DC brass, as early as the late 50s, that Carmine’s covers reliably caught prospective buyers’ attention and dimes. And so, by 1967, he was unofficially designing most of the publisher’s covers, and certainly the covers of all titles edited by Julius Schwartz. Green Lantern was among these.

So we turn today’s spotlight on a hot streak of seven. Kane gets his name in the title, but it would be more accurate to say they were Infantino-designed, Gaspar Saladino-lettered, Jack Adler-coloured, Gil Kane-pencilled and Murphy Anderson and Sid Greene-inked covers. The streak begins after Green Lantern no. 54’s downright poor cover, and ends with the interruption of Kane’s impressively long run of consecutive issues.

We begin with Green Lantern no. 55 (Sept. 1967, DC). Harmonious, easy-to-parse arrangement of numerous elements and exemplary integration of text. Design by Infantino, pencils by Kane, inks by Murphy Anderson, lettering by Gaspar Saladino, colours by Jack Adler. Oh, and lest we forget: logo designed by Ira Shnapp (circa 1964), classic Green Lantern uniform designed by Kane (circa 1959).
This is Green Lantern no. 56 (Oct. 1967, DC). Kane was never much for varying his monsters (see below). Pencils by Kane, inks by Anderson.
For a bit of comparison on how things were done from company to company, this is Tales to Astonish no. 91 (May, 1967, Marvel). This is what happens when there’s no planning or attention to detail: in an already-crowded cover, did we really need that ugly box advising us of the presence of The Abomination? He’s right there! (maybe the abomination refers to the cover itself). And the foreshortening nightmare that is the baddie’s left arm was so dire that, when a fan commissioned Arthur Adams to produce a recreation of this cover (which, things being as they are, many surely consider ‘iconic’)… he wisely corrected the anatomy and tweaked the poor composition. Interesting how Marvel’s heavy-fingered yes-man, art director John Romita Sr., was always game to “fix” Ditko and Kirby art, but saw nothing wrong with this one.
This is Green Lantern no. 57 (Dec. 1967, DC), featuring Catastrophic Weapons of Major Disaster!, written by Gardner Fox, pencilled and inked by Kane. Cover by Kane and Greene… love the placement of the signatures!
This is Green Lantern no. 58 (Jan. 1968, DC), featuring Peril of the Powerless Green Lantern! (a Julius Schwartz title if there ever was one), written by Gardner Fox, pencilled by Kane and inked by Greene. I’m not overly fond of the Kane-Greene mix, but Sid Greene, as a penciller-inker did some splendid work on the Star Rovers series (1961-64), co-created and scripted by Gardner Fox.
An issue whose price few can afford unless they bought it off the racks, this is Green Lantern no. 59 (March 1968, DC); pencils by Gil Kane, inks by Murphy Anderson. Featuring the introduction of GL alternate Guy Gardner, who was to be dubiously re(jack)-booted in the 1980s, by Steve Englehart and Joe Staton, as a jackass with an ugly uniform and a worse haircut. Notwithstanding the fact that the Green Lantern Corps would never bestow power and stewardship on such an immature and pompous loose cannon.
This is Green Lantern no. 60 (April 1968, DC); an evident Infantino design, with pencils by Kane and inks by Anderson… which interestingly ends up producing a prototype of Brian Bolland‘s distinctive style… a decade early.
This is Green Lantern no. 61 (June 1968, DC); pencils by Kane, inks by Greene, and featuring (groan) Thoroughly Modern Mayhem!, scripted by Mike Friedrich, pencilled by Kane and inked by Greene. Co-starring Alan Scott, the Golden Age Green Lantern.

-RG

Hot Streak: Joe Kubert’s Son of Tomahawk

« Who are these men, Tomahawk? » « My Rangers! We fought against renegades… from Pennsylvania to Kentucky! When the country got too crowded, Moon Fawn and I moved out West… where a man has room to breathe! » — Tom Hawk sums up his change of station.

Tomahawk was created in 1947 by writer Joe Samachson (later co-creator, with Joe Certa, of J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars) and artist Edmund Good. The series was distinguished by its setting, the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and it appeared both as a back-up in Star Spangled Comics (until it switched to an all-bellicose format and became Star Spangled War Stories in 1952) and in World’s Finest (at first intermittently, from 1949, then steadily from 1953 to 1959). And Tomahawk had been spun off into his own book in 1950.

Inevitably, with the Silver Age and its superhero reascendancy, to the eventual detriment of all other genres, the historical adventure strip’s slow decline set in.

As Don Markstein put it:

« Toward the latter part of the ’50s, practically all DC comics ran aliens, monsters and other goofy sci-fi stuff on the covers, no matter how badly it clashed with the title’s subject matter — even war comics often sported dinosaurs in that position. And so, all through the late 1950s and early to mid ’60s, Tomahawk fought gigantic tree men, miraculously-surviving dinosaurs, mutated salamanders, and other menaces that seem somehow to have escaped the history books. There was even a giant gorilla among them, and putting a gorilla on the cover was also a contemporary trend at DC. »

It all comes down to the editor, and Tomahawk was long edited by Jack Schiff, who just adored that sort of (admittedly fun) claptrap, then by his associate Murray Boltinoff, who at least was more flexible.

To wit, with issue 116 (May-June 1968) came a change and a relative return to the feature’s roots. First, Neal Adams was brought in to provide covers, and the more outré aspects were phased out. With issue 119 (Nov.-Dec. 1968), the book’s final creative team was brought aboard: writer Robert Kanigher and illustrator Frank Thorne (1930-), eventual creator of Moonshine McJugs. Thorne replaced Fred Ray (1920-2001) who, while he wasn’t a Tomahawk originator, had been chronicling the mountain lion’s share of his exploits since 1947. He would draw a handful of short pieces for DC’s war books before leaving the comics field in the early 1970s, writing historical non-fiction and art directing and illustrating for publications Civil War Times Illustrated, American History Illustrated, True Frontier, The West and Yank (despite the title, not a porno mag).

With the heart of the creative team in place, it was a change of editors that prompted Tomahawk’s final mutation, and arguably its most interesting: Joe Kubert took over the editorial reins, and the action was moved four decades or so forward in time. Tom ‘Tomahawk’ Hawk had settled down with a Native woman, Moon Fawn, sired a pair of sons, and was by then a lanky, crotchety old coot, but not quite helpless. His elder son Hawk was the protagonist, and they encountered frontier-style prejudice, greed, corruption, tribalism, paranoia… you guessed it: it was a ‘socially-relevant‘ comic, but hardly the cringe-fest that was the concurrent Green Lantern/Green Arrow. I daresay that Kubert and Kanigher’s respective politics were rather too complex for that.

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This is Tomahawk no. 131 (Nov.-Dec. 1970, DC). Inside: Hang Him High!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne. I like how nonplussed Hawk is at the prospect of doing the Brand New Tennessee Waltz.

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This is Tomahawk no. 132 (Jan.-Feb. 1971, DC). Inside: Small Eagle… Brother Hawk!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne.

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This is Tomahawk no. 133 (Mar.-Apr. 1971, DC). Inside: Scalp Hunter, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne.

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This is Tomahawk no. 134 (May-June 1971, DC). Inside: The Rusty Ranger, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne.

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This is Tomahawk no. 135 (July-Aug. 1971, DC). Inside: Death on Ghost Mountain!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, and the powerful Spoilers, written by Jerry DeFuccio and illustrated by John Severin. This was my admittedly random introduction to the series.

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This is Tomahawk no. 136 (Sept.-Oct. 1971, DC). Inside: A Piece of Sky!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, plus an extraordinary Firehair tale by Kubert… but then they all are.

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This is Tomahawk no. 137 (Nov.-Dec. 1971, DC). Inside: Night of the Knife!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, plus a selection of fine reprints.

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This is Tomahawk no. 138 (Jan.-Feb. 1972, DC). Inside: Christmas, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, as well as an assortment of worthy reprints boasting artwork by Nick Cardy, Sam Glanzman, Norman Maurer and Mort Drucker.

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This is Tomahawk no. 138 (Mar.-Apr. 1972, DC). Inside: Death Council, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne, plus a clutch of reprints illustrated by Fred Ray, Gil Kane, and none other than Frank Frazetta.

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This is Tomahawk no. 140 (May-June 1972). Inside: The Rescue!, written by Robert Kanigher and illustrated by Frank Thorne. Gaspar Saladino‘s brand new logo, a rare misfire, was unveiled just in time for the book’s cancellation.

As for the interior art, I’d say it’s Frank Thorne’s finest work. The notorious Alexander Toth would of course disagreed, far preferring Thorne’s work when Thorne’s style bore a heavy… Toth influence (here’s an example from 1957.) For comparison, here’s a pair of interior pages from Tomahawk no. 131‘s Hang Him High!

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Thanks to their production manager, Jack Adler, DC had the finest, most nuanced colouring in the field in the late 60s and early 70s.

Toth would, in (final) conversation with The Comics Journal publisher Gary Groth, in 1996, froth forth:

« I repeatedly warned Frank: “For Christ’s sake, get the hell away from Kubert. He’s not doing you any good. His influence on you is negative, not positive, so get the hell away from him and stop aping his style and stop putting on all that shit that you lived without for years. You did nice, clean, hard-lined stuff, and it’s been detrimental to your work.” He confessed: “Yes, Joe Kubert and his style are hard to resist.” So, yes he had the influence, and he liked it. Well, good luck. »

DC attempted an update of the character back in 1998. It wasn’t *atrocious*, but basically a rehash of Jeremiah Johnson with a sheen of ‘Magical Native American‘ sprinkles.

-RG

Hot Streak: Bill Everett’s Menace

« I have learned to live each day as it comes, and not to borrow trouble by dreading tomorrow. It is the dark menace of the future that makes cowards of us. » — Dorothy Dix

Menace was a short-lived (11 issues, 1953-54, Atlas) horror anthology title that’s mostly remembered*, if at all, for its one-shot introduction of a zombi by the name of Simon Garth. Because Atlas never really played the gore card, its successor Marvel was able to mine most of its Pre-code material as cheap filler in their 1970s bid to flood the market. Don’t get me wrong, though; these titles were still a lot of primitive fun, and in most cases, I’d pick an issue of Weird Wonder Tales, Where Monsters Dwell or Uncanny Tales From the Grave over the latest Fantastic Four or Spider-Man.

The writing was by no means daring or even coherent, but the artwork was frequently rather fine, with none quite finer than Bill Everett‘s, particularly his covers, which elegantly straddled the line between fearsome and goofy.

I’d be tempted to say that Everett (1917-1973) was at his peak when he created these, but the bittersweet fact of it is that Everett was still at the height of his artistic powers, even as he was slowly dying in the early 1970s.

This particular hot streak ends not because Everett turned in a lesser job, but because other hands provided covers for the rest of the run. Talented hands, at that (Carl Burgos, Gene Colan, Russ Heath, Harry Anderson), but none of the other Menace covers are a patch on Everett’s mighty half-dozen.

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These monsters look kind of playful and kooky, don’t they? This is Menace no. 1 (March 1953, Atlas). Inside we find Everett, George Tuska, Russ Heath and Werner Roth art. Oh, and Stan Lee stories. Colours by Stan Goldberg.

 

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This is Menace no. 2 (April 1953, Atlas). Colours by Stan Goldberg.

 

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This is Menace no. 3 (May 1953, Atlas). Colours by Stan Goldberg. Was the title’s monthly schedule truly supposed to be a selling point?

 

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This is Menace no. 4 (June 1953, Atlas). Colours by Stan Goldberg.

 

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If you think that’s impressive, you should see what mushrooms can do to asphalt!** This is Menace no. 5 (July 1953, Atlas). Simon Garth was dug up (sorry) in 1973, likely at the behest of continuity addict Roy Thomas, to star (if you can call it that) in his own black & white magazine, Tales of the Zombie (10 issues, 1973-75). Like The Man-Thing, he was essentially mindless and shambling, and so mostly a pawn or an uncomprehending witness to others’ tragedies. The best of the mangy lot is, imho, The Blood-Testament of Brian Collier (TotZ no.7… read it here.) It’s not great, but it sure looks pretty, thanks to the sublime Alfredo Alcala, who’s quite in his element here.

 

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Don and Warren also met Simon. Read Lee and Everett’s 1953 Zombie!

 

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This is Menace no. 6 (August 1953, Atlas). Colours by Stan Goldberg.

That strange compulsion that’s creeping over you, that ungodly craving for more Bill Everett, cannot quite be slaked without incurring a terrible cost, be it in human lives, the forfeiting of your immortal soul, or both. But do check out my co-admin ds’ earlier tribute to Mr. Everett’s nightmares, Bill Everett’s Restless Nights of Dread, it might tide you over until dawn.

-RG

*these babies are rare, in any condition.

**Here’s an example:

« A bump in the garage floor turned into a half meter of mushrooms in little more than three days. It crushed its way through five centimetres of asphalt in Åge Reppes garage in Stord, western Norway. It is the water pressure in the cells of the fungus that makes it able to crack the asphalt, says a biologist at the local university. » [ source ]. These are inky caps. Edible, but some species are toxic when consumed with alcohol. These are commonly known as ‘tippler’s bane‘.

Hot Streak: Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four

« Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech. » — Plutarch

When I think of cover layouts, I always recall the sage advice of my art school book design teacher, who posited that « a poster should be One Angry Fist », as you only have a second or two to make your point to the undecided consumer. That knuckle sandwich is what gets your message across, not a bunch of clichés and slogans; these only detract from the power of your image.

While we’re obviously dealing, in comics, with a commercial medium, it’s hard to not view it as creative interference, a lack of confidence**. While all publishers indulged in cover overhyping to some degree, Marvel and DC were the main offenders, and DC at least had superior title and logo designers***. 

In the 60s, Jack Kirby created a massive amount of stunning cover art for Marvel… which editor Stan “Ne’er ’nuff Said” Lee buried, as often as not, under his trademark wiseass hyperbole. One might argue that this hardsell approach worked, commercially speaking. Artistically, on the other hand… well, the debate lingers on.

One could counter that cover hype only increased in the subsequent decades (imitated, amplified and distorted), and that stands to reason. That trend is pretty universal, since everything is getting louder, literally and figuratively: commercials, recordings, everyday life. Indeed: louder, sweeter, saltier, faster, meatier and of course cheesier.     

Ah, but for what seems like a mere blip in its history, which is to say around ’68-’69*, Marvel somewhat dialled down the verbiage and let some prime Kirby compositions enjoy a bit of breathing room (at least on Fantastic Four, the company’s second-best seller — and number 16 overall for 1968).

This particular streak is circumscribed by two ho-hum (by lofty Kirby standards) covers: flat FF 81 and messy FF 88 (featured here)… which leaves us with plenty of goodies in the middle. Let’s take the tour, shall we?

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This is Fantastic Four no. 82 (Jan. 1969, Marvel). Inks by Joe Sinnott. Silence by Stan Lee. Now isn’t that better?

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Maximus tries to usurp Black Bolt’s throne, like clockwork. Just a discreet story title… though even then, it’s still intrusive. This is Fantastic Four no. 83 (Feb. 1969, Marvel)

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See picturesque Latveria. Enjoy the charms of its capital, Doomstadt, located just north of the Kline River. Don’t forget to drop in for some howdy-dos at the small but proud nation’s administrative centre, Castle Doom. This is Fantastic Four no. 84 (Mar. 1969, Marvel). Beyond-meticulous inks by Mr. Sinnott.

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This is Fantastic Four no. 85 (Apr. 1969, Marvel). Again, did we even need a title? Mechanical lettering, to boot, so it’s not even expressive.

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Short of a classic, but a nice entry nonetheless. And quiet! This is Fantastic Four no. 86 (May 1969, Marvel).

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This is always the first image that springs to (my) mind when people bone-headedly claim that Kirby’s work is too over-the-top, ham-fisted and frantic. Even the colours (Stan Goldberg, is that really you?) are admirably subdued. Of course, Stan had to panic and turn on the hype in the eleventh hour. The title would have sufficed. This is Fantastic Four no. 87 (June 1969, Marvel). Giacoia-esque inks by Mr. Sinnott.

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There. Isn’t that better? The might of Photoshop harnessed to noble ends.

In the face of all this, is it any wonder I found so refreshing the design quietude and purity of some recent comic books covers, such as the Chris Samnee creations we recently spotlighted? There’s hope, thanks to some enlightened folks out there.

-RG

*which closely dovetails with Martin Goodman‘s sale, in the fall of 1968, of Marvel/Magazine Management to the Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation (later Cadence Industries). Probably a coincidence, but who can say?

**Steve Ditko, for one, grasped that if you couldn’t have your publisher’s confidence and trust in your craft and visual salesmanship, you could go elsewhere and enjoy a publisher’s laisser-faire.

***Marvel would even, in the 70s, hire on the sly, for freelance jobs, DC’s reigning lettering ace, Gaspar Saladino. Heaven knows The Avengers badly needed a logo makeover.

Hot Streak: Chris Samnee’s Daredevil

« Oh, this is perfect . . . this is exactly what comic books are supposed to look like. » — Chris Samnee on encountering Frank Robbins‘ “Man-Bat Over Vegas” [ source ]

For a change of pace, here’s an artist in the prime of life and at the peak of his powers.

Chris Samnee, born in 1979, first caught my interest when he collaborated with Roger Langridge on Thor: The Mighty Avenger, for which he reaped the 2011 Harvey Award for Most Promising New Talent. But some of my superhero-lovin’ friends had been raving about Samnee’s work for a while.

While obviously a man of his time, he’s clearly drunk deep from the well of classic illustration, comic books and most of all, comic strips. It’s hard to miss in his work echoes of Alex Toth, Doug Wildey, Frank Robbins, Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, Roy Crane… an artistic heritage not too unlike his fellow Daredevil alumnus David Mazzucchelli‘s… fine company, plumb in that sweet spot between ‘realistic’ and ‘cartoony’, and wisely drawing from both.

As befits a first-rate cover artist, Samnee thoroughly thinks and feels his pictures through, thumb-nailing his layouts and planning his moves. Here are some of his preliminaries from The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom (2011), for which he shared (with David Aja) the 2013 Will Eisner Award for Best Penciller/Inker.

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Cargo of Doom marks the first time ever when the character of Betty isn’t sexualized to the hilt. That’s got to count for something.

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This is Daredevil no. 9 (Dec. 2014). Incidentally, after the intrusion of bar codes on covers in 1975, followed by an increasingly hard-sell culture, the kind of elegantly spare, striking design I personally gravitate to hasn’t had it easy. A surprising step in the right direction came in recent years with the demise of the Comics Code, the introduction of digital editions and the appearance of a handful of enlightened editors (take a bow, Axel Alonso!), first at DC/Vertigo, then (as usual) later at Marvel.

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This is Daredevil no. 10 (Jan. 2015). Another example of a digital edition: compare this to a 1970s Marvel cover!

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This is Daredevil no. 11 (Feb. 2015). The Stunt-Master, seen here, first appeared in Daredevil no. 58 (Nov. 1969). It was the era of Evel Knievel and his Daredevils.

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This is Daredevil no. 11 (Feb. 2015). Hey, even more room for the art!

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And this is Daredevil no. 13 (Apr. 2015).

And speaking of inks, he sharply stands out in that regard in today’s assembly-line industry. It’s different for every artist, but Samnee loves to ink. He claims: « My pencils are just awful. I can’t imagine anybody else inking me nowadays because most of the work is done in the ink. ». I can relate.

While I greatly enjoyed Thor: The Mighty Avenger, the covers were solid but not outstanding. But Mr. Samnee’s still improving (!), and so a couple of years down the pike, and with the crucial input of colourist Matthew Wilson, a man without fear of colour saturation, we have a hot streak! And yeah, surrounding issues 8 and 14 kind of fell flat, so it’s a fairly short one. But there are quite a few quite outstanding covers outside of this subjective selection, so keep an eye out, and prepare to have it dazzled.

-RG

Hot Streak: Nick Cardy’s Aquaman

« Who’s Aquaman? I never heard of him! »
« He’s one of the super-beings from the place called Earth! He lives at the bottom of the ocean! » —  Steev & Jimm, rubberneckin’ in Aquaman no. 51

Some may have wondered at the deep, abiding affection held, by a certain savvy contingent of comics aficionados, for sea king Aquaman. After all, he’s a bit of a second-stringer, and he’s had a pretty spotty record for decades. Well, I’d say one has to have encountered the erstwhile Arthur Curry at his peak, in the hands of the Stephen Skeates, (writer) Jim Aparo (penciller-inker-letterer), Dick Giordano (editor-poacher), Nick Cardy (cover artist), Carmine Infantino (editor-in-chief/art director), Jack Adler (colourist) and Gaspar Saladino (cover letterer) set.

Fond as I am of Nick Cardy and Ramona Fradon‘s work, the series’ Skeates-Aparo period is more my speed. I can’t quite put my finger on it. There’s a whiff of the end of the world, something ominous and immediate about it, despite the fanciful settings. I guess it was « relevance », but with a lighter touch and without the cringe-inducing bathos of the concurrent Green Lantern-Green Arrow series. Because of Aquaman’s aquatic nature, environmental doom seldom seems far. The Skeates-Aparo rampage lasted from issue 40 (June 1968) to number 56 (April 1971). Aparo returned to the character just a few years down the road (Adventure Comics no. 441, Sept. 1975), but by then, he’d already begun his long, painful artistic deterioration.

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But back to the covers: this represents, in my view, Cardy’s second hot streak on this title. From the beginning of his career (in 1940 with the Iger/Eisner shop!) Cardy had always been a reliably competent artist, but rarely a very exciting one. That all changed in the mid-Sixties when newly minted art director/editor-in-chief Carmine Infantino made him his right-hand man and co-designer of DC’s covers. This greater latitude gave Cardy wings. Cardy’s first Aquaman hot streak opens on issue 37 (Jan.-Feb. 1968) and closes with issue 45 (May-June 1969). Issues 46 to 48 are nice enough, but short of transcendence… beyond that bump in the road, we’re set for a smooth run of splendid covers.

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This is Aquaman no. 49 (Jan.-Feb. 1970). Cover pencils and inks by Cardy, colours by Jack Adler, Aquaman logo by Ira Schnapp, title lettering by his worthy successor, Gaspar Saladino. Edited by Dick Giordano, directed (and likely laid out) by Infantino.

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This is Aquaman no. 50 (Mar.-Apr. 1970), sporting a Cardy cover that couldn’t have been more evidently designed by Carmine Infantino, with more Saladino magic on the titles and Deadman logo. Gestalt: it’s what great collaboration is all about! It seems fair to assume that the title is a nod to the Harlan Ellison-scripted 1967 Star Trek episode, The City on the Edge of Forever.

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This is Aquaman no. 51 (May.-June 1970). I don’t usually pilfer Tentacle Tuesday material… but I’m inclined to make an exception for a (sea) worthy cause. Design-wise, Infantino and Cardy took full advantage of the aquatic action settings. Up, down, sideways — anything goes!

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This is Aquaman no. 52 (July-Aug. 1970). A wistful, disorienting experiment in colour and design economy. You’d never see such a *hushed* cover chez Marvel.

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This is Aquaman no. 53 (Sept.-Oct. 1970). A fine instance of the notorious “Infantino tilt”. Michael Kaluta on Infantino’s cover design input: « My approach to a cover, when I got to do my own ideas, was to show the picture straight on, staged, unless it was a dramatic perspective view. Almost every time I’d bring one of these sketches in to Carmine he’d turn the paper about 30 degrees to the right and demand that that made the composition 100% stronger, more “grabby”… and I’d have to agree about 50% of the time… »

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This is Aquaman no. 54 (Nov.-Dec. 1970). Did I mention that DC’s books of the early ’70s had a general predilection for the macabre and the moody? Fine by me, then and now.

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This is Aquaman no. 55 (Jan.-Feb. 1971). The fact that this complex idea works so well on the page is evidence of some first-rate design work, with some heady colouring mojo sealing the deal.

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This is Aquaman no. 56 (Mar.-Apr. 1971). Would you believe that this story was continued over three years later in Marvel’s Sub-Mariner no. 72 (Sept. 1974). Seems sneaky Steve Skeates slipped something past sleepy editor Roy Thomas. In an interesting bit of coincidence, it was each of the competing oceanic monarchs’ final issue. On another note, I presume that the title is a takeoff on Norman Greenbaum‘s 1967 song The Eggplant That Ate Chicago (popularized by Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band), itself likely an homage to Arch Oboler‘s infamous 1937 Lights Out radio episode, The Chicken Heart (That Ate the World). Phew!

Under normal circumstances, this run of covers would have turned out quite differently for, as Steve Skeates told me a few years ago, « The only reason Jim [Aparo] didn’t do the covers was that he lived out of town, couldn’t come in for cover conferences! »

-RG

Hot Streak: Joe Kubert’s The Atom and Hawkman

« Calm down, Harris… this is no teleportational phenomenon we’re dealing with… » — Hawkman, “Yo-Yo Hangup in the Sky!”.

In 1968, though DC was still handily outselling Marvel, the industry leader was beginning to feel the heat. Now, to be fair, not nearly as much as revisionists would surmise: Marvel’s top-seller, The Amazing Spider-Man, was only in twelfth place. Of course, Marvel was hobbled by distribution issues, but that problem would come to an end that very year.

Anyway, as neither of DC’s solo titles The Atom (38 issues, June-July 1962 – Aug.-Sept. 1968) nor Hawkman (27 issues, Apr.-May 1964 – Aug.-Sept. 1968) were doing all that well (both of them missed the top sixty in 1968), it was decided to attempt to merge the books in order to perhaps save them. Well, it didn’t work, but some splendid covers were created, and that’s what brings us here.

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The Atom and Hawkman no. 39 (numbering continued from Atom’s book, not Hawkman’s), November 1968. Insides by Robert Kanigher, Murphy Anderson and Joe Giella. Which one’s the Titan and which the Fury? They take turns. Check it out here.

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The Atom and Hawkman no. 40 (Jan. 1969) holds a rare treat: a highly unusual pairing, one that was only repeated once to my knowledge (in the following issue): Joe Kubert on pencils and Murphy Anderson on inks. The tale is The Man With an Inbuilt Panic Button, scripted by Gardner Fox. Peruse it here while you can.

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My candidate for the slightest cover of the Atom/Hawkman combo title, but only since the competition is so fierce, and well, it’s kind of busy. This is The Atom & Hawkman no. 41 (Feb.-Mar. 1969), edited by Julius Schwartz and featuring Return of the Seven-Year-Dead Man, written by Gardner Fox, pencilled by Dick Dillin and inked by Sid Greene, and Yo-Yo Hangup in the Sky!, written by Fox, illustrated by Kubert and Anderson. Feast your eyes here.

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This is The Atom and Hawkman no. 42 (Apr.-May 1969). Read it here!

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Robert Kanigher & Joe Kubert’s Gentleman Ghost, first appeared (so to speak) in Flash Comics no. 88 (Oct. 1947) had not been seen (hee hee) since the Golden Age, and he returned to pester Hawkgirl and Hawkman in Come to My Hanging, scripted by Kanigher and illustrated by Murphy Anderson. Meanwhile, The Atom stars in Buzzin’, Buzzin’ — Who’s Got the Buzzin’?, scripted by Dennis O’Neil, pencilled by Dick Dillin and inked by Sid Greene. This is The Atom and Hawkman no. 43 (June-July 1969). Read it here!

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Kubert clearly relished delineating his Gentleman Ghost, and who could blame him? That sticky-fingered filcher is one snazzy-looking felon. This is The Atom and Hawkman no. 44 (Aug.-Sept. 1969). Read it here!

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This is The Atom and Hawkman no. 45 (Oct.-Nov. 1969), featuring Queen Jean, Why Must We Die?, by Denny O’Neil, Dick Dillin and Sid Greene, whereas our heroes are enslaved by Ray “The Atom” Palmer’s girlfriend, Jean Loring. It was a common theme in DC Comics, just ask Superman and Green Lantern, for starters. Anyway, read the whacked-out tale here.

As a bonus, one could consider the final issue of Hawkman (no. 27, Aug.-Sept. 1968), the first entry in Kubert’s streak. Well, I do, and that’s that.

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It is said that late each year, Thanagarians mark the winter solstice by taking to the snowy skies to join cuddly flying Yeti in frolic. Look at them cute lil’ buggers. When the Snow-Fiend Strikes! is scripted by Raymond Marais, pencilled by Dick Dillin and inked by Chuck Cuidera.

-RG

Hot Streak: Steve Ditko’s Ghostly Haunts

« There’s no room for professional jealousy around the graveyard, chums… life is too short, as they say… but what comes after that short life may stretch into all eternity! »

I could carry on endlessly (or so it would seem) on any number of obscure topics, but it’s healthy, every once in a while, to take a deep breath, empty one’s mind of its flotsam and jetsam, and reach for an old favourite.

I hadn’t yet written anything about Steve Ditko‘s passing, as I figured it would get lost in the mad shuffle of tributes. That base was well-covered. Still, while I’d known all along the day would come, it was hard to imagine a world without that reclusive genius, likely my very first artistic inspiration.

I didn’t see much of Ditko’s 60s Marvel work until the late 70s pocket book reprints (the period equivalent of watching a movie on one’s cellphone), but the Charlton ghost books grabbed me at a tender age. And so…

As my candidate for Steve Ditko’s finest cover run, at any company, I submit issues 22-27 and 29-30 (curse you for the interruption, Joe Staton!), from January 1972 to March 1973, final year of Ditko’s peak period, imho.

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Ghostly Haunts no. 22 (Jan. 1972), an excellently-balanced all-around winner, with the whimsical “Wh-Who’s in Th-There?” (w: Joe Gill p: Charles Nicholas i: Vince Alascia), “Witch’s Brew“, a taste of creepy suburbia with a whiff of Rosemary’s Baby brimstone (w: Joe Gill, p/i Pat Boyette) and our headliner, “The Night of the Lonely Man!” by Gill and Ditko. Read the whole pamphlet here, folks.

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Ghostly Haunts no. 23 (Mar. 1972), offers two Gill-Ditko stories: “Treasure of the Tomb” and the cover-featured “Return Visit!“… and I’d be hard-pressed to pick the superior entry. The reader wins. Ah, you cast the deciding vote: read them both here.

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Ghostly Tales no. 24 (Apr. 1972), another strong issue, thanks to Gill and Boyette’s “The Other One!” and of course Ditko illustrating “A Man Who Was Here“, Joe Gill’s parable about a Tennessee mountain man displaced, but not entirely, by the construction of a modern superhighway. Read the entire issue here, ladies and gentlemen.

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« The butler’s a real monster! » Ghostly Tales no. 25 (June 1972) is where Mr. Ditko demonstrates his unmatched virtuosity in the delicate task of incorporating several elements of a tale without winding up with the dog’s breakfast. Compositional alchemy of the highest order! The cover tale aside, Joe Gill’s wonderfully-titled “What Will Lance Surprise Us with This Time?“, illustrated by Fred Himes, is loads of fun. Read “I’ll Never Leave You!here.

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Roger C. Feeney, Indian Affairs bureaucrat from Washington, DC, appears to have stumbled onto the wrong sacred Hopi cave. Uh-oh, Roger, it appears you’ve been noticed by… something. This is Ghostly Haunts no. 26 (Aug. 1972). Beyond the classy Ditko cover, it’s just an okay issue.

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« Why does it happen each year? Citizens of Trappton don’t know it, but it always begins right here… at an unmarked grave… » Presumably bearing no direct relation to the 1967 Michael Winner- Orson Welles – Oliver Reed film, I’ll Never Forget What’s-His-Name“, the Gill-Ditko cover story is a classic, the tale of a forgotten man, Bertram Crumm, who merely wanted his existence recognized by the town that spurned him during his lifetime.
It’s too bad Charlton only occasionally featured mystery host Dr. Graves in active (rather than narrative) roles, because when they did, the results were pretty gripping. Unusually, Graves guests outside his own book and in Winnie’s, and we find ourselves with a classic on our hands. This is Ghostly Haunts no. 27 (Nov. 1972). Read the Gill-Ditko story here, but don’t miss the fabulously oddball “The Mine’s All Mine!” by Gill and Stan Asch, featured right here.

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« Maybe I’m going mad! I keep imagining I hear his voice! » Ghostly Haunts no. 29 (Jan. 1973) features a striking (gold) exercise in fearful symmetry announcing the Joe Gill – Ditko saga of two untrustworthy acolytes in the Canadian North. Check out “Partners!here.

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« Ugh! It’s really hideous! Is it a self-portrait of the real you?»  We put the finishing touches on our tour of Steve Ditko covers from 1971-72 with Ghostly Haunts no. 30‘s “Fear Has Three Dimensions” (Mar. 1973). Despite a theme right in Ditko’s wheelhouse, none of his art appears within; the cover feature is handled by Wally Wood disciple Wayne Howard, and the other tales are deftly told by Fred Himes and Warren Sattler.

That just about wraps it up. For further reading on the topic, I recommend you check out Ben Herman’s perspective on some of these very stories, and on Ditko’s spooky Charlton work of the 70s in general.

« Poor Agatha Wilson still has screaming fits! »

-RG